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Life in Abbotsley in the 1920s and 1930s

                                   ​

                              LIFE IN ABBOTSLEY IN 1920s and 1930s

                       HAROLD STOREY’S TALK TO ABBOTSLEY SOCIETY

                                        14TH OCTOBER 1993

​Having read Nanda Wisson’s book on Abbotsley and marvelled at the amount of research that went into it, I wondered if there was anything more I could add to the history of the village and so I thought this evening I would just delve into my own memories and experiences, mainly of life in the village in the 1920s and 1930s.

I was born in the house with the general stores on High Green which looked down over the village green. My family are believed to have occupied this for some 100 years from a John Storey in the 1860s. My mother’s parents John and Elizabeth Cade were there in the late 1800s and up to 1911 when my parents George and Maud Ruth Storey took over from them and they ran it until 1952.

 My parents occupied as tenants until 1920, when the owners, Paine & Co, brewers of St Neots, offered it for sale by public auction and my parents purchased.

 The Village Stores

Little came into the shop ready packaged. Sugar and flour came in hundredweight sacks to be weighed up into 1 & 2 pound bags. The sugar sack being of closely woven hessian was always in demand as a base for rug making.The ladies in the village would collect their offcuts of fabrics of various colours, cut them into short strips and pegged them into the hessian to make colourful heathrugs.

 Currants, sultanas, biscuits even light and dark tobacco came in bulk and had to be weighed up as required.  Bacon came by  sides of carcase and salt and cheese in large blocks to be cut into pieces . Vinegar came in large wooden barrels and customers brought their own can or bottle for this. 

 The shop opened 8 am – 6 pm Monday to Thursday, to 8pm on Friday and 9 pm on Saturday making it an exhausting day for my mother. The post office was also incorporated into the shop for a period of time moving in my lifetime between various properties in the village.

 At the rear of the main premises was a slaughter house where my father killed pigs for our pork butchers business.  Quite a number of the villagers would keep a pig or two as well as poultry in their back gardens. When the pigs were fatted up to the required standard they would ask my father if he would take them for slaughter and a deal would be struck at the going rate.

 It was a common sight in my youth to see a pig trotting up the village street, herded along to the shop by the owner and his family. The owner would have first option on the blood for black pudding and the intestines and would bring a jug to take this home with them !

 Other Shops

There were two other shops in the village.  Mr and Mrs Roberts occupied what is now the larger of the New Row houses on the western end. He operated it as a general store and post office. The other shop was a timber building in the front garden of David Staughton’s house where David’s father Bill sold sweets, cycle accessories, torches, batteries etc.

Stanley Wisson, father of Gerald and Brian was also a pork butcher and dairy farmer and produced milk, eggs and other commodities for the village and the surrounding district.

 Public Houses

The Plough ( later the Jolly Abbot) was owned by Paine & Co of St Neots. My earliest recollections are of  my uncle and aunt, Banks and Phyliss Cade as proprietors. It was ideally suited for my uncle who was a carpenter and wheelwright and he also built farm carts and waggons. The extensive buildings at the Plough provided him with workshop, stores and a paintshop.

 He also acted as undertaker in the village. When there was a death in the village two ladies would normally prepare the body for burial which would remain at the house until the funeral which was usually held within 3 or 4 days. As undertaker my uncle would visit the house to make the arrangements and then construct a suitable coffin.

 The Eight Bells was owned by the Simpsons Brewery of Baldock and later taken over by Wells & Winch of Biggleswade and finally by Greene King. It was tenanted by Mr Arthur Brocket from about 1888 to the early 1920s.  During the 1940s Tom Smith , a popular cricketer and sportsman took over with his wife and teenage family. The pub was a good centre of entertainment for all ages and many convivial evenings were spent around the piano with singing.

 Tom Smith was a sergeant in the Home Guard and after Sunday morning military exercises the pub would be full of khaki clad men with rifles and gas masks strewn around !

 The Red Lion was owned by Wells & Winch but was delicensed  and sold off when the brewery became the owners of the Eight Bells.  Before this it had been the headquarters of the Football team and also the Pig Club which operated as a committee to provide compensation for the “cottage pig owners” in the event of the death of an animal. In my later job as a Surveyor & Estate agent I sold the Red Lion on behalf of the Brewery to Peter & Barbara Hancock for about £550 and they established a shop & post office which they ran for several years.

