Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests

Science and religion, 1947-1949

Work was very boring. Once I knew the contents of National Insurance leaflets almost by heart, and had seen two or three callers during the day at the office, and given them the appropriate leaflet, there was little else to do. The callers usually had no present-day problems; they were concerned about what would happen in one year's time when the new Act was introduced; so the work was very easy.

BX Plastics

The Plastics Factory had been at Branscombe since 1887. Joan appears to have started work at BX Plastics at about the same time as Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher) who worked in the Lawford Place laboratory for about two years. Permission for the "erection of kitchen scale chemical laboratory", at Lawford Place Coxs Hill Lawford Manningtree, was granted on 30.4.1948. (source)

Then one day in the summer of 1947, I saw a new sign erected at Lawford Place, a house which used to be occupied by a wealthy family. It had been deserted for some time, but had been bought by BX Plastics and converted into a Research Laboratory. It seemed the ideal opportunity for me, especially as it was only five minutes walk from home in Lawford, so I applied to work there. I was now 19 years of age and wondered whether I would be considered too old to make a start as a laboratory assistant.

I was given an interview and discovered someone from my old school class working there. She was called Maisie Bones. I had never got on with her particularly well, but this did not worry me. When I was shown the laboratory with two or three female assistants making samples of new plastics, it seemed wonderfully interesting. I hardly cared about the pay, as I expected only low pay wherever I worked.

The "Scientist" who interviewed me engaged me to start work in a month's time, on the spot, so I was enthralled. I was required to give a month's notice to my Civil Service employers. Everyone there was very disappointed and thought I was very silly to give up such a safe job, but it had never interested me much. Little did I realise that the next few weeks were to be filled with heartache and disappointment.

Accordingly I began work at BX Plastics on Ist September 1947 or thereabouts. I was a bit apprehensive on my first day, but it was more disastrous than I imagined. When I arrived I was told that before I could start work in the laboratory I had to have a medical examination, and was sent down to see my doctor on that first morning. I was a very nervous person who did not usually speak unless I was first spoken to, and did not ask any questions from anyone in authority such as doctors or managers. I usually just answered their questions as shortly as possible.

I was flabbergasted when Doctor Beckett told me that I had not passed the medical examination. The reason I was told was that

I was short-sighted and therefore not suitable for laboratory work. I was not told to obtain glasses or given any sort of advice, so I thought this verdict was irrevocable.

When I got back to BX Plastics, I was told that it had been arranged that I work in the Factory Office. I protested and said this was not what I had come for. But Miss Frayle was put in charge of me. She was very intimidating as she wore very fashionable clothes, not like the clothes which were worn by Civil Service Clerks. Even the seniors wore utility clothes in our Colchester and Ipswich Offices. Miss Frayle, in her noticeably high-class voice, told me not to make a fuss, and set me to work clearing out cupboards. She said that further enquiries were being made about whether it would be possible for me to work in the laboratory.

Accordingly I worked with her patiently for two weeks . She was the Scientist's secretary, and apparently quite superior to most of the factory office staff, who worked in a different building on the factory site, which was about two miles away from this Research Laboratory.

Two weeks went by. I was summoned to another interview by the Scientist and was told that my eyesight was not good enough for lab work and told to report to the factory two miles away.

By this time I was very angry inside, because working in the factory office was generally considered to be much inferior to Civil Service clerical work. As soon as I got to the factory I asked to see the manager there and said that I would not have left the Civil Service in order to work in the factory office. I walked out and said that I would not work there. I did not care about not having another job. I was so angry. This manger could not persuade me to stay and give it a try, and I don't think he was very anxious to employ me. He did not sound keen, just said that a job had been specially found for me.

"Well, you can keep it, " I thought, though I dare not say so.

I made another appointment to see Dr. Beckett, this time privately, not as an agent for BX Plastics. I asked him why I was refused lab work because of poor eyesight. He said, "Well you could have had the job, if you had got glasses."

I said, "Why did you not tell me that?"

He said, "Because I don't think lab work is suitable for women. You will get married."

I said, "I don't want to get married."

He said, " You say that now but you will change your mind later."

I said, "I will not," I said. "Why can't I get the glasses now?"

He said, "Well it is too late now for you to have that job."

I could not say too much to this doctor as my mother depended on him for her treatment. So I just went home and told my mother about it.She thought it was unfair but said that perhaps I would have another chance later. I could not afford to sit at home as there was no money coming in to support me. The family income was low.

We were only just managing, so I said, "Well, I must go into Colchester and look for other work".

Of course, I lost hope of getting lab work, for chances in Colchester were rare. It was not an industrial town. I went into other Civil Service Departments for interviews. At the interview I told then about my experience in the Civil Service, and the truth about why I was at present out of work. In the meantime I had an eye test, and obtained glasses for short sight. At that time I had no need to wear them for close work. It was this fact that made me feel that Doctor Beckett had somehow not told the truth the way I had been brought up to do.

Eventually I obtained a job with the Collector of Taxes as Temporary Clerk Grade 3. I had lost my Clerical Officer status now, and the pay was reduced accordingly to about £2 ten shillings per week, instead of £3 which I had received while working in Ispwich. In the meantime I started to feel nervous. The symptoms were attacks of breathlessness.

