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.

Working life

(Originally published in The Gamlingay Gazette in June 2007)

Lol left school in the summer of 1948. His oldest brothers Doug and Jim upon leaving the Navy, went to work at the Co-op estate at Cockayne Hatley. At this time the orchard was reputed to be 1,500 acres, the largest in England. About 200 pickers were working to bring in the harvest of Cox’s Orange Pippin with access points at Wrestlingworth and Cockayne Hatley. So, the landscape we see today is quite different from then, where the trees once stretched across the hillside as far as the eye could see. Each row in the orchard had a James Grieve or Worcester Pearmane at intervals of 7 trees, these were the pollinators.

Lol joined his brothers on the estate, but after a few weeks was approached by the head Beekeeper, Sid Whitfield, asking him if he would be interested in being involved with the hives. Once the manager’s approval had been sought, Lol then became under-beekeeper for eight years, responsible for a total of 180 hives.

Once the trees had been pollinated, the hives were moved round the district. About 30 at a time were transported by bee van around to Royston, Orwell, Tadlow, Wimpole Hall Farm, Kneesworth and Bassingbourn. Each hive was checked every 10 days. Lol learned to drive at 18, in 1951, and was then able to drive the bee van himself. The two men, working as a pair lifted, shifted and checked every hive in rotation.

The supers were cleared of bees, and the honey was taken ‘home’ to Cockayne Hatley. There it was decapped with a warm knife and stacked in the electric extractor. Extraction was slow at first to avoid damaging the wooden frames. The honey was poured into 28lb cans and sealed for four weeks, until the apple picking was completed. The honey was then filtered through muslin and bottled into 1lb jars. The jars then went to stock Co-op stores. In one year the yield was four tonnes of honey!

Up to the time when Lol became involved, 60 hives had annually been taken to Darley Dale in Derbyshire by lorry, to catch the heather crop. This four tonne yield was connected in Lol’s memory with the last heather run.

The Co-op manager, Mr Vogal arranged with Fisons (Dr Ripper) who had the spraying contract for all Co-op orchards, to visit two farms in Norfolk with a lorry load of 60 hives of bees. The fields were planted with field or horse beans.

The Buntingford Beekeeper left. This was another Co-op estate The Cockayne Hatley population of bees had declined slightly, over time, Sid and Lol took on the additional 100 hives to keep the other estate going. It became difficult checking the hives every 10 days, during this period. Lol was earning £8,10s at this time.

From 18 to 21 years he did his National Service in the Airforce at Padgate, Lancashire. He trained at Hednesford, Cannock Chase and was posted to Ridgewell, Essex 99MU (Maintenance Unit) as an armourer mechanic, bombs. After a week Lol then moved to Lordsbridge 15 miles from home. He serviced tail units – sandblasted and restored them. They were fitted to the bombs and shipped out to Egypt.

Lol then returned to the Co-op. Roy and Lol first rented four acres of land up near Potton Wood, land which was owned by the County Council. At this time these large fields, which now belong to Trinity College, were divided into twenty or more smallholdings. Lol and Roy produced beetroot, cabbages and brussells which they farmed with a borrowed tractor. The brothers, who were both working fulltime, were only able to maintain their patch in the evenings and on Saturdays. Despite their best efforts, they never made much profit from all this work. The produce was picked, packed and sent on one of the many daily lorry runs into London markets. One year, growing four acres of brussels which they sold to Ken Quince in Sandy the profit made was invested in land just off Cinques Road, on the left hand side. For this land they paid £100 an acre. These three and a half acres were then farmed as well as the original rented four.
During this time, Lol remained at home in Dad’s smallholding farmhouse at Little Heath.

Still living at home, in 1958, Lol left the Co-op and purchased a retail round from a local Everton resident. This round, based in Stevenage, involved selling fruit and vegetables door to door three times a week, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On the days between Lol worked on the land, growing some of the produce to sell from the van. To ensure there was sufficient seasonal variety, additional stock was bought from Land Settlement Association in Potton. The two brothers, Roy and Lol grew vegetables on their own land which were sold first to local wholesalers, and then sent up to London. The van didn’t carry that much stock. Roy was completing his qualifications as a carpenter at R H Wale, but Lol was working independently full time.

