A NONAGENARIAN REMEMBERS by T. C. Hudson

Posted by Admin on Monday, 18th October 2010, 04:28

A NONAGENARIAN REMEMBERS

by T. C. Hudson

Although the official address of my birthplace was Bellevue Road, Cowes, on account of the fact that until 1933 when the boundaries were altered by the local government authority (but not by the ecclesiastical one) the Parish of Northwood embraced the whole of Cowes, I could if I so wished claim to have come into the world in Northwood. Of this I was not cognizant until a few years ago when I was given an extract from the 1881 Census which appended Northwood and not Cowes to an address in Baring Road. Evidence also abounded, had I thought about it, in Northwood House, Northwood Park and Northwood Cricket Club of which I was an enthusiastic but unremarkable member.

Bellevue Road, incidentally, because of the number of retired yacht captains who lived there was known facetiously as Discount Avenue. It had also a more distinguished resident in the person of Dr A. T. Shearman D.Lit., a widowed recluse who lived with only his dog for company. An eminent scholar, he had written two books on logic, researched Leibniz for the Institute of France, and lectured on logic at University College, London. In addition to which he had published two books of poetry.

After 1933 the boundary that separated Northwood from Cowes was drawn at Three Gates Road, a twelve minute walk from my home – a distance that when young I often covered to visit the disused aerodrome (now occupied by BAE Systems) to search for birds’ nests, mushrooms, to pick blackberries, or to see what could be found in the pond which, being near Nodes Road, has since, I believe, although filled in flooded the gardens of bungalows which at that time did not exist.

At that period there was no street lighting in that rural area, which made walking hazardous, but was ideal for star-gazing if one wanted to locate the major constellations, a pursuit I found more likely to give one a crick in the neck than the desired enlightenment. For many years, there being no public transport, a friend of my mother’s family used every Friday evening to walk from Oxford Street to Cowes to do her shopping – a double journey she continued to make even after being stopped by a man who tried to steal her purse. How she prevented him I never knew.

With my home no longer in the Northwood parish, it was not until 1939 that I became a resident of that still comparatively rural area, when not many months before the beginning of the Second World War my father and I decided to build a new home, and thought Northwood being on a bus route and not too far from the town would be an ideal location for it. We therefore approached Mr Frank Tross a landowner whose home was in Church Lane who suggested we look at a piece of land we would pass on our way home – a plot that extended from what then was Floyd’s petrol station (and since then has been occupied by various industrial units and retail outlets including David’s supermarket and the Co-op and latterly reverting to the sale of used cars) to the semi-detached homes of Mr Earley, a milkman, and Mr Brown, a postman, 170 yards below. Having entered through a gap in a high hedge we were confronted by a panorama that immediately convinced us we would not need to look elsewhere. From four hundred feet above sea level we saw a vista that to the north gave a glimpse of the Solent, and across the hidden Medina the rising ground of Whippingham spread its long lush fields and wooded summit: St Mildred’s Church, flawless in the evening sunlight making a perfect centrepiece. Some seven miles to the south east was the gentle contour of Ashey Down with the George the Second seamark visible at the top. Above the trees that formed the eastern skyline an Italianate tower of Osborne House was in sight. The length of the piece we  would buy was one hundred yards, and beyond a boundary hedge lay Somerton Farm, its buildings partly hidden by falling ground. Although the river could not be seen, we later discovered that when at high tide sprit-sailed barges bound for the cement mills passed by their ochre-painted gaff-top-sails were visible. On the other side of the filling station, apart from the houses in Church Lane, the only dwellings between it and the Horseshoe Inn were Friar’s Cottage which according to Gay Baldwin is haunted by an unaccountable floral smell, the Flower Pot (formerly a public house), and two ancient cottages, now demolished, that stood well back from the road. Across the road was the main and only entrance to the aerodrome which soon was to be occupied by the Army with a gun-site at the Three Gates corner and a sentry posted at the gate – a sight that reminded my father of the 1914-18 War when, a corporal in the Cowes Volunteer Training Corps (the equivalent of the Home Guard in World War Two) he did guard duty at night  on the same spot in constant fear of an unfettered bull in the vicinity. Only one dwelling, Myrtle Cottage, stood, and still stands, on that side of the road which, I learnt from a man who had bought a drink there, had once been a public house called the Malt and Hops. How three of them, so close to one another in a sparsely populated area, with beer at only a few pence a pint, remained in business is a mystery.
The next day we again visited Pheasant Pole Cottage and bought at £2 a foot frontage a fertile piece of the Isle of Wight forty feet wide by a hundred yards long, formerly the property of Elizabeth Reed of Somerton Farm, which, after conveyancing was completed I held in fee simple for which privilege, until the tithe was abolished I would have to pay annually a negligible sum.

