Brenda Howlett-Nye: Life on a Busy Farm
Published on 31st May 2016
I was born in 1933 in Reigate. My mum was a dressmaker and my father a police constable in the Reigate Borough Police, although he was a proud son of St Andrew’s, Scotland.
I have one sister, Yvonne, who is four years older. As a child, I accidentally smashed her China doll, which was sacred to her. That night, my sister told me “The blood will run!” and I was too frightened to sleep!
My mother was one of eight children and my father one of ten, so we were very family-orientated. They were both strict. When I was disobedient, mum would say, ‘Mark my words, God will punish you.’ My father hated to see food wasted and would say “You’ll eeet it” in his strong Scottish accent.
When World War Two broke out, my father was commissioned to form an auxiliary ambulance service for Reigate and Redhill, known as Air Raid Precautions (ARP). He converted several cars, including Bentleys, into ambulances. I recall witnessing an enemy bomber attacked by our fighter planes and seeing a plume of black smoke billowing out from the tail of the bomber as it spiralled out of control.
During the Blitz, the sky in and around London was lit up by an ominous red glow. It was then that my father decided that my mother, sister and I should evacuate to Scotland to stay with his relations. My mother told me that Hitler liked Scottish people, so I thought we would be okay. The Flying Scotsman took us up there and when it was time to come home, we went potato picking to earn our fare. It was hard work in the cold and wet!
In 1943, doodlebugs began to plague the south of England. One flew low overhead as we scrambled into the damp air raid shelter at St John’s School in Redhill! So I was evacuated again with my sister, to Bridgend, Wales. When we arrived, we all needed accommodation so the children were sort of auctioned off. It was like Redhill cattle market. All of the boys were chosen first, as they could work on farms, and we were almost the last. We were taken in by an elderly lady with a heart of gold, who lived in an old mining cottage.
I went on to Cromwell Road School in Redhill and then in 1948 left for Sheephatch near Farnham, a school for children who had experienced a disruptive education during the war. It was wonderful there. The girls could do woodwork and pottery, and our Master, who had been in the SAS, taught us to map read. I also learned how to produce chicks, how to keep laying hens, and how to kill, pluck, draw, truss and cook them.
The Head Master’s wife thought that I was cut out for farming, although my mother wanted me to be a secretary. She persuaded my father that I should keep a goat. It supplied us and half the road with milk, which was still rationed.
After leaving school, I started working with Jersey milking cows at Stumblehole Farm in Leigh. It was tough as I was cycling every morning at the crack of dawn, doing a hard day’s work and then cycling home - for £2.10 shillings a week. A couple of Italian ex-prisoners of war working on the farm taught me some Italian. Many years later, I discovered they were swear words!
I worked at various farms, learning about dairy farming, and could afford the occasional riding lesson. Biddy, the lady who owned the stables, offered me a job, so I learned how to handle ponies and eventually taught children to ride. Two of the horses I looked after had been in Tex Ritter’s Wild West Show, including one called The Mighty Atom. They were owned by the local vet, David, who attended the animals on the farm.
David and Biddy set up home together at Priory Mead, and when Biddy had a horrible fall from her horse, I helped David at the veterinary surgery, assisting him with operations on small animals and helping Biddy as she recovered. I also kept the horses fit, ready for hunting.
On Valentine’s Day 1952, I went to work for Charles Nye at Kinnersley Manor near Reigate. I worked with Ayrshire cows and was keen to learn more about grassland management and milk production. Charles’ son George was living on the farm with his wife and their two girls. One night, he caught a burglar and wrestled him to the ground, which made headlines in the local newspaper.
Biddy had warned me about George, as I had caught his attention. My father sensed what was going on, so I left, and went to work on a farm near Guildford. George started meeting me after work. Then father arrived unannounced at my shack in a furious rage! He ordered me to leave my job, which I did.
I found an interesting job in veterinary research in East Sussex. Vaccines for distemper and other diseases were being developed and animals were monitored for many research projects. Before long though, I was back farming at Summerford Farm, Withyham, becoming head herds-woman with a show herd of dairy shorthorns. When we were busy, I helped out with other seasonal jobs like dung spreading, hay-making, harvesting and thatching.
