Tribute: Joan Newby (nee Thompson)

  |  Published: May 1st 2006

THE STAFF OF LIFE By Joan Newby (nee Thompson)

May 2006


Born: 15 Jan 1922 Died: 4 Jan 2006 - Aged 83


I was born over the family bakers shop on the old Icknield Way in Wendover in 1922. My mother was 37 and my father 37. The fact that my father had been away on the Western Front for all the war (in the Coldstream Guards and a late demob) accounted for their advanced age in starting a family. As far as I can remember I had a happy childhood surrounded by many loving aunts and uncles, real as well as adopted. My parents were always very busy and it seems that I saw a lot less of them than all the others. There were many girls who pushed me in my pram. I can remember my pram with a monkey skin cover brought back from Africa by an uncle. When my mother took me out she always took an alarm clock under the monkey skin so that she would not be late back for what ever it was that she had to be back for (she had no wrist watch).

There was always singing in the house: Victorian ballads, war songs and catchy tunes of the day.

My father shaved with a cut throat razor, I loved to watch him and when I was there he always sang as he lathered his face "Slap dab, slap dab up and down the brick work. Slap dab all day long. In and out the corners. Round the Johnny Horners. He with a pair of ..... ....." Never did know what those two words were, sounded like "slaping gorges".

When I grew out of my pram I was taken out in a rather grand "rickshaw". My fathers elder unmarried sister, Auntie Ida, was a great walker and thought nothing of pushing me to the highest point in the Chilterns - Coombe Hill - and around the hill top villages - Scrubwood, Cobblers Hill, Hampden, Lacey Green, Butlers Cross and Chequers. When she went without me very often after my bed time, she would write me a picture postcard and send it by post (for 1/2d) from one of the (in those days remote) villages and I would receive it, delivered by the postman, before breakfast in the morning.

I started school when I was about 5 not at the "rough" village school where I would have liked to have gone but at a small private Dame school held in the Gospel Hall. About 30 children attended the large cold school. At the far end was a semi circular platform with a wrought iron fence round it and fixed behind the fence red felt a lovely place to hid but very dusty. The windows were so high that only sky could be seen. Miss Baldwin the only teacher had a hard wooden chair to sit on but the children had forms with no backs. It was so very draughty in winter the only heat was from a black stove in the centre of the room. If it was fed too much coal, or the damper was wrong it turned red hot and no one could go near it until it burnt itself out. I must have been there 6 years but can remember very little about it.

There was no uniform, no outings, no reports. I suppose that I learnt something there - certainly not to spell. I think that I learnt more from the villagers. One old man, Mr Kelly (Kenning?), who lived with another old man in a thatched cottage in Pound Street) was a great friend of mine. He was short, stocky, white haired and had a lovely white beard. In the summer (it was always so it seemed summer) he would sit outside his cottage and smoke his clay pipe. I at the age of 4 or 5 would cycle my wooden 3 wheeler up to him and ask him, "Mr Kelly, what shall I get for you and where shall I go". The reply was quick, "Go to Newcastle and get me some coal" or "Nottingham and get me some lace" or "Luton for straw hats", I can see now that he would have been considered today a modern educationalist. I do not think that he could read or write but he taught me a great deal. I think that at the time he was 80 and lived on 10/- a week old age pension. I once went in his cottage, the floor boards were almost non existent due to the large rat holes.

Another friend across the road from Mr Kelly was Mrs Bignall an old lady who today would be called a baby sitter except that I went to her rather than her to us. She always wore black from bonnet to boots and a skirt to the ground, always wore the same clothes and always sat by a roaring red coal fire winter or summer but in that room was a framed print, a good print (it was a John Constable) a tree lined lane with sheep and a stream and a boy with a red coat - my first introduction to an old master and I loved it and couldn't have enough of it, nor of the custard Mrs Bignall was always making on that hot red fire. Next door lived Mrs Brackly. She was the washer woman and walked on her ankles. I never knew why but she couldn't wash - the sheets came back a grey colour and when I was first married and was able to buy my own sheets I couldn't have white ones, they had to be coloured so they wouldn't turn grey - as I thought all washing did.

