It was a beautiful early-autumn day, and the sun was shining thinly through the misty haze. Kay, Val and I were playing on the steps of the little green and cream caravan, soaking up what warmth we could from that sun. At least it was warmer than in the caravan. As we played, a steam train whistled and puffed out of Amersham station nearby, heading towards London up the Metropolitan Line of London Transport. Mum and Auntie Joyce were making dinner and us children could hear them chatting happily inside the caravan. I was nearly three years old, and that was the first memory I can connect with a time or place.
The little caravan was parked in a yard behind the St. Michael’s and All Angel's Church. Opposite the yard at the back, and over a bumpy gravel road which we called `Darvells Lane’, were a collection of old buildings that we also called 'Darvell’s’. I remember that these buildings had lots of old black beams up the walls and across the ceilings. I believe that the area is now a large sporting complex with a swimming pool. The lane has been metalled and is now called Chiltern Avenue.
How we all slept in that little caravan, I don’t know. But I do remember that the squash to sit around the little table for meals was a real elbows-in-the-ribs affair. We lasted two months in that caravan with Uncle Frank’s family. Then Mum and Auntie Joyce treated us children to a wrestling match. Mum came off best when she finished up standing over Auntie Joyce with a hank of Auntie Joyce’s hair in one hand, and Auntie Joyce’s best jumper, in shreds, in the other after ripping it off her back. In November 1945 we moved in with a lady named Julie Roach. Val and I called her `Auntie’ Julie.
Auntie Julie had a son named Francis, and they lived at the side of Westcott’s grocery shop in Plantation Road, Amersham. Francis wasn’t all that much older than I, and was a good mate for me. He had an old 'Royal’ pram, minus the body, and someone had cut the frame in half so that there were two little two-wheeled sack barrow-like trollies with handles. Francis and I used to race these trollies around the garden for hours.
My third birthday, and Christmas 1945, came and went without any recognisable memories, apart from one cold evening when Mum and Auntie Julie took us children up to The Pheasant public house, just up the road. We went inside and there, upon the wall, was a big moose’s head or something similar. We had often stopped to pat some horses in a nearby field. Not knowing the difference between a horse and a moose, I had thought that one of those horses was standing outside, with its head poking through the wall into the room. It took much explaining on my Mum’s part before I could grasp the true meaning of the head on the wall.
One cold day, at the beginning of 1946, we were sitting around the fire and Mum was smoking a cigarette. I asked her for a puff and, to try and put me off, she gave me one. I took a deep drag and was promptly sick all over Auntie Julie and the carpet. Luckily, she saw the funny side of it, but I felt very dizzy and queasy for a while.
As the weather warmed up, we started to go out for walks. I well remember the bluebells and daffodils beside the roads and in the woods, and the singing of dozens of birds in the trees. As we’d walk down the leafy lanes we’d hear blackbirds and maybe see a thrush fly along the hedgerows in front of us. Sometimes we’d hear a pheasant or cuckoo in the distance.
One day we were out for a walk and stopped on a little hump-backed bridge. Mum lifted me up and there, over the side, was a fairy tale scene if ever I saw one. I could see a beautiful, deep, slow-flowing river with trees (willow, oak and elm) hanging over each bank and nearly touching together in the middle overhead. Just upstream a little were the rounded arches of a small bridge over the river, and framed within those arches was a beautiful silver waterfall which stretched across the width of the river, the waterfall, bridge and trees being reflected perfectly in the water. The sun shone through the trees in golden rays, moorhens were busy looking for food near the reeds, and a kingfisher darted by in a flash of brilliant blue. I would be eleven years old before I rediscovered this scene on the River Chess between Chesham and Latimer, but it would never look the same as it did that first time.
On another day I decided to go for a walk on the roof of the house. My bedroom window stuck out of the roof halfway down the slope and I stepped out, walked down the slippery tiles and sat down with my feet on the edge of the gutter, waving to anything that moved. I was three storeys up. Auntie Julie was out in the garden hanging the washing and wondered where the happy chuckling was coming from, then she looked up and spied me. She was transfixed with horror and could only croak out a feeble shout to my Mum. As it happened, Mum, who was helping with the washing, was just by the back door and saw Auntie Julie looking up with the terrified look on her face. One glance was enough and Mum dashed upstairs. By this time Auntie Julie had managed to move and was ready, with arms out-stretched, to catch me if I fell. Mum quietly climbed out of the window, crept down the tiles, although she’s scared of heights, and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, then, with a struggle, managed to get me back inside. I was really enjoying that game!
