Childhood memories

We moved to Gerrards Cross when I was 3. All that I can remember of Bidston was going 'down the hill and round the corner' to spend my first 'Saturday penny'. The little shop had a good selection of penny toys on a little shelf at my level; but I really wanted one of the dearer toys on show, and could not see why my choice should be so restricted. I was then a fat little boy. I also remember being frightened by a big dog dashing down the broad staircase into the big hall at 'Manor Hill'. I never again saw inside 'Manor Hill', as it was given to the Red Cross at the beginning of the 1914 war. We took with us to Gerrards Cross Nellie Close, from Windermere, and her friend Sylvia, from Stavely. Nellie was Nanny, and Sylvia, cook. Nellie was later married to a sailor from Whitehaven, Jack Steele, and remained a lifetime friend. Sylvia married another sailor, a shipmate of Jack's from Orkney, named Jack Craigie. When they were ashore together in London, Jack had told him that he was sure he would be welcome to come with him to Gerrards Cross. There he met Sylvia, and later married her. I remember the two sailors, and their girls, filling the kitchen at Gerrards Cross. Many years later, I saw an article about Jack Craigie in 'Cumbria' and got into touch with him. After visiting him two or three times at his ancient cottage at Ings (where it was said that the poet Wordsworth had occasionally called on his walks from Grasmere to Kendal) I had the privilege of taking his funeral and meeting his family.

Why Gerrards Cross ?

When my parents decided that the time had come to leave the Northern Circuit, and the active pursuit of the law, my father had to decide what business to go into. There was then not really room for him and my uncle Bertie at the Refinery in Burlington Street, and the Leith Refinery had been sold before the death of my grandfather. My father was a partner in George Jager and Son, and would go up to Liverpool about once a month to keep in touch and to be able to help his brother to decide what best to do. There were occasional crises. I was told of one occasion when the price of sugar had gone badly wrong, and they decided it was advisable to put on their best clothes and make the most cheerful and confident appearance on the Liverpool Exchange. I was at least once taken as a three-year-old to visit the Refinery in Burlington Street. I remember the hot sweet smell of the refinery.

Therefore the question had to be faced; "What business?" My father used to tell of more than one occasion when he and uncle Bertie went with a friend to Caldbeck in Cumberland prospecting for pyrites, from which lead is extracted. The friend, whose name I do not know, was eager to exploit a new process for making white lead, the powder from which the best paint is made. The attraction of the new process, which involved treating the pyrites in a furnace and extracting the resultant white lead powder from the hot fumes, was that it was believed that this process would not cause the, eventually fatal, lead poisoning, which was then the bane of white lead manufacture. So they hoped that, by building a new factory to exploit the new process, they would save lives as well as making money.

My father decided to go into partnership with his friend, and a factory was built at Greenford in Middlesex on the Great Western Railway. Gerrards Cross was chosen as a pleasant village, further out from London on the same line (and on the way to Birkenhead). After a preliminary visit, my parents chose the house in Marsham Lane. It was in running distance of the station, which was in a deep cutting, so that the final sprint was downhill. There was a nice little garden, leading down to a wood, and the right amount of accommodation, and a conservatory, which never had any plants in it; but later became very useful.

I remember our arrival at 'No 6' ,with my mother and Nellie and Joanna and baby Hamilton. I had kept on asking the height of the door knobs in the new house. At Vyner Road they had been out of my reach, but I could manage the knobs at Manor Hill. Alas, as 'No 6' was a modern house, the oval knobs were, for a time, too high!

In our first summer at Gerrards Cross, I remember a visit from my Uncles Reggie and Alan Maclver, then at Oxford University. They came on a motor-cycle with a basket-work side-car. I was allowed to sit in the "chair"; but was told that a ride must wait for another time. This never came, as the Great War began in August and Reggie was killed in July 1916.

We had the first of many rides to Burnham Beeches in a hired horse and trap, which Sylvia was able to drive. Burnham Beeches was, and is, a lovely place. There was only one disappointment. As it was my birthday we had a cake for our picnic, with four candles; but the wind blew the candles out before I could!

I remember war beginning; but it did not yet much affect our lives. Diana's arrival in August was preceded by the arrival of Auntie Dums, who was then unmarried. Though very busy in Birkenhead with social work, she used to come and help her married sisters whenever a new baby was due. Joanna and I used to go "calling" with Mummy, while she "left cards" with some of her neighbours. This was done as a way of expressing polite thanks without actually staying to make a visit. These were little white cards (two from the wife and one smaller one for the husband) with names and addresses nicely engraved. Anti-German feelings were then very strong. I remember seeing Mummy scratch out the diaeresis (the two dots over the 'a' of Jäger) from her cards because they showed our name to be German. (Friends in Birkenhead had had their windows smashed for having a German-sounding name). Of Mummy's friends I remember Mrs May, whose husband was a London dentist. They had two boys about our age. We kept in touch with her for many years.

