Medstead Memories #1
The 1920's by Douglas Sorrell
It was 1923, we docked at Tilbury and after disembarking, I was treated to the wonders of an underground train. Actually it was the District Line which goes partly at ground level before diving underneath buildings. We arrived at a house in Meanley Road, Manor Park, the home of my Uncle Charlie & Aunt Elizabeth. When Father left home, he maintained contact only with his next eldest brother and there had grown up a close relationship between our two families. It was to their home, the ever-welcome open door, that we were temporality accommodated. Sufficiently long enough for Father to find us a new home. Despite his ill health - he had recovered enough to make the journey home but naturally was obliged to take it steady - he set about his plan to find a little place in the country, enough to have around him some chickens and other livestock - an interest and an aid to keep the wolf from the door. This was the dream at the time of retiring officers from the Services and naturally he set about looking for a place in a location which Army officers favoured. South of Aldershot was the favoured place, down as far as Portsmouth.
Eventually, I was taken by my parents to see their choice of future abode. We drove to it in a hired horse-drawn carriage from Medstead Station, eight miles south of Alton. The house was in Paice Lane, about a mile from the station along flint roads - Macadam had not yet reached this far. We stopped outside a two story, red brick house, a design similar to my childhood drawing of a house with three windows upstairs and two down plus a front door in the middle. It was called 'Hazelhurst'.
I was soon exploring the out-houses, barn, stable and outside toilet. The house, situated on rising ground, separated from the neighbours each side by a broad stretch of land. The bulk of the land was at the rear; mostly meadows with about an acre of fruit trees and a kitchen garden. The immediate ground was partly ornamental, with a small wood to the left and large lawn and shrubbery in front with a sandy drive up to the front door. Of course, I was excited with so much to explore and the countryside looked lovely. Father had decided on this and it did not seem long after that, that we were there, with Curtis removal van unloading our belongings - or what was left of them because we left very much behind in Gibralter.
Hazelhurst comprised of about six acres of pasture and the house was set in about an acre or more surrounded by a front garden set out to lawn and shrubs, a drive with wooden carriage house at the top, behind which was our little wooden shed covered with honeysuckle which went by the name of Toilet, alongside of which were several sheds, one a stable, and all fronted by a large lawn surrounded by a privet hedge. There was a well and pump, a large greenhouse, a large kitchen garden with fruit trees. Behind this was open field reaching down beside the house, with a small wood fronting the lane. The rest of the acreage lay behind all this and was not very visible, as it lay over the rising ground.
Before long, the chicken houses arrived in sections, and were soon erected, in line one behind the other, as one would expect after a life in the Army, and around each house, a fence of wire netting and a gate. Father and Bernard, on whose shoulders all this work rested, seemed to be always busy planning and ordering from catalogues. Father had plunged most of his capital on doing a good and neat job in the earnest hope of creating an income. Next came chickens, Light Sussex, Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns and Whyandots as I still recall the names of the breeds, also some ducks. There were also boxes arriving containing few day old chicks from a firm in Foots Cray. I was not called upon to do very much to help as the bulk of this activity was done whilst I was at school. But I did take pleasure in helping at sundry tasks at the weekends.
The market garden was tolerably well laid out, a large area of potatoes, root vegetables and fruit bushes. The out-going owners marketed much of this produce and there was little to be done except, in due course, garner the crop. Fruit trees consisted of cherry, apple, pear and a quince, which bore fruit heavily that year and Mother made some delicious jam.
Father had also to invest in a carriage and horse. It was a four-wheeler, two seats to the front and two backing them. I remember a disturbance late one night, when we had all retired, a lot of kicking against wooden walls and Bernard rushing about in quite a state. The horse had colic but by the time the vet came the poor horse was dead. This was the first of many troubles to beset poor Dad.
Of course, I had to attend the local village school and for me it was a time full of learning other than that taught at lessons, and an experience that I would not like to have missed.
