A Family Man from Great Rissington

Harry Mervyn Berry 1898 – 1950

My two sisters and I never knew our grandfather Mervyn Berry. He died before we were born but we heard a lot of funny stories about him from dad. So much so it sometimes seemed like we did know him. My eldest son was named after him. He was a family man, a good friend and well liked in the village.

He was born in 1897 at Waterbank, Great Rissington, Gloucestershire, and had one older sister Kitty born in 1895. He attended Great Rissington Board School with his best friend Joe Cambray who became his life long pal.

Mervyn left school in 1909 when he was 12, which was the official school leaving age at that time,  joining his dad Harry at the Bakehouse. He is recorded as a Bakers’ Assistant on the 1911 census. Bread was baked in the Bakehouse with some sold in the attached shop and the rest loaded on to a handcart for delivery in the village and a horse drawn cart for deliveries to other villages. The deliveries were entered into a red ledger and bills settled on Saturday. Bread was baked fresh early in the morning ready to sell. Left over bread could be sold stale the next day or made into bread pudding or crumbs. 

When World War One broke out Mervyn was only 17 so he remained working at the Bakehouse for his father. On 11 December 1915 he signed up for the Army under the ‘Derby Scheme’ which was introduced by Lord Derby prior to conscription. It allowed men to voluntary join up then return home to their occupation until they were needed. Mervyn didn’t have to wait long. On 21 June 1916 his call up papers arrived and he joined the 11th Glosters to do his basic training. He spent a month in tents at Seaford Camp learning basic drill, marching and rifle practice. He was then transferred to the 81st Brigade Machine Gun Company  joining a  Vickers Machine Gun Team at Belton Park, Grantham.  Mervyn left for France later that year.

Mervyn aged 19

Mervyn had a period of training in Camiers before transferring to Salonika, (Greece). The army in Salonika were known as the ‘Gardeners of Salonika’ owing to the miles of trenches the troops dug but also a tongue in cheek reference to it being a ‘quiet’ area as compared to France and Flanders. Mervyn spent a fair bit of his time in hospital with Malaria which was endemic in Salonika.

After the armistice was announced the men were demobbed in batches. Mervyn was still in Salonika in December and broke out of camp without permission going into town. When he returned he had lost his revolver somewhere. He opted to be dealt with by his Commanding Officer rather than be Court Marshalled who found him guilty of the charge. He was given 28 day Field Punishment No.1 and had to pay £1 15s (1.75) towards the cost of the revolver.

Field Punishment No.1 consisted of a man being shackled to a gun wheel or post for two hours a day and the rest spent in confinement as a deterrent to other would be offenders.

Four days after Mervyn’s charge he was posted to the North Russian Expeditionary Force which was part of the Allies intervention to support the anti-communist White Russians. (His full war story is told in my book ‘Til the boys come home). It was Christmas Eve and it would be a further 12 months before he was demobbed in 1919.

Mervyn in 1918 aged 21

He returned home to Great Rissington and resumed assisting his father at the Bakehouse.

View towards the Bakehouse with the delivery van in the drive and handcart on the road

Mervyn bought his first motor bike in 1921 riding it as far as London on one occasion. He was fined two shillings (10p in today’s money) for ‘riding a motor-cycle without a front light’ in April that year. He had a talent with engines and mechanics. He bought and sold a lot of motor bikes and cars. Tinkering with them and doing them up. In September 1921 he advertised a Graham White two seater car for sale.

Advertisement in the Gloucester Chronicle
Graham White Two Seater

That same year he met my grandmother Edith Annie Lydia Hovard (Edie). She had recently got a job working as a housemaid in Great Rissington. Mervyn was walking to Bourton on the Water one day and met her walking the other way. The story is he asked her what she was doing and she replied ‘Walking to Great Rissington’. He replied ‘Well can I walk with you?’ He turned round and they walked to back  together. Edie was born in Roel, Gloucestershire where her father was a Cowman on a farm. They later moved to Lower Harford and Edie left home at 14 to start work as a housemaid. 

