Written in 2010 concerning his childhood memories, these are Chris’ own words about where he grew up.
It is May 4th 1942. Britain, under the leadership of Winston Churchill, has been at war with Germany since the 3rd September 1939, and, in the past few weeks a British Commando raid has destroyed a U-Boat base at St Nazaire; Malta has been awarded the George Cross after sustaining 1000 air raids in 4 months, and the city of Exeter has suffered the first of the “Baedeker” air raids, ordered by Hitler to avenge the bombing of German cities…
… At the Loughborough General Hospital, all is quiet and peaceful as the Theatre Nurses busily prepare the Operating Theatre for a caesarean birth on Norah May Swarbrooke, only daughter of Arthur John and Annie May Wilson and wife of William Herbert Swarbrooke
Sometime between 2.00 and 4.00pm on that day I came into the world weighing a healthy 6lb 14oz, later to be named Christopher after Christopher Soames, the Commanding Officer of my fathers regiment the 74th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. I did not know that I already had an elder brother called Barry Robert aged 18 months, and by my fathers previous marriage (his first wife Faith having died in February 1939) there was an elder sister, Olive Edith (12), and two more brothers called William Boyd (10) and Ronald Herbert (8)
There are very few memories of my very early childhood, but I do remember that in our house at 12 Moor Lane, Normanton on Soar in Nottinghamshire there was a living room, kitchen, pantry, downstairs bathroom, outside Chemical Toilet whilst upstairs were 3 bedrooms, and for a time I shared my sister Olives room, whilst my parents had the front bedroom and my 3 brothers the back room.
Other early memories include sitting on Granddad Wilson’s knee and eating his pudding (he died Nov 1944), always seeing sides of Bacon hanging from giant hooks in the bathroom ceiling, large vats of salt at the bottom of the stairs with sides of bacon in them being cured, a black leaded fire range in the living room with a boiler that had to be continually topped up with cold water, and a very large table that occupied most of the living room and round which family life revolved.
Outside there was an old Mangle used for extruding water from the washing, a chemical toilet that was emptied by the local Council every Thursday, whilst at the side of the house there were large gardens that were always full of Chrysanthemums and a drive way that led to the sewage pit at the bottom of the garden which was emptied by ‘Charlie’, who drove the Council sewage lorry that called every Tuesday. Also at the bottom of the garden was a large shed that housed a Sawing Engine and Bench, chicken run and shed, and an old coal fired copper used for boiling potatoes to feed the pigs. Several photographs exist of my early childhood, but I have little recollection of the events that occurred prior to them being taken; but I do remember the German Prisoners of War working in the fields at the side of our house, and our family became friendly with several of them. One in particular, Fritz (we used to call him Fred) married a local girl (Beryl) and stayed in the village.
Grandma Swarbrooke lived at the top of the village opposite the church in Fox Yard, or Pudding Bag Yard as it was sometime known, as did Granddad and Grandma Green (parents of Dads first wife), whilst Granny Wilson lived a few doors away from us in Moor Lane at No 7. Great Aunt Gert (Granny Wilson’s sister) lived at No 6 Moor Lane, and I spent many, many hours visiting first one and then the other. Later on my mothers younger brother Eddie married and moved into No 5.
On visits to Grandma Swarbrooke (who died in Jun 1949), you were always greeted by the words “There is an apple/orange in the top draw” and we would immediately look to see what we could find before sitting down on a small seat by the side of the open coal fire. Grandma Swarbrooke always had a jug or a bottle of beer at her side and her apron always showed signs of her constant ‘snuff taking’, as did the bit of cloth that served as her handkerchief. She was seen to constantly rub her hand up and down her right thigh as though she was rolling something – unbeknown to us, as a teenager she had worked for John Player in Nottingham as a Cigar Maker, and it was the practice to roll them on your leg.
