My name is John Henry Edwards. I was born on 29th May 1931 in a grocer's shop in Henry Street in Aberbargoed, South Wales. I was the son of and Violet and Harry Edwards , an ex-miner whose father, Charles Edwards, made his fortune supplying the Great Western Railway Company with timber for their railway and tunnel projects. My father was running the grocer's shop; I was probably remembered by the locals as the little boy who used to like to sit on the front steps of the grocer's shop with no trousers on, at least this is the story that my sister used to tell me in later years.
When I was still an infant my family moved to Chepstow in Monmouthshire and took up the tenancy of a public house that was called the Queen's Head. The address was Moor Street. I don't know why but they left to me in the care of my Uncle John and his girlfriend in Aberbargoed.
Caption Mother Father Edna and I (about four years old)
I'm not sure just when, but before I was five and ready to start school I joined my parents in Chepstow. My first school was the church school that was down the bottom of the town next to St. Mary’s church. My eldest sister, Doris, was given the task of seeing me to school, and on one notable occasion she left me at the top of the school street where they were building the new cinema, and it had a nice pile of sand on the building site. Further inquiries determined that I hadn't actually got to school and had spent the day playing in the sand.
At the age of seven I was transferred to Chepstow Boys School. I spent the next four years preparing for my 11 plus which in those days was the make-or-break of the scholar. If you passed you went on to secondary school; the local one was called Larkfield. If on the other hand you failed then the school took no further interest in you, they just turned you out to be factory fodder for the local shipyard or brush factory when you got to be fourteen years of age.
My elder brother Clifford had already passed and was attending Larkfield and was hating every minute of it, constantly complaining about the amount of homework that he had to do and everything else about the school, as a result of this when it was time for me to do the examination, I just didn't bother, I don't think I put one mark on the paper, because I had decided it just wasn't worth going to such a horrible place.
Clifford by this time, being three years older than me, had learnt to make homemade explosives that he used to pack into pipes, and explode down in the Castle dell, which was our usual playground. Its entrance was an iron gate off Welsh street, its facilities were a fountain where we could get a drink of water, a set of swings, some sort of monument, and the seven sisters, an old tree that had seven trunks just opposite the playground.
I remember falling off a wall and rolling to the bottom of a
slope through banks of stinging nettles, my short trowsers did little to protect me and I was stung all over, my friends took me to the fountain and applied dock leaves and water. I survived but i did'nt like it.
First sex--------occurred when I was twelve years old with a skinny little schoolgirl and as neither of us knew what we were doing it didn’t amount to much but nevertheless very enjoyable
Cinema abuse-------although I say I had my first sex at twelve years old there was an incident when I was even younger maybe ten when I was abused by a young serviceman in the local cinema it was not a serious incident he just wanted to use my hand for a short while to obtain some relief as it was during the war I considered I was doing my bit for the war effort
Our special gathering place was a cave overlooking the river that we could only get to by climbing over the railings at the rear of the castle. We then made our way in an upriver direction for about 40 ft hanging on to the trees until we came to a small cave which had a stone slab like a table top in one half and then narrowed back to nothing at the rear. It was a great place for smoking, which all the boys used to do regularly. If we couldn't get any cigarettes, we would smoke anything that we could find, including a climbing plant we called smoking cane that had no particular effect but was hollow and we could keep it going as we puffed. When I got to the age of 12 I decided that smoking was a silly idea and gave it up completely.
Life for me as a young lad living in Chepstow in the early Forties was quite exciting, I could boast that my eldest brother Charlie was in the Marines and fighting in the war, he was serving on a battle cruiser called HMS Repulse. He volunteered to join the Marines with his friend, a lad called Sam Sully, they had volunteered before the start of the war. We had an old Colster Brands radio which was on top of the chimney breast in the kitchen at the Queen's head, it was on this radio that we heard the sad news that the Repulse and another ship called the Prince of Wales had been sunk off Singapore by Japanese aircraft. We had no news of Charlie for about two years, but eventually we received a telegram from the Red Cross to inform us that he was a prisoner of war, having been captured by the Japanese when Singapore surrendered, the sad thing was Sam Sully was never heard of again.
My other brother Clifford and I slept in an attic bedroom with no electric light, but it did have a dormer window which overlooked the street outside, and a strong smell of carbolic soap, which my mother used to hoard in case there was a serious shortage, so every night we took a candle to bed, Clifford had hurt his back playing rugby at school so he asked me to rub some Sloans Linament on the affected area, he was three years older than me so he should has known better anyway when pouring the liquid on his back I accidently ran some down the crack of his bum you should have seen him leaping around the room calling me all the names he could think of.
