Meet the Relative – Great Uncle Joe

I have no recollection of meeting Uncle Joe. I was only aged three when he died and I’d suspect I never did meet up with him. He was a man who mattered to my dad and I’m going to let him do the writing – taken from his reminiscences.

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Great Uncle Joe in his Bandsman’s uniform

Now to Dad’s writing.

Turning to others with memorable influence I begin with Uncle Joe, Dad’s oldest brother because of his major influence on family history. With an age gap of nearly 9 years he cannot have been much of a childhood companion for Dad; he must have been out to work before Dad went to school. At the turn of the century Joe worked for Warburtons, the Uckfield corn chandlers. As new Bexhill developed, Warburtons opened up there and Joe was moved there. The Warburton family also moved. In my time they were active in the Baptist Chapel and there was a boy about 2 years older than me at the County (Grammar) School. I do not know dates or details but by the time my grandfather died in 1913, Uncle Joe was married with children. The family home near Buxted was broken up. Granny Frost and her unmarried children, Ruth, Obed and Mary moved to Bexhill. Joe’s brothers and sisters had probably moved earlier because only 19 months elapsed between Grandfather’s death and the outbreak of war and I cannot fit all I heard of my father’s life before the war into that short period. I know that he lodged with Uncle Joe and that Ethel Stevens had followed him to Bexhill. I suppose she had a living-in place but she was involved with the Frost family. I have a pre-war photograph of her and Dad out for a walk with Uncle Joe’s oldest son -Walter. And when his youngest (Ethel) was born in 1914 or 15 there was some birth complication and Mum played some part in dealing with it. Cousin Ethel reckons that she owes her life to Mum’s assistance and I expect she owes her first name to it.

Uncle Joe learnt to play the cornet in the Salvation Army. I picked up a somewhat muddled story that a key factor in his switch from his Baptist upbringing was an attractive Salvation Army lassie whom he later married -my Aunt Cissie (Cecilia Baker) -but I cannot vouch for it. By my time he had left the Army band and was first cornet in Bexhill Town Band; I saw him in that capacity when the band played in Egerton Park but he must left the band before 1930. Aunt Cissie remained with the Salvation Army to the end of her life but was not a completely regular attender.

I do not know when Uncle Joe left Warburtons -probably when he joined the army and served in an infantry regiment in France during the war. In my memory he worked for Harry Hoad -a pillar of Methodism and proprietor of an oil and hardware shop opposite the Sackville Arch. I do not know just how they were associated; it was not simply master and hired hand. The business depended on hawking away from the shop. Uncle Joe was the principal hawker and had a hawker’s licence. In my earliest memories he called on us every Thursday morning bringing supplies of paraffin, soap, brushes, polishes, pegs and the like -all this carried on a handcart pushed by Uncle Joe and his aide whom I knew only as Dennis. I took all this for granted but it surprises me now that they could cart enough to supply a fairly extensive round -probably 600 households. Later on they had a van with a large paraffin tank fitted under the floor. Dennis drove it but it was Uncle Joe’s round; Dennis was hardly a dynamic salesman. Sometimes they carried what would now be described as ‘special offers’ .I have a snapshot memory of Uncle Joe showing Mum a half pint milk jug with a pattern of violets, said to be a bargain at 6d (2.5 new pence) .I suspect now that Hoad had invested in a job lot of crockery ‘seconds’. I cannot judge whether Mum got a bargain or was conned but the jug came into regular use and I still have it. When I was a bit older I was sometimes allowed to join Uncle Joe on his round, nominally to help him. I could run little errands as when a customer wanted something he had not thought to take to her door. I could recognise most of the regular commodities and find them on the cart and later in the van. I became familiar with passages behind terraced houses in Sidley; they always called at back doors when they were easily accessible.

