Life at Billesley Lane was good. School was not too demanding and I could cycle round to see school friends; even at the age of 9 or 10 I was given a lot of independence. My greatest friend was John Watson, always known as Wattie. He was highly intelligent and very eccentric, once climbing up a drainpipe onto a single storey roof during my birthday party. He devised a method of making tiny toy boats out of corks by cutting them in half and shaping one end as the bow. The keel and rudder was half a razor blade (yes – I was allowed to play with my grandfather’s old razor blades) and the mast was a match stick with a paper sail. We also made a few larger ones from balsa wood and raced each other’s boats on the pond, the header photo.
Grandpa taught me to play chess, though it was a long time before I could ever win a game. In the evenings all 4 of us sometimes played Canasta or a variation called Bolivia.
I was a keen reader and Granny used to take me to Birmingham library on a regular basis to change books. Favourites were the Just William series, Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven (strangely not the famous 5) and Biggles, an ace fighter pilot, who is probably now banned for his gung-ho racism. Biggles flew north, south, east and west (yes they were actual titles) and almost everywhere else. 100 plus titles and the wonderful 1930s covers can be seen at: http://www.biggles.info. Just don’t read the books! However the series that I liked the most was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome; these I owned and re-read many times.
I loved Christmas. It was a big family affair with aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins of cousins (the Hill family) and various family friends. The gathering was at Puffy Granny’s. She was Donald’s (Pam’s husband) mother. The name originated when my cousin Anne wanted to differentiate between her 2 grandmothers and prefixed each one with the name of their cat; Granny was Bimble Granny.
Puffy Granny lived in a large house about half a mile away. The house had a billiard room and we sat around the table. Christmas lunch was vey traditional and after the meal we played games, usually Monopoly (a tip if you ever play – get ownership of the pink properties at the top of the left hand side, Bow St. Marlborough St. and Vine St. in the original UK version). The party went on till well past my bedtime and I was put to bed there. When Grandpa drove us home I was wrapped in blankets and carried out to the car, half asleep. The image below is a card that Grannny bought for me to colour in for my Mother from Zipper. This looks as if it was done when I was younger.
Birmingham had 2 theatres: the Hippodrome and the Rep, officially the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Every Christmas the Hippodrome put on a pantomime and the Rep put on a Christmas play. We went to the Rep every year. They were well known stories, often fairy tales written down by authors such as the Grimms or Hans Christian Anderson. I sat enthralled in the stalls inhaling the smell of grease paint and loving every moment, even when I was rather scared. As I grew older I used to fall in love with the young female lead! The one I remember best is The Tinderbox with the 3 dogs – each one bigger than the last and very scary.
My top Christmas present was a Trix model railway set. This made future presents very easy for the family – I always wanted more track, engines, rolling stock and extras. A successful birthday present was a bow, some arrows and a small target which my friends and I used this on the lawn. Another popular game in the summer with friends and cousins was French Cricket. (If you don’t know the rules, look it up on Wikipedia), I still have the scar by my eye from being hit by a bat when fielding too close.
It was probably around this time that I was given my first I-SPY BOOK, images from that time below, but sadly not mine. Over the next few years I tried to spot items and fill in the books, but I was never very keen and didn’t get any awards.
By 1954 Pam’s family had grown to 4. Jennifer, my closest cousin, was born in November 1944, Michael was born in 1947 and Sheila in 1953. Jen sometimes came to stay in our house. On one of these occasions, which we knew about in advance, we planned a midnight feast. Over the previous few weeks I took and hid extra biscuits at tea time. On the night I stayed awake and took them into her room where we ate them in her bed amidst loud giggles. Needless to say, mother arrived on the scene very quickly!
1954 saw the beginning of big changes in my life in Birmingham. Sometime around the beginning of the year mother found a new home for us. It was flat in a large mid Victorian house about a mile from Billesley Lane. The address was:
Flat 1, The Leasowes, 170 Wake Green Road, Moseley, Birmingham 13.
She had made a brilliant and inspired choice. The house had been divided into 4 flats. There were 3 sensible ones,1 on the ground floor and 2 on the first floor. We had the left overs: half the wine cellar, the front hall, cloakroom and a huge living room, the kitchen, maids sitting room and servants bedrooms and bathroom plus an attic room. We also had the front garden, part of the big lawn and half the back yard.
The property had been neglected and a number of tree branches had blown down. So before we moved in I used to cycle round and saw them into logs that were stored in the cellar.
On November 16th 1954 my parents were formally and finally divorced, image of the decree below. Of course I knew nothing about this at the time. My world did not include a father and I didn’t need one; I had a father figure – Grandpa. I’m sure that he played a major role in the negotiating the settlement and together with my mother they drove a hard bargain, knowing that my father wanted to re-marry as soon as he could. The financial settlement was:
Monthy maintenance to my mother of £67, 6 shillings and 4 pence
Monthly maintenance for me up to the age of 16 of £8, 6 shillings and 8 pence.
This is a total of about £23,600 per annum in today’s money – a reasonable sum.
In addition he had to pay £150 annually to cover my school fees, equivalent to £3900 in today’s money. The current fees for Charterhouse, the public school I went to are 39,000 p.a.
The financial arrangements were changed later. I know that his maintenance went down to £20 per month, possibly when mother started to work. However he did pay all my education costs including university.
In the summer of 1952 we moved to Birmingham to live with my grandparents until my mother found a house. I started at West House School, a Prep School in Edgbaston, which my uncle John had attended 16 years earlier. By this time my grandparents had moved about half a mile from 40 School Road to 40 Billesley Lane, photo above. It was a 5 bedroom, stockbroker tudor house with a good sized garden, which included a pond. (Hoorah: water to play with outside the French windows!) The pond had newts and when it had to be drained I was given the job of capturing them in a bucket and later putting them back. In September mother took me to Polyfoto, full set of images below.
