Introduction by Janet Gyford
The text was written by James Lees (later known as Dickie), with sections by his father Stanley, who was Cashier in Charge at the Midland Bank. James’ younger brother was Christopher (nicknamed Topher). Jill, born in 1940, was the boys’ younger sister. Their mother was always present but not named.
The Midland Bank building is number 57 Newland Street, In the past it was sometimes known as Witham House, sometimes Newland House, and sometimes Guithavon House. At present (in 2019) it is Valero’s restaurant.
The original text was kindly sent to me by James Lees. Unfortunately I have lost touch with him since, and so I have not obtained permission to post this digital version. So if any of the Lees family would like to get in touch with me, I’d be very pleased to hear from them.
Original text written by James Lees
I moved to Witham in the summer of 1937. My father was the chief cashier at the Midland Bank at 57 Newland Street. We lived in the lovely Georgian house “above the shop” with a fantastic garden which was to be my play world for the next 10 years. Obviously my early memories are fairly sparse, but based on photo albums and other information I realize I was lucky in that I was born into a family who had not been affected by the depression or the political turmoil of the thirties. I was born in 1935 and in 1937 my brother was born. My mother was typical of her age in that she stayed at home running the household and looking after the children but we did have a nanny for the years up until the war.
When we arrived in 1937 the garden I suspect had been a little neglected. I have a photo showing me helping my father cut grass which looked like a hay field. One of my earliest memories is of the house next door at 59 Newland Street being demolished and I believe next door some soldiers, probably the Essex Regiment, being billeted. I used to visit them because the boundary was down. During the pre-war years I have memories of a summer holiday at Mersea. During either 1938 or 1939 I remember watching a Carnival parade going down Newland Street and also watching the Essex Regiment “Beating the Retreat”. Obviously from our house we had an excellent view of anything passing up or down Newland Street. This might be a good point to describe the house.
The house has three floors and cellars. As you looked at the front there was an impressive front door between two pillars. The door served as the house and bank entrance. As you entered the building up some steps the bank entrance was to the left and we entered our house through a door straight in front. Once through this door one stood in a long hall with a door to the right which went into the front lounge. This room was rectangular with three large windows looking out onto the high street and one small window which was to the left of the fireplace and opposite the door. In this room there was a trap door in the floor which led into one part of the cellar which also extended under the bank and included the bank vault. In the war my mother used to take us into this cellar during air raids.
Returning to the hall, straight ahead was another door leading out through a small porch to the garden. Half way to this door was a staircase on the right hand side which led upstairs to the first floor. Halfway up the staircase on the right a door led to a toilet that was over the small porch leading to the back garden. The stairs eventually opened out onto a large rectangular Landing.
Returning to the hall, just before the back door an entrance on the right, under the stairs led into a dining room and then from this room a door led into a large kitchen with an old cooking range. The entrance from the hall to the dining room also had a door to the right which led down some steps to another cellar area which was where the coal for the fires was stored.
Standing in the back porch looking into the garden one saw a passage way on the right which led to the kitchen and off this passage was another toilet and a small pantry. On the wall in this passage our parents used to record our rate of growth by pencilling a mark on the wall with the date.
Returning to the 1st floor landing, there were 6 doors leading off it. The three doors facing the front of the house led into, from the left, a large room which for most of my time in the house I remember as the living room, the middle room, became my bedroom and play room, and the last room another bedroom. Following round to the right was another bedroom which was my parent’s bedroom with windows looking out over the garden. Next to this room was a small bathroom. Finally the last room which also faced the garden we called the nursery, although I am not sure why as for most of the war it was a kitchen. The large old fashioned range in the original kitchen used too much fuel and so a smaller modern “Ideal Boiler” was installed in this nursery room to provide hot water. From this “nursery” two windows overlooked the garden and the roof of the large downstairs kitchen.
My memories of home at this stage and just after the war started are mainly of the old kitchen. This room had a large black range which was used for cooking and heating water. We also had a “Revo” electric cooker – a modern appliance of the day. Since I can remember we always had a dog, my earliest that I remember was called Gay, a Pembroke Corgi, later we had a Dachshund called Jenny. While talking about dogs I can remember sitting at the back door of the old kitchen eating dog biscuits and old toast that had been put out for the birds, (not because I was starving!! but because I liked them). By this stage my brother was around and I can remember him being tied to the leg of the kitchen table while he was sitting on his potty – he stayed there until he had done his business.
