|"The two great wars of our century have brought into public life men and women who might otherwise have lived all or most of their lives in the comparative obscurity of their own localities. Such a one was Mary Helen Simpson of Chelveston, Northamptonshire, herself a woman of outstanding character and ability, whose influence first on her family and village, then on her county, was finally extended through her work for Women's Institutes and the Land Army to the country at large"; so wrote Joan Wake in urging Mary Simpson's claim to be recorded with Northamptonshire worthies of her generation. She was indeed a great country-woman and her outstanding work nationally and locally claims to be recorded. Those who knew her will never forget her. She was rooted in the County of Spires, Squires and Spinsters, and to her mind it was the County of Counties. She absorbed its traditions, lived a full life in it and never went abroad. There were no startling events in her life. It kept its even tenor within the given circumstances of its setting expanding in high activity spontaneously with life's demands. As her personality developed it had far-reaching influence. Her family tradition partook of squirearchy but it descended directly from country-parsonage homes. Her grandfather, William Hirst Simpson, was Rector of Falkingham in Lincolnshire and was designated to succeed an uncle, Major Hirst Simpson at Roughton Hall, Lincs. Her father, William Hirst Simpson, was born at Falkingham in 1847, educated at Uppingham and St. John's College, Cambridge. In 1870, he married Helen Clark, whose father was Rector of Little Bytham, Lincolnshire. After a brief period in Kent, he settled in Northamptonshire where he bought the old-established solicitor's practice of Henry Greene at Higham Ferrers and succeeded to the position of Town Clerk. He soon identified himself with the County's affairs. After the passing of the Local Government Act in 1888, he was elected County Councillor. In subsequent years he was appointed Magistrate's Clerk to the Justices of Wellingborough. His practice was extensive and his public work many sided and he became a well known and respected figure in the County.
Mary, always known as Pollie, was the eldest of his family of four sons and three daughters. She was born at Tunbridge Wells in 1871 on 23rd April, St. George's Day, and she was proud of this date and of her national heritage, adding how glad she was that there was "no mongrel mixture of Scotch, Welsh or Irish" in her. Her childhood at Higham Ferrers was happy and not too much shepherded. Both parents hunted, Pollie was taught to ride on Applesauce a quiet old hunter. The fearless little girl became a fine horsewoman.
Like a good many girls of her generation she never went to school. There were lessons with a governess but these were interrupted in her early teens when she had trouble with her eyes. Her mother read to her in the darkened room where she had to remain, and the next phase of this threat to her eyesight was enjoyable, she was allowed to run wild. For so lively and intelligent a child as Pollie this may not have been a bad thing. Later on she felt the gaps in her knowledge and took correspondence courses in subjects that interested her, but meanwhile she learnt to think for herself and explore her surroundings while she let the sounds and sights of nature sink into her being. She was never bookish, but she had the desire to get to the bottom of things, had a very good memory and she developed independence of mind.
The Simpsons may not have been demonstrative, but there was strong family affection and Pollie's was deep. Her close friend of later days, Margaret Rotherham, has recorded what Pollie told of her devotion to her mother to whom she owed the religious background, which was her stand-by, and her strong sense of right and wrong. Every evening Mrs. Simpson would set aside a time to discuss with Pollie everything that had happened in the day. She would ask her why certain things had turned out well and others badly and they would talk over the reasons why and, in her brief notes, Margaret Rotherham adds that Pollie continued to question herself in this way even up to her last illness. She also tells of the terrible shock of her mother's sudden death. Mrs. Simpson had gone upstairs to get ready for tea. When she delayed long, Pollie was sent to discover why and found her mother had died. She was then about nineteen. That deep sorrow left its lasting mark. It may well have developed the profound understanding and sympathy that she had for those in trouble. It made an immediate change in her life. The charge of the household and to some extent of the younger children fell to her, responsibilities and duties that were exacting. She met them and in course of time her father relied on her for many things. Their friendship and his experience must have had an important bearing on her development. In later life she was the person whom all the family consulted and resorted to in their joys and sorrows. Eleven years after the death of his first wife, Mr. Simpson married a connection of hers, Katharine Evans of Chepstow. Pollie continued to sit at the head of the table and carve, and she and her Stepmother were in complete harmony and were the dearest of friends.