A highlight was when I showed Lye’s Wild Emperor, the farm’s pedigree shorthorn bull, at the South of England Show. I also played darts at The Dorset Arms, and our team was known as The League of Nations as the farm help came from all over Europe! They were happy times.
Shortly after my 21st birthday, I fell pregnant. George seemed happy and said he would stand by me. My father was furious. I was not allowed to set foot in his house for two years. It was a truly traumatic time.
George and I were living in an old gypsy caravan when Robert was born in 1955. George and his father looked at farms we could run and finally settled on Wattlehurst Farm in Kingsfold, which was run down but had potential as a dairy farm, with high fields of sandy soil and heavy clay in the low fields, suitable for summer grazing.
I was very excited when I first saw the old dilapidated farmhouse. The original part of the house dates back to the 1500s, and as it sits on top of a hill, the wind blows through it with an eerie whistle. We later found it was haunted too! There was no electricity or gas so we wore several layers of clothes to keep warm. I heated water in a rustic outhouse and we would go to bed by candlelight.
Life was tough, but in between milking and caring for the animals, we gradually managed to pull things round.
One day in 1958, the sky became black and huge hailstones fell and set like snow. The storm was recorded as a tornado and our neighbouring farm lost several cows that were hit by lightning. It was noted in the Guinness Book of Records that the largest hailstones known in the UK fell in Horsham. They were the size of tennis balls and dented the cars!
David, our second son, arrived in January 1958 and John followed afterwards. My life was full, with three little boys to look after as well as cooking for the family and helping out on the farm. George was also demanding. He would go to the pub every lunchtime and again in the evening. Lunch had to be sharp at 1 o’clock with supper at 9 o’clock.
My fourth son, Richard (known as Ricky) arrived in 1962. I suffered a massive haemorrhage during the birth and the medical team fought to save my life as I lost over half the blood from my body in ten minutes. I suffered with postnatal depression, which was horrendous.
George often went greyhound racing and this led to him buying his own racing greyhound. After some unsuccessful ventures, I thought it would be sensible to try breeding our own dogs. George acquired a well-bred bitch named Jenny Lind. She surprised us by producing 16 puppies, 14 of which survived. We kept four, and they all became top-class open racers and Jenny later became a much loved family pet. My experience working with vets and with animals became valuable. At one point I was looking after 50 greyhounds. We also began to breed for other people.
It was a lucrative and enjoyable hobby, as we had many top class winners. Wattlehurst Lightning won best racing bitch at Wimbledon, whilst Wattlehust Rogue won the Wimbledon Puppy Derby in 1968. I rarely put more than a small each way bet on my dogs but I enjoyed the banter and camaraderie!
It was difficult keeping an eye on all of the boys as there were so many interesting things to do on the farm. They all had enthusiasm to learn hands-on how things worked, but we had to ensure they understood the dangers of farming life. I’ll never know how they all survived!
John was a genius at converting old cars and bikes and getting them running again, so one day a school friend asked him to help build an old buggy. They spent hours on it, then decided to give it a run. I heard it roaring up the hill, then there was silence. I ran out to find John unconscious in a pool of blood, as his head had hit a post. His skull was severely fractured and we were warned that, even if he came out of the coma, John would probably have brain damage. George was worried that John would be handicapped. I remember him saying that there would always be work for him on the farm. I was touched by this rare display of emotion from George. Amazingly, John made a full recovery.
George expected the boys to work hard as they grew older. I didn’t have a problem with this, but there were limits. I knew they needed time for homework but George wasn’t as concerned for their academic studies. I wanted them to have a good education. Robert followed in my father’s footsteps by becoming a policeman, before opening the nursery. He later became leader of Horsham District Council. David was always an entrepreneurial type and formed a builder’s merchants, which is still very successful.
John took over the running of the dairy herd. He later moved to France and transformed a run down old French farmhouse to accommodate cattle, sheep and thoroughbred brood mares. Ricky too has done very well.
When the boys were young, George bought Poppet, a grey filly, as he thought it would be a good idea for the children to have a pony. Ricky, in particular, enjoyed riding. We had many horses on the farm. In the 1970s, he bought his first thoroughbred, Brood Mare Bella Lisa, and so began an era of breeding and racing!
