"I still remember the first day I encountered a dancing bear"
Ernest Ambrose's book is one of the loveliest and inspiring of all the books of personal recollections. Who else could legitimately start a paragraph 'I still remember the first day I encountered a dancing bear'? In this short extract, he recalls the roads of Long Melford in his youth in the 1880s.
Roads: Travellers: Itinerant Traders and Entertainers
By Ernest Ambrose
from his book Melford Memories published by the Long Melford Historical and Archaeological Society
When I was a small boy our roads were rough and uneven, with big flints and pot holes, very dusty in summer and muddy with large pools of water in winter. Even the main roads were bad, the Bury road being one of the worst. From time to time they were made up with loads of stones, Old men and women were paid 2d. a bushel for stone picking from farmers' fields, and small children were given 1/2d. and these were used for the roads. Our chief means of transport was still by foot, on horseback or by horse drawn vehicles of various kinds. Journeys were often fraught with some danger and a trip to a neighbouring town or village was still something of an adventure.
I always got great pleasure sitting on the old step of the market cross at the top of the Green watching the people and animals passing along the roads. A common sight would be a flock of sheep and their shepherd with his hooked crook, leading them. This was a Suffolk custom as well as a scriptural one. A well trained dog would bring up the rear and keep the flock together. They would always stop on the Green for an hour or two for the sheep and shepherd to have a rest. The sheep would nibble contentedly at the grass and keep the Green in good order by spreading manure at the same time. At other times we would see geese or ducks, pigs or cows, sometimes a hundred or more, being driven to market at Bury or Sudbury. At Christmas time especially droves of turkeys and geese from Norfolk came through Melford, The drovers would tar the soles of their heavy boots to make them more comfortable for the constant walking on the rough roads. Later on the smaller animals would be brought in carts. There were almost always a few horses on the Green as it was used as a training ground for breaking in young animals. We boys would collect their droppings which was beautiful stuff for the gardens. The villagers also used the Green for feeding their own animals, so it was always a busy place and interesting for us children.
As well as the animals there were all kinds of travellers on the roads. Fine men and sometimes women too on horseback. I used to sit and wonder where they all came from and where they were going to, and wonder too if one day I would be rich enough to have a lovely horse to go riding on. There were the smart carriages of the gentry, sometimes with two or perhaps four horses and splendid important looking coachmen with cockaded hats, flourishing their whips with bows of ribbon tied on them, sitting high up on top of the box and a footman at the back, trying to look equally important, though we all knew quite well that he was really a much lesser light. There were gentry too of lower estate. They often had broughams or smaller and less ornate carriages and no footman. There were farmers and tradesmen in their gigs or buggies, driving themselves with much flourishing of their whips and calling out jovially to friends in passing. Then perhaps single ladies, very genteel and modest in a small carriage, perhaps being driven by a manservant if they could afford one, trying to look as important as they could under their reduced circumstances. Everyone had their appointed place in society in those days and though many tried hard to aspire to greater heights and ape the gentry we all knew in which state we belonged—and other people too! We learnt this lesson early in life and accepted it. We had respect for those in authority above us, but nevertheless we maintained our own sturdy independence.
There were always many foot travellers of course and many gypsies in their brightly coloured vans, often quite a convoy of them, bringing up the rear with a donkey or pony. And always many tramps and beggars. I used to get quite excited about all the people and happenings I saw and would run home and tell ma. Occasionally I would see the Lord of the Manor or the Rector, and would dash home at once to report this happening. She would say "I hope you raised your cap" and I would reply in the affirmative. They would sometimes even speak to me. That was really great!
