John Stewart – A Wivenhoe Life
John Stewart was interviewed by Helen Polom for Wivenhoe History Group on 3 occasions in September and October 2016.
In the first sound clip you can hear John describing an early morning catch while on the fishing boat The Golden Dawn with Skipper Ernie Vince and Archie Gunn on deck, as a teenager.
In the second clip John tells us how he used to go ‘babbing’ for eels with his older brother near Whitehouse beach.
John lived in Wivenhoe from the age of about 3 until he died in February 2018. He saw many changes in that time and we get glimpses of those changes as he describes his childhood, teenage years, and working life.
This account is a shortened version taken from the transcripts of the three recordings.
If you wish to read the full account of each interview they can be found at the end of this article as PDF documents.
There are other articles on this site that show Johns commitment to preserving Wivenhoe history through his work as custodian of Wivenhoe Memories and his regular exhibitions of this collection. His original Wivenhoe Memories Facebook Group is still active under new management and the collection of documents and photographs that he held have been digitized and are now being archived by Wivenhoe History Group.
I was born on 24 February 1947 in Colchester Maternity Hospital (Lexden Road) my Mum told me she couldn’t get out of hospital because the snow was so bad. They couldn’t get out, it was just the weather was horrendous…. Manor Road off Crouch Street…I think they only stayed there for 3 years. I don’t remember much about it but my Dad got a job here down at The Nook. He was head gardener so we moved to Wivenhoe. So we came here in ’51 I think it was.
I had an older brother, a step brother and a sister…. there were 3 of us when they moved to Wivenhoe I had another sister… then another brother… then another sister
Childhood at Alma Street
The first thing I remember about Alma Street was that the bells were ringing on a Sunday morning but that was lovely …. that was a lovely street full of kids…. we could always play in the road nobody owned a car. Never saw a car on Alma Street. We were there 5 or 6 years no maybe a little bit more than that… so it was like 3 beds in a bedroom …. it was two up two down but it had another bedroom over the passage…. built over the passage.
It had an outside loo. It had a standpipe in the yard and it had a box round it filled with ? to stop it freezing up and it had a stone sink in the kitchen. There wasn’t any taps because you got it out the standpipes. There was no hot water. All the hot water was boiled on the stove. I remember they had an outhouse…. I don’t know what you call them but outside the backdoor there was a brick shed and it had this enormous big copper and gas copper and everything was boiled up in it and Friday night was the only night you was allowed to have a bath because the tin bath was hanging on the wall at the back and that was there when we moved in. Friday nights I think because really in them days in the ‘50s everybody who lived down the bottom end, over the bridge, the down streeters, we all had tin baths and only the rich had a bath 2 or 3 times a week but everybody else Friday night was bath night. So the oldest went in first and the smallest, the last one, had a bath in the dirty water. You only got one lot of water. It took so long to heat it up, especially in the winter, so you used to have it in front of the fire in the kitchen.
There was a front room, a back room, a kitchen sort of extension bit on the back, it was part of the house it wasn’t an extension as such and then there was the scullery where the copper was and then there was a coal shed and then the outside loo near the churchyard wall. I can’t remember us ever using the front room but we must have done. There was no televisions in Alma Street in the early ‘50s. No I tell a lie in ’53/ ’54. There was one person had a little black and white 12 inch telly, in the cut where Dr Dean’s surgery was. There was Dr Deans surgery and then the public toilets were next door to him and there’s a couple of little cottages and a boy lived there and his mum and dad…. had a good job…. they had a black and white telly. Only saw it very occasionally when you got invited round. Happy days those, they were lovely. Back room was used for everything. Had all your meals in there it was a little old place but when we moved up to Anglesea Villa that was like we’d moved into a palace.
