Childhood Memories of the Downham Area (Circa 1930)
By Madge Viscardini Autumn 1996
I wondered if some people might be interested in a few memories of Downham, Ramsden and Wickford in earlier years.
I hope that it is appreciated that my memory may not now be as good as some of my peers (was it ever!!!) Since starting this ever expanding trilogy several people have read it and added small amounts to it which naturally means that I cannot entirely vouch for the accuracy of their memory either.
I was born in Cox Green Cottage, (now Como) in Church Road, Ramsden Heath. One of my earliest memories is of my mother and her sisters coming home from a fete and bringing ice cream (the first I had ever had). I have since wondered if this was the first ice cream in the village as everyone seemed to look on this as a big event. One of the first fetes which I remember was held at Kites (still known locally as such), by the kind permission of the three Miss Browns. Kites I understand was the earlier Rectory and rumoured to a tunnel connecting it to Downham Church. Kites was burned down later when at that time (mid-sixties) I was living in Oak Road, right in line with it just across the field. Cox Green Cottage was a few doors from the present Primary School and at that time there was a coach house in front of the cottage and below that an apple orchard which my grandfather managed for 30 years, which after sheds for grading and packing apples ran right down to where the School now is and in the other direction behind Cox Green and Cox Green Cottage to the top of the hill at Ramsden Bellhouse. Here I should make mention of my grandfather’s jug of cold tea always to hand, and of his listening to his Crystal Set and asking for quiet while a naughty little grandchild used to say “noise, noise, noise”. I remember the two lady travellers who used to call at separate times, one a buxom red faced lady, Mrs Bibby and the other a little wizened leathery faced Mrs Buckley. Both were welcomed in for refreshments and a chat whilst showing us their wares, which they brought in large cases, but unfortunately I have no recollection of how they were transported there. Opposite the same cottage was a small copse known as the moat, with a pond and hazelnut trees. This is now covered with houses (Moat Close, Manor Close, etc). Along from the cottage there were no buildings whatever on that side of the road until you came to Dovedale Farm opposite the White Horse – in fact you could see to the butchers on the Main Road.
Across the fields opposite Cox Green Cottage, leaving the Moat on your right and going towards the railway line, was a 1914 searchlight base and in the same field a large range of rabbit warrens, which always called to mind Alice in Wonderland as a child.
Going from the White Horse towards Billericay, on the left just before you reached Barn Farm was the Ramsden School which I attended during my first school year. For many years now it has been a house called, I believe, Eton and Harrow! (Sorry, I am behind the times – this has also now gone). Further along, nearly opposite Barn Farm on the corner of Mill Lane, was Mr Hall’s scrap yard. Going to school in that first year at Ramsden Heath, the only houses in Short Lane were the older Council houses on the south side of the road and opposite was a huge field completely bare of any buildings, and being late for school one day I took a short cut diagonally across the field to come out well up Park Lane. On reaching a five bar gate at the other end, I think I must have been too small to climb it so I do remember the teacher asking me why I was late and apparently I replied that “I got caught up in a cobweb”. This large field has been covered in houses now for years, ie Brabner Gardens, etc.
Mr Souden’s shop started in part of their old house which was down the lane beside the present shop. Mrs Souden herself was something of a character being a tiny, dark person – called ‘Tots’ by some. If you needed to buy something that was high up, she would in all likelihood tell you “to well get up there and get it yourself”. Her father (Mr Knapper) was one of the postmen and also rang the bells at St Johns in Ramsden Heath. I recently reminded Mrs Sainsbury that she was my first Sunday School teacher there. Our coal merchant Mr Mayell had his yard between the garage and where Woods Coaches now are and just before the said coal yard was the peoples Peculiar Chapel. In the row of very old cottages (now gone) between the butchers and the garage, I call to mind the Clarks, the Bensons and the Borehams lived. A little further on lived Mr Bass who made beautifully iced wedding cakes at the bakery. He’d lived in Ramsden Heath for as long as I can remember and made cakes at the shop on the right just inside Dowsetts Lane which was then a post office and bakery run in my childhood by the Patten family who also owned the grocers opposite and the butchers which is still there today. Coming up Dowsetts Lane from Ramsden Heath, opposite White Lilleys Farm to go to Stock there were some very old farm cottages on the right a little way along and no one would ever know to look at that area today. Where the housing estate now is in Dowsetts Lane was the farm known locally as Birds Farm. Mr Miles the cobbler lived nearly opposite here.
My mother told me that the first school in Downham was in a “lean to” built on the side of where Mr & Mrs Elvin now live, which is nearly opposite Downham Village Hall. The first teacher was Mr Mason’s second wife. Mr Mason, a lay reader, lived at the Croft which was then a large market garden nursery, mainly for cucumbers, tomatoes and chrysanthemums, and I remember a Mrs Attridge from Billericay collecting the latter in her pony and trap. The greenhouses alone covered several acres; the bottom greenhouses stood where the Ramsden Heath Sports Centre now is, the other greenhouses being on the other side of the “Croft” dwelling, has remains of which I believe are still there plus a well underneath a stone slab. There was a large pond in the Ramsden Heath end of the nursery close to the road, and there was also a ditch or small stream bisecting the property. There was also a similar nursery opposite the pond in Downham although this was rather earlier I believe than 1927.
