Gerald Palmer was born in 1910. He was interviewed on 6 December 1988, when he lived at Abbey Cottage, Duton Hill, Dunmow.
For more information about him, see “Palmer, Gerald, born 1910” in the People Category.
The original recording of this interview is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at email@example.com or 033301 32500.
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]
Note by by transcriber: I have omitted ‘you see’ and ‘you know’ on occasion, where it interrupts the flow of his narration.)
Three articles by Mr Palmer are inserted in the text, one about his father’s business as a saddler and harnessmaker, and his home, one about school, and the last about Witham in the First World War.
Mr P: I was born in Witham in 1910. My father was the manager of a harness maker’s shop in Witham High Street. It’s the narrow part of Witham High Street, the shop has now disappeared, I think it’s now called Tangles[?] [45 Newland Street?]. It’s two doors away from the Spread Eagle. And I lived there until I was eighteen when I went away to London. I can remember my father’s shop very clearly indeed. Obviously he was primarily concerned with saddlery and harness making. But he also sold things himself, sold things like dog leads and cases. And being a good businessman – and he took over the business himself in 1924 – he spread into sports. So he repaired tennis rackets and cricket bats and footballs and sold new ones. The shop had two plate-glass windows and you stepped down into the shop and a little bell rang. And the family lived in the room behind the shop and in the bedrooms above. And there was a little window in our dining room – or living room. And so we could look through from our living room and see if anybody was in the shop. My father worked in the shop and he had one apprentice working with him and he used to start work at seven o’clock in the morning, have a half an hour for breakfast, then he locked the door at one o’clock and the shop would remain closed until two. That was sacrosanct, that hour and he always had what he called ‘forty winks’ after his lunch. And then he would open the shop again and it would stay open, certainly until half past seven in the evening and on Saturdays he stayed open until nine. Saturday evening was the busiest time of the week. Because that was the time the farm labourers came in with their wives. The wives did the shopping down at the Co-op or at the International Stores and the father or the husband would do a bit of shopping, come in for a new pair of gloves or to get his buskins, that is his leggings repaired, or buy a new dog lead or something like that.
Q: So it wasn’t – people tend to think saddle and harness makers did sort of horse
Mr P: No, his main – he worked himself at harness and saddlery. He was working all the time. But he was prepared to stop work and sell an attaché case or a [???] jacket. And of course, as time went on and motor cars became more popular, he then spread into that business. And because motor cars were all – they weren’t saloons. They were all with hoods and the hoods were canvas. And screens, transparent screens, celluloid screens, they would never have them now, of course. And he went into that business, with my mother’s help, who had a big sewing machine in the room next door. And made – re-covered car hoods. And replaced celluloid screens. But primarily he was concerned with harness. I almost became a harness maker myself and my father and mother would have liked me to have gone into the business. But by that time I was at Braintree High School. They went and saw the headmaster and he suggested to them that I ought to perhaps do something more academic. And that I should stay on in the Sixth Form, which I did. And from that moment, they accepted that quite happily, my footsteps have been quite a long way away from the harness shop. But I’ve always remembered it with very great affection.
Q: Did you used to help him at all?
Mr P: Yes! I learned to stitch. I can still stitch in the harness maker’s way. With a clamp between my knees and two hands. Because you stitch with two hands. I can still stitch like that. My father also used to employ me every Saturday evening on the accounts. Because most of the business, of course, was on credit. The farmers’ business, you couldn’t charge the farmer every time he sent something in to be repaired. So he had a slate hanging under his bench. And on the slate he would write down the farmer – or the farm – and what job had been done. And that slate on both sides would be filled by the end of the week and I was then called in to sit at the back bench and he would dictate in detail what jobs he had done and how much he was charging for each one. And then my mother would then put that down in the official ledger. But I had the kind of first cast. ‘Lining horse collar – five shillings and sixpence’. ‘Lining saddle – four shillings and sixpence’. ‘Splicing bridle –’ that kind of thing, you see.
Q: So you had to write it out?
Mr P: I wrote it down in the book, yes. I would give a rough copy and then my mother would write it down officially in the ledger and the bill would be sent out at the end of the quarter.
Q: So this was the family – ?
Mr P: That was the family job.
Q: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Mr P: No, no. And I can remember the names of the farms, of course, and the farmers, very well. They were Braxted Park; Faulkbourne Hall; Lord Rayleigh’s farms, there were several of those. Whitelands; Dirty [Dancing] Dicks; Farthings; Blunts Hall. And then the various other farms near by.
Q: So that would be the main part of the business?
Mr P: The main part of the business was harness, yes. But also he sold bits of harness of course, and plough lines and traces and the metal things that they have for decorating the horses. Horse brasses and braid which the men would buy to braid all their horses, braid their horses’ manes and tails. And then all kinds of things to do with horses, like currycombs and dandy brushes and Properts[?]for keeping the leather in – soft, you see. He did not – although he was called a saddler, he did not make new saddles, riding saddles. He repaired them – and that was a very tricky job because they were repaired with pigskin and very fine linen, of course. He would repair riding saddles but he didn’t make them.
Q: Where did he get the leather and stuff?
