Georgian house

Our house – now called The Georgian House

jack pridham3We are grateful to Jack Pridham who spent his childhood years in The Georgian House and wrote his memories of his time there which includes the following wonderful description of the house and garden.

‘Shortly after my grandfather died, it was probably in 1933, we moved out of ‘Rachman’s house’ to The Plain.  The situation was that my mother’s sister, Aunt Rose, a spinster, was now in the family house, alone, and running a labour-intensive business which was her only source of income.  She therefore welcomed the company of my parents who could help out in the shop and garden: in return the Pridhams got superior accommodation for a peppercorn rent.

The house, with the address at that time of just “Gloucester Road”, was fairly large with four rooms on the ground floor, a cellar with shiny black beetles beneath and a scullery which opened out on to a paved yard (once a conservatory) called the ‘court’.  Eleven steps up at the turn in the rather elegant but linoleum covered stairs, was one of the first bathrooms in Thornbury (which was quite apparent!!) with an electric geyser and a separate toilet with Izal toilet paper, which was sold in the shop, and a mahogany-coloured seat which was warm in winter!  (Probably, because of nightmares about the ‘Rachman toilet facilities’ it was some years before I could be persuaded to sit on any other.  Auntie Nell’s ‘seat’ in Gloucester was the next best – it was wooden and warm but made of unvarnished, inferior pine!).   Four steps up from the toilet was a landing leading to five bedrooms and up the third set of stairs, that were devoid of linoleum and the brass stair rods, there were three attics.  One that was not unexpectedly called ‘the dark room’, had no windows and was used to store the family ‘arts collection’ – mainly old prints in heavy frames and choses de toilet that had been discarded from bedrooms .  The other two had west-facing windows from which one could easily climb out into a lead-lined gully which fronted the roof of the house and leaked when it snowed.  Patriotic flags were sometimes flown from this spot during the War which on one embarrassing occasion included The Royal Standard which the police told us to take down as The King was not in residence!

Initially we lived separately from Rose, with our own living room and two bedrooms and use of the bathroom and the kitchen.  The full bathroom facilities were not often needed as total immersion was only practised at weekends although the ladies of the house used it to wash down to the waist every day.  Father refused to enter the bathroom during the week and the upstairs loo at anytime.  He insisted on using the outside toilet – a 15 yard sprint down the garden sometimes at night in the depths of winter – and preferred a bowl in the scullery for routine ablutions down to the waist every evening.  Here he also shaved and brushed his teeth – horizontally and so vigorously with pink Gibbs or Euthymol toothpaste that the incisors snapped off at the gum line by very early middle age.  By their forties, most people in the town possessed ill-fitting dentures (always kept in a glass of water at night!) probably because the toothbrush was rarely used, preventive dentistry was primitive and expensive and the dentist in Thornbury was a ‘butcher’ who, it was alleged, only performed well when he was inebriated!  One wonders if a person from this age going back to that age would notice many offensive odours?  Of old, they must have been ubiquitous and, hence, probably did not stimulate the nose!

Our living room had been a storeroom for the shop and before that a doctor’s surgery.  It had an ornate cast-iron fireplace with two large hobs – elderly town residents told us that the doctor always kept a simmering kettle of water on one of them.  My father got to work on this room before we moved in and made it quite habitable – whitewash, wall paper and some ‘Zebra’ grate polish made all the difference.  He enjoyed his independence in this room and even installed a gas cooker so that we did not have to use the main kitchen.  This facility was not used for long as mother much preferred the cooker and other facilities (such as they were) in the main kitchen and ‘father’s’ stove was relegated to the scullery.  I suppose in the 19th century the main kitchen had been highly prized.  It had a pantry (there were originally two, either side of the door), two large Georgian dressers with drawers with sophisticated brass handles and another cast-iron grate with hobs, an oven and attachments to hold the ‘smoothing irons’ close to the fire.  The skirting boards had mouse holes and you could hear the animals scratching and moving around at night.  Traps with cheese, both lethal and humane, were set outside the holes but they were rarely successful.  The cat was superior!  There was no water, sink or gas stove in this room when we arrived, in fact there was no drinking water anywhere in the house until about two years later.  The St Mary’s Street tap and buckets had to be used.  However, for personal ablutions and the toilet and for laundering there was a supply of water from a pump in the scullery.  The water came from the roof – rainwater, which was collected in a large cistern under the house and needed to be pumped by hand up to a tank in the roof which supplied the bathroom.  This held roughly a week’s supply of water and on a Sunday morning it was replenished by 20 minutes of vigorous male activity which could only be stopped when water issued from the tank overflow pipe into the stone trough below.  How often I waited and watched, hot and perspiring, for that first dribble to appear!  In times of drought this water supply was a problem; the water level in the cistern sometimes went so low that the black sediment from the bottom found its way to the bathroom.  In the summer it was also not unusual to find the remains of a rat in the wash basin which usually brought a scream from the women but no Weil’s disease (leptospirosis) or other medical emergencies.  We were the lucky ones having a soft, rain water-powered bathroom even though there was from time to time, a degree of contamination that would have brought today’s health inspectors on an asap visitation with a notification of immediate closure.

