Geoff Radford's Recollections of Thundersley
1946 - 1968
Growing up in Thundersley
I lived in Grasmere Road, which, at the time my grandfather bought the house (probably in the mid 30s), was the first one on the left hand side of the road, despite being half-way along the current stretch of houses, and had another field immediately beyond. It was called Top o’ the Hill before numbers came along but is now numbered 17. I was taken to live there in 1946 and left in 1968. The family left for more rural surroundings in the mid-70s, by which time traffic and development had already had significant impact along the north Thames corridor.
Unsurprisingly, the few houses on each side of Grasmere Road in the early days had generous gardens. The one opposite ours extended to give another frontage onto Borrowdale (also fairly sparsely occupied). This house was home to the Barrons (son, John Barron – Photo 12 – Thundersley Primary School 1954). Our own family home has now been altered out of almost all recognition, although features created in what was then a wonderful garden more than twice its current size are still visible in overhead imagery. Out of interest, my father always had an eye out for bargains, or better, on his travels around the county. Although we made the concrete division and coping from the top to middle lawns, the pink balustrade elements came from a roof being dismantled in Tilbury and the final version of the house windows at the rear (plate glass) came from renovation of a Boots store, I think in Grays.
Grasmere Road had a surface of compacted cockle shells, periodically replenished by Mr Cotgrove, who lived at the end of the ‘navigable’ part of the road. He undertook light haulage work in a small canvas-topped lorry and so needed a reasonably firm road surface. As part of the business, he transported meals to the primary school.
The ‘windmill lady’ of Windermere Road
Beyond Cotgrove’s smallholding, the road quickly tapered off to a narrow path leading across a shallow valley and then up to join the top of Windermere Road. The valley was an open grassy area with scattered bramble patches – the source of blackberry jelly and other treats for the family over many years until land speculation caused upheaval. At the junction with Windermere Road, a lone cottage was occupied by someone we called the ‘windmill lady’. She had a small wind-driven generator in the garden; a device well before its time. The roads extending down the hill towards New Thundersley were aptly named after the Lake District. They were pretty wet and muddy through the winter.
At the junction of Church and Grasmere Roads, a roadside gas light stood by a fire alarm call box. A long-standing temptation to break the glass and pull the handle was translated into full parental permission when my father accidentally set fire to an ash tree and dispatched me to do the deed – and it worked, yielding the hoped-for result in short order!
Making whistles from cow parsley stems
Opposite Grasmere Road, an overgrown area offered an attractive play site – tree climbing and making whistles from cow parsley stems spring to mind. Beyond this area, council buildings occupied the site ultimately used for Kingston Primary School and behind that (now the school sports field) was a small commercial apple orchard (never the scene of scrumping, of course!).
The route to and from school was inevitably much travelled and so the best-remembered part of the village. The first stretch, Church Road, had a roadside ditch that provided distraction as a good hunting ground for tadpoles and such. One of the old cottages was occupied by chirpy Miss Cox and her father, who would sit by the gate and greet passers-by. The post office was our nearest spot for everyday social exchange. The lasting impression of over-the-counter trade was the sing-song voice of the person behind the counter as she asked whether there was “Anything else?”. The corrugated iron-roofed annexe to the main Parish Hall opposite the post office housed a branch of the County Library and doubled as a meeting room for Sunday school and practising Morris dancers – a source of wondrous entertainment for small boys outside, jumping up to peer through the windows at strange goings-on. The main building housed the caretaker and offered more space for use by Scouts, Guides, youth club and the many other social functions of a busy village.
Right on the junction between Church, Hart and Kenneth Roads, Pond’s general store was an occasional shopping spot for the family. It was run by two brothers: Jim lived over the shop and had two boys (the elder was Melvyn – Photo 12). John, lived in Grasmere Road and was a Churchwarden at St Peter’s. When it came time to switch to a secondary school, ‘Pond’s Corner’ marked a change in my route. Queuing at the bus stop opposite the clinic for a No 1 in its blue Southend Corporation livery became the dull routine for a further seven years. Getting off on the way home was more exciting, however. It was usually possible to jump off the open platform at the rear of the bus as it swung round the bend into Hart Road. I never actually fell doing that but it was often a close run thing.
