|From an interview with Fred Dickens (aged 104) transcribed by Jacky Lawrence
I was born in Pertenhall in Bedfordshire. My father was the village blacksmith but unfortunately he died when he was 45. His name was Harry Dickens, or Henry, I think it were Henry. My mum’s name was Isabella Hite and she were born at Thurleigh, me father was born at Riseley. I were born at the forge and after me father died we left the forge. We went down what they called Water Lane and lived in an old cottage. We were only there two years then this cottage came vacant and we went and lived there until I left home after the war. The last place I lived was called Green End. There was ten in my family I’m the youngest but one. I had six sisters and three brothers.
We always played as a family like and there was two or three families close to each other. We used to play a game of rounders, we used to knock this ball and run round onto the boundaries, throw the ball and hit you before you got to one of those boundaries then you were out. Another game we used to play was tag, we had boundaries and if somebody could run and tick you before you got to the boundary you were out.
On the Sunday it was always a beef pudding because them old villages they hadn’t got a big oven so’s they couldn’t do a great lot of baking, but it were practically always a beef pudding we used to have for Sunday. She (mother) used to have a big old pot on the fireplace, used to boil these puddings, she got up at 7 o’clock in the mornings to see a pot on the fire.
We had an old village shop, used to be an old lady there, I can remember the old dear’s name now, Tenby. She used to sell sugar and sweets and flour and a loaf of bread and that sort of thing and a bit of rice and all. If we’d got a penny we used to go in, and then of course when we got older and started smoking you could go and buy a packet of Woodbines for a 1d, 5 Woodbines for a 1d.
When I was about 13 or 14 they used to bring Sunday newspapers, that was about the only newspaper we got. There used to be a man from Kimbolton, he used to come round on his bicycle and sell these papers on Sundays.
The coalman used to come round with the horse and cart. I think the people he used to work for was named Cook, as used to own this horse and cart but I think the old man as used to come round was named Margett. In the summertime it used to be 11d a 100cwt. Then when the cold weather started he said. “Mrs. it’s gone up this week, 13d a 100cwt.” So we only had 100cwt, sometimes we used to have 200cwt in the summertime. He used to come from Kilbolton.
There was an old baker in Kimbolton, used to come round. He were always in a hurry. What were it he used to say. “Hot, cold, cob or crusty? What do you want today? How’s your mother? She’s not quite so well today, right glad to hear it. Away, away,” he used to say. “Not quite so well, oh well I’m pleased to hear it.” His name was Spicer, he had a big bakehouse in Kimbolton.
Everybody used to fetch the milk, no milkman would come round. We used to go to the farm on the other side of the road where we lived. You could fetch a happorth (½d) of milk if you wanted. Of course it had been separated, it were not new milk. You could get a can full of milk for about ½d or 1d. The same with eggs, we used to buy butter from them as well. If you wanted eggs most people used to keep hens in the back yard in them days.
We’d got a big garden, we used to grow quite a few vegetables. There used to be one old cottage fallen down with a garden that joined our house we used to have that and we’d got another garden with our house so we’d got two big gardens. There were the three of us, two brothers and myself, we used to dig it. In the front garden there was a little orchard and we’d got four or five big apple trees.
A lot of people reared chickens and keep two fowls for Christmas. We generally used to have a fowl for Christmas. But we practically lived on rabbits, there was any amounts of rabbits in them days. The farmer as lived close to us he was always walking about with a gun and we used to go about with him. He was shooting rabbits every day, his name was Maggs. I think it was called the College Farm, I think there were about 600 or 800 acres..
I used to like working on the farm at this time of year. You used to be there at 6 o’clock in the morning until half past five at night. That was before I left school, I was only about 11 year old then. We used to have what they called harvest month, we had to be there at 5 o’clock in the morning. It was a mile away from that farm that we worked. My mother used to come round and wake me up. “Come on Fred it’s 4 o’clock, it’s time to get up, come on Fred it’s 4 o’clock.” I had to get up or I’d turn over and go to sleep and she’d come round with a wet flannel and just drop it on my face. We used to have a cup of tea and grab a bit of bread and butter and scramble off to work to get there on time.
I can remember now what I used to take in them days.They used to make what they called the old cottage loaf. There used to be a bottom on it with a brown bit on the top. I generally used to take this brown bit off the top and some butter with fat pork. I never were a lover of cheese, we were brought up on bread and fat pork. We always used to have a bottle of cold tea. if you put milk in it it didn’t keep very well, we generally used to have weak tea.
I started work on the farm, the Duke of Manchester’s estate at Kimbolton, as a lad when I was 12 years old. I worked there until I was 20 then I left the farm and I went in the hunting stables.
