A Rye Childhood

By Noel C. A. Care

My father, who had four brothers living in the town, was the only male member not to earn his living from the sea.His father had been a fisherman, in the family tradition, and father had gone out with him once or twice before the first world war but did not really like it. After his return from the war he worked for the Rye Chemical Company, later becoming a labourer, swinging a fourteen pound hammer and spending most of his time on roadworks, either mending or building them, or laying and replacing water pipes. Whatever the job it always consisted of a great deal of physical labour. He spent a long time working on the construction of the new road between Rye and Winchelsea. This road was considered a feat and when resurfaced after sixty five years the original concrete, under the asphalt, was in perfect condition.

I often went, after school, usually with other boys, to where our fathers were working, usually only stopping a few minutes. One thing we all liked to see was the men knocking big metal pins into the Tarmac to bread it, enabling them to start digging with pickaxe shovel. When the pin was being knocked in, four men would stand round and swing their fourteen pound hammers in rotation. The regularity of the swing and rhythm of the men always amazed us. The sound of the metal hammer on the pin created an almost bell like tone that could be heard a very long way.

The one time we never went near where they were working was if a man in a bowler hat was there, we knew this was either the foreman or employer, and if we stopped them working could have meant instant dismissal.

Three of my uncles, George, Alfred and Horace were still seamen when I was young. My other living uncle, who had also been a seaman, had received serious injuries and was in Rye Infirmary. They sailed the barges that plied between Rye and Yorkshire coast, carrying beach from Rye returning with wood for the local wood merchants. This meant I saw them infrequently, but as they were married I had a number of cousins to meet, play and quarrel with.

Our nearest neighbours lived in three small cottages in the cobbled lane joining the top of ours and Watchbell Street. These were a relic of the Early Victorian era with outside toilets in a block fronting on the road.

In the middle cottage lived Fred, or to me, Mr Kirby. He had several children, of whom, I remember best, his son young Freddie. Whilst having little to do with me, as I was younger, he was friendly with my eldest sister. I subsequently learned he was killed whilst serving in the navy, the second World War.

He was known around the town as a character and the story is told that when working on the church steeple he saw the vicar below.

“Morning Vicar” called Fred

“Good Morning Fred, your about as near to heaven as you will ever get”.

“Your probably right vicar and I reckon you are too!” It was said the vicar, the Reverend Fowler just laughed.

He was a member of the volunteer fire brigade. On the occasion of a fire in the early hours, at the windmill close to the gas works, he was seen running past our cottage in trousers and helmet struggling with his jacket. He could see where the fire was, and said later, he arrived before the appliance but could do very little, except check there was no one inside, until the pump arrived and they were able to use water. The mill was badly damaged and was pulled down. It was later rebuilt and still stands today.

On one side of Fred were Mr. and Mrs. Burt and their daughter Betty. She was my age and we became great friends as we were both the same age and went to school together.

The other cottage was occupied by an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes who was a great friend to my mother. She was a large lady, and I was told that went with her job. I knew she was a cook but at the time I could not see the connection. They had several grown up sons, one of whom was a marine and seldom home, Mrs. Rhodes used to say my Eddy is in Hong Kong or Africa. Never places that meant anything to me.

At the side of these cottages was a passage which ran at the back of some of the houses in Watchbell Street. In one of the small gardens were kept some rabbits. We would often go to see them, taking carrot tops or stale bread to feed them and calling them by name. If the lady who kept them heard us, she would give us a sweet. We always made sure we spoke loudly. Before going we made certain that the food we took was not wanted for our own rabbits.

On the corner of Watchbell Street and the lane leading to our cottage was a large house, surrounded by a wall which I could not see over. I could only see the trees in the garden which it hid. This was owned by a rather formidable lady, a captain in the Women’s Army Service during the First World War. She still used her rank, being known as Captain Corey. She was the cub mistress of the local pack, and although a martinet and we were always a little afraid of her this was a little unfair as she was kind at heart and always fair.

Opposite this was a large house owned by Mrs. Anderson, for whom one of my aunts worked. My father also did odd jobs for her. I sometimes called in to see my aunt and was fascinated by the parrot in a large cage in the kitchen. This was the first of these brightly coloured birds I had seen, and I liked to see it bouncing about on its perch and hear it talk. I did make a mistake one day, and put my finger close to the cage and had it pecked. After that I kept my hands well clear. They also had two little Spaniels called Peter and Paul and they were great to play with.

Also in Watchbell Street was another house which we were convinced was occupied by a witch. She was an elderly white faced lady, with long straight, grey hair hanging down each side. Whenever we stopped outside of the house, she would appear, shaking her fist, and call out “Clear off you youngsters and leave me in peace”. We were told that her name was Mrs. Frost and she did not mean to hurt us but we were never too sure of that. I am afraid we still considered her a witch. The house in which she lived did nothing to help her image, as it was large, white and completely different to the others in the road. In fact a witches house.op

Almost next door to us stood the white bulk of the “Hope Anchor Inn”. This stood sideways to our cottage and occupied the entire width of road between the lane and Watchbell Street. It was a prominent landmark as it could be seen by people coming into Rye from Winchelsea long before they reached the town boundary.

At busy times my mother used to work there, and sometimes we were allowed in when there was a big dance. There was a grand stairway leading to thedance hall which made an impressive entrance for the guests. There was also a small service stairway and it was on these we used to sit and watch the festivities. The music of the time, the late twenties, played by a live band of between five and ten musicians, the colourful dresses of the ladies, their skirts swinging as they twirled during the dance. The laughing and general gaiety made a deep impression on me. I did wonder why the men were always in black suits with white fronts, making them took like the penguins. I had in one of my animal books. I also thought the little black ties in front of their necks, with a stiff piece of white collar each side looked unusual, but never said anything, in case I was rude and not allowed to go again. Most of the men seemed to have little moustaches and high pitched laughs, but they all seemed to enjoy themselves. The lips of the ladies were always bright red. A colour we never saw our mothers or aunts have. We were told it was because they were posh and dressed up to the nines.

The reflections in the highly polished floor over which they seemed to glide always amazed me as did the bright lights glistening and twinkling overhead in chandeliers. I was told they were the new electricity now in the town. There were usually decorations and balloons festooning the hall, giving a general happy, vibrant atmosphere. To be continued …………..

“Rye’s Own” January 2006

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