Towards the end of the round we ‘did’ Camperdown Road at the top of a rise at the north end of Sidley. The next street was down the rise in Turkey Road and a steep footpath led down. I was astonished on my first outing that they proposed to take the handcart down this path but a rope was produced and tied to the handle. With one of them holding the handle and the other the rope, both leaning backwards they took the cart down, untied the rope and were immediately back in business. The last calls were at Arncliffe Terrace the last working-class housing in that direction. There was no housing at all in my earliest recollections but speculative builders moved in as the years passed. The round over we turned towards Bexhill. I was dropped by Sidley Station and sometimes given two (old) pence which I spent on a bar of Fry’s chocolate cream from a cast iron slot-machine in the booking hall.

Hardware rounds like that filled a useful social niche away from town centres. Most shops stuck to a fairly narrow range of wares and the few in places like the Honies and Sidley were food shops. Soaps, washing soda and the like were often unwrapped and food shops hesitated to handle them. But for Uncle Joe’s round I think Mum would have needed to carry soaps, polishes and brushes from the town centre. There was a similar round in the rural area west of Lewes where Aunt Nellie lived (at Firle) .This man had a van hung round with pots, pans brushes and so on.

Uncle Joe had a long-term significance which I could not have foreseen. He was a gardener on a considerable scale and when I became a gardener myself (kitchen garden) the patterns implanted by Uncle Joe and Uncle Frank (of whom more later) played a considerable part. I learnt practical tips from Dad on his allotment but these two gardened to a higher standard and to greater visual effect given the advantage that their gardens adjoined their houses. I shall never be as good as either but a good deal of both is represented in our present garden. When I was very young Uncle Joe’s family lived in Chandler Road in a house adjoining the ‘Bexhill River’ which was liable to flood at high tide after heavy rain. I knew he had a garden not far away but I learnt where only when he moved to a larger house in Belle Hill. The geography was something like this. Station Road (which later became part of London Road) and Amhurst Road ran roughly north from Town Hall Square starting about SO metres apart but diverging gently until where they were crossed about 500 metres north by Belle Hill they were nearly 300 metres apart. There were gardens behind houses in all three roads but these left a triangle of between a third and half a hectare. Road access was from Station Road but there was also access from Uncle Joe’s house in Belle Hill and Harry Hoad’s house in Amhurst Road. Buildings there had probably been built as stables. Those nearest to Amhurst Road belonged to Harry Hoad, housing reserve stock, hand- carts and later the motor van. I believe Hoad had once had a horse and van but that was before my time. The southern end where the triangle narrowed was Uncle Joe’s kitchen garden which he had nursed since before I was born. The picture I carry in my mind of text- book perfect rows of vegetables may be larger than life, but it persists. I remember in particular rows of peas coming on in succession as gardening books say they should, including tall varieties, 2 metres high, covered with well filled pods. Dad never grew tall varieties partly, I think, because he could not afford the necessary pea sticks but mainly because they produced a luxurious excess when vegetables were plentiful and he was concerned for continuity- for crops in difficult periods -late winter and early spring.

Number 40 Belle Hill (since demolished for road widening) had a considerable garden mainly down to fruit, including a mulberry tree at the end of a small lawn where we just managed to play back-yard cricket. But Uncle Joe also looked after Hoad’s garden; I do not know how this was organised. Probably there was no formal arrangement and probably Hoad had a gardener who counted as a shop expense.

