Ronald Basil Girdler

1925 - 2017

Helene Girdler

1927 - 2020

School Holiday Farm work


In the summer of 1944 Barbara and I and my friend Mary spent a week in Berkshire on a farm helping with the harvest under a Ministry of Agriculture scheme. The farm was near Kingston Bagpuize and I remember it was very hot on the day we arrived there and we had a very long walk from the station carrying our suitcases. Accommodation was under canvas and we slept on straw palliasses. I can still recall the smell of early morning in the sunshine when we emerged from the tent for breakfast. We were taken to the fields on the back of a wagon and we spent some time stooking corn (the corn was still in sheaves in those days) and we had to pick the sheaves up from the ground where the binding machine had left them and pile them upright in wigwam formation. It was hard work but the sun shone and it was good to be in the open air. Other days were spent in potato picking and that was even harder as we had to collect the potatoes from the ground where they had been dug up by the tractor and load them into buckets. When the buckets were full we tipped the load into sacks which were placed at intervals round the field. It wasn't too bad when the tractor first started at the outer edge of the field, working round the edge towards the centre, as we were able to have a rest on the sacks till the tractor .came round again. But as the undug area became smaller and the tractor worked its way in ever decreasing circles, there was less and less time for a break until we were working non-stop till the whole crop had been collected.

Another day was spent picking apples, another day we loaded stooks of hay from the hay wagon onto the ricks and that really was tough. If you were lifting the hay from the top of the wagon onto the rick with a pitchfork you found that the sheaf you stuck the fork in to lift was invariably the one you were standing on, and if you were standing on top of the rick the sheaves would be thrown up at you and you had to place them in some sort of order, and again you'd be standing on the very one that needed moving. And the sun still shone. One day we picked blackcurrants and it was on this day that we worked alongside some Italian prisoners of war. They spoke only broken English and we spoke no Italian but we still managed to communicate. When we stopped work to eat our sandwiches by the hedge at the edge of the field Barbara told them that it was my l7th. birthday that day. One of the P.O.W.'s brought out a guitar - goodness knows where from - and sang me a serenade.

We also came across some American soldiers from the camp nearby and they entertained us very well, especially since they all fell for Barbara, who had always had an eye for the boys. They took us to their Stores where they offered us tinned peaches - unheard of in England since the war started - and all sorts of other goodies. They drove us around the countryside in an army ambulance, and a good time was had by all, especially Barbara and the soldiers!. What a drag it must have been for them to have Mary and I tagging on wherever they went! At the end of our official week at the farming camp Barbara thought it would be a good idea to stay on for a further week in a local B&B house, Mary's parents wouldn't allow her to stay (they had probably heard about the American soldiers!) but I had to go where Barbara went so I stayed with her, and spent a not very happy time playing gooseberry.

Celebrations took place on the occasion of Shakespeare's birthday during my time in the Sixth, and because the school was in the parish of Southwark with which he had connections, we were involved in the celebrations. There was to be a service in Southwark Cathedral which was to be attended by King George the Sixth, Queen Elizabeth and their two daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, All the local schools were to provide horse-drawn floats on which children would be hauled along the streets to the Cathedral, and all the children were to be dressed as characters from his plays, Our school was to portray "Henry the Eighth" and I was dressed as Anne Boleyn, The costumes came from the theatrical costumiers and were quite elaborate and very beautiful, but I felt that the neckline of my gown was rather too low, However, Sister Mary who was our "dresser" assured me that it was fine and so we set out on our journey to the Cathedral. The streets were lined with cheering crowds, with Mum and Dad amongst them. in truth they were waiting to cheer the Royal family, but we all got a cheer and a wave in the meantime, and we basked in our moment of glory. On arrival at the Cathedral we waited for the Royal family, who stood on a balcony, the Queen wearing lilac chiffon and the two princesses in A.T.S. uniform. A right royal occasion.

Leaving School

It became clear that I should have to decide what I wanted to do when I left school. John was still at Medical School and told us of his experiences there and subsequently of his hospital work as a student. it all sounded wonderful and exciting and I decided to follow in his footsteps. During the final year at school I sat an entrance exam for one of the London Medical Schools. One of the questions was "Who is Paul Klee?". I had no idea and most of the other questions were equally difficult. I failed. I also applied to Sheffield Med. School and went there for an interview. This I found quite an experience never having done anything like this before. It had been arranged for me to stay there overnight, but as the interview was over by the late afternoon I decided to return home the same day. I arrived home late in the day to find the front door bolted and everyone asleep and it was quite difficult to wake Dad up! I did not get a place at Sheffield either, owing to the large number of returning service - men taking preference for available places that year, but was offered an opportunity for the following year. I declined the offer, feeling that another year was too long to wait. As it turned out I had plenty of time.

