RENT DAY AT 'THE CAT'

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By Ishbel Beatty††††† Sep 1995

 

T

here have been a number of 50th anniversaries this year, 1995, but September brings a special one to this neighbourhood. In that month in 1945 the west Cambridgeshire estate owned by Downing College was put up for auction, all 4,151 acres of it. Those acres lay in the parishes of East Hatley, Tadlow, Gamlingay, Wrestlingworth and Croydon-≠cum--Clapton. They had been awarded to George Downing, together with a baronetcy, at the Restoration in 1660. Three baronets of that name lived in East Hatley or Gamlingay until the estate helped to found Downing College, Cambridge in 1800. Then in 1945, since no offer was made for the estate as a whole, it was sold in separate lots, mostly to existing farming and cottage tenants.

 

The name Downing remains on one property in the area today - the Downing Arms, once a farmhouse, became licensed as a public house in 1827, and continues so with its second name, `The Scratching Cat'. (Look at the arms and you will see why it got that name). It stands on the Arrington/Tadlow road, looking up at the slopes towards East Hatley, where the third Sir George once built a prospect tower. This crumbled away with the old farmhouse at Tower Farm before the 1960's.

 

The Downing Arms was where the College Bursar went to collect the annual rents from the farm tenants for over a century. Mrs. Alex Kucia, born Eleanor Harbon in Tadlow, writes of her memories of rent day in her childhood.

 

Solid slabs of fruit cake, rich in cherries - that is inv dominant memory of Rent Day. It was the one day in the year when I sampled 'shop cake' and I thought it wonderful. And I still enjoy a slice of well cherried slab cake.

 

When I was 7 years old the old thatched cottage we lived in, one-time Tadlow Vicarage according to Historian William Cole, was condemned as unfit to live in, and we moved to a newly-built Council House nearby. However, we still went to the Michaelmas Rent Day at the Downing Arms where the Bursar of Downing College collected his dues, as my father continued to rent the orchard and garden where the old house had stood. Our chickens were kept there and the gnarled old fruit trees still yielded well.

 

I have puzzled as to why my memories of the actual tea are so sketchy, and can only assume that the `feast' ceased soon after the outbreak of World War 2 though the rent of course still had to be paid. So I have chatted with various ex-Tadlowites in order to build up a composite picture.

 

In the morning, some of the village ladies went to 'The Cat' to set up trestle tables and benches in what was known as the `Big Room'. In the afternoon the women and children either walked or cycled to the pub. including those from Wrestlingworth who lived in Downing-owned houses. We were served with tea by the two Miss Turrells, sisters of the landlord Frank Turrell, who also farmed the surrounding land. The pub and farm belonged to Downing College, of course.

 

The Miss Turrells were tall, long-faced, dour ladies who never seemed to smile, and I don't remember ever hearing them speak. I just have a drab, grey-all≠over, almost ghost-like picture in my mind.

 

Tea was poured, already milked, from large jugs. No-one seems to remember what else was served, yet, as we sat formally at table, there must have been bread, meat or sandwiches served as well as that cake.

 

 

Harold Sadler, some ten years my senior, remembers attending rent day tea with his mother and sister, and is also able to confirm my memory of all the men going for supper in the evening. (I have seen it recorded somewhere that only the farmers etc. had supper, but I was sure my dad, an ordinary farm worker, went.) Harold thinks the supper was of boiled beef and vegetables, and he and his sister recall going back to `The Cat' the next day with a milk can. This was a container like a small lidded bucket holding about a quart of liquid and used by the farm workers to carry home their daily allowance of milk from the farm. The can was filled on their call at Downing Arms with delicious broth, probably made from the liquid the meat had been cooked in. I suppose I wasn't old enough to make the trip, as that was news to me.

 

In 1945 the whole Downing estate was sold, and Rent Day, with or without its Tea and Supper, was no more. The cottages were split between the farms and became tied cottages, some farmers charging rent, others including a free tenancy as part of the wages.

At the time of the sale, the rents quoted in the catalogue for typical labourers' cottages varied between £3 8s 2d for a semi, and £4 6s 6d for a detached home - that was for a year! The orchard and garden where the old vicarage had stood (it was Glebe Cottage in my time there) was offered for sale as a building plot, the annual rent then being 5s. My father's employer, Owen Randall of Bridge Farm, bought it for £30 and let my dad pay for it in instalments. A record greengage crop the following year raised enough cash to clear the debt - after which the greengage trees never again produced a decent harvest! - and passed into memory as did the cherry cake of Michaelmas Rent Day.

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