A Rye Childhood

by Noel C. A. Care

When Rye Were Playing At Home

Alongside the river side path were the fishermen’s, huts against which we used to shelter from the very, east wind, whilst watching the football.  This was a Saturday afternoon treat with my father when Rye were playing at home.

In those days the goal posts were not left standing but, put up if a game was to be played. On the morning of match days I would go to the top of the Ypres Tower steps overlooking the ground, and see if the posts were up. Often though the ground was waterlogged making play impossible. If the game was on I would tell my father, when he got home from work, and we would go and watch the game together.

In those far off days the team was Rye Town. An amalgamation with Rye Old Boys led to a change of name to Rye United, by which name they are still known, retaining the original red and black colours of Rye Town.

My Father said, when he was a boy, he used to watch his fisherman father, who was apparently very good, play, when not at sea. The home crowd were very partisan and vociferous, and on several occasions the ground was “closed” for a while, due to the local crowds treatment of referees. On once occasion one was dumped in the Rother for giving, in the crowds opinion, a number of disputed decisions against the home team.

The dark glutenous, horrible smelling, mud on the river bank was another of our pleasure grounds. I remember we used to look for crabs when the tide was out. We were always careful to take our shoes and socks off, and to have a pool handy to wash our feet afterwards. We thought our parents would not know what we had been doing, but mine found out when I slipped into the mud. I seem to remember the mud was not the only thing on my bottom that day. I found, much later, my father and his brother both did the same thing.

The Town Salts were divided into two unequal parts by the main road to Kent. The smaller part, known as the Cricket Salts, were sacrosanct to the game. Forbidden to all other activities except on the annual sports day, on August Bank Holiday Monday. Many a boy has been threatened with a warm bottom, many a dog chased, for putting foot or paw on the hallowed turf. There was just a small area for tennis courts, kept discreetly out of the way, in a corner of the ground. All this has been altered now. The tennis courts have gone and a large car park has arrived.

The Salts, Circus and Fairs

The larger Town Salts, were home to various events as well as Football, Guy Fawkes Bonfire and children playing. Other well remembered events were the Annual Circus and Annual Fair. Not at the same time.

The circus parade, through the town, was always something to look forward to. The horses decorated for the occasion, camels and elephants all were on show, although you were not allowed close. The other animals in cages were barley visible. It was the clowns in their costume and antics that amused us most.

We knew out families could not afford to take us into that large tent marked “Big Top”, nor the enclosure marked “Menagerie”, for a real view of the animals. Then, the unexpected happened. A man came to the school and later we were given tickets admitting us, free, to the Menagerie, between 4 and 5.30 on the two following days. Once our parents permission was obtained we arranged a visit, straight after school the following day. After presenting our tickets we were let in, with strict instructions, “Do not put your hands near the animals”.

The first thing we noticed was the smell. It was very strong and like nothing we had encountered before. Seeing us holding handkerchiefs to our noses, one of the circus men said, “Don’t be softies, you will soon get used to it”. He was quite right, before we left our handkerchiefs were back in our pockets.

Once inside, seeing the animals at close quarters, I realised how misleading pictures and the brief glimpse during the parade could be. The horses which we saw first were familiar, although we were more used to those pulling carts. Standing outside the lions cage we realised how big they really were. The most impressive thing was the size of its paws and claws. It was easy to imagine the damage these could do. The large mane made it look even more fearsome. We did not think it a friendly animal at all. By contrast the two lioness’s in the next cage looked sleek and much smaller. On our way to the next cage the lion roared. I am sure we took several seconds to get back into our skins. We were glad there were iron bars between us.

We then came to a tiger. Now knowing the size of these cats we were ready. We were not prepared for the colour. Pictures and the dim light on the parade made them look yellow and black. With more light we found it was a bright orange and deep black which made it stand out as it paced up and down its cage.

We watched and laughed at a number of monkeys in several cages before moving to another tent. Here were the camels appearing even more ungainly than when walking. We were again impressed by the size of the feet which we knew were designed to enable them to travel over the loose sand of the desert. They had an unusual appearance with their humps, some having one and some two. We were told this was because they were different species although both could travel over the sand and go long periods without water.

He told us that in their native environment they could travel very fast and were much better than horses.

