Part 3: Crossing the Border, 1935-1953
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In Part One of this series of essays, we heard how the noted singer George Spicer (1906-81) was 'discovered' by folk song collectors in the mid-1950s in the Ashdown Forest, and was claimed as one of Sussex's own. However, we know he was born at Little Chart near Ashford in Kent, and spent his boyhood years in the locality, before learning his trade at a herdsman both there and at a dairy farm in Folkestone. The first eight years of married life saw him and his young family living at West Langdon near Dover, which is where we pick up the story.
As intimated in Part Two: The West Langdon Years, we don't know the exact circumstances of the Spicers' moves between 1935 and, as it turns out, 1947. Mike Yates reported in interviewing George Spicer in 1971, this was down to 'farm failures'. However, his youngest son, Ken Spicer (born 1934) relates, this may not have been entirely the case. His father was a keen reader of The Farmers' Weekly and Farmer and Stockbreeder with a view to better himself and young family at a time of financial austerity. Accommodation was tied to the job, and any breakdown in relationship between employer and employee could have dire consequences.
Whatever the reason, in 1935, the Spicers left their home of seven years for Great Dowles Farm near Stelling Minnis, about twenty kilometres away due west from Langdon Abbey just off the Canterbury-Hythe main road, working for farmer Thomas Castle. Around this time, Dorothy Spicer's parents also moved from where Sid worked at Lydden to Oxenden Farm, Pedlinge, near Hythe, about ten kilometres away and located near the Westenhanger racecourse. Both Ron Spicer and his brother have memories of their three year stay there, albeit recalled from a young age. Ron tells how he saw the Graf Spey airship from the farm. He also recalled a Gipsy encampment comprising the Beaney family staying near the farm. George Spicer and one of the family went to the pub one night where Beaney drank too much; his lurcher ran off and returned with a rabbit in its mouth! At a workshop held in Tenterden in 1995 on song-collecting, Ron recalled the song The Farmer of Chester when Simon Evans played a recording by singer Ambrose Cooper, relating once more the lurcher anecdote.
It was from here that the family went to visit Ike Harvey who was in charge of a pub near the barracks at Canterbury, which Ron recalled as being "off the Littlebourrne road". However, as mentioned in Part Two, Ike had retired in 1932, so it is assumed his tenure there was temporary. Ron also recalls getting his first accordion at that time. When only aged five years old, his grandmother Rosa Appleton took the family to Margate, where she bought him a small one-row melodeon with two stops and 'spoons' (bass keys) from a music shop.1 Ron further recalled that his grandfather Sid had a two row melodeon with stops but was unable to recall anything he played on it "probably pub tunes that George or Dorothy used to sing (Daisy, Daisy) and all the usual carols." Having pressed the topic, Ron added that he "couldn't remember his grandfather singing a great deal - not folk songs anyway - but Harbour Lights was one song." Ron added that he himself couldn't remember the words, although he could the tune: "It never occurred to me back then to ask him to play it!" Ron did recall Sid playing the waltz Peggy O'Neill on melodeon, however. Ron also started school during his early years whilst living here, although this was at Stowting, four kilometres south-west of Stelling Minnis.
It was the Great Dowles years that further kindled George's love of cricket, playing for the local Bossingham team on a number of occasions. Ken recalls he and Ron taking it in turn to wear George's purple and yellow-quartered cap. Ken describes his father as being a 'fast bowler', although the scorecards fail to indicate how good he may have been with either ball or willow, scoring few runs and as many wickets when he made the first eleven.
