From an interview with Margaret Shelton. Transcribed by Sue Manton.
The Free Gardeners building 1986 - sold to Toc H
The Free Gardeners History started in 1848. The first annual meeting was held at Huddersfield and it started at 2d per week and you got 2/- if you were sick and 5/- when you died or something like that. It continued until 1916 when it had to be postponed until after the war. The aims of the Society were to provide sickness benefits for people who go through bad times, sickness, hospital. My mother first signed me when I was about twelve, she signed me at the office there. It provided sickness benefit, it provided funds for hospital. In those days there was no help with hospitals. It provided endowment, they paid in for a long term endowment and got a lump sum after, paid glasses, teeth all them benefits. It was a Godsend to working people in those days. I think my mother paid 6d per month when it started but it went up and you were paying about £1 a week for hospital and everything. There were different grades of level. Some people paid for just sickness benefit, some paid for sickness and death benefit, some paid for sickness benefit, death benefit and the whole hog. You paid what you could afford. In about 1960 we started the hospital scheme. That was a good thing. If you were in hospital you got so much per day. There was a bus that took you to the hospital, it picked it up at the Lightstrung and took you to either to Kettering or Northampton. There were two buses and they were free, they used to wait there until you came back. I think they ran Sundays or did they run Saturday and Sunday. I think the Saturday bus went to Northampton and the Sunday bus went to Kettering.
The Free Gardeners met at the bottom of Portland Road, it has been converted to a house now. During the war it was loaned to Jack Osborne for a store room for his goods, wireless things. Then, in 1956 we had an office on the High Causeway opposite Townsend’s Garage and then we moved back into our old office and we were there until the amalgamation with the Order of the Druids in 1996 which is now where the members have been transferred to. It still pays out its sickness benefits to members and an annuity to all members, funds for teeth, glasses, hospital, you name it. I have received more, a hundred times more out of the Free Gardeners than ever I have paid in, and I’m still receiving benefits for teeth, glasses, hospital.
There was no ritual when you joined, I think you were just proposed and seconded. When you became the District Marshall there were rituals 'I promise to serve the society to the best of my ability' that sort of thing etc. There were no secret signs. Although they are called the Sheffield Society of Druids there were no secret signs, I don’t think friendly societies have any secret signs. We didn’t have any uniform but there was regalia. That would be the Masters, a ribbon with a badge on the bottom that says 'United Order of Free Gardeners'. If you were on the board management of Free Gardeners you wore this, a beautiful sash, royal blue with red stripes edged with gold trim. You started on the board as the Outside Tiler, then the Inside Tiler, then the Deputy Master and then the Grand Master. You each had a different sash. You can have those if you like for display.
Free Gardeners' Sashes and Badge
Did religion or politics play any part? No I wouldn’t think so, probably more leaning to Labour because of the beverage thing. It was non political really. The role of women, they were on equal footing if they paid. My wife, Joan, she was on an equal footing with the men. She joined just after we were married in 1960 and became the minute secretary. The minute secretary had a ribbon. Then she went on to become the lodge Master, then on to the District President. She was the first lady in the Northampton district to become the District President; in fact she was the only woman to become District President. She went on the board of management and just as she was becoming a Grand Master, the same as me, they changed the rules to say people had to retire at a certain age to allow younger people to take it on and so she never became the Grand Master, unfortunately.
Why did it cease, well like every organisation it lost lots of members. The National Health really took over, people didn’t want to save any more so they dropped out and they relied on the National Health. So after years of declining membership we joined the Sheffield Order of Druids which guaranteed us all our benefits as before. At its height of popularity we had a thousand people in the organisation in Rushden. We were the biggest lodge in the Northampton District, in fact we were probably the biggest lodge in the order. There was a lot of lodges at the annual conference - Barnsley, Bedfordshire, Walsall, Brierly Hill, Cottingham, Gainsborough, Heckmondwhite, Huddersfield, Leeds, Moulton.
Cromwell Road, 96 was opposite.
I was born in 96 Cromwell Road. My Mum was Rosemary Watts and my Dad was Charles Britten Watts and we had a family of sixteen. I didn’t remember half of our family because they were dead by the time I was born in 1916.There was about seven died, my eldest brother, Thomas Charles Watts, was killed in the war. One of my other brothers was caught scrumping from the apple trees and because he wouldn’t give the name of the other people he was sent to the reformatory and he died of yellow fever during the war. I didn’t know any of those. My eldest sister lived to be ninety-nine and just a few days before she was a hundred she died. As children we used to play football. We didn’t have a football field at Newton Road we played in the playground. I played for Northampton County Schoolboys, I got the cane one day and then I got praised the other.
How many rooms did we have? Two up, two down, that’s how we had to sleep. Mother and Dad slept in the front room. Of course when people died in those days they laid them out in the front room. Five slept in my bed, top to tail, that was when I was young. I didn’t have a bed on my own until I came out of the army. I refused to sleep with my older brother when I came home.
