A talk given to the Gamlingay History Society by Ken Worboys
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.
(Adapted from an article published in Gamlingay Gazette March 1997 which was based on a lecture Ken gave to Gamlingay History Society)