PUBLISHED: 17:13 21 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:13 21 October 2013
When Essex writer Vivien Finch launched Psst...Memoirs she wanted to compile stories for people to create a bespoke book as a family heirloom. Here she shares extracts from some local stories she has been privileged to record
Born in 1927, Olive was her parents’ first child. Her mother was part of the established Old Leigh fishing family, the Osbornes, while father was a Belton whose rural family had worked the Wakering farmlands for generations.
During the war, six Leigh fishing families – including the Osbornes – had answered the call for all ‘little boats’ to help with the evacuation of troops stranded on Dunkirk beaches. With their mission miraculously accomplished, the boats were returning home and Olive remembers relatives clustered on Bell Wharf waiting for a first sight of their returning heroes.
It was around this time that Olive met and became engaged to Sergeant William Dempsey, a young Scot who had been billeted in Leigh. However, he decided he wanted to develop a career in the Army and they went their separate ways. Years later Olive heard that he had been elevated to the rank of Captain and she still wears that first engagement ring on her little finger today.
However, as sometimes happens in life, there was something – or someone – better just round the corner. Coming home one New Year’s Eve full of high spirits from a local dance with her sister, Lilian, Olive managed to lose one of her shoes, which was gallantly picked up and returned to her with a New Year kiss by a young Leighite, Ron Noakes. They started courting, became engaged, saved furiously and eventually married on November 5, 1949.
The following summer baby Gail was born and they were a happy little family. Gail was her father’s shadow, known in the Old Town as ‘Little Knack’ – Knacker being Ron’s nickname.
Ron was something of a local celebrity. At 6’ 2’’ he was a striking figure and was the last of the cocklemen of Leigh who still worked in the old methods which involved back breaking raking of the cockles.
Born in Whitechapel in 1932, Joe has a lot to look back on. He came from a typically big family and remembers that in those days everything happened on the street. As a boy, Joe had a short career as a film extra where he could earn up to £4 by being on set for a very long day at Pinewood Studios in Elstree. He remembers the huge aircraft hangars, each one being a different set, and fondly recalls meal times where you could find yourself sitting next to a cowboy or a Frankenstein!
At 14, however, his dad said he had to get a proper job and so he started out as a van boy with British Railways at Liverpool Street Station, working with a horse and van.
His farm experience during evacuation had sparked an interest in country life and Joe’s mother organised for him to become part of the YMCA scheme, British Boys for British Farms. He was sent up to Derbyshire and allocated to a 52-acre farm to serve a two-year apprenticeship in farming. Then he worked for four years on a cattle farm, getting used to the rhythm of the seasons and of course enjoying the help of a working dog in everything he did.
In due course, Joe signed up to the post-war regular Army and was posted to Scotland for his initial training. His Army career was mainly in the Far East Campaign of the 1950s. He was a limber gunner, but also became a guard dog handler while in Hong Kong where his unit were deployed to protect the Government buildings. There were many adventures on route to the Malayan War – including a stay in the famous Raffles Hotel, which had been requisitioned for troops.
As war broke, Kit was privately evacuated to Good Easter, just north of Chelmsford, where initially she went to the village school. It was while she was evacuated that she helped look after a baby boy and it was probably this experience that started to develop a nurturing instinct in the young Kit.
A little later she was able to go to the Bishop’s Stortford School for Girls. By 1942, Kit’s time at school had finished and she had returned to London. She was 16 and keen to go to work with her one abiding ambition to be a children’s nurse, but her mother really hoped she would complete her Matriculation exams. Kit managed to get a clerical post at the High Commission for South Africa in Trafalgar Square and a deal was struck with her mother that the exams could be forgotten if she stayed at South Africa House and forgot about working with children. As a result, Kit was to stay there for nearly 10 years.
During the years after the war and before she was married, Kit lived at home. As the ‘baby’ of the family, Kit was able to enjoy Bank Holiday days out with her father when they would go via the foot tunnels under the Thames to the Bank Holiday Fairs in Greenwich Park. She recalls the delight, if the ground was dry, of being allowed by her dad to roll all the way down to the bottom of the hill.
Jim and Helen Smithson
Jim and Helen’s paths first properly crossed in 1956 while they were both at the Technical College, studying their respective courses of engineering and music. They shared a love of Jazz and in the early days would often go together to concerts at The London Pub in Southend. Apparently, Jim, who kept a diary, recorded that he had ‘met Helen Jones’ and intended to marry her. This entry however was crossed out after their first row!
In due course, they became engaged when Helen was 21. Jim was working in an engineering office and Helen was teaching at a local boys’ high school. The pair shared a determination to buy their own house as soon as they could and spent the first few years of married life, renting an upstairs flat in Southend.
By modern standards, life was relatively hard. Their first winter in the flat was freezing with no central heating and lino on the floors combined with 1962-63 being on record as one of the coldest British winters in the 20th century.