FROM A TENT TO A MANSION by Peggy Parmenter (née Thomas)
My earliest memory is, when at the age of four, the marquee in which I was sleeping blew down. The reason this had been home for me and my family for the past six months was that it was the only place available in this quiet corner of the New Forest. Click on the tabs for more information on our life story...
My father had come to Calshot as canteen manager at the Air Force camp at the beginning of World War I, and had rented a cottage belonging to a farm worker who was away fighting, but when he returned at the end of the war and wanted his home back, my father had no alternative but to rent a marquee for us to live in. We were very happy with this carefree life for our large family of six daughters, two sons and two cousins, whose father had been killed in the war. We kept chickens and after meals used to bring them inside to ‘peck up’ the crumbs off the floor.
One day one of my sisters tried to remove a cobweb from the main tent pole and, we believe by doing so, she made a tear in the canvas, for quite soon after this on a very windy night there was a terrifying sound of canvas ripping and our home was cut in half with the canvas enveloping us as we lay in our beds. As I was the youngest my parents rushed to rescue me, but happily, nobody was hurt and soon we were all huddled together in the chicken’s house with blankets round us. My father cycled the half mile to the policeman’s house and he said we could shelter there in his home for the rest of the night. By the morning there were a few sightseers and the local photographer, Mr Mudge, had taken pictures for his shop window and for the local paper.
My parents’ next problem was to find us somewhere to live, and the policeman suggested a derelict house quite near our marquee, so we carried our belongings there. The place was very dirty, but worse still, it had fleas, and we knew we could not live like that, so my poor, desperate Dad bought an Air Force hut – now the war was over there were a lot of them empty. Of course we couldn’t live on the camp so he and my brothers brought it in sections to a stretch of common land with a lovely pine copse on one side and erected it there. This was to be my home for the next 15 years and for my parents, a good deal longer.
My father worked wonders with this hut – he partitioned it off, making four bedrooms and a large sitting-cum-dining room. How comfortable that was, with a kitchen range always with a delicious smell of food coming from it. We had an Aladdin lamp, a primus stove, and a dresser with sparkling clean china on it. I also remember a large framed text on the wall which read “In God we Trust”. On the outside he built a porch with rambling roses growing over it and a back garden in which grew beautiful lupins. He also grew enough vegetables to supply our large family and lots of fruit bushes.
Our nearest water supply was a stream a quarter of a mile away and we all took turns to carry it with our two buckets – empty going downhill to the stream and full coming back up – so it was quite an art not to slop it over our legs. This water had to be filtered before we could use it. Of course, we had no sanitation, our lavatory was a shed at the bottom of the garden with the necessary seating arrangement and neat squares of newspaper strung up together with hanging on the door. As a child I was afraid to go there alone after dark.
My mother, whom we all adored, worked hard and fed us well. To do this she had to take in men lodgers and as we kept chickens and pigs there was always a large pan of vegetable peelings cooking for them on top of the range. One evening a new young man arrived and my mother, whilst pressing down the peelings told him his tea would soon be ready. He looked horrified and had there been anywhere to run, he would have done so.
My father was a quiet, patient man with simple pleasures such as cycling to the local for a pint at the end of the evening’s gardening, and at the weekend he would take my mother and all of us children for a 2 mile walk over the common to the Langley Tavern and buy us lemonade and crisps, a Guinness for my mother and several pints for himself.
Walking back home we would all sing and Dad would put glow worms round the brim of his trilby, which prompted my mother to say “Look at your father all lit up”. When we got home we would all sit round our big kitchen table and eat a huge supper of cold meat and vegetables with pickled onions. For our Bank Holiday treats he would hire a pony and trap and take us to some beauty spot or to the sea. The bottom of the trap was packed with food and drink and we all sat on the seats waiting for Dad to give us turns with the reins of the pony. When we had devoured the food we would play cricket, rounders and hide and seek. What a happy uncomplicated life it was and so inexpensive.
As my sisters left school they all went into service and my brothers joined the Army. As I was the youngest it was hoped that I would win a scholarship, but although my headmaster thought I had the ability to do this, the thought of travelling to Brockenhurst each day where my new school would have been, terrified me. So when I left school I worked in our local grocer’s shop called ‘Pentagon Stores’ and worked 10½ hours a day for the princely sum of five shillings per week. After I had been there a year I asked for a rise and got an extra one shilling (big deal), but it wasn’t until I said I was leaving for a better job, that I was offered £1 per week to stay.
