Betty Wilson - War memories
I was born in North Wales at a small hill farm just outside Llangollen. The farm was called Tan-y-bwlch and was rented from the big house not far away. There were six children in the family and I was the second eldest. There was my brother John, and then me, and then a sister Doreen, another brother Arthur and two younger sisters, Nora and Eileen. My father`s father had been in the Army during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny but came back to run the farm. He died aged about sixty when my father was fourteen and so my father and his mother had to run the farm. He was the eldest of five children.
My mother and father were wonderful people. Although it was hard work on the farm, we had a wonderful and happy childhood. We had sheep, cows and horses. We all helped with the hay harvest or running up the mountains with the sheep dog to round up the sheep and bring them down. When I was older I would guide the drill whilst my brother led the horse when we were drilling one of the fields and sowing the seeds. The farmhouse was big and quite imposing and surrounded by hills and beautiful scenery. The lane leading to the farm was planted either side with holly trees. The hen-house was round and built of stone. It had an upstairs room where a farm worker we had at the time used to sleep, and it had a sort of little turret on the top. It is a listed building now. Somebody came and discovered it. They had never seen anything like it before so it was listed.
I went to school in Llangollen. The farm was a mile from the station but about a mile and three quarters to the actual village. It was downhill all the way to school. I remember when we took my youngest sister we ran fast for a bit, then walked a bit and so on to get her there. The school was one big building with two classrooms, and a part at the back with two smaller classrooms for the infants. The big rooms had a screen to divide them. There were high ceilings and high windows and it was so cold! In the winter it was freezing. If you got your feet got wet walking to school, and some children walked for two miles or more from some of the hill farms, you had wet feet all day. There was a small fire at each end of the big rooms that the teachers used to hug. Later on they put radiators in which was much better. We had to take sandwiches for our lunch and a bottle of milk between us as there were no school meals then. My mother cooked a dinner for us when we got home. We had a good education. The headmaster was very strict but fair, you knew how far you could go. There were five Junior classes and two Infants. The classes were in blocks and you moved up a block each year. The teachers were nice and we really enjoyed school. No Welsh was spoken, it was all in English. There was another school in Llangollen which was called a Board School and we were the National School which was attached to the church. All the choirboys came to the National School. The head master was the choirmaster and organist of the church. So we had to learn all the psalms and hymns. He took the choir practise in school and we all had to learn what the choir had to learn as well. It was lovely, I used to like singing.
We all went to church on Sundays. My father had been a choir boy since he was eight years old and I think he was ninety-one when he died. He never missed the Christmas Communion and he managed to go just before he died in the January. He was in the choir for years and a bell-ringer as well. I can remember when he and my two brothers would get a long piece of paper and write out the changes. The boys had to learn it and as soon as they were old enough to pull a bell they joined in the bell-ringing. It was great fun because at Christmas time, we would crush into the belfry when they were ringing in the New Year. We used to love it when they were ringing the New Year in. We had some lovely Christmas parties and we used to go outside to look for Santa Claus coming. It was a happy time on the farm. We had so much freedom to run about on the hills. Now, a family lives in the house but the land is farmed by another farmer.
I was in the Brownies and then the Guides and finally the Rangers. I remember going camping in the Lake District with the Rangers. My father was a keen member of the Llangollen Operatic Society and we were all co-opted into the chorus. I was in The Pirates of Penzance, The Arkadians and Merry England as far as I can remember.
When I left school, I went to live for a time with my aunt and uncle. Their only daughter was getting married and going away to live. My aunt was so distressed to lose her I went to keep her company. While I was there, the war started. This was in 1939 and of course everybody over the age of seventeen had to join up. I can remember the day the war started as clear as anything. I heard the announcement on the radio that Britain was at war, and I couldn`t imagine what would happen. I was seventeen so when it came to being called up, I thought that it would be stupid to join the Services. I knew about farming so I joined the Land Army.
There was a room put aside for people joining the Services in Llangollen and so I went down there and they said what do you want to do? I told them, ` The Land Army`. My elder brother joined the R.A.F. and my sister Doreen chose nursing. When he was old enough my younger brother Arthur volunteered but they wouldn`t take him. he was told that farming was essential work in producing food for the nation. Some women in the village with sons in the Forces were quite nasty towards Arthur. Although hw went to join up numerous times he was rejected every time.
At first I was sent to a big house with a large garden near Llanberis. It was just gardening, looking after this posh garden. There was just the head gardener and me. All the other younger gardeners had been called up. I was there about six months.
Meanwhile, there was a girl who was evacuated from Liverpool living with us on the farm. Her father`s firm was sent out to Jamaica. I don`t know why they had been evacuated out there, it was something hush-hush, I believe. He was worried about leaving his younger daughter in Liverpool because of the bombing, so an aunt of mine who lived near him suggested that he asked my mother if she would take this girl, and she did. When she came to be seventeen she had to join something, either nursing or one of the Services. She decided that the best thing for her to do was to join me in the Land Army. We explained her situation to the Land Army Authorities and she was posted with me wherever I went so I was able to look after her.
We were sent to a hostel in Abergele and from there we were sent out on all sorts of work, you didn`t know what to expect. We could be sent on threshing where a whole gang of you stood round with flails in a barn and threshed the corn or it might be potato-picking or any root vegetable that had to be picked. After that we went to another big Hall which had been taken over by a girls` school from Bournemouth. As it was on the south coast I expect they came to get away from the bombing and so on. We worked in the gardens there which had to provide as much food as possible. All the lovely flower gardens and lawns were dug up and given over to vegetables. It all went to feed the school although of course it was nothing compared with what they had to buy to feed all these girls. I was there until after the war ended.
