Saturday, 30 September 2017

Flo's Story - The Fox Inn

In this fifth episode in the long life of my late mother Flo we find the war ending and her leaving school.

I'm not sure of the exact chronology of the next part of Flo's story, but at some time towards the end of the war she passed an examination which would have allowed her to continue her education, however as a Londoner she would have to take a place in London, even though her family were now all settled in Cambridgeshire. If she wanted to study here she would have to be a paying pupil. She decided to leave school and look for a job.
Another story which has appeared in this blog before must fit in around here:

At the end of the war Flo's father thought that she deserved a holiday and arranged for her to go and stay with her Aunt Bess and Uncle Bill in London and become re-acquainted with the city of her birth.

Very excited, she arrived at her aunt's house and was shown her room. It was a plain room and in the corner was a large white statue of The Virgin Mary. During the first night there my mother was awakened from her dreams by a deep rumbling which seemed to shake the whole house. She opened her eyes and saw a trembling ghostly figure moving slowly towards her. She screamed and Bill and Bess came running in dressed in their nightclothes. My mother told them what had happened.

They laughed and explained that the statue had moved because of the vibrations from the railway which ran right under the house.

One of the first jobs she had on her return was in Woolworth's. She often told how she was suspended from work for a week without pay for walking down the stairs whistling the tune "Bell-Bottomed Trousers". However she soon found a job in a kitchen which suited her much better as she had always loved cooking.

Working in the kitchen my mother became great friends with two other young ladies of a similar age, one of whom Mum always described as being strikingly beautiful with gorgeous red hair which was so perfect that it scarcely looked real. The language in the kitchen however was far from ladylike and the three of them vowed that they would put a stop to the bad language. Not long afterwards Flo was washing up when the redheaded one dropped something and swore loudly. Flo grabbed hold of the wet dishcloth and threw it in her direction striking her on the forehead. The result was rather more spectacular than anyone had bargained for - the red hair flew off and disappeared through an open window, for the perfect hair was in fact a wig hiding a quite bald head. Flo was so shocked and ashamed that she plunged her own head into the dirty washing-up water!

In those youthful days my mother would get into Cambridge by cycling the twelve miles or so twice a day, though in the winter she used the rather irregular bus service. Jack, who drove the bus, was a highly irregular bus driver. In wet weather, rather than stop at the proper stops he would pull up outside people's front doors to save them getting wet. One morning he was flagged down by his wife outside his own house. "I shan't be long", he cheerfully told his passengers, "I forgot to dig the potatoes for our dinner!"

Once the war was over some of the extended family returned to London for various reasons, Aunt Amy because she was pregnant and feared having a baby in a place where the doctor would have to be brought by pony and trap to attend the birth. But both Flo's mother and father were by this time enjoying their lives in the countryside and decided to stay.

Luckily for them The Fox Inn pub had become vacant and my grandfather was able to raise the money needed to take it over. His instinctive business sense and his Cockney humour and charm suited him for the job, even if the family frequently saw the more troubled side of his personality, probably made worse by some of his wartime experiences. But the mood of the times meant that he kept that hidden along with his inability to read and write. My grandmother ably filled that void and did all the paperwork connected with the pub.

She also was a very competent player of the banjo-mandolin and would from time to time sit up on the bar and lead a "good old sing-song", as my Mum always refered to it. Here's a little story about my banjo-playing Nan:

One New Year's Eve Nan made a phone call to her brother Arthur, a very fine banjo player himself. After the usual greetings Arthur says " Hey, 'ave you 'eard this one?" and proceeded to play a tune over the phone. " That's a new one to me, Arthur, but how about this one?" and Gran played a tune. Thus they went on exchanging tunes until Nan said, "Look, this call's going to cost me a fortune, I'll have to hang up." At this point the telephone operator from the exchange interrupted "That's alright, keep playing. All the telephonists here are enjoying the music. We won't charge you a penny for the call, just keep playing!"

Flo continued to work and also filled in as a barmaid in the evenings. By this time she was a slim, attractive, dark-haired young woman - I've seen the photos even if Flo always thought herself rather plain. Her brothers were, one by one, called up into the army to do their National Service which continued through the 1950s.

