THE GREAT DEPRESSION
It might have been on another planet. World War I "The War to End all Wars" had ended just eleven years before when I was nine months old. As a schoolboy I walked the country lanes of our little hamlet in the evenings in complete darkness. 'Glow worms' illuminated many a bank and here and there rotting wood gave off that faint blue light to be gathered in a jar to illuminate secret reading under the sheets. Never to be bright enough. The nearest village, Sompting, a few miles away had just one street lamp and the nearest town, Worthing, had gas lights that were tended by the lamplighter with his long pole. The stars seemed very bright and bats fluttered overhead with their echo locating chirps only just audible to a young ear and the deep whirrr of a stag beetle promised a trophy to show friends. Slow worms, grass snakes, adders and lizards were plentiful and the hedges and ditches had changed little since the Middle Ages with the seasons marked by prolific wildflowers.
Occasionally, in the twilight, a hush of wings as a Barn Owl stooped on vole or mouse and almost silently spread those great white wings to rise and return to her young in the space over he hay loft that kept the heat in the cow byre. I would explore with torch in the fusty dark to find the dried pellets of fur, feathers and bone that they would regurgitate as indigestible. It was a constant source of wonder that a bird could swallow, partly digest and bring up again, relatively large skulls, bones etc: The skulls made a great find as they were always devoid of flesh and bleached pure white to make a jealously guarded hoard until forgotten by the fickleness of youth. That space had probably not seen plundering small boys since it was built some hundreds of years earlier.
The family was in the throes of the sort of convulsion that arise in some families.
My father was the youngest of three sons, Berty the eldest, Eddie next, Alec (father) third. Berty stayed at home. The younger two, Eddie and Alec served throughout the war, seeing service that varied from trench warfare and the horrors of the Somme to gleeful stories of outwitting Arab traders in Palestine under General Allenby. The oldest son had stayed behind as being in a protected occupation producing food. He was not best pleased to see his two brothers return and expect to take their place. Their father was generous to a fault and decided that he would retire early as he had ample funds from his investments in South American railways. There were two properties, Halewick Farm of some four hundred acres just north of North Cokeham that went to the oldest brother and the home farm based on the Manor Farm in South Cokeham that had contracted to some forty acres. The imbalance was catered for by erecting five acres of greenhouses mainly for the production of tomatoes (for which Worthing was famous) and the erection of two new houses in opposite corners of the farm.
Grandpa Sparkes was to remain in the manor house. A medium sized Georgian building built on the site of a much earlier house the cellars of which had very early features. There was the usual story of an underground passage connecting it to an ancient chapel, the remains of which were still visible. The whole had some connection with The Knights Templar who had connections with 'Sompting Abbots' adjoining Sompting church with it's (AD 960) Saxon tower. There was, in that church, a pew for the 'Lord of the Manor of Cokeham'. It was still there in my childhood but needless to say it was not used and has disappeared.
Newspapers began to publish stories of ex-millionaires jumping from 'skyscrapers', the stock exchange was crashing etc: etc: It was brought home with a thump when South American railways stopped paying dividends and finally collapsed completely. My grandfather had lost most of his money, he lost all interest in the manor and retired to a few rooms on the ground floor. The lawns were left to go wild. The lawn on the south had been like a bowling green and was found to be laid on a bed of hard chalk, as a result it did not grow long. Just tough! He concentrated on growing vegetables for the whole family and started to wear his brother's cast off clothes. Since he was tiny and his brother a six foot ex Indian Army officer the result was sad but he had incredible dignity and a gentleman to the tips of his ill shod toes. In later years the roof started to leak which bothered him not a jot. He just borrowed galvanised buckets from the greenhouses to catch the drops and a heavy shower heralded a racket that sounded like a crazy 'twilight of the gods' and it was indeed the end of life as he had known it. He finally moved his precious chicken to the top floor.
London and the large cities set up soup kitchens for the dispossessed as many families became destitute. In the country we slipped easily into a peasant, barter mode that could not be duplicated in many areas of the UK today and no-one really suffered. While we waited for the new homes to become habitable we lived in a lovely little flint built cottage. Across the lane lived a family with a son in his late teens or early twenties. Bluey was the local poacher who allowed me to go with him on many of his forays. My father would have exploded had he known that some of the rabbits and hares etc: that ended on our table came from my uncle's land! Bluey was quite amazing and I have seen him run down a dodging rabbit, dispatching it with a blow from a short blackthorn cudgel with a piece of lead pipe cut into the end, a leather thong slipped over wrist was the right length to keep it ready to slip into his palm. His every move was pared to it's essentials and his lithe form was always ready but never tense. He took me as a beater on pheasant shoots where I learned to hide a pheasant under water to be collected later and the best way to make and set snares. I never heard him swear or even raise his voice and he blended into the landscape with a stillness that came from within.