Mervyn married Edie on 11 Feb 1922 at St John The Baptist Church, Great Rissington. They moved into a cottage at the top of the village near Barn End Cottages where their first child Leslie Mervyn Charles Berry was born on 22 October. When Mervyn’s father died in 1923 he took over running the Bakehouse. 

In 1924 there were a further two vehicles being advertised for sale by Mervyn in the Gloucester Graphic.

Advert in the Gloucester Graphic

The advert shows he was hoping for £59 for the two vehicles. Which just seems a ridiculously low price today. There was a black Ford car abandoned in Waterbank’s garden when we were children. A lovely old vehicle with running boards and old style arm indicators. A gang of us used to decorate it by filling headlights and the radiator etc with dandelion flowers. Then hold pretend weddings with everyone piling into the old car to go on the ‘honeymoon’. A friend, Christine Cullimore was usually the Vicar and my sister Jaq and another friend, Richard Smith the Bride and Groom. My sister Jaq and I also used to try and smash a window by throwing big stones at it. But no matter how big the stone we never succeeded.

Mervyn and Edie 1927

Mervyn and Edie added two more boys to their family with Harry Ernest 1926, Dennis Gordon 1927. Sadly in June 1928 Dennis died of Pneumonia. He was just a year old. Edie was already expecting her fourth child so it must have a terribly sad time for them all. Dennis was taken to the church in a small coffin carried by four village girls dressed in white with flowers in their hair. He is buried in a tiny grave in our family plot in the new burial ground at St John the Baptist Church. 

Leslie, Harry and Dennis

In October that year Mervyn and Edie’s fourth boy was born and named Cyril Lloyd. Cyril was followed by my dad Leonard John in 1930. Dad was known as John or Jack till he went to school. I remember an old lady called Sally Agg who lived by us calling him John when I was a child. His brothers called him Jackie Red Eyes because he was always crying. Nicknames are a bit of a theme in the family with Cyril called Ciggle Long Shorts. 

Mervyn and Edie with Kitty’s husband Lloyd and Les Harry and Cyril
Cyril, Les, Leonard and Harry on one of Mervyn’s bikes

Mervyns mother, Clara had died in 1926 and the family home of Waterbank had remained empty. Mervyn used the garden to grow vegetables and often entered them in Bourton Horticultural Show. It was around this time the family moved to Rosemary Cottage in Rectory Lane.

In 1930 two other Bakers started delivering bread from other villages and Mervyn struggled to compete. Times were hard for everyone in the 1930’s after the Great Depression. Work was scarce and wages were low. Despite ploughing everything he could into the business he couldn’t keep the Bakehouse going and on 12 April 1830 filed for bankruptcy. He was 32 with four children and no income to support them. But he was a resourceful man. He got a job as a journeyman delivering groceries for T and H Wilkins who had a shop in Bourton on the Water. The Bakehouse remained vacant but the grocery business continued with his Aunt Eva. Dad always told us that people couldn’t had no money to pay their accounts and that his dad just couldn’t turn women away who wanted bread for their children.

Report in the Gloucester Chronicle

Mervyn and Edie had a fifth son Peter Lionel in 1932

Kitty holding Len, Cyril, Les, Edie holding Peter and Harry

In 1933, Mervyn no longer worked for the Wilkins and was doing casual jobs and whatever he could find. 1935 Edie was expecting again. When she went into labour she was attended by a close neighbour for the birth. The baby was in the breach position and after a prolonged labour the baby got into difficulties. Mervyn was sent to fetch the doctor from Bourton-on-the-Water four miles away but because it was the middle of the night the doctor refused to come and said he would attend in the morning. This would tragically turn out to be too late. The baby was stillborn and was the girl they had both longed for. Such an incredibly sad time for both of them during a difficult period in their life. The doctor still sent them a bill for his attendance.

The following year Mervyn was employed by Wessex Electricity Company as a linesman but the wages were still low. He continued tinkering with motorbikes and his buying and selling when he could. A story told by my dad was Mervyn telling Edie that a ‘bloke is coming to look at that motorbike. Take what he offers’. When he got home he asked ‘What did he give you?‘. Edie replied ‘Half a Crown’, (12.5p). Dad said his father just laughed about it even though she’d been conned and he’d lost out. After the Wessex Electricity Company job came to an end, Mervyn took up employment as a Post Office Engineer for 54 shillings a week.

