Interview with Barbara Wade and Janet Harris
This interview broke all the rules of interviewing. It is usually recommended that interviews should be on a one to one basis. In this case there were two interviewees and a bystander, Alison Aitken, who occasionally made comments. The interviewees are cousins, who spent a lot of time together when they were children because they were similar in age. There are points in the interview where two people are speaking at the same time. Occasionally the rustle of paper can be heard. This is because they had a number of documents and photographs spread out in front of them and were making references to them. In spite of this there is an amazing amount of information in this interview and my thanks go to them as well as Alison for the introduction.
Barbara Ann Wade, born Russell, 9th June 1948,
Janet Harris, Janet Harris, born Tulloch (mother was a Russell), 14th June 1950.
Barbara's father was a farmer. The family owned Green Farm on Meopham Green. The farm buildings were at the back of the house but are no longer there. Her mother was in the WRAF during the war, otherwise a farmer's wife.
Janet's father met her mother just after the war, when he arrived to install milking machines on the farm. He was from County Durham and was considered an interloper. He worked for an agricultural engineering company until 1955, when he bought a piece of land and opened a garage at Longfield Hill, where he sold Morris cars. Her mother worked for her mother (Grandma Russell) in a haberdashery shop next to the Kings Arms on Meopham Green, except when she went into the WRAF during the war.
Barbara and Janet are cousins and because they were close in age, they have similar recollections. They both lived on Meopham Green as did many of their relatives. Janet considered it quite a strange upbringing because they lived in a family enclave.
Janet had always thought they were sent to Culverstone School because they were born and brought up on the top side of the Green. However, Barbara said it was because their parents did not like Mr Strand, the headmaster of Meopham Primary School. The pupils there had to walk back home to lunch every day. Barbara told of how her mother, born in 1916, went to Meopham School before winning a scholarship to what became the Grammar School in Gravesend but had to leave when she was 14. After the age of 14 her father would have had to pay and in those days "you didn't educate girls. That was the way they were brought up. The boys farmed and the girls looked after the shop.
Disaster at the farm
A doodlebug hit the farm's barn on 30th September 1944 and it was totally demolished. In 1946 a cheque was received in settlement for war damage. Barbara has an inventory of everything that was destroyed. The cows had to be taken to another farm for milking. The roof blew off the car and forever after, all through their childhood, it leaked. Janet's father arrived at the end of 1946 and brought state of the art milking machines. He was from County Durham. Until then all milking had been done by hand. Barbara has a list of everything that was destroyed and the agreement from the Government to pay the costs. Her father was late getting to work because he had been drinking in the pub the night before. Her mother was working in the control tower at Gravesend airport and heard a farm had been hit in Meopham and realised it must be their farm. They think that it must have been dreadful for their Grandfather as he had been in the Boer War and WWI and then had his livelihood destroyed in WWII.
Uncle Len's claim to fame was that he ran the Len Russell Combo, a dance band. It was the resident band at The Inn on the Lake, Gravesend. He wrote all the music and they used to run the dances at the village hall.
They both went to Culverstone School, a little flint building. Mrs Peek and Mrs Roots used to cook the dinner and they were fantastic cooks. There was no central heating, just a coal stove in the middle of the room. The toilets were outside. The headmaster was Mr Harling. Miss Chisham, who came from Ash, was the teacher. She taught them everything. There was the little class, the middle class and the leaving class and they were all taught in one room. At the weekend the school doubled as a church. There was a false wall at the end of the room, which could be removed to show the altar. There was an air-raid shelter in the playground and a wooden hut used as the canteen on the side. The school dentist would arrive with his caravan and the children would have to have their teeth checked. They were taken to school by Janet's father in his work van but had to catch the 122 bus home. There was also a student teacher, Miss Fletcher, the daughter of the man who later bought the Russell's shop next to Kings Arms and opened it for grocery and as a Post Office.
In the 1960s a new school was built on the opposite side of the road, where the school is today. Previously the site had been playing fields. There were only about 60 pupils at the old school. However, a lot of people had moved to Vigo and when the new school was built Culverstone and Vigo amalgamated.
