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My Early Life in Kilnsea

by Ernest Medforth Norwood, June 1997

Very few people know what Kilnsea was like before the First World War. The village was a small hamlet consisting of seven farms, nine cottages, a church, a chapel, and two public houses. I read about old Kilnsea, and met an old man who lived there. When the church collapsed in 1826 some of the gravestones were moved to Easington and can be seen in the north end of the churchyard. When the church was in a dangerous state, services were held in one of my great grandfather’s houses (he was responsible for the Crown and Anchor being built). His grave is in St. Helen’s churchyard and he was a cousin of Lord Tennyson, the poet [presumably Medforth Tennison].

Ernest Medforth Norwood
Ernest Medforth Norwood (Photograph courtesy of Mrs Burn)

Both money and work were scarce in Kilnsea before the war. Village people were very friendly, and helped each other. A few men did fishing in winter, and crabbing in the North Sea in spring,; others were general labourers, helping the farmers at threshing and harvest times. Casual work consisted of working with barges, which delivered oil for Spurn lighthouses, also coal for the farmers at threshing times, and broken stones.

Villagers found much washed up on the sea or Humber shore. It was quite a usual thing to find a barrel of herring or a box of fish and to see a line of herring or fish hanging on the outside walls. Also a lot of timber or pit props floated in. One Saturday I went down on the Humber side and gathered over one hundred wooden blocks that were used for street laying in Hull. A lot of wood was thrown into the docks at Hull and when the lock gates were opened it floated out and washed up on the beach. Also if you reported a dog or a pig or a sheep washed up to the authorities by burying it with a little quick lime you got five shillings. I sometimes think that I was better off before I started work than when I was in work. Coal also washed up now and again. This was known as sea coal and made a good fire. I have known times when we had half a ton in the garden. Once a ship struck a mine and bags of flour, boxes of butter, lard and margarine, were washed up. At one time we were feeding the chickens on flour and butter mixed together. Those eggs we got in those days were really lovely! Also at Christmas time in 1939 tons of coffee and bottles of whiskey were washed up.

Rosabel Cottages, Kilnsea
Rosabel Cottages, Kilnsea (Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Smith)

I found out from my researches that North Lane was once the only road to Easington. I remember people living in a house at the end of North Lane until 1916, when they were flooded out by the sea and the house was washed down by it weeks after. The house was called Headow.

Most Kilnsea men were volunteers of the rocket apparatus, and very often had to walk to Spurn carrying the apparatus when a ship came ashore. Men got a few shillings for turning out for the rocket apparatus. I have even seen elderly women also helping with it. Before the war, ships often came ashore – sometimes five a year. My father was head man of the rocket crew. (The rocket apparatus was a device used by the coastguards to fire a line from the shore across a stricken vessel. This line was then used to bring the crew ashore.) Nearly every month a trawler would come ashore between Spurn and Easington. In those days there were no operators to guide the ship in and out of the river.

I used to be sorry for the postman, who had to cycle from Patrington every day, and when he got to Kilnsea he had to walk to Spurn. The only times he had transport from Kilnsea to Spurn was on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Easter Sunday and Good Friday.

Postman, Barney Coy
Postman, Barney Coy (Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Webster)

Getting into Hull in those days was a bit tricky. The Kilnsea people had to walk to Easington, and then catch a cart to Patrington. Depending on how many people wanted to go in the carrier’s cart, you might have to sit on each others’ knees. At Patrington they caught the 7.45 train to Hull, returning at 4p.m. People relied a lot on the carrier, who went twice a week. He was a good business man and knew all the children’s sizes for boots and shoes, and if you wanted anything taken into market he was the man. He would buy pans, buckets or crockery for anyone. There used to be a draper too who came from Hull every month. He would stay at the Crown and Anchor.

Kilnsea - After the storm, March 1906
Kilnsea - After the storm, March 1906 (Photograph courtesy Jan Crowther)

Does anyone know what it was like living on Spurn in those days? The grocer used to go once a week. He would take orders for next week’s shopping. Myself when 10 years old, would go to Spurn with a man who used to sell vegetables and greens, fruit, also fish. Some of the business men who mostly came from Hull once a month did not like going to Spurn on their own so from the age of 6 I often went with them.