Once more, we are uncertain as to why George and his family moved in around 1937 or 1938. The farmer, Tom Castle (1876-1949) was a native of Petham near Canterbury, and was described as a successful dairy farmer at both here and at Debden Court Farm, before he took on a dairy and fruiterers business on Old Dover Road, Canterbury, before retiring to Tankerton near Whitstable. His obituary described him as a 'very popular resident', parish councillor and as 'taking an active interest in all village affairs'.2
Ken Spicer couldn't recall the move from Great Dowles Farm, or exactly when it was. He told me they weren't very long at some of these places. Nor is it the case that George's love of cricket helped as a signpost at this juncture, as the local newspapers don't include George's name on any scorecards for local teams between 1937 and 1939. The best guess is they moved to Badlesmere Court Farm , about six kilometres south of Faversham in Autumn 1937 or 1938. The farm was run by Thomas Marvin Scutt (1883-1955)3 and is still run as a mixed farm today with dairying prominent. Ron related to me the carol singing 'incident' related in his posthumous biography, although slightly differently. He did the rounds and met the noted accordion player and band leader Stanley Black, who was staying in the area that Christmas. His biography says that he played his accordion to accompany the carol singers. In Doris's words: "The first night was alright, there was just a few of them, but they collected so much that all the village (meaning the village youngsters) turned out the next night and Dad (George) had to turn some of them away." Ron would only have been seven or eight years old at the time.
The next move was something of a departure from the proverbial family womb, being some 25 kilometers westward to Weavering Street, formerly a distinct hamlet, but today swallowed up as part of the modern Grove Green housing estate to the east of the county town of Maidstone. This too was that much further away from Dorothy's parents and brother John, who were still living at Oxenden Farm. We are uncertain exactly where the Spicers lived and worked. Ken Spicer stalks of a farmer called Chittenden. "Our house had a brick wall all about it. The farm had a few cattle and grew cherries." He thought this was around 1939. Ron Spicer recalled it was near The Fox and Geese public house, adding that he went to school with Harry Barton, a boy who lived next door to the pub, whose father worked for Stile & Winch, the Maidstone brewers.
It was here that George learnt the song The German Clockmender from "some chaps from The Fox and Goose, Weavering Street, Maidstone, when I used to play darts for them."4 The sleeve notes of Blackberry Fold in contrast say it was learnt from a forgotten singer in Dover; however, the discrepancy seems to have arisen with the song Cock-a-Doodle-Doo which he says in the same interview came from a singer in a Dover pub, George learning this by repetition of the chorus with its 'cock-ups' as he put it. Whilst talking darts and my own musical activities in Kent (I play for a morris dance team who practise close to the area in question), Ken came up with the comment that his father made all his own darts, using a "quarter inch lead ball and goose feathers which he and Ron collected for him." George used to play for penny bars of chocolates. One of his 'locals' was The Gate near Leeds Castle which the family used to visit on Sunday lunchtimes: "There was a fish bar from which we bought food." The pub is still there: The Park Gate Inn, on the main Maidstone-Ashford road (the A20), about 10 kilometers from Weavering Street. I marvelled that George was prepared to walk with his young family such a distance there and back, but Ken thought nothing of it, recalling the distance he used to walk from Old House Farm, Selsfield Common to The Crown on the green at Turners Hill on occasions, before catching the bus back home when living in Sussex.
Corroboration of the stories where the Spicers lived in Weavering Street is difficult, as George never enrolled on the electoral register while resident there. Nor is George listed in any cricket scorecard for any team in the area. From this and other evidence, I would estimate the stay there as Autumn 1938-Spring 1939. There was a family called Barton who lived at The Kiln, who had a daughter called Ivy who was around Ron's age, so it could have been I misheard Ron when recording the interview or there was some other family of that name who lived in the area. The name Chittenden gives three possibilities, so even that doesn't provide any great certainty, although it does give a clue to a genuine 'farm failure'. An Albert Chittenden ran Park Farm, but died in 1934, leaving his property to his widow and his son, also called Albert. An Elizabeth Laura Chittenden had Yew Tree Farm, but died in 1923. More likely was the farmer Mrs Elizabeth Jane Chittenden of Grove Green who died in 1938, whose daughter inherited the estate and later married a Folkestone man. A field trip to Weavering Street itself gave no more clues, providing little more than pleasure in finding an olde worlde Maidstone backwater only a stone's throw from a bustling modern shopping centre and an opportunity to photograph The Fox and Goose on a blistering hot Spring afternoon in 2011.