My Dad was a cobbler, he had a little cobbler’s shop at the bottom. The firms used to bring work, before the factories, and he used to put a handful of studs “Blakies” in his mouth and go round the bottom sole and knock them all in. I could never do it. He worked at White’s and then they became on short time and so they stood him off and when full time came back they wanted him back but he refused to go back on principle and so he went to another factory. To Greens, a little factory in Newton Road. Do you know the Post Office there was a factory opposite there "Green & Co" that’s were he went. He was out of work for nearly five years. He used to go all day blackberrying and he would come back with two baskets of blackberries and he would go to Bill Keller the fruiterer who used to have a shop opposite the council buildings and he would sell them at two pence halfpenny a pound. I used to go round selling radishes, lettuce things like that because we were so poor.
My mother used to have my sisters’ prospective husbands for dinner when they used to work in town. We had a kitchen range, hot water on one side and oven on the other side. Marvellous how she used to manage, puddings, everything. We were never short of food. My father kept an allotment up at the garden field he had 20 pole up at the allotments. These were the garden fields where we are now, he grew all the vegetables. You had your grocery on tick from the local shop and paid on Friday when you got paid.
The local shop was across the road, there were two. That one was Rolfe’s, on the corner, and the other was Smith. Smith had all sorts of things in his shop and of course there was the Co-op where you got your divi. Mr. Rolfe once chased me, I suppose I’d been doing something I oughtn’t, with a big whip and when my mother heard she came out and took the whip and said. 'If you do that again I’ll whip you.' She was that kind of a woman.
I went to Newton Road, good school, H.E.Bates went there. Yes I went to play cricket with H.E.Bates when I played cricket in Sussex for Rushden. He went to our church the Methodist, he was christened there. His father used to sit near me in the choir at the Methodist. When I went away for the war his father was a commercial traveller for Knight and Lawrence’s Boot Manufacturers and he used to send me leather laces when I was in the army. We kept in touch, yes, he was a good friend to me, Mr. Bates and Mrs. Bates too. She was a lovely woman.
Newton Road School in 1910
I stayed at NewtonRoadSchool until I was fourteen. I went to the Co-op and I had to have an interview first with the manager. He told me I had to wear a collar and tie and have a nice haircut, keep smart. The first day I went I was late. Charlie Norman, he was an ex guardsman, he was the caretaker and it was his job at half past seven to close the door, if you were late, until quarter to eight when they would let you in. I wasn’t there by and so I had to wait outside until he opened the doors at . Of course all those minutes that you were off they stopped it out of your pay packet. Stupid really. First day. That taught me a lesson, it did. I used to come down on my bike - Wheeeeee. I was there until I went into the army, 1940.
To Rose & Marge, Wishing you all The Best, Love Charlie & Boys
More pictures Charlie sent home
I was a tank driver. I first went to Northampton, Infantry training centre. 1940 I went across France and came back, missed Dunkirk and came back by Le Havre. You could join your brother, my brother trained me so I went into the artillery. I went abroad, I went to the 10th Hussars. I finished my service in the 10th Hussars, in Rubeck in Germany. A lovely city, I can see the bridge now, a Baltic port.
The Co-op Factory after closure
After the war I came back to the Co-op, then I went to Wollaston to work and then I came back to the Co-op as foreman clicker and I stayed there until 1985 when it closed.
I played cricket for RushdenTown. I played football for Rushden when I came back on leave from the army. I had been on an assault course for four days up in Scotland, and the trainer said. 'Just the man we need to play on Saturday'. I said. 'Yes, I’ll play'. He said. 'Come training'. I said. 'Not likely'. I wasn’t going training. He was a bit huffy but I wasn’t going training after all that. I played cricket and football for RushdenTown, I played golf for Rushden. I joined the choir "Wellingborough Orpheus" competitions for the town after care, chairman of the British Legion. Do you know Jack Tear? Yes, a good friend of the Society, lived along Cromwell Road.
Wedding 13 Feb 1960 to Joan Rabbitt
Bridesmaids Joyce Riddle & Jane Lavitt
I became chairman of the British Legion for about five or six years, I became Vice President. I’m still with the British Legion but I’m not Vice President, I’m with the benevolent committee now. It deals with old soldiers that are in need, there is great need now. Problem case now - when his wife has left him and he’s got no money. I'm still involved with the British Legion, sing in St. Mary’s church choir, play bowls for RushdenTown. It was a good active life. You have to keep active.
I’ve got my garden. I grow me own broad beans, kidney beans carrots. Unfortunately we couldn’t have any children. We’ve got a lovely lot of relatives, of my sister’s children. People now are not so neighbourly, I suppose it’s because of the television. When I was little next door used to come in for a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread. You used to lend them it and they would pay it back. You don’t know so many people any more. So many newcomers in.
Sept 1994 Event to Honour over 80 Paid-up Members
Presentation of Veterans Badge by Cliff Jeffries
I went to Harpendale and stayed with a lady on the lake and her husband was shot down in 1940 around Norfolk and she married again and her second husband had his arm blown off and it was sabotage. He was working in the munitions and her first husband was shot down. When I came back I thought I would find out where he was buried. So I wrote to the local British Legion and they found her husband’s grave in Norfolk and there were four of them all buried in the same cemetery. So I went and I took a photo of his grave and sent it to the lady that I stayed with and she was ever so pleased, she didn’t know where it was, and also every year I place a wreath on that grave in honour of her husband. That was a wonderful occasion.