Wednesday, 30 May 2007

St Christopher School 2

Lyn and Eleanor Harris, Headteachers
[Photograph from Reginald Snell's book *]

Another ‘progressive’ aspect of St Christopher was a much more free and easy atmosphere than I imagine was the norm in private boarding schools at the time. Staff were called by their first names or nicknames, and I would say that there was a sense of partnership between staff and pupils, rather than a strictly authoritarian relationship. School uniform was abandoned for ever during the war, except for the wearing by games teams of the school colours (dark green and gold) for the playing of matches against other schools.

We were encouraged to develop a strong sense of personal responsibility, and there was much more self-determination than at standard schools. In the senior school, instead of daily homework we were given assignments of work, which we were expected to complete within a fortnight. This gave us more flexibility in planning the use of our time. It led however to the reading out at the morning assembly of the dreaded ‘blacklist’, the names of all those who were behind in their assignments. There was also a senior school council, made up of children of the full age range (11-17) and staff, and this was empowered to make disciplinary decisions, among others. The Head used to say the only two things over which he retained the absolute right of veto, were the curriculum, and the vegetarian diet.

The headteachers, Lyn and Eleanor Harris, were Quakers, though it was not officially a 'Quaker school'. There was however an optional Sunday chapel service which was based on Quaker meetings. Also the school gave sanctuary to conscientious objectors who were 'persona non grata' in other places, but were able to get teaching posts at our school. Young male school-leavers who were conscientious objectors were prepared there for their tribunals, which they had to go through if they were not to be obliged to join the armed forces. There were a number of German refugee children in the school too, some of whom were advised to anglicise their surnames before going off to fight in the British Army.

I think I was happy there because my life was full and well-rounded: I was stretched academically and allowed to develop socially and emotionally. I liked, admired and respected the headteachers and the large majority of the school staff, and I have always considered myself lucky to have been there. My family was still not well off at the time, and it was our good fortune that the head teachers believed so strongly in what they were doing, that when they realised how much our parents wanted us to attend the school, they did a special deal, as it were, by taking both my brother and myself at a discount price – “buy one, get one half price” as it were.

The school floodlit on VE night in May 1945

ENDPIECE: Soon after we were married my husband and I were invited to lunch in the home of one of his senior colleagues. Two young men joined the party, the son of the house and a mate who had just come back from a skiing holiday. They were so obviously products of a public school that it was perhaps unwise of me to start talking about the ‘crank’ school that I had attended. I'm sure I actually saw the noses on the faces of these young men go up in the air and wrinkle with disdain. It was a moment that I have always cherished!


* "St Christopher School 1915-1975" by Reginald Snell

Sunday, 27 May 2007

St Christopher School 1

Arundale House, St Christopher School

My brother and I did not have very long to explore and enjoy our new territory. Before the end of September, we had to make the journey to our new boarding school, where my brother had already spent two terms. St Christopher School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, is the school which I really can remember vividly, and which I often revisit in my dreams. It was where I was extraordinarily happy, and where I remained until I left school for good at the end of the war.

Our parents must have chosen this school very carefully. This was before the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary education free for all pupils in the UK, thereby opening up secondary schooling to girls as well as boys. The educational possibilities available to families living in the depths of the country must then have been very limited, and I think my parents must have cared deeply about finding the right school for both of us, to send us each term from Worcestershire to Hertfordshire to attend this particular establishment.

St Christopher described itself, in its advertisement in the New Statesman, as “a community of some 350 children and adults”, and in those days it was recognised as a ‘progressive’ school, or somewhat less flatteringly by some as a 'crank' school. My cousin Mirabel, who went to a similar school called Bedales, used to refer to them affectionately as 'lettuce and brown sugar schools'.

So what made ‘Chris’ progressive in its time? In the first place it was coeducational, which was relatively unusual then in private schools, and so was a more natural community than single sex schools, thus enabling us to develop intellectually, socially and emotionally in a more rounded way. Indeed, in some respects it was a better place for growth and development for my brother and myself than our home in the country, where we were isolated, both by distance and by the war, from intellectual, social and cultural stimulus, other than what our parents and a very limited social circle could provide.

Secondly, it was vegetarian, though on health grounds rather than on ethical principle. In addition to extra cheese and nuts, thanks to our special ration books, our diet included masses of vegetables and salads; wholemeal bread, and wholemeal rice, pasta and flour for cooking, and strictly no strong seasonings such as pepper and vinegar. I seemed to thrive on this diet, and was convinced I would remain vegetarian when I left school – but in fact I didn’t.

At the beginning of the war the school offered meat dinners twice a week for those children whose parents wished it. This had to be discontinued however, as the catering became too complicated with rationbooks which had to be either one or the other. My mother had the same problem during the school holidays, when she and my father would share their tiny meat ration with mybrother and myself, eking out with the extra cheese ration to which we were entitled with our vegetarian ration books.

Here I am with my younger brother,
clipped from the annual whole-school photograph in the summer of 1940.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The move to Alfrick 2


The house my parents found in the tiny Worcestershire village of Alfrick (population 250), was the property of a local farmer, from whom we were able to obtain a 21-year lease. Emsmore was not a particularly attractive house externally, with its stuccoed finish and leaded panes which were quite inappopriate to it’s architecture. It stood at the top of a hill on the road between Alfrick and the neighbouring village of Suckley. A narrow lane wound away from the front of the house and down into the village, and up one side of the house ran an unmade up drive to a neighbouring farm. So it was effectively on a corner.

There were lawns and flowerbeds at the side and back of the house, and a large kitchen garden further back still. Across the road on the opposite corner was a small paddock containing a large barn, and an old stable in which my mother kept chickens during the war. Next to the paddock was the fruit orchard containing plums and apples, and beyond that were two fields which we rented out. All of this represented such a change from the flat in London, and before that the restricted atmosphere of my grandfather’s house.