My next job was as a chambermaid-waitress at the only hotel in our village of Fawley. It was called The Falcon and quite the centre of attraction for anything that should be going on. The village hall was opposite and here they showed silent films and held dances where the local lads and lasses met. We called them the “three penny hops” for that was the entrance fee. Many local weddings and other anniversary celebrations were held at the hall which was very convenient being so near to the pub. My sister Audrey was a waitress at the Falcon, my mother was cook and my father was a steward for the local branch of the British Legion whose meeting were held in a building in the grounds. We supplied the members with their drinks, so it was quite a family concern. The landlord and his wife, Mr and Mrs Evans, were very nice to work for and very lenient. They needed to be to keep their staff finished but we were all allowed to go out then, be it courting, a dance or a party. Often we would cycle the 2½ miles to Calshot beach for a midnight swim and light a bonfire to sit round. My boyfriend , who afterwards became my husband, played a guitar for us and we would all have a sing song. My Dad would also allow us to take our friends home, where we had a piano and plenty of room for a party. On these occasions everyone was asked to do a ‘turn’ to entertain us.
One summer evening there was a big celebration at the Falcon with marquees on the lawn and people had come from miles around. We were all busy selling them refreshments but the greatest demand was for the coffee my mother had made – it was described as superb by everyone – when she looked for the cream to pour over the fresh fruit salad she realised she had put it all in the coffee mistaking it for milk! No wonder her coffee got such high praise.
I had not many clothes of my own so enjoyed dressing up in the residents’ smart clothes whilst they were out. I did this one day, wearing a very smart coat and a hat with a veil. It was such a transformation that I went into the residents’ lounge and rang the bell, the manager came running and using the voice he kept for customers, had booked me in for a week’s stay before he realised I was ‘staff’. To get even with me he said the owner of the clothes had just entered the hotel, so imagine my panic to get the clothes back in her room before she got there.
Outside the kitchen door was a huge brass bell and at 11am every day this was clanged for the staff to come to the kitchen for their lunch which was a cup of cocoa and a slice of bread and dripping. One morning I was showing a new resident to her bedroom and assuring her she would get the peace and quiet she had come to the country for, when the bell clanged, and I had quite a job convincing her this only happened once a day!
During the school holidays the manager’s small son had a tent on the lawn and he and his friends would play Indians. They involved everyone in the hotel and gave us all Indian names such as Paleface and Big Chief. I was Scarface and one night I dressed up as an Indian and made a huge ‘scar’ with lipstick across my throat and stood in the shadow of the dimly lit landing waiting for Pru, the barmaid, to come to be. As usual she was a bit tiddly and as she approached I jumped out doing the Indian war cry and her screams brought all the residents to their doors.
Being a chambermaid, one of my duties was to empty the chamber pots that were in each bedroom, a job I hated doing, although they were seldom used, so rather than carry a slop bucket to each bedroom I would dash along the landing with the occasional chamber and empty it in the toilet. One morning, whilst doing this I was disturbed in my haste, dropped the chamber in the toilet, smashing the toilet. The manager was furious at the expense and inconvenience caused and threatened to stop my holiday pay, but relented when the time came.
One Firework night the staff of the hotel put on a concert for the local children. I was dressed as a Zulu girl, face blacked and a skirt made from the straw that had packed whiskey bottles. The manageress played the piano whilst I sang ‘Swanee River’ followed by a dance I made up. There were several other performances before we all went to a field at the back of the hotel to a huge bonfire and fireworks display. Afterwards it was to the kitchen where my mother was serving hot cocoa, cakes and bread and dripping, which was soon devoured by the hungry youngsters.
At Christmas time there was the usual raffles for charity and the barmaid won a goose. It was delivered to the kitchen, dead of course, but still with its feathers on. I sat it on a chair beside her bed with a beret on its head and when she came to bed, tired and tipsy, she really thought she was seeing things but she was a good sport and made a joke of everything as we all did in those days.
After a couple of years I left the Falcon to work at a factory in Hythe which was called the Supermarine and we made parts for aeroplanes. My mother said I was mad and I soon realized how right she was, for I had to cycle 4½ miles each way to and from work. The attraction was to have my evenings free to spend with my boy friend, but it wasn’t long before he returned to London, his work at Fawley finished and he persuaded me to also go to London to live. This I did and soon realised I had left my youth behind me in the country and was now up against the earnestness of living with no parents to shelter me.
The years in London were varied. I had so many very good friends, two lovely sons, Alan and Geoff, who were educated at East Ham Grammar School. Many years later Geoff married and moved to Bury St Edmunds where he lives with his wife and four gorgeous daughters, and Alan married and moved to Criccieth, North Wales where he has a successful TV business, also a mansion by the sea with a Granny Flat for my husband and I where we live with him and his wife and three children.
So as I started my life in the country, so I shall end it.