Part One: Growing Up in Britain 1925 – 1945
“Is there any advantage to be derived from having a feeling of belonging or attachment to one particular place? Personally during my 19 years I have lived in many parts of Britain and never in one place for more than a few years. Consequently I do not have any feelings of attachment of which I am rather glad as this feeling will not deter me in seeking pastures new” – Len, Spring 1945, age nineteen, six months before she sailed for Egypt.
“Len” – Helen Anne Cath Bryers, an only child, was born on 29, November, 1925, in a ‘single end’ (one room tenement flat) in Clydebank, 7 miles down the Clyde from Glasgow. The Clyde and Clydebank in the 1920s was one of the greatest shipbuilding places in the world.
Of the many shipyards in the Clyde, John Brown’s of Clydebank was the greatest, and during its lifetime built the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and the QE2, besides the Franconia. At the same time, the countryside of cows, horses and sheep and farms butted onto the back of the town whilst trams, buses and trains quickly took the town people into Glasgow, the British Empire’s great manufacturing city, and a hub of tearooms and department stores, music and dance halls, and theatres and grand cinemas.
Len’s Mum was Helen Smith Mackay, born in Dornoch in 1894, a small coastal town in the far north east of Scotland. She grew up in Dornoch. If you headed out across the North Sea on latitude 58° from Dornoch you would, just skimming the southern tip of Norway, land on the western coast of Sweden, near Gothenburg.
Len’s Dad was Harry Bryers, born in the English county of Lancashire in 1889, but with a Scottish family background. We don’t know how or when her parents met, but it is likely they had both been living and working in the Glasgow or Clydebank area for some years, possibly during the course of the First World War, both probably employed in the war industries. Harry and Helen had relatives living in the Liverpool area, so they may have got to have known each other through that connection.
When Len’s parents married after the First World War Harry was an engineers’ machinist, and her Mum Helen was a seamstress. They married in Clydebank in April, 1925. When they married Harry was 36 and Helen was 31. Although Len was born in a single end, both Harry and Helen were an aspirational skilled working class couple, and within a few years were managing to live in rented accommodation with more than one room and with their own toilet.
At the time of her marriage Helen’s sister Ena, also a seamstress, was living in Clydebank too, and was a Witness to Harry and Helen’s marriage. A Swedish second cousin of Helen’s, Bjorn Mackay Palmgren, recalls that an Uncle of Helen and Ena’s – Paul Mackay – was head of Police in Clydebank until his death in 1917. Ena at some point, believed to be after 1939, moved to Leicestershire, and she and her family also feature during the course of these letters. Helen and Ena had a brother, Dennis, who was to work in the oil industry in Iran. He and his family also feature during the narrative of the letters. There was also a sister called Kitty, who is occasionally mentioned. Harry’s relatives were down in Lancashire, or had emigrated to North America. They too will feature during the course of the letters.
Len was born into a Britain that was the largest European ruler of the ‘under-developed’ World. A year before her birth, London had hosted the massive 1924 British Empire Exhibition, and books such as The Native Races of the British Empire were regularly awarded as prizes in British Secondary schools.
The earliest picture in this collection of Len, is at the approximate age of two and a half. It was taken in the summer of 1928, when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act extended the right of British women to vote from the age of 30 down to the age of 21. Millions of European women were still disenfranchised at this time, including Coco Chanel (who started out a seamstress like Len’s Mum). French women did not have the right to vote until 1945 (sanctioned by General de Gaulle in 1944). The resistance to women having the right to vote came from the male French Left, who along with the non-anarchist Left in 1930s republican Spain, and the male Left in post-war Belgium, for example, shared a view that women would, by and large, instinctively vote for Catholic, Monarchist or perceived ‘reactionary’ candidates.
The year after this photo was taken Mum would have been able to vote in the 1929 General Election. There is a very strong chance that she did, alongside Harry. And knowing her political views, which we will see in the ensuing narrative, she would have voted for Labour. The 1929 election returned a second minority Labour Party government, (the first had been in 1924) with the Scot Ramsay MacDonald as its Prime Minister. There had also been enough women over the age of 30, voting for the first time, to return the first minority Labour Government in 1924.
The double exposed photo is taken in front of a typical looking sandstone built Scottish Presbyterian church of the late nineteenth century. As Len’s parents were not regular church goers this was either a late baptism for Len, or possibly they were attending a wedding -Ena’s perhaps? Harry’s wearing of the bowler hat indicates his status, in Glasgow, as an engineer. As late as the 1950’s it is recalled that some engineers in Glasgow would leave for work wearing their bowler hat. It has been pointed out that it also had a practical aspect: it would give some protection from a falling rivet.
In the early 1930s steamers sailed from Ardrossan on the nearby Ayrshire coast to the Isle of Man, and Len and her parents would be among a small but increasingly significant number of skilled working people who could afford to have a week’s summer holiday in the interwar years. Before the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, passed by the Conservative government, it is estimated that just three million people were entitled to paid holidays. The UK population at that time was 47 million. The 1938 Act increased the number of those entitled to paid holidays to eleven million.
In October 1929, the unforeseen and stupendous New York Wall Street Crash heralded in a World Depression that sent out damaging waves for the next five or so years. On the Clyde many of the shipyards were either working at half capacity or were idle. Against the background of uncertain employment Harry and the family moved to Cork in the Irish Free State, to work at the Ford foundry, which had been established in 1919. We know that Len was four, so this was either late 1929 or 1930.
Henry Ford’s father, William, had been born in Cork and had emigrated with his father to the ‘New World’ in the nineteenth century, along with thousands of other Europeans in search of a better life. The Ford Cork plant manufactured Fordson tractors, and supplied cast iron requirements for their Manchester plant in England. Around late 1931 production of the Fordson tractor was switched from Cork to the large new Ford plant on the Thames estuary at Dagenham, Essex, England. Harry with his family moved to work for Ford in Dagenham, possibly around 1932 – 1933, and probably with assistance from Ford. The company also assisted skilled workers from their Manchester plant to move down south to their new Dagenham plant.
