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My life in the village
James Chuck

Oral history recorded by Albert Thom 1983

Chapter Three - Employment and unemployment

In them days there were no street lights, you crept about in the dark - you got like cat’s eyes. Before we had the electric light, it was all oil lamps and candles and my old mum used to spend half her time cleaning these old lamps what we used to have at night. She was a lovely mum - don’t know how she did it all with all us kids to look after.

Lots of people couldn’t afford to buy a lamp, a proper lamp, so they had candles. And water; there was no piped water, that was all got from the wells. Where we lived in Holloway’s Lane, there was a well for the five houses in the middle of the five, like. Soft water tank and water used to come off the roof and the women used to use that for washing, you see.

And I was round there the other day and I see the old soft water tank still there, iron top of it, and that brought back memories to me that did. The big well that was in the middle that was sealed over and nobody knows it’s there, not now they don’t know it’s there, the one by the telephone box.

How did you earn a living?

Started at Crawford’s when I was twelve. Seven day week, half a day off every seven weeks - if someone sick you lost that. Can’t remember wages, my father took that, just give me pocket money.

We’d have to get up the farm at half past five in the morning and up to about eight o’clock to milk all these cows by hand you see, about 80 in milk, all Shorthorns in them days. Then from there I had to go home, have my breakfast, come back, get six churns on the old cart and take to Hatfield Station. What they called the milk train, eight o’clock in the morning and again at night, six o’clock at night. Used to be seven o’clock or half past before you got done.

Them days when you used to go in the milk cart, the horse’s shoes was drilled out to take these studs, so they couldn’t slip, you see. Then, when they wore down they’d screw them out and screw four more in, so they could get a grip on the icy roads. But they don’t do it now. about six cowmen were working there altogether. During the War, the First World War, used to have women come to help milk the cows.

About half a dozen women of the village used to come up. Mrs.Raggett, Doreen Chatman and Nellie Nash, I think. My father at that time was foreman there. I did other jobs out in the fields, looking after sheep and all that kind of caper. Used to have about 200 sheep. Used to breed their own, you see, when my father was alive.

After my father died, they sold ‘em all and never had no more, because he was shepherd there, used to breed their own lambs. Us kids used to think it was wonderful when he’d bring an orphan lamb home, you know, used to be half dead and when it got warm it’d be jumping about the kitchen.

What do you know about beer brewing in the area

About twice a week we had to go to the brewers. Pryor Reids in Hatfield, expect people don’t remember it. Used to have a brewery where Walters Garage is now. Used to fetch these wet grains that had got the beer out and these hops. Used to bring ‘em home, mix ‘em, put ‘em in the big silo in the ground like - brick place it was, in the yard - back your cart up and tip ‘em in and they’d mix it with the cow food next morning.

They weren't fed like they are today, it’s all pellets today, what they feed ‘em with, but it took two men all the morning to mix this food up, what with, oats and grains and pulped mangel. Used to use six load a day of’ mangels for his cattle, the was all pulped up in the pulping machine and mixed together with chaff and all that. sort, well mixed, then you went along with two skips, you had a yoke, two skips to do two cows, you see, then you’d go back and feed all the others. It was real hot when it come from the brewers, steaming hot it was. That was in your day’s work.

You could have as much beer as you wanted at the brewers and the old bloke - been an old drayman, he had - Crouch his name was, he was used to it, you see, he used to have a good wallop of it. So he said to me one day, “Go on boy, you have a drop.” I said, “No, not that.” “Go on he kept on coaxing me, so I have about a pint, I think it was and laying on these wet grains, they was hot and by the time I got back I was drunk. I went home and father said, “Where’s the boy then?” Mother said, “He’s upstairs”. Whether anyone had told my father or not, he come upstairs yanked me out of bed, got his belt and give me a good belting. I didn’t have no more beer after that. That was the finish of me with beer.

I was at Crawford’s three years or so. Got the sack for hitting Mr. Crawford. Them days he kept some pigs and 4 horses at Skimpans. Rented it from Gaussen, bought it later. Kept the in-calf cows in the big barn, about 30, fifteen in stalls down each side. I had to go down and lay ‘em up at night, put the hay in the mangers. Bit scared of them old cows I was. Instead of going between 'em, I’d pitch the hay in with a fork. One Friday night Mr. Crawford ‘came in. “Here lad,” he says, “that’s no way to do it.” Took me by the ear and hauled me outside. That’s what he did those days, caught you by the ear or kicked your behind. It’s not often I remember seeing red, as you say. I did then, picked up an old fork handle and hit him back on the neck. He went down flat. Next morning he told my father to sack me and that was that.

