Nevill Memoirs > A Lewes Lad > 1929 to 1939
I was born in June 1929 on the new Nevill Estate after my mother had endured forty-eight hours of labour, this lateness characteristic has continued throughout my life, I was and am always the last to leave the changing room after sport and also any meeting I might attend.
I was the first grandson in the family and as I had doting grandmothers and thirteen aunts and uncles I was always well provided for at Christmas and on my birthday with the added advantage that there was almost exactly six months between the two dates.
My paternal grandfather died at the front in Belgium in 1917 so I never knew him but his widow who I called Nan was a grand old lady who was great fun and I spent long and happy hours with her, she lived just two doors away.
My grandfather had been an undertaker and cabinet maker in Western Road, he had been called up later in the Great War when older men were needed to make up for the terrible losses and wounding of our youths and men, he died in Belgium at the age of thirty-nine and is buried near Ypres. Had he survived maybe my life would have taken a totally different course.
I have his account book up to 1915 and amongst his customers was “H.M. Prison – 1 coffin £1- 10s – 0d. xxxxx xxx executed for shooting his wife in Crawley—-“.
My father had an older sister and a younger brother who never knew his father.
My maternal grandparents moved from Stockbridge in Hampshire to Telscombe where my grandfather was employed as the blacksmith and farrier to the governor Ambrose Goreham, a retired bookmaker, squire of the village and a racehorse owner and trainer. My grandfather shod a winner of the Grand National, Shannon Lass and many other winners.
After Squire Goreham died my grandfather moved to Lewes where he set up business at the forge in Southover, close to the Swan Inn. He was able to do this with a legacy left him by the governor.
Later one of my uncles continued the business and shod the horses for most of the trainers in Lewes; one of the horses was “Charlottown” winner of the Derby. My grandmother was a sweet lady, she came from a racing family and one of her brothers had been killed in a race on Brighton race course. She bore eleven children, the first died when she was a young women having been in delicate health all her life, the last was born about a year before me. I have always wondered how she managed to raise so large a family she was so small; a saying in those days “high as a spudger’s (sparrow’s) kneecap”.
Dad was born in April 1905 in Alfriston but the family came to Lewes to live in Western Road. It is unusual for my father and I to have gone to the same school, Western Road, and had our teaching and the cane from the same headmaster. When he left school he became an apprentice motor mechanic at the old Lewes Motor Works in, again, Western Road but eventually moved to Caffyns in Malling Street where he stayed for the rest of his working life apart from six years during the Second War.
Dad had a quirky way of giving youngsters nicknames that had no bearing on anything whatsoever, two of mine were Bill Badger and Nipcheese, my cousin Anne Tintaddle, next door pal John Briananchoconumberums and one of his apprentices Doody –Doody. This form of insanity is one that I also suffer, must be in the genes, my granddaughter is Two Shoes, my daughter Boo and my wife was sometimes referred to as Gloria de Frabizone.
He was a trickster which occasionally got him into trouble, one trick he played on me at Christmas got him into trouble with mum, she made sure that the piece of Christmas pudding she gave to me had the silver threepenny bit, while I was carefully eating my helping I didn’t notice that dad had slipped a half a crown into his mouth with a spoonful of pudding, when I announced my find dad grimacing muttered “what this” and produced the coin ten times the value of my find. Mum ticked him off, dad grinned and handed over the piece of silver with the purchasing power to buy fifteen Crunchy bars. The banana trick that he played on me and other young victims was to pierce the skin with a fine needle and move it left and right until the banana had been sliced, this was repeated along its length. He would give the victim a banana and watch the expression on his face as it was peeled and the sliced pieces fell out.
He was not only a good father but a firm friend, this lasted until he died at the age of eighty five and as I grew older in my late teens we addressed one another as matey and later as brother, some of our adventures and outings are covered later.
Mum was born in October 1905 in Telscombe the fourth child of eleven, she left school when she was eleven and went into domestic services in Newhaven and was allowed home one Sunday a fortnight. She finally ended up as a “Domestic” at Lewes Victoria Hospital and worked there until she married Dad, both aged twenty-two. The best man was a coal merchant and arrived at the Church in his lorry.
Mum was the rock that provided the stable home life we all enjoyed, meals were always on time and home was always comfortable, with Dad it was a good partnership. One responsibility she under took was to be the disciplinarian in bringing up her often “wayward” son, this occasionally involved a mild form of instant smacking with the object of making the point that I was wrong quickly. I remember once I went missing for over an hour at dinner time and Dad who then had a Scott motorbike and sidecar went to look for me, he eventually found two little wet boys who had lost all sense of time and with wet clothes from playing in the dew pond. As soon as we got home Mum whipped off my wet shirt and vest, gave me three flicks with the vest on my back while she cried with relief.
Another time she punished me for calling the neighbour’s daughter a silly bugger for getting caught in my kite string, all this being reported by the neighbour. Knowing and using such a naughty word was such a terrible crime that she told Dad when he came home, I don’t think she was too pleased when he was laughing as he told me I should remove the offending word from my vocabulary. She was a strong minded woman who always stood her ground and woe betide anyone who crossed her. One of Dad’s nicknames for her was “the scourge of the greengrocers”. She died just short of her 105th birthday, at her funeral I wrote that there were two ways of doing things namely the wrong way and her way, this brought many smiles from the congregation.
My parents bought a house on the Nevill Estate, which was just being developed in 1927. It was the first private house in North Way. They stayed there for the rest of their lives.
