Arthur Burton’s Story.
The fat little Bishop had just inaugurated the new Church clock at a service attended by most of the Pirton worthies when someone crept in and whispered the news that Arthur Burton had been born. Right! Start the clock! Young Burton has arrived.” At least that’s what they told me when I began to make my presence fe1t. Actually’ the proud father Charles was working in the fields as usual. lt was no place for men when a woman was giving birth unless he’d been initiated into all the mysteries at medical school and even then he was only wanted if there was trouble as in every village would be an experienced and competent mid-wife and layer-out of the dead.
I was born in Woodbine Cottage right next to the Church. It was the sort of cottage that townsfolk would give an arm and a leg for these days. They loved the Iow dark beams and odd corners. “Quaint” they called it. I had the chance to buy it when I got married but there wasn’t a room in it where I could stand upright because I grew to be six feet tall] so I let it go. Woodbine Cottage was between the Fox and the Live and Let Live opposite the Church. There were three bedrooms and a front room and a living room and a little room – I suppose it was a scullery but we called it “the Place”. 0n one wall of the Place was a 2’wide slab of slate resting on two brick piers. This was always cool. and there was always an enamel jug full of water for cooking and drinking and there was always an enamel mug standing by. I was always in demand as soon as I was big enough to lift the bucket to go and fetch water from the well in front of the house. Under the slate shelf was a large earthenware crock full of brine with a pig cut up into joints making into salt pork. We seemed to live on pork. Nearly everyone kept a pig at least those who worked on farms. Outside the kitchen across the path was the lavatory and the washhouse. The lave. had a wooden seat like a shelf with a round hole in it and a bucket underneath a lot more comfortable than a modern one. Uncle Jim who had a farm had a three-holer three different heights. Two-holers were quite common.
After a year or two my parents moved to the Shoulder of Mutton public house. when I was three years old’ my mother took me to school’ and she had to take me for several days because I would rather have stayed at home with her. I tried bribery: “Mr Donson,if I don’t have to keep coming to school you can have my Dad’s big black horse!” but that didn’t work and I had to keep on going. Every morning I had to go past Mr. John Gurney’s farm and the geese would rush out at me with their necks stretched out and I was rea11y frightened’ and I would run past that gate as fast as my little legs would go. Mr. Donson the schoolmaster had three daughters and he kept a Shetland pony for them. I was a big boy for my age and when I was nine years old’ I was put in charge of the pony. As soon as “prayers” was over’ I was allowed Out of school to see to it and I never got back until the [serious’] lessons’ such as sums were over’ That was how l came to miss so many lessons and l never really caught up. My aunt Mary-Rose was about twenty years older than I was and a very likeable woman. She had a new bicycle, and I got the old one’ with no tyres and no brakes’ One afternoon I was sent down to Franklyn’s for some skimmed milk with my little white enamel milk-carl which I swung from the handle-bars and I whistled happily all the way. The bike made a lot of noise’ having no tyres and it was a very bumpy ride, but I didn’t care. I had got a bike and was the envy of alI my school-friends’ somehow the milk-can caught between my knee and the handlebars and the bike and I ended up in the ditch and a piece of glass cut my hand. I ran off, bawling Loudly and someone took me to the village nurse and she put a bandage on and stopped the bleeding. How proud I was of that bandage. Even better I had my arm in a sling’ None of my friends had ever had anything like it. It let me off writing for days , but I could still look after the horse. One day when I was about nine Dad came home with a better bike for me that he’d bought at a sale. This one had tyres and a beautiful bell and a pump all. my friends have a go on it’ and I think lots of them learned to ride on my bike’. Dad was down on his field with a horse and cart and when we heard this’ Len Goldsmith’ my best friend and I and the bike’ went to see my Dad so that we could ride home’. Len was lifted on to the cart’ but Dad wouldn’t let me on because I’d got my bike’. I was so peeved to see him riding that I began to cry and walked miserably