Interviewed in 1987 by his Canadian relation: Clarence Cross
Stan Cross was born on the 18th July 1910 & lived in Mill Street. Gamlingay.
For the beneﬁt of us back in Canada, just where is Gamlingay?
Gamlingay is on a little piece of Cambridgeshire that juts out to the west. We’re almost surrounded by Bedfordshire and what once was Huntingdonshire, but has now been taken into Cambridgeshire. You could at one time stand with a leg in each county and a hand in a third. We are between the two county towns, 14 miles from Bedford and 18 from Cambridge.
Did you know your grandfather?
Oh yes, I knew him quite well. I was 12 when he died. He used to walk about with his walking stick. He wasn’t doing any work and he’d got a bit of a shake. He lived to be 81.
Did your father talk about life in the old days and how Gamlingay had changed?
I don’t think Gamlingay changed a lot in his time, not so much as in my time. I remember him saying that there would be a queue oft carts with produce waiting to get to the railway station as the train went every day with stuff for London. The queue of carts would be 4 or 5 hundred yards, just to take those vegetables. The railway is gone now. It was a branch line that crossed the main Great Northern line at Sandy and went from Oxford to Cambridge, passing through Bedford.
What were these carts like, Stan?
Two-wheeled ones, which were about 5 feet high. They were drawn by one horse. They used to hold about a ton of stuff. The carts were made in Gamlingay by a wheelwright, named Wright incidentally, probably where the family got its name.
Your out-buildings here are full of old farm implements. Tell me about the farm.
It was more market gardening than farming. We grew chieﬂy vegetables, an acre or two of oats to feed the horses, and occasionally a field of wheat. We used to harvest the corn and stack it. Then a contractor went around with a steam engine, a threshing drum, and a chaff cutter. There were several men that used to follow his outfit around, from farm to farm, doing the threshing. The early steam engine was a horse-drawn one, but the one I’m more familiar with was the old traction engine.
One of my jobs was with a water cart, pumping a 40 gallon tank full of water and dragging it to the engine, and with a pail, pouring the water into the receptacle on the side of the engine. It kept a boy on the go all the time. Our land wasn’t altogether in one piece. There was about 6 acres behind the house, which was chieﬂy cherry orchard. The trees were planted in rows 40 or 50 yards apart, and you could crop the strips between. We had 4 or 5 acres in a field almost a mile away, another field half a mile away, and one or two more fields in the opposite direction. That was how it was in the village; lots of market gardeners had their fields in various places.
This pattern probably developed from the earliest days when the villages had common fields, and people each had a strip in the common. As fields came up for sale, different people bought them, and a lot of them were enclosed in hedges. We owned only the fields attached to the house. Most of the others were owned by Merton College, Oxford, and Downing College, Cambridge. At one time, we had about 50 acres. There would be more corn grown then, because I can just remember keeping cows. Behind the house was a cattle yard with cow sheds and stables. The buildings are still standing, some on their last legs. These are the smaller buildings.
The big barn was where you stacked the hay. I don’t remember the number of cows, but we had a few bullocks and three horses.
We had very early soil, and a reputation for early potatoes. We always grew runner beans, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and peas. We had three rows of very big cherry trees. When we cut them down eventually, the rings showed that they were about 100 years old. During the cherry season, I’d do nothing for two or three weeks but gather cherries from morning till night. We also had apples, plums, and pears.
Besides the family, we had a lot of people working during the cherry season. Of course, there was the other work to be done as well. Some men were employed permanently.
Before my time, my grandmother, Ann Wagstaff, had a brother who lived in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and we used to send a lot of produce there. I have carriage receipts from the railway companies, for the produce we used to send by train. We also sent produce to the London market, such as Covent Garden. And then, one or two people in the village started taking food to the shops in Cambridge with lorries, and we supplied some to them. We always sold some at the door during the cherry season.
