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{$text['mgr_brown1']} Eldridge 9

My father - William Curtis

by Mabel Curtis
Introduced by Richard Eldridge


My Auntie May was the eldest of four children and from an early age seemed to have an authoritative character. It was probably this disposition that led her to the teaching profession in later years. A driver before you had to be officially licensed, taking a trip with her in her Morris Minor was akin to an off- road experience before they were known! Sadly her fiancé was killed in a road accident shortly before they were due to be married. She never again formed a lasting relationship. Her school career took her to a variety of postings and ultimately she became headmistress to a special school where the pupils had a variety of learning difficulties. She was never happier than here. On retirement she bought a small guest house in Ramsgate in Kent which she alluded to it as her 'hotel'. Her latter days were spent near Tunbridge Wells and finally close to my parents in Tonbridge. She expected you to have impeccable manners when you visited and remained a school teacher right to the end.

A homecoming

Mabel Curtis

Mabel Curtis

In 1919, the war was over. I was still a child and saw the rejoicing through the eyes of a child. To me, they were overpoweringly noisy and the horse play between soldiers and girls crowding in the streets was ”rude”. Besides my father was still in France . There was no joy for us.

Later when he did arrive home it was relief rather than joy that prevailed. Mother refused to greet him and finally, reluctantly, owned that she was cross because he had delayed over there a few days longer than necessary. This was in fact true. He had gone with some of the lads to see the much vaunted Paris after four years in the Flanders mud. Knowing my Father, I am sure it was Paris he wanted to see and not the low dives everyone talked of. To any reasonable person the trip to Paris was fair enough, but my mother was not a reasonable person. However, as usual he finally ‘gentled’ her to give him the homecoming he had expected.

Food had been very short in Canterbury – consisting of the regular weekly rations, soon eaten, and anything the shops were willing to sell ’on the side’. Mother had saved him five eggs and a piece of rather tired cheese. Working from base to firing line his food had been very good and he had no need of her kind offerings. I was sent off to buy some cooked beef from a splendid cookshop and was fascinated to see them carving generously from a beef joint nearly two feet across. Was this a ‘Baron of Beef’? I never knew. (See Note A)

William Curtis

William Curtis

All was well at home. My Father was playfully tossing the little ones in the air. They were not used to masculine horseplay and with difficulty raised a smile, knowing that it was kindly meant. When I was tossed up I nearly screamed- two great thumbs one on each of my newly risen breasts! Be sorry for fathers home from the war and out of touch with their children!

My mother had no home making talents. I can still see our lino floor, a table and some chairs. There was the odd cushion. My aunt with less income and more children managed a home like atmosphere far superior, but my mother was saving for a home in the country. I am sure my father did not really want a country life. His talents were all of the town. Mother had ancestors who had had their own farm and mother remembered in her childhood the great bowls of milk set for the cream to rise. This family memory was all she had for a goal and she surely worked towards it.

A new home in Challock

Edith Curtis

Edith Curtis

So, although I stayed in Canterbury and continued my education for a ‘fine career’, the rest travelled to Challock and I joined them at the weekends. It was a glorious summer day when I first saw our new home and it certainly justified Mother’s enthusiasm. The house was gabled with a big nailed front door and an inner porch and a yew tree. But it’s glory was the garden – Enormous! Three great vegetable plots divided by grass paths and an old orchard besides. It was a place where children could lose themselves and each other – perfect for all the games of childhood. There was also a patch of currant bushes with ripe fruit and borders of flowers under the leaded windows. On each side of the garden path leading from the front gate were flower borders full of colour and rose bushes whose blooms were ‘as big as tea plates’ in Mother’s phrase. It seemed idyllic!

The house was divided into two parts. One was unused. Our part consisted of downstairs, a large sitting room with an open fire and a huge scrubbed table and an oil lamp. Jugs of skimmed milk had been sent over from the farm and we children drank milk! Leading off from the brick porch was a bricked passage leading to the back door and before that was a room with an 18” high doorstep. My mother took one look and pronounced “The dairy!” No doubt it once had been. For us it was a cool larder. Next was a winding stairway to the upper floor. Forward, on either side of the back door were, on the right a coal, wood and general store, and on the left the scullery with a stone sink, a cold tap and shelves for the saucepans. I grew later to think of that as the coldest room I ever worked in and it had a brick floor of course!

Outside to our childish delight was a very deep well. There it stood with its winding rope and huge clean bucket. We were warned that it was 600ft deep. The village was that height above sea level. Later my brother and I could draw water safely so we were allowed to drop the bucket gradually and wind it up steadily without ever letting go of the rope. The water was clear and tasted fine but the thrill of drawing it soon palled! Mother called our attention to the pump set amid a riot of yellow creeping jenny which thrived on the drips if water. It had a leather clacque which must be thoroughly damped before it would work. Once wet you worked the pump handle up and down vigorously and water streamed out unless the weather was very dry. I imagine it was not as deep as the well and it was not drinking water.

Chickens and apples

Further away from the house was a shed. “For chickens” said my mother . She bought some young chicks from Ashford market and soon had eggs and chicken for lunch on high days. Beside the chicken house was the ‘place’. The ‘loo’ one would say today. It was grim. It had two seat holes side by side and no water. We called it the lavatory – what a misnomer! There was no water nearer than the pump. Grownups, of course, used to regulate their visits to coincide with the early dusk. We children often felt the call well after full dark. A lantern had to be lit. Next was a pitiful request ’ will anyone come with me?’ When dragooned into this errand of mercy I refused to go in but marched up and down outside defying the dark and the ghostly population.

