I am ten, and I am the only child in Ward 14, St Peters War hospital. Christmas 1943 was joyously spent with soldiers wounded in battle; they are always telling jokes but never a word about their wounds.
This place is different, the room is quiet with a smell like Mondays and Sunlight soap, even the fire smells the same as our copper. We are in St Dominic’s Open-air school. The shiny table shows the reflection of the lady talking. Her dress is of black cloth, it rustles like blackout curtains. She wears a hood like the ladies in Laurie Zubiena’s church. The cross on the chain around her waist clatters against the table.
She has smiley eyes; her face is very pink. She is asking Mum lots of questions. She turns to me now with her whole face smiling and says.
‘Master Weguelin, we will all get along fine if you just follow a few simple rules.’
She says my name and writes it on a large box without asking me how to say or spell it.
Mum ruffles my hair and gives my chin a lift and leaves without a word—I think she is too sad to say anything. I watch her through the window as she walks down the hill.
Now it is my turn to be sad.
The two other boys join me later. One had all his hair cut off; he had fleas. Coming straight from St Peter’s Hospital, my hair is clean.
I was asked by one boy if I was related, I had no idea who he thought I was related to.
We do no proper lessons here, just a lot of singing. On the reverse side of a song sheet of Vera Lynne, was a picture of the founder of the school…and the reason for the boy’s question.
Her name was Mrs Claude Watney-Weguelin, the wealthy widow of Claude Watney, the brewery tycoon. Later she was the widow of Bernard Weguelin, a great uncle of mine, also very rich.
I was in the home for seven months. I saw aircraft flying over towing gliders on their way to D Day. Then, a doodlebug being chased by a fighter plane. It exploded on a distant hill; the shockwave took a minute to reach our hill and rattled the classroom windows. We were all standing close to them watching the drama… they could easily have broken!
A recent internet search for St Dominic’s found this story. In the 1920’s, a home for delicate boys on the South Coast was destroyed in a storm, A Nun was killed trying to save the boys. Mrs Weguelin, a devout Catholic, allowed all the boy’s and Nun’s to stay in her large estate in Surrey.
Later she passed the whole estate over to the Catholic Church and renamed it St Dominic’s Open-Air School.
I still smile when I think of the boy who thought that I was related to one the richest women in the country. I was wearing Teddy Wades overcoat with a hole in the elbow. Mum took it back, I had borrowed it for the day.It’s even funnier when I found out that I was related—but fortunately very remotely, otherwise I would never have had the pleasure of growing up in Chertsey!