A few days later, for some reason (was it containment?) I was in Val’s cot, supposedly having an afternoon nap, I don’t know where Val was. I had a toy rabbit on wheels in the cot with me and was playing with it. Unfortunately, the wheels were only nailed on and one of them came off and dropped onto the floor, landing with the nail, long and sharp, pointing upwards. Mum had three wooden orange boxes, each being sectioned into two compartments by a partition of wood. These boxes made a nice set of small bedside shelves when placed up-turned on one end. One of these 'bedside shelves’ had been placed beside the cot. I climbed over the side of the cot onto the top of the orange box, lowered a foot down onto the middle 'shelf’, turned around and looked down to make sure that I wouldn’t jump on the nail, and launched myself backwards. Of course, I landed one foot straight onto that nail.
With shock I just collapsed on the floor, with the wheel firmly nailed to the sole of my foot and the point poking one centimetre above the instep. I screamed and there was a rumbling sound, as if a herd of elephants were coming up the stairs. The door flew open and people crowded around me. An old man, Dick Darvell from the Darvell’s house mentioned earlier, grabbed my foot with one hand and the wheel with the other and just pulled the nail out. Needless to say, I howled with sheer agony but he was a lovely old man and soon had me laughing with his tricks and games he used to play. Soon Mum had me up the town to the doctor’s and I was none the worse in a few days.
The Whitsun holiday saw another narrow escape. Auntie Julie asked Mum to telephone her place of work and say she was sick, as she wanted the day off. Mum wasn’t very happy about doing this, she said that to tell such a lie might be tempting fate. Auntie Julie poo-poo’d the idea and Mum phoned up and gave the message. With the extra time off and a few visitors expected that evening, Auntie Julie began to make some cakes and lit the gas oven to warm it up ready. When she’d mixed the cake mixture and went to put it in the oven, she saw that the oven wasn’t alight. Without thinking, she grabbed for the matches and struck one down the side of the box.
I was standing almost behind Mum and there was a stunning bang. Mum flew back through the air at me and we both tumbled through the open door into the lounge room. Poor Auntie Julie was horribly burned. Her hands and face were black, red and badly blistered, her eyebrows and a lot of her hair had gone, and her clothes were scorched. She’d been terribly injured through flying through the air and was very ill for a long time. But she rallied round and, still heavily bandaged, finally came home. Mum and I had escaped with a few bruises.
Most of the time we were at Auntie Julie’s I had attended the Henry Allan Nursery School in nearby Mitchell's Walk. I have fond memories of the wonderful ladies who looked after us, the sun shining through the windows, lots of coloured paint, happy children, and heaps of new things to discover and do.
Meanwhile, Auntie Joyce had given birth to a second daughter, Shirley.
One morning, at the beginning of September 1946, one of Mum’s friends came around and pointed out a little story in the local paper that said people were moving into huts on two old army camps nearby as soldiers were moved out leaving the huts empty. Although these people were squatters (people who move into unoccupied buildings without permission), quite a few had managed to establish a home in the huts already. The soldiers were Polish and, although there were many still in the camps, they were slowly being sorted out and moved on. Old Dick Darvell offered to help and they loaded up his horse and cart with my little bed, Val’s cot, the three orange boxes and a double bed that someone had given Mum as we were leaving. Off we went, clip-clopping up the road and waving goodbye to Auntie Julie until she was a tiny figure in the distance.
Beech Barn, the name of these two army camps, was situated on the main Amersham to Chesham road just past Bois Avenue. There was a top camp (nearest to Amersham), then a school playing field and the Beacon Boys School, then the bottom camp. There were corrugated tin Nissen huts, some corrugated asbestos Nissen-type huts, and a few wooden huts in one corner of the top camp. Most of them only had a concrete floor with a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the hut, barrack-style.
The Amersham Historical Museum has a Beech Barn Camp section (including Hodgemoor, Piper’s Wood and the other temporary housing camps) on their so wonderful and interesting website. Please, if you have any stories or photographs that you feel could be added for the interest of future generations, don't be afraid to get in touch with the good folk of the museum who are making every effort to ensure that as much as possible is recorded. Click here if you would like to visit the website.
We arrived at the top camp only to be told that all the huts were occupied either with families or the Polish soldiers. Mum then explained that we had nowhere to live now so Mrs.(Margaret) Hartley, one of the ladies already established in a hut, suggested that we go down to the bottom camp and set up home in the big dance hall that was there, then we’d at least have our foot in the door, so to speak. Off we trotted the half a mile down to the bottom camp and soon had the cart unloaded and our few bits of furniture set up on the stage.
Upon entering the camp gate (click here to see a rough map of this camp as I remember it from that time), there was a large house on the left, we called it the 'Commanding Officer's House'. In the gardens of this house were a few fir trees and the air was always filled with the strong sweet smell of these trees. A driveway led up the side of the house and into a large square behind. Along the left side of the square were workshops, along the far side were old stables, and back down the right side were some rooms and the dance hall.