Along Hart Road, opposite the official alighting spot by Raymond’s Drive, the weather-boarded cottages were (and still are?) a notable landmark. Further along, “Jock the barber’s” was a natural gathering place for menfolk, offering conversation, much wheeling and dealing and haircuts of limited variety. I’m not sure of Jock’s professional capabilities beyond short back and sides but judging from my wife’s reaction to the pre-wedding snip years later, they were not well developed. Jock came from Aberdeen and used to return each year to visit family, driving the whole distance in one go; no small undertaking along the A1 in the late 50s. We never learnt how he lost part of one finger (was this a secret he guarded, like Dave Allen?)
Passing Partridge’s next door, there seemed few landmarks of note before reaching the cobbler’s shop beside Wiggins’s yard. However, one event along there stays vividly in mind. I was walking home when a class-mate on the other side of the road called out and started to run across to join me without looking for traffic. He ran into the path of a motor bike. The rider couldn’t hope to miss him but mercifully only ran over the lad’s foot; bad enough at the time but without lasting effect, I believe. Annoyingly, I can’t remember the victim’s name. Frankie something?
Wiggins’s yard or, more particularly, what was then the family house opposite (now a car park?) deserves mention. I recall the junior classes at school being called into the hall for an address by Mrs Wiggins, who complained of children from the school sitting on the low wall along the front of the house. Her concern prompted the somewhat fatuous remark: “That wall cost a hundred pounds to build and I’m sure none of you has that amount of money”.
Broken biscuits and penny Hovis loaves
Between the school and the White Hart came more weather-boarded cottages and then shops, including Patmore’s, where pocket money could stretch to broken biscuits and penny Hovis loaves. But the real interest was across the road, where sweets beckoned; liquorice spoons and bootlaces, sherbet dabs, gob stoppers, aniseed balls, bubble-gum and halfpenny chews were common fayre, with occasional ice creams and chocolate when funds allowed. There was also the allure of penny bangers when November came round. They livened up our Saturday ramblings around the common, making us even more mud-splattered than usual. In later years, there was the ultra-sophisticated attraction of Domino cigarettes: four diminutive wisps of paper-wrapped tobacco floor-sweepings in an open-ended paper packet.
At Falkus’s fish shop next door, the ever-cheerful Emma dispensed chips in open fourpenny or sixpenny bags. On the other side of the sweet shop, the butcher’s was of interest only for household shopping. The Coleman family yielded two butchering brothers: Cecil in Hart Road and Jack on Kiln Road. Beyond the Hart Road butcher’s was a greengrocer and other shops I don’t remember, although I believe the fish shop later moved to a larger unit along there.
Returning to the school, I have very much enjoyed reading the information and reflections on the web site and scanning the photographs for contemporaries I might recognise. They brought back great memories of my time there, from infants in the wooden building by the gate to the final year, although I had to do that twice because of when my birthday fell. Apparently, John Barron and I started school on the same day and we had both been told that we would be going home for lunch. Not knowing the routine, when morning play time came around, we assumed it was lunch time and made our own way home. We were escorted back by embarrassed and apologetic mothers with instructions not to return before the teacher said we could.
In junior school, I held teacher Geoffrey Whitehead in the greatest regard. He was friendly, enthusiastic and an inspiration. My lasting recollection is of his afternoon ‘story-book’ readings. Although they inevitably featured Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome, he also read from older classics. One such was ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’; his rendition of Denys and Gerard’s encounter with an enraged mother bear stays with me. I believe he lived in the curious house with mock battlements on High Road in South Benfleet, aptly named ‘The Castle’.
The dubious honour of being ‘school ink monitor’
To help offset boredom from doing the same year twice, Mr Whitehead bestowed on me the dubious honour of being ‘school ink monitor’, which meant the regular donning of an apron and touring classrooms to replenish the dip-well held in each desk. The value of my apron was obvious but the children sitting in the desks might also have benefitted from wearing one when occasional accidents of over-filling resulted in streams running down the sloping desktop.
Collecting apron and ink bottle meant going to cupboards just outside the Headmaster’s study, always an apprehensive moment. I recall Mr Clough with much less warmth than all the other staff. As we lined up in the cloakroom, he would frequently be on patrol with his cane and happy to use it on bare legs if anyone dared fidget. He always seemed overly-stern and unapproachable to me but was perhaps less so when teaching? Mrs Clough was much more friendly.
I can’t recall much of the time spent with other teachers, although I do remember Mr French, Mr Thompson and Miss Stevens quite well (and the inevitable classroom speculation on whether Mr Thompson and Miss Stevens might be an item). More generally, I recall the musical instruments kept in great hamper baskets in the hall and dread to think of the noise we must have made with them. Also, the country dancing, when even small feet could raise a loud thundering on the wooden floor.
