Category Archives: England

Floods!! Then And Now

‘Here it comes’  Dad yells out and we all rush to the front door with our brooms. Sweeping frantically we try to stop the flood water creeping into the house but to no avail.

With all the news about the Harvey Irma and Jose hurricanes and the resulting floods and damage, I was reminded of our house when I was about 9 years old in 1954. We lived in Watts Cottages, St. Levan’s Road Plymouth in Devon England. There were four cottages situated in a small park, in a pretty grassy ‘dip’. and St Levan’s Road outside the park’s elegant metal railings was the main road for cars and buses. Upon opening our garden gate it led directly to the grass and the park. It was idyllic,  except for one thing…..It flooded when it rained heavily. Plymouth is a very hilly area and our cottages were situated in that dip.

Shortly after my father bought the house, our neighbours could not wait to tell Dad that the four cottages flooded when rain was particularly heavy. Of course, nowadays a sale like that would never happen but this was only 9 years after WW2 and housing in our Naval city were in crisis. Thousands of people lived in prefabs – prefabricated homes built quickly after the war, intending to last for 10 years –  and many families lived together, due to the bomb damage and shortages of homes, so for my Dad to find this pretty cottage, next to a recreation field and a main bus route was wonderful.

Side view of the Cottages in the park from the recreation ground, Our cottage was the third from the left.

We had lived in our home for about a year before it flooded. It had rained heavily all day and suddenly, the garden had a few inches of water in it, which rapidly became two feet. It crept towards the front door. When Dad had heard about the flooding from the neighbours, he had built a waist-high cement wall and a wooden door to slot in place when it rained. He was hopeful that this would keep the water out of the house – it didn’t.

After our frantic efforts to sweep the water out, it was obviously a useless exercise so my Dad made Mum me and my baby sister all go upstairs, whilst he waded out the front door to try and clear the sewer drain, which was outside our gate in the park area. He was over 6 feet tall, but soon, the water had reached his chest. We all watched the drama unfold from our bedroom window. He managed to get the drain cover off, and a huge fountain of water shot up into the air! It kept going for ages and we waited for the flood waters to recede but it did not happen and I must admit that at nine years old, it was kind of exciting to see! All the neighbours across the street were watching too. Buses stopped on the main road to watch the huge fountain of water cascading over the park. Such drama! What excitement!

The aftermath the next day was not so much fun though. No kind of help from anyone in those days. We just waited for the flood waters to subside, and then started the usual clean up. No Fire Engines to help pump out the water, no help from the local city officials, no shelters no home insurance just us, Dad Mum and me sweeping out all the stinking mud and trying to dry everything out.

None of the surrounding homes (pictured below) suffered flooding as those four cottages did, and always afterwards, the place smelled of mould and damp. No wonder I was always sick with bronchitis. It took many years – 18 actually – before those cottages were officially condemned and boarded up.

Long before then the residents including us had just moved out and left behind their dreams and investment. It took another 7 years before they were bulldozed and grassed over. The local council did then, once officially condemned, pay residents a nominal fee but nothing like the money put into our homes.

Front view of the site today, after the demolition of the Cottages, still a pretty site. The bare green area was where the cottages were situated. You can see how the area slopes downwards.

I have to admit that when I went back to England one year and visited the park, it was a shock to see the houses gone and an empty spot grassed over. It did make me sad and although the victims of the recent Hurricanes had a far, far worse time of it than we ever did, I do know exactly what they went through afterwards…..

 

 

Isn’t The Internet Wonderful?

For quite a few years, I have been doing genealogy, and although I have found many many family names, I had never actually met any family members associated with my research.

However,  a few years ago I was contacted via ‘Friend Reunited’ a now defunct website, by a second cousin on my Dad’s side. Samantha was my cousin Cheryl’s daughter, and she was looking for members of the Bulford family for her parent’s anniversary genealogy gift. Through Sam, I was united with Cheryl, her mother and my first cousin and from there, more first cousins I had never met.

My parents divorced when I was seven, and after that, I never had further contact with my paternal side of the family. This was SO exciting! There was Diane, my Aunt Sylvia’s daughter, Cheryl, Aunt  Florence’s daughter and Joanna, Uncle Roy’s daughter. All familiar names but people I had never met or even thought I would ever meet. We all contacted each other via the internet in great excitement, and exchanged the information we had all collected, and they sent me photos I had never seen, of my Dad’s family.

After numerous emails, we all decided to meet in the UK when I went over for my annual holiday. As this was the paternal side of my family, we met in Cornwall where my father and my cousins’ mothers and fathers were all born. I met, once again after 68 years my Uncle Roy, the last surviving member of the 11 children born to my father’ family.

We all met at the apartment Uncle Roy lived in with his wife, Aunt Evelyn. They had made us all Cornish Pasties, a local treat. Uncle Roy was 94 then, and Auntie Evelyn was 90 (both still alive today!) and my Uncle looked so much like my father, I became quite emotional. Uncle Roy’s sons David and Jonathan were there too with their sister Joanna and suddenly, just like that, I had five cousins! I had brought photos and they had some too, which we all pored over. I learned so much about the family in that short visit, to add to my family tree.

