“Settling Down”

Class receiving instruction in Morse code. © IWM (CH 2040)

Albert tells us that he is settling in to life on the RAF camp, happy to meet up with some familiar faces from Blackpool, and his former work colleague from Hamble (it’s a shame we do not get to know his name).

His training in Morse continues, along with learning about radio operations, which he finds quite easy. RAF Yatesbury apparently had a secret radar training section from 1942 onwards; of course Albert would not have been able to disclose any information, were he involved in this. What Albert does divulge about camp life is, in some respects, rather too much information in my opinion. I don’t mind reading about the cinema and his Saturday dinner out, but I did not enjoy reading about his ‘interesting’ trip to the dentist and his soap-saving endeavours!

Wednesday February 25

Dear All, many thanks for your letter which I think I received yesterday, but there is little to mark the passage of days here, so I am never sure which day is which. I am glad that you went to the pictures with Jean and enjoyed yourselves there, I expect Jean will manage to pay for her ticket out of her pocket money. The letter which came from Dickson Road was one which I had received long ago, but they found it behind the dressing table and sent it on in case it was one which I wished to keep. I must thank them for sending it on.

I have been getting on fairly well, & settling down in this past week. The work is almost entirely in classrooms with only a very little P.T. We mostly learn Morse and the way messages are sent out, and wireless, which at the moment is elementary magnetism and electricity and accumulators. I have thus done much of it before, much more thoroughly than they do it here, so that part of it comes very easily to me. The other is not very hard but the course is much more interesting than the plain Morse and drill which we did at Blackpool. We do not do any flying here.

One of the first things I did here was to break the little comb you gave me. It could not have been very strong as I just brushed my hair when it was wet, & the comb broke in two! I still have the mirror which is most necessary, as there is none in the hut or workhouse. I have the other (green) comb of course.

On last Friday I went to the cinema, & saw some old films, including a Mickey Mouse, and a “March of Time” issued whilst America was still out of the war. It was only 6d & quite good considering, though like everything else here, the cinema is inadequately heated & too adequately ventilated! Tomorrow I may go again to see a Deanna Durbin film – “Spring Parade”.

On Saturday evening I went with my Hamble friend and two other fellows to Calne, where we had dinner in the hotel there. A very good dinner too, of soup, chicken, potatoes and sprouts, chocolate pudding and coffee. It was a very pleasant evening, and a good change from camp life, in which meals are much more roughly served than in an hotel! I must go there again one Saturday.

I have also met two of the fellows who were billeted with me at Dickson Road, and they say that they have seen three of the others up here. I have seen several people whom I met at various times at Blackpool, so this is by no means a strange place to me. Strangest of all, I met last night a chap who for two years was in the same form as me at Taunton’s [Richard Taunton Grammar School]; a very pleasant coincidence. He too is on an Observer’s course, though about a month ahead of me, so we stand a chance of going to the same place together after this.

Monday and Tuesday evenings I spent writing letters and reading books. I have already got some way with my W.H. Hudson book. As the hut is so draughty & the NAAFI reading room shuts at 9.30, I usually go to bed at about 10.00 and until lights out (10.45) read in bed. Tonight I am up later writing this letter. Tuesday I sent a towel, shirt and collar to the laundry. I don’t know what the result will be but I have taken the risk until I have a definite reason for not doing so. Whilst on the sunject of clothing, perhaps you could send up my pullover next week. I do not remember if there is a sleeveless one still about, but if there is, perhaps you could send that one. If not the other will do.

Later in the day I had my teeth scraped, or sealed, as the dental term is. It consists of removing the tartar, or lime or whatever collects of them with a miniature scapel: quite an interesting process, and my teeth feel much cleaner as a result of it. In the evening I had a bath – a good hot one too, and that reminds me that I could not find my flannel. If it is at home perhaps you would send it up with the pullover. By collecting bits which other people have left, I have not used my soap yet. The water is extremely hard here and soap doesn’t lather at all easily. As that completes the page, & I have little else to relate, I will close now with love from Albert.

Closer to Home

Albert Arrives at RAF Yatesbury

Nothing remains of RAF Yatesbury. This flying school occupies land that I think was once part of the camp. The Lansdowne Monument is visible in the distance.