In January 1931, in Clydebank, John Brown’s had begun building an important new liner for the Cunard Company, codenamed ‘534’. Unable to pay their bills the Cunard liner was mothballed, and two weeks before Christmas workers at the yard were laid off indefinitely. Meanwhile, at the new Dagenham Ford plant, the first Fordson tractor had already rolled off the assembly line in October. In 1933, whilst ‘534’ (The future Queen Mary liner) was still mothballed, Ford Dagenham started producing the Model Y, a four door car which sold at a price of £100. No other British car maker could match its specification at the price. In 1933 the average wage in Britain hovered around £195. In the course of this collection of Len’s letters, up until 1950, Len’s Dad owned neither a new or second-hand car. His wife, however, aspired to one. But Harry and his family continued to afford holidays throughout the 1930s, even prior to the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act.
During the 1930s Harry and his family continued to live in Dagenham and Harry continued to work for Ford’s. In the mid to late 1930‘s Len attended the local South East Essex Technical College at Dagenham, with the intention of staying on until the age of 16. (During the 1930‘s the minimum school leaving age was 14). She trained at the college Day School as a shorthand typist. She still recalls the training that insisted on “one space after a comma, two spaces after a semi-colon and three spaces after a full stop”. Her training also meant that she still – in the 21st century – cannot “abide poor spelling.”
In the days before television, going to the pictures, at least twice and sometime three times a week was a regular pastime, along with listening to the radio. As Len reached her thirteenth birthday in November, 1938 there is a good chance that she and her Mum and Dad would have already seen the hit of the year: Walt Disney’s full length animated feature – in ‘glorious’ Technicolor – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Whistle While You Work, from the soundtrack, sung by The Seven Dwarfs was one of the big tunes of 1938. Also in 1938 the American singing trio The Andrews Sisters propelled themselves onto the listening public, through radio and records, and started their international career with the curiously German entitled Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. A line went “Let me explain – You’re the Fairest in the land”.
The fairest Ayran in the land, the German National Socialists, not content with their own land, had already marched into Austria, and then went on to make demands on the largely German speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, causing panic in the British and French governments. The Munich Agreement that they reached with Hitler in the September was described by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as “Peace in our time”. Five days afterwards, as agreed at Munich, the German army marched into the Czech Sudetenland. This, Herr Hitler had promised them, was the last of his territorial demands. As Christmas, 1938 approached it was natural that most people in Britain fervently hoped that it would indeed be so. How many privately doubted it is difficult to quantify. Of those who privately doubted, their doubts were probably confirmed when, four days before Christmas Day, the Government announced a substantial programme of air raid shelter building. And then four months later, in April, 1939, the House of Commons approved legislation to introduce military conscription – the first peacetime Act of Conscription in British history.
Towards the end of the 1939 English summer term holidays, in late August, Len spent some days at the Rest Home for Girls, on Canvey Island, twenty six miles down the Thames from Dagenham. Canvey Island was a popular day trip spot for those living in east London and south east Essex. The Rest Home for Girls was described at the time as a ‘holiday bungalow’. It had been set up by a Labour activist, Clara James, for girls from the East End of London. There is a strong possibility that the family, and particularly Len’s Mum, were by now firmly involved in the local Cooperative and Labour movement, socially and politically.
There is also a slight possibility – with Hitler making demands on Poland – that Mum was concerned for Len’s safety and had managed to get a bed for Len in Canvey. The British and French governments were pledged to support Poland in any act of aggression against the country. In this last week of August, and during September, two million people had fled London – and many of the other big cities – for fear of being gassed or bombed. (1)
On August 31 the British government started official evacuation of children between the ages of 6 and 14. In Paris the French government had evacuated 16,000 children from the city the day before. The expectation throughout Europe was that death by gas would be the main threat to civilian populations. In Britain the 1936 H.G.Wells scripted film Things to Come, was a dire prophesy of war and a totalitarian future. Curiously it prophesied that war would start in 1940, and in the early scenes the likelihood of death was by the dropping of gas canisters by bombers. It was not so unlikely. The Italian fascists and German nazis had deliberately bombed civilians during the Spanish Civil War, and the Italian fascists had used gas in Abyssinia. The government wasn’t taking any chances: 38 million gas masks had already been issued to the British population the year before.
1. see The People’s War, Angus Calder
Thursday 24 August, 1939. 455 Porters Avenue, Dagenham, Essex.
Our darling girl, Just as the bus turned round the Haystack corner last night I realised I had your purse in the brown bag. (1) You can bet I was very worried as I knew you had no money. I asked a lady on the way to the station with friends if she was going back to Canvey and she said “yes” so I gave her your address and asked if she would take a message so I gave her a shilling to give you, which I hope you got safely. I am expressing this letter to you with a 2/- postal order so as you will get it quickly and not be short of money, my dearest, and I hope you will get it safely and that you will thoroughly enjoy the rest of your holiday and will come home looking and feeling healthy and happy.
I was asking Daddy last night what time he thought we would be down on Saturday and he said about 3 p.m. (2) So, honey, will you meet us at the Haystack between 3 and 3.30 on Saturday afternoon. If by any chance we miss you we will go right down to the car park near the raft where we were, but will look for you at the Haystack between 3 and 3.30. Don’t forget.
If the weather is cold don’t go in swimming, darling, and be sure to keep yourself warm and cosy – you have your woollen socks! (3)
All our love dear heart, and looking forward to seeing you on Saturday. Dad, Mum and Hector.
1. The Haystack was and still is a well known pub and landmark in Canvey.
2. Even when shift work wasn’t involved, Saturday morning working was obligatory in most occupations.
3. ‘Keep warm and cosy and woollen socks’. This is summer. It is possible, besides being over protective, that Mum’s worries were against the historical background of high child deaths. Child deaths had only significantly started to come down in the 1920’s, from the ravages of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and children were still dying from a range of illnesses, including scarlet fever and diphtheria, for instance.
