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