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My earliest memory was at Redvers Road, seeing my sister for the first time; I was two and a half. Brenda was born at home and the midwife who delivered her came into me and said, “You have got a baby sister and you can go in and see her”. So I went in and there was this horrible squawky thing lying next to my mother and I wasn’t at all impressed! I wanted someone to play with!
The other early memory was when I wanted to help my mother with the ironing and in the end she let me stand on a chair and iron a hanky. However I pulled the iron back and it hit my knee and I suffered a nasty burn. We did have an electric iron, but since there weren’t any wall sockets, it was plugged into a bayonet fitting that came off the one ceiling light. When we moved into 16 Princes Road, there was no electricity, it was all gas lit. Everywhere was cold! You had one warm room with a coal fire and that was it!
Generally our family was in pretty good health, of course there was nothing like the health care that there is today. We never seemed to pay to go to the doctor, I think there were various clubs that you paid money into and they covered your doctor’s bills. We had the usual whooping cough and other childhood diseases, and everyone had measles and mumps at some point but children survived! At the age of about three I had scarlet fever and I had to go into hospital, as it was highly infectious and potentially dangerous since my father worked in the food trade. I remember it well. It was over Christmas and of course my mother couldn’t stay in hospital with me as you might today. I could only wave at her through a glass window. One of my most vivid memories is of a nurse walking the length of the ward with a shovel of glowing hot embers, which was used to light the coal fire at the end of the room. Health and safety might have something to say about it these days!
I absolutely loved school; I wanted to go to school when I was three, so I went on my third birthday. The first school I went to was Moulscombe or Bevendean. When we moved to Roundhill Crescent, I went to Lewes Road school infants. When we moved to Princes Road, I went to Ditchling Road Infants School, which was a lovely little school. Again, I loved it, and then went up to the Junior school.
I was a good reader and so was put in charge of listening to four or five of my classmates as they read (the class was split up into three or four groups for this lesson). There was one little girl who came from Northumberland and I loved listening to her accent, so she poor girl had to read twice as much as any of the others!
Life at Ditchling Road School during the war
I was there from the beginning of 1939 until August 1944 when I left to go to Varndean School for Girls.
War was just ordinary life, for us. We didn’t really remember what it was like before it started. At home we had to put up blinds at the windows as soon as it was dark because there was a “black-out”, and air raid wardens would come round to make sure that there wasn’t even a chink of light showing which might guide German bombers towards the town. All the cars (at least, the few of them that there were) had grids over the headlights, which shaded the light and directed it downwards. In Brighton we lived in a restricted area, and it was not possible to travel to the coast from London, for example, without a special permit. All the beaches were closed, with rolls and rolls of barbed wire along the seafront. I suppose that our mother’s life was dominated just by trying to exist. Our father was called up to the army in 1942 (I think), and after one or two short leaves disappeared to fight in Egypt, and we didn’t see him again for over two years. So on her own poor Mum had to cope with bringing up Brenda and me, working, (a soldier’s pay was about 1s 6d a day, – 7 ½ p!) and coping with rationing of everything, – meat, milk vegetables, clothes, furniture etc. The only thing which wasn’t rationed was bread, – that came after the war was over!
At school there were only two men teachers, Mr Urquat, who was quite old (to us), and Mr Dibben who was disabled. All the other men had gone to the war. On the windows, as at home, there was sticky tape stuck in criss-cross patterns so that if a bomb was dropped close-by the glass wouldn’t shatter all over the room, and us. We were always collecting for the war effort, paper, cardboard, rags, aluminium, and there were always thermometer type charts on the walls to show how much we still needed to bring to reach our target. I can remember an enormous pile of old saucepans, etc. in one corner of the infants’ playground. And we were always delighted when we were told that we had contributed enough towards a new battleship, or something similar. In Preston Park there were lots of tanks and armoured cars, although this may have been in 1944, just before D-Day. In Blakers Park there was an enormous emergency water tank, much larger than a swimming pool, should water be needed if incendiary bombs were dropped I think.
Going into the shelters was a regular occurrence, every time bombers flew over Brighton on their way to bomb London the sirens went to warn us, and we would run across the playground and down the concrete steps into the trenches, and we would stay there until the ‘all clear’ siren went once the bombers had crossed the coast again on their way back to France. This could be several hours. Sometimes the Germans would unload any bombs, which they hadn’t dropped elsewhere on Brighton to save taking them back with them! This indiscriminate bombing was nasty and there were a lot of casualties, including a cinema and a school clinic being hit.
Once we were in the trenches we had to amuse ourselves. We had to sit on wooden slatted seats along the length of the walls – very uncomfortable! The only lighting was bare light bulbs in the middle of the ceiling, which was only about 6 foot high. All the children used to carry bags or little attaché cases to school every day in which they had a supply of paper and crayons and games. These were taken down into the trenches to help keep us amused. I can’t honestly remember us doing lessons down there; neither can I remember us being told stories, or even singing songs. It did get very tedious! Everyone also had to carry gas masks with them at all times in case there was a gas attack. The gas masks were usually kept in cardboard boxes, and most mothers made bags to put them in with a long strap so that they could be slung round the neck or over the shoulder. It was very serious to be without your gasmask!
