Submitted to Slip End Parish News by Phil Edwards with the following comments:-
The Edwards family once had a high profile in Slip End, thanks to my grandparents, George and Emily who raised no less than 12 children in the village. My father was one of those and I grew up in a Slip End surrounded by uncles and aunties. George, a builder, played an important role in the building of the Village Hall and his son, my uncle, Peter Edwards had the playing fields named in his honour as a result of the tireless work he put in to see them established.
Another of the 12 children, Ethel Ruckwood nee Edwards, wrote a memoir of her early years in the village, before her death and I thought this might be of interest as a piece of Slip End history. They were passed to me by her daughter, Toni, who sadly died a few years back. I’m sure Ethel would have loved to see them published in some form … please find them attached. They are far too long for the Parish News but would stand having some excerpts pulled out if you felt it appropriate. My grandfather moved to Slip End in 1900 so Ethel will have grown up in the first years of the last century. The family occupied two houses in Summer Street, no. 24 where I grew up and no. 85, a much larger place affectionately known to the family as “Top House”.
(now living in Derbyshire)
A Memoir (Reminiscences 1904 – 1931)
By Ethel Matilda Ruckwood (née Edwards) Written January 19th, 1974
Everyone, it is said, has a story to tell if they have time and ability.
I have not much ability but I have lots of time, and I am tired of knitting and house-keeping, especially as I cannot do much shopping as I am not able to walk far, so Sid (my husband) does it all, and very well too.
To begin with, it is a lovely sunshiny day for January. Bright sunshine, warm winds and altogether lovely. I think I’ll start back when I was about three, I remember it well, as I was used to going to a little shop near home, where an old lady, very sweet, would give me a sweet or two, and after Xmas, all her sample Xmas card books. These, I believe, were my first acquaintance with pictures, and I know I kept some for years.
I remember, now I seem to be in the mood of that time, that we moved house. My father was out of work, he was a good bricklayer and he heard of work at a place called Luton Hoo, near Luton, a town where hats were made. There was plenty of work for a married woman except in the dull season, and as that occurred at the end of spring no-one seemed to mind. So we put our household in a van one day and set out for Luton. We got everything in including the cat, Fluff, my dearest possession, then we started on our fifty mile journey by train, my first.
I do not think I know much about that. My memory goes back to a long dusty road to Slip End, our destination. My Mother and Aunt Mary, her sister, taking it in turns for my sister was not yet able to walk, and I walked beside it, until I was tired when Aunt Mary carried our best china lampshade and I was perched in its place. We were very tired of walking. It was a hot day, when we came to a little newly built church, very sweet looking, seemingly ready for a good congregation. A short way from it the rectory was being put up and a gang of young workmen were singing the latest song. My mother stopped and called to them. They turned their brown faces to her. “Is it far to Slip End?” she said tiredly. “Just up the road” said the youngest politely. “Where are you from?” “Market Harborough” said she. “Oh” said another “That’s where the Prince of Wales goes hunting, ever seen him?” “Lots of times” said Mother. “Would you like a cuppa tea?” They declined the tea my aunt told me afterwards. They wanted to see their new house.
They soon found it – the first one in a row of cottages. It was near a baker’s establishment, and at first they did not like it. “It will, perhaps” said mother “be better inside”. Alas for their hopes, two down and two up and a shared scullery. They both sat down and wept. They had not come from a palace, but imagine sharing a sink etc and a scullery – what could be worse? When my father came home, my mother would not speak to him. “Well” he said “There is not another anywhere”.
One of their neighbours to be came in with a pot of tea and some little cakes. “Poor things” she said “You must be tired”. She told them of what amenities there were in the village. A butcher came out from the town, and a grocer once a fortnight. Several farms around also provided milk, butter, fresh eggs and poultry, pork in season.
The villagers mostly worked on the farms and the woman went to their farmers’ wives to housekeep. There were three pubs, one at each corner. A Methodist chapel, a new church, not yet quite finished. A large house, occupied by the squire, Sir John Sambrook Crawley, who had the church built, and who was the owner of most of the farms.
Well, we had a house and a roof over our heads, but oh for our lovely clean town, and our own sink, etc. We slept badly, it was almost dark when the van turned up and the first thing they did was to drop the wooden box containing mother’s wedding gift of a pink service – a tea service she was very proud of. We had no time to put up the beds so we laid some mattresses on the floor.