The Fox Inn was situated on the Old North Road which was a busy route even in the late 1940s. Flo's father, with his usual eye for business, had noticed that although many called in for a glass or two of beer (no drink-drive laws to worry about in those days), many more drove straight past. He spoke to Flo about it. "I've been're working too hard, doing a job then working till late in the evening behind the bar. I could set you up with a tea-room, selling tea and cakes to people passing by. You'd be your own boss. Have a think about it".

The next day he returned from feeding the pigs, which he kept behind the pub, complaining of a pain in his chest. His wife summoned the doctor, who examined him and said it was just indigestion. The next day Flo's father died from a heart attack. He was 49 years old.

Take care.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Flo's Story - Keeper's Cottage

Continuing the fourth part of my mother's life. The family were offered the use of  a remote gamekeeper's cottage for the duration of the war.

So it was that Flo, her mother, her three brothers, her grandparents and her aunt moved from central London to a remote cottage, two miles from the nearest village, and reachable only by a rough track through the woods. Flo's father joined them at weekends as he was still trying to operate his coal delivery business in London.

Coal of course was strictly rationed though there was always the chance that a butcher might exchange a nice ham for a bag of coal, no questions asked. So he often arrived with little treats for the family. He probably could have supplied them with more but, despite his rough ways, he also loved to help complete strangers and would often give things away to those in need.

On one occasion he let a woman have more coal than she should have had and carried it up three long flights of stairs for her, having been told she had a sick child in bed. As he left she tried to give the one penny change "for his trouble". He gave it back to her with the advice to put it in a plant pot and see if it grows!

Back at Keepers' Cottage the women learned how to survive in the countryside. The children walked to school every day across the fields in all weathers. On one occasion they were chased by cows and escaped by climbing a tree. The cows then settled down peacefully under the tree, trapping the children there till milking time.

There were so many London children in the vicinity that the little village school was unable to fit them all in and a plan was devised whereby village children were educated for part of the day, then the Londoners in the afternoon. It was soon clear that Flo had already been educated to a higher standard than was normal in the little rural schoolroom and they had few books which could help her. She was soon set to work helping the little ones learn to read.

Although the cottage was a long way from the nearest village there was a World War Two airfield nearby. These were built on virtually any suitably flat bit of land right across East Anglia. The one at Gransden was home to a Canadian bomber squadron, LQ squadron. Some of the young Canadian airmen became friendly with the family and would sometimes visit them. One evening they had the radio tuned to Lord Haw-Haw's broadcast (the Irish-American Nazi propagandist William Joyce). He boasted that the Luftwaffe had been watching LQ squadron and were on their trail.

Everyone laughed and went to bed. But for once Haw-Haw's threat came true and German planes followed the Canadian planes back from their raid over Germany and attempted to bomb the base. Not all the bombs reached their target and one fell close to the family's cottage. Luckily no one was badly hurt though the cottage suffered damage. Flo went downstairs in the darkness to investigate only to find that half the stairs had been blown away by the blast.

Ironically the house in London survived the war unscathed, though to this day if you walk down Agar Grove you can see more modern housing infilling the gaps where houses were destroyed by the bombing.

As the war progressed the Home Guard was formed and one day Flo's father saw them "out on manoeuvres". They had no guns at that time so they were using wooden rifles and hiding behind trees shouting "Bang, bang". The whole scene struck him as ludicrous. So when the next day he was summoned to join the Home Guard he told them that he "wasn't going to run around the trees playing cowboys and indians". When asked if he cared about his King and Country he answered, in typically forthright fashion, that all he cared about were his wife and kids.

The army had the last laugh in the matter as shortly afterwards he was forced to join the Pioneer Corps, the unit who were basically labourers for the Royal Engineers and who carried out most of the rough jobs. My grandfather was actually too old to be called up and probably not fit enough either, but was drafted in nonetheless. Part of his job was transporting supplies to various army units stationed around London, so not so very different from his normal work, and as usual he made many friends.

