Joan Wake

Joan Wake

Joan lived in Cosgrove from 1937 to 1955 at Green Farm, which she leased from Captain Atkinson. Had it not been for her, this village website would not exist, as she was responsible for leading the drive to preserve local history records and for the establishment of the Northamptonshire Record Society.

Joan Wake was born at Courteenhall, Northamptonshire on February 29th 1884 and was proud of being a Leap Year baby, claiming that her low number of birthdays gave her the vigour and mind of a young woman. She was the second daughter of Sir Herewald Wake, the 12th baronet and his wife Catharine, daughter of Sir Edward St Aubyn, Bart, of St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall.

She had three older brothers, all of whom had distinguished military careers, two in the Army and one as a Naval Admiral. Joan’s older sister was a famous trainer of gun dogs and her younger sister married and settled in Rhodesia. Joan loved talking to all the people who lived and worked on the Estate and knew all their names.

Joan was fiercely proud of Northamptonshire and claimed “of course, there is only one County”. Although she could number twenty seven generations of Wakes from Geoffrey Wac, who held lands in Normandy and Guernsey, she never allowed her family history to encroach on her research. Joan was educated by governesses at home. Her father apparently did not allow her to hunt on the grounds that it would be too expensive to provide a mount for “such a stalwart girl,” although Joan herself said later that she found foxhunting the only equal in excitement to finding a 12th century charter!

Joan’s main interest, as a girl, was music. She bought a Church organ in 1909 and had it installed in Courteenhall Church where she played for services. Joan conducted the Courteenhall choir as well as writing an article in 1911 about Christmas Carols. She was also interested in medical matters and became Secretary of the Courteenhall and District branch of the County Nursing Association, taking on the County Secretary’s role during World War 1.

Personal memories of Joan are colourful. Her nephew recalls:

“She was forceful, outspoken, very intelligent and had a remarkable memory. She had an enormous curiosity and loved a good argument. When one of her nephews said “I don’t care”, she said forcefully, “You MUST care, care about everything.” She had a good sense of humour and a loud laugh. She sometimes wore a grey wig, often skewed or put on back to front to amuse the young. She was certainly not a practical person. Only on smart occasions would she attempt to use makeup, but was “not a very good shot with the lipstick.” A liberal powdering of her face, still wearing her spectacles, impaired her eyesight.”

In 1913 Joan, feeling the lack of formal education, decided to embark on courses at the London School of Economic and Political Science. At the age of 30 she learned Latin and savoured the tuition and friendship of Eileen Power and Frank Stenton, who engendered Joan’s lifelong belief that there is no distinction between national and local history. She transcribed hundreds of medieval charters in the Hesketh collection at Easton Neston during this time.

In the course of her work during the Great War Joan travelled to many villages in Northamptonshire and realised the extent of valuable historical material lying, unappreciated and undiscovered, in old houses, lawyers offices and church buildings, at risk of damage and loss. After the war she became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and with Frank Stenton and the financial support of Mr James Manfield began to collect documents which became the core collection of the Northampton Record Society, formed in 1920. By 1922 Copyright tenure was abolished and the Master of the Rolls ordered each County to make provision for preserving Records, largely based on Joan’s Northamptonshire model.

Joan was the Society’s first Secretary and held the post for the next 43 years. She was also their editor for most of that time, starting in 1924 with the publication “The Quarter Sessions Records”. Her final piece of editing was “The Letters of Daniel Eaton”, published in 1971 when Joan was 87.

Furtho Church
Green Farm

The main aims of Joan’s work were to find Records, catalogue them and make them available to students, and finally to publish them. In the early days the collection was housed in a dingy part of County Hall which used to be the gaol. At the start of the Second World War the records were divided between Brixworth Hall and Joan’s home at Green Farm in Cosgrove. For safekeeping many of the Records were stored in Furtho Church, although the only bomb that fell locally was just in the field next door!

