THE FAMILY & ST IVES IN THE 1930s
Copyright: G J Wright 2018
I had always imagined that the Wright family had been ensconced in St Ives for generations and so I was surprised when I could find no trace of them in the town in the 19th century. By chance, when checking census rolls for some of the surrounding villages I found my dad’s family had been living in Hemingford Grey, a small village on the river Great Ouse a couple of miles to the south west of St Ives. But, I was even more surprised to find that the family had been centred on Godmanchester, near Huntingdon, for generations. The Attwood family hailed from Basingstoke in Hampshire and our branch of the family moved to Huntingdonshire in about 1835 when Abraham (my maternal great-great-grandfather), born 1805, arrived in St Ives as a journeyman tailor.
Probably to escape a life as a farm labourer, my father, John Henry Wright (Commonly known as ‘Harry’) had joined the army in about 1910 and was with his regiment, the Queen’s Own Royal Irish Hussars, the 8th Hussars, in India when the First World War broke out in 1914. In the meantime, he had become a Lance Sergeant, an accomplished horseman and light weight boxing champion of the regiment.
In September 1914, the regiment, complete with mounts, returned to Europe via Marseilles and joined the small British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. The BEF, comprising about 75,000 highly trained men of the regular army, faced the German Army which had embarked on an ambitious advance. It is said that the Kaiser referred to the BEF as “General French’s contemptible little army” but he had seriously underestimated them and they were able to stem the German advance until reinforcements arrived later in the year. The German commander in Belgium reported that each British soldier was armed with the machine gun, but overlooked the fact that each soldier of the regular army was a trained marksman. Using the Enfield rifle, the Mark 1 No.1, regular soldiers were required to become first class shots, firing fifteen rounds in one minute into the inner of a standard four-foot target at 300 yards. Failure to achieve such competency resulted in dismissal.
By the end of 1914, the old regular army had all but disappeared, but the survivors were proud to carry the title of the “Old Contemptibles”. In 1917, the King struck a special medal for those who had been in France and Belgium in 1914. So, John Henry became an “old Contemptible”. He served in the trenches until 1917 when he was gassed and wounded and returned to many months in hospital in England until he was discharged from the army. He was to live with the consequences of the gas until he died in 1957. In later years, he would take to his bed with lung trouble for six to eight weeks every winter.
John Henry and Eviline Mary were married in 1920 and my elder brother Ted was born on a farm at Lower Wintringham, near St Neots, in 1921. Farm work proved too heavy for Harry and sometime in the early 20s he embarked on training to become a hairdresser — probably on an ex-soldiers’ training scheme. For several years, with hospital stays intervening and whilst he trained, the family lived at Rickmansworth near Watford in North London. In fact, so frequent were his absences, stays in hospital, during that time that Ted arrived home from school one day to announce that he had been invited to a party for boys who had lost their fathers in the war.
Although dad seldom talked of his time in France, he would sometimes reminisce about India, describing active service in the Khyber Pass and garrison duties at Lahore. He would talk of ‘tent-pegging’ in which a horseman rode down a peg and spiked it on a lance — similar to the officer’s sport of pig sticking — and of sabre training on horseback. To frustrate the wily Pathan on the North West Frontier, the bolts were locked away separately from the rifles which were stored in racks. He also told a story of how cholera would strike men on one side of a barrack room and leave the others untouched — a myth I suspect. In other stories from India he would describe how Indian barbers would tour the barracks early in the morning shaving men still asleep in bed and, of course, the delivery of ‘gunfire’, early morning tea, by the Char Wallah.
I don’t know when John Henry opened his hairdressing shop at 13 West Street in St Ives, but I was born over the shop in 1932 and I lived there until I was conscripted into the RAF in 1950. My sister Joy Aileen was born some thirteen months later.
About a year after I was born I became seriously ill, I’m told that I had measles, diphtheria and what was described as ‘brain fever’, which sounds like meningitis. Apparently, it was touch and go for several weeks, but one morning I stood in the corner of my cot and demanded a ‘nana’. Mum consulted the family doctor who said “If he wants a banana, then by all means give him one”. The family doctors were the Groves, father and son, with the younger known as Doctor Billy. In those days, home visits were the norm. They were good, practical men and the elder had a store of aphorisms which he would trot out, among them, having observed what was on the table on one visit, commented “Poor people never will be rich while they have butter as well as jam on a slice of bread”.