The first floods occurred in 1906, and then happened every year until 1916. The sea came over at Kilnsea and went into Easington, so the Easington people had the Long Bank built to prevent it happening again, but alas in 1953 the water came from Easington into Kilnsea. Now the Conchie Bank was built in 1916. The army were bringing a new gun barrel by road from Patrington. They left it halfway between Long Bank and Grange Farm one night. The next morning it was under four feet of water. So a battalion of conchies [conscientious objectors] were brought in and a bank was built between Easington and Kilnsea called the Conchies’ Bank.

I was born on the sixteenth of September 1904, the fifth of eight children, three boys and five girls. My mother’s maiden name was Mary Jane Hodgson, my father's, Everet Norwood. We lived at number two, Rosabell Cottages, Kilnsea. We were a poor family and times must have been hard for my parents: but we lived comfortably and were well fed. My father was a general labourer, mainly working at dyking and draining. He was very versatile and could turn his hand to most trades of the day. Harvest time he would help the farmers with the gathering and threshing, which was hard and long hours. He also earned his living delivering oil to Spurn Point light house. The oil was delivered to the Crown and Anchor by barge two hundred barrels at a time: the large barrels were then delivered to Spurn by horse and cart, each cart only having room for one barrel. There was no road down to Spurn, part of the trek was on the beach. The coal for the farmers to do their threshing with was also delivered in this fashion as were the broken stones for road repairs, which had to be put into piles along the road-sides, all of which provided casual work for my father. When the neap tides were in season – usually once a month – barges went out to the Binks (a sand bank north east of Spurn on the sea-side), to collect gravel. This was very popular as the pay was ten shillings a day, which was a great deal of money in those days; men came from as far away as Welwick. There were ten public houses between Spurn and Welwick, so I do not think their wives saw a lot of the money!

I once asked my mother how many babies she had delivered. There was no midwife in those days, so she did the job. My recollections of my childhood are happy; but my education was somewhat sketchy. Winter time we seemed to have a lot more snow than today and many times the road to Easington was flooded up to 3 feet deep between Long Bank and Grange Farm. Kilnsea children (about 25 of us) were taken to school, leaving Kilnsea at 8.20 and arriving at 9a.m., in an old mail coach, which in its working days had plied the route from Bath to London. Mettle who pulled it was an old cavalry horse from the South African war. Normally her speed was very slow and plodding, one day her blinder (harness) fell off. Mettle must have thought she was back on the battle field, galloping off at a great rate, the driver (Mr George Clubley) fell off, and she delivered us safely at school somewhat earlier than usual!

The Kilnsea School Express
The Kilnsea School Express (Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Smith)

My attendance at school was not always good. Once I was 8, when the thrashing machine came, I didn’t go to school, but used to carry chaff and water for the engine. I was paid 6/- a week for this work. I also used to fish in the Humber with what was known as long line fishing and in those days you could bait 100 hooks and sometimes get as many fish. I used to sell them round the village or send them to Hull market with the carrier. I found a box of fish one morning and was dragging it home when he stopped me. He jumped off his lorry and said ‘Here lad, let’s put it on the lorry and I’ll take it to fish market for you.’ I used to collect rock semper and mushrooms and these also went to Hull to the market. And many a shilling have I got for getting a sheep off its back or taking a cow or heifer to the bull or taking a boar to a farm for its use.

August the fourth 1914, our Head Master told us that war had been declared and we were sent home from school. At noon that same day a contingent of the East Yorks marched in to Kilnsea, at three o'clock three batteries of the Field Artillery galloped in to Kilnsea, as if this were not enough excitement at midnight a company of Northumberlands marched in. Kilnsea was a garrison ‘town’ in less than twelve hours!

