By Norman Smith
This article was published in the April 2018 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
I was born on 14th April 1936 at 9 Lorina Road, Ramsgate in a house rented from the Southern Railway Company, for which my father (Maurice Leslie Smith) worked, as a locomotive fireman. He had joined the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway in 1917 aged 15 or 16. Though he ‘passed’ as a driver in 1938, he did not achieve a full-time appointment as a driver until 1943, moving us to Reading in the process.
Dad was always known in the family as Les, but among his work mates and friends he was often called Mauri while his mother apparently always pronounced his name in the French fashion. Inexplicably, his birth certificate (1901) uses the German form of Moritz, not something to feel comfortable with for much as his life. His family’s origins and connections have remained largely a mystery.
My parents had married in 1922 at St. Luke’s Church Ramsgate.
We were a family of a five, my brother (also Maurice Leslie but always known as Les or Leslie) having been born in 1923 and my sister (Hilda Sylvia) in 1928. My mother (née Ellen Dorothy Solly) was part a large extended Solly1) family in Ramsgate, though this did not include her mother (deceased) or her father (Edward, or, Ted, Solly), by now resident of New Cross in London with his second wife and family, of whom we saw little. The great extent of our Solly relatives can readily be judged by the fact that my great-grandmother, Harriet Solly (née Butler) and her husband, another Edward Solly, had 13 children, of whom 10 were still living in August 19382). In the same month, she also had 41 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. Of course, they did not all live in or around Ramsgate, but enough still did to deter me from trying to count them! The family connection with Thanet was an ancient one and has been traced back to the end of the seventeenth century. They were humble folk, mainly labourers, enlivened by the odd mariner or fish hawker.
My mother also had relatives of her mother’s family (the Reynolds) living in Margate, but we were not close to them. By contrast, my father’s only known close living relatives went to Australia in 1938. The upshot was that nearly all the relatives with whom I was in contact were Sollys, Solly spouses or their offspring. In effect, I was a surrogate Solly.
I was blessed with an excellent memory from a very young age. Though it is difficult to be certain, I am fairly confident that my earliest memories are from before the Second World War. Probably the earliest is of a firework display, which would have been in 1938 or, less likely, in 1939 and possibly in Ellington Park in Ramsgate. Alternatively, it might have been at Southsea where we went on holiday not long before the War and where a Royal Marine Band became impressed upon my memory. I can also recall a pre-war visit to the London Zoo where I had almost certainly been taken to see Ming, the baby giant panda which had arrived in London in 1938. I remember Ming and also the polar bears. It was probably on that or some other pre-war visit to London that I was fascinated by the Horniman Museum and first saw a black person – a man and not in uniform. It was a long time before I saw another.
However, there are at least two other pre-war memories located without any doubt in Ramsgate – a ‘stop me and buy one’ ice-cream tricycle outside our house and getting lost in Marks and Spencer. There was also a bus ride to Canterbury (just before the outbreak of war or just after it) with my Mum and sister to buy the latter a new winter coat at Lefevres (now Debenhams) Store. I found the care with which the bus driver crossed the narrow bridge over the Stour at Sturry memorable.
My first memory certainly related to the Second World War is of a cut-out paper model of some part of the Maginot Line complete with guns, ammunition and French soldiers with kepis. This was quite probably one of my presents for Christmas 1939. I also recall being bitterly disappointed very early in the war because I did not qualify for a ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas mark.
The next year, 1940, was to leave me with an unforgettable set of recollections, starting with the Dunkirk evacuation. It would have been on the 1st or 2nd of June 1940 when I found myself on Ramsgate Station for the evacuation of children. My sister was among those to go, but I was not. I was considered not old enough to be separated from my mother. She refused to leave Ramsgate because she would not leave my father whose job bound him to the town. I do not recall anything about the children but what did impress me was the large number of soldiers on the station, some wrapped in blankets, and loud speaker appeals for bread and blankets. During that period, my father was working about 16 hours a day helping to disperse the defeated troops away from the Kent coast. He later told me of taking train loads of armed French soldiers to Victoria whence they were bussed to Waterloo for return to France via Weymouth.
Though I cannot be totally sure that it was the same day, I have a vague memory my mother taking me close to Ramsgate Harbour, which was crowded with small craft. I have a much clearer memory of being on the West Cliff with her pointing towards France and telling me that the Germans were ‘there’. The weather was brilliantly sunny and the French coast almost certainly visible.
