ID: DJG_BIP / Douglas J. Gurton

TitleDouglas Jack Gurton - an Autobiography
AbstractI was born on the 25th. January, 1908 (Robert Burns' Day) at the Hope Inn, Tollesbury, Essex, where my parents were the licensees at that time. My father, Ezra Walter Gurton had taken over about a year previously much to the dismay of my mother, Eva Jane Alverstone Gurton, who disliked inns and all that was entailed therewith, as her family had been connected with the brewing and innkeeping business for many years past, and she knew full well all the drawbacks and misery connected with alcohol drinking in those days. My father who had been following the sea as a profession since boyhood, had been working on coasting steam boats in winter, and been a paid hand on yachts in the summer. It was in this last connection that he first met my mother when she was assisting her uncle, Frederick James (Jack) Handley, at the Olde Shippe Inn, Burnham-on-Crouch. Uncle Jack or "Pip" as he was known had played cricket for Essex, and was a noted gunner. In turn he had been licensee of the "Ship" and "White Horse", Maldon, where his family had originated. Mother's father, Grimwood Wood, had been born at Langford Hall where his father John Grimwood Wood had been a miller, and also owner of Osea Island, it was possibly due to this and the fact that Grimwood Wood was secretary to the Tottenham Brewing Go. that Osea Island was sold to John Charrington, a member of the famous brewing firm Charringtons.

My father, the second son of John and Emma Gurton of Tollesbury, had six brothers and six sisters. Mother had four sisters and two brothers who had met with tragic accidents in early life, also their mother, Charlotte Wood (née Handley) had died in childbirth when my mother was quite young.

My father and mother were married at Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, on 2nd. July, 1902, and by all accounts it was a grand affair for those days, horses and carriages were provided by her brother-in-law, Charles William Burton who, with his father and brothers, ran a very successful riding stable in Marylebone High Street. Apparently they supplied horses for the Royal Mews' stables, and riding hacks for Rotten Row. My mother's sister, Ida MacBean, wife of Lou MacBean of United Films Co., Alexandra Palace, was matron-of-honour. She starred in films under the name of Ida Handley.

The newly-weds first made their home in Queens Road, Burnham-on-Crouch, and later moved to North Road, Southend, where father secured a position with the late Mr. Arthur Taylor (Essex cricketer) as a skipper on his racing yacht. The marriage was blessed by two sons, Leslie Charles in 1903, and Ronald in 1904, before the family removed to Tollesbury early in 1907. From the photo's in my possession they were a happy and most devoted family until 1907, when Leslie Charles had a fall in the Hope Inn yard, sustained an internal injury and died. I arrived on the 25th. January, 1908 (Robert Burns' Day), but was not a good omen. I was an ugly baby, apparently suffering from alternate periods of extreme constipation and diarrhoea, consequently was confined to the "pot" as my earliest recollection.

Apart from this my most vivid recollection was riding in a pony and trap with a man and woman during a severe thunderstorm when there was a flash of lightning, the horse reared and I was nearly thrown out, the woman saved me. Another occasion was when I was taken into a bedroom at the Hope Inn, and seeing a woman with a mass of dark hair laying in bed and smiling at me. My uncle, father's eldest brother Alfred John Gurton, was with me, and in later years evinced surprise when I told him, as he said I could only have been two years old, and on the last occasion it was my mother who was very ill and had asked to see me. Mother died on the 12th. May, 1910, in circumstances very much like her own mother many years before, my sister only a few days old fortunately survived and was taken into the care of my father's eldest sister, Mrs. Florence Collins. It was touch and go for many weeks before my sister, named Violet Eva Grace, gained strength and progressed under careful nursing and attention from Doctor's Salter and Spinx. From this time I was taken into the care of my grandparents John and Emma Gurton, at 2, United Cottages, Woodrope Road, Tollesbury, my eldest brother refused to leave his father, and stayed behind at the Hope, where, for a time, he was cared for by Mrs. Hoppy Lewis.

