This is an extrodinary account of the day in the life of a Mew Langton drayman and his driver, Cookie. One can only assume that the level of alcohol consumed was not the norm and it was only due the festive generosity of the various landlords on that day. Otherwise it's a wonder that they ever got up in the morning!
AN ISLE OF WIGHT DRAYMAN'S DAY, CHRISTMAS EVE 1939by Phil Wills
Down the steps and out onto the road with the old trusty bike. A lingering taste of bacon, egg and fried bread is quickly whipped away by the bitterly cold wind, cutting through one like a knife. A quick check to see if the tyres are hard enough, then its "Hey old Raleigh" and away into the darkness.
Peddle like hell along Whitepit Lane, freewheel down Nodehill, round the corner into Orchard Street, past the Malt and Hops and there, in the dim light of the early morning sky are the steel roller shutter doors of Brickwood's Isle of Wight store. Push the bike and myself through the small open door, then up the steps onto the loading ramp.
Already there is the rattle of cases and bottles mixing with the sounds of shouts and the odd burst of song as lorries are being loaded for the day's deliveries. I pass down the slope into the cask cellar and find Cookie, my driver, sorting out the delivery notes for the day. He has them spread out around him on the heads of the casks and cases and from the look of it we're in for a good day's work. And so, it is. Carisbrooke, Chale, Blackgang, Ventnor and Bonchurch.
Dear old Frank, the cask storeman, has been busy syphoning from a number of pins of Old into a two-gallon bucket and has it merrily warming up on the gas ring with a sublime mix of ginger and spices, that'll be to warm us up before we set out.
I nip up the stairs to the bottle beer store and see Ernie. He has copies of all delivery notes and I tell him in what order we want our load sent along the roller conveyers and down the chute to the loading ramp. While we are waiting for the next lorry, we collect our cases of wines and spirits, cigarettes and tobacco and crates of crisps, stacking them at the tail end of the lorry to be placed where required as we load the casks and cases.
Down again into the cellar and roll up our number of casks, mostly Kils but a couple of thirty sixers for The Prince of Wales at Ventnor. Now its our turn for the cases and down they come, rattling down the chute faster than we can get them on board. Other lorries are pulling out, one crew cussing because theirs won't start. The driver of one by the petrol pump shouts, "Starting to snow" and I think of those long, lonely roads out to the West Wight.
But now we're loaded and we pull the tarpaulin over the top of the load and tie it down. It's bad enough handling casks and cases on a cold day, but when they're covered with snow its much worse. Frank gives a shout and we go down to the comparative warmth of the cellar to sample his mixture. The first sip tells there's more than meets the eye in it. I can feel my ears beginning to burn and when I ask what he's got in it he winks and holds up an empty half bottle that had once held rum.
We finish our half pint and boldly step out into the cold of the garage. Cookie climbs into the cab, I take up my position in front of the bonnet, Cookie shouts, "Switch On", I give the starting handle a half turn and the dear old Leyland comes to life. Cookie pulls her round to the petrol pump for a top up. The tank is under the seat and holds fifty gallons. God help us if it ever decided to blow up.
We're just about ready to go when a lad from Smeed and Smeeds, a Brickwoods off-licence, rides up on an errand bike with a delivery for some vicar in Ventnor. So we untie the tarpaulin and dump the case of wine on the top of the load. But now its up and away. Round the corner by The Malt and Hops, up Nodehill into Trafalgar Road and out onto Carisbrooke Road.
The old Leyland rolls along with its eight or nine tons at a steady fifteen to twenty miles an hour. None of the tearing around like her much younger types. The big four cylinders with their long slow stroke are thumping away but can hardly be heard. Then, before the engine has had time to really warm up we are pulling up outside The Waverley at Carisbrooke. There's still a spattering of snow in the air but it is beginning to get light.
So its quickly off and in with the fulls and out and on with the empties then back inside for a warm and a Christmas drink. The landlord does us good with a tot of whiskey and ten Woodbines. A quick 301 on the dart board and it's out and away to the wilds of the west country.
Halfway along Forest Road we run into a blinder of a blizzard. In seconds the cab windows have steamed up and the windscreen is a curtain of ice. No windscreen wipers in those days. For some seconds we're flying blind until Cookie opens the windscreen and lets in a blast of Antarctic air. What with that and a cab full of snow I began to realise there were many better place to be on Christmas Eve.
