My Meldreth - by Peter Oakman
Sadly, Peter Oakman died in 2013. He had begun to write his life history and the following was given to us by his widow, Marian, following his death. It is reproduced here with Marian’s kind permission.
Mum and Dad
My dad Percy Oakman was born on 31 March 1904 at Fenny Lane Farm, Meldreth. His mother died when he was quite young and he was brought up by his stepmother at Rose Cottage in Dolphin Lane, Melbourn. At one time he lived in Keys Cottage. He attended Meldreth School from when it opened in 1910 and left to start work at the age of 13 in 1917 during the First World War. He worked as a gardener at The Court, The Grove and The Manor.
Mum, Alice (Margaret) Gristwood was born on 21st February 1906 in Brixton, London. She came to convalesce in Meldreth after a serious illness and met dad when she was 15 and he was 17 in 1921.
They were married on 8th September 1929 at St Saviours Church, Brixton, then came to live at No 1 (as it was then) Whitecroft Road. There were only four Council houses there at the time. It was quite a contrast for mum, after living in London. Her father told her he would give her six months and she would be back. Fortunately she stayed for the rest of her life. There were no street lights, no running water, no electricity and no sewerage. Water was taken from the dipping hole opposite, just outside the end of the garden of Mr and Mrs Harper’s property. They lived there with their children Dorothy and Cyril. It would have been very frightening for mum when dad was working nights at the Atlas with the dark woodland of the Grange estate, huge elm trees all around No 1, from the small cottages in Whitecroft Road to the alley at the other end, (the latter being removed to make way for four more Council houses just after World War II). She was expecting twins at the time. Sadly, they were born prematurely on 16th April 1930, the boy (Dennis Vincent) only lived 24 hours and the girl (June Doreen) only lived 18 months; they had leukaemia. My brother Den, (Dennis Percy) was born on 27th September 1931.
During the Depression of the 1920s/30s, dad had jobs at the Atlas on night shift, also working for the Council, cycling to Hay Street to start at 6.30 am each morning. As times were very hard during these years, mum and dad decided to move to the thatched cottage at the bottom of the railway bridge (south side). We had the front of the pair of cottages, as they were then. The rent was only 2s as opposed to 2s.6d, which was quite a saving at that time! Still no street lights, water, electric or sewerage, they relied on getting water from Joe Stockbridge’s pump at Trinity Farm across the road. Of course, that was if he was in a good mood at the time, which was not all that often, in which case mum had to take the buckets round to Sheene Farm and get water from the river.
In June 1938 mum miscarried; unbeknown, she was carrying twins again. I was born on 6th September of that year, at the cottage, the same place Eric Walbey was born 16 years previously. Nurse Cox from Melbourn, who delivered me, did not believe after the miscarriage that mum was still pregnant. After I was born, mum asked my brother, “what will we call him?” and right away he said “Peter John”.
The War Years
A year after I was born, the Second World War was declared. As dad went to war, I did not get to know him until some years later. During the early war years, my aunt and her three children came from London to live with us. It was a bit cramped in the cottage, two rooms up and one down, but we managed like everyone else at that time. By brother and our cousin Mickey (b.16.10.32) slept in one bedroom and Mum, Aunt Jess, my cousin Doreen (b. 4.4.38) and me slept in the other, with my baby cousin Jean (b. 7.7.43) in the cot. One night Doreen kept on and on that she needed to go to the toilet, the boys got so fed up they shouted out from the next room “the Jerry’s under the bed! She said “I’m frit (frightened) of Jerries!” (Germans). The only option would have been to go in the pitch dark to the toilet at the far end of the garden. Mum used to grow vegetables and also make clothes for us and herself. On wash days she had to light a fire under the copper, which was in the barn at the front of the house, to boil clothes. (all her life she never had a washing machine). When the washing was done it was taken out with laundry tongs then mangled, the base of the mangle had to be stood on to keep it still. On bath nights again the copper had to be lit, then the hot water taken into the house and put into the long tin bath which was placed in front of the cooking range. Sheets were hung at the back, we children were bathed first then the hot water was topped up for Aunt Jess and Mum.
