ROY BROOKER 1919 – 2015
A LIFE IN LEIGH
Notes from talk with Chris and Anna Rowley, between July 2010 and spring 2012
Roy Brooker died on 12 September 2015.
The Brooker family, together with the Faircloths, seemed to dominate the village in the years between the two World Wars; and the old village joke that you could have a cricket team made up of Brookers was almost true. Against this background, Roy’s memories give a good picture of the village from the 1920s until the end of the century.
Roy’s grandparents on his father’s side were born in the village (Roy’s grandfather) or Penshurst (Roy’s grandmother) in the years 1854 and 1861 respectively. However, Roy did not really know his paternal grandfather because he died when he was young. Roy is not sure what job James, his grandfather, did but he was probably a cricket ball maker. However, Roy does remember well that they lived in the cottage beside the Fleur de Lis which even then acted as the doctor’s surgery. And he is fairly sure that his father was born in the cottage probably at the end of the 19th century. Grandfather Brooker died first and then, when grandmother died, the property was taken over by two of their children, Aunt Minnie (b. 1886) and Uncle Stanley (b. 1888), who lived there for many years. Older villagers have often told about sitting in the doctor’s waiting room – which was also Aunt Minnie’s sitting room for the rest of the week – with Aunt Minnie regaling them with local gossip particularly as it related to the illnesses of the people of Leigh. Minnie did not talk of her own medical problem. She was an epileptic in days when all people could do was to make sure the sufferer did not choke. Although children, including Roy, knew about Aunt Minnie “having fits”, Roy remembers children were always hustled away when she was taken ill.
Roy knows virtually nothing about his mother’s parents – presumably the Bellinghams because his mother was Gertrude Mary Bellingham. However, as far as Roy can remember, his mother never made any mention of them at all apart from the fact that she had been brought up in Tonbridge. Roy did occasionally wonder whether there was some family secret or row or scandal. However, there was a brother (so Roy’s uncle) who was an engine driver who lived at Lavender Hill, in Tonbridge off the Pembury Road, where lots of other railway people lived.
Roy’s father, Ernest Harry Brooker must have been born in 1882 in Leigh. He married Gertie Bellingham (Gertrude Mary) around 1905-1910 and they went to live in one of the relatively newly built Garden Cottages. Alick, the first of their children, was born there but soon after the family moved to No. 3 Park Cottages (now part of The Stone House, opposite The Square). “You went in the front door and the stairs were straight ahead. To the right was the sitting room. It was hardly used but if the fire was lit in there, we knew someone special was coming. To the left you went through into the kitchen and then into the scullery. The scullery had the sink which had a cold tap from the mains. We heard years later that there was at least one well in the garden – someone had been digging and had uncovered it, but we had never known it was there and we were always gardening there. The scullery also had a copper with a grate underneath for boiling up the hot water. There was a big galvanized bath hung on the wall and once a week my mother would heat up the water and ladle it into the bath. Then three of us would use it, one after the other. Then mother would empty the water down the sink. I used to go anywhere to get a proper bath.
“There was a yard at the back with the mangle in it and across the yard was the privy which was the normal W.C. type – with water! Not an old type with a bucket. It backed on to the privy for No. 2 – so there were some jolly times I can tell you. And it had spiders. You had a chamber pot under the bed at night: you certainly did not go out to the privy.
“When you went up the stairs, there was the main bedroom on the right facing the road for my parents and turning left were the two bedrooms for the children – one for the boys and one for the girls. I slept in a bed with Tony for years.
“I remember when us children only had candles to go up to bed although I remember oil lamps downstairs when I was very young. My father used to take a big lamp upstairs. One day he dropped it on a toe and broke it. Then we got gas lighting – all very wonderful and new but, again, only downstairs. And finally electricity which seemed out of this world: you just pushed a switch and instantly you had light. But I seem to remember we had to pay something to get it installed.
