Ernest William Bullock (1893-1978)
Previously, in A Wiltshire Childhood, I shared my Granddad’s reminiscences of growing up as a small child in the 1890s in Marlborough, Wiltshire. The story moves on, as some time between May 1898 and April 1901, when the census was taken, my Granddad, Ernest William Bullock, and his family, left Marlborough and moved to Charlton, a village on the outskirts of Wantage. Wantage, formerly in Berkshire but now in Oxfordshire, is a market town at the foot of the Berkshire Downs, some 25 miles to the north-east of Marlborough. It is renowned as the birthplace of Alfred the Great in 849. Alice Fitzwarren, the wife of Dick Whittington, the Lord Mayor of London, was also born in the town and it is “Alfredston” in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. With the help of maps, pictures and photographs, plus additional research into the local and social history, it is possible to conjure up the bygone era of Granddad’s Edwardian boyhood.
My father could not have been happy in his work for we moved to a lovely little village in Berkshire, a mile or so from the market town of Wantage. We lived on a hill in a cluster of six houses which were in pairs.
The family home was in Charlton, (now a suburb of Wantage), on Lark Hill, a long straight road that leads up a hill to open farmland.
This is the description of Charlton in the Victoria County History of Berkshire, which was published in four volumes between 1906 and 1924:
The above map of Charlton shows just two buildings on Lark Hill (marked with a yellow arrow). In the 1901 census, there are four separate households with the address of Lark Hill so perhaps there were just two pairs of cottages at this time, rather than three, as Granddad had remembered.
In the present day, at the village end, there is a housing development on one side of Lark Hill, along with some modern houses lining the road, mainly on one side. Allotments are opposite them. Otherwise it is still a road that leads to farmland. The first pair of cottages seen on the map may be the houses in the foreground of the photo below, the other pair of cottages, where the Bullock family probably lived, is two buildings further along:
I found the notice below in the Faringdon Advertiser and Vale of the Horse Gazette, dated December 13th 1902. The cottages rented by Granddad’s father, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock, and his neighbour, Albert Sims, were to be sold by auction:
It is interesting to have a description of the cottage that the family had been renting and discover how much annual rent my great grandfather had to pay. The description of the cottage certainly matches the appearance of the older pairs of cottages that can be seen on Lark Hill today. Other houses were probably built soon afterwards with the sale of the adjoining land.
There was an antiquated Steam Tramway that ran parallel with the road from the town to the Wantage Road G.W.R. [Great Western Railway] station, a distance of 2½ miles, and my father became under-manager of it. He had an early turn and a late turn alternately. When he was on an early turn, we seldom saw him for he was gone when we got up in the morning, and we were in bed when he came home at night.
Wantage does not have a station today, though there are ambitions to reopen the former Wantage Road Station, which is situated in Grove to the north of the town. Due to the station not being in the town centre of Wantage, the tramway was opened to connect the two in 1875. It carried both goods and passengers and Granddad’s father, Josiah Simeon Thomas Bullock, was the goods manager. The terminus of the railway station was Mill Street in Wantage, where the tramway also had its head office.
The country around favoured corn and root crops, the ground being chalky. The majority of the village folk worked for the biggest farmer, there were also two other farms but they were little more than small-holdings. Sometimes, there would be as many as 30 horses passing our house in the mornings on their way to work in the fields, and I would be busy with bucket and shovel to enrich the garden.
One can just picture the steady stream of massive Cyldesdale or Shire cart horses going up Lark Hill to their work in the fields, the mellow clip clop of their hooves resounding in unison. The children would be expected to run out and collect the fresh manure so it could enrich the cottage gardens, as most country folk grew their own vegetables.
In our holidays, boys would accompany the men for the whole day, some of course were their fathers or brothers. When I was able to join them, I did so. We never took food with us, the men often gave us a bit of their fat bacon, or we pulled a succulent turnip or swede. In the time of harvest, we helped them cut and shock the corn.
