A Wycombe childhood between the Wars

This is the story about a family who lived on Amersham Hill between the wars – that’s between the First World War (1914-18) and the Second World War (1939-45). You probably think that they would have led very different childhoods to the ones that children live now but you’d be surprised, children are children which ever decade they are born into – it’s world events that make the difference.

Sometime around 1912 the Skull family moved to 3, Lucas Road. The houses along this road were relatively new, most having been built in the early 1900s. Certainly Mr and Mrs Skull thought it to be a very new house indeed and Mr Skull took his children across the road to see yet more houses being built on the land opposite. The children thought this was great fun, peering into windows and climbing up ladders, but when one of them nearly fell off Mr Skull asked them not to tell their mother where they had been in case she told them all off. Now that sounds very much like today doesn’t it?

Mr and Mrs Skull probably started their married life a little further up Amersham Hill in a large house called Enderley.  Here is a picture of Enderley (see photograph below) – if you are local to Wycombe do you think you can recognise which house it could be? This is where Mr Skull’s parents lived. Wycombe people used to say ‘the further up the hill you live the posher you are’ – what do you think? The Skulls were furniture makers in High Wycombe and their chairs can still be seen in the Wycombe Museum. They were furniture makers for four generations!

Picture of Enderley Mr and Mrs Skull moved to Number 3, Lucas Road with their two children – Charles and Beth – and they called their new home Chasbeth after the children. After they had moved there, and settled in, they had two more children – Arthur and Ruth. But only Beth was ever called Beth, as the others all had nicknames. Charles was called Boy because he was the first child to be born and Mr Skull would come home from work and ask how the boy was, or where was the boy? (or much more likely, ‘what has that boy been up to today?’) and in the end he just became known as Boy. You couldn’t really shorten the name Beth (unless you were christened Elizabeth and she wasn’t) so she kept the same name. Arthur looked just like the boy in the Pear’s soap advert (the one with the soap bubbles – see if you can find it in the library) and so he became known as Bubbles and Ruth didn’t like her name one bit so, after she had her baby hair cut into a bob (which was very fashionable at the time), she was called Bobby. So when Mrs Skull wanted to call the children for breakfast or tea she would just stand at the bottom of the stairs and yell ‘Boybethbubblesbobby’ and down they would all come. Mrs Skull was quite deaf and so the children could be quite noisy because she couldn’t hear what they were up to, but she was quite good at knowing when they were doing something that they shouldn’t!

Despite her deafness (one of Mrs Skull’s sisters tried to clean her ears for her and damaged her ear drum – so don’t you try and do that!) Mrs Skull still enjoyed playing the piano which was in the drawing room.She also had a roll top desk in here (a wedding present from Mr Skull) and a table where the children could play card games with their father – but they weren’t normally allowed in here unless an adult was with them. It sounds just the same as many houses are today but there are one or two items of furniture missing – can you think what they could be?

In the hall, was a grandfather clock and a table with a drawer where they would store their gloves. They used to put their outdoor shoes and wellingtons in the area under the stairs where there was a hand basin for washing their hands before lunch, and they would hang their coats in a cupboard next to the kitchen. The house was heated by real fires in the main rooms and there was a large range in the kitchen which kept the room nice and cosy.  The bedrooms would not have been kept so warm so it was common for children to have chamber pots beneath the bed (or in a potty cupboard) so that they didn't have to go into freezing cold bathrooms during the night.

Bobby in her pramIn 1914 the First World War broke out and soldiers were moved to High Wycombe in preparation for war. They trained on the Rye and were billeted in the houses all around. Mrs Skull had soldiers billeted on her and when Bobby was born in 1918 the soldiers loved to cuddle her and make her laugh as she reminded them of their own children that they had had to leave back at home. Here is a photograph of Bobby in her pram. 

By this time Boy, and possibly Beth, had gone to boarding school so there would have been enough beds for everyone. Boy was not a very healthy child and he was sent to school away from all the smoke of the factories in the Wycombe valley – which had a lot of tall chimneys in those days from the paper mills.

Here is a letter which he wrote to his parents when he was eight years old.