As time went on we got acclimatized and I was taken to the small school. One thing it contained I have never seen or heard of anywhere else – the babies’ class was made of steps that went up to the ceiling. The youngest had the first row, and the elder children went higher up according to age. It was taken away before I left the small children’s part, but I do remember it very well. Years later, when I had some acquaintance with different schools I thought how lucky I was to have actually sat in the staircase as we called it. I do remember how pleased we were with it because our teachers did not want to go up and
down when we needed correction. We could do all sorts of tricks when we sat above the teachers, for they could not reach us in time, for we had plenty of warning.
My father cycled back and forth to the Hoo. It was being transformed into a palace for the diamond millionaire Sir Julius Wernher. He (my father) was told that there would be work for some years, but unluckily that was not true, for when the frosts came the work stopped and soon stopped altogether. There was no dole money then, and we did not know what to do. We had a baby brother too.
My father, though, was rarely idle. He put a fireplace in the scullery to the delight of our neighbours and soon he was applying for permission to build his own scullery. Bricks were made not far away, and wood was to had for gathering it. He also divided the back room into two by means of a canvas screen which made the house much warmer.
My sister and I were sent to a Baptist Chapel not far away. We went there because a young girl was able to take us, but mum and dad were confirmed members of the Church, so that when we were a little older we left the Chapel and went to the dear little church. The Rev. Philip Hyne, the vicar in those days took the services. The congregation was not large as yet but the church, having moved from the old tin-roofed one, right in the village, had lost a few of its otherwise faithful people.
The village was not a nice one, oblong with no pretty front gardens as other country places. There, all the gardens were at the back enclosed in four streets of small cottages. We got used to it in time, we even loved it, because if the place was ugly, the country lanes were lovely, and there were woods full of larch and spinneys full of primroses and bluebells not so very far away. Also, bricks were hand made near some clay pits, which were a source of excitement to us as sometimes, if we were caught prowling round we were smacked well and truly, so that to dodge the foreman became a good game.
One unused pit was a great favourite of mine. When I could get away from the gang, it was my delight to run up and down the steep sides. I would climb the old trees, swing on a loose piece of fence, and it was the place for rare summer flowers and the blackberries were the best for miles around. I told not a soul about it, but in due time it was filled up with rubbish and ashes from the brick-kilns. Everyone at school wore long loose pinafores over their frocks, mostly white, very easy to make and very full, and it was a childish delight of mine to hold out the corners and run, until the wind filled the sailing sides of the pinafore. I was friends with most of the scholars and some of the teachers were angels. One was still there for years after I left, and to my surprise she eventually came to live with my eldest brother who had no family.
Our family increased fast, to my sorrow. It was always babies, babies, babies male and female. When the twelfth one arrived, our doctor looked at us all while he cranked up his old-fashioned car and said “It is too many – far too many” and shook his old head. The days romped by – the ups and downs days – sunny and wet – we were never idle but we were a good crowd.
We had to go to church three times on Sunday, we never missed a Christmas treat or an outing. A long way sitting in a brake drawn by three strong horses. Attendance was very good just beforehand and some children’s names appeared on two or three lists giving them one or two treats before they were spotted. At the summer treat we usually had a large tent (a marquee) because of the unpredictable weather, but the thing I remember most is the squire and one or two of the farmers throwing sweets on the grass and we scrambled for them, ran races, sang our school songs and ran about like mad things.
We liked best the days when we went to Stockwood, the home of the Squire. There we were given the run of the lovely park and garden with the exception of the kitchen garden with its delectable fruits. Not that we minded that, as we always came home with large bags of fruit, apples, creamy-white gooseberries, strawberries and red and white currents. Sometimes if the season was a good one we had grapes. Bags of fruit also went to the ones that were sick. Sometimes I think the old times were best – but we were young and in love with life and ourselves.
Two daughters belonged to the squire, and they always chose us as partners in the games and competitions. They instituted an Easter treat – hiding eggs everywhere in the garden for us to find. We like that, and there was never a shortage of eggs.
As time went on, we moved to a modest house just built. It was very nice one. Three bedrooms, kitchen, parlour and scullery. A large landing attracted us children, but alas three months there and we moved again. Into another small house but with a very large garden. My mother’s tears and complaints made no difference. We moved. It was an old shop, the first in the village. It was alas badly looked after. Once it had been very nice as was seen by the lovely carving on the shelves and the alcoves. The treacle drum was there on its stool, its tap fastened so that it could not be meddled with. We hated the small two up and two down house, but oh the garden was a paradise. We jut could not keep out of it.
