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Helmdon Historical Articles

The History of Helmdon Parish Council


                                 an article by Danny Moody

To study the minutes of Helmdon Parish Council is to realise that in a little over 100 years the parish has changed out of all recognition, and yet at the same time nothing has changed at all. This is the story of a rural parish council.

All parish councils have their origins in the development of villages all over England during Saxon and Norman times - 1000 or more years ago. The feudal lords who controlled the country ruled through manorial courts because, as communications were poor and central government often weak, there was little national control. Sometimes villagers met to make decisions that affected the whole community. Gradually parish priests and sometimes schoolmasters joined the feudal lords to become a kind of ruling clique.

By 1601, church vestry meetings were so organised and workable that it was quite natural for legislators to give them the responsibility of levying the poor rate. These were the first effective local taxes. Everyone in the parish was entitled to attend church vestry meetings but in practice the work fell to a few individuals, rather like parish councils today.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act removed from parish vestries the responsibility for poor relief and handed it to Poor Law Unions (the origins of our present District Councils), however because parishes had naturally accumulated responsibility for administering local charities and managing commons under distribution of land as a consequence of the 18th century Enclosure Acts, they maintained the role of administering the poor relief locally.

By 1894 although the landed gentry, the parson and sometimes the schoolmaster were still the leaders in the village, popular education was spreading and more people wanted a say in managing local affairs. In response the great Victorian prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, piloted the 1894 Local Government Act through the House of Commons. It met a lot of opposition (there were over eight hundred amendments moved during its passage through the House) but nevertheless, the Act became law and parish councils were formed.

There is no reason to suspect that Helmdon Parish Council did not come in to being at this time. The first meeting recorded in the surviving minute books took place on 19 April 1909 but their first business was to read the minutes of the previous meeting, leading one to suspect that a minute book covering the period 1894 to 1909 has been lost.

A parish council forms the lowest tier of civil government. Its powers are defined and granted by acts of Parliament and no expenditure can be made by a council except in accordance with those powers. A parish council can be thought of as the "eyes, ears and voice" of its local community, relaying their opinions and views to higher levels of government. Parish councils have tax raising powers and can make byelaws to improve the governance of their areas. They exist to discuss community affairs and exercise the powers bestowed on them. The council itself is made up of councillors who are elected by local residents.

Organisation & Geography

From 1894 the parish of Helmdon came under the Brackley Rural District Council but did not include Astwell and Falcutt. At a parish meeting in 1932 “The proposed amalgamation of Falcutt Parish with Helmdon Parish was discussed & no objection raised” and in 1935 “A Parish Meeting was held in the Schoolroom at 7.30 pm to Elect Parish Councillors for the enlarged Parish of Astwell & Falcutt Combined with Helmdon Parish in accordance with the Review Order of the County of Northampton.”

Local Government structure remained unchanged until the huge upheaval in the early 1970s bought about by the Local Government Act 1972. The act sought to restructure and modernise local government but many people opposed the sweeping changes that were suggested. At the parish council’s Annual Parish Meeting held on March 24th 1971 in the Reading Room “the Clerk was asked to read his notes on the White Paper on Local Gov. Reorganization. Mr Gulliver pointed out that there were many advantages to staying in Northamptonshire – that for many years we had enjoyed the friendliest & closest relationship with County, that the county justifiably enjoyed the reputation of having the best of services, well maintained roads & [was] one of the lowest rated counties – which pointed to the efficiency of the administration at County Hall… Disadvantages of going into Oxford were higher rates, motor insurance would cost more and we would be the new “tail end Charlie” of the county”. Who, I wonder, would stand up today to defend the present Northamptonshire County Council so rigorously? It was proposed “That the villagers of Helmdon object most strongly to any prospect of joining Oxfordshire. That the parish as a whole looks mainly to N’pton & Towcester & not Banbury; they have the strongest possible loyalty to the county and they appreciate the more efficient services given by N.C.C. as offered by O.C.C.” …”With one abstention the meeting was unanimously in favour of the resolution.”

Soon afterwards the Rural District Councils of Brackley and Towcester were combined to form the South Northamptonshire District Council, an arrangement that stills exists today.

Planning & Development

The "Village Framework" is a line outside which planning consent would not normally be given.
The "Village Framework" is a line outside which
planning consent would not normally be given.
The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 confers on parish councils the “right to be notified of planning applications”, but in reality this had been the case on an informal basis ever since 1894 and it was the norm for Brackley R.D.C. to consult Helmdon Parish Council regarding any proposed public housing developments in the village. However, the size and number of planning applications from the early 70s increased greatly as Helmdon transitioned from a predominantly agricultural community to a more residential one. In January 1974 “Councillor Shiel asked that we write and request notification of all planning applications in the future” and in March of the same year Councillor Watson “suggested a [planning] sub-committee be formed with powers to call a full meeting if they deemed it necessary”. The planning committee exists to this day and makes observations to the local planning authority (SNC) on all planning applications for the parish.

An example of public housing development was The Green, built in 1965. As is often the case with housing developments, not all went smoothly for in June 1966 it was proposed that “This Council expresses its disgust at the wooden sheds erected at the new housing estate (The Green), and asks that these be replaced by something more in keeping with the surroundings”. However, this fell on deaf ears and Brackley R.D.C. replied that they would take no action.

