John Turpie

My name is John Ernest Turpie and I was born in Woolsthorpe on the 29th of November 1930 which makes me seventy-five obviously. We went away from the village when I was three. I have a sister, Heather, and later two brothers. My father was a regular in the Royal Air Force and we moved about the country to different stations with him such as Hucknall, Farnborough and all places like that. I went to many different schools which was a bit of a struggle as at one school I might be six months behind the rest of the class, or at another a bit in front. I always excuse any lack of knowledge that I might have on this broken education. I had a happy childhood although I never knew a settled home. Then in 1938, my father was posted to Singapore and we were left at Farnborough. I had a younger brother by now. In April 1939, we went out there to join him. We went by sea, on HMS Dinera, through the Med, through the Suez Canal, down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to Singapore. I can remember seeing my father on the quay waiting for us. We had a great time in Singapore. School was mornings only starting at about 8.30 until 1.30 after which we would spend our afternoons swimming in the pool or down by the beach in the Straits of Jahore. We were at the camp school. We felt that we were a long way from the war, but then on December 7th 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and started their war of expansion in the Far East.

Soon afterwards they bombed the airfield and the naval base at Seletar where we were. I remember in the middle of the night, with all the bangs going off, my father got us all out of bed. He took us outside and made us lie down in a ditch. He kept saying, "Lay down! Lay down!" but I tried to get out because I was getting covered in ants. The docks and the airfield were damaged. The bombs didn't come near us but all the same it was a bit frightening with the guns and the bombs and the searchlights. We were then evacuated off the camp. The authorities interned all the Japanese citizens and we were moved into their houses which were quite big so that half a dozen families shared one house. This was in Singapore city. My father had to stay on the camp although he came to see us a time or two. We were only allowed to take a few clothes with us. We heard some terrible stories and I remember my father giving my mother a gun. I wasn't supposed to see it, but I recall hearing him telling her how to use it. What it was for, I don't really know but I doubt if it would have been much good to her. On the 31st of January, 1942, we were told to pack a suitcase and we were transported down to the docks where there were two American troop ships, the Wakefield and the West Point. I can`t remember which one we went on, but during a raid in the previous night it had received a hit. A bomb had gone through three decks but although the ship was damaged, the engines were all right and after a bit of delay, we set off.

Singapore fell on the 15th of February. The Japanese had landed at the top of the mainland and had come down the peninsula. The authorities and so-called experts had expected them to attack from the sea and all the guns pointed that way. My father, I don`t know all the details, but he and five other men commandeered a Chinese junk and got off and landed in Java, now Indonesia. We didn't know what had happened to him and it was over a year before we heard that he had got away. It was a terribly worrying time especially for my mother. Meanwhile we sailed to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and were put into a big military hospital in Columbo. There was nothing wrong with us, we just needed the beds. We were there several weeks as the Americans wanted their ship back for other duties. We eventually got put on a British ship, the Empress of Australia, and crossed the Indian Ocean to Durban, zig-zagging all the way to avoid the U-boats. We put into Cape Town next where the South Africans were very good to us. They came down to the docks every day in their cars and if you felt like going out they took you to their homes and fed you. Sometimes we went up Table Mountain where lots of grape vines were grown. We were used to pineapples and bananas in Singapore but grapes were something new. We enjoyed tucking into these grapes and carried some back to the ship. Then we went on to Freetown in Sierra Leone where it was very hot with lots of flies and mosquitoes. I made friends with one of the sailors on the Empress of Australia and every time he was on watch, he would take me up the ladder which went up inside the mast, to the look-out post at the top. He would say, `Don`t look out of that side, they will see you from the bridge!` I had to look to the front. I spent hours up there with him. I thought it was great especially when the ship rolled. I never saw any submarines but I did see the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth all painted grey. They were in use as troop ships. We eventually got back to Liverpool. I shall never forget coming up the Mersey and seeing the Liver Buildings. It was a wonderful sight. It took from January to April to get back. We worked out how long we had been away because my brother had his third birthday in Southampton as we prepared to go out to Singapore and he had his sixth birthday in Liverpool on our return. During these three years, I was old enough to appreciate what was happening but it was not frightening I was about twelve and to me it was all a big adventure. It was a bit of a wrench to leave most of our things behind though.