Mr P: He would get – well, if he was buying a new saddle it always came from Walsall; in the Midlands which was a great place, apparently, in those days for making harness. He would always get his ropes, plough lines and ropes of various kinds from Bridport in Dorsetshire. And the other things that he got, his leather and his wax and his thread and that kind of thing always came from a firm, Eldred Ottaway & Co in Whitecroft Street in the City of London.
Q: How did they used to get it here? You don’t mind my interrupting?
Mr P: Well. Not at all. Every holiday, school holiday, my mother and I would go up to Eldred Ottaway & Co, in Whitecroft Street, with an order. And part of the order was always the trunk, sometimes two trunks. And they would fill up the trunk with what we’d ordered. A new trunk, because my father sold trunks, you see. And they would take it to Liverpool Street station. My mother and I having delivered the order, having given the order would then spend the day in London and pick up the trunk from the Left Luggage office in Liverpool Street and take it home to Witham. And my father would meet us and we would take the stuff home. Now, small stuff we would go and get from a warehouse in Houndsditch. My father also acted – not as an agent – but was prepared to arrange for umbrellas to be re-covered and we would take these old umbrellas up and leave them at a place near Liverpool Street called Norton Forgate – it’s still there. We would collect those in the evening, too. We would come home with three or four umbrellas and a trunk or two [Q laughs] and my father would meet us and we would lug it all down to the High Street.
Q: Did he get a car himself in due course?
Mr P: No, no.
Q: He never did?
Mr P: My mother, at the end, after I’d left home – my father gave up his business about 1956 or ‘57 when he was 70. By that time my mother had – my father had bought a little Austin 7; one of those little things with the wire wheels. And my mother would take the harness round – that was a great boost to the business because she would take the harness round to the farms and collect up anything else that needed to be done.
Q: When did she get that, about then? Were you still at home?
Mr P: I’d left home – I was away – that was about when I was about 20, I should think that would be about 1930. Yes, because I started to drive that car and I’ve got my original licence marked 1931. So it was 1930 when I was about 20.
Q: Were there many women driving then?
Mr P: No, no.
Q: She was quite adventurous, wasn’t she?
Mr P: She, but – oh, she was quite a goer, was my mother. Yes.
Q: Did she – you said she had a sewing machine. Did she do other things besides helping – or was it all helping with the business?
Mr P: My mother was a dressmaker by trade or profession and so she used to do a lot of dressmaking. She would dress-make for other people and she certainly made my father’s clothes and my clothes until I went away to college when I started to buy some suits from the ‘Fifty Shilling Tailors’ but until then she made my clothes and she made most of my father’s clothes. My mother left school when she was eleven and went as an apprentice to Bolingbroke’s in – it’s still there, isn’t it?
Q: In Chelmsford?
Mr P: Wenley & Bolingbroke’s.
[General conversation, not noted]
Q: You talk about your mother being a dressmaker. Were your mother and father born in Witham?
Mr P: No, my father – my mother was born in Chelmsford and was apprenticed to Bolingbroke’s.
Q: What was her Christian and maiden name?
Mr P: Minnie.
Q: And what was her maiden name?
Mr P: Perry. And my father was born in Kelvedon and by the time he was eleven the family had moved to Braintree and my father was apprenticed to Crickmore.
Q: His father wasn’t a saddler?
Mr P: No, his father kept a little grocer’s shop.
Q: So he moved from Braintree to Witham at first?
Mr P: No, he was still – Crickmore had a shop in Braintree and my father was an apprentice in his shop and then my father moved round various places including Chelmsford and Hertford. And then Crickmore subsequently wanted a manager for his Witham shop. He’d moved round.
Q: Before you were born, was it?
Mr P: Yes, about 1907 and I was born in ‘10. He married and took on this shop.
Q: He married in Witham?
Mr P: At the time, he moved into the new job, new house, got married, all of it.
Q: And then he took over the business?
Mr P: In 1924, the first of January.
Q: Did Crickmore own the building?
Mr P: Crickmore owned the building all the time and my father paid rent, a pound a week. And he kept – Crickmore kept it. Finally, of course, it was sold – heaven knows what the property is worth now! But he paid a pound a week.
Q: He was there a long time, wasn’t he?
Mr P: Yes and that was a fixed rent all the time. I’m trying to remember – I think he gave up the business about – in the fifties. Yes, in the early fifties. And then he and my mother moved into a house in Collingwood Road. He retired and left the house.
Q: Presumably by then – was there less work in – to do with horses?
Mr P: There was less work to do with horses but there was more retail sales trade. More – say – tennis rackets and cases and dog leads and that kind of thing. But there was still a certain amount, though of course not as much as there was in the twenties. After all, cars, were few and far between. Most of the traffic that I remember in the 1920s in Witham High Street was horse-drawn. There were cabs from the station, they were literally horse-drawn cabs. The goods were delivered from the railway station in a horse-drawn wagon. The milkman came in a little cart drawn by a horse. The baker – oh, the baker did push his van. But the post was taken to Maldon every evening in a van drawn by a horse. And of course, apart from my father’s saddler’s shop – and there was another saddler’s shop in Maldon Road, rather smaller. But apart from that there were two blacksmiths who were busy. There was Quy’s in – where Dorking worked – he’s still there. [18 Chipping Hill] I called and saw him a few days ago. And there was another one down the High Street [130 Newland Street]. And there was a wheelwright shop. You went up Bridge Street, towards the Bridge Home, turned left on the road which leads to – oh I forget the name of the hall – Benton Hall? (Q: Yes) [actually Howbridge]. And just there was the wheelwright shop [corner of Howbridge Road]. Yes. Of course there were craftsmen. There was – in Guithavon Street there was a basket maker’s shop, [1 Guithavon Street] making all kinds of baskets to order or for stock. So, the great time, of course, when my father was very busy was at harvest time. Because the harvest was then done by – what were they called?