Please note: Although I wrote this story a few years ago, then eventually added it to my home page, I was astounded and extremely excited at how the very atmosphere of that old camp came flooding back to me as soon as I saw this picture.
I would like to extend my most sincere and grateful thanks to the staff of the Beacon Boy's School for kindly giving me this precious gift from the past, and for allowing me to use this picture on my site. I would also like to thank my friend, Peter Sharpen (a descendant of W T Stead - check out his W T Stead site), who copied the picture for me while on holiday in the UK during 1999. The original is apparently hanging on a wall in the now-renovated 'stables'.
Please note: All the above photos in this section are from original photos taken during 1999 by Peter Sharpen (a descendant of W T Stead - check out his W T Stead site) with kind permission from the staff of the Beacon Boy's School.
It was weird sleeping on that stage after sleeping in small rooms, there was a real cold feeling of openness. Every noise had an echo and sounded very loud, even the slightest sniffing or scratching of the rats that came out at night could be heard easily.
At the opposite end of the hall to the stage was the officers mess then occupied by a Mrs. Reid. Above that were some small living quarters and a Mr. and Mrs. Adams lived here. Mrs. Adams and Mum became (and still are) very good friends. In front of the living quarters and over that end of the dance floor was a balcony. There were great wooden beams up the walls and across the roof under the tiles.
Those Polish soldiers knew how to put on a good dance and party. Many nights I sat up in my bed on the stage watching the good fun and listening to the singing until I’d fall asleep. The song I seem to remember the most was one called `Lilli Marlene’, it is a lovely song and everyone used to join In, including myself after I’d learned most of the words. They were never rowdy and none of them ever failed to come up on the stage to give Val and I a sweet, or play a game with us if we were awake. They were wonderful lads and the most terrible thing I ever saw any of them do was when one of them climbed up the wall to get up onto the balcony. But then, I was to remember this and do it myself a few years later. I had a very happy fourth birthday while we lived on that stage.
At the end of November Uncle Frank mentioned to Mum that he was fed-up with the little rented caravan and Mum suggested that he and his family come and live on the balcony. No sooner said than done and, after rigging up blankets all around the balcony for privacy, they moved in and another family had its foot in the door.
Two days later Mrs. Reid moved out of the officers mess and we moved in. There can’t have been many officers as there was just room for Mum’s double bed, my bed beside it and the three orange boxes. The windows had little diamond-shaped panes of glass set in lead. Mum got a job in a snack bar in Chesham. A lady called Phyllis also worked there and they became very good friends. Phyllis (Auntie Phyllis to Val and I) Ramage lived at Old Amersham with her husband, Bob, and young family. They were renting a room over a doctor’s surgery and Mum promised to try and get them into the camps somewhere.
Sometimes the soldiers would leave without time to tell anyone that a hut was empty. As there was much coming and going nobody would notice for a while. Uncle Frank cottoned onto this and, being a male, was brave enough to go out each night and shine his torch in the windows of the soldier’s huts. This paid off at the beginning of December when he found an empty wooden hut in the top camp and he quickly moved his family in that night. Now our family had a foot in the door of both camps.
A couple of days later, while trying to find a hut for us, he discovered another empty wooden hut. Baby-sitters were found and he picked the lock, moved some beds out and Auntie Joyce and Mum sat on some boxes behind the door to stop anyone else coming in. They had decided to let Phyllis and her family have this hut as they were more desperate than us. Uncle Frank hopped on his bike and rode down to their room in Old Amersham only to find that they were at the Regent cinema in Amersham watching a film. Uncle Frank rode back up to the cinema and asked Mr. Carr, the manager, to flash a message on the screen. Mr. Carr said he could only do that in an emergency but when Uncle Frank explained the situation and he knowing the hard times some people were having just after the war, he agreed. The message was put up on the screen, Phyllis and Bob came out and things began to move quickly. They borrowed a van, loaded it up with all of their furniture and they were moved in the hut by midnight that same night.
Mr. Carr lived at Pinner near London and was later to become a very good and respected friend of our family.
Christmas came and the remaining Polish soldiers threw a Christmas party in the dance hall. It was very cold and snowy and Mum had lit a fire in the little grate to help keep us warm. She went outside the door into the hall to watch the party and every ten minutes or so she turned around and opened the door to glance in and check us. The fire fascinated me and when Mum had just peeped in for about the tenth time, I jumped out of bed, ripped up a magazine, and made my own fire on the rug in front of the fire. Mum never left us children on our own, she was only just outside the door. I barely had time to enjoy the added warmth. She turned around, opened the door for the umpteenth time and there I was, happily settling myself down beside my very own fire. She screamed and it didn’t take the men long to put the magazine paper and rug fire out. The rug was ruined. Valerie slept peacefully on. All these years later I still think of that fire when I smell a magazine burning. This naughtiness earned me a ban from the room into the hall as a `punishment’ where I was spoilt to the hilt by the soldiers until I happily fell asleep.
