Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Card 1949

Linocut Christmas card designed by John Grinsell, in 1949, aged 15, for his school, The King's School, Peterborough.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Marching, marching, marching

The first two weeks of basic training were spent mainly “square-bashing” with a bit of PT (physical training). Reveille was at .  This was a rude awakening by the duty sergeant where he battered on the door and switched on all the lights, followed by a fierce prod with a drill stick if your weren’t already on your feet.  You then had to wash, shave, dress, make your bed and be lined up armed with eating irons and mug to march to the cookhouse at 7am.  The cookhouse was a massive space to accommodate several hundred soldiers with all the clatter and chatter that went along with it.  Then it was down to business marching, marching, marching.  Everywhere you went you were marched as a troop, consisting of three lines, three abreast with the NCO following close behind.

There was a break for lunch and the day finished about .  Tea followed immediately afterwards and your time was your own until lights out at 11pm.  Most of us lay on our beds to recover from exhaustion for a while but, as we were confined to camp for the two weeks, the only place to go was the NAAFI where you could eat, drink and perhaps play snooker, pool or table tennis.  The staff were mostly women but fraternising with the natives was not encouraged on camp.  In fact each regiment had its own police, known as RPs, to ensure discipline was maintained around the clock.  Evenings were very often spent on “bulling” your boots and polishing your brasses.

The culture shock having worn off after a few days, I was able to adjust to army life knowing that, following the initial two weeks, we were all to be sent to other training camps around the country and even overseas in some cases.  In the meantime we were having the edges knocked off, ready to continue basic training for a further four weeks and then Royal Engineers special training (Field Engineering) for 16 weeks. 

We were subjected to a thorough medical examination to determine level of fitness and written intelligence tests to identify potential for a limited career varying from a Commissioned Officer to a technical or administrative NCO. The medical examination was later to prove my downfall when applying for a commission because my broken leg was identified and registered a downgrading for ‘lower limbs’.  This was part of your ‘PULHEEMS’ assessment covering various body parts.  All the information was recorded in your Passbook together with personal records of rank, serial number, pay grade, religion. This document had to be carried around at all times, rather like an ID card.  There was also the Pay book; basic pay for a new recruit was 27/6 d a week (about £1.40 today).

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Bull, Blanco and Bastards

Over the next few months I was to experience (or perhaps “endure” would be a better word) the full range of  military training and discipline designed to convert me into a fighting machine.  However successful that turned out to be, the first two weeks were meant to knock the individuality out of each conscript and reduce them collectively to a “squad” of raw recruits.  From Day One we learned to look after our kit and watch our backs.  New recruits were easy prey for more experienced trainees who had already learned how to survive by taking advantage of others when the opportunity arose.  I learned that lesson on the very first day when, after dumping my kit on the bed allocated to me, I joined the rest of the bunch to march to the cookhouse for tea.  On my return I found one of my blankets had a huge tear in it; I’d given someone a perfect opportunity to swap old for new.  Any item of issued kit, if lost or damaged, had to be paid for before replacement.  A week later, after my first pay packet, a certain sum was deducted for “blankets-grey-one”.

From now on I was army recruit Sapper GRINSELL J., serial number 22727026, which was written into my passbook/paybook and stamped to record the historic event. (The Royal Engineers have always been referred to as “sappers”).

The next few days were spent getting used to surroundings not too far removed from my idea of a German prisoner-of-war camp minus the observation towers and search-lights.  Army everyday clothes consisted of rough denim jacket and baggy trousers (to think denim was to be the fashion in the sixties and beyond!), heavy studded boots and gaiters, dark blue beret with Royal Engineers badge and a webbing belt complete with brasses.

Each group of new recruits was formed into a “troop” of about 30 and there were three troops to a “squadron”.  Each troop had a Corporal non-commissioned officer (N.C.O.) responsible for keeping order and discipline and each squadron had a Sergeant in overall control. 

It was soon clear that army routine started with what was commonly referred to as “bull” or “bullshit” to give it its full title. Bull  was designed to maintain the highest standards of personal tidiness, appearance and hygiene, taken to extreme lengths to ensure army discipline. The first priority was uniform, starting with boots which had to be buffed until you could see your own reflection in the toe-caps.  This could only be achieved by combining spit with polish, applied with a soft cloth.  All brasses - badge, buttons and buckles, had to be polished to a high shine and all webbing – belt, gaiters, pouches and rifle sling, were treated with “blanco” which came in a solid block of khaki distemper and applied with a wet brush.  Apart from the denims we were also issued with a best BD (battledress) which had to be perfectly pressed with all the seams in the right places.  Army issue shirts, made of thick rough material, were laundered together with underpants, socks, handkerchiefs, sheets and pillowcases but always had to be ironed and perfectly folded when not in use, ready for daily inspection.

Collectively occupants of each hut were responsible for keeping the inside spotlessly clean for inspection. Each recruit was responsible for his own bed space and locker where all his personal kit had to be displayed but we all had to ensure that the floor and other internal surfaces were clean and dust-free.  Also each hut had a central coke heater made of cast iron with a flue rising through he centre of the roof.  This had to be “black-leaded” using a cloth and buffed up with a brush to give it a shiny surface. There were usually two fire blankets to each hut, one filled with sand and the other with water.  These had to be painted white and were also included in the inspections.

Regular inspections were made by the Corporal in charge of the troop.  Weekly inspections were carried out by the Sergeant in charge of the squadron.  Both NCOs were soon to be referred to as “bastards” in common with their brethren in all military training camps.  As training developed over the weeks, so too did the natural hatred towards these two individuals of doubtful parentage! Put one foot wrong in front of them and you provoked a mouthful of verbal abuse known only to personnel.  Something more serious and you would be put on a charge, a form of punishment peculiar to the armed forces.  For trivial sins this meant carrying out “fatigues” like sweeping the square, cleaning the toilets or working in the kitchen washing pots or peeling spuds.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Long and the Short and the Tall

The arrival in the post of my instructions to report to Norton Camp, together with a travel warrant to Worcester, sealed my fate and with much trepidation I caught the train from Peterborough but not before receiving a full family send-off from the station platform.  Only my father would have known what I was in for but apart from a few chosen words he kept his thoughts to himself.  Mother and Betty would have been emotional.

