Memories of Thundridge Part 1
A wartime childhood
By Joan Woolard
I was born in Hertford County Hospital in 1938 and baptised Joan Margaret Beryl Skeeles at Thundridge parish church, a building designed by Benjamin Ferrey. Living at the Post Office Stores I was familiar with the Clarkson monument on the hill above Wadesmill and recently delighted to see the involvement of children from my old primary school involved in its refurbishment and re-siting. Coincidentally my present home in the south Lincolnshire village of Fleet boasts a Victorian rectory designed by the same Mr Ferrey whilst the nearby Fenland town of Wisbech was the birthplace of Thomas Clarkson; he is remembered in a very fine statue in the town centre.
Sepia-toned schoolrooms and wooden desks
As a small child the primary school was just a short walk from 80 Thundridge where my parents, Queenie and Frank Skeeles, ran the shop and post office. My earliest memories of the school are sepia-toned schoolrooms and wooden desks with attached seats occupied by children older than I was. Once we had mastered pencils we learned to write with wooden pens with metal nibs dipped into inkwells that were part of the desks. The first teacher I recall was Mrs Garrod, a somewhat shapeless but motherly woman, also sepia-toned. In 1942 perhaps the whole country was sepia due to the effects of rationing and the blackout. After the infant class we sat in the large central room that also doubled as the local library. Bookshelves lined the walls and despite the war people still wanted to read things other than dramatic headlines in newspapers giving the latest troop positions or cartoons by Fougasse. These were actually very good, such as warning: Careless talk costs lives. The war remained the dominant feature of our lives although we were far from the action. My husband as a child in Kent’s Bomb Alley risked life and limb going to school where most of his education took place in the shelters and he never knew if his family would still be alive at the end of the day.
“Get under the hedge!”
We in rural Hertfordshire were unaware of our good fortune and were blessed with gardens where chickens and rabbits supplemented the rations that kept us healthily slim throughout the nation. Our neighbour kept an allotment near the top of the village and sometimes we children would go along. All was peaceful until the low, sinister drone of a German rocket was heard. “Get under the hedge!” shouted Mr Fletcher. Much to his father’s alarm young David ignored him while I huddled as close to the prickly hawthorn as I dared. Angrily Mr Fletcher grabbed his rebellious son and thrust him vigorously under cover until the danger was past. Any low, airborne engine noise still has the power to create a frisson of fear in my stomach, an automatic reaction. Early one Sunday morning while still abed there was a far-off explosion, a dull thump. It was a bomb that hit Ware Castle grounds. That was probably the nearest action we had.
The Home Guard
The Home Guard recruited men unable to serve at the front. They met regularly for training and my father took an active part. He had served in the First World War and was a Physical Training Instructor. Despite much pleading to serve his country again he was considered too old at 51 despite being exceptionally fit. Born in 1888, he was a true Victorian who expected children to be seen but not heard, and women to know their place, usually in the wrong. This was not a recipe for Happy Families. Our poor mother worked extremely hard in both shop and house but her efforts were never good enough despite Mrs Ayling’s help once a week. Earlier there was a maid called Rosie Robin who came to work on Sunday mornings when we had boiled eggs for breakfast with bread and butter soldiers. Pop kept chickens in the big black barn next to the house and it was a thrill to go and find the eggs.
Rosie was probably employed when my younger brother, John, was born in 1940. My older sister, Mary, was taken out of school to care for me and did not forgive me until we were both very much older. After returning to Ware Grammar School for her School Leaving Certificate Mary became a clerk in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (called Ag and Fish) in London and saw whole streets demolished by Hitler’s bombs. It was part of her job to delve into the basement and find details of farm grassland that could be used for food production. Watching London burn made her weep. She was evacuated with her section to Lytham St Anne’s where life was much more fun. We rarely saw her after that. She disappeared from our lives completely when she married an American GI and left the country. Our older brother, Dick, also left home soon after and was rarely seen again. He found work at an office in Ware before joining the Fleet Air Arm and seeing the war-torn world. As a small boy he can be seen in a photo of Thundridge School in the early Thirties sent to me by John Aldridge of Woodland Road, Thundridge.
A mill and a blacksmith’s shop
Thundridge Post Office Stores faced the bridge that carried the A10 northward to Royston and Cambridge over the River Rib that separated Thundridge from Wadesmill. The old A10 had become Back Street and was a safe playground for children. With typical perversity we chose to play in and around the old watermill, a dark mass of rotting beams and rusting machinery. No Health & Safety there! Attached to the crumbling hulk of the mill was an active blacksmith’s shop beneath two big horse chestnut trees. This was always a source of wonder and I still remember with pleasure the distinctive and pungent odour of horse’s hoof meeting red hot iron as the smith prepared the animal for new shoes. Every year the two great trees delighted us with their spring candles and autumn conkers. One year they surprised us with a shower of frogs! Presumably these tiny creatures had been sucked up by an air current and dropped in rainfall.