After primary school, Janet and Barbara went to different schools. Janet went to secondary school in Wrotham and Barbara went to the grammar school. There was a grammar school and a technical college in Gravesend but entrance to the 'tech' was only after the 13th birthday and after taking an exam. It had been a jump going from a school of about 60 to one with nearly 1000 pupils.
Barbara's family could never go on holiday because of the animals. However, Janet and her family used to go to see her grandparents in County Durham for a fortnight in the summer. Her father would take them, leave them and then return to pick them up two weeks later. Other than that there were no holidays. The furthest Barbara got was to Maidstone cattle market.
There was really no need to go anywhere as Meopham had plenty of shops. There was a baker, Derhams. They baked their own bread and cooked turkeys or chickens for their customers at Christmas. Next door was the grocery store Parsons, where they cured their own bacon. They also sold fireworks that were kept in a glass cabinet. They bought in bulk and weighed the sugar out into blue bags as well as the flour. Opposite was Norton's grain store. They sold cattle fodder and they used to roll oats in the windmill. Next to that was a greengrocer's owned by Mr and Mrs Povey. Grandma's shop was a haberdashery shop and there was also an antique shop. Further down there was a butcher. When her mother was first married there was a shoe repair shop near the forge. There was also a mobile fishmonger that came round. The newspapers came from Redman at the station. The newspapers were delivered by train and the bus would take parcels up to the Kings Arms. The largest store was Mackleys, where the estate agent now is at Meopham Station. Janet's mother used to have an order delivered with all the tinned goods. Round the corner Mr Yates was a turf accountant. Barbara also spoke of an aunt, who married Uncle Len, who had a shop selling ladies requisites and haberdashery. Cooks sold nails, which were weighed, paint, sacks, binder twine and they would repair mowers [where Costcutters is now]. There were not very many shops at the parade. There was a barber, who cut Janet's hair with a pudding basin. He was allergic to hair products and wore rubber over his fingers, which she later found out were condoms. There were also newsagents, a sweetshop and a florist owned by Mrs Summers. Mrs Summers was the midwife before Miss Collie. Lawson's garage, which sold petrol, was near the station. Nearby was Gay Cousins, a haberdashery shop. Everyone made their own clothes; they never bought anything in a department store. 'We really were very self-contained as a village'.
Queen's visit 1956
Janet describes how she was on one side of the road and Barbara was on the other. Janet had a streamer, which got knotted but Barbara had a flag and Janet had wanted a flag but never got one. The Queen was on her way to the Medway towns and had arrived at Meopham station. Susan Jackson, the daughter of the chairman of the Parish Council, presented her with a bouquet. Their grandmother and Mrs Alexander, a family friend, had seats in the front row. They had a special ticket ticket issued by the general manager of Meopham station. The schoolchildren were lined up from outside the pub [The Railway] to the corner. The Queen went straight down the road [A227] towards Rochester. Neither remembered why she did not go all the way to Rochester on the train, unless it was because she had to be seen driving into the Medway towns [see newspaper report].
Janet could not remember much about the Coronation as she was very young. All the schoolchildren were given a book and a mug. Barbara remembers lining up on the Green and being given them by Mr Strand, the headmaster of the Meopham Primary School. Janet's parents belonged to a football pools syndicate and they won £10, which it was decided, would be used to put a deposit on a black and white Morphy television. It arrived just in time for the Coronation. Everyone at their end of the green was in the front room watching the Coronation all day. They had not seen a television before.
Mr and Mrs Alexander
Mr and Mrs Alexander, known to the children as Aunt Ede [Edith, sometimes referred to as Aunty Dingle] and Uncle Arthur, were family friends. Mrs Alexander was Janet's godmother. They lived in Pitfield House. Barbara compared her to Wallis Simpson as she was skinny and very elegant. They had arrived in Meopham just before WWII. Mr Alexander ran Sun Tugs with his brother. They were very wealthy and bought the estate that had belonged to Dr Golding-Bird. The river [Thames] was very busy at that time and the ships needed a tug to get them up the river. They were one of the major tugging companies on the river. They all had an orange band on the funnel. The Alexanders were very good to the village. Mr Alexander donated a lot of money to different things. Mrs Alexander was involved with the clinic, where she helped. She belonged to the Meopham Garden Association. She was president of the Meopham flower arrangers. She was unhappy that they never had children of their own but she had a niece, whose parents were killed on the Lusitania  and she brought her up. Niece Joan married John Norton from the windmill family.
