Voices from the Past 1930-1960: Bexhill
Each week a different thing - something to look forward to.
Weâ€™ve all made a lot of friends
One word for the whole experience: Happy
THE BEXHILL GROUP In spite of coming from varied backgrounds and with ages spanning 61 to 85, the group bonded quickly and individual memories were vibrant and diverse. The group sessions were hosted by Bexhill Library which proved to be an evocative setting, inspiring fond recollections of childhood books. One manâ€™s story tells how the principles in The Just so Stories became a template for living his life. The theme of travel cropped up many times, with tales of trips on the axed Crowhurst Line, a posting from Burwash to the Sinai desert, train journeys in India and other exotic places. Images of a steam train crossing the Crowhurst viaduct on the marshes with its stunning views were particularly poignant and provided us with a valuable piece of Rother history. This was a rewarding and appreciative group to work with; they
participated with enthusiasm in everything we did, whether it was the Name Game, time-travelling to 1066, sharing experiences as evacuees in World War Two, recalling teachers good and bad or singing rounds. At the end of the sessions we held a performance in the library of people’s reminiscences, which included a brief history of the Bexhill railway to the present day, interspersed between stories. From the very ordinary day-to-day memories to extraordinary stories of travel and humour, each person’s story is written largely in their own words, using their voice. Although two of the stories were written primarily as performance pieces to reflect the individual’s personality, the essential content of their recollections remains unchanged. Whether people lived exciting lives or ordinary lives, every story is a unique record – as unique as the branch lines on the palm of a hand.
Jane Metcalfe Sarah Norris Shaping Voices 2007
About the group:
“When you plumped a suitcase in the middle of the floor a kangaroo could have jumped out, but all these obscure objects inside drew so much from us.” 2
Branchlines JUMBLY JOHN
CANDY FLOSS KATHLEEN
RASPBERRY RIPPLE ROS
WHIRLY SHIRLEY: A CAUTIONARY TALE
THIS IS YOUR LIFE
WHAT IS CREATIVE REMINISCENCE?
VOICES FROM THE PAST: 1930-1960: BATTLE
Creative Reminiscence sessions lead to informal performances of original stories based on the personal reminiscences of people over the age of 60. The sessions are run by facilitators with a strong background in the arts and provide an interesting, light-hearted and stimulating environment where those taking part can enjoy rediscovering and sharing their memories in a new and meaningful way.
THE PROJECT A series of five Creative Reminiscence projects for people over the age of 60 living in Rother, funded by the Heritage Lottery fund in partnership with Rother District Council (Indian Summer Project). Group sessions and performances were hosted in Battle, Peasmarsh, Bexhill, Westfield and Etchingham, with participants joining from surrounding areas.
Before the railways came in 1846 Bexhill was known as â€œthe Village on the Hill.â€?
In 1881 Bexhill was expanding and a new station opened in Devonshire Square.
By the end of the century the town had developed its tourism and private schools were springing up like mushrooms: they were clearly in need of a more direct route to London.
I was in the army two or three hours before I should have been. This letter arrived. It said you have to be at Devizes at such and such a time. I had to get a too early train so had a two hour wait at the other end. Several of us got together on the train and decided to go round the pubs in Devizes. 5
Not on your bloody Nellie – they were there waiting for us. After our basic training they asked us if we wanted to be stationed abroad or stay at home. I said abroad – I’m sure they did it to spite, if people wanted to go abroad they stayed and if they wanted to stay they were sent abroad. I didn’t know one person who said abroad who went. The army was just as tough as it’s cracked up to be. I remember polishing boots with a whole tin of polish and blocking beds – if they weren’t perfect sometimes they’d throw your bedding out of the window. And I remember my 21st birthday – but not for the right reasons. I was on guard duty. I got the cards from home but nobody at the base knew. Somebody had to do be on duty – they didn’t say, ‘it’s your 21st, have the evening off!’ I travelled by train on my own from very young – five or six. I had an aunt who didn’t ask you to go, she’d tell you: ‘John will be coming up.’ I used to go on the Crowhurst line – Bexhill to Southborough. She’d be waiting for me on the station with a handkerchief in her hand: she’d spit on the hanky and wipe my face to get the smuts off. We lived in Sidley. My mother was a hairdresser and my father was an electrician at the gas works at Glyne Gap – how daft that sounds being an electrician at the gasworks. My first job when I left school in 1955 was at Dobson’s in Sidley – potatoes, paraffin, ham – you name it we sold it. I cut butter and ham. I was an errand boy too. At night, just before we closed, every night, it seemed to me, we’d get a phone call from someone 3 miles up the road for a box of matches or a packet of cigarettes. Muggins here would go on his bike! In the late fifties the government made shopkeepers pay extra, so he couldn’t afford me any more. He went and told mother he didn’t need me – he didn’t tell me. It was a fair few months before I had to go in the army so then I 6
