When war was declared Beryl’s family lived in Lower Radley and Beryl was a pupil at Radley Primary School. At the time it didn’t seem of great importance to her, but she remembers her mother being very upset. Beryl’s father, Fred Stimpson, had served in the trenches during the First World War and it must have reminded her mother of that. He had not enlisted for a second time as he was a railway worker and railway work was vital war work.
At the start of the war lot of people in Radley, including her father, built air raid shelters. He dug a large pit, lined it with corrugated tin, put a roof on it and covered it with earth. It made a wonderful den for the children to play in.
Beryl’s father was killed during the war under very unfortunate circumstances. He was a foreman checker for the Great Western Railway at Abingdon Station. Because so many men had been called up to serve in the war, women were employed to do jobs men normally would have done. One day he saw two women using a large crane to load tree trunks onto trucks. They were finding it hard work as the crane was operated manually by a heavy winch handle. Fred offered to help them because he didn’t like to see young girls struggling. As he was turning the handle the safety catch failed and the handle spun round lifting him off his feet. He died three days later in the Warren Hospital in Abingdon of internal injuries.
The railway company stated that it was his own fault as he should have been supervising the girls doing the work, not doing it himself. Unofficially Beryl’s mother, Evelyn, was told that someone from the GWR sent to investigate the accident secretly replaced the safety catch with another one and declared the crane to be safe. So Evelyn wasn’t eligible for compensation; she was entitled only to workmen’s compensation from his union and nothing could be claimed from the employer. Evelyn had to go to Oxford to claim it and the judge’s words upset her greatly: ‘You are going to be awarded £300 in compensation’, he told her, ‘but you will not receive it all at once because people like you are likely to squander it all immediately and then live off the state’. She was allowed to have £1 per week and two shillings and six pence per week for Beryl until she started work. Beryl was 14 at the time and started work soon afterwards. Beryl’s mother was a very proud person and had never asked for anything from the state. She was told she had to go to work and suggested that she should work on Abingdon Station. She just could not ring herself to do this and so went as a cook in Radley College’s tuckshop. She also took in an occasional lodger, which meant that Beryl had to sleep in the same room as her mother. Beryl had first met her husband to be, David, on the day of her dad’s funeral. She had wandered up to the railway bridge away from the wake and it was there that she met him.
Most people made home-made wine and on one occasion a visitor tried her mother’s dandelion wine and had rather too much. She had to be taken home in a wheelbarrow.
Many people took in evacuees. Beryl and her mother couldn’t take anyone in as they didn’t have room as they only had two bedrooms. Her aunt and uncle who lived nearby took in three little brothers, the elderly couple across the road took in one evacuee, and Beryl’s friend Jean James’ parents a little further down the road took in a girl.
By this time Beryl’s grandparents had died and her two uncles who had lived with them were called up, so their cottage was left empty and it was requisitioned for evacuees. They had two different families living there. No inventory was taken when they moved in so the evacuees just took over what was there. When the uncles came home on leave, they had to move in with Beryl’s mother. This was quite a problem but they managed.
When Beryl was old enough, she worked in an ironmongers (Bottrell’s) in Abingdon, though she found it rather boring as most of the other staff were old men: all the young men were away fighting. So after about two years she got a job at the Oxonian Bakery in Thrupp Lane. Beryl really enjoyed this job as there was a very nice atmosphere there and she was the ‘jam tart queen’. Everything was rationed but the staff worked with what the Bakery could have.
Beryl stayed working at the bakery for about four years and was still working there when she married David. They had to wait until he was home on leave from the Royal Marines before they could marry, so it took place on a very cold day on 30 December 1944 in Radley Church. Beryl had three bridesmaids – Jean Merry as she became, Beryl’s little cousin Ann Villebois, and her cousin Kitty Jeacock. She was fortunate in that she had a real wedding cake instead of the cardboard artificial one that many people had due to the rationing. Because Beryl worked at the bakery, the people there made her a wedding cake with real icing on it. People in the village gave her coupons for some of the ingredients. The reception was in the old village hall.
Beryl felt that her family coped with rationing. They were allowed one or two eggs a week but living in the village there was always fresh produce. Men kept pigs and often slaughtered them unofficially. They also enjoyed fishing in the river. When her uncles came home on leave, they brought their ration books and that helped. Apart from luxuries, people were self-sufficient with most growing their own fruit and vegetables. There was a very small choice of sweets available from the local shop.
Radley in general
Radley was not affected by the war to a great extent. In Sugworth Lane there were ‘ack-ack’ guns and searchlights. Culham across the river had a naval air station and Abingdon had an RAF station, so there were lots of people going around in uniforms. Many of the Americans who came often called in to the Bowyer Arms for a drink.
Miss Cross, the headmistress of Radley School, organised a girls’ club which Beryl joined and there was a boy’s club organised by the vicar. The two clubs and anyone else who was interested took part in events such as concerts and dances put on to raise money for the war effort.
One day when Beryl was about 16 when she returned to work in the afternoon having cycled home for lunch, she was met by hordes and hordes of people coming the other way down towards the river in the opposite direction to her. It meant she had to walk instead of ride as she could hardly move for all these people. All these people had come to see an unofficial Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race finishing at Radley College Boathouse (the war meant the Boat Race couldn’t be held in London). It was reckoned that about 7,000 people descended on Radley that day.
Mr and Mrs Edwards ran the Bowyer Arms during the war years. The pub and the village hall were the hearts of the village. People made their own fun in those days. Children could play in the road as there was little traffic.
There were often floods in Lower Radley and the Bint family from the boathouse sometimes had to go by boat into the village for provisions. One day she was amazed to see swans swimming in her garden but they never had floods in the house. It was difficult to see the line between the ditch and the road when flooded, so it was quite adventurous walking into the main part of the village. Quite often the families put a plank over the ditch and then walked in the field. There was some skating and sliding when it froze.
The river provided a source of amusement and the children used to go there via Common Lane. They climbed trees and made dens in the fields. The radio was used for information and entertainment. These were battery radios and it was Beryl’s job to take the accumulator to be recharged at the bungalow opposite the Bowyer Arms. They listened to the radio when it was too cold to go out.
This account is based on an interview of Beryl with Mary Blanks on 20 October 2003.