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<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

Olga’s Diary (Continued) 

Life goes on:   A strange thing happened this morning, a gentleman called out.

 “Nurse”

It took a few moments before I realized he meant me.  It was a bit of a shock, but a very pleasant one. 

Sister Tutor says even in wartime there has to be a routine in hospital.  The day always starts the same with Sister re-arranging the flowers and potted plants which had been taken out of the ward the night before and put in the sluice room because Matron says they give off poisonous carbon monoxide during the night.  It’s a hospital superstition, too, that no lilies are allowed in the wards because they’re considered to be unlucky and you never have red and white flowers in the same vase either because that means death.

 I have to clean each marble-topped locker next to the patient’s bed and wipe out the fruit bowl that stands on it.   Then the beds are pulled away from the wall for a maid to sweep the floor and which Matron likes highly polished, which is fine if you are wearing rubber sole shoes, but for the patients wearing slippers it can be a difficult.

 I was helping an old man to the toilet yesterday morning and he was fairly steady on his feet to start with, but suddenly he slipped, lost his balance and ended up on his bottom and me with him.   The other patients had a good laugh at our expense and I thought it was funny too, but Sister Tutor was furious with me.

Everything and everyone has to be neat and tidy ready for Matron’s mid morning inspection.  The staff, including the doctors, have to line up in a row and woe betide us if the ward isn’t up to Matron’s standard.  She expects us to know all the patient’s names and their medical condition.

When war was first declared I was frightened, especially because normal every day things changed.  The cinema and theatres closed, and that upset me, because I’m crazy about films and I used to go every week with Joanne, but now we have to find other forms of entertainment.

 Moores discovered a pub near the hospital and she and some of the other student nurses go there quite a bit, but I don’t drink, so I haven’t been there yet.    Moores and I are working on the same ward at the moment, which is fun, and when we’re doing beds together we get the chance to talk and I hear all about what happened  in the pub the night before.

This morning we were changing the bottom sheet of a bed, with the patient still in it, and Moores was telling me about this Canadian soldier who said he can get her some French champagne and silk stockings.  Each time we moved the patient he broke a little wind and at first we ignored him and carried on chatting, but then he did it again and we started to laugh and couldn’t stop and what’s more neither could the patient, which made him break wind louder and more often and then all the other patients joined in and they didn’t even know what they were laughing about. 

But it was a wonderful moment especially as there was no one around to tell us off.   You need little moments like that because it helps to take away the tension and worry for a little bit, and it’s amazing how much better you feel afterwards.  

Moores is such fun, you know, she says to me

 “Olga, eat life or life eats you”. 

So I’ve decided to have some fun and go out with her tonight, but I won’t tell Joanne because she thinks Moores is a bad influence on me.  Joanne says the first year examination is not easy and I should be studying hard for it. 

 

 The Rose Public House:   I’ve never been inside a public house before but, apart from being very smoky, it was really quite nice.  Moores always finds someone to talk to but I was happy to sit quietly drinking my ginger beer.  For the first time since the war started I felt safe there, perhaps, because it’s used by soldiers and watching people enjoy themselves, laughing and having a good time, makes you forget about how worried you are about the war and exams.

I never go out on my own at night because it’s so dark with all the street lights turned off, but at least the lamp posts are painted white so we don’t bump into them and the edges of the pavements have been painted white too.   Moores, Ethel and I each carry a little torch which we have to shine downwards onto the pavement.  But we had a nasty shock on the way home from a night out.

We were passing a doorway when Ethel let out a  scream.  We looked up and there was a woman’s face lit up in the doorway.  She had a little torch pinned to her coat so that the light shone on her face and she was wearing a fox fur around her neck.   The  fox’s eyes were glinting in the light, its tiny teeth bared in a snarl and it had little paws and a bushy tail that hung loose.   I’m not surprised Ethel screamed, it was a frightening sight.  Moores said the woman was a prostitute waiting for clients.   Moores knows about everything, you know.

 

We’re being blitzed:   It has been difficult for me to write because we have been so busy in the hospital and to be truthful I haven’t felt like it. 

Everything has changed.  

Germany’s planes have been dropping bombs on London day and night and the devastation is awful.  Hundreds of people have been killed, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands are without homes.  The bombing raids can last for hours without any let up.  But, most of all I dread it when the Germans bomb at night, which they do frequently. Every part of London is being bombed including here in Camberwell. 

A landmine exploded nearby and several homes were blown up, many of  the casualties were brought here.  There seem to be fires burning somewhere in London day and night.  Other cities are being bombed as well but the Germans certainly seem determined to destroy London. 

I start to shake when I hear the air raid siren sound and even when the all clear is given I’m too frightened to go out.  I’ve been keeping away from Moores and Ethel, using study as an excuse to stay in, because I don’t want them to think I’m a coward, but I’m ashamed of myself too, because the people who are homeless and have lost everything still have their fighting spirit and say they won’t be beaten by Germany.   