Mum had an older woman, a Mrs Court, who would come in once a week to clean, and two girls, Joan Wayman and Phyllis Bundy, who she hired to take Joy and myself out in a large old pram. In what I believe to be one of my earliest memories occurred during one of these jaunts. I don’t know how old I was, two, maybe two and a half, when near Pursers Garage on Ramsey Road someone stopped us to see the Wright babies.
Also, among my earliest memories are of dad sitting at the corner of the dinner table reading a paperback book, usually a cowboy story, with a large cup and saucer of tea at his elbow. At 10am every day the same large cup and saucer would appear in the shop containing hot milk with a raw egg beaten into it.
Brother Ted had, in his teens, bought a large Murphy radio in a polished wooden case which, as well as the regular broadcast bands, featured shortwave with band spread for fine tuning. Ted had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer (Wireless) Reserve, so doubtless the radio was used to practise Morse code reception. The radio stood on one end of the sideboard and was often pressed into service for listening to the commentary on boxing matches and, curiously, ice hockey which dad would tell me was the fastest sport in the world. He couldn’t understand my lack of interest in boxing. Later at Secondary School I was dragooned into my house boxing team, more, I suspect, on the basis of my build, rather than any evident enthusiasm — I never became proficient, in fact I had no idea, and dropped the game as soon as I could.
On Pig Lane, less than a mile from West Street, Dad had an allotment on which he managed to grow a good and varied supply of vegetables. Each allotment had a tool shed of varying degrees of sophistication, but there was always a cosy seat on which to take time out for tea and conversation with neighbours. Some allotments holders boasted primus stoves and other luxuries, whilst others made do with thermos flasks for tea. There was a lot of competition and observation of what was happening on nearby patches. Looking back, I’m amazed at the meticulous way in which the garden patches where maintained with regimented rows of onions, potatoes, celery, cabbages and so on. Even the periodic digging was done to a pegged line and there was no way that I was ever allowed near a spade — “You don’t understand how to dig properly”.
Later, during the war and whilst still at elementary school, I acquired two rabbits, a buck and a doe, which were installed in hutches at the allotment. I joined the rabbit club and was allocated a ration of bran meal. Although there were plenty of progeny, I don’t recall us ever eating any of the rabbits — wild rabbits okay, but tame ones not okay! This came to an end in 1943 when I started at secondary school and it was felt that I wouldn’t have time to care for the livestock. They were sold to a local butcher and doubtless someone ate them and sold the skins!
Late on Sunday mornings on return from the allotment dad would swing around the corner on his Raleigh bike into West Street and park the bicycle outside the cellar door of the Three Tuns where he would join the landlord, Jack Stocker, and several cronies for a pint. I would often meet him there when I was sent soon after noon with a jug to collect some beer to accompany the Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner was always a large roast, Yorkshire pudding, with at least three vegetables followed by a substantial pudding. On Sundays, we were always joined by grandad, Sam Attwood, who sat at the head of the table.
After Sunday dinner, around 2.00pm, Joy and I were sent to the Free Church Sunday school which was run by an elderly lady, Miss Green, who also lived in West Street. The Sunday school was held on the first floor of a brick, 18th century building in Free Church Passage. The walls were decorated with pictures of Jesus surrounded by children of many races and colours and of others depicting the church’s missionary zeal which seemed to be centred in the Pacific Islands, especially Samoa. There was an emphasis on missionary work and the minister, the Reverend Nelson Bitten, had spent almost his whole life in China and, to us, seemed to have acquired the eyes and skin colour of a Chinaman.
