The Political Conversion of John Maryon – Part 1. Younger Years
John Maryon was born in Highwood, Essex, in 1897. His father farmed Snails Hall Farm, Billericay, during the First World War at the time when an enemy Zeppelin was fired and fell to the ground killing its occupants. This personal account tells of his experiences on the Western Front, and how those events shaped his thinking. John Maryon died in 1975. This account was given for publication by his son, Tim Maryon.
By John Maryon, at the request of his sister. [Copied with the permission of his son, Tim Maryon.]
When I was about 8 years old, my gamekeeper father gave me a book – “The Autobiography of an English Gamekeeper”, by one John Wilkins of Stansted, Essex. The estate perambulated is now incorporated into Stansted airdrome. The opening sentence of the book astonished me at that time i.e. “I remember 63 years ago, my father, Luke Wilkins, was gamekeeper to Mr Key of Tring Park, Herts. about the year 1820.” He went on to relate how he was with his father and another gamekeeper, a survivor from Waterloo, who intercepted a night poaching gang – on a tip-off. Two of the poachers were detained and were sentenced to transportation to the Antipodes. One died on the way out, but the other returned to England, in the 1860s, in fairly affluent circumstances. But the author’s ability to remember 63 years previously was a revelation. Time has taken away this wonderment, and now I can recall incidents of 73 years ago fairly clearly, and have been urged to record them. In this connection, I once read a translation of a French book entitled “The Story of a Simple Man” and I make no pretension than being just that. I was born 1897 down an old Essex driveway in a house sans water supply, sanitary drainage, or any other “indispensable” necessities for modern living. Yet it was one of two “model” cottages – built by the largest Essex landowner, to house the farm workers of his tenant farmers. My father, however, was living here as a gamekeeper, and raised 7-800 pheasants in the neighbouring fields and woods, for the sporting syndicate from London, who were catered for in the other cottage of the pair. After 9 years in their employ, the syndicate broke up, but recommended my father as gamekeeper to one of the Palmer family, of Reading biscuit fame. This was on an estate about 9 miles from Reading, and there we arrived (January 1901), just as the old queen Victoria was expiring. Among the many remarks recorded from her, such as “We are not amused” when her attention was drawn to the puddle of cat’s urine at Windsor by a tittering maid of honour, and also another priceless gem: on being informed that her daughter’s baby was being wet-nursed on a railwayman’s wife, she remarked how much better if a soldier’s wife could have been procured, officers preferably, I suppose. A digression. I would like to mention my father’s background, which has a definite bearing on my mental development.
He was born of a family, who for generations had lived on the edges of an Essex common, with certain rights thereon. The rights were very important to them, in as much as thereby they could graze a cow, donkey and geese and with garden surpluses to sell, and with occasional hares and rabbits which used the common, they lived fairly well. This class of people could, if necessary, supplement this by contract work for farmers – thatching, sheep shearing and other seasonal work. Small beerhouse keeping was my father’s family tradition, which suffered with many others the traumatic shock of common enclosure. This was brought about with maximum concern for the interests of enclosing local landowners, with minimum concern for the cottagers on the common fringes. One of the benefits of the former class was the divorcing of land rights from a class of the population, who in future had to work full time for the farmer, more or less on the latter’s terms. And the taking of game from what had been common land the year previously, was now a penal offence. Therefore, it came about that the best outlook for the rural poor was in service with – “the gentle folk” – upstairs – downstairs.
This was the situation of my father for the first 10 years of my life, and my father, while aware of his family’s history, was convinced that unquestionably his interests a s a working man were bound up with the interests of the despoiling “gentle” classes. I remember a man telling my father how freight trains left Reading loaded with biscuits from the Palmer factories there en route for the war in S. Africa. When the empire expanded, as Lloyd George remarked concerning Chamberlain of armament fame: “When the Empire expands, Chamberlains and the Palmers etc – contract”.
My father, whose education terminated at 10 years old, has lost the knowledge of reading and writing because of the necessity to work, being the eldest of a family which finally numbered 15, by the time he courted my mother. She, being Scottish, re-educated him and he became literate, and read the “Daily Mail”, which just after the turn of the century was pushing for rearmament. About 1905 it ran a serial entitled “The Invasion (German) of England – 1910” and gave descriptions and plans of German army’s crushing victories over a heroic but diminutive and unprepared British army. I was fascinated with these instalments, and joined the Church Lads Brigade. My father also absorbed this propaganda, and continually prophesised a war against Germany, and politically backed the same political party as his employer, although my father had no biscuits to sell to the government – in trainloads.
But, although he spent many years catering for the sport of his “betters”, deep down, he hankered to have no master and have land of his own to farm, of which he had considerable knowledge from 12 years of age. He was a very saving individual, who when he married my mother, was financially able to assist his father-in-law, a small farmer, who relied on his family for farm labour. Being himself, the father-in-law, an execrable farmer, they worked hard for a pittance, and by 1908 had deserted him for a colonial life in Canada and marriage away. In this year the lease of is farm terminated, and my father, in an ill-judged moment, and to get an outstanding loan of 15 years’ standing back, decided to enter partnership on another farm with him. It was disastrous, and the partnership broke after 3 years, and at the ensuing sale, my father got his money back. He then rented a 120 acre farm at Billericay of derelict grassland, growing a tenth-rate grass, with rushes and bushes, hedges overgrown etc. in 1910 on a seven-year lease.
Previously, in that year, part of the Fleet had paid a visit to Southend-on-Sea, laying in the Thames estuary off Southend pier. My father took me down to view this illuminated phenomenon, which gave us all a patriotic thrill, and we began to look forward to the time when these expensive leviathans, fulfilled their purpose of “defending our isle” – all over the world. A connecting memory with me was the presence of drunken sailors in the town. I have never since seen so many intoxicated people together at one time.