ID: PH01_EPR / Elaine Barker

TitleEdward Ponder of Great Wigborough
AbstractEdward Ponder of Great Wigborough

Trawling through the Peldon and Wigborough Parish Magazines I came across three articles written by a Wigborough man, Edward Ponder, who I believe was born around 1916 although other biographical information is needed.

The first article is about working on a barge sailing from the wharf, that in those days, was still working at the Strood leading to Mersea island.

A Weekend in London from Peldon

In 1926 work was scarce; the country as I remember was in a recession. There was always local trades to go into, such as farriery, farming or even fishing, but there were a lot of people going for a few jobs.

Quite by luck, in the summer of 1926, I had heard of a job in Peldon - the Proprietor of the Plough Inn had details. The walk from Gt Wigborough to Peldon could take a while but by crossing the farmland I knew I could perhaps spare ten minutes. The children of the village knew the land and hedgerows well. You could take short cuts and couldn't rely on public transport. I refreshed myself with a bottle of ginger beer at the Plough before asking about the job I was seeking whereupon I was introduced to a gentleman bargemaster, Captain Higgs of the Halcyon who had contracted to transport hay and straw from the Strood at Peldon to the upper reaches of The Thames. I was later to find out that Peldon and Wigborough hay was amongst the best in the land.

Another lad was needed for two or three days' work to load the hay cargo onto the waiting barge. I forget now what the pay was, but I remember thinking that it was good. Mr Bunnion took me to the Strood in his cart and I started work at 6am walking home to Great Wigborough at 9pm every night. The barge was loaded at the end of the second day and we were all very tired. The work was exhausting, the long walk every day not helping much.

Knowing what was ahead of me I lay down on the tall hay heap on top of the barge deck, the water not yet having reached the boat. I must have nodded off for when I next awoke we were at sea and not a sight of Peldon! Not wanting to upset Captain Higgs, who I knew had a filthy temper, I kept low. It was not long before I was found out, however, and put to work down the stairs painting the cabin in return for my passage and meals to London. When we got there I was duly paid but had to spend almost all my hard earned wages getting back home.

I had enjoyed that adventure and decided that I liked travelling, something I was to do a lot more of. I was thankful, nevertheless, to be home in Wigborough, a feeling that I still get 70 years later.

Edward Ponder
Great Wigborough
Peldon and Wigborough Parish News December 1996

In the Peldon and Wigboroughs Parish News October 1998, Edward Ponder writes that while walking in and around the area of Sherwins Farm, Great Wigborough in the 1990s he came across a pair of pole cats with a young family. It reminded him of hard times for his family during the Depression.

Pole Cats earlier this century were a lot more abundant than today. Despite being a nasty pest and at time vicious they served the local villagers and for this they deserve respect and recognition.

In the early years of the great depression, Father would, as all farmers used to, set many snares, and as often as not Pole Cat would end up on the dinner table instead of, or complementing, rabbit.

The meat was flavoured lean and strong and even though quite tasty, nobody was happy eating it.

I can still remember the atmosphere around the table as Mother served it up from the pot. We were all thinking (except Father, who quite liked it by now and had no problems with the idea). No not Pole Cat again.

People these days do not realise what we went through, life was very different then, we were all proud, and nothing could be more humiliating than admitting to eating these cats, a bit like being thrown into the poor house, but alas we were all at it.

Once out of that awful depression and with the farm still to pick up, Father (who would reserve the better pelts to make a little 'cosie' for Mother's feet in the evening) spotted another opportunity.

Having caught skinned and cleaned the Pole Cat it would vaguely pass as a hare. Father, who by today's standards would be described as an entrepreneur, supplied many local butchers and inns - amusing to think now that many an eating house's reputation in this area for good food is based largely on The Peldon Pole Cat.

