Stonehouse History Group

Welcome to the web site for Stonehouse History Group


- promoting  interest in the History of Stonehouse & the locality.

MEMORIES of STONEHOUSE


My Home in Regent Street


I was born in 1920 and brought up in a house called “The Cottage”.  It is just south of the lane to the Berryfield.  It was semi-detached.  In the other half lived Mr Hale, a farmer who kept chickens in the orchard behind (and killed them there when they were ready to eat).  His brother had a big farm at Stanley Downton, and brought us milk daily, in churns.


In front of the house was a big long garden.  The way in was from Regent Street (not as it is now, from the lane.)  There was a box hedge on each side of the path, and a man used to come from time to time, and ask us if he could collect snails from the hedge, to eat.  We grew most of our own vegetables, and there were two apple trees, one eaters and one cookers.


When elvers were in season, men would come up Regent Street (from the Severn) with elvers in zinc baths, shouting “Elvers alive!”


My father had two extensions built: one at the north end, of cement blocks, making one big room and one small one; and the other at the back, with a new bedroom upstairs, and a big store-room below.  The house is now, I think, three apartments?


There were sheds in the garden: a tool-shed near the lane; a summerhouse just in front of the house; and a shed under the apple trees for my father’s art materials (he was an art and craft teacher at Wycliffe).


There was another house, closer to Regent Street.  Our property adjoined it on one side and at the back.  In that house a Mrs Stephens had a sweet shop.  I remember when Mars Bars and Milky Ways were introduced, at 2d and 1d each.  (Mars Bars cost over 40p in 2010, and look a little smaller!)  Mrs Stephens’ son had a garage business next to their house, on the corner of the lane.


Wycliffe College used the Berryfield for sports, and they installed an old railway carriage at the back of the orchard, as a changing room. Just inside the orchard gate they put up a big shed as a bookbinding facility, and my father taught there: out of regular class hours, I think.  


I was away from Stonehouse 1939-1943.  My father was with Wycliffe in Lampeter, Cards., but I returned in 1943.  I was married then, and we brought our eldest son with us as a baby.  Mr Hale was no longer there.  Our neighbours were Mr and Mrs Street with a child, Derek, about the same age as our Christopher.  They played together.  We had a second son, but in March 1947 he died accidentally from a fall. The doctor, who lived at the bottom of Regent Street on the right, was very upset that he hadn’t spotted a fracture in his skull, and we had to have an inquest.  He is buried in St. Cyr’s Churchyard, and so is my mother Hilda, who had died in 1929.


I bought the house from my Father in 1945, but I had to sell it again in 1947, because I had to move away to get a job.  I’ve been back to see it a couple of times in recent years.


MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


Two Swimming Pools


I learned to swim in the Stroudwater Canal, which is (or was?) a part of the Thames and Severn Canal.  If you went out of the main Wycliffe entrance, turned right and left, you went over a level crossing, and there on the left was a field by the canal.  At the far end of the field was a two-storey boathouse, and beside it was a sort of octagonal cement-lined swimming pool.  You could swim in the pool, or in the canal itself.  There was a channel linking the two.  There was a small square raft in the canal, and I remember teaching myself to swim on my back by hanging on to the raft.


Eventually, the boating became centred at Framilode, on the Berkeley Canal.  For the swimming, we built a ‘proper’ swimming pool in the main Wycliffe estate.


I say “we” because the pool was dug by boys.  It was in the south-west, not far from the bottom of Regent Street.  When we had dug the hole, professional grown-ups came and lined it with cement.  A substantial building with a chlorination plant was added on the west side.


It has all gone!  The size and shape of the pool was similar to the size and shape of the lawn between the residential blocks which took its place.


In my memory, that swimming pool is linked with the school’s departure for Lampeter.  I’ll explain that in the next story.


MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


Off to Lampeter


In 1939 I had spent three years in the sixth form, taken Higher School Certificate, and won enough scholarships to finance a course at the Queen’s College, Oxford.  For vacation employment I was looking after the school swimming pool (see no.2) in the absence on holiday of a Mr. Jenner.  I had to operate the chlorination plant, and then I could sit in a summer-house which stood, surrounded by rockeries, near the shallow end of the pool.  I had to make sure that only authorised people used the pool in the holidays, but when all was quiet I could study a maths textbook which my new College had prescribed.


