Non-Fiction Reviews

A Lifetime In The Building
The Extraordinary Story of May Savidge and the House She Moved

(2002 /2009) Christine Adams with Michael McMahon, Aurum Press, £16.99, hrdbk, 239pp + index, ISBN 978-1-845-1-33960-2


Normally a book review is to tell you about a book but this is an exception: I am cheating somewhat and using it as a vehicle to bring a remarkable woman to your attention. May Savidge was little known but her story is one of indomitable determination and self-reliance. This book was originally published in 2002 but was reprinted in 20009.

May was born in 1911. Her father had been spared fighting in the Great War as he was in a reserved occupation but he was none-the-less a local war hero. During an emergency he saved his colleagues by bearing the weight of a collapsing floor whilst they escaped; this was to lead to his premature death in 1921. It left May, her sister, and her mother without any income and as a result they lost their home and most of their possessions and so spent many years living here and there in various accommodations. Perhaps as a result of this great loss, May became a horder and never threw anything away; as a tiny example, she saved every Kit-Kat wrapper and even recorded the date on their backs.

Her early career was in a design studio and then with Marks & Spencer but during the war she decided that she should do something more useful; she joined De Havilland as a technical draughtswoman and found herself working on the Mosquito fighter-bomber. After the war she returned to a career in design.

Wanting somewhere permanent to live, in 1945 she bought herself an old Thames river bus and turned it into a floating home. It was called the Formosa and she had it moored outside the Saracen's Head pub in the town of Ware in Hertfordshire. Unfortunately she never managed to keep the boat permanently watertight and had to take to dry land on several occasions. A couple of years later the nearby workshop in which she had been storing many of her possessions was put up for sale, along with its neighbouring cottage, no. 1 Monkey Row, so she bought the house as an investment. She had intended to stay on the Formosa but in 1949 she changed her mind, moved into the cottage, and sold the boat.

Although almost derelict when she bought it, no. 1 Monkey Row was no ordinary cottage. It was part of an L-shaped building, being attached to no. 36 Baldock Street (which had of recent times been a bakery). Together they were a hall house - a medieval building where the private living quarters lead onto an open hall. Normally these are quite large buildings but this example was one of the smallest still existing. It required a lot of work to restore no. 1 to a decent condition for living in, but May threw herself into it. Then, at the end of 1953, came a bombshell: the council wanted to demolish the building!

Following the war there was a national determination to clear up and redevelop the old wartime bomb sites and also to demolish old, seemingly decrepit, housing to make way for new housing. In this case, Monkey Row and (at least some of) Baldock Street would be making way for road improvements. The fact that no. 1 and no. 36 formed an ancient, historically valuable building was not important; it was old and had to go (a far cry from today’s rigorously enforced protection orders and listed buildings).

For the next sixteen years May fought the council but slowly the neighbouring houses were deserted and then demolished. Meanwhile, she had decided that rather than it being demolished she would disassemble it and reconstruct it elsewhere. Eventually she found and bought a plot of land in the small Norfolk town of Wells-next-the-Sea and obtained the necessary permissions for the move, including taking ownership of the building at no. 36 (after all, the council was simply going to demolish it).

In 1969 the building was taken apart, mostly by May herself. Over the end of the year and into 1970 it was shipped to Norfolk where it formed piles of timbers, bricks, windows, etc., in her garden-come-building site. Once there, she started sorting through all the bits and commenced the very slow task of rebuilding. By now she had retired and age was not on her side. Over the years, although soldiering bravely on, she got slower and slower. Furthermore, the builders she tried to employ to help her were generally unhelpful and rarely turned up, often staying away or failing to finish works for years at a time. Mind you, May was fastidious and everything had to be done exactly her way and many builders have difficulty with such an approach. (Personal experience has taught me that many in the building trade have 'their ways' and these are often short cuts that substitute for doing the job properly.)

She named the building Ware Hall-House though she herself lived in a caravan on the site, the house being little more than the framework. It was many years before she was able to live in any part of the building though she did, eventually, move into a barely habitable room downstairs. From her arrival in Wells, it is doubtful that she ever slept properly in a bed again; the caravan was extremely cramped and, once finally in the house, she slept in a chair as even the first bedroom was never finished.

In her last years she was hardly able to do anything and she spent her last few days in the Wells Cottage Hospital, where she died in April 1993, just short of her 82nd birthday. With her were her nephew Tony and his wife Christine and almost her last words to them were 'Sorry'. She had left them the house and she would like them to finish the job.

After some discussion, it was decided that Christine would resign from her job and live in Wells to complete the work whilst Tony came up to help her at the weekends. The first thing Christine found was the tremendous collection of all May’s records (she was an avid diarist, correspondent, and keeper of cuttings) and the pile of, well, everything that she had never thrown away - and she quite literally never threw away anything (there was even a mound of discarded banana skins in the garden). It was sometime before the real work of restoration got going though, being much younger and with the experience of having restored their own old house, progress was made and eventually the job was completed. It came at a price though; Tony and Christine spent little time together and this eventually lead to their divorce. Christine kept Ware Hall-House and still lives in it, running it as a B&B.

Christine (with the help of Michael McMahon, a writer and prison chaplain) tells the story in a very open and easy going way. Much is told by reference to May’s hoard of records and by quoting from the many letters she both wrote and received. We get the picture of a determined lady who, when she took a job on, would always see it through. Nothing would stop May once she set her mind to something. Yet she was not at all selfish; she cared greatly for those around her, both friends and strangers. In 1938 she joined the St. John Ambulance Brigade, worked for it throughout her professional life, and supported it long after that. Through her letters and her diaries, we also learn something of her personal life. She had never married but there had been two men in her life though, given the times in which she lived, they were not the sort of romances we think of today. The first was her fiancé Dennis Watson, a Shakespearian actor; he was almost thirty years her senior and died prematurely after an illness. The other was Edward Collins, who she had met during the war; for fifteen years they maintained some sort of friendship though whether it had become love is not clear, but he ended it by marrying his cousin.

I found the story more than a little touching. May showed a determination and drive that goes way beyond that of most people, yet she did so simply, as if it was the only way to be. She rarely complained yet spent more than half her life defending and caring for a building because it was too important, too precious, to simply let it be thrown away. In what to most people would be their twilight years, in which to settle down comfortably in the warm and take it easy, she took on a life of hardship and quietly spent the rest of it dedicated to what she saw as a necessary cause.

In part I find it sad that this frail old lady lived in what many of us would regard as squalor, yet it was her decision. She did not regard herself as being hard done by, she was free to follow her own path and seemed very glad to be able to do so. It was her life and she spent it her way.

There are not many like May Savidge, but the world is a better place because of them.

Peter Tyers

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