"Grandad, Jack Morris, was an ostler when he met Nan [Edith Martha Lewis, pictured below] who was in domestic service with a banking family called Pullen in Shrewsbury – apparently the people Grandad ‘ostled’ for came on a visit to Nan’s employers and so they met and were married soon afterwards. The Pullens lived on the Mount, a high class district of Shrewsbury in their time – and in mine. I can remember calling at the big houses to collect empty jam jars to take to the Rag and Bone Merchant and get a penny a jar.
Nan’s father [Edward Lewis] was a blacksmith in Frankwell in Shrewsbury. Her mother [Annie] died young leaving five small children and her father remarried [another Annie], so Nan had a step brother and sister from this second marriage.
Mum’s mother [Maud Angelina Chittock] (who later became known as Nan-down-the-road to distinguish her from Dad’s mum) came from a large family in Shoeburyness, near Southend – we visited several times when I was a child. She had been in domestic service, like Dad’s mother, but was a very different personality – very strict and straight-laced. She married Fritz Guye Browning, an army man – there were lots of barracks around Shoeburyness. According to Mum he was a wonderful man – kind, reasonable and interested in everything. He died when I was a baby, from some blood disorder that he’d picked up in the Middle East.
Mum’s childhood was spent travelling about from one barracks to another – she told me that when her father was posted to Egypt they had to stay behind because families out there were housed in tents, and he didn’t think it wise for a young girl to sleep in a tent by herself. I never heard my mother praise anyone as much as she did her father – any interest she had in later years in reading, theatre, music (which was little enough really) had been instilled by him. They had regular weekly visits to the old County Theatre in Shrewsbury to see musical comedies. I got the impression that her mother didn’t go, just Mum and her father.
Shrewsbury barracks was his last posting and that’s how Mum (pictured with a parasol) and Dad met. Dad was working at Shukers, the Ironmongers, and she worked at Lipton’s Grocery Store – much against her father’s wishes. By this time he (her father) was Regimental Sergeant Major.
Mum and Dad married in 1927 and moved to Hounslow in Middlesex and I was born in 1929 in a bungalow in Martindale Road.
Later, I remember, a man used to come round selling winkles and Mum always got some – high spot of the week was picking them out with a pin. I also remember a muffin man coming round each Sunday. Although at the time I was unaware of it my parents’ marriage was not a happy one. Douglas was born at the bungalow in 1934, so Mum was pretty busy and my father was working very hard – possibly out more than strictly necessary to make lots of contacts in the building trade by drinking with them. So he would rarely be home before closing time.
I remember an occasion when Mum ran away. My father bundled Doug and me into the car (we only had a car because it went with his job) and drove slowly around the streets looking for her. We found her too. At the time, of course, I thought nothing of it – she’d gone for a walk – but in later years she told me she couldn’t stand to be in the house any longer and had just walked out – she’d had no idea where to – and Dad had quite a job persuading her to come back.
We moved from the bungalow to a flat in Feltham – not far from London Airport. This was definitely a down-market move. The road was unmade and at one end was a disused quarry, completely overgrown. I should think it was out of bounds but remember playing truant from Sunday School and spending time there. The garden was never cultivated – just a bit of rough ground for us to play on, although we played in the street more often than not.
There was a cinema not far away and I used to go to Saturday morning children’s matinees; Flash Gordon, Laurel and Hardy and George Formby. How dreadful! One day Dad brought home a Chow dog he’d told someone he’d look after – no doubt after a few jars. Mum tied it up at the bottom of the garden and told him to take it back next day as she wouldn’t have it in the house. She didn’t like dogs much and of course she knew who would have to look after it and exercise it; not Dad! I remember being quite sorry.
The woman in the flat next door had a good reputation for pulling teeth – she did one for me once; tied a piece of cotton round the tooth, tied the other end to a door handle and then slammed the door. Quite painless – of course it would be a milk tooth.
One night Dad came home late as usual and I could hear him crying and telling Mum how he’d knocked down a man on his way home. He was in a terrible state and I listened to all this through the thin bedroom wall. I’ve no idea if the man died or if my father had to go to court – it was never mentioned in my hearing.
Joan was born nearly 4 years after Doug, while we were living at the flat. Considering Mum never wanted another child after the awful time she had at my birth it must have been pretty grim for her. Joan was born with a heart defect but it wasn’t discovered for some time – she was late walking and talking and had various minor illnesses and it was eventually discovered she had an enlarged heart and couldn’t be expected to survive her teens. In very much later years Mum confided to me that she’d become pregnant about a year after Doug was born and had asked a neighbour how she could get rid of it. She told her to take quinine and have hot mustard baths. Apparently it did the trick – or perhaps it was just a false alarm anyway – although Mum said she felt very ill and frightened at what she’d done. She also wondered if that had been the cause of Joan’s defect.
Having a car with the job was a big advantage for us – few people in our walk of life had cars then. We used to go on outings on Sundays – Hayling Island, Burnham Beeches and I remember a road house where they had a miniature zoo, mainly monkeys. On day trips we always had to be home before opening time and of course we always stopped at a pub for a drink before a picnic lunch. We kids had lemonade and crisps in the car – Mum too, because she wouldn’t “go sitting in pubs”. (Despite Jean's rather disapproving tone, she and Mick had a lifelong penchant for pubs, so 'lemonade and crisps in the car' were a fact of life for her chidren, too!)