We were only allowed one medium sized suitcase. We had nowhere to go when we landed but the Air Force paid for the train fare to Crewe where we had an aunt. After being there for a few days we came back here to Woolsthorpe which was my grandmother`s home and moved in with her at number 11 Woolsthorpe Road. I started at the village school under Mr Harrison. I was not impressed with Mr Harrison because I used to think that he picked on me. I got the cane from him sometimes and I used to put my hands on the metal struts of the desk to cool the pain. I met him a long time afterwards when I was in the Army and preparing to be posted to Cyprus and he was very friendly then. He said that his daughter was in Cyprus and he gave me her address and wanted me to go to see her. I met Sheila at Colsterworth School. She says that the first time she saw me I was being punched by some of the boys. I was new, you see, and for some reason they always picked a fight with new boys. It didn't last long though, we were soon friends. Later I went to the Central School under Sammy Thorpe. I was very sports minded. Instead of doing my homework, I was always out kicking a ball around. There was an old pit up the Woolsthorpe Road which was always full of water and we used to go swimming up there. In the middle it would be at least fifteen feet deep, shallowing out at the ends. It was lovely clear water. I used to come home, grab my bike and go swimming up there. Grantham had no indoor swimming pool then and I was used to swimming after being in Singapore. Later on, when I was doing my National Service, I joined the water polo team which got me out of doing fatigues. When I left school, I went to work at a Grantham builders but I was not satisfied as I felt I was being used as cheap labour, so I went to see Fred and Walter Porter who an had undertaker`s and builder`s business on the High Street in Colsterworth. There was a house and a workshop which stood sideways to the road. I told Walter that I was unhappy at work because I was not learning how to use the tools or anything .

Walter said to join him as an apprentice. In the old days you had to sign indentures which meant that you agreed to work for five years and pay for the training. In my day, you still had to sign the contract but you didn't have to pay for the teaching. You were paid a percentage of the going rate for a tradesman increasing each year and when you had completed the apprenticeship, you were paid the full rate. Jeff Watson was the main carpenter and he took me under his wing. He was a very good carpenter and we got on well. I learnt all about the use of tools etc. By the end of my time I was a fully qualified joiner and carpenter. You did both types of work as needed. A carpenter worked on site, building roofs and all things to do with construction. A joiner worked in the workshop, making the doors or the stairs. Being an apprentice meant that I was not called up at eighteen but I could defer the call-up until I had completed my apprenticeship at twenty-one. Just when I was due for the full wages, I was called up into the Army. I went to Lincoln for my medical which I passed. I had the choice of which service I wanted to go in but as my father was in the RAF I decided to go into the Army. If you wanted to be a regular you signed on for at least three years but National Service was for two years only. I put down for the Royal Engineers which was full of trades men of all sorts and I was sent to Aldershot for basic training which consisted of learning how to march in time and how to salute and playing at soldiers ? Bang! Bang! you`re dead! and that sort of thing. When I had passed out after basic training, I was then posted to a field unit at Maidstone. This was at the time of the Suez crisis when Nasser and his nationalists got rid of King Farouk and established their independence by taking over the Suez Canal and running it themselves. All the pundits declared that they were not capable of running the canal properly and we were sent out to protect the ships using the canal and British interests at the same time. When we were due to go to Suez, we got forty-eight hours leave and we were threatened that if we didn't come back we would be classified as deserters. Midnight on the Sunday was the deadline for reporting back. We had to sign the Official Secrets Act and on the Tuesday they put us into wagons down at the station and sent us all to Lyneham in Kent. We were then flown out to Tobruck in North Africa, and then on to Benghazi, gradually getting acclimatised to the heat, and then to Egypt. Our job was to guard the Canal and keep it open. There were hundreds of thousands of troops doing this boring job. We would watch the big ships moving slowly down the canal. At night they had big searchlights on them. Sometimes you would see a ship, a train and a lorry coming down parallel tracks. There were one or two skirmishes and potshots directed at us. Quite a few soldiers were killed by snipers. You weren't allowed out by yourself. Every vehicle had to have an escort with armed soldiers in the back. Eventually after various bits of trouble, agreement was reached and the Egyptians took over the Canal and have run it perfectly well ever since.

Although I completed my National Service, I was then put on the reserve list which lasted for about three years. The Canal business took some time to settle and once or twice I thought I might get called up again. One or two men that I knew did, but I was lucky. For at least three years you had to go to camp for a fortnight a year for a sort of refresher course. I went up to Rippon. They would take you out into the middle of nowhere and you had to find your way back. I quite enjoyed it because men in the Engineers were recruited from all over the country, Geordies, Scotsmen, Scousers and so on, unlike local regiments such as the Lincolnshires where the men would know each other from back home and meet up regularly. One of the things I liked about going to camp was to see my friends again. It was about this time that Sheila and I had decided to get married. My father had come out of the Air Force by this time and he and my mother had moved to Cardington near Bedford. Heather and George were married and living at Woolsthorpe. I moved in with them for a while whilst Sheila and I made our wedding plans. However, a week or two before the day, I had been on one of these Army camps and when I got back I went down with a very nasty bug. Doctor Stafford came to see me along with Doctor Norman and the next thing I knew I was in the ambulance being taken to the Isolation Hospital. They thought I had polio. It was the day before we were due to get married. I was in for about a fortnight having test after test. Anyway they discovered that it was not polio but some disease with a great long name that I had contracted from drinking unpasteurized milk. Once they found out what it was they gave me some drug or other and I quickly recovered. So now we could go ahead with the wedding! We were married at the chapel. Sheila`s parents were very strong chapel members. There was never any drink in the house, in fact she is still teetotal. When she was young, she walked to chapel three times every Sunday. An upbringing like this gives you guidelines for the rest of your life.

