The Early Years
My elder sister, Jenny, and I were both born not far from Birmingham, at a farm cottage in Hopwood. The cottages, Groveley Farm Cottages, were a part of a farm run by a Mr Taylor. The last occasion when I drove past these cottages was in 1969, not long before I moved down to Newbury in Berkshire. At that time I believe they were still being used for farm cottages and had not suffered the fate of so much property, purchased by commuters who worked in the city nearby. The cottages are still there, set back from the main Birmingham road and looking rather attractive with their large gardens, although there are also farm buildings to the rear. The farm, Groveley Farm, now known as Grove Wood Farm, is a part of a larger estate, managed by the Bourneville Village Trust. This connection with the Cadbury family, who followed the Quaker faith, accounts for my parents working at the farm. My father was a conscientious objector and had been before a tribunal since he refused military service. One of the options was farm work, if it was available. Through friends who lived nearby he was able to obtain a position at the farm.
Victory in Europe had been achieved, victory in Japan came later. I was born in the month of June 1945. It was a time when the effects of the second world war were very much a factor dominating life in Europe. In England we still had the effects of rationing, a feature of life that was to last for several years. This consisted of families being issued with books consisting of a series of coupons that could be given as exchange for various goods, along with the purchase price. Without the coupons it was an offence to sell or purchase the goods subject to rationing. These included such items as fuel, sugar, meat and sweets. A considerable black market operated for goods for those who could afford to pay more than the usual price for the restricted goods.
One advantage of being brought up on farms was having the facility to grow some food for the family and nearly all of the cottages I lived in during my childhood provided some land for the farmworkers. We did have a good supply of milk and vegetables, the farm was, and still is, a dairy farm.
Toys and sweets were luxuries, but the farm relied on German prisoners of war for a labour source and my father’s work included the supervision of small groups of prisoners. Some of them became friends and they would make small toys for my sister and I. This was my first experience of those who were described as ‘the enemy’ and over the years I developed a different attitude to the idea of ‘an enemy’, but more of that later. The impression that with the end of hostilities all prisoners of war were sent home is false, some were still in England several years after the cessation of hostilities.
Perhaps one of the most devastating revelations from the war which came to light during 1945 were the atrocities of Auschwitz. This was a concentration camp where many Jewish families had been sent to their death by the National Socialist regime in Germany. It is estimated that some 1.5 million Jews were killed at this camp alone. The camp was discovered by the Red Army (Soviet Army). Later in the year a less significant event was the loss of a band leader, Glenn Miller over the English Channel. He was flying from London to Paris at the time. Rumours were around of the engagement of Princess Elizabeth to the Greek, Prince Philip.
The first post war elections produced a landslide victory for a Labour government. Rather like the ending of the first world war, there were hopes of a new beginning, a fresh start that would see social change and moves towards a more equal society. For my family the hope was for a fairer society, though the obvious reward was simply the start of the National Health Service. They would have to wait a while for that, in fact until July 5th 1948.
I was less than a year old before there was talk of a special relationship between Britain and the United States of America, whilst at the same time there was also talk of the Iron Curtain that was descending across Europe. Churchill was already calling for the United Nations to have an international army, others were hoping that talk of peace might have implied a rather different approach.
By 1947 the first signs of the failure of the government to pull the country around were beginning to show. A small, but significant sign, was the need to conserve energy. The BBC cut its broadcasting by an additional five hours and the unemployment total was measured at 1.9 million, at a time when figures were probably more accurately presented than today. Princess Elizabeth was married, Prince Philip gained the title of Duke of Edinburgh (the Scots were not consulted, any more than when Charles was made the Prince of Wales).
