Memories of Stock - John Evans
I was born in Stock in 1929, and lived at Ivy House (now called Barn Hall Cottage) in the High Street next to Thurgoods the butchers. To me, Stock was such a lovely village, so much preferable to any other that I knew, and full of generous people. It was largely self-sufficient, with shops, farmers, and many skilled tradesman providing the essentials the life. Surrounded by woods and fields, and all accessible, it was a wonderful place for young people to grow up.
Socially, it was a microcosm of England itself, with all classes well represented, from aristocracy and high military ranks to road-sweepers and farm-labourers. Admiral Sir Vernon Haggard, once Second Sea-Lord, was, by common consent, the best of the upper ranks, always ready with a kindly word to those lower in the social scale.
By contrast, Richard Adam Ellis, who lived at Greenwoods and owned much of the village, was a remote figure detached from village life. When he died just after the war, many villagers, including my parents, were able to buy their houses through the Admiral's family. Lord Perry, who helped to establish the Ford Motor Company in this country, and who lived at Lilystone Hall, was an even more mysterious person, and never seen by most of us. Of the skilled tradesman, the one best known to us all was the blacksmith who operated opposite the Bear Inn where we waited for buses. Controlling his magical fire and working with the horses was always fascinating.
I was the youngest of three children: my sister Barbara was three years older, and brother Geoff six years. From both sides of the family, I inherited a deep love of music, and a great zest for sport. My parents were relatively poor; but in our school years, there was no lack of opportunities because of this. Geoff and I went to the grammar school in Chelmsford, Barbara had some secretarial training, and we all had music lessons. By today's standards, life was strict, but also reasonably fair, and definitely very full.
My mother came from the kindly Cottee family, and was generous to all. Anyone who came to the door - and there were many tramps passing through the village in the 1930s - were made welcome and generally fed. The Cottees were strongly non-conformist, and my grandparents had been devoted members of the Salvation Army in their earlier years. My mother's uncle, Arthur Cottee, ran the bakery and provided employment for his children and my grandfather. His house in the High Street nearly opposite Greenwoods, with large garden lovingly tended by his son Cliff, became the focus for all the Cottee family.
My father was not so fortunate with his family, being the son of the exceptionally strict village headmaster. At fourteen, he ran away with an elder brother to the army, and after a two-year spell came back to the village to become apprenticed to a carpenter. Then he had a second army spell in the Tank Corps in World War I when he was injured, but not too seriously. His rather severe disposition gradually mellowed over the years as he drew closer to my mother's family. Later in life, he changed his Sunday ritual, moving from Church to Chapel to which my mother and her relations were so devoted.
Religion was a serious matter, and played a major part in the life of the village. Naturally, through my parent's divided loyalties, I became familiar with much that went on in Chapel and Church, but never discovered anything significant about the small Catholic community apart from occasional gossip about Lord Perry and his private Catholic Chapel. The Congregational Chapel just over the road became my basic spiritual home; and to this day, I am grateful for its broad-minded view of religion, and its general concern for social justice. Our ministers spoke from the heart, not from doctrinal certainty. The Rev Goodchild at the Chapel was a great organiser of youth activity, to be followed by the more studious Rev Springham. During the war, Church and Chapel drew closer together, and that was good for all. The rector at the Church, the Rev Austin, was a kindly retiring person who wrote a learned volume on the history of the village.
Both parents had ambitions for their children seemingly much beyond those of other working-class parents in the village. The pressure to do well and to please was always present, and I suppose modern fashionable opinion would think this not too healthy. Becoming a grammar-school boy did have potential difficulties among all those that never had such opportunities, but happily I never experienced any. It was the exception for anyone even to try to get into the grammar school, let alone get a place. The village school was good in its way, and certainly everyone learnt to read by about the age of seven, thanks to the thoughtful teaching of Mrs Plume. But higher up the school, so much time was spent on nature study and on bible-reading, mainly from the Old Testament. When I first went to the school, children remained there until they were fourteen; later they went on to secondary school in Billericay.
