CHILDHOOD MEMORIES OF AMERSHAM
FROM JANE COMBES NEE PADGET
To start at the beginning, neither of my parents were born in Amersham. My mother’s parents, moved from Croydon to Amersham and bought a house called Braeside on Stanley Road. My mother, Hilda Pither, worked in London in Westminster at Queen Anne’s Bounty, for a spell in the early 30’s but came down to Amersham and opened up The Imp tea rooms. Possibly because of a failed romance or engagement? It is strange how these pieces of information are hard to come by many years after the events.
My father, Reginald Padget, was born in Yorkshire. He seems to have rebelled against his family farming life, become a bus driver and drifted down to Amersham, a brother Charlie was working at Glory Hill Farm near Beaconsfield. Sometime around mid 1930’s he met mother and they had a daughter Ann. Ann lived until she was 5, but died of tuberculosis, which in those days was mostly incurable. I followed in the June of 1941, was born at the Imp Café, the only time I made an early appearance by all accounts – 8 a.m., and then two more girls Susan in 1944 and Caroline in 1945.
One of my father’s sisters Eveline, came down to help with the business and the children. She eventually lived in Farnham Common and ran a small hotel there. In 1953 we watched the Coronation on black and white television there, a luxury in those days.
Another aunt, Hetty, had a nursing home at Datchet. In those days it was like a cottage hospital. Various operations were carried out there, can remember going in for tonsil extraction. Far from being worried, the thought of ad lib ice cream was too much to resist in our sugar free post war childhood. My middle sister said it gave her angst as there I was, up on those really high beds, to a 2 year old it was a skyscraper.
My earliest memory of life at Amersham was a loud bang and the appearance of soldiers. This may have been due to a bomb landing in the field up behind what was later Goya perfume factory. As was the custom in those days my occasional questions about the war were ignored! I also remember homecoming troops kissing the ground in the Broadway, which totally perplexed a 6 yr old!
As children, we two older ones were packed off up to Yorkshire to grandparents’ farm, then down to Birchington, when I turned 5 to go to school there and we lived with the aunt who had a nursing home there.
Old Malt Tea Rooms
Finally we were all reunited in 1947 when parents bought The Olde Malt House. Visits to Yorkshire were an annual event every summer holidays, which was the busy period for the Old Malt Tea Rooms.
It was such a huge, to our eyes, place to be in. Lots of nooks and crannies to hide in and large gardens with the Misbourne running over the back wall. The Misbourne in spring was full of tadpoles and frogs and someone had the bright idea of taking them to Amersham hospital, where we were rewarded with a few pennies.
The Malt House with its huge timbers became a very successful café and bakery. We catered for many functions, weddings, family get togethers, business meetings and so on. Father made the most delicious Christmas and wedding cakes, and to this day I much prefer a rich fruit cake to the bland spongy efforts on the market today! Weddings were a learning curve, I got an extremely jaundiced view of them. Being enrolled into waiting at table from an early age, I soon dreaded the arguments and family rows which seemed to me to erupt at these “celebrations of love”! In fact, when it came to my own wedding, the cake and champagne were my main concern and no pretensions! We children worked in the business and I remember one Easter Monday we served 600, yes! 600 teas! Hard work.
There was the small coffee/tea room on the left as you look at the building, a gift shop as you look face on, the main entrance took you into the gift shop and cash desk area. To the right was the bakery shop, and behind that the bakery. Going through the gift shop you came to a passageway on your right hand side which led to the bakery and beyond that there was a small room where stores were kept and where we boned sides of beef for the restaurants.
Next to the passageway was a steep rickety staircase up to the Top Room. Here we served afternoon teas, had wedding receptions and later on, when I started the Skiffle and Jazz Club, it was the noisiest place in town. How the old beams stood the weight of 100+ teenagers dancing about is credit to those medieval builders? The Skiffle and Jazz Club came about because at 15 I wasn’t allowed out at night. I knew, though my father didn’t like the music, he did like the tills ringing! So somehow it was arranged and took off. I remember Jeff, who was a brilliant pianist, we even got Lonnie Donegan and The Temperance Seven. However, as the years went by and the Teddy Boy problems started, that put paid to the club and not long after my father sold the place to a builder
Downstairs, to the left of the stairway, was a passageway to the stairs and our accommodation above. Going straight through from the Gift Shop the passage led to the Dining Room which was used for lunches and some teas. The kitchen was on the left as you walked through. Scene of terrifying experiences with our Irish cook, Gert. She had several children and worked very hard in our kitchen, however she know how to frighten the wits out of you. She put me off chicken for many, many years. She would pluck and gut a chicken, but the wicked woman would cut the head off and drop the chicken which would take a few steps but it was horrific. Many years later, when I was plucking a pheasant I could not get that image out of my mind…… The pheasant was delicious! Her other foible was rounding up all the dregs from glasses after a function or wedding. Using a pint pot or bigger, she would tip it all in together and later on would be found in a corner quietly guzzling.…it didn’t make me teetotal, but gave me an early lesson in not mixing grain and grape as she would be irascible the following day.