Looking back over the years, my time with my grandparents were the happiest days of my childhood. Grandfather John Gurton had in turn been fisherman, yachtsman and a wildfowler of repute. On the living room wall of 2, United Cottages hung four wildfowl guns in rope beckets. These attracted my attention from the onset, they had burnished steel barrels and looked most impressive, one an eight bore gun with large red rubber shoulder pad on the stock, had been dredged up in a barnacle encrusted condition some years previously off the Bench Head buoy in the River Blackwater estuary - was this a relic of the Burnham - Tollesbury piracy case of 1890 I wonder ?

In addition to his wildfowling activities in winter-time, Grandfather was busily occupied with yachting in the summer. For some years he had been employed by a Belgian nobleman as skipper of his yacht "Zwerver", and latterly had been employed by Mr. Sherwood (Sherwoods paints) as skipper of his yacht "Dryad". When Mr. Sherwood gave up yachting he gave the yacht to Grandfather who also had acquired another yacht in the meantime "Marguerite" for £45 a fairly old commodious yawl yacht originally the schooner "Cleopatra" date and origin of build not known, double skinned, with clipper stem and much gold leaf gingerbread work around the stem and stern. I remember this yacht most vividly, for Grandfather did charter work with her, and often had to take people away for week-ends. One of the most striking and unusual features of this yacht was that it had a flush toilet alongside the tiller in the cockpit, a most useful innovation when single-handed sailing and unable to leave the tiller. Grandfather was also local agent for the Cruising Association, and every Sunday morning when at home hoisted the flag, red square with white diamond and black letters CA therein, on the flagpole outside No. 2, United Cottages. Some people thought the letters meant "Christian Alliance" as it was only flown on Sundays.

With two yachts, two smacks "Phantom" and "Gem", and a small clinker-built coaster "Nancy", Grandfather had all his work cut out to look after them. He had had "Phantom" built by Aldous at Brightlingsea in 1890, and on most Sundays in that year had sailed over in "Nancy" to inspect the work done, etc. "Phantom" was specially built for work in the shallow creeks and for wildfowling. On this score he had been advised by the Count de la Chapelle, a founder and Vice President of the Wildfowler's Association, of which Grandfather and his younger brother George were both founder members. On the foredeck of "Phantom", just in front of the mainmast was a portable wooden baulk of timber which had mountings and swivels for two guns. The focsle was particularly large to allow two one pounder punt guns to hang alongside the sides in beckets, and from the deckhead beams hung two small canvas bags, one holding gunpowder and the other shot.

My greatest delight in those days was to go off with grandfather each day, trudging across the saltings, to tend the craft at Woodrolfe, pumping out the bilges and generally cleaning up with mop and bucket. Quite naturally I did not keep clean myself, but become plastered from head to toe by mud. This met with strong words of rebuke from Grandmother, who had the job each day of cleaning me. However, this was partly overcome by dressing me in more suitable attire than the frocks which all small boys wore in those days. Why we were dressed like that no one really knows - possibly for reasons of natural hygiene, as so far as I know there was never any doubt about my sex. My greatest joy was a gift of a pair of shiny black rubber waterboots, a present from my Aunt Daisy, my father's youngest sister, who at the age of 13 ½ years had entered the employment of Count and Countess de la Chapelle, ostensibly as a nursemaid for their daughter Yvonne. The boots had been purchased with her first week's wages of 5/-.

Some mornings, Aunt Daisy came home with her small charge Yvonne usually for a drink of milk and seedy cake. I looked forward to this, as Yvonne had a small pedal car, and as a special treat I was allowed a ride occasionally. In the afternoons, Aunt Daisy or my cousin Florence Collins, who lived next door, had the duty of taking an elderly lady, Miss Binnington, who lived with her sister, (Mrs. Binnington Leavett at the sweet shop at the top of Woodrope Road) out in a bath chair. I was allowed a ride at the foot of Miss Binnington and was usually supplied with free sweets, bulls eyes, peppermints, etc.

