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Growing up in wartime Colmworth, Bedfordshire Part One - A schoolboys memories of the 'Home Front' and working on the land.

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. John Hughes
Location of story: 
Colmworth, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 October 2005

Growing up in wartime Colmworth, Bedfordshire Part One — A schoolboy’s memories of the ‘Home Front’ and working on the land.

Part One of an oral history interview with Mr. John Hughes conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“I was born in Conington which is Cambridgeshire on the 28th of December, ’33. Well we moved, as far as I can remember just before the outbreak of war so it must have been August ’39 when we moved to the farmhouse here in Colmworth. As a horse keeper he was - because he wasn’t in the Forces because he’d got a squint eye, that’s why he was horse keeper. I went to the local school first, just down the road, Colmworth, little local school but then when we were 12 or 13 moved to Keysoe. But I only had about two years at Keysoe we left when we were 15. The bus used to pick us up every morning and bring us home again. There was my sister and myself. My sister is four years older than I am. She did go to the same school but she went to this one for all of her schooling because it hadn’t come in that we moved to Keysoe then.

We got on quite well with the evacuees. Because only being a small village there wasn’t that many, so about probably half a dozen in the whole village that’s all there’d be and they came to the local school and they just mingled you know like anybody else would really. But it was interesting to talk to them where they had come from, from up London. It was an entirely different life for them down here or up here whichever way you like to put it because they’d never been out in the country before and different country ways and the quietness of it all and lots of green spaces which was lovely.

I know at school with our Headmistress, we used to make these tanks and planes out of balsa wood and she used to encourage us to make them. Well, looking back now it is a war theme isn’t it? And teaching kids to do that! But we thought it was great and I suppose anyway it taught us how to use our hands didn’t it? So in one way one good thing and one bad thing perhaps.

Well, we were aware of what was happening to a point but because we were so young and seeing all the planes around and all that we didn’t realise it was as serious as what it obviously was. I mean to us them planes flying up in the sky and coming home with bullets in ‘em, you know it was something exciting if you like, not realising the full impact of the thing.

My friend, well he was nine months older than me, a Clive Stringer and we used to go about a lot together in the evenings. Used to play darts in each others house to while the time away and things like that. We had bikes, it was the only way you could get around here and when anything happened we often got on the bikes and we’d go and get as close as we could to what had happened. I’m talking about crashes, aeroplane crashes and that sort of thing, aeroplane crashes and what have you of which there was quite a few around this area because there were a lot of airfields around this area. It was the easiest and nearest way to get to Germany I’ve found out since, I didn’t realise at the time!

There was a search light just down the road, a base for the search light in one of the dips down the next hill, oh it’s only about what — three quarters of a mile away. In a little field, just off the road. The narrow field runs to the road, went in the gate there and about halfway down the field there was this search light battery. That’s the only one that I can remember. You could when it was on - you couldn’t otherwise because it was down in the dip hidden on purpose I suppose where it was. That’s going back some!

We used to see the Home Guard around but we weren’t aware of any drill or exercises. The main thing we were aware of I think was the local Special Police because they had lots of different police because there was blackout. They were civilians what they just gave a bit of training to and that was it. You had to have all your curtains drawn at night and you weren’t supposed to ride bikes with lights on unless they were shielded and the local police used to do that sort of thing, made sure the curtains were drawn. But they weren’t very popular because of that - because they were always going round — they’d got a bit of power and they were going round. The ones I’m thinking about have long since gone. I can remember my father being prosecuted! One Saturday evening, I’d been to Bedford on the bus with my mother and we came home late and we were having tea and obviously the curtains hadn’t been drawn properly and this local policeman came to the door and we were showing a light through the curtains. And you’d be prosecuted for it and that’s why they weren’t very popular, that sort of thing. I think he got a severe warning, I don’t think there was any fine involved but he was prosecuted, yes.

Well it was a job but because farm workers, I don’t know whether you realise, they got extra
rations. Half a pound, of well whatever of butter and a pound of sugar. And the boss used to … where my dad used to work, it was one of four farms, and the boss used to live down Eaton Socon which was nearest to the biggest farm. But every Friday he used to come round and pay and he used to bring these rations to each of the workers as well at the same time. It was only the basic things that you got a little bit extra of because they were farm workers. It was really hard work and long hours, yes, definitely. I know they did used to put the clocks back two hours at one period over my life but I can’t remember when. I know it was a long time ago, it could have been then, I don’t know.

Well the jobs that was done on the farm - because there weren’t so many tractors about them days and the horses used to do nearly all the big jobs. Not ploughing, in this area they used to have steam powered tackle come round to do the main ploughing. That was a sight worth seeing. Oh, yes I used to love seeing them you know pulling these big ploughs across the field and back, one at each end, lovely that was. Mind you a filthy job! I wouldn’t want to do it now but we used to love it that time of day. You have an engine one end with a winch - and another the other side of the field. And they used to have a winch attached to this plough and it was a double sided plough so when it got back to one end they had to tip it over and then blow a whistle because it was a long way away. Sometimes one engine was out of sight down the bottom of the hill and the other one was out of sight so they would blow a whistle so that they other one knew when to start his winch pulling in - to pull it back the other way and vice versa and that’s how they went on. And for a long time after I left school they used to use the steam engines. There used to be a chap up the road, T.C. Fensome and Son who was threshing contractor I think they called him. They used to do all the threshing and cultivations and everything with steam engines. They had to cart coal, cart water to them, oh yes. There were two blokes with each engine one looking after the boiler and the other one doing the other operations but there was always plenty to do. That’s why there were always plenty of men working on the land. They other jobs was mainly on the top of the land like what the horses used to do, harrowing and well, moulding potatoes up we used to call it and horse hoeing potatoes and things. And then when I was kid, there was a lot of brussels grown in Bedfordshire then, Bedfordshire brussels they called them, we had to horse hoe them. That means to clear the weeds they used to have these hoes, iron hoes with what used to do two rows and two halves in one go. And the horse used to pull them but because they were only small they used to have to have somebody to lead the horse up the two rows so it didn’t kick everything out. And then the one behind holding the handles of the horse hoe and steer it, just controlling it but somebody had to be at the front to lead the horse so that it didn’t tread on the rows or go crossways or anything like that.

I used to lead horses like that. And also when we used to get the corn in for threshing - they used to be in stooks then, there was no combines when I first started and it used to be stooks every so far. We used to put the sheaves together and then we used to cart them, somebody used to lead the horse from stook to stook and then take it back to the corn stack and then they used to thresh in the wintertime. On this farm there was only two I think but on some of the other farms they would have half a dozen horses, a dozen horses and of course other horse keepers as well because one horse keeper would only use about two at a time. Well it wasn’t the real big Percherons, I suppose they were cross bred really there were so many horse around in those days, all farms had them. So I don’t know, they were just cart horse as we knew them. Then gradually tractors took over. And they used to have tractors — I don’t think I ever saw horse with a binder which was cutting it and putting it sheaves but it was always tractors but then gradually tractors took over completely and the horses had to go. But I think my father had finished on the land by then.

We used to grind the wurzels up, we called them, you know, mangolds or whatever you like to call them, in this special thing were you grind them up and mix with the oats for the food. And that’s why a horse feeder’s lot was not so good. Because they had to start real early in the morning because they had to bring them in from the fields wherever they where, feed them and smarten them up, get all the harness on before they even started work and then do a days work. And then it was in reverse, take the harness off, comb them down and feed them again, not like a machine were you can just go and fill it up with diesel and press a button and away you go! I enjoyed that part of it in later years.”

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