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Thaxted at War

by Essex Action Desk

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Joan Howlett
Authored by: 
Bruce Munro
Location of story: 
Thaxted, Essex
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4486241
Contributed on: 
19 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War website by Joan Howlett via the Essex Action Desk. The author is Bruce Munro and the article has been added to the site with his kind permission.

Approached from any direction, Thaxted’s fortifications were immediately apparent — outside the sweet factory, on either side of Newbiggen and Bolford Streets were what were called “tank traps” — cylindrical concrete blocks about 4’ high and 4’ across with a a centre post (for barbed wire?) and in the road between were cavities (with lids) into which would be inserted at the first sighting of the enemy vertical steel posts. A rapid defence to delay the approaching hostile source. It all sounds rather unlikely now, but at the time it was all a distinct possibility.

Outside Charles Betts’ newsagents (now Wayletts) then with a different shop front — a house and shop — was a “static water tank” about 15feet long and 5 feet high. Inside Betts was a notice which read “If you do not see what you want, ask for it. If we do not have it, try elsewhere.” Rather more courteous was the notice in E Britton & Son Butchers (now V & W Duckett) which read “We are sorry that we cannot always guarantee the full ration of meat, but we will do our best to satisfy our customers’ needs.” These posters, and all Thaxted’s posters were painted by Herbert Baker, a good poster artist whose studio was in Water Lane, now demolished.

Security of the little town was undertaken by the Home Guard, ARP (Air Raid Precautions), AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service), Fire Watchers, WVS, the Police and Special Constables and of course the British Army, various regiments of which requisitioned and were billeted in local halls and houses.

Dad’s Army, TV’s portrayal of the Home Guard, is very near the truth.

Thaxted’s troops included those who were too young to be called up, those who were too old, and those who were in reserved occupations. At least two members had served in the Guards (Coldstream & Grenadiers). They marched, drilled, and on Sunday mornings conducted military operations as though they were the real thing. Underlying this apparent disciplined force, however, was a deep seated resistance.

Hear this:

Well known Thaxted farmer with lots of acres to young Thaxted farmer with less acres, the former a Private, the latter an Officer:
Former: “Morning, Caton” (not his name)
Latter: “Don’t call me Caton. You call me Sir”
Former: “I allus have called you Caton and Hitler won’t change that.”

The Cock, an historic and special hostelry was the headquarters and officers’ mess since it was to that establishment that the commanding officer, Captain Barbrook, with Lieutenant Bennett, and others repaired at noon after the dangerous and exhausting exertions of Sunday morning manoeuvres.

The ARP had its headquarters in what is now the organ works in Orange Street. There in a blacked out room, permanently manned, was the nearest thing to Thaxted’s Command Post. On the roof was the look-out, a small tower commanding views of Thaxted, the surrounding countryside, and approaching enemy aircraft. The siren which wailed to warn of air raids and sounded the all clear surmounted the look-out.

In case it conflicted with the siren in the Lee’s factory hooter was silenced throughout most of the war and the factory’s great chimney was camouflaged concealing the white vertical letters “Geo Lee & Co”.

Members of the ARP wore blue uniforms with berets and carried a gas mask. Was it to the ARP that we went to collect our own gas masks?

Firewatchers spent their nights on the church roof and at other strategic points looking out for incendiary bombs.

The AFS had its fire station in Orange Street (now St Clements). Chief Fire Officer Cedric Arnold made a personal gift of Thaxted’s first motorised fire engine. (Not many citizens would give their town a fire engine!) It was, I believe, a Humber motor car, (or was it a Hudson?) A big saloon which pulled a pump, all grey livery.

In the vicinity of the fire station was the Army Cook House, and part of the organ works was the canteen.

Soldiers were billeted in places like Bolford Street School Room and various private house in Bolford Street, Newbiggen Street and Town Street. Rails Farm Yard was their depot and sometime parade ground, as was the Swan yard. Here were Bren gun carriers, army lorries and other military paraphernalia. Occasionally home coming regiments announced their arrival with a military band in the Bullring.