War was looming near.  Suddenly, a man appeared and said: “Drop everything!  The Air Ministry has requisitioned Wycliffe’s buildings, and we are moving to St. David’s College at Lampeter, in Wales!  We must pack up.”


I spent several days putting the school library into boxes, and then the exercise books, pencils, etc., etc., from the school stock-room, ready for transport to Lampeter.  But my father, as the school’s art teacher, had to move our home as well, and I wasn’t due in Oxford until early October.  So I packed up my own things, and I think that must have been the occasion when I went to Lampeter on my bicycle, leaving my family to travel with my luggage.


I visited my parents in vacations, and when I got married in 1942 I took my new wife with me to Lampeter by train, going via Gloucester because there was gunfire over Bristol.  In those days there was a railway from Carmarthen to Lampeter!  Among my contacts there was a delightful bookseller called Lemuel Rees.  I took my wife to his bookshop and told him I had married her.  “What else could you do?” he said, in his strong Welsh accent.


My next visit to Lampeter was in 2008.  And I went back to Stonehouse from there: two giant steps back in time.


GOING TO SCHOOL


We lived in a village called Stonehouse in Gloucestershire.  My father was a teacher at a boarding school there, called Wycliffe College.


I never went to a ‘play group’.  I didn’t go to school until I was 6 (in 1926).  My mother taught me to read and write before I went to school.


I didn’t go to the village school.  I went to a private school.  It was a long way from home, at the other end of the village (north of the Great Western Railway bridge).  It belonged to a Miss French, but she wasn’t related to us.  She had someone called Miss Saint to help her, and some younger ladies.


My mother knitted some of my clothes.  Some of the children thought this was a bit babyish.  I remember that one boy, aged about 5, turned up in a suit, with a jacket and shorts made of the kind of cloth that grown-up men used.  The other children thought that was very good!


I sometimes got teased on the way to and from school.  My hair was a bit ginger, and I got called “carrots” and other names.  Once, someone pushed me into a ditch.


After a couple of years, Miss French’s school moved much nearer to us.  We lived in Regent Street, and the school moved to a house in the same road, on the other side, only a hundred yards or so to the south.  That was much easier!


In school, we had to learn a lot of things ‘by heart’.  We repeated the multiplication tables, from 2 to 12.  In Geography we had to learn the county towns, like “Berkshire: Reading, on the Kennett”.  (Why not the Thames?)    I remember learning “Swale, Ure, Nidd, Wharfe, Aire, Calder, Don”.  Do you know what those are?  In History we learned kings and dates.  “Henry VII: 1485-1509”.  Is that right?


In P.E. (Physical Education) we did exercises, like putting our arms “forwards, upwards, sideways, and downwards”.


Eventually, after my mother died, when I was nearly 11, I went (as a dayboy) to the Junior School of Wycliffe College – the school where my father taught art and craft.  It was at Ryeford Hall, on the road towards Stroud, to the east of Stonehouse.  I was a bit surprised to find that I often came top of the class!


MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


A Pupil’s Pre-War Hobbies:  (1) Toadstools


From our home in Regent Street I used to walk, several times a day, past the “Subscription Rooms” and across the playing field towards Haywardsfield.  On the grass there, in summer and autumn, I would often see toadstools growing, singly or in rings.  The rings could be seen in the grass, even after the toadstools were over.


One day, about 1937, in the Science Block, I went into the little office of the new Biology teacher, Mr. Seebohm, and there on the table was a book, British Fungi and Lichens, by George Massee.  There were pictures and descriptions of the toadstools I was seeing daily.  After some species, it said: Edible.


