THE MEMOIRS OF RALPH SEYMOUR
CORN MERCHANT, MILLER AND CLERK IN HOLY ORDERS
I knew Ralph Seymour slightly. Having transcribed the
following chapters I realise that I was the poorer for not knowing
him better, for that opportunity did once exist. We’re always
wise with hindsight.
For the greater part of my working life I was in government service.
During the mid 1970s I was posted to a Ministry of Defence computer
centre near Stockport. Its role was to pay the wages of the
thousands of civilians then working at the Ministry’s dockyards,
army units and air bases dotted around the land (few of which
survive). My job was to audit the many and varied pay,
allowance and productivity schemes then in operation.
Technical matters concerning the treatment of National Insurance
Contributions led me to interview the centre’s guru on such matters,
a certain lady who a few months later became my wife.
Regulation audit often involved extracting certain information from
the Ministry’s computer files. Believing that if you want a
job doing properly then do it yourself, I taught myself to
program a mainframe computer, albeit at a fairly basic level.
When word of this leaked back to ‘head office’ I was soon
transferred to London, the hub of auditing activities, for at that
time any auditor who knew what a punched card was was considered to
be a ‘computer expert’, and such were in short supply. And so
my new wife and I duly set up house within commuting distance of
London, at Tring. Despite the financial hardship of relocating
to a high cost housing area and the weary trek into London
throughout the week, I never regretted moving to this delightful
The removal men − having deposited our modest collection of
furniture in our newly built house − had barely set off
on their homeward journey when there came a knock at our front door.
I opened it to find an elderly, rather short, stout and genial
clergyman on the doorstep. “I happened to be passing and thought I
would take this opportunity of welcoming you to the neighbourhood”
or words to that effect formed his opening remark. And so Jean
and I met our first Tring resident and over a cup of tea − another
first in Tring − the Reverend Ralph Seymour told us much about the
Town and its locality.
From all reports
Ralph was definitely a ladies’
Some 18 months later I found myself knocking on Ralph’s front door,
my visit being to ask if he would officiate at Jean’s funeral.
I was distressed and Ralph provided, quite literally, a shoulder to
cry on − from the way he handled the situation I guess I wasn’t the
first distraught parishioner he had comforted down the years.
Having sorted out some ecclesiastical difficulty − for he was the
curate, not the vicar − Ralph did conduct Jean’s funeral, in his
eulogy speaking as if he had known her all her life.
That was the last time Ralph and I spoke. Subsequently, I saw
him on odd occasions within waving distance, but with the memory of
tears at our earlier meetings still vivid in mind I always felt too
embarrassed to cross the road. Some years later my second wife
and I attended evensong at St. John the Baptist, Aldbury, to find
Ralph rather than the regular incumbent in the pulpit. I
cannot remember the text for his sermon but I do recall how
extremely well he preached.
Ralph died in 1999, aged 93.
A few years ago while looking into the history of our
local windmills I came across the manuscript of Ralph’s
unpublished autobiography. I read it with interest, but did
nothing further. A more recent visit to Heygates Flour Mill −
which Ralph managed for many years − brought the manuscript back to
mind. Having reread it I felt that this interesting piece of
local history ought to be available to the local community, so
having tracked down his daughter Brenda − now a successful hotelier
in Cumbria − I obtained her permission to publish on the Internet.
A. Harvey-Taylor (Aylesbury) narrow boats
at Tring Flour Mills on the Wendover Arm.
Ralph was born in Tring and
served the Town all his life. As a boy he began work in the
corn industry, later moving to Wm N. Mead Ltd. (now Heygates) Flour
Mills at Tring (pictured above) where he became General Manager.
Being in a tied occupation, he served in the Home Guard during World
The Revd Ralph
In 1973, by then aged 67, he applied successfully to study for the
Anglican ministry and entered Cuddesdon College. Ordained that
September, Ralph then served as Honorary Canon at Tring from 1973
until 1980 with permission to officiate until 1996. On his
90th birthday he took the communion service at the celebration held
for him at Tring Parish Church. Other roles that Ralph
occupied in public life were as a member of Tring Urban District
Council (occupying the Chair on four separate occasions) and later
of the Town Council; as a Governor of Tring School (1939-1973); and
for many years as a trustee of the Tring Charities serving for some
years as Chairman. He also served as both a committee member
and Chairman of the Herts & Essex Corn Merchants Association.
I would like to thank Wendy Austin, Mike Bass, Chris Hoare, Phil
Lawrence and Annette Reynolds for the text and images they
contributed, which together form a substantial part of the following
memoirs. Also Ralph’s daughter, Mrs Brenda Milsom, for her
permission to publish the material on the Internet.
DUSTY MILLER IN TIMES OF PEACE 1919-1923
FAMILY, HOUSES AND GARDENING 1923-1939
WAR YEARS AND BEYOND 1939-1950
CHANGES AT THE MILL
VICARS OF TRING
OBITUARY: RALPH SEYMOUR
MY EARLIEST YEARS
After I was born, my mother was quite seriously ill, and
consequently I was put out to a foster mother, a Mrs. Clarke in
Akeman Street. The house was double fronted with a central
passage on one side of which was the living room and on the other
side the sitting room.
My earliest recollection was the day the door to the sitting room
was open and in the centre of the room was a large basket of rosy
apples. I sidled on my bottom toward the apples for I could
not yet walk, only to be whipped and carried away by Mrs. Clarke
calling me a young varmit in the process. This happened each
time the door was left open. Meanwhile my sister Alice was
taken to live with an Aunt and Uncle at Old House Farm, High
My father secured the help of a local woman who came in daily to do
the housework. My two brothers, younger than my sister, and my
older brother in his teens were also able to help. I fear that
father went through a very difficult period for a year or two.
For me this state affairs lasted until I could say a word or two.
One afternoon Mrs. Clarke took me up to see my mother whom I
addressed as the “Lady” because I addressed Mrs. Clarke as “Mummy”.
That night, apparently, my mother insisted that I was to come home
to live. Although still a semi-invalid she was able to ease
conditions in the home.
We then lived in 16 Longfield Road and houses were being built
opposite. By this time my mother was considerably improved
healthwise and was able to walk into the town. She had bought
me a linen sailor suit, my pride and joy. It had bell bottomed
trousers with blue piping, a lanyard and straw hat with “H. M. S.
Victory” proudly displayed on it.
One day mother had a friend come to stay for a few days. I was
rigged out in my sailor suit and told to be still and wait, while
the two ladies went to dress up for a walk. Well, my male
friends, you know how long this exercise takes with the ladies!
After what to me seemed hours, I could sit still no longer and went
down the passage and across the road to where the builders were
busy. There a heap of sand proved to be irresistible.
Eventually I heard by mother calling me. I went quickly saying
that I would not do it again for I knew I was in for trouble.
Off came my sailor suit and an ordinary one was put on.
During the time mother’s friend was with us, she made a greengage
suet pudding. When this was taken out of the saucepan the
covering cloth was streaked with purple. I had only slipped in
a piece of mauve crayon while it was being prepared. It must
have been a relief to mother when, at the age five, I began my
education by attending Gravelly Infant’s School (since demolished).
We had a large kitchen garden in addition to which father rented an
allotment at Duckmore Lane. The rent of a 10 pole plot was
five shillings per year (25p), but the Rothschild Estate to whom the
allotments belonged, issued a voucher to the value of seven
shillings and sixpence (37.5p) to all allotment holders. This
was exchangeable for beef at Christmas. Consequently, no plots
were uncultivated. So we were self supporting in potatoes and
LIFE ON THE ALLOTMENT
As a staunch churchman, father taught us children to observe Sunday
very strictly − no work for him and no games for us. However,
he had an exception to this rule, as on Good Friday he would be busy
on his allotment. From about the age of ten years it was my
job to fetch up all the old brussel sprout stalks and burn them.
Having dug them up, I would pile them up in the form of at pyramid
and leave them for a week for all the sap to dry out. They
would then be mixed with the wood from the old peasticks, while
remaining in the pyramid form. The secret was to ensure that a
current of air would circulate through them. If you allowed
the pile to become flat, the fire would go out and you would have to
start all over again.
After a few years I was promoted to dig half a spit of soil ahead of
father. He was a perfectionist. “Now then, stand up over
your fork and lift the soil up and don’t pat it down. It needs
light and air.”
Before I graduated so to speak, I loved Sundays in the winter.
We would all site down including father, to our midday meal.
Then about 3 o’clock father would go off to his allotment, bringing
back, brussel sprouts, turnips, parsnips and a stick of celery.
Then in the gloaming of the evening we would sit round the fire in
the kitchen and mother would usually set the ball rolling
entertaining us with stories such as “The Mistletoe Bough”. In
this the bride of the day was playing hide and seek with the wedding
guests and hid in an old oak chest, when the catch of the lid
closed. “Did she really die?” we would ask, and at the sad
response I usually had tears running down my cheeks. Then
mother would start singing songs such as “Do ye ken John Peel” and
“Robin Adair”. She was a wonderful raconteur. Oh that
families could participate in such simple joys today. It is
the lack of families joining in activities together which is largely
the cause of so many broken marriages today.
When I reached the age of 13 it became my responsibility to do the
Saturday chores. First the Sunday shoes of the family had to be
checked and thoroughly cleaned and polished. Then the knives
had to be cleaned. They were steel and not stainless, as
stainless knives were not then in use. There was a special
board, an inch thick, nine inches wide and two feet long, to which
was glued a strip of soft leather. The board was then dusted
with Goddard’s knife powder. You then had to rub each knife up
and down the board until it shone and every little black spot was
removed. Then the kindling wood and coal for the fires had to
After these jobs were completed I had to wash and make myself tidy.
I then cycled to the town to collect one and half pounds of haslet
(lean pork from the side of a pig of 20 score or more).
Reaching home, this was put into a wooden bowl. Then some
bread was added, which had been soaked and then squeezed in a cloth
to expel excess moisture, also salt and pepper and dried sage
leaves. With the use of a half-moon shaped steel chopper, I
had to work to reduce the whole mixture to a fine texture until it
had satisfied my mother’s eagle eye.
In the season I then had to go to Hockney’s glass houses and buy two
pounds of splits or misshaped tomatoes; also some for normal use.
In the winter we used tinned tomatoes. On Sunday morning the
sausage meat was made into the shape of rissoles and then fried.
In the meantime rashers of home-cured bacon were fried together with
the tomatoes. What it feast for a hungry lad. I can
still recall the joy of it. Now, alas, plain country living
has disappeared to be replaced by packet breakfasts and calorie
AN OUTING TO THE BRIDGWATER MONUMENT
Summer school holidays seemed to stretch on for ever, but by the
time I was 10 years old my mother’s health had improved considerably
so she would plan an occasional outing for me and my sister.
One of the most enjoyable was a trip to Aldbury monument.
Food for the day was prepared and we would catch the horse bus from
what was then the Britannia public house at the bottom of Park Road.
This took us as far as Tring station and from there we would walk to
Aldbury and up to the Bridgewater column. Then we would have
our picnic lunch amid the beautiful surroundings of the woods with
the song of the birds for our orchestra.
Me and my sister were always eager to climb up the circular steps to
the top of the Column and we would arrive breathless to admire the
wonderful view of the surrounding countryside and Aldbury village
nestling below. Our climbs were usually limited to two in
number as each time one penny had to he paid for admittance.
What halcyon days they were!
We usually spent the afternoon exploring the many paths and glades
of the woods. By four o‘clock my mother had rested and tea was
called for. So we went to a cottage in the woods to procure,
for a small fee, boiling water for the brew and we then enjoyed the
goodies that mother had packed. Then we walked back to the
station to catch the horse bus back. Can you wonder that such
outings are enshrined in my happy memories?
EVENSONG AT DRAYTON BEAUCHAMP
Occasionally on Sunday evenings during the Summer months, mother
together with me and my sister would walk to a local country church
to attend Evensong. We often went to Drayton Beauchamp.
We walked along the county Herts-Bucks boundary over the fields.
Then we continued along the side of the “dry canal” [The
Wendover Arm - that section has now been restored].
There were three bells to the Church which were not rung but pealed.
As soon as we were able to hear them we would invariably sing “Fill
dung cart” which we thought was our own idea. Many years later
I preached at a Harvest Festival service and in doing so, mentioned
this fact. After the service a villager said, “You didn’t
finish your quotation, sir”. To my interest and surprise she
told me that the full version was “Fill dung cart, Bill Vinnicombe”,
and was well known. Despite many subsequent enquiries I could
never find out who Bill Vinnicombe was, or the origin of the ditty.
When we attended Evensong in my youth, the organist was Squire Jenny
who had the habit of rocking backwards and forwards as he played.
Drayton Beauchamp is a lovely church sat in rural surroundings.
It contains some exquisite stained glass windows.
St. Mary the Virgin, Drayton
Suitably refreshed spiritually we walked back home to a supper of
cold meat from the Sunday joint and cold vegetables. I can
still in my memory recall the taste of new potatoes, peas, broad
beans etc. from father’s garden. How sad to think that today
countless people have never tasted fresh vegetables but rely upon
tinned and frozen varieties with their meals.
COLLECTING SHEEP MANURE
My father was a very good gardener, both for vegetables and for
flowers. He used to raise geraniums from cuttings and bedding
plants from seed in the conservatory at the front of the house.
For these he required ﬁne mould, and so each Spring my brother and I
set off for Stubbins Wood, equipped with a wooden box mounted on an
old perambulator chassis, two small shovels and a hand sieve.
The box had originally held loose sugar which was then weighed out
into stout blue paper bags of either 1lb or 2lb by the grocer.
Upon reaching the wood we would search for a hollow where beech
leaves had piled up. Removing the top layers revealed lovely
rich mould, which we then riddled to remove large pieces of soil and
stones. To this rich soil, silver sand was added, which we
fetched from the builder’s merchants yard in Western Road.
Father grew tomatoes in the conservatory and also outdoors against
the corrugated iron fence of an old pig sty at the top of the garden
which retained the heat of the sun. If you enjoy a tomato,
then take one ripe direct from an outdoor plant warm from the sun.
To successfully raise his tomatoes father required sheep manure.
My brother and I would set off with small shovels and our Tate &
Lyle sugar box truck for Drayton Beauchamp which as you know has a
very steep hill. Now the left hand side is covered with scrub,
but at that time consisted of succulent grass.
The owner of Upper Farm, Drayton Beauchamp, owned a flock of
Hampshire Down sheep and from time to time they were brought to
graze the hillside; hence our source of droppings. This
particular morning there was a plentiful supply and we started to
fill up at once. We had almost reached the bottom of the hill
when we saw Daniel Heam the shepherd smoking his clay pipe.
“Well, Master Bill”, he said to my brother. “What do you
reckon you be up to?”. “Getting sheep droppings, Mr Heam, for
father’s tomatoes”, Bill replied. The response was “Well, you
two silly young beggars, you’ve got your truck well nigh full”.
“Yes, that’s that we came for”. “Yes, but why didn’t you bring
it down to the bottom of the hill empty, and fill it as you went up.
Now you’ve got to push it all the way up the hill full up”. A
lesson applied to life which I have never forgotten.
When we got back home the sheep droppings were transferred to a
hessian bag and left to soak in the rain water butt. This
supply was then used to add to the watering can. I can tell
you that the resultant fruit was absolutely delicious.
THE BILLETING OFFICER
One of the highlights of my youth was to go blackberrying.
One Saturday morning in early September in 1914 I set off to one of
my secret haunts. It entailed a walk of three miles or more,
but as I journeyed the prevailing mist rolled away to reveal a clear
sunny morning and the outstanding beauty of the hedgerows and large
wood through which I passed. Countless spiders’ webs bedecked
with beads of moisture sparkling in the sun. All was so still
that the song of the birds echoed everywhere. I could hear a
woodpecker tapping for his breakfast and the flash of colour and the
harsh cry of a jay added to my enjoyment.
However, I pushed on to my objective, a rough field with gorse
bushes into which the brambles clung covered in beautiful juicy
blackberries. I soon filled my two baskets and left for home
with visions of the blackberry and apple pie or pudding which mother
would make. On reaching home I was startled to see a chalk
mark of an inverted arrow on the front of the house with a figure 6
A number of volunteers for the army who came from Northumberland
were due to be housed in Tring. As we had a fairly large house
the billeting officer had apportioned six to us who were to be
housed and fed. When father came home at mid-day he said that
mother was not to have any residents imposed on us due to her
indifferent health. He would go and see her doctor to get
Mother had asserted that she could cope with two, Dr Brown told
father. However, some of the men were in rather bad “digs”.
