|A publication of The
Old Uffingtonians magazine brings remembrance of class '39 in all the days
of the war.
Schooldays! The happiest days
elders always say.
Evacuation? Who murmurs it was lucky for some. It was better
for all when Spam and dried egg entered the war.
A number of boys were labelled
unbilletable. Mr. Southam, the Deputy Head in Northampton, let it be
known that his boyhood had been at Wykeham public school and made much of
his school motto "Manners Maketh Man". Boys uprooted from home,
prone to rebellion, fail well-meaning counsellors of the Seraphic School
of Philosophy, where Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away, and - you had better
be good, or else!
A series of billet moves had got me
numbered, and for it! A sharp shock for the next stopover; School
House, together with "Spud" Murphy, a fellow ingrate and previous billet
School House stood in Wellington Road
where the wind blew in gusts from Park Avenue North, opposite Northampton
Town and County Grammar School.
Willesden County boys shared the
school premises with the local Grammarians. Mornings exchanged with
Afternoons and entangled only on the rugby field. Warmth left by
rumps formerly occupying classroom seating was like the spoor of wild
animals wary of each other.
Spud and myself slept in a room with
the drunkard son of a widow, in whose care we had been placed. Reg
had the unclean habit of peeing out of the bedroom window, when he was
wobbly on his legs with drink and uncertain where to unload his urgency.
Spud slept with Reg in a double bed, with me in a single. Reg was in
his early thirties.
One night, both in bed, Spud got an
unlucky clout and a bloody nose from Reg thrashing his arms about in
drunken stupor. That decided us to find another billet with better
But before our request for a move was
sent, Canadian troops in transit arrived in Northampton, with Bren-gun
carriers and field artillery at Bush Hill: bristling under camouflage
netting (where in kindlier times toy six-guns played cowboys, making
whoopee chasing Sioux). The Army, not to bivouac, needed billets,
the widow was in need of the bounty offered on the town, needed my bed;
with me under protest and an eiderdown bedded with the widow. Good
for the widow's purse but scandal for the boy who sleeps with his
What a reputation to live down if the
tale got out, or perhaps, even worse, a reputation such to live up to.
Next school day, Spud and me, sought out Mr. Southam, but we could not
find the words to explain our misery and got a good telling off for our
pains (as only Mr. Southam could do it). Spud abashed, me in tears,
both tongue-tied and trembling.
The guardianship of about twenty boys
at School House was with Mr. Parker and his wife. Mr. Parker, the
woodwork master was not made of hardwood, but his features gave an
impression of sculptural work with chisel and mallet. Kindness in
both resident there, but food that encourages growth in boys was not of a
promising size on the plate; the kitchen always being an early casualty of
war. How many ships carrying cargoes of food were sunk in the
Western approaches and how many of our poor seamen lost their lives?
Annals of their heroism say in the region of 60,000, there is no exact
For deprivation, the rambling old
house in Northampton bore no comparison with Dotheboys Hall, yet at night
the floorboards creaked in the cold; cold that called at every crack and
crevice. Boys slept in bare dormitories, on wood and canvas camp
beds, without sheets or mattresses. The principles of sharing were
enforced by boy leaders; by forays for the blankets of others. More
gentle boys learned how give and take is disciplined by circumstance.
The bullying of the weak by the
strong became ritualised and savage, beyond control. Mr. and Mrs
Parker usually retreated to their sitting room early. That was
sensible of them.
The winters were so cold; at Liptons
in Abingdon Street, roasting coffee sent aroma into the icy air, wafting
through a grating at street level. On the grating warmth and
fragrances percolated up the legs of short trousers. It was the best
place for a winter warm-up in Northampton! To me the most accessible
warm-up in the whole northern hemisphere.
From School House, on the fateful
night of 14th November 1940 the fires from Coventry thirty-five miles away
were seen. The horror of that air raid we could not imagine.
"Somebody's getting it" now seems lacking in ready sympathy, but was heavy
with meaning, for all that. Northampton had its younger men and
women called up for war. We were all in it, one way or another.
