GENERALLY most of the activities of village life are centred around the village church, but in Braunton, Cross Tree, almost in the centre of the village, was the liveliest spot. This was the site of the old Saxon East Cross and was marked by an old elm tree. The site was almost a square and was the site of all open air gatherings and activities.
On summer evenings the band of the local volunteer corps would entertain the villagers and afterwards the local orchestra would follow suit.
It was the pitch of the Salvation Army, for open air meetings on Sunday afternoons, previous to being led by their band to their citadel in South Street.
After the Sunday evening services in the local places of worship there would be a united open air service under the tree Local worthies would speak and often shout and the voice of one sea captain could be heard a mile away.
Cross Tree was the pitch for cheap-jacks, quack doctors and people who had various wares to sell. On these occasions great crowds gathered. The cheap-jacks often started their sales by holding attractive competitions.
On one occasion an apple dumpling eating competition was held under the tree. A well known craftsman won the prize by consuming no less than sixteen boiled apple dumplings in quick time, a feat which was the topic of conversation for a very long time.
Hard by the tree was the Red Lion Inn and the ground outside was the pitch of quack doctors. I remember one American Quack who called himself Wanga. His pills were guaranteed to cure all ills and his lotions and medicines were unsurpassed. Wanga was a clever dentist and he gathered his crowd when he gave free dental extractions. As the patients climbed on to the platform in front of his wagonette the crowd cheered, and the applause was greater when the extraction was performed on a yelling patient. After the dental operation Wanga would lecture on various common ailments and proceed to sell his pills and lotions. Needless to say he did a roaring trade, and the local chemist had less customers after the quack's visit.
On one occasion a travelling phrenologist visited the village and gave open air demonstrations at a charge of one shilling each. A local farmer's son who was always spoken of as "John Little Truth" was there. Of him it was often said : "If you don't believe me go and ask John L." Some local wags who had previously primed the phrenologist, prevailed on John L. to get his bumps read.
After he had consented, he mounted the platform and sat on the chair. The phrenologist began by passing his fingers over various part of the victim's head. making casual complimentary remarks regarding the bumps of knowledge. health. business acumen and other qualities. At last his fingers rested on a spot and he said : " Yes ! This is the bump of truth. It isn't very perceptible but the little that there is, is as good as anybody else's." There was laughter and applause from the crowd, but poor John came down crestfallen and quickly disappeared.
The vans of various political and religious organisations also made Cross Tree their pitch. On one occasion the van of the United Kingdom Temperance Alliance made its appearance and for several nights temperance meetings were conducted from the platform. The peripatetic speaker, William Harbud, a well known temperance advocate, at that time, was waxing eloquent on the evils of alcohol when suddenly a well-known character of the village emerged from the Ilfracombe Inn, walked to the front of the audience and, holding up a quart bottle of beer. offered the speaker a drink. His offer being declined. he put the bottle to his mouth and demonstrated the way to empty it. Then, supported by his mates who had come out to join him, he coolly walked away.
Although the old Cross Tree could weather the gales of centuries. it had to give way to modern road improvements which eventually spoiled the character of the village and a stone plaque is all that brings to memory so many interesting events that took place in Victorian days. Other open air events took place in a field which is now the recreation ground. It was there that Johnny Martin of South Molton, a well-known West Country cheap-jack, pitched his travelling shop. Night after night he would gather a crowd who would enjoy the contests in singing of comic songs, speech making and above all the oratory and clever salesmanship of the cheapjack.
The last of this trade to visit us came from the North of England. He carried on his sales in a field behind the Iron Mills near the Church. His stories as well as his competitions were very original. Each night the competition for the next day was announced and the names of entrants taken. One night a pudding eating contest took place and there were about a dozen competitors. On this particular occasion those taking part were seated on either side of a long trestle table with their hands tied behind their backs. The puddings, which were just boiled, were lifted out of a large boiler and one was placed in front of each competitor.
On the word " Go " the game began.
Several of the young bloods burnt their tongues. much to the delight of the onlookers, but one notoriety began to bite off pieces from his pudding and place them to cool on the sides of his plate.
When the pudding was completely dismantled he quickly ate up the cooled pieces and had completely finished his task, long before the others. Then came the presentation of prizes. The Cheap-Jack announced the winner, who was callled to the front to receive his prize and the congratulations from the donor, who said, "I present these two beautiful vases to William Luscombe. the biggest glutton in Braunton." Needless to say. William heard of his wonderful performance and his new title for a long time afterwards.