That part of Moseley was a very genteel and thoroughly middle class suburb with big houses, large gardens and quiet roads; our house was just over half a mile to the centre of Moseley village which had a good range of shops including an old fashioned toyshop – my favourite of course. Moseley is mentioned in the Domesday Book and is one of many villages that were swallowed up by the rapid expansion of Birmingham during the 19th century. It has an attractive old church where Pam was married. Photos below of my grandmother taken at around this time and my grandfather on a Broads holiday.
There was a daily routine in the house. We all breakfasted together and then my mother drove me to school and Grandpa drove to work at CG; he was 65 but showed no inclination to give up any responsibilities, let alone retire. I returned home by bus, usually in time for afternoon tea – small sandwiches and a slice if cake; sometimes one or more of Granny’s friends joined us. On his way home my grandfather called in at the “Fighting Cocks” for a couple of halves of mild, 2 images of the pub below. Dinner was at 7:15 – not 7:10, not 7:20. If the meal arrived late (a very rare occurrence) grandpa drummed his fingers on the table. I went to bed straight after the meal, which wasn’t a good idea since I often had scary black and white rectangular dreams – presumably because I hadn’t digested my food.
As an aside, during a holiday in France Jonet and I went to a small village restaurant for Sunday lunch. It was almost full, with just a table for 2 for us. There was large French family there with Grandpa sitting at the head of the table. The service was painfully slow (the owner told us that he had laid off one member of staff because recent trade had been low and another person had rung in sick). As we all waited….. and waited, Grandpa did exactly the same thing – drumming his fingers on the table. When the food eventually arrived it was excellent and delivered by Jonet who went to help out.
Granny looked after the house with help from a part time cleaner and a part time cook, though she was good traditional cook herself. She regularly made the best roast potatoes ever and the recipe for Lemon Pudding that Jonet still uses was hers and could date back to even earlier.
She never had a job but she did voluntary work as a Hospital Librarian, photo below of her certificate. She was also a “Lady who Lunched” and I sometimes accompanied her during school holidays. The lunches were at the houses of her friends and occasionally in Birmingham with The Baroness – a splendid large lady with an equally large hat and a foreign accent. I never found out about where she came from, but she was probably displaced during the upheavals of the 1930s and the war.
Grandpa looked after the garden and particularly the vegetable patch; he was an excellent gardener. The crops I remember most vividly are his runner beans and raspberries, which are 2 of the most important crops in our garden 65 years on. He had a gardener, Mr Pacey – an albino – who did the lawn and flower beds.
My mother also didn’t have a job at this time and she also worked as a volunteer librarian in the hospital and Winson Green Prison.
When we first arrived there were 5 cats in the house, my grandparents 4 and Zipper. The oldest was Smokey a female Persian who died soon after we arrived. The second was a black female whose name was the N word – a very common name for cats and dogs at that time; I wasn’t aware of the racial aspect of the word and just accepted that was her name. Then came Buttons – a nondescript timid female who had litters of beautiful kittens including Zipper and Ike who was named after the American president Eisenhower. Ike was a big friendly male who was not that bright – just gorgeous. Surprisingly all the cats got on very well. My Grandfather liked cats. Cats liked my Grandfather. 2 photos below from my first film taken with a Box Brownie, a prized present: my mother with Zipper and me in the Garden taken by Granny.
There were 2 significant events in 1953. My uncle John married Pat Savage. He was training as a doctor at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford after graduating from Magdalen College. She was nurse in the hospital.
June 2 1953
“You have been in there quite long enough; its time to come back and watch the procession”.
It was my mother and I was in the garage because it was pouring with rain outside. The date was my 9th birthday. “ I don’t want to; it’s boring; I want to ride my new bicycle”. (even if it was just round the garage!)
“ You’ve had quite enough of that and you are coming with me”. No options, it was not negotiable – no one negotiated with my mother. I was frogmarched back to the sitting room to watch a small screen of blurry moving pictures in varying shades of grey. (It is a myth that televisions in the 1950s were black and white; true they were monochrome, but it was light grey to dark grey). I re-joined a small group of friends of my grandparents, all of whom were all born in the 19th century; most of the men were called Howard; some of the women were called Doris.
The middle class world in 1953 was divided into those who had a television or bought one to watch the coronation and those who went round to friends or relatives if they wanted to watch it. We had the television, and the whole of the country wanted to watch the coronation except me; I had a new bicycle.
When I first learnt that the queen had chosen my birthday for her coronation I was excited, but not nearly as much as I was by my present. That morning I had been told to have a look in the garage, and there it was – a new blue Raleigh with gears and proper pump up tyres. At last I didn’t have to ride a bike with solid tyres that was far too small for me.
Breakfast, lunch and especially the coronation were all 2nd best that day, and with good reason. Over the next 6 or 7 years, that bicycle was my lifeline to the world of south Birmingham.
We quite often visited my grandparents at 40 School Road, Birmingham. In an earlier post about that house I wrote:
I just remember the vegetable garden with my grandfather, full of butterflies and caterpillars, which he showed me. In the house I remember the breakfast room where I ate all my meals (I was too young for their dinner) and the steps down to a long corridor and my bedroom at the back of the house.
We also visited fro Christmas; the card below was bought by Granny to colour in and give to my mother from our cat Zipper.
We had a black Morris 8, EAY 426. On an early journey I turned a horrible colour and was violently sick. My mother was very worried, but it turned out to be car sickness and from then onwards for many years I was given Kwells before a journey. On all the early journeys I remember standing up in the back of the car and looking at the road ahead. I now realise that I was probably unconsciously doing that to minimize the feeling of nausea.
The header photo is from one of our holidays at either Swanage or Cromer when I was about 4 or 5; I have very hazy memories of them both. We are with Sue Tutt who is a second cousin on the Walker side and her mother Nancy, Auntie Ken’s daughter.
