When we moved to Whilton Locks in 1972, Miss Kirby (we never dared to use her first name) was 80 and assured us she was in her prime. Poor as a church mouse, she was our neighbour and friend for the next 13 years. We knew she was special and later realized that she was a true example of the elusive “X” factor and a massive influence on our lives.
We had to bring our furniture in by boat, and as we tried to discover how to work the bottom lock Miss Kirby hobbled out of her battered front door with a tray bearing bone china cups of tea and silver spoons, sugar bowl and milk jug – treasured possessions from her former grander life.
We had thought we were in for a quiet life in this isolated spot, but her welcome heralded an amazing period of activity and inspiration. Her motto was “I am going to do exactly what I like!” She lived for the moment, often saying she never felt a day older than 18.
She was gregarious, aristocratic, haughty, curious, witty, outrageous, sceptical, and often a total pain in the neck. Buckby’s beloved doctor, Norman How, one of her fans, affectionately described her as “The Ancient Lady of the Locks.”
Ellen Julia (“Nell”) Kirby, born 1892, came from Harpole, where her father was the village schoolmaster and choirmaster at the parish church. Unsurprisingly, she was bullied in school. Her elder brother Will was killed, aged just 16, at Gallipoli. His photograph in uniform – just a boy – hung on the wall in her living room.
Her other brother, Frank, lived with her until his sudden death at a relatively early age. Frank was a popular pianist and singer at local pubs and his rendering of The Laughing Policeman is remembered by elderly residents over a wide area. Miss Kirby had to drive him to his gigs.
She sometimes hinted at an ill-starred First World War romance with a German prisoner-of-war working on a local farm who either died or went home to Germany. There was an acute shortage of young men in her generation, millions having died in battle.
Perhaps to overcome the pain of lost love, she launched herself into business by opening a prestigious hairdressing salon in Northampton, where she lived a rather “fast” life as hairdresser to county ladies and visiting theatre stars.
When we knew her she had a collection of “everyday” and “best” wigs which she used like hats for going out. Her numerous friends included a former apprentice, Maureen Newman from Daventry, her neighbours – especially Mrs. Steele and Mrs. Linnell — and several other good folk from the village.
Passing boaters would stop for a chat and a pat of her sausage dog Jim, who is posed on her doorstep in a fine painting of the old house (now Whilton Locks Pottery) by a schoolgirl artist she commissioned from Whilton. She would offer tourists and visitors a taste of her marrow jam, which simmered for hours on an upright paraffin stove.
She loved music and after a night at a local pub would have us in fits in the car going home, her wig all askew, with a hair-raising version of Tosti’s Goodbye. She had a collection of battered old hymnbooks, and insisted on being taken to her favourite oratorio, Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
We were also enlisted for outings to Norton, Whilton and Harpole parish churches, the spiritualist church in town (she was the first to be picked out for a “message from beyond”) and the Jesus People at Nether Heyford, whose brawny bearded acolytes were invited to tea at her cottage. It was a worrying experience for them when she dangerously plonked a blackened kettle on top of a roaring open fire. She loved ‘reading’ the tealeaves and most visitors took up her invitation to have their fortune told.
Her old cottage had very few facilities. She would descend to the cellar on rickety stairs, in the dark, to get coal. The contents of her commode went into the lock. Her black cat was renowned for alerting her to danger, which it did late one winter’s night when boatman Andy Iddins fell into the lock during a big freeze; Miss Kirby quickly summoned help and he was rescued in the nick of time. The cat also meowed for aid when Sambo, our old Labrador, fell into the empty lock and was marooned on the cill. The Linnell family cleverly rescued him with a lasso.
Miss Kirby was a political activist. She wrote angrily to the local MP about an alleged misdemeanor. In her eighties she marched to Westminster on a rates demo, was interviewed on the green by a Times reporter, and listened in an anteroom to Mrs. Thatcher, shortly before she became prime minister.
Many of her last days were largely spent in conversation with another local character, “Gentleman” Jim Lawrence, who came from a prominent family in Brington and was mad about horses. Jim was probably the second great romance of her life. Hunting folk all recognized his Robin Reliant three-wheeler, which he called his “lunar module.” At its wheel he followed their progress, risking life and limb as he bumped across fields and verges. One morning he visited Miss Kirby on a grey horse in full hunting garb.
After giving up driving, she got her basic provisions by regular deliveries from Philip the bread man, Bob Wells the milkman, and Bailey’s hardware. If we went away for a few days she would welcome us back with something for our dinner. At well over 80 she walked all the way up the hill to Whilton village to buy an ice cream, and she also walked to Buckby Wharf with her dog Jim every week to collect her pension from the post office.
On her 90th birthday many friends and distant relatives visited her. Knowing her liking for a drop of sherry, most of them presented her with a bottle or two and several tables were almost covered with the gifts.
A few days later she felt unwell and we called out Doc Norman. He concluded that she was in good health but should reduce her sherry intake.
She spent her last days in a care home at Staverton and died there in 1985 at the age of 93. She lies in an unmarked grave in the churchyard at Whilton.
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