Martin Brunt

Recollections of Letchworth, Martin Brunt

I was born on 17 November 1927, in the first house at the Town Square end of Meadow Way. Nurse Nunnerly attended my mother, Mrs Lily Brunt, calling her ‘Flower’. My mother, born Lily Page, had previously married Cyril Arthington Pease (1868 – 1923), Head of the Norton Road School, but he died a year after their wedding. Both were Quakers, as was my wife’s family. My father, Donald Wilfred Brunt, had been born in Macclesfield, and came to Letchworth with his father, Arthur William, who founded The Citizen. A. W. Brunt was a printer by trade, and had run a stationer’s shop in Macclesfield. He was unhappy with the conditions of working men in the North of England, and when he heard about the proposed Garden City, he wanted to be part of it and to get the Garden City idea established in the north of England. He came down with his wife Eliza and lived in Hitchin while houses in Letchworth were being built. The family lived at 51,Gernon Road; as well as my father Donald, there were two other children; George, who died aged around 21, and Connie, who married the builder J. W. L. White. My father Donald trained as a printer, and worked for Hazel, Watson & Viney before he became a photographer. I can remember seeing him proof-reading in The Wynd, in what became the Hive Printers.

My first school was the Montessori nursery at St Christopher. The head of the Montessori was Miss Watson, who used to eat olives, which made an impression on me, presumably because it seemed rather exotic. I stayed at St Chris for the whole of my school career. When we lived in Meadow Way, the Grammar School was just opposite on the other side of the Town Square. People at Chris were regarded by the grammar school boys as rather odd. ​​ I had a great friend in David Jobling, who lived opposite us, and also attended St Christopher School. His father was MD of Spirella, and they had a car, and I was allowed to go for drives with them.

I’d read Swallows & Amazons, and wanted a boat. Peter Elbra, a master at Chris, had made a canoe, so I thought David and I could make this into a sailing boat. During the war it was hard to find wood, but someone was breaking up some old coke bins, so we used the wood to build our boat, we chopped down a tree for a mast, and made a sail. We borrowed a hand push cart from St Chris, loaded up the boat, and cycled to Tempsford towing it behind us. We launched it on the Ouse, but it didn’t really sail, and I tore my trousers, so we needed collecting. To ring home we had to find a house with a phone, so we followed the telegraph wires. These led to The Rectory, where we were warmly welcomed in, and allowed to use the phone and we were collected by the Jobling parents. Later David Jobling became head of Engineering on London Underground, and was very successful. He oversaw the construction of the Jubilee Line, a task he described as stressful!

We all had bicycles of course; everyone cycled. Norton Common was an absolute wilderness in those days. Both my father and grandfather belonged to the Naturalists’ Society, and went for long nature rambles. As a family we’d go for cycle rides, and I’d collect botanical specimens, and my grandparents would come for tea and my grandfather would identify them. I was keen on nature conservation, and made nesting boxes, which I asked Lord Lytton if I could put up on his estate, which I did. He was a charming man – when it froze we’d cycle over to skate on the lake at Knebworth.

My father was President of the Letchworth Camera Club, and organised outings to places like Ely and Cambridge. Other members included architects Wilson Bidwell and Robert Hall, who both lived in Willian Way; Mr Fleming, a retired stockbroker who lived round the corner in Baldock Road, who had a car; Harry Meyer, and a few others. Harry Meyer also had a car with an engine at the front, which often went wrong. He wore plus fours, and lived in Souberie Avenue. While I was still at school we moved from Meadow Way to 21,Willian Way, opposite Robert Hall. I remember Hugh Bidwell from that time.

