I’ve been thinking recently about how a person is remembered, not just by their nearest and dearest but also by their descendants, generations later. Family stories in which they feature are one way in which memories of them are preserved. Though the majority of stories about our ancestors lives and experiences will be forgotten about as time marches on, a few remain and are still retold many years later, (though sometimes with embellishment). Frequently, the stories that will be remembered are significant in some way or even tragic. For example, when I was a child, I was told that a relative lost their arm, (and I have recently proved this to be true). However, other stories will have been recounted on numerous occasions because they are raise a smile. I thought I would share with you a few stories that fall into this latter category, which are still remembered fondly in my family. As well as being entertaining, these tales tell you something about life in the past and the character of the people who feature in them.
Much Ado about Nothing
The first story concerns my great grandfather, Albert Simeon Bullock, who was born in Bristol in 1870, the son of a railwayman. Following in his father’s footsteps, Albert spent his whole career with the Great Western Railway, working as a signalman at the railway station in Wylye, Wiltshire, on the Salisbury branch line. My mother and her sister, my Aunt Nan, were evacuated to Wylye when War broke out in 1939, and went to live with Granddad and their two unmarried aunts, Lil and Kit. Aunt Nan remembers Granddad as being a great raconteur – “a bit of a wag”!
Albert told the following story to my Granddad, Ernest William Bullock, his son in law. It was about a particular incident that happened one day when Albert was at work at the station. This is the story in my Granddad’s words:
My wife’s father was a signalman on the G.W.R. at a country village station in Wiltshire and related to me the following incident. On market days, a cheap return was issued to those who wished to shop in Salisbury. One day, after the train had returned to the village station, there was a clamour of shouting as it receded into the distance. A stout old lady, who was a regular customer, ran frantically to the station master’s office, exclaiming “I left my purse in the train!” The sole porter was despatched in haste to the signal box and a message was sent to the next station up the line to search for the missing purse. The small crowd waited and their patience was rewarded, the purse had been found and would be sent back by the next train, which, luckily, was due in a few minutes. In due time, the train came in and the guard came forward with the purse in his hand. The old lady came forward to thank him. He remarked “You had better see if everything is there”. The old lady demurred but he insisted she open it. Reluctantly she did so, revealing a half-penny and a trouser button. You could almost hear the silence!”
This funny story about a woman leaving her purse on the train, tells you something about how small country stations operated in the past. Every effort was made by all the station staff to track down the missing purse and return it safely to her. It was good customer service. You can imagine how embarrassed the lady was when the meagre contents of her purse was revealed. The station staff probably laughed about it for years later.
My great grandfather, Albert Bullock, was entitled to free train travel in retirement, as a former employee of the Great Western Railway. His eldest daughter, my grandmother, Maggie, and her husband, my grandfather, Ernest, lived in Gillingham, Kent with their young family. One weekend, it was arranged that Albert, along with my grandmother’s sister, Lil, should come and stay with them. To make the trip, father and daughter had to take the train from Wylye to London. After getting off at Waterloo Station, they then walked to Charing Cross Station to catch the train bound for Gillingham. When Albert arrived at the home of my grandparents, after the long journey, my grandmother was surprised to see no sign of her sister Lil. Where was Lil? Apparently, after arriving at Charing Cross, Albert had told Lil to sit down and wait for him whilst he got himself some “baccy” [tobacco]. He then absentmindedly got on the train to Kent and forgot all about his daughter who was left behind, all alone, waiting for his return. You can imagine the trouble Albert got into from both his daughters. I bet he was never allowed to forget this story!
This story makes me laugh, as I recall a similar episode of being left behind when we had a family gathering to celebrate my 21st birthday. We all went to play crazy golf and the plan was to enjoy a meal afterwards at a restaurant. Various members of the family arrived in their cars at the restaurant only to discover that there was no sign of me, or my boyfriend. They had all assumed that we had got a lift with somebody else and my aunt had to go all the way back to fetch us.
BuLL Chasing Bullock
My Granddad, Ernest William Bullock, (1893-1977), had a great sense of humour. Fortunately, he decided to write his memoirs in retirement and wrote down some funny tales about his life that might otherwise have been lost. Much of his childhood was spent in Wantage, Berkshire, and the following story concerns an incident that happened to him one morning when he was making his way to school:
On my way to school one day, being late, I was further delayed, and frightened, for coming towards me was a bull, bellowing like mad. The road cleared like magic till he had passed, the people diving into the nearest gateways of houses. There were no houses on the right-hand side of the road, only spiked railings and a hedge. Between me and the bull were two parallel roads, divided by a hundred yards of fencing. One road had a gate to it with spikes on the top, the other was open to a path to some allotments. Could I reach and clamber over the spiked gate before the bull reached me? I did but clambering over the gate I caught my trousers in the spikes on the top. There was a rending sound as I fell to the ground and the bull flashed by up to the road to the allotments. I went back over the gate with my trousers flapping to school and managed to borrow two safety pins from a woman to look a bit more decent. The bull was only lured by driving a herd of cows to the allotments and what havoc they must have caused! I had dreams of being chased by a bull for years afterwards.
