I see that James Dace and Son’s music shop is being re-opened in Moulsham Street, Chelmsford. As James Dace the founder was born in Witham, it seems a good opportunity to write a little about him.
James Dace, senior I’ll begin with his father, also James, who was born in Writtle. When he was 16 he became a bugler with the Witham Rifle Volunteers, who trained locally. Usually Volunteers had drummers, but Witham had buglers instead. Then in 1816 he became the parish clerk, sexton and organist at St Nicholas church. The church officers provided him and his wife Mildred with a small cottage in the corner of the churchyard, next to the Woolpack .
The cottage is not there now (see the photo). He was also the gardener, and said to be “weather wise”. In 1824 he was dismissed from the organist’s post for some reason. However, he remained parish clerk and sexton until his death in 1864, aged 77. Six people replaced him – four boys to give the responses during services, and two men to do the rest.
James Dace the musician James’ son, James the musician, was born in the cottage in 1821. He had eleven brothers and sisters though some died. In 1840, when he was 19, it was said that “he lives by his profession as a musician”. In that year he played the serophene at the opening of the new Congregational church (now URC). The serophene was a sort of early harmonium. Afterwards, the vicar, Reverend John Bramston “severely lectured the father for allowing his son to enter such a place for such a purpose.” There was strong rivalry between Rev Bramston and the Congregationalists. Dr Dixon, who recorded the event, called Bramston “one of these bigots”.
Young James forged ahead, and called himself a “Professor of Music” in the 1841 census return, and he soon became church organist at All Saints’, Maldon. After a concert in Chelmsford in 1843, he received warm praise from the Chronicle’s reviewer, in spite of the fact that the flautist could not get his flute in tune with the piano. In 1847 Robert Bretnall of Spring Lodge wrote in his diary “I went to the White Hart to hear a Concert performed by 14 Musicians and a Miss Seymour, conducted by Mr Dace and a Mr Thorn. There was Davis the famous Trumpet blower there. I left at 10 o’clock”.
James settled in Colchester for a while, where he married and had a large family. He acquired a very large number of pupils all over mid-Essex and beyond. In 1855 he moved to Chelmsford where his shop was established, and the business developed rapidly, selling pianos, music etc. and doing repairs. He soon had other branches in Stratford, Colchester and Romford, and later at Ilford and East Ham.
When he died in 1896, the Chronicle wrote that “The name of Dace is well known in musical circles in Essex. The deceased gentleman has been successful as a composer, and has also carried on a large business as a dealer in music, musical instruments &c. in Chelmsford and Colchester for many years.” It was added that “he acted as organist at Moulsham Church for some time, and afterwards as organist at the London-road Congregational Chapel.” So he continued to spread his organ playing between the different religious denominations, despite the earlier reprimand from Reverend Bramston.
The rest of this post is in PDF format. Click the blue words to get to it, then navigate using the grey strip. There is a family tree, and entries from parish registers etc.
John and Ann Lapwood are the best known of this family. In 1901 they were interviewed by the well-known writer and novelist, Rider Haggard. He was collecting information for his great work “Rural England”, and found the Lapwoods to have suffered from great poverty. Below is a copy of what he wrote.
“Not far from Blunts Hall I saw an old labourer named John Lapwood, whose life experience, which I verified by inquiry, is worth preserving. For half a century or more he worked on the Post Hall [Powers Hall] and Oliver Farms in Witham, and now, by the help of some kind friends, was spending his last days in a little cottage, where he lived with his old wife. We found him – an aged and withered but still an applecheeked individual – seated upon a bank, ‘enjoying of the sweet air, although it be a bit draughty.’
He told me that in his young days wages for horsemen used to be down to 9s, a week, and for daymen to 8s., when the weather allowed them to be earned. During the Crimean War bread cost him a shilling a loaf, and other food a proportionate price.
He stated that for months at a time he had existed on nothing but a diet of bread and onions, washed down, when he was lucky, with a little small-beer. These onions he ate until they took the skin off the roof of his mouth, blistering it to whiteness, after which he was obliged to soak them salt to draw the ‘virtue’ out of them. They had no tea, but his wife imitated the appearance of that beverage by soaking a burnt crust of bread in boiling water.
On this diet he became so feeble that the reek of the muck which it was his duty to turn, made him sick and faint; and often, he said, he would walk home at night from the patch of ground where he grew the onions and some other vegetables, with swimming head and uncertain feet.
I asked if his children, of whom there were eight, lived on onions also. He answered no; they had generally a little cheese and butter in the house, but he could not put it into his own stomach when they were hungry and cried for food. ‘Things is better now,’ he added.
Well, things are better now; indeed, it is scarcely too much to say that in many cases to-day, the labourer has more than his share of the rather plumless agricultural cake. But with such a record behind him, knowing what his fathers suffered, is it wonderful that he should strive to drive home the nail of opportunity, and sometimes to take advantage of the farmers who in the past too often were so merciless ?