I remember starting school as well as if it were only last week. I should be about 4½ and I can remember one of me older sisters taking me to school. Oh, I were a frightened little boy, I can remember hanging on to her. She had to take me to the class and she had to go and sit in her own class. I was petrified, yes I was petrified.
There were round about forty children, I should think, or fifty. We used to get there in the mornings, line up, walk in school and that was a church school The first thing they used to read a prayer and we used to sing hymns and then they ask your names, where you there you see. Then we used to start on the arithmetic and all sorts of things like that and writing, yes, writing.
When I first started school it used to be a school governess really. Miss Noakes was the teacher in them days. Then when I’d been started two year I think I wore her out and they had to have another one, her name was Miss Alson and she were there when I left. There used to be one head teacher and then she used to have what were called two pupil teachers under her. She used to take the school, be supervisor of it and these here pupil teachers they’d take what they called the infants’ class, the first standard. She had a cane but I think we broke her heart. We used to steal this cane and I remember the older boys they used to cut this cane up into cigarettes and smoke them.
They’d got books we’d learn to read out of. We used to have an old slate to write on and slate pencils. You had to use that old slate day after day. We used to spit on it and rub it with our sleeves, our sleeves were worn out rubbing this ‘ere slate.
They used to teach us how to knit and how to sew and I used to be all right knitting. But when I’d been done it a little while I used to pull it so tight you couldn’t work 'em. I remember the girl 'as used to sit next to me used to say. "Now I keep my knitting loose, don’t you get mine tight while I’m getting yours loose." And while she’d get mine loose I’d get her devil’s as tight as what it were, oh dear. And sewing, we used to have an old bit of calico and they used to turn the hem down and we used to sew the seam like, and we used to sew our fingers and all sorts. There were more blood on them than anything.
The inspector used to come round once a year and we all knew what day he was coming. We all had to starch yourself up and make ourselves look respectable and keep everything clean. We were scared stiff of the bloke when he come round looking at your books and your papers and one thing and another. And how we used to know I don’t know, but I think the teacher had to report what you were like, I don’t know.
The parson used to come up every Friday afternoon or morning. I can see that man now, ’cos in the wintertime there used to be a big fireplace in the big school and down where the infants were they used to have a smaller fire down there. I can see that man, he’d come there and he’d go and stand with his back to the fire, his hands behind him, and his old moustache. I can see him standing there every time I think about it. Then he’d come round and he’d pick up whatever you were doing, your writing book or your reading book, and he’d look at you and he’d perhaps pass a remark. Were you a good writer or were you a bad writer, had you made a mistake in your spelling, or something like that.
There was no such thing as pocket money, cor blimey no. If we were earning from somebody they might give you a halfpenny or a penny then straight off the shop we used to go. You could buy a bag of sweets in them days, they used to have little sweets, you could get a fair sized sweet for a halfpenny and a penny.
I had an older sister living in Rushden and sometime before I came to Rushden. She used to go up Shirley Road there, her name was Shortland, her first name was Ellen. As a young man I used to come over and visit her so I knew Rushden before I came here to live. I used to ride on a bike. It were about 8 or 9 miles.
There was a celebration in the village to celebrate Queen Victoria's jubilee. There were a big farm close to where we lived in the village there and he’d got one of these great big barns. They cleaned this barn out and the village had a real party there. Yes, on Queen Victoria’s day. They hadn’t got much music, there might have been one or two people sawing about on a fiddle, I don’t know.
When I was about 20 I joined the Beds Yeomanry for four years and we used to have a camp every year. Then when the war broke out I’d finished my 4 years in the Yeomanry so I left them. But they were a few men short and they asked a lot of the other fellas what were still in it if they know of an old member who was willing to join. So they sent me a wire, I can remember that wire now as well as can be 'vacancy in squadron report at once'. I was at Great Addington, I didn’t stop, I got straight on my bike and I biked all the way to Godmanchester and that’s where I joined up. I was with the Beds Yeomanry until the year before the war finished, they were broken up and we transferred into the 19th Hussars, so I finished my time in the 19th Hussars.
I was taught how to shoe horses when I joined the Army. We shoed 2 feet at a time, there’s his hind foot, there’s his front foot. The horse would be leaning on you, yes, you see he’d be got the weight on that side. It were only done as tomfoolery and a lot of folks said it couldn’t be done. I said well I’m got a picture that shows you it can be done. That was taken down at Stansted. That had been about early 1915 because we went out to France in early ’15, so that would be just after Christmas.