Ten days after Mum wrote her letter, Britain and France, fulfilling their treaty obligations to Poland, declared war on Germany. Germany had invaded Poland on 1 October. From the details in Mum’s following letter we see that she and Len, and Hector the dog, evacuated themselves from Dagenham within a day or two of the declaration of war. Besides the fear of gas attacks the housing estates in Dagenham were close enough to the large Becton gas works in nearby Barking, a potential target.
Sat. 9th Sept.
Here is another wee letter to cheer you. Hope you got the letter we sent yesterday. On Wednesday I started a bit of a cold and yesterday afternoon I had to go to bed. I was quite fevered but got a good sweat and feel a lot better today, though still feel a bit wonky, but I’ll look after myself alright honey, as it wouldn’t do to be ill just now. The girlie and Hector are champion, this place seems to agree with them, and Hec. is at his best in the country, when we were out a walk the other day he tried to go into the river to swim – he does enjoy himself here.
With this mail I am writing a letter to Mrs Dent, Canousleigh Rd. (1) to ask her for the address where the Technical College girls are evacuated to, as it might be best to go there if they are going to school. This morning I had a letter from the headmaster of Loughborough College making an appointment to see him on Tuesday morning, so we will wait and see what will be the best to do.
What do you think of the war news? The papers don’t say much, and as I said, we have no radio here, but from what the papers say Germany seems to be getting the best of it so far. What do they say down home. There are a lot of children evacuated from Sheffield and more coming in today to Quorn. (2)
We are thinking of you always our own Daddy, and wondering how you are getting on, and we hope you are O.K. I’ve asked Mrs Aris for our bill, but as yet have not got it. The Picture Houses are opening in Loughborough tonight. I am making covers for our gas mask boxes – I got the stuff in L’boro’ on Thursday.
I think this is all the news at present my love, I can just picture you cooking at our lovely cooker with everything so handy. The girlie has asked me to say we get lots of laughs here, and she is doing her imitations of the Coventry people – it is a scream to listen to them and our girlie can take them off a treat. We have heard every bit of village gossip for the past 50 years!
Well, heres cheers, my darling. Hector sends a big lick and we all send our love.
XXXXXXX Your loving wife.
2. Curiously Quorn is not that far from Leicester where Mum’s sister Ena would be living after the war, and where Len was to spend an unhappy Whitsun in 1949.
We do not know how long Mum and Len stayed in Quorn, or if Len went to Loughborough College. The assumption is that because there wasn’t immediate gassing or bombing, and there was the lull of the ‘Phoney War’, Mum and Len and Hec returned to Dagenham. In the first days of the declaration of war cinemas were closed by order of the Government, but as noted in Mum’s letter, were soon allowed to re-open, and stayed open for the rest of the war. The big film hit in December 1939 was another Technicolour picture The Wizard of Oz.
German intelligence had already identified the Thames area as a major target. “Huge gristmills, gasworks, electric power stations, oil storage plants and refineries, and cement and paper factories line the river…” ( Militärgeographische Angaben über England, Berlin, 1940). The Thames Estuary and river with its distinctive snaking outline was an easy corridor for Luftwaffe night bombers to fly up. Following the failure of the Luftwaffe to immobilise the RAF, in the Battle of Britain (prior to an invasion), they switched to mass bombing – blitzes – of major cities in England, starting with London in September 1940. Mum and family moved away from Dagenham to what Mum hoped – mistakenly – was the greater safety of the Clydebank area. Mum will mention her reasons for moving back to the Clydebank area in a 1948 letter to Len. From a surviving letter from Skerry’s College, Glasgow it looks as if the family moved back to Scotland within three to four weeks from the start of the London Blitz, taking into account the time it would take for the family to settle in, and for Len to start at Skerry’s College in Glasgow.
“Miss Helen.A.C.Bryers, present address 26 Coldingham Avenue, Glasgow W.4. was a full-time student of this College from 14 October, 1940 until the beginning of April 1941, when she transferred to the evening classes until 30th June, 1941, on receiving a situation. Her curriculum included Commercial English, Arithmetic, French, Shorthand, Typewriting, Bookkeeping, and Business Methods. Miss Bryers gained Certificate in Shorthand (90 words per minute), Typewriting (35 words per minute), Commercial Arithmetic, Advanced Commercial English and Amanuensis.”
The letter was written at Len’s request for the Civil Service, as a retrospective reference. She was already in Egypt in June 1946, working for the Ministry of Supply. 26 Coldingham Avenue, in Yoker, was the family home. Yoker was a mile or so from Clydebank, and Coldingham Avenue was close to the railways and railway sidings that were part of the shipbuilding and local docks area.
In March 1941, whilst the bombing of London still continued, one of Len’s London friends, Joan Garnett, who had also gone to the South Essex Tech, wrote to her in Yoker. Len and family had been back in Scotland six months.
27th March, 1941.249 Boundary Road, Barking, Essex.
Thank you very much for your letter that I received over a week ago. I wasn’t pleased to hear about the bombing, I expect everything looked a mess but it is sure to be cleared up now. I read about it in the papers and especially about the man who was buried for a week and brought out alive. (1)
I am writing this at work in spells when I haven’t anything to do, so if it looks a bit untidy you will know it is because I have to keep taking it out and putting it back in the machine.
We had quite a packet the other night, Saturday week to be exact some bombs fell in our road and has made about forty houses uninhabitable. Two bombs in the back gardens were direct hits on Anderson shelters and blew the backs out another two. Dad was down at Beckton that night and incendiary bombs dropped on two gas holders and you should have seen the gas burning, it made a terrific blaze. H.E.’s also dropped on Beckton that night and one dropped outside the building where my Dad was working, blew off the roof, blew in the windows and blackout and whirled my Dad round the room and cut his hand. He had to go on working the engines to see that the gas was pumped through in the dark.
