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May Betts nee Minns

My Life in Mattishall by May Betts formerly Minns

May Minns born Aug 13, 1926 at Mattishall
May married Derek John Betts on May 31st 1952 and now lives in Lakenham, Norwich

I started school at Mattishall in 1932 at the age of 5.
Mr Brayley was the headmaster and was known to be a very strict disciplinarian. On my first day at school I was several of the younger children watching Mr Brayley playing an improvised games of rounders with the older pupils in the playground during the break. I had in my hand a large apple from the old ‘Lord Derby’ tree in our garden at South Green. It was an unforgivable sin to drop anything in the playground. Unfortunately I dropped my apple and it rolled right across the playground in front of Mr Brayley. He bellowed “who threw that apple down there” I piped up “please sir I did. I don’t want it now”. Mr Brayley stifled a grin and said “well come and pick it up and put it in the wastebasket”. From that day I think he took a liking to me, presumably because I was brave enough to stand up to him! I only remember one occasion when he bullied me. My writing was very small and he grabbed me by the hair dragged me out of the front of the classroom and asked me why I had been trying to write the Lords Prayer on a threepenny piece. Probably explain why my writing is so big now!

There were no school dinners in those days. Anyone who lived a long way from the school took sandwiches – eaten outside in the summer and sitting on the hot water pipes in the cloakroom in the winter.

At the time that I was at Mattishall school Mr Brayley was very friendly with another teacher, Miss Coates. In the summer he frequently sent me to the shop in the afternoon break to buy two ice-cream wafers for himself and Miss Coats. One afternoon at the end of the summer term he told me to get three ice creams and I could have one for myself. I was so staggered at this turn of events that I said “Pardon” he repeated his instructions with a slight smile – he could evidently read my thoughts regarding his belated generosity.

A tragedy occurred during my time at Mattishall School. A boy named Eric Clarke (age 7) was drowned in a pond in a field adjoining the school playground (1936). Some of the boys must have wondered into the field during the break, (we always called in playtime). Frantic efforts were made by Miss Coats swimming around the pond in her petticoat and by the village policeman who failed to remove his wristwatch before going into the water . The children were more interested in Miss Coates petticoat and the policeman’s watch, I was sorry to say than they were of the actual tragedy. The body was eventually moved on the back of a coal lorry I believe – whether to the undertakers or to his house I do not know.

The other two teachers were Miss Holly who taught the infants and Miss Edwards (another very strict teacher) who taught the 3rd class (prior to Mr Brayley who took the seniors). I thought Miss Holly was lovely. It was in her class at the age of 5 that I made the needle case (still in use). I finished the cross-stitch one afternoon and was annoyed to find next day that Miss Holly had completed the needle case overnight. She cycled several miles to school and sometimes passed us in the afternoons when we were walking home. Miss Edwards was also very strict but a very good teacher. To this day I always sew on buttons by the method she taught me and they very rarely come off any more. I was in Miss Edwards Class when my mother died, when I was eight. I had been staying for 17 weeks at Stratton House whilst my mother was ill. My sister Nora worked for Mr Randall in his office at Stratton House but was at home at that time looking after our mother. Mrs Randall told me that “if I felt like it” I could tell Miss Edwards when I arrived at school that my mother had died. When I told her she said “never mind dear, you’ll be alright” and bent down and kissed me, a most unexpected turn of events! I attribute my dislike to cats to the time that I spent at Stratton House. The Randall’s had several Cats which sometimes jumped on my bed in the middle of the night and frighten me to death!

I enclose a picture of the school concert of which I was one of the fairies! There were at least 3 evening performances I think the most expensive seats being 1 shilling and 6d.

During my time at Mattishall School there were celebrations on the Oddfellows Hall (on the corner of Burgh Lane, next to the Swan) for the silver Jubilee of King George V1th. I remember most clearly taking part in the fancy dress Competitions for the Jubilee festivals I was dressed as a sort of Jubilee girl in red white and blue and got first prize. On one of these occasions (I cannot remember which) my brother-in-law Dick Eke and his friend Jimmy Taylor took part in the men’s fancy dress. They made quite a spectacular entrance into the Oddfellows Hall after proceedings had started as “Which Witch”. One had a stripped blouse and plain skirt and the other vice versa with appropriate hats and underwear! The caused much hilarity and were given first prize – but there were no other entries in the men’s class.

