Chapter 3

Wootton - Faces and Places

Wootton Bridge, when we arrived on that bleak day in 1939, was a place time had passed by. In the first few months, Brenda and I wished it had passed us by also. But as we were soon to discover, it was a village of unspoilt beauty, its people having changed little over the centuries. A village we grew to love and where I was to live for six years and my sister a few years less. Its river, called Wootton Creek, fed a large mill-pond which powered the water wheel of a corn mill; it had been doing so for over 900 years and was still working when we lived there. The Norman church of St. Edmund's built in 1087 as a private chapel for the Lord of the Manor is still in regular use for worship. The history of Wootton village therefore reaches back more than a thousand years, but my memories are only concerned with the war years and immediately afterwards.

The river and seashore, together with hills, forests and glorious countryside, were everything small children could wish for. Marshes beyond the mill-pond and at King's Quay were wild and lonely places, with all their real and imaginary dangers, where forests of rustling reeds and rushes, as tall as a man, covered the muddy dunes. Secret pathways through woods led to private places, even to where Queen Victoria herself had driven her pony and trap through the once manicured lanes around Wootton, Whippingham and the Osborne Estate she loved. We saw nature's ruthless pattern of killing, through all the seasons of the year; sad, but necessary to maintain the delicate balance of wildlife in all its forms.

Wootton Bridge (the bridge) Isle of Wight circa 1940
Wootton Bridge (the bridge) Isle of Wight circa 1949
Etching by Peter Bailey of Wootton

Although we heard frequently the savage sounds of war, and watched the burning buildings just a few miles away across the water, at Portsmouth, Southampton and beyond - we knew we were only the audience in a macabre theatre; watching from a distance as they all knocked the hell out of each other.

And when the siren sounded its unwavering "All Clear" we trundled from our air raid shelters, back to school or home, hoarse from singing and shouting, back to the peace of the countryside and its silent, timeless vigil. Only one bomb fell near Wootton, and that was probably unloaded by a German aircraft before returning empty across the English Channel to home, the Island being the last chance, so to speak, to drop incendiaries (fire bombs) and other bombs on the factories at Cowes. This high explosive bomb landed directly on two farm cottages at what was called The Point, a junction on the main Newport road to East Cowes. We rushed to the spot the next morning to see our first real "crater", knowing that three adults and seven children had all been killed; they were not our village children, but everybody knew of them. I could never pass that place again without feeling horror.

Wootton Bridge and surrounding area, circa 1940
Wootton Bridge and surrounding area, circa 1940
Showing limits of our "territory" and location of places

Most children have a "territory" beyond which they seldom venture. In our case this was an area of about two miles radius from home, the distance being determined by how long it took us to return home for meals - or, bedtime. Any journey greater than this was reached by bus, as motor cars were almost non-existent and the railway station too far away to use. Travelling further than the limits of one's territory seemed like trespassing to us, giving an uneasy feeling, almost a fear of the unknown.

Although we knew intimately our own area, other places on the Island such as Shanklin or Sandown were never seen - unless on a free Sunday school outing once a year. The towns of Ryde and Newport were visited once or twice a month because only these larger places had cinemas, or shops with a wider variety of goods than found in the village stores. There were also fish and chip shops in these towns -though they were seldom open.

Wootton Bridge - Isle of Wight. circa 1940Wootton Bridge - Isle of Wight. circa 1940

The boundary of our territory covered the following area (see maps). From the Mill by the bridge along New Road to Woodside beach. Follow the shore-line to King's Quay, then the stream to Palmer's Brook at Lushington Hill. Cross the main road to Park Road, along this road to Wootton Common cross-roads. Turn left into Station Road then right at The Woodman's Arms and through the lanes to Littletown; cross the railway line, fields and bridle way to the upper reaches of the Millpond. Then follow the bank of the Mill-pond to Lakeside and Fernhill, thus returning to the Mill. Forays were also made to Brock's and Firestone copses at daffodil time, intruding slightly on the Whippingham and Havenstreet territories. Also to Fishbourne beach in the summer, walking along the shore to Quarr Abbey, through the lanes from the old Abbey to Binstead, and back to Wootton Bridge along the main road. This encroached on the Fishbourne and Binstead territories, but as we were associated to these areas by other interests we did not feel uncomfortable when in their domain.

Our new foster mother Aunty Annie was a widow, her husband having died some ten years previously. She had an adopted daughter Jean, who was much older than us, being about twelve. The circumstances surrounding Jean's birth were a mystery and not known by many in the village, including Jean. She was said to be the daughter of a single mother, a previous lodger of Aunty Annie, but others said she was from the girl's orphanage, which was next door to Aunty Annie's house in New Road. These girls, of various ages from five to fourteen were always in their back garden and took great pleasure in saying and doing anything to annoy me. They were an arrogant lot, who talked down to me whilst sitting on swings or the low branches of trees. Even if standing on the ground they were elevated by the difference in height between their garden and ours - a distinct disadvantage to me in any argument.