The house was a three bedroom semi with no bathroom or hot water system. The lavatory was part of the house but outside the back door, so chamber pots were necessary items of furniture, the ceilings were asbestos sheeting. There was a coal cellar which was also used for storing the year’s crop of potatoes. It was described in the deeds as suitable for the working class, in today’s parlance “affordable”, I guess house builders were more straightforward then.
(Click to enlarge)
The kitchen was called the scullery and contained the bath, gas cooker and gas copper which provided the bath water as well as hot water for Monday wash day. The living room and “front room” both had fireplaces as did two of the bedrooms; I can’t remember ever seeing the bedroom ones used. Coal was the sole form of heating, we had electric lighting, one pendant per room and there were no power points although these were added later when my parents could afford it.
In the living room during winter there was always a tin kettle simmering on a trivet, made by my blacksmith uncle, by the open coal fire and after Monday wash day the clothes-horse took pole position. Having a bath wasn’t a luxury or a way to relax, in fact it was a once a week event on Friday night with four to six inches of water ladled from the copper and a block of carbolic soap. To make room in the small scullery my father removed two legs from an old pine dining table and hinged the legless side to the wall over the bath so that it became a worktop for the rest of the week. The problem was how to support the table in the raised position for bath night, the solution was to stick a broom, bristles uppermost, under one of the two legs. The result was that you spent as little time as possible in your six inches, kept one eye on the broom and got ready to duck at any sign of danger.
The lavatory was outside the back door so visits in rain or winters cold were most uncomfortable. Mum made sure I “did my business”: a daily dose of Californian Syrup of Figs helped and for night-time emergencies there were bedroom chamber pots. Two other daily doses were Parishes Food, a cherry flavoured “tonic”, two teaspoons and Cod Liver and Malt, not unpleasant which was just as well as the measure was one tablespoon, these equivalents of today’s health supplements.
Occasionally, I believe, to keep the digestive system flushed we had Andrews Liver Salts (“Inner cleanliness comes first” was the trade logo): one heaped teaspoon of white powder in a glass of water which fizzed like ginger beer.
We didn’t need alarm clocks and I imagine most of the people had the town system provided by the railway marshalling yard, every weekday around six o’clock the steam shunting engines would be moving the wagons and as this ended in each wagon colliding with its selected companions, we were woken by the dawn percussion group.
My first memory was quite early when I was just two and a few months old, I expect because it was quite traumatic that I remembered something so early in my life. I had inner ear trouble which meant some probing and I can remember being taken to Victoria Hospital, the black couch with a rubber sheet and me being held down while the torture went on.
This was the start of a fear of hospitals that continued until I was about ten. The other contribution to my fear happened about two years later, I had been born with the middle toe on each foot curled under the second toe. When I was four my mother took me to a chiropodist who tried various packing to no avail and then I overheard the chiropodist say that the only solution was to have the two toes removed. My mother wasn’t prepared to let this happen but from that day I wouldn’t enter any hospital, whatever type, because I thought that some man in a white coat might grab me and take me off to have my middle toes cut off.
Later I decided to sort out the problem myself and devised a simple exercise that I did morning and night that eventually straightened the offending toes so that my feet passed muster when I had my medical for National Service although my feet could never be considered objects of beauty.
As one who didn’t want take any chances I would look for help from any source including God, and an early childhood prayer, after hearing grown ups describing gory details was:
“Please God help me never to have any nasty operations, mastoids, carbuncles or cysts. Amen”
Saint Anne’s School
I wanted to go to St. Anne’s as I thought that some of the teachers who were nuns at the other school looked like threatening magpies, this was the view of a five year old not a religious bigot. September came and I started my scholastic years in my brown blazer and cap both with “gold” badge in the form of the school initials. I was surprised that I quite liked school and I couldn’t understand why some of the girls and boys in my class cried in the early days.
St Anne’s: a flint walled building close to the, then, Baxter’s sports field. The building still exists at the corner of Ireland’s Lane but no longer as a school with the old playground providing a car park for the current users. The classes were mixed but with separate entrances at each end of the building, as were the girls and boys primitive outside lavatories, “please Miss may I be excused”. The boy’s lavatories were to be the venue for a regular series of contests to see who was the current champion, no details save to say that the height of the wall played an important part.
There were four classrooms for ages five, six, seven and eight, four lady teachers who took each age group. Their names and main characteristics in class order were Miss Dance, – jolly, Miss Salvidge – Kind, and Mrs Courtney – firm, and the headmistress Miss Reed – strict. Miss Dance’s classroom had the alphabet along one wall, each letter upper and lower case A a with a picture – apple through to zebra.
I suppose that almost all the children came from working class families and some were from the orphanage, an ex-workhouse close by on ground that is now part of the de Montfort Estate. Interestingly previously there had been a Southern Counties Reformatory for Inebriates nearby.
Getting to school could be quite exciting as there were several racing stables en route; one was immediately behind the school, other stables were at the top of de Montfort Road – Tom Masson, and in Nevill Road, Tom Gates. I can’t remember the name of the trainer behind the school but a few days after joining the school his son gave me my first example of sex education when he asked me if I knew where I came from and when I admitted my ignorance having already dismissed the gooseberry bush and stork theories, he informed me that “I had come from my mother’s xxxs”. This was of no help to my further education as I didn’t know what xxxs were and as it had always seemed a delicate subject at home when grownups whispered to each other, I decided that I wouldn’t ask any more questions. I later discovered that xxxs were not the source of my entry into the world.
