Former farm girl and champion cheese maker celebrates 100th birthday at Rustington Hall

Mary Dench celebrated her 100th birthday at Rustington Hall on Saturday. Picture: Amy Holder
Mary Dench celebrated her 100th birthday at Rustington Hall on Saturday. Picture: Amy Holder

Rustington Hall resident Mary Dench has celebrated her 100th birthday with family and friends.

Mary was brought up on a farm and has had a number of jobs, including cheese making, teaching and as a guide at historic houses.

Mary as a young girl on the family farm

Mary as a young girl on the family farm

She drove until she was around 90 but never took a test, as she learned to drive before they were introduced.

Mary said: “During the war I was driving between farms along country lanes with no lights, all the road signs had been removed and the car wasn’t very reliable.”

Mary was born into the Loxton family on May 4, 1919, in Keynsham, near Bristol. Her father had just returned from serving in the trenches in the First World War. He had been called up in 1918, despite having absolute exemption as a farmer’s son, working on the large family farm.

In the early 1920s, her father and one of her brothers ran the farm in partnership. The family moved to live in the large farmhouse in Queen Charlton, a tiny village just outside Keynsham.

Mary Dench with her Scrabble themed birthday cake. Picture: Amy Holder

Mary Dench with her Scrabble themed birthday cake. Picture: Amy Holder

Mary said: “Then, it was very much a working village with four active farms, cattle being driven through the middle and mud on the roads. It is now a tidy, picturesque commuter village for people working in Bristol.

“Farming was tough and in the mid-1920s, the third brother took over the farm, we moved to another house in the village. Here dad had a few cows which supplied his milk round in Bristol, along with clotted cream, eggs and dressed chickens.

“By then I had three younger brothers. We walked across the fields down into Keynsham to Mrs Jolliman’s school, just over two miles each way. Later, I caught the train into Bristol, involving more walking, a long day.”

The next move was to a smaller farm at Yatton, also near Bristol, where Mary’s dad continued to keep cows. Her mother ran the large house as a guest house, so Mary’s brothers and father all had to sleep in the loft.

Mary recalled: “One lot of guests were actors. They didn’t pay much but gave us tickets for their play. It was very good. Mother was rather scandalised by their relaxed behaviour in the house.”

Mary left school at 16 and at first helped her mother in the guest house, then started training in dairying, which was hard manual work in those days.

“At the first farm, the milk arrived in 17 gallon churns. The dog howled all night and it wasn’t very peaceful,” she said.

United Dairies gave scholarships to the children of struggling farmers, so Mary went to Cannington Farm Institute to train. She won awards for cheese making at the local show.

Shortly afterwards, her father took a job as dairyman on another farm. It was expected the dairyman’s wife would be cheesemaker but as Mary’s mum was a teacher by now, Mary went back to live with the family again, making the cheese.

Mary later went to Reading University for a two-year diploma, as there were no degrees in dairying.

During the Second World War, Mary worked for the War Agriculture Committee in Wiltshire, persuading farmers to maximise clean milk production.

Mary said: “Some farms were not very well equipped and many dairies were far from being sterilised. I was only in my early 20s – the old farmers didn’t like women coming round, ‘fancy young girls’, telling them what to do. One almost turned his dog on me.”

After the war, Mary moved into teaching, running the dairy department at Sparsholt College in Hampshire and then Seale Hayne on the edge of Dartmoor.

Mary said: “Women were beginning to expect more freedom but the college was still traditional. Men were not allowed in the grounds of the women’s residential hall, let alone into the building. The principal didn’t like women wearing trousers even out on the farm, which they were all used to doing by the early 1950s.”

Mary met her future husband, Tony, at Seale Hayne and they were married in 1954. He trained in agriculture and dairying at the college, then joined the staff.

They started married life in Bovey Tracy and Mary left the college when she was expecting their first child.

Tony soon went to work in the department of agricultural economics at Bristol University and the family moved to live just outside Keynsham.

They had four children and in 1966, moved to Reading, where Tony was employed by the university.

Mary brought up the children and had various jobs, including dinner lady at the junior school the children attended. In the early days, she made clothes for the family, then branched out into needlework and patchwork, especially making quilts.

Later, her career changed direction completely and she worked as a guide at several historic houses, including Stratfield Saye, the Duke of Wellington’s home, where she also ran the shop and Highclere Castle, known from the TV series Downton Abbey.

Mary and Tony had long wanted to live in the country again and the opportunity arose a few years before Tony retired, when they bought a house just outside Hungerford. They later downsized to a cottage in Pewsey and after Tony died in 2009, Mary decided to move to Worthing to be near two of her children.