We soon went to Church on Sunday mornings to St Pauls across the Common, built in Italian style. I found Mr Glubb's services rather dull, and eventually asked if I could stay at home. Mummy agreed to this experiment, as she rightly guessed that I would find staying at home with the baby to be even more dull, so I was back in Church next Sunday. Later, we went to All Saints (a Mission Church attached to Chalfont St Peter's, as the northern part of Gerrards Cross was in that parish). There was an afternoon Children's Service there; but I found the Curate rather odd. Later he called at 'No 6' but we were out. One of her letters reports this, and that we attempted to return the call; but found that his house was further away than we had thought. So we gave up. I cannot remember him, or us, calling again. Of course we did not have a telephone.

So we grew up happily at "No6", waiting eagerly each evening for the return of "Daddy Mustard", and watching him shave if he had to go out again. With my very sharp child's vision I could plainly see the stubble. When we got old enough, Joanna and I would stay up to share the first course of our parent's dinner, always, I think, Heinz Tomato Soup or sometimes Green Pea. There were not many tinned things, except sardines, in those days. When Sylvia had her evening out, generally shared with Nellie, Mummy would cook. I remember baked eggs with cream, in little china pots, and one disaster, when she put in salt instead of sugar for a chocolate mould. We also cooked toffee. I shared a bedroom with Hamin, and we talked a lot. Sometimes we went by train to London to do shopping. I was particularly impressed with 'Selfridges', which then had a wonderful roof garden. Later we built our own 'Selfridges' on the back lawn with wooden boxes: it had two storeys and a level roof to stand on. It must have been quite unsafe; but Diana was quite safe, and very happy, in one of the bottom boxes, set on its side.

It was before that, in 1915/16, that Hamin had (suspected) TB in his ankle. Nights in the open air were prescribed, and these were achieved by propping up the windows of the conservatory, and putting camp beds there (covered with army ground sheets) for him, and for me for company.

I well remember a night in March 1916 (which we later found to be the night of my wife Margaret's birth), when the snow fell so deeply that it not only lay on the groundsheets, but was thick enough to make our big lavender bushes appear as mere humps beyond the snow-covered lawn. But we survived and also enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the cream and other luxuries prescribed for him.

I also remember the day in 1916 when the war came home to us. We had two telegrams, one to say that Reggie and his cousin Bobs had been killed on the Somme, and the other reporting that Nellie's brother had been killed in action. A year later Daddy was called up and joined what later became the Royal Tank Corps. After he was posted to a camp in Twyford, Hampshire, it was arranged that we should take a rented house in nearby Shawford.

On the day that we attempted to move, there was a Railway Strike. After a long wait at Waterloo, we decided to go back to Gerrards Cross. As tenants had already moved into 'No6', Mummy took us in a taxi to a friend's large house in Packhorse Lane. I remember waiting in the taxi while Mummy went it to see if Mrs Medd could have us! She gallantly welcomed us all, and we were there for nearly a week, until the strike was over and we could go on to Shawford.

It was a severe winter when we were at Shawford. Our pipes froze and, when the thaw came, there was a lovely set of jets just outside the back door. One day, we found a small lump of coal on the road as we walked by with the pram. We were very short of coal, so we put it into the pram. Then we saw another, and put it in. Then another, and another. When we arrived home we found a little load outside our back gate. It was our own coal. When the end of the war was announced we went out for our usual walk. I remember Nellie telling me: "George, you look as if you had found a penny and lost sixpence."

Before we went to Shawford, Joanna and I must have started school at Miss Morse's in Marsham Way. Mummy had been teaching us to read from a little blue book called "Reading without tears". It had some line illustrations and decent print. I must have learned better than Jay because, when we started, I was put into the upper class, taught by Mr Morse, Miss Morse's brother. However, I was not there for long. I could add; but I had never heard of "taking away". Mr Morse rewarded me with a series of ever-bigger noughts on the blackboard. I was sent down to join Jay in Miss Morse's class, and never saw him again. He took ill, and died. I do not remember leaving Shawford; but I remember the peace celebrations in June. There was a large bonfire on Gerrards Cross Common, largely made of a pile of the tiny birch trees that then covered the common.

Rotha had been born in 1916, and Giles was born in August 1920. We had been on holiday at Barmouth, and Mummy became too ill for us to go back to Gerrards Cross. So we left our Barmouth lodgings (handy for the beach), and went to Bontddu, a village half-way to Dolgelly, and Giles was born there. Daddy may still have been in the Army, as I remember a letter full of suggested names for him. Merion was added, to mark his Welsh birthplace; but at the Christening the Vicar insisted on spelling his name 'Merrian'.

