When I was a Gamlingay boy....

JIM was one of four sons (his brothers were Bill, Bob and Roy) and a daughter, Barbara born to William James (Bill) and Madge Empson who owned the well known garage in Gamlingay.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 6th January 2012, 12:48 pm

“I was born in the red brick house, 5 Church Street which was then known as Crossways on January 28, 1932,” he explains.

“Barbara often told me of the dreadful weather that January and didn’t think that the doctor would arrive in time – which was necessary because I was a breech baby.

“As I grew, I managed to survive almost being drowned twice: once in a tank of fungicide which Dad had mixed for plants in the greenhouses and again in the Pit before I started school in Green End in 1937.”

At that time, the headmaster was Mr Dally and Jim’s teacher was Winnie Wright, niece to George Wright the coach builder in Green End.

Jim can remember her lifting him and his classmates up in turn to see the barrage balloons at Cardington.

Eleven years later Jim was to pass out from Cardington as the smartest recruit of his entry with a medal for marksmanship.

Not long after Jim had moved up into Carol Arnolds’ class, Mr Dally retired and was replaced by Mr Hacker, a younger man who had spent time in India.

Jim recalls: “He was a strict disciplinarian who introduced several new innovations, including a radiogram on which he played inspirational music each morning after prayers.

“Corporal punishment was administered after this on those miscreants whom he thought deserving.”

One such ‘miscreant’ was John ‘Cos’ Gilbert who refused to sing a hymn to the tune of the German national anthem.

“He had two strokes to the hands” recalls Jim.

“I often thought how stoically patriotic Cos was in 1942 when I had two brothers and a brother-in-law at war.”

Jim’s brother Roy was in Burma while the late Bob, who was featured in Memory Lane last year, was on shore guns guarding the Channel.

Barbara’s husband Peter was stationed with Coastal Command in Cumbria and later in West Africa protecting shipping from Nazi submarines.

Jim learned to swim in the fish pond in Waresley Park and the brick yard with its adjacent ponds owned by Miss Underwood and known as Belle Vue where large carp would bask in the sun.

The boys also fished, often at Hatley Park. At that time, Hatley Park was home to Sir Herman Lebus who owned a furniture factory in Tottenham and in the immediate post war years, ‘utility’ furniture was made to replace items lost during the blitz, including utility radios which Jim’s father sold at the family’s garage.

Gamlingay’s history is in market gardening and most of the land belonged to Merton College, Cambridge.

During the 1930s and 40s much of it was farmed by Lionel Marsters who lived on the corner of The Avenue, Sandy. His farm manager was George Osborne who drove a black Austin 10 van.

He also farmed land at Northill with manager Lionel Marsom. Jim remembers the workmen cycling over The Cross at 6.45am throughout the winter, clad in oilskins with potato sacks made into a hood and another tied around the waist to keep the wind off their backs.

Most agricultural workers were exempt from military service as feeding the nation was a priority.

Jim left Mr Edwin Daniel’s class at Gamlingay School in 1943 for Bedford Modern School which he travelled to by train on the Cambridge to Bletchley line.

Occasionally an American troop train would pass through the station and the ‘dough boys’ would throw strange flavoured gum to Jim and his friends.

At school, Jim joined the Junior Training Corps and spent afternoons packing army equipment in waxed paper to be put into steel crates for sending to the troops.

In 1943, a prisoner of war camp, No.561, was established at Old Woodbury Hall on Everton Road.

Until the rules were relaxed later in the war, the prisoners, mainly Italians, would be trucked out to farms under armed guard to work on the land.

In their spare time, they would make items such as jewellery from toothbrush handles and the perspex from crashed aeroplanes which the boys supplied to them.

“Their skill was excellent,” remembers Jim. “Cigarette cases would be fashioned from aluminium and intricately engraved.”

As the war progressed, German prisoners arrived and by this stage were allowed to walk into the village while the Italians were repatriated.