1947 was a year that my parents would always remember. It was a particularly cold winter, though I do not recall much about that. We had a dog, whose name was Rip. The dog guarded the pram whilst I was very young and would not let people into the house without the say so of my mother and father. In April of that year a number of the sheep on the farm were savaged by dogs and Mr Taylor jumped to the conclusion that Rip was responsible and he wanted to shoot the dog. With the help of Joan and Geoff Allen , Rip was put into a kennel on a temporary basis. Three weeks later the culprits were caught, three local dogs, and were shot by Mr Taylor. When my father asked whether Rip could now come back Mr Taylor still refused and still wanted to shoot the dog. I can remember the dog and also know that farmers have tended to get very worked up when dogs do damage to a flock. Most often the damage is done by visitors to the countryside bringing dogs that have never been trained and I have every sympathy with farmers who see them worrying sheep and decide to shoot them. For my parents there was conflict, Rip had not been seen worrying sheep. The dog was very much a favourite for my sister and I. My father decided the only way forward was to start looking for another job. It was my mother who answered an advertisement in the ‘Farmers Weekly’ from a Professor Joad who had a farm in Hampshire, and it was she who wrote the application letter. So, at two years old I was to make the first move of many in my life to a new home.
Hawkley in Hampshire
1947 – 1950
My father, through my mother, had responded to an advertisement in the ‘Farmers Weekly’ magazine and was invited to go and be interviewed by a Doctor C. E. M. Joad and his farm manager, Geoff Phillips. My father recalls a rather colourful account of being interviewed by Dr Joad at his home in London, who seemed somewhat argumentative. This, as he was soon to discover, was a characteristic of Joad, who liked nothing better than to debate almost any subject. His employees at the farm were often used as a ‘sounding board’ for his ideas. My favourite quote from Joad was the way he would so often begin an answer to a question with ‘It always depends what you mean by….’. I think my father picked up the phrase from him since he used it on so many occasions afterwards. So in 1947 we arrived at Lower Oakshott Farm.
Joad also enjoyed a good game of chess and would frequently invite my father to the farm house to play, where he was a fierce competitor who did not like to lose. This seemed to rub off on my father for, many years later, when he was teaching me how to play chess he was also reluctant to lose any match. As a learner I found that to be very discouraging!
The memories of this period are also quite vague. I do recall that Doctor Joad had a shooting brake, these days we would call it an estate wagon or estate car. It was a Humber and my father would use it for getting supplies in from Petersfield, which was the nearest town. On one occasion I was left unattended in the vehicle and managed to release the handbrake. Fortunately the vehicle was not on a slope and my father returned before any harm could come to anyone. Those days were happy days, we were visited by by maternal and paternal grandfathers, who also would like to join in some light farm work. If they both chose to visit at the same time then they seemed to regard doing the farm work as some sort of competition.
The time at Hawkley came to an abrupt end when two things happened. Firstly, Doctor Joad was caught travelling on a train from Waterloo to Exeter without a ticket and was fined. Since he was well known, appearing on the Radio programme “Brains Trust”, the case made the headlines and there was a lot of hate mail sent to him. Following that episode he was discarded from the ‘Brains Trust’ team. He asked my father to carry on managing the farm whilst he sought to find another farm in another part of the country, hoping to move away and make something of a fresh start. Then he collapsed and was told that he had not long to live, though he was only a little over 60 years of age. My father was ordered to help Geoff Phillips make preparations for the farm to be sold. It was a pity for my parents who enjoyed living in the area and my father enjoyed very much working for Doctor Joad. We left the area in 1950, although Doctor Joad survived until 1953 before he passed away.
Many years later my parents returned to this part of Hampshire, my father working for Eric Horne who had a farm at Swanmore. They enjoyed living in Hampshire, perhaps almost as much as Bishops Castle and it seemed rather fitting that when the farm at Bishops Castle was eventually sold off that he should have got the opportunity to move back to an area that they both liked.
In 1948 the eleven plus examination arrived, together with plenty of comment from schoolteachers. Much of this was not directed at the inequalities that would result from a division at such an age, but at the age for primary to secondary transfer. It was argued that many children would benefit if this was left to thirteen years. Middle schools did not arrive for another two decades and then by the 1980’s were being hastily dismantled for political reasons by many local authorities under Labour Party control. The introduction of the examination was to have quite an effect on the education of both my sisters and I, though my youngest brother, Christopher, was to experience the new ‘comprehensive school’ formula which was determined to be less divisive.
January 1950 to October 1950
I am not sure how we really arrived at this farm but the stay here was short, my only memory is that of making a fuss on one occasion about wanting to be taken to the nearest town, which was Stroud. There were many occasions when I grew older that my mother seemed to take a delight in telling the story of me shouting out “I want to go to Stroud NOW.” I used to cringe whenever the story was told in my presence, as it usually was!