Let us try to understand his case and be just. Think, for instance, of this poor man Lapwood, whose condition was but that of ten thousand others, day by day forcing his hated food into a blistered mouth, starving that his children might be full. Think of him with his 9s. a week, and ten souls to feed, house, and clothe, while bread stood at a shilling a loaf. Remember, too, that from this lot there was no escape; that labour was in overflowing supply; and that to lift his voice against an employer, however tyrannous, meant instant dismissal and the hell of the poor-house – it was little better in those days – or the roadside ditch to lie in.
Is it strange that, remembering these things, he – or rather his sons – should wax fat and kick, that they should be haunted also by the fear that the evil might return upon them, and bear in their hearts resentment, cloaked but very real, against those classes at whose hands they received that evil of which no subsequent kindness can obliterate the memory ? With the agricultural labourer, as I believe, this resentment against past suffering, at any rate as yet, is deeper than gratitude for present benefits. Indeed, gratitude is scarcely his strong point. Thus, to take the example of the family of this very man, I was informed that those children for whom he starved, did not do all they might to make his last days easy”.
Next is a family tree of some of the Lapwoods prepared by myself (Janet Gyford). It is in PDF format. To reach it, click on the blue writing below and then on the grey strip below.. Then you can navigate using the grey bar on each page. lapwood PDF just tree
“And the boys used to swim in a part of the river, there’s a wide bit, which was deep, and if I may be so bold to call it, I think it was called the Pee Hole, but anyway it was deep enough for them to jump in and swim about.” This was described by Polly Wheaton, who always talks about Witham’s past so well. She and her friends collected tiddlers in jam-jars instead of swimming. Do they still called them tiddlers ? – tiny fish, anyway.
The Pee Hole was a special swimming place in the River Blackwater. It had been set up in the 1880s by the Witham Board of Health (which soon afterwards became the Urban District Council). There had been a request for it from 78 Witham inhabitants. The place is now at the top corner of Whet Mead.
Its official name was “The Bathing Place”, but the public called it either the Pee Hole or the Pea Hole. Ted Mawdsley told me “I have never been sure about the spelling of the Pea Hole – my uncle Albert Poulter always insisted that the cheekier section of the public preferred to use the double “e” version, so I guess it was interchangeable according to the individual”.
The location was probably chosen because it was the only place where the Board’s land (i.e. the Sewage farm) touched the river. Various suitable buildings were provided including “a diving stand, ladder, seat, and posts”. In 1889 they employed Mr Richards, a well-known local builder, to make improvements. He was to use the Board’s “Horses, Carts and Men”, and not to use his own, which would have cost the Council money. Later, the Witham Swimming Club offered to contribute towards repairs to the diving board.
There was no charge for swimming, and the site was open on all sides. It proved necessary to employ somebody “to watch the Bathing place on Sundays with a view to discover persons committing damage”. The watchman was usually Mr Hammond, who lived at the Sewage farm house nearby, and ran the Sewage works.
However, there wasn’t any safety system, and it would have been difficult to provide one in such an open area. Seven-year old Percy Kellock drowned here in 1915, having been playing and paddling near the bank. His two friends were too frightened to get help from some men who were working nearby.
Eventually the women’s desire to swim was recognised. In 1912, the Council decided that “At the request of the ‘Witham Swimming Club”, permission should be granted “for the use of the Bathing Place by Ladies for two hours on two mornings per week, also for the erection of the necessary notice boards at the club’s expense.”
During the First World War, the Pee Hole was particularly welcome to the hundreds of soldiers who were billeted in Witham. In August 1915 the Royal Engineers had a “Water Carnival” there. Local dignitaries were invited to watch, and the events included the “High Dive, Running Dive, Pillow Fight on Pole over river, Team Race, Mess Race, Barrel Race, Swimming Race and Life Saving Race”.
The pool was returned to public use after the War. Ted Mott (born 1913) told me that “The Pee Hole was, years ago when Joe Glover, if he’d been alive now he’d probably be about 110, but he was one of these old boys who used to swim in the mornings and all that. So they tell me.” (Mr Glover ran a large garage in Newland Street). “I remember going down there, oh very young, try and swim. That was a proper thing. There was a real, they had a couple of diving boards, that sort of thing, a spring board and a high dive board. There was a boys’ end further along then… It gets deep as you get towards the Mill. Blue Mills, towards that way. And the ‘Mouth’ you see is down there. We used to swim in that. Where the Brain and the Blackwater, where they join”.
After that, however, the Pee Hole started to decay. There was discussion about whether or not it was worth repairing, in view of the continual damage by “lads”. In 1929 the Medical Officer of Health was called in and found that the water was “not fit”. Bathing was to be prohibited and this was the end of the official use of the Pee Hole in the river. Though Ted and his friends still used to go there.
Since 1913 there had been increasing pressure from the better-off residents for a “proper” pool to be made out of some old water tanks behind the Swan. After a petition and a good deal of discussion, especially about the cost, a pool was opened there in 1933. I’ve written about that previously. And I’ve also written about Dickie Meads, where smaller children swam in the River Brain near Church Street.