Joanne came to see me at St Giles during a break between bombings and made me go for a long walk with her.  I felt much better afterwards, especially, when she told me that she was afraid too.

“Olga, we must do our job and put our trust in God” she said. 

We talked about our families and wondered if they knew how bad things were here in London.  The letters Joanne receives are heavily censored too and so we think the ones we write home are as well.  It’s heartbreaking; I’m desperate to receive news from Mammie and the family and when I do get a letter, line after line has been crossed out with black ink so I’m left with hardly anything to read.  And you feel as if someone is spying on you.  The censors know more about what’s going on with my family than I do.

Joanne says “We should be grateful, at least they open the letters carefully and don’t tear them.” 

  Any day now Joanne’s waiting to hear if she’s passed her final exam so that when the war’s over she can fulfil her dream and go back to Jamaica a qualified nurse.

“And, if you study hard Olga, so will you”

“Who knows, maybe we can work together in Jamaica”. she said

 I’ll tell you something Dear Diary, I struck gold when she sat down beside me that day in Regents Park. 

 

<—Olga, Nursing & a Declaration of War

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Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

War:    Moores and I were in Oxford Street, when the air raid siren went, shopping for a new dress for her date that night with an army officer.  We’d just reached John Lewis when it sounded and we knew it meant we were going to be bombed by the Germans. Suddenly people started running like mad in all directions including us.  Terrified we hopped onto a bus without even knowing where it was going just to get off the street. 

By the time we got back to the hospital we had learnt it been a false alarm, but our relief didn’t last long because we were told that Britain was finally at war with Germany.  There’d been lots of talk about war before but I wouldn’t listen.

 I don’t want to go home, I want to stay and become a nurse, but I made a promise to Sydney and Mammie so, sooner or later Olga, you’re going to have to leave.  Moores and Ethel say I should go; at least I’ll be safe in Jamaica.  I told them I was frightened of being bombed, but I don’t want to return home not having achieved anything after spending six months in England, especially as it has cost my brother a lot of money.  

A few days later, great big silver barrage balloons hanging from cables were seen in the sky all over London.  They were to stop the German bombs from hitting their targets in the city.  I thought they looked like big silver elephants.  One of our first jobs when we started our training was to put black material over the windows so that at night time no light from the hospital wards could escape and the Germans wouldn’t be able to see London from the air and drop their bombs.  

We have all been given a gas mask and Sister Tutor demonstrated how to put it on.  You have to thrust your chin forward pulling the black rubber over the face and up over the forehead leaving your eyes peering out from the two holes.  There’re horrible smelly things and I tore mine off, I couldn’t breathe with it on. 

Then we had to fill out a form so the Government could issue everyone with an identity card.

And now ration books have appeared, although nurses don’t have them because we eat at the hospital. Ethel’s family are poor and she says ration books are a wonderful thing because food is distributed evenly and, poor families like hers, get the same as rich ones like Moores. 

But some days I’d be so hungry my mind would start thinking about the food markets back home where you can buy lovely meals very cheaply.  I find I’m dreaming of gungo peas soup with large pieces of yam and salt beef, vegetables and lovely dumplings or salt-fish and ackee or chicken with rice and peas and yam with half a boiled plantain.   And in the end I just feel hungrier than ever.  Now I’ve developed a taste for sugar sandwiches.

 

Dear Diary

Unhappy news:   War doesn’t make any difference to Sister Tutor; she’s still very strict and only has to raise an eyebrow to show her disapproval about something I’ve done or haven’t done. 

This morning I broke a thermometer and have to pay 6d out of my wages to replace it.   I’m not thinking about the war, all I can think about is passing the exam at the end of the three months.

 Moores, Ethel and I test each other whenever we have time and if I get really stuck on something, Joanne helps me.    Matron wants to see me.  I can’t think what I’ve done wrong.

 

Later:  I couldn’t stop shaking waiting outside Matron’s office.  When I entered she told me to sit down and I knew it was bad news.  She never tells nurses to sit down, we always have to stand to attention as if we’re on parade like soldiers in the army.

 “I have some bad news for you Olga” she said in such a kindly voice it barely sounded like her.

 “I’m afraid you cannot go home to Jamaica.  Because of the war the Government has banned all non essential travel out of Britain which means you will have to stay until the war ends”

I suddenly  burst into tears.

 “It’s not so bad really, is it Olga, think how proud your family be will when you do return home as a fully qualified nurse” she said. 

Then she sat down beside me and put her arm round my shoulders and I cried even more.  I was crying so much partly because Matron was being so kind and calling me Olga, instead of Browney, but also because, although I wanted to stay and finish my training, now I had no choice in the matter, I had to stay and suddenly I had such an urge to see Mammie and my sisters. 

“I’m sure the war won’t last long and in the meantime we need you here”. 

“Yes Matron, thank you Matron,” I sobbed.

 I was still crying as I reached the door to leave and she called out to me.