School hours were nine to twelve and two to four, most of us lived locally so went home mid-day to what we called dinner, I don’t think that any of us had heard of the word lunch. I used to bring a sandwich to have with the third of a pint of milk, bought at school at mid-morning playtime. The milk cost a halfpenny, we used a straw through a hole that was punched through the cardboard bottle top; these tops were saved and used in occasional primitive handicraft lessons with raffia to make articles like tablemats to take home for our “appreciative” parents.
I struck up a friendship with one of the boys, who said if I gave him a sweet he would be my friend, he was from “the children’s home” and frequently we swapped our morning snacks as I was, and still am, partial to bread and dripping and he liked a bit of variety. I was particularly envious of his hobnailed boots that were perfect for sliding on the tarmac playground but I could never persuade my parents that I should be so equipped. I didn’t achieve this perfection till much later when on national service I got two pairs, not for sliding.
Our education was centred around the three “Rs” and, as a church school, scripture. Other subjects were covered in a very general way – I can remember that Eskimos wore seal fur and lived in snow houses called igloos and that black children cleaned their teeth regularly with brushes made from bamboo twigs which is why they had white shiny teeth. Later when the chief torturer, the school dentist, appeared I wished that Dad had grown bamboo in the garden.
There was a large map of the world on the wall with a very high portion coloured pink. We were told that this showed the British Empire, the importance of this became of great significance later in the school year, but that was the extent of our geography teaching.
We were set to work learning our multiplication tables by rote with all the class reciting together, simple addition and subtraction and the phonetic alphabet with twenty-six pictures on the walls of the classroom – A for apple through to Z for zebra. It wasn’t long before we were copying and writing the letters and deciphering simple words in the lesson books.
I still have one of my early exercise books with all entries dated, the first being 4 June 1935 about nine months after starting my school year.
One entry, four days before my sixth birthday, with all errors is as follows:
Writing – Little bee come and say What youre doing all the day Oh every day long.
Another – If I wr were an apple. And grew on a tree. I think I d drop down. On a nice boy like me. 11.9.35
Scripture was also important, we were told the stories of the Bible and Jesus and how God loved and looked after us. Although it was Church of England there was no hint of bigotry against other Christian denominations, however, missionaries were held in high regard “as they took the word”, no mention of disease, to people who were unfortunate in their ignorance.
Prayers started the school day:
Father we thank thee for the night
And for the pleasant morning light
For rest and food and loving care
And all that makes the world so fair
Thank you for the birds that sing
Thank you God for everything
When school finished for the day we said one more prayer:
Lord keep us safe this night
Secure from all our fears
May angels guard us while we sleep
Till morning light appears
I really believed that if I prayed that my prayers would be granted and as I lived in a caring home and had lots of aunts and uncles who spoilt me I guess my “faith” was strong.
A regular visitor to the school was the church vicar the Rev. Entwhistle, one day he was accompanied by a small lady who inspected us through her glasses as though we were specimens in an insect house at a zoo. She was dressed cylindrically, the same width from shoulders to the hem of her long dress, a hat and her shoes peeped out below the hem of her dress, for those who remember the cartoonist Giles she was, in shape and conformation, a well dressed version of his Grannie; we had been inspected by Miss Fowler Tutt from over her tiny spectacles.
The other visitor who nearly destroyed my faith in God was when the school dentist arrived; a frightening figure accompanied by his equally forbidding nurse. There was nothing in either of them to allay the grim feelings of foreboding in the minds of Form 1.
He wore a brown suit with waistcoat and watch chain and she wore a long double breasted white overall and a brown felt hat, neither wore a smile.
In alphabetical order I was one of the first to go, I perched on a high stool and opened my mouth, as ordered, he put two nasty tasting metal things in my mouth. I tried to look down to see what was going on, and I found myself looking into his mouth – he concentrated on his work with his mouth open. It was not a good advertisement for his trade, his teeth were like the older part of the graveyard of our mother church St Anne’s, tombstones discoloured and at all angles. As he poked about he spoke some foreign language to his nurse with words like bicuspid coupled with grunts and “keep still”, eventually I returned to my desk knowing that all was not well in the tooth department, a subsequent note delivered to my parents confirmed my worst fears, the fact that I was united in feelings of doom with most of my classmates was no comfort. The note confirmed that four of my teeth needed removing, I expressed the fear that this was going to hurt but my parents told a story that ranks with the baby under the gooseberry bush legend, “it won’t hurt, all the dentist will do is to put a spoon in your mouth and the teeth with fall into it”.
As with most children, parents along with teachers were infallible, so duly comforted I was taken by my mother to the dentist who didn’t see us at his surgery but on the first floor of the Market Tower, to a child a grim looking building, “abandon hope all ye who enter here”. The linoleum floor was scuffed and with what looked like skid marks. As I sat there waiting my turn one girl was crying, I wondered why, and when the nurse took her hand and dragged her through the door to the dentist with her shoe heels making scratches on the linoleum I thought maybe she hadn’t been told about the spoon.
