Mrs Peggy Blake (nee Butcher), was born c 1920. She was interviewed on 5 September 1996, when she lived at 11 The Moorings, St John’s Road, Eastbourne.
For more information about her, see Blake, Peggy, in the People category
Mrs F Yeulett, a friend, was also present, and the interview took place at Mrs Yeulett’s house in Chelmsford.
The original recording of this interview is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at email@example.com or 033301 32500.
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets [e.g. explaining locations etc.]
Note by transcriber: Have cut out a lot of ‘you know’s’, ‘I mean’s’ etc and hesitations. The sound was quite muffled with a lot of background noise at times. Both Mrs B’s & Q’s words are also often unclear.
Note by JG: Mrs Blake did also talk very fast in her efforts to explain things.
[account of trip to London and meeting up with ‘Win’ i.e. Mrs Winifred De Trense, formerly of Witham, and their sons Max Blake and Max De Trense not noted]
Q: You were born in Witham?
Mrs B: Yes.
Q: And was she as well, I’ve forgotten?
Mrs B: No, I think Win was born in Chelmsford. They came to Witham. Her name was Bowhill. And there were three girls. The eldest one married a chap named Gaze. And he owned Whitehall Cinema. And another one died. And Win, when Win was coming up to working age, I don’t know if she did anything before that – but anyway, her brother-in-law sent her up to Durham[?] and – chucked her in the deep end, you see, to learn the general running of the cinema, and then she came down here and managed it. And I was friendly with her sister, before this. But I was always in the Bowhill’s house. And you know, just always been friends.
Q: Where did they live then?
Mrs B: You know, Whitehall, [???] House, and then the terrace row, leading to Yardley’s[?] house. Well, they lived in, I think if I remember right, it was the last one before Yardley’s[?]. But, no, they had a [???] house there. Because Win was always very, very ‘just so’ you know. I was always a tomboy. And when I knew Eve, her sister. I mean, she was a lad too, she and I were made of the same soppy stuff you see, but we were always, always [???] in her eyes. I think I broke through her reserve. Actually it wasn’t there it was at [???] And while I was staying there one day, I’d gone up to the bathroom. And you know what old properties’ sanitary noises are. And this plug, you know, you could hear it in Rivenhall! And I came downstairs and I said ‘Win, I’ve just had a good idea!’ and she said ‘Yes dear, I get all my good ideas up there!’ And we really – it’s always been great. And I’d hate to part with Win. She’s so funny. She came to dinner about – I was up in Chelsea about three or four months ago and she came to dinner. And she said ‘I’ve had my cataracts done! I’m shattered! I had no idea I had all these lines!’ She’s lovely.
My father rented – when he bought that building [2-4 Guithavon Street]– for twelve hundred pounds would you believe? Or twelve hundred and fifty, something like that. 1929 – no, 28/29 – you’ll have to put strokes between the years! And the first bit of the building was let to a family called Sprawling. And they’d got tribes of kids – it was a wonderful name for them to have –because they did, sprawled everywhere. Their father was a postman and he used to annoy the inhabitants by reading all the postcards, as he went! And he used to get to within –
[Interruption – someone talking over etc., not noted. Then comment on how long since have been to Essex etc., and things that had changed between visits, not noted]
Mrs B: …I said ‘That man suffers from the acutest ‘St Vitus Dance’ I’ve ever known’. I said ‘ I wonder if we are talking about the same man?’… This chap said ‘ His name is Ootsie. I said ‘He used to work at the gas works, hold himself in this wretched affliction, until he got to the top of Guithavon Street, and he turned the corner, and he couldn’t keep it in any longer.. And very, very loudly he used to yell ‘Hup, hup, hup’. Because he was so cross with himself, that he couldn’t wait to get home, you see. And she said ‘Where did Ootsie come from?’ So, I don’t know where she came from, she obviously wasn’t Essex, and I said to her, ‘Well, it’s Essex’. ‘How do you mean?’ I said ‘Well, dispense with an ’h’, oo is an o, so Hootsie which as the original nickname, because – no ‘h’, mangle the ‘o’s’ and it became Ootsie’. And he was known as Ootsie as long as I can remember. I don’t think he’s been dead very many years. But he was a lovely old chap. He lived in the first house along Guithavon Street. And you know where the [???] You know if you go along, you go down Guithavon Street, where, um, where they’ve got all these cars parked, well opposite that the very first thing has got like an iron bit over the door. And I believe that’s original. Well, anyway, they’ve got that road in now, haven’t they? Well, the house which is now Knights, the taxi, that used to belong to an old darling called Simpson. And her garden ran parallel to the road and it’s in the book, not of postcards, it’s in there, this long garden.
I’ve been surprised honestly with the amount of change, how much itsy-bitsy bits, I’ve been able to pick out.