We can see that the opportunity to get wet with their friends in the open air, gave some Witham people a great deal of pleasure. But Peggy Smith (nee Wood) was not one of them. She told me once that “Until I was getting on in years, I always thought over the Catholic bridge was the sea and you could drown in it. ‘Don’t you dare go over that bridge, the water’s that side, you’ll drown’. And that’s true, yes.”
The three Medina Villas were built in Newland Street in 1883. They replaced Medina Villa, a Georgian house which can just be seen on the photo of the fair, taken about 1870 – left of centre, with the poles in front (photo 1)
The villa was a girls’ school for some time before it was demolished, first Miss Hitchcock’s, with a French governess, then Miss Ford’s. Both had servants living in. I think some of the old bricks were incorporated in the new buildings – if you walk up the side you can see them, or you could at one time..
The new villas were constructed for a speculator, Richard Spurgeon, by a well-known local firm, Joseph Smith. In the 1880s, it was the fashion to display names and dates on new buildings, and as seen in the photo, it was done here (photo 2). There are also many examples in Braintree Road.
The villas must have been amongst the tallest buildings in Witham, and also the smartest. They had three storeys and a basement. At the back there was ‘roof cistern’ to catch rainwater to supplement the town supply, together with a toilet in the basement, and a toilet and bath on the first floor. Most of Witham houses had neither of these – Witham’s first drainage and water supply system had only been inaugurated 14 years before.
At the first auction, nobody bid for the houses, but eventually Mr Bright Wool, from Colchester, bought them and rented them out. One of the tenants was Mrs Mary Keningale Smith. She lived at number 80 for many years, the photo shows her in what was probably her back garden, with her canary (photo 3) She was the widow of Edward Charles Smith, a prosperous grocer.
To begin with, the villas all had attractive front gardens, as shown in the photo of number 80 on its own (photo 4). But in due course the temptation to make money by building on the front was too much to resist. A drapers’ shop was built in the centre, and then a new Post Office on the left, which had the town’s telegraph equipment, and later the telephone exchange (photo 5). The right hand side was not built on till later.
In the 20th century, one of the best known occupants was Cooper’s lavish drapers’ and haberdashery shop, shown in photo 6.
52. August 1966 – 50 years ago – the newcomers from London
Paul Ryland, who was brought up in Witham, tells me that his “most vivid memory of the first arrivals from London in 1966, was the surprise to my Father. We were walking along Newland Street, to be met by a Red haired young man with a ruddy face and three friends. They were dressed as Teddy boys and wore drainpipe trousers. My Father thought this would be the end of Witham and we should move ! I and many others are still here.”
I should point out that Witham had seen teddy boys before, but I believe they had mostly come from Maldon, whereas these were London ones.
The “arrivals” that so alarmed Mr Ryland were the pioneers of the Town Development Scheme, or, to use a very unpopular word, the “overspill”. It had its origins in the 1930s, when London had prepared to disperse people and jobs beyond the Green Belt, and Witham’s councillors had been keen to receive them.
The first of the Londoners arrived in Witham in August 1966, fifty years ago this month. The buildings and other arrangements were masterminded by the Greater London Council and Witham Urban District Council. To start with, most people came with their employers, many of whom took premises on the newly-built industrial estate.
The jobs were the lynch-pin of the scheme. This was what made it quite different from building houses on their own.
The first families lived on the Templars estate (the Courts), and then, over several years, new houses were provided round the outside of Witham in a clockwise direction.
I haven’t managed to work out a breakdown of the numbers; only that in 1961 the population of Witham was about 9,000. Now it is about 23,000, which of course includes residents of all the privately built houses since 1961.
The innovative design of Templars provided outdoor spaces in the courts, separated from vehicles. This enabled one of my friends to cheerfully let her toddler out to play with the other children, until she shouted for him to come in and eat.
But the place did look unusual from the outside. This allowed people who disliked the whole enterprise, to direct their venom at the houses themselves, often in the local newspapers, calling them “hideous”, “an army barracks” and “a concentration camp”, which “lowered the tone”. An attitude that was not calculated to make the new residents feel welcome !
And it meant that the design was not repeated in later phases, in spite of the fact that many people found the houses and the layout to be good to live in. But many of the later phases did have paths running through them, at Witham Council’s insistence.
Some critics were even more direct. Someone who already lived in Witham at the time, has told me that “There was an evil rumour put about that the newcomers were all criminals and the lowest of the low!!!!!!! How snobbish the people of Witham were!!!!!”
Other local residents reacted more positively. Mrs Dorothy Ireland had spent her life in Witham, and when she was 88 she told me “Oh, oh it’s not Witham, is it? But I must say this, the overspill people, London people, or strange people, they’re more friendly. Oh, much more, because if they’re entire strangers, they can be looking in a shop window, especially Shelley’s in the precinct, you know the fashions, well they’ll pass a remark, they’ll say ‘That’s rather nice, but it’s pricey’. Well, our people wouldn’t. I notice the London people are far more friendly, yes, they chat.”