After a while, things settled down and we were able to close the windscreen and with the side windows slightly open we managed to reach The Horse and Groom at Ningwood without mishap. I stepped out of the cab into six or seven inches of snow and when I dropped the side after untying the tarpaulin, half a ton of snow came off the top, most of it going up the sleeves of my coat and down the back of my neck, causing Cookie some amusement for which he got a snowball behind the ear when he wasn't looking. So we quickly got the fulls in and the empties out and on board and back into the bar to sign up and warm up.
There was a pint of bitter for each of us waiting on the bar and a packet of Manikin cigars. So a quick game of bar skittles a chat with a couple of natives sheltering from the snow and waiting for opening time. They advised us, "To return from whence we came before we were "snowed up to the eyebrows". Then it was up and away to The Sun Inn at Wellow.
Here we met the first misery of the day, the landlord. Not a pleasant type but his wife was a smasher. I fancied her myself and I know Cookie did because he always went into rhapsodies over the curve of her behind and would usually discuss its merits for some time as we wended our way along the roads.
Making the miserable half pint of mild last as long as possible to warm ourselves up and while Cookie was chatting up the missus, I made my way out to the toilet at the side of the pub and noticing the bottle beer store still open, nipped inside and obtained a couple of bottles of Guinness. When Cookie at last came out, I had the engine started and was in the cab with both bottles open. So, as it was creeping up to mid-day, we drove a little way along the road and pulled up with the engine running to keep us warm, to enjoy a sandwich and our bottle of Guinness.
It had started to snow again and peering through the murk I saw a face staring at us from a cottage window on the opposite side of the road. I pointed this out to Cookie who gave a wave and a couple of toots on the old bulb hooter. The face quickly disappeared probably, as I suggested, to ring the police.
But now, with the inner man satisfied, we were off again. Yarmouth next stop, pulling up occasionally to clean the windscreen for it was snowing quite heavily. On these back roads we were passing over virgin snow but on the main Yarmouth to Newport road it was different, a brown slushy mess that spewed out on both sides as we drove along.
In Yarmouth it wasn't much better and we were glad to be shot of the one delivery at a grocer's and to be on our way again. Out through the Square and over the bridge, the small harbour on our right empty except for the lifeboat and a few small boats covered in snow and some disconsolate looking seagulls flapping around. Over on the left the marsh was just a waste of snow and ice with a forest of reeds poking through. Then we were around the corner and on our way to Totland.
Just one delivery here at a grocer's with a case or two of wines and spirits. A few mumbled "Happy Christmas's" from one or two of the staff and we were off again, bound for the West Wight Golf Club. We were now ploughing through virgin snow as no traffic had passed that was that morning and when I climbed down from the cab I found was up to my knees in a small snow-drift. Walking back along the side of the lorry my shoulder brushed against it. At first I thought it was my unsteadiness but, luckily, realised in time it was the lorry gently sliding in to the ditch. I shouted to Cookie to back her out quick and luckily he caught on and got her back onto the road.
The Club House was situated at the top of a steep bank and one reached it by way of a set of concrete steps. These were completely snowed over and it took a good ten minutes hard work to clear them enough to climb up with the half dozen cases of beers, wines and spirits. We stacked them at the top of the steps and while I stood by them Cookie went through the knee deep snow to find the club steward. I soon heard him banging on a door and an irate voice shouting, "Where the Hell have you been? I've been waiting all the morning for you blokes and I haven't had any lunch yet. Get the bloody stuff inside so I can get back home". Then I heard a door slam shut and Cookie appeared making his way through the Arctic waste.
When he reached the pile of cases he lifted the lid of one and stuck the delivery notes inside. "Let the bugger get his own booze in", he said and stepped gingerly down to the road. I followed with a quarter bottle of rum that had seemed somewhat lonely by the delivery notes and, regaining the cab, we lit up a Manikin and enjoyed a tot of rum, just to warm ourselves up.