In those days the grocery shop on Church Plain was kept by Mr and Mrs Neave. At Christmas, apart from the gifts displayed in the window they also had a “Christmas Room” at the back of the shop. You could go by appointment in the evenings to select from Christmas gifts at leisure. I remember going there one evening with Nora and Dick when I was about 11 or 12. Dick gave me half-a-crown to speed (a vast sum in those days). I bought a tobacco pouch for Dick made of black plastic type of material for one shilling, a threepenny notebook for myself and had threepence change.

When I was 8 the windows display at Neave’s shop included a large book of fairy-stories. We children all thought it was the most spectacular item in the window. I was lucky enough to receive it on Christmas morning – my last ever Christmas present from my mother. I still have the book.

We lived in a bungalow at South Green – no running water, mains drainage or electricity in the early days. The lavatory was a wooden seat and a hole in the ground and the “toilet paper” was squares of newspaper hung by a string on a nail on the wall. On one occasion my friend Mollie Pearce and I went to visit her Aunt Kate for tea. When we went to the “loo” we were amazed to find real toilet paper. The shiny medicated variety, I think we were appalled that this splendid paper should be wasted on such a purpose as that for which it was intended – and we each stuffed a quantity of it up our jumpers to be used as writing paper. Unfortunately “Aunt Kate” discovered what we had done and made us return it to the “loo”.

We had a well in the garden (serving three houses) and our drinking water was obtained in a bucket. You fixed your bucket to a hook in the end of a chain and cranked the handle to lower the bucket into the well for water. A major disaster arose if you lost the bucket or the chain broke and a recovery operation was mounted by two or more of the men. I often wonder now how hygienic the water was as there were various ferns growing around the inside of the well. This water was used very sparingly for drinking and cooking purposes only and rainwater was carefully horded in tubs in the garden for all other purposes. Until I was 18 my hair had never been washed in anything but rainwater.

Cooking was done in an oven in the wall, beside the fire. Washing was boiled in a copper with a fire underneath. After she had been married a little while Nora purchased a mangle with rubber wringers which folded down as a table when not in use. This was considered an extremely modern innovation. I wonder what happened “handcups”? This was a sort of metal bowl with a wooden handle used for getting water out of the rainwater tube. We used “Fairy” type scrubbing soap for household jobs and carbolic for personal washing. Any items of hardware needed were requested from Mr Fred Cole who worked at a hardware shop in Dereham. He would bring home the required item – presumably on his bicycle? Trips to Dereham were made only when absolutely necessary usually by bicycle. Bus fares were expensive, 6d (old money) to Dereham and one shilling to Norwich or 1/11d return ticket. Trips to Norwich were a rare treat. We went to the seaside (usually Yarmouth) once a year on the Sunday School Outing by coach. We took a picnic lunch and after Nora was married Dick took us for a fish and chip tea. Great luxury!

As I recall food always seemed to be plentiful, although simple. Full use was made of the gardens and surplus produce shared between friends and neighbours. Anyone who did not make their own jams, pickles etc, was considered quite a slacker. We had bread or bread and butter with almost everything, to make meals more substantial presumably. Good use was made of things obtained free such as blackberries and mushrooms and firewood. Most people kept chickens, so eggs were plentiful. When food was rationed during the war egg rations had to be surrendered if you wished to keep chickens. You were allowed to keep two chickens for each egg ration surrendered I think but this system worked well and you got more eggs then you did with the ration book.

At School Mr Brayley used to give the children (in his own class only) an orange and twopence, at Christmas, this was a great treat. Unfortunately I only felt the benefit of his gift for one Christmas as I had passed on to Dereham High School by the next year.
We saved coupons for Fry’s Cocoa with which gifts were obtainable, for example, Nora’s box Brownie Camera and we always had a “selection box” of Fry’s chocolates bars obtained with coupons at Xmas.

My Sister Nora had smoked from an early age as she was given cigarettes for her asthma by the doctor when she was about 12 years old. When I was in Mr Brayley’s class at the school Nora gave me a considerable quantity of complete sets of cigarette cards to take to Mr Brayley for use at the school. I wonder what happened to them. They would be worth a fortune now.

Being an orphan from the age of eight, I was in recipient of numerous gifts of second-hand clothes and toys including a lovely old rocking-horse. The Easter after my mother died I received 37 Easter Eggs from various people.

The arrangement for fostering children in those days must have been much less strict than now. After my mother had been dead for a while my sister made enquires as to whether she could obtain any financial help with my upbringing. She was advised that the best solution would be for Nora and Dick to be made my official foster parents. This resulted in an allowance which was a considerable help. As far as I am aware the authorities only made one check on my welfare – a lady called to inspect my sleeping arrangements and my clothes and was apparently quite surprised to find that I had a “best” Sunday coat. Nora was most indignant and the lady official was never seen again. The only other time the council interfered with my “fostering” was when I passed the scholarship at 10 years of age and Norma said she could not afford to send me to Dereham High School. The council said that as I was a foster child I must go to the high school – Nora had no say in the matter!

