A girl in Cobham village

Now to get back to my life as a girl in the village…

I went to Cobham school until I was fourteen, it was a lovely village, everyone knew everyone else and were always willing to help.  Mind you everyone knew everybody’s little bits of gossip.  We had a nurse she lived in the next house up from us, very handy.  She would do all sorts of jobs, she was the midwife for everyone but if you had anything the matter with you she could usually fix it.  Her name was Nurse Backhouse, she used to plod more than walk.  You never saw her hurry.  It was too much to pay for a doctor, so she was kept pretty busy.  Mr Gander owned the shop which sold everything that people could afford, mind you during the war we all had ration books so you just had all that was due to you.  We would hurry into his shop once the word got around that he had golden syrup in.   You would have to take your own jar and he would put in the amount you were allowed.

I forgot to tell you that when we moved out to Cobham, Lena and I had to walk out with the dog (another Dandy). He was a nice dog, brown and black not all that big, he was still chained up in the kennel outside, poor thing.  When mum wasn’t around I would bring him in, he would sit close to the fire, I could nearly smell him burning.  I used to have to take him out for all his runs.  I was always late for school.  I would hear the bell go for us to be in school.

One day mum bought me a brand new pair of plimpsoles (9 pence). I ran down the church path chasing Dandy and trod on half a broken bottle and cut right through the plimpsole, my foot was bleeding quite badly, the curve of the bottle caught in the soft side of the shoe. When I went home mum was so angry , I had such a hiding. ‘I expect you were being silly and not looking where you were going, well you don’t get another pair, I can tell you that’.  When she wasn’t looking I poked my tongue out !

Shelia Sands was one of my friends, so we saved our money and walked over to my sister Gert to go into Longfield village to have our hair permed.  It would cost five shillings, took a long time to save it  so as we walked out after being made all ‘posh’ we decided to get a train back to Sole Street, only two stops away.  Very exciting.  Well when we arrived at Sole Street, we were too far back in the train, we looked out to see only tracks.  ‘Don’t worry’ says Shelia they will pull up a bit more in a minute, like hell they did, we went right down to Chatham.  We then had to walk all the way home.  Mind you we were able to cut across the golf links so that saved a bit of time.  We were very tired when we at last got home so we never did that again.

Working at Cobham Hall

The park was full of deer, it used to look lovely.  I left school at fourteen and went to work down at Cobham Hall.  Mrs Knight who lived near us told mum that Lord Darnley needed people to pick daffodils for him.  Mrs Knight to used ride what they called a ‘sit up and beg’ bike with a basket on the handle bars.  So off we go, down the lime trees avenue to the hall.  I loved it, money wasn’t too good but you never had a big wage whatever you did.   We did all different types of work.  We were working with Mr Charles Bicker, just the three of us.  Even milked the pet cow.  One day Lady Darnley came home with this cow, someone had given her.  There was a lovely dairy and place to keep her in.  We called her Buttercup, she was gorgeous.  She used to go for a long walk with Mr Bicker over to a farmer at Thong.  He had a bull, when the calf arrived it was so exciting it was a lovely little boy, we called him Billy , he used to suck my belt on my mac.  Then he had to go away.  I cried to see him go but Buttercup had Daisy next then Tulip.  I will tell you more about them later.

Cobham Hall

Then Lady Darnley wanted Buttercup to have an artificial injection so she did and had a boy calf.  He was so cute but one day he wasn’t well.  Lady Darnley said ‘don’t worry about it Bicker, I am a firm believer in ‘faith healing’.  He wanted her to call the vet but no she had this woman faith healer, Mrs Gilbert, she looked at the calf, did a few silly hands touching.  She said ‘I can see rays and powers of healing going right into him’ she said ‘I am good with animals, because they never resist me like people’ (what a load of bunkham).  The vet came the next day, the little calf had died in the night.  He had swallowed a piece of wire which had got stuck in his tummy, the very said he could have saved him with an operation.

There was a dear old horse in the field, we called him Nobby, no one seemed to own him, he would just roam around with the cows, so he always had hay and water.

Lord Darnley had daffodils named from A to Z they were beautiful.  There was a large kitchen garden with eight greenhouses, it had a very high red brick wall all around it.   There was a huge potting shed, a big rose garden and a large orange house.  We grew white and black grapes, peaches, nectarines , figs, plums, pears, quinces and russet apples.   Flowers grown were out of this world.   Such happy days, it was my idea of ‘paradise’.

We used to weed and clear all the ground of what was called the ‘pleasure gardens’.  The old chalet was there that Charles Dickens had done lots of his writing in.  It was a very pretty building, you had to come outside to go up the steps into the room at the top.  It is now down in Rochester I am told.

Swiss Cottage, Cobham, where Dickens would visit. Photo by Catherine Ward, c.1901. (Kent Archaeological Society collections ref. B04-05)

There was also the coach of Lord Darnley, they used to have the coach and horses to take them up Lime Avenue to the village.  The coach can still be seen at Cobham Hall.

