Ken Worboys. 1908 – 2000
Garage-owner, churchman, local historian, long-time resident in Gamlingay, Ken was known to most people in the village and was a friend to all. He studied the history of the church and parish and gave talks to a number of village organisations during his later decades. He also wrote or was interviewed for the Gamlingay Gazette.
When he died at the age of 92, I thought that some of this material should be made available in more permanent form for his many admirers, preserving also his turns of speech, his relish for a good story and recalling that twinkle in the eye with which he would talk, both personally and in public.
Thank you, Ken, for reminding us of so much that might be forgotten.
Ishbel Beatty. July 2004
(Adapted from an article published in Gamlingay Gazette March 1997 which was based on a lecture Ken gave to Gamlingay History Society)
I was born in the police station at Arrington in 1908 and I lived there up to the age of two and a half, where I was a solitary child. The Superintendent wouldn’t allow children to come to the police station to play with me, so the village blacksmith, Mr Newell and my father made an arrangement.
A field separated the police station from the forge, so Mr Newell said: “You blow your whistle and drop Ken over the fence, and when I hear it I’ll come and pick him up on our side”.
This went on until I turned three, when I was able to toddle up the road by myself.
I loved the blacksmith’s shop and all its goings on: it was so interesting, the real hub of the community, especially on wet days, when people from neighbouring villages brought their horses in to be shod and various bits of tackle to be repaired.
When World War 1 broke out Mr Newell said; “You’ll have to help me, Ken, we’re losing people”.
They’d volunteered to go off to the war, from almost the day after it broke out. He said “Do you think you could look alter the goats for me?”. “Of course I could,” I said “I like your goats”.
My duties were to feed the goats in the morning and peg them out to grass, before I went to school. Then in the afternoon when I came out of school, to collect the goats, feed them and settle them for the night.
Then one day Bernard, Mr Newell’s son, said “You’re looking after the goats for my Dad, how about looking after my ferrets?”
I said “Yes, I could do that”. He said “You’ve got to be careful – they might bite you”.
So he introduced me to the ferrets. I think there were six of them – 5 white ones and one polecat. I took a fancy to the polecat, and I think perhaps it liked me ‘cos after a while l could pick it up and stroke it, though I never got on very well with the white ones. I used to feed them on bread and milk, except when Mr Newell killed one of his hens and they had the oddments from the interior: they enjoyed that.
This went on for quite a while and I also collected the eggs from the hens. They were free-ranging – they ran about all over Mr Newell’s premises, laying eggs wherever they found a nice corner.
Bernard was exempt from military service because he had a team of shire horses, used for pulling timber out of the local woods and bringing them on timber-carriages to Gamlingay, where there was a huge sawmill. When I was 10, he asked me – “You could tum them horses loose and take them up to Wimpole Hall, couldn’t you, at night?”
The king-horse, if I can describe him as such, was a splendid fellow, name of Duke. They used to put me up on him and we went clonking off, turning right into Wimpole Park gates and then along some distance to an enclosed field. I used to dismount at the gate and take the bridle off Duke and they would file quietly in while I closed the gate and came home.
After some time there came a week of terrible rain. The horses and men couldn’t go out to work. It stopped raining on a Friday and Bernard said “l think we could turn the horses loose tonight if you’re willing to take them, because the weather’s going to clear and it will do them good to gallop round before we start on Monday.” So I was put up on Duke and off we went as usual till we got near the gate.
Then the horses all stopped and got together in a group and put their muzzles together. Then the other horses drew back, Duke knelt down and very gently let me slip down his neck. I’d kept my hands on the reins and as I fell to the ground he jerked his head up, the bridle came off and he turned round and galloped off. It took Bernard and his men two or three days to collect them as they were widely dispersed. They got them back safely but I was never allowed to take the horses out any more.
I was disappointed but continued my happy life at Arrington. I was “borrowed” from Mr Newell by Miss Smoothy, the postmistress, who said she would pay me to take telegrams – 6d up to three miles and 9d over three miles. I thought that was a good proposition and belted about on my ancient bike.