One day I had to be driven home from the office as I was convinced that I was going to stop breathing. The Office Manager was particularly kind to me. When I got home I asked to see Dr. Beckett. He was calling to visit my mother.

When he saw me he said, "Well you are not ill. You are just imitating your mother's asthma attacks."

I said "No I was not".


I had brought some books of a religious nature from the library. Though I did not go to church I was attempting to find some consolation from religion.

On book had a bold title on the front which said "Death where is thy Victory? Grave, where is thy sting?" I do not remember anything else about the contents of the book, only that Dr. Beckett marched over to it and said "Of course you will be ill, if you read such morbid books!"

This made me feel more miserable than ever. But I continued to read religious books and thought I might start going to church when I had the opportunity. As I supposed to be Roman Catholic but knew little about it, it was this religion I turned to.

I found a Latin version of the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary and learnt these. I thought these were very mysterious and somehow more effective that English prayers.

I don't know why I thought this. I have forgotten Latin prayers now since from the time of the Second Vatican council, the Mass is said in the language of the country. Latin is used only rarely now, either for people who prefer it, at a few selected churches, or possibly at large international gatherings.

Though I had not liked Latin at school, I started at this time to like Church Latin.

Though I resented Dr. Beckett calling my choice of books morbid, it was true that in my present mood, I had given up reading factual books on science and had changed to a type of melancholy novel of which Colchester library had ample supplies. One of these was called "Flower of the Dust". It was in this book that I found the Latin translation of the "Hail Mary", not in a conventional religious book. The heroine was typically about 16 years of age, a recent orphan bringing up a family of younger brothers and sisters on her own.

It was probably while cleaning out the grates and emptying the ashes that she said her Latin "Hail Mary", and was called by visitors "Flower of the Dust!"

I had nothing much in common with such heroines, having no brothers and sisters, and not knowing how to do housework, as I spent most of my waking hours outside the house. But certainly, I became very melancholy. It seemed a waste of time trying to continue to study science even from the occasional library book. My plans seemed utterly frustrated.

I still took the dog Rex for walks at the week-end, and this seemed the only thing I looked forward to. Luckily the winter of 1947/1948 was not as cold as 1946/1947; I had an easier day as I worked in Colchester and arrived home earlier in the evenings. But my mother became increasingly subject to asthma attacks. There seemed nothing we could do but stand helplessly by,

She started to have injections of ephedrine when inhaling failed to alleviate the attacks. My father knew how to give these injections, usually late at night. Fires were now often lit in her bedroom in the evenings.

She still did the cooking, but when she made a batter pudding at week- ends, she called me in to beat the mixture as she had no strength to do this. We looked forward to Spring, hoping that the warm weather would mean improved health.

Sure enough Mum became better towards April, and I applied for a transfer to the London Office of the Collector of Taxes.

I decided in Spring 1948 to try my luck for a better future in London, hoping that I might be able to study chemistry there in the evenings while continuing to work at the Collector of Taxes for a year or two.

Spring 1948

[Staying with Aunt Violet: Violet M. Noble and Joan M. Martin were registered at 11a Perham Road, London, W14 in 1949. Violet's son, Leonard, (18 in August 1947) was on National Service with the Army Pay Corps in Piddlehinton, Dorset, and Aunt Violet needed someone to share the rent. Violet M. Noble was still registered at 11a Perham Road in 1965.

When I first came to London all my possessions were in one small cardboard brown case.

Underwear consisted of two changes, one off and one on. I wore my grey suit constantly nearly every day, interchanging it with a mauve, winter dress. I had no summer clothes, but as the April weather was cold, I did not worry about that. Later on I bought one blouse to wear with my grey suit and continued wearing it into summer.

At that time I was studying religious books. My aunt was a Catholic, and one day, when I was with her visiting Brompton Oratory, I bought a handful of tracts from the Catholic Truth Society. While I did not like the statues in the Oratory, as I thought they were too fussy, and I did not like my aunt's pious practice of doing a circuit of the church, touching and saying a prayer before each statue, I did like the tabernacle and the red light in the Catholic Church. The tabernacle contained the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated bread that was given in Holy Communion, and going into the church, I would always focus my attention on this point.

I decided to take religious instruction, and before that joined a pious sodality called the Children of Mary. There I met Margaret Butcher, who was also taking instructions in the Catholic faith. We became friends. Nevertheless I found the practises of the Children of Mary rather boring, and soon moved on to join the Young Christian Workers. Margaret Butcher did likewise.

The difference between the two societies was marked. The Children of Mary said formal prayers, gabbled at breakneck speed so that we could get through them in a quarter of an hour. Then there was an afternoon social meeting, with tea and cakes; though it was a pleasant atmosphere, the talk concerned the marriage plans of some of those present, in which I felt uninterested.