While in the area near Oak Road (Joes Lane) the following might also be of interest. Mrs Gentry, who at one time lived in Oak Road, told me that her daughter had either got, or had seen an old map of the area, and that map give this road as a main road to Wickford. She said that being a ditch on both sides of the lane was also an indication of a proper road.
DownhamSchool was finally placed opposite the Village Hall and holds one of my earliest memories of a library which was open every Friday night. This was run by the Head Teacher (Mrs Stanley) and comprised of 3 small shelves in one of the many cupboards. This is now a house called “St. Margarets”. There was a rookery in the elms just below DownhamChurch, and they also surround the Church. The Dutch Elm disease took these, but now we have the marvellous show of the lights of Basildon at night instead. Apart from what I remember of the first buses to go through Ramsden Heath and Downham (run I believe by John Patten) we also had the school bus which took us at 11 years old to WickfordSchool. This service was run by Ern Davies of Ramsden Bellhouse and often driven by Len Barker, who was quite a character around Ramsden Bellhouse during his long life there. Later Ern Davies ran a nursery in Ramsden Bellhouse.
Mr James T Eldridge was our milkman who did his round by pony and trap and sold half pint and 1 pint measures of milk. The measures hung down inside the churn. Smiths Stores which is now gone was started by the same Mr Eldridge selling tins of fruit and cream etc. from his house and diary which was then next to the thatched “Kites Lodge”. The bakers in those days used to deliver HOT, hot cross buns at about 5 am on Good Friday, the purchaser having arranged beforehand a suitable place for them to be left. I have no doubt that Ivy and Jim Dorking could tell a tale of their wood yard and family which was nearly opposite “Kites Lodge”, while next door but one to that, in a house that is still there, we had our own local village policeman. In the same vicinity lived our district nurse in Lesley Cottages, and unlike today, we could call on her with our problems.
My mother and father resided for over 50 years in the last bungalow on the right going down Crows Heath Lane (the earlier one of which he built). I lived there during my early years. Until they dug their own well they used to get water from the pump behind the De Beauvoir Arms (I wonder if it is still there?) As a child I would wait for hours on a Sunday afternoon outside the De Beauvoir Arms hoping that the man with the 3-wheeled bicycle with box attached, who sold ice cream, would pass by. Is anyone familiar with the pond in the pub grounds which is supposedly the cellars of an old pub possibly the “Cock”? The De Beauvoir Arms name came about from the acquiring of building material from the old De Beauvoir House that used to stand in the Chase that still bears that name. During the time of my childhood here I went to the Brownies held in the W.I. Hall (as it was then) and later to the Girl Guides held in a barn at Downham House which was laid out for the ball game FIVES, and about that time I was asked to be one of the ball girls for a tennis tournament held at Downham House by Mr & Mrs Gasgoyne Cecil. The cook who later became Mrs Newland Eldridge had made some real home made strawberry ice cream for the guests, and at the end of the day I proudly took the basinful home that I was given, only to discover that no one there was to enjoy it as they were all ill.
In Ramsden Bellhouse opposite the Fox and Hounds pub was Marvins Cycle Shop and on the left of the railway cottages (next to the Fox and Hounds) coal used to come into the sidings by train. On the other side of the pub was the old village hall. Does anyone remember seeing glow worms on the right going up the hill? Mrs Amey would probably have a tale to tell of the shop in the Bellhouse run by Mrs Holmwood (who subsequently lived in Crows Heath Road), the shop previous to this started by Mrs Clayden.
Near Harrow Farm we had petrol pumps and a garage run by Mr Ward, the derelict remains of which are still there. We used to take our radio accumulators there to be re-charged.
On St. Margarets Day every year we school children were invited to the mansion house of Fremnells (where the reservoir now is) by kind invitation of Mr & Mrs Kirk. There we had tea on the lawns and danced the Maypole for them and also did other country dancing. Later in my life I worked there. The Essex Union Hunt always met there for their first meet of the season (first Saturday of November). Villagers were always welcome and this was quite a sight with the butler coming out of the gun room and serving the horsemen drinks whilst the hounds milled around. When I was about 11 I needed information about Fremnells for an American pen pal (a person I have since met 3 times and still correspond with). I was sent to talk to an old lady called Miss Orton who lived with her brother (who managed the butchers shop in Ramsden Heath) in a little wooden cottage on the hill in Downham where Mayflower House now stands. (Just below Miss Orton’s house on the opposite side was the water pump some used and is still there today.) Miss Orton told me that she had lived in Fremnells as a child and that it was then a farm house, the stairs of which went up the OUTSIDE of the building. There was possibly a moat on one side of it at one time as there was a waist high wall with a big drop behind it and a stair going down in one place. It may well have been used at one time as it seemed to be aligned with the brook on the old piece of road which was still there at that time.