The photos above and below were taken in Rhosneigr. A few posts ago the header photo was of Pam’s wedding to Donald Perry. Donald’s sister married Harry Hill, always known to me as Uncle Harry, though he wasn’t actually an uncle. Those 2 families jointly owned a large house in Rhosneigr called Sea View, not far from Holyhead in Anglesey. It was situated at the top of the beach by the small harbour and had steps down to the sand. By this time Pam had a second daughter, Jennifer who is 6 months younger than me and Michael, who was too young to play with us. In the boat photo my cousin Anne is holding the boat and the other 2 children are my cousin Jennifer and her cousin Peter Hill, who is my age. The photo below is all of us cowrie hunting, a favourite way of spending a relaxing hour or so on the beach or the “Point”, a small rocky promontory. The photo at the end of the post is of me on the steps of Sea View watching the others playing.
So by the summer of 1948 my mother and I are becoming part of the Gerrard clan by sharing the holiday house with Pam and her family
Every Easter from the age of about 6 my mother and I used to go to Llwyngwryl, the village on the Welsh coast not far south of Barmouth where the Gerrard and Bown families used to go in the 1930s. It was a long journey for a small child with nothing to do. There was a long hill at Dinas Mawddwy and we had to stop half way up to top up the radiator with cold water. I loved those holidays, playing on the beach in rock pools and going on the miniature railway and boat to Barmouth.
I had 2 of the usual children’s diseases – Measles and German Measles. I was sent to a Chicken Pox party but failed to catch it. The thinking at that time, when no immunisation was available, was to try and get children to catch all 4 diseases in childhood becuse they could be much more serious to an adult. I also used to get Whooping Cough which was treated by putting a towel over my head and bretin the fumes ffrom a basin full of hot water with Friars Balsom.
When I was about 5 I went to a small private infant school, The Lark’s Nest. My mother always drove me there add initially collected me. Later on I went home by bus. I remember very little about my time there: it wasn’t very inspiring.
One day at school was memorable for the wrong reason, and it is a very vivid memory. My mother took me to school but couldn’t collect me and arranged for a friend, Eileen to do so. I had to wait at the bus stop and take the second bus. I was very excited and jumped on the first bus, which immediately set off. I instantly realised my mistake and burst into floods of tears. A kind woman took me off the bus at the next stop and waited till Eileen arrived on the right bus a few minutes later.
Eileen was a splendid no nonsense nurse who my mother first employed to look after me when necessary in Cropston and who became a family friend and holiday companion of my mother. She nursed her way round the world twice, at one time living in the Cook Islands where she was the only person with medical qualifications within a radius of 2,000 miles.
The only other specific event that I can remember from school was the announcement by our teacher in 1952 that the King had died.
I sat on the wall that was the border between our house and the farmyard next door, looking with awe at the noisy and dusty scene. There was a massive black steam engine to my left connected by a giant leather strap to a red threshing machine in front of me. The farm workers were loading the grain from the barn into the machine. I got down, played for a bit and then watched again. Eventually they barn was nearly empty and men and youths from the village with sticks and dogs started arriving. As the barn emptied, all the rats that had been living there began to escape, while the band of rat killers and their dogs tried to kill them.
The photo above was taken when I was about 3.
As I grew older the happy times continued. What’s not to like: a big garden, a lane to walk or cycle up, a farm next door, a girlfriend across the road, a pond at The Thatch, card games in the evening, pets, holidays by the sea, a bedroom full of books and trips to grandparents in Birmingham.
When I was older I used to make small fires with bits of wood and twigs collected up from around the garden. The bicycle was bright red with solid tyres and the evening card games were pelmanism, rummy, and racing demon, which is a competitive version of a patience. The photo, left, was taken when I was abou 3 or 4.
Fires, water and card games:
I’m sitting here over 65 years later with a diary in front of me that reminds me I’m playing Bridge tonight. As a teenager I played cards at school and bezique or canasta at home. Card games continued with our children and friends at home and on holidays. On later skiing holidays with friends, children and grandchildren we played the card game “Oh Hell” most evenings.
I continued to have fires when we moved to Birmingham. We had beach bonfires on teenage holidays, we have fire juggling in our garden and at the top of our garden the next bonfire is building up.
I played in my grandparents’ pond in the early 1950s and on holidays in Rhosneigr, which will feature in future posts where I made beach waterworks. My current photographic project is a stretch of the Washburn Valley and the water system that fed a 19th century mill.
It would appear that nothing changes.
I loved being read to and later reading for myself. The books that I can remember were some of the traditional kid’s books of the time: the Wind is the Willows and Toad of Toad Hall, Winnie the Pooh, the Beatrix Potter books, the Fuzzypeg and Grey Rabbit books by Alison Utley (photo at the end of the post), the Père Castor nature books and the Thomas the Tank Engine series. I loved them all; at first they were read to me and later I read them many times.
I still have my original copy of Wind in the Willows; it was my mother’s and is dated Dec 1926. I also remember “Robbut the Rabbit – a cauionary tale in which he swaps his tail, which he does’t like, for various others. The new tails are all disasterous so he eventually settles for his original and is happy again. The Pere Castor series were wonderful books about animals in the natural world; educational and informative fiction for children at its best. They deserve to be read today. Just before we left Cropston I was given Rhoda Power’s “Redcap Runs Away”, which is set in medieval England. It’s a classic and I was enthralled.
My girlfriend was Doreen, who lived opposite; her mother did some cleaning for my mother (we were a very middle class family). I never went into her house and I can’t remember her coming into ours, though I’m sure that she must have done since we used to play in the garden and get very mucky. Doreen was the only child of the same age that I regularly came into contact with; we only saw cousins on holidays and there wrre no children from my first school from the village. So I learnt to be self sufficient.
The first pets that I can remember are Roan, an old cocker spaniel, and a black cat. Soon after they both died we had Zipper, the kitten of Buttons, one of my grandparents’ 4 cats. There will be lots about her in future posts.
Some posts are going to change slightly from now onwards. There are certain incidents that I remember vividly and I will relate them as a story, either as a post or at the end of a post.
