ID: DJG_VBY / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleTollesbury Village Bygones
AbstractBefore 1914 Tollesbury had its own "Town Crier", who presumably for a small fee could be hired to announce matters of importance to the parish ranging from meetings to arrivals of coal cargoes by barge at 13/- a ton, shot down outside your house, or at 19/- (95p) if put in the coal-hole or cellar at the back of the house. The clarion call of his hand-bell followed by the words "O-yez - Oyez - Oyez" was quite a familiar sound.

The present hard winter also reminds us that the village had its own "snow-plough", a triangular wooden box-like structure, iron shoed, which could be drawn by one or two horses. This implement was kept in the County Council's yard on the site of the present fire station, where also the road foreman, Mr. Salvage, kept his barrows, brooms and sand, for the cleansing of the roads, which was systematically done in rotation each day. Quite a number of children owned home-made sledges or toboggans, the then Vicar (Rev. Wm. Carter) and Jim Barbrook possessed genuine Canadian toboggans which were used on the slopes of The Mount. Joe Stace, the barber, made me a sledge, which I found useful to convey crates of bottled beers, etc., to homes in the village during the school lunch hour break.

The village did not possess a fire engine or station in those days, and had to rely upon the Maldon Volunteer Fire Brigade and their horse-drawn fire engine. Fortunately, although all homes had coal fires, and oil lamps it says much for the care exercised by the villagers, only two calls were made for its attendance in living memory, 1906 and 1914, sadly in both instances the premises involved were burnt out - site of present Bank and Mell Farm-house.

With the passing of winter, the annual travellers would make their way into the village. Before my day there was the occasional visit of a German "Oompah" Band, comprised of drum, trombone, clarinet and accordian, and usually a brown shaggy bear, secured by collar and chain round the neck, who would dance and turn cart-wheels assisted by a pole. Even at the turn of the century they were called, possibly quite wrongly, "German spies". A more familiar sight was the "Barrel Organ" or "Hurdy-Gurdy" man, who pushed his musical instrument from village to village, and usually was of Italian origin. He would play gay tunes, and encouraged little girls to dance round the organ. Sometimes a little monkey, dressed in red jacket and "Fez" on head would hold a tin mug for donations.

Occasionally, a shabbily dressed couple, man and woman, would walk in the middle of the side streets, and sing hymns, which were favourites with those who had dear ones away at sea or fishing. The hymns were - "Will your anchor hold" - "Throw out the life-line" and another "Yes there's room". They gave the impression of being a devout couple, the woman usually crossed the street or road to receive the coppers which the householders brought out, but if you were close to them as they were singing you could detect the man asking in song how much the woman had received, who apparently replied in a similar way stating a much less sum than she had actually received, which resulted in very cross words.

The mat repairers did not receive many customers, as the villagers were very skilled in making and repairing mats, be they thrum or coir. The knife and scissors grinder on the other hand was kept quite busy. The Romany gypsies with their huge wicker-work baskets containing cottons, threads, clothes pegs, etc., and a desire to tell fortunes were frequent visitors.

Prior to 1874 the Tollesbury Annual Gooseberry Pie Fair was held on the Green or Square. As the pies had to be baked until the fruit turned red, the local bakehouses of which there were three would undertake this task. They would also cook your joint and batter pudding for 2d on Sundays or 1d during the week. The fair was held on St. Peter's Day, 29th June, he being the Patron Saint of fishermen. Stalls and booths would be ranged round the sides of the Square, selling all sorts of wares and toys. Many of the china ornaments are still to be found in the older households of the village. It was on this occasion of the year that the Ancient Cage was brought into use to incarcerate a fairground man who had cruelly beaten a young woman with his belt, and his detention overnight was to save him from the wrath of the villagers. On the 30th June 1873 the fair was thereafter banned from The Square owing to disturbances, drunkeness, etc., and was afterwards held on meadows within the village. It is interesting to note that the 17th Century Cage or Lock-Up has an "acorn filial" on the apex of its roof, indicating Dutch influence in its construction. Dutchmen were employed on making up the sea-walls at that time, it is rumoured that some had to be buried in the walls having succumbed to fever, as the marshes were mosquito infested at that time. Seamen will know that all Dutch vessels have an acorn on their mastheads, similar to the one on our Cage.

