Tales of the Village:
Refuge from the Bombing of Bristol
Although Criss Overbury has lived in Pucklechurch for 64 years, she first thought of the village as a holiday spot in the country. As a child in the 1920s and early ‘30s, she would come here to visit an aunt living in Parkfield Rank. Now 90 years old, Criss spoke to Pucklechurch News about how she came to live the village and make it her home.
Born in 1913, Criss Reach lost her parents to two of the 20th century’s deadliest episodes. Her father was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where over a million people lost their lives in 4½ months of fighting. “He was only 32,” says Criss, “They never found his body, but he has a lovely memorial in northern France. My daughter’s been to see it.” Chriss’s mother died at the age of 30 in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed some 40 million people world-wide. “My mother died three days after my fifth birthday. There were four of us left." Their maternal grandparents took in Criss, her brother and her two sisters, making it a crowded household of 10.
Criss Cox Isaac Reach with daughter Lily Lily, Criss, and Rose Reach
(circa 1908) (1913) (1920)
“We lived at 50 Church Road, Redfield, right on the main road. It was so safe for children in those days. Not many cars, mostly horse and carts and tramcars. We used to play ball a lot or make a swing on the lamppost. We’d go off on our own to St George’s park to play,” remembers Criss. “My grandfather would often go in a pub called the Shepherds Rest. We would send our youngest sister in to see him, and he would give her a sixpence, which we insisted that she share that with us.”
In those days, visiting relatives in Mangotsfield seemed like a country retreat as well. “Granny Reach was a widow and worked at Garish’s market garden. They gave her this old cottage rent-free. My Auntie Lily used to work at Carson’s chocolate factory, which was great. I used to go to Granny Reach’s every weekend. I loved it out there and she would make a fuss of me, and the chocolate was nice too. My Auntie Eliza lived in Parkfield Rank, where I used to spend a lot of holidays when I was a teenager.”
Criss left school at 14, as many people did in those days, and went to work at the Smithstone & Knight Ltd. Avonside Paper Mills in St Phillips. This is where Criss met Sid Overbury, her future husband. “That’s how he came to fall in love with me. He said the first day he saw me, he fell in love with me. I was only 14!”
Because she was an orphan, who was cared for but never really loved, Criss craved a family of her own. “I always remember when I was seven saying to my Auntie Lily, ‘I’m going to have a baby.’ She looked at me and then gave me my first lesson in sex. ‘Criss, you can’t have a baby until you’re married.’ That was a good lesson, wasn’t it?”
Sid and Criss were married in 1936, and Criss wasted no time in starting her family. Diane was born in 1937. “We were living in town and sharing a house with some friends because we couldn’t afford a pound a week rent. It was hard times, but we didn’t realise it was hard times regarding money because everybody was the same. I didn’t think I was poor, but we were poor. If you had a hole in your shoe, you just put newspaper in, and never worried about it. Nowadays you don’t have your shoes mended, you just buy new ones.”
The onset of war in 1939 put a dark cloud over the young family. “The day war was declared, I was round my Auntie Eliza’s in Parkfield Rank. We were sat round the wireless when they said there was going to be a war. As soon as it started, we had to have our rations and our gas masks.” The prospect of conscription hung over them. “My husband was a 6-foot man, but he was very thin and very bony. I always said he looked like a prisoner of war before the war even started. My next-door neighbour said ‘Don’t worry, missus, they’ll never have him.’ ” The war was going on nearly a year before Sid received his calling-up papers, but come they did. “It was such a shock. The day my husband had his calling-up papers, I realised I was half a day pregnant. I just knew it immediately. I didn’t tell him right away. I thought I’d let him have his tea first, but I was so upset. After tea, I had to go down in the air-raid shelter, and I still hadn’t told him. Later on he came down and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ Then I gave him his calling up papers and also told him I was expecting. He was so upset. It was tragic. He said he’d rather lose his right arm than leave me like that.” Although the army recruitment officer looked at his skeletal frame and asked what was wrong with him, Sid believed every man should do his duty and was duly enlisted.
With Sid in the army, hard times got harder. Army pay was almost nothing. “In those days, once you were married you never went back to work. I used to go out cleaning, though, and I earned a few shillings that way,” says Criss. Sid’s employer, Smithstone & Knight, offered her 30 shillings a week. “I felt proud and I couldn’t accept it,” admits Criss, even though both she and Sid had worked at the factory for years. They insisted Criss come in to talk about it. “My old boss said, ‘How many children do you have, Criss?’ and I said, ‘One and a half’ because I was four and a half months pregnant. They persuaded me to take half of that money, 15 shillings a week. That meant I got three pounds a month.”
The Luftwaffe started targeting Bristol in June of 1940, with intensive bombing continuing through 1941 and intermittently thereafter until May of 1944. The Bristol area provided a range of targets, such as BAC Filton, many other factories, the railways, and the docks in Bristol, Portishead, and Avonmouth. (http://www.fishponds.freeuk.com/) In 1940, Criss lived on Chelsea Street in Easton, near the Rovers ground, and the bombing raids terrified her. “It was awful. The sirens would go, and I would go down into the air-raid shelter. There was this woman who would go ‘Oooh, ooh, oh!’ I would try to keep calm. But the clinic told me that I would have a nervous baby, and I did have a nervous little boy. You always had to draw your curtains and put blackout strips on your windows. The man next door was a warden and he used to go around and say ‘Draw them curtains, missus!’ ”
For the safety of her daughter and her unborn child, Criss wanted out of Bristol. She wrote to her Auntie Eliza to ask if there was any place she could come to in Pucklechurch. Her aunt wrote back to tell her about a very old cottage in Coxgrove Hill that the owner would rent out for 6s/6d (32½ new pence) per week. Having no one to turn to for advice, Criss decided to take the house, sight unseen. So she and three-year-old Diane moved to Pucklechurch in October 1940. The place had no electricity, no running water and no sink, just a well in the front garden. The toilet was halfway down the back garden. But from its position at the top of Coxgrove Hill, Criss could stand at the gate on the side of the cottage and look down over Mangotsfield. Her old house in Bristol took a direct hit the month after she had left it, killing and wounding a number of people. Her son Philip was born safely in Pucklechurch on 31st May 1941.
