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With thanks to Bob Stonnel for providing the below dissertation, originally presented in 2001
Gentlemen, it is, perhaps, a curious coincidence that
something that occurs in my life only once every seventy years should happen to
fall on this day. It is nevertheless a fact that seventy years ago my father
scribbled at the top of the page in his ledger for 14th of March 1931, 'Bob
born today' - a document that remains extant to this day as a reminder that
'Business is business'. The event took place across the street from this very
building, at number sixty High Street, which consisted of the house and
shop-front (To be known later as the 'Daisy Shop' through no fault of
High Street, Old Amersham
George the Fifth still had a few years to go, unaware of the burden of his newest Subject, and my father continued to keep his three-wheeled Morgan parked in the lee of the town hall. With the arrival of a second addition to the family the car had to be changed for something more spacious in the form of an Austin Six, in which the family would frequently set-off on the fourteen mile journey to visit my mother's parents at Aylesbury. The yellowy headlights piercing the darkness, illuminated the grass verge for a full ten yards ahead.
I spent a great deal of my childhood billeted on my grandparents, with lasting impressions. Grandfather had been a painter and decorator, largely employed by the Rothschilds, quite gifted as an artist and known to be a formidable bare-fist fighter. A plain speaking man, though some expressions he used were a bit obscure. He would for example say "I cut him athirt the grinsard" meaning 'I knocked him flying'.
It took me years to interpret those words fully. When the car was not turned towards Aylesbury it would often be to Brighton for the day or weekend. 'London by the sea' was a place of the utmost excitement, particularly at Christmas time, and on such occasions as the Jubilee and Coronation, when the trams were a blaze of coloured lights with light-bejeweled gold crowns at front and back. The great central showpiece of night-time Brighton was the Old Stein fountain with its tiers of cascading colour, delighting the mind of a five-year old.
Occasionally we would call, by the way, on Mrs. Pinnock, or Aunty Pin, as we knew her; a slightly Bohemian artist and a 'Dab- hand' with the Fret saw, who lived in a quaint caravan, on a farm, high on the Downs at Patcham. I particularly remember the farm boys flinging open the barn doors to show us the dozens and dozens of startled rats fleeing in all directions,
With the subject of Aunty Pin introduced, I can now turn the narrative back to Amersham where she is the key to a minor mystery arising from one of Jean Archer's ancient photographs of the town. There is a view taken from the alleyway between the two former rows of cottages in the Broadway, looking towards London. A ghostly figure appears in the background, obviously the result of double exposure, which hitherto no one has accounted for. I can now reveal, for the very first time that the image is of a girl in a black bonnet and green crinoline, obviously taken from outside the Malt Tea House, from the road.
The girl was, in fact, a half-inch plywood board, about four feet high. There were two, one facing each way to advertise the tea rooms, and were made by Aunty Pin. She also made two miniature versions, as letter racks, which graced our mantle-pieces for many years.
Across the road dwelt Aunty Pin. A frail and sickly woman, much disappointed with life, and married to an R.F.C/ R.A.F. Squadron Leader, who I believe I saw only once, he spending most of his life serving abroad. As I remember. Uncle Pat was quite tall, much sun - tanned and wrinkled, bearing a close resemblance to Walter Pidgen. Aunt Pin lived in Norwood Yard to the rear of Butler & Pike's offices, together with cousin Teddy who, at the age of six, was without doubt the most sadistic and vindictive character I have ever known in my life. He took every opportunity to maim and torture any form of life, including human. On one occasion he hit my elder brother on the head with a hammer, and ran for his life as my father, witnessing the affair, sent Graham speeding after him as he raced along the Broadway to regain the safety of Norwood Yard where Auntie Pin, as he knew, would never believe a word against him.
When Pin died, shortly after, Teddy disappeared from our lives into the wide world and never re-appeared. As for Uncle Pat, where, when and how he died we know not. The Air Ministry were very circumspect in their answers to my mother's enquiries. My sister Grace and I have his books, and many pieces of brassware that he collected in the Middle East and India. I also have a photograph of his squadron of bi-plane bombers, which he took from the cockpit, looking across the starboard wing. Written on the back are the words. "Taken by myself, at 10,000 feet, on return to Dhibban from San Armadin in Iraq. July 1937".
In the middle thirties life was fairly placid, at least for our family. Hitter's rantings were just an odd noise on the wireless, though Grandfather would frequently mutter about "The poor bloody Jews", and there was as yet no talk of war. Everything was taken for granted, by children at least. We knew that a bar of chocolate cost 'tuppence', and you could buy close on a thousand fireworks for a pound - if all you wanted were 'fizzers' or loud bangs cost twice as much.