My turn came, I entered the dentist’s room and climbed into this rather strange chair, an evil smelling rubber bib was tied under my chin. I saw strange shiny metal objects but no spoon, “open wide” gravestone grimace appeared, something like a pair of pliers entered my mouth. Four tugs followed by four pain riddled aaghs from me as four teeth clinked into a metal bowl. “Rinse and spit in bowl, next one”. All over in less than five minutes, four teeth removed raw. I left the room vowing never to return, another ten years were to pass before extreme pain persuaded me to visit a dentist again
Every year we celebrated the existence of the pink bits on the map of the world: Empire Day. Such was the pride in this glorious gift to all its subjects that we were taken in the morning to the Cinema de Luxe on School Hill for a free show. One year my enjoyment was short lived. As the curtains drew back to start the show one of my friends cheered and threw my cap in the air casting a temporary shadow on the blank screen. The cap descended and I judged the landing point to be about one and a bit yards to my right and into the row in front. I dived and made a successful catch. Unfortunately, the chief usherette saw me. She was a big woman, never smiling and wasn’t impressed, I was removed from my seat and the company of my friend and deposited on the pavement outside. Later my friend told me that it had been a good show, I replied that I wasn’t particularly glad for him and, to myself, I thought what an unjust world, including the pink bits, it was.
I remember the Lewes Carnivals, I don’t know if these were annual events but one occurred whilst I was at St Anne’s. The format was as might be expected, fancy dress parade, brass band, Carnival Queen, marching through the town to the Dripping Pan for fun and games. All the schools took part and competed in the fancy dress competition where the costumes were to be based on a theme – St Anne’s chose nursery rhymes.
I was scared that I would be allotted an embarrassing character like Little Boy Blue or Jack and would have to hold hands with Jill. In the event I struck lucky, some parents had made a large shoe, with a roof, door and window, carried on a flat back lorry, this was the home of the Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe played by Miss Dance, and I with others were some of the “so many children that she didn’t know what to do” she had. So we led the parade and rode in style on and around the shoe while Little Bo Peep, Jack Horner, Boy Blue and other characters trailed behind on foot.
The carnival song composed for the event went as follows:
Carnival, this is the day that makes you gay
And drives your troubles right away
We’ll laugh and sing and have our fling
And make a joke of everything
No use for melancholy
Upon this day of folly
So come come come don’t be glum
Follow the man with the big base drum
To Lewes Carnival
It’s funny that I can remember all these songs and prayers but now sometimes I can’t remember what I did yesterday.
Jubilee and Abdication
Other festival occasions while I was at the school – we celebrated the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary in 1935 and two years later, in 1937, the Coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In both cases we were marched off to the Town Hall to be presented with commemoration mugs from the hands of His Worship the Mayor, then back to the Baxters sports field for games and a party.
In between these two celebrations the Prince of Wales became Edward VIII on the death of George V and subsequently abdicated to marry the divorced American Mrs Simpson.
As children we didn’t understand the implications of the scandal but we picked up the atmosphere generated by listening to the adults talking and soon we were singing the latest ditty:
Who’s that walking down the street
Mrs Simpson’s cheesy feet
She’s been married twice before
And now she’s knocking at Edward’s door
I remember when the abdication became fact after hearing his broadcast. Public announcements were made throughout the town by a bevy of civic dignitaries in full regalia accompanied by the Mace Bearer. I can’t remember a Town Crier. The schools and others were paraded in the road outside the Prison to hear the announcement and proclamation that George VI was now king. I wondered why not King Albert.
Leaving Saint Anne’s
Final days at St. Anne’s and the time for moving on approached. The teaching had been sound, practical and in terms of the three Rs effective, so by the end of year one most of us could read simple text and after two years we were reading for pleasure. The firm but kindly discipline also started a feeling of neighbourliness and a respect for the law both spiritual and temporal.
One inducement to encourage us to read was for the teacher to read part of a story, one was Alice in Wonderland, for about fifteen minutes and despite all our pleadings she would say “some more tomorrow”. This was effective, there’s nothing like gentle deprivation to motivate you to master reading.
I left St Anne’s – I was considered bright, and went up to Western Road School after three years. I had a good grounding of the basics for the continuance of a wider education, coupled with a degree of self-discipline. Leaving a year early, in September 1937, meant that I left my true love, Mary, who I was going to marry, behind. Alas, absence didn’t make the heart grow fonder and there were other pretty girls at the new school.
Western Road School
Western Road was different, the first form under the strict but fair Miss Webster who continued the basic three “Rs” syllabus plus an introduction to history and geography. The main difference was that children who had not passed the eleven plus stayed at the school until they were sent out into the wide world at fourteen to start earning their living. This was to change soon after I arrived when the new Mountfield Road School opened in 1937 and after the shuffle the school top form was for ten year olds. At the end of that year we would take our Scholarship Exam (11 plus) which would decide whether we would continue our education at Mountfield or The Lewes County School for Boys, later renamed The Lewes County Grammar School for Boys.
We had masters for the first time: the bearded Mr Smith (Smutzer), he lived at 3 Highdown Road who introduced us to elementary science, and the fearsome headmaster Mr Bingham (Johny). Later Mr Smith moved to Mountfield Rd where he had become Science Master and Deputy Head where a poem in his honour went:
Poor old Smutzer’s dead
He won’t worry us no more
What he thought was H2O
Our education progressed until, almost without warning, I with the other three members of our gang of four found ourselves in Johny’s class. He was a strict disciplinarian with boys but seemed to think that girls could do no wrong and it was the gang’s misfortune that one of his tools in enforcing discipline was the cane: right or wrong this was the case in most schools as I found out later. Our gang were not particularly naughty but we were a bit lively so we were allotted the two front pews on the left furthest away from the girls who occupied the right flank and being on the left we were nearest his right hand.
