The Lee Family of Littleport

Here we bring you a tale of one family’s life and times during the 20th Century…Elaine Lee tells us this is In Memory of Jack Lee, General Builder, Station Road, Littleport

It was February 28th 1912 when Nellie Lee gave birth to her sixth child, a boy they named Jack. The labour was long and the birth difficult, and Susie who was 13 was running in and out of the room obeying orders given by the village woman who came to assist in the birth. Susie was also looking after the younger children and trying to keep them out of Dolly Crabb’s way who not only acted as the local midwife but was also called upon to lay out the dead ready for the local community to pay their respects. In fact Dolly had been called out the night before and lacking in sleep was extremely irritable.

The family’s home was situated along the riverbank in Little Ouse. There was a kitchen scullery where there was an open range fire which doubled up as a cooker, a small front room and a bedroom, a ladder that led to the upstairs area where all the children slept. Sheds and outhouses had been built outside for other uses. Beales worked on the local farm, he had a plot of land with the house and kept a goat, a pig and chickens. The goat provided the family with milk, the pig would be fattened and killed and the chickens provided eggs and a Sunday dinner. The family’s vegetables were grown on this land too.

Beales was the horse keeper earning ten 14 shillings a week, two shillings more than the average labourer as he had to work seven days a week and longer hours to look after the horses. Beales started work at 6 am and finished at 8pm during the summer months, the children had to feed the livestock and tend to the vegetable patches. Beales believed in hard work and all his children had to do their share. ‘Susie did not flinch at skinning the two rabbits left on the side which would make up the meal for the evening’ While Nellie rested Susie set about all the chores her mother would have carried out on a daily basis.

Although the weather had not been particularly cold that February, fierce gale force winds had caused the Fens to blow and everywhere was covered in black dust. The floors of their home were compressed mud with rag rugs, these had to be swept daily for the house was constructed of a brick base, clapperboard frame and a tin roof; this menace of the Fens found its way on to all surfaces. Susie did not flinch at skinning the two rabbits left on the side which would make up the meal for the evening, for she had watched her mother from an early age. She was proficient at preparing any birds or fish they trapped and making them into pies. The washing was done in one of the outhouses; the brick copper had a fire underneath which boiled the water, a scrubbing board and hard soap was used. There was a fair amount of washing that day, and after struggling with the mangle to relieve the clothes of as much water as possible. Susie hung the clothes on airers which dangled from the ceiling in the hope they would dry. ‘Jack’s older brother Ernest was making paper chains out of scraps of paper stuck together with flour paste.’ Beales had secured a large amount of turf and Bob who had just turned 11 was busy keeping the fires going.

There was also some bog oak which was to be used sparingly. The house had no running water. The only source was the river. Bob was not strong enough to work the pump so all afternoon he had been lowering buckets tied to a piece of rope into the dip hole. Bob was a slight child and tired easily. This chore was soon passed over to Bill who at 9, not only collected the water, but boiled it in pans on the fire. Nellie was a strong woman and refused to ‘lie in’ as staying in one’s bed of confinement for two weeks after childbirth was called, and three days after giving birth she left her bed. 16 December 23rd 1916 Jack’s older brother Ernest was making paper chains out of scraps of paper stuck together with flour paste. Freda who was 10 had the job of decorating the room with the finished product.

The gloves knitted by Freda, Susie and ‘The local community could not recall a worse winter, the land was frozen as was the river;’ Nellie in the evenings were wrapped in brown paper ready to be handed out after church on Christmas Day. The large cockerel had been killed and was hanging in the shed ready to be dressed for their dinner. The youngest child, Percy, who was just two years old, was bemused by all the unusual activity. Bob who was 17 years old, and had been working on the farm since the age of 12 had biked to Ely with the sole purpose of buying oranges for the Christmas treat. His spirits were low that day despite the festive season. Bob would be called up soon like so many of the local lads he knew. And news of Stanley Barrett’s death had come as a great shock to Bob for they had shared so many boyish pranks, resulting in a good hiding from their respective fathers.

More recently there had been the horror of Alfie Barker being sent home after only two days at The Battle of Festubert. Bob heard that he spent his days propped in a chair with a faraway look in his eyes then screamed in terror through the night. The local community could not recall a worse winter, the land was frozen as was the river; it felt as if the area had come to an icy standstill. Bob was so cold he must have felt he was on the point of collapse as he entered the Rose and Crown on Forehill.

The warmth of the pub hit him as he made his way through the smoky atmosphere to the counter. It was a Saturday so Bob had just been paid and felt he deserved a small bottle of barley wine to warm him against his return journey of 8 or more miles. Bob was more than merry by the time he left, he had enjoyed several ‘The lighter men had cleared a large patch of ice on the river to enable the barges to move freely in and out their moorings.’ barley wines in the company of Horrie Rolfe, they wished each other the compliments of the season and Bob set off on his bike. The lighter men had cleared a large patch of ice on the river to enable the barges to move freely in and out their moorings. Bob was feeling extremely light headed as he glided down Forehill on waterside, and due to the incline of the road and the icy conditions he lost control.

Bob’s body was brought to the surface an hour later. He had had gone straight under the thick ice and was unable to save himself. 18 April 1937 The large house by the railway station in Littleport was £605 and Jack had haggled for two months over the price – but old Bill Clarke would not be moved. Jack needed a large house for he had plans. He was running a successful painting and decorating business now employing several men Jack was sweet on Jessie the butcher’s daughter! and he needed storage space. The house had two large front rooms, a kitchen and scullery plus another two rooms, one of which would be his office. Upstairs there were five bedrooms and a bathroom, it was ideal. Jack moved his parents in to end their days in comfort so that in the fullness of time the harsh living conditions of their past life would become a distant memory.

Jack was sweet on Jessie the butcher’s daughter! He would bide his time on that but one thing was for sure, that was the girl he was going to marry. Jack married Jessie in 1944 the war having held up marriage plans. They went on to have four children.

Beales died aged 85, Nellie died aged 92 in the comfort of their home which is still owned by a member of the Lee family. In Littleport Cemetery is a stone which quite simply says: ‘Our

Dear Boy, Robert Lee, December 23rd Age 17, 1916.’ Elaine Lee

Leave a Comment