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Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Daily Gleaner, Kingston

 

29th December 1953 

OBITUARY

Rebecca Mathilda Browney

 ******

 

Letter to Mrs Rebecca Browney,  Jamaica
from
Miss Geraldine Franks, Superintendent, Catholic Refuge for Friendless Girls,
23 Barclay Road, Fulham,London.

 

Dear Mrs Browney

It is with great concern I write to you regarding your daughter Olga as I do not believe you are aware of her circumstances. 

I first became acquainted with your daughter when she was referred to this home by the Matron of St Giles Hospital because she was pregnant.  Olga remained at the Refuge until she gave birth to her daughter, Marie.

It is part of the Refuge’s policy that we try and maintain contact with mothers in order to see how they cope with their baby and, in spite of my initial doubts as to Olga’s ability to support both herself and a baby in a foreign country, as an unmarried mother and the stigma associated with that, I was impressed with how well she managed. 

However, Olga’s circumstances have now changed and she recently came to me with Marie in some emotional and financial distress.  Her appearance gave me cause for concern, although, I would report that Marie looked well nourished and cared for.  I gave her a little money, but, I suspect that Olga has no job or even a home to go to since she was evasive when I asked where she was living. 

I did my best to try and persuade Olga to contact you but, she is as adamant, as she was when I first met her, that you should know nothing of her circumstances.  I have respected her decision until now.  

 I believe your son Sydney comes to London on business.  I would urge that on his next visit he contacts me and I will endeavour to help him locate Olga and Marie. 

Yours truly

Miss Geraldine Franks  (Superintendent)

******

 Lucy’s Diary

Over the years Martha has been referred to as the black sheep of the family, but my sister has demonstrated that she is  much more than that.  She is a vengeful and wicked woman who broke the heart of a sister that had only ever shown her kindness and affection.  

I realise now the dye was cast for Becky all those years ago when she announced her plans to marry Henry.  Martha thought, irrationally, her dream of becoming rich with her own fashion house had disappeared because of Becky’s decision to marry a black man.  Of course, she was wrong.  She could have continued with her plans and ridden out the storm.  But she lacked courage, something Becky had in abundance. So as an act of spite for some perceived slight all those years ago, Martha finally got her revenge in a spectacularly cruel way, allowing Becky to go to her grave believing her beloved daughter was dead.  How could she do that?

 As for Martha’s hypocrisy, lambasting Becky for marrying a black man when she was secretly living in sin with  one in London, I cannot even bring myself to comment on it. 

Thank God for Geraldine Franks. What a good woman she is, but if only she had contacted us sooner.  Olga is alive and has a little girl.  Sydney says he will go to London to find her and bring them home.

******

 

How The Tale Ends

50 Years Later

 

My mother, Olga, never returned to Jamaica nor was she reunited with any member of her family again after her meeting with Sydney in 1946.   Over the years Mum had been reluctant to talk about her past so I determined to find out what I could myself.  I placed the following advertisement in the Sunday Gleaner in July 1996:

******

 And then two days later we received the following telegram.

 Telegram from Mrs Ruby Shim (nee Browney), Kingston, Jamaica to

Mrs Marie Campbell, Hove, East Sussex, UK.

 

HAVE SEEN YOUR NOTICE IN THE GLEANER.  SISTERS (CISSIE, PEARL, RUBY AND DOLLY) OF OLGA BROWNEY ARE RESIDING AT 9 ANTHURIUM DRIVE, MONA, KINGSTON 6, JAMAICA.  TEL: NO:  809-XXX-XXX.  VERY ANXIOUS TO MAKE CONTACT.  WILL ACCEPT COLLECT  CALL.  RUBY SHIM (MRS)

******

Within a day of receiving the telegram I made the phone call and for the first time in over 50 years Mum spoke to her sisters Ruby, Dolly, Chickie and Pearl.   Ruby told Mum that Mammie, Pops, Sydney, Vivie, Cissie and Gwennie had all died, but the others were still alive.

She said Sydney came looking for Mum twice in the 1950s, but he said she’d vanished without trace.

Slowly my mother’s story unravelled and I discovered much about her family and other things too;  I learnt about my grandmother and what courage she showed in following her heart and marrying a black man knowing she would be ostracised by Jamaican white and coloured society; I learnt how the Jamaican social and class structure mirrored the English pattern of behaviour.  I knew there was colour prejudice (or racism as it is called today) but I had no idea that coloured people felt the same way about the blacks.  I was upset to hear that some of my grandmother’s children railed against Becky for marrying a black man.

I learnt a lot about the wonderful Jamaican culture and folklore – anancy, duppies and, of course, obeah, things I knew nothing about until I started my research.  A couple of times, when I was a child Mum had mentioned, almost sheepishly, that her mother and other members of her family practiced voodoo in Jamaica and that it was a powerful weapon to extract revenge for wrongs committed. 