We charged 4 pence a pound. For gathering cherries, we used a 30-rung ladder and a wicker basket hooked onto the ladder. We had a big problem with the birds. There were always flocks of them, chiefly starlings, that seemed to come from miles around. Along the length of the orchard, we had a rope that went over the lower branches of each tree. Between each tree we hung a toffee tin with stones in it. You could stand at one end and give the rope a pull, and all these tins would rattle and frighten the birds off. When the fruit was in season, you would run out every few minutes and pull this rope and the noise went the whole length of the orchard. We had to start this business just before the cherries were ripe, beginning at 5 o’clock in the morning. When people heard the tins, they knew the cherries were ready.
We had two varieties of cherries, whitehearts and blackhearts. When the whitehearts are ripe, they are red on one side and yellow on the other. We had one or two blackhearts that were wholly black, but the bulk were the big whitehearts, very sweet, very nice.
Tell me more about the soil.
It’s a sandy loam that needs a lot of feeding. People say that it’s so hungry if you’d laid your jacket down, it would eat it. We used to get tons and tons of manure from London. Before my time, London was all horses, no mechanical transport. So they produced a lot of manure which had to be disposed of, and it came down here fairly cheaply. I have receipts dating back to 1903. During the month of January we got 57 tons of manure, February 100 tons, and March another 50 tons. That was 200 tons of manure in three months. This was peat manure. Today, if you go and buy a bag of peat at the garden centre, a bag that you can carry, it will cost you about five pounds. This manure was peat mixed with horse manure, really good stuff, and cost about two shillings a ton. It arrived at the station, about six or seven tons in a truck; you’d go out with the horses and carts to fetch it.
I also remember we used to put a lot of soot on the land. Soot was put on for nitrogen. There was a bit of controversy about it. The experts said it was a very expensive way of buying nitrogen, but people who used it were well satisfied. There was a chimney sweep in London, who used to write and say that I’ve got a truckload of soot for you and I’m sending it down. It came in bags, and you’d stack it. It was better if it matured for about a year. Then you would cart it out and put a bag here and there all over the field. Someone would then apply it to the ground. There were people who would do this as a specialized job; it wasn’t a very nice job; they would get up at three or four in the morning before there was any wind, and be finished by seven o’clock in the morning. If you tried to spread it when there was any wind, it would have blown on to your neighbours’ land. They had a galvanized bath, an oval-shaped tub with a string on each handle and around their neck, and they’d fill the bath up from the bag and then fling the soot out with their hands.
In my early days there was an artiﬁcial fertilizer called compass. After I would manure the field, I would give it a good coat of compass, which contained nitrogen, phosphate and potash. What our soil needs is humus. That’s why you added a lot of manure. Another thing that we didn’t use, but lots of people did, was shoddy. It used to come from the north, a by-product in the clothing trade, like wool, that was to give body to the soil.
The Cross family had a shop in Bedford?
Yes, Aunt Florrie leased this shop. We had a horse and a long, ﬂat trolley, and took a load of stuff once a week to the shop. The other day, I saw a photograph of this shop with the sign D. Cross, and someone standing at the door. I’ll have to try and get a copy.
Here we are right on one of the main streets in Gamlingay, with all the barns and outbuildings. Is this common?
This is not the only one. There was a big farm down the street that had several hundred acres. There was the farm house, the farm buildings and the cattle yard, but you had to go along to the outskirts of the village to get to the land. There was another in Church Street, with most of the land behind the farm, which was on the main street, right up to the pavement.
I’d like you to talk about the buildings here. How long has it been in the Cross name?
In the 1851 census my great grandfather Thomas and his family were living here. But they’re not here in the 1841 census. But the house itself is much older than that. There is a map of Gamlingay, commissioned by Merton College, Oxford, marking every house in the village, which is dated 1600. There was a house on this site which I think is the basis of this house at the present day, because this is a T-shaped house with 3 gable ends. You can see now that at one time it was lower, with an older brick. It has since been raised. So, I would say, the bottom of the house dates back to the l6O0s, at least. There was a Victorian frontage put on in 1887. I know the date because it’s carved on the stone cap of one of the pillars for the iron fence along the front. Unfortunately this wrought iron fence went during the war, because they took all iron fences for scrap. They would probably be worth about a pound in scrap. Of course, the ornamental fence itself would be worth much more, and some people say the scrap was never used.