Its owner, an old gardener with years of experience at Luton Hoo had made this own garden of his into a joint flower and vegetable patch with fruit trees also. At the time we took it over , it contained four apple trees, one cherry, one Victoria plum and one damson tree, six gooseberry bushes, two rows of strawberries, one bullace tree (only one I’ve ever seen), red, black and white currants, all the vegetables and a long row of cherry rhubarb, also a very tall tree of Blenheim orange apples. It was so tall that it could not be gathered properly – we had no ladder long enough to reach the fruit, so we had to wait till it fell off. Then it was lovely tasting. Its bruises were sweet and when in half the apple was like wine.
My father was not an ambitious man but he did not like bills. He foresaw that he might forego the boss or middleman if he worked for himself. His seven boys were growing up fast and they helped him and the land that was with the house would be the place for his materials and workshop. Alas, we would not leave the garden as it was, Loads of various machines came, cement and sand and other things, Paint and oil arrived. He put a notice up outside “Edwards & Son Builders, Estimates free”. We children were proud of that.
The house was in one corner of the land and a lovely golden fir tree showed itself outside the kitchen window. As we were badly overcrowded, father had to do something about it. So he made a long board underneath the kitchen window so that we all sat down to meals in comfort. When not in use it folded into the wall. He was right to make a firm, but he was not a good scholar and keeping books was hard to him. My sister started him off many times but it was hard to put him right. He was a very amiable man – he liked people and got on well with most of them. He was always pleased to get help and would generously return a favour. He loved the little church and always did the small repair jobs in which my father was helped by his sons. While working on consecrated ground he would never allow singing or whistling.
But his real sphere of work was the farms, he would go miles when needed. In after times they owned a lorry which my eldest brother learned to drive. He filled his land up with a large workshop, bought several loads of timber cheap, and there not being room enough he bought up the old tin church which was on the point of tumbling down, but would give shelter to most of the materials he bought second-hand and used them in the rebuilding of his work. When a boy he had learned carving and several small pieces were about the house, the best one being a fireplace surrounding the kitchen fire. To take care of it I kept it well polished with paraffin oil and since I have my own house I am astonished that it never caught fire. With the advent of the lorry, came a petrol pump, so then we were never out of paraffin. We still had oil lamps and it was nothing to come home and find paraffin-tasting sugar, the lamp hanging over the table.
Now there was interesting news. A zoo of wild animals was to be built not far away at Whipsnade, a tiny village not far from Dunstable. It was up on high ground overlooking the Vale of Aylesbury. It was mainly for sick animals from the London Zoo. The air was fresh, but very cold. A few popular animals were kept because it became a great attraction and it was always full of people. An attractive restaurant was built and it was a thriving place, but now the entrance fee has gone up to twice the price it was, and the food is hard to get. It seems to suit the animals very well, many were born there and distributed to other zoos. Monkeys, flamingos, deer, lions and tigers, seals, foreign birds, koala bears, elephants, snakes and peacocks and bright talking parrots (also wolves) and a cheetah. Of late years a children’s corner was made and the young animals were a great attraction.
The journey to Whipsnade is very pretty country. It is only 30 miles from London and there is a good bus service to and from Dunstable, also to the trains at Luton. People come from very far away stopping at the village of Whipsnade for a drink. Vera Brittain and her friend Winifred Holtby often stopped in the village at the post office. When first we heard of the coming of the zoo, I said, now, we will have a tea wagon and take it to the village, and make millionaires of ourselves, but father did not agree, so that we did not start it, but before even the zoo was finished, café shelters put on a good cold meal for the crowds. I must mention the penguins for they are so funny. They stand round their little pool for ages before they make the slightest move, but what a change when their food arrives – they wake up and waddle solemnly but quickly in a queue for it. They jump into their water and dive and splash and show off to the limit. Little people in black and white coat-tails, mocking us human beings. I believe they are laughing at us behind our backs.
The best bird attraction that they had for some years was a brush turkey, about as large as a pheasant with longer legs, its nest is made up by the male bird of a monster heap of leaves gathered by the male bird. Its egg is laid in a hollow scooped out at the top, the heat of it incubating it. The bird sanctuary was just inside the gate, but the keeper used to wait for a party before showing anyone round it.
Here I was ten years old and head of our school. I liked school. It made me free from odd jobs and babies. Now our schoolmaster has remembered his old school days and says we will have a May Day festival. We are all pleased, and now away with boring lessons, and up with Mayday dances and fun.