Within a fortnight the two we had, had wheedled another two of their
pals in and within the month we were up to six. To give them
their due they were so pleased to be with us that they helped in
every possible way. So began mother’s war effort. The
first two thoroughly enjoyed the blackberry and apple pudding!!
THE DUSTY MILLER IN TIMES OF PEACE
IN THE BEGINNING
I began my working life at the age of 14 years, on the day after
Boxing Day in the year 1919, with Herbert Grange and Co., Corn
Merchants, who used premises for storage at Grove Farm, Tring, the
home of Mr. Herbert Grange, who was known as the ‘Maize King’.
Their main office was at Mark Lane, at the London Corn Exchange, the
Tring operations being under a manager, Mr. Walter Glasscock.
I started at the princely sum of ten shilling (50p) per week.
My hours were from 8.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. each weekday, with an hour
off for lunch, and from 8.30 a.m. to noon each Saturday.
It was common practice in those days for children to leave school at
the age of fourteen, and having reached that point in September, I
started looking round for employment. I had no job in view
until I heard at school one day towards the end of the term, that an
office boy was required at Grove Farm, and I went there straight
from school, without telling my parents. I had to wait until
5.30 p.m., when the manager returned from Mark Lane, but my
perseverance paid off and I got the job.
When I got home, considerably later than usual, and my parents
wanted to know where I had been, I explained, and told them about
the job. Father asked: “Do you think you are going to like
it?” I replied that I didn’t know, but if not . . . . Here
father cut me short, and said: “Oh no, my boy. If you start
something you have to see it through.”
I asked my mother if I could have a new suit with long trousers as
all my mates were wearing. “You will do no such thing. Your
present trousers are perfectly alright for continued wear".
However, I was determined to have my suit with long trousers.
Of the ten shillings wage, seven shillings and sixpence went toward
the cost of my ‘keep‘ and two shillings towards the cost of my
clothing. So I went to see Mr. Cross the tailor whose shop was
at the comer of Christchurch Road to ask if he would make me a suit
for Easter. I settled for a grey herring bone tweed for the
price of five guineas. I explained my circumstances to him.
By Easter Saturday, I would be able to give him three pounds, but
would it be agreeable if I paid him my two shillings and sixpence
after that to clear the balance?
I left the office at midday on the Saturday and cycled home with my
suit in a brown paper parcel. “What have you got in that
parcel?” my mother wanted to know. I explained the arrangement
for payment to Mr. Cross the tailor. “You young devil! I
told you that you were not to have a new suit. I have never
yet had anything on tick and I am not going to do so now”. She
flounced upstairs and came back holding two pounds five shillings.
“You go straight back to Mr. Cross with it and have the bill
receipted, and you will give me the full ten shillings each week
until the balance is paid”. She kept me strictly to it.
As soon as I was home from Church each Sunday I put the jacket on a
chair in the sitting room and donned an old jacket. My father
had a friend who a carpenter, Mark Osborne in Miswell Lane. I
went to him and persuaded him to lend me two lengths of plywood
about 30 inches long twelve inches wide. Every Sunday night
when going to bed I lifted up the mattress to lay my trousers
underneath to keep the creases in. It is a sound maxim of life
that if something is gained easily the less it is valued, but if
self denial and hardship are needed to achieve your object so will
you value it, as I did my suit with the long trousers.
The office was a ramshackle building attached to the farm buildings,
but I found the work interesting. There was a constant flow of
people in and out, either bringing in grain, or taking out feeding
stuffs, or both! I was required to do a bit of everything, and
I can honestly say I was keen on my work, and anxious to learn.
Gradually I became a proficient judge of grain quality, which in
those days was judged by natural means − smelling, weighing in the
hand, looking for signs of disease, or wild garlic, or smut.
The latter is a fungus, which gives off a noxious smell from the
infected grain. Testing also involved biting the grain, and
grasping it in the hand, to assess moisture content. Today the
miller or merchant has highly technical apparatus at his disposal to
enable quick and searching tests to be made.
In view of my interest, by the time I was sixteen I was entrusted to
call on farmers to sell feeding stuffs and to buy grain. It
was the custom in the trade to secure a sample of any grain for sale
on a farm by collecting at least half a pound, taken from at least
twelve sacks at random. By this means you found out if there
was an odd sack or two out of condition and reacted accordingly.
The manager kept some fifty or so laying hens at his home, so I was
frequently adjured to “Bring a large enough sample, Seymour.”
If the grain was bought, when it was delivered it was matched
against the sample, and if all was in order the sample was finished
with, and was tipped into a bushel measure in the office, to become
the manager’s perks. In the season he usually took home, in an
old Gladstone bag, sufficient corn to feed his hens!
As the farm buildings were in use for storing grain and feeding
stuffs, as well as ordinary farming operations, there were always
rats about. Periodically efforts were made to reduce this rat
population, and ferrets were used in this. If the manager was
at market, or elsewhere, I found ratting more attractive than office
work. By then we had a younger office boy, and I would
alternate shifts with him − one in the office, one outside ratting.
On one occasion the ferrets failed to get the rats to move from
under a row of pig sties, so the farm manager decided to test the
fire hose, and at the same time flush the rats out with the water.
The farm lads and I waited to deal with them if they ran.
Suddenly five or six bolted at once, and one lad struck at one of
them, hitting it over the back. The rat scrabbled away, and
the lad’s second attempt was equally unsuccessful. One old man
watching could contain himself no longer, and exclaimed: “Hit ‘un
over the ‘ead boy, the arse’ll die of itself!”
Mr. Grange normally went to Mark Lane, or his London office, every
day, but when he was at home cable messages, all in code, would come
for him, over the telephone. In these cases it was my job to
go to his private house, get the code book, and decode the message
before giving it to him. I would then be given a reply in
longhand by Mr. Grange, which I had to translate into the
appropriate code before relaying the answer.
There could be enormous variations in market prices from day to day.
On one occasion I know that Mr. Grange, in his maize dealings, lost
£3,000 in one day, when the bottom dropped out of the market.
One day I was told to cycle to a farm some four miles away, to look
at some wheat the farmer had for sale. I was told to bid for
it, up to a given limit, according to quality. The farmer had
a very attractive daughter of my age, which delayed me somewhat, but
eventually I went into the barn with the farmer, to draw the usual
sample, which I put in a bag which would hold up to about 3 pounds
in weight. He watched me filling this with much interest, and
then asked: “How did you get here, young ‘un?” Puzzled, I
replied: “On my cycle, sir.” “That’s a pity,” he said, “For
you might as well have taken a sackful!”
Now, it was a cardinal rule that you ascertained the quantity of a
parcel of grain by counting the number of sacks but, owing to the
fact that the farmer’s daughter had followed us into the barn, I
neglected this essential duty! Then I found that I couldn’t
buy the wheat within the limit I had been given, so I set off back
to the office with the sample. The manager looked at it and,
of course, asked the quantity. The startled look on my face
told him I didn’t know, and I was told, in no uncertain terms, to
“Ruddy well go back and count it now!”
Off I went back to the farm, feeling the biggest fool on earth.
The farmer thought I had gone back to accept his asking price, and I
had to explain myself. Never, in all my subsequent fifty years
in the grain trade, did I make that mistake again. You learnt
in a hard school in those days.
At least I drew genuine samples, not like one farmer. One day
a lad brought in a very good sample of barley, and even the manager
said he didn’t think he’d seen a better sample. “I’ve brought
it in for me dad, because he’s not well,” said the lad. “And
it ought to be good. It took me sister three or four hours
this morning to pick it out!”
On another occasion I was offered ten hundredweights of ‘swede’
seed. Feeling pleased with myself I took the sample back for
the manager’s inspection, only to be told that I should learn the
difference between swede seed and charlock (a weed seed of very
After I had been with Grange’s for nearly five years, my wages had
risen to thirty shillings a week, but when I asked for another rise
he said he couldn’t afford to pay more. In any case, I was
beginning to feel that I needed to enlarge my knowledge and
experience, so I went to see Mr. William N. Mead, at the flour mill
at New Mill, with whom I had had contact previously, through selling
him wheat. I asked him if he knew of anyone who would take a
young chap who wanted to learn milling. He told me he would
make enquiries and to go back and see him in a week’s time.
An early picture of the Tring Flour
was pulled down in 1911.
One week later I returned, and he offered me a job at the mill.
I returned to Grove Farm and immediately handed in a three-week
notice. The usual was one week, but I extended it, with Mr,
Mead’s agreement, to enable me to tidy up things. Upon
receiving this notice the manager at once offered me £3.00 a week −
double my present thirty shillings − to stay.
“Sorry,” I said, “But it is time you and I parted. If you
couldn’t afford more than thirty shillings last week, but now offer
to double it, I don’t want to bankrupt the firm.” So I left,
and he never spoke to me again.
At the mill I found things very different. Mr. Mead not only
owned the mill, but he also farmed extensively, both in Tring, at
Silk Mill Farm, and also at Marsworth, at Hospital Farm, sometimes
called Manor Farm. In fact, during hay and harvest times − and
on other occasions if necessary − if extra men were required on the
farms, he had no hesitation in shutting the mill and taking all the
men employed there down to the farms for as long as they were
required. In the mill yard itself, he also ran a retail coal
Bushell Bros. boat
yard. Tring Flour Mill is in the background.
At the bottom of the mill yard there was a boat building and repair
business, for the canal barges, owned by the Bushell Bros.
This business actually continued until after the Second World War.
When I joined the mill staff, there was only one man, other than Mr.
Mead himself, in the office. This was Teddy Clark, who was
employed as clerk, cashier and accountant, and he kept the ledgers
meticulously, with each name written in beautiful copperplate
writing. There was also a flour traveller, Harold Saunders.
Mr. Mead was always known as ‘the Governor’, and I very soon got the
nickname of ‘Chikko’, which came about when I found there were some
residues going to waste, and experimented with them, making up some
samples of chick corn. The Governor’s two daughters − who were
always about the yard − heard of this, and gave me the name. I
didn’t mind, and it stuck!
For the first fortnight or so I was put into the mill, to learn my
way around, and on the first day I was set to lower some empty flour
bags from the top floor, where they were then stored (later we had a
sack-warehouse). There were flaps in each floor which could be
opened, so that with the aid of a hoist, bundles of bags could be
lower right through to the basement. I soon got the hang of
it, and was letting bundles down quite speedily.
Unfortunately, however, one bundle went down a bit too fast, and
arrived just as the mill foreman was walking under the open flap and
it knocked him sideways. Although I assured him it was
accidental, all the time I knew him I felt he was never certain that
I also put my foot in it early on in my time in the mill office.
In those days phones were in very short supply, and people would
come in and ask to use our phone. The Governor got fed up with
this, and told us that if anybody came in to use the phone we were
to charge them sixpence for each call, no matter who it was or what
the call was for. With this in mind, when a gentleman came in,
in full hunting kit, demanding: “Use your phone, boy!”, I told him
to go ahead. When he put the received down, I asked him for
the required sixpence. “Sixpence! What for?” he demanded.
I explained. He was furious. “Daylight robbery!” he exclaimed,
but he flung sixpence on the desk and stormed out.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the Governor told me I had
demanded sixpence from Lord Rosebery, one of his best customers.
I pointed out: “That was your orders, sir. I only did as I was
told.” That was the last I heard of it!
PRODUCTION OF FLOUR
My initiation into flour production was a complete revelation.
Hitherto I had assumed that a fairly simple grinding process of
wheat was involved. Instead I found it to be a highly skilled
and technical operation.
Wheat, according to availability and cost, was shipped in from many
countries, all with varying moisture content − as low as 12% in that
from India, Russia and the Argentine, to as high as our native wheat
at 16%. Manitoba Wheat from Canada was graded in quality from
No.1 to No.4, the latter containing some immature grains.
Mr. and Mrs. Ward, daughter Phoebe and
her children from Startops End at the Tring Flour Mills on the
Wendover Arm. They had delivered a cargo of Manitoba wheat. IRIS was
owned by A. Harvey-Taylor of Aylesbury and registered at Tring.
All imported wheats were brought from the London Docks by barge to
the canal alongside the mill. A barge and a ‘butty’ − an
engineless trailer − together carried up to 60 tons, in sacks of 250
lbs. Hoisted from the barges by chain, the contents of the
bags were shot into a hopper, from which the wheat was conveyed by
elevator cups on an endless belt to the top storey of the mill into
Before the actual milling process began wheats were blended into
what was called the grist. The foot of each storage bin had a
calibrated release on a ratchet principle so that this could be set
and the correct quantity of each wheat released. All the
wheats contained extraneous matter to some extent, so the next
process was to remove this by a most exhaustive cleaning process, so
that sound grain, free from all impurities, resulted. By
various elevators this was then fed into a washing process, and from
there into a screen-meshed whizzer, to remove excess moisture.
The next process was to feed it into a heated container to open the
pores of the skin of the wheat, and then on to a cold container to
close the pores up again. The grist was then put into a
conditioning bin for 24 hours, with the result that drier grain
absorbed moisture from the damper, and a level moisture of about 16%
was arrived at, ready for the milling process.
The strongest gluten cells of the grain are towards the outer skin,
so the object of the treatment is to scrape them free without
breaking up the outer skin. A series of chilled steel spiral
rolls were employed, the first with serrations of four to the inch,
the top one of two revolving at a differential speed of 2 to 1, thus
opening the grain wide with a shearing action. The subsequent
rolls were serrated progressively less acutely. The release
from these was elevated to the top storey of the mill into a most
ingenious machine called a plansifter. This consisted of an
outer wood casing containing no less than 12 sieves, from a coarse
wire mesh at the top to a fine one at the bottom. The whole
plansifter was suspended from the ceiling attached to 16 flexible
bamboo rods. Under the bottom was an elliptical weight which,
when in motion, afforded a perfect sieving motion.
The releases from this operation were fed back to the roller floor,
the coarsest to the second rolls, and according to the grading, to
each appropriate roll, and a final pair of smooth rollers.
Meanwhile, the finer separations from the plansifter were fed to the
enclosed cylinders inclined at an angle but clothed with coarsely
meshed cloth. The finer release was then fed to the next
machine clothed with finer mesh, and the over- tail despatched to
the last sequence of the rolls.
The resultant fine release was now actual flour, which was fed to a
holding bin, from where it was bagged up by an operative into jute
bags weighing 140 lbs. nett. (Nowadays it is packed into 32 kgs.
stiff paper bags, or alternatively stored in a glass-lined bin, from
which it is loaded into bulk lorries, and at the bakeries blown from
the lorries by means of compressed air into the bakers’ bins.)
ONWARD AND UPWARD
Life at the mill was never dull. On one occasion the Governor
fell out with one of the men and told him to go to the office and
get his cards. “I shan’t!” said the man. “You will!”
said the Governor. “If you don’t know when you’ve got a good
man, I know when I’ve got a good boss!” was the reply. He
continued to work for us for some months afterwards, but was
The Governor was furious with anyone who untied a sack of corn for
some reason and left the mouth open. One day he was passing a
stack of corn sacks and noticed someone had left the mouths of three
open. An employee, by the nickname of ‘Choice’, was passing at
the time, and was promptly torn off a strip by the Governor.
Choice was innocent of the offence and said: “Look here, Governor, I
don’t mind being blamed for what I have done, but I ain’t being told
off for what I ain’t done! Another thing, I’ve been going to
ask you for a rise for a long time. You ain’t paying me
enough!” As I was on the spot I tried to suppress a grin −
unsuccessfully. “How much are we paying Choice, Chikko?” asked
the Governor. “Not enough, sir” I said. He was a good
workman, so recourse to the office secured Choice a rise of five
shillings a week.
I began to sell the whole range of animal feeding stuffs needed by
farmers. I also bought grain from them, with the exception of
English wheat for milling. That was definitely the Governor’s
province. That not suitable for milling I could buy, provided
I made a profit when selling it on!
