Here are the first few pages of my book. I decided to start with my sister, Iris’s, story. It is of course, not one of my own memories, but sets up how I became a boy, that was Made in Chertsey. It is nearly 3,000 words long!!!
Iris’s Story, 15th April 1934.
In 2014, my sister Iris died, she was 92, a year before she passed away, she told me of a family tragedy. A story that I knew very little of. This is that story, or at least as much of it that I can remember. I have tried to write this as an onlooker, also using my own memory of living in Pyrcroft Road as a child, and to imagine, what it would have been like for the family on that day.
75 Pyrcroft Road, April 15th 1934.
The sharp ring-a-ding-ding of a bicycle bell, followed by a shout that is almost drowned by the sound of spoons against the white enamel breakfast bowls.
At the large kitchen table, are six children noisily eating the very last morsel of their creamy porridge. Ethel, the children’s mother, leans over the gas hob, scraping the last remains of porridge— carefully avoiding the burnt bit’s around the edge of the large cast iron pot—a traditional way of cooking porridge, it is still steaming in the cold air of an April morning.
Their father, Charlie, is gathering himself together for work, he steals a spoonful of his son’s breakfast—he has had to miss his own breakfast.
At the head of the table is Deirdre, a quiet sensitive girl, now thirteen, and on the cusp of womanhood. She looks over to her father as he pulls on his coat and tugs his cap tight over his head. Still doing his coat buttons up, he quickly kiss’s his his wife, and is gone through the door with just a little wave to his adoring daughter. Her gaze lingers on the closed door, she hears another shout—louder this time—his work mates urging him to get a move on.
St Peters Church bell strikes the half hour; she looks at the clock on the dresser, it is showing five and twenty minutes past eight. Leaning over she moves the big hand over to half past as she had seen it done a hundred times before—the clock loses twenty minutes a day—you would never think, that in his spare time her father is a clock maker!
He is a few minutes late— the normal routine of a working day has been broken after a fortnight of illness. She hears the sound of his bike clattering down the path, the garden gate first squeaking open then slamming shut, a greeting to his mate and then all is quiet.
Her mother opens the curtains to wave him goodbye, she scrapes some ice from the window—it’s been a very clear, cold night. The road is now busy with men on their way to work, some on bikes and others hurriedly walking, like Mr Austin, who can easily walk to the foundry in Gogmore Lane.
Ethel turns and wipes the babies face and hurries the other children to dress ready for school. There are three girls and three boys; the youngest, just two years old.
Deirdre and Iris, the two eldest girls, brush the other school children’s hair and smooth their clothes, as they do every morning. It is all like clockwork.
The Airscrew factory hooter sounds the start of work for Charlie and his mates, it is eight o’clock. The children are ready and will soon be gone through that same door to school.
Ethel glances at the clock on the dresser, she feels a slight shiver as next to the clock, is the nicely packed sandwiches. Charlie has once again forgotten them, such was his hurry to leave for work—without a wage for the last two weeks, because of the long bout of ‘flu— he needed to earn some money.
Influenza, the disease that had laid low all the family, and for that matter most of Chertsey for last few weeks, now seemed to have moved on. She smiled, as she put his lunch on the cool marble slab in the scullery.
‘Charlie! You will forget your head one day’.
Smiling, she knows he will be back at lunchtime, and hear his bike coming up the garden path, she will see that sheepish grin of his as he passes the kitchen window—this is not the first time that he has done the very same thing, and will probably not be the last.
The children are all ready to go, each one of them giving their mother a kiss and the boys a cuddle, as they do every morning. She watches them until they out of sight turning the corner near Mrs Parker’s home. Lifting the boys down from the table, she sit’s them on the little seats on the hearth fender, in front of the range to warm them up.
Monday is washday, Ethel fills the copper in the corner of the scullery with water and a handful of soda. She places some pages of ‘the Daily Herald’ in the fire box, with some sticks of firewood. Striking a match, she sees the headline of the newspaper: ‘More deaths from the ‘flu’. She quickly puts the match to the paper, as if to burn away the words, thinking that this could so easily have been her family. There had been two families in Cowley Avenue, just around the corner, one had lost a child and the other a young mother, in the last few weeks. Another shiver, this time a little more intense, should she have let Bernard start back to school so shortly after his bout of ‘flu? he was the last to recover and still a bit sniffy.
The school bell rings, easily heard in the still morning air, the children will be safely in school by now. It’s nine o’clock.