Tollesbury in those days prior to 1914, had no piped water supply. Drinking water was obtainable at various public pumps in the village: Mell Road (2); West Street (2); and a well at North Road near the workhouse. There were also some privately owned pumps. Water for most purposes was obtainable from the wells supplying most of the older houses, and also towers which were specially constructed for the more newly built houses. There, "tanks" were usually square dug holes in the ground, bricked and cemented, and collected the rain water which came off the roofs of the houses.

It was beautiful soft water, but not fit for, drinking. I used to enjoy lifting the lid of the tank, shout down, and get the echo. Periodically the tanks had to be cleaned out, this was done when there was little water to be baled out, and it was necessary to get down inside and clean out. I remember my cousin Stanley Collins putting swimming slips on and going down on one occasion, but he had to be drawn up fairly quickly as the air was foul. The water from the village pumps looked beautifully clear, and cold. It was drawn as required, usually in the afternoons and pumped into clean galvanized or wooden buckets. The buckets would be carried slung on a yoke across the shoulders, or separated by a hoop or square wooden frame, so that they did not spill over the bearer. The filled buckets used to be placed on a table in the kitchen, and covered with a clean white cloth, a polished dipper was always nearby for use in ladling the water. Grandmother always insisted on strict economy with water, as with most other things. Soap was always stacked on the kitchen window ledge, so that the outside layer would harden. Friday night was bath night, the copper in the kitchen would be filled early afternoon with water, and the fire lit under it. Soon after tea, when all things had been cleared away and washed up, the large galvanized iron bath would be brought in, and put before the living room fire. Although I did not relish it at the time, bath nights in those days were the most comfortable of my experience. A change into a clean shift and long night gown, and off I was " packed to bed soon after seven in the evenings.

Some evenings I was allowed to stay up much later, usually when a large haul of fish or bag of wildfowl had been made by Grandfather or my uncles. The principal fish were hoppers or dabs, small variety of plaice, which were gutted and cleaned, and sold forty for sixpence. My Aunts used to take them round in a zinc bath to various houses with the call "Hoppers already cleaned, ready for the pan", only to be met with the answer in many cases, "not tonight dear, thank you". There were all kinds of wildfowl during the winter-times. I particularly liked oxbirds, these were split down the breast and skinned, they were sold for sixpence a dozen. Grandfather also had an oyster laying and pit on the saltings. The "Gem" worked on his behalf and oysters were sold at fifty for three shillings. These were days of plenty of material things, but there was also extreme poverty. Grandmother often spoke of the times when as a girl she had to go gleaning in the fields after harvest to collect the wheat which was sent to the miller for grinding into flour, the collecting of brush wood for the fires, and the making of "rush candles" from cooking fat and bull rushes. Her Grandmother, Mrs. Howard had lived to a hundred years, and in the last years of her life had lived in a small thatched black boarded cottage on the triangular patch of ground still visible at D'Arcy Road near Gorwell Hall. Grandmother's early experiences had imbued her with a thrifty and careful nature which she carried out throughout her life. Always insisting on thriftiness by her children. I was particularly fortunate in having six uncles and six aunts, but my particular favourites were Uncle Alfred and Aunt Daisy, possibly because I was always receiving presents from them. Uncle Alfred went steamboating and was away for months at a time, quite naturally I looked forward to his homecoming. I eagerly looked for his sea-bag, and being of an inquisitive nature used to delve in to find something or other. On one memorable occasion I pulled out a small roll of flannellette which contained a nickel plated revolver. I was delighted, but immediately was reduced to tears, as Grandfather took the revolver away from me, and rebuked Uncle Alf most sternly. Apparently Uncle had purchased it abroad for no apparent reason, and Grandfather insisted that he dispose of it forthwith, which he did. My inquisitiveness once caused me some pain and taught me a good lesson. Some days when Grandfather went to work in the River he took his food in a little wicker basket which were a local product especially for luncheon baskets and on his return in the afternoon would put the basket down outside near the water-tank, whilst he struggled to get out of his long leather sea boots and stockings. Rubber sea boots were not favoured by fishermen in those days. As usual I could not wait, but put my hand in the basket, and was promptly seized by a large live crab. Screaming at the top of my voice I ran down the path to the gate. Fortunately for me, Capt. George Rice was passing at the time, quickly seeing what had happened, he out with his knife, and prised the money box of the crab, which immediately let go of my fingers.