In earlier days their pleasant home, Chester House, in the parish of Irchester between Higham Ferrers and Wellingborough, gave Pollie every opportunity for country pursuits. She hunted regularly with the Oakley and occasionally with the Pytchley, the Grafton, the Woodland Pytchley and more distant packs. One glorious long run with the Oakley is recorded when only ten were in at the death, nine of them had provided themselves with second horses, the tenth, Pollie, had only one but had ridden with so much judgement that she did not need a second. She was reputed to be able to master any vicious horse and broke in horses with kindness and understanding, refusing the use of a spur, but when the horse had to be sold there was always a heartbreak. She drove a tandem of ponies with skill and attempted one of donkeys. She loved all animals especially dogs, keeping many. Her dachshunds of high degree were well known. She bred and showed them and they won many prizes. They were devoted not only to their mistress but also to one another. She was good at golf and played tennis for the County in 1898. She became a brilliant hockey player. As a skilled gardener she showed sweet peas.
In 1902 the marriage of two sons and a daughter reduced the family at Chester House and so Mr. Simpson bought the Old Rectory at Chelveston, an attractive house with a good garden and adjoining paddocks. This was to remain Pollie's home after his death in 1921 until her own 26 years later.
At Chelveston the closely integrated civilisation of country life subsisted. It was then a tiny village of thatched cottages and six Jacobean almshouses. The village and adjacent land belonged to the Disbrowe Wises of Walton Hall near Burton-on-Trent. There was great local excitement when that family came down with shooting parties and occupied the front pew on one side of the church while the Simpsons occupied its counterpart on the other side. The small church was always full of farmers and villagers. It was one community of landowners, tenant farmers and the rest. There was plenty to do. Pollie became known as a steady supporter of the Church. She worked for the restoration of the beautiful old church at Higham Ferrers and gave valuable advice too for repairs at Chelveston's charming small Norman church. A memorial tablet to her there records "nearly half a century's loyal service to this church". She was prominent on the Parochial Church Council, did parish work, sang in the choir and superintended it, taught in the Sunday School, served as a Churchwarden and was a School Manager. Her Bible class at Irchester had been notable. Her teaching is vividly remembered by Margaret Rotherham to have illustrated God's wisdom in the Creation. "I heard her stress the importance of little things and how in life when one looks after small things the great will come". Pupils stayed on till 18 and many corresponded with her in later life. Her religion centred in action and in love of God and one's neighbour. She thought little of herself and much of others and stood ardently for 'God, King and Country'. In worship she loved praise and thanksgiving but "Aunt Pollie was not pious" is here put in by a niece who used, from her earliest days, to stay with her for months at a time. She remembers being brought before her for having broken a window. As she stammered and may have been near prevaricating, her aunt said "Listen, I will not have a lie", and the child thought quickly and said "It was the ballnot me" whereupon her aunt shook with laughter and forgave her.
In the early years of this century, Pollie was gaining recognition outside her own circle. She earned distinction in hockey. Captaincy of the "invincible" Ladies' Team at Higham Ferrers was followed by Captaincy of the County Team, by the Hon. Secretaryship of the Midlands Counties. Association and membership of the All England Council. Hockey for ladies was still thought to be emancipated by some. However she organised and shepherded a triumphant tour of matches for the Midlands team in Scotland. This brought her into personal touch with exceptionally energetic women in different parts of the country who thought of her as a leader and a marked person.
