A Yokel’s Tale

This my personal recollection of growing up in during the last days of the pedestrian era in Owslebury true rural Hampshire from 1941 to 1952 Tom Thornton A Yokel’s Tale 1941 to 1951 My earliest recollection of my Thornton grandparents, Alice and Tom, dates back to my pre-school years. When my Mum and Dad occasionally visited them at May Cottages, Longwood Dean. They lived at the south end of a group of four tied cottages in a Mock Tudor design with steep brick steps leading up from the narrow lane to the heavy oak gate which opened onto a long narrow garden sloping up past the house, which probably occupied about ¼ of an acre. In front of the house to the right and stretching 50 yards up to the hen house was Granddads immaculate vegetable garden. To the left of the seemingly long gravel path was a beautifully manicured lawn with steep banks down which we rolled and tumbled on while the grown-ups had tea in the house and had conversations that we were never allowed to hear.Children were required to be “seen and not heard” in those days. In fact my memory has it than Granny was a fearsome woman while Granddad was a much kinder and jolly gentle man with a warm grin which he wore permanently under his moustache. Us brats were only allowed into the stone-floored scullery at the back of the house, never into the company of adults who conversed out of earshot in the parlour or front room. In one corner of the scullery stood two large oak barrels which held the days water supply drawn by the bucket-full from the well near the back door. the well was shared by the four families of May Cottages. Granddad was said to have started work on Longwood Estate when he was 11 years old as a Pit Saw Boy and that he walked from Twyford or more likely Morstead to work at Longwood 6 days a week. Back then, before power saws, logs were cut by hand lengthwise down to the required sizes using long two-handed ripsaws. The log was placed on a rack over a pit the sawyer stood on top of the log and applied the downward thrust on the cutting stroke to the blade with his Tee-handle. The Pit boys job required that he spent most of his day in the sawdust pit beneath the saw bench, his task was to throw the saw back up toward the sawyer, and this would have be dirty and exhausting work. Granddad Tom went on to become an estate carpenter and later worked at the Longwood Estate sawmill under the direction of his eldest son Tom, my Dad, who was then the mill manager. He died aged 73 shortly after retiring from the sawmill, having worked over 60 years on the estate. I am proud to say I have some of Grandad’s planes and other tools on display in my office which he would have made as part of his apprenticship. My parents Cath and Tom, met about 1934/5 when Dad was working at Longwood House as a maintenance electrician and carpenter to Lord Eldon. Mum’s friend Molly described her, as a pretty, but very shy young woman, when in her early twenties. Mum was born Catherine Munley and was the second daughter of an Irish coal mining family Anti and Catherine Munley. Anti hade had migrated to Bedlington, Northumberland in the late 1800’s from County Mayo Eire.( see also Summary of the Life of Anthony Munely) Mum had been hired into service as a scullery maid for the Roman Catholic family of Lord and Lady Eldon the owners of Longwood Estate. As part of the war preparations the estate was sold to Arnold Laver a Timber Merchant of Sheffield, and Longwood house was taken over by the Ministry of Defence and used as a billet for American servicemen. The Eldon’s moved to a safer to a property in the West Country. Dad then became manager of Longwood Sawmill and Mum moved to Hazelmere where she worked for Mrs. Forbes at Sussex Belle, in a ladies boarding school. Cath and Tom were married on Easter Monday 1940 at the Catholic Church in Hazelmere and soon after moved into the “Red Bungalow”, Stagg’s Corner, Owslebury Bottom, which was at the SW corner of the estate. The Red Bungalow was a corrugated galvanized iron clad dwelling painted naturally with Red Oxide. Originally it consisted of three small rooms, in the centre the living room, with black cast iron wood/coal cooking stove and a bedroom at either end the slightly larger one at the south end was our parent’s bedroom. Outside under a lean-to roof was a scullery with a brick built larder on the shady NE corner. I was about four years old when the Aladdin and Tilley oil lamps were replaced with electricity, but only 12v worth and very few watts available. These were generated by a single cylinder stationary engine turning several ex-army dynamos and charging a set of “Knife” ex-submarine electrical storage batteries. At the back of the bungalow was a concrete slab and at right angles to the house was a grey weathered plank clad building with a corrugated iron roof. The first section, nearest the house, was the Washhouse which held the wood fired “Copper” and theraised galvanized water tank in the roof, the next section of the building was the Wood and Coal shed, which also housed in winter, our stock of root crops and chicken feed. and at the far end the “Lavi”, a single hole bucket toilet found somewhere on every rural property in those days. A lean-to shed was built on the north side an was dads first work-shed Around 1944 Dad extended the house several times to better accommodate his growing family . Firstly we got mains water, to replace the water captured off the roof and stored in a filtered underground reservoir. Next the scullery was enclosed to become the kitchen and the Primus stove installed to augment the wood stove for cooking. About 1948 it was further extended to install a “Rayburn” to replace the old two burner Primus kerosene stove, now imagine feeling of luxury having HOT free running water, and indoor W.C. or flushing toilet. Those pipes also brought for me the end to the seemingly endless pumping of water from the well up into the water tank, This had been my first chore of on arriving home from school every afternoon. And lastly a real bathroom instead of the weekly tin bath in front of the fire. As was usual then, Dad rode his bicycle to and from work at the sawmill, where he was the working Mill Manager. The only public transport was the weekly Greyfriers bus