Once on the train I had a chance to prepare myself for the experience which was, after all, one of many thousands of 18 year old inductions into the armed services that day.  There must have been a few others on the same train but if there were they were similarly deep in thought with no desire for conversation.  Arrival at Worcester station was a bit of a blur but “the long and the short and the tall” were soon handed in to the back of army trucks known as TCVs (Troop Carrying Vehicles) and whipped off to the barracks to begin two weeks basic training.

Soon after arrival we were marched to the Quartermaster’s store to be fitted out with a range of kit from underpants to greatcoats, boots to bedlinen, socks, shirts, berets and steel helmets, not to mention a sewing kit (known as a housewife), eating irons (knife, fork and spoon) and a tea mug.  All this had to fit into one standard issue kit bag.  Laden with kit, after signing for it, we were directed and escorted to our billet; a wooden hut.

My memory of this camp, a Royal Engineers’ Training Camp which specialised in certain skills loosely connected with Engineering, was repeated in subsequent establishments over the next two years.  It was practice to build military camps on a standard format and layout since WW1 and many buildings dated back to that period.  Living quarters were usually built in timber, grouped around a central “ablutions block”.  It was known as a spider because it had a central core with six legs.  Operational buildings were built of brick with corrugated asbestos sheet roofing.  The focal point of all camps was the parade ground (square) surrounded by the Guard Room and Reception building, administration block, drill shed, QM stores (including the armoury) and main cook-house.  Further back were the medical block, Sergeants Mess, Officers Mess and the inevitable NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute).  Each camp would also contain a military vehicle compound “Motor Transport Depot”.  Beyond that, on the perimeter of the camp, were various open areas used for military training.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Bonny Baby

Apologies for this being out of sequence but I found this newspaper clipping recently and as it features my dad, I wanted to share it with you. If you click on it, you can see the detail a little clearer.

The article is from 1985 and features a baby contest from the Ely Allotment Show, 1935. The newspaper had been lent the photograph by a Mrs Millie Morris (sitting third from the right). Her son had been runner-up in the contest.  Mrs Morris said the winner of the contest was John Grinsell, seated with his mother on the extreme right of the picture.

There he is, my dad, the blue-eyed, blond-haired, bonny baby!


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

National Service looming...

Before I took my A levels I received notification from Emmanuel College that I had been accepted (conditional on A levels) to start in October 1954 after National Service.  I could now see forward to the next five years providing I got the necessary grades.  In the meantime life seemed to revolve around school work (and homework) as results were all important to me now.  From time to time, however, certain outside events intruded into the normal routines.  It was 1951 that our history master came into class one afternoon to announce that “Phillip has managed to hitch himself to the Royal payroll”, (Princess Elizabeth’s engagement).  By February 1952 King George VI had died and Elizabeth II began her long reign as Queen.

The Korean War, which had started in 1950, was destined to continue until July 1953 and involved American, British and Commonwealth troops. With National Service looming up the prospect of me fighting in another war must have been a real worry to Father and Mother although I must confess I didn’t think about it much at the time.  I can’t remember the actual sequence of events but I made the choice to go into the Army (preferably the Royal Engineers). I attended a preliminary medical before receiving call-up papers in the autumn.  All of this, of course, was going on during the run-up to the taking and awaiting the results of the important A levels. 

The art examination held no fear for me, even the written work.  There were only two of us taking the subject and, as my father loved to point out, I came second!  However I still got the “A” grade.  I used to enjoy geography, particularly physical geography although economic and political aspects of the subject were more hard work.  I finished up with a “B”.  When it came to history this was a disaster.  The period of history was the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but separated into British and European history.  We had two history teachers over the two years and it is worthwhile recording that this led not only to me failing to make an A level grade but the failure of the whole class.  Both teachers seemed to concentrate on British history with the result that European history was never properly covered.  One paper was therefore easy to cope with and the other was a nightmare. 

With only two A levels I consider myself lucky that Emmanuel was still prepared to take me.  So here I was with a few precious weeks to go before joining the Army.  Most of my pals had managed to get deferred because of entry into further education straight from school but I was about to experience a major shock to the system as, wet behind the ears, I reported on 4 October 1952 to the Royal Engineers training camp in Worcester.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Girls, boats and cars

My Cambridge interview over, it was back to school to concentrate on A level studies.  Not that this prevented me from enjoying myself.  By this time, in my late teens, there were plenty of distractions of a social nature.  There were, of course, girls to consider.  In the fifties there were few places where young people could meet outside the home.  Coffee bars were non-existent prior to the late fifties.  Places of entertainment were limited to youth clubs, the cinema and the occasional dances where no alcohol was available.  Occasionally one could sit in a girl’s house under the watchful eyes of her parents, listening to records with the prospect of a cuddle on the sofa if you were lucky.  

Having an older sister, you would have thought I would have picked up a few ideas from one of her boyfriends but she wasn’t exactly encouraged to bring them home by Father, particularly late in the evening.  Mother was much more sympathetic towards any friends, male of female; in those days she always made people feel welcome.  I remember one occasion, however, late one night, I decided to raid the sideboard where the sweets were kept and interrupted a snogging session taking place on the sofa! The boyfriend in question was a Pilot Officer in the RAF so I was quite impressed by him, particularly since he flew in a Gloster Meteor Fighter Squadron based in Lossiemouth, Scotland. Unfortunately for me that relationship didn’t last long!

Girls apart, my life was full of outside activities.  By taking up rowing at school I became involved in practice sessions both before and after school during term time and this continued into the holidays with competitive rowing at events both in Peterborough and other local venues.  I also joined a Youth Club and was a member of the school art club which I attended one or twice a week.  I once entered a poster competition advertising an arts festival and won 1st prize (the only first I ever got!)  I even had to go to the Town Hall to be presented with my prize by the Mayor no less.  The prize was a large box of watercolours which I used for a number of years afterwards. 