behind’. Dad stopped the horse and said, “Look ere someone will steal your bicycle if you don’t Go back and fetch it.’’so l cried some more and walked back to the field and rode Home still crying. That was another lesson learned that you can’t have it both Ways. Christmas Eve was always a great time with us and my sister Kitty and I used to try to keep awake to see Father Christmas. we never did see him’ of course’ but in the morning there would be several little presents in our stockings like nuts and sweets. and an orange stuffed down the toe. These were rare treats because there was no money about’ those days for luxuries. Always there were three sugar mice with long string tails. These tails were most important. The mice were played with until they were black’ tied together to make a team of horses with an empty cotton reel- for a cart’ we had one big present each and we used to talk a 1ot before Christmas about what we would like. we always asked for something reasonable so that we generally got it and I used to say “Just what I wanted”. One year I got a penknife and the first morning I took it to school and I thought I’d try it out along Mr Day’s lovely white fence. Well I tried it all alonq and it worked beautiful. When I came out of school’ Mr’ Day was waiting for me’ “Come here’ boy” so I trotted over quite innocently and got such a box on the ear’ so I ran home to tell my Dad about it and brow me’ he gave me another one and such a telling off that I never did anything like it again’. Nearly everyone took a horse and cart to work with them in those days’ They all worked on farms around the village .I can remember the first man to leave the village to work on the railway walking two miles There, and two miles back. The farm workers used to put the tools or implements in the cart and take it up to the field. When they’d finished work they’d take the horse off the hoe or hay-rake or whatever it was and harness him up to the cart again and ride home. Len and Arthur had the idea of earning some money one Saturday’ They’d go and glean some beans. The village baker used to buy them, but I never knew what he did with them. Perhaps he kept pigeons. My mother sent me off for the day with some sandwiches for our beaver or dinner and Len had his and we set off’ We began shelling out a few beans that lay on the field but then we found that it was much easier to sit down by one of the shocks and help ourselves from the sheaves’ We soon had a bagful and Thought we’d earned enough money so we went back . That was about eleven o’c1ock so’ you see we didn’t want to work long hours even in them days. The baker paid up. Someone must have told my Dad that he’d seen Len and me sitting by the bean-shocks so that when it came to pocket-money time next Saturday’ Dad said’ “Now let me see, I believe you owe me a penny don’t you!” I was very worried because this was dreadful. “You had a penny from the baker didn’t you for those beans you stole. So he didn’t give me any pocket-money that week. When my mother died’ I was looked after by my aunt Mary-Rose. She was a very pretty girl and was being courted by two farmers’ sons John Gurney and Laurie Franklin and naturally they were great rivals. There was no entertainment for teenagers in those days, but They made their own kind of harmless fun, and this is one of the things they got up to. Laurie said to me. “Can you get through your fence into old Mr’ Franklin’s orchard without anyone seeing you?” I said Yes because I’d done it before you may depend. I picked four of the best apples I could find’ and I gave them to Laurie next time he came down the Mutton. Laurie put them in his pocket and waited for John to arrive’. Presently they got talking about apples’ Laurie said “1 believe we can grow better apples than your old Dad” and he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out these four beautiful apples. “What do you think of these then John? Your old Dad can’t grow any like these.” John took them home to his father and he agreed that he’d never seen such apples. He’d no idea that they were off his own trees, and nobody ever told him. Laurie’s father was a rare man for a joke- Tom Franklyn that was. 0n one occasion he played a joke on the postman’ who kept a pony and trap. He was the only man in the village who’d got a pony and trap that people could hire like they do taxis now. Mr. Thrussell the postman was deaf and he would always put one hand behind his ear when anyone spoke to him. Mr. Franklin went to Hitchin to collect something for his farm and he took with him two dead sparrows tied together. He left them at the