Barbara's father, when he was a child, used to go and help Mr Norton grind the corn because they lived across the road. Barbara remarked that when they were young the windmill had no sails but they were put back on when the windmill was restored. There was a generator to grind the corn when it was working. It was later restored by Kent County Council.
Meopham Makes Merrie was held at Judson's Recreation Ground in the 1950s. Mr Strand organised the children's races and there were fancy dress costumes. It was quite old fashioned. It was combined with the Garden Association, which used to have a show in the village hall with prizes for vegetables. Janet remembers her mother being good at costumes. There were stalls such as 'guess the weight of the cake', tombola and things like that. Janet's father was one of the bell ringers at the church when they rang the bells for victory at the end of WWII. There was cricket on the Green. The cricket was, according to Barbara, a be all and end all. There was a youth club in the village hall but Barbara and Janet were not allowed to go because they were 'rough kids'. The British Legion used to run a dance every year and the cricket club used to run a dinner dance every year. Their parents used to go and Uncle Len's band used to play.
Activities - Helping at home
Barbara spoke of helping at home. As farmer's daughter she had to help on the farm. "You'd come home from school, you got your wellies on and you went and fed some animals. Really there was no great escape.
Activities - Church choir
Janet belonged to the church choir for four years.
Activities - Young Farmers
They both belonged to the Young Farmers. Their club house was at the house of Mr and Mrs Lane. They lived in a big house at the back of Hook Green [Meliker Lane]. Meetings were on a Thursday evening where they had lectures on various aspect of farming. They also had treasure hunts and quiz nights and got together with other Young Farmer groups. The group was affiliated to the National Union of Young Farmers so they would take part in raising money for charity. One year they picked a whole field of potatoes for charity, which was hard work. They found Young Farmers a good night out and something that their parents agreed with.
Activities - Girl Guides
Barbara went to Guides in the Guide hut near the George pub. The Guides also had a camp at Hope Hill. There was also an international camp there where they had their own money. The London Guides owned Kay's garden at the bottom of Steeles Lane. It had been donated to them and although it was primitive they would take their tents there and camp. They were all from south-east London and they would arrive for a long weekend with their bell tents. It was a project to get youngsters to the countryside to learn about the sort of life Barbara and Janet grew up with. The site is still there now.
Activities - Cricket
Mr and Mrs Alexander donated money to the cricket club and some of the money was used to buy gang mowers, which are still going strong. They were bought in 1951 and were only replaced in 2011.
Activities - Garden Association
Mr and Mrs Alexander donated cups that were presented at the garden show. Janet remarked that a lot of things happened when they were around but they did it unobtrusively.
Pitfield house was owned by Mr and Mrs Alexander. It had been a beautiful house but it had later been demolished. Both Barbara and Janet remembered it from their childhood. Janet said: "I can remember it had a most beautiful staircase. It went right the way through the centre of the house, a big wide spiral staircase. One of the staircases you could see someone floating down in a beautiful evening dress. A lovely, lovely staircase. There was a veranda along the back and a conservatory. There was a bowling green on the lawn and two tennis courts. Then there was the rose garden at the side. An orchard and a long garden with a rolly poly hill. We used to run to the top and roll down the hill. Then the kitchen garden, which was down the side of the Green. Aunty Rosie and Uncle Jack used to live in the cottage at the bottom. He was the gardener and Aunty Rosie used to do all the cleaning and that sort of thing. Our Grandma, she worked for them a bit too. The kitchen gardens were all laid out with box hedges all round each little area. The house behind the pavilion is built on that now. When they knocked Pitfield House down the deal was that they built Mrs Alexander another house. They built the houses on the footprint of the big house. It was an enormous house. It had a tradesman's entrance at the back. It fascinated me they had a lift. You were not allowed to go in there because it was dangerous. They also had the stables as well and when we were children we used to play in the stables and we found the bowls for the bowling green. And the horse and trap. My brother [Arthur] burnt that down; it went up in a fire. That is where the coachman used to live and there were two cobbled stables with iron bars [hay holder] inside, where the horses were kept. It was a beautiful estate and today it wouldn't have been allowed to have it come down like it did. I can remember my mother crying the day they set fire to it. She was absolutely distraught. Anyway Aunty Ede [Mrs Alexander] had got to the point where she couldn't cope with such a large property. The developers set light to it. They didn't even reclaim any of the beautiful woodwork inside. The library was fantastic. The door from the cage [the lock-up on the Green] was the front door of the house. You know the cage on the Green. That went as well. The developers burnt it down, that's criminal.