The school votes for a May Queen and I am thrilled because I am repeatedly told that most of the votes will be for me. I walk about with a straight back and try to blush very sensitively and attractively, but no, Edith Fensome (aged 14 and about to leave school) is favourite. How glad I am that I did not smirk about. The gang go about reciting “You must wake and call me early….”until we are very tired of Mayday.Some of us older girls learn the maypole dance with coloured ribbons twisting and turning round the pole, I have a photo somewhere. We learn a love dance – the Bellingar Gavotte, simple and easy to remember. My gang of boys do it very well, and we are all very sentimental before and after it. My best friend, Carrie Brookes, and I do a dance duet while music is played for us by the boys on an accordion and handbells. We each made our own crowns, covering canvas headdresses with white flowers.
The tiny ones are taught round dances and dancing games which takes away their shyness. No-one misses this, children are always stealing the show from others, and these little one are mostly three years old.
The boys are busy – they are learning to shoot with bows and arrows. Our Headmaster has made a frame containing a fluffy owl with a bell on top. If the arrow hits the owl it swings on its perch and the bell rings, and the smiling archer may kiss the May Queen. On the day of the competition the bell rings incessantly and the Queen was kept very busy indeed. The boys had practised with good results. On May Day the village was early astir, dozens of gardens gave up flowers. White frocks were put on with many injunctions to sit still now you are ready and don’t get your frock dirty. Everything was satisfactory. The sun shone, the flag flew beautifully on top of the flag pole. We started off singing Flag of Britain – always a favourite. The ribbons patterned themselves as if they were alive. The Queen was carried round the village in a great procession. The teachers collecting money for the tea for everyone beamed because no-one was thrifty. In after years I think of merry England. It was a good time.
The tug of war – boys versus girls – nearly brought the girls to tears until one of the teachers found the fatso twins and tied them on the end, which made a great difference and occasioned a draw, although I think some of the bigger boys acted very chivalrously and let the girls off lightly. The greasy pole was climbed and the little pig won. The head dressed as a gipsy fortune teller but in disguise tried tricks with the older men of which the vanishing thimble and the pea were two of the very oldest. Two boys had a fight to the death with buffeting with feather pillows with their legs crossed on a pole. Fights with two boys trying to knock each other out caused much fun. With four pairs the winners of each did choose a partner from the girls for the Roger de Coverly.
We sang folk-songs after tea. We had learned two musical ones
“Here the rosebuds in June and the violets are blowing”
The other one was:-
Strong is the castle with turrets so hoary
Where ivy is twining the towers around
Strong is the sunset with colours of glory
Where palaces, airy with splendour are found.
But stronger by far is the gentle heart
That never will from its troth depart”
They have always been my favourites, but the Society of Folk Singers has never come across them. We all went home very pleased with ourselves, bed times had gone long ago, but we stayed up until the sun went down in its panoply of scarlet and gold. “England, Merrie England”, we said, was the place to live in.. I slept before undressing. My mother came in and put on my night gown. Has it been a good day I mumbled. I never heard her reply, but I felt her light kiss on my cheek and fell into oblivion – where we were all still in Merrie England. It was raining and I had to wear my old dress and jacket and the maypole was washed out and the bows and arrows got wet and the policeman made us walk on the pavement which made the Queen’s carrying chair impossible. So I must walk.
The policeman was impervious to bribes and next some-one stole his fowls. No-one was sorry for him, and he never found out. I could have told him but I had been told never on any occasion be a tell-tale, it is worse than stealing.
Nevertheless he was soon forgotten and as the events of the day faded, we forgot too. School was dull after that and we had a job to settle down. But we did not know what was in store for us.
After a few months went by we were astonished to hear that war had been declared with Germany. There was a terrible to-do in our village. Half the men were reservists and were called up at once. Mothers and children cried and others waited outside for their telegrams. I was a fearful night. Next day we were surrounded by an army of soldiers taking a breath from marching. Soon the women found out that they were thirsty besides being tired. A few brought fresh made tea for them, soon everyone was making tea and taking snacks and little cakes for them.
I took a jug of tea to a smiling youngster. He gave me sixpence which pleased me very much. He was riding a light brown horse – a beautiful creature. I asked him if he was looked after well, and the boy lifted his head.
“Have you electric light in your bedroom; people to feed you and to groom and wash you?”
“No”, I said. “Well Brown Betty has “ he said.
“What is electric light?”
“Blimey, don’t you know?” The young eyes looked at me thoughtfully.
“Has she a father and mother?”
“Of course”. Scornfully, “How would she be here?”
“Does she have pocket money?”
“Course not” – he seemed tickled.
