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A letter to America

Barbara Linington Lyons Hardy on the day she left America
Barbara Linington Lyons Hardy on the day she left America

theserpentThis chapter is based on a personal account, a letter that I treasure. It was written on the 23 September 1945 by my mother, Barbara Linington Lyons, and sent to the folks back home. Forget all today’s emails and texts, for me, there will never be a better example of how important it is to write a letter home and, if we all did it occasionally, besides bringing much pleasure to its recipients, think of the record of events we could inadvertently leave for our descendants. Write it well, with passion and content, otherwise it will not be preserved.

Barbara and Wilfrid
Barbara and Wilfrid

But, before I present the letter, you need to find out why it was written. Barbara was a well-educated all-American Girl from a wealthy New England family. When she was 19 years old World War II was raging in Europe and many British Servicemen were being trained in the USA. Moral-boosting coffee mornings were the order of the day and, on Mondays, Barbara and other young socialite ladies helped out at a popular bookshop at 54th Street & Park Avenue in New York City. On some Mondays, they also organised garden parties with dancing at The Museum of Modern Art and it was, at one, on the Monday 11th September 1944 that she met a young English pilot, a Second Lieutenant of The Fleet Air Arm, my father Wilfrid Alexander Hardy. They fell hopelessly in love; it was a true wartime whirlwind romance, and lead to their marriage in New Canaan, Connecticut on 14 July 1945.

Barbara left a very comfortable home and travelled to England for a new life. The photo of her was taken on the day she departed. Hand-typed without correction, the letter was written just after her arrival in England. It shares her great observation, and captures her passion, blind romanticism and spirit of adventure; no greater qualities could she have passed to me, her eldest son.

Barbara wrote the letter on 23 September 1945 having arrived at the home of Wilfrid’s parents at 154 Durham Road, Sunderland.

Hello everybody,

First of all… I have decided to address this particular letter to everyone of you at home as it will describe each moment since I have been away, and will save some time and paper. So, Mommy and Dad if you will be so kind as to pass this around I’ll be much obliged…. There’s a “canny bairn”!!

I think I will start way back when I was struggling on board[1] with my seven coats, suitcases, etc….Pat and I managed, after some difficulty, to find our adjoining staterooms, and immediately found there was no difficulty to change about in order to room together as the rooms were not even crowded.  Each stateroom was fitted out with iron bunks, one on top of the other.  There was a connecting bathroom fitted out with washbasins, toilets, and a cold, salt water shower.  The water would be turned on at seven in the morning, and shut off at eight o’clock at night.  The steward made up your bunks each morning, generally tidied up.

There were only seven of us in our cabin…Mrs. Manning, and her daughter, Leslie, enroute to South Africa with Mr. Manning to live.  Two Scotch ladies, a Mrs. Pritchard (Is that the friend of The Brinleys, Ma?), whose husband was a colonel retired-enroute to Scotland…tres plush…Mrs. Roberts, from Bermuda along with her husband, and six months old baby, called Johnny, who was the pin-up man of our cabin…he was the best little thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and considering conditions he survived amazingly well…we had fun living among the diapers, a good number of children on board, all assigned to various passengers…some definitely showed the strain when we landed.

There were two sittings to each meal, and excellent food considering…I had never seen so much bacon for one person at breakfast in my life.  They were all four course meals, and we soon found they were welcome after a day in the sea air.  Two or three days before we landed Pat and I persuaded our steward (we had excellent service) to find us a “real” glass of milk which he finally managed to wangle off the butcher!  The only things drinkable on the whole boat was tea or coffee, as the water tasted like a mixture of Milk of Magnesia and chloride…ugh!

There were in addition to the civilian passengers 1,000 RAF boys on their way home from the Bahamas…Pat and I became attached to a group of about seven, all married and really wonderful fun…it certainly helped to pass the time away, and we had some wonderful discussions… probably because two were from Ireland, one from Scotland, two from the north of England, and the rest from the South!  The last night they all held a party for Pat and myself, and Jock in his best Scotch brogue gave us a wonderful toast and welcome to England…there were movies each afternoon and evening, and two dances were held on the Promenade deck during the course of the journey…as there were only seven or eight eligible girls for the dancing as compared to about 300 men you can well understand why the master of ceremonies announced about halfway through each dance, “We will have a fifteen minute intermission for the girls”!  One night a group of the boys gave a variety show which turned out to be a great success.

On the whole it was a good trip, although very slow, and the dirtiest boat you have ever seen…By the way Ronnie, I did see the Lieutenant and his wife from Greenwich, looked like a stuffed egg, and Pat and I were insanely jealous of him as he had been permitted to take his wife along with him[2]…/[3]

We arrived at Cherburg, France, on Saturday – no, sorry it was Monday-very early in the morning.  Fortunately it was very clear, and we could get an excellent view of the approach and the land around.  We came to anchor a short into the harbor, and had to wait for a tender transporting the French crew out.  A deadly calm and silence seemed to prevail everywhere, for as far as you could see.  The fields seemed so peaceful and very green, but the visible destruction around would not let you forget the war.   Cherburg had really been hit hard, first by the Germans and then of course by the Allied invasion forces, and it really must have been terrible.  The peaceful green fields, little farmhouses with smoke coming from their chimneys, in such a warm friendly manner seemed to contradict and deny the fact that there had been a war, that there should be overturned boats lying in the harbor, gutted buildings, smoking hangers, and oily water…the tender finally came with the crew, and what a sorry sight of humanity it was too.  There were about 300 in all, each dressed in obviously all that he had for a long time, a carrying one battered suitcase along with him.  There were many in just bedroom slippers, some in wooden shoes, while two had only burlap wrapped around his feet.  After much delay, which we all decided must have been because they were loading on the wine and women for the Frenchmen, we started to get off.   While we had been there, a few old tenders had been circling around us with curious civilians aboard, and it was very amusing, although rather pathetic in a way, to see one or two women so shabbily dressed but with a very bright hat, the very latest style with flowers etc. on.

Monday night we reached England, but we were not able to land much to the great disappointment of every one, and we lay at anchor just off Portsmouth the rest of the night.  It was a beautiful night, with a bright moon, and what a glorious sight to most of the boys who had not seen the lights go on in England for over five years, to be able to stand at the railing and watch them pop out one by one as darkness fell, as though a wand had touched each one.   It was in the afternoon when we first came in sight of land so we could see England as we approached, so well, and what a beautiful sight it was.  The land was so green— just breathtaking.

We docked Tuesday morning at nine o’clock in Southampton-Pat and I rushed up to the deck and upon investigation found that Wilf and Cliff were standing below waiting for us.. I practically fell overboard, thinking it would only be a matter of minutes before we could get off rushed to get ourselves together… but oh no…we got all through with the immigrations at about nine-thirty, and were told we couldn’t leave the ship until orders came through… we therefore waited, and didn’t get off until nearly twelve-thirty.  Wilf’s mother[4] and sister, Elsie[5], were all here to meet me, and it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.  I had no trouble with the customs at all, in fact the man never even looked one bit of my luggage.  He asked me if I had any presents for anyone in the country and I naturally said no, told him I had the bottle of champagne, and also that he might have to take some cigarettes from me as I had six hundred (you are only allowed 150), but he said he would give them to me as a wedding present!  So rather surprised I got through with that in no time and soon was settled on the train with the rest including Pat and Cliff and off to London… Southampton was really hit badly but you can only see very little around the immediate dock areas… The train ride was fascinating, especially perhaps as I had always wanted to ride in one of those carriage affairs.