Q: Threshing machines?
Mr P: Yes but the harvest itself was done – what am I thinking of? By a tractor with a cutter with binder cloths. And the binder cloth would break. They were crossed – about six feet wide and perhaps nine feet or ten feet long with splines across. And if the weather was bad the splines would break. And then they would bring them in, in a great hurry saying ‘The men are in the fields and can you do this at once, Mr Palmer?’ And my father would then drop everything while the man was waiting and put in a new spline. Of course, if the farmers were – had foresight and they got everything repaired before the harvest. So in June a lot of these binder cloths would come in and my father would be very busy getting them all ready. In the – there was a great room next door to my father’s shop – you went into it round the back and it was an old room and it had a very nice Queen Anne fireplace and dado round. But my father used it as a store and it was never cleaned out. It had never been cleaned out in the whole history, I should think. And in there he used to dump on one side the harness – the harness which had been brought in for repair and on the other side he would dump the harness which was ready to go. Because it would be brought in – before my mother had a car – it would be brought in by the farm labourer or the horse man, sometime during the day, often first thing in the morning, when they came into the station with the milk. Particularly from Lord Rayleigh’s farms who specialised in milk. It would be brought in and then they would collect it later on in the week.
Q: So he didn’t have to go out and deliver stuff himself?
Mr P: No. Later on, when they were expanding a bit this car was used. But generally it was brought into to the shop. Brought in, in a very smelly old way. Dumped in and say ‘I’ll call for it next week, Mr Palmer.’ But my father was very busy at the time of harvest. Another interesting thing about harvest was that at the end of the harvest the horse man would always come in and see my father. We knew exactly why he’d come in. We needn’t say – he’d come in for a tip and it would be a tip, say half a crown, as a recompense for the work which had been brought – which he’d brought in during the – but the interesting thing was, it was always called ‘largesse’. Now that is the old mediaeval word – you get it in Chaucer and you get it in all those mediaeval writers – largesse meaning tip or money. And that was still used, that word, largesse.
Q: Really? But they didn’t ask for it?
Mr P: No, well, my father would say ‘I suppose you’ve come in (Q: He knew?) for largesse’, you see.
Q: But he did use the word?
Mr P: Oh yes, he used the word. Or they’d come in and say ‘What about largesse, Mr Palmer?’ That interested me, I’ve never seen it used anywhere else or heard it used anywhere else, except in mediaeval writing. You get it in Chaucer, as I said.
Q: There must be so many – especially to do with horses – so many words that have gone now.
Mr P: Yes. You see, another word which was used – instead of leggings they used the word ‘buskins’. And that of course is in Shakespeare. You get it in Ben Jonson, ‘the buskin stage’. I would still tend to call them buskins myself, now.
Q: And did they wear those a lot did they?
Mr P: Oh yes! The men would always wear – they wore breeches, or old trousers and then leather buskins going down over boots. That’s something else of course my father sold, or repaired. Oh, the men always wore buskins, yes.
Q: Did he have time for any recreation or anything, your father? Or was he working all the time?
Mr P: No. My father was a tremendous worker. He had – the shop closed on Wednesday afternoons and my father had a bike, an old fashioned bike, with solid wheels and the brake which you turned by reversing. And he wasn’t a free-wheeler, he just kept his feet away from the wheels. And he would just cycle, a little. And he had an allotment in Avenue Road near the Catholic church. I remember going there with him, That was during the war [First World War], mainly, when we were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ as Churchill would have said in the Second War. And my father used to go there. And my father and mother were both very concerned with the Congregational Chapel. It’s still there in the High Street. My father in due course became a deacon of the Congregational Chapel and so any spare time really was – particularly my mother – was concerned with the chapel. We had two services – this isn’t boring you, is it? (Q: No.) We had two services every Sunday and the morning service was preceded by Young Worshippers League, which I went to. Then in addition to the two services, there was Sunday school in the afternoon for me, so I had four things every Sunday. Then on Monday evenings there was the Band of Hope for me. Tuesday evenings, prayer meeting for my mother. Thursday evening, my mother ran what was called the Young Peoples Guild. I think you had to be under 70 or under 80 to be there [Q laughs]. They were all young. But she ran – and had visiting speakers or … And then Friday choir practice. So – I was in the choir for some of the time, I gave it up after my voice broke. (Q: Goodness!) So that, chapel, really was our great interest. Then in the summer, there was the cycling club attached to the chapel. And my mother ran a chorus party and we used – about once a month during the winter months, she had what was called a chorus party of about eight or ten. And she would hire a van from Hurrell and Beardwell’s. In that road which runs between Chipping Hill and the Braintree Road [White Horse Lane], there was a garage along there, Hurrell and Beardwell’s and he had a van – it would never be allowed now! And we used to hire that van and go out to Hatfield Peverel or Wickham Bishops or Rivenhall to various little churches and give a concert.