Many battened down and cut production to face the deepening depression but my father would have none of it. Daisy and Buttercup the two remaining cows vanished (surely we didn't eat them!) The remaining barns and cowsheds were put down to mushrooms in timber beds and where height allowed, in tiers up to three high. All this demanded more workers which were not to be found in our area. The idea of importing people from the areas in London that were the most depressed came from somewhere and the mushrooms in the best barn were removed after only one flush. The beds were dismantled and steam sterilised (this was always done at the end of a crop in any case) and the barn whitewashed resulting in a presentable dormitory although the sides of the beds were somewhat higher than usual. The dairy had always been a hygienic area and was turned into the kitchen.
Hitherto my extramural "education" had been rural with the simple understanding of sex in animals. My usual schoolboy lore was backed up by stories of country seductions (some sounded more like rape) from old Josh(ua) Bushby. It seemed that all that was needed was a romp to "warm 'er up" plus much tickling followed by picking a handful of grass, running it under her chin, then her breasts and finally pushing it up or down her dress!!!
All of this was accompanied with much demonstration with his gnarled hands with their huge dirty nails with me imagining them against a young girl's skin. Finally, with a leer of lips and eyes of indescribable lechery, he would turn and walk away and I would watch him as he went. Slightly bow legged, his calves encased in stiff black leather leggings which were beautifully polished, each step firmly planted as though he wanted to claim the ground he walked on.
A great hero of mine was a traction engine driver who drove one of the huge machines that came to plough the larger fields. With one at each end of the area and a steel hawser between them they would haul the huge four gang plough back and forth, turning it over at each end. Every bare piece of metal shone with his love of steam. He never allowed me to do more than blow the ear piercing whistle but did show me how to lay and level the fire. His breakfast was prepared with immaculate precision. First of all his coal shovel would be cleaned with a handful of cotton waste (whatever happened to cotton waste; it was indispensable?) before he put a thick gammon rasher on it and put it into the firebox to render the fat which was then used to fry eggs and a slice of bread. A spotless enamel plate, knife and fork would appear or, if he was in a hurry, it would be eaten from the shovel.
Into this country idyll was injected a completely urban element. It was as though I was looking into a kaleidoscope for the first time. The people were completely alien to me but I quickly made friends. The first one was the cook. He was in love with a prostitute and pimped for her. I just could not understand it. How could he? He explained that her 'clients' were just business but she 'loved' him. It was all too much. No romps in the hayfield there! Then there was the gold smuggler who was caught with a waistcoat of gold bars in Singapore. An old lag with a crescent shaped scar on his palm (got it defending himself against an attack by a drunk with a broken bottle) said take no notice, he was caught robbing a newsagent. It seemed that gold smugglers were the top of the league 'inside'. My perception of the world was changing. I looked at his scar and wondered how he really got it.
The manor had held large areas in nearby Worthing and the ancient parish of Tarring in copyhold. There was a vague story of connections with Thomas a Becket, The Knights Templar and heaven knows what. What is known is that Thomas à Becket was connected with Tarring and that the fig trees that were still there had something to do with the crusades. There were fig trees in the walled garden of the manor and they were supposed to be of the same origin. The truth of all this will probably never be known and is only reported here because it seemed part of the country heritage.
It may now seem incredible but Cokeham and Sompting less than two miles apart had subtle nuances in their accents of the Sussex dialect. A glance at the photographs of people taken at the time of the Boer War and then again during World War One (then known as "The Great War") shows changes of expression in the faces that show a different culture and alterations were very slow but this was soon to change.
Contrary to local fears there was no rise in the local crime rate! Finally the camp was disbanded and most drifted back to London but there were one or two who married local girls and worked on to retire as countrymen with cockney accents. The "Great Depression" was history and memories fade but when I emigrated to Canada in 1950 I met people for whom it was a memory like a living wound.
It was much, much worse in Canada and US: People starved!
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Edward Sparkes ©1998