We would be dressed in our Sunday best and in winter, still wearing grey flannel shorts, a matching jacket, grey knee socks and black shoes, a navy blue double-breasted overcoat would be added. All went well until at age 12 I began to question the whole business, the scriptures, the lessons, and the hymns and had to admit that I didn’t understand what it was all about. But, curiously I still now remember the hymns, words and all. Sometimes, on special occasions the Sunday school would adjourn to the church where we would be subjected to interminable and incomprehensible sermons by the minister. I really didn’t understand what he was talking about and I sensed that I was listening to fairy stories and the moralistic sermons just became boringly repetitive. So, in due course, I would go as far as the door with Joy and then walk on and head for the river which was much more interesting. Of course, I should have known that the news would get back to headquarters, but that was the end of Sunday school for me and religion in general.
Many, many years later when I came to enjoy a post prandial zizz I understood what Sunday school was all about — what a splendid whizz to get rid of the kids on a Sunday afternoon!
Eviline Mary would have been 28 when she married in 1920, and John Henry just two years older. He had been away for almost a decade before he returned to St Ives but since the two families were neighbours in the early 1900s, it is certain that they knew each other as children. Through the war years she had been in service to a family who lived in Eaton Square, Westminster, a leafy enclave just a few hundred metres West of Buckingham Palace. She often talked fondly of her time in London and I suspect learned some of the airs and graces which she did her best to replicate in her own home. The correct cutlery, crockery and linen at table, the drawing room with piano, bureau and ornaments and, after laundry, nothing could be worn and placed on a bed until it had been properly ironed and aired. Little touches to the family menu which could only have originated in Eaton Square. She loved London and would say how much she enjoyed just moving with the crowd — it was wonderful — the Victory celebrations in 1918 left a lasting unforgettable impression on her.
Successive generations of both the Wright and Attwood through the 19th century invariably produced seven or eight children. Although there must have been branches of both families scattered around the Huntingdonshire and in adjacent counties, most of these were lost track of. The immediate family was tight, and mums two sisters, Frances Mary Attwood and Grace Annie Seekings and her husband Charlie, were very much part of the everyday family.
Aunt Frances lived with their father, Samuel Attwood, first in a very old house in Melbourne Place which was almost opposite 13 West Street and later at 17 Little Farthing Close on Needingworth Road. Frances worked at Enderby’s Mill, a cardboard box factory, never married, although mum told me that she had come close several times but, as mum said, never found a man who fully met her dreams! Frances was fastidious, always kept a dog, a budgerigar in an elegant cage, a piano which she couldn’t play, a standard lamp by which she set great store and for some reason she collected sheet music!
During WWI she and her sister Grace Annie worked at the Port Holme Aerodrome at Huntingdon sewing fabric onto the airframes of Sopwith aircraft, including the famous Camel fighter. I remember some pictures of them in the workshop.
As was the custom in the first half of the 20th century, with the exception of mum and Aunt Grace, all the family were smokers and there were times when one could almost cut with a knife the atmosphere in the living room— so dense was the smoke. Because of his lung condition, dad had been expressly advised not to smoke at all, but he was addicted. I can see him now in the shop lighting his cigarette with a wax taper from the pilot light of the geyser over the sinks. Mum tried to dissuade him, but gave up.
In both the First and Second World Wars, servicemen were supplied with cheap or free tobacco and cigarettes and so it was inevitable that most men were smokers. When Brother Ted was in the Navy during the war he would supply granddad Sam with a cone shaped half a pound of Ticklers’ tobacco which had been soaked in rum, compressed and bound in tarred hemp. I loved the smell of the tarred cord and the tobacco which Sam would pare off with a penknife (which I still have) and rub between his palms before inserting it into his smelly old pipe. Sam had a shed in the garden equipped with a comfortable chair and table and was not allowed to smoke his pipe in the house.
On Saturday evenings, a regular group of men, most of them old soldiers, would congregate for their weekly shave and a chat and the shop would be filled with smoke. Back then, no-one gave it a second thought. There were two chairs, basins and mirrors in the shop and sometimes as a child I would be stood on a stool and set to lather one of the customers. A shaving mug had two openings, the slab of soap at the top and a side opening for hot water and the brush. Soap was applied on a wet brush and worked up for several minutes to a thick lather which was then shaved off with a cutthroat razor. Dad spent hours sharpening the razors on a stone and finished each blade on a leather strap.
