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Helmdon Historical Articles

Health In Helmdon

an article by Brian Little

BRIAN LITTLE traces the history of Helmdon from 1700 epidemics with kill or cure remedies to the present day video diary.
In 1700, Helmdon in Northamptonshire was a village of some 400 people. For all apart from a dozen or so of these, ill health in whatever shape or form was a grim prospect. Epidemics of fever and plague appear to have been no less common in this village than in neighbouring Banbury and Brackley.

So far as Helmdon was concerned, a likely breeding ground for disease was an open sewer which conveyed filth to a brook. In warm weather often there was no water to prevent this waste from accumulating.

The High Street, Helmdon
The High Street, Helmdon
Remedies were very much home spun and based on ancient beliefs. A classic example was the notion of taking the liver from a chicken while there was a full moon. In its dried and powdered form this part of the bird was seen as an infallible answer to sickness. A kill or cure technique was that of bleeding. Extant parish records from the first 50 years of the 18th century include the entry: "For charg of Arther Pargiter going to the Doctors and bluding, 9 shillings and 2 pence".

Certain people in 18th century Helmdon had technical skills which could be varied to deal with medically related problems. The village blacksmith and farrier carried out bleeding techniques for a sixpence and was also the local dentist.

Some women of the village had a good knowledge of herbs and could produce concoctions which they were convinced had curative values.

Helmdon Station was used as a coach depot after its closure.
Helmdon Station was used as a coach depot
after its closure. A Bedford OB 26-seater
can be seen here in the yard.
Three hundred years on from these records of village life, Helmdon has once again been put under the microscope. This time it is not the single author of 1902 (W.P.Ellis) but a group of keen members in the local branch of the Workers' Educational Association. They have produced a video and typescript charting a year in the life of Helmdon. Last Saturday, visitors to the Reading Room would have been able to see a visual presentation of events as varied as the carnival, Scout's barbecue and Christmas pantomime. A more appropriate venue for the film sessions would have been hard to find. Dating from the late 19th century, this structure was described by Ellis as "a pretty building" and "a great attraction to the young men of the village during the winter evenings, and there is no doubt that it has an excellent influence on the rising generation".

The present study group has elaborated on this theme by noting that the Room was an alternative to the pub for men up to 1914, the only days that it was not open were Sunday, Christmas Day, Good Friday and "unofficially the day after Banbury Fair".

Whereas originally the Reading Room was not a place for the females of the village, since 1921 and the formation of Helmdon's Women's Institute, ladies have led the way in improving this fine asset.

Station Road, Helmdon
Station Road, Helmdon
"A year in the life of a village" is an all embracing study of a place whose church tower was struck by lightening in 1823 and whose landscape has witnessed the impact of the railway. A Great Central Viaduct is still a fine feature though the sounds of steam locomotives can be recalled by only older members of the community.

In a speech made at the Hampshire County Cricket Club Annual General Meeting in 1951, H.S. Altham, the club's president, said of cricket that it "enriches our memories, widens and deepens our friendships and, above all it is essentially English". All this is certainly true of Helmdon where the local season culminates in a cup competition for which the trophy is a fine memorial to both a person and the days of more abundant village services. It was offered in the name of Bill Duncombe who founded the grocery and greengrocery business in the village.

In a film made in the 1940s about the Banbury area, Twenty Four Square Miles, John Arlott remarked that the pub was a place where men went "to drink a little beer and play darts." Helmdon did have four such institutions. Now only the Bell survives. Regulars top up their glasses with Banks' ales and enter into the spirits of a darts match but today karaoke and jazz are also on the menu.

As fireworks illuminated the Millennium night sky, there must have been many present who looked back on a lifetime of rural change. Something of the variations in the tempo comes across in the video and description and gives more credence to the notion of Middle England than any political utterances can contrive.

Original article appeared in the Banbury Guardian 25th May 2000.

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