We always spent some of the summer holidays at Shrewsbury – Dad used to drive us up in the company car, spend a few days there and then leave us for a couple of weeks. It seems likely because Mum’s mother and brother – Uncle Albert, his wife Gwen and son John – all lived in Shrewsbury so there was a fair bit of visiting to do. My father certainly wouldn’t have visited Mum’s mother – they didn’t get on at all well and he considered Albert to be an idiot. I didn’t like the journey since I was always car sick and it seemed to go on for hours but it was worth it. We always stopped to top up the alcohol levels at a Bridgnorth pub on top of a hill – I was always afraid the car would run down it.
Nan lived at 4 Copthorne Rise (pictured, in 2008) in a 2 up, 2 down terraced house with the toilet in a small yard at the back and no bathroom. There was a shallow stone sink in the kitchen and everyone had to wash here in the mornings - just a cold tap; if you wanted hot water you boiled a kettle. The only heat in the house was supplied by the range in the living room, where a lot of the cooking was done too. Lighting was by gas downstairs and candles upstairs. If you had a bath it was in a tin bath in front of the range and with hot water heated in a built-in copper in the kitchen. This copper was housed in brick with a large wooden lid. When you wanted hot water you lit a fire in the grate under the copper, and on Mondays (wash day) all the whites went into the copper to boil. The stairs went up from the kitchen and underneath them was a coal cellar - well a cupboard really. The coalman brought the sacks in through the front door (no rear access), through the living room and emptied them with a crash into the cupboard. How the kitchen - well whole house - was kept clean I've no idea, but it was always spotless and all the brass, of which Nan was very fond, was kept gleaming.
The milk arrived each morning delivered by the landlord of the local pub. He brought a churn and ladled it into your jug.
I loved washing day there - I was allowed to help 'poshing' the clothes in the dolly tub in the yard. Everyone in Copthorne Rise - 12 houses in all - washed on Mondays so by mid-day you couldn't move for washing blowing in the tiny back yards and across the gardens. Nan was lucky because her bit was directly in front of her house - most people couldn't see their strip of garden from their windows. So she could see her beloved flowers all the time - runner beans up the wall too. Most people kept their gardens neat and tidy. Nan certainly loved her little bit of ground and always had it full of flowers - the old fashioned ones - Canterbury Bells, Wallflowers (she called them Gillyflowers), Sweet William - even the back yard would overflow with ferns and nasturtiums.
Back to washday; when all the washing was finished - and some things had to be rinsed with a blue bag and some, such as tablecloths and collars, had to be starched - the boiler and dolly tub had to be emptied. This was done by ladling the water into buckets and carrying it through the front door and throwing it down a shallow central gutter that ran the length of the Entry - as the Rise was called. Then it went into a drain at the end - near this drain was the conduit and the water from this was supposed to be better for drinking. One of my jobs was to fill a jug with conduit water before dinner time - midday - and put it on the table. With 12 houses throwing out water we had a grand time sailing paper boats down the river and generally playing about with water. Washday really did take all day then, with leftovers from the Sunday joint for dinner - I don't know when the ironing got done; when the water disappeared I lost interest.
Going shopping with Nan was another treat of the holidays. Our first port of call would be Morris' Bakery in Frankwell, full of lovely things like Chelsea buns and Lardy Cakes all sticky and glistening and fresh every day. Then on to Morris' Grocery Shop - Nan would sit on a bentwood chair by the provisions counter and Mr Roberts would take her order for butter, bacon, cheese, etc. He used to look at me over his steel rimmed glasses and make dry remarks - I suppose they were dry - and I was rather in awe of him. Then over the other side of the shop for sugar, flour, dried fruits, etc - served by Mr Blakemore. I usually got a few sultanas or lumps of sugar pushed across the counter while they were being weighed out. The shopping would all be sent up later that day.
Then on to the Market at the top of Mardol, which was a large Victorian building. The butchers' section first all at one end of the hall (one of these butchers was George, Nan's half brother) then it opened out into a large space full of benches where the country people brought their produce in for sale - poultry, eggs, veg and fruit. I remember the chickens always came with a little bunch of thyme tucked in one leg and parsley in the other. Nan had her regular stalls and there was always a gossip for her and often an apple or something for me.
After the shopping was finished we'd go to Sidolis in the Square and Nan would have a rum and coffee and I'd have an ice cream. In later years she stopped this and went instead to the Hole in the Wall for a glass of stout or something stronger. Of course in the 1930s she wouldn't have gone into a pub without a male companion - perhaps not even with one.
As usual we were in Shrewsbury during the summer of 1939 but when it was time to return to Feltham I was left behind – much to my delight. On the morning of 3rd September I went to St Chad’s church with Auntie May and the vicar announced that we were now at war with Germany. I was 9 at the time and had no idea what this really meant – only what I’d read in children’s books. Dad brought the rest of the family back and we all settled down at No4 – I’ve no idea how we all fitted in. Dad didn’t stay long; he went off to join the army.
