In 1987 a letter was received by Mr Roy HALL of Halls|(Wickford) Ltd from Mr Willie MUIR who also prepared a sketch map of Wickford Village from his memory 70 years ago.
We have permission to publish his memories of Wickford around 1916 during the First World War.
The floodgates of memory have opened and have let incidents of 70 years ago come pouring out.
That being so I can well imagine you on your bike,in your day,pushing up the London Road with a full carrier or up the Southend Road to Shotgate, and elsewhere as we used to do so on our bikes, as far as Walton on the Naze, Shoeburyness, Foulness Island and Canvey Island,
We the 65th (lowland)Division Cyclist Company, were an entirely new unit of the Army. There was a Company for each Division. Recruiting started in Glasgow at the beginning of June 1915 and continued for 3 months,then a month under canvas for musketry (still growing in strength ), and then on to Markinch for four months,where we were licked into shape. We got everything : drill route and cycle route marches,Pt,Musketry,Trench digging,in rotten weather sometimes : a blizzard when marching over the Falkland hills. But we were altogether in a good billet, the Town Hall in which we could have organised games with the girls of the village. We slept on straw mattresses on three boards on low trestles. I am telling you all so that it can be compared with the luxury we experienced in Wickford- after we had recovered from the welcome!
We the advance party;Officer,Sgt. and about a dozen men,one evening early February1916,were given a boisterous send off to an unknown destination(except to the Officer) and arrived at Kings Cross., in time for breakfast in a canteen. The journey from Scotland to London was boring and our arrival at Liverpool Street station did nothing to dispel that condition. Cold ,tired nor did our arrival at Burnham on Crouch,but we were glad to be of out of the train,even although the weather was most miserable imaginable, very dull with a thick drizzly mist, Journeys end!!!. The officer went into a house to report and “take over”(leaving us standing at ease in the street.) But our rising spirits received a sudden dump. The Officer came over and said,someone had blundered, we should have de-trained at Wickford. What a shock!.As Sgt. In charge(under the officer),I must have seen the boys back to Wickford and into billets but the next thing I can remember was having a meal in my billet with the Blacksmith and his wife. I had actually arrived!Their house was to the N.W of the Runwell Road which at the time had a high hedge along that side with the footpath on that side also,it was somewhere behind that hedge. That was my billet for 3 or 4 days while the Officer arranged accommodation for the whole Company. It was very comfortable and luxury to sleep in a bed again but while the men were 2/3 in a billet,I was alone and the people in the house had nothing to say. Perhaps it was the shock of having a soldier(foreign! from Scotland deposited in their family circle) and I felt very lonely and far from home.
The men couldn’t just lie about their billets ,so my duty was to have them on parade,outside,but the weather made it a nightmare for me. The heavy soaking mist persisted and at one period it snowed sufficiently to give the roads a thick covering of slush and a hard frost came during the night and it froze hard. The Thaw suddenly came in the morning and with it a misty drizzle. To march on it was impossible,a man would slip and knock the feet from another and that was happening throughout the whole squad. Falling on the wet frozen ice while carrying full marching order including also a rifle was no joke,so we halted but that didn’t work either because it was so cold. However those first days of welcome?,extreme misery passed. The Company arrived and the sun shone (metaphorically,at least), and we began to enjoy ourselves in Wickford for a year.
To avoid a lot of explaining,there is a sketchmap-of sorts that at least shows the position of the various places which are remembered.
Our Billets (ringed in red),come first,they were most important.
No 1 was only occupied till the Companies arrival and I cant remember ever hearing the
No 2 was not far away from No 1,across the Runwell Road. Mr English and two grown up daughters. In it I had the companionship of Sgt. Billy Chisholm which continued in No 3 with Mr English and his family. We were introduced to new ways. We had our meals at least evening with the family. It was an interesting place as there being three there could be conversation,so many questions and answers about our Countries. My first astonishment was the ingredients of “the old man’s supper”: a raw onion about the size of a tennis ball, a lump of cheese and a large glass of ale. Language also was often a source of amusement. Though it must be stated
that, at that time,the purest of English was spoken in Inverness and Dublin. .( What was meant in Ayrshire often meant something else in Wickford).
We were not long at No 2 before we were moved to Mr and Mrs Waterman at Jolimont,on the North side of London Road. This was indeed luxury! The big front room upstairs was our bedroom. Soldiers had a various names for their beds e.g. Scratcher or just a wee pickle straw!(pickle= a small quantity or a grain of corn). In No 3 the bed was large ,double and white linen sheets!!! Oh how we slept.
Mr Waterman was a draughtsman,travelled to London and woke us in the mornings for our first parade down beside the station at 7am. When we had arrived at No 3 Mrs Waterman laid down the law,” you boys wont go upstairs with your boots on and you will keep your equipment in the greenhouse”- and we didn’t say “Naturally”!but thought it. But she was oh so kind and looked after us. When I got into disgrace from which I later recovered, she looked at me and said”Willie,what ever will your mother say”!!. THAT made me hang my head more than the rest of it, I had let her down.
Having had such kind treatment,do you wonder that I remember Wickford?.When at the Scout Jamboree the year that Wembley was opened I took a run down one afternoon and paid her a visit.
As far as economics were concerned,our visit didnt make any difference to the village. We were fed and clothed so that our wants were few-apair of laces,perhaps or button polish-soldiers friend. Cyclists were classed as “Mounted Infantry”;had our mounts been studs instead of bikes we might have taken an interest in “Halls”.To be honest its one shop that’s not remembered.
The street,on emerging from the station,access coming down the hill is a bit confused. One turned to the left there were a few shops not many and past them houses with fencing in front. The road to the Church and Southend across the other side,Post office on the right,Hotel on the left. Perhaps that is all wrong,then the other way around to the right beyond the railway bridge, a wee bakers shop and a cobblers shop. The bakers became a fashion with the boys because of its extra special cream cakes. The cobbler was patronised by the Sgts when he supplied solid leather belts,complete with solid brass buckles which we wore with our `Walking out Dress`,instead of our wet equipment one.
It cost 2/6p (25p) and would you believe it is still in my possession.
With kindest regards
Ex Sgt. Muir b 1895 was the last of the members of the 65th Lowland Division Cycle Company who visited and stayed in wickford during WW1 protecting the local population when he wrote this letter to Mr Roy Hall on his retirement in 1987.