This was life in Borstal of ordinary people in the ‘eighties’, looking back over ninety years of my long life. What wonderful things have happened!
I was born in May 1882, one of a family of five, in one of a row of old cottages called Factory Cottages. These were on a farm near the factory making Portland Cement, both belonging to the same owner.
My father was the farm bailiff, also the shepherd, looking after a hundred or more sheep, his helpmate a faithful bitch named Captain. She always knew what to do and would not work with anyone else. The sheep lambed down soon after Christmas in a temporarily built stock yard of hopbinds of which the farm had plenty. They would have their lambs in this shelter and sometimes the weather was terrible, with frost and snow and my father would be out all night. In the morning we would find as many as four lambs, lying on sacks near the kitchen fire, brought in nearly dead. My father would give them gruel to bring them round and nearly always they recovered. I think that sometimes he thought more of his lambs than he did of his own health.
I was a happy child – there was always something to see on a farm. This one consisted of an oast house with two kilns for drying hops, stables with horses and an engine house with a small steam engine to drive a chaff cutter and a corn mill to crush corn for the horses’ food.
I well remember this. I was four years old. Father cam over to me while I was playing in the garden and said “Jack, I have a job for you”. How pleased I was to be asked to do a job and to see that little steam engine. He took me up a ladder to a little room housing a hopper, which fed the corn to be crushed, and I had to shovel corn down the shute to the mill below. But I wanted to see the engine, so looking out of the door I called to my father of the floor below. My poor father! He took one long leap up the ladder to reach me – he thought I would fall down, so that never again was I allowed up there.
We had a well in front of our cottage; this supplied us and our neighbours with water and filled many a bucket on washing days.
At the bottom of our garden ran a railway down to the chalk pit, where a steam loco was used to haul up the loaded trucks of chalk for making cement. The locomotive was a converted traction engine, fitted with wheels to run on the rails. I loved watching this coming out of the pit, puffing away with its heavy load.
One day I was taken down the pit and watched the men digging the chalk. They would drive a stake in at the top, tie the other end of the rope round their waists and dig the chalk down to the trucks below. It was dangerous work. Sometimes they used gunpowder to blast the chalk down.
There were several cement factories up the river above Borstal and most had a small fleet of barges. It was a lovely sight to see them tacking to and from when the tide was right, with the sun going down behind the hills. At Rochester Bridge the barge crews were helped by pilots, who were known as Hufflers, as the river current is very tricky there. The Huffler, after steering them through, would help the skipper and his mate haul up the mast and sails. He then left in his dinghy to help another barge. They were clever, these bargees, as we called them. There was just a skipper and his mate, except for a coaster- the was a larger barge – the crew then being a kipper and two mates. Many crews were father and son, sometimes brothers, and the way they handled those barges was marvellous. They were very hard and tough mean to stand long hours and bitter winter weather at times. Time soon passes when one is free, but one day my sister took me to school in Borstal, and how remember that day – one of the longest I had lived so far. The mistress came over to me, gave me a card with a donkey drawn on it, and a needle and wool and told me to sew round and round it. She looked like a giantess to me, dressed all in black and I felt like a prisoner. I was five years old. But next day I felt a little better. I chummed up with a boy named Fred and he was my closest friend until he passed away in 1961 after fifty-four years of companionship. My parents paid 2d per week for me to go to this Church School. In winter it was heated by a very large round iron stove which burnt coke. Around it was a trough filled with water and often the fumes were very bad.
Later, I was sent to another school in Troy Town so I had to walk from Borstal Court Farm. I never did like the school and the master here made me dislike it more. Once I was caned all round the school for something I did not do and he had a knack of bringing the cane up across my finger nails which in winter time was very painful. any were the curses I put on that master, but none ever worked! I wasn’t very brilliant at school. but never bottom of the class.
I loved the weekend. Fred and I used to go out on the marshes catching sticklebacks, tiddlers, tadpoles, newts and an interesting creature, the larva of the caddis fly. In the spring the ditches were full of life, unlike these days – no deadly sprays.
In the winter, the dykes froze over; they were not very wide, but long and sometimes we were able to do some skating. An iron monger from Rochester would bring skates out in winter every time we had a sharp frost. Some were a bit rusty. Most were made of wood with a steel blade fitted to it, with a screw to go into the boot. These were sold for 1/6d per pair but even this was too dear for us, so we borrowed one another’s skates.
In the summer we used to swim in the river near a sand pit called Safety Bay, when the policeman wasn’t about as we had no bathing suits like those of today. In fact, we had nothing on.
There were no buses in those days except one that used to run from Strood ‘Angel’ to Luton ‘Hen and Chicks’ – a horse bus – so if the likes of me wanted to go anywhere we had to walk. I had some relations at Cooling living near the castle and in summer I often used to stay with them, walking all the way from Borstal, over Lodge Hill to Cooling on a Saturday morning and back again on Sunday evening.