After finishing school Janet trained to be a florist with Christine Theobold at Chatham and then went to London to train with Constance Spry. After finishing training, she took the opportunity offered by the Constance Spry franchise to go to their business in Montreal, Canada. She saw no real future in staying in Meopham and enjoyed the experience. She stayed in Canada for eight years before coming back to the area to open a florist shop The Flowerpot in Perry Street, Gravesend, together with Barbara, which they ran for a few years. Janet married in 1981 and then went to live in the Middle East, where her husband was employed as an engineer. They bought a house in Istead Rise the 1980s as they could not afford to buy in Meopham because of the high prices of property there. She complained that those who were born and brought up in Meopham were unable to afford to come back to the village. When they finally came back to Britain, they bought a house in Southfleet, where they still live. Barbara lived in London for about 6 years before returning to the Meopham area.
Changes in the village
Janet remarked that when she left in the 1970s Meopham was a village, but when she returned many years later Meopham was no longer a village. Barbara remembered that when they were children there was no Pitfield Drive and Cricketers Drive. They were the first large development on the Green. It was reported in the newspapers because they were the first houses with central heating and they had no chimneys. There were none of the houses by the Pippins, the council estate was quite small and also Tradescant Drive was not there. Janet mentioned that where they had come from, their background had disappeared altogether. There were ramshackle and broken down chalets in the valley, where it was not allowed to live the whole year round. Now there are splendid houses there. The whole valley area was different when they went to school. The only shop apart from Cooks was Carter's a sweetshop down the lane. In those days everyone knew everybody.Index
The policeman, Mr Cutting, knew all the children and what they were doing and where they were going. The children used to be terrified of him. He has a small motorbike and would follow the school bus up the village. The children would make fun of him until they got off the bus when they would run like hell. The police station was just down the road and there was another one near the Catholic Church. There was a police station at Cobham and at Harvel. The policemen lived in the village, knew everybody and what was going on. They also knew who the dodgy people were. Everyone had great respect for them. Later they acquired a car, a pale blue Anglia.
Barbara recalled when her father was younger, that it was just the dairy farm, although they did have other little enterprises. During the war they used to grow vegetables and they used to deliver their own milk and make butter and cream. After the war, when her father was older, he found it more difficult and so he changed to cattle and sheep. He changed to farming for meat. He grew his own crops, his own hay and corn but the dairy farming stopped. Asked if there was ever any hop gardens, neither could remember any but thought that as there is an oast house on the Green there must have been a hop garden at some time. They think the last hop garden in the area was at Cobham. Hops started to disappear from the Meopham area at the beginning of the 20th century. The Russell farm went from the back of the Green down into the valley. The piece at the top, still open land, belonged to Mr and Mrs Alexander. It was part of the Golding-Bird estate and Grandpa Russell had rented the top three fields from them to complete their acreage in the valley. The top 2 fields in Steeles Lane, which also belonged to Mr and Mrs Alexander, were used for hay and there were bullocks, pigs, a few cattle and sheep and also a pony. There was also some market gardening: lettuces, cucumbers, sprouts and mushrooms. Mrs Alexander sold the land and the coach house to Bill Russell in 1971 for £3000, which was a lot of money then. None of the children were interesting in carrying on with farming and so it was sold. The Russell family started as tenant farmers in 1900.
LATER - Barbara talks of her father driving the cattle to Rochester Market through the back way, through Cobham and down to Ludesdown then along the river [Medway] to market. He would sell the cattle, have something to eat and then walk back.