Alma Street was a bit of a special place. I grew up there and Saturday morning was when you earnt your pocket money. A lot of people lived in the street…like Ernie Turner who done the primitive paintings I used to do his shopping for him on a Saturday. Give me a shopping basket and a list….. off you go. So you’d just do all the local shops…. get his bread, milk, meat, all his provisions. Things like that and he used to give you a tanner, sixpence, for doing it and I never asked him for a painting. They were on old scraps of board that he’d borrowed or begged from the shipyard. I think his paints were old shipyard paint and now they’re worth a fortune.
Fathers work at The Nook
He was head gardener. It was a market garden right down to The Brook… bottom of Dene Park. It was 5 ½ acres and I can remember one field had potatoes another half a field had strawberries, massive orchards in Park Road all the way down Belleview Road to the bottom. Complete mixed garden. It had a south facing walled garden with apples pears apricots all sorts of things… cherries.
And we used to go up after school when the cherries were ready and the strawberries were ready so we would always have a little feast up there. And they grew medlars as well. My Mum was always partial to medlars but I didn’t like the look of them.
There was 2 cooks and my father’s in the garden and I remember stuff being picked and they used to take it up to the kitchen in the big carrier basket thing. It was a long time ago so I can’t remember an awful lot about it. He was on his own just one person in charge of the garden. I don’t remember him having anyone to help at any time.
I remember when I had just gone up to Brightlingsea School I was only about 10 or 11 but he shew me how to operate the cultivator, the rotivator. So, many a weekend I spent on this cultivator or washing pots and crocks. They had a lovely big potting shed, a big one and big greenhouses… cucumbers, melons they had a grape vine up there. The vine was grown outside the greenhouse then they knocked a hole in the greenhouse wall and the grape vine came through into the greenhouse because they like their roots in the shade and their heads in the sunshine. They grew 2 acres of strawberries. They grew just about anything you could want on a small holding.
Mr Corbin lived there with his family, a boy and a girl. Then after Mr Corbin had it, he moved away and then the Bishops had it and they just let it go to rack and ruin and then it was sold off for Dene Park.
Life at Anglesea Villa
Anglesea Villa…. It was huge I think it was like 4 bedroom or something. We had a big front room, a middle room, a kitchen, then you went down some steps… a scullery, and then there was a toilet. It had this great big 5 bar gate and this huge orchard and the marshes were beyond that and the shipyard.
It was superb it was just such a lovely place. It was huge…. well it seemed huge at the time. Every time I walk past now I think hmm it’s not as big as I thought it was. 8 of us living there. Then he (Johns dad) knocked this old scullery about and he put a bath in there and Wivenhoe Gas Company came round and fitted this gas geezer. We had hot water on tap never seen anything like it before. We had 2 taps in the kitchen, hot and cold. My mum was in seventh heaven. She loved it and it was a huge kitchen. Pretty big kitchen in them days for the ‘60s. Didn’t get any easier for her because there were more of us. The washing, well she used to do it all in the sink and then when we moved to Anglesea Road it all changed. Me Dad got one of those hoover washing machines where you got the spinner and the wash separate.
My Dad kept rabbits and before we went to school we were given a big sack and we’d have to go to collect dandelions and mallow… cabbage leaves from peoples gardens. That was his beer money or bacci money. He started off in Alma Street with cages in the concrete back yard but when we moved up Anglesea Road we had rabbits, ducks, bantams, chickens, ferrets.
My mum was expert at pigeon pie, rabbit pie. One of the best pie makers I’ve ever known. Pigeon pie she was brilliant. Me brother shot the pigeons. He used to come home with this great big sack full of pigeons. She had the biggest pie dish you ever did see about 2 foot across massive great…She’d make this wonderful gravy, tasty gravy but really it was all just full of vegetables that dad grew in the garden and a few pigeon breast but ooh it was lovely. The pastry, ooh it makes me hungry thinking about it. She’d cook anything… whatever we got so we’d have pigeon pie, rabbit pie, or we’d have roast rabbit. We had duck, goose. There weren’t so many geese in them days there weren’t so many as there is now.
