My first memory is of being in a wooden pushchair with a sling seat made of something that felt like thin carpet. I think this must have been the stuff called uncut moquette which was used to cover bus and train seats. It felt itchy behind my knees and smelt old & dusty.
We were going along beside a high wall of red brick, over which hung trails of greenery, and when we came to an arched gateway my father unlatched the iron gate and we went into a garden full of colour.
I can remember nothing else about that visit to my great-grandmother, but later worked out that I must have been less than eighteen months old, as Great-Granny Simmons left that house early in 1928.
Another memory of that pushchair was of my baby brother screaming when his fingers were caught in the folding frame. It was not a safe contraption, and my mother was very glad when Alan was big enough to walk a reasonable distance. That year the push-chair was Guy Fawkes’ seat on the bonfire, after my father had removed the wheels to make a go-cart for the boys. Not for me, of course, I was “only a girl” and not expected to play boys’ games.
When I was three, I was given a paper parasol on my birthday. I can’t remember who gave it to me, but it was my most treasured possession for weeks, especially after I mastered the trick of opening it. WE went on a picnic to an orchard belonging to one of Grandad’s friends, and of course, my beloved parasol had to go too. After eating we were allowed to wander around the orchard, and I went off to look at some chickens at the far end. There were a lot of hens and one huge rooster, who promptly decided that my parasol was a threat to his harem and flew up at it squawking loudly. I turned to run, fell over and was jumped on by the rooster, who took a lump out of my right calf before flapping off in triumph to his hens. The scar is still just visible seventy years later.
We had many boy cousins & for a long time only one girl who was always held up to me by my aunts as the epitome of good behaviour. In consequence, of course, I thoroughly disliked he & we never became friends until we were both grown up. She would never play with “those rough boys”, but I trailed after them until they gave in and let me play, even if only as the dogsbody. It was my idea to launch all our collected toy farm & zoo animals in an old baby bath, as Noah’s Ark, onto the duck pond, although it was my eldest cousin who made his small brother accompany them as Noah. It wasn’t until the bath began to sink that we got worried, especially as Bobby’s yells had then brought all the aunts to the scene. He was made much of and given warm drinks and chocolate cake, while we were sent to pick up stones from the potato field, our least favourite job! Too late, we were told that the bath was leaky & that was why it had been on the junk heap where we found it!
Another farm memory is that of Alexander, the Large White boar, who had at times to be shut in his pen so that he could not pester the young sows. One day he tried to get out by charging at the gate of his pen. He had done this several times before, without any success, but on this day he succeeded with a vengeance! We heard a loud splintering crash, and found Alexander out on the yard with the remains of the big five-barred gate around his neck. He carried that heavy gate quite a long way before we could get in front of him and turn him back. I was surprised at the strength of his neck muscles, as he had to lift the gate about a foot off the ground to get the hinge pins out of their sockets.
My father was always ill in the winter, as a result of the 1914-18 war. He had enlisted under age and was gassed in one of the first attacks. This left him susceptible to chest complaints & every autumn he caught a cold which developed into pneumonia and pleurisy. He would be “on the panel” for six weeks, then the payments would stop and Mother had to manage as best she could. She took in washing, for which the payment was very low, but it could be done at home, where she could keep an eye on the children.
Mother was one of nine children and her brothers & some of her brothers-in-law worked for her father who ran a fish & chip business. Their weekly half-day was on Monday, & on that day Mother looked after all their children in return for gifts in kind, which helped with the food problem. Monday at our house was a noisy affair!
Grandad Dale, Mother’s father, ran the farm principally to grow good quality potatoes for his fish & chip business, but he kept a few pigs & cows & two heavy horses. The other main source of income for the farm was the cherry orchard. Grandad & Old Bob, who helped him, looked after the trees after the fruit had been picked until it was blossom time again. Then the auctioneer from Maidstone farm & the cherry crop, as yet an uncertain prospect because of possible future bad weather, was sold to the highest bidder. The trees were from that point the buyer’s responsibility. His men looked after the trees until picking time & he engaged the pickers who were usually from a Romany family. The Lees were controlled by Great-Grandma Lee, a redoubtable lady who ruled them with a rod of iron and forbade the children to have anything to do with the casual workers’ children. She was fiercely proud of her Romany descent & scorned the Didikois, the non-Romany travelling people who moved from place to place, picking up casual work (and quite a few unconsidered trifles as well)
I was about three when we moved from Hardy Street in Maidstone, where I was born, to Tovil, a small village then. The first memory there is of a strange woman (the district midwife) sitting on a low chair by the fire, dressing a small baby. She was wrapping a “binder” round his middle & turning him over and over in the process. I’m told that I said “Stop it! You’ll make it giddy” & she replied “Don’t call him it, he’s your new brother”
Our new house had a long back garden where my father grew mostly vegetables, plus a few flowers. He found me “weeding” a patch beside the path with the corpses of his seedling pinks in a pile, while I completely ignored a burgeoning sow-thistle. I was definitely not popular that day. He managed to rescue and replant most of the pinks, but some were wilted beyond recovery. The enormity of my misdeeds were impressed upon me by a visiting aunt, who was shocked that I had uprooted plants being grown to provide flowers for my grandmother’s grave! I didn’t improve matters by asking why flowers were put on graves, when dead people couldn’t see them.
It was about this time that I ran into the road outside our house & was knocked over by an errand boy on a bicycle. I don’t remember the actual impact, but I do remember lying on the road & looking at the underside of a parked van, which had a chain drive. My older brother told me the van was a Trojan. Why this has stuck in my mind, which could be occupied with much more useful memories, I shall never know.
We moved from the Tovil house to one in Perry Street in Maidstone, where Grandad Dale had an area of garages, stores & preparation sheds connected with his fish & chip business. This area was known to us as “The Yard” & our new house & garden were in this complex. A great pleasure was to collect the bits of deep-fried batter, which had been strained out of the frying oil. & eat them before we were called to breakfast. If we had been forced to eat them, we would have protested vigorously, I am sure, but part of the pleasure was knowing that the grown ups did not approve. The novelty soon wore off, however, and we reverted to conventional eating.
Grandad Dale started the first mobile fish & chip shops in Kent. He had seen a van selling fried fish outside a greyhound race track in London & realised the potential for the area around Maidstone. He was running a fried-fish shop in Sandling Road & knew that a lot of his customers came from the surrounding villages. After doing their shopping in the town, they would come to buy their supper, take it home and reheat it. How much better to have it brought almost to their door! It proved a great success & from the first single van, the fleet grew to seven in a few years.
The early vans were equipped with coal-fired frying pans, & this proved a hazard when one of the vans was in a collision in fog & spilled oil caught fire. The fire was soon put out, but Grandad decided to have bottled gas for all his vans after that. One of my uncles lost a hand in that collision & chose to start a new job running a public house, as this was something he could do with one good hand & the appliance he wore on the other arm, whereas frying fish was a two-handed job. He and my Aunt Lil moved to Canterbury, to the Black lion in the Sturry Road. He told me there was one pub in Canterbury for every day of the year, but I didn’t know whether to believe that, as he was always joking.
As a result of our move to Maidstone, I went to three schools in one year, first to Tovil C of E school, a small village infant school, then to St Paul’s in Maidstone, another church school. Then the new North Borough County Primary was built to replace St Paul’s, which was a very gloomy place with high windows and had long been overcrowded, and we had a glorious day walking from old to new school and back, carrying anything which could be safely trusted to youngsters. That way we must have saved the council quite a large removal bill!