This story was told me by Mrs Mabel Nicol. At about the time of the First World War, she was apprenticed to her aunt as a dressmaker at 11 Guithavon Street. She said:
“I remember there was a travelling fair came to Witham down the recreation ground. And one of the ladies from the fair came to my aunt and said she wanted three costumes made. And she brought the material. It was the time when everything was trimmed with black silk braid. There was a craze on that. Two or three rows round the skirt, and on the jacket and that. And my aunt took the order on, you know, because they said they’d pay and all the rest of it. And she, we made the costumes and that was beautiful material. But they never came for them. And the fair went out of Witham. But would you believe it, the next year when they came round, that lady came and she said ‘I’ve come for my costumes’! She paid right on the nail. They hung up in the, behind a curtain, you know, they were still there perfectly.”
Most of the other travellers were peapickers. I wrote about local families going peapicking last time. Their efforts were fortified by people who went round the country following the different times of the ripening crops. Some lived in horse-drawn caravans, whilst others were to be seen on country roads in summer, walking from place to place. Some of them hired rooms, whilst others slept wherever they could.
Thus in 1914 a surveyor of historic buildings wrote a note on his plan of 43 Chipping Hill, saying: “Occupants pea-picking”. And in 1946, Witham’s Medical Officer was concerned about travellers who “accommodate themselves in any available shed or barn. Some, failing to find even derelict shelter, sleep out under the hedges.”
But Miss Dorothy Stoneham looked on the bright side. She was manageress at Luckin Smith’s, a large grocer’s shop in Newland Street, from 1920 to 1960, and said “It’s surprising even there, although it was a good class shop, it’s surprising you used to get the old gypsy type of people you know moving round. But they were useful really because I don’t know whether you know anything about shops but there’s always odd pieces isn’t there and scraps that you couldn’t sell to ordinary people. Well, you see they used to come in and buy it cheap you see. That suited them and suited us. They used to come for the pea-picking a lot you see.”
George Hayes remembered that before the First World War, “There was one family of, well we called them tramps, they came about here at pea-picking time and they went in a house [in Church Street]. Humphreys their name was. I know they hadn’t got anything. Coming home from school we used to come through the Blyth’s meadows you know, Witham School, and pick coal up for the boy to take home because they hadn’t got any money to buy anything”. Blyth’s meadow is part of the River Walk now, and the coal would be from Blyth’s steam mill in Guithavon Valley, nearly opposite Guithavon Street.
I haven’t yet been able to find out when that peapicking world was displaced by machinery – perhaps one of my readers will know ?