The Dope Judies

During world war two, my grandmother, Delia Eileen Abram (nee Clarke) worked at Sywell Aerodrome in Northamptonshire, repairing the Irish linen skin covering on the bodywork of Wellington bombers.

nan-2

The aerodrome  dates back to 1927 when local landowner, Mr Harold Brown agreed to let 55 acres of his land off the Holcot Lane, adjacent the Belman Gate, to the Northamptonshire Aero Club. Today it has evolved from a world war two RAF facility into general aviation airfields.

During the second world war activities at Sywell included the expansion of flying training, repairs to 1,841 of the RAF’s Wellington bombers and completion and flight testing of some 100 Lancaster mark two, four engined bombers. Brooklands Aviation Ltd oversaw the use of the ‘shadow factory scheme’ and saw two major sites used for aircraft overhaul and maintenance.

  • Site number one concentrated on Wellington repair and Lancaster construction.
  • Site number two site was based at Buttocks Booth in Moulton mainly for Wellington work.

Wellington Bombers flying in formation.Wellington Bombers flying in formation.

Other local engineering shops and businesses were subcontracted to undertake specific component repair too, including Earl’s Barton Motors (Abram’s garage) which was run by my great grandfather Joseph Charles Abram. A document from the Harrington Museum states:

‘The number or aircraft needing repair increased rapidly during 1940 and the accommodation at the main centre at Sywell was found to be inadequate. This together with the policy of dispersal and the benefit of taking work to the people instead of the reverse with consequent saving in travelling, led to premises being requisitioned including Abram’s Garage, Earls Barton – used for undercarriage and bomb beams.’

The full document can be viewed below.

Second World War recruitment poster.

Second World War recruitment poster.

Around 2,000 people worked for Brooklands either directly or indirectly during world war two. However, as the men were conscripted, much of the work fell to women to undertake, including driving the roof cranes that shifted wings and tail fins into position, installing electrics and stitching a planes linen carapace.

The women who recovered and stitched the linen on airframes were nicknamed ‘Dope Judies’.  The word dope referred to the layers of dope that formed the outer skin of the aircraft that the Irish linen was treated with.

Flight Mechanic website explains:

‘Fabric-covered aircraft play an important role in the history of aviation. The famous Wright Flyer utilized a fabric-covered wood frame in its design, and fabric covering continued to be used by many aircraft designers and builders during the early decades of production aircraft. The use of fabric covering on an aircraft offers one primary advantage: light weight. In contrast, fabric coverings have two disadvantages: flammability and lack of durability.Finely woven organic fabrics, such as Irish linen and cotton, were the original fabrics used for covering airframes, but their tendency to sag left the aircraft structure exposed to the elements. To counter this problem, builders began coating the fabrics with oils and varnishes. In 1916, a mixture of cellulose dissolved in nitric acid, called nitrate dope, came into use as an aircraft fabric coating. Nitrate dope protected the fabric, adhered to it well, and tautened it over the airframe. It also gave the fabric a smooth, durable finish when dried.’

Wellingtons under construction, showing the geodetic airframe.
Wellington bombers under construction, showing the airframe.

Stitching  tightly with a curved needle, at a regulation eight stitches per inch, so the wind could not rip the seams open, the mostly female workforce worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week, in damp unheated hangars.  

Sources

 
Further information
 

John, Martha and Elizabeth Peach

I learned about John and Elizabeth Peach while researching the Thompson family, with their names appearing on the 1871 census together and with Lucy Munn’s described as Mother in Law. Elizabeth Peach also appears on the 1901 census, where she has a 21 year old servant named Lucy Thompson working 25 Margaret Street, Northampton. Elizabeth is described as a widow and ‘living on own means’.

1851

In 1851 John Peach, aged 34 is recorded as a market gardener with one employee. Married to Martha, they are living at Gold Street, Northampton.

1861

In 1861 John and Martha can be found living at 17 Gold Street. They have a six year old visitor called Selina Starmer and one servant.

