ID: DJG_BIO / Douglas Gurton

TitleThose were the days. Tollesbury childhood memories.
Abstract"THOSE WERE THE DAYS" - Reminiscences of childhood memories of over fifty years ago

I was born on the 25th January 1908 (Robert Burns Day) at the Hope Inn, Tollesbury, and when my mother died in somewhat tragic circumstances in 1910, I was taken to live with my grandparents, John and Emma Gurton, at what was known then as No. 2 United Cottages, Woodrope Road, Tollesbury. The days spent there proved to be the happiest time of my childhood, for not only the environment there, I was fortunate in having on my father's side, six uncles and six aunts, who quite naturally gave me a deal of care and attention. Only one aunt was living at home at the time, Aunt Daisy, but she had entered the employment of the Count and Countess de la Chapelle, a very devoted and respected couple, as a nursemaid to Miss Yvonne at Heron Lodge, so I did not see her every day. However, I eagerly looked forward to a visit from Aunt Daisy as she was invariably accompanied by Miss Yvonne who at that tine possessed a pedal motor car. As a very special treat I was allowed a ride in the car occasionally. Motor cars were still very suspect and scarce in those days, there were only two permanently owned in the village, one by Dr. Spink and the other by Mr. George Fisher of the Garage. Occasionally the vicar of Tolleshunt D'Arcy, the Reverend R.V.C. Graves, drove down to Woodrope in his elegant "Voiturette" which was steered by bicycle-type handlebars, and if I remember correctly was numbered A 1. The car had difficulty in ascending Woodrope Road, and usually had to be pushed by men or boys who always seemed to be about in the road.

Grandfather apart from being a professional yachtsman, fisherman and noted wildfowler, was also local agent for the Cruising Association, and at week-ends hoisted the flag, a red square with white diamond and black letters CA therein, on the flag-pole at the front of the cottage. The letters "CA" caused people to say it meant "Christians All", possibly because it was only flown at week-ends, but that was the time Grandfather was home, for during the week he was either tending yachts or fishing in the River. One of my greatest delights was to go off with him to Woodrope and board either one or other of his two smacks "Phantom" and "Gem". "Phantom" had been specially built for him by Aldous of Brightlingsea for fishing and wildfowling, and in this respect he had been advised by the Count de la Chapelle, an authority on the subject. "Phantom" had a particularly long fo'c'sle to enable two punt guns to be hung in beckets inside, also specially strengthened deck beams, as a large baulk of timber with gun mountings and swivels could be placed on the foredeck immediately in front of the mainmast. There was also a portable skylight which could be put over the hold hatch coamings, if shooting parties were being carried and extra accommodation required.

Woodrope or Woodrolfe as it is known to-day, was a hive of activity all the year round. There were 117 smacks owned in Tollesbury at the turn of the centmry. Most of the smacks bore ladies' names or a combination of family initials, like "AEFA", "SWH", "ADC", "MKT", but others had more prosaic names like "SECRET", "CORSAIR", "SUNBEAM", "PARAGON" and many others. Incidentally, "PARAGON", a former Ramsgate pleasure boat, was the fastest smack in these waters. Smacks were not motorised in those days, and with their tall topmasts, crosstrees, presented a veritable forest of masts at Woodrope at times. The only motorised commercial craft in use as I remember was the "DAN", a large carvel built launch, with turtle back foredeck. It was owned by the Tollesbury and Mersea Oyster Fishery Co and was kept in impeccable condition by the coxswain, Mr. Laban Pearce, who also undertook maintenance of the engine, a large "Dan" single cylinder hot-bulb type, which had to be started first thing in the mornings by a blow-lamp. The initial explosion could be heard for miles. It was a wonderful sight to see "DAN", towing two or three fully laden skiffs and attendant row-boats, coming up on the full tide to Woodrope, where horses and carts were waiting to take the bags and barrels of oysters up to the Railway Station.

Apart from the smacks on the Hard, there were usually a number in South Dock and in what was termed "Rotten Row" quite wrongly, as these craft were usually waiting their turn in the River, or laid up temporarily. In winter-time, Woodrope was most impressive, with most creeks occupied by large yachts of all descriptions. The sleek and beautiful steam yacht "WINIFRED" dominated the scene, but was closely equalled by some of the large schooners and ketches, surrounding her at Rickett's or "Rickus" Hard. Drake's Yard was usually full of craft on the slipways, these were principally yachts, cruising and racing. One notable yacht was the "HISPANIA" owned by H.M. the King of Spain, whose skipper was Capt. Steve Barbrook. One of my most treasured possessions at that time was the cap badge he gave me together with a few verdigris covered copper coins, which Capt. Barbrook had in his pocket when the mast of "BRYNHILD" went through the bottom when racing off Southend in 1908 and sank.