During that last year at school I also learned to drive.  Dad was good enough to teach me despite the fact that a few years previously he had been through the experience with Betty.  It was to his credit that he was prepared to risk himself and his car in the process and we both passed first time.  However it was not without its upsets.  One Sunday we had been to Hunstanton for the day and I was allowed to drive all the way back.  Everything went well until I turned into the drive and took half the gatepost with me...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Interview for Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Emmanuel College
John Grinsell, 1999.
Studying Art at 'A' level helped me develop a keener interest in Architecture so I was encouraged to apply to study Architecture at university.  I received information from a number of Schools of Architecture and one of Betty's earlier boyfriends was an architect who had studied at Birmingham University so he brought all his student work round for me to see.

The most significant help I received came from my school's Headmaster who, as an academic, had good contacts with a number of universities.  He was a tall, imposing man who had previously taught in New Zealand and, like many teachers in those days, had served in the armed forces during the war.  The advice he gave me and my father was against the trend in attitude towards further education.  Most people aspiring to achieve a place at Oxford or Cambridge were channelled through the official entrance examination system. He suggested the more modern 'conditional entry' system as more appropriate; being interviewed before taking 'A' levels and hopefully receiving an offer on the condition that certain levels are met.

My Headmaster had some contacts in Cambridge so suggested Emmanuel College. Cambridge, Oxford and Durham Universities are run on a collegiate system rather than the departmental system.  This means the intake of students into departments is based on allocations given to the colleges.  Emmanuel had an allocation of two Architecture students per year but the School of Architecture at Cambridge did not attract a large number of students as it only ran a three year degree course whereas the larger schools of architecture (e.g. Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester) were recognised for the full five year qualification to become a practising architect.  So competition was likely to be far less than if I were hoping to study law or medicine.

It came about therefore that I attended interview at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, when I was 17.  It only took an hour by car to get there and although I can’t remember what took place before or after the interview I have a clear memory of the encounter with the Senior Tutor, who at the time was Edward Welbourne (he later became Master of Emmanuel).  He was a large, shambling man with heavy, jowled features.  He looked unkempt, wore shabby clothes and appeared to me like the proverbial absent-minded professor.  Our discussion about architecture seemed to centre on a book of country houses and guessing the dates when they were built.  I also recall he sent me out to look around the college while he spoke to my father, who never did tell me much about what was said.  When I came back he asked me directly the date of the college chapel.  I knew it was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and gave it my best shot.  In reply he pointed out that the date was carved in stone just above the clock face!  I don’t remember anything else except that I thought I had blown it.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Festival of Britain memories

Perhaps the most important event during my school days took place in 1951; the Festival of Britain exhibition held on the South Bank of the Thames in London.  It is ironic to note that the centrepiece of the exhibition was the Dome of Discovery, almost a small replica of the Millennium Dome which caused such a furore nearly 50 years later.  The dome has been the most spectacular structural form developed over centuries. The first domes appeared in Roman times, the most perfectly preserved being the Pantheon in Rome.

The Festival of Britain site included a number of exhibition halls and a vertical feature called the Skylon, supported by thin tensioned cables which gave the impression that it was suspended in space.  The only building which remains is the Royal Festival Hall which is now surrounded by other buildings including the National Theatre.

The Festival of Britain was significant to me as it was my first opportunity to see examples of modern architectural design. Until then architecture had not aroused in me any particular interest as a career, although my father had a great interest in medieval church architecture, of which there is an abundance in the East Midlands.

My father also developed a passion for photography, which I shared, including developing and printing. I remember we started off using the bathroom, which didn't go down too well with Mother, before taking over the back store room of Betty's shop: by that time she had opened her own business in Dogsthorpe, Peterborough.

By 1951 it was necessary for me to look towards the future. Even though the war had been over for six years, there was still tension in Europe with the Cold War between the new Soviet Union and the Western Alliance countries. The communist world was rapidly becoming the new enemy and open conflict had already broken out in Korea between North (backed by the Soviet Union) and South (backed by the West and the United States). With all this unrest, conscription into the armed forces was a reality for all young men aged 18 unless they were able to be deferred because of further education.

Postscript 6/11/11 - I learned last night from my mum that her mother, Winifred Brennan, performed at the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. She was part of a ladies choir in Newcastle and they travelled to London to be part of the event. How lovely that my dad should be so enraptured with the Festival of Britain, unaware that his future mother-in-law was also a part of it.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Student Exchanges and Sixth Form Pranks

The two harvest camps (in the previous post) gave me the opportunity to spread my wings a little. However when I was 15 I also took part in an student exchange scheme which took me to Belgium during the summer holidays.  Although there were a few boys involved, it was a major break from home. After two train journeys and a channel crossing we were collected by our respective host families in and around Liege to spend a fortnight in a foreign environment.

I stayed with a family engaged in farming in a small town.  There were two boys although the one I exchanged with, Fernand, was two years older than me. His younger brother was more my age.  Three generations lived in one large farmhouse; mealtimes were treated as family get-togethers and were very sociable. They did their best to make me feel at home. One of the things I remember on my first trip abroad was drinking my first Coca Cola from the original-shaped bottle.

The family took me by car to the Belgian/Dutch border town of Maastricht where everyone spoke two languages.  Maastricht later became the centre for a historic agreement in the European community.

Several week later Fernand came to stay with us. Being older he took plenty of interest in my sister, Betty, who by this time was back in Peterborough working in a local fashion shop.  Having Fernand as our guest, we repayed the kindness offered to me in Belgium by taking him out in the car to show him our part of England.

In 1950 I took my School Certificate and managed five credits and three passes. I decided to take Art, History and Geography at A level although I don't remember being encouraged to think about a future career at that stage.