Then it was Christmas day, the first Christmas day I can really remember, and there, at the bottom of our beds, were two Christmas stockings full of almost unheard-of goodies. There were sweets, nuts, apples, oranges, tangerines, chocolates, and small toys. The stockings were big, grey woollen ones and they seemed bottomless to us that day. Father Christmas had done us proud.
Things were still very hard to get even though the war was over. I think that it was the best Christmas stocking of my young life. I can still remember my wonderment at all those lovely things. We had little money so there were no big toys but, there was a little blue tin racing car in my stocking and that car could do or be anything in my imagination.
Peter, one of the Polish soldiers, came over and built the finest snowman you ever saw just outside of our window. Us children from around the camp were thrilled. I have freckles and he sprinkled some pepper over the snowman’s face to represent freckles, which I thought was great. It was such a magic time, with the cold snow outside, us in our little warm room looking at our `goodies’ over and over again or me racing my car over the eiderdown, while Mum was trying to cook the Christmas roast on a little stove in the corner of the room. In the late afternoon, all the children at the camp were treated to a party in the hall, and there was no end to the games we played, the fun we had and the singing and laughter. It seemed to go on for hours and how we enjoyed it. Finally, we all went to bed well content with the wonderful Christmas, and myself having a memory of that day that I hope I’ll never forget. The efforts of my Mum, those soldiers, and the other families there will always be appreciated.
And so to 1947 and, of course, the new year celebrations with the usual party in the hall. I didn’t see the new year in but Mum did. She stood just outside our door (now looking in every couple of minutes) and sang `Auld Langsyne’ with the rest, and wondered if this new year would see us safely in one of the huts.
A week or so later Mr. Ridgeway came running down from the top camp and told Mum there was an empty hut up there. Mr. and Mrs. Ridgeway already had a hut at that camp and Mum had become friendly with them. Mrs. Ridgeway was a very large lady, but Mr. Ridgeway was only a wisp of a man. They had children and Francis, the oldest boy, would be a friend of mine for some years. Mum raced up to the hut with her chair, while Mrs. Reid looked after Val and I, and parked herself on the chair behind the door, which were the rules and gave you the right to move into the hut if you were first. Uncle Frank was at work and Auntie Joyce was out shopping so Mum couldn't enlist their help. Nevertheless, Mr. Ridgeway and Mrs. Adams packed all our things onto a borrowed handcart and, sweating like mad, Mr. Ridgeway pushed the whole lot up to the top camp.
Meanwhile, back at the hut two officers had forced their way into the hut and told Mum to get out. Mum refused so they picked her up, chair and all, and carried her through the door and locked it - just as Mr. Ridgeway struggled into the camp entrance with the loaded cart. Mum was furious and wanted to take the two officers on. But they were big blokes and Mr. Ridgeway, already tired from pushing the cart, suggested that she wait until Uncle Frank got home. They retreated and we moved back into the officer’s mess, Mum feeling very lucky that nobody had moved in behind us. When Uncle Frank heard about it he was very cross and 'sorted the two officers out', but it was too late then, someone else had already moved in.
Two or three days later it happened. Uncle Frank came racing down on his bike and told Mum to pack up in a hurry as there was a hut just evacuated behind his and Auntie Joyce was sitting on a chair inside. Suddenly, the urgent rush was on, a regiment wouldn’t stop them this time. They stripped, and disassembled the double bed, took it outside (luckily the snow had melted) and re-assembled it. The cot was folded and put on top of the double bed, along with my bed, the three orange boxes, the mattresses and our clothes. Then Mum and Uncle Frank pushed the loaded bed up the pavement to the top camp.
As I look back on that day I have to chuckle to myself and wonder who would do such a thing now. The castors on the bed legs kept catching on stones or dropping into holes and the bed would stop dead, nearly tipping the load onto the ground. We all laughed `till the tears rolled down our cheeks. People in cars were hooting their horns and waving as they passed and we waved back. It was great fun to us children. In the end Uncle Frank lifted the front of the bed up in his hands and towed it along with Mum trying to steady the load. In this manner we arrived at the hut. Auntie Joyce was still in the hut and the whole process of getting the furniture through the door was then reversed.
