Following on from Auntie’s holiday journals in my previous posts, here is a record of another journey undertaken by two spirited women a few years later: my mother, Eleanor, and her best friend, Joan Hayward, rowing up the river Thames in a skiff in the summer of 1941. This copy is a photocopy, as the original was kept by Joan, who left it to the Imperial War Museum when she died just 3 years ago. But I am very glad to have this copy. It’s amazing to think of these two young women, just 18, embarking on this trip in the middle of wartime. Not only do they row the length of the Thames from Berkshire to Oxford and back in two weeks (139 miles in all), but they camp inside the covered boat at night.
Both women were keen Girl Guides and Sea Rangers, who had met on Eleanor’s first day at school in London, after she moved there from Yorkshire aged 10. A cruel teacher (described in Mum’s memoirs as “a small white haired woman, plaited hair like earphones, wearing gaiters and with an apparent dislike of children”) humiliated Eleanor in front of the entire school’s assembly, mocking her Yorkshire accent as she was made to recite a poem. “The rest of the morning was misery, but Joan was waiting for me as we left the hall at lunchtime and cheered me up tremendously with her friendship”. This friendship was to last the rest of their lives. Joan sympathised, as she had had a similar experience when her family moved to London from Middlesborough after the death of her father in an influenza epidemic. Both women were keen sailors; Joan joined the WRNS during the war and went on to marry the ferryman at Poole Harbour, settling there and raising a family. Interestingly, Joan never lost her northern accent, whereas my mother, traumatised by her school experience, spoke RP English for the rest of her life and sounded like the Queen.
Their wartime adventure begins at Maidenhead, where they stay overnight in a youth hostel. The next day Mum’s brother Murray and a friend cycle from London bringing Eleanor’s camera and ration book, which she had left behind. (The ration book, indispensable in 1941, is one of only a few references in this holiday journal to the fact that there is a war on). The 2 women hire a skiff named “the One-O-Nine” from the boathouse and row as far as Cookham Lock accompanied by “the boys” on their bicycles. After a thunderstorm during which they take shelter in the boat, the boys return to London and the girls carry on as far as Temple Lock where they stop for the night. Two young women travelling unaccompanied are often the subject of attention from men, not always unwelcome; on this occasion they get “a visit from the R.A.F. – all five of them!”
The next day they row as far as Wargrave Marsh despite frequent thunderstorms, during one of which 3 people from a neighbouring waterlogged boat “fell into our ark and stayed until the storm was over”. Following a sunny afternoon, writes Eleanor:
“During tea we broke adrift and Joan by her heroism saved the life of all aboard by wading into the deep. We found an ideal spot for supper and prepared same. The joy-of-a-camper’s-heart refused to be either coaxed or bullied. We pulled it, poked it, emptied and filled it but still in vain. After repeating operations for an hour the stove capitulated and we got busy. The shepherd gave us a social call, cigar an’ all, but he didn’t get his pie.
We eventually got to bed at 11.30pm. Jolly but not exciting day. It’s a bit thick having four thunderstorms in two days, but they’ve gone for good now, we hope!”
They row on their way, either in turns or together, making good headway despite inclement weather. They enjoy some “glorious” swims in the river, Joan more so than Eleanor: “Eleanor said the water was too deep for her (or did she mean too cold?).” I love these photos of the two girls in their bathing suits, so recognisable as the mature mothers I knew in later life, although they are photocopies so have not scanned well:
They explore some of the riverside villages they moor alongside (on one occasion, near Mapledurham, through a field labelled “Beware of Adders”) and search for shops to spend their meagre rations in, sometimes without success – wartime shortages causing many shops to have sold out, and/or closed, by the time they reach them.
On July 15th (“St Swithin’s Day”) it rains again, and “After breakfast we were invaded by the Army, but as we had no beer or cigarettes to offer them, they soon retreated.” By nightfall they have rowed beyond Goring & Cleve Locks “and moored for the night opposite the Berks. Lunatic Asylum, on the opposite bank for safety. Quite a peaceful day.
After having retired for the night complete with curlers, we were knocked up by Messrs Pierce & Alexander whose acquaintance we had made previously . We had a very pleasant chat but they were too late for supper. As it was about dark they pushed on and we retired once more.”
The following day they stop for lunch at Benson Lock but encounter difficulties:
“First the Primus wouldn’t work, then at the billionth attempt it flared right up, set the carpet alight & decided to go. We got the soup boiled up nicely, but half of it decided it didn’t want to be drunk so landed itself on the bottom boards. What was left however was very tasty”.
