I concentrated on Jim’s war years as these were relevant to both a life story and the letters. The diaries for 1939 – 1945 are school exercise books. This meant she could write as much as she liked for one day. If she missed a day, she could always catch up when time allowed. These books were to be the key in ascertaining Hugh’s identity.
Jim’s first wartime journal had a red, marbled-effect cover. This was to be her diary for the next nine months. She had started it on the very first day of the war. In her distinctive handwriting, in black ink, she made her first entry.
1939 Sept 3rd Sunday Declaration of War with Germany
At 11.15AM the P.M. announced that Germany had not replied to our ultimatum with regard to their withdrawal of invading forces from Poland therefore we were at war. Nothing much happened as we were all prepared and all naval and military had been called out on the Saturday. I reported at Brackenwood and left my telephone no. Many wireless announcements including that of schools being closed.
Despite the closure, staff had to attend school to make black-out curtains. The following day Jim reported at New Chester Road Girls’ Secondary School, Bebington, where she had held a teaching post since 1932. I had already sifted through many items of Jim’s memorabilia and discovered the details of her career. There were documents showing she had trained at St Mary’s College in Cheltenham. Over the years, she had kept the various versions of her curriculum vitae. I could track all her teaching posts up to the present one.
Jim was born in Southampton but the family had moved to the Wirral in 1912 when she was three years old. She was then the youngest of three children. Her father, William Roy, bought a pair of houses in Bebington but rented them out. The family moved into a house in Wallasey, a town at the mouth of the Mersey on the north-east corner of the Peninsula.
The last baby arrived in 1915 – Guy was to become my father-in-law.
Towards the end of the First World War, William was working in munitions in Birmingham. For safety, he evacuated the family away from Merseyside to the hamlet known as The Belan, near Welshpool.
Y Llys, meaning a court or hall, faced east overlooking the Severn valley. We visited and a kind lady showed us round the tiny church. The one room had doubled as a school and we asked if there were any records going back to the First World War. The lady pulled out a wooden box from under a table. There were no school registers but a small notebook had survived. It contained the Choir Accounts. A list of donors for the Christmas Eve Carol-Singing of 1918 showed that Jim’s mother gave three shillings.
After the war, the family moved back to the Wirral. Two certificates from the Royal Drawing Society show that Jim was attending Herman House School in Rock Ferry from about 1920. I also found a school photograph dating from about that time showing Jim and her sister. A book in Bebington library has a different picture of pupils at Herman House. This, on which Jim also appears, enabled me to identify the photograph. Her home was one of her father’s houses in Bebington which remained in the family until 2002.
World War Two begins
Now, in 1939, Jim was experiencing the beginning of a second global conflict.
1939 Sept 4 Monday Reported at school 9 A. M. Nothing much doing. Left early and went for a swim. Heard that the Athenia with 1,400 passengers was torpedoed off the Hebrides. On board were 1,000 women and children – there were 300 Americans as the boat had put in at Liverpool to take them home to U.S.A. Spent rest of day seeing that car lights were blacked. The Dee looked very beautiful, the water coming in like mercury. Went up to Rob’s at night. Could see the balloon barrage very clearly from his land. Went to bed for a good read and rest ready for ARP tomorrow night.
SS Athenia left Glasgow destined for Montreal and stopped at Belfast on September 2. Leaving the following day, she had reached a position 250 miles west of Ireland when torpedoed by a German U-boat. Despite listing to forty-five degrees, the ship stayed afloat for fourteen hours. Vessels that responded to the distress calls picked up some survivors but insufficient lifeboats and stairwells blocked by chairs and tables led to the great loss of life. This incident prompted Canada to declare war on Germany.
Rob was Jim’s elder brother who ran a poultry farm nearby. In the following days and months, Jim put into practice the training she had undergone that summer for Air Raid Precautions. It was no longer necessary to report at school every day and she often did a night duty at Brackenwood House, the site of the local Golf Club run by Bebington Council. Tractors were soon to plough up the fairways and make way for the cultivation of vegetables.
Jim spent time studying for St John’s Ambulance Brigade examinations and it became a regular thing to ‘listen in’ to the news. On September 18 she heard that Russia had entered the War and of the sinking of the aircraft carrier Courageous. More than five hundred crew perished. Jim also mentions her grant of extra petrol rations. It was at this time that she received news of her award of Honorary Associate of the Royal Life-Saving Society. Personal successes in swimming and diving and services to teaching and examining led to this prestigious award.
I was making progress in cataloguing Jim’s paperwork but also started reading Hugh’s letters. The first raised a number of questions.