Bella Lisa produced several winners, the first being Kingsfold Trooper. From the proceeds of his winnings, we were able to fix the leaking farmhouse roof. One of her foals included a filly who won at Goodwood and as a result we met the Lord and Lady of Goodwood.
I became fascinated by equine bloodlines, especially hereditary factors, and I thought about breeding racehorses but with four growing boys, finances were tight. So, in 1977, George and I went to the Newmarket Sales and bought a little chestnut filly for just £500 as a companion for his other foal. I called her Dolly Daydream. I bought her from George, and bred her with Swing Easy, a big, well-bred American stallion. This produced a big, successful filly called Four Sport.
I took some criticism as I next chose an unknown stallion called No Loiterer as the sire, as I thought he was right for Dolly and was a hidden gem. The following year, Kingsfold Flame was born. She was broken and schooled in Rutland - an expensive occupation. I worked hard and sold at car boot sales to help pay for it, but the gamble paid off. Her winnings eventually came to almost £90,000.
One of her most memorable races was at York, when she just beat the favourite at the post. I proudly led her in and was interviewed on television! Dolly also delivered a colt nicknamed Sabre. We sold him at the Doncaster Sales as a yearling. He later raced as Flashing Steel, coming fourth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and winning the 1995 Irish Grand National.
From that cheeky little filly, who originally cost just £500, the total winnings of the Kingsfold Flame’s progeny was £430,000. I have managed to keep one filly from each generation as a brood mare to sustain the dam line. Sadly, I had to sell most of them as yearlings as they are expensive to keep.
I decided to catch up with the education I missed during the war. Over the next 20 or so years, I took many O-levels and A-level courses in Horsham, as well as a social psychology course at Guildford University. I also studied many more things at evening classes, including antiques, pottery, creative writing, and car maintenance.
In 1977, George thought it was the right thing for us to be married, which we did. But towards the end of the 1980s, the relationship had broken down. He had his demons, and my own behaviour left much to be desired. I remember leaving that old house; it was a huge wrench leaving behind everything I’d worked so hard for over 33 years.
I went to Farm Place, a clinic within a beautiful country house and grounds in Ockley. It helped people understand addictions, especially people living with an alcoholic. I felt that I had finally found the person I really wanted to be, and left ready to start my new life.
I moved into a bungalow on the farm and formed a wonderful relationship with Fred, who lived just a mile away. He never married and was happy living on his own with his hunt terrier, chickens and ducks. We became soul mates.
I enjoyed selling plants at the Friday market in Horsham Town Hall. I used to sort out and clean up the plants by taking any yellow leaves or dead heads off and reviving any that looked a little down.
Fred and I had some very treasured moments – some of the happiest of my life. I was with him, holding his hand, when he passed away at St Catherine’s Hospice. My family were very fond of Fred and we had the wake at the nursery. Just two weeks before Fred died, George passed away, having never recovered from an operation on a new heart valve.
I enjoyed many lovely holidays and cruises in later life. I first ventured on to the ski slopes at the age of 58, with my family, and have since seen much of Europe. I have also been to Canada and China.
My travels continue with Krassy, who first came to work at the Nursery in 1991. Our biggest adventure was a cruise, taking in many south east Asia countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Three years ago, I had a special party to celebrate my 80th birthday. It was a memorable occasion, as my sister, old school friends, dog racing and horse friends, and old farming friends all turned up to reminisce about our years at Wattlehust Farm. I will always treasure that day.
There have been many ups and downs. The highlights include breeding and rearing successful greyhounds and horses. I’ve raised four wonderful sons. I have nine grandchildren, two step grandchildren, two great grandsons and one great-granddaughter and it’s great to observe how many family traits and mannerisms continue down through the generations.
I have now written a book about my life, which I know might upset some of my family as I talk about my difficult relationship with George. I originally wanted to write the book – Finding Me - so that future generations of my family, or anyone interested, might learn how we coped with life before TV, mobile phones and modern technology!
Finding Me (Common Sense and a Little Ingenuity Prevails) by Brenda Howlett-Nye is available to buy through York Publishing Services www.yps-publishing.co.uk