Growingup in Wivenhoe by Peter Cox
I arrived in Wivenhoe in 1936 aged seven years old with my parents and older brother,John,we moved into no3 west street,a four room four terrace clap-board houses, two up and two down known as the wooden houses. Water was from a communal tap in the yard,toilets were in a block of four at the top of the yard with another brick building beside it divided into two. This was the wash house with a coal fired copper shared with the next door neighbour. This was where we bathed Monday evening after wash day, hot water scooped from the copper into a tin bath,being the youngest I went last! In the winter it was a fast sprint in a overcoat to the back door.
The house had been wired for electricity and gas laid on. All this a far cry from the house we left in Suffolk, earth closest, oil lamps,no piped water, my father walked half a mile every evening to carry two pails of fresh water from a well using a yoke,a wooden device fitted over the shoulders with two chains hanging from each end to attach the pails.
Life changed dramatically moving to Wivenhoe, waking up on a summer morning,the smell of fresh bread being baked, faint ozone from the river, seagulls quarreling overhead it was all so exciting. Although we had previous holidays here with my grandmother, who lived in what was The Anchor public house on Anchor Hill. Living here was exciting with the river, a derelict shipyard, woods, disused sand pits all to explore and play in. At the beginning of summer sand from the Wivenhoe sand & ballast Co would be tipped over the edge of the quay covering the mud next to the sailing club house making a small beach,until it was washed away or silted over, this is where I learnt to swim. A big achievement when I swam over to the Fingringhoe side at high tide. Waiting for the tide to turn walking upriver along the saltings before venturing into the water allowing the current to help me back. I watched working Thames barges tacking up river, crewed by only two men, having to drop the masts to go under Hythe bridge at Colchester, then pole there way up to Marriages Mill, under East Hill bridge before unloading the cargo of wheat having now to turn the craft round. The river at this point was barely wider than the length of the barge, this all done by hand. Failing any wind, they would be towed by Bob Eves tug, empty barges would be towed two in tandem. The Hythe at this time was crowded with barges, waiting for a return cargo, perhaps their heyday before a sad decline.
All this was spoilt by having to go to school, I hated school,the head mistress, Miss Smith. She was a dragon, we had mutual feeling, she didnt like me, I felt the same about her. All the staff were elderly female, except for one young teacher Mr Wiseman who joined the RAF becoming a fighter pilot so there was no foot ball or sport when he left.
Summer holiday, messing about on the river, the regatta, camping, sitting in the large doorway at Husks,. This was the opening with two sliding doors to the slipway, watching the shipwrights building all manner of craft, rowing boats to motor cruisers, the smell of wood shavings and paint. Sunday school trip to Clacton. playing rounders on the playing field, a large group boys and girls split into teams, and yes girls did tuck their skirts in their knickers. Spending the day with my uncle Mike, he had a fruit and vegetable round with a horse and cart.
Autumn, bowling hoops, conkers, collecting chestnuts, scrumping apples and walnuts, making model sail boats,sailing them on a pond called the horseshoe, bows and arrows, homemade kites.
Winter, Christmas holidays, skating, snowball fights, sledging at Bobbits Hole. This was a disused sand pit site. Bobbits hole was a very steep bank with ridges running across half way down, caught right your sledge could become air borne. The art of Bobbits hole was to avoid the gravy, This was the brook that flowed through Wivenhoe, laying on your stomach, digging your toes in the snow trying to slow down or finishing up wet and cold in the water. All our toboggans were home made, I made mine from a curved chair back with strips of metal bed springs from the dump for runners. It really did look good, downside. I broke my collar bone at Bobbits hole, bonus,I had time off from school.
Spring, Easter holidays, the fair at Spion Kop, making pop guns from elder wood, catapults using old bicycle inner tube for the rubber, collecting tadpoles, stickle backs with a net made from a lace curtain. Thaines wood, bluebells making a carpet of blue, yellow clumps of primrose
I moved up to the old boys school in the high street at the age of nine, the head master was Mr Gibbson, a cane wielding disciplinarian, my teacher, Mr Plummer a small dapper man, who used to sit in a high desk, making him appear smaller. This classroom was on the upper floor, from one of the windows you could see the river, From here I watched the SY Roseabelle tie up at her moorings on the Brightlingsea wall. I think this was her last visit to Wivenhoe. His method of teaching, you have got it wrong, no explanation how to get it right, if I did get a good result, I was made to stand up he would remark that he thought I was not all that simple after all, this made the nerds smirk, his big finale was to take a screen from a large fire place and chalk a cross on the back grate causing a few gigles. This backfired on him the next time he lifted the screen away, with my mate Tom Harvey we had covered the complete chimney in crosses. He had a hard time controlling the laughter. I have often thought of a little elderly man strutting back and forwards demanding who had done this, causing the whole class to laugh louder, most of them in our gang had been waiting for this to happen.