So it will be no surprise for you to learn that just before Christmas we find him lugging home a huge suitcase laden with the ingredients for several Christmas puddings and many other treats originally intended for the officers' mess. Just as he got near to the station who should appear but his commanding officer, "That looks heavy, Cawdery, let me help you".
"My goodness, that is heavy, what have you got in there?"
"Just some toys for my children, sir, Christmas presents, sir"
Flo's father offered up a quick prayer that the suitcase would not burst open under the weight, scattering his guilt all over the platform.
"There you are, my man. And may the good Lord grant you a Happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year".
"Thank you, sir, I'm sure he will. And a Merry Christmas to you, sir".

But his duties also sometimes included clearing up after the bombing raids, including carrying away the corpses for burial. Sometimes there were children and babies among them. This work took a toll on my grandfather's physical and mental health and he was eventually released from duty as no longer fit enough to serve.

Meanwhile Flo and her brothers were learning about the ways of the countryside. Flo learned to drive the pony and trap which was essential for life in the remote cottage (which had now been repaired by a local building firm, one of whose employees turned up later in Flo's life as her brother-in-law Basil). They also kept ferrets one of which was so tame that Flo used to carry it draped around her neck. The ferret was not a pet however but used for catching rabbits, which her father could usually find a buyer for. One day the ferret disappeared down a rabbit hole and failed to re-emerge. The youngsters searched and searched but eventually gave it up as lost. Some days later they were in the wood when the ferret miraculously re-appeared and trotted up to Flo like a pet puppy.

There were Italian prisoners of war in the area and these were much more trusted than their German counterparts. Most were poor farm boys who found themselves fighting for a cause in which they had no interest. Many of them were allowed relative freedom in England and one became friendly with the family and used to dig the garden in return for a home-cooked Sunday lunch.

As the war dragged on more relations from London joined them for some time in the country. One of them was a little cousin called Colin, of whom Flo was particularly fond. He left to go back to London with his family and Flo lost all contact with him. That is until a few years ago when Flo was in her eighties and we discovered that Colin had for many years been playing the part of farmer Tony Archer in the long-running radio series "The Archers". I wrote a letter to the BBC and a couple of weeks later Flo received a phone call from her long-lost cousin. Visits soon followed and Flo was eventually re-united with Colin and his brothers Derek and Raymand. I can only observe that Colin must be a very fine actor; anyone less like a farmer is hard to imagine.

Take care.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Flo's Story - Evacuated

This is the third instalment in my mother's story as she told it to me many times. With war imminent Flo and her three brothers were to be evacuated to the countryside to escape the bombing in London.

Flo's family just before the children were evacuated.
Was this picture taken in case they were never all together again?

Within a few days the children found themselves with hundreds of others on the platform of Kings Cross Station with name labels tied on them. The children were excited to be going on the train and looking forward to a great adventure. Their mother on the other hand looked very worried and kept telling them "Whatever you do make sure you all stay together."

The children soon found themselves in Cambridge where well-meaning country folk offered to take this one..... or that one..... but not the one with the snotty nose. Flo said it felt like being in a cattle market, but also that it was a wonderful thing these people were doing, taking the children of complete strangers into their homes. In the end all four children were housed in the tiny village of Longstowe, albeit in two different houses.

Eric returned from a trip down the garden "Blimey, Sis, they got some funny old toilets - just a blinkin' 'ole in the ground. Alright for me, but I dunno how a girl's s'posed to manage". The chidren wrote home to their mother with tales of their new home. Apples grew on trees. Eggs came from chickens. But, oh Mum, the toilets!".

The elderly couple who cared for Flo and Eric, well-intentioned though they were were, were not really capable or equipped to look after two young children. As the threat of bombing in London failed to materialise their father came and took all four children back to the city. However the air-raid sirens soon began to sound and the children were evacuated from London once more, this time down to Somerset.

Flo loved her time in Somerset, often speaking fondly of times spent down by the River Parrett and around the village of Combwich. I think her lifelong love of the countryside must stem from this time. Her father was also a countryman at heart as you might expect from a man who spent much of his early years around horses. But by this time he also had a little car, an Austin 7, bought for him by his father-in-law. When he first got the car he so naive in matters mechanical that he didn't realise he'd have to put petrol in it!

