A childhood in Waterside, Chesham in the 1940s
It was the May of 1947. There had been a late fall of snow and I was playing in the garden. I looked up and saw a young man in RAF uniform watching me. It was my father. That was my first meeting with him at the age of 5. He had come home after his service during the Second World War.
That winter had been a hard one. The snow lay for many weeks. We at the top of Chessmount in Fryers Close had no electricity, and no tradespeople could come up the hill. We were fortunate in having a gas cooker. After the coal ran out, my mother would light the gas cooker and open the oven door so that we could sit around it to keep warm.
One snowy morning there was a knock at our door. ”we’re going to dig the hill out” said our neighbour. My mother dressed me in my warmest clothes – a Liberty bodice with rubber buttons under my jumper, my coat, a blue knitted pixie hood which I hated, and my even more hated Wellington boots. (They rubbed the back of my knees and chafed me.)
Armed with my seaside red metal spade with a wooden handle I went too. Everyone chipped away at the hard crust of ice. Eventually someone hailed the coal lorry, and it started up the hill. We watched with baited breath. It slipped and slid back down the slope. We recommenced our digging. The lorry tried again- and failed. I was shivering now. One more attempt! The lorry chugged up the hill, slid sideways, but the men pushed it back. It stuttered on the final rise of the hill and the men again gave a mighty heave- and it was up! A loud cheer went up. We would have a fire tonight, and tomorrow maybe groceries!
When I started school at the age of four I was sent to Chesham Preparatory School for a year. After that I transferred to Waterside Infants School, where for my first term the headteacher was Miss Baker. Miss Saunders took the babies’ class. I was in the second class, taken by Mrs Jackman, who loved nature.
That spring she brought into school a large round goldfish bowl, filled with frogspawn. It was placed carefully on a windowsill above her desk. We watched in wonder as the tadpoles emerged, and grew legs, swimming frantically around the bowl. One morning during prayers, a tiny frog leapt out of the bowl, and landed in Mrs Jackman’s hair. We all stood up and screamed! Mrs Jackman with great outward calm removed the little frog saying “There now, isn’t that wonderful. It’s time this little family returned to the river!”
The next year I was in the top class. Miss Baker had gone to take Newtown Infants School and her replacement was our teacher. Her name was Miss Hemmings, and she had a hard task trying to live up to her predecessor. Class control was not one of her strong points, and some of the boys knew exactly how to wind her up.
I dreaded my turn as Milk Monitor. Everyday we received a bottle containing about one third of a pint of milk, which we drank at break-time. The monitor’s job was to make a hole in the cardboard lid, and poke a straw through it, ready for break. I never got the hang of it, and milk would spurt out everywhere. ”Hurry up, Pamela” Miss Hemmings would boom.
In September we held the Harvest Festival. This was for the whole school and the partitions dividing the classrooms were pulled back so we were in one big hall. Mr Archer, who kept the Waterside Bakery, made a harvest loaf for us. It was wonderful, a hay wagon, spilling over with golden ears of corn. We all gasped in wonder. Then we sang:
Farmer, farmer, sow your seed
Up the field and down
God will make the golden corn
Grow where all is brown.
We also sang All Things Bright and Beautiful. Our Bucks accents came through well, as we boomed ”He made their glowing curlers”. That puzzled me. I had a mental vision of my mother first thing in the morning, with her hair tightly wrapped in metal curlers. Why had God made them, and what did they have to do with our harvest? I wondered.
There were no inside toilets at our school. The toilets were a corrugated iron shed affair round the back. The tin roof leaked, and it was dark. No one would go to the toilet at school if at all possible. There could be frogs there too. No doubt some of our restlessness towards the end of the sessions would be because we were dying to spend a penny!
The other school in Waterside was the old Infants’. It was at the bottom of Chessmount Rise, past the Black Horse Public house. Much later, when I was a pupil at Whitehill Girls’ School, I went there for Domestic Science.
Whitehill was not large enough for all our needs, and I spent a lot of school time trudging around the town for various lessons. Up to the top of Lowndes Park for Games, down to Waterside for Domestic Science, Temperance Hall in Church Street for dinner.
Our Domestic Science teacher lived in the house adjoining the school. Before her marriage, my mother was cook at Tweenways, a big house in Eskdale Avenue, belonging to the Carter family, so she thoroughly approved of Mrs Watson.