[chat about remembering, not noted]
Q: Where you a naughty girl?
Mrs B: No, I was five, and I’d been left in charge of my grandmother and I escaped, with a little boy who lived next door to her. And I’d watched this milkman for a long, long while. What intrigued me, he’d got this vast urn of milk on a horse and cart you see. And he used to have a thing like that, a brass very brightly polished spanner[?]. And he used to go on this thing and he used to run off enough milk to fill his churn and used to go round all the doors doing that into people’s jugs. It’s archaic really, isn’t it. But, anyway, he, I think that was the only slip the dear old man made in his life! He left his spanner on it one day. [Laughing]. So this little boy and I stole up you see, and turned it on. We thought we were only just going to pour a little milk out and just have a little turn and turn it off again. But it came at such a rush, I think we were frightened. The whole of the churn, about [???] emptied down the gutter! And so this little boy and I rushed down the road and hid in the nearest alleyway. It was hours till they found us. My grandmother[?] was terrified about where I was. And my mother, when she found out, was furious. But she was more furious, not with what I’d done, but the fact that Mr Newman said ‘I like that child, she’s a bright child, I like her,’ and refused to take any payment. Now had my mother been able to write a cheque – well, ok. I’d have been told just, ‘No you’re not doing that’ probably she’d have a strong talk to Grandma, but she was still talking about it – she died in ’86. And she was still saying, yes you know, ‘It was awful the way Mr Newman wouldn’t let me pay for that milk!’ (Q: That’s what bothered her?) Bothered her, nothing else bothered her. She knew that I was a …. She started in trying to make a lady of me; she didn’t quite make it! When I joined the Wrens and had gone to sea for most of the War on destroyers, she used to blame them for my total downfall. [Laughs]
Q: This was down Bridge Street, was it?
Mrs B: Yes, that’s where – that’s the one. And there used to be a butcher’s down there as well. His name was Brown, he was a nice old man. And his wife was one of these darlings who helped everybody you know. And she did – I knew his daughter very well, right up until a few years ago, when she died. And I’m still in touch with her daughter who lives in Copenhagen, and she’s married to a Danish dentist. And we are very, very – she calls me her ‘courtesy Mum’. And it’s lovely, that it goes on from generation to generation.
Q: You’ve kept in touch with a lot of Witham people then, haven’t you really?
Mrs B: Very many, actually, but not to be able to have any contact with them, as unless they came up to Shropshire, or whateve. Lots of them went abroad, of course. But this Brown, his business was going down at a rate of knots. Friday nights they did the bills. And if there was a poor person he would say ‘Mother, don’t send that one. Don’t send that bill this week.’ And he did eventually go bankrupt. But he was a lovely man. Then they turned that butcher’s shop into part of their living quarters. And they lived next door to people called Millidge. And I believe she’s still about. Have you heard of her? Pauline her name was.
Q: Yes, certainly a few years ago I’ve seen her.
Mrs B: I haven’t seen Pauline for a long long while. But, that was a butcher in Bridge Street. But getting back to the building, [2-4 Guithavon Street] when Dad bought it, he’d got the Sprawlings sprawling all over that bit, you see, so –
Q: Which bit were they in?
Mrs B: That would be the very end bit – the bit that they’ve built the entrance to the night-club, right next to that.
Q: The far end of the tall building?
Mrs B: Mmm. going down. Because the Whites who owned the building at that time, had a draper’s[?] shop there. They also had another one at Tiptree.. And he and his brother, Cliff White, built the bungalows at Jaywick, the first ones out there. But when he – my father was weathering a sticky time through the Wall Street Crash because he’d quite a lot of commercial stock and when it came to catalogues and illustrating book covers and stuff like that, people were pulling their horns in. I believe – I was nine, so I don’t know much about it, but I believe it was quite a horrendous time for everyone. So business was a bit slack and it coincided with Mr White wanting to sell the whole building and my father just didn’t have anything like the money he was asking and – [Laughing] – my mother had gone out for the day. And Mother spent her whole married life saying ‘Oh George!’ She was a darling – a wonderful wife – and my father loved her. But my father was in the twentieth century and mother was in the nineteenth! And everything – she used to call herself ‘Stonewall Jackson’ because she wanted everything to be cut and dried and no fiddling about. And my father – well, you could say that my mother enjoyed the victory and my father was the one who enjoyed the fight, you know? [Q laughs]. And I always used to tell them I was born of a perfect pessimist and a perfect optimist. If my father was filling my glass, he would say ‘Oh, let me have your glass, dear, it’s only half full’. If Mother filled it she’d say ‘Let me have your glass, dear, it’s half empty’. Absolutely personified it, didn’t it. (Q: What was her name?) Her name was Hilda, and as you may guess, never had any trouble with words. My father used to say [???] [???][noise in background covers words]. Apparently when I was a year old I could say most words I was asked to say. But the one word I could not say was ‘Hilda’. And ‘Holla’ was the nearest I got. All my friends have called her that the whole of my life she’s been called ‘Holla’. And she was intrigued really as to how how I could possibly mispronounce it to that degree. Until one day she took me to the zoo, and my mother was a very – well – she liked things to be right, you know, not dream of intruding in anything. But she was so intrigued she broke her lifelong rule. A little girl ran up to a lady and said ‘Holla, Holla’. And my mother said to this lady, ‘ Do excuse me but is your name Hilda?’ and of course the woman was rather surprised and said ‘Yes, it is.’ So the poor child had been – it’s funny really, isn’t it? So, anyway.
