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Margaret (Burrage) Thorne - Caldecott 1939-1949
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Margaret (Burrage) Thorne - Caldecott 1939-1949

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Margaret E (Burrage) Thorne (MT)  OBE. CBE 

Interviewed by Bob Lawton (RL) Caldecott Association at Margaret's home in Neath, South Wales

 MT: Well, I was a pupil at Maidstone Grammar School for Girls which, in retrospect, I realize what a good school it was and I was very happy there, but when I was 16, 16 plus, in 1939 at the end of that term we saw the likelihood of there being war and I saw no point, and neither did my parents see much point, in my going back to school because once war happened, a girls school from South London was billeted in Maidstone. They went to the grammar school and so each group, this group that had come for safety reasons to Maidstone then the pupils already in the school only had half a days schooling each. So I saw little point in going back but before I left school, I had talked with Miss Barkles (?) the Head Teacher and I told her that I was interested in doing something community-wise with people and also I was interested in catering and she then told me about the Caldecott Community which was and still is, (and I don't think I like calling it a 'home' though that's what it was I suppose) a school home for children who were themselves quite bright children but who had disturbed backgrounds and it had children of all ages from babies to young people of sixteen to seventeen.

It was situated in a house called The Mote, a large mansion house in Mote Park which is a very integral sort of leisure area of Maidstone where they still have Kent cricket played. The Mote was at the further end of the great area of park not very far from the lake. I remember it having a model railway going round it.

Anyway I went to The Mote under the title of Student for, I think, something like nine shillings a week, and I went as an assistant to Betty Hillyer who was in charge of the catering and therefore the cooking though, like all of us, you weren't confined to any one job at the Community because it was a community where you were prepared to fill in gaps where help was needed, wherever that was meant to be and also you worked with the children and the children worked with you.

I was actually standing in the kitchen of The Mote that Sunday morning when, on the radio, Neville Chamberlain told the world and in particular, of course, Great Britain that war had been declared between Germany and Great Britain.

I don't think we had any immediate reaction. I can't remember that it made any difference to how we went on doing what we were doing but in time things changed a great deal because New Zealand Army people were parked in tents around The Mote and I think we felt it made it very vulnerable. I was there for the period of the Battle of Britain and I still remember Eileen Chadwick, who had charge of the farm, coming back from milking with an airman's boot which had fallen into the chicken pen. As I've just said, we had a small farm where we had great metal containers of milk which was our milk supply for the whole house and we used to get somebody to skim off the top so we had the cream from the milk. The other thing is the children all took part in looking after them, the animals, including a rather elderly pony, I've forgotten it's name but that was of great interest to everybody, the young people, and it was very much an integral part of the whole of the Community and people involved in it as we were entirely.

As things got much worse the decision was made that we couldn't, as a whole, stay at The Mote and we were offered (Ed. Temporary?) accommodation at St Peter's Hall College in Oxford and that was because one of the staff was Helen Stocks and Helen's Mum was Lady Stocks and she was involved with this college and we went off there. I went with Carol Lovegrove (Community Secretary) in her car, of course only one or two people had cars anyway, because if they had a car they couldn't run it 'cause of petrol rationing. But I went with Carol Lovegrove and it happened to be the Sunday on which most German fighter planes were shot down, and I still remember there were no traffic lights then of course, and where policeman stood on point duty they were supposed to be looking after traffic though there wasn't very much in those days, they were all looking upwards at the sky, so we just sailed through to Oxford to this accommodation which was just so unsuitable because everything was so big but we had to do the best we could and as a youngster really and not very much experienced in life in general I was asked to go to Oxford market to plead, which really what it was, to plead with people who sold food, meat and bread and all that sort of thing, if they would give us supplies and trust us until some money came, because there was no money at that point.

Anyway I think, I can't remember much about what we did in Oxford except just try and keep things going. We had about forty children with us,some had gone to other schools, some of the boys went to the posh 'Dragon' school, and some of them stayed there afterwards, they didn't go back to the Community at all; and we were there for three weeks.

