memoirs of Harold Homer
As I was born in Castlethorpe in 1925, and have lived in the village all my life, apart from being in the army during the war, I thought that new residents in the village, who have never lived in a village before may like to know what village life was like between the two wars. Castlethorpe was much smaller than it is now with a population of only about 400 to 500.
Us children had a good time and Station Road was often our playground, children would not be able to play for twenty seconds in that road these days. We played games such as whips and tops, the tops were made of wood and either mushroom or "v" shaped. You tied some string on the end of a stick then wound the string around the top, pulling the string quickly made the top spin and you could keep it spinning by whipping it with the string. We sometimes played cricket in Chequers Field but if it was too wet we would put three wickets in a wooden block and set up a pitch in the middle of Station Road but then we would use a tennis ball as we did not want to risk breaking the house windows. There was very little traffic on the road, mainly horses and carts so when we were playing they would go by on the side. Another of our games was hoops, these were made of cast iron or wood about three feet in diameter, we had sticks with metal hooks on the end which we put round the hoops and ran up and down the road, bowling the hoops along. Other favourite games were hop scotch and conkers which are still played today.
In the summers when we were still at school we would go to a field just outside the village which was covered with cowslips. We would collect huge bunches and take them back home to mother who would make a gallon of wine. Believe me if you have never had cowslip wine, I can assure you that it has a wonderful taste. When September arrived we would go off to collect mushrooms, there were plenty in the fields round about. As well as the button mushrooms there were very large ones, many as big as dinner plates, we would extract the juice from these and pour it over our winter breakfast of egg, bacon and fried bread, lovely!
As boys we were very lucky here, we had the main railway line, for taking train numbers, the River Tove for fishing and the Grand Union Canal to watch the horse drawn barges. There were many barges in those days carrying mainly coal from the north to London. Many other cargoes were taken to the north from London. By evening the bargees would stable their horses at stables adjoining the Navigation Inn continuing their journey the next day. They looked after their horses and their barges very well, the brass bands round the barge chimneys were always highly polished. Being on the move all the time the bargees' children had very little education and very few of the parents could either read or write.
On Sundays we had to put on our best clothes. A large majority of children went to Sunday School, 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock every Sunday. Like many other boys in the village I joined the Church choir at the age of seven, then we had to stay in church for Matins at 11 o'clock. After the end of the last war ladies and girls also joined the choir bringing the number to eighteen strong. Many a visiting vicar at Evensong on returning to the vestry would remark, "I wish I had a choir the size you have here."
In the days between the wars Castlethorpe church always had a sexton, his job was to dig the graves and keep the churchyard tidy. There was no electricity in the church and all the oil lamps had to be lit by one of the sidesmen ready for every service. The heating was by a very large coke burning stove which stood in the middle of the aisle and heated hot water pipes all round the walls. On the funeral of a villager all curtains were drawn on the route to the church as the funeral cortege passed by. Men took their caps off if they happened to meet the procession and the sexton would toll the bell once every minute.
Discipline was very strict both at Castlethorpe junior school and at the senior school at Wolverton where we had to attend from the age of eleven to fourteen. If you behaved very badly you received six strokes of the cane on your writing hand from the headmaster before returning to the classroom to write five hundred lines containing a reference to the offence. Never-the-less I enjoyed my days at Wolverton School, it was a very good school with different teachers for each subject, one for maths, one for history etc.
When we left school at fourteen the only employment in the area was at Wolverton Railway and Carriage Works or on a local farm. In those days people were poor, there was not much money about. My father who worked at Wolverton Works had only one weeks holiday per year, later the works closed down for two weeks per year, people were very happy with their lot.
Mothers worked very hard years ago, no boiler, no washing machines, no modern washing powders but I do remember two brands they used, Adco and Persil. There was very little paid employment for mothers the only real option was to be in service to the local gentry. Mothers were always at home when you came home from school.
Between the wars and afterwards Castlethorpe Station was very busy. Farmers from surrounding areas sent sugar beet, cattle, milk etc by the railway. There were two coal bays in the goods yard, these bays were owned by two local coal merchants, one gentleman from Hanslope and the other from Castlethorpe. The station was a favourite place for pigeon fanciers to send a basket of pigeons on the train to be released by a porter, they were young pigeons probably from, say Bletchley to try them out. During the last war, village stations like Castlethorpe had difficulty in getting porters as most of the young men had been called up. Two men, over military age, one from Hanslope, Mr William Whitbread, the other Mr Joe Gobbey, from Castlethorpe. These two men were real characters, Mr Gobbey was the husband of the Postmistress and Mr Whitbread had a smallholding at Hanslope, he, in particular, was very funny.