Although relatively spacious, general conditions in the house were in some respects as bad or worse than you would find in any of today’s poor housing areas.  I can remember a large brass oil lamp in the main living room; at that time, however, it was only used in an emergency when the electricity failed – which it often did.  Sometime in the 20s the house was wired for electricity, with lead covered cable, and most of the rooms had electric light with brass switches which ‘tingled’ particularly when it was humid!  Not our newly occupied living room, however, or the scullery both of which were illuminated by town gas . Like electricity, this was not entirely reliable – “water in the pipes”, was the company’s usual excuse – and a good light also required a steady supply of very delicate gas mantles and constant care to ensure that, when not lit, the gas was turned off.  The question, “Can you smell gas?”, immediately brought people to their senses and sent them off sniffing in all directions. (My Grammar School maths master, Mr Laycock, obviously did not sniff enough and suffered serious injury when he came downstairs one morning and lit his pipe which raised the kitchen ceiling by about an inch!)

Heating in the winter was entirely via coal or wood fires in three downstairs rooms and sometimes in the main kitchen.  Cinders and ash needed to be removed from the grates every morning before the fires were relit.  The fires were rarely kept going over night, mainly because someone would have had to get up to stoke them.  Two or three single bar, 500 watt heaters were also available which could be used to warm the bedrooms for an hour or so before one retired.  Beds were piled with blankets and thick eiderdowns and earthenware, aluminium or, later, rubber hot water bottles were used by everyone.  The metal bottle was lethal and could have caused third degree burns if it had not been covered with a flannel jacket.  On winter mornings the bedroom windows were commonly covered with ice, on the inside, breath condensed to steam and the linoleum-covered floors were a shock to the system.  The quick wash in the bathroom was in the best, icy cold public school tradition.  It was no wonder that the family suffered from more than its fair share of chesty ailments.’

The extract from the 1881 OS map shown below on the left shows the house and garden.  From this one can see how extensive the garden and property attached to the large house was in 1881 and at the time Jack lived there.

‘The ‘court’ at the back of the house has already been mentioned.  It had been used to store large cider barrels – at one time grandfather’s primary trade had been coopering and the children had used the barrels as playhouses.  Later, the wooden and galvanised tubs for laundering were hung on the walls of the ‘court’ . The main wash was carried out on a Monday and opposite the scullery, with its ample supplies of rainwater, there was a large copper for the preliminary boil which was followed by a serious attack on everything with large tablets of green Puritan soap and red, worn hands.  A blue bag was employed for the ‘whites’ and our daily maid, Dolly Clutterbuck, and later Nancy Longman, rendered valuable assistance throughout the operation.  The clothes were hung out to dry on the long wire line in the garden.

On the John Street side of the house, known as ‘the back’, there were large red double-doors, one half of which was a stable door which could be opened at the top whilst leaving the bottom still barred to intruders.  Much family time was spent leaning over the bottom door watching the world go by, exchanging “Good mornings, afternoons or evenings” with passers by – and engaging in the occasional yarn.  Unlike most doors in the town our double doors were normally kept firmly locked and barred.  Father was very security minded and it would have been necessary to have breached three doors to have entered the house from the back.  The red doors led from the street to a flagstoned space known as the ‘cart house’.  Above was a tallot with a trapdoor to the cart house and small doors which opened out at one end on to St John Street and at the other on to the ‘court’.  A set of rickety steps with a rope banister could be climbed by agile, non-acrophobic humans wanting to see the tallot.  On arrival, they found that like other tallots, it was used for storing hay which was fed to the horse below via the trap door.  The horse or rather the pony belonging to my grandfather was called “Didymus”; he actually spent most of his free time in a stable in the garden and as the name implies, his trap/cart was kept in the cart house!  The cart house and tallot had once been a small cottage which had undergone a Charlie Symes conversion!  The tallot eventually became an excellent workshop for my father (and me) and in the 1990s the whole structure was returned to roughly its original state and used once again as housing.