Then it was on again, to the Freshwater Conservative Club. The snow had almost ceased when we arrived and a goodly number of members welcomed us with open arms and a number of liquid comforts to help us on our way to the Albion Hotel at Freshwater Bay. It was now getting on for mid-afternoon and the wind coming in off the sea cut through one like a knife. We were jolly glad when we had delivered the fulls and loaded the empties on board, covered and roped down again. It was pleasant in the bar as we enjoyed a drop of Christmas cheer, but duty called and we now had the long journey along the Military Road to Chale.
As we climbed out of Freshwater Bay, I turned my coat collar up and snuggled down into the corner of the cab prepared to enjoy half an hours snooze. But Cookie said, "If you see me dozing off, give me a shake". As the road goes very close to the cliff edge in places I felt it better to keep awake and enjoy the scenery. Cookie didn't fall asleep and so we arrived safely at The Star Inn at Chale. When the work was done we enjoyed a Christmas glass of sherry and a bit of a natter then on again. It was now late afternoon and the daylight was beginning to fade. It was not snowing but getting colder by the minute and the roads were becoming ice rinks. However, we made our way safely to the Blackgang Tap where Cookie appeared to find some difficulty backing the Leyland into the yard. When he got down from the cab, he rubbed some snow onto his forehead and said he felt dizzy, believed he had a dose of flu coming. As I had been feeling the same way I told him not to be daft as it was just the stuffiness of the cab. I did notice however that my voice sounded a little "woolly" and now and then a floating feeling came over me.
Now in those happy days the Blackgang Tap had what they called a Bull Ring. It consisted of nothing more than a small hook on the wall and suspended from the ceiling a few feet away an iron ring on the end of a piece of cord. The object of the game was to swing the ring onto the hook and this, after we had completed the work was what we proceeded to do.
The bar fire was warm, the bitter was good and it wasn't until the landlord hinted he would like to have his tea before opening up for the evening we realised we had overstayed our welcome. So it was off again, darkness and the wartime blackout was upon us but the sky was beginning to clear and the whiteness of the snow and the starlight guided us on our way to the one delivery at an off licence at Niton and so on to Ventnor. We were now back in civilisation. Normally all the shops would be alight with Christmas Cheer but now all looked sad and dingy.
Smeed and Smeeds was our first stop and here delivery was particularly difficult as their store lay behind the shop, a narrow passage carved out of the virgin rock. As most of their sales consisted of ale and beer in pint bottles it was extremely hard work lugging the two dozen bottle cases, two at a time along this passage. But at last we were finished and Cookie backed up around the corner with some difficulty to allow us to deliver to the public bar. This was soon completed and we were back in the bar enjoying a game of darts and one of the best pints of bitter one could get on the Island. I forget the name of the barman but he was a genius with barrelled bitter and darts. Every moment he was not serving behind the bar he was on the dart-board. It was in this bar the legend of Lucy Glitters was born. It was reputed she satisfied the whole bar full of customers, thirty in all, in the yard beside the bar during the course of one evening.
But it was time to go, on to The Prince of Wales and the delightful Molly Hayes and her sister Pat. They had taken over the running of the pub and hotel after the deaths of their parents and a jolly good job they made of it. Here we got rid of the two thirty sixers down into the cellar and put them on stands. Hard work, but soon into the bar for a Christmas drink and then away and into the cold night air.
I noticed Cookie was picking his feet up higher than normal and in the bar I had found it difficult understanding what people were saying. Still it was no good worrying, it was getting on for seven in the evening and we still had the Bonchurch Inn before us. Once more Cookie found difficulty in backing into the yard but he eventually succeeded and as the landlord had cleared the snow not only up to the bar but to the store as well we were soon tucking into a pint of bitter and a pork pie.
We were now all set for Newport and home and as it was only around nine we bought each other a Christmas drink and we were just making our way out of the bar when Cookie said, "What about the vicar's wine, do you know where it is?". Well, that raised a problem. Not only had the case been pushed around the back of the lorry all day but was now probably under a stack of empties. There was nothing for it but to clamber up into the back and hunt around in the semi-darkness. It was eventually found after about a quarter of an hour's cussing and blinding and Cookie went back into the bar to ask if anyone knew where the place was. Luckily someone did, a road leading off from upper Ventnor. When we reached it we thought it was a ski slope, all hard packed snow like an ice rink.