worked at Mepham’s Removal Firm in Town Hall Square. We had a house with two bedrooms: Mum and Dad had one and my sister had the other so I slept in the front room. I went to bed early and listened to Radio Luxembourg – it used to fade and come back, fade and come back – every now and then you had to re-tune. It was a lovely station. It had all the pop songs of the time, Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks – sponsored by ‘whoever’. One programme was sponsored by ‘Horace Batchelor of Keynsham, spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M’. Me and my sister had birthdays two days apart so we had a joint birthday party, always on her birthday. Hers 31st March and mine 2nd April – a pigeon pair they said. What is a pigeon pair? Where does the phrase come from? I’m Little John, I walk along Looking for a rabbit. If I find one in his hole I hide it in my habit. John Cox
A couple of weeks ago I had about 14 pebbles in my hands on the beach when I thought – hello, there are this many in my hands, so there must be about 10,000, no, millions on the beach; an infinity – even if two were the same size exactly then they’d still be different colours. Cut me in half through the middle and you’ll find a boy inside. He’s still there, firmly in residence, just with this outer disguise of ‘old man’ – older man, shall we say. I look back and above all I want to laugh at my boyhood self, laugh with him I mean. Thank him for giving me such a darn good time. All those things I did: like, getting lost in the smog on my bike and ending up in some-one’s garden; walking three miles to the gasworks and queuing up with a pram to fetch coal. Once some of us got hold of a bullet and put it in a hole in a tree –all running past and hitting it with a stone – can you imagine what would have happened...?; I can still remember the smell and taste of liquorice wood – you chewed it and the flavour went and it looked like straw . And hanging over it all the mystery of the fair sex – I went up to the French teacher one day and said, ‘dibble, dibble, dibble!’ She turned around and slapped my face. She was young and pretty and we started to take an interest...I felt differently after that. So I was first in line when all the talk was about saving water by just having 4” in your bath and the local store, Kennards of Croydon, were going to have a showing of a lady behind a screen, back lit, to 8
demonstrate your 4” of water. I ended up in teaching: there was a teacher at college who was a big influence – he just encouraged me. He held control of the class by making them interested. Not like our science teacher at school, scared of losing control so he frightened the life out of you. There was a boy called Paul Watson and he picked him up by his ears! He had us all in a group one day– expansion. He heated the ball up and as it cooled it fell through the ring and we all went to pick it up. ‘Leave it!’ he bellowed – it was red hot and we’d all have picked it up out of fear. But I liked science and I still remember what he taught us, ‘When we see an object the light travels to our eyes...’ In my very first lecture there were two lads at the back reading a newspaper. ‘Excuse me! What are you doing?’ I said ‘Oh, we always read a newspaper’ ‘Not in my class you don’t!’ I replied. I missed National Service because I was in hospital with TB. Chaps who’d been in the army were coming back with words like ‘great’ and it didn’t mean large. I lay on my side for six weeks. I was so bored – only allowed to get up for the toilet. There was Fred, smoking Craven A. I swung my feet out and said, ‘I can’t bear it any longer!’ and then Matron came along, ‘You’re not getting out are you?’ she said. ‘No matron, just airing my feet!’ I was very pleased with myself because I wasn’t usually quick witted. I went to a bed at the end of the ward because I was going to have an operation. All the men that end weighed less than seven stone. Fred Murphy, Spud, got out of bed and apparently collapsed. The night sister rushed back to him, ‘April Fool,’ he said. 9
It’s a shock to see yourself when you feel just like a boy, but recently I’ve been looking in the mirror at my ugly face and just being grateful I’m here. Ray Rippingale
In 1897 the Crowhurst, Sidley and Bexhill Railway Company was formed and construction began. They built 16 bridges. The most spectacular of all was the Viaduct stretching across the Crowhurst marshes. They called it “The Seventeen Arches.” It stood seventy feet tall and took two years and nine million bricks to complete!
