Stories about Memories

Ethel May (‘Effie’ / ‘Eff’) Collins (nee Aris).

Effie Collins

Effie was born 13th August 1917 at 303 Hivings Hill to William Allen Aris & Louisa Jane, nee Foster. Many years later, around the late 1940s, the house was renumbered 25 Hivings Hill, as the original numbering had been continuous along Bellingdon Road & onto Hivings Hill.

William’s great-uncle (his paternal grandmother’s brother) was Lloyd Williams, who was a brush maker, firstly in Berkhamsptead Road in the 1890s, then at 106 Belliingdon Road until at least 1928. This business was probably absorbed into Beechwood Brushes *. Effie can remember lots of half-made brushes being kept in the coal shed.

Louisa’s parents had moved to London at some point and she was born in the Old Kent Road, a true Cockney. However, when she was four years old the family returned to their roots in the Chesham area & lived at Asheridge. William is believed to have worked as a brush maker. He was also a talented musician, writing music and playing the saw. He died young, aged 36. Effie can also remember a cousin William (Billy) Buckingham who was also very musical.

Billy as a child
Baby William (Billy)

It was quite a small family – although William and Louisa had five children, two of them died young. William (Billy) died before Effie was born but she remembers he was talked about a lot. Effie has never forgotten the day when her baby sister Mabel was born, as it was the day after her own third birthday. A few days later she saw the child for the first time and picked it up, thinking it was a doll, too young to realise that the baby was dead.

Mary, baby Effie and Bob
Mary, baby Effie and Bob

The third child, (Ada) Mary, although seemingly intelligent as a child and who learned to read and write, didn’t fully develop mentally. She never married, living at home with her mother for many years. After Louisa’s death, Mary lived on her own at a variety of addresses, able to take care of herself, and lived into her seventies. She was a very good knitter but never went out to work.

The eldest child, Stanley Robert (Bob) was a bright boy and won a scholarship to grammar school in Amersham. However, he chose not to take up the place and opted instead for a life in Australia. He left home at the age of 15 in the early 1920s on a passage arranged by the Church Army and was sent to a pineapple farm in Queensland.

Eventually he had his own farm with business partner Ron Smith. When he had been in Australia about ten years a bad storm destroyed everything and his family joined forces to pay for him to return home to Chesham. He then worked as an electrician, at Statters in Amersham and for a while at the department store D H Evans on London’s Oxford Street. He married late, in his thirties, and served in the Army during World War II.

Effie’s father William died in 1927 when she was only 10. Working in the brush trade, although trained as a carpenter, he was unable to serve during the First World War owing to heart problems so he worked for an aircraft company in Hendon, making propellers for them.

Eff remembers her Dad bringing home a silvery rubbery fabric used in covering aircraft wings and fuselage and that her mother made her a mackintosh (raincoat) out of it. After the war, the only work available to him was at Chesham Brewery. Here, although he had been advised not to lift heavy objects because of his heart condition, part of the job involved moving the beer barrels.

Louisa took in sewing and washing to make ends meet. In those days when no working family would have heard of the term ‘recycling’, that is in fact what everyone did. Louisa, evidently a good seamstress, turned her hand to altering men’s trousers, worn out at the knees, to make new trousers for boys and charged 6d a pair. Effie used to do the button holes for which her mum paid her 3d! Much later she made ruff-like collars for many years for a lady in Amersham and was left £30 in the woman’s will in appreciation.

Childhood in Chesham

Effie attended Townsend Road and White Hill schools. She walked to school with friends but didn’t enjoy the lessons, apart from needlework, which she had first learned from Louisa. She learned how to make gussets on shirt sleeves and collars for men’s shirts. She had quickly become as adept as her mother at using a sewing machine. Although she liked sewing, she never did take to knitting.

Her mother did most of the family food shopping at (Joseph) Baker’s, the corner shop at Bellingdon and Sunnyside Roads, which was by the mid-1930s taken over by (Fred) Barnes.

The Co-op baker delivered bread to the door, and the family always had a box of ‘Fancies’ on Saturdays. Milk was delivered by horse and cart, the milk man, from Keen’s dairy in Chalk Hill came to the back door with the milk churn and would measure out what was needed.

Eff vaguely remembers a sweet shop Mayos’ on Bellingdon Road between Beechwood Brushes and Townsend Road, and McMinns first shop selling “seconds”. The market was small and held in Market Square and the Market (Town) Hall. The family bought maize from the Town Hall to feed the chickens and Eff vividly remembers a very strong smell of corn.

Another memory is of walking down the back garden one day and out onto Chalk Hill, then just a footpath. There was a house nearby at the very top of the hill where the owners kept bulldogs and Effie was chased by these dogs across the fields beyond and out onto Alma Road.

She also remembers how much the family enjoyed the flying displays of Cobham’s Flying Circus, at Lye Green Road, in the late 1920s. In her teens, and by then known as ‘Eff’, she remembers a handsome pilot and asking him for a picture and autograph. She also frequented the milk bar in the Broadway on a Friday evening (where Chittendens is currently located).

Eff starts work

At the age of 14, Eff left school and went to work at Shillaker’s, the handbag factory in Alma Road.* (see also Edie Hailey’s story). Initially paid eight shillings per week, she worked as a paste-fitter. This involved making up individual sections of the handbags, including the leather-backed fitted mirrors found in handbags of that time.

