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War & Peace in Norfolk
Dersingham Village History
by Tom Ebert
My first recollection of Dersingham was as a seven-year-old boy in 1941
My mother, sister and I were evacuated from the East End of London during the blitz and arrived, after a long train journey', at the Station Hotel one late afternoon which was owned then by a Mr and Mrs Parminter. After some tea and sandwiches we were billeted on a retired couple, a Mr and Mrs Bush, who lived in White Horse Drive, long before the council houses were built opposite.
The official procedure then was that anybody who had room to spare in their houses had to take in evacuees. No ifs or buts - if you had a spare room or two you ended up with evacuees. No doubt those, and such as those, who could drop a word in the right place never had to open their doors, but that's another story.
This draconian ruling, as you can imagine, caused resentment amongst those people who had to take in these unwanted lodgers. I know how I'd feel being forced to take in asylum seekers, people alien to my culture as we were to theirs. Being so young I didn't know how my mum was treated but it was bad enough for her to consider us returning to Poplar to take our chances with the blitz.
Fortunately for us the then incumbent, Rev. Oliver, found room for us and two other families in the upstairs rooms of what is now the old vicarage.
It was as if we had died and gone to heaven coming from the slums of the east end of London to a spacious house in its own grounds, itself in a beautiful village.
I suppose that our family were some of the very few people that owe a lot to 'World War 2. Were it not for that war we would have spent our lives in London.
Those children old enough, there were four of us, paid a price for our lodgings in the vicarage though. At first, the three women went to church each Sunday, not wishing to offend the Vicar by not attending. We children went to Bible Study at 10.30am, Morning Service at 11am, Sunday School at 3pm and Evensong at 7pm. Then our mothers found out that if they missed a Sunday each month nothing was said, so then they missed two Sundays and finally never went to church at all. Every Sunday, rain or shine, we children trundled off to church. As a bonus we had choir practice on Friday evenings.
Every Saturday morning the Vicar's wife made a dinner for an old boy in his nineties who lived just past Twait's garage. He was a boarder with the Balls family. Us kids had to deliver it to him (minus any bits of crust that 'accidentally' fell off the meat pie on the way). He had served in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the 'Mounties') up to his retirement and was present when Sitting Bull led the Sioux Indians over the border into Canada and then surrendered to the ‘Mounties’ after he had massacred Custer at little Big Horn
The afternoon Sunday School was always well attended and not solely for the Sunday School outing each year, which always seemed to consist of a visit to Sandringham church followed by fish paste sandwiches and watery orange squash in the drawing room of the Vicar of Sandringham. They did their best for us though and there was a war on.
The reason for the good attendance at Sunday school was because of the two wicker bath chairs that used to (might still do) stand at the back of the church for any incapacitated parishioners to borrow. Those boys in the know used to arrive at the church just after two and then began the bath chair races up and down the aisles. Other lads hid in the pews and hurled hassocks into the path of the chairs as they thundered down the aisles until at around 2.45 everything was tidied up and about fifteen attentive youngsters sat in the front pews waiting for the vicar to arrive and take the Sunday school.
If anyone ever wondered how that brass christening ewer by the font got that dent in it - now you know! .... It holds a vast amount of water too.
One can't condone that sort of behaviour but I suppose boys will be boys whatever the generation. To my eternal shame my initials (TBE) are also scratched into the varnish on the pine panelling in the vestry at the back of the organ and also appear on the lead flashing on the church tower roof.
During the frequent power cuts during the war the church organ was pumped by hand. The choirboy appointed to the job considered this a sinecure. All he had to do was to sit on the stool and watch the gauge slowly descend. When it was low he pumped like heck and brought the air pressure up again.
Published at that time were very small comic books, about three inches by two inches in diameter called 'Mighty Midgets'. These, hidden in hymn books got many a choirboy through many a boring service. In the vestry, on his own, the organ pumper-upper was in his element. Sitting on his stool reading his comic book invariably he forgot the gauge until it was brought to his attention by strangled wheezes from the dying organ and furious whispers from Teddy Rye, the choirmaster and organist. The boy would then leap up and pump away like a demented galley slave until the music started again.
