Growing up in Ramsden Bellhouse

My Uncle George was landlord of the Fox and Hounds (then in Ramsden Heath) in 1912, and that's how my parents and my grandma came to hear of the Homesteads estate in Ramsden Bellhouse.    Horace and Minnie Abbott moved into "Eversley" Orchard Avenue, Ramsden Bellhouse after their marriage in 1915.   At that time most houses did not have the luxury of a bathroom, or an indoor toilet, but mother had made that a condition of moving to the country, so their house was one of the first to boast of this convenience.    They had also been promised that in the next few years, there would be main drainage, and a Railway Station.   Mother was to see neither.    The former came fifty six years later in 1971, and the railway station is a long forgotten dream.   I was their fifth and youngest daughter, appearing on the scene in 1926, so my own memories date from about 1930, and earlier events come only from what I have been told by my sisters.

To start with education:- there was a school at Ramsden Heath, but my sisters went daily to a Private School run by Miss B an elderly lady.    It was about a hundred yards past the White Horse on the right hand side of the road to Billericay.   They walked there and back every day, but Miss B was probably well past retiring age, and they received a pretty poor education.   My sisters remember that in the afternoon, Miss B set them work to do, and then retired to have forty winks!!    Needless to say very little work got done - more time being spent on giggling and peering in at her bedroom door.   Sanitary arrangements at this school consisted of a chamber pot in the good lady's bedroom!   In 1926 Ramsden Crays Council School was built (now Crays Hill County Primary), to take children from 5 - 14 years. My eldest sister, Margaret was sent to Brentwood County High School, where the Headmistress told my mother that she was well below standard, and suggested that the rest of the family should be educated away from Miss B - so off they went to Ramsden Crays and I duly followed in 1931.

I loved my schooldays here, starting with dear old Mrs Clark in one of the little upstairs rooms.   My only horror (and twenty five years later my daughter's horror) was the toilets, which had no locks, and smelled because they were buckets under wooden seats.   It was very difficult for a little girl to answer the call of nature with a hand or a foot on the door to secure it against intruders!

In the bitterly cold cloakrooms, about four bowls of icy water were put out each day, with "school soap".   My memory is that the water was not changed all day, and no-one with any sensitivity, washed in the afternoon when the scum and smell of those bowls of water was repulsive.   In 1936 Billericay Senior School was built (now Billericay School), and took all the pupils from the age of 11 except those who passed the 11 +, who usually went to Brentwood Grammer School for Boys, Brentwood High School for Girls or Brentwood Ursuline.

So much for school - how then did we spend our leisure.   My father and Mr Sexton who lived at "Fernshaw" started the Ramsden Scouts sometime between 1915 and 1921.    I believe that they had their first meetings in a large shed in our garden, though this was before my time.   The Scouts and Cubs lapsed at some point and did not start again until the second war.    The Baptist Church ran the Girls Life Brigade, to which I belonged with my sister Winifred, but when Miss Malby started the 1st Ramsden Girl Guides in 1940, I forsook GLB and joined the Guides.    Our Guide meetings were the highlight of the week.   We did concerts, hiked, collected waste paper, cotton reels and jam jars.   We picked blackberries for the Women's Institute who turned them into lovely pots of jam.   At Christmas we had parties with the 1st Runwell Scouts.   I don't know why we didn't invite the Ramsden Scouts, but I do remember that we all thought the Runwell Scouts were "smashing".   Brownies and Cubs started during the War also, and we all paraded proudly from Jacksons Corner to the Fox and Hounds for "War Weapons Week" "Wings for Victory" etc.. The Village "Club" goes back at least to 1921, for I have a programme for the village fete in that year.   The Village hall was not then built, and the social activities took place in "The Barn" which was reached from Church Road by a footpath between the church and Orchard Avenue on the church side.   There was also a thriving tennis club (behind the Wee Cabin, now no longer there) opposite the Recreation Ground.   My elder sisters played tennis there, and remember me being taken in the pram.

The Village Hall was built in 1936, and later had a tennis court, which is now a car park.   As I outgrew Guides, so the Village Hall became the week's highlight.    Tuesdays were table tennis, darts and snooker, WI. - Wednesday afternoon for Mother - Thursdays - once a month, a social, attended by all age groups with games, singing, dancing and sketches.    Saturdays were the weekly dances - one shilling to get in - refreshments extra.   There were also at various times, whist drives, a badminton club, a Workers Educational association class for studying economics, a horticultural society, a very thriving dramatic club who put on marvellous pantomimes each year, and a learners dance club.   Every year around the middle of May, we had the "Birthday Party", when the hall was packed to overflowing.   A professional entertainment was followed by a dance.   I often wonder why this was discontinued, but as I came out of the "social whirl" of the Community Centre on my marriage in 1952, I do not know much of the history after that until as an "older and wiser" person I joined the Horticultural Society in the late 1970's.

