(Late 1930s until early 1950s)
Brian Maddock - Pointe-Claire, Québec, April 2015
I was found under a gooseberry bush in the front garden of Chapel House. At least that is what grown-ups told an inquisitive small boy. In fact, I believe Nurse Hankey, the district midwife, had something to do with my arrival in April 1932.
Chapel Houses dated from 1882 according to a plaque on the wall. The building had started life as the first Methodist chapel in Comberbach in 1807. In the late 1870s, the chapel moved to larger quarters on Senna Lane. The old building was converted into two small cottages and a third unit was added at the end furthest from the road. At the back, the houses abutted on the end of the large Spinner garden. The small gardens in front of the houses ran down to a brook. Beyond them lay a large pasture field belonging to Millington’s farm. Across the road (now called Warrington Road) was another large pasture field used by Walker’s cows and horses. They came to drink at a water-tank situated under the line of plane trees that bordered the road.
Because our home was located on a major thoroughfare that linked the main part of the village to the Spinner and the bus stop outside the entrance to Walker’s farm the road was busy with pedestrians so I got to know many of the people living in the village. There was not much change. People who came from outside the local area were “forriners” who “spoke funny”. Most of the natives spoke with a strong Cheshire accent. The toffs, Mr Alistair Cameron-Rose and his wife, who lived at Beech House after the war was from a totally different world. The evacuees who came from Liverpool early in the war were from a different planet. (Most soon went back home but a few remained until the war ended and became assimilated.)
The population was a mixture; some of the men worked in the ICI chemical works at Winnington and Wallerscote, a few worked on farms, some were retired, most women were stay-at-home workers, a few had jobs in Northwich or Warrington. However, quite a few worked and served in the village.
The Spinner - (No one ever added “and Bergamot”) - was a gathering place for adults. Mr Thomas Platt was the licensee until after the war. His wife, Eleanor (Nelly), replaced him after his death. A pavilion and bowling green constructed just before the outbreak of war attracted coach loads of visitors – much to the disgust of locals in times when beer was often in short supply. (Sometimes the front of the pub was closed up, but locals knew how to enter through the back door!)
The Drum (Officially called “The Avenue Inn”) was a smaller less-frequented pub. The sign outside the door portrayed a monkey with a drum. It had its regulars and a few who had some reason to avoid the Spinner. Mr Harry Hitchen, its landlord, also served as a portrait photographer.
The post office was located opposite the entrance to the “rec” and the bowling green. The other bus stop in the village was located there. It served as a small grocery store in addition to its official capacity. Mrs Lamb was the proprietor until she retired and Mrs Proudlove took over after the war.
The present post office was a private home, but during the war, the Roberts family opened a chip shop at the back. It opened only on certain evenings.
Lilly Millington ran a small shop in a wooden cabin located at the Top o’Town. She specialised in selling toffees and “pop” to small children. Local women liked to linger there for a chat.
Mr Edward Cowap lived in a big house just before the brook where it ran under Warrington Road. It had a large shop-window – but no walk-in customers. I think it was a tailor’s business. His son, Thomas, had a car and I think he travelled to farmers who bought the substantial sort of clothing needed for heavy work on farms.
Albert Johnson had a wheelwright’s workshop beside Kidbrook, right on the Budworth border. His father had been in the same trade before him. Albert lived with his mother in an old cottage a bit back from the road. He had the carpentry and metal-shaping skills needed to build farm carts that were sturdy enough to last over a hundred years. Unfortunately, it was a disappearing trade as farmers preferred carts and lorries with pneumatic tyres. Albert had a sideline – building coffins as needed and performing the services of an undertaker. When someone died, Albert was asked to come to “measure up” and make all the funeral arrangements.
Almost across Budworth lane was an old house in which the Shaws/Hankeys lived. In spring the bank running down from the house to Kidbrook was covered in a golden yellow carpet of hundreds of daffodils. My guess is that the flowers were once harvested for sale on the market.