This story is a reminder of a time when most children walked to school, sometimes walking a significant distance every day. Granddad’s family home was on the edge of town, surrounded by fields and farmland and in fact, the allotments that Granddad refers to in the story are still there today. In the days before electric fences, an escaped bull, though not a common event, was probably not unexceptional either. Granddad had a lucky escape, his trousers being the only casualty.
Granddad Bullock joined the Royal Navy in 1911 as a stoker, rising to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He served throughout the First World War and saw plenty of action. He was onboard HMS Inflexible during the Battle of the Falklands in 1914, when the German battleships, Gneisenau, Nürnberg, Leipzig, Dresden and Scharnhorst sunk the British ships, Good Hope and Monmouth, with great loss of life. The Royal Navy were hunting these German ships in the southern Atlantic and during the resultant battle, HMS Inflexible sank Gneisenau, which entitled Granddad to a gratuity.
My Granddad told this funny story about how, a few months later, he decided to acquire some false teeth with the money he had received:
One day I had a pleasant surprise. I had been awarded a share of “Prize Money” for my presence at the “Battle of the Falkland Islands”. It used to be called “Blood Money”. £1-19-3 was my share so I decided to invest the money in having false teeth, having two missing in the front made me look like a scarecrow. I have had many a laugh at the following events. I found a dentist in Plymouth, had an impression taken for an upper plate and four teeth, and was told to call in a week’s time for the teeth. With some friends, I called the following week and got the teeth, which greatly improved my appearance. During the evening we went to a cinema, and places of refreshment, and finally a fish and chip shop, this was the usual run ashore for us.
On waking up the next morning, I was horrified to find that my new teeth were missing. It was obvious to me that I had thrown them away in a mistake for a fish bone. I retraced my steps taken the previous evening in the hope that they had been found and handed in to the police but nothing resulted from my enquiries. There was nothing to it but to visit the dentist again for another plate. At the earliest opportunity I did so. On hearing my story both he and I had a hearty laugh. In another week I had the other plate. I had wasted my prize money.
The story doesn’t quite end here for after he had retired from the Navy, Granddad received a parcel one day and inside was his long lost teeth. The man who had sent them was a messmate who had only discovered them when he had to return his hammock upon leaving the Service. With no return address, Granddad never got the chance to thank him.
The story of my Granddad’s false teeth tells me about his presence at the Battle of the Falklands and it is interesting to learn that prize money was still being awarded in World War One for the capture or sinking of an enemy ship.
My Granddad would have only been a young man in his early twenties when he got his false teeth. Perhaps his front teeth had been knocked out in some prior accident. Good dental care was costly and a 1st Class Stoker in 1914 only earned 1s-2d per day so prize money like this must have been very welcome. It is notable that Granddad, saw the funny side, despite the waste of his prize money. It tells you something about his character. One can relate to the fact that as a young chap, enjoying a night on the town, he couldn’t remember what he had done with his teeth the next morning. At least they turned up eventually!
On my father’s side of the family, there is a farming dynasty started by my great great grandfather, James Batchelor. Born in Gillingham in Kent in 1823, James started out as an agricultural labourer, like his father, John, but by 1861, he had progressed to being a farm bailiff. After some years of working on other people’s farms, he had saved enough money in 1870 to purchase the lease of a beerhouse in Cooling, Kent, called The Staff of Life. In addition, he rented some orchards and land adjoining, which he farmed. James had a large family that included four sons, Charles (b. 1846), known as Charlie, James William (b. 1855) known as Bill, George (my great grandfather, b. 1858) and the youngest son, John James (b. 1860). John James took over the beerhouse from his father but the other three sons all took on farms in the surrounding area and did very well for themselves. It is probable that the agricultural depression that occurred in the late nineteenth century allowed them to buy up good land relatively cheaply. All the brothers prospered, leaving significant sums in their wills.
Harvest was the most important time in the farming calendar and all hands were needed to bring it in. Hours were long, and it was expected that refreshment would be provided for the workers. Traditionally, beer was the usual tipple to quench parched throats. Though there was some mechanisation, with the use of a threshing machine, it was still hot and thirsty work.
Though James Batchelor ran The Staff of Life beerhouse, selling beer to customers to take home with them, his sons, Charlie, Bill and George were staunch Methodists and strict teetotallers, as were at least three of their sisters. You can imagine that this must have caused some dissension in the family between the drinkers and those that abstained. It was still necessary to offer the workers something to drink at harvest time so in place of beer, so the three farmers provided soft drinks. These in turn became the following monikers, “Cocoa” Bill, “Ginger Beer” George and “Lemonade” Charlie, or less flatteringly, “Cold Water” Charlie. These names stuck and it is amusing that the three farmers are remembered by their descendants through the drinks they supplied.
These stories on the Batchelor farmers in my family, reveal how their Methodist faith informed their farming practices. Perhaps some of the workers on the farm were fellow Methodists who rubbed shoulders with their employer at Chapel on Sunday, and were pleased to have the soft drink beverages. Maybe others would have much preferred a glass of beer!
I feel fortunate that these stories have been passed down in my family and are still being retold and enjoyed today. I hope my own descendants will tell funny stories about my life one day. It is rather a lovely way to be remembered. What I appreciate about family stories is that they tell you a lot about human nature, as well as giving you insights into the past and a former way of life. Do let me know about any funny stories that have been passed down in your family in the comments below.
© Judith Batchelor 2020