railway station with a label on addressed to Mr Thrussell the post 0ffice Pirton’to be collected. When the postman called next morning Mr. Franklyn said ‘‘ There’s a brace of birds for you Mr Thrussell up at the station!” and so that he didn’t go for nothing asked him to do an errand for him at the same time because he was a kind man. Off went Mr Thrussell with a vision of a nice brace of pheasants and I should like to know what he said when they handed him his birds. Old Mr. Franklyn was sitting in his trap one day watching his men build a hay-stack. Will Goldsmith was unloading the cart working as hard as two men and Tom Franklyn said “well we shan’t get finished with hay-time until harvest at the rate you’re going. Can’t you go a bit faster?’’ OId Will rammed his fork down into the hay’ right through the ladder (which is a projection over the back of the cart) and forked the whole lot ladders and all on to the elevator which of course takes the hay up on to the stack. That amused old Mr. Franklyn and he went off chuckling. He liked tormenting old Will. About May-time the boys and girls of the village used to get the job of weeding docks and charlock out of the fields. Docks used to be carted off the fields, but charlock could be left to wilt. I thought I would see if I could earn some pocket money. Six pence we used to get’ from 5 a.m. to 5 in the afternoon and we used to get backache too. 0f course’ before the invention of weedkiller sprays’ the corn used to be hoed in between the rows. All the farm workers used to have to go and hoe. They would do five rows each and would work up the field in a line’ while their horses would be turned out into a meadow to enjoy themselves. I duly turned up at Mr. Franklyn’s farm’ into the “back place” where he used to pay his men on a Friday and after he’d done that’ we boys and girls used to see if we could get the job. Mr. Franklyn would choose the ones who looked like workers and those who’d done it before, and he said “Well’ what are you doing here’ young Arthur?” He knew me because he used to come every day to the Shoulder of Mutton and he knew that my Dad had land of his own. Aint your dad got any docks?” says he. No Mr. Franklyn. ” “And no charlock? “No Mr. Franklyn “And no thistles? No. 0h well you’d better come and pull some of mine.’’ And so I earned my sixpence. When he saw my Dad’ he said’ Well’ you are a good farmer’ Charles. you must have got no end of money.” Dad said oh why?” .”WeIl Arthur’s been helping me pull charlock because he says you haven’t got any ” Dad said’ “I’m afraid I’ve got plenty, but he won’t work for me.” Actually’ I never did pull anybody’s charlock. when Mr. Franklyn saw me in the field with the gang of bigger boys he called me out. He made me ride with him to open the gates and look after the horse. The rest of the gang were dreadfully jealous because they were all old hands, and I was a new boy.
The Shoulder of Mutton was a very old house with low beams. It was right on the road and the living room was where we served the beer. After the pub had closed, we would have our meal. 0n Sundays’ one of the old regulars would sit by the oven and look after the joint and baste it. Whoever was looking after the meat would get a spoonful of sugar and put it in the hot embers and after a few seconds it would go broom and then burst into flames. Then it would be stirred into the hot fat. That was how they made the gravy not with powder like it is today. There were about nine regulars and they would aIl, if Dad or Mother was busy, go down to the cellar and draw off their beer and help themselves. There was never any question that they’d have more than they paid for. They didn’t know what dishonesty was. If they were playing dominoes with my father’ one might just get up and go and help himself to beer or baccy and say’ “I’ve put the money in the box’ Charles.” The tobacco stood on a table in the cellar. It was in 1 ounce packets light oak dark British oak and also Woodbines five in a soft paper packet. And Gold Flake. That was our stock. The brewers used to supply clay pipes free of charge. The old boys would break the stem off until the bowl was just a little longer than their nose .First they’d measure them and with a pen-knife mark round the stem until they could snap it and after smoothing the mouthpiece off to their satisfaction, they would then make two little grooves round the mouthpiece and wind some cotton round it, so that the pipe would not slip out of their mouths. Before they filled the new pipe they’d dip the bowl. into their beer and let it soak they reckoned that made the baccy sweeter.