We had a nice little school at Arrington, a Church of England school. Two sisters, the Misses Hays, were in charge of it. None of us liked the one who was in the lower section, as she put on us. The superior Miss Hay was very good. She was extremely well-educated and in between the usual stuff, reading, writing and arithmetic, she gave us insights in rudimentary science and talked to us about the planets, the movement of the earth in relation to the sun, the moon in relation to the earth, the movement of the sea, the tides and all the things related to these.
Miss Newell, David Newell’s daughter, was a school teacher, and during the school holidays she said: “I’m not going to let you waste your time, Ken, feeding goats and chasing about after hens. I’m going to give you an hour’s teaching every day” .
Under her tuition I read nearly all Dickens’ works and a lot about the history of England. She made sure I could write properly and I also had sessions on arithmetic and other subjects, and feel grateful to all my teachers.
Then my country life changed – my father was posted to the police house at Gamlingay, a much larger village. The school of course was entirely different and instead of having school-mistresses we had schoolmasters. Mr Powell was a very nice man, very stern and strict but very fair and a very good teacher. He was a Welshman and we had to sing Welsh songs in our music lessons, like “Land of My Fathers”.
He also ensured that everybody could read and write. We had an exam every quarter. I remember that after my first term, when I was rather unsettled, I got on very well, first or second in most exams.
I felt quite at home in Gamlingay church as I already knew the Rector. I was taken to Evensong on our first Sunday and although I was only about 11 & a half. I fell in love with the church and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
In the course of my life I’ve done almost everything that it is possible for a layman to do in the church: I was a choirboy, an altar boy and for a time I was acting unpaid church clerk.
On leaving school at fourteen my ambition was to become involved with motor cars and motor cycles. Mr Empson senior had recently come back from World War I and established his business where the fruit and flower shop is now in Church Street. The building there is an old World War I hut. There used to be an extension right round the backyard and then a brick building at the end. There was a square yard and where the Co-op is now was a wooden building once used by a Baptist sect called the ‘Abode of Love’. This was now Mr Empson’s showroom for his motor bikes and cycles.
I used to watch Mr Empson working as I went to and from school and see these fascinating cars and motor cycles parked in the yard. My Dad got me apprenticed there and although I fell ill with double pneumonia I was able to start work in March 1923.
We had all sorts of motor-cars – many never heard of nowadays – a Huttmobile [Hupmobile}, a Seedel [Zedel], a Metallurgey, a Hachee sports car, several Belsize. I remember two very large farmers used to come to us from Caxton in an open Been 11.9. Whatever the weather, they never had the hood up. They sat there, in huge proofed overcoats, caps pulled firmly down over their heads, looking very dour and a bit chilled by the time they got to Gamlingay in the winter.
Then, of course, there were the run-of-the-mill vehicles: the Austins were coming in, the Austin 7s, There was the bull-nose Morris and various other well-known makes of cars were appearing – Wolsey’s, the Hispano-Suiza, which lived at Hatley Hall, quite a number of Vauxhalls and Talbots.
There was a really lovely car, a Cenano, Italian, whose owner lived in Gransden Hall. It was a beautiful design for that time, and the engine, when we stripped it, was really a masterpiece. Instead of the old connecting-rods which were common in those days it had polished round steel connecting-rods. I was really enthusiastic about it. There were also several AC’s, which was an abbreviation for Acedes, nice little cars for that time.
Of course there was the inevitable model T Ford; Henry Ford made 22,000,000 of those. There were quite enough around Gamlingay and they provided us with a lot of work. I forget how long I worked for Mr Empson senior, but I saw him move to the present Empson’s site [now Bell Foundry Close] in 1926 when the building was held up by the General Strike that year.
I continued to work there until the Wall Street crash. This took a year or two to affect Gamlingay but it was disastrous from the garage trade’s point of view and Mr Empson had to give me my cards, as they say.