A cinema in Wivenhoe, situated in the Avenue, just past the Co-Op brings back memories of us kids rushing out after the show to the playing field, depending on the film we would arm ourselves with guns and bow and arrows, galloping around on imaginary horses if it had been a western. We had problems with picking sides, nobody wanted to be the Indians, they always seem to lose. My Father being a Fireman would get complimentary tickets, I think there had to be a safety officer present during the show.
One of the summer treats was to blag a trip on a fishing smack, My first, six in the morning start, was with Guy Downing, skipper of the Christine, I have often walked along the sea wall with him he would point out different birds, the way the tide had effects on the river and saltings a knowledgeable experience sailor, always came in with a good catch, cod, huge skate, shrimps, whatever the seasons. I remember one trip, another boy came along, Beaky Wardley, his father was waiting as we docked, he called out to Guy,how did my lad get on?" "Get on the sod nearly got off Guy answered. Beaky was sick before we reached the estuary going out, and ill all day. These trips ceased as soon as war broke out, German aircraft would strafe fishing boats and barges knowing they were unarmed, not always the case. Some old bargemen carried a twelve bore shot gun, not averse to a bit of wild-fowling or poaching, would take a pot shot at them.1939, I remember my mum and auntie in the yard with neighbours discussing rationing,all seemed very concerned, I couldn’t make out why, I thought it meant it was all for free. Air raid shelters were dug in the playing fields, blackout frames made to put up at the windows at night, strips of adhesive paper stuck to window panes to protect against flying glass from bomb blast, soldiers camped at Wivenhoe Park.
We had moved further up West Street to a large four bedroom house. One of the downstairs rooms was used as junk room workshop, now housed the Morrison air raid shelter. My auntie Vron, lived in one of the wooden houses, would share it, with her baby, my Mum, me and my brother. It was a tight squeeze, my father on duty as a fireman. It was quite frightening, hearing the German planes droning above, anti aircraft guns firing, then the rocket batteries at Colchester Wick would open up, after a few minutes you would hear the shrapnel falling, causing casualties damaging roofs. Bombs were dropped on Wivenhoe, two fell on the playing field, one on the marshes near the horse shoe, because of the soft ground had not exploded, from the playing field I watched the BDS men rig a tripod with a block and tackle recover and defuse it, another one fell over the river yards from Rowhedge ship yard, Apparently next morning on the radio, Lord Haw Haw claimed a ship building facilitate had been destroyed.
The shipyard was now becoming busy, so was out of bounds as a play area, dummy submarines built in wood on a raft were some of the first craft, a strange sight to see them being towed down the river, but the war brought much more excitement, soldiers in a sandbag emplacement with a Bren gun at the Cross, barb-wire, tank traps on the beaches, pill boxes along the coast, some were just mounds with a wooden pole sticking out to represent a gun.
The army constructed a ferry crossing using the existing ferry hard, to carry cars and small lorrys across the river. This was made by building a platform with a hinged ramp either end on two large open boats bolted side by side. It was then pulled by rope fixed either side of the river. Anti aircraft sites, searchlight sites there was so much going on, air strips being built. Evacuees came to Wivenhoe the school in the high street became the HQ for the towns wardens, rescue, first aid, ambulance. Tanks unloaded at the railway station rattling through the streets up to Wivenhoe Park, dozens at a time.
Camping in the five week school holiday, our camp site, a small copse along the Colchester wall between the river and railway line about a mile from the railway station. Four of us set our two tents up, digging a trench round the outside to stop any rain water seeping inside, the tents were realy small just about room for two. Most important, the camp fire, making a shallow hole, lining it with sand, placing two or three large stones to put our frying pan on, that and a saucepan was our cooking utensils. All our food was pooled, imagine one small tin baked beans between four, a brook running off the fields provided fresh water, no insecticides then.We drank water or lemonade, crystals mixed in water. We stayed for three weeks, taken turns to scrounge more provisions. Train drivers would throw lumps of coal as they went past for our fire, it saved collecting wood but this was steam coal, it made lots of soot, some seemed to cling to us, a quick dip in the river got most of it off. Finding odd bits of rope along the river bank, we made a rope way and swings in the trees, because there was a bend in the river opposite our camp, you always get a high side and low as the river flows, we were on the high side, at low tide jumping off the path then sliding down the mud on your belly was great fun, climbing back up the slope I noticed blood on my chest and stomach, at first we thought it must have been glass until we found bits of oyster and crab shell in the mud. In the evenings soldiers used the river path, walking from Colchester to Wivenhoe British Legion club, we became friendly with a few of them, they would bring back a bar of chocolate or kit kat,on one occasion a bag of chips, soggy and cold, still a welcome treat.