That has just reminded me of something. You asked what sort of things did my father tell me. This is what his father had told him. At one stage, we were coal merchants in addition to the land. We used to fetch coal because we had this connection in Yorkshire; they sent trucks of coal in the same way we sent vegetables there. We had this coal for our own use, but we used to get coal and sell it. They had to go to Bedford to fetch it, because there was no railway here. How pleased they were when the Great Northern line was built because they got the station at Gamlingay, but as my Dad said, as soon as it got easy, they gave it up.
The Wagstaff in Yorkshire, named Job, was the man that was getting the market produce. There was another Wagstaff, Thomas, who went to London, and was in the business of safe moving. I’ve got several pictures of his setup, with big dray horses and a big platform. They had an office and depot on Leadenhall Street, and they’d get safes from perhaps 3 or 4 storeys up, with pulleys and beams.
Let’s get back to the house here. Thomas moved in during the 1840s. Thomas had these old barns moved from about a mile away, and set up here. There is a date 1773 carved on one of the beams. All the beams had Roman numerals cut into the joints so you would know how to put them together. Roman numerals were easier to cut. They said he worked so hard putting his barn up and lifting these heavy beams, that he caught a chill or something and died.
The barn would have to be taken down because it all had to come with a horse and cart. I don’t know how they moved some of the big beams, because they are 20 or 30 feet long. Of course, the ones lengthwise would be made of up about 3 beams, spliced, for a total length of about 50 feet. The barn has a tiled roof today, but I would say in its original position it most likely was thatched.
Nearly all the buildings in Gamlingay have tiled roofs. I notice that there are two styles, ﬂat tiles, and curved ones.
Barns mostly have the pantiles because they are bigger and less expensive. They’ve got a little lip on them at the top and they’re just hooked on a batten. You’ve got the rafters and then the battens about 9 inches apart, and the pantiles with a little lip that you just hook on and then hook the next one above it, and the next one above it. You can put them as quickly as anything. But for a real job of it, you mortar them in. Houses usually have the peg tiles. Each tile has a couple of holes in the end and wooden pegs. The house has a slate roof in front and tiles at the back. My grandfather was friends with a local builder, and he had a slate roof put on, probably in 1887.
This chap came early one morning, and he got these slates on in no time. And my grandfather said to him, “Oh, you pretty well hurried over that.” “Well”, he said, “any slate that comes off in your or my lifetime, I’ll put back for nothing”. And there was never a slate came off. And I don’t remember a slate coming off in my time. But, one or two had broken. They’re just getting so that they needed redoing. But the tiles at the back were getting bad and starting to slip, because they were held on with wooden pegs, which had deteriorated. I had them taken off a few months ago, and put back again with the addition of any that needed replacing. At the same time I had the slates replaced on the front. They remarked on how well these slates had been put on, but they’d all been done with copper nails and they remarked on the good condition it was in, after this one hundred years. This time they used aluminium nails. I don’t know how aluminium compares with copper.
When I was talking to my older cousins in Canada, about why the Crosses had come to Canada, one of their stories was that there had been a gambler in the family, who had ruined the family finances, which was why Silas Cross had come to Canada. I didn’t pay much attention to the story at the time, until I came over here to do research on the family. I found in the Huntington record office the will of Silas’ father and then the will of his mother. From these wills, it looked as if their son, Thomas, was not in very good standing in the family. Thomas was mentioned in his father’s will as receiving a very small legacy, five pounds, as compared with his brothers and sisters. In his mother’s will, some years later, Thomas’s name is not mentioned at all. It could have been that he had left the country, or was dead by this time, or was out of favour. Then it occurred to me that Thomas may have been the one who ruined the family finances through gambling. I was telling this story to Stanley one night and this recalled to him a story that I will let him tell.