I showed David and Jonathan a photo of me, aged three that was taken on a beach in Newquay, one of the last visits to my Dad’s family before the divorce, and wondered aloud where it could have been taken. David took me by the hand to the balcony of the apartment opened the door and pointed. David said ‘This is Towan Beach where your photo was taken’ and there before me as in my photo, was the beach and the houses on the cliff behind me, still prominent today. Then I did cry.

The next day, we all had a family reunion Sunday lunch with wives and children, in the local pub. We reminisced we took photos and promised to keep in touch, which we have done so every year for the last 6 years. Every year I visit the UK we have our Bulford reunion usually in the West Country at a local pub, and each year I find out more about my Dad’s family. Photos, war records, marriages, deaths, some researched information I had, that my cousins did not know about were all shared via the internet. PLUS a recently found USA Bulford branch too, which is to be the basis for another story.

The internet, isn’t it just amazing and wonderful?

 

Marian circa 1948

Towan Beach Newquay, Cornwall UK

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The Cipher

By Sandra McHugh

When I say that my grandfather, Thomas McHugh, worked as a cipher, Bletchley Park, MI5, and Russian spies immediately come to mind. He was neither a Russian spy nor did he work as a cipher during the war. His employer was the Bank of Montreal and it was his first job when he came to Canada in 1912.

The decision to immigrate to Canada was not easy for Thomas. He was in his mid-30s and already had seven children, between the ages of one and fifteen. For over 40 years, the jute manufacturers of Dundee, Scotland had been providing employment for his parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, wife, and for him. However, by the early 1900s, he was facing a precarious future for his children.

By the early 1900s, Dundee had suffered a serious decline in the textile industry and more significantly, the jute industry.  Jute was imported from India, however, the mill owners realized that it would significantly lower the cost of production to open mills in India to prepare the jute and import the finished product to Scotland. Once mills were established in India, the jute production in the mills in Dundee decreased substantially.1

So when Thomas arrived in Canada, a little ahead of his wife and his children, he was eager and prepared to do any job so that he could. The Bank of Montreal had its headquarters in Montreal, Quebec. In the early 1900s, the bank had significant dealings with Great Britain and there were correspondence and banking instructions back and forth between Canada and Great Britain daily. These instructions were mainly sent by telegraph overnight. There were two reasons for this. Some of these instructions were confidential and it was preferred that they remain so. Overnight instructions reduced the number of people who would have access to them. Another reason was the time difference between Montreal and the United Kingdom. The banks in London and Edinburgh were open for business while Montreal was still asleep.

Even in those days, the banks were concerned about security, privacy, and confidentiality. The banking instructions and transactions were submitted by telegraph and were encrypted. It was the job of the cipher clerk to decipher them so that the bank staff could then ensure that the instructions were carried out as required.

To be a cipher clerk, one had to be reliable, meticulous, and honest, and ensure the confidentiality of the bank’s business. The cipher clerk used a cipher handbook to decipher the information. Also, the cipher clerk worked overnight, so it was a difficult job for a man with a family.

So while my grandfather, the cipher, did not work in espionage, I still think that his first job in Canada was rather interesting.2

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Dundee

2 As related by my father, Edward McHugh

This Place We Now Call Home

The Air Canada plane starts its descent and I look down out of the window. It is a dark November afternoon and I can see nothing except a few pinpricks of light on the ground. After regularly flying around densely populated Europe, this is a shock. Where are the towns? The people? What have we come to?

It is November 17, 1978 and here we are with our two boys, seven and five, landing at Mirabel Airport near Montréal, Quebec, where my husband, John, will start a new job.

We stand in a long line and wait. First there is an interview with a customs official who tells us that we can collect our boxes of “chattels and household effects” in a few days. Then on to the Immigration Officer who asks us about Geneva, where we had been living, and England, where we were born, and then examines our papers. We then talk to a pleasant lady who gives us information on schools and local businesses, and a telephone number to apply for our SIN cards (our what?). Finally, we can collect our luggage and leave. We have been admitted to Canada!

John sets off to find our car hire and when he returns driving a huge Plymouth Volare, the kids are thrilled. Cars of this size are not often seen in Europe. As we start to drive, it seems very dark; there are few lights on the motorway – or highway – as we soon learn to call it.

Our youngest child, Owen, awake since we left Geneva, finally falls asleep in the back seat as we head downtown to our temporary home, an efficiency apartment in a downtown hotel.

The next morning when we switch on the TV, we are confronted with the horrifying story of the Jonestown Massacre¹ a religious cult leader has killed all his followers with poisoned punch. The story is revealed in great detail, and we find the television coverage quite different from the French, Italian and German media we were used to (and could hardly understand) in Switzerland. We feel quite naive.

