My Early Yearsgraham
My mother wasn’t very happy in the prefabricated bungalow surrounded by such a mixed lot of people. It was cold with only a bitumen floor and as a baby I was often found with blackened knees from crawling on it, until my grandfather managed to obtain a carpet square from Camp Hopson where he worked. I remember the door of the bungalow opening outwards when normally a door opens inwards; a door opening inwards takes up space, and this bungalow was very small.
My mother described the situation: “The family who lived next door to us were very poor and I hated the idea of my lovely little boy having to mix with them as they weren’t very clean and had no manners.” My mother also missed her parents desperately and she suffered two miscarriages, one that nearly killed her, before she finally became pregnant again. She was put on complete bed rest and stayed with her parents in Newbury where they looked after her for the term of her pregnancy. The care she received must have worked as my brother, Cedric, was born in Newbury on 19th January 1946.
The following year Paul, my second brother was born on 17th July 1947, while my parents were still living with my grandparents at Westgate Road due to the lack of suitable housing. My dear Nana was wonderful and looked after us all so well. While still living in Malmesbury she had looked after her parents who were unable to live in their own home in Upminster in London as it had been bombed so badly during the war.
My mother returned to the prefabricated bungalow in Chippenham for a time. It was tough for her living there and she hated it; her mother-in-law, Grandma O’Riordan wasn’t supportive and neither were Dad’s two sisters. When the war was over, my father decided to apply for work in Newbury and secured a position as a sheet metal worker at Greenham House where he helped to train young REME soldiers (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers). He was later employed at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, or AERE, in Harwell, about twelve miles north of Newbury. He left home for work at seven o’clock every morning to catch the staff bus at the end of our road and returned home at about six o’clock in the evening, unless he was working overtime. I didn’t actually see a great deal of Dad in many ways because I was often in bed asleep by the time he arrived home. I saw him at weekends unless he was working overtime, and he did a lot of overtime because they needed the money.
In about 1948 we were again living with my Glasspool grandparents in Westgate Road, which was very convenient for the ‘prep’ – the preparatory school for Saint Bartholomew’s Grammar School that I attended. I don’t know how they afforded it, but I spent two years at the prep, which was certainly a good start for me. I got on very well with my grandparents. They were conservative, they voted conservative and thought of themselves as middle class, as did my mother. But they also thought that she had married ‘beneath her’; a sheet metal worker, with a certain affinity for Ireland, and as he considered himself working class, he voted Labour.
My Glasspool grandparents took me on holiday with them on two occasions when we were all living at Westgate Road. We visited Swanage one year and Bournemouth another time when we ate lots of ice creams and played on the beach, one of my fondest memories.
The Atomic Energy Research Establishment, known as AERE, near Harwell, Oxfordshire, was the main centre for atomic energy research and development in the United Kingdom from the 1940s to the 1990s. The decision to site AERE at Harwell had huge implications for a rural area which had depended mainly on agriculture for employment before World War Two. The site (which quickly became known colloquially amongst the local population as ‘The Atomic’) became one of the main employers in the post-war period. It also led to an influx of labour from outside the area, putting pressure on already scarce housing stocks. In response to the problem, hostels and temporary housing were established around the site.
One of the most significant experiments to occur at AERE was the ZETA fusion power experiment. An early attempt to build a large-scale nuclear fusion reactor, the project was started in 1954, and the first successes were achieved in 1957 although the project was shut down in 1968.
31 Priory Road
I remember Grandad Glasspool occasionally consumed a bottle of Guinness. One day, when I was about five or six, I tried to smell the bottle – was I in trouble? Maybe this was the origin of my taste for a drop! My dad very rarely touched any grog, mainly, I suspect because he couldn’t afford it. In later life when I took him to a pub, he had half a pint while I enjoyed a full pint. Whilst on his work trips to Dounray in Scotland, Dad developed a taste for Antiquary scotch whisky, which he drank now and then. My mum hated the taste of alcohol and never touched a drop and even though I tried to fool her, she could smell vodka!
I was christened a Roman Catholic but my father, who was a Catholic, fell out with Catholicism – I’m not sure why. From about seven years old I attended a variety of churches on Sundays; Baptist, Methodist and the Church of England St Nicholas, all in Newbury. Most of my friends attended church at St Nic’s every Sunday, Nick Gregory became a choirboy and like the others I was confirmed at St Nic’s and for a while I took Holy Communion. I eventually became an altar boy for a short time. In my mid-teens I joined the St Nicholas Youth Club that was run by Reverend John Bailey who subsequently married Liz and I. School assemblies were all religious in nature and based on the Church of England and a piece of classical music was played every day, either a record or by the music master on the piano. Over the years my faith in religion has lapsed and eventually I became an agnostic and later an atheist.