In May 1955 a far more contentious planning issue surfaced in the minutes which state “The Parish Council met in the Reading Room” (incidentally, this is the first recorded meeting in the Reading Room instead of the Schoolroom but there is no explanation for the change.) “A letter from Brackley R.D.C. was read, asking for the Council’s observation as to the owner of Church Allotments being given permission to advertise this land for sale as Building Land. The Council after long discussion of this matter unanimously decided to forward a letter to the Brackley R.D.C. stating that this Council is of the opinion that permission should not be given to use this land for building purposes”. However, this too seems to have been ignored because in Nov 1955 “The advertised sales of Church Rd allotments was discussed. Capt Lees proposed… that enquiry should be made as to raising funds with a view to the purchase of this land… the Clerk instructed to make enquiries” and in April 1956 it was proposed… “that full particulars of sale be obtained from Messrs Curtis and Henson, land agent”.

We don’t know the actual amounts involved but it seems it was just too much for the parish council to take on, and in May 1956 “Due consideration of facts and figures regarding the purchase of Allotment land known as Church Allotments was given after which Capt Lees proposed… that no further action be taken in the matter”. The land was subsequently sold to a private developer who gave notice to the allotment holders to vacate the land by September 1961. However, the story didn’t end there. There is still, as there was in 1894, only one power which the parish council must use and that is to provide allotments for the labouring poor, if asked for them. All other powers are voluntary - the parish council is not obliged to exercise them and indeed would find it difficult to raise enough money to exercise them all on a permanent basis. This fact was obviously not lost on the allotment holders and in April 1961 “The Chairman and Clerk reported to the meeting that the holders of the allotments who are under notice have asked the Council to provide allotments”. An urgent search started for suitable land and eventually the parish council found a parcel of land that the owners, Mrs Wain and Mrs Morris, were willing to sell. At a meeting in March 1962 “it was proposed by Mr H. Tugwood and seconded by Mr E J Ayres that this ground be suitable and the Parish Council go ahead with proceedings and apply for a loan from the Ministry”. The loan was duly applied for and the repayments were added to the precept at £28 per year for 5 years. The land occupied by the “church allotments” is the development now known as Shortlands Close; the “new allotments” are the ones behind The Green.

Water, Lighting & Sewerage

We take running water, electric street lighting and mains sewerage for granted today and forget that they are relatively recent developments.

In August 1949 “A letter from the District Road Safety Committee was read enquiring if the Parish Council had any intention in adopting the street lighting act” but the response was “the council had no intention to adopt the Street Lighting Act at present”. You can’t halt progress though and only a few months later in March 1950 “The question of Street Lighting was raised, it was proposed … that a Special Parish meeting be held on April 17th to consider adopting the Street Lighting Act”. The meeting in fact took place on 27th April 1950 in the Schoolroom and about 20 people attended, with Mr Harold Gulliver in the chair. “The chairman explained the Act, and also the possible charge on local Rates should the Act be adopted… A letter from the Electricity Board setting out charges for installation etc was read… Mr Luke Watson spoke on the advantages of Street Lighting, and also pointed out that the charge on Local Rates was likely to be considerable in the near future, when other public works were due to start”. The attendees must have found the pro argument convincing for a proposal “That this meeting adopt the Street Lighting Act by a show of hands was carried unanimously”.

A street lighting sub committee was then established which designed a scheme for 13 lamps throughout the village. In the beginning the streetlights were not left on all night as happens now but were switched off late evening. In November 1962 “it was proposed…. that the street lights remain on 2 hours later over the Christmas period from Christmas Eve to New Year Eve” and this became a tradition until such time as the lights were operated automatically.

Helmdon is naturally rich in springs and wells and several public water pumps can still be seen around the village today. In June 1934 “Mr Watson introduced Mr S. Rogers Sanitary Inspector who outlined and explained the proposed Water Scheme for the Parish with estimated Cost of same, when put to the meeting 8 Persons voted for the Scheme & 11 refg either for or against the proposed Scheme.” In May 1935 a parish council meeting was held “to discuss the Schemes for the Water Supply of the Parish in accordance with a letter received from the BRDC & a copy of a letter from the Ministry of Health. The Council would agree to a scheme for the North end of the village where the supply was very short & that part of the village be charged with the expense & not the whole of the Parish. After a lengthy discussion there was no definite decision & Mr Lees proposed writing to the BRDC & Ministry of Health – this was agreed to.” The system of wells and pumps must have found it increasingly difficult to cope with demand though, and there are regular minutes recording the poor conditions. For example in December 1948 the parish council decided “that a report be sent to the Brackley District Council on the bad state of repair to Pump in Chapel St and poor condition of the water.” Mains water was available to the village from 1954.