To start with my operations were confined to farms within cycling
distance, but after two years I bought an AJS motor cycle, which
considerably extended my range. I was, of course, on a salary
basis, and had some difficulty in extracting an allowance from the
Governor for using my own motor cycle.
After twelve months I became tired of being out in all weathers on
the motor cycle, and I tackled the Governor about assisting me to
purchase an Austin motor car. I had by then been employed by
him for 5 years, and had successfully developed a thriving animal
feeding stuffs business. I suggested that I could also try to
sell flour. I pointed out to him that the mill was being run
uneconomically as it was producing 4 sacks of flour an hour (packed
in two half—sacks of 140 lbs. weight) and was running only 8 hours a
day, for five days each week. The solution was to sell more
flour! I would not interfere with the existing flour salesman
s customers, but would break fresh ground.
I tried to secure one shilling (5p) per sack commission for all new
business, but the Governor would not budge from sixpence per sack
(2p). In 1937, my flour sales were such that the Governor said
he could no longer afford the commission of sixpence per sack, but
instead would give me a share of the profits.
In 1938 he formed the mill into a private limited company, with
6,500 shares, of which half were issued. The major number he
held for himself, giving 1,000 each to his two daughters. Six
months later, he told me he was giving me 400 shares, but I never
drew a dividend, as such.
Competition was really keen. Sometimes as many as ten
travellers from as many millers were calling on one small country
baker. However, in selling you have first to ‘sell’ yourself
to the prospective customer. If your face fits you have then
only to prove the quality and competitive price of your goods.
NAMES, NICKNAMES AND YARNS
One of my best farm customers was Dwight‘s Pheasantries of
Berkhamsted, then the largest pheasant farm in Europe. One day
Percy Dwight asked me to do him a favour by delivering a few bags of
layers mash and mixed corn to a friend of his, a member of the
Tyrwhitt Drake family, who kept some hens in his paddock.
Accordingly Bert Heley, one of our lorrymen, was given job of
delivery. He did the job, but came back to the office raving
mad! “I’m not going to deliver to that man again,” he said.
“He was as nice as pie when I stacked the food in the shed − gave me
two bob (shillings), and chatted with me. Then he asked me
where I had been to school, and I told him. He called me a
Two of the
Governor’s lorrymen with their Sentinel steamer.
Now Bert was born and had gone to school at Eaton Bray, but the
locals never called it anything but ‘Eaton’. It took me some
minutes to pacify him, explaining that his Eaton had been mistaken
for Eton College.
The abbreviation of place names was quite common practice, often
with a long ‘AR’ − so Aston Clinton became ‘Arson’; Drayton
Beauchamp was just ‘Drayton’; Long Marston was Marson’, while Hemel
Hempstead was shortened to just ‘Hemel’, and Berkhamsted became
‘Berko’, and so on.
Apart from place names being localised, many of the local people had
their own personal nicknames, which were often passed from father to
son. Some examples which come to mind are:
‘Sausage’ Harrop; ‘Niddie’ Bradding; ‘Ponny’ French; ‘Wiggle’
Barber; ‘Spivvy’ Budd; ‘Puffy’ Howlett; ‘Totty’ Ives; ‘Packer’
Brooks; ‘Nippy’ Hearn; ‘Dekko’ Budd, and ‘Splash’ Harry. I have
already mentioned ‘Stumpy’ Cato, and ‘Bumper’ Eggleton. There was
also a family in Tring named Higby, each of whose sons had a
nickname — the aforementioned ‘Choice’, ‘Jammy’, ‘Knock’ and
Some of the names were given for obvious reasons, but many were not!
I once queried how ‘Dekko’ Budd got a name like that. “I can
tell you,” said his sister. “Because he was always poking his
nose into other people‘s business!”
Another man was known as ‘Bent Axle’ − a very cruel nickname, as the
man concerned had suffered a broken leg in his youth, which had been
improperly set so that it was permanently bent.
There were many local characters, of course, who did not have
nicknames. One was the late Arthur Macdonald Brown. He
always employed a chauffeur to ferry him around − particularly when
he visited the Ashridge estate, which for some years he overlooked.
The drill was that he would go in the morning, have a look round,
and then break off a midday, to go to the ‘Bridgewater Arms’ for a
sandwich and a drink. His usual chauffeur had retired, and a
new one was employed. On his first day taking Macdonald Brown
round the estate, they went to the Bridgewater Arms as usual, where
Macdonald Brown turned to the chauffeur and asked: “What about you,
Tofield? You like a drink?” “I don’t mind if I do, sir,”
was the reply. “Well,” said Macdonald Brown, “I do. I’d
have to damn well pay for it!” And he never did buy him a
drink, during all the nine or ten years that Tofield chauffeured
Another local character, who suffered from a heart condition, was
notoriously mean. He always carried a small bottle of brandy
on him, in a blue glass bottle. At that time the law ordained
that any liquid of a poisonous nature must be carried in a blue
glass bottle, and thus no-one would touch the brandy! On one
occasion, however, while awaiting his turn for a hair cut he felt
faint, so took out his brandy bottle, but before he could drink any
the barber saw it and knocked the bottle to the floor saying: “No
you don’t, you old devil, you ain’t committing suicide here!”
“You foolish, interfering man, you’ve spilt all my brandy,” stormed
the man, as evidence of which the bottle was in fragments, and a
lovely aroma of brandy filled the saloon.
Another character, by the name of Charlie, is worth a mention.
He had a lovely turn of phrase. On one occasion he went to a
local butcher and asked for a pig’s head. “Alright, Charlie,”
said the butcher. “I shall be slaughtering on Tuesday, so if
you come in on Wednesday I shall be able to fit you up.” So on
Wednesday Charlie arrived at the shop and the butcher got his
carving knife poised. “Now then, Charlie, how far shall I go
back?” he asked. “As near the arse as you likes, boy,” he was
One day Charlie came into the office, and was asked how things were
going on. “Well,” he said, “I’ve got a touch of financial
THE MEAD CLAN
The Governor had an uncle who lived in a large house in Station
Road, Tring, which had an adjoining paddock and stable. He
employed a coachman-cum-gardener, who drove him around in an open
carriage. The pony was getting on in years, and if it became a
bit sluggish the old man would call out to the coachman: “Touch him
up, John. Touch him up!”
One Christmas all the relatives gathered together, as usual, for a
party, and a game of charades ensued. My Governor, always fond
of a leg pull, enlisted the help of an accomplice as coachman, and
went into the drawing room mimicking his uncle, calling: “Touch him
up, John!” Unfortunately the joke misfired, and the old man
took umbrage. Shortly afterwards he altered his will and
struck the Governor’s name off. In consequence that game of
charades cost him £12,000.
The same man was not exactly generous minded, and once, when two
workmen were making alterations and repairs in one of the bedrooms,
put a sovereign coin under the carpet where he knew they would see
it. The next day the workmen asked him to come to the bedroom
to give his instructions about the work to be done, and when he did
so, they lifted up the edge of the carpet to display his pound coin
nailed down securely to the floor boards, saying: “We thought you’d
like to know where to find it another day!”
Another nephew of the old man, named Percy Mead, farmed locally, and
worshipped at New Mill Baptist Chapel. At that time a new
tenant came to Dunsley Farm, Tring, and the two became friendly.
As the incoming farmer was short of hay and straw until the next
harvest, Percy supplied him with sufficient of both to last some
time. Unfortunately the new man was also short of capital, and
no money was forthcoming for two or three months, so Percy sent him
a postcard with just a biblical text on. In response he also
received a postcard with a biblical text on.
Percy’s card read: “I was a stranger and ye took me in.” (St.
Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26, Verse 35). The response was:
“have patience, friend, and I will pay thee all.” (St. Matthew’s
Gospel, Chapter 19, Verse 29).
Percy had one particular field in which he grew delicious white
turnips, and his new friend, in due season, was supplied with some.
Then there was a rift in the friendship, so no more turnips.
One day, Percy saw his erstwhile friend climbing over his field
gate, having helped himself to some. Percy later went to his
brother-in-law, R. Sallery, a butcher in Tring, and bought two
breasts of lamb. He gave one of the butcher boys sixpence and
sent him up to Dunsley Farm with the strict instructions to say they
were sent with the compliments of Mr. Percy Mead, to go with the
turnips he had stolen.
My Governor and Percy were brothers, but they loved to ‘take the
mickey’ out of one another. Percy was tenant of some ground
below the mill, owned by the local council, as part of the sewage
works, where an open irrigation system was employed. From time
to time sewerage liquor was directed over the ground in rotation.
Consequently Percy was always able to grow exceptionally large
mangel wurzels there, and each October he would invariably search
for two of the largest specimens and place them, one on either side
of the door to the mill office, much to the Governor’s chagrin.
While on a Mediterranean cruise one year, the Governor met a member
of the seed family of Cundy, who were introducing a new strain of
mangel called, I believe, Red Chief, so some of the seed was
ordered, and in due course arrived. “Now then, Chikko,” asked
the Governor of me, “How can we grow some of these to match brother
Percy?” “As much farmyard manure as you can plough in,
together with half a ton of I.C.I. No.1 complete fertilizer to the
acre,” was my advice. “You’ll ruin the Bank of England!” he
said. “Alright, then, just treat one acre, and see how it
works,” I suggested. This was done.
October arrived, and eventually the Governor brought up two large
red mangels, placing them one on either side of the office door,
where Percy would see them. When he did, Percy said
scathingly: “What have you got there, beetroot?”
“No,” replied the Governor, “Radish!”
“If I couldn’t grow better mangels than them, I’d give up trying.
I’ll show you what mangels should be like,” said Percy,
disappearing. A few minutes later he was back in the yard.
Taking two yellow mangels out of his car, and putting on an act of
puffing and staggering, he put them alongside the two reds.
They were certainly slightly larger than the Governor’s.
“That’s what I call mangels,” said Percy with glee. “They’re
as hollow as your head is,” said the Governor. Striving to
keep the peace between this now personal confrontation, I said: “We
can soon prove it, sir,” and fetched an old cutlass, which hung on a
wall in what we called the tin officer although it was actually the
“Shall I split them in half, or will you?” I asked the Governor.
“I will,” he said, and gave one of his a hefty swipe with the
cutlass, revealing a perfectly ringed, solid root. When Percy
sliced his, there was a hole as big as a tennis ball in the centre.
“What did I tell you?” crowed the Governor. Percy turned on
his heel and shot off in his car as if the devil had kicked him
endways! We saw nothing of him for some days, although it was
his normal custom to call on us nearly every day. That night I
asked the Governor for a rise, and got it!
Mind you, if the Governor wanted something, or something done, he
went all out for it, and not always in the most obvious way!
Due to his strong connections with Marsworth he used to attend the
parish church there. It so happened that the vicar at
Marsworth retired, and there was a long interregnum, so much so that
the Governor got very cross about it. Despite making
application on more than one occasion to the Bishop of Oxford,
nothing happened. His patience beings exhausted, the Governor
had an advertisement placed in the Bucks Herald, which read:
“Wanted. Shepherd for an unruly flock of about 300 head.
Apply in the first instance to William N. Mead, Gamnel Mill House.”
Of course, one or two genuine shepherds applied, but the Governor
told them they were not quite suitable. He reimbursed them,
and made sure they were not out of pocket. The whole affair
caused so much fun and ridicule, however, that an appointment was
made within a bew weeks of the advertisement appearing.
This was typical, and Percy was just as bad! On the outskirts
of Tring at the junction of the old A41, Brook Street and Station
Road, was a wide Y-shaped area. Percy Mead badgered the
Tring Urban District councillors to have a traffic island erected
there with ‘Keep Left’ bollards to alleviate an obvious potential
traffic hazard, but neither the local council nor the County Council
was interested. Thus, every day except Sunday and for some
weeks Percy planted a large empty pickled onion jar in the centre of
this space, which he filled with wild flowers or flowering shrubs.
As fast as one jar was removed he replaced it. The resulting
amusement and publicity had the desired effect and eventually a
traffic island was placed there for the safety of all concerned.
RECOLLECTIONS OF FARMERS
Percy drove a succession of old ‘bangers’, one of which was an
Austin 12 Tourer. The glass windscreen of this had been
broken, so he replaced half the depth of the screen with a piece of
plywood, leaving the other half open to the elements. Anything
from dogs to pigs were carried in this car, covered, if necessary,
by a pig net.
One day he brought some store pigs for sale to Aylesbury Market and
after penning them went to the auctioneer’s office to book them in.
On returning to the car he saw a young policeman looking at the
licence disc stuck to his ‘windscreen’, which was obviously out of
date. He promptly sauntered down to his pen of pigs and
surreptitiously undid the gate, letting them loose in the yard and
immediately creating a hullabaloo. Several people rushed to
help including the young ‘bobby’. Seeing him safely occupied
Percy drove his car away. Some minutes later he drove into the
market again grinning all over his face, having been to the adjacent
county office to secure a new licence disc.
On another occasion at Aylesbury Market, two farmers were in
conversation, one of whom owed the Mill for feeding stuffs. I
approached them. “I suppose you want some money, young ‘un,”
said the man. “Yes, sir, if you please,” I replied.
Before my man could answer his companion spoke up: “I never
owe money. I pay as I go along” he said, to which the other
replied: “I owe the corn merchant, the vet, and the implement
blokes. You want to do the same, you get better service that
way.” “Good Lord, Jim,” said his friend, “It would worry me to
death if I owed money like that.” “Ah!” was the response,
“That’s where you make a mistake. It’s the folks as I owe it
to does the worrying!”
On market day many farmers would stay the whole day at the “Rose &
Crown”, or the “Robin Hood”. On one occasion this was the case
with Bill, who came from a farm a few miles out of the town.
At about 7 p.m. a man called at the farm to see him about some
business, and his wife explained and told the man where her husband
could be found. She asked if he was going home through Tring
and when he said he could, she said she would go with him and find
her husband. As they got to the “Rose & Crown”, a pal of
Bill’s was looking out of the taproom window, and exclaimed: “Bill!
There’s your missus just getting out of Thorpe’s trap and is coming
in!” “Oh is she,” said Bill, and as she went into the saloon
bar to ask for him, he went out of the other door and, unhitching
his pony, set off under the arch. She saw him and came running
“I’ve come to fetch you back home,” she called. “Have you?”
said Bill. “How did you get here?” “Mr.Thorpe brought
me. He wanted to see you about some business,” she explained,
“But I’ll come home with you.” “You won’t,” said Bill.
“He brought you in, he can take you back” and off he drove.
Mr. Thorpe, however, had decided against doing any business with
Bill that evening and had driven home. She was left standing
and had to get a taxicab to take her back to the farm!
Milk was retailed in those days by farmers calling round to the
houses, often with a can holding 2 or 3 gallons, and it was measured
out into the customers’ own jugs. It had to conform to a
certain standard, but it was not at all unknown for water to be
added before being sold, and inspectors went round periodically to
check for this. One farmer was going round New Mill with his
churn of milk for sale when he saw an inspector coming and promptly
‘tripped over a straw’, and spilt all his milk onto the ground, thus
preventing the inspector from taking a sample.
A farmer friend of mine hunted once or twice a week, and he used to
use his cattle truck as a horse box. A neighbouring gentleman
farmer − a member of Lloyds − one day asked if, instead of hacking
to the meet, he could put his horse into Norman’s lorry, to which
Norman agreed. This arrangement went on for some two seasons,
but no offer was made towards the cost of petrol, or anything, and
eventually Norman dropped a small hint. “Ah,” said the Lloyd’s
man, “I’m going to America next week, Norman. I’ll bring you
back some cigars.” When he came back he duly presented Norman with
his cigars − two single King Edwards. I don’t think Norman’s
remarks were printable!
Many years later, after the war, we had a terrific tornado one
Sunday evening. It caused extensive local damage, ripping off
roofs including that of the school at Aston Clinton. It
brought down countless telephone wires, trees, etc., and lifted
portable sheds and buildings, blowing them away like toys.
Naturally, it was a fruitful source of conversation for some time as
people related their own experiences of it. Discussing the
damage with a small farmer with whom I did business at Aylesbury
Market, I asked: “How did you fare on Sunday, Frank?” “Frit me
to death,” he said. “I was in the milking shed and I thought
the end of the world had come, so I went inside and made me will.”
When I asked what blooming good that would have been, he looked at
me for a minute and then said: “Never thought of that, chap!”