On the Fishing boats as a teenager
I used to go out on ‘The Golden Dawn’. I just got in the way really. I’m sure Ernie Vince was the skipper and Archie Gunn was on the deck. The reason I was there was to make tea and cook the grub for dinner. And what fascinated me was old Ernie sitting there looking out the wheelhouse window. We were out there one day on Gunfleet Light and he said “Birds”. Then I see Archie run down the deck and get this big old creel full of lines and all that. He said, “Come on don’t bloody stand there get them over the side”. He said “Mackerel boy. Birds. Look”. You could see all these gulls dropping into the water and we threw these old lines over the side and they hadn’t been over 5… and it was rattle rattle rattle about 6 mackerel every time. We got a great big box of this mackerel and they just disappeared as quick as that. They hadn’t got fish finders in them days they just recognized them by the birds. If there were heron he said “Look at that oil on the water, that’s slick”, and there were so many herons under there. They’d chuck the nets over.
We used to spend all the summer holidays on the river and then one of the old boys gave my brother a little book on sporting things like nets and guns and traps so he thought he could build a punt and we could go after ducks. So we built the punt from planks of wood from old Jack Mallets shop. It was Deal with all these bloomin’ knots in it. We built it and painted it all up and we was rowing down the river one day and there was this gurgling noise and there was this knot had come out of this wooden plank in the bottom and the punt was filling up with water and it sunk with all the guns and cartridges.
We sent away for the guns somewhere up in Spalding. You went down the road to the Post Office and bought a shotgun license for 10 bob and as long as the gun was broken open you didn’t have to have a cover on it. You could walk down the road with it. We used to walk down the Wall and over Boweses marsh. We were only shooting ducks or rabbits. You had to be 18 for a shotgun I think. We used to row down to the Geedons…. the salt marsh near the bird sanctuary (Fingringhoe). It goes on for miles and miles. But I always remember one morning we were down there…. we were always down there mucking about…. it was first light…. we were sat in the punt hoping that something would fly over and we saw the sun come up over in the East. That just made it all worthwhile. It was a bright sunny frosty morning. We did it for years and then we just gave it up.
Babbing for Eels
Another thing was we used to go babbing for eels in the river. We used to have a duck punt and we used to nick all Mums heavy wool, whip it up to about the thickness of a Biro and thread these old lug worms on and drop them over the side of the punt. You wind it round your finger and keep babbing it up and down so if you’d feel something on the end you’d pull it up slowly and there. We used to get….. they had hooked teeth and they’d get caught in this wool so we’d pull them up and snapped them and we had this old tin bath in the boat and we would just tap them on the end and they’d drop in the boat and we’d get loads of em. We’d catch them down the Whitehouse. White house beach.
Duck punt is about 18 foot long like ? with a pointy end. I had a couple and I built one at Anglesea Road. It was twenty odd foot long.
Rabbiting with a Ferret Polecat
Following all our wild fowling antics… there was an old farmer well he was a foreman at Marsh Farm at Alresford and he stopped in the street one day, I’d known him for years. He said “Want to come over for ferreting boy”, he said “instead of messing about in that old boat of yours.” so I said, “Yea.” I said,”I haven’t got a ferret, I can send away for one, it’ll come back in a fortnigh.t” “All right”, he said. I sent away to Thetford for this Polecat ferret and when the guy off the railway delivered it he said,”I don’t know what’s in this box.” He said, “but it’s going a bit berserk. Be careful when you take the lid off.” I said,”that’s all right it’s only an old ferret.” Anyway I got it home opened the hutch and I undone these screws and took the lid off this box and this damned great polecat ferret latched itself onto my middle finger and there it stayed for most of the morning I couldn’t get it off. Gorrh it was painful. So I went and saw Peter. “I got a ferret.” “That’s a beast” he said “that’d be brilliant for rabbiting”. So we went over the farm put it down the first hole and it never come out. About half hour later it decided to come out. Then I put it down another one and it never come out and as we was walking along the track I put the ferret back in the box and I looked behind me and so did Peter Ling and the holes the ferret had been down…. the rabbits had started to come out. “Bloody useless ferret” he said. “The only thing that wants is a 12 bore”, and then he threatened to shoot it.
