I started school in Bishopbriggs when I was four and was quite happy there for a month or two. Then I caught scarlet fever. My secure world changed in an instant. I can remember the doctor visiting, the ambulance arriving, the ambulance men wrapping me in a rough grey blanket and taking me from the warmth and comfort of my home, parents and grandparents to the isolation of the fever hospital, Ruchill, where I remained for six weeks. Perhaps I was delirious but I can’t remember my mother telling me how long I would be there or that they would not be allowed to visit me. I have found photographs of Ruchill on the Internet. It was a fine building when I was there, with well-tended grounds. Now it is abandoned and in a state of advanced decay like so many other buildings in Scotland which are no longer in use.
I was placed in an old-fashioned ward with about thirty other children, all of whom must have been in the throes of scarlet fever also. The nurses wore starched white uniforms and little starched caps. The senior nurses had long white head-dresses, covering the nape of their necks. I was in tears, longing for my mother. A young nurse came to my high bed and tried to console me.
‘I want to go home. When can I go home? I want my mummy.’
‘You have to stay in hospital so we can make you better,’ the young nurse replied brightly.
I must have gone on like this for hours, for eventually she said, perhaps in despair, ‘If you’re a good wee girl and go to sleep maybe you’ll go home in the morning.’
I must have settled down then, but I soon found out that she had made a false promise. I was devastated to find out that I wasn’t going to go home tomorrow, nor the next day, nor even the following week.
As we were all infectious nobody except the hospital staff was allowed in the ward, but there was a sort of viewing area, where parents could look through a window to wave at their offspring. My parents didn’t come. They told me later that they thought a visit under such circumstances would upset me. In due course I received toys from them, but these had to be left behind in the toy room of the hospital so that I would not carry the germs back to the outside world.
Every morning each child received a cup of hot strong tea. This tea was handed round by the children who were feeling better and would soon be returning home. Generally the ward was a cheerful place once we got over our home sickness. I dare say some of the other children were very ill. Some may even have died, but I don’t remember anything like that happening. I do remember snatches of the songs we used to sing lustily, something like ‘I caught the scarlet fever, they put me in my bed, they wrapped me up in blankets and took me off to Ruchill…’
We seemed to remain in bed for a long time. No thoughts of deep vein thrombosis in those days! The first day I was allowed out of bed left me weak and light-headed. I could barely stand. Once I regained my strength I was allowed to go to the toy room and play with some of the other children. I made some protest at having to leave my newly-acquired toys there when it was time to go home.
Eventually the day for leaving hospital arrived. I remember going home in the ambulance with a few other children. It was a sunny day. The grounds of the hospital were large and well cultivated. I felt strange and sad at home with my parents, hardly able to tell my mother that I needed to go to the bathroom because I felt so shy. I missed all the cheerful friends I had made in the big ward, the sing-songs and the camaraderie. My mother was horrified to discover that there were nits in my thick brown hair, possibly introduced by the nurse who combed each child’s hair with a communal comb and brush.
I arrived home just in time to face the hard winter of 1947 and the rigorous food-rationing which continued after the war. I distinctly remember sausages composed of far more bread than meat, and tastier rabbit stews. My grandparents lived with us in Bishopbriggs, but my grandfather died suddenly at the beginning of 1948 on the bus on the way home from a football match. My grandmother decided to go to live with a close friend in Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula of Argyle after his death.
After my grandmother moved to Dunoon, my parents decided it was time to leave the UK for warmer climes where food was not in short supply and I would regain my strength after my illness. My father was offered a contract with ISCOR (Iron and Steel Corporation) in Vanderbijlpark, on the Highveld of Transvaal, South Africa. The town centred on ISCOR and was dubbed “the planned industrial city” in the booklet they sent to my parents to help them make up their minds to settle there.
We went to Southampton and boarded the Arundel Castle to South Africa. The ship had been used in the war and was still fitted out as a troop ship, still under the supervision of the British government. It was only handed back to the Union Castle after a refit in 1949. The women and children slept in cramped 4-berth cabins, while the men slept in the troop’s communal quarters. I may have been mistaken, but I’m sure I remember hammocks in the men’s quarters. My mother and I shared a cabin with another mother and daughter. The little girl was called Priscilla and was about the same age as me. Priscilla and her parents were headed for a country to the north of South Africa – possibly Southern or Northern Rhodesia. It was so hot in the tropics that many people slept up on deck in deck chairs rather than in the stuffy cabins at night.
We berthed in Cape Town and faced a long train journey of two days and a night to Johannesburg. How we reached Vanderbijlpark I do not remember. Perhaps ISCOR sent a bus to collect all the immigrants from the station. At the time they were employing skilled engineering staff from the UK when the country was still under the rule of the United Party, with General Smuts as the prime minister.