The property possessed a “front lawn” in Gloucester Road and a long flower bed and short privet hedge in St John Street: the boundary was marked with cast iron railings sunk into sandstone blocks The “front lawn” with a holly tree in one corner and two flower beds had only one feature of interest, a Maidenhair Fern (Ginkgo biloba) tree planted by grandfather probably in the 1910-20s.  Described as the oldest tree in the world with origins in China, it was unique in Thornbury and was the subject of many inquiries from passers-by.  However, it was not unique in Henbury (nr Bristol), the home of the twig that grandfather had planted which he had ripped from a tree as he passed by in his pony and trap!  The ginkgo was badly treated by its Thornbury owners.  Normally it would have grown rather tall like a Lombardy poplar but there were always complaints that it kept the light out of the house and so it was pruned drastically until it took on the proportions of a cherry or almond tree.  The poor thing was eventually chopped down; by then its trunk was about 7 inches in diameter and we do have a unique memento of the old fellow (it was a male tree!) in the form of a wooden bowl made by a friend of a friend.

GH garden 1881The back  garden of the family house on The Plain was a super playground.  It was fairly large and rectangular, perhaps 70 by 40 yards, and surrounded on all sides by limestone walls.  In the two long east/west dimensions the walls were about 12 – 15 ft high; the north wall which was originally part of an old grain mill was even higher.  The southern boundary had the lowest wall and failed the privacy test.  The neighbours, Mrs Sealey and the Cripps family, in the two St John Street cottages that backed on to our property, could easily see into the garden from their bedroom windows.

The hard pathway from the house to the garden started at the ‘court’, passed the outside ‘loo’ and a large water butt (full of mosquito larvae) on the left and “Didymus’s” stable, built by grandfather, on the right.  The stable had the usual appointments: a stable door so that the pony could look out and a wooden manger.  After the pony had departed this life (sadly at work in the traces), the stable was used at various times as a cider store, garden tool shed and my chemical laboratory!  The garden was serviced by two main paths running north-south and several subsidiary tracks all of which formed a ‘road’ network which was ideal as a race track for ‘kiddy cars’, ‘trikes’ and ‘bikes’ and for games of ‘cops and robbers’.  The paths and their kerbs of brick or wood were homes to two species of ants which attracted a lot of youthful attention!  Black and relatively small, fast ants lived in the middle of the garden: they would come streaming out of their ‘lairs’ if the kerb was kicked but they were innocuous and at most could only deliver an acute, surgical nip with their mouth parts.  Those species of Formicidae that lived at the south end of the garden, however, were, to coin a phrase, a ‘different kettle of fish’.  Mean, red and slightly ponderous bearing an abdomen packed with formic acid, they would attack immediately they were disturbed.  A tap on the kerb in this area of the garden invariably resulted in stings on small boys’ hands and legs which were several orders of magnitude greater than those produced by falling into a nettle bed.  If adults (humans, that is) were absent, stings usually resulted in instant, all out war with an intense bombardment of the nest with clods of dry earth, thrown sportingly from a distance, which ‘exploded’ like howitzer shells and caused significant numbers of ant casualties.  Their ravaged homes were subsequently looted for ants’ eggs which were fed to the fish in the pond.  It was said that a sample of pure formic could be obtained by distilling red ants but this was never attempted.  Adults waged war on ants, both black and red, with boiling water – which was perhaps more humane – with no walking wounded!

The red ant domain was also an area of the garden where red clay could be found, a material that fascinated me as a small child having been to the brick works and watched it being excavated and worked into tiles and bricks.  The arrival of mains water in Thornbury led to a second fascination – pneumatic drilling, sledge hammering and crow- baring holes not to forget shovelling – and a chance to kill two birds with one stone.  Aided by a 2/6d soldier’s combination pick and shovel (bought from the Army & Navy (second hand equipment) Stores in Barton Street, Gloucester) I dug a hole in the garden which was so deep that my 4 or 5 year-old head could not be seen above the surface and I needed a ladder to get in and out. I found clay, made some pots and baked them in mother’s oven.  My hole suffered a short life; it had to be filled in when the contractors started to dig up the garden to lay the town sewage pipes – but not before I had laid two of my own and cemented them together – with the help of an amused foreman!