The war in 1914 was to bring her powers to concentration and fruition. She volunteered for war work and became a splendidly energetic Assistant Secretary of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Family Association, covering a large and scattered district on a bicycle. She was later assigned to the Land Army. It was known that she could deal with young women, that she could organise, and that she knew the needs of the countryside. She was appointed regional organiser. Miss (later Dame) Meriel Talbot of the Board of Agriculture was Director of the Land Army, and was concerned also in the beginnings of the Women's Institutes in 1915. She realised Mary Simpson's value which was also recognized by the award of an M.B.E. at the end of the War, in 1919. For one year only she took the Secretaryship of the Northants Nursing Association. She then transferred to the Women's Institutes where she was to find fulfilment and her true vocation. In the autumn of 1920, she was appointed regular organiser of their National Federation for the Midlands area. According to her own account, she decided to accept this appointment when Lady Denman (the national Chairman) assured her she need not address meetings and need not stay with people she did not know. Both conditions wore thin at once. She was welcomed, was loved, felt happy and made others happy. Inevitably she spoke at many meetings. Her task was to give teaching in self government, then a new thing for village women. "Miss Simpson's approach to Institute work was simple and forthright", writes Inez Jenkins the historian of the movement, "Difficulties were solved in a brisk, practical way. Petty mindedness could make no sort of showing against her own honesty and candour. Personal embarrassments disappeared in the light of her sound commonsense". As a speaker Miss Simpson might not have been in her element with a highly sophisticated audience, but she was admirable when moved by her basic convictions. I was much interested when once, in a conversation, she let me see what the LAND meant to her. With a poet's apprehension she felt it as a spiritual force. She was not the one to analyse her feeling. She knew it was so. Her intuition of the beauty and the power of the LAND brought insight into its pervading influence. She knew how it entered into the hearts and minds of those who lived there and took its demands in work and play seriously. She knew how country occupations moulded people who are whole-hearted: the old ratcatchers, hedgers and ditchers, the farmhands, the farmer himself, the landowner, the local doctor, the parson, the lawyer, the teacher as well as the country housewife. She knew the hardship of country lives and the infinitely greater interest of country skills than of repetitive factory jobs.
In 1919, and from then onwards, Women's Institutes were learning how to put democracy into practice and were inspired by equality of opportunity. For Pollie this was an inward experience; her good sense would not accept that all men are equal or the same: "Certainly equal in God's sight, what matters is to value and develop, as far as may be, what God's eye would see". Pollie would quickly detect promise in shy women and her ardour would galvanize them to develop whatever talent was found. The old cottage housewife who had a special way of ironing men's starched collars was made to show it to members at their monthly meeting. The results of this outlook delighted her when she visited a remote Institute, which she was nursing because their President and their Secretary had died within a fortnight of one another. She came unexpectedly and, on one occasion, found the blacksmith's wife giving a talk on the uses of iron and on another the shepherd's wife on what could be seen in the fields very early in the morning in the lambing season. Each got her information from her husband. Elsewhere there was the determined old lady who said to her "This is my chair, I sits here at every meeting", and she was preparing to remain when tea was served. "Not today" said Miss Simpson and swept her off to the tea table. Later on, looking up at Miss Simpson she said: "I've had a deal better meeting than ever, I've seen so many members". A practical experiment had shown that taking part is better than just looking on. Simple people making the most of their talents quite naturally won her heart. She would readily restore to good sense any who befogged themselves. I remember her dramatic question at a Secretary's Conference "What is the first thing you do when you receive a letter from Headquarters?" and as Secretaries sat in glum puzzlement trying to find some elaborate answer, there was heard her sonorous voice "Read it!" and they relaxed in laughter ready to take any amount of advice. At another similar occasion when a mood of resistance was felt in the air and voices began 'I live a mile from a bus' ... 'I threequarters' and so on. Miss Simpson jumped up: "Have the countrywomen of Oxfordshire lost the use of their legs?"
It was her fate to have strange encounters and odd experiences. She had an endless fund of good stories and was always adding to them. In the Institute movement they were to become famous. Many members enjoyed her telling of a childhood prank of hers, when she and two brothers got up early and undid every cottager's pigsty in the village. As chaos ensued, the mischievous children came forward unsuspected and unblushing and helped catch and identify the pigs.
She appreciated a humorous situation: the policeman digging his garden who turned to call to a troublesome boy "I'll put on my uniform if you don't behave yourself." On another occasion, she was staying on one of her organising trips with some people who happened to be vegetarians. She was fond of good food and felt so hungry that she sent a telegram to herself requesting her return before luncheon. Her hostess, regretting her early departure, said "What a pity, and we are having grapes for lunch". Northamptonshire friends remember with amusement her predilection for soggy cakes. Although firmly ruled out when she was judging, these were the subject of many small cash transactions. She was so very fond of eating them.
