Lol Titmus. Reflections on Gamlingay

Lol Titmus
Reflections on Gamlingay

(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette)

Every time I hear Lol’s cheery whistle, I know I’m going to be treated to some tantalising glimpses into Gamlingay’s past. As many of you know, Lawrence Titmus has been here all his life, and his knowledge of people and places is far reaching. Rather than be caught once again without the means to record this oral history, he agreed to let me sit with him, with pen and pad whilst he reminisced; and he suggested I spoke to a few others at the same time. I was, of course delighted.

So, last week, amidst the welcoming, enthusiastic and knowledgeable company of some lovely Gentlemen, I was given the opportunity to record an anecdotal snap shot of their first days at School. Well, we really had to pin the lads down and start somewhere, they have so much to say!

So, cast your minds back, please to the 1940’s, a time when horses outnumbered cars, the streets were full of pedestrians, the pace of life was slower, and the village college hadn’t been built.

What we now know of as The First School, then ‘The National Board School’, catered for all children from 5 to 14, and Peter Swannell’s first recollections of school as an infant was having to go in the ‘Girls entrance’. If you look at the front of the building, you can see the two distinct entrances segregating the children from the start of the school day. The girls had separate toilets too, with a dividing wall through the playground leading up to them, to ensure the sexes didn’t fraternise inappropriately! The girls joined them in lessons, but the boys didn’t do cookery or sewing at this time.

Anyway, Mum said goodbye to the children at the door. They then wandered through the village to school with siblings or friends. The only children who were taken to school were a tiny minority unwilling to attend, the others didn’t dream of not going. It was just something you did, without question.

Michael, his brother, recalls Miss Wright, one of two spinster teachers, often saying “You’ll lose a point next time” over minor misdemeanors  but the children knew that as she was kind no one ever did! Miss Carol Arnold, and Mrs Armond were teachers at this time, first with Mr Hacker as Head from 1940 to 1943 followed by Mr Robinson.

Lol remembers dad buying a tractor. He was so excited about this he drew a picture of it in the class record book, whilst the others were playing outside; and as he was so young, Miss Wright wrote the details down.

Everyone remembers assembly. Each morning, all stood in the hall in height order, regardless of age, and music was played on a radiogram. There was a reading taken from the bible read by a pupil (who had to learn the big words and found this very unnerving), and they all sung a hymn. The teachers all attended, and punishment by cane was meted out in front of the assembled school. Those punished by cane had first to fetch the record book, and Mr Hacker was more likely to make use of it than Mr Robinson. Another way Mr Hacker had of controlling the unruly pupils was by staring them down, few apparently could hold his stare for long; it was quite intimidating.

Wally Arnold walked to school from Mill Street, with Barbara Harris and Jean Peters. Wally also remembers collecting morning and evening milk in the can from the farmhouse door at Cross Farm; the milking herd there was kept by Peter Knibbs.
Wally was chosen with Elsie Turner nee Bunyan to represent the school and taken to Shire Hall to help present the newly designed school emblem, which is still in use today.

Arthur Swannell, the eldest boy, went first to Waresley School, from the age of 5. The classes were mixed and once again the school catered up to the leaving age of 14. So there were 5 and 14 year olds sitting together. In 1939, Arthur’s family moved to Gamlingay and he joined the village school. Arthur lived in the ‘black mansion’, named such as one end gable had been tarred. This was a condemned property. Their sister Doreen had been poisoned by drinking from the well, and had to be treated in hospital. The house was demolished shortly after they were re-housed.

Cheddar Deeble started school at 5 in Everton, which had two classes, but these were split between the younger and older children. Shot in the eye at eight, he had two years recovering at home in Everton Heath. From 101/2 Cheddar cycled across to Gamlingay school, with Brian Darlow. At the end of the Christmas term, his family moved to Waresley Road. After working, marrying and having a family of 2 children he finally moved into Dove Cote Farm next to The Emplins, and is there today. Cheddar has worked extensively in agriculture, and I am looking forward to following the thread of his life in greater detail another time.

Mr Wicksteed, who came across from the teacher training college in Wimpole Park, organised at least two special days out with a 4 seater canoe, paddling on the Cam. Four boys, including Lol were taken by van to Cambridge, and starting by Silver Bridge, with a packed lunch on board they took six hours to get to Ely, some 15 miles (by road) They finished on the Saturday evening, at 6 pm.

On the second trip, Wally was one of the chosen boys, but this time Mr Wicksteed stayed in the boat and helped paddle, and one boy rotated by turn on the tow path, and then in the boat. In this way they paddled from Ashwell Nine Springs – Melbourne, Malton to Ely. This was 30 miles!  Wimpole was only a teacher training college after it had been an American Hospital during the war, it was later taken on by the National Trust.

After their special day out, the boys all wrote an essay describing the day. Peter went with Mr Wicksteed on a walking trip; starting at Ashwell a small group of boys followed the map tracing the river tributaries until they reached the Cam.

In spring, for Mark Meeks in Drove Road, Wally earned some extra money setting beans and marrows.

Before school in the June, on the farmland behind the college and railway line, peas were picked by the sack. 40lb bags were hand filled and weighed on a balance spring. Straity Cross (Stan’s cousin), took a lorry load of pickers of all ages to Eltisley to pick not only peas but other crops and the price varied from 1s.6d -3s.6d depending on the market.

In the summer holidays, the boys worked on the fields, helping bring in the harvest, either helping their own family, like Lol, or providing labour locally. Arthur Swannell, as did many opted to stay off school an extra fortnight at the end of the summer holiday to collect the potato harvest. Wally collected marrows, runner beans and helped build stacks at Hatley Park or New Road.

At harvest, two lads, Bill Smith and Ron Busby led and controlled the Shire horses pulling the loaded carts as they were filled with sheaves of wheat or barley. Across from where the Village College now stands, Manor Farm had a stack yard where the harvest was stored until thrashing. This was undertaken by German prisoners kept at Woodbury Hall. (The Italian prisoners had been billeted there earlier, but in Old Woodbury Hall.) The prisoners impressed the children who had so little by giving them hand made toys. The Italians didn’t understand why the boys didn’t own watches.

At 12, Arthur drove a Ford tractor from on the farm, but had to hand over to an adult as he was not allowed on the public roads. Three Italian prisoners, billeted to work for Banks’ farm, gave him a taste for freshly ground coffee, something he had never previously tasted.

At one point, beetroot, carrots and marrows were grown in The Butts by Masters and Marshalls. Merton College, the landowners during the war turned lots of unexpected areas over to agriculture to maximise their production. Over 40 labourers could sometimes be seen working fields on one farm, and at harvest the numbers increased.

The Swannell brothers grew up and founded a successful building company from scratch, and many in the village live in their houses today! Wally moved into a career as an architectural draughtsman, and Lol became a potato merchant. Cheddar, as I’ve mentioned stayed in farming. I hope to speak to these boys again following the threads of their lives, they are entwined in our social history and as they grew up they helped shape Gamlingay.

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