Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Summers in the Country 1935-1939

COUNTRY: GORDONA, LAWFORD, NEAR MANNINGTREE, ESSEX

Recently, I visited the graveyard in Lawford, next to Mistley Church, where some of my deceased relations are buried. On an old head stone, I read that William Malyn Ruthen died on 30th March 1937, aged 77. He was my grandfather on my mother's side. Unlike my father's father who I do not remember, I have some recollections of him. Every summer for six weeks, I stayed with my grandparents in Lawford, starting probably in 1935, when I was about seven and old enough to be left with them. Their house was called "Gordona". Lawford was very peaceful. Opposite Gordona was a field, in which alternately, wheat, oats or barley was grown. I think I was my grandad's favourite grandchild, the only girl apart from Maura, who was four years younger and not old enough to stay with them.

My mother said, "They would be too tired to have the house full of children, and always found Uncle Geoff's children tiring, but they delighted to have me stay with them. Wearing a blue and white checked summer dress and a green cardigan, I had a photograph taken with them in the front garden among the roses, which I have unfortunately lost.

My grandfather had retired when I knew him. But most men in those days worked until the age of 70 if they were fit. My grandfather had worked at a small iron foundry, the only sizable factory in Manningtree.

plastics at Brantham

In later times most men were employed at the plastics factory in Brantham, and this is where "Uncle Fred" worked. Maud and Fred lived in Milton Road, a small turning off Long Road, which in those days ended in a small field, left rough, but containing a large run where hens were kept behind wire netting. Pigs were also kept, but could not so easily be seen behind stone walls. Uncle Fred was reputed to be "dim". I could not understand why. When not too tired, he entertained children with cardboard cutouts of funny people who moved their arms and legs when the string was pulled.. Fred had to endure the system of piecework at the plastics factory. It was reputed to be the toughest and most unfair system in the country. Before the war there was no union. In latter days, Margaret Roberts, who was later to become Prime Minister Thatcher worked in the research laboratory attached to it. But that was after the war. Conditions improved then. Uncle Fred was able to work there until retirement, but about 1979, this factory closed, shortly after its former employee had become Prime Minister. Maud and Fred were friends of my grandparents, but about forty years younger.

My grandfather when he worked at the iron foundry never earned more than about £1 per week, and brought up six children. This why the two eldest daughters were sent into service as soon as they left school at the age of 14. Their youngest son spent a lot of time at Gordona. Apparently, his wife Edna was ill; they split up, Edna living with her parents and Bob, whose real name was Stanley Lawrence staying at home. He was a taciturn chap, spent most of the fine weather in the garden, in which he did a good job; but indoors he held a newspaper in front of his face most of the time, and rarely spoke. This uncle worked s a compositor in a printing firm in Colchester. Later in life, he was employed as a reader, reading the first proofs of books produced by his firm, looking for printing errors. His wife Edna rallied sufficiently to take on the running of a small shop, near the beginning of the war and Bob moved out.

My grandmother, who I referred to as "New Nana" until 1936, when my other grandmother died, always wore black, after Grandad had died. White was allowed as a trimming, but absolutely no colours. People over sixty or so, usually wore dark colours in those days, but I noticed the difference between her clothes and those of my great aunt Kate, ten years younger. Brown was her usual colour. But in wartime, when she also lost her husband, Uncle Ted, mourning was not worn. There were clothing coupons to be considered, besides the expense; if anything my great-aunt was poorer than my grandmother. Ted worked carrying wood at the saw-mill, still open in war-time, long after "the foundry" had closed down.

Most of my days in the country were spent taking walks with the great-aunts, playing with my cousin John in fields nearby, or cutting the lawn and weeding the garden, together with John usually.

The month of August was spent leisurely in this manner, a most welcome break from London streets, and eagerly looked forward to every year. Most people would say I was far too eager to leave home. "Didn't I miss my mother?" they said, when for four weeks each August , I left for the country.

The first occasion must have been 1935, because I remember meeting my Grandad. I was only seven years old. I was photographed with him, but all these photos were lost in the 1939 war.

click for Nana and Grandad Ruthen at the centre, in the front.

Geoffrey and Gladys Mary behind them. Gordona belonged to Uncle Geoff.