Many of the cottages in Pound Street and High Street had on the ground floor a very small room about 6 feet square but with as many windows as it was possible for light as they were lace making rooms for that was the way the housewife in those days earned a few extra shillings. No, not in my time but in the 19th and early 20th century. The women would work on after dark with the aid of candles behind glass spheres to give a better light and in the winter under their long skirts they had hot bricks or red cinders in old buckets. The other way for women to earn money was straw plating for the hat factories in Luton but in my day the pin money was earned taking in washing and minding children.

Looking back now it seems to me that the 20's and 30's was a wonderful time to be a child. It was a far safer time than today. Few cars in my play places. People walked and looked and unconsciously kept an eye on straying children. So we as children, we were free to roam. My playground was Coombe Hill and Witchell with two ponds, streams and springs and what was more exciting than playing in or around water or sliding down a chalk pit on a tin tray. But if you wanted a change, there was the one track railway from Wendover Station to Halton RAF camp, where we could hide in the bushes by the track and run out after the goods train had almost past, and hang onto the buffers at the back and gain a free ride to the level crossing and then walk back through water meadows alight with marsh marigolds.

Another favourite place for me was the blacksmiths shop. Always something interesting going on there and the lovely smell of hot iron and horses. I had friends in the village, ones like me who did not go to the village church school but I was also accepted by the village children and quite honestly found them the most interesting. There was one mystery about play that I have never quite understood and it was this. For weeks on end we would play nothing but marbles on the paths, in the gutters, day in, day out, all over the village wherever you went you would find groups of children flicking marbles and winning or losing as the case maybe. Then suddenly, without any prearranged discussion one morning one would hear the sound of an iron hoop rolling down the street accompanied by hob nailed boots and then another and another. "Marbles away it's hoop time". The boys all had iron hoops with a hook to control them - very noisy. The girls had wooden ones with a wooden stick and were quieter. When the hoops season was over (just as mysteriously as they started) the top and whip season began, all day and every day and even when in the winter darkness fell children gathered in the wide paths in front of lit shop windows (shops kept open until 8 or 9 pm then) and played on from their light.

Wendover High Street is on a hill and one of the most exciting games was "tracker racing". A "tracker" was a box on wheels. 4 pram wheels, a long length of wood and a box, a few nails and a piece of rope and one had a very fast vehicle (on a hill). Some with the help of a father, or elder brother, were very sophisticated. It was an exciting run from the railway bridge to the town clock. The cross roads were a problem but if another vehicle did appear it was quiet easy to avoid as both road and pathways were wide. I never remember an accident but it did frighten the horses!

The regularity of play was from time to time interrupted by the outside world. Such things as Jubilees, Coronations and the like and even Easter and Whit Mondays when the grown-ups took charge and arranged Fetes and fancy dress parades and gift mugs and sticky buns. Always there was a group of men in the fancy dress parade with balloons up their jumpers and short skirts and lots of lipstick and a pram - all very bawdy but a lot of fun.

I well remember 1935 and the Silver Jubilee of George V and Queen Mary. I was dressed as an Indian with jewelled turban and a sword. The whole lot of entrants walked around the village and my Auntie Daisy who dressed up as a gypsy played an accordion all the way. At the recreation ground we were presented with a china mug and after another wait in a queue it was filled with lovely sticky lemonade and in the other hand was thrust a current bun. At the coronation of George VI in 1937 I, with the help of 2 friends renovated my rickshaw. It was painted bright blue and we carefully painted gold lines on it and covered the seat with bright cloth. Pam, the smallest friend dressed in Chinese clothing was installed on the seat and Molly and myself pulled the handles. We were in trousers and tunics and coolie hats - all home made. One year, back to 1935, I believe Pam and Molly entered the fancy dress as hula hula girls with blackened bodies, garlands of flowers and raffia skirts. All was well until the bonfire on Coombe Hill in the evening when the sparks began to fly and Pam and Molly had to make a hasty retreat!