The stay was short since the owner of the farm had a disagreement with my father which led to a confrontation. The owner had a roving eye for women, and wished to include my mother. He made this pretty plain to her, and that he had gotten his way with other women whose husbands worked for him. My mother told my father who immediately proceeded to confront the owner of the farm. The confrontation stopped a little short of physical, but the outcome was an immediate dismissal. Today such behaviour would be viewed very differently but in those times this form of sexual harassment was not infrequent in the agricultural sector. The result was that we left pretty quickly.
October 1950 to October 1953
I was five years old and this was the fourth home that I had lived in. I wonder if this pattern had an effect on the rest of my life?
Before going to the farm in Gloucestershire my father had received an offer of employment from a Colonel Sykes and had turned it down. It was fortunate that as he was about to leave Gloucestershire he was contacted by Colonel Sykes again and asked to reconsider the offer. This time he accepted and we moved to Bishops Castle.
It is at the farm of Lydham Manor that I really think my childhood began in terms of memories. Here I started school and formed some of my first friendships at the primary school which lasted through until I left Bishops Castle to head on down to the ‘Big Smoke’ and college in north London. We were to live in the Bishops Castle area three times and so many links were made that in many ways I do still see the area as my home, and Bishops Castle as my home town.
I was sent to the primary school at Bishops Castle, where I first met Frank Townsend and Jimmy Marsten, Roger Broad, the Richards twins (Shirley and Laurie), Rachel Hemmings, Heather Murray and many more. The head teacher at the school was Percy Robinson, he lived on Welsh Street at the top end of the town with Anna, his wife, who was a Canadian and their son Johnny. The first grade (infants) teacher was Mrs Rees, whose husband, ‘Jock’ Rees, was my sixth form teacher in the year that I left secondary schooling.
We moved to Bishops Castle at a time when the nation was dealing with a crime that had a list of suspects that ran into millions. The Stone of Destiny had been stolen from Westminster and most of Scotland had sworn that the stone should be returned to Scotland where it belonged. They did get their wish almost fifty years later, but not on this occasion, though the stone did make a brief appearance at Arbroath Abbey. It was at Arbroath many years before that a Declaration of Independence had taken place.
Whilst my father was coming to terms with the need to organise the farm at Lydham Manor the government were coming to terms with a farming catastrophe they had managed to create in east Africa. Around £36 million was written off as the groundnuts scheme came to a halt. Another plan was to flood the market with suits made of a mixture of wool and monkey nuts, around 3.5 million were proposed. I have no idea what happened to this scheme.
We did glean some information about ‘the rest of the world’ through listening to my parents talk. In those days the radio was a source of news as was the daily paper the ‘News Chronicle’. The paper is of interest because it was formed by a merger of papers in 1930 and was owned by the Cadbury family. So the connection to Quakers continued for my parents, even though they were both Methodists. Sadly the paper folded in 1960 and was ‘merged’ with a very right wing paper, the Daily Mail. That was rather a surprise since the Chronicle was liberal in viewpoint and had editorials that opposed General Franco in the Spanish Civil War and also oposed the ‘invasion’ of Suez years later. The paper was delivered from the local newsagents, called Pickfords, and I was also allowed my first ‘comic’ at this time which was the ‘Eagle’ whose main character was ‘Dan Dare’.
Lydham Manor was a grand old house standing back from the main road between Bishops Castle and Shrewsbury. Covered with ivy and Virginia creeper at the front, with massive bay windows at the front it was one of the most impressive buildings in the area, from the outside at least. Inside the maintenance was not being kept up. I went back to the area in the 1970’s to discover that little more than a shell was left, and by the mid-1990’s even that had been removed. It is sad to see old buildings go and I never really learned a great deal about the history of the manor. The house was originally built in 1815 and at that time was known as Oakeley House. The first record of the name Lydham Manor seems to date from around 1903. At that time the house had two large wings as well as a main central house.
There was a walled garden and a full time gardener was employed. For a short while we lived in a flat which was part of the main manor house until the farm cottage became vacant. We moved into a cottage surrounded by fields, a nice location and one that allowed us plenty of room for play. Nearby, along the back drive to the manor was the cricket pitch for the local side. My father played for this side for a number of years. Other players included two of the teachers at the High School, Eddie Steer and Joe Humphreys, and a local tradesman, Sid Cadwallader. Colonel Sykes, who had lost a leg during the war and required a runner, also played for the side. I guess that when you own the pitch you are allowed to play ! There were occasions when we were taken by coach to the away matches. For most of the players the cricket was a means of relaxation at the weekend, though even then there were a few who played for their averages.