My first job was at Essex Electrical Services at Alresford on the main road. They were auto electrics, cars…. and my dad knew Friggy watts who owned it and in them days you didn’t have to go and look for a job your Dad got you a job because he knew someone who wanted somebody. So it was quite easy to get a job. So I started there in 1962. I was living in Anglesea Road then and I stayed there for about 4 years.
I was in the stores. I issued all the spares for the workshop and I was on the main counter at the front. I answered the phones and made sure everything was there for when they came to pick them up.
If the garages were somewhere like Sudbury you had to get a part, wrap it up, put a ticket on it then leave it on the front. Then when the bus came up you had to leap over the counter, cross the main road, stop the bus and give them the parcel and that would go to Sudbury by bus and the garage would pick it up from Sudbury bus station and that worked quite well. They don’t do that sort of thing now. Oh and I served petrol as well. A very varied job.
Back to Alma Street
Best time of my life. I rented a little cottage number 1 Alma Street off Charlie Schofield and he said… yes boy you can have it but I will have to put the rent up because I need to put a new water heater in and I thought oh no here we go. He said it was £8 a week but I’ve had to put it up to £10 a week and I lived there for about 5 years and it was lovely. Things had improved (since last lived there) there was hot and cold water, a proper bathroom and I’ve never had central heating in me life I wouldn’t know how to operate it now.
I was living at number 1 Alma Street next to Jack Mallets hardware shop. I loved living there brought back memories when I lived there as a tiny tot. In the summer I could make my breakfast, put it on a tray with my coffee and I would walk down and sit on the old crane on The Quay and have me breakfast there, 7 o’clock in the morning at the weekend. Had loads of parties. Used to make a whole load of homemade wine so when we all piled out the pub they used to come back and try this homemade wine. I remember getting up, going to work, stepping over all these bodies lying on the floor and I’d say don’t forget to shut the door when you leave.
The village still hadn’t altered much and all the pubs at the bottom had their own locals. If you wanted to meet somebody you knew which pub to go to. Then about 10 o’clock they’d all start moving round to a different pub. So they’d all begin at their own local. They’d go Station, Rose and Crown then Black Buoy. That was the three main ones.
Lower Wivenhoe Shops late 1960s and ‘70s
The only thing that took a bit of getting used to was Sunday mornings when you were hung over and they would start ringing the bells because it was quite close to the church but all in all it was a nice area because the shops were just round the corner. Fish shop round the corner, butchers at the bottom of the road on Black Buoy Hill. That was a Coop butchers. Before Jack Mallets you had Mrs Chick, old lady and I think they had evacuees in there during the war, then Greens Fish Shop where it still is now, Edwin Greens, and the other side of the road I am sure there was a bakers. I used to buy bread and stuff but I think they also sold milk where Nonsuch House is. Ennews I think. A bit further round on Anchor Hill a little lean to place that was McKewans another grocer shop and then you had the Deli the other side of the road, then Charlie Taylors bakery what is the Bake House now and if you went round that bit at 7 o’clock in the morning you get bread and rolls that just come out the oven. That was a wood fire as well. That was beautiful beautiful bread.
The other side of the road there was Cyril Browns hairdressers and he’d talk your hair off. He never stopped talking from the minute you got in there and everything was pudden basin style haircut. The other side of the road from him, right next to the church was old man Ketley. He repaired bikes and done car spares and stuff. And then where Valentinos is now was Halcyon Mckays. They were bakers. Had lovely cakes in there.
Pubs in the late ‘60s and ‘70s
The Station was the best of the village pubs. That was a lovely pub. I mean you got the odd person who worked in London who would pop in as they got off the train but maybe one or two but nowadays you get quite a few in there. First when I went there, there was Ron Chaney and then Colin Andrews and Fay. They kept it for quite a long time then the Czech fella, he kept it for quite a long time. We used to have a nice big roaring log fire in there. I remember coming back one night with Dave Alison and he said shall we go for a pint and I had me waders on and guns with me and he said that’ll be all right and we just stood the guns up in the corner took our welly boots off and sat on the bar with just our socks on and nobody said a word. I mean if you took a gun in there you’d get arrested but in them days it were different. A bit more easygoing I think.