In the gardens they had two enormous yew hedges, about twelve feet high and several feet long and very wide. We had to cut these hedges climbing up ladders. They were so thick and strong you could lie down as you trimmed along the top. The job had to be done to keep the place tidy.
During this time, we lived at home. We cycled to work. We had a tandem which we left at my uncle`s house in the village to save pushing it up the hill each night. We would walk the mile down to the village every morning, pick up the tandem and cycle three miles, slightly uphill, to this Hall, and the other way round at night. It was good exercise, I`m sure, though it is amazing when you think what we had to eat. I had cereal and a cup of tea for breakfast and we`d take four sandwiches spam sandwiches mostly for our lunch. We ate them in a room up at the Hall and they would give us a cup of tea. That was all we had until we`d cycled home and walked up the mountain each night. Then my mother would have a meal waiting for us. You didn`t get a lot to eat, but it didn`t stop you. You had enough energy to keep going, enough to go down to the pictures sometimes at night if you wanted to anyway.
The cycling was all right in the summer but it was jolly cold in the winter. We would get a lot of snow but we struggled through somehow. In the fields near where the Hall was, there was an Army camp and the soldiers used to give us wolf whistles as we went by in our Land Army uniforms on this tandem. We were paid about twenty-one shillings a week. We didn`t get rich on it but it was great fun.
We didn`t know much about the war. We saw trucks going up and down but that was all. We didn`t have any bombing except when the German planes were going back after bombing Liverpool and Birkenhead. They would jettison any bombs they had left as they went over. Most of them landed on the hills. My eldest brother was in the Air Force in bombers, he was a bomb aimer. He did the whole term of thirty flights and he was coming back from a raid on the last flight and he looked down as he was crossing the Channel. He was amazed to see all these ships going across. It was the D-Day invasion. That was his last op. He was very fortunate.
After the war, the vicar`s wife came up to see me one day to ask if I would go up to help up at the Hall where the Bests, the estate owners, lived. Their son lived in Kenya but he had come over to fight in the war. His wife had come over as well and stayed at the Hall. I was asked to go and help look after her two small children. So I went to help with these children. The little boy , Bob, was two I think, and the little girl, was about eighteen months. She had been christened Antonia but was always called Tanda. Now that the war was finished, it was time to go back to Kenya. Mrs Best was not too keen on going back and she asked me if I would go out with her. I thought to myself, oh well, why not? By this time I was very fond of the children.
We flew to Kenya. We went down to London and out to the airfield and got on this chartered plane. It was not very big, it held about thirty people I suppose. We had to refuel in Brussels, and then we went down to Rome to pick somebody up and then on to Malta where we stayed the night. The next day we went over the Med to Khartoum where we stayed that night and arrived at Nairobi the next day. It took three days. The plane flew quite low so that you could see the county with the huts and the children running about. It was not like flying today where you go so high you can only see cloud.
Mr and Mrs Best lived on a farm about sixty miles from Nairobi up near the mountains. The weather was lovely, not too hot but like a warm summer`s day back home. They grew maize and corn and barley. You could see the top of Mount Kenya sticking up over the mountains first thing in the morning with the sun on it and it was pink. It was gorgeous. There were lovely blue lakes with beautiful pink flamingos all round them. There were several lakes like that. The African workers were very nice. There was no sign of trouble then although the Mau-Mau was beginning to attack the farms. Some were attacked not far from us. Mr Best was very good with his workers. He was very jolly with them and they loved him.
I was there three or four years. Then they came back for the little boy to go to school. The children had lessons sent to them by post while they were in Kenya. I think the Bests began to get a bit worried that the troubles with the Mau-Mau would get worse and the grandparents back in Wales were getting anxious. So we came back in the end. She came to stay with her step-brother who was Bishop Otter at Stoke Rochford and the children went to school there. It was about this time that I met Harry. Mrs Best had an aunt in Newly in Glostershire where there was a boys` school. We moved down there for the little boy to go to that school. When the little girl also went to school, I came back here and married Harry. We got married in Llangollen. Harry was a baker and worked for Mr Redberg opposite where the Co-op is now.
Harry hardly spoke of his experiences in the war. He was sent out East and got away when Singapore fell. They got as far as Java and scattered to try to escape but were rounded up by the Japanese and taken to Japan to work down the coal-mines. They were treated very badly by the Japanese, they were very cruel. Like the rest of them, Harry was beaten for no reason. They were quite near Hiroshima when the bomb fell and it was the Americans who rescued him and those who had managed to stay alive. Harry was lucky to survive. The terrible thing was that when the Americans came they found stacks and stacks of Red Cross parcels which had never been given out, piles and piles of them. Harry said that the Americans were marvellous. They came and took them to some island and cleaned them up and gave them clean clothes. The medics had to clean out their ears because they were caked up with coal dust. Then they were flown across the Pacific and came on the Trans-Canadian Railway right across Canada. He said that at every stop crowds of people were handing out food to them and cigarettes and drinks and so on. Everybody was so good to them. Then they came across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, and eventually he was back in Colsterworth. His mother lived off the High Street in a cottage opposite where the Post Office was. We went to live on the Bourne Road Estate before we came to live on Back Lane.
We had two children, John and Lorna who is a radiographer at the City Hospital in Nottingham. John went to Coventry University and now lives in Chesterfield.