When we went to France I can always remember when we used to go down to where they’d got the blacksmith’s shop. We used to pick our horses up and you could get an awkward horse. Pull you, kick you and shove you about but out in France they’d got four posts you see. Two at the front and two at hind legs, just walk this horse in like walking in a stable, pull his leg up and tie his leg to this post. If he pulls and pulls about he’s pulling the post and if we’d got horses as used to pull us about a bit they’d stand.
We must have went all over France I think and, oh dear, talk about hardship when the war was really on. If there was a big attack was going to take place somewhere the cavalry used to have to move out behind them because they always know to break through you see. Sometimes we used to do twenty mile a night. We used to do it at nights because if you done it in the day time aeroplanes would be after you. When dawn begins to break that’s when you feel the worse, you start going to sleep, the old horses keep going along. There was one this side of the road and one that side of the road. You’d be nodding off asleep all at once, there’d be another horse come walking by you. You’d say. “Here gee up mate you’re going too fast.” He’d wake up and pull his horse back and get in place again, oh dear it were a tiring job.
We would practically always used to pull in some field somewhere where there was plenty of trees. You was trying to get under trees if we could so that the aeroplanes couldn’t see you. If one come over and spotted you they were down through the gate over there with a gang of planes. They’d play hell with you because there’s nothing upsets a horse more than a bomb dropping amongst them you see. In our regiment, in our wing, there were about six hundred of us. But we used to move in squadrons and there’d be 150 on a squadron.
I spent four years in France and that’s when I got married, in 1917 the last year of the war. Then I used to spend my leave at Weston. I married me wife from Hail Weston, her mother used to keep a pub there, the Old Royal Oak. When I met my wife I should be about 18 or 19. In them days we had a cricket team. We used to be playing nearly every night for an hour or two, but we used to arrange a cricket match if we could on Saturdays. We used to go round to the villages and we went to Hail Weston to play them. The pub provided tea for us and as we sat at the tea tables who should be waiting at the table was my wife, first time I ever met her. Then we got talking and we made arrangements to meet each other and then we got closer and closer.
My wife was in service at Tilbrook Hall. Before she got married she left the service and went to the munitions factory at Luton and stayed there until the war were over. They made all nose caps and all sorts where she worked for these here bomb things, they were shells, artillery shells. She lived in lodgings down there at Luton. We only used to get leave every twelve months so it would be twelve months before I got back again.
It was 1919 when I moved to Rushden when I left the forces. Because after the war were over I spent 6 months or 12 months up in Germany, they used to keep troops there to keep the peace.
When I came back again I came straight over here to live at Rushden. I came here more or less for a holiday but the first week I were here I were lucky I got a job. When I come they said. "I’m afraid you’ve got a poor chance of getting a job here mate." But I must have been in the right place at the right time. I started work on at that factory what was John Cave & sons and I worked there until I was 70.
We lived with my sister up Shirley Road for fifteen months until my daughter was born. Then we were fortunate, we got this house here because there were no houses you could get for love or money. Bob Marriott built these houses. There were six on Newton Road and six on where I’m living here and six in Trafford Road. Over there, that was a grass field, you could sit here and see over to Newton, right across the field, lovely. There were no roads, nothing only an old clinker path. 1921 that’s right and I’ve lived here since. I’ve rented, but I understand now if I wanted to buy it I think you could, but I don’t know, not in them days.
The railway would be there about 4 o’clock, because we used to leave off half past five in them days. They’d generally be there about an hour before we left off and then we used to load all that lot we’d sent to the railway. That was the biggest job, you’d got transport deliver stuff here and some other transport, deliver some other part and it was a real maze which transport. First, one firm had got a transport then another firm had got a transport but it used to be practically all railway when I first came here. The railway would only accept shoes in wooden crates, I had to build them when I first went there. We used to send a tremendous lot to London but I think we sent all over the world and we used to send them abroad to Dunedin, Wellington and Auckland.
There used to be a little girl in the office who used to do all the paperwork. I’d jot down on a bit of paper, I’d got so many cartons for this place, so many for that so many labels for so and so. She'd do them and bring them all out and I used to stick them on. We used to stencil a lot on them old carton things, places like Wellington and Auckland. They were all cut out and you’d lay them on this here board and get this old black stuff and paint over like and print it you see.
Then the motor transport started up, we used to put six shoes on top of each other and put a bit of cardboard on the bottom, cardboard on the top, and put a string round it. The transport used to take them in sixes like that. They’d have about two or three hundred shoes all tied up in sixes, but what they were like when they got to the other end I don’t know. Pecks used to take a lot.