There were nine regular customers and they never varied in their habits. I could have told where they were and what they were doing at any time of the day. And they had their own place on the bench or their own chair. None of them earned more than 14/- a week’ that’s 70p in the new money’ Beer was 1d. a pint and if anyone had a silver sixpence’ he could get a pint of beer’ 1 ounce tobacco’ and a box of matches and of course’ the clay pipe Thrown in’ and he’d still get some change out of the sixpence. 0nce when I was getting ready for choir practice’ old Fred Goldsmith said to me “what are you doing tomorrow, Arthur?” ( l was 11 years old and had just left school so I reckoned I was a man). “well,’’ said Mr. Goldsmith’ ‘‘Put my old mare in the cart and meet me down Bury Fields (the allotments). I’ve got me taters dug and I want you to help me get them home tomorrow. ” Two of his mates joined in then’ Joey and woof – “You can bring my taters home too’ boy. Riqht-oh I said. when I got there with the mare and cart, they were all working on the allotment, and I shifted about a ton of potatoes on to the cart for Mr. Goldsmith which would last him and his family for the winter. Each bag had to be carried about 100 yards to the cart and I worked until about 5 p.m. and went proudly home with 10 pence’ 5 pence from Mr. Goldsmith and 2 pence each from Joey and woof. Never before had I had so much money in my life. when my Dad heard how much I’d earned he said “well’ boy’ you know Mr. Goldsmith can’t afford to give you sixpence. You’ll have to buy him a pint of beer when he comes in. So, I had to. And my Dad had lent the horse and cart for nothing and the bags for the potatoes and ended up a pint of beer less. John Gurney and Laurie Franklyn’ two farmer’s sons always brought a gallon of whiskey to be left at the “Mutton” as we hadn’t got a licence for spirits, and if one came in earlier than the other, he would try to get a drink in quickly, but as they were both at it they neither of them gained anything. Nearly everybody seemed to have a nickname’ I don’t know why’ Len Goldsmith was called CRUSTY and his father was STITCH. His brother was DINGY. Another Goldsmith was W00F. There was B0LSHER Cherry he’d a huge belly on him. My Dad’s name was SLAB although I always called him CHAS because that was what was painted on his cart. DABBER Titmus – he played football for Southampton. Another one was FIDDLER Baines’ there was DASHER Olney’ D00B Handscombe’ and a woman called T0PP0 Weeden she was the village milkman. I can’t think why we called the Cooper brothers CR0NGEY and FERRET’ except that Ferret looked like one. Their grandfather was shepherd to Mr. Franklyn and their father was PINCHER Cooper and he was more or less foreman at Wellbury Farm. He could do almost anything on the farm. MONKEY Chamberlain is another name I’ve no recollection of why he was called that, only imagination, I was called Billy after Billy Bunter because I was so fat. Teddy 0dell (we used to say it rhyming with “yodel” ) he used to work at Highdown House for The Miss Pollards He used to look after the gardens and the house cows, two dexters they were always and he used to catch a rabbit or two for the house and he’d always got a bag of ferrets in his hare pocket. His recreation on a Sunday was to go to some farm with his pal Joe Lake and he’d put the ferrets in the holes at the top of corn stack and the rats would bolt out on to the thatch, then Joe would be ready for them with his little 4’10 gun. A few years later Teddy gave me a little terrier called Jack and a doe ferret when I started out as a gamekeeper. This little dog used to hate the song “The shades of night were falling’ fast upidee Upidah .He had only got to hear the first notes and he’d lift up his head and howl and howl. Everybody used to call him” Upidee”.He wasn’t at all musical never howled for any other song. I reckon it got on his nerves. One time I had to take a load of manure from Highdown House to the Miss Pollards’ brother Sir Joseph at Oakfield House, what is now 0akfield School. Now when you load a cart with manure by the fork-full you get very warm because it’s hard work. Well Teddy 0dell came up to me with a black fur muff and said There you are old chap Miss Minnie sent this out for you to keep your hands warm!” Can you picture it a 6 foot 14 stone rosy faced young man of 18 sitting up on a Dung cart wearing a ladies muff?
Bolsher Cherry was a useful man did odd jobs about the village. Had a huge belly’ I was 14 and I was sent down the field to gather up and burn the hedge-trimmings and rubbish that he had left as he cut the hedge. When we had our beaver, we sat down with our backs against a bank. My beaver was cold tea and bread and cheese. Not sandwiches like they’d give you today. They’d give you the top half of a cottage loaf cut a little bit out of the middle and pop in a piece of butter and cheese and most probably a raw onion. There used to be a saying that you had to have in your pocket a knife a piece of string and a shilling-then you could cope with anything. So we’d cut a piece of bread and cheese as we went along. Bolsher always had a thick ash stick with him and when he’d finished his dinner, I used to love to watch him get to his feet. He’d roll on to his knees and climb up the stick. Several of Bolshers pals in the pub were discussing what work they’d been on that day. It was springtime and They’d been hoeing thistles and docks. After a couple of pints of beer the thistles got taller and taller, one chap said “we have to pull them because they are too big to hoe – like young trees. Little Joey Arnold said ” Some of them are like walking sticks. I wouldn’t want to be hit over the head with a thistle like I’ve been hoeing!” I don’t believe you Joey says Bolsher. ” You have another half-pint and they’II be like fir trees!” “I tell you what’ says Bolsher’ “You buy me a pint of beer and I shall let you fetch one of your thistles and I shall let you hit me with it across the bare backside. So Joey accepted the challenge and it was to happen in The Fox the next night. Next night, Joey turned up with a fresh thistle and he’d also got out of sight’ a dried thistle and when Bolsher presented his rump to the company Joey gave him a swipe with the dry one. They reckon they were hours pulling out the prickles. That learned him.
