Len Jarvis. Memories of Gamlingay

(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette)

Len Jarvis, not an easy man to pin down when you have a pen and paper handy, had mentioned quite casually, a few years ago, a sandpit he had built many years ago at the rear of the First School. This tantalising glimpse into the wealth of local history that Len has to tell had me hooked.
Determined to find out more, I finally got an opportunity to speak to Len when he was recuperating from extensive knee surgery.

Settling down in his cosy living room, I asked him to begin with that sandpit, and from now onward this fascinating narrative is his.

Mr Robinson was a ‘hands on’ Headmaster, believing the children needed to learn practical skills. As an illustration of this approach to teaching, Len cited this example. In front of the swimming pool area was once a large Greenhouse, and the upper playing field was all strips of garden or allotments. These were allocated to pairs of the older pupils to tend. Len learnt most of his gardening skills from his garden strip which he tended during school time at least once a week. The children were involved with the gardens from age13 until 15 when they left school.

There was once a ditch starting in Waresley Road, running in front of the Council houses until it crossed underground by pipe opposite the Working Man’s Club into ‘The Pitt’. This flooded area led into a second pipe running into the First School car park, then part of the children’s gardens; the open ditch then carried the ground water across the playing fields into the far corner where the children now have a nature area.

Originally known as the Statty field, cricket was played here with the Headmaster as wicket keeper. Harris’ fun fair also used this site twice a year when it visited the village.

The playing fields have changed considerably in Len’s lifetime. There was a collection in the village to purchase the fields for the use of the village, and Len was involved in laying a pipe, filling in the ditch and forming a footbridge at the car park end across it. The local farmer, Mark Meeks ploughed the two fields to level them for seeding, and all the children were given buckets so they could walk over the ground picking up all the stones turned up in the process. The line of the ditch follows the ripple in the ground between the upper and lower fields which is visible today and we have a photograph of Len building the bridge.

Mr Freeman, who also ran the Cadets in the village, taught woodwork. The Cadet hut was situated on the old football pitch, which now forms Greenacres, and the boys worked in pairs on their woodwork projects using the tools in this hut. For the last year of his schooling, Len and his partner built a wooden framed canoe, covered it with canvas which they sewed on top of the frame. The frame was hinged in such a way that it could be removed for ease of transportation. Len helped test the canoe on the St.Neots river after Mr Freeman took it up there on his roofrack.

Len obviously enjoyed Cadets, and was asked to represent the group at the shooting range in Bisley. He never got to go though, as much to his disappointment he came down with chicken pox. They practised with 303’s and 22’s at Barton Ranges. Len stayed at Cadets until he was 18. He was asked if he wanted to be a Warrant officer.

Once the playing fields were done, the fair moved to the bottom of Green End, the area between Wright’s factory and the entrance to Fairfield.
Cricket was played in Charnocks, long before the Close was built.

Miss Orlebar, a spinster whose Father had been Squire, lived in Charnocks. Although she never worked, she was always busily involved with the community, running the Guide unit, and also the Red Cross branch in the village.

Running the Red Cross in part meant loaning out, for a small donation, items such as crutches, wheelchairs or commodes for patients returning from hospital, giving them access to aids they usually needed only for short periods. She was well thought of in the Community, but unfortunately was unable to sustain herself and her companion Miss Underwood, indefinitely in Charnocks without raising some capital. Although she applied to South Cambs to develop the Charnocks Close area, she was flatly refused planning permission. South Cambs stated that they would never allow building on this piece of ground. Forced to sell the house and the gardens, and build a smaller dwelling in Dutter End, named Slip House the villagers were dismayed to see planning permission granted to the new owner, a private secretary to the MP within 12 months. Once developed the remaining house was sold again, and Mr Shepherd vanished from the village.

Another activity was cycling, and a track went around the rear of Charnocks garden area. Michael Walker’s grandfather owned and rode a wooden rimmed bike. He was an ardent supporter of Arsenal, and used to ride to Highbury to catch the match!