The following stories are perfectly true. One cold morning a well dressed lady wearing a fur coat arrived at the station and went up to the pigeon hole, Mr Whitbread was on duty, she asked him whether there were any fast trains from here to London. Mr Whitbread replied, "Plenty of them Missis but some go through faster than others." On another occasion a soldier wanted to know the cost of a single fare from Castlethorpe to Glasgow. William replied "I don't know, give us five shillings, that will do."
Many trains stopped at Castlethorpe in those days and as the Pub is just across the road from the station yard entrance Joe and William would nip up to have half a pint between trains. Mrs Raynor, the landlady of the Carrington Arms in those days asked William one evening if he had a fowl he could sell her. "Yes Missis," he said. The previous day he had brought down a fowl that had died and buried it in the railway embankment. As Joe and William walked back to the station Joe said "You are not going to do what I think you are." William replied "I am." The next evening he took disintered chicken to Mrs Raynor who gave him seven and sixpence and a free pint. When they went to the pub a few days later Mrs Raynor said to William, "How old was that fowl you sold me?" William replied, "I don't know Missis." She complained, "I boiled it, then I baked it, then I threw it away."
Single compartment railway carriages used to have door handles which had to be turned to secure them. It was the duty of the guard to walk along the train to ensure that all the handles had been turned by the passengers. While the guard was walking along the train doing these checks William had been known to put the baskets of homing pigeons, which had been sent to Castlethorpe station to be released by a porter, back in the guards van to go on to the next station. Castlethorpe Station was opened round about 1880 (I have never known the exact date) and it was closed in September 1964 by Dr Beeching. The villagers were angry to see it closed. British Railways had spent about £60,000-£70,000 on it, they took down the old Victorian waiting rooms and toilets, made with lovely thick seasoned wood. The oil lamps were replaced with with about thirty-two fluorescent lights and the lines between the platforms were drained. The waiting rooms and toilets were replaced with prefab buildings, electric fires in the waiting rooms were controlled by porters in the booking office so if you went to catch a train on a cold winters morning as you made your way down the steps the porter switched on the fire to warm the waiting room before you arrived. Then six months later the station was closed, we know that the amount spent was chicken feed to any government.
||The Parish Council and members of the public went up to Westminster two or three times to protest about the proposed closure, we knew we were banging our heads against a wall but at least we tried. We travelled on the very last train to leave the station at seven o'clock on a Sunday evening after a meeting on the Chequers Green. The engine was a diesel as it was the interim period between steam and electrification.
Harold in the centre representing the Angry Village
When the Railway line was electrified the road bridge and the step bridge had to be raised to accommodate the cables and the signal box was demolished. It was very unusual for a main line box to be right next to a bridge wall, but this was because there was very restricted room as just to the north of the box the fast and slow lines emerged. There were three flights of stairs to the box and coal for the fire had to be carried in buckets up these stairs from the coal store just to the north of the box. My grandfather was one of three signalmen who worked at the box for many years. When we were at Castlethorpe Junior School the box was closed at twelve o'clock every few Sundays. It was covered then by Wolverton to the south and Hanslope to the north. My grandfather got permission for my cousin and me to go to the box to watch him work. We had to sit quietly waiting for twelve o'clock to help him pull all the signals off. All the different signals were painted different colours, I remember the distant signals were painted yellow, these, of course, were hard to pull off. The box would re-open on Sunday at midnight. The sliding door was on the road side with two steel bars attached to the outside so the signalmen could have a quick word with a person standing on the road, it would have to be a quick word of course as he would be listening for the coded bells from the other boxes. If we had a days holiday from school and grandfather was on duty from 6am to 2pm we would take his dinner in an oblong wicker basket, he had a long pole with a large hook on the end, we would place the basket on the hook and grandfather would pull it into the box.
Electricity didn't come to the village until 1933, I can remember when I was very young playing with my motors round a large oil lamp in the centre of the table. When electricity arrived everyone thought it was marvellous.