1871

In 1871 John and Martha are living alone at Billing Road, St Giles, Northampton. Aged 54 John is described as a retired market gardener.

1881

Aged 64, John can now be found living at 8, Billing Road, Northampton. Again he is described as a retired market gardener but he is now married to Elizabeth Peach and Lucy Munns, described as mother in law, is living with them.

1885

John Peach died in 1885 leaving a personal estate of £2.200.

Details of the will of John Peach.

1886

The Northampton Mercury reported the auction of three highly desirable properties at Gold Street, Victoria Street and Billing Road Northampton.

Thompson, Munns and Peach families

Prior to marrying my great grandmother Milly May Bowers, my great grandfather Joseph Charles Abram was married to Lucy Thompson.  Although not an actual ancestor, I have discovered her  family to be very interesting, so their stories appear below.

George and Lucy Munns

I learned about George and Lucy Munns while researching the Thompson family. Lucy Munn’s name appeared on the 1871 and 1881 census returns along with William and Harriett Thompson.

1841

George and Lucy Munns, both aged 35 can be found on the 1841 census, living at Todds Lane Johnsons Square, St Sepulchre, Northampton.

1851

In 1851 George and Lucy are living at 1, Nelson Street Square, St Sepulchre Northampton, Both described as shoemakers, they have four daughters, including a daughter Harriett aged seven.

1861

In 1861 George and Lucy are living at 27, Vernon Street, Priory of St Andrew, Northampton. Harriett aged 17 is employed as a shoe machine worker.

1871

In 1871 a Lucy Manns is recorded as living with William and Harriett Thompson at Russell Street, Northampton. William is employed as a riveter, Harriett as a machinist and Lucy as a laundress.

1881

In 1881 Lucy Munns is again recorded as living with William and Harriett, living at 42 Great Russell Street, Northampton. Interestingly though, Lucy Munns, a widow also aged 75 and described as Mother in Law can be found recorded at 8 Billing Road Northampton, living with John Peach (a retired Market Gardener) and his wife too.*

* The 1901 census shows Lucy Thompson aged 21, working as a servant for a widow, aged 73, named Elizabeth Peach, at 25 Margaret Street, Northampton. Elizabeth is described as ‘living on own means’.

William and Harriett Thompson

William and Harriett Thompson were the parents of Lucy Thompson, who was the first wife of my great grandfather Joseph Charles Abram.

1841

The 1841 census shows William aged three living in Dallington, Northampton, with his parents William and Mary and six brothers and sisters – George, John, Mary, Sarah, Richard and Elizabeth.

1861

In 1861, William aged 23, can be found living in the home of John and Emma Humphrey at 5, Cavendish Terrace, Clapham, Wandsworth. John and Emma have eight children and five servants including William. William’s occupation is given as a footman and John’s occupation is given as wharfinger, which is the owner or keeper of a wharf.

1871

In 1871 William is back in Northampton, living at Russell Street. He is now married to Harriett. Living with them are two other women, Lucy Manns aged 65 and Harriett Clarke aged seven.

1881

In 1881 William and Harriett are living at 42 Great Russell Street, Northampton. They have four daughters including Lucy aged one. Lucy Munns is living with them, aged 75 and she is described as Mother in Law. Interestingly though, Lucy Munns, a widow also aged 75 and described as Mother in Law can also be found recorded at 8 Billing Road Northampton, living with John Peach (a retired Market Gardener) and his wife too.*

1891

In 1891 William and Harriett are living at Great Russell Street. Lucy is now aged 11. William is described as a gentlemen’s gardener.

1901

In 1901 still at Great Russell Street, William’s occupation is now given as a market gardener and Harriett is recorded as a greengrocer shop keeper. **

1911

In 1911 William and Harriett are living at 18 Burns Street, Northampton.*** Living with them is a Mrs Peach, a boarder and a widow aged 83, with a personal description of ‘independent means’.

* The 1901 census shows Lucy Thompson aged 21, working as a servant for a widow, aged 73, named Elizabeth Peach, at 25 Margaret Street, Northampton. Elizabeth is described as ‘living on own means’.