But I have one group photo of my mother's family, taken before I was born. This was rescued from the house Gordona. Nana and Grandad are there, with their six grown-up children. Gladys Mary, the oldest was my mother. Then came Geoffrey, the tallest of the boys. Then Agnes May and Rose Kathleen. All the girls were short women. My aunts were known to me as Aunt May and Aunt Kath. Kath was also known as Aunt Betty. Then William (Uncle Bill), finally Stanley Lawrence (known as Uncle Bob).Those best known to me were Aunt May, Auntie Betty and Uncle Bob, the latter because he lived at Gordona for a time.

What I liked about the country was the fact that there was a field opposite the house; and even better than this field from the point of view of a London child, was the small rough field just two minutes walk away, behind our back garden. The wild flowers delighted me, much more than my grandmother's cottage garden flowers. There was not a patch of accessible rough ground in West Kensington; so these rough fields were a voyage of discovery, each day discovering a species of wild flower I had not seen before. Mauve flowers like yarrow and blue speedwell were my favourites. Barrow field opposite the house grew oats , wheat and barley in successive years, and I soon learned to tell the difference and tasted the grains. The seeds of wheat, nutty and crunchy were the only ones I continued to eat; the others proved too dry.

The train journey from Liverpool Street in London to Manningtree Station took two hours in those days. Sometimes I was accompanied by Aunt May, when she took a week's holiday from "service", and would stay one week with her mother, then would leave me on my own for three more weeks.

Gordona was lit by gas-light. This needed a match and great care when lighting, otherwise the flimsy gas-mantles would break. I could not turn on the switch as I did with electric light in London; I was not allowed to light the gas, so used a candlestick to bed, and read many books by this poor light, oblivious to the eye-strain this incurred. The mid-Victorian books belonging to Nana were fascinating because different from London library fare. Mostly they were about children overcoming horrible circumstances because of their religious faith. For instance, Liz's Shepherd was about a young girl who played with clothes-pegs as a substitute for dolls, then died young in her poverty-stricken home, sustained by a belief in "Her Divine Shepherd". I considered it a fantasy on the same level as "Grimm's Fairy Tales"!

Another tale called "Steadfast and True" was about Huguenot children fleeing from persecuting Catholics in France. This had a happy ending and was one of my favourites, in spite of the fact that I was a Catholic, albeit an ignorant one.

In contrast, there was an adult book belonging to Uncle Bob called "Dracula" by Bram Stoker, but being told that it was about a monster, I was too terrified to read it. I had read "Grimm's Fairy Tales" in London and they were bad enough for me. I preferred Enid Blyton, until I discovered the "William" books by Richmal Crompton in Fulham children's library and these became my firm favourites. However in Lawford I read "Old St. Paul's" from Nana's bookshelf, which was terrifying but realistic; not a horror tale, but a serious historical novel. It was about the great plague of London.

In the box-room where I often slept in my grandmother's house was a framed text on the wall, the Beatitudes, which unconsciously, I learnt by heart, because I read it over and over again until darkness fell, when bored in bed with nothing else to read. I said my prayers most nights, but was not terribly religious and did not enjoy going to church with my grandmother. I had not had enough religious instruction to understand what the service was about, so found it boring.

As it was August when I visited Lawford, and I can only remember hot days, most of my time was spent out of doors. My cousin John, Aunt Kath's son, living in Ipswich often arrived by bicycle. He lived in Ipswich, over the Suffolk border and about ten miles away. From the age of eleven this journey was quite easy for him. Probably I first met him when he was 9 and myself 8. To begin we played in the rough field just over the back garden fence, finding wild flowers and other delights. John, living in a small town and more in touch with country life, was able to tell me their names. From this field we exited into Milton Road, a short cul-de-sac ending in a larger rough field. Often we walked straight by the chicken-coops and pig-sty through the rough tall grass which was about as tall as we were to reach the hedgerow at the back. There were many blackberries, but also some thornless hollow bushes . One of these in particular was our "hideout". One day we saw a lizard beneath this bush. It shed its tail and scampered off. The nerve in this tail kept it active. We watched the dance of the lizard's tail,,entranced for a whole hour.

But one day I was walking alone on a footpath through an adjacent cornfield and came across a large green coiled snake. I fled home terrified, worrying that it was a poisonous adder.

"Its only a grass -snake", I was told by one of the adults in the house at the time. "Adders are very small".