Sunday evening at home was bath night. Hair washing was done over the kitchen sink using a jug; there was no shower in those days. I remember one bath night when, as I was getting out of the bath, the corner of the towel dropped into the bath water. Mum was furious as we all used the same towel to dry ourselves and Dad was next and faced using an already wet towel! After that I always used my face flannel to partially dry myself. Things were quite tough, and money was very tight, for example Mum didn’t buy pepper as she couldn’t afford it. However, it was a happy home and my parents were always very loving. I recall my mother’s advice to me; ‘Aim for the moon and maybe you will catch a star’ or, ‘Aim high’.
On some Saturday mornings I accompanied Dad to the local Gas Works where he bought a hundredweight sack of coke (about fifty kilograms). It was much cheaper than buying it from a coal merchant; this would be wheeled home across the handlebars of his bicycle. The coke was mainly burnt in the kitchen stove, which heated the water and part of the house. There were actually five fires in the house; the kitchen stove and open fires in the dining room, the sitting room and the two large upstairs bedrooms.
Dad was earning something like ten pounds a week, which he brought home every Thursday and gave straight to Mum. To supplement the family budget one of the bedrooms was often rented to ‘PGs’ – paying guests or lodgers. Nana and Grandad Glasspool stayed for quite a while before they built their bungalow across the road, which they called Newlyn, after the small Cornish fishing town near Penzance in Cornwall. One thing that I remember Grandad telling me was, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well”, and my Dad telling me to, “Bend your back when doing up your shoelaces” – good advice! He also advised me to “Never raise your fists to anyone” – i.e. don’t start a fight.
During school holidays I would run through the side of Miss Eaton Matthews’ garden and play with the Doggett children; Chris became my best friend. Sadly, Chris drowned in Newbury swimming pool. It was during the summer of 1950 when I was staying with Nana and Grandad Glasspool in Apsley, near Hemel Hempstead where they lived for a short time. It was very upsetting and an early brutal reminder of one’s own mortality. I recall there was a Victoria plum tree in the garden and that summer it was laden with fruit. One day I gorged on plums and the next morning, I woke in a very messy bed, but Nana took it in her stride!
Grandad smoked home-rolled cigarettes at the time and left his dog ends around the garden. I thought that I’d to help him save money and I started gathering them and removing the stale tobacco, which I collected in a small tin. Needless to say, Grandad was grateful for my assistance, but he didn’t recycle the tobacco.
Around this time the Gregorys arrived and lived in Howard Road, another street parallel to Priory and Porchester roads that was nearer to town. The Gregory family, who had moved from Potters Bar, consisted of Leonard and Eva, latterly and affectionately known as ‘Daddy and Mummy G’, and three sons; Steve, Roger and Nick.
In the Gregory’s garden was a very large chestnut tree in which a treehouse was built, and it was in this chestnut tree that we tried our first smokes. They were known as ‘Greg Coughs’ as we made them out of horse chestnut leaves and newspaper. We progressed and bought cigarette papers but still used horse chestnut leaves; we thought we were cool. We also played on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which passes through Newbury, where we caught pike, perch, bream, minnows, tadpoles, sticklebacks and even a fresh-water crayfish once. We used the Gregory boys’ large open aluminium canoe on the canal. Through the Gregorys, I became interested in scouting and I enjoyed many happy days with them in the 3rd Newbury Scouts, and later the Senior Scouts.
Another family member I admired and who we visited in the summer holidays was Uncle Frank. After the war Uncle Frank and Aunty Phyl lived in Rock, North Cornwall, in a house called, The Glyddens. Uncle Frank was then working as a sales representative for Hoover. Later they ran the Yacht Inn on the sea front at Penzance. They ran the inn so successfully they were able to buy a hotel in Rock – the St Enodoc Hotel – which is close to Porthilly where I had spent days on the beach when I was very young. Uncle Frank and Aunty Phyl’s two daughters, Susan and Carol were my cousins.
Saint Bartholomew’s Grammar School
Founded in 1466, St Bartholomew’s Grammar School maintained a very high reputation. After two years at the Prep school, I attended Eastgate and then Saint Nicholas primary schools between 1949 and 1953. I started at St Bartholomew’s Grammar School in September 1953. I was very lucky to attend St Bart’s after passing my eleven plus exam. When I was thirteen-years old, my parents met with the headmaster, Mr J A Ballantyne, MBE, to discuss my progress and he asked what my ambitions were.
Mother said to the headmaster, “Graham wants to be a naval officer.”