Boy's letter

Donald as a boy

Mrs Skull with Bobby and Bubbles
During the war the Skull factory made aircraft. The planes were made of wood in those days so the furniture workers turned their skills to making planes instead of chairs. Sadly, Bobby’s older cousin, Donald, was killed in this war – he was an Observer in the Royal Flying Corps. His family later lived at Castle Hill, now Wycombe Museum. You can see a picture of him if you go into the museum kitchen. Look for the photo on the wall of the wedding party of Bobby’s Auntie Nellie and Uncle Fred and the little boy sitting on the ground is Donald. The photograph was taken at Castle Hill when the house was owned by Donald's grandfather, Mr Peace. Here is a small part of that photograph – Donald is sitting in front of Mr Skull who is second from the left. He was twenty one when he died and his grave is in France. It was very dangerous to be in the Flying Corps in those days as you weren’t allowed to have a parachute! The Government thought that if your plane was shot at and you had a way to escape then you would probably take that option rather than to try and save the plane.  As a result many young airmen were killed – records show that some airmen had only a one week life expectancy once they began flying over enemy territory.

  Mrs Skull was not very well because she had trouble with her kidneys and so she had two maids to help her in the house and to look after the children. Giving birth to children in those days was still a risky and painful business and women often suffered ill health as a result. The maids were sisters and they slept in the back bedroom at the very top of the house. Because Mrs Skull was ill it was decided to send Bubbles away to boarding school as soon as he was old enough. He was very homesick and so one day he ran away from the school and hid in the woods near Amersham Hill (though there aren't as many trees there now). He managed to contact Bobby who promised to keep his hide-away a secret and she wrapped up some food from the larder and took it to him so that he woudn't be hungry. No doubt Mrs Skull noticed that the food was missing and their secret was discovered. Bubbles didn't want to go back to the school so it was arranged that he and Bobby would both go to a new school together. Until then Bobby had been attending Wycombe Preparatory School behind the Baptist church, and before that a little school run in the home of Miss Weston at Town House (now a toy shop) in Castle Street. Bobby didn't mind going to boarding school with Bubbles and it turned out to be a very good solution because Mrs Skull's sister (who was a nurse in Egypt) thought that it would do Mrs Skull good to have a nice holiday in Egypt to make her health better. So Bobby and Bubbles went off to boarding school together and everyone was happy.  Here is a photograph taken of Bobby and Bubbles with their mother.

Because all the children went to boarding school they didn’t really have a bedroom they could call their own at Chasbeth, they just used whichever one was free at the time. I don’t expect many children would put up with this arrangement nowadays do you? Of course schooling was very different then because ‘education for all’ was still relatively new and those that could afford it preferred to send their children to be privately educated because the facilities were usually of a higher standard. Mr Skull wanted his children to have a good boarding school education because he felt it showed that he had reached a certain status in life and could afford the best for his family.

Christopher Percy Mr Skull didn’t have a car because car ownership was still relatively new. The house hadn’t even been built with a garage because builders in those days didn’t realise how popular the car was going to become! Instead the family had to rely on lifts from friends (whose parents had cars) or get the bus or train.  However, it also meant that the children never got to come home during term time and rarely saw their parents. But when they did come back they found lots to do. They had a donkey at the end of the garden which they called Christopher Percy. (The garden was a lot longer in those days because the house at the end hadn’t been built then – there simply wasn’t such a need for building land in those days). Here is a picture of Bubbles sitting on Christopher Percy, with  Bobby and Beth standing behind.

Now Christopher Percy was also the name of the verger of the local church where Mr Skull worshipped regularly. Mr Skull didn’t like the verger very much – they had had an argument, I think, and so they called the donkey Christopher Percy after the verger. The verger didn’t know about this until he visited one day and Bobby told him what the donkey’s name was. She was only little and didn’t know the story about the verger and the argument – but she soon found out because the verger was very offended when he learnt that Mr Skull had named the donkey after him!

Children by tree The children were allowed to play all over the garden but they were not allowed to pick the apples off the fruit trees, which were very plentiful. If their father caught them he would be very cross – unless he gave them his permission to pick them first. And they weren’t allowed just to have a bite of the apple. They had to eat the whole lot up! here is a photograph of Bubbles, Bobby, Beth and their cousin Dorothy playing in the branches of the tree that used to grown in the front garden.

There was a special den in the back garden which they called the dug-out. It was a fairly large dip in the ground, (about a foot deep, and at least one boy long on all four sides) which Bubbles and his friends had dug so that they could hide from one another by lying on their tummies. Perhaps they got the idea from the trenches used in the First World War – what do you think? They all had fun in the dug-out and made their camps there.