I love the image of a gang of small boys accompanying the farm labourers out to work during the school holidays, working alongside them at harvest time, helping to cut and shook the corn. With large families in small homes and mothers busy with domestic chores and taking care of younger siblings, you can see why they would be shooed out for the day. Rather than preparing a packed lunch for the children, the mothers would rely on the men to share what they had taken with them in their knapsacks. Granddad seems to have supplemented his diet with raw vegetables, fresh from the ground that were probably grown for animal feed. Can you imagine eating a “succulent swede”!
As in many other villages there were a number of very poor people, one family in our village named Church were exceptionally poor, made more so by the husband’s addiction to drink, yet to me he was a very well-spoken man. There were two children, a boy and a girl, and they had a rough time of it. It was a pathetic sight to see the wife outside the pub calling to her husband to come home before he had spent all the money in drink; the only clothes that the children had, was what they had on. Our next door neighbour’s wife was another alcoholic, it was with reluctance that my mother would let me fetch her drink from the pub. If you were under the age of fourteen the bottle would be sealed.
At this time, there was a very strong temperance movement, with organisations such as the Band of Hope getting children to “sign the pledge” in an effort to combat the alcoholism that was prevalent at the time; it was a toxic combination when mixed with poverty. The only Church family in Charlton were the near neighbours of the Bullocks, a family headed by Amariel/Amariah Church, a farm labourer and his wife Mary. Was this the impoverished family, with the husband “addicted to drink”, whose children were suffering? In the 1901 census there were five children in the household, the older two from Mary’s previous marriage. The next door neighbour’s wife, who had similar alcohol problems, is likely to be Clara Simms, the wife of Albert Simms, a carpenter.
At the bottom of Lark Hill, where it met Charlton Road, was the Lord Nelson public house, where Ernest would be sent on his errand to get a drink for the next door neighbour’s wife.
The small farmer and publican who kept the “Lord Nelson” had two sons and two daughters. The eldest son, who was in the church choir, went on the annual outing to the seaside, which happened to be Portsmouth that year. Whilst there, unknown to anyone, he went to the Naval Recruiting Office to enlist in the Royal Navy, but as he was under age, he had to wait until he was old enough, which was only a matter of weeks. In due time he was sent for and when he came home on leave, this awakened my interest in the Navy.
The Jolley family of the Lord Nelson public house:
The Jolley family actually had two sons and three daughters but Dora, the eldest, died in 1901 aged 17. Their eldest son was Arthur James Jolley and I searched to see if he had indeed joined the Navy. I discovered his service records and found that he had joined the Navy at Portsmouth on February 9th 1906, on his 18th birthday. Granddad would later be following in his footsteps.
His poor father, however, suffered another setback after the injury to his horses, [Granddad does not explain what happened but Mr Jolley was a farmer as well as a publican], the “Lord Nelson” caught fire and the place being a thatched one, was doomed from the beginning. The Wantage Fire Brigade, with the old manual pump then in use, did its best and it was assumed that the fire had been put out, but in the middle of the night, the remaining thatch, fanned by the wind, set the whole place blazing again so the family, who were great friends of ours, stayed with us for the remainder of the night.
A report on the fire, with an illustration of the damage it caused, appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal on Saturday November 1st 1902, precisely dating the fire to Friday October 24th 1902:
It seems that the fire brigade struggled to find water to put out the flames and had to resort to using a pond opposite, which contained little more than farmyard slurry. The till, the piano, clothes and several barrels of beer and a quantity of home-made wine were retrieved. The police had to contend with looters who managed to tap a cask of stout. Although the pub was gutted, with the roof still smoking on Monday morning, a shepherd’s hut was soon set up in the yard to carry on with business. Mr Jolley was described as a very popular host who was “greatly respected by his customers and the residents in the neighbourhood generally.”
A further report appeared in the Berkshire Chronicle on Saturday November 1st 1902:
From the above report, it seemed that the fire brigade had arrived around 6.30 p.m. but left between 9 and 10 p.m. thinking that the fire had been put out. However, the fire broke out again at around 1 a.m. and a fireman nearly lost his life whilst working on the roof. Obviously, embers were still smouldering in the thatch. The Jolley family escaped in their nightclothes. It is good that they found shelter with their friends, the Bullock family.
