Neville Howes Remembrances
Neville Howes’ Ashwell Remembrances c1920/30/40s
A visitor approaching Ashwell from the direction of Newham and the Great North Road, now officially designated the A1(M), will travel for about a mile across a flat expanse of arable fields a golden sea of corn in late summer but windswept and desolate in winter, the cold, chalky white soil unbroken by hedge, fence or even tree. Ahead and to the south and north the land rises to low ridges giving the impression that one is crawling over a great white saucer.
One of my earliest memories is concerned with the slope to the right, it was on this that in the mid 1920’s there appeared in early summer the signs of giant letters growing out of the soil. Eventually the message became plain to see “Thank you Daily Mail” it read and when in due time the mustard plants came into flower, farmer John Sale’s appreciation of that paper’s campaign in support of British agriculture was there to see in letters of gold.
The newspaper sent photographers and reporters but father decided to take his own photograph with his own camera. It was, of course, long before the days of almost universal ownership of Instamatic, Autofocus and electronic aperture control. His camera was about the size of a large show box. It had to be loaded before setting out with a batch of glass plates coated with a photographic emulsion. After each exposure a small lever had to be moved and the exposed plate then fell forwards and down to the bottom of the box with a squeaky clang, leaving the next plate ready for use.
We walked over the top of Newnham Hill and down to the best vantage point directly opposite the message on the hill side about half a mile away. I recall that there was a corn stack in just the right place, with a convenient ladder in position. Tripod and camera were hauled to the top but I don’t think I was allowed to go up as well.
The photographs turned out well; I found one in an album at Westbury cottage many years later and I believe the glass negative survived for a long time in a yellow (Kodak) cardboard box with others taken of the house and family and Peter the white mongrel dog, which we had in those days.
In later years, coming over Newham Hill at the end of a long drive from Herefordshire was a great event. The first to spot the church had to shout but it was always a dead heat between Richard, Jane and Mike!
The first house coming down the hill into the village was a large, smart red brick house where there lived the Misses Cater, I don’t remember what they looked like or who they were. Delivering milk, father always went down there by himself on those days when I was allowed to go with him on the round. I don’t recall seeing them! I suspect this was one of those calls where father was regaled with a glass of beer which he didn’t want me to know about.
A few yards further on were two semi-detached houses in one of which lived Mr and Mrs Pickett and their son Leo. Leo was kept much at home, I think. I don’t ever recall seeing him about the village. The other place next door we didn’t deliver to. I think they had milk from elsewhere. We didn’t speak of them.
At the bottom of the hill was a bungalow built about 1930 (‘Arbury’ 1 Newnham Hill, Jack Christy and his wife lived there; he was the son of Mrs Louisa Christy that kept the shop in the centre of the village (Ashwell Stores).
At this point the road out of the village forks, one way back up the hill to Newnham the other to Hinxworth and, running between them, “Karcot Edge” – ‘Kaarrcot’ they called it. A long drawn out first syllable cut short at the end in the North Hertfordshire way of speech. It wasn’t until many years after my early boyhood that I learned it was really “Caldecote Hedge”, an ancient hedge marking the boundary between two farms, Christy’s and Sale’s and a public footpath to the tiny hamlet of Caldecote, no more than a fly speck on the map and a place I have never been to!
About ¾ mile along the Hinxworth Road was a tiny wooden bungalow, squat and black with hens and pigs in its vicinity. One armed Percy Dellar and his brother lived there. The brother died and Percy lived there along for a long time until he courted and married Miss Gentle who had worked in the Post Office. I always thought it was a sad lonely place to live.
“West Point, a large gentleman’s house, was between the two roads. Mr & Mrs Marsden lived there. Mr Guy Marsden was a sales manager for a tyre company who went daily to London and other places. His daughter Barbara was a fellow pupil at Letchworth Grammar school who travelled daily on the bus to Letchworth with Bob Crump, Ken Miller and myself together with the trio from Guilden Morden – Murfitt, Pountney and Westrope; and kept us in order – we called her “Bossy Barbara”. She had a younger brother who was away at boarding school.
Another road started at this fork, Partridge Hill, in those days completely unmade with great deep ruts in the chalk; rock hard in summer and running with thin white mud in the winter. The first house up Partridge Hill was Partridge Hall, where lived the Cheethams. Mr Cheetham had a greengrocers shop in Letchworth.
The people before them I don’t remember but they kept goats which ranged free in the yard before the house. One day I had to take something there at mother’s request and there was no-one at home. After fruitless knocking I turned away from the door to go home to find a large Billy goat a few yards away and who quite obviously didn’t like me; head down it was about to “butt in”. I was in blind panic and all I could think of was to grab its horns.
It is truly said that fear gives strength, for I wrestled the goat as I retreated the 50 yards to the gate. Judging the moment to a nicety I let go and clambered over the gate; safely over, I turned to see the damned goat trotting at some speed back to its nannies – I must have upset it a bit.
Beyond Partridge Hall, near to the Iron Age ramparts known as Arbury Banks, were some very primitive cottages with a communal well, “very, very deep”, I was warned ominously. It was a picture book well: two uprights, a little pitched roof and windlass with a chain and bucket. It was a heavy galvanised 2 or 3 gallon bucket, the upper half sloping inwards to stop the water splashing out.
In one of the cottages lived (to me) a very old, bent and grimy looking woman with “witch” written all over her. She was one of the few people I was frightened of in those days. In another cottage lived Mr and Mrs Boness. Before moving to this cottage they had lived in a little house and shop in the High Street at the bottom of Kingsland Terrace where they sold boots and shoes. Twice a week Mr Boness, no chicken even then, would take a pack with some of his stock and trudge round the surrounding villages and remote farms selling what he could. I remember mother saying that is what caused him to be very ill and retire from his shop.
They had a daughter whose name was Louie Carveth; this was a mystery to me at the time and still is. Louie Carveth used to walk me up the street sometimes to the shops and she was also given charge of Roger and Peter in their pram later on.
From Partridge Hall running along the hillside above, parallel to the main line of the village, is “Ashwell Street”, the line of which runs for many miles beyond Ashwell to Morden and further into Cambridgeshire. An old Roman road, we were told, but in truth it is older being one of the many chalk land ridgeways of pre-Roman times. The stretch above the village was called “The Tops”. A Sunday stroll up Partridge Hill, along “The Tops” and back down Bear Lane was often fancied by relatives who came to stay with us. Along its length were only two houses at that time; in the first lived a Miss Cooper and in the next, called “Old Pest House”, lived Mr and Mrs Ward and son Clifford. Mr Ward was a Council roadman and I think Clifford was drowned at sea whilst serving in the Navy during the war.
Behind the “Old Pest House” was a ruined cottage but I think I have a vague recollection of someone living there in the early 1920’s. Miss Cooper had a pint of milk daily.
As access by pony drawn milk float or later by electric van was not possible, father had to walk up along steep narrow footpath from the Back Street. “Bloody long way for a pint of milk” I heard him mutter once.
Past West Point the road passes between steep high banks with no footpath for fifty yards or so until it parts into two roads, sweeping left to Front Street (High Street) and straight on to Back Street.
The bend to Front Street was thought to be a very dangerous corner even in those days when two or three cars per hour were thought to be busy. The bank had been turned into a high brick wall bounding the garden of Westbury House and it was marked in several places where vehicles had scraped along it. The thought of being caught walking along the road alongside this wall by a bus or Fordham’s brewery Foden steam lorry was a nightmare!
Up the left hand bank just where the wall started there was a bungalow built in the late 1930’s later lived in by Mrs Blagg and her daughter Josie and son Geoffrey. The latter was a collector of classical music records and from time to time we were invited to go to a recital; I found it a bit boring and I suspect both mother and father did as well, so I can’t really understand why we went.
Geoffrey joined the RAF and qualified as a pilot in Canada, afterwards being posted to a flying school as an instructor and was commissioned. I don’t think I ever met him again after the war although I recall it was widely suggested that we would have a lot to talk about. I suppose I might have had a bit of an edge had we met, even though he had been a Flying Officer, because I had been shot at by the Germans a number of times!
The spot where this bungalow was built was a good vantage point to see the R100 and R101 Airships – this was in 1929/30. Cardington, the Government Airship base, was just a few miles away and the great size of the airships ensured that they were clearly visible. A great exciting treat one day was being taken to see the R101 close to. I can’t remember how father and I got there but it was probably in Mark Crump’s car (he always had a new one every year). The R101 seemed to fill the sky, although we were in the long grass at the very edge of the airfield. One of the ships flew very low over Ashwell one morning, it was dark and its cabin lights illuminated us as we watched. Later the legend grew in the family that we had seen the ill fated R101 set out on its last voyage to disaster. This could not be true as the voyage actually started in the evening.
Other aeronautical treats were visits to the Hendon Air Pageant. This was always in June and it almost always was a fine day. Once it did rain and to my bitter disappointment there was very little flying.
We would go by car, usually a shiny Mark Crump Ford but at least once in a coupe with a “Dicky”. The car was a two seater but there was provision for two passengers in the back, a large flap was lifted up into an upright position and a couple of uncomfortable seats were thus revealed.
The flap induced quite vicious air currents so that the ride was never very enjoyable. I think the car belonged to Mr Pack, Loll Pack (People in Ashwell had some funny first names – Noah Geeves, Cueshy Harradine, Gersham Wylie, Dingle Biles etc).
Westbury House behind its high brick wall was quite large and in the 1920/30s was the home of Johnny Bailey who owned the village builders “J Bailey & Son”. He was virtually an unknown figure to me. The first time I met him was when he came and knocked on the door of Westbury Cottage one evening and announced that Mrs Fordham had decided to have the house wired for electricity and that work would start as soon as we wanted; “You can start this minute” said mother, seeing a vision of an electric cooker in the kitchen.
Johnny Bailey must have become more affable in later years because he offered me rides home from Haverill in Suffolk in 1944. He owned a laundry business there and I was station at RAF Stradishall nearby. A weekend leave pass and his business trip coincided only once but as the rail journey via Bury St Edmonds and Cambridge took the best part of a day it was very welcome on that occasion.
He had a daughter, Peggy Bailey, who was what was called a “Bright Young Thing”. She married Captain Broad who was reputed to be a Test Pilot for the De-Havilland Aircraft Company and they drove about in a zippy little open sports car.
Later, Westbury House was occupied by Peggy Broad who had by then remarried a Mr Fouracres. Father didn’t have much time for him, he referred to him as “Mr Bloody sixteen roods”.
The little triangle formed by the junction of Front and Back Street and the “Twitchell” (a footpath between the two streets) contained a cottage and garden occupied in the 1930’s by the Woollards. There were two sons, Reg was a conductor on the Eastern National buses while Charlie was what would be called today ‘one of the disabled’. He had a painful to watch shuffling mode of progression and a perpetual violent tremor of his right arm and jaw. Thus he couldn’t articulate clearly, although “His parents could understand every word he said” according to mother, reprimanding me for complaining that I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was suffering from the after effects of sleeping sickness she said. “Going home from a dance one night he suddenly saw double”; I clearly remember her saying, as if it explained all.
Charlie was the first to arrive at the Ashwell Men’s Club every night when it opened; in fact he would call at Westbury Cottage to collect the key which was left for him on the ledge by the front door. I often used to wonder how his hand tremor allowed him to get it in the lock. The great attraction for him was that there was a wireless; apparently he always sat next to it the whole evening no matter what the programme.
On the other side of the road at the beginning of Back Street was a white thatched cottage approached by walking up a very steep bank. Old Mr and Mrs Willats lived there. I never went inside the garden as the front door was outside the fence but I used to go to buy eggs and apples in season. I had to take a basket for the fruit and old Mrs Willats would take it and weigh the apples into it. She always gave me an apple for myself which I thought was very kind indeed until I realised that she took the apple from the basket after she had weighted the contents!
Mother always called them “Old Mr and Mrs Willats” for no reason as far as I could see as there were never any young ones about and they didn’t look a great deal older than most other people I knew. There must have been some young ones because just before the war two teenage grandchildren appeared, a boy whose name I have forgotten and a girl who was known as “Tink” Willats; She was very pretty and a bit of a one for the boys!
The large block of land opposite the end of Westbury Cottage and extending across to Back Street was occupied by F C Miller & Son, Agricultural Engineers. Although I can dimly remember other people being there before and horses being shod in one of the sheds on the site I don’t recall who it was. Whatever they were called they must have had the need for an enormous supply of petrol because I remember a great hole being dug and an enormous (it seemed to me) tank being lowered into it and being covered over. Later a single petrol pump appeared nearby. This was just inside the fence opposite Westbury Cottage.
The son of F C Miller & Son was Kenneth Miller, Kenny as he was known. He was about my age and we were constant companions. He, like so many other kids in the village, was in perpetual fear of his parents and there were many “no-go” areas for us on the site, consequently we played mostly around Westbury Cottage, in the “cellars” and by the village hall.
Mrs Miller was a waspish woman with a sharp tongue and a loud voice. At dinner time she would shout “Kenny” from her garden gate across the road and a good hundred yards away. Kenny was back home almost before the echoes had died down, no matter what we were doing. His father was a hard working man, always it seemed in filthy greasy overalls and carrying some unidentifiable chunk of metal.
One day I was on our side of the road and Ken on the other, we were having a lot of fun throwing stone for each other to catch, telling ourselves that they were eggs. Ken made a bad throw and the stone, it must have been flint with a sharp edge, caught me on the forehead; instantly producing blood and a lot of shock! I fled into the house yelling and was treated with lint and iodine and kind sympathy. A little later Mrs Miller arrived dragging poor, miserable, wretched, Ken and proceeded to thrash him.
Ken was rolling about on the cobbles in front of our door getting the benefit of his mother’s strong arm and indignation. I must ashamedly admit that I watched with a certain amount of smug interest not feeling at all sorry for my best friend. Mother felt differently and stopped the show by snatching the strap. I expect some fairly pointed remarks were made but I don’t remember, I think by then I had scuttled off inside out of sight.
Ken told me later that he had run home in a panic and hidden in a shed near his house but his mother instinctively knowing something was up rousted him out and bullied the story out of him. We remained best of mates in spite of this incident.
The Millers moved about 1928/9 to a house and yard at the top of Kingsland Terrace where there were sheds and enough room to carry on the business. Across the road was a chalkpit, long disused where Mr Miller had his vegetable garden. There was also a small patch of ground fenced off which contained a little row of wooden pig styes. These were the property of Ashwell Young Farmers Club.
Another garden belonging to a Miss Walkden was situated in the chalk pit as well but the chalk pit was so large there was still a very extensive wild part where we could play adventure games, spying and stalking.
Some parts of the pit had precipitous edges which were probably quite dangerous. Once we conceived the idea of tunnelling into the chalk cliff. We didn’t get far in as our mining tools were not of the most suitable kind. I then thought we ought to try blasting like real tunnellers and as it was about October we got some fireworks, 1/2 penny bangers or “Little Demons” as they were called. The powder was emptied from a few of these and tamped into a laboriously drilled hole at the end of the tunnel, about 3’ in.
Being a bit scientific and being the owner of a Lotts Chemistry set I made fuses from string soaked in saltpetre solution and dried. When all was ready and the fuse was lit we scampered like stampeding cattle down the slope away from the cave mouth and behind a prepared shelter.
Sadly, although the fuses worked and the powder ignited it didn’t explode, it just burned violently and harmlessly, producing a horizontal jet of smoke from the tunnel opening. Just as well I suppose, because if there had been a real proper loud blast Mrs Miller would have exploded as well!
I was disappointed because it had been well planned and I had made a special “strong box” of cardboard to carry the firework powder and fuses up to the chalk pit from Westbury Cottage, painted red, marked with a skull and crossbones and lettered “Danger High Explosive”! The chalk pit has now been largely filled with council rubbish but perhaps high up under the southern edge the “tunnel” can still be seen.
The pit contained two underground [chambers] with a vent to ground level at one end. These were old kilns where chalk had once been burned to make quicklime. Also access to the pit and to Miller’s garden from their engineering yard was via a tunnel under the road. There were actually two tunnels side by side within a few yards but one was filled with rubble.