From 1942 the United States Army Air Force personnel stationed at RAF Debden cycled to Thaxted most evenings to patronise the local pubs. Several of them returned to the United States taking with them a Thaxted GI bride.

In the winter at sundown the town was totally dark, not a chink of light appeared from any window and if it did the policeman, the ARP man, the fireman, or any citizen would be heard to shout “Put that light out!”

The lamp standards were devoid of lanterns (and flower baskets!) and there were no signposts. Only locals knew which road led to where.

Events to raise funds for the war effort included Salute the Soldier Week, Dig for Victory week, and there were others, when a great target surmounted the front of the Guildhall.

The town’s health service was administered by a sole practitioner. Dr Weller, Dr Michael’s father, healed the sick single handed. Minor operations were performed on the kitchen table. More important operations he carried out in Saffron Walden General Hospital. The surgery in Park Street was a small out-house to Alboro’ House where in the winter a single bar electric fire suggested warmth. Dr Weller’s grey Wolseley salon car, later painted cream and brown was a familiar sight in the town and along the highways and byways.

The Church leaders ministered to their respective flocks. At the parish church in the early part of the war, father Conrad Noel and Father David Bickerton led their congregations at High Mass at Evensong; the latter in the black-out was held in the Church Hall. In 1942 Father Jack Putterill followed them preaching controversial sermons, conducting and training his choir and orchestra which played such pieces as Rondo, Largo and Trumpet Voluntary. At the Congregational Church, Mr Laity, who was also the scout master, ministered. He was succeeded by the Reverend S Royle Kenny. At the Baptist, first Mr Hawkins and then Mr Soddy tended their flocks. The Roman Catholics were about to return after an absence of some 400 years. The Plymouth Brethren had not yet moved from their Gospel Room in Debden Green. The site of their present room was then a farm homestead with thatched barns where Lee’s had their transport depot. Great Leyland lorries with the familiar George Lee & Co logo, delivered (when petrol rationing allowed) supplies of old fashioned mints and barley sugars to sweet shops near and far.

The meagre food rations were supplied to Thaxted citizens from J W Tanner and Sons, (now Guildhall Stores). The all male staff included Mr Harvey, Ted Hollingsworth, George Rolfe. At Barrett and Son in Newbiggen Street Mr Barrett and his son Eric, with Frank Turner dispensed their groceries, and Miss Parrish ran the drapery department. Miss Barker was at Tanner’s Drapery Shop and the Co-op was managed by Mr Clarke. Bakers included Ferris, Foster and Harvey.

The town’s hackney carriages were in the capable hands of Frank Barrett (Austin, Humber and Rolls Royce) and Cecil Heard, (Austin Wolseley and Humber).

Mr Parrish, from what is now the Cuckoo Wine Bar, supplied and serviced bicycles and the wirelesses, on which the people of Thaxted received on the Home to Forces Programmes the good and bad news of the war. They listened intently to the addresses of Winston Churchill, to the brains Trust and Monday Night at Eight, and laughed at Tommy Handley, Arthur Askey, Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, and Hippodrome and many more.

Petrol was served from hand pumps to those lucky enough to be entitled to a quota, farmers and others, from Parrish Brothers and Frank Barrett. Mild was delivered to houses from dip cans by Armigers Dairy and Alec Barrett (from Duton Hill), and some attended in person to collect milk in their own jugs from Rails Farm Dairy. The Rails Farm cows, a Guernsey herd, chewed the cud in the meadows between Water Lane and Whiteleys Cottages. There was a Friesian herd at Terriers and another dairy herd at Armigers, beef cattle at other farms, and most farms had a house cow. Plenty of people kept the odd pig. Half went to the owner and half went to the Ministry of Food.

Mrs Hunter kept chickens in the Vicarage garden and collected kitchen waste from a few neighbours, which she coined “Lord Woolton’ Mistakes”. Lord Woolton was food minister and the waste was supposed to go into the pig swill bins, one on the island in the Bullring, and there were others.