The day came when we had to pack up, putting all our gear on Rex Kettles cart,leaving our rope swings a big pile of coal that had accumulated, we made our way home. No greeting from Mum, "did you enjoy your holiday? "Take them dirty clothes off and get in the bath
Our house became very crowded as the shipyard built and repaired more ships, Wivenhoe was the only yard with a dry dock along the East Coast. Vospers took over Husk’s yard, building sleek fast MTB’s. Later on the marshes became a hive of industry, tall cranes pieced the skyline placed alongside the railway sidings, lifting heavy steel from the trucks, this was the start of the Mulberry Harbours. Massive steel structures appeared, at night the whole area would twinkle from the welding torches. Built on a assembly line method, the finished structure was pushed up a ramp by hydraulic rams over the sea wall, creating huge wave. So different from when I stood on the sea wall opposite Rowhedge yard watching a ship being launched, slide gracefully into the water. Men were sent to work in shipyards and factorys away from their homes, because we had a big house we had to provide accomdation. My father who had joined the Wivenhoe fire brigade before the war, now had portable motorised pumps, gone was the big red painted two wheel hand cart, firemen with their brass helmets sweating as they pulled it down the high street,with hordes of kids racing with them. We knew there was a fire, by hearing the maroon going off, alerting the firemen who were all volunteers, generally it was the railway embankment set alight by cinders from the engine. Practising using the mobile pumps, placed at intervals up the high street, pumping water from the river to the top of the town. Another exercise I remember involving the fire service,now called the NFS, was to rescue from buildings, my father volunteered me. This exercise was to rescue from a first floor, the chosen house was Doctor Radclifes in the high street, this building was three storey, the chosen escape, from a small attic window into a round canvas sheet,held by six men below, one of them my Father. Two boys had already gone before me, after climbing three flights of stairs,a fireman held me as I climbed up to a the small window. looking down, at this tiny white dot, men shouting, come on jump, the fireman behind me, go on boy your mates have done it,that and my father looking up, trembling with fear, I jumped, landing with a thump, I staggered off, my legs like jelly.
Children were being evacuated to Australia and Canada, my brother and I had completed the preliminaries including a medical, were all set for Canada when Mum pulled us out, after a liner filled with evacuees had been sunk in the Atlantic by a German submarine.
Waiting at the station for the bus to Brightlingsea Secondary School for the first time wondering how I would like this one any better than the previous ones, my brother,and a cousin were already pupils.Lined up then assigned to different classes. I was in class 1-1 my teacher a Mr Kirkland, also the science teacher. Pedlar Palmer, the head master, who I’m sure was a psychopath. He seemed he got his kicks by using the cane, a throbbing vein would show on his forehead, his eye bulging, spittle on his lips as he lectured me before swishing a cane then, one on each hand or more, depending how he felt on the day when Jumbo Lambert a master, with a huge nose and ears, pulled his bike from the cycle rack leaving his front wheel behind, I had loosened the spindle, he was not very happy when sent to his office for throwing chalk at Chinky Norton, my form master I had thrown the chalk back, hitting him on his head, I explained to Pedlar he threw it at me, but he was already working himself up, locking the caretaker in the boiler room didn’t go down all that well with him either. A big ink stain appeared on our classroom floor, no one owned up, at assembly the class had to stay behind. I will get to the bottom of this, you will all show your hands any one with ink on their hands will be the culprit, to save time, Cox,we will start with you. This was shouted from the stage. having clean hands, I grinned, got you this time Pedlar. Towards my stay at his institution, I would refuse to hold my hand out, this would make him tremble with rage. I wonder who was most relieved when I left. One teacher who I did respond to was art teacher Kate Olson, this was a subject that I excelled in, perhaps thats why. She put four of us up for art entry at Colchester Technical Collage on North Hill, Peter Nesling and me failed, the two girls passed.