To return to Front Street, the house where the Millers lived was (and still is) long, low and generously thatched and is now known as the Chantry House. I have been told that it was once a pub called “The British Queen”.
I have no recollection of the people who followed the Millers except they had a dog called “Gyp” of which I was very fond. It was a longish haired brown and tan animal and it followed me everywhere.
One day I was in the Dairy Yard and when it was time to go home I set off towards the gate calling Gyp. He rushed on past me and out into the road where he was promptly squashed dead by the bus from Hitchin. This was the saddest sorrow I had to contend with. I went off food and cried for days.
The next people I recall were the Fergusons, a connection of the doctor’s family I think. After them came the Bowmans. The Bowmans had a bull terrier built like a little white tank. Mother volunteered me to take Sam for a walk daily when I was home. (Probably this was at the time I was at Central Tech in Birmingham).
Apparently Mr Bowman was ill and Mrs Bowman couldn’t cope with the dog. That dog took me for several walks, once out of the gate it tugged and strained, literally pulling me along at a sharp trot. It was the “strongest dog in the world” and it took me every time up the “Karcot Edge” for about ½ mile. Having “done its business”, as Big Grandma would have said, it set off home again, only changing pace when it got back to within sight of its own patch when it went a bit faster. I was very pleased when Mr Bowman recovered enough to walk his own dog.
Just by the Chantry House the Front Street curved round to the right to take its straight line through the village for a mile to the Recreation Ground or the “Playground” as we always called it. I think it is only in recent years that it has become officially known as the “Recreation Ground”.
On the left of the bend is the entrance to Westbury Farm where lived Benny Christy, his wife and two sons, Robbie and Ray. The family had been at this farm for generations. I remember Benny Christy as a little stumpy man who always wore a bowler hat with the addition of a button hole on Sundays when he and Mrs Christy walked to church. Mrs Christy was a brisk little woman who always wore long glass earrings. They were an incongruous pair, one briskly pitter pattering and the other bow-leggedly lumbering down the road.
They had a domestic, one called Ethel Findings, who I am told used to perambulate me in my infancy.
Christy’s rickyard was the scene every year of steam threshing. The tackle came over the hill from Henlow or Stotfold I think, the engine towing the threshing drum and the elevator to set up in the yard to deal with corn sheaves which had been built into stacks during the previous harvest.
I found it quite exciting although I was allowed to do no more than gaze at the activity from the upper windows of Westbury Cottage. The huffing and puffing of the steam engine and the fluctuating whine of the drum I remember well.
The next door farm, John Sale’s was a mystery. Nothing could be seen because the street frontage was high walled and for some reason I never dared to step inside the gate and peep. This may be because John Sale was to me a rather intimidating figure. He never seemed to smile nor a greeting although one was supposed to say “good morning Mr Sale”, like a well mannered little boy. He almost always went out round his farm lands on horseback but he did I think have a little car which he drove looking as though he would prefer it to have reins rather than a steering wheel! Both Mr Christy and Mr Sale wore breeches and leather leggings, no green wellies in those days!
On the other side of the road from the two farms were a number of cottages, a mixture of timber and plaster with some brick. Some of the old ones had been demolished before the First World War having been “condemned”, as people said. Who condemned them I don’t know. Today they would be refurbished and sold for many thousands of pounds.
The first past the Chantry House garden was a detached tumbledown pink-washed cottage where lived a very old bent little man called Mr Robinson. I recall one very hot day in the summer, I was coming home from school and being thirsty I knocked there for a glass of water which of course I was given. Unfortunately turning to go I tripped over one of the horseshoes that had been driven into the ground to retain the front door step. My gashed knee poured with blood and I rushed home only to get a row from mother for being so cheeky as to disturb the old Mr Robinson, when I was so near home. “Whatever will he think of you?” I was asked. I was worried for years after thinking about what would people think of me. Mr Robinson’s cottage was eventually “condemned” and Mr John Bray Snr built himself a modern house on the site.
Further along came a number of small brick cottages which had various inhabitants over the years that I remember. Mr & Mrs Picking with sons Alan, Leon and Ivan lived in one. Mr Picking was a carpenter working for Bailey.
Mrs Picking was another of those sharp tongued hostile women. There seemed to be so many of them at that time. Alan was scared of his mum and did everything possible to avoid getting dirty. He once tore his trousers while playing by the village hall, only slightly, but he went home white and visibly trembling.
Len Haylock, Mrs Haylock and daughter Nellie lived in a cottage called “Niton”. I couldn’t see why they called it after a radio-active element; Niton being an alternative to Radium. Perhaps it was supposed to be an anagram of “not in”?
Len had worked once at Page’s Brewery and remembered well the days when Westbury Cottage had been it’s offices. He later worked as village hall caretaker and I took care to keep clear of him as far as we could as he was a bit bad tempered. I once made a lot of paper aeroplanes, a fleet of bombers, naming each one in careful pencilling on the fuselage “Inflexible”, Inexorable” and so on getting all these names from the dictionary but not really bothering to read the definition. “Indefatigable” was one I was very proud of, however, being called home in a hurry one day, I left all these on the village hall steps and of course forgot them. Len Haylock grumbled to father about the “mess”, but I don’t suppose he got much sympathy as he said the paper planes had been burned.
Nellie Haylock I remember as being very fat. I got the idea that her shoes were too small; she walked “gingerly” although she was so large. Mrs Haylock was friendly and smiled, definitely not one of the vinegary women of the village.
Len was also the custodian of the waterworks up above the village along the Bygrave Road. It was always neat and tidy, the grass mown, even over the top covering of the reservoir. The gate was always securely locked so there was no opportunity for the village boys to get into mischief in there; anyway they all kept their distance from Len Haylock.
In later years, after the war, he was for a while the custodian of the Ashwell Village Museum and was always quite affable and chatty to me. He once told me that the carving on the inside wall of the church tower, considered by visiting antiquaries to be a depiction of the old, pre-Wren, St Paul’s Cathedral, had been carved by himself.
His first job, he said, had been with the village firm of builders and one day, when they were doing a repair job in the belfry he had been left at the bottom to load the things they required into a bucket to be pulled up by the men above. To while away the time between buckets he carved the picture. “I could always draw well when I was at school”, he said.
Another cottage was lived in by the Moles, Albert (Herbert?) Mole, tall and thin and his tiny cross-eyed wife, little Doreen. Standing well back from the road, next door to “Niton” was a big block of a house which had a stone tablet on it stating that it was a Primitive Methodist Chapel. It wasn’t, though, because it had been turned into two dwellings, in one lived Mr Bill Barnes who was married to Mabel Sheldrick, he had been in the Merchant Navy and, it was said, had been all over the world.
To prove it they had a large intricate model of a Chinese Junk on their sideboard which son Billy Barnes was not allowed to touch. Billy was a particular mate of mine with an interest in model aeroplanes. We built several in my cubby hole den in Westbury Cottage.
Billy joined the Navy in about 1940 and was lost at sea. His sister Joan, when married, went to live in the Woollard’s house and later was for a long time the cook at the village school.
Mrs Barnes was another of those rather distant and unfriendly women, not waspish and hostile like the mothers of some of my playmates but I felt she had to be respected. Bill’s father was rarely seen, he worked in the Law Courts in London as a commissionaire or something, sometimes travelling up to town daily on the first “workman’s” train in the morning and sometimes staying in London all week only coming home at the weekends.
Billy used to boast that they sometimes dug up bones in their front garden because that was where they buried the primitive Methodists when their house had been a chapel. He never proved it satisfactorily for me by producing a bone for inspection.
A bit further on is Wilson’s Lane, connecting Front and Back Street and on the corner are some extremely ancient thatched cottages. Three names are associated with this group but the people were all the same family. Mrs Geeves (Maudie) and Noah Geeves, Maudie’s daughter by her first marriage Violet Goodchild and Maudie’s son Jack Geeves.
Violet later married a sailor, Bob Crack, and lived next door to her mum. Bob Crack must have been at sea for very long periods as I can only remember seeing him about twice dressed in sailor’s gear.
Maudie had a loud raucous voice, surprisingly so for one so small, being only about 4’9” but as she was almost 4’9” wide she certainly had adequate lung capacity. She would shout a greeting to me from over the road as I hurried down the street on an errand for mother. I always crossed over onto the other side as I didn’t like being shouted at much.
Opposite were the Rands; Mr Rand had a building and odd jobbing business. Son Gerald must have gone away to school as I don’t recall him being at either of the village schools I went to. They didn’t aspire to a lorry: their men used to push a hand cart loaded with their needs when working about the village.
The yard gateway was between the house and some outbuildings in which there was a small bakery run by Mr Morley who lived in Hinxworth. He had two sons Ronald and Dennis who attended the Merchant Taylors’ School. How they travelled in from Hinxworth I don’t remember. Several Hinxworth children went to the Merchant Taylors’ school but I only remember the Morleys, a girl called Olive Street and her brother George.
Next to the Rands the house, Wellesbourne, was built in the 1920’s for Mr Charlie Walker. It remained empty for a long time. It was said that he had it built to live in when he got married but the marriage didn’t take place. When he did move in a couple called Mr & Mrs Osbourne lived there as well.
Charlie was in Customs and Excise and worked in London. He went very early in the morning to catch a train at Baldock, driving a Morris “Bullnose” car.
The Osbournes owned an identical car and they were always parked in the road – they never used the garage. The Osbournes eventually disappeared. Perhaps Charlie kicked them out: it was said they didn’t get on very well together.
When Charlie Walker retired after the war he became much more sociable and took up old tyme dancing, amateur dramatics etc. Every week quite a number of folk would go and dance in the big room in Wellesbourne. Mother and father went and so would I when at home; this must have been in 1946.
He also joined the Youth Hostels Association and he and I went on a walking tour of Somerset and Devon in about 1946. Charlie was a great man for his beer. After we set out from the hostel each morning he would take a normal pace but as opening time approached he got faster and faster, often leaving me far behind. I never lost him; he was always to be found in the next pub!
Opposite Wellesbourne were a couple of old cottages and a bungalow. The only people living there that I can remember and name are the Hoeys, an Australian couple who lived in one of the old cottages in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. They were active in amateur dramatics which flourished in the village at that time.
Brown’s meadow, opposite Brown’s Farm, still unbuilt on today although it must be worth untold thousands of pounds to a developer, was really an orchard and had a number of pear and plum trees; in the centre was an enormous walnut tree.
Farmer Brown’s milking herd were brought slowly across the road several times a day to be milked in the sheds adjacent to the farmhouse. I don’t think they had a milk round but their few customers would call at the farm with their jugs and cans to be filled daily.
Farmer Brown always looked a bit miserable I thought. The farm had a gate onto Back Street a hundred yards or so from the Front Street gate and it was a test of daring for the village lads to run through without being caught or at least shouted at by Mr Brown. I never tried.
There were two sons: one Geoff was killed in a motor cycle accident during the war, which left Mont to run the farm. Mont was a bustling young chap with a cheery word for everyone. His sister, Wilma, as she was known, but perhaps it was Wilhelmina, was I thought plain and grumpy (she was probably overworked). She later married John Bray the builder, son of Walter.
Next to Brown’s meadow were two cottages, Sheldrick and Waldock. Mrs Waldock was ponderous and for a while was caretaker of the village hall. She always had some spicy item of gossip to tell mother when she went by Westbury Cottage each morning. In my confused non-understanding view of the world from half heard and obscure snatches of adult conversation were many misconceptions.
Mrs Waldock was very stout and had an enormous bust. I thought that was because she wore a corset and I couldn’t understand why she did so. It must have been very uncomfortable I thought.
Two prim and proper late Victorian semi-detached villas came next with gardens always neat and tidy. Christys lived in one and Westropes in the other. I do remember people before the Westropes but can’t remember their name.
Percy Christy, a dapper little man with steel framed spectacles and stubby little moustache had to do with “Christy Coal Merchant and Mineral Waters” a bit further up the street. His son Gilbert was always amiable and aimless. He was always neatly dressed but never did any work, which fact I accepted as normal until someone told me he couldn’t work because “he was not all there”. I held him in suspicion after that and would cross the road if I saw him coming.
The Saddler’s shop was a delight to me, I loved to call there and stand in the doorway watching Mr Trudgill at work. He seemed to sew miraculously easily through great thick pieces of leather as he repaired the harness from Bluegates Farm horses.
I expect other farms brought in repairs as well but the shop belonged to Mrs Fordham and Mr Trudgill lived in Mill Street in a farm cottage.
There was for many years another man working in the shop. He had a bench further back and remains a shadowy figure in the memory. He rarely spoke and I can’t remember his name, perhaps I never knew it, perhaps he didn’t have one! I rarely went to the back of the shop where there was a back door leading to the dairy yard and never went up the open tread stair-way-cum-ladder to the upper room. The place had a characteristic smell compounded of leather, varnish, soft soap and brass.
The Saddler’s shop was an integral part of a house on the west side of the dairy yard entrance but as far as I knew there was no communication between the shop and the house.
The head cowman lived in the house in the twenties. He was a Scotsman, Gersham Wylie. He was a good natured chap and he tolerated what must have been a nuisance, my habit of hanging about in the cowshed at milking time, getting in the way and hindering by talking to the milkers Arthur Webb: Arthur Hansford and later George Noble were the names I remember.
I am vague about Tom Wylie and his sister Alison (who were about the same age as me) as to whether they lived at the diary or not. They did live at the “cuckoo” a beer house on the way to Hinxworth for a while and they went to the village schools. They were both very slightly built, were gentle and well mannered, not at all like the general run of village kids and they never had a trace of the local accent.
The schoolmaster, Mr Dingle Biles, always called Tom Wylie “Thomas a’Didymus” which I am sure was very boring for Tom. I always meant to look in a reference book to find out who Thomas a’Didymus was but I haven’t got round to doing so yet. Mr Biles ought to have explained to us at the time but explaining things wasn’t his strong point.
The Dairy and the Milk Rounds
The Dairy yard and entrance was flanked by the Cowman’s house on one side and by a pair of ancient thatched cottages on the other. These latter were lived in by what seemed to me equally ancient people. The cottages were “condemned” and pulled down and I suppose the people were condemned as well – to the Workhouse perhaps.
Naturally I had the freedom of the dairy yard and I used it well. The two great black timber barns were my adventure playground and I wandered in and out of the cowshed and dairy at will, getting underfoot no doubt, but always good humouredly tolerated. I was sometimes allowed, when Mr Wylie wasn’t looking, to try my hand at milking but it didn’t appeal to me much and I never succeeded in getting any results.
Arthur Hansford’s favourite trick, as he sat hunched on his little three legged milking stool, was to slyly twist his wrist and direct a jet of milk at me as I was watching, while in the dairy during the afternoon washing down of the floor with buckets of water, Arthur Webb would skilfully make as though he would wash me down as well! Happily the water would just miss to the right or left of my legs, great fun!
The dairy building was a single storey wooden shed with a thatched roof. At one end was the boiler room where a small vertical boiler raised steam for the hot after washing and sterializing of the milking pails and the churns used for delivery. It was not very clean, dust and cobwebs were plentiful, there was also a pile of coke and often a barrow load of ashes but it was warm and cosy.
Father had a high desk in there where he would sit and do his daily round books. On the end of the desk someone had idly carved “A N Howes” and underneath “A N Other”; I wondered who “A N Other” would be, when I asked father he never said - “We don’t see much of him” was the mysterious reply.
Next to this was a room smoothly plastered where the washing of cans etc was done and a set of wooden steps led up to a platform about six feet above the floor. The milk was carried in two five gallon cans from the cow shed and up the steps to be poured into a container from which it would run, piped through the wall, into a cooler in the next room
The person carrying was helped by wearing a yoke across his shoulders. The yoke was a long piece of wood broad in the middle and shaped to fit the shoulders of the wearer whose neck fitted neatly into a semi-circular cut out in the centre. The cans were clipped to the end of chains hanging from the extremities of the device.
Cooling was effected by running the milk down the outer surface of a water filled box. This was perhaps 3’6” x 2’6” diameter with about ½” between the front and the back of the box. These front and back surfaces were corrugated to produce a greater surface area. The cooling agent, being water from the main, was not particularly effective in the summer.
