Monthly Archives: December 2019

The Sprig part 6 – a digression

Hilda herself had been born just before the start of the first world war and used to tell us stories about her naughty childhood in the twenties. One of her favourites was about the rabbit skins.

There was an old chap in the town who used to prepare rabbit skins and sell them to dressmakers, milliners and so on, to be made into gloves, stoles, hats etc. He encouraged local children to bring him skins and paid a penny for a fresh skin or thruppence for one that had been cleaned. Hilda and her sister Elsie and brother Robert used to be regular suppliers and earned a number of pennies, most of which went back to their mother to help the family income.

After a while, they twigged that the old chap hung the skins up in his shed and they worked out how to open the window from the outside. One would keep watch, one bend over for the third to hop up, in the window, grab a skin or two and clamber out again. Then they took the skin back to sell it. The old man was very pleased. What a good clean skin, well worth 3d. Bring him any number more like that. And so they did, the same skins over and again. Hilda did all the voices, alive with mischief. I don’t know if the poor old boy ever did find out that he’d been duped, but too much detail would have spoiled the tale.

The Sprig part 5

I’ll take a better photo when I think of it in daylight and it won’t have a biro or the remains of dinner dishes at the edges. But here is the plane.

Such a lot of work has gone into it, it’s wonderful. Whittled on the way back from bombing raids and painted back at the station.

Russell and his brother and sister played together of course, with the Sprig taking the minor role as he was the youngest and Austin, the eldest, was a very dominant character. No question of being kind to the smaller ones, he ruled. They had a long-standing game in which each took a character – Austin was PC Ramsbottom, June was Mrs Tissell and Russell was Sprig (I can’t remember his character name, so his family nickname will have to do). I’ve no idea what the game entailed but if you’ve ever done such a thing with your family or friends, you’ll know the sort of thing. It sometimes involved tree climbing by Austin when he dropped bits of chewed apple on his siblings’ heads, calling them mineral deposits. No, I didn’t like Austin very much, I daresay you can tell but, as I said in a previous post, he could do no wrong in his parents’ eyes.

I’m not sure what local friends they had, apart from one, who has retired to the area, is still a dear friend and is the same age as June. I’ll call her Jo, though that isn’t her name. June was invited round for tea – this must have been in the 30s before the war, because it was clearly before rationing. They were an upper-crust family and rules were rather stricter than at home. Slices of bread were on the tea table and June was asked by her polite hostess, Jo’s mother, if she’d like butter or jam on her bread? June blithely asked for both, which drew a reaction like a Bateman cartoon. Definitely one or the other in that family. She was given both but evidently a tactful word was had between mamas, because June came to know that she’d done the wrong thing.

I’m not sure that would have bothered her too much. She always had a mischievous side. Ma was a kind and dutiful member of the community and regularly sent goodies round to single, poorer acquaintances. One of them, whose name wasn’t Miss Clapham but wasn’t far off it (I can’t remember, but it may come to me) was an awkward old thing. June would be sent round with a jar of home-made soup. “Oh, how very kind of your mother – I had rather been hoping for some strawberry jam, but this will do.” So one day, she filled her basket with various foodstuffs and proffered the strawberry jam, as directed. “Oh, your mother is so kind to have thought of me. I’d really hoped for some blackberry jelly…” June smartly assured her that would be quite all right, she took back the jam and gave a pot of jelly instead. Miss Clapham was as discomfited as June had wanted – June was fed up with her mother’s kindness being treated so – and she went home in triumph. Of course, in gleefully reporting what had happened, she was reprimanded for cheek and bad manners and told she must never do such a thing again. And indeed, Miss Clapham was one of the unfortunate ladies who’d lost her chance to marry because of the first world war, looked after her parents until their deaths and then, from her forties onwards, lived in genteel poverty, too respectable to get a job and not wealthy enough to enjoy much freedom. Think Miss Bates in Jane Austen’s Emma.

