This time you more or less get two for the price of one!
I’m Maureen Thompson, wife of Ray, who puts the Village Pump together. As an RAF Officer, Ray was posted to different bases in different countries. So though I always had plenty of responsibility supporting him, I don’t think I can say I had ‘a career’. Well, read on, and see what you think.
I’m the first born of Robert and Connie Watts. Both my parents were the seventh child of their parents, my grandparents. My Dad was a radio repair man with a side line in wind-up gramophone repairs and piano tuning. My Mum was a barmaid in spite of being teetotal.
Grandad Watts was an engine driver for the LNER. Occasionally he had the honour of driving the Flying Scotsman. One of his ancestors were said to be involved in the construction of the Suez Canal
A real stroke of luck changed my parent’s lives. Dad won £400 on Littlewoods Football Pools in 1935 and at that time this was enough to pay a deposit on a house in Rugby, to buy a small car and get married.
Mum and Dad lived in that house for the rest of their lives and I was born there. I must have been reluctant to enter the world. For my first few years, I had scars from the forceps used to persuade me to come. My Dad enlisted in the RAF when WWII began in 1939 and was posted to Malta, so it was five years before the next baby, my sister, was born. Three more babies came along, and finally, a brother. The last two weren’t born until after I was married and I’d had my first baby.
Perhaps because many teachers had also joined the forces, my first school, Eastlands in Rugby, gave us little education. As Dad was away in the RAF and Mum had to help the war effort by working at Lodge Plugs as well as taking in lodgers, there was little scope for them to make up any deficiency.
But Dad had taught me to knit and to use a sewing machine, both really useful skills, so I became proficient at making my own clothes. I’ve photographs of my son in a knitted two-piece, and my daughter in dresses run up from various remnants.
At 11, I moved to Dunsmoor School where, once again, education was minimal. I can’t remember being taught how to write correctly, though I was always a voracious reader. In my teens, I’d often read 2-3 books a day, and must have been the keenest user of Rugby Library. My overriding memory of Dunsmoor School is the Headmistress. A no-nonsense disciplinarian who was determined that none of us would become a secretary. For some odd reason, she considered that to be the lowest of the low.
When I left school at 14 I went to work at British Thomson Huston (BTH) where I trained to become a photographic assistant. I spent many tedious hours touching up black and white photographs of various machines the company was developing – and looking forward to the clocking-off alarm so I could return to my books.
Being naturally shy, my parents encouraged me to join the Rugby Theatre where I spent several years working in the wardrobe department. I learned all sorts of tricks. How to make hats from sanitary towels and dresses out of curtain material. I also made a lasting friendship with a girl violinist in the theatre orchestra. Later, she was one of my bridesmaids.
BTH ran two social clubs – the ‘Firs’ and the ‘Laurels’. My friend and I heard that they ran dancing classes at the Firs and decided to join. So, in 1955, my life changed dramatically. Some young RAF technicians were posted to BTH to learn the technicalities of what was then a secret radar system being designed to be the UKs ground to air missile defence system. Some of this RAF contingent decided to learn ballroom dancing. One of them introduced himself as Rocky Thompson. I told him I didn’t like nicknames so what was he really called. He said he was Raymond John but his family called him John. Being pig headed, I said ‘Well I will call you Ray!’
After a somewhat stormy few months – being a red-head (or, I insisted, titian headed) I had a fiery temper – I finally agreed to marry him.
We were married in the Parish Church in Rugby on 22 September 1956. It is imprinted on my brain for two reasons besides being my wedding day. It was the hottest September day on record. My poor Mum had bought a tweed suit for the occasion and sweltered in temperatures around 80 degrees. I had made my four bridesmaids dresses. Whilst pressing them that morning, I scorched one of them. Panic stations all round!
We managed the rest of the day unscathed, though Ray forgot to wear his service cap for the photographs. We then left for our honeymoon in London, staying at the New County Hotel in Russel Square. All that week the heatwave continued and I bought new sandals to cope with the hot London pavements. We spent happy hours in cartoon theatres, museums and restaurants where they had air conditioning.
Back home, we then went to Leicester to a small flat we had rented because Ray had been told that he would be based there. To our surprise, the flat had not been prepared because the owner had thought we wouldn’t take it after the RAF turned it down as a ‘hiring’. We spent the night in Leicester before high-tailing back to Rugby where Mum had found us a place.
Having left BTH because I’d be moving to Leicester, I needed a new job and found one with Armstrong Siddley in Coventry, doing the same sort of photographic work as before, but with the added burden of daily commuting. Eventually, I found a job in Rugby with a portrait photographer – Roger Hungerford. Colour photography was then in its infancy and my job was to ‘tint’ black and white portraits to give the appearance of a colour photograph.