When you were nine years old you were sent to the National Boys School in Wantage, and it was nothing out of the ordinary to run all the way there. It was a mile away but trundling an iron hoop you were soon there, or if you were not pressed for time you could spin a top part of the way, there being no motors and traffic problems.
The National Boys School in Wantage is now the site of Wantage Church of England Primary School on Newbury Street, close to the centre of town. Fortunately, there is a good selection of surviving records, which are held by Oxfordshire History Centre. I would love to see if Granddad features in them:
Wantage Church of England School (formerly National)
|Admission Registers||1858-1957||S387/2/A3/1-6; A4/1;|
|Architectural Drawing||1898-1966||D/P143/28/16, 23, 45|
Nowadays a lot of young children take their scooter or bike if walking to school. For children in the Edwardian era, a hoop or top gave you endless fun on the way to school. The iron hoop, usually made by a local blacksmith, had a metal stick with a loose closed hook that you pressed down to keep the hoop trundling along as you pushed it. Boys would race each other or perform tricks but it took some practice to guide it well. Iron hoops were played with mainly by boys whilst girls played with wooden hoops. Similarly, a top could either be whipped with a stick or moved along by hand to keep it spinning. The object was to keep it upright and moving for as long as possible.
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.
Even today there are allotments on Lark Hill, with the majority of the housing opposite, on the left hand side of the road if you were walking towards the town. This is no doubt the scene of the bull encounter. [This story and others can be found in Family Stories An Amusing Legacy].
How much modern surgery has advanced since those days is illustrated in the case of a man in the village who had cataracts in both eyes, and the poor chap had both eyes removed. I met him once, while in the Navy, taking a walk on the village green. I spoke to him and said “Good Morning Bill”, after a pause he replied, I know the voice but can’t recollect who you be. I said if you heard somebody up a pear tree at the back of your house, you would know him then. Bless my soul he replied, you be Ern Bullock! We had much in common before his tragedy, both being in the village choir, he a tenor, and I a treble.
This is such a sad story, which illustrates the very real risks then associated with cataract surgery when surgical techniques were primitive. Today cataract surgery has a very high success rate. However, the story also tells me something about Granddad: he enjoyed climbing trees and sang in the church choir as a boy.
I also remember a tragedy that had long effects on two families. Two men who were bosom pals, had, for as long as I could remember, walked past our house every day on their way to work at the chalk pits on the downs. Their non-appearance at the end of one day caused a search to be made at their work, and to the dismay of everyone they were found in such a battered condition that they were unable to walk. They had not been attacked, but had had a quarrel and had settled it between themselves by bare fists. The consequences of their fight were felt by both for a long while, one being deafened for life.
I used to wander about the countryside a great deal and by keeping my eyes open, I was able to note where the best mushrooms were to be had. I went every year to one place by myself, which was in an orchard behind a farmer’s house where you could not be seen when the trees were still in leaf. I considered it my special place, always going there by myself about three times a week when the mushrooms were in season. I could approach the orchard from three different sides and always entered between two elm trees through which I could squeeze myself in sideways. This was a Blenheim apple orchard, one of the best types of eating apples of that day, but I never once touched an apple as I thought that if I was being watched, my actions would speak for themselves. One day, having got as many mushrooms as my bag would hold, I glanced up and there was the farmer himself. I wondered how long he had been watching me but he did not speak and neither did I. If he had called me to him I would have gone and if he had spoken to me reasonably, I would have been satisfied, for mushrooming anywhere was taken for granted in those days, provided you did no damage.
One of the customs we cherished in those days was, when the orchard was cleared of fruit by the pickers, all and sundry were allowed to gather the drops and any that were left on the trees.
Another custom gone out of favour was gleaning, and the farmer from whose field you gleaned the corn, would also thrash it for you, the small sum you paid going to the thrashers.