The Sprig part 4

I’ve mentioned Hilda before. She came to the house when Sprig was a year old as his nursemaid. Three young children was a lot for Ma to cope with and they never had much help in the house. Pa’s brother had a full set of house staff and his wife had no idea how Ma managed! Hilda would have been about 24 in 1937 and she stayed on and the whole family loved her. But those friendly American airmen – or one of them, at any rate – was her undoing and she became pregnant. So did her sister, though I don’t know exactly when or if another airman was the father. Pa and Ma looked after her and stood by her and so did her brother and sister-in-law, who took on her baby boy and her sister’s child and raised them as their own.

Meantime, young Sprig enjoyed visits to the Americans. They were not encumbered by rations, as the locals were, and they were generous. So he’d be given packets of Smiths Crisps and sweets by men who had no bad motives at all, simply were kind and missed their own sons and young brothers. He was also given a model aeroplane which he treasured for his whole life.

On the way back from bombing raids, the crew had nothing to do – except the pilot and co-pilot, of course. So one of the hobbies was making model aircraft. Tim rather thinks it should be in a museum and I don’t disagree, and we do have a local one at Flixton where the airbase was. But I can’t let it go, it’s part of my family, so it’ll be up to my children. I’ll take a picture of it for my next post.

The Sprig part 3

Later in the war, when the US joined in, there was a local American air force base. The war was very close to here in fact, there were ammunition dumps all around and it was dangerous. Ma and Sprig had, at one time, joined the older children in Derbyshire and they also spent some time in North Wales, though I don’t have an idea of the time – when it was, how long they stayed or why they came back. I mentioned the Skinners yesterday and the American air force took over part of their farm for their planes. They built concrete runways but it was soon discovered that they weren’t up to scratch, when cracks appeared. They had to add several feet more of concrete before they stabilised. In later years, the Skinners’ sons and daughter had this concrete broken up and sold for road foundations, which was considerably more lucrative than farming.

The children were Roy, Aubrey and Doreen. None of them ever married and they lived on the farm all their lives. One of the boys joined up early in the war, but he couldn’t cope with being away and was invalided home. The house is lovely, 17th Century, and had hardly been updated for years. It was well off the road and they had no mains services at all. There was a generator for basic electricity and they had their own well. After her brothers died, Doreen managed there for years on her own, just coming into town on market day. She looked a picture book old-fashioned farmer’s wife, with curly brown hair and a ruddy, apple-cheeked complexion.

There are lots of other ‘concrete roads’ in the area, from Air Force days. They’re quite potholed nowadays, after all these years of being driven over by tractors. Eloise learned to drive on some of them – she was keen to pass her driving test as quickly as possible and, after her 16th birthday, persuaded her father and me to take her out on these bumpy tracks – it wasn’t illegal as they’re not public roads. She never got out of second gear but it was excellent for learning clutch control and the dimensions of the car – as she put it, you had to know where the wheels were.

The US Air Force people were friendly, which had its good points and its less good.

The Sprig part 2

Russell and his mother had lots of anecdotes about the wartime. One, told me by Ma, was about a car journey that she and Pa were taking with a lady from Yagnub called Mrs Sidney Owles. Sidney can be a girl’s name of course, but it wasn’t here: her husband was Mr Sidney Owles. I have no idea why she was always given her full, formal title, but I suppose there were other Mrs Owlses and it was for clarity. The Owles family still has a business in Yagnub.

It must have been at a time of petrol rationing so there was a good reason for the journey. On the way home, coming along a pitch black country road with just sidelights to show the way, they were frightened by an enemy aircraft swooping down without warning. Pa switched off the lights but the pilot either knew where the main road was or had seen the thin beams. Shots raked along the road and Pa and Ma ran for it and dived into the ditch. Once there, they realised that Mrs Sidney Owles hadn’t joined them – and they thought she’d been caught in the gunfire. It was all over in seconds, the plane was on its way home and just taking potshots with the last of the ammunition. They returned to the car, reluctant to look. Mrs Sidney sat there, splendid in her fur coat. She wasn’t risking it to a ditch and would rather face Hitler.

