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U3A Writing: Village Life

Edith Pleasance recalls her childhood in a Devon village where all was not sweetness and light.

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I was born in a fishing village in North Devon but my family soon moved on to a vastly different environment, albeit another village, in the south of that County.

Hardly the stuff of picture postcards, Hele Village, just three miles from the illustrious town of Torquay, is where my formative years from the age of four to fourteen were spent.

The village, at the time we arrived, was expanding with council housing sites. This, no doubt, was good for the trades people but we ‘immigrants’ were never really accepted into the ways of the in-born villagers. With the influx of such a variety of humanity it was not long before the place was dubbed ‘Hell’ Village.

The main street consisted of a few shops, a Baptist Church, a village hall and an assortment of mature houses and cottages. The busiest shop was a branch of the Torquay Co-operative Society, its main attraction being the dividend, then at a shilling in the pound. This was paid half-yearly when a sense of anticipation and good fortune hung in the air. I still remember my Mum’s Co-op number and she knew to the nearest shilling how much was due to be recouped on each ‘Divi Day’.

Further down the village high street there was a small general store run by two dour elderly spinsters, the misses England. A fish and chip shop where fish was twopence and chips a halfpenny a portion; a bakers shop and dairy adjoining – a special treat for tea was twopennorth of tuff buns (eight small sweet rolls) from the bakery, spread with home-made jam and two ounces of clotted cream from the dairy. Today I would forgo a meal for such a feast!

The well patronised village pub, The Royal Standard, took pride of place opposite the chemists. The shop at the end of the village was Pethicks, a newsagent, tobacconist and sweet shop. These days the proprietor would be in dire trouble. My sister and I suffered his indignities because he was the landlord of the poky little barber’s salon situated at the rear of the newspaper shop which he rented out to my father at an extortionate one pound a week. With a haircut at fourpence and a shave at twopence we needed the sparse living he made so we couldn’t even tell our Mum about this dirty old man. However, we youngsters eventually foiled his advances by always going together when sent on errands to my Dad’s place of work.

There was no village school so we children were allocated places nearer the town centre, in my case it meant a walk of almost two miles each way.

The street lighting was gas and each day at dusk ‘Deffy’, with a tail of kids following and calling after him, pulled at the chain hanging from each lamp with a hook at the end of the pole he carried. At daybreak he reversed the operation day in and day out. I remember him as an affable character, always cheerful; possibly his deafness shut out a lot of the misery around.

Misery and poverty went hand in hand, a man was fortunate if he had regular employment. The years of depression and ‘means-testing’ often caused families to be turned out of their homes, with what few sticks of furniture they had left, because of rent arrears. The mother and children were ferried by taxi to the nearest workhouse while the father was left to fend for himself. All this indignity suffered under the watching and pitying eyes of their neighbours.

Neighbourliness certainly existed and, as everyone knew just about all there was to know about everyone else through that favourite pastime ‘Gossiping’, help was at hand as far as possible. Help such as child-minding, shopping for the sick etc. The only social service of any kind that I recall was the daily ‘Soup kitchen’ set up in the village hall for families of the unemployed. A thin, watery substance served up with hunks of bread, Monday to Friday, it was the main meal of the day for so many.

The village hall provided any entertainment on offer, but I remember it best on election days when it became the local polling station. We youngsters would climb the surrounding wall shouting and singing:-

‘Vote, vote, vote for Mr. Williams, who’s that knocking on my door?
If it’s Simpson and his son we will kick them up the bum and they won’t come knocking any more!’

I could write for hours about my recollection of village life. Suffice it to say that I do not remember shedding a tear when we left it behind.


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