Two tricks the girls played were to hide his cane in the upright piano which spoilt morning prayers and putting his chalks in old sticky toffee wrappers. Of course as girls could do no wrong it was us who were called to the front for the “hold out your hand” and swish ceremony. Boys didn’t hit girls in those days so the two main perpetrators were crossed off our potential love list.
Mostly the cane was for our own transgressions and I remember I told my father when I had suffered for the first time his reply was “I expect you had it coming to you”, end of subject.
By far the best part of my education in his class was that we were required to read a book from the book cupboard, these were not Janet and John books but ranged from Just William through to the Dickens novels so by the time I left at eleven I had read Sherlock Holmes, The Scarlet Pimpernel and my three favourites were Oliver Twist and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Nada the Lily. This library had been assembled by Mr Bingham himself and it was a tribute to our teachers from St Anne’s and Western Road that we were able to take full advantage of this treasure.
Mr Bingham was a very perceptive music critic, when he heard the gang singing we were told that it was “worse than an empty salmon tin being scraped up and down a brick wall”. This was a peculiar sense of humour of an old soldier; he had taught my father before 1914 and had been wounded before returning to teach after 1918. He walked with a limp and used a walking stick and I believe he was always in some pain, he occasionally sent me down to his house in Bradford Road to get his pills. Needless to say we were soon in the choir that would later perform in a festival at the Brighton Dome. We must have been included to make up the numbers and we performed in the 10 to 11 class, the test piece was a Shakespeare poem set to an old English melody with the first line something like this:
“When daffodils begin to appear with hey the doxy over the dale”, later “With hey with hey the thrush and the jay, a summer song for me and my aunts as we go tumbling in the hay, as we go tumbling in the hay”
In retrospect not the subjects for innocent children.
Later at a choir practice I was being the comedian and the teacher said “You aren’t really needed in the choir after all it was due to your singing that we came third at the festival”, there were only two other schools who took part in our class.
Lewes had another carnival with the schools choosing a theme: we were to be Robin Hood and his Merry Men. The casting was easy: the best athlete senior boy was Robin, the fattest Friar Tuck and the tallest Little John. It was decided that Maid Marion wouldn’t take part so the girls were excused parade, in our eyes a reward for their supposed good behaviour. We were a motley band, not particularly happy, and if the hated Normans and the Sheriff of Nottingham had met us they would probably have died laughing rather than from a flight of arrows. Our dress consisted of green cloth fitted over our wellies, a green tunic with belt or rope at the waist, brown cotton stockings borrowed from mum or elder sister and hat made from felt hats. How I wished the theme had been Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, then with luck I could have gone my own sweet way.
Coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth
The coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth took place in May 1937. For children this was an extra holiday, organised parties and a trip to the town Hall to collect a souvenir mug to go with the George V and Queen Mary Silver Jubilee mug together with a 1910 -1935 medal. All of which I still have together with their 1911 coronation medal presented by the Borough of Lewes and given to my father, and the medal for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra’s coronation in 1902.
Other memories included holidays, with money being short holidays meant visiting relatives over the country, Evesham Vale, Stockbridge in Hants and London. These holidays were repaid by my parents being host to our relatives. Bretforton in the Evesham Vale was a regular one, I particularly liked my aunt’s husband Uncle Cyril who paid me the ultimate compliment that can be given to a young boy – he always talked to me as an adult and seemed interested in what I had to say and did. Their garden also had two Victoria plum trees so a visit in August was a fruitful one.
By the time I had started school, Dad, who was motor mechanic, had progressed from a Scott motorbike and sidecar to an Austin Seven so travel was relatively easy. The car had a folding roof and celluloid side windows and with the wind behind it could reach 40 mph. Later we upgraded to a “luxury” model with a roof.
Setting out for any trip was highly technical, in modern aeronautical terms, to get the trim right. The luggage was distributed to ensure as balanced a load as possible, I was responsible for fine trim by positioning myself on the back seat, as we started, under Dad’s instructions I moved inch at a time left or right until he was satisfied with the balance. I guess the phrase “driving with the seat of your pants” was like this.
The Pistol Range
Dad and I had one unusual home entertainment, he had a 0.22 air pistol that fired small feathered darts so we had our own firing range with the target on the back door, locked in the interests of safety, with the door from the scullery to the living room open and the firing point from across the living room, this gave us a seven yard range. This was used regularly in the winter evenings and as he also had a 0.117 air rifle, I was allowed to use this in a safe part of the garden. I became a good shot which helped later when I joined the school Army Cadet Force.
There were a number of entertainments to keep a boy amused and interested, by today’s standards not at all sophisticated.
Sometime when I was about six dad bought a wireless and this opened a new world listening to the BBC, Children’s Hour with Uncle Mac, Toytown and Larry the Lamb. In Town Tonight “to meet some of the interesting people who are in town tonight”, Band Wagon with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch and all the big bands. I learnt many of the songs and there was one I didn’t understand “I’ve got you under my skin” it sounded pretty messy to me. There was also Radio Luxemburg, a commercial station, plenty of music interspersed with advertiser’s jingles, “Hurray for Betox what a delightful smell”, “We are the Ovaltinies”.
With a gang of about ten boys birthday parties were a regular event and after a while they became a ritual, probably our parents had a hand in this, on arrival the birthday boy was wished a happy birthday by each boy who then gave him a “thrupenny bit”: not much but ten amounted to half a crown which would buy a month’s supply of sweets or a Dinky toy.