 Private Houses

Pyms Gardens did not exist in the 1920s. At that time there was just a pair of old cottages facing obliquely across the Green. Between them and Hardwicke Lane was a paddock with a pond in the middle and an attractive red flowering hawthorn tree.  From the adjacent cottage garden occupied by Ned & Lizzie Cannon came the sweet song of a nightingale on a regular basis. Later the former council houses at Pyms Gardens were built and later still the former red brick council houses on the left side of St Neots Road.

 On the opposite side on St Neots road Wootton Court did not exist until the early 1930s. It was built by Ben Harper, our village builder and I understand that the actual original building cost was £2450 which was quite a price for that time and reflected the size and specification.

 The old Vicarage, now demolished, stood in grounds stretching from Vicarage Farm to the Eight Bells. It was bounded at the front with a high brick wall. The entrance was via curved walls (evidence still there in the dwarf walls) and a pair of heavy timber gates. The drive ran down to the house and around the back to a courtyard which contained stabling, coach house, tack room & hay loft. For a time this partserved as a very suitable headquarters for the Abbotsley Boy Scouts. On the opposite side of the drive was a paddock which now contains the house and bungalow occupied by Mr & Mrs Simmons and Mr & Mrs Reid. The kitchen garden was situated next to Vicarage farm where Mrs Pike’s bungalow now stands.

 The island site bounded by the Gamlingay Road and the narrow one way lane once contained six white thatched cottages. Sadly they and seven others around the Green are no longer here.

 PEOPLE

There was not the movement of people in and out of the village that we see nowadays. I can remember that at one time there were 12 households with the name of Webb. Nicknames were given to almost every schoolboy and most of these survived schooldays and some passed down to the next generation. In the case of the Webb families where there was sometimes a duplication of first names nicknames came in useful in defining the right individual.

 There were 2 Sam Webbs, one was called “Bumper” and the other, a kindly bearded old gent was called “Uncle”. Two Reginalds were distinguished by the titles of “Gunner” and “Nossey”. Other Webb nicknames included “Dolly”, “Widow”, “Peggy” and “Tidley”.  Two of the Curringtons from Lansbury Cottage, Albert and Horace were known simply as “Big Chitty” and “Little Chitty”.

 In one of the cottages next to Collings Bros were the three Wicks brothers always referred to as “Big Beaver”, “Middle Beaver” and “Little Beaver”.

 One other lad that I must mention, as he is here tonight, is one who was always bright & cheerful , very energetic & exuberant. He delivered milk, eggs & meat for his family business. Such was his liveliness and haste to get going he scarcely placed a foot on his bicycle pedal to mount in the normal way but would run, jump and land easily in the saddle. What more appropriate nickname than “Ghee Whiz”. Isn’t that right Gerald !  (Gerald Wisson and Harold Storey had knowneach other from their earliest days and they both appear on several old school photos on this Abbotsley CCAN website from the 1920s & 1930s)

 CHARACTERS

There were lots of characters who I remember. Tommy Tomlin who was the stepfather of Roy and Clive Sillis always placed a poker in the fire at the Eight Bells and when red hot he would dip it in his beer glass to warm up the beer and give it a bit of life ! He is also said to have sold one of his dogs on several occasions. The price paid was usually 10 to 15 shillings but the new owner was the loser as the dog always returned home to Tommy ! His other dogs, usually whippets, followed his pony and trap everywhere and would earn their keep by bringing in the odd hare or rabbit from the fields as he drove along the road.

 Paddy Lawrence, an Irish lady lived in the Manor House with her husband and his brother, Bert and Bill Lawrence. They had a small farmery with a few acres of land. Paddy had a strident voice, far removed from the soft Southern Irish brogue and when visiting you could usually tell what mood she was in as her voice could be heard some distance away. She was however a kind lady and as a boy I spent many a time at their holding where she kept all types of animals, rabbits, bantams, geese, pigs, lambs, a cow and two working horses.

 One day as I was passing the house she called out “ Harold , come in and meet Dennis.” I entered the room which had a brick floor and was sparsely furnished. Along one wall was an old leather couch. It was unusual in that it had no legs. Paddy called out “ Come in Dennis” and through a back door entered a large black & white boar which as she tickled it’s tummy it subsided happily onto the couch !

 I am sure that most of you knew Lillian Cullup and the those that did not have almost certainly heard of her. For many years she and her family were our next door neighbours. Eccentric – to a degree, very intelligent, she was an excellent pianist and wrote poetry and published a book of poems of which she kindly gave me a copy. She was a sportswoman and would often join in impromptu cricket matches when she would whiz the ball down as fast as any of the male bowlers ! She was equally at home playing the church organ or tinkling the keys on the Eight Bells piano and leading the singing there.