At various times sailing barges came up to Woodrope with coal, the "MARY KATE" owned by Capt. William Frost was a frequent visitor. As a child I marveled at the nimbleness of the men who ran down the planks with baskets of coal on their shoulders and shot it into waiting carts.
Occasionally I was taken on board a barge by my Uncle Alf and under his tuition learnt all the parts of the barge and equipment, which differed somewhat to that of smacks and yachts with, which I was becoming familiar. In addition the large firm of Drakes, there was the boatbuilding firm of Legerton and Green, who turned out beautiful launches and small sailing craft. Two sailmaking companies, Gowen and Co., and Cranfield and Carter, also Mr. Phillip's paint shop and Mr. Williams's blacksmith's shop and forge completed the workaday scene. Outside Mr. Williams's shop stood many smacks anchors and chains, and a large boiler in which the tan dressing for the nets and sails was boiled before application to the various items, which were spread out to dry. There was one other blacksmith's forge in the village, that of Mr Beecham, which stood where Messrs. Geo. Coates & Sons now have a new bakehouse. It can well be imagined that in those days there was plenty of work to be done, and more or less full employment, but wages were very poor, and the fishermen had a very hard life indeed.

In the wintertime the majority of the fishermen went "starfishing" or "five-fingering" as we knew it, and the star fish were obtainable on the Kent coast known as "The Cant". These starfish were used for manuring the land, and I well remember the stench caused as the large tumbrills usually drawn by pairs of horses, trundled up the road through the village, with their heavy loads of offensive smelling fish. The smacks were away for a week or fortnight, and were very lucky if they could get a catch of 5 to 6 tons in that time. As they only fetched l6/- to £1 a ton, there was never a very big share-out for the four man crew.

The other main fishing occupation in winter-time was "spratting" or "stowboating" as it was called. These when small were used for manuring the land, but when in prime condition were sold for food and barrelling for export. Grandfather had an oyster laying in the Tollesbury Fleets, and an oyster pit on the saltings at Woodrope. He sold his oysters at 3/- for fifty.

Sprats fetched round about 1/6 a bushel. It was a wonderful sight to see the smacks, under mainsail, foresail and jib, tacking up the creek to Woodrope, all vying with each other to get the most favourable berth. At times it seeaed that they would strike the mud at the sides of the creek, as their long bowsprits swept over the saltings. Men were always stationed forrard and aft to tend the sails and sheets as they came about so swiftly. When out on the fishing grounds the smacks carried topsails, and must have presented a beautiful scene. Many of the smacks worked from Brightlingsea and Harwich, but the Fleets, Mell and Thurslet Creeks, always had their in quota moored in the fairways.

Grandfather used to go oyster dredging or fishing in the River. Soometimes he would get a good haul of "hoppers', small variety of plaice. These were cleaned and sold in the village, forty for sixpence "ready for the pan". To supplement his meagre income in winter, he would on suitable occasions go wildfowling, a sport he had followed from boyhood under the guidance of his father, William Gurton. When the "Wildfowlers Association' was founded by Count de la Chapelle and other gentlemen, he and his brother George became founder members.

One of the most striking things which immediately took your notice when entering the living room of No. 2 United Cottage, were four beautiful fowling pieces hanging in beckets on the wall. One an eight bore with large rubber shoulder pad on the stock, had been dredged up in a barnacle encrusted condition in the River. The owner was never traced, and possibly it was a relic of the famous "Piracy Case" of 1890. The guns were maintained in immaculate condition, for every so often, in the evenings after tea, the table would be cleared and covered with a piece of American cloth. The guns would be lovingly brought down one by one, dismantled, cleaned, oiled and returned to their former positions. During this operation, absolute quiet had to be kept, although I often offended by asking too many questions. Grandmother would sit in her favourite armchair, making a thrummed mat, knitting or a sewing. All this was done under the sole illumination of a hanging oil lamp. Grandfather had the use of a double cupboard on the left side of the fireplace. In this he kept his tools, caulking irons, oakum and all the small spare items connected with rigging and sail making or repairing. When one opened the door there was a nice tarry smell. On the side near the fireplace he kept two small canvas bags containing gunpowder and shot, also a tin box containing powder horns, brass cartridge shell cases, priming caps, felt wads and caps for the sealing of same, for he made most of his own cartridges. I did not realise how unique this was at the time.

AuthorDouglas Gurton
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton