The romantic wartime story of Joan’s wedding
And how a farm in the Umborne Valley became a sanctuary for people being bombed in the cities
As told by Joan Dommett
My story might never have had a happy ending had I not one day called into the coal depot at Colyton Station to pay a bill. For, there was Eddie paying his bill too.
We had known each other for some time. I would stop for a chat if I saw him trimming hedges or doing other jobs in the fields as I cycled down to Colyton from my home at Yardbury Hill.
By now I was 21 and working as a nanny with a family the other side of Taunton. Within a year or so, my country would be at war, yet life was pleasant, even if all the miles I did on my bicycle did sometimes make me weary.
After paying my bill I was to ride 29 miles back to the two little girls I looked after at Fitzroy Farm. It would take me two and a half hours. Eddie suggested he might ride some of the way with me and I agreed. It was the start of our romance.
Once a week for the next year Eddie and I would exchange letters and every fortnight he would cycle through Taunton to see me. Sometimes I would make the journey in the opposite direction to see Eddie and also my mother. Cycling was the only option. There was a bus but it cost 4s 6d, a big proportion of my 12s 6d weekly wage and it took just as long.
Usually when we met we would walk together. Occasionally there was an agricultural show or fair to go to. There wasn’t much else to do.
Then, just after war had broken out, Eddie proposed. He didn’t go down on one knee or anything like that. It might almost have been a business proposition. Eddie and his brother Frank had inherited Tritchmarsh Farm. His brother was also to marry but his girlfriend didn’t want to live there because it was too close to relatives. Eddie said: ‘This is our chance. Shall we take it? Shall we get married and work the farm?’ The way he put it might not have been very romantic, but we were in love and it made sense. So I said yes.
We went by train to Axminster to buy a ring. The one we chose had three small diamonds. I was so proud of it.
It was to be 18 months before we married, and in the meantime the two boys continued to run the 77-acre farm between them. During that time we saved enough for the cows and machinery but not to buy Frank out of the farm. We tried to get a loan to cover Frank’s half, but everyone turned us down. We were like a balloon pinched. It seemed our dream was over before it had begun. But Frank said we could pay him off quarterly after we married, and that’s what we did. We worked our socks off until the farm was ours.
Our wedding was in 1941, on Easter Monday, because it was a sensible time in the farming calendar to start afresh. The ceremony was at midday at St Andrews Church, where I had also been christened and confirmed. The bells rang out and people stopped to watch us leave the church.
By now the war was really beginning to bite, but the dresses weren’t a problem. My own was made by Madame Wood, a dressmaker in Church Street, for whom I had worked at 5s a week when I left Colyton school at the age of 14. I was with her for four years until my first nanny’s job at Seaton. Madame Wood knew what material she could get and what would suit me, and so I left the choice of dress to her. I knew her taste was good. She chose cream Georgette. I don’t think I saw either the design or the material until my first fitting, and I had to cycle from Taunton for that. She also made my going-away outfit: a blue, striped dress with a plain blue coat. I felt nicer than I had ever felt. Everything was so lovely.
I had five bridesmaids. The dresses for the four children I made myself, including those for the two girls I looked after at Taunton. I cycled home with the dresses for my young sister and a cousin so they could be fitted properly. All the hems had to be generous so they could be let down to make party dresses as the girls grew older. My grown-up sister had hers made in London where she lived.
I cycled back from Taunton a week before the wedding to finalise everything.
Mum and I and my sisters prepared the food for the reception, which we held at my uncle’s Little Downhayne Farm where my mother was now living. There were about 40 guests; family and special friends. We had sandwiches and sausage rolls; bread and cheese; jellies and trifles; and fruit salad. Quite a spread it was. It took us several hours to put it together.
The cake had to be iced chocolate, not white. There wasn’t enough icing sugar available for baker Copp to give us two tiers of cake with royal icing. But there was enough to make white piping over the chocolate icing. It was delicious anyway, and it looked good. The top tier, with the chocolate icing scraped off, was saved, according to the tradition, for the first christening. But that was to be four and a half years in coming.
