When I first left school, I went straight to work!
I became a gardener-porter at the maternity – the only facility we had in the city at the time – at Heigham Grove, a lovely old Georgian -Victorian building which was mostly for hospital confinements but also it had an annexe which had six qualified midwives, six pupil midwives who used to have to do six months in the hospital and six months on the road on their bicycles. Now the bicycles were one of the things that I was very concerned with! Because the only reason I could have the job, and this was much before the Health Service (laughs) – I could have the job providing I had a bicycle. And to sort that out my father went to St. Stephen’s to Curry’s I think it was at the time, it might be interesting to know that he got a BSA bicycle for £3 19 and 6, and also they threw in a pump and a carrier, a strong carrier. Now, the reason for the strong carrier was the fact that I had to back the midwives up as they went out on their bicycles to do their nursings and bring some more poor little mites into the world at that time (this was a very bad time). If they went out in the morning to do their nursings after confinements it was possible that a call would come through somebody else had gone into labour. And my job was, given a list of addresses in the city where midwives could be found, and I put the confinement bag on the back of my bicycle, pedal like the devil all the way around the city until I came to where this young lady was doing her nursing and we would exchange bags; she would take the confinement bag and I would take the nursing bag back on my bicycle. And these girls done that all through the winter and summer, they had to do six months of this, and I remember the year of 1947, one of the worst winters on record, and they still kept on – and it must be remembered they couldn’t call on ambulances and them ‘cos they’d only got two ambulances in the city! One at the infectious diseases place on Bowthorpe Road and the other one was the one they used to cart the laundry around in various hospitals.
Any rate, my other duties were – now this is interesting – the gardening part of the duties. I had to do normal digging but also they had a huge vinery there and I used to have to spend quite a lot of time up in the roof of the vinery thinning the grapes. And we used to cut at least about five hundred bunches a year and the other thing was, I think perhaps people will remember, well they will remember now because it’s still there, the beech wood which borders Earlham Road next to Heigham Road, that was our dell, that was all our property, all property of the hospital.
Then, my other duties were they had three huge boilers which burned at least three ton of coke a fortnight and I had to stoke these three boilers three times a day, one for the warmth in the hospital, one for the laundry and one for the greenhouses. And that included weekend duties too …
Oh yes, what my wages were would be very interesting. Thirteen shillings a week, of which mother took ten and I had three! Strangely enough I started paying for a pension, this is interesting, paying for a pension when I was sixteen, which I’m benefitting from this day, you know? I was there until the war came along, and I had quite an eventful time during the war!
What did you do during the war?
Well, I volunteered for the RAF, but at the time when the invasion was imminent, we all had to be – we wanted to be either mechanics or wanted to fly, I’d no idea about wanting to fly, but just anything to protect the airfields and one of those duties was up the eighty foot water tower doing spotter duty and looking for aircraft that shouldn’t be there or were trying to get home, that kind of stuff you know. And then the RAF regiment was formed and being as though I was skilled in rifles and things like that I got Shanghaied into that.
When you were on your bicycles and helping the midwives, how far did you have to go?
Well the whole of the city, and some of it was being demolished then – slum clearance – it’s a hard job to say how far but some of the areas were a bit not-quite-happy kind of place! And, as I say, going into some of the streets there’d be people standing on the entrance to the streets and they would say, ‘Where’re you going boy?’ and I would say, ‘I’ve got to find the midwife,’ ‘Oh, well that’s alright.’ I think they thought I was coming to collect the rent or something! (laughs) But, no, I never had any real trouble, just that you had to be just a little bit careful. I say the police didn’t like the area at that time of day, but- what else can you think of?
Gardening for the BBC in Norwich
Well, it sounds as though it was very different from your later years when you became a gardener, could you tell us a little bit how that came to be?
Well I think because I used to help father so much we had a sort of rapport between the pair of us and he was a wonderful fellow, my dad. Well really it’s St. Catherine’s Close, the building itself and Dr. Blaxland who was one eminent doctor at the Norfolk and Norwich, when the bomb – you know the Baedeker raids on Norwich, the one that hit them pretty bad. With my father on the roof, Dr. Blaxland on the roof, his sons on the roof, throwing incendiaries off into the garden down below and they saved that old building that night and mum and Mrs. Blaxland and other ladies were in the air raid shelter which we dug out the ground in the garden, cause that was the last big garden within the city walls.