We moved again in Rugby before Ray was sent back to the Radio Research Establishment in Malvern. By then I was pregnant with our first child and suffered severe morning sickness. Looking back, I guess the doctor prescribed Thalidomide. But thankfully trying to take the tablets caused further sickness and our daughter was born without Thalidomide deformities.
When Carol was 5 weeks old, we sailed for Australia on the SS Arcadia so Ray could rejoin his unit in Woomera. This was the first time either of us had gone abroad, and we sailed from Tilbury on 13th April 1958 – the very day my brother was born. The trip took five weeks and we visited Port Said in Egypt – the first boat to pass through the newly re-opened Suez Canal. We visited Ceylon (Sri Lanka) before finally reaching Adelaide in South Australia early in June. There was almost a mutiny when the Australian officials insisted that our 10 week old baby had to be vaccinated before she could come ashore.
We had sailed with another member of Ray’s unit, Russ Thompson, and his wife Hazel. The four of us and Carol ended up in the quaintly named Tomlin Flats in West Adelaide. They were hardly flats but converted balconies with shared bathrooms and toilets. The landlord had been one of the Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese in Malaya and spent almost 4 years as a prisoner working on the infamous railway. On his return, he was a 6-stone bag of bones significantly different to the 15 stone hunk he had been. After a few months in Tomlin Flats, our friends were allocated married quarters in Elizabeth, a suburb of Adelaide. A few weeks later, we were allocated a bungalow about 100 yards away. Unlike the migrants, who were initially housed in large hostels, we RAF people were allocated brand-new bungalows provided by the South Australia Housing Trust. Even the furniture was straight from a local store under a government contract!
We stayed in Australia for almost 2 years, with Ray working full time at Woomera. He took a flight from Adelaide to Woomera every Monday and flew home each Friday afternoon. The reason being that the water supply to Woomera flowed through a 4-inch pipe from Port Augusta,150 miles east of the missile range. To allow the water tanks to refill, it was essential to reduce the population of the base every weekend.
I was kept busy looking after Carol who had very bad gastroenteritis. At the same time, I had to force myself to eat fillet steaks! The US forces had cancelled their contract with Australian meat producers, leaving them with quantities of steak to off-load to the public at vastly reduced prices.
At the end of the missile trials, we were offered the choice of a flight back to the UK via Singapore, or to sail back through the Panama Canal. We chose the latter and enjoyed a 7-week holiday calling in at New Zealand, Lima in Peru, the Panama Canal, Easter Island and Bermuda. The food was excellent. Ray put on a stone and a half.
Back at Tilbury just before Christmas 1959 we totted up our finances and had just 10 shillings (50p) between us. As we wondered how far that would take us, there was a knock on our cabin door. An RAF officer had come to give us rail warrants to Rugby, and 3 months back pay to cover the trip and Ray’s disembarkation leave. So we travelled back to Rugby to be met by Mum and Dad and my new brother.
In the New Year, Ray was posted to RAF Trimingham in Norfolk. He found us a flat in St. Mary’s Road, Cromer, where I stayed with Carol when he was recalled to Woomera to complete the final live firings of the missiles.
While he was away, I attended my sister’s wedding and was struck down with a nasty bout of dysentery. My landlady then told me that she was selling the house and I had to find somewhere else to live. The RAF Trimingham Family Officer found us a holiday flat in West Runton and my friends helped me to relocate. Of course, there were no mobile phones and very few land line phones at that time, so I could only let Ray know my change of address by letter. He didn’t know where we were when he returned in March to our previous address to be told that I was in West Runton, address unknown. Thankfully, when the taxi dropped him off, he went into the local shop to enquire if anyone knew where I lived, and bumped into me just as I had finished shopping there.
In 1962 we moved on to RAF Trimingham where we were allocated a condemned prefab. laughingly known as airmen’s married quarters. The only plus was that we paid a reduced rent. The walls were paper thin. From our bedroom we could hear the clock ticking on next door’s mantelpiece. In 1963, Kevin, our second child was born there just after Ray had been posted to RAF Dunholme Lodge in Lincolnshire. Again, Ray found us a house in Monk’s Road in Lincoln, until we were allocated married quarters at RAF Scampton. It was a brand new house. Builders rubble still littered the garden. The lino floor covering took months to clean and polish.
Two years later, Ray was selected for Officer Training and posted to the OCTU at RAF Feltwell in Norfolk. We saw him a few times during the 4 months training and then I had to endure the frightening experience of his graduation parade. I found that all the wives were as nervous as I was, which made things a little easier.