Whielden Street, Old Amersham
Old Mr. Cundell presided over his little shop in Whielden Street, a kindly and very military looking man. From his high stool behind the firework - packed glass counter, he would lean across and gaze down at my diminutive form and thunder out "What the bloody hell do you want young Stonell?" His son Peter was a close friend of my brother and when Peter moved away from Amersham a few years later, I didn't see him again for over fifty years, when Audrey and I moved to our present home in Monks Risborough and found him living next door.
In the late summer the tramp would make his annual appearance, passing through the town in regular orbit, like Haley's comet. He had a long growth of grey beard and carried a small bundle, but never seemed to stop anywhere.
By Thirteenth Century Charter, the town would also be visited annually by the great London & Brighton Fair, gradually accumulating on the outskirts of the town, ready to move in to begin setting-up on September 18th, to 'Open' during the 19th, 20th, and 21st. This was a time of great excitement as the huge trailers drawn by traction engines, which provided the generator power, maneuvered their loads from Whielden Street round through the narrow gap past the old cottages by Whitesides, turning right into the Broadway, or left to the High Street and beyond. The complete assembly stretched the length of the town from the enormous roundabout, always set up at the Aylesbury end of the High Street, to the boxing booth by the old Amersham bus garages (now B 6 M Motors). By the 23rd all trace of it would be gone.
Picture Courtesy of Pete Wood - The fair in the 1940s
While we lived at number sixty High Street, a succession of housemaids were engaged to manage us children, and with whom we remained on a constant war footing. We would regularly raid the incumbent's little room overlooking the Street, while they sought opportunities to even things up such means as propelling their pram-full of responsibilities into the Misbourne, which ran past the end of the garden.
The river afforded us much amusement catching stickle-backs, gudgeons, newts and so-on. A rickety plank bridge formed a convenient access to the buttercup-rich meadows beyond. By the time we moved to the Broadway, my father was persuaded that maids were far from cost effective. Meanwhile, the childrens' meals were presided over by mother, as we all sat at the round kitchen table. Against the white washed wall adorned with rows of Robertson's golliwogs, a cane was kept handy, with which Mother could reach any of us.
My principal talent, as a child, rested in my ability to up-set my father. A former member of the Amersham Boxing Club, from which he had retired following a salutary encounter with the Star of that celebrated society, he was fanatically concerned with the family's health, to which end, we were all subject to the regime of drinking milk. The morning milk crate contained two quarts, and three half-pints, later four when younger brother James came off 'draught'.
The majority of my confrontations with Father were to do with milk, which I thoroughly disliked from my earliest infancy. Why it is that parents regard a child's dislike of particular foods as other than natural instinct and deserving of investigation I don't know, but being regarded as purely recalcitrant, my continual resistance to it was met with increasingly violent reactions as Father's frustration mounted over the years. He once pushed my head into a bowl of Cornflakes, and I still refused it. Later on, I was thrown like a bundle from the bottom to the top of the stairs. After a lifetime of unaccountable stomach disorders I was informed by Andy Sapsford that I was lactose intolerant, or to put it another way, I didn't like milk.
If such was my principle talent, stoicism became my chief characteristic. Among the several women who found roles in my cultivation, each one of whom was tall, thin and entirely clothed in black, Mrs. Sidney of Chequers Hill remains the most memorable. She would sweep down to the town on a large black bicycle, like a witch from the clouds, to shop, or call upon the family, to whom she was devoted. " How's my Bobby?" she would say, in her deep purring voice, and clasp me to her black skirts leaving me in momentary darkness and eyes watering from the strong smell of Camphor.
Mysterious negotiations would often ensue, resulting in my being 'dropped-off by my father, at 'Broadview', Chequers Hill, for a few hours, or days. I was quite used to being 'dropped-off in this manner, to be harboured by sundry keepers such as Auntie Julia, at 'Chigwell' in Stanley Hill, or Auntie VI at 7, The Ridgeway, for reasons I never understood. Mrs. Sidney was a widowed District Nurse, who operated diverse 'sidelines.' She had a large long wooden shed built at the side of the house where she billeted paying guests, usually itinerant workmen.
I once had to spend the night in there when there were no customers, and the family, Margaret and Fred, were home for the night. I was scared "witless', there being only one thing visible in the darkness, a small, half-watt lamp with a spiral filament that glowed very dimly, and the whole place smelt of Creosote. Having survived the night, I was faced with having to eat a basin of bread and hot milk for breakfast, because it was ' Good for you'.