“Wait, I nearly forgot”.  She was holding a sheet of paper in her hand and there was a little smile on her face.

 “Congratulations, Browney, you passed your first exam”.

 

Mammie’s (Becky) Diary

 At last, I have been able to talk to Olga on the telephone, not that I could hear very much because the line was poor and crackly and we only had three minutes.   The tots and Birdie all managed to say hello and tell her they loved her.  At least now I know she’s well and safe, but her place is here at home. 

I should have insisted that Sydney brought her back. Lucy was right all along when she said Hitler couldn’t be trusted and had invaded Poland.   It’s all very well for people to say that the war between Britain and Germany won’t last long, but how do they know, it could go on longer than the first war.  No one knows for sure except God. 

There are reports that people are starving in England.  Could this be true.  Olga starving?  The Daily Gleaner says that the predicted bombing hasn’t happened and many who evacuated London when war was declared are returning to their homes. So maybe things will not be as bad as everyone first thought.     

Olga says she hasn’t seen Martha for weeks.  Why, I wonder?  What has been happening between those two?  Now I have something else to worry about.  There was no mention of anything wrong between them in Olga’s last letter.  There wasn’t much of anything really because there was so little to read since most of it had been censored with heavy black ink. 

But she has passed an exam we are all very proud of her.  I went down to the meat market for the first time for years, just to tell Henry.  Olga’s status seems to have gone up a lot already as far as the younger girls are concerned and she has certainly impressed the rest of the family with her resolve to come home a fully qualified nurse.  As Birdie says “beats working in a bicycle shop”.

It sounds as if Olga has become very fond of her friend Joanne. 

Do you know what I think?  I think the hand of God was at work there.  He sent Joanne to look after Olga.  But even so, we will still continue to pray for Olga’s safety.

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 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939           Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —>

 

(Olga’s Diary Continued) 

Dear Diary

 St Giles Hospital:  I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.  Not too long ago I was spending my mornings sitting on a park bench in Regent’s Park feeling sorry for myself and now I’m standing in a line with other student nurses listening to Sister.   

“These are the rules for student nurses and I expect you to commit them to memory” barked Sister as she handed each new student nurse a rule sheet. 

A stout, straight talking woman from Yorkshire with grey hair and voice that only seemed to have one volume, loud. 

“It is my pleasure to guide you through your nursing training until you become fully qualified nurses” Sister Tutor was referring to us by our surnames and when someone asked why, she said that’s how it is in hospital.

“We don’t use Christian names, only surnames”.

Honestly, I don’t like the idea of someone calling me Browney.

RULES FOR NURSES

  • walk at all times, only run in case of fire
  • stand when a senior member of staff enters
  • always open the door for the doctor
  • never overtake a senior member of staff on the stairs
  • no make up on duty 
  • hair not to reach your collar
  • nails must be short 
  • black stockings only when on duty and no ladders in them
  • low heel shoes
  • on duty by 7.00 am
  • in bed by 10.30 pm

 I felt uncomfortable and awkward in my student nurse’s uniform, my black frizzy hair poking out at different angles under a heavily starched white cap which needs four hair grips to hold it in place.  My grey dress had a little white collar which fastened tightly round my neck and was nearly choking me and over the dress I wore a starched white apron with a wide belt around my waist.  I didn’t like the feel of the thick black stockings on my skin and the thick black rubber soled shoes felt like lead weights on the end of my feet.

There are nine other student nurses in my group but Alison Moores, Ethel Richards and me are friends already.   I don’t really know why because we are so different.  

For a start Moores is aristocracy from top to bottom; she talks beautifully and I think she sounds very posh, she’s tall, with dark hair, which used to be long before Matron told her she would have to cut it before she started her training.  Moores has a perfect peaches and cream complexion, is very confident, elegant, and looks more like a film star than a student nurse.  Her parents are rich and they make some kind of cold cream for women and sold in jars by the thousands.   They sent her into nursing because they said she comes from a privileged background and should give something back to society.  Ethel asked her why she wasn’t doing her training at one of the big teaching hospitals and Moores said she had thought about it but preferred to be amongst real people in a smaller hospital. 

Ethel is from the East End of London, only 5 ft tall with, lovely twinkling green eyes that always seem to be smiling, a round face framed with red curly hair and a cockney accent which I don’t understand sometimes and when she smiles she shows off a set of perfectly even white teeth. Sometimes she reminds me of Vivie because she’s not frightened of any form of authority, neither Sister Tutor nor Matron.  Ethel says it’s because she grew up with five brothers and because she’s the only girl in the family she always had to fight for what she wanted.

And then there’s me.  One day I asked Moores how she had described me to her parents and she smiled as she said:

“Slim, not very tall, brown skin, not particularly pretty, short frizzy black hair which she wears with either a blue or yellow ribbon, slightly bushy eyebrows above huge brown eyes that seem to be in a permanent state of astonishment at everything she sees or hears, a beautiful smile and a soft voice that fits like a glove with her gentle manner”.  

