Spencer, Graham (b.1934)
Early years & War memories in Raglan
Graham Francis Spencer was born on the 9th October 1934 to Francis & Annie Spencer at Crown Square Raglan Monmouthshire. His parents were family butchers in the village they also had land where they reared and fattened stock for the butchers shop.
I was coming up to 5 years old when war broke out on September 3rd 1939. My father sat us down on the back stairs in our kitchen on the Sunday evening, we had listened to the broadcast on our old battery radio, he told us how bad it would be and that if the Germans invaded and conquered us he would not give in but he would shoot us all first!!! We were very lucky we were never bombed but many nights we saw the red lights in the sky when the bombs were falling on Newport. We did have the occasional bomb drop in a local farmers field. As Raglan was on the main road from Newport docks to the Midlands and London all the American convoys used to come through the village lorries and tanks etc. we village children would run after them shouting “ Got any gum chum”?. and they would throw us sweets biscuits and chewing gum. Early on the evacuees arrived in the village from the big cities, we had boys from Cardiff lodging with us, they were gathered in the local Jefferies Hall and allocated to various houses around the village and also local farms. There was a hostel at Castle House just beyond the post office, many were billeted there. It was difficult for us local children at first to understand their speech, from cockneys to Birmingham kids but we soon understood what they were on about!! They certainly opened our minds to all sorts of things we had not heard of before including first steps to sexual awareness!!!! Generally they were very clean but in the beginning we all caught nits off them and I can smell the coal tar soap and remember leaning over newspaper to have the fine tooth comb through our hair( those were the days when I had hair!!). Newspaper, we had to the fold and cut newspaper up into small sheets thread it on string and hang it in the toilet for wiping our bums.
My father immediately dug an air-raid shelter in our orchard. We never used it only to have the first taste of a cigarette(evacuees again)and the first fumble with a local girl!!! Towards the end of the war all the old large corned beef tins and any other rubbish was dumped in the air-raid shelter and it eventually filled up and turfed over and left , houses have now been built over the orchard so one of them has a cellar of corned beef tins!!!
Food wise we were never short. We had pigs and chickens and we kept a cow, which I had to learn to milk by hand. My father was the distributor of all the meat for the area, so all the meat came from the abbattoir in Monmouth to our shop and then it went weekly to the other local butchers , the amount being decided by the number of customers ration books each butcher held. There were two other butchers in Raglan village, Mr Hagget and Mr Jones and 1 in Llandenny Mr Mason (who delivered with a pony and trap) and a Mr Nugent out at the Hostrey. During the war our own slaughterhouse was closed down but my Father used to go around farms and smallholdings killing the one pig that each family was allowed to consume per year. This was a very hard job and from the age of about ten I would have to help. My poor arms used to ache unmercifully when I had to support the pig ladder, holding the pig up for my dad to takes it’s insides out. We had lovely home made butter from my uncle’s farm at Tyrmynach every week but oddly enough we never had the best cuts of meat, there was never a lot left after all our customers had been served with their so many ounces , it all had to be fairly divided up and we often had rabbit or an old boiling fowl for Sunday lunch. Fat breasts of lamb and offal were often our main meal and my father would have a boiled sheep’s head for breakfast.
We saw a lot of soldiers passing through the village. One night hundreds of mounted soldiers of the Indian army came through the village, we were woken by the horse’s hooves on the road passing the house. They camped for a few days in the large 20-acre field going up to Cefn Coch farm, they put ropes all around the edges of the field and tethered the horses to it. Running through the field was a lovely brook where we often played and we were fascinated to see these Indian soldiers removing their turbans and washing their long hair in the stream. On another occasion a convoy of tanks was passing through and one went out of control and almost demolished the end of a terrace of houses (long gone now) which stood opposite the Crown hotel, it was where the local A.R.P. wardens had their office etc. My father was in the Home Guard. Many of the big houses around were taken over to house officers and other ranks, we were fascinated to see coloured Americans, we were not used to seeing black people. After the war the daughter of the Red Lion at Bryngwyn married a black airman from America, the villagers were really shocked and it was the talking point for years.
