Bertha Elizabeth Evelina Watts
My Mother's Life in Benfleet
My Mother was born on 5th June 1903 at Silvertown, Poplar, London one of five children having two elder brothers, one younger one and a very much younger sister. She was brought up in a Convent in London until she came to live in Benfleet in 1917, when she was 14 years of age.
Mother always told me her Father bought a piggery in Hope Road, Benfleet. I do not know how many years they stayed before moving to a bungalow which they had built in the then unmade Kents Hill Road. The bungalow was called Shamrock and stood there until the 1980s when the land was sold to a builder and now has a number of houses on it opposite Kents Hill Junior School. My Mother’s young sister by 14 years sold the property in 1980 for a mere £22,000. It had a considerable garden with fruit trees and backed on to the park where my daughter used to frequent after school.
For 7 years my Mother worked as a shop assistant at the local Corn Chandlers on the corner of Green Road, Benfleet when the shop was owned first by Mr Rand and then Palmers. I often wondered why my Mother could add up so quickly in her head and then I realise why – there were only very slow tills in those days. I believe she met my Father, Leslie Watts, who was primarily a boat builder during my childhood, when he used to visit the shop. He was living with his family of ten at the farm which is now the High Warren Fruit Farm at the top of Vicarage Hill. I have many lovely memories of picking fruit at the farm and taking it in an old pram down to the bottom of Essex Way where we moved to in 1940. My Mother and Father lived with my brother and myself (where I was born) for a short time at the old clapboarded cottage known as the White House which still stands in the private road.
Whilst living at the White House a bomb fell on the golf course nearby which broke all our windows. My brother was sleeping in a bed with my Mother’s old leather coat covering him and the glass fell on the coat. Whilst courting my Father, along with his two brothers, had a large motorbike. It was a Matchless Silver Shadow I believe and three couples used to go on a Sunday for long rides together.
My Mother was a very outgoing person and I remember her getting shopping and helping most of the residents who lived nearby in Essex Way. It was very rural in the fifties when I grew up. The bungalows opposite 100 were built in 1955 where all the children in that area used to have a game of football or cricket once the horse was safely up the other end of the field. It was owned by Howards Dairies and if we saw one of their carts coming up the road whilst we were playing everyone would squat. At the bottom of Grosvenor Road attached to “The Moorings” were about seven clapboarded black cottages. The end one was lived in by a Mrs Clubb who used to do beautiful lace making. Her cottage consisted of one bedroom upstairs, one scullery with cold water tap and a living room as dark as can be. She had to share one outside toilet with three of the other tenants living in the row. She was a real jovial character and inside the living room was where the coal would be left in a large cupboard. She always joked she kept her man in there.
Mother looked after Mrs Clubb until her death. She was very poor but never knew any different. Her husband had been killed on the railway I believe. I was friendly with a family by the name of Abbot living in one of the cottages. A Mrs Goodwin lived next door, who was a Sunday School Teacher, with a son and daughter. Whilst I was quite young a lady by the name of Williams lived next door. She was blind and used to let me have a tinkle on her piano. Mother got her shopping many times.
We were never well off and Mother used to spend at least two days a week cleaning for various ladies living in Vicarage Hill. She worked from ten to five and must have been very tired at the end of the day. When I joined the Brownies at the Methodist Church I remember changing into my uniform at the lady’s house and going to Brownies from there. My Father always came to meet me. He was working at Benfleet Slipway in Ferry Road which was there until the early fifties.
One of the ladies she worked for had a husband who ran a football team and I was first introduced to ironing when Mum washed the eleven’s shirts by hand and scrubbed the material to get the stains off from the grass and mud. This went on for quite a long time because she was so short of money.
If Mother went out on a Saturday afternoon she would be at least a couple of hours because she would bump into so many people she knew, especially having worked in the shop when young. I believe my Mother was courted by my Father for at least seven years. He was 34 and she 30 when they married on 29th July 1933. When Diana and Charles were married on the same day the local paper asked for details of anniversaries on that date and they received a bouquet for 48 years and a write up in the newspaper. When a couple married in the thirties the local paper would give a lengthy description of the gowns worn and names of the whole wedding party. I still have Mum’s special announcement.
My Mother’s speciality was bread pudding and many times quite a collection of children would congregate in the back conservatory at the rear of 100 Essex Way and tuck into many helpings. Our house was a stopping point for one of the retired neighbours, who had been a Policeman on the rail. He never stopped being nosy and could keep you up to date with all the goings on around that part of the village. Mr Robertson lived three doors up from us and gave a hilarious speech at my wedding. Next door to us a lady kept chickens so we were never short of eggs in the war. My Father would go up to his family’s farm and shoot a rabbit, at the same time keeping rabbits in a large shed at the rear of the garden. We loved seeing the little ones when they were born and several friends would come up to see the rabbits. Unfortunately we could not have pets due to them being for the table. I remember my Father had an old buck getting on in years to whom he had to give the last rites but he could not bring himself to eat him.
The back garden had various soft fruits, including apples and pears. The vegetable gardens consisted of potatoes, green beans, tomatoes, radish, parsnip, carrots, cabbage, onions etc. The blackcurrants, with rhubarb underneath, made lovely thick jam every year. People would come to help pick the currants and gooseberries. The roses were very old, having been planted in the thirties when the house was built. The front garden had lovely spring flowers and looked a beautiful sight when in full colour.
We had a thick hedge at the front for years and one day a large truck collided with a car outside our bungalow knocking down the telegraph pole. Luckily no one was hurt but after that the insurance covered us for a new brick wall. My Father was offered the bricks from a man who used to go by regularly so he took him up on the deal. Very soon after the Police knocked on the door to say the bricks had been stolen from a site in Benfleet Road. Dad had paid for the bricks and had to go to Court but we kept the bricks.
Mum worked extremely hard all her life. During the war we used to go to sleep under the old bed with a cover down the side in case of any damage which might occur in a raid. My Father was an Air Raid Warden along with nosy Robinson. After spending all day working on the boats in the war he would go up to Tilbury by car and work fitting out a fish and chip shop owned by a Mr Fisher who lived on a houseboat in the Benfleet Creek near to Benfleet Slipway. He also panelled out the houseboat in his spare time at weekends. My Father was quite a workaholic but always for extra money to keep going. He never made a great deal.
A lot of sport went on in our house and every week Dad would check his pools in the hope of getting a win. He had a couple of £100 I remember, but to facilitate the pools I would post them when I reached London from the train on my way to work. Dad would go to work on his old bike coming home at 1.00 pm for his lunch and back again trying to get across the line before the gates shut at Ferry Road.
After Dad retired at 68, having been carried from the building site straight into hospital for an emergency operation, he spent the rest of his life looking after Mum who by this time was suffering from varicose ulcers on her legs. She spent eleven years more or less housebound, mainly because at the front of the bungalow there were about twelve large steps to come down. She did so many things inside whilst sitting down and had a will of iron. Even after she had burned herself badly needing hospital treatment for five months, she did not want to go and live anywhere else. She lived five years after Dad died of strokes in 1982 and needed to spend the last two years almost in Nursing Homes after coming out of hospital. She was a very brave, lovely lady and had so many friends who would visit her when she was housebound, being a member of the Benfleet WI. When she was able she went on many coach outings put on with the Methodist Sisterhood. They had two holidays in their life, both to the Isle of Wight, one a honeymoon and the other after I got married in 1960.
My brother still lives a stone’s throw from where we all grew up.
Pat Pedder (Nee Watts)