Isn’t that a lovely description?   

It’s funny Moores comes from a very rich family and she’s not stuck up or anything.   I’m the only coloured person in the whole of the hospital, as far as I know, and people do stare at me sometimes.  Moores tells me not to worry about it. 

“They stare at you because you’re a novelty Olga, that’s all”. 

Ethel says she doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her and neither should I, but sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable.   

 

  Letter to Mammie, Kingston, Jamaica
from Olga, Student Nurses Home, St Giles Hospital, Camberwell, London

Dearest Mammie

The weeks fly by, such a lot to do and learn. We are on duty from 7.00 in the morning until 7 in the evening with only a coffee and lunch break.   Please don’t worry about me because I am happy, tired but happy, and I have made friends with two other student nurses.

So far I have learnt about hygiene, how to take a temperature, how to stack linen, how to put a bandage on a patient and how a treatment tray should be laid up.  Once a week we spend a morning on the ward and one of my jobs is to feed the patients. 

Oh Mammie, I love it so much, the patients are so grateful when you do something for them. Sister Tutor praised my bed making the other day, you see Mammie it’s important to make beds properly with the sheet corners turned in and the open ends of the pillow slips mustn’t face the door into the ward – the sewn end must face the door. 

The top sheets are folded over the counterpanes and have to be the same width and the fold has to be sixteen inches.  I find the best way to check is to measure from my fingertips to my elbow.

Matron is fierce and Sister Tutor stern and doesn’t smile at all.  I find it difficult to remember things so now I carry a note book around with me and write down as much as I can, especially the things I don’t understand.  When I meet Joanne she explains the things to me that I’ve been too frightened to ask Sister Tutor to repeat in case she thinks I’m stupid. 

Lectures are nearly always when we’re off duty and in one of our first lessons I met Henry who scared the life out of me.  Henry’s a skeleton that hangs from the ceiling in the lecture room and we have to memorise the names of each bone in his body.   Sometimes when I look at all those bones I think of Aggie Burns.  If she could see Henry, I bet she’d love to get her hands on his bones for her Obeah man.

I got into trouble the other day as I was preparing the patients’ tea and I was holding the loaf of bread against my chest while I was trying to slice it with a knife and Sister Tutor was furious with me.

“Don’t you have any common sense and realize how dangerous it is to try and cut bread like that”. 

And then she showed me how to cut it on the table.  I told her I’d never cut bread before because either Aggie Burns or Cassie did it.   Sister Tutor said nothing but gave me a very funny look.   I’m not lonely any more Mammie because I have three good friends now and that’s all I need.  

Your loving daughter,  Olga

 <—Sydney Comes to London – 1939       Olga, Nursing &  Declaration of War —> 

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<—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                     Olga – A Student Nurse –>

When I asked my mother (Olga) how safe she felt in London during the first part of 1939, she said she wasn’t worried because people felt that war with Adolph Hitler had been averted.   

Maybe the previous war was still fresh in people’s minds (after all in 1939  it was less than 20 years since the end of WWI) and that was why they simply couldn’t believe that the world could go through all that devastation again.   Personally, had I been in my mother’s shoes, I’d have headed straight back to the safety of  Kingston, Jamaica.

The reality for my mother was that war was a heartbeat away and she was in a strange country living with a malevolent, alcoholic aunt and had no idea that world events, personal tragedy and malicious intent would all combine to prevent her from returning home to Jamaica.  

the-browneys-tree

(Olga’s Diary Continued)

Dear Diary

Fate steps in:  Three days later two things happened one after the other. 

First, Sydney got a big discount, bigger than he anticipated, on some bicycles he ordered for the shops and the second thing that happened was that he took ill and was rushed, by ambulance, to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington with appendicitis.  Hours later his appendix was out and he was being looked after by Nurse Megan Lloyd who comes from Wales. 

My “good old holiday” with Sydney is now being spent sitting by his bed every day in St Mary’s watching the nurses do their work while he sleeps.   I noticed that the patients have a great respect for the nurses, which is nice, and, as I like the idea of helping people get well, a plan was beginning to develop that would mean I could stay in London and make Mammie and the family really proud of me.   

When I thought the time was right I mentioned to Sydney I would like to become a nurse.  His immediate reaction was definitely not, you’re going home with me and no arguing.  So I enlisted help.  Joanne and Nurse Lloyd.  Sydney had taken a shine to Joanne and she pointed out to him the benefits of being a nurse and how it would help our community back home when I returned to Jamaica a fully qualified nurse whose training had been in a big London hospital.  It took both of them to persuade Sydney to at least have an interview with Matron at St Mary’s.  When AM heard her reaction was disbelief. 

“A great hospital like St Mary’s only takes white, middle class young ladies to train as nurses” she told us.

“They would never accept a coloured person so don’t waste your time seeing Matron, just to be told no.” 