We also had the Royal Veterinary Corps stationed in the village. They took over the stables at the Crown Hotel (next door to us) and the Beaufort Arms stables; the soldiers lived mostly in Jefferies Hall. I used to spend a lot of time looking at the wounded horses some in slings etc. in the stables. Many people do not realise that horses were used so much in the 39/46 war. It was at that time I desperately wanted a pony of my own, and eventually after the war my father bought me one. We had the Women’s Land Army in Raglan too; they had a new building down the Chepstow road. Because we supplied the meat for to them and I had to take it down there, I often went to the film shows there and would be sat on the land girl’s knees to watch the film. I don’t know who was more excited , them or me!!!
I went to Church and Sunday school and I was in the choir. The vicar was Rev Charles Duck, which of course was an hilarious name to us kids. Roy Silverthorne trained my voice and I went with the local concert party to sing “ Oh for the wings of a dove” to the old ladies who were housed at Penrhos Grange for the duration of the war. They used to give me sixpence, which bought quite a bit then and my weekly pocket money was also sixpence. We sang and entertained at lots of villages around, no T.V. in those days and I remember some of the evacuees entertaining as well. My mother and father were very good ballroom dancers, they had won prizes, so I was taught to dance, the carpet was rolled up in the hall of our house and we waltzed up and down there, and then we learned the old dances like Eightsome reels and Lancers etc. which set me in good stead for later in my life when I really enjoyed dancing and I too won some prizes (dancing with a girl called Audrey Fennell).
We had a large garden where my father grew vegetables (he was an expert veg. grower) and then the large orchard, which was full of all sorts of apple, pear and plum trees. It was a great place for playing and all the local kids used to come in to climb the trees, build huts, make mud pies etc. We also had our pig sties there, always huge Large White or Wessex Saddlebacks and we had to be very careful when they had young to give them a wide berth!! Sows are very protective when they have young. We had chicken houses as well. Sows would eat anything and I well remember the ox heads from the butchers shop being picked over by the sows, when they were picked clean I had to dig holes and bury them only to find a few days later that one of the village dogs had resurrected the ox head!!! The amount of guts and bones etc. buried in the orchard over the years was enormous and now houses are built there!! My father then planted lots of Blackcurrant bushes to one side of the orchard and of course they had to be picked, nothing more boring for an 8 year old than to be told to pick 20lbs of blackcurrants!! But you did not argue with my father. We also had 10 acres of land called the Pleck about 500 yards from our house and shop which father rented from a lady called Mrs Mathews who lived in Newport. The land bordered Primrose Lane , Raglan Castle towered above it. There we kept cattle and sheep and 1 cart-horse called Mary Ann (I remember a very nice friend of the family called Mrs Clarke from Cardiff coming to visit and when I discovered her name was also Mary Ann, I announced we had a carthorse by that name!!) The horse was used to work about 4 acres of market garden which my father cultivated there and also to pull the hay turner when we made hay every summer. My father always said the land which was grazed and kept for hay had never, in living memory been ploughed ,so the grasses and herbage was the best around and that was why the animals fattened on that land had the best flavoured meat. I can remember having to pick brussels sprouts before going to school some mornings and having to kick the snow off to find the sprouts, the tears running down my face, crying with the cold. And also trying to use the horse to weed between the swedes and going off course and scraping all the young plants out and my father leaping in the air at the end of a row shouting “ you silly bugger, watch what you are doing “, I was only about 10.
The meadow was a wonderful place when the grass was being kept for hay. But we would be told off for flattening it more often than not. But we, my village friends (Gordon Tucker, Walter Startup, Brian Lewis, Keith Townsend, Alec MacGuire, Tony Jones, June Metcalf, Pam Startup, Anne Tucker and many more) would hide in the long grass, and we would make crows feet by twisting and winding fescues around, and we would relish the sweet sorrels we could find and thread the daisies and put buttercups under our chins to see if we were fond of butter!! We wiped our hands in dock leaves if we were unfortunate enough to come upon a stinging nettle, we also used dock leaves if were taken short, no public loos there.