How big was the garden, about?
About four acres.
That is big.
Of course that was all sold off, for garages and the Norwich Union.
So your dad retired, I believe he was well into his seventies, and you took over from him. Did you still live in the grounds?
Well I helped him as he got older and the BBC noticed it and they were in a bit of a pickle when father decided to go and they asked me if I would take the job on a part time basis, you see, and well I thought why not? I’d better ask my boss, the Medical Officer of Health of the city, if he’d mind– only being polite – old Dr. Soothill in those days, he was a good old boy really. He said, ‘Well you’d be doing somebody else’s gardening to make a few pounds, would you?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Thanks for telling me.’
And that opened a whole new dimension of gardening because I had to do the studios. Why I wasn’t given a staff number, I was never a member of the staff, I might just as well have been because some of the things I had to do and ask for, and the people I’d met!
Tell us about some of that then. Tell us about some of the things you had to do and the people that you worked with.
Well, in that particular time, studios had to be decorated at night or for programmes, and I got a nice rapport with my friend who was city corporation head gardener at Earlham Hall, and I could borrow from him what we needed because we’d only a small greenhouse round there then. We used to have to decorate the studio, or take a lorry up and bring a load of stuff down, it was quite good fun, I liked it. And then they started flying the flag a bit like in the Norfolk Show and the county shows and we were under Birmingham’s jurisdiction in those days and they got me on some funny jobs. Cambridge Royal Show or Cambridge Show, could I lay out a garden for them? I said, ‘Yes, I’ll have a go!’ and so I started growing stuff around it, as much stuff as I could around All Saints Green, and when the day of the show come, a huge pantechnicon turned up in the morning and I filled the floor of it with stuff but when I got to Cambridge they’d got the most elaborate reception area for people they’d got to interview and all that kind of thing, but they’d got about 14ft of 10-inch wide window boxes and more than enough stuff, you see. I done the job and the boss man from Birmingham came up to me; he said, ‘What you going to do with this surplus stuff, Peter?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I don’t want it, you people don’t make things very clear.’ Well he said, ‘Would you mind if I took it back to Birmingham?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘We’ve got a bed I’d like to plant up in Carpenter Road’ – where they were established in those days, all the stuff went there, and every flowerpot and every cane came back later in the month and that’s where that went.
And while we’re on Birmingham, the first television gardener was Percy Thrower, if you remember, and I have a little bit of … something I’d arranged that if I was needed they’d ring the maternity clinic if something needed doing. So I was mowing the blessed lawn down at Earlham Road and the Superintendent Nurse says, ‘Peter, they’re in a panic round there.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he got a big wallah coming down from Birmingham to discuss programme output.’ And I said, ‘So what?’ ‘Well there’s something round there he’s very much taken by, or not taken by.’ So I got on my bike and pedalled off and nipped round the (canyon?). And at that particular time I grew some calceolaria and they were huge, they really were magnificent. I exhibited them in the Norfolk and Norwich Horticultural Society. They got me a nice medal and that kind of thing. But this big bod had turned up and he went into reception, and the young girl on the desk; he didn’t say anything, I had one in reception for decoration. He said, ‘That plant there is calceolaria Orange Bikini.’ I think the poor girl thought what if he’s talking about her bikini for summer or what. Well she said, ‘I don’t rightly know, but our gardener grew them.’ ‘I want to see him.’ I came around and there he was. He says, ‘You grew those Orange Bikini calceolarias, didn’t you?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘Yes I did.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘Percy Thrower gave me one of them last week,’ he said, ‘and that was only that size.’ He said, ‘You’ve got them out here like that.’ Well’ I said, ‘Yes, feed them, and I rather liked the species, so…’ ‘Oh.’ And the boss man of BBC Norwich was there, so I said to him, ‘Well, would you like to take one back to Birmingham?’ He said, ‘Would I just!’ And I said to the Chief, to get him to get him in there, I said, ‘Is that alright with you Mr. Johnston?’ ‘Oh yes Peter, that’s alright, you take one back to Birmingham.’ And what happened to Percy Thrower, I don’t know!
