Miss Bertha Rose Winchcomb was born in Englefield in 1893 in the south lodge on the drive to Englefield House. On her gravestone the name is spelled with a final “e” but in the 1911 census return, completed and signed by her mother, and the official register of births the spelling is as used here. Her mother was Mary Elizabeth Horn (again, that spelling as in the register of births but also later gifted an “e”), born in the village, and her father was James Winchcomb (so spelled on the register of marriages) from Sparsholt.
James Winchcomb was supposed to have been descended from John Winchcomb, the celebrated clothier known as Jack o’ Newbury. At the time of Miss Winchcomb’s birth James Winchcomb worked as a gardener for Mr Bligh who between 1891 and 1894 lived at the Rectory. James Winchcomb was the only adult in the village to die in the measles epidemic of 1893/4 and in 1899 his widow and children moved to number 8 in The Street to act as housekeeper for two teachers who lived next door at number 9. These two houses are shown as a single house, “The Parsonage”, in the census of 1891 but it was shown as uninhabited. The Rector, however, had been issuing the parish magazine from “The Parsonage” since at least May 1890 so he was probably away on holiday on census night.
In an interview for the Newbury Weekly News in 1976 Miss Winchcomb recalled that her maternal grandfather, Thomas Horne, was born on the family farm in North Street but that his father had sold the farm and gone off and had a good time. “It’s really rather annoying”, she said.
At school in the village Bertha Winchcomb excelled at needlework, winning first prize in 1905 and 1906. In 1906 she was also best at knitting but as she had won the prize for needlework the knitting prize was given to Mabel Reid (who would become Mabel Claydon and teach at the school herself for some 40 years). Perhaps this success is not surprising as the census of April 1901 shows the occupation of both her mother and eldest sister Emily Matilda as “Needlewoman” working on their own account at number 8 Englefield Street, although the latter was to die only two months later.
At the age of 14 Miss Winchcombe left Englefield to work as a housemaid for £14 a year. The family at one house she worked in were friends of royalty and she said she couldn’t have wished for a better place; she felt that the popular portrayal of private service was most unfair. Ten years later, after suffering illness she was told she would never be strong enough to work again, so returned to the village to live with her mother, sister May and May’s husband Edward Van Veen, a groom on the Estate, at number 15 in The Street. Edward died in 1959 and May in 1964 and both are buried together in the churchyard close to Bertha.
Despite continuous ill-health and several operations Miss Winchcomb remained lively and alert, living alone (save for a budgerigar named Bobby) at the old school (No 11/12, The Street) where her uncle David had lived before her until her death in 1986 at the age of 93.
© 2021 Richard J Smith