At last we had our very own place to live in and, better still, we were living in a hut between Uncle Frank’s hut and Auntie Phyllis’ hut.
I think a description of the top camp would be very hard to put over but I’ll have a go. As we went up the entrance road of the camp there were two tin Nissen huts on the left, just inside the entrance, like guard huts. Just past these huts was a path on the left that went down to the wooden-hutted area. On the right hand side of the entrance road was the school playing field. At the end of this playing field the camp widened out on that side and there were three more huts. The entrance road finished at a parade ground-type square. There were huts down the left of this square and a big cookhouse on the right. This cookhouse still had big ovens, sinks, and cupboards inside. At the far end of the square was a large grassy area like a big playing field and huts were scattered all around it, linked by paths.
Roughly, the main Amersham to Chesham road bordered the front of the camp, the playing field and school grounds bordered the right hand side, backs of gardens in, was it Oakway road? bordered the far side, and Mayhall Lane bordered the left hand side coming back to the road. We called Mayhall Lane `the lane’. There must have been at least twenty five huts in the top camp plus ablution blocks, the big cookhouse, and a few scattered water towers. There was a fence or hedge all around the camp except on the Mayhall Lane side. There were also large trees all down the lane and in the lane/main road corner where the wooden huts were. There were no other trees except in the school grounds behind the school. It was a very adventurous place for a young lad like myself.
We sorted out our gear and the grown-ups strung blankets up as partitions for privacy. It wasn’t long before I had my own bedroom with blanket walls. I remember that the lights were very dim and the dark blankets didn’t reflect any light which made those rooms seem quite gloomy. But who cared? We had a hut.
Just after we moved in, my parents were divorced.
It snowed again and Uncle Frank built a sledge. He had a big,
white Pyrenean Mountain dog named `Wimpey’, an enormous
beast, we used to happily ride on its back. He made a harness up
and the dog pulled all of us children from both families on the
sledge all down the lane. We arrived at a slope near Chesham
soccer ground and had a grand time in the snow until, cold, wet,
tired, and hungry we all staggered home to the warm fire and a
big bowl of soup.
When I look back now, I realise that that day was the first cloudy, grey day I can remember. The sky was leaden and full of more snow and most of the time we were bitterly cold, but none of us would have missed that sledge trip for the world.
But it wasn't only our own families or close friends that helped us to be more content with our lot. Although, at the time, there were still a few soldiers occupying the occasional hut, many different families were already living in other huts on the camp. A firm friendship had developed amongst us all, soldiers and families alike. Nobody refused to help and nobody was too frightened, nor too proud, to ask for help. We were all there for each other, nothing was asked for in return for any help, and no tally of 'who had helped who' was ever kept. As a good example of this I shall dwell, over the next few paragraphs, on the story of how a lot of us families came to 'upgrade' our living conditions. I can only recall a few fleeting memories from the incident, but Mum has since filled me in with the whole story.
Now that we had a hut, the next thing on the agenda was to build up a home. Our few sticks of furniture didn't even begin to fill the large 'rooms'. Most of the squatters were in the same boat and great fun was had at the local auctions, where the occasional pieces of cheap furniture could be bought if a person could afford it. Each time somebody scored a bargain, whether it was a bed, a sideboard, a chair, or even a saucepan, the other ladies would race over to have a look as the news spread around the camp. If somebody had any items that they couldn't use, then those items would be given to somebody less fortunate. I saw many examples of other people's generosity on that camp - a bed being carried over to this hut, an armchair being carried over to that hut, a wardrobe being carried over to another hut, etc. Even so, most of us families were still not up to the 'bare-essentials' stage at the time. Then the Army decided to 'help us out' a bit.
There was another camp at Pipers Wood, about two and a half miles away towards Little Missenden, and the Polish soldiers were moved away from there almost in one go. The few soldiers that remained were ordered to burn every bit of furniture that had been left abandoned in the empty huts.
But those young soldiers had seen enough stuff wasted already. Although we couldn't even begin to comprehend the hard times a lot of them had suffered, they had more than an idea of what it was like to have to build up homes from scratch with little money. A message was sent to our camp saying that any furniture that we could get that evening would be ours, and none of the families needed asking a second time.
The news spread like wildfire as all the families were gathered and informed about the message. Soon there was a procession of women and children with carts, prams, trollies, pushchairs, and anything else with wheels, heading off towards Pipers Wood. A few of the families already had enough furniture, but they took off with us to help other families bring something back. As the men arrived home from work and heard the news, they each took off to lend a hand. The Pipers Wood camp was almost stripped bare of furniture before the night was through.
