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Chapter 3. Londonderry

Our time in Aberdeen came to an end when the retired superintendent pharmacist found that it was a little too much for him. In fact, I found it a little too much for me, too. He decided to go back into retirement, so I was chief pharmacist for a while. Then a superintendent pharmacist who had been evacuated from Hong Kong came to take charge and it was decided that there was no need to have two senior pharmacists there. So I was appointed to take charge of the Royal Naval store depot in Huddersfield and Mavis and I lived together there. The main objective of this store was to collect together surgical dressings from the manufacturers and issue them to other depots or ships as required and also compress medical supplies, bales of cotton wool, bales of lint with a hydraulic press so they didn't take up so much space. We had a big hydraulic press, which used to terrify me. I was supposed to know all about it but I never really trusted it. It produced these dressings at quite a rate. That was an interesting job and I learnt quite a lot.

We had another interesting incident. All the naval establishments were to be eventually equipped with trailer pumps which were things that you could hitch behind a car or lorry and take to the scene of a fire and they could pump. So right from the time that the order for this piece of apparatus was placed you got things coming in for it. The trailer pump wasn’t assembled for you, the bits were sent to you and you had to assemble it. The technical bits like the pumps and the petrol engine and so on, they came ready assembled but there were all sorts of things with weird names. We would get an invoice that would say one yam and we had no idea what that was, we had no idea what we would get. It would be some sort of spike thing which was to be used for breaking holes in ceilings to get through. Well, the medical depot was only part of a much larger textile establishment, privately owned. We just rented part of their accommodation and, of course, they had a fire crew. When this pump arrived they thought it was theirs and there was some very interesting controversy. To back up their claim to this pump they brought in the local fire brigade. The fire officer said “Oh, yes, trailer pump—it must be ours.” Added to the fact that I knew nothing about trailer pumps, nobody in the depot was trained to do anything with trailer pumps. But I maintained that this trailer pump belonged to the Admiralty and had to be kept in the medical depot. How exactly they resolved all this I have no idea as I was sent elsewhere. Perhaps I made such a mess of it, they thought the best thing they could do was to put me somewhere else.

In the meantime, Mavis was pregnant and she came with me after closing up the house in Aberdeen. We stayed in digs in Huddersfield. We had moved together from Aberdeen to Huddersfield. We put the furniture into store. We lived together in Aberdeen for a year plus a couple of months. Mavis joined me in the middle of December and we left for Huddersfield in January—just over a year. Mavis stayed in Huddersfield for some time because she got a job as a teacher in one of the schools, and of course they were delighted to have her. We lived in an hotel in Huddersfield, it was an hotel favoured by theatre people and it was very interesting. I don't know whether you have come across a book "1066 and all that", written as a take off of English history books. It had been turned into a musical and some of the cast to that musical were there at the same time as we were, so it was great fun. It was war time so all the younger members of the cast had some sort of disability, the older members of the cast were too old for military service. They were real seasoned actors with lovely stories of life on the stage and I think some of them had retired for some time and some of them had come back and they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

One item in the show was “We're on the road to Rome and … something about Rome … there's no place like Rome sweet Rome” on the lines of home sweet home. These chaps pranced about the stage, marching and counter marching, obviously thoroughly enjoying themselves. We stayed in the hotel about 8 weeks.

Before I had been in Huddersfield very long, it was decided to increase the medical facilities in Northern Ireland and I went as senior pharmacist to Londonderry in 1942. There I first started to learn about ships. Mavis had a job at a local school in Huddersfield and she stayed on in the digs for about 2 months after I left and until her pregnancy made it necessary for her to come home. Then she came home to the Glen and Harry was born there on 25 May while I was in Londonderry.

Londonderry, on Lough Foyle in Northern Ireland, was one of the main bases for escort ships in the area called the Western Approaches. I learnt about ships and the supplying of ships. I arrived in Londonderry with a piece of paper that said I was appointed senior pharmacist to the Western Approaches. I went by air, given special air passage from Liverpool to Belfast, and I went by train from Belfast to Londonderry. I thought the person most likely to know about the medical depot was the medical officer. I found the principal medical officer and he routed about and found an order that I was to be provided with 50,000 square feet to organize this store.

