Memories of an Octogenarian
By Lionel Sole
(Abridged by Bob Sheldon)
This article was originally published in the April 2005 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Introduction: Lionel is descended from Edward Sole (1798-1890) of Woodnesborough in East Kent. He has written a very detailed set of memoirs for the benefit of his family and future generations, which regrettably have needed drastic editing for the Journal, but hopefully the result does justice to Lionel’s account of his long and eventful life.
Part I. The Early Years: 1916-28
My life began before November 1918 and the end of WWI, for I was born on 4 May 1916. Although I was to live in the Canterbury area for much of the pre-WWII period, I was born much nearer to London. The place was Fairseat, a small hamlet situated in the triangle formed by Sevenoaks, Rochester, and Gravesend in Kent.
Although in April 1916 Fairseat was undoubtedly a peaceful place in which to live, the inhabitants of the few houses which then existed would have been aware of the mounting casualties in France. My mother would have read the lists with great concern, for my father had just been conscripted for military service and my birth was imminent. By June my father was in France, serving as an ambulance driver on the Western Front and arriving shortly before the first battle of the Somme, when 30,000 Allied soldiers were to die on the opening day of the offensive.
Both my father, Albert (1888-1970), and mother, Blanche (1887-1978), were members of a large family, not uncommon in Victorian times, but in other respects their backgrounds differed. Father was born into a family who were agricultural workers whose ancestors had lived in East Kent, as my grandparents did, for centuries. My mother was the seventh child of a family of eight, four sons and four daughters.
My father, the son of a waggoner, was the fifth child of a family of six: three sons and three daughters. My father's eldest brother, Alfred, was apprenticed to a blacksmith, working first at the village smithy in Acol, near Margate, and later in the foundry of Tillings of Maidstone, manufacturers of heavy duty lorries and buses; William, the youngest, was severely handicapped by having a shortened left leg from childhood and receiving very little education, so that for the most part he was employed for menial work. All three sisters were to marry, one, Bertha, died tragically on Margate seafront when in her 'twenties'; Emily, the eldest daughter, married a market gardener; and Ada, a retired sea captain of a Cross-Channel boat. Of my grandparents I know very little more than what has already been written, the only one I knew being Grandmother Sole who lived at Birchington, Kent and died in 1927, aged 72 years. The remaining three died before 1912 and before reaching their sixty-fifth birthday.
My parents probably met about 1905 in London when both were 'in service', my father as a groom and my mother as a maid. At the time of their marriage in 1912 my mother was the lady's maid at the French Embassy. Before their wedding, and realising the future importance of the motorcar, they decided that father should learn to drive, and this he did by attending a School of Driving, learning in addition the fundamentals of car construction and maintenance. The latter was most important, for in the early days of motoring, cars frequently broke down, necessitating roadside repairs. Despite his additional qualifications it was not until late 1914 that he obtained the post of driver at Fairseat House where I was born.
By April 1916 father, who had volunteered for military service on several previous occasions, was recruited as an ambulance driver and mother was asked to vacate their accommodation within six weeks after my birth. As a result, mother took rooms at Maidstone and these became our base, though we seem to have spent long periods with relations.
Albert Harry Sole & Blanche Gertrude Sole (nee Scanlan) with Lionel in 1917
When WWI ended in November 1918 mother and I may have been at Birchington, but by the summer of the following year we were living in the East Kent village of Bridge, together with my father, who was back in 'Civvy Street'. We were then staying with my mother's sister, her husband and small son, Edward (Ted), who was four years my senior.
As a soldier father had served in France, Belgium and Italy, and it was from Italy that he made his journey back to Britain, arriving four or five months after the signing of the Armistice. Although his demobilisation was later than that of most Servicemen, it proved to be to his advantage, for he found immediate employment at a time when work was difficult to find. Working for the War Department (WD) as a civilian driver, his job was to ferry vehicles being returned to this country from the Continent. As most of the vehicles were in a bad state of repair they could travel at low speeds only, and were driven on main roads which had a much poorer surface than today's standard, the time taken to complete each journey was considerable and father would be away from home for several days.
