GETTING ABOUT IN THE COUNTRY
(In the first half of twentieth century)
By Bob Clarke
The late Bob Clarke who was born & bred in Stoke Goldington wrote a series of articles on life in the village in the period between the two World Wars. The third of these essays covers the way in which people got around. Other stories in this series:
I have often thought that those of us born in the earlier part of this century have witnessed the most amazing and rapid development of technology. Transport of all kinds has made huge strides in its evolution. In the 1920's when I was born; H G Wells was making the prophesy that space travel would come. I doubt if even he realised that America would be putting a man on the moon by the 1960's. In our village the evolution did not occur so rapidly, especially in my own family.
I recall the older men of the village relating how their forebears used to walk to Wolverton Carriage Works in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. It was a fact that pubs used to open to catch the early morning trade!! The men used to start walking at five am. to get to work at seven. Naturally on hot days they called in at a wayside pub to quench their thirst with a pint or two. As was ever thus, one or two of the walking workers `got the taste' too early in the day and decided not to go to work that day. The Works gates were closed and locked five minutes after the hour and so they would miss a morning's work. So what the hell let's make a day of it!
Walking was known in the locality as 'Shank's Pony'. I'm not sure whether it is a local expression or used more widely.
When the younger men of the village sought to move away from farm work and go into different trades, they first of all acquired a bicycle. In between wars men thought nothing of biking ten or fifteen miles to work. Similarly all the boys in our family had their bikes to go to school in Newport Pagnell in the late 1920's and early thirties. We then used bikes to get to work all through our teens right up to and after the second world war.
Our dad, however being born in the late Victorian era and brought up on a farm was more reluctant to be dragged into the twentieth century transport scene!
My mother told me that dad started up as a coal merchant the year I was born in 1921. Naturally at that time a horse and cart was used. By the time I began to take an interest in the mid-twenties, he was using a four-wheeled wagon known in our circle as a trolley.
My father loved animals especially horses and for years his horse and trolley was a familiar sight in the area. He had, over this period three horses named Boxer, Polly and Roger. Boxer was a bit too early for me to remember much about. I do however recall a commotion caused by Boxer who one morning decided that he wasn't interested in work and bolted back up to the field where he was normally kept. Strangely he didn't go the shortest route, but went via the public footpath; past the brickyard towards the Olney road. He jumped the stiles over the recreation ground and first and second Argos turned right when he reached the Olney road and thence back into the field!
Polly was a busy little mare, but I do not remember any peculiar foibles possessed by her.
Roger however was the last and best remembered of the three. Not only that, he was a real character. I can still see in my mind's eye the regular morning pantomime when dad used to bring the horse down from the field to our back yard where the trolley was kept. Firstly the harness had to be put on, starting with the collar which was pushed over the horse's head top to bottom and then turned the right way up.
Once the harness was fitted Roger was backed in between the shafts of the trolley. The shafts were then held in position with a chain passed over the saddle and the various connections made back and front which allowed the horse to sit back in the breeches to stop the forward motion or alternatively to start and keep the trolley in motion. During the harnessing and `shutting in' of the horse to the trolley Dad and Roger used to indulge in a bit of horseplay. After fastening chains and leathers one side of the horse dad always ducked under the horse's nose to the other side. This always caused Roger to nip dad's shoulder, just enough to let him know it had occurred, dad immediately punched the side of the horse's head, which the horse tossed as though he had been hurt.
It seemed if Roger was not in such a good mood he might nip dad's shoulder a little too vigorously, in that case he got a real good punch to let him know he had overstepped the mark!
On Saturdays my father always went to Northampton with the horse and trolley. He inherited the carrier business from his father. On Friday evening the trolley was brushed clean of all signs of coal and an old carpet and rugs were placed on the floor. Dad carried eggs and butter collected from local farmer's wives, who apparently used to have the proceeds from the eggs and butter, which they had made, for the housekeeping. He also carried any goods, parcels, bikes, prams or items of furniture for an accepted fee. The eggs and butter were sold to the various grocers shops in town! When he arrived home often towards
Nine o'clock at night the horse was always given a bran mash! This consisted of about a pound of bran in a polished galvanised bucket and at the first sign of horse and trolley mum used to pour a large kettle of boiling water on to the bran which swelled up to a warm half bucketful of `mash'. The horse appeared to enjoy this Saturday evening supper and ate it all up with relish. Perhaps he realised he needed a good laxative once a week!
