My mum Rene (Alice Irene Flitney née Harding) died in 1999. When my brother, sister and I went through her things we found an envelope full of old newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces. We looked through the papers and put the envelope away, but those yellowing pieces of paper keep whispering of half-forgotten times and places. Places like Butlers Cross, Stoke Mandeville, Aylesbury, West Wycombe, Little Kimble, Wendover, Ellesborough, Southcourt and Princes Risborough.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Last Days of Childhood at Murcott a guest post by John Flitney

See previous post here

 Bramwell H. Withers OBE

Major Withers was born in Australia on 4th October1888 and came to England with his parents while still a young child. By 1908 he was a lieutenant in the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) and would later become a founder member of part of the Boy Scout movement. I had known him for fourteen years prior to his death but had little knowledge of his past until Mum sent me a cutting she had taken from the obituaries page of the local paper in 1968. ( Also, latterly, by research on the internet) He had seen active service with the Loyal Regiment during the First World War in Palestine and East Africa. He then spent ten years with the Egyptian army in the 11th Sudanese, and the Western Arab Camel Corps. By 1929 he was in India having rejoined his regiment. There he met and later married Lillian Bibby. They had no children. On retiring from the army he spent almost three decades working with boys clubs and the Scouts in Lancashire. He became a magistrate and in that capacity took a great interest in juvenile cases, endeavouring to find the best way to help youngsters to start afresh. In 1908 he started one of the earliest Scout troops in Winchester and held an interest in Scouting all his life. Often there would be lads camping in his garden, these would mostly come from a London Welfare Department as needing help. Among other things he was involved with the Bridewell Trust which maintained a charitable school in London, he was a governor of Bicester school and for ten years represented Murcott on Ploughley rural district council. Major Withers died, aged eighty, peacefully at home, after a period of illness. 

My last visit to Murcott House, saw him confined to a bed in the lounge with his sister Thelma in attendance. (Mrs Withers had deceased some years earlier.) He was heavily sedated but even so seemed pleased to see me. We chatted for a short time until he drifted into sleep again. I sat with him for a while before quietly leaving. The funeral was held at Charlton-on-Ottmoor church and I would like to quote one thing the Rector, the Reverend E.H.W. Crusha, said about him at the time, “ In thirty years of soldiering and thirty years of youth work there are many who are better men for knowing him!” I am proud to say I am one of those, remembering him with affection and I am honoured to have known such a remarkable person.

Major Withers in Africa

Most likely it was the Saturday morning following our first meeting with Major Withers that Richard and I first called at his house. He greeted us warmly and invited us in, straightaway asking if we had come to help with the trophies. There were all manner of things from his military past, regimental photos and regalia, swords, Kukris and African shields and spears to name but a few. We spent a couple of hours placing some of these things for display in the hallway before going to the kitchen for some tea and biscuits. Here the Major asked if we would like to come on a regular basis and do some odd jobs for him and perhaps pursue whatever hobbies we might have. He had a large workshop that was at our disposal and we were welcome to bring along any other boys from the village who might be interested. Thus started a long and happy association with the Major. I think Mum and Dad were happy too as it gave us somewhere to go as there was nothing else locally to entertain us.

Until leaving school we would spend a lot of time at Murcott House. Roy, the other lad in the village, would come along sometimes and there were occasionally boys from other parts of the country. We would do odd jobs around the house and in the garden, or if the weather was bad there were things to occupy us in the workshop. One of the first things the Major had us do was rig a trapeze swing in the largest apple tree in the garden. This would become a regular source of amusement and exercise. Mowing the lawn was a contested job too as the petrol driven machine towed a seated roller and was a first lesson in driving. We were also taught how to use a gun safely and had competitions at target practise at which Richard excelled.

                        Take off for Richard                     Back Row L to R; Richard, Major Withers, Roy
                                                                                     Front row L to R;  London lad?  me

Trying my hand at target practice 

On leaving college Richard enlisted in the RAF in 1956 and by then Roy was at work, I think in Oxford, so for two years I was on my own so to speak. I missed Richard’s company and during that time I became a bit of an introvert, content with my own company and thoughts. It was something that would affect me for many years to come. I had made no friends at school and there were no other boys nearby, therefore the Major’s would become a focus for my spare time. He had quite a large rose garden and having expressed a liking for them he encouraged me to grow some at home by actually providing a variety of plants. They did reasonably well and I would later pick some of the best blooms to try and entice Audrey out for a walk. They didn't help, and besides she was always about to wash her hair no matter what time I called?? Didn't do my confidence any good at all, girls were supposed to like being given flowers. I didn't spend all my time at Murcott House as there were things at home to do, school homework was the boring bit and came first during term time. Then there were my roses to check and other jobs for Dad in the vegetable garden and the grass needed cutting regularly. Also I would milk the cow after school if Mum was busy, plus collect the eggs from the few chickens we kept.