She was right, but, for the wrong reason.  Within five minutes of sitting in Matron’s office she announced I couldn’t study nursing there because I didn’t have a school leaving certificate but suggested we try the smaller St Giles Cottage Hospital in Camberwell. 

“You’ll have more success there because not too long ago and before it became a hospital, it used to be a work house and they’re not so particular about their nurses”, AM told me, when Sydney was out of earshot.

We had an interview with Matron at St Giles, and shortly afterwards I was offered a place on a residential three month basic nursing programme, but first I had to have a medical. 

  

Dear Diary 

Good news:    I’ve been offered a nursing place and the best part of my new job is that I’ll be living in the Nurses’ Home at the hospital so don’t have to live with AM any more.  Oh happy days! 

I could see Sydney was proud of me and I knew Mammie would be too, in spite of being disappointed that I wouldn’t be going home now.  I had to promise Sydney that if war broke out I would come home immediately.  He gave me enough money for my fare and to keep me going until I got my first month’s wages which was going to be £2 a month.   He also bought all the books I needed for studying, plus three pairs of thick black stockings and my black shoes.  The rest of my nurses’ uniform would be provided by the hospital.

The night before Sydney left to go home he took Joanne and me to the theatre to see the Ivor Novello musical, The Dancing Years, and afterwards we had supper in a posh late night restaurant. 

 If I hadn’t met Joanne I’m not sure I would have chosen to become a nurse, but knowing that she would be close by,  helped me to decide and that was a big comfort, not only to me, but to Sydney too, I think.   He could reassure Mammie that I had at least one good friend.  Sitting at the dining table watching them dance together, I thought wouldn’t it be just perfect if one day Joanne became my sister-in-law. 

Something to pray for Olga.

 <—-Aunt Martha,  Paddington                    Olga – A Student Nurse –>

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<—A Change of Plan for Olga                     Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

My Great Aunt Martha was the oldest and not at all like her sisters, Becky and Lucy, either in temperament or looks. She was a short, stout woman with a badly pockmarked face – apparently the result of chicken pox. Every now and again nature produces an offspring that bears little resemblance to either its parents or siblings, well by all accounts, that was Martha Ross.  My mother, Olga,  told that in the early part of the 1930s Aunt Martha worked as a seamstress at the Drury Lane Theatre in London.  Mum told me many times, she didn’t like her Aunt Martha.

 

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

 

Dear Diary

The wicked witch:  Aunt Martha (AM) being horrible. Very bad tempered.  There are two versions of her, the English version in Paddington (the true one) and the Jamaican version, when she’s with Mammie in Kingston  (the false one). She still says I’m eating too much and I have to eat less even though I’ve given her nearly all of my money and I don’t think I have enough to last until Sydney comes.   

She says I have to pay my way so I must clean the flat and do her washing and ironing.  Now she’s treating me like a servant. 

“You might as well wash and iron Mr Kitchen’s clothes the same time you do mine” she said.

“I’ll do your chores, because I have the time, but I’m not doing his and if you insist then I’ll write to Mammie and Sydney and tell them what you’re asking me to do” I threatened.   

 “There’s no need for that, Olga, just do mine”.  

Good job done, Olga, a small  victory and very nice it feels too. Mr Kitchen is AM’s latest “gentleman friend” and the pair of them go out drinking nearly every night.  They always come home drunk and Mr Kitchen usually stays overnight (in AM’s bedroom!) and I hear him creeping out of the front door early in the morning.  Mammie and Sydney would be shocked if they knew. 

AM says they’re engaged to be married, but I don’t think Mr Kitchen knows that. 

Wonder what the neighbours think? 

AM is cruel when she’s been drinking.  Told me that I would never get a husband.

 “No man would find someone as plain and boring as you, Olga, attractive. Where were you when God was handing out the looks”. She’s not a very nice person, you know. I know I’m not as pretty as my sisters, but Mammie says I have other qualities which are more important than looks. 

Should have said to her “where were you when God was handing out the looks”.  But that would have been unkind too and, anyway, after hearing her give Mr Kitchen a good few slaps with the frying pan the other evening, I stay in my room now when she’s been drinking. 

AM had chicken pox when she was a child and to stop her picking at the sores on her face her parents bandaged her hands.  But AM still managed to pick them and as a result her face is badly pockmarked.  She was teased a lot at school by the other children because of it and Aunt Lucy says that contributed to AM’s “effortless transition from bad tempered child to a cantankerous, mean spirited woman”.  Had to look up in the dictionary what cantankerous meant and Aunt Lucy’s got it dead right.  AM’s bad tempered and unreasonable.

To keep out of her way I spend a lot of time wandering around London and one day I was walking along Baker Street when this car hooted and when I turned round to see who it was, it was Roy McKenzie from Jamaica.   I couldn’t believe it, in fact, I didn’t even know he was in London

I immediately remembered that day when I was hanging from a tree by my knickers and felt embarrassed when we said hello, even though Aunt Lucy and Mammie had got me down from the tree before he saw me. 