In nature-study, I had learnt about the three snakes which could be found in England, and theoretically knew about their markings, but on seeing a real snake I could remember nothing and anyway did not want to stop to look closely. I don't think I ever saw another snake thereabouts.

What John and I waited for in vain on many occasions was the sight of a rabbit. By local lore, it was reputed that the rabbits huddled in the middle of a cornfield when it was being cut. In those days the tractor went round the outside of the filed, doing up the corn in bundles as it was cut. The square or oblong of uncut corn got smaller and smaller, until there was only a small strip left in the centre. John and I watched Barrow field being cut each August, and we were armed with stones. We were told that it was allowable to kill the rabbits by stoning them, and take them home for dinner! This may have been a tall story but I believed it, though I never saw a rabbit I watched faithfully each year when Barrow Field was harvested.

After the harvest came the Harvest Festival. This was the one Church Service which I enjoyed, spending the time gazing at the ears of corn and prize specimens of marrows and many other locally grown vegetables which were exhibited in Manningtree Church at this time. We also visited the local flower show, run by the Women's Institute, loved the colourful display from local gardens. There were also entries of "wild flowers". These quickly drooped when picked and put in water, we noticed, which discouraged us from picking them.

When we were slightly older, John and I were encouraged to mow the lawns and cut the edges of the grass with shears at Gordona. This was a complicated job as there was a circular rose-bed in the front garden, as well as one curved and one straight long border. Using the shears was a tedious job, which I found tolerable because of John's company. When we had finished the front garden, we would then mow the small lawn at the back of the house. We aimed at perfection, and John would never leave the work until it was fully complete.

The summers of 1935 to 1939 all seemed hot and endless. I enjoyed being on holiday with Nana more and more each succeeding year and delighted in the company of cousin John. But in 1939 I was disappointed when I was only allowed one week. I believe this was because the house was fully occupied by Uncle Geoff's family, but I did not understand why this was the case. It was probably because they considered in too dangerous to stay in their usual holiday home at Dymchurch on the South Coast. So most of August 1939 I was cooped up in London, playing with Leonard in the new Anderson air-raid shelter.

OUTINGS

Outings were the high spots of my pre-war life, when we could afford them, because my parents finances fluctuated wildly. In some periods, my mother was frantically worrying how to buy food for the week, and other times, she enjoyed a Saturday evening visit to the public house. Often I accompanied my parents, so they did not stay long in the pub. The visit was often the climax to a walk on Barnes Common, where we flew a kite, and the three of us all behaved as if we were children, wandering happily among the gorse bushes. Those were quiet times. There were millions unemployed in the 1930's, but the impression I got was that either these people despaired silently, or otherwise they organised marches and meetings, somewhat away from ordinary street life. I did not see any violent folk, except outside pubs at closing times. There was a Saturday afternoon closing time, when occasionally I would see two men fighting, and was wise enough to walk on the other side of the street.

But on Barnes Common , all was peaceful, and we relaxed. After the afternoon walk, I was given a glass of fizzy lemonade, to drink slowly while my parents went into the nearby pub. It may have been dark, and I may have felt a little chilly, but the pub. lemonade was something special, and made up for everything. Lemonade has never tasted so good, anywhere else, or at any other time.

Another regular Saturday outing was a visit to the Natural History Museum or the Science Museum at South Kensington. Dad would take me to these places on his own, while my mother may have gone out with a woman friend. In the Natural History Museum there was a square balcony with stuffed animals, still there to-day, but now a minor feature amidst the expanded exhibition with its videos, and pictorial displays.

But in those days the stuffed animals was all there was. My father would pause outside each glass case, and talk to me about the animal displayed. We would read the labels gravely. It would take a full hour or two to walk round the display, to which most people would allocate only ten minutes today. The museum was sparsely attended in those days, and mostly by local families; South Kensington could be reached easily on the District line from West Kensington, and there were no museum entrance fees, so it was a cheap outing for the less well-off. Dad was more interested in science than art, so we omitted the Victoria and Albert Museum.

But the Science Museum was next door, and would be the subject of a separate Saturday outing. We did not do too much on any one occasion. There was a children's room in the basement, with numerous buttons to press, which set the exhibits in motion. Of most interest was the act of walking through one exhibit and setting off an alarm bell.

"You have broken an invisible ray," my father said.