In this kitchen I also remember my mother making cheese from sour milk and later from goat’s milk and hanging the butter muslin cloth containing the cheese over the tap to allow the whey to drip into the sink. Another process I remember from this time was salting green runner beans to preserve them. This was done in a stone crock putting layers of beans and then layers of salt and keeping them in the cool larder for use later in the year. They were not particularly nice but frozen food did not exist. We kept chickens so surplus eggs were also preserved in a bucket of isinglass, a clear jelly substance that coated the eggs and preserved them so that they could be used later for cooking. Isinglass was originally made from dried fish swim bladders but sodium silicate was also given this name and used as an egg preservation agent through the early 20th century with large success. When fresh eggs were immersed in it, bacteria which caused the eggs to spoil were kept out and water was kept in. Eggs could be kept fresh using this method for up to five months. When boiling eggs preserved this way, one was well advised to pin-prick the egg to allow steam to escape because the shell was no longer porous.
A more pleasant procedure was marmalade making, once a year when Seville oranges were available. The Seville oranges were sliced with a gadget designed for the job.
For a period we kept bees and my father borrowed a centrifuge machine to collect the honey from the honeycombs. I personally preferred the smaller square combs and then eating the honey with some of the wax with a teaspoon. I also loved to have honey on my porridge at breakfast.
At the beginning of the war a “Morrison Shelter” was produced and we had one erected in the kitchen. It was
used as a dining table by day and we could sleep in it by night if an air raid was likely. This picture is not ours but very similar and the dresser behind in nearly identical to the one in our kitchen.
At the bottom of the garden to the right was a wooden garage. As we only had a car for a very short period before the war the main use for the garage was to keep chickens in. We fed them on boiled potatoes mixed with mash and other scraps. These potatoes were boiled in a bucket in the old kitchen.
The garden at the back of the house was to be my world for the early years of my childhood. It was large by modern standards. It had large sycamore trees to climb, a large very old mulberry tree which provided lots of large juicy mulberries every year, which stained your clothes if you got juice on them. The garden had paths on which we could ride bicycles and places to dig underground dens. Next door to our garden was a disused garden that we called the wilderness and we could get to it through a hole in the wall. This garden had a pond in it where we caught frogs and tadpoles and floated my early attempts at making model boats. I think the best idea is to draw another plan, this time of the garden.
My earliest memory of the war was 1940 in September when one lovely sunny Sunday morning my father and I watched large numbers of German planes fly over. We knew they were German because the engines made a different noise to the British ones.
[I have re-arranged these next few paragraphs so that they read better, and I have also added a few street numbers. J.G.]
This must have been about the time that I went to my first school. It was a private school next door to us run by a Miss Murrell. I am not sure how long I was there but it must have been until the Americans were in the war and flying from Britain as I remember seeing a B17 Flying Fortress bomber flying over on fire and watching the crew bail out. The aircraft eventually crashed.
At Miss Murrell’s I was no doubt taught the 3Rs but I do not remember. I remember embroidering a needle case for my mother, and making wool balls around cardboard milk bottle tops. I remember being taught some basic French. I also remember being in trouble one day as I threw a stone from our garden over the wall into the school playground. Miss Murrell came round and told my mother and I was definitely in hot water that day.
Not necessarily in chronological order, here are some memories of the shops in Witham. Opposite us was the Bata shop and Bellamy’s the chemist. On the other side of Guithavon Street was a newsagent [number 70] then I think a shop that sold mens’ and boys’ clothes. In front of the newsagent the bus used to stop and during the war I remember seeing buses towing a gas converter to use instead of petrol. Moving to the right from our front door was Miss Murrell’s school [number 59], a small grocer’s shop and then the Spread Eagle Hotel, continuing down to the Maldon Road turn was the International Tea Company shop [numbers 43 and 45] and a sweet shop on the corner. On the opposite side from the chemist, not necessarily in the correct order was Lovedays, a butchers shop [number 58]. A small café bakery, maybe called the Carlton Café.