 “Olga, look at you, you look good, how nice to see you”.  He seemed really pleased to see me,

He told me to hop in the car and he took me for a lovely drive around London.  He asked me what I was doing in London and how long I was staying.  I told him about the dance school and what I’d been doing since I arrived and he told me he ran a gambling and drinking club in London called the Frivolity.  He knew I had a good singing voice and asked me to come down and sing at his club now and again.  Because I had no money I was tempted.  Maybe I’ll pop down one evening I thought to myself, it might be fun.

I asked him if he thought there was going to be a war with Germany and he said he hoped not because it could be bad for his business.

He stopped the car round the corner from Chilworth Street and wrote down the address of the Frivolty on a piece of paper and handed it to me. 

He asked me how things were going with Aunt Martha and I just shrugged my shoulders.  He took out his wallet, which, by the way, was full of money, and took out one of the notes in it.

“Here, take this, but don’t tell Aunt Martha you’ve got it or she’ll talk you into giving it to her and, definitely, don’t tell her that you’ve seen me.  I’ve seen her operating in the Den of Iniquity and I don’t want her in my club.”  I looked in my hand and there was a lovely big white £5 note.  I hugged him.  I told him Sydney would be over soon and would repay him.  

“Remember, Olga, anytime you want to earn some money singing, you know where I am now”. And then he was gone.   I had such a lovely afternoon with Roy, but most of all it was comforting to know there was someone who would help me if I needed it.

 <—A Change of Plan for Olga                       Sydney Comes to London 1939 —>

 

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<—London 1939           Aunt Martha, Chilworth Street, Paddington—>

Even after all these years I still  struggle to understand how my grandmother, Becky,  thought it was safe to send my mother, Olga, to London in April 1939.   The  threat of war between Britain and Germany had not receded in spite of  Neville Chamberlain securing Adolf Hitler’s promise that he would not invade Europe further (Munich Agreement).  Newspapers in  Great Britain and Jamaica constantly referred to the threat of war.  Whenever any member of the Browney family travelled to England, they always stayed with Becky’s sister, Martha,  and Olga was no exception, although I think she wished she was!  My mother didn’t like  my Great Aunt Martha and described her a a bitter woman who lacked warmth and kindness - unlike her sisters Becky and Lucy.   But I suppose Becky thought she’d be safe with Martha and, after all, it was only for six months.

 the-browneys-tree

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary 

Bad news:      I’m in despair.  Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance have written to me.

 “We do not have a place available for six months, at which time we will be delighted to accept you as a pupil.”

  That’s no good, I need a place now!  

I told Aunt Martha and she said she couldn’t afford to keep me if I was going to remain in London.  I don’t know what she means “she can’t afford to keep me” because I know Sydney gave her plenty of money to cover the cost of my stay, but she says there’s hardly any left because food is expensive and I eat a lot. 

Well, honestly, I don’t think I do, but I didn’t dare argue with her.   Thank goodness Sydney will be here soon, but I suppose I’ll have to go back to Jamaica with him.  So far my visit has been disappointing and I haven’t enjoyed myself the way Birdie does when she comes to London

  

Dear Diary 

Fed up:  Went to Trafalgar Square yesterday to feed the pigeons, but, I was in and out of that Square like a bullet. 

I sat down and as soon as I pulled out my bag of breadcrumbs, pigeons surrounded me and started pecking at my paper bag trying to get the bread out and there were lots of them around my feet  picking up the breadcrumbs – it felt like I was being attacked, so I dropped the breadcrumbs and ran. 

Now I prefer to sit here on a bench in Regent’s Park and feed the little birds, they’re much gentler.   Took my diary with me today so I could read again about my going away party in the Bournemouth Club, Kingston’s best night club. 

It was a wonderful night with the club decorated with streamers and balloons and hanging from the ceiling, strung across  the middle of the room was a whopping big sign.

 “Goodbye Olga. We’ll miss you”.  Wasn’t that nice?

There was a band and lots of food and all my friends and family laughing, joking, hugging and kissing me and giving me going away presents. 

But the biggest shock that night came from Michael Sales.  Michael was in the same class as me at Alpha Academy and he was a holy terror.  His favourite past time was putting a mirror under some of the girls’ skirts, including mine, so he could see what colour knickers we were wearing.  He nearly got expelled once for doing it and it was only because his mother pleaded with the Headmistress to give him one more chance, that he wasn’t.  Anyway, he must have learnt his lesson because he quietened down a lot and was much nicer because of it.  As a matter of fact he went out with one of my best friends, Elise Ferguson, for a while.

 But at my going away party he handed me a present with a card.  Inside, was a pair of beautiful pearl ear-rings.  No doubt about it, that is the nicest present I have ever received.

 “Olga, when you come back, I want you to be my proper girl friend.  I promise I will wait for you and I won’t go out with anyone else while you’re away” he said. 

