THE HOWLETTS - A FELTWELL FAMILY - Part5 'Green Coats and Flickering Flames'
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At this time our great grandmother Rolph was living in one of the Bell Cottages next door. A tall lady dressed in black who sat erect and silent when I saw her. She had borne thirteen children but was now eighty years old and a widow. Every day a few of her grandchildren would be at her house to attend to the needs of their grandmother. They were children of our own age. We would chat to them over the low farm wall, but they were on duty and quick to leave us if great grandma summoned them with her bell.
The family always gathered at Bell House for Christmas. I view it now with nostalgia but I think that at the time I would have preferred to stay at home with my presents. Under the overhanging velvety ropes of green and red we all shared the hearty meal, but from then on children were expected to amuse themselves. All of us dispatched to a room at the other end of the corridor. We were provided with everything deemed necessary to make our Christmas a merry one. While unencumbered our parents were happily relaxing, chatting or playing cards. However, the Christmas of 1933 was quite different for me. Joy Wright went home for Christmas and I was invited to go with her. I was completely spoilt and fussed over by everybody. After much deliberation, even allowed small sips of home made wine. My Christmas stocking had a surprise in the toe - a small lump of coal - and so the New Year of 1934 arrived.
My eleventh birthday was celebrated in style. Several children came to my party and I wore my first long dress. Robert had bought a new cabinet gramophone and several records, including a "Learn to Dance" record of the Valeta. The boys had soon tired of that, preferring games like Postman's Knock.
Soon it was Easter; the flowering currant bush outside our sitting room window was looking beautiful, but smelling disappointingly horrid. I don't remember Easter eggs but it was the custom to have a new outfit for Church on Easter Sunday. Joyce and I wore new light green coats with cape collars edged with fur. We were outshone by our younger cousins Betty and Jean Edwards with their pretty flower trimmed straw hats. For some reason we walked home via Munsons Lane and worried that our new sandals were getting muddy.
The new green coats were hanging in the hall on the evening of Sunday 15 April. Joyce and I were playing Ludo with Dad by the fire in our sitting room. Mum and Joy Wright had taken Barbara with them as they walked up to the Wilton Road with the washing for Mrs. Barnes. They carried the large oval wicker basket with a handle at each end. I was the first of the Ludo players to smell burning. I opened the hall door to investigate, and as I did so my Aunt Connie in her bedroom began to scream. From her window she would have seen the thatch at the other end of the house ablaze. I have not got the slightest memory of what must have been a terrible sight to behold. I cannot imagine how I could have left my sister behind, having spent innumerable nights hanging onto her nightie in case she was kidnapped. Now my only thought was to find my mother - I must have shown signs of distress as I approached the Elm tree - running at full speed, and carrying my green coat. The tree was the meeting place for the young men of the village. They asked me what was wrong, but didn't believe my story until one of them walked a short distance and saw the flames. As they all rushed forward, I followed, thinking that I must tell my father to rescue the week's takings from the wardrobe in his bedroom. Again I must have seen the flames, but remember only my distraught father and his anguish at seeing me there. As I gave him the instructions about the money he shouted at me "Get away from here - run somewhere, run anywhere". So I set off again to find my mother - afraid to go along the darkening Paynes Lane, I ran along Cock Street and Bell Street and up to the council houses on the Wilton Road where Mrs. Barnes took care of me. My mother and sister and Joy Wright had left much earlier to visit Miss Jacob in the lane. A great friend of my mothers, she was nursing her ailing father in a downstairs room. Barbara had fallen asleep on the sick bed. I don't know who broke the news to my mother. She was rushed home on the bar of somebody's bicycle. My sister Joyce stayed with her at the scene the whole time. Joy Wright remained at Miss Jacob's house with Barbara and I was safe with Mrs. Barnes. I stood with her at door looking at the huge and fierce glow in the sky, but not fully comprehending what a terrible calamity had befallen us.
Long after midnight I was taken from Mrs. Barnes to the Oak Hotel. We had not previously met the Williams family but their hospitality on that night and their future friendship was exceptional. Joyce was already sharing a room with Dorothy Williams of the same age. I shared a double bed with my parents, lying between them, but in a short time all three of us were out again, sitting on the bed with me in the middle and my head over the chamber pot.