The clothes were expensive and when I started in the September I did not yet have a school blazer. A lady in the village gave me her daughter’s old blazer but I only wore it once as it was an old style no longer being used by the school. Not too long after this I went to Norwich on a Saturday afternoon to meet Aunt Betty and Uncle Walter and we went to purchase the official blazer. I suspect they may have paid for it or possibly contributed to the cost. The blazers are available in three different qualities, but these qualities were only measured by the braid on the cuffs. Third quality had braid about 2/3rd inch from the end of the sleeve on the 2nd quality the gap was a little wider and the 1st quality had braid nearly to the elbow! It was immediately obvious which quality blazer a person was wearing. What snobbery! I was much relieved to find that I was to have a second quality blazer – this was in fact the most popular I think. I cycled to Dereham each day, except in winter when the weather was very bad. At a later stage an allowance was made for the use bicycles and this was a most uninspected financial windfall it was £4 + but I am unsure what period this covered. Probably a year as it seems much too generous for a term. During the latter part of my years at Dereham I had 6d per week pocket money out of which I paid 2 ½ d for school milk. I took a snack for morning break and had school dinners. The biscuits available at school were considered wildly extravagant by Nora – 1d for plain ones or 1 ½ d for chocolate. Most dinners were served with baked potatoes but we were not forced to eat the skins. These were very useful for hiding up scraps of fat meat on your plate – except when Miss Galloway (the headmistress) came round and prodded your “leverage” with a folk! Fridays was always fish day – fish cakes or fish pie. To this day I loathe fish pie.

We had few outings, especially after the war had started, except visits to relatives by bus or bicycle. When I was small we sometimes took a picnic to Ringland Hills, going by bus to Easton Church. On the return journey I was able to paddle barefoot in a stream and we always gathered a bunch of ferns to bring home. When I was considered sufficiently competent on my second-hand bicycle I was allowed to cycle alone to Colton to visit relatives, with a stern warning form Nora to mind them bends at East Tuddenham. I still remember it now when I drive through East Tuddenham. It seems strange now when cars are so commonplace that in my childhood I had never visited such places as Shipdham, Toftwood etc, only a few miles away.

I mentioned the ice creams bought by Mr Brayley. Ice cream was unattainable during the war. Pre-war Mr Skinner from Dereham came round in his pony and cart on Tuesday and Friday afternoon’s selling ice-cream. The cart was brightly painted red and yellow and he rang a bell. He came about 4pm I think after school was over. I usually had ½d cornet. One day at the end of summer Mr Skinner gave me the cornet as he said I had been a good customer all summer. One day when I was very small my mother took me out to Mr Skinners cart to buy an ice-cream and Mr Horne who kept the shop at South Green bought me a 2d wafer. It seemed enormous to me after my usual ½d cornet. The shop at South Green changed hands several times. One lady owner used to dress up her dog in a bonnet and glasses to amuse us children. Another owner had an unpleasant son who used to take sweets out of the jars, suck them and then put them back. We stopped buying unwrapped sweets! Later this same family were reputed to have moved Yaxham to Norwich to be near the son when he was called up into the army and was at Britannia Barracks. I don’t know what happened if he went further afield!

The last time I saw Mr Brayley was some years after leaving school. He was being pushed along by his wife in a wheel chair in Lowestoft – obviously very ill. Slumped in the chair, and arms dangling over the sides. What a contrast to the headmaster I had known.

During the war food became scarce. We were never hungry but it was lacking in variety and many things were unattainable. Apart from items rationed such as meat, sugar, butter, tea etc, there was a “points” system for things such as biscuits, tinned fruit, etc. As these were only occasionally available you used your “points” for whatever happened to be in the shop at the time. There was also and extra ration of sugar in the summer for jam-making which was very useful.

One weekend when Nora’s pantry was especially low we had some unexpected luck. As a Girl Guide I was involved in a garden fate at North Tuddenham Rectory. I managed to buy a jar of jam and was lucky to win a cake in the “treasure hunt”. Dick had been out shooting and got a hare. Hare, cake and jam made spectacular additions to the food supply that weekend. Dick’s brother in the Navy came home from abroad and brought some bananas for his various nieces and nephews. Some had become rotten en route but there were enough good ones for each family of his nieces and nephews to have one banana between them. The banana allocated to Sybil, Eileen and Terry was rejected as none of them had ever seen a banana before. I was in luck again! Oranges were on “points” when they eventually became available again after the war, but only on children’s books. Nora gave me one of the children’s books to keep with me in case I came across any such luxuries.