"Hello Mrs Gallop," they would call out, "it's a nice day isn't it?" Noses pressed against the wire fence gave that extra tug at the heart. It always worked on Aunty.

"Look at they poor little maids," she would say, "it do make your heart fit to come to pieces",
I understood what she meant, a quick grasp of this new dialect being essential for survival. I sometimes wondered what the difference was between them and us. Why were they orphans? Some still had a visit now and then from one parent or the other, which was no different from our own position. But I could at least see, first hand, what might have been the fate of Brenda and me if we had ended up in what was known as a "Kids Home" to everybody in those days; and without doubt we almost did.

We never knew Aunty Annie's age. If asked we were given that annoying answer, "As old as my little finger but not quite as old as my teeth". So we guessed it as sixty, and because she was annoyed we thought it might be a bit younger. But she never would tell us. Her face was wrinkled like an over-wintered apple. What teeth she did have were all on the bottom row, and when her mouth was resting - which was not very often - these lower teeth parked themselves on her upper lip, giving her an "angry dog" look. Her eyes, afflicted with both long and short sightedness, were corrected by the use of two pairs of wire framed spectacles, which she was constantly taking on and off. At times, when she wore no glasses at all, her eyes seemed to disappear into two cavernous sockets; at the other extreme, she would wear both pairs together. This phenomenon I have never seen since, but the method seemed to work. With this unusual arrangement of wearing two pairs of spectacles, her eyes became great watery pools, fish-like and hypnotisingly funny. She had silver-grey hair, nearly down to her waist when let down, which was tied in a large Victorian bun on top of her head. This mountain of hair was almost entirely hidden by a hat when she went out - and the headgear seldom removed when she reached her destination. Long hat pins secured the hat, and one of her few attempts at humour was to "stick pins through her head". This party piece ceased when I once attempted to do this for her.

Except for her trips to Ryde or Newport, Aunty Annie walked everywhere. This was primarily to save money, but also concealed a much more sinister side to her character. Annie Gallop was known throughout the village as "The News of the World", a nick-name which was not without foundation. Her intimate knowledge of every person in the village was gleaned from her casual walks, her socialising, and regular visits to friends or family living at all corners of the village. A walk to the shops, for instance, would take over half an hour, and they were only a few hundred yards distant. It would take an hour or more, each way, for the one and a half mile walk to Chapel on Sunday, house-holders being selected at random as they stood at garden gates, or mowed lawns. Some would suddenly disappear indoors at the, "Coo-ee", of Annie on the horizon; but others were lifelong sources of information, the sub-reporters so to speak, for the News of the World, free tea and biscuits being available at these houses.

She could sing very loudly as well. A full-hearted rendering of "Onward Christian Soldiers" at evensong was enough to waken the dead. Her strange pitch, a flat soprano with overtones of a contralto, could be distinctly heard above all others in the congregation. Only Mr. Oliver, a resonant baritone, could match her. At times they both sang at maximum volume, trying hard to out-sing each other. Then one would stop for a verse, leaving the other to sing solo. If both stopped singing there would be only an irrelevant chanting of the hymn by the remainder of the congregation - drowned by the organist's fervent playing.

Outdoors her voice could carry well over half a mile; in the still evening air this was increased to nearer one mile. She would call me in , like some errant dog, if I was late coming home -nine o'clock being my evening time limit. Her call was always the same - "Georgie (pause), Georgie (pause), Georgie (stop)". Then a few minutes wait before the same was repeated -but four times instead of three. And so on, until an almost continuous call for "Georgie" filled the night air. The sheer embarrassment of it quickened my stride, but it was far better to be home before the deadline.

Aunty Annie Gallop was a great influence during my early childhood. My increased harassing and torment of her as I grew older, coupled with blackmail threats of, "I'll tell my mother," if I didn't get my own way, leave me embarrassed to this day. She was a character I shall never forget and, for all I have said about her, she was an anchor for my childhood and I will always remember her with great affection.

Jean Gallop, her daughter, was one of those girls who had all the things I disliked in the opposite sex. She was vain, fat, short, lazy and spoilt - to mention just a few. She also had fair blonde hair, and I hated blonde hair more than anything, I shall explain the reason for this later. Jean disliked me almost as much as I despised her. So the feeling was mutual. To annoy her - and it always worked - I would call her "Big Jean". I was told to do this by one of the village lads and although I didn't understand the significance of it at the time, I was to learn at a much later date, that "Big" when relating to the opposite sex was a reference to certain parts of the anatomy one was not allowed to mention in those days. It was no wonder she got angry and flushed, but as I said, it always worked.

Aunty Annie (Gallop's) house in New Road, as it was in the 1940s
Wootton Bridge - Aunty Annie (Gallop's) house in New Road, as it was in the 1940s

Aunty Annie paid a rent of fifteen shillings for her house in New Road, to an elderly gentleman called Mr. Harbour, a man of many properties, who lived in Wootton High Street. He called once a year to see if any repairs were needed, agreeing what should be done, then promptly did nothing. He never to my memory ever did any repairs - but still called the following year to be reminded of the same repairs and agreeing again that they should be done. He was a very old man, over eighty years and liable to forget they said. I sometimes wondered if it suited him to be forgetful. The house would normally be considered a good sized family house. It was of sound construction, built in 1863 and on three floors, the top two floors having two bedrooms each. The third storey bedrooms were small and built into the roof, but they had windows with panoramic views because of their elevation. Brenda and I slept in one of these rooms.