My Aunt Ruby told me when I met the family in Kingston, that my great aunt Martha narrowly escaped being buried in a pauper’s grave in London thanks to the generosity of the family responding to a request from a Catholic priest for money to bury her.

But the most notable information I acquired was how I was conceived.   It was obvious as Mum told me her story that the anguish of that event had barely diminished even though it had happened decades ago. 

When, over the years, Mum refused to talk to me about my father saying “it’s too painful” it never once crossed my mind that she might have been raped and I was the result.   I can only imagine what it must have been like for her – an unmarried mother, coloured, no family for support – save for a malevolent alcoholic aunt and alone in a foreign country which just happened to be in the middle of a world war.  

My father died in New York in December 1949; waiting on a railway platform he fell under the wheels of an oncoming train and was killed instantly.    By all accounts he was a man with a complex personality, mercurial and prone to depression.  He suffered from mood swings, failing eyesight and dizzy spells, the latter caused by a serious horse riding accident a few years before his death.  Opinion was divided as to the cause of his death.  The medical examiner recorded John Edward’s death as  ‘probably an accident’ since an autopsy had shown nothing untoward.  His family thought it was an accident; his work colleagues thought he’d committed suicide as a result of his depression.

As for how I feel about my father, I take my cue from Mum whom I never heard voice any bitterness about what happened to her.

I wrote this book because I wanted future generations of my family to know something of their heritage and also out of respect to my mother, a gentle and remarkable woman who had huge moral courage.

If the maxim is true, that daughters eventually become like their mother then all I can say is… lucky me.           Marie Campbell

 

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 <—Sydney Comes to London

Mammie (Becky’s) Diary

We have moved to a smaller house in Tremaine Road and, in the end, I was quite pleased to leave Mission House. The memories are haunting me.

I saw this article about Sydney in the paper and thought I’d save it.

It’s rather a nice picture of him.   Poor Sydney he feels he has let me down not bringing Olga home.   He says she looked smart, but tired and her demeanour had changed.   Her sparkle had gone and he thinks there is something wrong, but she’s not saying what it is.

When he asked Martha if she knew, she said she hadn’t seen Olga for months. If something has happened to her in England and she feels she cannot talk to me about it, then I have not done a good job as a mother. I’ve let her down, otherwise she would be here knowing there is nothing she could ever do or say that could make me love her less. But at least I know she’s alive.  

Last night the tots and I went to the Holy Trinity Church and together with Father Butler we prayed to St Anthony to bring Olga safely home.   When Sydney visited Martha he said the first thing she asked him for was money, but he refused to give her any.   That surprised me. He says she’s always asking for money and thinks he has an endless supply and, then, almost as an afterthought he added, “I don’t think she was very nice to Olga”.   I wonder if Martha has something to do with Olga not coming home”.  

In fact, he says he doesn’t want any of the girls to stay with Martha in future because it is not a very nice area now.  I doubt that any of the girls will want to go to London; it must be quite dangerous living there with unexploded bombs and much of it looking like a vast building site. How is Olga managing with the winter cold, I wonder?  I remember how the harsh the weather could be and how the temperature could drop to freezing.  And what if it snows and there are blizzards, can she keep warm?  Britain is still recovering from the war and we know they are still short of certain foods and fuel. It’s strange, but I don’t think I could bear to be cold now after living here for so long.

                                                                                                                  ******

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary 

Mrs Hammell:   Went back to Massey’s Agency to look for a job looking after children.  I don’t want to cook any more.  I had an interview with a Mrs Gloria Hammell, a widow, and explained that I was a widow too and that my husband, who had been an air force pilot during the war, had been shot down by the Germans over France.  She was very sympathetic. 

Mrs Hammell has a daughter called Madeline and she wants a live-in mother’s help for her daughter because she has very weak legs and they needed to be rubbed daily with olive oil.  I told her about Marie and explained that, although she wasn’t at school yet, she would be starting soon.  Mrs Hammell said if she offered me the job she was happy for Marie to come with me as she thought it would be very nice for Madeline to have a companion to play with. 

I showed her my reference from Mrs Hurt but she said she would telephone Mrs Hurt and speak with her personally and would let me know about the position when she had made a decision.

Mrs Hammell has a lovely 3-bedroomed flat in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea and Marie and I have a nice room with a big double bed.  It’s a good job because all I do is look after Madeline and Marie being there makes it easy because they play together nicely.  

Madeline is a kind little girl and doesn’t mind sharing her toys with Marie.  I take the girls to Hyde Park quite a bit and when it’s hot they paddle in the Serpentine or sometimes we will have a picnic.