Pecks used to keep all their lorries down off Washbrook Road, where Marriotts is now. They went out of business when British Road Services, just after the second world war. I think they nationalised the majority of the lorries you see, it became a government affair and a lot of these transport people sold their businesses to the government you see. And they made quite a lot of money out of it like and Pecks was one of them.
My first payslip I think was, yes four shillings a week when I first started, that was on the farm. Then in the harvest month they used to give us double pay for a month, so that would be eight shillings a week for a month in harvest time.
When I started with Cave’s I think it were twenty something shillings. There was overtime, too much overtime in my job you see, there was overtime nearly every blinking day. We started at half past seven in the morning and then we used to have an hour dinner time. Then they used to leave off at half past five but working in the room where I did you could get away anytime, because perhaps you’d be ready you’d got so many left for a certain transport. You’d got to wait while that transport come and perhaps it were calling here, there and everywhere, you never knew what time it were coming. It could be blinking six or seven o’clock at night. We used to work Saturday mornings as well, half past seven until twelve.
Alfred Street was dead opposite, when that bomb dropped it hit the end of our factory here and the next one as come down it must have slid down the roof where I was in and hit under the foundation of Alfred Street school. Because I said then. “The bugger he couldn’t get me in France he’s come to try and get me here.”
The old green keeper made us laugh because it was on the day of the raid. This were our bowls green in Duck Street, out the back were the car park is now. He used to look after this here bowling green and he was working and of course as this aeroplane come over. It come from Higham way somewhere, it dropped one somewhere in the Victoria Road town. And course hearing this one drop and he seed this here bomb coming down. “Cor,” he says. “You couldn’t see my arse for dust,” he says. “I run straight in under cover.” And next it hit the factory and then it hit Alfred Street School. He said. “I thought the bloody aeroplane were falling to bits when I see this here, when I see this bomb coming down, yes,” he said. “I thought the bloody wheels were falling off.” I think he was a lucky man to actually see a bomb falling, you know to be as close as that and watch it and not to be harmed by it. His name were Bernard Dorks.
My first wireless was a cat’s whiskers. About 1920, ’21. The job was to get it in the right place, it would perhaps be on for a while then go off. Of course you had to have headphones, you’d sit there, you couldn’t jump up and run or these headphones would pull you back. We used to have a big wireless pole down the garden and run a wire from there to the chimney tops.
We got a telly in 1954, yes we had a nine inch black and white one. They had a magnifying bit on the front there blew it up a bit bigger, it was full of water.
I spent most of my time playing bowls, I still remained a member of the old club. I used to play every week, Saturdays, we used to have a bowls match in the evenings. Got these competitions playing you see so I was always got some interest there, that was a very big interest of mine was bowls and still is.
It were 1924 when I first started playing bowls. That were firm’s, John Cave & Sons it was in Duck Street where the car park is. When we first started of course money were short in them days and none of us had got any woods. The firm bought these woods and then you paid for them a shilling a time. Unfortunately when they ordered these woods nobody didn’t know anything about woods so they were all what they called four biased.
Well four biased, like say now the jack site is straight down there, well you don’t bowl straight at that jack you got to bowl right out there and so it come curving back like this here. The majority of woods that you play with today they’re only what you call three biased and I think a lot of them have got no bias at all. So you see if you’ve got a four bias and you’re playing against one as has only got a three or less you’re at a big disadvantage.
I’ve never been a competitive bowler because that kills the game. But the people I’ve met and known I never should have known if I hadn’t played bowls. Because all them years we’ve been going to Kettering, Northampton, Raunds and everywhere playing bowls.
We used to go to Peterborough once a year many years ago. That got quite an outing that did and I know we used to have a bus them days to take us and coming home of course. Quite a few of them wanted to stop there and have a pint here and a pint there, it used to be quite a laugh. One of the old boys who used to play with me, he used to love his beer. By the time he got home he could just about manage to get his woods home. The Saturday night he went home he couldn’t get to the toilet quick enough, he run in the garden, dropped his woods and hit the toilet and he never thought no more about his woods. He goes off to bed, Sunday passes by and then Monday, when he’s going to start playing bowls again. He’d has his tea and he said to his wife. “Are you seen my woods anywhere?” She said. “They’re where you left them when you come home Saturday night.” He said. “Where’s that?” She said. “Right down the bottom of the yard,” she said. “You’ll find them.”
I only play with the family now, we have odd game now and again. I played regular until I was 94 year old when my two mates dropped me outside here and I says. “That’s enough, another year over I don’t know whether there’ll be another year.” They said. “Don’t talk so damn silly course it will, you’ve got quite a few more years yet.” And well I haven’t played regular since, but I’ve been playing ever since anyway. And both of them men have gone what dropped me off there.