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Leslie Swain

by janet on 9 December 2011 · 3 comments

Leslie Swain (born 1922) took part in the Walkern Memories: 935 Years project and exhibition, writing down his memories of Walkern and having his photo taken by local photographer Rod Shone. These memories first appeared in the April & May 2008 issues of the Walkern Journal. Les, As a child and young man lived in one of the Cambridge Cottages (since demolished) along Bockings near the Church

Leslie Swain. Photo by Rod Shone

“My story starts in post World War One days, on February 7th 1922. Looking back on it now it seems we were living in the Stone Age! A family of five living in a four roomed house with no running water, all the water had to be drawn up from the well at the end of the row of six cottages, very often the rope would break and then it needed a grappling hook on the end of a rope to recover the bucket. As well as water in the bucket a frog would often have a ride up

There was no sewage disposal, the water after use was thrown out of the front door onto the garden which was only just across the narrow lane. The only means of illumination was an oil lamp in the living room and candles in the kitchen and bedrooms, the draughts from the ill fitting doors and windows very often making it difficult to keep them lit. An open coal fire with an oven to the side provided the heating, cooking, tea making, and hot water for the weekly tin bath generally on Saturday, one-out one-in arrangement. If we could not afford the coal or if, as in the bad winters, the coal man could not get to the village because the snow had drifted to a depth of six feet between our village and Stevenage we would gather wood to keep the home fires burning. The fire was absolutely essential for survival, just like the cavemen.

In this day and age it is difficult to imagine three families all using one lavatory. There were three houses joined together, we lived in the right hand end one looking at the front. The Swain family: mum Rose Emily (always called Em) dad Bertie Percy, Dorothy (Dorry) the eldest daughter, myself Leslie (Les) and Edgar (Eddy) the youngest came along in 1927. The Saggars family lived next door Auntie and Uncle Saggars and Auntie?s brother Pym Cox and next to them the Hawkins, two adults and a boy Ronnie.

Altogether seven adults and four children for the one lavatory. It was supposed to be emptied by the men folk in turn as necessary but “as necessary” was very often when it had overflowed onto the floor. The disposal method was to dig a hole in the garden and bury it making sure it was remembered where it was emptied the last time. The “privy” as it was colloquially called was next to a row of three barns, just wooden affairs built onto the gable end of the Hawkin?s house, unfortunately our barn was next to the privy so guess who took it upon himself to keep it as clean as he could, my Dad, Bertie Percy Swain of course. Even in those dark days development took place, what a delight to have your own family lavatory even though it was still the bucket arrangement and further away down the bottom of your garden about fifty yards from the house. I hear you ask, who provided the toilet paper in the communal midding, the Daily Mirror or the Herald torn into neat squares and impaled on a nail was considered the civil way but often a magazine would be left on the floor, not that there would be time to read it or even to see the print in the darkness. As well as the block of three houses we were part of, there were three other houses.

Les Swain aged 4 with Uncle Bill Cox and Peter the dog abt 1926

Next door to us lived Granny and Granddad Cox (Mum?s parents) with Uncle Bill (Mum?s brother) and Thomas Morrison (?Son?), my step-brother from Mum’s first marriage to an Australian who was killed in the war. The Young family lived next door to them, four girls and seven boys in a three bedroomed cottage. At least these two joined cottages had their own privy and a back garden; what luxury! At the other end of the row there was a thatched cottage occupied by a Mr and Mrs Miles. Mrs Miles was a miserable woman, if our ball went into her garden she would take it into the house and we would see a puff of black smoke out of the chimney.

The only occasion we might have been burned out of house and home was when the Hawkins family acquired a home cinematograph. This was the first attempt at home movies I would imagine, it obviously had a naked flame for the illumination, as I said earlier there was no such thing as electricity. The film was celluloid a highly inflammable material put the two together and there are the ingredients for a fire. They must have called Dad when the thing caught fire and he burned his hands gathering the whole thing up and throwing it into the lane fortunately before too much damage was done. Had it not been contained the whole six houses would certainly have been burned to the ground as the nearest horse drawn fire engine was at Stevenage four miles away

Across the bottom of the gardens between us and the river Beane was the waste disposal heap, the “dunghole” where all the waste from the houses was literally just thrown upon it and when it had grown into a six feet high ridge it would be reduced by throwing it onto the garden, little wonder Dad grew some marvellous crops, mostly potatoes our staple diet. It might be thought it would be very unpleasant to the nostrils but as I remember there was no smell and it did keep the river off the gardens when it went into flood. The dunghole was colonised by water rats, large brown animals the like of which few have seen, the ridge was riddled with their holes, fortunately they did confine themselves to the river and rarely anyone bothered about them even though they were next to our new privy. Earwigs were the worst pests, they were very big too, up to three quarters of an inch long.