Q: Was this a horse van or …?
Mr P: Oh no, this was a little motor van. And I would have thought this was about 1923, ‘24, or ‘25. We used to hire this van – it had two benches and seats at the side. It was a most dangerous thing, of course! [Q laughs].
Q: What sort of music did you have?
Mr P: Well, the first part of the evening was all serious and the next was light-hearted. And we used to sing things like ‘Coming through the rye’ and ‘Oh, who will o-er the downs with me?, Oh who will with me ride, Oh who will up and follow me and [???] [???]. Her father he has locked the door, her mother keeps the key, da da da’ I can remember it, you see.
Q: And what about the Band of Hope, what did you do there?
Mr P: We used to read rather – it was concerned with temperance, of course, the Band of Hope. We used to read and listen to stories about the evils of drink, and sing hymns. I don’t remember much about that, but I know I used to go to the Band of Hope. That was – I don’t say I did after I was eleven or twelve, but when I was younger.
Q: The Council school was originally associated with the Congregational Chapel, was that why you went there?
Mr P: Yes. The Council school was – you see in the nineteenth century there were two associations which started voluntary schools. There was the National Association, which started the National schools, which were attached to the Church of England. And there were the British, which was attached to the Nonconformists, the Dissenters. Then subsequently School Boards were set up after 1870, with the Education Act of 1870 and Maldon Road was built and it still has the title ‘Board School’. But by the time I attended in 1915, it was known as the Council School and it was run by the County Council without any interference or any tie-up with the Church of England. That’s why I went there, you see, because my parents were Nonconformists.
Q: Was there any feeling between the two churches?
Mr P: No, No, there wasn’t any feeling. We all –
Q: You knew what you were …?
Mr P: We knew what we were, I was a Dissenter. There was always a feeling that the Church of England were just a cut above – the social strata above the Congregationalists. We always felt that they lived in the bigger houses and had more money. It was probably wrong, but I always felt slightly inferior to people who went to the Church of England. I was brought up thinking that they were a little bit different. They were a little – for one thing their service only lasted an hour and ours lasted an hour and a quarter! [Q laughs] And another thing my parents told me that they prayed standing up – no, prayed kneeling down whereas we only bent our heads. And they stood up and sat down again many times during the service. Whereas Dissenters stayed in their seats, unless they were singing hymns. So, this was a hangover – (Q: You were aware of the difference.) we were aware of the difference, yes.
Q: What other people were there in your church – chapel, mostly?
Mr P: [Sighs] Various tradesmen, or people connected with a trade, or – [sighs] – it’s difficult to say, really. There were certainly tradesmen. There was the cabinetmaker, and the fishmonger, and the grocer. Two or three lots of cabinetmakers now I come to think of it. Retired people, one or two people who worked on farms. But we weren’t the professional people. We weren’t the bankers or the solicitors. Or the doctors, they would be Church of England, automatically.
Q: So what about farmworkers and people like that, would they go to one or the other?
Mr P: They would probably go to their little local chapel, like Rivenhall or out at Terling. There might be a few farmworkers. But the farmworkers lived really on the periphery, on the outskirts. No, we didn’t have any professional people at all.
Witham Council School was very different of course from the schools now. There were three classrooms, the Infants and then when you’d been there two years you moved into the lower room. And then into the upper room. And you sat on forms and if the teacher wanted to call you to order, you sat like this with your hands on your heads, or worse still, like this. You sat on forms and you moved up through the standards. Standard 1, 2, 3 and 4. And when I was in Standard 4, I then took the scholarship and went on to Braintree High School. And I found Braintree High School very different indeed. In fact, I didn’t do at all well at Braintree High School for a start. I was the bottom of the class and I – I won’t say I didn’t like it but I found the adjustment particularly because most of the pupils in the school were fee-payers and were therefore – had more money than I had. However, I stuck it out and at the end I went into the sixth form, there were only five of us in the sixth form. And I – at the end I not only got London Matric but I’d also got my Intermediate degree. So that when I went to the university I was able to skip the first year. So I pulled round but I made a very bad start at Braintree High School. Because it was so different (Q: In what way?) – from Witham. Well, Witham – you sat on one form all the time. You had the same teacher for everything and when I went to Braintree I moved round the classes. I had different teachers, one teacher for Maths, and another teacher for French, and another teacher for English. It all took – and I’d lived in a small society, knowing everybody ‘on the photograph’ and I was in a much bigger school and it took me – because I had a very protected childhood. My parents over-protected me. I found it difficult to adjust, I t took me a couple of years, I expect, before I really showed what I could do.
Q: I’m not surprised, really. Were they keen for you to go there?
Mr P: Ys, they were quite keen for me to go there, it was a ‘leg-up’. It was a – a – I was improving my social status and theirs. I was wearing a school cap and I’d got a satchel, you see! [Q laughs] That was something better than going down the Maldon Road. But I don’t want to be snooty about Maldon Road. Maldon Road was good. It taught me to read and it taught me to write. It taught me to spell. It – they dinned it into us and I really did have the three Rs and I’m very grateful to Maldon Road. I’m not being a bit superior to it. (Q: No) Because it was – it was very old-fashioned. We had arithmetic every day; mental arithmetic and I can still do mental arithmetic much better than younger people. And I can write a fair hand and I don’t make many mistakes in spelling. So that I’m very grateful to Witham Council School and I’m also very grateful to Braintree High School. Because that was the bridge between Witham Council School and university. And those seven years at Braintree were tremendous and I think that the education which I received at Braintree was very good indeed. Say it I shouldn’t, it was very much better than you get in schools nowadays. That’s not going to be quoted is it?