My mother slowly opened the coalhouse door while I watched from the back door. She collected the coal and closed the door carefully. The nest didn’t move; it stayed there on top of the upper hinge. I watched every day as the parent spotted flycatchers sat on their eggs. Soon they had young to feed and every day or so my mother fetched the coal and they took no notice. The fledglings grew and one day they had gone. We searched the garden and then spotted them, 4 or 5 small balls of fluff, sitting in a row on a low branch over our pond. We were worried that they might land in the water when flying away, so my mother found a net and we were on duty until they flew away safely.
The only information about life in Cropston from this time are a few photographs and my memories, which are very sparse from when I was young. My earliest one is a hazy memory of being in the garage with a black car and a man. Was this my father leaving?
My early memories from this time are happy; I loved playing in the garden, particularly making the mud pies that I mentioned in an earlier post. I also really enjoyed playing around the pond in the garden of The Thatch across the road, the header photos. Of course I occasionally fell in, but it was very shallow. The photo, left, was taken when I was slightly younger.
The first time I remember being told about my father must have been in 1948. My mother told me that he had gone to South Africa on the RMMV (Royal Mail Motor Vessel) Stirling Castle, postcard photo below. As a small child we had a pack of playing cards and one of them had a picture of the vessel. That satisfied my curiosity. I always assumed, right up to very recently that he went out to live there for a number of years. However, it was only for 2 months.
He actually set sail on May 20th 1948 and his papers include an album of photos of the ship, the voyage, a stop in Madeira and South Africa. He sent a postcard to Peggy on May 22nd; he wrote:
“I shall miss my pint of bitter at “The cottage” tonight. Do so wish you here it’s all very wonderful but a bit lonely. Am hoping to go for a complete tour of the ship today, quite a long walk. By midday today we’d done 873 miles. My love dear, Bob”
On the 27th he sent a ship’s telegram, photo below, and later another telegram to Peggy saying when he would be returning.
He returned by Flying Boat, photo below. That trip must have been one of the best ever in the world: The Victoria Falls, other lakes, following the Nile to Alexandria and, on my father’s flight, Beirut. They stayed there overnight where there was a curfew at the time. In the evening Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was on the same flight, went to my father’s room and suggested that they went out to a club, which they did by climbing out of the hotel through the bedroom window.
The link below has some information about the BOAC flying boat service from Johannesburg to England.
The trip was not just a holiday; Helen told me that he went out there to work out finally what to do.This must have meant what kind of a future life did he want for himself and Peggy. The letter from his friend in the previous post mentioned the fact that my father was thinking about going into farming; was the trip also to investigate the possibility of starting a new life farming out there? If so it came to nothing, though he did buy a farm in Leicestershire later – but more of that in future posts.
The photo below must have been taken in the summer of 1947 since Jonet says that I am 3. I think am playing with my second cousin Diana with the legs of her elder brother Roger in the background. Roger and Diana were brought up by their grandmother, my great aunt Agnes (sister of my grandmother Edith) because their mother, Bunty, died of cancer when she was very young. (And of course we are playing with water – see the next post).
Aunty Agnes, Roger and Diana are the only members of the Bown side of the family that we kept in touch with for many years. As I have mentioned in earlier posts the Gerrard and Lord family got on very well. As far as I know my father never kept in touch with them. Did Agnes side with my mother in 1946/7? – I suspect so. Certainly they got on very well.
I have previously mentioned the fact that my parent’s marriage did not last and there has been plenty of information in previous posts that signalled there could be problems ahead. There is no written evidence that the marriage was not working well until the letters later in this post, but there obviously were problems over a long time. I remember that when I lived in Cropston, my mother’s bedroom, which must have been their bedroom when my father was living there, had 2 single beds. I suspect that after the miscarriage and my traumatic birth, their sexual relationship finished; another pregnancy could well have been fatal. If so, it may well not have been a problem for my mother who I think was not a very sexual woman. It would have been a very difficult situation for my father to deal with.
At the beginning of 1946 marital relations are not good, even now that they have a child, me, though to a casual observer all would seem fine. However, any scientist knows that unstable chemicals can exist together without any reaction until a catalyst is introduced, at which time a reaction will quickly and possibly violently occur. In January 1946 a catalyst enters our story – 19 year old Peggy Mason in a train. We know it was that month because of a newspaper that she kept and wrote on, photo below. The date of the paper is the 2nd (a Wednesday), but there is an extra 2 stuck to it, so the date could have been January 22nd.
A failing and loveless marriage, love at first sight and a train: The plot of the 1945 film Brief Encounter, but also the beginning of the break up of my parent’s marriage. (If you haven’t seen Brief Encounter it is a must see 1940s film redolent of the attitudes of the time.)
As a complete diversion a meeting on a train also features in the history of Jonet’s family. Her maternal grandmother, who was very attractive, was travelling by train to the engagement party of a close friend. She talked to a young man in her carriage and discovered that he was on is way to the same party and was the bridegroom to be. She must have had a very persuasive chat up technique because by the end of the journey he switched his affections; the engagement never took place and later he and Jonet’s grandmother got married.
Back to Leicestershire in the 1940s. I don’t know when my father spotted Peggy on the train and whether they had any conversation prior to the key incident, which was: he tripped her up in the corridor while she was walking through the train looking for her future sister in law. I assume that that the trip looked accidental and was such that he could catch her, apologise and, perhaps, suggest a cup of tea in the station buffet?!
The next piece of evidence is a letter from him to her dated February 8th; he writes:
“Enclosed you will find what I promised. Now for your promise. They are all for for your eyes and your eyes only. On no account is anyone else to see them.
Remember they were written when I was your age – except for the last one “To Frank” which is self-explanatory. (Frank who Peggy was intending to marry was killed in the war) You may therefore find them difficult to associate with the somewhat mature (I wonder) businessman cum playboy that you know today. Nevertheless the thoughts still linger! My! How they linger! They may give you an insight into my unsettled and open mind and no doubt help to confirm your opinion of me as a somewhat irresponsible wanderer.”