Once in London we didn’t have a moment to spare as we wanted to catch a five-thirty train out to Durham (Pat and Cliff stayed in), and it took forever to collect our baggage and try and find a taxi to take us across the city to Kings Cross station where we just made the train to Durham… we settled ourselves in for a long ride trying hard to appease our very hungry stomachs on two oranges found somewhere we found ourselves sitting with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle (which is a city about 12 miles from Sunderland), a little old gentleman who amused us/ quite a bit by telling us his family history… he was joined for a while by his friend Sir Marks somebody or other off whom we managed to gain two sandwiches.  Each stop we would make we would grab our cups and rush out to the canteen on the platform and try for some tea (you must bring your cup anywhere these days) and a sandwich…

I finally arrived at 154 at two o’clock in the morning to find that Dad[6] had a nice hot supper ready for us which was certainly welcome.  This is a very nice little house and typical of those you will find around these parts and all over. That is to say, two houses together with a garden both front and back.  There is a living room, kitchen, pantry, bathroom, and three bedrooms.  Wilf and I have the front bedroom, which is really lovely…double bed, wardrobe, dressing table and a chest… Dad and Mother had given us the most gorgeous bedspread you have ever seen for an engagement present…a light plum coloured, a quilted top with draped sides…really lovely.  I am afraid my trunks are all over and I have left my wardrobe in my room, put a cover over it and use it as a chest of drawers by keeping most of my things in it.  It really works out quite well.  A Mrs. Foster, the lady next to us has two empty rooms upstairs and I am going to keep my barrels etc. in there when they arrive, so it works out, and it is no bother to her.

As far as food and clothing go over here.  It is now worse by far since the war is over.  There just isn’t anything.  I think the Hardys here at 154 are perhaps the luckiest family in Sunderland as we are able to get quite a bit more of things than anybody else because of Dad.  But for most people it really is grim.  The clothing coupons are dreadful, as you only get 24 a month and a suit may cost you 26 coupons so where are you?  Besides, everything has gone sky high in price, and it really is amazing, when you look and see the actual value of some of the things.  You have to line up for every single thing you buy for…shoes, clothes, food, everything.

Dad Hardy has got a really whizard greenhouse which he built himself and nursed all through the bombings, and he has an extremely successful crop of tomatoes this year, as well as cucumbers, potatoes, cabbage, while further down the street he owns an allotment in some land where he has grown every thing possible.  He is an avid gardener, and is now planning the flowers and bulbs he can start in the greenhouse.

Elsie, 20 years old, is really a beautiful girl…those picture of her were nothing, and a lot of fun.  She works in the food office by day…she is terribly popular, and has the boys falling over her by the minute…Dad calls them “Ships that pass in the night”!  One Roland, a Lieutenant in the Coldstream Guards is coming up for the weekend…we just got rid of another…just like circles…Mother is a very sweet person, always worrying about something, and like you mommy in that she makes dust appear in some corner!

I have just about finished making the rounds of all the relatives…Grandpa and Grandmother Hardy[7] are a dear old pair, and Grandpa Hardy is really thrilled to death about me coming, and the fact that Wilf married, etc., as (which I didn’t realise) Wilf is the last Hardy in line…he is 75, and walks about seven miles every day, having retired sometime ago, and wanting to keep fit…really wonderful.  All the Aunts and Uncles are extremely nice and I really feel awfully fortunate at being handed such a wonderful bunch of new relatives.

Everywhere we have gone calling there is always a sumptuous tea laid out and I do love those teas…we have about four meals a day you know…and I am suffering…also I do love the coal fires they have over here, and I don’t miss central heating at all and I don’t think I will.

I do like the houses and systems etc.,…the people of the North up here are/ really very nice.  Not as reserved as the people in the South I don’t think, and all have been extremely nice to me…they accept you much quicker and nothing seems too good for you, but I think if you were to prove yourself unworthy then they wouldn’t bother with you…but once they know you, you are in.

Sunderland itself is just another unattractive city, but with very attractive neighbourhoods around it and out where we live, which is about a mile or two outside.

I have opened an account at the Lloyds Bank Limited, one of the big vie…the branch in Sunderland, and I have put the Daisy Pin and the bracelet into safekeeping there.   Wilf decided to keep his post office savings account as he is getting good interest and all his money is in it.   I would have as well, except that I could not have gotten a safe deposit box.

Yesterday Wilf and I went up to Durham, and went all through the Durham Cathedral, and Durham Castle, and it was a thrilling experience to do so.   The cathedral is magnificent, and the castle is like stepping into the past for an hour or two…I fully expected some knights to come dashing through the great halls[8]…I am enclosing a small booklet which I though might interest you all.