The Booker family who owned ['Chota Farm'] the small farm next to us up the lane had two boys, one about my age and one a little older. It was arranged that they would accompany me to school. A few yards on our journey, the elder spying a lovely blackbird foraging in the ditch, picked up a stone and with true aim hit it on the head. That was an unwelcome start to my association with them. The incident stayed with me ever since. A little further on, at the top of a rise, we turned on to a footpath, a narrow hedged path then over a stile and into a field in which cows grazed. I was in wonder. It was my first introduction to a country path and furthermore to cows. It did not occur to me that they were not carnivores. But I followed in my chums' footsteps and eventually crossed three or four more fields with cattle and with each crossing I became that little bit braver. Of course there were horses too to be met and some fields we crossed and some we skirted, eventually arriving into the village.
The village high street lay to our right, in front of us the old church encompassed by its customary grass; old yews and crooked gravestones, all enclosed with a low stone wall. To the left of this was the school with its small playground facing onto the road secured by a line of cement posts through which ran steel rails. The building was of flint faced stone, single story, not very large and on the right was a private dwelling in which I soon learnt that the Headmaster dwelt. Inside school consisted of a large long room in which all ages were taught from about eight upwards and in an adjoining room the younger ones taught by a lady, Miss Gibbs. It was a mixed school and I soon was to learn that the boys misbehaved with the girls in class. We had one break in the morning during which time some rough games were played - one boy stood with his back to the wall and cradled in his stomach the head of one bending over towards him, behind whom there were boys similarly bent over clutching the one in front of him. The opposing team ran and jumped as far forward as possible on to their backs and successively endeavoured to jump in a pile so as to make the line collapse. In later years this game was condemned as dangerous and banned. Otherwise the games were usually with a ball, such as rounders or football. If one was not engaged with swapping cigarette cards to make up sets of footballers, or whatever was the latest card in issue, there was also a game where one tried to win these cards off an opponent. Cards were stood up against a wall and a competitor flicked his card at them in attempt to knock them down. If successful all the cards on the ground were won.
I was soon was converted into a village lad. We had about an hour for midday break for which I took a packed lunch. However, I soon got into the habit of devouring this during the morning break so that I was free lunch time during which I joined other boys going to local woods to climb trees, or to the village pond on the green opposite the smithy into which we dangled a piece of string with a worm tied on the end and to which newts used to take a firm hold so that we could haul them out. If tired of that pursuit then perhaps we would walk over to the smithy and watch the smith hammer and shape the red-hot iron and shoe a horse. The smell of the smoke when he applied the hot shoe to the horses hoof is one remembered. Other escapades took the form of racing across the countryside, often helping ourselves to fruit crops and, in season, root crops like turnips. After we had managed to wipe some of the dirt off they tasted fine. We were served a cup of cocoa, at a charge of a halfpenny each day to have with our packed lunch, but if I had scoffed my lunch earlier in the morning in readiness to go on some lunchtime adventure, then I forwent the cocoa and spent the halfpenny on five toffees from King's shop in the village. They were either Sharp's or Bluebird toffees and it was quite exciting to see each toffee being slid across the counter, one after the other.
One thing I feel rather diffident about describing was the toilet. It had at first horrified me to stand beside a huge trough, filled with sawdust, and air my private little person to pee into this trough at the gaze of others standing all around and opposite, while performing similarly.
It was a Church of England school and of course the vicar, the Rev. Savory, visited us daily for prayers. Our nickname for him was naturally 'Save-me'. Although I was RC our family developed a close relationship with him and later when Father became an invalid and confined to home he regularly came to visit him. We, unkindly, used to say he came for tea and to listen to the marvel of the age - Father's wireless.