Lord Darnley was very tall and most charming.   He used to come to see us most days.   I was carrying a huge amount of daffodils across the south front lawns, he came across and said ‘Betty you could do with a perambulator’, he didn’t offer to help me though.  He married for the third time a lady called Rosemary Potter, a blond bit of stuff, quite nice really.  She must have been about the same age as one of his daughters, Lady Marguerite who was a very pretty girl.  She was married to a squadron leader Hayward, he was very dashing.

I went to ‘Ingamale’ flower garden market in London one morning with him driving and my brother in law Neville, on the way home we went to one of the mews in London to see Lady Darnley’s mother, Mrs Potter.  She gave us breakfast, ‘boiled eggs’ I felt really ill when I came home so went to the doctor who said I had yellow jaundice. Later on Lady Marguerite had twins a boy Gareth and a girl Lucinda, she used to have very ‘posh’ clothes on them. Lord Darnley had a son called Adam, he was born on my birthday.

Meeting Ern

One day I was pushing a barrow in the grounds when I saw a dashing looking young man mowing the lawn, he smiled and gave me a wink.  I thought my heart was going to stop, it was so exciting.  I tried to see him every day after that.  Mr Bicker said ‘that’s my son’, well I just couldn’t believe it.  I kept asking about him, he used to get fed up.  After a while we started talking whenever we could.  One night, well about five o’clock I was going home from work with Mrs Knight and I stopped to talk to Ern, she dashed off home, went along to my mum and said ‘Betty is down the avenue with that boy Bicker’.  Mum wasn’t very pleased and gave me a right telling off.  ‘Time enough for you to be with boys when you finish work, just get yourself home my girl, and I mean it’.  Mrs Knight used to say to me ‘my Ken would make someone a very good husband’.  I used to think ‘not for me thanks very much’.  I did write to him when he went away to war, but he knew about Ern.

After a while, Ern was always mowing I used to walk down the hall after tea and take him some lemonade,  I would hold the bottle tight when he gave it back, it was still warm from his hands (so ‘citing).  I really liked him, it was all I could think of.  After a while we started to meet after tea and go for long walks.  Even if it was raining hard, we used to stand by the old Forge.  My mum used to moan, ‘must be mad’ she would say, ‘I will not have you bring home very Tom, Dick or Harry’ I used to think I only want to bring Ern home, but no I couldn’t.

Lena was in the land army now, Vi and Lil lived up Manor Road in Sole Street, they had Paddy and Barbara.   Lil was expecting another baby.   Both of their husbands were in the army.

The Land Army

Mum thought I was too young to take Ern serious, so she packed me off in the land army up in Gloucestershire to be with Lena.  We were billeted in a beautiful old place it was called ‘The Priory’.  It had a big marble staircase and lots of huge rooms, we were six girls to a room in bunk beds.  We used to have to cycle ten miles to work every day.  We all had tins with our food in, it wasn’t wrapped up.  The sandwich and cake would all mix together and there was no drink at all.

British Women’s Land Army recruitment poster c.1940

We worked with some Irish fellows   I think they were nearly all called Michael, they were mostly nice and used to give us tea from their urn and lovely thick slices of bread and bright red jam.  Most of them were nice looking, black hair and very blue eyes.

I worked driving Fordson tractors, most times we had one or two guys with us.  Anyway I would walk up Cleve Hill, a most beautiful spot (you could see for miles) with one chap, so we met up one Sunday.  It was a lovely morning, he met me outside the Priory and off we go, took ages to get right up the top.  The view was breath taking, but I think he had other things on his mind.  Like a fool he said let’s sit down for a while, I was quite glad to.  No sooner had we sat down, he came very close to me and started to put his hand up my dress.  Well I never thought that was on so I shouted at him, smacked his face and said ‘what do you think you are doing?’ he just laughed and said in a very strong Irish accent ‘to be sure my hand will do ye know harm’.   Well you couldn’t see my arse for dust.  I never spoke to him again.

I knew now I was in love with Ern.  I was very home sick.  The girls would go out every Saturday night dancing, including Lena.  The yanks would ‘jitter bug’ the night away.  I kept writing home saying how home sick I was and missing Ern but mum wasn’t concerned, so action had to be taken.  When Lena and I came home on leave, I brought my gear home, I knew I would never go back.  It was an awfully long journey, the train was full of troops and we had to stand or sit on our cases all the way home.