Many other things. I used to do natural history things. Dick Bagnall-Oakeley, one of the finest cameramen and naturalists I think Norfolk ever had. And old Ted Ellis; done many things for Ted. Always go over there and get any vegetation or anything I wanted for programmes.
Were you the person who would find particular plants or flowers that were needed for particular programmes, was that part of your job?
Well, it was part of my job because the designer who was responsible for laying all the stuff up – he hadn’t got a clue what was going on as a good many designers haven’t. I got once for one gentleman I know, Christopher Lewis; he was the instigator of the Antiques Roadshow; that was his programme. And I used to do a lot when he was young production assistant round here, and he came up to me one day and he said, well, first of all one of the things he said, ‘Can you find a child’s coffin?’ I said, ‘Beg your pardon?’ I said, ‘You’d better have a few words with any undertaker.’ Any rate, he got one at Ipswich, and my son, who had a small garage then, went and fetched it and brought it back.
The other thing was, for the same programme, they wanted an old fashioned fruiterers’ hand cart. Incidentally, that’s my early picture of my wife (shows picture) she was a wonderful person, and at that particular time she was in charge of the emergency services of the eastern Gas. And she got her ear to the ground you know, and I happened to mention what we were looking for, she said well leave it to me and she rung round and McCarthy fruit merchant, I think his stall was on the market, that kind of thing at the time, and had a chat with him and he said, ‘That’s very funny, my dear,’ he said, ‘I’ve just had one restored.’ He said. And that solved that one.
Another one came up to me said, ‘I’ve got to have a spring cushion.’ ‘A spring cushion, what you on about?’ I said, ‘Give us some details at least about what a spring cushion is.’ Anyway we managed to find out about it, it was one foot square of turf in which they wanted all the little things from spring in, old fashioned things, you know. And I thought well that’s alright, got violets and primroses, all things like that and made it up, but they’d got to be one of the old fashioned double narcissi. And I hadn’t got any of them but I had a great friend who kept a small farm at Little Melton out there, we were pals from school and I could get anything out from the farm I wanted for programmes, you see. So I mentioned that to him when I was helping one night in the afternoon and he was doing the milking when I broached the subject to him, told him what he wanted. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I know where there’s plenty of them.’ I said, ‘Oh, alright.’ I said, ‘Well, where?’ He said, ‘Up the vicarage, the other side of the road, you see.’ I said, ‘Well, we can’t go and ask?’ That was not occupied by any ecclesiastical vicar at the time. And he said, ‘Oh don’t worry, boy, let me finish milking,’ he said, ‘We’ll go and get some.’ So finished milking and off we go, up the lane, over the main road, through the gap in the hedge. I thought well there must be some here. ‘No,’ he said, ‘They’re near the house.’ (Laughs) Rare old Norfolk boy. And the cars were coming down the road, they were illuminating us all through the trees, and I thought, we’ll cop something in a minute. And anyway we got half a dozen, all I wanted. He said, ‘You got enough, boy?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ I said, ‘Or we shall be getting shot.’ ‘No, you’re alright,’ He said, ‘I want to get a bunch for Kate.’ I said, ‘What?’ (laughs) Typical.
Well I can see that you had some very interesting and funny times over your career. I have to ask you, do you still do your garden?
I have a very good go – I’m 95 now.
I know you are. But you don’t look 95!
The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!
The other thing is part of my life in the Services was, in the latter part of the war suddenly I was shifted out to Palestine. Which was a bit of a shock cause I was pretty well due for release. But in a way, looking back I was glad I didn’t because I spent six months in a kibbutz, or with a kibbutz, or other great ventures the Jews were doing out there; I had a really wonderful time. I was in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, keeping the peace. Midnight on that particular Christmas Eve I had Christmas Eve communion in the middle of Sinai desert. It was quite something.
Peter Battle interviewed in Norwich for WISEArchive on June 16th 2015.
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He says: Thank you for letting me see the draft. It was well put together. I enjoyed your visit. I would welcome another.