The easiest ‘draw’ I ever made was not on the customer’s premises,
or at market, but was the outcome of a chance meeting with a farmer
who was ‘in our ribs’, who attended a dinner where I was present.
During the lull between the dinner and the speeches and the
entertainment, we had to queue for the ‘Gents’, and he chanced to be
immediately in front of me. Glancing round he said: “Hallo,
how are you?” to which I replied “Still waiting.” “Is that
meant to be funny?” he asked. “Could be,” I responded.
On the following Monday morning I received a cheque for £500 ‘on
By this time I had established a general corn merchandising business
in addition to selling flour. Normally I attended Thame cattle
market each Tuesday and Aylesbury cattle market every Wednesday and
Saturday, both to sell feeding stuffs and to buy English wheat and
barley. I was now permitted to buy wheat suitable for our own
milling and barley for barley meal; this we ground ourselves, for
which purpose we ran three pairs of mill stones. Choice Higby
was in charge of these and was a skilled dresser for them. The
lower stone was the bedstone and the upper one rotated more quickly.
The barley − or sometimes oats or maize − was fed into the eye of
the stones. The resulting meal was caught in a hopper
underneath and then channelled into a sack hooked onto the delivery
The dressing was varied for different pairs of stones. When
they became dull in use, they had to be lifted out by Morris lifting
tackle, for they weighed several hundredweights each. They
were then laid horizontally and new faces were then chipped into
them using a mill ‘hammer’. Because they were of extremely
hard granite, the mill hammer had hard chilled steel chisel blades,
locked into a wooden handle. By much hard work, Choice would
chip diagonal crisscross furrows, which were expertly inclined to
feed the meal to the outside of the stones. He had to wear
goggles while doing the work, for little specks of stone and sparks
would fly off as he chipped.
dresser using a 'mill bill'
One particular farmer was a very
good customer for barley meal, as he kept pigs. Normally I did
business with him at Aylesbury market. If making a journey
locally, or taking the missus for a ride, it was his custom to
attach to the back of his car an empty trailer with a pig net, so he
could call on possible sources of store pigs (young pigs bought for
fattening to porkers). He phoned me one Saturday morning
before I went to the market to say he wouldn’t see me there that
week. He explained that his wife had been unwell and had been
away for some ten days, and he was going to fetch her back over the
weekend. Foolishly I said: “I suppose you’ll take your trailer
and pig net?” The rejoinder came smartly. “Why, did you
want to come?”
PRANKS BY THE GOVERNOR’S DAUGHTERS
By this time I had bought my first car, a Baby Austin. I can
still remember the registration number − PP 9154. It had
celluloid side curtains and a collapsible hood, and was my pride and
joy. I took delivery from a local garage early one morning,
but alas for the shining paintwork pouring rain set in, so I drove
it into one of the empty lorry sheds at the mill and closed the
When I went to go home, the engine refused to start. Soon I
had several of the men around offering all sorts of suggestions and
help. Then to my consternation and chagrin and amid much
ribald laughter I saw the Governor’s two daughters, who were on
holiday from school, arriving with one of the mill horses together
with chains. “Are you in trouble, Chikko?” they asked.
“We’ll help and give you a tow.” I put as good a face as
possible on it, amid the general amusement, and soon spotted the
trouble. While I had been busy in the office the girls had
gone into the shed and altered the sparking plug leads.
The Governor had only the two girls. Both attended Roedean
School, which they hated. They were never happier than when
riding, hunting, or attending to the various dogs of which there
were several, ranging from a small terrier to two old English sheep
dogs. They were close together in age and not much younger
than myself. When they were on school holiday and, indeed,
when they came home permanently, there was a constant battle of wits
between us. One dark evening I started the engine of my car,
engaged the clutch and first gear to move off, but the engine just
‘revved’. They had lodged the back axle of the car on two
bricks with the back wheels just off the ground. Another time
they stuffed up the exhaust pipe with cotton wool!
One April, on April Fools Day, I found amongst the post, which I
usually opened, a typewritten envelope, stamped and franked,
addressed to me. This was not at all unusual, as some
customers invariably sent mail directed to me. Unfortunately
for the girls, however, I spotted that this particular envelope had
a cypher out of alignment, just as our office typewriter had!
Writing on the outside: “Not known at this address. Try
schoolgirl seminary,” I entrusted it to the Governor to take it to
the house when he went up for breakfast. I learnt afterwards
from Mrs. Mead that he took delight in taking it to them.
“You’ll have to get up earlier in the morning to catch Chikko!” he
A fall of snow always spelt danger if I crossed the mill yard.
One day I caught Vera, the younger daughter, unawares, and got in a
lovely shot with a snowball. Her father, who had seen it,
laughed his head off, but Vera was so annoyed at being caught
napping that she hit him with one full-faced.
The next day, however, the girls had the laugh on me. Opposite
the office was a flat-roofed part of the warehouse to which one door
from the main mill building gave access. Noticing them coming
down the yard I nipped out there and from my vantage point lobbed
snowballs at them, scoring two direct hits before they realised from
where the snowballs were coming. They quickly took cover out
of sight and I waited for them to reappear, but the next thing I
heard was the bolt of the access door being pushed home! There
I was, marooned on the flat roof in the snow! Then from a safe
distance they barracked: “Shall we let your mother know you’ll be
RECOLLECTIONS OF BILL MEAD
The Governor kept pigs in the mill yard and also a boar, and a
charge of five shillings was made to local pig keepers if their sow
was serviced by this boar. This money was the Governor’s perks
and was usually placed on one particular spot on the office desk.
Sometimes there would be ten or fifteen shillings lying there for
days before he took it.
Coming back from the bank one day, the man responsible for the
accounts, etc., threw down two halves of a dud half-crown, demanding
two shillings and sixpence in lieu. Naturally he chose me, as
being the junior of the three of us in the office, but I refused to
accept that I had taken it from a customer. It could have been
he himself, or the flour traveller. The next day he spotted
another dud, when the flour traveller paid in his cash. I had
a brainwave. “Slip it in among the Governor’s pile” I
suggested. “He shouldn’t have left his money lying about!”
Two days later yet another dud received the same exchange operation.
That same night the Governor came into the office and, pocketing the
pile of money on the desk, remarked “They tell me there’s some dud
half-crowns about. “ He was no fool and probably had a very
good idea what we had done, but we heard no more about it!
At hay time and harvest customers had to take second place to the
needs of the farm. On one occasion the mill was stopped at
midday, and every man and every available vehicle was commandeered
for ‘carting’. On another such occasion I came up against it.
A local farm tenancy had just changed and on my rounds I obtained a
good order from the new man, but the goods had to be delivered,
without fail, on the Wednesday. The customer was also a
butcher, whose shop was closed on Wednesdays, so that was the only
day he could be at the farm to accept the goods.
I got back from market on that day, only to find that four of the
lorry men were down at the farm, leaving only one lorry without a
driver in the yard, and the order for Buckland had not been
delivered. I was furious. The Governor himself was just
off to the farm when I accosted him. “I promised that man his
stuff today and he’ll have it, even if I have to take it myself,
single-handed!” I stormed off and was in the driving seat of
the remaining lorry like a jack rabbit. I backed it against
the loading bay and went into the warehouse to find a man to truck
the stuff to the bay for me to load.
There was a dispersal sale at Aston Clinton of the effects of the
late Lady Bathurst, a member of the Rothschild family, and the
Governor went along. He bought some beautifully carved glazed
mahogany doors from a summerhouse and had them installed as French
doors in the drawing room of the Mill House, where, as far as I know
they remain. He also bought, complete, a very large,
ornamental fountain. It had a central column of water rising
some ten feet into the air, which fell into the large surrounding
basin. Around the inner circumference of this basin were eight
stone frogs, all of which also spouted water into the basin.
The whole thing amounted to a miniature bathing pool. This the
Governor had installed in his garden and when it was up and running,
he held a garden party to ‘christen the new fountain’. It was
a very warm July day, and with the office windows all open we could
hear the talk and much laughter.
Now it so happened that the Governor let the farmhouse where farmed
in Marsworth. He and the most recent tenant had ‘had a few
words’ over a few points in the tenancy about which they couldn’t
agree, and the Governor was very annoyed about it. This tenant
was a guest at the party, and we in the office had a fair idea that
something would happen. Sure enough, all at once we heard a
shriek and a yell. The Governor had ‘accidentally’ stumbled
against his dissatisfied tenant and had pitched him head-first into
the fountain! Of course the Governor, with his tongue in his
cheek, was full of apologies. He sent the man into the house,
found him a suit of his own clothes, which fitted, and even gave him
a bottle of champagne to take home — but he had got his own back
about the difficulty with the tenancy! I should add that many
years later, after the death of the Meads, when I was living in the
Mill House both my daughters learnt to swim in this fountain!
Shortly after the fountain was installed, the old premises of the
Mark Lane Corn Exchange were replaced and a sale of effects from the
old building was held. Among the items put up for sale was the
lovely coat of arms from the top of the old building, which the
Governor bought amidst much chaff and leg pulling from his pals on
the market, who said he must be crackers to buy such a thing.
It was a massive piece of stone, weighing at least a ton, on which
was sculpted a coat of arms comprising an English rose, a Scotch
thistle and a Welsh leek with sheaves of corn, on each side of which
was a lion and a unicorn. The Governor, of course, had to
arrange his own transport for his purchase, so at about 2 a.m. one
morning he set off with two or three of the men in the firm’s Napier
lorry, into which they had loaded some Morris lifting gear.
The loading safely accomplished, they made for home, having put a
tarpaulin over the coat of arms. Unfortunately, however, they
hadn’t covered it properly and they were stopped twice by wide-awake
policemen who thought that the statue of Eros, or something similar
was being pinched! They eventually got it home and it was
installed behind the fountain to form an effective backdrop, and
there it remained for many years. It was lucky to do so,
because when the new Corn Exchange building was nearing completion a
search was made for the coat of arms to be placed on the top.
It should never have been sold!
Unfortunately, the man who was deputed to approach the Governor to
try to recover it was one of those who had ragged him unmercifully
over the purchase, and his answer was: “No. If I was crackers
enough to buy the thing, I’m crackers enough to keep it!” And
he did! When enlargement of the mill premises became necessary
some years ago, some of the mill garden was taken away, and the coat
of arms had to be moved. It now stands at the road frontage at
New Mill for all to see.
At the Mill House, in addition to his flower garden, the Governor
had a large walled garden and a range of greenhouses for which he
employed three gardeners. One of the greenhouses was used for grapes
which, when harvested, were luscious. He was always very
generous and if one of his employees or a friend was ill, they would
receive a gift of grapes if in season, or of flowers.
The entrance lobby and the hall of the Mill House were always filled
with a lovely display of pot plants, and cut flowers were always in
the lounge. On the occasion of the Bucks Farmer’s Ball, held
annually at the Aylesbury Town Hall, he provided all the pot plants
etc., for decoration. On the afternoon of the ball he would
appropriate one of the mill lorries − often disrupting deliveries of
flour or feeding stuffs − and together with his gardeners would go
to the hall to arrange the display. Then the following morning
the lorry was sent to bring them back.
When dressed for a visit to Mark Lane, or any special occasion, the
Governor always sported a colourful buttonhole. Visitors to
the mill or house would invariably receive a present of a pot plant,
cut flowers or grapes. On the other hand he was intolerant of
anyone who blatantly cadged things. One of his specialities
was sweet peas, which he grew from Dobbies. One man, who was
noted for his parsimony despite being quite wealthy, enthused to the
Governor about the blooms. “When you order your seed, William,
I would be delighted if you would order some for me,” he said,
obviously with no thought of payment. In the spring, he duly
received an envelope containing ‘Pea seed, with the Complements of
Bill Mead’. His gardener, a most gentle man, for whom I felt
sorry, tended them with great care. Alas, when the outcome was
small mauve flowers, the product of wild hedgerow peas, or ‘tares.’
Naturally, the news leaked out and the general comment was: “Serve
the mean old devil right!” I should add that the Governor sent
a bottle of Scotch to the unfortunate gardener.
The Governor went down to the Marsworth farm one morning, getting a
lift with our traveller, who was going by, and it was arranged that
a lad from the garden was to go, with the pony cart, to fetch him
back later. However, things went wrong and Proctor, the lad
who should have fetched him back, had not gone down as instructed.
When the phone rang, I answered it. “Who’s that?” snapped the
Governor. “Seymour,” I identified myself. “You seen
young George Proctor?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “He was over
in the garden picking raspberries when I saw him.” “Well, go
and see if he’s alive or dead,” instructed the Governor. “If
he’s alive, send him down here to fetch me home!” “What shall
I do if he’s dead?” I asked, playing along. “Bury him!” he
said, and slammed down the phone. The Governor got the better
of that one!
The Governor went up to Mark Lane once or twice a week. The
chauffeur would take him to Tring Station to catch either the
half-past nine or the 10 o’clock train. As soon as he had gone
out of the yard, especially during the winter, there would be two or
three men in the engine house where it was lovely and warm. I
was in there one morning checking on the oil stocks when one of the
men from the greenhouse − where it was rather cold! − peered round
the door. “Has he gone, Dave?” he asked the engineer.
“You must know he has,” replied Dave, “Else you wouldn’t be down
Another time when the Governor was due to go to Mark Lane for some
reason he failed to do so. At the time we wanted some ‘Fancy
Plate Middlings’ (the trade name), and when he next went to London I
reminded him that we needed them urgently, as we were getting
desperately short. I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t
buy them, and on the following day when asked, he said he would ring
up immediately. However, when he rang he found the price had
risen by ten shillings per ton, a deuce of a rise at that time.
“Can’t buy them at that price,” he said. “I wonder if Alfred
Thorn (another dealer) has any at Stanbridgeford Station,” I
suggested. “That’s an idea,” said the Governor. “He’ll
be at home today, he doesn’t go to Mark Lane on a Friday.” So
Bill Head rang Alfred Thorn at his home address and found that he
had eight truck loads at the station, which were on demurrage.
The Governor was very reluctant. No, he couldn’t possibly do
with eight truck loads. What could he do with eight truck
loads? And so on − but he eventually bought them at a very
good price, of course! When I opened the post in the office
the next morning there was a sale note from Alfred Thorn, together
with a letter, which read: “Dear Bill. I enclose the sale note
for the Fancy Plates. For once you caught the weasel asleep,
but, by God, you watch your step on the next deal we do!” As you can
see, I learnt a lot from the Governor and later on I put it to good
During the war when foodstuffs were rationed, stockfeed potatoes
were exempt. I met a Ministry of Food man who had some to
sell, so I bought 50 tons. When I got back to the office I
told the Governor. “They cost two pounds ten shillings a ton,”
I said. “Do you want any for the farm?” “No,” was his
reply. “You bought ‘em. You sell ‘em!” This was
red rag to a bull and before I went home that night I had indeed
sold them. The next morning the Governor came to me and said:
“Those stockfeed potatoes. I don’t mind trying a ton of them.”
“I’m sorry, sir, you’re too late!” I had great pleasure in telling
him. Other people knew the value of them and I sold them all
last night, before I went home.” If you got the better of him
he’d put his hand over his nose, and he did so then, and went out of
the office grinning all over his face.
One job the Governor liked to do himself was to resurface the mill
yard each spring. He was as happy as a sand-boy. A
barrel of tar would be bought from the gas company [Ed.
The Tring Gas Light & Coke
Company] and some placed in an old copper under which
a fire was lit. When the tar was brought to the required runny
state, it was ladled into a watering can with a rose attached.
The Governor loved to do the actual spraying of the tar himself.
His mate − an old employee, who had worked there all his life, and
was known as ‘Old Bodd’ − covered the tar with shingle. I
happened to pass by on one occasion when this job was in progress
and Old Bodd had got a bit behind with the shingling. “Now
then Bodd, wake up and put a move on,” ordered the Governor.
Bodd turned and faced him, saying: “You’re just like your old man
afore ye, but you won’t frighten me!” To which the Governor
parried: “Need a charge of gunpowder up your backside to make you
move!”, but he was grinning at the same time.
The Governor smoked, but not until after 6 o’clock in the evening.
However, he usually kept a box of cigarettes in his private office.