Before the war and maybe at the beginning of it an old boot and shoe repairer named Amos earned a few pence in a small shed just along the farm track running westwards from the crossroad at Walker’s corner. It lay behind Percival’s house.
Percival’s Garage seemed to be past its heyday even when I was young. Petrol sales and car repairs did not seem to be its main business. They had a lorry for hauling jobs. Mrs Percival drove a large fairly ancient car which was used when necessary to taxi people to the doctor’s surgery or to go to the railway station with luggage. For short distances, the charge was in the sixpence to a shilling range. The garage performed another useful service to those of us who had no electricity connection; they recharged acetylene batteries which contained liquid acid so they had to be handled carefully.
Cyril Johnson lived with his parents in the first house on Cogshall Lane. He established a garage on the Northwich-Warrington road (A559) at the top of Gibb Hill. It was a more up-to-date service with petrol pumps and facilities for making car repairs. It remained closed during the war.
Further up the Avenue lived Harry Mather who was an insurance agent. He served as councillor for Comberbach for a number of years. Mather Drive was named in his honour. The first two houses were council houses.
There were three working farms in or near the village.
Marbury Home Farm stood at the sharp corner in Marbury Lane. A public right of way ran from across the road there to the Budworth road where it is joined by Cock Lane. A rickety wooden bridge spanned Kidbrook about halfway along the path. This was a popular walk on nice sunny days.
Ivy Lodge farm is situated opposite the Spinner. Mr Thomas Walker was in charge but his son George seemed to do most of the work. Like all the farms it was mainly a dairy operation producing milk for the cities. After the morning milking (by hand) heavy churns filled with milk were placed at the gate near the road to be collected by a lorry.
Avenue farm was operated by Mr George Woodcock. The farm buildings were on the west side of the Avenue. The fields lay mainly on the west side of Gibb Hill.
In addition there were three small specialized farmlets.
Yew Tree Farm sat beside the Wesleyan Chapel. For some years after the war, Mr Albert Lowe used it as a base for a new type of enterprise. Mr Lowe obtained several Ford tractors and the accompanying three-furrow ploughs, mowing machines, harvesting machines, etc.. Farmers in the district hired the equipment as they needed it including an experienced operator to accomplish work in a day or two which would have required much more time with horse driven machinery. Later Mr Lowe moved to Well Farm near Frandley Brow in Antrobus. (Mr Lowe also served as a lay preacher.)
The Millington family lived in a large farmhouse on the northwest corner of the Top o’Town. They used a large pasture field stretching from behind the chapel down the slope to the brook and then up the slope on the far side to behind the Spinner. They kept at least one milking cow and sometimes some heifers. They kept pigs and poultry too.
The Stubbs lived in a house with some outbuildings along Senna Lane at a little distance from the main village. A small croft surrounded the house. There was no sign of farming activities.
There was a smithy on the Moss but it went out of operation as the use of horses declined rapidly.
Phil Raynor was a coal merchant who lived in a modern detached house on Marbury Road.
Mrs Moore, another resident of Marbury Road, gave piano lessons to small girls. She was somewhat dreaded by boys because she was reputed to teach the violin – and we all knew that only sissies played the violin!
Which leaves two enigmas – at least for a small boy.
Dr Menzies lived in the large detached house at the Top o’Town where Senna Lane joins Marbury Road. But he was a doctor who had no surgery and no patients! Instead, he drove a small Austin car to work each day in the laboratories at ICI Winnington. (Years later I discovered that there are people with a PhD in science.)
Joseph Hodgkinson lodged on Cogshall Lane. Adults called him “Joe Hockey”. He had a portly figure and was always well-dressed with a gold watch chain across his chest. Most weekday mornings he took the 10.10 bus to Northwich and returned in the late afternoon. I was told he was a “bookie” – but that meant nothing to me at the time.
Into the 1950s many houses in Comberbach lacked flush toilets. These older homes had a “lavatory” at the back of the dwelling. Sometimes the facility was attached to the house. Others were situated “across the yard” or “at the bottom of the garden”..Each had a wooden seat with a hole in it and a large galvanized can below to collect the human waste. (Normally old newspaper was supplied – only those with middle-class pretentions used bought toilet rolls.) Gradually these cans became perilously close to overflowing!
