Audrey’s Story

Audrey’s Story

I was born in Streatham in 1929, the second of two girls. My mother stayed at home and tended to our needs whilst my father managed building projects as a General Foreman. At age three I moved to the under construction Russell’s Estate, into a new company house; in order that my father could oversee the completion of the two roads involved: these being Minerva Drive & Goodwood Avenue. A house in Minerva Drive was to be our home until 1948 and is still a family home.

My first primary school at age five was Callowland Infants at the lower end of Leavesden Road. A penny 306 bus ticket, pulled from a rack and punched by the conductor in his clipper to the accompaniment of a loud ‘ting`, was purchased for each of the group of youngsters from my area that attended this rather dreary school.

The school was in my memory a dark place inside with two small hard surfaced triangular play areas outside, surrounded by high walls. No toys were allowed but we played with large wooden hoops kept in rolling motion by a stick; skipped and grouped for ‘Ring a ring of roses’. Balls were few and far between.

In the classroom of dismally painted bare brickwork we sat at small tables and did as we were told. Very little talking, eyes glued to our slate where we formed letters and numbers with paper wrapped charcoal sticks or preferably chalk; which was easier to rub off and produced a white powder as opposed to a black one, which got everywhere, especially on the front of our blouses where we wiped our hands. Our state of the art computers were coloured beads on wires within a wooden frame called an Abacus.

I did not realise until I moved on what an oppressive place it was.

At seven years old I moved on to Alexandra School for girls in Ridge Street. This was a nicer place altogether. Bigger playgrounds and more light everywhere. The walls were plastered and painted in bright colours and with large windows made it a revelation of what a school could be.

There were many more activities both inside and out: Netball in the playground and PT in the hall; but with limited apparatus. For these activities, vests tucked into navy blue knickers were de rigueur, plus plimsolls with black soles that made skid marks all over the hall floor.

Other activities included needle threading and basic hand sewing. The needles would rust and would require rolling under the foot to bring them back to shiny. We knitted string dishcloths with large wooden knitting needles and a large ball of string. My mum thought these were great to use!

We had progressed to paper and pencils and sat at proper desks where our joined up writing and basic maths were practiced. My later enjoyment of figures came from the foundations laid at Alexandra School by a sympathetic teacher whose name I regrettably cannot recall.

My appreciation of education as a concept was born here so I was sorry to have to leave it behind and transfer to the brand new Kingsway School to complete junior education.

Along with other considerations there was farther to travel each day. Walking along Courtland’s Drive to cross the A41, passing MacDonnell Gardens on our left with the enormous hoarding advertising Players Cigarettes on the far side of the A405 we crossed to North Approach and eventually turned into Briar Road. The area covered by this journey has changed beyond all recognition during the past 60 or so years. There was no underpass or bridge for the A41 or indeed houses on the site of the hoardings at bottom of the A405, which together with the A41was only single carriageway. These innovations were not necessary as there was very little road traffic in those far off days. The grassed area with the hoardings that the Orbital Crescent Estate and row of shops now occupy was the site for an annual fair ground and had a permanent workman’s café composed of an old railway carriage, sited next to the By-Pass. The estate opposite the end of Courtland’s Drive on what was the end of Leavesden High Road was also not even thought of.

My arrival at Kingway School coincided with the declaration of the second world war. We had some apprehension but mainly a feeling of excitement of the unknown. When a lot of military traffic appeared on the A41 and A405 together with what appeared to us, enormous barrage balloons sited along the main roads with wires crossing it to prevent enemy planes from landing on them and search light batteries were sited on the waste ground behind the hoardings, we realised it was not a seven day wonder we were experiencing. Gas masks in cardboard boxes with strings attached were issued and carried everywhere for the next five years. Air raid shelters were dug at the rear of the school and evacuation exercises were a regular activity. The boys enjoyed this, teasing us girls in the dimly lit tunnels and finding spiders and other unmentionables everywhere. No raid took place during school hours but we learned to listen for the sirens which often sounded at night.

This was a mixed school and classes and discipline was necessarily more stringent. I noticed the boys were controlled more strongly by Mr Balderstone, who missed nothing! Miscreants were removed from their desks to be chastised in front of the class. This regime worked on the casual or unlucky offender but the career naughty boys rode it with apparent indifference. The girls looked on in awe and trepidation!