I did not understand what was happening, but I wanted to find out, and thought that one day I would. It aroused my interest in science.

In the main part of the museum,there was also an exhibit of pure chemical elements, as many as could be conveniently assembled. The coloured elements attracted my interest, for example, sulphur as a heap of yellow crystals. Incidentally, the first time I handled sulphur myself was not in a laboratory, but as a powder to rub through my dog's coat, when he had a skin infection. The dog did not arrive until 1945, when we living in the country, in Essex.

My father preferred the mechanical exhibits. I was quite content to accompany him through the adult museum and look at everything.

The museums were for ordinary Saturday afternoons. But just after Christmas, in the cold of January, my parents took me regularly to a variety show, at the Granville Theatre. This was situated at the end of North End Road, beyond the market stalls. It has long since closed down.

It was an old-fashioned variety show with about twenty separate acts. There were jugglers, trapeze artists, giants and dwarfs doing acrobatics, , clowns and comics. Much of this sort of entertainment would be considered undignified today and would not take place, but it was common fare in those days. However, we never went to a circus, so I did not see any acts with animals.

My Aunt May frowned on circuses. She had a high respect for animals, and told me that it was very cruel to make them perform tricks. Sometimes I went on outings with my mother and Aunt May, while my father was at work, or doing other things.

The regular afternoon outing was a picnic in Kensington Gardens with my mother and Aunt May, on her afternoon off from her job as a maid with Dr. and Lady Shields. From her very small wage, she would buy strawberries, and we would eat them seated on the grass. Then we would look at the Round Pond, at Peter Pan's Statue, and sometimes would walk over to the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. I would ascend the many steps and examine the carvings, although Aunt May pronounced it "a hideous structure".

I was interested in the park-keeper's cottage, and said that it was the house I would most like to live in. Aunt May did not think much of that idea.

"It is lonely, and the man is tied down to his job all the time there," she said. " You would not like it".

Sometimes I sailed a small boat on the Round Pond. Occasionally my father came on a week-end trip to Kensington Gardens with my mother and I, but he was not very fond of this park. One day the small boat was becalmed in the middle of the pond, and I wondered what to do. But eventually the boats all ended up on the far side of the pond, and we simply walked round there to re-claim then. Kensington Gardens with Aunt May was the type of outing I most looked forward to, when it was in the offing, and was always disappointed, when for some reason Aunt May could not come.

Vaguely I remember going to a pantomime with Aunt May and my mother in wintertime. I did not like it as much as the Granville Variety theatre.

Trips further afield were very rare. One day in the middle of the week, in summer time my mother took me for a day trip to Broadstairs. She sat in a deck chair in the sun, while I played with a bucket and spade.

"It is too hot", I said. " Lets move into the shade". I did not like too much sunshine.

"I like sitting in the sun", said Mother , but she agreed to move.

We moved off to a secluded bay where there were no other people. She sat down and went almost to sleep while I paddled. We were in the middle of a curved bay, and everything seemed peaceful.

But the tide had approached leaving only a few feet of sand. Suddenly my mother became alarmed. The tide had approached the cliffs on both sides, cutting us off.

"We'll have to go now and hurry," said Mother.

We had to paddle through the water, and it frightened me, in case it should become too deep before we reached the corner.

"Just hurry up and don't look down. We will do it, " said Mother and I took her hand, following behind her.

I think the water was up to my knees before we reached dry land, round the corner of the bay, where there were steps up to the top of the cliff.We were very relieved after our narrow escape.This was the only day trip to the seaside I had with my mother on our own.

We had only one other day trip as a family to the sea-side. On this occasion we went to Sheerness. It must have been very dull, as I don't remember much about it. My parents grumbled about delays on the train, and when we reached the shore, they said "Well, there is not much at Sheerness." I have never visited this place again.

Weeks would go by without any outings. These were the greyer times, when Dad spent all Saturday afternoon in the pub, and came home drunk. We had three ornamental swords hanging as a decoration in the hall. On one particularly frightening afternoon, two of my father's drinking companions grabbed these and started to fight in the street. Apparently they did not hurt each other and this may have been a mock fight, but none the less alarming. "He has such changes of mood," said my mother, referring to my father when we were alone. "Sometimes things look so black, but sometimes he is nice as pie".