At some point after war broke out Auntie May (Dad’s sister) decided to buy Cloverdell, a modern house at 53 Mytton Oak Road – and persuaded Nan and Grandad to go and live there with her. Goodness knows why – she and Grandad couldn’t stand each other. He’d been a dreadful father to her and according to Nan had mistreated her on several occasions – he was a pretty unpleasant man. May had married a middle-aged widower and they had lived in a large house with a lovely garden a little way up the hill from Copthorne Rise. Her husband died within 2 or 3 years of their marriage and she sold the house.
Nan thought Cloverdell was the cat’s whiskers. She used to talk loudly on the bus about the bathroom – it was the first time in her life she’d had one – and of course she had a bigger garden than she’d ever dreamt of. Her happiest times were out there digging and planting. I was sent to stay at Cloverdell when Gerald was born (1939) and I remember enjoying it very much. It was surrounded by fields in those days.
In 1947 we had a very severe winter and the Severn was frozen. People were walking on it and I saw some boys riding bikes on it too – so of course I had to have a go! I also remember tobogganing down the Laundry Fields – a very steep slope with the Severn at the bottom.
My father was hurt at Dunkirk and after several months in hospital was invalided out of the Army and directed to work at High Ercall RAF Station – about 6 miles from Shrewsbury – driving lorries. So No1 was a crowded little house – Mum and Dad and baby Gerald in one bedroom and Doug, Joan and me in the other.
I didn’t like my primary school – St George’s, a couple of hundred yards from home. And the teachers didn’t like me; I daresay I was a pretty unprepossessing child with no social graces. We did a lot of knitting, which I hated – socks for soldiers; as if they hadn’t enough to put up with. Soon after the outbreak of war crowds of evacuees were sent to Shropshire and the schools were inundated. To fit everyone in each child went to school for only half of every day, which didn’t do much to further our education but we enjoyed it. I don’t know how long this lasted – lots of evacuees went back home after a few months because the bombing didn’t materialise – that was to come later.
We used to have air raid practices at school and all filed into the disused quarry next door where several shelters had been built. On a couple of occasions the siren went at night and we were turfed out of bed and went to the shelter. No bombs dropped on Shrewsbury so presumably it was planes passing over on the way to an industrial or military centre. This was all very exciting for a 10 year old – we had flasks of tea and sandwiches and community singing led by a woman called Nelly Jones.
Mum had a lot to cope with – Gerald still a baby, Joan a very backward toddler and we two older ones and my father drinking most nights although he couldn’t afford to drink at all really. Mum was always short of money and I can remember us hiding upstairs when the insurance man came to collect her weekly dues.
She and Dad were always rowing but I never got used to it – it was always very upsetting. I remember one night in particular because it was so unusual for Mum to go out. There was a film on that she and Auntie Gwen very much wanted to see and Gwen persuaded Mum to go. So I was left in charge of the others until my father got home from the pub. He arrived back at closing time and Mum hadn’t yet returned. Dad was fuming and swearing and saying what he’d do when she came back – when she did all hell broke loose. I was crouched on the stairs praying that she wouldn’t answer him back. When he asked where the hell she’d been until this hour (11pm) she retorted, ‘Sitting in the Quarry with an American soldier’. That did it; he grabbed her round the throat and squeezed hard.
At this point the old lady (Mrs Evans) who lived next door banged on the wall; this infuriated my father even more but he at least loosened his grip and Mum lived to tell the tale. Next day she was wearing a scarf because she didn’t want the neighbours to see the bruises on her throat. We had lots of other upsets and I know I vowed I’d never marry if it meant being treated like that!
I used to run lots of errands for Mum such as collecting the tins of blackcurrant puree and bottles of orange juice from the Welfare Clinic. Sometimes a rumour would go around that there were bananas in the town (this was towards the end of the war) and I’d be sent to queue. Supplies of fresh fish meant a regular appointment with a queue and sometimes you could wait an awful long time, not always successfully. We kids didn’t get any butter or bacon – they were reserved for Dad – but we got dried eggs and loved them.
I failed 'matriculation' twice but I was persuaded to sit the exam for Shrewsbury Technical College and to my great surprise I passed. I suppose I’d be about 13 then and as a reward for passing I was given a bike. 'Tech' was much better than school and I enjoyed most of the lessons. I seemed to get on better with my contemporaries at Tech too. Some of us used to take a packed lunch and instead of eating in the canteen we’d go to the YWCA on Wyle Cop and buy coffee and play table tennis.
These were still the war years and I remember the invasion of Europe being announced by the teacher in our domestic science class. At weekends and holidays I used to help Auntie Gwen in the Newsagent and Haberdashery Shop she managed in Frankwell. I loved this, especially as I got paid. Walking down to Frankwell had its charms, too; there were Italian prisoners of war housed in a disused school building and they’d often be leaning on the railings and would whistle as I went by. Shows how desperate they were – whistling at a 14 year old. I always made sure I was wearing a pretty dress – usually one of Auntie Gwen’s throw-outs.