“At one minute to midnight”, as the expression goes, “Racker”’s team would arrive in the evening. Mr R. Collins operated Manley Farm in Antrobus and he had a contract to empty the lavatory cans in Comberbach. Usually, two strong farm lads would be engaged to perform the unsavoury task. In summer adults would cry “Racker’s coming!” and they would rush to close all windows and doors. I always felt sorry for the horse who had to drag the heavy lead-lined cart and it malodorous load back to Manley Farm. (Incidentally, many Comberbachers insisted they would never buy produce grown on that farm.)
Nowadays there is a modern sewage collection system. Charlie’s Rough was a delightful sylvan copse before the sewage treatment plant was built. (I once read that a man chose it as a spot to commit suicide.)
As soon as they reached the age of five, children were eligible to attend Comberbach Infant School. The teacher was Mrs Cox, a kind matronly lady. She lived in a house attached to the school. The school itself faced Marbury Road opposite the war memorial and the bowling green. (It has since been converted into a residence.) The entrance to the classroom was at the back, away from the road. A small enclosed playground included a three seat (so they said) lavatory for girls and a stone screen for the boys to “wee-wee” against. If boys had a more desperate need they had to run home! The caretaker, who lived on the Moss, lit a big coal fire to keep the room warm in winter.
In the late 1930s, there were few children of school age. Mrs Cox kept us busy learning to read at the appropriate level. While a small group stood around her desk trying to improve their reading skills, the rest of the class had to work quietly at some other tasks. Since it is almost impossible for young children to refrain from talking the corners were often occupied by the latest chatterboxes. There was lots of story-telling for the rest of the class. Our favourites were The Three Pigs, Goldilocks, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. Woe betides anyone who missed out an important detail. Each week there was a special moment when Mrs Cox read the most recent Enid Blyton story for us. Arithmetic comprised learning multiplication tables, doing “sums” (calculations on paper), and mental arithmetic exercises. Singing was another major activity.
Each year, close to Christmas, Mrs Cox produced a little show for the parents. Just before the war started we presented a series of tableaux based on Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, a very popular film at that time. In one scene the poisoned Snow White (played by Jean Preece) lay in her coffin made by the grieving dwarfs and I, in the role of Prince Charming, has to kiss her back to life. What a traumatic experience for a small boy! The after-effects lasted until I was about 15!
After their child had spent three years in the infant school parents had to make a difficult choice about where to send their young 8-year-old. Barnton and Winnington schools were bigger and probably better, but they were far away and there was no direct bus service. Budworth school was closer, but the teacher had a doubtful reputation. Antrobus C of E school was another small rural school not renowned for its academic successes. I managed, with my grandmother’s support, to persuade mother to let me go to Antrobus where I knew some of the children. (It was quite an experience, but it is outside our Comberbach context. Suffice it to say that in 1943 Ernie Battison and I broke the mould when we passed the scholarship exam to gain entry to Sir John Deane’s Grammar School in Northwich.)
Sunday School was not an enjoyable experience, but adults seemed to consider it necessary. From about the age of 5, each Sunday morning Winnie Woodcock would collect me to take me to the Sunday school held in the chapel school room. There were two highlights in the year: prize-giving and the annual trip. Prizes were awarded for regular attendance. I was always disappointed. Others got interesting books such as the Beano Annual and Rupert Bear. I got Alice in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe – all classics, but long and in small print, far beyond my reading level and comprehension. In summer two of Bowyer’s coaches were hired to take us to the seaside (usually New Brighton). I enjoyed the journey, but the tide was invariably in and the amusement park began to open just as we had to leave for home. Disappointing!
In the 1930s and 40s, few people had a car. During the war, cars were restricted to professional users such as doctors, farmers and tradesmen. In Comberbach the Cameron-Roses had a Jaguar, Dr Menzies a small Austin, and Mrs Percival her ancient taxi. The rest used a bicycle or walked.