In December 1948 “The Council had before them the plan of Sewerage Scheme, as prepared by the District Council; to consider complaints from several residents as to the proposed site for Disposal works, after some discussion the Council agreed... that the Disposal Works be moved some distance to the East to a point marked on the Plan, a letter was then drafted to the District Council recommending this improvement and pointing out that local disapproval was very strong against the disposal works as sited on the plan together with several local reasons why the alteration would be a great improvement.” At another meeting later the same month “A letter from the District Council was read which stated that after consultation with the engineers it was proposed to move the Disposal Plant part way from the original site to that proposed by the Parish Council; a letter was drafted agreeing to this but criticising the extra costs as estimated”. The matter apparently did not rest there because at a meeting in August 1949 “A letter from the District Council was read stating that a public enquiry was to be held on this matter by the Ministry of Health. Capt. Lees proposed… that a letter be forwarded to the District Council & Ministry of Health, again objecting to site 151 as being too near the village, and pressing for site no. 153, also asking for date and place of enquiry in order that this council may be represented. Mr H Gulliver, Capt Lees and JJ Jessett (Clerk) were appointed to represent the Parish Council at the public enquiry re sewage disposal site”.

It seems Captain Lees had his way in the end because the sewerage treatment plant was eventually sited east of the Great Central Railway embankment, with a pumping station near The Green. The works to install the drains were carried out in 1959, but it seems the new sewerage system had a few teething troubles for in December 1959 “Rev Rowbury brought the notice of the meeting to the bad smell in the village from the Sewerage beds and also the bad state of the water recently. A proposal… was passed that a letter be sent by the Clerk to Brackley R.D.C.”… And still worse in August 1960, “Rev Rowbury brought the attention of the meeting to the sewerage which had burst up in the centre of the village after thunderstorms had cut off the electricity for the pumps”.


The majority of the parish council’s income is derived from an annual charge, the parish precept. It is set each year by the parish council as part of its annual budget and is collected on the council’s behalf by the local authority. In addition, the parish receives interest on bank balances and other investments. The monies raised are then used for the administration and running of the council and to improve the environment and amenities of the parish.

From 1894 to the end of the Second World War the precept was set at either £5 or £10 each year and must have only been enough to cover essential expenses (£10 in 1946 would be worth only £250 in today’s money). In 1951 the precept jumped to £50, £40 of which was for street lighting, indicating the importance placed on this new amenity. The element of the precept set aside for lighting increased gradually in line with costs and had risen to £90 in 1967. The amount allocated to “general expenses” was increasing more quickly though, reaching £185 in 1967 making a total precept of £275, or the equivalent of £3,000 today. This sharp rise reflected the council’s increasing expenses in modernising the infrastructure of the village.

The precept rose steadily throughout the 1970s reaching £850 by 1980. There was a sharp rise in 1983 to £1,500 but the largest percentage rise ever came in 1990 courtesy of the dreaded poll tax and a change in accounting practice. In January 1991 the “chairman advised that the Auditors had strongly advised keeping a sum in hand to the approximate value of 40% of our year’s income. She also reminded the Council that, under the new Community Charge system, we will not be able to ask for a second precept next year to cover any emergency spending we have to make. …Precept was set, after much discussion, at £4,500. …It was felt that this figure would meet forthcoming expense, clearing the amount still owing for the election expenses. It would also ensure that the Council had some monies in hand for unforeseen expenses and towards the children’s playground and new light”.

The next big rise came in 1998 when the precept rose to £8,500. This put the parish council on a sound financial footing and enabled it to start taking account of things like depreciating assets. The current (2004) precept is £9,450.

Paths, Roads & Bridges

Northamptonshire County Council is responsible for most of the infrastructure in the village but they have looked to Helmdon Parish Council over the years to be their eyes and ears and notify them when repair and maintenance work is required. For example, the right of way that links Church Street to Station Road (known locally as “Gravel Path”) has given cause for concern for more than 70 years as in March 1933 “Mr Golby reported the footpath leading from Church St to the Brackley Road [as Station Road was known then] as being in a bad condition. Mr Golby & Mr Wood were asked to inspect this, and report what repairs were needed to make good”. And in January 2003 “Councillor Ayres raised the condition of the gravel path and it was agreed that the Clerk should write to NCC reporting the bad condition of the path and the Parish Council's concern that it may lead to litigation if any of the public is injured.”

It seems to have been the paths, roads and bridges that have provided the greatest controversy for the parish council. In the early 90s the council nearly entered into litigation with a landowner concerning a footpath diversion, a course of action that was only narrowly avoided when a compromise route was proposed. The compromise route resulted in a strange section of footpath jutting out in to the middle of Shortlands field, now a local curiosity.

Another source of great controversy was provided by the old railway bridge near the war memorial in the centre of the village. There have been various proposals over the years, with some being in favour of keeping it as a village feature and others in favour of removing it altogether. In January 1993 it was minuted that “Northants County Council had decided to defer demolition of the bridge and continue dialogue to try and find a solution which will satisfy both the Parish Council and the large majority of the village”. Opinions as to the best solution were divided, as indeed they are today, but the matter resulted in the resignation of the then chair of the council, Councillor Alan Ryalls, who found his own opinion at odds with the majority of councillors. It was the only ever resignation of a chair in the council’s history and the example shows that even local government can at times be difficult, and that collective responsibility comes at a price.

The potholes in today’s roads are a constant source of concern but complaints concerning the state of the roads are nothing new. In January 1959 a “proposal that the Roads in Helmdon were in a disgraceful condition and that the Clerk write to the County Surveyor to see if the repair of the roads could be speeded up” was made.

