My mother’s name was Ada Elizabeth Patricia Barnes. She was one of two children born to Annie Kate and Percival Barnes, the other child being a son, Ernest Frank, my Uncle Frank.
My Nan, Annie Kate, was one of nine children born to Mary and George Moon. Nan was born on the 24th April, 1895 at East Meon, near Petersfield, Hampshire, U.K. She married Percival Barnes in 1918. My Mum was born on the 25th January, 1920 at Calbourne, on the Isle of Wight, and my Uncle Frank was born on the 27th May, 1923.
In 1933, long before I was thought of, Percival Barnes, my real Grandad, died at East Meon aged forty nine. Nobody ever talked about this man and sadly he has gone into obscurity as far as my family is concerned at this time.
The man I was to call 'Grandad', and love so much, was Bertram James Challis. He is my 'Grandad' in this story.
'Grandad' was born on the 27th September, 1904 at Ilsley, near Wantage, Berkshire. He married Nan on the 16th January, 1937 at Petersfield Registry Office. They lived at Langrish, Hants. and Grandad worked as a steam-roller driver for Wards of Egham near Staines. They had one son, James Henry, born on the 26th February, 1937. We called him Jim as he hated the Uncle bit.
Click here for family photos up to this point.
My Mum, my Nan, my (step-)Grandad, Val (my sister), Jim, and Uncle Frank, would be the main people that my life was to revolve around in my younger days, with many people, just as important, popping in and out to help make life miserable or happy, boring or exciting, safe or dangerous,
My Mum never talked much about her young days, but I remember her saying that she had to walk nine miles to school each day (I believed her!). On another occasion she told me the story of when Nan sent her to the local market gardener for some tomatoes. After asking him for the tomatoes, the old man said "Tomar’ers, me dear? I’ll show 'ee some tomar'ers me lovely." and, unbuttoning his trousers, he produced some 'tomar’ers' my Mum never expected to see. This always seemed a bit of a `tall’ story to me, I didn’t think that a grown man would do such a thing. I was very naive when I was young.
One day, Uncle Frank reminded her of the day she literally had ants in her pants. Apparently she had been climbing trees with her friends, when she sat on an ants nest. The ants quickly went up into her panties and she was forced to whip them off a bit smartish, much to the delight of all the others in the group.
She told me of one time when she was riding pillion with Granddad on his motor cycle. They roared down a hill but couldn’t make the bend at the bottom. The bike and riders took off up a bank and, just like as in a movie, there happened to be a pond where the pair landed. Mum said that she was still getting frogs-spawn out of her clothes when they arrived home hours later.
I don’t think that my Mum was short of stories or that she never mentioned anything else, I just think that these were my favourites. I used to think that they were great until Granddad started telling me about some of the things that he’d done and seen.
Mum plodded on through life quite happily. I remember Nan telling me once that Mum was a bit of a rebel when she was young. I know that she would never be pushed around and I think that a bit of that rubbed off on me - once I finally decided to stand up for myself!
Then one day, at the start of the second world war, she met an airman whom she fell deeply in love with. His name was Albert John James, a bricklayer by trade, born on the 25th March 1924. I know very little of his family except that his Father’s name was Frank Thomas, and he had a brother, Frank, and a sister, Edie.
Albert had joined the R.A.F. and was an Airman A/C 1. He was stationed at Chelveston R.A.F. base, Northamptonshire in 1942.
Like a lot of things in those hectic days, there was an urgent feeling of desperation and so it was with my Mum and Albert, the handsome airman. They married at the parish church in Godalming, near Guildford, on the 6th April, 1942. I believe that Mum went to live with her new in-laws at 1, The Mint, Godalming. Mum was twenty two years old and Albert, my Father, was eighteen, but old enough to do his bit for his country.
I arrived at five minutes past nine on the morning of the 20th November, 1942 in the military hospital at 1O, Warren Road, Guildford, Surrey. U.K. It was a brisk morning with a watery sun trying to force its way through the fog, the type of morning that showed signs of being a very nice day.