Candy Floss Kathleen
I wanted to be a pharmacist but the college course worked with lenses and that put me off. I could never understand about light. Being the only girl in physics and chemistry in the sixth form might have had something to do with it too. In any case I only lasted a term. After that I set my heart on becoming a Librarian. When I was a child I was a great reader – my favourites were the Chalet School books written by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer: The Headgirl at the Chalet, The Rivals of the Chalet. There was always a new one to read. More fun than Great Expectations which took me a whole year to read! I left school at 17 and went to work in Enfield Library. I was determined to take my librarianship exam. I would travel to work by train and was often late. We’d have to write the reason down in a book. The number of times I wrote “Derailment”! Those steam trains were always coming off the rails. I was born and brought up in Goff’s Oak – near Waltham Cross. A small Hertfordshire village. We lived in a detached three bedroom house. The living room had a two-tier mantelpiece with a wireless on it, and on the top shelf Mum kept the chocolate which she would get down and give to us when we had to go in the Morrison shelter. Dad had a garage and hire cars – big ones, like limousines: Daimler, Lanchester, Minerva. After school I’d go into the office and help fill in petrol coupons. I remember our telephone number when I was little. It was one of the first in the village. I would answer it and say “Cuffley 2”. The Post Office was Cuffley 1! Later we became Cuffley 2002 then 872002. 11
Mum used to charge people’s accumulators in the garage at the back of the house. An accumulator was for people who didn’t have mains and needed one to plug their wireless into. It was a glass thing, as big as a 2lb jam jar but square. I remember I was coming down stairs when we heard war had been declared. The children next door were evacuees, and they told us they got raw sausages at their new place. Thank goodness I never got evacuated! I went to school as usual and life seemed quite normal, except for the presence of the Army nearby and craters where bombs had fallen. My Dad died in 1942 – of an illness – not because of the war. I met my husband when he was working on the mobile library – it was a new service. 28th September 1959. I’ll never forget that date! We saw a lot of one another, working together all the time. You were not allowed to have a relationship with a co-worker in those days. You could be split up. We tried to keep it secret but we used to like to go to the Finsbury Park Empire variety shows and somebody saw us on the way there and gave the game away. But we were allowed to stay together. We got married on the 25th March 1961. Some dates have a habit of sticking in my mind. As a librarian I’ve looked at a lot of dates in my time, but it’s only the special ones you remember. Kathleen Whybrow
Raspberry Ripple Ros
Before I married and became Mrs Rowe, my name was Miss Christmas. My Grandfather was a silversmith, and my Father, well, he knew his metals, he could feel them and name them and know their properties. He was an instrument technician; he mended broken surgical instruments, and was very skilled. The surgeons would come to him and say “Father Christmas I want you to do this.” and my Dad would say “I can’t do that in this metal, but I could do it in this.” One day he said to me, with a twinkle in his eye, that he could make a tool that could take a tooth out from an unborn mouse. All through the 1950’s I lived in Bath. Sometimes I shared a bedroom with my sister, but it was always my room! I loved standing at the window, and gazing out over the hills to Landsdowne Racecourse. There was a ruined brewery covered in ivy, where a farmer kept his pigs in the stable, and we explored; nobody told us we shouldn’t go anywhere. Years ago the lanes were clean and everything was for the picking. Children were sent to pick rose hips and haws, we all did it, it was a national thing. Rose hip jelly, Rose hip syrup. Lovely. Blackberries and elderberries in equal amounts equal blackcurrants, which are expensive. We had three bedrooms in our house, and an upstairs toilet. At least the toilet was indoors. Where we came from in Frome it was down the garden; you certainly didn’t want to spend much time in there, especially in winter! I learnt a poem by Shakespeare when I was at School, which always reminds me of going 13
down the garden to our icy outside loo: “When icicles hang by the wall and
Dick the shepherd blows his nail....” I’m sure Shakespeare knew a thing or two about going down the garden in the cold... My parents had a Baxi fire in the new house. My Father made a screen with two little hooks to make the fire draw, and when the fire caught it made a big roaring sound. I remember the coalman coming round with his horse and cart. He was so covered in coal dust, that he looked completely black. How did he ever get clean?! Whilst I was still at school I got a part time job, at Harberts, the plasticine makers. I was called Posh. Because I used proper grammar. Working there certainly took the edges off me, but I loved it, we were a team. The Harberts Factory was in an old Mill. It had a rickety lift for taking great trays of plasticine up and down. The man who did this job was a gentle giant, a man of great brawn, but no brain. They’d shout at him, and he would push the trolley into the lift. Every lunchtime we paid twopence each for Housey Housey. We had time for two or three games, and then we were given lunch. When I left school, I wanted to be an occupational therapist, but my Dad couldn’t afford the fees for my training, so he asked around the hospitals, and found that the cardiac department needed help. So I trained as a cardiac technician. Open heart surgery was very new then, and I worked in the operating theatre with the cardiac team. Right there, in at the sharp end... I was promoted to Senior Technician, and then I hardly saw the light of day, I was in theatre from 7.30am-9.30pm. At 21 I realised I wasn’t living a life, so I moved on. 14
The lady at the Employment Agency looked through her card index from A-Z to find a suitable job for me. She got all the way down to V, and I thought that that was it, there simply wouldn’t be anything, and then, at W, she picked out a card, and asked “How about becoming a Welfare Officer?” I worked with the British Red Cross, and one of the many jobs I took on was – Occupational Therapy. So I achieved my first ambition in the end, and I never had to train for it! Rosalie Rowe
Whirly Shirley: A Cautionary Tale*
Whirly Shirley, a nursery nurse, immerses herself in turning to verse a joy or a curse, adverse, or worse. So brace yourself for a tale perverse of schools subversive in Surrey. Girlie Shirley was sent 3rd class in ’39 with book and gas mask, first to Wales then south to a school ruled by a fool – a witch with tricks and never a treat, who stamped on her feet, and heated her chilblained hands on the fire. She should have been burnt on a pyre. Letters to home, unsent, went: “Dear Mummy and Daddy, HELP!” Missives unread piled up in the hall. And the hearth brush beat their bottoms raw. Evacuees in a private war.
