Henry, or as he was better known Lew, was born on 3rd March 1910 at West Compton, Dorset, England the second youngest of eight children of farm labourer Frederick William Tompkins and his wife Annie Linda Eyers. He was christened at West Compton and early schooling was at nearby Wynford Eagle.
During the War years Lew could recall their contribution to the War Effort. They would go out of an afternoon with the teacher picking blackberries. As well as time out from lessons their efforts brought them further reward in the shape of a ha’penny a pound. This enduring memory is borne out by the school records with an entry dated 27 September 1918 “Three half holidays have been granted for blackberrying this week”. Life in this part of West Dorset was and is still very rural. Jim an older brother was granted a War Time Certificate at age 12 in March 1917 to work for a Mr Frederick House.
School attendance was not 100%. In 1917 “The Family of Tompkins have been away all the week without sending any excuse”. In 1919 “John and Henry Tompkins have been absent the whole of the week”. 1920 saw attendance medals being issued but no roll of honour for any of the “The Tompkins Family”. In 1920 the family moved to Chilfrome with Lew moving to Cattistock school until he left at age 14. Despite the less than 100% school attendance record in April 1924 Henry Tompkins was presented with a book “The Master of the Shell” by Talbot Baines Reed as “a reward for passing exams well, having obtained 97% of total marks.” The book cost 2s. 6d.
So having left school at age 14 with no formal qualifications as was the norm in those times Lew started work on the farm. The rate of pay 9s. for a 7 day week, unimaginable to kids of today who receive more as pocket money! However at the age of 18 he made a career move away from the land towards transport and driving. He obtained his first driving license dated 31st May 1928, a fee of 5/- being paid in those days. Pearce & Co., a company formed by Albert Pearce with one horse and cart in 1918 required a delivery man for their coal round (wood and coal being the prime sources of heat in the home at that time) at the princely sum of 30s per week.
On March 28, 1931 at the age of 21 whilst living at Chilfrome, Henry married Ivy Lilian Coombes of Maiden Newton, the daughter of George Coombs and Florrie House. Home was initially at Sandhills just outside of Cattistock,where a son, David was born in July. Sandhills and the Pub there had fond memories of the “4d. pint of bitter”. Local farmers would look for casual labour at haymaking and harvest time and the men could earn 18d. for 3 hours work of an evening. Enough for a good night out at the end of a tiring week!
A period then followed driving lorries for Stewarts, including the delivery of milk to the factory at Maiden Newton. The rate of pay then £2.5s. a week. The family home moved to Quarr, Maiden Newton in about 1932. Bert Roper, Lew’s best man and brother in law also worked for Stewarts. Lew fondly remembered a day when Bert and himself drove “to Foxall’s over Little Bredy” and Bert drove home after a skin full of cider. “Poor old Bert”. About 1935 a move to Dorchester Road, Maiden Newton was made. In circ 1937 Lew drove 7 days a week to Bristol with Cheese from the factory, returning with barley meal. In the same year he can remember getting a new 2 Ton Morris truck registration JT 2539.
On 16th July 1942 he joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) No.T/14238373 and trained with them at Aldershot, a town synonymous with the Army. He then trained with the Royal Armoured Corps at Catterick. In October 1943 a daughter, Rita, was born.
On 20th June 1944, 14 days after D-Day Lew crossed the channel from Tilbury to Arrowmanche in the wake of Operation Overlord landing under shell fire in the famous floating Mulberry Harbour. With driving having been his job before the enlistment not too surprisingly this was his war time role as well although a Churchill tank no doubt handled a little differently than a milk lorry! The Churchill tank however was only driven in Blighty during training. While on active service driving a lorry was his contribution, his cargo on many occassions a none too safe load of shells. He travelled north westwards down around the Ardennes and on to Arnhem, crossing the Rhine at Wesel on a pontoon bridge. Churchill himself was apparently there. The German Army was pushed back over the Rhine by early 1945.