After she had mastered the mirrors, she went on to make handles and then purses. This was all very intricate work, but Eff quickly picked it up, something many other girls were unable to do.

Later she particularly liked doing the folded/wrapped gussets in the bags. She can even now remember the smell of leather and how each type was different to work with. Calf was hard but with a smooth finish, while Morocco, grained leather, was the best because it was soft to work with.

Suede had to be handled carefully and patent was difficult as it was very hard and had to be warmed up in order to work with it. Pig skin had a different distinct smell.

At first, the glue used was made on the premises in large vats on gas rings, but in the 1930s latex was introduced. This was much easier to work with, as was the foam used for linings, rather than the original card.

When boss Camille Heistercamp (who liked all his staff to call him by his first name) came back from America, he had lots of ideas, one being to have a factory production line rather than each person working on a dozen handbags each. However, Eff found the work was boring after this was introduced.

Eff marries Chas Collins

Effie marries Charles Collins
Effie marries Charles Collins

During the Second World War, Shillaker’s was taken over by the Telegraph Condenser Co. (TCC) in order to manufacture munitions. Eff, along with two other girls, was then paid 50 shillings per week to pack landmine cases – ‘putting square objects into a round barrel’ as she recalls. At this time she was heavily pregnant with her first baby so leaning into barrels wasn’t much fun.

On 20 December 1941 Effie had married Charles ‘Chas’ Collins and he moved in with her family. As her uncle worked as a gardener at a large house in Bellingdon (now Huge Farm), which employed Charles as a gardener’s boy, they had met there.

Born in Hawridge, Chas was a keen cricketer and he and three of his four brothers played for the Hawridge and Cholesbury club. He later went to work as a forester for St. Leonards Nursery in the St. Leonards/Cholesbury area and was not immediately called up on the outbreak of World War II.

Charles 'Chas' Collins
Charles ‘Chas’ Collins

He was called up, however, in 1943, firstly being enlisted into the Suffolk Regiment (the first regiment to go into Burma) but due to a foot deformity (an extra big toe, which the army removed) he went into the Medical Corps, leaving Eff at home with eight-month old Barry.

Chas was made a Lance-Corporal and could have had further promotions but turned them down, preferring to stay with his men.

He saw service in India, Singapore, Hong Kong and Nagasaki, shortly after the city was destroyed by atomic bombing, and wrote frequent airmail letters home.

In the meantime Eff worked in the evenings, packing dried milk from 5-8pm at Bury Farm. She would have to cycle there in the dark, with no lights on her bicycle because of the blackout. She remembers the American servicemen coming into town at this time and would often hear the refrain ‘Have some gum, chum’.

Chas was away in the Far East for several years, not returning home until his son was four-and-a-half. Brought up by his mother, grandmother and his aunt Mary, it was a shock for Barry when a strange man in uniform came up the garden path and proceeded to live in the house with them. Three more children arrived over the next few years – Barbara, Michael and Christine.

The move to a family home

From savings and insurance plans they had in the early 1940s purchased land at Bellingdon and were intending to have a house built on it. However with three more children they couldn’t afford to do so.

In 1953 the family were the first to move to the new council houses at Windsor Road. The rent was eight shillings per week. Patterson and Windsor Roads were the first to be built and finished on the estate.

It was very exciting, all the buildings were concrete (they have since been rebuilt with brick in the last 10-15 years). The floors were made of a black tarmac material polished to a high shine and Charles and Eff put rugs down as they couldn’t afford fitted carpet.

The front room had an open fire and upstairs there were wooden floorboards. They lived there while the rest of the estate was built so it was a bit of a building site at times.

Chas went back to St. Leonards’ Nursery after the war then successfully applied for a job at Garden Services as a foreman earning £9 a week. He also worked for Kenneth Curry (of Curry’s) on Sunday mornings as a gardener through the 1950s/60s until they moved to Scotland.

In the early 1960s he set up a gardening business ‘Collins and Henson’ with an ex-colleague, Viv Henson. Chas was able to have a telephone and a car at this time, both necessary because of his business.

When Viv died, Chas worked mainly for the ‘Lord of the Manors’ of Hawridge and Cholesbury, Christine Stott, and continued to do so into his eighties. Chas died in May 2009, aged 93.

After the children were grown up, Eff answered an advertisement for part-time staff at Golden Ltd., a company making hair products.* It had moved out from London to Chesham in the early years of the Second World War.

Founded in the 1930s, it had the rights to manufacture and retail L’Oreal products. In 1968, L’Oreal purchased the major stake in the company and the manufacturing side of the business was moved to a larger factory in Leighton Buzzard.

Eff, who had been employed to fill the cans of hairspray, make up boxes, pack hairspray and whatever jobs were needed, then approached Shillakers again for work.

She worked from home this time. Materials were delivered to her for making up into various component parts of handbags and then collected to be taken to the next person in the chain.

She did this for several years, until in 1981 Shillakers (by now a subsidiary of Shilton Ltd), in turn moved out of Chesham* and Eff decided it was time to retire.

Eff’s retirement

In early retirement much of her time was spent babysitting grandchildren and travelling with family and friends. Italy and Sicily are two of her favourite places she has visited. She remembers being in Sicily when Mount Etna erupted, leaving all the sand black.

November 2009

*see ‘Chesham at Work in the 20th Century’ by Keith Fletcher, Peter Hawkes and Lesley Perry, published 2008, obtainable from Chesham Museum.