I was born on Nov 18th 1937 at 15 Furnace Lane, or as my mother always called it Stowe Lane. Our house was built in 1934 by Denny and Sons and for whom my father worked as a carpenter.
I remember little of my early years other than playing with my friend, Norman Denny who lived next door. Apparently my mother used to allow a young girl from the village to walk me out in my pram, she had special needs and it seems a man attempted to rape her. She was sent to Berry Wood (St Crispins) where she remained for the rest of her life, about sixty years. I don’t think anyone from the village ever visited her!
Another of my very early memories was of my father holding me up at the bedroom window to show me Coventry burning and of hearing German planes flying overhead. In June 1942 my brother David was born and because of medical problems he had to have an operation. He remained in hospital for many weeks and my mother had to visit the hospital every day to feed him, so I was sent to live with my grandparents at Caldecote near Towcester. Since I was the only child in the household I was thoroughly spoilt and given the sweet rations of all the adults in the family. It is no wonder then that when I eventually returned to Heyford to start school I was not very happy about it and of course was no longer an only child. On my first day at school I was taken by Daf Thompson (Holtham) because my mother was still pre-occupied with my brother.
At this time my father was working in London and Coventry repairing war damage. He was unable to do military service because of deafness. At the end of the war he was eligible for a large bonus, but he refused it saying it was his contribution to the war in which many of his friends had suffered.
I attended Sunday school as did most of us in the village at that time and each Sunday was given a penny for the collection. However, most of us put a half penny in the collection and used the other halfpenny for an ice cream on the way home. Sunday morning was the time for slaughtering pigs in the village and there was always competition for the pig’s bladders which the butcher threw over the wall, and if you should wonder why, a pig’s bladder makes a great football.
They were happy days which consisted of going to school, playing sports on the green, playing in the brook that ran at the bottom of the field behind my house and cycling around the local villages. Sometimes I would cycle to Banbury with my other good friend, Robin Ellis, we always bought Banbury cakes home to prove that we had actually been there.
I remember V J day September 1945 very clearly. My father was playing in a celebration football match on the village green. In those days, chickens roamed freely on the green and making themselves dust baths. During the match the ball landed in one of the dust baths and unbeknown to my father when he went to kick the ball he hit the side of the dust bath instead, resulting in the bone in his leg snapping, the sound of which was heard all over the green.
When I was 10 we had a new headmaster at Heyford school, Mr Woods, he made drastic changes to the school and the village. He introduced a school uniform and changed the attitude of the village. We were to become the best village school in the county winning most competitions from sport to gardening as well as in the field of education. Two of our pupils, Norman Freeman and Eileen Garrett were selected to represent England in the junior Olympics. Mr Woods together with Mr Wilkinson started the Heyford Boy Scouts and later I became the leader of Peewit Patrol. We often camped at the stone quarry in Stowe and at Brockhall travelling on foot and carrying our tent etc on Denny’s 2 wheel builders cart, quite a journey uphill to Stowe. We once camped at Compton Verney but that time we travelled by bus. Also camping there was a troop of Girl Guides who Mr Woods warned us not to get involved with. However, he did agree that we should dig their latrines about which we were not very happy. We did as instructed, well not quite, instead of 18” wide, we dug them at 30”, quite a stretch for the girls, that was our protest. The estate was overrun with rabbits so on the first night I decided to set some snares and actually caught 3 rabbit’s, but Mr Woods was not happy, accused me of poaching and told me to bury them.
I remember well the winter of 1947 when the whole village was snowed in and the Grand Union canal was frozen. Coal was normally delivered to Mr West by barge so there was an acute shortage. We were rationed to one sack of coal and I remember going up Weedon Road with my parents to collect it by sledge.