Then somewhere near the traffic lights was a grocers. Luckin Smith, I believe [number 50]. My memories of this shop were a chair for elderly customers to sit on while their order was made up, blue paper bags for sugar or dried fruit which was served from large sacks, I also remember flour being packed in cotton bags and sides of bacon to be freshly sliced as required, “best back” or “streaky”. Continuing past the Maldon Road turn on the right was the White Hart and then further down Woolworths. On the left before the Collingwood Road was Spurges, a shop selling ladies wear, memorable for having the central cash cubicle with a system of cables and small containers taking the money from the counter to the cashier. After Woolworths, not next door was a butcher’s shop where I often had to go and get the Sunday joint from, again with a separate payment point, good hygiene. Further down the road was a sweet shop and even further, the library [east end of Newland Street, near post office], post office and Pork Butchers. My main memory was of Polony sausage with a red skin. Continuing out of town was the Police station with a lovely cedar tree in front of the buildings, then a bridge over the Witham Maldon railway line and the Apple factory on the right. Then open country.
Opposite the Post Office was the Whitehall cinema, a favourite haunt for me on Saturday morning, particularly to see a Roy Rogers film [number 18]. As one returns back up Newland Street there was the Dorothy L Sayers house and then later a small shop that sold wool and embroidery. My sister managed to trap her finger in the door of the shop. Going up the Collingwood Road was the Public Hall, notable for me as a place of Operatic shows. My father appeared in a number of the shows there. Further up the road there was a nursing home where my sister was born in 1940 during an air raid [46 Collingwood Road]. Jumping back now to opposite the Bank and going left was eventually the Barclays Bank [number 61] and further down Mondy’s, the Ironmongers shop. Then I remember the bakers, Palmers, I believe. I remember being told the families took their Sunday joints to be cooked there.
Eventually one came to the road up to the recreation ground but before this point I am sure there was the British Restaurant established during the war [number 67]. I remember eating lunch there sometime, not that appetising but no doubt good for us! My main memory was having to pay before you had the meal and you were given coloured discs to present at the counter. I seem to remember a yellow disc was for custard with the pudding.
On the opposite side of the road was a hairdresser, Dibbens, I think [number 90]. I remember the owner covered the walls with cartoons from the newspapers all relating to the war. I think the artists were Illingworth and Giles. Having my hair cut was not my favourite occupation as in those days no electric cutters and the hand ones used to pull the hair on ones neck. Also hair down ones back itched until one had a bath and changed ones vest. Coming back to Guithavon Street on the left heading towards the church was a slaughter house, probably belonging to Loveday’s the butchers. I remember a visit to see how the bullocks and sheep were slaughtered. A good education! The main memory was how silky and warm the inside of as bullock was. The slaughter man had told me to put my hand in after he had opened up the carcase, only shortly before hand a live bullock, killed with a bolt gun, a rod pushed into the brain and the throat cut. Sheep were dispatched with a blow to the head with a lead hammer and then the throat cut. I never saw a pig slaughtered but remember seeing the carcases having the hair removed. This all sounds a bit gruesome now but maybe it would not be a bad idea if all children had some idea of where meat comes from, (I am not a vegetarian).
At this point I thought it might be appropriate to include a diary from my father which I came across only a few years ago; such a pity that I never knew of it when my father was still alive.
Diary of Stanley Lees, Midland Bank House, Witham, Essex 23rd September 1941
“To my very dear children,
Little do you realise, as you lie snugly asleep, I hope, that I am starting to write you a letter, which, if I persevere, you may read when you are old enough to understand it. The kitchen sees the commencement of this writing, and I am half watching to see that Jenny (a Dachshund) and Gay (a Corgi) don’t fall out over their meal, of fried bacon scraps, and some most peculiar dog biscuits. They look as though they are made of cement, and last night I tasted them, I can speak on some authority when I say that they also taste as though they were. Jenny relishes them – if hungry, but Gay will only eat them if she thinks Jenny wants them.
Mummy has just interrupted my flow of inspiration, by telephoning to ask if you James are in bed. She has been to Colchester this afternoon to bring home your bicycle which is for your birthday. It is a second hand machine and has cost us £3-10s-6d, but you have agreed to pay £1 towards it from your ‘Home Safe Account’. It will be your first bicycle of many I hope, and I think you will spend many happy hours on it. You Topher [Christopher], are to have the tricycle which up till now has been James. I intend to take it from you on the 30th September, and thoroughly overhaul it – fix the bell and propeller and lower the seat etc., so that on your birthday you will, I hope, really appreciate it as a new plaything. I wonder if you realise, after all this time, what a really lovely tricycle it is. Pneumatic tyres, real driving chain, a brake, and ball bearings. Jill you must have it when Topher [Christopher] grows out of it. It was Mummy who found it for you – by replying to an advertisement in the ‘Essex Chronicle’. We got it very cheaply, far cheaper than the bicycle you are to have for your birthday James – but that was just before the war started. It was in July 1939 and you were all – no, Jill hadn’t arrived, just James and Topher were with Mummy and Joan (our Nanny) at Penfold, Kirby Cross.