While on a sea cruise one year he won 1,000 ‘State Express’
cigarettes, which were packed in boxes of 25. Having recourse
to his office one day after his return, I saw a box of these with
the lid open, so I thought I would try one. Both his daughters
smoked and they had had the same idea, for going into his office a
few days later I saw that the lid of the box was still open, but
written on it, in red ink, was ‘Be ’LELIENT’ with me’.
Spelling was not the Governor’s strong point! This spelling of
‘lenient’ was typical. He insisted on spelling haulage as
‘hawlidge’, but he had beautiful handwriting, having been a scholar
of the same master, at a private school, who had taught Teddy
Clarke, who kept our ledgers, etc. However, he persisted in
using old spike wire holders for receipts, until one day, a receipt
the Governor wanted could not be found quickly. Teddy asked me
to wade through the ‘files’ − I was, of course, very much junior to
him then − but I refused, despite his threatening to haul me before
Shortly afterwards, during his annual holiday, I persuaded the
Governor to buy a complete set of box files from Ryman’s, the
stationers. Sparks flew on his return, but within a week or
two he became reconciled to using them, and would demonstrate to
admiring visiting farmers how up to date we were!
Both Teddy Clarke, and the other man employed in the office at that
time, Harold Sanders, the ‘traveller’, as he was known, were active
members of the Tring Park Cricket Club. Teddy was quite a good
spin bowler, and Harold a proficient batsman, so much so that on two
separate occasions he hit a six, which travelled over Station Road
and broke a pane of glass in a window of ‘The Laurels’, a large
house standing well back from the road, a feat that to my knowledge
has not since been equalled.
There was never any difficulty in raising a team when the club paid
their annual visit to Ascott House, Wing, owned by the Rothschild
family, where they were royally entertained before the match with a
champagne lunch, with fresh salmon and strawberries and cream.
The cricket club is still active and plays on the original ground
presented to it by the Rothschild family. The Rothschild
family also held the sporting rights to the chain of reservoirs
owned by the Grand Union Canal Company,
employing water bailiffs to superintend fishing activities. At
one time, permits to fish could be obtained free for bank fishing,
but from about 1918 a charge was made, and for the use of the punts
that were available on each of the fours waters.
Until about 1930, wild duck were encouraged to breed and about a ton
of feeding stuffs, such as maize, was used each season to persuade
the wildfowl to come and stay. Hides made of reeds were
erected on the causeway at Wilstone reservoir and on the right of
way between Marsworth and Startops waters. Shoots were
arranged during the season and quite often royalty was present.
Many local men were employed ‘beating’ the reeds to keep the duck on
the move and over the guns. There was usually a break for
lunch at the Shooting Lodge in which the guests received lavish
hospitality while the beaters received more mundane bread and
cheese, and beer.
OF FAMILY, HOUSES AND GARDENING
When I was nineteen I became engaged to be married to a very
attractive young lady from a nearby village, but sometime later,
after much heart searching, I broke it off, because she had become
very possessive of my leisure time. It was a most difficult
decision to make, and for some time afterwards I felt that many
people thought me a first class cad. I was very young!
My father received no official holiday, and some time after my
engagement was broken, I decided to take him and my mother away for
a long weekend. Setting off in my little Austin 7 on the
Friday, we journeyed down to Bournemouth. To my delight, three
young ladies from Leicester were staying in the same boarding house,
and in consequence, I fear I left mother and father rather to their
On the Saturday evening I accompanied them to the bandstand for a
concert, but catching sight of the ladies walking along the
promenade, I slipped away. Apparently, a few minutes later,
father asked mother: “Where’s Ralph gone?” “You might know,”
replied mother. “What would you have done at his age, with
three girls in the offing?”
The parents of the girl who later became my wife had returned home
on the Saturday, leaving the three girls for a second week, so I
became their attendant until departing for home on the Tuesday,
after having exchanged addresses. After reaching home I got
out my maps, only to hear the ingenious question from my mother:
“Are you working out a route to Leicester?”
On the following Saturday week, for the first time, I journeyed up
to Cliffe House, attached to Cliffe Farm, Birstall, to call on
Muriel and her parents. I put up at The Bell Hotel, Leicester,
that the first time, and also on my two subsequent visits, after
which I was invited to stay at the house. For the next three
years, the period of our courtship, I travelled up to Leicester most
weekends, through every sort of weather, until our wedding day,
which was 17th September, 1932. We were married in the
Methodist church, Birstall.
Later in the day, at the Midland Station, en route to Bournemouth,
where we were to spend our honeymoon, we bought three copies of the
Leicester Mercury, in which was an account of our wedding,
illustrated with photographs, and captioned: “Well known farmer’s
daughter marries.” The Leicester Mercury newspaper is
still published, and is well known.
We arrived at Bournemouth very late, as the railway companies (long
before they were nationalised and became British Rail) had altered
train schedules that day to the winter timetables, so that we were
an hour or so later leaving than we should have been. We had
both been showered with confetti, so I suggested to my bride that
she should go into the bathroom first and undress while standing on
a copy of the Mercury, so that she could fold it up, trapping
the confetti, and I would do the same afterwards, with the second
copy of the newspaper. It all worked very successfully.
The following morning, Sunday, we went down to the beach, found two
deck chairs, and then, taking one of the folded papers, I went to an
adjacent rubbish bin and very carefully unfolded it so that the
confetti would slide down into the bin. Alas, a sudden gust of
wind blew it back all over me, to the amusement of the onlookers.
I was even more careful unfolding the second newspaper, but the
damage was already done.
Of course, from the first day everyone in the boarding house knew we
were on honeymoon. Two elderly ladies staying there at the
time kept in touch with us for many years, sending Christmas cards,
and the occasional letter.
My father-in-law had offered, as an outright gift, to have a house
built for us in Tring, but I − I hope politely − refused his offer.
I did, however, agree for him to advance the money, on the
understanding that I would pay him back as soon as I could. I
explained that I had always had to stand on my own feet, and I felt
that my way was right, a point which he reluctantly accepted.
For some four years I did repay him in instalments, but in the
meantime our elder daughter had been born, and my wife became
pregnant with our second child, another daughter.
Father and mother-in-law came to stay with us for a week, which they
often did, leaving their son Ralph to attend to their farms.
On my presenting father-in-law with a further cheque on the Sunday,
he tore it up in front of me, and heatedly told me: “You are a
‘dowel’ (funny chap). It’s your stinking independent pride
that’s wrong with you. You should think of your wife as well.
With two children, you’ll need every penny to provide for them and
Muriel. I don’t want her to pinch and scrape, even if you do!”
By this time I had formed a great affection for him, and felt he was
justified in his remarks, and it would be ungracious to refuse.
Consequently the house deeds were handed over, in the joint names of
my wife and myself. I was getting £5 per week when we married
in 1932. The ground, a third of an acre in Grove Road, cost
£100, and the contract for the dwelling was just over £900.
However, I employed a skilled, practical man to superintend every
stage of the building, and he recommended one or two improvements to
the original plans, and the final figure was just over £1,000.
We named the house ‘St. Maur’ − the original of the name ‘Seymour.”
We lived there for some 13 years, before leaving to live at the Mill
House. We sold for £2,850. It was resold in 1976 for
£27,500. The middle-aged couple to whom we sold were retired
Baptist missionaries. They renamed the house ‘Symota’, which
intrigued me. They came to dinner at the Mill House one
evening, and I asked Mr. Thorn from where the name derived. “I
thought you were a good churchman,” he replied. “Colossians,
chapter 3, verse 2.” After they left I got out my Bible and
found that the full text was: “Set Your Mind On Things Above” − so
The present occupiers, learning of my original occupancy, asked me
about the name, and they were so amused that they retained it, and
it is still called by this intriguing name today.
While we were still at this house, unfortunately my father-in-law
died, at the early age of sixty. His wife, Nellie, survived
him for a few years only. They had been such a devoted couple
that she gradually pined away. I could not have had better
in-laws. They were staunch Methodists, and he was the most
humble and generous of men. He donated the ground on which the
new Methodist Church at Birstall was built, and also donated
generously towards the building itself, as a memorial block in the
church, inscribed: ‘WILLIAM HORACE HALLAM’ bears witness.
Having lived at the Gamnel Mill House since 1945, in preparation for
retirement, my wife and I bought a house in Grove Park, one of the
post-war estates off Grove Road, not too far from where we had
started our married life. It was in a nice position, and had a
garden, so I was able to continue my gardening activities, when
other commitments permitted. I always found gardening very
As a youngster, I had to take my share, with my father, in the
chores of gardening. I have never regretted the schooling I
had by him, and throughout my life I have enjoyed gardening, most
years managing to produce enough vegetables to be self supporting,
and producing sufficient flowers for the house − unfortunately not
during the winter months, as I have never had a greenhouse.
Paradoxically, although gardening can be hard work, I always found
it a great help in relaxing, and in times of great stress in the
business, or later when wrestling in preparing sermons, I often had
recourse to it and became so absorbed that I forgot my worries and
Of course, having browsed through countless seed catalogues, etc.,
before ordering, and having visions of superb vegetables, and a
glorious show of flowers, I never achieved the perfection for which
I strove. There are so many hazards with which to cope −
inclement weather, and innumerable pests, to name but two − that it
was a constant battle.
Naturally impatient, I learnt from bitter experience never to sow
seed when conditions were unfavourable, for the time always came
when sowing could be done, and if it was a late spring, somehow
nature always caught up, to ensure harvest arrived at more or less
the customary time. Obviously, however, if, through your own
oversight, you failed to sow within the time range, the results were
seldom satisfactory. Another lesson I learnt was not to try to
grow species or varieties of flowers for which your soil is
unsuitable, but to concentrate on those which were. The range
of flowers and vegetables is so wide that you have a bewildering
Sometimes I seemed to have been particularly successful and felt
very proud of my achievements, until I saw some other garden where,
it comparison to mine, it was obvious my produce was not as good as
I had thought! A visit to a local village show would soon
bring me down to earth, and lower my conceit! When we were
living at the Mill House, one local gardener was notorious for his
glowing descriptions of his produce and yields, but it was well
known that if he was bringing home vegetables from his allotment,
the barrow was very like the costermonger’s stall, with the very
largest and choicest on top! During the war, allotments were
in very great demand, and for some years the local council awarded
prizes for the best kept allotment.
Later on I heard of one man who perhaps had the best method of
getting his garden dug. I was staying with my daughter, who
helps to run a Link Club. I usually went to their meetings
with her, and would give a short talk. On this particular
occasion I had been talking about gardening, and afterwards one man
came over to me and told me, in his lovely Essex dialect than when
he was a youngster he would help his father on their allotment, and
one morning his father said to him: “Tom, us’ll go down the
allotment and turn over a bit of ground. Them old frosties’ll
do much better than we shall!” “So we went down and began
digging,” he said, “But about 10 o’clock the old man said he was
just going down to the pub to get half an ounce of baccy − shan’t be
long, he said − so I kept digging, and digging, and no sign of me
father, until about quarter past twelve he comes back, about three
parts squiffy. He looked over what I had done. ‘Ah,
well, I think us has done enough for one day’, he said ‘Us’ll go
home and get us some dinner.
During the blitz in 1940, one of the largest London mills − Ranks,
at Victoria Dock − received a direct hit, and the Ministry of Food
sent displaced employees to other mills all over the country, to
help boost flour production. We gave employment to one of
them, a very engaging and reliable man, but a ‘cockney’, who had no
previous knowledge of gardening. Determined to learn − food
was rationed, and garden produce certainly helped out − he secured
the tenancy of a ten-pole plot, and was coached by one of the
lorrymen. He was very proud when his first potato plants
appeared, and in due course, flowered. He watched them
carefully, then one evening he went to his tutor. “George,” he
complained, “I ain’t got no taters on my plants.” George went
to have a look, and ‘tiggled’ under one of the roots, to show him
some small potatoes growing. “Blimey,” said Tom “I thought
they grew like tomatoes.”
THE WAR YEARS AND BEYOND
In August 1939, having left our two young daughters with their
grandparents at Leicester, my wife and I went to Leeds, to visit
friends, whom we had met while on a previous holiday at Torquay.
Having been directed to turn left, or right, at various ‘robots’,
which we realised must be traffic lights, we eventually found the
house, in Eastcourt Avenue, and soon sat down to a typical Yorkshire
Later that evening, I accompanied my host to Headingly football
ground, for a Rugby League match between Leeds and Halifax. It
was a real local derby, with no quarter given on either side, and my
vocabulary, had I chosen to subsequently use it, was quickly
increased by the apt oaths, sarcastic advice, and humorous remarks,
of the bi-partisans in the crowd of spectators. At one end of
the ground, hundreds of youngsters were packed in, and as the play
moved backwards and forwards, so did they sway, looking like a field
of corn blowing in the wind. Regrettably we had to curtail our
visit, due to the fear of imminent war, which sadly was declared on
the day following our return home.
Some months previously I had become an Air Raid Warden, equipped
with a rattle and whistle, and later a stirrup pump and tin hat.
That very night, at around 10 p.m., we had an air raid warning, and
all wardens assembling at the nearby cross roads, as instructed, we
waited apprehensively. Some time later the sound of an
aircraft was heard, and then a sound like someone flapping sheets of
corrugated iron. “Get down! Get down!” yelled one
warden, and we all fell face down at the nearest spot, with our tin
hats over our heads. Two or three minutes elapsed with no
further sound, so one by one, we got upright, to find that one
unfortunate man had dived into a ditch, only to find it full of
water, so he had to go home for a bath, and a change of clothing!
The man who had yelled “Get down”, according to his story, had taken
part in several campaigns, and had experienced bombing. Be
that as it may, in subsequent real incidents, he proved to be the
least steady of all.
Later, the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers) was formed, later to
become the Home Guard. As wardens, we were forbidden to join
the L.D.V., which caused great resentment. We jockeyed every
possible source for a change of heart, pointing out the injustice of
it. There we were, with a whistle and a rattle, while men who
became members of the L.D.V. were allowed to carry shotguns, with
the promise of rifles later.
Some twelve months later, we were allowed to form a platoon, of air
raid wardens only. This became No.7 Platoon of the local Home
Guard. We were naturally dubbed the “awkward squad”, as the
others had been drilling long before us. However, a drill and
ability competition was held for the whole company, for which we
spent hours becoming proficient, and we wiped the smirks off their
faces by winning it! Although now Home Guard, and proud
possessors of a rifle each, we had to continue our role as wardens.
I could fill a book with the hilarious happenings during my time of
service. The popular B.B.C. series “Dad’s Army” had nothing on
us, believe me!
Officers of No.7
Platoon of the local Home Guard
Ralph back row left.
From time to time our ranks were depleted as men were called up for
regular army service, and predominantly we became a rather elderly
body, most of whom were keen as mustard. In the early stages
of the war, all wardens were called out on every alert, sometimes
for five or six consecutive nights, until a rota was formed, whereby
only two or three turned out at the alert, the rest of us only if a
major incident occurred.
I distinctly remember the daylight raid on Luton, and watching
dogfights between our planes and those of the enemy. There
were many local incidents, with high explosive and incendiary bombs
causing death and injury. One very unfortunate incident
occurred at dusk one evening, at Long Marston school. The
scholars had left some ten minutes or so, leaving the schoolmistress
working, when a direct hit demolished the school, killing her.
There was one noted character who came to the Home Guard Dinner.
This was held on the Saturday, and he did not get home until about
1.30 a.m. on the Sunday morning. His wife, of course, had gone
to bed. When he went upstairs he took with him a very large
pony umbrella, and laid it on the bed. His wife woke up, and
saw it. “What on earth have you brought that thing up for?”
she asked. “Well, old girl,” was his reply, “I knew there’d be
a bit of a storm so I thought I’d come prepared!”
During the war, holidays anywhere near the coast were forbidden, and
in any case, with my air raid warden’s commitments, and the Home
Guard, not to mention the responsibility of the mill, I found it
almost impossible to get away. Whenever I could, during the
fishing season, I would deal with the mail at the office, then dash
off to Wilstone reservoir, having previously arranged to hire a
punt, and fish, often until nightfall. There, I could forget
my cares and worries and relax, free from incessant phone calls!