Sir Philip Waterlow's estate
Sir Philip Waterlow owned Trosley Towers. He had money problems and was made bankrupt. The original tenant agreement with the Russell family was made with Lenard Russell in 1910. Because he was a tenant farmer, Grandfather Russell [William Richard Russell] was allowed to buy his farm. Barbara still has the bill of sale. Sir Philip Waterlow had a private road from Vigo, through the valley to Meopham Station. The estate was sold as freehold sporting and agricultural land of 655 acres. The documents in Barbara's possession give details of every piece of land, who owns it and who owned it previously. It also gives the value of the fields and the acreage as well as the property there in 1924. Barbara has details of the lot bought by her Grandfather. There are also details of Pitfied Cottage, which was bought by Golding Bird. At that time Pitfield Cottage was quite small and it was the Golding-Birds who turned it into a magnificent mansion. There are also details of Foxendown and Brimstone Wood as well as houses and cottages at Meopham Green. Their grandfather went from being a tenant farmer to being able to purchase his own land for £2000, although it took him many years to finish paying for it. He bought a dairy farm, 13 acres of arable land, 100 acres of pasture and rough grazing and 14 acres of woodland. Barbara and Janet then discuss other parcels of land and who bought them. There is also mention of another document and bad spelling.
Meopham New Town
Barbara produced a map of the proposed New Town of Meopham from just after WWII [Abercrombie report]. It details industry near the station, four schools, shops, a civic centre and a by-pass, a grand arterial road, which would have gone right through Meopham Green and then on through the valley. It would have been like all the other New Towns proposed after the war. Barbara then quotes from a book that Meopham was scheduled to become one of London's satellite towns. It was planned to build 2,000 houses for an additional population of 40,000 people. The cost was to be £20 million. It would have seriously affected the amenities of the village.
When they were small their grandmother would march them to church on a Sunday morning because there was a Russell pew. One of the windows in the porch was donated by the Russell family. Janet and Barbara discuss the recent renovations of the church.
Meopham New Town continued
Janet pointed out that a new town is just what we have today. Their parents would have said that the village is too close to London. There follows a discussion about New Ash Green, which took the pressure off building at Meopham. New Ash Green was built on farmland. No-one could understand why it was built as it was not close to any major roads or to the railway.
The A2 road
Barbara pointed out that the A2 was only the width of the main road when they were young. When they went into Gravesend to school it would flood at the bottom of the hill at the roundabout near the Tollgate. During 1961 there was a heavy snowfall that prevented them getting to school. Barbara showed a picture of the bus stuck in the snow.
Crossing the Thames
Janet remembers as a child going across the Thames on the ferry from Gravesend to Tilbury. Nobody went to Essex in those days. Then they built the Dartford tunnel.
Barbara has details of Elizabeth Russell, Richard Russell and Lenard Russell. They owned a butcher's shop at Ash, Kent. Lenard Russell is Janet and Barbara's great grandfather. He was born in 1850 and died in 1925. He was married to Sarah Jane Smith. Barbara also speaks of the siblings of Lenard, one of whom, William Richard, was their grandfather. They all moved around a lot. Great Grandfather Russell lived in Northfield house and the house where Barbara now lives was built on the orchard belonging to the house. Lenard, his son, the brother of their grandfather, had a butcher's shop at Shipbourne, which is still there. "They had at least two children, Charlie and Maud and would probably have remained there had it not been for Lenard's passion for fast women and slow horses". His father had to sell property to pay off the various girls that Lenard had made pregnant. His father decided the only solution was for his son to leave the country. So he went as a ship's butcher to Australia in 1912. He never returned to England. Barbara has a letter from Lenard's son Charlie, written from Australia, to Maud dated 1945. Another letter from William Russell was written to his brother and sister from the Boer War. The family originally came from Shorne, Ash and that area. Their grandfather used to say that when the bicycle was invented they could get further away, before that it was by horse As time went on they became more prosperous. By the time Great Grandfather Russell arrived in Meopham they were able to build a nice house, Northfield House. It had a shop at the front, which was let out to a surveyor. He was a tenant farmer and also a linesman at the church. He was also partly responsible for having water laid on to the village. Barbara remembers having to go and tidy his grave when she was younger. Janet remarked that she has a painting by Roland Sherwin of her grandmother that had been hung in the National Gallery [probably Royal Academy].