On the way to our field there was a galvanised iron compound where all the villagers took their waste. we would stop there and rummage (bit like India today Slumdog Millionaires years before the film, though we were not starving) and we would peel the black pitch off the old dumped batteries and chew it, it was like chewing gum!! Probably good for our teeth. We would make mud pies and cover them with white lime which was our icing. We played hopscotch and skipped and rolled iron hoops and we played conkers, all these games were at certain times of the year. We never played football, indeed I had no idea how to play football or rugby until I was thrown in at the deep end at Monmouth School (after the war), I think that is why I was never a keen player, I never really knew what I was supposed to do !!!. Luckily my sons didn’t have that problem and were all keen players. We never knew what a banana was until after the war and only had an orange at Christmas time. We also gathered rose hips in season for our vitamin C. We were given senna every so often and a lot of children had to have cod liver oil and malt every morning, we didn’t because we seemed to have fish once a week and my mother was a wonderful cook, we had a very varied diet.
Some Sundays all the family got on our bicycles. We would either go to relations (many uncles and aunts lived on farms nearby) or friends for tea. Once we went to a farm at Tregare and the water for tea was taken from an outside well, it was full of small wildlife, but it was boiled and we suffered no harm. The only nasty accident I can remember in the war was when I was collecting caterpillars in our garden and I fell. The jar smashed and I cut my chin badly. I was taken to my parents bed where the local Dr.Langdon came and with my parents holding me down an ether mask was placed over my nose and my mouth was stitched it up. I still bear the scar.
Petrol was only available for essential services during the war. There were petrol coupons for our van to deliver meat, so our Austin 7 car AAX 517 was raised high in the roof of the shed for the duration of the war. My father always bought old second hand delivery vans. I remember well a huge red square van with OXO whitened over on the sides. I climbed on the bonnet one day fell off over the front and cut my shin badly -- yet another life long scar. He also bought a green Jowett which was a very strange shape.
We always walked hound puppies for the local Monmouthshire Hunt. The puppies came in the Spring and you kept them until the summer when the hunt took them back. They would be shown at the puppy show and we had quite a few silver spoons etc. which the puppies won. One year we won a big silver cup for the best hound puppy. The puppies were fed well being reared at the butchers!!. They were the most destructive puppies and would chew and bury anything, I remember my sisters losing their gloves and hats and all sorts of things, we would find them buried and ruined eventually.
We supplied meat and vegetables to many of the hotels around including the Beaufort Arms in Monmouth and Raglan. I can remember the original Clytha Arms hotel being washed into the river Usk. It stood between the river and the road at Llansantfraed, on the road to Abergavenny.
The only sport I was interested in was anything to do with horses. My father was also keen on horses but I can’t remember him ever riding. I was forever wishing for a pony and eventually after the end of the war he bought ponies for me. I was taught to ride by Mrs Single who lived at Bryngwyn Manor. Before the war, she was a breeder of prizewinning Welsh Mountain section A and B ponies. The ponies had lovely names like Blaze & Lapis Lazuli!! I would be taken on a Saturday afternoon while my father delivered meat to Clytha Hill, to have lessons in the yard at Bryngwyn Manor. Mrs Single was a tiny little woman of 4ft 10inches. Her husband had been killed in the first world war. For most of the time, she lived with her sister Mrs Huttenbach who was 5ft 10 inches tall. Mrs Huttenbach used to spend time away as a companion to a very wealthy lady who had two Rolls Royce cars (one for luggage and staff and one for herself and Mrs Huttenbach). We often wondered where the petrol coupons came from. Mrs Single & Mrs Huttenbach used to do their shopping in Raglan every Thursday, driving one of the ponies to a lovely governess cart. They both liked the drink and would get way over the top at the Beaufort Arms before going home. Fortunately the pony knew the way home! On the way home the sisters would stop at the Red Lion (which is now called Cripple Creek) and fill up their cask with cider. Their tipple was Sanatogen and cider!! They also made cider from their orchards but it was not quite enough!! They were wonderful characters and remained a part of my life for many years. Indeed my first home of my own with my first wife was the end rooms of Bryngwyn Manor. The butlers pantry was our little kitchen, and the dining room was our lovely living room.
Raglan Castle was a great playground. In those days we just went over the wall and in, and if anyone in the village wanted a nice bit of stone -- where better than a couple from the castle. We climbed the walls and explored the dungeons with no fear whatsoever. The castle was ivy covered then so you could climb the walls holding on to the ivy.