By this time I had a Saturday job delivering groceries with a trade bike, this had a large basket in the front which would be filled up with goods. Nearly all the customers were at the top of the town, it meat pushing a heavy loaded bike up the High street, riding a empty one down. I started at 8-30 until 1-30,my wages, two shillings and six pence, I could double this when tomatoes were in season, Saturday afternoon, a round trip of about eight miles to a small holding in Bromley, not only the basket in the front, but a box fixed to a carrier on the back would be filled up. Picking blackberries, taking them to a old builders yard in West Street, where they would be weighed got you tuppence a pound, fishing for flounders could earn a few pence as did running errands for the neighbours. Pocket money, forget it unless you earned it, you didn’t get it. Fast food had not been invented, but we did have a fish and chip shop in East Street, owned by Eden Green, all the fish supplied fresh by the familys smack, Volunteer. Including herrings kippers they had a smoke house on the marshes, he cooked in fat, not oil. I was hooked on his fish and chips.
The first year of the war there was a glut of sprats, for some reason perhaps the fish factory could not cope, or rail transport not available, all three smacks dumped them in a huge heap on the quay, people came with buckets, bags, any thing that would hold the fish, grasping the opportunity, we filled our buckets, rushing up to the top of the town where they had not heard of the windfall, selling them at a very cheap price, the news soon reached them, putting our enterprise to a stop. I was in serious trouble with Mum, the sprats were now a few days old, I stunk of fish. Walter Govern, ARP warden, (putthat light out,we all had one like him). insisted a tarpaulin had to be laid over the heap, the fluorescence from there scales showed a green glow at night,. In the end Bob Bowes came with a horse and cart, clearing the heap spreading them on his fields for fertilizer, imagine the smell, they had perhaps been there for over two weeks. Cyling to the site of a crashed Jerry bomber collecting souvenirs, a piece of the plane preferably with German writing or markings, perspex was most prized, rings, brooches, all sorts of trinkets would be made from this.
I left school aged fourteen, with my usual report, must try, harder, has potential.I n later life I have come to the conclusion these teachers were all old men, perhaps past retirement age, in a era of I know better because I’m older, no explanation how you arrived at the answer, you just do. I don’t think any one of them was a good teacher, apart from Kate Olson and Bert Parker the woodwork master. Chinky Norton would scribble on the blackboard, because he was so short, he would reach the top to start, gradually sloping down becoming just a scrawl, I would get the gist of his scrawl, guess the rest, marking my exercise book, with comments, not paying attention sloppy and untidy!!
He was also the sports master, refereeing a football match, he stood in the centre of the pitch, waving his arms, shouting, blowing his whistle not moving off the centre line, we made lots of bad tackles, fouls in the goal area, knowing he was not near enough to see.
Starting work at North Sea Canners, owned by the Worsp family, When I came to Wivenhoe it was situated on the quay by the ferry,now in a larger three storey building at the other end of the water front next to the shipyard. Canning and packing chickens ,fish, shrimps, lobsters and crabs, in the autumn apples, cooked then made into puree. canned into seven pound tins for caters, shrimps caught by the company smacks, cooked on the boat, would be collected from the factory by local women, taken home to be peeled, then brought back to be paid by weight. My first job was making fish boxes, Mr Worsp asked me how I was getting on, I think from my response because after about a month, he suggested me moving up to Skilton & West electrical engineers and repairs, a subsidiary to NSC. The building initially built just prior to the war as a garage and storage, included a under ground air raid shelter. Now doing war work, contracting from Compton Parkinson, a electrical firm from Chelmsford assembling small electric motors employing twenty five women, it was managed by Bob Skilton, a quite patient man.From him I leant the basic electrics, ohms law, read a micrometer, height gauge,slips,to use a lathe,rewind and repair electric motors,all types of electrical hand tools.Combined with maintenance work at the fish factory,
With Tom Harvey I joined King Gorge V boxing club in Stockwell Street Colchester.We were trained by Sid Humphrey who had trained a winning amateur police team in the late thirty’s. Boxing matches were held in the Corn Exchange, going round to local fêtes with a portable ring, giving exhibitions. Policemen used the gym with us so we got to know quite a few of them which came in useful on many occasions.
