Towards the end of August, after the September issue had been put to bed, I was very pleased to be allowed to interview Maisie and Charlie Baker for this column. In the article that follows I have tried to rework several hours of conversation into two separate but linked life stories. Maisie starts us off with some general background information.
"We were married in St Marks Church, Lakenham, Norwich on the 24th June 1944, then we moved here and have lived for 53 years in the same house. They were built by the War Ag. as part of the 'Dig for Victory' campaign. Out of the twenty houses down here, ten were built for Weasenham and we were lucky enough to get number 1. It was part of Long Lane then."
Charlie and his brother Ted came down to the fen in October 1941 as part of the Weasenham Farms workforce which had been approached by the Ministry to turn the fen into land suitable for farming. Weasenham agreed to come down to Feltwell from High Norfolk but only on the condition that their workers weren't called up to serve in the forces. The Ministry agreed and, in Charlie's words "All we were doing in the first year was pulling up scrub and bog oaks. There were twenty draglines down there making drains every ten or twenty acres. At the time Charlie was a tractor driver. "We slept in wooden huts down there. You'd wake up in the morning and see the snow through the boards. They were cold, our soap and flannels would be as stiff as boards! That was in the first year. In the second year they lined them and split each up into two halves. We had a tortoise stove at each end and two baths between the lot of us. There was forty of us, twenty in each hut, ten to a half. We were all single then but more than half got married eventually. We also had a canteen. We used to go home at weekends to continue our courting." Charlie remembers that the manager at the time was a Mr Raby who lived in Cambridge.
"We ploughed everything up and next spring we had one of those winds and the drains got all filled again! The Fen was loose then." As Maisie said "He came home all black." At that time they grew Corn, Sugar Beet, Potatoes and Celery. "Lorry loads used to go down to London, practically a lorry every night and some on the rail." Maisie recounts filling the trucks with sugar beet. "I used to meet the train down at Blackdyke and fill it up with sugar beet when I was in the Land Army. There was only two of us but the Postman used to come for half a day after he'd finished his round. We had two tractors and trailors, we hand forked one full and then the other, took them down to the railway and hand forked the beet into the trucks. The engine used to come about 4pm and take them to the factory."
Maisie comes from Norwich and her first job was at the Caleys Chocolate factory. (Which became Rowntrees and, more recently Nestle - ed.) "I volunteered for the ATS when I was 17 but you had to be 17 and 3 months so they said come back in three months time. Well, I went and joined the Land Army because you could join at 17. I was sent to Great Plumstead Hall as a gardener doing nothing to do with the war effort. Eventually they said I had either to go into the forestry or on the farms. Well, I knew my husband then so I said if you're going to send me anywhere send me down to Thetford because there was a Thetford postmark on his letters and they sent me to Hockwold. That would be in 1942."
Charlie and Maisie met by accident in early 1941. They were both keen cyclist, Charlie was a member of the Mid Norfolk Wheelers and Maisie of the East Anglian Cycilng Club. The clubs used to arrange joint outings and one day Maisie was late for the departure of her club so she decided to go straight to the meeting point at Lyng, near East Dereham only to find that that particular trip was not a joint one! She got talking to Charlie at that point and, as they say, the rest is history. Later that year Charlie went to the Fens and Maisie moved to Peacock's Farm a year later.
Maisie remembers that "they (the Peacocks) had a horse called Eric which used to take a half day to catch him. One day Mr Peacock said you're not getting on with Eric so get the tractor out. I said all right and tied Eric to the hedge and went and got the tractor out. Next morning Mr Peacock said what did you do with Eric last night? I said I'd tied him to the hedge, poor horse he was still tied to the hedge. Then they wanted me to take on the milk round. He gave me two lessons up and down the Lodge Road and said, there you are you can drive. I was driving a little white van. First thing in the morning I had to bottle up. They had half pints and pints then. Then I took them round in the van and when I got back I had to sterilise the bottles. And then at six-o-clock I had to go down the station, pick up a churn of milk to provide enough for the village. I was on my own and I think I got £2 wages. I had to pay £1 2s 6d in lodging but only £1 if I brought in a dead rabbit! I used to lodge with Mrs Goodenough in Hockwold"
Apparently one of the highlights of the week was to go to the pictures in Feltwell at "The Regal". They both loved the cinema, particularly the double features, and Maisie really enjoyed westerns. Charlie joked, "we used to try to get the back row!" One night, whilst cycling back to Hockwold they got stopped by a Policeman at the crossroads because the back light on Maisie's bike was not working. "It was working when we left Feltwell," Charlie said in a hurry, so the Policeman offered to have a go at fixing it and found that there were no batteries in the holder! Charlie got fined £10 at Methwold Court for lying to a Policeman. The magistrate was none other than Mrs Peacock for whom Maisie worked.
Maisie eventually left the Land Army because she sustained an 'industrial injury' from 'running the milk'. She ended up receiving treatment at the Norfolk and Norwich. This was in 1944 just before they got married. At that time Charlie was earning £3 4s a week.
On to Part 2
Back to Times Remembered