My other church memory was that of a rare conducted treat to the top of the tower after Sunday school. Every boy dropped their caps over the parapet to watch them float down. One unfortunate lad's cap caught on the minute hand of the clock. It being four o'clock he had to wait until twenty-five past until his cap fell off the hand. The rest of us had long gone.
When the Rev. Oliver retired the new incumbent, Mr Carew-Jones, needed all the space in the vicarage for his own family and my mother, sister and l moved to Church Cottages. There, the water supply was communal, supplied by a tap next door to No.6. Before that the supply came from a well near to No.4 which was capped off when my family lived there. There were no flush toilets, just earth closets at the end of each garden.
The primary school's headmaster was a Mr Mason-Jones, a retired marine biologist who was called back in service as a teacher when the younger men were 'called up'. His nickname was `Old Foss' from the lectures on fossils he imposed upon the class. Every day the top class was given a lesson on 'modern history'. This consisted of Mr Mason-Jones reading aloud from the 'Daily Mail' whilst his class scribbled furiously to get the news items down into their exercise books. There was never any discussion about the news. The work was never checked. It was just `Old Foss' reading his morning paper aloud. He would also send some poor unfortunate to scrape a sample of moss from the boy's urinal that he would place on a slide under a microscope and in the science lesson invite all to tell him what we saw.
I could never see anything, it always appeared out of focus to me but a, “Squiggly things, Sir!” seemed to satisfy him.
The other teachers at the school were Miss `Polly' Hudson, a formidable lady with a pudding basin haircut who taught the infants, Mrs Amy Boyce and Mrs Robinson.
Shops in the village I can remember were in Chapel Road, Peter Houchen's general store, alongside a garage that had closed during the war, Dan Andrews greengroceries, at the junction of Chapel Road and Post Office Road. My mum used to help Mrs Andrews sell greengroceries from a horse and cart near the Norwich Gates at Sandringham in 1948 or 1949. She would never ride on the cart with Mrs Andrews but walk along behind, there and back. Twait's Garage (since burnt down) was at the corner of Lynn Road and Post Office Road. Opposite that was Ewers, a shop that sold wool and general haberdashery, Riches the boot mender was just a little way up Lynn Road and Fisher's fish and. chip shop (the meeting place for village youth .in the evenings) just beside Twait's Garage.
Houchen's garage was at Bank Road l think; opposite the playing field.
Linford’s grocery store was on the corner of Station Road and Lynn Road and just a little way up was Mrs Rayner's newsagents. Newsprint was rationed then and comics as well so she only had a limited supply from the wholesalers. If you weren't registered with her for a comic, you had to wait until one of the older lads or lasses decided they were too old for such frivolities and gave up their registration. She found a supply of old 'Magnets' and 'Gem's in her loft once and sold them off to us. For weeks afterwards the village kids walked around putting on 'toff' accents saying things like `Simply spiffing, old chap' and "l say, old bean".
Terringtons Butchers were at the Lynn Road end of Chapel Road as was Wells Bakery where I worked as a delivery boy after school. His meat pies were heaven on earth to a hungry lad between school ending and going home to dinner after deliveries.
At the edge of the village on the way to Snettisham was Connie Wyre's wool shop. There were two coal merchants, the Bird brothers and 'Fyffe'. I never knew if that was his real name or a nick-name. Fyffe used to deliver by horse and cart whilst the Birds had the luxury of a flatbed lorry. At harvest time they contracted out carrying sacks of grain to Stanton's barn where there was a drying facility. Fyffe's claim to fame was that, when on guard duty one night with the Home Guard at Sandringham, he challenged something moving in the dark and when it failed to stop, shot it. It was found he had shot one of the King's dairy cows.
