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‘It was my playground’: growing up in the shadow of Stonehenge

Daughter of 1930s Stonehenge custodian shares memories as part of English Heritage project

Jean Grey pictured on her father’s knee at the stone circle with a visiting school group.
Jean Grey pictured on her father’s knee at the stone circle with a visiting school group. Photograph: Unknown/Jean Grey
Jean Grey pictured on her father’s knee at the stone circle with a visiting school group. Photograph: Unknown/Jean Grey
Steven Morris

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 03.13 BST

She recalls the skylarks soaring overhead and the dog violets in the woods, as well as her father’s battles with moles and his all-night shifts when the druids arrived for midsummer celebrations.

Most of all Jean Grey, whose father, John Moffatt, was the custodian at Stonehenge in the 1930s, remembers the fun of the great stone circle being her extraordinary childhood playground.

Grey’s story has emerged as part of a project called Your Stonehenge run by English Heritage to gather histories of people with personal links to the prehistoric Wiltshire monument.

Now aged 91 and living in Melbourne, she contacted the conservation charity to describe her unique childhood.

Jean Grey at Stonehenge in 1936.
Jean Grey at Stonehenge in 1936. Photograph: Unknown/Jean Grey

Father and daughter, along with Grey’s mother, Emily, and younger brother, Ian, lived in a cottage provided by the Ministry of Works close to the stones. Her father, a first world war veteran originally from Glasgow, worked at the stones from 1934-38, and Grey was five when they arrived.

“Dad was the custodian of the stones,” she said. “He cut the grass, maintained the area and made sure no one damaged them. Occasionally school groups would arrive by charabanc [a bus or coach] for a tour but I remember it being empty most of the time. It was my playground.”

In summer the grass was knee-high, dotted with buttercups, and skylarks made their nests in the tussocks. Grey remembers lying on her back and watching the birds high in the blue skies. “Most of the time it was a quiet, safe place for me to play around the stones. No restrictions.”

It could be tough, especially in the winter. “There was no gas, no electricity, no hot water and only an outside toilet. We were very poor. The Ministry of Works wages were not very generous and the rabbits my father trapped helped supplement our diet and in the autumn we’d go mushrooming.”

School was about three miles away. In the morning, Grey’s father would drive her there on his motorbike, but she had to walk home. “Fortunately traffic wasn’t very heavy in those days.” But it is the bright June and July days that stick in her mind. “Even now, 70 years later, Stonehenge has a lasting place in my memory – the summer days and the skylarks.”

The Stonehenge custodian’s cottage and cafe.
The Stonehenge custodian’s cottage and cafe. Photograph: Historic England Archive

Susan Greaney, an English Heritage historian, said: “A personal story like this really brings Stonehenge’s more recent past to life. Although demolished in 1938, we can see the house Jean lived in from old photos, which show the cottages, their large back gardens and also rings of mushrooms scattered around the landscape, just as she describes.”

Greaney said the number of visitors was on the increase at the time Grey lived there because cars were becoming more common and Stonehenge was seen as a perfect day out.

More than 100 people are needed at Stonehenge now to show visitors around, maintain it and keep the monument safe. “It must have been full-on for him,” added Greaney. “People have been visiting Stonehenge for centuries, but there’s not very many people who can say they lived there – it must have been an amazing place to grow up.”