Inside, the house was pretty plain too, but all and more than we needed. There was a large entrance hall from which you could turn right into the sitting room, left for the stairs and the diningroom, or walk to the back and through a third door to the kitchen, the doors to the garden, and a huge room at the back. There was also a loo off the hall. Upstairs you turned left for my brother’s room and the bathroom, right for my room and my parents’ room, and straight along the landing to a small spareroom, and a huge one over the big downstairs room.

There were various outbuildings up the garden, and also on the same plot was a pretty little two up two down cottage of considerable age and charm, which we eventually rented to my mother’s sister, as a bolt hole for her from Birmingham and the bombing raids. Next to the cottage stood a wooden garage where we kept our car, and which was also my father’s workshop.

Our new house had no electricity. In 1939 power was expected to come to the village at any time, but of course the whole thing was put on hold with the outbreak of war. This meant that my mother cooked on a paraffin stove, and we used paraffin lamps and candles to light the house. We had no mains sewage or water either, and our cesspit in the paddock had to be emptied every so often by a visiting collector. It was my father’s daily chore to pump up water by hand from our well into our water tanks. My parents were always so scared that our well would run dry (which it never did) that we had to get used to using the loos without flushing every time.

Despite these shortcomings in today’s terms, we became very comfortable in this property where we had so much room, and where we learned to live the country life, although I don’t think we ever became real country folk. I remember, for instance, that as a family we had already established a habit of lying in on Sunday mornings and having a brunch when we got up. But my mother was embarrassed to realise that farming people have to get up early every day, and that our closed curtains in the downstairs rooms were conspicuous and telltale by noon on a Sunday. So she used to open them before going to bed on Saturday night. Over the 21 years of our lease I think we became pretty much accepted by the local community, and our parents certainly made every effort to fit in and contribute to the life of the village.

Yew Tree Cottage

The move to Alfrick 1

Our arrival in Worcestershire, in July 1939, was a new beginning for my mother and father. In 1938 my Great Aunt Maimie had died, and being a childless widow, as I have mentioned before, her estate passed to her three sisters. My grandmother having pre-deceased her, her portion passed directly to my mother and my Aunt Fay. This must have provided my parents with sufficient financial security to leave my grandfather’s house and set up on their own again.

I presume they made a deliberate decision to move to a property with a smallholding, which my father could work himself, which he would enjoy doing, rather than being miserable trying to sell cars. Why they decided to move first to a flat in London, while they did their house-hunting, I do not know. Perhaps by then they simply could not wait to make a change. It must nevertheless have been a difficult decision for them, as they not only made a school boarder of me for two terms, (which they could probably bear!), but they also sent my younger brother, at the age of only 7, to the new boarding school they had chosen for us, and which I too would be attending from September. This was extremely hard on him and he was very homesick.

It was a new beginning for me too, or rather, it was more as though it was the first beginning for me. I seem to feel a direct emotional connection with the girl who started life in a new home and a new school At that time. The period before that is more like the life of a child observed or read about, but not actually lived by me. But from that point on my life seems to have flowed seamlessly, and I remember it in much more detail. This may have been partly due to the outbreak of a major world war, which is a marker or fixing point in anyone’s life, which will afterwards be seen as having been lived either ‘before’ or ‘after’ that point in time.

But I think that the more likely cause of my sense of continuity since then, is that I was now happily settled in a boarding school where I remained for the rest of my school years, where I felt I truly belonged, and where I was guided, stretched, supported, and nourished on all levels. Meanwhile, my parents became happier, despite the austerities of wartime, and created a loving home for my brother and myself, which was there for us to return to again and again, until the lease expired in 1960. By that time both of us were married.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

My relatives 3 :: My father's family

Jack and Edith, with companion 'Doddy' (left)

My father's parents had left Birmingham some time before we arrived there, and gone to live in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, not far from our previous home in Henley-in-Arden. Sadly, Gampy Jack had died in 1922 when I was only two, and it surprises me to realise that I have a dim memory of him lying on the sofa in our sittingroom, feeling rather poorly. But I have no significant memory of him at all. At the time of his death, my grandmother's companion - Dora Dodd, whom we all loved and called 'Doddy' - was already installed in the household, and the two women lived on together for many more years, with Doddy acting as my grandmother's chauffeur as well.

My grandmother, whom I called 'Gandee', survived until 1943, and I clearly remember visits to her home, and also her visiting us during the war. At that time, much to my surprise, I discovered that she wore a wig, for her hair was rather thin. I fear me that I may have to follow her example before long. She also told me that she liked to see me with my hair parted in the middle, and that I should never change it. Not surprisingly I settled for a side parting eventually, but I hated to go against her.
My father's older sister Phyllis had married and had two daughters, Cordelia (Cordy) and Mirabel (Mira), and I used to meet these cousins when we all stayed at Longfield, Gandee's country home. Mirabel became my particular friend over the years, and rates second to my Aunt Fay in importance during my early life.

Mira was a year or two older than me, imaginative and daring (or should I say mischievous?), and would lead me in fine romps and fantasies which I enjoyed hugely. In our younger years we dressed up endlessly in the leftovers of our grandmothers' Edwardian underwear, and my mother's fancy frocks from her courting and dancing days in the 1920s. [Many of these would have been welcomed by costume museums, and I now rather regret the way we trailed them round the garden, treading on the hems, muddying and tearing them.]