But somehow he found his way down to Somerset to see the children, which was no mean feat as by this time the road-signs had all been taken down in an attempt to make life difficult for any German invasion. His method was to frequently stop and ask the way to Somerset and, as he got nearer, he asked for Combwich. "Just a gunshot down the road," came the first reply. He drove on till at length he saw another local leaning on his bicycle, "Just a gunshot down the road," came the reply once again. "Oi," said her father, "How far d'your bloody guns shoot round here?"

Despite the helpful locals he found his way to the house where the children were staying. That evening he went to the pub and fell into conversation with a farmer - about horses no doubt - and began drinking the scrumpy cider. Well, the farmer was not going to be out-drunk by a cheeky Cockney, and Flo's father was not going to let a country yokel beat him. 

The evening ended with the farmer swaying arm-in-arm with my grandad back to the children's house, only for my grandfather to then offer to walk the farmer back to his house. Fortunately the noise they made awoke the womenfolk who prised them apart and endeavoured to make them see sense.

My grandfather was so impressed with the cider that he took a good quantity back to London where Flo's uncles enacted similar scenes.

As I've mentioned before my grandfather, Flo's father, could be wonderfully entertaining company and made friends wherever he went. He had also befriended people in Longstowe, the first place my mother was evacuated to. News of the family got to Captain Briscoe who lived in Longstowe Hall and who held the position of Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire. The Captain had a pair of gamekeepers' cottages which were standing empty, the gamekeepers, who would be crack shots with rifles, presumably being required by the army. He offered the cottages to the family for the duration of the war and they gladly accepted.

Take care.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Flo's Story - School

The second episode in the story of my late mother's life sees her going off to school and then school life rudely interrupted.

As Flo got older she attended the local school in nearby Brecknock Road. During the early stages of her illness my mother and I spent a wonderful evening searching out her home area on Google Streetview. Her old house was still recognisable, though the roses are there no more, and the school was also little changed since her time there - on the outside. However when I searched for the school's website she couldn't believe the colourful, modern classrooms decorated with so many of the children's paintings.

Agar Grove today

Flo loved school and she told me that her favourite subject was Arithmetic, though that was not what she was best at. She was born a natural storyteller, blessed with a rich imagination, and one of her "compositions", an autobiography of a horse, remained displayed at the school for many years after she had left. She also had a new little brother, Leslie, to read stories to. 

If we can imagine Flo running down the road to school with her satchel, then we must conjure up a picture of her twin brother, Eric, stopping frequently to investigate all kinds of matters which were of interest to him alone. From what I've heard Eric had some kind of mild attention deficit problem, which in those days would have had him labelled "a naughty boy". Eric just couldn't sit still and would sometimes interrupt the lesson and volunteer to tidy up the cupboards or run some errand.

Coming home from school one afternoon Eric asked Flo to go into the sweet shop with him. "What for?" asked Flo, "we haven't got any money."
"Come on" said her brother, "it'll be OK"
"Can I have three pennyworth of sweets, please" asked the little boy. But when he got them he threw some tiddly-wink discs on the counter and ran out of the door. His sister of course had no idea what had happened till it was too late. "Do you know that boy?" asked the shopkeeper.
"No, sir, he just asked me to come into the shop with him. I've never seen him before." (I told you she was a natural storyteller!)
"Let her go," said the shopkeeper's wife, "you can see she's terrified".

Flo ran all the way home to find Eric and his Granny sitting sucking sweets. "Granny," cried Flo breathlessly, "do you know what Eric just done?"
"Yes, I do" said the old woman "and I've told him off too. Silly little devil. He should have asked for six pennyworth!" 

When Flo was just nine years old there was talk among the adults of war and bombs and soldiers and a man called Hitler. One day while the children were playing in the garden Eric looked up into the sky "What's that up there, Sis?" Flo looked up to see what she thought must surely be a huge bomb in the sky. They ran inside to tell their mother. "It's alright, it's alright" she said "They're just things called barrage balloons". She looked over to her husband, "It's going to happen then, John".

Take care.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Flo's Story - Early Days

This is the first episode of my mother Flo's Story - her life as she told it often herself in anecdotes to friends and acquaintances. I must have heard some of them many times and as she got more forgetful I found myself having to prompt her and remind her of names. Now that she's passed I'll have to tell the story myself. She was a very gifted teller of tales so I hope I can make it as interesting as she could.