** The 1890 Kellys directory has William listed as the greengrocer.

*** At the time of Lucy’s marriage to Joseph she was living at 35 Burns Street, Northampton.

Ickwell May Queen

May Day is a traditional event that dates back to ancient times when Romans celebrated the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring and when Celtic people celebrated the festival of Beltane to mark the halfway point between spring and summer. May Day customs include  Morris dancing and dancing around the maypole.

In Ickwell, Bedfordshire, the first documented account of celebrating May Day in the Parish of Northill can be found in the Church Wardens’ Accounts of c1565.   Payments are listed for the purchase of shoes for the dancers, of bells for the shoes, food and drink.  Payments were also made to various people for their paynes (efforts) and to mysnstrells.  

Ickwell May Queen, 1951

In 1951, my mum’s cousin Pat Smith was Ickwell May Queen. Her picture appeared in the Biggleswade Chronicle, where it was written she had been chosen to be May Queen by her school friends.

Biggleswade Chronicle 11 May 1951.
Biggleswade Chronicle, 11 May 1951.

A further article appeared in the Biggleswade Chronicle on 25 May 1951. It describes the murmur of the crowds, the steady beat of the drums and the sound of bugles in the distance, the humming bees and the fragrant horse chestnut trees and the sound of leather hitting the willow as spectators watched a cricket match.  It was reported that apple trees laden with blossom, against a backdrop of old world cottages, provided a perfect setting for May Day activities. 

The Queen led by her loyal subjects was led by the band of the Corps of Drums and as a company of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment arrived, the Queen surrounded by her attendants, sat on a flower bedecked throne drawn by a gaily decorated tractor.  The traditional song ‘Oh lovely, lovely, May’ was sung and hand bells were rung by Mr W Wagstaff. Then the ceremony of crowning the Queen was performed by Betty Lloyd, the previous years Queen, who placed a crown of flowers on the new Queens head and presentations of a garland of flowers and a sceptre were made.

As music struck up, girls dressed as may flowers, skipped over the buttercup-studded grass to the may pole, curtsied to the Queen and then formed a Guard of Honour.  Later the Queen, with  her Pages and Maids of Honour holding her long gold and green train, paraded around the arena before the Queen returned to her throne to graciously watch the proceedings. 

Modern day Ickwell

While May Day is still celebrated across Britain, what may well be unique to Ickwell is that they have a team of adults, ‘the Old Scholars’, who dance around the maypole too.  Almost without exception they are former pupils of the village school and some of them have children and even grandchildren also performing on the day. And in May 2020, fifty former May Queens attended Ickwell May Day celebrations.  The presentation of the locket to the May Queen 2000, Stephanie Turner was made by Mrs Vera Randall (nee Wagstaff), who had been May Queen in 1920.  

Further information 

Walter Abram

Walter Abram was born in  1896 in Northamptonshire. The 1891 census shows him living at 75, Lower Hester Street, Northampton, Kingsthorpe and the 1901 census, aged 14 at Station Road, Earl’s Barton. His occupation is shown as a shoe machine operative.

Northampton Mercury: 21 July 1916

In July 1916 a piece appeared in the Northampton Mercury which records that Walter had written to my great great grandparents advising he was in hospital at Didsbury suffering from shell shock, having enlisted in in 1914 and going to France in 1915.  

Walter and Mabel.

I believe that Walter married his wife Mabel in 1920 and on the 1939 register they can be found living together at Rusholme Northampton Road, Earl’s Barton. Walter’s occupation is recorded as a puller over in the boot trade.

 

 

 

 

William Abram

William Abram was born in All Saints, Northamptonshire in 1888.  The 1891 census shows him aged three living at Great Holme Street, Leicester, aged 13 at 75, Lower Hester Street, Northampton, Kingsthorpe and aged 23 at Station Road, Earl’s Barton.

William Abram

Alice Abram

In 1939, William can be found living at 50 Doddington Road, Earl’s Barton, married to Alice C Abram. His occupation is given as a console master (boot trade).