When the new houses were built at the far end of Dutter End the name was relocated to this cul-de-sac. Originally all the houses from the church down to the end of the village were in Dutter End. They now became Church End.

Cubs and scouts was held in the small store beside the Co-op, run by Mr Inskip. After the war, when the wooden building was no longer needed as a canteen, the Rose family ran a café there. Eventually the Co-op replaced this wooden structure.

Opposite Bell Foundry Close, where Empson’s Garage once stood, was a corrugated iron hall. This was The Conservative Club, filling up with 200 dancers on a Saturday night, and hosting a film show every Friday when a visiting projectionist called from St Ives and ran the ‘Flash Gordon’ series, Pathe news and films for the villagers.

In the grounds behind the club, Len and others built a sandpit, a paddling pool and a thatched Gazebo. There was a gap in the holly hedge enabling the school children to gain access from the playground. The thatching was done by the children, including Robin Harris, who formed the joinery firm later associated so closely with Len’s building Company.

P C Alder was the policeman when the Club was thriving. Unfortunately, repairs were costly and eventually the land was sold to R and H Wales and the strip of semis were built in its place.

Mill Street Shops and businesses

A number of businesses have now disappeared in Gamlingay. Len started naming some of them, but later, as I was leaving to pick my kids up from school he mentioned there were some more that we hadn’t yet jotted down!

Nellie Bedford ran a Greengrocers, (next to the Boococks House,) the kids loved her for the free sweets she handed out to them. Opposite her in the terrace was Totts, which sold similar goods.

Saunders,(whose painted sign can still be seen on the outside wall), was a Draper and Grocer. So, a pair of new wellies, a pair of trousers and a half pound of sugar could all be purchased here. There were two counters, dividing the shop in two.

There was a further Drapers and Grocers in The Chemists shop, next to Maypole House, and the chemists was located in a wooden structure, just within the gateway beside the café and Knibbs butchers. This became a hairdressers before Colin Knibbs finally removed it. Andy’s vegetables, (now named Maythorns, but up for sale) was the Eastern Electricity shop, it became in turn a motorbike shop and a florist.

Thomas Tate’s was a barbers. This barber eventually moved to the white building sandwiched between the Rose and Crown’s black gate and the Pear Tree Row houses at the Cross. Prior to this it had been a cobbler.

There was a second cobbler, tucked away at the other end of the village, behind 4 Church End, a little way down the track which runs besides Jubilee bungalow. It was just before the pig styes. W Theobald mended shoes there. He lived in Church Street in the cottages where Ralph Allwood’s mum lives today. Losing his leg in the Great War, he used a wheelchair propelled along with sticks resembling skiing poles. When it was inclement, farm workers unable to get on the land congregated in the cobblers, sometimes staying all day!

Church Street

Len’s Uncle Jack and his two sons, Jack and Dick, ran the Undertakers from 7 Church Street. He was also a carpenter. As access was narrow and awkward for taking the timber planks to the workshop, unloading was done in the street and all the timber was carried into the yard over the mens’ shoulders. As a child, Len watched and absorbed the details whilst his uncle built the coffins from scratch, coating the bottom and seams with pitch to prevent leakage and lining the top with silk frill and a silk pillow for the head to rest upon. His uncle would remark that he was busy if there were two burials a week. He had a hand drawn hearse, no horse, and one of the additional pall bearers was Jack Peacock. Len’s regret is that he didn’t continue the family business, Dick’s daughter didn’t follow into the family firm and it faded away after the two men retired.


There were three Jakes brothers who were all market gardeners living in the thatched cottage beside the new Rectory. They leased land around the village. The village was full of Market Gardening, and there were also three main farms owned by Merton and leased to Marshall and Masters. Their Foreman George Osborne originally lived in Manor farm, but purchased St Mary’s cottage and moved over there.