A set of wheels, that were the remains of Val's old pram, had collapsed as we'd tried to wheel a large sideboard home. Neither Val nor I were strong enough to lift one end of the heavy piece of furniture on our own. But Mum wasn't going to let that sideboard go. She placed one end of it on the, now wobbly, wheels and, as night came on, the three of us lifted the other end and tried to pull the sideboard along towards home. Even us young children had realised what a prize the sideboard was at that time, and were willing to work hard, with no complaints about having to wait for tea, if we could only get it home somehow. We could only move it a dozen yards at a time before needing a rest, but I'm sure that the three of us would have struggled on all night to get that sideboard home if it had been necessary. Then suddenly help was on hand.
Mum had become very fond of one Polish soldier, and he, upon hearing the news when returning from work, had taken straight off for the Pipers Wood camp. We were trying to pull the sideboard along Copperkins Lane and hadn't reached the lane up to Channor's farm (Mayhall Farm), let alone to pull it on along to, and up, Bois Avenue, then back along the main road and finally into the camp (we would never have been able to pull it along the relatively bumpy lane on the broken wheels). The Polish soldier had run up the lane past the farm and crossed Copperkins Lane up in front of us. He followed a path along the outskirts of Weedon Wood, and then he'd dropped down and followed the railway line to the Pipers Wood camp. If he'd gone the usual way, instead of taking the short cut, he would have stumbled across us earlier as we struggled to pull that sideboard home.
We were having a rest beside the road for about the twentieth time. In contrast to the lighter darkness of the night, I could see black forms struggling past us as they staggered back towards our camp under the weight of their loads. Occasional faster black forms were going the other way, possibly somebody who had just finished work, or somebody who was going back for a second load. Many people's memories of childhood events have black spots and I am no exception. I can just recall lifting and pulling at the sideboard when we were told to, resting often, and the figures passing by in the night. Then suddenly the Polish soldier was talking to us from out of the darkness.
Having decided that it would be easier to carry his 'spoils' back along the road he'd eventually come up behind us. I don't know how long he chatted to Mum before it seemed that he was leaving us to pull that sideboard home on our own. I recall that his black figure staggered off into the night with three large, long lengths of 'something' balanced over his shoulders.
But we didn't try to move the sideboard any further. Upon arriving back at our camp the soldier had rounded up some of his mates to help us and the next thing I recall was seeing black figures all around. Amid much laughing and joking those lads carried the sideboard back to our hut.
Val and I were dead tired by the time we arrived home. Mum gave us tea and we were soon fast asleep. But the work of saving the furniture from being burned continued on through the night. With us youngsters in bed Mum couldn't go out for any more of the furniture, but the soldier and his mates carried on with the work.
The next morning when I got up it seemed to me that we were living in somebody else's hut. The three lengths of 'something' that the soldier had carried home were rolls of brown lino and Mum had worked hard to get them laid out on the floor. The soldiers had arrived back with more furniture which had been placed around the main 'room'. Suddenly we had a table and chairs in the middle of the 'room'. There were also two armchairs, a long cupboard with mirrors on the outside of the doors, and, of course, the huge sideboard.
All of us were very happy and content now that our hut looked like a real home. Even the fact that our walls were still only blankets didn't dampen our spirits, I remember feeling that they helped to add a warm and snug atmosphere to the place.
And it was all thanks to the young Polish soldiers from each camp. The soldiers from the Pipers Wood camp had thought of us rather than see good furniture burnt, and the soldiers from our camps had happily worked very hard through the night in an effort to help families save as much furniture as was possible. There was very little left to burn. Chances are that any army Officer who visited the Pipers Wood camp next morning would have looked very suspiciously at the pathetic little pile of ashes that was supposed to be the remains of all the furniture from that camp.
In March, a few weeks after being divorced from my father, Mum married that Polish soldier.
His name was Mr. Kissman. We all took on that name and, as anyone could imagine, it was to be the cause of much trouble for me as the bullies made fun of it. I’d be twelve years old before I’d insist on going back to my own name of James, although the bullying wouldn’t be the cause of the change.
Mum changed jobs and became a domestic home help, cleaning the houses of people who were old or infirm, Mr. Kissman looked after Val and I sometimes and I remember one time when he cooked lunch for us. With a flourish, he produced a large plate of white food balls. I’d never seen them before nor have I since. All I can think of is cheese-flavoured rice balls with a lot of spices added for flavour. It was probably a famous Polish dish. Val and I had some but we weren’t very impressed. I don’t think he cooked for us again.
Not long after we moved into our hut, the local Amersham council decided to take over the camps and make the huts more livable. They set to with a vengeance and soon there were stacks of breeze blocks, piles of sand, heaps of pipes, and trenches all over the place.
