Memories of Leigh during World War 2 by David Walters
The Society was contacted by David Walters from New Zealand who had seen the Society website. He had lived in Leigh as a boy and wanted to let us have his reminiscences of his time here. The following article, written by him, tells of his war-time childhood spent at Leigh.
It is thanks to Herr Adolf Hitler that I can celebrate my links with Leigh. I was born in Littlehampton, Sussex, in the first month of World War 2. Although my parents’ home was in South London, my mother had been sent to the south coast to give birth because of the probability of bombing to the city. My father volunteered for service very early in the war and found himself in the Royal Artillery participating in the defence of Southampton docks. Having made my debut, the question facing my parents was where we should live. Apparently it was decided – as my father was stationed in Hampshire and London was not the healthiest place in England at that time – that my mother and I should stay with her elder sister in Leigh. Occasionally, during lulls in bombing campaigns, my mother would take me to London to visit my grandparents and check on our home, but in fact “home” to me at that time meant Lower Green, Leigh, Kent.
My father’s army unit was sent off to India to prepare for the war against the Japanese and my mother and I were not to see him again until Christmas Eve, 1945. And so I began life in the cottage in Lower Green, living with my aunt, Hilda Juggins, her husband Arthur, his daughter, Joyce, and, of course, my mother.
My uncle, Arthur Juggins, could have been a character straight out of a Dickens novel. He was short, balding even in his thirties, but his three most outstanding features were his bottle-bottom spectacles, without which he was virtually blind, his ten minutes to two Charlie Chaplin gait, and the rapidity of his speech. Conversation with Arthur was a series of machine-gun bursts. He was also one of the kindest and friendliest men I have ever met. Why my aunt married him I do not know; certainly not for his appearance. But this I do know: she got a pearl of great price.
Arthur worked at the bakery belonging to Mr Lakeman just a hundred metres or so up the road from our home. I can only recall one occasion when I was allowed to watch him at work; a busy bakery was no place for a pre-schooler. I can remember him opening the oven door and peering owlishly into the fires of hell (as it seemed to me) to check on the welfare of his bread. Then the long paddle was thrust into the tunnel and withdrawn with the bread. The aroma of the newly baked bread is still with me today, nearly seventy years later.
It seems to me now, looking back over those years, that Arthur Juggins was a man who took the parable of the talents thoroughly to heart. He was born with a number of physical disadvantages, suffered the death of his first wife when their daughter was hardly more than a toddler, even his surname was against him, and yet he made the absolute best he could of himself. He was turned down by the army because of his poor sight but served as well as he could in the Home Guard. On my visits to my aunt during my late teenage years I realised that he was extremely intelligent and well read and enjoyed quite deep conversations – on his part, at least – on literature, classical music, and the county cricket competition. I only hope that, having been blessed with an expensive education myself and in my arrogance, I did not try to talk down to him. But if I had, Uncle Arthur, kind soul that he was, would never have let me know it.
My mother’s sister, Hilda, was an enthusiastic member of the chapel’s congregation and I was taken along to the meetings each Sunday. I have little recollection of those proceedings except that the uncarpeted wooden floor resounded with even my tiny footsteps. I have no idea how my mother and aunt would have controlled the effects of my boredom at those Sunday meetings.
My uncle Arthur’s daughter by his first marriage, Joyce, was about eight or nine years older than me. I have read her account of her memories of those times in the Leigh Parish Magazine (See Parish Magazine Oct/Nov 2004 and on the LHS website) and I can say that all she has written is accurate. It was not a happy time for her. For myself, I thought she was the most beautiful thing on this earth but, as happens in everyone’s childhood, people come and go and we do not dwell too long on such things until we are older. Joyce disappeared from the scene and I was only to see her once more; I was twelve years old and she was about to marry. If she is still alive and reads this account I hope she will forgive any embarrassment she may feel from my frankness.
Next door to the Juggins’ residence was the Cheesemans’ bungalow. I cannot remember either Mr or Mrs Cheeseman, but Michael, their son, about a year older than me, was my hero and we played together whenever my aunt’s attention was distracted. What I liked most about him were certain items of his vocabulary which I attempted to introduce into my own. His expletives would not be considered very terrible today, even in a child of six or seven, but Aunt Hilda was outraged when I experimented with them and persuaded my mother to forbid my contact with him; I believe my mother would probably have nodded and then taken little notice of her elder sister’s sensibilities. The only other memory I have of the Cheesemans’ ménage is of their larder. It was deep inside the house and cool as a refrigerator even in the summer. This, of course, was probably ten or more years before a refrigerator in the average household became commonplace.
