My mother was forty-two when I was born in a maternity hospital in Balshagray Road, Knightswood, Glasgow in the middle of World War 2. Some years before I was born my mother gave birth to a son who survived for only a few hours, so.I was an only child. My first home was in Manor Road, Old Drumchapel, a pleasant mock tudor semi, with a fair-sized garden.
I have no memory of how the war affected me, although my parents shared stories with me as I grew up. Mrs Agnes Woodhead was our neighbour in Old Drumchapel. She had a little girl, Annette who was six years older than me. Mrs Woodhead’s husband and younger brother served in the home guard. On the night of the big German raid on Clydebank both were killed. My parents kept in touch with Agnes for many years, and I was delighted to meet her in 1990, still living in the same house in Manor Road forty-seven years after my birth. She married a Welsh cabinet maker some years after the war and became Agnes Harper. She had a second daughter, Moira who married Sandy. They in turn had two delightful daughters. When I visited them all in Glasgow they made me feel very welcome. After many moves in my life, it was good to think there was a family living in the same place who still remembered my birth and had fond memories of my parents.
Annette Woodhead (Wallace) aged 6.
I often wish we had stayed in my home country. I felt at ease there, as though I belonged. For the first five years of my life I had the same accent as everyone else. I was surrounded by loving parents, maternal grandparents, aunts and uncles, who referred to me admiringly as “wee Jean”. We had a player-piano at our home Sunnyhurst, 3 Southview Terrace, Bishopbriggs, and I soon learnt to put the different piano rolls into it and do a fair performance of playing it to the amazement of passers-by who heard the music and thought there was a child genius seated at the piano.
Next door to Sunnyhurst lived a delightful old widow, Mrs Renfrew. I remember visiting her on my own and playing all kinds of games with her. My mother recalled going in to her house to fetch me to find us both jumping from the couch on to cushions on the floor! There was a hard winter in 1947 with bad weather and rigorous food-rationing which continued after the war. I distinctly remember sausages composed of far more bread than meat, and tastier rabbit stews.
My maternal grandparents came to stay with us and we moved to another house called Quarryknowe in Kirkintilloch Road, also in Bishopbriggs. Perhaps it was a bigger house to accommodate my grandparents. Like Sunnyhurst it was a bungalow with a nice garden. My father had smooth white stones known as chuckies put on the path leading to the front door. My father worked as an insurance agent for the Cooperative Insurance company after the war ended. I remember he had a fine oak bureau in one of the rooms at Quarryknowe. He sat long into the night working on his insurance books.
I started school in Bishopbriggs when I was four and was quite happy there for a month or two. There was a scarlet fever epidemic and I had hardly been at school for very long before I caught it. My secure world changed in an instant. I 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 have to stay in hospital or that they would not be allowed to visit me for all the time I was there. 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 various stages of scarlet fever. 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 after that, 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 and 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 handed round by the children who were recovering from the illness and would soon be returning home. Generally the ward was a cheerful place once we got over the acute symptoms of the fever and our home sickness. I dare say some of the 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…” Quite recently, thanks to the wonder of the internet, Morag in Canada sent me the words to the song which has lingered in my memory for such a long time. It goes something like this,
When I had scarlet fever it nearly drove me mad,
They wrapped me up in blankets and put me in the cab,
When I got to Ruchill I was really glad, they only took my temperature,
and said I wasn’t bad.
I go home on Friday morning,
I go home at half past nine,
Say goodbye to the dear old doctor,
Tell him I can stay no longer,
Goodbye doctor, goodbye nurse,
Goodbye all you sulky patients,
Ho ho ho, home I go,
Friday morning home I go!!!
What a pity I don’t remember the tune! 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 feeling 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.
My grandma was still a lively handsome woman who enjoyed going out to the pictures and the variety theatres. She had lots of friends and when I look at the photographs of her as a young woman I see that I resembled her more than I ever resembled my small blue-eyed mother, who took after her father, my grandpa, Alec Kyle. He was a gentle kind man with faded blue eyes and a balding head. When he was in his late sixties he died of a heart attack on the tram on the way home after watching a football match. Somehow all this drama was kept from me, although my grandparents were living with us at the time. I can’t remember being told that he had died and I certainly was not allowed to attend his funeral, although I had loved him very much.
After his death my grandmother decided to go to live with a close friend in Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula of Argyle .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 could 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 persuade them to settle there.
We went to Southampton and boarded the Arundel Castle to South Africa. The ship had been used for military purposes during the war and was still fitted out as a troop ship, and still under the supervision of the British government rather than the Union Castle Line. It was only handed back to the Union Castle after a refit in 1949. 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 at night many passengers slept up on deck in deck chairs rather than in the stuffy cabins below deck.
We berthed in Cape Town and faced the 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. The Afrikaners 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. They were 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 far stronger leanings towards Hitler.
The Nat Government of 1948 opposed the idea of British workers immigrating to South Africa, fearing that they would vote for the predominantly United Party of Jan Smuts rather than the Nationalist Party, and would 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 imagined 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 and the beer was flowing freely that their wounded national pride rose to the surface and they often 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 Afrikaner neighbour in Hallwach Street. The gent had grown a long beard to mark the hundred and tenth anniversary of the Great Trek, and was cock-a-hoop that the Nationalist Party under Dr Malan had come to power at last. 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 I 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 her ruler. We soon learnt our tables by this austere method and I still remember them to this day, thanks to that 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 in the company. 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 near 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. 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 to Scotland 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.
Updated 3 December 2015.