Betty Cunningham was born “down the back lane (now known as West Street) in 1916 and has lived all of her life in Ecton. Betty’s mother and father also lived in Ecton all their lives and their families before them. Betty is the oldest of three sisters. One sister lives in Earls Barton now and the other lives over the road.
Her family were committed Baptists and Betty remembers going to Sunday School twice on Sunday and later to chapel at morning and night, followed by a prayer meeting.
Betty met her husband to be, Jock, when she was 21. Jock was from Kilmarnock and joining the RAF brought him to Northamptonshire. Although he was later posted to India Betty stayed in this area, spending some time in the old barracks in Northampton and finishing up at Wooton Barracks. She recalls the togetherness of that time “we all were one, and we were fighting for one thing”.
Eventually Jack returned to live with Betty’s mother in 1945/6. He worked at Silverstone building the aerodrome there and later became Ecton’s roadman. Betty and Jock married in 1947 in the Baptist Chapel in the village and moved into an Ecton Hall estate cottage. At this time most of the cottages in Ecton belonged to he Hall. Rent was paid twice a year and tenants were given back sixpence of it each time. This custom ceased in later years.
Betty describes Ecton as a wonderful village and her life with her husband as one of sharing and helping other people. She particularly recalls the dances held in the village and the hospitality offered at these. She recalls the very last one, which was a Scottish one with a piper. The piper was given a hot meal and a drop of whiskey and subsequently waived his charge because of this generous hospitality. This, says Betty, reflects Ecton.
Colonel and Mrs Sotheby owned the Ecton estate. Colonel Sotheby married Marjorie McCorquodale in 1923. Marjorie came from a Wolverton Printing family and had a brother, Alex. Colonel Sotheby was her second husband. Her first husband was killed, it was always said the Colonel Sotheby was the one who came and told her of her first husband’s death.
Betty’s father worked as a stockman at Ecton Hall for his entire working life (66years) as a stockman at a wage of £2. Ecton Hall estate had 2 Jersey cows, which he milked morning and night. Betty remembers fetching their daily allowance of a can of milk from the dairy. Her father also took care of the carthorse used for fetching coal and coke from Billing Station and delivering wood in the village. Her father also looked after Colonel Sotheby’s warhorse “Charger” after the Colonel’s death. “Charger is buried in the grounds of the Hall in the animal cemetery.
Betty also recalls a Scottish cook at the Hall. Mrs. Sotheby would have her make scones each day and any scones that were left over were put in a blue sugar bag for Betty’s father to take home, These scones were loved by all her family, as was the ham that Dad sometimes brought home after a shoot at the Hall. To feed the shooters and beaters the cook would boil up the best hams. When all the shooters had gone, the cook would have what she wanted off the bone and fill another bag for Dad to bring home. It was beautiful. Many years later Betty also used to make dinner for the “shooters” and still makes the occasional steak and kidney pudding for “Lofty” the gamekeeper.
One visitor at some of these shoots was remembered by Betty’s father as having red lipstick and nails. This lady – Barbara Cartland, went on to marry Alex, Mrs Sotheby’s brother. They had a daughter and named her Rayne, because that year there was a lot of rain. Rayne later became Countess Spencer.
Betty’s childhood memories of the Hall
“Everybody had got their own jobs and everything would be done. Ecton Hall was self-sufficient. It had its own greenhouses, gardens, orchard, dairy and laundry. Dad would put the milk up in the dairy and the cream would be skimmed to make their own butter and the cook would make their own bread. In the garden you had wonderful greenhouses in which tomatoes and cucumbers were grown. Mr Wise was the head gardener. We would come up on Saturday mornings for a pound of tomatoes and they’d say “which cucumber do you want?” and we picked one for sixpence, it had still got the bloom on it. And the same went for the tomatoes, and grapes. They used to supply a high-class shop in St Giles’ street with vegetables and fruit. There was a lovely trap with all the stuff from the market garden. If we could go and were not at school, we were king of the castle sitting up there. We would go the bottom way to St Giles’ Street and take all this lovely produce. And the flowers – Mr Wise used to make wreaths and bouquets for weddings. Arum lilies were grown and used for church decorations for Easter. Morning Glory used to do well in the greenhouses and camellias bloomed in the Conservatory” (The conservatory was retained and restored when the Hall was made into apartments. The camellia still blooms in the conservatory.
