A life less ordinary
George Brown, a Wool resident of nearly nine decades, talks about his life and work up to the end of World War 2
Published in January ’13
I was born on 25 October 1923 at 44 Spring Street, Wool. Just through Tap Alley next to the Black Bear; it was called Tap Alley as you went through there to the Tap room, where when the labourers would go in for a drink at the beginning of the week, what they drank would be marked up on a board and they would settle at the end of the week when they got paid.
In the 1920s, my granny used to look after the chapel at Bindon Abbey, and also look to the priest’s vestments before the service. There were two Miss Welds living there, and they had a cook, a couple of servants and a lady’s companion. When there were ‘do’s’ on, I’d go with her – she was only a little woman – and we’d go off up to the woods, and she’d have this twelve bore with her; the rooks would fall from the trees, I’d have to run and put them in a basket and then she used to make these individual rook pies for the Weld family.
In those days, you’d have all these visitors come from all over the place, and it was a big thrill when these charabancs used to come in. My auntie, who was almost blind, would have a big cardboard thing that was a plan of the Abbey, and she used to take all these people round even though everything was a blur to her. She used to sell postcard pictures to visitors with tuppenny bars of chocolate and raspberryade; Granny Brown was a great cook and used to have all these scones and cream and everything for sale.
I started serving on the altar at Bindon when I was six years old; at midnight mass I fell asleep standing up once. Near the ruins of the Cistercian abbey, the tombs of the monks and whatever, there was a tunnel and, when we were kids, we used to go in there and it was pitch black and always damp; you went in there and went underground and it supposedly went under the Frome and came up inside the main gate at Woolbridge house. My dad, Eddie, reckoned that when he was young, they used to light a candle, and when they got so far under the meadows, the candle would go out meaning there was no air left, then they’d turn around and run out.
Dad told me that when people like King George V used to come down he (my dad), who was chauffeur to the Weld sisters, would have to drive them over to the castle when there was a big to do. After the meal was over – say 2.00, 3.00 or 4.00 in the morning, the workers were allowed to take the scrap food and the big used tea and coffee bags, to use at their own homes.
From when I was eight years old (along with Tony Cooper) we’d go over to Bindon Abbey at 8.00 to serve on the altar at morning mass and then tear home and then run off to school. The priest, who’d been at the abbey, would have a bite with the ladies and then turn up at school to do the catechism at 9.00, so we had to rush home and get a cup of tea and porridge and we’d get in trouble if we were late for catechism. I served on the altar until I left home at 16. Wool was pretty much Roman Catholic; in those days, everything from almost Corfe Castle to Ringstead was owned by the Welds, who are a Catholic family, and so we were.
The Post Office was run by old Mrs Talbot and she would wind down the window when I’d come out of school and say ‘George Brown, come here!’ So George Brown (from about eight years old) would run across the road, and she’d say ‘Here you are,’ and give me a telegraph, and it would be for East Lulworth, perhaps, and so I’d take it, running, mind – or to Longthorne’s Farm up where Monkey World is – I’d run all the way there and back and say if there was any answer or not, and get threepence.
My mum’s parents were in an awful accident and, at fourteen, she’d been sent as a junior nanny to Sir Alfred Fripp – surgeon to Edward VII and George V. Fripp, he used to live down at the old cove in Lulworth. Sir Alfred often used to come down on the train from London and we’d hear a ‘Bang. Bang. Bang’ from a big walking stick on the door; then a big voice saying ‘Come along then Dubbin (mum’s nickname) – get that teapot out’, and Dubbin would make a cup of tea and then Sir Alfred would walk all the way to West Lulworth. He could have walked to the post office to call the house to get a chauffeur to come and pick him up, but he preferred to walk. In the 1930s after Sir Alfred died, Lady Fripp would come down in their Packard American Motor cars and they always used to call in with Nanny Fripp (the head Nanny when my Mum joined) and locals would ask ‘Who the bloody ‘ell’s that up at Eddie Brown’s now?’
At fourteen, I was apprenticed to J J Furneux as a carpenter. We worked 7.30-5.00 every weekday (7.30-12.30 on Saturdays) and I got 4s 6d a week; I’d cycle 2½ miles there and back each day. There was an undertaker called Herbert Runyard, and Harry Stephens was his foreman. I heard this knock on the door one evening, and Mr Stephens said to my dad: ‘I ‘ear your boy started ‘is apprenticeship. I wunner if er’d like to know ‘ow to make the coffins then?’
‘That’s alright Harry,’ my dad said, ‘he’ll be down about six o’clock tomorrow then.’
The next day, a mate of mine, Johnny Short, who I was apprenticed with, said: ‘Stephens came to see our dad and asked to see if I wanted to make coffins.’
So there we were, the two of us, in this dirt-floor barn with rats and bats, you’d get the planks cut from the tree and then jack-plane the wood. They were all 9” flaring out to 18” and back, and 6’ long – Runyard actually used to break the arms and legs to get a body in the coffins in if they didn’t fit. We worked knee-deep in wood shavings in this freezing barn from 6.00 to 10.00 at night for a shilling, which wasn’t bad for fourteen years of age.
Next door to us was an old railway carriage where Polly Briton used to sell sweets to the kids. Just on the right was a galvanised shed where Freelan Wilcox lived; he was the man who went up to the woods and made all the spars from hazel for the roofs. On the left there was, after World War 1, railway carriages and up to Chalk Pit Lane it was all tin shacks and, although it might be all posh houses now, after the war all the lads were coming back and of course there was no council houses back then so there was just nowhere else to go, so that’s where people lived.
I left home with my firm in 1940 and we went down to Lyneham in Devon, where we were building this hospital for the Royal Navy. I shot off one day and volunteered to join the Royal Navy. I could have stayed out, as I was a bound apprentice, until I had finished my apprenticeship.
After basic training I got recommended for two things and I was offered torpedoes or ASDIC (sonar) and HMS Osprey, where they taught ASDIC, was at Portland, so I said ASDIC. Little did I know that they were in the process of moving HMS Osprey from Portland to Scotland, so I landed up being based in Dunnoon, north of the Clyde, across the ferry to Gourock and Greenock. I went on the first ship and we did North Atlantic convoys.
In the middle of 1942, we went down to Middlesborough and we had some extra guns fitted. We were there for about six weeks and I met a young lady – Dorothy – who I married in 1946 and we were married for sixty-five years until she died in 2011.
I spent the last fifteen months of the war U-boat hunting in and around North Africa. I came back on my own in December 1945; I hadn’t been home since May 1942. You only got five days’ leave, and back then it took three days to get down from Scotland and three days to get back up; it only used to take five hours to get down to Middlesborough, though.
When Dorothy came down here, Wool was full of proper old village people, speaking ‘Darset’, and I’d come home from work and Dorothy would say: ‘Oh Brownie, I was hanging the clothes out and that one next door, Ron, came home from work for lunch and he was talking to me and I didn’t want to be rude so I was saying “Yes” and “No”, but I didn’t understand what he was saying.’
It worked both ways, though. Dorothy was born in West Hartlepool, County Durham, and then moved to North Yorkshire, so the neighbours, they couldn’t understand what she said either and thought she wasn’t English! I went for a pint down the Black Bear and one of my best friends said to me: ‘Here! What’s this I ‘ear about you then? My daughter been and told I you been and married a ****ing German!’