A much-loved Toft born-and-bred character, Ronnie Ward, passed away on 8 January 2017, aged 75. Marion Read wrote this fond and witty poem in his memory.
Ronnie: Part 1.
Darren said ‘You’re family, will you write a poem?’
I said ‘Look at the family tree, there’s closer kin who know him’.
Dolly Ward was my great aunt, a cousin twice removed if that,
My first thought was I really can’t stand up and do this chat.
‘Always beware of Wards’ was the mantra of my Mum,
Ron’s uncle put her on his horse, winked and slapped its bum.
It stampeded up The Drift, all my Dad could do was gape
Then it reared up and threw her in a field of oil-seed rape…
So yes we were related, but very, very distant
‘Go on, do a rhyme for Ronnie’ Charmer-Darren was insistent…
Every mourner gathered here could weave a patchwork quilt of tales,
Like when I found Ronnie’s gun while playing in Bill Barton’s bales..…
Down Miller’s Road in a dry ditch, in sacking and tarpaulin,
Ronnie hid his 12 bore which - foxed any copper coming callin’.
A shotgun licence in that day meant nosiness, cash and strife
As ever, Ronnie did it his way, that’s how he led his life.
He could be good, he could be bad but neglectful he was not.
This resourceful, loving single dad ensured fresh rabbits for the pot.
I was an observant kid, I wandered after dark,
When Ronnie thought his gun well hid I moved it for a lark.
Later in Red Lion, who did Dad see there?
Ronnie, fists like iron, face red as his hair.
Quiffed, D.A’d and Brylcremed, Toft’s strutting Teddy Boy’
Big Ronnie, tough dude on the scene was not filled with joy.
‘Someone’s nicked my shotgun and I have a habit
Of when I find the guilty one I’ll skin ‘em like a rabbit!’
‘Whoever pinched it will be dead,’ said Dad to Mum when he came in
I slipped out, replaced the gun, fled home and saved my skin!.....
Ronnie: Part 2…
35 years later I return with husband number three,
Ronnie told me in the Club – ‘He won’t do, you’re family’,
‘You’re not as pretty as your Mum, you’re old, he wants your money’.
(Yes, we all know Ronnie’s sense of fun wasn’t always funny).
So, Ronnie, one dark night, brought him to his knees,
Simply set his dog on him outside the Chinese.
Anyway the girlie staff, stemmed blood, gave sanctuary
Ronny, customary wheezy laugh, went off for his tea.
Then Christine Ward burst in, got me up against the wall,
‘You won’t have Ronnie’s dog put down, your bloke ain’t bit at all’.
Naturally I agreed, wimped out like a mouse,
I said ‘Chris, if anything’s put down, I’d rather it my spouse!’
Ronnie, Man of contrasts. The Obstinate, Awkward, Mischief-making, Strong-willed, Practical Joker who could morph into a Gentle Giant, a fiercely loyal and loving family man. Ronnie, who’d ring me when I was out at a party to ask me to ‘Bring pork pies and don’t forget the mustard’ to The Social Club and then when I’d rushed there he’d have gone home to watch his favourite TV programme - Embarassing Bodies (Don’t ask!)… I saw Ronnie only a few days before he died, in Morrisons in his beloved brown coat, still with that familiar rolling swagger, grinning and jesting and flirting with the girls on the fag counter. ‘Would you like a lift home Ronnie?’ I asked….’No Mate, can’t you see I’m busy’ he said.…. Sleep tight Ronnie, you cantankerous, lovely bloke!
In Memoriam: John Sparks
John Francis Sparks was born on 24th August 1929, at The Mount, Toft - the cottage that became 14 High St, where he lived and where, sadly and shockingly, he ended his days a few weeks ago. John stayed in the area all his life, travelling little. He went to Skegness and other places in his younger days, but later in life he did not venture far.
He was an only child. His father was killed as a result of a car knocking him off his bicycle whilst coming out from the coal yard at Kingston railway bridge when John was still quite young. John’s mother never really recovered from the shock; she was sent to the hospital at Fulbourn and died quite young. John was brought up by his aunt, Mabel.