I remember my first outing, which was to Brighton. One of our friends took me and we went on the Chain Pier. Talking of walking – one of the passengers missed the train, lost his ticket and had no money. He walked home from Brighton to Borstal and arrived home on Sunday evening. Not a bad walk!
At harvest time we boys could earn a few pence making bonds for the reaper to tie up the sheaves. The corn was cut by the same machine that cut the hay, by fitting an extra seat by the side of the driver and a rack at the back of the cutting knives. The man sitting beside the driver had a large wooden rake and when enough corn for a sheaf had collected on the rack he would push it off with his rake. We boys would lay the bonds we made from the same straw – one at each lump – and the men would come and tie the corn up into sheaves. Then the sheaves were stood up into stooks to dry and would then be taken into the stackyard and generally built into neat round stacks, on faggots to stop the damp form rising. Only the butt ends of the sheaves were left showing after being thatched, thus keeping out the rain. In the spring, the farmer would order a threshing machine from the firm that owned them and supplied the labourers who generally travelled round with them. How I enjoyed those days; the engine puffing away and the humming of the thresher. Every time they dropped a sheaf in, the engine would puff louder, the note of the machine became lower, then rose, like music to me. The lovely scent of the straw seems to linger with me today.
About this time I had a baby brother to take out sometimes in his pram; no lightly sprung carriage this, with rubber tyres and electro-plated fittings on our pram. It was made of wood and three wooden wheels with iron tyres like small cartwheels. It had thick iron springs, which didn’t spring much and the baby got well shaken up on our rough roads, but we all lived to be over eighty years old.
One Easter Monday my father took my young brother and me to see a sham fight, as we called it – the Army Manoeuvres. There must have been over a thousand engaged. The soldiers fought by forming squares, with a field gun in the centre. Dressed in bright red uniforms dotted about the countryside, one could see them for miles. There were all around Borstal, Nashenden, ‘Robin Hood’ and Bluebell Hill. Near the ‘Robin Hood’ there was an enclosure with prisoners in it and they were snowballing one another. There was a lot of firing going on. It came on to snow and we saw a General on horseback with an umbrella up. It seemed funny to me! We were told that he was Field Marshal the Duke of Cambridge. All the field guns and wagons were drawn by horses – no motor lorries in those days.
On the hill overlooking the village of Borstal in the Convict Prison built in 1874. Long term prisoners were kept there. The convicts wore jackets, knickers, thick woollen stockings, heavy leather boots and field caps. Their clothes were marked over with broad arrows. Outside the prison main gate was a narrow gauge railway station. The little steam trains took the convicts to work on the different forts which were being built at the time – they did the earth works. They sat back to back in the carriages and an iron gate was drawn across and locked in front. The warders carried carbines – small rifles – and would use them if a convict tried to escape, but the warders were told to shoot low to disable anyone who tried to escape. Very few did! I remember one. The prison bell rang violently, one could hear it for miles around. They would get the other convicts in before searching for the escaped one, but with the open country all around they couldn’t get far. This one got down to the river opposite Cuxton. The tide was up; he put a fruit sieve over his head and started swimming across but where he went wrong was that he started swimming against the tide and the warders spotted him.
One thing made my father mad. The bird trappers used to come on Sundays. They would tether a linnet by the leg near a net trap baited with food. The decoy bird would hop about, then others would come down to feed. These men would spring he trap from a distance, then put these poor little birds in small cages and take them to the market to sell them. My father used to clear them off and they soon went, I can tell you! Other birds they used to cage were skylarks. They took the young ones from their nests and had special cages with a bow front and a trap door at the top, the bow front being for grass. They would find a nest of young larks before they were ready to leave, put them in the cage and the hen bird would come and feed them. A friend of mine took four from a meadow at the bottom of his garden and put them on a post nearby and the mother came and fed them. He was pleased, but a day or two later they died; the mother did not come near again. I think she found she could not get them out of the cage and gave them something that killed them. It is so very cruel to cage wild birds.
One morning about 1894, I had just set off to Troy Town, Rochester Board School. My dear mother said “I don’t like the look of the weather. You had better stay home today”/ She was right. It came over very dark, like night; a clap of thunder and then snow. We’d never seen anything like it before, a proper blizzard blocked all the roads. Where the snow drifted, Borstal Road was full up to the top of the bank and nothing could get through to Rochester. Six weeks of frost followed. All the farmers around sent men, horses and carts to dig the snow off the roads. They emptied the snow on to a meadow near Borstal and it lay there until May before it disappeared.
These are only a few of the reminiscences of my youth. How things have changed since then! The cottage where I was born – not a brick left, just a clump of bushes. The farm is all in ruins. The hop gardens are all gone. As for Safety Bay, a large M2 Motorway crosses here. The railway down to the chalk pit is gone, the chalk pit having been filled in. The farm cottages on Maidstone Road have been replaced by a church. Eastling Cottage, that lovely old house in Dark Lane has gone and hundreds of house built on the farm site; not a sign of the cottage nor of the Lane.