I had to work for one week while you were there, but had an “Area ticket” on the railway, and travelled to and fro. The lady from whom we bought it, brought it to the bank in a car, and I can well recall that Mr Booth (Uncle Gerry) and myself had turns riding it up and down in the office by the counter.
That was a good holiday at Kirby, with the hut on Frinton beach. You may remember it, as I recall my earliest holidays with my mother and father and usually lots of relations at Trusthorpe on the Lincolnshire coast.
The shadow of approaching war was making us a little apprehensive, but as has always happened in the past, we all believe that the war could not really come again. Surely man was not so foolish as to resort to arms. Surely any dispute could be settled without such bloody slaughter and futile hatred. Surely our statesmen and those of other nations would solve any problem, without having to call on their armed forces.
We read our papers of 24 pages and though in patches, they were gloomy enough, in all conscience I think there were very few of us who really thought that war was likely in so short a time. We thought that Hitler was bluffing, in order to obtain various concessions of territory from Poland without a fight and once we called his bluff, he would temporise and be satisfied with a taken transfer of territory, so as to save face. This was doubtless wishful thinking and the result is a war which is truly devastating in its effect.
At first life proceeded much as usual. There was no shortage of food or anything else. We had certainly to contend with the ‘black out’ (covering windows at night so no light showed outside), and in this house of many windows, it was certainly a big problem. In the bank we had taken all sorts of precautions for the safeguarding of our records and securities, and for a long time it seemed that we were going to a lot of trouble for nothing. The 4th Battalion of the Essex Regiment were billeted in Witham in the autumn and winter of 1939-40 and you may remember the very fine band which turned out for church parade each Sunday. They were very smart indeed and each Wednesday afternoon they played ‘The Retreat’ in Witham High Street. It struck me at the time that though the ceremony was interesting and cleverly executed, it had a most unfortunate designation. They were a very smart body of troops, and the discipline was excellent. You may recall Lt Col Gibson who was the CO; then there was Major Newman, Major Doyle, and certainly, to the superficial and lay eye, trained their men well. I believe them now to be in Sierra Leone; though what they are doing there is difficult to imagine – though we shall doubtless learn when the war is over.
Your Godfather James, Henry Drury is a Captain in the 5th Essex Regiment and for a time was stationed at Colchester. He called here once or twice and you boys were very thrilled with a uniformed Captain. The war has a curious effect on your childish games. Even in times of peace – lead soldiers were quite the vogue, but nowadays such things are luxuries. The lead is needed for more vital requirements, and such games as you play are performed with very crude toys, – only representing in your own minds – the real thing.
How thrilled James and Topher [Christopher] were when they saw their first barrage of balloons from a corridor of a train running into Liverpool Street; (major railway station in London) and how exciting it was to have lunch on a seat in Regents Park, with a grounded balloon only 200 yards away and more than sixty balloons dotting the sky, while the sun shone, and cheeky London sparrows outdid the more sedate pigeon in the quest for such scraps as we threw to them. Parachutes – a bit of silk – or any sort of cloth that mummy can provide tied with string in each corner and weighted – then carefully folded and thrown as high as possible to descend gradually after opening – just like, or nearly like the real thing. Aeroplanes – James you made many by nailing one piece of wood across another like a crucifix – perhaps adding a few embellishments in the shape of odd nails for guns etc., and creating quite a satisfying illusion of a Wellington or Hampton Bomber.
You may also recall, although I doubt it, how you two boys would stand on the table in the playroom and drop bricks or anything portable on to the floor, and in your fertile imagination, devastate large areas of the floor with high explosive bombs. Mummy and I were the chief sufferers, for your playroom was immediately above our lounge. I hope as I write this that you never do realise what a bad aerial bombardment is like as so many have suffered it, and are not in a position to strike back. It can only be endured in frightening silence. It is frightening, even to hear the planes overhead – before any bombs are dropped and I cannot believe that any man can hear the whistle of a bomb as it screams to Earth without a certain terror in his heart. The brave man does not show it, but it’s there just the same.
