Frank Gurney

Joan and Frank Gurney remember…

(From an interview published in The Gamlingay Gazette in November 2007)

Born at 8 Dennis Green on 16th January 1917, towards the end of the first World War, Frank is the oldest surviving Gamlingay man (there are some older ladies) who was born in the village. He has seen many changes over his long life, and I take pleasure in presenting to you some of those observations and little details of memory which encapsulate the essence of our oral tradition.

Frank’s father was stationed in the Suffolk army regiment at Bawdsey, Felixstowe. His mum, whilst pregnant with Frank, was visiting Dad at the coast when she was evacuated back here to the village as the first Zeppelin raids had begun.

Sadly, at four years of age Frank lost his mother who hemorrhaged delivering his youngest sister, Dorothy, the last of the eleven children. The midwife who served all the local villages, arriving on her bicycle, came too late to save her. At this time, eight of the children were still at home, so the newborn was taken by the eldest married sister, Elsie, to be cared for over the next three years. Elsie had married Bill Baines who was working as a railway porter and they lived in Huddersfield. The housekeeping duties were taken on by Daisy at 14 years old, as her elder sister, Nell, was in service in Bedford. The other youngest children remaining at home were Lillian, Vera, Sid, Megan, Phyllis and Frank himself. One older boy, George also remained at home at this time.

Up at Dennis Green were four terraced cottages, the Fountain Pub (now a private house) and the small cottage beside this. When Frank lived in number 8, the field which now blooms with Lupins every summer was once part of the many smallholdings laid down to intensive market garden cultivation. Royston Ales (or another local brewery) whose landlord was at the Hardwicke Arms at this time, owned this plot, and cultivated the land. The land was offered to Phyllis’ husband when his father died, and he purchased it. He continued cropping this field as well as renting other fields over towards Cow Lane. When Jack Peacock retired the land then lay fallow until its sale after his death. Attempts by the family over the last 20 years to obtain planning permission for two bungalows have always been rejected as it was felt that the plot fell just outside the village envelope as detailed on the structure plan. As a result, Frank and his wife, Joan applied for council housing to enable them to return to the village.

Starting school in 1922 (at Green End College as it was colloquially known), Frank recalls being separated from the girls at the front entrance and in the playground, but the lessons were mixed. The bell in the tower rang at the beginning of the school day, just before school started, and again to indicate school had begun. Mr WW Powell was a Welshman, and Frank recalls him being very strict. There was no sport at school only lots of work at this time. Frank worked his way up to the top class. Here, the Head took the pupils and also dealt with those children who had misbehaved from other classes by caning them in front of the others. Age was secondary to achievement or ability, so Frank’s class included children two years older than himself.

Before he even got to school, Frank had chores to perform. One of these was the daily collection of milk in small cans for three families. He walked to Charles Wale’s dairy in Mill Street, and remembers this chore was also completed on weekends as well as school days. I asked him when deliveries of milk began, and he recalls a horse and cart delivering milk from a cart, where a man ladled milk from a churn into the smaller cans.

Mr Powell was succeeded by Mr Dalley as Headmaster, and with him came considerable changes in the curriculum. Mr Dalley came from Harper Trust School in Bedford, and had a very different approach to his predecessor. He encouraged the children first and only disciplined them when he felt it was really necessary. He formed a PTA within the school, introduced sport for boys and girls, taught Country dancing and started holding morning school assemblies.

The village was divided into two ‘houses’, split at the Cross. They were Clare and Merton, named after the University colleges, and competed for points in both academic and sporting events. Frank became Head boy at the age of 12, as well as Captain of both the football and cricket teams. The Head arranged for inter-school matches, and the boys traveled in Mr Ridgley’s motor coach to venues on a Friday afternoon. The girls were taken separately to netball games.

Mr Dalley was choirmaster at the Baptist Chapel. He attended with his family. The organ had already been relocated to its present position by this time. The Sunday school children sat in the galleries, and called those hatless gentlemen seated in the pews below bald headed cabbages!

Mr Owen, the new parson formed a Brotherhood . This was a working man’s club, meeting on a Monday evening in the school. The evening programme included a lecture or speech on various topics, as well as a solo musical performance. Frank remembers the brotherhood was very well attended.
Mr Owen contacted the BBC Broadcaster Dick Sheppard, and he came to Gamlingay to preach in the Chapel. That day, Frank remembers, the whole place was so packed they had to provide additional seating in the graveyard. As part of the service, Leonard Jakes, who came from a family blessed with musical talent, sang solo. ‘When David and Goliath met, the wrong against the right; The giant armed with sword and stone, and David with God’s might!’ Leonard was one of three boys, three girls, who lived in Mill Street. One sister, Olive Lowings lived to over 100.

Frank’s father rented and cultivated four and a half acres around the village. Meekes would buy the crop and it would then be transported to the markets in London, first up to the station by horse and trailer and then on by steam train. Frank helped on the land before and after school and up until 1942 when he married.