After his week of leave, Albert settles into the RAF camp that will be his home for the next twelve weeks. Albert travels by train from Southampton to Calne, then waits for a lorry to take him to camp. Yatesbury could not be more different to Blackpool, it must have felt like a different world to him. Wiltshire is the neighbouring county to Hampshire, and the topography is similar. The hills of Wiltshire roll further and the skies are bigger than those Albert knew as a boy, but there was a familiarity that I’m sure he found comforting. Albert sounds more ‘at home’ in this landscape, writing beautifully about his view from Oldbury Castle (which he incorrectly names as Ogbury Camp… that caused me some confusion!)

Thursday February 19, 7.10pm

Dear All, first of all you will note that I have an address. We are told that it will not change for the 12 weeks we are to be here, so it should be quite safe for you to write. I arrived safely after quite a good journey. The carriage was a very cold and draughty one, but I was able to secure a corner seat and after Salisbury I was able to put my feet up on the opposite seat, so I did not get quite frozen. I had to wait only 20 minutes for the connection at Trowbridge, and caught the early train at Calne without delay at Chippenham. We were transported by lorry to camp, which is situate right along A4. I ate my sandwiches whilst waiting for the lorry, and the mince pie on arrival. We got here after 2pm. We were then allotted with huts, sheets etc, and given tea at about 5. The food seems quite good, and, as far as I am concerned, sufficient in quantity (so far).

The camp is much the same as other camps, with the usual wooden huts, which are really quite comfortable, but it seems they are also rather cold. The weather came out fine just as we approached Yatesbury, and now there is a clear sky and an approaching frost. The wind is slight but what there is of it is quite bitter.

The hut is rather dark at the moment, as there is only one bulb – all the others mysteriously disappeared whilst it was empty.

The view from the place is not very inspiring. To the North, West & East are just huts, to the South, the main road, and a bank of grass. Just visible from here is also the hill on which is Ogbury Camp, and an obelisk of some description.

I believe it is quite easy to get out of the camp after duty hours, but of course, there is not much time in the evening. We work all Saturday. Wednesday afternoon is “off”, but devoted to compulsory sports. Sunday is off all day, with a church parade every four weeks. After six weeks is a long weekend (Friday evening – Sunday evening)and after 12 weeks, a 7 days leave and another move. I believe short weekends (Saturday evening – Sunday evening) are also obtainable, and day passes too, but I believe that travel facilities are very meagre; however, I must see about that later. I do not think we shall see a lot of that sort of thing yet awhile.

I have already met my Hamble workmate. He seems quite happy here, but is due to go in about a fortnight. There is a cinema here, a Y.M.C.A & canteen, but not much else to do in the evenings, so I am beginning to wonder what I shall find to write about in my twice-weekly letters.

Things are a bit upside down & I have yet to get my stuff out. We have lockers (which need to be kept locked I believe) and unless they are taken from us, they will give plenty of space. Since I have been writing, another bulb has been put in, which should enable me to read in bed. It is so chilly that I shall go to bed fairly early. I expect Jean will be home when you receive this, so love to all 3, from Albert.

P.S. I am frozen!

Albert’s second letter describes his first walk in the area, taking the track up to the Bronze Age hill fort of Oldbury Castle. I am quite certain we visited it when I was a child. I would have raced up and down those same ramparts with my sisters, whilst Mum and Dad strolled on the path below us. And we would have clambered further up the hill to scrutinise the strange monument, puzzling over the motivations of its creator and the purpose of its being.

View looking south from Oldbury Castle.

Sunday Feb 22

Dear All,

I commence my 2nd letter from here in quite a happy frame of mind, as I have just been for a most enjoyable walk, to Marlborough. I got my dinner as soon as possible & by 12.30 I had left the camp.

I went up the little road which climbs up Cherhill Down towards Ogbury camp & soon was on top of the hill, in the labyrinth of ditches & ramparts of which the camp is composed, and I climbed to about the highest of these fortifications and surveyed the wide view which the camp commands.

The day was inclined to haziness, & I could not see clearly into the distance, but I could see, especially to the south, several ranges of the downs, rolling away in troughs and crests, like the sea with a rather heavy swell; not a rough sea, they are too gently undulating for that, just a gentle rise and fall of the green disappearing, or rather fading into the blue distance.