The milk ran into churns made from what must have been heavily tinned steel with brass bands around the bottom and middle and fitted with a brass top. This had a removable brass key which lessened the chance of the tap being accidently kicked or knocked open.
There was also a cream separator (the skimmed milk being taken from the dairy for the pigs to consume) and a wooden butter churn which had to be turned by hand. Mother worked at the dairy in the 1920’s making butter. The successful separation of the fat depended on the temperature and took longer in the warm weather and the hotter the weather the greater the chores of butter tub turning; mother was a bit short tempered on such days.
The made butter was shaped in ½lb blocks with a pair of wooden “butter hands”, like table tennis bats only oblong in shape. To finish off the wooden block of butter was given a slap with a “hand” which had a recessed cow shape and lettering carved into it, so that it was plainly marked “Farm Butter” and with bas-relief cow for emphasis.
In later years there were a number of changes, the water cooler disappeared and a refrigeration unit was installed. The churns of milk were stored in a cold room overnight and the milk was pre-chilled with water cooled by the unit.
A steam chest was also installed which could be filled with all the churns, cans and measures. Steam would be blown in and the pressure allowed to rise to (I think) 5lbs per square inch which was maintained for 30 minutes. The chest was by no means a rigid pressure vessel in an engineering sense being made of comparatively thin steel sheet. When it was cooling down the return of the internal pressure to normal was signalled by a frighteningly loud booming noise as the sides resumed their normal shape.
About 1938 the horse drawn milk float and the horse, known as Robert, were retired and an electric van was brought into use. This was a nine day wonder in the village and a bit of a joke for many people. It would only go at about 6 or 7 mph and its range between charges was a bit limited, fortunately enough to do the required rounds.
At night it was “stabled” in the place where the horse drawn float had always been kept, a brick built shed near and part of the cowman’s house/saddlers shop block. By morning it had fed itself on enough electric charge for another day.
Father was derided a bit for driving such an unconventional and strange looking vehicle but as he said later “everyone was a bit jealous when petrol rationing came into force and he had no need to apply for and argue about petrol coupons”.
One disadvantage of the new vehicle was soon apparent; father found he had actually to stop it at each house he called at, whereas the old horse didn’t need to be told! I think there were two or three horses over the years but as they were all called Robert, it seems in memory as though there was but one. One of them at least had a reputation for being clever. It got out of its stall early one morning and wondered up the street to Westbury Cottage where it waited about cropping the roadside grass, until father emerged at 5.45 am!
It must have been about 1945 or 1946 when the dairy roof caught fire, I don’t know if a reason was ever found but as it was thatched it burned well once it started. Ashwell had a bit of a Fire Service then as part of the general ARP organisation. Civil Defence as it was properly called.
The village team performed well using stirrup pumps and long rakes to pull the thatch off. Thatch does not burn that readily as it is so tightly packed and the air does not get in to help the combustion so there was time to get help from the Baldock Fire Brigade.
The incident stands out in my memory particularly because father asked if I would go up to Westrope’s shop and get a few dozen bottles of beer to refresh the firemen after the danger was passed. Charles Westrope was very sympathetic but would not let me have any. It was “out of hours”! Being mid-afternoon it was illegal to sell at that time. However, the problem was solved when I wrote out an order. This meant that the beer could then be delivered to the dairy by someone from the shop!
Behind the dairy was “The Kitchen Garden”. Completely walled off with “Clunch walls (thatched along the top to preserve them from rain erosion) it was supposed to supply fruit and vegetables and probably a few flowers to the Bury where Mrs Fordham lived.
There must have been a large surplus as she had no family and judging from her remembered appearance she couldn’t have been a big eater.
The beds in this garden were edged with little box hedges about 12” high and the paths were of stone slabs with grass edges. I took no interest in the crops but I do recall there were several clumps of Peonies with large deep crimson flowers. For years I had no interest in telling one flower from another but I could always recognise a peony! At the far end of the garden from the dairy there were some fruit trees and bushes including some which produced large sweet red gooseberries. There were also some beehives which I investigated one summer’s day by poking a stick into the “front door” of one of them. The bees were upset and I was stung all over. I can clearly remember squatting in front of the hive and pushing the stick in but have no memory of the stings or running to the dairy for help, which I must have done as mother was there butter making.
Mother told me in later years that some of the butter was used on my stings. This sort of happening in childhood is often quoted as being the reason for phobias, so I ought to have remained terrified of bees ever since, but this has never been the case.
Another memory of the garden is of the water barrow, a big oval galvanised open topped tank which could have held twenty gallons at least, this would be trundled around the paths for use where watering was called for. The tank was fitted with a manually operated pump and a short length of hose with a spray nozzle.
One of the great black wooden barns in the dairy yard was pulled down long before the war started. This was the one opposite the dairy building and was not quite as big as the cowshed.
It was open fronted and was used as a store for wood. Great logs, tree trunks in fact, were brought there and sometimes men from the farm would come to saw them up with a long two handed cross-cut saw. Presumably this was for a supply of logs for The Bury but some were always kept for the dairy boiler.
I recall falling one day, open legged onto the saw horse and suffering a considerable pain and shock. I don’t remember whether I was taken to Dr Woodforde or whether he came to the dairy. I remember both mother and father were very anxious about something that might have happened to me but eventually my voice broke in the usual way so I suppose they were then reassured that all was well.
The shed was later taken down and a way made for the cattle to come through from Lawyers Close to be milked instead of having to come twice a day round by the road and via the High Street into the dairy yard. It must have been at about this time that the dairy was refurbished and re-organised for bottling milk. Hitherto the milk had been delivered into customer’s jugs on their door steps.
The milk float was a two wheeled cart with two sides and an ornate shaped front with brass guides for the reins. It was painted blue and was neatly sign written “Bluegates Farm Dairy”. At the back was a step to help in climbing in.
There were no seats but the front third had a shelf across the full width of the vehicle on which the churn was rested and strapped firmly in place. It was a heavy churn containing at least twenty gallons – maybe more. A lot of effort was needed to man handle it out of the dairy and along the few yards to where the float was drawn up and then to lift it onto the float floor and then again up onto the shelf. Once there, the churn was at a convenient height for the two gallon can to be set under its tap.
The “door-to-door” can was made of heavily tinned steel embellished with a brass hinged, stout, well fitting lid stamped “Bluegates Farm Dairy”. There were also two measures, 1 pint and ½ pint capacities, also made from heavy tinned steel, with a shiny brass band round the top and fitted with a tall curved vertical handle. When not in use the measures were hung by this handle inside the can. The customers brought their own jugs to the door to be filled using the measure; father generally added a tiny bit extra.
There were three rounds each day, the first starting early in the morning at about 6.30 am covered the village, High Street and Station Road council houses then Mill Street, Hodwell and Back Street.
I think this involved a return to the dairy at some point to pick up another churnful. As I never went with father on this round I am not sure of the route or the procedure. He would come home for breakfast at about 10 am, bringing a whole batch of newspapers to be delivered on the next round.
He always had porridge made by boiling Scotts Quaker Oats in milk until it was a sticky semi solid goo. I had to watch it and keep it stirred if he was late and mother was busy. A hateful job because it would so easily burn in the saucepan bottom.
Whenever I see television documentaries these days about volcanoes and such with larva pools and plopping explosive bubbles accompanied by occasional jets of steam I think of father’s porridge.
Naturally this only happened if I were home from school at holiday times. At such times I could have the great treat of looking at some of the papers. Not the ones for the gentry of course, The Times or the Morning Post, but the Daily Mirror (quite different then from today, it was almost respectable, having regard to the tastes of the day of course). The Daily Sketch, The News Chronicle, Daily Mail and Daily Herald (only one copy of that as I recall). I would only glance at the Herald if I could be sure Mother wouldn’t notice!
I was a strip cartoon fan more than anything else. Teddy Tail, Uncle Oojah, Bringing up Father, an American strip about Maggie and Jiggs and the latter’s domestic troubles with his social climbing wife were ones I remember.
After breakfast father would always retire upstairs to the bathroom with his round books and sit for about twenty minutes on the loo entering up the morning deliveries, how much and monies paid etc.
The next mid morning round was Newnham Hill, Partridge Hill and then “out into the country”: Gardener’s Lane, Elbrook House, Bluegates, Beresfords and back to the village. This was a round I often went on. It was quiet, green and leafy; we hardly ever met any other traffic, no tractors, cars or lorries, just the rare farm cart, horse drawn of course.
In the afternoon there was a long trip as far as Ashwell Station and back. I always hoped to see a train at the station but the LNER timed their trains specially to disappoint me. If there was time, father would look in at the station booking office to bandy good natured words with the booking clerk (whose name I have completed forgotten)
He was a highly strung sort of chap always worrying in case the trains were late. I think this was because quite a lot of his passengers were “First Class Upper Class” who held him personally responsible for the punctuality of the trains and would give him a dressing down if they were late.
Although father had a good sense of humour I wasn’t aware that he was a practical joker but years later he told me how one day he phoned this unfortunately booking clerk and, mimicking the voice of Mr Snow-Fordham, asked the time of the next train to Auchmunchie (somewhere in Scotland), how long it would take and the exact time of arrival, asking him to phone back in no more than three minutes. It must have been on one long-gone April 1st.
When the electric van was brought into use and the milk was in bottles the pattern of rounds was changed. The whole lot was done by about 1 o’clock and the afternoon round was not needed. The delivery at the door-step was quicker, the van could carry more than the float and, although slower than a petrol van, it was quicker than Robert.
I was always eager to go with father on the rounds and enjoyed the rides round the lanes, getting kind words and the occasional sweetie, giggling when Robert farted and talking wise words at the kitchen doors about how I was getting on at school.
It must have always been summer time and fine weather because that’s how I remember it. They would never have let me go in the stormy winter, with my chest. Grandma would never have allowed it for one!
Father, on the other hand, travelled those lanes 7 days a week, for years, in an open milk float, in sun, rain, hail and snow. He must have come home many times cold, soaked and miserable.
Over the pre-war years I recall twenty shops in the village; very few have survived as shops today.
At the junction of Spring Lane and High Street, Arthur Kirchin’s mother opened a small general store for grocery and sweets which didn’t survive very long.
The corner house at the bottom of Kingsland Terrace was where the Boness’s had their boot and shoe shop, opposite was a corn and feed shop (perhaps a branch of a larger shop in Royston) which was run by a cheerful little chap named Dan; he wore an old torn brown cowcoat and was always covered with dust from the sacks of bran and chicken feed which was his stock in trade.
In the grey brick row of cottages between the chapel and Angell’s farmhouse a tall cadaverous looking man had a bicycle repair shop. He eventually closed either from old age, ill health or competition from Collis’s further down the High Street. After being empty for sometime the premises were taken over by a Miss Stamford selling knitting wools and ladies garments.
While not actually a shop, Vine Villa was the home of Mr Ketteridge who had a couple of hire cars on offer. I think he once owned the garage further down the street in the mid 1920’s and retired from it with the cars to supplement his 10/- a week old age pension.
Next door Westrope’s was a big shop – “Grocers and Drapers, Families waited on Daily”. Grocery was on the right drapery on the left as one entered and through to the back where there were ladies dresses and hats etc.
Mr Albon usually worked behind the grocery counter with Mr Westrope but on a couple of days per week he would set out on his bicycle round to customers to take orders for groceries which he scribbled down into a little notebook. He would come to Westbury Cottage on Thursday morning settling comfortably at the table with a cup of tea and a bit of gossip.
Mr Albon was in trouble at the start of food rationing in 1940. He would cut each piece of cheese according to the weight allowed and if it was slightly overweight he would cut a tiny bit off to make it “legal” and pop it into his mouth – people objected!
A few doors away was the chemist shop owned by “Pills” Burton MPS FBOA., a chubby little man, very cheerful and jokey. He had a good singing voice and was a stalwart member of the operatic society which flourished in the 1920’s; he played comic parts.
Next was a butcher’s shop which was kept by two brothers called Ashwell. We never bought meat from them always patronising Crump’s or Dennis.
Almost opposite Ashwells there was for a short time a greengrocery shop in the end house of the row adjacent to the house where Mr Roger Barlee lived. This shop seemed always dark and dirty, the goods displayed in old boxes arranged on very crude shelving, the floor was stone slabs and didn’t ever appear to have been swept being covered in mud, squashed vegetable leaves and bits of paper.
Fanny Adkins and her sister sold sweets and drapery next door to the garage, on the corner of Church Lane. They were old and a bit daft, in the opinion of some of the rougher kids who used to go in groups and confuse them by being noisy and cheeky.
I think the sister died and Fanny soldiered on for a while before finally shutting the shop. This must have been about the end of 1939 because I had left Ashwell to live in Coventry by then. Mother told me that a relative of the Adkins came and decided to sell off the stock cheaply and the sale turned into a shambles as people scrambled for the bargains; she was quite indignant about it.
As a boy I don’t think I ever went into the shop more than about once or twice, I have the idea that I was discouraged from doing so. Perhaps they thought I would be tainted by those who were cheeky.
Mother certainly disapproved of Bert Collis who opened a bicycle shop opposite the garage in the thirties, I didn’t ever go in there. Perhaps the reason was that Bert had appeared from London, bought the cottage and ripped off the ancient pargetted plaster front and built in a modern shop window with a pebble dash surround. Anyway Bert Collis’s was off limits for me.
Similarly the Co-op was definitely off limits. Mother had distaste for the Co-op and wouldn’t touch anything from there. I went and bought some item from there once, because Westropes was out of stock; mother was quite upset and sent it back!
Opposite the Co-op was Day’s bakery, now famous nationwide for winning the Bakery of the Year Competition and featured on national TV.
Back over the road next to the Co-op was a little single storey place which was a hair dressers. It must have opened in the early 1930’s as a men’s barber shop and was later run as a ladies hairdresser by someone who came over from Baldock daily. This person would also visit houses to do hairdressing for those who didn’t want to go to the shop. She often came to Westbury Cottage to trim and curl mother’s hair using curling tongs, heated with tablets of metaldehyde in a little tin burner.
Next across the lane was an old established greengrocer, run when I was small by George Holloway and family. George was nicknamed “Fishy toenail” goodness knows why? He was a nice friendly chap, lean and a bit lazy and usually needing a shave. He had a stint as village hall caretaker for a while but not for long as it was hard work, the hall being very much used in those days, he rarely wore any footwear but dirty white tennis pumps.
A house away was the blacksmith’s shop, a wooden shed with a stable door, bare of chestnut trees but a great attraction for small boys released from the infant school and who had run down the Twitchell by the side of the Rose & Crown. Clanging and banging and a roaring forge were exciting sounds. The blacksmith, Mr Bean, lived in the house alongside.
Opposite the blacksmith’s at the end of the Twitchell was a tiny brick “shed” where there worked a cobbler, he came every day on motorbike from Baldock.
In the wide bit of the High Street were three shops, Dennis (Tommy Disher Dennis the butcher “Where you meat with satisfaction”). Christy the “Family Grocer and Draper”, who also described themselves, perhaps on the sides of the delivery van, rather grandly, as “Provision Merchants”, and the Post Office.
In the Post Office Miss Christy and Miss Gentle dealt with the stamps and postal orders together with newspapers and a limited supply of stationery. Miss Christy was of that branch of the Christy family who owned the “pop” factory, mineral waters as they were called. A & C Christy had a fairly big yard alongside their red brick double gabled house. The yard extended to Silver Street and from this they ran a business as coal merchants, delivering in a Ford Model T lorry which was also used to deliver the mineral water.
In the 1920’s they used the old fashioned Codd bottle with a glass marble as a stopper. We never bought coal or mineral water from A & C Christy as far as I can remember, our coal came from a Fordham Coal Merchant and was delivered by a big, kind, obliging man (Willmot?) who lived at Odsey, in one of a row of cottages on the railway embankment near the station.
Father used to deliver milk to the family and told the story of when one of the children, grubby and runny nosed, met him at the gate and asked “Mr Howes, ‘ave you seen my bloody pussy cat?” – and how, when he mentioned it to the child’s mother she said – “Yes, I really don’t know where the little bugger picks them words up from”!