Nine O’clock and the B.B.C. News. The Russian Ambassador to the Court of St James has today given the German losses in Russia to be 3,000,000 men and 8,500 planes, truly tremendous.”
[end of Stanley’s account]
James’ account recommences:-
As you have read from my father’s account it was in 1941 that I changed from my excellent tricycle to a real bicycle. My brother Topher [Christopher] took over the tricycle. We used to ride them round the garden for hours on end. What other games did we play? In the summer we collected snails and painted their shells and then made circus rings with tightropes out of sticks and string and try and get the snails to walk the tightrope. We dug dens in the ground and covered these holes with logs and soil and of course being war, toys were difficult to get so what few toys we had we treasured even if a wheel was missing. When the weather was bad and we had to stay indoors we built forts with wooden bricks (no Lego) and put lead soldiers in them. I also used to like drawing. Paper was also in short supply so I drew on the back of some old wallpaper rolls my parents had. I particularly liked drawing ships showing every plate and rivet.
At some stage in the early 1940s I changed school from Miss Murrell’s to the High School in Colchester, a town about 15 miles to the east of Witham. It was at this school that I learnt a lesson that was to stand me in good stead for the rest of my life. During a French lesson I was caught cheating in a vocabulary test. In those days anyone breaking the rules was punished in public. In this case I was caned on my hands by the headmaster, twice on each hand. This was done in front of the whole school. Obviously the caning hurt a bit but the humiliation was worse and it taught me never to cheat again and be honest, something I hope I have been able to live up to, to the present day. I have quite a number of memories of the High School, and I visited the school some 50 years later to find that the main school building was just as it was in my day, as was the classroom in which I had been caught cheating. To attend the High School I had to travel by bus to Colchester, and on one occasion I missed the bus to get home. So I started walking the 15 miles home, luckily my mother had telephoned the bus company and a driver on a later bus saw me and stopped to pick me up. My mother I hope was pleased to see me but all I remember was that she was cross with me, gave me tea and then sent me to bed early!
Other memories of my time at Colchester were going to a local bakers shop and buying freshly baked bread and eating all the inside first. Of course it was still wartime so there were few luxuries and no new toys. Therefore second-hand toys were often swapped in the playground as were American comics that were just appearing with the arrival of the American troops in Britain. Although we did not know it, the invasion of Europe was imminent and part of a dual carriageway road, on which we travelled to school along, was being used to store military equipment for paratroops. At home I have memories of watching a German bomber drop bombs on a local factory, much to the consternation of my mother, and at this time we were being subjected to the V1 or ‘doodlebug’, a pilotless weapon being used by the Germans. Earlier we had had some incendiary bombs dropped on Witham and one landed in the garden and one on the roof. Luckily the one on the roof did not go off!
During this whole period I have not mentioned much about my parents or brother and sister. So I thought it would be interesting to include the next stage of my father’s diary.
Stanley Lees’ continues:
“24th August 1942”
“It is almost a year since I last wrote in this book, a year of war, in which we as a country have played a very small part. Russia has been bearing the brunt of the attack, and as I write, the Russians are striving in a desperate defence of Stalingrad on the Volga. I am fire watching from 10p.m. to 2 a.m. By the time you read this I hope that such things will be interesting memories.
Last week I was on holiday – you may remember we paid another visit to the Zoo with Mr & Mrs Watts and Elizabeth. Can you remember we saw the lions fed? (Yes I do.) They were given very little meat for such large animals, but doubtless the war has made the feeding of them difficult. Auntie Phil and Josephine stayed with us for the week, and Jill stayed at home with them while we went to London. Uncle Chuff died on 8th July. He had been ill for so long and had been through much suffering. He died at Hill End Hospital, St Albans and both Mummy and I went there during his last hours.
On Friday of last week, Mummy and I went to London on our own and we saw a film called ‘Fire over London’ which was a pictorial record of the terrific air raid on the City, on the nights of the 29th and 30th December 1940. The whole of the City seemed to be enveloped in flame, the camera being situated on the top of St Pauls Cathedral. Even now the City is terribly wrecked in parts and acres are completely razed to the ground, the cellars and basements being open to the sky. It has amazed me why the Germans didn’t continue such raids, for to have been near them must have been demoralising in the extreme and the cumulative effect would have been felt very much more than two raids. It’s perhaps fortunate for us that they didn’t.