At the age of 11 we all took the exam to get into Daventry Grammar School, I failed. However, some time later we were given a second chance which involved an interview with some of the teachers, this I failed too. Some weeks later I was on a train to Peterborough to run in the 440 yards representing South Northants at the East Midlands School competition. One of the teachers who had interviewed me was on the train, he asked ”haven’t I met you recently?” I said yes you interviewed me for a place at Daventry School, but I failed. He said then why didn’t you tell me that you could run? My education could have been completely different.
It was around this time that I had three narrow escapes from death. The first was when I sledged down Furnace Lane and went underneath a lorry which was travelling from Weedon to Bugbrooke. I went under behind the front wheels and came out the other side just before the rear wheels. Next was when my friend Robin Ellis and I exploded a mortar bomb which we had found in Stowe wood (details of this are in an old copy of The Prattler). The next lucky escape took place at Heyford mill which was no longer in use. One day, together with a group of other village boys we started to hoist ourselves up the mill floors on the chain which had previously been used to lift the corn sacks to the top floor. I had my feet in the chain and pulled on a rope that operated the lift, however, as my head went through a trapdoor in the floor, I lost my grip on the rope and was left hanging by my neck in the trapdoor. Fortunately, after a few seconds I managed to find the rope and am still here to tell the tale.
Another tale involving the mill started at a jumble sale at the school. I was sitting in a large armchair and when the time came for it to be sold I bid one shilling expecting others to bid higher. It was knocked down to me and thus I became the owner of a chair that I didn’t want. After the sale, a lady who had just moved into the mill asked if she could buy it from me. I was relieved and gave it to her for nothing and offered to carry it down to the mill for her. My offer might have been influenced by the fact that she had two pretty daughters about my age.
Guy Fawkes night was always celebrated with a large bonfire on the green. We boys would collect the wood from Crow Lane and drag it down to the village. If we were lucky sometimes we would stop a passing truck and ask them to tow it to the green for us. We saved our money to buy fireworks and had great fun throwing Jumping Jacks at the girls.
Another event that remains fixed in my mind occurred in Stowe. In those days children were allowed time off from school to help in the potato fields. We boys together with many ladies of the village were collected in an old army lorry with a tailboard held up by hooks and chains. I think it was Mrs Sargent who jumped from the lorry and landed just in front of me, minus her ring finger which had been ripped from her hand and remained on the hook of the tailboard together with her wedding ring. I swore on that day I would never ever wear a ring.
At the age of 15 I started on a two year O level course at Northampton Tech and along with two other boys we decided during our Easter holiday we would cycle to Scotland. I started out from Heyford and met them in Northampton. After 2 days we arrived in Redcar where we stayed overnight with an aunt of one of the boys. Next morning, they told me that they had decided not to continue but if I wanted they would wait for me for 2 days in Redcar. It was agreed and I continued to the Scottish border and back. Of course, they were fresh as daisies having had two days of rest but for me it was another two days of cycling to return home. I said goodbye to the boys in Northampton and travelled home only to find that my house was locked and empty.
I walked back out into the road to be met by Mrs Eales who told me how sorry she was to heat about my dad. Of course, I knew nothing about what had happened. She told me that he had had a very serious motorbike accident and was in Northampton general hospital and my mother had gone to stay with her parents at Caldecote. I got back on my bike and cycled the longest six miles of all. My father remained in hospital for many weeks and never did recover completely.
When I was 17, I decided I would like to become a Fleet Air Arm pilot, I had big ambitions and went for a medical only to be told that although I was tall enough, my legs were too short. It was after that I decided that I would like to join the Merchant Navy as a marine engineer, even though I had never even seen a big merchant ship. I gained an interview with Shell Tankers and was offered a four and a half year apprenticeship. This was to be 2 years at college in London, 18 months at sea as a cadet and then 1 year working in the shipyards. All was signed up and I left Heyford for the first time returning once a month since my father had agreed to pay my rail fare. I lived in London on a wage of £2.12 shillings a week out of which I had to pay for my food and accommodation etc.
I returned to live in Heyford after 7 years, but that story is for another day.
John Butcher – December 2019