We spent a good deal of time with Uncle Joe’s family but the other members do not stand as high in my memory. The cousins were too different in age and interests. Aunt Cissie was a competent housewife but she never displayed the energy of my mother and she earned the disapproval of my grandmother (Granny Frost) and to some extent of my mother by reading novels of the kind now associated with Mills and Boone. They said it meant neglecting her housework; I cannot judge but acknowledge that she was not as perpetually committed to needlework and knitting and, apart from intermittent attendance at Salvation Army meetings, did very little outside the home. The boy cousins, Walter and Leslie, were 10 years or more older than me and Ethel about 6 years older so we never had a great deal in common. Walter was temperamentally a bit of a showman. He presented indoor fireworks at Christmas; they had more appeal before interesting items were banned because foolish purchasers did foolish things. He had a superior gramophone (acoustic) whose superiority I came to doubt when I was with HMV and I remember him making much of his records being ‘electrically recorded’ but I did not know what that meant and I doubt whether he did. I remember however that even earlier Uncle Joe brought home a phonograph and a collection of hollow cylindrical records about 100mm long and 50mm diameter. I understood even then that this was a museum object and I wish I had it now. The sound box and horn ran on rails parallel to the axis of the cylinder but did not rely on the groove in the record to carry them forward. A fine screw of the correct pitch and about 20mm diameter on a parallel axis was part of the machine and a half-nut meshing with it advanced the sound box. Lifting the needle and sound box from the record lifted the half nut from the guide screw so that the needle could be slid back for the start of the next record. Records often began with a spoken announcement: -This is an Edison-Bell record- which might or might not be followed by an announcement of the content. I am surprised how much I remember about it after nearly 70 years. I may have seen others in glass cases but have certainly never handled another. Perhaps there is something in the science-teaching assumption that handling apparatus fixes it in the mind. Walter was agent for another discovery -the stereoscope. The prime movers were a cigarette company who, by way of cigarette cards, presented stereoscopic pairs of cards portraying dinosaurs. They must have been made photographically from model dinosaurs in modelled backgrounds of Jurassic vegetation. One could send for an inexpensive stereoscopic viewer and Walter had one. I was fascinated both by stereoscopy and dinosaurs. Walter also took me to my first ‘talkie’ at the St. George’s Cinema in Bexhill. It did not hit me as a major innovation because, presumably on account of grandmother’s disapproval, I had so little experience of silent films. We were sometimes taken from school on Empire Days and the like to see improving films about the Empire plus (more appreciated) Charlie Chaplins and Harold Lloyds. I was only once taken by my mother and that was to see Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Circus’ .Thus Walter’s ‘talkie’ was a development from only 3 or 4 experiences of silent films and could not impress me as it did people who had experienced dozens of ‘silents’. Moreover I barely understood the main film -a ‘whodunnit’ called ‘The Perfect Alibi’ but I made the acquaintance of Mickey Mouse in a ‘short’ called ‘Mickey’s Choo- Choo’ in which Mickey Mouse placed a container of coal in front of the (American) engine which proceeded to eat it with its cow-catcher as its mouth. St. George’s Cinema in the Town Hall Square had been known before the war as ‘The Bijou’ and had been the site of some of Dad’s magic performances. It was the first cinema in Bexhill to convert to talkies with the sound based on discs. One could see them through the open window of the projection room above the foyer -discs about 350mm in diameter rotating just behind the projectors. Bexhill’s larger cinema -The Playhouse in Western Road -installed apparatus a little later for the Western Electric system in which the sound track was an optical strip on the film itself.

In 1929 or thereabouts Walter, with a job in the motor trade, hired a large car (a Cubitt) in which on one Sunday Uncle Joe’s family and our family visited relations in various parts of Sussex. We certainly visited Crawley where Aunt Mercy (Edwards, my oldest Aunt born 1878) lived in Malthouse Road. In Hadlow Down churchyard we looked at the graves of Hepzibah (my oldest Aunt of all except that she died in 1909) and alongside the grave of James (grandfather) who died in 1913. The graves were marked with wooden crosses at that time in good order. They were still there in 1960 but badly decayed and disappeared later when the church-yard was tidied up. Happening to pay a visit while the tidying was in progress I picked up from grandfather’s grave the small iron cross which sextons used to mark the foot of graves, clearly destined to join a scrap pile within a day or so, and I still have it Visitors often think it marks the grave of a cherished pet!

We also visited Uncle Sam {born 1887 and Dad’s closest companion in his childhood) .I do not remember much of his family but Dad took me for a short walk and a man walking past said ‘Good night Obed’ without stopping. Dad had left the area 15- 20 years earlier; he could just place the other man whom he had not known very well.