When I was sure I had identified Marasmius oreades, the ‘Fairy Ring Mushroom’, I wanted to try eating it.  My stepmother wouldn’t let me cook it at home, so I got an evaporating dish and sodium chloride, and did it in the lab.  (‘Health and safety’ was no problem in those days!)  Later, though, I found another fungus book which said: “No puffballs are poisonous”, and with that I persuaded my father to let me fry slices of a giant puffball at home.


At university I was awarded a book prize, and chose a copy of Massee, which I still have.


Later in life, this hobby had its effects.  In 1943 my wife had a bad burn on a leg, and wasn’t sleeping well.  She decided that toadstools for supper were soporific, so we had them 3 or 4 times a week that year.  I learned some new species!  There were plenty in the wooded Cotswold slopes.  I wrote to an expert to ask if toadstools were known to be sedative.  He replied that some were hallucinogenic, and hallucinogens and sedatives were often chemically similar, so it was possible, even probable, but not proven.


When I worked in Uganda (1955-1969), the toadstools there were quite different.  There was some scientific literature, in French, by Belgians, but it dealt inadequately with the relationship between mushrooms and termites, and the best edible varieties were “termite mushrooms”.  I did some work on them, with the help of the elderly Baganda women who gathered them, and published the results.  For a year or two I was a world expert on termite mushrooms, thanks, primarily, to Mr. Seebohm’s book and Wycliffe’s playing fields.

MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


A Pupil’s Pre-War Hobbies:  (2) Fossils


In the 1930s, the area now occupied by Rosedale Avenue was an active brickworks.  You could walk over the footbridge by Stonehouse G.W.R. station, turn right, and see red-hot bricks being cooked in giant kilns.  The clay had come from an ever-expanding quarry which was eating away the lower slopes of that part of Doverow Hill.


That clay was of a similar age to the strata of the “Jurassic Coast” of Dorset, and it had plenty of rocks well supplied with fossils like spiral ammonite shells and pointed belemnites. Provided I kept away from the current areas where clay was being dug, I could climb over the debris and collect specimens.  The Curator of Stroud Museum helped me identify them.


In 1938-9 I stayed on for an extra year in the Sixth Form, to try for a university scholarship. Most of my friends had left, and I was a bit lonely.  Somehow, I found a group of youngsters, mostly from Springfield, and persuaded them to come fossil-hunting with me.  They included Barrie Lavender, Michael Young, Peter Falla (from Jersey), Frank Brown…..  


The Curator at Stroud was interested in the terraces of gravel laid down by the River Frome during the Ice Ages.  I helped him record any exposures of gravel in the Stonehouse area, on six-inch maps.


I came back to Stonehouse in 1943 to teach at “The Grove”.  The Curator had died and had not been replaced.  When war ended in 1945, people started building large housing estates, and that revealed previously unknown ice-age gravel beds.  I got the maps from Stroud Museum, and updated them, in consultation with the Curator of Gloucester Museum.  He got to know me well, and when, in 1947, I needed a new job, he helped find me one, with Derbyshire Museum Service for schools.  So I can say that the fossils of Stonehouse Brickworks eventually pointed me in the direction of an interesting career.


I left my collection in Gloucester Museum, except for one item.  I had found, in the quarry, the remains of a small creature like a crayfish.  It’s in the Natural History Museum in London, and I have a certificate to prove it!

Arthur French (1920-2016) - Memories of Stonehouse

This is The Cottage, Regent St, in 1925. My mother and I have my little sister Marian in the pram. My father has added the porch and the summerhouse, but not the major extension on the right.

He also made the window to the right of the door into a bay window, later. You can see a part of the box hedges which were searched by a man looking for snails to eat!


The House in 2008.

This would be about 1923. To the south-west of The Cottage, beyond Mr Hale's orchard, there was a field used as allotments. In spite of having a big garden, my father rented one.


In the distance you can see the roof of The Cottage and the roof of Mr Hale's chicken shed, both viewed from the back.


MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


Ben PARKIN, language teacher and M.P.


Ben Parkin, born in 1906, was the son of B. D. Parkin, the headmaster of Stonehouse County School.   He was a pupil at Wycliffe, and then qualified in Modern Languages at Lincoln College, Oxford, and at Strasbourg.  Back at Wycliffe (1928-1940), he taught me French for School Certificate (1936).  Then someone told me that a knowledge of German might be useful when I went to college, so I went to Ben’s German class in the Lower Sixth.  (I remember learning to sing the “Lorelei”.)