Our next move was to arrange a meeting with Mr Reginald White, a builder noted for the excellence of his work, who, like my father was a member of the Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, to select from several plans he brought a  bungalow that was not only pleasing in appearance but within the price range we could afford. Actually the sum we had to find , including the price of the land was under £700. Last year I paid £690 to have the outside painted. Of the three plans we were shown the one I favoured had a roof which sloped backwards over the front window which obviated the beetle-browed effect given by so many dwellings.

In my short story, Changed Address which won the Elizabeth Dickson Cup at the Ryde Festival, a character ‘sees the dream of years transformed into solid bricks and tiles’ My own vision, too, financed by an unexpected legacy, was becoming reality, and in December 1939 we returned the key to our parsimonious landlord and left Bellevue Road with no regret on my part for, as readers of my autobiography, Against a Stacked Deck know, it held too many unhappy memories.

In search of a suitable name for our new home, because of its brevity and historical associations we had settled for Wyvern. In 879 a wyvern was borne by King Alfred when he defeated the Danes at Ethendum. The wyvern or golden dragon became the accepted standard of the Kings of Essex. That it was lost to the Normans at Hastings is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Initially I intended to commission Harry Pritchett to make at his brickworks in Wyatts Lane a terra cotta one for a garden ornament – an idea later aborted by circumstances outside the scope of this article.

My first concern in September 1939, after Neville Chamberlain informed us that Great Britain was at war with Germany had been to prepare for air raids. We were told the sirens would give a quarter of an hour’s grace. In twelve minutes we could have reached the site of our partly built bungalow, so I decided to have a shelter there. My father therefore engaged the engineer of the Island Transport Company’s M.V. Arreton to do the work, and under my instructions he dug a trench, lined and roofed it with corrugated iron, shored it with timber, and covered the top with the excavated spoil. A flight of stairs topped by a hinged steel plate made access easy. Fortunately no local bombing occurred in the 1939-40 winter. After steady rainfall our dugout flooded – a contingency I had overlooked! To replace it I had one built by Reg White for £33. It was four feet below the ground and four feet above, eight feet long and four feet wide. It was made of reinforced concrete with a blast wall in front of the door. On the top and at the sides the spoil was banked. A two-tiered bunk and a long cushion from a railway carriage provided the sleeping accommodation, Electricity from the bungalow supplied heat and light.

Having settled in, our next problem was to find a gardener. Two men came, looked, and fled. Then one day I opened the door to a scrawny little man who said he understood we needed a gardener. As he stood his lameness was not apparent, but his physique seemed unpromising. I indicated the tufts and hummocks and to my astonishment he said he had tackled worse. For a shilling an hour he tended our garden as if it were his own. He dug tirelessly. He planted apple trees. And although I told him not to use our antiquated stone and iron roller, he insisted on pulling and pushing it when the ground was wet enough to yield. We gave him money and a free hand, and as a result he gave us a floral display that rivalled any in the parish. He worked for us until May 1942 when the blitz not only destroyed his greenhouse in Tennyson Rd, but also his spirit. Appropriately his name was Tiller. I salute his memory.