My lasting impression is of much whistle blowing, lining up in coloured sash-labelled teams and vying for team points by ‘standing up the straightest’.
The canteen doubled as PE hall. I can’t remember much in the way of equipment, or even activity come to that, although there must have been some! My lasting impression is of much whistle blowing, lining up in coloured sash-labelled teams and vying for team points by ‘standing up the straightest’. Of much more interest were athletics on the school field. Being able to run fast enough to compete in inter-school sports meant being taken out of class to train, an incentive even greater than the Amateur Athletics Association medals on offer to lucky winners on the day.
I see from the current school plan that much has changed. Gone are the garden plots, where those of us with an aversion to any spherical object larger than a marble could officially avoid Games. Instead now, a swimming pool. Oh, that we had one long ago!
Overall, my time at the school was thoroughly enjoyable, if a touch regimented; I hope that current students feel that their time was as happy when it comes to looking back on their younger years.
Big Ron and his friendly bellow
Along with pretty well every other village child at the time, I recall Big Ron and his friendly bellow. A bus ride with Ron on board was never a dull affair. A lad quite often to be seen with him in the area of Raymonds Drive was Joe (again, no surname comes to mind), disabled through polio but well able to get around when he acquired a Greeves Invacar.
Excursions other than to school generally meant either in the direction of Bread and Cheese Hill or towards the common. The woodland beside the hill tended to be mainly a springtime haunt for the bluebells and birdsong. A lifelong interest in natural history and a career in ecology stemmed from first encounters with wildlife in and around the woods. I recall that there was a great dip in the ground near the main road, referred to as the Dane Hole. I never knew whether it was natural, excavated or the result of bomb blast.
Thundersley Common was the favourite play area because of friends living there or nearby (Michael Harvey, John Warner and Roger Hyde (Photos 6 & 12 Thundersley Primary School 1954). The Harvey family grew pigs just where the open heath gave way to woodland along both sides of the main pathway. The house was pretty old and had a collection of militaria languishing in an outhouse, both old guns and swords – fascinating for us kids. The dry pig food (mostly maize and broken dog biscuits) was also of interest as a mid-morning snack if pocket money didn’t stretch to something on passing the sweet shop.
The Warner family ran a plant nursery where the path met Kingsley Lane. The house was wood-built and cooking was done on an oil stove. The location made it doubly vulnerable to fire, because of the nearby areas of bracken that seemed often to catch fire for one reason or another during summer. Vehicle access to the nursery was through the premises of the Rayleigh Footwear factory and eventually out onto the Arterial, Kingsley Lane being impassable at the top end. John Warner was a great friend all through childhood. He had a strong interest in radio and took work at the Marconi factory in Basildon.
Interest in things military was further stimulated by a sudden discovery of many and varied types of army vehicle parked in what we knew as Baker’s Field, roughly where Sandown Road is today. The personnel carriers were great fun as hideaway dens. They were not there for very long but I managed to acquire a driver’s periscope from one, which served for years as a reminder of what had offered great adventure.
The field behind the Greeves factory
Adventure was also on offer in the field behind the Greeves factory on Manor Road Trading Estate. This took the form of a tree swing that needed some courage to use for the first time. It entailed climbing one tree, then to be thrown the weighted end of a long rope that was tied in the adjacent much taller tree. Pushing off with prayers that the knot fixing the seat would hold gave a rush of adrenaline only to be matched at Southend Kursaal.
My time at Thundersley came to an end in 1967. Just before that, I had worked during vacations at another Manor Trading Estate factory (I think called Thundersley Metal Powder Parts, very near the Greeves factory) and on various building sites. One of these was Cedar Hall School, where we laid concrete foundations that possibly still bear the scars. The company boss’s son worked as a carpenter and he had the task of setting up shuttering so that we could pour concrete. His workmanship wasn’t really up to it and, overnight, the side shuttering on a deep central trench that was planned to carry heating and electrical services sagged – rather a lot. His father was not best pleased. The concrete had, of course, gone off by the time this was discovered but I don’t know whether anything was done to rectify matters; the holiday job came to an end at that point. It had been good to cycle there past the primary school and along Dark Lane as a warm reminder of earlier times. It was also good to see Cedar Hall completed and operational on later visits to the village.