Slightly larger and more remarkable creatures arrived in the village in the form of evacuees from London. From across the river at the large mansion called Youngsbury a clutch of small children with the intriguing title “Waifs and Strays” joined the school along with several others from the East End who had parents and were allocated homes in Back Street and in the council houses in Wadesmill. The East End kids were very streetwise and tough compared with us village softies but nothing compared with Danny. This very disturbed little boy was small for his age but made up for it in malice. One day at school he carved crosses with a knife in the bare arms of his fellow Waifs, drawing blood and many cries. The reason for this atrocity was not clear. In those days counselling did not exist but the hurt children received much sympathy and attention from the rest of us.
The Youngsbury children’s party
At Christmas we were invited to the Youngsbury children’s party. A huge Christmas tree dominated the hall and we were awestruck by the grand surroundings, not to mention the ice-house in the grounds outside. Presents were given out and life in a children’s home acquired a rose-tinted hue. Two of the little girls, Frances and Myra, became special friends of mine and were invited at different times to stay overnight at our house. My parents even discussed fostering on a long-term basis despite the domestic tensions. When the Waifs eventually returned to London I was invited to go and stay. The communal bathing facilities and intense homesickness on my first night away from home curtailed any desire to stay longer. Many years later I found one of my special friends in a large country house in Kent after spending her life as nanny to the family. She had remained single.
A wartime diet
Thundridge School seemed to double in size with so many London refugees. Classes expanded to 40 or more and the big double doors separating two classrooms had to be opened wide to accommodate everyone. Still, we all behaved well with very few exceptions. Perhaps there is something to be said for being seen but not heard! Whilst my husband was collecting forbidden shrapnel on his way to school we Thundridge children looked for autumn-tinted leaves and conkers. Along the river bank my younger brother and I searched for dandelion and hogweed leaves to feed rabbits that now provided us with an alternative source of protein. Chickens were only slaughtered at Christmas or some other auspicious occasion. Milk, unskimmed and fresh from the cow, was delivered daily by horse and cart. It was always delicious. A long handled ladle was used to fill our jugs while the milkman’s horse snacked on hay from a nosebag hung over its ears. It would sometimes paw the ground with its hooves as if impatient to get on. As a baby I was raised on goat’s milk, my parents having acquired the animal accidentally. We also had a pig which my older brother had won at a fair and gave away to a visiting stranger, much to our parents’ dismay.
The shop storeroom
The shop storeroom had large ovens at one end where bread must have been baked in the past. A cellar beneath the shop was furnished with a light bulb and a camp bed but no memory of using it remains; entered by a trapdoor, it was dark and musty. A range of derelict brick outbuildings contained byres and double doors where horses were once stabled and possibly shod; horse shoes littered the dusty floors along with other accumulations; after the war these included gas masks and other redundant detritus. A section at the end became a garage when Pop bought an Austin 7.
Open fires and fresh air
The house was heated by open fires and cooled at the same time by windows cracked open so there was always a draught wherever one sat. Mother was a strong believer in fresh air and we always slept with windows open regardless of the season. Perhaps this reduced the effects of passive smoking since both parents smoked quite heavily. On winter mornings bedroom windows became ephemeral galleries of beautiful fernlike designs by Jack Frost, always much admired as we shivered as we dressed. Central heating was regarded as a sign of moral degeneracy by both parents along with pubs and lipstick.
Fruit and veg
Before the hens stopped laying in winter my mother stored eggs in isinglass in a large metal bin. She also made jam and marmalade, pickles and chutney, and cut fresh runner beans to store in large earthenware jars, layering them in salt. We enjoyed fresh garden pears in summer and loganberries that covered one of the barns. Unlike the rest of us Pop always had a daily orange, cut in half and eaten with a spoon in colonial fashion for breakfast. We never saw bananas. “Yes! We have no bananas” expressed the shortage of tropical fruits in a popular ditty.
Sorting ration coupons with Pop
The war affected our lives in many ways that were subtle and not so obvious as the blackout and absence of bananas. At the end of a long day serving customers Mother spent most evenings cutting and sorting ration coupons with Pop, enlisting my help as soon as I was old enough. The coupons were cut from customers’ ration books when they bought food and then had to be properly collated before dispatch to an official department. It was an irritating and onerous task that endured till long after the war ended in 1945. Black markets thrived but Pop was far too honest to profit from wartime shortages. My future husband in his London suburb was sent to collect illicit goods from the local pub in the well-founded belief that no-one would suspect a small boy in short trousers. Without gardens or allotments town-dwellers relied on their wits for survival and some nearly starved despite rationing. On one occasion Duncan was target practice for a Nazi plane as he made his way home.
The beginning of the end
One day Pop urgently called us all out to the back of the house. From the back step we watched with wonderment a sky full of planes, hundreds and hundreds of planes towing gliders. They were on their way to D-Day and the “beginning of the end.”
You can find out more about Fleet and its people and churches by visiting Fleet..