In Summer 1939, the Spicers were certainly living in Cudham, a fact confirmed by the village cricket club's scorecards! Both Ron and Ken at first recalled this as being the adjoining village of Biggin Hill, renowned for its airfield. Ron says they stayed six months, and Ken says they moved there in September 1939, although the cricket connection proves this must have been earlier as George scored 7 runs playing in a Married vs Singles match at the end of that month. Also, the Spicers appeared on the electoral register, so their stay must have been longer than recalled. "The farm was in a hamlet in a valley. I think it was Cudham rather than Biggin Hill. Milk was collected from Bowyer's farm and sent to West Wickham." Ken recalls how he and Ron went to a pub there where World War Two pilots gave them each toffee tins. Ken started school in Biggin Hill, which was moved to a private house once the War had started in September 1939. (Ken also kept his old school reports, which is why the movements of the family can be more accurately defined from hereafter)
The Bowyer concerned was Robert Bowyer (1885-1945), and the farm where George worked was New Barn Farm, the Spicers staying at New Barn Cottages which probably came with George's commission. The pub must have been The Blacksmith's Arms in Cudham, about a kilometre northward: the place where Harry Relph was born in 1867, who later became the celebrated music hall comedian Little Tich. Both Jim Ward and Mike Yates tell me that 'something happened' to precipitate the family's departure from Cudham in March 1940 to the point of "getting out of the county"! This was probably nothing to do with the proximity to the airfield which was three kilometres northwestward, and Ken thinks this was down to his father's temper making their stay untenable. However, another theory could be the War Agricultural Committee's decree, imposing the cultivation of pasture in the Cudham area around that time. This is recalled by Gordon Harris who owned nearby Cackets Farm, less than two kilometers east from New Barn. He set up in dairying in 1927, building up a dairy herd of 70 cows, with an equivalent number of heifers, calves and bullocks. However, he was required to plough up his farm to produce corn when the war started in September 1939.5 It may have been the same for New Barn Farm where George had just completed his Summer, only to find Bowyer was required to do the same and no longer needed any herdsmen. Whilst Bowyer lived on site at Cudham in 1939, it's likely he had dairy interests further afield, as his obituary notes he was the chairman of his own dairying company based at Wickham and Shirley.6
The next move was over the border into West Sussex, where George worked at "Worth Hall Farm for a farmer called Beare ... [which] was also known as Tulley's Farm." In fact, there were two farms having those names in the area. The explanation seems to be that the farmer concerned, Dennis Beare, rented Worth Hall in 1937 where he kept 30-40 shorthorns and fifty Freesians, while Tulley's Farm was occupied by an 84-year-old Mr Walker who kept a few cows on an all-pasture farm. In 1941, the War Agricultural Committee ordered all grassland to be ploughed in four acre lots, and Walker didn't want this aggravation. So Beare took over, running both Worth Hall and Tulleys as one farm of 418 acres.7 Ken Spicer says that Beare then ploughed up the lot and turned the whole into a market gardening concern. Either way, George was left without a herd - possibly again, and it seems that after eighteen months at Worth Hall, the Spicers were on the move again. Perhaps it wasn't just coincidence that George heard that he might be required three kilometres away southeastward at Old House Farm where William Furse had lost some of his men due to the war effort. Although no-one has defined when exactly this was, it is assumed that in 1942, the Spicers' began their first tenure at Old House Farm, Selsfield Common.