I’d got very little money but I thought I’d start work on my own account. I told my Dad and he said “You’re mad, starting at this time”. I’d got quite reasonably well known in the area, and when one or two people got to know what intended to do they asked me to repair their vehicles on their premises – that’s how I started.
Then I got better established and rented what is now the bookmaker’s shop [in Mill Street]. Emily and I got married in 1934 and lived in that house.
Emily’s mother had been in service with a local doctor and went to Scotland with that family. There she married and Emily was born but they returned to Gamlingay when Em’s father was killed in World War I.
Emily and I have been to Edinburgh and seen her father’s name in the Book of Remembrance in the Memorial Chapel there where there was an astonishing atmosphere.
In the mid-thirties I was fortunate enough to acquire the plot of land on which my garage is now built. It was a rough site: there had been four houses, known as Widows’ Row and four World War I widows lived there. In 1928 a little lad bought a 1/2d sparkler in Careless’s and brought about their downfall. He went down the street whirling it and throwing it up in the air and the wind caught it and blew it on to the thatch. In a very short time the houses were blazing, end to end. The ground lay derelict for six or seven years and I was able to buy it and built the first half of the garage.
I had just got going nicely when World War II broke out. I joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and went to Cardiff for a trade test and awaited call-up. A little later, I was given three days’ notice to clear out of the garage, which was commandeered by the Army, with its tools and equipment.
I was with 13 Squadron throughout the war and went to all sorts of places. We were the Army Co-op squadron – where the army went we followed. We were in Operation Torch and had quite an exciting time going into Algiers with the First Army. The ship I was on was torpedoed in Algiers Bay. We were very fortunate, because the torpedo hit just underneath the compartment in which there were 250 of 13 Squadron’s erks.
We weren’t in a very luxurious place. It had been a cargo hold, almost under the water line. When the torpedo struck, two people were killed and five injured and the rest of us managed to get out. It was quite impressive really. It took them all the next day to tow the poor old ship into Algiers Bay into the docks. Its name was Sivia. The nose was down, the propellers out of the water, and the Captain placed us in various parts of the ship and said “None of you are to move – if you do, the b. .. ship will tip over”!
We continued with the war after many vicissitudes, having nothing but what we stood up in. Looking back, it was a wonder we survived. It was a terrible winter – we were wet through every day and we’d got nothing to change into. We just lay down to go to sleep and woke up to find our battle dresses had dried out in the night.
When I got back to Gamlingay after the war, I resumed my duties with some difficulty and got the garage repaired. There had been a small building next door to me, a chapel of a Baptist sect called Zoar. It had a gallery, nice pews, with a pool for baptism in the centre. The sect ceased to exist in the 1940s and the building had been sold to Mr Mark Meeks for use as a potato store.
One day I noticed a large crack running up the side wall and told the owner, who then sold it to me. The building had no foundations so was demolished by Arthur Bibby and I could make use of the land.
Thinking of the Zoar Chapel reminds me of the last two of the Peters family who were Zoars, who lived in Cromwell House. Others had been Walter Long and his sister and another brother named Leete who lived in Mill Street.
Going further back, I remember the many shopkeepers in the village when we first moved to Gamlingay in my childhood. There were grocers and drapers:
Savage Brothers in Church Street, where the Pharmacy is now,
Saunders in Mill Street; with John Sarll, who put up the ‘Abode of Love’, nearly opposite the Cock Inn.
Next door to Mr Savage there was Sam Sarll’s shop which concentrated on groceries, but the building is there no longer.
There were four undertakers so you could take your choice when you died. There were three Blacksmiths’ shops and two Wheelwrights of great fame: Wrights of Gamlingay were known all over East Anglia for the carts they built. They were two brothers who could do anything.
They also had a paint shop and would paint some of the motor cars I mentioned earlier. In those days you really went to town. When one of Mr Empson’s customers wanted their car painted, Jim Pestell and I would take it down to the paint shop, removing the bonnet and all detachable parts, so that the painters had a clear run.