Although my father fared better than some of his war-time colleagues he found difficulty in obtaining satisfactory employment, so that in the space of six years he had six different jobs before being 'taken on' by a firm of timber merchants with whom he remained, with the exception of the period 1939-45, for the remainder of his working life.
When father's employment with the WD ended he worked briefly for a small firm of haulage contractors, owned by my cousin’s grandfather, and it is this period that provides my first memory of him. He was helping in the unloading of a load of poles from a horse-drawn dray and was wearing his Army uniform.
About the same time we ceased being 'lodgers' and moved into our first home as a family, my parents having obtained the part-tenancy of an Elizabethan house. It proved to be very poor accommodation, for it lacked all three services: water, gas/electricity and sewerage. Nowadays the property would have been condemned as being unfit for human habitation but eighty years ago our living conditions were not unusual, in fact they would have been considered the 'norm' for working-class families in rural areas.
During our nine-year occupancy of the first of our three homes in Bridge, access was made from Primrose Alley, the door opening directly on to the living room. Being little more than twelve feet square there was little space for furniture, but standing in the centre of the room was a circular table upon which stood a paraffin lamp, our sole source of lighting after dark. Opposite the window which looked out on to the village street was an open fireplace, the sole source of heating for the entire house and, with the exception of a small stove, mother's only means of cooking. Access to the second floor was made by a staircase which led from the living room behind a partition wall and on reaching the landing one door opened on to the room above the living room, the other to the room above the cellar. This room above the cellar became my bedroom. A long, barrack-like room, it had a ceiling which sloped at an acute angle, so that on the street side it barely provided head room for a young boy. One small window provided natural light. Often intensely cold on a winter's night, I went to bed by candle light, the candle being quickly extinguished.
Housework was a drudgery. For my mother washing day meant carrying numerous pails of water from and to the yard, heating the required amount in saucepans on the open fire and washing the clothes in a zinc bath (used also for the weekly 'tub' on Friday nights). After washing, with or without the use of a corrugated washboard, the washing was mangled, itself very hard work, and dried in the yard if weather permitted. Ironing required the alternative use of a pair of flat irons heated on the open fire.
Shortly after my fifth birthday in 1921 I contracted diphtheria and was driven to the isolation hospital in a horse-drawn ambulance, the 'fever bus', driven by Uncle George. The hospital was no more than a converted residence located in a country lane a short distance from Bridge. I was to remain there for six weeks, enough time for me to retain a few memories, including the sickly medicine which tasted like liquorice and the trains which ran past the building, though the line, being in a cutting, meant that I could not see the trains from my window.
In the following September I started school. For me it was a traumatic experience and I protested loudly for a few days. The village school provided an elementary education for both boys and girls of all ages and was opened in the nineteenth century shortly after the Education Act of 1870. Known as Bridge C of E School, it provided for an intake of about 120 pupils. Children would start school in the September of the year of their fifth birthday and could leave, as most did, when fourteen years of age, the school leaving age having been raised from twelve by the Education Act of 1918.
With most children's full-time education being confined to less than nine years the curriculum concentrated on the three R’s, less time being devoted to subjects like Geography, History and Art. Each day commenced with Prayers. Scant attention was paid to Sport. For boys, during winter months, football of the 'kick about' kind was played on pasture land opposite the school, access being made by climbing along a fence which spanned the River Nailbourne. I had one advantage over many of the kids, for I had football boots, not that they did much for my game. During summer months we might go for a run along the country lanes, while the girls played netball on a nearby field. Swimming was not an option.
The school premises were divided to provide four classrooms: the headmaster's house, two playgrounds - one for the boys, one for the girls - and the usual cloakroom facilities. The curriculum for the nine years of study was taught by four teachers, each of the assistant teachers being responsible for two years, the headmaster for three.