One German Prisoner of War, Bruno would cut Jim’s hair on a Saturday afternoon and made clothes out of Jim’s mother Madge’s pre-war offcuts.

With double summertime during the last three years of the war, it was light until almost midnight. In winter, Jim and his friends would have long slides on the ice at the Pit.

The well known local Pit was fed by a ditch which ran down Waresley Road and then under it via a tunnel. In summer, when the water dried up, the bravest children would crawl through it.

When it was full however, the water ran through another tunnel under Cinques Road to a ditch through the school gardens, the Fairfield and Peter Knibbs meadow. “It was a haven for both wildlife and old boots,” says Jim.

In 1946, Madge bought Jim a one-man rescue dinghy and he spent many happy hours in it with Sally, his Jack Russell.

Throughout the war, Madge worked at the garage which was the only petrol point for miles. Customers included royalty – Prince Nicholas Galitzine of Russia who lived in Waresley in a house he had painted red, and King Peter of Yugoslavia, a young man who lived in Mill House, Great Gransden with his mother and two brothers.

Jim’s parents were amongst those who founded the Conservative Club in Gamlingay at this time and Jim has many happy memories of the old club bar where pipe-loving Tom Tofts, who had lost his arm in WW1, was barman.

The bar had no child restrictions and Jim often enjoyed a golden lemon from Wells & Winch brewery there.

In later years, Jim, then a pilot, would share a drink with one of wartime’s most famous flying aces.

Excitement occurred one night when a bomb was dropped near the searchlight camp off Everton Road. “Of course, we boys went to have a look the next day. It was a sizeable crater with lots of blue London clay which had been thrown up” says Jim.

On another occasion, a Mosquito crashed into a cottage at Tetworth Hall, killing Mr Gore and injuring two others. Jim also witnessed a Mosquito with a Polish pilot crash over Cockayne Hatley after it had been ‘playing’ with a B-17 while he was standing on the brook bridge by the carrot washer.

Jim left school in 1948 and worked for his father for two years before joining the RAF. During this time, he helped build four lofts for his father’s pigeons, reputed to be the largest and most diverse collection of birds in the UK. During the war, many pigeon fanciers had eaten their prize birds for food, so Jim’s father was able to help them re-stock their lofts for which he received a medal!

An LMS steam railway line ran past Gamlingay and the goods yard was always a hive of activity. Mr Staniforth was stationmaster, who Jim describes as a kindly man with an interest in wildlife and collecting birds’ eggs. Sugar beet would leave there for processing and less perishable produce such as potatoes would go to Covent Garden. Jim also remembers shoddy arriving which he describes as ‘evil-smelling’. Another product to come by train was Tottenham Pudding – a mixture of the leftover scraps from London kitchens which was fed to pigs. Its use was stopped in the 1990s after it was discovered to be the source of an outbreak of swine fever.

These were the days when village shops flourished. Jim recalls Saunders grocers in Mill Street, and Savages in Church Street which sold all you could need.

William Watson (later Lindsays) was the baker in Church Street and bread was delivered in pony and trap by Freddie Siggs. Billy Gilbert “a dapper little man”, had a corn and forage shop selling animal feed opposite Warboys Garage.

There was a cycle shop at Honey Hill in a corrugated iron building and ‘Donkey’ Housden had a small sweet shop opposite the church.

Nellie Banford, who had a greengrocers in Mill Street, would organise trips to the seaside for the local children on a Charlie Safford bus from Little Gransden. For many children this was their first sight of the sea.

After leaving the RAF, Jim helped out at his father’s garage and met his wife, a Suffolk girl who worked for a radiologist in Cambridge. They later had two sons - Simon and David.

Jim has spent his life indulging his passions for photography and flying. Jim’s claim to fame was once buying a bitter lemon for teetotal Douglas Bader!

Now living in Ipswich, Jim hasn’t forgotten his Gamlingay roots, and judging by the reception to his talk, there are many others who are keen to share those memories.