The feast would consist of sugar banana sandwiches, jelly and blancmange with Tizer an all-time favourite. No birthday cake with candles but that didn’t bother us. For the rest we were left to amuse ourselves in our own way. Later the war put a stop to all this with rationing and change of diet. When my dad was in India I wrote “I wish I could have banana” – about a month later I had a reply “I wish I could have a Cox’s apple”.
There were two cinemas, the Cinema de Lux on School Hill and the Odeon in the Cliffe – both featured as entertainments for me and my pals. The Cinema de Lux (Fleapit) was only partly an apt name – it was certainly a cinema but definitely not de Lux and for some time the equipment was not reliable. Quite often the screen would go blank during a film and the whistles and catcalls would start from the cheap 3p stalls where we sat on Saturday afternoon matinees, followed by cheers when action resumed. Order would only be restored when the formidable usherette picked us out with her “searchlight”.
This was the place where we saw our cowboy heroes, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard and Hopalong Cassidy being the main ones. One I didn’t like was Gene Autry who had an annoying habit of breaking into song when the whole purpose was to fight, be quickest on the draw and fight off rustlers and marauding “injuns”. Of course there had to be a mandatory couple of brawls per film. Two things always puzzled me, one how did their 10 gallon hats stay on during the brawls and two how did the heroes collar the market on all the white horses, this carried on right up to the Lone Ranger with his Indian companion, “Hi-Yo Silver” and it was many years before I found out what Kemosabe meant. Cheap seats on Saturday afternoons were “thrupence”, our price, but occasionally we were able to crawl back to the “sixpennies” when the lights were dimmed.
The Odeon was altogether different, brand new in the Arte Deco style, the height of luxury. Sited opposite the Thomas a Becket Church at the end of the Cliffe High Street, the entrance through swing doors into a parade about thirty yards long. On the left were display units like shop windows hired by local shops and businesses – I remember Cootes gents clothing. On the right there was a small tea room. In the interval the room would provide tea, ordered prior to the performance, to people in the, “gods”, circle. Also during the interval a spotlight would pick out the ice cream girl with tubs and snowfruits, she stood her ground and you had to rush to join the growing queue. Through swing doors to the foyer bigger than a tennis court, with the ticket office and the entrance to the stalls facing the customers, the stairs to the circle opposite.
Visiting the cinema to see main feature films was a rare opportunity for the under tens and meant going with mum and dad: for us it was the Saturday morning Mickey Mouse Club. You were enrolled and given a membership card and badge, the morning show cost threepence, the format was cast in stone and always started with the club song:
Every Saturday morning where do we go
Getting into mischief oh dear no
To the Mickey Mouse Club with badges on
Every Saturday morning at the O-DE-ON
This was followed by a couple of Disney cartoons, always a Mickey Mouse and perhaps a Donald Duck, others characters included Mickey’s girlfriend Minnie, Pluto the dog, Goofy, Horace Horsecollar and Clara Cluck. Another cartoon character was Popeye the Sailor who maintained his strength by swallowing great dollops of spinach straight out of a tin can, his girlfriend Olive Oil and a fat character, who was always eating hamburgers, Wimpey.
After the interval we came to the serious part of the morning, the Adventures of Flash Gordon, space traveller extraordinaire: he had travelled to more planets than we could count, his spaceship was straight out of Blue Peter although a trip to Mars only took one day not ten years at today’s estimate. The serial was ongoing and based around the most improbable adventures and each week always with our hero in mortal danger the screen would go blank and a voice would say something on the lines of “will Flash escape? See next week’s show”. I expect that this would ensure that the Odeon had a loyal audience but they needn’t have worried. Although we were young we had worked out the system and Flash would escape somehow only to get in another spot of bother to get us on tenterhooks for the next week. The only end of an episode I can remember was Flash in a cage with an enormous gorilla with a foot long horn sticking out of its chest and just as the monster was about to embrace him, “will etc”.
I’m afraid I can’t remember the following week’s start so this might have haunted me for all of the subsequent seventy years if I hadn’t continued my membership until the start of World War II put a stop to it. The series was shot when the studio was not being used for a feature film and props and costumes were borrowed from what was available so Flash and crew could be confronted by Martians who were dressed like Roman legionnaires but armed with ray guns.
My parents often took me to the Hippodrome in Brighton to see variety acts; we used to sit in the nine penny side circle seats. One of my favourites from hearing them on the BBC were The Kentucky Minstrels, musicians, dancers and comics some black and others white with blackened faces, nowadays not politically correct, but nevertheless good entertainment; one lead comic was called Nosmo King. My favourite comedy pair were Murray and Mooney. The format was always the same, Murray the straight man and Mooney the gag man. It went something like this:
Murray “Ladies and gentlemen I will now recite a monologue, There’s a wise old –“
Mooney walks on – “I say I say I say what’s the difference between an elephant and a deckchair”
Murray “I don’t know. What is the difference?”
Mooney “There’s no difference, neither can ride a bike”
Murray “I don’t wish to know that, kindly leave the stage!”
Comedy for the most part, though the Politically Correct spotters might be unhappy at times, was not sophisticated, cruel, uncouth or lewd and any risky jokes used innuendo which would be over the head of a ten year old.
I saw many of the old Musical Hall entertainers, Nellie Wallace, Kentucky Minstrels, Billy Bennett to name a few, but Mum and Dad never took me to see Max Miller.