Q: I keep distracting you, you were telling me when you were thinking about buying the building.
Mrs B: Yes. He went to meet her off the train, and she said the usual, ‘Oh George!’ Because, you see, he had several branches – all branches of photography. Sittings[?], ordinary sort of wedding portraits, what you call – he used to do a lot of [???] people , what we called the ‘pot-boilers’. And then there was the press agency, the mid-Essex reporting agency and that covered for all the London daily papers, and ‘Country Life’ and the farming magazines. Then there was commercial things, like buildings, cataloguing, oh everything!
Q: So did he do reporting as well? (Mrs B: Oh yes.) I wonder how he had time for all that!
Mrs B: Oh he wasn’t a one man, he had staff. But we moved in those days, dear, in any case – I wasn’t – I mean I was a child, obviously. Oh and on top of that, we had what would be called the ‘Civic Advice Bureau’ It was a small town and in those days a solicitor’s letter would terrify the average cottager. They wouldn’t know what to do with it! And they used to bring it in to my father. And he used to calm them down, sort them out, tell them what it meant, write them a letter and do everything but stamp it and send them away, relieved, you see. So, in 1946, they started the Civic Advice Bureaus. And my father exploded. He said ‘We’ve had one of those here for years! [Laughs]. He was a great chap. He’s the bloke you should have been talking to. He’d got a wonderful – he listened to everything and he remembered everything. He had no secretary and when he paid off the building – I mean the business completely and then pleased himself, he was 58. And he did only specialist photography – mostly animal photography – what he wanted to do. And they bought a 250-year old farmhouse at Stanway. You know the Tollgate … he’d been down to Thorpe Bay, and then we were living in [???] Crescent in Colchester at that time, so they moved up to be near us. So [???] and then we cleared up to Durham, anyway, that’s another story. But, my mother used to try and catch him out, because his memory was so photographic. And she was sitting there one day with her [???], and she said, the phone rang and a man said ‘You photographed a prize bull for us sixteen years ago’. ‘Well, where are you?’ said Dad. And it was sort of mangel-wurzel country, he knew every five-barred gate. So my mother said, with enormous satisfaction said ‘That’s got you, George!’. No filing system at all! He had shelves and shelves of plate – you remember plate boxes – you used to buy them in? He just used to write on the outside of them, like that, and that was it. And there was packs of them. And he was back in ten minutes, he’d got that, he’d found that plate. But he just was dead lucky. Whatever my father would have gone in for, that photographic memory would have turned him into any profession he wanted. Because – he might not have necessarily made a wonderful doctor, or a wonderful historian, but he would have the words, he’d have the ‘spiel’.
In the following piece PB drops her voice, or whispers, or speaks confidentially or quickly or changes the subject so that at times her speech is indistinguishable. I have either made guesses following the context of her speech or put brackets and question marks in bold where this occurs)
Q: Where did he come from?
Mrs B: He was born – I believe he was born in Braintree. And his father died when he was four. And my grandmother married again when he was sixteen. [???] [???]you can imagine what it could be like? (Q: Yes.) And he was younger than my grandmother, too. And my father was seventeen I think, eighteen and he cleared off. And apparently his stepfather wanted him to go put him into a solicitor’s office and settle, you know. And go get his articles but four walls wasn’t my father. I suppose. it was like, whatever [???] said would have been wrong..Anyway, my grandmother bought him a camera. And he went off. It took them three weeks to find him and when they did find him, he came back on condition he had a darkroom. So they made him a darkroom and I suppose they had sort of written him off a bit. And he used to go out and photograph anything, no matter what. And come back and do it. He started as small as that. And in no time at all, I mean, he’d got a business. He could work all hours God made. But before that – or just after that – he went up to London to see his cousin – they both had the same name. And my grandmother saw him three weeks later in uniform. He’d joined Kitchener’s first hundred thousand,. And he went through all the big battles in the war [First World War] and his cousin was blown to bits beside him in Passchendaele – and I mean, they were like brothers. Because my father was an only child and he had neurasthenia and trench fever and he was being invalided out. And my father used to say ‘My dear, you could lose two legs and an arm for the forces [???] and they’d still keep you in.’ But of course, with him, neurasthenia [???] and he was sent straight into the Flying Corps and sent up in these old crates tied up with paper clips and string, leaning over the side, – a near thing. Nothing like deck-head[?] cameras in those days. And he would have to come down and make mosaic maps and lecture to the troops. So when he finally got out this neurasthenia was quite acute. But he had a Harley Street bloke who taught him to put himself to sleep. And he had what he used to call ‘war heads’ till I was twelve. But anyway, with all these business worries and when the Crash came, I mean, my mother was terrified that that would set him back. But he still went on having these ‘war heads’ and in between the ‘war heads’ he’d get on with the work.