This ample house was, however, spoilt by the addition of two sets of lodgers. I have already mentioned the young married couple, with whom I was fostered for a short while, who occupied the front room and one large bedroom on the first floor. The other lodger, the wife of a serving soldier, lived in one of the top storey bedrooms. The occupancy of rooms changed several times whilst I lived there, especially the top rooms - which were hardly luxurious. At one time a lady occupant of one of these rooms was writing a book which was supposed to be a sequel to, "Gone With the Wind", but I'm pretty sure it was never published. All lodgers, plus Aunty Annie of course, used the one and only kitchen; this was a constant source of friction, not only from the cooking point of view but also the sharing of expenses for gas - used for cooking and to a certain extent for lighting. Annie was reluctant to feed pennies into the meter, when with a little patience somebody else would do this. The long wait was sometimes embarrassing, especially after dark when the gas lighting went out also. Only the ground floor had gas lighting, all other floors needing candles for light. The failure of gas at night invariably meant a hasty ascent upstairs to prevent having to feed the meter, our quickly lighted candles hardly spluttering to full flame before reaching our bedrooms.

There was no problem with sharing a bathroom because there wasn't one. A tin bath hung on a nail in the coal shed, but was seldom used. The toilet was beyond the yard and at the back of the house, sulking amongst the moss and ferns of a bygone age. It was a long walk for a night-time visit but as with most houses of the time, this was solved by the inclusion of "things that go under the bed" as normal bedroom furniture in those days. From her two sets of lodgers, Aunty Annie receive a total rent of one pound a week, showing a profit of five shillings over what she paid for rent to her landlord, Mr. Harbour. She also received, at a later date, an additional three shillings a week, for allowing the school to use part of her large garden for "gardening lessons". Thus she made an overall profit of eight shillings from her sub-lettings; a considerable sum when one considers that ten shillings was the amount of widow's pension she received in those days. She also, of course, had allowances for two evacuees, giving her ample income for all her needs.

The garden of her house was enormous. It stretched from New Road to Red Road and was over one hundred yards long. Annie offered it willingly to any new unsuspecting lodger, inthe hope it would be cultivated free. Few accepted, but once somebody kept chickens on a large portion of it and one or two people in the village accepted free use of it until they found that over three quarters of their produce was used by Aunty Annie for either selling, bartering or her kitchen table. The acceptance by the school, with a rent, was the ideal solution for her. She had full authority to sell produce (for school funds), and this was very profitable for her, especially during the summer when produce was prolific. Most of the takings never reached the school, finding their way instead into Aunty's purse via the collection box marked "Garden Produce". A season's income from this source seldom reaching a miserable ten shillings. Her garden was a great playground for us all. Bushes of soft fruit had become overgrown and provided hideaways and "camps" where feasts and picnics took place. Every rule of pruning and care of fruit trees and bushes had been ignored but masses of fruit ripened every year in the mild climate and fertile soil of this lovely island. Flowers bloomed annually, from early snowdrops to the spicy chrysanthemums of late autumn. In addition, wild flowers grew in profusion on the banks and winding pathways, each seeming to have its own perfect environment for reproduction year after year, growing free and lovely as only wild flowers can.

The National Servive Medal
The National Servive Medal which Aunty Annie was eligible to hold as a carer of evacuees

Our little Christmas robin built a nest in the bank and we watched daily until the small eggs hatched and the yawning, forever hungry babies, grew and finally flew the nest, hanging on grimly till they were ignored and fed no more by impatient parents. Their brown chests slowly turned to red and we knew they would start the whole cycle again, probably next year, when they had established their own new territory. Other birds nested in the hedges and trees, even in the rafters of the outhouses, but none were as tame as our little robins who waited patiently at our window or followed the dinner bell of a spade's sound in fresh soil.

With no family around us, friends were very important to my sister and me. Brenda easily made friends - she would have made even more if she had not insisted on taking me along everywhere she went. Her best friend Muriel, had friends who owned the old bakery opposite the Mill and we used to play there, stealing figs that grew on a tree overhanging the garden wall and staring in wonderment at the faggot-burning bakery oven. Their garden was triangular in shape, running to a point at which some clever person had decided to erect a "Machine Gun Post", because it overlooked the quay alongside the bridge; an obvious landing place for the invading Hun. Its more common use as a playhouse for children was never intended, I'm sure.

Eventually I had to make my own friends. A pecking order takes place amongst children, and like it or not you are included. This usually does not include girls if you are a boy, and vice versa if you are a girl. But first of all I was to experience something far worse than I had ever dreamed of, or imagined could happen.

And overnight I was on my own again - in the worst possible way.