He has obviously sent her some poems. There are a number of his poems amongst my mother’s documents and there were a number in the drawers at Helen’s. Following 2 further paragraphs he continues:
“I feel I ought to write one about the L.M.S.R (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) ……….I also ought to dedicate one to the Red Lion at Atherstone but my mind isn’t dusty enough yet!!”
“Oh well – what a bloke but my! my! What a girl ooh!!
My special love Bob”
The Red Lion at Atherstone is still going strong today.
It sounds as if the visit to the hotel was for more than just a drink in the bar. I suspect that an affair has started.
There is a second undated letter from my father in similar gushing style. He begins “My Peggy” and signs “my love Bobby”. A few quotes show that this is a very different relationship from anything that he ever had with my mother and that it is a serious affair by then:
“I’ve just been thinking of such nice things to say to you but somehow I feel such a B.F. (Bloody Fool) when it comes to writing them in cold blood. I’m much better at saying (and doing!) them”.
“I love drinking the beautiful big pints of draught beer that you keep leading me too. How nice it is to have a girlfriend who is a boozer and thinks and dreams in terms of cider! Which, my young Lady, reminds me that you did very definitely encourage me to drink to excess last week………My very sweet young lady with a not so sweet or young mind – you are so wicked- but blimey! I love it!”
He then goes on to say that he failed to stop at a halt sign following drinking to excess and was stopped by policeman. He proudly wrote that he talked his way out of being booked! (Those were the days: 2 or 3 times over the current alcohol limit, driving dangerously and let off!)
There is only one letter from Peggy written on March 3rd 1946.
“Bobby darling, This I guess is a surprise, but I hope a pleasant one?
…..I suppose this actually is “Good bye”, but once more let me assure you that I have no regrets. With (see what word can I use? – I could say regret but that would contradict my last statement, however I’ll have to use it for want of a better word,) regret I leave you Bobby, but I have learnt from experience that in the bright years of youth no grief lingers long.
As for you – you will have Richard and your wife in your own home and may you never know anything but happiness.
Although this is goodbye, at least to our relationship as it has been for the past few weeks, I have two wishes, one is to see you often again, and the other, that your small son may have all these gifts:
Your infectious laugh, your sparkling eyes, a gentle art of making friends, a heart in the right place (which is not on the sleeve) a smooth temper and an ear for music
Then he will be perfect for my Jane, who I trust will have
Eyes that smile, Proper pride, a spice of originality, an attractive speaking voice (which means a soft one?) and a genuine love of cooking.
Mum has been I bed all day and I’m terribly tired. I just wish that you would come tonight. However if that is not to be then I hope to see you tomorrow.
Bye bye Bobby from Peggy
P.S. What about that snap and verse that you promised me?”
This is an extraordinary letter and insight into the triangular dilemma that was developing between her, my father and my mother and me.
It also has to read in context. Peggy was a very attractive 19 year old girl who had probably had a number of boyfriends in her mid teens. During about 2 years of the war she had waited several times a week to find out if the man she was planning to marry, the first real love of her life, would return from the latest bombing raid over Germany.
One day he didn’t and she was devastated; hence the lines that she wrote: “but I have learnt from experience that in the bright years of youth no grief lingers long. We all thought that “in the bright years of youth no grief lingers long” must be a quote. But it isn’t – what an amazing phrase for Peggy to come up with.
She is now deeply in love with an older man who has fallen for her and they get on incredibly well. She has just discovered that he is married with a young child and they have just verbally parted. The rational part of her knows that this is the right thing to do (Remember this is the 1940s) but the emotional side still wants and needs to see him.
What did my father tell her about his status before the denouement? Single? Separated? Surely she must have asked. How did she find out about my mother and me?
At some time, possibly at this time, my mother found out about the affair. She was furious. Eileen, a good friend of my mother who was a nurse and helped to look after me when my mother became a single parent, told us what happened. My mother went round to the Mason household and spoke to them on the doorstep saying that their daughter was having an affair with her husband and that she had a young child. Any nearby neighbours would have probably been able to hear all! (this might have been how Peggy found out that my father was still in a marriage with a child).
Their affair did stop and, according to Helen, Peggy started to go out with other lads. However at some time my father tried to revive their relationship. He would go to see her at her parents’ house, where she was still living, and if she was out he would park up and go in to chat with her parents until she arrived back! I don’t know when all this started, but by September the Bown family and his friends all knew that he was facing a big decision – to stay with us or leave home and start a new life with Peggy.
I hate to think what life was like in the family home while all this was going on. It is possible, but unlikely, that he might have moved out on a temporary basis to sort himself out. Either way my mother must have been going through a torrid time.
On September 31st 1946 his sister Hilda wrote to my father; key exerts are:
“I just want to tell you that Mum has told us of all your trouble and distress…….I do want you to know that you have my love sympathy and understanding.
I haven’t felt happy about you and Peg (my mother – my father made life confusing be having 2 women with the same name) for a long time – if ever………I do want you to be happy, you deserve it….in the meantime don’t be too miserable. I think a great deal of the misery is over now and which ever way you decide things will get better.
Don’t do anything in a hurry, think carefully and I’m sure the right solution will be found.”
The next letter, dated 22 -11-46 is from a friend or colleague, not sure which. He begins:
“I was not altogether surprised to hear of your very difficult position – we have for some time believed that things at home were on the grim side for you, and considered you had stuck the thin end of the wedge very manfully.”
My first reaction to this was: Hang about! My, then 36 year old, father has had a relationship with a 19 year old girl and the problems at home are all the fault of my mother! However the letter was written by a man who only has only heard one side of the story, and from a later part of the letter he does not realise the extent of their relationship. He is also looking back at the marriage over a number of years.