Our next door neighbours at that time were Bill and Gladys Clarke, with their daughter Sheila and twins Brian and Barry who were born in December 1943. Bill also served during the war.
During that time the Americans came over and built a roadway beside the railway line and erected the Nissen Huts. These were used to bring in wounded troops and transport them to a makeshift hospital in the grounds of the Wimpole Estate. The lights from the trains and ambulances up and down the railway, would light up our bedroom at night, except of course when an air raid was on. Then the siren from Bassingbourn airfield would go off and the search lights would send beams of light across the sky. We had to black out the windows (although I don’t suppose there was much light from a candle or oil lamp which we had then). I remember a red glow in the sky, looking towards London. When the all clear sounded (also from Bassingbourn) we would then sigh with relief and know all was back to normal for a time. I remember the huge American bombers coming back from raids on Germany, flying low over the cottage, to land at the aerodrome. The sound of the four engines was terrific.
On occasions Doreen and I would walk across the field opposite to get near to the trains and talk to the soldiers. Once we said “got any gum chum?” and they gave us some candies, the like of which I’ve never tasted before or since, a most unusual but very pleasing taste. Bearing in mind you could not get sweets during the war, the nearest we came was having cocoa and sugar mixed with a drop of milk or water. Now and again a couple of Americans, Maurice and Gray, would visit us in the evenings when they were off duty.
It was also during the war that mum was seriously ill and had to go into Royston Hospital. I remember the ambulance which was driven by Mrs Dainty and Lynda Stockbridge at that time. They took her away on a stretcher to Royston Hospital. Dad managed to get a special 24 hour pass from the Army to visit her. It was just after he went back that we heard of the Normandy landings.
I remember getting an occasional food parcel during the war. Opening them was like Christmas for us all. Speaking of which, one time just before Christmas, Doreen and I discovered some presents hidden away in a box. Christmas didn’t seem quite the same after that but just as exciting though. On Sundays we would walk to Meldreth Church Sunday School, quite a way for small legs, but that’s what you did then and thought nothing of it. Weekdays we would call for Doreen’s friend Kathy Winter who lived on the north side of the railway bridge, on our way to school. Kathy lived there with her older brother Ken, baby brother Ronnie and her parents, a very nice family. Mr Winter (Bert) was signalman at Meldreth for many years. He kept a lovely garden in front of their house. I believe he also kept an allotment between the signal box and the Station on the south side of the railway line. There were a few more allotments between the signal box and the workman’s hut and also in the village at Donkey Hall Corner and down Chiswick End, just over the Puffing Billy railway line. In September each year my brother would go over the Meads in early mornings to pick mushrooms for our breakfast. No mushrooms have tasted so good since those days.
Unfortunately I missed many years at Meldreth School as I had six operations during that time and had to convalesce for many months, during which time mum had a job keeping me occupied. She taught me to knit, sew and cook. The first two operations were performed at The Lees School annex during the war. I remember looking out onto fire escape steps on the house next door, which can still be seen today. Addenbrookes Hospital in Trumpington Street was used to take in wounded soldiers at that time. Later on after the war I went in there. I was in Albert Ward, top floor directly under the clock. To this day I cannot stand the noise of ticking clocks at night. I can still remember the view from there of the lion statues outside the Fitzwilliam Museum opposite. I also spent many hours in Outpatients with mum. In there were rows of wooden bench seats, the walls were covered from the floor to the high ceiling with white, as was most of the hospital. On either side were four clinics. I was in Sunray and Electrical. We would go down by the 108 bus which ran every other hour and on time! We also spent many hours too at the chest clinic beside Shire Hall until it was all moved to the new Addenbrookes site.
My best friend at school was Brian Pepper, he lived at Allerton Terrace with his mum, dad and younger brother Roger, also a nice family. Next door to Brian lived Bill and Carol Mead with their children Colin and Drina. Carol used to do a lot for the children of the village. One year she put on a Nativity Play at the old Village hall [the Congregational Chapel] between numbers 63 and 65 High Street. I was one of the three Kings.