For the first two years we were taught by an unqualified teacher and for a few months sat in rows on forms arranged as a terrace, wrote on slates and used a piece of wet rag for erasures. Later, the terrace was demolished, being replaced by small tables and chairs. To bring the class in to the twentieth century we were then given writing books. The classroom, like the other three, was heated by a solid fuel boiler, stoked when necessary by the teacher. One had to be sitting near the boiler to feel any warmth on a cold winter's day.
Although for the most part I enjoyed school, I liked better the time beyond the school gates. In addition to playing the popular games of the day, we would roam the many fields and woods in the district, sometimes playing 'soldiers', using the trenches which had been dug for practice during 1914-18, when troops would be stationed briefly at Bridge before going to France. In the same field we would make and light a fire, cooking half-a-pound of beef sausages bought with our pocket money for two-pence and baking potatoes brought from home.
As a child growing up in the 20s, I probably had more than the average number of outings, for there were some children who were lucky if they went beyond the boundaries of the village or saw the sea once a year. For me, in addition to the annual outing to the seaside, my cousin Ted and I were taken by our parents to places like Margate and Herne Bay, travelling in a horse-drawn wagonette driven by my Uncle George. Leaving home shortly after breakfast on a Sunday morning and returning late in the evening, the wagonette proved a most pleasant way to travel, for the country lanes were uncrowded, and what little traffic we met with was largely horse-drawn.
As a child I was involved in the picking of hops. For my mother and her sister picking hops in a local hop field was regarded as a social occasion, but I hated hop-picking, for I could think of far better things to do during my school holiday. Each year we would proceed to the same hop field about one mile from our home known locally as 'Baker's where at the turn of the century my father had worked as a twelve-year-old following the death of my grandfather.
I spent the long winter evenings for the most part playing with my cousin Ted. Although he was my senior by four years we were firm friends and together we would play with toys which were 'simple' compared with those marketed today, among the most popular at the time being Meccano and steam engines. Combined, they gave us many hours of fun, for we would make with Meccano a windmill, or some other object, which we then were able to drive by the steam engine, using string as a driving belt.
Domestic matters apart, the most important development during the nine years in which I lived in Bridge was radio broadcasting which began in 1922. Soon, very long aerials, held on tall poles, began to appear in the village. A year or so later I listened to the radio for the first time. At about the same time as I listened to my first radio broadcast, I saw – but did not use - my first telephone.
1925 was a momentous one for the Sole family, for in April my brother Desmond was born and soon afterwards my father changed his kind of employment when he went to work for a firm of timber merchants in Canterbury. Both of these events were of major importance to me, for I ceased to be the only child and from then on I saw more of my father. I was then nine years old and until that time we were little more than strangers, for following his three years' service in the Army father’s work as a civilian kept him from the family home for very long hours. As a taxi driver he would leave the house before I was out of bed and would return long after I had gone to sleep. Apart from an occasional Sunday, on average once a month, it was a seven-days-a-week job. His new employment meant working a five-and-a-half-day week. Although he would still leave the house by 6.30am he would return shortly after 6 pm, unless overtime delayed him. This meant that we met one another for an hour or so before I went to bed. On Saturdays he would be home by early afternoon and was 'free' until Monday morning.
Possibly as a form of compensation he would frequently allow me to accompany him to work on Saturday morning, so that together we would travel around the district delivering quantities of timber. I really did enjoy those outings, for they provided further opportunities to see the towns and villages of East Kent. The form of travel could not be described as luxurious, for his first lorry was a converted private vehicle. I think the firm’s carpenter must have made the conversion, for the ‘coachwork’ had to be seen to be believed. It was a credit to my father that he was able to keep the lorry in service for as long as he did, for it needed constant repair.