There were two dates in the calendar as fixed as Christmas - May 13th-14th and October 2nd and 3rd These were the dates of the Charter Fairs. At one time hundreds of years ago servants were hired and all sorts of goods, property etc bought and although I can remember sheep arriving at several May fairs that soon stopped and the fairs were pure entertainment. Swings, roundabouts etc. The caravans, many still horse drawn, would arrive the day before the fair was due to open and park in Dobbins Lane. There were several steam driven trucks heavy laden with stalls and equipment and each had a trailer with more sideshows. It was not complete until the big steam engine arrived - the one that generated the power for the working of the big roundabout, its lights and music. The fair people, as they were known, were soon out of their vans and setting up home for 3 or 4 days washing apparel on hastily erected clothes line and the women were then off shopping. The men just stood and smoked. 7pm was "drawing up time" when pitches were claimed and a start made fitting all the pieces together. They worked far into the night. At 3pm the next day all was ready and the whole of the wide part of the High Street was full of the most exciting side shows and rides leaving just enough room for the traffic in the middle. The big horses going up and down on their barley sugar brass rods were my favourite and I could watch for hours. It cost 2d to ride and I thought the men who collected the money very skilfull jumping on and off the moving platform. They took the pennies to the roundabouts owner, an old woman, who stood at the open door of her caravan and counted the rides and then the money.

When I outgrew the Dame School it was of to Aylesbury by train to Temple School. I learnt very little there, hockey being my favourite subject. I plodded on doing any prep on the train going to school. Home life was not encouraging to school work. There were always pigs and chickens to feed or horses to be taken from one field to another or to the blacksmith.

In 1938 my mother became ill and as she was the clerk in chief of the business things were getting a bit out of hand so I left school. I was just 15 and as well as doing the books, sending out the bills, paying the wages, helping in the bakehouse, serving in the shop I had to do the house keeping, the cooking and look after my sick mother and the worse thing of all was the black leading of the kitchen range every morning at 6am and emery papering the fender. I never did, or have since seen the need for that but it was a discipline and I believe that has ruled my life. If you are expected to do it, whatever it is, do it and never mind the hardship.

So my working life began and I was really still a child although 16. I had long hair in plats and was very naive. Towards the end of 1938 I met Howard who was 7 years hence to be my husband. He was then a boy from college and a mind of information but he came and went back to Teachers Training College and then to teaching and then conscription in June 1939. He was 21, I was 17. September and we were at war with Germany, October he was in France, May 1940 Dunkirk. He did not come back - not until July. I had to do war work. I wanted to join the WAAS (?) but ended up doing part time factory work in Aylesbury making radios for planes and tanks. It was awful. Me an open air girl shut up for 6 hours a day in a noisy machine shop from 1pm to 6pm. In the mornings I was organising the shop and stock and the evenings doing the books. My mother was still not fit. 1941 January Howard went off to Egypt. I eventually left Echo and took to the business full time taking over the delivery of bread as the van driver had been called up and to avoid me being called up (which I longed to happen but it would, so it seemed, put an end to the business if I went) I took a part time job at a nearby farm (Hale Farm).

In June 1945 Howard came home. We were married 12th July. Three days in London and we met his agent Kathleen Farrell for the first time and then continued our honeymoon in Malvern. Howard returned to Cairo in October. I went back to the farm and ploughed for 6 weeks. Eventually I got a passage on HM Franca sailing from Liverpool. Howard met me at Port Said. A flat awaited me in Cairo. In 1946 we had a holiday in Palestine. Travelled by train across the desert to Jerusalem to visit the Dead Sea.

First written 5th November 1979
Edited January 1986

Found on a scrap of paper in the notebook that the above was written

"This girl of the 1920's, village life, no worthwhile education found herself without any warning in the company of GB Priestly, Henry Moore, Alec Guinness and on to the Mansion House and the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Prime Minister and at many occasion members of the Royal Family."

Daughter Kate Sinclair writes:

Unfortunately I never lived in Wendover as my parents had moved to Bucks well before I was born. My mother left Wendover in the early 1950's but always had a huge emotional link with the village. She was an only child but had, and we still have, relatives in the village so often returned to visit. She also owned two houses in Wendover which she rented out - one until the late 1960's and one until 1976. Her parents continued to live there until they died in the late 50's early 60's. She was a land girl at Hale Farm and she often arranged reunions of other farm workers in the area. My parents retired to a village outside Oxford but they put an offer in on a house in Wendover as they wanted to return to the village. However, unfortunately my father's health deteriorated and they were unable to make the move.

My father was Howard Newby. He became Managing Director of BBC Radio and retired in 1978. He was an author and won the first Booker Prize for "Something to Answer For" in 1969 under the name of P H Newby. He died aged 79 on 6th September 1997.

Joan and Howard had 2 daughters - Sarah and Katie and 5 grandchildren.

A tree will be planted in Wendover in her memory in Autumn

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