I went to school all through the war to Raglan Infants School. I liked school. Our teacher was a lovely lady called Mrs Haggett and the headmaster was Mr Lambert Jones. He was quite a popular man in the village and a good head master though my sister said she did not like sitting on his lap!!!! School went fairly well for me and I hardly missed one day. Unlike Monmouth School where I went in 1946 ,but that’s another story.
My father was the local unqualified vet in the area. He should have been a vet but he had to leave school early to work for a living. He was extremely well read. A lot of people thought highly of him. He was secretary of the local farmers club, chairman of this and that, local councilor etc. He was often called upon to put sick animals down. He had a captive bolt pistol which he used to dispatch horses or cattle and sometimes dogs. But he had a 12 bore shotgun which he would sometimes use if it was a dog. I would have to dig a hole in the orchard, I would then disappear and he would shoot the dog by the hole. The dog would fall in the hole and then I would have to bury it . Larger animals were taken to the hunt kennels at Gobion. He was an animal lover, surprisingly, and would never cause suffering to any animal. He was a great beer drinker (probably why I have never taken to beer!!). He loved cards and he would gamble on anything. Sometimes he would play cards all night. In those days that was not unusual. My mother was often not best pleased with him!!! He loved horse racing. He ran a“ book” in the shop, (strictly illegal) For the Derby and Grand National, he had an account with London Bookmakers called (I think) “Scotts” . Very often they would send a lovely piece of silver as a gift. I would have to go with him to castrate pigs and lambs on many local farms. This was another thing I hated, but I never argued with my father. He was the fairest man I have ever known but very strict. One look from him and we all behaved! He never laid a finger on any of us and in those days the waist belt was often used to thrash some children. His brother Eric quite often would thrash his sons Michael & David with his leather belt (just think if that happened today). He was very frustrated that he hadn’t gone to University, but he made up for it by insatiable reading. He would help anybody if he could and one of the funniest stories he would tell is of delivering meat to a house where the undertaker had just arrived to place the old grandmother in her coffin, she was so huge they couldn’t get her to fit in the coffin so my father had to sit on it with others while the undertaker screwed it down!!!
My mother was a wonderful lady. I worshipped her. Being the only boy I was probably spoilt and a mummy’s boy. I always maintained I was not spoilt but looking back now I can understand the bit of jealousy shown by my sisters. My mother worked far harder than my father. She was a brilliant cook (she had been a cook to a large family in Cheshire ‘til she married). She had a lovely contralto voice and sang for many years in the Church choir and did a little acting with the local drama group where she usually played the maid. She wasn’t a very good actress!!! My father too had a good tenor voice but he was a rabid agnostic. He requested no church service on his death. Mum did everything in the shop - cutting up all joints etc. once the lambs were split and the quarters of beef made lighter. She would drive the vans to deliver meat and I would go with her in the school holidays to help. I would also go with my dad, but many hours I sat in the van waiting for him to come out of the pub he was taking meat to. He went from the kitchen to the bar where he got involved in long discussions with his cronies. I think that is why I am a bit impatient now and hate being late or waiting for people who are late. My mother used to knit and embroider, she knitted our socks and pullovers etc. On one occasion she left her 10 inch needles on a chair and unfortunately sat on them. One penetrated her bum and I can see my father and a friend now trying to pull the needle out. My mother was leaning against the mantle shelf, almost fainting. There was only about 1 inch protruding!! Both parents had a wonderful sense of humour.
