In January I was moved to a home for frail children. It had a very grand name; St Dominic’s Open-Air School, Mount Olivet, Hambledon, near Godalming, Surrey. As the name suggests it was a bit draughty at first, but you soon became used to it. I was taken there with my mum in an Army car, we were shown around the school, and I was very upset when they drove off. I think mum was crying too. First David was away in Essex, in a Sanatorium for children with TB and now it was my turn, it must have been very upsetting.
Most of the boys were haemophiliac and were constantly in trouble with very swollen knees whenever they had the slightest knock. There were two brothers, named Simpson, from Addlestone, both with this horrid disease, and a boy from Chertsey, his name was Boxall, his family had the shop at the top of Free Prae Road, next to The Catholic Church. The nun’s where very nice and although I wasn’t a Catholic, they treated me no different from the other boys, who were nearly all Catholic.
We never had any proper lessons, it was all sunray treatment and sleeping outside on bunks, it really was an open-air school. The sunray lamp was like a search light with carbon’s that made crackling noises like something frying, it was the carbons arcing to make the artificial sunlight. We had to wear dark glasses to protect our eyes—if you looked at the lamp without goggles you would have very sore eyes at night, it was called arc eyes.
As soon as I arrived the boys were asking me if I was a relation, I couldn’t understand what they meant. The next day in assembly, I was given a song sheet—we sang all the popular songs as well as hymns. They were printed on the back of recycled paper. I turned the sheet over and on the back was a photo of the lady who had founded the school. Her name was Ada Watney Weguelin. At one time she one of the richest women in the country. It was funny that the boys would think that I was related to her. I arrived at the school with a borrowed overcoat with a torn sleeve, but mum had to take it back home, I think it belonged to Teddy Wade.
I was in the school for nine months, and I was never asked about my name again, it was as if everyone was told not to mention it. I later found out all about Mrs Weguelin.
She was a widow, and her second husband was Claude Watney, the extremely rich brewery owner. When he died, she married Bernard Weguelin, an extremely rich relative of mine—but luckily a very distant rich one—he might have given us some of his wealth and then I may not have been a Chertsey boy!.
In the 1920’s, a home for frail children on the south coast was swept away in a storm. A nun was drowned trying to save the children. Mrs Weguelin, a very religious lady, let all the children and the nuns from the home stay with her in the big house. She moved to the lodge, which was also a large building. After a few years she gave the whole estate to the church, and it was renamed St Dominic’s Open-Air School. She died in1937, leaving one of the largest collection of jewels to be auctioned since the sale of the Russian Royal Family. A pearl necklace was sold for twelve thousand pounds, it was said to be bought by Mrs Simpson.
A few miles away from the school was Dunsfold Aerodrome. American Mitchell bombers were stationed there and would fly over every day on their way to their targets somewhere. We would count how many left and how many came back. Most of the time they all returned, but not all together, there were a few stragglers, one was given up as lost, but he had landed at another airfield, we were so happy to hear that.
In June 1944, we watched the planes and gliders fly over on the way to France. It was D Day. We were all standing in a deep trench next to our dormitory, waving and cheering as a new flight of planes flew over. Even the nuns were cheering, it went on for ages, they must have come other airfields, there were so many of them.
The sisters always read the letters we got from home and the ones we sent. In one letter from mum, I was told that my stepfather Fred had died in hospital from TB. The sister said nothing about it, I think she may have wondered why I didn’t cry. I did later when I was alone in the dormitory. A friend told everyone about Fred and some prayers were said for him and my mum. I thought that was very kind of them all.