When the council came, My dears, they were told, She’s an angel to open her house to you all, so dry your tears. Don’t call, fall. The boy who was forced to eat off the floor. More, more, against the law. She’ll never forget all that she saw. At nine to the convent Shirley transferred, Shhh! Not a word. SILENCE. Interred. The dunce of the class so the nuns concurred, as ne’ere from the window her dreamy eyes stirred; but our girlie by heart had learnt every word. She was first, not worst, as it occurred. At 12 years old, tall for her age, whirly Shirley for work was engaged; which takes us back to the nursery nurse who was not averse to turning to verse a joy or a curse, adverse, or worse.... Now swirly Shirley scribes in reverse, her hopes and joys, and rarely a curse, which brings to an end, for better or worse, the tale of an outspoken nursery nurse. And there’s still a few rhymes left in the purse: Hearse, terse, diverse. Disperse. Shirley Cowan
* This poem reflects Shirley’s love of rhyming verse. The story is entirely true 17
The new line with its four stations, Bexhill Central, Bexhill West, Sidley and Crowhurst, opened on the 1st of June 1902. It was the golden age of steam. There were even compartments for Ladies. And a leather strap to pull down the window!
My aunt Madge was really bubbly and exciting. She never married, but she was an inspiration. In the 1920’s she did an exchange year with a teacher from Sidney. That was a very daring thing to do in those days. I think it was Aunt Madge who inspired me to travel. But it didn’t seem like I was going to do much travelling in my teens when I worked as a clerk in grey offices in Woking and Weybridge. I’d travelled with my 18
family to the Sussex coast a few times, but we’d been at war for nearly five years when I saw the poster. “JOIN THE NAAFI AND YOU’LL GO ABROAD WITHIN SIX WEEKS!” And I did! Through my beaded curtain I can see the harbour. I smell beautiful scents And the tarry smell of ships. I look into my crystal And see a journey of adventure In a far-off land. Training over, and almost before I was ready, I found myself sailing down the Clyde in a thunderstorm, bound for Alexandria. The war in Europe finished just after my 20th birthday. By then I’d had four months in the Lebanon (Beirut was so beautiful) and had arrived in Tel Aviv I’d signed on for two years. It was great! We went out into town in civvies at night, and danced the night away. One weekend my sergeant allowed me to fly to Cyprus to see a boyfriend, who actually sent the plane over to collect me. Nicosia was lovely. And so was he. We were very innocent then. After those two years in the Middle East, I took six weeks home leave, and then signed on for another year. I went to Kenya. I loved it there. I didn’t actually seem to do much work – I spent so much time on the silvery beaches. I met all sorts of chaps, the nicest chaps I’ve ever met. They were so pleased to see us. They were on leave. And what wonderful dancing partners they made! I was offered promotion to the rank of corporal if I went to work in the kitchen. “No thanks!” I said. I was having much too good a time on the counter! One evening, 19
this chap came in and just stood there. “Are you standing there for the good of your health?” I asked. His only response was to raise one eyebrow. It was something that was to become very familiar to me. He swept me off my feet, and Pete and I were married soon afterwards in Tanganyika. Our marriage took place in a deluge and our first home there was a tent with a local houseboy who did all the cooking and housework. There was nothing for me to do, and no-one except Pete to meet. The marriage didn’t last too long. But I still have Kevin. He is a wonderful son. When it’s raining and grey in Bexhill my thoughts sometimes slip back in time to that great ship surging down the Clyde to Alexandria, of dreamy days in Tel Aviv, and Mombassa and of long tropical nights dancing under the stars. Joan Moor
This is your life
Host – Penny Millo, also known as Anastasia, the Secret Duchesss of Espionage, Peaches and cream, Prudent Penny – today, Penny Millo, this is your life. It’s wonderful to have you with us Penny. I think it’s true to say that you fell in love with the theatre at a very young age. As far back as you remember you enjoyed being around theatrical types. You were particularly helped by this woman.