I still remember the first day I encountered a dancing bear. I was quite used to seeing big animals like cows or horses, but this great creature frightened me out of my wits. Fortunately I was with pa and hid behind his bulky form while I watched an incredible performance. The poor old bear, a big brown one, was shaggy and forlorn looking, and the man in charge who had him on a long chain, looked even more doleful. They stopped outside the Black Lion and when the man sang a little lilting song and jigged up and down the great old bear reared up on its hind legs and shuffled about without much enthusiasm. Then the heavy pole which the man carried was tossed to the bear who caught it neatly across its two front paws and "danced" with it.. A few people gathered around to watch and applause in a half hearted manner, then dropped a few half pence in the old man's hat. Then to my astonishment both the man and the bear ambled into the back yard of the Lion, I learnt that they were both going to stay there for the night, the bear being boarded in one of the stables. I could hardly sleep that night for worrying about that bear. Our back garden joined the stables of the Lion and in my dreams the great creature was either coming up our stairs or climbing in my bedroom window. I was out early the next morning to find out what was going to happen next, and was more than relieved to see them both wandering off along the Bury road. Later on I saw quite a few of these dancing bears. Some were lovely, well groomed creatures. Sometimes two or even more men, often Italians, had them. Gradually however this form of entertainment died out.
We often had visits from men and women with barrel organs, or street pianos, their owners monotonously turning the handle and churning out all sorts of music and popular songs. They were usually accompanied by a little monkey, dressed in some fancy costume, sitting on the top of the organ. Sometimes he would be put down on the road to carry the cup for the collection. We had German string bands too, consisting of 12 or 14 players. They must have walked miles from one place to another. I never saw any conveyance. These men were always very polite, and they played well, popular music from Strausse, Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan. I enjoyed listening to these bands and would stand and memorise the music and run home and try to play it on father's small organ. On one occasion the bandsmen formed a little circle near the Black Lion and struck up some tune, when my little black and tan terrier wriggled his way into the centre, stuck his nose up in the air and howled protestingly. Woo.oo. .oo. The few onlookers were delighted and I'm pretty sure the collection was slightly higher than usual. I believe these bands were occasionally hired for parties etc.
Small parties of actors used to visit the village from time to time. They would often hire the Lecture Hall (now Working Men's Club) and put on a programme. Some of their shows were poor, but often they were very good and it was always good fun to attend their performances, and you couldn't grumble at 6d. a time for the best seats. They would put on excerpts from Shakespearean plays; tragedies were always popular, especially the Red Barn Murder. A vigorous and continuous amount of audience participation was expected and received. It was great fun. We sometimes had visits from travelling theatres, a special one I remember was named Waites. They came with horses and vans and brought all their own equipment, includingstageandprops, and would erect it on Smalley meadows. They too were well patronised and very popular.
We also had the travelling menagerie run by Bostock and Womb-well. They travelled all over England in great horse drawn vans. They had a right to stand in the street (but not on the Green) and would erect their show in front of the houses (almost on their doorsteps!) just beyond the Bull in Hall Street. They usually had among their collections one or two elephants, some monkeys, and a lion and tiger, often in. cramped cages. 1 was sorry for the poor animals. If some of the animals started roaring it could be heard right down the street and caused great excitement, especially among the small Fry. A few of us boys looking round outside started to feed one of the elephants as he pushed his trunk beneath the cage, when one of them gave him some stones. The old elephant withdrew and shuffled and grunted, then out came his trunk again. The same boy bent down and got a horrible shower of stones right in his face. He had to run home quickly. He got some nasty injuries.
As well as all these travelling entertainers we had a lot of people walking or driving through the village offering all sorts of things for sale. There was the bag man, much loved by women as in his voluminous canvas bag he carried a variety of small things such as ribbons and laces, cottons and dainty frilly things which ladies liked to use. Then there was the tea man, who called regularly every Monday morning. He was a little old man with a billy goat beard, and he had a little pony and equally little canvas covered van with home made shutters. He sold only tea, wrapped in quarters of a pound, in cone shaped bags. He had two varieties and mother always bought a quarter for fid. and this lasted us for about a week. Some people used the leaves several times.
There was a jolly little man who called regularly with a pony and cart piled high with apples. He was a real character. He had a pleasant tenor voice and sang his wares, making up a little tune as he went along. Everyone called him Apple-0. "Come and buy my apples-O; pretty little apples-O." When anyone spoke to him he would sing his reply. He made a habit of walking up one side of the broad street and down the other side. One day he was near the chemist's shop when a woman near the Bull opposite thought he was going on over the bridge and called out to him. He promptly sang back to her "I go up this way; I come down that way. You must stop till I get there."