Finally, we venture outside for breakfast, choosing Ben’s, right across the street from the hotel. The boys are thrilled to see two policeman at the counter, their backs to us, wearing guns.

In that high, carrying voice of the very young, Owen pipes up, ‘Are they real guns Mummy?’ He has never seen a policeman with a gun before. The policemen smile and wave at the children, but we feel nervous after the shocking TV news, and now policemen wearing guns?

Breakfast was, how shall I say it? Different. Bacon with pancakes and maple syrup? We give it a try. It’s not bad, but it’s a strange taste for us. Coffee is served without asking if we want it; we prefer tea. And the food portions are enormous. We stagger out, well fed.

Soon it starts to snow and the children are delighted, but by late afternoon, when it is still snowing, we are staggered. When does it stop? (FYI, in late April the following year.) We tell the hotel concierge we are going to take a walk. He eyes us and says, ‘You will need boots and winter coats. Try Eaton’s, just a block down there.’ We venture out and cannot believe how deep the snow is. I tiptoe down the street in my high heels, feet freezing.

In England, we have just one heavy coat, shoes and one pair of boots for all the seasons. In Switzerland, we only use boots for skiing, so all this new clothing is strange. We buy hats, scarves and warm gloves too, and we soon appreciate how important it is to be warmly dressed in winter!

Eventually, we move into our house and the time comes to register the boys for school. We decide to send them to a French school since they studied in French in Geneva. The elementary school principal is amazed, as we are obviously English, but in our fractured French, we insist.

Owen, who will be six years old in February of the coming year, is outraged that he is deemed ‘too young’ to start school full time. He can only attend half a day until the following September. He has been in school since he was three!

I had never learned to drive, and now I had to learn quickly if I wanted to go anywhere. So, in February, 1979, I took my first driving lesson on the frozen streets of the West Island. Slipping and sliding down the streets I go, with the sweat running down my back! I am very, very nervous. I do not even know how to work the wipers, plus, my youngest son is in the back seat – no safety belts then – since I don’t know anyone who could babysit while I have my lesson. Stress after stress for the first few years. Typical of most immigrants, I should think.

The politics too were a bit of a surprise, as it seemed everyone was fleeing down the 401 to Toronto. A few days of reading the newspapers told us why. Apparently a law called “Bill 101”² had been passed the previous August and the ‘Anglos,’ as we soon learned to call ourselves, were leaving Quebec. It appeared we had arrived in a province in turmoil.

The noises in our house were also unfamiliar. At first when we heard the furnace starting up in the basement, we were all startled, but we quickly got used to it. Another puzzler was having to buy a brush for the car and a shovel for the driveway. Why? We soon found out that if we did not copy our neighbours and clean the car of snow and shovel the drive, we simply couldn’t get out!

One night, we heard the city snow blower and trucks clearing the snow very late at night, and we all leapt out of bed to check what the noise was. It was scary; all small things, but so different from living in England and Europe.

We experienced many ups and downs as we got used to life here. Perhaps the hardest thing was to adapt to the extreme cold winter weather, and then to the hot, humid summers (yet again, we needed to buy more appropriate clothing), but despite all that, we like it here. Almost 40 years later, our sons are fully bilingual and attended college and university. I have to say that Quebec has been very good to our family as we continue to build our own little dynasty, in this place we now call ‘home.’

Notes

¹ http://history1900s.about.com/od/1970s/p/jonestown.htm

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_of_the_French_LanguageThe Charter of the French Language (French: La charte de la langue française), also known as Bill 101 (Law 101 or French: Loi 101), is a law in the province of Quebec in Canada defining French, the language of the majority of the population, as the official language of Quebec.

A Beautiful (Terrible) Life

royal-selangor-club

The Royal Selangor Club and padang today in Kuala Lumpur.  Photo taken by my son.

It is a truth universal for genealogists: If at first you don’t succeed – finding info on an ancestor on the Internet – try and try again.

About ten years ago, surfing the Library of Congress online archive, I discovered that there existed a 1953 March of Time video about the Malayan Communist Emergency.  Even better, the blurb on said website claimed said this particular episode of the iconic newsreel contained a bit about my grandmother and namesake, Dorothy Nixon.

I soon found out that the video was long out of production. I couldn’t even find an old copy on eBay. Then, about two or three years later, a former Malayan colonial posted the video in its entirety on YouTube, Playing Cricket whilst Fighting Goes On. It’s still up there. 

Today, all I have to do is point and click and there she is: my small snowy-haired grandmother, about  55 years old, seated beside a man in a tall turban while scoring a cricket match at the much-storied Royal Selangor Club, on the pedang, or green, in Kuala Lumpur.

My grandmother’s segment is at the end of the piece describing  the decade long jungle conflict, at about the 6 minute mark.  “Mrs. Nixon,” says the announcer, “is a fixture at the Royal Selangor Club” which has just opened up to non-Europeans. It isn’t mentioned, but I know for a fact that, at the time, Dorothy was the only woman who had ever been allowed into the men’s section of the club.*

Before WWII, the green or padang was surrounded by government buildings.  That is why, on Boxing Day, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbour, the green was bombed by the Japanese.  My grandmother was at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a library nearby, when the bombs hit. According to her family memoir, she hid under a desk until the barrage ended and then got up to help dig out dead bodies from the rubble.

