A son of March now living in Canada remembers the time when fish and chips cost nine pence, and milk was delivered by a horse and cart
NOVELIST Wentworth Johnson was born in March, proudly boosts ancestors from Wisbech, but has spent many years living in Canada.
NOVELIST Wentworth Johnson was born in March, but has spent many years living in Canada.
After a return visit to Fenland, Wentworth (known as Malcolm) has been remembering his life as a youngster in March.
He writes: “Did you know that March is virtually unique as far as town names go? When everyone packed their bags and sailed to the Americas they called their new towns by the same name as the ones they had just left behind.
“It looks like nobody from March, Cambridgeshire, bothered to move, as there are no towns called March on any American maps. Being a Fen Tiger I always tell people I was born in March but my birthday is in October.
“Ah! Long gone are the days when we were young and played in the fields while our mothers earned a living doing farm work. March used to be a farming town until the railway moved in. Oh, I know it’s supposed to be a market town, but when I was little most people either worked on the land or the railway. We did have a market twice a week and a cattle market.
“I was born in a little shack on Shaftesbury Avenue; in those days they could spell Shaft-E-sbury. Would you believe our only water supply was a standpipe across the road!
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“Though amenities were poor, you could catch a train almost any time of the day to Wisbech or Peterborough; they even had a line to Wimblington and beyond. Buses parked in the middle of Broad Street and ran to Ely, Chatteris, Wisbech and Peterborough, and there were no traffic lights; but there again, there was no traffic.
“Haradine used to deliver milk with a horse-drawn cart and sometimes electric trucks which they called floats. Modern things like murder, abduction, rape and robbery only happened in the big cities.
“Our greatest adventures were watching The Fenman or The Flying Scot as they sometimes passed though our town; diesel trains were unheard of.
“In the old days, we had one fish and chip shop for every 1,000 head of population. A typical order would have been one-an’-three, meaning one piece of fish and three pence worth of chips, a total cost of nine pence.
“We had one pub or drinking establishment for every 185 head of population, and a bottle of Vimto cost sixpence. We used to go to the Saturday matinee at The Hippodrome or The Regent, which also cost sixpence, and a bag of crisps was only three pence.
“How many youngsters today know what the Status is or the Mart; Stanley Thurston or Bertram Mills?
“My first school was Dartford Road Infants, where Miss Cullage was the headmistress. I learned to swim in the Chain River, which is really the Middle Level 20-foot drain with sheds on the bank.
“Today’s swimming pool stands on the land once occupied by Hovis Mill. You couldn’t swim in the Nene; we had no sewer system then, and everything was dumped in the river untreated. Gas Lane really had a gasworks, which you could smell for miles. At that time Horace Rose had a penny-farthing, the bike that is, and Henry Morton drove a 1909 belt-drive Enfield motorbike.
“Although reminiscing sounds wonderful, it wasn’t really all that great - times were hard and living difficult; I think that’s why people enjoyed things more.
“St John’s Church used to put on an annual f�te and the whole town ground to a halt when the Statute Fair (Status) visited town. Broad Street, High Street and the market were clogged with tents, roundabouts, stalls and noisy generators and there was no bypass and only one town bridge.
“I left the Hereward School in 1955 and went to Wolverhampton to be educated by the RAF. Since then, I have travelled the world: Singapore, Malaya, Africa and a brief interlude in Norwich, finally settling in southern Ontario, Canada.
“Having made my way in life and become a well-known Canadian novelist, I took a trip back to the old homestead. It felt like being the condemned man and as it says in the song, ‘The old town seemed the same, as I stepped down from the train.’ But it wasn’t. And though I could still hear my old school pals, in reality they were merely ghosts and long gone.
“My house had gone, my school had gone, almost all the rails and trains had gone, but the fountain is still there at the head of Broad Street and that lump of rock they call the Stone Cross, it’s still there.
“Today’s residents should be proud of our little town. Although almost all my ancestors are from Wisbech, I still have a soft spot in my heart for March.
“Now, you can look me up on the Internet - just use any search engine and look for me by name: Wentworth M. Johnson.”