During the war, after I had left school, I worked for two years in the office at Cranes of Dereham, cycling there each day. I was in the concert party and we entertained at various villages and took part in “War Weapons Week” activities to raise money for the war effort. Lunch was obtained each day at the “British Restaurant” in Dereham – a wartime system where workers could obtain a good meal for one shilling. All kinds of things were short as well as food. I remember one-lunchtime when I discovered that Woolworth’s at Dereham had small plastic combs at 3d each. I knew the friend I worked with would appreciate one but like most things it was only one per person allowed. I purchased one for myself, then greatly daring, as if I was committing a terrible crime, I removed my headscarf and went in again to buy one for my friend.

There were sometimes “concerts” or social evenings in Oddfellows’ Hall. On each occasion there was one man who always sang the same song about ‘Harriet who was handy with a lariat’ Whilst at Dereham High School we were given a special “treat” – a couple, who seemed very old to me at the time, came to sing to us. I remember sitting, decidedly bored, listening to this man singing “Come into Maude” and “I met her in the garden where the praties grow”. Such wild excitement we had!

The rent for our bungalow was paid annually at Michaelmas. One year Dick went to pay the rent and found our landlord (Mr Fred Pearce) dead in the outside “loo”.

Miss Hunter and her brother lived at the Hall. She was frequently seen in the village driving her small two-seater car with its “dicky” seat at the back. Cars were a novelty in those days. Miss Hunter was a strong supporter (possibly a member) of the
R.S.P.C.A and the notice board near the gates of the Hall displaying R.R.P.C.A. posters was a permanent feature of our landscape. There was usually a poster saying “Remember a kitten grows into a Cat” which we children thought highly amusing. The usual comment was “What does she think it will grow into – a dog?” She apparently also acted as a sort of free unofficial vet. On one occasion our old sheepdog came home badly injured, “Bruce” had been shot. I was sent to fetch Miss Hunter on my bicycle. I peddled furiously up to the Hall, up the drive, laid my ‘bike’ down on the driveway and hammered on the door. Miss Hunter came to answer. “Please Miss Hunter our dog has been shot” I said. She threw here hands up in horror and said “I’ll come at once”. I was delighted to be given a lift in the little car on the return journey with my bike lodged in the “dicky” seat. Whatever treatment she prescribed I cannot remember but “Bruce” recovered. On the occasion of Nora’s marriage Miss Hunter gave Nora a gift of £1. This purchased (with a further one shilling added) a comfortable fireside chair, with adjustable back (1937).

Dick worked for Mr Roland Hill at Church Farm and his duties included looking after the horse which was a 7-day-a-week job. I think he got about 5 shillings a week extra for this. If he ever wanted to go out on a Sunday he had to arrange for someone else to feed the horses. When combine-harvesters first appeared, “Dick” was “loaned” by his boss for about 10 days to a farmer at Brandon Parva to drive the “Combine”. At that time farm workers were paid less than £7 a week, I think as a basic wage. Whilst “on loan” to drive the combine Dick was paid on results and in one week earned £24! This was unheard-of wealth. He did not go into the forces during the war apart from being in a ‘reserved’ occupation he also had very poor sight in one eye. Despite this he was an excellent shot and rabbits, pheasants etc frequently supplemented our diet. This was before the days of myxomatosis. He once took part in a ploughing competition and despite his poor eyesight came second. He missed first place by 3/8th of an inch! He took packed food to eat mid-day and we had our main meal in the evening, except at harvest-time when a substantial “tea” was taken to the harvest field (plus extra bottles of cold tea) so that the men could work whilst there was daylight. Quite often families took their own tea as well and all had a picnic. As the area of uncut corn got smaller and smaller everyone stood around waiting to catch rabbits. Once when I was very small (about 10) I caught a rabbit in Mr Faircloth’s harvest field and immediately wrung its neck as I had seen the men do. Nora was disgusted that Mr Faircloth did not give me the rabbit for myself.

Sandwiches every day must have got very monotonous. This was the reason Dick bought us a fish and chip tea on our annual visits to Yarmouth – he was fed up with sandwiches on working days! In the days before such things as “Tupperware” Nora used to make Dick a salad and put this in a screw-top glass jar, which was much appreciated.



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