Just Miles
The Memoirs of Percy Harwood

Page 8

The family left East Cowes and we now lived in Wootton. The odd thing was that when people knew we were going to leave East Cowes work piled into the cycle shop and the move was delayed for several weeks. Just before I left J S Whites a Mr. Fred Light, who was an engineer now retired from the pilot service, and was on the same boat as engineer Fredi Groves, came and worked at the garage. This did not last very long and he left and with a partner and started a garage business at Winchester Road, Southampton, called Light and Low. My cousin Fred Conconi came as a petrol boy. He was a bit of a lad and at this age one could not expect any difference. In my absence when the paraffin man came to deliver he could not get the order till he let Fred have a little drive of his lorry. My Buick Taxi was often repositioned in the workshop. Work at the garage was very full, 7.30am-10pm every day, Sundays 10.00am-10pm. When you are young and full of beans it didn't matter.

Our first customer every morning was L J Souter's Manchester lorry. They were the local Millers operating from Wootton Bridge Mills. Alas now all gone but some white houses now standing in its place. 4 galls of Shell Mex and 1 pint of oil was the standard daily order and every Monday morning I had to crawl underneath and check the oil level in the axle and gearbox.

The first electric petrol pumps on the Island were at Wight Motors, Ryde. We had these electric pumps, the first on the main road, and one of our biggest problems was to convince the customer one did not have to drain the hoses as with the existing petrol pumps.

There were not many cars on the road so taxis were used a lot We ran a Buick MT2037. This particular car was used as a fire tender during the 2nd World war that was to follow.

So now I was the one that had to commute. I used my Ariel motorcycle, a 5 HP side valve machine. I took the sidecar off and really enjoyed the trips. If the weather was really bad I would use one of the cars. We led a very hectic life in those days, if a car broke down it was expected of us to work until the repair was finished and this often meant working into the night, the car must be got ready for the customer.

I suppose my best Taxi customer was a Mr. Burdon. He came to live at Kite Hill, Wootton, at the same time as I did. He came from the north of the country and was in forestry and gravel. He told me the Doctors had advised him to retire. He put on his hat and left his office forever that very day, giving it to his younger brother John. The business drove him most days, he was a tycoon type of man, very energetic, full of business acumen and an active Stock Exchange client. He married a Ventnor lady some thirty years younger, they had three children a boy, Oswald, and two girls, Julie and Josephine. When the family went out to the beach or otherwise he would hire two taxis, one for his wife and himself and one for the children and Nanny.

He was always doing property deals, antiques, ivories, paintings, anything that was good. He and his family were Roman Catholics and although having left Kite Hill and now living at Quarr (some 100 yards from the Abbey) he still had a taxi for this short trip. This mostly on Sundays and for about one year had to journey from East Cowes. I would wait whilst the service was on and then make the trip back to his home. He also had an art gallery at Bonchurch and I spent a lot of time with him. I suppose I was too young to let things sink in but looking back a little had brushed off on me. He bought the area of land from Quarr Abbey to Fishbourne and gave a builder plots of land in exchange for building a house for him ( the White House near Quarr Abbey). He bought a pair of iron gates and I can remember bringing them home on the roof of my Buick. He also bought from the salesrooms, unwanted wash stands with marble tops, these were broken up to make a crazy patio area. He now wanted electricity in the new house. The Isle of Wight Electric Light Company, as it was then called, quoted £90 for its installation. This was a formidable sum at the time. All right, put it in, I can eat that sum before breakfast. Sometime later, he purchased three cottages in Ventnor and looking through papers he found that IOW Electric Co were charging rent for the wiring in those cottages. He told them to remove their wiring and make good the walls. The company realised that to do so would cost a considerable sum so offered him compensation to leave the wiring. How much? £90. Later on he learned to drive so the taxi work finished. "Anything doing?" one late evening he asked of me. Nothing much. Commander Mitchell did come in and say he might sell his M.G. Let's go up and buy it. Not at 10pm in the evening, one would need an appointment to see Cdr. Mitchell. Come on, let's go, so we did. We went to the house and within a very short space of time bought the car, and, as we drove out of the gate Mr. Burdon said, Who knows we might buy the blinking house, so, within six weeks he was living in Westwood House. He had also bought the North Lodge, the South Lodge, Westwood Farm and the nurseries. He also bought St Joseph's College and all the ground right around into Tower Road. I had driven him for about twelve years.

His son, Oswald and his girl friend were killed in a car accident. Mr. Burdon never knew. I saw him in Ryde Hospital and, quite easily he said, I'm ready to go. He was buried at Wroxall.

One of the first cars we ever towed in was a Singer Tourer belonging to a Mr. George Jago of East Cowes.