For all the time we lived at Murcott the toilet was a bucket affair in a small shed in the garden. I had grown enough by now to be able to cope with the job of emptying the bucket when required. This entailed carrying it carefully to the hole previously dug at the furthest part of the garden, tipping it in, whilst holding my breath, then covering the deposit with earth from the windward side. About every six weeks or so a new hole had to be dug so I would do that too, making a hole 4ft ish square and 5ft ish deep. Also, if Dad had felled a tree, I would hand saw, then with an axe or sledge hammer and steel wedges, split logs for the fire. I had a lucky escape one time while trying to split a long section of green Elm. It was a particularly tough piece and I had not reached half way along it before having three wedges jammed in it. That left one more wedge, the widest and rarely needed. So I started that one and got it stuck too. In my frustration I gave it an almighty bash with the hammer and to my surprise it disappeared. As the log hadn't split I bent over to see what had happened when the wedge disappeared again, into the soil right alongside me. The tension in the timber had fired the heavy metal high into the air. Learning from my mistake I used the wider wedge in the already parted section to free the others and reused those to finish the job. To ‘get away from it all’ I would take our dog, Trixie, for long walks down on Ottmoor.

Young Trixie                                                        Older Trixie 

I suppose it was around the time of my fourteenth birthday that I began to think of what I would do on leaving school. While Richard had built model aircraft I had done Airfix kits of naval ships. He had gone into the RAF...logical! Perhaps I could try the Navy, there was nothing locally that enticed me. With Mum and Dad’s encouragement and the Major’s help I made that my objective. (Dad had been turned down, on medical grounds, for military service. He had desperately wanted to avenge the death of his father during the Great War. So when I wanted to join my brother in the services he was not displeased. During my final year at school I made more of an effort and with some extra private evening classes, financed by Major Withers, I improved. Late in 1957 I sat the entrance exam for the Royal Navy. Not in a recruitment office as you might think, the staff from the Reading office came to Murcott and I took the test, one afternoon, sitting at a bench in the Major’s workshop. On completion of the test the Major suggested that I go home, and if Mum approved, I should return later and have dinner with them all. On my way out I noticed the dining table laid ready for the meal and couldn't understand why each place had so much cutlery. Mum said, “I should attend the dinner and not to worry about the cutlery!” Adding, “It will probably be a three coarse meal and to use the cutlery from the outside first. Just watch the others, wait for them to start and mind your manners!” So later that evening I nervously sat down to dine with a Royal Navy Commander, a Lieutenant, a Sergeant Royal Marine and a Petty officer all in uniform with the Major presiding at head of table. (A bit different to tea at home but there was nothing better than Mum’s cooking.)

Some weeks later I went for the medical examination and then it was a case of waiting for the results of both tests. One morning a letter came for me and I excitedly opened it only to read that I had to have another medical, this time in London. Dad couldn't get time off work and Mum did not fancy the trip so they asked the Major if he would accompany me. Fortunately the date would coincided with a business trip he had planned so he was happy to oblige. It turned out that when, at the first medical, being asked about any serious illness I had had as child I, being in a rather nervous and confused state at the time, had replied “Asthma!” A serious error as that would, if true have ruled out any hope of joining up. What I had been trying to remember was Eczema as I had been seriously afflicted with that as a baby. Anyway after a thorough chest examination it was back to the waiting game.

Easter in 1958 was in April so I would finish school at the end of March when the school broke up for the holidays. The long awaited letter, along with some consent forms for Mum and Dad to sign, came during my last week at school..................

To be continued............


  1. Dear John, another entertaining and enjoyable post, thank you very much. Barbara

  2. Barbara, thank you for your kind words and for presenting the post so expertly. John

  3. John, Really enjoyed your latest instalment and I can just imagine you sitting at that table with all the cutlery! I always wondered why Richard went in the RAF and you in the navy. I look forward to hearing about your adventures.
    Sue x

  4. Sue, Thank you! Yes there is more to come and it get a bit more serious from now on.


I really appreciate your comment. Thank you!
Barbara x

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