Raglan in those days was a nice village to live in. I knew everybody. We had our shoes from the local cobbler called Mr Ponsford. I had to wear hob nailed boots most of the time. I dreaded having new ones because for the first few weeks my ankles would be rubbed raw because the leather was so hard . Mr Pick was the tailor. He lived in a shack down the Chepstow road. I was taken there for my first suit. He sat crossed legged on a high table and stitched. He looked like a garden gnome as he cut the material along the carefully drawn chalk marks and held pins in his mouth when we went for the first fitting. He and his wife slept in a curtained off bunk. Mr & Mrs Hook were bakers and confectioners. On a Monday for 1d we could buy Chesterbilly slices. They were made from all the left over cakes. Mr Hook delivered his bread by pony and trap. The pony’s name was Joey. Then there was Mr Cleave the draper, hosier, and general out fitter. He sold his shop to a Mr Smith. One day I went in to collect something for my mother and Mr Smith came from the back and promptly disappeared through the floor. He had left the cellar trap door open!!! Poor man, he already had a withered hand, (frost bite from the first world war we were told), he broke his hip in the cellar fall. I remember rushing out to get help. The Proberts had a grocery shop next door to Mr Smith. When you passed the Proberts shop on a Sunday morning, the village was quiet and you would often see a rat in the window!!! Rats were everywhere (as they are now). In our out houses we would have traps down all the time and would catch dozens, I would have to place the cage traps in water to drown the rats!! We would hear them at night in our roof and one day one came up through the shop floor just where my mother was standing, it was a wooden floor, so my father ripped it all up and put a concrete floor in . Silverthornes were the main grocers. They had about 3 vans going around delivering over a wide area. We had 2 vans and delivered meat as far as Star pitch beyond Llansoy , Dingestow, Llanfair Kiggeddin etc.and all places in between. We made wonderful sausages and faggots. My mother pickled tongues and silverside of beef. The local postman was Mr Pippin. We youngsters all mocked him. The poor man would take a very long stride every few steps, while we would follow him doing the same! There was a lady called Grace Strickland who lived on Castle Hill with her husband Billy. Grace who had a very hairy face, had the same unfortunate walk as Mr Pippin the postman! Billy was a tiny little man who rode a large bicycle to work every day at Cefn Coch Farm. Then we had Hampshires who were everything from undertakers to hardware, petrol etc. Mr Hampshire was a very astute business man he would always reduce the price when you came to pay but of course he had put the price up on his goods anyway. We could all see through him! Davies Jones & Clench had the main motoring franchise in the village (not that they did much of car selling in the war no cars were made). Sgt Needs was our policeman with 1 constable to help. One evening my friends and I thought it would be funny to ring doorbells and run away, the constable caught me and by the scruff of my neck, took me to the house where I had rung the bell and I was made to apologise, I never did it again. And then there were the people who lived in the BIG houses! Willsbrook was where the Price-Jenkins lived. He was a local J.P. and drove a Rolls Royce. Hill House was the home of the Somersets. Raglan Somerset was chairman of the bench. He was a kinsman of the Duke of Beaufort who owned estates around Raglan including the castle at one time. His wife Millicent was a direct descendant of Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton. The Somersets had one daughter Anna, (her full name was Anna Millicent Horatia Fitzroy Somerset!) Nothing as long as the name of a girl at Monmouth School where my sister went, “Anna, Maria ,Susannah, Sofia, Mary Ambidigo-Fisher”!!! We village children were amazed with her name. The Somersets were not very well off but Mrs Somerset became Master of Hounds after the war and Raglan Somerset was at the Nuremberg trials. His bette noir was not accepting that Raglan was in Wales, he was always writing to the local press asserting that it was in England. He and my father would have long arguments about it. Then there were the Chappel brothers who had buses for hire and a small factory which was taken over in the war to make small arms, one day there was an awful accident there when one of the young girl employees caught her hair in a machine, she managed to get away but all her hair was pulled out, (no safety rules in those days). Mrs Cooper who lived on the old Monmouth road was the village washer woman. Her cottage had a huge boiler where she boiled the whites etc. Clouds of steam wafted from the wash house. She wore hobnailed boots and a long sacking apron. On a Friday evening she took the laundry in a huge wicker basket under her arm to Willsbrook, we would hear her hobnails scuffing past our house. When my mother wanted her best linen table cloths laundered she took them to Mrs Cooper, they came back as white as snow but as stiff as boards with so much starch, you could cut your finger on the edges.