It is coincidence that this is written at a time when the Millennium Dome will close at the end of the year after showing itself to be one of the real disasters of the year, wasting over £700 million of public money. In 1951 the Festival of Britain was proving to be a great success. Perhaps it is fitting to note the difference in the presentation. The Festival of Britain was opened by the King and Queen. They drove to Saint Paul’s for an opening service, the household cavalry were out, the Beefeaters were out, church bells pealed, people lined the streets, Trafalgar Square was full and it was a day of joy. The Millennium experience was an attraction run by politicians, full of plastic imagery, with little sign that the public were actively involved and with the intention of making a profit. This last point provokes thoughts about politicians not being able to organise a certain event in a brewery, how true that turned out to be.
On the parkland in front of a manor an agricultural show was held each year, one particular event being to guess the weight of a rather large sheep that was on display. Farmers from the area eyed up the beast and applied the wisdom of years to this task before writing their guess on a sheet of paper and posting it in the entry box. I was just about able to write my name, took one look at the animal and wrote a figure down and posted it in the box. Much to the surprise of everybody I won with a guess that was spot on.
The small village of Lydham was about a mile away from the manor and we walked there on a few occasions. There was a site of an old watermill that still had the wheel turning, although it no longer had the gear inside for grinding corn. The mill had been a part of the manor estate and worked in the 19th century. I believe there had been a windmill in the village before that used for the same purpose, grinding corn. The remains of a mound that was once the motte for Lydham castle could be found and I recall nearby were heaps that my father insisted were barrows, old burial mounds, that I found interesting. There was another farm in that village, but little more that I can remember.
My parents were both quite active during this period. They joined the Castle Players, a local drama group, that put on productions in the Legion Hall until the new school was opened in 1959 with its large stage and brand new hall. Jock Rees, a mathematics and physics teacher at the High School, was the lighting expert. My parents also joined a local tennis club which played for recreation rather than competition. My sister and I used to play in the surrounding fields.
By 1952 the effects of burning so much coal had hit London with the Great Smog that cost many lives and woke up the politicians to the need for a Clean Air Act. Typically that took several more years before it was introduced. Britain was still proceeding with atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and busying itself with the task of assuring us all just how safe such tests were. National identity cards were finally withdrawn, after being introduced as a wartime measure. Many considered the requests to produce the cards were degrading. Today, with problems of purchase of alcohol by those under age, of vandalism and disturbances at football matches, there are many who would welcome a return of an identity card. Living in the countryside the stories about smog meant very little to us.
The king, George 6th, died in that year. I was in class at the primary school at the time and we were all called to one room where the radio was switched on and we all sat and listened in silence whilst the announcement was read out. I was aware that we had a king, but had no idea that he had been ill !
The hay harvest brought two events that I can recall easily. I was severely reprimanded for playing with Frank Townsend in one of the hay fields and rolling down the grass. Fortunately the grass could still be cut and harvested, though the cutting had not been made any the easier by our antics. Then, when the harvest was ready to be gathered I fell off a cart and cut the skin below my eye on some barbed wire. I was also on a cart when the whole load fell off, being very nearly buried under the hay. I also received a grand telling off when I decided to go and see Frank one day during a school holiday, walking around 2 miles to the town and not bothering to tell anyone where I was going. I remember talking to the Shakespeare family on the way, they lived in a cottage by the roadside, and they informed my parents that I was wandering around.
The Queen opened Parliament that autumn, even though the coronation had not taken place. The Lords wore their scarlet and ermine robes, the archbishops of Canterbury and York were present and it was a spectacle. This colourful ceremony still takes place, though it seems to have lost a lot of its attraction. There is far more scepticism over politics today, too much wastage of public money, too many smear stories appearing in the popular press, and far too many stories of corruption.