 Arthur Brocket was for a time the proprietor of the Eight Bells. A friendly character with twinkling eyes and a flowing moustache. I remember at the early age of about 3 being sent up to the pub off licence to fetch for my parents the St Neots Advertiser known as “the halfpenny paper” which were displayed for sale there each Friday. Arthur was informal legal advisor, form filler, tax return helper and purveyor of many other helpful tasks to the villagers which he did freely and willingly for those who found such things beyond them.

 One story told by a certain lady gives some idea of the sincere affection in which he was held. He had arranged a coach outing to London for the ladies of the village. On arrival at the coach park in Central London he asked that all should be back at the coach for a prompt departure at 6pm. All went well until two of the ladies were unable to find their way back to the coach park. A young police constable saw them standing at a street corner looking bewildered and forlorn. He approached them and said “You look lost ladies. Is there anything I can do to help?”. “ I hope so” said one of the ladies, “ Could you tell us where we can find Mr Brocket ?”  ( The power of the man !)

 Entertainment

 There were no annual holidays for farmworkers. Ben Harpur’s building staff would be given a day’s outing to Skegness or Yarmouth and others would be invited to fill the coach.

 Abbotsley Feast was always eagerly awaited. There would be a Methodist service on the Green on Sunday evening and the locals and many visitors would  then adjourn to one of the hostelries for refreshment. Mannings Travelling Fair would arrive and provide entertainment on the Green or in the Cricket Field for three days. There would be a cricket match each day and revelry and community singing in the pubs in the evenings.

 Two tennis courts in the village  were very much enjoyed. Mr Walter Stock held tennis parties at Grange Farm and Mr & Mrs Woolley and their daughter Mollie did likewise in Waterloo Farm Close. Quite a number of visitors from outside the village would be invited and I particularly remember Vera Chapman in her sports car as she was a regular visitor. She very kindly later made a generous bequest to the Church in respect of her love for the village.

 There were regular dances in what was then the schoolroom (now the village hall). Abbotsley had its own Dance Band with Ena Hart at the piano, Bernard Hart on the drums and Agnes Jakes on the “strings”.

 Football and cricket teams were of quite a high standard  and as it was most youngsters ambition to represent their village there was much competition and practice to be one of the selected eleven.

 The Statute Fair in September and The May Fair on St Neots Market Square were the subject of a day’s holiday from school and on both Thursday and Saturday there would be a general exodus from the village.

 Utilities, Services and Transport

 Water services were supplied by the Duncombe Estate at Waresley. The water supply pipe followed the approximate line now taken by the sewage system – in reverse. Quite ironic – giving back in good measure !.

 There was little water piped direct to houses but standpipes were provided at various points throughout the village.

 Reg Gibson, who with his father Harry was village blacksmith was also “Waterwork Engineer”. With his pick, shovel and stillsons he would locate the point of any leak or burst and after warning the inhabitants to fill their buckets and containers he would turn off the main supply and proceed to remedy the defect.  I did not mention earlier that his nickname was “Clink” perhaps taken from an extract from an old poem “When I’m a man I’ll be a blacksmith if I can, Clink, Clink, Clink my anvil shall ring and this is the way my hammer will swing .......”

 Mains electricity arrived in the 1930s. Until then it was oil lamps in the living rooms and candles to guide you up to bed. In more recent years electric street lighting has been installed.  However although there had been many years without street lighting there was evidence of some former lights, probably oil, in the distant past where timber lamp standards stood on the corner of the Green and opposite the Eight Bells.

 Bus services were better in the 1930s than they are today. The Eastern National Services made two or three journeys to and from St Neots on market days. Sydney Bartle’s private coach also operated between Potton and St Neots on both Thursdays and Saturdays. As St Neots had a Cinema  and a very popular Dance Hall and shops in the town kept open on Saturday until 9 pm the St Neots bus service was well supported.

 Trade deliveries in the village were adequate. There were bakers, Mr Hyde, Mr Love, Bert Baker and Fred Shepherd. Fruit and vegetables were brought in by Jack Lovitt and Wrens. Wrens also came into the village on Monday and Wednesday with wet fish and their fish & chip vans called frequently.

 It is interesting to note that in addition to “Baker the baker” we had at our service a “Wise” chemist, and both a “Sharp” doctor and a “Cross” doctor !

 Market carriers Sidney and Frank Bartle and Fred Wright passed through the village on market days picking up crates of poultry and vegetables to be sold by auction. They would then return late in the day with the monetary proceeds for the growers and producers.