As we grew up and entered upon adult life, Mira and I continued to spend time together from time to time, sometimes staying at each other's homes, sometimes going on a trip together, sometimes just meeting briefly for a catch-up on gossip. My Coz was my buddy, the one I could discuss pretty well anything with; the one with whom I could engage in lighthearted silliness, extravagant flights of fancy, and endless giggling.

She was also inclined to instigate extravagant pranks, such as the time in a Paris Hotel when she suggested capturing one of the young waiters by throwing a sheet over his head and bundling him into the lift. The embarrassing result of this undertaking was that the young man suddenly appeared in my hotel room at some late hour that night, and had to be firmly talked into leaving again.

As so often happens, marriage and families moved us apart, and our shared giggles became a thing of the past. But they continue to be glowing points of light in the landscape of my past.

Mirabel (left) and Judith at Longfield

Saturday, 12 May 2007

My relatives 2 :: Two cousins

Auntie Dith had a granddaughter Gillian, my second cousin, who was about my age, and a welcome companion when we could get together. I would sometimes stay with her in their country home, and I remember long spring and summer days just pottering about the local lanes, all of which, in my memory, seem to have been overhung with lilac trees, whose scent I have loved for the rest of my life.
One disgraceful memory I still enjoy wras a visit we made together one hot summer's day to the Cotswold village of Bourton-on-the-Water, down the centre of whose high street runs a broad and very shallow stream. We were on our own, presumably while my aunt Beatrice was shopping, and were suddenly overtaken, as children are, by an urgent need to pee. Either we did not know where to find a public loo, or we simply couldn't be bothered: whichever it was, we stepped into the stream, ostensibly to paddle, then quietly sat down in the water to do what we needed to. No-one appeared to notice, and we got away with it, though how we accounted to my aunt for our wet bottoms and garments I do not know.

A less amusing episode occurred when she was with me in Birmingham. We had gone up the road to spend some time in the Victoria Park (now called Handsworth Park). Suddenly a man popped out from behind a bush and showed us something we neither understood nor appreciated at the tender age of 9 or 10. (Remember this was around 70 years ago!) We were puzzled but not particularly upset, as we had not the faintest idea what he was on about, but we did find the event sufficiently strange to tell my mother about it. No doubt some useful educational explanation followed. I'm glad I wasn't alone when it happened, even so.
Another important cousin for me was my mother's first cousin Constance Josephine, known as ‘Jo’, daughter of my grandmother’s younger brother. She and my mother Barbara, and my mother’s sister Fay, saw a great deal of each other as children, I believe, and Jo remained a particularly close friend of Fay’s throughout their lives. When I first got to know her I thought she was wonderful: tall and willowy and handsome, though not escaping the powerful nose which has come to me from all quarters of the family. I had a childish ‘crush’ on her, and was thrilled to be attending her wedding in 1936.
Although considerably taller than her husband, she managed to look elegant but not overpowering beside him, in a long slender dress with a huge dinner-plate-y sort of hat. My adoration for her increased, and during the reception I was able to collect a small hoard of ‘treasures’ from the wedding cake: silver bells, a spray of artificial white flowers, a white cupid, and a white satin ribbon. They are still with me, in their box marked ‘Wedding Treasure’, in a suitcase in my spare room.
The reception was held at my great aunt Maimie’s house Elmwood, about the grandeur of which I have already written. From the picture below you will be able to judge something of the size of the gardens; also of my mother’s elegance (being tall like her cousin, and also well able to carry a large hat). The young girl disappearing off the bottom of the picture is my cousin Gillian.

Cousin Jo's wedding day in 1936


Cousin Jo was widowed during the war, and came sometimes with her two small sons to stay in the cottage next to our house, on our smallholding in Worcestershire. The elder boy was a beautiful child, and I transferred my adoration to him for a while, although I continued to think highly of his mother until the end of her life . Before he died in Burma, her husband Robert sometimes wrote me letters, which has always seemed to me a most generous act to a child he barely knew; I kept his letters for many decades, because I was flattered that he wrote as between adults, until eventually I returned them to my cousin many years later.