When men started to leave the village to work in the town several of them worked on the railway. They’d walk there a good 3 or 4 miles as there was no other way to get there. Bicycles were very rare in my young days and farm workers wouldn’t be able to afford such a thing. Four of our customers worked on the railway. One was a foreman and he got jobs for the others. They used to come home with some wonderful] stories of the goings-on in London and I used to sit and listen while I waited to have my dinner (because we couldn’t have our dinner until the pub closed). Charlie Hawkins told them that old Seth Smith had died that started them off arguing one knew that wasn’t right because old Seth had been seen only last week. Then Charlie said in a quiet voice well I reckon its true alright because they’ve buried him.
Alf Shepherd the foreman on the railway used to be quite a gentleman. Quiet everyone liked Alf. He must have had something wrong with his digestion because although he had 5 children, he never had his dinner at home. Every Sunday he used to come into the Mutton at about half past one, when everyone else was thinking about going home and he’d bring his own meal, just half a cottage loaf with a hole in it containing a lump of butter and a piece of cheese and an onion. He would sit and cut it up with his penknife and eat it. One of Alf’ s pals was working in Bayford Tunnel with a gang on the line. There is a little nook in the wall of the tunnel every now and again where the men could hide when a train came along. Mr Baines called out to warn the others to get off the line but then he saw a shovel lying on the rails so he stepped out to pick it up and the train came through and killed him. Alf would cry like a child whenever he spoke about it, he was so upset. FIRE
One day I had the flu and was lying in bed at the shoulder of Mutton and feeling very groggy. Mother had been to the Fox and bought me a quartern of rum – we weren’t licenced for spirits. I was fast asleep and sweating like a pig when I heard someone yelling for me at The bottom of the stairs’ Come on’ Billie get up the house is on fire! I remember saying “well let the B burn.” Then he shouted again, and I realised that something really was wrong, so I pulled on my breeches and ran down’ One end of the L-shaped building was thatched and it was well alight. Flames were flickering in one corner of the roof. He grabbed a ladder and three more men who had turned up formed a chain of buckets. The well was only 4 yards from the house’ We more or less got the fire under control when the fire brigade arrived from Hitchin. The man in charge called me down, and he went up the ladder with the hose and shouted for water. Nothing happened! They’d put the other end into the blacksmith’s pond and it sucked up mud and clogged the hose. Meanwhile while everyone was scurrying about like an ant’s nest disturbed, the fire had spread all over the roof and it was too late to save it. We managed to get a few things out of the bedrooms and put them in the lane and in the morning several things were missing. There had been half the village round there so we never knew who was responsible? I was about 12- still at school when I drove Mr. Trussell’s pony to Hitchin with my mother and Mrs. Webb. They both had to go to Hitchin Hospital for an examination. They were both found to have breast cancer and my mother died after a few weeks but Mrs. Webb lived for many Years. I’d got a big rabbit a Belgian Hare they called it and I took it into the bedroom to show my mother and it seemed that she died a week or two after that. I decided I needed a bigger hutch for my rabbit and that’s when I decided to be a carpenter. I persuaded my Dad to let me buy a bacon box. The bacon used to come in big boxes about 4’X I’ and the butcher used to break them up’ but he let me have one for two pence.
I took the pieces of wood into the stable and spent nights and nights there, building
this wonderful house with a separate compartment for the doe to have her babies and
a day-room. 0f course I never could saw a straight line didn’t use a ruler just
a hammer and a lot of nails.
I designed it myself made a door for each compartment with leather hinges made
out of some old reins soaked in oil to make them soft. They lasted about a week worn
out by testing. Then came the great day. I got Joey Arnold and Crusty to help me
get it outside to stand behind the barn. It was a heavy hutch and we go
it as far as the door when we found it was about 2ft too wide and wouldn’t go through.
I was so disgusted that I sold the rabbit and decided that I wouldn’t be a
carpenter after all.