The Young Christian Workers devoted a half an hour to Gospel study. We concentrated on the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and after reading a short passage, discussed how we could apply them in our everyday lives. We met in an uncomfortable place, in a small room in the entrance to the main hall, which was unheated and had no chairs, whereas the Children of Mary were comfortably seated in the Main Hall. Their tea and cakes were supplied by central funds; there was no collection. The Young Christian Workers had no tea and cakes, and after our meeting, we visited a local home for people with disabilities. This usually took place on Sunday afternoons. The people here were mostly blind; in additional some had hearing disabilities or had difficulty walking. Some of them did heavy work on looms making rugs by hand. Others were over pension age. Our work consisted in taking them for an afternoon walk; meanwhile talking to them. I learnt a kind of sign language in order to communicate with the deaf-blind man, who was called Mr Ely and who spent his days making heavy rugs. He seemed very contented with his life, and was always excited when he understood what I was saying before I got to the end of the sentence, which I was spelling out on his hands.. He was able to speak in reply. On Sunday mornings these people came to the 8 am Mass, and the "Young Christian Workers" were there to help them go up the aisle to receive communion.

I was staying with my Aunt Violet and working for the Collector of Taxes, who had offices in Knightsbridge, near the Tube Station and near Harrod's Store.

Life with Aunt Violet was not all plain sailing. She worked as a clerk in the large stores in Kensington, and changed her job quite often . She worked at Barkers, at Derry and Tom's, but eventually settled down to work at Marshall and Snellgrove's. She was a devout Catholic, usually going to Mass each week-day at seven in the morning, rushing home for breakfast and then setting off at 8.15 am to reach work by nine. It was all rush and tear. Sometimes I also went to the 7 o'clock Mass, but it was even more difficult for me, as I had to be at work by 8.30 am, which meant leaving home at 8 am. Though Mass ended at 7.30 pm there was not enough time to get back to the house and have breakfast. So I often went without breakfast, going straight from the church to the Tube Station. I mentioned these practises to people at work, and felt resentful when they were not impressed. However I soon found that I was too tired to go to Mass on week-days before work. My aunt was constantly urging me to keep up this practise. Though I wanted to attend Mass on Sundays, I did not feel that I could do all the practises my aunt did.

Another major problem was the fact that my aunt was always hard up for money; likewise myself. Unfortunately, Aunt Violet had no training and was an unskilled clerk, earning about £3 per week Rent for the flat was eighteen shillings per week. My aunt smoked, though not heavily, but even ten cigarettes per day was a strain on her budget. I found I could only just manage to pay my way, also on £3 per week. Our take-home pay being about £2 ten shillings. Out of this I paid train fares and for lunches, which were both more expensive than in Colchester.

One of the reasons my aunt and I had disagreements was over money. Another reason was the fact that I wanted to invite a friend in for a cup of tea and she refused to allow this, saying that her flat was not good enough for visitors.

Poor Aunt Violet had very few friends herself. There was no social life at the church, and she always maintained that she was not interested in social life. I did feel sorry when she said that she could not take off her cardigan even on a hot day because her blue blouse was stained at the back. Her entire office wardrobe consisted of one blue blouse, one pink one and one white one, with possibly two skirts.

However when Aunt Violet asked me to pay fifteen shillings per week rent, I felt this was unfair. Up to this time I had not paid much rent, but had loaned money both to my aunt and my father. I had always worked hard in the flat. I think I might have agreed if she had suggested I paid half the rent, that is nine shillings. When I arrived home before Aunt Violet, I would prepare the corn beef ration for a pie and shepherds pie with mashed potato on top and put it in the oven.

Since arriving in London I had visited home twice, deciding to visit about once a month. That was all I could afford in train fares. The April and May visits passed off fairly well, though my mother was still ill. Then June 21st, her birthday arrived. I bought her a green petticoat and sent it by post. Clothes were much dearer in those days in comparison with today, and I think this cost fifteen shillings. I paid ten shillings for a new towel for myself, and another ten shillings for a grey "Army blanket" which was all I could afford.

Mum wrote and thanked me for the petticoat and said she would buy the knickers to go with it. Her letter sounded quite cheerful and I prepared to visit her at the beginning of July. I arrived on Liverpool Street Station and was preparing to get on the train, when an announcement broadcast my name telling me to go to the Stationmaster's Office. This was the worst day of my young life.

The Stationmaster told me I was not to go home but to go back to Aunt Violet's. He did not tell me why, but I knew without him telling me. My mother had died.

This was confirmed shortly afterwards in a letter from my father telling me that Mum had died on July 9th following an injection for relief of asthma and that there would have to be an inquest. The funeral had to be delayed until this was over.

Gladys Mary Gladys Mary Ruthen born 21.6.1897. Manningtree, Essex, died Gladys Mary Martin, aged 51, on 9.7.1948.

Joan's framed picture of her mother. Now looked after by Andrew Roberts.

Gladys Mary was the oldest daughter of Agnes (born Nevill), who married her neighbour William Malyn Ruthen, an iron-worker in Manningtree in 1896. The two families remained neighbours and Gladys Mary was living in the Nevill household in 1911. Later she moved to London and worked as a housekeeper before marrying John May Martin in 1923.

I had another Aunt living in the country, employed as a housekeeper to a consultant surgeon. This was my mother's sister, Aunt May. She came up to London, and assisted me in buying a new outfit for the funeral. As I was short of money, I bought a dark suit which could be worn afterwards at the office. This was a pin-striped navy blue suit. I did not want to wear black, and my aunt did not think this was necessary.

Aunt May was a housekeeper for Sir Douglas Shields. She was given time off to see me and attend her sister's funeral, which had to be delayed.