Joan has provided this pencil sketch, which you can just about make out here:
Joan continues: “We saw the army building bridges (I mustn’t say where) & one soldier wanted a swim so badly , he forgot to take his clothes off!!” They moor for the night near Appleford, where “we were visited by … a most attractive, young, sergeant. He looked at our identity cards, had a little chat and then steamed off leaving us to our slumbers.”
The following day they proceed to Culham Lock, where they drink “crystal clear water from ye village spring, very tasty, very sweet” , and bathe. “The swim invigorated us and after doing a few war dances we rowed on at quite a good speed to Abingdon and then Sandford and Iffley. When approaching Oxford we were bombarded by tribes of East End urchins. The place is seething with them but we did notice one difference, they had clean faces. After getting thoroughly ruffled we pushed off and found an inlet where we moored for the night. We moored very early and cleaned the boat out. We had almost a full grown allotment on board”.
The following day they reach Oxford and, “having changed into frocks”, decide to spend the rainy afternoon at the pictures:
“We asked a policeman where the cinema was, he turned out to be a Southampton P.C. up for a rest, we got him some chocolate and wended our way to the ‘flicks’. Then we had another setback for we were not allowed in without gas masks & I must confess that we were not provided with these. So we drowned our sorrows in tea, & a very good tea it was too, and returned to our vessel.” By which time the sun is out, so they take up their oars again:
“We went through the tortuous tangles of the Thames, out of Oxford and into the pleasant reaches above Osney Lock. Through Godstow & Kings Locks (the latter with a ‘she’ lock keeper) and well into the stretches of which William Morris says:
‘See we have left our hopes and fears behind
To give our very hearts up unto thee;
What better place than this then could we find
By this sweet stream that knows not of the sea,
That guesses not the city’s misery,
This little stream whose hamlets scarce have names,
This far-off, lonely mother of the Thames?’ “
The following day, with “much regret”, they turn the skiff around and commence the homeward stretch, but the heavens open once again. Eleanor writes: “we amused ourselves by hanging halfway overboard and studying the rain and water. Then we tried fishing with a bent pin. The fish took the bait and gazed at us with a glassy fish-stare, looked at the pin very meaningly [sic] and sauntered off.
The next few days proceed without incident, although when they moor just past Wallingford for the night they receive another official visit “(not Sergeant Moore – worse luck) and had our names and addresses ‘took’. A few cows came to say goodnight to us and then all was well.”
The following morning, Joan writes:
“When we awoke we discovered the reason for the bovine activities of the previous night. There was a bull in the next field, a real he-man, tough bull, with a ring in his nose. The sun was now well up, promising a glorious day, so we parted from our bull & his harem, and proceeded downstream. At Goring we stopped to shop & were much mystified by V’s (…_) that we saw chalked up on houses. (We had seen more of these cryptic signs in Wallingford). As it was now quite hot we looked for a place to swim, but could not find anywhere free from weeds. We had lunch and fed some very greedy ducks, and then went on our way, still looking for somewhere to swim. After passing Pangbourne and Whitchurch Lock it was tea time so we found a lovely place to stop (but no good for a swim). We made tea and had it in a field, where we lay & sunbathed for hours. When the sun went down it was too late to go any further, and it was a nice place, we had supper & stayed the night. The evening was spent in watching the other bank, the towpath side, where the village maidens and their soldier swains spent a happy hour or so! Darkness fell, and we went to bed (very late)”.
At Hambledon Lock 2 days later they see “men in white trousers and bright red, and blue & white striped, jackets, in skiffs flying flags with crown and swans on them. These we gathered were members of the Dyers & Vintners coy. out on a job of ‘swan-upping‘. Unfortunately we were unable to see them at work.”
On their last night they moor at Cookham, where, Eleanor reports: “we were pounced upon by an old buffer who invited himself to supper. He upset everything he possibly could, and put the primus out several times. Still he gave us some new potatoes, red currants and honey so we didn’t do too badly. We got rid of him about 9.30pm and went for an evening stroll and said good evening to the horses and cows. Being our last night afloat we went to bed late and ‘jawed’ for hours”.
The following day their final stretch “was uneventful, & we passed through Boulters Lock, turned & slid alongside the boathouse landing stage in fine style...Then we had a super lunch in the cinema, which we followed with a visit to the pictures. It was by then pouring again. …We got very wet but we got home very quickly and so ended our cruise on the One-O-Nine and our holiday for nineteen-forty-one.”
It is wonderful for me to read, over 70 years later, this account of my mother’s youthful wartime adventures.
NB: The photos in this post are taken from Mum’s Snapshots album and are not from the 1941 trip