Q: How did it affect him then?
Mrs B: What the neurasthenia? Only that he could be on a slightly shorter fuse than most people. But nothing really alarming. But you see he was living with a woman at utter peace, a woman he adored, and a woman who – I mean she wasn’t daft. She wouldn’t be sat on, but where she could have made a sharp answer, she didn’t make it. And as I say at the time I was twelve years old, ’32, all was well. (Q: [???]) He was in hospital for two years, you see, they sent him down to Brighton and he used to go over the wall at night. He couldn’t bear to be confined in the place. And he another chap, they used to go out to the theatre. And [laughing] hospital blues! Yes, but then he was introduced to my mother and that was it. He fell hook, line and sinker.
[story about her mother’s sister’s honeymoon in Brighton, husband Bert recalled to unit so P’s mother went to join sister instead, not noted.]
But when he went up to the train, to meet her from the train, he told her that White was selling the building. ‘Oh George! What will we do?’ Because they’d just established – and it’s terribly important when you’ve got umpteen different branches of business. You’ve got all the different paperwork and headings and everything. And so he said’ I’ve bought it’. And she said ‘But George, you don’t have any money’. And he said ‘Well, we’ll sort that out’. And he went down to Frank Foster who was the manager of Lloyds Bank and he said ‘ Would you like a building?’ And so – Frank Foster was a very cautious man – and so he said ‘Well, yes George, but what are you getting at?’ So he said – you see, at that time, after the Wall Street Crash, Kodaks, [???], Agfa, Ilford, all the photographic firms supplying materials – I mean they weren’t going to get their fingers burnt, every other business in the country was. So they – to try and sort things a bit – said if you paid your account within the first ten days of the month then you got this colossal discount – and it was colossal. So my father had worked it out. He said ‘So, if I turn the business over to you, would you allow me to write all the cheques I want to write?’ Now he‘d know very well, Foster, I mean he knew what Dad was getting at. He told him all – he knew he wasn’t going to sort of write a quarter of a million cheque and scarper. And so he did. And it was marvellous. And they paid off the building. They had to have the mortgage the same. It was enterprising, wasn’t it?
Q: So the bank helped with the business as well and everything?
Mrs B: Well, no, they didn’t have any – all they had was the building as security and they met whatever cheques he wrote. And I think they paid it off in 1935.
Q: So that would have happened in 1930ish then?
Mrs B: About ’29 or ’30. And then of course, another thing that helped enormously was that the Bata Shoe Company had invaded England and they were opening shops here and there. So they negotiated for that double-fronted shop [68 Newland Street, adjoining Butchers’ studio at 2-4 Guithavon Street] and I think I told you – I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when the negotiations were going on with no Czech from Dad and no English from the Czechs, you know. So whether he overcharged them we never knew, but it did help an awful lot. But then that meant that – oh and then there were tenants in the first floor flat all the way along – ex Batas. So there was rent from them. Although my father wanted to get them out as son as possible. So when their agreements died out, he was lucky enough not to have to evict them. Well, he didn’t want to, but I mean there was no nastiness about it. And so we moved into the first floor living quarters – altered it, you know, made it a bit more modern. But he didn’t do any structural alterations.
Q: And that was the shop on the corner, what is now…?
Mrs B: No. We are talking about the [???] I ought to go and get the book of the picture of that building – let me go and get the one I’ve brought. There’s another one that gives all the window –
Mrs B: …..He used to exhibit photographs in [???] before they got on to the wall[?]. You know, it’s a bit difficult for professional exhibitions. It weren’t quite as easy as now. That crash, by the way [???] My father [???] he saw the frightful injuries and my grandmother told me once that he didn’t eat for about five days. Absolutely horrific.
Q: He would have been quite young then? It was 1905. [Cromer express rail crash at Witham]
Mrs B: 1905. I think he was born in 1892. He’d be fourteen, wouldn’t he?
Q: But he lived in Braintree?