She told me this in 1983, when it seems that it was still possible for her to distinguish a Londoner from a Witham person, mostly I suppose by their speech. A friend of mine arrived from London in the 1960s. She went into the electricity showrooms, and browsed unnoticed till she opened her mouth to ask something. Then everyone in the shop turned and stared at her.
So it was not easy for the newcomers. Many had left family and friends behind, to come to what was virtually a foreign land. I once saw a young man in tears when someone asked him how he was getting on. Quite a number went back to London. Even the sociologist who came from Canada to study us, went home before he had learnt very much.
Valerie Ahern wrote to me about the mixed blessings. She came to Witham in 1973. She eventually became a very successful chairwoman of the Templars Residents Association, and was awarded the BEM as a result.
She said “It was very hard the first few years adjusting to a new way of life, moving from a town that never sleeps to a sleepy village was really hard. And knowing some of the Witham people didn’t take to us Londoners …
“I had lived in two rooms in Holloway, with an outside toilet shared by other tenants; the only hot water was an Ascot. So when offered a house on Templars I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I have been in my house 43 years and still love it …
“The sad thing was, when a lot of people came down from London they couldn’t take the transition so moved back, very sad. The shops not opening on Wednesday afternoon, the bus service compared to London minimal, but we persevered and slowly people began to accept us.
“I feel that we learnt a lot from the local people, and hopefully and slowly they learnt a lot from us, and we weren’t bad people after all, just lost souls, trying to have a better life than the slums of London for our children”
A friend of Valerie’s, June Richardson, moved into her house in Templars in February 1967, only six months after the very first residents came fifty years ago, and she is still there.
She said “My Husband and I moved down with his firm Stuart Surridge (the cricket firm) … It was great for us to have a new house, we were lucky to have it.
“We made some good local friends, but it was very quiet. So a group of fellows got together and started up a football team called Templars. They met every Sunday outside the Cherry Tree Pub which was run by Cis, and met there when the game was over, for a drink.
“There was a few shops but it was funny to see them close on a Wednesday afternoon. It took quite a while for the locals to take to us, but now we have some good friends.”
Witham’s shops closing on Wednesday afternoons is a shock that has been mentioned to me several times. I believe that at least one of them still does it, fifty years later !
I am sorry that I don’t have space to quote exactly from all the other people who kindly sent me their experiences. But they have all been invaluable in showing me the spirit of the times, and I will keep them. Most followed a similar pattern – problems at first, but with life improving as time went on.
Talk of the Templars football team does remind me that the benefits of being a bigger town soon showed themselves in such matters as the sheer number of sports teams in Witham, for all ages. They were helped by provisions made under the London scheme, especially the new Bramston Sports Centre and swimming pool, and the new Football club and Rugby club.
Other new facilities included the Spring Lodge Community Centre, the offices at the Grove, the Fire Station, the Health Centre, the shopping precincts, schools, local shops and halls, and new bus routes.
Nowadays it’s very hard to remember the great impact of it all. But in 1980, fourteen years after the first Londoners came, a writer from the Braintree and Witham Times investigated the situation. He found some London families still unhappy, though often their children liked it here. But the long and thoughtful article concluded that overall “the plan to move jobs and families out of the capital and into mid-Essex has been surprisingly successful”.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in August 2016.
“Dear Mother … I am glad to say I am fairing well, but I can’t see very well with my right eye at present … I have lost all my kit + I want you to bring me a razor about 3/6 from Gage’s also a lather brush + a handkerchief + a 6d packet of State Express cigarettes.
Best love, Charlie” [October 1915, from St George’s Hospital in London]
Ten days later, Charlie was dead. He was Private Charlie Sneezum of Witham, aged 22, and he had been wounded on the battlefield at Loos in northern France. His parents were Arthur and Alice of Park Cottage in Kings Chase; Arthur was the Park keeper.
Because he died in London, Charlie was buried in his home town of Witham. Usually when soldiers were killed, they were buried in foreign places with little or no ceremony. So it was a particularly moving occasion for Witham people to have such a funeral in their midst. There were only about three thousand residents of all ages, so many would have known Charlie and his family.
The Essex County Chronicle reported afterwards that: “Military Honours were accorded the deceased. The cortege was headed by the Town Band playing the ‘Dead March’, followed by a section of Royal Engineers, with reversed arms, who formed the firing party, and a number of Boy Scouts, the rear being brought up by a company of Essex reserves. The coffin was covered with the Union Jack … At the conclusion of the service the ‘Last Post’ was sounded by buglers of the Royal Engineers.”
Meanwhile, Charlie’s older brother George, also in the army, had also been injured, and was in hospital in Belfast. He wrote home to his mother about Charlie’s funeral: “You cannot tell how pleased I was to receive your letter just now, as I did so want to know how the funeral went off. I do hope you will bear up. I did so wish that I could have been there to see the last of my dear Brother, but to think that he is at home is a happy thought … Was pleased to hear that aunt Ellen, Florrie, Daisy and the others came over. I hardly know how I feel when I write about poor Charlie, the last I saw of him was in the trenches on the Saturday night or early Sunday morning I had to pass by him, and I spoke to him, little did I think that it would be the last time that I should speak to him in person.”