Life in the Sixth Form was more relaxed and enjoyable although homework became more difficult and time-consuming. My lasting memory of these two years is of the room we occupied where we sat around a large heavy table with the teacher at one end and up to ten pupils along each side. We soon discovered there was just enough room to get our knees under the table in such a way that, by raising our heels together at a given signal, we could lift the table and allow it to 'float' about half an inch off the floor. This was particularly annoying for the English teacher who found it disconcerting to see his open text moving about in front of him. The table was positioned in a large bay window on the ground floor, with large sliding sashes which could be opened up on a warm summer day; ideal when your attention was diverted by girls from the neighbouring school walking past. On one occasion an enterprising boy, sitting with his back to the open window, gently leaned backwards in his chair during a lesson, quietly slipped out of the window and casually walked back in through the door ten minutes later, to the utter confusion of the teacher taking the lesson.

By now I was also old enough to earn a bit of money for myself. At Christmas time young people were taken on by the Post Office to help with the seasonal increase in workload. One year I opted to work in the sorting office doing night-shift work; it was very tiring and I have always had sympathy for anyone doing night shifts ever since. Another year I tried the early morning deliveries, getting up and cycling to work at 6am to deliver mail and grabbing a quick breakfast at home on my way round. The postman I worked with lived on a large council estate along with many of his relatives; the estate formed part of our regular round. On Christmas morning we made a point of visiting them all, collecting a drink at each house. By the time I got home, about midday, I was thoroughly full of Christmas cheer!

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Harvest Camp

One of my strongest memories of school days was going to an organised harvest camp; I went twice between the ages of 15 and 18 (1949 to 1952). The camp lasted two weeks during August at Pershore in Worcestershire and many of us cycled all the way there and back; a 100 mile journey each way along major roads.

The 'harvest' was the plum orchards and the 'camp', pitched army tents in a farmer's field.  The camp also included a cookhouse in a marquee, run by the masters and their wives, and field toilets which we had to build ourselves.  The toilets were very basic chemical loos which we had to take turns to empty every day into a deep trench which we had dug out when we set up camp (and had to fill in before we left).  I discovered later that in the army these were referred to as 'thunder-boxes'.

Each day we walked or cycled to the orchards for a day's work picking plums and loading them into 56lb crates which had to be weighed before being loaded onto trailers or lorries for despatch.  We were paid by the crate provided they were properly filled, minus twigs and branches.

With apologies to Bizet, we used to sing our version of the Toreador song from Carmen:

"Toreador, pick the plums up off the floor. Put them in the crate, they will make it weight" (this is the clean version) [You could have told me the dirty version, Dad!...Trish]

We had a packed lunch for a midday break and worked until about 4.30pm.  The weather was generally good although heavy rain stopped everything, particularly as it increased the weight of the fruit!

At the end of a hard day's work we had a cold shower (also set up in the field) and a good hot meal in the cookhouse.  Then came the freedom of the evening when the attention of the teachers relaxed. The drinking laws in the local pubs were also more relaxed and the local cider or 'scrumpy'was in plentiful supply.  A few glasses of cider and and game or two of skittles or darts and we could be found staggering back up the road to the camp.  I don't think we were any worse for wear the next morning; at least we were back at work.

At the weekends we found numerous places to visit: Evesham, Broadway, Gloucester, Worcester and the Malvern Hills, all within cycling distance.  One Sunday we spent all day at a County cricket match. I also recall there being a small airfield nearby, an RAF training centre. One year they had twin-engined Avro Ansons; another year Gloster Meteor jet fighters. Security was non-existent; we were able to get onto the airfield because the minor road from our camp actually cut straight across the main runway. During flying lessons the RAF simply drove vehicles to the crossing point to form a barrier.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Teenage Years - Entertainment

Aged 14

Life as a teenager in the late 40s and early 50s, with a secure family background and an increasingly stable economy, was generally good.  Father had a good job, Betty was working locally, I was enjoying school and Mother seemed happy looking after us all and taking advantage of the social life afforded by the British Sugar Corporation and the local Caledonian Society which must have still been in Father's blood.

Recreation and entertainment consisted of occasional visits to the 'pictures' and the local Repertory Theatre.  As I became older I enjoyed low budget French, Italian and Swedish films such as La Ronde, Jour de Fete, Bicycle Thieves and The Little World of Don Camillo.  I also enjoyed slapstick comedy including Laurel and Hardy classics and Abbott and Costello.

Like most kids of my age I was brought up on radio programmes and records. We had a huge 4'6" high radiogram which had been specially made in a wooden cabinet with a record deck in the top.  Radios, of course, were large to accommodate a number of valves and thick wires.  The records were 78rpm, made of breakable shellac resin.  We had a good record collection mostly covering the tastes of the older generation but I became a big fan of George Formby from an early age. Popular music of the day mostly consisted of dance bands and ballad singers (crooners), which didn't particularly appeal to me.

Television was the one invention which came to revolutionise leisure time in the home but in the ealry years the sets were expensive and very limited in providing entertainment.  I remember the first set I ever saw belonged to Uncle Jim and Auntie Doris who must have bought the first one in Ely.  We often went over there so I was soon to experience the thrill of watching the test card, demonstration programmes, Interludes, like the potter's wheel, on a 12" black and white screen which you could only see properly with the curtains drawn.  It had 425 horizontal lines which were so visible you could almost count them.  To improve the image you could buy a huge perspex magnifying glass to stick over the screen, but you had to be sitting right in front of the set to obtain any benefit.  Quality gradually improved as screens with 625 lines came onto the market.  Programmes improved and extended to daytime as well as evening viewing.  Transmissions were mostly live until the early sixties.

Although television was a draw, I remember we also had a wealth of books in the house, mainly due to my father's love of reading. His favourite author was Charles Dickens whose books he read many times over.  He was also keen on history. By the time I was 16, the study of English Literature forced me to read not only the classics like Shakespeare but also more modern authors like George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.

