|Snails Hall Farm, Billericay|
The Political Conversion of John Maryon – Part 2. At Snails Hall Farm, Billericay
By John Maryon, at the request of his sister. [Copied with the permission of his son, Tim Maryon.]
So we became tenants of the 120-acre holding in Sept 1910, and my father promptly set about changing the derelict run-down nature of the farm. He plowed up 15 acres of derelict grassland after debushing it, and I remember seeing the rushes being plowed in, as the pasture was disrupted by the plow. He began to secure more grazing and corn-growing land by cutting back overgrown hedges. Some of the wood removed from the hedges was used in bush drains he had dug through wet places in his recently-made arable. He cleaned out several ditches, which had been level full for a generation or so, and gave a hedge or two away to be cut out by working neighbours, whose reward was to log wood, pea-sticks and bean poles that they got out of it. He applied basic slag, (a bi-product of the steel industry) on as much of the pasture as he could afford, and in two years the holding looked much more husbandlike.
Just before my birthday in 1911, I left school to work full-time with my father, who was continually telling me how lucky I had been in comparison to him. For he was working full-time when he was 10 years old – thatching, sheep shearing, horse clipping and rat catching. My mother really, having a Scottish appreciation of education, would have liked me to go to a better school. But they really couldn’t at the time afford it, which I realised. I already had done much farm work (part time) before I left school, retailing our milk supply with a horse and cart before school from the time I was 11 years. I took especial interest in the horse work on the farm, and only milked cows on sufferance. We joined a partnership with another farmer, whereby he bought 50 breeding ewes. My father provided the pasture and attention, clipping the ewes after lambing, for half the resulting lambs and half the wool. Come 1914, by which time I was doing all the horse work on the farm, besides other chores, and was cutting and traving wheat, when my father came into the field, and broke the news that our “gentle” betters had declared war on Germany, but our minds were so prepared for it, and being sure we British were right, we felt a thrill of anticipation. I bemoaned the fact that I was just two years too young for army service, and from my careful induction of anti-German propaganda, and British superiority, I knew for certain that the war would be terminated in six months or at most a year. Terminated in our favour – of course.
One thing I was thankful for and that was my military-type training in the Church Lads Brigade, and there was something contradictory in the Christian church’s interest in military matters. For didn’t I learn, in my three weeks’ experience as a choir boy at the parish church, that our Saviour had commanded the belligerent soldier to sheath his sword – before he did anyone any mischief.
Within a month the 6th Warwicks (territorial) came to our district, and six of them were billeted with us. On the first Sunday they were paraded to church, and nearly every civilian in the district attended church that Sunday. The service was terminated (as we were at war) by the singing of the “Gawd Save”. As we became upright at the first notes of our national anthem, the two senior officers (sitting in the front pews, with our country gentry – such as it was) drew their swords, and assumed an on-guard position, and at the termination, saluted with their weapons to the holy cross over the altar. There were some who regarded this action as a bit of braggadocio, but the majority approved – being “woolly” minded. Soon, pressures began to build up against men still in civilian clothes, for a big recruitment campaign was afoot – for the first 100,000 volunteers. This was carried on by all the newspapers, from pulpits, from hoardings and never behind in support for the “powers” who order the life of every citizen, especially in wartime, the majority of music-hall artists. Patriotic songs were composed and sung, such as “We don’t want to lose you – but we think you ought to go” and the rather melancholy ditty our soldiers sang as they marched to meet the Hun. “It’s a long way to Tipperary” became a best-seller and still 60 years after, sung at ex-servicemen and British Legion rallies and other patriotic assemblies. Later in the war, where the spirits were sagging a little, an inspired song came out in “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, boys, smile”. Later on, when death and mutilation touched nearly all British families, came the inspired lament “Keep the home fires burning”. But, that was four years hence. The local floozies took a hand at the applied pressure (what a pressure they can have on young men – and also on old men for that matter). They went about giving white feathers to young civilians, who they considered should be in the army. I was a well-grown lad, thanks to country life and good, clean food, and I was as big and strong as two of our billetees of the Warwicks, who were only slightly older than me. I was walking one evening in late September 1914 across a footpath and met the octogenarian local squire and MFH. (?) He had with him a young wife of 30 years he had recently married, and on me touching my hat to the “gentlefolk”, he stopped and asked when I was going to join the armed forces – damned cheek! Being in awe of such people, I mentioned my immaturity in age. “Nonsense”, was the reply, “It was reported today that a British soldier had been killed at the front aged 15 years.” (In this connection, I was shown the grave in a military cemetery on the Paschendaele ridge in 1967. The stone said that the soldier, killed in 1915, of the Irish Fusiliers, was 14 years of age. Next to him was a fusilier, born in 1868. They are still there, near the village of Poelcappele, if you require proof.) I should have offered to look after his young wife, while he went to risk an overdue ending. With a little practice, I would have made a better husband.
Even a female relative of mine offered me two packets of ten cigarettes weekly if I became a soldier. That she would be depriving my father of nearly 50% of his labour force, and possibly the complete loss of his and her older sister’s son was, lost in patriotic fervour. When I eventually did join the army, she kept up the cigarette bribe for about a month. At that time it would have cost her 1/- per week.