I went to several birthday parties with friends in those days. One day Orton Radford invited me to see his collection of toys. He lived with his mum in the row of thatched cottages in the High Street next to Keys Cottage. Their next door neighbour was Mrs Kelly. I believe there were two more cottages in that row. I also remember the two boys who lived at Temple House. The elder was Michael.
The Post War Years
As the war ended, for one week each year we would go up to my grandparents’ home in London so that mum could spring clean their house. We would catch the train from Meldreth to Kings Cross and then the Underground to Clapham North station, from where we would walk with our luggage to 19a Glenelg Road, Acre Lane, Brixton. I can still remember the barrage balloon hanging in the sky over the city and the bomb damage. In fact two doors from my grandparents; terraced house, the next four were wiped out completely. The journey for me, as a child, was very exciting, going by steam train over Welwyn viaduct and through all the tunnels. As we did so the steam, smoke and specks of soot would fill the carriage. On arriving at Kings Cross we would see all the famous steam engines arriving and departing. It was also very busy there in those days. There were porters up and down the station with barrows and electric trolleys pulling two or three trailers loaded with luggage, cases etc. Every train had a guard’s van. Some trains, especially those going to Scotland, would be pulling at least twelve coaches. The Underground was something new to me, in some time I got to know each station along the way.
While in London we would visit dad’s aunt and uncle, Lil and Jim Oakman, who lived in Highbury, North London. We took the tram from Brixton Town Hall (where the trams changed from overhead power lines to ground level power) through Kensington, over the Thames on to the Kingsway subway where the trams went underground. They were very noisy, rattling, swaying and screeching to a halt. Aunt Lil was a very affectionate person who always made us welcome. She had a wonderful Wiltshire accent (my favourite English accent). She came from Monkton Deverill and went into service in London as a girl, where she met Uncle Jim. On other occasions while in London we would visit dad’s step-sister, husband and daughter Joan at Thornton Heath.
There was great excitement on V.E. Day in 1945, when it was announced on the radio that the war was over. When dad came back from the war he resumed his job as gardener at The Manor with Mr and Mrs Jebb. On Saturday mornings he would take me with him to their lovely garden. Sunday afternoons mum, dad and I would go for walks down or up the Bullock Yard and on to The Shant, via Ashwell Street. Then return through Bury Lane or go over The Meads to sit by the river. At this time there were several dairy cows in The Meads, owned by George Palmer, who owned most of the land in our part of Meldreth. Our milk was delivered from a churn by Algie Creek from Melbourn and ladled out into our milk jugs. Our coal came from the station delivered by Fred Sell and Alf Harland on a cart pulled by two lovely shire horses. Fred, his wife Kate and daughter Freda lived in a tiny cottage opposite Trinity Farm. Alf and his wife Grace lived in a semi detached cottage on Melbourn High Street next to the garden of the Rose Public House. It was in that cottage that my brother Den was born. Our bread also came from Melbourn (Howard’s Bakery). It was delivered by Wilf Neil and Frank Mayo. Wilf and Edith lived in Sunset Cottage at the bottom of our garden. Frank and Ann lived with son Brian next door to us from about 1945. They were evacuated at first from Bermondsey in London to ‘The Lawns’ in Melbourn.
In 1945 my brother Den was 14 and started working with Wilf Fuller and Cyril Harper at Elbourn’s agricultural garage on the corner of Whitecroft Road and Chiswick End. On some Saturday lunchtimes I would go to meet my big brother from work. Opposite the garage was a pair of cottages where the Pateman’s lived. Stanley, being one of my friends at school, lived in the left one with his mum and older brother Eric, also a very nice family.