Like many other families we also had a piano in the house and music lessons automatically went with it. Betty and I both had piano lessons but sadly neither of us kept it up.  I did have an interest in music as a child, perhaps taking after my mother who enjoyed singing in chapel and at the local operatic society.  I had sung Christopher Robin on stage in Ely where I forgot the words and had to run across the stage to check with the pianist before continuing.  I later played the piano at a concert organised by my teacher, Mr Stimpson.  There were two pieces; The Bee's Wedding by Mendelssohn and Rosemunde Ballet Music by Schubert.  Unfortunately I got lost in the middle of the Schubert so returned to the beginning to start again. I never took to the stage again!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Back to School

By the time I returned to school after my accident I had a lot to catch up on with the first major examinations, known as the School Certificate.  My worst subject was Maths, which also affected Physics and Chemistry. As Dad was an accountant and good with figures, he could not understand my apparent inability to grasp the basics, never mind algebra and geometry.   He just became frustrated and I became upset so it was decided I should receive extra tuition from the school Maths' teacher.  That, together with excellent teaching in class, got me through in the end.  However it was clear by this time that sciences were never going to be my strong point.  I did enjoy art and I managed to cope with the other subjects in the curriculum.

Now I was fit I took up sport again.  Swimming was good exercise and I always took part in the swimming gala at the local open-air pool. In the summer holidays the pool was a great place to meet friends (in particular my three pals John Waters, John Armstrong and Malcolm Ayers) and get to know some of the girls. The other favourite meeting place was the park. There were plenty of tennis courts so this became a sport I enjoyed too. We were even allowed to play bowls under the ever-watchful eyes of the park keepers.

I was not too good at athletics, although I could run well enough to compete on school Sports Day.  Later on, when I was doing Art A level, I was given the job of writing out the winner and place certificates for presentations at the end of the day. My friend and I used to have fun writing out false certificates with our own names on, winning events in spectacularly good times!

I played rugby in the winter, hockey in the spring and cricket in the summer. I was never good enough to play on the first team pitches, which were located adjacent to Park Road and passers-by would stop to watch. I always imagined one day I would represent my school at sport and my chance finally came when they introduced rowing. Located on the River Nene, Peterborough had a good straight stretch of water suitable for rowing, so I eventually discovered my natural sporting inclination.

Monday, 3 October 2011

An Unlucky Break

My sister, Betty and I, 1948

My schooldays in Peterborough were interrupted in 1947 when I was thirteen.  I had just finished a PE lesson in the gym and was running along a path towards the changing rooms located in a separate block.  I tripped on a concrete step and fell heavily on my left side.  The result was a broken leg above the knee, towards the neck of the thigh bone (femur). This put me into hospital for several weeks.  My leg, together with half of the other leg, was put in plaster but because the bone would not knit together properly, I had to have traction to keep it straight. For a few more weeks I had to lie on my back with a splint attached to an overhead pulley and my leg sticking out of the bedclothes.

The weeks extended into months and the autumn into winter. During those weeks I became used to hospital routines; the nurses, doctors, cleaners, porters and miscellaneous hospital staff. Daytime started at 6.30am and lights out was 9.30pm. I was in a men's orthopaedic ward with 19 other patients, the only young boy among men. There were no serious illnesses on the ward, although pain and discomfort were common enough. Patients came and went but I was never alone during the day and never bored as the atmosphere was friendly and I had a constant stream of goodies from visitors. Visiting times became a welcome interruption from the outside world; 'real' people with normal clothes - all I had was a pyjama top!

In due course I was put back in a plaster cast and allowed to go home before Christmas. Snow was on the ground as I returned home.  I had a bed made up for me in the living room and I stayed there for a few more weeks with daily visits from a District Nurse. I had regular visits from friends and homework was brought to me from school. Every month I had to go back to hospital by ambulance for X-rays and a general check-up and then, much to my relief, the cast was replaced by a more flexible bandage. I started walking on crutches and began physiotherapy. By this time winter had turned to spring and then to summer.

Hospital visits continued until it was decided I should spend a few weeks at a rehabilitation centre, located in a fine Georgian manor, Thorpe Hall, just outside the town. The building dated back to the mid 17th century and became more significant to me later on when my interest in architecture began.  It is mentioned in the History of Architecture by Bannister Fletcher (I have a copy of the 1950 edition).  Every week day I used to cycle to the centre, although my leg was stiff around the knee because of being in plaster for so long.

The daily routine included electrical treatment, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, physical training and gardening; all intended to strengthen the wasted muscles. I really enjoyed these days. The adult company helped me grow up and be accepted by older people from various backgrounds. The two things I enjoyed most were the hot lunches and playing football in the grounds under the supervision of an ex-army PT instructor who used to play professional football. I also managed to make a couple of woollen scarves and a small rug on the hand looms in occupational therapy!

A few weeks at Thorpe Hall made me very fit and I was able to return to school after almost a full year off. It was now autumn 1948 and I was kept back a year which actually put me in an age group where I should have been in the first place. Life went back to normal at home and school. Betty returned from her two years in Manchester and began work in a fashion shop in town. Family life reflected the steadily improving post-war economy.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

From Ely to Peterborough

Peterborough was quite a small town in 1945, though compared to Ely it was a huge city to me at the age of 11. It was an industrial town with railway stock yards and industries including brickworks, diesel engine manufacture, canning and other light engineering companies.  And, of course, there was the sugar beet factory. The re-organisation of the British Sugar Corporation brought Father to the new head office in Peterborough where his job was Senior Purchasing Officer responsible for all supplies with the exception of plant and machinery. The biggest single item was jute and the manufacture of jute bags used for bulk storage of sugar processed in the factories. Much of the jute industry was located in Scotland and the North West of England, which took Father away from home from time to time.

We lived at 85 Newark Avenue, in a house owned by the BSC.  The road was typical of suburbia in many towns up and down the country and six years of war had left its mark.  The job of clearing up and re-building was to take some time; there were shortages of raw materials, manufactured goods and food. Rationing continued for a few years, although, to be fair, I was only aware of sweet rationing.

My new world included a change of school. I was able to transfer from the King's School, Ely, to the Grammar School in Peterborough (also the King's school, although founded by a different king, Henry VIII). The first year was full so I was found a place in the second year. My sister Betty left school at 16 and began training for a career in retailing and management.  We had family connections in the retail business so Betty spent two years in Manchester, staying with Uncle Reg who, you may recall, managed a branch of Dunns, the men's outfitters.