Eventually I started my married life at Fremnells Lodge and I remember a lot of the farm land around (now reservoir) was owned by Mr Pearce (Snr) and the house he lived in is now renamed Fremnells, whilst there was another farmer living right opposite here, a Mr Kerr.
Fremnells Lodge was at the end of one of the 3 drives for Fremnells itself, this had been the main drive for the carriages in days gone by and was lined with rhododendrons. The middle drive being fairly straight was line with daffodils and the third drive was further along the road that was there then passing the brook and led to the stables, cars and generator. Here also was the house of the chauffeur (Herman Oliver).
While living in Fremnells Lodge one of the grocers delivering there was the said Mr Souden. No one seemed surprised that when delivering he used to like to come in for a long chat. Having 4 children in 6 years and not really any time to spare for this I was driven to saving my ironing for Tuesday nights – flat irons of course which were heated on the coal range (the only means of cooking) – there being no electricity, no gas, no hot water, just a copper in the kitchen to heat water for baths and doing the washing. There was no bathroom of course, so it was the old zinc bath in the kitchen where the copper was. We lived in Fremnells Lodge until 1953, when we had to leave to make way for the reservoir.
A few memories of Wickford and, lastly, wartime to finish. In the High Street there was Mr Jephson the harness and saddle maker, who was uncle to Mr Souden, the Willow Pattern Tea Rooms and Prentices the cycle shop (now in London Road) and then in the high street as at that time also was Dr Campbells (that is no now on the corner of Nevenden Road) and the dentist Mr Cockram, who later moved to Southend Road, and Dr Frew’s which made way for Lady Gate. Suttons started in a private house, that you had to go up steps to enter. There was a sweet shop opposite what is now the JuniorSchool (SeniorSchool at that time) in Market Road, where the clinic now stands. On the site which is now Spencers Court was the old Spencer Nurseries. The Post Office was opposite the solicitors in the Broadway and it was incorporated with a grocers and greengrocers the owner of which, Pardys, also owned the bakers next door. Roughly where Willowdale now is, going towards the High Street, were the pens for animals taken to market and carrying on towards the railway line was where the original market was. The best café/restaurant at that time was situated at the corner of the Broadway where Silver Knight now is and Darby’s, the large engineering works, was a little way past the Swan towards Runwell. I must not forget to mention the cinema during the latter part of this time which was where Woolworths is today. Does anyone remember hearing the radio ham (call sign 2 don Q) who always had his own radio room, and who later had an electrical shop (Collins) in the High Street which later became Stanwoods then Rumbelows and is now a charity shop. He was in fact my uncle and lived in a little old cottage along the London Road at first and when the birth of my sister was imminent my father was suspected of having Scarlet Fever, so my mother went to stay with my uncle and his family which is where they had the baby. The first my father heard of his new daughter was over the air waves, when the Downham district nurse (Baldry) joked, and suggested pincing the baby so he could hear it. There was a little shop nearly opposite the railway station belonging I understand to Alvin Stardust’s family.
It cost 5d (2 ½ pence) return from Downham by bus to either Billericay or Wickford. The buses at that time ran from Pitsea to Chelmsford and to go to Chelmsford it cost 1s 6d (7 ½ pence) return from here.
Finally a few comments of this area during the war.
During the war we had troops stationed at what is now Ramsden Hall School, Downham Village Hall and Downham House, where you were sometimes stopped and asked for I.D. cards and also at Downham Grange which belonged to Mr & Mrs Keddie, who are part of the family firm that owned the store in Southend. Mr & Mrs Keddie lost all 3 of her sons in the war years and in memory of them the ring of 3 bells at DownhamChurch were re-cast into 6. Other troops were in a flat next door to Mr Padwick (the gardener for the Grange) and also in a barn there, where previously Mr Padwick had started the first Scout Group, helped later by Mr Norman Symonds. The troops also had a canteen at Blue House Farm, which I and others helped with on occasions serving teas, sandwiches etc. and I remember Mrs Prebble drying elderberries to use as currants in the cakes. Does anyone remember the land mine that dropped somewhere in a line between Kites and Cox Green (possibly in the field behind Chase Autos)? At the time I was walking home from a dance at Ramsden Bellhouse, past the Croft Nursery when it fell; the impression I got was of being pushed one way and then pulled the other while there was a rattle of pieces through the trees. Another time I was watering lettuce in the greenhouse at the Croft when something dropped and some glass came in. During this period at home in Crows Heath Lane when things were extra lively we used to sleep down the greenhouse boiler pit (stoke hole). In fact many years later my son noticed that the loft in the house was still “insulated” with a thin layer of concrete and chicken wire, apparently to stop incendiary devices penetrating the main building. However others must have had far worse experiences than these.
Others of my age group, who have lived here, perhaps the majority of their lives, may also have memories that the above may have jogged. Why not share them with us…..