The Elephants Were Tremendous

Finally we came to the elephants which appeared even more tremendous. Their legs looked like grey tree trunks and their huge bodies towered over us, with their trunks waving in the air they looked magnificent. One of the keepers gave us a few scraps of food and told us to hold our hands out with the food on our open palm. The elephants picked the food without us feeling them. He told us we could touch them if we wished. We did this with some trepidation, expecting them to be as hard and scaly as they looked. We were wrong, it was soft and leathery and pleasant to touch. We were surprised when he told us they were the most gentle of animals and, although their feet were so large they could stop putting them down if they felt anything under them. He also told us they could pick up something as small as a pin with their trunks.

We stayed with them a long time before, with another look at the big cats, we left. Arriving home there was enough to occupy the evening after tea.

Talking at tea time was not allowed. In fact behaviour at meal times was strict. You always had to wash your hands, even if you had made them dirty earlier and washed them. Elbows were not allowed to be placed on the table. If you would hear the word joints. This comes from the saying frequently used on these occasions, “All joints on the table are meant to be cut” This was frequently by a tap on the offending elbow.

This close up of live animals made a deep impression of me although it was some years before I saw a circus performance. I was not impressed by animals providing entertainment and pleasure for humans.

The Fair Came Once A Year

The excitement of the annual visit by the fair was the next thing we looked forward to. Not with the modern, canned music, but the sounds of steam organs, showmen, people laughing and joking with each other. I recalled the merry-go-round, with its gaily coloured horses going up and down as they went round. We frequently heard the showmen refer to these as “Gallopers” the brightly painted swing boats, which were very large and could hold three people at each end were swung by the people in them pulling on ropes, which reminded me of those on the church bells. By pulling hard on the ropes it was possible to make the boats swing higher and higher. At times it looked as if they were trying to make them go right over the bar to which they were fixed, but they never succeeded. We found that they so finely balanced that even we small children could keep them going, once the showman had given us a good push, which they always did.

I was fascinated by the Chair-o-planes which would whirl round and swing out almost horizontal. I always wanted to go on this but it was strictly taboo to under fourteens.

Most of the side-shows attracted crowds outside them, but for us they seemed rather peculiar. We had no interest in bearded ladies, deformed people, or boxing. If we wanted to watch a fight we did not have to go to the fair. I liked watching men throw balls at coconuts, even though they seldom hit them, they kept trying.

It was fun watching people trying to throw rings over prizes on blocks of wood. I noticed the rings almost stuck on the blocks, but it provided entertainment for those throwing and watching.

It was the first time I had seem people throwing darts. I thought throwing sharpened pieces of metal, in a small round piece of wood, with feathers on the end a very strange thing to do. With all of these it seemed that very strange thing to do. With all of these it seemed that very few people ever won anything but they always want one more go.

We got as much pleasure form watching the steam engines that drove the rides, as from the fair itself.

The hiss of steam, the soot covered man shovelling coal, the large flywheel constantly turning, driving innumerable belts was spell binding. There was always a crowd of boys with a few braver girls, looking on, and we were constantly told. “Keep well away the sparks”. These came from the tall chimneys, in the smoke which drifted off, the sparks falling lazily to earth.

Watching the engines was not our only source of fun. We usually had money for a few rides, but this was limited and we had to be selective. I remember I once had 6d. which gave two rides on the merry-go-round at 2d. a ride and two on the swings with one of my sisters, a cousin or school friend. If lucky you would meet an Uncle or Aunt who would often give a spare penny as a treat. I was lucky in having a large, extended family and usually managed some extra rides. If you looked longingly enough at the merry-go-round, particularly if you had the help of a girl cousin, you could sometimes get a free ride, “Just this once”. Most of my cousins were girls, and in these circumstances they were a help, but they were not much use when it came to playing football or cricket.

We always went to the fair on Saturday night as we did not then have to get up for school the next morning. However we did not dare be late meeting our parents at the appointed time. Without a watch this could be difficult, we had to listen for the church clock. We kept asking the showmen, and I am sure this was irritating, but they always retained their good humour.

Fete & Sports

The cricket salts were the setting for the annual fete on August Bank Holiday Monday, which was the first Monday in the Month, not, as now the last. There were displays by various volunteer Army Units as well as the Fire Brigade which were always interesting to watch. These alternated with Cycle Races, Athletics, Fancy Dress parades and Children’s Races. The conclusion of the nine mile race always aroused passion and excitement. A popular event was the Bandsman Race. This consisted of the Town Band marching around the arena as they played. When a whistle blew they had to stop and any not doing so fell out. The remainder carried on with the music getting quieter until only one was left.

There were always a number of stalls to visit such as coconut shy and other games of skill and chance. These were organised by local residents for charity and not professionals as at the fair. The festivities continued on through the evening but we were not allowed out too late.