GROWING UP IN GAMLINGAY 70 YEARS AGO
by Doug Titmus
(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette in August 2005)
Now I have passed my 80th birthday; I find myself thinking of old times, when I was a child in Gamlingay. It was a much smaller village then and everybody seemed to know everybody else. Life was sometimes hard, but we children enjoyed ourselves as children will always do. Here are some of the things I remember.
There were 8 of us Titmus children, 4 boys and 4 girls, and we lived for a while at Dutter End up to when I was 9. Dad was a roadman. Next door lived an old chap, Stig Wright. On wet evenings a group of us would go to his barn, and he’d tell us stories of his life. He always gave us coppers to go to the Fair, which came to the village twice a year. There were roundabouts and chairoplanes and stalls of different kinds. I remember Mrs Welsh, who made toffee and rock: she used to spit on her hands and draw out the hot toffee into a strip, throw it up on a hook to stretch it out, and cut it up into pieces.
Then there was an old tramp who used to come in the summer to work on the farms round the area. He slept in a small tent and made a fire to cook on. He’d hang a tin over the fire, boil up water, and add tea, sugar and milk, then drink from the tin. He’d toast bread on a pointed stick, add cheese to melt over the fire, and call that Welsh rabbit. Apart from that, he would have beer and pork pies from the Wheatsheaf pub. He too liked to tell stories to us boys. That was in the summer, then in the autumn we would cross the field and the brook to collect the chestnuts dropping from the trees at Merton Grange. I had a Saturday job helping Mr Mark Dickerson with the day-old chicks which he bought in, as well as other poultry which he kept in a field he rented from Kitchin’s Farm. I also helped Mr Ridgley, the school caretaker, on Friday nights. Across the road lived the lamplighter Mr Hodge, who twice a day went round the streets with a truck, taking the street lamps down, cleaning and refilling them with oil for the night, and putting the lights out in the mornings.
Then our family moved to the Cinques, to one of the new Council houses. This development was known at that time as “Dartmoor”, and the next row became “Hollywood”. There was one pump for water to 6 houses, bucket toilets, the sink in the kitchen for baths, and all the water had to be carried in from the pump. At one time I got 6d a week for carrying in water for Nurse Pepper, dinnertime and evening.
We used to play Hare & Hounds on the Common: two kids would go ahead about 200 yards as hares. The hounds called “Holler if you’re far, whistle if you’re near”, and we’d try and catch them in the dark. Another game was making a point-to-point course, with jumps, and make-believe riding horses round.
I remember having my first new bike there – the Gazelle, which cost £8. Mum paid £1 down and then half-a-crown (2s 6d) a week. I contributed my 6d a week from my chicken-helping job, and the 6d I got for fetching milk from Hawkins’s Farm for my Aunt Marie.
I was talking about old times with Bill Empson a few years ago. I told him I still had the bike, it was under guarantee, but had a puncture. “Bring it in to the garage”, he said, “and I’ll do it for you.”
A lot of us went to Sunday School in those days, and I sang in the church choir. There were two rows of choir seats, the young in front, older men behind. Mr Daniels, the school teacher, would take us to the church for practice, and he’d buy 2/~ worth of toffees to share out. There were two classes at the Sunday School, also held in church, the Misses Emily and Cicely Sills teaching the younger boys in the pews on the right of the entrance door. In a centre pew sat Annie Arnold, a simple-minded young woman who liked to do what the children did. She would knit away, listening to everything, and on prize-day she would get a prize for attendance. Miss Bessie Dew, later Mrs Baker, took the very youngest class in the old chapel building at the end of the almshouses. She told Bible stories and played the piano for the singing. I still remember what we sang then:
“Hear the pennies dropping,
Listen while they fall,
Every one for Jesus,
He will have them all.”
Sunday School children were allowed by the Sills sisters to play cricket and football in the paddock at Maypole House, which they shared, but the most popular treat was the annual outing to the seaside.
We would travel by train from Gamlingay railway station to Skegness, Hunstanton or Yarmouth, with the Vicar, Mr Huggins, and the Sunday School teachers and helpers. I remember Mrs Worboys, the police sergeant’s wife, and Mrs Darts, wife of the churchwarden, and Mrs Bessie Baker. They would take us down to the beach to paddle and play, and round the shops for presents to take home. Dinner was provided in a small hotel, and the whole occasion was appreciated as treats were rare for families in those days.
Towards the end of the year, we would have a tea party in the Parish Room. Tables were laid with cakes, sandwiches and tea. There would be a lantern-slide or film show, perhaps Charlie Chaplin or the Keystone Cops, and then prizes were awarded for attendance at Sunday School, perhaps a book or a Bible.
There were also school outings – going with football and netball teams to other schools, like Eaton Socon, and having tea there, or giving tea to them. At Jubilee Day in 1935 and other years we had Sports Days up at the field. There was a wheelbarrow race with a chap sitting in front with a stick, and making for a board with a hole in it which you’d try to put the stick in. If you missed it, there was a pail of water to come over you
Then on May Day we’d celebrate in Mr Knibbs’ field or at Maypole House. We’d collect the horse from Mr Meeks’ farm up the Sinks (he was “Uncle Mark Meeks” to us), clean the harness and cart and decorate it with flowers. The May Queen would sit in the cart on the teacher’s chair, and the cart would go round the village. Some May Queens I remember: Gwen Jakes, Betty Arnold, Joan Wisson.
You took your own cup to get a cup of tea, and ate sandwiches, with an orange and a bag of sweets, There was country dancing to a gramophone, and dancing round the maypole with ribbons. Not until we were older did we come to appreciate all those adults in the village who gave their time and efforts to brighten our childhood days.