Memories of Godmanchester

(Mum. I think Dad's kicked the bucket)

web Council Yard nameThere are many things in this world we take for granted. Every day conveniences that we could not live without - electricity, television, telephones, tapped water etc.  All our mod cons! We could not imagine life without them, could we?

Over the festive season whilst partaking of Yuletide cheer with friends in the locality, followed by New Year cheer, and then post New Year cheer-cheer, I found myself becoming intrigued by the reminiscences of several of the longer standing inhabitants. The topic recalled with the most enthusiastic affection was "Toilet arrangements" or should I say, the lack of them. A topic possibly prompted by a couple of weeks of gastronomic over-indulgence??

It seems that in the not too distant past (pre-1956 in fact) there was one particular modern luxury which Godmanchester lacked, drains!!  Huntingdon had them, in fact most areas had them, but not Godmanchester. That is, apart from a select few who benefitted from a sunken drain which was flushed at its source on the causeway by water from the river. This ran down Post Street, out to an open ditch on the far side of the current cricket pitch behind the Primary School. The ditch then meandered down to Cow Lane (no sewage works in those days!) and vanished into oblivion.

For everyone else there was a far more entertaining system - namely a bucket! Albeit in an outside toilet / shed with a seat (or planks), and lovingly cut pieces of newspaper, but nonetheless the major piece of technology was the bucket. Now just think back to Christmas gatherings most of us have enjoyed and ponder on how long a bucket would have lasted! It appears that blackberries flourished at the bottom of most gardens in those "Good Old Days", and I've heard tell of rhubarb as tall as a man!

However, all was not quite as primitive as it appears, as the council had in place a team of brave men whose devotion to duty was the talk of the town. My investigations have brought to light the names of these unsung heroes who were: Mr Charlie "Booter" Holmes, Mr Dick Dighton and Mr Ken Merry. There was a fourth whose name has eluded me. Finally, last but not least their trusty steed "Tinker", whose name was dear to many hearts, especially those woken at 5.00 am to the shouts of "WOA. Tinker" as Tinker decided he had had enough and was going home

"Booter" Holmes lived in one of three cottages on the site of the Old Mill (now the car park next to the Town & County Insurance offices). Tinker lived next door to him in what was left of the Old Mill - the Stables. Tinker also had an invaluable piece of equipment stabled with him which he pulled everywhere he went, namely a cart on to which was mounted a large tank with sliding lid. This was the receptacle into which the contents of the buckets of Godmanchester were painstakingly poured. The younger folk of the town referred to this contraption as "The Passion Killer" because it's arrival outside their gate rendered the pleasures of a passionate embrace secondary to the necessity of escaping it's aroma!

I am told that a normal working evening began in the "Rose and Crown" (currently the Quaker Centre), conveniently located opposite Tinker's stable. "Booter" and the Boys had no trouble finding a space at the bar, especially in their working clothes, and would have a "few for the road" to anaesthetize the nasal passages. Once on the road they were a memorable site, particularly when the actual work began. The lifting of the laden buckets was eased by the use of a milk maidens yoke. I don't know whether this meant everyone owned two buckets, or whether the lads staggered about lop-sided until they retrieved next door's bucket. If the latter was the case, it may explain the many reports of half a bucket left strewn up the path and the oft used comment of "What's left is yours still" directed at complainants. It could of course have been partly due to the quality of the ale on sale in the "Rose and Crown".

Their job was even more perilous during winter months when ice set in. On one occasion Dick Dighton took a nasty slip and ended up bum upwards covered in the contents of two receptacles. Hearing the din, a very concerned "Booter" called to him worried he may be losing an able assistant. Dick Dighton bravely replied that he was OK but that his sandwiches, which he was carrying in his pocket, although now damaged were still edible!

Once filled, the cart, Tinker and the Boys would trudge up to Polters Farm (just past the current Cow Lane Rubbish tip) and the contents of the cart would be poured over the open fields. Once again the blackberries from these fields had to be seen to be believed - as did the smell in the summer months, I imagine. It is also rumoured that on particularly long wearisome nights, the contents of the cart could be seen drifting down river towards Island Hall having been dumped in the nearest place to Tinker's stable!

The fun finally came to an end around 1956 when a main drainage system was installed, taking waste directly to a newly built treatment works in Cow Lane (which has been upgraded several times since). Although the main drain had been installed for the benefit of the community there was a catch. Each property owner was responsible for his property being connected to the Main: rather like Cable Television, except I don't suppose there were canvassing teams out convincing the population of the benefits (or were there?). As many of the properties at the time were rented and not worth much more than £100, and given that the cost of connection to the main drain could be £100, many properties changed hands for peanuts once a connection to the Mains became a legal requirement.

Flushing "loos' and drains are now taken for granted by all of us, along with everything else. Street lights are another; however, to save money we are about to lose 10% of these. Who knows we may yet see the return of the bucket and the clamour of Booter, Tinker and the Bucket Boys!


My grateful thanks to Neville Turner, Pat Dougherty and Ron Crisp for the time spent recollecting.

First published in The Bridge 1996. By kind permission of Godmanchester Community Association.

Image  added by The Porch Museum