I have fewer early memories of the younger cousin Leslie who was a less assertive character. I remember hearing Uncle Joe tell Mum that he had got Leslie, who had left school, a job with Pratt’s the paraffin and petrol wholesalers later known as Esso (S.O., Standard Oil) .I used to see Leslie as driver’s mate {he was too young to drive) delivering paraffin to Goble’s shop at the corner of Havelock Road. It was not a high-tech operation. The tank lorry had large taps at the rear with hooks to carry galvanised carrying cans officially stamped ‘5 gallons’ .When they were full, driver and mate alternately carried two cans up the steps to the shop’s storage tanks. In due course Les became a driver in his own right and spent more time on petrol, of rising importance, than paraffin, of declining importance. Tanker lorries became progressively bigger. After he married {Nancy) in the 30s he lived just over the border in Hastings in one of the houses built in the fields where, in my earliest days, trams used to leave the road and take a short cut across the field while the road wound up and down a small cliff at the sea’s edge. Les took up sea angling and had a share in a boat normally beached at Glyne Gap. He once took me fishing from St. Leonards Pier -my only experience of the activity. I caught a few small fish which I took home and ate. I learned also to identify the weaver -a small fish with highly poisonous spines, edible if the spines were removed. I never caught one but I knew a man who got stung while shrimping and his hand was in a bad way for several weeks. During the second war Leslie’s job hardly changed except that he drove petrol lorries for the army in N. Africa rather than for Esso in East Sussex to which he returned after the war. The job killed him in the end. Leslie and Uncle Joe both died from carcinoma of the bladder a characteristic disease of people working with hydrocarbon oils.

Uncle Joe’s household in my childhood could probably be labelled sexist. I never knew the whole family go anywhere together. The males went places but the females never joined them whereas in our family, although excursions were rare, if anybody went we all went. Uncle Joe and his boys went to the Wembley Exhibition in 1924; I saw things they brought back but I never understood what it was all about. From time to time they went to events at the Crystal Palace -probably brass band events. They habitually went out with the harriers on Pevensey Marsh on Boxing Day mornings. They went to see Sussex play at the cricket grounds at Hastings or Eastbourne (Saffrons) .They sometimes took me to Saffrons and we stayed on to see shows at the Eastbourne Hippodrome. I remember a variety show in which one turn was provided by the famous comedy troupe led by Harry Tate. On another occasion we saw a play; Yvonne Arnaud was in it and I think the play was ‘The Improper Duchess’. Most years the men went out on massive black-berrying expeditions bringing home up to 25 lb {11 kilos) .Aunt Cissie turned it into pies, jam and jelly but she never went out with them. I cannot guess whether this was male chauvinism or Aunt Cissie’s preference. My female cousin, Ethel, was never involved in these male activities but this may not have been preference because when she married Jack Crittenden who was a cricketer she regularly went with him.

From time to time Uncle Joe and Dad reminisced about the area in and around Blackboys and I heard about locations like The Hundred House, Little England, Nan Tuck’s Lane, Pounsley, Rozers Cross, Shepherds Hill and Tickerage most of which a casual traveller would hardly notice (except that Pounsley is now a Youth Hostel) but they had obviously been significant. A few years before he died I drove Dad around minor roads in the area not accessible by public transport and he was obviously moved. He said of one unremarkable cottage where the family had once lived, ‘I never thought I should see that again’. I became aware for the first time of variations in pronunciation. The hamlet of High Hurstwood is about 3 krn north of Buxted and people today pronounce it as High HURSTwood whereas Dad and Uncle Joe always spoke of Highhurst WOOD. [I have met similar differences with my maternal relations for whom the seaside resort over the hill from Firle which most people call SEAford was always SeaFORD.

I suppose my last recollection of that family as I knew it in childhood was triggered 40 years later when after my father’s funeral (1966) we went back with my mother and Walter and Leslie sat side by side on the settee arguing as of yore. The years fell away because the sound was as it had always been.

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