Finding Paradise in Wilstone

This article is based on an interview with Michael Glasser, a long term resident of Wilstone who has fond memories of the village during and after the Second World War. The conversation also covers the growth and eventual closure of the family’s poultry farming and animal feeds businesses, which were a feature of the village during the latter part of the twentieth century.

This interview was initially arranged with Michael Glasser at his house, ‘The Mill’, on Mill Lane and it was a bonus to find that his younger brother John had also agreed to contribute. John now lives in Tring but, like Michael, was born in the 1940s, grew up in Wilstone and has many memories of the immediate post war period.

Michael and John’s father – Harry – moved to Wilstone in 1938. Harry was brought up in London but was a ‘country boy at heart’. After working for a poultry farmer in Bromsgrove, he decided to set up on his own, saw an opportunity to buy a smallholding by Paddock Cottage and bought the property by bidding at an auction.

Harry married Michael and John’s mother – Inger – soon after the war started. Inger was an Austrian citizen and though she was classified as a ‘Friendly Alien’, they had to get special permission from the Colonel of the local Home Guard to get married. Michael recalls his father saying that he felt that coming to Wilstone was like ‘moving into paradise’.

John and Michael have a few strong memories of the aftermath of war during their early childhood. Both remember American soldiers marching through Wilstone carrying local children on their shoulders, probably as a final farewell when the troops at the airfield were being sent back to America. Michael remembers walking across the fields to Marsworth where Polish refugees used to host regular film nights on the – by then vacated – airfield where they lived. They also recall evacuee families who had to stay well after the war because their homes had been damaged by bombing. And there were a number of German prisoners of war employed on local farms, some of whom – the Moenich and Dobrotka families for instance – later became an important part of post war village life.

When I mentioned the published comments that Wilstone was seen as a ‘dying village’ in the post war period, the Glasser brothers gave examples of their very different memories. They admit that there were fewer local businesses and organised social activities compared to Long Marston but they recall a range of social events, often organised by the Horticultural Society, in the Nissen Hut that acted as the village hall. There was then a resurgence of village pride in the building of the new village hall which was opened in 1971. There were two shops; Mrs Denchfield ran a shop on the corner of Sandbrook Lane and sisters Laura and Lila Ashley ran the Post Office. There were also two pubs, the Buckingham Arms (now Buckingham House, on Tring Road) as well as the Half Moon.

John and Michael recall a number of village characters who stick in the memory. Two of these tried hard – and often in vain – to control the escapades of local children. One was PC Tudgay the local policeman and another was Charlie Double the gamekeeper of the Rothschild Estate, one of several generations of ‘Doubles’ who have held this role . These escapades included letting off ‘penny bangers’ in the unlit street during the bonfire night period and lifting eggs from moorhen nests using a pole with a spoon on the end. There are also fond recollections of playing by the canal and watching boats go by, including ‘Mrs Mop’ who ran a commercial barge and earned her nickname by the mop she kept at the back of the boat.

On May Day, children with posies on long sticks would go from house to house singing ‘Maypole Day, Maypole Day, give me a penny and I’ll run away, if you haven’t got a penny a ha’penny will do, if you haven’t got a ha’penny, God bless you’.

Other memories of this period include a horse drawn baker’s van coming to sell bread and cakes; old Mister Poulton cutting the verges in the village with his scythe and then making hay from it; local children earning pocket money by collecting bottles and claiming back the deposits, and collecting elderflower for a man who came twice a week and paid half a crown (12.5p) for each bag. Michael also recalls seeing a threshing machine powered by a steam engine, in the large barn next to the Village Church, pulled down in the 1950s due to unsafe timbers.

The brothers admitted that, after the immediate post war period, there was a drop in social activity, though they describe it as a period in the doldrums rather than a dying village. It was to some extent connected with the closure of the school in the early 1970s but there was also a decline in the use of allotments and the Horticultural Society disbanded at around the same time. The Sunday School also closed and the Church was poorly supported, the High Church regime of the famous Reverend Anthony often reducing attendances to a handful. However the Chapel on New Road continued to thrive.

Our conversation moved on to the businesses that the Glasser family developed but then eventually decided to close. Harry Glasser’s first move was into free range poultry farming. However, during and after the war, the Ministry of Agriculture encouraged greater intensification of the industry which, at that time, was seen to reduce the danger of infection and soil based parasites. All the millions of eggs produced were sent to Deans Eggs packing station at Gubblecote. Michael confirmed that; ‘As well as doing business with the Deans, we always considered them to be good friends’.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Harry was well known in the poultry industry for his scientific pioneering work – in collaboration with Reading University – in the area of controlled environment, ventilation and lighting. The experience of running the poultry farm in the lean war years had also enabled Glassers to gain a high level of expertise in using food waste and it became clear that the production of their own animal feed was of higher quality than anything that could be bought outside. Local farms kept asking whether they could receive supplies of feed products and this became a new source of business. This demand led to the construction of Glasser’s Mill in the early 1960s and, by this time, both John and Michael had joined the business to support Harry and Inger.

This was a fortunate development because it became clear in the following years that there were questions about the future of the poultry farming business. There was a move in the market back towards free range eggs. A further consideration was that the site needed investment in machinery and buildings, for which planning permission was doubtful. The decision to close the poultry farm business was therefore taken in the 1980s.

The focus thereafter was the further development of the animal feeds side of the business. John left the business after four years for University and later a career in IT while Michael gradually took over the running of the business from his parents, increasing production to 300 tons per week. For a time in the 1990s Glassers were the largest producer of organic food in the UK.

Once again however, this was not to last. Many businesses facing fundamental changes in the market place struggle on before sliding into bankruptcy. The approach of Glassers was to see well ahead that the farming world was changing. The many small livestock farms were being replaced by larger operators who were able to produce their own feeds. Michael was approaching retirement and a replacement from outside would have to have been found. With the approval of Harry and Inger, plans were made to close down the business in a planned way, rather than going into decline.

These plans included purchasing organic proteins and cereals on the futures market which were then sold on to other companies eager to secure future supplies. The redundancy of the four permanent staff was regretted but all left with good pension entitlement.

Michael and his wife Gill now live happily in retirement and very much appreciate the quality of life in the village as it has developed over the last twenty years. They now see Wilstone as the complete opposite to the alleged ‘dying village’ of the 1960s and 70s. They now describe it as ‘thriving’ and ‘buzzing’, mentioning particularly the organisation of quizzes and film nights in pre Covid times. They much appreciate the ‘brilliant efforts’ made to develop the village shop and the social benefit of so many young families (and their dogs!).

The Glassers have cause to be grateful that Harry chose Wilstone as his idea of paradise when he moved in eighty three years ago.

One Comment “Finding Paradise in Wilstone”

  • Allison Cooke (was Damms)

    says:

    A great read and very interesting.
    I used to collect eggs at the weekends and have fond memories of the Glasser family and of Wilstone where I grew up.

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