Edward Ponder - October Peldon and Wigboroughs Parish News 1998

I contacted Darren Tansley from Essex Wildlife Trust about this story because it was presumed polecats were extinct in Essex. He wrote

This is rather intriguing because back in the 1700-1800s polecats were commonplace in Essex but through systematic trapping and shooting they were finally persecuted to extinction by the end of the 1800s. After that polecats were not recorded in Essex throughout the 20th Century but then in September 1999 the body of what was thought to be a ferret was collected in Wendons Ambo in NW Essex for photographing. In 2001 it was finally confirmed to be a polecat. Since then polecats have started to spread and certainly since about 2010 there have been more and more sightings, usually of animals knocked down on the roads. Now polecats are present across much of North Essex down through the county to a line roughly connecting Maldon and Bishops Stortford.

We did have a polecat at Fingringhoe Wick reserve and I also found one at Birch (near Layer) on my way to work one day so they are in the area although the main population is still along the valley of the River Blackwater with many sightings of road casualties along the A120. They are easily confused with polecat-ferret hybrids so it is sometimes difficult for us to confirm a sighting without good supporting photographs. They are certainly not around in large numbers out here on the coast.

The bizarre thing is that your reference says this was in the depression so late 1920s early 1930s. This is not really borne out by the status of the species in the whole of South East England at the time where they had been eradicated almost entirely. It makes me wonder whether this was a mis-identification? It would not be the first time. Parish records from the 1500-1600s talk about the trapping of large numbers of rats in East Anglia but black rats were largely confined to the ports and brown rats had not yet arrived in the UK. These appear to have been a terrestrial form of water vole that was eradicated long before the current problems for the semi-aquatic form we know today. Perhaps these were stoats? It would be interesting to see a copy of the record. Darren Tansley Essex Wildlife Trust

I sent Edward's account to Darren and this was his response.

This is pretty convincing. I tend to feel that country people like that would know the difference between a polecat and another animal so there is the potential that polecats clung on in the marshy bits of Essex into the 20th century, largely unnoticed and were eventually finished off by these 'entrepreneurs'. This would certainly have spelt the end for the species. It is interesting to note that one of the things that saved polecats from utter extinction in the UK was when myxomatosis wiped out 99% of the rabbit population in the 1950s. At this time most polecats were killed because they got caught in rabbit traps (as mentioned in the article). When rabbits ceased to be a problem no one bothered trapping them and polecats were given a slight reprieve to begin re-colonisation.

If you hear anything more then do let me know as this is a really fascinating account. Articles written in 1915 and 1926 considered the only remaining few individuals to be present in 1905 were in the Thames marshes, which must have looked very different to the industrial landscape today and probably more like the area along the Colne and Blackwater estuaries.

According to the late Bernard Ratcliffe of New Hall Cottages, Little Wigborough, sometime before 1988 (that was the year his employer, Victor Gray left the farm, New Hall), Gordon Taylor next door shot a polecat. They were worried it would attack their chickens and weren't sure what it was. The farmer put it in the freezer to await someone who could identify it.

Edward wrote this final article in his 93rd year after visiting his niece at Wigborough and reading Chrissie South's gardening notes in the Parish News. He was then in a retirement home in Clacton

I remember happily my days in Peldon and Wigboroughs, having worked two years as a farm labourer at the Peldon Hall Farm before setting up as an apprentice undertaker. Later I found I could combine my interest in undertaking with my love of gardening and I decided to become a full-time gravedigger and woodsman.

The PCC found I was quick at digging holes in the ground and that is why I got the work but I was always most happy planting flowers, shrubs and bulbs rather than the bodies of the deceased and so my career in gardening beckoned and I was lucky to become a full-time gardener before the Second World War started.

I did however work briefly with Wally (Walter) Grout on the Abberton Reservoir. Some of your senior readers will remember Wally and we were in one of the gangs tasked with digging the holes for the concrete fence posts to stand in.

[With regards] to local names for local plants. Here are some of the ones I can remember.

Snowdrops were always locally called teardrops
Bluebells we called butter bells
Primroses were known locally as yellow bells
Daffodils we always called golden trumpets
Blackthorn hedges were clumber downs
Stinging nettles in the early haymaking season were locally called canjoan.
Peldon and Wigborough Parish News April 2008.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

AuthorElaine Barker
PublishedJuly 2020
SourceMersea Museum