Flo was born in 1930 and lived not far from London's King's Cross station in St Paul's Road, which is now called Agar Grove. Some of the first words to reach her ears must have been "Doctor, Doctor, there's another one coming!" for she was soon joined in this world, most unexpectedly for all concerned, by her twin brother Eric. 

The area of Camden Town where they lived was very different from today and I remember Mum telling me about cattle being driven from the cattle trains, which arrived at King's Cross Station, through the streets to the slaughterhouse. There was also a large Irish population in the area and Flo's grandmother knew many old Irish songs, but my mother never knew if the family had any closer connection to Erin's Isle.

Flo's grandfather owned the huge house of which the family occupied the middle flat. He also owned five other big houses in the area, though we don't know how he came by such wealth. My guess is that his ancestors may have been farmers on the outskirts of what was then London and who sold off their land to the railway company. One of Flo's mother's tasks each week was to go around collecting the rents from the tenants of the other houses. One particular lady was an extremely difficult and eccentric individual who came originally from Cambridge. Nan would invariably return from her round complaining "Oh, Cambridge people are so strange!" So a few years later when little nine-year-old Flo came to live near Cambridge she was disappointed to discover that the people there looked just like those in London!

When she and Eric, and their older brother Bill, played outside they often overheard passers-by commenting on the beautiful roses grown by her father at the front of the house. They had every right to grow well too since Flo's father owned a stable of horses which pulled the carts for his coal-delivery business. Those roses certainly would never have lacked horse manure!

Owning one's own business sounds very grand, but the way in which he inherited it was rather more tragic. Both of his parents died when he was still at school, and young John (yes, I'm named after him) took over the business and a good deal of heavy and demanding work. Records show him living with various aunts and uncles and we know that the little boy was required to deliver sacks of coal every morning before school with the result that he invariably fell asleep at his desk and never learned to read and write properly. He could however count up sums of money in the complicated pounds, shillings and pence system with astonishing speed and accuracy, the result of his business dealings.

This deprived and blighted childhood left a very complex and troubled adult. Depending on who you listen to my grandfather was either a funny, lively man with a devil-may-care attitude to life, or a person who resented anyone with an education and who could be cruel, abrasive and sometimes violent. What's clear from my mother's stories is that she loved him dearly despite his unpredictable temperament.

Here's a story that's appeared in my blog before:

My maternal grandfather had a coal delivery business in the Kings Cross area of London between the wars. He always kept five draught horses to haul the carts. He was very particular that each horse had a rest day each week as he realised that his livelihood depended on them. However one horse went lame and he gently nursed it back to fitness. 

When he was satisfied it had fully recovered he put it to work and found that though it seemed fine it retained a slight limp when pulling away. Unfortunately for him this was spotted and he was taken to court accused of cruelty to the animal. Now my grandfather, perhaps as a result of the coal dust he encountered every day, had rather watery eyes and had to wipe them frequently. The newspaper reporter who was present saw a chance to conjure up a story, "Man weeps in court", and then went on to say how he was the father of four children and to stress the fact that, though he was a coalman, he wiped his eye with a snow-white handkerchief. When the story was published so many well-wishers sent money, to pay the small fine which the court imposed, that my grandmother had to write to the paper to implore people send no more.

Take care.

Thursday, 21 September 2017


Another turn in the road, another view ahead. Different, but all part of the same journey. Just over a week ago my mother, whom I've been caring for in her home for the past year, died in her sleep.

She wouldn't have wanted me to bore you with the details of her illness; but she would have liked me to share some of the stories from her life and I shall endeavour to recall some of them over the next few months.

But first I need to attend to the arrangements for her funeral and clear her house of fifty years of accumulated possessions. Luckily I'm not as alone as the man in the picture at the head of this page; I have my brother here to help me through and many of my mother's neighbours are also lending a hand.

When that's all done I'll be going back to my own house which has been standing empty and unloved for too long. Then I have a lot of walks, bike rides and places to visit, as I've been unable to leave my mother at all for much of the last year. 

But, apart from the last month or so, it's been a good year, one I wouldn't have changed.

Flo Hagger
19th January 1930 to 13th September 2017

Take care.