After graduation, I went back to our married quarter at Scampton and Ray went to the RAF Technical College in RAF Henlow. He found us a small bungalow in Hitchin for the rest of his stay at College. My memories of that house are – a frequently overflowing septic tank, and a badly strained back which kept me in bed for weeks. Not easy with a 3 year old to look after.
Ray was then posted to RAF Locking in Somerset in 1966 to help set up the new style technical training for RAF Apprentices. We lived in semi-detached Officers’ married quarters with no central heating and spent the winter wrapped in blankets and huddled round a small electric fire.
The following year Ray was chosen to be one of the Commanding Officers for the new Satellite Communication System, known at SKYNET. He spent 6 months at SRDE Christchurch in Hampshire before we left for Singapore in 1968. By this time we had adopted Dawn, our youngest daughter. All five of us flew out to Singapore by BA. The 16 hour flight with 2 small children and one teenager was very tiring.
In Singapore the whole family was booked into a single room in a hotel. My first priority was to buy clothing suitable for the hot and humid Singapore weather. After a month, we moved into a small flat in Serangoon, which suited us much better. A couple of months later we moved into the CO’s house at RAF Amoy Quee.
For the first few days at Amoy Quee I was quite frightened. The previous CO had met us with the news that our host had been bitten by a hornet and rushed to hospital. We never saw one in all our time there but snakes were frequent visitors. So were chit-chats and voles the size of a squirrel and lots of soldiers in camouflage crawling through our back garden on exercise. Apparently, soldiers need a ‘bushy topped tree’ for their orientation and our garden had the only one in Singapore. The base at Amor Quee was about 500 acres and was infested with snakes, mostly cobras. On one occasion, the kids, myself and the dog tracked what seemed an innocuous snake, until Ray arrived at which our dog plucked up courage and leapt at it. It reared up revealing the typical cobra head.
Whilst there, Ray took over the running of the Seletar Theatre Club. I was roped in first as prompt or wardrobe, and then to acting in the various plays we put on every 6 weeks. In 1970 Ray was promoted to Squadron Leader and posted back to the UK.
Back here, Ray attended a further advanced course at the RAF Technical College, now at RAF Cranwell. We found a nice looking house in Rugby, but when we moved in it was filthy. The cooker looked antique, but when cleaned it proved to be almost new. The previous tenant had never cleaned it or the floors, which were thick with hair. One bed was missing a leg and was propped on a brick.
When Ray completed his 6-month course at Cranwell, he was posted to RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire where he served two 3-year tours. The first in the Radio Introduction Unit where he explained the latest computerised message switches. The second as System Engineer in the Headquarters of the Defence Communications Network. We were allocated a Married Quarter and found to our delight that it was about to be provided with a new oil-fired central heating system. We were warm in a UK house for the very first time.
During our stay at Medmenham we became fully involved in the Amateur Dramatic Club and led the construction of a small but comfortable theatre from the shell of an old wooden Church. Ray produced and acted in most of the plays. I was either prompt or actress as the need arose. On one occasion, our leading lady had a nervous breakdown the day the play was due to open. I stepped in for her part holding the script. The only complaint was that the audience didn’t need to be told I was holding the script because they hadn’t noticed!
Whilst at Medmenham, I answered an urgent appeal to help in the kitchen of our school. For about 6 months I found myself working as an assistant to a tyrant of a chef. When she left, I took on the responsibility of the school canteen, including development of menus to meet the stringent dietary requirements, ordering the raw materials and cooking for some 60 or so pupils and staff. I spent almost 2 years as a school cook before escaping for a few months to work in a lady’s dress shop in Marlow.
Ray was posted to Cyprus in 1975 to take over the command of No.12 Signals Unit. Our arrival was overshadowed by the recent Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus and the death of Archbishop Makarios. Because of the danger to civilians, most of Ray’s airmen had to repatriate their families back to the UK. This left some 250 young airmen desperately in need of counselling and help. So I became mum to all the young lads on the unit, talking to them when needed, sewing on buttons and repairing uniforms, a 24/7 duty which had a significant impact on my health.
Once again, Ray took over the station Theatre Club and put on several plays each year. He also acted in and produced a series of Shakespeare’s plays on behalf of the Limassol Committee for Chest Diseases. These were staged annually in the Curium Amphitheatre. For these Curium events, I usually ended up in the prompt hole wrapped in protective clothing with a torch and a spray to deter rampant spiders, my pet hate to this date.
When our civilian wardrobe mistress, Elizabeth Oram – previously of the Windsor Theatre – decided to write a play for me called appropriately ‘Copper Knob’, my terror knew no bounds. Frighteningly, my part included solo singing. I died a thousand deaths in each performance but got good reviews, I think.