Ben and his first wife Phyllis lived in Pearcroft Road.


Ben was in the R.A.F. during WW2.  In 1945 he appeared in Stonehouse again, as a Labour candidate in the post-war General Election.  He came round to our house and asked me and my wife Joy if we would help him in his campaign.


I hadn’t been very keen on politics.  There was another Old Wycliffian, Tom Wolfe (1928-34), whom I knew, and Joy and I were friendly with his mother Lilian, who ran the Health Food Shop in Stroud.  Tom and Lilian lived at the radical community of Whiteway, near Cheltenham.  They told me about the Spanish pre-Franco experiments in “syndicalism”, which seemed to us at the time to be more attractive than British traditions.  But we knew and trusted Ben, so we joined the Labour Party and did what we could for him.  


With others, we ran a Labour Party bookshop in Bath Road.  I took part in some outdoor meetings in various places, in a car equipped with a loud speaker.  (There was an elderly man who played a key role in Stonehouse Labour Party, and lived near where Hurn’s Hardware is now.   I can’t remember his name!  He went with me.)  But Joy was a better speaker.  She was with Ben at a meeting in the Co-Op rooms at Cainscross, and was proclaiming: “They had to send Cripps to Russia!!” when Stafford Cripps himself walked in!  We were delighted when Ben got elected.


But we moved away in 1947, and I was employed in local government elsewhere, so I couldn’t be openly active in politics, and we rather lost touch with Ben.  He died suddenly in 1969, aged 63.


MEMORIES OF WYCLIFFE COLLEGE


My father, Edward John French (1888–1958)


Edward French (known as ‘Ted’) taught art and craft at Wycliffe, from just before my birth in 1920 until the return of Wycliffe from Lampeter in 1945.  In Stonehouse, he lived in Regent Street, in a semidetached cottage just south of the path to the Berryfield, where Wycliffe had some sports facilities.


He had previously taught at Taunton School (where a brother was on the staff), and at Dean Close in Cheltenham.  He had qualified in London as A.R.C.A. (Associate of the Royal College of Art), after a course at Birmingham, where he met his future wife Hilda Clough, daughter of one of the editorial staff of the Birmingham Post.


I remember him teaching upstairs in a wooden building which no longer exists, on the eastern boundary of the school grounds (which then did NOT include the Haywardsend estate!).  Downstairs was, I think, a woodwork room, and the building continued southwards with a bicycle shed below and a big room above where we shot at targets with .22 rifles.


The boys gave him nicknames.  He was “Froggy” French for a time, so I was known as “Tadpole”.  Then, in craft lessons, he often referred to the benches: “Leave your work on the bench.”  French rhymes with Bench, and he got called “Mr. Bench” and then “Benny Bench”.  I got called “Little Benny”, and then just “Benny”.  This nickname accompanied me to university!


Then I remember him teaching in an upstairs room which is now used for political science classes.  The skylights there, in the northern slope of the roof, provided the “north light” which is so beloved by art specialists.


There was also a wooden hut, near our house, beside the path to the Berryfield, which was full of excellent bookbinding equipment, and my father held classes there too.


Ted had a wide range of skills in art and crafts, some of which influenced me and my late sister Marian.  He was also very knowledgeable about gardening and about nature.  I learned so much from him.  My mother Hilda died in 1929.  Ted married again.  I wasn’t too happy about having his second wife as a stepmother, but she did encourage Ted to do more of his own creative work.  He was a very competent landscape and still-life painter.


He was responsible for the original drawing of the Wycliffe crest which adorns the bridge over the road at Ryeford.


I didn’t see much of his work in Lampeter, because I had left school by then – but that’s another story!


In 1945, when Wycliffe came back to Stonehouse, Ted resigned, and became Head of a school in Didsbury, Manchester, before retiring to Titchfield, near his birthplace in Gosport, Hants.