I haven’t written about Cheam, my boyhood location, for some time. And then on Guy Fawkes night I remembered the following story, told me by my father. Once again, I forgot to ask about details during his life, so have filled in the missing bits with my story-telling technique.
The main protagonists are my father, centre and his uncle Ray on the right. My aunty Joan looks as though she would rather be elsewhere. Ray and my father would be about the right age for the prank. The two boys were the same age despite being uncle and nephew.
The story centres around Cheam House, owned by a the Bethel family. The park in which it once stood is still referred to as Bethel’s Park, by some people. The only available picture of the house is copyrighted so here is the picture of the gate house – still standing, and Clowance House, a dead ringer for Cheam House.
Cheam House and Clowance House must have been built by the same architect, or there was a generic design for country houses. Even the sweep of the drive is the same.
Here is my dad’s telling.
More than he wished for.
Distant owls hooted to each other. A goods train shunted, steam chuffing, then silence, but again an owl and the crack of dead wood beneath the boots of boys in short trousers, woolly socks and with muddy knees. They paused, to wait for the moon again. They were cold and tried not to shiver. A cloud retreated and the house on the slight rise, was bathed in pale blue light. The moment was theirs. The Brickfield Gang were to be first. It was a matter of honour. November 5th was just two days away and this was the first clear night. They were certain that the rival Ewell mob, the Bluegates Boys would be out, too, with their penny squibs.
Who would manage get close enough to Cheam House and shove a lighted banger through the letterbox? It was the same dare every year and as usual had started the Sunday prior to Guy Fawkes night.
The Sunday prior to Guy Fawkes night was the day in 1929 when some of the Brickfield lads were scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, and marched off to Gran’s for Sunday tea. Gran lived in Ewell, so a bus journey was involved and there was always a chance of finding a Ewell larker from the Bluegates Boys, among the tea guests.
The children remained silent over tea, but once the sandwiches were cleared, they were allowed to talk in the other room but only in hushed tones.
‘We’re doing Bethel’s House,’ a Bluegate announced in the hallway, his whisper drowned out by the droning of adults arguing about the cost of teeth.
‘You’re not! That’s our patch,’ Little Louis replied, aware that his Brickfield gang membership would be under scrutiny if he didn’t get the banger through the letterbox first. He never did work out why Cheam House and the Bethel family had become his task and his alone.
The rival gangs had this discussion every year on the weekend before the 5th, and so far, no one had got close enough to make the run up the wide pathway to the portico, held by four plain columns supporting its immense lunge over the entrance. And therein lay the rub. How to get close enough, without alarming the dogs and being seen. 3rd November 1928, both gangs had failed. There had been perfect conditions, bright moon, but the crunch of boots on the gravel had bust the plan before they were within 50 yards of the steps up to the door. The previous year they had been undone by the crackle of leaves and dead twigs when they had approached from the woods.
Little Louis had to get Bethel’s letterbox, once and for all, off the Firework night agenda and he had a plan for 1929. He knew he had to get on with it before the Bluegate Boys stole the thunder and thus allow Ray, to further sabotage his standing within the Brickfield gang. Ray was the same age as Louis but the late-arrival son of the house. Louis was the bastard interloper, with a French father and enjoyed no sympathy from his grandma.
‘We haven’t been seeing this right.’ Louis told the meeting being held in a hollow on the old brickfield.
Everyone was despondent. The last two nights had been foggy with not a breath of air, and there wouldn’t be a moon should the mist lift. Under the circumstances, with no other ideas, they had to let Louis have the floor.
‘So, what’s your plan, Lou?’ Ray, the unelected gang leader sneered. He hated Little Louis and bullied him mercilessly at home, in the tiny terrace occupied by six adults and three children. It was feral.
‘The fog is perfect,’ Louis started, trying to prevent a voice, threatening to quiver, destroy his moment. ‘And there has been no wind recently so few leaves have fallen. We can approach from the woods and we won’t need to use the pathway until we are at the door. By then the dog will be barking of course, but if no one can see us, who cares if they know we are there?’
‘They could let the dog out!’
Lou didn’t bother to dignify that objection with a reply. The gang members groaned in disbelief, but Nobby answered for him.
‘If they let the dog out, he is too old to catch us, let alone bite. He can still bark, and that he will do, but it doesn’t’ matter with Little Louis’s plan.’
‘When are you going to do it?’ Ray asked, more contrite as he sensed the support for Louis.
‘Tonight!’ was Lou’s confident response. ‘Tonight.’
Distant owls hooted to each other. A goods train shunted, steam chuffing, then silence, but again an owl, then the crack of dead wood beneath the boots of boys in short trousers, woolly socks and with muddy knees. They could just make out the shape of the illuminated Victorian bay window. The portico was invisible, but known to be to the right.
Lou moved cautiously and as expected, the dog began to bark. He didn’t wait for the others. He grabbed the banger and matches from Ray and ran at where he thought the door under the portico should be. Once at the door he had to calm his nerves and ignore the stirrings in the house. The first match worked and soon had the taper glowing. Only then did he realise that he had not one firework, but a bundle held with a piece of string. The boys cowering on the lawn could no longer see how Lou was getting on. They didn’t know how close he was to aborting as he couldn’t be sure all the bangers would go through the letterbox slit, but seconds before the first banger exploded he managed to get the bundle past the heavy brass flap protecting the hallway from the elements.
Gang members, servants nor the Bethel family and their dog expected the amplification provided by the huge brass box with a wire back, placed behind the door to catch the post. The first explosion was magnificent and there followed an even louder one. The Bluegates Boys, skulking in the woods, wondered at its magnitude. The dog fell silent, too.
Lou arrived back to where the Brickfield Gang waited and heard rousing cheers from out the foggy darkness. They had done it. 1929 would be a year to remember as long as boys threw bangers. Even adults who should have known better, silently grinned their admiration the next day.
November 3rd, 1944. A Vergeltungswaffe II whooshed off a sloped runway, somewhere in northern France. It reached an altitude of 88km within 120 seconds and then, somewhere over Epsom Downs the motor cut out. The rocket buried itself in Mrs. Bethel’s house at 3000 km/h and then exploded. Everyone was vapourised, the bricks spread over the park and only a memory remained.
The Bluegates Boys and the Brickfield Lads were men by then, men, at the front, or techies in the RAF or RN – while some like Louis, and Ray worked at J. L. Jameson in Ewell as engineers in so called ‘reserved occupations’. Letters to the front, discussions in the pub or at work, or in the air raid shelter at night made no mention of the destruction of Cheam House. There was a connection they didn’t want to recognise.
60 years later, Louis, no longer little, and comfortably retired, complained to his son about the local boys kicking the fence of his 30s semi to annoy the dog and make it bark.
‘It’s what kids do, dad’, I reminded him, ‘And less destructive than throwing a banger through a letterbox. You didn’t know there was a letter-catcher behind the door. For all you knew the house could have caught fire.’
The old man paused and reflected.
‘You are right. I still regret that night. And to think of all the places that V2 could have fallen, it landed on Cheam House, the only building for miles. After all was said and done, we got more than we wished for. And you know, Bethels would never have set the dog on a bunch of kids. They were good people.’