I was a great film fan and any money I earned at the shop would be spent on going to the pictures. Sometimes a neighbour of ours, a confirmed spinster, would fancy seeing a film and she’d ask if I’d like to go with her. I used to collect her daily paper for her and so this was a little thank you and a real treat for me. We had 3 cinemas to choose from; Granada, Empire and Kings. Granada was best – very swish for Shrewsbury, the Empire second best; each year when the Severn flooded there’d be water in the first few front rows! The Kings was pretty grotty, although it had the advantage of being near Dirty Dick’s, reputedly the best fish and chip shop in town.
I didn’t finish the course at Tech – a friend and I were sent for interview at the Shropshire Education Office and we both got jobs. I was 15 by then and started work at £5.5.0 a month. I gave Mum about £3 a month for my keep. By now Dad had left High Ercall and was back in his old business as manager of the general ironmongery and building materials firm where he’d started as an apprentice in his teens. His firm was Shukers on Pride Hill and after a few years he became Manager at £1000 a year plus a car, which was good money in those days. He was good at his job but wasn’t very bright at paperwork – he used to bring this home for Mum to do; she was good at figures.
The end of the war was celebrated in Shrewsbury by dancing in the streets – we girls danced with each other but longed to be one of the lucky ones who were dancing with American soldiers!
I don’t know exactly when we all moved up to Cloverdell. Auntie May used to go to St Dunstan’s at Church Stretton to act as escort to men who’d lost their sight in the war and one of them, Bert Green, asked her to marry him. They were to live near Brighton where he’d found a job with a furniture restorer and this would leave Nan and Grandad in a house they couldn’t afford to run. So Dad was persuaded to buy it for £800 with the proviso that Nan and Grandad had 2 rooms for the rest of their lives".
The photo shows Bert and May in about 1947
[In the summer of 1949 Jean met a young RAF Sergeant, Mick Billing, at a dance in Hodnet. Within 3 weeks they became engaged but Jean's father would not countenance them marrying before she was 21. At Christmas 1949 Mick took Jean to Felixstowe to meet his mother and in the summer of 1950 he took her to Pond Hall for the first time to meet some more members of his family. She was duly overawed by their assured manner. During this time he had been posted to advanced flying training in Yorkshire, so they did not see as much of each other as they would have liked.
Mick was then notified of his posting to Cyprus in the coming November. As Jean would not be 21 until that December she tried her hardest to persuade her father to change his mind about them marrying before that. He would not be moved so she threatened to go to Cyprus as soon as she was 21 and marry out there. That did the trick, as he was horrified at the thought of her not having a 'proper' wedding. They married in October 1950 in St George's church in Shrewsbury, as her parents, grandparents and great grandparents had done.
After a honeymoon at the Burford Bridge Hotel at the foot of Box Hill (just a couple of days) and then in Felixstowe at Hettie's guest house, Mick had to depart for Cyprus. Jean stayed with Hettie and helped her move to Pond Hall and then went back to her parents in Shrewsbury for Christmas, while waiting to hear when she could join Mick.
Jean got a job in solicitor's office, not knowing how long she'd have to wait, but it was in fact only 6 weeks before she left for Egypt.]
"We arrived at Port Said just before sunrise and I was up on deck determined not to miss anything. The sun rose over the white buildings and minarets of the city and I was enchanted - it looked so romantic, just like so many of the films I'd seen at the Granada. In actual fact it was a pretty grotty place, but when we docked Mick was there waiting for me so it was paradise – it was one of the highlights of my life, much more than my wedding day; he looked so handsome I could hardly believe he was mine.
A rickety old bus was waiting to take us to Port Tewfik where we were to live. The air base at Shallufa was out in the desert a few miles from Suez which was a typical Arab town; hot, dusty and smelly, particularly down at the fish market! Tewfik was a residential district across a causeway from Suez, built by the French to house their Canal Company employees. Large airy houses with gardens along tree-lined roads; quite delightful.
One day in October I was sitting outside my little kitchen with the lunch at the ready on the stove and wondering why Mick was late when he and Mac arrived. They were armed, wearing revolvers on their hips. They said we had two hours before a lorry came to collect us and take us to Shallufa – it was no longer considered safe for families to live out. We packed as quickly as we could – mainly clothes. We’d been told to leave all household goods behind as there wouldn’t be room for them – we had no furniture of course but all our wedding presents (cutlery, china, linen, etc) had to stay.
It soon became clear that those of us without married quarters wouldn’t be allowed back to our hirings and within about three weeks we, the wives, were packed off to the UK. I was about six months pregnant by then and as far as we knew we might not be together again for 18 months. We landed at Lyneham and were then transported to Cliffe Pypard, an old wartime airfield in the wilds of Wiltshire. It was a dreary place and, in the middle of November, bitterly cold and shrouded in fog.
Next day I travelled up to Shrewsbury by train but I was only paying a short visit - we'd arranged that I should go and live with Mick's Mum at Pond Hall. Christmas came and went and I stood at the front door with the rest of the family on New Year's Eve to listen to the bells of Hadleigh church ring in 1952.