Then the next Tuesday we had another bad raid. We had some more bombs but not very near, but they also fell at Beckton again that night, and funnily enough Dad was there again. Just after the raid began some of the men he works with went off to get something to eat and didn’t come back so those that were left had to do their own work and these others. They couldn’t keep it up so they had to let the gas pressure go down and we got no gas until dinner time when the gas pressure went up again so I had to cook my breakfast over the fire.
Last week they dropped bombs all the way up the line and I had a job getting up for a few days. One day it took me three hours. Whitechapel Station received a direct hit and for a few days trains could not stop because some of the platform was not there, but it’s alright now. On one side of Bromley Station there is a hospital and on the other side a workhouse and they were both hit.Last week the line was up from Barking to Aldgate East and the line of people waiting for buses started from the top of the Station hill and went down the hill to the Rio, down Salisbury Avenue to the bridge over the railway, round the corner and past the second turning. I was an hour lining up in that queue.
Another time the trains were not running between Aldgate East and Mansion House so I caught the tube from St Pauls to Liverpool Street and at six o clock at night people were on the tube platforms ready for the night.
They had a couple of land mines up at Scrattons Farm Estate and killed quite a few people. Some people who used to live on the end of our street moved up there and they were all killed except two babies. Their pictures were on the front page of the Daily Mirror.
I went to the Rio last saturday and saw The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell. I liked it ever so much and stayed in and saw it twice round. Also I saw Just Tempted with Hugh Herbert and Peggy Moran. Was it funny! The week before I saw Gas Bags with the Crazy Gang and did I laugh. I went with my friend June who lives next door. I usually go with her and she laughed so much she went hysterical and screamed at the top of her voice and everybody looked at us, I did feel daft. With it we saw Dr Kildare Goes Home with Lew Ayres.
I had to work last saturday it was my turn in again. I have been here almost three months now. Three months is up on the 6th of April which is not far away. I should be getting a rise soon in a couple of weeks or more. Here there are seven of us who sit near to each other and one of us has to book out the drivers of the vans and give the boys their fare when they take parcels anywhere. One of the boys came in the other day and while Paddy was booking him out (Paddy is the pet name of a jolly girl called Miss High) asked her for the name of the girl in blue. She said she didn’t know. Winnie, the girl in blue, said she wasn’t to tell him her name, so when he came in the next time she said her name was Miss Wilhelmina Wigglesbottam and that set us off laughing and we could not stop. One girl had tears rolling down her cheeks. Good job the head of our Dept. was out and the girl who is in charge of us. What makes it funnier still is that Winnie is fairly good looking and Bert Smith (2) is a fully looking freak.
I managed to get some chocolate the other week and bought it while it was going. The result was that I ate over two shillings worth over the weekend. I have managed to get a few bars since then but don’t go thinking I can get plenty of chocolates because I can’t.
Well I suppose I had better stop using the firm’s paper, wasting the firm’s time and wearing out the firm’s typewriter and say I’ll close now.
Yours ever, Joan.
p.s. Don’t forget to write soon.
1. A fortnight before, Clydebank was blitzed for two nights, 13 – 14 March. 528 died and out of 12,ooo houses only seven, it is claimed, remained undamaged. 35,000 were made homeless. Anti-aircraft guns, it is reputed, failed to shoot down a single Luftwaffe bomber. The Royal Ordnance Factory, Dalmuir where Len’s dad was working was hit but reopened within three weeks. Ironically, ROF Dalmuir manufactured anti-aircraft guns. The area of Yoker where Len lived, although close by Clydebank, was not seriously damaged.
2. Not his real name.
A month later Joan was writing again to Len.
30th April, 1941.249 Boundary Road, Barking.
Thanks very much for your letter I received last week. Sorry I have not written before but I have not had much time, either at home or at work. Congratulations on your new job, I was rather surprised, as I wasn’t expecting it. Glad to know that you are getting on so well. Do you like it better than at College? (1)
You remember the wedding I attended last August, well I had half-a-dozen copies made of myself and Pamela and I wondered if you would like one of them, just to remind you what my dear face looks like, so I am enclosing one for you.
Also, do you realise that I have nothing at all that shows me what your dear face looks like. If you have a photograph I could have, I should be pleased.
I bet you cannot guess who works here, someone who used to go the “Tec”.
When I first saw him I wondered where I had seen him before and after a few discreet enquiries I found out that he went to the Tec, but I can’t for the life of me remember which Form he was in. Perhaps you do.He said he doesn’t remember me either. I’d love to ask him about the Tec, but he seems so shy, and as you know I am rather shy myself. He often gets in my train at night but he never says anything or even recognises me. Can you remember which form he was in?
A week ago last wednesday we had a bad air raid but it was mostly in the City. The following Saturday night the attack was centred on the suburbs. We had a land mine in Morley Road at the back of the catholic school. We had been laying under the table all night as bombs were coming down thick and fast. Then there was a mighty crash, glass breaking and everything seemed to be falling on top of us. It was the land mine, and it switched on a couple of the lights, so Dad got out from under the table and switched them off.
Dad said we had better go down the shelter as we couldn’t stay there for the moment, window frames, glass and plaster all around us. Pam hadn’t got any shoes on so we sat her on the armchair while we found them and she said, “Oh! I’m sitting on glass”, so we quickly took her off. We got halfway through the scullery when we couldn’t go any farther. I thought a bomb had fallen on the back of the house and blocked the way but Dad shone his torch and we saw it was the back door split in half and laying right in the way. When we came out after the all clear had gone the place was properly in a mess. All this happened at ten to four in the morning so we didn’t have to wait long for daylight. We knew the time because it stopped all the clocks. We had the workmen round and mended the windows and doors and yesterday the surveyors came round to see what was to be done inside the house, as we have a big hole in the scullery ceiling and plaster down in all the rooms and even a few cracks.