John attended Toft Primary School and was due to move on to Comberton but was diagnosed with a weak heart and did not go. His father tied his bike up to a shed roof so that he could not get at it and use it. Apparently, he was promised that books would be sent for him to continue his studies but that does not seem to have happened – such a pity, because he loved reading throughout his life. A lot of his schooldays were spent gardening for the schoolmistress and the Rector to keep him occupied. Right from school days he was fascinated by machinery, first steam engines and then tractors. Later in life he could take a tractor or a combine to pieces and reassemble it if needed.
John started his working life at Wood Barn Farm for Bill Barton, and finished it working the fields just nearby. He worked his whole life on farms in and around Toft and the surrounding villages, first as a cattle man, but then nearly all his life with tractors. However, the time he enjoyed the most was working for Derek Burden at Kingston where he had the opportunity to fully indulge his love of tractors, particularly the Allis Chalmers HD10 and HD14 crawlers. He left there because the tractors were sold and he was asked to look after the pigs.
When John had ‘retired’ he continued working part time for John Quenby, and was a stalwart and reliable member of staff who loved to be back doing something useful, especially if it involved tractor driving. His life was all about farming and he was very keen on all things agricultural, from shows to steam fairs, ploughing matches, machinery demonstrations and the like. Especially with Keith Collett, he loved attending farm machinery sales, in particular at Wood Green and Cheffin’s tractor sales.
Over the years he accumulated a considerable collection of videos and DVDs on farm implements and films made on farms years ago. He regularly bought magazines about old farm machinery, especially ‘Old Glory’. John also acquired a handsome collection of tractor models which he bought at fairs and Shows – a number of people have commented on his 1-inch scale gas powered engine. He had a stationary engine too, and used it, amongst other things, to cut wood for people around.
John never took his car driving test – remarkable for somebody who could handle so many forms of farm machinery - but he was quite happy tootling around in his Reliant three-wheeler for many years. That was replaced by another three-wheeler of Italian origin which he had managed to find out about and then to purchase from some 40 miles away. Unable to drive it after he came out of hospital, John sold it and purchased a battery powered mobility scooter which he used in fine weather to go up to the farm and even as far as Frogs Hall on a few occasions.
John was not somebody to be active at the heart of village life, and was most often seen in his daily visits to the shop. John loved dogs, and especially King Charles spaniels – most recently, he could be seen walking ‘Lucy’, around the village. He was devastated when she died.
A quiet man, John was shy, and happy with his own company. When the work was done for the day, he would head off home without saying goodbye – but the work was done well, and he loved the land on which he worked. He was, however, a thoroughly decent man who would never run anyone else down. Not easy to get to know, but greatly appreciated by those who did know him. In his last years he struggled to get around, and slept downstairs for several years. He was taken seriously ill and rushed in to Addenbrookes hospital, but made a remarkable recovery and was able to return to the home he loved, despite his incapacity.His death on Nov 22nd 2015 was a great shock to all around, especially to neighbours around his home. He will be missed by all who knew him, as a cousin, a neighbour, a colleague or a friend.
Albert Constable (left) with John Sparks (right) at the Royal Show, Trumpington, probably 1950s
Read My Life by Terry Osborne - a memoire of his early years in London, and his life in Kingston and Toft
Ronnie & Marion
seeing in the new year, 2014
Go to the John Sparks photo collection, kindly donated to the Society after his death
Many thanks to Sheila Woolf for the photographs of her family (above)
More From The Old Fellow
Terry Osborne offers an occasional series of reminiscences about Toft in years gone by.
Talking to two of my friends outside of Toft shop one windy day as you do. Country folk always mention the weather, whatever it is. I was saying, you do not see many trees blown down. When I came to Toft in Easter 1947, there must have been a storm that winter as a lot of elm trees were blown down. They were cut up and carted away on lorries.
Some of the last big elms in Toft were down Toft Manor, called the Rookery. These trees was full of crows nests. The few big elm that were left succumbed to Dutch Elm disease and died away leaving a few dodel trees; these too have all gone now. For those people who do not what a 'dodel' tree is, it was an elm tree cut, leaving a trunk of about 10 feet approx. And every so many years the new growth was cut off, for what I do not know. It would be interesting to know if anybody knew why.