Air Shows and Speed
My father was fortunate that he loved his work and anything mechanical interested him, so that he didn’t need a hobby. This meant that I was taken to all manner of events and he always took time to explain and answer my questions – they were all happy times. Trips included air shows at Hendon and Gatwick, the latter was just before the war and we saw the new wonder fighter the Hawker Hurricane. Terra firma events included Brighton Speed Trials along the Madeira Drive, grass track racing at Brands Hatch and dirt track racing at Arlington.
One of riders at Arlington was Charlie Dugard, a sort of hero to me. On one occasion he had won a race and I was standing on a bend as he did his lap of honour, “good old Charlie” I shouted at the moment he accelerated with the result that I suddenly had a mouthful of dirt track cinders.
Very much closer to home were the speed trials, up the “motor road” to the Race Course, held annually by the Eastbourne Motor Club. One home-made car, no kit cars then, looked like a motorised bedstead, chassis made of wood, chain driven by two Jap motorbike engines. The machine rejoiced under the name of Bloody Mary and was driven by a Mr John Bolster. Health and Safety was a personal thing so you sat on the bank at the edge of the road as racing cars and wheeled contraptions sped up the hill.
I went to Lewes Races with my parents occasionally; we never went into the enclosures but watched for free about half way along the finishing straight. Abiding memories were the smell of the cockles and whelks stalls as we walked to the course and the cry of “ah gotta horse” from a large black man, a tipster, dressed in some sort eastern costume and a feathered head dress, the famous Ras Prince Monolulu who was shown in one of my cigarette card sets.
Brought in entertainment included the travelling funfairs and circuses, we went to these but only because they were there. I’m not sure what other gangs thought of them but we thought they were not great fun and what’s more they cost money, we were children of the working class.
Most of the everyday needs could be bought in the shops on the estate; there was Vinalls grocers and the sub post office at the bottom of South Way by the green. Tompsetts in Middle Way grocer, tobacconist, confectioner and important to us, Tizer.
The three shops in Mount Harry Road were: on the left Stapley’s newsagent, tobacconist and confectioner, the middle shop Walker’s was double fronted, butchery on the left and greengrocery to the right, the other shop was Steadman’s, a grocery.
All were friendly and helpful and later during the war, when they were all involved with rationing, fair and honest. The shops in the town supplied all our other needs, although our needs and luxuries were far less extensive than today.
The Co-op was the shop we mostly used in the town, they also provided the daily delivery of bread and milk by horse and cart.
The bread was delivered to the back door by hand sometimes after the horse had been fed by nosebag and the delivery man had patted its backside. Milk was brought in a steel churn with half and one pint measures and ladled into our quart jug, the hygiene better than with the bread. The daily arrival of the two horses brought a sharp looking old lady to her front gate armed with a shovel and bucket to collect any natural fertiliser the horse may have left, we called her “the manure lady” and it was rumoured that she had the finest rhubarb patch in North Way.
Through Dad’s brother we had become good friends with a farming family whose farm was near Chailey. They were to become life long friends and were a wonderful hospitable family – Dad who I can’t remember without his cap and called my dad “Jaff”, Mum short, dumpy, and jolly, when their dog signalled our Austin 7 arriving she would rush from the house to meet us at the gate with embraces and laughs, the warmest welcome possible. The brothers and sisters in order were Peter the eldest, serious, Bub the comedian, Betty, Geoff, Ruth, Ken, Peggy and the youngest John, who was about a year older than me. In time with marriages the family grew.
We used to help on the farm, hay making, feeding the animals and dad was always sorting out problems on their cars and tractors. John and I “helped” as you would expect from boys. The hens ran loose around the barns and John and I would have the job of finding the eggs, but most of the time it was play for us we could run wild, and we had barns, a pond and haystacks to keep us amused. Later they moved to a bigger farm north of Plumpton and near to Chailey Common. I had my boys 18 inch frame bike complete with proper head and tail lamps, so I would visit them as often as I could sure in the knowledge that I would always be welcomed by the family. Things changed dramatically when the war started but all that is covered in my account of the forties.
A regular duty was a visit to the barbers for a “short back and sides” at Mr Woolgar’s just up from the Co-Op. He had his “salon” at the front and the ladies were “tonged” by Mrs W. in the back room. As you entered the front door the smell of hot hair from the back room met you, it was part of the curl or wave process.
Climbing into his chair for the cutting operation you soon learnt that Mr W. liked to work on an inclined surface so your head was pushed to the required angle, after a few visits the head choreography became automatic and now seventy years later when I go to have gooseberry haircut on the top and the sides and beard tidied, I find myself still anticipating the barber’s non-existent requirements.
One bonus as you waited your turn were the copies of Dandy, Beano, Film Fun, Radio Fun and other comics. One weekly feature was Lord Snooty and his motley gang’s adventures. Sometimes visual jokes were included and one I still remember shows the gang by a small lake with an island about a yard wide with a post board with the following words Do Not Throw Stones at This Board. Sometimes as an adult paid for his haircut Mr Woolgar would say “anything for the weekend sir”, what on earth could that be I thought, perhaps one of the mysteries of life that would be revealed when I was a man.
Cigarette cards were an important part of our lives and were a form of currency; these had been included in cigarette packets well before we boys were born. In fact I have some of my father’s collection. Usually there were 50 to a set and you could buy an album for one penny. Subjects covered a considerable range – I still have albums including film stars, fresh water fish, civil and war aircraft, footballers and army badges among the thirty or more sets. Some could be gruesome: one set I don’t have was about tortures including thumbscrews, the iron maiden and the rack, I was surprised that there were fifty different ways of making you suffer extreme pain.
