Childhood memories of Bowers Gifford, North Benfleet and Pitsea

My Early Years in and around Pound Lane

Clifton Stores, Pound Lane seen in the 1920s.
© J. Wernham.
My mother outside the stores in 1927. Note the Browne's Tea advertisement.
© J. Wernham
From the same year, my mother, the stores and some Pound Lane bungalows.
© J. Wernham.
Dulci Doman, Pound Lane, North Benfleet looking towards Bowers Gifford c.1920s. Note the Model 'T' Ford in the background.
© J. Wernham.
My Grandfather with the telephone exchange in the background c.1930s.
© J. Wernham.
Miss Seabrooke's class, St. Margaret's School, Bowers Gifford. I'm in the third row from the front, far right.
© J. Wernham.
A pair of Fowler steam ploughing engines of the type used by Mr Keeling.
© J. Wernham.
Pylons of the type erected over Bowers marshes in the 1950s.
© J. Wernham.

Up until my middle teens I was brought up in Pound Lane, Bowers Gifford, Pitsea. My mother’s parents moved from Bermondsey, South London to a little cottage called Dulci Doman in North Benfleet in the early 1920s. This cottage had a large piece of ground which my grandfather turned into a smallholding, on which he kept cows, pigs, geese, chickens and ponies, etc. His sister used to drive from London to Pound Lane in a `Twin Set` (a large trap pulled by two horses) to stay for a weekend in the country. In those days land was very cheap, and he bought several plots in the Pound Lane/Clifton Road area. He opened up a small general stores in Clifton Road called Clifton Stores. Later he built a row of bungalows, and a larger shop in Pound Lane, also called Clifton Stores, then moving into the new shop in 1927. He also opened up a shoe shop in Pitsea. My mother ran the general stores for my grandfather after he retired. My uncle took over the running of the shoe shop.

I was born the latter end of WW2, and as a child have fond memories of Saunders the Bakers horse drawn van stopping outside my home, and Mr Saunders doing his rounds with a large wicker basket on his arm, and the smell of freshly baked bread. A Corn Chandler from nearby Tarpots also delivered by horse and tumbrel. This was driven by a Mr Polly who used to tie up his horse on a tree in our hedge while he made his deliveries. This horse would not let anyone get near him except Mr Polly. If at any time Mr Polly was ill, the horse stayed in the field, no one would go near him. A Mr Markham also used a horse drawn canvas covered van to deliver greengrocery, and when I was older I used to help him, sitting on the back of the cart with my legs dangling over the tail board hanging on trying hard not to fall off, (there was no health and safety then!)

Many of the roads were unmade and had large ruts in them; these were the plotland roads where plots of land were sold back in the 1920s at £5 a plot. People mostly from London bought these plots and built small wooden bungalows on them to use as weekend holiday homes. After the war, due to bomb damage, a lot were made homeless, and had to move into their plotland holiday homes.

An annual funfair used to hire my mothers field at the back of our house. I used to look forward to seeing and riding on the huge steam showman’s engine that used to drive the Gallopers and provide the lighting for the fair.

St. Margaret’s School

When I started school at St. Margaret’s, Bowers Gifford, a Mr Jack Campbell used to run a school bus. It was an old Bedford coach, that always stank of petrol. The bus fare was one old penny. The teachers at the school then were: Miss Balaam, Miss Lloyd, Miss Seabrooke, Miss Ashton and Miss Ashton’s sister was head teacher, who we had to call Madam. In later years we had a male teacher, a Mr Mitchell, who we had to call sir. Each morning we had to attend chapel at St. John’s in the school grounds. Father Heathwood would take the service, and afterwards we would be marched in single file back to the class room with Miss Balaam taking the lead. A wonderful lady who had total control over the children, if there was the slightest murmur in class when she was writing at her desk, she would only have to look over the top of her glasses, and without saying a word, it would all go silent.

School Dinners

In the late 1940s, St Margaret’s School had its own kitchens and dining hall, which was behind St John’s Chapel (now all demolished). In those days there were three lady cooks, (later called dinner ladies). All the food was prepared and cooked in the kitchens by these three ladies. I was made dinner monitor for the first sitting. At lunch time (called dinner time back then) I had to leave class early and go to the dining hall to set up and lay my table with knives, forks and spoons. There were eight places on each table, and six tables, each with its own monitor. When the bell rang, the first sitting would arrive at the hall and take their places. It was then my job to collect two plates from the plate table, and go to the serving area where the cooks would serve the food onto the plates. I would then return to the table to serve the boys with their dinner. I would repeat this four times, on the last trip the cooks would ask which plate was mine, on which they would add extra helpings. The cooks made a special mash potato which was roasted called ‘bait’, why it had this name I don’t know. Nearly all the boys liked this as it was delicious, and it soon ran low, but the cooks always made sure there was enough left for the dinner monitors, as we had our food last. When my table had finished eating I gathered up all the dirty plates and placed them into a large sink, any food left over was scraped into the `pig bin`. A repeat performance was made with the dessert, again extra was given to the monitors (perks of the job!).