After the War my cousin Joan (dad’s half-sister’s daughter) used to come down each Easter Holiday. We used to be out all day, often with her dog, a black and white cocker spaniel named Sue. Walking along the Puffing Billy line, through all the orchards, the pink blossom against the blue sky was a wonderful sight. Sometimes we would climb trees in the Meads. We were at the top one day when Joan’s mother came over. She couldn’t see us at first, when she did spot us she told us to come down immediately. Another time Joan touched the electric wire around the cricket pitch, she blamed me for kicking her! We often went down Bury Lane, climbing over the gate and crossing the field to the river where we would play all day and get really muddy. Poor mum had more washing to do.
About 1947 mum and dad bought an oil cooker and an oil heater. Every Friday night the Oil Man would call outside the cottage with his blue van, coming out from Cambridge selling all sorts of hardware as well as oil. A fish and chip van would call outside the cottage Tuesday lunchtime. It was a green and white van with a black chimney at the top.
1947 was a very bad winter, deep snow from early November until April. Around 1947 the Council started to cut down the huge elm trees between the fourth Council house (No. 4) in Whitecroft Road and the alley to make way for more houses. It was around this time I was given a bicycle. Dad took me to the top of the railway bridge and held on to me for the first few yards, then let me go the rest of the way down the hill. I could not believe I was riding on two wheels! In later years dad and I would go for long cycle rides to St. Ives across to Huntingdon and back or to Ware across to Bishops Stortford and back. Some Sunday mornings while mum was preparing lunch we would cycle around local places, Barley and Great Chishill or Wendy and Shingay and Bassingbourn. The smell of Sunday lunches cooking as we passed the houses gave us an appetite.
In March 1948 the Clarke family moved into the first of the newly brick built Council houses in Whitecroft Road, followed by the Salmons. The Chamberlains, and the Webbs. Howard Road was then built with eight more houses of the same type. About 1948 mum and dad took on the job as caretakers at the school for about the next ten years, mum being Dinner Lady also. The dinners were kept hot in containers brought over from Melbourn school by road. Around this time a water supply was brought to Station Road, a tap was installed between the two cottage gardens and also the electricity supply was connected to each house in Station Road.
In 1949 my brother Den joined the Royal Engineers to do his National Service. I used to write to him regularly (Sapper Oakman D. P. 22329779). In September of that year, Brian, myself and Johnnie Salmon, went to Melbourn school in Mortlock Street. The school was very overcrowded, children came from many surrounding villages. I never liked Melbourn school or Melbourn and could not wait to leave. The teacher there was burly and very strict, I hated every minute. The second year with him (1950) he entered me in a children’s art competition. I won first prize for my painting of ‘The Water Rat’s Home’. It was around this time I joined the Boy Scouts. My patrol leader was John Sims and troop leaders were Eric Pateman and Ray Croxall and, I believe, Michael Leech. Meetings were held in the United Reform Church, Orchard Road, Melbourn. Some summer evenings were in the Bury Meadow. It was there I was enrolled. One weekend we camped at Great Abington. I remember the long cycle journey back on a hot Sunday afternoon along the A505 carrying all my kit. The next two years at Melbourn School weren’t quite as bad. One of my friends at that time was Trevor South from Barrington. We used to meet up occasionally after school or weekends.
In 1951 Den finished his National Service and found a job at Goodes Engineering, Royston. About this time my granddad Gristwood came down from London to live with us as he was no longer able to live alone. Also in 1951 The Royal Show was held in Trumpington and trees were planted either side of the A10, south entrance to the village, from the railway bridge (Cambridge to Bedford line), up to the old prisoner of war camp on the western side of that road. Also in 1951 The Festival of Britain was held in London. Mum, dad and I met my cousin Doreen there. It was a wonderful exhibition with the newly built Skylon and Festival Hall. In the evening we went by boat from there to Battersea Park where there was a funfair and a tree walk and lots of illuminations.
February 1952 the King died at Sandringham after a long illness. We always looked out for the Royal Train as it went by the cottage taking the King and Queen on their Christmas holidays. I once believed I saw them sitting on the train. On Saturday May 10th of that year we moved to 13 Howard Road in one of 14 new types of brick houses to be built by Wisbey’s. The road was still a cul-de-sac then and remained so for the next five years. We took granddad over in a wheelchair first to stop with Stan and Mandy Hale (No.11), while we brought over our furniture, linen etc. Eric and Joyce (Frances) Walbey moved in next door (No.15).