Also, once again, this blog is reflecting the social attitudes of the time. It was still a strongly male dominated society and many men considered that the wife should be at her husband’s beck and call. The marriage service stated that wives should obey their husbands and the Married Women’s Property act of 1884, that finally stopped women being regarded as chattels, was within living memory of older people. He also says:
“I always thought that little Richard would make all the difference. It is a tremendous psychological upset for a child not to have the security of both parents…..`’
So my father must have been confiding in him about marital problems well before my birth. Again his friend is showing an old fashioned attitude; I’m not aware of having been psychologically damaged by being brought up my mother, but I might well have been if they had stayed together, although he would probably have left sometime later anyway, which could have been more difficult for me. More quotes from the letter:
“It seems as things are, that you are going to have to hurt someone – I have not seen much of Peg (my mother) but I admit I have always had the impression she would not find it easy to show affection – if it has ever been there! Something which I believe is for you is absolutely necessary.
It seems damnable that you should renounce a chance of real affection, but the issues are so big that if you feel you would like to talk about it, come along.”
Jonet thinks that real affection is a euphemism for sex (not a word used in 1940s middle class society), and it could be but I’m not so sure. My mother was a very rational woman; she had very good friends, mostly women, and one of her male friends was gay. I suspect that the love she had for my father when they were courting was more like a very good friendship and certainly not the passionate love of youth.
The final letter, dated Feb 10th 1947, is from Billy Stork, my Godfather. He was a good friend of my father’s and a very successful down to earth Yorkshire Businessman. Down to earth Yorkshire Businessmen don’t sit on the fence; they probably don’t even know that there is a fence to sit on. He starts:
“Very glad the you got home last night. We have been doing a lot of talking about you both, & really were sorry when you had to go.”
My father has taken Peggy to see Billy. Helen told me that her mother had visited Billy Stork and it must have been at this time.
He then says that the decision must be my father’s, but continues:
“I am certain however…..that you will never settle down at home really happily & that it would be by far the best in the long run for Peg and Richard for you to go on with it & the sooner the better…. It is cruel of me saying it for Peg and Richard’s sake, but am certain it is the best for them, although they would not realise it awhile. I think you would be happy with Peggy because she is your type of girl, a lot of go in her, & full of fun….you must make your mind up quickly Bob, before things get worse, if they could. It’s going to take some facing, but you will still have to do it, & it will only be worse for Peg and Richard to let it drag on, because you will do it in the end. It’s snowing again…” (it was 1947)
It’s been 5 months of dithering since Hilda’s letter, probably because my father couldn’t decide which was the greater loss: losing Peggy for ever, or losing bringing up his only son; (this was the 1940s when automatic regular access was probably not so normal). Obviously the atmosphere in the Old Cottage, Cropston, is dreadful and my mother must be having an awful time. But at last my father has some clear advice, and Billy was absolutely right in everything he wrote. (THANK YOU BILLY…that advice was worth much much more than the £1.00 that you sent me every birthday and Christmas).
My aunt, Pam, remembers that my mother did tell her what was happening and she must also have told her parents. However Pam does not remember discussing the problem or being asked for any advice. As I have said before, there are no letters or documents from the 1940s amongst my mother’s papers. Since she kept everything else, she must have destroyed them. It was not a time that she wanted to remember.
I was told that my father left home in that year, 1947
So why did the marriage fail? Firstly it was effectively a marriage engineered by the families with all the expectations that goes with that. Though my father did fall for my mother, I don’t think she ever loved him in a truly passionate way. During the engagement they only met in artificial situations. They were incompatible, with different interests and values and my mother was never able to have a real meaningful life of her own. And finally they were totally sexually incompatible. The marriage never stood a chance.
This has been a very different, difficult and emotional post to write. Firstly I have been examining an emotionally charged and life-changing period in the life of my mother as well as my father and Peggy whom I knew from about the age of about 10. Secondly the decision by my father to leave shaped my life, as will be seen in future posts. It also shaped his life, and future posts will confirm how right Billy was: He and Peggy had a very happy marriage.
I began seeing my father again from about the age of 10 and began staying with him and Peggy a few years later. By my mid teens we had an excellent father and son relationship. So from a disastrous marriage and problems that probably started to be serious in the early 1940s it took about 15 years for everything to be sorted out.
Finally there is one very strange aspect. In many posts I have written about the early lives of my grandparents, my mother and my aunt, Pam. In every case the young lives seem totally in keeping with the older person that I knew, or know in the case of Pam. However the behaviour of my father and Peggy – the heavy drinking, drunk driving and passion is totally at odds with the couple that I knew. Yes, they were devoted and that makes sense, but they were very conservative (and Conservative) pillars of the church and village society (and he was a very careful and responsible driver).
We will start with my mother’s baby book; the image above is one of the few pages that she completed. The photo of the two of us, left, was probably taken in the late summer of 1944.
In April 1945 Granny Bown, my Great Grandmother celebrated her 89th birthday, photo below. My grandparents are in the background, my mother is on the left and Aunt Effie is on the right.
In August 1945 my father successfully applied for a job with the Control Commission for Germany (British Element), TEXTILES AND LIGHT INDUSTRIES BRANCH, which was a part of the Military Government of the British Sector. The specific job was Assistant Controller of Clothing (Hosiery). His papers include a copy of the application form and an initial and second detailed letter offering him the post. There is no information as to whether he answered an advertisement, got the job through contacts or was approached.
The position was temporary with a requirement to serve for a year but no rights for permanent employment. The salary was £1,000 p.a. plus an annual £60 war bonus, equivalent to £32,000 in today’s money. In addition he was paid a living allowance of 25% of his salary. Since the British zone was under military command, all persons in positions of responsibility were given an equivalent military rank; my father’s was that of major.
The next set of papers relate to his travel, a 22 hour journey from London Victoria to Bad Oeynhausen. The official document is below. There is a document listing his terms and conditions of employment which is dated 1 November. The final documents relating to his posting are below. There are no more documents or information.
However either he did not go or he returned after less than 3 months because he was back in the UK in January 1946 – see next post.
Back home there is a photo of me on his shoulder at the age of about 15 to 18 months, below. Since I am not warmly dressed but there are no leaves on the tree in the background, it was probably taken on a warm Autumn day in 1945.