Miss Wake was a formidable woman in pursuit of her beliefs about the maintenance of Records. All were transported wrapped in brown paper safely tied in string and marked clearly in 2HB pencil with the name of the donor and the date given. She drove in and out of Cosgrove in a battered convertible car stuffed with a portable typewriter, several briefcases, boxes and a big handbag where she kept rolls of postage stamps, her glasses, cracked and mended with selotape, a watchmaker’s magnifying glass and a few useful clothes pegs. She was not a delicate flower in the manner of many of her contemporaries, scorning physical help with heavy lifting and expecting visitors to brave inclement weather, saying “We’re not made of sugar, you know.” It was said that her mind became sharper the greater her opposition.

Joan induced Lord Greene, then Master of the Rolls, to restrict the activities of the wartime paper salvage campaign, which she condemned in a letter to the Times as “footling and dangerous”, as solicitors were widely sending valuable historical documents to the salvage effort. Joan personally visited 36 Northamptonshire solicitors and rescued many documents, as well as advising the British Records Association about exclusions from salvage. From one solicitor’s office in Daventry she collected 76 sacks of manuscripts and deeds.

Lamport Hall

Joan was offered the use of rooms at Lamport Hall to house the Records after the war. The Hall was still under requisition by the Ministry of Works, intended to house German prisoners, but Joan went to see George Tomlinson, the Minister, and pressed him to transfer the prisoners to Brixworth, thus releasing Lamport for the Records! With exemptions from rates and the securing of grants, Joan’s work on the publication of volumes resumed.

One of these publications was the annual “Northamptonshire Past and Present”, which allowed local historians to publish small articles and attracted new members to the Society. Joan published herself, notably “Tales of Whittlewood Forest”, under the pseudonym of Wimersley Bush”, as well as finding subjects, authors and speakers to lecture to the Society. She and a hardworking team gathered a membership of over 1000. During this period Joan moved from Cosgrove in 1955 when she inherited a house of her own in Oxford.

It soon became necessary for the Society to share the work of preserving the Records Collection, and Northampton County and Borough Councils, along with Peterborough Council assumed responsibility for the Records and the lease of part of Lamport Hall. A Technical and Advisory Committee was appointed at Joan Wake’s insistence, upon which the Record Society was represented to give academic support.

Joan believed that the Records should be housed “in Northampton on a town bus route” and by 9th May 1959 had organised, with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments, the restoration of Delapre Abbey, already in Borough ownership, having raised the money via the Record Society. Although eventually Joan did have to relinquish both the Editor and Secretary roles in the Society she was able to attend the 50th birthday of the Society at Delapre in 1970.

Delapre Abbey

By this time Joan Wake had received several honours, notably an Hon.M.A. from the University of Oxford in 1953, an Hon. LL.D from the University of Leicester in 1959 and was made a C.B.E. in 1960. Gyles Isham, who lived at Lamport Hall, writing in “Northamptonshire Past and Present” identified her real success in that “her interest in history derived from her interest in people, and that is what humanised her work as editor, archivist and historian.”

Joan died at Northampton on 15th January 1974, 6 weeks before her 90th actual birthday.

Sources :

Gyles Isham 1975

Patrick King  1975

Sir Hereward Wake, Joan’s nephew 2008

Wolverton Express 18 April, 1930

The Materials of Local History

We congratulate our neighbours in Northamptonshire on the excellent work that is being done by their Record Society. It has now completed 10 years of its existence, and by the initiative and energy, and discrimination of its capable and enthusiastic Hon Secretary, Miss Joan Wake, and by the ready, willing and intelligent co-operation of Lords of the Manors, local authorities, and various public and private owners of historical documents, has been made possible for really useful and effective steps to be taken to preserve numerous documents of much historic interest which might otherwise have been all too easily lost. So many have indeed thus been salvaged, and arranged and catalogued that it has now been found desirable to have a room in which they may be stored, and kept handy for anyone who wishes to do so to refer to them. A competent custodian, able to catalogue the records systematically, and ready to give such assistance and guidance as may be required by students seeking to consult the records, has been appointed, and it is hoped that the generosity of the public will provide the society with an income sufficient to justify them in making the appointment permanent.