Frank sat, and passed, his matriculation scholarship to Cambridge Technical College, but was unable to take up his place as his father needed him to continue to work the land. So he worked with his father until his marriage. Frank trained as a ploughman. He worked with a paired team belonging to Theobalds who had stabling in Dutter End, and later Meekes who used stabling in Cinques Road. He ploughed land around the village, working under contract to the Cross family, Stan Cross’ father, and at 17 years old was working the team alone. Ploughing between the cherry trees, he had to take care not to cut too close and damage the roots or get snared on the overhanging branches. The land between the trees would then be planted with brassica crops, such as brussels and cabbage. He ploughed land in Waresley Road, Brockwood Close and Green Acres, and lots of other small area of land that are now covered by houses. He also ploughed for the smallholders, other market garden plots of an acre or perhaps a little larger, under contract from either Theobalds or Meekes.

I asked him to describe a day working with the plough, as it is hard to imagine today. Frank arrived at the stables at 7am each working day. He first harnessed the horses which the stable lads often had already fed. On the heavier land, the clay soil, a team of three was needed, and a different plough was used worked by two men. Frank worked alone with the pair on the sandy soil, breaking for a half hour lunch and giving the horse a bag too. He could cover an acre and a half per day on the sandy soil, but only an acre on the clay, stopping at 3.30 to return to the stables. After feeding, unharnessing and grooming the horses they would have a bite to eat. Once the horses were cool they’d allow the horses to drink whilst they mucked out. Frank fetched water in pails from the well at the other end of the yard, and often had to carry more water back for the horses as they drank the buckets dry.

In 1939, Frank registered for War Service. His application was deferred (and later deferred again) because of his skill with the horses, despite passing the medical for his Navy application. So, for the second time he didn’t leave the village, but instead chose the fire service (rather than the Home Guard) for the duration of the war. The Home guard were ill equipped to defend the village, sharing a couple of pickaxe handles and a rifle between them. The Fire Station initially had a pump operated by a private car, but later a motorised and properly equipped tender did arrive. The station was in Mill Street, by Charnocks (Holly Walk) set at the back of a yard.

Frank did weekend drills at the firestation and two weekly night shifts. Frank told me that luckily the work was pretty quiet, and they didn’t get many callouts. He signed out at 6am, and then went on to a full day’s work at the plough. There was little variety of work, surrounded as the village was by market gardening. Most were associated with the land in some way.

In 1941 when Americans were locally stationed in Bassingbourn, Bedford, Thurleigh and Northamptonshire, the sky turned black as the evening bombers and fighter escorts headed out towards Germany. At high altitude he doesn’t remember there being a great deal of noise as they passed, just the sight of them overhead. There was an occasional doodlebug here.

Frank married Alice Bywater, a Sandy girl, who worked in Bedford as a children’s nanny. He’d met her with her sisters at one of the Sandy fairs. She traveled by bus to work and back, and Frank cycled to Sandy to meet her. They married in 1942, at St.Swithins in Sandy High Street, and had a daughter, Diane. Renting their first home in Potton Road, The Heath they cooked on a small range and Ribbingal oil stove, and had no water except for a communal well, and no gas or electricity. The well served 6 cottages. There was no proper toilet, just a bucket which had to be emptied at the bottom of the garden.

Peartree Cottages had a set of wooden seats over individual pits for their toilets. When full, a cart would come after midnight to empty the contents onto the roadside where ashes had been tipped to absorb the liquid. Later, but before 7am, the night soil was shoveled onto a cart and taken to the fields to be spread.

There were wells serving the village in many places. Leaving the Working Man’s club at 10pm, Frank often encountered men carrying two pails of water up the road from a local well in preparation for the next day. Frank’s family lived in the rented cottage for 11 years, and towards the end of their time there, a standpipe of running cold water was installed at the Heath. The family then moved to Sandy in 1953.

In Gamlingay, when Frank Gurney was young, the lamps were run on paraffin oil (kerosene), and there were far fewer of them than we see today. There were none up at The Heath, nor on Cinques Road, for example. Each lamp was about 18 inches overall, with an internal mantle, glass chimney, wick and reservoir for the oil. (picture). Some lamps were mounted on buildings, some on poles, but all were set above head height and only accessible by ladder.
Jonathon Hodge was the Lamplighter, and he lived in Dutter End. He would circulate around every lamp in the village, twice daily, carrying a ladder and spare wick and rag, extinguishing the lamps each morning at about 10am and relighting them each evening at dusk. The rag he carried was used to clean the glass cases of any smuts from the wick smoking unevenly, and once a week he would refill the lamp reservoirs and thoroughly clean each individual lamp, and undertake any necessary repairs. During daylight hours, he would fill his time with odd jobs.