When you walked in the door you were greeted by this great big wall of smoke because everybody smoked then. The walls were brown or green and the ceiling was orangey yellow, nicotine. It was an old fashioned pub. It was just when pubs were going over to fizzy keg beer and juke boxes and things like that were there, not at the Station I don’t think.
But The Falcon was open and that was a good local pub. It was run by Stefan Motyka. He was Polish. I remember at Christmas time you always got a special treat. He used to bring out a bottle of Polish spirit and I always remember this stuff, you only got a little tiny glass on Christmas Day and as you drank it, it made your lips go numb. It would evaporate before you could drink it but you always had to drink it straight down. That was evil stuff and that came off the Polish timber boats. They all got done for smuggling, Stefan at The Falcon, bottles of Polish spirit and Cyril Brown he got done because he had a couple of ? of cigarettes because they had come off of the boats.
We used to drink in the Black Buoy on Friday night and Dennis and Dickie Chopping used to come in there with Francis Bacon and when he was sober he was a really nice bloke. I mean he was a grotesque looking man but when he was sober he was all right to talk to. He wanted to know mainly what went on in the village when we was younger and things like that.
Dennis Wirth Miller and Dickie Chopin would come bursting in at the door and say “we’ve had a good night at Montecarlo the drinks are on us” and he’d get this great big wood announcer and of course we boys we loved it just drink your heart away until you fell over and you hadn’t got to pay for it. It happened quite regularly. I don’t know if they did go to Montecarlo but they used to come back with lots and lots of money.
Black Buoy on a Saturday night at that time had a jazz club in the back room where there is a restaurant now. People would come in there like Ernie Woods. He used to eat daffodil bulbs and razor blades and things like that. He used to live in Station Road. He was quite a clever man. He was a brilliant sheet metal worker.
Work in the ‘70s
I had a job with Whymark, structural steel, engineers and welders. I went all over the country it was a great job. You’d work away for a week just come home at weekends or you could stay on site for the weekend and you could earn time and a half, you could earn really good money. Trouble is working away, it’s not very glamorous because all the money you earn there is nothing to do in the evening so you go and get something to eat and you go in the pub and spend all your money. I grew up and thought blow this I’m not spending all my money in the pub so I used to save as much as I could.
What about friends?
I think they worked in Colchester mainly or surrounding area. Most of them were plant fitters and motor mechanics, some of them worked in the shipyard.
People in the shipyard were welders, boilermakers, fitters, platers, and joiners. They had some really good joiners, carpenters. It was all quality work they turned out. That was up to about the ‘70s. There was also another yard on the port side, Wivenhoe shipyard, a few worked there until that closed down. There was just a few worked on the farms but most worked in Colchester at places likes Paxmans, Woods and the Lathe Company , big employers. A lot of Wivenhoe people actually worked there. It was only a handful fishing. There really wasn’t much of a fishing trade. I think it was about 3 boats out at the time and now we haven’t got any apart from Rodney Bowes. About ‘60s/’70s and then the ‘80s the Port came to Wivenhoe and that took all local labour. They employed a lot of local people. That’s how the shops survived I suppose. I don’t think many people had freezers, people shopped from day to day. The lady of the house would shop every day. So they always got fresh food.
Then I moved up The Cross, Nyanza Cottages. They’re old…. built 1841. Moved up there in the 80s when this negative equity happened. You paid £80000 for this 2 up 2 down and I then found out it just wasn’t worth it and the house prices dropped like a stone and this (Nyanza, current home) was going for £25000 so I thought it was just as easy to buy instead of keep renting so I bought it when they were at their lowest and it was a good investment. Best thing I ever done. Kids today will never do it because prices will never drop to that level again.