Family Tragedy
It was a disaster when Dad died on Boxing Day 1933 after a very short illness. He was a master painter and decorator and had worked in Welwyn since 1919 after the First World War. Welwyn is a town about ten miles from where we lived, Dad would cycle to work on a very old bicycle, no “umpteen” gears in those days, come rain come shine he would never miss going to work and very often had to take all his tools with him. He would never think of going to work with dirty boots, you could always see your face in them and he was so well dressed as if he was going to work in an office. The term Master would not seem to mean much today, the Lorded Gentry would not allow any Tom Dick or Harry to work in their mansions and one had to be a master craftsmen to decorate them consequently Dad spent all of his time in these places. The working hours were 8 am until 5 pm Monday to Friday and 8am until 12 noon on Saturday with half an hour meal break. I can remember Mum putting up his “beaver” a half loaf of bread with a lump of butter and a piece of cheese or meat pressed into the middle of it. This would be eaten with a trusty penknife washed down with cold tea carried in a can or an empty beer bottle, some days there would be meat pie a rare treat one would imagine.

I remember there was talk at one time of the family moving to Welwyn but nothing came of it but in 1930 Dad bought himself a new bicycle a Raleigh with three speed gears what a boon that must have been, and it was followed a year or so later with a motorbike. It was a BSA with “sit up and beg” handlebars, the type that many years later became the fashion for hell’s angels, it had a transfer on the petrol tank “Sporty Boy”. As in those days it had a “throaty exhaust”, everyone complained how noisy it was but Dad did not think it was too bad, nonetheless he would push it over the river bridge before he started it up so as not to cause a nuisance. It was only after he had to have his ears syringed that he then agreed with everyone, it was noisy. Dad was not to enjoy his leisure rides to work for very long, as a painter he would make all his own paint with linseed oil, turpentine and lead particularly. A small cut in his thumb would be sufficient to end his life, ironic when he had survived being wounded five times in the 1914 – 1918 war one of the wounds being a bullet passing through his side, the webbing belt he was wearing with a hole back and front was kept as a souvenir along with his uniform and other things in a brown tin trunk. There were also many magazines “War Illustrated” that I would avidly read. The death certificate showed that Dad had died of a Streptococcus germ, in the days before antibiotics a killer.

[On the 5th March 2008, Les and his wife Joyce came to St Mary?s church to mark the grave of Les?s grandparents, John and Sarah, with a new headstone. The site of their grave had been lost until Les started doing some detective work. His father, Bertie, lies alongside together with his mother and sister.]

Farm work

1938, Bill Cox’s motorbike, Les Swain on back aged 16, Pym Cox, Les’s uncle, in sidecar

The farm was a source of income as we grew older and could work in the fields on Saturdays or school holidays. At eleven years we would most likely have gone onto the ploughed fields before the seed was sown “stone picking”. With a bucket the boys would walk in line up the fields picking up the larger stones and walking back when the bucket was full to deposit the stones in the hedge row bottoms, a back breaking job which would earn us a penny an hour perhaps. In the summer it would be first the hay-making in May and June followed by the harvest in July and August.

The first job was to learn how to keep the horse going round and round in a circle harnessed to a pole which was attached to the elevator which carried the hay or sheaves of grain onto the stack. Before the combine harvester all the grain crops were built up into a neat stack as in the shape of a house and about the same size as a small house, then thatched to keep the weather out, In the winter the thrashing engine (Granddad Swain’s occupation) would visit the farms in turn and the sheaves of wheat oats or barley would go through the drum, the process of removing the grain from the husk. The husks would be called “chaff’ and used as fodder for the horses and the straw stacked up again to be used as bedding for the horses and cattle or it could go through a “chaff cutter” that reduced the straw to very short pieces and again be fed to the horses.