Whether or not the Spicers knew their tenure was only while the war lasted is unknown. Ron was of an age where he could leave school, which he did, and began work in the garden. Sid and Rosa Appleton moved from Newingreen to join the Spicers - with Sid's experience with cattle, his role wasn't just to show Ron how to tend a garden, assuming that Furse's regular herdsmen had all gone to join the war effort. Both George and Ron spent time together at The Crown at Turners Hill, bringing along his piano accordion to accompany the sing-songs there. Ron said he was only 11 years old at the time, suggesting he may still have been living at Worth Hall Farm at the time rather than Old House. Vic Smith puts this more into context in his own interview with Ron where he said: "(My grandparents) bought me a little 12-bass piano accordion which I played straight away because I could always find my way around on a piano. Then, when I was 14, I bought a 48-bass one and I used to go every Saturday night to Turners Hill. The Canadian soldiers were about then and I used to play in the pub up there. I used to earn more money on a Saturday night than I'd earn all week on the farm. Someone used to take my father's hat off and pass it round the bar, and then the other bar, and then the landlord put in 10 shillings in there. Well, I was only earning 25 shillings a week and we used to get several pounds in the pub."8
We only know of one contact amongst the singing fraternity whom George met in that period, as he said in his 1977 interview with Mike Yates: "(I learnt the song) Thrashing Machine from old Tom Appleby from Thorp Down - the bloke who owns the cattle trucks - during the last ten years. But he knew it long before then, I expect."9 This story doesn't quite tally as Tom Appleby died in 1948, so it must have been during the war. His obituary states that he was a cattle haulage contractor, dealer and farmer, who lived at Oak Ferrars Farm, Piltdown. He was well-known throughout Sussex, and originally came from Nutfield in the Ashdown Forest.10
All this came to the end with the war. As Doris Spicer said " the men came back from the war and had to have their jobs back. Mr Furse stood Granddad and Ron off in preference to a chap that didn't live on the farm and got less money than Ron did. And you know what Dad (George) was like. He said Well, two of the family have gone and there ain't gonna be a third. I'll give my notice in. So that's what he done."11
After losing their jobs, Ron went to work at Wakehurst Place, and Sid to Stonehurst which is opposite Wakehurst. George went to work at Slaugham Place Farm milking Jersey cattle for an Italian called Ferraris, a Cricklewood builder. The milk yield was exported to London for butter, and the Spicers stayed there for six months.
The family then moved to Smithwood Farm on Smithwood Common to the north of Cranleigh in Surrey, a farm near the Four Elms pub which is still there today. The farm was run by Bakewell engineer Tony Longsdon, who worked for Mowlem's, and was related to the lord of the manor of Great Longsdon in Derbyshire. The Spicers stayed there for the next two years. George and Sid loved to race pigeons, as did the head gardener at Old House Farm, and Ron says they met at Crawley market one day (although Ken says this must have been Haywards Heath). Another story recalled by Ron was when they attended a moribund operatic society concert held at Cranleigh village hall. As the audience rose to leave, someone realised George was in the audience and shouted out for him to sing, whenupon he rendered Cock-a-Doodle-Doo. George started a Guernsey herd on the farm, as was his preference and, as time progressed, Longsdon wanted to maximise the yield so the cattle were milked three times a day rather than twice. Although this is easily done with Freesians, the same is not the case with Guernseys and George knew it. Unfortunately, he was heard to have commented flippantly to a neighbour in the pub: "I'll stop him in his tracks. I'll give them a dose of vinegar, so they'll only milk twice a day!" Although nothing of the sort was intended, word was out, and the landlord warned him that Longsdon wanted to see him in the morning! Realising what he had done, George resigned immediately, and the family left "in quite a hurry".
The next move was to Henfield Wood House Farm back in Sussex. Ken says that Sid worked as a gardener and Ron learnt to drive tractors there, but that couldn't have been the case as Sid died in Cranleigh in January 1948, presumably while George was still working for Longsdon. Ken recalls arriving with his parents in a cattle truck with he and Ron peering through the boards. They unloaded the pigeon loft which George had made out of orange boxes. When they arrived in the house, they discovered there was neither electricity nor water, and the story goes that none would be available while the cows were being watered! George gave the order: "Don't bother to unpack!" and the family stayed two weeks. The farmer couldn't even pay George off, as he had no money.