He had taken steps towards this and the Americans were building a base. By this time Japan was in the war so the Americans were in the war too. But before the Americans came into the war, they were building a base at Londonderry under the lend lease programme. This base included nothing like the square feet required for a medical store but at least we got something established there. The Americans, instead of civilians doing lend-lease work, put on the uniforms which they had in their suitcases ready and the base then became an American base but they were most welcoming and helpful. They provided two Nissan huts that were made of corrugated iron.

In the Western Approaches this was a vital theatre. I’ve forgotten what happened but suddenly the Americans wanted all the space that they could lay their hands on and they said they could no longer accommodate me and the few stores that had arrived by then so we had to find somewhere else. The commanding officer was known as the Commodore Commanding Western Approaches or something and we sat down together to decide what could be done about accommodation, together with the officer known as The Admiralty Surveyor of Lands. He was responsible for all the Admiralty property. We decided that the main store would have to be out in the country because, although Londonderry was fairly well out of range of the German aircraft, there had been one raid on the base. It was decided that the medical store should be dispersed and just a ready-use supply kept in the dockyard.

I arranged, I’m sure quite legally, for my father’s car to be requisitioned and the Admiralty agreed to this and it was sent to Northern Ireland. We had the main medical store, a ready-use store in the dockyard and another dispersal store elsewhere so we used my father’s car for quite a lot of the transport between the depots. He was quite happy for us to have it. He couldn’t get fuel so it would have stayed in the garage.

In Londonderry there was no accommodation to be found. We could find nothing, so this officer and I got in the car and combed the area to see what we could find to requisition and found this farm which had a large lot of accommodation attached to it because it at one stage had been a brick factory. We requisitioned this place. The farmer was only too pleased to have it off his hands, I think, because he couldn’t get the fuel to make the bricks. So the main medical store was at a disused brick factory, the Riverdale Brick Factory, and it was near a lake called Enock Loch, in fact if in Londonderry you got on a bus and you said “nine o'clock” that is were you would get off.

The farmer’s wife was very hospitable so they accommodated me in the house and we set about turning this place into a medical store depot. The electrical people decided that they couldn’t lay a cable to the depot so they installed a petrol generator with batteries. This thing was supposed to be run for a certain length of time each day and then if the batteries were running down it was supposed automatically to start up and recharge them, but it needed constant attention. One of the first things we did, unfortunately, was to nearly charge the batteries dry. If you charge the batteries dry, too much of the water in them gets electrolyzed to hydrogen and oxygen and the batteries dry up. Well, fortunately, the smell of the hot sulphuric acid and so on indicated that something was wrong. We gradually learned how to use it and it served the purpose very well. Although I was supposed to be a pharmacist or a chemist, I found myself looking after this miserable electrical generator. Eventually, we found a chap who would handle it.

The farmer, where we were staying adjacent to the medical depot, was most hospitable and agreed that Mavis and the baby (Harry) could come out because there would be accommodation there. I was there first but once the place was operating and there were 2 pharmacists to keep the place going, I took a fortnight’s leave—I think—and stayed at the Glen. Harry was christened at that time at St. Martins, the Church of England parish church where we had been married. I don’t remember anything at all about the christening, not a thing, even how we got to the church. Helen Addyman was there as his godmother and Jerry Myers as his godfather. Jerry had to wrestle a lot with his conscience to decide whether he could do the duties of a godfather but eventually he decided that he could. I think he was an agnostic and wondered if he would ensure that Harry was brought up observing the 39 articles of the Christian faith. After he had read the 39 articles, and the language in which they were written, he decided they didn’t mean very much and so it didn’t matter.

After the christening, we came back together to Londonderry to stay at the farm. I had been in Ireland 5 months before Mavis joined me. I remember that because Harry was 3 months old. Mavis did the cooking for us, sharing it with the farmer’s wife. We were sharing rooms in the farm house—we had 2 rooms.

Then the Sumner family was bombed out in Belfast so we had to leave but fortunately the local mansion, a pretty run down establishment I might say, said we could have the gate house to the estate. By the standards then available it was quite palatial. It was a substantially built stone building, one storey, with a little sort of lobby, which you went in by into the living room which was quite large, perhaps a bit larger than our living room here at “Cooleen” I should think, with a range. The building was lit by electrical light from a generator up at the house. It was another generator job. In the hours of darkness it didn't run. We kept paraffin lamps when it broke down which was infrequently. The heating was from a range in the living room and a fireplace in the bedroom. There was a passage with a sink in it and next door to that was a larder which was also Harry’s bedroom and next door to that another room in which a wash basin and toilet had been installed. No bath. There was a kitchen with a stone floor with a step in the middle.