“It was really cold in winter. The Medway was nearly always frozen and Molly Hayter’s grandfather skated from Tonbridge to Maidstone. The house was always cold. There was frost inside the windows with wonderful patterns and you’d sit as near the fire as you could in the sitting room. The floors felt like ice – they were all lino – and the sheets on the bed were so cold, too. Even the contents of the chamber pots were frozen in the morning”.
It was in the bedroom of Park Cottage that the next three children – two girls and a boy were born; then Roy himself and finally after a gap of several years, the twins Tony and Eric. However, sadly Eric died after three days. Tony, yet another of the Brooker cricketers, went on to marry Doreen Passingham, who has recently died, hugely loved and respected in the village.
The circumstances of Roy’s birth in 1919 were hardly encouraging. The story, as Roy heard it, was that there was general agreement that he would not survive. They called the news downstairs to his sister, Marjorie, who called back, “Then call her Joy”. “But it’s a boy”, they called from upstairs. “Well, call him Roy”, said Marjorie. To make matters worse, the baby Roy caught meningitis and straw was laid in the road outside to dull the sound of the cart wheels and the church bells were stopped; and baby Roy was hastily baptized by the Vicar, Mr Weston. But Roy – as is very plainly evident today – survived and prospered. Indeed he avoided all the usual measles, chickenpox and scarlet fever (“until I was thirty something and got mumps – not something I’d recommend”).
However, a few years later relations between the Vicar and Roy’s mother were ruined when Tony’s twin, Eric, died. “At the funeral service Mr Weston recited the bit about babies being born sinful and mother objected. Neither she nor my father ever went to church again – although I was allowed to go to sing in the choir”.
“I became the head choir boy eventually. Harry Hitchcock was the organist and choir master. I remember once Mr Hitchcock’s brother, who was a professional tenor in London, came down and he and I sang Stainer’s Crucifixion together. I suppose I was about 12. I loved it but all I can remember now is “Fling wide the gates, fling wide the gates”. I was frightened out of my life. My brother, Ken, was in the choir, too. When his voice broke he still had a good voice but mine wasn’t any good.
“The organ didn’t have an electric pump in those days, so the choir boys and some of the girls had to take it in turns to pump it. There wasn’t much space and it was very boring – some of the boys used to take books; and occasionally the organ would slowly die out as the choir boy went to sleep.
“Father was a great sportsman. He taught us all crib and all the boys were named after Kent cricketers, until mother put her foot down. He wanted all his children to be good at sport – just as he had been – and I followed his example and spent many years playing cricket a good deal of the time – really most of my social life was around cricket, although when I was younger I played soccer, too. I was a goalkeeper and they always used to say you didn’t become a goalkeeper unless you were insane – you always ended up in the back of the net with the ball and the other side’s centre forward with his boots on you somewhere. And, of course, the old leather footballs were really heavy – particularly when they got wet – and they could leave quite a scar on you if you headed one hard. I remember Dr Davison strapping my ribs up once when I was hurt. But my main love was cricket.
“I was a wicket keeper and a pretty good batsman and was playing for Leigh’s first team with my father when I was thirteen. In 1939 I had a trial for Kent. That went pretty well but the War came along and obviously they didn’t want to know when the War ended. My legacy from the wicket keeping is bent back fingers. In the 1930s there seemed to be lots of fairly eccentric people in the side. (You’ve got some of the stories from John Knock in “We Had Everything…” from the 1940s and 1950s). The most eccentric player from the 1930s that I remember was Monty Brooker – he wasn’t really a relative – he had a huge moustache. And Dick Card – he was an estate agent – who had bought the two halves of Old Chimneys and made it into one house – he was a great character. He spent a good deal of his cricketing life in the pub. I remember him on his hands and knees with a pint on his head with a local trying to drink it. I used to carry my cricket bag on my bike. Once we had been playing at Hadlow and I decided to call in at the Plough on the way back to have a pint of Noel Jempson’s home-made cider. You’ve heard how strong it was. After I’d had a pint, I couldn’t ride my bike. I had to push it home.
“I was captain for several spells – funnily enough it wasn’t a job many people wanted to do. And eventually when I got to 50 – that was forty years with the Club – I thought that the youngsters should have a go; so I started umpiring. And at one point after the War, I was the groundsman too – with Eric Batchelor – for a year or two.