When I was 13 the Great War started that altered all our lives. There were over
100 Pirton men killed in the first fortnight of the War. The Herts. and Beds.
Yeomanry were the first ones to go into France. The names of the casualties were
read out in Church every Sunday morning and prayers were asked for the relatives.
Strange they just went to France some that I knew and just disappeared. Nobody
ever heard of them again. Shot to smithereens.
I used to have to cycle on my “bone-shaker” – no tyres no punctures- to Hitchin to
stand in the queue for margarine. That’s about all I remember about the War. Except
that they kept me from school to help with the threshing. After that my father
had permission from the school attendance officer for me to help with the farm work
as men were scarce. I never looked inside the school again after I was 11.
I remember Edgar Dawson being run over by a horse and cart that he was leading up
the road. He was working for John Gurney who eventually married my aunt Mary Rose.
I was sent to Hitchin on my bike to get Dr. Grellett. Halfway the chain broke so
I carried on walking as fast as I could. Dorothy Dodson was going to Hitchin at
the same time on her bike and she gave me a lift hanging on to her shoulder.
The doctor had to come out on his pony and trap but there was nothing he could do.
They’d carried poor Edgar home on a gate.
They used to lay people in their own front room when they died and all the
neighbours would have their blinds down until the funeral and the next of kin would
have a new black suit or dress.
Edgar had been at dung-cart and it was a seasonal job. There was always a heap of
dung outside the stables and about once a week it would have to be carted to a dungle
or dung-heap and left to rot down and in the spring, it would be spread about on
the field. You would hope it wouldn’t be a windy day. There were no clean bags of
Edgar was a very strict Baptist- Chapel man. There were only two families in the
village that used to go to this little chapel and it is still there but it is now
a snob-shop or cobbJers shop.
He must have been a well-educated man because he used to work things out
in his mind. They were going to harrow a field and they’d got 3 horses abreast and
Punch was on the outside. Punch had a habit of running away (and incidentally it
was Punch who killed poor old Edgar) well suddenly they bolted, and Joe started
to run after them but Edgar said 0h no don’t run they are bound to come back”
Because Punch was the fastest and youngest and therefore, they’d run in a circle
They did too. They came back.
Edgar’s wife was an extremely strict woman and when he had his pipe in the evening he
used to have to stand in the porch outside.
One of his sons was the same age as me and when he came home from school, he h ad to
work one row of a rug before he came out to play. Exactly at 5 3O his mother would
come to the door and call “Harry” and Harry would be off like a rocket!
I vaguely remember them building the new transept on the village church
My Dad was farming the Glebe land so naturally they took the clunch ( which is a
hard chalk stone) from ullock Pit. whether it is properly called Hullock or UIIock
I don’t know but all the Pirton people said Ullock
I can remember my Dad carting the clunch Up to the Church and l can recall taking a turn
at one end of the cross-cut saw to shape the corner stones
Grandad Hanscombe was the builder, and his mate was Deggy Jenkins and they worked
together for years. We had a Vicar come lo the village I must have been about 27
the Rev. Thomas Winkworth and he caused more trouble than any man ever has done.
There was a lovely old house Pirton Court in 2 acres of ground which belonged to
the Church and was used as the vicarage.
I was at that time on the church council and member of the choir and a bell-ringer.
Mr. Winkworth came to one of our meetings at the time that the 0ld HaIl public house
had just closed. That was when the thirteen-public house in Pirton were closing.
He said that he thought it was a shame for him to live in a big house that was too
expensive to run when he could move into the 0ld HaII and convert it into a vicaraqe
He was prepared to buy Old Hall himself if the church could restore it. Then the
church could sell the vicarage (Pirton Court )
Everybody on the church council thought it was a splendid idea at the time and so
he bought it from the brewers at a low price had a room built on the end which he
called a music room. This was to be for the choir to practise in.
When it was ready, he invited the choir to a Welcoming Supper like a housewarming
and he served bread and cheese and I pint of beer or a glass of port.
He persuaded us to let him buy Pirton Court which we thought was a splendid idea
because we’d have no rent to pay as he had gone to Old Hall. He took advantage of us
there. We felt that the parson would do the best for the church but when he left
four years later we’d lost the vicarage and had to build another one which cost a
great deal more than he paid us for Pirton Court.