I remember when I was a boy of about 12, there were some people of the Cross family who were trying to research their people. They came to us here in this house before my Grandfather died. These people were saying that in the past the Crosses were quite well off and had a fair estate. But there was one of the family who was a gambler and lost it all. I’ll always remember that story and wondered where that estate was.
You mentioned that your great-grandfather Thomas had died from over-exertion or chills from putting up the barn in the 1850’s. Do you know anything else about him?
I can’t recall much being said about him because he died before my father was born. I feel that he must have been a real go-ahead man. He was the one who first came to this house and started the market gardening business.
Thomas’ father was William Cross, the eldest brother of my Silas. He inherited land at Honey Hill and later received cash from his mother’s estate. Who was the next Cross to occupy this house?
Thomas had two sons, John and David. John wasn’t married and lived here with his mother, Sarah. My grandfather David left to set up on his own. One day John thought to himself that it would be better if my grandfather, with his family of six children, were here, and suggested that they change houses after the mother died. My grandfather had a family who could work the land. My father said that his mother was overjoyed when John made the suggestion. Because John was unmarried, he needed a house-keeper. This was Emma, who worked for him for some time, and eventually they were married, just a year before he died. It was said that after he died, in Emma’s family there was suddenly a lot of golden sovereigns being spent. John evidently had a bit of gold.
David and his wife, Ann Wagstaff, had three boys and three girls. One of the boys was my father Walter. Harry was the oldest boy. He became an agent for a London vegetable market. If the farmers wanted to send produce to London, they would send it through him. People used to pick wild blackberries and take them to his place where they were weighed. He would pay them so much a pound and send them off to market. Harry and his wife, Florence, had a child named Stanley who died before I was born. There were also Archie, Leslie and Edith. Edith lives here in Gamlingay today. She is deaf and dumb, and both of her brothers were as well. We think it was because Harry had married a relative of the grandmother. A case of cousins marrying. Strangely enough, the child who died was normal and very bright.
My father used to make a lot of fuss over this boy. Archie and Leslie died in their fifties and Edith lives on, now into her 78th year. None of them ever married.
Tell me about the rest of David’s family
Aunt Lizzie, the oldest, was the second wife to a schoolmaster here in Gamlingay, James Fowler. They didn’t have any children; he had children from his ﬁrst marriage.
Then came Harry and my father Walter. After him was Aunt Nellie, then Florence and Frank. Nellie was my favourite aunt, but she wasn’t everyone’s favourite person. She was a teacher for many years at Potton school. She was held in great affection as a school teacher for her disposition and tenacity in going to work. Even when the roads were snowed in and hardly anyone could move, she would get to school. She had a habit of telling people they were wrong and never admitted to being wrong herself. So she wasn’t very well liked in that way. If anything happened, she would always blame someone, and usually it was Aunt Lizzie. Aunt Lizzie died at 96 and I don’t think she saw a doctor until six months before she died. Uncle Harry was over 80 and Aunt Nellie was in her 80’s when she died.
I remember Uncle Harry being ill once. The doctor gave him some tablets to take, and Aunt Lizzie, who never went to a doctor, almost ordered him not to take them. She didn’t go in for any of that herself.
Florrie didn’t marry. She lived in Cambridge and worked as a clerk for a firm of millers. Frank, the youngest, wasn’t a born agriculturalist; his interest was more toward mechanical things. In the first World War he was in the Flying Corps as a mechanic. After the war he was given a piece of land by my father, but he didn’t make much of a go of it because his heart wasn’t in it. Later he went to Potton and worked as a fitter and driver for a firm that had many coaches. Frank married a school teacher who was a friend of Aunt Nellie’s. They had one child, David, who became a land commissioner, involved with surveying, planning and determining the use of land.
At first David was in Exeter and then in Devizes, Wiltshire. David had two children, including a son Gordon who is a doctor. David calls periodically to see Edith, and takes charge of her financial affairs such as income tax. I deal with her day-to-day things.
Did you have any brothers and sisters?
