Much Ado About Nothing
by James Lester Sole MBE
Abridged by Bob Sheldon (Part 1)
This article was originally published in the August 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
Introduction by Bob Sheldon
I first met Jim Sole in 1997 at the home of his daughter, Sue Sutton, in Auckland, New Zealand. Sue is a long standing member of the Society and she has helped substantially in our joint research of our Kent line. I briefly covered my visit at the time in the Journal for April 1998 (Volume 2 Number 4).
Jim and I are third cousins and although we discovered at that first meeting that we had attended the same village school in St Peters near Broadstairs (admittedly a few years in between) and indeed both lived in the Broadstairs and Margate area of east Kent for a number of years, neither of our families knew of the existence of the other.
My wife and I again visited Auckland recently and Sue and her husband Rod were again kind enough to let us stay with them. Jim is now 91 years old, still lives a few doors away from Sue and from where he transported himself on his electric scooter for a morning coffee and chat with us. I have to admit that in my enthusiasm for discovering all I could about him and his family I received a good natured rejoinder of “what makes me think I’m getting a bit of a grilling?”
You know how, as genealogists, we always intend to write down our memoirs ‘one day’ for the benefit of the grandchildren. Well it transpired during our conversation that Jim had done just that with editorial help from Sue during the five years since our last visit. He was kind enough to give me a signed copy of the 140 pages document entitled ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. He writes in a very entertaining style, avoiding the urge to make it a chronological listing of events, and it is clear that Jim has an eye for detail, a good memory and he has used these to great effect in recording an eventful life. With his permission I have attempted to summarise Jim’s experiences using selected extracts from his memoirs.
For the record Jim was born on 2nd August 1912 at 6 Mews Cottages, Ramsgate, the eldest son of James William Sole and his wife Jessie Adelaide nee Gore. His sister Jesse followed in 1913 and brother Sidney in 1915 by which time the family had moved to Broadstairs and James senior had enlisted in the Inland Water Transport Corps of the Royal Engineers. So it was left largely to their mother to bring up the children while father was away at war. He was demobilised in 1919 and returned home to the family’s new home in St Peter’s a small nearby village. This house was large with three storeys and a semi basement which was just as well as the family shared it with Jim’s grandparents and with his mother’s sister whose husband had died in the epidemic of influenza which swept the country at the end of the war.
Jim attended the village school about eighty yards away which was ‘not known at all for its education successes . . . many of the boys came from tough families and it took me some while to learn discretion and to keep my mouth shut, rather than have it closed with a fist. There were about 180 pupils and every playtime we . . . played football with a tennis ball. All the playgrounds were tarmacadam, not a bit of grass anywhere but . . . alongside the school was a very large piece of ground cultivated for allotments, and our Headmaster had, many years before, volunteered that pupils would look after this garden and harvest the vegetables for the old people whose homes adjoined the land. I have grave doubts about those vegetables and I also have a suspicion that many a hapless cabbage or potato found its way on to a pupil’s table!’
Most of his time Jim spent outdoors, especially after being given an old bicycle on which he ‘cycled with his pals all over Kent and even to the outskirts of London and life became an adventure.’
‘My mother was out at work all day so the task of looking after the children fell on my grandmother. . . . She was a very big cuddly woman and we all loved her. A supreme cook. In those days the one meal of the week . . .was Sunday dinner . . . always roast meat and all the works including Yorkshire pudding or suet pudding. . . there was always some left over for my brother and I to eat when we came home late at night.’
‘My grandmother insisted that all us children went to Sunday school every Sunday afternoon, and I discovered I loved singing and I had a good voice. I joined the choir and in time became head choir boy. I sang several solos in Canterbury Cathedral representing my church at the annual choir festival.’
At the age of thirteen years and ten months (two months short of the official school leaving age) Jim left school and became an office boy for a local builder. ‘All went well for a few months, but the country was going through a depression and the building industry came almost to a stop. My boss told me that I might have to leave . . . and I asked if I could work outside until things picked up . . . and for about six months I painted gutters and down-pipes. However, I had seen the warning light and kept my eyes open for another job’.
He found a vacancy in an Estate Agent’s office and was paid eight shillings (40 pence) per week but he was most unhappy, had ‘words’ with the owner and moved on again.
‘Fate was on my side because within a couple of weeks I saw an advertisement for a Junior Clerk in the office of the local Council. These were considered plum jobs and I didn’t fancy my chances. The advertisement asked for School Certificate, which I did not possess. However I pressed on and to my surprise, after a couple of interviews and some tests, I got the job. . . . One pound ten shillings (£1.50) a week. Here was progress! But I believe this was the turning point in my life, young as I was. I was about sixteen years old and a smoker. Nobody told us about lung cancer, had they done so . . . I am certain I would not have smoked and probably not have visited the sweetshop opposite St Peter’s Church as much as I did.’
But at the sweetshop Jim met Grace. ‘She was a lovely girl, friendly and open and I fell like a ton of bricks. I professed my suit with vigour but she did not seem at all keen and try as I might I could not induce her to come for a walk in the churchyard – a favourite place for courting.’ However with a little persistence ‘she became my girl in the eyes of the village.’