“Going back to the beginning of the century, they had a horse to pull the old roller – the one that the Cricket Club gave you to get rid of it. The leather shoes that they put on the horse always used to hang in the pavilion in the 1920s and 1930s but in my day the roller was pulled by the boys. It could be filled up with water, so it could be incredibly heavy but somehow the roller got cracked and it never held water after that. We boys used to pull it out on to the Green and use it as a wicket. One night someone – I never knew who they were – pulled it down Powder Mill Lane to the Hayters’ new house (‘Kenbar’ as it was then, where Cherry and Tim O’Neill live now) and left it on the front lawn. Of course, in the 1920s and 1930s it was only the cricket square which was kept cut – with a hand mower each week. There was lots of fund raising to buy a big Dennis motorized sit-on to do the out-field. I remember sitting on it. Eventually the local Council was paid to mow it. The out-field was quite long grass but round the outside of that it was really long grass which was only cut once or twice a year. There used to be shouts of ‘keep our eye on it or you’ll lose it again’.
“The cricket teas were done by Mrs Fitzjohn for years and years. She lived next door at No. 1 Park Cottages. The two youngest member of the cricket team had to carry the tea urn full of water to the Iron Room where we had the teas: there wasn’t enough room in the old green corrugated iron pavilion in those days. After Mrs Fitzjohn, the teas were done – again for many years – probably for well over thirty – by Daisy Batchelor. Of course, when she packed up, no one else took over.
“As well as all the sports, there were lots of things going on in Leigh. We had the three pubs. Percy Seal, who was the last landlord of ‘The Brickmakers’ was my brother-in-law. Dick Relph was the landlord of the ‘Bat and Ball’ when we were kids and he used to have a sweet shop in the front half of one side which was run by his daughter, Gwen. We used to like her. Cadbury’s bars of chocolate had a series of stamps – similar to cigarette cards – and we used to collect them. The trouble was you didn’t want to spend the small amount of pocket money you had on buying chocolate which had a stamp you had already – I got a penny a week from Gran and a penny a week from Mum. So Gwen used to unwrap the bars – very carefully – take out the stamp, and keep them at the back. Then she’d wrap the bar up again. So when you did buy your bar of Cadbury’s chocolate, you could have the stamp you needed for your collection.
“There were the Girl Guides and The Scouts and Rover Scouts. I was a Scout. You’ve all heard about it from Eric Batchelor but the camping at Studland Bay was very enjoyable. The other thing which was particularly good was the shows that we used to do in the Large Village Hall. (There was a stage with lighting then). We did “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Dick Whittington” and lots of others. Dick Wood was a great comedian. They always used to cast me as a girl. That used to upset me! The money we earned from the plays went to pay for the Studland Bay holiday.
“Father had been invalided out of the First World War: he lost a younger brother and a cousin: but he would never talk about it. After the War he was a cricket ball stitcher with Wisdens who at that time were up Quarry Hill in Tonbridge – well before they moved to Chiddingstone Causeway – and I remember him walking to and from Chiddingstone Causeway when they did move. He was also a bookie’s clerk in Leigh and, again, he used to walk to Tonbridge and back to the bookmakers. During the Second World War he was in the Home Guard. He used to go on duty with his dog, Jock. But he was never very strong – probably trench fever from the First World War – and he died in 1949 when he was 62 after three coronaries.
“Mum was a really good parent, too. She was so busy with six children that she didn’t have much time to do anything else. No social life. After the children had left home, she did some work up at The Old Barn tea rooms – the Oceans of Cream place. It was the first job she’d ever had. I remember she had to learn to ride a bike to get there. It was my sister’s. Mum lived a lot longer than my father. She was ninety two when she died – a ripe old age.
“Father taught my older brother, Ken, to stitch cricket balls. Later I remember him saying to me ‘I’ll teach you, too if you want but I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d not want to just sit there’.