Mum and I often went shopping in Golders Green together. Food and clothes were still rationed so that the shopping list was limited, but even so, as there were 9 or 10 people at home most of the time there was quite a lot of weight to carry. In the days before Supermarkets however, most of the shops delivered the orders to the door, and as Mum was considered to be one of their best customers she was offered anything special which they happened to have in stock that day. If bananas or oranges were available - a very rare occurrence - we would have some, and have them delivered, whereas other occasional customers would have to queue once word had passed around that some were for sale, After the shopping was done we would go to the coffee shop and she always bought me a chocolate eclair, which has always been my passion. Sometimes we joined the queue for a pair of nylon stockings which had just come onto the market, and once word got round the district the queue would stretch right down the High Street. The nylons were always seconds, and sometimes there was quite an obvious fault such as two stockings which did not quite match, but such was the demand that nobody seemed to mind!

Starting work

Exam time came around again at school and once again I failed the Chem. and Physics. There was now no possibility of going back to school and I had to think seriously about what to do next. I wanted to do laboratory work of some kind but the Labour Exchange (now known as the Job Centre) had nothing to offer in that field, so in the meantime I started working for Dad, who by now (1946) had workrooms in the West End in Welbeck Street, which was near Baroque’s offices in Henrietta Place. Het and Shirley were also working with Dad there, so it became quite a family affair. Mum was at home and looked after Linda. Shirley and I were always late for work and Dad used to get very annoyed with us!

I was still working there at the beginning of 1947 during the time which came to be known as the winter of the Big Freeze. The weather was bitterly cold for some weeks, with heavy snowfalls. Some days the temperature would rise lust sufficiently to partially thaw the snow and at night would freeze solidly again. Our bus Journeys to work were horrendous as there was no of the roads, and the bus tyres would slither from one icy snowy the next and progress was exceedingly slow. There was also a severe shortage of fuel of all kinds and there would be power cuts at any time or the day lasting for several hours. Gas pressure was reduced and coal was rationed. At home we all huddled round a single bar of the electric fire when power was available and wore our overcoats by candlelight when it was not. Cooking was very difficult as it took ages to heat food up with low gas pressure, and all the time outside temperatures hovered around freezing point. Spring took a long time to arrive that year.

Leslie opened a photography studio in Highgate and I helped to prepare the shop for opening day. It was he who suggested that I apply to the manufacturers of photographic chemicals for a Job in their laboratories, and so it was that I started my first job, in the Spring of 1947, at Johnsons of Hendon. Here I worked with Doris who became a life-long friend. She was engaged to Alex, an Austrian refugee who worked in the Development lab at Johnsons, and who was to prove very helpful to me later on.

Doris and I worked in a small dark-room on what would now be known as Quality Control, a term unknown to us at the time, where we tested the efficacy of developers and fixers which had been produced in the factory, by mixing the chemicals according to instructions and developing and printing a given photograph - it was of a team of horses pulling a plough. We also prepared photographic slides by framing them with passe-partout. We were however not overworked, and I began to teach myself Russian during the quiet periods. The Soviet Union at that time was extremely well-loved, its people having suffered terrible privations at the hands of the Nazis. They fought bravely during the war and lost several million people, both soldiers and civilians. Their leader, Joseph Stalin, was affectionately known here as "Uncle Joe", and sometimes "Joe for King!"

I found Russian very difficult and never got very much further than recognising the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet and a few common phrases. I soon became rather bored with the job and when the young man who worked in the Chemistry laboratory was called up (conscription was still in force) I lumped at the chance to take his place. Here I worked under Miss Wright, a grey-haired  middle-aged lady, one of the few women in her age group to have achieved such status in what was very much a man's field. I found out later that she had been engaged to a man during the first World War who never returned from the battlefield.

In the lab I carried out many of the tasks I had learnt to do in the Sixth Form, such as acid-alkali titrations, and testing for impurities in the various chemicals which the Company produced. This was a much busier place than the previous Job and I met many more people, most of them men, which was quite a novelty for me. One of them worked on the photographic side of the business, and he once asked me if I would like to pose for him in his studio during the lunch hour. Miss Wright was rather appalled at the idea but I was very naive and somewhat flattered, and I went along. I found that he really did want to take photographs in various fully-clothed seated positions, and I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed myself in this job, it being the first time I had ever had to stand on my own feet.

I had no friends in the neighbourhood, but was still in touch with my school friends Rebecca, Pat and Mary, who all lived on the other side of the Thames in south London, We would meet most Saturday afternoons in the West End, where we visited the Art Galleries and various London Sights and always ended up at the Corner House in the Salad Bowl at Leicester Square for a meal. Here you could help yourself to as much salad stuff as you could eat, which frequently turned out to be far more than you could manage.

During this period I received an unexpected letter from Dennis whom I had not seen nor been in contact with since I left Leytonstone in 1936. He was in the Royal Navy in a ship "showing the flag" off the Greek coast, and had asked his mother to find out where I lived. She looked in the London Telephone Directory and found us without difficulty. We corresponded for some months and met when he came home on leave. We always met in Leicester Square Underground by the ticket office, for his home was in Redbridge in Essex, and London was about halfway between there and Golders Green. The first time I met him I asked him to wear his uniform so that I would recognise him and I thought he looked wonderful in it! After we had been seeing one another for a while, however, I had to tell him that I thought we should not meet again because we had very little in common and his politics were quite contrary to mine; he told me that politics didn't matter, indeed his parents had never seen eye to eye on that subject. And he asked me, perceptively I thought, whether I had met someone else. I had, in fact, met Ron. I never saw Dennis again.

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