Voice – Think like a tree darling and you will become one! Yes, it is the voice of your old drama mistress Miss Joy Sinden, your mentor from Cuckfield County Secondary and sister of the famous Donald. Miss Sinden – Hello Penelope. I remember when you used to come into school with a sheet spattered with tomato ketchup draped around your shoulders. You would drift up and down the girls changing rooms rubbing your hands together reciting Shakespeare: “Out, out damned Spot! What, will these
hands ne’re be clean?” Of course you had to be punished for scaring the 1st formers, but had one known where your dramatic inclinations would lead, one would have encouraged you rather than forcing you to stand in the chalk cupboard with your hands on your head. Host – Thank you Miss Joy Sinden. Penny, let us go back to your early days. You were born in Bucks under the sign of Pisces the year war ended. Your first move was to Hampshire where you attended a nursery in Mitchett, the first of many schools. You learnt to read at your mother’s knee with Janet and John. You would repeat in strong, clear tones “Janet likes the ball, John takes it from her.” From there you progressed to Pooh Bear and Alice in Wonderland. When you were 6 your father was posted to Egypt and the family moved to Arishea. But you returned to England during the Suez Crisis where you attended a convent school as a boarder in Shepton Mallet. You were keen on Black Beauty and especially on Heidi. But as you grew older it was the adventures of Enid Blyton – the sheer escapism of stories such as those depicted in the Famous Five that introduced you to the thrill of the dramatic narrative.
Despite attending many different schools you always excelled in elocution, reading, and drama. You once said: “Shakespeare is like The Bible, when you
break through the thees and the thous you can get to grips with it.” But there was one particular area in which you did not excel. Voice 1 – Penny enjoys singing but she still can’t sing in tune. Voice 2 – Penelope should stick to swimming and elocution. Voice 3 – If Penny spent less time with Bill Haley and the Comets and more with Mozart her ear might improve. Host – Yes, school reports from former music teachers, Miss Quaver, Mrs Stavely and Mr Baton, who declined to be with us today. But despite this setback you were determined to act. You moved with your parents to Bexhill when you were 16, and attended the Thalia School of Speech and Drama, which provided you with invaluable experience. In one interview you said: “We used to do all this wild improvisation – you should have seen
some of the things that came out of it.” Well here to demonstrate some of those “wild things” are former students of the Thalia School of Speech and Drama. Drama Teacher – We’ll do the train darlings [wild improvisation follows] Host – Former students of The Thalia School of Speech and Drama – sadly no longer with us. Like all aspiring actors you were advised to learn a skill and you went to Secretarial College in Hastings. Your first job, aged 18, was at Louis G Ford in Eastbourne. After six months, you were, in your own words: Given the big E. 22
But all was not lost. You said I was just a humble typist, not very exciting. But it was an insight. Some days Mr Louis came walking in – the big boss – Mr Louis G Ford himself. “Hello how are you?” He’d say. It was an excellent place to study character. I’d find myself copying mannerisms and trying out different voices. Sometimes I would borrow people’s hats or coats to get inside their skin. Your break came when you played the part of Sarah Goode, the pipe-smoking drunk in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the BATS – a theatrical troupe of some repute. You loved the part – and were able to put into practice Madame Thalia’s invaluable training, drawing a sharp portrait of wantonness. Your days at school as Lady Macbeth had clearly paid off. However, like all actors, it hasn’t been easy and their followed a period of “resting”, when your typing skills were put to much use. But your love for the theatre and all it stands for remains undiminished. You are as happy selling tickets or being a member of the audience, as you would be on stage. And there’s always the next audition to look forward to. Recently you said: I don’t get to act much these days, but I‘ll always love the theatre. Theatre is about life – on or offstage. And whenever I’m down I think of Anna’s song in The King
and I: Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head up high... I may not be able to sing, but I can whistle. [Everyone whistles a few bars of song] Host – Penny Millo, This is your Life. Penny Millo
Trains of all classes serviced the line. The most famous were the pair known as The Crowhurst Flyers. I wrote poetry to the rhythm of the train.