Here’s a post-war picture of Dorothy with the Selangor Cricket team from the 1947 sent to me by a former Colonial.

dorothy-club-big

 

The picture suggests my grandmother enjoyed being one of a few women among a large group of men. And, it’s true, almost everything I have learned about her seems to underscore this point.

A few days after the bombing, when Kuala Lumpur was overrun from the North by Japanese soldiers riding on bicycles, all rubber planters’ wives were told by telephone  to leave the city.  My grandmother removed herself only reluctantly, taking a dark and noisy night train to “safety” in Singapore.  When, a few days after that, and much to everyone’s surprise, Singapore fell, Dorothy simply refused to get on a boat to Batavia like most other British women, so she was interned at Changi Prison.

For a 6 month period in 1943, Granny, as we kids called her, was elected Women’s Commandant, where she had repeated run-ins with the mostly hands-off Japanese Commandant. Soon after she relinquished her leadership post, she was arrested by the Japanese Kempetai for allegedly spying (and colluding with the Men’s Camp) in an infamous ‘radio’ incident called the Double Tenth.  

dorothycell

Dorothy: Self-portrait. The relative luxury of her Changi cell. At first, the Japanese Commandant was hands-off and even helpful, but that changed over time with a new man put in the position.  The women’s camp population grew large, to over 300, over the span of the war and soon there were three women to a cell. 

Dorothy spent a month in a tiny windowless room in the bug-infested basement of the Singapore YMCA with 17 desperate male suspects who were taken out nightly to be tortured. Their screams and a bright light kept her from sleeping.  Then she was put in solitary confinement for five long months and starved to an inch of her life on two cans of condensed milk a day.  Apparently, she much preferred the buggy room.*

double-tenth-diary

(A page from her ‘memoir’..Double Tenth is 10th of October)

My father, a classic “Child of the Raj” hardly knew his own  British ‘mater’, so much of what I knew about my grandmother before my recent Internet forays was mere family myth.

Using Ancestry.co.uk, I recently discovered that my Granny travelled by boat from Yorkshire (well, Liverpool) to Malaya in December, 1921 to meet up with her new husband, Robert, also from the North of England, who was working on a rubber plantation near the beautiful Batu Caves.

(She had been a Land Girl in WWI, in forestry, leading the giant Clydesdales that pulled the logs through the woods.)

She gave birth to my father, Peter, but ten  months later, and this despite the fact my grandfather refused to give up his Asian girlfriend. Anglo rubber companies forced their employees to marry British wives, which provoked a lot of resentment against these interloping women, who were considered too high maintenance and parvenus of a sort.

Still, colonial life wasn’t all terrible. In the twenties, Dorothy attended polo matches with sultans and hosted formal dinners for British dignitaries, some of these men living legends, at her airy bungalow on her husband’s rubber estate.

“We had fun in those days,’ she told a journalist in the 1970’s, who put it in a book about Colonial Malaya. The journalist described my grandmother, in her dotage, as very weak and ‘somewhat vague.’

It was later, in the 1930s that Dorothy became Head Librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a turn-of-the-century institution that also provided a mail-order book box service for Brits isolated in the remote jungle.  I don’t know if she took on this job out of sheer boredom (since her children had been sent to England early on, and she had the usual quota of servants) or because the Depression forced her to.

Then came WWII and her near-death experience at the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually, in the fifties and sixties, she was anointed the “Grand Dame of Cricket” in Malaya.  For a while they were giving out a Dorothy Nixon Trophy.

My grandmother died in 1972 at age 77, shortly after that interview, in her rooms at the Majestic Hotel in KL surrounded by her precious personal collection of books which were later donated to the Malaysian National Library, but not before meeting her name-sake granddaughter.

Upon her retirement from the KL Book Club, in the summer of 1967, she flew in to visit us for six months in the Snowdon area of Montreal.

Dorothy Senior was not impressed, I can tell you, with our bilingual island city, our ‘exotic’ World’s Fair, or her pimply, pubescent string-bean of a granddaughter.

And all I saw in her was a bad-tempered old crone, always pacing the narrow halls of our cramped upper duplex apartment with a Rothman’s cigarette in one hand a tall tumbler of gin in the other, criticizing almost everything, including my mother’s decadent pound-of-butter, six egg French Chocolate Pie.

So closely confined and besieged by a band of unruly Canadian grandkids, she must have felt as if she were back at Changi!

grannylll

Granny, in picture, visited us for Expo67.

She did, indeed, tell my mother about her WWII experience and my mother did mention it to me. “Try to be nice to your grandmother,” I recall Mummy saying. “ During the war she had to sit cross-legged for days in a room with many men.”  But, that plea made no impression on me.