There is another bell, this time a muffled tone followed by a hard tone, it is the funeral bell from the cemetery, another poor soul, another poor family. She makes the sign of the cross, something she has never done before; for she and Charlie are free of any religion.
As if to flush any of these bad thoughts from her mind, she calls out to the boys.
“We’ll have some toast in a minute, shall we?
But first, she fills the copper, in go the bedclothes and towels, a vigorous rub on the wash-board with a bar of ‘Sunlight’ soap, then lifting and plunging the bleached copper stick to stir the washing. Anything to change those thoughts on her mind. The room fills with the sweet smell of freshly washed linen.
Back to the table, she cuts a couple of slices of Saturday’s bread, a little stale, but perfect for toasting on the blazing copper fire—nothing in this house is wasted. It’s quickly done and spread with dripping, the boys can smell the treat that is coming their way. They all sit back in the big green armchair, there’s nothing as good as some toast and dripping.
Through the front window, she sees her friend coming round for a cup of tea and the latest gossip, she’s holding a nice cake.
Mrs Salmon is a very plump woman, her full face always flushed with the effort of just being so big, her name Rosy, suits her very well.
Ethel, moves the children and opens the door, just as her neighbour comes bustling through.
“Hello Effie, is it me or is it very warm already this morning”.
She almost stumbles into the armchair with a thump, a puff of dust drifts from the cushions and is caught in the sunlight—it really is a warm, sunny day for April.
They have been friends for years, ever since they moved into the new council house’s in the same week.
The kettle boils, the tea is made, and left to ’Mash’—it’s never stirred for some reason, it’s the way tea has always been made in our house.
Mrs Salmon, has many friends and is kept up to date with just about everything that goes’ on in Chertsey. But the subject for the last week or two, is of the latest ‘flu victim—the last thing that Ethel needs to talk about. Today it is about a widow, who lived alone up Ruxbury Hill. No-one was aware she was ill, and the poor woman had passed away, without anyone knowing.
“There would be no way, that would happen with us, Effie, we know what goes’ on in every-one’s house, don’t we? She laughs at what she has just said, but it is very true.
Rosy, pauses for a moment, once again thinking about the unlucky ones, then trying to change the subject, she grasps for something to say.
Rosy, is aware that her friend’s mind is some-where else.
Ethel, how do you spell your name? we’ve known each other for all these years, but I’ve never seen it written down”.
Ethel, pleased to be able to talk of something else, spells it out:
“W-e-g-u-e-l-i-n, Weguelin, but we are usually called ‘Waglin”, I even sign my name like that now, it saves a lot time”.
“Well I never, fancy that, we learn something every day”.
She picks up her tea, the cups look too dainty for Rosie’s big fingers, she holds the cup like a soup bowl, drinking it all down without another word. She twists the empty cup about, to make the tea-leaves settle before looking intently at the pattern of leaves; Reading tea-leaves is her speciality, but it always seems to be bad news for some-one. Today is no different, she shakes her head, Ethel is looking at her, waiting for the inevitable sad news lurking in the tea-cup.
Before anything could be read, there is a clatter of a bike banging on the fence outside, it startled Ethel at first, and then she thought it was Charlie coming back for his sandwiches, she smiled as she went to the back door.
Mrs Salmon leans back in her chair, and through the window she saw the tall figure of Sgt Reynolds, the policeman, more of a friend than a ‘bobby’.
“He is at the front door Effie, what does Tom want at this time of the day”.
For once her rosy cheeks drained of their colour, for behind the policeman was Doctor Dudley Ward. A policeman and a Doctor, that can only mean one thing, an accident.
It was a few years ago now, that a young policeman, had knocked on her own door, holding a telegram saying that her husband was missing, somewhere in France. It is the same man, a bit older, and now a Sergeant,—his normally smiley face is drawn and grey.
Ethel hurry’s around from the back door, gathering the youngest up in her arms, brushing past her friend.
“What is he up to, knocking at the front door”. She complained, thinking it was Charlie.
The bright sunlight glinted on the policeman’s badge, he was holding his helmet in front of him. Doctor Ward, was standing beside him. Ethel looked from one to the other searching for an answer to why they were here.
The two sad faced men stood silently for what seemed like ages. The two boys were now hanging on to her apron, Doctor Ward took her hand and guided her back indoors.