Godwin Battery from the air - 1917
Godwin Battery from the air - 1917 (Photograph courtesy of Jan Crowther)

Great changes took place the next day, the soldiers were marched round the village to find them billets, any place that was vacant was requisitioned, the Blue Bell Cottage, then Cliff Farm which had been empty, five hundred men made it their home for four months. A one floor cottage (not in existence now) [the one on Crown corner], the Chapel, number one Rosabell Cottages - we had suddenly acquired fifty two neighbours. Westmere was made the Officers’ Mess. Some soldiers were also billeted in houses where no children were living. I was only ten years old at the time, so I thought it was all great fun; the villagers seemed to get along with this influx very well. The remainder of the troops were billeted in Easington, including the school building which meant no school for four months! In the first six months barriers were erected between the Crown and Anchor and the Church and between Grange Farm and Westmere.

In the first four months the troops manned trenches and were on duty 24 hours a day so life was not easy for them. My mother used to make jam tarts and small cakes for them. When the men who were billeted in the chapel were dismissed they used to gallop down to our cottage for them. The RSM asked my mother if she had any favourites. ‘Why?’ she asked. He told her ‘On dismissing my chaps most of them rush down to your cottage, but four of them just stroll down.’ Little did my mother or him know that I was the culprit. I used to pinch the small cakes and nobody knew where I hid them until I handed them over. It was in the outside toilet over the beams.

My father was fortunate finding employment with the Army, which he was able to continue with until his retirement. My Mother worked at the Crown and Anchor, which was owned by my Grandmother; one day an officer came into the pub and asked my Mother if she could cook some meat for his men? When the meat was delivered much to her surprise it was half a bullock! Recovering from her shock she asked if the Army had a butcher? One was duly found and she was able to produce a wonderful meal, cooked in the huge oven which was capable of cooking eighteen two pound loaves at the same time, so the meat caused no problems. On another occasion the same officer asked her if it was possible to have two hundred and eighty eggs? She replied that it was possible, but he would have to tour the near-by villages, and suggested that he took me with him - I was delighted as I had never been in a motor vehicle before. A corporal was detailed to do the collecting and off we went. He was rather partial to a pint and we stopped at many of the pubs en route; he was rather unsteady on the way home but we managed not to break any of the precious eggs!

Mother also did washing for the officers, I had to collect and deliver it. I often wondered how my mother managed to get through all the work that she did, but in those days women worked as hard as any man. It was nothing for a small holder’s wife to work 12 and sometimes 14 hours a day during harvest time.

The Cottage at the Crown Corner
The Cottage at the Crown Corner (Photograph courtesy of Jan Crowther)

The battery was being built at this time on the Point, and Godwin Battery was built on a small holding in Kilnsea. The work was done by a Grimsby firm. The materials and stores were delivered by sea from Grimsby to Spurn, and then on the newly-built railway from the Point to Kilnsea; I found the ride on the train great fun. It was quite a novelty for us to see a train running between the two villages. Early in 1915 the troops were put under canvas and some 600 men were camping in Blue Bell field. That was a hard winter. Trenches were dug all along the coast. The troops were on duty 24 hours on and 24 hours off. In 1915 there were well over a thousand men in Kilnsea – workmen and soldiers- and between 1914 and 1916 there were sometimes over 4,000 men in Kilnsea and Spurn.

I was quite popular with the soldiers, and I started to sell them the Sunday papers, also to the workmen who lived in the huts on the Point, making myself some money in the process. I fetched two quire which I got from Easington. The bike I rode in those days was a solid tyre one – not very pleasant on those rough broken stone roads! But I got a lot of tips. A Y.M.C.A. was opened which was great as it meant we lads had some where to go in the evenings. The Royal Garrison Band was quite a novelty to the children. Few had ever heard one let alone seen one. Sometimes there were shows with actors and actresses to entertain the troops, and we were able to go along to these as well. My eldest sister was head of the N.A.C.B., which was open to the villagers. One day the officer in charge said ‘You walk home every night, don’t you? In future you will have an N.C.O. to escort you.’ He volunteered to do it every night and they were eventually married.

