SCHOOL

Every morning in school our schoolmaster, John Wills, nicknamed Jimmy, gave his pet girls gob stoppers (sweets). He’d walk round during lessons and put a gob stopper in their mouth as they were busy writing. Very rare would the boys get one. Sometimes after he’d been through the classroom, forty odd of us, picking his pets, he may have one or two over. Perhaps some girls would be absent through illness or something. He would try to give us one. No way, we weren’t having his leftovers, so we refused. But his favourite trick as you were bent over doing your work, was he would reach over from behind and push a gob stopper in your mouth. We boys set our teeth and shook our heads.

One day I had a cold. Much to the amusement of the other boys Jimmy tried to push a gob stopper in my mouth. “Oh you have a cold!” he said, wringing his snot-sticky hands. We boys were tough, and no way would we have anything that girls had.

We grew up hard, men before we were boys hardly. Our fathers took us to work – garden or on the farms. Over sixty men were working on farms, gardens or linked to the land, so children after school helped in some measure.

On one occasion I did well in the school exams. Top of the school at eleven years old. Jimmy did me well: Sixpence (6d – 2 and a half pence) was my reward, plus a tennis ball. The sixpence was out of his pocket. A king’s ransom for me.

The ball was given to the school for collecting eggs and money from parents, farmers, shop or business people, for the Doctor Barnardo children: Dozens and dozens of eggs we brought to school and money. We tramped around the roads and lanes, miles, for a week, every spare moment – visiting all and everyone, even the tight-fisted and miserable. We knew them so we took it in turns. “I went last year, your turn this year!” We went and wheedled the pennies, perhaps a couple of eggs. No matter how small or large we took pride in the fact that all gave something. When we finished there was some three or four pounds in money. Possibly twenty odd dozen eggs (whole ones) for our cause. A few were broken by small children opening gates and climbing stiles on the way to school with their eggs.

A real Belcher would tell you a tall story, or a fib, looking you straight in the eye, without blinking, or smiling. They would unwind a real corker. Offtimes others would extend it:

Bill got a nanny goat from a local farmer, which he put in his council house garden.

“My,” said a neighbour, “She’s got a lot of milk!”

“Yes,” said Bill, “I milk two gallons a day from her. Course the kids ’as all the milk they want from her as well.”

“Do they?”

“Oh yes” said Bill. “Sometimes I ’as to milk a gallon or so out last thing at night, ’cos of the hedgehogs suckling her!”

“Do they now?” said the neighbour.

“Yes” says Bill. “I reckon she does six or seven gallons a day altogether.”

Some heard of the goat and its big milk yield, so he got a milk churn (13 gallon) put it by Bill’s gate with a note on it:

“To be called for daily.” Someone else saw the milk lorry driver collecting from the farms and sent him in the council estate to collect the churn. The village laughed for weeks over that – such story telling is known as ‘razeling’.

“Please sir, shoes gone to be mended.”

This was a regular absence with half the children who had only one pair of boots – no slipper or welly or plimsole. Paper hankies were unheard of – perhaps a bit of rag, but not always that what they usually did was blow it onto the floor. Hence the riddle “what is it the rich man saves and puts in his pocket and the poor man throws away?”

Beware of a child with a cold if you’re playing because their sleeves would be filthy where they would backhand their nose like the chap with a bad streaming cold being asked the way: He gave directions with his hands, “If you go up here and across there,” each time the back of his hands would brush under his nose “and down there by our Will’s mother,” the sleeve being brought down and under the nose to give a final clean.

“Ole 4 eyes – 2 in front and 2 behind,” this was a child with 2 great big patches on the backside of their trousers. Oft times they were blue or brown on grey, no care was taken to match or blend the patches tacked on with black cotton or thread some­thing hard wearing, as they would say, “No matter about the colour as long as they be clean and tidy like.”

Night and morning for 2 years Crackin Charlie walked 10 miles for seasonal work. This was haymaking, harvesting, mangold cart and thrashing. He was a happy worker especially thrashing. He liked cutting the bonds of strings, around the sheaves of corn and feeding them down into the concave of the thrasher. The hum of the drum as it revolved, the slap of belt and buckle as they turned, the wheels of straw shakers, the elevator rakes and chains clicking and the clanker, the bark of the drum when a sheave went in wholesale or wet and not parted very well by the feeder. He loved the noise of it all.

When he’d had his 3 o’clock break, Mum sent gallons of tea, chunks of cake – homemade, then the last two hours he would sing every song he knew. Other workers nodded towards him and smiled:

“Crackin’s in fine fettle today.” Dad used to say:

“That boy’s worth an extra bob (a shilling or 5p) a day the way they put their backs in it when he loosens up with ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.”

The work was so much easier with Crackin brightening up the end of a hard day. I believe he had some illness that left him in bad shape that he did not do hard work again but he loved his days with us at Chisnell and Bush Farm, Clifton Fields, Hazel Hedge Lane and Deddington.