I have no more information from that time but there are 2 photos taken when I was about one and a half, shown below. The steps behind me in the photo taken in the garden at Cropston go up to the loft above an outhouse. I used to make mud pies and dry them out on the steps.
During a recent visit to my sister, Helen, we spent a whole evening and the next morning going through 4 drawers of letters, photos and miscellaneous memorabilia saved by her parents. They dated from Victorian times up till the time that her mother (my stepmother) moved to live with Helen. Some letters and other items will feature later, but this post is about Bown family information that dates back to before the mid 1940s.
The joint header photos are my grandfather, and the card with the hymns sung at their wedding in 1905. The hymns were:
The Voice that breathed o’er Eden and O Perfect Love
The postcard on the left is typical of the genre of humorous cards about the 1st World War being produced at that time. It was sent to my father from his uncle Owen in 1917 then on Active Service. He wrote:
“Dear Bobby, I do hope you are well and having a nice summer. Shall hope to see you next year. With love and kisses from Uncle Owen”
Owen was his second name; his first was Thomas and the only relevant war record I can find is of a private T Bown in the Sherwood Foresters in 1917, probably him. He survived the war.
I never imagined that a Russian railway company and the Russian Revolution would feature in this blog. But they do. The image above is one of two £20 bond certificates in the Troitzk Railway Company. (a total of about £ 4350 in today’s money for the two). The form from the bank is shown below; it wasn’t a good investment! There are 3 names on the back of the form, with what look like amounts of interest which they would have received – but for the revolution; they are:
Ellen Bown, my great grandmother, G W Lord, my great grandfather, and his daughter Edith Bown, my grandmother.
We now move on to 1924 and an article reprinted from Industrial Britain about the British Hosiery Industry. The photo below is the factory. After some general information it says:
“Perhaps the skill and ease which has made British hosiery so famous can be best illustrated by reference to……..the well known firm of Messrs. Dixon, Moore and Bown, manufacturers of Men’s and Women’s Artificial Silk and wool and Pure Wool Hosiery.”
Following several paragraphs about Mr Moore and Mr Dixon the article continues:
“Mr A Bown, (my grandfather) a gentleman who has had long experience of financial matters in one of the leading banks of the country, and a personal friend of Mr Moore and Mr Dixon for many years, joined them on July 1st 1923, taking supervision of the financial side of the firm.”
This is the beginning of the family involvement in the hosiery business that ended with my father running Sports Hosiery for almost all of his working life.
In a previous post I mentioned that my father had been suddenly removed from school without any discussion when he was about 16 or 17 so that he could learn about the hosiery industry and run the company. What had happened in the 2 or 3 years since 1923? Did my grandfather always intend to takeover the company for his son? Did Messrs Moore and Dixon fall out with him? He was a difficult and autocratic man.
The next document, above, is my father’s college report for the term ending July 1926. Were the 47 days absent a protest against being taken out of school? He was happy at school and didn’t appreciate being forced to learn the hosiery trade to run a company, which by this time was almost certainly owned by his father. Or was he spending some time in college and some time in the factory? I suspect at least some of the former based on the antics related in a previous post.
We now move on to the early years of my parent’s marriage and 2 auction catalogues. The first dates from 1937 when they spent £13 7/6d (about £900 in today’s money). The 2 most expensive items were a bureau for £5.00 and an antique oak chest for £4 12/6d, just over £300 in today’s money.
When Jonet and I were buying furniture in Oxford our antique oak chest only cost £5.00, about £90 at today’s prices. Our huge wardrobe was 10 shillings, roughly £ 9.00 now. My parents had a much larger budget.
The second auction was in 1942 and their budget this time was far larger and the items they bought were almost all luxuries, such as an 1832 silver tea pot, silver cutlery, a 38 piece
tea service etc.
The cost in today’s money was about £5200. We have never spent that amount on items of that sort, but it is only equivalent to a couple of years of holidays and ski trips. Priorities and spending patterns have changed dramatically over the years.
Helen and I also found a photograph of David Bown, left above, whom we all knew as “the Monk” and my father’s certificate for his service in the Home Guard turned up.
Finally we found an article from the Knighton Magazine about Auntie Effy, my great aunt Evelyn. In a previous post I wrote: I remember visiting her once when I was about 16; as I entered her living room it felt like walking back into the Edwardian era, complete with antimacassars. She sounds, and looks, as if she has come straight out of an Agatha Christie novel.
Some of the letters sent to my mother in hospital mention the war (I can’t write that phrase without thinking about Basil Fawlty), I think they felt that they wanted to keep my mother up to date with what was going on while she was in hospital.
Many mention D Day and the great excitement about it. Others cover different aspects.
One letter is from David Morris, generally known in the family as “The Monk”; he is a distant cousin who later in life became an Abbot. I met him once and he was charming. On June 17th he wrote from St Mary’s Abbey West Malling Kent:
“You will easily guess from the papers what our local excitement in Kent is at the moment. I was up all night Thursday-Friday when we were on the direct route of most of “them”, but none of them came down nearer than 3 miles away where one was shot down by a Typhoon. Mostly they were above the low cloud, but we saw the lights of several and finally saw one very clearly in the daylight of early morning. Rumour has it that one was brought down unexploded 5 miles away.”
David was of course writing about the first V1 rockets that started 4 days before he wrote the letter. We have visited the remains of the Eperlecques Blockhaus, one of the largest V1 and V2 rockets assembly and launch sites. Much of the site is in ruins but the main building, photo above, is largely intact despite having received a direct hit from a 12,000 lb “Tallboy” bomb. The explosion caused a local earthquake and the site stopped operating as a result. It was a beautiful summer’s day when we were there and there was a party of school children going round; it did not seem threatening; it felt like a harmless relic of a war many years ago between countries that are now friends and partners. It might have felt different on a dark stormy day.
