Maldon Archive
Keeping the Past Alive

Sains Farm, Great Totham and the French Family

By Jane Chapman

Neal and Kate French (otherwise known as Ned or Neddy, and Kit) lived at Sains Farm from the early 1900s. They apparently had a large mortgage on the property and worked hard to help make ends meet. Neal was born in Tolleshunt Knights to William French and Sarah Pudney, the eighth of 14 children, including Arthur. Arthur and his wife Maud had two girls called Elsie and Grace and a son called Sidney. Neither of the girls married, continuing to live with their father at the large house called Ashwells in Earls Colne after their mother died. Their family had moved here after a life spent farming at Bohuns Hall at Tollesbury).  Neal and his brother Arthur were obviously very close – Neal and family went to visit Arthur for lunch on alternate Sundays and Arthur visited Neal and family the other. There was a tennis court at Bohuns Hall, Arthur and family had a very social life and there were frequent gatherings for tennis etc. in the summer. Kit was the seventh of nine children, born to John Runnicles and Mary Ann Harriss in Layer Marney. Neal and Kit had two sons, Fred and Will. Fred is buried in Great Totham churchyard, an easy walk from the farm across the fields, and my mother thinks he died of scarlet fever when he was a schoolboy. 

He was a very bright child and much loved by his parents, so it must have been a great loss to them. Playing around freely, my sister and I explored all the barns and admired the old horse halters hanging up where they had been left when last used years ago. The old cart sheds were still there, along the lane beside the little pond which can be seen in the pictures. Various old pieces of carts and equipment were there, including a tractor – I can still remember the smell of the fuel, and climbing up on to the old metal seat to pretend to drive it. 

The barns smelled of corn and sacks. Once we found a cat with kittens, but after telling the Frenches excitedly of our find, my mother warned us not to tell them again – the kittens would probably be drowned because they did not want too many cats around the farm.It was a vision that stayed with me. Opposite the back door, beyond the shed where they kept their dogs, were hen houses. To the right as you came out of the back door was the water pump – a novelty to a child, but hard work for those who had to use it for fresh water. There was an outside toilet down the end of the garden where the house faced the farm track, but there was a more modern one down the blue and white tiled corridor which went from outside the kitchen to the front of the house.

This had an Elsan (which needed to be emptied manually). Newspaper was recycled to be used as toilet paper, cut neatly and hung on a string. Doubtless for the benefit of visitors, there was also a pack of what we were more accustomed to, interleaved, thin but rather scratchy paper in a packet, I seem to recall it was called Izal and smelt characteristically and unpleasantly of chemicals. Will continued to live at the farm after his parents coincidentally both died on their 60th wedding anniversary night, 29th October 1958 – Kit in hospital and Neal at home. There was a local newspaper article about it; I do not have the cutting although I do remember reading it. Kit had become very old and infirm and I can recall her only as a frail old lady sitting in the chair to the right of the fireside in the kitchen. She said very little, probably because her memory had faded. Will could not manage the farm on his own and he was not good with figures and paperwork. At the age of around 50 he sold up and moved to the Brighton area. We don’t know what took him there, but he had a landlady who presumably cooked his meals for him and did his laundry. When his landlady moved to Falmouth, he moved with her, and he was in his 90s when he died there. He never married.  My family had visited the farm regularly since needing a break after World War I. 

They wanted somewhere for a quiet holiday out of London and chose Sains Farm. I think Kit was a friend of my Grandmother’s sister and there is a picture of my Grandmother at Sains in the early 1900s so she must have known them much earlier. Kit had decided to provide bed and breakfast accommodation to bring in some additional income. The second year the family returned for a week’s holiday they were greeted with open arms, and then they just kept on going back either to stay or to visit. 

The sisters moved from Ashwells when they got a little older and the house was too much to maintain, but they didn’t move far away – just to a smaller house in Park Lane a few doors away. Ashwells was a beautiful old house, with large airy rooms. At the end of the room nearest the fireplace they would sit in big, comfortable armchairs and entertain their friends. From the middle to the other end of the room was a long table where they gave us those wonderful teas. The big bay window, which had large shutters, looked out over the lawn and garden to the rear. There was an old butler’s pantry in the hallway which was fascinating – it had remained unchanged for years.