During the final period of our residence in Bridge, the villagers saw an increase in the use of cars in preference to horses. It was about 1926 when charabancs were replaced by buses fitted with a hard top and the two services, Canterbury to Dover and Canterbury to Folkestone were increased. From the same time onwards there was an increasing number of village traders who switched to cars from horses for delivering orders to their customers. The brewers who supplied the three public houses did likewise, so that beer was no longer delivered by drays pulled by pairs of magnificent Shire horses.
I am uncertain as to when the first garage in the village came in to being, but I do know that because there were relatively few cars the proprietor found it necessary to undertake other types of engineering. However he did provide a service for those who owned cars and sold petrol in returnable two-gallon cans.
Autumn is the 'shooting season' and in the autumn of 1927 a 'shoot', extending over several weekends, was held on Barham Downs, about two miles from Bridge. Local men and boys were recruited to serve as 'beaters', the men being paid 37p and the boys 12p. Despite my tender years I had an offer to participate and, having obtained the permission of my parents, I accepted the offer with alacrity, the prospect of receiving a sum equal to five times my weekly pocket money being too great to resist. So, armed with a packet of sandwiches, and in the company of friends, I set forth. Upon arrival I was positioned on the corner of a wood and there I stood alone. The procedure for the 'beaters' was to listen for a signal, the blowing of a whistle. This indicated that a 'shoot' was about to begin and the ‘beaters' were then required to make as much noise as possible by banging a length of wood against a tree. This caused the birds to fly from the wood and towards the guns. About mid-afternoon the 'shoot' ended and, having drawn my pay, I returned home. I repeated this experience three times and in so doing became richer by 37p, a large sum at that time.
The New Year heralded my 'scholarship year' and the year when we left Bridge. In pre-WWII Britain the State provided free elementary education for all children up to the age of fourteen; secondary education being provided by independent fee-paying schools, most of which offered a few scholarships for the children of parents who were unable to pay the fees.
My father was fearful that I would be accepted for secondary education, thus placing an additional burden on his slender resources at a time when the family was facing a crisis. I was unaware of this, and it was not until many years later that I began to ponder on the possible reason and came to the conclusion that my mother had become tired of living in a house without services and wanted something better for her young family and for herself. She also longed for a daughter to replace the little girl who died as an infant before I was born, a secret which she kept for many years.
I am sure that my father worried greatly about mother's wishes, for he knew that he could not possibly obtain the tenancy of a house with all 'mod cons' for 12p a week, which was what he paid for 1 Primrose Cottages. He worked on the principle that one's rent should not exceed one day's pay, which meant a maximum outlay of 70p for rent, lighting, and heating. In the end he found a desirable house and in doing so exceeded his target and it must have been some relief to him that I did not pass the scholarship examination.
At Easter, 1928 the two families, the Soles and the Cowells (my Uncle George, Aunt Grace and cousin Ted) made a last outing together in the horse-drawn wagonette. That day we went to Herne Bay and while Ted and I played on the beach our parents engaged in several long conversations. A week or so later I learnt the reason: we were to leave Primrose Alley and move to 62 Roper Road, Canterbury. This is a very long road and the houses, built on one side of the road only, were built in several different styles.
We moved on a Saturday afternoon, my father having obtained permission to use his firm's lorry. The removal of our possessions required two journeys and for the second my mother sat in front with Desmond, then three years old, while I sat in the back, perched on some item of furniture and clutching the family's cat.
62 Roper Road was to be my home, with a few short interruptions, for nine years. My parents lived in the road, but not the same house, for the remainder of their married life, until father died in 1970. As for me I have often thought that my childhood ended when we moved to Canterbury from Bridge, for I was then twelve years old and two years later I started full-time work.
Many people trace their roots back to their childhood and even now in my old age I still regard the village as my home ground. For many years I continued to make contact with Bridge, periodic visits being made until my uncle and aunt died in the '60s and my cousin had married and had moved to another district.
(To be continued)
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