Joseph was born in Turvey in 1846. He had three older sisters, Sarah, Mary and Betsy; a brother, Henry, died as a child. At the time of Joseph’s birth, his father William Bell was gardener to the Reverend of All Saints church; the family lived in a ‘tied’ cottage (belonging to his employer) up against the church wall, where the driveway to Turvey House now runs.
Just six months after Joseph was born, William died. As well as being a personal tragedy for the family, it set in chain a cycle of poverty which Phoebe, Joseph’s mother, would endure for the rest of her life. Without a main wage earner (and William’s wage, as a skilled gardener, would have been better than that of many villagers) she and her daughters were forced to scrape by on their meagre earnings from lacemaking. The family had to leave their tied cottage and depend on the charity of the Higgins family for their immediate survival.
Joseph himself started work at the age of seven, taking various jobs, mostly the physically demanding work on harsh farm ‘gangs’, where boys were often beaten and bullied. There were better times: he fondly remembers a season picking walnuts for Mr Higgins; and a ‘light job’ helping Mrs Wooding at Turvey Lodge House, which Mr Higgins arranged in order to ensure there was at least one decent wage reaching his ailing mother. Mrs Wooding was instructed to ‘feed up’ Joseph when he was at work to make up for the hunger he faced when at home.
In the Workhouse
Phoebe’s health was never good, and in 1858, when Joseph was twelve, she died. The family was separated and Joseph was sent to the Bedford Union Workhouse.
Entry into the workhouse was seen as shameful, and it was a tough existence even for children, who weren’t forced to endure the same backbreaking labour as adults. But Joseph quickly won the other children and the masters round: the former by his willingness to scrap with the bigger boys and prove his worth; the latter by his knowledge of country lore. He would take the town boys out for nature walks and impress them with his knowledge and he persuaded the master to allow them all to dig up a strip of playground to grow flowers and vegetables. You can take the boy out of the village…
Years later in 1926 (when he was 80) something prompted Joseph to write down his memories of Turvey and his eighteen months in the workhouse. He wanted to pass on details about his early life to his children. By this point he had made a success of his life as a shoemaker (the trade he learnt in the workhouse) and was a prominent member of his local chamber of commerce. He was able to give his own children the education he himself had sorely missed. In his memoirs he writes with great detail about many events; although he would have relied upon the memories of his eldest sister Sarah to bolster his own, for some reason those early days in Turvey had stayed with him. The world had changed in unimaginable ways since his childhood. People were no longer absolutely fixed in poverty; conveniences such as greater food availability and travel had made life easier. The Great War had rent a hole in society which made it impossible to bring back Victorian values.
So partly Joseph was writing to make sense of the great changes that had happened in his lifetime. But I like to think that he was also writing because something about Turvey had made its mark on him. It was the only place where he had known his mother; the place he associated with secure and happy (albeit poor) family life. After Turvey he was on his own. But the landscape and wildlife of Turvey – the willow trees by the river, the bird songs which he knew by heart, the crow which he tamed and taught to talk, the medicinal properties of wildflowers, the bracing water of the mill pond and Jonah – all these were things which he carried through his life like an identity badge; they gave him a sense of belonging somewhere. I think this is the message at the heart of ‘Bells of Turvey’: what home can mean to us, and can continue to mean even after a long absence.