For the toast there was a glass of wine, or port or sherry. There just wasn’t the sort of drinking there is now.
By mid-afternoon, Eddie and I had left in his little car for our honeymoon. It had been a very happy day, and now we were embarked on an adventure. For, nothing had been booked, and neither of us had ever stayed in a hotel. In fact, Eddie’s travels in Devon had never taken him farther than Honiton. He had never had a night off the farm. We decided on Torquay, and there we had three nights in the Belgrave Hotel. We did enjoy being waited upon. It was a real treat that was never to happen again. From then on, the farm came first, second and last.
The day we were back from our honeymoon, we had 20 cows to milk, calves to feed and poultry and pigs to muck out. This was to be our life as a young married couple, seven days a week, 6am until it was dark.
Within weeks, we also found ourselves with a ‘family’ to care for. Two evacuees arrived, one a 13-year-old girl from London called Pat Westwater and the other, a 12-year-old boy, Roy Graham, from Bristol. Pat was like a sister to me. Neither of them was the slightest trouble. Though we had only recently been married, and money was short, we didn’t mind having them with us at all.
It was a pleasure seeing them enjoying the fresh air and having a life away from the bombs and the shortages, just as it was when holidaymakers began to arrive. We took trippers in for three guineas a week full board so that we could make ends meet. We had up to six of them at a time escaping the cities. It was such a relief for them that they hardly minded walking across the fields from Seaton Junction with their suitcases.
While they were with us, they didn’t seem to do much but breathe in deeply and wonder at the quiet. They would often go no farther than the orchard, taking a rug to rest on. It was so different from the lives they led at home.
They didn’t even mind the primitive conditions we lived in. If they were to wake in the night, they would have to make their way up the path to the nearest loo or use the jerry under the bed. We had no indoor sanitation. There was just one tap in the kitchen, from which jugs had to be filled to take upstairs – and for warm water there was just a top-up from the range.
We had no electricity either. At Fitzroy Farm, I had been used to having lights at the flick of a switch, flushing loos and running water. But at Tritchmarsh it was back to candles and later oil lamps. Electricity didn’t come to 1960, and we weren’t the last in the area even then.
We were the last, though, to have a tractor. Throughout the war, and indeed until 1962, we ploughed and rolled the fields, and did all our other jobs, with three working horses.
The one luxury we had was delivery of our food to the farm by pony and trap and later by van. Folletts, the grocer, would call for an order on Saturday and deliver on Monday. The bakers, Copps and Govers, would deliver three times a week. The butchers, Louds and Whites, would come on Tuesday with our weekday meat and collect our order for Sunday joints to be delivered on Saturday. Fresh fish would arrive with Reg Driver on his bike on Thursday morning.
As regular as clockwork, the postman would arrive daily across the fields from Seaton Junction. Our address then was Tritchmarsh, Shute. It was such a long walk just to reach us, and sometimes in winter the floods would thwart him. So they decided to send a postman out from Colyton by bike, and our address became Tritchmarsh, Colyton. If we posted a letter at Three Sycamores to my sister in London on Sunday afternoon, it always arrived with her by Monday afternoon.
Despite these conveniences, the war years, and those afterwards, were tough by modern standards. They were often cold and uncomfortable. They were certainly dark and sometimes grim. But we were young and energetic and we took no notice of it all. Life was what we made it, though we did welcome the long summer nights.
For our visitors from the cities, Tritchmarsh was a shelter in the storm. It was our privilege to live there all the time, no matter what the hardships.
Joan Dommett had three daughters, one of whom, Christine, lived with her at Tritchmarsh until 2009. Together they kept the land farmed after Eddie’s death in 1996. Joan herself died earlier in 2009, aged 91.
|A chapter from Colyton at War, a book of wartime reminiscences written by retired journalist Geoff Elliott, a resident of Umborne. The book is available from Archway Bookshop, Axminster, Colyton Post Office and Steve’s Print, Seaton.|