Entertainment was provided by the local mobile cinema, first in the Church Hall and later in Bolford Street School Room, where the films of the day, somewhat after their original release, were enjoyed by full houses, for was it one shilling?

Occasional concerts included a CEMA concert broadcast from the parish church in 1943. “Council for the Encouragement of Music and The Arts” was the Arts Council’s predecessor. The concert was introduced by Frank Phillips the well known BBC news reader and announcer and it included the Zorian String Quartet.

The real war touched the town occasionally: Bardfield Road and Wainsfield Villas was machine gunned, a Messerschmidt crashed at Tindon End, a doodlebug was shot down at Bardfield End Green causing considerable damage to houses and cottages. Some of the occupants were evacuated to Thaxted.

RAF Debden was bombed several times during the summer of 1940 and the action was visible from Thaxted. A Thaxted man was killed. Chelmsford was frequently bombed and Thaxted residents awakened by sirens often emerged from their beds to watch enemy action in the distant night sky, in the direction of the county town. During air raids some families descended to their cellars, others to their shelters, and many sat on the stairs and sang hymns and “We’ll meet Again”.

Convoys frequently passed through Thaxted; army lorries, jeeps, tillies, bren gun carriers, guns and tanks; the people waved to the soldiers and the soldiers waved back — there would always be an England!

Farmers brought into production as much land as possible ploughing up meadows, breaking up common land never before cultivated, Cutlers Green and Bardfeild End Green; usually with the help of the ubiquitous Standard Fodson Tractor and land girls in green sweaters. George Coxall ploughed the meadowland on what is now part of Weaverhead Close with a horse plough to create allotments for the W.I. The corn was cut with binders, stacked to be threshed in the autumn and after, with threshing tackle from Sells of Ugley and Portway of Radwinter. Farmer Tom Latham introduced the first combines to Thaxted in 19043/4, a yellow Minneapolis Molena and a red Massey Harris.

Coal was still delivered by horse and cart from H Lowe and Co and George Belsham whose depot was in the Bull Yard.

The latter was in the ARP and came rushing to the church with Bill Coe the egg merchant and local book maker when a wayward son of Thaxted rang a church bell one afternoon. Church bells were to be rung to announce an enemy invasion. The perpetrator of the crime was leaving the church as the ARP arrived — as they went to arrest him he pleaded for them to allow him to tell his mother whom, he said, was shopping in Tanners, what had happened — he was never seen again!

Ted Bright shoed the horses from the forge in Mill End and F Rogers, certainly at the beginning of the war, mended and made wagons and wheels in his workshop and yard in Newbiggen Street.

Viceroy buses provided contact with the outside world in their varied selection of Albion, Leyland and other vehicles, and Jennings Coaches took the more adventurous to Kings Cross. The Thaxted train connected the town to the main line at Elsenham for those who were prepared to travel to the station — one mile away.

School children from Leyton and east London were evacuated to Thaxted from 1939, billeted on local families and gradually most returned to their homes during the war years leaving at the end just a few families, some of whom remain to this day.

Peace in 1945 brought general rejoicing. Union Flags, Stars and Stripes and Red Flags adorned houses and other buildings. The war was over and gradually the town returned to normality. Tank traps came down, the gun pits were filled up, although at least one remains intact, hidden beneath a local farmer’s hedge. The land girls went home, the men came home, The Ivory Aces played the night away at the local dances.

The local pubs, rather more then, The Fox and Hounds, The Swan, The Rose and Crown, The Bull, The Cock, The Star, The Oak, The Greyhound, The Butchers Arms, served beer , sprits, seldom wind, and no food, but you could buy gold Flake, Weights, Wioodbines and Capstan cigarettes, and Players of course.

The men returning from the war often took up their former employment and pursued their interests and hobbies, Morris Dancing, Cricket, Football, Cinema, Pubs and Clubs.

Thaxted after the war and since is still Thaxted. And those who are here today to enjoy it, have to thank those men and sons of Thaxted who never returned from the war.

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