The Record Rooms at Northampton were recently opened, and the Society was fortunate in securing the services of the Master of the Rolls, Lord Hanworth, to perform the opening ceremony. In his address on that occasion Lord Hanworth reminded his hearers that under a sub-section of the new Property Act, which effects vast changes in manorial laws, it is provided that the court rolls and other documents of members may be deposited with the Master of the Rolls, who, by virtue of his office, is the keeper of the records of England. It is to be sincerely hoped that all persons who have documents that are at all old, or, indeed, documents of any age, will avail themselves of the opportunities now afforded to deposit such documents with the Master of the Rolls, or with some local or county society such as that in Northamptonshire. To the majority of owners of documents this will probably be a great convenience, but there will be some who will no doubt prefer to retain custody of such interesting records themselves. The point is to ensure that everything which may prove to be of historic value shall be preserved, and that it should be readily available for the investigation of genuine students.

A year or two ago, a Record Society was started for Berkshire, and has already accumulated much interesting material. Oxfordshire has also for some time had a Record Society, which each year publishes a volume on some subject or on records of some particular parish or locality in the county.

With such inspiring examples from its neighbours, Berkshire in the south, Oxfordshire in the west, and Northamptonshire in the north, we may well hope that the records of the various parishes and manners of Buckinghamshire will similarly be preserved and examined. The Buckinghamshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, for which Dr. Bradbrook, of Bletchley, has for many years done such able and devoted work as Hon Secretary, would no doubt welcome all help that willing assistants throughout the county may be ready to give towards the preservation of records. What above all it is desired to impress upon the minds of any persons who have in their possession documents of any kind, is on no account to destroy them without making a thorough examination of them, and if one does not feel competent to assess their historical value and interest, to seek the aid of local Record Societies, or other competent and experienced searchers, in doing so.

It is exceedingly difficult, so difficult, in fact, is to be almost impossible, to decide with any degree of certainty, what is or is not going to prove of historical value. So often has it turned out that a document which appeared to be quite uninteresting and valueless contains some small item which has proved to be a priceless clue to some point of local or family, or even national history.

Without adequate examination it is impossible to have any idea of what a wealth of information is contained in documents mouldering in muniment rooms or in official or private safes. Some years ago a Board of Guardians were informed by the Master of their Poor Law Institution that there was a mass of papers, letters, and old account books lying derelict in an outhouse. The board decided to sell this apparent rubbish for what it would fetch as waste paper. Two of the Guardians, however, had the curiosity to visit the outhouses and take a glance at some of the alleged “rubbish”. What their glance showed them caused them to hasten to recommend the Board to have the papers examined before they were sent away for destruction. The Board accepted the recommendation and deputed the two Guardians who made it, to make an examination of the papers themselves. This they did, with the result that the supposed rubbish was found to contain a most valuable collection of documents illustrating the operations of every branch of the Poor Law in every reign from the time of the Commonwealth to the reign of His present Majesty. The documents were duly catalogued, and whilst some, which proved valueless, were treated as waste paper, the rest were deposited where, with the aid of the catalogue, they can be always available for students.

This is an illustration of the danger of loss of valuable historical material, unless steps are taken to have all documents properly examined. Old minute books, parochial registers, title deeds, often old letters maybe all contain valuable matter. It is often found that one or two entries in such documents amply repay the investigator for much tedious examination of reams of faded and crabbed writings.

It is impossible to overestimate the value of many of the facts contributed by local and private records of all kinds for the elucidation of obscure points of national history.

The Best Burglar in the County    Neil Lyon

Joan Wake and the Northamptonshire Record Society    2021

Joan Wake, Northamptonshire’s premier custodian of Northamptonshire’s historical records, leased Green Farm, at Cosgrove, from 1937 to 1955, from Captain P Y Atkinson at the Priory.