Whilst we were in Cyprus, our eldest daughter married one of Ray’s airmen. He was welcomed into our family from day one. An Army Chaplain conducted the service and, at 6 feet 7 inches in height he harangued the congregation from the pulpit on their responsibilities. The wife of one of Ray’s officers, always a wag, said he frightened her so much she dropped her cigarette!
Our love affair with Cyprus ended in 1978. Ray was posted back to the UK to serve in the NATO Headquarters at Northwood in Middlesex. We moved into a married quarter. For once we had little involvement with the station activities. We needed time to recover from the strenuous efforts of Cyprus. The first year Ray attended monthly meetings at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, which kept me well supplied with my favourite Brussels chocolates.
He was then withdrawn from NATO to work on the development of the new RAF-wide communication system, which meant being posted to the Ministry of Defence in London. My health was still poor after all the stress of Cyprus. After much debate, I was admitted to the RAF hospital at Halton for a hysterectomy. My recovery from this took longer than expected. It was several months before I got back to my normal level of fitness.
Ray was promoted to Wing Commander in 1981, and headed the branch responsible for special signals units throughout the UK and the rest of the world. He attended meetings in Berlin, Cyprus, Germany and clandestine locations in the UK. In 1982, he was posted to the staff of HQ RAF Germany at RAF Rheindahlen. Initially, we lived in a very modern flat off base, but after a few months moved into a married quarter on RAF Rheindahlen itself.
These quarters had been built under the reparation agreement made at the end of WW2 and were to German specifications. As a result, they all had basements which continually filled with water, and none of them had garages.
We enjoyed our 3 years stay in Germany but it took time to get used to the culture. For example, it was an offence to hang out washing or mow the lawn on a Sunday. Shops closed at noon on Saturday and didn’t re-open until noon on Monday. Pedestrian laws were strictly enforced by local policemen. We got fined on the spot for jay walking in Munchen Gladbach and I was often ticked off on base for cycling in a non-cycling zone. But we had free access to Holland and all the lovely shops and restaurants which, to our surprise, were more like those back home.
Our youngest daughter got married whilst we were at Rheindahlen and with our son Kevin away at University, which left the two of us on our own for the first time for over 25 years. We made the most of our freedom with frequent trips around the more fascinating parts of Germany. We enjoyed eating out and sampling the various foods in the area, especially the chicken and frites from our local fast food outlet.
In 1985 Ray was approached by a UK Company to take over the management of one of their newly created Defence related offices. As a result, he resigned his commission and we returned to the UK after his 34 years in the RAF. We bought a house in West Perry, on the banks of Grafham water, and Ray started work in Hatfield some 45 miles away, having been provided with a company car and fuel paid for by the company, too. I spent my time turning our new house into a home and collecting several cats to complete my family. I joined the local WI and spent most of the first few months making new friends.
Three years later, in 1988, Ray was asked by a larger defence company to join them as a Defence Sales Executive. So we sold up and moved to Winnersh, near Wokingham in Berkshire. Once again, I joined the WI and made new friends. By now, our children were scattered far and wide and we made the decision to relocate to Norfolk in preparation for Ray’s retirement. After several months of searching, and frequent trips, we found our ideal home here in Stoke Ferry. We were completely bowled over by the friendliness of local residents and couldn’t ask for better neighbours. For Ray, this completes his circle. He was born in Norfolk. For me, it was the opportunity to change my ‘townie’ upbringing for the delights of rural Norfolk. I have filled my house with dogs and animals which fulfill my lifelong dream.
Despite our long involvement with Amateur Dramatics, I can’t watch such performances. I loved attending the theatre in the West End whilst living in Berkshire but have frequently been disappointed by performances staged in King’s Lynn. We were regular visitors to the Thursford Spectaculars every Christmas, but became disillusioned by the ever-increasing cost and lack of innovation.
On the other hand I am an avid watcher of soaps or the various American CSI shows on TV. And I have recently returned to my early love of reading using my faithful Kindle. My favourite authors are James Patterson, Michael Connelly and JD Robb.
And I now have 9 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren, all of whom love to come to visit. It is fascinating to see the change in confidence and knowledge of modern children when compared with how I was at that same age. Perhaps some things really are better.
Regarding my favourite food, I still love the occasional MacDonald’s, presumably because such delights were not available when I was young. I also love Pizza Hut and the Hungry Horse in King’s Lynn. I love the delicious fresh cooked fish and chips Ray gets each Friday from our local Fish and Chip shop.
Fast approaching my 80th birthday, my favourite holiday is here in my own home. I have found there is nothing to beat my own bed, with my small dog. Oh, yes! And the old man for company.
Edited, on behalf of the Editor, by Jean Marler