Market gardening

The bombing of cities went on right through the winter of 1940 and more or less stopped at the end of April 1941, the reason being that Hitler needed his aircraft to attack other countries and also that he had failed to achieve his objective in bombing our towns but he was a lot more successful elsewhere and by the middle of 1941, he and his Italian ally had added Romania, Bulgaria, Greece Crete, Albania and Yugoslavia to defeated countries and his army was deep in to Russia having already captured the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland which had sided with him, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey remained neutral but both Spain which was already a Fascist country and Turkey had close associations with Germany. With the fall of France he also gained Algeria and French Morocco. Our only remaining territories in Europe were Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Palestine and Egypt in the Mediterranean but we had taken over Iceland and the Faro Islands which were Dutch possessions, we took them over when Denmark surrendered to the Germans.

Italy’s attack on the British in 1940 in which Mussolini hoped to capture Egypt was a disaster for them and almost lost him Libya from where he launched his attack, with the Commonwealth forces pushing his army, back further and further across the desert and capturing 130,000 soldiers in the process. This was about our only success during the first two years of the war but that was comparatively short lived once the Germans and Rommel interceded and took over from the Italians. The Germans were also winning the war at sea with ‘U’ Boats sinking enormous amount shipping in the North Atlantic, further the Japanese were making inroads in our possessions in Asia.

As an island nation we relied upon imported goods for food and raw materials delivered by sea. With a population of roughly 42,000,000 in the 1940’s we could not feed them without these imports, therefore Hitler did his best to destroy our merchant fleet and came close to succeeding. In an effort to produce as much home grown food as possible every available piece of land that could grow something was dug up and planted, including, parks, railway embankments, grass roadside verges, football pitches and down land which prior to the war would be regarded as useless as arable land. ‘Dig for victory’ was a slogan at the time, Thus our front garden which was about 50ft. long and roughly 30ft wide which until that time was laid out with lawns and flower borders was dug up and potatoes planted, the back garden which was roughly the same size was already fully planted with vegetables and fruit bushes, in addition dad created an allotment on rough pasture land at the bottom of Cowleys Dairy which was four properties up from Common Road with access from that lane. The plot was about 40ft X 40ft. It was poor quality land which dad had to drain before he could start to captivate it and that required what is called double digging which in clayish soil is very hard and laborious work, further he only had Saturday and Sunday mornings to do that, at the same time cultivating the rest of his existing garden, to do all this required that we children would also have to do our bit.

Dad was a very neat gardener with all the veg’ planted in very straight lines with the gaps between lines accurately spaced, in the growing season and before they were bearing fruit, all the different plants together were a joy to behold. Because dad was away at work all week, it was Rods and my job to do the watering, to this end dad fixed a hand operated lever action pump to the stump of an old plum tree at the bottom of the garden with a pipe running down from it into the stream which ran across the bottom of the garden. A flexible hose with an adjustable nozzle was attached to the discharge spigot which allowed the operator to direct the water so that roughly half the garden could be watered by one person, the other half could only be reached if a second person did the pumping and the other controlled the hose. Although we had a sufficiently sized garden to give fresh vegetables from late spring until the autumn, they were all seasonal, although it was possible to keep root crops which would last almost through the winter, partly dependent on the success of the crop, by Christmas things like cabbage and brussel sprouts were used up, as for fruit, apart from some types of apple which might keep until January, the rest had to used as they ripened or preserved, by bottling or making into jam, which was another task for mum.

Just prior to the war Pat and I were given pet rabbits, my own desire for one came about after I played with Denny Reeves who had been borne about three weeks after me in the house next door to my birth place in Shaftesbury Avenue, I think I played with him at his house a couple of times after school but not only did he have a tricycle but also a rabbit and I loved the combined smell of straw, hay and the rabbit. Dad built two grand cages for our two rabbits, I had a Silver Grey doe which I call ‘Flossy’ and Pat had a Belgium Hare buck which she called ‘Whiskers’. I don’t know how long we had kept them before dad decided to mate them but I seem to recollect that ‘Flossy’ had been pulling fur out of her chest as an indication that she wanted babies and that was the reason. I clearly remember that once he had put ‘Whiskers’ in with ‘Flossy’ and lowering the blind over the meshed front of the hutch, I’m unsure whether this was for the benefit of the rabbits or so that we children should not see the actual mating act, after a great deal thumping and bumping there followed a silence, dad raised the cover and put ‘Whiskers’ back in his own cage and the act was done. I can’t recall how long it was before ‘Flossy’ was making a nest from fur she pulled from her own body. We had strict instruction not to open the door to the nest box nor frighten the adult for fear she might kill her offspring but to allow the babies to emerge in their own good time, we could hardly wait to see how many and what colours they would be, as it happened she had seven babies in her first litter, brown and white, grey and white, all white, black and white, all grey and all black. We kept two and gave away the others but it did not end there, dad built more cages and at one point we had forty rabbit mouths to feed.