A line from Eperlecques to London passes over West Malling where David lived. Have we visited the site that launched the rockets he saw? The link below is to a panel of photos of the site:
My mother’s good friend, Kath, wrote from Norwich where her husband ran a Warehouse and couldn’t get staff fit and strong enough to handle the goods. She mentioned that a girl in the office whose father was a nurseryman had got them cucumber and tomatoes – obviously a big deal at that time. She was also involved with a local army camp, writing.
“I still like going to the canteen very much and on the morning of “D Day” it was quite exciting, there was an undercurrent of excitement and the air seemed electric. They all had orders that they were to move later that day….I felt terribly sorry for a few (and there were only a few who looked horribly white and windy). Two days later they gave out that their particular battalion were in the thick of it in France.
We have had some very nice soldiers in to supper once or twice, in fact there are three coming tonight. On in particular is charming, in fact if I was not happily married……..I might fall for him in a big way.”
There are 3 family letters from Autumn 1940. One from Maud to my mother talks about a will and signature; I think she was an executor of Maud’s will, which I remember was divided into 33rds! Maud also mentions a bombardment and the fact that their roof is now intact. She then notes:
“The chimney breast is the safest place should you be dive bombed. You can tell them by a whizzing swishing sound a few seconds before the bomb falls. Here in demolished houses the chimney parts are only standing.”
There are 2 letters from Florrie (Florence Goddard, nee Flowerdew) to Maud; she describes the bombing and injuries to Joe (probably Joe Flowerdew).
“We had a very restless night here- planes & bombs from 2:30 culminating in fire, one after another very unpleasantly near. The All Clear went at 5:30 I find my nerves at these times far from calm- it brings it all back too vividly; but one must steel oneself to be calm.”
“..Joe – poor man, until yesterday he was without anything more than he had on & no money….He has had the foreign matter take out under a local anaesthetic but the Matron says he will have to remain a fortnight or so as the hole had to larger than they at first thought….
I think people around us realize the terribly narrow escape we all had- if Joe had not been holding a cushion over his head the pieces would have gone through his head; instead they cut a piece clean off the cushion and embedded feathers in a hole in the wall behind”
Let’s start with a wedding. On April 30th 1940 Pam married Donald Perry, who played for the Moseley Rugby Club 1st XV, photo above. It is a sign of the times and an indication of his standing in society and the family that my grandfather is the only person in the group photo apart from the married couple, the best man and the bridesmaids.
However my favourite image of the wedding is my grandmother, photo left; my mother and uncle John are in the background.
Back to Leicestershire. I get the impression that my mother was much less affected by the war than most people. My father was at living at home and, although rationing affected everyone, living in a village with a farm next door must have helped. However some of the letters she kept, which we will come to in the next post, talk about aspects of the war elsewhere.
I only know 2 facts about my mother’s life in Cropston from 1938 up till about the time of my birth. At some time she tragically lost a baby very late in pregnancy. From hints that she made to Jonet, it was horrendous and very traumatic. She only revealed this when our daughter, Kat, also lost a baby and my mother contacted her to sympathise and say that she knew how Kat was feeling. The other fact is that she trained as a St John’s Ambulance first aider, certificates below.
My mother never talked about her relationship with my father, their life in Cropston or anything else between 1938 and the late 1940s. And for many years I never asked. By the time I did she said that she couldn’t remember anything about that time. However she was losing her memory, although she still remembered much about her childhood, Switzerland, the early 1930s and life from the 1950s onwards. Had she just forgotten because she never had talked about it or had she blocked out what was a bad time in her life?
After three and a half years of writing this blog finally I enter the story:
I was born on June 2nd 1944 in Leicester Royal Infirmary by Caesarian section after a very long and very difficult labour that lasted days. I think that it was touch and go as to whether both mother and child would survive. Narrow hips and an 8lb 12 oz (5.5 kilos) baby are not a good combination.
My mother kept a record of my weekly record of my weight for over a year. Although she had a Baby Book, which will feature later, my weight was recorded on a scrap of paper which, of course, she kept along with every other scrap of paper!
My mother received one card, photo above, and about 35 letters many of which were 2 or 3 pages long (those were the days!). All contain words along the lines of: “Heartiest congratulations”, “sorry that you had such a terrible / torrid time”, “hope that you feeling better”. A few letters have other news and Pam’s is particularly entertaining:
“….isn’t it just lovely to think you have a little Richard, and the worst is behind you. Golly, what a time you had at the last minute, but still everything went off well in the end – what a commotion these babies do cause don’t they? Not only when they are coming, but afterwards as well, believe me !! Said with great feeling. I hear Richard is a lovely big, fat bouncing baby with lots of dark hair and very chubby cheeks.
Anne (Pam’s daughter who was born in November 1941) is very thrilled with the idea that Auntie Peg has got a “teeny weeny baby boy” and wants to know if she can play with him in the garden!!
Anne is still completely wild and uncontrollable; when she and the little boy next door get together they are a menace. Their favourite pastime being playing in the gutter throwing pebbles down the drain and watching the splash! All doors have to bolted and barred!
I have just realised that I am an official “Auntie” at last. Hooray!”
My mother was a very good friend of the Howden family who lived opposite in “The Thatch” a wonderful very old cottage where all the walls and floors were out of square, photo below. Margot wrote;
“Congratulations on the arrival of top size No 1 baby, what a whopper; we were all very excited to hear the news. (In my excitement grabbed hold of Bob & kissed him. I think it was the last straw after all he’d been through). We were so glad when we heard it was all over for you, you must have been through hell and then some, never mind, you’ve both got a lovely baby…..”
She then goes on to mention a large number of people in the village who had been asking about my mother and who were relieved that eventually all was well.
As soon as we (note the WE; I’m now in the story!) were discharged from hospital after 2 weeks Mickey arrived on the scene. She was the nurse who moved in to help after the birth of my mother’s and all Pam’s births.
Time for some photos of young child being held by a variety of people: left with Granny (Granny is always my maternal grandmother) and below wth Mickey and Granny Bown, my paternal great grandmother.