Corn was still being cut with a reaper at the farm, the sheaves being collected and stored in a great barn. A threshing box would appear in the late autumn, driven by a huge belt from a Field Marshall tractor, and the corn was collected into sacks. On this occasion a rather over-enthusiastic worker had brought along a shot gun to deal with any vermin, there were usually a few where sheaves had been stacked. His shot into the barns when he first saw something was without warning and the pellets bounced around the walls of corrugated iron sending everyone diving for cover.
Our final year at the farm was eventful in a number of ways. The coronation took place at last. There was a big event inside a marquee at Lydham, as children we came away with our coronation mugs. I am afraid that mine was lost among the many moves that followed. Queen Mary died in that year and my parents talked of another death, a singer called Kathleen Ferrier. At that time I had no idea who this singer was and I was in my early teens before I heard a number of recordings that she had made and was able to appreciate the beautiful voice that she had. Born in Lancashire at one point she had been a telephone operator in San Francisco.
At about the same time as the coronation there was an announcement that a team had succeeded in reaching the summit of Mount Everst. This made news in the area since the leader of the expedition, a John Hunt, lived somewhere in the county of Shropshire.
At this point in my life I did not really see myself as being from a ‘poor’ family. WE had a good cottage, my father had use of a farm vehicle on occasion, there was land for growing vegetables, milk from the farm and we were even allowed to keep some chickens in a field next to the cottage. the eagle comic
The move away from Bishops Castle did come as a shock. I had made friends in the area and suddenly moving away, again, did not seem a good idea to me! The move itself was also something of a shock, perhaps the first occasion that I realised we might be poor in some way. Instead of a removal wagon we left in an uncovered wagon, riding in the back along with the furniture. In the late autumn that was a bitterly cold experience with the windflow from the movement of the wagon.
Rossett, near Wrexham
October 1953 to January 1954
Four months ! My first home in Wales and it was a very short stay indeed. I remember having a plastic ‘Space Gun’ for Christmas, which projected some other piece of plastic by means of a spring-loaded mechanism. I remember nothing at all about the school, except that they must have taught in English. We travelled to school in an old shooting brake and whilst I was there the driver was involved in an accident. There now exists a memory of going to school in a vehicle that had a strong aroma of antiseptic each day.
My father lasted two months less than the average manager for this farm ! The owner had managed to hire and fire eight managers in the space of four years. The owner was not only devious but also cruel, he had a problem which meant a number of cows aborted and he failed to call in the vet for assistance. In short the herd had brucellosis, which was a notifiable disease, and he was trying to hide it. His methods were too horrible to describe and it was a great pity that he was never dealt with properly by the appropriate authorities. My father tried to stand up to him and was sacked, the same fate as his previous mangers had met. I drove back through Rossett around 2002, but nothing that I saw managed to revive any other memories of the place. Perhaps it is just as well. Little did I know that I was in for another short stay!
January 1954 to October 1954
This was one of the shortest stays that I recall, without a Christmas to remember but there was a lovely spring and something of a summer holiday to remember. The journey down was quite marvellous for us, a long journey by rail. The journey took us underneath the river Severn, the longest railway tunnel that I had been through at that time. From there the journey proceeded on to Plymouth. Then we changed to a smaller stopping train that took us up the estuary to a small village called Bere Alston. There we were met by Geoff Phillips, whose family we were to live with for a short while. At the time we had no idea why we had moved so quickly from Wrexham, though it seemed to matter very little. I was to learn later that when my father had been given the minimum amount of notice required it had been the Phillips family who had come to the rescue. Geoff and my father had worked together for C.E.M. Joad and so Geoff had kindly offered to provide work until my father could find a permanent position elsewhere. The Phillips family were Quakers, though that meant nothing to me at the time. I knew that we had other friends, the Watts, who were also Quakers. The farm in Devon had been left to him by an aunt.
The journey along the estuary was a sign that we were near the seaside. This was a real novelty to us. We had seen the sea, but this was the first time that we had lived anywhere near it. The estuary of the Tamar river is known for its sandbanks and mud flats upstream, for its salmon, and at that time also because area around Plymouth, Davenport and Saltash seemed to be active as dockyards for naval ships. We were very soon told the old yarn of Sir Francis Drake playing bowls on the area known as Plymouth Ho, whilst he waited for the fleet of the Spanish Armada. The rail crossed the mouth of the Tavy by means of a large viaduct, another spectacular experience for a child. I remember very little about Bere Alston, apart from the fact that I went to school there. It was a village school, two rooms and a cloakroom, which seemed to be the standard Victorian rural design ! Whatever they taught me has not lasted, the only recollection I have is of making a windmill from a nail, a piece of stick and some paper. Even then I left all the components at home, they had to be brought in before I could start my work.
