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Reminiscences - Donald Hutchings

Thorncombe Village Trust

The following record was written by Donald Hutchings for an exhibition at the former school in Holditch arranged by the present owners, Marilyn and Simon Rose. Pictures can be seen here.

                                                                    Holditch and Hewood in wartime

I suppose that I should start at what would have been the beginning of my association with the school, this I believe started in 1938 in a period known in history as "the Crisis", when the whole of Europe was in a state of confusion. My parents, as many others of that time, had memories of the First World War. Not only my father with the experience of the trenches, but also my mother with the experience of the Zeppelin raids on London, and not needing much imagination, they realised what the technical advances made over the twenty years since those happenings could do if war once again broke out. They therefore decided that myself and my brother should be sent out of London to my father's sister at Hewood. As you know, nothing happened and I am a little vague as to how long we stayed at that time before it was considered safe for us to return to London.

War was declared in 1939 and there was quite a long period of inactivity called the phoney war when nothing appeared to happen, and then in the Spring of 1940 the air war called the Battle of Britain started. Air raids on London began and it was in one of these raids that my Great Aunt and Great Uncle were killed. As soon as this happened my brother and myself were immediately sent again to my father's sister at Hewood.

This was when we started what was to be quite a long spell of attending the school at Holditch, which, incidentally, my father, Frank Hutchings, his brother Harry and sisters May and Florence, had attended in the eighteen nineties. They left school in those days at the age of twelve, all quite proficient at reading, writing, and arithmetic with the only calculators they had access to being situated between their ears.

To put things in perspective I should describe what was the rather widespread catchment area for the school and who, to the best of my memory, lived where.

If I start at Hewood and go clockwise it was as follows:

At Hewood with my aunt and uncle (Mr. & Mrs S. Perrott) as evacuees, Donald Hutchings, Stephen Hutchings, and at later dates Joe Radley, John Dalton, and Charley Mears.

At what is now number 3 Hewood, Percy Woodman and David Woodman.

At number 5 Hewood Margaret Wheadon and Gerald Wheadon, - (my cousins).

At number 7 Hewood, Freda Manning and Johnny Manning.

At number 9 Hewood, Olive Seward and Gordon Seward.

Going clockwise the next would be Beerhall Farm where lived the twins Joan and Joyce Speed and their brother Alan Speed.

Continuing round we come to Holditch itself where there, opposite the school, were Kenneth Vincent, Silvia Vincent, and Stanley Vincent.

Going on down to Lower Holditch at the road that leads to Holditch Manor Farm were two wooden bungalows. In one lived two brothers named Mathews and in the other, I believe, was a boy called Thomas Lodge.

Back up past the school at a farm I think was called James Lears were the two sisters named Lee with their brother John Lee.

We now have to go down to West Ford where there was Phyllis Larcombe, and three evacuees called Mackay. The eldest girl was Alice and the youngest was a boy named George but, I cannot remember the name of the younger girl. If we continue on to Yonder Hill, there was Geoff Meech, Mary Meech, Tom Phelps, Silvia Phelps, and Cisser Ebdon.

The next place was West Lears Farm, where John Gold lived and I think it was a relative evacuated with them named Pamela Start.

To complete the circle, finally the Chubbs - John and two sisters who lived down Partway Lane.

Looking at the list I do not think I have missed anyone out but you know the tricks that memory can play after 65 years.

                                                                        Schooldays in Holditch

Another thing I think must be done is to transport ourselves back to what the school was like all those years ago. You entered off the road on to a pathway that led down to an entrance that had two doors in it. One had an iron barred grill in it and looked like a prison cell but was in fact the boys cloakroom which had in one corner a big round bulge which I never

found out for sure, but thought was the back of a fire and baking ovens in the actual school mistress’s house. The other door led straight into the school into the Big Room.