It was quite a big change for a city girl, but she was young and strong and, by necessity, independent. Criss cleaned up the house and dug the garden. She grew her own vegetables, kept chickens and ducks, and made jam and bottled fruit from the strawberries, raspberries, plums, apples, and pears that grew in the garden. “I learnt to do such a lot of things,” remembers Criss. “I learned to skin a rabbit. Not kill it, mind… I couldn’t kill one! Someone taught me to pin the skin on a board and rub it with saltpetre. I left it out for a fortnight till it was dry. I put fur pockets on each side of my grey coat. But, you know, dogs always used to sniff those pockets.”
Although Pucklechurch wasn’t a target, you could still hear the German bombers going over on their way to Bristol. The village had no air-raid shelter. “It was frightening. My next door neighbour used to insist that I go over there with the children, and we would hide under a table, as if that would have made any difference if we were bombed.”
During the war years, coal was rationed. To supplement their meagre coal supplies, Criss and her neighbour used to go to the nearby woods to collect firewood. “We called it ‘sticking’. I can remember chopping it up in the room where we lived because it was just too cold to do it outside.” Despite her efforts, the house still wasn’t warm and dry. After it snowed, the melting snow would drip through the roof and into the children’s bedroom upstairs.
Life was not all bad, however. Diane started school in the old Pucklechurch schoolhouse in 1942. “It was a lovely school. I’d walk up with Diane with Philip in the pram,” recalls Criss. With no television or computer games, Criss read to the children for entertainment. They played card games like Newmarket. They went on long walks. “We seemed very contented, more contented than people are now,” professes Criss. The Americans once sent over some jam, and villagers went to Grey House where Mr and Mrs Pratt lived to have it. “For that occasion, I had a very nice dress for Diane, but she climbed a tree and fell into the cow’s muck. I was so cross!” remembers Criss. “Mr Pratt was the squire of the village. My neighbour next door used to curtsey to him when he’d come round on his horse, but I thought, oh no, I’m not going to curtsey.”
Oddly enough, shopping was easier then than it is now. Pucklechurch had a proper family butcher called Hitchins. The co-op in Frampton Cottrell used to take orders for groceries on a Monday and deliver to homes on Friday. The baker called round each day, and Tommy Thompson, the fishmonger, came round in his horse and cart. Oil and coal were delivered by van. “Charlie Bolton’s shop was very good,” says Criss, “I can remember Charlie patting the butter up or cutting off your bacon. And Williams’s shop, where the petrol station is now, they sold groceries too.” Georgie Smith, who lived in the house right next to where the hairdresser is now, cut hair and mended shoes. Sometimes Criss and her Auntie Eliza would go to Staple Hill to shop and have a cup of tea before carrying their purchases back home. The buses ran every half-hour to places like Staple Hill and Old Market. But the thing Criss misses most of all are the days when you just trusted people. “We never had to lock the doors. We left the rent money on the table or the money for the insurance man and never worried that someone would steal it.”
Towards the end of the war, a WI drama group started up in the village. The first play was written by the Pucklechurch postmistress Mrs Smith, songs and all. Criss was captivated by the stage. She took the lead role in a plot that involved a lost lover, a witch with magic potions, and dancing round a maypole. The production opened on the RAF stage, and the whole village came to see it because there wasn’t much other entertainment to be had in Pucklechurch. “It was absolutely wonderful,” enthuses Criss. “It was an old-time thing, and I had to wear a big crinoline dress.” The rest of the cast had to make their own costumes, which for the women who played the male characters consisted of tight leggings. The group entered the WI drama competition and proceeded to win at Gloucester and then at Cheltenham. They took the show to the final in London, where the Queen (later to become the Queen Mother) was in attendance, though HRH had left by the time the Pucklechurch group’s turn came in the afternoon. By the time of the competition, the men had come home from the army, which created certain complications. “My lover, who was played by a woman, had to wear these tights, but by the time we got to London, she was seven months’ pregnant. She couldn’t go because she was so big in the waist she couldn’t wear the tights. I could go even though I was four and half months pregnant because of my big crinoline dress. These men were coming home and having their way with their women, you see!”
When Sid came home, the family carried on living in the old cottage. Sid returned to the paper mill, travelling to work on a motorbike each day. Although Sid didn’t really want more children, Criss wanted another baby and persuaded him with the help of some home-made black satin knickers. “It was a bit tough for us when Sid came home. The ceilings were so low that he kept on bumping his head. When I was expecting Elizabeth, we were sleeping downstairs on a single bed.” Elizabeth, too, was born at the cottage.
After the end of the war, the council built new houses in Pucklechurch. The Overburys were among the first to be eligible because their cottage was so rudimentary. “When the council came to inspect my cottage, they said [the owners] were charging me six shillings too much for it, meaning it was only worth sixpence a week.” They moved to Lansdown Road in 1949, and Criss thought the new houses were absolutely wonderful.
“I didn’t fall in love with Sid straightaway at the beginning, but we were married for 62 years. That was pretty good, wasn’t it?” Togther they raised their three children in Pucklechurch, and subsequently had four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Although Sid died in 2000, Criss still lives independently in the village. She exudes the warmth and charm of someone who has lived a full and happy life.
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