I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t think he liked me that much.  Boys, don’t really, you know.  They like to talk to me and tell me their problems with their girl friends, because they say I’m a good listener, but they never like me in a special way. 

My friend, Carmen Cadoza, has boys buzzing round her like bees in a honey pot and, honestly, sometimes she treats the boys like they don’t exist.  She says the secret of being successful with men is to play hard to get.  Michael was going to be my first boyfriend. I wanted to cry I was so happy, but instead I gave him a little kiss on the cheek and said I would love to be his girlfriend and for a few minutes, I wondered, do I really want to go to England. But I dismissed the thought immediately because it would be something to look forward to when I come home.

On the same page is the holy picture of the Sacred Heart that Father Butler gave me when he came to say goodbye.  He’d written on the back:

Dear Olga

Bon voyage and a happy stay in London.

Be a good girl and don’t forget to say your prayers.

God bless you,

Reading about that evening and how happy I was then and how miserable I am feeling now made me sad and homesick.  I felt lonely sitting on that bench in the park.  I was hugging my diary with both hands, my head buried in my chest and gently rocking back and forth and I wasn’t aware someone had sat down beside me. 

          “Are you alright”.  I heard someone say.

          When I looked up I saw a beautiful brown face smiling at me.

          “My name’s Joanne” she said, smiling at me.

 My spirits lifted immediately and we started talking.  And guess where she came from….Jamaica!!  I couldn’t believe it because there aren’t too many Jamaicans in London, I can tell you.

Joanne comes from a big family, just like me, and they live in St Ann’s Bay.  We talked about our families and home and even though she’s been in London for two years studying nursing at Paddington General Hospital, Joanne still misses her family a lot. 

I said I missed my friends and was lonely and whenever someone sits next to me on the park bench, like the nannies who push the babies in the prams, I always smile and say hello and hope that they will talk to me, but they don’t, they either pretend they haven’t heard me or get up and walk away. 

           “Thank goodness for the keepers in the zoo”.

           “They’re friendly and they tell me all about the animals like elephants or the tigers and the bears” I said 

          “I like London a lot, but it can be the loneliest place in the world” Joanne told me. 

Oh she’s really lovely.  I’m so happy we met.   Joanne has one more year’s training and then she’s going back to Jamaica to work.  When I told her why I had come to London she was surprised and said didn’t my parents realise that England could go to war any day.  I said that the Prime Minister had Hitler’s promise not to invade Europe any more, so Mammie and Sydney felt it was safe for me to come over, and, anyway, Sydney would be here soon and I’d be going back to Jamaica with him.  Two hours later, and much happier, I said goodbye to Joanne, but we arranged to meet in the park the following week.   

<—London 1939          Aunt Martha, Chilworth Street, Paddington—>

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 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place            A Change of Plan for Olga—->

 

Family Tree

My mother, Olga Browney, arrived in London from Kingston, Jamaica on 1st April 1939 intending to stay only a few months. The plan was that Olga would stay with her Aunt Martha in Paddington. Although in the months before there had been talk of a war between England and Germany, Olga’s mother, Becky, believed that war had been averted, thanks to the Munich Agreement. This was a Pact made between Adolph Hitler and the then British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain whereby Hitler had promised Chamberlain that he would not make any more territorial demands into Europe and so Chamberlain believed that war between the two countries had been averted.

 

Olga’s Diary (continued)

Dear Diary

            “How did you get here?” Aunt Martha asked me incredulously.

She was still in bed even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  If it had been Birdie standing at the bottom of her bed instead of me, the reply would have said something smart like “I just flew in on Aggie Burns broomstick”, but I just said lamely,

“I thought you were expecting me”. 

“Jesus Christ, what day is it”?

“April 1st” I said, shocked by her blaspheming. 

And then she started laughing “Trust you to arrive on April Fool’s Day, Olga”.

I didn’t answer not understanding what she meant, but, I knew she wasn’t paying me a compliment. I was hungry, cold, tired and this was not the welcome I had been expecting.

For a start Aunt Martha should have met me when the S.S. Jamaica Progress docked this morning in London.  The Progress is a cargo boat carrying fruit, mainly bananas, and the Royal Mail, but also has room for a few passengers.  On this trip there were 12 of us including me and, of course, my chaperone, Mrs Brodie, a friend of the family, who was going to England for a holiday and whom Sydney had asked to keep an eye on me during the trip. 

Did he think I might fall overboard?  

Anyway, it never occurred to me that Aunt Martha wouldn’t be there and I was very grateful that Mrs Brodie waited with me a for a while, but eventually she said she had to leave.  With a confidence I certainly wasn’t feeling I assured her I would be fine on my own.   Just in case Aunt Martha didn’t arrive Mrs. Brodie showed me where there was a taxi rank and, checking I had enough money to pay for it, kissed me goodbye and went on her way.   Sitting in the waiting room I felt very homesick.