Potterells and Poaching

From Crawford’s I went to Potterells till I was about seventeen, with the Jersey herd and I got the sack from there for poaching. Poaching in that little wood just before you get to the station, what they call the Firs on the left hand side, where they got the Scout Hut now. And the old gardener see us, that was Colville, Dick Colville’s father. He told Mr. Seymour and he give me the sack.

Me and my brother Joe used to be the biggest poachers, ever all over the place we used to go. And the boys used to go down the corner Sunday mornings knocking ‘em over in the grass. They’d sit in the grass like, and you could knock ‘em over, rabbits. Me being a bit artful, used to go up that I little wood and I used to know where they lay, used to take the dogs up there. Of course, because they couldn’t find ‘em they used to clear off and after they’d gone me and my brother used to come along. Used to be some old yew trees standing there and it was only like leaf mould and perhaps you’d get about six rabbits up one hole.

They could never make out where we used to get ‘em. Then we used to come back and they’d be standing at the corner and we used to sell ‘em, these rabbits, one shilling each. We never did tell ‘em how we got ‘em. Then if they was all down there Sunday morning, they used to say, “Jim and Joe here?” No, they ain’t here this morning. So they’d say, if they’ve been round it’s no bloody good us going round because we shan’t get none if they’ve been round.

There were four of us boys and my father thought we was going to carry on as he did, you see, and we gradually cleared off - the money weren’t no good in them days, so we all left it. I had one brother was quite keen on it, Will, he died when he was 18, he died of liver trouble, but his heart and soul was in this farming, sort of style. And Mr. Crawford thought the world of Will. He was a quiet boy and I remember when he was buried he made more fuss than my father did, he was that upset about it.

Digging Sewer

After leaving Potterells, I went on contract work. On that big sewer up Brookmans that runs towards Mymms Drive through the Park, that went. Working with men, and I got men’s money and all. That was the only time I had any money to myself. Used to give my mother what she wanted and the other was mine.

From there I went on all different jobs. That’s all there was in them days. When you’d finish one job, you’d get the sack and then you’d start another job. I was on Mutton Lane sewer, 21 ft. deep in the deepest part. To save stopping the traffic, they used to get one bay out 12 ft. the next one 12 ft. and tunnel each way, 6ft. each way. Had special men to do that you see, tunnellers. Was never on a sewer through here. That one that runs down Holloway’s Lane, that was pretty deep - about 25 ft. deep through there, went down towards the siding.


Lots of men out of work, all except farm labourers. They were all right. Good carpenters, bricklayers standing around outside Miss Town’s shop. Had to go to Welwyn Garden City Labour Exchange, later on to Hatfield, once a week. Most walked. I went on my bike. Got paid in sovereigns.

Tommy Farren, Mrs. Nash’s brother, got me a job at Shadbolts. Hod carrying. You tell ‘em you can carry a hod, he said. Never carried one in my life, but I got the job. First class bricklayer, he was. Lived in Holloways Lane, next the post office. Do you know, when they started building them houses in Welwyn Garden City, he walked there every day - and back, after a day’s work.

No unions in them days, as I said, you worked where you could. When the job finished, you got the sack and had to find another.

I worked at Shadbolt’s when they built the council houses at Little Heath, I was on them. Built some at Cuffley and a row along Cattlegate Road. Pipe laying and all that sort of thing, concreting. That was one day, we was all playing cricket, we used to play in the dinner time and there was one bloke there, Frank Marlborough, a real case he was. Somebody lobbed him a ball and he gave it such a clout. They’d just finished tiling that morning, a pair of em, and the ball went right through the tiles. That caused a commotion that did. Stopped all the cricket dinner time. Then I was on some Council houses at Northaw, firm from Essendon, went there on bikes. That’s all the way you got about, them days, with a bicycle.

And the first day I had my dinner on the handlebars, two or three of ‘em did. And we went to get our dinner and the bloody rats had climbed up the frame and got our dinner, so we had no dinner that day.

And from there I had hundreds of different jobs - what I could pick up - used to get about. I’ve cycled to Southgate, Barnet, I was on that last gasometer that was built. That’s all knocked down now. That was a big job - we was there about eight months. But them gasholders were a work of art really. You’d never think there was the work in them, like the groundwork. Like a big circle, then you get eight foot all round, all timbered up and concreted and that’s where the water used to come into the top and the middle was like a dam.

Albert Thom 1983

Index and introduction
Chapter One - Memories of grandfather and father
Chapter Two - Childhood and school
Chapter Three - Employment and unemployment
Chapter Four - Days out and marriage
Chapter Five - Winter work and tractors
Chapter Six - War time and family details

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