Growing up in Gamlingay 70 years ago
(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.
Farm working memories
(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette in April 2002)
Here are some recollections of 60 years ago, when harvesting and threshing of corn was very different from the present time.
When the corn was ready, it would be a man with a scythe who would cut around the ends of the field to get the binder started off. The binder would then cut the corn and bind it into sheaves and drop them in a row. Men and workers would then collect the sheaves, about eight at a time, and stand them in stooks. The stooks would be left for a period to dry, and then horse-drawn carts would carry the sheaves to the farmyard. Boys often helped in the transport from stook to stook in the field, and then from the field to the farm, then they could ride in the cart on the return journey. It was a skilled job for a man to lay the stack and build it, then finish off with thatching to protect it from the weather. Shrewd eyes would watch, and if the stack was not up to standard, the stacker would hear about it in the pub at night.
The next operation would be threshing the corn. This was done by a drum, driven by a steam engine. The engine would enter the farm with the drum, chaff-cutter, elevator and a baler. The drum would be set beside the stack, followed by the other implements in order. The chaff that resulted would be used for horse and cattle feed, baled straw would provide bedding and other uses, the elevator would stack loose straw for other purposes later. These stacks were also thatched.
To begin the threshing, the thatch would be removed, and two men would pitch the sheaves to the drum. The man on the drum would cut the tie and feed the sheaves to the drum, which separated the corn, straw and cuttings, each in a different place, with the cuttings at the centre. This was a dusty, dirty job, often given to boys, and the cuttings were usually given away, to get rid of them.
The corn would come out at the back of the drum in two box-like compartments, with hooks to fix the sacks to. As one sack filled, this was turned off and the second one turned on Then the sacks were put on a ratchet lift to enable a man to get it on his back and make the difficult climb up a ladder to a loft. I have known a sack of beans weigh 18 stone; the corn was less heavy, but it was still a struggle to get it up. When the job was completed, the engine and equipment would move on to the next farm.
In time, the horses and the steam engine gave way to the tractor for the work of carting and threshing. Working with a tractor made the job easier and quicker and employed less labour. Tractors and combines became bigger and bigger, and today do the whole job of harvesting and threshing in one operation, with only one man on the combine and one on the tractor to take the corn to the farm. It is then put into dryers and stored in very large silos or store sheds, so that even very large farms can operate with only 2 to 3 men, and the skills of the past are no longer needed.
With the reduction in labour, the festivity after gathering in the harvest has disappeared. In earlier days, harvest suppers would be held on the larger farms. Workers and their families, men, women and children, would gather in the barn, and the farmer supplied good food and beer for merrymaking. Churches held their harvest services, to which local crops and produce were donated. Pubs also held festivals, with samples of produce sold to the highest bidder, and proceeds given to a charity. Thus the farming year ended, but the seasons of growth and gathering would soon begin again.
Horse Days & Ways
When I walk along Church Street, past the alms-houses, I remember the smithy that used to stand there in the 20s and 30s, and the blacksmith, George Lawman. The smithy was on the comer of Stocks Lane; a private garage now stands on the floor where he used to shoe the horses. I and other boys used to watch what he was doing and we sometimes pumped the bellows for him to keep the fire hot.
On wet days there would congregate the farm workers who could not get out on the land to work. Perhaps half a dozen men would gather together for a cigarette and a chat, and they too would watch what the smith did. When he shod a horse, he held the back leg over his leather apron, cutting the hoof to shape, then he’d press the hot shoe to the hoof, which sent out a strong smell which carried along the street. The shoe would have been put in the furnace till it was red-hot, then hammered to shape on the anvil. The smith then tapped holes in for the nails, and dipped it to cool and harden in the water-tank. When it was nailed to the hoof he’d bend the protruding nails, and file it smooth. The front hoof he’d put on a tripod, and finish it off there. An assistant, Mr Tumer, helped in many tasks. As well as making horseshoes and bits and pieces for harnesses, Mr Lawman repaired all sorts of agricultural implements – harrows, ploughs, hand tools. He’d even make a trundle hoop for a boy from a piece of round metal, and with a hook to guide it.
I remember that he kept pigs in the yard opposite in Stocks Lane. There was a saying “If I come back to the world after death I’d not want to be a pig under George Lawman”.
Another of his interests was football, and you can see him in many photos of local football teams and supporters. He was also in the church choir, as was his son, another George. I, like other choir boys, sometimes got a tap on the head from George’s hymn-book for misbehavior. The smith and his wife are buried in the cemetery under a gravestone which shows that he died in 1968 aged 83.
There was another smithy where Chapman’s fish and chip shop is now. I remember Mr Bill Carter working there when I was a boy, and another man called Geary, earlier. A third blacksmith was in Dutter End, in the yard of what is now Jasmine Cottage. His name was Cross, and he had a number of trades.