My grandmother and I hardly spoke,that sweet Expo summer, even though I gave her breakfast in bed every morning, one hard-boiled egg and a tiny container of a strange food called ‘yogurt’, and we both preferred it that way.

After all, the  very first week of her visit she had told me I could never visit her in Malaysia, as she would ‘lose face’ in front of her Chinese friends.

Oh, well. I’m making it up to her now.

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*The Royal Selangor Club, founded in 1884 by British colonials, has a long history reaching back to Victorian times. The story goes the club was knick-named the Spotted Dog because, from the beginning, people of all races were allowed to join, although this March of Time piece suggests that happened only in the 50’s. Still, no question, Malaya  in the 1920’s and 30’s was a bustling multi-cultural society – but with a distinct pecking order.

*Luckily, she wasn’t horribly tortured like the men or a  certain young Chinese  woman, who suffered all kinds of indignities including electric shock and, yes, even, waterboarding.*(IF you have seen the brilliant BBC series Tenko, you’ll know all about her Changi experience. That fictional mini-series was bang on from what I can see. )

Racism on a dance floor

In my last story¹ I recounted my teen years in Plymouth. Our gang of young Royal Navy Apprentices and us girls always went dancing on Saturdays at the NAAFI (Navy Army Air Force Institute) Club in Plymouth, Devon.

This particular Saturday the NATO Fleet (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) including the USS Wasp was in town, the largest Aircraft Carrier our city had ever seen.

As we entered the NAAFI imagine our surprise when we saw our very first black men in the flesh (not at the picture house) AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time.

We had never seen black people before, there were none that I had ever seen at that time, in our part of England. In the post-war period in 1950 it is estimated there were no more than 20,000 non-white residents in Britain and almost all born overseas.²

Most migrants who came to Britain after the war, found employment in the textile industries of Lancashire, Yorkshire Manchester and Bradford, cars and engineering factories in the West Midlands and Birmingham and the growing light industrial estates in places like Luton and Slough, near London.

In the South West where Plymouth is located, our economy was based on tourism, agriculture fishing and the Royal Navy Dockyard Devonport, so migration to our part of the country was limited to almost none.

On this particular night, we could not wait to copy these exotic black sailors doing the twist. They started to invite us to dance. One of them asked me onto the dance floor and showed me the ‘moves’ I had such fun and he was a wonderful dancer. The dance ended, and we started to chat.

Suddenly, a large white muscular US sailor inserted himself between me and this boy. ‘You don’t want to be dancing with this n*****’  he said. I was completely shocked, not only by his utter rudeness but his language. I had never heard that derogatory term before. The white sailor then tried to take my hand to dance with me, but I was having none of it, and dodged around him and continued my chat with the black sailor, much to the open disgust of this white sailor. Why was he so disgusted?

The black sailor suggested that perhaps I should not dance with him again, I asked why not? He did not answer but he did become very awkward. We finished our dance but he did not invite me onto the dance floor again.

We girls continued to have fun that night, but we could not understand why the white sailors were on one side of the room glowering at us, and the black ones on the other, and they never mixed or talked to each other.

That night was my first ever experience of racism and segregation and I did not even realise it. We were completely unaware of it, never seen it, and could not understand it. In the rest of the city, the black sailors were treated exactly as any other sailor and apparently, nobody else I knew had any idea of the racism or the segregation they were subjected to, except by their ‘own’ countrymen. I like to think that they at least enjoyed their visit to our city.

Several years later in 1965, after news of racism riots in Watts, Los Angles, my naiveté and innocence was shattered as I suddenly realised what that night out in the NAAFI in my home town had really meant. I had the sudden insight that not all people were equal after all, and racism and segregation had entered my world where it has stayed. A sad commentary on the 21st Century.

¹https://genealogyensemble.com/2016/03/04/my-home-town/

²https://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Arrival_of_black_immigrants_in_London

 

Plymouth Navy Days

by Marian Bulford

Our group or ‘gang’ never went out with the local lads. Every Saturday night we went dancing at the NAAFI and met up with the young sailors from all over the British Isles who were stationed in Devonport. The NAAFI was a huge social club ….
It was always with the young sailors stationed in Devonport, from all over the British Isles that we met every Saturday night when we all went dancing at the NAAFI – the Navy Army Air Force Institute – a social club for all the services and service families situated in the centre of Plymouth and covered a whole city block. At one end, it was a hotel for service families and the other end was a restaurant three bars and a huge dance floor.

I was an excited 16 year old, with the whole world in front of me. Plymouth Devon, in the UK was my home town.

It was a naval port and had been for centuries. Who has not heard of Sir Frances Drake, the celebrated Tudor seafarer, famous for circumnavigating the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada? Or the Mayflower, the tiny ship that transported the first English Separatists, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620? [1]

Most of my family on both mother and father’s side, were Royal or Merchant Navy and had lived in or around the areas for centuries the same places I lived as a teenager.