I had one sister that died in her fifties. She never married. I have one daughter, Cherry, married to Tim Smith, and their two boys are Andrew and Daniel. They live in Berkhamsted. I see them once a fortnight at least. I go there more often than they come here because of the school.
Let’s go back to your childhood days.
I remember one morning before we were up, my father had called upstairs to my mother, “What do you think if we go to Yarmouth for a week? I’ll go off and book some rooms then you can come by train.” He went off that morning on his motorbike, a hundred miles, and sent us a telegram. We got on the train at Gamlingay and went off to Yarmouth for a week. He decided to go that morning because he thought it looked like nice weather. My grandparents used to go to Yarmouth for a week every year.
You mentioned that your father went on a motorbike; he didn’t have a car at this time?
No. My father’s first car was a 1926 Clyno; they weren’t as popular as the Morris cars and are real collectors cars today. We bought the car from the garage in Gamlingay, I got into the driver’s seat and drove it to Cambridge with the garage owner beside me. Just as we got into Cambridge, he took over and then handed it back to me after we got out again. That was my training. The road to Cambridge may have been paved at that time, but the others weren’t surfaced with tarmac. I can remember when they used to spread granite on the roads. When the early cars came there were clouds of dust. I had a motorbike license at 14 so I had two years practice with my father’s bike.
When I was five, I had my ﬁrst bicycle. Most people had bikes. My father was keenon that son of thing. He and a friend cycled to Doncaster once, about 150 miles. Our family and his friend had relations in Yorkshire, so they stayed about a week, then cycled back.
I can remember as a boy at school, during a playtime, a plane went over and it took a long time to go over in those days. The master didn’t bring us in right away for our classes, so that we could watch the plane. They weren’t that common then
Did your father ever talk about the planes?
The first time he saw one, it was on the ground. He told me that in the early days there was going to be a race of ﬂyers, and they were going to pass over Bedford. So he and one or two others cycled to Bedford just to see the planes go over. When they got to Bedford, it was foggy and they thought they wouldn’t see much at all. Then someone said that a plane had come down in a nearby field, so they rushed to see it. The pilot had landed to see where he was, and was told he was at Bedford. He then took off again. This would have been in the early 1900’s.
I remember when I was a boy that airplanes often used to come down in Gamlingay fields. They would land and then take off again. I remember my father telling us of the first car he had seen. He was working about 150 yards from the road and he heard a noise coming up the road. He ran down to the gate, and got there in time to see it. In the early days, the cars just crawled along.
Tell me more about the household chores.
We had open fires in the two main rooms downstairs, and a range in the kitchen. There would be an open fire in one of the upstairs bedrooms, in case someone was ill. We burned mostly coal and a bit of wood. There was a well with a pump in the yard. We had a force pump in the kitchen over the sink. In 1923, when we moved in, we had a hot water system put in to give us constant hot water. We had a hip bath that you filled by hand. It was high-backed, and you would sit in it with your knees up.
On wash-day they used a copper and boiled the clothes in it. The copper was set in a brick arrangement, in the corner of the wash-house, with a deep bowl made of copper, about 18 inches across and a foot deep. You would light a fire underneath and when the water boiled, you would put in your clothes. This wash-house was attached to the main house unless it was a small cottage, then it would be in a corner of the barn. Wash-day was usually Monday. My grandfather had a woman come in every week to do the washing.
My father always kept a record of the money going in and out of the bank. Income tax in those days didn’t require you to keep records because in agriculture you would fill out Schedule B where you paid tax based on the rental value of the land farmed. I have notes and receipts going back to 1903. Many accounts were only billed once a year. The butcher’s bill was quite interesting; the amount of meat and the price of it. I’ve got dress-makers’ bills for my Aunt’s clothes and material. They would have a lot of beer brought in, which must have been for the men in the fields because Grand-dad’s family were teetotallers. Beer was worth a shilling a gallon then, and in a three month period they would spend about 15 pounds, so that was a lot of draught beer. It came from a local brewery.