Most break downs were caused by the girls not loading the machine correctly causing a jam, tins and lids tangled up in the rollers, this would mean removing guards clearing the bent cans and lids, adjusting tolerances, meanwhile one of the girls would be nonchalantly flicking a counter that recorded the machines output, they were on piece work. My wages increased from seventeen shillings and sixpence to two pounds seven and sixpence. Working now from the fully equipped workshop at the factory, a ten foot bed centre lathe, multi speed radial drill, vertical milling machine, surface grinder,hacksaw machine, fly press, I became proficient on all, under the tuition of Bob Skilton.
I worked beside Frank Downing, Guys brother. Frank was a most remarkable man, one job was to remove twin petrol engines, replace them with diesels in a forty foot cruiser, owned by a friend of Mr Worsp, this required keeping time cards, I filled Franks in,he found this difficult, but his feel with engines or anything mechanical, woodwork, boat building was vast,I learnt so much from this man.He became very much involved when a group of us made our first boat This consisted of drop tanks. Drop tanks were metal fuel tanks attached to fighter aircraft, giving them greater range to protect bombers over Germany, releasing them when empty, Colchester dump had a huge pile of them, we bought two,at two and sixpence each, persuading Titch Gear one of NSC lorry drivers to collect them. Adjacent to our house was disused building,the lower part had been used as a garage,we commandeered it for our workshop. The tanks were 8′ long,2′-6 diameter, tapering to a point each end. First thing was to cut a opening in the centre, with a hammer and chisel for a cockpit.Bolting the two together between shaped spacers, a 5′ x18” board fixed across the hole made the seat. Painted cream with a red streak on either side we were done.
Next,Sail, Oars, Engine. I was all for engine, as was Rex Kettle apprentice mechanic,Tom Harvey apprentice shipwright went for oars, Eric Lilly said sail, Its a Boat. We eventually finished up with paddles, beautifully made by Tom. Launching day came,a Saturday afternoon high tide, after carrying it to the quay opposite the fish factory,we just pushed it over the edge, no bunting no audience, only old man Gun, who lived on the smack Alice popping his head up,Wah you got there,thatle never last,be sunk next tide you hearing on me then disappearing down to his cabin, muttering blasted rubbish. We had hours of fun on our doodlebugs as they became known. The first regatta held after the war, we entered in a race with four others, we had started a craze.
I did get a engine, a Villiars motorbike two stroke, making a attachment fitted to the flywheel for a rope starter. Frank worked out how to fit it to our boat and support the prop shaft, brass bushes clamped between two pieces of wood, but first to get it started.Two strokes are known to be difficult to start this one, old and worn, without petrol, using lighter fuel, mixing it with methylated spirits, a resulting Phut flame and smoke from the exhaust, that was it. Without petrol we abandoned this idea.
The morning of June 6th I watched the skies fill with all types of air craft, as soon as one wave faded from sight more would come into view,some towing gliders,vapour trails made by the larger bombers, others quite low having taken off from local air bases, you could see the white stripes on the wings.
A new menace, the V1 pilot less flying bomb aimed at London. Propelled by a simple ram jet engine launched by a steam catapault. The guidance system was very rudimentary, it was indiscriminate bombing. The noise this projectile made was like a fast reving single cylinder motor bike, huddled in our Morrisson shelter we waited for it to stop, hoping it wouldn’t you knew when it did the engine had cut out it would go into a dive, a few seconds later there would be a terrific explosion. Hearing these spluttering overhead, to me was more frightening than when we listened to the bombers going over,I think it was because it was so unpredictable, and being older you begin to realize what war really mean. I saw bomb damage up close, Old Heath laundry was destroyed, killing women and girls.
Mr Worsp suggested I get a few lads together to form a sailing group, four of us became Sea Scouts. He had a alternative motive, all sailing and pleasure craft had been banned for the duration, Sea Scouts seemed exempt. We had a eighteen foot gaff rig whaler,twelve foot Bermuda rig dinghy, all instructors were sailing friends of his getting a days sailing, including Hervey Benham, well renowned author of sailing boats and sea yarns about the East Coast.We leant knots, splicing, boat handling. The river played a big part of my life growing up in Wivenhoe. Growing up in Wivenhoe as it was then, despite the war with all the sacrifices and hardship my parents and relatives made,t wo uncles ,taken off at Dunkirk, then fighting in Africa and Italy for four years.
For me it was a marvellous wonderful exciting time. Aged seventeen I volunteered for the Royal Navy, four months later I reported to HMS Ganges. Attaining the rank of ERA1st class,
My brother still lives in Wivenhoe, when I visit him, we often drive around the town, both speak of the change – For the better