“I went to the Village School: but before I started, grandmother took me to the barber. I loved my grandmother: she was wonderful. The barber was in Barden Road and was run by the Milne family. I think that they are still there over eighty years later. Anyway it was my first hair cut at a barber’s – mother had always cut it until then – and, when Mr Milne got the white apron thing round me, I didn’t like it. I was half-way down Tonbridge High Street before they caught me. When I arrived home, my grandmother said to my mother, ‘”He has been a naughty boy, Gertie’. I remember it to this day.
“You’ve heard lots of stories about the School – Mr Gibbons and Miss Ellis, and so. There was Miss Strong who was all right and later Miss Hookway who was not all that good. If one of the children had done something wrong, she would push them through the big door into Mr Gibbons’ room and Mr Gibbons would say ‘Well, why are you here then?’” Molly Maidman remembers being rapped over the knuckles with a ruler by Miss Hookway but neither she nor Roy remembers Miss Ellis ever using corporal punishment and both agree that everyone loved and respected her. They both remember Mr Gibbons caning boys – but only when they deserved it. Teddy Thompson, they both say, was awful and Dennis Stolton was certainly thought of as ‘mischievous’. The family lived on the corner of The Green Lane”.
Roy continues: “When you were about eleven, you could sit a sort of scholarship exam to get to Judd. I sat it but I didn’t get it – so I stayed at Leigh School till I was 14 – that was 1933. It was the only school I ever went to. But it would have been very expensive to go to Judd and we didn’t have the money.
“All the boys used to play on the Village Green – cricket but mainly just mucking around. Mrs Ingram, in your cottage, Oak Cottage, used to leave a bucket of water outside the back door for us to drink. I expect she got bored with us asking all the time.
“When I left school, my father got me a job doing a baker’s round at five shillings a week. He would have liked me to have got an apprenticeship at the bakery but in those days you had to pay to be an apprentice and father hadn’t got the money. I had to work very long hours. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays when I did the full round I worked from 7 am to 11 pm and only got one half day off – Wednesdays when I finished at 4 pm. We’d go round in an old bull-nosed Morris van which Alf King – he was a lovely man – used to drive and I’d get out at each house. I cycled to Penshurst, on the bike which I borrowed off my sister, Joan, complete with a dress guard. Normally you walked everywhere. I didn’t get my own bike until I was sixteen. It cost me £4-7s-6d and I’d saved for it for three years. After about nine months at the bakery, father met me when I was on my way home past eleven o’clock at night. He said it wasn’t right for a fourteen year old to be doing this much work and told me I had to stop. So I got a job as a gardener with a man in Coldharbour Lane, Mr Frank Burton at a big house fairly near the beginning on the right. He was a real stickler. He used to exhibit his flowers. He specialized in irises. He even had one named after him – Burtonea. I was there for two years and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t get paid much – 5/6d a week which went up to 6/- after a year – but I learnt quite a bit. Then George Humphrey, who was a gardener and lived in Leigh, persuaded me to go and work for Sidney Bernstein at Coppins Farm. George was the Head Gardener there. Sidney Bernstein was always very good to me, and his wife, Zoe Farmer, who wrote a column in the Daily Express, was really nice too. Sometimes at weekends they’d have big parties – all sorts of famous people, although I’ve forgotten who they were – and I’d go up and help. They had two dogs, including a red setter. Once, when the family was away on their holiday, I said that I would take the red setter home with me and look after it for the two weeks. But it was a bit difficult because mother was always terrified that it would get run over in the High Street – we were still at No. 3 Park Cottages. But I think we did keep it the whole two weeks. I was there until I was called up for the War.