Most things were rationed, of course, but the family kept chickens and a house cow called Molly. She was small and black – a Dexter, perhaps. The lean-to shed by the big barn is still called the black cowshed and it was where Molly lived. There’s several acres of grass on the two fields so I suppose a farmer grazed cattle there during the summer. They’re unsuitable for ploughing as they sometimes flood (much less frequently now than then, because a weir was built upriver after the war) or else they would have been used for crops. I don’t know what Molly thought about living on her own in the winter, assuming she did, nor what she thought about her calf being taken away from her at its birth. Apparently, if the cow never sees it or has a chance to feed and lick it, she doesn’t realise what has happened and isn’t upset, so it’s kinder than removing a calf after a few days. This is what Ma told me, anyway. I guess that the calf went off to the farm to be reared. The first few milkings, the colostrum, would have been sent for its first feeds. Pa and Ma never kept a pig, though a lot of country people did. They were great friends with the Skinners, over the fen and up the hill on the other side of the Roman road and Mrs Skinner would tip Ma the wink when there was any spare butter or cream. She’d phone for a chat and, of course, could never be sure the woman at the exchange wouldn’t be listening in, so they used code – something simple like a remark on the weather.

Any of you who are much younger than I am wouldn’t remember this, but you used to be put through manually to the person you were phoning. You picked up the phone and a voice said “number please?” This house was Yagnub 36 and it’s always had the same number, though of course it’s been added to several times, it’s now an eleven digit number.

The Sprig, part 1

The Sprig hardly remembered anything before the war started.  He had an elder brother and sister, but they were already at school.  He spent most of his time with his mother and his nursemaid, Hilda.  They had a dog called Button, a wire-haired Jack Russell, chickens and a cow called Molly, but what memories were of his earliest times and what came later was not clear, they merged.  It was when things became more unusual that memories were triggered to last all his life.

Austin and June started at the local school, St Mary’s in the town.  The village school was a bit rough, having more than 100 children of all ages taught together.  At home, Austin was very much the ringleader.  He was adored by his parents, being good-looking, clever … and alive.  Their first twin boys died soon after they were born.  It had been a dreadful shock as it wasn’t known that twins were expected until their premature birth and death.  Austin was healthy but, two years later, June was premature and was nursed night and day by Lily (the name comes to mind, I’m not quite sure).  When June was teething, she became feverish and, afraid for her life, Lily took a gold thimble and rubbed June’s gum until the tooth came through, when her temperature magically dropped.  A few years later, Lily married and moved to Canada.  For her 40th wedding anniversary, Russell and June sent her that gold thimble – clearly, she’d forgotten its significance as they received a slightly puzzled and perfunctory letter of thanks.

When the air raids started to come closer, Austin and June, who were at prep school by then, were evacuated.  Austin’s whole school was evacuated to Derbyshire and sisters went too, as far as I know.  At that time, Sprig stayed home with his parents.  One of his earliest memories was of riding his big tricycle in the town.  Children didn’t have bikes with stabilisers, they kept their trikes until they could manage a big bicycle.  A bomb dropped over on the Common and Sprig was bumped clean off his trike.  “I hope Mr Hitler doesn’t do that again,” he said in his solemn way.

The threat of air raids was a worry.  The front garden was dug up and an Anderson shelter installed, where little Sprig slept on his own, so he wouldn’t have to be taken out of his bed if the sirens went off.  But he was nervous, so a string was run from the front door to the shelter, which he could pull if he woke and wanted his mummy in the night.  Pulling it worked the front door knocker; the old horseshoe on the Tudor front door.  If there were an air raid, his parents would join him in the shelter.