Bicycles were used for going to work or to school. Grammar school boys found it more convenient to cycle the 7 miles into Northwich than to use a rather inconvenient bus schedule (especially when the class got detention). Going to school took about 20 minutes (going down some steep inclines); returning took about 30 minutes because one-gear bicycles made it preferable to walk up the very steep Winnington Hill and Soot Hill in Anderton.
Most people walked to the bus stop or to the village shops and, of course, to the Spinner. Few undertook to walk to Budworth for church services partly because of the distance but especially because of the two steep hills in the dene. Comberbach chapel was closer to home.
The Northwestern Road Car Company provided a regular bus service. Every day a bus en route to Warrington via Anderton and the back lanes of Budworth and Antrobus reached Comberbach at about 5 minutes to the odd hours (i.e. from 5 to 9 am until 5 to 9 pm). The bus returning to Northwich arrived at about 10 minutes past the even hours. The bus stops were at the post office (then on Marbury Road) and the Spinner. Until after the war the Northwich to Warrington service via Lostock and Wincham along A559 did not come into the village; users had to walk to or from the top of Gibb Hill. It was a great improvement when the route was diverted at the Cock O’Budworth to make a stop at the corner of the Avenue near the Spinner. It arrived an hour before or after the other service so the village enjoyed an hourly service to Warrington and Northwich.
Friday was market day in Northwich so an additional service operated to Great Budworth once an hour. It arrived from Northwich at approximately the half-hour until 9.30pm and returned at ten minutes to the hour. The service also operated on Saturday so it was popular for going to Northwich to attend a football match or to go the cinema.
People who wanted to go to Manchester or Liverpool preferred to go to Warrington by bus. There they had a choice of taking another bus from the terminus located at Bridge Foot (beside the Mersey where it is crossed by the bridge) or to walk to Warrington Central station where trains ran every half hour to both of the big cities. The total journey took about two hours – even longer if going via Northwich.
Take a plane? Only the RAF had them! (And also the Luftwaffe! Early in the war, a stray bomb fell somewhere behind the Spinner pavilion, but it did not explode. I was away from Comberbach at the time so I cannot provide any details, but I can imagine it might have been hard on the drinkers for a short period. They might have had to walk all the way to the Drum!)
How a young boy knew the time of day
Each weekday had routines.
At 6.30am I would hear Jim Rustage’s nailed boots crunching on the cobblestones as he went to start milking cows at Frandley Brow farm where he was employed.
The ICI “buzzer” (a very loud steam-operated whistle) sounded at 7.30am and at 1 pm to mark the start of work for the day-workers. At 12 noon and 5 pm, it sounded to announce the time to cease working. It was usually quite audible in Comberbach.
Billy Allen was also a reliable time indicator. He had lost a leg during the first world war so he used crutches to move about the village. Just before 11 am Billy would swing down from the Top o’Town to ensure that the Spinner opened on time for the lunchtime session. At 2 pm he returned to his home on Cogshall Lane. Just before 6 pm, he was back for the evening opening time.
Closing time at the Spinner was sometimes a noisy affair. Customers would assemble in the parlour room where there was a piano. Mrs Hurst had a strong voice and she could be heard leading a spirited rendition of well-known songs such as “Nellie Dean”. There was much enjoyment but I never heard of any drunkenness.
Of course, the passing buses were another approximate time check.
Early in the war parts of Marbury park were turned into an army camp. Temporary huts were constructed to house the troops. I think the officers were billeted in the hall. Various regiments came and went as the army prepared for the D-Day landing.
After the landing, a tall barbed wire fence and watchtowers were erected around the camp so that it could be used as a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Occasionally a long peaceful column of the POWs filed through the village on its way to a service in Budworth church. After hostilities ceased in 1945, some POWs volunteered to work on local farms in order to escape camp boredom. They were excellent workers- skilled, knowledgeable, and energetic. Farmers missed them when they were repatriated to Germany.
