Just Miles
The Memoirs of Percy Harwood

Page 1

My mother came from a family of farmers living at Marchwood in the New Forest, seven miles from Southampton. Her father, Stephen Smith, could neither read nor write, but that did not stop him from running the Bold Forester Inn, the farm and a constructing business as well as digging, carting and supplying gravel used in the construction of most of the roads across the forest to Beaulieu and Marchwood. He had twelve children.

  • Uncle Bert, Head Keeper in the New Forest.
  • Uncle Tom: General Business.
  • Uncle Arthur: Gravel Pit Controller, later Landlord of the Angel Hotel, Romsey.
  • Aunt Florrie.
  • Rose, my mother.
  • Aunt Kate.
  • Aunt Beatrice.
  • Aunt Blanche (2 children died).

Mother came to the Isle of Wight soon after leaving school and was housemaid to Sir George Shedden and his sister. These were some of the aristocracy of the times. Her wage was twelve pounds a year including her keep. She started at six in the morning and finished at anytime up to midnight, depending on parties and entertaining guests. It was here she met Alice, who in later years married a Mr. Lewis Gray, a builder who some twenty-two years later built Lushington Garage.

It was whilst on the Island Mother met my father and at nineteen married. They lived in Castle Street in a cycle shop. The shop was owned by a Mr. Coffen and father managed it for him. Mr. Arthur Holmes managed a cycle shop in East Cowes, also owned by Mr. Coffen. Later on Father and Mr. Holmes bought the shops and ran them under their own names. My father's family lived next door and ran a fruit and vegetable shop. I myself cannot remember this. It was always Bassets the butchers to me. Dad had four brothers and two sisters, Uncle Frank, Albert, Bert and Arthur, Aunt Renee and Ivy. Apart from Uncle Arthur, who could be taken for twin of Dad, we never had much contact with them. The brothers all went to sea, mostly on the liners as stewards. The money was always very good and we saw very little of them.

"Go and get the new bread bin at Polly Coles. I ordered it last week and it has just come in. I lere is a halfpenny, you can get some sweets". Polly Coles was the name of the proprietor of the general and confectionery shop at the comer of Queen's Road and Castle Street. My sister Evelyn, eighteen months younger than myself, now about four years old toddled off on this errand. The shop was only a few yards away. There was no need to worry about traffic although it meant crossing Queen's Road. A few horses and cabs were the only traffic using this road, mostly to meet a small steam boat called " Percuser" which plied between East Cowes and West Cowes. It connected with the paddleboats which operated between West Cowes and Southampton.

We bought our halfpenny humbugs and put them in the new white enamelled bread bin, which had two convenient handles, either side. We made our way home passing the bank on the opposite comer to Polly Coles, Jagos the sweet shop, Bassets the butchers, and Ratsey's Lane separating Bassets and the cycle shop where we lived. It was called Ratsey's Lane because the cycle shop where we lived used to be Ratsey the Chemist. The lane ran the whole length, right through to the High Street, opposite the Ferry Terminal. We still have some of the mahogany chests of drawers, which were used in the chemist shop. The name of the ingredient is printed on the front in gold leaf. Now some hundred years later these drawers still retain some of the smells of the chemist shop. The collecting of the bread bin must be my earliest recollection.

Other early recollections were the very high tides that occurred twice a year. They flooded the High Street, Castle Street and York Avenue as far as, and including East Cowes post Office. Most houses and shops had permanent parallel strips of wood screwed to the door entrances and when the tide came in boards were slotted into those strips and pug was used to seal up the boards but in most cases to no avail. I have, on several occasions seen the water up to the second stair in the house.

We could never keep any wallpaper on the walls so eventually we had to matchboard halfway up the walls. It was quite a common sight to see rowing boats up the street delivering food, milk and bread and collecting men who needed to go to work. There were plenty of mice swimming about having been flooded from their nests. When the tide receded there was the usual mopping up to be done, mud everywhere. The surprising thing was that nobody seemed to have had enough. They remained in their homes, never wanting to move house. Years later a long breakwater was built extending from the bottom of Maresfield Road at the Esplanade end and out towards West Cowes. This had the effect of making the tide run faster, so preventing the river from silting up. This was quite successful and prevents most of the flooding today.