I settled well into school life. We lived about a mile away and, like most boys, I cycled to school.  Traffic was not so heavy with cars but roads were full of bikes ridden by workers travelling to the local factories.  Car ownership was a status symbol and a luxury for many families in the late 1940s.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a family which did own cars and remember fondly the different ones Father had: the pre-war Austin 10 gave way to an even older Morris 12 he bought from a local farmer; the classic Flying Standard (1936) a car ahead of its time with a sloping back reminiscent of the Beetle. In the early 1950s he bought his first new car, an Austin Devon with front headlights recessed into the wings. The last car he owned was a Vauxhall Wyvern with bench front seats and a steering column gear change, like most American cars of the time.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Off to School and the end of the war

The war continued to be the background for my childhood and it seems almost incidental now that I actually went to school. I attended a nursery school at the bottom of the road prior to going to the local primary school in Silver Street. Boys and girls were separated and my only memories of girls at school were in the playgounds which were adjacent but separated by a high stone wall. Classrooms were lofty Victorian spaces with timber and glass panel walls and timber boarded floors. Blackboards were supported on free-standing easels at the front of the class next to the teacher's desk which was like a small magistrate's bench, presumably to enhance power and authority.

Our desks were set out in rows with seats attached by wrought iron frames so there was little chance to move about unless summoned to the front of the class or put behind the blackboard. In some cases punishment by the use of the cane was a last resort in an effort to maintain discipline. The strict Victorian teaching methods endured by our parents were still very much in use during our generation.

When I was 10 years old I went to the King's School in Ely as a day boy.  The school is one of the oldest in the country, being founded in the 10th century in the original abbey established by St Ethelred and given its Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1541. Notable alumni include Edward the Confessor. Many of the school rooms are contained within the medieval buildings, including the 'porta' which dates from the 13th century. Even though I was young, I can remember feeling part of a privileged society. This was now 1944 and I suppose my father wanted to give me the best educational opportunities at a time when the future was uncertain for all of us.

It was during my time at King's I was introduced to formal games such as soccer and cricket; I was not much good at either. The school first and second teams played on the main field with its own pavilion a short distance from the school. Everybody else had to trundle down to the communal fields towards the river.  Like most boys I loved to climb trees but on one occasion, as we were sitting up in the trees waiting for our turn to bat, I was pulled out of the tree and fell forward onto the rough ground, making a large gash in my knee. I was sent home; a long way to walk with a scruffy handkerchief tied around my wound. My sister Betty found me when she got home from school; I was sitting with a dishcloth over my leg. She was the perfect nurse as she cleaned and dressed the wound. I think she must have had first aid lessons as she continued to clean and dress the wound over the next few weeks, overseen by my mother. Today we would have gone straight to hospital, but in those pre-NHS years, injuries like this were treated at home.

Although I was no good at ball games, I enjoyed swimming and we were regular visitors to the local open air pool in the summer months. The water was always cold, though the temperature displayed on the outside wall prepared you somewhat for the shock. Another option was swimming in the River Ouse which flows through Ely on the way to The Wash and the sea.

During the war years there wasn't much chance of holidays, however we were lucky to have a car so on an occasional Sunday, Father drove us to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast. I remember it took more than two hours to get there, usually queues of traffic through King's Lynn and often the tide was miles out before we got there. [Note: Where we live now in Lincolnshire, a Sunday trip to Hunstanton has been part of our routine too, especially when my son Rory was young. There may be a bypass round King's Lynn now but there are still queues of traffic.....Trish]

The war in Europe came to an end on 8 May 1945 and, like everyone else, we put the flags out and had street parties. On 14 August 1945 the war in Japan ended following the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The development of the atom bomb represented a major breakthrough in scientfic discovery which, together with the development of jet propulsion, was to change our lives in the future, The age of nuclear power was about to begin. The V1 and V2 developed by the Germans to attack Britain in the later stages of the war became the means by which space travel and technology changed from science fiction to science fact.

Immediately after the war, the British Sugar Corporation moved part of its central offices to Peterborough and Father was promoted to a job as Central Purchasing Officer. This necessitated the whole family moving from Ely and my having to change schools. The distance was only 30 miles but it was a world apart.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Extended Family

1952, my parents' Silver Wedding, surrounded by family and friends.
I'm sitting on the far left, my sister Betty on the far right.

Being the youngest in the family, my childhood days in Ely centred around the home and the adults who were part of my life. I remember feeling very secure and protected within the family. My sister Betty was five years older than me so, to some extent, our interests differed. But, as my mother was one of 12 children, I had lots of aunties and uncles on my mother's side and several cousins.

Auntie Gladys was the nearest with three children; Russell, Brian and Janet.  Auntie Ciss lived in a small village called Prickwillow, 10 miles away in the middle of the Fens. We were lucky to have a car so were able to visit from time to time. She had two children, Mary and David.

Posing in my cricket whites
However I saw far more of Auntie Doris' son, Tony, partly because Mother had a closer relationship with this sister. Doris and Jim Evans lived in a flat above a men's outfitter's shop in Ely which Jim owned. There was only a back yard behind the shop and an outside storeroom but Uncle Jim also rented a large garden behind the High Street shops. It was mostly lawn and flower-beds but had a lean-to greenhouse for growing grapes. This must have been his only place of relaxation as he and Doris only took one week's holiday a year away from the shop. Tony and I used to play cricket on the lawn...carefully.

East Anglia was a farming area so people earned a living off the land or indirectly through the various businesses which served the farming community. My mother's family were almost all involved in retailing. Apart from Uncle Jim with his men's outfitters, Uncle Bert had a shoe shop and Uncle Walter was a manager in a tailor's. Uncle Reg, who lived in Manchester, also managed a men's shop. Reg also married a Doris and had two boys, John and David, both older than me. This was a different world to me and after the war we did pay visits to Manchester to see Reg and Doris' family. Auntie Win, married to Joe Marshall, also lived in Manchester; they radiated a great northern welcome and made me feel instantly at home. They had no children but always made a fuss of me. Uncle Fred also lived in Manchester with his wife, Connie and their son, Freddie.