While out there on the water, however, I did have a few moments of
dread, and a feeling of complete helplessness. It was later in
the war, at the outset of the German ‘doodlebug’ onslaught (unmanned
flying bombs), when on two separate occasions I heard them, and
heard the motor cut out, and all I could do was sit and await the
outcome. Fortunately, both landed harmlessly on farmland, some
At one period, in Tring we had particularly harrowing air raid
alerts, and bombs, so much so that my mother decided to visit the
farm at High Wycombe, hoping for a bit of peace and quiet.
Alas, the very first night of her visit a landmine fell within three
hundred yards of the farmhouse. Fortunately it failed to
explode, but she and the others were all evacuated to the pub at the
end of the lane, some half a mile away. I motored over to
bring her back home, and by that time sappers (bomb disposal people
from the Royal Engineers) had dug some 12 feet or so in the ground
to reach the bomb, and had removed the detonator. I was
allowed to go down and inspect it, but I should have been less eager
had I known that when it was hauled to the surface the bomb was
found to contain a further detonator, of a type previously unknown,
and quite unaware of this a sapper had given the outer casing a good
hefty swipe, sufficient to fracture it − luckily without causing the
bomb to explode!
THE FARMERS’ DISCUSSION SOCIETY
During the war years, and for some years afterwards, I acted as
organiser/secretary for a farmers’ discussion society, in which we
held monthly evening meetings, sometimes with guest speakers, or
panels for Brains Trusts, which were most enjoyable and stimulating.
The highlight was when the late A. G. (Arthur) Street came to
address us at Tring. We threw the meeting open to the general
public, and the Victoria Hall was packed to capacity. The
audience, I believe, would have kept him there until the early
hours, if they could have had their way!
Street, farmer, writer and broadcaster.
Social trips to various venues were also arranged. We visited
Cirencester Agricultural College, to meet the unique Professor Bobby
Boutflour, and various research stations connected with agriculture.
As we had some eighty or so members, a lot of hard work was entailed
to organise everything.
The trip to Cirencester was somewhat hilarious. Petrol was
still rationed at the time, and it had not been possible to visit
the area to check things out in advance. The arrangements were
made by telephone. We were to visit the college at 11 a.m. for
a preliminary session, go into Cirencester for lunch, and return to
the college afterwards. We travelled there in two coaches from
a local firm who traded as ‘Icknield Coaches’.
The morning session at the college went well, and then we re-entered
the coaches to go for lunch, which was arranged at a restaurant,
whose name now escapes me. None of us knew exactly where it
was. However, as the two coaches drove up the main street of
the town a man waved the leading coach down, and ushered us into a
room attached to the Baptist church, where places were laid for
sixty people. Our actual number was seventy-two, but the
waiters said they could lay up the extra places, and we sat down and
began to eat our soup, only to be confronted by the frantic owner of
the restaurant at which we had booked, who was all ready, but with
Principal, Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester.
Everybody else hastily departed
to our correct feeding place, while I stayed behind and tried to
sort things out at the Baptist hall. It turned out that, by
coincidence, a party of about sixty had booked there for lunch prior
to a meeting, and were coming from a village many miles away with a
name like ‘Icknell’. Seeing ‘Icknield’ on the front of our
coaches the caretaker had assumed we were his party. However,
I gave him £5 (a reasonable sum in those days!) to adjust matters a
bit, and hastened off to my lunch at the correct venue.
To round off the day, we went to the New Theatre at Oxford, and
after the show to dinner at the Randolph Hotel, where during the
after dinner speeches I received a good deal of chaff about having
procured two meals for the price of one!
From time to time we held a quiz competition between our own team
and another, usually drawn from National Farmers Union branches from
the surrounding district. An amusing incident occurred on one
of these occasions. One member of the opposing team was a
rather pompous farm manager for a large estate. The question
master asked him: “What is the gestation period of a mule?” “Ah,
you’re not catching me on that one,” was the reply, “It’s two
years.” During the ensuing laughter I felt sorry for the poor
devil. Mules, of course, can’t breed.
On another occasion, I arranged
for a Brains Trust with a panel of lady farmers, one of whom was
Mrs. Barbara Woodhouse, who kept a herd of Jersey cows at Stoke
Mandeville (and who subsequently became a notability on television).
Another panellist ran a herd of pedigree Shorthorns, and a third had
a mixed herd. To begin with all was very ladylike, but when
Barbara Woodhouse disparaged the Shorthorns as ‘absolutely useless,
weigh about a ton, eat their heads off, and yield about a gallon a
day of watery milk’, battle was fairly joined!
“Well, that’s better than your miserable little donkey-sized
Jerseys. You have to cover them up with rugs and blankets in
the winter, to stop them being blown away!” As Barbara
Woodhouse did indeed cover her cows with what looked like horse
rugs, it was a good response. The audience of farmers were
thrilled, and kept throwing a little wood on the fire, so to speak,
to keep the ‘discussion’ alive. That session was one of our
Professor Bobby Boutflour was, in the 1930s, a most controversial
lecturer, advocating scrapping all the old methods of cattle
management. For example, at that time mangel wurzels were
widely grown for cattle fodder. “Ninety per cent water, and
waste of good ground to grow them,” was his opinion. He was
also a strong advocate of what was then heresy − the use of
artificial fertilizers. He was one of the speakers who came to
address one of our monthly meetings, and although by that time his
ideas were more generally accepted, one of our farmer members, who
kept a flock of Western Horn sheep, could hardly contain himself.
At question time he was first on his feet. “Mr. Chairman,” he
said, “I‘ve heard some lectures in my time, but never have I heard
such twaddle as that man has spoken. If one of my old ewes
went over the ground and farted it would do more good than his
artificial manure!” As you see, we had our moments!
THE MILL UNDER WAR CONDITIONS
The effect of the war on the mill [Ed. now Heygates Flour Mill,
Tring] was instant and shattering. We came under the
direct control of the Ministry of Food, who issued an endless stream
of S. R. & Os (Statutory Rules and Orders), which sometimes
contained twenty or thirty pages of closely printed instructions and
regulations, all couched in such legal jargon and phraseology as to
be almost incomprehensible. You needed the help of a lawyer to
decipher it all, so much so that one wag succinctly observed ”You
don’t make a mistake today, you commit an offence!”.
The mill was now run on a constant 24 hours, 7 days a week basis.
The men worked 8 hour shifts − 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.,
and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. again, and these were worked on a rotation
basis, so that each man worked a different shift each week, on a
3-week cycle. The only stops were made for essential repairs
and maintenance, but to get parts and machinery replacements you had
to sign applications ad nauseam to obtain a licence.
Even then you had to use every wile and trick known to man to
actually get the stuff! I have personally travelled 150 miles
or so to fetch a particular part.
Unfortunately Harold Saunders, the flour traveller, died in 1940,
and a few months later Teddy Clarke also died. Replacement
staff had to be employed, and we were lucky to get an accountant,
who came out of retirement to help, and we also found a flour
traveller who was exempt from war service, but every firm then was
having staffing troubles, as so many were in the services, or
munitions, or other war jobs.
Soon, all animal feeding stuffs were strictly rationed.
Coupons were issued to all owners of livestock, the number of
coupons being apportioned from returns made in previous years to a
government department, and depending on numbers and type of stock.
Beef farmers, for instance, fared very badly, as they were expected
to make full use of their grazing land, whilst producers of milk
were in a much better position.
The coupons were valid for the month of issue and the subsequent
month only, and a strict account had to be kept of each transaction.
Officially, no customer was to become ‘overdrawn’ so to speak.
The coupons then had to be tabulated by us on special forms, fully
detailing the number and value of each coupon, and the quantity and
type of feeding stuffs supplied against it. Different forms
were required for the different types of feed -cereals, protein,
etc. The forms then had to be submitted to a central area
office, in our case Cambridge. On submission of the tabulated
forms to Cambridge, we were issued with Buying Permits, to enable us
to purchase more feeds for sale. At the end of each month,
these again had to be tabulated.
Under Ministry control the quality of flour was gradually lowered.
White flour became unobtainable, and the resultant output of
‘national’ flour produced a ‘standard’ loaf of a dingy grey crumb.
OFFICIALDOM, RATIONING AND THE BLACK MARKET
At one time the chief officer at Cambridge was a fiend of a
bureaucrat, and every pettifogging little detail of the regulations
had to be conformed to. On one occasion I had an excess of 28
lbs. of face value on the coupon returns I submitted, and my
‘friend’ at Cambridge refused to accept other than an exact balance
on the forms, and sent the offending one back. I telephoned
him, explaining the difficulties in getting a balance to the exact
pound every time, but he still said he would refuse to accept, so I
said ”Right, then, I shall just blot out the quarter of a
hundredweight, and re-submit.” I was immediately told this
would be an offence!
Hinting that I had a friend in high office at the Ministry, I called
his bluff and got my Buying Permits.
We stored for the Ministry, at one time, 50 tons of groundnut meal,
but on making application myself for 10 tons of this product, I was
given instructions to draw it from a similar store at Kings Langley
Mills. On phoning them, I found that by sheer coincidence they
had been issued with an order to draw 10 tons from us!
Upon phoning my ‘friend’ at Cambridge, suggesting a simple exchange
of documents, I was told that on no account could this be done, as
it was against regulations to draw from one’s own store. At
this I fear I ‘blew up’. “You can do what the hell you like,
but that is what will happen,” I told him. “If you think that
with petrol strictly rationed, and a lack of labour, I am going to
Kings Langley, just for them to come here, you had better get your
bumps read!” What we business men had to suffer from
officialdom in the form of such inexperienced little fellows like
him was nobody’s business.
Rationing was strictly enforced for most foods for human
consumption, as well as stock feeding, not to mention fuel,
including petrol, and also clothing, etc., all governed by the issue
of coupons. Members of the public were permitted to form a
‘pig club’, who could, under strict regulations, obtain coupons to
get food for their stock. All members joining the club had to
take an active part in it, either by helping feed the animals,
cleaning out the sty, acting as treasurer, or what have you.
They were then entitled to receive some of the pork when a pig was
It was inevitable that, with all these rules and regulations, a
‘black market’ would be in operation, and many were the clever ruses
employed to circumvent the law. One farmer, with whom I did
business legitimately, was anti-officialdom in every respect, and
took delight in trying to evade restrictions. He recounted to
me, among others, two instances of this.
During the nineteen thirties a Milk Marketing Board had been formed,
to establish a more regular system of milk production, and financial
return to farmers. Each producer of milk was nominated to
supply one particular retailer, or depot, and a ceiling was imposed
on the gallonage to be supplied. Thus, any excess production
officially had no outlet.
Word somehow reached the officials that the farmer concerned, who I
knew as Arthur, was delivering milk on a regular basis to a retailer
in an adjacent town. One morning, when coming to work at 6
a.m., one of his men told him there was a man sitting in the hedge
at the bottom of the farm road. Arthur thanked him, and later
sent the official milk, as usual, while at the same time, went
himself with the ‘illegal’ surplus milk. Instead of going by
the farm road, however, he left by a ‘baulk’ (a track by the side of
a field) which gave access to a by-road on the other side of the
farm. When the snooper saw the empty lorry return later, he
realised he had been outwitted. However, some time later
Arthur was caught, and appeared subsequently in the local court, and
was fined accordingly.
He was also, however, involved in the slaughter of pigs for the
black market. Three pigs had been killed, and gutted in an
outhouse, and the carcases delivered to the butcher. The
outhouse was being hosed down to clean up the traces of blood, when
two enforcement officers arrived. They thought they had caught
him red-handed, so to speak, and searched the premises and the
farmhouse, for sign of the pig entrails, without success.
There was a large heap of farmyard manure nearby, so they enlisted
the aid of a body of policemen to turn it over, thinking that the
entrails, etc., had been covered up in the manure. Gradually
the day got warmer and warmer as they toiled, causing them to sweat
profusely. Pausing from his work to watch them for a moment,
Arthur observed: “I should like to offer you fellows some beer, but
I’d better not. I should be suspected of doing something
When I enquired how he had ‘covered up’, he said: “If ever you want
to get rid of stuff like that pronto, chuck it to the sows.
It’s gone in a couple of minutes.” Then he chuckled.
“The old sows were looking over the sty, laughing at them!”
Nearly all animals are inquisitive, and will take an interest in any
unusual activity. I heard of one instance where a regular
delivery of black market meat had been delivered to a large country
hotel by hearse, until one astute bobby thought it unusual for a
hearse to be making such frequent journeys to the same place, and
took particular note. He observed that the flowers on the
coffin were somewhat jaded, and made enquiries, and that ended that
Another laughable instance involved a farmer who supplied his local
pub with meat from time to time. Calling in for a drink one
day, the landlord asked him if there was anything ‘moving’.
“Yes,” replied the farmer. “I’ve got two hanging up in the
cellar. I’ll be down later on.” Two strangers in the pub
had pricked up their ears, and shortly afterwards went to the
farmer, saying they were enforcement officers from the Ministry of
Food. Losing his nerve, the farmer admitted he had killed two
pigs, and helped the ‘officers’ to load the evidence into the boot
of their car. They drove off, telling the farmer he would hear
from them later. Two ‘wide boys’ had done very well for
themselves, as, of course, he never heard from them, or saw any more
of his pork!
Many farmers take a pernicious delight in outwitting officialdom,
often against their own best interests. In 1941, owing to an
outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a standstill order on all stock
within a 25-mile radius of the infected premises was imposed, to try
and prevent the spread of this very virulent infection.
Attending Thame market, therefore, I knew that any stock there would
be for immediate slaughter.
I was doing business with one smallholder when a friend of his
joined us. “Damned nuisance, this foot and mouth,” he said.
“I’ve got two sties empty, and could do with some store pigs.”
His friend had recently bought an old deep bodied taxicab, which he
used for transport. “I’ll bring you twelve good ‘uns this
evening, Joe. I’ll give ‘em something to keep ‘em quiet.
If the bobby sees my old cab, he won’t suspect nothing,” he said.
You had to learn to keep your mouth shut at such times but foot and
mouth is not a disease to be trifled with, and it was a risky thing
It was fairly common knowledge that one man, who dealt in all sorts
of things, was in the black market for eggs. Occasionally he
would visit the matron of the local hospital, saying that he had
cadged a few from his farm friends for her patients.
Inevitably he was stopped one day, with eggs in his car. He
loudly disclaimed any suggestion of black market operations, citing
the hospital. He was duly escorted to the hospital, only to be
greeted by the matron: “Oh! How kind of you, Mr. . . . , to
bring us a few more eggs.” He had certainly found a good
Petrol was in short supply, and to save it all flour deliveries were
zoned. At that time nearly every town had at least one flour
mill, and many had more than one. Apart from the large port
mills and much smaller ones such as our own, there were also many
windmills still producing commercially. It is a fact that
before 1939 there were well over one thousand flour mills in
business in England. Today the figure is less considerably
less than one hundred.
Under zoning, all mills were restricted to deliveries in a small
area in their immediate vicinity and I had quite a job arguing with
the Ministry to enable us to continue to deliver to some of our best
customers, even though they were not too far distant. I should
explain that although of military age, I was in essential food
production, and also held two secret appointments under the Ministry
of Food, whereby should an emergency arise I would be responsible
for ensuring flour and feeding stuffs would continue to be
distributed, and I had the power to commandeer supplies and
transport as necessary. It carried great responsibility, but
fortunately things did not get to that state. Nevertheless, I
was officially exempted from military service.
CHANGES AT THE MILL
The war, with all its problems, was very stressful, and then in 1940
my father died. I was the only one of the three children still
living in Tring − both Bill and Alice were married and living in
other parts of the country, and everything devolved upon me.
It was a very upsetting time. I was fully stretched, working
long hours, and one evening, when I was in the office alone, the
Governor came in, and out of the blue said: “Chikko, I’m giving you
400 shares in the Company.”
Some six weeks passed, and I reminded him of his promise. He
then brought the share certificate to me, but I had to ask him to
sign it! Regrettably, a few months later, in 1941, he died.
His gesture in giving me the shares now proved to have been very
wise. Unfortunately, the Governor’s last will had not been
correctly witnessed and was invalid. The valid will had been
drawn up some 30 years earlier, when he had appointed two executors
and trustees. Of these, one had become an alcoholic, and the
other, a previous director of Hovis Ltd., had retired, and lived in
Lincolnshire. His name was Thomson.