Tell me about the pubs in Gamlingay.
When I was a boy, there were 17, now there are four. On this street there were four, and five on the next street. A few years before that there had been 20 pubs. Uncle Hany would go from one pub to the next, having a pint in each one. My father would go to the pub every lunch time, and occasionally in the evenings. There was one pub he would go to because they would have a sing-song, and he was fond of singing. Frank was a strict teetotaller, and so were the girls. Women didn’t drink as much as men in those days, and didn’t go to the pubs on their own.
What was school like?
I started when I was three. Later on, the usual age became five or six. I attended the village school, which was a state school. All the children from the village would go, with the boys and girls separate in one big building. Over the two doors it read “boys” and “girls”. They even separated the two playgrounds behind the school with a high wall. The girls only had women teachers, and the boys would have men and occasionally women teachers. There would be a Headmaster for the boys and a Headmistress for the girls. It was like two schools under one roof. It became mixed the year before I left. They made an opening between the two porches so that you could get back and forth without going outside. I forgot to say that, there was a section for infants, where all the children would be together for a couple of years, and later separated into boys and girls.
The highest class was seven. If you were a better scholar and moved up faster, there was an extra class. In Gamlingay that was as far as you could go. If you wanted, you could sit for a scholarship exam to go to Cambridge to grammar school. It was always thought that I would go because I was usually the top or second in my class. The particular year when my parents thought I was going to sit for it, they were told it would be the next year. When the next year came along, then the authorities said it should have been the last year. So I didn’t get the chance to go on. I was 14 when I finished school. I have never felt that I was badly educated. There was no sport in school, and all the time was spent in learning. The Headmaster would punish boys for getting sums wrong. He was determined to cram as much as he could into you. He really ruled the school and had complete control. He always had the worst scholars sitting at the front. There were two classrooms with grades three and four in one room, and five, six and seven in the big room. He only took the higher classes, and there would be another teacher in the same room with him. There would only be one teacher to teach the three and four class.
I liked school, and after I left, I tried to leam all I could. For instance, I wanted to learn French because I was anxious to travel. I went to Cambridge by train every Saturday afternoon for music lessons, and then would go into the reading room and read up on various subjects. My best subject was arithmetic, and the only one I had any trouble with was handwriting and free-hand drawing. I still am a terrible writer today. I enjoyed all of the other subjects.
Was music important in your home when you were young?
Yes, I can remember musical evenings. My father was keen that I should play the piano, and started music lessons for me. He met the teacher one day and said that he would have to stop my lessons because I never practiced. The teacher said that she couldn’t understand it because he comes every week and plays his pieces. Then they found out that my chief ability was in sight-reading. Even today, I can’t memorize music, but I have no trouble in sight-reading it. When I was about 15, I started taking a bit more interest, so my Aunt Florrie from Cambridge suggested that I go to music teacher she knew in Cambridge. My father played the violin a bit, but mother didn’t play anything. My grandfather was in the choir for the Baptist church. Uncle Frank played the violin and Aunt Nellie played the cello. On a musical evening, one of my aunts would play the piano and would have other friends who played as well, and several that would sing. They would sing old ballads like: ‘When my caravan is rested’, ‘The perfect day’, ‘Tell my mother I’ll be there’.
I play the piano for the Gamlingay Players, an amateur theatrical group that puts on some ambitious shows: ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Oliver’, ‘The King and I’ and every year they put on a pantomime. Sometimes for the larger performances, we would get the aid of other instruments. I also had several years playing for the Gamlingay Choral Group, which is now disbanded. For a few years I played for the Ladies Keep Fit. There have been times where I have been playing almost every night. My grandson, Andrew Smith, also likes to play, and does some composing, and is learning the violin.
What church did your family belong to?
