Memories of Arlesey Spanning 2 World Wars

IT seems hard to believe that a century ago, the small mid Beds village of Arlesey was home to both a cement works and The London Brickworks, employing hundreds of local people.

 

Three Counties Asylum, now Fairfields housing estate, also employed many of Arlesey’s residents and the grounds of this self contained institution were so extensive, it had gates at both Stotfold and Arlesey.

In addition to the cement works, the brickworks and the asylum, there were also two substantial farms. Clive’s family were employed by all of these at one time or another.

Clive’s grandfather was Herbert Allen, the only son of James ‘Big Jim’ Allen, a fairground booth boxer. Big Jim had been born in one of the Asylum cottages in 1867 (the son of James Allen senior of Wootton who was born in 1828).

Big Jim’s wife was Ellen Dear, aka Nellie, and was the daughter of The Fountain’s publicans, George and Mary Ann Dear.

Herbert Allen was the eldest of five, with younger sisters Elizabeth Ann (Lizzie), Beatrice Louisa (Louie), Norah and Violet May (aka Alexandra). He was born in the now demolished 122 Crawley Terrace in 1887.

In 1900 the family moved to 237 Asylum Road and lived here until Herbert left school to work with his father Big Jim and uncles at Arlesey Cement Works. The cement works employed many local people until its closure in 1932, following which Big Jim took over the running of Gothic Farm in Arlesey.

In 1911, Big Jim and Nellie moved to 40 New Road (Newtown). By this time Herbert was 24 and had left home. He was called up at the start of the First World War. Despite the fact that having a father who had been a fairground boxer had made Herbert “pretty useful with his fists”, like many of the men who fought in Europe, he saw some terrible things which he would never talk about.

The Allens were a cricketing family and Herbert’s uncle Alfred Allen even named one of his sons Ranjit Singh after one of the world’s best ever batsmen.

Herbert himself was described as a “demon fast bowler” and played for The Lamb Inn at Lamb Meadow until he was poached by Three Counties Asylum who at that time had a strong and active cricket team.

It was while playing cricket at the asylum that he met Clive’s grandmother Mary Mills aka Polly while she was making tea for the cricketers.

Born in 1895 in Mere, Wiltshere, Polly’s parents Jim Mills and Jane Avery had emigrated to Canada with her younger sister Daisy to become real-life cowboys. However, Polly had decided to stay behind and when Three Counties Asylum came all the way to recruit in her home town (such was the need for large numbers of workers there), it seemed the answer to her prayers for both work and a place to live, so she moved to Stotfold.

By this time, Herbert was 32. He and Polly started courting and soon married, moving to Gothic Farm where Herbert worked with his father Big Jim as an agricultural labourer both there and at Waterloo Farm.

Clive Lombari’s grandparents, Herbert and Polly Allen had fivechildren: Mollie, twins Jim and Daisey, Alma (Clive’s mother) and George.

Big Jim and Nellie were getting older and moved to Primrose Lane where they ran the shop, now Fairfield car wash.

When Herbert heard that the foreman of The London Brickworks was retiring, he blagged his way into the job by telling them he had been a sergeant in the army. With the job came a house at the brickworks.

He and Polly lived in the brickyard house until 1938 when they moved to 2 St Peters Avenue into one of the brand new council houses with a flushing toilet and a bathroom. With the onset of war, Arlesey took a lot of London overspill and school classes became so large that St Peter’s Hall was used as an extra classroom. Clive’s mother Alma was ten at this time and can remember, perhaps not surprisingly, that ‘they weren’t taught much’.

Herbert worked at the brickyard until he was 70, dying five years later in 1962.

Says Clive: “My memories of grandad are that he always called everybody by nicknames. My nickname was Clivical Clive. You had to be completely quiet when the 1 o’clock Home Service news or the football pools results were on. You were hardly allowed to breathe.”

Later becoming a member of Arlesey’s Over 60s Club, Polly died in 1986 aged 92. Clive remembers his grandmother as a “woman of many talents” – green fingered and handy with a paintbrush. He can even recall her showing council workmen how to get plaster to stick to the walls. Always ready for a laugh or a joke, Polly was famous for her elderberry wine, blackberry and apple pies, and her bread puddings.

Rabbit stew was a speciality in the Allen household and Polly could “skin a rabbit in the flash of an eye.” Their greyhound Whitey would often hunt around the sandpits and the lake to catch them for the family’s dinner.

Despite living on a council estate by then, Clive describes her as “a true Victorian farmer’s wife”, making jams and chutneys in summer to last throughout the winter and killing and plucking chickens when she had to.

It was traditional for all the women on the council estates to go pea picking and potato harvesting every year. On the way home by tractor and trailer, Polly would play the harmonica or squeeze box and the other women would sing along.

And she enjoyed smoking her woodbines right up until her nineties.

“As kids, we used to watch her cigarette ash get longer and longer, waiting for it to drop on the floor, but it never did. At the least second she blew the ash out of the corner of her mouth up in the air then caught it with her hand and threw it on the fire.

“When she made you a cup of tea she would ask how many sugars you wanted but it always came the same: with two heaped teaspoons of sugar and a nip of rum.”

Herbert and Polly’s daughter Alma met and married Italian PoW Pietro Ettore Lombari when he was billeted in the old Arlesey Cement Works which had closed in 1931. As he was helping the English War Effort, he was allowed to go out and Alma literally bumped into him during a blackout, outside a dance for soldiers at Arlesey’s WI in 1943. They married on May 15, 1948.

Clive recalls: “My dad had a fantastic War story which he never talked about but I managed to get the gist of it out of my mum. He had been shot by a Spitfire while in North Africa as a despatch rider and had machine gun bullet scars on both buttocks.

“He was subsequently captured by the Canadians but whilst locked in the hold of a Canadian ship, it was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat on its way to Canada. My Dad was in the sea all night clinging onto a piece of wood before being rescued by a British ship and brought to England.”

Pietro Lombari died in the year 2000 while Clive’s mother Alma died seven months ago. Clive still lives in Arlesey and is in the process of writing a book about his family.

 

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