The Girl from the Vicarage

Helen Barnfield Ketchen
Helen Barnfield Ketchen

Helen Barnfield Ketchen, nee Edmondson, was the daughter of an inspirational Anglican vicar who served at Hawkshaw, near Bury, from 1918 to 1923, at St Marks, Miles Platting, from 1923-1929 and at St Clements, Higher Openshaw, Manchester, in the 1930s. Born in the South of England, she was uprooted at the age of four when her mother died and her father was moved north. In adult life, Helen was a popular preacher and teacher and was Prayer Group representative for the Diocese of Manchester as late as the 1980’s. Before she died, she wrote down her memoirs and in a labour of love her daughter Chris Ketchen transcribed them. Here we feature some extracts from those evocative diaries, starting with her family…

By Helen Barnfield Ketchen

There is so much I would like to know about my forebears that I will never know, since those who could have given me the information are now beyond any questioning, so I have decided to set down what I remember for those who follow me.

I remember little of my grandparents. I must have been little more than three years old when we – my parents, my brother and I – went to stay with my mother’s family at Cookham Dean, Berkshire, where they were living. I can still recall the orderly garden, with the rows of enormous strawberries.

The taste of the reddest and ripest one of all remains with its delicious sweetness, and as I put it into my mouth, I was aware there were eyes watching me – laughing eyes, and the eyes of my grandfather. What a small memory of him, but all I have.

I remember gathering bunches of wild flowers from the hedgerow and meeting my lovely Auntie Kate as she left the village school where she taught.

The greatest affection shown to my brother and me was from my Auntie Rose, which was hardly surprising as she had a large brood of children of her own.

Auntie Rose and her family lived in a farmhouse next to the church at Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire. It is a source of delight that nearly 50 years later, when touring the district with my husband, I was able to describe the whole scene to him before we arrived and on our arrival find my memory had not served me false.

No wonder the River Windrush is music to me and the chilling story of The Mistletoe Bough forever associated with the ruins of Minster Lovell, for it was my mother who told us the tale.

My grandfather Edmondson was a Master Mariner, and a pilot on the River Ribble. Life could not have been easy for Grandma Edmondson with 10 children to bring up and husband at sea. However although they had not much money, they never had a father out of work.

Grandma was a devoutly religious woman and was rather too ‘other worldly’ to cope with the demands of a growing family. I only remember my Grandma at her life’s end and last illness.

I remember a snatch of conversation Grandma had with Auntie Ellen which, as a small child, was completely unintelligible to me but now I do understand! Grandma said, ‘I cannot understand why it is so hard to go home.’ To her there was no doubt that Heaven was her home.

One incident at Grandma’s house stands out very clearly and for me was significant. After the old man died, there was a ring on the doorbell. “Answer it, Daisy” said my Aunt, which I did. To my childish horror, the dead grandad stood on the doorstep. I started to scream until Auntie Ada came running to my rescue. After I had been pacified, I was introduced to the ‘apparition’. He proved to be my grandfather’s own cousin – also called William Edmondson, himself a Master Mariner, with shining bald head, grey moustache and beard, to quote a naval phrase, a ’full set.’ To compare
photographs now shows how very alike the cousins were.

My father, Joseph, was the eldest of the family; following him were twins, Thomas and Annie (Annie died in infancy) John William, Arthur, Elizabeth, Herbert, Ada Jane and Martha Alice. With their father being away from home so much, Joseph felt more than ordinarily responsible for his brothers and sisters.

Every morning he would muster them in the yard and give them rigorous exercises and deep breathing. His efforts were not universally popular, though all the brothers loved sport, football for all;
Joe was a boxer and later keen on rowing, Billy loved horses and joined a cavalry regiment in the First World War and later rode a great deal when in America and Herbert was the swimmer and at
one time Champion Swimmer of Preston. The boys were also known as ‘the fighting Edmondsons.’ Preston was a predominantly Roman Catholic town but had a strong Protestant minority and the fights between the children of both camps were fast and furious, especially on March on 17th.

My father’s family were Methodists and I wonder at which stage they became so, since his grandparents, or at least one of them, were Anglican and were married in Manchester Cathedral. Later my father left Methodism.

After leaving school at 10, he went to work in Lancaster and there he shared lodgings (and the bed) with a lad who later became Sir Harry Price, millionaire head of the ‘Fifty Shilling Tailors.’

Harry Price and my father had two other special Lancaster friends, TomMillett, who became a dentist and Frank Barnfield who eventually became a wholesale grocer and was very prosperous. I think Frank was my father’s dearest friend and to acknowledge the fact, gave me the name ‘Barnfield’ among my own names.

Soon my father decided to become an evangelist and was accepted to train in the Church Army before entering the Church Army College with that in view.

At some point during this training, he met a young teacher, Ida Helen Wilkins, who had trained at Gypsy Hill College They were married at St. Mary’s Church, Fulham on September 5th 1905 They were married at St. Mary’s Church, Fulham, on September 5th 1905.

My father was about 5ft 9-10 inches with very fair skin, auburn hair and the blue eyes of the visionary. My mother had dark, curling hair, brown eyes and was very lovely. I think it was Ida that
encouraged my father and gave him the impetus and inspiration to study for he became a graduate of Durham University and an L.Th of the London College of Divinity.

He was later ordained in December 1910 but to his life’s end, he was still studying. He had mastered Latin and Greek and Hebrew enough to read the Bible in all three. Years later it pleased him when Mummy read the Scripture from an English version, Joseph from the Greek and myself from a French bible and he would translate from the Hebrew.

Mother and Father worked together at Ilkeston and Wrexham as Church Army officers. After his ordination, they went to St Paul’s, Hendon (Sunderland), St John’s Newhall and then they came to St Saviour’s Church in Bolton, where Daddy was curate to the Reverend Jauncey.

They lived on Deane Road and were there when World War 1 broke out. However, before that on December 8th 1913, my brother Joseph Theodore was born in Berkshire, Mother having gone ‘home’ for the birth.

During a service my father was taking at Trinity Church, Bolton, there was a Zeppelin raid and a bomb was dropped which damaged the church.

Although Daddy wanted to join the Forces, he was not able to and when offered the living of St Mary’s Hawkshaw, near Bury, the war was nearly over.

So 1918 saw Ida, Joseph, Joe (‘Sonny’) and Joseph’s niece, Annie installed in the vicarage at Hawkshaw.

I suppose this is really where my story begins because I was born in the Vicarage on February 14th 1919. I think it was probably a Saturday and on that evening there was a social taking place in the
school. It was suggested that two of her Sunday School class should take some supper to Mrs Edmondson. The 18-year-old girls duly came to the Vicarage with supper and were asked in. On seeing my mother with the new baby (me!) they were asked if they would like to hold the baby.

Years later when I came to live in Bradshaw, Bolton, I found one of the two girls who had nursed me, Mrs Susie Done, living on Turton Road, and she recalled the incident.

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