“There were all sorts of things you could do in Tonbridge as kids. When we were ten or twelve – there were four of us, me, Roger Dadswell, Jim Fitzjohn and Tony, my younger brother – we used to walk into Tonbridge to go to ‘the pictures’. At first there were only the silent moves. Then ‘the talkie’ arrived. The first one I remember was ‘The Desert Song’ at The Pavilion. You always got a programme of the ‘B’ film; the newsreel; and then the main film and you could go in at any time because they were running continuously. At one stage there were four cinemas in Tonbridge. The Pavilion was in Avebury Avenue, where the Library is now, with The Empire opposite. The Ritz was in The Botany, near where Waitrose is now; and The Star was in Bradford Street down by the river. The Star always had cowboy films; there was a pianist there before the talkies and, when the cowboys and Indians rode across the screen, he’d get all excited and play very fast. But I only used to go to The Star in the summer because in the winter you could feel your feet getting wet and you’d know the Medway was flooding. The worst one was The Capital in the High Street opposite the Rose & Crown. It was awful and filthy. After the War it became a bingo hall but it was burnt down ten years ago or so.
“The trouble was that not only did we have to walk to Tonbridge but we often did not have enough money to get in. The man who owned The Empire – he was Buster West and he owned most of Tonbridge at that time – we got to know him and we’d stand around outside. Then, when he’d come out, he’d say ‘Are you coming in boys?’ And we’d say ‘we haven’t got enough money’. And he’d say ‘How much have you got then?’ And we’d search and see if we had a few halfpennies between us. But he’d let the four of us in anyway. It should have been tuppence each, I think.
“There were other things in Tonbridge we used to go to. There was an ice rink just off the High Street in Bradford Road and they used to use it for boxing on Saturday nights. Jack Manser ran the boxing and he started a gym for the men who wanted to learn. The Empire in Avebury Avenue changed into a theatre which was called the ‘Hazel Bainbury Repertoire Theatre’. We were allowed into all these places as long as we could pay. There was no real age restriction but we didn’t go into pubs. There were lots of them – particularly on market day when some of them were allowed to be open all day and cattle were driven down the High Street.
“And once a year they had a Venetian Fête on the Medway just below the Castle – lots of specially decorated floats. They were brilliant. Everyone used to go. It was a great day. A few years ago they tried to revive it but they couldn’t because of Health and Safety – ridiculous – no one ever drowned in the old days.
“In 1938 Len Thompsett persuaded me to join the Territorial Army. I found out later that you got two shillings for every recruit you got; so Len had a good reason for persuading me. Father was always against the idea. Anyway after the War started, I got called up properly pretty soon. It was 23 August 1939. At first I was sent to the Royal Engineers. They asked me what trade I was and, as I hadn’t got one, I was called a painter even though I couldn’t paint for toffee. Our entire unit, or those who were over twenty, got sent to France but I was just under twenty. So I got transferred to the Royal Artillery and I ended up with a Light Anti-Aircraft Battery right through the Blitz, complete with searchlights and the very new radar.
“At the end of the Blitz, I got sent abroad. Nobody seemed to know where we were going but after hanging around in the ship at Cape Town we ended up at Bombay where no one seemed to know what to do with a Royal Artillery unit. We were there for three months. Then we got sent to Burma. We were given 2-pounder guns – rather like pea-shooters, although we did end up with 6-pounders which still weren’t very big. When I went to see “The Bridge on The River Kwai” years later, I recognized the place where they had shot it. Then we were moved to India – to Mhow which was near Agra and the Taj Mahal – although we never got to see the Taj Mahal. It was up there that we had a smallpox epidemic. A good friend of mine died; and over the next six months we had fourteen or fifteen others who died of it, too.
“We didn’t feel we were doing much for the war effort – a Royal Artillery anti-tank unit stuck in the middle of India. Eventually some of us got seconded to Coastal Defence Artillery which again seemed pretty silly a thousand miles from the coast.
“Then we heard that some of the fairly new radar-controlled guns had arrived in Ceylon. The British were worried that the Japanese would try to invade Ceylon, so three of us got posted there, where we met up with twelve others who had got out of Singapore. Our job was to train up the local troops at six different sites all around Ceylon. When I first arrived, I remember lying in my bed – eight bits of wood tied together with a ball of string – under my mosquito net and I could see big, black snakes outside. So I told the local who was looking after me and he said ‘They good, sahib. Eat rats’. But, all in all, we had a good time in Ceylon.