The Olway brook flowed through Raglan to join the River Usk. We paddled and bathed in this stream in the summers, oblivious to the fact that cows were standing in it a little up stream dropping their business in the water. It didn’t seem to do us much harm. We feared the huge eels which swam in it more. The Olway flowed under the castle. It was dammed in the 17th century to form long gone fishponds for the castle. There was a small bridge known as the WellPlech, where we caught minnows and huge bullheads and proudly marched through the village boasting who had caught the most or the biggest. We kept them in jam jars, but of course within 2 days the poor things would die. We had nature walks from school and we had to learn the names of the wild flowers and birds and trees etc. We were tested frequently. We had to recognise bird song too. We collected birds eggs, (it wasn’t illegal then. We would find say a blackbirds’s nest take 1 egg and get a needle to pierce both ends , one hole larger than the other then blow the contents out. Quite often we would discover that we couldn’t blow it as the chick inside was in an advanced state of developing!!! But even for all our taking of eggs there were far more birds around than today. Yellow hammers were my favourite and they were around then in vast numbers. Some nests were very difficult to find , but we would stand in the fields to watch curlews and plover and larks landing to try to find their nests but it wasn’t easy as they would land yards away and run to the nest. We couldn’t see them running they were so well camouflaged. There was a lovely water garden in a field on the Abergavenny road owned by Mr Thomas. Called the Cayo Farm, it was strictly private but that did not stop us getting in and getting the boat out on the water. Mr Thomas caught us one day but we ran away leaving poor Sheila Knight in the boat which drifted out , Mr Thomas was leaping up in the air and waving his stick at her, she had a very hard telling off when she did get home. My Uncle Frank (mother’s brother) and Aunt Nancy lived at a lovely old house called the Dell, it was a small farm of 40 acres where we spent many hours as children. They had a croquet set so we played on the lawn under the huge Beech tree they had an old Mulberry tree too. We would eat the mulberries and come home with red tongues and clothes too. My aunt Nancy kept a small pet terrier which one day cocked its leg and peed all down my best new trousers. It was Sunday so I was wearing my best clothes. My mother was not best pleased and neither was I!!
I had many relations around Raglan. My dad was one of 5 children and my mother one of 10. One aunt lived in India and when she was able she would send us sweets and liquorice. Another two aunts were nurses, but all the rest were in farming, and all of them were living within 20miles. I had over 20 first cousins and God knows how many second cousins. I used to go to stay at the Hendy farm Bryngwyn with my favourite Aunt Violet and Uncle Eric (dad’s brother) but invariably they would have to bring me home. I was homesick even being only 4 miles from home!!!!! David their son was 6 years younger than me but we got on well together . Aunt Violet had a big influence on me. She was artistic and clever and spoke beautifully. I so admired her and I think I get my artiness from her even though she was not a blood relation. My cousins, the Alfords, were a different kettle of fish. They were shy and a bit wild. They hid sometimes when we called and then when we were leaving they would rush from the farm buildings and quietly lift the back of the van off the floor so that it wouldn’t move. They thought that was a big joke. They kept savage dogs too so I didn’t like going there much.
So my all important formative and curiosity filled years came to an end in 1946. I sat the entrance examination for Monmouth School and was awarded a county scholarship. Looking back on my life ‘til then, I was so lucky to have such a good upbringing. We were told how to behave. We were taught respect for our elders, doctors ,schoolteachers and professional people. In those days they earned your respect, but today is so different. We all seemed to be happy. I am sure there were times when we were not, but we seemed to be more appreciative of what we had and of course we where mostly unaware of what we were being deprived of because of the war. Children today, in general, seem to have no respect for anything or anybody, they are gently persuaded to do things rather than be told want to do. They have everything and more, whereas we had very little. So many children are indulged to the point of saturation, so they appreciate nothing, they have had it all and have nothing to look forward to. But I would like to think, and I believe I am right, that my grandchildren have, fortunately, been well brought up and so have the children and grandchildren of many of our friends but sadly they are the exception, I feel. Today one reads constantly of these dysfunctional families, usually one parent, we had sort of weird families around in our day, like Mr.& Mrs. Griffith who lived on Llandenny walks and had a goose sitting on her eggs on the washing boiler in the kitchen. We had many people whose hygiene left much to be desired, but in those days people didn’t wash so much. A bath was once a week, clean underclothes once a week, washing done once a week. More often than not on a Monday. But even in the lower echelons of our society at that time, in the villages such as ours ,crime was very light.
Maybe rose coloured spectacles and hindsight come to mind but the years ‘til 46 were good years.
(Submitted - January 2014)
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