My fingers turned black, and I remember losing my nails, but careful first aid and a special ointment made by Grandmother out of dock leaves and pigs lard soon healed my fingers, but I had been taught a good lesson.

Woodrope Road was specially fortunate in those days, there were at least two lady bountifuls. One was Aunt Susan, wife of Sam Gurton, Grandad's brother, and the other Mrs. Lufkin. These two women were always on hand in times of trouble or jubilation, and took particular interest in all the residents in that area. Grandad had had five brothers, William, Edward, Samuel, Stephen and George, and six sisters, Ann, Sarah, Elizabeth, Trinity, Rosetta and Ann II who was born after the early death. In those days, 1911, Aunt Susan was best known to me. William Gurton had some years earlier contracted smallpox whilst at sea, had been put ashore at Gravesend, and brought to Tollesbury, where he died in an isolation tent on the small marsh.

As a child I remember people talking of the Boer War, although it had ended some nine years previously. Children were warned when ill behaved that "Old Kruger" would have them, and I particularly remember the songs or ditties which were sung at that time, especially "Dolly Gray". One Saturday in 1911 I was taken to a fete on the Parson's Meadow (now known as the Glebe) and remember being presented with a mug, it bore the pictures of King George V and Queen Mary in commemoration of their Coronation. I was three and beginning to take notice of things more vividly.

The day of the week I liked the best was Sunday, everything was done more leisurely. No cleaning was done in the house, consequently I was left undisturbed, and to a certain extent to my own devices. Early in the forenoon, the visitors used to drop in, mostly my uncles. The wine bottle and biscuits or cake were brought out, and for those who wished there was beer drawn straight from the barrel in the pantry. During these sessions, Grandmother busied herself with the cooking which was always something extra special on this day. The meat, batter pudding, etc., could be taken up to the bakehouse in the village, there were three at one time, and collected after church, the charge on Sunday was 2d. for roasting the dinner, on weekdays the charge was 1d. In the winter-time we often had duck or oxbirds for our main meal. Oxbirds were especially delicious, these were sold 6d. a dozen, already skinned and prepared for the oven. I used to watch them being split down the breast and skinned. On special occasions we would have a goose, Grandfather used to speak of the occasion in 1904 when he had a tumbril full of black geese part of a great bag on the Blackwater Hewert, the local tradesmen were relied upon for the main essentials. There was no such thing as a "Super-market", possibly the nearest approach was a branch of the "Co-op Society" - "All for each, and each for all", established in the village. Tradesmen called practically each day, and there was always a welcome visit by the local brewer, Mr. Stone, when the barrel would be exchanged for a new one. Grandmother always pocketed the key after it had been tapped, this was a precaution to prevent indiscriminate use.

Sunday afternoon was a leisurely affair. I would be taken off to Sunday School by my cousin Flo Collins, and afterwards would have a ride in Miss Binnington's bath chair. Grandfather would have a nap or go down to the yachts if the weather was suitable, he already knowing that the moorings were all right. In the evenings, the oil table lamp would be lit, and books brought out to read. In summer time or during the time of light evenings, Grandmother liked to sit by the front window, and watch the road scene, she marvelled at the various creations worn by the young ladies of that time. Occasionally Grandmother attended the Congregational Church in the evenings, I was too young to accompany her.

AuthorDouglas J. Gurton
SourceMersea Museum / Cedric Gurton