Margaret had survived a term as one of our housemaids, and Fred's destiny was revealed a few years later in a letter from Mrs. Sidney to my father, after my brother was killed at the age of thirteen, in which she mourned her own loss of Fred who had "Gone Native in Borneo". Those soul-cleansing visits to Mrs. Sidney were highlighted by the fact that I was usually returned to the fold on the pillion of the monster bicycle. As my little legs dangled down, the spinning spokes would drag my socks down and peel the skin off my ankles. For some reason I regarded such trials as the Norm in life, and was thankful when, after a few trips, somebody noticed the blood oozing from my socks.
While Sunday mornings were sacrificed to Sunday school at the church rooms, the afternoons were lost to piano lessons. The great burden of Sunday was the necessity to remain 'Dressed-up' all day, worsened by the arduous ceremony of manicuring, in respect of which my mother was fanatical. We would each be painfully processed, nails cut, sanded and buffed, cuticles ruthlessly pushed back to show the' moons' properly, before taking our place on the settee ready for the ordeal of the 'Piano Teacher'. Mrs. Kewley was, of course, tall, thin, dressed entirely in black, and at the 'Hat-pin' age.
With fingers stinging we would be called forth, each in turn, Graham, me then Grace, James being too young was left to annoy the cat. We each had a music book according to age and progress, though I never mastered the simple notes of the 'Goblin's Dance" in the first tutor, and the whole business served to put me off piano playing for life. This further widened the gap between my father and me, as he was an ardent player having led a successful dance-band called The Optimists, operating in the Watford area in the Twenties'.
My mother was gifted with a most powerful contralto voice, which really should have been turned to professional account. The house constantly rang with 'Cherry Ripe', and she would often blast us out of bed in the morning with ' the sun is a shining to welcome the day, with a 'Hey-no, etc.: She and father were frequently called upon to entertain at parties and public gatherings.
In the late thirties, the house would, on occasion, be invaded by the scout troop for Gang Show rehearsals. Thirty odd scouts would come piling up the stairs past our bedroom door to cram into the first-floor sitting room for an evening of 'Riding High', and 'Crest of a Wave", sung with incredible gusto and volume. It's small wonder that I still remember the words.
The Griffin, Old Amersham
Our premises at 23 Broadway, adjoined the Griffin Hotel, whose dining room window looked out onto our Yard. We were bounded on the other side by Fred Edgington's tunnel shaped grocery shop, and linked by a bedroom over the coaching arch leading to our yard and stabling buildings, beyond which the garden led up to the wall of Wilson's Farm. Fred's sitting room was, like ours, on the first floor, but had the distinction of sloping from one corner, diagonally across to the other to a depth of one foot, which presented novel implications for furniture. Their eldest daughter Brenda was another female who referred to me as 'My Bobby". I last saw her about ten years ago, a delightful woman, quite unaware of the risks she ran at the age of seven. Permanent residents at the Griffin at that time were J.H. Squire and his daughter Dorothy. (Note - Madeleine Robertson Squire has kindly pointed out that Dorothy was actually J H Squire's second wife - Ed). He was a well-known musician, broadcasting frequently with his orchestra. As their regular dining table was the one in the window, we were exhorted by my mother to behave properly in the yard, especially at mealtimes, because 'He' was 'On the wireless".
Early in 1939, my father arrived home, one day, with a different car, leaving it parked in the road outside. We all rushed up to the sitting room to gaze down on the most beautiful car we had ever seen. In an age when cars were black, we were astounded to see one in light grey; a 'Ford Ten Coupe', with the hood folded away, setting off the red leather upholstery. To us, it was breath-taking. Father had paid ninety pounds for it; ran it all through the war until the gear box was so ragged that the gear lever would fall, under its own weight, from 'first ' to 'second' or 'third' to 'fourth', just by pushing in the clutch. He sold it in 1946 for two hundred and forty pounds to a man in Highfield Close, who paid him in white "fivers' from the pile that spilled out on the floor when he opened the sideboard door.
The following August we set off for a week's holiday staying with mother's relatives, the Ogilveys, at Redcar, where the night sky was lit up by the Satanic red glow of the distant blast furnaces, and the tide receded for a mile. After a few days it became clear that the country was on the brink of War, and on the third of September we were roused at four o'clock in the morning to ' set-off ' for home. The following day we clustered round Mother to see the banner headlines in the paper, 'England Declares War on Germany'. She spoke fearfully about 'Bombing'. Father set us to work helping to dig an air-raid shelter in the long back garden, hewing large steps down through the reeking yellow clay and flint stones. After a few days, Graham and I, lying in bed looking through the window, saw the sky light up over the stables. "Searchlights ", said Graham jumping out of bed. We went to the window and watched the practicing fingers of light sweeping back and forth. The Thirties' were over, and a very different Era had begun.
Copyright R.A. Stonell March 2001
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