We loved the orchard. It belonged to two elderly ladies, now long since dead. They came once a year in late summer to collect the fruit. Mother was always afraid we would not leave enough fruit for them. So it was ‘windfalls’ only until their visit and afterwards we were free! But by that time there were more windfalls than fruit on the trees. The trees were old and grown tall and their boughs were brittle and a ladder was needed to reach the top fruit. We had a jolly relative- Uncle Alfred. He had a child’s pleasure in gathering the fruit. He wanted no windfalls and no ladder. He would take us into the orchard carrying a clothes prop. With this he would accidentally hit the branches of the trees and down came the apples. “Oh dear!” he would say “What have I done?” We all laughed and helped to gather them up. His wife, my aunt, was a great ‘jammer’ so there was method in his madness. However as we grew older our laughter was more forced as we had tasted the fruit of every tree and they were not that good. Among the trees Mother found a ‘Boulac’ tree which produced fruit like small green grapes. I have not seen any since.

The skim milk from the farm was good enough for our daily and was very cheap so mother could be generous with it. I grew up with a dislike of house wives who measured things out so meanly though of course for some families this was a necessity. Later on, with the purchase of a separator at the farm we had to buy ordinary milk.

Continued in column 2...

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The chauffeur, the builder

William Curtis, chauffeur

William Curtis, the chauffeur

My father could have had a much easier life in the town with his undoubted talents.( He was later to build whole houses for his employer). His asthmatic cough, which had lessened during the war, began to trouble him during this time. So may people had a cough that doctors did not expect them to ask for treatment unless it developed into bronchitis.

While mother was at home looking after her chickens and piglets, picking fruit for jam and lightly skimming over the housework and cooking – my father was beginning his day. He would milk his employer’s cow and take the milk to their house. Then he would muck out the stables and put down fresh straw. Then having begun work very early, he would eat a breakfast sandwich in a quiet corner. After that he might have to mow the long lawns either side of the drive or do what was needed in the fruit and vegetable garden and take some into the kitchen. There was huge piece of tarmac covering the front of the house and long drive. This he had laid himself one summer. This he had to keep swept. Then he would harness the pony and carriage for the mistress to take a trip into the village with her small son and on her return, rub the pony down and put away the carriage. There were hedges to trim and flower gardens to work in.

The car was my father’s responsibility and this would need a service, a polish and possibly a run into the village for petrol. Just as he was about to cycle home for his midday dinner the boss might come out and say that sharp at 2.00pm he would like to be driven to the station or even as far as Essex where he had business. My father would hurry over his meal, much to the detriment of his cough and his digestion. He would then shave and put on his best suit and light raincoat and say goodbye. He suffered badly from the cold and although the middle classes bought themselves heavy melton wool overcoats, he had to wait until one had become ‘rubbed' enough to give away. The Ford, the early model, gave little protection from the weather and one night he came home late and this overcoat was so sodden it would stand up by itself. This treatment did nothing to improve his cough and he grew thin, but he always remained cheerful. My mother grieved and grumbled. Later we knew she was right and father was unwise to continue in this job.

The wedding

Dora Curtis marries to Victor Mercer

Then we moved house. The boss had built (or rather my father, with help, had built) a house whose basis was an oak barn. It was a truly handsome gentleman’s residence. It had a tarmac drive, a field at the back for the pony and a handsome assortment of young trees and bushes at the entrance. Again, my father’s work. At the same time my father had built a house for us. It had a long back garden and a small square at the front which I took over. There were five bedrooms. Downstairs we had a kitchen sitting room and bathroom – but no hot water!

William (Bill) Curtis

William Curtis

By now my brother had married and left home and my sister, Winifred, had started nursing. It was not long after this that my father’s boss died. Shortly before that, he had called my father in to say that he had no money left and could not leave him anything. My father realised that the loss of his job at that particular post war period of unemployment was bad. So the boss’s house building business was transferred to him but with no money to keep it going. The business was not flourishing, the books were in a muddle, and there was one bricklayer whose wages he had to pay. My father’s health was now very poor and he often had to leave work and go to bed under doctor’s orders. Eventually he had to lay off any help he had and struggle along with his savings diminishing.

Winifred (Curtis) Eldridge 1942

Winifred Eldridge

I realise now how terrible his predicament was. I came home at weekends and would bring some choice fish etc for a meal for them. My sister gave a month’s nursing salary- but even trained nurses were poorly paid. During a previous illness I had stayed at home for a month to nurse both my mother and my father. When at the end I realised the Education Committee were paying me for the lost month I put that money into my father’s account. But these things were a drop in the bucket compared to my father’s needs at that time. My brother was married to a domineering lady who would not let him give anything. Looking back I realise even more deeply the dreadful mental as well as physical suffering my father and mother endured.

Wise after the event we realised he should have accepted the offer from a London architect earlier on to go and build houses for him like the oak barn house. He would certainly not have had to do all his driving and house duties at the same time as the building.

A clever and brave man whose times did not appreciate his worth.


NOTE A. In Britain, a baron is a large, important section of beef containing both sirloins. In the US, a baron of beef is an imprecise term used to describe large, less important cuts that are best-suited to roasting or braising, such as the steamship round, top (or inside) round, or bottom (or outside) round. (1)


1. Baron of Beef: A description :

Added: July 21st 2006
Updated: April 20th 2012

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