We spent hours and hours sitting on wooden benches in dreary concrete trenches under the playground. It was a maze down there. There were rows of passages with a few bare lights in the ceiling, and the occasional toilet, which was nothing more than a bucket. The seats were very hard after an hour or two. We would take our little suitcases full of things to do. The girls would take their knitting or sewing and games. Brenda and I always had paper or crayons to do some drawing. The trenches were just for the school, each school having their own. It must have been quite an undertaking building them. Some years ago our school had an open day, the trenches were still there and you could go down them, although Brenda and I didn’t. The school itself was exactly the same; it hadn’t changed in the slightest!
Apart from the interruptions of bomb warnings, our education was also interrupted because we had to share our school with evacuees from London, – we had the school for half the day, and the Londoners had it for the other half. When we couldn’t use the school we had to go to nearby church halls, usually St Augustine’s church hall in Florence Road. We seemed to cope alright – everyone could read and write well, and we seemed to be up to the standards of the day, anyway. Another thing we had to cope with was the size of the classes because of a shortage of teachers; in one class I was in there were 53 children to one teacher.
One of the treats we had was the occasional arrival of a Red Cross parcel from America, which contained nutritious food to be distributed amongst the children. I don’t know what else we were given to take home, but I remember vividly the chocolate powder. I suppose it was to make a drink with, but we dipped our fingers in and enjoyed it that way!
I was head girl at the junior school, which was nice as my darling husband had been head boy about seven years previously. I did the eleven plus exam which was taken at the age of eleven, which I found easy. I came in the top three out of 3,600 children to get a special scholarship, which meant I was able to go to Varndean, the local grammar school without paying, which delighted my parents.
I went to Varndean when I was nearly twelve; it was different as it was a much larger school. I enjoyed it, and was always near the top of the class, although I was never any good at sports. I stayed there until I was sixteen, and took the School Certificate exam, getting a distinction. There was never any question that I could stay on and take the Higher School Certificate unfortunately, as I would have loved to have done another two years at school.
I didn’t really have any ideas what I wanted to do when I left school, perhaps nursing? (My mother didn’t want me to move away from home though). There were only a few universities in the country – Oxford, Cambridge and Durham so unless you wanted to be a professional you didn’t think of going to university.
We weren’t really encouraged much to think about careers at that stage, but funnily enough a year or two later I found myself doing careers advice. . Wanting to extend my education somehow, I persuaded my parents, who hadn’t got a lot of money, that it would be quite good if I went to the technical college and did a short hand-typing course. I was about three quarters the way through the course when my father came home and said that they needed someone to help at the dairy where he worked at the bottom of Elm Grove. So I got a job there doing laboratory work. I don’t know that it was what I wanted to do but I quite enjoyed it except it meant unsocial hours and Sunday work, and I was just about to get married. So I gave my notice in and took a job with the local Youth Employment Bureau.
It was a nice office, with five or six people. At that time the Youth Employment Bureau also acted for the Social Services Department in making unemployment benefit payments. This meant anyone who refused to take a job would be crossed off the benefit list.
My only problem was that I had been taken on as the secretary to the woman in charge, and my typing skills had disappeared over the last couple of years when I was working in the laboratory. I think she was always a bit disappointed in my abilities! I used to have to type these awful ‘skins’ they were called, which were like stencils that were put on a machine to duplicate them. If you made a mistake you had to blot it out with a tip-ex and type over it again. They always looked a mess! However, I enjoyed interviewing the youngsters who were looking for work and trying to find the right jobs for them.
I met Bill at Christmas1952. My father had gone to the local pub for a Christmas drink and Bill was there. I think my father felt sorry for him, as he obviously wasn’t doing anything much over the Christmas period so he invited him to come to our house for supper one evening. Brenda and I were furious about this; we didn’t want any strangers coming in – but Bill and I got engaged six weeks later!! I think this was a bit quick even in those days, but we had made up our minds. You grab a good thing when it’s going! Bill’s mother (Aunty Edie) wasn’t so keen on the timing; she said “oh you might have given me one more Christmas with Billy at home!” I don’t think she was at all keen on us getting married at all.
We were married on November 7th 1953 at St Mathias Church, Ditchling Road. Bill wanted to get married there, because when he lived with his Aunty Daisy they used to go to church there. Our church was St Saviours, just down the road (since pulled down). To get married in a different Parish, I had to say I was living with my best friend Denise who was in the parish of St Mathias and give her address. Of course the vicar went round to Denise’s house to see me and her mother answered the door and said ‘oh no, she doesn’t live here!’