Sometimes we did not cook, but had “Housecraft lessons”. To my mind this was doing Mrs Watson’s household chores on the cheap. One afternoon she brought in a pile of her husband’s dirty socks and we each had a pair to wash. Another time we made stew. There wasn’t time to cook a stew, so we made it, half cooked it, then put it in a Kilner jar to take home and finish cooking later! Health & Hygiene wasn’t heard of then! Sometimes Mrs Watson would start us off, and then nip home for a cup of tea and a cigarette. We waited with baited breath ”would she go… YESS!”
One day we were making mince pies. As soon as Mrs Watson left the room we engaged in a game of “whose pastry will stick on the ceiling for longest”. Mine stuck hard. Mrs Watson came back – and my pastry was above her head as she demonstrated the next stage in mince pie making. No one was paying any attention to her. All our eyes were fixed on the ceiling. My pastry was gradually losing its’ grip. Finally plop! There it was right in front of the teacher. She held it up “And who does this belong to?” My hand slowly went up. Maybe it was because she was friendly with my mother, but anyway, I didn’t get more than a reprimand. My mince pies came out a sort of grey speckled colour. But then so did many others. Mrs Watson eyed them all thoughtfully. I took mine home, to be devoured as all my offerings were, by my long suffering grandfather who pronounced them the best he had ever tasted.
Chesham Swimming Pool was situated on the Moor. Another long walk from school. Mrs Moss was our swimming instructor. The pool was unheated, so we speculated as we walked on what the temperature would be. On one occasion it was 42 degrees. But we were still expected to go in.
Much time was actually spent on the edge doing tedious drill and shivering. Then in to the shallow end and more drill holding the bar at the side. When Mrs Moss deemed you were ready, a strong length of rope was tied round your waist, and Mrs Moss hauled you across the baths, shouting “Swim! Swim!”
And when you could, you were required to swim a length while she held out a long pole just in front of your nose, for you to grab if you sunk.
I never got to the rope stage. I was fed up with this, so one half term I decided I would teach myself. I went everyday morning and afternoon to the pool and the pool Caretaker, Mr Walker spurred me on. He said “Just go for it, and if you think you are sinking, hop, and go”. I did, and by the end of the week I could swim a width. At the next lesson Mrs Moss was in a bad mood. I said nothing. Mr Walker came out and winked at me ”That one can swim- what’s she doing down there” he said. Mrs Moss sniffed. “Not her- she hasn’t got the nerve”. “I reckon she can swim a length” he said with another wink. “Let her show you!” So I did, and managed a length.
The changing rooms were communal – one for the boys, one for the girls. There was a gap at the bottom of the partition and the boys would try to grab our garments through it. One week, my usual navy blue long legged bloomers with a pocket were in the wash, so I had on a pair of bright pink knickers. It was these that the boys managed to grab. They threw them up in the air shouting. Our teacher appeared holding up my wet kickers. “Put them on!” she ordered. I spent the rest of the day decidedly damp.
The Fair would come to the Moor probably twice a year, and on one occasion a circus. We arrived at the Pool one morning to find the circus people had broken in and washed their horses down in the pool. But we still went in!
Out of school my life revolved around the Waterside area. Different parts of it became our haunts at different seasons of the year. In spring we loved to see the springs of water shooting up near the Swimming pool. The grass of the Moor would become lush and green, and we would paddle in our wellies on the grass, half heartedly trying to avoid the sudden fountains of water that gushed out of the ground.
The Chestnut tree at the bottom of Trapps Lane and other trees along the river towards Amy Lane were an obsession in autumn, ready for the conker season. Then we played a game called “the big ship sails on the alley alley ooo” which involved a long line of us skipping under arches we made with our hands as we sang:
The Big ship sails on the alley alley oo
On the last day of September.
Then it was hopscotch, drawn with chalk on the pavement.
In winter Trapps Lane became our focus. Armed with an old tin tray we would make a slide down the lane. It was treacherous. One day the priest who lived in the Rectory above Christchurch came out of his house ready for Evensong. He was clad in his black Cassock, and cape. He smiled at us, as he stepped right onto our slide! With a cry he hurtled down the hill, cape and cassock billowing out behind him.
In summer our attention turned to the area of the Chess below Lord’s Mill. There the stream was at its shallowest. By the summer holidays our feet had outgrown our sandals, and we had the toes cut out. Clad in these and armed with our fishing gear we would spend hours in the Chess. The fishing gear was a bamboo garden cane, with a circle of wire pushed into it. The net was usually an old piece of mum’s stockings, or net curtain.