 When I first arrived Madeline was very pale and thin, but she is blossoming because we are outdoors so much.  She has more colour in her cheeks and her legs are getting stronger.  Mrs Hammell is very pleased.

 When the three of us are out together, it’s funny, people always assume I am the girls’ nurse.  I don’t bother to tell them that the pretty dark haired one is my daughter.

As a special treat I sometimes take them to the London Zoo.  There are hummingbirds there and the sight of them makes me homesick.  The girls get very excited when it comes to feeding time and they like to throw nuts at the monkeys.  Sometimes we go to Regents Park but I avoid the bench I used to sit on, the one I was sitting on when I met Joanne.  I try not to think too much about my previous life.  It’s over, gone, I have a different life now.

One day when I was rubbing Madeline’s legs I told Mrs H how in Jamaica we rub white rum on our joints to ease the pain and would she like me to do the same for Madeline.

 “Are you mad, Carmen?  What do you think people will say if my four year old daughter goes around smelling of rum”.

 I hadn’t thought of that. 

I mentioned to Mrs H I was thinking of sending Marie to a private boarding school and could she recommend one. 

“When you told me Marie would be starting school, I didn’t realise you meant a private one.” 

She was surprised by my enquiry and I’m not sure if she believed me. 

So I told her my late husband left me some money for Marie’s education.  But the truth is I’ve saved enough for the first two terms, and hopefully I can save more from my wages.   I don’t spend much here.

 Mrs H recommended a Catholic convent in Dartford, Kent which would be easy for me to get to from London.  The way I see it what happened to me was not Marie’s fault and her education is important and she is entitled to have the best I can give her.  That’s what Mammie did for us and even though Sydney helped out, Mammie took in lots of lodgers when we were young just so we could all go to Alpha Academy which was the best Catholic school in Kingston. 

And Marie is definitely not going to end up like me, working as a servant. 

******

Dear Diary

So cold:   This is what it must be like at the North Pole.  It snows all the time and the temperature is freezing.  Last night is was -9°C and it said on the wireless that the sea froze at Margate. 

The Prime Minister says everyone must save fuel.   Things must be bad because people are being sent home from work and told to go to bed to keep warm. 

The army is being used to clear roads blocked by snow and drop food from helicopters to farms and little villages in the countryside and some old people are dying because they cannot keep warm.  Isn’t that terrible?

 ******

<—Sydney Comes to London

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<—Life as a Servant

Olga’s Diary (Continued)

Dear Diary

Sydney:  I got a letter from home. It had been sent to St Giles who forwarded to Miss Franklin who forwarded to Sister Pateman and eventually I got it.

 It was from Sydney saying he was coming to England on a business trip and would be staying at the Reynolds Hotel in London during the last week of March.  He said he wanted to see me and isn’t leaving England until he has done. 

So I went to meet him on my day off yesterday.    Sydney has lost weight and some hair, but, otherwise he’d barely changed, but he said I had.

 I had bought a new outfit for the occasion because I wanted to look the best I could.   I was wearing a new blue dress I’d recently bought and a little hat to match and a grey coat belted at the waist.  I thought I looked very nice.  Sydney said I did. 

It was so good to hear about Mammie and the family.  He told me Mammie was well, but worried about me and gave me all the news about the family. Cissie and Dyke had another two children; Dolly had married her Syrian and I felt sad I hadn’t be at her wedding;  there were no changes in Pearl’s life; Ruby had a boyfriend called Jack, whom Sydney and Mammie approved of.  Ruby and Jack were very serious about each other and Sydney said he thought there might be another marriage in the family.  How nice.


Birdie was working at the Ward Theatre and it seemed as if she might go to America and stay with Vivie for a while. Vivie had got her divorce and married Freddie.  I wondered how Mammie felt about that, I bet she was upset.   Chickie and Maurice were well but poor Chickie still hadn’t heard a word from Victor Condell and Gwennie was still living with that terrible man, Keith Rousseau. And Boysie and Minah had another baby, a little girl.  Once we’d been through the family I waited for the questions to come my way.

“Mammie is desperately worried about you Olga.  We know you’re not at the hospital any more, what happened?” 

I couldn’t tell Sydney about Marie, not because I was frightened of him, I wasn’t any more, but because I was so ashamed of what happened to me and I hadn’t the courage to face my family.  

I told him I’d failed my first year’s exam and that’s why I left the hospital and because of the war I couldn’t go home.  So I had to find some work and because I had some experience nursing I found a job as a children’s nursery nurse.  

 I told him I had lots of friends and I was very happy with the job because it was well paid and I would never to be able to earn so much in Jamaica.  I wanted to stay on here in London a bit longer.

“Well, that’s fine because I’m going to be here for at least another four months doing business around the country, so, when I’ve finished, we can go home together”.  Sydney had it all worked out.