Three weeks later, France surrendered and I have a clear recollection of being with several adults in some Solly kitchen (most probably that of my great-uncle Albert Solly, a World War 1 veteran), one of whom said: “Now it is as it should be – just us and the Germans”.
My sister’s life as an evacuee in Staffordshire did not last long. She was desperately unhappy and threatened to run away in order to try to return home. This led to my mother and me to undertake the long train journey to collect her, partly by night in a blacked out train passing through an area of ‘fiery furnaces’, probably the Potteries. By this time, Ramsgate was vulnerable to invasion and the Battle of Britain in its early stages. Bizarrely as it seems today, my parents came to the conclusion that London would receive priority for anti-aircraft defence and thus be safer than Ramsgate. Hilda was taken to stay with close family friends in Peckham. It soon became clear that was not a good decision. In late August or early September 1940 (certainly after the great air raid on Ramsgate on 24 August), my father went to Peckham to bring Hilda home. It was quite likely to have been 8th September, the day following a particularly heavy over-night raid as they had to pick their way from Peckham to Victoria through the shattered streets; there was no public transport. So Hilda came home, but as her school (St George’s) and other Ramsgate schools had closed her education was effectively at an end.
By this time, my brother was also a railwayman based at Gillingham, after a short spell in the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS). Neither pleased him. His ambition before the War had been to join the Royal Navy, an ambition blocked by our mother. Early in the war, he several times sought to sign up but when his ‘reserved occupation’ status as a railway worker became apparent, he was always rejected. My father told me that when he, despite his age, enquired about enlisting he encountered the same barrier; he was also told it would be a fairly pointless move as he would serve in the Royal Engineers as a ‘sergeant engine driver’, doing much the same job. Both had to content themselves with serving in the Home Guard (or ‘Dad’s Army’ as it later became known). Actually, their day jobs were more dangerous. Both German and British aircraft engaged in the strafing of enemy railway trains. I can remember my brother saying that on one occasion he saw an attacking plane coming and was able to jump from the footplate of a stationary railway engine and take cover beneath a truck.
Though I cannot identify any actual dates, I have many clear memories which I place in the ‘Spitfire Summer’ of 1940 or close to it.
Prominent among them are the following:
Watching the vapour trails of high altitude ‘dog fights’;
Seeing aircraft coming down in flames and not knowing whether it was ‘one of ours’ or ‘one of theirs’;
Watching a parachute drifting down, with the same unanswered question;
Being taken to see a shot-down German plane and thinking how beautiful was its blue colour, with black and white markings;
Observing a Bofors ant-aircraft gun on the railway embankment close to the Margate Road viaduct;
Being dragged through barbed wire somewhere around where Stirling Way is today by my poor sister who was desperate to get me home when she heard the sound of approaching aircraft, which turned out to be British. My thigh was badly gashed and I carry the scar as my ’war wound’ to this day;
Experiencing the aftermath of the great Ramsgate air raid of 24 August, though not the raid itself. My mother, who would not go into the town centre for two weeks after the raid, broke down in tears when I would not eat the meal she had prepared. Everybody seemed to believe at the time that Italian aircraft had participated in the raid, although that is not now widely accepted;
Being taken to see a large gun emplacement on the East Cliff and being told (quite possibly erroneously) that the barrel pointing confidently out to sea was in fact only a telephone pole intended to confuse German aerial reconnaissance;
Seeing stress on my father’s face when I refused to eat any of a duck he had somehow obtained in Ashford;
Being fascinated by a house which had lost an exterior wall, exposing
the bedrooms with furniture still uncannily in place;
Hearing people parodying Churchill’s great speeches.
Soll(e)y is an ancient surname strongly associated with East Kent. The recently published Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland implies that it is probably derived from the Norman French ‘Sully’.
Soul Search for August 2007 (volume 3 number 8, pp. 36-37) carried an article (submitted by Sue Solley) from the Thanet Advertiser and Echo for 30th August 1938 entitled ‘Left Paradise to Bring up 13 Children: Mrs Solly’s Large Family’. See also ‘How Mrs Solly Returned to Paradise’ by N. J. Smith in Soul Search for December 2008 (volume 3 number 12, pp. 39-40).
To be continued….