Much of the detail of childhood slips away from the memory. But two things predominate: one was the countryside, and the other was the war. For any child not to be brought up in natural countryside is, to me, a great disadvantage. Long summer days in the woods and fields and our special trees, searching for birds' nests or picking blackberries, cricket and football until we dropped - innocent pleasures unspoilt by parental fears about our absence for a few hours. Many of the fields were pasture before the war, most full of rabbits, and all was open to the public. There was so much to explore, so much to be interested in.
The war gave us even more freedom to roam. My father, like so many others, often worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week in a factory for much of the war, not to mention frequent fire duty for the whole night. Children were expected to entertain themselves and not bother grown-ups unnecessarily. However there were extra responsibilities, not least of which was the growing of vegetables to last the whole winter. This took up a considerable amount of time in the spring and late summer, particularly after my brother Geoff had left home for the RAF. But the importance of such work was always understood, given the very severe rationing of food and the obvious difficulties of all mothers in finding enough to put on the table.
My secondary education coincided with the war years. From the declaration of war, life changed dramatically for all of us. On that fateful Sunday morning at the chapel morning service, the minister kept leaving the pulpit and going back to the Manse next door. Then he announced what Chamberlain had said on the radio, and very shortly after there was an air raid warning. We all rushed home, began putting mattresses against the window, and attempted to seal the windows from gas attack - about which we had heard much, and were very fearful of. There was considerable commotion out in the street, with Colonel Brazier-Creagh, a massive man, ordering people about and generally stirring things up. My father, in what to me was his bravest moment, told him to calm down and go home, and actually physically pushed him away. All of that happened within an hour of the war declaration.
The village, being in the path of enemy bombers from the Low Countries on their way to London or specific Essex installations, had a very noisy war, with lots of anti-aircraft batteries in the vicinity. There were also curious searchlight installations out in the fields nearby which heightened the excitement or fear. Many bombs were jettisoned in the surrounding countryside, aircraft crashed nearby, a cluster of incendiaries fell on the village, and a large parachute bomb exploded in the churchyard seriously damaging the church and blowing out our front windows and our back door. Searching for craters and shrapnel and souvenirs was an important occupation for young boys. In the earlier years of the war, we either sheltered under the kitchen table or in the cupboard under the stairs. Later, we had considerable fun trying to construct two shelters in the garden, one of which was generally water-logged, and the other plagued with insects.
For young people, the Battle of Britain was the most spectacular event, some of it taking place right over the village. People stood in the sun, and cheered when a plane was shot down, hopefully assuming it was not one of ours. The most disturbing time for all of us was near the end of the war when the pilotless V-1 doodlebugs were droning away morning, noon, and night, and one's instinct was to hope that the engine would keep going and land somewhere else. Up to that point, we had become somehow immune to normal bombing raids. But there was real terror in this. At school in Chelmsford, the war continued during the morning hours. It seems that the Luftwaffe put their feet up in the afternoon because I never remember games being disturbed by air raids. But for the first two years of the war, we spent long morning hours in the shelters, doing absolutely nothing. Sometimes there was no time to get to the shelters, and we just disappeared under the desks. The Marconi and Hoffmann factories were obvious targets nearby.
Surprising to look back on were my occasional visits to London after school to attend the Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The war was on, there were often air raids, and yet my mother gave me the freedom to make this journey, arriving back about midnight. Only during the worst stages of the V-1 assault were the public concerts cancelled - although they continued to be broadcast from a BBC studio. One enduring memory was the sight of Sir Henry Wood in magnificent white suit conducting just a little way above my arena position. This may have been his last concert because a few days later he died. Those were wonderful occasions during the war, and everyone so friendly.
The war I suppose changed us all, mostly for the better. All classes had to work together, and there were no obvious privileges for the wealthy. There was an army camp a little way down the road, and some men were billeted in the village. They broadened our lives, many of them taking an active part in the village activities, especially at the Chapel. Once we had two RAF men staying with us, and with piano, clarinet and saxophone, it was 'concerts' nearly every night. But then, for our 'best' room, there were so many musical evenings throughout my childhood.