Mrs. Mead now possessed the majority shareholding, with her two
daughters and myself as the minor shareholders. Owing to
illness, Mrs. Mead was incapable of giving any help. She would
pay infrequent visits to the mill, spend a few hours, and return
home. There ensued for me a most difficult period.
We had always employed a mill manager, who was in charge of flour
production, and after the Governor’s death I became general manager
overall. The then mill manager was a friend of the Mead
family, and he took the attitude of ‘the Ministry of Food will pay.’
Inevitably, all the mill staff became imbued with the same outlook
and the business began to suffer.
After two years, I wrote to Mr. Thomson and said when he next
visited us I would welcome a serious chat with him. When we
did meet I fear I was very forthright and told him that in effect he
was neglecting his duty as an executor and trustee, to which he
replied that he had never wanted the job and he would take legal
advice to relinquish it. A meeting was subsequently arranged
at the Mill House between the shareholders (Mrs. Mead, her two
daughters and myself) and Mr. Thomson. The chief clerk of the
company accountants was also present to hold a watching brief.
Mr. Thomson stated that, on legal advice, he wished to retire as
trustee and would suggest another person to act, which, if
acceptable to the shareholders, would be quite legal.
Challenged by me to name his nominee, he said that I knew the
suggested person quite well, as he was a flour miller in his own
right, with a mill some thirty miles distant. I then pointed
out that he also had a branch corn merchant’s business in our own
locality. I asked for clarification of the position, because,
as I saw it, if we accepted his nominee, and that man then elected
to offer to buy our business at even a nominal sum, he would have
the power to do so. Mr. Thomson replied that I was very naive
and had not considered the matter honestly. On behalf of Mrs.
Mead and her daughters, I objected most strongly.
The clerk to the accountants said he would have to report back to
his head office. The response from Mr. Thomson was most
emphatic: ‘‘Then we’ll sell the business on the open market!’’.
The following day I wrote to him stating that I was interested in
negotiating to buy the business myself; I had a shooting colleague
who would finance me in the person of Mr. Francis Hock, of Singer &
Friedlander, the well known bankers. I was given the complete
‘cold shoulder’, and over the next few weeks was interviewed by
prospective buyers, including two gentlemen from Hovis Ltd.
After the meeting at the Mill House, and my subsequent letter to
him, the only contact I had was when he approached me saying that my
shares were proving a handicap in the sale negotiations, and the
trustees were prepared to make me a fair offer for them. “We
think par would be very fair,” he said. I was furious.
“I prefer to have no further dealings with you,” I told him.
“You are insulting my intelligence. The business has been
under my sole control for the past two years, with no help at all
from you. I have such regard for the Mead family that I would
rather give the damned shares to you!”
Then, early in July, 1943, I returned from a busy day on the Mark
Lane Corn Exchange, having also been selling flour on both my
outward and inward journeys, and on coming into the office was
introduced to a Mr. Robert Heygate. This gentleman said he
wished to consult me about the purchase of English grain from the
coming harvest. “In what connection, may I ask?” I enquired.
“My family has bought the business of Wm. N. Mead Ltd., and has paid
a deposit,” was the startling reply. “Well, you haven’t bought
me with it, have you?” I responded. I suggested that we should
talk after I had dealt with all the affairs of my London trip, and
if he would accompany me to my home for tea we could converse
without interruption. Subsequent to my meeting with Robert
Heygate I agreed to travel down to their family mill at Bugbrooke,
Northampton, to meet his father and elder brother Jack. I
liked what I saw there. A family firm, they had employees with
upwards of 50 years in their service, which told its own story.
I agreed to continue to manage the Tring business, but much of the
previous responsibility was off my shoulders. From the outset
the Heygates placed implicit trust in me and, as formerly, I
continued to be the sole signatory for cheques, etc. After
consultation, it was agreed that for the time being the Tring mill
would continue trading under the name of Wm. N. Mead Ltd; three
years later the trading title was revised to Meads Flour Mills Ltd.,
still with me in charge, and we continued under this name for a
number of years.
Despite the limitations of continued Ministry control and shortages
due to the war, I liked the Heygate approach, which was: “What can
we do to modernise,” rather than the old Governor’s “Make do and
At that time we had one access only to the premises, which was very
irksome. Robert Heygate paid fairly regular visits to Tring,
and one day he approached me. “R. S.” he said (that was how I
was now referred to!) “If you had bought the business, what
would have been you first improvement?” “To gain a second
entrance,” I replied. “What are the prospects?” was his next
enquiry. “Pretty grim!” was my view. There was no room
for a second entrance on our existing land. The one entrance
we had was between the Mill House building and the mill cottages.
The cottages extended to the canal bridge and there was a wall built
from the Mill House garden fence to the mill building, marking the
edge of our land. Beyond this wall was a paddock belonging to
the Rothschild family.
For the next twelve months or so I wrote repeatedly to Lord
Rothschild to get his agreement to sell us a small strip of this
paddock for the required entrance. Eventually I received
permission to contact Major Fellowes, Lord Rothschild’s agent at
Bury St. Edmunds, which I did, and a site meeting was arranged for
1.30 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.
We had by then just started to supplement the barge deliveries of
imported wheat by using contractor’s lorries to fetch it from the
London Docks − in bags, of course. Bulk deliveries didn’t
start until several years later. The wheat intake then was at
the front of the mill and I arranged for the three lorries we then
owned to be parked there, and for a contractor’s lorry loaded with
wheat to arrive in the yard at 1.40 p.m. I had to agree to pay
all overtime charges for the driver’s time, etc.!
Major Fellowes and his clerk arrived promptly, and while we were
looking round this lorry arrived and, of course, couldn’t get near
the unloading point. “Look, sir,” I said. “You couldn’t
have a more graphic illustration of our difficulties. We
haven’t room to move. This lorry has been delayed and it must
be unloaded to be available for work on Monday. I shall have
to get a man to move our vehicles first. This yard just isn’t
The upshot was that I had permission to contact their local agent,
Merry’s Estate Agents of Leighton Buzzard, to arrange matters with
them. Mr. Merry and his assistant duly arrived and began
measuring off a portion of the paddock. However, this paddock,
which was let to a local farmer, already had an iron rail fence
dividing it roughly in half. I suggested that perhaps it would
possible for us to have the parcel of land on our side of that
existing fence. This was agreed, with the proviso that we must
negotiate with the farmer to compensate him for his loss of grazing
land. This I did successfully and we thus acquired ground with a
road frontage of 150 feet and a depth of three or four hundred
yards, widening towards the rear, where it curved round the canal.
Immediately we had possession we erected a 10 ft. high chain link
fence to define our boundary and a line of trees was planted to
relieve the starkness. These, unfortunately, are no longer
there, but the fence is!
As soon as our deal was complete Tring Urban District Council
slapped a Compulsory Purchase Order on the Rothschild estate for the
rest of the paddock for building council houses. Until I had
shown the way, I don’t think they had thought of such an order!
Our new entrance was constructed and today is the only entrance to
the mill. As controls gradually eased after the end of the
war, the mill was remodelled, production increased, and the business
generally grew steadily.
In 1947, the Ministry of Food accountants requested many statistics
prior to finalising the accounts for the control years. My
final share of the profits for those years was assessed as £1,157.
On submission of my tax returns, the authorities at the Watford
regional office demanded P.A.Y.E. on the total of that payment in
the one financial year. To this I strongly objected. In
some years from 1939 to 1946, the control years, there had been a
loss, and on this basis I said I was prepared to have each year
assessed separately, but they continued to insist on deductions in
the one year. I consulted an accountant, but he was unable to
get settlement on my terms. Eventually he served notice on the
firm’s accountants that if they paid me on the reduced sum I would
sue them. He followed this up by writing to the Tax
Commissioners to say that I would be suing them for Vexatious
Conduct in withholding my rightful dues. The Commissioners
subsequently gave their decision that I was not responsible for the
position; thus, the full sum, without deduction, was to be paid to
me. A very good decision! My accountant friend charged
me 100 guineas for professional services, which was fair enough!
During the two years following the end of the war conditions
gradually returned to normal, with supplies no longer restricted by
rationing. Good salesmanship once again became essential, in
both flour and feeding stuffs. Bread production was no longer
limited to the national loaf and became profitable, and we began to
lose the custom of one or two medium-sized bakers who had been
bought out by the large milling companies, such as Ranks and
Spillers. Accordingly, I approached the Garfield-Weston group
of Associated Family Bakers with success and my sales to them became
so large that I saw the danger of becoming too dependant upon them
when they were in a position to pressure us price wise.
The old adage “Never put all your eggs in one basket” became
relevant. In consequence I concentrated on selling flour to
smaller bakeries in London and other large towns. It was just
as well, because Garfield Weston − an outstanding business man −
felt vulnerable from the efforts of Ranks and Spillers and began
buying flour mills of his own. Today the organisation not only
produces flour for their own bakeries, they sell their excess
production to independent bakeries.
As things gradually got back to normal trading after the war other
things began happening to my family. Sadly, my mother died in
1950, a very traumatic time. My daughters, now growing up
rapidly, started seeing boyfriends. The elder, Valerie,
married in 1956 and Brenda, the younger, in 1958. Valerie
married a professor of horticulture at the University of Essex, and
moved to the Colchester area, where she still lives, although her
husband has now retired. Brenda, who married the son of a
local farmer, had always been interested in catering for parties,
etc., and she and her husband and their four boys now own and run a
very successful hotel in Appleby. At the time of writing I
have five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren!
I enjoyed my work at the mill, with its constant challenge, and
enjoyed friendship with many good farmer and baker customers.
I always tried to be fair in my dealings, although naturally was
called a robber, a parasite, and a few other names, as is the way of
farmers, all in good part. I finally retired from the mill in
1972 after 48 years there. I am pleased to be able to say that
many of my customers remained friends, and often said what a
pleasure it had been to do business with me.
WORK IN THE COMMUNITY
In 1939, when 24 years of age, I was appointed a Governor of Tring
School, on which board I served until 1973, and was for some years
Chairman. In 1940, I became a committee member of the Herts &
Essex Corn Merchants Association, and was chairman of that body for
some years. In 1945 I was persuaded to stand for election to
Tring Urban District Council and was successful in the poll. I
served for 28 years, acting from time to time as chairman of various
committees, and as Chairman of the full Council for one year on four
The Rev. Ralph Seymour
SEVEN VICARS OF TRING
THOMAS VERNON GARNIER
WILLIAM THOMAS REES
JOHN PAYNE COOK
THE REVD HENRY FRANCIS
From a choirboy at the age of nine years, I have served in the Tring
Parish in various duties, and to-date will have done so under seven
vicars. The Reverend Henry Francis was Vicar at the time of my
joining the choir.
Walking home with my father one evening, we met an old man, a Mr
Lines. ‘Hello, Bill,’ he said to my father. ‘Is this one
of your nippers?’ ‘Yes’, Father said. ‘We have just left
choir practice’, to which he replied, ‘You know, my boy, I was in
the choir before it was a choir’. Naturally I was puzzled, but
Father explained. Until the year 1900, the chancel was quite
clear of stalls, so the choir occupied the two front rows of pews.
The Revd Henry Francis came to the parish in 1903. He was a
bachelor and lived with his sister in the old vicarage (now part of
Sutton Housing Trust). He was a very sincere and dedicated
man, known for his pastoral visits. He invariably wore dark
grey suits with Norfolk style jackets with long pockets.
During his incumbency the choir flourished. We were
accompanied by a piped organ and sat in the oak benches as now.
There was also a very active Church Lads Brigade complete with
trumpet band in the charge of the then curate, who was the father of
the late Christopher Slemeck.
Congregations were quite large from a town population of about
4,000. The clergy were kept busy at major festivals.
There were celebrations of Holy Communion at 6.00am, 7.00am and
8.00am. At 11.00am there was Matins at which Sunday School
scholars attended, but left during the singing of the third hymn
before the sermon. Once, each month, there was a Sung
Eucharist at 12.00 midday. The sermons were of greater length
than today: thirty minutes duration at Evensong was the normal
practice. The electric lighting was from storage cells housed
in the small lodge by the vicarage gate. In the winter during
the sermons, half the lights were turned off to conserve
electricity. This ultra-dim lighting was an opportunity for us
choir boys to get into mischief. I was known as ‘Angel Face’,
but believe me, that was just a façade.
At times, the giggling and larking about tended to get a bit out of
hand. When this happened, one of the choirmen who sat
immediately behind me and my pal, Bill Richards, would push his hymn
book through the arch of the stalls and prod us in the small of the
back. This was not very pleasant, particularly because he was
a bit short-sighted and used a large print edition. One
evening I consulted Bill Richards. ‘If old Harry starts to use
his hymn book again’, I said, ‘we shall hear his surplice rustle as
he comes forward. You lean over one side and I’ll lean over
the other side’. Later in the service, all happened as
planned. We heard the rustle, and when he attempted to prod
us, he met with no resistance and lost his grip, and the book
somersaulted to land flat on its side on the tiles of the chancel
floor. The consequent loud report boomed round the church.
After the dispersal prayer in the choir vestry, the vicar asked,
‘What on earth happened during my sermon? I thought a gun had
been fired’. ‘I am very sorry’ poor old Harry admitted, ‘I
just wanted to poke one of the choirboys in the back with my hymn
book and it slipped out of my hand’. ‘Don’t you ever do that
again. It was most distracting.’ One up to ‘Angel Face’.
There was a very active Sunday School, enlivened by occasional tea
parties with prize giving etc. The organisation of these was
always the province of Mrs Minall, who was the widow of the
taxidermist at the Rothschild museum. She was a complete
martinet whose word was law. She had the Revd Francis
completely subdued, but was a wonderful organiser. The
outbreak of the 1914-18 war brought many changes, but Henry Francis
was with us until the Revd J. V. Garnier came to us in 1919.
THE REVD THOMAS VERNON GARNIER
Revd Garnier came to Tring in 1919 when the Revd Francis retired,
and like him, was also a bachelor, but he employed two menservants.
He originally lived in the new vicarage on Mortimer Hill (later
demolished) but erelong moved to occupy Braybrooke, a Victorian
house in upper Western Road.
He was always impeccably dressed, due perhaps to his French origins,
for he came from a very old French family of which he and one
brother remained. He used a cycle for going round the parish,
and when at the church, he invariably stored it in the small room
just inside the old large vicarage gate which was kept closed.
Access was by a small wicket gate.
One Friday evening as he arrived for choir practice and began to
negotiate the small gate, Edward Bell remarked, ‘You know Vicar, you
remind me of the Bible story of the camel going through the eye of
the needle’. Fortunately he had a good sense of humour.
He frankly admitted to those of us who shared his confidence that he
was no preacher but his sermons delivered with such obvious nervous
strain had the advantage of brevity. He was much loved for his
pastoral visits, particularly to the sick.
He sometimes phrased his observations somewhat clumsily, and rumour
has it that calling on an old lady in New Mill in November when the
weather had turned colder, he remarked ‘Winter draws on, Mrs
Simmons’, to which she replied, ‘Not yet, Sir, but I shan’t be
After the ravages of the First World War, the choir was now back to
strength, and it became the custom to have an annual outing to a
seaside town. A special train was arranged, starting from
Leighton Buzzard, which collected choirs from each station until
Boxmoor. At Tring this entailed the use of a horse-drawn
wagonette to take the choir to the station. On one occasion
the venue was Aberystwyth, which entailed a very early start.
The organ blower’s aid was enlisted to make a round of choir members
on his cycle to wake them up. Unfortunately, after doing this,
he had half an hour to spare, and sat down in his armchair – and
went to sleep missing the trip himself! On another trip the
same old fellow on his way to the station yelled out, ‘Halt, halt!
Me tickets are in the clock’. However after looking carefully,
he found he had his tickets after all.
The Revd Garnier had one brother of much the same age as himself,
about forty. Both of them realised that time was
slipping by, and if they did nothing about it, there would be no
heir to the name of Garnier. According to hearsay, it fell to the
lot of Thomas, our vicar, to take steps to rectify the matter.
However that may be, he suddenly became a constant visitor to the
family of a retired tea planter with four children, the eldest of
whom was a beautiful young lady nearing her 21st birthday. In
due course his engagement to marry Helen was announced. Later,
he and his bride moved to a living in Norfolk, where an heir was
forthcoming with the addition of a small family. We had
noticed a slackening of his normal rather austere manner, but none
the less it came as a surprise when he was asked to give a speech at
the annual dinner of the Operatic and Dramatic Society. On
rising to speak he pronounced, ‘An after dinner speech should be
like a lady’s dress: long enough to cover the subject, but short
enough to be interesting’. During the eleven years he spent in
Tring he became a much-loved and respected parish priest.