Mrs B: Oh no, he lived in Witham by then. I remember Joe Glover’s …
Q: Sorry to interrupt you.
Mrs B: No, go on, if you don’t interrupt me you won’t get the thing [???]
Q: When he lived in Witham, where did they live?
Mrs B: He lived with my grandmother first. Because he had a studio in Chancery Lane. This was his second go. In 1919 he had a studio in Chancery Lane. He was doing all commercial work. He was doing very well indeed, But in 1919 firms opened and went bust in a fortnight. And he had two firms went bust on him, and one couldn’t pay for three months. And he and my mother – my mother was a very proud woman. She’d had a pretty luxurious life – her father wasn’t really hard up by any means. And she’d got that pride that they had – Victorian – at the end of the Victorian era. They do now, some of them. And they were walking through Hyde Park and she begged him to come back to Essex. She said ‘Let’s go, before we get into debt, too, before we owe anyone anything. It meant so much to him[?] he’d do anything she said. So they came back to Witham and started all over again. But the press work started down in Witham in a curious way. He heard through – somebody just telling him – that there was a wolf terrorising the residents of Great Totham. When you think what puerile news it was then. But you didn’t discuss the whole of the world’s sex life in the papers as news, then. So I suppose it was news. So, when he got up there he found it was an Alsatian dog. And so he photographed it playing with children. And then he telephoned the art editor of the Daily Sketch and asked them if they wanted the pictures and the story. And they said ‘Yes please’, so it started from there. And when it got to 1936 – this would have been about 1922 or something like that, ’21. There were several firms of photographic agencies out there and the one that was the most successful was the one called ‘Topical’. And Topical would – if they got a picture that the other dailies wanted – or dailies or anybody wanted – they’d charge up to a hundred pounds a picture, pre-war. And the King’s funeral, all the newspapers – the old King, King George the fifth, in ’35 that would that be – yes, ’35, they got their fingers badly burned because Topical bought up all the stands and their photographers got all the good pictures. And they made a bomb farming them out. So in 1936 Daily Sketch got well in, because, you know, there’s a year’s preparation for a coronation. And they bought up 42 stands, [Q laughs] two of them either side – there’s some lovely wheeler-dealing – two stands either side of Buckingham Palace. And they called up all their freelance men like Dad. And they gave him two stands, one either side of Buckingham Palace, and a Fleet Street runner. And as he took his pictures so they were rushed back to Fleet Street, sold beside him on the street. And he just – he never ever failed anything – he didn’t mind what challenge there was.
Q: He was very brave wasn’t he.
Mrs B: He died like that. He had lung cancer at 63 and he fought right to the end. When he was unconscious he was – you know – ‘I’m not coming!’ But that was Dad, he was a marvellous fellow. And as a father he was a brother, do you know what I mean? I’d break any date as a youngster if I was going up to London with my father. We’d have such a good time [Laughs].
Q: Did you have brothers and sisters?
Mrs B: No, my mother nearly died when I was born and my father thought, that’s it – he wasn’t going to lose his precious – so yes I was an only child. I don’t think we were very good it at on the whole, because I scrambled two eggs before Max was born. And then I mangled all the machinery so I couldn’t have any more. [Laughs] Shame, really.
Q: It often – problems often do go in families, doesn’t it?
[Her experiences in hospital etc]
Q: Where did you meet your husband?
Mrs B: In Witham. He came to – he was with the Health Service and he came to what was then Bridge Home and he was secretary to the superintendent doctor there and he got a job as secretary to Black Notley Hospital after that. And when the appointed day…, he was invited go as Supplies officer in the new Health Service. He was a chartered secretary. He was too well qualified really for the job. He could have had a good company secretary job in industry but he liked hospitals and – as I say, he was employed by the Ministry of Health and he got jobs which were interesting and he spread himself, he was no dummy and we just went on and on. He’d – we just enjoyed it. I used to lie back and let him do what he liked, because whatever he did was right and – I wouldn’t say that I was any genius at anything. My father used to say ‘Well, darling, you can’t do anything else you can always be a photographer.’ Which I was, of course.
Q: When did you marry?
Mrs B: 1940. I lied about my age, I was a child bride. He was about seven or eight years older than me. But the reason – [looking at photo] my aunt didn’t like cats and my mother and I loved them. At that time we had a Burmese cat and I took this photograph of our Burmese and enlarged it up and sent it to her and I said ‘I asked Solomon to pose for you’. All the people I’ve seen, I’ve been – having to go all through the years, really.
Mrs B: That’s how I spent part of my war.
Q: This is a destroyer is it?
Mrs B: Yes. Nearly all were [???] class destroyers.
[chat about her son Max, a banker, not noted]
Q: Are you in this one (looking at photos)
Mrs B: As a pom-pom girl. There. That’s the camera.
