Village Life In Kent Fifty Years Ago

The grocer in his shop: Fred Bennett worked there all his working life apart from his war service.

Welcome To Ickham

John grew up in the parish of Ickham, southeast of Canterbury, in a rural working class family. His relatives mostly lived nearby. This book consists of his memories of childhood, as he puts it:

Potrait of John Bennett

“I think we were lucky to have been children during the 60s and 70s, life was so much easier and simplistic for youngsters, no social media, mobile phones, influencing TV.”

The “Good Old Days”

Nonetheless, from his description, the adults were very hard-working. They faced domestic challenges that are hardly conceivable to Kent residents today, who live in houses with all mod cons.  Also, it is worth noting that children like John, of that generation, used to get ill quite frequently, either from illnesses that are now vaccinated against (MMR) or, more likely,  just because living conditions were not as sanitary.

In early childhood, his home was a tied estate cottage in Bramling. It was so badly maintained that his cot once fell through the floor to the room below! As there was no electricity, lighting consisted of gas lamps on the walls of the living room. Candles or paraffin lamps lit the rest of the house.

Radio, the one source of evening entertainment, was powered by a large battery. The living room was the only heated room, with a coal fire. One took a bath in a tin bath in front of the fire, with water boiled on the kitchen stove. The toilet was outside.

Myrtle Cottages, from a water colour by Fred Bennett. John’s Maternal grandparents lived in the leftmost cottage.

Former Times

John’s maternal grandparents had known better in Folkestone (electricity and flush toilets). But after their house had been bombed during the war, they had had to live in one of a row of cottages in the village, without electricity. Toilets were in sheds outside, with buckets that had to be emptied into pits dug in nearby fields.

Throughout rural Kent, cesspits in the garden were the norm, as I recall from my own childhood. A lorry came round every year to pump out the contents. Main drainage only came to the villages in the 70s.

Industry and Commerce

The village economy, as described in this book, consisted of several independent shops in each village: grocery, tea-rooms, sweet shop and so on. There was also a working mill, a working forge, and a pub supplied from the brewery with barrels on a horse-drawn wagon. Most adults worked in the farms around the villages.

Traffic was much less than nowadays as most people walked or cycled to the shops. John recalls an aged aunt who used to cycle more than 20 miles to visit relatives. The children took the buses to local schools. 

Grocer Fred

John’s father, Fred Bennet, took over the Ickham General Store in 1971 and ran it for some 20 years. This shop had been run by the  Coombs family for 200 years. Selling groceries involved scooping up dry goods from wholesale bags, weighing them and putting them in paper bags for the customer.

Fruit and vegetables were mostly seasonal, much from the local farms, including mushrooms and watercress. Meat was cut and sliced in front of the customer. John’s mother used to cook whole gammon, to be hung from the storeroom ceiling until sold in slices in the shop.

Deliveries would be made in a van or even, in snowy winters, by a sledge from the van. I am surprised John did not recall grocery delivery by bicycle which was the norm for some products like bread in our village.

Supermarkets, with pre-packaged food, eventually took over the customers as people increasingly bought cars and were happy to travel in them for their shopping. The village shops closed in the 1990s, and thus began our more planet-harming consumerist shopping habits.

Playtime in the 60s

John’s descriptions of how he played also show the contrast with today’s children:

“We did our own thing, amused ourselves while our parents were working.”

They were allowed to play in the local woods, so long as their parents were told where they had gone (same in my childhood). The boys once earned some pocket money by trapping eels in an old tyre. They made a raft to float on the stream. They tobogganed down snowy slopes on an old tin tray. 

Developing New Skills

As he got to teenage years, John took an interest in how radio works. By the age of 14 he could drive a tractor and use a shotgun. He took a motor scooter to pieces to repair it. In the Air cadets he learned to fly. But in the end John worked in the motor trade, along with a spell in the army.

East Kent’s Own “Lark Rise”

This book is well worth reading, and has been called a Kent version of “From Larkrise to Candleford.” It has a foreword by the famous children’s writer, Michael Morpurgo, who was a school teacher in nearby Wickhambreux, in which he says,

“We need to understand the lives of those who came before us.”

Memories of a Kentish village, a childhood spent in more innocent times: Foreword by Sir Michael Morpurgo OBE Paperback – 9 Jun. 2021