In the middle of the twentieth century road hazards in Helmdon were likely to be agricultural in nature. In June 1948 “Mr Gulliver reported that a gate on the Parish right of way leading on to his field was in bad repair and frequently allowed his cattle to stray on the highway. Mr Wilson was instructed to carry out the necessary repairs” and in October 1958 “Mr E Humphrey brought the attention of the meeting to an Agricultural Implement on the side of the road at the top of Sulgrave Hill which was in a dangerous position especially during foggy weather. The Council agreed that this matter be reported to the Police”.

The Benevolent Council

The parish council has always found time within governance to mark special occasions and remember those less fortunate.

Presentation in the 1930s at Helmdon Church of England School by Mr Luke Watson, watched by Headmistress Miss Ethel M. Barnes. The presentation was for the celebration for King George and Queen Mary and the children were given a medal.
In March 1935 “Mr Lees asked if there were any suggestions as to celebrations of the Silver Jubilee [of King George V] on May 6th”. There were none so “it was proposed to hold a general meeting to arrange what should be done later”. The detail of what exactly happened next is not minuted but whatever it was seemed to be a success because in March 1937 “The Coronation Celebrations [of King George VI] were discussed. Mr G W M Lees proposed that the Ceremony be Broadcast to the Church on the same lines as the Jubilee, for which he would be responsible”. A committee was formed to oversee the arrangements with the Rev. H Caiger elected Chairman.

At a council meeting in April 1946, after the Second World War, “it was agreed to call a Parish Meeting on May 3rd and make the following suggestions for a Victory Celebration for the Parish, that children from 7 to 15 years of age be given an outing either to Wickstead Park or Whipsnade Zoo, and children up to the age of 7 who are attending school to be given a tea, followed by games.” The meeting was duly convened and “Col. G.W.M. Lees (chairman) with 5 others present put forward the Parish Councils suggestions for Victory Celebrations”… “the meeting agreed to this and appointed the following committee to make arrangements, Miss Barnes, Mrs Holloway, Mrs Wilson, Mrs Gibbons.” The Victory Celebrations committee obviously decided against going to Whipsnade because in July 1946 “Mr S Walters account (£10-10-0) for conveyance of children to Wickstead Park as a Victory Celebration was also passed for payment”.

The council either donated directly or organised collections for a variety of appeals including “Salute the Soldiers Week” and “Thanksgiving Week”. In February 1953 “there was a special meeting to consider what assistance could be given in the East Coast Flood disaster." It was “proposed by Mr Packer … that a house to house collection be made”. The flood on 31st January 1953 took 300 lives and caused £6 million worth of damage. The Government declared it a national disaster and it was clear from the collection that Helmdon felt for those affected because in March 1953 “The chairman stated £59-10-0 had been forwarded from the Parish to the Lord Mayor’s Flood Distress Fund” (approx. £2,500 in today’s money).

Most recently, to commemorate the golden jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, the council purchased mugs for all the children at Helmdon Primary School and installed a new bench near the old water pump on Church Street.

A Special Mention

It would be unfair on the 115 or so councillors that have served on the parish council to pick out any single contribution as more worthy than any other. However, four gentlemen deserve a special mention if, for nothing else, then for the longevity of their service.

Luke Watson

Luke Watson is listed as vice chair in the very first extant minutes from 1909, at which point he was in his mid 30s so it is entirely possible that he was on the council long beforehand. He was elected chair in 1919 and, with a single year’s gap, remained in the chair until 1934. He was a tough, self-made man and one imagines his tenure being one of authority.

Luke Watson, taken in the 1920s.

Luke is Helmdon's longest serving parish councillor

Later in life he was a District Councillor and Justice of the Peace. The first case he heard as a J.P. was that of a young man caught speeding on his motorbike and Justice Watson had no compunction in imposing a heavy sentence even though the young man in question was his son, Jim Watson! Even though Luke pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a villager of some standing he gave way as chair in 1935 to Captain Lees when Helmdon amalgamated with Falcutt and Astwell to create an enlarged parish. Luke remained in faithful service as vice chair until he retired from the council in 1952 aged 78 and is, and probably always will be, Helmdon’s longest serving parish councillor. His contribution is minuted in April 1952 thus: “Retirements:- Mr L Watson and Mr F Wood. The chairman proposed a vote of thanks to both for their many years of valuable service to the Parish, this was unanimously supported”.

Luke Watson passed away on 10th January 1962 aged 87, less than 24 hours after his wife Lilly, both dying entirely of natural causes.

Luke’s legacy on the council continued for some years afterwards though because in February 1951 “the chairman welcomed Mr J Watson to the Council, this being his first attendance since election to fill vacant seat caused when Mr Tims left the Parish”. Luke’s son Jim served on the council in his own right for 15 years.

Captain G.W.M. Lees

Geoffrey William Martin Lees was born in 1891, the son of a wealthy Cheshire cotton miller. He was educated at Winchester College, Oxford and served in the 17th Lancers in France during World War One. He purchased Falcutt Hall in 1921 and moved there with his new wife Ellen Penn.