In later years the kitchens were closed down and all the hot food was delivered in large metal containers, the food never tasted the same. The cooks were then renamed dinner ladies.

Playground Games

Some of the seasonal games we played and things we did at St Margaret’s are still played today, but some are long forgotten or forbidden. The winters back then were very cold unlike today. In January and February there was always days of hard frost and sometimes snow. Waking up on these frosty mornings, the first thing you noticed was all the patterns on the windows, made by `Jack Frost`. It was as if someone had etched these on the glass in the night. Out in the playground white cobwebs in the hedges glistened in the early morning sun, and if there were any large puddles frozen over, these were immediately made into slides. Bigger and much longer slides were made if it had been snowing before the frost, some of these were 10 to 14 yards long (9 to 13 metres). We would run up towards these at full pelt then turning sideways slide along to the end.

In the spring on Mayday we would help put the `Maypole` up, this pole was about 12 feet high. It was painted with flowers and had 20 multi-coloured ribbons hanging from the top of the pole to the ground. Two circles of children would gather around the pole, forming an inner circle and outer circle. Each child held a ribbon and fanning out from the pole, would then dance around the pole to music, the outer circle going in a clockwise direction, and the inner circle going in a anticlockwise direction. The ribbons slowly winding themselves down the pole, then the music would stop, the children would turn around and dance back in the other direction until all the ribbons had unwound from the pole.

In the weeks leading up to the summer holidays, we had fun making moss gardens on a earth bank at the back of the playground, which was just below a hedge where we found different types of mosses on the damp ground. Looking for wild flowers was another game to see who could find the most, `Lords and Ladys`, `Jack by the hedge`, `Lady’s Slipper`, etc, etc. Then there was `Love balls` and `Goose Grass` and `Teasel` which we would throw at each other so they stuck on our clothes. Making peashooters out of Hogweed stems was something else we use to do. (This earth bank and hedge and field behind the school is now long gone, due to the A13 Bowers Gifford/Pitsea/Vange bypass.)

Then there was marble season, where we would roll coloured glass marbles towards a drain cover trying to get the marble to drop into the hand recesses in the cover. Cigarette cards which we would `flick` against a wall trying to get it to land on top of another card that was on the ground. `He` was another game we played, if you where chased and touched by another child, then you became `It`, so you had to chase after someone to touch them, then they became `It`, and so on.

……the game was on to see who had the hardest conker, by taking it in turns to hit each others conker until one of them split and fell off the string.

Autumn was `Conker` season where you looked for the largest horse-chestnut you could find, make a hole through it with a skewer, pass a piece of string through the hole which had a big knot at one end which the conker sat on. Then the game was on to see who had the hardest conker, by taking it in turns to hit each others conker until one of them split and fell off the string.

Opposite the school was a little sweet shop called Reddingtons. In here you could buy Black Jacks at 4 for a penny, or Gobb Stoppers at a penny each, Bubble Gum, again one penny, Lemonade Powder in little bags or Sherbet in little tubes with a Liquorice straw. A little way past this shop was a Blacksmiths run by a Mr Markham. I often stopped and watched him shoe a horse, and sometimes if I was lucky I would watch him and his mate shrinking a new iron tyre on a wooden cart wheel, first by heating it red hot on the fire, then after it was on the wheel, throwing buckets of cold water on it to shrink it so that it was tight.

On Saturday mornings there was children’s matinée at The Century cinema in Pitsea. Most of the films were westerns, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger, etc. In the summer months I used to go gleaning for wheat after harvest at `Jacksons Farm` North Benfleet as my mother had a lot of chickens. There also used to be a lot of carp fish in the farm pond, and many a happy hour was had with rod and line. Then one day someone put a large pike in the pond which put paid to all the carp.

All Saints Church, North Benfleet

In the late 1950s I used to help with the Sunday service at All Saints Church, North Benfleet. My job was getting there an hour before the service to light the oil lamps that kept the church warm in the winter, ring the bell, and take the collection. The Rector then was Reverend Hughes, who would arrive at the church on a green BSA C15 motor cycle with his wife on the pillion. He lived at Nevendon Rectory and was also Rector of St. Peter’s in Nevendon. Once a year a summer fete was held in the rectory gardens, and at Christmas time a children’s party in the nearby Tithe barn.