Mrs Sotheby really took to Jock, because he was Scottish. To her, “there was nobody like Cunningham”. During his service at the Hall he, and Betty, became a great friend of the Sotheby’s. In 1956, when Betty had her son they named him Ian. Mrs Sotheby said they should also give him the name Alexander, after her brother.
Colonel Sotheby died in 1950. On one occasion, after the Colonel had passed away, Alec McCorquodale visited Ecton Hall. Mrs Sotheby asked Jock and Betty if she could bring him down to their house to have a cup of tea. Betty describes this visit – “ We’re just ordinary people, and we were in this little thatched cottage, which we called Robbie Burn’s cottage. I had a coal fire going and had scones and homemade jam. He came in in an old trilby and an old mac, which he took off. He lit his Woodbine and thoroughly enjoyed himself”. Betty describes social etiquette at that time – “ when you’re with those people, you don’t talk, you leave it to them”.
Subsequently Mrs Sotheby moved to Bryanston Square in London and the Hall and contents were sold. She also had a lodge in Campbelltan, in Argyllshire. Betty comments on their friendship - ”She’d been our friends and we treated her as a friend”. Jock and Betty often visited her often in London and were also pleased to be invited to visit her at her Scottish house in Campbelltan. Mrs Sotheby said she hoped they would visit Scotland again but unfortunately this was not to be. They remained great friends until Mrs Sotheby’s death. Mrs Sotheby suffered a stroke whilst on holiday in America. She came home to England and went into a nursing home. Betty comments, “We used to go and see her. We had a car in those days. We would get the daffodils from Ecton Hall to give to her. She was very pleased”. As she got more and more poorly, the lady at the nursing home said, “well she won’t know you, but you can go in and see her”. Betty thought otherwise – “they know if you hold the wrist that you’re there and we talked to her, and I know she knew that we was the last two Ecton people to see her alive”.
Colonel and Mrs Sotheby are both buried in Ecton churchyard.
Betty’s sister, Joan
Betty’s sister Joan went into service at the Hall. She left school at 14 and Jock asked the Colonel if she could work at the hall. The Colonel said they didn’t have any Ecton people working in the house, however Jock assured the Colonel that everything would be all right as his family knew that what was heard and seen in the House, stayed in the House. Joan took up the job of housemaid and was the first person from Ecton to work in Ecton Hall. Joan started work at 6am and her first job was to clean the grates and light the fires.
Ecton Hall Shoots
Shoots started in October and Ecton Hall was full of guests. On shoot days Joan had to begin work at 4.30am. The “Big Shoot” was held just before Christmas. The beaters for this shoot had a special treat of steak and kidney boiled puddings, made at the World’s End. On the evening of this shoot a grand ball was held in the big hall. The servants were allowed to go up the back staircase to watch all the ladies and gentlemen come down the grand staircase in all their finery.
The Second World War
During the Second World War Ecton Hall was taken over by the Canadians for a billet with the Sotheby’s using the “cut down” rooms. Colonel Sotheby headed up the local village wardens.
Village fetes were held at the hall and some functions took place in the Hall’s garages / coach houses. In 1944 the Red Cross Victory Garden Fete was held and £500 was raised, a tremendous amount in those days. Stalls at the fete included an ankle competition, mystery parcels and skittling for a pig. The best selection for six eggs was won by a L. Middleton. The children did a maypole dance.
Betty was a member of the village W. I. and at that time Mrs Sotheby was the President. She invited the members to tea in the large dining room, afterwards going into the beautiful drawing room where they were entertained. Betty remembers the room was done out in magnolia, green and gold and wonderfully furnished to match.
Visitors to Ecton Hall
These include the Duke of York (later to become the King), and Jon Walls, the film actor. The Pytchley Hunt also used to meet at the Hall.
Jock Cunningham, Betty’s husband, died in 2003. His ashes were placed in the Sotheby’s chapel. When Betty was asked if she was happy with this. She said, “nothing could be better, it was June the 1st, Mrs Sotheby’s birthday. Jock would be pleased to think he went into their chapel”.
The above records memories of Betty Cunningham drawn from a taped interview in the summer of 2003.