In the meantime I went home for a week. The inquest was soon over, and the coffin prepared. It was kept in the front room of our house with the window-curtains drawn. This was to enable relations to pay their last respects and view the body.

I went into the front room twice to be with my mother. I had not seen a dead body before. I could only see the face. It was very peaceful, and my mother's hair looked normal. I spent five minutes only in the room and prayed. I tried to imagine my mother in a better world.

The Shields family, Gladys and Aunt May

Before Joan was born, her mother and Aunt May both worked as domestic servants for Lady Mary Ellen Shields (1873-1939), the wife of Sir Douglas Andrew Shields (1876-1952) at the Harold Fink Memorial Hospital, 17 (Old) Park Lane, Mayfair, W1K 1QT. Gladys left to marry in 1923, but Lady Shields continued to take an interest in her and in her child. Aunt May continued with the Shields family for the rest of her working life.

Aunt May: Agnes May Ruthen (1898-1977) born 18.12.1898. On 20.12.1899 Mary Ellen Shirrefs (born 24.11.1873) married Douglas Andrew Shields at Albury, New South Wales. 28.12.1902: Birth of son Douglas Clive Shields (1902-1976) Seymour, Victoria, Australia. 1912 Shields moved to London to take charge of the new Harold Fink Memorial Hospital in Park Lane. Became Sir Douglas Andrew and Lady Mary Ellen Shields in 1919. Late summer 1928: Eileen N Sharp (born 20.10.1901) married Douglas C Shields in Paddington, London. 1930: Agnes May Ruthen registered to vote from 17 Park Lane, W1. as were Sir Douglas Andrew Shields and Lady Mary Ellen Shields. Agnes May would have obtained a vote under the 1928 Representation of the People Act. Christmas 1936 a goose from Lady Shields. outings. 1939 Agnes M. Ruthen (domestic duties) at 2 Tudor Cottages, Tapners Road, [Leigh, Reigate, Surrey RH2 8NN], with Mary E. Shields, Douglas C. Shields, Eileen N. Shields, a children's nurse and two children. October/November/December 1939 Death of Lady Mary Ellen Shields in Surrey South eastern. 1945: Agnes M. Ruthen registered to vote from Chantersluer, [Leigh Road], Norwood Hill, Reigate, Surrey [RH6 0HR], as were Douglas A., Douglas C. and Eileen N. Shields. Visits to Chantersluer. 1948: registered to vote from 37 Tedworth Square, Chelsea, as were Douglas and Eileen Shields. Also 1954. Sir Douglas Shields had bought Oakley, a Surrey estate, on his retirement and Agnes May was housekeeper there. Joan visited. 22.2.1952 Death of Sir Douglas Shields of coronary thrombosis at Oakley. He was buried in the family grave in the old Paddington cemetery. See Aunt May 1954. Mrs Kelly. Spring 1958 Death of Eileen N Shields, aged 58, Surrey North eastern. 1963 Aunt May's visit to Manchester. 1972 Aunt May frail. October/November/December 1977 Death of Agnes May Ruthen registered at Ipswich, Suffolk.

Aunt Betty, Uncle Fred and Cousin John from Ipswich

Aunt Betty: Rose Kathleen Ruthen (1902-1981) worked in a local (Manningtree) shop before marrying Cecil Frederick Beeson (1894-1976 Uncle Fred) at Tendring in the late summer of 1925.

Cecil, Uncle Fred, was born 19.8.1894 in South Stoneham, Hampshire.

In 1939 the family lived at 13 Grange Road, Ipswich, Suffolk. He was a "Labourer. Pattern Stores. (Hear* Work*)". She was a housewife.

The birth of John [Fredrick William] Beeson, their son, and Joan's cousin, was registered in Croydon in the late summer of 1927. John Beeson married Sylvia [Rosamond] Townes in Colchester in the late summer of 1954. Sylvia's birth (mother Meadows) was registered Spring 1932 in Lexden, Essex.

In 1966, when great-aunt Kate died, John was a police officer.

Cecil Beeson's death was registered in late 1976 in Sudbury, Suffolk and Rose Kathleen's death in October/November/December 1981 in Sudbury.

Before 2008, John and Sylvia lived at 2a, Aragon Close, Jaywick, Clacton- On-Sea, Essex, CO15 2NQ. Sylvia died (aged 76) on 30.8.2008 in Clacton. John attended Joan's burial in December 2008 in Manningtree.

My mother's other sister, Aunt Kathy came. Usually I called her Aunt Betty. My father asked if she would like to view the body. She said "No". She wished to remember my mother as she had last seen her.

But my great-Aunt Kate did go in to sit with my mother, and being a devout churchgoing member of the Church of England, she prayed.

The funeral was arranged according to the rites of the Church of England. This was the church in which my mother had been brought up. She had said a few months ago that perhaps she would become a Catholic, but had not taken the matter further. My father said everything must be done correctly, in order to fit in with my mother's side of the family.

Aunt May came down on the day of the funeral. Great-Aunt Kate had been very busy preparing sandwiches.

St Michael and All Angels in Manningtree High Street was demoliehed in 1967.

The funeral took place on a summer's morning, the service being in the old church in Manningtree High Street. This had stained-glass windows, wicker chairs held together in rows, hassocks with tapestry covers, and piles of copies of "The Book of Common Prayer" and Hymns "Ancient and Modern".

