The Watercress Queen by Mary Malyon

As part of her curated series for The Clearing, Nicola Chester asked writers to respond to the themes in her memoir On Gallows Down. In the final installment Mary Malyon considers Hampshire’s Watercress Queen.

 

 

My Stepfather, Frank, comes from a long-line of Hampshire farmers. Sometimes tenants, sometimes owners — fortunes eddying from gentry to yeoman and back again, spiced with the occasional ‘Sir’.  He is conservative by inclination, as are most country people the world over, and considerate by nature. He’s also an endless source of local stories, from his friends’ wide-eyed reaction when Christine Keeler hid in our village during the sixties’ Profumo Scandal, to the fist fight which took place by the pond outside my home, over one hundred years ago. On one side, the old world of aristocracy and inherited land, and on the other — new money, earned by a woman; a working class woman who set up a business dynasty which still trades today.

 

***

 

‘And that’s where he threw them, there in that pond’ Frank laughs pointing to a dirty body of water by my house, just ten paces from the Harroway.

 

It’s small in circumference but deep as a soup bowl, stewing bull rush, willow leaf and diesel-spiked mud. Like mucus in a tubercular lung, the dregs never evaporate. On the bank, there’s a moss-softened duck house slumped on its side and every May, dragonflies hatch, then hover, then die: vellum whirs of rainbow, expanding then contracting whole lives into one human day; playing time like a squeeze box, an endless wheezing melody — verse to chorus, to verse. And back again.

 

Over a century ago, Frank’s Grandparents leased the gabled farmhouse opposite my home from the Earls of Portsmouth. The aristocratic family were big landowners round here, back then much of Lower Wyke, the neighbouring farm where I was born, was part of its estate as well. I can see the house now from my desk, across the garden. Sunlight and green-baize-reason pour through the Georgian sash windows. Its side wall is flint, its chimney — sarsen stone solemn and its red-brick frontage is smart and straight and stamped with the Earl of Portsmouth’s insignia.

 

Close my eyes and I can imagine my Step Great Grandparents. She is kind and crinolined, stoic and pigeon-holed; he is law-abiding, orthodox, and does not suffer fools, with ‘a reputation as a tough character,’ says Frank. To make sheep farming a success, he had to be physically and mentally strong, canny too. Like Eliza he saw that the new railway brought access to fresh markets for his produce, which is why he settled his family so close to the line. Soon they were esteemed tenants in this stratified pocket of the North Wessex Downs, where next door resembled next door resembled next door, and community approval was all. This was Mrs. Beaton’s Britain, molded and preserved in aspic, where an Englishman’s home was his castle, and an English woman’s place — was in the kitchen.

 

Enter Eliza James. Reform school girl, divorcée, bigamist, abuse victim, business-woman extraordinaire and the Watercress Queen of Hampshire. Age five, she was selling the spicy leaf in Birmingham, barefoot, iron-willed and alone after her father’s suicide. By her death, in 1927, she had grown one of the largest watercress businesses in the world, transporting 50 tonnes to London every day.

 

She did this by seizing an opportunity: the newly-opened West of England Main Line. Eliza crammed railway carriages with green gold, racing them from Hampshire’s chalk purified streams to Covent Garden in two-hours tops; their contents still fresh and still valuable. One of her watercress beds was on the headwater of the River Bourne, conveniently near to Hurstbourne Priors station. It is still there now, a ten-minute walk from my home and, as I write, a lorry hauling Eliza’s watercress along the Harroway crawls under the railway bridge; its horn bouncing off brick.

 

On the day of her funeral, The Daily Mail breathlessly reported: ‘For a woman by her own unaided efforts to have amassed £20,000 (£3.5 million today) three or four times over by selling watercress is surely one of the most wonderful romances of business London has ever known.’

 

For a woman. For a woman to own land, not inherited either, but from income of her own making. For a woman who divorced her husband when he beat her, who provided for her own children, who made her own choices and lived and loved wherever and whoever she chose. For a woman who ploughed her own path.

 

In the cosmopolitan, twenties London of flappers, Fabians and jazz-fueled license, her story was thrillingly modern-come-fairy-tale. But in this rural community, patriarchal to its core? It was profoundly unsettling, seditious even.

 

I doubt this bothered Eliza.

 

A grainy, grim-faced portrait exists of her as an old woman: stiff-collared Victoriana, clad in black. Her jowls are well-fed, her stare is matriarchal ice and she-bear fur frames her shoulders. You did not cross the Watercress Queen.

 

There was a scuffle, of course there was: two of Eliza’s men versus my Step Great Grandfather. One hundred years ago, twenty steps from my front door beside the Harroway with its endless procession of shepherds and tinkers and little girls hauling pails of milk, sour liquid soaking pinnies and squelching inside hobnail boots; and geese honks and a broad-rumped shire horse ambling under the railway bridge with a Thelwell-legged child on its back; her shriek-laughter bounces off brick, echoing down the road where Gypsies and chandlers clank hope and candle-light, and futures for gold and high on the embankment, a locomotive flies — whistle quilling, loden-liveried; great lungfuls of nostalgia.

 

Back by the pond, the two sides collide: old versus new, root verses flow; peaked caps and flint stares; waistcoats and outrage; hound-circling, kestrel-glowering, bare-knuckled and raw — and the stink of sheep-shit and burnt-coffee coal scouring the throat, the trachea, the bronchi; and dragonflies, jeers and blood: salted, smelted, warm. Intense as autumn’s haw.

 

And splash. And silence. Water-cloaked limbs in slow motion, hair floating and riverweed. Then rescuing grins, baccy routling and pipe sucking embers. ‘We’s all the zaaeem,’ so back to work.

 

***

 

Who won and who lost? Stories are like human memories, they shift and flow: to reach for the truth is like catching quicksand. Local legend and family memory say my Step Great Grandfather triumphed but, of course, humans who remain, who establish, they control a community’s culture and tell its stories. Eliza’s business may still be here, but her descendants are not.

 

Whatever happened, though, whichever side was pushed into the slime-ridden pond, Eliza died old and rich with a wreath of Hurstbourne Priors watercress on her grave.

 

 

 

***

 

Mary Malyon is a writer and multi-media editor based in the North Wessex Downs. She looks after content for Ordnance Survey’s OS Maps app. Her writing also appeared in Katherine Norbury’s Women on Nature anthology published by Unbound. She was long-listed for Canongate Books’ 2019 Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing and Penguin UK’s 2020 WriteNow programme, and had a special mention in Spread the Word’s 2021 Life Writing Prize. When not writing, she’s usually corralling her children or attempting to play the guitar. You can follow Mary on Twitter or Instagram and she publishes new writing on her website.

 

Nicola Chester, who curated this series for The Clearing, is the author of On Gallows Down, published by Chelsea Green, available from all bookshops, including Little Toller’s in Beaminster.

 

Photograph by Mary Malyon.

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