February 13th arrived and with it, John – in the middle of the night in the cold, large bedroom, attended by two midwives; nice old dears and very kind to me. All went very well but I needed a few stitches and the doctor had to be called for that. I remember hearing him say “She won’t need an injection; she’s still numb”. He was wrong!
The next week or ten days were spent in bed – the practice in those days – and my bed was moved over to the fireplace and each day Hettie lit a fire to try to make the place cosy. A few days previously the king (George VI) had died and the radio played solemn music and nothing else for about a week. Most of Mick’s aunts and uncles came to see the new arrival and Dilys and Kenneth brought a basket of nectarines – the first I’d ever seen.
The months passed and in early summer Mick wrote to say he was coming on leave – he was going to try and “indulge”(get a free, spare place on an RAF flight) home and then, if necessary, buy a flight back. This really took some saving for us. He got as far as Malta and then was stuck for a spare seat – hanging about while his leave ticked away. For some reason he couldn’t get hold of money in Malta so telegraphed me to borrow some from Grandma and telegraph it back. Grandma agreed but while writing the cheque remarked that it cost 2d (cheques carried stamp duty then), so I gave her that! Then I dashed down to Hadleigh post office and sent it off and in a few hours Mick was with us. He arrived late at night and I remember running up the drive in pyjamas and bare feet to meet him – just like the films!
About half way through Mick's leave I received notification from the Air Ministry of a passage to Egypt – a total surprise to us. Apparently we were now eligible for a quarter at Deversoir, where 32 had recently moved. If we’d known we wouldn’t have spent all the money on air fares but we didn’t care about such things – never have really.
Mick went back to Egypt and in a very few weeks I followed. Deversoir was an airfield stuck out in the desert but near enough to the canal for us to be able to go for walks along it and watch the ships gliding quietly by. Our quarter was a one-storey Seco hut, semi-detached with a door between the houses so they could be made larger or smaller depending on the size of family. We had one bedroom and after we met our neighbours this door was kept unlocked by mutual consent. The natives were still unfriendly and we were only allowed back if we stayed on the camp. All the windows were wired to keep out mosquitoes and other nasties and there was a veranda along the front of the house, also wired in. Toilet facilities were chemical and a lorry came round every morning to empty the loos – very early before it grew too hot.
We used to go into Ismailia for shopping in a lorry with armed guards – we’d be given a certain time and then all meet at the lorry. Mick came too, of course, as it was still only mornings at work. When Mick was night flying or on duty I used to sleep with his revolver – unloaded – nearby in case of intruders.
In the summer of 1953 we flew back to UK – I was again six months’ pregnant and Mick was posted to 257, a Meteor squadron at Wattisham. After a couple of weeks' disembarkation leave Mick went to join his squadron and I stayed in Shrewsbury to await Fan’s birth. I went to Cloverdell for the birth – and Fan arrived early in the morning of 21st September in the front bedroom. Mick arrived next day to take charge of John.
The photo shows John with Jean's mum - and Big Teddy
We bought our first car at Wattisham: an Austin 12 cabriolet for £12.10.00
About now was the start of an unhappy period of our lives. Mick was going through a rotten time with his flying – I won’t go into details, mainly because I’m unsure of them. He isn’t one to talk much about his troubles and I was very wrapped up with two babies and probably not much help. It was all very traumatic for him. He did tell me some time later that he went into a little country church one day to try and find help sorting himself out – not a thing Mick would do unless he was feeling very bad.
In March 1954 we left Wattisham. We stayed at Cloverdell just long enough to sell the car and find a house to rent. This was a cottage at Pontesford, about 5 miles from Shrewsbury and pretty isolated. Eventually Mick was posted to North Coates on the Lincolnshire coast and in October we set off for Cleethorpes where Mick had arranged rooms for us at a boarding house at out-of-season rates. At least he thought he had. We got to Cleethorpes in the evening of a bitterly cold day, very hungry and tired. When we knocked on the door the landlady said, ‘Oh, you’ve come to view the rooms’. ‘No’, we said, ‘we’ve come to live in them’. Her face fell – there had obviously been a misunderstanding. She let us stay there for a night or two but we had to look for somewhere else quickly. I think she hadn’t realised how young J and F were.
Next day Mick went off to work and I pushed the pram, Fan at the top end, John sitting on a seat across the bottom, to the nearest phone box, and rang the WVS and the police in search of accommodation. One of them gave me the address of a Mrs Petty who lived a little further along the front – a jolly woman if a little voluble. She said she hadn’t planned to take children but couldn’t turn us down if I was happy with the rooms. We moved in almost at once since we had very few possessions to pack – a couple of trips with the pram did it! It was a large, Victorian house with a large front room overlooking the street, a slightly smaller room behind it overlooking a gloomy yard (this was ours) and a general living room leading off the hall where the Pettys lived; this led directly into the kitchen and we had to go through their room to get to it.