Bubbles and Bobby both had their share of illness and accidents. Bubbles managed to get a garden fork stuck through his foot when he was out playing in the garden and had to have it taken out very slowly and very painfully. He wasn’t allowed to cry because Mr Skull believed that boys had to be very grown-up about things like that. Bobby felt very sorry for Bubbles and took care of him and the two of them were always very good friends to one another. Bobby had tonsillitis and when it wouldn’t get better the doctor decided that she would have to have her tonsils taken out. They didn’t take you away to hospital in those days – she had them taken out on the kitchen table!

Stumpy Wag The family had a little dog called Stumpy Wag (because he didn’t have a tail, just a waggy stump – here's a photograph of him) and a cat. One day when Bobby was in bed the cat crept under the bedclothes and made a nice home for herself by Bobby’s toes. When Bobby woke up she had a BIG surprise – the cat had had kittens whilst Bobby had been asleep. Mr Skull took the cat and her kittens downstairs to the kitchen as soon as he found out what had happened. The kitchen was a nice homely room (except for when you were having your tonsils removed), as there was always something happening in there, like washing or baking, and the children would like to lick the cake mixture out of the mixing bowl. Mrs Skull made a lovely fruit cake which the children called ‘Kill-Me-Quick’ because if you ate too much you would feel very full indeed.

The children all had friends in the local Wycombe area and the friends would call round to play in the garden and then they would go and play in each other’s houses. At the end of the back garden at Chasbeth was the dividing fence between the Skulls and the Bellamys. Mr Bellamy allowed the Skull children to climb over his fence and to play in his garden. The house adjoining No 3 on the right was owned by the Harris family and then it was sold to the Rivetts. (Jimmy Rivett grew up to own Murrays department store in the town centre. It was a very popular shop until it was taken over by the Octagon shopping centre). The Ercolanis also lived nearby and their children would play in the garden with the Skull children. Their father, like the Skulls, was a furniture manufacturer and his family became well known for making Ercol chairs. But Bobby’s best friend was Stella Chubb who lived on the corner by the woods. There was also another little girl called Aileen who lived on the opposite side of Amersham Hill (near Godstowe School). Not all their friends went away to boarding school but a lot of them did. That’s why Enid Blyton’s books about boarding school life became so popular, it was the experience that many children shared in those days.

Seaside holiday group Here are the Skull family on holiday at the seaside. Bobby’s school teacher was a friend of the family so she went with them. Can you imagine taking your school teacher away on holiday with you? (She looks quite friendly though.) In the back row is Mrs Skull, Miss Weston the school teacher and Mr Skull, then Beth and Auntie Flossie and then Bobby, Bubbles and Boy in the front. There was usually a photographer on the beach in those days because many people didn’t have a camera of their own. Indeed many families couldn't afford to go away on holiday at all because their father's (and mother's) wouldn't have been given holiday pay like they are today.  They had to save up all year to pay for the holiday and also for the money that they would need to cover their bills for the week that they weren't working. Mrs Skull and the children also enjoyed horse riding (they used to stay on a farm in Norfolk for their holidays when they weren't holidaying by the seaside) and Bobby had her first pair of jodhpurs made for her in the tailors shop in High Wycombe. (There is a special reason for mentioning this which you will find out later.)

Sometimes Bobby and her brothers and sister would visit their grandfather at Enderley. Their grandmother had died the year that Bobby was born and Grandpa Skull was quite lonely and so they would visit him in his large house at the top of the hill. Their Auntie Mabel, Uncle Dougie and their cousin Ian, all lived with Grandpa. Bobby and Ian would often play games together. Ian liked pulling Bobby along on the slippery wooden hall floor at Enderley – but Bobby wasn’t so keen on this game because Ian used to pull her along by tugging on her hair! Can you recognise Bubbles and Bobby in this photograph taken with their cousins at Grandpa Skull's house.  Ian is the little boy in the back row, standing between Boy and Beth. He was naughty and wouldn't stay still for the photograph and the photogrpaher had to stick his picture in later - but you can't tell can you?

Children with Grandpa

Sometimes they would visit their cousins and their Auntie Maud who lived just off the London Road at a house called Stuart Lodge (they loved playing under the eaves of the attic), or they might visit their Auntie Nellie and Uncle Fred who lived in one of the houses facing the Rye (they’re the ones in the wedding photo in the museum). This aunt and uncle later moved to Bassetsbury Manor and when Bobby was a bit older she would play tennis there with her cousins.