At the other side of the village opposite the Coach and. Horses was Lines the Butchers. During the war and its strict rationing laws farmers had to account for every animal on their farms to ensure that none were slaughtered on the side for the farmer's own use. Herbert Lines and a local farmer colluded in slaughtering a lamb illegally and were brought to book. Herbert felt the shame of this so much that the poor fellow hung himself in a shed at the back of his premises before his trial. His nephew took us lads round afterwards to show us not only the shed where the deed was done but the actual rope with the noose still tied in it lying on the floor. The farmer was eventually taken to court and received a fine of one shilling (five pence) for his part in the affair. Poor Herbert should have abided by the old saying, "lt's better to be hung for a sheep then a lamb"
Parker's grocery store was on the corner of Manor Road and Sandringham Hill Road, Terrington's Grocers and Playford's Bakery were opposite the Police Station. A bit further down was the wooden hut owned by George King the barber. There was a long wooden bench against the wall where we kids waited, dreading an adult coming in because invariably George would take them out of turn. Three walls were covered in pictures from the front cover of 'Picture Post' a news magazine of the time. The fourth wall had a large gilt framed mirror from which the silver was peeling off in places with two large cardboard signs in each top corner "Singeing Promotes the Growth of the Hair" was one and I believe the other was "Razors Sharpened". George must have sharpened the razors after office hours because I never saw any other than the one he used to shave the back of the customers necks being sharpened and certainly never saw any takers for the singed hair offer. Customers could have any style they liked providing it was short back and sides.
Juvenile crime in the village was practically non-existent. Scrumping apples and giving another kid a ride on a bike's crossbar was the height of our depravity. One poor man, 'Cocky' Sayers, used to phone his girl friend regularly from the phone box opposite Linford's. A carefully hidden rope was tied around the box leaving `Cocky' to ring somebody and wait for somebody to come and untie him. We never knew who it was because we never stayed around to find out.
Some nights a few gates were removed from their hinges and replaced upside down - all harmless stuff. The only lad in our group of about twenty kids who did get into trouble around the age of eleven or twelve succumbed to temptation by taking a ten shilling note from a customer's table when he was delivering her groceries. He was immediately found out, taken to juvenile court and received probation for the offence. That frightened the rest of us as much as him. The local bobby, Mr Hall, was always greeted politely when seen and responded in kind. There really was never any vandalism or trouble
Most nights we heard the bombers go out from Snettisham and Bircham airfields and saw the searchlights home in on lone planes until they were established as 'friendly'. The `Queen Mary' recovery vehicles with the crashed planes on board drove through the villages back to the airfields. A daytime activity was watching planes towing a target 'drone' whilst gunners practised their marksmanship on the drone. The pilots of those planes must have really blotted their copybooks to get that job. We never saw much of the American servicemen in Dersingham; the Snettisham kids got all the chocolate and gum from them. During the latter war years the military took over Jannock's Hall opposite the church. It was some sort of headquarters preparatory to the D-Day invasion. Field Marshall Montgomery turned up one time for a few days with his rather large camouflaged caravan concealed under the trees in the grounds. We lads used to sneak around the grounds to see if we could spot him. A few weeks before D-Day the eastern region was designated a 'no-go' area as a build-up of men and materials took place. I remember line after line of vehicles hidden under the trees on the approach roads to Sandringham. No one was permitted to travel in and out of the area without a permit and we had a heck of a job getting such a permit for my cousin, a sixteen year old girl, to visit us for a couple of weeks from London.
Each village competed with each other to raise funds for the war effort. A week would be designated for each of the three services. 'Wings for Victory', 'Navy Week' and, I suppose, the other was imaginatively 'Army Week'. The village concert party, the 'Dersingham Amateurs', would put on a show in the village hall for one of the fund raising weeks and a visiting concert party from one of the other villages would come along to do the honours at one of the other fund raising weeks; the locals having exhausted their repertoire. This would be on a reciprocal basis. The cheaper seats at the concerts being at the back of the hall, this was where the local kids gathered, jostling each other for pride of place on top of one of the two wooden cupboards placed along the back wall. There used to be a model of Nelson's flagship the 'Victory' in a glass case on that wall with King George V's photo looking at it from the left and Queen Mary's peering from the right. How it, and they, survived the silent in-fighting I'll never know.
Sports events for the children were organised during those weeks, the prizes being National Savings stamps and there was usually a fete and carnival to round the week off with an appearance by members of the particular service benefiting from the fundraising. Freddie Mills and Eric Boon, two famous boxers of the time, both serving in the RAF, put on a boxing exhibition at one such event.
Charlie Playford was the local baker and an enthusiastic cine-photographer. He used to film all those local events which usually ended in a carnival procession through the village. Charlie was a leading light in the village, he was involved with the football team and, l believe, many other local organisations. He was always Mr Playford to the village lads, never Charlie. He had our respect. He used to rent feature films and on Saturday evenings would set up a screen and projector in his bake house and limited by space invite a few lads around to view the films. His immediate family would sit on chairs in the front and the rest of us would sit on top of the well-scrubbed mixing troughs in the warm bake house eating new bread and jam tarts, drinking 'Corona' soft drinks purchased from Mr Playford whilst watching the film. We all knew that anyone messing about would not be asked back for future shows so behaved impeccably.