Ships of all sizes were always in and out of Devonport, the area I lived in and when a ship arrived ‘home’ there was much celebration in the local pubs and dance halls. This was my town and I loved it.

It was also a very popular summer holiday area with lovely hotels and guest houses. This area of Devon was described as the ‘Riviera of the South’ we even had our own palm trees.

This poster shows ‘Plymouth Sound’ and ‘Drake’s Island ‘ in the background, the beautiful Tinside Art Deco Lido Pool and of course, the sailors. I could have been one of those girls in the poster……

Holiday Poster

Over the last year, my 16 year old school friends and I had built up a close group of boy sailors, ‘Matelot’s’ as we called them, the young 15 to 16 year old Navy boys learning their trades as apprentices on board various ships at the Devonport Dockyard, where many of my ancestors had worked over the centuries.

NAAAFI Building, Plymouth Devon c. 1961

The Plymouth NAAFI Club

We were all very excited in 1961 because the NATO [2] fleet arrived in Plymouth!
About 15 foreign ships would be arriving and the population would swell. The local population was pleased as money would be made and our group noticed a lot of ‘strangers’ in town when the fleet arrived. Lots of ‘ladies’ from London arrived, or ‘unfortunates’ as my Gran called them, and they stood out because of their accents.

Many foreign languages were also heard in the streets of Plymouth, some I was only hearing for the first time, and we tried to communicate with some of the sailors with lots of miming laughing and hand waving.

The biggest ship in town was a United States Aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, which caused great excitement: it was as big as a small town.

But imagine our reaction on the following Saturday, when we went to our usual dance at the NAAFI and saw our very first black men in the flesh AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time!

We had never seen black people before, there were none in our part of England, and especially not ones doing the twist! Boy, they were ever good! Not a patch on us or the local sailors and we could not wait to copy them. But that is another story….

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayflower

[2] NATO Fleet: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1952,
Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance, joined later by West Germany.

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Dissenters and Poets

 

john

Reverend John Forster. Published with the permission of the Primitive Methodist Ancestor Website.

Late in his life, Somebody Forster, my great-grandfather, awakened from his night’s sleep to ask his wife of many decades, ‘Woman, what are you doing in my bed?”  It was dementia.

Until lately, this serio-comic anecdote was the only thing I knew about my father’s mother’s father, other than that he was a Methodist Minister from the North of England. But, just last month, I accessed the 1901 UK Census, (for free, yea) and it took me about thirty minutes to find out all I could want about my great-grandfather Somebody.

First, I looked up my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, who I knew was born in 1895 in Middleton-on -Teesdale, County Durham, UK,  to see that her father was a Reverend John from Knockburn, Northumberland; her mother Emma, a former Cowen from Crook,  and, more importantly, that John was a Primitive Methodist Minister. (I checked. PM’s were dissenters; socialists and pacifists, apparently.) *1

Then, googling the keywords “John Forster” and “Primitive Methodist,”  I  landed on a webpage from a genealogy site, myprimitivemethodistancestors.org , with a short biography of Great-granddad John, with  grainy photos of him and wife Emma taken in 1914.

Apparently, John Forster, a bookish, self-educated son of a farmer, was an accomplished essayist who penned over fifty articles for the Connexions Magazine of the Primitive Methodists on sundry weighty topics including “Heredity in Relation to Morals” and “Primitive Methodism and the Labour Question.”(He also served as a Temperance Committee; amusing, as his daughter, my Grandma Dorothy*, could really slug back the gin!)

I was most intrigued, though, to see that John had published a book of poetry, in 1923, shortly after my father, his grandson, was born at the European Hospital near Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. The author claims that Reverend John’s poems ‘contain lyrics of extraordinary charm and grace.’

(Well, I know the Wasteland was published in 1922, ushering in modernity, it is claimed, but no one said anything as nice about T.S. Eliot’s poem 😉

Curious, of course, about these verses, I contacted the Primitive Methodism Website’s administrator, asking for help. She immediately emailed me back a longer biographical article about John Forster, but no examples of his poems.  The volume in question, Pictures of Life in Verse seems to have gone missing from the church/museum library.

Quelle Bummer!

There’s good news, though. This longer article lists Reverend John’s assignments or ‘circuits’ in chronological order.  The Forster family moved often, it seems, around the area:  Thornley, Crook, Middleham, Bradford, Middleton-in-Teesdale, (a very pretty sheepy village) about six other towns, then, it said, “his present one (1912) being Helmsley.”

Bingo!  I know from the 1911 UK Census, that Helmsley is the hometown of my grandfather, Robert Nixon.  Clearly, alliances were made in that era that resulted  in the marriage of John and Emma’s second daughter, Dorothy, to Robert Nixon, son of a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry, although a Great War would delay official matrimony.