Avennells Farm was the Stock farm, raising bullocks for meat. The Stockman lived in the farm house near the herd. Merton Farm was also predominately stock.

Manor farm stabled the Draft or Cart horses used on the farm and also to take the carts laden with produce down to the Station. On St Mary’s field were greenhouses used to chit the potatoes prior to planting, and there was grazing there for the horses.

Another herd, this time dairy, was run by Peter Knibbs at The Cross. His milking parlour was on the site of the Bank, and milk was sold there. One of Len’s jobs after school was to fetch fresh milk from here home in a jug. School Close was a meadow, and grazing for the herd. The cows were also driven up to Dennis Green and Little Heath and along Cow Lane which was later sadly renamed West Road.

Market Gardening produce included sugar beet, spuds, onions, runner beans, carrots, parsnips, brussels and cabbages. As the Jakes brothers had no horse, Theobalds used to cart their produce down to the station for them. Produce went to Spittlefields in London where Marshall and Masters had their own stand. Once they owned their own lorry, they took the produce themselves. Howard Knibbs, was their driver and he still lives in the village.

The Cockayne Hatley farm, owned by the Co-op grew fruit trees. From the edge of Potton right over to Wrestlingworth there were orchards full of them. These have now all been grubbed out, transforming the landscape.

Merton Grange Farm also had greenhouses. Dr Ellis, and his brother Philip, farmed. There was a dairy herd and pigs. In the summer tomatoes and cucumbers were grown and in the autumn chrysanthemums were boxed up with the fruit and vegetables and sent to London.

One greenhouse yielded ten tons of tomatoes annually. The soil had to be sterilised every year, and a steam engine connected to a series of hollow tubes, stuck deep into the ground and covered with hessian, was used to do this job There was a coal fired boiler to heat the greenhouses. When the steam engine failed its boiler test for safety it was eventually replaced by a Scottish boiler. This had to be lifted into the top of the boiler house once the top had been removed. This boiler did both the jobs of heating and sterilising the soil in the greenhouses.

The greenhouses were painted every summer for 6 weeks. The painters were allowed to take the tomatoes which were split and therefore unsuitable for sale home with them. Another local site for selling these vegetables was a Pill box on the left hand side of Station Road, just opposite the industrial estate Mrs Rainsford sold tomatoes in paper bags from here.

There is so much more to tell, but it was time for a pause and a welcome cup of tea. I hope to glean further rich pickings from Len’s memory on another occasion.

Parish sketches

(From an interview by Michael Parvitt for the Gamlingay Gazette. July 2001)

Len has one of the strongest ‘Gamgy’ accents that I have heard around here so I was not surprised to learn that he is Gamlingay born and bred.
Len was born in a house in Pear Tree Row in Church Street. He went to the school in Green End from the age of 4 ½ to 15. In fact it was at school that Len first became interested in building and brick laying.

‘It was Mr. Robinson, the headmaster,’ said Len. ‘He was a keen gardener and had a practical ‘hands on’ approach to things. He managed to acquire some of the land behind the old Conservative Club adjoining the school grounds. He got us pupils to build a paddling pool, a sandpit and a pagoda which we thatched. In those days a ditch ran from the pit at the bottom of Cinques Road through the school garden and down to the bottom of Green End. We built a bridge over the ditch where it ran through the garden. I really enjoyed the work and I found that I had a natural touch for brick laying.’ The school woodwork master, Mr. Freeman, taught Len the basics of brick laying and Len developed the skills himself.

In fact, Len was so keen that he started doing work for Mr. Peters the builder in Mill Street on Saturday mornings and during the school holidays. After leaving school Len stayed with Mr. Peters for 3 years at £3 per week. ‘There was one job I had during that time that I was really proud of,’ said Len. ‘I dug two wells to provide water for irrigation. One was in a field off Long Lane and one was up by East Lane. I was still in my teens and these wells were 22 feet and 27 feet deep and 5 feet in diameter.’ Len then described to me how these were dug and brick lined as he went down. The bricks were laid on a well former that slid down as you dug beneath it then you laid more bricks at the top each time.