I asked Eric Tolman, a friend of mine and also a fellow apprentice who served with me at J S White, if he would give me a hand to tow in this car.

We duly tied the rope and started to tow, all went well until we went down Blacksmith Hill. The Singer started to overtake the tow car and the front wheel ran over the rope and took a turn around the front axle and track rod. Then again, when we went down Alverstone Road the rope took another turn around the steering. Now, being unable to steer, the Singer mounted the bank and turned over on its side.

The car landed on the spare wheel, which was fitted by a very stout wheel bracket, bolted to the chassis and running board. Surprisingly there was no damage to the car as the spare wheel had saved the situation. In our panic Eric and I lifted the car again and finally towed the car home. We both had bad backs for over a week.

There was a bus stop, opposite the garage, but we were the general conveyance for people wishing to visit the beach. There was a cafe, there and it was a very popular spot.

The cafe, was run by a Mr. Hearne, later by a Mr. Simpson and later still by a Mr. Metcalf.On these occasions, when I was taking people to and from Woodside beach, which was now becoming busy and absorbing a lot of my time , I had to call on my wife to serve petrol and look after the garage. So I said to my wife "Why don't you take them down. There is no traffic and you will be able to manage. So with little or no training she duly drove to and from Woodside and became a good driver.

There was also another driver, Ron Hayles who did taxi work in the village. He had one car, always a wreck, but there was always enough work about.

I have had the pleasure, more than once, of driving a couple to their wedding, christening of the children and then the wedding of the children.

In these early days I have sold one or two cars to people, taken them down the road fora driving lesson and instruction, and then let them go. No driving test required or insurance.

At Woodside we had one customer who would phone in at about 2pm, and say, go to the Sloop Inn, buy a small bottle of gin and bring it to me. He would then pay for the taxi and the bottle of gin. In the evening he would phone again at about 7pm for the same treatment. This went on month in and month out.

I do not know what Mr. Batt, the landlord of the Sloop, thought of us buying the gin.

One of our other customers got to know of these arrangements and said , why don't you let me get you a crate of gin. I can get it at cost price and it will save you going to get it. The gin duly arrived and it was placed in our sideboard.

On walking through the garage carrying a bottle of orange squash another customer said to my wife, you want some gin with that. She showed him the sideboard. Goodness knows what he really thought. Yes - it happened one day. Our gin customer died and left us with all that gin.

Our taxi business brought us in contact with many types of customers. We had the beaters and shooters every year starting the September shoot at Rowland's Lane. We were given the odd pheasant and rabbit.

Den Mitchison was also another regular customer, meeting his girl friend at Ryde, going to Woodside where he fished, going to Porchfield where he kept his bees. He always remembered my birthday in June and brought me a lobster and a pot of honey. His brother, Cunningham, was more interested in motor racing, mostly at Donnington. He used a supercharged Austin Seven. We always had one of his engines at the garage for overhaul whilst he was using the other. They were changed over when required.

Ben Bowering was also another character, very likeable carefree type, always doing odd things. He would phone fora taxi at 9pm, call in one or two pubs or clubs, and on one occasion at 2.30am we had breakfast at a friend of his living along the Military Road. He phoned me once from Somerset. He had been staying at his old home and would I please come and get him. I did and it took me three days as he was calling on old acquaintances.

The taxi side of the business gave us some unusual escapades.

We now ran three taxis and this made our day very long. Taking people to catch the early boat, the last boat, meeting and catching the train at Wootton and Whippingham Stations, weddings, funerals and christenings all became part of our daily life. On occasions we were called upon to deliver newspapers, milk and other services.

There was a nudist colony at Woodside. We were, generally, the usual conveyance between them at the bus stop. The road to the colony was very bad indeed and it took half an hour down and back.

In 1933 , we were the only garage on the open road between Newport and Ryde, and when breakdowns occurred, which were many, we were called on for assistance. In fact the AA scouts practically lived here, especially on Sundays, picking up spares.

Many motorists called in to and from work. There was always something wanted. On one such occasion, a Mr. Wray, a coach driver, called in on his way to Ryde for petrol. He proceeded to kick start his AJS when one of the push rods fell out on the ground. He stooped down, picked it up and put it in his pocket, saying, it don't matter much, it goes just as well without it as with it, and rode off. Work that one out.

One Sunday the phone rang, a Morris car has broken down on the Arreton Downs, so away we go. I found the car and who was the owner driver but Mr. Gilbert Scadding. The same man who transferred me to the works of JSW as unwanted in his engine drawing office. With beginners luck I managed to get his engine running again. He went on his way.

Our dance band was engaged for a 21st birthday party and who was the young man - Adrian Scadding, son of Gilbert Scadding. Again we meet.

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.