I never had what you might call a first job, a little job. When the war was on in 1940 I started my Fever training at North Western Fever Hospital, Lawn Road, NW3. It was quite traumatic as it was the first time I’d left home. It was quite severe at the hospital – I missed my family terribly. I saw my first dead person there – a young woman who died of puerperal fever. While I was there Dunkirk came up and all the young soldiers from the beaches came to us. They were stuck on the beaches for a while – lots of them had impetigo. We put them in baths of blue liquid – Gentian Violet. There was a doctor who suffered from alopecia. It’s strange the things you remember. You were an adult then. No time to be a teenager. We got our rations for the week on Saturday or Sunday – I’d always finished everything by Tuesday. 24
That’s how I came to give up sugar, I’d splash it all and it was gone. My father was a doctor and he had a big surgery at Kings Cross – Judd Street, near the hospital I was training at. I overheard a surgeon and an anaesthetist talking. They were discussing a raid near my father’s surgery. I phoned and rushed down there; there was a police cordon all round and broken bottles everywhere, but he was ok. I always wanted to travel – I remember learning Walter de la Mare at school: “Is there anybody there? said the traveller”; so when my love life went awry I used my nursing training to get around. In the early 50s I was working in Egypt in the Anglo-Swiss Hospital. The mess was a long low bungalow building, in a dusty compound with a hedge around it. We each had a room with a bathroom. I don’t remember much more about it, except for the shoe rack, because there were huge cockroaches and when I saw one I’d take a shoe from the rack and annihilate it. I could never bear to look at the mess so I would leave the shoe there, on top of it! And then travelling back from Egypt I stayed with friends in Rome – I fell in love with it and was determined to come back and stay there so I got a job looking after someone’s baby. But I’d had enough of nursing by then so I taught myself shorthand and typing for a change of life. I learnt Italian as well– I think it’s important to speak the language. I bought Lady
Chatterley’s Lover while I was there – it was banned in England. I went right through it in two days. I lent it to my sister and she put brown paper on it so she could read it on the tube. Thinking back to how we were growing up has no relation to today. Mine was a large family, seven of us children. We lived in Kings Cross near 25
Dad’s surgery but when I was seven we moved to a little village in Hertfordshire called Cuffley, to a house with a big garden. It was a lovely life, quiet with no entertainment to speak of. There was the Young Farmer’s club and the Cabin – a club in the hall behind the Post Office and General Stores. I was too young for it but my parents came back with prizes. All the men went up to the City to work. We children went to school in Ware. We were called the Cuffley Girls. There were the Hertford boys who should have travelled at the other end of the train – but didn’t. In the conker season we had a terrible fight and one of the conkers hit a lady and we all landed up in front of the Head. We were forbidden to travel together, but gradually we came together again. When war was announced we all sat round the wireless: a great big affair with bars around it. Everyone at school thought it all rather exciting: nobody knew quite what a thing the war would be! Thelma Dyer
Interesting Ivor It was in the Sinai, and I was peering through the binoculars across the sand. Nothing but sand for miles there was. I was looking for Arabs – the Arab Legion. But all there was was sand. I was with the Middle East Land Forces Ordnance. Miles from anywhere it was. After my duty, I went back to my tent and slept. There was nothing else to do. And then I got to 26
dreaming about Sussex, and my boyhood in Burwash. We were a big, happy family. I had five sisters and four brothers, and we lived in a lovely house in Perrymans Lane that had once been a pub – the Woodman’s Arms. It had a huge room downstairs, which you stepped down into, and a helluva big living room upstairs. I’ll always remember that room. It was a two mile walk to school, and when I was five, I used to push my younger sister there in a pram. We had a garden there. We were fed by that garden. I had a plot, and I got out of class as often as I could to get into the garden. At breaktime one morning – we’d have tea or milk at eleven – I threw a stone and hit some glasses and broke them. The teacher, Mrs. Hancock, gave me six of the best. On the day World War Two broke out, I was cycling on the road from Burwash to Brightling, when a friend, who was driving cattle along the road shouted
“Heh! Jonah!” – that’s what they called me – “Have you heard? We’re at war with Germany!” I cycled home as fast as I could, and I told my mum. She burst into tears. When I was twelve, I used to go poaching with my friend, Benny Gray, with a ferret apiece. We would fish in a pond, and we even set up an old broken blunderbuss belonging to Benny’s granddad to blast the roach as they swam around in the water. They weren’t too pleased and neither were the three old ladies who said they owned the land we were on. They said “If you give us a rabbit, you can stay”. They had shotguns, and they gave them to us! The man who actually owned the farm, Mr. Williams, caught us later. He didn’t look much like a farmer – he rode an Ariel 4-square motorbike. He said: “What are you doing?” “Rabbiting”. 27
“Who gave you permission?” “The Misses Cramps” “Not their land. Them guns?” “Using them.” “Like to see that. If you really like doing rabbiting, I’d like a couple of those you’ve got there and you can go on my farm. You can come and work with me – threshing and that.” And that was how I got my first job. That first year on the farm, it was a very hot harvest time. And because we worked for a farmer, we were allowed to buy 25 rounds of ammo each month from the grocers. That was Mr. Williams’s ration. Talking of rations, we didn’t have any problems with rationing during the war. Our gardens and our poaching took care of that. It was so good living in the country. Except when Dr. Nicholson’s big house got bombed. That bomb blew all our windows out upstairs. They were good days. We had to move up to the East End in 1949 because my Dad got a job up there, but I hated it. It didn’t matter if I was in London, or stuck in Egyptian sand, my mind always returned to those happy days of my boyhood, the countryside around Burwash and that lovely house I knew so well. Ivor Jones