Friday, 11 May 2007

My relatives 1 :: Mum's mum and her sisters

Sisters : Mamie, Nell (Grandma), Janey, Edith
When we moved to Birmingham I began to know some of my relatives a whole lot better, as many of them still lived in that city, in which both sides of my family was rooted. In addition to my grandfather there was an aunt, (my mother's sister); three great aunts, (my maternal grandmother's sisters); and a first cousin of my mother's. There were occasional visits too from a second cousin of mine. My father's mother lived not far away at Tanworth-in-Arden, and there I would sometimes meet with my father's sister and her two tdaughters. But apart from my immediate family, the most important of all these people throughout my life has been my mother's younger sister Fay, but I am going to write about her later, and give her a post to herself.
I shall begin with my my mother's mother and the three great aunts, whose picture is at the head of this blog, and again, many years older, at the foot. The eldest was Mary Maude, known as Mamie. She married a well-to-do manufacturer of rules, spirit levels etc, and lived in considerable comfort in a large house with extensive gardens called Elmwood. I remember a lady's maid or companion and a chauffeur. There must have been house and kitchen staff as well, and gardeners. She was already a widow when I knew her, and had also lost her only son during the First World War. She was a rather stern faced and daunting person, understandably perhaps, though in fact she had the kindest of hearts. I know now that in her youth my Aunt Fay looked to her for the love and comfort which she did not apparently receive from her own parents, who by her account were very difficult to live with.
I have never forgotten the occasion when Auntie Mamie received a telephone call while I was visiting her. She asked me to write down a telephone number she was given on the self-erasing pad with which I was playing. Do you remember these things? I still have one in my desk. You 'wrote' on a clear plastic top layer with a pointed 'pencil' without a lead. The pressure of this caused a second light-coloured layer to record the information on a carbon layer beneath. The pad could be cleared by pulling it part way out of its frame, causing something to separate the two under sheets. Well of course, that is exactly what I did, out of curiosity rather than mischief, I am sure, and the information was lost while my aunt was still talking. Her stern face became positively formidable, and I was left in no doubt as to how much inconvenience I had caused!
My grandmother Ellen Dora, known as Nell, was the second oldest of the four. She is only just a remembered presence in my life, as I was only six when she died at the age of 66. She became known to us as Cuckoo, because of her habit of peeping round doors and calling out 'Cuckoo' to her granddaughter. But I remember her in the beautiful pieces of jewellery my grandfather made for her, which have come down to me through my mother and my aunt. Not so happily I believe I have inherited certain neurotic tendencies which I have observed in both my mother and her sister, and which my aunt describes in her journal. Fortunately there are better resources for coping with such things these days.
The third sister, Janey, remained unmarried and became a school teacher. She was an intelligent woman and became a Senior Mistress if not a Headmistress. I rarely saw her, presumably because the was a working woman, unlike the other great aunts.
The fourth sister, Edith, eventually became known as Aunty Dith. I have two clear recollections of her: the first, when I was staying with her and she was teaching me how to knit. We were sitting knitting together in the evening, when she said to me that I should be going to bed. I immediately bundled up my knitting and got to my feet. My aunt tutted, and told me to sit down again and finish my row, and never to leave a piece of work in the middle - a lesson I have felt it was worth having learned.
On the second occasion, she was visiting us in our flat in London just before the war when I was 11. I stood beside her at the table to show her something, and she put her arm around my knees in a cuddly way. Suddenly, to my intense surprise, her hand crept under my skirt and up my thigh. I was wearing knickers with the elasticated legs pushed up as high as they would go - I hated any form of physical constraint - and my aunt was firmly pulling down the leg again to just above the knee. I was outraged, and made good my escape as soon as I could! How dare she?!

The four sisters

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Birmingham 3 :: Schools, friends & pets

Me (between arrows) at the Edgbaston High School for Girls 1939

Of course, I had to go to a new school in Birmingham, and a place was found for me at a small school of about 60 boys and girls called The Laurels. It was run run by an elderly cousin of my mother's. Once again the process of learning which I went through proved not to be memorable, with one important exception: my little book of 'times tables'. This played a daily part in my life, and I believe I owe my lasting ability for basic mental arithmetic to the emphasis that was put upon it. It was about 3 inches square, in a shiny red cover, and I seem to remember that the tables were beautifully written out by my teacher. No doubt I had to copy and learn, copy and learn, to the point of absolute saturation. I certainly remember sitting at the little desk in my bedroom and poring endlessly over my little red book.

The second school I went to in Brum was a posh one - the Edgbaston High School for Girls. Here for the first time I had to wear a uniform, a gym slip and tie. I wonder how many of you remember the gym slip. And the navy blue serge knickers with elastic round the leg, and sometimes a hanky pocket too, though this was more usually tucked in under the leg elastic. And a liberty bodice in winter - a sort of long cotton vest with rubber buttons on, to which you could attach suspenders to hold up your beige lysle stockings. Oh joy! Oh glamour! I don't think! Discipline was far stricter here than I was used to - no running in the corridors of course. I don't believe that I ever felt really at ease in the school, and when I left it I took with me a particular memory of misery.
In the spring and summer of 1939 I spent my last two terms there in the boarding house, instead of making a daily bus journey, because my parents had left my grandfather's house and were in the process of house hunting from London. During one half term I caught mumps and could not go home to the London flat for the break. I was so unhappy that I poured out all my misery in a letter to my parents. Letters home were, of course, monitored by the Matron - (would this be allowed today, I wonder?) - and I subsequently found myself in the awful presence of both the Matron and the Head Mistress, who harangued me together about being selfish, and upsetting my parents, and they couldn't let me send such a letter could they? Whether I wrote another one or just gave up I don't recall, but I have never forgiven that betrayal.

In my Birmingham schools I began to make personal friends. At the Laurels I met Sybil, who lived quite close to us in Handsworth, and so we were able to visit each other's houses. We both moved on to the EHS together which was an advantage for the relatively short time I was there. I also remember a friend with an unusual name: Catharnie. Allegedly her father had made a mistake and spelled the name Catharine wrongly at the Register Office, and the family had decided to go along with it.
I also began to have pets at this stage of my life. We acquired a tabby cat called Timothy, who surprised us all the day of the Munich crisis in 1938, by producing three small and unexpected kittens – well, I suppose the cat was expecting them, but we weren’t! She chose the pile of sheets in the airing cupboard to deliver them, which must have taken my mother's mind off the diplomatic crisis for a few moments at least. The cat continued to be called Timmy, and one of the kittens was kept for my brother who christened it Roughy Toughy, or ‘Ruffy’ for short. I developed a lifelong affinity for cats, and many was the time that my mother had to remonstrate with me for allowing Timmy to creep into my bed and curl up between the sheets.

Later I began to keep pet mice, in a cage in greenhouse attached to the side of the house. These were the occasion of my learning some hard lessons, probably the first lesson of responsibility for those in our care. I was far from regular with my feeding and cleaning of these poor creatures. My parents, while secretly providing them with what they needed, would let me think, for days at a time, that I was neglecting them, until eventually I would remember them, and be overcome by remorse.
There was a heavy growth of ivy up the wall of the house, beside the greenhouse, and here could be found large quantities of stick insects. I would collect these curious creatures and keep them in a jar, though I doubt they fared much better than the mice in terms of care, and probably did not survive long. Perhaps I was hoping to emulate my grandfather in his interest in entomology

Birmingham 2 :: Our new life

The tomboy emerges on holiday

I remember our three years in Birmingham as a time of great financial stringency, with my parents keeping a cash box with different slots for the different types of necessary expenditure, so that the money saved was there when needed. I suppose we must have been heavily subsidised by my grandfather for a time - indeed, I imagine my grandparents must have helped my parents to buy the garage business too, 11 years previously, though I don’t remember such matters ever being discussed. But the cash box was a visible reality, and at 9 I was also becoming more aware of the world at large, and of my parents’ lives as distinct from mine, and I could tell that all was not as well with us as it had been previously. I do wonder if my grandfather indulged in some I told you so’s at that time, to avenge himself for my parents’ elopement!