Mick would go off to work each day on the workmen’s bus – he said you could hardly grope your way to a seat for the thick smoke from fags! I would put John in a playpen while Fan had her bath in front of the fire then when it was time to cook or wash in the kitchen, Fan would go in her pram or the playpen while John came with me. It was winter and bitterly cold on the east coast but that didn’t stop the daily, or twice daily, walks round the back streets of Cleethorpes and we had long deserted beaches. The hard, wet sand was ideal for making railway lines with the pram – we made the best ones at weekends when Mick could push. He couldn’t have been feeling too happy about his flying finishing but, being Mick, he rarely showed it. He also found the bomb disposal course interesting, which helped.
For some time my father’s health had been deteriorating – years before he had had an eye removed because of a cancerous growth and the filthy disease gradually spread inside him. He kept on at his job as long as he could; he hadn’t been told what was wrong but Mum and Nan knew. Eventually he had to take to his bed and we decided I should go over to Shrewsbury for a visit while he was still alive rather than wait for the funeral. So one weekend Mick took charge of Fan and John and I caught a train to Shrewsbury – a spectacular journey across the snow-bound Pennines.
I think my visit made Dad rather suspicious as he still seemed to think he would recover; if he’d looked in a mirror he’d have realised it was unlikely – he was a skeleton. He died a couple of weeks after my visit.
In January 1955 Mick signed on until age 55 and was rewarded with a lump sum of £150 – a fortune to us. We’d been thinking about caravans for some months and had visited a dealer to inspect some. They seemed so desirable – comfortable, compact, a bit like a doll’s house, and most of all we’d have some privacy. We used the £150 as a deposit.
So it was farewell to Mrs Petty and off to the bleak caravan site at North Coates. It was a 20’ van, green and cream, with a sitting room/bedroom at one end, kitchen and toilet in the middle and a bedroom beyond that. John and Fan had bunks in that room and the dining table joined the seats in the sitting room to make our bed at night. We soon discovered we liked this life – it was so cosy and everything was within reach. We had a solid fuel stove for heating and Calor gas for cooking, and Mick wired the van for electricity.
We were near to the sea and used to walk to the beach when the weather was fit – there was a high breakwater and we’d sit behind that trying to catch some warmth from the sun. It was here that we also had an unwelcome visitor. John was kneeling on the seat looking out of the window one day and suddenly said, “Oh look, Mummy, a dear little mousy!” I looked – a large rat was sitting on the step washing its face!
We used to shop in Grimsby occasionally – a cold windswept town but the best fish and chips to be had in England!
We were only at North Coates for about five months, then in May 1955 Mick’s bomb disposal flight moved to Marham in Norfolk. It was wonderful not to have to start looking for somewhere to live – just get the van towed to a new site. There was a thriving caravan site at Marham – just a grassy patch behind a row of quarters, quiet and secluded. The main problem was keeping John and Fan under control – there was a main road about 200 yards away and no fences, so I hit on the brilliant idea of tying Fan to the end of a long rope, the other end to the van. The rope idea was brought into force after Mick, driving a lorry home one day, saw a little figure in a red siren suit crossing the road – he screamed to a halt, got out and, lifting up a surprised child, gave her a good spanking!
We spent two lazy summers at Marham – long blissful days with little housework to do and friends for chatting, walking and drinking coffee. It was here that we bought a motorbike and sidecar and there were times when the caravan was full of motorbike parts being cleaned and oiled. Shopping, apart from the NAAFI, was done in Kings Lynn, a very pleasant town. We could get a bus straight from the camp and Mick or I usually went alone – we discovered shopping with a couple of under-school-age kids wasn’t much fun.
The winter we spent here was a particularly hard one and for about a month our water connections were frozen solid. The people in the nearest quarter – about 50 yards away I guess – let us use their kitchen tap so it was water carrying in and then out to the nearest drain. Quite a performance on snow and ice for such a long time but we were very cosy in the van.In June 1956 we moved to Morton Hall near Lincoln settling in on a caravan site on the outskirts of the city. One of the first things we did was to visit the cathedral; it was quite a misty evening and the towers of the cathedral loomed over us. We didn’t stay at this site for long; we became eligible for a quarter and decided to sell the caravan. Bill and Eva had rooms in a house in Lincoln and they became our buyers. We moved into the pre-fab only two doors down from Cyn and Ted Tout. There was a hamlet about a mile away with a post office-cum-shop and a railway station. We used to go on the train from here to Lincoln some Saturday afternoons – the pushchair would go in the luggage van and sometimes we did too.
In August we went to Shrewsbury on the Harley Davidson for a week’s holiday. We spent a day over in the Welsh Marches and when we got back to Cloverdell Nan was holding out a telegram for Mick – recalled at once to duty! So back to Moreton Hall to find the Flight were to go on standby for Suez. In those days our lives seemed to be dogged by the blasted Canal. In September John started school. He was very keen to go as Cyn’s eldest daughter went. He was fine until he realised I wasn’t staying as well, when he bawled his head off. I remember worrying all day about this poor little boy being abandoned. When I went to meet the school bus he got off beaming all over his face and anxious to get back to school next day.
After the unpleasant interlude of Suez, Mick was posted to Kirkham, near Blackpool in February 1957 and we hired a caravan until we could move into a quarter. There was a large caravan site here in a field near the camp. John had to change schools - the first of many such changes. We transferred to a quarter in the following August – a modern, well-equipped quarter this time; no complaints. I chiefly remember Kirkham for the various trips we made on the Harley and then in the Bond 3-wheeler we swapped it for – on the never-never, of course.