We also had a glass jam jar with string handles to put our fish in. We knew exactly where to find the fish. Under the bridge over the road would be trout- beyond our reach, but tantalisingly near. Sometimes and older boy would try to tickle one, but I never saw anyone actually catch one. Usually we were content with “tiddlers”- minnows. But we knew that over near the houses that lined one bank was an unusual fish which we called a catfish. It had long black whiskery fins around the mouth and was bigger than the other fish. It lurked under some weeds. Occasionally we would catch it, look at it in wonder, and put it back for another time.
Just beyond that stretch of river was the Moor Football Pitch. There on winter Saturday afternoons we would cheer them on. My cousins,”Big Ed” and his son,”Little Ed” Sale-Thorn played there, with “Grandad Ed” and Aunty Mollie on the sidelines.
Another mill, lower down the Chess was Channer’s. There was a wood merchant’s beside it, and a field full of logs. We were told not to go there as they could fall on us, but on a few occasions of course, we did. If we kept very still and quiet we could see a flash of turquoise as a kingfisher darted into the depths of the stream. We could dam the river just there too and paddle.
At the top of Chessmount there was a caravan site. Amongst the residents was one “Mad Annie” who used to live in a very old van with a green half door. Annie would lean over the door and shout at passers by on the footpath across the field. I am afraid we encouraged her! Mr & Mrs Collins who lived in the next caravan would tell us off for winding her up. One night her van caught fire, and Annie went to live elsewhere.
Before the bungalows were built, the top of Chessmount was wild. There were two large bomb craters there. These were full of wild flowers. Horse Daisies grew in abundance, as did wild roses and pink wild lupins. There were also the few cowslips in spring, primroses, and an orchid. Little yellow flowers of the ling family scrabbled along the base of the craters, we called them “egg and bacon”.
Every Saturday I had my own little job to do. I took the empty pop bottles back to Mr Elson’s sweet shop opposite Lord’s Mill. The bottles were worth 1d each, and a few worth 2d. This I was allowed to spend on sweets, newly off the ration.
Mr Elson had the patience of a saint. All of us children went to his shop and spent hours agonising over what to buy. He never hurried us, but would stand there clad in his khaki overall, whistling softly and tunelessly whilst he waited for us to decide: aniseed balls, flying saucers (sherbert circles) or maybe lurid Parma violets or Refreshers with little messages written on them such as ”I love you”. Occasionally Mrs Elson would be there and then we had to hurry for unlike her husband she was usually on a short fuse and wanted rid of us! But not Mr Elson, he was our friend.
After I had made my purchases I crossed the road to Lord’s Mill. The Mill once belonged to the Lord of the Manor, and all his tenant farmers took their crops there for grinding into flour. I was allowed just inside the front door where there was a counter and a bell on a rope. I loved the smell of the mill, and the cats which were half starved and everywhere. There were always new kittens. The cats had to earn their keep by catching the mouse population. They were left hungry to encourage them to do so. I bought a shillings worth of meal for our chickens and clutching that would make my way home up Bennings Alley, the shortcut.
Further up Waterside there was Roses Stores, the grocers, and Archer’s bakery. Opposite this there was a cottage where a lady who seemed elderly to us, made her own cakes and tarts to sell. She would display them in her sitting room window and on our way home from school we would stop to buy a red jam tart or a fairy cake -price 1d.
Behind Roses Stores was an area we were banned from. So of course we did our utmost to creep in. There were some sheds. Inside were glass coaches. We eyed them as mysterious things. One boy told us ghosts lived in them. They were biers and horse drawn carriages used for funerals. Once we were caught and the owner told us we would be haunted by dead bodies if we went there again. We never dared risk it!
Going towards the town, there was Stones, the Shoe repairers. Ray lived there with his elderly parents. Ray was an unusual character. We would watch for signs of one of his “turns”. We knew one was coming when he stroked his face. Then he began to laugh, and laugh uncontrollably. We did too. But Ray went on and on, and threw himself down in the road. One day he got hit by a passing cyclist and broke his leg. He went to hospital and after that his turns ceased and he became quiet.
Wilf lived in the row of houses near Stone’s. He wore a trilby hat that was several sizes too large and sat on his ears. Every Sunday he would stride up the road to Hinton Baptist Church singing hymns as he went. As did his neighbour Olive, who wore a 1920’s style round knitted hat summer and winter, indoors and out.
These are just some of the memories of my world as a child. Then the horizons of Waterside were large. Now going back they seem so small. But Waterside provided me with my roots and happy childhood. I had freedom to roam, and discover.
Pam Bayliss (nee Sale-Thorn)