My father returned to selling cars, but obviously did not enjoy it. I recall times when, at the end of the day, he would come into the bathroom to wash while I was sitting in the bath. How drained and dispirited he would look, for he was a retiring man, without the assertiveness needed to be a salesman. He also found it difficult to tolerate the heavy beer-drinking sessions which seemed to go with the job.

My mother must have been kept busy with running the household and looking after her family which now included her father as well. It must have been very difficult for her too, adjusting to the change in our circumstances, both physically and financially. Knowing her as I do, I would be surprised if she was not by now taking the major responsibility for the management of our finances, as well as of our comfort and wellbeing at home.

My memories suggest that I was largely unaware of my younger brother’s doings at this stage of our lives. However it seems I did notice him enough to take pictures of him from time to time, once I had been given my first camera: a Kodak Baby Brownie. Unless there is real conflict between them, I suppose at that age siblings are pretty much part of the scenery, as it were. I don't recall any feelings of jealousy, but my brother maintains that I bullied him. I prefer to call it 'bossing him around', which I will admit to!

I particularly remember that washdays were a nightmare, not for me, but for my mother and Mrs Whitfield, the lady who had been housekeeping for my grandfather before we came to live with him. The worst I suffered was probably having to have cold meat for lunch instead of something hot. I recollect a sort of production line running across the kitchen, through into the scullery, and probably out of the door to a drain at the back. I suppose that at that time washing was still done in a washtub which would have to be filled with hot water heated on the stove. After vigorous rubbing, scrubbing, and agitation with a dolly or a posser, the clothes would be put through a wringer which had to be turned by hand, then rinsed and wrung again, and again, before being hung out in the garden. And of course, once the tub was filled, the water would be used over and over, lightly soiled garments first, working through to the really dirty stuff. It took all day, and was undertaken only once a week as a result!


Birmingham 1 :: Our new home

No 172 Hamstead Road, Birmingham

The year of 1936 was a dramatic one. The old King George V died in the January, and his eldest son Edward VIII succeeded him. Then came the drama of Edward's relationship with Mrs Simpson, his refusal to reign without her beside him as his wife, and his eventual abdication, leading to his younger brother's reluctant accession to the throne. I remember reading that the new Queen Elizabeth said something to the effect that this was a heavy honour to bear.

The year was dramatic for my family as well. When it was discovered that my father's accountant had made off with all the business funds, it became necessary to sell the garage and repair shop, which included our home, and we moved to Birmingham to live with my maternal grandfather. Following the death of my grandmother three years earlier, my grandfather was living alone in his large, solid Victorian house in Handsworth. I have been surprised to find I have a very old photograph of it taken presumably in the late 1930s. It appears to be a semi-detached house, which I did not remember; it is curious that the two halves look so different.

Downstairs there was a porch and a large entrance hall, with a dining room on the left and a sitting room on the right. Behind the sitting room was another living room, probably what was called a ‘morning room’, though I don’t remember if it caught the early morning sun. Behind the dining room was a huge roomy kitchen, just the sort to accommodate a cook and several kitchen maids – though if it ever did I was not aware of it. Behind that again was a scullery, and there were certainly some outbuildings about which I am now rather vague.

Up a broad staircase, with a window half way up, were the first floor rooms, comprising my brother’s nursery, my grandfather’s bedroom, my parents’ room, the lavatory, the bathroom, and my bedroom. The bath had a broad mahogany surround, on which there was room for an enormous shell which held the soap. The lavatory had a solid seat in matching mahogany. Up another flight were more rooms, though I only remember my grandfather’s study, a place I might not enter without his permission, as it was where he kept his collections. He was a well-known entomologist, and spent most of his spare time either out in the country, collecting insects with his big net, or in his study mounting his captures in trays, and presumably studying, cataloguing and writing about them, for he would be shut away for hours up there at the top of the house. After he died my mother presented his collections to the Natural History Museum.

My grandfather, (whose name was Colbran or 'Col'), could at times seem rather stern and daunting, but he had very twinkly eyes, and as long as we did not disturb him when he was busy, he was really quite benign, if rather remote. I did not like kissing him though: he had a bristly moustache, and used to kiss my on the lips, which I found distasteful. [It is something I never attempt to do with children, as for me that has an intimacy quite inappropriate for a child.]

Very soon after we had come to live with my grandfather the new King George VI and his family paid a visit to Birmingham. I remember that we managed to find a place along the route of their drive, and to catch a very fleeting glimpse of the two young princesses who, I saw, were of a similar age to myself. I believe that the next time I saw them was heavily veiled behind the darkened windows of a car in their father’s funeral cortege in 1952. And I have seen the queen once in St Albans, at a time when she and I were already ’getting along a bit’!

My grandparents just after their honeymoon

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Starting school

Age five

I began by going to a small nursery group just across the road, but I remember no moreof it than walking through the door. My first proper school was in Solihull, within driving distance of Henley-in-Arden where we lived at the time. I have no recollection of the lessons learned there, except the hard lessons of life.