Soon afterwards Uncle 'Dog' and Auntie Dums his cousin (they had married rather late) gave us 'Swifty', a little 1914 'Swift' two-seater, with a 'Dicky' seat behind the hood. It was green, with a lovely brass radiator shell, and brass electric headlights, a novelty for those days. I loved to polish the brass. They had very generously bought the Swift, and a car for each of Dums' married sisters, as well as for themselves, with the 'Salvage money' that Uncle Dog had been awarded for his service with the Mersey Salvage Corps. Prices were sky-high at that time, as new cars were unobtainable; but the little cars gave a great deal of happiness. Uncle Dog was particularly proud of the Scottish 'Argyll' which he got for himself. After Uncle Bertie had done his best with the Swift, for instance, cleaning out the silencer, which had been filled solid with grease, Swifty could reach 40 mph, on the downward straight near Troutbeck Bridge, with Daddy's foot pressed down hard on the coco-matting beneath the accelerator pedal. She served us well until after Mummy's death in 1924. I think that the round trip that Daddy took to tell his scattered children about Mummy's death, was probably the last journey that he made in 'Swifty'. Although more than one operation for cancer (I have seen the cheque stubs for St Thomas's Hospital) had given my father due warning of my mother's early death (aged only a little over thirty), the death came as a complete surprise to me at least. She died at Gerrards Cross, with Granny Jager and Aunty May helping to look after her and the younger children. With teenage incomprehension I had merely accepted Mummy's increasing weakness. She used to take us drives in the Swift to visit Auntie Lois at Bushey Heath, and for picnics down the Misbourne valley. I did notice that she now needed the help of our one armed postman, and, no doubt, of others in starting Swifty's engine; but I had not an inkling of the reason.

Then, in my first term at Blundells, Daddy arrived, without warning, to break the news of her death. Then, after a night at the Palmerston Hotel in Tiverton, he went on to tell the others. He told me that, driving in distress through Slough, he had jammed on the brakes in some emergency, and had broken all the spokes of one wheel. Mr Batterbee, my housemaster (we called him "The Man") was, as often, very kind, and the new life at "Old House" went on. I only remember that I destroyed Mummy's last letters to me, as I could not bear to read them again. I have regretted this ever since.

That journey, I believe, was the last that Daddy made in the Swift. I suppose that Swifty's finest hour was the afternoon that Daddy took her up 'Red Bank' at Grasmere. The car ground to a halt just after getting up the steepest bit: so we children got out and helped Daddy to do the last bit on his own! I remember many small, sudden, emergencies. No drive with Daddy was without a moment of drama, in spite of his placid demeanour and the cigar stump in his mouth. However, I cannot remember any breakdowns or even punctures. What I do remember is his recalling, on the old road through Ormskirk, the many occasions on which the 'Century Tandem' had broken down (either it was the High-gear chain or the Low-gear chain!). That car never seemed to get beyond Ormskirk except for the triumphant tour that he wrote about (in 'FM 19), when, in response to a bet with Uncle David, both the Tandem and the 'Rudge Multi' motor bike got at last to Glencoe! He said that Uncle David never forgave him and Bertie when they had rubbed him all over with 'Chilipaste' (Bertie's idea, no doubt) after he had arrived soaked and shivering at Glencoe's Inn.

I have no memory of our return to Gerrards Cross in, I suppose, 1920, and only sketchy memories of the years up to 1924. The family group of mother and the five of us on the sloping front path of 'No.6' was, I suppose, taken when Daddy had joined the Army. Rotha, the toddler in the picture, was born in 1916, and so was with us at Shawford. I remember our swing and very superior see-saw, and the 'Land Racer', a good little car which was steered by one's feet on the front axle, and driven by a handle between one's legs which connected with a crank on the back axle. It was dangerous to let go of that handle when going down-hill! Later on we had two bicycles, which gave us a lot of pleasure on the much emptier, though very dusty roads of that time. We learned to ride by going round and round the back lawn; but when we were allowed out on the road, I at first had difficulty in remembering which was the left-hand side. I thought of it as "the bell side": but it was confusing when the new bike had a bell on the right!

I also remember my "Pogo Stick", and still have a scar on my knee to prove it. "Pogo Sticks" were a craze soon after the War. They consisted of a thick handle, which was grasped at the top, with a spring section at the the bottom, and a cross-bar for the rider to stand on. (Those cross-bars would eventually bend down at each side under the strain of the rider's weight. Then the rider's feet would slip off at the sides. This was rather dangerous and painful!) Once you got the knack, you could bounce along at some speed, in a very exhilarating way. My last ride was down the steep gravelly continuation of Marsham Lane, which led down to 'Chalfont Park'. I was going splendidly, and then my feet slipped off, and I came down on my knees. The right knee did not heal until, a week or so later, when in my bath, I extracted a sharp pea-sized piece of gravel from under the scar.

Chalfont Park was a 'country club' with a flukey nine-hole golf course which just suited Ham and me. We loved golf then; but, when we got to Hoylake the long level holes showed up my lack of skill and my 'old man's swing', and I never had much enjoyment from Junior Membership of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club (which I am sure was a great disappointment to Daddy). Ham, however, still plays golf with much satisfaction.

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