Q: No, people’s comments on the world today – they can wait for somebody else.
Mr P: But you see, we were taught French grammar, we were taught Latin grammar and by heavens, I still remember it! And Maths, I still can remember the fundamentals of Maths although I’m not a mathematician. And –
Q: What subjects did you take at university?
Mr P: When I went to university first, I took a general degree in Latin, English, History and Geography. And then when I began teaching, my headmaster said to me ‘BA degrees, two a penny!’ That put me in my place! Two a penny! [laughs]. He said ‘What you should do is get another degree’. And so I then set about, I followed his advice and I took another degree which was an Honours degree in Geography and Economics. So I’ve got a couple of degrees.
Q: These were both in London, were they?
Mr P: Both London external. They were both external.
Q: External? Were you working while you took them?
Mr P: My second degree, I was working. I was teaching in Dagenham while I took that. So –
Q: Did you do your first degree externally? Does that mean – what’s the difference between that and …?
Mr P: The point was that I had got my Intermediate degree at school. So when I went to London University, Goldsmiths College, I went into their Second Year. So I was only going to spend two years at the degree. Now, to take an internal degree you’ve got to be there three years. So I had to take it externally. And then my second degree, of course, I was at work. So I did that – my bed-sit was my university for that.
Q: Yes. Hard going I suppose.
Mr P: Yes, it took five years.
[General conversation, not noted]
Q: Presumably not very many people got the scholarship so it was unusual …?
Mr P: It was – one each year. There was an Honours Board. And you usually got – you usually had one each year. You went to Braintree to take the scholarship. And then you were called up for interview if you’d done reasonably well. And you were interviewed by the school governors. It was quite a formidable thing, about a dozen of them. I can remember it very clearly indeed. In the chair was Sir William Courtauld. And also there was Margaret Tabor. After whom, of course, the Margaret Tabor School is named. And a man called Bartram. And they asked – they gave me something to read and then they asked me questions on it. They gave me that poem, ‘To the Cuckoo’. ‘Oh cuckoo, shall I call thee bird, but a wandering voice’ – you know the thing, don’t you? They gave me that and then they asked me about the cuckoo. Fortunately, I’d got a cigarette card which told me all about cuckoos so I was able to tell them all about it. And they said [laughs]‘How do you know all this about cuckoos?’ And I said ‘It’s on my cigarette card!’ When I got home my mother said ‘they don’t want to know about your cigarette card, you silly boy!’ [both laugh] Apparently it worked!
Q: Obviously. And you’ve been grateful to cuckoos ever since!
Mr P: Yes. And there was something else. They asked me – there was a piece of prose which I had to read. And the word ‘statue’ came into it. Or ‘statute’. And they asked me the difference between a statue
and a statute. Which was quite tricky, I thought.
Q: Yes, you knew did you?
Mr P: I must have done, mustn’t I?
Q: That’s sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?
Mr P: Yes. And then of course there was a medical! So there were three hurdles. Yes. However, it came.
Q: And when you got a scholarship, did that mean your fees were paid?
Mr P: My fees were paid and my fare was paid. The fare when I went from Witham to Braintree every day by train. My fare was paid and my fees were paid.
Q: And things like uniform and books and so on?
Mr P: Er, no the books were provided by the school but on special occasions the – you were expected to pay the fee – pay for the books extra. I remember there was one particular occasion it was an atlas to be bought, half a crown.. And my father wrote about that.
Because in those days we hadn’t got a lot of money. That was before he took over the business. We hadn’t got a lot of money when he’d taken over the business, at first. And I know that I got that atlas for nothing whereas the other people had to pay half a crown. And there were about six or seven scholarship people in my class. We knew who they were. (Q: How did you know?) But we weren’t treated badly. I mean there was no difference. Except in our own minds. There was no difference as far as the class was concerned.
Q: So how did you feel in your mind about it?
Mr P: Well, I knew that the other people had got more money than I had. And that – were able to go away for holidays more than I could.
Q: Did they have to take an exam as well?
Mr P: I don’t know how that was done. I don’t know.
Q: I’m sure that somebody once told me they didn’t go in for the scholarship because they wouldn’t have been able to afford to take it up. But presumably that was all the extra things like –
Mr P: It didn’t cost my parents anything. No, except just the school cap and the satchel. And I may have been dressed a bit more tidily than if I’d gone to a Council School. But I don’t think it meant – no.
Q: I suppose, and did some people leave there at fourteen or whatever it was, still or did you – were you expected to stay on?
Mr P: Some people left at fifteen, but – yes. But a few stayed on – well, the majority would stay on until sixteen and take the School Certificate. And if you got five credits in particular subjects then you got the School –
Q: So going back to the Council School, you started there when you were five?