But shortly after we arrived an election was held and Smuts’ United Party government was unexpectedly defeated, to be replaced by the Nationalist Party with Doctor D.F. Malan as prime minister. The Nats were a predominantly Afrikaans party with no love for the British. Nearly fifty years after the Anglo-Boer war of 1898-1902 many Afrikaners still harboured bitter resentment against the British after their defeat. They particularly deplored Britain’s “scorched earth” policy where Boer (farmer) women and children had been taken to concentration camps and had their farms burnt to the ground. These people had lived in isolation on large farms and were susceptible to all the infectious illnesses of the time, herded together in these camps, and many died as they had no resistance to these infections. A significant number of Afrikaners had not wished to take part in World War 2 on the side of the Allies, but had stronger leanings towards Hitler.
The Nat Government of 1948 opposed British workers immigrating to South Africa fearing that they would vote for the United Party rather than the Nationalist Party and soon put the UP back in power once again. With this change of policy ISCOR began employing workers from Germany rather than from Britain. Most of the British and German employees at ISCOR had been soldiers in opposing armies only a few years earlier, so one might have thought that they would not get along together. I don’t think this was the case. On the whole they got on very well on an individual level. It was only when the German émigrés were in a large group of fellow-countrymen that their wounded national pride rose to the surface and they sang the Horst Wessel song, the anthem of the Nazi party from 1930 to 1945.
Most of our friends in Vanderbijl were fellow British immigrants. My father had gone to introduce himself to our neighbour in Hallwach Street. The gent was wearing a long beard to mark the hundred and tenth anniversary of the Great Trek, and was cock-a-hoop that the Nationalist Party had come to power. He told my father grimly, “Ek praat geen Engels nie,” (I don’t speak English) pouring cold water on my father’s friendly greeting.
Although I had been at school in Scotland, I was not allowed to go to a government school until I turned six in 1949. My parents enrolled me in Grade 1 at the Holy Rosary Convent in Vanderbijlpark. I have dim memories of this small school, but do remember the maroon uniform I wore and the very strict nun who marched round our classroom with a ruler in her hand while we recited our tables over and over again. The child who stumbled on an answer was rapped briskly over the knuckles with this ruler. We soon learnt our tables by this austere method and I still remember them today, thanks to this formidable nun. Apparently the Holy Rosary sisters lived in a double-storey house in Faraday Boulevard but moved on to Vereeniging in the fifties. They were replaced by Irish Dominican sisters who built the present convent in Vanderbijl.
Living in Vanderbijlpark was rather like living in a mining community with everyone housed according to their importance. The obsolete verse in ‘All things bright and beautiful’ certainly applied to Vanderbijlpark in the early fifties and probably beyond: ‘The rich man in his palace, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.’
The blue collar workers lived in the town proper in streets like Hallwach Street, Parsons Street, Curie and Faraday Boulevards. The big yins lived to the south of the town nearer to the Vaal River, ‘down the river’ or Nobhill, soon to be nicknamed Snobhill by those in the town. Most of the black workers lived in hostels or small houses in the black equivalent of Welwyn Garden City, Bophelong, Apparently Bophelong means ‘clean place’.
The following year my grandmother was taken ill, so my mother and I returned to Scotland, this time on board the Winchester Castle.
We lived in furnished rooms in Dunoon to be near to my granny, where I attended yet another school, the Dunoon Grammar School. My grandmother taught me to knit, Scottish style with one knitting needle under my arm, and I remember picking out God Save the King by ear on the piano after hearing that King George VI was very ill. When my father returned some months later, we moved to Blairbeth Road, Burnside, Rutherglen, south of Glasgow and I was sent to Burnside Junior School. It was here that I began my first piano lessons with a Miss Wright and where I had my first taste of ice cream – Walls Ice cream – quite delicious. I read Enid Blyton’s Sunny Stories when it came out every week, and played with an older girl called Joan Dickson, one of the neighbour’s children. Her family had a heavy log cabin in their back garden with a heavy thick wooden door. I have a very distinct memory of my so-called “friend” banging my fingers in this door as she slammed it shut. My nails were black and blue for weeks afterwards.
Perhaps my father had to complete his three year contract with ISCOR for we returned to Vanderbijlpark in 1951, this time on board the Llanstephan Castle.
This ship did not stop at Madeira as the others had done, but took an intermediate route, stopping at Las Palmas in Teneriffe, St Helena and Ascension Island. We settled at 21 Parsons Street and I was sent to yet another school, a parallel medium school called the Hendrik Vanderbijl Primary School not far from our house. I was put into Mrs McFadjean’s Standard One class and faced yet another group of unknown class mates.