Dorothy would have been 17 in 1912 and fresh out of her co-ed Quaker boarding school and Robert Nixon just 22, and working in service as a footman.3

Perhaps Robert’s prospects weren’t good enough for the righteous Reverend John. In 1913, according to online records,4 Robert, travelled to Malaya to work as a labourer in a rubber plantation. During WWI, Dorothy worked as a land girl, leading enormous Clydesdales through the woods, a comical sight as she was only 5 foot tall.*5

The same records also reveal that Robert returned to England in 1916, now the plantation’s Assistant Manager. This trip home was very likely to secure a wife for real as rubber company officials insisted their employees return to the UK to find respectable British (see: white) wives.

Whatever transpired back in Helmsley, North Yorkshire in 1916,  on December, 1921, *6 Reverend John Forster, perhaps taking time off from penning one of his charming verses, sent his second daughter, Dorothy  off to  Selangor, Malaya. She’d become pregnant almost immediately upon arrival. I know because my father, Peter, was born on October 23, 1922.7


  1. Checking into Emma Cowan’s parentage, I see that her ancestors belonged to this same church, Redwing Chapel, that has an online presence! United Congregation of Red Wing Chapel, Garrigill, and Low Chapel, Alston, Cumberland; http://www.fivenine.co.uk/family_history_notebook/source_extracts/parish_registers/cumberland/redwing_registers.htm
  2. Website: Myprimitivemethodistancestors.org
  3. UK Census 1911
  4. UK Immigration and Transportation Records http://www.familysearch.org
  5. Family Lore
  6. UK Immigration and Transportation Records. After WWI, there were many, many more unmarried women than men in England, so perhaps this had something to do with Dorothy’s decision to go to Malaya to marry Robert Nixon. They did not get married in the UK, or at least I can’t find any record of a marriage.
  7. Family lore, (my Aunt Denise, who died last month) said that Robert kept his Asian mistress after marriage. Dorothy eventually got her own boyfriend, a colonial lawyer who remained faithful to her until her death in 1971. Both Dorothy and Robert were interned at Changi Prison in Singapore during WWI. Dorothy was Women’s Camp Commandant for a term. I only met my grandmother once in 1967, when she came to visit. Robert  died while she was at our house in Montreal’s Snowdon district.  He fell off a ladder at his daughter’s, Denise, in Farnborough, Hants, UK.  I recall the telegram. I recall, also, that my grandmother managed to wipe a tear or two from her eyes. I’ve written about my Colonial Grandmother in a play Looking for Mrs. Peel, which makes it all the more amusing that my great-grandparents were named John and Emma.

My Brothers’ Keeper

I am quite small, hiding under the table in a kitchen filled with big people all talking but not loudly, a hushed kind of murmuring. They are drinking tea and eating. The room is warm.

Scottie, my Gran’s Highland Terrier is with me under the table, he is a black dog which seems appropriate seeing as everyone in the room seems to be wearing black too. The radio plays quietly in the background. Scottie and I are happy to be left alone underneath the table, but I am soon to be called and told to come out from under the table. I don’t want to come out, I was comfortable there. I am helped up onto a chair to peer into a small white box.

The first thing to catch my eye, is the white satin, lining the box. Then I notice the small doll wrapped in a silken shroud, from neck to foot. I am handed a red rose, and told to put it on his chest. Someone says, ‘Now kiss your brother goodbye’ so I lean in, and kiss his cold forehead then scramble down from the table to crawl underneath again to play with Scottie.

I recall that all the curtains in the house were drawn, night and day, a big black wreath was on the front door and all the mirrors were covered, and everyone in the house wearing black arm bands. Hushed conversations which abruptly end when I come into the room.

I am three years old, soon to be four on 20th of November 1948 and this is the occasion of the death of my baby brother born on 18th October 1948 and dying on 21 October, 1948.

Years later I learn that he died whilst nursing in my mothers’ arms on his third day of life. Christopher’s birth, as was the custom in those days, was at home, whilst I stayed with my grandparents, who lived 5 doors away in the same street and many years later I learn that my mother, whilst she was in her ‘confinement’ watched my ‘blond bubble-curled head bob past her window every day’ and still years later, tearfully telling me how one minute Christopher was nursing then he stiffened, and started to turn blue then went limp. She also said that in layman terms “He was born with only half a heart”. Seeing the certificates, brought back the memories and some more tears.

Now in middle age I think of him often. How he would have turned out, what kind of student he would have been, would we have been close friends? Indeed would my parents have ever divorced if he had lived, as death either makes or breaks a family.

For the past 30 years I have been doing family genealogy so recently I sent off for his birth and death certificates, as his birth and death was something I wanted to know about in more detail.

As soon as the birth and death certificates arrive, hands trembling I open them and try to read the certificates, but memories flood back of the day of his funeral, with such clarity I am dizzy for a second.

I have no photos of Christopher but then, handling the certificates, I remember that day of his funeral with vivid clarity, and how black his hair was – our fathers’ Cornish heritage – but those memories are so vivid only because I now have his birth and death certificates in my hands.

I start to read the two documents, His birth first, but then tears make me stop. Now a mother of two boys myself, I cannot imagine what my mother went through on those three days. I pull my self together, and try again.