To augment the family income many women undertook the task of finishing tailored garments which would be brought by horse-drawn cart from Colchester to the old Hope Inn yard, where the garments, trousers, etc., would be spread over the billiard table in the Tap Room. The women were paid the magnificent sum of 1¼ d (there is no equivalent in decimal coinage) per garment for working button holes, band linings, etc.

Before the Wars, two Tollesbury men, who had sought their fortunes in the Metropolis, were responsible for organising outings for their less fortunate brothers, and Tollesbury was chosen as the venue for the outings which were termed "Beanfeasts". Norris Smith brought forty dockers from Poplar and Limehouse. They would arrive in a char-a-banc, a motor vehicle, with seats in rows, behind the driver, and hard solid tyres, so it was not entirely a comfortable journey on the roads of those days. A lunch had been prepared and was served on long deal tables in the Hope Inn yard, the meal usually consisted o£ cold meats, boiled potatoes, and pickles, rounded off with gooseberry pie and custard. As a small boy I was hopeful of making a small fortune by pumping up water and providing hand bowls, soap and towels, for them to use after a hot and dusty journey. The copper coins literally poured into my pudding basin, but alas for me was confiscated afterwards to meet the cost of soap and laundering of towels. After the meal the men would either go for a nap in the Parson's Meadow or take a walk to the waterside, returning afterwards with sea-weed, mussels, etc., and their thick tweed suits plastered in Tollesbury mud. They were not consoled by the fact that the mud in those days contained valuable chemical properties, iodine and the like, and were very relieved to have been able to extricate themselves. In the twenties there was a police pensioner from the East End, he was Arthur Fenner known as "Pudden". During his service he had been severely injured, he was lame and his face was badly scarred, hence he grew a big black beard. On one such visit of the East Enders he had challenged Jim Frost to a plouging match, which was won by Jim who was a retired bargemaster. On seeing Arthur some of the "Beanfeastern" took fright and exclaimed "Old Blackboard" but he assured them that he was retired and warned them to behave themselves. On the departure of the char-a-bancs from the Square the passengers would throw handfulIs of copper coins to the children who had congregated to see their departure.

One custom of the past was to strew loose straw in front of a house Vvhere a person was very ill, to minimise the noise of the vehicular traffic passing, Whenever a person passed away, blinds would be drawn in the vicinity of the house, also again on the day of the funeral and along the route of the cortege. Mourners always wore black, and children of the family wore black armbands. To work on a Sunday was frowned upon, practically everyone had a Sunday best suit or dress, and very often it was a condition of employment to attend the church of one's employer. If entitled to gift of bread from Taylor's Charity it was essential to attend Divine Service at the Church on the day appointed in February each year.

The "Magic Lantern" shows were a popular innovation in the winter-time. Usually held at The Institute under the auspices of the "Rechabites Society" we were enthralled by pictures of far-off places, and later horrified at the gaudy diagrams of "hob nailed livers" and the like, unless people forsook the evils of drink. Although intended for the benefit of the adults, somehow or other we children were able to "sign the pledge" and gain a certificate. I remember getting mine and proudly taking- it home and showing it to my father who was a publican. Needless to say he was not impressed and said he would deal with me in the morning - which he did.

Another delightful custom was to meet the arrival of a V.I.P., and if arriving by road, the horses would be unharnessed from the coach or chaise, drag ropes attached, and the V.I.P. and carriage drawn into the village.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton
Related Images:
 The lockup beside the church. A 1950s slide taken by Mary Sime.  PBIB_SIM5_032
ImageID:   PBIB_SIM5_032
Title: The lockup beside the church. A 1950s slide taken by Mary Sime.
Date:cMay 1964
Source:Mersea Museum / Peter Bibby Collection