The only shop along the Back Street was at the western end and was run by Johnny Worboys and his wife, it was a place where I was often sent on errands, over the road, through the Twitchell then left for 100 yards to the little lean-to shop at the end of the row of Foresters Cottages.
I was well thought of there I suppose, because several times I was left to stay the night when mother and father were away from home for some reason (I don’t ever remember being told the reason!). I do plainly remember being told the reason why I should put my knife and fork together neatly when I had finished eating, “If you don’t do it God won’t love you” said the two daughters, Cath and Ella.
Eventually, well before the war started, they closed the shop and the family went to live in North London; they used to come back two or three times a year to see old friends.
There was another little general shop in Swan Street in the 1930’s owned by Mr and Mrs Barrow. I don’t remember it as a child but I often went in the war years and later to chat to Mr Barrow.
He had been in the car industry in its very earliest years and had a wealth of anecdotes about makes of car long gone from the roads.
His son Wilfred was commissioned in a non-flying branch of the RAF while daughter Marjorie was said “to have a very beautiful voice” and was a professional singer. Once she sang on the “wireless” but I must have missed it.
There were three butchers in the village in those days. As mentioned Tommy Dennis and the Ashwell brothers on the high Street and Crumps at the top end of Mill Street. I believe that today only Crump’s survives.
Mark Crump was a cheerful butcher, bright and bustling, complete with blue and white striped apron. Brandishing a steel and a long gleaming knife, he was typical of the trade.
It was a prosperous business; he employed two assistants, Ken Bryant and Percy Pammeter and used a little van as well as a couple of delivery bikes with big wicker baskets on the front. Mrs Crump presided over the shop from the glass enclosed cash desk, as did Mrs Dennis in their shop in the High Street.
Both Dennis and Crump claimed to be “Purveyors of Home Killed Meat” and thus each had slaughter houses; Crumps behind their house which was alongside the shop. It was very noisy on slaughter days. Ashwell brothers had another shop in a nearby town and presumably did their slaughtering there.
Mark Crump had four sons: Kenneth, the eldest didn’t go in for butchering, he became a radio and TV engineer working first for Mr Reeves who had prospered selling and maintaining the first “wireless” sets in the village. Later after serving in the RAF he started his own business in Hitchin, in time for the boom in television ownership which took place in the 1950’s.
Bob the next in line was a fellow pupil at Letchworth Grammar School. He was a boisterous extrovert sort of lad, a bit beefy, as befitted the son of a butcher I suppose and was, coarsely, nicknamed “Bummole”. His favourite trick on the home going bus, which by then was a double decker, was to climb to the top deck, grasp the vertical hand rails and by throwing his whole weight from side to side get the whole vehicle swaying.
This usually fetched the conductor up the stairs but by the time he was up far enough to see down the length of the top deck, “Bummole” was sitting down quietly reading!
The last of the shopkeepers and tradesmen of the village that I remember was Mr Bonnet the tailor who lived in Mill Street, a door or two from the “Bushel & Strike”. He was a small neat man with a tidy little white goatee beard. I never talked with him but during the war I went to the shop when I was on leave from the RAF with some uniform trousers with which I had been issued but which fitted “where they touched” as mother would have said.
There I found, not Mr Bonnet but Mr Bonnet and his two sons who talked and talked about any and every subject under the sun. To give them their due, they were good listeners as well, They had to be so as to restock their store of things to talk about. After that first visit I called in for a chat every time I was in the village. It was an interesting way to spend a morning.
They had a custom of turn and turn about. One would engage my attention for about ten minutes and then the other would break in and take over, the first resuming his concentrated stitching. It always fascinated me the way they sat cross legged on the shop counter as they sewed. I don’t think I would recognised them had I met them walking or standing.
One of my weekly treats, during the years 1929 to about 1932 or so, was the visit to “The Pictures” in the village hall. Once a week in winter months a Mr Rocket drove to the village from North London and brought with him a programme of films, normally a main feature, a short episode of a serial, thriller or cowboy film and a newsreel or cartoon. There was already an adequate projection box installed in the village hall, left from the days when Aston Ayres ran a weekly show and perhaps by then electricity had come to the village.
I don’t know how much it cost to go in because I never paid, I always got a free seat; mother said it was because father had been so persuasive in the village hall committee meetings and his efforts resulted in them giving permission for the shows to be given.
I think there had been a powerful opposition at first, probably because of a difference of opinion which had occurred between the committee and Mr Ayres. I don’t know whether there was one but mother used to hint of such a thing. I haven’t the faintest recollection of what the feature films were, I only remember the serials which went on for weeks and weeks, each episode ending with the heroine or hero left in some desperately hopeless predicament with us all left wondering how on earth they would get out of it.
One was called “The Jade Box” it was full of evil Chinese, cruelly chuckling in dark opium dens, while the “goodies” were staring aghast at the Jade Box oozing blood again (it always did that when disaster was about to strike as it did in every episode). “The Claw” was much the same but without the Chinamen; the horror was predicted by the appearance of a hairy, long finger nailed hand appearing through a door standing ajar. The door was usually that of the heroine’s bedroom. It was all X certificate stuff!
Much healthier was “The Mystery Rider” who cantered around the cattle country righting wrongs. He was most often seen in silhouette on top of a hill, looking down on the “baddies” sitting plotting around their camp fire on the range.
Ken Miller, I and four others used to act out “The Mystery Rider” in the chalk pit, only without horses of course, while Miss Bray, the infant school teacher, was exasperated by the boys among her “Little and Big Chicks”, creeping around the playground with their jackets above their heads and with one arm menacingly extended, being “The Claw”.
I didn’t, so far as I remember, go to the pictures in the earlier days when Mr Aston Ayres used to put on the shows. At that time he lived in the Mill House at the bottom end of Mill Street. There was no electric power in the village at all then and electricity was generated in a small brick annexe next to the old brewery stable block; I think this must have been the blacksmith’s shop in the days when Page’s Brewery was in business. There was a chimney stack and a big wide fireplace where, no doubt, the forge was positioned.
For the pictures it contained a big oil engine and a dynamo, the cable to the hall being suspended across the yard. Mr Ayres went to live in Baldock and became proprietor of The Baldock Cinema and eventually went on to build a new state of the art cinema. I remember mother being very “sniffy” when it was revealed that it was going to be called “The Astonia”; I suspect she didn’t like him very much.
The one night I remember as “picture night” was December 4th 1931 when I was called out of the shuffling, home going crowd in the foyer by Mrs Rocket (Mrs Rocket sat by the gallery stairs and took the money) and told me how lucky I was to have another baby brother. I can’t recall my answer, probably just a stunned unbelieving silence. Anyway that was Peter’s entry into the world, perhaps during an episode of “The Claw”.
Robert had appeared about 20 months earlier. He was born in Coventry at 13 Lord Street and his arrival came as a surprise to me but I suppose mother knew about it, hence the flight to Coventry! I was asked for a suggestion for a name and all I could think of was “Eric”, the name of the hero in a book I was reading. Mother scorned it as a “horrid name” and Auntie Dorothy hooted with laughter as only she could; I was a bit discontented but came to see their point in time.
The area round the village hall was a wonderful playground with great scope for imaginative games. Artillery battles were fought over the grassy patch in front of the stables. Gun positions had to be built by the two sides using mud for the turrets and short round sticks as guns, they could be hidden behind clumps of grass or camouflaged in some way while the enemy tried to destroy them by throwing stones. There was an inexhaustible supply of cobbles in a corner under the wall of the Westbury House garden. The battles were usually short because we spent so long making the gun emplacements that the battles had hardly started when it was dinner time and Mrs Miller would call “KENNY!”, needless to say he was out of sight before the stone “Shell” he had just “Fired” had landed.
The old cart shed, corrugated iron roof open on two sides had a wood block floor and some of these to the front of the shed had sunk an inch or two, consequently there was almost always a large puddle on which we could sail boats. Just flat bits of wood 2” wide by 12” long and hacked to a point at the front (bits of old fence paling could be found with luck, the top bits would have a readymade point). The superstructure was moulded mud, into which we stuck funnels and of course eventually guns, so that we could have naval battles. This was not so much fun because too much of a bombardment would result in most of the water being splashed out of the pond and the boats would go aground!
While these games appear a bit simple and savage, in reality there conduct was rigorously governed by a code of rules concerning size of stone, number of guns, where one could stand and so on, which were nevertheless much argued over so that the action was constantly interrupted.
The old buildings were a fascination. The stables although generally locked up were sometimes left open and were thus available for exploration. They had been left practically as they were when the horses left, a long hay rack along the back wall with a feeding trough or manger along underneath, the whole divided by five or six massive wooden partitions dividing the place into a number of stalls, some even having quantities of straw left in. The partitions were topped with iron railings – presumably to stop the animals biting each other? There were also a few leather straps and other bits of harness left about as well, but we never found any horse brasses.
There was quite a bit of stage scenery stored there, relics of the Amateur Operatic Society productions. On the end of the stable, built on the outside wall, was the toilet facility, one black and smelly urinal and one WC, also smelly. I suppose this could have been added for the benefit of village hall patrons as there was no provision front of house in the village hall itself but it may have dated from the brewery days as its brickwork matched that of the stables.
The “cellars”, as we called it, was the main part of the brewery. It stood alongside the approach road to the hall from Front Street. It butted onto Westbury Cottage and for many years could be entered from there by descending a wide flight of stairs from the kitchen. We used to keep our coal down there, it was some task to go down there to refill the scuttle on a winter night, then to bring it back up, taking care to pull the sliding door at the bottom tightly shut to keep the rats out of the house!
I didn’t think there were any rats. I never saw any but mother knew better. The door was certainly better kept shut anyway, not on account of the possible risk of rat entry but because shutting it reduced the complex network of draughts which whistled round and through every room in the house.
It must be 40 years since this old building was demolished and I wouldn’t know exactly how big it was but since my main memories of it are of the time when as a small boy I used it as a playground, it seemed to be enormous. Half of it was indeed a cellar, the floor being a good 14-15 feet below ground level. It was into this part that the “cellar steps” from Westbury Cottage descended.
It was quite light, as there were windows in the wall before the upper storeys were reached. There were two long dark tunnels opening off this cellar which extended under the garden of Westbury House. These were very dark and eerie; the only light being a pale glow from the far end where there had once been some sort of access for the Brewer who lived in Westbury House at the time the brewery was functioning.
At the start of the war in 1939 a stout brick wall was built across the tunnel and the access to Westbury House was opened so that Mr Bailey, the retired builder, then living in the house could have an air raid shelter. One wonders if he ever used it?
At the end of the cellar away from Westbury Cottage there was a narrow flight of steps leading up to the ground level part of the building and one could get from there up either one or two wooden staircases to a level high above the cellar. I don’t think we ventured up there very often as it was allegedly unsafe. “Dire Warnings” were issued from time to time but nevertheless we did, out of bravado, go up and tiptoe about somewhat apprehensively.
The end of the ground level floor looked out over the cellar with nothing but a low brick parapet to keep one from a deathly plunge. This was a marvellous place from which to launch paper model aeroplanes which would glide lazily and gracefully to the far end in the draught free air. The greatest achievement was to make the aircraft with adjustable control surfaces (ailerons and rudder) so that they would fly in a circle of a diameter slightly less than the width of the cellar. With this they would slowly spiral down to the floor. A landing just by the bottom of the steps to reduce retrieval time was hoped for but never achieved.
Later, we (that is Billy Barnes and myself) graduated from paper to microfilm. These were made from balsa wood with very fine wire for the wings. The wings were laid on the bottom of a common or garden washing up bowl and covered with about an inch of water. A single drop of cellulose solution would spread out over the water surface so that when the wire wing shape was very carefully lifted out it brought out with it a thin film of cellulose thus making a delicate but effective lifting wing. Propellers could be made the same way so that, using a very thin rubber strip to make a motor, a powered glider could be made.
Years earlier than this the place was just somewhere to muck about in, to get dirty in and to find bits of rubbish and junk in with which to make playing material.
I recall that there was a stage taxi stored in there once, made of wooden strips and cardboard for some long forgotten sketch or play. I remember seeing a photograph of it on stage with the cast. Father was the taxi driver I think. No doubt it was a sort of “comical cockney” part such as he loved to play.
The taxi as I remember it was painted blue and had an opening door, vestigial seats, a steering wheel, a moveable “for hire” flag and I am fairly sure a honking bulk horn which was covertly removed one day. No doubt its constant use annoyed someone (probably Len Haylock!)
There were also dozens of jam jar sized moulded glass pots with a diamond pattern in colours, blue, red and white etc. I think they must have been one time footlight candle holders from pre-electric days.
The end of the building was at that time largely in ruins, bits of brick wall, brick arches and long ago a spiral staircase going up to a bridge which spanned the roadway. It was actually a perfectly good and roomy timber shed and was supported at the other end of brick piers rising from the boundary wall; this wall bounding the brewery site from Christy’s farm. These piers or columns were braced together by a great iron girded St Andrew’s cross shape. The bridge/shed had windows and trap doors and was painted a dull red. We didn’t climb up there except but once I remember. Perhaps as it was clean dry and empty there was no attraction.
Then one day this end section was tidied up, a lot of the ruinous walls were demolished, the staircase was removed and the whole end of the building was boarded up with just an ordinary door built in for access. The “bridge” was left up there isolated. It eventually was demolished during the war years.
At the end of the building away from Westbury Cottage was a small square enclosure, open fronted but roofed over, in which there was a filled in wall. The circle of brickwork was visible at ground level and the “infill” appeared to be boiler ash, presumably from the village hall central heating boiler.
Set in the end wall of the brewery at this point was a large block of “clunch” on which was carved the legend – “J Page 1847”. This wasn’t in any way a commemorative, official looking stone, it wasn’t carved well enough. Perhaps it was done idly in a time wasting manner by a young member of the brewing family. It probably didn’t last the hundred years because the whole lot was demolished just after the war. Some of the rubble was used to fill in the great hole which formed the cellar. The idea was to make a garden for Westbury Cottage.
A lot of vegetation was thrown in as well at that time, which resulted in the garden subsiding in later years. With the garden there came a wooden garage and a low fence along the side to make a division from the village hall access road. The end of the house which had butted on to the brewery was rebuilt with French windows and bedroom window. The interior of the house was altered substantially at that time to a more modern and convenient style.
Westbury Cottage in the 1920’s and early 30’s was by today’s standards a remarkably inconvenient, cold draughty barn of a place. It was long and one room thick, the eastern end was sheer wall at the road edge, windowless at the ground level. The south wall, covered with ivy, backed on to Westbury House garden, there being a trandesmen’s entrance path between the wall of the Westbury Cottage and a high bank covered with shrubs and trees screening off the rest of the extensive garden.
The western end abutted on to “the cellars” building which extended out to the village hall approach road by about 12 feet, effectively cutting out the afternoon sun for most of the year. It was a looked for day when the setting sun first shone through the living room window towards the end of May. Thus the effective windows and doors were all on the one north facing wall.
Food preparation, cooking, eating and washing up were spread through the house. The pantry was in one corner of the so called “other room”, at the eastern end. Preparation on a big table in the kitchen, cooking in the oven in the living room and washing up at the far end of the kitchen.
The “inter oven” as it was called was a devilish device with trivets, dampers and little sliding panels for soot removal. The oven itself was above an open fire and its door opened downwards. The draught efficiency was at the mercy of wind direction and strength. Consequently oven temperature was infinitely variable so that dampers and flues had to be continually manipulated during unsettled weather.
The open fire was equipped with a triangular trivet on each side, hinged so that they could be swung inwards over the hot coals, thus enabling a kettle or saucepans to be heated. When the pots were removed and the rivets swung out to the side they remained very hot for quite a long time. I recall getting an extensive burn on the lower leg when “relaxing” as father did. He used to sit back in his old wickerwork armchair and rest his feet high up on the brick surround. When I tried the same trick my feet slipped and my leg fell on to the hot trivet!
The chimney caught fire once or twice in spite of being swept regularly by Mr Mitchell; once it happened on Christmas Day and the fire was dealt with by someone who climbed up a ladder to tip buckets of water down. I remember being amazed that no torrents of water came gushing out of the fireplace, in fact no water came out at all!
Mention of the wicker chair reminds me that father’s was very long. Apparently he had it made eighteen inches longer in the seat (at extra cost) so that he could “sit on his shoulder blades” as he put it. Mother had a wicker chair also, only it was smaller and more upright. Both were upholstered with a sort of woolly stuffing and covered with a bright flowered fabric.
The chairs had no separate legs, they were “full skirted” with an arch shaped cut out in the front skirt. The family cat, called “pouf”, presumably because of my infant inability to say “puss”, used to take refuge under one or other chairs via this arch. The chairs made cat kennels for it.
I have been told that on one occasion when the cat was peaceably sitting in his kennel I grabbed through the gap and pulled out one of its whiskers. I did this because we had just acquired a “crystal set”, an early form of wireless, and when it was not performing well one day I overhead father say it needed a new “cat’s whisker”; so I got one for him!
In reality the cat’s whisker was a short bit of wire which had to be sensitively adjusted so that it made a point contact with a germanium crystal, to put a high electrical resistant into the circuit.
The wireless was heard through earphones; loudspeakers were rare and expensive. We only had two pairs of earphones so guess who didn’t have a pair! Not that there was much to listen to (“listen into”). There were only transmissions in the evening.
The wireless stood on a plywood shelf screwed to the window sill of the bay window in the living room. The aerial, an absolutely essential item, stretched from a short wooden stick fixed to the chimney stack across the gateway to the branches of one of the group of Elm trees which grew in Mr Christy’s meadow; it had to have a switch in case of thunderstorms.
The wireless also had to have an “earth” and the first one consisted of a large sheet of lead buried under the cobble stone path outside the window with a wire riveted to it which reached to the apparatus. Another was a length of galvanised iron pipe driven vertically into the ground.
Later we had other wireless sets; battery operated ones and eventually an “all mains” electric with loudspeakers. The battery ones usually had three batteries, a large cardboard enclosed bundle of cylinders, each cylinder about the size of a modern HP2; this was the HT and was quite expensive but lasted a long time.
Then there was the smaller flattish ones called the grid bias measuring about 6” x 3” x 1”. The third battery was the “accumulator” which was a glass box, with terminals on the top, filled with dilute sulphuric acid. This didn’t last long and had to be recharged.
Most people had two of these, one in use and the other being recharged. I don’t remember who did the recharging or where it was done as I was never called upon to either take or collect ours, presumably because of the acid content and the breakable nature of the glass container.
We didn’t use the “other” room very much except perhaps when visitors came. Life went on in the living room; opening into it were five doors and it was draughty. “Like a damned railway station” said father (frequently), “you have to shut so many doors before you can settle down”.
The worst draught came through the stairs door, cold air would cataract down from the unheated upper rooms, half of which had no ceilings, just the pitched roof lined with tongued and grooved pine planks.
The floor of the living room was covered with linoleum with a parquet effect wood blocks pattern. It was already old as I remember it, for it had been laid in the days when the room served as a sort of general office for the brewery.
It moulded itself to the defects and irregularities of the wooden floor below and in one place showed marks which we thought were the impression of a trap door. I would have liked to have investigated but mother steadfastly refused to lift the lino.
She worked hard to keep the room neat and tidy, polishing the lino every week with Mansion Polish. The front door was flanked on one side by an internal sash window glazed with frosted glass. This was said to have been the “paying out window” through which the brewery workers had received their wages and through which, no doubt, the draymen passed their delivery notes and payments received from licensees.
On the other side of the front door there always hung a set of shelves rather like a large box, the shelves were set close together and weren’t much good for anything but folded newspapers or magazines, at the bottom were a couple of shallow drawers (which got stuck very easily) in which mother kept reels of cotton and such like. Under the box stood an upright chair, this was always used by people who made afternoon calls. Mrs Gray, wife of Billy Gray, Mrs Fordham’s long suffering chauffeur, was one who called regularly on the same afternoon every week for a cup of tea and a gossip. Another was Mrs Bryant from Bluegates Farm, a rather large lady who used to cycle very slowly and majestically the two or three miles from her distant farm cottage. I think she looked forward to these weekly visits as her house was very isolated and she, although friendly, talkative and cheerful, had no close neighbours.
She always wore a bright blue lightweight mac which mother hated the sight of. I don’t think she cared much for Mrs B either, thinking she was a bit pretentious; she used to tell of how Mrs B claimed to have been at Cambridge and “took Honours” getting “ninety nine marks out of a hundred”. She also claimed of having an aged relative who at the age of 102 “retained all her faculties”.
The bay of the bay window was useful, it was about two feet deep and contained neatly a bureau or desk made of oak, not an antique then but might be considered to have some merit today if it still exists. When the flap of the desk was pulled out a pair of supports came out to hold it flat and firm. I thought this was very good, better than the sort where one had to pull out the supports before opening the desk like the one Ken Miller’s dad had.
The drawers contained photographs, mostly of the many amateur dramatic productions which the Ashwell Amateur Operatic Society, The Men’s Club and the Women’s Institute had mounted. By the post war years these must have numbered hundreds.
In the corner under the wireless shelf there was always a great stack of old newspapers, not just the daily ones, we only had the Daily Mail then, but all the local ones.
Father was the village correspondent of at least five of these so we had free copies of The Hertfordshire Pictorial, The Hertfordshire Mercury, The Royston Crow and others that I can’t recall.
As far as I remember it was always mother that wrote the reports. She used to get a special thin paper writing pad and by using carbon paper and a very hard pencil managed to make five copies.
Payment was by various measures, so much per line, so much per column inch and in one case I think by the word. Mother was always very annoyed if any of her reports were cut down in length. Every few months when the pile of papers had fallen over and got into a chaotic mess she would bustle about angrily and “get rid of all this rubbish”.
The bay could be curtained off with a pair of very heavy curtains which resulted in the draught situation being very slightly improved.
Next to the fireplace there was “the safe”, another survivor from the brewery days. The door was massive, swinging out on steel hinges if enough effort was applied and one of the brass knobs had been unlocked and turned half a turn, this released three bolts in the 4 inch thickness of the door. I think this door was manufactured by a firm called S Chubb Ltd., still in business I believe.
With the door open one could just about walk into a cupboard in the wall. Father used to keep the milk takings in there, together with his round books, in which all the customers were listed, space being provided for the recording of daily deliveries and payments.
Making up these records and totalling the cash was a daily chore. Father usually did the early morning totals sitting undisturbed on the WC after having breakfast at about 10 am. The money had to agree the books exactly and of course even the smallest deficiency had to be made up from his own money. I seem to remember that mother once told me that he was paid about £3 per week so even a few shillings discrepancy would have been quite serious.
The fireplace next to the safe had flanking columns of rough reed bricks neatly pointed with white mortar, which would probably be a highly prized feature these days being “rustic” and different. Mother didn’t care for them much, no doubt because they couldn’t be polished!
The high mantel shelf carried a clock; originally the clock was a great ugly Victorian marble example with columns and decorative knobs. When this stopped working one day it was moved into the “other” room where it didn’t work either and was replaced by a neat little brass carriage clock.
There was also a pair of Chinese style vases with dragons writhing around them, done with moulded ceramic material. I think they came to us from a relative, (mother’s aunt or great aunt?) who I think had some close relative who had been to the East, so they may have been genuine.
I remember mother being quite indignant when I referred to them as the “Chink” vases. “They’re not cheap” she said “they’re quite valuable”. I think she must have misheard me. I remember they were always in imminent peril of falling off the shelf because letters and bills were forever being stuffed behind them.
The mention of clocks brings to mind the time when we had temporary possession of about six striking clocks. There were ranged round the room wherever they could be perched. One was to be presented to some village worthy on his retirement and the six were “on approval” for a choice of one to be made. They were all fully wound but set at slightly different times and the chiming went on and on every few minutes as the quarter and half hours passed.
The most impressive item of furniture was a Welsh dresser standing against the wall opposite the window, its shelves were embellished with Willow pattern plates and dishes, the effect being somewhat diminished by the envelopes and other papers stuffed behind the plates. The body of the dresser had two cupboards and two drawers for foodstuffs, tablecloths and cutlery.
The wooden, boxlike, enclosure of the lower end of the stairs occupied a corner of the room next to the kitchen. The blank side of this was used as a hanging space for coats, I had my own low hook for my small coats. A lot of shoes were left there and the result was a bit of a jumbled mess usually.
There was at one time a fashion for women to wear high, almost knee high, soft leather boots called “Russian boots” and mother was the proud possessor of a pair of these. I remember, in my customary ignorance of the ways of the world, once asking her “Do you rush, in rushing boots?” and then wondering why everyone fell about laughing.
The staircase was built through the wall to the kitchen, turning and rising away through the ceiling, leaving a lower corner in which there was a jumble of boxes etc containing my toys and things – this was another mess!
On the other side of the kitchen door father had, in the earliest days I can remember, a work bench with a massive “wooden” vice bolted to it, it was situated under the internal window mentioned earlier. The idea was that father would make the “radial strops”, a gadget invented by his father. Its purpose was to keep safety razor blades sharp and in continuous use, instead of throwing them away every day or so. It had been patented and I think when the time came to renew the patent this could not be done unless an attempt had been made to exploit the patent by marketing the product; so father had to have this “factory” to make the strops in large numbers.
It was modestly advertised at 2/6d but the whole enterprise faded away and no-one made a fortune. It was a good product and it worked, I had one during the late 1930’s and used it for several years including some of the time I was in the RAF. I was thus able to ignore the shortage of razor blades which was one of the great wartime shortages. I needed only one blade for several years. Eventually my radial strop was stolen by a comrade-in-arms.
When we first lived in Westbury Cottage the kitchen extended right to the end of the house. It had a wood block floor and bare rafters overhead, no ceiling. The rafters were dark and almost always a bit “cobwebby”, they were dark because they had once been creosoted and “cobwebby” because spiders got in through the windows from the creeping vegetation on the outside walls, Ivy on the back and Virginia creeper on the front. There were great double sliding doors opening on to the space in the front of the house and wide steps, guarded by a wooden slatted gate at the top, leading down to the cellar.
A head high (adult head) partition screened the stairway from the scullery section. The scullery contained a shallow stoneware sink with one cold water tap, no draining board but just a small adjoining table covered with American cloth together with an evil cast iron coal burning copper, a stronger and bigger kitchen table and a tea chest with a “Beatrice” single burner for heating small quantities of water: by today’s standards it was very primitive.
Upstairs it was a little better; it was a great luxury to have a bathroom. Bathrooms in houses and cottages belonging to the Forham estate were very rare in the 1920’s. The fact that the only tap running to the bathroom delivered cold water was a drawback but it compared favourably with both 90 Marlborough Road (grandparent Howes) and 13 Lord Street (grandparents Cooke) in Coventry.
On Friday night at the former a papier-mâché hip bath, and a long shallow galvanized iron “coffin” at the latter, were unhooked from the outside toilet wall and ceremoniously borne inside. At Westbury Cottage the WC was also inside, keeping company with the bath in the fairly large, bitterly cold bathroom.
The apparent advantage of Westbury Cottage was somewhat offset by the fact that one couldn’t bath in front of the fire as one could in Coventry. The Westbury Cottage bath was meant for better things because it did have a hole to which hot water could be connected. The bathroom was at the cellars end of the house separated from the bedroom, into which the top of the staircase entered, by a thin wall and like the bedroom had no ceiling.
The only bathroom furniture was a light table carrying a mirror and large china bowl, there was no wash basin, hot washing and shaving water had to be carried upstairs in a kettle or jug.
Hot water for a bath also had to be carried upstairs in a heavy 2 gallon can, rather like a garden watering can but with a wide spout. This was painted or enamelled to make it look like wood; it had a light oak wood grain pattern on the outside. It had to be filled downstairs from a saucepan heated on the paraffin stove or from the cast iron copper in the corner of the kitchen.
Later, the old cast iron copper was replaced by a substantial brick built one, with a hand pump fitted so that it could be pumped up into the bath directly above. The chore of pumping up the bath water was unpopular as it took about 15 minutes and was hot work.
The adjacent bedroom had a couple of single beds and a chest of drawers as furnishings. Two large sash windows looked out over Christy’s farm while the back wall had three brick sized holes each with an iron grating on the outside. Through these there persistently grew stems of ivy from outside. I remember clearing the ivy one day and sticking a brick in each hole using some sort of plaster to fix each brick in place. I then got some aeroplane pictures and framed them using black sticky paper tape, “Passé partout” it was called. These effectively concealed my amateur brick work. How I managed to get the glass cut to size I cannot imagine – we were not into DIY stores in those days. One of the pictures was of a Flight of RAF Bristol Bulldogs harrying 3 Vickers Virgina bombers, all in colour!
The other end of the house was divided into two bedrooms. They were both “respectable” each having a ceiling and a fireplace while in my parents room was a built in wardrobe.
The “end bedroom” as it was called had two walk-in cupboards identical with those in the “other” room below. These weren’t used for any particular purpose as far as I can remember except perhaps to store junk.
At some point, perhaps about 1930, these were removed and a window installed in the wall, this gave a pleasant view over the village roof tops. I was sleeping in this room at the time I started at the Infants School in the charge of Miss Bray and remember willing myself to have one of my periodic asthma attacks on the morning of my second day!
The “other” room downstairs was small because of the two walk in cupboards, but it was comfortable and could be quite snug especially if a fire burned in the grate. This happened at Christmas and sometimes in very cold weather when I was bungled in there to do my Grammar School homework. The grate had a handsome black marble fireplace and over mantel while alongside was a set of floor to ceiling bookshelves.
The books were a varied selection, School Prizes awarded to father and mother in their younger days, a single volume “A Boy’s Life of Colonel Lawrence” awarded to me at Letchworth Grammar School for “Progress”, a lot of Reader’s Union choices (father had been a member from its first issue}, a couple of heavy tomes on gardening, my own Children’s Encyclopaedia (a collection of loose fortnightly parts in their paper covers), books on the theatre, Dickens novels, books of plays etc.
Holidays in Coventry were an annual event and I accepted their occurrence as being quite natural and normal. It was only later that I realised how unusual it was for an Ashwell family to actually all go away together and be away from home for two whole weeks. I think the annual holiday must have been something father negotiated for when he took the job. I can’t remember any of my companions actually going on holiday.
We always went to Coventry. We always went for one week to stay at Broad Street with “Big” grandma my maternal grandma and for one week at 90 Marlborough Road where “Little” grandma lived. The two houses, the two life styles, the two districts were quite different, so different that even I noticed it.
Marlborough Road was respectable, as indeed was Lord Street but in a different way. It was, I suppose, striving to be genteel; I was more fussed over at Marlborough Road. Grandma Howes attached more importance to clean hands and nicely combed hair than grandma Cooke did, while the latter seemed to be able to tolerate more noise and boisterousness.
90 Marlobough Road was in a row of late Victorian villas built to the lower middle class standards of the day. It was rented from a firm of builders (Garlic and Sons) who had their office in Far Gosford Street opposite the Scala cinema. The rent was taken every Friday to this office. It was a one room wide house with the front door opening to the front garden, a 3 foot wide strip with a couple of grubby laurel bushes in front of the lace curtained bay window.
The fireplace had a high ornate over mantel with a large centre mirror and many shelves and compartments loaded with dozens of pieces of Goss china, white china knick knacks in various shapes, shoes, jugs, many shapes of pots and one rather magnificent model of Big Ben. Each piece had the coat-of-arms of a town or city emblazoned thereon. I wasn’t allowed to touch these. There was also one of those great marble clocks like the one we had a Westbury Cottage only bigger.
I liked to play on the carpeted floor with a pack of playing cards, carefully building complex card houses. Beyond, separated by the staircase which ran across the house, was the living room, the most noticeable feature there being grandfather’s workshop (work corner). This was a mess, an old battered, three legged stool, a table against the wall, boxes of cardboard and wood, tins of paint, tools and parts of work in progress.
Grandma was not allowed to touch, just as I was not allowed to touch the Goss china. Three things about grandada: he always wore a bowler hat when going to work, he only ever smoked roll ups which smelt unpleasant and frequently had to be relit and he called me “John-John”.
He was a kind old gentleman and thought well of everybody – except crooners, dance band vocalists that is. If they were American (Bing Crosby for example) he hated them even more.
The gadget I mentioned earlier “The Radial Strop”, he made assembled and painted four at a time as he sat in his battered old armchair. This was of a type widely advertised at the time as a “Put-you-up” as it could be made into a single bed – not that it ever was.
The paint used to coat the strop was bright red cellulose quick drying glossy enamel. Today this paint would be labelled as “Inflammable” and “liable to give off an inflammable heavy vapour”. He used it freely, within an arm’s length of an open fire, puffing fiercely on his loosely packed roll up fag!
The little back garden, with an oblong of grass surrounded by a narrow flower bed was a peaceful green retreat, shady with trees which were mostly growing in neighbouring gardens. Peaceful that is unless Mrs Delapole called. She lived next door in a house which was the end of the row, so she had the usual narrow frontage but side access from the next street. I think she considered herself to be a trifle superior to grandma because her house was “semi detached”.
She had a loud penetrating voice and when her “Yoo Hoo” sounded loud and clear from the back grandma would scurry outside hurriedly to see what she wanted. I don’t know if there was a Mr Delapole. She may have spoken to him but he was never seen.
We did not see much of her either come to that, just her head and shoulders over the garden wall. I think she stood on a box over on her side because if we were in the garden she would pop up suddenly like a jack in a box. There were some raspberry canes growing on grandma’s side and my recollection is that Mrs D seemed obsessed with the idea that I was going to plunder them. “Wed Wasberries” she called them although she didn’t normally lisp any more than I did. I thought she was mad; grandma thought she was a nuisance – “always yoo hooing”.
The neighbour on the other side was also separated from us by a wall, this was about 5 ft to 6 ft high and divided the common entrance between number 88 and 90. One came off the street through an “entry”, a sort of tunnel between two houses, round to the right and down one side of the wall to Miss Houghton’s back door and down the other side to number 90’s back door.
Miss Houghton lived with her invalid sister who never went out and was never seen or heard. I didn’t like Miss Houghton much although she seemed quiet and kindly, but she had an unfortunate facial skin disease, her face being horribly red, blotchy and repulsive. However she kept herself to herself and never went “Yoo Hoo” to anybody.
The household at Marlborough Road included a cat whose name I forget. It had to be fed with a disgusting meaty substance called “lights”, which could be obtained in pennyworths from the butcher.
The lights had to be hacked into little pieces before the cat could have it or it would choke it was said. Lights had a nasty smell but the cat loved it, yowling and reaching up to the cutting area as though it hadn’t eaten for weeks.
Grandma was very superstitious, spilling salt, walking under ladders, meeting sweeps, touching sailors’ collars, crossed knives, new moons through glass, sitting down if you had to turn back from a journey or errand, every imaginable circumstance had some good or ill fortune which could result from it.
She would also tell fortunes from playing cards, shuffling and cutting the pack then laying them out according to the prescribed ritual. The resulting fortune was full of “Dark Strangers” and “Fair Ladies”, “Fame and Fortune” and “Journeys over Water” and every now and again “The Curse of Scotland” would appear, but I never knew, nor did I ask, what the card foretold.
I suppose I was kept properly amused while at Marlborough Road, mostly by little outings and walks, the same ones year after year to which I looked forward eagerly as the holiday approached. A round on the putting green in Gosford Park, a walk at Whitley Common via Humber Road, an exciting adventure through a pedestrian tunnel under the railway line, a visit to the Public Library on the Walsgrave Road, all simple pleasures but so different from Ashwell!
Mid holiday we would change over and journey right across the city to Lord Street in the Chapelfields district, riding on a tram and changing trams in Broadgate. I insisted on climbing to the top deck and sitting right in the front, especially on the second tram. This was because the tram stop for Lord Street was the terminus where the lines just ended in the middle of the road, no buffers of course as on the railways.
Someone mischievously told me that if the tram were to overrun the lines even by a few inches it would fall over. From the front I could look down and watch the tram lines disappear from the sight under the curved bow and wait in fascinated fear for the awful lurching crash – which of course never came.
Life at 13 Lord Street was quite different. Being a large family, the Cookes seemed always to be about. They were all, so it seemed, bigger than the Howes’s and noisier. Big grandada was well named, he was not so much big as ponderous, “a fine figure of a man”, a big waxed moustache, a fine big belly but upright and soldierly. As one would expect since he had been in regular soldier all his life running away from home, adding a year to his age, to enlist in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment around 1885. He eventually attained the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major, a rank only slightly less omnipotent than God Almighty.
He was said to have terrorised the Regiment from the Colonel down to the newest recruit, but he always did as he was told by Big grandma. He had an incredibly loud snore and was consequently only allowed to sleep in the second floor attic at the back of the house but even so he was said to be audible in the street outside!
The house was older than number 90, having been built probably in the first half of the nineteenth century to house a family who worked in the watch making industry, or it may have been the ribbon weaving, I am not sure. Anyway it consisted of three floors with an extension for kitchen, scullery and workshop at the back.
This workshop was on the upper floor and was very well light having one wall almost entirely glazed with small square panes. The door to this was always locked and I never went in, although I was longing to explore it. Often, if unobserved, I slyly tried the door but it never was open.
This type of dwelling was very common in many parts of the city, relics of the days when craftsmen worked self-employed in the succession of “cottage” industries which kept the city prosperous before it became a centre for motor car manufacture. As with the house in Marlborough Road there was no bathroom and the WC was outside.
Of the furnishing and layout of the house I can remember little except they had a large framed picture in the living room depicting a cheeky faced little urchin dressed in ill fitting cricket whites, with an oversized bat, defending his wicket and clearly labelled “The Hope of his side”.
The great treat was to be allowed to go to the “pictures”; aunty Dorothy would escort me to “The Broadway Cinema” or “The Imperial” (always known as “The Barn”) on her return to work, for the matinee showing and I would usually find my way home afterwards.
“The Barn” was the best because they always had an interval when everyone in the audience was served with a free cup of tea. Then when the show restarted the attendants would walk up and down aisles spraying a disinfectant in the air.
There were Felix the Cat films, sometimes Laurel and Hardy and newsreels but I have no memory of the feature films with one exception which I saw at the Broadway. It was called “Strange Cargo” and concerned a haunted ship in which faces appeared looking through portholes and bodies tumbled out of cupboards and there were lots of terrified screaming passengers.
It came out all right in the end; it wasn’t ghosts in the ship but a gang of very clever internal criminals who got caught in the end. Nevertheless I also was terrified and ran home in fear and trembling through the afternoon streets.
Another film that I remember was about a man who masqueraded at a publisher’s urgent request, as the author of a popular book about aeroplanes, presumably the real author could not be found and someone was needed to sign copies of the book and give lectures on it.
The snag was that he hated aeroplanes and would not ever fly in one. He was dream haunted by a large copy of the book with long white arms and legs, all night through. I think this was a very early “talkie” and it didn’t scare me.
One day auntie D left me at the Broadway. Clutching my sticky nine pence I went in looking forward to seeing “The Invisible Man” with Claude Raines and was refused entry because the film was an “A” Certificate – no unaccompanied children. In vain did I indignantly protest that I had “read the book” and so would be unaffected by the film! So I had to go back home really pissed off.
Visits to the cinema from Marlborough Road were less frequent, we must have gone sometimes in a statelier manner to city centre theatres but they weren’t as exciting as the ones visited on my own to the Earlsdon cinemas.
We went to “The Empire” to see “The Red Wagon”. It was (I think) about Dame Laura Knight who painted pictures of the Circus and its colourful life. I must have been very young indeed because I remember making a noisy fuss because “I didn’t see any Empire” and “where was it?” I suppose I must have been expecting to see a big red blotched map. I must have bored my mates rigid on returning to Ashwell and telling about my visits to “real” cinemas.
I am sure the annual fortnights were very good for me; the contrast with village life in Ashwell was so great. The bustle and big shops, the trams and buses, the historic buildings in the city centre, the factories and city parks must have stimulated my imagination enough to allow me to cope with the essentially sleepy ways of the village which contained me for the other 50 weeks of the year.
I haven’t mentioned the adventure of getting to and from Coventry. It must have been quite an upheaval for the parents, mother packing several suitcases, arranging for the cat to be fed, remembering to turn off the water stopcock etc. Father letting all his customers know he would be away and worrying whether Arthur Webb would cope with the milk round and no doubt worrying about many other things. It must have been quite traumatic.
In the early years we went by train from Ashwell station, changing trains and stations in London and sometimes changing again at Rugby or Bletchley. We had to get from King’s Cross to Euston which was a walking distance away but difficult with cases. The budget didn’t seem to stretch to a taxi ride.
Once father engaged a porter to carry a couple of cases and on arrival at Euston gave him a sixpence tip which the chap immediately flung to the ground, offering to fight him for it! We must have walked away for I recall no fight took place. Father must have looked back because I remember him saying in a self satisfied sort of way “He damn soon picked the money up again”.
Later, we travelled by car. Mark Crump would drive us in one of his annually renewed Fords; he would call back for us after two weeks. As a result I got to know the winding rural road to Little Birckhill through Woburn and then the busy A5 (the road to Holyhead and Ireland) to Coventry very well.
Sometimes other people took us, Lol Pack for one and once uncle Bob fetched us but didn’t arrive until 10 at night. I had been sent to bed and had to get up as he wanted to go straight back. I must have gone to sleep in the car because I don’t recall the excitement of the long night drive.
School days in the Village
There were two schools in Ashwell, they were known as “The Council School” and “The Merchant Taylors’ School”. The former comprised the infants department, together with the girl’s school, while the Merchant Taylors catered for the boys. I went to both in turn, starting, so I was told, at the Council School infants at the age of six; a year later than the usual admission age because of my tendency to have attacks of asthma.
Infants were accommodated in a big room with its own entrance from the porch and cloakroom and the class probably numbered about 35. The stay in this department as an infant was probably for two years as we were divided by Miss Bray into two groups “The Little Chicks” and “The Big Chicks”. I don’t recall being a “Big Chick” so perhaps I only stayed a year.
Miss Bray was of the family which succeeded Bailey as the main village builders. She had been a pupil and a pupil teacher there over the years. When she retired she married a Mr Chapman and she was known in our family as Mrs Chapman “Neigh Bray”. She lived in a building originally part of the premises opposite Westbury Cottage occupied once by Mr Miller, it had been converted into a dwelling by Mr Walter Bray.
I have no memory of what we did in class except that we had to knit once a week. I was very slow at this and managed to produce only one square piece of finished work. Some bright, dextrous kids did their squares very quickly but that didn’t save their work from being unravelled and the wool being rewound and used again for yet another square. Looking back, it seems to have been a singularly useless proceeding especially in my case, when after long, long hours of clumsy fumbling I finally cast off, only to see my tear and sweat stained scrap, deftly unravelled by Miss Bray.
Another activity was plasticine modelling; the plasticine like the wool had been used over and over again by generations of Little Chicks and was consequently a very unpleasant grubby grey colour.
I remember being set the task of making a model of a stretch of coast line with a bay and a headland with cliffs. It was “very good”, said Miss Bray, and as a reward I was to have a lighthouse on the headland. I was quite pleased as I knew I could make a model of one, I had read about Grace Darling and knew what a lighthouse looked like although I had never seen one. (The Grace Darling book had been well illustrated with coloured pictures).
However, it was a bit disappointing when Miss Bray produced a match, stuck it in the headland and in front of the whole class, lit it with great ceremony. The flame spluttered bravely down the match to the plasticine until there was only the smoking twisted cinder of the match left. I was disgusted, as I knew that the lighthouse keepers didn’t burn their lighthouse down to the ground every nights, it would have been very wasteful.
However life at the infants school wasn’t all so intensively educational as this. There was a fairly large collection of toys at one end of the classroom on which we were let loose every Friday afternoon. I can’t remember what any of them were but in the memory they were a rich colourful treasure and Friday afternoons were eagerly looked forward to.
Everyday “playtime” used to be in the school yard, a gravel covered area on the west side of and in front of the school. It was quite steeply sloped down to the road and the last few yards to the gate was very steep, in fact it was quite a dangerous place for thirty or more small boisterous kids to let off steam in. Most tumbles resulted in severe grazing of the knees and elbows and after rain, when the gravel tended to wash away down the slope, slippery patches of chalky sub soil contributed to an increase in the number of falls.
The time eventually came for me to move down to the Merchant Taylors’ in Mill Street and once there I entered the lower (younger) half of the school in the care of Miss Gwendoline Biles.
The Headmaster was Mr Biles, known generally as Dingle Biles. He was assisted by his daughter Gwendoline, his other daughter Aileen and Mrs Biles looked after the house and garden.
He was a grumpy old man, below average height, bearded (it was a time when beards were not common) and definitely a bully to his family. Gwen Biles was, I recall often called in by daddy to his classroom and would come back on the verge of tears or even actually crying. On one occasion she was so distressed that she went straight through the classroom and disappeared, presumably, to have a proper howl in the house, uninhibited by the gaze of her class.
It was part of the school folklore that, even though he was normally a grumpy man, if he entered the classroom in the morning with a neat, newly trimmed beard, he would that day be a thoroughly bad tempered pig and the only thing to do was to be as small and inconspicuous as possible. The following day he would have recovered and become his usual grumpy old self again.
Dingle had two enthusiasms, cricket and music; he was captain of the village cricket team and took a great interest in coaching village lads who showed signs of becoming good players. He was an accomplished musician, playing the church organ from time to time and also playing the school harmonium every day for hymns during the morning assembly. For this he had to sit on a tall, squeaky stool which always emitted its squeaks during the quiet bits of the music.
One day he was telling us of the holiday he had had in Ireland, illustrating how uncomfortable Irish trains were, how they jolted and rocked along, by rocking about on his stool, when to our horror, he rocked too vigorously and fell over sideways thumping his head on the massive iron fireguard. There was a murmur of suppressed laughter which died suddenly as he stood up, slightly dazed but scowling fiercely. We left Ireland and were back in the arithmetic lesson in an instant.
On Thursday afternoons we all went along to the school allotments, where each boy had a small plot to cultivate, seeds and plants being supplied at the appropriate season as were tools. My plot was at the edge of the allotment area, a stony patch of poor soil shaded by a row of elm trees – nothing seemed to thrive thereon.
These school gardens were near some allotments cultivated by villagers. I know father had one in the early 1920’s but I understand his was also shaded by the same row of elm trees and that he gave it up when pigs escaped from a field nearby and invaded the area.
I am sure the gardening session was a good thing for boys in a very rural environment, but it did nothing for me because on Thursday afternoons I was always unhappy, dreading the last lesson of the day, an appalling forty minutes of music.
We each had a little blue book with nothing in but pages and pages of printed music, with lines and notes and dots and squiggles, no words, no pictures. It seems illogical to say that music was a “closed book” to me, for on Thursday afternoons there it was all too horribly open, but meaning nothing to me.
We had to sing each note, doh, re, me etc with the “help” of Mr Biles and the harmonium. Sometimes Miss Gwen would be called in to play while Dingle would prowl the class, listening to each boy in turn.
We learned that a qualified approval meant that he would grunt, with surprise, with resignation with despair but rarely was there any praise. Perhaps he was wiser than it might seem, perhaps he realised that praise of any pupil would be the kiss of death for the unfortunate who would get nothing but sarcasm and derision from the rest of the class. The worst judgement was to be designated a “growler”. I was sad to be called a “growler”, as both mother and father had good enough voices to be able to sing in the amateur musicals performed in the village hall. I would have liked to have acquired some understand if not much notable skill in the subject.
I was consoled when, years later, I discovered a character created by Bernard Miles who “had a belly full of music but a bad road out”, a phrase I adopted as a personal motto.
While I have no memory of what we learned at the Merchant Taylors’ School we must have all made some progress, leading up to the age of 14 to Standard 7 when most left for jobs on local farms or in the shops.
