Friday, September 11, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way home from school.

In response to the Examiner headline from the outbreak of WWII came this, a childhood memory from the war. It's long, but I think you'll agree it's worth it as it paints a picture of a way of life so remote from ours that you can hardly credit that it occurred within someone's lifetime. As a parent I have drawn sharp looks from other, more protective parents because I regularly let my young roam around DC on the Metro and have dispatched my young teenagers on unaccompanied transatlantic flights (where they missed their connections) but even I get the shivers over this story...


A funny thing happened on the way home from school: with a record of some happenings and changes since.

            It has long been a standing joke in our family that after 3rd September 1939 and the declaration of war by Britain on Nazi Germany any parents of young children in the UK having any connections, however tenuous, with the Isle of Man, dispatched their offspring with great rapidity to brothers, sisters, aunts, grandparents, cousins - even mere friends - who lived in the presumed peace and tranquility of an island the Germans would not bother to bomb.
            That, actually, is not the joke.

            The joke is that our mother sent my brother, Euan, and me in the opposite direction: perhaps she had a hidden message for us which our juvenile subtlety was too immature to recognize. Anyway on the 18th September we found ourselves being escorted by our mother to, and deposited in, The Royal Masonic Institution for Boys (Junior) School, Bushey, Hertfordshire - about thirteen miles north of Piccadilly Circus and, on a clear day with the wind behind it, almost within the sound of Bow Bells. When the wind was in the other direction we had a very clear stink from Benskin’s Brewery at Watford, a mile to the north.

            For the sake of this tale, I’ll ‘fast-forward’ to our journey home for the Christmas holidays in December 1940.  By this time we were hardened war-veterans, having experienced the introduction of our school to high explosive and incendiary bombs, dropped by the aforementioned Germans, plus the various sentiments that go with sleeping on the floor - three bodies to two mattresses - in one of two reinforced ground floor rooms (‘play box’ and ‘boot’) while the orchestra of falling bombs, answering ack-ack fire and the continuo of droning aeroplanes, played its lullaby above our otherwise peaceful rooftops. Also Euan and I had been part of the contingent of about one eighth of the school whose mothers (we were all fatherless) had opted to have us stay at school for the entire summer holiday because it might be ‘ . . . too unsafe in our own homes’. We, therefore, also had seen the most northerly skirmishes of the Battle of Britain fought over our heads during the memorably hot days of August and early September, 1940.

            In those days most children were shown a new journey once. After that they were expected to be savvy enough to undertake the same trip on their own or with their peers without expecting an adult to accompany them, particularly if they were only travelling between their school and home. If a nine or ten year old wanted to buy a bus, train or boat ticket, no one questioned it and the term ‘unaccompanied child’ had not yet been invented. That December, five Manx boys left Bushey in one party for the longed-for sanctuary of the Island and for Christmas at home. We were: Jimmy Taggart, aged 12 from Ramsey and his brother John, aged 11, both of whom also had spent the summer holidays at school; Saul Cregeen, aged 10 from Onchan; my brother Euan, celebrating his eleventh birthday, and I who was 9 years old at the time. All went well until we arrived at the Princess Landing Stage at Liverpool where the Victoria was lying alongside with no signs of having steam up ready for departure. The term ‘customer relations’ had also not been invented in those days but a typical Steam Packet crewman was at the bottom of the gangplank (and here my 78 years of memory might now be subject to a little colourful exaggeration) shouting to anyone who dared approach the ‘boat’ (as Steam Packet vessels were always referred to until the coming of the first ro-ro) ‘Clear-off! The boat isn’t sailing today! German aircraft mined the Mersey this morning and the navy’s now sweeping it. Phone tomorrow at noon and we’ll give you further orders’. Steam Packet crewmen never left anyone in doubt as to who was in charge.