Normanton on Soar was only a small village of approx. 250 people, being some 4 miles from Loughborough and 14 miles from Nottingham. There was no village shop, although there was a sub post office and phone box, and ‘The Plough’ pub had tea rooms that overlooked the River Soar. It was the venue for all the village social functions, the highlight of which was the New Years Eve Dance and almost everyone in the village attended it.
Villagers were very self reliant, having large, productive vegetable gardens, and they kept large store cupboards of tinned and home bottled food for the winter floods and snow, when the village was often isolated for a few days, or, as in the case of the snows of Feb / March 1947, a couple of weeks.
Granny Wilson used to pickle new laid eggs in a brine solution as well as producing the usual bottled fruit, salted Kidney Beans, home made Blackberry Vinegar and home made Elderberry Wine. Cost of living in the early 1940’s was influenced greatly by the war, price controls and rationing, but villagers on the whole seemed to manage quite well with bread 4p per loaf, butter 5p per pound, beer 5p per pint, sugar 1.5p per pound, cigarettes 11p for 20, coal was about £1.70 per ton and electricity 1.02p per therm. A radio licence cost £1.00 and car tax was £7.50, with an extra £1.25 per HP and petrol 10.5p per gallon, including 4p tax. Income Tax was 50p in the pound.
Most of our weekly shopping, including deliveries of coal, was done through the local Cooperative Society in the next village at Sutton Bonington, not forgetting of course to quote your Number to get your Dividend! (Ours was 17472, Grandmother’s was 10178).
My father was very strict, believing that children were to be seen and not heard, and I remember many, many clouts across the ears because I was making too much noise playing with my Meccano while he was trying to go to sleep on the settee. We had to read a book or do jigsaw puzzles, and the clouts were not restricted to us kids, as mam often received a black eye when my dad had come home from work and dinner was not put on the table before him when he walked in. At meal times we were ordered to keep our eyes on our plates until we had finished (a slap across the neck or shoulders with a walking stick made sure you did) and if you didn’t eat it all, it was served up again and again until you did eat it…
Luckily the large table had a ledge underneath it that came in very handy for meat etc. that you could not chew, and me mam cleared it every few days without saying anything to my dad. We always used to have our pudding and custard first, and the meat and potatoes last, as Dad always said “eat you pudding first and enjoy it, then fill up the cracks in your stomach with potatoes and veg”.
Pocket money was unheard of, and my dad used to say “If you want some money, go out and earn it”, and this we did by doing errands and carrying old ladies shopping baskets from the end of the lane where the bus stopped, to their houses for 3d (39p) or, if it was at the top of the village, for 6d (78p)
Father was a well known and respected member of the village, as was his elder brother Robert, the clerk and sexton of the church – Robert died by accident in September 1938 when he was knocked down and killed by an express train on unmanned level crossing.
Dad worked as a butcher before he enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a Gunner in April 1942, and, on his discharge in Aug 1946, he found work at the Local Hathernware Brickyard making Terracotta Bricks, but also kept pigs in some outbuildings within the Brickyard premises, and later built a large concrete pig sty at the bottom of our garden, where we also kept rabbits in the shed as well as “Bantam Fowls” in a fenced off Chicken Run. We also had a 1/2 acre market garden next to a “MAGGOT FACTORY” in nearby Far Lane at Normanton that produced and despatched Maggots all over the country for use by fishermen, and we supplied vegetables to the local schools; any surplus being sold at Melton Mowbray Market, as were the pigs when they were big enough. The ground there was full of bones from the Maggot Factory and we often used to help out ‘Percy’ instead of doing our gardening chores.
The Piglets, when they were able to leave their mother, used to live in a straw lined box in a comer of our living room and sleep on a cushion in front of the fire, until they were too big and then they were transferred to the pig sty. But, if you left the sty door open when you fed them, they would charge down the drive, in the back door of the house, round the big table before returning to the sty for their swill. A large boiler was at the side of the shed and it was us kids’ job to keep the fire going whilst the pig potatoes boiled (we ate as many as the pigs did!) and it was one of the few jobs that we really enjoyed doing. Inside the shed was an old Stationary Engine that powered a large Circular Saw which was used to cut up trees that had fallen down in the Village, and both my brother Ronald and Percy (future brother in law) have fingers missing from their hands because of this. The saw bench cost £10 in Dec 1946, and logs were sold at 10/- (50p) a trailer load.