The only way to continue at school was to pass the scholarship examination and go on to one of the Grammar Schools in Letchworth or Hitchin. Of course if one’s parents could raise the fees of 5 guineas per term then one could go there as private pupils. In my case the scholarship ordeal proved too much for me. It was only because a rich ancestor, generations before, had left a great deal of money for the education of his “poor kindred” that I was enabled to go to Letchowrth Grammar School.
During the pre-war years the people of Ashwell enjoyed a number of annual festivals which helped to enliven their TV free existence. In the Spring or was it early Summer, Ashwell Feast was held on the Playground, not a banquet but a travelling fair with coconut shies, roll-a-penny stalls, candy floss and the “Big Horses”.
It was held over two days, arriving in the morning, was set up and in full swing by six-o-clock and was packed up and away as if by magic on the morning of the third day.
I watched for it coming along the Hinxworth Road from an upstairs window and rushed out to watch it go by Westbury Cottage from a safe position by the big gates. Some of it must have come from Stotfold or Baldock via the Newnham Road and if any of those items came first I couldn’t see them from the house and they came rumbling round the corner before I could get in position.
The best bit was seeing the Showman’s enormous engines, ponderous and slow, belching smoke and steam and each pulling 3 or 4 trailers. Mr Harris, the owner of the outfit, had two, one big and one less big but both polished and painted brightly enough to dazzle the eyes of a small boy.
Other trailers were pulled by lorries, such lorries! They were like nothing ever normally seen on the roads round Ashwell. Christy’s old Model T Ford was frail and skinny by comparison, not even Forham’s Brewery Foden Steam Wagon could compare. Like the steam engines the lorries were bright with brass, headlights, hubcaps and handrails all gleamed happily; there was even a six wheeler!
The trailers were packed with bits of wooden stalls and here and there one could distinguish one of the proud galloping horses from the roundabout and a small motor car or railway engine from the children’s hand operated merry-go-round. The unpacking and assembly of these bits into a blaring, roaring, brilliant and sparkling fair within the space of 3 or 4 hours was to me quite miraculous.
Whether I would get to the fair was always in doubt. Father would be vague about it, he might have to go to a meeting and mother thought she might be too busy. It was only grown up teasing of course, because we always went, but I went through agonies of doubt until we set out. They never realised how cruel thery were.
I suppose they worried about the cost. There couldn’t have been much cash to spare for such frivolity but I always had a shilling to spend. One year I had a half crown, left by some previous visitor for me to spend at the fair.
We usually stayed until it was starting to get dusk so we could see the lights at their best, then walked home with the sound of the steam organ fading away behind us but after having been tucked up cosily in bed I could still hear it faintly across the roof tops of the village.
Looking back I realise that it was only a tiny assembly of amusement stalls with only one big ride, the “Big Horses” as we called them, no dodgems, no chair-o-planes nor any of those roaring up and down switchbacks that might have been there. It only occupied one end of the Playground where now stands the new cricket pavilion, not reaching as far as the sacred soil of the cricket pitch which was fenced off for protection.
A much bigger fair was held in Cambridge, the Midsummer Fair, an event which father often said we should go to, “one year”, but we never did. I do recall being taken to one in Coventry. It must have been a time when our annual holiday coincided, which was held in Pool Meadow right in the centre of the city and was much, much bigger. This must have been well before the war, because Pool Meadow became a bus station before the war started. All I remember about it was a ride I had on “The Steam Boats”, a pair of bus sized cars with rows of seats and canvas roofs which would swing slowly back and forth, reaching near vertical at the end of each swing.
Many years later, in about 1962, I rode on the Steam Boats again, when B P Bulmer organised their Cider Festival on the Bishop’s Meadow in Hereford and the Steam Boats formed part of “The Old Steam Fair”. I was persuaded to take a ride then by Jane and Rebecca and came off afterwards feeling shattered and disorientated.
Another village “day out” was the annual “Flower Show and Fete”, held every August Bank Holiday Monday in the grounds of Elbrook House. This still survives of course flourishing under the slightly amended title of “Ashwell Show” but as a result of the increased population in the area and universal car ownership now attracts as many thousands as it used to attract hundreds.
Father was Hon Secretary of the show and thus I enjoyed a privileged position. I could go into the Committee tent, ignoring the discouraging “Private Keep Out” or similarly worded notice by the entrance and hang about until someone gave me a bottle of pop!
The best part was late at night, when the show was over, father and the Committee sat down in the tent by the light of a Tilley lamp, counting the money, consuming glasses of beer (Fordham’s Ashwell Ales) and munching sausage rolls left over from the tea tent.
There was a flower and vegetable show tent of course but this didn’t interest me. I don’t think I ever went in there. There were a couple of variety acts every year who performed on a stage platform erected in the middle of the ground. I remember one “Ralleano – the World’s Strongest Boy”, who tied iron bars into knots, smashed through planks of wood with bare hands (the sort of feat any modern day Karate aficionado will do before breakfast) and pulled a motor car with his teeth.
Other attractions included tight rope walkers, jugglers, fire eaters and such. One year there was a Firework display.
I also recall the “Great Daily Mail Pushball Contest”. The newspaper hired out a great ball, a 6 foot or more diameter football and local teams from pubs joined in to play each other in a knock out contest by attempting to push it into the opponent’s goal. This sport didn’t catch on, in spite of the Daily Mail’s attempts to promote it, certainly it never came back to Ashwell again because it was simply too dangerous. People got knocked over by the very heavy ball, they got trampled on and kicked and tempers flared.
I don’t know how long the Flower Show and Fete had been established as an Annual event. It may have been in the nineteenth century. Long standing horticultural and agricultural shows are not uncommon. It was certainly held in the 1920’s before I was old enough to go to it or remember it.
There were once some photographs at Westbury Cottage of a band of Morris Men and a group of “Sword Dancers”. They would dance their complex measures and in the course of these the “Swords” (strips of wood about 3 or 4 feet long and a couple of inches wide) would be woven together and interlocked into the shape of a ring or star.
The climax was when the ring was lowered into the centre of the circle of dancers and each dancer would grasp the handle of a sword, give one sharp tug and the ring would be gone! I must have seen this as a child or I probably wouldn’t know such details but I have no mental picture. Was this some old tradition of the region or was it made up by the villagers as a change from Morris? Over the years I have seen many Morris sides who dance with staves or short sticks but never any sword dancers like those of Ashwell.
There was also another faded photo of some of the village young men grouped round a giant cut out figure like “Felix the Cat” who, not walking but standing, had a wide open mouth receive the wooden coconut shy balls thrown by the eager contestants.
Another annual event which I never went to but to which I looked forward greedily, was “Mrs Fordham’s Party”. This was held in the village hall just before Christmas for the benefit of all her employees on the farms.
I was left alone at home as mother and father always went but I didn’t mind that as I could always read and listen to the wireless (having a choice of two sets of headphones). What I really looked forward to was the minced ham sandwiches! There were always minced ham sandwiches among the refreshments and mother would always bring some home for me; they were delicious, a great treat.
Christmas was always a happy time, at least viewed from my selfish point of view it was. Being well supplied with uncles and aunts and having a complete set of grandparents but no brothers, sisters or first cousins I always received a copious supply of gifts. These almost all came by post and the postman was kept fairly busy in the few days before Christmas. Unfortunately they were never for me – mother would always get to the door first, take the parcel, glance at the address and whip it away out of sight. “It’s only a parcel for the village hall” – she would lie brazenly. So I was always astonished when, at the foot of my bed, there were all these packages on Christmas morning.
A full list of the toys I remember having, such as a chemistry set, Lotts bricks, a big red working model of a crane on a lorry, a set of Dinky Toy style model cars with interchangeable and different colour bodies, sets of Meccano, a Meccano gear wheel set, a clockwork Mecanno motor, boxes of chocolates and toffees, jigsaw puzzles, a water pistol, a toy gun with a special set of cartridges which went off with a very satisfying bang, roller skates, a “magic lantern” (bicycle lamp size with funny slides) – would be too tedious to compile and too dull to read.
There were quite a lot of “useful” presents from the prudent and sensible relatives – little pullovers, socks, handkerchiefs, gloves etc but they weren’t very exciting.
Religion didn’t come into our Christmas much as neither father nor mother were churchgoers, although we did get carol singers, quite a succession of them, in the week before Christmas. Only if they sang more than one verse would father cough up tuppence!
During the 1930’s I think the number of “unofficial” groups of children going the rounds diminished and an “official” group of adults and other older children, organised by the Toc H, appeared.
The Toc H had their headquarters in the old stable buildings adjacent to the village hall and were a sort of Christian Social Club which did “good works” and had improving talks at their weekly meetings.
The name Toc H derived from the Royal Corps of Signals phonetic alphabet (Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog and all that) being phonetic for T H, the initials of Talbot House, a place of retreat and recreation founded on the Western Front in 1917 by the Reverend “Tubby” Clayton and continued in post war years as a nationwide organisation.
Anyway, the Ashwell Branch felt inspired to go carol singing at Christmas and so a large group toured the village, well wrapped up and carrying lanterns on poles and no doubt pocket flasks. It could have been only the larger houses and one or two of the pubs that they were regaled with mince pies and coffee, village households being too small and impecunious to entertain them. No doubt the takings went to a deserving charity, the Hillman, kids because they believed that charity started at home.
Christmas Day at Westbury Cottage must have been much the same as in most homes, a few presents (except for me as I seemed to get a lot). Greetings cards propped on every available surface, a decorated tree and a large roast chicken; we never had a turkey.
What made it different was the fact that it was a working day for father; he may have started a little earlier in order to try to get a free afternoon or at least get home a little earlier. He was handicapped by the fact that he was plied with hospitality at almost every call round the village. “They are all waiting for me with a glassful” – he complained once. Beer, whisky, a drop o’ gin and homemade wine were all offered. Although he liked a drink and was a long way from being a teetotaller, this was sometimes a bit of a strain for him. Once or twice he missed his Christmas dinner having to go and lie down with a “nasty headache” as mother explained.
I think she must have taken a determined stand eventually and told him to refuse these well meant offers, because the problem disappeared in time.
The customary decoration of the room was with festoons of paper chains which I enjoyed making, using a packet or two of especially cut strips of coloured paper and a jar of Gloy. It didn’t seem to be the custom to have children’s parties. There was never one at Westbury Cottage but I have a faint memory of going to one at Crump’s house but that could have been a birthday party.
New Year parties don’t figure in my memory either although there was always one in the village hall, run I think by the Men’s Club. This was another night when I was left to amuse myself at home while mother and father celebrated. This was not so heartless of them as it may seem for I could always find something to read or play with and they, being only a hundred yards away, could easily check on me (as indeed they did) several times during the evening.
I was in any case used to it and did not mind in the least and rather looked forward to being on my own. Mother and father were out quite a lot, as they were both active participants in village organisations. Father was Secretary to the Men’s Club, the Flower Show and later the Film Society (the only Village Film Society in the country it was said).
They were both members of a body called “The Social Council”. Mother was Secretary to the Women’s Institute and Clerk to the Parish Council and both were members of the Ashwell Amateur Operatic Society and its successor “The Ashwell Players”.
Mention of the Amateur Operatic Society brings to mind some of their productions which were performed, so far as I remember, once a year in the Autumn, in the village hall. I have no doubt they were a great success and sold out for every performance but I don’t remember if they were only done once or whether they were performed on several nights.
All the scenery was constructed and painted by the members; the costumes were locally made except that for some shows they were hired from Samuel French of London. I can remember great wickerwork hampers being delivered by horse drawn van belonging to the LNER
I don’t think I ever went to any of the actual performances but did go to the dress rehearsals. “Christmas in the Old Tyme” was a colourful show which included a song about wassailing, “Here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green” – they sang amid the plywood trees which swayed ominously, not for a country breeze but because the chorus, too many for the small stage, kept bumping into them.
There was also a burlesque pantomime called “Aladdin and out”, a title which puzzled me until I worked it out. This show called for extravagant oriental costumes and a lot of funny jokes of the ‘oo flung dung calibre! There was also a comic show about life in London, hence the taxi which found it’s last resting place in the cellars.
I suppose the Society flourished until the time “Dingle” Biles retired from the headship of the Merchant Taylors’ school and left the village. As honorary musical director he bullied and coaxed the very amateur singers and instrumentalists with very often enthusiasm as their sole talent.
Eventually, and I don’t know exactly how it started, there arose “The Ashwell Players”, who were a bit more serious in their productions. “The Winslow Boy”, “Harvey”, “The Chiltern Hundreds” I remember as being among their successes.
This was of course some 10 or 15 years later, immediately after the war and during the 1950’s. As a result of the war many new people had come to live in and around Ashwell, people with new ideas and greater skills than the original village folk who had been the backbone of the operatics and who joined in the fun to brighten up their lives.
One of the new arrivals was Kaete Behrens Steinfeld who had come as a refugee from Austria to escape the anschluss. She and her husband being Jewish, they had much to fear from the onset of Nazism. They settled in Baldock and were thus, when the opportunity offered, able to apply their professional theatrical management talents for the benefit of local amateur groups including the Ashwell Players.
My own appearances on the boards were few, only twice as far as I can remember. The first was probably during my time at the Primary school when I was a page boy, “Little Boy Blue”, attendant to “The Sun Princess” or some such character, played by Gladys Leveret, the dark eyed daughter of Mr Leveret who lived in the big white flat roofed house at the top of Bear Lane.
The “Sun Princess” was clothed in voluminous golden robes and had a gleaming headdress of golden run rays and was attended by a horrid smug little page, dressed all in blue (including blue cloth covered Wellingtons), carrying a cows horn bugle. This Page had to come on stage and announce – “The carriage awaits, your Highness”, but he could never say it on cue so the line was cut and all he had to do was to walk on and stand expectantly, ready to follow the lady as she swept off stage in a suitably royal fashion.
It was judged to be an important enough part to warrant a solo photograph, copies of which were among the thousand others in the bureau draw. A photo which, in later years, I hated intensely. There was also once a group photo of the whole cast on stage.
Several years later there was a production by the Merchant Taylors’ School of a sort of potpourri of sketches and songs by the pupils. I was required to play in a black face comic cross talk act with George Street, a lad from Hinxworth. This was conscientiously learned and rehearsed but the performance was not good. It started well but disaster struck when I missed a cue. This resulted in a great chunk of dialogue being omitted and instead of the act lasting about ten minutes we found ourselves at the end after about four minutes. No doubt we enjoyed such applause as there was and went off to find chaos and confusion because the next act wasn’t ready.
While I can remember this quite clearly and also the careful application of “cold cream” to my face before applying the burnt cork make up, I just don’t remember what happened after leaving the stage. Perhaps “Dingle” had a tantrum and fell off his stool!
The village hall, venue of the Operatic Society and school play productions was much used in the 1920’s and early 1930’s for many types of entertainment. The Whist Drive and Dance were very popular, a number of games of progressive whist for the older generation followed by a couple of hours dancing for the younger people.
There were more formal dances without the whist run by the Young Farmers Club or the British Legion or the Men’s Club and sometimes a private affair, a wedding reception perhaps. There were also the annual dinners run by various organisations from the area. Even if a neighbouring village had a hall of its own it might use the Ashwell hall because it was bigger and had a kitchen.
Over these years there was rarely a week without at least a couple of events. I don’t recall what music was played for the dances in those days; no doubt bands could be hired without much trouble.
From about 1935 onwards the village had its own dance band, “The Ashwell Happy Five”. I don’t think it was that good. There were some who thought it was a bit of a joke but they used to get quite a number of engagements and even had a signature tune like the big bands one heard on the wireless; I remember it was that well known tune “Blaze Away”.
On rare occasions we had an itinerant concert party. Posters would appear a week or ten days before the performance, listing the names of quite a lot of performers, giving the impression that it was to be quite a big show. In the event there would prove to be rather less, some of the performers would appear twice, changing names and costume between acts.
There were usually about half a dozen in the party, a big “life and soul of the party” compere, a stand up comic, who might later sing a patriotic song and was usually the boss. There would be a very mature well fed contralto and some younger ones, a girl who would sing a nice little song and also, under another name of course, do some juggling in a rather skimpy costume.