Another well known character was a man, almost a dwarf, who had a wooden leg. He made a living of sorts by selling newspapers between Sudbury and Melford, the paper in most demand being the Suffolk Free Press, price 2d. But as papers in those day were shared among many people, I don't suppose he made much of a fortune. He had a donkey cart and his wooden leg stuck out in front, the cart was so small.
The Sand man was another regular caller. He did quite a good trade selling fine silver sand which he got from some local gravel pit. Villagers used to buy this sand to spread over their rough earth or brick floors. Some put down reeds or straw, and these could easily be replaced from time to time. Many couldn't afford the luxury of mats. The Sand man was a cheerful individual and he too used to advertise by singing out his wares. "Sand-O, Id. skip Sando-O". Practical joking was a popular pastime and one day someone made up a parcel of dry horse manure and placed it in his path. Several kindred spirits stood round, hands in pockets, to see the fun. The Sand man stopped in his walk, picked up the parcel and sang "Hello, what's this?". He felt it carefully. "Baccy I hope". Then pressed it again. "Sugar I think". Then he opened it. "Turd be damned." He flung it down, but taking no offence he laughed and went on singing and calling out "Sand-O."
We also had the Egg man—24 for 1/-; the Muffin man carrying a tray of these dainties on his head and ringing a bell to announce his presence. Sometimes someone would come along selling chitterlings or hot rolls 2 a Id. There was the gypsy girl singing rather sweetly with her little bunches of lavender; the Hokey Pokey man and the one with ice cream lollipops Id. a lump, a rather doubtful commodity. The sweep would stroll along the street offering his services, pushing his supply of long brushes on a home made barrow. Then there was the rag and bone man "any ole rag an bone, rab skin, rab bone." Toy windmills were offered in exchange so children eagerly sought something for this old man. All sorts of things were sold on the streets when I was a boy, apples, pears, ripe strawberries, coal, paraffin, and of course Old Moore's Almanack, only ^d. No home should be without one of these!
Sundays in particular brought a good crop of itinerent traders. Enterprising local men would order boxes> of fish from Lowestoft which would be sent to Melford Station by early train. They would meet these consignments with a variety of barrows and little carts and donkeys, and walk up the long Melford street shouting out such things as winkles-0 2d. a pint; fresh mackerells, kippers, bloaters, mussels, sprats, herrings etc. The women would come out of their cottages with plates and basins, and pick and choose their fish dainties for Sunday tea. Another Sunday afternoon visitor would be an old man (they always seemed to me to be old!) who used to collect watercress in the river and wander up the street shouting "Water cress all fresh. Ha'penny a handful."
I mustn't forget to mention the bedraggled old tramp who would come up the road on Sundays, usually at dinner time, looking desperately miserable singing in doleful strains "Abide with me." Sometimes in even more despondent mood we would hear "What will become of England "if things go on this way." I took this seriously as a child and worried myself no end about it.
On Sweeps' Day, which was celebrated on May Day, a little party of men would come through the village dancing and singing. There would be one or two chimney sweeps carrying their long brushes, accompanied by a man playing the accordion, and another man dressed in a thick carpet with a hole in it for his head. They sang and danced up the street and collected money for "charity" (or for themselves!)
Once a week on Thursday afternoons, a little one horse bus would run from the Lion to Sudbury market. Just after dinner it would come up to the Lion and wait there for passengers to climb in and we children would stand and stare and admire. It was a smart little bus, well kept, with bright yellow roof. The driver sat outside on the box. The horse always had smart harness and trappings, which was not surprising as it belonged to Fred Neave the saddle maker, who had a shop in Hall Street which later became Purdy's cafe. He was a nice man, a very good bass singer. Grandma used his bus occasionally and as a special treat she would take me. The vehicle held 6 adults and any number of small children, and the journey cost 6d.