The American forces were building up their strength in England prior to invading France and the road outside was a near constant stream of vehicles heading East from the Welsh ports, the most interesting were the giant earth-moving equipment which was to big to go through the Norman arch, part of the town wall, whilst still loaded on the transporters, which resulted in them having to offload the giant bulldozers in the square on our side of the arch, then reloading them on the other side having driven them through separately, one day there was a tremendous crash when a lorry carrying what looked like copper percussion caps by the thousands, ran away downhill and crashed into the next public house up the road which was called the Green Dragon.
The Queen's Head was next to the police station and occasionally they would put stray dogs into the prison exercise yard, and on hearing them barking I would very often get the ladder and look over the wall to see the dogs. My father being ex-miner, used to get a coal allowance which was delivered by the cart load two huge carthorses would struggle to reverse the cart load of coal up the cobbled incline which led to the coal store, I remember the noise of the horse's hoofs as they slipped on the cobbles and the shouting of the delivery man. The supplies from the brewery were delivered by a Foden steam lorry, if you stood at the front of the vehicle and looked underneath you could actually see into the firebox, these vehicles were operated by the Cheltenham Original Brewery.
At this time during the war all school children were encouraged to save in National Savings, every Monday you took what you could afford to school to buy National Savings stamps that you collected on a card, you could then exchange the stamps for National Savings Certificates. To supplement my saving I used to take to school satchels full of apples from our orchard, these were mainly cider apples, not very nice, pretty sour and not very large, they sold like hot cakes in the school playground for one half a penny a time, the trade got so brisk that I appointed a seller, my friend Brian Grasby to carry on trading, whilst I dashed back home on my bicycle to get further supplies.
During the long hot summer holidays, which seemed to go on forever, my friends and I used to spend our time at a farm owned by Farmer Jones just outside the town at the top of Welsh street which was a hill which we spent many happy hours going up and down on our four -wheeler's, as we used to call them, just a plank with a pair of pram wheels fixed across the rear with the other pram axle attached to a piece of wood which swivelled in the centre for steerage, this you achieved by pushing with your feet supplemented by a piece of rope for hand steering.
There were virtually no cars on the roads at this time, very few people had a car prior to the war, and if you could get a petrol ration, it was very meagre, so cars were a novelty, I remember at the top of Moor street there was a doctor living and of course doctors did have a petrol ration that was the only car that I can remember, I remember the garage just down the road, next to the Greyhound public house, which had one of those petrol pumps were you delivered the fuel by first pumping by hand, a gallon at a time, up into a glass container, it then ran by gravity down the pipe and into your tank.
To help of the war effort the public was encouraged to collect vast quantities of blackberries and a rose hips, my father being into all sorts of moneymaking ideas ran a collecting station where people could bring their baskets of blackberries and rosehips to be exchange for cash. My father used to tell us about how hard life was when they first moved to the Queen's Head in the 1930s, he tells of having to push a handcart around the streets delivering any beer by hand. Indeed we still had one customer, an old lady called Mrs Thirkettle, who lived in Garden City that I used to deliver two bottles of Guinness to on my bicycle after school.
My father even tried opening up a fish-and-chip shop on the nearby housing estate called Bulwark. My father also used to rent out the various parts of the outbuildings, for example we had a cobbler with a little kiosk in the stable I used to spend hours wathing him repair shoes, with a mouthfull of brads and a flat file to drive then in with, and up the yard in the big garage, a company that used to assemble furniture, at another time this garage was used by a company that used to pluck chickens, I remember that well, there were feathers everywhere. We had our own chickens of course and very often my father would kill one for Sunday dinner, having chosen and caught the bird it would be tied by the feet to the first tree in the orchard, always in the same place, my father would then proceed to use his penknife to cut the throat of the bird through the back of the mouth, it was then left to flutter and bleed to death because this was supposed to produce a more palatable meal.
My parents were very busy running a public house and had little time for their children, they were busy every evening, and the only family meal we had was on a Sunday afternoon when the public house was shut for the day, the American forces had taken over Chepstow Racecourse and turned it into a camp, this was very good for the trade in the public house and my father could sell as much alcohol as he could get hold of, I remember him complaining that the spirits allocation for the week came in one that small crate, less than a dozen bottles. His remedy was to make his own wine, the method was to fill an old Brandy cask with cider and add a few bottles of Ribena, to add some natural colour. This he could sell to the Americans as red wine, at an enormous profit. The only problem was that the Ribena was a blackcurrant concentrate which was only issued to children and expectant mothers, this prompted trips to friendly chemists in the neighbouring towns for black market supplies of Ribena. My father took me with him a few times to Usk market.
I used to go with eldest brothers wife, Elsie to Newport where her son little Charlie was attending hospital, he was a sickly little toddler and saddly died shortly after, at
another time we had a trip in a police car to take a female prisoner to Abergaveny, I do not think there were any female police officers in those days and Elsie went along as a female escort, and I just went along for the ride.