Blacksmiths were needed because of the many horses used on the small farms and smallholdings of those days in the Gamlingay area. Those who used them included Mark Meeks, George Meeks, Tumer the coal-merchant, Turrell at Merton Farm, Marshall and Masters at Manor Farm and Avenell’s Farm. Many of them had several horses and had men who looked after them. There was Marshall and Masters’ horseman, Mr Housden, “Zaccy” ,who lived at Dutter End in a thatched cottage that still stands but has been renovated and looks rather different from its old self. There were Mr Baxter, Turrell’s horse keeper at Merton Farm; Fred Bettles, Mark Meeks’s keeper, and Mr Jones, Walter Turrell the coal merchant’s keeper. Some horses were in rented stables, others in their master’s meadow with shelters.
Horses did many jobs round the farm – manure-carting from the farm buildings, stables, cattle yards, etc. and also from the railway station where manure from London stables was delivered in trucks. They also did much hauling of potatoes and other vegetables. Some of us lads on school holidays earned a few shillings by leading horses at harvest time, from stook to stook in the cornfield, and sometimes from the farm where the sheaves were put in stacks. When the stack was completed, it was thatched to protect it from the weather, and then threshed at a late date. This was done by contract with a steam engine driver with thresher drum and baler. When the work was completed on one farm they moved on to the next. This was work that horses could not do; their days were ending, and tractors and lorries took over more of the farm work. And with the end of horses the blacksmiths too as we knew them had their day.
Names & nicknames
Interviewed by Ishbel Beatty
“Everyone in the village used to have a nickname in the old days”, mused Doug Titmus. “Everyone?” I asked, disbelievingly. But when he produced a list of between 200 and 300 names, I began to believe him.
Doug is talking of his own memories of the 1920s and 30s, and also of his father’s mates before him. In a much smaller community than the present-day Gamlingay, and when nearly everyone worked locally, individuals were well known to many, and their particular quirks and personal traits were noticed and sharpened by regular observation.
Some of these names seem to have been derived from physical features, like Tubby, Porky, Sixfoot Hibbit (who was actually rather short), Long Lou James (a tall woman), Conk Wright, who had a big nose, Foxy Haydon, sharp and alert. Bubbles was a pretty girl, Snaily Goodfield was fond of eating snails.
Some names came from people’s occupations:
Putty Peters was a builder who puttied his window frames;
Keeses Emery sold watercress, and called out “cresses”, then “keeses” in the street;
Tarpot Wright was a workman who blackened sheds with his tar;
Gearbox Chapman delved into motor-engines in his scrapyard;
Doughnut Busby worked for the baker.
Can you guess at Chopsticks Larkins’s occupation? He wasn’t a Chinaman – he chopped lengths of wood into beanpoles and hurdles.
Did Scratcher scratch himself, and Burglar go burgling?
The three brothers Hutchinson, Rat, Mep and Podge, might have been childhood names which they carried into adult life.
Argue Bird was known for his arguing, and so possibly was Lawyer Hills.
Donkey Housden kept a donkey, but where Cuggy Housden got his name, one can only guess.
Other mysteries were Linky Larkins, Spider Bruce and Bunny Gore.
Twitty Bird may have tweeted, like his feathered friends, so might Chirrup Hinton.
Mousey Roberts wasn’t known for keeping mice, but Whistle Ives certainly whistled.
Plumber Munns was not a plumber, and I can’t tell you anything about Boozer Jiggle.
Mr Daniels the schoolmaster used to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to his boys: from that writer’s name he became known as Defoe or Diffy Daniels.
There were seven Meeks’s – how related, I do not know, but their respective nicknames were Darty, Yatter, Jinks, Ickle, Oddsy, Brassie and Geg.
A number of Titmuses: Tippit, Heed, Pugly, Knock, Chub, Bodge and Ferret.
Here are a few “foreigners”:
China Stonebridge, Gandhi Lunniss and Caliph Jiggle.
Snuffy Richardson was a poacher, who claimed to use snuff to lure rabbits;
I don’t know what Trapper Cooper trapped or whether Weasel Leader joined him.
Did Drummer Caress beat a drum and Hatchet Whitbread wield an axe?
Boofum and Borum Dew sound like twins.
Little Old Lady Croot got his nickname from a popular song which he always sang – I wonder what
Whistle Ives used to whistle?
Lissy Norman is an easy one: his full name was Ulysses, and Hippy Hipgrave simply shortened his surname, like Cobby Cobb.
Who christened Skinnamalink Barford? – that’s an odd one.