Before I started primary school, I spent a lot of time with Aunt Grace and Uncle Charlie Seekings at Model Farm, (Owned by Len Burgess) Fenstanton. In fact, mum told me years later that Grace and Charlie had wanted to adopt me, but that she had resisted the idea. I’m glad that Eviline Mary dug her toes in because had she agreed to their idea, I would probably have ended up a farmer’s boy.
I do remember being sent to Model Farm when sister Joy contracted German measles, but it was too late, I was already infected. It was only about three miles from home to the farm and it was either bicycle or the Eastern Counties red bus driven by Mr Cannon. The bus stop was at the Fenstanton clock tower and in winter we would wait in the nearby blacksmith’s shop where sometimes the smith would let me pump air to the fire in the forge. We would arrive back from St Ives at about 8pm on a Saturday evening and there was always a call at Haughton’s Butchery for a joint of meat and Henry often gave me bag of crisp pork crackling scraps in a screw of paper.
Charles Arthur Seekings was from Needingworth, a village on the other side of St Ives and during WWI he joined the Suffolk Regiment as a teenager, went to France where he became a cook. During WWII, he joined the Local Defence Volunteers, which later became the Home Guard, and proudly wore his medal ribbons. Model was a mixed farm, among other things, fruit, fodder corn, root crops, dairy and relied upon Suffolk Punch cart horses. In winter livestock were kept in buildings around a central enclosure and the stalls had to be manually cleaned with the ‘muck’ being dumped on a muckle heap in the middle of the yard to mature. In October each year, at Michaelmas, the muck was transported to the fields by horse and cart, spread, and then ploughed in — using horse drawn ploughs.
Sometimes I would be sent to the dairy with a jug at milking time to draw fresh milk from the small tap at the bottom of the cooler. The milk was so rich that Grace would sometimes skim off the cream and putting it into a preserving jar would shake it until butter formed.
When I was four, Grace and Charlie bought me a bicycle with wooden blocks on the pedals so that I could reach. I learned to ride on the Connington Road. There was no such thing as trainer wheels in those days, one or the other held the rear of the saddle until I gained sufficient confidence to pedal away. These days whenever I mount my bike I’m sure that I can still feel the sense of liberation felt when I first mastered that bike.
One day, probably in 1937 or 38, standing at their front door we saw the airship, the R101, about half a mile away, following the road, flying low and ponderously toward Huntingdon. One night from the same position I remember seeing the Northern lights, the Aurora Borealis.
In that hot summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of war, I rode into the yard one day on the horse drawn four-wheel fruit trolley and met Aunty Grace with two boys about my age, evacuees from London, Eddy Kenyon and Ronald Holder, who had been billeted on her. Eddy and I became firm friends and he stayed on for several years, but when it seemed safe that winter, Ronald Holder returned to London after only a few months.
Before the war, every August the family rented rooms for three weeks at Hunstanton, a seaside resort on the Norfolk coast on the South side of the Wash. Mum, the two aunts, Joy and I and sometimes Granddad Sam, would go by train with all the necessary gear, including buckets and spades, to be followed occasionally by the males who could spare only a few days. Although he must have been with us, indeed I have a photograph of the three of us on the beach; I have no recollection of brother Ted at Hunstanton. The only concession that grandad Sam would make to the change of scene was to wear white plimsolls rather that his customary boots. Sometimes we were joined by cousins, in particular Nancy Few.
Hunstanton was an archetypical English seaside town with shades of Edwardian splendour and, apart from the pier, beach and esplanade, boasted the customary amusements, hotels and boarding houses. The town faced north and the onshore breeze could sometimes be bracing. The railway, which then made the town accessible, now seems to have disappeared — probably a victim of Dr Beecham’s railway closures.
Frances, always the venturesome one of the sisters disappeared one day, to return an hour or so later flushed from her first, and I believe her only, flight in an aeroplane. The flight, in a rickety biplane, probably an Avro 504, from a field on the edge of town, cost five shilling.
At one point on the promenade was a sloping concrete buttress which boys delighted in sliding down on their backsides. I was never allowed to forget how I had worn the seat out of my shorts on that slide.