I have done a lot of washing up in my time, washed lots of nappies, cleaned and typed. I’ve had busy hands. I joined the Land Army after the war from 1948 until I got married in1950. We girls worked on a farm in Penhurst. We did everything, haymaking, harvesting, milking – you name it we did it. It was very good preparation for being a housewife! I got formally engaged on my 21st. We had a celebration in the Village Hall at Ashburnham where my 1st husband came from. He worked on the Ashburnham Estate which was quite a going concern in those days. My future sister-in-law made a lovely cake and father announced our engagement at the party. We had records on and danced. I was born in Bexhill and moved to Sidley when I was little. Sidley is somewhere you wouldn’t want to be now. It used to be a real community – a nice little village. We’d get on the train, all the family, and go to Crowhurst for a picnic in the country. I went to All Saints Infants School for about three years then on to Senior School – St Peter’s in Bexhill – now the Chantry. I remember a lovely teacher there called Mrs Protheroe. She was fairly short, plump with dark hair – she had a Welsh accent. So nice, so kind. For years after I used to send her a card. When I read she had been killed in an accident I was very sad. I’ve always enjoyed reading – ever since I can remember. I got told off for staying in and reading instead of going out to play. The Little Women series stuck in my mind – Little Women, Good Wives, Jo’s Boys– I got them as school prizes for 29
being top of the class at the end of year. All written in: awarded to Lorna Lelliot and the date. Merit prizes they were. I can still remember the air-raid siren going off just after war was declared. I was evacuated at ten to St. Albans. The journey took all day as the train had to avoid London. You had to travel wearing a label with your name, age, and address. You didn’t know where you were going. Then after you arrived, you wrote to your Mum. I’d so looked forward to going away, but when I got on the train, I cried and cried. After we married we lived in Bexhill in a nice new house off the London Road – what was then a new housing estate– the houses are all pulled down now, and there’s a new estate there. I wonder how long these new houses will last? Our house was simple and had second-hand furniture. Not many people had money. The living room was a very plain, ordinary room with red linoleum that you had to scrub. It polished up lovely – you did it on your hands and knees with a cloth and polish and with three small children it got done quite often! We always had a Christmas tree. The children would dress up and have their photos taken when they were doing the tree. We left when the youngest was about eight. It was in a cul-de-sac, so there wasn’t a lot to see. Out of the front you just saw houses. I’ve always loved Bexhill – the sea, the town, countryside, nice little friendly shops, easy to get to Eastbourne and Hastings. Now I live in Southlands Road in a block of flats – a nice, convenient position with a sea view. And there is my son – and my two daughters – my Little Women. We all still live here. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I’ve never ventured far, but I still like to read books, to travel in my head. Lorna Hutchinson
Tendentious Tony I like to think of myself as a much-travelled Yorkshire man. I have a mixed ancestry: before I went to Durham I’d lived in two or three places in Yorkshire – none of which I remember. My surname, spelt B-I-R-K-S, is Danish for Birch tree. Once somebody crossed out my name and spelt it the Irish way, Burkes with a “u”, as if I’d made a mistake! So where do I come from? Born in the bramble no doubt. I only went to 1 school – 1927-1936. I was six when I went. I didn’t go earlier because it was too far away. My mother taught me herself. One day the Kid-catcher arrived and queried it. She produced her teaching certificate written in Latin and signed by the Prince of Wales (George Vth). “Ah yes, quite
satisfactory” he said and went away. Later we moved to the edge of West Hartlepool and I walked to school. I can remember every teacher who taught me. Mr Lewis was 6ft 4. Very strict. We began by being terrified of him. For those who would work, we liked and respected him. He taught French, Latin, and English and Rugby. The great thing was he was totally consistent and just; when he said so and so would happen it did. His boys demanded consistency. We were convinced that when he was writing on the board he would know who was chatting. He had an old Greek Lexicon. If someone was having a chat he would turn and throw it straight at you and it would bounce into your chest! I took my Matric at 14 but stayed on an extra year learning classics – ancient history and ancient Egypt. That kept you up to the mark! Final comment on my last school report: “Top of his form but not without undue effort”. 31
After school I took a couple of correspondence courses, passing exams which got me in to the Civil service as a clerical officer. I was part of the team who issued County Court Summons. When I heard that somebody hadn’t paid and they wanted an execution, I immediately thought of ropes etc. I was young and impressionable. The first thing I was told at work – they had four massive cupboards all divided into slots for filing square forms – “Anytime you’re not busy go and read some forms.” It didn’t exactly make for light reading. When I was a lad my father read the Just So Stories to me. I can still quote them today:
“I am going to the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” Then I graduated to The Jungle Book – which represents much of my ethos; like a manual for life – fact mixed with adventure:
