Mabel Lee Landlady of The New Inn

Mabel, Mary & Bill Lee with their Mother

Mabel, Mary & Bill Lee with their Mother

The end of an era.

Based on the obituary I wrote for the Crediton Courier after Mabel’s death in 1998

With the death of Mabel Kathleen Lee at the age of 96 on Jan 18th 1998, Coleford lost one of its last links with the Victorian era. Mabel was born on July 31st 1901 at the New Inn Coleford. She used to love to impart to her friends at Redvers House Crediton, where she spent her last few years when introducing me. “His father was born one side of the stream the first day of July 1901, and I was born t’other side on the last day of July 1901. She was survived by two great-nephews and a great-niece.

Mabel Kathleen Lee was the youngest of the five children of William and Emmeline Lee. Her grandfather Thomas Peters, Emmeline’s father, had moved from Moretonhampstead to Coleford to take over The Ship Inn with his new bride Anna Maria Grey in 1849. The Grey family had run The White Horse Inn at Moretonhampstead for over fifty years, hence Mabels' comment on her retirement that her family had been in the licensing trade for over 150 years.

After a short stay at The Ship Inn (now Browns Farm)the Peters family moved to The New Inn in 1854 where they raised four children. Thomas died in 1875 leaving his widow Anna Maria as the licensee for the next 23 years. In 1892 their daughter Emmeline married William Lee the second son of Thomas Howard Lee, a member of an old Colebrooke family. Thomas was a builder and carpenter and ran the steam sawmills at Knowle.

On the death of his mother in law, Anna Maria in 1899, William became the tenant and licensee of The New Inn. Sadly he died in 1905 leaving his widow Emmeline as a licensee with five young children. Thomas, Ellen(Nellie), Mary, William(Bill) and Mabel. Still, more heartbreak was to come for Emmeline. Nellie had become a nurse but died in April 1917, and six months later, news came through that Thomas had died in Egypt whilst serving with the REME. ( Mabel always maintained that he died of a broken heart because he couldn’t get home for his favourite sister’s funeral. In fact documents available since Mabel’s death show that his death was suicide, possibly for the same reason. I wonder if she actually knew)

One of Mabel’s memories as a child, as her mother struggled to run a business with a small family was the Rent Audit dinners. These usually took place twice a year December/January and June/July and was the time when the two main estate owners of Colebrooke Parish A O Sillifant and William Coryton would entertain their tenants for the purpose of establishing rent and listening to complaints etc., These dinners were held in “The Big Room” at the New Inn when up to twenty-five tenants from the Sillfant estates and fifteen from the Coryton would attend. Mabel remembered helping her mother on these occasions, running up the narrow staircase with minor items such as cigars etc. She would often reminisce about the various tenants who attended these dinners. There would have been The Lees from Penstone Barton and Higher Penstone, The Stonemans from Great Heale, Youngs and Bolts, Mr Hutchings from Great Wotton, Mr Brooks from Butsford, Mr Vile from Rowes and my own grandfather to name but a few. To hear her talking about these people was to bring to mind a picture of people who farmed the acres of Colebrooke long before the invention of the combustion engine when horsepower really meant what it said. Incidentally, William Gorwyn Lee of Penstone Barton although he died in 1913, made a lasting impression on her which she reminded me of only recently. He was chairman of the Colebrooke School governors and would insist on making at least two unannounced visits every term to inspect children’s schoolwork.

The outbreak of the war saw the end of these get-togethers, and after the war in 1919, there were two large auctions which saw the break up of all the Coryton estate and most of the Sillifant estate. At the Coryton auction in June 1919 by Whitton and Lang, Mabel’s mother was able to purchase The New Inn to the sound of great cheers from the onlookers. Together during the 1920s and 1930s, they ran the business together with Mabel gradually playing the major part. Her sister Mary who had by this time taken up a teaching career at Plymouth and brother Bill who was a water engineer at Exeter would sometimes be there at weekends to help out. There was a house cow that had to be milked twice a day and usually some pigs which Bill enjoyed looking after when he was there. As time went by, Emmeline’s health deteriorated, and Mabel had to spend more time looking after her. In spite of this, she still found time to support local functions, especially the annual revel held every July. Her pleasant contralto voice could also be heard in drama productions in aid of church funds and other events as well. I wonder how many regulars of post-war years would remember the New Years Eve celebrations when Mabel would invite us up to her sitting room to gather around the piano for a sing-song. The evening would culminate with Mabel being helped up on to a chair to sing “Just a song at twilight” a beautiful rendition.

Just after war broke out in September 1939, Emmeline passed away. The war was to bring a new experience for Mabel. Her brother Bill who by this time was married with a small daughter decided Exeter after the first air raids were no place for a small child, so Little Mary as she became known came out to live with Auntie Mabel. She went to Colebrooke school with the rest of us.

When peace was declared in 1945, the Big Room was brought into use again as Mabel and her family with the rest of the village provided a hastily arranged tea party for the children of the area. Their numbers were swollen by some evacuees that were still here. Looking back, it is hard to imagine how such an event could have taken place considering the strict rationing still in operation.

Through the 1940s and 1950s, changes began to occur with increasing frequency. The motor car was beginning to come out of hibernation after petrol rationing, bringing an element of the tourist trade. The population of the village was also beginning to include people from other parts of the country who had bought retirement cottages. This caused Mabel to refer to one part of her bar room as her “Cockney Corner” Over forty years on I still get visitors to the village enquiring after her.

The summer of 1959 saw the final chapter of Mabel and her family’s connection with the license trade. She had decided to sell The New Inn to Mr and Mrs Watkins of Chagford. Her last night will stay long in the memory of the many people who were there. One must remember there was no bar in the New Inn in those days; all drinks had to be brought from the cellar to the bar room as Mabel called it which had tables and settles. That particular evening Mabel’s sitting room and what she called her living room was also brought in to use. There were also many willing helpers with the trays and washing glasses. Suddenly at about nine o clock Mabel stood in the doorway and banged a tray to make herself heard above the hubbub. “Ladies and Gentleman” she shouted, “I shall be serving no more drinks tonight”. The hubbub died down immediately and then she said “If you want any more you’d better come and help yourself” What a way to leave the New Inn, ne’er to be forgotten!

Mabel retired to Copplestone where she lived at Newpark for a few years before moving into Exeter to live with brother Bill. She remained there until the 1980s when she returned to Copplestone to live at Jubilee Terrace. She made one more move, into Redvers House, Crediton where she lived until shortly before her death and where I had many enjoyable chats with her about old times. During these latter years, she never forgot her roots and would always provide generous support for Colebrooke Church and the little church at Knowle.

One of the last things Mabel did was to fulfil a promise she made to her mother over half a century ago, which was to maintain the family’s graves in Colebrooke Churchyard. During her last years, she arranged for F J Stevens and Son to upright and clean the five headstones on the graves of her grandparents, parents and brother and sister in the churchyard. These now look like new and Mabel’s ashes will be scattered on her mothers grave.

Mabel Lee & Neville Enderson

Mabel Lee & Neville Enderson

On her last visit to Colebrooke, a friend had brought her out to see the memorials at Colebrooke, and I was able to join them for a drink at the New Inn. Her friend kindly took a picture of Mabel and myself on what proved to be her last visit to her old home.

Everyone who knew Mabel will have their own memories of her. For myself, I shall always remember her exclamations of pleasure and gratitude at receiving a simple gift like a bunch of flowers, or of the animated expression on her face as she leant forward in her chair to discuss matters concerning old families or events that took place in Coleford and Colebrooke long ago

God bless you, Mabel, we will miss you.

Neville Enderson