THE REVD CLAUDE WOOD
In 1930 the Reverend Claude Wood came to us from a large parish in
Croydon and was to be with us for the next twelve years. He
was related to the Williams family of Pendley Manor who held the
patronage of the living.
His father was for many years the Rector of Aldbury and lived in the
beautiful new red brick Rectory at the foot of Toms Hill.
Claude Wood was handicapped by a slight physical disability but that
was never allowed to interfere with his untiring devotion to duty.
He was an outstanding preacher and firmly held the attention of his
congregation. Only this week I met an old friend in the town
who remarked, ‘I shall always remember him for his outstanding
sermons’. He was a very earnest, rather sober man who became
much loved during his ministry here.
During the winter months he was sometimes afflicted by a slight
hoarseness, but nevertheless it was his regular custom to read the
‘Office’ for the day from his desk in the Chancel, and this was not
altered. At that time we had a silvery-haired verger who,
during the reading of the ‘Office’, occupied his official seat
remotely by the South door. The Vicar thought it foolish of
him to strain his throat, so he broke off, ‘Smith, would you please
come up and sit a little nearer.’ The response from Smith was,
‘And our mouth shall show forth Thy praise’.
Co-incidentally, the Vicar’s chief warden was also called Smith (the
chemist). He had to meet the vicar one evening at the vicarage
and was pleased to be given a glass of sherry before the discussion
started. When business was over the vicar said quite
unconsciously, ‘Smith, will you have another sherry before you go?’
Smith took this as the hint that he was now to depart, and hurried
away, making a polite refusal.
Claude Wood had a very charming wife and four children. The
ladies of the parish were delighted to welcome a vicar with a wife
and family after two bachelor priests. The members of the
Mothers’ Union were particularly thrilled when Mrs Wood became a
member and subsequently enrolling President.
After nearly twelve years we were all sorry when Claude Wood moved
from Tring to become Suffragen Bishop of Bedford. Shortly
after his leaving, and at his instigation, I was approached by the
late Canon Wold to seriously consider becoming a Reader, and that is
why I became what was then known as a Lay Reader attached to Tring
Parish. A year later I was appointed as a Diocesan Reader.
THE REVD WILLIAM THOMAS REES
In 1942 William Thomas Rees came to the parish together with his
wife and sister, who made her home with them. Her husband
Captain Roberts was away sailing the Orontes Liner to and from
Australia. Mrs Rees was unable to take an active part in the
parish due to indifferent health.
Captain Roberts’ wife was a delightful person and during the war,
worked at the National Westminster Bank in Tring as cashier.
Her engaging personality endeared her to many people. Bill
Rees was a realist, and insisted on bright cheerful services and
hymns, and sermons of no more than ten minutes duration. It
was his custom from time to time after Matins to invite selected
members of the congregation to go to the vicarage for sherry.
Also during his incumbency, he arranged for noted professional
artistes to give mid-week recitals in the Parish Church. On
one occasion the Church was packed to hear Mary Jarrad the famous
contralto, and her husband, the famous organist Dr Thalben-Ball.
Subsequently it was found that the organ badly needed overhaul and
repair. This was impossible due to wartime demands, to obtain
either the craftsmen or the necessary materials. Bill Rees
asked for my opinion as to what could be done, and I reluctantly
said that the only alternative was to buy an electric Hammond organ
until such time as the piped organ could be repaired after the war.
The major obstacle would be to obtain the requisite ‘faculty’.
The vicar and I saw the then ‘Chancellor’, Sir Harry Vaisey, who was
then living at ‘Hollyfield’, and by pleading our cause, persuaded
him to grant permission. Our amateur organist at the time was
the late Wilfred Davies. The organ was duly installed near the
Lady Chapel, and he played it brilliantly. After initial
criticism it was generally accepted. Financially it cost £900,
and was sold after the war for £2,000 or thereabouts.
Bill Rees had come to us from Cheddington, where he had become
popular with the Shand-Kydd family and the Stoddards. This
friendship continued after he came to Tring, and he was rather
naughty in that he would sometimes phone me on the Saturday to take
Evensong at the Parish or New Mill church. I soon rumbled that
the ‘emergency’ was to allow him to attend a sherry or dinner party
with these friends. Thus I told him that unless I knew by
Tuesday, he would be unlucky. ‘Alright, Dr Spurgeon’, he
replied, but I undertook to call at the Vicarage on Tuesday evenings
to ensure no misunderstandings.
He was an inveterate practical joker and leg puller, and on one
occasion I was well and truly hoaxed, much to his enjoyment. I
promised to get my own back. He was a poultry expert and
judge, and he kept some pedigree fowls in fowl houses on the
vicarage grounds. He employed a handy-man named Jack Reeve who
was very deaf. On walking up the drive on this Tuesday evening
I met the curate Jack Davis. ‘Are you going to see the
old man?’ he asked. ‘If so, watch your step, he’s raving mad.’
Before going to a meeting this morning, he told Jack to knock down a
particular fowl house for firewood, and Jack knocked down the wrong
one. I was delighted to hear this. As usual he enquired
after my wellbeing, to which I replied that I was not feeling too
well as I had a spot of domestic trouble. ‘My dear fellow, I
just don’t believe it. Let me get you a glass of sherry, and
tell me all about it’. I replied that I was having problems at
home due to lack of …
THE REVD KENNETH LOWDELL
Canon Kenneth Lowdell came to us from Golders Green in 1947, a
typical London parish where people in the streets seldom spoke to
one another and to which he had become accustomed. In
consequence, when he passed parishioners here, and failed to greet
them, he was thought to be ‘snooty’ and unsociable. However,
he quickly became aware of this and ‘mended his ways’ as it were.
When he came to us he had four children and when John, his elder
son, was asked how many brothers and sisters he had he replied, ‘We
have two ordinaries and two utilities’. In other words two who
were born before the outbreak of war, and the other two during the
war years, when utility was in general use. There was Jane the
first born, then Jon and Paul and Anna, to be followed by Robert and
Francis who were both born in Tring.
The new vicarage built on Mortimer Hill had been pulled down in the
time since the Revd Bill Rees left. The site was bought by Mr
Andrews of Brook Street Garage and sold to a developer. This
ground is now covered with flats and is called Mortimer Rise.
During this time the tenant of the old vicarage died. This was
Mr M. C. Kemp, formerly Headmaster of Harrow school. Two or
three years later, Mrs Kemp moved away from Tring, and so the
vicarage was empty for the use of the Lowdell family.
Mrs Lowdell was a very charming woman, dedicated to her family, and
to such parish activities as she could find time for. She had
a most pleasing soprano voice and had been a member of the BBC
Canon Lowdell himself was completely dedicated to his calling but
had a physical disability due to being wounded in the left foot.
He had been operated on at least nine times and had to wear a
surgical boot, but was still in constant pain. He was a very
determined character and was very reluctant to delegate.
Matters came to head one Eastertide when he was ill and confined to
bed under doctor’s orders. It fell to my lot as senior Reader
to take Matins and preach on Easter Day.
Mrs Lowdell confided in me about his obstinacy, so I had advised her
to make another approach to say that we Readers thought it was
unfair that he did not make much use of us. To her surprise
the stratagem worked and he began to request our help. His
illness was of short duration fortunately and the parish became
accustomed to see him out and about riding his cycle which was his
usual mode of transport.
Consequent on the death of Mrs Lowdell, he retired and went to live
with his daughter Anna at Chartridge. His eighteen years of
service to the parish will be recalled to those of us who remembered
him, with love and affection.
THE REVD DONALD HOWELLS
Following on from Canon Lowdell’s retirement, some months elapsed
before the new incumbent Donald Howells, his wife and sons Robert
and Jeremy, came to us from his previous parish of Knebworth.
This was in 1966.
Shortly after, the Revd Donald Flatt was appointed to serve for the
customary two years as deacon before full ministry. He was
previously estate agent to the Earl of Dudley on his Rickmansworth
estate. At the age of 45 years, he felt the call of the
ministry, and he and his wife Gwendoline and their son and two
daughters took up residence in St Martha’s Lodge. His son
later became an estate agent and practised on the premises of what
was once the George Hotel as Flatt, Mead and Partners.
The two ‘Donalds’ worked extremely well together and both had a good
sense of humour which they sorely needed with me to deal with!
Just prior to Christmas, Donald Howells made an appearance at some
function or other, and in a lapse of memory, went on to say that he
was confident that the people of Knebworth (instead of Tring) would
be generous in their support. On the Sunday after Christmas,
Donald Flatt drew my attention to the notices for the day, as there
was obviously something wrong. Looking over his shoulder, I
pointed out that the notes were for the Sunday after Advent, saying,
‘I reckon I’ve got a ripe couple of Donalds to deal with. Last
week the vicar was referring to his old parish and now you are back
in last year.’
After two years or so, Donald Flatt was appointed to be Vicar of
Wigginton where he was much liked. There ensured a period of
many months before another curate was appointed. Just when it
seemed that an appointment had been made, negotiations fell through
and Donald Howells became frustrated and overworked, for as a reader
my help was somewhat limited. One evening he and Dorothy
joined me for dinner and he said, ‘I was quite confident that at
last an appointment would be made, but alas it was not to be’.
He then went on to say, ‘Why on earth someone like you couldn’t be
ordained, I don’t know’. I replied, ‘Don’t be silly, Donald,
at my age of 67 that would be impossible’.
I pondered deeply and prayed of course. Then Donald made
arrangements for me to see Canon Senar of Little Gaddesden, the
Diocesan Director of Ordinands. He in turn arranged for me to
meet the then Bishop of St Alban’s, Robert Runcie. The outcome
of the discussions was that he would like me to become a ‘guinea
pig’ and become ordained to the ‘Self supporting retirement
ministry’. After much study and attending the normal selection
committee, I had a period of training at Cuddesdon Theological
College and I was ordained as a Deacon in our church in April 1973,
and later to full time priesthood in St Alban’s Abbey in September
of the same year. The stipend was £1 per year.
The twenty-three years which followed until my retirement due to
advancing age, were completely happy and fulfilled. During the
eighteen years I spent with Donald Howells there was a great rapport
between us. One Christmas his family bought him a sheepskin
jacket which made me comment, ‘You know, Donald, the older I get,
the more I see the words of the Bible become true’. ‘In what
way?’ he queried. ‘Another wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ I
Sometime later I went into the vestry to find him looking at old
parish magazines of the 1910-14 period. He remarked, ‘You
know, you old folk were not always correct. I know that this
can’t be right’. He pointed out an entry giving the details of
the Sunday School prize giving. There was the entry: ‘First
Prize for Good Conduct – Ralph Seymour’. One up to Donald!
An interesting item was that on the outer cover of the magazine, a
list of thirty-four district visitors was named. These people
delivered the magazine personally and reported cases of trouble,
sickness and interest back to the vicarage.
THE REVD JOHN PAYNE COOK
After the Revd Donald Howells left us, almost a year passed before
John Payne Cook was appointed. I was then a fully ordained
priest, and thus able to officiate in all the normal duties of an
incumbent. I confess that I was fully stretched, but the
support of the two churchwardens, Paul Van As and Eric
Hollingsworth, was outstanding. This, together with the
understanding and the co-operation of the congregation enabled us to
successfully ‘weather the storm’.
Many of us had known John when he was Priest in Charge of All
Saints’ Church in Berkhamsted, from where he moved to Bow Brickhill
and after eleven years there, came to us in Tring.
Fortunately, he and Mary his wife and family moved into the new
rectory which was built when the Sutton Housing Trust acquired the
original vicarage. Poor Donald Howells and family were at
times perished with cold when living in the old vicarage, wearing
outdoor clothing even in bed.
All John’s children have biblical Christian names: Naomi, Ruth,
Daniel and Hannah. I was surprised when John, on his first
Sunday here, asked me to take the 8.00am (Prayer Book) Communion
service. He explained that for the whole eleven years at Bow
Brickhill, the Alternative Service Book had been used, and so it
would be helpful to him to watch me take the Prayer Book service.
He quickly became accustomed to change, in consequence there was
both an ASB and Prayer Book service available each Sunday.
I am sure that his young family enjoyed a happy adolescence in
Tring, but have now grown up to become sophisticated members of
society. Daniel was (like his father) a very keen cricketer
and a member of Tring Cricket Club.
I am glad to say that there was always a good rapport between John
and me, despite my occasional impertinent remarks. As you will
know I am almost bald, whereas John has a wonderful mane of hair, so
that often I have handed a comb to him so that he could preen
himself before starting a service but coupled with the snide remark
‘Worse than any 14-year old-choirboy’.
His appointment as Rural Dean of the Berkhamsted Deanery was a well
merited appointment as was his elevation to Honorary Canon of St
Alban’s Abbey. He also wrote the Bishop Wood School hymn.
We missed him while he was away on St Kitts, a small island in the
OBITUARY: RALPH SEYMOUR
It is difficult to think of Tring without Ralph, and even more
difficult to think of the Parish Church without him. His
cheerful, often impish presence will be sadly missed, especially by
the older generation. I did not know him as a younger man, but
there was, in the time we have been here, a real sense in which he
remained young in spirit, despite his advancing years. He had
the huge gift of being able to see the amusing side of everything
and the twinkle in his eye remained undimmed. Until he was
ever ninety years old he was continuing to give out love and care to
countless people in their bereavement and his visits were always
welcome. Even when he was unable to get about in the community
he continued his ministry by letter in that splendid handwriting
which also remained entirely legible to the end.
Affectionately known as ‘The Bishop‘, he will long be remembered as
a great Tring character, and as a faithful and devoted friend of
God. I fear there will be a slump in the sale of ‘Fox’s
John Payne Cook
The following letter was received some time ago from Revd Donald
Howells. The letter was reciprocal to the article which Ralph
wrote in his series of vicars he had served under. I waited
for a suitable gap in the flow of articles from Ralph in order to
publish this letter, but no such gap ever came − until now.
Donald did remark that his comments might sound like an obituary, so
I am grateful now to be able to use it as such. Ralph has left
me with a number of future articles in his second series on boyhood
memories, and I shall publish these in future issues, as I know he
would have wished me to do so.
When we first came to Tring in 1966, Ralph Seymour already had an
established influence in the town as Councillor and Reader. He
ran the ﬂour mills at New Mill. I was never sure of his exact
title but he was an astute man of business. His main interest,
apart from his family and garden, was always the parish of Tring in
which he had been born and where he had always lived. When,
therefore, he was ordained he had the great advantage of knowing the
town and its people so well and his well-known concerns for the town
gave him great influence.
I remember Ralph first of all as a man who always knew his own mind
and was not afraid to express it. This did not always please
those who were of a different mind, but he stuck to his guns.
When he went to Cuddesdon for theological training he was of course
much older than any of the other students and was shocked at many of
their views. It is to his great credit that he emerged from
this with a wider view and a greater tolerance, without in any way
compromising his principles.
Ralph has always been loved as a preacher. He never wrote down
a word of his sermons but turned them over in his mind all the week.
He spoke naturally from the heart to the heart nearly always
recalling incidents of his own life − especially as a naughty small
boy − to reinforce his point. Ralph was always a good teller
of tales and was never short of some yarn or other.
He was supremely interested in people and spent most of his time as
a priest visiting the elderly and sick with great devotion. He
brought comfort and humour into many a home. In his later
years he took to the practice of taking elderly ladies out to lunch
− always more than one at a time of course, for which he oﬂen had
his leg pulled. In the nicest possible way he liked women, and
they in turn liked him.
We cannot speak of Ralph without including his wife Meg who died so
tragically in her late sixties. Those who knew her respected
her and remember her with great affection. She supported Ralph
in every way, although I suspect that as in most happy marriages
they did not always see eye to eye. She would say he was a
morning person, she was an evening person − the lark and the owl.
Those who did not know Ralph at the time of his active ministry can
have no idea of his importance to the life of the parish. His
ordination proved to be one of the very best things that happened in
my time as Rector. It is good to be able to say how much we
owe to Ralph and how much we all loved him.