By Haydn Brown.
The story of Miss May Savidge is not new; it has done its rounds on television via ‘Bygones’ and the Antiques Roadshow, YouTube, newspapers, social media and local history groups. But it does have an endearing theme which makes it readable with all who discover it for the first time. For that reason, I am ressurecting the detail in the hope that a fresh audience will find it. And, where better to start her story than where it reached its final conclusion – at Wells-Next-The-Sea in Norfolk. This was where the love of her life – Ware Hall House, ended up!
But first, let’s establish its actual location, which is not an easy task as the house, from one direction at least, is hidden down a pathway and behind a curved wall. It is, however, not too far from The Buttlands and if one exits that place by walking down the hill from its south-west corner, Ware Hall House come easily into sight. It is, in fact, a medieval house which was originally built some 100 miles from Wells-Next-The Sea, at Ware in Hertfordshire. Why, you may well ask, would a house of that vintage need to find an excuse to move its roots?
Well, this particular part of May’s story continued from the 1970’s when the house was brought, in many parts, to Wells by Miss May Savidge and rebuilt over a period of 23 years, first by her and then finished by her niece, Christine Adams, after May had died. What follows is very much about May and her determination to see off death-watch beetles, rats, developers, bureaucracy, planners who threatened to demolish her historic cottage under a road-building project – and even her eventual failing health – and accompanied only by her faithful dog, Sasha. But who was May, and why did she move her 15th-century Ware Hall House from one County to another!
Born in Streatham, South London, in 1911, May Savidge was just ten when her father died of heart failure, plunging the family into poverty. As soon as she was old enough to go out to work for a living, she found a job with the Ministry of Aircraft Production where she trained to become a draughts-woman; as thing were to work out, this skill was to hold her in good-stead years later.
At a relatively young age of 16 years, May met an older man, his name was Denis Watson; he was a gifted Shakespearean actor and they had planned to marry; however, after they became engaged Denis died prematurely in 1938. It was said that May never completely recovered from this blow and continued to wear his signet ring on her wedding ring finger. She also retreated into herself for a time, that is, until she entered into a 17-year courtship with a man she believed would marry her. His name is not known, but from letters found amongst her many belongings discovered after her death many years later, he wrote a devastating letter to May in 1960. In it he revealed to her that he has simultaneously found God and fallen in love with his cousin, stating:
‘I have, thanks to God, seen my dear cousin Iris in a new and wonderful light……I know this will hurt you as I know only too well how you feel towards me. I pray to the Lord that you, too, may experience this most wonderful love…….I should like nothing better than for you to regard us as a new sister and brother. I would like to bring Iris to see you when you feel like it, I know you, too, will love her – everybody does!’
Clearly cut to the quick, May wrote back:
‘It surprises me that anyone so dear and lovable as your Cousin Iris should have thought it right to come between us, after 17 years. My heart is not made of stone. You often spoke of our marriage. Is it surprising that I thought you really cared? I hope you will be more faithful to Iris than you have been to me. Goodbye.’
Next to these letters was a photo of her former fiancée, Denis, playing Hamlet! From that moment on May wrapped her broken heart in a parcel, tied it with string and hid it at the back of her attic to be discovered years later. She became a loner, a spinster – but not through choice.
Then in 1947 she bought a house with the intention of restoring it. The address was No. 1 Monkey Row, Ware, Hertfordshire, a house built around 1450 for a wealthy monk as a ‘hall house’, a medieval arrangement in which the living space was attached to an open hall overlooked by a minstrel’s gallery. At the time of May’s purchase, the remainder of the house was still being used as a bakery. Encouraged by her wish to renovate it, the Local History Society launched their own research exercise into the property, soon finding they could date it even further back, to 1415, when Monkey Row was used daily by monks, and named Monke Road.
As a self-taught home improvement enthusiast, May set about exposing the heavy oak beams of the house, each bearing the marks of medieval carpenters, and she lifted crumbling lino to reveal wide, hand-cut floorboards which needed to be preserved. She employed a builder to repair the roof, but for all the rest of the work – including brick-laying, carpentry, re-glazing and stripping plaster from the ceilings and 20 layers of paper from the walls and re-plastering – she did with her own hands.
Then in 1953, having spent so much of her time renovating her house, the Council told May that they had planned for it to be demolished to make way for a road sometime in the future! In her eyes, that was nothing less than vandalism, forcing her to declare her form of outright war! May dug her heels in and resolved to save the building and for 15 years, she fought the Council’s plans, writing to them at one point:
‘If this little house is really in the way, I would rather move it and re-erect it than see it destroyed.’ She also separately commented: ‘I just won’t have such a marvellous old house bulldozed into the ground……. I’ve got nothing to do all day, so I might as well do the job myself.’
By 1969, when she was 58 years of age, but before the bulldozers were primed to advance, May effectively embarked on a 23-year labour of love and life of hardship. Dressed in a workman’s apron and her greying hair tucked beneath a headscarf, she single-handedly began first to number each beam, tile and pane of glass so that her home could be reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. She then organised the dismantling of the heavy oak timber frame, held together with tapered wooden pegs; this was both difficult and dangerous and a team of local demolition contractors offered to help. Thousands of hand-made Hertfordshire peg tiles from the roof were piled high on the ground and huge timbers were laid out in a set order and in various and appropriate sizes. She had no electricity and worked by the light of Victorian paraffin lamps. She used an alarm clock to set herself targets each day; even noting how many nails she had extracted from oak beams per hour, as she dismantled the house and prepared for rebuilding. May even traced over a sample of brickwork using greaseproof paper and crayons so that she would know which bond to use and how thick to lay the mortar. Eventually, all these materials would all be loaded on to a lorry alongside Tudor fireplaces, Elizabethan diamond leaded glass and more, for a rebuild she might not have already realised, could span the rest of her life.