Tarzan Chandler and Warrior Worboys might have been proud of their names, but I don’t know about Billy Goat Jakes, Knobby Pateman, Goosey Hunter and Cuckoo Titmus.
Treacle Gilbert and Fudge Giles would have gone well with Doughnut Busby, whom we have already noticed.
Two more Busbys were Toot and Hubby.
Waistcoat Gilbert and Trilby Harris make a dressy pair, with Cherry Hutchinson, Blossom Hodge and Poppy Drew to add a few flowers.
I’ll list the remaining 100 or more and leave you to make your own guesses as to their origins. Maybe they’ll stir some memories or you’ll come to your own conclusions as to their meanings.
Chuffy Hinton, Scrubbit Saunders, Hake Smith, Ecky Stonebridge, Bingo Jackson, Talby Wright, Modge Knibbs, Jock Orford, Crump Hills, Champ Bedford, Hoogy Whitfield, Bimbo Jakes, Mungo Norman, Bunk Gilbert, Nothing Peck; Inky Kitchener, Spaffy Darlow, Cowan Hibbit, Flitter Payne, Marrow Hutchinson, Shimmy Wright, Wiff Drury, Whip Leonard, Spit Gurney
Schemer Hills, Sloucher Cross, Boover Wisson, Tubby Richardson, H~ghey Payne, Dagger Hodge, Test Carter, Tec Hinton, Click Arnold, Kiff Cox, Diddy Meeks, Whoo Hutchinsop, Joey Harpur, Wiggy Harris, Cutty Walker, Doody Croot, Rubber Munns, Stribb Arnold, Brewer Arnold, Twisty Payne, Bouncer Bird, Shem Housden.
Then there were:
Des Titmus, Teggy Daisley, Timp Hibbit, Tomtom Jakes, Pinky Bartle, Brushy Reeves, Coz Gilbert, Jagger Giddings, Flitton Jakes, Zacky Housden, Arny Hutchinson, Bungy Emery,
Weekus Hibbit, Taunt Daniels, Vaudy Swannell, Minky Meeks, Buster Baines, Scranny Jakes, Colonel Bruce, Tary Wright, Toper Elwood, Bush Ranger Worboys, Rough Worboys
Pencil Drew, Orly Almond, Wag Hutchinson, Diffy Meeks, Golly Whitbread, Spannel Gore, Chicky Hibbit, Tubby Richardson, Neddy Jakes, Cropple Hibbit, Pip Meeks, Sloper Theobalds, Wimp Dennis, Cheddar Deeble, Dinks Daisley, Nudder Carter, Mohey Harris, Frizzy Waters, Crongy Allen, Moony Harris, Scaff Norman, Tank Daisley, Straity Cross, Snip Peacock
Jocky Whitbread, Dibber Cooper, Tarzan Chandler, Hoppy, Pop and Briar Hills, Tabby Norman, Logh Hodge, Sketchell Meeks, Flitter Jakes, Kya Emery, Butter Jakes, Slippy Hayes,
Rangy & Pritter Norman, Teggy Daisley, Tippit Titmus, Taddy Peel, Muzzle, Tuddler and Clog Merril, Puffy Drury, Tapper Peacock, Lifter Larkins, Screw Hutchinson, Skippo Inskip,
Snakey Jakes, Sherby Hutchinson, Buck Ayres, Snobby Cole, Muzzy Titmus, Gunner Larkins, Tintack Daniels, Titchy Richardson, Cobby Kitchener, Knocker Wright, Chub Titmus, Winkle, Crooty and Wimp Dennis.
And can anyone supply surnames for the following;
Top Cat, Gold Leg, Tumbler, Cuppa, Jemmy, Jester, Kruger, Buzzer, Pitch, Benbow, Metal, Spud, Cheeser, Tyre, Tizzy, Scratcher.
Still more names:
Squibb Almond, Amy Barford, Chopper and Nudder Carter, Moofy Careless, Chanky Larkins, Cat Caress, Babs Caress; Stibb Wright, Niffy and Scorpy Jakes, Dusty Knott, Tass Tassell, Tweedy Daisley, Freedie Whitbread, Frezza and Liger Dickerson, Trout and Boxer Meeks, Toopy Grey, Bunter and Boots Wale, Tiggle Stonebridge and Tiggle Peters (Tiggle = Cyril),
Wacker Payne, Cooee Hibbit, Smut Hodge, Stormy Hales, Tut Arnold, Tig-tig Grey, Bunger and I-dee-I Leader, Tarky and Snakey Arnold, Tut Arnold, Towzer Payne, Scaff Norman.
Thank you, Doug, for your memories, and thanks to those who added to them.
What Doug does not reveal is whether he was ever called by a nickname? Does anyone know that secret?