There was a tradition that on New Years Eve we had a bell-ringers s upper in the
house of the foreman of ringers Horace Roberts. As long as I can remember Horace and
his brother-in-law used to go round the village collecting for the supper. Everybody
who had given had his name written in a book. Their last call was at the Mutton and
by the time they got there they’d be very merry having a free beer in each pub.
We used to sit down to a great joint of beef and vegetables and beer and we had a
good time with a lot of laughing and talking. We’d leave at 11.30 and go up to the
church and ring the old year out.
About 3 minutes to 12 we’d hang up and the tenor bell would strike 12 times. One year
it rang 13 that was Monkey Chamberlain because he couldn’t ring the belI up –
it weighed 1 ton 1 cwt.
The second year the vicar said that it wasn’t dignified for us to have to go round
collecting. He said we should have a supper at the vicarage. We were to join the
ladies from the choir, 22 of us. We sat down to the best meal we’d ever had.
There was a lovely room at the vicarage and a long table all laid with our names a
man between two girls all the way down the table.
The menu was turkey and all the usual trimmings and then plum pudding and brandy
butter and one or two jellies. Cigarettes on the table in glasses so that we could
help ourselves. But we were too polite to have more than one.
The vicars odd man acted as waiter. We packed up about 10 o clock after a little
sing-song a very nice evening and we all thanked the vicar for his hospitality.
Next bell ringing practice Horace came in and said I’ve got a shock for you !
I got a bill from the vicar.” And so he had. He was charged for everything on the
table whether we’d had it or not …5/- for the waiter and 5/- for the use oi the
room. After the dust had settled we duly paid up and put it down to experience.
The shepherds used to have a donkey instead of a pony in a cart and they would put
a dozen or so hurdles and tools on the cart when they were setting the sheep pens.
This they did every day giving them a fresh pen every day.
They’d always get two pens one ready for the next day. This was to dung the ground.
When the lambs arrived, they used a special hurdle called a roller hurdle. They’d
squeeze between two rollers (If they had two rigid posts to get through the wool
would stick). This was to let the lambs squeeze through into the fresh grass that
the ewes would be let into the next day. This way the lambs always got the best
picking of the food.
The great thing was to get the lambs fat for Easter so that meant they were born
as soon as possible after Christmas. Sometimes the farmer would put his sheep into
a field of growing wheat that was growing too lush just for a day or so to let
them tread down the crop and manure it and nibble the tops off.
Mr. Coopers Donkey
All round the meadows about a yard from the hedge they always had one strand
barbed wire. This was to stop horses stepping over and eating the hedge. When
a small boy we used to love to catch this donkey when he wasn’t working and
ride him but whenever any of us got on his back he used to make a dash for the
barbed wire and try to scrape our legs on it and he did too if we weren’t smart enough to jump off. Looking back I realise that the old donkey used to love these games.
The CIub Coal
In those hard up days the women would pay 1d a week into a club for their coal
Coal was about 2/- cwt and none of them had more than 1 ton. There was a list of
what you had to take round to the different houses. Uncle Harry and my Dad had the
cart. I had to get up at 5 am to feed the horses and while they were feeding screw
in their little taps.I had to get the horses shod about November especially because
you can’t pull a coal cart with smooth horse shoes .They’d slip about on the new-fangled tarmac and faII over. The horseshoes were made with little heels on that projected downwards just like heels in fact and also a hole was drilled at the back of both sides of the shoe and a special screw put in to help it to grip .You had to remove these taps at night
because they could cut themselves when they lay down.If in the ordinary working day you knew it was going to be icy next day you’d have to take the horses to the blacksmith first thing in the morning and he’d take out the old flat nails and put in new ones and leave them proud what we used to call ” roughshod” .I was only about 13 years old and these women used to greet me with You’ll never grow boy heaving those bags like that” There was always a lump of coal that stuck right in the middle of your back. we used to have ordinary hessian corn sacks for this job and they were much thinner than the proper coal sacks They were different altogether.
It always used to bother me when I had to go to “Pudden-bag-a11ey” There was 8
little houses in this row 2 up and 2 down and some of these women used to scrub
the floors so clean and before the floor was dry, I used to arrive and walk in with
my bag of coal and tip it into the coal hole which was a cupboard under the stairs.
Try as you would you couldn’t help making a mess and I used to say I was sorry but
they never seemed to mind “Soon clear that up boy they’d say.