My mother made friends with Eddie and Ruby Hutchinson. Ruby had been brought up in Battle, Sussex, and at this time was a useful member of the Leigh stoolball team. The Hutchinsons formed a fairly numerous clan and all the sons worked with their father who was the tenant of Ensfield Farm. The youngest of the many brothers was my fellow pupil at the village school. I once asked him what was his favourite colour. Without a second’s hesitation he replied, “Black!” I was terribly impressed. I often wonder if he became an undertaker in later life. Perhaps he supported New Zealand’s international rugby team.
My mother would often take me to visit her Hutchinson friends. We made the journey – on foot, of course, because there was no public transport in that direction – so many times that I can remember almost every step of the way to this day. It was a trek of great delight. First, we would pass under the railway bridge where I would test my lungs and set the echoes ringing. Then up the hill, passing the Misses Goodwin’s farm with its twin oasts on the right. Down the other side of the hill to the Medway bridge under which Michael Cheeseman and I would sometimes fish for “tiddlers”, and up the slight slope to Ensfield Farm. As a teenager then living in London I occasionally spent holidays with the Hutchinsons, happily working like a slave on the farm, and on one occasion my father, brother and I camped beside the Medway. On the second night the heavens opened and a mini-monsoon saw us re-accommodated in the Hutchinsons’ disused oasthouse; far more comfortable than our bedraggled tent!
My formal education began at the village school. I think I was a pupil there for only a few months; the war ended, my father returned home and we resumed our life in London. I was very happy at the little village school where, in retrospect, the style of teaching was comparatively relaxed. It took me many, many months to adjust to the primary school I was soon to be sent to in Battersea where my infant teacher provided instruction with one hand and corporal correction with the other.
One thing among many that I have to thank my early teachers at the village school for is that they must have instilled in my young brain a curiosity and a delight in words and how we use them. Evidence of this is that I vividly remember standing on the platform of the railway station, looking up at the “Lyghe Halt” signs and asking my mother why it had been spelt “Lyghe” instead of “Leigh”. My mother, quite used to the precocious ways of her five-year-old son, told me that little boys should not ask silly questions. Silly it may have been, but to this day I have not received a satisfactory answer. Can anyone help? However, I went on in later life to study language and languages and even produced a book on the spelling of the English language. Ahem! My apologies: this is not the place to make an advertisement for my productions!
Returning briefly to Lyghe Halt, I remember being fascinated with the straightness of the railway line, like an arrow from Redhill to Tonbridge. I believe I was a little afraid of the stationmaster, Mr Grevett, who would arrive on his bicycle one minute before the arrival of the infrequent train – drawn by a steam locomotive, of course – , open up his office and, on receipt of the appropriate fare, issue us with our tickets: clonk-clonk, clonk-clonk. We would board the train, usually the only passengers on the platform, Mr Grevett would wave and whistle the train on its way, and often he was back on his bicycle before the train had gathered any speed at all!
Opposite Aunt Hilda’s house was the brickyard. It was not a yard as I knew it, and I never knew what association it had with bricks. To me it was a jungle paradise. It was a tangle of shrubs and trees that had obviously been left to look after themselves for many years. There was one path leading through it, though I cannot now remember where it led to, and I was allowed to roam in the brickyard so long as I kept to the path; what a forlorn expectation of a healthily inquisitive boy! I remember there was a pond deep in the jungle with all manner of reeds and other vegetation hiding it from view, where dragonflies abounded. I loved their colours – red, green, and blue. Sometime during those years someone had seen an adder in the brickyard and there were also rumours of a drowning in the pond. These occurrences, true or false, were used to stop my forays into this, my favourite place in all the world. However, under the leadership of Michael Cheeseman, we both continued our daily visits to the brickyard, happily imprisoning banded caterpillars in jam jars purloined from Aunt Hilda’s kitchen. I hope that the present residents of the houses that now stand on my erstwhile paradise are at least half as content in their homes as I was in the primordial forest that preceded them during those magical years.
In 1999 I visited Leigh for the only time since leaving England nearly fifty years ago. I wanted to show my wife and younger daughter the village that had played a great part in forming my attitudes and expectations. On one hand I was sad to see that the huge trees on the north side of the high street where it is met by Lower Green were gone. The cawing of the crows and the scampering of red squirrels that inhabited them were features of my young life. Other areas in the vicinity seem to have been similarly denuded, but I suppose that is progress. On the other hand I was delighted to see that the village had really changed very little: Saint Mary’s Church, the school, the “Bat and Ball” were all very much as I remembered them.
Just three further reminiscences: the collapse of the Medway bridge and the German POWs rebuilding it. Of sliding in the snowy tracks made by passing cars – one on average every half hour in those slower days. Finally, the smell of hops. They grow in my adopted country; not in my immediate area but on the occasions when I have travelled through the hop-growing region and smelt that unforgettable aroma I am no longer 19,000 kms away from England but right there in Leigh.
Parish Magazine Articles: June/July/Aug 2011: by David Walters