In addition to being only a few steps from a bus stop that enabled my father without difficulty to reach his office near the floating bridge where, having at one time worked for Pickfords, he virtually, but not officially ran the Island Transport Company (a profitable subsidiary of J. S. White & Company, Shipbuilders and Engineers) the bungalow was only a stone’s throw (if one used a ballista) from J.S.W’s Somerton Works where I was the Chief Planning Engineer, Draughtsman, and Estimator who, at that time deputised for the Works Manager.

Built in 1916 as an extension to J. S. White’s riverside aviation department to cope with new orders, since 1918 various tenants had occupied the premises, the first being a firm called Scootamota that manufactured what probably was an ancestor of the Lambretta, a rather frail looking open-framed petrol driven machine with very small wheels.  For years after  they had gone their trademark, their name with large letters at each end and the rest diminishing  until they met in the middle, remained spread across the large sliding doors. Among other firms that were there temporarily were the Spartan Aircraft Company and the Vectis Bus Company, during whose tenancy a fire seriously damaged the southern end of the building. Still at school while they were there, I used to go to collect discarded roller bearings with which to play five stones. Now reopened in 1936 in connection with the Government’s belated re-armament programme, it was producing inter alia Spitfire frames, rudder bars, control columns and jettison tanks, Lancaster bomber elevators, and Mosquito engine mountings. It was therefore, one would have thought, a prime target for the Luftwaffe.

That spies were operating in the area was known because when an invasion was thought to be imminent for weeks at the end of every afternoon old cars were towed across the road from the scrap-yard and distributed over the aerodrome, a ploy that the traitor Lord Haw Haw ridiculed in one of his broadcasts. That we had one in the factory has been told in Adrian Searle’s excellent book The Wight At War, which relates how one night after the sirens had wailed, and I was about to enter our shelter, I saw a light coming from the doorway of Somerton’s underground shelter. Expecting to see the door close immediately, I had to wait about ten minutes before it did. The next morning  when I complained to the man in charge of the nightshift, he said I was mistaken. He personally had closed the door. After telling him that if I saw it again I would notify the police, I let the matter rest until Mr Douglas Beatty Backshall, an inspector, told me he suspected machine settings he checked at the start of each shift were being altered to produce items he had to condemn, and the culprit was the man to whom I had spoken. Before we could obtain proof the saboteur disappeared and later we heard the police were looking for him.

When daylight warnings became frequent, a great deal of time was wasted on account of the workforce being sent to the shelters as soon as the red alert was received on the telephone. More often than not, no enemy aircraft was within miles of the factory. To rectify this, a spotters’ post was built on the roof and manned by two men from the shop floor who would only empty the factory when danger threatened. Before this precaution was taken, we had a narrow escape one afternoon when, unheralded by a warning, an enemy aircraft, taking advantage of cloud cover, flew over us and dropped a bomb that razed a house on the corner of Fellows Road which was about half a mile away and in a direct line with Somerton Works. Obviously the bomb was released seconds too late. On another occasion some friends and I were playing whist when we were startled by the sound of an exploding bomb in the vicinity, and on going out to investigate we saw that the whole area from my home to Somerton Works was illuminated by incendiary bombs, three of which were in my front garden. These we extinguished by smothering them with earth. Precisely where the other bomb fell I never knew, but was told it was in a field where it did no serious damage. Another example of a belated warning was in evidence at seven one morning. I had at that moment come from the shelter when I saw German aircraft over the river and heading for the estuary. Keeping low over the Medina, they were safe from the local guns. Considerable damage was done to J. S. White’s boat-shop, and people were killed in East Cowes.
Late warnings were by no means uncommon. One day when I was walking back to work at 1.25 pm, simultaneously with the warning two bombers flying at an altitude low enough for me to see the pilots flew over the aerodrome heading north. Fully expecting to be fired at, I was relieved when presumably they decided to save their ammunition for use against defending Spitfires or Hurricanes.

That it was wise to take cover even when enemy aircraft, pursued by ours, were returning to the Fatherland was demonstrated one afternoon after a factory in Woolston had been badly hit. I had arrived home in time to witness the marauders being chased up the Medina valley. Mr Reg White’s brother and  another of his employees were standing by my shelter. After stopping to speak to them, I went inside to get something I had left there. And when I came out Mr White was nursing a badly cut finger that had been hit by a discharged cartridge case. It probably had travelled at least a mile.