After the war, due to a labour shortage, ICI imported workers from further afield. There was also a housing shortage in the district so the army huts were reconditioned to make temporary homes for some of these workers and their families. Unattached workers were accommodated in Marbury Hall which had been converted into a hostel. The staff comprised former Polish soldiers who could no longer return to their Communist-dominated homeland.
Another Marbury Lady anecdote
George Plant told the story of a shift-worker coming home from Winnington works after the afternoon shift at about 10.30pm on a dark stormy night. It was pitch dark and lonely in Marbury hollow – and (Who knew?) perhaps the ghost of the Marbury Lady was about. As the worker walked up the curving hill he distinctly heard the sound of a rattling chain. He paused and the noise stopped. He increased his pace and the chain rattle resumed. This happened again and his panic increased. Then just as the worker reached the crest of the hill he saw a goat dragging the chain which had been used to tether it. Whew!
Speaking of “talking funny”. After nearly 60 years away from Comberbach my own speech has changed. Speaking on the phone to my father’s cousin I was accused of talking “like a bloody Yank” – that hurt! A teacher of Belgian origin one said, “Vous parlez bien le français, mais avec un accent québécois” In earlier years when the James Bond, agent 007 films were new, young women who were complete strangers, would accost me and tell me I sounded just like Sean Connery!
When I lived in Comberbach locals pronounced the name of the village as “Commerbatch” with a silent first “b”. According to Wikipedia the first “b” is now sounded. (It’s all due to “them forriners”!)
There was a time when Comberbach had its own embryo opera house. Mrs Allen lived in one of the old tumbledown thatched cottages along Senna Lane between Top o’Town and Cogshall Lane. Hers was the end house with a large garden. The isolated outhouse was situated near the centre of this garden. Mrs Allen’s son had a fine voice which could be heard whenever he was “communing with nature”.
A type of “call-boy” operation was once based in Comberbach.
The Millingtons kept a boar which could be rented out by local farmers. Every now and then a specially constructed stout trailer, just about big enough to hold a boar, could be observed leaving for a new assignation.
As a teenager, I spent my Easter and summer holidays helping at Senna Green farm. From time to time Mr Harrison, the farmer would go to market to acquire some six to ten gilts (young female pigs) that had been farrowed recently. For some weeks the gilts were left loose in the orchard to grow bigger. When they came into season the boar was brought in. Unfortunately for him, they all came into heat at about the same time. It was amusing to see the old lad trying to catch some rest while amorous young things were nudging him and encouraging him to swing into action.
One day, I cannot place it in time, the hunt was about. A fox dashed across the road between the Spinner and Chapel Houses hotly pursued by the pack of hounds. They wriggled through the hedges and caught the unfortunate fox beside the brook below the steep bank at the back of the houses on Mather Drive. The hunters had great frustration because their horses could not get across the hedges and fences bordering the gardens along the road. So the hounds tore apart their prey before any huntsman could get there. (Does this devalue the worth of some “desirable modern residence” now located on this spot?)
The “Budduth Bobby”
The Cheshire Constabulary had an outpost in Great Budworth. The incumbent “bobby” was rarely seen in Comberbach except on sunny afternoons in summer. A brick wall some six feet or more high sheltered the garden of Ivy Lodge farm from the road. Thus, the intersection of Budworth Lane and Warrington Road was made into a dangerous blind corner for traffic. The danger was reduced by a halt sign. However, cycling clubs touring the countryside would swing round the corner without stopping – right into the eyes of the bobby who was waiting around the corner. He booked them all! (My irreverent sense of humour makes me wonder if some of today’s upright citizens of Comberbach might have a law-breaking ancestor who belonged to one of the cycling clubs – after all, they mostly came from “Manchester way”).
It is now almost 60 years since I last was in Comberbach, but I will always remember it as a fine place to grow up in – before the arrival of all “them forriners”! However, I can use Google Street View to keep an eye on progress - which has been very substantial.
Pointe-Claire, Québec, April 2015
These memoirs provided via ‘Lyn McCulloch'.