The reception was held in the schoolroom of the chapel. In those days you did the reception yourself helped by friends. The cake was made at the local bakery in the village and we went on honeymoon to Torquay by train. We started our marriage life in two rooms in Sheila`s grandfather`s house which was in the Crescent up the Woolsthorpe Road. We tried all over to rent a house but it was so hard to get on the housing list. The trouble was that you could not get on the list until you were married and you couldn't get married until you had somewhere to live. We tried for many a private house that was up for rent but without success. So I approached Mr Branston, the baker, and I asked him if he would sell us a piece of his field on which to build our own house. He didn't really want to sell but we persuaded him. George, Heather`s husband, had come in with us by now and we bought this half an acre and shared it between us. Although George wasn't in the trade he was always very handy and he had contacts in the area. For instance we got all the hard core for the foundations and paths from the ironstone. We did just about everything. A bricklayer that I knew came and started us off on the chimney and Sheila`s brother, Alan, who was an electrician did the wiring for us. But the plumbing, brick-laying, plastering we did it all ourselves. I used to work with tradesmen and I picked up how to do it from them. The sewerage trench had to be dug to two or three feet deep right over the field, which took a bit of doing. We chose to build a bungalow because it saved us the cost of hiring scaffolding. We`re pleased that we did, now that we`re getting a bit rickety. George and I used to go down to a local merchant who, although we did not have our own business, used to let us have everything at trade price. We would order a bag of cement or a few bricks, what we could afford at that time. We built the two bungalows on a shoe-string. There were no mortgages like there are today. They think nothing of having a mortgage of three or four hundred thousand. None of the concrete was ready-mixed. We had a cement mixer lent by Cecil Blankley. When he needed it, he used to come for it but never failed to bring it back to us. After three years, when we had completed the two bungalows, we took it back and were dreading how much he would charge us. We asked him how much we owed him and he said, "You don`t think you are going to get it for nothing do you?" He could be a bit sharp but he was very good-hearted. "Oh no, we realise that. We've been very pleased with it." "Well, give me a pound." He could see that we were working for ourselves and hadn't got a lot of money. He was a hard-working fellow himself and appreciated what we were doing. Sheila was born in Woolsthorpe and was Sheila Baker. She looks back on her childhood and her family life and it was just so happy.

It was simple, no television or anything like that. She lived in a little cottage in Woolsthorpe and on winter evenings she would sit at the table with her brother and play games. The cottage was very small and is opposite to where the Senescalls live. Originally it was the home of her great-grandmother. Her parents went to live with their grandma when they got married. She had a sister and she has a brother Alan who lives up the Bourne Road. She went to Colsterworth School where Miss Ball was her first teacher. She was very kind. She would give a pear drop out of her tin to any child who had done something good. Every child looked forward to a pear drop out of Miss Ball`s tin. She would get the children to put their heads down on their desks every afternoon for a little sleep. "Now then babies," she would say, "Fold your arms and put your heads down and go to sleep." It was her way of giving you a rest, though how many actually went to sleep, we don`t know. Then it was into Miss Lowe`s class and that is where Sheila`s love of nature came from. She was a great teacher of nature and a great story reader. She would take her class on nature walks. On frosty days, she would carry some water to the playground and pour it so as to make a slide for the girls to slide on. The boys had their own slides in the boys` playground. We all had so much fun and we can`t remember anyone ever having an accident. One or two might topple over but it wasn't much. Anyway a knock or two make you a bit hardier. At a certain time of year, each girl would take a ball to play with during breaks. Then perhaps it would be a skipping rope and then a whip and top. Every season had its crazes. We played a lot of games that children don`t know of now. Sheila went to Grantham Central Girls' School, now Walton Girls'.

The head was Miss Jabot who was a gentle lady who, if they were making a noise, would say quietly, "Girls," and the noise would die away. Then came Miss Hewitt who was quite different. Sheila started working in the offices at the ironstone and went to evening classes three nights a week for shorthand, typing and book-keeping. She was allowed to stay on at work when she got married. In those days girls had to give up work when they got married. A lot of places wouldn't keep them on, in fact they had only just changed the rule at the ironstone when we got married. People liked working at the ironstone. It was very localised, like being in one big family. When we were growing up we thought the ironstone would go on forever. Then it seemed to pack up very quickly. The cheaper ore came in from abroad and it was gone. Sheila`s hobby is painting and mine is gardening and woodwork. We grow lots of soft fruit and vegetables as well, organic I suppose they could be called. We have two sons, Ian and David. I look back on my life and if you ask if I would change anything, well I suppose the answer must be no, because if you change anything you would not be how you are now. Just a small change could have completely altered my life. I like the position I am in now. Sheila says that she wouldn't change anything either as we have had 50 very happy years together.