An ordinary woman. An extraordinary woman.
Miss Hilda Craven was born in 1892 and lived to the age of 102. She was ruled over by seven different British monarchs, and lived through two world wars. She saw the first step into space, the development of electricity, atomic power and the digital age. While the world was turning on it’s head and changing beyond recognition Hilda stayed the same.
She left school at the age of 13 with one qualification – needlework – but began working immediately as a ‘day girl’ for the local butcher. She worked six and a half days out of seven, helping in the house and looking after the children, and was paid 1/6d a week. Her Sunday half-day was taken up with going to chapel. She worked for families in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Henley-on-Thames, and from domestic work progressed to helping out with book-keeping. When her foster mother became ill, Hilda returned to Navenby to look after her, living in her single-skin brickwork cottage. In 1922 Hilda bought the cottage for £75 plus legal fees of £3.7s.6d. She then promptly sold the cottage to her employer, Mr. Tom Smith, turning a profit of £20. It’s thought that Hilda wanted to raise money towards the cost of Navenby’s new Methodist Church. She continued to live in the cottage, renting it, until she could buy it back – which she did in 1937 – paying £95!
Hilda found the secret to a happy life. She enjoyed her home and the way she lived, and wanted to preserve it. She seemed to feel she had enough, and didn’t need more. Step ladders – steep and creaking – still lead to the two tiny bedrooms under the eves. Hilda climbed ‘the wooden hill’ every day – even at the age of 102. She did not resist change, she was simply loathe to change things for the sake of it. When electricity reached Navenby in 1936, she had it installed in the cottage – a single overhead light and two switches – but she was probably the last person in the village to have her outside privy emptied by the ‘toilet cart’ although water had been laid to a tap in the garden in 1961. In 1966, the cottage was condemned by the local council as ‘unfit for human habitation’. Hilda was offered a new council bungalow, but asked to stay in her own cottage, which she said was very comfortable. The council agreed but insisted on repairs. Even so, it was not until 1978 that an inside toilet was installed and 1979 when the inside (cold water) tap appeared. (But there was still no sink). Hilda maintained that the new toilet was always draughty and said she preferred the old toilet in the yard! Hot water was never installed – water was heated and cooking done on the range. A friend who delivered Meals on Wheels in the village suggested this might be useful for Hilda and would save her having to cook twice a week but Hilda said she couldn’t possibly do that – she had the fire going all day, and it would be a waste not to cook on it.
Hilda married Joe, a Methodist lay preacher when she was 64. Joe was 73. They were together for four years before Joe fell ill and died. Hildia contined to live in the cottage alone, but she wasn’t lonely. She was fully involved in village life, loved gardening, knitting and sewing and was a great letter-writer. She had penfriends all over the world. She loved children and kept sweets and chocolate for them for when they visited.
Today, Hilda’s cottage not only survives, it thrives. Hilda would surely be so pleased. Her rocking chair and shawl remain in her favourite place by the range, her pots and pans fill the pantry shelves, and her photos and pictures help to tell the story of her very ordinary, but oh, so extraordinary, life. The modern world is so very, very different. The cottage offers a glimpse of an age long gone, and perhaps a reminder of what’s really important in life.
Mrs Smith’s Cottage. 3, East Road, Navenby. Lincoln LN5 0EP.
Currently closed for restoration. Expected to reopen end of 2019.