Main sewerage disposal did not get to the village until a few years after the last war, it had been planned for 1939 but Hitler put a stop to that. Toilets were usually right at the end of the gardens, small brick built buildings with large buckets under wooden seats. Years ago there was no such thing as modern toilet paper so you tore up old newspapers into squares and hung then on the wall with a piece of string. The council men came round every Monday to empty the buckets in the specially designed vehicle - however they got people to do that job I shall never know.
In between the wars a lady, Mrs Bates, would go round the village with a very large milk churn on two large wheels. It had two handles and a tap at at the front. People needing milk would come out with their jugs and buy as much as they wanted.
During 1938/39 on Saturday mornings I worked for a Mr Cooke who owned 18 and 20 South Street and "Shepperton" a house in an orchard where Shepperton Close is now and where his widowed sister and her son lived. He had a greengrocery business and owned a flat dray and early in the morning we used to collect the pony, load up the dray and be ready to set off from "Shepperton" by about 8.30 am. We called at most homes in the village, the population then was about 500, and by about midday we had finished the round, usually sold out.
Mr Cooke's family had a greengrocery business in Nuneaton and it was while he was visiting his mother there that "Shepperton" got its name. He had acquired the house and orchard a short time previously and his mother asked if he had decided on a name for it. He hadn't so his mother suggested Shepperton, a name that kept cropping up in a library book she was reading. So that is what he did, I know that is true because Mrs Cooke told me herself. When the house was pulled down and the orchard was cleared to make way for new housing in the early 1970's the name was retained and the development was named Shepperton Close. Personally I think it is a very nice name for that area.
The Home Guard was born out of the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers). In 1940/41 when the invasion scare swept the Country the Government decided to ask for volunteers for the L.D.V. the defences of the Country were in such a poor state that men who answered the call had no rifles issued, there were only just enough for the small regular army. The truth is that in the early days men in the L.D.V. were on patrol after a days work with nails on the end of sticks.
As the Home Guard increased in numbers the men were issued with Army uniforms but for a time they still had to wait for rifles which eventually came from America and Canada. The purpose of the Home Guard was to harass and delay the enemy to help the Regular Army.
As time went by the number joining the home Guard increased, as a result the rough total of men reached about 2½ million. As rifles began to arrive every man received, at least, a weapon. Having lost a very large amount of equipment in France after Dunkirk our Army and Airforce was very much depleted but always being a sea-power we did have a strong Navy. After the war I heard a radio correspondent say that in 1939/40 the defences around our coast were no stronger than chicken wire.
Every city, town and village had its platoon of Home Guard, men who gave up their evenings to train and then go off to work the next day. The Castlethorpe Home Guard Headquarters was the Carrington Arms (most villages used the pub). Lectures on hand grenades, anti-tank stick on mines, unarmed combat etc. took place in the Carrington School, now of course the Village Hall. The majority of the Castlethorpe Platoon were middle aged men the platoon was about thirty strong. Night exercises took place from time to time, very often in conjunction with the South Northants Home Guard. Everyone went off to their place of work the next day, I remember once walking along the side of the railway from Ashton arriving home at 5.30 am.
The Marquis of Donegall gave the following tribute to the Home Guard in 1943 :-
"The Home Guard is the unpaid, part-time, part worn, couponless, sockless and breathless army. They were supposed to know the weight, killing power, mechanism and working parts of the rifle, several machine guns, countless grenades and a number of strange guns; know all about extermination, decontamination, detonation, consolidation, to say nothing of salvation; recognise the description of aeroplanes, tanks of all nations at sight, and know how to deal with them and support the regulars; incidentally they are supposed to earn their own living if time permits."
We did not have a large Regular Army, especially after Dunkirk and everyone expected the Germans to invade during 1940/41. Road blocks were put across every entrance to the village each evening. These consisted of two old telegraph poles bolted together with barbed wire on top and an old cartwheel attached to one end (there were plenty of old cartwheels from the farms in those days). The other end of the poles was hinged in some way. The whole contraption could then be rolled out across the road. The purpose of this was to delay German Tiger tanks, these would of course have broken them up like matchsticks. Everyone was sure that the Germans would use gas, even in the Blitz with bombs. Gas masks were issued to every man, woman and child, even babies. The gas masks were issued in cardboard boxes and the orders were to take them everywhere you went, day and night.
Over my years I have seen great changes in Castlethorpe, I have been very lucky to have witnessed it, as my mother would say about her life :- "I have lived from the horse and cart to the Concorde."