Everything was painted, including me underneath then me body was put back, with its new coat of paint and when it was free of our mauling hands, seventeen coats of varnish were put on till it shone like glass, wonderful!
In the other part of the wheelwright’s, they were sawing up tree trunks of very ancient mature timber and building the splendid carts and trolleys and later on they were building very good motor lorry bodies as well. When the original Wright brothers died, their nephew, Mr Hedley Hodge took over the business and turned it into the present agricultural engineering works
Church Street was looked after by the Rural District Council. Every winter they sent tumbril carts, which tip up, and they tipped gravel chippings all over the road and left it to the traffic to roll the chippings in.
That made life rather grim for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.
For street lighting we had splendid Council lamps, placed at every road junction and at intervals in the streets. Mr Hodge went round to ignite them every night and started again at ten o’clock at night from his house to extinguish them. He had quite a round: West Road (which we called Cow Lane in those days), to Dennis Green and back round. It used to take him some time.
My time too is up, but I have so much to remember of my long life here.
Incredible as it may seem now, the garage owes its birth to the great Wall Street Crash which occurred in 1929. The crash caused a great business depression which swept all over the world, including Great Britain.
In the early 1930s it struck the garage trade in Gamlingay and my employer was forced to make his workshop staff redundant, owing to lack of work.
I was well known among many car and motorcycle owners, having worked on their vehicles over a period of nine years. Several people approached me to see if I would work on their premises. Rather than go “on the dole” I readily agreed. I also repaired cycles and motorcycles in my father’s garden shed.
At the end of 1932 I was able to rent the shop in Mill Street, next to what eventually became Lindsay’s Bakery. In the following year I was able to rent the whole of the premises and I had a large shed erected in the garden, complete with inspection pit. There I had a shop in which parts and accessories were sold, cycles and motorcycles repaired and a workshop suitable for the repair of cars and small commercial vehicles.
I remember my first sale from the shop: someone came in and bought a torch bulb, price 2% d (old pence)!
In 1934 I bought a derelict site in Mill Street, next door to the Zoar Chapel. Four cottages, known as Widows’ Row, once stood there, occupied by four World War One widows and their families.
The cottages burnt down in 1928. At the beginning of 1936 commissioned R & H Wale to build the first half of the garage and within six weeks they had cleared the site, put up the building, installed the petrol tanks and completed the forecourt.
I moved in and started business there just as the economy was starting to recover from the great 1929 depression, which carried on well into the 1930s. All went well until September 1939, when war was declared and petrol rationing started, which of course brought about a down-turn in forecourt revenue. However, there was plenty of work from the workshop and I had started a private hire business. which proved quite successful. When the blitz on London started I fetched many people from London who came to stay with relatives in and around Gamlingay as there was a special petrol allowance for private hire cars.
I had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in December 1939. and after a medical test in Cambridge I was sent to RAF Cardington for a trade test to see if was suitable to become a Fitter IIE. Then I was sent home and told to wait until I was called up.
One day in 1940 an Army officer came in and said: “I am commandeering these premises for military use, together with all your tools and equipment. I have two men with me who will now make an inventory of your stock. You have three days to settle your affairs”.
This was a very severe blow. I had three customers’ cars undergoing major repairs. However, help was at hand.
My friend, the late Owen Godfrey of Biggleswade, kindly had the cars taken to his workshop and they were eventually repaired. I cleared out our stores and office and the army took over. I carried on with the private hire business until I was called up in 1941.
After discipline courses and two technical courses, I emerged as a Fitter II Engines and was posted to XIII Squadron, stationed at Odiham This was an Army Co-op bomber squadron and it was rumoured that we were to be sent overseas.
During this time I received a message informing me that the Army had set my garage on fire. I was given a 36 hour pass to go home and inspect the damage, which was pretty severe. The shop, stores and office and a third of the roof were all burnt out. The officer in charge told me that the Army would make temporary repairs so that they could continue to use the premises and they did this in a rough-and-ready manner.