  “This time”, he said, “I’m keeping my promise to Mammie”.  

I gave him a false address and he gave me the date he would be back at the Reynolds Hotel.  I told him I would ring him at the hotel when he returned there.  It wasn’t that I don’t want to go home, of course I do.  I want to be with my family and I want Mammie to see her beautiful little granddaughter, but I fear seeing Mammie’s disappointment in me, that would be too much to bear.  I know they will ask questions which I don’t want to answer.  The memory is too painful.

Then Sydney asked about Joanne and if she was well.  When I told him she’d died, I swear there were tears in his eyes.  He put his arm round me, but I had to shake it off and he looked hurt.  I couldn’t help it, these days if anyone is kind to me, I cry.

Sydney wanted to know why I hadn’t kept in touch with Aunt Martha.  I told him I didn’t like her because she blasphemed a lot, was a drunk, a liar and a hypocrite.  I must have said it with such venom, because Sydney looked so shocked. I told him how when I was staying with her, Mr Kitchen stayed overnight with Aunt Martha and that they were living together as man and wife.  I told him she said mean things to me.  

“She makes a great pretence of being a Christian person when she’s in Jamaica going to Church but she doesn’t go near a Church here and then there’s Mr Kitchen” 

“What about Mr Kitchen” Sydney asked. And before I could stop myself I’d blurted out Aunt Martha’s big secret.

  “He’s a black man”.

******

Dear Diary

The Hunt Ball:   The Hurts have a stud farm in Ireland and, now the war is over, they have decided to close Hendon Hall and move back to Ireland.  Mrs Hurt said she would have liked me to come with them, but there are staff there already.  I don’t mind really.  But before they move to Ireland they want to hold a Hunt Ball, like they used to do before the war.   

Fortnum and Mason’s in Piccadilly are doing the catering for the Hunt Ball and Mrs Hurt has put me in charge of collecting the programmes which means I have to stand by the drawing room door and as the gentlemen came in  they hand me their programmes.  I had a peek at one and it’s just a list of all the dances with room to write down the name of the lady who the gentleman is  going to have a particular dance with.

Mrs Hurt’s daughter-in-law, Judith dressed me for the Ball in a long white dress with a wide gold sash around my waist and a gold and white turban on my head.  When I saw myself in the mirror I thought I looked like Annie Harvey, the Obeah woman in Kingston, but Mrs Hurt and Mrs Attwood said I looked lovely. 

When the first huntsman arrived he gave me his programme.

“I think you are in the  wrong place”

“This is the Hunt Ball isn’t it?”

“Yes, but you’re supposed to be in an evening suit”.  

“My dear girl, the huntsmen come to the Hunt Ball in their hunting jacket” he said.

No one had told me that the huntsmen come in their red coats. Captain and Mrs Hurt were coming down the spiral staircase and she looked lovely in a lilac evening dress.

 “What’s the matter Carmen”. 

“I was just telling this gentleman that he was in the wrong place”. 

Mrs Hurt was very apologetic to the gentleman and said she should have explained to me that the huntsmen come in their uniform.  I felt very foolish, but the gentleman and Mrs Hurt were very nice about it.

Oh it was a wonderful sight, all those handsome men in their red hunting jackets and the ladies looking beautiful in their evening dresses. 

 ******

 Our last day:   This morning Captain Hurt gave Marie a present beautifully wrapped and tied with a pink ribbon.  The present was so big I had to help her open it and out came a whopping big doll.  She was the most beautiful doll I’ve ever seen and she was as big as Marie.

 Marie was speechless, but beaming. 

“Susie”, she finally said, hugging the doll tight.  It was a wonderful present from the Hurts and made my little girl very happy.

Mrs Hurt gave me a month’s holiday pay and arranged for Marie to go into a nursery in Basingstoke for two weeks so that I could have a holiday and promised to give me a good reference for my next position. 

“Carmen, I don’t want to pry into your personal life and I only do so now because I’m fond of you and Marie, but for Marie’s sake don’t you think you should contact your family”.

Mrs Hurt had no idea I had already seen Sydney, nor did she know I had an Aunt in London.  I had never discussed anything about my family with the Hurts.

“I don’t think you realise how hard life could become for you both.  There are many people, including the authorities, who consider an unmarried mother unfit to bring up a child and may even try and take her from you”. 

I was deeply touched by her concern for us and wanted to hug her, like I would Mammie, but I was a servant and that wouldn’t have been acceptable, so I just said

“I will think about it”.  

I hope Mrs Hurt is wrong.  I think my guardian angel has returned to watch over me and Marie.  We have been lucky so far;  we have met nice people like the Sister Pateman and Sister Warner at the nursery, the Hurts, even Matron and Miss Franks have been very, very, kind. 

 <—Life as a Servant

 

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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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