There were a pair of cross talk comics and a pianist would constitute a typical concert party. I recall a comic and straight man act arguing about chemistry. The former had read the word in a book but couldn’t pronounce it properly, he wanted to know what “Keemeesistry” was. The next year they came again, the troupe having a different name by then and they did the same act, only they used another word. This time it was “refuge” pronounced “refugee”. I expect they all died eventually, they would never have survived the TV age but in those simpler days a lot of people attended and seemed to enjoy them.
I mentioned earlier the Leveret family and this brings to mind a picture of “Ye Olde Tin Can”. This was Ashwell’s first bus, a small fourteen or twenty seat vehicle which went several times a day between Ashwell and Hitchin and once a week in the evening to London.
It was a shiny silvery colour, being covered in sheet aluminium with bright red lettering on the back and its name which really was “Ye Olde Tin Can”, also in red on the door.
Leveret (Herbert? Alf? Sid?) had come to the village after the 1914-18 war and built his house at the junction of the Tops and Bear Lane. It was quite impressive, at least to me as a small boy, although some people (mother was one) thought it ugly and intrusive.
It stood startlingly white, surveying the village and had a flat roof with a stone balustrade round it. The bus company must have prospered for other vehicles were acquired and eventually a 32 seater appeared. We boys scoffed at first at the rumour, “Won’t never get down the road, it’ll be too wide” we said. “Won’t never get up Bear Lane” we said, proving the argument; but it did of course.
Eventually Mr Leveret sold out to the Eastern National Bus Company and I never had to go to school in Letchworth in “Ye Olde Tin Can”.
Letchworth Grammar School
The School was new, not only newly built (about a year before I started to attend) but new in its ideas, for it believed in self rather than imposed discipline and had the philosophy that both boys and girls learned more readily in each other’s company. No doubt a sort of substitute for “Human Biology” which was not on the syllabus.
I suppose it fitted Letchworth’s image of itself as a forward thinking, socialist, healthy Garden City community. I had no complaints, but I don’t think father was impressed for when the time came for Roger and Peter to go on to secondary school he chose to send them to Hitchin Grammar School where the Head had “The stick” and there were no girls.
The school had a number of funny ideas, it was obsessed with the idea that “note passing” was evil, almost a manifestation of original sin. Of course notes were passed in great volumes across the classroom between the boys and the girls.
No pupil must be seen in the town without hat or cap. No pupil was to walk across mown grass when in the town (being a Garden City Letchworth had a great deal of mown grass). The staff always wore gowns, while “Sammy” Wilkinson the Headmaster always wore a mortar board and a gown and on Speech Days everyone had bits of coloured material over their shoulders to indicate their Degrees and Universities.
The pupils had to wear school uniform, gym slip or summer dress for the girls, with a round, domed straw hat; and blue blazer and long grey trousers with cap adorned with the school badge for the boys. The blazer also had a larger school badge on the pocket, this was a representation of the Hertfordshire County Arms with the school motto “Labora Lude Strenue” which I eventually learned was Latin and meant “Work hard, play hard”. This puzzled me, as I knew nothing at that time about foreign tongues and couldn’t work out how 3 words in Latin could mean 5 words in English.
The long trousers were a bit boring until the village kids got used to them. For an undersized 11 year old to wear long trousers was a source of great amusement to Derek Tyler, Sammy Andrews and their like. “Here comes the little man” was the cry as I slunk down the street trying to be invisible
Blazers of navy blue serge were really quite impractical garments for small boys. The fabric attracted stains and blemishes like a magnet and was not very hard wearing so that frayed cuffs and elbow holes seemed to appear like magic. Fortunately, the cost of these items of uniform was eventually met by the Smith’s Charity Trustees who, although clothing could not be paid for under the terms of Alderman Smith’s Will, found that the wording could in some round about way be interpreted to permit the purchase of “sports equipment”. It is hard to see how the need for sports equipment could have been foreseen, however indirectly, by that elderly, respectable, seventeenth century merchant of the City of London, Alderman Smith.
Nevertheless the payment was authorised by the Trustees and after mother had visited the shop in the Arcade, Letchworth and persuaded Messrs. Foster & Scott to make out an invoice describing school uniform as football shirts and cricket flannels, the payment was made.
I think the occasional items of sports clothing were obtained, very few, as I was rarely in need of such things since I was not at all enthusiastic about games. I think that on only one occasion I actually got on to the football field dressed to play Rugby.
In desperation and with uncharacteristic strength I broke the elastic in my shorts, running immediately to Mr Covington (pronounced Cuvington) to ask to be excused the game. Permission granted I scuttled back to school sweating slightly at my narrow escape.
In this perpetual scheming to dodge games which were, by the school rules, compulsory, I was aided by the fact that I travelled to and from school daily by public transport. The bus home in the afternoon left at 4 15 pm and so Wednesday afternoon games were easily avoided because the bus had to be caught, the next one on the time table was shown as being at 7 15 pm. There was another, the workmen’s bus at 6 pm but this did not appear on the timetable as it went by a different route, so the school never found out that I could have played a game on Wednesday afternoon had I been keen. “We look to all pupils to be keen” said the Headmaster frequently.
“The trouble with you Howes, is that you are not keen”. This was one of his opinions with which I wholeheartedly agreed, one of the few. I was indeed never “keen”, particularly about games. I could never see why it was such a good thing for one particular motley set of boys to outrun or outscore another motley set of boys who on average were in no way different except insofar as they “belonged” to different “Houses”.
The boys at the school were divided into three Houses each supposedly names after (I understood) a Garden City pioneer: Howard, Neville and Gorst. Ebenezeer Howard I knew of. He had been a big wheel in the founding both of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities, but to this day I couldn’t say who Mr Neville and Mr Gorst were. The girls had four Houses, the three mentioned and Pearsall, I don’t suppose they knew who Pearsall was either.
The sad thing was that nobody ever explained these things; it would have been simple to say who these people were and perhaps make apathetic pupils a bit more “keen”. It would have been simple to explain the school mottos (I had been a year there before I learned that). It would have been simple to explain why note passing was so wicked (leads to fornication behind the bike sheds?) It would have been simple but no one ever did. We did learn that to wear the school cap when walking in Letchworth town was to be smart in appearance. This of course was rubbish, school caps are even now thrown about onto roofs and into mud, they are trampled on and kicked about and after a few weeks from new look anything but smart. In fact the scruffier a cap looked the prouder the owner was of it.
Another source of embarrassment for the first few years of my school career arose from my having to leave the last class of the day at 4 pm, fifteen minutes early, in order to get the bus home.
Several of the staff were sensible and remembered this, a raised hand was sufficient to remind them and I would get a nodded permission or a dismissive wave to send me on my way. On the other hand, Miss Carter (History) would sometimes refuse to notice me for several minutes until I was frantic with anxiety, and when greatly daring, I raised my hand a minute or two before 4 pm to allow for this, would notice me at once and remark icily that it was not yet quite time for me to go.
Miss Crowhurst, the pretty, little, plump Art teacher who lived with tall, angular Miss Carter was a real bitch. She always wanted to know why I was attracting her attention, what time was the bus and why I couldn’t catch the next one.
When this had happened for two or three consecutive weeks at the beginning of my first term I thought that Miss Crowhurst was perhaps a little forgetful, then I thought that she was a bit forgetful and a bit stupid but eventually came to the conclusion that she was a sadistic cow.
This was confirmed later, when Norman Murfitt, a tall, amiable farmer’s son from Guilden Morden, who also used the bus daily once wanted to go the lavatory during a Crowhurst lesson. Permission was refused quite brusquely: he should have come prepared, she snapped. After some minutes he asked again with no success so he promptly let his bladder empty, wetting his trousers and a reasonably large floor area. I don’t remember what the immediate consequences were, presumable he was allowed to go too late.
In the longer term it all rebounded on Miss Crowhurst, because Mr Murfitt senior was not only a well-to-do farmer but also a Cambridgeshire County Councillor who was paying extra money for his son to go to Letchworth (what was called out-of-County fee) because he supported co-education and the idea of having no corporal punishment.
The story was that he had complained to higher authority via his County Council contacts and Miss Crowhurst was severely reprimanded. Some said she had been sacked but as she remained in school this happy outcome did not come to pass. She did leave, nevertheless, about a year later.
Another severe embarrassment which always occurred 3 times per year on the first day of the new terms was the result of the tardiness of the Clerk to the Trustees of Smith’s Charity. No one was allowed to cross the threshold of the school on the first morning of term without some evidence of payment of the school fees or in the case of Scholarship boys, a copy of the document which authorised their admission. Every boy had this or a receipt or even a cheque for 5 guineas, except me.
Mr Gotto, the tardy Clerk, never paid the money to the County Council until the first day of term, so I never had any paper to take to prove my right of admission. The line of boys, shuffling into school past tall, aristocratic, domineering Mr Covington or kindly but harassed Mr Tomlinson (Deputy Head) was halted, while I tried to explain (in a low voice because the boys behind were all ears and nosy and I felt a bit ashamed of being a Charity boy), the quite complex story about how the money was paid and who paid it and where it came from and most important when it would be paid. I would be hauled out of line and made to wait until everyone else was through when it would have to be all gone over again – after which I would be allowed to enter.
What made me so upset was that a) they thought that the story wasn’t true, then b) if it was true it must be my fault. As the years passed, and it always happened, somebody would remember the facts and I would be spared the need to give my mumbling, inarticulate explanation. This eventually resulted in a recurrent nightmare which came on the eve of every new term. I found myself caught in school with no shoes or socks and thus incurring the severe displeasure of every member of the staff including the caretaker.
The school had a long frontage with an impressive main entrance in the middle, opening into a rather insignificant little hallway flanked on one side by the Headmaster’s study and on the other side by the Secretary’s office, and facing the door, “The Clock”. This was the master clock to which were connected all the classroom clocks. From the clock one could see along the corridor to the left and to the right, to the toilets, boys’ at one end girls’ at the other.
By the toilets were the cloakrooms with coat pegs and “lockers”. (The lockers, so called, were simply wire spaces under the lengths of seats to be used when changing into house shoes which were compulsory footwear. They had no means of closure, having no doors and were consequently unable to lock, having no locks.) Here at each end were wide staircases giving access to upper classrooms with, in the middle, two staff rooms, one for the men and one for the women.
Opposite the stairs two side corridors led off to the Assembly Room referred to rather pretentiously as “Big School” which made the fourth side of a quadrangle. “The Quad”, it had to be called. Grass covered, with a central path leading between the entrance hall and the assembly room, it was a holy place.
The side corridors gave access to, at the boys’ end, Physics and Chemistry laboratories and a lecture room with tiered seats and a demonstrator’s bench. At the girls’ end were a Housecraft Room, Dining Room and Kitchens.
When all were assembled in the morning in “Big School”, we had to wait in the respectful silence for the Headmaster to come from his study. He was fetched by a Senior boy who walked round by way of a side corridor and who then escorted the Head across the Quad.
Assembly was the same sort of thing that was carried out in a thousand schools every day of the week. A mass chant of The Lord’s Prayer, a short selection of “little” prayers calling for God’s mercy on the school, His guidance for the teachers to keep their hands from picking and stealing, etc etc – memory is confused over what we did exactly pray for. I do remember a personal prayer that God in his infinite wisdom would make Miss Crowhurst behave better in the matter of my leaving school early, so that I would not hate her so much.
There were a couple of hymns and a short Headmaster talk about School affairs before we surged out of the room to our classes, boys one way round girls the other, silly really, because we met again in the classroom door and jostled our way in, giving opportunity for any groping that either boys or girls needed to undertake.
I once figured prominently in an Assembly. Being quite interested in Chemistry I had paid attention when Mr Marsden (nicknamed “Barrel” because of his shape) told about amalgams, which are sorts of compounds formed by mercury and some common elements like copper and iron. By rubbing mercury on a penny I made an amalgam of copper, a bright shiny silvery penny. This I gave to a fellow pupil named Negus, who took it home to show it to his daddy. Daddy, who must have been as stupid as his son, came storming up to school, fuming about “forged money” and “confidence tricksters” which resulted in my being “named” in the morning assembly.
I am sure “Sammy” the Headmaster was seized with panic over this, perhaps he imagined that there really was an embryonic counterfeiting operation going on, that Scotland Yard would have to be called in and the good name of the School would be threatened. Anyway after a long period of questioning the matter was dropped, but not before I had awarded the Neguses black marks for stupidity.
Another time when I was blessed with Sammy’s close attention came during a spell of very hot weather, when boys were given permission to remove their blazers in class, all except me because I wore braces rather than a belt! I did mention this at home and father got most upset about it. He didn’t actually storm into school like Mr Negus but I imagine he made a few mildly critical remarks over the telephone.
I would have preferred him not to have done this as it meant an Assembly ordeal again. I had to take off my jacket for the braces to be examined by the Headmaster and, of course, all the staff and pupils. “Very nice braces”, he said. “Put your jacket back on”. So thereafter I had permission to sit in class, braced and shirt sleeved and cooler.
After a day I decided against taking advantage of the concession, my fellow pupils, a rough lot, gave me a lot of stick over my “very nice braces” and it didn’t seem worthwhile.
I suppose that generally the discipline in the school was reasonable. In spite of there being no corporal punishment, I don’t recall any serious breaches. Such minor upsets that occurred were dealt with by public ridicule in Assembly or by the offender being sent “to stand under the clock” or in the case of one boy who accidentally flicked ink over the classroom wall, it was accidental because he meant it to go over a fellow pupil, and offered to wipe it off, the Headmaster decreed the stains should stay and that the offender’s initials and the date should be written on a piece of paper and stuck on the wall alongside the stains. So the initials DAM appeared, unfortunately a few days later some wag added an N and an exclamation mark so that it then read DAMN!
Standing under the clock was a bit nerve racking, for the School was very quiet and the regular second ticking pendulum very hypnotic. Standing there with the risk that the Head might come out of his study at any moment, one was supposed to reflect one’s misdemeanour and decide not to offend again. There was detention of course. This would be on Wednesdays, games afternoon. Missing games was judged to be a severe punishment because everyone was so keen – except me.
I don’t think the staff were particularly dedicated to teaching. I don’t recall any of them making any noticeable extra effort to encourage promising pupils but then I don’t suppose they ever thought of me as a promising pupil and I wouldn’t have noticed if any of my fellows were. The few who performed a cut above the others were labelled “swots” and just tolerated. I suppose the staff were an average lot of Grammar school teachers, all graduates and none with common accents, very middle class.
The Deputy Head, Mr Tomlinson was kindly but firm, one didn’t muck about in his maths class. Miss Carter, Deputy Head (Girls) was another matter, she was firm but untrustworthy, she was blessed with buck teeth (slightly yellow) and dark complexion (some thought there was a “touch of the tar brush” about her) and could show really nasty temper at times. Worse, though, was her custom of having favourites who had to endure being called by first name. Girls, who were always called by their first name qualified by “Dear” when appointed favourites.
“Dunny”, RA Dunster, was a “no luck man”, tall lanky and bewildered; he taught some maths and physics to a largely inattentive class in a physics lab with tall stools which fell over accidentally and noisily and a photographic dark room in which he accidentally got locked at least once a term.
The only thing which saved him from being what would today be called a prize wimp was his sports car, a bright green MG with a harsh crackling exhaust in which he was often seen driving along the Letchworth Gate, like a Nuvolari!
Miss Payne (Dora), Geography and a little French, was pretty and graceful with fluffy fair hair, was kindly tolerated by the boys and dearly loved by the girls. She liked to see a neatly drawn map in our exercise books and would excuse a lot of bad mannered behaviour on the part of any who could produce these.
Mr Covington (Cuvvy) was tall elegant and handsome with neatly modelled fair wavy hair who fancied himself no end and in whose class no one misbehaved. He taught English and expected high standards.
Of Miss Crowhurst I have said enough, she taught Art and ruled the Library.
Miss Dereham, tall and even fluffier than Miss Payne, taught French and is mostly remember for the awful grimaces she made when trying to teach French with the aid of the phonetic alphabet. She was of course much mimicked.
Mr Marsden short, tubby and grubby was Chemistry, he always had a hand in his pocket (playing pocket billiards, the boys said). Chemistry was an absorbing subject to me and I enjoyed his lessons. They were, to me, clearly explained and always interesting but then it was my favourite subject.