Luckily I had kept the building insured and it was properly repaired when the war was over.
After serving in Algeria, Tunis, Libya, Egypt, Italy and Greece, I was posted back to the UK & was eventually demobbed in time to be home for Christmas 1945.
My first task was to gain re-possession of my garage, which was now deserted and looking very forlorn.
After some difficulty I obtained an interview with the officer in charge of commandeered buildings. He was an Army Colonel and he regarded me with some disfavour as he informed that the Ministry of Supply wanted to take the garage over as a potato store, adding for good measure: “I suppose that you had a comfortable war working in an aircraft factory?”
I informed him that I had spent three rather uncomfortable years following the Army with my Squadron in the Mediterranean area.
On hearing this his whole attitude changed and he told me to tell him about my travels – Operation Torch, the landing in Algeria, Tunis, Egypt, Italy and Greece. After listening to me he said: “I was there too”, and he promised that he would see that the garage would be released to me within six weeks.
In the meantime l set about renewing pre-war business connections in an endeavour to purchase new tools and equipment in a time when it was very difficult to obtain supplies of any sort.
However, after various set-backs and disappointments the business restarted on 1st March 1946 and gradually the tide turned in my favour.
About this time Sir John Astor purchased the Hatley Park estate. One of his vehicles broke down almost opposite the garage. I had a look at it and was able to get the spares needed to repair it. I think that Sir John was impressed by the service he got and he opened an account with us.
In the mid-1950s the second half of the garage was built. In 1962 we became a limited company and the garage is now run by my family – three generations of Worboys – my son Keith, grandson David
and myself, and of course daughter-in-law Christine, who is our Managing Director.
In the early days my dear wife Emily was a tower of strength, working in the garage and often helping me with the assembly of engines which were being overhauled.
Our grateful thanks to all our loyal customers, past and present, who
have supported us over the last sixty years.
(Originally published in the booklet: ‘Ken Worboys speaks…’ by Ishbel Beatty & Daphne Pearce)
After 70 years as Sacristan of the Parish Church of St Mary’s, Ken resigned this office in 1995 and Chris Miller, Churchwarden, summed up his contributions to the life of the church.
Ken was 11 years old when he first attended Evensong at Gamlingay. “I fell in love with the church then, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.”
In 1925 he became Sacristan, an office which involves looking after the vessels of the church and generally preparing for Sunday services. This he has done ever since, latterly assisted by a small team.
Ken’s involvement with the church has never wavered, from the time he became Stoker of the boiler in 1916, to the present day. He began to take an active part in church affairs at the age of13 when he became one of six servers. He took charge of the acetylene gas which was used to illuminate the church. At about the time he was appointed Sacristan, he was a member of the bell-ringing t and became Tower Captain in 1929.
“I had two teams of bell ringers, 6 bell-ringers for the morning and 6 for the evening, but unfortunately I could not get them to go in for proper change-ringing. It was my ambition to do 5,040 changes.. I got some visitors to come from other villages who were clued-up ringers, but my lovely old boys wouldn’t wear it so we stuck to ringing 120 changes before each service, each man with a card in front of him so he knew which bell to follow.”
Ken also took on the task of Honorary Verger, attending funerals and generally supporting the priest in his duties.
When Ken married Emily Cooper at St. Mary’s on 2 June 1934 the service was conducted by the Master of Downing College, Cambridge, who had been helping out during a long interregnum. Needless to say, Ken took a major part in seeing the church through four years without a resident priest.
In 1946, after his war-time service, Ken was elected to the Parochial Church Council. Continuing as Sacristan, he became a Churchwarden for 13 years, was Chairman of the Stewardship Committee and a
member of the Restoration Committee. On retirement from these offices, he was appointed Honorary Bedesman, a role which included praying for those in need. In 1962 he was instrumental in persuading
the builders who restored the War Memorial Chapel to waive the last £25 of their £625 bill.
In all that he has done throughout his life, Ken Worboys has been an inspiration to many and his loyal service to the church has been second to none.