“Well”, I said, “I sooner be me”
A trumpet blew and he mounted, what a glorious sight he was. But no pocket money. I fingered the sixpence in my pocket and went quietly home. I had much to think about. When I grew up I would have such a horse, and electric light in my stable – I stopped short – not stable, house. I would be married. I was only a girl but I would marry a rich man and have two horses, but no babies. Finishing on the one thing I was sure of I rushed at the sound of the bell, and was soon engrossed in my studies.
We had a marvellous Head, he was very musical and taught us the best of music, not all folk songs but classical also. He brought out the best of the boys and no one missed music lessons. He gave us Caruso at his best and Dame Clara Butt who always sang Land of Hope & Glory on Empire Day. Long after, I heard this famous lady sing at a concert in the music room at the Brighton Pavilion. As a matter of fact, I sat right behind her and her husband, who name I have now forgotten. She sang as an encore a little piece she called And it’s quiet down here. Then I thought how human she was, no affectations, few parlour tricks but a lovely way of managing her wonderful voice. She could make you smile or cry.
To go back to my schooldays, we all sat for an examination for labour. Those who passed could leave and get work. My sister was twelve, and I was fourteen. We both passed, but as I chose to be a teacher I still stayed at school as a pupil teacher.
One of the nicest men of the village came for my sister. He wanted help in his office at a prosperous man’s shop in Luton. The hours were from 8 to 7 at night. It was very poor pay, hardly paying for shoeleather and she had a walk of 2 ½ miles night and morning. At first she worked 6 days a week, then a bill was passed for 5 ½ days, so she had some leisure. But what would the young boy or girl of today thing of that at 12 ½ years old? Also all apprentices could not be made to work after eight o’clock. For the village lads and lasses it meant reaching hone about nine, up again at 6.30 – that was on the threshold of life. Poor little down-trodden children.
My spell at school did not last long, rationing came in, food prices rose. Rents were put up, and rates, nothing was normal. The men went to France and Belgium and dug themselves into the mud. Everyone filled sandbags to help when rumours of gas came. My father was not accepted in the army. The Board discharging him said he would need too much separation allowance with a family of thirteen including mother. So he worked to help put up the camps and we were not ashamed to take a tin of corned beef when he had worked overtime.
I found a job with a Mrs. L….. She lived with her mother and baby at the other end of the town, so I walked 5 miles to and fro. I did not take to it very well. I have never liked housework, nor young babies. I liked them best when they could talk and play. Then they were in the cuddly stage. This one was only a few weeks off.The young lady of the house had married a very hot-tempered Frenchman – quarrels were frequent. I often saw her crying after he had thrown cups of tea at her or treated her to one of his morning tirades. She could not keep her mother out of the house. She was very insipid and sometime I thought it would have made things much better if she had not come. Had it been me, I used to think, I would have thrown the whole full teapot at him, never mind small cups of tea.
Divorce was all they talked about and the small babe was the centre of their quarrels. I was allowed to take it out at times, but to keep in the street. Once I went out and they sat having fits until I came in, when I was so scolded by the two of them that I rushed out of the house and never went back again. When I told my mother what had happened she did not scold me but dried my tears and said mildly there would be much better jobs. What made me most cross was having meals in the scullery. Since then I have never liked snobs.
Well, I did find a better place, much nearer home; I worked from nine to four and was to look after a little boy of four. He was a nice child and while I washed up he would sit on a stool near the sink and I would tell him all the stories I knew, for I was a great reader and he was a good listener. His mother was sweet, small and pretty with ginger hair falling right to her waist, and the lovely skin that goes with re hair. His father was a chemistry teacher at the high school, and it was a happy home. He (the son) was about 35 when they died in the same week but he was not too sad, he said he was glad they could be always together. I had to go though on Sunday morning so I never had a morning in bed.
One thing not nice. I was very clumsy and always broke things – not ordinary things but the best of china and even the lampshades. Things got so bad that I left them. They were very nice people, but what it cost them for replacements was awful. The last straw came when just a day before their holiday I dropped a sauce boat full of greasy gravy. I could not eat a thing that day but they just looked at each other and tried to wipe it up. The next day I went to open the house to air it. At first I could not look at the horrible patch of gravy on their nice carpet but looking at last, I could not find it at all. I think he must have used some chemical on it, but when I asked him he just smiled and all the reproof I got was “You always rush about so take things more slowly”.
Strange it seems that my husband to be was one of his pupils, but lots of things were to happen before we met, and I had travelled to many places and seen many strange things.