Mr P: Five, yes. I remember the ‘School Board man’ as he was called, going back to the term ‘School Board’, coming to my parents to tell them that the school was going to open on the following Monday. Because in those days your school holidays were determined by the pea crop and the blackberry crop. You had a holiday in June when the peas were ready, because there was a lot of peas grown in the neighbourhood. And when the attendance began to fall, it was obvious that the children were going off with their mothers to pick peas and when it fell below a certain limit, the headmaster would say ‘Right, holidays’. And you’d have five or six week’s holiday. And then – and so it varied from year to year. Wouldn’t like that now, would they? And then there was another holiday in late September according to the blackberries and I think that was two weeks.
Q: Did you ever go pea picking or anything?
Mr P: No, I used to blackberrying, but pea picking I didn’t do – that was a class lower than us that went pea picking. You were very class-conscious. Oh no, my parents wouldn’t let me go pea picking. No.
Q: Would you have liked to, do you think?
Mr P: [sighs] I don’t know. It never crossed my mind that I was likely to.
Q: You just didn’t –
Mr P: No. There were a lot of travellers, pea-pickers – one of them is mentioned in your book – came into the neighbourhood at that point. A kind of migration, sleeping in the hedges and haystacks, if the farmer would let them, and picking peas. But no, it was never – it never crossed my mind. That was a class below. Some of those children went pea picking, but I wouldn’t.
Q: And was about fruit – strawberries and things?
Mr P: Yes, there were strawberries. No I didn’t go strawberry picking either, same thing, yes. But it was pea-picking really that was the main out-of-school activity.
Q: So what would you be doing while they were all picking?
Mr P: Mucking about, I think!
Q: What sort of mucking about would you do?
Mr P: It’s difficult to say, I can’t remember very much. I’d go into the shop, I’d mooch around the High Street. That was probably why I can remember the High Street so clearly! [Q laughs] Because – I would go out for walks. I collected flowers. I collected birds’ eggs. Er, er, [sighs] during and just after the War, I collected army badges. Er, no I don’t really – I’d cycle. I had a bicycle. My parents bought me a bicycle, or my mother did. Twelve shillings and sixpence she gave for it. [both laugh] I remember very clearly. I would help in the shop, clean down the – my father’s bench after tea. Sweep up. Put out the things outside the shop, because outside the shop he would have a second-hand trunk, a bunch of snares, rabbit snares, plough lines. Er, cans of oil, brushes, that kind of thing you stand outside the shop. They’d all had to be got in and put out, you see.
Q: You say, you said your parents were over-protective. But they didn’t mind you wandering about then? In what way –
Mr P: No, they didn’t mind me wandering about so long as I kept in Witham, wouldn’t like me wandering about – I was never over-protected in the sense that – well, they were nervous, really I expect. I was an only child and they were rather nervous that I would – something would happen or other to me. And that was – I suffered because of that. And now I’m opening my heart to you now. You see, when I went to – to take the scholarship there were probably eight or nine boys and girls from the Council School and the Church School who were in that train to take the scholarship. Going off to Braintree on Saturday morning. My mother came with me to the station, and down on to the platform and I never lived that down! And the first day when I got the scholarship and I had – was going off to school, my father came up to the station with me and down on to the platform and saw me into the train – I never lived it down, you see. I was all – [sighs] it’s very difficult. And another thing, I really am opening my heart to you! Another thing, whereas the other boys kept their season ticket in a wallet in their pocket, my parents thought I might lose it. So my father stitched into my satchel a little place where I could keep the ticket.
Q: Very sensible.
Mr P: It wasn’t at all! Because I was very different from everyone else. When I came to get out of the station and they wanted to see my ticket I had to stop, undo my satchel and point to it. Whereas the other boys would – I was different! But the worst thing of all was this. My parents, not having very much to give me – they gave me three names. Gerald Basil Coote. Coote is a family name from my mother’s family going back two or three generations. Coote also means a silly bird, doesn’t it, you see? (Q: Yes, I suppose so). Now, my parents wrote in my satchel in full big letters [Q laughs] ‘Gerald Basil Coote Palmer’. I was always called Coote at school – it was all a term of derision. Now can you see?
Q: Yes I can, it still happens, doesn’t it?
Mr P: They did it at –
Q: They did for the best –
Mr P: Best motives. You see. Are you taking all this down?
Q: Well if I do I shall be careful.
Mr P: But – I never lived it down, I was always known as Coote, When I went to college I went with a boy from school and we shared rooms, he always called me Coote. And the girls made great fun of this and it was a shame because –
Q: You said earlier on you didn’t have many friends?
Mr P: I didn’t have many friends. No, no.
Q: That must have made it difficult for you. Were they worried about who you would –
Mr P: Yes, I was always kept at home. I mean, if my parents went for a walk, which was a regular thing. Sundays was a regular kind of process. My father would never do any work on a Sunday, of any kind. My mother would never cook on a Sunday, except for potatoes. They were excused. [Q laughs]. After chapel on Sundays we always went for a walk. Along – up Newland Street, round Avenue Road, down Collingwood Road. A regular thing. My mother and father and me, you see. Now, we would meet the other boys, probably two or three of them, mucking about. Then after Sunday school on Sundays, we would go another walk Sunday afternoons. Along Rivenhall Road, you see, along past the Catholic church over the bridge and along to Rivenhall – there were no houses there then, it was all country. Or along Cressing Road, past Chalks Road, no houses after that. Over the bridge, round, back, past the Cherry Tree pub down Church Street. Or up Chipping Hill, turn left and out to Guithavon Road. A regular thing. And I was – until I was about sixteen, seventeen, perhaps eighteen, that’s what I always did. I used to resent it but I hadn’t got enough ‘go’ to –
Q: And did you always resent it, do you think? Or did you not realise it when you were little?