We got much of our pleasure by playing in the streets. Our only playground was at the Board School but not after school hours. The old caretaker saw to that. We sometimes got permission from a farmer to play a game of football or cricket in a field, but our chief pitches were the streets. Our football was often a blown-up pigs bladder, obtained when the parents of one of the boys killed a pig. Sometimes we bought a bullock's bladder from the butcher. If no bladder was available we used a tennis ball.
Sometimes we South Street boys would challenge the boys of other streets. There would be plenty of bruised shins on both sides and often the game would end with our opponents being chased out of our street.
We played cricket on any spare ground we could find. Our stumps were ash sticks cut from the hedges and our bats handmade from spare wood.
We got our training, however, and when we reached the adolescent age we were able to take our part in the foundation of the football and cricket clubs.
Today organised games at school, such as tennis, football, cricket, basket ball and hockey seem to be the only games played by the children. We Victorian boys organised our own games of hare and hounds, hide and seek, go-lace, prisoner's base, leap frog, fly, hat ball hoops, tops, marbles and paper chases and sometimes we invented new games. We had special times of the year for all our games and when the marbles were put away the tops were taken out. After a severe frost we could skate and slide on the ice around the marshes and often went to the ponds which in winter gathered in Braunton Burrows. Skaters from all parts of North Devon would come to the skating ponds at the Saunton end of the Burrows. At such times some of the bigger boys would take chairs near the ponds and augment their pocket money by charging for a seat when visitors put on their skates.
We always had a gay time on Guy Fawkes' Day. Therewould be plenty of cheap fireworks let off in the streets and a bonfire on the Beacon. There were no electric torches in those days but a mangold taken from a farmyard heap or a clamp in the fields would be hollowed out and made in the form of a mask. The lantern thus formed would have a slot for a candle and when it was lit we paraded the streets with the grotesque faces, held at various angles. We also bought coloured masks for a penny. Our gathering place would generally be around a shop window until a policeman came and chased us away.
We had many kinds of street entertainment. Those were the days of the "ballad singers." I especially remember one man who was dressed in a shabby suit with a long black overcoat and bowler hat. He began singing at the top of the street. The subject of his song was a murder and I remember his giving us the story of Jack the Ripper in various musical keys, after which he sold us the words of his song for a penny.
Other singers would give us the latest ballads and songs from the music halls. It was from such street performers as these that we learnt such songs as " Daisy," " Where did you get that hat?" and "A little bit off the top."
Often our entertainers would be tramps from Barnstaple Workhouse. They generally came in pairs and tried to sing a well known hymn, but it was often the first verse over and over again.
Then there were the German bands of from four to eight performers. Often they consisted of members of one family and their musical talent varied. Sometimes they were accomplished musicians and played selections from the best composers and at other times they made an abominable noise.
The Italian organ grinder was a frequent visitor. On top of his barrel organ sat a couple of monkeys which often gave more entertainment than the organ itself.
Later came the piano organ and the Italians who entertained us were Pascal Miele and his brother who lived 5 miles away at Barnstaple.
They also came in the summer with their ice cream barrow. the contents of which they served up in two colours and called "hokey pokey."
Other musical entertainers were Italian accordionists and dancers. One entertainer was a band in himself. He used his hands in playing the bagpipes and with his foot he manipulated a big drum, cymbals, bells and triangle strapped on his back.
Often Russians visited our village with dancing bears. On one occasion I saw six bearded Russians with four bears performing outside my home. The muzzled bears were led by long ropes and, standing on their hind legs they held a long pole with their front paws. They then danced along while their masters sang "Rum-tum-tummy-rum" over and over again.
2. STREET TRADING
Click to return to top of page.
There was much more street trading than at the present time. The Fishman came two or three times a week with a handcart which he pushed all the way from Barnstaple and one man, Tom Pearce, called customers to his cart with the loud cry of "Macko ! Macko ! fresh Macko ! Macko !" His mackerel were sold at prices ranging from a penny to threepence each. During the herring season after a good catch the carts from Ilfracombe were to be seen in the streets, generally at night. The cry of "Coombe Herrin's sixty a shilling ! Coombe Herrin's" would bring oat men with pans, buckets and other utensils and three or four shillings worth would be bought for salting in for the winter.
In Summer time the familiar cry of "Worts ! Mazzards ! Worts ! Mazzards !" told us that old blind man Dick Yeo and his wife were coming up the street. Farmer Dick came from Swimbridge, where, with the adjoining village of Landkey, the mazzard Orchards have produced that particular form of black cherry since the sixteenth century. We paid 6d. a pint for whortle-berries which had been gathered on Exmoor and 3d. a pound for mazzards. Wort pie and Mazzard tart, with plenty of "Demshur Craim" then lOd. to 1 /- a pound. were most delectable afters for Sunday Dinners.