Weekly shave
In the Church Street cottage, two doors down from Fowlers (later Goslings), Harry Howe used to shave the older men on a Friday night. Inside his front room which you accessed straight from the step in from the street, were set a number of chairs around the edge, and three in the centre. Frank escorted his Grandfather there on a number of occasions, and remembers the scene very clearly. The men nearly all wore working corduroy trousers, with heavy boots and flat caps. The caps didn’t come off until it was that man’s turn when he sat in the first chair. One daughter would lather up the face, having removed the neck tie, then Harry would shave each client with his cut throat razor, and finally the second daughter would clean up the remaining lather, and ensure the client’s face was dry. This all cost about tuppence. The men enjoyed congregating in this way swapping stories and chatting about their week, it was a very social weekly visit for them.

The Rocker
In Station Road, down by Block Bridge stood a brick building with green doors, just on the edge of the College field. The green doors in the side of the structure opened out into the meadow.
Inside there were high beams which supported a large tank. This tank was filled with water pumped up from the brook below, and then released onto local root vegetables set underneath on a rocking mesh or flat sieve. This sieve rocked from side to side, sloshing the water over the produce to quickly clean it ready for scooping up by hand into hessian sacks.
The 56lb sacks then went on to the station ready to be transported to market by Mr Meeks. The muddy water was flushed back into the brook and the tank refilled once more. Frank remembers a flywheel and large belt driving the rocker, and the motor with a smaller fly wheel engaged was used to pump the water up into the tank. However, he couldn’t tell me what powered the motor. I wondered if it was steam, but he didn’t think so. Frank cannot remember when the rocker stopped being used, but told me it was in use for a very long time.
Beets and potatoes were not rinsed in this way, but parsnips, carrots and turnips were. At this time, the college field belonged to Marshall and Masters, and was a meadow called Pound Close. Here the Sunday School held their treats.
Fascinated by this, I asked Lol Titmus if he knew anything further. He thinks the rocker was only used for 10 years or so, using a petrol engine. Use had stopped by war time. The building was demolished in the late 1990’s, but not until its use had changed dramatically. Nick Bruce recalls it was used by the college to store the lawnmowers for the groundsman as well as archery targets (these eventually found their way across to Bassingbourn) and the school minibus. Adult evening classes in car mechanics were held there, which Lol attended, and he remembers cutting the front off a chassis and welding it back on to create an unique vehicle! The woodwork master, Norman Freeman who had lived opposite the college, stored canoes and a dingy which students had made in class. Nick told me that the roof was asbestos, and the building was suddenly demolished, somewhat unexpectedly one day. Evidence of the foundations remain, with the concrete chute which flushed the water back into the brook still visible

Charlie Emery and Coby Paine (Payne)
These men made their living by using their wits. They did various things like collecting watercress or blackberries, crab apples, sloes, or mushrooms, to sell. They bundled up faggots collected from Gamlingay Wood, which they also sold to villagers. They lived in a pair of small cottages situated behind Fowlers (Gostlings).

Onion Loft and Avennells Farm
On the corner of Avennells and Grays Road, there was an onion loft with wooden slats set up on brick pillars. Onions harvested from the fields would be spread over the slats and the wind would dry them out ready for storage or sale. The Stack Yard for Avennells farm was located where the row of bungalows now stands. This land was all part of Avennells Farm.
At this time, Grays Road was a simple dirt track leading behind the farm buildings towards the fields beside and beyond. James Turrell and then later Marshall and Masters owned this land up to the woods and also the fields on the right of Waresley Road leading away from Grays Road. He was the benefactor to the Ex-Servicemen’s Club (Working Man’s Club, now Social Club), building it for the benefit of the soldiers returning from the Great War.
The club, originally wooden was surrounded by a privet hedge. It contained a coke stove set in the middle and men would sit around this chatting about the working week on a Friday evening.

When food was scarce, a man would come into the club from Tetworth Bottoms carrying rabbits he’d snared. It was 8 pence for a small and 10 pence for a large rabbit, and each of 10 men would pay a penny for a share. Hubert Arnold would reach up for a packet of Players from a high shelf, and extract the cigarette card. The number on the card would determine which man received the rabbit. (The Cock Inn still holds a meat raffle, but I suspect this is considered far more sophisticated than the rabbit deals done at this time!)
At this time, many families would rear a pig in the sty at the back of their cottages. They took the piglets in and reared them on scraps. Frank remembers some being so fat when they were being driven down to Knibbs for slaughter that they could barely waddle.

The terrace opposite the Church, near the end of Church Street, contained Watson’s Bakehouse, then Pledgers butcher and finally a bank.  The next building was a farmhouse. Access to the yards was down the side of the Bakehouse, past styes and stables.

Tithe Barn
I asked Frank about the huge old tithe Barn that has been mentioned more than once in the Reflections articles and is pictured in the photographic history books. It dated from well before 1601, when it appeared on a local map. This huge structure (160 feet long) facing on to Station Road, was already in a poor state of repair when Frank first knew it, and he cannot remember it being used. The footpath ran from the churchyard kissing gate down parallel to Station Road, and across to Block Bridge. The footpath has been re-routed and today runs along the Emplin’s side of the small Merton Field.

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