Aunt Violet was there and said that as a Catholic she could not take part in the service although she was allowed to attend it. This meant not joining in the hymns, but steadfastly reading a Catholic book of devotions called "The Garden of the Soul". This book is out of print now, swept away by the atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council, and the old-fashioned and slightly uncharitable attitudes of "not taking part" in C. of E. services is also out of date, especially where one's own family is concerned.

I was torn, half following Aunt Violet's attitude and half following my father's attitude. Although a Catholic, he said afterwards that he had paid attention to every word of the service.

In the afternoon we came back to eat sardine and cucumber sandwiches and drink tea. The house was packed with relations and friends. My mother's two sisters were there, though I cannot recall if her brothers attended. It would have been hard for them to take time off from work on a week-day morning.

It was soon over. When I got back to London and returned to work, I went into the supervisor's office and said that I was sad because my mother had died.

She said "Perhaps it would be best if you took another week off from work?"

I thought about spending time alone in my aunt's cold flat. Though it was summer it was cold, as it was a basement flat, with concrete passages leading to the rooms. My aunt would probably expect that I spent the time in cleaning. And cleaning in this flat was never done.

So I said "No, thank you. I would rather spend my time at work."

I said "It is better to keep busy."

"That is all right," said the supervisor . "But remember this is a busy office, and I don't want you to talk about your mother, but to get on with the work".

I said that I would do that.

But I did want to talk about my mother and could find no-one to talk to. My aunt always said that she had work to do.

"With all due respect to your mother", she said "I have got to think about paying the rent".

I was having instructions every week on one evening from the Parish priest with a view to making my communion in the Catholic Church. As soon as I got back after my mother's funeral, I told the priest that my mother had died.

His only comment was "Are you still feeling it?"

He proceeded to tell me that my mother was enjoying the after-life. But he did not understand my feelings of loss. He was a very young priest, probably about five years older than myself; that is 25 years of age, and a very friendly man who usually put me at ease. But on this occasion he failed, possibly through lack of experience. I had to keep a stiff upper lip, both at home and at work, and with my contacts in the church.

Visits to Chantersluer.

Aunt May had been almost the only one to offer me a few words of sympathy following my mother's death.

My aunt Violet said "She will take my mother's place".

But Aunt May did not try to do that. She was much too sensitive and caring. Aunt Violet would trample on my feelings. She had a hard life and was still finding it a hard struggle to make ends meet financially.

Aunt May's life was also hard. She had no financial worries, though little spending money. As the housekeeper for Sir Douglas Shields, she maintained a large house called "Chanter's Luer", somewhere in Surrey.

My mother had stayed there for a long week-end, in the previous summer. The family had spare rooms and Aunt May's life was possibly easier that it had been in pre-war days. Though the work was hard, she was left to get on with it, and as the chief servant was sole manager of the domestic arrangements. Every other day she had assistance from Queenie, a family friend, who I always called "Aunt Queenie". There was also a gardener living in a cottage attached to the house, with his wife Jean. Jean assisted with light work for a few hours weekly, and often came to do the wiping-up, as Aunt May washed. When I stayed there, I would sit in the kitchen and chat to both of them, while my mother was resting in the guest- room. She had no energy to talk, and hardly enjoyed the week-end.

Afterwards Aunt May said, "It was not a successful visit". Because my mother really needed full-time care and Aunt May had no time for that. Her visitors had to fend for themselves, as I was able to do, walking sometimes in the pleasant fields adjoining the house, where I picked blackberries.

Sometimes I talked to Harold, the gardener, when he was not too busy. He had learnt a few words of Russian during the wartime service, and had met and talked with Russian soldiers. I was suitably impressed. Aunt May and I talked over my mother's last visit the first time I saw her after the funeral.

"I could do nothing to make her visit more successful", she said. "And the visit was definitely not a success". She had to put her work for the family who employed her first. But she regretted this.

I have just been to see a film called "The Remains of the Day" now in 1994, and though my aunt and my mother were never employed in such a grand place, it conveys exactly, life from the servant's point of view. In this film the butler had to get on with his duties even on the evening when his father lay dying in a small room in the house. The butler always said, "I never hear what the family and visitors are saying while I am serving them". My aunt once remarked, "Servants have to efface themselves and act as if they are not there, while getting on with their work".

My cousin Leonard, Aunt Violet's son was eighteen years of age in August 1947, and so he had had to leave London for his National Service, being stationed at an obscure place called Piddlehinton [Dorset] in the Army Pay Corps. For this reason my aunt was glad for me to continue living with her; so I settled down to a rather routine life for the rest of 1948.

My dull life in 1948 and 1949

After Leonard went into the army, there was sufficient room for me in my aunt's flat, except when Leonard came home on leave. There was only one bedroom, insufficient for three adults, especially of differing sexes. I shared the bedroom with my aunt, and my cousin Leonard, when he came on leave, slept in a makeshift bed in the sitting room. This was rather uncomfortable, being a sofa, not adapted for sleeping on. The bedclothes were spare blankets, and sometimes old table cloths were pressed into service, to add warmth. I think the winter of 1948 was quite depressing.

But I enjoyed my evenings of instruction in the Catholic faith with young Father Bishop. Some of the girls wished he was not a priest as he was most attractive. They were all good girls and looked elsewhere.