            The Ramsey boys said, ‘Oh, we’ve got an auntie in Liverpool. Goodbye’ and immediately disappeared leaving no forwarding address. I asked Cregeen if, perchance, he might have an auntie in Liverpool but answer came there none. Even for those days, I suppose, it was a bit tough for a boy celebrating his eleventh birthday, a ten-year-old and a nine-year-old to be abandoned on the landing stage in this way and I don’t consider today’s children are mollycoddled when carriers give them special protection.

            Fortunately, Euan and I, before the war, had stayed in Liverpool with Mr. & Mrs. Will Scott, acquaintances of our parents who had particularly befriended us after our father died. We had stayed with them at their house in Derby Lane, Old Swan. Both of us knew the way and that the number of the tram which would get us there was 19. We suggested to Cregeen that he come with us. I hope his mother was for ever grateful afterwards that he accepted our offer of the Scott’s hospitality.

            It is, perhaps, worth considering what we might have done had Euan and I not known the Scotts. We definitely would not have made a drama out of the event and the one certain point is that we wouldn’t have died. We would have revealed our plight to the nearest passing stranger or nearest policeman - neither of which solutions would, I’m afraid, appeal to many of today’s children taught by their parents to be terrified of the former and mistrustful of the latter.

            Mind you, it would have taken huge bravery on our part to have approached the seaman at the bottom of the gangplank.

            Children’s perceptions, of course, are different from adults’: it was only quite a bit later in life that it occurred to me that the Scotts were pretty prosperous members of the merchant class. They owned several sweet shops throughout Liverpool and one at the Four Roads, Port St Mary. Part of each was a post office where Will was the designated sub-postmaster though, obviously, others did the work. (Manx post offices were still a part of the British GPO in those days.) The Scotts did not own a motor car (as we did) but they did have a holiday cottage attached to the Port St Mary shop and a weekend retreat in North Wales. Their house in West Derby never struck me as being anything special as there were, and still are, hundreds of houses like it in the Isle of Man. We called them boarding houses or, even, private hotels but the Scotts’ four-storey-plus-basement double-fronted Edwardian end of terrace edifice with large front and back gardens was a private house. They mightn’t have owned a car but they did have a coach house and stable (disused) and were the only family I have ever stayed with which had a butler; and an intercom phone system in every room in the house.

            Accompanied by oohs and ahhs and lovely, warm hugs they welcomed we three orphans of the storm of war. We were fed and watered, our mothers were contacted and we were shown where we would be sleeping - on mattresses on the floor of their cellar to which the family had been reintroduced just the night before after months free from any bombing at all around Liverpool! Bombs fell heavily that night, sending their familiar shudders up through the floor, and the accompanying ack-ack provided a comforting feeling of déjà vu to help us settle. We yarned and played board games till around midnight when Mr. Scott took us up to the billiard room which was under the eaves and had a fairly large skylight. He told us that we would remember the sight he was showing us for the rest of our lives: Saul Cregeen and my brother Euan are dead long years ago but Mr. Scott was right; I remember that sight in detail even now.

            At least half of the horizon visible from that window was a distant mass of flame with the sky to a great height reflecting a violent orange. Mr. Scott explained that the targets which had been successfully hit were the Liverpool Docks. When we did eventually take the tram to the boat for home we saw that a goodly number of downtown properties had also been hit. Despite Liverpool’s having been the City of Culture just recently, many of those buildings are still derelict.

            I think we probably arrived in Liverpool on a Tuesday. During the war only one boat operated the Douglas/Liverpool route so there was only a boat in either direction every other day and, of course, no boat on Sundays. (Just like the IOM railways, Sunday boat services were unknown until about the 1960s, though there was a Sunday rail service from Douglas to Kirk Braddan and back for the celebrated morning open air church services which in the summer season were attended by thousands of holidaymakers.) Around 11.0 a.m. the next day the sirens mournfully groaned into action as the Luftwaffe were once again over the Mersey. Distant explosions were heard but, as instructed, we duly phoned the Steam Packet agent, Thomas Orford Ltd, at midday. ‘The Mersey’s been mined again: the navy is out again trying to clear the channel. Phone again, same time tomorrow.’