There is an obelisk (Lansdowne column says my map) on the hill, but I did not bother to investigate it this time, I continued along my track until I came to a Roman Road, and turning left followed this on its course to Beckhampton. There I came back to the world again, as there were plenty of RAF on the road, which, however, I cut across, taking the Swindon Road which passes through my next objective, Avebury. At Beckhampton it was about 1.20. At Avebury I stopped a while and looked at the megalithic temple, the centre part of which is conveniently & pleasantly situated on a sort of village green. It is just at that point that the earthworks are most imposing, and they and the massive sarsen stones make quite a grand spectacle. The circle is by….

Oh no! Sadly the second page of this letter has been lost, so we shall never know what further thoughts Albert had of Avebury, just as we shall never know for certain why people chose to erect a great stone circle thousands of years ago. One thing I do know, is that the stones stand now much as they did in 1942, and doubtless they shall stand, dear reader, long after you and I are gone.

A view of Avebury in January 2009, when I last visited.

“I feel ever so happy about this..”

Oxford Street, London in 1941. Albert would visit the HMV store here one year later.

© IWM D 2105

This letter was written on 6th February 1942, as Albert prepares to go on leave, and he will not return to ‘horrid’ Blackpool. His happiness fairly leaps off the page; imagine how delighted all the Mabey family were to receive such news.

Dear All,

This letter is a supplement to the telegram which I sent off this dinner time. We had received the glad tidings this morning, though rumours to that effect had been floating around for some days. I leave here on Thursday probably by the 2.30 train, but my London friend, or rather her mother, has kindly offered to put me up for the night. (Joyce Herman, the one who used to work at Hamble – you remember I went to Bournemouth with her). As the train will not arrive in London before 8 or 9, I shall do this and take a midday train from Waterloo. I am not quite sure of the trains to Southampton so I cannot say which one I shall catch. I want to buy some records in London – hence the request for money – and I don’t want to do too much dashing in the dark with them. Of course I could not get them in the evening and they probably will not be stocked at home.

Well I feel ever so happy about this, I expect you do too. I want to see Peter and Jean if that is possible. I am afraid that I shall not be able to get over to the Island though. I should like my bicycle to be taken down and the tyres blown up. I think the 3 speed is still wonky so if there is time I should like them to be done by Alec Bennett’s.

We shifted billets again this afternoon. I am writing this during Morse instruction and have not yet had a meal there, but though there are plenty of rules and regulations, it is a clean, well furnished house, with a pleasant looking dining room (with tablecloths) and we do not feel so much in the nature of outcasts. Of course, I am still keeping 39 as my postal address.

I shall send home all of my personal gear and some RAF things, so as to lighten my burden as far as possible. I have sent off some socks and hankies today and when I get my laundry tomorrow, I shall send the stuff I am using now.

I do not know what has happened to my clothes but I shall change into them as soon as I arrive home. Actually the pass includes permission to wear civilian clothes.

The only snag is that after a week I shall have to go back, but to Yatesbury, Wiltshire which is better than Blackpool. My Hamble workmate should still be there, and of course most of the fellows I have met here. I shall leave for Yatesbury on Thursday morning, Feb 19, to be there by 3p.m. Now here is my diary, which doesn’t include much else.

On Wednesday I went to the music class and, incidentally, heard a “Messiah” record that I should very much like – must see about that. I shall go as usual, but for the last time, next Monday. I shall miss the Halle concert too. Yesterday evening I went round to 39 for the first time this week. I hear that there is a Church Parade on Sunday, so unless I can get out of it, I shall not be able to see Mr Gibson before I leave. If I am unable to get there, I must write him a note saying I have gone. I shall also have to write to the Island to let them know. That, I think, is about all. I have not received your midday letter, so cannot reply to it. Love to all – Albert

P.S. I sent a Greetings Telegram because (a) I didn’t want to worry you by sending the other (bad news) sort. (b) It is quite an occasion for Greetings anyway.

I was ever so happy to read this letter too!

Albert is Coming Home

My Grandmother would have received this telegram at lunchtime on 6th February 1942. Imagine her delight at opening the golden envelope. Her son is coming home on leave.