My instructions lasted six months as I asked awkward questions. Margaret Butcher was more passive, so her instructions took only three months. She had been received into the church, shortly before I got to know her well, through membership of the Children of Mary and the Young Christian Workers. I stayed a member of the former throughout 1948, though I could not be an official member until I had completed instructions. Once a month the Children of Mary dressed in blue cloaks walked in procession round the church. The cloaks were kept in a small room in the presbytery. They were in need of repair being fastened with hooks and eyes which often fell off, but we neglected them, as none of us were fond of sewing. I do not think they were ever washed. We put them on over our clothes, so this did not worry us. They looked good from a distance, when one person carried the banner, bearing a picture of the Virgin Mary and four others held blue cotton tape streamers attached to the front and back of the banner. The girls who walked in front had to know what to do; the whole procession walked to right and then to left in a fixed ritual, and it was considered a serious mistake if someone advanced to the right instead of the left when standing just below the High Altar.

Another duty was to attend on the afternoon tea given to all the seven- year olds who made their First Communion each June. I did this for the first time in 1948, and enjoyed it. I liked activity, rather than chatting in the Church Hall. In July we helped with the afternoon tea for those recently confirmed. This was a slightly older group of children, but none of them were more than ten years of age. Both sets of children were dressed in white. The girls wore miniature wedding attire; the boys wore white shirts. They looked immaculate.

My own First Communion was approaching. But first I had to go to Confession. I had my whole life of twenty years to think about, so I was glad when this was over. My own First Communion passed off, unnoticed, as I was in church dressed in ordinary outdoor clothes, among a Sunday morning congregation of about two hundred people. It took place at the early morning eight o'clock Mass. Communion was usually given out at the eight and nine o'clock Masses only, because recipients had to fast from both food and drinks, from the previous midnight. This sometimes led to young girls fainting, but I was quite well on the day, which was just before Christmas in 1948.

Brook Green Church in West Kensington, on the borders of Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush had a large Irish congregation. There were four Masses each Sunday morning and all were well attended. The large church looked very full during the 11 o'clock Mass when the choir sung, and it was equally full for the Low Mass at noon. Aunt Violet said that it was only the lazy people who went to the noon Mass. There were many of them, possibly five hundred at each of the later Masses.

Christmas 1948 was frantic. Leonard had arrived home on 48 hours leave. We went to midnight Mass, the three of us together. My father was discovered there. He had been drinking too much. Leonard got cross.

"You're drunk, Jack", he said.

Aunt Violet felt she had to invite him home for the night, though there was no room in the tiny basement flat. He slept in the living-room together with my cousin Leonard.

John May Martin married Mary Edwards in Colchester in the late summer of 1949. As she had a daughter, Karen, five years old, she may have been a widow. Mary (and presumably Karen) returned to the USA in 1951. She was last track of. As an annulment of the marriage was sought it may not have been a sexual relationship.

My father informed us that he was getting married shortly. He had never met the woman. She was a an American pen-friend, about twenty years younger than himself. This meant she was only ten years older than me. Apparently she was very interested in astrology. I had been very sceptical about this since I began studying science. Then I found that the Catholic Church also disapproved of it.

I told Father Bishop about my future step-mother's interest in astrology, and the fact that she was only ten years older than me. He did not think she would be a suitable wife for my father. We tried to tell my father this but he would not listen. He was lonely.

Nevertheless Mary started writing to me, and I must admit, tried to be kind. She sent me nylon stockings wrapped up in a magazine. These were forbidden imports and the first I had ever seen. I found they were not serviceable, getting ladders, after one or two wearings.

In a years time the ban on these imports was relaxed and they appeared in British shops. Up to this time we had been wearing lisle [cotton] stockings in the winter; in the summer we were bare legged, and I have always felt comfortable with bare legs.

Then she offered to cast my horoscope but I refused this. My father allowed her to cast his, but I did not see the results.

In about May 1949 Mary arrived in England and my father and she were married in St. James Catholic Church, Colchester. None of the family were invited. This was due, probably, to lack of money, but I was rather upset.

Nevertheless I visited Gordona for a week-end, and at first my father and Mary were getting on well. She had a five year-old daughter, called Karen, officially my stepsister. Karen was unruly when in the house, but quiet when out-of-doors. I was not able to understand her behaviour, but while staying with my father and Mary, took Karen to St. James Church in Colchester on Sunday mornings. She was well-behaved, but did not answer when I talked to her. She seemed nervous.

Then she did something that made me angry. My Aunt May had given me a small travelling clock as a present. I had few possessions and valued this highly. Whenever I went away I took it with me. While I was sitting downstairs, Karen went into my bedroom and smashed this clock. I was very upset.

Mary tried to calm me down. She was good at sewing and offered to make a dress for me. From America she had brought her sewing machine and also a set of wonderful saucepans. I bought the material and asked her to make a dress in new-look style. This required a very long skirt. Materials had been short during wartime, and the new fashions were trying to make up for this by using as much material as possible in women's dresses. Clothes were still rationed, and I am not sure how I obtained the material, but Mary duly made me a new summer dress, but declared the shirt too long. It came down to my ankles, and certainly felt odd. I soon got tired of it. In fact I hardly wore it, because the material was unsatisfactory. It was thin and people could see through it, which was embarrassing as I did not have a long petticoat to go with it.

