Oxford has now sprawled into North Berkshire, which was my
birthplace; it is no longer country. William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, not
only changed Cowley but most of the environment of Oxford in all directions. I
know the house where I was born at the turn of the century; it is next to the
Carpenters Arms just off the Oxford to Witney road. We used to lie in bed and
hear the horses galloping by with the Royal Mail bound for Oxford. No motor vans
then, for William Morris was only just beginning and branching out from being a
maker of motor cycles to become a Motor Car Engineer. Fame was to come later.
It was still the age of horses. In the fields two pulled the plough, unless heavy soil or an uphill slope meant teams of three or four. At Harvest three pulled the binder, one foremost or 'forest', and two behind; a boy rode the front one. I remember when I was riding foremost someone shot at rabbits (there used to be scores of rabbits in the centre of the field and men with guns and boys with sticks had cruel sport killing the poor frightened creatures). This shot scared a young colt and he bolted dragging the binder into the horse I rode. The horse died, the boy escaped. Fine people rode in carriages and pairs, Oxford undergraduates rode in flys (one-horse, light carriages, usually hired) from the station, all delivery was horse drawn. Farmers took their milk to Oxford station in traps. In 1916, when daylight saving was introduced one farmer at least did not co-operate; he kept his clock at the old time, sun time, God's time, and missed the milk trains to London; we boys were amused. Horses drew the Oxford trams. Life revolved around horses; they carried you to your wedding (unless you were poor and had to walk), they drew you to your grave, but did not carry the midwife to one's birth. When I first saw the local midwife she rode a bike with a little black bag on the back. We were intrigued by the bag - could that be where babies came from? Before this there was a woman in the village who saw the beginning and the end of people; she acted as midwife and laid out the dead.
On Sundays we often made the journey three times to Morning Service, to Sunday School, in preparation for which we learned the collect for the day, and Evensong.
It is intriguing how our ancestors of this period came to meet. My grand-parents, I am told, met at Abingdon Fair, although they lived about 10 miles apart and did not have either horse or bike, yet they carried on their courtship and married. I suppose the usual way of finding a husband was the practice of domestic service. This custom, which seemed harsh - sending a young girl of 11 out into the big world with her clothes in a tin box - was almost necessary. Wages were low, cottages small, families large; there was not room for growing boys and growing girls at home together so the poor girls had to get their feet under somebody-else's table, and fend for themselves.
They broadened their outlook, managed to stand on their own feet, saved a little money, soon matured and married early. Fifty years ago there was a country custom of carrying one's friends and neighbours to their graves. This was the last service one could render, the last token of respects affection and comradeship one could pay. I remember that many neighbours wanted to do this honour to my Father; it must have been a delicate problem for my Mother to choose the required number without hurting feelings or seeming ungracious.
My Father worked the little mill on the Seacourt Stream. A mill had been there for centuries. The original mill was burnt down by the Puritans in the Civil War. This was a one-man show; my Father ground the corn, set the dough, baked the bread and delivered it by horse around the local villages. His horse knew every call, knew when to woa, and when to gee up, knew the way home, but best of all knew his master, guide, companion and friend. They were a team of two. The partnership was broken in 1910 when the old King died and before the new one was crowned, the last loaf was baked, the mill was sold and so was Prince, the horse, but three times he left his new home and found his own way along 12 miles of strange roads to find his old master.
Although we lived in a horse-dominated age, we did see the odd car. Something else appeared too: we called them Flying Machines in 1909; one of these even flew from England to France, or was it the other way round? One came to grief in the fields above our School, where ladies played hockey - very daring: - I can smell the petrol now as I remember how we searched for souvenirs, fragments of this wonderful machine.
My schooldays came to a premature end in 1917. The war was not going too well for us, food was short, most able-bodied men were at the front, so village boys of poor parents were allowed to leave school and work on the farms, if their education had progressed satisfactorily. I was sitting in lonely glory at the top of the School, my Father was dead, my Brother was breadwinner for five young children, there was no doubt about our need; we were poor. So at the end of the summer term before my 13th birthday I was pitched from School to farm. My first job was the crowning humiliation. If, like the Prodigal Son, I had been sent into the fields to feed pigs, it would not have been too bad; but I was sent to scare the birds from the ripening corn. They told me the job was important, German submarines were sinking our food ships, so every grain saved helped to win the war. How glad I was when all the corn was harvested. Never before or since has "All is safely gathered in" meant so much.
The next job after the harvest was nearly as bad, the potato picking. A balk plough turned the potatoes out on the ground and we had to pick them up. Later we had a rotary machine which spun them out. For gathering the spuds into buckets and then into sacks we received 3d a cwt. The ache in one's back was terrible - I can almost feel it now as I write. Yet there was one thrill about this job; it was piece work and one could earn a week's wages in a day, if the days were long enough, and the back strong enough, and there was a sister around to help. Cold tea tasted delicious, better than water, cider, pop. or almost any drink I have tasted since. Beer was, of course, out of the question: we were pledged in the little Chapel Band of Hope never to touch, taste or handle the stuff. Nectar, the drink of the gods, could not have tasted better than our cold tea.
George King wrote down his memories in the 1960s. He overcame many early disadvantages to take Holy Orders.