An Alien in Quinton

By Doreen Crowder (nee Willetts)

Back in 1937, at the age of 10 years, I set sail from New York City, aboard the M.V. Georgic, to sail to England together with my parents, Len and Win Willetts. My father had emigrated to the States in the spring of 1921 and my mother joined him in the autumn of 1923. She arrived on the 2nd November, travelled north to Troy, N.Y. State, and they were married the next day. I was born in 1927 and became both an American citizen and British through having British parents. Later in my life this was to cause quite a problem, but that is another story.

For family reasons and the growing threat of another war in Europe, my parents decided to sell up and return to England. We docked at Southampton on the morning of 22nd April 1937, to be met by my paternal grandfather. We spent that day and night staying with my mother’s aunt and uncle who lived in Newport, Isle of Wight. All I remember of that visit is being at Carisbrooke Castle and watching a small donkey on a tread mill bringing up a pail of water from a deep well; then being given a penny to purchase a couple of biscuits to reward the donkey for his labour

On the 23rd we set off to drive to Birmingham, or to be more precise, to Bearwood, to the home of my mother’s parents, with whom we were to stay for a short while until we got our own house. Of that journey my only memory is of driving through Stratford-on-Avon and seeing lots of flags and bunting decorating the streets. Apparently I asked my granddad if they were for me arriving, to be put straight that, ‘No. They are in honour of Shakespeare’s Birthday and St. George’s Day’. That date and all it commemorates is firmly implanted in my mind.

As we got close to Bearwood, approaching from Lordswood Road, my mother exclaimed at seeing the new Belisha beacon crossing, which was being newly installed.

We arrived at 19 Richmond Road, Bearwood at about teatime, to be greeted joyously my grandmother and several of my aunts. I know there was a splendid meal and a cake and after I was taken to play outside in the road with my youngest aunt. Margaret, who was not quite 2 years older than me. There she introduced me to other neighbouring children and into the intricacies of the game of French cricket. This game has been ever popular in our family and has been played with and by my children and grandchildren.

After about a week to ten days, mother took me into Birmingham one day, and we went to the bus stop, which used to be by St. Paul’s Church in the Bullring. There she put me in charge of the conductor of the Midland Red X96 Wolverhampton to Northampton bus. I was to travel to West Haddon a village between Rugby and Northampton, where mother asked the conductor to put me off, and where some cousins would meet me. I was to stay a week with them and my aunt and uncle who ran the village general stores. I arrived safe and sound, spent an enjoyable week and was returned by bus the same way as I had come. I was met at Birmingham by mother and went by bus to our new home at 42 Barston Road, Quinton. This was to be my home throughout my growing up years and for two and a half years after I married, until John and I could get a house of our own in Monckton Road in the April of 1953.

The next thing was to get me enrolled in school. At 10 years old I was a top class junior. Mother duly, one morning, took me along to Quinton church school. We saw Mr. Clarke, the then headmaster, whose office was through a door a little way along from the entrance to the Old Burial Ground. After some talk mother departed and I was left with Mr. Clarke, as I remember him, a rotund, jovial man with round glasses. He took me from his room around the side of the building and through another door with a latch rather like that on a side garden gate, and into the classroom of the oldest junior students.

The door opened into the back and to the side of the children sitting at desks that were made for two. I was walked along the rows of desks until I was at the front and facing about thirty pairs of eyes staring at me as if I had just landed from a space ship. E.T. could not have made more impact.

Those of you of my age may remember how schoolchildren were dressed in those pre-war days; the girls in plain skirts and blouses or a pale ‘Miss Muffet’ print dress, short white ankle socks, pale coloured ribbons for their hair and plain brown sandals. The boys usually wore short trousered suits of either grey flannel or navy blue serge, knee socks, lace up shoes, ties that were knitted in stripes and belts which fastened with a kind of snake clasp. Now try to imagine my arrival. A tall skinny child of ten, with recently permed brown hair like Shirley Temple style of curls, dressed in a royal blue coat trimmed with brown fur with matching hat in the style of a U.S. sailor; very bright striped socks, soft brown kid shoes with narrow tee bar strap fastening. Beneath this I was wearing a brightly patterned cotton dress, again a Shirley Temple model and a thin brown cardigan with tiny silver buttons. Wow! No wonder everyone was staring.

The class teacher, another man, and I had never had a male teacher before, called out one of the girls and instructed her to show me where to hang my coat, etc. The girl was called Muriel Tranter, I think, and she duly took me in hand. She led me out of the classroom, around the corner to a small brick shed like extension to the school building where there were pegs to hang up your coats and a few washbasins. Then I was introduced to the toilet facilities. These were across the playground and were a brick built row of toilets. Never in all my previous school life, and I had attended two different schools, had I had to go outside to hang up my outdoor clothes or visit the loo. What a culture shock that was. In my other schools, each classroom had its’ own cloakroom off the classroom with clothes pegs, and a couple of wash basins and toilets.

Returning to the classroom, overseen by the teacher a Mr. Ashman, I was given the desk next to Muriel, and so began my short school life at Quinton church school. I did wonder at the rest of the class seeming so wary of me, and it was not until many years later, when I was an adult, that my dear friend Mary, also a pupil in my class at the time, told me that whilst I was being shown the cloakroom the class were told to be very careful how they treated me as Americans were very temperamental people!

It was in this class that I wrestled with the very complicated method of dealing with the adding and subtraction of £.s.d. It took me a lot longer to ever manage to multiply or divide English money. No one was more thankful than I, when decimal coinage came into being here. My writing too was very different. I used a sloping, loopy flowing hand, where here the writing was up and down straight, based on script printing which I had never learnt. Also the marking of work right or wrong was very different a tick here was to indicate something was correct, where a round written capita C meant the work was correct in America. A tick indicated it was wrong, and here that was shown as a X. Very hard to get used to.

I managed somehow. A thing that my classmates were quite intrigued by was my umbrella. It was quite the latest American novelty. It was bright orange and made of oiled silk and had sixteen ribs, where most umbrellas only had eight. It also had at the end, a handle made of some sort of plastic in the shape of a serviette ring, which was sparkling like glass. My friend Mary told me that when I was not around some of the girls used to feel it when I had brought it to school on a wet day.

One thing I did dazzle them all with was my prowess on roller skates. I took them to school one day and showed off in the playground. I could skate pretty well and had also learnt to tap dance on skates and my performance was greeted with great respect. Skates in 1937 were quite a rarity.

I stayed at Quinton School until the February of 1938 when I had to leave. Something to do with my birth date and mother had to find another school for me, a senior one. Doing that is quite another story in itself.

I have many fond memories of Quinton, and over the years have seen it grow. When we moved into Barston Road there were no houses opposite us, and a few months later when they were being built, I, and others who lived around used to play there. Climbing the scaffolding and great enjoyment was found in throwing stones or pieces of brick into the huge lime pits that were there.

Now, the alien is quite naturalised and only on occasions do odd Americanisms slip out, or I speak on the phone to an American friend I am told I immediately lapse into my old Yankee accent.

Ed’s Comment – Another fascinating reminiscence from the typewriter of Doreen Crowder, long may they continue – thanks Doreen.

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