Soon I was able to buy another new-look dress in the shops. This had a very wide, circular skirt. The skirt was not too long and I felt very comfortable in it, wearing it nearly every day to the Income Tax Office in Knightsbridge.

In the Spring of 1949, I asked Father Bishop about Confirmation. He asked me whether I thought I needed any more instruction for this. I said "I don't think so", and he gave me a certificate which I was told to present at Westminster Cathedral during the monthly evening service at which Confirmations took place. For this I wore no special clothes, only a black mantilla. This was a Spanish form of black veil, not covering the face, but thrown back over the head and shoulders. These were very popular with Catholic women in the 1950's, as there was a rule then that heads of women must be covered in church. People did not want to wear hats; head- scarfs were thought to be untidy, so the black mantilla filled the gap.

Aunt Violet acted as sponsor, and I stood in line with about twenty other young women, one Sunday evening, to be confirmed in the Cathedral. There was no great fuss. We had no sociability afterwards, no teas or chat. It would be unthinkable to-day, when there is much emphasis on proper preparation, and giving the candidates a sense of occasion.

I had been going to Children of Mary meetings for about a year already, and in 1949, I became, first an aspirant, then six months later, a full member. We received the Children of Mary medal, hanging on a blue ribbon, which we wore in ceremonial processions in church. Two others became members at the same time as me; one of these was the usual type of recruit, a young girl of eighteen. The other was a 50-year old woman. She was French, and apparently had lived in England for only about two years, taking a job in a big department store in Kensington High Street. It was here that Miss Francis the supervisor also aged about 50 worked. She was manageress of the shoe department, and it was here that she met the French lady and introduced her to the Children of Mary. There were very few older members, as it was the custom to resign on marriage. The other older member was a middle-aged lady called Peggy, who was also a shop assistant.

However, I remember the French lady most distinctly, having been with her on the evening before she died. During the whole of 1949, she had talked about her illness which was throat cancer. At first this had not been too severe. I knew her throughout most of 1948, and at this time she had been working and had also been a volunteer French speaker helping French tourists to Britain. She was an amiable lady but appeared to have no close friends. The only friends she had appeared to members of the Children of Mary. When she came to meetings she told me how hard it was for her to swallow a piece of cake. She said that after some hospital treatment she had spent six weeks in a convent as a guest. The nuns had looked after her very well, and she had been sorry to leave and come back to her lonely bedsitter in Edith Road.

She seemed however to have more money than the other members as she bought her own blue cloak for Children of Mary meetings and paid someone to clean her bedsitter. This was fortunate as she did not have the strength to do it herself.

I was not a close friend, but as winter approached, I heard that she had had to spend two weeks in hospital for treatment. Then one Sunday morning I met her at Mass. She could hardly walk. It was a cold day. As she came out of church, I saw Miss Francis, who was busy doing some church duties in connection with The Children of Mary. She asked me to walk home with the French lady.

"She is so conscientious, at going to Mass," Miss Francis said, "but should not have tried to come out when she was so ill."

I walked home with the French lady. Luckily she lived in Edith Road, only about two minutes walk for a young person, though I think we took at least quarter of hour to reach her small bedsitting room. I had not seen it before. It was beautifully clean and tidy , unlike the state in which I lived, with my room crammed with books and papers. I watched while the lady went to bed. She told me that she had been discharged from the hospital the previous day because there was no further treatment they could give her.

I felt inadequate as there was nothing I could do. I sat with her for a time and she talked. She said she could no longer eat anything. She could not swallow. I thought that it was outrageous that the hospital should have discharged her when she was so ill, and had no-one to look after her. I did not say this. All I could do was to sit there and say how sorry I was that she was so ill. Then I had to say good-bye, as I had to go home to a mid- day meal with the Butcher family and go to work to-morrow. I guessed that Miss Francis, her best friend would visit when she had finished her work at the church.

I did not see Miss Francis until the following Sunday. I asked what had happened to the French lady. She told me that she had managed to get her back into hospital where she had died the next morning.

"The hospital should never have discharged her," said Miss Francis.

I agreed with this and thought what a sad world it was where a stranger to the country should have been left to suffer alone in bedsitter. She had a strong faith and had been devoted to the church. The church members had not rallied round her sufficiently, being mostly poorer class people who had to struggle to earn their living. There were many single ladies like her going to Brook Green Church at this time. But nevertheless I thought that both the National Health Service and the Church had not helped her enough.

The rest of 1949 was a dull, grey year. I was trying to save a little money. I had no holiday. After my mother had died in 1948, though not immediately afterwards, I had a week's holiday in Brighton, but in 1949 I went nowhere. Inwardly I was mourning my mother, but had to suppress this in the struggle for survival. We lived a hand-to-mouth existence financially, Aunt Violet and I. The food rationing was still severe. I queued often after work to get a pound of sausages, which were given to the first people in the line at the grocer's. They were not part of the meat ration, but were given on points coupons, and were not often available, even though we kept the points coupons for them.

I was a very devout Catholic, as far as my energy allowed. I often went to 7 o'clock Mass before work.

