Working Lives

Story of an Irstead boy (1930s-2018)

Location: Irstead

Alan describes family life growing up on the marshes, in a cottage in Irstead. His uncle was a marshman.

Life in the cottage

I had grandmother, aunts and uncles, and we all lived together in a cottage in Irstead. We didn’t have electricity or running water, but we had a lovely coal fire all year round.

Let me explain the cottage. You went through the back door into what we called the kitchen. On the wall there was a big brick fireplace. On the left-hand side of that was an oven in the wall. You lit the fire underneath and then my grandmother could bake the bread and cook in there. On the right-hand side of the fireplace was a copper boiling pot – you filled that up and lit the fire, and that’s where my grandmother did the washing.

There was a big kitchen table near the window. On the left-hand side of that there was a big walk-in pantry. And then you went through that into what we called the living room. There was a big table in the middle of the room. On the right-hand side was a lovely fireplace, with two hobs on the side with a kettle. On the left-hand side of the fireplace was the door to go upstairs. There were also a couple of big cupboards in the living room. I think because it was warm from the fire, my grandmother kept the linen in those cupboards. On the left-hand wall was a big chest of drawers and on it was a big glass case. There was also a brown table, and on that (which I thought was fantastic) was a stuffed harrier. My favourite chair was a lovely big chair next to the fireplace. In the winter time we also had a large oil lamp that had a glass globe with flowers on.

Upstairs there were the two bedrooms. The front room was where my grandmother and two aunts slept, and then you went through to the second bedroom, where my uncles and I slept in two big beds. At that time there was my grandmother, Ellen and Nora in one room, and in the other room was Tom, Billy and me.

We had a massive garden, and in it were two big Bramley apple trees. Beside the garden was a water dyke, and the other side of the dyke was the flat marsh. Above that were the old reed beds.

To do the shopping, my grandmother would write a note to Roys of Wroxham, and they would deliver the groceries to the house. They even had a baker’s cart, and they’d come around with the bread. We were well looked after.

My Aunt Ellen worked at a big house, called Cedar House, down in Horning. I think the people she worked for were away a lot. She’d take me to the big house when I was seven or eight. I remember when she went to one of the cupboards and took out a hoover, and when she turned it on a big black bag nearly blew I up. Bearing in mind we had no electricity, so I’d never seen a hoover before, I was so frightened I nearly ran away because I didn’t know what it was.

Aunt Ellen was the person who bought me my first real fishing rod. When she came home with it I couldn’t dig worms up from the garden quick enough. I ran down to shoals to use it, that was absolutely fantastic. Most of the time in the summer we were down by the shoals, swimming or fishing. I learnt to swim down there, and so did nearly everyone else. I had all the freedom in the world.

Nora, the youngest aunt, worked for the Wells family down here, but she was home nearly every night.

Back then there was about four or five families in the village. My grandmother’s sister, who we called Aunt Sally, lived across the road.

I can honestly say I was brought up in that little house with no electricity or water, and I was one of the happiest kids. I thought the world of my grandmother and they said I was spoilt, but I had a really happy childhood.


When I was five I had to start school. It was two miles away. It didn’t matter if there was rain or snow, there was no excuse for not going. You had a dinner bag to take your sandwiches in, because it was too far to walk home for lunch.

I was five when somebody in the village gave me a little pedal car. I thought the world of this car. I asked if I could go to school in it. To keep me quiet, one of my youngest uncles, who was still at school, said ‘Alright, boy’, and put a rope on the pedal car, towing me halfway and then put the little car in the hedge at the back of the field. He then put me on the crossbar of his bike and took me the rest of the way to school. That only lasted for one term because my uncle left school that summer, and then I went to school on my own. I was still only five and walked two miles to school and two miles back, by myself. When I got home there was nothing in the house to sit in for, so I was straight out on the marshes.

At Neatishead School there were three classes: the infants, where I started, then you moved into the juniors, and then onto the senior class. I left at fourteen. Back then everyone left school at fourteen.

There was a big garden at the school. We got the cane a lot when whenever we stepped out of line, so, to get our own back, a lad called Jack Morter and I went into the shed the day before we left school and put some spuds in the rockery in the school garden.

The Marshes and Broads

I can remember there were bad winters. The marshes would flood and there was a marsh down Irstead, which would flood from the river. When it froze over it was a massive ice rink. We were skating on there all Saturdays and Sundays, until nearly nine or ten at night, it was absolutely fantastic. We got bad frosts then. I don’t know whether the marshes still flood like that, but they did then. It was frozen for maybe three or four weeks and then it started to deteriorate.