The town then had no pubs; it was all greenswards, trees and hedges; quite different to other towns. My parents used to talk about Ebenezer Howard, and the idea of Town and Country meeting. The Cockerells, who were bookbinders, were great friends of my parents, and also of Barry Parker, the architect, and his brother Stanley, who taught woodwork at St Christopher School. Father may have met William Ratcliffe through Stanley Parker; Ratcliffe, a friend of Sickert and a member of the Camden Town Group, used to come and have tea in Willian Way just before the war. He was a quiet man rather than shy; my parents had two of his woodcuts of Norton. I have a vague memory of meeting another artist, C. J. Fox, and we had his pictures in the house, and a lot of paintings by Ellen Heath, whose sister Margaret had been Arthington Pease’s first wife. Because my father was a photographer, he was visually switched on, and very arty. Francis King was the art teacher at St Christopher, and a great inspiration – when I was at Oxford I went to life drawing classes at the Ashmolean, and before then, when I was first married and living in Raynes Park, I went to classes in Wimbledon.

My parents and grandparents were strong socialists; my grandfather was very keen on the Holiday Fellowship, which began as a way of providing healthy rambling holidays to northern mill-workers. My mother was very active in Letchworth politics, and became Chairman of the Council. As a magistrate, she became Chairman of the local bench, and was also a Governor of the Grammar School. She was instrumental in getting the library built, and the first librarian was always extremely grateful to her. Her civic work stopped after an operation, and when she had recovered, the local Tories tried to poach her, to no avail. My parents were vegetarian for a while, but gave it up.

On Friday evenings I was allowed to go to the cinema, generally the Broadway, with a St Chris friend Lawrence Harper, who lived in Letchworth Lane. Day pupils at St Chris had to be off the premises fifteen minutes after school had finished. I also remember seeing some one-act plays at The Settlement, and also going to see plays in the St Francis theatre. On Sunday afternoons I would go to the museum, where a group of old gents would assemble in Percy Westell’s office on the ground floor. These included Westell, the curator of the museum, my grandfather, and a Mr Lane. Percy Westell lived in a flat above the museum, and was a bit of a fraud. When my grandfather found that he had purchased an American degree, he refused to speak to him. I adored the museum. When you went through the door you came into a very large room and opposite the windows was a huge case full of stuffed birds. There were two rows of cabinets with glazed tops, one of minerals and one of fossils. Exhibitions were upstairs. I just used to go on Sundays when I was around eight to ten, because my grandfather was there. I liked listening to the old chaps; it was a very important focus of my life at that time. Once I found a Roman loom weight in the Willian fields, and one day someone brought in a sword.

When I left school the war had started. Being a Quaker I was a conscientious objector, and through my godfather Michael Pease I found work as a farm labourer at the Animal Research Station in Cambridge. I had hoped to go to Emmanuel College, but during my interview there was told that they preferred the Military. I wrote to all the colleges, and was accepted by Fitzwilliam. I read Geography at first, but switched to Natural Sciences, with a Part 2 in Geology. I then moved to Brasenose College, Oxford, where I took a BSc in Soil Science. I worked for the Directorate of Colonial Surveys, as a Land Use Officer, my first job being in The Gambia. This later became the Directorate of Overseas Surveys, with offices in Tolworth Tower on the Kingston-by-pass. It was set up under General Martin Hotine who had been Director of Military Survey during the war. Shortly after I arrived the Secretary of State asked the Director of the Rothamstead Research Station, Sir Frederick Bawden, how increased help could be given to develop agriculture, forestry and irrigation in the newly independent colonies. His reply was that the only organisation with the administrative capacity to send people to work overseas was the group of scientists in the Directorate of Overseas Surveys. We were consequently separated from the Overseas Surveys and became the Land Resources Development Centre. There were 120 of us there, under the umbrella of the Foreign Office, until Mrs Thatcher decided to cut our numbers down to 28! She then discovered global warming and said trees should be planted both in the UK and overseas. We had had 12 foresters in LRDC and they had received lump sum compensation for early retirement and their pensions. They kept both those benefits and got their jobs back at double the salary

Looking back, Letchworth seemed to me definitely a very arty place. There was industry of course, but my parents’ friends, people who belonged to the Camera Club, were mostly architects, drawn by the whole concept of the town. Greenswards, respect for nature, no brick walls – the place where Town and Country meet.

​​ Based on an interview by Martin Brunt at his home in Richmond, by Ros Allwood, 29 Nov. 2013