The fire wiped out every shred of life as we had known it. Nothing was saved from our bedrooms, not even the weeks takings. We were left with the furniture from our sitting room (not the gramophone) and a collection of goods from the shop. The furniture was taken to the top of the hill to be stored in the garage of Captain Briggs? Alfie Orange has written of the shop items being stored by his father on their premises. Soon, by some strange quirk of fate, Robert was to open a rather muddily one-room shop at Ashtons. We were all living now with our grandparents at Bell House, Hockwold, but Joy Wright or Robert would be serving each day in the Feltwell "shop". Even the most loyal of customers would not have found it satisfactory for long. The changes were so difficult for all of us. I hated Hockwold School, indiscipline was unknown there. I felt only fear. I kept my head well down when the teacher requested a volunteer to do the sum he had written on the board. Failure to get it right would sometimes result in a hefty clout round the ear, sending a child staggering across the classroom. Very soon I was sent away to Lowestoft to stay with our friends the Boyd family, their daughter Jean was my own age. I did not go to school for several weeks but when I returned home two decisive steps had been taken regarding our future.
With help from our grandfather Harrison we were to live at Roseneath, Feltwell, where we would open a shop, and my Aunt Bertha (my mother's youngest sister) had arranged for me to take the entrance examination for the Thetford Girls Grammar School. Aunt Bertha had been a pupil there herself but was now a school teacher. I feared that my weakness at Maths would be a stumbling block when it came to exams but to live at Roseneath was a joy to contemplate. I had already seen the lovely gardens and orchard there from the wall of the Oak Hotel and would have the Williams family living next door. The overgrown garden was soon sorted out by my father and a gardener friend. There were two greenhouses, stables, outhouses, a garage and a tennis court. We settled in very happily.
Mrs. Barnes returned on washdays using the copper, the dolly tub, the washboard and the wringer, although she never seemed to make such hard work of it as is suggested by the historians of today. With the washing done she would scrub the kitchen floor and later take the washing home for ironing, all for the princely sum of two shillings and sixpence.
In spite of my doubts about Maths I did go to the Girls Grammar School, cycling to Lakenheath Station in the early morning with Violet Maggs and the Davidson brothers. We caught an exceedingly early train, arriving at school in Thetford at least half an hour before other pupils, and doing our homework at school before walking to the station to catch our train home.
The following summer Mrs. Williams and her elder daughter Betty made our fancy dress costumes for the village fete. It was always such an exciting day and it never seemed to rain. We joined the procession as it paraded round the streets and the excitement would rise as we turned in at Miss Newcome's field. She would come down with her guests from the house carrying a parasol and her long summer dress was always soft and floaty. The band would be playing. There were sideshows, a beer tent, and a tent filled with prize winning garden produce and flowers, sometimes even a gymnastic display. There were races for the children. I stood my sister Barbara in line, and being quite young she was moved ahead a little. I impressed upon her several times the need to run fast and not look round, then I hurried along to the winning post. She had won by such a margin that she was already receiving her prize as I waited for the stragglers to come in.
Sadly our happiness at Roseneath was of short duration. Business was not good and money problems led to arguments. After a year or so the shop was closed and Robert looked for a job. A friend of his was an official with the electricity board at Stowmarket, busily engaged at this time in bringing electricity to the villages of East Anglia. It was suggested to Robert that if he took a job with the company he could learn about electric wiring as he went along! Some malign spirit seems to have dogged the footsteps of the Howlett men and so it continued. At the top of a pole fixing time switches, Robert received a massive electric shock and terrible burns to his hands, but he made a complete recovery and carried on with the job. As his work took him further afield, Robert bought a motor cycle to use on his journeys and soon we arrived at the most distressing period of all our Feltwell years.
Early one morning on a perfectly straight road, a speeding car pulled out from behind a lorry and collided head on with Robert. He was very seriously injured and kept in hospital for eighteen months. He gave evidence in the Assize Court from a stretcher. My mother took the now compulsory driving test so that we could visit Bury Hospital regularly. She also sold the rose garden at the front of the house to the brewers, a request she had turned down on more than one occasion. We had already said a sad goodbye to Joy Wright but Mrs. Morton came in sometimes to help Mum. Robert received a large amount of compensation but would always have problems with his right leg. For a short time he returned to shop keeping - selling wireless sets, bicycles and gramophone records etc, but in the summer of 1939 Roseneath was rented out to an Airforce officer. We began a new happier chapter by moving to Watton, very close to Thompson, from whence 72 years earlier James and Rebecca Howlett had set off to begin this Feltwell story.
I hope that you, the reader, have enjoyed this series of articles as much as I have. Thank-you Pearl for some lovely insights into village life. I also hope that the Howlett story might inspire some of you to write the history of your own village family or even to write about your childhood.
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