Phelps, MurielBack to performers
Muriel Phelps was the daughter of Harold and Ivy Merrett who lived in a small two-up two-down cottage at the top of Stroud at no 5 Parliament Street. They lived just off the main road which led to the cemetery. Her father was a baker and was a good gardener with two allotments.
Her grandfather and grandmother, Alfred Edward and Selina Merrett, came to live next door at no 3 Parliament Street when Muriel was 9 or 10 years old. Muriel used to sleep in their house in the spare bedroom and go home for breakfast. Selina was a tailoress and Alfred Edward was superintendant of the Wesleyan Chapel Sunday school and the family were Wesleyan chapel (strict Methodist). They had two other children, one of whom survived, Olive Phyllis Beatrice Merrett, whose husband was called Horace. Muriel also had a Great Aunt Tilley and various aunts and uncles and cousins who lived in Whiteshill.
Selina Merrett had been born at ‘The Heavens’ a small hamlet nearby in a little cottage perched on the sky-line of Stroud, where Muriel’s mother lived for some of her childhood. Her mother would go to school through the Weyhouse (stream valley) to the Blackboy School. Her mother’s grandfather was a retired sailor who only had one arm and kept pigs.
Muriel Phelps had a younger brother five years younger and sister seven years younger. She went to school at the Castle Street Infants School, the Blackboy School for Girls and the Girls’ Central School in Stroud and took part in the May Day custom in Whiteway, which had been started up by a lady named Elsie who remembered May Day celebrations in Lancashire.
Muriel described the scene at home at Christmas after tea: ‘Now was the time for the traditional games and songs. “It was a dark and stormy night” from my father, “Old Susanne was a funniful man” from Uncle, “Granny’s Old Armchair” from Granny Merrett, “Just a Song at Twilight” from Auntie Olive An uncle played the concertina, his party piece was the Peal of Bells, standing in front of the fire, his fingers dancing on the buttons, he swang the concertina in circles making a lovely sound of bells…I wish I could remember the song I sang. I can only recall one line “I have a little shadow who goes in and out with me.”’
Because of financial difficulties she was told she was to leave school at the end of her fourth year and worked at a furnishing shop in Stroud. She sat at a desk taking the hire purchase payment sand writing receipts – a job which she hated. She then worked at Holloways, a factory producing mainly men’s clothes and school uniforms as an order clerk, typing orders for clothes and then worked on the factory switchboard.
Then her father, Harold Merrett, got a job at Protheroe Bakery, Whiteway which included a house. He had previously learned his trade in a small bakehouse on leaving school. He joined the army in 1916 and went to the front. He was soon wounded and while convalescing at home helping the local baker deliver bread from a pony and trap. He returned to the front but was wounded again and convalesced at Southampton, whilst there the armistice was declared. He started work again at a different bakery and stayed to become a craftsman including confectionery. He moved once more to a large bakery where he specialised in the art of decorating wedding cakes. Her mother, father, sister and brother moved to Whiteway leaving her to live with Gran as her father said the work was not for girls. She spent weekends at Whiteway with her family.
Muriel first knew her prospective husband, (Dennis) Gerry Phelps when she had to pass the cottage he lived in to get to Granny Merrett’s, also her father was confectioner at the Co-operative bakery in the same street as Gerry’s home. Gerry went to the stables and helped with the bread deliveries – they were quite near to the Bakery, so again their paths crossed. Gerry worked at the Stroud News office beginning a seven year apprenticeship and they went out together from when she was 16 and he 17. Muriel then got a job at the bakery in Whiteway and subsequently became engaged to Gerry in 1837.
Whiteway came into being in 1898 when a group of people broke away from the Croydon brotherhood Church and came to the Cotswolds to put into practice their ideas on communal living. Allocation of houses and land was done by a monthly meeting. Muriel’s father initially rented a house there called Meadoways. Muriel’s mother and father and Gerry and Muriel later moved into a house on Bakehouse land but it was many years later that her father was able to buy a piece of land large enough to build a house when ‘High Meads’ came into being, a house built mainly by the family. This house had two small bedrooms and a cold water tap which had to be supplemented in dry weather by carrying water on a yoke from half a mile away. They had half an acre of land and reared chickens and grew much of their own food. Gerry finished his apprenticeship and was working as journeyman printer and they married just before the war at Holy Trinity C of E Church in Stroud. They at first lived in one room in a friend’s house next door to the bakehouse in Whiteway. Gerry was unable to be called up because of a minor operation he had had in his childhood so he continued to cycle to Stroud to work in a newspaper office. But he had to leave that job when there were economies there and he got a van driver’s job at the bakehouse. He gradually learned the baking trade. Then Gerry and Muriel rented ‘Red Roofs’ the last house in Whiteway, a house with no inside water. During the war the Colony was mainly self sufficient but Gerry and Muriel’s house was named the First Aid Post.
When her mother was 45 both she and Muriel became pregnant. Muriel’s brother who was 25 years younger than her was born on 27 December, and she had Barbara the June following. After some years Muriel’s parents moved to rent ‘Halstead’ and Gerry and Muriel moved to renting the Bakehouse bungalow, both at Whiteway. The latter was a house originally built to produce sweets and fudge but still with an outside toilet and using rainwater and gas. Gerry also acquired a printing press and started to do small printing jobs from home.
From 1939 to 1962 Muriel’s father and Gerry and Muriel kept the Bakehouse which was attached to the shop producing Protheroe bread and cakes for the towns around. Muriel’s sister married the milkman’s youngest son and went to live in Pembrokeshire. As well as drama Gerry and Muriel were stalwarts of the country dance group in Whiteway. Muriel had been very interested in dancing at school and played a mandolin. She said: ‘My teacher had belonged to the county team and I had had very good teaching. As a school we had entered the competitions and won many awards at the Cheltenham Festival. Gerry joined me at the country dance meetings and we found that we were perfect partners; he had not danced before but he soon discovered that there was very much more than dancing to be learned. It became for us an all-absorbing hobby, (which it still was forty years later) Gerry developing his natural flair for remembering and becoming through the years a much sought-after tutor for weekend courses held in various parts of England, also a ‘caller’ for American square dance and an M.C. at folk dance events up and down the country. I can vouch for the fact that ..he hardly ever refers to notes.’
They left Whiteway in 1962 to live in The Reddings, Cheltenham where Gerry continued to call for dances and Muriel played the accordeon for country dancing with the Kaylee Birds country dance group. Muriel Phelps died in Cheltenham in 2015.
Notes by Carol Davies and Muriel Phelps
Notes on the May Day celebrations in Whiteway by Muriel Phelps to follow