George’s own wounds were nearly healed, and he was sent back to the front soon afterwards. I feel that he must have been a very friendly, talkative and affectionate young man. He wrote long letters to his mother, rarely mentioning the unimaginable horrors of the War – he probably was not allowed to. He did say in February 1916, that “where we are at present is a heap of ruins and they shell it every day. I am writing this now and the guns are making such a noise, but we get used to it”. And when he had written to Charlie in hospital, he listed soldiers who had been killed and injured whom they both knew.
But more typical of George was this in June 1915, “I like the cape very much it was just what I wanted. Well dear mother I think I must be one of the most unlucky fellows on the face of the earth as I lost my purse and all my money yesterday… So will you send me 10 shillings as soon as you can, you know those purses that Grandfather used to have, will you try and get one of those. I know I am a bother but still better days in store when this terrible war is over … with fondest love to you all … P.S. The purse will do during the week. Ask Father what he thinks of it”.
At Easter 1916 he wrote “Will you get a wreath and put it on poor Charlie’s grave for me, you cannot tell how much I think and miss him, but we know that he is at rest. I should like a parcel with some cocoa or tea, sugar + milk in, also jam tarts, give my love to all at home, I will close now so with best and fondest love to you and all”.
Then he wrote on 8 May 1916, about Oxo cubes, tea, lice, and his brothers Jim and Percy. Exactly ten days later, he was shot dead near Ypres, and another of those dreaded form letters bearing sad news was received at Park Cottage. He was 24.
Mrs Sneezum also received a letter from Second Lieutenant Burdett, who had been standing next to George. He wrote that “as far as it is possible to know your son suffered no pain. The bullet hit him in the head, he never recovered consciousness and passed away in about 10 minutes. I was with him all the time and had the body brought down and buried at Essex Farm.” Later his mother asked for a photograph of the grave, but was told it could not safely be obtained at that time.
A long and sad letter came from Lily, George’s fiancee, saying that “All our letters were of the future, even his last letter, for I never once thought of him getting killed, I don’t know why I did not”.
Miss Charlotte Pattisson wrote too, saying that “Of all that have gone from Witham, I hoped more than all that George would be spared to you. You are indeed being given much to bear, and I feel that nothing that can be said can really help you just yet.” Miss Pattisson was a kindly and much-loved lady from Pelican Place in Collingwood Road.
This article was going to be about Witham’s soldiers in the First World War. It seems to have almost turned into an article about the Sneezums. I hope that any residents of Sneezum Walk who read this, will feel some new connection with the family.
We only know so much about the Sneezums because of our good fortune that the family were careful to preserve letters and photos. And in particular that Roy Gage, nephew of Charlie and George, has done the same.
About seventy Witham men were killed during the War. We know less about them but of course each death would have occasioned the same dreadful grief. The numbers of the dead increased as time went on. Two families had three sons killed. There were the Rounds of Avenue House, whose father Francis was a retired Colonial Civil Servant. And the Chaplins of Victoria Cottages. Their mother Caroline scrubbed the Red Cross Hospital next to the Bridge Home for nine hours a week.
So far we have been thinking of families losing their sons, but as recruitment increased, there were also families losing their fathers. Robert Brown of Church Street, aged 37, was killed on the same day as George Sneezum in 1916. The Sneezum brothers had mentioned him in their letters. He had worked on the railway at Witham.
In 1977 I was talking to my friend Mrs Dolly Ireland. She had just met one of Robert’s daughters, then grown up. Mrs Ireland had said to her “Oh, I always remember you Armistice Day”. She went on to tell me “their father was killed in the War, with five little children”.
A few years later, she spoke of him again “When that Mr Brown, I often think of him, with five little children, and he was killed, they were killed almost in the week, weren’t they? ‘Cos it was trench warfare, we weren’t prepared. And the Vicar’s son, Canon Ingles’ son was killed. That’s when all the people were taken off from Witham.”
(NB. Mr Peirce’s name is spelt like that, with the “e” first. He was very proud of it !)
The late Mr Alf Newman told me about “The old cinema. They used to hold it in the Public Hall. They called it the cinema. There was a Mr Clarke, a blacksmith from Hatfield Peverel, were the last people to run that. I expect you’ve heard about the Public Hall pictures. He used to run it on a Saturday. afternoon matinee and an evening show. The old Public Hall would be full up. Someone would be playing the piano to the films. Us youngsters used to sit in the front. Used to have a Mr Chapman, used to try and keep us in order. Gave him an early death I think. He used to come down and ‘Keep quiet you boys and girls, keep quiet’. Used to cheer and shout if the film got exciting. Still they were happy days.”
Mr Newman was born in 1908. The film shows which he was speaking about, were running by 1916, and continued until the 1920s. They aren’t as well known as the Whitehall cinema which opened in 1928. But they are of special interest at the moment, when the Witham Public Hall Trust is planning to start showing films again.