Contraband at Wivenhoe Port 1980s
I worked briefly at Whitehead engineering which was in the Port itself. It was completely separate from them. Came from Harlow I think. They did marine outboard engines and they used to do all sorts of bits and bobs for them. I think there was a foreman there he got this thing going with the boats because we were in the same part of the yard. All the crews came off and he had a locker full of stuff and then this bloke come and we thought he wanted something made and he came over and said ”Hmm it’s a good little factory here” and he said “perks you know, can you get anything done cheap?” “Not really” he said, ”but I can do a nice line in spirits, cigarettes.” “Really?” And he got his wallet out and he shew it to him. I remember seeing his face drop. It was the old Customs and Excise. “I’d like to look at your locker”. Cor when he opened it, well I didn’t realise he had got so much stuff in there. Well it was all contraband cigarettes, booze and loads of work shirts, boots, trousers… off the Polish boats. I think he was from Brightlingsea. He had contacts. You always knew somebody who knew where to get the stuff from. That’s how it worked.
Everybody was smoking these fags in the pub and you knew they hadn’t paid duty on them cos they’d got all this foreign writing on them and whenever you went round someone’s house they had crates of beer with foreign sounding names on them. So you knew it had all come off of boats. Just the Polish boats.
I used to repair the holds. They dropped the grab in the holds when they had soya meal or coal. Mainly soya meal. After the timber yards closed it was mainly cargo boats came up and they used to bring up loads and loads of soya meal. I dunno where it went. Sometimes the grabber would hit the hold bottom and would spilt it and when these boats…, ships…. whatever you want to call them, when they went back empty they had to pump salt water into the tanks underneath the deck….. underneath the hold for ballast…so it would hang a bit easier. I used to go down and weld them up so they could get away. Very often the old engineer would say “lovely, well done” in broken English. “Have beer” and he’d give you half a crate of beer.
It was a good time. I loved working on boats. So I was working at the same place but instead of going round doing site work I had a spell there 6 months in the workshop. That’s when we first started repairing the boats that came in, pipe work and stuff like that. It wasn’t the best job I ever had. I got made redundant after 25 years. 25 years I worked there any way it was a time when a lot of people were getting laid off.
Other jobs before Retirement
End of the 90s may be and I saw this job advertised in the paper. It said engineer wanted Ministry of Defence I thought it would be out of my league but there was nothing else about and I weren’t going to go on the dole so I thought I’d apply for it. It was the cushiest job I’ve ever had. It was in Colchester. All you had to do was go round all these army places, go in the married quarters to the playpark areas. There is a lot of vandalism so because of insurance they had to check all of them. So you just repaired what you could and if not tell them and they got it done. Colchester barracks, Karma barracks near Cambridge, Watcham airbase across to Woodbridge and back to Colchester. Some days I’d be home at one o’clock finished or I’d take my dinner with me and go and park up on the beach for the rest of the afternoon.
I used to stop at all these little stalls in the countryside. I had a list of what people wanted, I got me own brand new van. It was lovely. I think it only ran for 3 years then it was included in someone else’s job. I was really upset.
So then I went on Royal mail and I stayed there until I retired. I was sent to Colchester and all over Essex. I never had a round in one place. They said go to Mersea, go to Tiptree, Castle Hedingham, Halsted. I went everywhere. I didn’t know the rounds. Just used to turn up. They’d give you a bag with all the mail in. Give you a map say that’s where you start and that’s where you finish. Off you go. Someone had marked it out. It was all in numerical order. You couldn’t go wrong. I had an 8 hour contract. That’s all I had, 8 hours a week. I said I can’t live on that but they said you’ll be alright. It turned out I got paid normal rate for 8 hours that was Saturday then from Monday to Friday I was on time and a half. Like 40 hours at time and a half. I was rolling money. That kept me really fit. I was earning more than postmen that had been there 20 years. Then I retired and thought what’ll I do? So I bought a boat.