He was getting on well in his new job at Margate Corporation when there ‘occurred one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.’ Every year Margate Corporation played Broadstairs Council in a game of golf. Jim was picked to represent his department, ‘I told the Town Clerk that I had never played but apparently that didn’t matter. To make matters worse I had earlier that year bought a pair of plus fours . . . for cycling and hiking.’ In those days [they were] worn by practically all golfers. I had sadly miscalculated . . . as they were all in casual dress. I put my ball on the tee . . . took an almighty swing, brushed the ball which slid all of twelve inches on to the grass. The Town Clerk of Margate, with a grin on his face said “Well, what do you intend doing now Mr Sole?” I replied “With your permission, sir, I’m going to have a b***** long putt.”’
Jim was still living with his parents, grandparents and mother’s sister in St. Peter’s when another of mother’s sisters found herself deserted by her husband and she and her three children came to stay. Cooking for this enlarged family became a problem but somehow grandmother managed it. Jim began to study at home for a post-school certificate but conditions were impossible and he spent more time at Grace’s home in Ramsgate and in her shop in the village.
‘Then I discovered another hobby which I love, and which has stayed with me all my life, sea fishing.’ He became friendly with John who owned a boat. ‘Early one summer evening we went out fishing off Broadstairs. We rowed out about half a mile and anchored, baited our hooks and did what anglers spend most of their time doing – waited! Quite soon John got a bite and after a long struggle brought to the surface an enormous conger eel. Have you ever seen conger eel about six feet long in a narrow boat? It writhed and squirmed all over the boat snapping and grunting, and ripping the heel off one of John’s shoes with its sharp teeth. By this time I had decided there was only one safe place for me, and I promptly climbed over the stern of the boat immersing part of my body in the sea. After a short while my partner subdued the eel . . . when I climbed back in the boat his only comment was “were you planning to walk home?”’
Eventually Jim and Grace became engaged. However, ‘the ring I bought Grace she gave away with some sweets to some lucky person. It apparently slipped off her finger whilst serving them. I bought her another with some very stern warning words.’
He began to realise that he needed to earn more and started scanning the Local Government Journal every week for vacancies. His first application was successful for a Clerical Assistant in the Borough Engineer’s office at Chigwell in Essex. This involved a move away from the family home but he readily found lodgings with a Jewish family named Bass. ‘They were the kindest and nicest people you could meet. They had a daughter aged about fourteen and most evenings I went through her homework with her. Not to assist her but to learn. I learned a lot and she got more interest out of it teaching me things I had little knowledge of.’
Jim worked at Chigwell Council for eighteen months but he felt unsatisfied. ‘Fate . . . was not handing me the incentives to go out into life and wrest a glorious living . . .’ But he remembers a rather peculiar incident there. He and a friend were walking back from the pub one evening when ‘we came upon two young women sitting on a small hillock, and as near tight as they could be without falling down. They were quite attractive and seemed intent on dragging us further into the woods. I confess I was a bit worried. One of the girls was quite obviously plentifully endowed above the waist, and my friend (a bit of a lad) kept asking if we couldn’t “pop one out and have a look at it, she’ll never know”. I said the girls could quite well be the daughters of the Chairman of the Council or the local vicar, and how would that look to someone who caught us “popping one out”? Somehow we sobered them up and they led us to their home . . . I knocked at the door and a tall angular smartly dressed woman opened it, spotted the girls, grabbed and ushered them inside. I often wonder whether we had not been entitled to “pop one out” . . . it might have been one “boob” too many.’
A close friend contacted him to tell of a new post being created in the office of the Borough Engineer back at Margate. It was a good post and carried a reasonable salary for those days but he had given an undertaking to Chigwell Council not to move for at least two years and ‘I was not inclined to break this understanding unless I had the authority of my employers.’ He was successful out of 187 applicants for the job in Margate and returned to Chigwell and had a long talk with the Engineer and eventually no objections were raised ‘so I gave a month’s notice and prepared to end my stay in Chigwell.’
Jim and Grace had little money saved but they made plans to be married about six months after taking up the new position in Margate Corporation. ‘Money didn’t seem to matter, and love looked like conquering all!’
The new job carried much more responsibility than Jim had had before. The Chief Clerk left all administrative and committee work and running of the department to him. ‘I also became very interested in trade union activities, and because I was . . . inclined to speak my mind, I was elected to the Executive Committee and made staff leader in our activities with our employers.’
The wedding day (27th December 1937) arrived and everybody was at the church on time except Jim’s brother Sidney, the best man, who arrived ten minutes late with his cheek badly slashed from playing football on the morning of the wedding. ‘Grace looked out of this world and I looked my usual supercilious self. Have you noticed that wedding photographs usually portray the groom looking a perfect bloody idiot? Everybody else looks normal. He looks either like a man who has just been sandbagged, or like a man who has just discovered he has lost his trousers.’
At the reception ‘we didn’t muck about with a lot of preliminaries, we got down to the main function, which was to dispose of the barrels and bottles of beer. . . The afternoon went well, punctuated by applause for Grace’s father, when he fell down the stairs with a crate of beer under his arms. . . After the meal people sang and I accompanied them on the piano. It didn’t seem important whether or not my tune coincided with their song – nobody noticed.’
Eventually Grace’s brother drove the happy couple to the small bungalow they had rented in Margate where they were to spend the wedding night before travelling to London for a fortnight’s honeymoon.
Clouds are Forming(To be continued) n
Return to The Sole Society Home Page