Q: You look as if you are enjoying it, did you? [being in the Wrens in the Second World War]
Mrs B: Oh yes.
Q: Weren’t you frightened?
Mrs B: No! Well, you don’t when you’re young, do you? No, I was a red-haired tearaway, me. And they used to dress us up like nasty rough sailors and rope ladders to get up on. No fancy ladders and then when you got off the ship – night and day this was – they used to take away the guard rail and you used to stand on the edge, the bit that the cat walked on normally – and when the ROSPA[?] were launched – we used to be about fifteen miles out – and when ROSPA[?] launch came up on the wave, you jumped down on it. But, you got used to it. You used to sting your feet occasionally. No, it was – there was a war on, dear – we women did all sorts of things we wouldn’t have done normally.
Q: They didn’t all join the Wrens did they? [Laughs]
Mrs B: I couldn’t get in! This was the rotten part. I was on colour[?] photography with my father. And if you were reserved you stayed put. And John had been adrift for about ten days. And I thought ‘Blow this for a lark!’ And one day I was developing away in the darkroom up that road there, and I went upstairs ‘I’m going to join up.’ ‘You can’t’ said my father, ‘And anyway,’ he said ‘You’ve never done as you’re told, all your life, you’ll be in ‘jankers’ every day.’ ‘I don’t care.’ I said ‘He’s been in a year, he’s done nothing, I’m going in and finish it.’ ‘No you can’t dear’ he said ‘You’re reserved and that’s the end of it.’ So I kept on grizzling about it and finally he wrote to the president of the Professional Photographers Association, a chap named Barton, and he worked on it for me and he got me de-reserved. So I hie up to Whipps Cross all ready for the ‘off’ and they say ‘The photographic section’s closed.’ So I said – it had been closed for eight months. So I said ‘Well, I can’t do anything else, you’ll just have to show me something.’ So she said ‘Leave it with us and we’ll let you know.’ So a fortnight later they summoned me up there again and they said – they’d written – I’d been with Kodak’s for a short while – and they said ‘You’re fully trained, we’ve written to Kodak’s, we’ve got glowing references everywhere, so you go, we’ll put you in’. So that’s how I started. Then they took me down to – sent me down to an AA range at Eastleigh[?] and I did absolutely damn all! Ten days – I’ d done nothing. I used to work till ten o’clock at night for my father. And of course, I was getting fed up with this so – then a visiting admiral came to inspect the section. A peppery little old toad who had been in since the Navy began. And you could see by his expression that he didn’t go much on women in his Navy! And he – rude! He looked me up and down and up and down and then he said ‘What support do you give to the section?’ Well, the fact that I’d done nothing, I said ‘Mainly moral, sir. Well, that did it! I didn’t think anything of it. I’d spoke the truth. Went back to the darkroom, after a while when the admiral had departed I had a – a Wren runner came up – ‘Tommo’s’ office – quick!’ And we’d discussed cameras and his hobby was mending jewellery and so I used to mend his cameras and he used to mend my jewellery. Getting on very well for ten days acquaintance. When I went in he said ‘Are you mad?’ So I said ‘Have I done something wrong?’ ‘Bloody wrong? You and your ‘mainly moral’!’ I said ‘Well, it was the truth.’ And he said ‘How long have you been in?’ I said ‘Ten days.’ He said ‘Well, all I can say to you is that you should have found out by now that ten days in is long enough to know that you only tell the truth in the Navy, when it’s most expedient!’ [Q laughs] He had a rotten time, that bloke, though. We had a girl, a gunnery analyst. And she was absolutely negative. I’d never met a negative person before. Nothing wrong with her, but she was pale, she didn’t get excited, didn’t get angry. She had – just a nothing. And she had one passion – guns. And on one of the little flat roofs were a load of small arms, Haulikons[?], things like that. And every lunchtime – they were always unloaded and Jerry’s weather plane used to come up the estuary every day – but they were still unloaded. And this girl used to go round all of them and [makes ‘click’ noise several times] all on her own, that was her ‘daily dozen’. And the Dafty, there was a magazine left in one of them, A great big black thing, and she ignored it. And of course, it was loaded and of course –[???] [???] all over the sections. Fortunately everybody was in the various messes but there were a thousand Wrens and sailors on that site that she could have caught. So she got into the rap The Petty Officer went in with her, and as she was waiting to go in, we were saying ‘We’ll pack for you Elsie’ because everyone thought she’d get the drop[?] and she came out – nothing – she wasn’t even red in the face. ‘What’d you get?’ ‘Nothing’. I said to the Petty Officer ‘Elsie – she did get something, was she in shock?’ ‘Shock? Nothing could shock her,’ she said ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. Old ‘Tommo gave her the same spiel as he gave you and then he said ‘Child[?], you may go. Your crime is so great, fitting punishment cannot be found.’’ She got away with it! Anyway, that isn’t what we were talking about.