The school was only comprised of two rooms, which we called the Big Room and the Little Room, and at the far end of

the Big Room from the door that we had entered was another door leading to a porch and the girls cloakroom. When using the term cloakroom that is what they were - simply a place for hanging coats. The toilets, such as they were in those days - bucket type, were in the corner of the yard. The cloakrooms as such were well used, as in those days there were no such things as school buses or any form of public transport and you were dressed for being able to walk the considerable distances in all weathers and arrive reasonably dry. The boys all wore leather boots that had as much ironware in the form of toe plates, heel plates, and hobnails as the average horse and sounded like that when we walked along the road. Sometimes, when it was really heavy rain or snow, we would wear Wellingtons, but it must be remembered that in those days up to the age of fourteen boys wore short trousers and that the Wellingtons would get damp around the tops either with the rain or playing in the snowdrifts and by the time you got home the tops of the Wellingtons would have rubbed your legs quite raw.

This was an era when electricity was still forty years away and I think the lighting was oil lamps suspended from the very high rafters in both of the rooms. The heating arrangements for both rooms were big round cast iron stoves that were well guarded against accidental touching, with brass fenders around them, but which sometimes when the wind was in a certain direction would smoke. Then all the windows would be opened and we would go out to play until it had cleared. This fact was sometimes aided by older pupils finding out that stuffing up the chimney had the same effect. There was one incident that could have been highly dangerous. Someone (it was never discovered who) put a twelve bore cartridge in the stove and when the fuel burnt through to it and heat caused it to explode, it frightened the lot of us!! Luckily the stove was strong enough to contain the shot, or what was intended as a prank could have had very serious consequences.

The other thing that was yet to make its appearance in that part of the country was a supply of mains water. I can never remember washing my hands at the school then, but mind you, in those days little boys did not go a lot on hand or any other kind of washing. I have a vague memory that there was a pump in the garden of the house attached to the school. I have no memory of what we did if we wanted a drink at lunchtime, as there were no such thing as

school dinners then and everyone brought sandwiches. I know that food was rationed then but my memory of the sandwiches that we took to school put me off jam for the next twenty five years of my life. We took jam sandwiches! There is nothing to compare with jam sandwiches where the jam is spread straight onto the bread without butter so that by lunchtime it is not on the bread, but has soaked into the bread which by that time was beginning to curl up at the edges. Having said that, what I would not give for some bread equal to the quality of those days!

I can remember that we used to have Horlicks at midmorning break, made in a big straight sided copper jug and agitated very vigorously with a plunger to make it frothy, the water for it having been heated in a big kettle on the cast iron stove.

I seem to be jumping ahead of myself not having mentioned the teachers of that time. The Head was Miss Wells who must have been in her final years of teaching and was succeeded by Mrs. Parkhurst, whilst in the little room Miss Crabbe was the other teacher, who when you consider the little heathens they were landed with did a very creditable job.

Directly in front of the school was a playground with an earth and gravel surface and nearly central with its roots having become part of the front wall, was a huge and lovely tree. I believe it was an Oak. I do not know if it still survives today. (Unfortunately not - ed.) Next to this was a grass field which we also used for sports when it was dry. We used to play a game called Shinty, for which we used a wooden ball about 4 inches in diameter and sticks, mainly young ash cut roughly to the shape of hockey sticks. I never did fully understand the rules, if there were any, all I can remember is that without any shin pads or any other protection it could be an enthusiastic but painful game.

Another lesson was gardening in the walled garden at the back of the school. I remember an occasion when the boys were out there digging out Brussels Sprout stumps. They were observed by the girls through their open cloakroom window. This in its turn seemed to prompt the throwing of the stumps through the said window and the ensuing giggling

and squealing of course brought authority into the picture in the form of the headmistress, Mrs. Parkhurst. She was just in time to receive one the stumps in the stomach! This somehow seemed to curtail this activity.

