The Choir and Organ
For many years I was a member of the church choir and the name George Bell seems to familiar to me. One of the highlights of our year was to visit the houses of important villagers at Christmas to sing carols and be given mince pies and a non-alcoholic drink. Along with a boy named Hodges I attended an audition for the Rochester Cathedral choir. We were both unsuccessful. I seem to remember that it was necessary to pump the organ in my days and it fell to a member of the choir to carry out this duty if the regular operator was absent. The sermons by the Rev Ffinch were most boring and we often passed the time away in the choir stalls playing table tennis using hymn books and a rolled ball of paper. Villagers usually emphasised the double ‘F’ when speaking his name and he was alleged to be rather miserly, so much so that my Father would tell me that “he had more money than Tommy Lipton had tea”.
The First ‘Borstal’
A sister institution was located at Feltham in Middlesex and many staff social and sporting occasions were held between the two establishments. There is reference to farming in the booklet. My Father was a Prison Officer employed on the institution farm and I believe that the name of the farm Bailiff was Trant. I remember that the boys wore a brown shirt and shorts on arrival at the institution which was changed to blue after a period of good behaviour. Depending on the job in hand, he would have up to four boys under his charge. He often spoke how gratifying it was to see the boys respond positively to the opportunity they were being given. I do not remember him mentioning any problems with those under his charge. Every so often I went with my Father when he drove the farm horse and cart to the blacksmith in Rochester, sometimes accompanied by a ‘blue boy’, for the horse to have new shoes fitted. The blacksmith shop was on Corporation Street near the Corn Exchange. (New trainees at the Borstal wore blue before graduating to brown. They could be demoted back to blue.)
It may be interesting to record that before the Second War, the fort was permanently occupied by a detachment of the Royal Marines from the main barracks at Chatham. For all intents and purposes it was a full-blown military barracks as I can confirm from my many visits. In fact our family was very friendly with the occupants and I was adopted as their mascot. I have a photo of myself at the age of five or six dressed in a military uniform that was specially made for me by their tailor.
The mention of the brick arches reminded me of one of our favourite playgrounds. The most popular was at Brambletree. The chalk pit at the bottom of Wouldham Road was attractive but dangerous. The pit with the tunnel mentioned in the booklet was favourite as the tunnel provided a meeting place, cool in summer and dry in winter.
Borstal Baptist Church
From time to time, magic lantern shows were held and this was the great attraction of this church to the children of the village. I well remember Frank Feltham who lived in Sidney Road and of course his son, Stanley, who was roughly of our age. I can confirm the feeling between ‘the Church’ and ‘The Chapel’ as referred to in the booklet as it reminded me of my Father’s reaction on learning that I had attended a slide show in the Chapel. He was critical of the way the service was conducted and rhythmic hymn singing. My attendance always resulted in punishment, usually not being allowed out after school.
Two important shops, Carringtons (formerly Thomasons) and Longleys, were situated in the lower end of Borstal Street.
Carringtons was a general store and baked bread and cake on the premises. The big attraction for us children was to scrounge the off-cuts of cakes and jam rolls from the baker. The car park of the shop was the location for a periodic visit of the Church Army bus, an event that older members of the village will remember.
Longleys was a butchers shop, a branch of the main shop in Rochester High Street. Down the slope between the two shops and behind a row of houses was a slaughter house. On occasion, there would be reports of a cow escaping.
I well remember the time when part of the wall between Cookham Hill and the Church collapsed causing great disruption.
An ideal place to practice our skills on a bicycle, barrow or scooter. Relatively free of traffic, it was a challenge to reach the bottom without mishap or to ride a bicycle without stopping from the bottom to the top. The creek at the bottom was popular, as was the point at the end of the marshes. The big attractions were the numerous pools on the marsh that were well stocked with crabs. It was also a vantage point for watching the flying boats landing and taking off. As a member of the Boy Scouts, I remember helping to build a bridge across the creek at the bottom of Manor Lane.
I have some memories of the trams. My Mother would take me with her when she visited the Co-Op in Rochester High Street and the journey over Priestfields was a little frightening to a child of three or four. The tram would rattle and sway from side to side as it gathered speed in the dip.
Apart from jumble sales, the Co-Op was the main source of clothes and shoes for our family. The Co-Op ran a savings club and gave a dividend on purchases. Only by contributing could my parents afford new clothes.
I was surprised that the waterworks were not mentioned by Norman Clout as this was an important feature of the valley. It was not the hop garden that was the attraction to us boys, but the well-stocked orchard. This was our favourite orchard for scrumping and we were often caught in the act by the farmer from Nashenden Farm. The oast house was another attraction on the farm, especially when they were drying the hops. We sometimes walked or cycled along the lane, past the farm and waterworks up the Leg of Mutton Woods near Blue Bell Hill.
My recent visit to the village acted as a reminder of how lucky we were to have limitless spaces to play in. Just before the war, the houses on Wouldham Road had already been built and work on the estate behind was just beginning. This was another playground and we would spend hours sitting and talking in the partly finished houses, sometimes being caught and chased off by the village policeman. Another favourite play area was down the path opposite Silver Hill where there were several trees ideally suited to climbing and swinging on a rope like Tarzan. In those days it was possible to walk along the riverside from Borstal to Aylesford Priory, apart from a small area near Ringshill Farm that was used by the Army for training.
This was a major attraction to all the boys of the village. News of a new seaplane being tested was an event that had to be seen. I well remember the occasion our lessons were interrupted so that the class could watch the first flight of Mayo and Mercury composite aircraft. The idea was to cover long distances by using the Mayo to transport the Mercury to a point when the two would separate, leaving the Mercury to complete the journey and Mayo to return to base. Unfortunately this idea was not taken up commercially.
This was the road where we kids thought that all the rich people lived. There certainly were some large houses there. I believe it was ‘The Goddings’ where the choir were invited to perform and I seem to remember there was a beautiful staircase where we assembled to sing our carols. It may seem strange, but there was a house further down the road that was used as an approved school for young offenders. How unfortunate that the gardens that were opposite Fort Clarence have been replaced by houses.
Before the war, the four prominent members of the village were the Vicar, The Rev. J. M. Ffinch, the Headmaster of the junior school Mr. Geater, the Headmistress of the infants school Miss Kemsley and the village policeman P.C. Arnold.
P.C. Arnold lived in Borstal Street, two or three doors down from the White Horse public house. He was usually to be seen riding his bicycle around the village and always seem to appear when we least wanted him to. He often parked his cycle while paying a visit to one of the villagers or doing his rounds. Our favourite trick was to move and hide his cycle round the corner and then to observe him from a distance when he went searching for it. I think he knew the culprits but he took it all in good part.
Other family names that come to mind are Wadhams, Froud, Jump, Dadd, Huckstep, Thorby, Burgess, Norton, Browning and Compton.
The Wadhams family were ‘Watermen of the River’. Apart from fishing their most important job was tying up the flying boats to their moorings.
The Froud family lived in and managed the Longleys butcher shop.
Nurse Jump was a school nurse and lived at the bottom end of Wouldham Road. She would pay regular visits to the village school inspecting pupils hair. We thought she had an appropriate name for her job. Her favourite expression she would whisper in your ear was “go home and tell your Mother you’ve got nits”.
The Dadd family were builders and lived opposite the bottom of Silver Hill.