Before Mr Clarke took over, the cinema had actually been started by William Pinkham, who owned the glove factory (where the Templemeads flats now stand in Chipping Hill). The cinema was discussed in 1916 at the appeal for his son Bert against joining the forces. Conscription had just been introduced. The military gentlemen in charge had heard about the cinema, and the fact that Bert spent all his spare time looking after it. They implied that if he had enough spare time for such frivolous pursuits, he couldn’t be as essential to the business as his father claimed. There were several appeals, but Bert did have to join up in the end.
Mains electricity didn’t reach Witham until the 1930s, so the Public Hall had to make its own arrangements for power and lighting. Mr Fred Gaymer told me that his brother “worked for Glover’s garage, when tractors were first coming about, and he used to be up at the Public Hall with a tractor, driving a dynamo, to supply the electricity for the lights and for the projectors as well.”
And Mr Walter Peirce remembered “a little old petrol engine round the back that used to make the electricity, perhaps the belt would come off the engine or something like that, or the engine conk out, we used to bang and stamp our feet and wait for the films, used to come on again”. When the film broke it had the same effect. They’d “get half way through and the film would break, and everybody’d holler and stamp their feet”.
Mr Peirce also said that “The projector room was built outside, over where the ornamental stonework was. The doorway is still there what used to come into the projector room, then you put the film over the top of the gallery.” Perhaps it’s not surprising the film broke sometimes ! This room wasn’t installed until 1919. It’s shown on the photo.
Mr Peirce added that they were “black and white and silent films, of course. Charlie Chaplin and The Kids and things like that and Buffalo Bill”. He also described how he raised the entrance money. “Well, I used to go to the matinee, Saturday afternoon, three ha’pence. There was a lot of horses about then, see. Well, my father had this allotment and he said he’d give me a ha’penny for a barrow-load of horse manure. We used to go along the road with a shovel and brush and a home-made cart, and fill it up. So Father used to say ‘How many loads you took today, boy?’ ‘Oh, three of them’. ‘Three?’ ‘Yes, three’. That was three ha’pence. I could go to the pictures then, couldn’t I?”
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in January 2013
“There was always an air of expectancy as a new battalion marched into Witham. I was a boy standing open-eyed outside my father’s harness-maker’s shop in the High Street, then a small market town. They marched in fours – packs on backs, rifles shouldered, bayonet scabbards at hips, each company with captain marching ahead, lieutenants behind”. Gerald Palmer wrote this in 1988, about the First World War. He was four when the War began.
He continued: “Young women, and older ones too, stood on the pavement, smiling and waving, and there were some saucy remarks, and whistles from the men themselves. Most glamorous of all, and cheeky too, were the kilted Highland regiments. Often there was a band marching in front, and often the men made their own music, ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’,
‘It’s a long, long trail a-winding’.
‘Hello, hello, who’s your lady friend?
Who’s the little girlie by your side?
I’ve seen you, .. with a girl or two,
Oh, oh, oh, I am surprised at you’”
In a previous article I described the billeting of most of the soldiers with Witham families, who often found it beneficial. The equipment and horses were taken to the fields on either side of The Avenue, and the other soldiers camped there to look after them. Gerald Palmer watched their arrival and wrote “Occasionally there was cavalry, and sometimes horse artillery, with gun carriages and ammunition limbers, long lines of mules, with shell-laden panniers. Their arrival was more subdued, the clomping of the hooves, the jingling of harness. Artillery and cavalry went into the big meadows, which lay on each side of the fine avenue of lime trees, now The Avenue, where I remember the marquees, bell-tents, and long lines of tethered horses and mules.”
Other people had similar memories. For instance Walter Peirce (born in 1908) described “a great big camp from Collingwood Road right through to Avenue Road. Then in Collingwood Road they had the great big bake houses where you used to put all your wood in, heat all the oven up, then you’d clear it out and you put your dough in and you’d bake all the bread and that there”.
Mrs Edith Brown, born in 1896, said that “they were all over the place, they had The Avenue, didn’t they, for the horses and going down Collingwood Road on the left as you go down, that’s all houses there now, they used to be just meadows there and you could see the soldiers all cooking there, got all their things built, you know, what they cook with.”
Most of the soldiers seem to have made themselves at home fairly quickly. George Hayes (born in 1904) told me about the ones that lived with his family. “I think nearly all of them had been in prison for something but you could leave five bob’s worth of silver and they wouldn’t touch it. Two of them used to borrow Dad’s ferret and they used to go all over where nobody else would go and they used to sell the rabbits for beer.
And one Christmas they had to be in by eight o’clock and they used to dress up in women’s clothes and so they’d be down the pub till ten.. ‘Whenever they got leave home, you know seven days at home, they always had to send an escort down after them, never came back of their own free will, they always had an escort. They were known as Ferret and Nutty. Ferret was a little thin bloke and Nutty was a big fellow”
Others made a more cultural contribution. Alf Baxter (born in 1899) remembered when his father brought his melodeon out to one of their soldiers and said “‘Can you play?’ ‘Just a wee bit, just a wee bit’ he said. And he started and he was playing all Scotch reels and everything like that. And my father said ‘Well, After hearing you play, man, I come to the conclusion I know nothing about it’ and he never played it no more! No, he never played it no more. But this soldier, he was a quaint old boy, but he could really play that. He used to sit down and play, and we’d sit down and listen.”