You Topher [Christopher], are now in Folkestone with Auntie Phil, you went back with Jo and her mother yesterday. You need a holiday – more so than James. Perhaps it is because you strive to emulate James – and his two years seniority makes a big difference. When you got out of the train at Folkestone and saw the hills at the back of Folkestone you said, “Coo – mountains”. Essex where we now live is comparatively flat, but before you read this I hope you will have seen and climbed some real mountains, even if only in Wales or Scotland.
I am now in the Home Guard. I joined early this year. Perhaps you will wonder what the Home Guard was. Well it has been formed to oppose any invasion of these islands by the enemy, and we are equipped tolerably well. We haven’t quite enough rifles to go round, but we have L.M.G’s, H.M.G’s, and Tommy Guns, and we are to have a new automatic gun – the Sten gun. I have just been appointed Battalion Intelligence Officer and I am to have the rank of Lieutenant. How you boys love to play soldiers. You climb on the wall overlooking Barclays Bank yard and watch the guard turn out for inspection and then with toy rifles you copy them on the lawn.
Gay had a puppy in January 1942. We have her now. She’s Jan and I gave her to Mummy. Can you remember Binkie the rabbit? She had a litter of five which have now grown up. We ate one last week and now she has a litter of seven, which are four weeks old on Thursday. Do you recall Figarro the cat and Tipsy the buck rabbit? I hope we can always keep lots of animals – they are good fun, but difficult to feed in war time.
Saturday 7th November, 1942
It is not often that I make time for myself to write to you, we are very busy these days. It is a large house this Bank House at Witham, and now that we are expected to keep within a fuel target we have had to shut one or two rooms. The old kitchen range was extravagant. I burned over four tons of coal each year on that alone, so we have moved out of the kitchen and made your old playroom the general living room. We have moved the electric stove into it, and also have the gas rings, while the electric copper has been moved into the bathroom. We get better service of hot water this way, though I can imagine that the bills will be heavy. We are not using the Breakfast room either.
Your birthdays were a bit of a job this year. Toys are very scarce and such as they are, are ridiculous prices. So I made you some. James I made you a model harbour, using for my base, a wall map of Midland Bank Branches. I made the wharfs etc., with plywood, which I had scrounged from Mr Manning. Then I made you some waterline model ships, which, when painted looked really attractive. I also made you a tank from plywood, which ran on two cotton reels, which I noticed incidentally have been broken away today. Topher [Christopher] – you I made a somewhat larger tank than the one James had, you see, I was learning by experience. Then, I didn’t want to make another harbour thing for you, chiefly because I hadn’t another piece of card, so I made five small tanks – they didn’t run on wheels or anything, but they looked most effective when they had a coat of paint and I made a shed for you to put them in.
Jill my dear – all I did for you, I am sorry to say, was to repaint a tricycle that James originally had had on his 2nd birthday – still it looks very nice. I also repainted a dolls bed for you, which Mummy had when she was a little girl. Mummy did very well for you and you all had cakes with 7, 5 and 2 candles. I hope that before you read this that we shall once more have things as iced cakes and ice cream (which was stopped on 30th September), bananas and cream, and will have forgotten all the trials of rationing. I am now in the unfortunate position, that however badly I may need anything I can buy no more clothes until the 15th March. Even towels have been brought within the scope of this clothes rationing.
This week we have good news from Libya, where the 8th Army seem to have given the Axis army under Rommel a good trouncing. We are all hoping that we can follow up this advantage, so that we can clear Africa of the enemy. We all look upon this as a decisive moment of the war – and complete victory in Africa now, may help to speed the end. Stalingrad is still being held by those valiant Russians.”
[End of Stanley’s second account]
As you have just read my father joined the Home Guard (‘Dads Army’ of the later television series) and then later had to join the regular services.