I used to look forward to the strawberry season and we’d try to get our cart behind
the wagon loaded with strawberries from Hartleys Fruit Farm at Holwell (which was
about a mile from Henlow station so we had a long time for feeding) and we’d eat
them as fast as we could. It was the same with plums ,currants and apples.
Henlow station was a busy little place – before they made it into Henlow aerodrome.
AII the trains from the Midlands went through there
We used to get our coal from Ellis and Everard, George Taylor was their foreman nice
old boy he was. We’d have to pull on to the weighbridge weigh the horse and cart,
go down and fill the cart with coal ,bring it back and weigh it again but normally
we’d want bags of coal and we’d go to the wagon. there’d be a weighing machine in
the wagon and you held the bag open and George used to fill it.
My cousin Ted Handscombe who was always with me like a shadow was sent off on his
own with the horse and cart to get some coal for the threshing machine. 0f course
there was no traffic in those days and the horses knew the way there and back just
as well as we did. He was only 13 and a little shrimp of a boy anyway. It was a very warm day and when he got back the horse was sweating. My uncle Harry liked a little leg pull at times and he said “Well look how you’ve made the poor horse sweat!” and Ted said
“I got off and walked up the hills.” As if his little weight made any difference.
The City Taylor
This was another club only this time for men’s clothes. The City Taylor came from
Stevenage really he had a shop but he came round with his horse and cart about a
fortnight or three weeks and he’d collect a few pence from his customers and when
they’d saved enough he would come into the house with his suitcase with the clothes
you’d ordered. Mostly it was boy’s clothes that were bought in this way and I
remember having to try on my short trousers in view of whoever happened to be in at
the time. And being a pub there could be quite a few onlookers. I can still remember
how shy I was about it.
Our boots were made for us by the postmaster who was also the village snob. He would
put the studs or nails in the soles in different patterns so that we could play
Sherlock Holmes in the muddy footmarks. They were made to last and were so heavy
that when you took your boots off your feet would go up in the air.
Our village like most others was practically self -supporting. There 13 pubs and
7 bakers, a blacksmith, 2 general shops and a butcher an undertaker and they all
got their living out of each other. There was never any money about.
The bright boys went into the town and had apprenticeships but the rest of us had
to help our fathers in the fields and garden.
I remember when the first Pirton people began to spread their wings. There was
Jack Abbiss who was horse-keeper for Mr. Franklin at Walnut Tree Farm and he had two
sons George and Charles. They went to Foxholes as gardeners and after a while
applied for the Metropolitan Police and got in. They’d had a better education than
I did although we all went to the same school. Charles Abbiss eventually took charge of PeeI House and he finished up as Sir Charles. PeeI House was where all the police trained. George became a police Inspector and when he retired he bought a house in Shillington.
There was a lot of unemployment about after the War.
I got taken on as under-keeper at Highdown a job I didn’t need to learn because
being a countryman, I picked up the knowledge without knowing it when I was a boy.
Manys the night I’ve stayed up to look after the young birds and I’ve seen some
wonderful moonlit nights and I used to look up at all those stars and think that God
can look down and He knows I’m sitting here in this hut.
The nightingale was always to be heard in the spinney. I never used to think anything
of it. The sound of it would have people come from miles around nowadays. Not much
of a bird to look at.
I had a regular poacher and I knew well enough who it was but I never caught him
red-handed. I saw him in the village, and I let him know I knew all about it and
being a big fellow, I suppose he thought I would be a bad one to reckon with so he
gave it up but I never threatened him.
I signed on the dole but I didn’t have to queue up very often there were jobs
if you wanted one. I was “casual labourer”, so I tried anything.
I was taken on at Hitchin Priory when it belonged to Mr. Delme Radcliffe to help
make a rose garden. I knew all about measuring and designing curves because of
making round and oval haystacks and this garden had to have a short flight
of round steps made with bricks and a brick paved path and I was more or less put
in charge of this and we soon got it looking very nice.
When the boss came to look at the work, he said so and he asked me what I thought
of it so I told him. Well sir since you ask, I reckon it’s all too small the
steps ought to be wider.”
And he said “So they are.” So, we had to dig everything up and start again.
WeIl I thought that garden Iaying was an easy job and didn’t want to be finished