The following pieces, relating to Cosgrove, are taken from Neil Lyon’s compilation of Joan’s own notes and diary entries, written in celebration of the centenary of the Northamptonshire Record Society, created by Joan Wake herself in December 1920.

Writing in 1952, of her childhood

A walk or a drive in the country with him [her father], or, above all, a day’s canoeing as children on a fine day in May or early June along the River Ouse, or its tributary the Tove, was a wonderful experience…..

Equipped with a luncheon basket, off we used to drive in the dog cart, my father, my younger sister Phyllis and myself, starting operations at either Bozenham or Cosgrove Mill. Then down the stream we would quietly paddle, between the rushes and the meadowsweet and yellow flags, the ragged robin and the pollard willows, watching the flight of a distant heron, or listening to the song of the warblers, the splash of a water rat, or the scuffle of a frightened moorhen as we rounded a bend. For we stopped chattering on these occasions, when we saw the world from an entirely different point of view, richly enjoying every moment of the happy day.

One year, we happened for our expedition on the day on which peace was declared after the South African War [31 May 1902]. The world around us was in its fullest beauty, the sun was shining, the haymakers were abroad, and as we slowly made our way along the Tove, from every church tower the bells were pealing across the summer meadows.

Green Farm, Cosgrove

The year 1938 started on a high for Joan Wake, as she took a tenancy of the Green Farm in the village of Cosgrove, on the Buckinghamshire border. Situated some 12.5 miles away from Northampton, with Courteenhall about half way as a convenient staging post, this was the first house that Joan Wake could call her own. Here she would stay until she moved to Oxford in 1955.

Now aged 53, hitherto she had always stayed in lodgings since leaving her home at Courteenhall in 1917. Her financial position had improved when she received a sizeable legacy from her aunt, Miss Lucy Wake in 1935. This included two properties in Divinity Road Oxford. Which Joan would hold onto until her death, collecting the rents.

23 August 1938, Joan Wake to Hope Allen

I am idyllically happy at Cosgrove, happier than I have ever been in my life, except possibly those few pre-war months when I was living on 25/- a week as a student at the London School of Economics.


I can see that the comfort of living in my little (!) house is going to be very good for me. I have taken stern measures with myself and firmly put my car away last Saturday (31st) and unless life is really impossible without it shall not have it out for three months. Mama will be in London most of the time so I shall not want it for WT (Weston Turville). I shall not be tempted away from my work and shall get much more exercise. There are hardly any buses to Cosgrove and to get the train or a bus to Northampton I have to walk two miles. I am really doing this to ensure more exercise and it will also be an economy.

11 July 1939 JW to the Master of the Rolls

I should now like to take this opportunity of informing you that in the event of war breaking out, the Council of this Society has made arrangements for the removal of all records, including manorial records in our custody, to my own house at Cosgrove in this County, and to Brixworth Hall, an empty house seven miles from Northampton. Both places would be dry, well ventilated and as safe as anywhere in the country. I have not quite completed the arrangements for transport and might think it necessary to trouble you later on for some sort of provisional order to enable me to use the furniture vans, petrol and labour without any interference.

The actual work began on September 2nd 1939 and occupied six days with one large van and six men, together with Miss Dover and Joan Wake herself. It was completed by September 12th by which date approximately 13 tons of records had been taken to Cosgrove and Brixworth Hall, the accumulations of twenty years.

The contents of the strong room were now in the Hon Secretary’s dry and airy larder in her own house – the Green Farm, Cosgrove, and the rest of the records in the semi-basement at Brixworth Hall. The Society’s own records were also at Cosgrove.

12 June 1940 Joan Wake to Hope Allen

Have joined the local Defence Volunteers as a messenger with Allegro. Practice this week. With all the signposts taken away I hope I don’t get lost!

Hanslope Park, a country house near here is being sold up this week. Sale going on now. Former owner been staying with me, Harry Thorold’s second wife. My god-daughters Rachel’s husband is wounded and missing.