Although not talking often of the war one disturbing image was revealed of the aftermath of the ill fated paratroop drop on Arnhem. In the days after the terrific loss of life Lew travelled through the area and many of those unfortunate men remained hung up in the trees where their chutes had carried their lifeless bodies. It was winter and the flesh frozen. A compatriot asked Lew if he wanted a pair of boots but was unable to remove them from icy limbs. In war men develop a hardness and acute sense of self preservation that many may find hard to accept. It was this closeness to death that no doubt allowed the fellow soldier to cut the boots and contents off.
The war ended on midnight the 8th May 1945 Hitler having committed suicide in his ruined Berlin Bunker a few days earlier on the 30th April. Lew was on leave and travelling home. He had in fact been on the site of the signing a matter of only hours before the historic moment.(Lüneburg Heath). The homeward journey took 26 hours by train to the Hook of Holland and over the Channel to London. During the journey home an effigy of Hitler was seen burning at a Station. He arrived home , met by brother Reg at the station, in time to join in the joyous celebrations and no doubt a pint or two at the Railway Hotel. That might not have been the end of his active service however had it not been for the dropping of the atomic bombs upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki as he was about to depart in August for the far east. Japan surrendered on the 14th.
His ‘Soldiers Release Book’ describes his Service Conduct as ‘Exemplary’ and contains the following testimonial. “During his service with this unit this man has shown himself to be hardworking & efficient, and excellent driver, is capable of taking responsibility, & is a good & reliable driver. Honest & sober. An excellent soldier”. He did his duty.
With the war over it was back to civvy street and driving. Not however with Stewarts. Under the rules of the day his job should have been kept open for him but Mr Stewart declined to re-employ. As a matter of principle Lew mobilised the forces of law and order and at Weymouth Magistrates Court, the then magistrate a Mr Gale found in his favour. In the event he did not actually return to working for Mr. Stewart but in fact went back to delivering coal for Pearce & Co.(!!) for the vastly inflated sum of £4.6s. Home was 4, Natalia Terrace, Maiden Newton a two up two down rented cottage with outside toilet.
From War’s end until retirement Lew worked for Pearce & Co., latterly Pearce Darch & Wilcox. Initially on the coal round but then as a bus driver on both local service work and private hire. The job, enjoying a pint and a game of darts meant that Lew was a well known face to many. Lew was in fact an accomplished dart player and his skill with the arrows saw him win many cups. He was Maiden Newton & District Darts League Individual Champion 1952/53 and 1957/58. Winner of the Brewery Inn Cup (now the Chalk and Cheese) in 1963, K.O. Winner at the Railway Hotel in 1964 and still going strong in 1977 finishing runner up in the Castle K.O. Many other cups held pride of place in the sideboard but regrettably they are not inscribed as to their origins.
Son David was married in March 1953, and 9 months later the first grandson arrived. The second arrived in 1957. Daughter, Rita married in June 1964 and two grandaughter were born in 1965 and 1967
Following his retirement Lew and Ivy moved into bungalow at the warden controlled development of Webbers Piece at Maiden Newton where they remained until their deaths. Despite having retired Lew did not give up his coach driving. During school terms he still drove the school buses for Pearces on a part time basis, only giving up when he developed cataracts.
Ivy died in December 1983 between Christmas and the New Year. There is never a good time to die but at what is a normally happy and family orientated time of the year those closest to the departed and left behind, I am sure are hit with mixed emotions in every succeeding year. Having been a heavy smoker of high nicotine cigarettes it is perhaps no surprise that Ivy died from Lung cancer at the age of 72.The smoking habit may well have taken hold at an early age as Lew recalled that George her father would call out for ” a bit of baccy” and Ivy would fill it with Digger Flake, light it and take it to him having taken ” a couple of puffs herself”!
Of the eight brothers and sisters Lew was the longest lived and the last survivor. He was proud to say that he was the oldest man living at Webbers Piece, proof maybe that hard work never hurt anyone. He became much slimmer during his retirement years than he was when driving a coach and getting black marks on his shirts from the steering wheel. 2 days after his 86th birthday in March 1996 he sufferred his first stroke. After a period of convalesence he recovered to be a reasonably active man. On the 25th February 1998 Lew suffered his second stroke which turned out to be much more serious.
On the March 26, 1998 Henry Lewis Tompkins died at the Yeatman Hospital, Sherborne, Dorset.
Adapted from an original article by Paul Tompkins