Pre school and school days.
|So, why write about my early years, my early career on the steam locomotives, and my time in the Royal Air Force? I suppose the answer is that this is for future generations of the family, and anyone else who may take an interest. It is the recording of information which may be lost with the passing of time. How I wish that my great-grandparents had written down simple basic facts about their Special Years. I know nothing of their youth or how they lived it.
I start with a bit of early family history where I know a few facts, and very few they are. My grandfather served in The 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment during WW1 and was sent to France on 23rd February 1915. According to the Essex Regiment War Diaries one of the worst months for the 2nd Battalion was May 1915 with 211(Killed) 299(Wounded) 79(Missing) and 175(Gassed). His older brother, Henry, also served in France from 19th December 1914, in the Army Service Corps. Henry was discharged in 1917 due to ill health and was awarded the King's Silver Badge. Another Great Uncle, but on my mother's side, was in Howe Battalion, Royal Naval Division and died of wounds in France in November 1916. After the war, my grandfather was a reserve in the 7th Battalion Essex Regiment. He married my grandmother in 1919 so as well as him being lucky to survive the carnage, it follows that my father and I were also lucky he survived.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. When I left the Royal Air Force I thought I would raise my family back in my hometown in East London. I called at the council offices to apply for a house and was told that there was no chance of getting social housing for many years. I told them I had just been demobbed and they asked me where my last unit was. I told them it was in Uxbridge and was told that I should apply in Hillingdon as it was their responsibility. I asked what would happen if I had been demobbed in Singapore but just got a blank look. With help from a friend, I moved into a private Victorian house in Limehouse, 28 Aston Street and lived there for twelve years before qualifying for social housing. Many years later I started to do a bit of family history. I had a birth certificate for my grandfather but it was the small version and did not have much information. I applied for the full certificate at the local registry office. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the address where my grandfather was born in 1895 and resided for a while, was 28 Aston Street, the house I had lived in for 12 years.
During WW2, my grandparents' lives were blighted by enemy action, losing their East London homes three times during air raids: Carr Street, Lambeth Street, and Exmouth Street. My father was on home leave from the army during the last incident. Because my grandmother was out he decided to call on my grandfather who was working a night shift at the London Docks so luckily there was no one at home when the house was bombed. My grandparents finally ended up in Antill Road and were only about two hundred yards from where the first V1 flying bomb was to strike London at the junction of Antill Road and Grove Road. For many years after the war, my grandmother would still hide under the living room table during thunderstorms; what terrible memories she must have had. My grandfather died of chest problems in 1961. He was 66 at the time and I often wonder if his chest problems were a result of his service in France.
On the 10th September 1940, before my father was old enough to join the army, he received a commendation from the LMS railway company. He also received a reward of one guinea, which must have been quite a sum to him in those days. The commendation was for helping to evacuate the railway company's horses from the Hayden Square stables in Limehouse, East London, which were on fire due to enemy action.
When my father was old enough, he joined the Royal Artillery. He did a lot of mountain and snow training in Scotland and it was there that he met my mother. My mother was a jute weaver in a mill in Arbroath. She tried to join the Royal Navy WRENs, but she was refused and told to get back to the important war work at the mill. My parents were married at the Hopemount Church next to the ruins of Arbroath Abbey. It was not long after when his regiment moved south to form up in Surrey to prepare for embarkation to Normandy. He was a gunner, driver, signaller and dispatch rider, serving with the 79th field regiment, Royal Artillery, which was attached to the infantry of the 52nd Lowland Division. They arrived at Arromanches, Normandy in September 1944 and travelled, with their 25-pound field guns, through France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany as far as Bremen, engaging with the enemy many times. For a while, they were in support of the US 82nd and 101st airborne divisions near Nijmegen, before joining up with the Canadian and Highland infantry regiments. Although the regiment's last action was at Bremen in May 1945, they did not return to the UK until January 1947.