On June 2nd 1953 it was the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Dad and I cycled to Royston to watch the event on a 9 inch TV at the home of Bill and Mary Pigg (nee Waldock). It was a very damp day. One month after I left school and started work in September in a motorcycle shop at Pepper and Haywood in Royston, going there by bus. Taking fares into consideration I was left with 21 shillings a week, so I decided after seven weeks to apply for a job at H V Chamberlains, the Corn Merchants in Meldreth High Street. I worked with Harold Hinkins in the old granary. Harold came from Bridge Street in Whaddon where he lived with his wife and three daughters. He was a very cheerful man, always joking. Mr Chamberlain had two Bedford lorries for collection and deliveries and also ran a business in North End. In the office at the High Street were two rooms, one in which Mr Chamberlain worked and in the other Mrs Sims and Maggie Green, joined by Ann Wallace of Shepreth in January 1954. Maggie lived with her sister in a small cottage where No. 31 High Street now stands, next to a grand house called The Grange. In the High Street granary yard, opposite the office was the farmhouse where Mrs Cooper lived with her grandson, Reg Carter. Reg was one of our lorry drivers. Mrs Cooper who owned the property was well into her 80’s and used to make us coffee in the mornings and tea in the afternoon. Her chickens used to roam about the yard picking up all the loose corn, sometimes coming into the granary.
On 27 March 1955 my brother married Doreen Bullard at Therfield Church, Therfield where Doreen came from. My cousin Joan married Ted Matthews a week later at Thornton Heath.
In 1956 the Council cleared the woodland between the cottages in Whitecroft Road and No.1 to erect six houses and four bungalows. Later they opened Elin Way and joined it to the extended Howard Road, building many concrete sectional houses in this area. Around this time the double bend in Whitecroft Road, between Chiswick End and the alley, was straightened and bungalows were erected on the site of the old meadow there. About 1956 Brian and I joined the Barbara Leader School of Dance. We used to cycle to Royston each week after a day’s work. It was there that Brian met Cynthia (Clarke). We both signed on for National Service that year. Brian joined the RAF in November. I had to go into Papworth Hospital for a bronchial gram about the same time. It was then they found I had Bronchiectasis. I was excused service on medical grounds. Later I carried on dancing, cycling to classes three or four times a week to gain my Bronzes, Silver and Gold in both Ballroom and Latin American dance under the I.S.T.D. I also joined the formation team giving displays at various places including the Mecca Dance Hall in Stevenage which had a resident band and singers, as well as The Guildhall in Cambridge. It was here that Jean Smith and I came second in a rumba competition dancing against other schools in East Anglia. I made many friends at the school. Only two of the boys had cars in those days and on Saturday nights we would all pile into David Styles’ car (a Vauxhall Wyvern), myself and Sheila Clarke in Meldreth and the others Rodney Hales and Ted Pigg at Royston. Richard Ridge-Reeves from Ashwell had the other car and brought Danny Huggins and others from there, so we all met up to go to dances at Stevenage or at local village halls. Occasionally in the summer we would go to barn dances, sitting on straw bales. We had many good times then. The Swinging Sixties had begun.
In 1961 I passed my motorcycle test, fortunately first time. On October 28th that year Brian and Cynthia married at the Baptist Church in Kneesworth Street, Royston and I had the privilege to be Best Man.
1962 was a bad winter.
Early 1963 I passed my car driving test, again first time and bought a green Mini Traveller from John Gipson’s garage in the High Street. In the spring, Rod Hales and I decided to go on tour! We went down to my beloved Devon. It was in Torbay I learnt to swim. On Saturday evening 14th September, Rod and I decided to go to the Mecca dance hall at Stevenage. It was there that I meet Marian. She had decided to go there from her home in Luton. wo coach loads left from there every Saturday night, going to different dance hall destinations, she chose the Stevenage one!