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It may have been nice in Guildford as I gasped my first breath of air and screamed the first scream of many, but the world was in a turmoil and terrible acts of total war were being committed.
Probably unknown to the world at this time, the start of the long road to a rocky peace was beginning. ‘Monty’ had Rommel on the run, and the Russians had halted the Germans at Stalingrad. All of Europe was still in the fierce grip of war but I think that these two events were like a shot in the arm for the allies.
Mum said she was blinded for twenty four hours after I was born, so she didn’t get the shock of seeing me for a while. She said I was a miserable baby and, though she tried to breast-feed me at first, she had to give up and put me on the bottle as I just chewed her nipples to pulp.
From what I can understand from my Mum, my Father only saw me once and that was enough. He would be the man in the R.A.F. uniform, in an old photograph that I would show to my mates and proudly say “That’s my Dad.” The mystery hero/Father who’s whereabouts I wouldn’t discover until 1988.
Of course, I wasn’t really the reason he left us. There was discontent in the marriage, the war forced them to spend long months apart and both sides were tempted by greener pastures. Who could blame them for grabbing all the enjoyment they could in that war-ravaged period? Life itself must have seemed pretty insecure and death easy to come by.
Mum decided to go to Preston when I was two months old. She packed up and we caught the train from Godalming to London. The usual blitz was on and we were forced to spend the night down in one of the London Underground stations while the German bombers droned overhead, dropping their lethal cargoes, and brave people tried to put out the fires and save trapped families.
Of course, we were bombing the German cities and the people over there were suffering the same hardships and were just as brave.
We reached Preston safely and, a week later moved to Blackpool. It sounds like Mum was happy there and she very often talked about the wonderful dances she went to in the Tower Ballroom. She told me it was the last place she saw my Father, when he caught her dancing with someone else and left for good.
In July, 1945, we moved south again. This time to Reading, in Berkshire. Mum got a job as a domestic at the Battle hospital, and we lived in `F block’ at the hospital quarters. Mum was pregnant again at this time.
I attended the hospital nursery and, in September, I contracted diphtheria and scarlet fever. They transferred me up to Prospect Park hospital where I was nursed back to health. Just before my first birthday in November, I was released and Mum was shocked to see that I had no hair and was dressed like a girl.
There must have been an omen there somewhere for Valerie, my sister, was born at the Battle hospital on St. Valentine’s Day, 1944. Apparently, Valerie was a good baby who never caused any problems. Mum said she was the product of a forty eight-hour reconciliation leave with my Father.
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Early in April 1944, we left the hospital and moved to a house in Thurlston Gardens, Reading. It was still cold and snowy and a few days later Mum went out to bring the washing in off the line and discovered that her silk under-slip was missing. For a few days she and her mates were frightened to go out alone for fear that the dreaded `silk under-slip stealer’ would get them. A week or so later the snow melted a bit and the slip was found, wrapped around one of next door’s old brussel sprouts, frozen stiff.
It was while we were living at Thurlston Gardens, that Nan left Granddad, and, with Jim, came to live with us. She stayed a fortnight then returned home and patched things up. I was stunned when Mum told me this bit of gossip years later as my Nan and Granddad always seemed so happy and contented.
After Nan and Jim had gone home, we settled down again and one night the weather was very cold so Mum let me get into her bed for warmth. In the night she was awakened by the sound of an approaching aircraft. As she lay there listening, the engine suddenly cut out and for a few seconds all was quiet. Then, there was a great flash of orange light, an enormous explosion, and the house shook as if an earthquake had hit it. We all screamed in terror, Mum dashed and got Val, and we rushed outside. It turned out that a German flying bomb (‘Doodlebugs’ as Uncle Frank would refer to them when recounting stories from those days to us younger children) had exploded just down the road, fortunately in a field.
July 1944 found us moving again. This time to stay with Mum’s friend, Sally. We called her `Auntie’ Sally. Auntie Sally and her husband, `Uncle’ Bill, had a son, Billy, and an adopted son, Leslie. They lived over a fruit and vegetable shop at, I think, 217, London Road, Reading, just near the Cemetery Junction.