Because my mother was from Arbroath in Scotland, every summer we would take two weeks holiday up there, and sometimes extra time would be spent there at Easter, at family weddings and at the New Year. The harbour at Arbroath was very busy at that time, with the boats unloading their catches at the fish market. There were lots of fishing boats working from the harbour, including my uncle’s family fishing boat, the June Rose.
My Mother’s family lived in a ground floor flat in a pre-war block in Palmer Street. When it was built it must have been quite a modern place to live. The blocks were three floors high and there was a family on the top floor, the Campbells, who were friends with me and my brothers, and we would call for them as soon as we could after we had settled in.
The journey to Arbroath from London was an adventure in itself. Because my Dad was a train driver we got free tickets from either Euston or Kings Cross, usually on the night trains. Both stations were like magical places with all the steam engines, the sounds and smells from them noticeably missing from the bland clinical stations of today. From King’s Cross, you went up the East Coast, the highlight being crossing the bridges at the Forth and the Tay. Also, it was always a thrill to us youngsters when you noticed that the station signs had turned to the light blue colour of the Scottish Region. From Euston the trains travelled up the West Coast, the highlight being that we would usually have to change at Perth in the early hours of the morning. This often gave us time to walk up to the large transport café where Dad would buy us all a cooked breakfast. Never has bacon and egg tasted so good.
On arrival at Arbroath, we would get a taxi to Palmer Street and it seemed as if my parents always knew the taxi driver. The first job for me at Palmer Street was to go to the nearby shop for a dozen rolls; those lovely soft, flour-dusted, rolls. A real treat spread with butter and accompanied by a bowl of porridge made by my Aunt Rhoda and delivered from a large pot which was on the stove awaiting our arrival.
So, back to the Campbells. There were three boys and two older girls. The boys were George, called Podge, Jimmy, called Pimmy and the youngest Danny, called Danny. The girls, Betty and Margaret were lovely girls and although years older than me, I always enjoyed their company. My brother Jimmy had taken each of the girls out a few times, but nothing seemed to come of it. I remember Margaret taking me to work with her one morning. She worked in a fishmonger's shop and I really enjoyed helping out in the shop for a couple of hours until her break when she took me back to the flat before going upstairs for her breakfast.
I had a few adventures with the Campbell boys: scrumping apples from people’s gardens and turnips from the fields. Gnawing on raw turnip was something we would never dream of doing in East London. Then there was sliding down the brae from Springfield Park to Victoria Park on pieces of cardboard. There was a sea defence wall along Victoria Park and at the bottom of the wall, there was an up stand about three feet high. Just before the wall ended the up stand dropped to just above the sand. The tide was coming in and at this low point, the waves would hit the wall before receding again. You had to time it right to get across between the waves. There was me and my brothers the Campbells and a couple of their friends. The first four got across okay, and then it was my turn. My timing was a bit late and as I ran I could hear the wave crashing behind me. I thought I could still make it, but then the wave hit the other end of the wall and both parts closed in on me sending me up off my feet before dumping me on the sand. I jumped up and ran to safety accompanied by the riotous laughter from the gang.
There is a spooky-looking, Victorian, water tower on top of a hill above the Keptie Pond. We had heard stories of ghosts in the place. One day we managed to get in through a broken door and started to make our way up the dark stairway. Suddenly there was a loud and eerie noise coming from above which stopped us in our tracks. We heard the noise a second time and hastily departed from the place, never to return. Girls were not in the Campbell gang, but we did play street games with them outside the flats and over on the Abbey Green. Helen was a pretty girl who lived in the flats further down the street. One of the games we played was kiss chase and I would often chase after Helen, but because I was a bit shy with girls at the time I made sure that I didn’t catch her. Then I unintentionally cornered her so I had to kiss her. She then kissed me back and I was smitten; from then on she was often on my mind and occasionally in my company. When I was about to return to London we promised to write to each other but never did. The next time we went to Arbroath I found that Helen and her family had moved away and I never saw her again.