The Cottage at the Crown Corner
Boy collecting eggs at Cliff Farm (Photograph courtesy of Edie Wheeler-Osman)

Although there was rationing it did not seem to affect us a great deal, as we were able to get eggs from the farms, and an occasional joint of meat. Most people kept chickens and pigs, and we got our flour from the local mills; and there was plenty of fish to be caught in the Humber. Life went on very well – the only thing that worried us was the Zeppelins going over on their way to bomb Hull. Sometimes they were only about 50 feet high when they passed over Kilnsea. A real worry was when they jettisoned their bombs on their way out. After the batteries were completed we were often startled by heavy gun fire which was only practice. I did not like the fact that when I got friendly with the soldiers they would go off to France and I never heard from them again. I did however hear of one of them many years later, when I was serving in the Navy. I was on a cruiser in Shanghai writing a letter, a chap sat next to me and spotted a photo-frame in my ditti box that I had made, which had a photo in. He enquired where I had obtained the photo?, I told him it was given to me in the war by a soldier who was stationed where I lived, and he used to visit us at home a lot. I was surprised when he asked me “Did your mother ever lose anything?” I said “no why?”. He then told me the soldier was in jail for six months for stealing. My mother had been told that she was too trusting leaving money about, but she was lucky. It is a small world.

I was very happy at school, but I was taken out of school at thirteen years old and put to work at South Field Farm, where I worked for eighteen months. One job I had to do was to go into the battery to collect the swill. It was amazing the things that I found in it. The soldiers were issued with a knife, fork and spoon when they joined up. If they lost them they had to pay a shilling to replace them, which was a day’s pay. I used to charge them sixpence for a set. Unfortunately this enabled me to start smoking, which was my worst enemy, and I finally gave it up in 1950. I also collected bones from the swill, for which I got five shillings a hundred weight, also I got the same price for scrap metal, so I earned myself quite a nice bit of cash. On several occasions I found rings and even a gold watch, which I gave back to the R.S.M. In 1917 the farmer came into my bedroom and said ‘Did you hear the noise?’. I had, and got up and we went down to the seaside and found it was a lot of timber washed up from a ship that had been mined. You will perhaps not believe me when I say that it was piled up some 20 feet high. We were pulling it with two horses and when it was auctioned the farmer gave me 25, which was nearly as much as my wages for a year!

Wages came down after the troops had been demobbed, and after working on the farm for eighteen months I decided to join the Royal Navy. After enlisting I went to a training camp - Shotly barracks in Suffolk. There were three thousand boys training there. The twelve months I trained there were the worst in my life: the discipline was very severe and the instructors were unkind and even cruel at times. Some years later I came across one of my old instructors. I asked him why he had been so nasty? he said to me “Norwood, have you any idea what it is like to control that amount of boys?” Since then I had experience of being in charge of two hundred and eighty men, and I realised what he meant.

After my years training there, I was sent to Chatham Barracks, and six weeks later I was drafted on to HMS Erin, a battleship that had been built for the Turkish government, but it had not been delivered because of the outbreak of the war. The ship saw considerable service in the Battle of Jutland. Whilst I was on her I took part in a film on board ‘The of China’. After twelve months on her. I was posted to another battle ship HMS Ramilles, in Devonport dockyard. I spent three years on her visiting many different countries; Portugal, Gibraltar, Malta, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and many ports on the North African coast. Whilst I was serving on the Ramilles I passed my exams and became an Able Seaman. On leaving the Ramilles, I joined the reserve fleet which was to keep the destroyers working in the dock yard.

Later I was transferred to Chatham boatyard to do navvies work. We had to dig up the old French prisoner of war bones from the Napoleonic war, and re-inter them in France. I did this work for thirteen months, I really enjoyed it as I had no duties, just day work. We were on St Mary's Island, which is near to Chatham, and there were lots of wild fruit and flowers there. After that spell of duties, I returned to destroyers, visiting many ports in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, returning for a short spell of duty in barracks at Chatham. Then I joined the HMS Enterprise - I am writing a separate article about my time on her, so I will jump on to 1928, when we were back in Chatham, and feeling very cold after our service in the Middle and Far East. It was pouring with rain as we first set foot ashore. X had been a Naval tailors agent, so I was well kitted out in a smart suit, making my way to my ‘local’ in old Brompton. I saw a wife of an old ship-mate of mine; she had heard that our ship was home, and guessed I would be in the pub, she was most insistent that I return with her to home for a meal. She had a young lady there for me to meet Nora Laura Kerr. That was on the twenty eighth of December 1928. We got married on the twenty ninth of August 1929.