There was always work to be done in the market garden, hoeing up the potatoes, weeding the carrots, lettuce, and cabbage, or picking the peas and broad beans, and we were expected to go there straight from school before we had any tea to get as much done as possible before dad came home from work, otherwise he would stop us from going out to play. In later years dad bought a “BMB” tractor with implements to use in the allotments, and we got many a good hiding because it wouldn’t start or the plugs were oiled up, and it was always our fault… I grew up to hate gardening!!
Saturdays and Sundays were not spared from working as we used to walk along the river bank at Zouch selling bunches of Chrysanthemums to the public or the fishermen for 2/6d (12.5p) per bunch. If we did have any spare time we used to race up to the Ferry House near the church and help pull the Ferry Boat backwards and forwards across the river on a sunken chain. We also swam in the River Soar at Zouch where we used to swim from one bank to the other (mine was more of a Dog Paddle than an actual swimming stroke). Barry and myself were also coxswains for the Loughborough Boat Club that had a Clubhouse at Normanton-on -Soar at the bottom of the “Plough Inn” Lawns and Tea Gardens – I never won any races with the crews that I coxed, but Barry was a lot more successful.
Christmas used to be an enjoyable time at home as dad would take one of the pigs that hadn’t gone to market to the Slaughter House to be killed, and the next few days would be spent grinding down great big blocks of Salt so that the sides of bacon could be salted and cured. He would also make his own Pork Pies and Sausages, and the neighbours would all receive large plates of meat as they had supplied us with scraps of food for the pigs throughout the year. On Christmas Eve we would pin up our pillow cases by the side of the fireplace downstairs and go to bed as late as we could, as dad always said that if we were still awake and saw Santa fill our pillow cases, he would give us 5/- (25p), but nobody ever claimed it…
Normanton had its own village school under the Head of Miss Wilmott, which I attended from 1947 to 1953, then going on to the-Secondary School at Sutton Bonington before passing a scholarship at 13 years of age, and then receiving a Technical education at the Textile Trades School in Bath Street, Nottingham.
March 1951 saw my sister Olive marry Percy Baxter of Kegworth at St James Church in Normanton, before they moved to live in a riverside Bungalow at Zouch, where she gave birth to Thelma in 1952 and Julie in 1954, and I spent many happy hours baby sitting my little nieces. They later moved into a house at Kegworth before the body of Percy was found in the river at Kegworth Lock in 1960, an unfortunate accident that hit me hard as I had great respect for and had become very attached to Percy.
William, my eldest brother, had been called up to do his National Service and had joined the Royal Catering Corps, before being posted to Singapore and Malaya, and my brother Ronald (one night after having a row with dad), climbed down the drainpipe from his bedroom window and ran away and joined the Royal Signals, again being posted to Singapore.
It was in 1948 that mum and dad opened a sweet shop in the living room of our house; sweets were bought by Mail Order from Samuel Drivers and the shop gradually grew as people asked us to stock other things like tins of veg, soap powder, tea, sugar etc, and it was ‘open all hours’.
When people visited the shop, they would sit down and have a cup of tea whilst they were making their purchases, and I can still recall some of the many stories that were told because people had forgotten to bring their ration books for their sweets, just before rationing was abolished in April 1949. The sweet shop was completely illegal as we were living in a Council House and it was forbidden to run a business without Council permission…
The rent man never twigged what was happening in our living room, although he must have found it strange he was now paid in the kitchen and no longer got a cup of tea… and neighbours knew not to call when he was about. I well remember hearing stones being thrown at our bedroom window one night at 2 am and on opening the window to see who it was, I was confronted by Fritz saying that Beryl had a headache and their baby was teething and they had neither Aspirin nor Teething Powders.
