Precious Memories of Elmswell
as told by Ray BENNETT to Maggie Bushell, October 2014
This month I was delighted to meet with one of our older members of the village and hear his recollections of what life was like growing up here.
Ray Bennett came to Elmswell from Hopton when he was nine years old and first lived in a house opposite the Baptist Chapel. His father had been a ploughman, working with horses. It was a hard job and he had had to get up at four o’clock in the morning, working in all weathers, and walking miles during the course of the day for not much pay. His own parents were also in farming, having been tenant farmers over in Thetford. When Ray’s father moved to Elmswell he worked for Nunn’s Agricultural Engineers, driving a steam engine which was used to plough the fields in place of the horses.
Before they had electricity, they used an oil lamp on the table when they got up in the morning, and had to get drinking water from a pump. When they had electricity put in, they all stood round the electric kettle, watching it boil, the first time they used it. Ray also said how his mum would turn the electric lights on and off. Cooking, however, was still done on coal fired stoves. Later on, they got an electric copper. However, when his father changed his job, they moved to Hawk End Lane and his mother used a copper in a shed to do the washing. When they moved to one of the cottages opposite the Methodist church, they paid a rent of 7/6d a week (10 shillings was the equivalent of 50p now). They discovered electric wires running along under the eaves and, when they asked about this, they were told that Mr. Bird, from Albatross garage, had a generator which provided electricity for some of the houses in the village.
When he was young, Ray had a paper round and he knew everyone in the village – at least by name. As we drove around, he was able to point out many of the houses that were originally there and identify where different businesses were. At that time, Church Road had very few houses. Also he remembers being told that, during the First World War, only three people in the village had cars. One of them was Reverend Sayer, who used to encourage sport in the village, particularly the football, taking the team around in his car and letting the children play snooker and table tennis at his house. Mr. Pye also helped by letting people play sports and even have sports days on one of his meadows when it wasn’t being used for cattle or horses.
We had a look around the centre of the village as Ray explained how the Pharmacy had been a coal shed. Trucks came off the siding, the coal came through the windows and was bagged up. By the notice on Crown Green was the building which belonged to the Albatross garage. After the garage was closed, the other building they owned was used for the Fire engine during the war and, when the fire station was built, the dustcart was kept there, which his dad drove. It was the first dustcart in the village. There was a dirt road by the side of the railway which went to the mill and had an opening to the garage. During the war, the mill made semolina. Baker’s mill had a hedge alongside it behind which was a weighbridge, which would take a small lorry. There was a diesel engine in the mill, which was later preserved in a museum in Norwich.
Ray remembers how busy the station was. A road went round the Fox, past the Station Master’s house, to a timber yard and there was also a coal yard. There was a crane where they could load and unload goods. At the goods shed there were two lorries which were used to distribute the goods. There was also a line to Woolpit brick factory. Hawk End Lane originally ran all the way to the Hall and was also known as Hall Lane. Workers at the Bacon Factory would use the stiles either side of the track to get to work, and Moyes Coal Company had a wooden office just inside the station yard. You could walk along the railway line with a pail and gather coal. Ray explained that, because of the rabbit population at the time, the embankments had no trees growing on them so they were easy to walk along, and were covered in wild flowers at different times during the year. They could also glean in the fields and go fishing without needing permission. Ray’s neighbour when they lived in Hawk End Lane, Albert Scase, worked with the two horses which were used to shunt the trucks into the sidings. There were also allotments you could rent which belonged to the railway, so the money was paid to the Station Master, Mr Duncan.
Wartime in Suffolk
Ray’s father and other workmen put the Elmswell sign up on the Ashfield Road, although it seems that the boundary possibly should have been where the water tower is. He was explaining to me how the airstrip used in the Second World War was called Ashfield airstrip because of this and also because there was another airstrip near Gainsborough called Hemswell, and it avoided confusion with our village name. However, he maintains most of the airfield was in Elmswell. We went to Grove Lane to look at where the airstrip was, and the buildings connected to it. Little remains of the original buildings but new ones sit on the site of some of them. As you drive along, there is a clear crossroads where there are some modern buildings. On the left of the crossroads was the Guard Room and where Safety Kleen now is there was the Mess Hall on the corner. On the right where the coal store is, was the Head Quarters, and to the left, through the trees, a lot more buildings such as hangers, where there were flight simulators and a parachute store. Further along Grove Lane, Ray remembers there was a hospital on the right and there were also life raft buildings. At the bottom of Oak Lane, in the meadow, there were some huts for accommodation, and a remaining building was a shower room. The airfield was also used by the ATC, of which Ray became a member. All supplies came through Elmswell Railway Station, including the materials needed to construct the hangers. One siding at Elmswell went along until it was level with the ground, and tanks were unloaded there.