St Mary's Church had a church hall next to the Fox and Hounds on the north side.   Here we went to Sunday School round a smelly oil stove, and here we had our Sunday School parties presided over by the same Miss B who had taught my sisters some years before.   My sisters tell me there were also church socials and church fetes in the field next to the hall, but I do not remember those.    Other leisure activities - well we had the Carlton Cinema in Wickford, (where Woolworth's now stands) and the Ritz in Chapel Street Billericay.   We also had a reasonable bus service in those days!!    Coal was unloaded at the Railway siding, and delivered in Harvey's lorry by Len Barker.   There was a railway signal box just by the siding, and here my sister tells me she went to have her hair cut - between trains of course.    In May 1935 the country celebrated the jubilee of King George V It was a great day in Ramsden.   A May Queen (Elsie Pimborough) had been chosen and was crowned, attended by two little girls of which I was one.    The village was decorated, with a prize for the best house decoration in Church Road, and for the side roads, we decorated the end where it joined Church Road.   There was a prize for the best side road.    We spent weeks preparing.   Dad went off to committee meetings, my sisters sewed their fancy dress, we practiced our May Queen crowning, and Mrs Sexton trained the other children in maypole dancing.    It seems to me now that all the village came out in fancy dress for a long procession from the Fox and Hounds to Crays Hill School.   I think the field opposite the school was used for the crowning, and sports events, but what made it really special was that a Mr Watson who lived on the hill by the river, and worked for a film company, filmed the whole day's events.   Some weeks later we all went down to a hall behind the Castle in Wickford to see the resulting film.   What a community spirit there was that day - and how we shrieked in recognition of everyone.

The coronation in May 1937 of George VI was planned with equal enthusiasm.   But it poured with rain all day and my only memories are of sugar sandwiches (bread and butter with sugar between the slices), and the colours in my Dad's jester outfit running so that his vest and pants were red one side and yellow the other, until they wore out!

I remember with great nostalgia the journeys to and from school.   There were no school dinners though we could take sandwiches - but mostly we made the journey of one and a half miles four times a day.    I never remember my mother taking me, but I suppose she did the first day.   The bus fare was one penny to Jacksons corner, but if you started out ten minutes early and RAN all the way to school, you then still had your penny to spend at Smith's sweet shop which was opposite the school in Gardiners Lane.   If you came home to dinner you were allowed out five minutes early to catch the bus at Jackson's corner.    The bus back to school went about 1.15 and again you could run and save a penny to buy your farthing black jacks from Mrs Smith.   But walks home were best - no running to save pennies - we wandered along paddling in the ditches, (probably filled with sewage) trekking through leaves, fishing for tiddlers in the river; (I once fell in and arrived home covered in foul smelling slime!) gathering wild flowers, passing love letters to the boys, searching for conkers, popping tar bubbles, talking to Mr Graves who was our Roadman, walking round the churchyard and watching the steam-rollers making up the road (I can still smell them).   I often feel sorry for today's children who, owing to traffic and "undesirable characters" are whisked in a few minutes from school to home - what a wealth of childhood experiences they miss.   Talking of conkers reminds me of a great village character.    He kept his verge mowed like a bowling green, and had two large conker trees that overhung the road.   The temptations to a child are obvious, but Mr H knew how to deal with that.    He always stood outside his gate when we came home from school, (I wonder why he wasn't at work?) to make sure his verge remained unsullied, and his conker trees remained intact.

When the war came in 1939 Mr H became a special constable.   He took his duties very seriously - no longer just a verge and two conker trees to guard - the whole village was now his to command.    His war started quickly for when the siren sounded within a few minutes of the outbreak of war, it was on with the tin hat and arm bands, and on to the bike.   He cycled to the church and ordered everyone to go home.    One cannot help feeling they were safer in the church than on the roads!!

Another trick of Special Constable H was to wait just inside the church gate (there was a good hedge there then), and step out right in front of you as you were riding your bike demanding to see your identification card.    He seemed to somehow forget that he had known you from babyhood, served on committees with your parents and repeatedly chased you off his verge!!   It has been an interesting exercise going back over the old days - days of oil lamps - broken gas mantles, of cesspools, cold bedrooms and chilblains but I must take off my rose coloured spectacles - yes it was a lovely childhood then, provided you were healthy and your father was in work.    I must not forget I was one of the lucky ones.

Isabel C Johnson

This article was first published in "Thoughts on Ramsden - A Brief History of Village Life" Compiled and Edited by Isabel Johnson.
This article appears with her permission.