There were a number of other market gardeners in the village, and in Potton, who also sold their produce in a similar way. Lol mentioned Frank and Ken Jakes as one example. These brothers were both producing crops off their smallholdings, and owned a lorry which would take produce into the Cambridge Colleges as well as to the shops and markets. Lol and Roy would sell to them, and on other occasions would buy from them. Most of the market gardeners in the locality worked as a loose cooperative, and I got the impression that they were very willing to help each other out. As a result of working so closely together they obviously know each other very well. This is another reason that Gamlingay remained such a tight knit community, as the small holders were so interdependent.

Lol ran off a string of family names, amongst whom were: Ron Wisson who supplied shops in Northampton; Charlie Cole, whose vehicle was garaged in an aluminium shelter just beside the Methodist Hall, whose round carried him across to Letchworth; Bob Cade and Watkin Jakes who also went across to Cambridge. The Merton produce went in three lorries, 5 nights a week, and the hauliers were Marshall and Masters. Lol told me, with obvious pride, that the produce that left this village was of very high quality, and was really fresh having been harvested, packed and shipped often in one day. The village must have been so busy, with all this local trade, and with so many more intensively employed on the land. How times have changed!

After two years, Roy joined Lol as a full partner, and took over the domestic van round. Lol then purchased a lorry, and became a haulier himself, taking produce as a wholesaler to the Stevenage shops. The brothers expanded, purchased another lorry, and at its height Lol was delivering 60 tons of potatoes a week! Lol was collecting potatoes from Fenland farms as Maris Piper was considered the best for chips, and Gamlingay reds and other varieties grown here were less suitable. Although Lol didn’t grow potatoes, I suspect there is very little he doesn’t know about them!

When his older brothers Doug and Jim left the Navy, their father bought them a lorry to try and set them up with a delivery business. But, their flair for farming lay not with the delivery side, but elsewhere. In 1960, Lol and three brothers went, with his father, to Meeks’ land sale, after Mark Meeks died. They bid £750 at auction, for a 50 acre wooded plot, called the plantation, which had a small cottage on it. Jim and Doug ran pigs here, and became very successful. They had 200 breeding sows, and sold the 8 week weaners on for fattening. Having found their niche, it was left to Lol to pick up and make a success of the haulier side. Lol wished to concentrate on the market gardening, so he and Roy sold their shares of the Plantation back to their brothers, allowing them to reinvest their capital.

I asked Lol to describe ‘home’ and his earliest memories of moving up to Little Heath. The cottage has changed so much since this time. In 1939, Lol walked from the council house in Cinques Road to his new home, carrying the cat in a sack as his mother’s hands were full carrying the paraffin lamp. In the evenings this lamp lit the whole of the main downstairs room, and the only other light came from the glow of the range set in the central inglenook fireplace. Dad’s cottage had two bedrooms, accessed by a single staircase leading round from the inglenook. The floor was set with herringbone brick, and the only heating source was the range. Mum made peg rugs to lay over the bricks, and there was also some lino, too. Lol remembers it being quite dark, with the single lamp and small windows.
The front room, parlour or best room was not in daily use. It had its own fireplace and the family really only sat in there on a Sunday or if suitors came calling for his sisters. Outside, adjoining a narrow access pathway were stables and later piggeries. The muck heap was only about ten paces from the back of the house, and the heap was cleared annually to be spread as fertiliser on the land. Above the back door Lol remembers a small colony of masonary bees who lived in the lintel.

Sally and Aunt Francis went into service at Maypole House. Kath went all the way to London into service with Mrs Empson’s sister (Mrs Green) in Hampstead. Kath also worked in Papworth making suitcases. The Queen’s cases were made there. Phyllis and about 200 others, were involved during the war at Wales, making ammunition boxes.

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