While on the subject of relations, I should also mention Uncle Harry who lived in Enfield in London. He had a son, Ken, my oldest cousin, who served in the Fleet Air Arm during the war. Uncle Sid and Aunt Elsie lived closer to home in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire with their two sons, Ivor and Dennis. Uncle Wilf and Aunt Agnes lived in Littleport, just outside Ely. He served in the war in Burma and returned home with a very bad skin disease. Finally Auntie Mabel, the oldest of my mother's siblings, who never married, lived in Ely all her life and died when I was quite young.

On my father's side there was only his sister, my Aunt Ettie, who would occasionally come down from Markinch, Scotland. She never married and lived with a teaching colleague, Kate, for most of her working life. As a school teacher, Ettie always encouraged the education of her niece and nephew and I still have a number of books which she gave me over the years. When she retired she came to live in Peterborough to be near us but I feel she was never really happy out of her natural Scottish environment.

People I remember outside the family included Cliff Cousins, Best Man at my parent's wedding and organist at St Mary's Church. Then there was Nurse McGuirk who delivered Betty and me at home and became a friend of the family as we grew up. I also remember 'Auntie Gert', a close friend of my mother who worked as a seamstress in a tailor's shop. She visited us regularly on Tuesday afternoons (half-day closing).

On occasions we were paid a visit by my father's cousin, known to us all as Uncle Wilf. I have very happy memories of a big man with a bald head who was full of fun, with a strong Lancashire accent adding to his comic appeal. His companion was a lady called Flo and I remember Mother did not approve! Wilf always knew how to get me into a fit of giggles with quips like, "Whose coat is this jacket?" and "Don't come down that ladder, I've taken it away!".

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Plums in the Anderson Shelter

Bulb fields in The Fens. Watercolour by J Grinsell 2002

In country areas land was reasonably cheap and many private houses had large gardens. Ours was no exception, with a long drive down the side of the house leading to a rear garden, at least half of which was taken up with fruit trees and a vegetable plot.

Every year the fruit (mostly plums and pears) was picked and stored in the dark air-raid shelter. When war was announced in 1939, the construction of Anderson shelters was deemed a necessity. I have no idea who helped us to build ours but it was constructed of corrugated iron and covered with soil. They were damp and cold and I remember being hauled out in the middle of the night to run to the bottom of the garden and bed down in the shelter. Later on we were issued with a Morrison shelter for inside the house; it was basically a steel box with wire mesh side panels.

Father complained that most of the fruit we harvested seemed to be given to other branches of the family. In fact Mother bottled a lot of the fruit for home cooking throughout the year, anything to add to the basic food ingredients which were available on ration. Father's interest was in growing tomatoes so he spent much of his time in the greenhouse.

Mother's fruit-bottling would also have come in useful in her role as a member of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). She spent some of her time helping out at the local RAF hospital. For those who were able, it became a regular practice for young airmen to come home to tea. I remember wounded servicemen had to wear blue suits with red ties and white shirts so they were immediately recognisable but still subject to military discipline when not on active service.

Childhood friendships in Ely included two boys who lived within cycling distance of home. One was called Christopher Hipwell and lived at the bottom of Cambridge Road. The other was John Stevens whose father had a farm about a mile up the road. I spent many days playing in the garden or on the farm. At an early age I learned to make 'stooks' from harvested wheat.

Other memories of family life in those early years centred around my father and his job with the British Sugar Corporation. The factory turned sugar beet into unrefined sugar but when it shut at weekends I would sometimes go to the factory with my father on Saturday afternoons if he had paperwork to catch up on. I was fascinated with his office and always came away with pencils, rubbers and paper from his desk. The factory had been a target for German bombers and all windows were covered with brown sticky tape to reduce the effects of shattering glass.

The busy times for the factory were during the sugar beet harvest, called 'campaigns'. The British Sugar Corporation became the centre of social activity for the family; sports such as tennis and bowls plus dances and children's parties. This played a huge part in my parents' social life throughout the whole of Father's working life.

Apart from occasional visits to the cinema (the 'pictures' in our day) when British Movietone News was a regular feature, the only information sources were the radio and newspapers. As a youngster I was interested in comics and radio programmes like ITMA, Monday Night at Eight and Dick Barton-Special Agent.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Dad's Army

My father in the Home Guard
The mobilising of civilians to defend our country included the formation of organisations such as the Civil Defence, the Land Army and the Home Guard. My father was just old enough to serve in the First World War at the age of 18. Being born in 1900, it was the last year of the war and thankfully he did not fight in the trenches in France. He did, however, serve in the cavalry regiment. By the time the Second World War broke out he was too old to be called up but he was proud to serve in the Home Guard, first as a sergeant and later as a second lieutenant. .

Initially the Home Guard had no uniforms but gradually they were kitted out and issued with weapons. I still have his leather-covered baton which all army officers had to carry with them. I also have a small pocket book in which Father wrote down in meticulous detail other aspects of weapon training including how to strip down and reassemble a Bren Gun, a procedure I was to experience some years later when doing my National Service.

Before they were armed I remember my father and his Home Guard soldiers carrying out team-building exercises to somehow simulate warfare practices. They gathered two teams either side of a small river. One team would use pitchforks to throw discarded sugar beet from the fields over the river to try and attack the other team. Sounds just the sort of thing that could have been scripted for the Dad's Army sitcom from the 1970s.

How my father relished his 'Dad's Army'. I remember him proudly demonstrating how to fire a 303 rifle in the living room, followed by cleaning the barrel with a 'pull-through' (wadding on the end of a cord). A final inspection looking up the barrel led to him swinging the rifle towards the ceiling and smashing through the glass light fitting.

Silence was followed by him saying,

"I never liked that light fitting anyway."