With Cookie holding one side of the case and myself the other we gingerly stepped down the hill. I soon noticed the case had become much heavier and then saw Cookie flat on his back sliding down the hill before me. He finally stopped by reaching out to grasp a lamp-post and he had after much slithering around and cursing regained his feet and was pointing at the gate by the lamp-post. There in bold lettering was the word "Vicarage". We had found our goal.
But the house lay some fifteen feet below the level of the pavement and the only way down was by steps covered in solid ice. There was only one thing for it, let the case slide down and hope for the best. So off it went and we awaited to hear a friendly bump or the tinkle of broken glass. As we heard neither. With great care and holding hands we descended to investigate. We found the case buried in a small snowdrift and we lugged it up to the Vicars front door. After about five minutes banging on it and throwing snowballs at the windows Cookie gave out with a weird rendering of "While shepherds watched" to be stopped by a voice from the road saying, "'Ellow, 'ellow. What's goin' on 'ere then?" and in the dim starlight we could see the outline of the friendly neighbourhood policeman. So we gingerly clambered back onto the road and the waiting bobby. He took one look at us and said, "I 'avn't seen you. Buzz off." We wished him a Merry Christmas and regained the dear old Leyland with no further trouble. Cookie produced a bottle of Mackeson's Milk Stout which we found most welcome and we set off for home and beauty.
I should have mentioned before this that Cookie, for reasons unknown was always honking the old bulb hooter every few yards the Leyland travelled. So it was that between being half awake and pleasantly dozing I knew all was well as long as I could hear the horn. But there came a moment when I realised it hadn't sounded for a few moments, only the steady beat of the engine was in my ears. We were travelling along the wide stretch of road just before reaching the corner to Shide Railway Station. I looked at Cookie and saw he was sound asleep and we were jogging along at a steady ten or twelve miles an hour on auto pilot. I gave him a poke and after honking the hooter a couple of times he took us safely into Shide just avoiding an adventurous trip along Pan Lane.
Then it was Medina Avenue, Nodehill, sharp right into Orchard Street, past the Malt and Hops and there was the store, the roller shutter door open awaiting us. Cookie drove straight in and while he was pulling the padded cover over the Leyland's bonnet I wound down the steel door. As I walked back towards the loading ramp I noticed the dim lights appeared to dance up and down and a strange wooliness seemed to surround me.
From the depths of the store came the strains of "Sweet Adeline" and there I found dear old Frank and a few others gathered around a bucket which, judging from the several bottles of Guinness and champagne lying around had started life as Black Velvet. But what it was now was a bit of a mystery as Ron poured in a quart of V Point British Sherry, a rot gut product.
Seated on an upturned Kil, a half pint of the evil concoction in my hand and Nellie Dene ringing in my ears, I noticed the floor was behaving strangely, slowly coming up towards me then drifting away again until it finally rose up with some speed and struck me fully in the face. Oblivion followed until found my mother waking me from a deep sleep on top of the coal in a large wooden box in which we stored it in our garden shed. She had heard me come in some time before and when I hadn't appeared indoors she had come to look for me.
She had saved me a steak and kidney pudding dinner but all I wished to do was have a wash and get to bed and even then I found the bed seemed to be sinking swiftly at the head.
Returning to work after Boxing Day the lads told me they had been greatly amused to see me struggling with my bike on Christmas Eve. First I got it through the narrow door in the garage doors but then I couldn't get myself through. I would then get myself through but couldn't get the bike through. Eventually they did the job for me and they saw me ride off into the night. The mystery is, how on earth I managed to ride the best part of a mile over hard frozen rutted snow and yet reach home safely. Perhaps it was that last half pint of Frank's special.
Additional Information Courtesy of David Dines
An interesting description of the dray traffic is provided in an article by E J Leversuch entitled: Stanmore.. A Little Place But Our Own, printed in the Harrow Observer. It says.. "but by now the drays were leaving the brewery and for the next hour these would be descending the hill at intervals, each drawn by two, three or fourshire horses, while behind each dray trundled a trolley carrying two or three additional casks. "Slung under the dray was the driver's beer contained in a wooden bucket of peculiar shape, as if a small cask had been cut in half at its greatest girth and a bottom fitted in where it had been cut: a metal hoop handle was fixed to the smaller end which was provided with a bung and spigot to enable it to be filled and emptied".