When I grew up in Toft, on the footpath from the village to the Church was a small tree called the Monkey Tree. Most children of the village could climb it. I might have got this wrong, if so I apologise. Children don't seem to climb trees anymore because of H and S; in fact they don't seem to do anything much out of doors, less they are with an adult.
A poem By Marion Read, Toft native (born in Mill Lane), recalling a childhood Christmas in Toft
A Toft Christmas, 1955
When frost laces the windowpane
My memories take me down Mill Lane,
To Christmas Nineteen Fifty Five
When my family was alive.
When little girls were free to go
To Hardwick Woods through sparkling snow,
Or Tebbit’s meadow and beyond
To slide across the frozen pond.
Taught one wise and basic danger
Do not take sweeties from a stranger.
In those days Mother didn’t panic
Whether breakfast was organic,
We kept chickens in the field
Fresh, farm eggs, a daily yield.
Headmistress of the village school
Directed us with iron rule,
Finding very little reason
To mellow in the festive season.
Oh joy! When she put down her cane
And let us make a paper chain
Cobbled in a fearful haste,
Or crumpled lantern soaked in paste.
And Mum would give them pride of place
Above the cottage fireplace.
Then Dad would stamp snow from his boots
Bring Christmas tree – real one with roots!
And if, as usual, cash was short
There’d be very little bought
In the way of decoration,
Mum would produce her own creation
Milk bottle tops, silver and red,
Each one shining, carefully thread
Home-made with love can far surpass
Glitzy, gaudy, coloured glass.
Same tattered angel placed on top
But best from Mr. Balcombe’s shop
Sugar mice! In white and pink!
Toft Historical Society
Interviews with Toft residents, past and present (mp3 audio)
Photo gallery (click to enlarge)
Ronald “Ronnie” Ward: extracts from the address given at his funeral by Barbara Preece at Saint Andrew’s Church, Toft, 20 January 2017
Ronald William Ward was born in Toft on 16 June 1941. He was the seventh of the nine children born to Bernard and Ivy Ward, two of whom did not survive childhood. Ronnie was part of the fourth generation of Wards in Toft, joining the great clan founded here by his great-grandparents George Ward and Mary Koester in the mid-19th century. Today we have reached the seventh generation of that dynasty to live in this village.
Ronnie went to school in Toft in what is now the Toft People's Hall. Then when he was 11, he moved on to Comberton, to the building by the pond, now a nursery. He was not a natural scholar; indeed it is possible his attendance at school may not have been as regular as his attendance in the Toft building after it became the social club with a bar.
However, Ronnie was a man who was born with a wealth of sporting abilities, who was well versed in his family's knowledge and wisdom about country ways, who acquired great skill in his chosen profession. Although Ronnie did not earn his living working on the land as did so many of his forebears, he was essentially a countryman. Like many country people, Ronnie had a wisdom that came from a deep knowledge of his home territory, a landscape that was criss-crossed with his footprints from childhood onwards.
Throughout his life he was a familiar figure in the village, usually accompanied by a small dog, a Jack Russell or Border terrier. He also had ferrets and Chickens. The local rabbit population had good reason to fear him and his fierce animal companions. He also kept bees in the copse on the drift near the church and grew vegetables in his back garden. He had a gun, unlicensed, and shot pigeons and the odd pheasant, illegally, which joined the rabbits in the pot.
Ronnie was also knowledgeable about horses. He loved horseracing and went to point to point meetings all over the county. He was also a keen follower of the Cambridgeshire hunt, which occasionally met on Toft Green outside the Red Lion pub. His daughter Angela inherited his interest in horses and, as a child, learnt to ride. She passed this enthusiasm onto her daughters, who, by a happy coincidence, called Ronnie “granddad gee-gee”, not because the little girls knew he followed the form but because in the field opposite his house there would often be horses grazing.