Albert wrote a letter immediately after he despatched this glad news and I’ll share it soon. But this evening I wanted to mark this happy anniversary with you. Albert’s going to be opening the ‘warning gate’ soon, to walk through his own front door and into the arms of his Mum.

Weather, Food & Flowers

It is still possible to buy penstemons from RHS Wisley; this is ‘Red Riding Hood’.

These three subjects of the letter dated 4th February 1942, are familiar to us still in 2021 and just as comforting; topics of family conversations that form the fabric of daily life. In my mind’s eye, as I read, I could see my grandparents poring over the RHS catalogue and making their choices for the growing season ahead. The years may have changed the world very much since Albert wrote but the flowers and their beauty are essentially unaltered. I have penstemons in my garden and I think Albert would like them.

Albert also updates us on his feelings about his billet, adopting a more sanguine attitude than previously. He knows it is only temporary; after over three months in Blackpool he will be moving on soon.

The bounty of his food provisions is a source of pleasure (did he store everything under his bed I wonder?) and, thank goodness, he keeps us all updated about his socks.

Dear All,

Just for a change I will start by discussing the weather. From your description of it, written on Sunday, your weather seems to have been worse than ours. We had a good dose of snow on Sunday night, followed by heavy rain and more snow on Monday night. The roads were very slushy on Monday, but the rain soon disposed of it. Today is rather cold & grey, but as yet, nothing worse. We have not yet had any hail or thunderstorms. Fellows who have come up from the South say that there was bad snow there at the weekend.

Thanks for the Wisley list. I see that you are persevering with the heaths and gypsophila. I hope they are more successful than the last attempts. I hope the Geum will be quicker in blooming than our red ones, I hope it will not be the same one. The penstemon I see is still not the old red one, I wish you could get hold of some of them. The other Wisley penstemon has rather small flowers, of a pale mauve if I remember rightly. I think the list looks a good one, if only we can get most of them; I think it best to send it off quickly. The “unknown” plants look a very interesting lot – the spindle tree I should like to see too. Is there a wild potentilla with small yellow flowers?

I have been doing quite well for food of late. I did not go for a walk on Sunday as, the weather was much too bad, but I had bought a meat pie and a “fruit malt” loaf and with the cakes and your potted meat I have been doing extremely well. We have had some more “jam” too! I noticed that the meat contained some tomato and thought you must have opened one of our bottles. The apples are still very nice. I have been having one after dinner, and will eat the last one today. I shall look forward to some apple or apple & blackberry tart when I get home. Also some of those gooseberries, and some vegetable savouries like macaroni cheese and butter beans with cheese sauce. I have not had anything like that since I have been here; of course you can’t expect the landladies to fiddle with such things, especially as many fellows might prefer something more solid. It is a strange thing but since Hull road I have not had any brown bread or wholemeal bread.

This Sunday I think there is a Church Parade for us, but if not I may try to get a lift to Bolton to see Mr Gibson. For the last two weeks I have tried to get a pass but have failed to do so. Now I must try to get out without one, I do not expect I shall be stopped in a private car, it is the trains they watch.

Vivien Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film version of ‘Gone With the Wind) in ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’ 1941.

Monday I went as usual to the Music Society concert. Last night I went to the theatre and saw Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma” with Vivien Leigh in the leading part. It was very good with plenty of laughs, mainly at the expense of the medical profession. It was well produced too, on a very lavish scale as regards costumes, props etc. I was also rather fortunate in being able to buy some chocolate there, which I ate in the interval. Tonight there is another Music Society meeting. If I am here on Feb 14 I shall go to the Halle concert on that date.

I have sent a birthday cards to Uncle Dick and Mrs Franklin, and written a letter to Joyce. I sent her Phil’s airgraph. The letter which he promised has not yet arrived. I am enclosing a piece from the “Listener”, I hope that it is not the trouble with our plum tree.

We have heard no more about changing billets, though of course we still live in hopes. I am afraid there is nothing to be gained by complaining. The food is wholesome and good enough, the beds are satisfactory now that we have sheets, and there is a fire of some sort in the evenings, though it is generally well damped down with what appears to be earth. The general comfort or lack of it doesn’t count, so we have no grounds for complaint.