“There were only about fifteen Europeans and I made a lot of friends among the locals we were working with. The CO of their troops was a Singhalese, who had been at Oxford and had got a cricket Blue. So we had a lot in common and I used to get invited to his home and to meet quite a lot of his friends.
“One day I was sitting in a local cafe and I saw Eddie Crawford from Leigh across the road. He had learnt the error of his ways – he’d been a Blackshirt in the 1930s when he was a youngster, supporting the Fascists. We used to chase him and his lot down Tonbridge High Street in those days. But there he was and I had a good chat. That was how my family go to know where I was. Eddie was just passing through on his way home.
“Then the War was over and my last day in the Army was 26 February 1946. I’d been abroad for four years and I was owed 105 days leave.
“My first job after the War was as a paint sprayer in Crowborough. But there was something funny going on – I never really knew what it was. They were not at all friendly and I was almost glad when it didn’t work out. Then I went to work with Mr Bullingham – the older Mr Bullingham – at the Forge on the Green but the Forge wasn’t making money at that time and we had to be paid off. I was still living at home with the family at Park Cottage and then in The Square until I was married.
“In 1950 my mother was still living at Park Cottages. She’d been there since 1894 – fifty six years. Then the Estate offered her No. 6, The Square. We had a right job to persuade her to move even though The Square house had a bathroom and everything. Anyway, we finally persuaded her – but she insisted on a removal van – although the family said they would move things across the road. So the removal men arrived, loaded everything in, drove round the Green and parked immediately opposite where they’d started but facing the other way. As I told you, she lived until she was 92.
“So I went to work at Hayters at Plaxtol for a year or two before they had to lay people off, too. Then I got a job with Dennis Goodland. I think you‘ve talked to him about the Powder Mills so you know he was running the engineering firm his father had started. It’s next to B & Q on the industrial estate at Tonbridge now. We did a lot of specialist welding – quite often for the chemical company at the Powder Mills. After a couple of years, I was doing so well that Mr Goodland left me in charge when they went away on holiday. I was there thirteen years. Then one day the people at the Powder Mills – I’d got to know them pretty well over the years – offered me a job as a charge hand. It was much better money and it had a pension – I was forty at the time. So I went to tell Mr Goodland and obviously he was pretty sad that I was going. It took a bit of time to patch it up but I did go to Smith Kline & French and was there for the next twenty-five years – in fact until I retired aged 65 in 1984. I became the main Maintenance Engineer and governor there and loved every minute of it, even if I did have to get up in the middle of the night occasionally to deal with a few crises.
“In your book about the Powder Mills you mentioned the Black Lagoon and David Hansell. I can tell you a bit more about it. For years Smith Kline had been dumping chemical waste at the far side of the millstream just over the concrete bridge. Anyway Dr David Hansell was made Works Manager and so I went to him to tell him what had been happening. To give him his due, he came straight across and said that it had to stop straightaway. It was not dangerous waste – just it smelt really foul. But from then on we put it all in barrels and sent it off.
“Because my social life revolved around cricket so much – I played almost every Saturday and every Sunday plus a lot of badminton – I never seemed to have a moment to get married until I was in my mid-fifties when cricket eased off a bit. I met my wife Jean (she was Jean Ellis and she was adopted) when she was Manager of the canteen at Smith Kline around 1975. We lived in Paddock Wood. We were only married for twenty eight years because she got ill with emphysema and had a horrible last year or so, with an oxygen machine for twenty-four hours a day. She died in 2003.
“I suppose present day folk might think living in a village boring. Excluding the six War years, I spent some 45 years there and enjoyed every minute! As kids we had very little organized entertainment – Boy Scouts, mainly, but we fashioned our own sport mainly on the Village Green. We weren’t angels by any means but the local policeman dealt with us as and when. A clip round the ear put us straight and parents approved. We used to swim in the river a lot near Ensfield Bridge. No over-protective parents then: my mother used to say “Be home before dark” and that was it! Then in later years there was the British Legion & Club, badminton, football, table tennis and cricket. I think sport in general took over my life.
“However, I was lucky to spend so many years playing cricket – my favourite sport – on probably the most beautiful village green in the country”.