Mrs Marjorie Coleman (nee Brown) was born in 1907, so she was a girl during the War. The Browns’ large house in Collingwood Road was well provided with comforts, so they had officers living with them. She recalled “one of these officers – and I suppose a lot of them were killed – sitting on the floor and teaching my sister and I to play whist.”
But the pleasure was short-lived. Fred Cook (born 1908) described “one pair when they knew they were going to France, they got drunk as a lord that day, they couldn’t stand. Laid on the floor near the door, you couldn’t shut it. Well I suppose they thought they were in for it didn’t they.”
In the log book of the Girls’ National School, Witham, on 29 June 1888, the headmistress wrote “Many are absent owing to peapicking. One child deserves praise, rising at 4 to work and attending school at 10 a.m.” The girl must have been between 5 and 10 years old, which was the age for compulsory education at that time. Once most of the children had been away picking for a few days, the headmistress would announce the start of the school holidays. Some of the work was as near as Church Street, but most was in neighbouring parishes.
Picking loomed large in many reminiscences of the early 1900s. For instance:
Mr Walter Peirce: “Four o’clock in the morning you used to get up, the women did, and buckets were rattling and the perambulators were squeaking, the kids were howling … As a youngster I remember that … if we picked a bag of peas then Mum would let us play about … When it was three o’clock you had to stop picking, then the ganger come round, and he’d have a big bundle of string, through his braces like, bits of string that length you see, and he’d tie all your bags up, and he’d pay you … then the horse and tumbrel come along, and pick em all up, and take them to Witham station, load them in the trucks for Covent Garden, for London.”
Mr Cecil Ager: “When we worked in the pea fields, when we had our holidays, they used to bring us tea round in a big urn with a donkey. Donkey and cart, every day.”
Mrs Edith Raven: “We’ve walked miles and miles and miles for pea picking. I have, in my married life … One field I went to … I went there at four o’clock in the morning and I worked till four o’clock in the afternoon and I earned fourteen shillings that day and I was that thrilled … I was able to buy the children something, you see. And stand up in that boiling hot heat all that time.”
Mrs Elsie Hammond: “Oh, don’t talk about pea picking … I used to hate it … they used to knock us up. Somebody along the road, knocks up … Most of the people were out, poorer people. Cause that was their only time of the year of getting a little bit extra, you see.” And her family “used to put some in the bucket with a coat on the top”.
Mrs Annie Clarke: “I was sitting on some one day, and Wheaton said ‘You don’t want to sit on that pail’ he said, ‘I know what you got in it!’ I said ‘Do you?’ He said ‘Yes.’ He said ‘I don’t mind you taking a few home but not a half a bag!’ “
Mrs Elsie Baxter: “Well, some of the girls wouldn’t go out and do it, would they? No. Some of them thought themselves too much. But we didn’t, we used to have fun out there in the fields – it was as good as going to the seaside for the day!”
Mr Gerald Palmer: “When I was a boy, I used to go blackberrying, but pea picking I didn’t do – that was a class lower than us that went pea picking. You were very class-conscious.”
The season was also marked by the arrival of travellers and gypsies in Witham to share in the picking. I’ll write about them next month. And fruit picking will also have to wait till another time.
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in July 2012
In October 1841, Revd John Bramston, the new Vicar of Witham, issued a notice “To the Poor Inhabitants of Witham”. It said that “it is intended to divide a Field, near Chipping Hill Bridge, called Knee Field, into allotments of garden ground not exceeding 20 rods.”. A rod measured 30.25 square yards (25.3 square metres). Knee Field as a whole measured about 8 and a half acres.
At that time, allotments were usually provided by charities, to help the poor to feed themselves. They were often known as “garden fields”. These ones in Witham from 1841 were provided by the Church. The rent increased as time went on, but always included a potato.
As well as being poor, the tenants had to obey a long list of regulations. For instance, they were not allowed to work their plots on the “Lords Day [Sunday] or Christmas Day, or Good Friday”. No “buildings or trees” were allowed. Not more than half the plot was to grow potatoes. “No children were permitted except to work” and damages “by them were to be made good by the parent”.
Dr Henry Dixon, who lived in Witham then, was a nonconformist in religion, and always cast a searching eye over the affairs of the Church of England. He noted in 1842 that “some of my neighbours lay claim to an excessive amount of charity in letting out these allotments to Agricultural labourers. Our Vicar the Reverend Mr. Bramston held his rent audit in his Coach House last Friday evening. The Entertainment consisted of roast mutton (alias baked), plum-puddings, ale and Bacca. The number of Tenants is about 70, and these poor people pay at the [annual] rate of £5.6.8 per acre!!! In the Vicar’s predecessors time 6 years ago, this land was let to a farmer for 30 shillings (£1.50) per acre.”