In order to disillusion anyone who may think that my position was a sinecure, I shall now digress. That it had its advantages I’ll not deny, but authority brings the responsibility for making decisions and until nepotism put another man in the deputy manager’s chair  I was called upon to  make judgments that called for the wisdom of Solomon and where the manager’s female secretary was involved, the patience of Job. Of the lot, the one I regard as the most momentous was made following a night when some large bombs were dropped near enough to the factory to be classed as near misses. The manager was absent when, at mid-morning, a policeman came in to warn me of the danger of their presence and to suggest the workforce should be evacuated. Uncertain as to whether my temporary authority covered stopping 400 people from working, I thought I had better get advice by ringing the head office. The managing director and his second-in-command were at a meeting and could not be disturbed, so not prepared to endanger the lives and limbs of my fellowmen and women and, of course my own, I sent a message to inform the foremen of what I was going to do, and dictated a notice to clear the factory until further notice. Fortunately no explosions occurred, and after about two hours work was resumed. I still have a copy of the notice.

Having in the early ‘Thirties myself had a long spell of unemployment, I disliked having to countersign dismissal notices sent up by the foremen who, it was established, could hire and fire. Usually the reason given was inefficiency. That this was not always true I discovered when a very good workman who had been taken on at my request was sacked after a fortnight. Need I say more?

The winter of 1940-41 was exceptionally severe, and for the first time in our lives we were without running water – a serious problem had not the I.T.C. lorries going about their lawful occasions had daily to pass our bungalow and thus were able to bring all we needed from one of the two cottages previously mentioned. Presumably they had a well.

With an Army camp located on the land now used for the Agricultural Show, it was inevitable a black market should operate, and frequenters of the Horseshoe Inn were able to buy from a sergeant who had a colleague in the cookhouse as much meat and butter as they could afford. Being a law-abiding citizen, I was not one of his customers, and I warned my father that if an inspector happened to call and found something in our larder we would be in serious trouble. In spite of this, tell it not in Gath, at Christmas a whole ham appeared on our table. The vendor justified his theft by saying the soldiers had more than they required, and that a great deal of food was wasted. This fact was repeated some time later by a man from the camp at Chale.

One of the interesting and sometimes disturbing features of living in a rural or semi-rural district is the number of uninvited visitors that occasionally are to be found in the garden – interesting if you are a naturalist, disturbing if like me, you think the world would be a better place if the genus Ophidia were extinct. During six decades of occupation I have had moles to exterminate for which we employed a professional mole-catcher, rabbits that once ate two hundred newly planted cabbages during the night, toads, hedgehogs, cows, ponies, adders,  pheasants, field mice, and wasps, who built their nests too near my rustic seat to be permitted to remain there. Soon after we took possession, I saw a large owl perched on one of my fence posts. Having no goldfish, although I watched for it, I never even caught a glimpse of the heron that swooped down on my neighbours’ pond, and the only time I saw Jean De La Fontaine’s Maitre Reynard he was walking across Mr Biles’s  pasture … well within shotgun range. While many other people could make the same claims, I think I am the only one who can boast of having a walrus in his garden. Not an escapee from a zoo, I have to confess, but an amphibian aircraft whose female pilot made a faulty take-off from Somerton aerodrome in 1946, smashed my double gates, and fortunately stopped within a few feet of the bungalow, but near enough to burn the fascia board. At the time I and our housekeeper were on holiday in Devon and my father was at work. I can’t imagine what would have happened had we been at home and seen that monster approaching.

Throughout 1941 air raid warnings increased in frequency, and when darkness came early they began at six-o-clock, and often the ‘All clear’ would be delayed until the following morning. Usually the aircraft were bound for targets on the mainland, and illuminated by searchlights and fired at ineffectively, they passed without creating an ‘incident’.
Knowing we were protected against anything other than a direct hit or a very near miss, we went to bed and slept soundly in spite of the sporadic noise, an exception being when a landmine made a huge crater in the cemetery, the explosion being powerful enough to shake our bunk beds.