“Well he has no hope of being a naval officer; he does not have a private income,” the headmaster said.
In those days you needed to have money to hold a commission in HM Forces. This headmaster had served in the war, like many of the teachers, and while I wasn’t entirely sure of his rank, he was awarded the Military Cross which is no mean feat.
In my third form year at St Bart’s almost everyone joined the school cadet force for military training. We started in the army section, and before too long there was an air force section too, so we could choose whether to be an air or an army cadet. In my fourth form year my form master and English teacher, who had served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, became another inspiration for me to join the navy due to the stories he told. I suggested to him that we start a naval section of the school cadets, which we duly did, and I transferred from the army section into the navy section. I attended Combined Cadet Force (CCF) camps during the long summer holidays; one army camp was on Salisbury Plain and one at the naval gunnery school, HMS Excellent, which is based in Portsmouth Harbour on Whale Island. HMS Excellent is a ‘stone frigate’ i.e. a shore base. During the latter we visited HMS Vanguard, the last Royal Navy battleship to be built.
I remember once when I was fifteen, I went into the Regal Cinema pretending to be over sixteen to see a Brigitte Bardot film; Et Dieu Crea La Femme, (And God Created Woman). It was an adult-only film and I wasn’t asked my age, they just let me in; I looked just about old enough. The following week I went into the cinema to see a Western and asked for a child’s ticket at half-price and they didn’t question me.
St Bart’s boarding house accommodated about fifty students; five or six were in my year. At one stage during my grammar school days, many of my friends were in the boarding house: Jonathan Lee, Andrew Scotford, Clive Burgess and a chap by the name of Watkins. I wished that I had been a boarder. I would have probably done a little bit better at school. Consequently, much later in life, I was very happy for my two sons to go boarding school. Not that I wanted to see the back of them, but I thought it would be much better for their education.
After I sat my O-levels in 1959, I spent the whole summer working for Uncle Frank at the St Enodoc Hotel in Rock, less than a mile to the Padstow ferry. I spent my mornings peeling potatoes and doing the washing up in my aunt’s kitchen and went sailing most afternoons. Sometimes I caught slow worms in the stone boundary wall. The St Enodoc was a boutique hotel with about eight bedrooms in a beautiful part of the world. It overlooked north Cornwall’s rolling hills and offered sweeping views over the Camel Estuary. It’s where I was introduced to sailing through Ken Ducksbury, who was in his early twenties, and a friend of cousin Susan. I learnt to sail in Ken’s sailing dinghy on the Camel Estuary; with Rock on one side, Padstow on the other, and Wadebridge at the head of the estuary up the River Camel.
At St Bart’s, every Wednesday afternoon was devoted to sports and we went to school on Saturday morning for lessons to make up for it. I played rugby on a Wednesday afternoon during winter, and cricket in the summer. In the later years in the summer we learnt to play tennis. There weren’t any tennis courts then at St Bartholomew’s but the adjacent school, which Liz attended, did have courts and we played there long after the girls had all gone home.
My first job
In 1960, when I was nearly eighteen years old, I left St Bartholomew’s after achieving six O Levels and spending a year in the Lower Sixth – I wasn’t good at studying and I was probably having too much fun in the Scouts and the St Nicholas Youth Club. My academic career would have precluded me joining the navy through the standard entry, so instead, I joined the merchant bankers, Robert Benson and Lonsdale (RBL), as a registration clerk; a job arranged through Daddy G who was a senior manager there and knew me very well. I was still living at home in Newbury, which at that stage was a town with a population of about twenty-two thousand. I cycled from Priory Road, through the town centre, to RBL’s country office, which was a beautiful Georgian house set amongst manicured lawns just on the north side of town. RBL also had an office in London somewhere in the city and sporting matches were regularly held between the two offices. We were treated to Christmas parties and hampers, sports days, luncheon vouchers, and afternoon tea and morning coffee was brought round to desks by the caretakers. But despite all of the trimmings, I was bored out of my mind.
RBL sponsored me to study for the Chartered Institute of Secretaries examinations, which included aspects of law, economics, and accountancy. I attended night school two evenings and one day a week at Reading Technical College. I didn’t take the exams in the end, but the information came into very good use later in my life. I had been with the merchant bankers for nearly a year and a half when my grandmother saw an advertisement in a national newspaper. The navy must have realised that the base of its pyramid of naval officers was lacking and that they needed more intakes at the entry level, so they introduced the Supplementary List that my grandmother saw advertised. She tore the advertisement out of the newspaper and gave it to me. Mum wasn’t best pleased as she thought, quite wrongly, that I was happy at RBL.