Len, Les, Peter, Harry and Cyril at Waterbank

Their sixth son, Harvey Graham was born in 1939 a few months before the outbreak of WW2. At the start of the war the War Office was requisitioning empty property so their son Harry and a friend started sleeping at Waterbank to prevent this. The family eventually moved into Waterbank and Mervyn’s Aunty moved in with them. Edith Ann Smith was Mervyn’s maternal aunt and had been a teacher, writer and an artist at different times. She was suffering from dementia. Dad remembered her as a gentle soul who liked to paint stones.

Harvey’s Christening with Mervyn and Edie, Les Harry, Peter and Len. A note on the reverse of this photo says ‘All the boys are here. Cyril is hiding behind John’ (John is Len )

Mervyn became a Aero Engine Fitter for Gloster Aircraft Company at Hucclecote with better wages of 74 shillings a week. He worked on the Gloster Meteor, the first jet  powered fighter plane for the RAF developed by Frank Whittle. As a coincidence when the Gloster Meteor was rolled out of the hanger for the first time my future father in law was a schoolboy and was watching by binoculars from a nearby hill. 

Mervyn far right with the Glosters Meteor workforce
Mervyn working on a Trolley Accumulator (to start a Meteor)

Mervyn was discharged from bankruptcy in 1940 with the reason given: ‘he is a father of six boys and the whole of his earnings during the 10 year period has been used to maintain his wife and children. And it might assist the boys in their occupations if their father was free from bankruptcy.’

That year  Mervyn joined the Home Guard serving at RAF Little Rissington. His two eldest sons were in the armed services abroad. Les was serving in the RAF and Harry in the Ox and Bucks regiment. Cyril was working on a farm which was classified as a reserved occupation during the war. Mervyn worked for Gloster Aircraft Company right through the war.

Mervyn fourth left standing

In 1945 Edie and Mervyn had their last child Michael David.

Mervyn and Edie with Michael at Waterbank

Mervyn’s war time occupation for Gloster Aircraft Company came to an end and he went to work as an Aero Engine Fitter at RAF Little Rissington. He also worked in a team breaking Spitfires and Hurricanes. The planes were parked on the peri tracks on the airfield as well as the peri track leading from the lodge to the road into Great Rissington. Planes no longer needed were ferried in from all over the country and broken down for scrap.

Mervyn was still doing up motor bikes and cars to sell. At one point he took a motor bike to London to sell and returned with a twenty seater Bedford bus which he used to take the Womens Institute on outings.

During the late 1940’s he sat on the committee for the Reading Room. The Reading Room at this time was open between 6.30pm and 9.30pm where men could go to play billiards, read the papers and play cards. The annual subscription was five shillings. The Reading Room was eventually used by various groups, separate youth clubs for girls and boys, weddings, whist drives and by the Great Rissington branch of the British Legion.

A keen gardener, Mervyn scratched his hand in the garden on 1 May 1950 and a few days later fell ill with a sore throat. A doctor attended him at home and initially he failed to mention the cut. Dr Stewart eventually extracted a thorn an inch long from the cut. By this time Mervyn had contracted  Tetanus and was taken to Cheltenham General Hospital on 13 May where he died three days later.

Report in the Gloucestershire Echo on the Inquest held

I don’t think my father ever got over the shock of losing his dad so suddenly and I’m sure his brothers didn’t either. Michael was only five years old. Such a terrible way to die. Mervyn is buried next to Dennis in the new burial ground at St John the Baptist Church near his parents. His coffin was draped with the Union flag and was borne by his fellow British Legion members with the last post played by Mr Palmer of Bourton-on-the-Water. He was an incredible man and was terribly missed by Edie and the boys and their families.

The floral tributes from family, friends and neighbours

Author: claremayo

Author ‘Til the boys come home’. I love history. Especially social history of the working classes and World War

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