The actual day of our wedding was cold, blowy and overcast, being November. I had four bridesmaids, my sister, my best friend Denise, Patsy (Weeks) and Linda. I didn’t intend to have Linda but I said to Aunty Daisy (her grandmother) “I’ve chosen the bridesmaids…” and before I could finish the sentence she said ‘Oh! She will be so thrilled!” So what can you do! I never told her!
I was furious with my father for wearing a pullover under his suit! However, it was a nice service and afterwards we hired a bus to take all the guests from the church to the Albemarle Hotel on the seafront, (which was pulled down later. The Hungry Years is there now). We had a proper full meal – I seem to remember it included roast lamb; I still have the menu and the bill that they charged. It was about £80 for a hundred of us. When we were all ready to sit down .where were the men? They were all downstairs in the bar drinking!
We didn’t go on a honeymoon; we stayed at Aunty Daisy’s bungalow in Hassocks. It was quite common to do that. My Aunty Mary made my dress, – weddings were all very simple in those days.
I was very happy at the Youth Employment Office for a couple of years until I became pregnant and gave in my notice.
We were living at 9 Buckingham Road, in Brighton, which was very convenient for the station for Bill. It was a nice flat but we wanted to buy somewhere, especially since we were starting a family. We began looking at the London suburbs, hoping to find somewhere conveniently close to a station, and worked our way down the London to Brighton line until we found somewhere we liked, finally moving into 11 Queen’s Drive, Hassocks.
In 1955 we had Christmas with my parents at Princes Road, but they had no room for us to stay, so we were staying at 4 Windlesham Gardens with my cousin Kath and her husband Eric Underwood as they had room for us. In the middle of Christmas night I woke Bill and said “you had better ring for the ambulance”. The ambulance arrived, and Bill made sure I was ok in the ambulance and then he went back to bed, as husbands were never present at the birth in those days. David was born on 1 p.m. on Boxing Day in the Maternity hospital in Buckingham Road, weighing nine and a half pounds. The Maternity hospital was right opposite our old flat, (I had been born there as well). It was later turned into a library. Bill and my mother came to visit after lunch, and I was kept in hospital for two weeks, which was normal.
Pete was born on the 6th June 1958. It was common to have your subsequent children at home. As David had been a forceps delivery, I wasn’t very keen on having another one at home, thank you very much! But my fears weren’t taken into consideration and everyone said ‘oh you will be fine this time!’ Of all things – Bill was present when Pete was born! My friends couldn’t believe it! Pete weighed in at 8 lbs and also arrived in time for lunch. Dr. Griffiths Jones insisted I stayed in bed the next two weeks saying that this would be the only rest I would get! So Bren came over for a week and Kath came for the other week and looked after David.
We enjoyed living at Hassocks, but after Pete was born we decided to emigrate. Bill had got fed up with commuting to London every day. He had people coming to his office at Grey Dawes in Leadenhall Street who lived and worked in this place called Kenya where the weather was wonderful and they were having a fantastic time and being paid lots of money. I don’t think I would have gone if my mother was still alive – she died on 6th April 1956. It was a huge shock; she was lying in bed talking to my father when she had a stroke. She was only 52, but life was different in those days, she smoked and cooked with lard and things like that, and was probably very unfit but she knew no other lifestyle. My father remarried in February 1959, and I felt that he could cope without us, with his new wife.
Emigrating to Kenya
We sailed on the SS Kenya in June 1959. We had sold the house and stayed with Brenda and Gerry for our last week in the UK. Bob and Eileen who were living in Seaford said they would take us to the docks in their car. We were late getting going, with two babies to get ready and then we stopped half way for a cup of tea. I think we went round Dulwich College five times as no one knew the way! We eventually got to the Edward V11 docks in London, which connects the bends on the Isle of Dogs on the River Thames. All the Dockers cheered when we got there we were so late arriving!
It took nineteen days to get to Mombasa, as the ship stopped at Barcelona and Naples to load and unload cargo. We went ashore at Aden for some duty-free shopping, having enjoyed the passage through the Suez Canal.
We knew Paul and Audrey Moran in Mombasa because Paul had returned from Kenya and worked for two years in the office in London with Bill before returning to Kenya again. When my mother had died Paul and Audrey had insisted we went and stayed with them for a couple of weeks, which was very kind of them. Paul Moran was probably working in Mombasa when Eileen (Donna’s mother) was living there and working at Smith MacKenzies.
When we eventually got ashore we went straight to Paul and Audreys house, and I was quite shocked to find that Stephen, Paul and Audrey’s son, had been left at home with an African woman! (an ‘ayah’) but we soon became accustomed to the fact that this was not unusual, and, in fact, we eventually employed an ‘ayah’ to look after our own children. We went to live in a ground floor flat in the block of Wharfage flats in Tudor on Mombasa Island.
Here are a couple of audio files where Joan speaks about her life.