14 June 1940 Joan Wake to Hope Allen

My roses are out and Paris has fallen. I am waiting for the Queen to speak to the French…..

I have just heard her and daresay you were listening too. Marvellous fellow Hitler – always keeps to his timetable…..

When we hear the church bells we shall know the parachutists have arrived.

24 September 1940

This evening at 9.20 pm while listening to the news three heavy bombs fell in the vicinity and shook Green Farm considerably. Heard next day that all the doors of the Council Houses were blown open. Also Mrs Tombs’ door close to me.

26 October 1940   NRS Council meeting

Reported that one of the rooms now in use for the storage of records at Brixworth Hall had not a sufficient circulation of air to make it satisfactory. The Hon Secretary was instructed to find another more suitable place for storage, if possible, in Brixworth. She was also authorised to buy a stirrup pump in case of an outbreak of fire in her house in Cosgrove.

12 November 1940

Joan Wake headed to London for a meeting. The previous day she wrote a letter to her sister-in-law Daisy; on the envelope she wrote “To be given to Lady wake if I should be killed – JW”

Dearest Daisy, in the unlikely but possible event of my getting bombed tomorrow I write to you as one of my executors and as a member of the Council of NRS as follows :

My keys are in the top drawer of the tallboy just inside the door of my study [at Green Farm] ,,,,, I am deeply sorry for the mess I have left my letters in, but don’t bother too much. Just run through the unfiled ones in the large attaché case, abstract any NRS ones, and please put all my other letters into a large packing case, nail them up, mark them not to be opened for fifty years and hand over to the NRS.

16 – 21 November 1940

Nov 16 - To Priory. Saw Mr Brown. Filed Brudenell Book. Bombs night of 16-17 – two cottages hit at Beachampton and four people killed. Nov 17 worked at Bru book and finished chapter on Sir Thomas. Great relief. Nov 19 Furtho bombed 9 pm this night. Nights of 19-20, 20-21 and 21-22 very bad with bombs. Bomb at Roade 5.30 am on 21st.

9 February 1941

We are all getting on uncommonly well with hardly any meat or bacon or butter. Quite superfluous I assure you. We are all on the qui vive in every possible way, fire watching etc. I am one here (in Cosgrove) now, shall take my turn once a fortnight when there is warning, but all very cheerful, and pleased about the Lybian (sic) victories.

11 May 1941 Joan Wake to Hope Allen

I have been to London for the day to rescue and put into a safer place down here two very important Northamptonshire collections of manuscripts which after negotiations and some trouble, I forced a dilatory duke and a reluctant earl to let me get away. One collection had already been badly blitzed, one third of it ruined, and I am at this moment drying and cleaning some of the remainder in my garden.

20 May 1945 Joan Wake to Godwin Wake

I found all well here [in Cosgrove] and “my people” as Mrs Sotheby used to call her household, had scratched up a flag somewhere on V day so all was well.

The whole village was wreathed in smiles. They went wild on the nights of 7th and 8th and in spite of orders from the government to make merry also on the 9th,  they were all so tired there was nothing doing, and the celebrations on the first official day were not very spontaneous as they had already had a bonfire the previous night. However, on the second night they had another bonfire and burnt Hitler in effigy in an old armchair which was likewise burnt. They danced in the village street and in the Old School and I understand got as drunk as they could manage on the very weak beer allowed by the government.

19-20 July 1945

To Northampton and moved sacks to new small rooms on the ground floor. One man ratted and I had to heave the sacks myself with the other man. To Cosgrove in van.

15 August 1945

Outbreak of peace at midnight August 14-15. Air raid warning with great gusto from Wolverton at 7.30. Nothing doing anywhere. Buses stopped. Worked at Chapter XIII. Village tea in school with Mrs Faulkner and Raymond. Bonfire at 8.0. All very friendly and jolly. Lorry from Phipps arrived with the beer just in time.