A Village Lad
The roads around were flint and were naturally hard on shoes. I had leather boots with hobnails. These boots were ugly things and without me in them stood about half an inch off the ground supported by a solid array of thick headed studs planted into the soles very close together so they formed a plate of steel. The heels were similarly adorned but edged with 'blakeys' - metal strips usually to the shape of the heel, (the name of the manufacturer - Blake). These boots were stiff and unforgiving, but had to be broken in - I suffered much. For many a day I arrived home from school with a bloodied handkerchief tied round a knee - or if I was lucky enough to have two hankies - one decorating each knee. Anyway, with so many falls on these stony roads, I was so often in need of repair. I left so much skin on those roads. Most dreaded were my Mother's attempts at removing gravel from under loose skin and often as not, the poultices that had to be applied later, always so very hot. Eventually I managed to scoot along the lanes without too many mishaps.
One way we had of getting to school, if the opportunity was offered us, was to catch or run behind a milk dray to the end of our lane where it turned off to the station. There were regular runs when farms used to send two or so of those tall metal churns to the station for transport to depots. It certainly speeded our arrival at school but it must have taken a lot out of me, running behind the cart, holding on with one hand and with the other, trying to quieten a bulky leather satchel from banging repeatedly on to my bottom.
However it was not too long before I heard the sad news that my neighbouring chums, the Bookers, were emigrating to Australia. The new occupant of the Booker's farm, a lady, turned out to be an ex-WAAC, a very mannish type and I never saw her other than dressed in trousers. An oddity for those days. We soon became friends and I used to dart through the hole in our fence and go and talk to her. Her name was Miss [Winifred] Barnes. I used to do little chores for her like carrying water to her chickens and small errands about the place. She was an odd character. On the other side to her was a place called 'The Pines', probably because it had a dark and foreboding copse of tall pine trees in front of the dwelling. Here lived Mr and Mrs Ogan. He worked for GEC at Hammersmith and travelled to London daily by train. As one would expect, working for such an august company, he had a generator to supply electricity to the home and this was a source of wonder to me. I became accustomed to spend my free days in their company. I was made welcome and they made quite a fuss of me. Well, they had a very nice daughter who I confess may have been the attraction. Her name was Beryl and when we were not doing some chores like feeding chickens, we went scampering round the countryside, climbing and birds nesting, and she became quite a tomboy. I taught her the rudiments of cricket and soon she persuaded her father to make a pitch up in the field; stumps, bat and ball soon appeared and we were in business. It was not long before Bernard and Babe were up in the field with us. These were light summer evenings and it was quite a team when we had visits from my cousins who all joined in. However, it became quite an expense in lost balls and Bernard hit upon the idea of fashioning wooden balls out of the knobs adorning the ends of cornice-poles, a supply of which were found pugged away in one of the sheds. Unfortunately, they hurt a little bit more than conventional leather balls as we played without pads.
Poor Father, he was to suffer many blows which contributed to his early demise. Once, twice or thrice his chicken houses were raided by foxes, Bernard probably not having secured them properly for the night. There lay the trail of part eaten bodies and feathers all the way towards a wood some couple of hundred yards away across the field. It seems strange to me now, but Father could not find a ready market for the eggs, though Bernard used to take boxes up to the station two or three times a week. I suppose also there were cash-flow problems. The doctor from Alton used to come fairly regularly to see Father and eventually it was advised that he should become inactive. A mobile invalid chair/bed was procured. It was a complicated unit. It could be a bed and altered into a chair.
My school had a library, a long low wooden cabinet stuffed with books. Up to now I had only had the luxury of having Richard Crompton's 'William' books and a large heavy book of Grimm's Fairy Tales, so this opened a vast new interest. My favourites became books by Ballentyne, stories of adventure, GA Henty, about the building of the Empire and Zane Grey, adventures in Canada - marvelous stories so well described. I became a bookworm and used to read, sitting on a stool beside my Father. I was thus company for him and handy for errands.