Mr P: I didn’t realise it but when I got to sixteen or seventeen and an eye on a girl perhaps. You see, ‘There he comes with his Mum and Dad’!
Q: I suppose most people did have brothers and sisters in those days. Cause that helps.
Mr P: Oh yes. I hope I’m not being unkind to my parents. (Q: No, no) I mean, they did it from the best of motives. They were most loving parents and my father never raised a hand against me and was never cross. And I always had a very great and affection and respect for him. My mother was a bit more – of a Tartar, as you may have gathered. But –
Q: Was she very strict with you?
Mr P: [sighs] Well, [sighs] I think my mother was what would now be called a ‘manic depressive’. She was very excitable on some occasions and very depressed, with a bad headache, lying down, on others. And this gave me a certain insecurity. I never quite knew where I was. My father was always extremely placid. But my mother was – you never really knew, because she was very excitable sometimes and very down the other. She would send me across to the chemist for a Sedlitz[?] powder, or smelling salts. Yes. Dear oh dear, I have talked a lot, haven’t I?
Q: Did they have brothers and sisters and other relatives that you saw at all?
Mr P: Yes. My father was one of seven and my mother was one of four, and they all survived.
Q: Did you see much of them?
Mr P: Well, yes, we’d see them, on occasions, shall I say. You know at Christmas we might see them, or – my father’s brother lived in Witham. And he was a guard on the Braintree and Witham railway. And my two cousins lived in Witham of course. Very near you. Very near – in those houses – next door to where the Chalks used to live. [Braintree Road?] They went to Witham Council School and they got scholarships. They were one year and two years older than I was and they both got scholarships to Braintree. So the word ‘Palmer’ appeared three times on that Honours Board. And we used to have – used to go up to them on Christmas Day and they’d come down to us on Boxing Day and that kind of thing. And then I had grandparents in – my mother’s parents lived in Chelmsford, I used to go and stay there sometimes. And then when I was older I would cycle with my parents. They’d take a day off from church, from chapel on Sunday and we would cycle over to see my uncle. I’d got an uncle at Blackmore End, near Braintree and another uncle at Sible Hedingham, and another uncle at Toppesfield. They were all Essex, you see as you can probably tell from my way of speech, that I’m very Essex. So –
Q: But you didn’t play with your cousins in Witham, much or anything?
Mr P: Not very much, no. One thing about Braintree High School – to go back to Braintree High School, I’m always very very grateful for. We had an excellent – an absolutely fantastically good English master; who was extremely good not just in teaching English, but in opening our eyes. For example, I learnt from him the fundamentals of architecture and of music and of painting. I can still remember through him the difference between ‘Early English’, and ‘Decorated’ and ‘Perpendicular’. Or –
Q: What was his name?
Mr P: Entwhistle, he came from Liverpool. And I can still know what is the difference between a lyric and a sonnet and an epic and that kind of thing. And I owe a tremendous amount to him and I still know the difference between Romantic painting and Classical painting and Baroque painting and so on.
Q: That’s wonderful, isn’t it?
Mr P: And it all came from him. And he used to do it in his English lessons. And the amazing thing was that he never once had anyone who failed English in the School Certificate.
Q: Because they were all so absorbed, weren’t they?
Mr P: Yes.
Q: Oh it’s marvellous when you meet someone like that, isn’t it? The things you learn then stay with you.
Mr P: Yes, I can – he was amazingly good. But he could be very sarcastic. We were all always afraid or scared of his tongue. Because although he was fundamentally a kind man, he could be extremely sarcastic. The kind of thing you would never forget. For example I remember once – he used to do some Latin teaching. We didn’t – we couldn’t do it, we didn’t know anything about it really, at that stage. And there was a boy called Wood and he was afraid that it was going to be his turn to translate and he kept looking up at the clock. And Entwhistle said to him ‘Have you decided what you’re going to do when you leave school, Wood?’ Wood said ‘No sir’. ‘Oh’, he said’ I thought perhaps you were going to be watchmaker!’ ‘No sir?’ ‘Oh, you seem to be very interested in clocks!’ [Q laughs] So nobody ever looked at that clock again! You see, that struck home. I remember that, oh, seventy years nearly, nearly seventy years.
Q: You were a teacher yourself, always, were you?
Mr P: Yes. I’ve always been concerned with schools.
Q: You seem to have learnt a bit from him.
Mr P: Yes. I went – when I left university, I went to teach in Dagenham which was then a big LCC housing estate. And then I was there six – nearly six years. I became headmaster at Brightlingsea New Secondary School, that was in 1937, and I stayed there six years. And then I became headmaster of Mid Essex Technical School in Chelmsford. I was there eleven years from ’43 to ’54. And then I went to Mark Hall in the new – in the Harlow New Town Comprehensive School; I was there twenty-one years. So I’ve always been in schools. I’m now retired – in 1975, thirteen years ago.
Q: And how did you find Dagenham? That was your first job, was it hard?