Mr Balderstone was a good teacher but demanded attention. It worked for most pupils, including me, and I learned a lot. In retrospect I think that with a less tight control anarchy would have ruled and nobody would have learnt very much at all.

There were many more opportunities for recreation and sport with a large grassed area at the rear. A school garden behind the hall and surrounded on the other three sides by the rectangular corridors serving the classrooms provided my first introduction into growing things. Dig for Victory was one of the first government exhortations in the beginning of the war. An interest that is now very important to me.

At age 11. I moved to Leggats Way School and came under the wing of the lovely Miss Clifford who was the Head Mistress of the entirely segregated girls section of the school. We had the downstairs floor and the boys the upstairs; and never the twain shall meet;  except we found a route for notes to be passed backwards and forward through or over the hooped railing separating the play areas. She gave respect and demanded it in return and on most occasions got it. If you misbehaved, the form teacher sent you to stand in the corridor outside the classroom. Miss Clifford would periodically patrol this area and ask why you were there. Depending on the severity of the misdemeanour, (to her way of thinking) she would either lecture you and take you back to the classroom to apologise to the teacher and class for being disruptive or; if it was a repeat offence or very serious in the first place the lecture would take place in her room and it was not unknown on rare occasions for the cane to follow. All such occasions were recorded and a caning could result from a “topping up” situation. I can say that I was never caned but did find myself standing in the hall waiting for Miss. Clifford on a couple of occasions. Talking in class I suspect! It taught me to be quiet and not to push my luck.

The school was made up of several buildings in addition to the hall and classroom block. One classroom was devoted to needlework. Here we also progressed our sewing skills with the use of Singer hand cranked table top machines. We made dresses and put on fashion shows with our endeavours on display. This is another skill that has served me in good stead over the past 60 years.

The boys had a woodwork and metalwork centre with lathes and benches, sharp chisels and all things dangerous and boyish! We shared with the boys, but at very separate times, the Gym; with a lot of equipment, ropes and wall bars; whilst the two storey domestic science block was all ours. Here, downstairs we cooked in and on the gas cookers with ingredients bought from home. With rationing it was with difficulty that we managed to get our mothers to give up any of the meagre allowance that had to feed the family. I was told I had to bring home what I cooked to be eaten at home, or it was not on. We wielded wooden spoons and rolling pins and made pastry, cakes and all sorts.

Upstairs was laid out like a fully furnished flat with all the rooms associated. We learned to make beds, lay tables, sweep clean and polish and do the ironing. Tidiness was of the utmost importance. A housewife’s course in fact. We, in that day and age all expected to become one at some stage. Half a day a week was spent in each of these areas.

Once during the year each girl would form part of a team to prepare cook and serve a dinner to group of four teachers. All aspects were involved, including clearing up afterwards and leaving the kitchen tidy.

The four house colours were Red, Yellow, Blue and Green and you were issued with your coloured tape band to wear across your chest when you first started for any inter house competition. Various things effected the house position in the league table including the very competitive sports days. You were recognised as the winner only if you won, everybody else was a looser. There were no points for just turning up in my days! The boys never competed in any form against the girls! Or at least inside the school! The houses also had a name but these escape me completely. I recall my house colour was green!

I enjoyed my time at “Leggatts” and in my last year was made a prefect. I learnt to look out for the younger girls and ensure that the discipline I had learned was passed on.

Aged 14 my day time education was over and I left with an excellent report that stood me in good stead in getting a good job as soon as I left school in 1943.

With no money to spare for me to go the Technical School, despite passing the test, I enrolled at Callowland for evening class’es to learn Pitman’s shorthand and typing and in the meantime got a day job in the gown dept of “Pearks the Drapers” in lower High Street for the weekly wage of 19s..8d.; that was £1. but less 4d for a stamp. 15s..0d went to my mum so I had 4s..8d all to myself. At work I was allowed to pass the pins at fittings and under supervision open up seams for alterations to be carried out by the seamstress; this despite the distraction created by the delivery boy who worked across the road at the ABC Bakeries. They were never short of a volunteer to fetch the cakes for elevens’es when I was about; and I made sure I was about!I cycled to work in all weathers and took a spare dry skirt in my saddle bag for wet journeys.