We still kept our two original rabbits as pets but the others were destined to either sold or fattened for our own pot, the task of killing them was down to dad, he also did the skinning and gutting. We did attempt to preserve some of the skins to make gloves by stretching them out and tacking them to a board and then rubbing a saltpetre solution in to them, although we managed to preserve them they were as stiff as the board and we never managed to make them supple enough to make gloves. Needless to say we had plenty of rabbit stews from our own bred rabbits but also wild ones which dad acquired at work, and some times he brought home live eels which came from road workers clearing ditches, he used to bring them home wrapped in wet newspaper and let them loose on the kitchen floor but like the rabbits it was him who did the killing, skinning and gutting. I loved eel and the taste and texture of the creatures.

The call was for families to produce as much food for themselves as possible, resulting in lots of households keeping chickens, some with larger plots even kept pigs, to that end we did have a white cockerel to fatten for Christmas, it was quite a bad tempered beast and I remember coming home from school one day when mum had not yet got back from a visit to grandmas and found the bird had some how escaped from its run, I tried to capture it but it was having none of that and pecked at me quite viciously and although I had grabbed it to stop it flapping it managed to free itself leaving me hanging on to the end of one wing, I remember going round in circles with the bird furiously flapping its other wing and trying to get at me at the same time causing me to launch it away from me, when it landed it strutted about as much as to say ‘just try that again’. With Pats help we did eventually manage to re- cage it.

With dozens of people keeping if not chickens then just a cockerel, the trouble with that was that cockerels crow, thus at first light and that could be as early as four or five o’clock in the morning, one would start crowing with others then taking up the call so that when they were all at it, it was quite a din, if you had the misfortune to be awake when this started you certainly would not be able sleep until it stopped. Not only did we have a cockerel but at another time we had six karkikambel ducks which were kept in a pen at the bottom of the garden, they were lovely creatures but the trouble was that they got terrible muddy in the pen and looked quit miserable and at that point in time had not produce a single egg. Mum decided to let them out and in a rush they headed straight down into the stream with much quacking and had a glorious clean-up, from then on they were more like pets, being let out first thing in the morning and spending nearly all day in the stream wandering as far away as Valley Road which was almost a quarter of a mile, but returning in a rush when mum called them by beating their food container, you could hear their quacking getting louder and louder as they got nearer and nearer finishing with a rush up the path from the stream. They used to come up to the back door and were quite happy to be picked up and loved to rub around your neck with their beaks, but like the rabbits and cockerel, they also landed up in the pot. I think we only ever got about two eggs from them and those I recovered from the stream.

Bee keeping was another home enterprise but which required a bit more hands on skill, Mr Compton who with his wife ran the grocery shop across the road had about six hives and there quite a number of other bee keepers about, Dad decided to be one of them having bought a book of ‘How to keep bees’ and proceeded to get all the necessary equipment and to build the hives and as usual for him they were well made. I don’t know where he got the swarm from but the hive was set at the bottom of the garden where the ducks had been or we might have still had the ducks I don’t know. He started off with two layers of honey combs in frames one being for the production of honey and the other for producing new bees. A metal mesh with slots large enough for the worker bees to pass but not the queen was set between the two layers, the bottom layer was for the production new bees and the upper layer was for the storage of honey, as the number of bees increased further layers of frames with man made combs made from wax were added.

I was fascinated in these busy insects and spent a lot of time knelt down very close the hives landing stage, making sure I was not in their flight path, watching the bees coming in with their back legs loaded with pollen in a wide range of colour from lilac, purple, lemon yellow, chrome yellow, orange and even red, as each bee landed it was inspected by guard bee, if an alien bee landed it was attacked and seen off., on hot days a number of bee would stand at the entrance with tails ends towards the entrance beating their wing and directing the air into the hive to cool it. At the end of the summer the drones [male bees] which had spent their lives doing nothing but feed off the efforts of the workers were evicted and died. If you were to get as close to the hive as I was you had to make sure that you did not have a smell about you that they did not like, my father made the mistake of going near them when he had creosote on his hands and clothes from treating the shed, the bees showed their disapproval by giving him almost a dozen stings.

You had to have the right equipment to keep bees not only in protective gear like the hat and net veil and the smoke puffer to subdue the bees when you opened the hive but also a method of extracting the honey from the combs, here again dad made his own extractor which was a centrifuge in the form of an open top drum large enough to take three frames at a time, the wax lids to each cell having been removed using a broad flat knife heated in hot water. The frames were held vertically on a central spindle, a lid with a central spigot which located onto the central spindle and secured in to place by hand tightened clamps had a handle in the centre which when turned would spin the combs throwing out the honey.

If you keep bees you were entitled to extra sugar which the bees needed to survive the winter once you had deprived them of their honey, this was given them in the form of sugar water, dad decided one year that he would let the bees keep the honey and mum could use the sugar for jam making etc., Bees being bees can out grow their hive meaning they need to form another colony elsewhere so they swarm, a new queen taking half the bees with her, this presented mum with a problem as the bees were not obliging enough to wait for the weekend to do so and when dad was available to deal with it, bees won’t swarm if there is thunder about, therefore, if they were in the process of doing so mum found that if she beat on one of the galvanised washing tubs they mistook it for thunder and went back in the hive but this only worked a couple of times when the need for them to go overruled the threat and away they went and dad had lost the swarm. I don’t think that the bee keeping was a huge success mainly because dad was not around at the time he needed to be to properly look after them, I think the end came when we had period of very cold weather and the hive had not been insulated which resulted in the bees freezing to death.