I read the official account of his too short life and the reason for his death: ”Congenitally abnormal heart. Heart consisted of two chambers a common auricle and a common ventricle” and then the memory of my mother, telling me he was born with ‘half a heart’ and realising that it was surprisingly accurate.

I hurry to write down what I remember of his death and the memories flow. Of his birth, I have no memory.

I would like my future descendant’s to know a little about my brother and to remember him as I did on the day his Birth and Death Certificates arrived for me to read, and the memories I had of his funeral, events still so clear over 67 years ago and once again, I am reminded of how handling documents, photos and memorabilia of family is so important in our lives, especially when we are documenting our family histories.

I wonder how our future descendant’s will manage now most information is digitized?
I believe like most of my genealogical friends, that we will keep our memorabilia in paper form to bring back memories like mine, which were so vivid and clear.

Difficult holiday for two families

The plane crashed just after one in the afternoon Eastern Time on December 22, 1944. He probably died right then, or soon after.

Devittphoto2

James Frederick (Fredrick or Federic) Devitt left at least two families mourning for him, one in the United Kingdom and his own in Ontario.

His service file shows that the man was 22 years old when he died. His birth had been a Valentine’s Day gift for his parents. Prior to joining the Air Force, he worked for the Canada Bread Company in Peterborough as a driver and route manager. He played hockey and softball and owned a motor boat.[1]

His last trip as a flight engineer/pilot officer left from Gransden Lodge just prior to 4 p.m. in the afternoon, December 22, 1944, exactly 71 years ago yesterday.

His Lancaster and 13 others were on a Pathfinder mission to mark a small railway freight yard in Germany’s Rhine Valley. He was in Lancaster 405/D, which was seen crashing about three hours later by four pathfinders at 50:02 N. 06:25 E., southwest of Leimbach.

Blind Sky Marker failed to return from this operation and nothing has been heard from any member of the crew since time of take-off. This was F/O Tite’s 35th operation.” [2]

His mother’s notes to the Air Force show how difficult these situations were for families.

The telegram and letter reporting him going missing within a month of the crash was the only official news, but she still had hope that he had lived in May.

Can nothing be done to locate my son Fred? I have waited for days thinking some message would come through. I had word from two of the fathers from two of his crew saying their sons were prisoners of war. This was some time ago. Try and help a heart-broken mother please.”

Henrietta was 65 when her Devitt died, but she had already known great loss. His father Robert Campbell Devitt had already died of complications following a stomach ulcer operation when he was three years old, his older brothers were  five, 15 and 21 and his five sisters were eight, 11, 14, 17 and 19.

When she got news about her youngest son going missing, she was already dealing with the death of his elder brother Alexander, who had died the previous January in the Battle of Ortano, Italy.[3]

She wrote the Royal Air Force a second note three months later:

I have not heard any further word about my son Jas Fredric Devitt except what the three members of his crew who came back told me by letter. They said the plane burst into flames. One bailed out and two were blown out and what happened the rest is not known. Surely some identification marks were found. If he was killed and buried like my other son I wouldn’t take it so hard.

Two of the boys were taken as prisoners and the other wounded and put in a German hospital. All any one says is missing.”

A month later she wrote again.

Surely you can tell me something of my son Pilot Officer Jas Fud shot down over Germany December 22…If I know he was died and his body found my mind would be at rest—as it is I’m afraid of results.”

Another woman who loved him also worried. Eight months after his plane went down, a Mrs. S. Hitchings wrote the Royal Air Force from 111 Connaught Road, Roath Park, Cardiff. She too had heard that two airmen from his plane were taken prisoner and she hoped that perhaps they provided the Red Cross with information about Devitt.

I feel sure that if he was alive we would have heard from him, since he became part of our family whilst he was stationed in this country.”[4]

It would take another three years to be sure about what happened to the Lancaster, but Devitt’s service record indicates that:

This 4 engined aircraft fell 60 or 70 yards behind the fam of MARTIN STOMMES in WIERSDORF (L.0357). It was shot down by a German night fighter and was burning in the air, it hit the ground, turned on its back and burned for 3 hours. One engine and the tail unit fell off before it crashed.”

Three bodies and the remains of a fourth were buried in an unmarked grave.[5]

Devitt’s remains have since been moved to Rheinberg War Cemetery in Germany. For more information, refer to his Veterans Affairs Canada memorial page.

Sources:

[1] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, General Information.

[2] No. 405 R.C.A.F. Squadron (P.E.F.) Operations Record Book, Gransden Lodge, photocopies of secret book, December 22, 1944, Appendix 212.

[3] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, National Estates Branch, form C92768FD269, October 29, 1945.

[4] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, report from Officer Commanding No 2, MR&E Unit RAF, dated January 17, 1947.

[5] Devitt, James Frederick; Library and Archives Canada, RG-24, volume 25203, letter from S. Hitchings, received August 25, 1945.

Note: This article was also published on http://www.Arialview.ca today.

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