Eight miles to the south of Hunstanton lays the Royal Estate at Sandringham where the King and the Royal Family spent every Christmas. There is a colour photograph of Joy and me, aged about three and four, standing on some steps at Sandringham House with a window in the background where, in the room behind, the family had it, King George V died.
Both the St Ives infants and elementary schools were within a couple of hundred yards of 13 West Street and so there was no trouble in getting to school. Memories of my school days in St Ives are few and I think I must have started at the infants’ school in the Autumn of 1936. One incident remains in my mind and that was when I received the end of a loaded paint brush across my face. Two men were painting the domestic science block which was in the corner of the playground and several of us were watching and doubtless being cheeky, when one of the men, who was painting a door, suddenly turned and gestured with the brush and caught me across the face. Curiously, I recall that over an hour so the paint was removed by my mother who rubbed it off using butter.
Outnumbered, but I still remember the names of most of the boys in the Band, but curiously not the girls. The tall drummer, to my left, is Mary Westrope. To my right are Colin Flack, George Dellar and Donald Kidman. Extreme right front are Robert Adams, one who I don’t recollect, and George Burdett.
Shortly after this photograph of the band was taken, Donald Kidman, the boy with the triangle, fell under the wheels of a Coote and Warren coal lorry and was crushed. This happened in front of 21 Farthing Close where Billy Burdett lived and I remember him the next day telling us that “Kiddy’s had it”
After a couple of years in the Infants School in Pig Lane we transferred to the St Ives Boys Elementary School in North road then under the headship of ‘Sammy’ Frith. The other staff were his wife, a fiery red-headed lady, Mr Grayston as deputy head, and Mr Tom Palmer. The school, a late Victorian edifice, a red brick structure with windows high in the walls so that those imprisoned within would not be distracted by the outside world, but could watch the passing clouds. The main part of the school consisted of two large classrooms which were divided by a glass folding screen. To the right of the entrance was a smaller classroom where Mrs Frith reigned over the younger pupils.
At the back of the school was a smaller classroom where Tom Palmer held sway over the middle school. Tom lived at Hemingford and rode to and fro each day, winter and summer, on what was then called a tradesman’s bicycle — it had a smaller wheel at the front with a large steel frame containing a basket in front of the handlebars. A practical conveyance.
Tom, who was also an Inspector in the Special Constabulary, was one of those older country gentlemen who knew a lot about a lot of things, and not a lot about anything. He was however a knowledgeable gardener and also enjoyed producing Latin quotes to the bemusement of his pupils. He always called me ‘Edward’ which was my brother Ted’s name and later I became Octo Denarii, or eight pence. My father, Harry, the barber, then charged eight pence for a haircut.
At the junction of North Road and Ramsey Road the school occupied about an acre of land which was used for the school gardens which was Tom’s domain. I don’t recall ever being personally involved in the gardens and have no idea why. I believe that the site is now occupied by a library.
The entire school was surrounded by a high brick wall with wrought iron gates and to the front was a courtyard, probably 50 by 75 yards which served as a playground. The yard was tar sealed and in winter the older boys would put down buckets of water in the late afternoon to form slides which became thicker and more extensive as winter progressed. Having launched themselves on a slide, there was no stopping until the end of the ice strip. Some of the boys, one in particular, Ben Smith, were noted for their reckless and abandoned behaviour on the slides — but they survived.
Apart from the school garden, a necessary rural educational facility, there was no greenery and certainly no playing fields — these were reserved for public schools and the like. Apart from physical training which comprised mainly of skipping and relays in the summer, I have no recollection of any organised games. Boys would kick balls around, but here was scarcely space for any serious games.
One incident at the school remains vivid in my memory. We were sat in one of the larger classrooms while a visitor, I believe a school inspector, asked random questions around the class. Suddenly Sammy Frith ups and accuses me of talking — I wasn’t. He then orders me to front of the class where he hit me several times on my backside with a gym shoe. The next morning my mother took me to school and without further ado confronted Frith and told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever laid a finger on me again he would regret it. I’ve no idea of what she intended, but he never touched me again.