Her special subjects for Institute members were finance and the social side of their meetings. Her teaching on finance was felt to be outstanding. No one could convince inexperienced and incredulous village women as she could that it is necessary to have a County and National organisation and is worth paying for. The principle she practised and upheld was "never buy anything unless there is the money to pay for it". She widened their outlook and when she poured scorn on the neglect of entertainment and social opportunity at meetings, she roused merry laughter and stimulated fresh activity. She had the gift of a comic actress and had performed notably at local money-raising efforts in earlier days. The staff at the Headquarters of Women's Institutes hailed her visits with delight. At a Women's Institute Conference she is remembered to have brought the house down by acting Nero fiddling while Rome was burning. She wore a pillow slip with ivy wreaths and fiddled with a poker on a turkey's wing. She could always produce impromptu character sketches.
Towards the end of 1921, the National Executive asked Miss Simpson to draft a model syllabus for schools of Institute officers. For four successive years she concentrated on such schools in the Midlands area while others did so elsewhere. Similar conferences were held for County Federation officers of which Lady Denman herself took charge. The result was an impressive consolidation of the movement's organisation. The growth was rapid. Between 1919 and 1945 it rose from 1,405 Institutes in 39 Federations, to 6,023 in 58, the total membership increased from 9,722 to 302,419. And meanwhile the character of the work developed. It soon comprised general education for members who had left school at 14 and it dealt with public questions. The full story of this branches out widely and is of great interest. She herself was inspired by this development and she rose to its demands.
In 1925 she was appointed agricultural organiser for the movement. She had studied agriculture and horticulture seriously in as far as they touched her life and that of her neighbours. When Moulton Farm Institute was established her father as Chairman of the County Agricultural Committee was closely concerned. This Committee became the Institute's governing body. She herself served on it from 1920 till her death. She took active-part in all its work which covered Small Holdings as well as Agricultural and General Purposes. Farmers often came to consult her at Chelveston and she sent learners of both sexes to Moulton. In appointing an agricultural organiser to the National Federation of Women's Institutes the Executive had teaching in view that might have led to concentration on food production in 1925 such as matured much later and partly under the stimulus of the second world war. For this the time was not ripe. Special conferences were held by Miss Simpson at Lichfield and Northampton. She was a born teacher, but there was not enough support to make food production as a policy advisable. For her part, she taught very effectively in an informal way. She kept her eye on the practical needs of the country housewife. Her more especial activity became organisation and judging at agricultural shows with their excellent opportunities for teaching. She would say that her yardstick for judging preserves was to recall each necessary step from the moment of picking (or even planting) the fruit to the moment when the jar was shown. As regards further training, the purport of her advice is well seen in the memorandum that the National Federation of Women's Institutes sent to the Loveday Commission on Agricultural Education in 1947. It was after her retirement, but the view there expressed is remembered as hers in early days and its good sense is characteristic. "A farmer's wife has an important role to play, and a small holder can only be successful if his wife is as keen on the job as he is" ..... "if an agricultural worker's wife is unhappy he naturally seeks another job". Courses for wives and relatives of men engaged in agriculture and horticulture are urged, and courses for townswomen about to settle in the country. Short courses in packing, in grading, in farm accounts are recommended. It was foreseen that there would be an indirect as well as a direct result, because the wife or mother who benefited from instruction would be more likely to encourage her menfolk in technical training.
She retired in 1945. Lady Denman wrote: "We shall always remember her with affection and gratitude. By her gallant work and devotion to the Institutes she has made a very special place for herself in the history of the Organisation".
The feeling of gratitude was felt all over England, and on her retirement it was attested by a presentation of an illuminated address from 50 County Federations and long lists of individual Institutes, saying among other tributes: "She was a real friend, every member whether they knew our Miss Simpson or not owes her an enormous debt".
She died in October 1947 when the leaves were falling and rests with other Simpsons in the churchyard at Chelveston. The Celtic cross erected in granite on her grave is inscribed
IN PROUD AND LOVING MEMORY
OF MARY HELEN SIMPSON, M.B.E.