One beautiful spring morning Francis Ridgeway came down and asked Mum if I could come out and play on the sand heaps. Mum said that I wasn’t allowed on the heaps, but I could go out and play. Of course, I went straight to the sand heaps where Francis and other mates were having great fun. The sand was yellow and soft, it didn’t take me long to invent the game of jumping off a stack of breeze blocks into a heap. Those blocks were light and soon we were piling them higher for better jumps. Before we’d finished, that heap of sand was spread out like a dried up pancake and the landings were beginning to hurt.
Hearing Mum’s shrill call I knew it was dinner time and hastily I emptied my shoes, socks and pockets of sand. Innocence written all over my face, I walked indoors only to be scolded for playing in the sand. I should have known better for, although I’d got rid of all the loose sand, I was a yellow colour from head to foot.
I was playing with the handle of an old bicycle pump a couple of days later and found that, if I blew in the end, it whistled. Those trenches had planks over them as a sort of bridge. I tripped over one of the planks and fell head-first into a trench with the pump handle still in my mouth, ramming it down my throat. That was the closest I ever came to being quietened. My throat was very sore for a while.
I now had a few friends on the camp. Francis was a bully but we’d be friends because he lived next door. I would be the down-fall of his bullying a few years later and we were to become bitter enemies. Arthur White would be a good friend until he left the camp. David Norris, a bit younger than myself, would be my best friend on the camp, and Tommy Ramage, Auntie Phyllis’ son, would be an on-and-off friend until he married. Tommy was also younger than myself, he was a very sensible lad and always more mature than us others. You couldn’t talk him into getting up to any mischief normally and he was very honest.
There were roughly forty five children in the top camp while we were there, about eighteen boys and twenty seven girls.
The pole carrying the main electric feed wires into the camp was blown over one night about this time. We found that we had no power for lights or cooking stoves. Well, we were used to things like that. We all went into the woods to collect wood, the men lit a big fire on a piece of vacant land and soon we were gathered around it watching the leaping flames. When the fire had died down a bit, the ladies cooked our food in their oldest pots and we all tucked into thick stew and potatoes-in-their-jackets with relish. To top off the evening, we all had a sing-song around that great fire, and people were still singing when Mum blew out my candle and I settled down to sleep. If you want to see something really gloomy, try a lighted candle in a room that has blanket walls!
Uncle Frank was very good with his hands and could make almost anything out of an old piece of wood. One day he built a double-decker bus and, when the red paint had dried, he spent hours pulling us children around the camp. Two children could squeeze inside and two could sit on top. It looked enormous to us little children. He even made some bridges out of arched corrugated asbestos sheets and we’d rumble over them with squeals of delight,
Uncle Frank was good to us in other ways. One day he collected our two families together and we all caught the bus to Windsor. Now, that was an exciting place to go for us youngsters. There was a real castle on the hill, a bridge over a big river (the Thames ), parks, picnic areas, and boats out on the river, not to mention the bus ride there and back. Things were simple in those days.
It turned out to be better than that, for Uncle Frank hired a large rowing boat and we all piled in, the three adults and four children. I well recall us pulling the boat out of the water, dragging it over a long series of rollers on dry land, then pushing it back into the water before we all piled in to resume our journey. This was to save us the time and trouble of going through a lock, pretty mundane stuff to experienced very-small boat owners, but quite exciting to a ‘landlubber’ such as myself. It was a laugh to see Mum and Auntie Joyce trying to row that boat while Uncle Frank sat in the back working the rudder. None of us children could swim and we had no life-jackets. I’ve often wondered who would have been saved out of us little ones if the boat had turned over, which it threatened to do several times when one of the ladies missed the water with the oar and fell backwards off the seat. We never looked on the dark side and, by the time the boat was parked up, we all had the stitch through laughing so much. Yes, Uncle Frank was good to us!
Poor old Wimpey had to go because Auntie Joyce was pregnant again and she couldn’t handle the big dog as it barged around the house. He went to a good home and Uncle Frank got another dog. This new dog was similar to a red setter, but was black in colour, and his name was `Buster’. He was also a beautiful dog but better suited to everyone’s size.
While on the subject of the name `Wimpey’, the big construction firm of Wimpey was getting on with the job of re-building and their yellow tipper-lorries were everywhere. It was one of our games to go outside the camp, sit by the main road and wave to the drivers. They’d always wave back and give a toot on their horns. Uncle Frank said that the word `Wimpey’ stood for ‘We Import More Paddies Every Year’ on account of all the Irish men who worked for them.
The summer of 1947 saw the end of the ration book. Ever since I’d been born I’d had a ration book. Because of shortages through the war, everything was rationed. The coupons from these books allowed you to get so many ounces, pints or items per coupon, per week and that was if those items were available, like milk, sugar, meat, flour, clothes, etc. At least we didn’t have to worry about those any more.