Glad to know you enjoyed your Easter Holiday. I had to work Good Friday but we got paid double and had Easter Monday off. On the Saturday we went to the Rio and saw North West Mounted Police. On Easter Monday I went to the Capitol and saw Down Argentina Way with Betty Grable and Don Ameche. Also Michael Shayne, Private Detective with Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon and Ruth Hussey.
I have some good and bad news for you. I am going to get a holiday after all on the 12th of July to the 21st. But I am afraid my father won’t let me come to you as he said the threats of invasion and gas attacks would only worry them while I was away. So perhaps after the war. I hope it won’t last long. Are you ever going to come back to Barking or are you going to stop in Scotland after the war?
I am finishing writing this in my dinner time as I am afraid we have been rather busy lately to do much typing for oneself. It is nearly two o’ clock so better close now hoping to hear from you soon with the photograph. I have to take this home to address it as the photograph I am sending you will not go in the firms envelopes.
1. Len recalls that her first job was working as a shorthand typist in the office of Drysdales, Pump Manufacturers at 16/- a week. (80 pence). Manufacturers of the Drysdale Centrifugal Pump, their large factory at Ferry Road, Yoker was a short bus ride from Len’s home. Drysdales in the 1930s had been described as a ‘mecca for shipbuilders and engineers the world over’. When she started with them she was fifteen and a half.
Although Joan’s Dad would not let Joan travel up to Scotland to see Len, Helen hitch-hiked down to Dagenham, the following summer in 1942, with a friend, Morag. The war, since Joan had written in April 1941, had become a world war, the Second World War: Germany attacked the USSR in the early summer of 1941, and in December the Japanese airforce attacked the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbour. Britain was no longer ‘alone’. The USA and the USSR were now part of the Allies. Although the Germans made an initial deep incursion into Russia, they had stalled by December outside Moscow, and by summer 1942 the headlines read “Russians Foil Nazi Summer Offensive’. The threat of invasion, of gassing and of blitzes on Britain had receded. Mum obviously felt relaxed enough for Len to travel down in her works holidays. A further incentive to let Len travel to Dagenham may have been the outbreak of smallpox in Glasgow. In the summer of 1942 Len was 16 and a half.
13th July, 1942. 9, Blithbury Road, Dagenham, Essex.
Dear Mum and Dad,
Well as you can see from the telegram I sent, we arrived O.K. It is now Monday evening, and we are enjoying ourselves!!! We are still rather tired however, as we travelled all Saturday night, except when we stopped at cafes.
We got out of the lorry at High Barnet station, and there we got the train to Charing Cross, as I considered that the best and quickest way. Once at Charing X, we went to the Ladies room, got washed and I changed. Then I got two tickets for Barking, and with the change telephoned the telegram. Then we dashed downstairs and straight onto a Barking (no it purrs) train, as with one look I saw that was the one which was in.
On knocking at the Holt’s door it was opened by Jackie (an entirely new and different one) who just said “Hallo, come in.” Then turned round and went in, whereupon we followed, as if we’d come from across the road or something. Mrs Holt greeted us warmly, and I gave her the chocs. After a bit Mr Holt came in, and gave Morag and me hammer and sickle pins. Then bed. Incidentally the first people we bumped into, outside Barking station, were Y.C.Lers in the YHA. (1) They told me their time and place of meeting and also where the Y.H. is in London. You’ll never guess. Hyde Park!!!
Today on waking at 10.30 we talked in bed till 12.40 then got up and had breakfast and went to the shops while Morag wired McGregs etc. The Engwells and Johnsons have moved, so I did not see them. However Joan Brandley, Olive Resket and Mrs Simpkins were there and are all asking after you both and Mrs Resket says she likes the way you used to speak mum.
My parcel arrived Sat. If it’s O.K with you, I’ll be staying the fortnight, and training back. I’ll be seeing Joan Brandley Wednesday, to go to the pictures. Mrs Resket is getting me a ticket to go and see Olive and Iris in their dancing display. Tomorrow, we intend doing the town, and a bally ballet so we don’t know where Joan Garnett comes in. I’ll also be seeing the Baxters.
After our visiting we went to the Tec’, but we missed seeing the library, main hall and cafeteria, although we saw the swimming pool. Everybody recognises me, which gives me a shock, however they say I’ve grown, but my face is the same.
How’s tricks up north and Hec. Tell him I miss him and tickle behind his ears, for me please. The parcel was great, and the smock is handy. Incidentally, although it’ll be hard work for you I wonder if you could send my Pontings frock, the one I was wearing before I left, and anything else you like and oblige. That is if I receive permission from both of you to stay a fortnight and train back.
Mrs Holt says she’s sorry she didn’t write, and I’m sorry for my writing, but I’m half asleep. I’ve fallen in love with England over again, but I think I love them equally. Morag is nearly sick she says for lack of hills, however she’ll have to hold out.
Last week was Soviet Week, and Tamara Rust was there. After being asked by a heckler why she left Russia when it was so good, Mrs Holt says she said, eyes sparkling “I fell in love wis my husband”. Bill Rust editor of the “Daily Worker”. (2)
Yours ever, Len.
1. YCL: Young Communist League, youth section of the British Communist Party. YHA: Youth Hostel Association.
2. Tamara Rust was born in Russia in 1913. After Rust’s death she married Wogan Philips, reputedly the only member of the Communist Party to take a seat, as Lord Milford, in the House of Lords. As Lady Milford she died in Hampstead in 2009.
Len recalls that when the family moved back to the Clydebank area in 1940 she wanted to join the local branch of the Labour Party League of Youth. As there wasn’t one, she says she joined the local youth section of the British Communist Party, the Young Communist League. She said that she enjoyed the social side of the League. The British Communist Party was to have a high influx of new members during the war, an expression of often non-political admiration of the fight the USSR was putting up against the Germans. Many, too, joined in a misplaced political idealism. The swollen membership was a mixed blessing for the Party, which as a dictatorial organisation was concerned with the undisciplined nature of some of the new members.
When Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939, the Soviet Union likewise invaded and controlled a large area of Poland along its western border , a secret agreement aspect of the Nazi-Soviet non aggression pact of 1939. The Soviet Union also started killing thousands of ‘class enemies’ on a scale not yet embarked on by the Nazis against their own perceived ‘race enemies’, the Jews. (22,000 Polish officers, policemen, ‘intelligentsia’ and other ‘class enemies’ were systematically shot in the back of the neck in 1940 in the Katyn area).
Other ‘class enemies’ including thousands of Polish women and children were sent to the Nazi concentration camp equivalents: the Soviet gulags in Siberia. Many died of over-work, malnutrition and typhus. (1) The Gestapo and NKVD continued to work together in Poland. In addition, as a consequence of the non-aggression pact, and the division of spheres of interest, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Romania. However, now that the Soviet Union was defending itself from the Nazis, there was a common cause, a cause that had “Soviet Weeks” with Clementine Churchill – Winston Churchill’s wife – and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, two examples of those involved in Anglo-Soviet friendship rallies and groups.
1. see Women in Uniform, D. Collett Wedge, London, 1946: “First Evacuations of Polish Prisoners of War from Russia to Persia, Spring 1942.”
Tait’s Smile was a topical daily cartoon in the now defunct Glasgow Evening Citizen. The cartoon was a favourite of Mum and Len’s. Mum would occasionally send cuttings of it out to Len in Egypt. Because of the news report on the back of the cutting the cartoon can be dated to the occurrence of smallpox in Glasgow between May and July 1942, when 36 people were diagnosed, and nine died. The outbreak was written up in a November 1942 issue of the British Medical Journal. Len mentions it in a letter to Mum when she is in Egypt.
Interestingly, given Len working at Porton Down in 1949, outbreaks of smallpox in the UK, including this one, have been written up, partially with an observation of containment methods following a biological warfare attack. The fragment on the reverse of the Tait’s Smile cutting reports on the German General Von Bock’s action in Southern Russia. We can date the cartoon because a displeased Hitler ‘retired’ Von Bock in July, 1942. The next material from the collection of letters, photos and ephemera is from 1943. There is a probability that it was in 1943 that Len moved to where her Dad worked, at the Royal Ordnance Factory at Dalmuir. Taking up the post of shorthand typist would be the start of her working for the Ministry of Supply, which would also take her to Cairo in 1945, and Porton Down, Wiltshire in 1949.
Len, her friends and her family, like many in the 1930’s and 1940’s were keen hikers and hostellers. The 1920s and 1930s had seen an explosion of walking and cycling in the countryside. There was a political tinge within some of the hiking and cycling fraternity: the Ramblers Association led a mass ‘trespass’ in the English Peak District in 1932 (six of their members were jailed for leading it), and the Clarion Cycling Club (founded in 1895) united those with a socialist leaning. From 1930 the English and Welsh Youth Hostel Association provided cheap overnight beds, with the Scottish Youth Hostel Association following in 1931. Many of the hostels remained open during the war. There is some evidence that Len was in Devon in 1943, (she alludes to this in a future letter sent from Egypt), doing voluntary farm work, for the war effort, during her work holidays.
“Dear Helen, Having a good time here & glorious weather. See & have a good holiday & don’t flirt too much. See you soon. Mattie. ‘X’ marks our tent.”
Carbeth, north east of Clydebank, and near the Campsie Fells, was an autonomous working class weekend and holiday settlement of huts, tents and shacks, started in the 1920’s with prominent members of the socialist Clarion Cycle Club, and others, involved. The land was leased to them by a sympathetic land-owner at low rents. At its prime it had a tennis court and swimming pool. During the Clydebank Blitz mothers and children, expecting further raids evacuated themselves to it, and other Clydebank residents, made homeless by the bombing, also temporarily lived there. It continued during the war, and beyond, as a hutting and camping community, and still exists. Mattie may have been a work colleague. Len was possibly about to go down to Devon.
From a House of Commons report on the back of the cutting this cartoon can be dated to October 27, or 28th,1943. Britain, in 1941, was the first country to conscript women for war work during the Second World War. In Glasgow, Clydebank, and further down the Clyde, the shipyards kept going with women welders, riveters, and so on. A revision of the National Service (No. 2) Act in July 1943 extended the age of female conscription to 51. We have no indication of what war work Len’s mum did. Voluntary work by women could count, or exempt them, from war work – working with the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) for instance. There is a possibility that Mum was a volunteer with an organisation that befriended and organised socials and other facilities for overseas Allied servicemen.
There is a small collection of photos in the collection featuring such servicemen, either with Mum and family, or taken with and without Len, in the Victory Studios in Argyle Street, Glasgow, and elsewhere.
Several of Dad’s relatives lived in Canada and the United States, and several will feature in the narrative, besides Uncle Albert. A nephew of Dad’s (and therefore cousin of Len’s) volunteered for the Canadian Airforce. His name was R.B.Bryers. As in Northern Ireland, all Dominion and Colonial servicemen and women were volunteers, apart from those professional servicemen who had already signed up before the war. There are no annotations on the back of these two photos. The inscription on the Cross reads: “Sergeant R.B.Bryers, Royal Canadian Airforce. 25.9.43”. The online Royal Canadian Airforce website identifies, in the memorial section, every member of the RCAF killed during the Second World War, on a chronological day to day basis, with details of rank and burial or memorial place. This is how we know where the graveyard is.
It is the Protestant Church of Ireland graveyard at Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. (Irvinestown also has a Roman Catholic graveyard.) Also listed for the same day, and at the same graveyard are three other RCAF personnel: a sergeant and two Flying Officers. It is safe to assume they were from the same crew. R.B.Bryers was an air-gunner with the rank of Warrant Officer, Class 2. The nearest RAF base was the seaplane base at Castle Archdale, from which flying boats searched the North Atlantic for U Boats. The neutral Irish Free State had given secret permission for Allied planes from the base to use their nearby airspace. Len recalls that the plane flew into a hillside.