Outside was a garden with shrubs, trees and lawn. In the 1960’s some flats were built on the bottom half backing on to the stream. A bit like a recent programme on a farming family, we all had our allotted chores. We learned how to answer the telephone, present bills, work out change, clean, wait at table, making doughnuts, bread and serving customers all round. Because I liked bookkeeping, it became my pigeon from about the age of 14 until I left home.
Growing up in Amersham
The highlight of the Amersham year was the traditional fair. Although Amersham was only a short way from London it was more like a village in those days. We got more and more excited when the summer crept round to September in anticipation.The noise of the fairground rides, with the bustle of all the extra visitors, candy floss etc. for three whole days, it made such a difference to the normally tranquil life in the town. Of course, we would dream of jumping on the wagons and living the wandering life.
Actually, the many people who came to The Malt House used to fascinate me, think it inspired my love of exploring. I wondered where they had come from and where they were going to. How I wished I could go with them, to what I thought, must be more exciting places. This was further fired by one our regulars who was a BA pilot, which in those days was certainly a niche occupation. Mostly, in reality they were doing much like everyone does these days, visiting the area, visiting friends and family and enjoying a meal out. Especially treasured after the frugal war years.
We had a lot of freedom as children to wander around the town, to the recreation ground along Green Lane, up to the Rectory Woods, where dragons, cowboys and Indians and highwayman were fought with. The Misbourne, we thought, would provide fish, but frogs were all we managed. Shardeloes even came into play but only on rare occasions.
When father bought me a pony that was great fun. Tessa, like most ponies would run ring rounds you, she was boss, we spent more time trying to catch her, or getting back on when she threw us off, than actually in the saddle. I did manage to take her over to Auntie Eveline’s at Farnham Common a few times. When I outgrew Tessa father sent me to the riding school up Rectory Hill way. Loved it and loved jumping, sadly my performance at shows was pretty dire!
We also belonged to the Church Youth Club, which in our teens provided us with a meeting place and we learned to play billiards and darts. Reverend South had such a lovely voice, and am sure that is why attendances were high. We were confirmed at Amersham and I treasure my prayer book, but sadly one of my sons removed the page with the officiating Bishop’s signature from the day. Every Christmas St Mary’s Youth Club would go carol singing through the town. Moria Shearer and her husband always gave us a treat.
Schooling and Beyond
We all went to St. Mary’s Convent at Chesham Bois for our primary education. They were very strict and any transgressions soon had you on your knees on a stone floor at the front of the class. Notes would be sent home, so then you got a double dose of correction! Girls were not allowed to do cartwheels or handstands or climb trees, all because in those games you were likely to expose your thick navy knickers! The nuns must have been clairvoyant, it took 50 years before Bridget Jones’s diary made baggy knickers sexy!?
We girls were all supposed to be very ladylike, from the poses we adopted at birthday parties, you can see we tried our best. I hope some of it did rub off, but most of the time we were full of beans and trying to find ways around the rules. In Amersham in the 1950’s, the fact that adults were around walking the same places you were, news of any misbehaviour very soon filtered back to home.
What we failed to realise was that everyone knew where you lived and would know your age, especially by what you would be wearing. No makeup in those days! Too common!! Hairstyles were fairly boring too, either a bob or plaits, plain janes the lot of us.
Because our parents worked just about all year, we had nursemaids to marshal us all. Heather is a lady I remember fondly as she took me on wonderful trips to London to see the sights. Have no idea, at this remove, where she lived or what her surname was. Wonder if there is any family around the town these days? One of my sisters said when there was talk of going for a walk with the nursemaids she used to run and hide, as she never liked any of them!