During the war, when I was about twelve, my friends and I were on one of the Broads, with my mate Johnny Bush, who was about two years older than the rest of us. At the other end of the broad was a boathouse and a rowing boat. We said ‘Here, we’ll have a row on the boat’. So Johnny sat at one end of the boat, and I sat at the other. Johnny stood up, I think he wanted to move, and as he stood up he fell into the water. I tell you what, it was a close call – he went under. I grabbed him and we had to pull him in. We were kneeling on the side of the boat, and it was nearly touching the surface of the water. If that boat had capsized, the three of us would have drowned, and nobody would have known where we were because we shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

My uncle Billy was a marshman, working at How Hill, in Ludham. Ludham was the other side of the river, so he had a boat to get to and from work. He didn’t start reed cutting until late in the year.

I heard him talking about a ‘fathom’ of reed. I found out that a ‘fathom’ is six foot. I think six bundles of reed measured round about six feet. I think that’s how he got paid, by how many fathom of reed he cut. Six bundles of reed equalled a fathom.

My uncle and a fellow called George were the only marshmen in the area. They worked together at How Hill. They were estate workers – they did ditching, fencing, hedge-clipping, as well as reed cutting and clearing out the dykes.

Uncle Billy (William Cox) 1950s at Hickling Broad

During the war, when eggs were hard to get, I would go to the dykes and collect water hen’s eggs. I even had a big spoon on the end of stick, so if they were too far out I could bring them in one at a time. Someone once told me that if you get a water hen’s egg, you should get it in the palm of your hand and drop them in the water. If they float, put them back in the nest, because they have young in, but if it sinks then you’re alright. I would go home with a cap full of eggs and my grandmother would put the frying pan on and we’d have big fried eggs.

We didn’t have a boat to ourselves, but my uncle had the boat from work. There were lovely fat worms, nearly as thick as your finger, and my uncle would get a piece of wool and a darn needle, and we’d dig these big fat worms up and thread them onto the wool. When he got about six or seven worms, he’d tie the two bits of wool at the end. We’d take the boat up the dyke to the river side at about half past seven at night, and you’d drop these worms in. The next thing you knew, you’d feel eels pulling on it, so we’d pull the eels up and shake them into the boat. When we got eight or nine eels we’d take the boat back and walk home, leaving the eels in the boat overnight.

The next morning we’d take a clean bucket, and my uncle would pick the eels up and slap their tails against the side of the boat to stop them wriggling. He’d then run the knife along the neck and take the skin off. We’d skin the eels, put them in the bucket and take them home. My grandmother would put them in a bowl of water with a little bit of salt and we’d leave them until about tea time. She’d drain the water and chop the eels into two-inch bits and fry them.

Working at Irstead Lodge

When I left school, I started work at Irstead Lodge, a massive mansion just down the road, which was owned by Captain Wilson. I worked in the garden there. Of course, the other fellas had been called up – this was 1943. The was a lovely old fella called Jack, I think he thought the world of me as a boy. He took me under his wing. There were vegetables growing and a greenhouse – there were all sorts there.

On my first day, somebody had been in the garden and had thrown a load of weeds onto the path, and old Jack Emerson said to me ‘Get a rake and rake that path clean will you’. So that was the very first job I did, to clean this path up from the rubbish somebody had left. I worked from eight o’clock in the morning till five, and an hour for dinner, and we left off at twelve o’clock on the Saturday. They put one pound on the table. That was my pay for all that week. I took it home, said to my grandmother ‘Here you are’, put it on the table, and she’d give me five bob back. I was chuffed I had five shillings, you know.

When I first started working at Irstead Lodge, I think Mrs Wilson was ill. I remember one Sunday morning when the neighbour called out ‘I think that’s on fire’. I pedalled down to the Lodge and saw that the whole thing was away. The fire engines pumped water from Barton Broad. I think they carried Mrs Wilson out to the chauffeur’s place just above the garage, but she died a couple of days later. The old fella that dug the grave tried a couple of times but the graves kept falling in, so I dug her grave for her. The whole house had burned down, and I think Captain Wilson went away.

I was still there – I kept on working because the gardens were still there. The house had burned down in the winter of 1946, and it was in early 1947 that I got an envelope to say I had to go and register for national service. I did six weeks with the Royal Norfolk Regiment, which was rough. I opted to join the Royal Engineers, so I got posted to Aldershot. I served my time as a plate-layer on the railway, working in three different counties.

When I came out of national service I went back to Irstead Lodge.

Betty was a land army girl, who worked at Kittle just up the road from Irstead. She’d come from Sunderland and she’d married a local chap. The next thing I knew her younger sister had come on holiday to Norfolk, and I saw this dark-haired girl and I got chatting to her, and to cut a long story short Jean and I got married. I thought about leaving Irstead because we didn’t yet have a house, but luckily Major Holden had a cottage down Water Lane and he let me go in there, while our bungalow was being built, and when the bungalow was completed we moved in.

Alan Cox (1929-2022) talking to  WISEArchive on 13th July 2018 at Irstead, Norfolk

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