After waiting for her for nearly three hours I decided to take a taxi to Aunt Martha’s home, 23 Chilworth Street, Paddington.   I knew she lived on the third floor of a block of flats because last time she was in Kingston she told us at dinner one evening how Londoners were not very friendly.  Aunt Martha likes a drink and one day she was in a pub when a lady sitting a few feet away from her became ill.  Aunt Martha offered to take her back to her home and discovered that the woman lived in the flat beneath her in Chilworth Street

As I struggled up the three flights of concrete steps to Aunt Martha’s flat with two heavy suitcases I thought, Londoners are not only unfriendly, they’re unreliable too.

 

Letter to Mammie, Mission House, Kingston 

from

Olga, 23 Chilworth Street, London

 

Dearest  Mammie

I couldn’t sleep last night.  When I closed my eyes I saw us all on Kingston docks crying.  It was hard saying goodbye, wasn’t it, and Mammie you looked so worried.  Fancy Pops coming down as well.  It was nice you were both there.  I don’t remember ever seeing you together before. And wasn’t Sydney thoughtful and kind making sure I had everything I needed. He told me to be sure to ask Aunt Martha if I need anything and he said he’d be coming to London in two or three months, so I would see him them.

Including me and Mrs Brodie, there were only twelve passengers on the boat, two widow ladies, myself and another single young lady and two married couples, three single men, two were students and the third single man was an engineer.  We all got on very well together and made up our own entertainment in the evening with little concerts which we all took part in.  I was persuaded to sing a few times and got a very nice round of applause each time.  The engineer performed some magic tricks, which sometimes went wrong, but we pretended we hadn’t noticed or else we played card games like gin rummy or canasta while the older people played bridge.  

 As a matter of fact Mammie, I was invited to sit at the Captain’s table four times during the journey; it’s a great honour, you know and I felt very important.  The crossing seemed to go quickly and it was very good until we got close to England and then it rained a lot and the sea was a bit rough.

Aunt Martha has a nice little two bedroom flat and, guess what, I have my own bedroom but you probably know that. 

On my first morning here, Aunt Martha brought me breakfast in bed and later on took me to Lyons Corner House which is huge and there are restaurants on four levels.    On the ground floor level is the food hall where you can buy different things like ham and cheese, pastries and specially made chocolates, wines, tea and, guess what, coffee and fruit from, guess where? ……Jamaica! 

And on the floors above are more restaurants with an orchestra playing in each one.  Aunt Martha and I went to the tearoom and she ordered afternoon tea which arrived on delicate china plates with some scones, dainty sandwiches and little cakes.  I only had a little bit to eat because I thought it was good manners not to eat all the food in front of us.  But I was wrong, I should have eaten more, because AM finished the whole lot.

All the waitresses wore black and white uniforms, Ruby, and AM says their called Nippies, when I asked her why ,she said “because they nip in and out of the tables quickly”.  Isn’t that funny?  I thought they looked so smart in their uniforms and said to AM that I might change my mind about going to Madame Verschaka’s School of Dance and become a Nippie for a few months. 

“I don’t think so dear,” AM said. 

“To come all this way from Jamaica and end up as a waitress doesn’t seem such a good idea to me”

  Well, at least it’s work, I thought to myself but didn’t say anything.  With so many out of work back home I bet lots of people would love a job like that.  When the bill came, Aunt Martha said,

“Oh, that’s a bit expensive, but never mind Olga, you’re worth it”.  Wasn’t that nice? 

The weather has been horrible, cold and wet.  One day smog covered the whole of London all day and you could barely see in front of your hand and bus conductors were walking in front of their buses to guide them.  I missed Jamaica a lot that day.  Aunt Martha says its smoke that comes from factory chimneys and buses.  There are signs that Londoners are preparing for war.  There are air raid shelters being built and sticky tape is stuck across windows to prevent people being cut by flying glass and splinters when the bombs come.  Aunt Martha says it’s difficult to know what to think because one minute the war’s on and the next it’s off. 

My favourite place, Mammie, is Regent’s Park Zoo.  There are all sorts of animals there, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, snakes, beautiful big birds and sweet little birds.   Even before I get to the zoo I can hear the lions roaring and the monkeys whooping.  I feed the monkeys but you’re not allowed to feed the wilder animals, so I watch the zoo keepers feed the elephants, lions and bears. 

And I’ve discovered a beautiful Catholic church called St James’ in Spanish Place, not far from Aunt Martha but, do you know what, I don’t think she goes to church quite so much in London as she does in Jamaica. 

I say my prayers every night Mammie and go to mass on Sundays at St James’ .  It doesn’t feel the same as the Holy Trinity Cathedral, but I still like it a lot.  

I miss you all.  Please write soon.

                                Your loving daughter and sister            Signed Olga

 

 <—-Kingston 1938 – A Dangerous Place to Live        A Change of Plan for Olga – London 1939—->

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