Hilda Craven was born in Surrey in 1921, the daughter of a mechanic/driver. Her family moved to Lower Beeding when she was five and she’s been in the area ever since. Now 96, she has shared her recollections of growing up in West Sussex and her service as a WREN during the Second World War. Her fascinating story starts this week and will conclude next week.
"In 1926, dad obtained a position with more responsibility and we moved to the Woldringfold estate at Lower Beeding, near Horsham, and lived in the bothy above the coach-house in the stable yard. The old family coach was still in the coach-house with the Godman family crest on the doors. There was space for eight cars as well.
The big clock in the bell-tower struck every hour otherwise there were only country sounds of birds, cows, horses in the stables and the faint booming of Cowfold Monastery bell at 4 o’clock each morning.
We were three-quarters of a mile from the main road, two miles from Cowfold and seven miles from Horsham, the market town.
Dad also ran the engine to make electric light for the big house, the stables and the bothy, also to saw all the logs for the house fires. We were lucky to have electric lights in our house but had no water tap. The other cottages on the estate had only oil lamps and candles and a well.
The bothy and stable yard water all came from an iron-handled pump in the yard, for drinking, washing, cooking, horses and motor cars. In the summer, when the water was low in the big lake across the park, all kinds of creepy crawlies as well as water came out of the pump. We had a filter for drinking water in the house and all hot water had to be heated in big iron kettles on the big black range in the kitchen.
On Friday evenings – no school the next day – Dad began at about 6pm to carry water through the house to the horse copper outside the back door. When it was full, the fire would be lit underneath and the water got hot in about one hour – except when the wind was in the wrong direction and the fire was difficult to light.
Then Dad would take down the galvanised tin bath from its hook outside the back door, shake out the spiders, take it into the kitchen in front of the warm grate fire and bring in the hot water. Then two children, then Mum and finally Dad would have a bath all in the same water, topped up with hot water.
All baths done, the water had to be baled out and tipped away and, by that time, it was gone 10 o’clock. So Friday nights really were entirely taken up with getting clean!
The bothy was right on top of a hill with a rookery behind it. In the winter we took a hurricane lamp along the garden path beyond the woodshed to the little wooden hut which was our lavatory. There were lots of scurrying rabbits and foxes, hooting of owls and noisy tree-tops in the wood when a gale was blowing.
My job on Saturday mornings was to cut up the old newspapers, thread them on a string and put them in the little house. We couldn’t afford toilet paper in those days. What a good job the print didn’t come off in the 1930s!
At five years old I walked two miles to school, down the drive to the main road and then with older children to the village. In summer, I went all the way across fields and footpaths by myself right to the school. These were the normal ways for country children to go to school then, when there was very little traffic on the main roads, only the hourly bus between Horsham and Brighton, a few cars belonging to the big house, the occasional motorcycle and horse-drawn wagons carting hay, straw and wood.
Sadly, when I was six, my little sister, aged five, died of meningitis, so I became an only child with the nearest other children a mile away. I had to learn early to do things by myself.
In 1930, I went by bus to school in Horsham and in 1932 managed to win a West Sussex County Council scholarship to the High School for Girls in Horsham.
The bus fare for one term was the same as my Dad’s weekly wage – £2 10 shillings (£2.50) – but we were quite well off by village standards as our home was rent free, so was electric light and all the wood we needed for fires. In addition, all employees on the estate had a quarter of a ton of coal at Christmas and a pint of milk from the farm every day.
There was uniform to buy for the new school. It was very good quality but quite costly so Dad bought me a new bicycle, which cost £2, and I cycled to school to save the cost of the bus fare. A pleasant journey all round the country lanes seven miles each way, winter and summer, for five years.
High school was a happy place to be even though we had to work hard. Everyone had to take the Oxford school certificate examination in eight subjects. Somehow six of us in a class of 24 passed high enough to be given something called matriculation exemption, which meant immediate entry to university – if your parents could afford the fees. All of us came from working class homes and in no way could afford such fees.
Just one could be catered for from the school loan fund. She is brilliant at languages, taught English and Latin in France, studied Urdu and Hindustani and eventually became head of a girls’ school of 600 pupils in Bihar, India. So that loan fund was well spent.
There was a vacancy for a telephonist at Horsham Head Post Office and, instead of having a few weeks enjoying the summer holidays, I found myself going to work. In those days, Head Office staff had either to sit a Civil Service examination or produce evidence of a school certificate with a matriculation exemption - so I was in.
In order to learn to accept typed telegram and cables over the telephone, and to use a teleprinter, I had to attend the training school at Brighton for three months.
This entailed leaving home at 6.45am, cycling to West Grinstead station three miles away, catching the steam train to Brighton, walking to Ship Street Head Office and spending three hours learning to use a teleprinter, catching the train back to Horsham, spending an hour touch typing on a typewriter, train back to the country station and cycling home made up my daily round.
Having passed my test - 80 telegrams in one hour, five corrected errors and one uncorrected allowed - on three successive days, I was pronounced ready to start work at Horsham.
We were a relief office for other telegraph centres in the south east of England. In October 1939, I was loaned to Dover for two months and worked by phone to the Navy at Dover Castle. Little did I think I would be working at the castle end of things less than two-and-a-half years later. In 1939, there were a few air raid alarms and drills and we went for shelter in the Kent caves somewhere along the Folkstone Road.
Back in Horsham, I remember how busy we were at the time of the Dunkirk miracle in May 1940. The troop trains from Dover came to Redhill where each soldier was given a telegram to send home. We had a large territorial unit at the drill hall in those days and I can remember sitting on one of our machines, gumming up messages and calling out names of our local men who had got back safely.
I can also remember the joy of one of our telegraphists when a message came through from her husband.
GPO telegraphists were in a reserved occupation, which meant they were exempt from being called up. In December 1941, GPO headquarters in London asked for teleprinter operators to volunteer to serve in the WRNS. I felt I could do this because, after five years, I could work the machines at their maximum speed with accuracy.
So I went for an interview and was called up to the Royal Navy College Greenwich in March 1942."
Hilda’s memoir will continue in the County Times on Thursday (September 14).