But I wanted to do something different from the office work. I wanted to study chemistry at evening classes, but felt there would be no chance as long as I stayed in Aunt Violet's flat. So I looked about for hostel accommodation, but Aunt Violet insisted that I stay until Leonard came out of the Army. He was due home about August 1949.

When Leonard arrived home, my first move was to a girl's hostel. I stayed there about a month, and then Margaret Butcher from the Church asked if I would like to live with them. I moved to Mrs Butcher's house in the Autumn of 1949, and started a class in chemistry, officially for "O"-level chemistry.

I had a cyst below my right eye and the eye was perpetually watering. This interfered with my studies, but at least I had more time to devote to them, as Mrs Butcher cooked an evening meal for me in the evenings which I ate with the family, which consisted of Mr and Mrs Butcher, in their fifties, Margaret, and Grannie, Mrs Butcher's mother, who was aged about eighty.

At Christmas 1949, Margaret Butcher and I went to Midnight Mass. We were welcomed home with a bowl of tomato soup at about 1 am in the morning and I thought it was marvellous.

I still visited Aunt Violet and Leonard every Sunday afternoon, and often took a bath there, as the Butchers had no bathroom.

Life was beginning to seem brighter, as Aunt Violet was also more cheerful, now that Leonard had resumed living with her, and was taking a final year's study at Art College for the Diploma in Art and Design.

February 25th 1949 was my 21st birthday. I remember with gratitude the present of an alarm clock and a huge birthday card with the key of the door from the people I worked with in Inland Revenue, Collector of Taxes 35th Division. This was what I had asked for; for people had been kind enough to ask beforehand. I was desperately anxious always to arrive on time for work, but sometimes only just made it. There was a signing-in book.

8.30 am was the time of arrival. Five minutes grace were allowed, but at 8.35 am precisely a red line was drawn in the book, and those who arrived after this signed below the line. Nevertheless, I cannot remember ever being told off for being late, though occasionally I had to sign below the line.

There was more pleasure to come. Miss Lear the Assistant to the Chief Collector of Taxes, always immaculate in a white blouse took me to the theatre; to the Old Vic, to see a classical play. Accompanying me was the only other person in the office who was not yet 21, an Anglo-Indian girl recently returned from India to work in the home Civil Service as a typist. Apparently life in the Indian Civil Service was perceived as being far more glamorous and my friend used to wear a sari, she told us. There was some regret about giving up this life. Returners, mostly English, from the Indian Civil Service were met with in every department of the Home Civil Service during the immediate post-war years.

I don't remember any celebration by my relations. Aunt Violet was worrying about Leonard at present still in the Army Pay Corps, and my father was having trouble paying the mortgage on his house. His Civil Service office job was secure but lowly paid, and at this time he was preparing to receive his new wife, Mary Toth and her daughter Karen, from America. Somewhere, out there in America I still have a long-forgotten stepsister, who I knew briefly, as a five year old with behaviour problems. She persisted in smashing breakable items in the house during the time I knew her, but outdoors was quiet and subdued. I had no experience to deal with these problems, but took Karen out on one or two occasions.

Aunt May probably sent me a present for my 21stbirthday, but busy as she was running the house called "Oakley," to which the Shields family had moved recently, she had no time to come and see me in London. However as soon as she had settled down at Oakley, the Shields family allowed her to invite me down for week-ends, but in 1949 I had not yet started going to see her in Merstham in Surrey.

However Margaret Butcher told me she planned to visit Rome for the Holy Year in 1950. This would include a general audience with the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica, a visit to four main basilicas for the "plenary indulgence;" visits to the Coliseum, the Catacombs and other places of interest in Rome or just outside. This was the typical schedule for a Catholic Pilgrimage to Rome. Margaret was going to book to go with Liverpool diocese in May. This called in London to pick up additional pilgrims, who found joining this group convenient. The cost was about £50. In addition we would take about £10 spending money. This was a huge sum for people like us to spend. My total savings were £50, placed in the Post Office Savings Book over many years by my mother, and I did not want to use this. I was earning only £3:15s per week. This was the pay as clerk in the Collector of Taxes. Out of this I gave Mrs Butcher 35s, which was a bargain. I also had started classes for "O" Level chemistry. These classes were badly run, and I gave them up after about three months. I resolved to look for other classes next Autumn, and immediately for a job in a laboratory. Working in an office did not fit in with studying chemistry in the evenings. I needed to spend a certain amount of money on fees for classes. Apart from this I kept my spending down to a minimum, and after paying for lunch and fares, perhaps had 15s per week left. I agreed to go to Rome with Margaret, and put the whole of this amount away each week, not buying so much as a newspaper. This degree of meanness was necessary in order to save the money. But I noticed Margaret did not save so hard, and continued to buy new clothes and shoes, and also newspapers. I wondered how she was going to save the money; but there was a difference between her and me. When she found she had not saved enough, her father subsidised her. I had no such luck, but was determined to go to Rome. By May 1950, I calculated that I would have saved £35 and thought it was in order to take £25 from my original savings. There would be no holiday in 1951, I decided; so I would put the money back.

That trip was what Margaret and I were discussing as we drank our tomato soup after Midnight Mass at Christmas 1949.

before after


home page for society  and
science poems by Joan What does she do
when she is not drinking tea?
Find out even more
about Joan's work


BX Plastics

Dull life (1948-1949)


Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.