I remember buying my first gramophone record when I was about eleven it had to be ordered from the local music shop and was called the Warsaw Concerto it was the theme music from a film that I had just seen. I bought the record with money that I have earned working for the gents outfitters in Beaufort Square I think it was called Hardwicks, I used to deliver parcels all round the town on my bicycle, this bicycle was the wartime utility model which I had for a 10th birthday whilst in Billericay it was all black the handlebar grips had no rubber, they were formed into the metal.
My mother used to send my brother and I to the Sunday school in the Church which overlooked Beaufort Square and later my mother persuaded me to join the church choir at St. Mary’s, I couldn't sing a note, I'm sure that I am tone-deaf, the music teacher used to say to me “ John please don't sing, just stand at the back and move your mouth” I didn't mind going because practice was held in the evenings when it was pitch black because of the blackout and I was provided with a powerful torch which I could shine up at the church tower, also they bought me a new long blue mackintosh which I used to wear with a white silk scarf, I thought I was the cat's whiskers.
By the time I was 13 and a half it was decided that I would leave school, six months early and go to Weston-super-Mare to join my mother who had left Chepstow to set up a hotel in the anticipation of my father retiring. My father was an ex-miner who was suffering from the lung disease, silicosis, this was not helped at all by having spent several years behind the bar, public houses in those days were drinking and smoking dens, the front bar had an open coal fire, spittoons on the floor, which was covered in sawdust, and there was no such thing as air conditioning, you literally could not see across the bar for the smoke.
The school leaving age was 14 but because I had so little time to go it was decided that I wouldn't bother to go to school in Weston-super-Mare and I spent quite a lot of my time travelling between Chepstow and Weston-super-Mare, I would carry to Chepstow the wine and spirit allowance, together with the cigarette allowance which my mother could obtain by running a hotel, and on my return I would be carrying fresh vegetables particularly fresh eggs which were virtually unobtainable in Weston-super-Mare. These my mother used to preserve in a concoction called Izingglass The trips involved me in carrying two large suitcases each way. I travelled in style, I had a taxi from the garage owned by Bob Gunning opposite the hotel, to the local train station, where I boarded a train first to Bristol, and then to Severn Tunnel Junction, here I had to change trains to go back the other way, up the Wye Valley line, to get to Chepstow. Very often there were no trains so I had to catch a Red-and-White bus instead. Red-and-White was the name of the bus company.
As an indication of the level of interest, when it was time to provide a birth certificate for school, it was discovered that whereas previously I had always celebrated my birthday on the 31st of May, my actual birthday was on the 29th of May. I never witnessed any sign of affection between my parents all through my childhood. Neither did I ever witness any arguments or even disagreements.
Chepstow Boys' School was a terrible place the only saving grace was the fact that because the war was on by this time, there were evacuees from Birmingham sent to the town, and they had by good fortune brought some of their teachers, who were much more like teachers than the specimens we had in our school, they introduced us to such things as art and games, and made life so much more interesting.
About the teachers, one I do remember from Birmingham, was the middle-aged man who had a cork arm, and was not adverse to tapping you on the head if he thought you had made a silly mistake, he was in general are very nice man.
The man who was supposed to be my teacher was also the town mayor and also had the task of cataloguing the county's library books, so if he wasn't engrossed with his duties as town mayor he was surrounded by huge crates of library books which required sorting, his method was to get all the schoolboys to lay out these books on their desks, we would wait for him to call out a title, whilst we scanned the books we had for a match, when you found one you were instructed to place it in such-and-such a crate, and this went on day after day.
Another example of the inadequacy of his teaching was the that if he was busy with the town mayor's paperwork, to keep the class quiet he would write on the blackboard columns of large numbers about seven digits long, and give us instructions to take the first number on the first column and multiply it by each of the numbers in the second column, a task that was guaranteed to keep us busy for the rest of the day. I don't ever remember ever having these checked, because I'm sure he wasn't interested in whether we got them right or not.
The headmaster's name was Mr Stevens nice enough man kept himself to himself, if you were really wicked, Mr Stevens would take you into the cloakroom and proceed to give you as many whacks as he thought necessary on your backside with his cane. The common classroom punishment was to be caned on the hand, twice for a minor misdemeanour, and so on to the maximum of “Six on each hand for you my boy”.
The cane was always in full view hung on the side of the blackboard and it was not something to be taken lightly, the method was that he would hold your hand at the wrist, so that you couldn't pull your hand back at the last moment, with his right hand he would take this light cane, swing it back to well above his head and aim to hit you just across the last joint of your outstretched fingers, he was very good at it. If I think back I can still hear the swish of that descending cane.