Mum started working at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, the same hospital where, a few years before, Douglas Bader had had his legs amputated. I went to the Bullmershe day nursery each day. About October 1944 Mum managed to get me into Arcubs residential nursery, Redlands Road, and I only went home at weekends. This enabled her to get a better job and she became a canteen girl at the Miles Aircraft Works at Woodley aerodrome,
She told me of another narrow escape. It seems that we were out shopping one day in Reading and Mum decided that a `cuppa’ would be nice. We went to a cafe called `The People’s Pantry’ I think. We came out much refreshed and walked up the street. Ten minutes later, a lone German bomber came over and dropped a bomb that blew the cafe to bits and many people were killed.
On the 8th May 1945, Mum and a friend, Mrs. Hunt, were sitting at the table having a meal with Auntie Sally. Us children were scattered around the room. Suddenly Uncle Bill came running up the stairs, burst through the door, grabbed the end of the table, and tipped the lot upside-down. He was wild with joy and happiness. It was a while before he could tell the ladies that the war with Germany had ended. Then everyone went mad. Mum and her friend dashed down into the street where people were ecstatic with delight. Horns started hooting and people were cheering, shaking hands, kissing and cuddling. Mum and her friend joined a group of people up on a lorry and they all danced madly while the lorry slowly drove around the Cemetery Junction island (which you could do in those days). A street party was organised and there was joy everywhere.
Again I have to say that I can’t recall any of these events. I’ve had to force these stories out of my Mum and we’ve spent many hours on the phone working out the dates and places. Apparently, Through having diphtheria and scarlet fever, I was experiencing problems with my scalp and suffering severe pains in the head. For some reason or other, the doctors wanted to pull out all of my hair, and told Mum that I would be bald for life. Mum refused to have this done and took me up to London to see a Harley Street specialist where she paid five pounds for a tiny bottle of lotion. This lotion had to be spread on my scalp daily, but it didn’t work. In the end, Mum decided to try her own cure. She began massaging Vaseline into my scalp every night, and Calomine Lotion every morning. Each day she’d comb a thick mass of green scabs out of my hair. Slowly the problem disappeared and I’ve had no symptoms connected with the diseases since.
In July 1945 we moved again. Nan wrote to Uncle Frank to see if he knew of anywhere we could live near him at Worcester Park, a suburb of London. He wrote back and told Mum to pack up and take us two children to his house while he made enquires.
Uncle Frank had married a girl named Joyce (my Auntie Joyce), they had a daughter, Catherine, and Auntie Joyce was pregnant again. He had served in the Royal Signals Regiment I think, and had spent the war in Europe. He was my first hero. He and his family had set up home in a rented house and, as Mum didn’t hang around, we were soon standing on the doorstep.
Unfortunately, the day we had set off to go to Uncle Frank’s home was the day his landlord decided to give him six weeks notice to leave the house. Now we were all in a pickle. He had written a letter to warn Mum, and had just posted it when we arrived. Uncle Frank decided that we’d stay with them until he could sort something out.
One afternoon while Uncle Frank was at work, Mum and Auntie Joyce decided to play a game of monopoly. Kay (Catherine) was having a sleep in one room, and Val and I were supposed to be having a sleep in another. During a break, Mum decided to check up on Val and I, and it was just as well that she did. There was a piece of string tied across the headboard of my bed and I’d climbed up and, somehow got the string caught around my neck. I was choking and very blue as Mum dashed across the room and freed me. Val slept peacefully on.
It was while we were at Worcester Park, on the 6th August 1945, that the Americans dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in Japan, thus creating a wholesale slaughter and destruction never before known to man. Three days later, on the 9th August, the Americans dropped a second atom bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. On the 14th August 1945, the Japanese surrendered. Uncle Frank rigged an enormous floodlight up over the front door of the house on that day (V.J. day) to bring a little (big?) light into our lives. Another street party was enjoyed and everyone went mad again.
A fortnight later, we all moved into a little caravan at Amersham, in Buckinghamshire, and this is where my memories begin.
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