Denis Mitcheson's Memories of Wickford
When World War 2 broke out I lived with my parents in North London, near Hendon aerodrome. Hendon was well known because of its famous RAF displays so was an obvious target for German bombers, and was raided on a regular basis.
My parents decided to move to a safer location, and as my mother’s sister, Mabel Dunk, owned the Gresham Cafe in London Road, opposite St Andrews church hall, Wickford, my mother took me with her and we stayed with my aunt until my father was able to find employment in the area.
We had only been there a week or so when a German land mine landed on the other side of the river behind the cafe with a dreadful detonation. Mother did not know that Wickford was more or less on ‘Bomb Alley’, the main route for German bombers on their way to London! Later it was rechristened ‘Doodlebug Alley’ and I can remember seeing the V1s growling across the sky, the blue flame from their jets twinkling in the night sky.
My father eventually moved to Wickford, having bought a coal merchant business from a Mr. Green, complete with coal yard, a two-wheeled ‘rumble’ cart and two enormous Shire horses. The yard was in Runwell Road, opposite what later became a large agricultural machinery depot. I remember Dad hoisting me up on to the Grey Shire horse, Major, and the clopping of his hooves upon the frosty ground as we made our way to the blacksmiths for him to be re-shod.
We moved into a bungalow in Highcliffe Road that had no electricity or main drainage, although we did have gas for cooking and lighting. In those days it was a private road, unadopted and unmade, with only five other houses along its complete length from Southend Road to the boundary of what is now the Recreation Ground. Naturally it was very quiet but wonderful for a five-year-old, as I could play in the fields and along (and in) the river Crouch that meandered through the fields and fish for tadpoles that we would take home in jam jars.
Wickford was pretty rural in those days and we would range across the fields, occasionally getting in the way of the farmers, one of whom chased us off his cornfield with a 12-bore shotgun. They were harvesting the corn and he had the gun to shoot rabbits – although we were not to know that and were all scared stiff at the time! We were also in awe of Sergeant Brewer, the local police supremo. He took no backchat from us lads and if we tried it on we could expect a whack from his police cape – and another one from Dad at home if we complained. Those were the days!
I attended the C of E Primary School in Southend Road. The headmaster was Mr. Bullock and the other teachers were Miss McKenzie and Miss Jones. The Rev Munson, vicar of St Catherine’s, would come to the school and talk to us once a week.
In 1947 I transferred to the Secondary school in Market Road. Mary Amos was our first form mistress and I never forgot her for being firm but kind to us new kids and for instilling in me a love for music. I was sad to move on from her firm guidance to that of Mr. Phillips who was also an interesting and inspiring teacher and who, with other teachers, spent a lot of time getting me and Colin Wedderkop through the RAF entrance examination.
Mr. Rose, the headmaster, was also inspirational and I got to know him well through my frequent visits to his study with the cane and punishment book. ‘Not again Mitcheson!’ he would say with a weary sigh before giving me a couple of good whacks across the palms of my hands.
Lunchtimes on Market Day were fun because we would rush down into town, buy a small crusty loaf, rip the inside out and stuff the cavity with chips plastered with loads of salt and vinegar. Delicious! There was also an interesting stall run by a Jamaican man who sold exotic things like ginger root that only cost a penny and you could chew it all day.
Out of school I was in the Cubs and then the Boy Scouts. Later I joined the Air Training Corps that held its meetings in the School. The cinema was also a magnet for us youngsters and we spent many a happy hour there, occasionally being sprayed by the usherettes with something that smelt nice but that we suspected was disinfectant. When the cinema closed down it was converted into a Woolworths store and we then went to the Salvation Army Citadel (a corrugated iron building) where one of the local residents put on film shows for a couple of pence. I remember having my bike’s lighting kit stolen while I was watching a film there.
The floods were quite something. I recall one in the late 50s when a friend, Maureen Marsh-Feiley, had to get from Nevendon Road to Southend Road for her wedding. The bridge was under water and there was a lovely picture of her on the front of the Daily Mirror the following day that showed her clinging on to the bottom part of a lamp post, resplendent in her wedding dress and Wellington boots.
When I married in 1959 I moved away from Wickford, but only as far as Harold Wood, and returned regularly to visit my parents in Highcliffe Road and saw it transformed from a country track bordered with blackberry bushes and with farmland on either side into the vast Highcliffe Estate. My parents eventually moved to Berens Close and both spent their last years there.
Having re-married to a Liverpool girl, I now live in a village near Liverpool, and the last time I saw Wickford was in 1994 before I moved here from Welwyn Garden City. I decided that it would probably be the last chance I had to see the place where I grew up and that held so many happy memories for me. I drove across for that last look – and got lost. The town had changed so much in the intervening years and now seemed to be just a part of the urban sprawl.
I still think back to the old days and hope that the friendly, neighbourly spirit of Wickford remains in the hearts of all of its inhabitants, both old and new.