Thursday, 27 March 2008

Victoria Road: The Search For Bitterne House..

Victoria Road, 1929.

In April 1987, I moved into a shared flat in Victoria Road. My grandmother was too frail to come and visit, but when I described the flat’s location to her, just opposite the corner of Primrose Street, she became very excited: “It’s just a few doors away from Bitterne House, my old school! You must go and have a look at it! You can’t miss it - just walk towards Croftholme Lane. The name’s over the front door.”

I looked, I didn’t see. Gran became a little frustrated: “The name’s over the front door - you’ll see it if you look hard enough!” I looked again. I enlisted the help of friends when they called for me before evenings out. They looked at me slightly askance, but indulged me. We must have made a curious sight - a group of young men, all "done up" in our Miami Vice style finery, shoulder-padded jackets with pushed-up sleeves and gelled, spiky hair - subjecting each house frontage to a microscopic survey!

In the end, I gave it up as a bad job. Gran didn’t say anything, but I’m sure she put my failure down to my powers of observation!

I had often used the street directories at the Cambridgeshire Collection during family and local history research in the early 1980s. Somehow or other it did not occur to me until a few years ago to use them to solve the mystery of the location of Bitterne House.

Sadly, it was too late to share the information with my gran, but I finally discovered the location of Bitterne House - just as she had said, a few doors away from my flat - and why it had been impossible to trace during my 1987 street surveys.

I also discovered that the house had previously been listed in the directories under two other names - "No. 2 Brightwell Buildings" and "Brightwell Cottage".

Having worked out that the modern-day address I sought was No. 41 Victoria Road, I sped over there, eager to find out why I hadn’t spotted it was Bitterne House before. I had assumed that the name was engraved in stonework over the front door. There was no stonework, and the brickwork above the door was partly obscured by a shop sign but, on studying the premises, another possibility sprang to mind. Above the front door was a glass panel. Bearing in mind my grandmother's insistence that the name had been above the door, it occurred to me that perhaps each of the house names had been painted on the glass panel in turn. This was a popular trend years ago, and would have made changing the name very easy.

The last entry for Bitterne House in the street directories at the Cambridgeshire Collection is listed in the 1939-1940 edition. By 1948, the time of the Collection’s next directory, the house name was no longer listed. This is not indicative of anything as the new trend was simply to list houses under their numbers only. It seems probable that, at some unknown point between 1939 and 1987, the old glass panel above the front door had been replaced and the Bitterne House name had gone with it!

Bitterne House was thus named in the 1880s.

In 1887, William Humphreys (recorded as “Humphries” in the street directory) Williams and his wife Betsy were living at the house. The couple hailed from Essex, Harlow and Felstead respectively. I do not know if they had any other links to the locality, but several of their children had been born at Bitterne, Hampshire. Mr and Mrs Williams renamed their new home Bitterne House.

Harry Williams, one of William and Betsy's sons, founded a local firm of funeral directors which is still in existence, and still bears his name, today.

Charlotte, one of the Williams' daughters, was a “teacher of music and painting”. In 1887 the “Misses Williams” were running a preparatory school at Bitterne House, using part of the ground floor. Charlotte had started the school with her sister, Mary Ann.

Mary Ann died in 1890, aged thirty-one, and Charlotte ran Bitterne House alone from then onwards. After Charlotte's death in 1916, Miss Dorothea Augusta Fish, of Magrath Avenue, took over.

"Cambridge Daily News", 21 December 1917.

My grandmother went to Bitterne House simply because the sixpence a week charge to attend Milton Road School was dropped:

“Mum wasn’t pleased,” said Gran. “She saw free schooling as charity and thought standards were bound to suffer… It certainly wasn’t good enough for her daughter - I was being brought up like a young lady. I wasn’t even allowed to wash-up a spoon! When we stopped paying our sixpence a week at Milton Road, Mum looked round for another school - and she found one!”

Bitterne House was a mixed school, with a small number of pupils.

"There were about eleven of us. I remember there was a lovely garden at the back where we had our ‘play times’. The teachers were nice: Miss Bales gave most of the lessons and Miss Carol taught music, part time. The school belonged to Miss Fish and she was headmistress."

Around early 1920, Miss Fish became ill. My grandmother recalled that Miss Fish died and Bitterne House then closed down, but this appears to have been a slightly jumbled recollection. The Cambridge street directory listings indicate that Bitterne House closed down c. early 1920, over a year before Miss Fish died in October 1921.

After Bitterne House closed, my grandmother returned to Milton Road - there being no other convenient or affordable fee-paying schools in the area.

"Mum got used to the idea of free schooling," Gran told me in 1988. "Now of course nothing's thought of it. But to my mother's generation you had to pay your own way. People were very suspicious of what they called 'charity'. It was because of that I went to Bitterne House."

No. 41 Victoria Road in 2007...

2004: for many years part of the house was used as commercial premises.

Information to be included in "Grace & Co", a forthcoming book.


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