School days soon started and at the age of Four off I went to Osborne Road School, situated between Osborne and Clarence Road. In the Infant School the Headmistress was a Miss Smith, a very short dumpy lady but very pleasant, and in the Big School, as it was called, the Headmistress was a Miss Southall who wasjust as big as Miss Smith was small. She was very strict indeed. If someone had done something wrong and would not own up the whole class was caned. If the i's were not dotted and the t's were not crossed the essays and sums were marked wrong. On one occasion the whole school was kept in late, the day of the Sunday School outing. These were held in Mr. Morris's field in York Avenue. I le was known locally as Milky Morris, being one of the local milkmen. It was only in later years that Ryde Canoe Lake and Alverstone Garden Village were visited by charabangs, as they were called.

A lot of time was spent by children playing around the wharfs and the East Cowes Pontoon where all the little boats were moored - fishing boats, hire boats, skiffs and sailing boats. They were eager to do any little job-baling out, cleaning brass work etc-anything to get a row on one of the boats.

There were several boatmen plying for hire. Heber Mcbride had several boats. I remember one of his boats called Dough-Boy, his pride and joy. Charlie Kearley's boat was called Dolly. Writing of Charlie Kearley reminds me of a story, how true I really do not know. I However, at the time when Queen Victoria was dying a bet was wagered and there would be a £5 payment to the person who got to East Cowes Post Office with the message. Five Pounds was a lot of money in those days, representing nearly three weeks' wages. With others my father got the message and with much effort cycled down York Avenue but alas the chain on his cycle broke. He threw his cycle in the hedge and ran the remainder of the journey. Charlie Kearley riding horseback pipped him at the post. The message was given to a Miss Jane Spencer, an elderly clerk who always wore black glossy cuff bands.

John Samuel White and Co were shipbuilders and were situated on both sides at the mouth of the River Medina. They built mostly ships for the Royal Navy. The hulls of the ships were made at East Cowes and when launched were moored at West Cowes, where the engines were fitted, plus the completion of the ship. The noise of the riveting could be heard all over the town but it was an accepted noise and nobody took any notice. J. S. W., as they were known had a world-wide reputation for building good ships, and several were the fastest ships in the Royal Navy.

Read any naval war time stories and inevitably it will be a J.S.W. boat. The Abd a three-funnelled minelayer will be remembered as the fastest ship in the British Navy built during World War 11. J.S.W. workmen could always get a job anywhere in the world. They also had a boatshop where smaller boats were built. Lifeboats were one of their specialities.

At East Cowes we also had the H.E. Saunders factory who again built boats of all types and later seaplanes. J.S.W. and II.E. Saunders between them employed some 4000 to 5000 people and were the mainstay of the Island. In busy times the Island was very prosperous. It would seem to me that the people who lived at East Cowes worked at West Cowes and vice versa. At starting and finishing times the whole of Castle Street was choc-a-bloc with people. At Lunch times with only one hour for lunch, every month the floating bridge alternated five minutes to favour one side and then the other. There was a time when Sammy Saunders offered to pay half the cost of a permanent Bridge over the River Medina but in spite of long negotiations it was never taken up. So the floating bridge remains to this day. It was quite often, with so many men on board and the tide running out fast the bridge easily ran aground so it had to keep moving out. In spite of this, many was the time it got stuck. Depending on where the bridge was, it took several hours to refloat so utter chaos prevailed. Hundreds of men would have to be ferried across in rowing boats. J.S.W. would give a hand using their motor launch, the "Falcon". In trying to get the bridge afloat Neddy Knight, the engineer would try the engine and in doing so would knock out a tooth from the great driving wheel over which the chain ran, designed so that a new tooth could be fitted. These teeth were made of lignum vitae and with a lot of swearing and effort a new tooth could be driven into position.

Castle Street where our little cycle shop was situated was always very busy, people going and coming, some walking, some running, cycles weaving in and out of the crowds and a few cars, Edgar Goodenough in his Clover Leaf Citron, Arthur Hudson in his fabric covered Standard, Sammy Saunders in his bull nosed Morris with it's gleaming aluminium bonnet (made in his own works), Mr. Run the Saunders lorry driver who always came round Goodwin's comer every morning at twenty past seven on his Mackenzie motor-cycle moped, belt drive, no kick start, and Miss Grace who rode her Douglas Motor Cycle, again no kick start, just sit and straddle start.

During the winter months some cyclists would leave their carbide cycle lamps with us, and collect them on their way home from work, after we had cleaned and filled them with carbide and water. One lady, who had an oil lamp, was stopped by the police because she had no light. "I have," she said " I covered it over with my cloak because if I don't the wind will blow it out."

Picture of Harwoods fruit shop  c1900
Percy Harwood's grandfather outside his shop probably 1897 (Diamond Jubilee year) as the shop appears to be decorated.