Even The Bad Times Were Good For Men Like These (17 May 1974)
Two of the most interesting men I met during my early years in Bletchley were Mr. John Robert (“Bob”) Bryant, of Duncombe Street, and his neighbour, Mr. Thomas Beckett, who lived round the corner in Osborne street. They came from rather different backgrounds, but they had one thing in common. There were allotment digging enthusiasts. Each had a 20-pole plot on the Eight Bells field. And they were still digging them in March 1953, by which time Mr. Bryant was 87 years old and Mr Beckett, 86.
Mr. Beckett was a stocky, outgoing type of man, who in his day must have been as strong as a horse. But he was dwarfed by Mr. Bryant. He must have been what is commonly called a fine figure of a man. Indeed, he was still most impressive when, dressed in his Sunday-best, he made stately progress around the station end of Queensway.
“I was born on a farm at Verney Junction, and except for about 18 months on the railway – which I had to give up because I was in a tied farm cottage – worked on the land until I was 69,” Mr. Beckett told me.
“After a full day’s work for my master, I used to do more work for my father on his bit of land than many will do in a full day these days, and all of it by hand.
“At harvest I’ve gone into a field early one morning and worked all through the day, then the night, and the next day.
“I’ve never been unemployed. I’ve worked for three-halfpence an hour and when times have improved I’ve worked for 12s. a week, with an extra 3s. for 18 hours’ overtime.
“I’ve done everything there is to do about a farm, including hedging for 2s. a chain (22 yards), in which they get about 30s a chain for now.
“I married on 12s. a week and had 11 children.
“The morning I got married I was digging a trench when my mother said it was time to be getting ready to go to church. We all walked a few miles to church and back together.
“The party lasted till midnight, but I was up milking the cows as usual as six o’clock next morning.
“While we were bringing up the children and for about 30 years I never had a drop of beer or wine and I had only one day’s holiday a year for the club feasts on Whit Tuesdays.
“At 69 I gave up regular farm work and went to live in Oxfordshire. There I had a house, an acre of land, with pigsties and such-like.
“Then, 12 years ago we came to live with my daughter, Mrs. Andrews, at 3 Osborne Street. My wife died six years ago.
“I’ve never been to the pictures in my life. I’ve only ever had one week’s holiday, which was when I went to see a daughter in London.
“But I’ve been happy, a lot happier than folks are nowadays who’ve more time than they know what to do with.
“Mind you, you young folks nowadays are real softies. You’ll have to work a lot harder if you don’t want a starvation slump in a few years’ time. You’ll have to make use of all the ground you’ve got for growing your own food and not build on it all the time.
“I still dig these 20 poles (a pole is 30¼ square yards) and my friend, Bob Bryant, over there, who’s a year older than me, also digs 20 poles. When we dig together there’s 173 years in just two of us and if hasn’t killed either of us yet.”
Mr. Bryant was a very pleasant, but shy sort of man and confined himself to nodding agreement with Mr. Beckett’s opinions.
Three years later – by which time, bi think, Mr. Beckett was dead – Mr. Bryant and his wife celebrated their diamond wedding. He had spent his early life at Stoke Hammond. His wife was a Great Brickhill girl. They met at Brickhill Feast when he was aged 25 and she 20. “I said I wouldn’t get married until I was 30 and I didn’t, he told me. Yet they lived to see their sixtieth anniversary.
Mr. Bryant was then a platelayer on the railway and they set up house at Stoke. A year later, however, he was promoted and they moved to Bletchley. At first they lived in a Duncombe Street house that backed onto the railway, but in 1902 they had the house built on the opposite side of the street, which they occupied for the rest of their days.
“I hated Bletchley at first,” he told me. “I thought there was no place like Stoke. But now we’ve lived here 59 years in one street I’ve got used to the place and the people, and wouldn’t like to change.”
For 16 years after moving to Bletchley he was a foreman platelayer and then for 17 years a permanent-way inspector until he retired. In all, he cultivated the same 20 poles of Eight Bells Field for 55 years. Then the allotment holders had to move, but at the time of his diamond wedding he was still tending a small plot off Water Eaton Road.
At around that time, the Bletchley Allotment Association had about 600 members. Many of them tilled allotments as well as having unusually-large back gardens to their homes.
In fact, one of the first things that struck me about Bletchley was the amount of land devoted to back gardens. Nearly every house in the streets off Queensway had a sizeable one. In aerial photographs, the town had a hollow look. It was almost ready made for the developments now going on in and around the centre.