Cards were obtained from relatives and their friends. We also approached strangers, “please mister have you any fag cards”. Another source which was kept a secret was after Lewes Race Course meetings, litterbins seem not to have been invented so the enclosures were strewn with discarded betting slips and glory be, empty cigarette packets and if you were lucky two cards in a twenty packet and one in a ten. Collecting was an intensive hobby; the need to complete a set was paramount in the limited time before the next set issue started. As there were a number of cigarette brands including Players, Wills, Park Drive, Kensitas and Churchman’s there were collections to be completed concurrently. “What a stressful life for young boys” said he with tongue in cheek.
If you had the inevitable duplicate cards these were called twicers and were always in your pocket in a ten packet, and the question when you met your friends was always have you got any twicers followed by a swop deal if that were possible. Sometimes if your friend had one you badly wanted but you had nothing to offer him in exchange, bartering was possible. The going exchange rate could go as high as 1 Trebor farthing chew = 1 Card.
I had one handicap not suffered by my friends whose fathers all smoked whilst my father was in the no smoker minority. However it meant that I never had the chance to try a cigarette by pinching one when dad wasn’t looking, the usual starting point for most boys, so I never became a smoker. Perhaps smoking “uncle Tom’s tobacco” (dried wild parsley stalks) also had something to do with it.
Like most boys I had a Meccano set but it never became a hobby possibly because I could never work out how the examples in the enclosed pamphlet were put together so I used to run out of the necessary pieces. Perhaps it was a sales gimmick to persuade you to buy additional packs, I’m afraid it didn’t work with me as there were too many fun games to play and “tuppeny terribles”: the Champion, Hotspur, Wizard and others with their regular heroes including Rockfist Rogan – boxer and RFC fighter pilot, Wilson the Wonder Athlete and Colwyn Dane the detective. There was always plenty to read via the swop system.
We had our own world where nobody could control us, whether there were the dangers that worry parents today we didn’t know. So we wandered from the Nevill beyond the race course to the “Squares and Brakey Bottom” camping and eating charred potatoes from our camp fire, to the chalk pits and the slope “Bonnie Scotland” down to Offham, our sledging venue with iron runners for snow and polished wooden ones in the summer when the ground was hard and the turf smooth.
Closer to home there was the wood in The Floods now called Landport Bottom: “Sherwood Forest” where we built our camps and fixed our rope swings. Wherever we went trees had two purposes – to be climbed and jumped or fall off, conkers were necessary for tournaments in the autumn.
The Ups and Downs were opposite Nevill Crescent and went up the side of Nevill Road. There was no path on that side, this play area with slopes and plenty of trees had the added advantage of being close to home and food and when time was short. Bows and arrows were part of the kit and we knew where to find the right wood for the bow, we didn’t raid churchyards so it wasn’t yew, we called it dogwood. I confess now in my eighties I made both recently from one of our haunts near Bonnie Scotland.
The “rec” at Nevill Crescent was our meeting place and according to season we played cricket, rounders and football. Nothing was organised, no kit not even football boots, jerseys and jackets were goal posts and markers for rounders, the balls bats and stumps were scraped together between us.
Another play area was the development of the Nevill which had continued up to 1939. The housing in their varying stages of development with ladders and scaffolding were there for us. We weren’t vandals so no damage was done; it was just another place to climb and swing. Potentially dangerous were the three chalk pits aptly named first, our main venue, the second where Chalk Pit Inn was and still is, and the third, the smallest and the haunt of another gang.
One foolhardy stunt a pal and I did and our parents never knew of was to try a primitive form of abseiling, a word unknown in those days, from the small first chalk pit down into the larger second one. My pal whose father was a builder “borrowed” about 100 feet of scaffolding rope and we set off on our expedition. We had surveyed the scene and there seemed about 30 feet of near vertical drop followed by a steep slope of loose chalk. We decided that we could walk backwards for the first bit hanging on to the rope and the slippery slope would be easy.
We tied the rope to a bush, tossed the rope over into the pit, checked that it would take us down most of the slope; everything seemed to be in order so it was “all systems go”.
I went first and completed the stunt, my pal who had watched followed without mishap. Mission accomplished we climbed back by the safe route and took the rope home and nobody was the wiser.
As youngsters we were all fit, all free daylight hours were to be spent outside, except for dinner, ball games, climbing, wrestling and other adventures we discovered or invented as we wandered through an unfenced unregulated world. The only sin we ever tried was scrumping apples and one meeting with the local bobby stopped that.
End of the 1929-1939 decade to 3rd September 1939
The first ten years drew to close at the end of June 1939 but I have decided to end on 3 September 1939 when the world would change dramatically for even a boy. On the last day of August I was playing with my friends making the most of the time before going back to school when my next door pal, John, ran up to tell me that I was to hurry home as my mum and dad wanted to see me.
My parents told me that dad been called up to join the army and had to get to Aldershot the following day and they couldn’t say when mum and I would see him again. My father had joined the Supplementary Reserve in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and was called up as war with Germany seemed inevitable.
War was declared on 3 September and he was in France the next few days with the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force as 7590749 Pte F.G. xxxxRAOC. After Dunkirk we saw him now and again until he was sent to North Africa when I was twelve and we didn’t see him again until the war with Japan ended four years later, he had been posted to India and Burma where he was in the Chindits.
The six years of the war and the subsequent four years of peace and how the way of life changed are all part of the second decade story.