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Wartime Childhood

We were on a family holiday at Prestatyn holiday camp in North Wales when we heard about the outbreak of the Second World War. Returning home with Britain at war marks the real beginning of my remembered childhood. We lived at 22 Cambridge Road, Ely where I was born in 1934. Betty, my only sister, was born in 1929. My father was now an accountant with the British Sugar Corporation at the sugar beet factory.

The declaration of war jolted everybody into panic and feverish activity. One of the first civilian operations was to evacuate thousands of young children out of London away from the immediate threat of bombing. The children were sent away from their homes without their parents' immediate knowledge of exactly who they would be staying with or where. Meanwhile families in other safer areas had these frightened and confused children billeted on them with no prior warning.

We returned from holiday to find an evacuee virtually on our doorstep. She stayed a few days but I believe she couldn't cope with the shock of such a traumatic event so was probably allowed to go home. We had another evacuee to replace her; this one was older, called Renee, and I suspect my sister Betty looked after her.

I was too young to really understand how difficult it was for everyone to adjust to the reality of war, although I was aware of the presence of the armed services being built up around us in the camps and airfields of East Anglia. We even had a prisoner-of-war camp just up the road which contained Italians captured before the fall of Mussolini. They were allowed to move freely in the local community as they provided labour on the farms. They wore brown battledress uniforms with large yellow patches on their backs and trouser legs. As prisoners-of-war their conditions were a far cry from those in the German concentration camps.

East Anglia and the South East became the base for much of the air force, not just the RAF but for the United States Air Force later in the war. Near us was RAF Bomber Command, based at Waterbeach Aerodrome, flying Lancaster Bombers. On summer evenings we would watch the bombers take off and circle around before flying off in formation to bomb targets in Germany. In the early hours of the morning I would wake to hear the returning aircraft flying in low over the house. On one night I remember seeing a crippled plane being followed by a German fighter determined to make a kill and firing tracer bullets into the rear of the bomber. The local news informed us the following day that the bomber had crashed, killing all those on board.

At night-time the blackout was in force: no street lamps or neon signs, all windows blacked out with special material. Air raid wardens used to tour the streets looking for any chinks of light which might help a German aircraft seek out its target. "Put that light out!" was a familiar warning and was immediately obeyed. Even vehicles were fitted with special hoods over their head-lights to avoid clear beams of light on the road. Obviously I wasn't allowed out into the front street at night but the dark back garden provided all the opportunities a boy needed to play soldiers.

Playing soldiers or airmen required a pal and mine was Bobby Reynolds, with whom I played for hours. He had been evacuated from North London and lived a few doors away. Soldiers, cars, lorries and motorbikes constantly passed our house on the main road and often filled up with petrol at the small garage next door. Bobby and I would pretend to be army despatch riders and ride our tricycles onto the garage forecourt to fill up with imaginary petrol. Occasionally we would venture as far as the bus garage down the road, although we were soon chased out of there. Cambridge Road wasn't very long but as a child I thought the pavement was wide and the slope to the top of the road very steep. Our world hardly stretched to the other side of the street, it was like a foreign land.

However as I grew older my interest in the opposite side of the road grew. Pamela Ward was her name. She was older than me and had a runny nose but this did not deter me from crossing over to the other side from time to time.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Let's start at the beginning

My grandfather, George Albert Grinsell, was originally from Staffordshire. He married Jane Williams in 1885 and moved to Wishaw, Scotland where my father, George Arthur, was born in 1900, along with his only sister Harriet (Ettie) in 1897.

Father grew up in Scotland but his parents died when he was young: he lost his father at the age of 15 and his mother at 17. He joined the Army towards the end of the First World War when he became18, before moving to find work in Manchester, where he lived with his Aunt Sophie for a few years. He then moved further south to work as an accounts clerk at the Ely sugar beet factory in Cambridgeshire.

My mother, Elsie May Ablett, was born in 1898 in Ely, Cambridgeshire, one of twelve children; six boys and six girls.

The Ablett family, my mother Elsie is 2nd  from the right on the top row.

My father met my mother through a colleague at work, Cliff Cousins, who was a member of Ely Operatic Society to which Mother belonged. They were married in 1927.

The marriage of George Arthur Grinsell and Elsie May Ablett, 1927

I was born on July 8th, 1934, the year when Adolf Hitler was officially installed as Fuhrer of Germany. The Nazis and the rise of fascism were matched by communist purges in Russia, illustrating the polarisation of political power in Europe. Here at home, the Queen Mary was launched, driving tests were introduced, Henry Cotton won the British Open Golf Championship and Robert Graves wrote I Claudius.

[If you click on the photos to zoom in you will see the detail of their clothes - the shoes in the wedding photo for instance...Trish]

Thursday, 8 September 2011


At the dawn of a new millennium the young may look forward but the older you are, the more likely you are to reflect on what you may or may not have achieved in your lifetime. I have therefore been inevitably drawn to the idea of setting down thoughts and observations of sixty years of life in the 20th Century.

Whilst this is self-motivated and, I hope, provides some self-satisfaction, I also hope others may find it of some interest. I remember once reading part of a life history written by an uncle of my wife, Eileen. It touched the lives of his family and provided a few surprises for those who had the opportunity to read it. My own father and mother are no longer alive but, as I write, Eileen's mother is still going strong at 92 [she died aged 95 - Trish]. We still have the chance to listen to her memories but I am sure present and future generations would have gained more from something put down in writing.

Written 1999

A Tribute to My Dad

My dad began to write his memoirs in 1999 and, at the time, I suggested I type them up for him. The pair of us began this process with great enthusiasm: I would type a few pages up, he would check and correct them. But then I lapsed with the typing and Dad, because of his illness, Motor Neurone Disease, found it more and more difficult to write. I bought him a tape recorder and he continued his story on tape for a little while. However he never finished his memoirs and I feel so guilty for not encouraging him further.

Dad died in February this year, 2011, and I have only now picked up his old blue book, with his wonderful handwriting in it, and decided I must type up some of it every day. It then occurred to me that it would be a great idea to create his very own blog so the family can read his story right from the beginning. Then, if I become lazy and forget to update, I will have plenty of people to chivvy me up.

Trish Burgess