Back home

Mum was so mad at me for saying I wouldn’t go back.  She said it’s just a silly crush you have with this boy.  Finally, she gave in.  I had quite a few ding dongs with my mum.   There was a time before I went into the land army.  The big guns would make such a noise it felt as if the house would cave in.  Well poor Dandy, he would shiver and shake and be wet through with sweat where he was so frightened, so mum decided I was to walk him into Gravesend and take him to the RSPCA to have him put down (they didn’t charge any money). I was to wait for his collar and lead to bring home in case we had another dog.  Well I cried and cried but I still had to go.  So off I trot across the fields, on the way we came across a hay stack so we sat down and cried.  I’m sure he knew.  I thought ‘we will stay here for ever’.  Then I got a bit frightened, I thought there might be rats in the hay and they might bite us in the night.  So off we go again, it was a long way.  He looked round at me when they took him away.  I waited for his collar and lead, it was awful.  I hated my mum, she had given me some money to go to the baker’s shop and get some cream buns, which I did.  I finally got home.  Lena and mum were sitting in the kitchen, I threw the buns at them and told them I hated them and would never love them again.  Mum said ‘stop your mouth and get upstairs’ I said don’t worry that’s where I’m going.  I couldn’t stop crying.  I told mum the next day I will NEVER do that again, mind you it  didn’t get me very far, mum had the upper hand, ‘you will do what I tell you’ she said.  I thought ‘right I won’t let you know what I’m doing’.

Mind you mum had usually had a cure for everything, she had this way of making you see that what she said was right.  Her cure-all cabinet contained soda, salt, blue bag, starch, iodine, Epsom salts, camphorated oil, Vaseline and lint.  She used to cut onions up and cover them in dark brown sugar, leave it for a week and that was the cure for colds, we would have a spoonful every day.  It tasted quite nice really. If we had a sore throat she would tell us to put the foot of our black stockings on our throat and wrap it round all night.  If Lena had an earache mum would pick a large cabbage leaf, warm it in front of the fire and put it against Lena’s ear.  Lena said it helped (too daft to know different, bless her).

On day my brother Fred had a very large boil on his neck, one of his mates told him to warm a bottle by putting hot water in it then put the neck of the bottle on the boil.  Fred did this, well it did bring the boil out but Fred went nearly mad with the pain.  We couldn’t get the bottle off mum had to smash it to get it off.  He had a very bad place on his neck for ages.  He didn’t get a lot of pity, I think mum thought ‘serves you right’. Fred was so lovely.  We all loved him to bits.  I was bridesmaid to Gert, Vi and Fred.

When I came back from the land army I went back down the hall to work with Mrs Knight and Bicker.  Mum had come to terms now about me walking out with Ern.  Ern loved dogs, so he brought a sweet dog whose name was Sandy.  Ern was living in the Lodge house which was down the village outside the park (in years gone by, Mrs Knight’s parents had lived there).  They used to have to open and close the gates for the Darnley’s to come through.  That is why you mostly see a small lodge house at the entrance to big houses.   Cobham Hall is a mansion.  Anyway, poor little Sandy caught distemper and we had to have him put down, he used to have the most awful fits.  So Ern bought another one and called him Bobby, he was very pretty, brown and white but he was a little bugger.  He would chase the cows and sheep, he had hold of one of the sheep one day, when we got hold of him Ern gave him a hiding with his cap and blow me if he didn’t go straight over the top of the fence and chase them again.

When we lived up the park we had two little kittens, well one day one of the kittens went missing, we hunted high and low, then down in the wood we hear his crying and found him in an old rotten tree.  We brought him back home, his name was Ruffles the other one I used to call Ugly, Barbara used to say ‘don’t call him that, Aunty, I love him’.  But sure Ruffles went missing again, this kept happening so we thought it was very strange.   He was always in the same tree, so we kept watch.  Along came Bobby, he picked Ruffles up and we followed him and sure enough it was him pushing this kitten into the tree.  So we put a stop to his little game.

Before I went to live up the park, we would have Bobby at our house some times.  One winter night, snowing hard and bitter cold he went out on his own.  Well he didn’t come back, we hunted everywhere and told the policeman but he never came home.  Then in the early spring Ern and I had to go up in the woods near the keeper’s cottage called The Mount.  Mr Preston was the keeper.  We had to pick early daffodils in bud to sell for ‘Lordy’, they were named lent lilies (very tiny little flowers with a nice scent).  Well you won’t believe it…… but lo and behold lying on the ground was our Bobby, the snow had preserved his body and we could see all the shot up one side of him.  Well I nearly went crazy ‘it’s that rotten keeper’ I said to Ern because he was always carrying a gun to shoot foxes.  So down to the police station I go and said ‘it’s that rotten keeper’ ‘you mustn’t say that’ said the policeman.  I was sure it was him, anyway the police had a written statement from Mr Preston saying he didn’t shoot our dog but the police said they would find out who owned guns.  Well it turned out it was Mr Russel, Mr Pye’s foreman, he said he shot what he thought was a fox.  Ironically two weeks later he was found shot in the same wood, supposed to have been and accident but I will tell you about that later.

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1 Response to A girl in Cobham village

  1. Rod Stewart says:

    My father was billeted at Cobham Hall in WWII and spoke of Lord and Lady Darnley and his days in the building and on the grounds. I met Lady Darnley (Rosemary Potter) when taking my father back to England for the unveiling of the Eagle Squadron memorial in London, May 1986. They had a good time remembering those days in 1941, just after Adam was born, hunting squirrels and having a formal dinner together.

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