When I reached the age of eighteen in 1947, it was my turn for the RAF. After the initial cultural shock, and meeting so many strange people from other parts of the country, I drifted into a unit that installed radio equipment around the country. This was the opportunity to compare my native village with so many others - but I never found anything better. Three years followed at university, and which might have made me less accessible to village friends. But no, as in the grammar-school days, people seemed rather pleased for my good fortune; and when I came home during the vacations, they always found me a place in the football team.
If I think of some of them in particular, that would include Doug Webb, Den Cable, Ron Buers, Bob Stripe, the Thurgood brothers next door, Brian Cable, Fred Dixon, Michael Makings, Kathleen Buck, Sylvia Sayers, the Harvey girls, particularly Avis who shared the organ duties at the chapel. In sport, the Cottees, Dixons and Elliots made up most of the teams. Doug Webb spent a lot of time with our family, and would talk late into the night about his RAF experiences. How sad that he was just coming to the end of his second operational tour of duty when he was killed. I think of Mrs Harrington (also a Cottee) who gave me my first piano lessons, and allowed me to move on at my own natural pace. Her brother Sam Cottee, who played the violin and other instruments to a good standard, often invited me to play with his friends. The Springhams arrived at the Manse in 1942, and their son Robin became a real companion at the grammar school. I recently visited him at South Walsham and was happy to learn that he had a successful career, finally becoming vice-Principal of a Higher Education College in London. Jennie Cottee, who lived opposite us during the war while husband John was away, was a great favourite with us; and when the air raids were at their worst, I like to think that we helped each through. How nice it was to meet her in the churchyard some years ago when visiting my parents' grave. After the war, John Cottee was extremely helpful to all our family.
Certain individual events stand out, particularly the celebrations on VE day, with dancing in the square, and an enormous bonfire on the Common. Some nasty traffic accidents remain in the memory - it was not uncommon for children to be 'run-over' in the 1930s. The Thurgood's wall completely collapsed one day into the Back Lane, missing me by about two feet. On our last day at the village school, we daringly took the school cane, and threw it into the pond over the fence, only to find it sticking out of the water - reminiscent to me of the River Kwai film! The Greenwoods and Lilystone Hall grounds were opened once a year, and we were always hugely impressed by the extravagant layout of the gardens. After the war, it was something of a revolution when Greenwoods was sold to the Baptist Mission from West Ham, becoming a retreat for people of all classes.
If I had to pick out something very typical of village life, I think it would have to be a Saturday afternoon cricket match on the Common. This was a family event, especially on Bank Holidays. I can remember such events as a spectator, scorer, and player; and even during the war there was always a Saturday game. The Stock team had two or three gentlemen in splendid blazers and cravats, and other ranks with trousers held up by a tie. Often about 4pm, a man would walk between the stumps, asserting his ancient right-of-way across the Common land. Around the Common, wives and children would picnic for the afternoon somewhere near the boundary which was never precisely defined. In my mind, it was always gloriously sunny, and it was always a serious and big-hitting match. Sixes were frequently hit into the Cottee garden, or into the bowling-green land; but finding the ball in the long grass was often a more difficult thing to do. For the players, there was the potential for glory or ignominy, everything being fully evaluated during the following week in the pubs and churches. But for most, they were just lovely days in the sun, catching up on gossip, and providing a well-earned rest for a few hours. I gather that some of my contemporaries did go on to win the National Village Cup at Lords. One of these days, before I depart this life, I am going to spend a summer afternoon on Stock Common, and see how a new generation is getting on.
In 1952, I finally left the village, moving on to Londonderry, then to Saffron Walden and Cambridge. I was invited back to accompany the choral society in the 1960s, and that was a very happy occasion for me. Mum and Dad and Geoff have now departed, leaving just Barbara and myself to tell the tale. Barbara still lives close by in Chelmsford, and keeps me generally informed. We are so grateful for our childhood years among the good people of Stock, a wonderful apprenticeship for adult life.
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