Chesham had two cinemas, the ‘Astoria’ in the Broadway and the ‘Embassy’. Amersham had the ‘Regent’ cinema already mentioned. They were big cinemas and we went to the pictures often. When I think of the time we were in that first hut, I always think of two films. One was ‘King Kong’ and the other was ‘The Lost World’, and I went and saw them both with Mum. I remember that she covered my eyes with her hand because I was scared. The two scenes that I can remember from ‘King Kong’ was the one when a great dinosaur (a great ‘duck’ as I thought it was at the time - I didn’t know about dinosaurs in those days) picked a man off a tree in its mouth, and the other scene was when King Kong smashed the train off the railway bridge. Both those scenes put the wind up me at the time and I wouldn’t have been the least surprised if that great ‘duck’ and the huge ape had come storming over the horizon and trampled our flimsy dwellings to a heap of rubble.
I kept on and on to Mum that I wanted to go to school. In the end she got permission for me to start early and, that autumn, I started school at Chesham Bois. The school was about two miles away. Mum and I walked there each morning, she’d wave as I raced off into the playground, then she’d come and pick me up in the afternoon. You didn’t need to go jogging in those days. I had dinner while at school in the Pioneer Hall next door and I remember the big mushie peas they served up very well. It was a nice little school and we played lots of games. The game I liked the most was “What’s the time Mr. Wolf?”. It was a rough game, so right up my street. I loved school and every morning I’d be up early, happy to be going. Each day we’d put warmer clothes on as the winter crept in, and I was just as happy, each afternoon, to get home and sit in front of the fire with a warm cup of cocoa or soup before tea.
My fifth birthday arrived and Mum invited all my little friends from around the camp to a party. Mum was a whiz at making cakes, trifles, jellies, and all those other things that make childrens’ eyes pop out on stalks and there, in the very middle of the table, was a large iced fruit cake with five candles. Feasts like that were soon demolished in my young day and it wasn’t long before Mum and a couple of her friends were cleaning up the mess while the men played a few games with us. That was the first real birthday party I can remember, but each year the parties seemed to get better. Strange as it may seem, I cannot remember anything of that Christmas. Maybe the birthday put a mental blockage on it!
1948 arrived. We spent a lot of time indoors due to the bad weather and there was always a lot of good things to do. Mum could tinkle a dozen tunes on an old piano we’d acquired from somewhere and she was good at reading books to us. We could also keep ourselves amused. For a long time I had a cocoa tin full of dried broad beans that I’d play with for hours. It was amazing what those beans could be or do. One game that Val and I loved was when Mum would hide some of the beans and the two of us would hunt until we’d found them all with Mum cheering for each one found. We used to play Hunt the Thimble. Mum would hide her thimble (it had to be the real thing) and then tell us if we were hot or cold, depending on how near or far away from the thimble we were in our search. The games were always played amid much laughter and squeals of delight. The winters always went as fast as the busy summers.
School started again and Mum took me a few times. One day I wanted to go on my own and reluctantly, she let me go alone one spring morning. I’ll always remember that first trip to school with no `guard’. It was a very cold, frosty morning, the sun was pale in a light blue sky but the frost shone brightly on the grass and shrubs. Feeling free, I went out of the camp, checked the traffic and crossed the main road as I’d been taught, walked down and up the dip and turned into North Road by the common. I stopped by the pond and the ice was thick over the surface with a few old brown and bent reeds thrusting through. In my freedom, I threw a couple of stones and watched them skid over the ice. The rooks were cawing in the high trees behind the pond by the common as they hunted for twigs to start building their nests. I walked backwards over the grass to Chesham Bois shops, watching how I left footprints in the frosted greenery until I caught the sweet smell of hot bread from the little bakery at Chesham Bois Village. From then on I walked along the pavement and down wooded paths with the singing of birds in my ears, until I reached the noisy playground to lose myself among a hundred young shouting children.
Of course, Mum was there to meet me that afternoon and, unknown to my happy, free self, I didn’t go alone to the school for a week as she followed at a discreet distance to ensure I arrived safely. Every afternoon after leaving school, we’d stop and lean on a stile to look over the field at the Chesham Bois church that nestled in the trees. It was a peaceful scene and a very nice place to rest for a while. I don’t know who looked after Val when Mum came to get me from school.
The frost went, the days turned warmer and the flowers appeared in their thousands. Spring was well advanced when we were given one of the renovated huts by the council. We’d live in this hut for over five years. Our new address was 16, Beech Barn, Chesham Bois, Amersham, Bucks.
Back to top of page.