As Bobby grew older she would run errands for her mother and would walk down through the fields to the corner shop. The fields were full of cows in those days. One day the shop owner remarked how brave she was to walk past all those cows on her own and after that Bobby was always frightened of taking that walk (he was trying to make her feel grown-up but adults can say some very silly things without thinking can’t they?) Or sometimes she would go shopping with her mother in Wycombe town centre. In the summer the children would go to West Wycombe and grass toboggan down the steep hillside by the Mausoleum. They would buy fizzy lemonade from the sweet shop at the bottom. The lemonade came in glass bottles with a glass marble in the top to keep the fizziness in. Sometimes they would go swimming in the open air pool along the Oxford Road (which isn’t there now) or cycle further afield to the River Thames. When Bubbles was old enough he bought a motorbike and would give Bobby lifts on the back of it but he had a bad accident and Mr and Mrs Skull were very relieved when he bought a car. Now the family had the chance to travel in style and Bubbles became their driver. (And he probably helped to build the first garage at Chasbeth).

Bubbles and Eric Here is a picture of Bubbles with Beth's husband Eric.  They were seeing who had the knobbliest knees - who do you think won?

By now Bobby was almost grown-up. Unfortunately the family business had run into difficulties and Mr Skull was forced to sell his factory to Ercol. This meant that money was quite tight and the family had to manage without many of the luxuries that they had become used to. Bobby couldn’t go away to college like her older sister, Beth, had done. Instead she had to find a job and so she became an assistant school matron and a PE teacher – she was very good at sports. Then a London secretarial college was evacuated to Amersham (it was the late 1930s and people didn’t want to live in London because they were frightened of being bombed if there was going to be another war). Bobby went to stay with some cousins who lived next door to the new college and she finally had the chance to train as a secretary. After her training she went to work in London but then the Second World War was declared. She was standing by the Thames when the first bombs dropped on the docks – it was very frightening.

Now Chasbeth was very empty. All the children had left home and there was no need to keep a house that was so large. Mrs Skull was still ill and the thought of having to look after evacuees from London – who would be billeted in the empty rooms – worried her so much that it was decided that they should sell the house and move into a flat further down Amersham Hill. Mr Skull also thought it was a good idea to sell the house because the family needed the money. Unfortunately large houses were difficult to sell at that time because nobody was very keen to take in evacuees so it was sold for less than its true value. If you were asked to share your house with a strange family today how do you think you’d feel? They may not look after your toys as well as you do.

So Mr and Mrs Skull moved to rented accommodation until they found somewhere better to live and the children married, had children of their own, or took part in the war effort.

Here is a photograph of the family taken in the front garden of Chasbeth only a few years before they moved.  The little baby is Boy's first child and she is now an OAP!

Bobby became a WAAF officer in the war (she was nicknamed Bonesey – can you think why?) but she came back to visit her parents whenever she could. They finally moved to an aunt’s house at the end of Birdcage Walk, just by the tunnel that goes under the railway. It was called Rydal Mount. See if you can find it one day. After the war they moved to Queen’s Road but that house has since been pulled down to make way for new homes.



  Bobby's wedding The Second World War changed many people’s lives but they had to get used to living with these changes whether they wanted to or not. Luckily Bobby and her two brothers and sister all survived the War but sadly one of her cousins (the little boy standing behind Bubbles in Grandpa Skull’s family photograph) was killed in the Fleet Air Arm and her cousin Ian (the one who pulled her hair) was taken a prisoner of war – but he managed to escape and had many exciting tales to tell of his adventures.

After the war Bobby came back to High Wycombe and got married – to the tailor who fitted her out in her first pair of jodhpurs all those years before. And they lived happily ever after.

 Sally Scagell Peace 2005





If you want to find out more about the tailor then read Tally-man, Tailor, Soldier, Peace  – Tales from Tailoring

Or if you’d like to learn more about the tailor’s family then read The Peace Family of Castle Hill – Fragments of Memory

If you want to find out more about Bobby’s grandfather then read The Skulls – the Skeleton in the Cupboard

If you want to find out about what happened to Bobby after she got married then read A 1950s and 1960s Childhood written by her daughter

If you want to find out about Bobby’s aunt and uncle then read Bassetsbury Manor – A Recent History

And finally, if you want to learn about growing up in Wycombe before the time of television and computers read The Butcher, the Tailor, the Candlestick Maker

Every minute of every day we create another piece of history – what’s yours?