Paice Lane map (1908)
Father acquired a wireless, an object of wonder. It was a large black box out of which protruded five valves. Beneath each valve was a knob by which each valve was turned on and lit up to a steady glow. It was listened to by means of earphones but only one person could listen at a time. Later there came an Amplion loudspeaker, a small black horned shaped thing out of which sound was supposed to come. If we listened carefully we heard music or voices. The power for this set came from a heavy accumulator. Poor Dad, it was the case of ever running out of juice and the accumulators had to come all the way from Winchester, so half of every week we were without sound. The installation of this wireless was hilarious by today's standards. First, the aerial was measured out to exactly 100 feet and insulators added to each end. A local man fetched two tall poles and they were set up in holes just over 100 feet apart in a line in the direction of the radio transmitter, aimed by a compass bearing. The lead-in came through our French windows. Then for the earth, there had to be dug a hole into which was buried a piece of copper sheet with wire attached. To keep this effective, it had to receive a bucket of water poured on the spot every day.
There moved into a new bungalow a retired Major Renton. Apart from two or three lovely daughters, he was the proud possessor of a car - a wonder for those days. It was a Trojan, with solid tyres and on one memorable trip to Alton on which I had been invited to join them, it had rained and it seemed that we slid there because the tyres did not grip the road. We went along in a succession of slides. I remember this well as it was terrifying.
Once a year there was a Show and Fair, an event in village life. It was supported by the Lady in the Manor. Prizes were awarded for vegetables and flowers and in the children's section, I entered a selection of wild grasses, displayed standing up from a box covered with green paper. Amazingly I won first prize.
We had to suffer the inconveniences of living in the country. No water except that which collected in a deep well and this became a worry in dry spells, so watch had to be constantly kept on the water level. No gas or electricity, so lighting was by oil lamps and for cooking, when the kitchen range was not alight, we had oil stoves and an oven which were always blamed for under or over cooking. It was hard lines for sister Babe. She came in for most of the household chores and did not think much of that but seldom rebelled because of disturbing Father.
I was young, only eleven, and had escaped much that came as the result of the change in our life style. Things were very difficult on the farm and really Bernard, on whose shoulders the responsibility rested, had not been trained for it. This was an additional worry for Mother, especially with an invalid husband and the financial worry was very great. So it was on April 16th 1925, Father suffered a heart attack late in the night and although Bernard turned out to phone the doctor in Alton, by the time he arrived, Dad was dead. The last memory I have of Father's presence in the house was the oak coffin standing on trestles in the dining room and the smell of Arum Lillies that bedecked the room. A profound and everlasting memory. Thus, the end of this short episode in my life of being a Village Lad effectively came to an end.
Obituary - The late Captain B. R. Sorrell, R.A.S.C.
It is with regret that we have to announce the death of Captain B. R. Sorrell, Quatermaster, late Royal Army Service Corps, on 15th April 1925 at his home at Hazelhurst, Medstead, Hants.
He was invalided from Gibraltar in April 1923, suffering from Arterio Sclerosis and was placed on Retired Pay on account of ill-health on 15th June 1923.
The funeral took place privately on the 22nd of April at Alton Cemetery, when several representatives of the Corps - past and present attended. There were many floral tributes.
The late Captain Sorrell served in the Royal Army Service Corps for over 31 years, of which period 5 and 8 years were in Warrant and Commissioned Ranks respectively.
He was in possession of the Queen's South Africa Service Medal, 1914 Star, British War and Victory Medals and Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.
During the major period of the Great War, Captain Sorrell was employed at No. 2 Reserve Horse Transport Depot, Blackheath, as Assistant Adjutant, where he gave loyal and devoted service and earned a mention in the London Gazette of 24th February 1917 for 'Meritorious Service'.
From November 1919 until April 1923, he was Officer in charge of Barracks at Gibraltar, where he made quite a reputation for himself by his cheeriness and tact with dealing with the Staff, Units and Departments, with which he came in contact.
The Sorrells left Medstead shortly after Captain Sorrell's death. The house 'Hazelhurst' in Paice lane was built between 1894 and 1908 and has subsequently been extended and is now known as 'White House'.
Copyright John Sorrell, reproduced with permission.