            That night and ‘the same time tomorrow’ the story was the same, and again during the following twenty-four hours: bombing raids by night and mining raids by day. The Scotts were wonderful but what about the people in the Island? The Mersey was paralysed: no passenger or cargo boat from Liverpool since the previous Saturday; things must have been becoming desperate.  So too at the Liverpool end: the Steam Packet must have been really keen to get the mails, newspapers and perishable goods normally carried by the Victoria over to the Island, not to mention all the extra people converging on the port en route for their Christmas holidays, so on the Friday Orfords said, ‘Try again later’, which the Scotts duly did and eventually tentative directions were given to make for the Pier Head ready for a provisional 7.0 p.m. sailing.

            I think that that was actually about the time when the boat did finally sail. It was absolutely crammed with people. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, men on their own, women on their own , families with babes in arms and everyone of us looking worn out as we crammed together wherever we could find somewhere to stand. I don’t even remember where Euan was for most of the journey. The crowd’s momentum had propelled me down into the aft well-deck where I recollect being ring-fenced by three or four chaps in khaki when, suddenly, not ten minutes after departing the pier, there was a tremendous crash, the boat shook, then shivered and all the already ‘blacked out’ lights of wartime went out, then on, then out again - exactly like film makers were later to portray such scenes in the multitude of war films which are still shown on our TVs today. The women hadn’t stopped screaming before two more enormous explosions - in very quick succession - rocked the boat but, mercifully, the lights came on within a matter of seconds and, slowly, following a good few relieved exhalations of stifled breath, conversation was resumed and shortly after, normal behaviour as the realisation dawned that we didn’t seem to be sinking and, in fact, the Victoria was steaming on without so much as a pause.

            That’s it, really: the rest of the journey was uneventful. We arrived at the Edward Pier somewhere around midnight. The water was at full ebb on a spring tide but we soon picked out our grandfather and our mother amongst the faces peering dangerously over the precipitous edge of the pier which was high above deck level. Euan and I both delved into our strong carrier bags obtained in Liverpool to hold aloft the bargain of bargains we had jointly acquired on a shopping expedition into town. In the middle of a war where bombs were regularly dropped on railways, docks, homes, shops, factories and anything else Jerry thought it worth having a go at; where millions of tons of shipping were being destroyed in half the oceans of the world simply to starve Britain into submission, what had we been able to buy for sixpence each that we were so keen to show our nearest and dearest? It
defies belief but it’s true. What we had bought were three (the third for our sister, Ealish) newly imported, live tortoises!

            We learned later that the explosions came from acoustic mines. A vessel was not actually required to come into contact with these weapons as they were detonated by vibrations from all the various noises caused by a powered vessel moving through the water.

            The Victoria’s  reciprocating engines were possibly noisier than average for in detonating our mines somewhat prematurely she had been relatively undamaged and was able to take the next morning’s nine o’clock sailing from Douglas to Liverpool. However, coming down the river on the following trip home, just one mine detonated and the vessel was holed. The captain beached her on Wallasey beach and passengers were taken off onto two fishing boats. Thereafter there were no more sailings from Liverpool for the rest of the war; they were transferred to Fleetwood. Over the Christmas period adverts appeared in the local press (Manx Radio didn’t exist then) acquainting Islanders of this change, and the ever-gracious Steam Packet included the phrase that return tickets to Liverpool would be honoured on the Fleetwood route.

            Another detail about that period which is worth recording is that tickets then were made of cardboard and measured about two inches by one inch (landscape). They named the departure and arrival ports and return tickets had a left and a right half (each differently coloured). What they did not record was the name of the ticket holder. At the conclusion of the outward journey the purser would snap the ticket in half and keep the outward journey part for the accountants’ records. If the boat had sunk in the middle of the Irish Sea there would have been no company record of who had bought tickets or who had been lost; in those days no one seemed to think that a passenger list was necessary.

           
The names of all the children in this article have been altered but all the characters mentioned are or were real people and the events all actually happened as described.

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