On 21st March 1964 we got engaged.
On Friday 1st January 1965 I drove down to Steyning, Sussex, via the North Circular and South Circular, no M25 in those days. I was to be Best Man at Danny and Jenny Huggins wedding the next day.
On 12th March 1965 Marian and I married in Luton and our reception went on till midnight. We went on honeymoon to London the next day. We came back to live in a flat above the shop in the old Queen Adelaide, Meldreth.
In 1966 on our first anniversary we held a party at the flat and invited all the family. On April 2nd Sheila (Clarke) married Richard Ridge-Reeves. I was Best Man. In the Summer of that year I borrowed a minibus from Terry Warburton, one of the lorry drivers at work, and took Marian’s family down to Devon. On the eve of departure I was told I was to be made redundant after 12 years (no compensation then) by Sherriff’s the company that took over Mr Chamberlain’s business. I returned from holiday with bronchitis and at the end of the week we were asked to vacate the flat. Fortunately mum and dad said we could live with them for the time being so I returned to 13 Howard Road. Later I managed to get a job at Vinpac, a company that moved into the old cold store in Whitecroft Road. There I was mainly delivering wine in a old Bedford van, travelling all over the country, also to Largs in Scotland.
In 197I I acquired a job at Pye Ling in Royston, starting on the same day as Steve Reeves from Great Chishill, wiring loudspeakers. Later that year we all moved to their factory in Coldhams Lane, Cherry Hinton, Cambridge, working on circuit boards.
In January 1968 my daughter Lynn was born at Mill Road maternity hospital, Cambridge.
By Winter 1969 we were having transport problems to and from Pye’s so I decided to apply for a job at Neve Electronic Laboratories in Back Lane, Melbourn, wiring sound mixers.
The 70s, 80s and 90s
I started there on 1 January 1970 and remained with them until October 1992, when we were made redundant by Siemens, the company who took over Neve and moved everything to Blackburn, only six months after opening a brand new factory in Litlington during which time we had a visit from Prince Edward. During my time at Neve, I went out on installations. In 1972 to R.T.E Donnybrook, Ireland, in 1982 to BBC Television Centre and in 1992 to Broadcasting House. After I left the company I started contract wiring jobs.
In March 1993, I passed an interview to do a six month summer season at The Imperial War Museum, Duxford, as Museum Assistant, which I enjoyed. After that I went back to contracting. Later in that year I was out of work as, dad and mum were very ill I was able to look after him and mum. At one time I had to get two of their doctors out on the same day, dad’s doctor with him in the bedroom and mum’s doctor with her in the front room.
On 4th January 1994 dad passed away at home. On 18th July I started work at Aventel, Melbourn. On 17th December that year mum passed away at Royston Hospital.
On 16th January 1996 my brother Den died aged 64, one year and one month after mum.
In March 1997, I was made redundant from Avantel. After that I was having difficulty getting work as jobs were not as easy to get as they were in the 60’s. Also age was against me.
On 22nd June 1998 I took a big drop in wages, starting work as a Bedder at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Starting on 5 hours a week, by Christmas I was put on full time. From the time I walked into the college it was like stepping into another world! So quiet and peaceful with, lovely gardens in the Courts. I loved working there. I had three staircases to look after, B, H and I. I also looked after the Chapel. Trinity Hall is one of the smallest and oldest colleges in Cambridge, founded by Bishop Bateman in 1350.
September 6th 2003 was my official retirement but they kept me on until March 4th 2006 when I had a second retirement party at the college. In spite of many of the students and fellows campaigning for me to stay on, the Bursar insisted I leave. (Too old!).
Meldreth to me has changed beyond recognition since those days as a child, when we were surrounded by meadows, trees and orchards. There were many thatched cottages then which no longer remain, no housing estates and hardly any traffic. Most villagers then knew one another and formed many friendships and that community spirit I am pleased to say, still remains today.