Captain G.W.M. Lees taken in 1943.
He was a keen countryman and was interested in shooting, fishing and going hunting with the Grafton Hunt. He was devoted to public life and it was no surprise that he took the chair of the parish council in 1935 even though he replaced Luke Watson, nearly 20 years his senior. Helmdon has never had a true “lord of the manor”, being, as it was, a tripartite parish, but Captain Lees lived up to this role for the best part of fifty years.

His public service included being the representative for Helmdon on the Brackley R.D.C. and he stood as an independent candidate for Syresham on the County Council. He was president of the Helmdon British Legion and the cricket club. He was a manager (nowadays called governor) of Helmdon School, Brackley High School and Magdalene College School. He was a churchwarden at St Mary Magdalene, Executive Officer of the Country Landowners Association and Vice President of the Northamptonshire Agricultural Society. The crowning moment came in 1951 when he was appointed High Sheriff of Northamptonshire a fact recorded in the minutes of April 1951 when “The Council congratulated Capt Lees on his appointment as High Sheriff to Northamptonshire, and asked for this to be placed on record”.

Captain Lees died in 1968 and his memorial service took place in the parish church on 5th June that year. He and his wife are commemorated with a plaque in the south nave which reads “In memory of GEOFFREY 1891 - 1968 & NELL LEES 1892 - 1984 / who lived at Falcutt for sixty three years / both loved & served this church & parish”.

The fact that Captain Lees was a district councillor was invaluable to the parish council as it gave them an “inside track” at a higher level and several councillors since have bought the same benefit. A press cutting from the 1969 remembers, “Helmdon has lost its rail services, that was regretted, but one which the village was happy to lose was the flooding which once used to pour down the main street. But some years ago, the member for Helmdon, the late Captain GWM Lees, fought a magnificent battle on Brackley Rural Council and the flooding was cured.”

Harold Gulliver

Harold Gulliver taken in 1990.
Harold Gulliver was born in 1908 and was elected to the parish council in 1946, aged 37. He was a farmer and strict Chapel man and rigorously observed the Sabbath, refusing even to read a newspaper on a Sunday.

His standing in the community was obvious and he was elected chair in 1949. One wonders if the councillors of the day realised what they were putting in motion for Harold was to continue as chair to the council for the next 19 years, beating even the record set by his predecessor Captain Lees who had managed only 14. To be elected as a councillor of course requires certain popularity amongst the electorate, but to be elected as chair by your fellow councillors is a statement of their respect and great esteem. To achieve this annual feat 19 years in a row speaks volumes.

The fact that he was a strict chapel goer must have made some aspects of his council work difficult, particularly because for 10 years of his chairmanship he served with the Rev R J Rowbury from the Church of England. The two men clashed regularly. One spat is minuted in November 1964 when “Rev Rowbury stated that he had had several complaints about the soiling of “Fieldway” by cattle and farm machinery. He further stated that he had already contacted the Divisional Surveyor, who had promised that more time would be given to the cleaning of this lane. Rev Rowbury then addressed the chairman Mr H Gulliver as owner of the cattle and machinery which gave rise to the complaint and asked that he would cooperate in maintaining a reasonable state of cleanliness in Fieldway. Mr Gulliver replied that he would instruct his staff to carry out such sweeping as was necessary at the time soiling of the lane occurred”. The struggle of church versus chapel, farmer versus non-farmer and villager versus newcomer must have been amusing to witness.

Harold’s father served on the parish council in the 1920s and his son was on in the 60s and 70s, overlapping with him for some 9 years. When Harold retired from the council in 1970 he had served a total of 25 years, 19 as chairman, making him the longest standing chair in the council’s history. Modern guidance from the National Association of Local Councils suggests that it is prudent for a council to rotate the chair fairly regularly so his feat is unlikely to ever be surpassed.

Alan Watson

Alan Watson differs from the previous three gentlemen in that he started out his council life not as an elected member but as the appointed clerk to the parish council in 1958. Alan took over from Jim Jessett who had been clerk for 13 years (and went on to be a councillor for the next 21 years). Jim Jessett’s predecessor had been the indefatigable Charles Gibbons, Helmdon’s longest serving parish clerk who had done 21 years. One admires anyone willing to follow in those footsteps!

Local government was changing and modernising post war and Alan bought a new level of professionalism to the council, a fact that was soon to be recognised financially when in May 1961 “it was agreed by the Council that the Clerk’s salary be increased by £3 to £13 per annum” – a 30% pay rise! Part of the modernisation was increasing public accountability and transparency, what in modern parlance has become known as “open government”. It was the clerk’s job to drive this through and the minutes from April 1962 record “Attendance of Public at P.C. meetings:- After a discussion on this subject it was proposed…. that a point be made on the notices being distributed for the Tidy Village contest that the Public were welcome at Parish Council meetings and could attend. It was proposed… that the Parish Council should meet on a fixed date so that the Public would know when meetings are”. Today there is an open forum on each parish council agenda during which members of the public may speak at the discretion of the chairman.