Amersham had a ballet school and theatre, up near the railway station. Middle sister was very able, and to this day is poised and upright. My height soon got me out of trying to model myself on Alicia Markova, or Margot Fonteyn. Seem to remember a comment “she’s like a fairy elephant”, after one of my attempts. Though I did used to love being taken to the theatre, at this remove have no idea of what we saw.
My youngest sister went to Dr Challoner’s for her secondary education. My middle one went to Raan’s Road, and I went to High Wycombe Technical which then became Lady Verney High School where I was Head Girl. Thinking about the teachers in those days 1954 to1958, they were so dedicated, fired up our imaginations, introduced us to many interesting subjects. Most of them were not originally trained to teach, but they gave us inspired teaching, through their passion for their subjects.
There were Scout and Brownie groups and a thriving St. John’s Ambulance. One year we were taken to a special parade to be reviewed by HM The Queen.
Sharing the experiences in the Ambulance brigade was fun as well as useful later on, instruction was very good and think my parents would have liked me to be a nurse, especially as several aunts were in that career. Because of the business, parents could never get away to take us on holidays. The St. Johns had a camp on the Isle of Wight for several years running and we thoroughly enjoyed going. It gave us freedom from the ever watchful folk at home – we thought. Those in charge always had a full day of things lined up for us though!
Other times we went up to Yorkshire to stay with grandparents and lots of cousins. My poor grandmother often had 13 or 14 of us rampaging around, though again, we had chores. I used to organise a theatrical recitation event, perched on the rickety upstairs barn floor, even managed to get 1d admission out of uncles and aunts! We recited poetry, sang songs and my middle sister performed the sleepy dance.
From early teens the cinema became to be the high spot of the week. Would walk up to Amersham on the Hill as often as the tips would allow! Having Dirk Bogarde in the neighbourhood also gave a perk to life. The managers were always very strict on the censorship rules of admission age, and try as we might we couldn’t squeeze past. I managed to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s and only when I read the book years and years later did I find out what it was about! In those days we were so innocent that censorship was partly superfluous because the plots had no real meaning for us.
The Griffin was right across the Broadway from The Malt House. There were many shops up and down the street. I used to be sent for groceries, to the chemist when necessary, the doctor lived across the street and my best friend Rosalind Hicks lived at Gilbert’s dairy. Her family ran the dairy which delivered around town. Am not sure if it was her father’s milkman, but I used to go out on the rounds with him on a pony and cart . Milk was delivered straight out of the churn into the householder’s jug every morning. One time up near Granny Pither’s house Braeside, I was left on my own with the pony and milk. Foolishly, really naughty, I picked up the reins and away we went. Being about 10, I had no chance of controlling things, having only done little hacks on my ancient steed. We hurtled down Stanley Hill, shot past Brazil’s and the Waterboard Offices, was I worried? Not about crashing into the odd bus or car, but VERY WORRIED about father getting to hear of the misdeed. Amazingly, until I told him the tale many, many years later, he had had no one let on about my near miss. Somehow although I loved riding, I never took up driving horses ….
There was near another café, which I think became a fish and chip shop. Father always had 2 kippers on a Monday for his supper. There was Finley’s paper shop and I knew their daughter Maureen. Butler’s was next to The Imp. Another café called Willow Tree Café. My sister’s friend worked there for a while and they were saving up to go on a trip to Amsterdam, when this came to light they were banned from going as “they might have ended up in the white slave trade”! Nothing changes does it?
Up beyond Market Place was a doll’s hospital, many a time I stood outside gazing at the examples of poor dollies which needed repairing, or beautiful new ones. In Whielden street there was an electrical goods shop where we bought records, remember Marilyn Monroe and River of No Return 45rpm! I seem to remember Anita Rance who lived in a pub “The Ram” up Whielden street. King’s Chemist was the pharmacy emporium.
When I went to Wycombe Technical the bus journey started round the corner in Whielden Street. After the commercial branch of the Tech moved up to Lady Verney we had very little contact with the old school. In 1958 when I left Lady Verney I dearly wanted to go to reading to do Agriculture, but my father wanted me in the business. So what did I do! Went to the big city, London, and worked in Bourne and Hollingsworth on Oxford Street!
I met my husband and married within a year. We were married by Rev. South in St. Mary’s 1959 and this year is our 60th, and my father said “it’ll never last”!
The Malt House then was sold in 1963 and my last memories of it were when I helped to clear all the furniture, of which there was masses. Just like today, the good old solid craftsman made brown furniture was worth nothing! The building was divided into an architect’s office in the Top Room and shops down on the front of The Broadway.