Evening: this afternoon I volunteered for a job in the office, & I spent the time making forms for leaving billets. I think that it is pretty definite that I shall be leaving this place and moving back to the old area. It is unlikely that I shall get back to 39, but at least it will be nearer there. At the moment I am a half or three quarters of a mile distant.

I shall not send any laundry until the weekend, as then I shall have another pair of socks. My feet don’t sweat much in this weather! That seems to be all my news and comments so goodbye and love to all, from Albert.

How lucky Albert was to see Vivien Leigh perform on stage. I wonder who accompanied him, perhaps one of the ‘girls’ from 39 Dickson Road. He seemed as pleased with the interval chocolate as he did with the play!

Albert did not manage to get to Bolton to see Mr Gibson ( an ex teacher colleague of my grandfather’s), as you shall read in the next installment…

That’s January Done

There is a general feeling, in this country at least, that it’s good riddance to January 2021. Lockdown continues, the death toll is alarming and the weather has been awful. Whether or not Albert experienced a similar dislike of the first month of 1942,I shall let you decide! Here are his two last letters of the month. The first one is undated, but I believe I have placed it correctly. Food, socks, concerts, cold weather and cold water – these are some of the topics covered. They are all familiar subjects but elevated out of the mundane by the glimpses they offer of a long ago England in wartime.

Dear All,

Thanks very much for the parcels. I got the tin of biscuits etc. yesterday, and the parcel of socks came this morning here. I think it best that you should still send mail here, as I have heard a rumour that we are being moved again. The place hasn’t improved much but I come round here quite often so I am getting on pretty well. I bought some “Diploma” cheeses on Monday to have at teatime. I must try for some “Velveeta” another time. I can’t quite remember when I wrote my last letter to you, or what I said in it. Was it the one I wrote at the YMCA canteen.

The weather lately has been very changeable with rain, sun, a cold east wind and some snow all mixed. On Monday I was put On Guard – 7 hours in all and it was rather cold at night but I’ve got over it. The only thing was that the wind caught my hands a bit and made them rough and bleed a little (probably washing in cold water made things worse) but I managed to borrow some sort of cream from one of the girls here, and now they are much better. Coming back in the morning I was able to get quite a lot of chocolate in the canteen. I shall save some of it for Christine’s birthday. Could you tell me when these birthdays are.

I was sorry to hear that you have got the wrong size tyres, though I thought that the wheels were 26 x1 ½ “. My back tyre is a 26 x 1 3/8”, though the fact that it is a “tandem” tyre makes it look much larger. I intended to get a 1 ½ “ tyre but all the shops at which I enquired said that it couldn’t be done. I suppose that it would be liable to come off when not wanted.

I am afraid that this is will be a short letter as nothing much seems to have happened since my last, and there is very little to reply to in your letters. I must put in Raymond’s letter to give you something to read.

I don’t believe I told you about the symphony concert on Sunday. Of course the orchestra was a bit ragged to the Halle etc, and was lacking in some instruments but I enjoyed it very much. Norman Allin of course was very good – do you remember hearing him sing the “Song of the Flea” many years ago at the Police Concert? I enjoyed the “Fingal’s Cave” & the “Emperor” and the symphony No 1 – all pieces I like. I have long wanted to see a performance of the “Emperor Concerto”. That I fear is all I have to say so Goodbye and love to all, from Albert.

Bowl of Apples by John Thomas Richardson

Albert’s second letter is dated Saturday 31 January 1942 and continues with his familiar themes; he is very pleased to have some apples from the garden at home! Albert feels fortunate to have the homely atmosphere of ’39’ (his previous billet) to come back to, enjoying a cup of cocoa and homemade jam tarts. And whilst Albert barely touches on the matter, I sense that he knows his life will change imminently, remarking as he does on colleagues who are moving on . Soon it shall be Albert’s turn to pack up his kitbag and leave Blackpool. I think he will be rather glad about that, in spite of any nervousness about what lies ahead.

Dear All, your parcel of handkerchiefs, potted meat and APPLES arrived at 39 today and I collected it with my laundry at dinner time. The apples are lovely. I had one after dinner today, and it was so very nice that I then had another, the little one. Although it is true that they show some signs of shrivelling, they are still beautifully crisp and fresh, a real treat for me. Despite what we and Mrs Avery (as usual) said to the contrary, they have kept very well & nearly as long as in previous years.