The following year, in June, 1944, Betty Baxter, a friend from Len’s Dagenham days (and mentioned in Len’s 1942 letter to her parents) sent Len a card from Salisbury, two weeks after the first D Day troops landed on the French coast. The troops she mentions would have been supply and corps troops and would have left for France within days of Betty writing her postcard. The Doodlebugs were VI flying bombs – a German counter-offensive – and had started falling on London a week before Betty wrote, on 13 June. Five years later Len would be lodging in Salisbury, working for the Chemical and Biological Warfare Centre in nearby Porton.
Postmark 20 June, 1944. “41, Churchfields Rd., Salisbury Wilts. Dear Helen, Our family is down here for a month’s holiday, as last year. We decided to try and take a rest from the doodlebugs and believe me it was a welcome one. You (‘d) love it here Helen. I know you are a great admirer of scenery and antiques. At present the town is packed with allied force, U.S., Canadian etc. A letter follows this card. Yours, Betty.”
In 1944 Len went down to Dagenham in her summer holidays, and once again stayed with the Holts. The dates of her holidays between 1942 and 1944 tie in with the Glasgow Fair Fortnight, when many local businesses, and nearly all factories in the area would close for a fortnight. Before a change in the 1970s, the Glasgow Fair Fortnight was usually the second and third week of July, but there were some slight wartime variations. Whilst Len was staying in Dagenham, Mum and Dad were staying in Dunoon, which along with Rothesay, was a popular holiday spot for those from the Glasgow area.
‘Thursday. Got your letter this morn – so glad. Here just now awaiting the ferry to Strone for a trip. It is glorious sunshine and we are having a very duper super holiday and will have adventures galore to relate when we return. Again we say “Bonnie, bonnie Scotland”. All our love ever. Dad, Mum & Hector. Sent card to Mrs Holt this morn.”
In August, 1944 Len was sent a card from a fellow Unity Theatre member, c/o their Glasgow address.
‘Dear Helen, Although it’s hard to believe – we’ve reached Glen Nevis. We stayed at a farm near Ardlui on Saturday night & on Sunday we reached Crianlarich, not bad eh? The weather is glorious. See you soon. Joyce’
Unity Theatre was a left-wing theatre club movement with strong links to the British Communist Party, started in the 1930’s. At its height there were around 50 Unity Theatre clubs in the UK. Len’s interest in the theatre and acting continued in Cairo, and as will be seen in the ensuing narrative, she also did one or two spots on the English speaking Cairo radio. During the rest of 1944 and into 1945 there are several photos of Len and Mum and Dad with American and Canadian servicemen.
“On Loch Lomond, Sept. 1944. Daddy, Len and Ed”. Mum’s handwriting on back of photo.
In early September 1944 units of the Canadian army were pushing north from France into Belgium. Units of the British and Free Polish Army also moved north towards the largely undefended cities of Brussels and Antwerp. The Antwerp harbour was desperately needed by the Allies to improve their over-stretched supply lines, which were still coming in from France. However, when the Allies reached Antwerp they found the harbour had been heavily mined by the retreating Germans, and it was some time before it could be used. Len was stirred by the plight of those in the newly liberated areas of Belgium and volunteered her services – in what capacity we don’t know – to the Belgian Medico Surgical Relief Column’s office in London.
“Belgian Medico Surgical and Relief Columns London 13.9.1944. Miss Bryers, We regret to inform you that owing to the restricted size of the Relief Columns and the large number of applications received the Consultative Commission of the Recruiting Board is not able to retain your offer of Services. The Commission is advising you at once to enable you to make other arrangements. We thank you for the sympathy and good will you have expressed towards our work and our country. Yours faithfully, Lucia de Brouckère, Elisabeth Genshof Van de Meersch”
One of the signatories, Lucia de Brouckère, was the daughter of a prominent Belgian socialist. Later in the year that she co-signed this letter she became Professor of Chemistry at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, retiring from the post in 1974. A co-founder of the Belgian Centre for Secular Action, a Higher Education College in Brussels is named after her. An online memorial to her describes her as a lifelong socialist with a feminist outlook.
We also know that in mid 1945 Helen applied to the United Nations in Geneva, asking if there were any vacancies as a shorthand typist. Again, her offer of help was thanked, and declined.
During September 1944, and onwards, the US Seventh Army was in the heavily wooded Belgian Ardennes, and with the suspicion of light snow on the ground, and the long shadow thrown by the serviceman’s face, this photo – in the collection of letters – may have been taken in November or early December. This would have been just weeks before the Nazis mounted a colossal counter attack, to become known as The Battle of the Bulge, on December 16, 1944, with the aim of splitting the Allied troops, to the North and South, and pushing them back to the coast. The Allied victory in the European West was not at all certain until the German Army was finally thrown into decisive retreat January 25, 1945.
Amongst several photos of unidentified servicemen during the Allied Advance that are in the Bryers family collection of photos is this one of a US Red Cross serviceman, taken it is estimated in January – February 1945.
As will be seen, Len had an interest in taking photos that continued throughout the course of these letters. Although available during the war, photographic film was often in short supply for amateur photographers . Most film produced by Ilford, Kodak and so on went to photo units in the services (RAF aerial reconnaissance, for example), the Ministry of Information, and to Press Agencies, newspapers and magazines, and to photo studios, such as the Victory Studios in Glasgow. In December 1944 Len took some photos in the front room of Coldingham Avenue, that give us a tantalising glimpse of where nearly all of her Mum’s letters to her would be written over the next few years, whether she was in Cairo or Porton. The photos would have been taken with a slow shutter speed, probably on a tripod, and possibly with a mechanical timer. It is Len’s handwriting on the reverse that identifies them.