The farmhouse was situated down a small lane. It was an old stone affair with a nice lawn leading off from the front porch. At the back of the house was a large area of garden that had been overgrown by, of all things, bamboo. Making tunnels through this was a favourite pastime for that summer. The only playmate, apart from my sisters, was Winefred Phillips. I recall little about her. I don’t think that my mother found it easy to share a house, the place was packed and my father suggests that she and Diana, Geoff’s wife, were opposites in some ways. Geoff’s idea on how to reconcile nations seemed to be to have a multinational work force, of whom I can only remember Lars from Sweden, and Dutch Bill, though my parents tell me there were also folk from France and Norway. Since the farm was partly market gardening it required a larger labour force at certain times of the year, and I think some were simply students employed as casual labour. They did not always get along with each other, there were feelings about the war years, even in the 1950’s.
An unmade track ran from the side of the house down to the river Tamar. Needless to say this lane acted like a magnet whenever I could think of nothing to do. Water has a fascination for most children, water and mud banks were completely irresistible. Just walking along the banks, seeing what the tide had brought in (the river was still tidal at this point) was fun, watching the sea birds that strayed up the estuary kept me occupied for hours. Wherever we lived I seemed to be very lucky indeed in having these ready made playgrounds to roam in.
Apart from having a small milking herd the farm produce consisted of growing potatoes for the early market and of sending flowers by rail to the London market. This last activity was obviously seasonal and involved a frantic effort at the appropriate time of the year. In the meadow lands by the river banks a large number of daffodil and narcissus bulbs had been planted and in the spring these were picked in the afternoon and evening, taken to the farm for bunching and packing, then sent off to catch the train to be in London by the morning.
Our first holiday by the seaside ! This came in the midst of the summer. A relative of my mother’s had a small seaside bungalow at a small resort along the coast called Looe, which was in Cornwall. The bungalow did not appear to be an all-year round structure, though I expect that by now it has been converted to one or demolished and a permanent home built. It stood on the top of a steep hillside, with a little imagination you might say the cliff top. There was a very steep zig-zag path down to the shore. The beach was a sandy area by the estuary, where the river Looe flowed into the Channel. It was great sandcastle territory and we would descend eagerly to the beach each morning, spades and buckets in hand, for a great time. One morning we were to have a very special treat. There was an inflatable boat and we were to have a trip out in this boat. Very carefully the rubber contraption was taken from the garden shed and manhandled down to the water’s edge. There, with much effort, it was pumped full of air ready for the launch. Alas ! The launch proved to be something of a disaster. The boat floor already had several patches from previous years and by now its seams were also starting to go. Water seemed to seep into the floor from a number of places. After much discussion it was determined that a trip was not to be, but we did have fun being pulled along a few metres from the shore, periodically stopping to come ashore. Then we would turn the inflatable upside down, empty out the water, and embark again for another short voyage.
Shortly before we left we had two treats. The first was to be taken to see a league football match. Plymouth Argyle were playing at home, I think that in those days they were in the Third Division South. I have no idea who they played, but I remember it was a particularly open and windy ground and the wind seemed to bring with it quite a chill.
The second outing was to see a circus and we all taken off to Plymouth again to the ‘Big Top’, as the circus tent was called. There was the usual collection of clowns, trapeze artists and performing animals, but the part that I have remembered was the ‘human cannonball’ being fired across the tent into a safety net.
Geoff had been left another sum of money and was searching for a larger farm. My father received an offer of employment which was a s well because the farm Geoff found had no suitable house for a farmworker and the sharing arrangement did not really work so my father and Geoff decided to part and go their separate ways. An offer came from a farm near to Bishops Castle. I don’t think that I really regarded the ‘sharing arrangement’ as not working, in Winifred I had found an additional playmate, so I did not have to go play with my sisters all the time.
© David Hopcroft November 2000 and October 2017
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Coming soon, the writing not the life