The School was about 150 yards from our house in West Street and at the foot of Green Street, which was just two rows of mean Victorian terrace houses, was a large brick building, a slaughter house or abattoir. It was almost opposite the school gates and standing at the gates one could witness the entire process and blood would run from inside into the storm drains in the street gutters, especially when they took a hosepipe to the mess! The entire area has now been flattened and has become a Council car park.
A regular feature of my days in infants and primary school was the periodic arrival of a white caravan, the school dental clinic. It was positioned in a corner of the infant school in Pig Lane. The incumbent dentist was a Mr Fletcher who did his work with the most primitive of tools, among them a drill which worked on the same principle as a spinning wheel being driven by a foot pedal. It was quite a feat to do delicate work on teeth whilst at the same time peddling this contraption. Nonetheless, it says something about Britain that there was a school dental service before the Second World War.
A feature of St Ives in those days was the ‘Night cart’, a large iron tub on wheels pulled by a tired looking horse and illuminated by a single hurricane lantern swinging from the shafts. The attendant, a well-known local character, had the repetitive and noisome job of emptying the many bucket lavatories. Later in the war an RAF Officer and his American wife rented a house at the top of Green Street and, much amused by the arrangement, dubbed the attendant “Dappler Dan, the night cart man”
The streets of St Ives were lit by elegant green period gas lamps of a decorative kind which today be valuable garden assets. Every evening at sunset a lamplighter would do his round on a bike carrying a long pole with a hook to open the gas cock when the mantle, lit by a constantly burning pilot flame, would briefly flare before settling to a bright white glow. These lights were lost for the period of the war and replaced by carefully shaded electric hand torches and lots of white paint on curbs and steps.
Another holiday resort popular with the family was a stay at 54 Ellerby Street, Fulham in London which was owned by my mother’s Aunt Sarah Hancock. Aunt Sarah was, I believe, the sister of mum’s mother who had married well but by the late 1930s was a widow. Hancock had been a moderately successful builder. Sarah lived in some state at No.54 which was a late Victorian villa of three stories in a quiet tree lined street. Her son and daughter, Jack and Beatrice, then lived at home. Jack worked in a managerial role at one of the big department stores on Hammersmith Broadway and Beatrice was a nursing sister at Hammersmith Hospital where she eventually became matron. Sarah had a companion, a Mrs Bridgeman who, with her husband also lived at No.54.
My first memory of a stay at No.54 was in 1937 with Aunt Frances Attwood when I was 5. The following year I was taken to London by brother Ted who was by then 17 and working in the office at Coote and Warrens, the coal merchants in St Ives. I have several memories of that trip. We visited Hamleys, the famous toy store in Regent Street where I not only became separated from Ted whilst watching a Hornby model railway setup, but on being reunited eventually left the store with a Mamod model of a stationary steam engine and a dynamo which lit a 2.5-volt bulb. This took pretty much all the money I had and Ted never lived down the question as to who exactly the model was really for.
On another day we went to Hampton Court where Ted let me go into the maze by myself whilst he sat on a seat at the entrance. I suspect that this was a smoke break. Time passed and I could not find my way out. Ted became quite worried but dared not enter to look for me for fear that I might exit in his absence. My problem was solved by a couple of local boys who charged me a tanner to show me the way back to the entrance.
About this time, Ted had joined the Royal Naval Volunteer (Wireless) Reserve and was learning morse code. He needed a morse key and we visited HMS President, the Drill Ship of the London Division of the RNVR, which was moored on the Victoria Embankment where he acquired a key.
Because of the war, the family skipped a visit to London in 1939, but because little or nothing happened through the summer of 1940, the period dubbed the “Phony War”, Aunt France and I were back at Ellerby Street in September 1940. Apart from the barrage balloons hovering over the city, sandbagged buildings, anti-aircraft gun sites and the many uniforms in the street, London seemed to carry on as normal. I can’t now remember where we were on the afternoon of 7th September, but things changed rapidly when the Luftwaffe attacked East London and the raids continued through the night. The following day we headed for Liverpool Street Station and took train for St Ives leaving Sarah in something of a state. I was 8.
Copyright: G J Wright 2018