There was always something happening and on one occasion at lunchtime the older boys discovered Miss Wells' car in her garage and had quite an enjoyable time letting the car rim down backwards out of the garage on to the road and then jumping it back in on the starter. Luckily nobody got hurt as quite a few were there to watch and it did not seem

exciting enough to warrant a repeat. The car, if I remember correctly, was a nice little Black Standard Flying Nine.

There is a person who I think should be mentioned for his forbearance, although I cannot remember vandalism or deliberate damage done, but who would want to be a farmer with two orchards within spitting distance of a school, one of them right opposite the front gate. I cannot recall the farmer Mr Hurford ever complaining to the school even though I would think that every child in the school at some time had eaten his apples. At that time it did not enter your heads that it was stealing. They were just apples that you could eat and you only took what you could eat you did not do any damage or cause waste.

Sometimes when someone had some money we would go down the road to the pub, The Golden Fleece, and go to the back door to buy either a halfpenny Arrowroot biscuit or a penny packet of Smiths Crisps, which at that time weighed two ounces and would almost qualify as a family pack today. Each one contained a twist of blue paper holding salt.

Just along the road from the school was Higher Holditch Farm where Captain Shields lived. I understand his title must have come from the First World War and again I presume he was wounded as he was a very tall erect man who had a withered arm. He organised, and I believe commanded the local Home Guard. I do not know if he was one of the school governors but he seemed to visit the school quite frequently. He was a familiar sight locally as he used to ride about on an auto cycle with a little trailer, a wooden box on pram wheels attached in which he very often carried a rifle.

The only other occurrence that springs to mind as being worthy of note is the night the bomb fell. We were sure that it had been aimed at the school but unfortunately it missed, so we still had to attend school. But that is war for you.

I must make mention of Miss Wells' pets - a cat and a dog that both had the complete freedom to roam the school. The cat was called Bubbles which was quite apt really as the poor cat was either old or had a tartar build up on its teeth which caused it to dribble. It was very friendly, which was alright until it selected your desk to sit on. The dog was called Pal. I cannot say what breed he was but he was like a large Liver and White retriever, again as friendly as could be and quite versatile. It would lay down in the gangways and go to sleep and dream with its legs twitching and yapping away to itself. At the same time it emitted the most revolting smells.

I can remember in this period having a taxi arranged for me by the education authorities. This took me to Lyme Regis to sit what I think must have been the equivalent of the Eleven Plus at that time. Regrettably the only success I had on that day was to be able to purchase two bars of chocolate. Sweet ration coupons had not started and sweets were very scarce, so I considered this as quite an achievement. It also left me later with regret as, on returning to London, I left school having passed nothing. I started work at five thirty in the morning in 1943 on my

fourteenth birthday, in the middle of the bombing and Doodlebugs, as a messenger on the Southern Railway at Nine Elms. Things could have been worse, however. At least I survived.

When writing in the attached letter about having to walk to school in all weathers I was not complaining. You did not even think about it, it was just a fact that if you wanted to go anywhere you walked. This also had its compensations. In the different seasons, when coming home, we would pick and eat blackberries or the lovely great big dewberries, or

search for wild strawberries. Of these latter, if you found twenty they would have not filled the stomach of a fly.

Being a boy, I was of course part of what today would be called a knife culture as every lad that could possessed a pen knife which was used for many purposes but never, ever, thought of as a weapon. Again, on the way home from school you would find the stumps of curly kale which had been fed to sheep. This was where the knife was used to skin off the

outer part of the stump which revealed a nice crunchy core which was good to eat. Or perhaps it would be a piece of swede or turnip that would be all suitably cleaned up with the knife. The knife was used even to open the shells of hazelnuts, growing freely along the way. Nearly all men carried a penknife along with a length of binder twine. It was said at one time locally that there was nothing that you could not repair with these two things - anything from a broken gate hinge to a tractor, and the resulting temporary repair was usually still in place a couple of years later.

 Many thanks Donald for these vivid memories - more recently Donald wrote to us with further reminiscences of wartime Thorncombe. Read them here.