Incidentally the coal sold by dad was transported by rail to the old railway station at Paddington, which was on the railway line from Northampton via Olney to Bedford. The nominal load on the trolley was a ton in bulk, but most of the coal was delivered in one hundred weight or half hundred weight bags. The weighing scales and weights were always carried on the trolley as in those days the local weights and measures man would appear and demand to weigh a selection of the bags to ensure proper measure. It says much for my father's probity that he was never prosecuted for delivering under-weight although his competitors were now and then.
The horsedrawn wagon era came to an end in the mid-thirties. With the business steadily increasing the poor old horse had to go. One story to illustrate the temperament of Roger when he was old. The new owner sent a message to say that the horse was completely unmanageable. So dad went over with Jack who was about thirteen years old at the time. When they arrived Roger was already harnessed up to pull a cart, which was standing with its shafts in the air. The new owner demonstrated Roger's intransigence by attempting to back him under the cart shafts. The horse reacted violently at this.
Dad and Jack lowered the cart shafts to the ground whereupon Jack quietly backed Roger between the shafts,harnessed him up and led him away pulling the cart! Roger had always been backed into the trolley with the shafts on the ground and you can't teach old dogs new tricks! In concluding the horse era I hope, from stories I heard years later that my father didn't inspire that old joke! -
One day George went home at dinner time unexpectedly. The coalman's horse and trolley were outside his house when he arrived. He went in and there was no one downstairs so he went upstairs and there was the coalman on the bed with his wife. When his friend later asked George what he had done about the situation; George replied "I went outside and kicked his horse".
The day my father had to relinquish his beloved horse for a motor lorry was the day his troubles with motor transport began! In short he acquired a model T Ford. As earlier indicated he was brought up on the agricultural scene and things mechanical were a bit beyond his comprehension. The model T was designed to test this comprehension to the full and beyond.
Instead of a nice playful pleasant half hour with the horse he would often spend far longer getting the model T started. To the cognoscenti the controls of the Ford were simple. I never fully comprehended the working of the beast, even less so my father. The two primary operating levers for the engine control were mounted either side of the steering column underneath the steering wheel. The left hand side was the advance and retard control and the right hand side was the throttle. There was of course no starter motor fitted to the model T so it was all hard work winding the starting handle. Dad use to start off by meticulously setting the advance and retard and throttle levers, there may have been a choke setting but I don't remember. Then he would begin cranking the starting handle. Half an hour later, having tried a number of times by minutely altering the throttle setting and blowing like a grampus he paused to take stock. Over the years he tried various methods to get the cussed thing to start. One way was to remove the four spark plugs and place them on the hot kitchen range. When they were nice and hot he put them back in the engine and repeated the starting handle routine. Eventually it started. Woe betide the boy sitting in the cab waiting for the engine to fire who didn't smartly operate the throttle when at last it coughed into life and started running.
Not that dad in his travail ever said anything, but that hurt look implying you had failed him was more eloquent than any words or action, when the engine subsided into silence. However the cough gave him new heart and the engine was soon running. It was never stopped and he could be ten or fifteen minutes in the house before he set off to Paddington or wherever.
Another favourite method to ease his lot in starting the beast was to jack up the rear offside wheel. Because of the peculiar `band type' drive of the model T a considerable drag was always there which consequently caused more hard work at the starting handle! So for several years the rear wheel was jacked up and when the engine started the back wheel spun vigorously. It remained spinning until my father was ready to move off, at which point he lowered the jack and the wheel stopped spinning when it touched the ground.