7-8 September 1945

Great excitement – fried fish and chip van in the village for the first time in five or six years. Everyone rushing out with plates and money, “like a fair” as one man said.

22 November 1945

Punctured on the way home along Watling Street from Potterspury to Cosgrove and stopped a gang of Italian prisoners coming along the road and got them to change my wheel, which they did, gabbling Italian all the while. Such a pity I forgot to tell them the name of my car [Allegro]. Gave them half a crown.

24 June 1946

Major Sir Frank Markham, 1 Calverton Road Stony Stratford, called on me at Cosgrove on Sunday 23rd June 1946. He asked for information on the history of Old Stratford and I gave him some references to Inclosure Awards of Northamptonshire parishes and the boundaries of Stony Stratford about which he is writing a history. Major Markham is a cousin of the late Major C A Markham. He was MP for Nottingham for 15 years, Private Secretary to Ramsay McDonald, and Secretary to the Museums Commission etc.

He told me that in the attic of Messrs Parrott, Stony Stratford, he had found a box of all the old Charity Records relating to Stony Stratford, and that in this firm also there are records of Arnold’s and Whalley’s Charities, which include all the old deeds going back to the 16th century, of a farm at Hartwell and much other Northamptonshire material. This is the firm who told me that everything had been destroyed when I called during the 1939-45 war. Major Markham said that the reluctance to disclose information was owing to very strong County feeling, much against yielding anything to Northamptonshire.

I promised that I would make no further attempt on the attic, until he has finished his work on Stony Stratford, as it took him some time to gain access himself.

25 February 1947   Joan Wake to Hope Allen    (about the resignation of her Asst Sec, Mr Brasher)

It is maddening Brasher going. He has all the virtues I lack – punctuality, tidiness, method – and he is so reliable and writes excellent letters and knows exactly what he ought to do and what he oughtn’t. His Latin and palaeography and very good too. Damnanddoubledamn as the Cosgrove miller 100 years ago used to say.

18 June 1949

Joan Wake spoke at the AGM of the Northamptonshire Association of Parish Councils in her capacity as Chairman of Cosgrove Parish Council, and proposed a motion calling for the compulsory restoration of land being devastated by the open cast mining in the County.

Wringing our hands and recriminating about how this dreadful thing has come about are quite useless. The question before Northamptonshire is how to find a remedy and see that the remedy is applied.

Already 3000 acres of land was lying waste. For temporary gain the future productivity of a beautiful and fertile district was being sacrificed forever.

Every day we read books and articles about the creation of dust bowls in America, soil erosion and deserts in Africa, but never a word about the desert we are ourselves creating in the middle of England. So the heart of England is to be gouged out to sell to America. Are we really going to allow ourselves to be destroyed by machinery?

21 October 1954 Joan Wake to Lord Exeter

I am leaving Cosgrove and have bought a house in Oxford, where I shall be able to get on better with my books. I am not at present resigning from my Honorary Secretaryship of the Record Society, not yet having found a successor, but think that I can manage it from Oxford, which is only 40 miles from Northampton, coming over for a night once a fortnight.

16 February 1955   Joan Wake to Deborah Webster

When I came to live at Cosgrove, my post town was 10 miles away at Bletchley, Bucks. A few years ago they changed it to Wolverton, Bucks. Cosgrove is, and always has been, on the right (Northants) side of the rivers Tove and Ouse which here form the County boundary.

Don’t think I would live in Bucks? You might do so, I own, because my news is that I have bought a house in Oxford – 11 Charlbury Road, and should be moving next week, but caught influenza which laid me so low I have had to put it off for a month. My reason for going is to escape from half the jobs that I have to do in Northants. Life really has been one long weary struggle to try (and fail) to keep level for the last three years, and it is getting too much of a good thing.

I am hoping to be able to run the Record Society from Oxford, and to have time to write a short book on local records and to edit three more books for the Society. And now that the dears at Oxford have made me an Honorary MA to avail myself of the right that has given me of going to lectures. I shall also, I think, be in very congenial society where I have many friends.