Alan Watson resigned as Clerk in April 1963 with the intention of becoming a parish councillor. He was duly elected in May 1964 and was to remain on the council for the next 30 years, retiring before the elections in 1995. Alan took the chair twice, from 1977 – 1979 and 1990 – 1991, each time stepping down to allow the chair to rotate as evidenced at the AGM of the council in May 1980: “Cllr Kimber proposed Cllr Watson [for chair], who said he would stand by his intention to retire so that the office could circulate”. He was also vice chair on three occasions; 1973 – 1974, 1976 and 1983 – 1985.

The aforementioned quartet clearly contributed greatly to Helmdon Parish Council. Many other councillors have served 10 years or more but only four have served twenty five or more years; Jim Jessett (1945 – 1978), Eric Humphrey (1949 – 1978), Jean Spendlove (1974 – present) and David Brookhouse (1979 – present).

Public Transport

In the first half of the twentieth century residents in the parish were spoilt for choice when it came to public transport. There were the trains on the Northampton & Banbury Junction Railway that puffed through Helmdon along the valley underneath the viaduct whilst thundering overhead were the huge locomotives of the Great Central Railway. Both railways had stations in Helmdon and passengers could get to Brackley, Banbury, Towcester and Northampton with ease. From 1936 there was also a regular omnibus service operated by Sammy Walters.

However things were to change. In April 1951 “a letter from the Railway Executive re closing of L.M.S. railway at Helmdon was received. The Clerk was instructed to reply stating this Council strongly object on account of the amount of Agricultural traffic”. The objection was futile and the “bottom station” closed to passengers in July the same year cutting off the rail links to Banbury and Towcester. Maybe the effect was not felt immediately but in March 1953 it was “proposed… that application be made to the Midland Red Bus Co. for a service from Banbury to Helmdon at mid-day on Tuesdays” and, somewhat belatedly in February 1954 “The Clerk reported that the Midland Red Bus Co. in reply to application for mid-day service on Tuesdays had promised to provide this service if it could be operated economically”.

The proposed closure of the “top station” on the Great Central Railway clearly caused greater concern. In May 1959 the writing was on the wall and “the Clerk read a letter from the Women’s Institute urging the Parish Council to make a strong protest to the closing of the Station”. “A proposal… was carried unanimously that the Clerk write to the British railways to enquire if the proposal of closing the Station is to be put in force and if it is then ask if the Railways are going to put on any alternative means of transport. When this is known it was agreed that a Public meeting be called”. All went quiet for a few years but the inevitable meeting was called in October 1961. “Mr Gulliver explained to the meeting the decision the Parish Council had taken so far to oppose the closing of Helmdon Railway Station for passenger traffic. He pointed out that Mr V Mason would be a representative of the village at a meeting to oppose the closing of the station. After an open discussion on the subject the general feeling was that the village was willing to support the Parish Council in opposing the closing but if the Railways carried out their intended proposals an alternative bus service was needed between Helmdon and Brackley”. “It was proposed… that we should state our position to our Member of Parliament and ask for his assistance in opposing the closing of the Station”. “It was proposed… that we oppose the closing of the station on the following points:-

a) No resident doctor in the village and the railway provides  only service to surgeries.
(b) The only means of transport to Brackley for workers there.
(c) Station provides service for at least seven surrounding villages.”

Mr Mason was duly despatched to the meeting but the next mention in the minutes of March 1962 has a definite air of resignation to it; “Mr Mason gave to the meeting a report on the meeting held at Aylesbury which he attended as the Parish’s representative. After a discussion it was proposed… that the Council should explore the possibility of providing alternative transport between Helmdon and Brackley”.

The station eventually closed to passengers a year later, in March 1963.

With the passing of the trains the Midland Red and United Counties bus companies laid on more services but they could never match the accessibility afforded by the rail network. The minutes record a gradual demise in services as the motorcar took over.

War Memorial

In March 1946 “Mr L Watson proposed the War Memorial be vested in and maintained by the Parish Council - unanimously carried”. From this date the memorial has been both a source of pride and of pain for the parish council.

The war memorial showing the fence surround.
The polar trees have already been removed.

A caretaker was appointed to mow the grass, tidy the area and keep an eye on the fabric of the memorial itself. The first recorded was Mr Chester who held the post until March 1958 when the minutes record: “Caretaker for War Memorial:- The resignation of Mr Chester from this post was received, the Council again asked the Chairman to advertise this post, and agreed to increase the Annual remuneration to £5 [from £2] if necessary”. However, they didn’t have to be nearly so generous because in May 1958 “the Chairman reported that Mr Ayres was willing to be the new caretaker [for the War Memorial] at a salary of £4 per year. It was unanimously agreed that these terms were suitable”.

Mr Ayres only filled the post for a couple of years, after which Mr T Barber took up the post. It seems Mr Barber was very keen and many repairs and improvements were achieved under his stewardship. The war memorial used to have a surrounding fence and large poplar trees and these were already in a bad state of repair. In November 1960 “Mr Barber reported to the Council on the state of the War Memorial. The following were brought to the notice of the Council:- a) crack on the base of the memorial b) bad loose stones around memorial c) broken posts to gates and d) certain amount of rotting wood in the Poplar trees”. In view of Mr Barber’s enthusiasm the salary was raised to £5 in 1962 but he resigned in February 1965 and the post was advertised at £8 with Mr A Pitts being duly appointed in June the same year. Mr Pitts was asked to keep a record of his hours and estimated that he spent 55 hours on the war memorial that year. Because the original salary had been based on 40 hours it was raised to £12 from the start of the following financial year.