Northampton was like Leicester, a
boot town; making boots for the army and footwear for all the other
Services. Lasts for ladies high heels were put on the shelves for
the duration and shoes for civilians were put on coupons. The town
smelt of tanned leather; little had changed between the two wars.
There was a cobbled cattle market and
an adjacent brewery, mixing odours of hops, malt and animal matter.
The river Nene with banks of reeds, skylarks and warblers found it's way
to the Lincolnshire Fens through the lock at Little Billing.
Northampton was a town of bicycles
and work-a-day bustle; taverns, public bars, saloons and outdoor
jug-and-bottle. Brightly painted and scrolled delivery vans with
brass bugle horns, had place with drays and coal wagons. Bent backs,
tipped sacks and vaults swallowed wooden barrels, lowered by rope and
In the streets women in headscarves
or wearing knotted snoods over paper curlers, stopped and chatted about
how terrible things were, or where something or other was off ration.
Voices of Middlesex schoolchildren mingled with the tones of the Midlands.
Little travellers, some of whose parents had never been north of Watford.
The town had a repertory theatre of
distinction and a Municipal Bathhouse, which was good for a scrub when
billeted without a bathtub.
The repast of the week for
Northampton people was batter pudding with gravy, on Sunday before a main
course: a regional dish in which care and pride was taken in serving
richly appetising, but simple fare.
Bill Pack, a senior at School House
(who in later years married my sister), caught pneumonia. Diphtheria
came in person. In the Town's Isolation Hospital some young children
of about three or four years of age were suffering from diphtheria and
whooping cough at the same time. It was very sad. In the
morning when their beds were empty, those of us recovering were told that
they had gone home; we knew that could not be true.
Both of us, in turn, were evacuated
from Northampton to a place of safety, to war torn London, a refuge for a
five-stone, thirteen year old weakling.
In Willesden, rehabilitated in the
parental home, studying under the watchful eye of Mr. Wallis, two years of
almost peace-in-war passed at the County School. A trickle of
returnees from Northampton was followed by a flood, bringing reunion and
the renewal of old friendships. In the springtime the poplars in
Uffington Road blossomed sweetly, shedding their kapok to collect in
white, fluffy drifts.
There was joy to life, football with
Miss Edgell's shrill whistle and able direction of the game, our class
girls to cheer on in their hockey matches. Every girl good for
Russia was bearing up under the brunt
of brutal war: their victories, as at Stalingrad, ending forever Hitlerite
supremacy. No more bitterness of British retreat after El Alamein
(except for Arnhem, which came later). For their part the Americans
were massing over here.
D-Day loomed and the School
Certificate. During the Algebra examination, attack by flying bombs
on London began. Hitler's secret weapon, launched after much
experiment and tinkering. Making noise like an express train
approaching, one blew up in King Edwards Recreation Ground, close to the
school. Blast walls protected us, but the tiered lecture room we had
occupied on the previous day, was wrecked.
Stout window frames were blown in,
the shards of glass and bomb fragments would have cut us to pieces.
Fortunately, Mr. Wallis had moved us to the corridors to work, which was
wise of him.
After the bomb fell, examination
rules relaxed, cups of tea were distributed and ten minutes were added to
cope with quadratics and similar problems, with racing hearts and tremors
all the way to nibs of pens.
Of our brothers and friends in school
in 1942 and before, many faced greater terrors and more prolonged hazards,
their whereabouts unknown to us. The days were more sombre with
sadness shared. With examinations over and school commitments at an
end, class '39 dispersed without gathering together for last salutation
and farewell; because of the strain of the time.
The popular lyric of Vera Lynn trails
hope and yearning across a more sunny landscape. When we are old we
forget more than we remember. It is all now a long time ago.
Who is left of the '39ers, who will call the register for us?
Schoolhouse is now an Old Folks' Home, carpeted, centrally
heated, with faint cooking smells drifting into cosy quarters, about which
the more crotchety tend to complain.