Janet mentions several characters that used to be seen around the village. Miss Christmas and then there was Miss Snade, who only had one arm. She always wore a navy blue coat pinned up. Mrs Norton, whose nephew, Jim Clarke, who was killed in a motor race. She used to take tea with their grandmother. There used to be a fete in her garden. They also talk about Helen Walliker. John French was the only man Barbara knew who could blow his nose without using a hanky. His wife, Sheila French used to ride point to point. She was a very horsey woman with chocolate and pink silks. Janet's mother was in Holywell Park [nursing home] at the same time as John French and when they had their lucid days they would talk to each other. There followed a discussion of Holywell Park. They go on to discuss Biddy Marks, a resident there. She was eccentric and used to wear amazing hats. "She was very good with a lilac one dressed up with a pompom on top". Most of the important people in Meopham ended up at Holywell Park. Janet spoke of her Aunt Kath, who had a beautiful house in Gravesend in the 1930s, which she lost when her husband gambled it away. She returned to Meopham. During the war she trained to be a nurse in the WRAF and lived on the camp at Vigo.
Vigo officers and the cricket club
The officers stationed at Vigo would visit the Cricketers and leave the cap badges in the beams on the ceiling. The pub was renovated in the 80s and everything removed. The officers needed somewhere for sport. Barbara's father was a member of the Cricket Club. The officials wanted to put a barrage balloon on Meopham Green but her father disagreed as he did not want the hallowed turf dug up and concrete piles put in. He wanted it put somewhere else. That was agreed when he offered the cricket club for rest and recuperation of the Vigo officers, a place for them to play sports. The cricket club still has a bench with a plaque that says "With grateful thanks from the Royal Leicestershire Regiment for their time at Meopham Green".
The camp at Vigo was part of the Waterlow estate, along the escarpment. When they were children Barbara and Janet were not allowed to go anywhere near to it as it was Ministry of Defence land, with a barbed wire fence around it. It was out of bounds because of munitions and the practice ranges. The escarpment was similar to the White Cliffs of Dover so the military could practice climbing. There were no houses there, only the stables left from the Waterlow estate. They later became a school and are now a private house.
Sir Philip Waterlow
The bridge crossing the Trosley Road is the original bridge to Trosley Towers. Sir Philip had a private road so that he could drive all the way from his house to the station in order to commute to London. It was a direct route.
More about Mr and Mrs Alexander
They had central heating at Nurstead Court as the coal used to arrive by train. Janet remembered that Pitfield House also had central heating. There was a large boiler in the basement that was stoked by coke. Mr and Mrs Alexander had a massive house but only lived in the kitchen end. Once a week Mrs Alexander sat and rolled cigarettes for her husband. Janet explained how they were made. It was Mrs Alexander that got Janet interested in flowers. Janet used to go to the flower club at the village hall with Mrs Alexander where she used to enter the children's class. There was a flower room just off the kitchen at Pitfield House. It had a large, deep sink and a shelf of vases. Jacky, the gardener, used to bring them from the garden and Mrs Alexander would arrange them. Janet said that she had been fiddling with flowers ever since.
People moving to Meopham
Bobby Murrin lived opposite the Fox and Hounds before moving to Meopham Green. She had originally come from Gravesend. Quite a few people moved in the 1920s and 1930s from Gravesend to Meopham, many having successful businesses in Gravesend. Arbins, the furniture shop people, lived in Meliker Lane. Shornes laundry owned Graveney Lodge. Then there was Mr Short from Short Brothers, who owned an engineering company in Rochester for flying boats and Mr Alexander, who owned Sun Tugs. They were all well to do business people, who had made their money elsewhere and bought in. There was Mr Townsend, who used to commute to London and ended up as the head of Texaco UK. He lived in Basque Cottage. Barbara and Janet used to play with his son Adrian when they were young. He had a bad accident when a hay stack collapsed on him. Quite a lot of river pilots lived in Pitfield Drive because it was easy to get down to the river at Gravesend and it was near the pub.
They used to hold the cricket dinners in the Cricketers, in the long room. When there were railings around the Green, Janet remembers her father tying two pieces of baler twine on one end so her father could walk along one railing until he reached his drive. Then Barbara's father would tie three pieces of twine to another railing so he could get home. The cricket club dinner was always the highlight of the year. They were allowed to get slightly inebriated on those occasions.