The state of the war memorial, and especially the poplar trees, was still causing concern and the parish council decided to hold a public meeting and set up a sub committee to deal with any matters arising. At a meeting in December 1966 five schemes were put forward for the redevelopment of the memorial and “Scheme number 1” was chosen, creating a scene more or less as we see it today. Capt Lees made a £150 interest free loan to the council for the improvements, which was paid back by adding an extra £50 to the precept over the following three years. The work commenced immediately and was finished by November 1967. In March 1968 it was agreed “that Mr Pitts be offered Salary as before. The inside area to be kept mowed by machine, the outer area kept tidy by sythe. It was proposed... that the mower be repaired”. Mr Pitts had left the village by January 1969 and apparently left the parish council in a hole because in May 1969 the war memorial was in a “disgraceful state and a working party should be arranged at once”. Luckily by June 1969 a new caretaker, Mr George Ratledge, had been appointed to keep the outside tidy whilst Mr & Mrs Townley attended the inside. What followed were some of the best years for the memorial and George Ratledge was highly praised on numerous occasions by both the parish council and the British Legion for his hard work. Indeed, the British Legion began entering the war memorial into competition and won the cup for Best Kept War Memorial from 1971 to 1974. Despite all this effort the salary was still only £15 by 1976. George Ratledge continued as war memorial caretaker until his death in 1981.

No new caretaker came forward and for three seasons Councillor Cashmore looked it after. Eventually, in May 1984, Mr Dowle from 4a Church Street offered to look after it and was appointed at a salary of £42. Mr Dowle completed three seasons before resigning and being replaced by John Snow in September 1986. In 1987 a previous councillor, Sue Lidgley, was recorded as having “asked if she might purchase feed and weed killer for the grass round the War Memorial and permission was given”.

John Snow and Sue Lidgley continued to maintain the memorial for the next fifteen years, clearly doing such a competent job that in July 1999 “it was not felt necessary to continue a committee for the War Memorial since any matters concerning it are easily picked up and can be discussed in Council”. The salary for mowing gradually increased and by the time John Snow retired in November 2001 it had reached £185 per annum. The memorial grass has since been mown by Councillor Phil Earl and the garden maintained by Sue Lidgley and Frank & Jo Morris.

Tidy Village Competition

The first recorded instance of the village entering this competition is minuted in November 1955 when “A Special Parish Meeting was held in the schoolroom regarding the County Tidy Village Competition. 10 present, Mr H Gulliver chairman. The schedule of the Competition was read and considered. Proposed… that Helmdon Village be entered in the Competition. Proposed… that a letter be handed to all Householders in the Village asking for support in this Competition”. The village has entered the competition most years since, although it is now reincarnated as the Calor Gas Village of the Year Competition.

Success came for the first time in 1969 and it clearly excited everyone for at the public parish meeting in November 1969, “the cup and plaque awarded to Helmdon as the Tidiest Village in Northamptonshire for 1969 were on display. The marks and judge’s comments were read to the meeting. Councillor H. Gulliver had asked that a coffee evening or similar function be held to celebrate the award. Mrs Moelwyn-Hughes suggested a film and/or poster display. Mr St M Sheil proposed that a sub committee be formed to discuss and if possible arrange a celebration party attended by, if possible, Earl Spencer, Chairman, Clerk, WI, Br Legion, Young People (Miss C Roylance), Baptists and Church”.

The village achieved a good showing in the competition throughout the 70s and 80s but more success came along in the late 1990s under the chairmanship of Councillor Terry Glassett, with the village winning in 1996 and 1999. The last success was in 2002 and Terry Glassett, though no longer serving on the council, arranged for commemorative signs recording the three wins to be placed at each entry to the village.

Clerks to Helmdon Parish Council

The clerk to the parish council is an important position that carries a lot of responsibility. The clerk is the proper officer of the council and advises on procedural and legal matters as well as preparing agendas and minutes for each meeting. The clerk is an employee of the council and is paid a salary to carry out their statutory duties.

The first recorded clerk is W J Humphrey (1910 – 1919) followed by H Golby (1919 – 1923). Then came 2 titans of the clerkship, Charles Gibbons who served 21 years and Jim Jessett who served 13 years before going on to be a councillor. Charles Gibbons enjoyed the princely salary of £1-0-0 in 1931 and he must have been overjoyed when it was doubled in 1936 to £2-0-0! He went on to run a prescription delivery service in the village, for which he was rewarded in 1977 (see left).

In 1946 Jim Jessett was paid 5 guineas but in 1958, with the appointment of Alan Watson the salary was raised to eight  guineas.

Mr Charles Gibbons (right) and his wife Ellen receiving a cheque for £85 from parish councillors Mr Eric Humphrey (left) and Mr Jim Jessett in 1977 as a reward for 26 years' service running Helmdon health.
Subsequent clerks enjoyed regular salary raises in line with the cost of living, and one clerk, Mrs St Maur-Shiel even refused a pay rise as the minutes show in May 1971: “the council offered an increase of £1-0-5 per annum in the Clerk’s salary but the clerk thanked them very much for their offer and words of appreciation and asked to be allowed to decline in view of rising council expenses in other directions”.