The 5th July 1948 saw dad purchase our second car, an Austin 7, Reg. Number JF 2981 for £77.10s. The previous car was also an Austin 7, Reg. Number JF 694., which was used to take us on regular trips to Skegness or Mablethorpe, leaving before 5 in the morning and returning late in the evening with several dead rabbits in the boot, which dad had chased all over the road in the car. When Dad was at work, Barry and I used to drive the car up and down the drive by putting it in gear and turning the engine over using the starter motor, and then get a good hiding the next time Dad wanted to use it because it had a flat battery and he had to start it with the handle.
There are two very vivid memories connected with our car, the first being on Sunday the 8th August 1948 when Mam, Dad, Ronald, Barry and myself were returning home from visiting Uncle Frank and Aunt Edna at their Fish and Chip shop in Bilborough, Nottingham, when the car was involved in a collision with another vehicle that had jumped the traffic lights, hitting us on our nearside and turning the car over. Mother was thrown through the Window screen causing severe cuts to her face, whilst the rest of us only received minor injuries (I had a Black Eye),and, after treatment at Nottingham General Hospital everyone except Mam was allowed to go home. What a cold and draughty journey that was as Dad actually drove the car home with no windows in it.
The second memory was in August 1949; our first known Holiday together (paid for by mother “cashing in” an insurance policy) at a Hotel on the Promenade in Rhyl, North Wales, where we were joined by Uncle Frank and Aunt Edna with their children, all travelling down by car. The reason that I remember it so well is because I had become separated from the rest of the family and was playing quite happily in the amusement arcades not knowing that everyone, including the police, were out looking for me. When they eventually found me, I was dragged back to the hotel, given the Good Hiding of my young life so far and sent to bed with nothing to eat (Mam managed to sneak me a sandwich later on). The total cost of this holiday was £19:6s:2d, the odd 2d being the cost of the phone call to the police to report me missing as shown on the Hotel receipt.
George VI died in his sleep on Feb 6th 1952, and the Princess Elizabeth learned of her accession while on a Royal Tour in Kenya; whilst in Normanton on Soar my father was advised to leave his job at the brickyard because of the irritating cough that had developed (thought to be caused by clay dust and constant smoking) and find alternative work. And so it was that, in July 1952, he passed his Driving Test to become an Omnibus driver for the Trent Motor Traction Company in nearby Loughborough.
Preparations were now well underway in the village for the Coronation Celebrations and a Sports Day and Tea Party had been arranged on the school playing fields, plus a television set had been installed in the church for all to watch the procession and Coronation in London. As my Dad would not have a television set in the house, that is where I sat to watch it. The house and garden had been decorated by the family and Dad had fixed up Floodlights. The Village Sports that were held on the School Playing Field were very enjoyable, especially as my brother Barry won every race for the boys in his age group whilst I came 2nd in every event except the 3-legged race, where I came 3rd (Terry Kirk and I fell over).
Dad had thoughtfully brought a case of 1lb bars of Cadburys Chocolate from our shop and he distributed them amongst the other boys as we had taken all the prizes. (Prizes were vouchers to spend in the ‘Woolworths’ tent where Mr Broad, the Manager of the Loughborough Woolworths, had set up a gift stall)
Sadly my father died (Cancer of the Lungs) on 24th January 1954 and was buried in the yard of the parish church of St James at Normaton on Soar a few days later. As very little was known about the ‘Big C’ in them days we were advised by the Hospital to burn virtually everything (Clothes & Bedroom Furniture especially) that he had come into contact with, and so began a new chapter in our lives as my mam was now what they called a ‘Ten Bob Widow’ (10/- or 50p today), and we had to virtually start all over again. My one big regret is that when the Ambulance came to fetch dad about 10pm on that Sunday Night, 24th Jan, to take him to Nottingham General Hospital, I never said Goodbye to him. It took me 2 weeks before I was able to stop crying because I had lost my Dad. The simple ‘Black Vase’ that sits on his grave was made by himself whilst employed at Hathernware Brickyard.