My life until I left school – Maurice Payne
I was born in Blucher Street. At a very early age we moved to 127 Waterside. My family consisted of Mother, Father and my brother, two years older than me. The cottage was very small; downstairs had just one living room and a small scullery. Upstairs had two bedrooms, my brother and I slept in the very small back room. There was no light in our room and only a very small gas burner in my parents’ room. The living room had a gas light in the centre of the ceiling. There was an old kitchen range with an oven, where Mother did most of the cooking. As the room was so small, it was always warm and cosy in there. We had no toilet indoors; this was situated down the back yard beside the coal shed. There was also an old-fashioned brick copper where Mother did the washing.
I started school at the age of four at Germain Infants. I recall my boots, which were very heavy, with studs and a steel plate on the heel and toe. These boots had to be polished every day before school and the same for Sunday school. I attended St Mary’s Sunday school until I was fourteen years old.
At the end of our yard was a duck farm, hundreds and hundreds of Aylesbury ducks owned by a man named Mr Hill. We knew him as ‘Ducky’ Hill. Twice weekly Mother would go there duck picking. ‘Ducky’ would kill the birds and Mother would pluck the feathers off them while they were still warm. On the days when Mother was working, it was my job to fill the copper and light the fire so she could get into the bath when she got home. This was a large tin one which, when not in use, would hang by the back door. The ducks carried a lot of vermin so mum had to bathe and also wash all her clothes ready for the next time.
I left Germain Street School at the age of nine to attend White Hill Junior Boys. This was a big change, as I had to walk there in the mornings, then home for dinner and back again before 1.15. I well remember summer days, when the windows were open and there was a very strong smell of hops, as Chesham Brewery was situated just below the school. The Goods Yard was also nearby and I remember the shunting of the Goods trains.
At the age of ten, during the summer holidays, I heard that boys were wanted at a farm in Raans Road. Off I went with two other boys and we got the job. We set off at 7 each morning and walked to the farm. We were taken to a field where we had to pick up potatoes after a machine had drilled them from the ground. It was back-aching work but we loved it. At the end of each day we lined up at the farmhouse and were given our wages, which was sixpence (2½p). I remember going home with this ‘tanner’ and giving it to Mum and in return she gave me a penny. One day I found to my horror that I had lost the sixpence. Mum still gave me a penny and Dad told me how to tie the sixpence into my handkerchief and then wrap it around my hand.
At the age of eleven I went back to Germain Street Senior Boys’ School. I recall teachers Mr Buffery (I think he was from South Africa), Mr Bates, Mr Coles, Mr Cox and our Headmaster, Mr Golding, known to his boys as ‘Boss’. One day I was sent to his office for the cane. As I entered I slipped over on the highly-polished floor and when I got to my feet Boss gave me an extra one for being clumsy.
During the school holidays we had to make our own entertainment. Often we would go camping at Big Round Green. We did not have real tents; all we had was old sacking put together with string. Once we had a bad thunderstorm and ran home wet through at two in the morning. Another time we settled down for the night when something appeared at the opening of the tent. “It’s a ghost!” We all jumped up and the ‘tent’ collapsed. After a while we realised that it was the older boys from Waterside playing a joke on us by putting a white sheet over their heads.
My mother was a great one for cooking. During the summer she would bottle in Kilner jars all kinds of fruit, so that we always had plenty for the winter. She always made about six Christmas puddings, which were boiled up in the copper. Dad had an allotment in Garden Fields and grew enough vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, beans and all kinds of green stuff. During the seed-setting time, I would go and help with the digging. When Dad said “you can go now” I would run over to the Moor to play football with boys of my own age. I loved football and all kinds of sport. The highlight of the week was to creep in to watch Chesham United during the Season. In the summer Dad helped with the training of the Athletics at The Meadow (now the Cricket Ground); after a while I took part and ran and trained with the older ones.
At the age of twelve, I was in The Broadway and in a shop window a notice read ‘Wanted – Boy for delivering fruit and vegetables’. I ran home and asked Dad if I could go and he replied “I don’t see why not”. Cleaning my boots and tidying myself, off I went to apply for the job. I walked into the shop. Mrs Hobbs, who owned the place, eyed me up and down and said “Can you ride a bike?” My answer was “Yes” (I had learned on Mum’s old bike). “Very well”, said Mrs Hobbs. “Be here tomorrow after school at 5 o’clock sharp. You will work from 5 until 7 each evening except Fridays, when it will be 8 o’clock. Saturdays will be 8 in the morning until 1 o’clock and wages will be 4 shillings weekly”.