Mr P: Very tough indeed. I – it was a very rough neighbourhood. They were all children – boys from the East End. I couldn’t manage them at all. There were forty-eight in a class – the teachers would all go on strike now! And I taught that class for most things, English, arithmetic, music, physical education – such as it was – Scripture –
… Witham was – we used to have what was called an ‘object lesson’ What you’d call it nowadays, ‘curriculum development’ or ‘integrated humanities’ or something like that. [Q laughs]. But we’d all gather round and the teacher, Mrs Andrews who appears in that photograph, had on her desk some object like a piece of coal or a loaf of bread or something like that. And then we would do the whole of where it came from, what it had done – and that was awfully good for us, you know. I can remember those lessons now.
Q: As you say it brings in every aspect, doesn’t it? I’ve looked at log books of schools and they often talk about object lessons but never quite figured out what it was.
Mr P: Yes. Well, that ‘s what it was. Yes.
Q: Would she speak all the time or ask questions?
Mr P: She’d be kind of asking questions, you see. And it would really be – she would elicit the information and then supplement it as required, as needed.
Q: She would be asking you to con tribute as well?
Mr P: Oh yes, we just didn’t stand there. Of course, a lot of it was instruction – that’s not a bad thing, really. I mean I can remember the geography – some of these things if you take those, you’ll find it’s all written down in that thing about Witham Council school. We learnt, you know, what’s called ‘capes and bays’. You know, coming down the coast where the bays were and where the capes were. And I still know the coast very well indeed, from those days. And the names of places and the products. Birmingham – bicycles; Walsall – harness and saddlery; Wolverhampton – and so on. Dudley – ammunition and nails. I can still remember those things. And that was really through absolutely instruction, pumping it in.
Q: I presume you were at school during the war, going back to the First War. (Mr P: Yes.) Did that affect the school much?
Mr P: No, it didn’t affect the school. I mean we were aware of solders. We were aware of German prisoners, all marching past. But it didn’t affect the school at all, no.
Mr P: Well, it affected life at home very much. Because – perhaps I was a bit precocious but I was very aware of the War, as you can tell from that thing that I’ve just written. We certainly had soldiers billeted on us. My mother was very glad of that because it brought in a little more money. I think they paid a shilling a day, per soldier. And the soldier brought his own food in, but my mother would cook it. We had four soldiers billeted on us, oh, most of the War really. I can’t remember exactly when it started but I can remember those soldiers. And they lived in the living room and my father and mother and I lived in the kitchen or scullery as we called it. Er, and then they would come – they would go and another lot would come in.
Q: How long did they stay, about, normally?
Mr P: Three or four months. Because it was a training area, you see. Yes, they would stay three or four months. I can’t remember exactly but I was aware of soldiers all the time. Because they would be in and out of my father’s shop and they would – they’d occupied all the big houses in the High Street. The big house which is now Barclays Bank was the headquarters, as you’ve read. [59 and/or 61 Newland Street] And there were various other shops which were empty at the time which were occupied by soldiers. Whitehall, [18 Newland Street] which was a large empty house, was taken over by soldiers. Which is now the library. And then there were – they were in the fields adjoining The Avenue, which was quite a feature of Witham, that lime tree avenue.
And then they would be training – ‘The Retreat’ in Maldon Road, there was a large house called ‘The Retreat’. I think the name is still up ‘Retreat’. I think the area is called ‘The Retreat’ in Maldon Road. There was a large house, that was taken over. Then down Maldon Road, there was a camp on the right-hand side. There was a store – a big dump for ammunition and things in Maldon Road, as you went down Maldon Road, over the bridge – the river, gradually up the hill. There are houses now on the right. On the left there was a big dump there of all kinds of army gear. And they came and went. And of course they – I won’t say they flooded but they added very much to the congregation of the chapel. Because they would come and take – and be in the evening service. And then after the evening service, there would be sausage rolls and buns dispensed to the soldiers, upstairs in the schoolroom. Yes you were – I was very aware of the War, very aware indeed. Although I was only a small child but I can remember it very clearly and I can remember the events of the War. I think it was partly because my parents – the one piece of reading matter they really took in; they took in a magazine which was called ‘The War Illustrated’. I’ve got it and this was something which I always read, and looked at the pictures. And they then had it bound in volumes – I’ll show you one in a moment. And I was looking at one, and see this photograph. And for years really I went on looking at those pictures and reading it because it was almost the only reading matter we had in my house. And I was very grateful to them for doing that really. But – so I was very aware, extraordinarily aware, when I look back at it, what I can remember of the War, although I was only eight when it finished. But I can remember it. I can remember my father coming and saying Kitchener had been drowned. And I can remember my parents discussing the murder of the Tsar, which was in 1917, wasn’t it? But – and of course I can remember the Zeppelin raids. And I can remember that Saturday morning when they sent Gothas over, about eight or nine Gothas – very high up. They came over Witham and everybody went out into the street to look at them! They bombed Liverpool Street area, that Saturday morning. Extremely daring thing to do, to come over in daylight like that. But –
Q: Did you feel in any danger or anything? As you did the Second War?
Mr P: No, I didn’t feel in any danger, no. Not like – but it wasn’t like bombing –
[Telephone rings] Oh dear –
[General conversation, not noted]