The home that became a museumPosted 12th June 2021
Annually, thousands of people visit Milton Keynes Museum, soaking in the history on display in the rooms and in the very fabric of the building.
Today it is a centre to learn about the local past, and yet ironically it was the building of the new town that signalled its demise as a farm.
But what was it like to live there? Jonathan Gurney shares his childhood memories with Sammy Jones…
Shortly before the start of WWI, when he was a young man and showing plenty of entrepreneurial spirit, Jonathan’s grandfather Charles Edward made the decision to relocate to Australia. He bought a ticket for the princely sum of one pound, made the journey Down Under and staked a claim on some land.
“Unfortunately, not long after he went out there they had a plague of mice which ate everything he planted. He ended up with not a lot in his pocket,” Jonathan said.
“In March 1916 Charles joined the Australian Army, came back to England and went on to fight with them in France during WWI.”
Wounded in the December of that year, he departed from the Port of Le Harve for Southampton to recuperate, where he fell in love with a nurse, Florence. They married late in 1918. The following February Charles was discharged from the army and the couple eventually took up a tenancy on Warren Farm at Ridgemont, part of the Duke of Bedford’s estate.
Later, in 1941, they took tenancy of the 700 acre Stantonbury Park Farm, but sadly Florence became ill and passed away in 1949.
Jonathan said: “After the death of Florence, Charles decided to return to Australia for an extended holiday leaving his three boys to run the farm. This time he purchased a first-class ticket and went to see old friends. When he came back to England, he retired from the business, buying Glyn House at Bradwell and let the boys get on with the farming.”
They made a success of things too, quickly expanding on the land they utilised.
“They bought Hayfield Farm on the edge of what is now Milton Keynes, up by the M1 motorway junction, before the M1 was built. When the motorway came along they decided to sell that farm and took the tenancy at Stacey Hill Farm. They also had land at Stonebridge Farm, at Bradwell, and bought the Stantonbury High Land.
“Uncle Ted lived at Stonebridge, Brian, my Father was at Stacey Hill and Uncle Michael was at Stantonbury Farm.”
William Battams was the first tenant of Stacey Hill Farm, which was built in 1847. Records show he farmed 600 acres and employed 22 men. William retained the tenancy until his death in 1883, after which his wife Martha took the reins for five years. Sheep farmer John Richards would take over until his death in 1911, and then Edward Norman ran the farm until the onset of World War II.
By the time the Gurney’s took over from previous tenants, the Luckett family, the farmstead had been operational for more than a century.
It was the early 1960s and Jonathan was a small boy when his family moved in, but he remembers it well.
“It was a huge area of open ground back then,” he recalls, “The land was owned by the Radcliffe Trust and rented directly from them.”
While thousands of visitors explore the museum’s rooms and history today, back then it was home to a family of just four; Jonathan, his parents and a sister. Later, the family became five when Jonathan’s younger brother was born at the property.
Today when you enter the house, you visit the parlour and the entertainment room, but it wasn’t always that way.
“The front rooms were party rooms – we had a lot of fun in those rooms, especially at Christmas,” Jonathan remembers, “Big family get-togethers, talking and playing games, all the things you would do in those days.”
“The layout there now is nothing like it was when we were living there, it has changed considerably. The room with the range in it was the junk room really. It joined onto what I presume at one time would have been a milking parlour. That was where we kept our ponies, in stables there.
The farm was always buzzing with workers: “There would have been at least 12 men working there, probably more. We were farming animals and cereal, and the cattle were kept in a big building during winter. Another wooden clad building was full of hay and straw for feeding.
“Hovels ran up along the drive which is where the machinery was kept. There was quite a lot of activity going on and quite a lot of chaps about. When something happened, a lot of people would suddenly appear and the job would be done.
“They were all Fordson Major tractors in those days, and lots of them. They also ran quite a few combines. When it was combining time, three or four would be in one field, working together.”
Collectively the Gurney brothers commanded a generous area of land, including what is now the estate known as Greenleys, and the Stantonbury Farm area which ran up to Linford Wood.
While Jonathan’s mother ran the house, Jonathan and his cousins enjoyed their time growing up on the farm considerably. They were young and so working roles were limited, but they liked to be useful.
“When the corn was being cut down in the lower fields, us kids used to sit on the gates and open and shut them, so that my uncle and father didn’t have to stop. That was our job. We helped a bit driving the tractors in the field when we got a bit older too; We very slowly drove them along as the men loaded the bales onto the trailer.”
Growing up as the son of a farmer allowed for idyllic times spent with his similarly aged cousins.
“Because the farms were quite close together, during the summer months we would spend a lot of time on our ponies.
“We would tack them and off we would go and all meet up. We would ride about across our neighbours’ land, just hacking about as kids on ponies. In those days, you would end up at a house somewhere and they would give you sandwiches and orange squash before you left off again to go somewhere else.
“We would go swimming in the river down at Bradwell too. We had a great deal of fun.”
But change was coming; plans had been developed for the new town of Milton Keynes. Life was about to change forever.
Jonathan said: “To build a city like Milton Keynes, obviously you had to be able to take the land, and that’s the way it worked. My family were tenants and owners and the land they were farming was compulsory purchased to build the city. In total the family owned 362 acres of land in addition to the tenanted land. We had to leave as it was being taken for other things.”
When Jonathan was 12-years-old, the family vacated Stacey Hill and bought farms in other places.
“There were a lot of farming families in the original part of the city, and the land was taken off them too and they were moved on. That’s the way it happened.”
The change to the area between then and now must be staggering.
“Yes it is,” Jonathan says, “When we used to go off and about as children, it was just farms. There was the odd village, but it was mainly farms and huge areas of open countryside. I can remember my father saying when they first took on the Stantonbury land, it hadn’t been farmed for quite a long time and it was covered in gorse bushes and that sort of thing.
It was land that people hadn’t really done anything with…”
Milton Keynes still prides itself on its green spaces, but in the past 50 years, much of the picturesque countryside has been replaced by one of the fastest growing towns in the country. The gorse bushes and greenery in this part of Buckinghamshire have given way to concrete and big business.
But some things have remained the same. Farming life is intrinsic to the Gurney family: “My father encouraged me to get into farming. He wanted that to continue, and as a young chap it’s what I wanted to do…”
Jonathan still works today, and now shares a farm with his son Joe and his family – and they invite visitors to attend their hugely successful annual sunflower and pumpkin events at The Patch in Wicken.
While life on Stacey Hill Farm has been relegated to the memory box a long time since, Jonathan is pragmatic about the past: “Things move on, don’t they?” he asserts, “But I am glad that the farmhouse land hasn’t just been built on, and that a much better use has been found for it.”
Milton Keynes Museum is one of the best interactive museums, a perfect outing for all ages, staffed by friendly volunteers, and highly recommended by visitors on TripAdvisor.
This feature was written by Milton Keynes Museum. Find out more about forthcoming events and see our opening times at: www.mkmuseum.org.uk