I was paid off from the Enterprise, and after a short spell of leave I went to Portsmouth on a Torpedo course for six weeks, after which I returned to Chatham. I was married in the August, then I joined HMS Royal Oak in the September, sailing for the Mediterranean for two and a half years! Not very nice for newly weds. However one day the Paymaster Commander sent for me one day, and said “I believe that you have not been married very long? Would you like to transfer ships back into the home fleet?” I was delighted as the ship I was on would be away from Britain for at least six years. I was transferred to HMS Valiant, and returned to the UK, arriving back in Invergordon in the middle of a mutiny! The lads were on strike because the Labour government had announced a twenty per cent cut in service men’s pay. The men in the home fleet one the day not only for the Navy but for all the services. I spent a year on the Valiant and then six months in barracks at Chatham, rejoining the Renown for six months, when my twelve years I had signed up for was finished. I joined the Royal fleet Reserve for ten years.

Returning to civilian life I started to work for the Post Office as an electrician. The Post Office and the telephone service split up in 1948, and became British Telecom. I worked for them for thirty five years all together, and was awarded the Imperial Medal from the Queen. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 I was called up and served for three years on the Dover patrol. Then I was transferred to the Russian convoys. On one of these trips our ship was torpedoed, we lost sixty four feet off the bows, and coincidently sadly sixty four lives were also lost. We were fortunate that we did not sink, but they managed to tow us to a Russian port, were we had a very unpleasant time. Eventually I got a passage on a Norwegian destroyer to Gaurock in Scotland. I was able to send my wife a telegram, with the words “I will see you again”, she had not known whether I was alive or dead for the previous four months. She always said it was the finest message she ever received.

After a short leave I was put into a Naval Pageant which took place at the Albert Hall, every night for a week. The pageant depicted the Navy from the times of King Alfred of the burnt cakes fame up until 1945, nearly one thousand men and women of the Royal Navy took part in it. Returning to Chatham I joined a destroyer which was going to the Far East. Luckily the war in Japan had just finished, so when we reached Malta I was able to leave the ship for my final demob. This took longer than I expected. We lived in an old warehouse for a month, then camped under canvas in St. Paul’s Bay for another month, crossing the Med to Toulon in southern France. We were again camping under canvas, eventually travelling by train to northern France, crossing the Channel to be demobbed in Chatham, three months after leaving my ship in Malta. I was told that they were not expecting me, so they gave me ten days leave to get their paperwork ‘sorted’.

The Kilnsea Beacon
The Kilnsea Beacon (Photograph courtesy of Dorothy Smith)

Returning to work in November 1945 as I have already mentioned with the telephone service until I retired in 1969. We then returned to my roots in Kilnsea, where we had purchased a little wooden bungalow (former army hut) some years earlier from my cousin. My main object was to build a modern bungalow but the Council refused. They allowed me to renew the shed with new timber, a new roof, windows and doors, and also to extend it with a second bedroom, bathroom and toilet. I spent the next twenty years making it, and the garden, a life’s work. I had other pursuits as well, I worked at the Crown and Anchor, for a grand old lady affectionately known to all as 'Ma Robinson', I was Chairman of Easington British Legion for ten years, and Church Warden of St. Helen's Kilnsea for seven. When I came back many of the old landmarks had gone. First the beacon, which had stood there for donkey’s years. The army destroyed it in 1939. Also the two range finder posts which some interfering woman from Hornsea said were an ugly sight for a village. To me they were a memorial to the men who passed through and then lost their lives in France.

Cliff Farm, Kilnsea - 1964
Cliff Farm, Kilnsea - 1964. The white building to the left is Kew Villa (Photograph courtesy of Jan Crowther)

My wife became blind so we decided to move to Thorngumbald in 1988 to be nearer to Hull and hospitals. Shortly after our move we were in York and unfortunately we were knocked over by a van. Nora never really recovered. Losing her memory, she had to spend the last four years in a nursing home. She died in 1995 after sixty six years of married life together.

I am fortunate to still be living on my own in a nice little bungalow, with good friends near-by. I do quite a bit of travelling, and still attend the British Legion at Hedon.