I believe I said in a previous letter that I should like mail to be addressed to 39 Dickson, especially now as the people at 53 have an unpleasant habit of sometimes taking our mail into the kitchen and leaving it until we ask for it. Auntie Lizzie sent some Xmas cake and though it came in the afternoon it was not until the following morning that one of the fellows noticed it outside, and I was able to claim it. There were some letters for the others too.

I shall be quite well off for food next week, besides your potted meat, I have some jam tarts for today, a ginger cake for tomorrow (and perhaps Monday) ½ dozen packet cheeses and a jar of Poulton Noel’s meat paste. There is always plenty in the shops if one can afford it.

The weather now is very nice – sunny and not much wind though a trifle “fresh”. I should like to go for a walk tomorrow though these things are not now so easy to arrange, but perhaps I could get a small brown loaf and take it with me. The trouble is that I don’t know what weather to expect. Next week there is a church parade in the morning so I cannot go far then. Did I mention that I went to Evensong last Sunday? The church is blacked out and the service starts at 6.30. After that, with two of us from 39, I went across to a concert run by the church. It was quite entertaining and they handed round tea and biscuits for those who wanted it – all free!

Of the four of us who came from 39 to 53, one has already gone on his leave & another will go this week. There were two others at 39 but they have gone to good billets so we don’t see much of them. They have had no RAF at 39 since we left, so there is a good billet waiting empty. However, it does mean that we don’t overcrowd the place when we go there. They are very nice to us & last night I had my usual cup of cocoa & some very fine jam (strawberry) tarts which they had made. We occasionally get some jam at 53, I think it is intended to be blackcurrants, but that is just what it looks like, the flavour is very faint and not at all like our blackcurrants.

Last night I saw “The Devil & Miss Jones” which was quite good, though not so funny as I had expected. On the other hand there was more of a story than in most comedy films and though it was not particularly original it made the film interesting and more memorable. It was about a rich man (very rich) who, to find out trades unionists in a shop which he owned, took a job in the store, and was won over to their cause against an unfair and tyrannical management. Quite good on the whole. Thursday I saw the International Ballet again & once more enjoyed it. I tried to get a programme to send you but they were all sold when I got there. Next week I am not sure what will be on. There is “Hi Gang” at one cinema, but also a Bernard Shaw play at the theatre, so I may have to miss one – shall see how funds are. The trouble about films based on radio & variety shows is that they generally lack a story and don’t “hang together” – as in the case of Arthur Askey films, & one we saw a long time ago with Clapham & Dwyer and Teddy Brown and some other people in.

On Wednesday I shall probably send some more washing, or perhaps, on second thoughts, next Saturday – I shall see how many hankies I use. If anyone would like to do some knitting, I could do with another pair of gloves – large ones that I can wear over my present pair when on Guard & on other occasions when I am likely to feel the cold very much. I have put cream on my hands every night and now they are alright.

I do not remember whether I thanked you for the biscuits etc which were in the last parcel. I ate the Mars bar the same day as it arrived, & have been eating biscuits after meals. The crisps will be very useful if I go out tomorrow. I must get some birthday cards today for all these people, but as you say will not send presents except to Maggie & Christine who I cannot leave out.

I was interested to read the gardening notes. As you say, I don’t get much of a chance to see the gardens: it is only on the outskirts of the town that there are any worthy of the name, and even there nothing like we get at home in our outer districts such as The Avenue. What a pity that you lost the beans, they would have been some nice and early ones for us. I suppose the Forsythia is showing signs of blossom by now. That is about all so goodbye and love Albert.

P.S. I am writing this from a YMCA canteen. I shall try to remember to send Phil’s cable with the next parcel. I have received another letter from Joyce, after a long silence. When I reply I shall enclose the airgraph, and the cable address. I have not yet received the letter which he promised me.

PPS A couple of soldiers have just arrived at this table & are writing in pencil and making the table wobble. I hope they finish soon as I want to get through a lot of correspondence today: I have not written much this week due to shortage of stamps. The watch goes very well & keeps excellent time. It is necessary now as there is no clock in the room.

I love that Albert mentions that the soldiers are writing in pencil – I can just imagine his dismay: do they not own a pen between them?!

Snowdrops Photo credit: Olga Subach