Mr. Peters became ill with cancer so he asked the Harris brothers in Mill Street to take Len on until he was better. Sadly Mr. Peters did not recover so Len stayed with the Harris brothers. Almost all his work was carried out at Hatley Hall and involved some restoration and the building of new stables and piggeries and in all kept him employed for 7 years. Eventually Len decided to become self employed and take subcontract work.

‘Then we got hit by the terrible winter of 1962-63. (The country froze up on Boxing Day and the snow and ice finally thawed on 14th March). Building work stopped and my mate George Brown and I traveled to Shelford every day to do the bagging and weighing of coal for delivery from 7.30 in the morning until 5.00 in the evening and to 12 noon on Saturdays for £12 a week. Through all that weather we never missed a day.’

Then Arnold Harris asked Len and George if they would do some work for the Harris brothers on a subcontract basis. ‘He told us what jobs he had outstanding and there was about 4 years work. The big job was restoration work on the ‘Old Fox’ at Great Gransden, which took about 3 years.’ This was when Len got seriously into the restoration work which was to be his specialty He stripped the ‘Old Fox’ down to its basic wooden structure and rebuilt it. Massive oak beams had to be found and then shaped to suit and fitted all by hand. Part of the restoration involved rebuilding the chimneys, which had completely collapsed. Len remembers that they did not know what they should look like. ‘Then one morning Mr. Porter, the owner, came out for our daily briefing carrying an old book and a magnifying glass. The book was a history of Great Gransden which had a photograph of the house as it used to be. ‘There you are Len,’ he said, ‘that’s how the chimneys have to look.’ Needless to say, we could not find the right shaped bricks so we had to find the correct type of old brick and cut them to shape.’ That’s the kind of attention to detail that marks Len’s work still.

Len stayed with A.E. & A.J. Harris for about 10 years and then left to start up in his own business. After 12 months George Brown, who had stayed with the Harrises, came to join Len and worked for him for 17 years until retirement. Len’s work was mostly restoration although when some land became available in Hartford he built four bungalows for sale on the open market.

Over the years the company grew and then Len’s son Simon, who had worked his apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner with Robin Harris, joined the business. Robin had always made the joinery for Len and when he decided to retire he asked Simon if he would like to take over. In 1999 the business was made a limited company and now L.F. Jarvis & Son Ltd. includes the joinery business with Simon as the chief joiner.

Len has also made a contribution to the village community. In 1976 he joined the Special Constabulary and was with them for 11 years rising from special constable to sergeant.

In the early 80’s BMX bikes were all the rage and some of the bike owner’s dads decided to form a club to get the lads off the streets. The nearest BMX track was at Peterborough and the dads were involved in the transportation of boys plus bikes every Sunday. The Parish Council were approached for some land and the construction of a track was started next to the playing field. A digger was needed for this job and Len and his wife loaned the club money to get the track finished. The track was very successful with up to 100 boys from miles around using it on a Sunday. With a nominal charge for racing on the track the loan money was soon repaid.

Later Simon joined the local football club. In 1985 the club ran out of money and Len bought the team a set of kit and took the opportunity to have them printed with L. F. Jarvis! When Simon joined the Biggleswade Rugby Club Len bought a van to transport the team to away matches.

In about 1992 Tony Morris wanted to start a local branch of Neighbourhood Watch. Len was involved from the beginning, going with Tony and Sandy Round to London to meet the N W national co-ordinator. He was then elected to organize the structure network and chair the street meetings.

He joined the Parish Council in 1991 and has sat on various committees: the traffic committee, planning and has been vice chairman of the Parish Council.

Len’s had his share of injuries too. A last minute operation on his spine, which saved him from being wheelchair, bound, an operation to replace half his knee with plastic and a heart attack. He is still working full time so they obviously build ‘em tough in Gamlingay!

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