On May 4th 1942 the prediction I made when the war started was proved right. At the end of a lovely day flares floated down and our first and only concentrated raid began, during which I realised how soldiers could become shell-shocked after incessant gunfire, for after an hour I felt I could take no more. If now I were asked if I was afraid I could truthfully say I was not, for although I was not by any means cast in an heroic mould and believe (as many years ago those strip-cartoon characters, Mutt and Jeff, did) that when danger threatens absence of body is better than presence of mind, I discovered that when hope of survival has gone, resignation takes its place.
By that time Mr White’s last house to be built before the end of the war existed and we had neighbours named Taylor. Having failed to take any protective measures themselves, they came to take refuge with us – the addition of two adults and two children making the shelter seem over-populated …
A veteran of the 1914-18 conflict, it was not long before Mr Taylor, probably concerned regarding what was happening to his new house foolishly decided to go outside, an act that was responsible for something which hindsight finds amusing, for his stay in the open was soon ended by the blast of a bomb only fifty yards away which blew him inside again, bringing with him the smell of pear drops. Having read that a certain type of poison gas had that odour, I shouted “Put on your masks!” and donned mine. When nobody did likewise and suffered no ill effects my relief was mingled annoyance that no one had heeded my warning and that I had made a fool of myself. The next day I found  the smell had come from some paint thinner whose bottle was broken by the blast which hit our neighbour.
During a short lull in the raid the Taylors left to drive to find greater safety with friends in Gurnard – a hazardous venture on account of the number of holes made by bombs that had fallen as far as Wyatts Lane from the target area, a number of the attackers having been kept away from it by the guns of the Polish flotilla leader, Blyskawica which had been built by J.S.W. and was back for repairs.
When the battle was over, and at dawn we came out to survey the damage done to our property, we saw that although the Taylors’ house had not suffered to any great extent, our bungalow, having apparently received the full blast of the nearest bomb, was in a sorry state. Half of the roof tiles were gone, all the windows were broken, and the front and back door, partly unhinged were hanging uselessly. Inside large pieces of the ceilings lay on the floor and beds, but apart from that  the only effect of the raid was a four inch sliver of wood cut from the back of one chair and a small tear in the fabric of another. Remarkably, antique plates on two shelves in a recess by the chimney breast were still intact and in place. Also the glass dome over a gilded clock was unbroken. That the building had not been burnt was a minor miracle, for our blackout screens were made of highly inflammable material pinned to wooden frames – very vulnerable to sparks drifting over from buildings ablaze across the road.
Rather than having to endure a repetition of the previous night, having decided to move to a place of no interest to the Luftwaffe, we took a bus to Newport and a taxi to Chale where we hoped to stay at the Clarendon Hotel. On arrival, we were dismayed to learn it was closed for the duration of the war. When, however, Mr Tom Roberts was told of our plight, with characteristic kindness he admitted the three of us and for the five weeks we were there served us with breakfast, tea, and dinner on Sundays for a ridiculously low charge. Our next move was to take a furnished house in Sheep Lane, from where we later moved to an empty house  opposite the church where we lived until the autumn of 1945. During our sojourn at the Clarendon I never saw its resident ghost, and if at times when reading in the large room used for banquets I felt rather uneasy, no doubt it was my imagination at work.

At this point I recall another humorous incident. One morning as the bus that brought me from Chale reached the gate of Somerton Works all hell appeared to have broken loose. Low trajectory shells from the gun on the opposite corner were being aimed at a slow flying approaching aircraft. Without waiting to see the outcome, with shells passing overhead, I ran the 150 yards or so to take cover in the aforementioned underground shelter where one man had beaten me to it. “I reckon I put my skates on,” he said. Skates! I had been jet propelled! Fifty-six years were to elapse before I was told the aircraft was British whose pilot had given an obsolete recognition signal. Fortunately both pilot and aircraft landed unharmed.

Somerton works

© T. C. Hudson. If this article is reproduced please acknowledge the author.

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