There was a New Year dinner for the tenants of these Church allotments, as late as 1955. The land was sold for housing in about 1960. The site is now occupied by Saxon Drive and Tithe Close.
From 1887 onwards, various enactments had allowed or compelled Local Authorities to provide allotments, in addition to the charitable providers. So Witham Urban District Council did so, particularly during War times and during the Depression of the 1930s, when home-grown food was very much needed.
For instance, at various times there were some in Church Street, Glebe Crescent, Guithavon Road, Hatfield Road, Homefield Road, Maldon Road, Powershall End, and near the Station Maltings (known as “Canada”). These pieces of land were often earmarked for Council houses or other uses in the long run. So whenever building started, the allotments had to be replaced elsewhere.
In December1936, there was extensive damage caused to the “green-stuff of the holders” of the Maldon Road allotments. This was caused by two hundred sheep straying onto them from the adjoining meadow. They belonged to Mr Arthur J Horner, Witham’s veterinary surgeon. He received a letter from the Council about them, which he regarded as “officious”.
By the 1940s, the “Witham and Rivenhall End Allotment Holders and Garden Society’” had been formed. The members were able to combine together to negotiate for their rights. They also combined with the Witham Rabbit Society and other organisations to have summer shows in Witham Park.
All the scattered pieces of allotment from the past are now used for other purposes. Today, activity is concentrated on the popular Cut Throat Lane site by the railway. This is owned by the District Council, and I think it was laid out in about the 1970s.
In the past I interviewed many Witham people about life in the early 1900s, and it was striking what a big part the allotments played in sustaining the family, and how much time they took up. Here are some of them.
As a child, Mrs Elsie Hammond (born c 1900) used to “pick the beans, and pick up potatoes, or drop them, drop the potatoes in the first place” on their ground near the Station maltings. Peas they managed to “wangle” when they were out pea-picking, but they grew “all the other vegetables, cause they couldn’t really buy them, you see. Couldn’t afford to buy them. That’s how, people used to work their sets, you see. Potatoes, they used to do an exchange. People didn’t, couldn’t pay out a lot, they use to exchange, one with another. So they’d have a change of seed. It was the only way to work it.”
Mrs Edith Brown’s (born in 1895) family had an allotment in Maldon Road “for all the vegetables her husband grew, grew all his own vegetables. Used to grow stuff for all the winter, and store it all. Mm, he used to clamp all his beetroot and parsnips with straw and earth and then you just got ‘em out when you want ‘em. ”We never bought a thing hardly, now and again we’d buy a swede wouldn’t we? But otherwise we never bought no potatoes or onions and everything used to be, you know, kept and, my husband used to go Sunday mornings and cut the greens for the dinner all fresh.” The allotment was about a mile away from their house in Church Street. They also had a flourishing flower garden at the house.
Mr Maurice Greatrex (born in 1903). “That glebe land that was sold by the Church [Saxon Drive]. Well we had an allotment on that, 20 rod allotment on there which father used to keep going as well and, ‘cos there were eight of us in the family you see and wages weren’t very high. They weren’t anything like they are nowadays. And so he had a job to keep things going.”
Mr Walter Peirce (born in 1908): “And then where the, opposite the Spring Community Centre was allotments [now Saxon Drive]. Five shillings a year, my father used to have it. Twenty rod. Well, you paid the five shillings, and a potato. And you had a little bit of supper, all the, um, holders of the allotment. And you went and paid it, Mr Hodges was the man, that took the money . He lived right, the other side of the railway line, in Highfields Road, but a bomb dropped on it during the War, didn’t it? Blew it all to pieces. But they’ve rebuilt a new house, didn’t they. Well, that was the man who used to take the money.”
Mrs Ethel Hicks (born in 1891): “We made wine in great big stone bottles with a handle on the side. We used to make rhubarb, and dandelion. Ooh that was lovely. Better than any whisky if you keep it a year. I made blackberry, damson, all sorts I used to make. But that used to be rhubarb, mostly, because they grew that on the allotment, and you see that didn’t cost anything. Only just the sugar, well the sugar wasn’t only about sixpence a pound then. You could do what you liked.”
Mr Ken Miller (born 1935): “Well Henry Dorking’s, the blacksmith, his father was a great poacher, well not poacher, rabbiter, and lived by the gun sort of thing, and there was a hare that used to elude him in the Garden fields, of course the allotment holders wanted it caught because of the damage it was doing. And down opposite Spring Lodge, there was a five bar wooden gate, I can see it now, into the allotments, and this gate was always open for people coming and going on their bikes and trolleys and what have you. And this hare always got away across the road, cause it was, it was all fields across the road then, and the hare’d get away. So one day he shut the gate, and the hare ran full belt into the gate, and he got it, killed it. And Henry always used to spin this tale, and how his father got that, cause his father was a great big tall bloke, and as I can remember he used to call on his bike, and, he was a bricklayer for Crittall’s, and I used to sharpen his chisels for him.”
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in January 2016