 The School

 For a time there were three teachers, Mr Henagulph, Mrs Cullup  (Lillian’s mother) and Mrs Stock. The last teachers in my time were Miss Everet, a first class head teacher and Mrs Harvey, who cycled in each day from Little Paxton.

 Children walked in each day from the outlying farms at Hardwicke, Highfield, New Farm at Tetworth and Lansbury.

 The facilities were simply one cold water standpipe to provide water to drink with our packed lunch. The lavatories were the bucket variety empted each Saturday around 6.30 am by Mr Eben Staughton. He would push a water container on iron wheels from his home in Hardwicke Lane to the school and lying in bed on a Saturday morning I would hear the drumming of the vehicle as he passed by, then turn over in bed with a contented thought that Eben was in charge !

 Crime

There was very little crime except perhaps a bit of poaching. Rabbits were plentiful and were an important contribution to the diet.

The chairman of the St Neots Magistrates, Mr Fydell Rowley  who lived in the Mansion House in Priory Park, St Neots ( long since demolished) was said for some reason to be lenient to any Abbotsley folks who came up in court before him. He often passed through the village wearing a black top hat, riding in a black shining buggy with an equally black & shining horse. He was driven by his groom who was also smartly turned out !

 Church

Church was well attended with morning prayer followed by Holy Communion and then Evensong. My first memory of vicars was the Reverend Higgins . His daughter was an invalid married to a Mr Holbourn. She later died and he eventually married in about 1931 Kathleen Gilbert who lived with her parents in the cottage now known as Thatchetty. They lived away from the village for many years but I remember meeting her on one or two occasions when she stayed in St Neots with my aunt. She eventually returned alone to Melbourne Cottage and when she died she was buried in the churchyard.

 Chapel

This was a most interesting place I believe that the  average congregation was 25-30. At the side of the chapel were three seats on either side which were gated and  which I understand were occupied by the same families every week. I don’t know if they paid a rent for them but I understand that they certainly showed their displeasure if someone invaded their territory !

 Lay preachers took services both afternoon and evening on Sundays. They would cycle to the village and be entertained to tea by a member of the congregation after the service. There were some interesting characters in the congregation and during the sermon having been whipped into a fervour of excitement would emit loud gasps of “Ah, Praise to the Lord”. Old George Harper had a more positive reaction to a long and monotonous sermon when at the end he would rise from his seat with relief and a loud “Amen” !

 Fields and Footpaths

These are some of my most nostalgic boyhood memories. There was a predominance of permanent pasture land around the village and one could walk in all directions on grass whether or not there were public footpaths. I cannot recall any time that there was an objection from a landowner to our walking through a farmyard to gain access to, or across the land beyond.

 The Abbotsley Brook from the Waresley road and along its entire length to Hen Brook, Eynesbury was flanked by delightful meadows. The public footpath throughthe cricket field to the Hardwicke Farm (now the Golf Hotel) ran through grass fields.

 One could take the path from the churchyard through Lover’s Lane and to the Waresley Road entirely on grass and then onto Waresley without touching road or arable land.

 The footpath originally passed from Lover’s Lane across Blacksmith’s Lane and through  the White cottage garden opposite. In my later career I acted as Surveyor for the owner in the sale of the land for the building of Blacksmiths Close and at that time the footpath was diverted to its present position.

 It is interesting to note the simple way that we all had in identifying the roads and streets. The High Street was “Up the street” & “Down the street” with the Eight Bells seeming to be the dividing line. As to the roads out of the village it was “Along the road” (St Neots Road).  “Down the road” (to Gransden) and “Up the road” (Pitsdean) !

 Agriculture

There is much I could say about farming but it is really a separate subject worthy of another talk and it would take too long to do it justice in the time we have today.

 Farming has changed so much from the days of horse ploughing, wooden farm carts, heavy steam engines used for pulling equipment, corn thrashing and the heavy manual labour with men with scythes and forks cutting and stacking hay and straw. With mixed farming and much more livestock than today it was for many a six or seven day week and often at peak times 18 hours a day labour and most men in the village were employed on the land or in work linked to it.

 I will sum it up with a verse from one of my favourite poems by Thomas Gray:

 “The curfew tolls the knell of passing day,

The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, 

And leaves the world to darkness and to me”

 As I stand once more in my memory outside my parents shop on the top of the Green watching those men coming home from the outlying farms and up to the village through the cricket field, from Hardwicke Farm, Caldecote, Highfield, Meadow Farm and from Lower Wintringham, weary and heavy legged, “docky bags” over their shoulders, I think that Thomas Gray got it just right. They don’t walk, they certainly don’t run – They just plod !

  Harold Storey

14th October 1993