“Ye know the Law. Look well! Look – look well, Oh Wolves!” Father worked in a bank when I was born and he worked in a bank ‘til he retired. During the war he was part-time in the ARP – Head Warden. His job was to distribute gas mask information. I trotted around after him with a wicker laundry basket full of samples – Mickey Mouse masks for children, and so forth. I was 17 when war began. We were all around the wireless listening to Chamberlain. You heard two signals – a warning and the all-clear. I was in the local Defence Volunteers. You weren’t called up then until you were 20. Later I joined the army. I spent time in London manning the Ack-Ack defences and then on to India. Moving in the army was like being a tortoise. I must have travelled 10,000 miles in India, and later in England a few thousand more, moving from this place to that with my job. A true peripatetic. I do like to know where I am with things – to work them out. I like to see what a thing is and say what it is. My work was like that. Everything filed in order. 32
Sometimes now I wish I could find a system to help me remember where I had put a thing. Tony Birks
Balmy Beryl I have done so much drawing I have a lump in my finger. As long as I remember I always wanted to be a book illustrator and do better than those grey illustrations that when I was a child never quite seemed to convey the colour of the story – particularly The Secret Garden. The first book that made an impact on me as a child was Little Black Sambo – so courageous and so funny. I admired him enormously. He went out to get some ghee and saw some tigers and they all melted so he took a pot of butter home to his mother and she made a whole pile of pancakes, all tiger coloured, yellow and black. I still have the copy, inscribed: Christmas present 1932. I spent all my pocket money on books. As a girl I wrote and illustrated a book about a white rabbit and also illustrated a children’s story my father had written. They were my first publications! I was born in India. We’d come back to England when my father was on leave and live all over the place. We were renting a flat in Bexhill when I went to my first school – a tiny school in Sea Road: Little Hythe House. When my parents returned to India I stayed on as a boarder. There were just nine of us. After a couple of years I moved to Battle Abbey. My mother had been one of the first pupils when the school opened in 1914. First it was St Ethelreda’s in Dorset 33
Road, then it moved and became Battle Abbey. After Dunkirk the school was evacuated to Exeter and I went back to India where I spent the rest of the war. Father was posted all over. I’d always loved being in India. It was a quite magical place, but during the war you were constantly aware of the fighting. You were affected by it, of course you were, but you lived in it and with it. It was a huge time. Train journeys in India were quite something! As a little girl I loved them. Sometimes they took three days and three nights. We took our own bed linen. It was very hot – no air-conditioning. We would hire a tin tub from the station with a huge lump of ice in it, and my sister and I would play in it. Once we were given sweets but they fell into the tub, and because of the danger of infected water, we couldn’t eat them. We stopped at train stations to eat. There were metal vases with sweet peas in – rather Victorian looking and there were always people selling wooden painted animals. We ate English food – dull leathery omelettes and blancmange, but lots of nice local seasonal fruit. I remember the mango fool. Such a lovely, tangy, fresh taste. We came home in 1946 and lived in various places, settling for a while in Cooden. I went by train to art school in Brighton. They were closed compartments in those days. I was going on a skiing holiday – paid for by the books I’d had published. I hung on to the leather strap and did my ski exercises in private. I would write rhythmic poetry to the rhythm of the train. I have a vivid memory of a stay in Kurdistan with three very hospitable and kind Kurdish girls – near the Iranian border. I woke up in the morning slightly disoriented and thought “where am I?” It reminded me of boarding school in Sussex, because of the white painted iron bedstead and pink quilt. The main room had rafters and poles holding up the roof. No windows. It had a dusty 34
courtyard with mud-brick walls round it, with kitchens in the corner. There were the most horrendous, so-called lavatories running alongside one wall. I was constipated for three days. It was quite high up, fresh, peaceful. It didn’t have cupboards, but there were highly painted tin trunks piled up. The locals still wore traditional costumes – turbans and tops with tasselled medieval sleeves which were knotted to keep them out of the way. Men wore brown or grey baggy trousers and big turbans. In the 50’s when I was living in London in one of my numerous bed sits, I’d come home at weekends on the Crowhurst Line and my parents would pick me up at Sidley. There was a lovely house I used to visit on a hill in Crowhurst – Hye House. You’d look out over the valley and see the viaduct curving across the marshes. It was so beautiful. I was furious when Beeching closed the line. There was no sight quite like a steam train going over a high viaduct with the plume flying behind like a living creature. You know, I’ve still got a bit of Poonah soil embedded in my hand from falling off my bike. Beryl Sanders
There was always hope that the line might reopen But in 1969 when the viaduct was demolished all hopes were dashed. Nowadays, if you like, you can take a gentle walk across the marshes to Crowhurst along the track where the line used to be – and dream. 35
The Battle Group Penny Millo
Thelma Dyer Kathleen Whybrow
Tony Birks Thanks to: Bexhill Library
Shaping Voices in partnership with
Shaping Voices Shaping Voices is an East Sussex-based not-for-profit Arts Company whose aim is to bring the arts to groups of people in East Sussex who would not normally have the opportunity to explore this area of activity.
Design: www.designraphael.co.uk Print: www.elephantgraphics.co.uk
What is Creative Reminiscence? â€“ a series of creative group sessions which lead to informal performances of original stories and monologues based on the personal reminiscences of people over the age of 60. Contact Shaping Voices 01424 718 048 firstname.lastname@example.org www.shapingvoices.co.uk
This creative reminiscence project and book were funded by The Hertiage Lottery Fund and Rother District Council
ÂŠ Shaping Voices April 2007