Our other entertainment during the war years consisted of Saturday afternoon visits to the cinema, either to the' Princess' in Hunstanton followed by a soft drink and a bun or, if finances warranted it, in Abbs tearooms while waiting for the bus home or to King's Lynn where the cinemas were the 'Majestic', the `Theatre Royal' and down by the docks, the 'Pilot'.
Mr Fisher, the proprietor of the fish and chip shop, was an active socialist and organised a 'Young Socialist' group within the village. Politics then, as now, being as boring as watching paint dry the only reason we joined was to be eligible for the social evenings he arranged; there we could meet girls. I was a card-carrying member of the Young Conservatives and the Young Farmers at the same time for the same reasons. This usually lasted until the next subscription date fell due when lack of funds meant lack of membership.
Later on at the age of sixteen we were eligible to join the Old Time Dancing club which met in the village hall on Friday evenings and danced to records. Quite a few young people attended, we had tutorage for the dances, travelled to other old time dance venues and had a whale of a time.
Latterly, a travelling cinema came to town. Every Thursday night an entrepreneur set himself up in the village hall and gave a cinema performance. Initially, one had to wait while he changed each reel but business must have been good because eventually he had two projectors and we saw the feature film uninterrupted. His poster on the notice board outside the hall showed four weeks offerings on the one poster and the 'blood and thunder' films always played to a packed house.
I'm not sure whether this particular man was involved in an incident regarding the showing of the original black and. white film of George Bernard Shaw's 'Pygmalion'. Liza Doolittle in the film has the line "Not bloody likely!" which attracted much comment in the press at the time. The local clergy, both Church of England and Methodist, urged their congregations to boycott the film when it was shown at the village hall; it played to a capacity audience!
On V.E. Day a large bonfire was organised on one of farmer Richard Stanton's fields on the Shernborne road when the fireworks that had been put away at the beginning of the war were brought out and let off. Poor Mr Mason-Jones the schoolmaster was leaning on his stick watching the bonfire oblivious to some of the older lads lining up rockets at his hat, which as he was wearing it at the time; could have been dangerous. He was saved by Mr Riches the boot mender's son pushing him out of the way at the last moment.
The long summer holiday's meant that lads over fourteen could ask one of the local farmers for a 'harvest' This meant working on the farm helping to harvest the crops until 'all were safely gathered in'. For this you were paid an agreed sum. Whether the 'harvest' lasted for two, three or four weeks you got the same money. The worst job during threshing was sacking chaff and this was always given to a harvest boy. The threshing machine was towed to the field by a steam driven traction engine and driven by leather belts from the flywheel of the engine. It was always set up so that the prevailing wind blew the dust away from the men on the stack and towards the boy sacking chaff. Barley was the worst; those prickly 'harns' got everywhere.
We had one visit from a travelling circus about two years after the war ended. This was an open-air circus - not from choice but necessity. Apparently the Big Top had burnt down a few weeks before and in the tradition of 'the show must go on' a high wall of hessian was erected around the circus ring and the ground level acts went on. The trapeze artists were redundant as there was nothing for them to swing from and anyway, those of us outside the hessian who couldn't afford a ticket would have seen them for nothing. As it was, getting close to the hessian meant we kids could see the blurred shapes of the performers anyway. Not as good as a front row seat but sufficient and we could still hear the band for free.
Eventually, I worked on the Sandringham Estate until I joined the R.A.F.
I returned to Dersingham a few times on leave and then, whilst I was serving abroad, my family moved back to Essex. Apart from one visit a few years ago, where I looked up some friends and my old headmaster, Mr. Willis, I haven't returned. When I retired I intended to come back 'home’ but my last visit convinced me that the old adage 'Never go back' is a true one. lt wasn't 'my' Dersingham.
I owe the war-time Dersingham and its people a lot. I've nothing but fond memories of living there. Impossible, I know, but the sun always shone and the sky was always blue then as I remembered it.
That's how I'll always remember it.