Other things in the garden of interest to small boys?  Well, there were six apple, four pear and four plum trees and at one time, there were also apricots, greengages and peaches.  Stomach-aches were, therefore, not uncommon in the fruit season, particularly when the pears were ripe which on one occasion were associated with appendicitis-like symptoms and a visit from the doctor!  The rest of the plot was put down to all kinds of vegetables and one long border to flowers, many of which have now gone out of fashion – antirrhinums, stocks and asters, granny’s bonnets, lilies of the valley, Sweet William and the like.  There were also a few ancient rose trees which fed the aphids and the black spot fungus and, all in all, the Soil Association would have heartily approved of our husbandry and given us ‘organic’ garden status.  No one had heard of the Association in those days, of course: I believe it was initiated by Lady Eve Balfour and a group of other ladies over tea and biscuits!  Lady Balfour then wrote her book, “The Living Soil” and the Soil Association and ‘organic’ farming was officially born in 1946.  Gardening, farming, food and all life have always been ‘organic’, of course, but the Soil Association’s style of ‘organic’ farming which is a reincarnation of ancient husbandry, which I have experienced, leads me to wonder why there are people that now think that these ‘green’ but primitive practices will feed a future world population approaching 9 billion.  In the 30s and early 40s a little derris dust or soapy water were our main insecticides and herbicides were not in general use – weeds were removed by hand.  My father did employ concentrated sulphuric acid, applied with a metal skewer, to remove deep-rooted dandelions from the front lawn but this noxious liquid could hardly be described as a desirable herbicide.  Bordeaux mixture could be purchased to control fungi but we did not use it and we strayed a little from the ‘organic path of righteousness’ by using a dash of solid sulphate of ammonia here and there as a nitrogen ‘treat’ for the plants.  As a consequence of these practices, our garden was an environmentalist’s dream with an atmosphere thick with cabbage white butterflies and brassicas crawling with their green and yellow striped caterpillars.  Black aphids thrived on the broad beans, our carrots were infected with carrot fly (which could be reduced by applications of carcinogenic soot), apples were covered with ‘scab’ and stored badly and something commonly reduced our potatoes to a near liquid consistency.  The family was partly dependent on the garden as a source of income but the yields were very variable thanks to the weather and the pests.

Apart from the whitefly infestation, the greenhouses performed well.  There was one small and two large heated greenhouses which, I believe, were used for growing a few ‘chrysants’ and tomatoes which were the main cash crop.  When sufficient fruit had set on the vine the axillary buds were pinched out and fingers smelled wonderful and were stained green for days.  The quality of the final product bore no relationship to today’s ‘red wonders’ on supermarket shelves!  The bottom greenhouse which lent against the wall of the old mill, had a separate section at the entrance with conjoined deep and shallow water tanks (which eventually became a fish pond and fountain). The galvanised water cans were kept there together with a brass syringe with a mahogany handle and a fine nozzle which was used to dispense a white liquid to the unsuspecting whitefly: the component of the spray, which I think was an arsenical, was stored in lead toothpaste-type tubes.  The syringe when not being used for horticultural purposes, made a marvellous water pistol.  The water tanks were at one time filled from a cast-iron pump which extracted water from a well in the corner of the garden but during the war an army transport unit took over the mill and the well first became contaminated with oil and then eventually dried up.

Diagonally opposite the pump was an old lean-to shed with a timber frame and a corrugated iron roof and sides which my grandfather had constructed.  He used it for his coopering activities, servicing giant barrels used by the cider makers, farmers who operated along the banks of the Severn.  For many years his specialised tools lay around in the workshop; they would have made a valuable collection but over time they all disappeared.  Another corrugated iron shed which was demolished before WWII, stood a short distance from the workshop.  This was used to store corn and other feedstock as grandfather had once kept fowls and, I think, the odd pig.  There were large hooks in the cool cellar where sides of bacon once hung.

That was the garden which apart from the loss of the greenhouses, remained more or less unchanged until I finally left home in the 1950s after which a slice of the garden was sold followed by another slice which decimated the property’.