“With Mummy at the fire, December ’44.”
“Dad & Bob at the fire, December, ’44”
“Cat by Gaslight, 1944”
In December 7, 1944 she was also in the Glasgow Victory Studio with an unidentified US serviceman.
During February 1945 Len was in Glencoe with an American serviceman, Lloyd Shanks. It is likely that they stayed at the Youth Hostel, and that this was a weekend visit. They would have travelled from Glasgow to the nearby, and now closed, Ballachulish railway station.
“Glencoe, Scotland. February ’45” Len’s handwriting on reverse
“Lloyd Shanks. Feb. ’45” Len’s handwriting on reverse.
“What is the difference between happiness and ecstasy?”
During the Spring of 1945, Len was musing on ‘belonging or attachment to one place’. Within six months of writing this she would be Cairo. “Is there any advantage to be derived from having a feeling of belonging or attachment to one particular place. Personally during my 19 years I have lived in many parts of Britain and never in one place for more than a few years. Consequently I do not have any feelings of attachment of which I am rather glad as this feeling will not deter me in seeking pastures new?” Written on the back of Royal Ordnance Factory, Dalmuir headed letter paper, where she worked in the office, employed by the Ministry of Supply.
The war in Europe had ended with the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945. Two weeks later, on May 21, she was in the Tudor Studios again, this time with Alan Guilfoil. The flash on his shoulder identifies him as with the Canadian services.
By the summer she is in a photo with her Mum and Dad with the family cat, underneath the rose arch in the back garden at Coldingham Avenue. Mum will be writing to Len a few years later, describing the arduous task of repainting this arch.
In the summer of 1945, the first peacetime summer in Europe since 1939, the Bryers received a photo from Sweden.
“Paul and Bjorn on miniature golf links at Varberg, West Coast where we spent our holidays, July, 1945.”
Annotation on reverse written by Paul and Bjorn’s mother. Varberg is down the coast from Gothenburg. The photo is printed on German Agfa paper, not available in the UK during the war. Sweden had managed to maintain its neutrality during the war. Bjorn and Paul were related to Mum’s side of the family, the Mackays. Bjorn was to visit and stay at Coldingham Avenue in 1949. His full name is Bjorn Olof Mackay Palmgren, and it is thanks to him that the editor of this book discovered that Len was still alive.
“My first visit to Scotland was in 1949. There I met Helen Bryers, or ‘Auntie Nell’ as I knew her, for the first time. She was a very likeable person – she gave me a real Scottish welcome and we got on very well together. My mother’s father and hers were brothers. I was back in 1950, this time with my bike, staying in Youth Hostels or with relatives, including of course Dornoch. I also saw Len at her college near Durham…”– from an e-mail from Bjorn to the editor, March 2011.
When the Bryers heard of Paul and Bjorn’s summer holidays, Len was a few months from sailing out to Egypt. It is not known when she saw, or applied for the Ministry of Supply post of shorthand typist in Cairo. It is likely the post was advertised in an internal circular at work. Because mum was very involved – almost over-involved – in her daughter’s life, a life she wished she’d had, (which she acknowledges in a future letter), and although protective, it is likely that she would support Len in applying for the post, even if it meant her daughter being overseas. Cairo would have seemed exotic compared with the damp climate of Clydebank, but more importantly, the payment of a generous Foreign Service Allowance (FSA) on top of the regular wage would have been a great incentive for Len and something Mum would have strongly approved of.
We do not know whether thoughts of sailing out to Egypt prompted Len to write a list of tunes that she associates with friends, and people she knows. The list contains the Canadian serviceman Alan Guilfoil, plus a Bob Proctor, who may be the Bob in the photograph of him and her Dad in front of the fire at home. Other names that will be a thread in her life and the letters to come are Bruce Bryers, Joan Brandley and Ken Cook and Ken Dixon.
Bruce Bryers “Me and My Girl”
Joan Brandley “Habanera”
Ken Dixon “Melody in F”
Bob Proctor “See what the boys in the back room will have”
Alan Guilfoil“Paper Doll”
Two weeks before Len typed this list (probably on the quiet at work) the Second World War had ended with the defeat of Japan, on VJ Day, 16 August, 1945. In late July there had been a new government elected in Great Britain: a Labour government – a landslide victory – with Major Attlee as Prime Minister. On the week beginning 17 September Helen, possibly with her Mum and Dad, had gone to the Glasgow Alhambra to see a programme of ballet excerpts.
The Anglo-Polish Ballet was formed by a group of Polish refugees in late 1940 (when Russia was occupying part of their country), and it toured Britain in repertory during the war. It also performed for troops in Italy, and then India, post-war. A former English dancer with them recalls that approaching Calcutta by train they became enmeshed in a riot, with the ballet master telling the ballerinas to get down and lie on the carriage floor. She recollects that their Residential ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) trucks were burnt out, but accommodation was provided by the Army. She also mentions, on the BBC WW2 People’s War online site, that the ballet company went on next to Singapore and then Hong Kong. The Second World War was over, but the colonial wars had already begun. It was against this background that Len sailed out from Liverpool to a restless Egypt in early November. She was a few weeks off being 20.
“With Best Wishes, from Nan Buchanan, Beech Drive, Park Hall, October 1945” on reverse.
Nan was a work colleague of Len’s at ROF Dalmuir. Len’s new life in Egypt was about to begin.
Next Part Two Chapter One: Young and Innocent
“I’m so happy you are as you just are, so fresh and innocent and yet with that wee bit of worldly wisdom which is such a safeguard. Your stay in the East will educate you and show you ‘all is not gold that glitters’ and we tried to give you a certain armour of confidence & self-reliance before you went away.” – Letter from Mum to Len, 14 March, 1947.
You have woven a colourful and lively picture from a vast network of incidental information that all come together to set the the scene for the following chapters. Looking forward to them!