We went up to the Lake District – always shrouded in mist and pouring with rain. Preston was a pleasant town with lots of cobbled streets and trams and there was Blackpool itself, which in winter was grand. We used to have the wide beaches practically to ourselves and would go out on a deserted pier with the waves crashing around us.
1958 meant a move to Filton in Bristol for a three month course. We sold the Bond there. On a trip to Shrewsbury it broke down and we had to leave it in someone’s drive and continue by train – not very nice on a cold dark evening with two kids! Mick went back by bus with the necessary spares, mended it and brought it back and then we sold it.
After the course we moved to a hiring in Marlborough, which was delightful, although the first house we lived in wasn’t in a particularly salubrious part of it! It fronted onto the main London road with heavy traffic all day, and belonged to our next door neighbour whose scrap yard was at the back. But the back area of our house was quite attractive, oddly enough. There was a conservatory which became a general playing area and the kitchen was in an L-shape off this – it faced south so was lovely and sunny, which was just as well since there was no heating. Many years before a grape vine had been planted inside and trained through the wall to grow outside and its gnarled roots were planted in a large trough of earth – very dust dry earth. But we managed to grow some flowers on it. There was a patch of grass outside this for J and F to play on.Marlborough was a lovely place to live – such a lot of old and beautiful buildings and there were good walks along a little river and through woods. Fan joined John at the local school while we were here – she’d been longing to go for ages so no problems. In October we were offered another hiring and this was a much prettier house and in a better situation. The school was only a few yards round the corner and at the end of our road was a wrought iron gate through which could be seen a little courtyard garden with a fountain in the middle.
We went up to Shrewsbury for a week during the summer. We used to visit my various relatives and be given tea and cakes and J and F would be made a fuss of. Albert was my mother's brother; a tall, gaunt man of very few words and those he said were usually in the nature of a whinge! He was a keen gardener and was very proud of his greenhouse, usually filled with tomatoes in the summer and cinerarias in winter. They always kept budgies and also a cat - well apart, I should think. Albert worked at a saddler's and leather goods shop and when the owner died some years later he left the business to Albert who, apart from his spell in the Army during the war, had worked there all his life.
I suppose Uncle Albert was quite a character really - when he was younger he was radio mad; cats' whiskers and all that - and later it was TV. He had a set long before anyone else I knew. He also used to make jigsaw puzzles and when I was a child I regularly got one of these for Christmas - they were very easy to do and were usually pictures of the Royal Family! According to my mother, Albert had been spoiled rotten as a child by their mother, Nan-down-the-road.
She too was a character - very severe and strait-laced except where Albert and Gwen's son John was concerned; with him she carried on where she'd left off with Albert. She was very fond of playing cards and as a kid I used to play a lot of whist and gin rummy with her. I never knew Mum's father; he died when I was a baby, but according to Mum he was wonderful - kind, cultured and good fun. He was in the Army all his life and ended up as RSM I think. He wouldn't have been very happy at the way Mum's marriage turned out. Nan-down-the-road was the quick tempered half of their marriage and when she got going he would quietly say, "That's enough, mother!"
I remember her telling me once that modesty was the thing men prized most in their wives - at the time I was engaged and was sitting in her room with my legs over the arm of a chair. I've since proved her quite wrong!
Another visit we had to pay was to Auntie Florrie, Uncle Bill and their daughter Vera. They lived quite near Cloverdell and were always hospitable. Uncle Bill was a big, jolly man (although in later years after his death we heard he could be a right bastard with his wife and daughter), Auntie Florrie rather meek and mild, and Vera a go-ahead journalist on a local paper. She was a great one for amateur dramatics and was always appearing in some play or other. She was also a great friend of Auntie May - which seems odd because they were so different. Vera never married - an elderly spinster with chest troubles, she lived in the same house after her parents died.
One evening [in Marlborough] .... Ann and Teddy ... were spending the evening with us and they mentioned they hadn't seen Stonehenge. We got Mr Free's daughter to 'sit', jumped in the car (we must have hired one for the weekend) and drove to Salisbury Plain, arriving about midnight. There we had the stones completely to ourselves in the moonlight - very atmospheric since there was no tourist set-up as there is today.
We did quite a bit of car-hiring in Marlborough. We paid a visit to London, showing John and Fan the main sights and we stayed with the Mercers at Wendover for a weekend. They were still living in the caravan and Bill was instructing at Halton. J and F slept in the van but we were put in the pub next door - very pleasant. Their van was sited in the yard of the pub, so very convenient.
We really started Monning seriously at Marlborough (visiting Ancient Monuments) - there was so much to see. Avebury, Silbury Hill, various mound graves - we even went as far afield as Beaulieu and Winchester. It was to become our favourite pastime for years ahead.