‘Do you live near New York?’ ‘ No. I live further from it than you do.’
From as early as 1918, The Royal Flying Corps had a grass landing strip at the airfield, and the RAF had used it for training. The USAAC arrived there in mid-1943. Ray’s mum used to do the washing for several of the airmen and when he returned it to them, they shared treats with him like oranges and chocolate from their shop called the PX. He met Americans from all over the U.S. because of being in the ATC, and began to identify where they came from by their accents. He also went flying with them and one day flew over his house, where he saw his mother putting out the washing. He also remembers a lady artist called Annie Hayward, who painted the names on the planes and murals on the walls of a club there called the Aero club. She also had a horse, which she let the children ride on fun days.
Mr. McNeil, of the Albatross Garage, had a taxi service and often ferried the Americans around. Ray thinks that the original owner of the garage, Mr. Bird, called it the Albatross after a German fighter plane, and at one time he had parts of a plane in one of his buildings. Ray recalls overhearing a conversation between the locals and some of the American airman where one of them asked the Americans ‘Do you live near New York?’ and he replied ‘No, I live further away from it than you do!’ He also remembers going to a church parade and being joined by the Americans, who marched up to the church. Half the service was taken by the vicar and the other half by the American chaplain, and the stars and stripes was dedicated on that day.
When the Americans had reached a total of 200 missions, there was a big celebration. The children were invited up to the base for parties, and a there was a big stage built and Glenn Miller and his band came and performed, as well as a singer called Paula Green. However the toll was heavy on those flying from the airfield, with 400 airmen killed.
Elmswell resists Invasion
Elmswell, as in common with the rest of the country, had its own Home Guard. Mr. Henderson, the accountant from the Bacon Factory, was an officer in the Home guard. Members were often in important jobs, too young to go to war, too old or had been deferred from going. In spite of working hard at their own jobs during the day, these men would then patrol the village, particularly round the station area, for hours at night. Ray took me to where the Pharmacy is now to explain a plan the Home Guard had should the Germans reach Elmswell. Outside the Pharmacy is a tree. The Home Guard tied wires attached to steel bands round the trunk of the tree, with the wires going across the road to the Fox forecourt. There they had some concrete blocks to which the wires could be attached and pulled tight when they were needed to block the road. At the same time, they planned to launch molotov cocktails at them, which were kept in a building nearby. Interestingly, you can still see the marks on the tree where the wires were tied.
How difficult was it living in Suffolk during the War?
In spite of having many airfields in East Anglia, the villages didn’t need to have sirens or air raid shelters as they didn’t have many raids. On only two occasions did bombs fall in Elmswell; on one occasion a lone plane dropped four bombs on the airfield, with only one exploding, but sadly killing people, and on the other occasion, one Sunday, Ray saw a German bomber fly over and he dropped a bomb in a field near Chamber’s Farm. Once, the Fire Service was called out when a flying fortress blew up, scattering wreckage over a wide area. The fire was worse than expected and Mr. Leeks, the Chief Fire Officer, needed someone to phone for help. Unfortunately, no-one on the fire engine knew how to use a phone (because they didn’t have them at home) so Ray’s lodger, Gordon, who operated the switchboard, had to teach them how to use it.
Towns like Bury and Stowmarket did have sirens and Ray remembers doodlebugs coming over but they didn’t drop in the village. In fact, the biggest danger seemed to be from planes hitting each other and there was an occasion when an American plane overshot the runway and hit two workers in the field. Another crash with two planes happened in Thurston. Amazingly, some people managed to survive the crashes. Living in the country also meant that there was much more food to be had than in the towns and cities. They could still get food and milk from the farms, and meat from the Bacon factory.
Elmswell had their share of evacuees although not all stayed for very long. Along School Road there was a piece of land that belonged to the church which had a hall. It was next to the old primary school. The evacuees used the hall and had their own teachers. One day there was a knock on the door of the primary school and a man asked if it was ‘the London school?’ ‘No,’ came the reply from Ray’s teacher. ‘We’re all country bumpkins here!’ These are wonderful memories of times gone by, even though they are not all happy ones, but they give such a clear picture of the past. In our village we have managed to preserve memories of people who have made valuable contributions to the community and Ray’s own father, Ernie Bennett, is honoured in this way for his hard work as a parish councillor, and he has Bennett Avenue named after him. What a fitting tribute, and Ray must feel very proud of him whenever he walks past that sign.