Ronnie's chosen profession was that of a plasterer. Leaving school at the earliest opportunity aged 15, he got an apprenticeship with G. Cook and Sons in Cambridge. He became a highly skilled plasterer and his abilities took him to plastering jobs as far afield as Belgium, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
One of the great and abiding themes in Ronnie's life was football. Ronnie was a goalkeeper; the highlight of his footballing career was when he played in Cambridge city's youth team against West Ham and the hallowed name of Bobby Moore was on the match players list. Not that long ago, Ronnie came into the social club on quiz night, beaming all over his face and showed anyone interested that players list.
Ronnie belonged to the fourth generation of Wards to live in Toft. His close and wider family were very important in his life. Through Darren and Angela he has contributed to the fifth and sixth generations but he also had a hand in adding indirectly to the seventh generation: he was proud of the fact that he made a match between his great-niece Natalie and her husband Richard, whose children have added that seventh generation. Ronnie was, sadly, the last of his generation of siblings. When Christine died in 2008 it was a real blow and with the death last year of his last sibling, June, they were all gone. Ronnie died peacefully in Addenbrooke's Hospital early in the morning of Sunday, 8 January 2017 from complications related to his diabetes.
Ronnie was one of Toft's great characters. A man of contradictions, someone that people just liked in large part because he was simply himself, a person with whom it was good to spend time, ideally putting the world to rights over a pint or two. He will be greatly missed by all those who knew and loved him.
Memories and snippets
Toft natives, natives from nearby and residents, alive and passed on, recall life in the village in times past.
Richard Cutter: "My mother came from Hardwick and was one of the Bond family in that area. I remember the winter of 1947 when we lived in Hardwick before moving to Toft in 1948. We lived at Vitoria Cottages, My first school was the same school as my mother attended. She had to pay at a cost of one penny per week. The old school is now a private house near to Hardwick Church. Mum’s granddad was part of a local band called Bond Band, as the majority of the band members were related and had the surname of Bond. And my father came from Abington, as did his ancestral family.
"I remember the annual Sunday school trips to the coast, where the whole village went on three coaches supplied by Bluebird. Clifford Tebbit was the mainstay in the organisation of the outings. I also remember the annual Christmas carol singing round the village, which ended up at Clifford's farm house, where we were given tea and cakes. Clifford used to be my Sunday School teacher and was a great influence to me."
Percy Rogers (Comberton road, recorded by Jake Tebbit in 1970) recalls Garland Day (Mayday) in former times: “And then, Mayday: ‘The first of May is Garland Day, please remember the garland. It only comes but once a year, so please remember the garland!’ Well the garland was two hoops, one put that way, and one put that way. And they was decorated with cowslips, commonly called pagles. And they was all tied round these hoops, these little branches and other flowers, if they’d got any, and then little ribbons in between, and they used to cover that over with a white cloth, and they came up to the door and start singing ‘The first of May is Garland Day!’, and if they didn’t give them anything they didn’t let you see the doll in the middle of the garland, you see. And if they give them tuppence, they’d take the cloth off and you could have a look at it.”
Then Mum and Dad would pour a drink
And kiss beneath the mistletoe
In a V.P. sherry glow.
And within Toft Sunday School
Oh! The fervor and activity,
When Clifford Tebbit stood to call
The cast for The Nativity!
My glasses – National Health Exclusive
And upon my teeth – a brace,
Hardly were conducive
To an angel face!
I would hold my breath and wait
Then be mortified, bereft
When, as usual, my fate
Was as ‘Third Shepherd on the Left’…
Rosemary and Margaret
Would be an angel or a fairy,
Marilyn Collett (blonde) would get
The role of Virgin Mary.
But my wounded, jealous heart
Would gradually heal,
As I got into the part
And on scratchy straw I’d kneel.
With a tea towel on my head
I’d offer my toy sheep,
Beside the makeshift stable bed
To the plastic doll asleep.
I fancied He smiled and stirred
Within his crib, his cardboard box,
And some wisdom was transferred –
‘Don’t covet your neighbour’s ox’!!
Be proud to be a Shepherd’s Boy,
Donkey’s Back-end, Inkeeper’s Wife,
Just play it to the hilt with joy –
And this is how I’ve led my life.
Marion Read (former bespectacled Third Shepherd on the Left).