He quietly said. “Sit down, Ethel, there’s been an accident”. Sensing her fear for the children, he quickly said. “The children are safely at school, but I’m so sorry to tell you, there’s been an accident, it’s Charlie”.
Doctor Ward and Ethel were well known to each other, she is a mid-wife, and has helped him to deliver a few babies in the area, and he had delivered most of her children. She looked into his eyes, wanting to know, and at the same time not wanting to know, what had happened.
The two men, now both sitting at the table with Ethel, probably thinking, they had seen the last of moments such as this; having to tell a mother of some terrible news, when just a few years ago, during the Great War, it seemed to be a regular task.
Sgt Reynolds, a big man, now with tears in his eyes, turns away, picking up one of the children he walks into the garden. Here is a woman, just thirty-four years old, with six young children, and everything to look forward to, it is all too much for him.
She sits very still, thinking this must all be a mistake. Doctor Ward takes some pills from his bag, knowing that no amount of medicine will ever be enough to dull the pain of what he must now tell this poor young woman. Rosy, looks on from her chair, for once there are no words, just freely falling tears.
Across the road, Mrs Mills, is standing at her gate, drying her hands on her apron, having just hung out a line of washing. She looks and wonders what could be the reason for the Doctors car so early in the morning. She is joined by Mrs Bolton, they whisper to each other, afraid to utter their thoughts aloud.
Another neighbour, Mrs Edwards crosses the road to join them, soon there is a small crowd, all wondering what could be the reason for a Doctor and a policeman, it must serious, perhaps one of the children— Bernard was a child who always seemed to be in the wars.
Meanwhile, at Stepgate’s school, another drama is unfolding; the four children are sitting on a bench in Miss Slaughter’s office, all wondering what they have done wrong. The head mistress is a cartoonist’s idea of a teacher, a tall, thin woman with sharp features, some-one to be feared. But in Miss Slaughter’s case this could not be further from the truth, she is the kindest of women. She is joined by Miss Payne. every child’s favourite, a rather plump young woman in her thirty’s.
The head teacher, unable to cope with telling these four lovely children the truth, simply said there had been an accident—how could she tell them that they would never see their father again. Deirdre looks from one teacher to the other, she can see the sadness in their eyes, her mind races from one terrible thought to another.
The head teacher, tells the the children to gather their coats.
“We need to go home to see your mother”.
The little group leave the school, all very quiet, holding hands, knowing something has happened, but what could it be? As they passed Mr Garrett’s shop, in Pyrcroft Road, Deirdre hears Miss Payne say. “That poor Mrs Weguelin, how will she cope”. That’s all she needed to confirm her worst fears.
“It’s Dad”, she screams, and the children, all in a row, break away shouting for their Mum. They could be heard long before they were seen, running helter-skelter round the bend near the big oak tree.
The two teacher’s running and calling after them to be careful, but they are no match for these children; the crowd is now more than twenty, one lady cries out. “Look, here come the children, thank god they are alright”.
Another says. “Oh no! It must be their Dad”.
The children, still just about holding hands, run past the outstretched arms of their neighbours. Through the open door and onto their mother’s lap, all bewildered— for the awful truth has yet to be told.
Outside the garden gate, the friends were clinging to each other, weeping tears for this poor young family, how could such a thing happen, how could fate be so cruel.
Rosy Salmon—a natural rock for all around to cling to in the bad times, stands on the steps. The policeman beside her, looking down at so many anxious faces, for a moment cannot find the words.
“I’m very sorry to tell you all of a terrible accident, our friend Charlie”.
He stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts, then reading from his note-book, he continues.
“Mr Charles Luz Weguelin, of 75 Pyrcroft road, Chertsey Surrey, died on Woburn Hill, Addlestone, at a quarter past eight this morning”. “It is thought, Mr Weguelin died of a massive heart attack, he passed away almost immediately”.
The sad group linger for a while, Mrs Parker brings a pot of tea and some biscuits for the children, what else can she do? but she feels she must do something.
The Doctor, seeing that the family are being looked after, leaves to drive back to his surgery, the policeman stays, in case he is needed, he is the only man there.
The group of sad faced women start to drift home in ones and twos, three other friends stay with the family, doing what they can to help, but what can they do?
Soon, a sort of calm takes over, the mind in situations such as this, has a way of blocking out things that are too horrible to think about. Tomorrow will be different.
The two youngest children are taken by Mrs Salmon for the night, they know something is wrong but would not be able to understand, even if they were told.
There would be very little sleep this night.