Over the period of the war my mother must have had a difficult time with three children but from my viewpoint everything seemed normal. Of course I have not mentioned the arrival of my sister on 29th October, 1940 during an air raid. I do not have many memories of her early life, except for the occasion when my mother was feeding her and I announced, as I have previously mentioned, that a German aircraft was flying by. She said how did I know it was German? I replied that it was dropping bombs!!, in fact on Crittall’s or the British Oxygen Company. As for animals over this period, I have mentioned the dogs but we also had a black and white cat called Figarro. It was very tolerant, allowing us to dress it up and put it under an upturned dolls cot to make it into a cage. It would sit and beg when we were at the table having meals and was very satisfied with a small piece of dry bread. In addition to dogs and the cat, we also kept some goats for a time and we always had the chickens. This meant that during the war we always had milk and eggs. We also had bees for a while. I think that is where I get my love of honey from. Another memory was helping the local milkman. The milk was delivered by a horse drawn milk float. The milk came from a farm at Chipping Hill, at Powers Hall End. I can remember helping to bottle the milk, after it had been through a cooler. The machine filled two bottles at a time and then one had to put the cardboard tops on, no foil tops. One day we were returning to the farm late in the war when I heard a very loud double bang. Of course I knew it was a V2, first bang breaking sound barrier, second exploding luckily in an open field not far from the farm. Of course as a young boy I had to investigate and found a large piece of aluminium full of rivet holes that had been blown from the exploding rocket, a fantastic souvenir for a young boy.
Obviously war is a terrible thing and many people suffered horribly and many people died, but personally we as a family were very lucky and I have only happy memories of this period. When the war ended in Europe in May 1945 a big bonfire was built in the middle of Witham High Street (Newland Street) at the junction with Guithavon Street directly opposite the bank and a dummy of Hitler was placed on the bonfire to be burnt.
Now that the war was over and my father was back in the bank things settled down. My memories are mainly of school, holidays and cycling to a school friend’s farm near Braxted park. In 1945 I was attending school at Colchester. It was the High School for Boys, and I travelled by bus every day. I had started this school during the war, and I have generally happy memories of my time there. The classrooms were grouped around a central hall at two levels. At the start of the day the school assembled in the hall and sang a hymn and had prayers before going to the classrooms. My memories of the school work are vague but I do remember having to write with a pen with a steel nib using ink from an inkwell in the desk. I always seemed to get ink on my fingers and my second finger on my right hand developed an area of hard skin where the pen and metal nib pressed against it.
At play time we sometimes left the playground and visited a local bakery where we bought fresh bread, still warm, and then ate the warm soft dough from the centre, before the crust. While on the subject of food, we had cooked lunches at school and they were generally quite good but my one hate was pigs liver, which always seemed to be too thick, rather dry and strong tasting.
In England at this time, the schooling system had an eleven plus exam which meant that most children took this exam in the year when they were 11, in my case 1946. If you passed the exam you went to a Grammar School and if you failed you went to a Secondary Modern School that was generally considered not to be so good. Consequently there was considerable pressure from ones parents to do well. In my case this took the form of extra tuition and coaching from my father, in particular mathematics, which sometimes ended with me in tears. However it must have worked as I passed my 11+ and in September 1946 starting at a new school in Chelmsford, King Edward 6th Grammar School for boys.
My transport arrangements changed with the new school. I now travelled by train every day. I remember my problem of missing the bus was not solved using the train. One day travelling home I got on the wrong train which did not stop at Witham but took me through to Colchester. I did manage to get home again using my own initiative but I do remember problems with the ticket collector who I eventually managed to persuade I had made a mistake and was not trying to travel free from Colchester to Witham. My time at Chelmsford was relatively short as in March 1947 my father moved from Witham to become the Midland bank manager in East Retford, Notts. My memories of Chelmsford are of a very cold winter (1946/47) when the milk we got each day at school froze in the bottles and we used to melt it on the radiators. Over the lunch period we played a sort of ice hockey in the classroom using rulers as our hockey sticks and a “Zubes” sweet tin as the puck.
The final notable memory of many that I have of my early life at Witham is something that happened on a stormy night in I think February or March 1947. The very large chimney stack with at least four chimneys in it was blown down. It crashed through the roof into the upstairs flat and deposited large quantities of soot and rubble in all the fireplaces. It had been a wet day the day before and my mother had laid out my navy blue school raincoat in front of the fire to dry. Not surprisingly it was not fit to wear to school the next day. I can remember feeling so embarrassed that I had to go to School without a coat, not because it was particularly cold but because I was not dressed like the other children.
As I have said in March 1947 that my father was promoted from Cashier in charge at the Witham sub branch of the Midland Bank in Essex to being a full manager at the branch in East Retford, Nottinghamshire. Consequently the family moved north to life in another Bank house in East Retford.