In 1974 local government was going through big changes as a result of the 1972 Act and the National Association of Local Councils (NALC) were realising the important roles clerks could play in leading the modernisation.

In August 1974 “the clerk was asked to leave while the National Association of Local Council’s circular on salary scales was discussed. It was proposed... that the salary be £50 p.a.”. This represented a 100% increase and, in fact, 6 years later the salary had doubled again to £100 per annum.

There is a feeling from the minutes that the clerk’s salary was always playing catch up with NALC recommendations, as the biggest rises have come when a new chair has been installed or a new clerk appointed. The salary rose to £300 by 1990 and had reached £750 by 2000.

Further modernisation and recognition of the clerk’s status was achieved by the 1999 - 2003 council and the salary today stands at £1,300 per annum.

Clerks to Helmdon Parish Council
W J Humphrey
1910 - 1919

H Golby

1919 - 1923
Charles Gibbons
1923 - May 1944
Jim Jessett
May 1945 - May 1958
Alan Watson
May 1958 - April 1963
Stan Thompson
April 1963 - April 1965
Jack Townley
April 1965 - April 1968
Mrs St Maur-Sheil
May 1968 - May 1974
Jean Spendlove
May 1974 - September 1980
Rosemary Gulliver
September 1980 - July 1982
Hazel Greaves
September 1982 - May 1989
Jean Urban
July 1989 - April 1990
Dorothy Cernik
May 1980 - February 1993
Debbie Ward
March 1993 - May 1994
William Lees
July 1994 - December 1997
Antoinette Wye
January 1998 - July 1999
Lorraine Willcocks
July 1999 - May 2001
Wilf Forgham
October 2001 - November 2003
Sarah Smith
January 2004 - Present

In the hundred or so years of the council’s history there have been only fourteen recorded chairs and only three men have chaired the council for more than 10 years each. They were Luke Watson (13 years), Geoffrey Lees (14 years) and Harold Gulliver (19 years).

Fellow councillors elect the chair of the parish council on an annual basis and to achieve the position is normally recognition of good service over a number of years. Only one person, Captain Lees, has ever joined the council as chair in the first year. The chair is the leader of the council and has a casting vote and in the minutes one can pick up the influence of each successive chair over the direction the council moved in, and the speed with which it moved. Some chairs have been very progressive whilst others have maintained the status quo and consolidated.

There have been nine lady councillors (8% of all councillors) over the years but only one, Councillor Jean Spendlove, has served as chair (in 1989).

Chairs of Helmdon Parish Council
Mr Stopp
1909 - 1919
Luke Watson
1919 - 1920
H Golby
Luke Watson
1923 - 1934
Geoffrey Lees
1935 - 1948
Harold Gulliver
1949 - 1967
Eric Humphrey
1968 - 1976
Alan Watson
1977 - 1979
Colin Wain
Mike Lovatt
David Brookhouse
1982 - 1988
Jean Spendlove
Alan Watson
1990 - 1991
Alan Ryalls
1992 (part)
Peter Burns
1992 (part) - 1994
Terry Glassett
1995 - 2000
Peter Burns
2001 - present

To condense the entire history of the parish council in to a single article is impossible. Several chapters of its history, such as the acquisition and subsequent gift of land to the church for burials, the setting up of the parish council as trustees of the Reading Room, and the provision and management of play equipment on the school field require separate articles in their own right.

The writing of this article has served one very important purpose. The minutes of the parish council are its legal record and as such form a precious piece of the village’s social history, but the fact that early minutes exist at all is pure chance. In 1968 the shed on “the Knoll” where the parish’s funeral bier was kept had fallen into disrepair and in January that year it was decided to demolish it altogether. Inside was found a chest and “Councillor G Gulliver undertook to remove the chest which is housed in the shed to Hill Farm, where it would be opened on Wed Jan 31st at 8 PM and contents examined”. The chest contained many parish records, including the minute book from 1909 – 1955. Thank goodness it wasn’t burnt along with the rest of the bier shed! In 1988 Councillor Spendlove deposited 3 minute books in the Northamptonshire Record Office covering the period from 1909 – 1970 and in researching this article all but a few of the minutes from 1970 to the present day have been collected together for the first time. The entire record will be copied and deposited at the Record Office for safe keeping, securing their contents for the benefit (or curiosity) of future generations.

Since March 2000 all parish council minutes have been published on the village’s web site (www.helmdon.com) so that they are available for everyone.


The minutes of Helmdon Parish Council 1909 – 2004, deposited at Northamptonshire Record Office
Various Internet sources, including www.helmdon.com
The Good Councillor’s Guide – Published by the Countryside Agency

My kind appreciation goes to Lady Wake (daughter of Captain Lees), Geoffrey Gulliver and Alan Watson for the time they spent in conversation with me and to all the others who provided material or photographs.

Danny Moody

(First published in Aspects of Helmdon no 5, 2004)
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