Another familiar figure in the autumn was the blue jersied Breton boy, bearing on each shoulder poles strung with Onions. Johnny Frenchie, as he was called, went from door to door otfering his wares.
A Cargo of onions, brought from Brittany to Barnstaple was hawked around the town and neighbouring villages for several weeks.
A string of onions weighing from 6 to 8 pounds could be bought for one and sixpence. 2d. to 2d. a pound was an average price.
The ringing of his bell would tell us that the muffin man was coming. Dressed with white coat and apron and with a flat white cap on his head, he carried his mufflns and crumpets on a tray covered with a white cloth and carefully balanced on his head.
Quite a familiar figure was Mrs. Taylor of Barnstaple. who was a china, hardware and marine store dealer. She came with her wagon loaded with pots, pans, brushes and other household utensils on Tuesdays and called for the "best clothes" at the end of the week.
We often gathered around her wagon to see the pretty vases and china dogs that she brought and many a mantel piece today is ornamented with some of her china ware.
There is a humorous incident in connection with a visit Mrs. Taylor made to a house at the bottom of our street. The lady of the house had bought a lot of china from Mrs. Taylor on trust, and in spite of persuasion, the money was not forthcoming. One day she called at the house and said. " Now, look here, Mrs. W--n. If you don't pay me next time, I'll put you to trouble."
"All right, Mrs. Taylor, I'll be sure to pay you something when you come at the end of the week." was the reply.
Three days later Mrs. W. looked down the street and saw the familiar wagon. Turning to her boy she said : "Bennie. Old Muther Taylor's coming up the street and I don't want to zee 'er. If 'er calls, you tell 'er I'm gone to Barnstaple."
"Aul rite, muther." said Ben.
Soon a knock at the door announced the call of the unwelcome business woman. Ben went to the door.
"Where's your mother ?" said Mrs. T.
"Aw, Mrs. Taylor, 'ers gone to Barnstaple," was the reply.
"When will 'er be home ?" said Mrs. T.
"Wait a minit," said Ben, " I'll go upstairs and ax 'er."
Mrs. W. had to come down and face the irate Mrs. T. and as for Ben, he got a good beating for being so thoughtless. Mrs. Taylor told the story from door to door and Ben was for a long time afterwards nicknamed "I'll go upstairs and ax 'er."
One of the favourite breakfast dishes was fried bacon and laver, which was a prepared seaweed. It grew in flakes on the rocks and sands at the bed of the estuary of the Taw and Torridge. and was in season except in the months of May, June, July and August. Two or three times a week a boatload of women would be conveyed from Vellator to Broadsands and. between the ebbing of one tide and the rising of the next. they would be kept busy gathering the flaky weed. The incoming tide would bring them back with sacks packed full. The next day the laver was washed to remove all sand and grit and then given a long boiling in vinegar. It was then placed in covered baskets, lined with calico cloths and hawked to regular customers in the village at 3d. a pound.
Today (1966) laver is a delicacy rather than a regular article of food and is sold at 2 shillings a pound.
Sometimes we would answer a knock at the door and be greeted with a request from a little bearded man with a black bag : "Any Dutch drops today ?" This little Dutchman had a remedy which was guaranteed to cure almost every imaginable ailment all for 9d. a bottle, " Dutch drops " was a medicine which was kept in the cupboards of many homes in those days.
There were three well-known packmen who came at regular intervals from Barnstaple with their packs on their backs. They visited the homes, opened their packs and spread their goods on the table. All types of clothing were displayed, orders taken and measurements made for suits and other garments. The old villagers of Braunton and other North Devon villages will long remember the names of Mingo, Tresise and Trengrove, the packmen, who came with their packs on their backs.
The village barber's shop in Caen Street was of particular interest. It was the gathering place of young and old, especially on Saturday mornings. Hung on the wall was a large printed card:
It was worth the price of a haircut and the long wait attending it to hear the conversation : sailors talking about their voyages, the fishermen talking about the " Gurt Salmon " they had caught; the farmers complaining about the "terrible bad times" and the cripples talking about the various concoctions for their rheumatics. There was one old customer who, when greeted by the barber with " How be you today ?" replied, "I be terrible bad. 'Tis the wind, you knaw. Iss, 'tis the wind. But I knaw the cure. Tu penn'orth of rum will do it but dree penn'orth be better." It would not be a big dose in these days !
I shall always remernber the revolving brush our barber used after a haircut. When about to perform our barber called his niece into the saloon and, whilst she turned the wheel, the barber held the revolving brush with both hands and ran it over the victim's head.
THANK YOU for visiting, and please mail me with your comments,
or link to 'A Story of Braunton' Page
or link to Devon History Selection.
Return to top of page.