A while ago Dad had to make a trip up through the Dollary district and Wilf and I went along all through the winding country roads, and oh! It was so beautiful…we went up through Easington, Blackhall, and Hardun…the country around is so beautiful although the coal mines and collaries make spots rather ugly.

Wilf and I are planning to go up to Harrogate, in York on Monday and I am really looking forward to that as I have always loved York.

Last night we went out with Elsie and her date, and we first went to Marsden a little town set away in the hills along the seacoast, and one of the prettiest little spots you have seen…there is a tavern[9] there carved and made in the caves at the bottom of the cliffs.  You reach the tavern itself by going down in a lift and arriving at the bottom not very far from the waters edge.   The tavern is entirely made out the caves, and really amazing…after a beer there we all came back and on our way to Sunderland we stopped at a little Fish and Chips place where we sat and ate Fish and French Frys with our fingers in the true style…really great!

Wilf is on indefinite leave so we don’t know when the day will come when he will get called back…he expects to return and go into a ferry pool which means he will probably get stationed somewhere with a number of other ferry pilots and just wait and sit around until there might be a plane to fly somewhere…and even that seems improbable…so…

I was unable to contact Thad when I arrived in London as I didn’t really have time at all.  I tried him on the phone but no luck, and I couldn’t wait around.  I have just written him a note and hope to see him if I get back to London soon…I also sent off those clothes to Aunt Muriel[10] and the baby things, and hope everything will arrive satisfactorily.

How is everything at home?  I hope I can get the Advertiser as Wilf and I both would like to see it and keep up with the news etc., How’s Cita?

I believe I will call a halt until some further date when I have some more to tell you all about.  I do love England…at least what I have seen of it, and am terrible happy here.   Everybody has been so wonderful to me, and well Wilf…!!  I am learning the money system[11] quickly enough… I am not know it very well but at least I know enough so no one can fool me!  They have great fun trying to…I am trying to acquire an English complexion and, well, I do love it and am so happy.  Don’t for one minute worry about me…

All love to all of you…and don’t leave anyone out!

Bobbie

 

Elsie Brown with daughter Elsie, unknown friend, Barbara & Wilfrid
Elsie Brown with daughter Elsie, unknown friend, Barbara & Wilfrid

Bobbie, Barbara’s family nickname, and Wilf stayed at 154 Durham Road until the end of October 1945 when he was posted to the Royal Navy Air Station at St Merryn, and they lived in a bedsit in neighbouring Padstow, the picturesque and busy little fishing port on the north coast of Cornwall. They started their married life in this romantic and idyllic setting but when Wilf was demobilised in February 1946 they returned to London where Wilf took up his pre-war occupation in the Civil Service. They had five children, and never did Barbara have a hankering to return to the country of her birth. She died suddenly on 31 July 1965, following pneumonia, at the very young age of 40 years. Naturally, it had a devastating effect on her family. Now nearly fifty years later I can be more philosophical about that loss and reflect on the fact that every family history has its great tragedies but also its joys with letters such as hers.

 

[1] The Ocean Liner SS Ile de France provided five years of outstanding military service carrying up to 12,000 tons of war materials on her fast passage. At the end of WWII, she was used to ferry American and Canadian troops home.

[2] Wilfrid returned to England a week before Barbara on the SS Queen Elizabeth

[3] / (backslash) denotes page break in the original letter

[4] Elsie Brown

[5] Elsie Marguerite Hardy

[6] Wilfrid Hardy

[7] Alfred Hardy and his wife Jane Ann formerly Marley

[8] There are, if not Shepherds, Princes and chivalrous knights in this book – I told you!

[9] The Marsden Grotto, South Shields, Tyne and Wear –  http://www.marsden-grotto.co.uk/

[10] Muriel Calder, Aunt and the sister of Nancy Calder wife of Barbara’s Uncle Harry Van Brunt Smith

[11] £ s p (12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound)