After years in the stationery, food and retail trades in Chertsey, outer London, my grandfather, Ernest Taylor, decided to abandon all that he knew to become a farmer - for which he had zero knowledge or experience. He was going to be a pioneer, and in 1912 he took a 100 year lease on 14 acres of land on the outskirts of Letchworth Garden City, a New Town that mainly only existed on the plans and 50 miles from the family home.
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.
This is Gertrude and Ernest on their Ner-a-car motorcycle.
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 Erent and Gert's 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.
Gertrude eventually did marry Ernest. Ernest died when he was 95, and Gert at 99, in 1982. 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 there until he died - but in the meantime, on her death-bed, Gert’s mother had said to her, “Look after your sister, May”.
When May arrived on the doorstep of ‘Camp Holdings’, as the property was called, Ernest thought she was coming for a holiday, but she never left, never had a proper job and outlived them all.
The small holding never generated much income. Ernest visited the local auction each week and bought things as cheaply as he could – bits and pieces from which he could make his own cultivating equipment and old picture frames to rip apart for the glass to construct cloches ...plus curtains and furniture. At the end of the day, the auctioneer would say, “Will you give me a shilling for the bath full of rubbish, Taylor?” and Ernest usually did – more often than not it contained a bag of nails or something that would ‘come in handy one day’. The sheds increased in number. I remember the oil shed; the incubator shed; the goat shed; the egg shed; the wood shed; a workshop shed; the machinery shed; a shed for the horse; my father’s shed; and number 42 shed – yes, there had been more over the years that had fallen down.
Ernest and Gert grew rows of Mrs Simpkins pinks (carnations) that were picked and sent by train to the Covent Garden flower market, strawberries, vegetables and a large apple orchard with loganberry and blackberry bushes between trees, and they bred chickens. When I was a child they must still have had a good number of hens because there were often 20 - 30 dozen eggs on stacked trays, though one client was noted for cycling miles to the property to buy just a single egg.
Up until the 1950s my grandfather delivered eggs, fruit and vegetables to some families in the immediate neighbourhood by horse and cart, when he would hoist me on to the seat next to him. Most customers had kept food scraps for him to feed to the chickens, some of which were enclosed in a special run, while others roamed the orchard, along with geese - the subject of a picture book story I'm writing for children.
For the majority of families just after WW2, eating chicken was a Christmas or Easter treat, and for the week leading up to the celebrations, the birds would be killed, cleaned, plucked by hand until the shed was waist high with feathers and trussed – tied up with string to enhance their appearance and help them cook evenly. All transactions were by cash, and a box was kept on the window ledge – the money from sales being put into the box, and whenever anyone wanted to buy anything, they just took whatever they needed.
But Gert liked her independence and some money of her own, had a greenhouse built, developed close to half an acre of immaculate flower beds around the house and sold bunches of blooms to passers-by en route to the cemetery which bordered the land.
Gert and Ernest leased the right-hand half of the house
In the days before TV and especially in the winter, May and Gert spent their evenings either doing embroidery or studying bulb and plant catalogues - most of Gert’s income was given away or used to buy plants. As soon as spring arrived, she spent her time gardening, but it was nice to relax, too - lazing in deck chairs on the lawn or snug in the summer-house she constructed – but then one day a Romany gypsy parked her caravan on the road outside the house. It wasn’t long before a deal was done. And just like the Jeep adverts of today, all her friends and family said “She’s bought a what?”, but nodded in approval.
Gert soon added all the essentials – books and magazines in the cupboards, a wicker chair and plenty of plump pillows – and we all pushed and pulled the caravan to the edge of the orchard, overlooking the flower garden and house. The house had become redundant.
The caravan soon became my favourite place to read, too.