Q: Go on, it’s interesting. Was your husband in the forces?
Mrs B: He was at Black Notley hospital and he wouldn’t –
Q: So he was reserved? Right through the war?
Mrs B: Yes, and they wouldn’t let him go. And he wanted to go. And Dr Wilkie -Wilkinson – he sympathised with John – John used to say to me ‘It’s my generation’s war. If I don’t get in it, I won’t live with myself’. And Wilkinson realised what it was like and he helped him to get clear. And he joined up – he joined the Navy straight away. And he was a long distance swimming champion and I think he had visions of waving palms and hula-hula girls and bags and bags of swimming. Got Russian convoys for the war! But he – nothing fussed him, he was always very calm.
Q: Where did he come from before he came to Witham?
Mrs B: John – he was born in Devonport. His father was a career soldier and he lived in Ireland, during the Sinn Fein – in the twenties. Because he was eight years older than me. [???] – oh, can’t remember. But they came down to Colchester and Pop, who was just due for his ‘Major’s’ was axed under the Geddes Act. He was only forty-five. Oh, it broke his heart. So John grew up in Colchester, really. But we were gypsies after that. But it was a good life, really. Any way, the buildings.
Q: You were going to find a picture of the building were. You helped with the photography then, did you always help your father with the photography, right from when you were young? Or was it just when you left school?
Mrs B: No, after I left school. No, you weren’t allowed to go – things come about by fate you know, don’t they? I didn’t want to do photography, didn’t know a beehive from a bulls foot about it. He used to give me – he gave me a little box camera when I was seven. I used to line up all my little friends and click away, but that was all. I wasn’t really interested. And then – but I did – I thought – there weren’t many girls did the job then. And being a reporter I thought sounded very ‘glam’ – I’d do that. I was very good at English, not much good at anything else. And – it was a piece of cake – no problem at all. But – to do the job right, you’d got to go on a provincial paper as a reader for about eighteen months before you were allowed out to report the village fete, you know. And you didn’t get yourself on a London desk until you’d done that. And so my father lined me up for a reading desk and the owner of the paper put his nephew in, in my place. And so I’d had to take second place for the next agency. In the meantime my father said ‘Let me set you off,’ he said. ‘If you combine photography with – ‘ I knew shorthand from school and he said ‘Go on, have a go at it. Oh no! I know what happened. I was still at school, that’s right. I was fifteen and a half. And the old man of Braintree, old Bartram came to – his mansion was our school. And there was a fete the Countess of Warwick was going to open. And my father had the private order for the groups and the pictures of the Countess of Warwick. And also, the local papers were the only ones who were interested from the press point if view. And I was still at school and I came in at one o’clock that day and – they were going mad! They’d overbooked! And there was one photographer short. What they used to do was to take off with their list of where they were going – they might be doing a wedding, and a fete and a -whatever. Very few commercial jobs on a Saturday. Weddings were potboilers, they brought in a lot of cash. So everybody’d got their jobs to do and this fete should have been taken in on one of those and no one could really get to it to cover. So as I walked in my father said ‘ Nothing for it, she’ll have to go!’ ‘What you talking about’. I said. ‘Dad, I can’t … ‘ They were press cameras. I said ‘I can’t use a press camera!’ ‘Damn soon teach you!’ and I got half an hour’s tuition. And you know with press cameras didn’t have focussing and exposure. They had what you called a ‘blind’ in the back of the camera, plate camera. And this sort of cloth blind, and according to how much that was open so it gave it exposure, you know when you stop down on a camera lens? (Q: Yes) Well, that was the same thing. He set the blind for me. [???] He set that blind, and away you go, and when I got there, and oh, I couldn’t drive of course, I was only fifteen and a half, and he phoned up one of his cub reporters who used to help and he said take her there, and all the way to Braintree I kept saying ‘Be a sport, take them for me’. [???] And when I got there, I started off with this group with the Duchess of Warwick in the middle, but the Dean of Bocking’s wife was there, and she’s the one person in all the world that I could really put, she was a vinegary woman, and she said ‘???’ child, ‘???’. And the Countess of Warwick said ‘Leave the child alone.’ [???] Anyway, I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but I did cut the Dean of Bocking’s wife’s head off. [laugh]. I took a few more and then I got bold and I took action shots then, you see, the old man of Braintree bowling for the pig. I moved the camera of course. But the paper, the editor rang up my father and I mean, seeing a [???] of camera movement, he said that they were going to publish it because it was the old man of Braintree, you see, Bartram. [???] [???} So this editor said, ‘George, you didn’t take those pictures, did you?’ And he said ‘Or your staff?’ And he said ‘No, Peg did.’ So ‘Oh, right, he said’. And ‘She’ll get the by-line’. And I did. Oh, school couldn’t hold me back, by line, my name under a published photograph, boy. So then I started getting interested, and I thought well I did that, so it sort of fired me a bit. But the trouble was that you couldn’t be trained in photography until you’d had a year in a commercial studio, working in a commercial studio. So when I left school, we weren’t allowed to leave school until we’d got a job, but they took in anything bordering on an apprenticeship, so I was able to leave when I was sixteen. I did a year with my father, you see. That’s to get the year in that they demanded. And then Kodaks had a college and I went to that. And then I came home, what did I do after that? Yes, I stayed with my father. (Q: That was in London was it, Kodak’s) Yes. It was in Wealdstone[?] actually they had the school down there where the factory used to be. (Q: So did you have to live there?) Sorry? (Q: You lived there as well, did you?) Oh yes. (Q: That was a big change for you, did you enjoy that then?) Yes but I had to go to a fenced in lodgings, you couldn’t breathe, the old girl wasn’t in the twentieth century. And, but, oh no, it was a pretty strict carry-on. And (Q: You learnt the job.) you didn’t train fully there you see, you, I mean you can go on learning photography for ever. (Q: These photographs was it glass plates?) No, not entirely.