I used to cut the wood to burn. Cut wood and coke were our main fuel, I don't think we managed to get a coal ration at all but there was plenty of wood and coke. Mavis learned to work the range, we had a large bath which you could sit in, so baths were quite an exciting experience. We didn’t have a bath in our gate house. We had a huge enameled iron sort of bath, which sat on the floor. It was like an oval tub that you could sit in and your legs dangled over the edge. The other person carried water to the one bathing. You had a thing called a dipper so your partner could give you a shower bath or you could give yourself a shower bath. Bathing was quite fun in front of the lovely fire, nobody was cold.  You could sit in the bath in front of the range, all lovely and warm. Your partner could pour the water from a saucepan over you and so you got a sort of a shower bath, so it wasn't so uncomfortable as one would have thought.

We were very happy there and managed to do some quite good work. We were given a chunk of a field to use as a garden although it was some distance from the house. Next door when they ploughed up another field they ploughed up this bit that had been allocated as my garden so that was rather nice. I don’t know why they didn’t want to bring the cultivation right to the hedge so there was a broad patch along the field next door to the house, which they let me have. I don’t know how official it was, I just saw the chap ploughing the field and we were talking and he said I could have that bit. It grew wonderful cabbages and radishes. I expect other things as well but that is what I remember. It was quite a big garden. The field was planted with potatoes so they planted part of my garden with potatoes for me, which was helpful. Lynch, that was the name of the farmer.

Londonderry is on Lough Foyle, but this depot place was inland by the side of another Lough, not on the actual sea. We were very happy in Northern Ireland. The weather was a bit wet. If it wasn’t actually raining, we used to say “fine day” and one’s shoes lasted about 6 months, they just fell apart from the wet and the rough roads. We didn’t have a lot of mildew as Mavis was a good fire person and kept the house warm. We were never cold. The rain wasn’t cold; it was quite warm at times.

We were allowed to cut wood from the estate. They told us what trees we could cut so we cut down a tree. I’d never cut down a tree but the lady of the house found us a double handed saw and one of the men working at the medical depot said he knew about cutting down trees and so on. So, one Saturday afternoon we set about it and to our astonishment this tree fell down where he thought it was going to and we set about cutting it up. I thought now I mustn’t flag in front of this man, I must appear to be tireless and so on and afterwards he said the same and we were exhausted. Mavis fed us with soup and thought that was a wonderful joke. Anyway that gave us plenty of fuel. This wood was sweet chestnut so it burned without much seasoning. We had coke but no coal to speak of. We cooked on that fireplace/stove with a wood fire, a range with oven on one side and fire next door to it. There was a tank on one side that produced hot water.

I had some leave so we went to a motel in the Free State. As long as you didn’t go in uniform you could go over the border. Londonderry is on Lough Foyle, not Lough Swilly. We took an Irish train to one shore of Lough Swilly then a ferry boat across to this hotel wherever it was whatever it was called, I can’t remember the name. There was a lovely sandy beach on Lough Swilly and we let Harry crawl about, which he enjoyed. He did make an attempt to stand up a couple of times, he thought the sand was nice and soft to fall on. He gave it a try, stood up a couple of times and fell over, of course. Then he was crawling about and got into the water and there were tiny little waves and one of them splashed his face and he didn’t like it so he decided to walk. The water was up to his chest and that gave him enough buoyancy to walk. He walked in water for the first time in Lough Swilly. Ask him if he remembers. Another day we went hiking in the mountains, we had a chair thing with 2 handles, Mavis held one handle and I held the other and Harry sat in the middle. We went hiking and climbed quite rough country by passing him up. It mustn’t have been very good parenthood but there were no risks and he thoroughly enjoyed it. He must have been about a year old then. On the way down he just went to sleep.

Our plan was to expand another depot at Belfast and that seemed to be going well until I was appointed to the naval medical depot at Alexandria in Egypt. Like a bolt from the blue came this order to go to Alexandria. We had been in Ireland certainly over 2 years.

When the senior pharmacist who was to take my place arrived, there seemed no point in my staying there, so Mavis and I and Harry left. Andrew was on the way; I think Mavis was 3 months pregnant then. The incoming senior pharmacist who was to relieve me couldn’t drive, so the car wouldn’t have been any use there. It was derequisitioned and they gave us the vouchers for petrol to get home.

 

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