I was surprised to learn that gleaning, with its Biblical roots, was a custom that continued in England well into the 20th century. It would be carried out predominantly by women and children after the men had cut the corn. Any loose grains would be collected from between the stubble and thrashed. The grain could be used for animal feed or milled into flour to be baked into bread. In many country areas, gleaning was well-regulated, with the church bell rung in the morning to signify that gleaning could begin. The guard sheaf, (a sheaf of corn that signified that the field was not yet ready to be gleaned, was also removed.
The picture painted is of a rural community where consideration was given to its less well-off members. With wages alone unable to meet the dietary requirements of the labouring poor, growing vegetables on an allotment, keeping a pig or a few chickens, and gleaning after harvest helped to supply the table with food. Self sufficiency was important. People foraged for mushrooms, scrumped for apples and made their own dandelion wine for use as a medicine and a pick-me-up.
Children in those days had a freedom to roam over the countryside but were expected to help support the family by doing jobs. Everybody walked everywhere and although there was some mechanisation on the farm, horses were still heavily used. Socialising was centred around the local public house where company and music (a piano was rescued from the Lord Nelson during the fire!) could be enjoyed. Nevertheless, alcoholism was a problem, especially when the wage-earner spent the money on drink rather than on his dependant family. There are also some sad tales here: the man who had both eyes removed due to cataract surgery and the two best friends who had a fist fight one day on their way home from work, deafening one for life.
As family historians, we necessarily focus on relationships within a family but Granddad’s account reminds us that our ancestors lived in communities, with lives that revolved around friends, neighbours and workmates. I value it for the personal insights it gives into a time long past. You can see the world through his eyes. His world was soon going to change as in the next instalment, the family moves into the centre of Wantage and Granddad leaves behind his boyhood to enter the world of work. Please subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss it!
© Judith Batchelor 2020
15 thoughts on “A Berkshire Boyhood”
Hi Jude. How lovely to have these memories. It’s easy to see this life through rose-tinted glasses – rustic, innocent, sustainable – but as you show there was a dark and difficult side as well.
Last year I managed the Vale and Downland, a lovely museum in a listed building in Wantage which tells the story of the town and surrounding villages. I drove to work past the Lord Nelson every day! You must visit the museum, as there are a lot of relevant displays, including an old fire engine, farming equipment, and information on the Boys’ school. There is also an archives, with a number of records not found in Berks Archives, and local historian Trevor Hancock who is based there a couple of times a week is a mine of information. Do let me know if you’d like an introduction. Ps the museum cafe has great cake as well!
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That’s amazing! It sounds a wonderful museum and so relevant to anyone interested in family history or the local history Perhaps next year! I would love an introduction to Trevor Hancock.
Another brilliantly woven tale Jude that links beautifully Grandad’s memories into the context of the community that he lived in as well as the life that he led.
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Thank you! I hope it gives readers a glimpse into another way of life, particularly for anyone with ancestors living in a rural area. It is fascinating to learn about the activities that children got up to and how they helped their families.
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It’s like dipping your toes into a bygone era where life just seemed so much easier, but in reality were more likely a lot tougher!
It’s definitely a reminder that it was a struggle to get enough food at times.
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A lovely story of a family living at Charlton near Wantage in the late 19th early 20th Centuries. I always enjoy reading these stories and write my own up for the Wantage Herald. I see you mentioned me above. Perhaps we can meet sometime in 2021, Covid restrictions permitting of course.
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Hi Trevor, glad you enjoyed the story. There is something special about having a first-hand account. Granddad’s memoirs are mainly focussed on his time in the Navy but I’ve really enjoyed doing the additional research into the background to his childhood. My next blog is focussed on his first jobs in Wantage. I also hope to write an article at some point on the Wantage Tramway. His father became the general manager in 1922. It would be great to meet and chat more. Maybe next year!
Another fascinating glimpse into the past and very well written. I love the way you weave the social history into your grandad’s story. You are so fortunate to have these memoirs written by your grandad. I’m looking forward to the next installment. Well done!
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Thanks for the lovely feedback.