But doggedly, she pressed on and continued to live in the house as it was being taken down, sleeping beneath the stairs – even in the freezing cold. All this time, charitable local reaction continued to build up and even leading to complete strangers offering help to May. Some sent her money to help with the inevitable expense and many became life-long friends. One was said to have commented: ‘Yours is the spirit that once made Britain great!’ May even woke up one morning with an idea which she considered to be a brainwave. On the basis that ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ she hastily wrote to the R.A.F; she simply asked if they could possibly supply a helicopter and ‘lift and move the house for her’; they, unsurprisingly, sent a negative reply, saying unfortunately, the load was too big and they felt, much too risky. Even if they could, the journey would need to be painfully slow, given the age and structure of what they would be moving; it was a diplomatic way of saying No!
But this was the point when May already knew where she and her entire house would be going, and she had already found a site on which the house would sit; it happened to be in the seaside town of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. Taking the next step, May had also secured the necessary planning permission to re-build, and went as far as to employ a Wells builder to lay the foundations. All it needed was for a lorry to make 11 round trips, between Ware in Hertfordshire and Norfolk, every part and section of May’s dismantled house.
Back in Hertfordshire, the dismantled parts had been stacked up and stored around the garden, ready for their long journey. Visibly, the scene resembled a builder’s yard, in which everything was arranged with strict military precision. All bricks were placed together as were roof tiles in neatly stacked rows and seemingly innumerable piles of wooden beams, roof joints and more. Screws, nails, hinges, door handles, hooks, door knobs, nuts & bolts; cabling, dozens more items and maybe a few other possessions as well all had their own place, box or container. This neat arrangement even suggested that May would immediately know if any single item had been the least bit disturbed!
And when the day came for the first load to leave for Wells, three men and a lorry made the first of eleven round trips to Norfolk, to ensure every single part of the house – regardless of size or type – was moved. With the completion of this manoeuvre, May’s 20-year reconstruction programme continued; her temporary home at Wells being a former holiday caravan. Conditions there would often be unbearably cold, but she remained doggedly determined to press on; her niece, Christine Adams told the Fakenham Ladies Circle Club in 1971:
“My mother brought us up to believe there’s no such word as can’t” and this possibly fuelled her determination to continue and succeed.”
Two years later, the main framework had been fixed to the foundations by a local carpenter and May had also started to infill the brickwork; her still somewhat limited experience of this skill had been honed during her previous repair of the same house at Ware, that skill would be honed further over the coming years; but she was determined to lay every single brick perfectly – and it might still be another eight years before the roof tiles were put in place and the property made watertight.
By her 70s, May had almost moved in as the house now stood proudly in its new surroundings. Each old oak beam had been correctly placed, the brickwork nearly completed and most walls plastered. Despite her age, she still continued to build, climbing the layers of scaffolding daily to reach the upper floors, top windows or whatever else required her attention. By 1986, the Queen had heard of May’s incredible project and immediately invited her to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. But now it seemed, May was running out of steam and in 1992 she installed a small wood-burner stove to heat the ‘new’ house, while already having difficulty climbing ladders. She also found cement work ‘a bit heavy’. Her failing health sometimes required home visits from the local doctor but reputedly, such conversations were only exchanged through the letterbox!
During 1993, May Savidge passed away peacefully, in the Wells Cottage Hospital just before her 82nd birthday, with the house still unfinished. The walls were up and the roof was on, but overall, it was still little more than a shell. However, in her Will the property had been left to members of her family and after May’s death, they subsequently finished it over the ensuing 15 years. Still standing not far from The Buttlands it is now the home of May niece, Christine Adams – and a B&B.
But there’s still one more story to tell about Miss May Savidge; she was, on the side, a collector extraordinaire and perhaps even a hoarder. It was a fact that May had filled her home to possibly resemble an overstocked curiosity shop. In the garden, were nine side-saddles, as relics of a bygone age. Boxes of unworn wartime nurses’ bonnets and May’s Service Medals lay inside heavy trunks, stacked to ceiling height. She kept packets of old-fashioned soap powder, Omo and Oxydol, alongside bottles of J Collis Browne’s Mixture, the Victorian cure-all.
There were thousands of train, bus and trolley bus tickets, milk bottle tops and notes left by the milkman. She reputedly kept old matchboxes, confectionery wrappers and still more which today, might be items eagerly sought by collectors or dealers. And in 440 diaries, she had listed every daily action carried out, revealing life in a Britain now lost – e.g., the use of farthings, florins, half-pennies, half-crowns, shillings, three-penny pieces, milk churns, chains, furlongs, yards, ounces, telegrams and typewriters on a much longer list. It was much of these memorabilia that was sold in order to raise funds to complete the renovation project left by May after she died.
She clearly had much dogged determination to pursue a passion that existed long before conservation became fashionable. May Savidge had decided to move her home lock, stock and barrel across Britain from the busy Ware High Street in Hertfordshire to peaceful Norfolk around 100 miles away. What a remarkable lady and such an incredible task she undertook!
A Lifetime in the Building: The Extraordinary Story of May Savidge and the House She Moved, by Christine Adams with Michael McMahon, published by Aurum.
Christopher Weston, Norfolk Archive 2021.
Images: Courtesy of Christine Adams.
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