There was a disagreeable discipline to mealtimes: no drinks of any sort were given, but we were expected to clean up our plates regardless of likes and dislikes, and of the quality of the food. In my early days there I disliked vegetables, and had a particularly sensitive gorge to fat and gristle – who doesn’t, indeed? With nothing to wash down an offensive mouthful, I had on more than one occasion to get down from my chair and make a dash for the kitchen, hoping to keep my lips closed until a kindly cook gave me a drink to help it on its way.

I was also bullied, and have a lasting memory of being pushed into a clump of stinging nettles – why was there such a thing in the school playground? I was outraged to see members of staff observing the scene through the french windows of the classroom, without apparently seeing any need to intervene.

As it happens, I was nettled again before long. In 1935, on the night of the Silver Jubilee of King George V, there was a bonfire on the hill behind the village, and running down the hill on the way home I managed to trip and fall into a seriously big bed of nettles. I remember a much longer-lasting agony this time, and my father attempting to sooth it with dock leaves gathered for the purpose nearby.

My only other clear memory of that school is of my parents turning up in the middle of a class to take me home, because the King had died, in January 1936. Why it was thought necessary for me to be at home I don’t know, since the whole school was not closing - but of course I was delighted!

Early learning

My earliest memory of formal learning is sitting at a small table in my nursery with my mother, with the coloured wooden letters and numbers which my father had made for me (and which I still have with me now). About the actual lesson I remember little, but I have still on my taste buds the memory of the bread and dripping with which we used to refresh ourselves during the morning, brought upstairs by one of our two maids. Was this the beginning of the primrose path which led to heart surgery and medication with statins for the rest of my life?

I still have a real old school slate, with the scratchy 'pencil' used to write on it. I don't believe that I actually used it in school, but I may have used it at home, and I certainly remember my mother writing our milk order on it, and leaving it on the doorstep. When we moved to the country in 1939 and found ourselves living next to a farm, our milk used to arrive still warm from the cow - also with black floaters of who knows what origin - urrgh! (No pasteurisation in those days.) We left a jug outside with the slate, and the milk was dipped out of a churn and tipped into our jug. But that was some years later on.

A valued companion of my early learning experiences was Mickey Mouse! Mickey was 'born' the year after me, in 1928, (created as we all know by Walt Disney), and so we grew up together. The Mickey Mouse comic was, so my researches tell me, the first comic to be printed in full colour photogravure. It cost 2d or 2 pence which is .80p, ie less than 1p today.My mother began buying the comic for me from the very first issue, and I can remember how, on returning from the shops, she would throw it through the open window to me, so that I wouldn't have to wait those extra few moments while she walked round the corner of the house to the door!

One of my most treasured books, still on my shelf, was called “Talk of Many Things” , named from Lewis Carroll’s poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter".
It is described on the fly-leaf as Book IV in the Reading for Action series - "A Book of True Fact and True Fancy in Prose and Verse". It was published by Nelson, presumably in the mid 1930s, although there is no publisher's print date. (When did a publishing date become regular practice, I wonder - I am so often infuriated by not being able to date old books in this way!)

The book is a wonderful mix of "Nature Wonders", and myths and fables, bible stories, fairy stories, and poems, all liberally illustrated in black and white and colour, to fire the imagination. In addition to Lewis Carroll, the list of contents includes such names as Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, H.W. Longfellow, Endid Blyton, Hans Andersen, William Wordsworth, A.A. Milne, S.T. Coleridge and the Bible. If I learned from it, I am sure it didn't feel like learning at the time. But by the time I was reading it, I must have been at school, and that is another blog.

Henley-in-Arden 2 :: the not so good

1935 and now we both have bikes!

Unpleasant experiences? 'Hardly a one' I was going to say; but as I start to think about it, more keep popping into my head, which is only to be expected, for that is life.

I remember the physical agony of falling into a huge bed of stinging nettles, as I ran down the hill behind the village in the dark, after celebrating King George V's Silver Jubilee with a bonfire and fireworks in 1935.

I remember being worried when my father stayed in bed during the day, looking pale and bruised after a motor accident. Fathers are not supposed to be vulnerable - that's what little girls are.

I remember being sad when I was given a letter from my mother's mother, telling me that she was poorly, and that my visit to her would have to be postponed. Shortly after I was told that I should not be able to see her again, as she had gone to heaven.

I remember being embarrassed and remorseful when I broke something in a shop, and my mother had to pay for it, making it clear to me that she could not afford it.

I remember being frightened when I managed to shut myself into the clothes press in my parents' room. Another heavy oak antique, it had once been a harness cupboard, with doors which opened only in the upper part, leaving a deep dark well at the bottom for a child to climb into in. I was shut in alone there for much longer than I cared for.

I remember being terrified when a large (entirely friendly) alsatian bounded up to me and stood with his front paws on my shoulders, at which point he became taller than me, and his weight nearly knocked me over.

But the memory that has proved most disturbing, as it turns out, is one I recalled under hypnosis when I was having psychotherapy some years ago. I remembered that I had been unusually naughty (though I did not recall what I had done), and equally unusually, my mother had smacked me, then shut me in a bedroom and left me alone. What made it worse was that it was not even my own room, but a spare room.

I was astonished to find how much pain was still attached to the episode, when I realised that I had felt as though my mother had withdrawn her love from me. As I spoke those words to the therapist, a sort of electric shock passed through me, and I continued for two or three days to feel a childish distress and need for comfort. Nevertheless, I found this a fascinating and healing experience, and would have been interested to try it again, but I never have.

In January 1936 the King died, and that same year we had to leave The Corner House. One of my father's business associates had made off with all our money and we were in dire straights. By the end of that year we were living with my maternal grandfather in Handsworth, a suburb of Birmingham.