She has not been forgotten in her County. Lady Spencer wrote from Althorp recently to welcome a prospective account of Miss Simpson's work; speaking of her as a very remarkable person, she recalls her integrity and forthrightness and adds "She was so pointful and amusing too and nobody seemed to mind when she came to the Executive in Northampton with her little dog in her arms. She could reprove without hurting. I remember once saying to her how dreadfully busy and pressed for time I was feeling and she replied 'We all have the same 24 hours in our daily lives' ...... which made one think. She loved country people and country ways. I am sure her faith in them brought out the best in them. I am sure we owe her a great debt of gratitude in our County Federation and I hope she will never be forgotten".
Miss Joan Wake writes: "Miss Simpson was the most friendly of people. Whether attending the meeting of a Women's Institute, where of course she was in her element, or chatting over coffee and cigarettes with her friends at the Northamptonshire Ladies' Club, or discussing the prospects of the potato crop with the engine-driver of an express train at Euston Station, she constantly made delightful contact with those around her. Neatly dressed, usually, unless my memory fails me, in dark brown tailor-made coats and skirts, a brown felt hat with soft rather wide brim pulled well over her dark close-cropped, smoothly-brushed hair, there was perhaps something rather masculine in her appearance, or was it the rugged strength of her character that impressed one? But no one would doubt the good humour and loving-kindness of heart that were also self-evident. Her wisdom, complete trustworthiness, underlying seriousness of purpose combined with a keen sense of fun, palpable honesty and clear intelligence were summed up in a personality which would quickly pervade a roomful of people. I think it is true to say that she earned the respect and affection of all who came in contact with her. She certainly exercised a great and beneficent influence on her generation.
I knew her first when she was one of my sister's assistant secretaries in the Soldiers' and Sailors' Family Association in 1914-1915, and in her later years I used often to see her at the Northampton Club. It was there, very soon after her death, that Mrs. Cunnington, of Long Buckby, one of her W.I. friends, greatly moved, described to me in some such words as these Miss Simpson's last appearance, not long before, at the Annual Meeting of the National Federation of Women's Institutes at the Albert Hall. 'It was wonderful! She was like one inspired, and no one who saw her that day would ever be likely to forget it'. As she passed on her appointed task from row to row through the great throng of country-women from the whole of England which filled the vast building from floor to ceiling, her eyes shone, she seemed as though in an ecstasy, her face radiant with the joy of those blessed ones to whom it is given to see the fruit of their labours".
The Disbrowe Wises sold the Chelveston property after the Simpsons came to the village. A syndicate of Kettering business men bought the land. The long spinney was turned into the Chelveston aerodrome staffed by Americans of mixed races, the almshouses were pulled down to make way for Council houses, electricity was brought to the village, a village hall was provided. Miss Simpson's house was sold a year after her death. The Chelveston Women's Institute then lost its meeting place, her coach house. It rented a room in a cottage, which members decorated themselves, putting up Miss Simpson's and Lady Denman's portraits, but it went through ups and downs. At one point the County Federation Committee felt that, with as low a membership as 13 it should be discontinued. An appeal to Lady Denman resulted in her verdict that "Miss Simpson's W.I. should never be dissolved". It continues and uses the Village Hall.
Great as the social revolution of this century has been, it was carried through with good humour and has not disrupted the nation. Looking back now in 1962 on the changes in our countryside it is interesting and enheartening to see how closely Women's Institutes have been bound up with their constructive side. Having been launched as a war-time organization in 1915 to help in the food shortage, they were shaped and shaped themselves into a society that did much to integrate our cultural inheritance into the changing circumstances of post-war days. And this may well prove to have been their historical mission. Fired by the ideal of building a better England, women of all classes co-operated and so made such integration possible. Pollie Simpson's share in this derived from her quality. It cannot be shown by statistics. In her modesty she would have been surprised at any serious claim made for her personal part. Anchored as she was with regard to her spiritual life, in her dealings she was guided by wisdom and commonsense. She thought of her work for country women in the light of their homes and their country, and by her devotion she inspired countless individuals to mutual helpfulness.