a 14 seater of pre 1920 vintage piloted by either Mr. Mathews or Bill Skorey. On Saturday it took you to Winchester to do your shopping. We didn’t own a car until about 1950. Our milk came fresh daily from Bill George’s farm across the lane. Every second Tuesday Mr. Fry brought the groceries from Eastleigh that Mum had ordered on his previous call a fortnight before and the baker also from Eastleigh came twice a week. Mr. Fry owned a classic 1920’s Morris Commercial van which looked more like a Victorian horse drawn cab with cast spoke wheels and may well have been originally been an ambulance a relic from WW1. The Red Bungalow was a corrugated iron clad timber framed three-roomed dwelling on a half-acre lot. Water was collected from the roof, passed through a sand box filter and stored in an underground cistern in which the previous occupant was said to have drowned him self in. I am the eldest of five, equi-spaced children; my eldest sister Elizabeth Ann 1943, Catherine Mary’45, Michael Anthony ‘47, and Martin 1950, we lived what now seems to be an idyllic lifestyle. We were pretty much self-sufficient thanks to Dads huge capacity for hard word. He biked to Arnold Laver’s Sawmill at Longwood with a lunch tin of sandwiches and two bottles of tea to sustain him until he returned around 6 o’clock. When he would begin his essential chores, pumping the water from the underground cistern up into the header tank in the roof of the washhouse and while feeding the live stock and splitting logs for the fireplace before “tea” which was our hot meal of the day cooked on the double burner Primus stove. About half of the one acre property was devoted to a vegetable garden, hand dug for the first several years, until the arrival of the Antzani Iron Horse, a powerful walk behind tractor. A quarter of the property was an orchard with plumbs, eating and cooking apples, raspberries with a fenced area enclosing about 200 chickens. We also had as many as six pigs which we regularly killed and processed salted and smoked to make into bacon ham and sausage which with the occasional game and fresh wild rabbits was virtually our only meat supply. Because we had no refrigeration the meat was very heavily salted to preserve it before being smoked in our smokehouse that was fuelled with oak sawdust from the mill, then hung in the outdoor meat safe. The meat safe stood up the garden near a the big workshop, it was raised off the ground about 3ft and was a fine mesh wire cage about 4 foot square and 7 feet tall inside and could easily hold 4 sides of bacon and several hams. I was well into my teens before I returned to eating bacon or smoked meats. The garden provided everything we needed, literally tons of potatoes and root crops, carrots turnips and swedes, celery and sugar beets for the pigs which we stored in large wooden bins in the shed, plus a steady supply of greens, kale, Brussels sprouts and Savoy cabbages. For my 3nd birthday I received a Gresham Flyer tricycle on which I spent thousands of daydreaming hours. Mostly peddling around the grassy part of the garden while making loud engine noises and pretending to be ploughing like my cousin Les Thatcher who worked for Bill George on the farm down the lane. I could make perfectly straight lined tracks as any master ploughman would in the early morning frost by very carefully in aligning one wheel in the track of the previous pass so as to ensure complete coverage of the lawn. Through the summer, we ran like a bunch of gypsies naked and playing in the muddy pond opposite Bill George’s farm. First the frogspawn appeared which we eagerly watched until the tadpoles emerged and by summer holiday time the marl-bottomed pond in which we waded chest deep teamed with frogs and pond life. We also caught newts, the now almost extinct, butterflies of the south downs. I new where to find all of natures treasures, cowslips, primroses, white and blue violets, bluebells, primroses, hazel nuts and blackberries mushrooms. Birds-nesting was a serious pursuit for this country boy. I spoke with a broad rural ‘ampshire accent. which caused me to be nicknamed “Yokel” by the townsfolk when I was transferred from Owslebury’s village school to receive a good “Catholic Education” at St. Peters in Winchester. Each Saturday morning I went to town to receive training to become an Alter Boy at “St. Peter’s”. Even then after church I went bird’s nesting in Winchester City. Instead of hanging around waiting for the bus home, I would head for the water meadows in search of the nests of Coots, Moorhen, Rails and Red Shanks Herons and Ducks and Swans. I had collected a huge range of blown eggs and knew by sight and sound almost every British bird and where to find them within a few miles of my home. I must have caused my mother so much anxiety because I would simply wander off and be gone, sometimes, all day wandering totally immersed in the splendor of the natural world. From age five attended Owslebury Village School which was about a mile walk from Owslebury Bottom up hill to the village passing first the “Shearer’s Arms” then “Glasspools Cottage” ( See notes below) then Dunste’rs Farm next atthe foot of Crabbes Hill “The Cricketers’ then a private boarding school but onece a popular pub ajacent to the old ricket ground and the publican a family memeber William Smith. from here one could either continue up crabbes Hill and turn right at the ancient junction or take the steep bridal path up over the fields and swing by the defunct wind driven water pump, re-joining the road between Hilly Close and the Village Hall. from there it was a short walk past the Post Office to the school which lay on the left adjacent to the St. Andrews Church. My cousin Peggy ( Margaret) Thatcher a few years my senior saw to it that I survived the rigors of the playground. Note: I recently learned that a member of the family that lived in that cottage for a few years from 1917, Peter Hewett, wrote a book titled “Owslebury Bottom” which is now out of print. However, I was able to find and buy an old copy and having read it I can only say that it is a very interesting book but quite an inaccurate description of the hamlets features and geography which for me casts some doubt on the rest of his tales. We were quite isolated.