To a small boy the shire horses were monsters and it was a daunting task to walk beside them leading them in the fields from one corn stook to the next as the farm labourers loaded the sheaves onto the cart. Then the most daunting of all was to then have to lead the horse with a great load of corn or hay back to the farm. The last hundred yards to the farm was down a very steep incline on a tarmac surface and very often the horse would slip and your heart would be in your mouth but they were marvellous animals and always recovered. When the cart was emptied in the farmyard the best part of all was to ride in the cart back to the field

Working at Wrights
It was not long after that in January 1936 when I left school, I wanted to train as a radio engineer. The only shop that repaired radios was in Stevenage and Mum took me over there to see the man who ran it, so long ago I cannot remember his name. He said we would have to pay him seven shillings and sixpence a week (there were no free apprentice schemes in those days) and that, of course, was out of the question, so I had to take the course that most young boys and men took, a choice of working on a farm or in the local beer and mineral water factory, Wrights. They employed 30 or 40 men in the factory and 10 or 12 lorry drivers who distributed the mineral waters, cider, wine and malt tonic as it was called around Hertfordshire. Malt tonic was very much like beer but not so high a gravity (a lower alcoholic value). In the summer and especially at Christmas we would be working 12 hours a day, no rules then regarding how many hours a day a juvenile could work.

In the evenings along with another boy, Jack Hart, we had a spare time job looking after the tennis courts behind the factory belonging to the Wright family. They were “hard courts” and needed constant weeding and lines painting for which we were paid a penny halfpenny an hour. It was a constant embarrassment always to have to go and ask for our money, it was never paid at the end of a week as normal wages were. The Wright family as factory owners were very rich people but very tight with money. Having said that, during the war I was in North Africa for over 4 years and I would receive, every couple of months or so, a parcel from them with a box of 50 Senior Service cigarettes and other edible goodies. What luxuries, very thoughtful and generous of them.

I was always available to earn a few bob extra and there were jobs we were paid a bit extra for. Every couple of years or so the two steam boilers had to be inspected by a Government authority. These boilers were about 15 feet long and four feet in diameter with a two feet tube running through the middle which meant there was only 18″ headroom, the tube was offset through the middle of the boiler, which was where the fire was of course to heat the water into steam.

Walkern was in a very hard water area so a considerable amount of lime-scale accumulated especially on the rivets which were the parts the inspector was particularly interested in, for obvious reasons, all this scale had to be removed with a chipping hammer; two men and a boy were employed on the job. No prizes for guessing who the boy was and who had to go in first and crawl the length of the boiler to work at the farthest end away from the 15? round hole which was the entrance to the boiler. On the first day or two the boiler was still very hot, imagine if you can what it was like especially when the men were always playing tricks, shouting “Les is in there now put the lid on and we will go home”!

Another very unpleasant job was grinding ginger root for the ginger beer, there was no such thing as dust extraction and the dust from the grinding process poured out of the open top machine where one had to put the root in; ginger root dust up ones nose is not to be recommended! Another unpleasant job was loading the returned dirty bottles into trays that were then lowered into a tank of very hot water containing caustic soda, to speed the process one had to pick up the bottles from the crates one between each finger so you could pick four bottles up in each hand. There was no problem putting the bottles in the trays but picking them up when they were hot and still wet with the solution very quickly the skin was removed from between the fingers. We were constantly working in water during the bottling process which meant we all wore clogs; broken glass was a hazard so cut fingers was always on the agenda, no first aid equipment either. Not a pleasant place to work.

When I was seventeen years old I was offered the opportunity to take driving lessons. It all came about when the boss, Master Freddy Wright saw me driving a small lorry a 1930 vintage Morris Commercial, round the factory which was used to collect all the broken glass each day from the two bottling plants. At four o?clock every day all the management would go over to the house behind the factory for tea and it was about this time the glass had to be collected. I was never taught by anyone how to drive the old lorry, one day I got in it and from then onwards I used to do it, voluntarily. I was not reprimanded for driving it but Boy Wright, as he was affectionately named, suggested I should have proper driving lessons by one of the drivers. It was also suggested when I could drive on the road there might be the possibility of a job outside as a “traveller” The commercial travellers as they were titled in those days used small 5 cwt. Morris vans, same as the well known Morris 8. A driver, Jack Miles would take me out and teach me to drive. As it turned out I would take him to the Rising Sun, a pub just outside the village, leave him there whilst I drove around on my own and pick him up on the way back. There were no driving tests in those days of course and I cannot remember having a Provisional licence.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom November 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I have just found out on a document that Alice Clements lived with Benjamin and Mrs Miles, shown on the document in brackets as ‘Widow Clements’.


Alan Young October 22, 2013 at 10:23 am

Hi Michelle
Les Swain lived in one of the group of three cottages which stood right on the road opposite the entrance to Church car park Mrs Cox and Mrs Miles lived in the other cottages. Gran and Gran Dad Young lived in a detached wood lap cottage next door to the terraced cottages
I have a picture of family outside the cottage from c. 1919/1920
Hope this helps


michelle October 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm

Very good read – I think the young family that you lived next too are my ancesters. Do you know the name of their cottage? Was is Cambridge cottage?



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