My mother came from a real Church family and my father’s family were non-conformists. After they were married, my family would go to the Church of England. A Chapel would be any of the non-conformist ones such as Baptist or Methodist. You remember when we went through the Baptist records, we found that the Crosses didn’t seem to be Baptist, but William’s wife Ann Fickess was a keen Baptist and she got them to become Baptist. She was my great-great-grandmother. Since that time, my branch of the family have been Chapel. Gamlingay really is a Baptist village. It shows that women have an influence on which religion is practiced.
This reminds me of another story that you told me about religion being important in the early settling of the Crosses.
The theory goes, as Mona told me, that the Crosses came to this area following a famous minister, Burridge. He ﬁlled the church with his sermons, and had people swooning with emotion.
I was brought up in the Church because of my mother. I have been playing the organ at the Waresley Church, a couple miles north of here, for 50 years.
As a youngster, what did you do for fun?
One period during the year we would be playing with hoops, for a few weeks, then we might play with spinning tops for a few more weeks. We would spend a lot of time in the fields and woods getting fish, tiddlers (sticklebacks: a tiny fish about 1.5 inches long usually found in small streams), and tadpoles. We would use a line with a bent wire, not a hook, on the end to hold a piece of bread. The tiny fish would bite on the bread and we could yank them out.
My father was keen on hunting; he used to follow the hunt, and take me with him. We were on foot or on bicycle. The hunt consisted of the hounds and horsemen, but there were always followers, who would position themselves so they could see the fox coming and shout at it in the direction of the hunters.
Two friends and myself, when we were about 14 or 15, would cycle to Biggleswade, which was about six miles, to the cinema every Saturday night. In those days the cinema would show serials that might last about ten weeks. The end of the show would leave you at an exciting part so that you would have to go back the next week. Because these shows were at night, we would be cycling home in the dark. We had a light on the bikes, but that was more to be seen than to see. It was just an oil lamp with a tiny wick. There was also an acetylene lamp; it had a waist with the top piece containing water and the bottom chamber filled with calcium carbide. There was a knob on top which was turned to allow the water to drip on the calcium carbide, which produced acetylene gas. This gave a better light than the oil lamp. Motor bikes used these as well; cars also in their very early days. Horse- drawn carts preferred oil lamps.
When I was a boy, we used to look forward to the Staty, short for the Statute Fair. In olden times it was on the last Saturday in September, when the men used to sign up with the master for a year, or perhaps change their employer. By my time, the fair had developed into amusements, round-abouts & swings. It stopped a few years ago.
Where did the family do most of their shopping?
It was possible to do most of the shopping in the village. There were a couple of grocers. These were sort of a general store. There were also a harness maker, a shoe maker, two blacksmith shops, drapers, and three bakers. They would go to all the houses every day with a basket of bread. Most people didn’t bake their own bread.
When my father and mother got married, each of the bakers wanted their business. My father agreed to have a week with the one baker, and a week with the other.
When I was very small, my grandfather kept dairy cows. Later there was a milkman that came around every day and measured the milk into our jugs. Just about everyone kept poultry for eggs. Lots of people kept pigs as well.
There were a couple of butchers in the village to do the slaughtering and cutting up of the pork, which would be salted for the winter.
There were one or two dressmakers; my Aunt Lizzie was one of them. There were a couple of draper shops. If anyone wanted clothes, usually they went to Bedford to buy them. It had a reputation of being a better shopping place than Cambridge. The same would apply to buying shoes and boots. The local drapers would sell material by the yard, but they sold shirts and other things as well. When it came to dressmaking, most people could sew it together, but had trouble cutting it out. Aunt Lizzie was good at cutting out patterns, so often people would bring the material to her to have it cut out.
Did your family ever go into London?
Yes. My father knew London well. We had relatives there, and I often spent a week with them. I have always been one for museums, especially the science museum. When I got a bit older, a friend and I would go to the musical comedies and variety shows. My first trip to the continent was a weekend trip to Amsterdam; that would have been about 1933. In ’34 I went to Paris with another friend. In 1935 I went to Germany; I can remember the year because, when I was on the German train, I was reading a letter from home, and a German fellow on the train asked to have the Jubilee stamp because he was a stamp collector. There weren’t many people who travelled then.