After 18 months I left to improve my earnings to £1..10s..d; less of course 4d for the stamp. I had worked in the haberdashery dept. at “Cawdells” (A large departmental store that now forms part of Charter Place) for about a year when my night school studies paid off and I obtained a position as shorthand typist for the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance at Reed school.(Old Orphanage and now expensive apartments near Watford Junction). I was now to receive the princely sum of £2. Less of course…

I could afford to get a bus to work; arriving at the office in a drowned rat condition was not an option.

It was during this time in 1945 that the war in Europe ended with the defeat of Germany and although atrocities were still being committed by the Japanese in the Far East, we celebrated. My, how we celebrated! I and a group of other youngsters danced and sang in the streets around large bonfires and tried to get to the Town Hall to join the mass’es gathered around and on the roundabout outside to hear the proclamation from the gallery under the clock. It was impossible to get anywhere near it due to the crowds massing and milling, and singing and dancing well into the night.

Many of the men were still not home, many never would return, and labour was short on the farms from where we had to rely for our foodstuffs;  which prompted my friend and I at 17 years old to answer a recruitment drive for the Woman’s Land Army. Our applications were readily accepted and we were “in” around October 1946. My first consignment was to a hostel at “Cheveralls”, a large commandeered country house in Markyate, Beds. 30 of us girls were stationed there and taken out each day to be dropped off at various farms in the area to carry out seasonal work. These tasks included Potato picking-Hoeing fields of plants – Harvesting grain – Planting out – Feeding animals, various – Milking the appropriate ones – Mending fences – Clearing ditches and all the other numerous jobs the missing men would have done if they were there to do them. This was quite a culture shock for most of us and weary aching bodies crept into bed until we were hardened and more accustomed to this sometimes very heavy work.

We in the main enjoyed it and the social life was very good. Many long standing friendships were forged and still remain intact.

In May 1947 I and 3 other girls, like it or not, were posted to “Shenley Lodge” (close to Shenley Village); who, as they were short staffed, had a claim on our services.

This was a different sort of place, much larger fields to deal with which required tractors to cultivate them so we were taught how to drive and use them. We ploughed, sewed seed, harrowed and hoed plus lots of other things. We carried on with what we considered our hand farming jobs too.

The food in the hostels was best described as plain! But there was plenty of it. We had a good breakfast of porridge and toast and took a packed lunch consisting of cheese sandwiches; our staple dose of protein, and tons of beetroot. There was little variation or surprises to be found day to day in our tin box.

We worked alongside German and Italian prisoners of war awaiting repatriation. Their food was better than ours; they had meat in their sandwiches! We would swap some of our beetroot for their meat and they seemed to think they had a good deal.

In January 1948 I was lucky to be transferred to Cornwall. All the girls fancied this posting and we held a Lucky Draw to see who they would be. To describe the result and near mayhem that followed would take too long. There were some very disappointed girls that night.

What an opportunity this moved presented. The farms were much smaller and more self contained and each may have had animals, field crops such as cauliflowers, various roots crops, Cabbages, Brussels Sprouts and so on; flowers such as Daffodils and Tulips and greenhouses for Tomatoes and Lettuce.

We all milked the cows and I loved working in the fields and riding the farm horses on the beach. They were my favourites.

Despite my love of the beasts, in October 1948 I had a very nasty accident to my leg when I was dragged across a field by a pair of tractor spooked Shire horses I was hand ploughing with.

I went home to Mum, and in December I was given a “willing” discharge as I was unable to carry out the hard manual work anymore. This was the end of my Woman’s Land Army career that left me with so many memories and friends.

Living back in Watford I took a Job in quality control in the De Haviland aircraft factory at Leavesden; testing the hardness of metals in components. And I stayed there until I was married in April 1950.

As a housewife and mother I had two sons and a daughter by 1955; they started their schooling at Kingsway. The last boy was born in Briar Road and I was still there in 1959 which I am told is the cut off point for these Memoirs. Summary. In September 2009.

I came back to live in Kingswood in 1970 and still live on the estate. I am approaching my 80 birthday very soon and still in contact and meet with many of my currently 28 ex WLA colleagues; the eldest being 90. I am the second youngest!

My three very grown up children and their families consisting of 7 grandchildren and 5 great grandchildren keep in contact and visit whenever possible. Despite some health set backs I still enjoy my life on the estate. As described to Alan Orchard over several cups of coffee.

Sunday, 06 September 2009

These are my interpretations of the events as I see them and I am not the spokesman for the KRA or anyone else. Please do not publish this effort in part or as a whole without permission.

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