Once a year maybe, I went to London Zoo, with a larger family group. Aunt Violet and Leonard and my family usually went together and this was another of the high-spots of the year. The elephants were my favourite animal, but I liked to watch them from a distance. In those days the elephants paraded round the paths with a howdah on top, and children were given rides. A ladder was needed. "It is too high up," I said and refused a ride. I think Leonard was more adventurous and had a ride. After the elephants, I most liked to see aquatic animals, such as sea-lions and penguins. There was no chimpanzee's tea-party in those days. We were content to see the animals behave as naturally as possible, but I fear, all too often, they were confined in cages too small for this. I refused to enter the reptile house. Snakes terrified me.

I never went to the zoo since 1939, until just recently. In 1992, the most recent news is that London Zoo may close owing to lack of enough visitors. Attitudes towards keeping large animals in cages have changed, so there are mixed feelings about preserving the Zoo. Polar bears are no longer there; it is impossible to provide enough space for such animals to enable them to behave naturally. This argument may apply to other large animals, though the present staff of keepers are very fond of the animals and treat them very well. Recently, I went to the Zoo for the first time since 1939 "to say good-bye to the animals". There are no elephants rides today, though the elephants are still there and are regularly exercised. I found one of the keepers in the cage with a lemur playing with it, because it was lonely. She told me that three of the keepers had been accepted by the lemur as its "lemur family". This was done because this animal had been rejected by its mother and had no natural lemur family.

In 1939, I was accepting the delights of the zoo uncritically.

I must not forget the Boat Race. As far as I can remember, Cambridge was almost always the winner in the mid and late 1930's. I did not care who was the winner and did not care very much about the Boat Race. I used to accompany my parents to the nearest point on the towpath where we could watch the boats go by. This was near Hammersmith Bridge. There were usually a lot of folk milling about on the towpath. It was a pleasant walk, and we took lemonade and sandwiches. But watching two boats go by was not exciting. We never knew until much later who had run the race. Our position on the bank had none of the excitement of the finishing post, nor any of the fanfare of the starting point. Leonard told me that he used to watch the boat race, quite unaccompanied, as his mother was not interested in it, but she allowed him to walk out on his own from the age of seven or eight. Leonard never came with us.

However when my father visited the public house at Brompton, he usually took Leonard with him. I used to go too, while my mother stayed at home. This public house was quite a long walk away, near Brompton cemetery, and we were tired when we arrived. It was usually daylight, on a Saturday afternoon. On these occasions, my father was well-behaved, and not in the mood for getting drunk. We went to Brompton principally for the walk, and when he took us with him, he did not go to a public house where his male drinking companions congregated. He was primarily a social drinker, so when he got drunk, it was usually under the influence of like-minded companions. My mother used to worry, because I believe he wasted his week's wages on buying rounds of drinks; not so much on drinks for himself. It was the waste of money which worried my mother, rather than a bout of occasional drunkenness, which soon passed. But when he went with family, it was a matter of one or two drinks only, a glass of delicious pub. lemonade for Leonard and myself, standing outside in the sunshine, and afterwards a walk round Brompton cemetery to look at the graves. He would sometimes give us the benefit of his scientific theories, and Leonard told me that he said "The graves are gradually sinking, and will one day fall into the sea". He must have been thinking in terms of geological ages, but Leonard did not appreciate that, and teased him.

It remains to describe my holidays. I never had a holiday with my parents. That could not be afforded. But I was exceptionally lucky among the children in the street, because I had kind grandparents who lived in Lawford, which was a small village in the country in Essex, near Manningtree. My grandmother had a large house, and every summer, I spent from four to six weeks there. My mother usually took me down there, and possibly stayed for a day or two. She could not spare the time to stay there long; in any case there was not often room as the house was sometimes full with other grandchildren. At the time, I did not know that this house belonged to my mother's richest brother, my Uncle Geoff, who had his own hairdressing business, and was sufficiently prosperous to employ a nursemaid for his three children.

During my holiday I met these cousins, but was most glad when they were not there, as they were very noisy. The nursemaid seemed quite unable to control the boisterous behaviour of the two boys, one a year older than me and one a year younger. Maura, the youngest daughter was the only one of the family I was able to make friends with. Tragically she died of meningitis when she was about eight years old, just before the second world war.

The cousin I became most friendly with was my cousin John who often stayed and occasionally brought his dog Gyp.

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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.