I’ve got a couple of recently completed stories and would like to send them to a publisher to be considered. A friend recommended that I tried ‘The Chicken House’ – so I visited their website.
What a coincidence.
Firstly, I have just returned to Australia from a holiday spent at Corsley, very close to their office in Frome, in rural England. Then I looked at the profile of one of their authors, James Mayhew, who has written a story about chickens, and was amazed to find that he lives in Letchworth Garden City, also in England. In 1912, my grandparents were pioneers in the creation and development of that town …and were, believe it or not, chicken farmers.
My ideas for books will be winging their way to ‘The Chicken House’ … but the whole experience has stimulated me to write a little more of the family history.
I find writing snippets of family history a great way to get the words flowing in other projects too.
In case you’re curious, I’ll add an extract below. Some is already on my website, along with photos and notes on different individuals, at http://www.writing-for-children.com/MyFamily.html , but as I say, I’ve added to it.
…After years in the stationery, food and retail trades in Chertsey, Surrey, Ernest Taylor decided to abandon all that he knew to become a farmer – a field in which he had zero knowledge or experience. In 1912 he took a 100 year lease on 14 acres of land at Letchworth Garden City, a town that mainly existed only on the plans.
He invited two others to join him. One was Thomas Flaws (the son of the editor of the Bedfordshire Times newspaper), who also had 'limited' farming experience, to say the least. The other was Gertrude Matilda Beaumont, the daughter of the owner of the grocery store where he worked. Though Ernest asked her to marry him so that they could set up this venture together, she declined. She would live unmarried with them both first, to see if she liked the lifestyle.Was this 'small-holding' going to be viable? Was it a wise decision, in 1912, for an unmarried young lady to move in with two men in an isolated house on the edge of civilization? The scandal! What did her parents say? What did the neighbours in London say? What was their reputation in Letchworth? …And what a big change to leave a comfortable home with a maid to find that, at her new home, there was no flushing toilet, no bath, no hot water, no income, no mechanisation - just 14 acres of untamed land.
Each day, Ernest would leave the house wearing his customary bow tie, pick a fresh flower for his button-hole, and set to work – but much of Tuesday was spent at the local auction.
“Give us a shilling, Taylor, for the mixed bag?”
He had become noted for being prepared to buy all the rubbish that remained unsold at the end of the day. Each week he would return with an old metal bath tub filled with bags of rusty nails, decomposing picture frames ...and a few useful wheels and bits of metal that could be made into ‘Heath Robinson style’ contraptions, the purpose of which often took some explaining.
Glass from the picture frames was used to make cloches to cover seedlings, and I have inherited a few nice watercolours which I believe were collected this way.
Life was harsh but simple. Doors, of course, were never locked, and a box was kept on the window-ledge. When someone sold something, the money was placed in the box. When someone wanted to make a purchase, they just took out whatever they needed.
I was born in 1949. At that time half of the small-holding was apple orchards, with blackberry and loganberry bushes mixed in, along with a lot of chickens and geese – which often nested amongst the brambles instead of in the sheds. Many of the sheds were numbered. The last one was ‘number 42 shed’, and though most of the earlier ones had fallen down and been replaced, I remember at least 11 of them standing.
Other chicken runs existed close to the main road. However, my grandparents also grew strawberries , and ‘pinks’ for the Covent Garden flower market. Gert, my grandmother, was a true entrepreneur. To be financially independent, she cultivated ½ acre of flower gardens so that she could sell blooms to people visiting the nearby cemetery. She also kept angora rabbits - which I think she combed to collect some fur, but also skinned them and sold the pelts to the glove factory.
I remember sitting on my grandfather’s horse-drawn cart, in the early 1950’s, as he delivered the eggs. At the same time he collected food scraps from the customers, and he boiled these scraps up with bran to make chicken food.
People travelled a long way to shop. One early resident would come to see them from miles away and just purchase a single egg, which was selected from amongst the dozens which were stacked in the ‘egg shed’.
Letchworth was famed for its eccentrics.
Gertrude eventually did marry Ernest. Ernest died when he was 95 and Gert at 99. During the whole of their married life they never had a day when they were not sharing their house with someone else. Thomas Flaws lived with them until he died, aged over 90. Gert also had a sister, called May. On her death-bed, Gert’s mother said, “Gert, make sure you look after May.” When May arrived, Ernest thought she was coming for three weeks holiday, but she stayed for over 35 years and outlived them all...