The next day I ran home from school, had my tea, and then off to my new place of employment. My first job was to clean the Scales and Weights, as they were brass. I was then told where the delivery bike was. When I looked at it, there came my first setback – the old bike had seen better days. It was a woman’s, with only one brake and a broken saddle. Both tyres were flat and there was no pump, so I had to borrow one from Brown’s, the ironmongers next door. Having got the bike ready for the road, I was all set for my first delivery.
Mrs Hobbs’ daughter loaded two large baskets with fruit and vegetables. I had to hang these baskets on the handlebars and be careful not to catch my knees on them. If there was only one basket the bike would pull over to one side and it was very difficult to steer straight. My first delivery, I remember, was to Stanley Avenue, to none other than my headmaster Mr Golding. As he looked over the top of his glasses he said “good lad” and gave me a penny. Another place that was among my many deliveries was Dr Leaf’s Health Centre at Champneys. Here I took tow baskets full of Jaffa oranges. It was a good thing it was in the summer as it took me ages to find the place.
On the first Saturday, I will ever remember taking home my four shillings wages and handing it over to Mum. We had previously come to an agreement that I would keep the tips and Mother the four shillings. If I had a good week I would have fourpence or sixpence in tips if customers were good to me. I remained at Mrs Hobbs’ until I left school at fourteen years old.
The winter evenings were not very good; we had no radio, no electric light – just a gas light, but there was always a big fire in the grate and Mother would place large potatoes in the oven. The rent for our cottage was 3s ll½d per week; how I know that is because I used to pay it on my way to school. The house was owned by Mr Hawkes, who had a bakery in Church Street, and Mother would give me four shillings and I had the halfpenny change.
At the age of 13, Mr Cox, my teacher, asked if anyone was interested in running. I put my name down. We had to go to the Cow Meadows for trials to run for the school relay teams, as there was an A team and a B team. After many runs, the teams were chosen and I was over the moon when I was told I was in the A team. How proud I was to think that I represented Germain Street School! This meant that we had lots of training, like passing the baton. This we did two afternoons a week, under the watchful eye of Mr Cox, and of course we were excused lessons.
I think that I was around 13½ years old when my dad bought our first radio. It was a two-valve Phillips which had a large horn speaker. I recall how the sound would fade, so you couldn’t hear a thing. This used to happen as Dad was taking down football results on Saturdays. Then the sparks would fly! Again, it was my job to take the accumulators to be charged up. Later on Dad had the electric light installed, and then we had a better set. We thought it great to listen to music and the plays. One of the first to play records (later known as Disc Jockeys) was a man called Christopher Stone. Then Reg Dixon, who played the organ from the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool. Also, on Cup Final day we could hear the commentary from Wembley; you could hear a pin drop in our house that day.
We had very little money those days, but that’s not to say we didn’t enjoy life. There was the Fair in the Nag’s Head Meadow, and later in The Broadway. It was good to watch Pettigrove’s roundabouts and Tom Smith’s Coconut Shies; they were really good fairs then. Then once a year was the Hospital Fete at The Bury in Church Street where in the evening, watched by hundreds of people, were the fireworks from the other side of the lake. It was quite a spectacle to see the reflections in the water.
My father belonged to the Chesham Silver Prize Band; he played the tenor horn. On Sundays during the summer the Band played at the surrounding villages, such as Hyde Heath, Ley Hill, Amersham Common and also our local Park. We used to walk there and when the Band finished we used to walk home again. I loved to carry Dad’s instrument. When it was wet, we boys would go into Wagger Darvell’s cart sheds in Gordon Road to play Hide and Seek.
Another event in the town’s calendar was the torchlight procession through the town. Fire engines came from far and near, as well as decorated horse-drawn vehicles. Riding at the head was Captain Hinchcliffe, who was at that time the Council Surveyor. Two other characters I recall took part. Phil Howard, who was the town crier, and in his younger days was a very good runner, also Mr Ottaway, who lived in King Street and was known by us boys as ‘Jelly Belly’.
At the age of fourteen it was time to leave school and also to hand in my notice to Mrs Hobbs. I was given an extra shilling on top of my wages. On leaving school I took an apprenticeship at Brown and Co., builders in Bellingdon Road.
As I look back on my boyhood, there were good times and bad, but I think that people were happier then than now. I had a very good life and I enjoyed it.