[chat re refreshments, and talk about ‘Fred’ Yeulett, (born in London and then to Braintree), at whose house interview took place in Chelmsford, and about a mutual friend]
Q: Did he ever go to college, your dad, in the end, or he just taught himself photography?
Mrs B: Oh yes, he would avidly read, and never forget. (Q: So he didn’t go …?) No, but as I say he got the highest accolades in … When he died, one of the dailies wrote and said not only would he be missed for his brilliant photography but for his ‘lively and mordant wit’ (Q: When was it he died, he was quite young you said?) Yes, 63, he died in ’56. Oh it was a horrible shock.
[looking at photos] That’s old Joe Glover’s. That, he built onto that, and used to be steps round there, and he used to stand on that step, he was completely cross-eyed, almost to one eye in the other socket, and he never missed a trick. We’d a cross-eyed Siamese you see [???] ‘That thing can’t see’ and I said ‘What about Joe Glover’.
[chat about Mrs Yeulett again, and Peg’s parents retiring, etc. not noted]
Mrs B: [looking at photo] Oh dear old Sammy Page, he was lovely, always had a drip on his nose and called everybody [???] ninety either ‘Sonny’ or ‘Missy’. And John, very much on his dignity when I first knew him in his early twenties, we went down the High Street together and Sammy Page was standing there on the steps with his drip and he was saying ‘Morning Missy, Morning Sonny’. And John said ‘What did he call me?’ (Q: So that was second hand, it was furniture wasn’t it). Yes, this is Sammy Page. (Q: Second hand furniture?) Yes, but he used to keep the population in gas stoves and sideboards for a song. He’d, he told us that he used to do, he used to work on a small profit and a quick turnover. Oh he was a dear. But the funny thing was [???] [???] there’d be army surplus greatcoats hanging on the inside walls of the hall, so you had to go in sideways, fat men do not apply, you know. And it was difficult to get through. That side you could be a, well, plebeian sort of furniture and, they’d call it cottage furniture or something, secondhand, ‘Let’s make do with that till we get some money for proper furniture.’ And on the right hand side he used to have antique jewellery and nice bits of antique. Old Sammy used to tot up some really quite nice stuff at times. (Q: Where did he get it all from?) He used to go round buying up houses. That was Sammy Page. And that’s his daughter, I think, not his wife. But they were a lovely lovely family. Really lovely.
[Chat about painting of portrait of Peg when young, and old engraving of Witham, more conversation with Mrs Yeulett, not noted]
Q: Did you used to go there? [Whitehall cinema]
Mrs B: Oh yes, I was fourteen I think when that opened, that was the first, I don’t know what the film was now. We didn’t get coloured things there. And Win [Mrs De Trense] told me that had they had, it was a single storey, and she say that even if they, they couldn’t buy the latest releases in films because had they done so, then filling that cinema wouldn’t pay for the hiring of it. So we used to get things slightly out of date by a thousand years. I can remember that being a café there. (Q: Yes, next to it. That was somewhere to go wasn’t it, it must have been quite exciting when it opened).
Mrs Y: When I first came to Essex you just went to the pictures once a week. Irrespective of what was on, really.
Mrs B: Well yes, we used to get one free ticket because Win was manageress, you see, and she used to save two of the chummy seats in the back row for Johnny and I, they were armchair ones, you know.
[Chat with Mrs Yeulett, and Peg living in Durham, not noted]
Continued on tape 173