The monotony of this was only broken up by the fact that we were at war, we dug slit trenches in the fields just beyond the concrete apron that surrounded this school, and we had endless gas mask drills where we lined up in the school yard and learnt the best way to stop your gas mask steaming up, this was to rub spit and soap inside the bit of Perspex which allowed you to see through the front of the mask.
The gas mask became part of my life I carried it everywhere, first of all in a cardboard box and then later in a tin can with a piece of string which I tied around my neck, They used to line up the whole school in the playground for ten minutes of gas mask drill, we tried everything to stop the Perspex steaming up I think the best was dry soap polished in, fortunately there was never any need for me to use it in earnest.
We were required to give blood for the war effort, we had model tank making competitions, I joined the St John's Ambulance Brigade to learn first aid and because I was being taught to type, by some old lady who lived down by the castle, I was recruited to be the Secretary of the branch of the St John's Ambulance Brigade. They also used me as one of the casualties during a rescue exercise, I was supposed to be injured and lying in the bottom of the keep Tower in Chepstow Castle, they had to rig a hoist mechanism to pull my stretcher up one side and down the other of the castle wall. The same old lady tried to teach me to play the piano, this was at the insistence of my mother, I myself having no interest in playing the piano whatsoever, the dear old lady and I soon came to terms, I would attend, she would get on with the housework, and after an hour I would go home.
Because there was never anybody about in the evenings to get any food other than the bread rolls filled with Spam or cheese that were sold over the bar and at the jug and bottle, as the hatch to the yard was called. In fact the first task that I had every day when I came home from school was to go across the square to the bakery in Welsh street and collect a big basket of bread rolls, my mother had cut up so much bread and bread rolls that she had a huge callous on her index finger from the back of the knife.
I very often ate at the local fish-and-chip bar, which was down opposite the new Gaumont cinema, this I attended at every opportunity, they changed the films on Mondays and Thursdays and there was also the special children's programme on Saturday mornings. So I used to go to the cinema three times a week, the first 10 or so rows in the cinema were charged at one shilling and 3p, the middle block was one shilling and 9p, and at the back you were charged two shillings and 3p, there was also a balcony but I cannot remember the tariff.
From the school playground because it was on top of the hill we could watch the rocket firing typhoons of the Royal Air Force doing their practice firing at floating targets which were moored in the River Severn, if it was dark and there was a raid on Bristol we could see the glow in this sky from the fires that were caused. We only had two bombs anywhere near Chepstow, one was a high-explosive device that came down in the woods on the side of the River Wye just upstream of the castle, and the other one was a thing called an oil bomb that struck a cornfield well outside town.
I and my group of friends went to visit both of these sites and managed to find several pieces of shrapnel embedded in the trees from the high-explosive device, the oil bomb was less interesting just a big patch of corn burnt black in the field.
The air raid warning sirens were sounding quite regularly and many a night I have spent down the cellar of the Queens Head, which served as our air raid shelter, and pretty primitive it was to, a terrible stench of stale beer and a couple of candles for light.
An interesting little aside is the fact that whilst we were playing host to hundreds of evacuees from Birmingham, my mum and dad in their wisdom chose to send me on my summer holidays, to help my eldest sister Doris who lived in Billericay, Essex, in an area which came to be known as “buzz bomb alley” due to the amount of V1’s that droned by in the sky at any hour of the day or night. The first time I went I travelled on the train with Doris who had been visiting, but the second time as I was now nearly 10, it was decided I was big enough to go on my own, the journey involved a train journey to London, taking the underground to the other side of the city, and then another train journey to Billericay, all this in 1941 at 10 years old.
Doris was running a small holding with her husband George, they were growing vegetables and sometimes corn, I quite enjoyed my stays with her, and one year I even went to the local school for a few weeks, a novel experience for me as it was a mixed school, and I was not used to studying with girls, the geography class was entirely new to me and I now know more about Australia than any other country, for another holiday my brother and I went to stay with Uncle John and Mrs Teawag in Coventry, one of the most heavily bombed cities in England, say no more.
George was also a special constable who gave me some interesting souvenirs of his wartime duties, one item was a fuel pump from a German V2 rocket, a little three gear pump with a centre drive gear with a square drive shaft, probably a liquid oxygen pump. Another item was an electrical airspeed indicator generator from a Messerschmitt 109 fighter. Beside their gate at the smallholding there was a pond and in the mud on the far side of the pond one could see the top half of an incendiary bomb, it stayed like that for several years. In the barn, in pieces, was a Fordson tractor that he was trying to get going, he also had one of those two wheel long-handled Trusty tractors.
I was very interested in the milk girl from the farm up the hill, she was about 15 and we used to go up to their farm to help with the harvest, and every morning early she would visit to deliver the milk, I used to sleep when in the house was behind the sofa in the lounge for protection against flying glass and her footsteps on the gravel would wake me every morning, the other place four year old Hazel and I slept was in the Anderson shelter in the garden.