Henley-in-Arden 1 :: the good

In our detached garden
My memories do not go back to a very early age. Probably my first one is the arrival of my brother when I was three and a half. I remember my father getting me ready to visit my mother and the new baby in the nursing home: I decided that the proper thing to take to a new brother was some of my lead farm animals. My father said he thought we should take some flowers as well, and bought a bunch of daffodils.
I remember sleeping with my brother in the very large nursery-playroom we enjoyed at The Corner House, and even when I had a room of my own, I used to move back into the nursery with him over Christmas. This had obvious advantages for Father Christmas! Of course, like all kids, we used to wake up much too early, and our parents would come in and take our stockings away from us and tell us to go back to sleep for a while.

I also remember occasions in the nursery when our parents would creep in late at night to check on us, after they had been at some party. How wonderful they looked in their evening dress! They were such a handsome couple, and I think even small children know and appreciate when their parents are looking good. Sometimes – oh delight of delights - they would bring us back balloons and other party favours!

During my earliest years at The Corner House we had two live-in maids, who sometimes wore white caps and aprons - Dorothy and Jenny. I think they must have been the last of our live-ins, until after the war, when my mother took to offering a live-in post as 'help' to an unmarried mother and child. Dorothy and Jenny were sisters, and rather silly and giggly if I remember aright. I recall screams from the kitchen when one of them discovered a mouse floating in a pan of milk, which had been set to separate on the slate slab in our walk-in larder. But I should not be unkind, for they doted on me and enjoyed nothing better than a romp. They used to rouse me to such a pitch of hysteria by tickling my tummy that my mother was forced to intervene.

One of my favourite memories of that house is of running along the landing and leaping into my father’s arms as he sat two or three steps down the stairs. I knew I was safe, as children always do. [I have watched my youngest grandson in his own version of the game, standing several steps up the stairs from the bottom, and leaping upwards and outwards into the arms of his father standing in the hall.] There was a back staircase too from the landing, which led down into the shop. The door to it was kept bolted most of the time, and it was exciting for me to be allowed occasionally to go down those rather creepy-seeming stairs for a special treat.
Later when I was older, my father taught me to ride a bike in the lane at the back of the houses. He would run along behind me holding the saddle to steady me, and I remember the day that I managed the whole length of the lane without coming off. I turned to him to share my pleasure, and found that he was still standing at the other end of the lane where I had started. I could ride – and without help too!

An annual event in Henley was the mop or fair (descendant of the old hiring fairs). This took place in the market square in front of our house, and was a source of great excitement for me. My father allowed them to run a cable through an upstairs window into the house to supply power for the rides, and in bed at night I could lie awake delightfully, listening to the raucous music from the roundabout. There was an old lady who had a stall selling brandysnaps just outside the house, and I was always eager to spend my pennies with her.
[Part 2 to follow]

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

My inheritance

A professional caricature drawn in 1946

What have I inherited from my forbears? That takes some thinking about. A formidable nose, for one thing; a tendency to worry unnecessarily, developing into full-blown hypochondria in late middle age; Ekbom's Syndrome (a.k.a. Restless Leg Syndrome), and heart disease. More positively, a capacity for organisation and attention to detail, which made me a pretty good secretary/PA.

And then on the practical front, there is the investment income which has enabled me to live comfortably and independently for the past 21 years. It was an unlooked for blessing, as most of it came to me through my mother from her aunt. Having lost her only child in the first World War, she had no-one to inherit from her, and so left everything to her three sisters, from one of whom, my grandmother, one portion has now come to me and my brother. I often feel sad that my comfort should have been at such a painful expense for my great aunt.

And of course, coming from a line of manufacturing jewellers, I inherited some beautiful pieces made by my mother’s father. The most important of these was a suite or ‘parure’ made for my grandmother and consisting of brooch, bracelet, pendant and earrings, with green garnets, amethysts and pearls, set in gold with white enamel work as well. It is in a Rennaissance style, too elaborate for wear in my time, though I did wear the pendant once or twice. Eventually, rather than leave it unappreciated in a drawer, I decided to part with it and was able to sell it to the City of Birmingham Museums, who were glad to add it to their collection relating to the Birmingham jewellery trade.

My life begins

Yours truly

By early 1927 my parents were expecting their first child, and I recently came across a beautiful love letter which my mother wrote to my father one night, when she was already in bed, and he was still in the bathroom. What she was writing about was their joyful anticipation of my arrival, though of course they did not know it was ME at that stage. On 29th November I was born, in a nursing home in Birmingham.

I was taken home as a new-born infant to live in Henley-in Arden at The Corner House, from where my parents ran their business. Before becoming The Newcombe Garage it had been a shop, on a splendid plot in the market square, with windows facing both down and across the street. Our garden was detached. We had to cross the back lane, walk through the garage yard, and down alongside the repair shop, and there it was – a charming walled garden with a pond, and also a stream running at the bottom.

When she returned home, my mother had what was known as a “monthly nurse” : a live-in nurse to look after the baby, allowing the mother a nice long rest and recuperation period in bed! I believe it was the nurse who imposed the discipline of the renowned babycare specialist Dr Truby King, but despite its rigours I seem to have grown up healthy and conscious of being loved.

If you have followed the Truby King link above, you may enjoy a cradle story which I only know by being told about it. When they settled into their first home together, my parents began to collect dark oak antique furniture, which looked well in an old house like The Corner House. As a surprise for my mother, my father went out and bought a beautiful Jacobean cradle on rockers for their sitting room - something in which, as a baby, I could be safely parked when I was downstairs with them. Unfortunately, because of Dr King's strictures about spoiling babies by rocking them, my father had the dealer remove the rockers before he took the cradle home to my mother - thereby considerably reducing its integrity and value, of course! I used to recount this story to my son's antique dealer father-in-law, and watch him turn green at the mere idea of it! Later, the cradle sat for many years beside the piano, full of my father's sheet music. Now, in my house, it has spare blankets, rugs and cushions in it.

Monday, 7 May 2007

My parents

My mother and father in their courting days
My parents met after the first World War. Throughout the war my father had been interned in Germany, where he had gone at the age of 19 to improve his knowledge of the language. His prison camp was a converted racing stables at Ruhleben, near Berlin, where the 4000 men and boys from all walks of life slept in the horse-boxes. The prisoners succeeded in developing a complete society there during the four years of the war, including their own postal system, and my brother and I have inherited some interesting memorabilia. Sadly, the experience had a profound effect on my father, and left him shy and retiring and reluctant to undertake new ventures.

My mother had wanted to go to university. Illness prevented this initially, and by the time she was better, my grandfather had apparently decided that such an education was not appropriate for her. The result was that she spent the rest of her life trying to find something to exercise her brain, above and beyond being an excellent wife, housekeeper and mother. Sometimes she found something worthwhile, such as Marriage Guidance Counselling, and sometimes she was less successful. My brother and I have very uncomfortable memories of the period when she was reading books about psychology!

My grandfather, who, I believe had himself had a 7-year engagement, insisted that my parents should not marry until my father was earning enough to keep my mother in the same degree of comfort and respectability in which she had grown up. After three years my parents found this too much to bear, and on 11th July 1925 my parents went off one afternoon ostensibly to a tennis tournament, but came back having got married instead! Barbara was 23 and Laurie was 30. This bold move caused much frostiness in my mother’s home, but eventually my grandfather approached my mother and presented her with a single red rose, as a token of his forgivenness.

There was pressure from my other grandparents too: after their marriage my mother and father wanted to emigrate to New Zealand and farm sheep there, but my father’s mother would not accept such a distancing from her only son. With hindsight, I doubt if that way of life would have suited my mother anyway. (I did not feel able to breathe a whisper of protest when my eldest decided to emigrate to Australia – but it’s a different world now.)
My father therefore had to find himself some work to do. He had no formal training for anything, having lost the years from 19 to 23 while he was interned in Germany.
So they bought themselves a garage business in Henley-in-Arden, near Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. There was a corner shop selling spare parts and accessories, with the house over it and petrol pumps out front. Then across the lane running down the back of the house was a big yard and motor repair shed. My dad loved cars, though he was not much of a business man, sad to say. However, he did show himself in the succeeding years to be an excellent mechanic and handyman, with skills which I believe he developed during his years in prison camp. And as he was happiest when working with his hands, this suited him well.

My forbears

My mother's mother's mother with her family

Both my parents belonged to Birmingham families, solid middle class civically minded citizens of the manufacturing classes. My mother’s family lived in Handsworth and my father’s in Edgbaston. My mother’s father was a master jeweller working for the family firm, as his father and grandfather had done before him. My mother’s mother’s father was a watchmaker, who was the son of a manufacturing jeweller.
There was glass manufacturing on both sides of the family, and also steel buckle makers, silk manufacturers, a cooper, a rope maker, a sword maker, and a ship insurance broker. (My husband was in engineering insurance and inspected many a ship’s boilers) Further back there were also merchants, clothiers, haberdashers, and grocers and still further there are yeomen, gentlemen and knights. Nothing very exceptional, but nothing to be ashamed of either - as far as we know.
Back in the early 18th century there was an “Unorthodox churchman” who was one of my 4th great grandparents, and about fifty years later one of my 3rd great grandparents is named as a “Minister of the New Church”, or to give it its full name “The Church of the New Jerusalem”. This was a religious body founded by the followers of Emanuel Swedenborg, who was a Swedish scientist, religious teacher and mystic. Both my parents’ families were still following a tradition of non-conformism when I was christened, my father’s as Unitarians, and my mother’s as members of the New Church, into which I was baptised.

My great grandfather on my mother's side, in addition to being a manufacturing goldsmith and jeweller, was an active politician in Birmingham and a Justice of the Peace, and also took a great interest in artistic and literary institutions. And I can tell from the books, ornaments and furniture that I have inherited, that my family on that side was much influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement – not surprisingly as they were craftsmen themselves. My maternal grandfather’s mother drew and painted, and passed on her talent to my mother’s sister. Unfortunately it bypassed myself and my brother. My father’s mother was active in the Women’s Suffrage movement.

Sunday, 6 May 2007


Where should I start my autobiographical memoir? The obvious answer seems to be with the moment of my birth, but I feel that I owe at least something to my forbears, without whom … etc. Besides, in recent years I have spent a good deal of time with them, among photographs and inherited mementos, and recollections shared with my brother, and there are some interesting things to be said about some of them.

My brother’s early retirement plan was to start a major family genealogy on the computer, to which he has now (at 75) devoted thousands of hours of research and recording, and in which he has entered more than 5000 names, with pictures where he has them, covering the years from 916AD to the present day. (My poor sister-in-law is a genealogy widow!) He says it is now worth donating a copy of it to the Society of Genealogists. It is a splendid resource. I myself was tickled pink recently to discover on the web a great great grandmother who had up to then been missing from my brother’s records. The last time he had looked she had not been there.

As so often seems to be the case, I have gleaned more information about my mother’s family than my father’s; on the whole women seem to derive more pleasure from researching such matters, (my brother excepted of course), and we have inherited large quantities of family photographs going back four or five generations and forming a fascinating record. I have from time to time posted some of these in my online photo blog. Look here if you are interested. So I have a lot of information available to me, and I reckon that in my next post I will go back two or three generations to explain the sort of families I have come from.