At Yatesbury Mick had been busy supervising the erection of a Bloodhound missile at the camp entrance. His CO was so pleased with this he recommended him for a commission, so another move was in the offing. In May 1959 Mick went to OCTU in Jurby on the Isle of Man and we, as usual, went to Shrewsbury. My mother seems to have been very long suffering putting up with us popping there every so often. In fact she liked it - I was a great help to her, since she worked almost full time at the Little Fruit Market and she also enjoyed the company. Only Gerald was at home now - Doug had married - and he was more of a worry than company. Nan and Grandad were still in the front two rooms of course, but I think they got on each other's nerves a bit. Understandable under the circumstances.
We could have stayed on at Marlborough of course, but it was much cheaper to stay with Mum, where I just had to pay for our keep. We were in for an expensive time - training to be an officer meant Mick needed things like a suit and a hat! John and Fan were enrolled at St George's, my old school. The same headmistress that I'd had was still in charge and she made a great fuss of me and called in the other teachers to show them what a "charming young woman" I'd turned into - patronising old bat. But I didn't complain since I wanted her to be nice to Fan.
I used to take them on the bus each morning and we'd usually walk home in the afternoon. After returning from school in the mornings I'd usually go to Nan's room, where breakfast would be in progress. It was just the same atmosphere as 4 Copthorne Rise when we stayed there - everything just so, everything very comfortable. The table would be covered with a starched cloth and laid with pretty china; the marmalade would be in a dish, the toast in a rack and the teapot on its stand and covered with a cosy. No making do for Nan. I'd join them for a cuppa then get on with any chores. If the weather was fine Nan would spend at least part of the day in the garden - all day if she could get away with it! Grandad's main job appeared to be cleaning the brass - religiously done once a week.
Of course there was the daily letter to be written to Mick. He was being an absolutely model airman for the three months - sang in the church choir, climbed Snaefell against the clock, played hockey - and yet halfway through the course they threatened to send him off because he wasn't trying! I shall never understand how those in authority can be so bloody thick.
We planned to go to the Isle of Man for a week at the end of the course and for the Passing Out Parade. I was busy making a dress for the dance to be held after the parade - it was cotton with a lovely silky sheen, pale green with white flowers, a boat neckline and a very full skirt. I also had two or three nights out with the girls from the office and we visited Mary out in the country. Mary had married before I went to Egypt in 1951.
As the three months were nearly up we all got very excited about our trip to the Isle of Man. Mum was coming too so that she wouldn't miss out on her annual holiday with us. The day before we were due to leave I went as usual to meet J and F from school - John appeared, looking very flushed and complaining of a sore throat! Panic stations - I rushed him off to the doctor and explained we were going on holiday the next day and please could we have some antibiotics. He was rather cross - it seemed he'd had a run of patients wanting a magic cure before going on holiday. I told him this was no ordinary holiday, but Mick's passing out after OCTU and he immediately changed his attitude - "Oh, you mustn't miss that" and more in the same vein - so we got the pills.
We set off very early next day for Liverpool and then a boat to Douglas - by the time we arrived John was feeling fine; all that bracing sea air. We made our way to the boarding house where we were to stay, near the beach in Ramsey, as Mick couldn't meet us because of work. We were sitting in the lounge when this tall, bronzed, twinkling-eyed man walked in. He always made my heart turn over, especially if we hadn't been together for a while. We had two rooms, Mum and J and F in one and we in the other - very lucky.
Mick didn't have time off so while he went to work each day we did all the usual seaside things - the beach, Punch and Judy, the bandstand and the show on the pier. I rather think Fan made her stage debut when they called for volunteers to take part in something on stage. We had another little hiccup - Fan got violent toothache and had to visit a dentist to have it out.
And so to our last day there - a service in the Station Church, which Mum thought was lovely, and the parade. At night we went to the dance, Mick in his brand new officer's uniform and me in my homemade dress - we looked a very handsome pair, I thought!
Next day Mick went to join his bomb disposal flight at Calshot, near Southampton, and we went back to Shrewsbury.
Mick had managed to hire a caravan and buy a car, a Standard 12, and collected us for the journey to Calshot. It was a delightful spot, especially for the summer holidays - right on the coast with a long beach, so bathing in the sea and building castles in the sand were routine afternoon outings - ideal for J and F. Our caravan was parked in a field with just one other field separating us from the sea. We used to see the funnels of the Queens as they steamed in and out of Southampton and hear their lovely deep calls. There was just one other caravan belonging to a young couple - all I remember of them is that they owned a bubble car and he only read text books.
My introduction to the life of an officer's wife was very pleasant - being such a small station it was all very casual and friendly - coffee mornings in people's houses and sherry mornings in the Mess. Mess life was quite new to me; we hadn't been able to afford much social life and in any case Mick didn't consider the Sergeant's Mess a suitable place to take me! Now we had wheels again we made lots of trips in the New Forest area. We didn't always drive into Southampton for shopping - we could get a ferry at Fawley, which was much more fun.
In November we were offered a quarter and moved into No 5 OMQ - just a few yards from the caravan site. It was another prefab but vastly different from the one at Moreton Hall. Twice as big for a start, with a huge hall, sitting room, dining room, three bedrooms, bathroom and an enormous kitchen and an extra loo! What luxury - and what good timing to move in just as winter started."