He kept the model T until well into the war years probably 1944 or 1945. He prolonged its life by occasionally buying another old model T for spares. At least three model T chassis were dumped in the field over this period. It appeared that over the decade of model T operations, dad tended to nurse it along and consequently he went slower and slower as he and the Ford got older. Norman Walker who was still at home during the war when I had joined up tells me he and the village lads used to overtake him on their bikes regularly. Brother Pete however tops this as he tells how he would be sitting in the cab with dad, on his rounds, when the young London evacuees used to pass the lorry on foot. Many ribald comments were made by the cheeky cockneys, which although ignored by dad were deeply embarrassing to Peter!
Inevitably the model T came to a grinding halt to be replaced by a Morris Commercial lorry. This involved a totally new set of problems to my father.
The modem motorist brought up on the clutch and a synchromesh gear-box has no concept of my father's difficulties in switching from the model T ford to the Morris Commercial! He had added a whole new legend on the use of the model T to add to the various stories of the beast since Henry Ford was alleged to have said "You can have any colour you like as long as it's black" It was the butt of music hall jokes.
One such ditty I recall from the thirties was:
My old uncle's got a Ford car Up to now it doesn't go far
He keeps the engine on the sofa And the body he keeps upstairs
To return to the story. Some of the older generation will know that to put a model T into motion was completely different to depressing the clutch, engaging first gear with the gear lever, then gently easing the clutch out and pressing the floor mounted throttle to move off. The model T was moved off by pressing a foot pedal which started you off in low gear. When you had obtained sufficient momentum then the hand-brake which had been released to allow start off, transformed itself into top gear by pushing it right forward at the same time increasing the throttle setting by pulling down the lever on the right hand side of the steering column.
As I was away during the war years I was not privy to dad's early encounters with the Morris Commercial, Brother Pete however tells me of some hair-raising rides he had during the early days with dad coming to teens with the new strange motor lorry. I believe the main trouble was the foot pedal arrangement of the old and newer lorry. On the model T I believe the right hand foot pedal was the foot-brake whereas on the Morris the right hand pedal was of course the accelerator! It needs very little imagination to understand Peter's horror when he'd expect the lorry to slow down at a T junction and it would suddenly leap forward as father applied the 'foot-brake'. The two things that saved the family from a fatal accident, were that my father had the most extraordinary ability to keep calm, he never lost his nerve in any circumstances and being an extremely fit man physically, his re-actions were very quick. The second reason was that the country road at that time were practically traffic-free due to the severe petrol rationing in the war!
Another example of dad's failure to come to terms with the Morris was that he never mastered the art of changing down a gear or double de-clutching! Consequently when he had load of coal he would go flat out down one hill to climb the next in top gear! However as he lived to be ninety six the `motor experience' did little to shorten his life.
During this decade of running the model T, I believe he used to rely on the Wesley family for advice on how to keep it going.
The Wesley's certainly had a model T Ford bus as in the late twenties I remember going to the New Theatre at Northampton in it. I also remember coming back that night we all or practically all of us had to get out and push the old bus up the railway bridge hill this side of Horton!
In the thirties of course bus companies proliferated and along with Wesley bus expansion in the village, we had Hayfields from Newport Pagnell and Beedens from Northampton. For the long distance traveller Allchins used to run a service to London and that coach used to stop outside the White Hart, at the time run by Jack Cawthorne, to pick up or drop passengers.
I remember the Beeden's buses because for years they had the wooden slatted seats which of course were not comfortable to ride on. In our early teens we practised our alliterative ability by coining the expression Beeden's bloody boneshakers!
Mentioning the proliferation of bus companies. None made more of the increase of bus services than the Wesley's. I remember three branches of the family who had some connection with transport in the twenties and thirties. In the pre-war era Uncle William Wesley ran a cattle lorry, driven by Jack, which was a necessary service to farmers who needed animals taken to the bi-weekly Northampton cattle market. The rise of the Wesley bus company from the model T to a fleet of modem buses carrying holiday makers all over Europe is another separate story! See Wesley's Coaches