Fortunately, George had remained in contact with the bailiff at Old House Farm and saw him at Haywards Heath. The message was that George could have his old job back, but he held out insisting that Ron was included in the deal, adding that he wasn't sure about "returning to somewhere he had been before". Ron says that "the herd had been neglected, and the milk produce was bad." In his letter, Ken says that Furse "took him (George) on without question, with Ron as second cowman. And later on Uncle John (Walter) came from Kent and joined them."
Staff at Old House Farm, c.1945: George is third on the left, Sid Appleton is second on the right in the middle row
(photo courtesy of Doris Spicer)
Doris Spicer, in Ron's biography, tells a slightly different story. "Ron and his Dad used to race pigeons, and the head gardener that was then, raced pigeons as well. So when they came back to Turners Hill, they joined the Ardingly club again. And Mr Brewer, the head gardener at Old House told Dad, The cows at Old House are in a state and they're dying like ninepins. Why don't you contact Mr Furse as I understand he's sacking the cowman and his son? and Dad said, I don't wanna go back to the same job. Mr Brewer said, Well, you know, I think Mr Furse would want you back. He didn't like it when you left. So anyhow, Dad did, he applied for the job. And Mr Furse said, I can't understand why you left, Spicer. And he said, Well, you sacked two of the family, so I went before you sacked me as well."
The period from 1947 until George's death in 1981 was the most stable in George and his family's life regarding accommodation and lifestyle. It was obviously a time in which he consolidated his position as senior herdsman at Old House Farm relative to the treatment meted out to him hitherto. He won numerous prizes for exhibiting Furse's pedigree Guernseys at the South of England Agricltural Show at nearby Ardingly. In this, Furse used a bespoke blue cattle transporter made by Stephen Horder of Loxwood which is now on view at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at Singleton in West Sussex, which must have enhanced George's presentatioin and consequent reputation locally as a herdsman.
Musically, George was able to include his teenage son Ron to accompany his singing. Vic Smith says: "In the fifties, father and son (George and Ron) used to go around in the cattle drovers' lorries to sing and play in pubs on Saturday nights in Turners Hill, The Chequers in Maresfield, and in various pubs in the Ashdown Forest where there were sing-songs on a Saturday night." (Ron said) I'd only play the tunes. I wouldn't even open my mouth. I don't even know Daisy, Daisy. Other people did all the singing and I just joined in on piano or accordion.
In 1953, West Hoathly acquired a new resident in the guise of Mervyn Plunkett, and George's notoriety as a performer was to reach a much wider audience, which will be the subject of the fourth and concluding part of these essays.
The Thrashing Machine
George learnt this from cattle dealer Tom Appleby of Piltdown, to the tune Vilikins and his Dinah. The song was recorded by Mike Yates, and included on the Topic record When Sheepshearing's Done (12T254) released in 1975. It is interesting that George gave the song a Kentish angle 'farmer in Dover' which he also did with his song The Cunning Cobbler, perhaps with his audience in mind: in this case, Mike Yates!
One day while the men were away in the hay
The farmer saw Nell and to her he did say
"Come into the barn where we cannot be seen
And I'll show you the way of my thrashing machine."
The barn door stood open, they both went inside
There lie there two cogs and the handle with pride
She bore on the lever, she gave him full steam
For that way the way of his thrashing machine!
The first three months things went very well
Then Nellie's old belly a story could tell,
For under her apron was plain to be seen
Some chaff had blown there from his thrashing machine.
The judge he stood there with his pen in his claw,
"Why, you dirty old farmer, you've broken the law,
There's no turning today for the fields are so green.
Pay three quid a week for your thrashing machine."
George Frampton - 22.1.13