Patricia Cole: The Arrogance of Youth

My mother Patricia Cole passed away in 2006. I came across this ‘blog’ in which she described her time in London at the height of the war in 1944. I was amazed at how her style of writing was so like my own. I hope you enjoy it. I know she would have been delighted to see her words in print.”

We were interviewed in Belfast – good secretarial qualifications and a broad education were required – we satisfied the requirements. It was in early Spring 1944 and the four of us, the three Bradley sisters and myself ‘ imbued with the spirit of youth and adventure’ arrived in London to join the staff of the American Forces Network.

The journey via Larne -Stranraer-London was a nightmare.’ U-boats ‘ bobbed up and down as the ship made its way down the lough. We listened with racing hearts as the Captain gave instructions as timageo what to do if the ship’s bell sounded four times.  Getting into a life jacket was a difficult and uncomfortable manoeuvre. The train journey was no different as just outside London the train stopped. We were informed that an air raid was in progress and it was then that I began to have doubts about leaving a comfortable home and a reasonably good job.

At Euston station we were met by a representative of the Women’s Voluntary Service who had arranged accommodation for Una, Joan, Norah and myself. We were taken by underground to Oxford Street by a Mrs Slator.  Standing at the top of the escalator looking down at that moving steel animal I was petrified. ‘ Be sure to step on, don’t catch your foot ‘ advised Mrs Slator. I can still remember the fear and that stayed with me for almost a year after I arrived in the war-torn, doodle bugged London.image

We had promised our loved ones that we would stay together and we were lucky. Motherly Mrs Slator escorted us to Muswell Hill and into a big comfortable bedroom containing a double bed and two stretcher beds. We must have been asleep for hours when the dreadful drone of the air raid siren awoke us. Mrs Slater was yelling for us to either go to the garden shelter or scramble under the stairs.

My kindly old aunt had given me a small Pond’s cold cream jar filled with ‘holy water.’ It had been a source of embarrassment to me when I opened my case for security when getting on the boat. At three o clock that morning it became a comfort to all of us, the Slater family included, even though they were Church Of England.image

The following morning we took a bus to Marble Arch and walked to the side entrance of the Grosvenor House Hotel. The Americans had taken over the back portion of the premises. We entered a reception room where there were quite a number of other girls. Una and Joan, being older and more sophisticated, were delegated their duties quite early. Norah and I waited and waited and to our horror we were informed that a miscalculation had resulted in an over recruitment of personnel. I felt absolute despair for the first time in my young life.

Is your journey really necessary?   This was the slogan we read as the stations flashed by. We were en route to Manchester. For two weeks we had slept under the stairs or out in the shelters as merciless flying machines crossed over Muswell Hill. It would take too much space to relate our misfortunes, suffice to say we all had suffered enough.image

How we got tickets for the train remains a mystery. There was a ban on travel  – no homeward sailing from the Mainland and only a distance of sixty miles from London. We arrived in Manchester at 12.30 a.m.having missed our connection at Crewe. The other passengers, mostly Army and Navy personnel, disappeared quickly leaving us girls standing on an empty platform in the middle of a city were all transport ceased at 11.00pm.

Una remembered that her mother had sent a Christmas card every year to an Uncle Frank who lived in Blackley. We were rather tentative about turning up on the this man’s doorstep but decided we had no option. Listening to our conversation, an elderly lady porter interrupted. ‘ Not tonight dears, you will have to do with the night shelter.’

She walked with us to the entrance of the shelter and we followed her up a bare stone stairway. We paid one shilling each for a bed and were shown into a long stone covered room, much like a dormitory. The four of us occupied one cubicle sitting on our cases and hoping we would still be alive in the morning. We imagethought of home and how arrogant we had been when we had been cautioned about our undertaking. It was the worst night of my life. We were offered numerous swigs from bottles of what we presumed to be wine. When we refused we were admonished for ‘ being too good for the likes of us’

We left at six a.m. It was almost dawn. After a wash in the station washroom and as it was Sunday, like good convent girls we looked for a church. We sat at the back, noting that it was full of soldiers. A priest was delivering a sermon in what we took to be Polish. In the comfort of the church, knowing that here we were safe, we all fell asleep.

I was awakened by an old Priest shaking my shoulder. He asked were we were going so early in the morning. imageUna told him we were heading for Blackley and asked him if by any chance he knew a Dr Frank McGlade.  ‘ Is it Frank you’re looking for? Sure I know him well. Doesn’t half of Manchester know Frank.’ Within the hour  we were driving up to Old Road, Blackley and into the motherly arms of a silver- haired Scottish lady. Dr.McGlade was friendly but a little distant. Next morning we were quizzed about leaving London. After hearing our story, he rose from the table and rang the authorities in the Grosvenor hotel in London. They admitted that the two of us had been overlooked and that they had tried to contact us to see if we were safe.

It was then that the stern Irishman who had fought in India became a second father to four exhausted Irish girls. We were unable to travel home so we were offered accommodation with this lovely couple and we set about finding jobs. As I had been a law secretary back home I began work with Howard Pink and Co. Solicitors.

It was November or December before the ban on travel was lifted. We immediately applied for tickets but with the demand out weighing the supply we had to spend  Christmas in Manchester.  In the first week of 1945 we sailed for home. Ironically we were treated as ‘ heroines.’ Only our families were told the true story of our wild adventure. Letters were censored in those days so they never knew the truth until we arrived home.

Broadcasting House London Broadcasting House

Three months later an advert appeared in the now defunct Northern Whig looking for secretaries for the BBC in Belfast. I was interviewed and three weeks later received a letter asking me to present myself at the BBC in London. This time my mother insisted that my brother accompanied me to make sure that both my job and my accommodation were secure. I spent four and a half wonderful years in the Drama Department of the B.B.C. in Broadcasting House,  but that is another story. I was also on the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace on VJ day. There was much laughter and singing as the country celebrated being at peace once again.


11 thoughts on “Patricia Cole: The Arrogance of Youth

  1. With all respect, Victoria is the terminus for southern England. Arriving from Stranraer, people would have gone to Euston.

    But a fascinating story of what things were like in those days. Thanks for posting.

  2. My Heavens! As JT says, it could have been you who wrote this ‘blog’. I’m sure your Mum would have loved today’s technology, bet her blog would have been hair raising!

    1. I’m just sorry she didn’t write more. I think she could have told some great stories about her time in London.

  3. What a remarkable piece! My favourite part was the holy water in the Pond’s cold cream jar that even the C of E family availed themselves of. My County Monaghan mother would have loved to have read your mother’s recounting: Mother lived and worked in London with her two sisters all through the war years – that is where she met my father, a Canadian in the Air Force. You surely inherited your writing ability from your mother!

    1. Thank you Tara. Looks like a lot of our mums headed to London during the war. I’m sure they could have told some great stories if we had only the wit to ask.

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