Sadly all this has now gone, only St. Peter’s remains. All Saints at North Benfleet has now been closed for many years due to subsidence of the tower, and I believe it is now looked after by the nearby farm. St. John’s Chapel at Bowers Gifford has now been demolished including the old school kitchens behind it.

Pound Lane North Benfleet

In the early 1950s in Pound Lane, Bowers Gifford, the GPO (General Post Office) as it was called in those days, decided to replace the overhead telephone wires with underground cables. They started digging the trench from the bottom of Pound Lane in about 1953. Back then trenches were dug in the road, first by marking out the width and length with chalk, then using a pneumatic drill with a slim wide tip, to break the road surface along this line. Behind this drill was another drill, braking the surface between the lines into small lumps, then came men with picks and shovels to dig the trench, (no JCBs or Mini Diggers back then!). There was also a pump to remove the water from the trench to be discarded in the nearby ditch.

………he would then light up his pipe, and the air was filled with the sweet smell of tobacco smoke mingling in with the pungent smell of paraffin oil lamps.

Each day an hour before dusk, a night watchman would start to light up his paraffin road lamps. These were square with oval tops from which protruded a large hooked handle. Painted red, these lamps had large red lenses on three sides, the forth side was a door to get to the fount and burner. The night watchman had a little green canvas shelter with a bench to sit on, lit by a glowing oil hurricane lamp. Outside this hut was a coke brazier (fire basket), with a large cast iron kettle simmering on the hot coals. On most nights I used to go and help this old man to put the lamps out along the edge of the trench, which was to warn people of the deep trench when darkness fell, (back then the whole of Pound Lane was only lit by a few gas street lamps, seven I think). Afterwards he would go back to his shelter where he would proceed to make tea in a blue enameled teapot. With his mug of tea made, he would then light up his pipe, and the air was filled with the sweet smell of tobacco smoke mingling in with the pungent smell of paraffin oil lamps. After the pipes which had four sections inside were placed in the trench, it was filled in, then rolled flat by a large steam roller. This roller was parked at night in the wide entrance to Cornwall Road.

As it was only a short distance from my home, in the evening I used to visit this lovely green and black and polished brass steam roller. The smell of burning coal, hot oil, and steam, and listening to the crackle of the dampened down fire, which would be brought back to life the following morning, to make steam for the days work.

At regular intervals were square manholes where the telephone cables were pulled through the pipes. When they started to remove the telegraph poles and wires later in the year, I remember missing the sound of these wires `singing` in the wind. I can remember our telephone number back then was -`North Benfleet 263` and the telephone exchange was next to Hall Road, North Benfleet. Back in 1927 my Grandfather lived in a little cottage opposite this exchange called `Dulci Doman` and in later years, always liked to sit in front of this exchange on a stool to chat with passers by, (Dulci Doman was demolished in the late 1950s, but I believe the outside toilet is still standing today, which was built by my Grandfather). This exchange has now been converted into a home.

The gas street lamps were replaced by electric street lamps in the late 1950s which were attached to the electric light poles. One of these poles was in the hedge of our front garden, and a street lamp was attached to it, which lit up our front path and garden, quite a novelty at the time.

The ‘Pound’ in Pound Lane

The village ‘Pound’ which would have been in Pound Lane, North Benfleet, was sometimes used as an early form of gaol or lock-up to hold petty criminals until they could be dealt with by the local magistrate. The most common use was to hold stray animals, cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. They were driven into the pound and kept there at the expense of the owner, until such time as he paid the fine, the amount claimed by the ‘impounder’ (the person onto whose land they had strayed on) for the damage done and the fee to the pound keeper, for feeding and watering them. If not claimed within three weeks, the animals were driven to the nearest market and sold, the proceeds going to the impounder and the pound-keeper.

A clever form of receipt was sometimes used. The person who found the animals on his land cut a stick and made notches, one for every beast, and then split the stick down the centre of the notches so that half of each notch appeared on each stick; one half he kept, the other he gave to the pound-keeper. When the owner came to redeem his animals and had paid for the damage done, the impounder gave him him his half stick. He took this to the pound-keeper, and if the  two pieces tallied, it proved he had paid, and his beasts were freed. Hence the word ‘Tally-stick’ and the pound-keeper being referred to as ‘The Tallyman’.

Watching the pylons go up

In the 1950s the whole country was dotted with giant electricity pylons due to the formation of the National Grid. As a young child I was fascinated by the building of these pylons. I used to cycle down to Bowers Marshes to watch these men working so high up in the air. I can remember they had no safety harnesses (what would the health and safety people say about that today!) As far as I know no one ever fell off. The overhead cables were pulled from pylon to pylon by two Field Marshal caterpillar tractors coupled together. As I’ve loved tractors from early childhood, I used to go down to the marshes in the evening when all the men had gone, and climb up on these machines and pretend to drive them, happy days!

Another interesting scene was when Mr Keeling was using his huge Fowler steam ploughing engines. They were based at Grays Hill, and he used to drive them along the road to the farm he and his men were working on. These engines worked in pairs, one engine was placed at the top of the field and the other at the bottom. Under the boiler of each engine was a large winding drum containing a long thick steel cable, this cable was attached to one end of a huge cultivator, the cable of the other engine was attached to the other end of the cultivator. This cultivator was then pulled across the field from one engine to the other by this cable. When the cultivator reached the engine that was pulling, both engines would move along a few feet in the same direction, after this was done the engine that had been pulling would blow its whistle to signal to the other engine at the opposite end of the field to start pulling, this would be repeated until the whole field had been deep cultivated.

Some Pound Lane characters

……..the tax disc on the windscreen was a label from a bottle of `Guinness`. Tommy was a real `wheeler dealer` an `Arthur Daley` of the time.

I can remember a lot of real characters who lived in Pound Lane. There was a man whose name was Tommy, this chap had only one eye. He drove a large articulated flat trailer lorry, the tax disc on the windscreen was a label from a bottle of `Guinness`. Tommy was a real `wheeler dealer` an `Arthur Daley` of the time. He used to park his lorry at the entrance to Clifton Road, which was the other side of our fence. I was always fascinated by all the old scrap military vehicles on the trailer of this lorry. There was Bren gun carriers, small Tanks, and Jeeps all left over from WW2, and now heading to the scrap man. Tommy was a wonderful driver who reversed his articulated lorry from Clifton Road across Pound Lane onto a small bridge over a three foot deep ditch with only inches to spare, (remember he only had one eye), into Prices yard to turn round. This yard has now been developed into homes.

Another was a lady who had no legs just two stumps, she had a little green wooden trolley that she would sit on. It was very low with a narrow centre board, she would straddle this and move the trolley along the road by these stumps. She used to sit under the gas lamp opposite Clifton Road and do her knitting for hours at a time. She used to travel miles on that trolley.

Then there was Henri the milkman, whose milk float was a very old Bull Nose Morris. This car had its back seat and upper bodywork cut away to carry his crates of milk. Henri could never pass `The Harrows` public house at North Benfleet when it was open in the mornings, and he did not leave until closing time in the afternoon. So as we lived near the end of Henri’s round we did not get our daily milk till late afternoon. My Mother got round this by having a pint of milk delivered in the morning from `The Dairy` which was opposite `Pound Lane Post Office`, and was run by a Mr Hodges, who used to deliver the milk on an old trade bike. The reason why my Mother didn’t `sack` Henri, was his father had been a good customer and friend when she ran Clifton Stores, so she did not want to get Henri into trouble.

Another character was Ben, a short tubby man, who was always dressed in a light green tweed three piece suit and a matching pork pie hat. He came down from London most weekends to visit his mother, but spent most of the time in `The Gun Inn` at Bowers Gifford. After closing time you would see him staggering down Pound Lane, then all of a sudden he would fling his arms around in the air trying to keep his balance, then fall flat on his back. This was repeated several times until he reached his mothers home, the funny thing was he never seemed to hurt himself. Great days!

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  • My grandfather Herbert Clark-Westfield moved to Pound Lane, Bowers Gifford around 1900 from East London. The story goes that he purchased land and had a house built along that unmade road as they wanted to get out into the country. Less than two years later, his father joined him and also had a house built next door (Thomas). My grandfather Herbert was a cycle agent and he and his wife Edith also ran a shop and provisions store. Their three daughters, Violet, Winnie and Doris went to North Benfleet School and their names are in the log book. My grandfather also ran market stalls selling produce in Pitsea and Vange. He left the area around 1923 when he moved to Norfolk.

    By Moira Walshe (07/02/2020)
  • I thoroughly enjoyed your memories of Pound Lane and North Benfleet which I happened on after visiting All Saints Church recently. Although I am not a ‘local’ your school days resonated with me as I was born in 1948. Being a Londoner I moved to the New Town in 1974 to Vange. I had always wanted to live in the countryside but sadly it was vanishing fast. I now have time to visit the remaining old buildings, mostly churches! I love to hear of times gone by so thanks for sharing them.

    By Pauline Coulson (28/10/2018)
  • My mother grew up at mussels near to St Margretts church, sadly she passed away last November, Doris Halls, I’m trying to find out more about her childhood and growing up in this area, she came from a large family, 5 sisters and 1 brother, so reading your information is very helpful. Stephen, her son

    By Stephen (26/09/2018)

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