You have been in the local ﬁre brigade here in Gamlingay.
Yes, I joined that at the start of the war. You went about your ordinary work, and if you heard the siren you would drop your work and run. At night, there was a bell in your bedroom. It would be like today’s volunteer fire brigades. We used to get reimbursement for time lost at work. Therefore, if the fire was at eight o’clock at night and you battled the fire until six in the morning, you wouldn’t get anything. Later on, after the war we were paid a retaining fee and so much for every call. When I was young, there wasn’t a fire brigade in Gamlingay. If there was a fire, the fire engine came from Potton or Sandy. They were both horse-drawn and there would be a good chance the house would be burnt by the time they arrived here. They didn’t keep their own horses, so if there was a fire they would have to borrow them, for example, from the baker on his rounds. It was understood that people who had available horses, would let them go. The fire engine was a steam engine so the boiler would have to be lit.
I remember a ﬁre that took four little thatched cottages up the street. The thatched roofs would burn quickly, but it was possible to lose the thatch and the roof timbers and save the rest of the house. I was visiting an Aunt who lived in Sandy, and I remember hearing the fire bell. When I got home, on my bike, I learned that it was the fire that burned the four houses.
When did you get electricity in your house?
It was in the l930’s. We never had gas here in Gamlingay, though they had it in Sandy and Potton. The electricity company was dragging its heels a bit so the gas company said it would lay a pipe from Potton to Gamlingay. That hurried the electrical company to wire the village, but they hadn’t brought in the electricity from the source yet, so they set up a direct current generator to supply the lights. However, the chap who ran the generator would stop at 11pm and consequently, everyone in Gamlingay would rush off to bed at 10:30pm. It took another three months before the electricity was completely hooked up.
At first, very few people had phones. Uncle Harry was one of the first. He was a vegetable salesman and had to be in touch with the London markets. We got it in our house about the 1950’s; my parents weren’t very keen on telephones and it took a lot of persuading. I know we had a radio in 1924 because I remember listening to the opening of the world exhibition. This would have been battery-operated as it was long before we had electricity. We would take the batteries to the local garage to have them charged on generators. Most people started off with the crystal sets which they made themselves. I made my first radio set. There isn’t much to one, just a condenser, a coil, a crystal detector and a pair of headphones.
In the old days, we had a system of street-lighting. The lamps were about 50 or 60 yards apart in the village and further apart in the outskirts. These were oil lamps, and a man used to go around every evening at dusk with a ladder and matches and light these lamps. They would be put out at about 10:30; they weren’t lit on moonlit nights. These lamps were in a glass case with a hole in the corner. He would put a pipe through this hole and blow out the flame. He was known as the lamp-lighter and probably did other work during the day.
Around the farm buildings, we used hurricane lamps. We also adjusted our hours of work. In the summer, we would break for an hour at midday, but in the winter we would work straight through and leave off an hour earlier in the evening.
What was the meal pattern in the summer?
We would have a light snack when we got up in the morning; a cup of tea and something light. At ten we would break for lunch with eggs and bacon like a normal British breakfast today. Then we would have a break at one, we called it dinner as it was the main meal of the day. Tea was at five and supper the last thing at night, usually bread and cheese. At tea time we would have a cup of tea with bread and jam or a salad, something light. For Sunday dinner we would have a joint of meat with Yorkshire pudding and so on. The leftovers would then be used the following days until it was gone. When I was a boy, I had a few years of being a vegetarian because I didn’t think it was right to kill animals. It was a passing phase and worried my parents. The dinner meals were mainly meat, vegetables and potatoes. For dessert we had rice pudding, plum pudding known as spotted dick, current rolls and apple pies. We always had cheese from the grocers.
How long have you been living here alone?
My wife died in 1950 and left me with a daughter who was nearly four. I lived here with my mother and father, and my mother brought up my daughter. My father died in 1968; he was 91 and was still riding his bicycle about a week before he died. My mother died a couple of years before, at 89 so l’ve been alone since 1968.