After three weeks we weren't able to stay any longer, but we then went to Somerville College where the staff there had already begun to gather for the term time so we used to have meals with them, they used to sit 'on high' as it were and we would sit 'lower', but they were very kind and very helpful but one of our worries was, of course, some of our children's clothes were not in very good condition and we used to sit up very late, the few of the staff that were there, mending holes in socks and things like that, because you couldn't just go and get new socks, apart from rationing there as no money to go and buy new socks.

So, after the week at Somerville, we had no choice but to go back to Maidstone and then it was, sort of, looking after the children that we had there. Some, one or two, had gone back to families, some had gone to relations, and some had gone to foster people, some had gone to other schools, but we still had quite a number of children left with us.

Betty Hillyer was sent off by Miss Leila to look for accommodation for the school and it wasn't then until the following January, this would be January 1941wouldn't it? Yes; that we were told we were going to deepest Dorset to a house called Hyde House which had been empty for absolutely ages, was not suitable for the number of people we were. It had a generator for electricity, it had a generator for water, and it had a very hostile, sort of, enormous range which was called 'Bonnybridge'.(Ed: Manufacturer's Name?)

Our latter days at the Mote were spent going to the cellar at night which Miss Leila had cleared and all white-washed, and she herself, of course, being the lady that she was, she had her divan bed down there with a table lamp and her books; and we had, sort of, camp beds so we used to troop down there each night and come back in the morning and I had, sharing my room, a girl who was about my age actually called Edith Kachevsky (?) and Edith had been one of the young people who had come from Berlin on this train which left with children escaping....

(Ed: Recording interrupted by arrival of 'Care staff' to get Margaret's lunch-New recording started after lunch).

MT: I shared a room at the Mote with this girl I've just mentioned called Edith Kachevsky (?) and she was one of the young people who came on this train that we've now heard so much about that bought young people out of Berlin and a whole group of them came to The Mote and I remember still when two of the girls, who came from Czechoslovakia, the day they were eighteen the police arrived to take them to the Isle of Man; and I remember Miss Leila standing on the steps of The Mote seeing them off and saying to them “My Dears, life is a great adventure and this will be one of them”. Actually they were not there for very long, they came back to us at The Mote after a few months and... I don't know, I don't remember what happened to the boys, I think that some of them went to the Isle of Man for a short spell. Isle of Man, of course, being used as an internment (camp) for them to be in because these girls, their parents were there, and they were there for much longer than the girls; but Edith stayed with the Community; she had some relations in London and I have kept in touch with her. She is probably my sort of age now. I've kept in touch with her all these years and I have a letter occasionally from her, she now lives in North London, she's widowed but she had married a Polish lawyer but he wasn't allowed, of course, to do his law in Great Britain so he taught languages in a Technical College. I remember, in the war again, going to their wedding in Gower Street in London, a Jewish wedding with the sort of rituals that went on like throwing the glasses into the hearth, into the fireplace and the canopy and the hats and and afterwards the refreshments being quite different, I don't now how they managed it, but quite different from the sort of food that I'd been used to after any sort of wedding. Edith has always known me as 'Maggie' and she writes always very lovingly. I don't know her state of health, I think she is probably frail now. She has two children. I've no idea whether she keeps in touch or not but what I do know is that I've kept in touch with her and she has kept in touch with me all these many years. I haven't seen her since the first reunion we had at Lambeth Palace (Ed:2005?) and I saw her then. She looked exactly the same actually, I mean much older of course, but she just looked the same and I always know when it's her letter because the writing and the way it's done always has a sort of germanic look about it.

Also, I have kept in touch with Sonia and John...Brown who, of course I knew as pupils at the Community and I remember Miss Leila and Miss Dave telling them “For goodness sake, to get their act together and if they really wanted to be married for goodness sake get on and be married”. I was also very close to Barbara Brown who was one of the 'Brown' family and she went to the College of Art at Canterbury, so I used to get up early to get her some breakfast and see that she went offwith her sandwiches, but I lost touch with Barbara. I have no idea what happened to her since. And I also had as a friend, and that continued after I left, with Marjorie Dee who was the wife of John Dee who was one of the first people that Miss Leila has, sort of, taken on way back, many many years before. John was in the Army and Marjorie, and Diana, and Christopher, lived in Hull and Hull was badly bombed and so Marjorie came to the Community. She then worked in the Pantry which, Miss Leila used to say, was the most important place in the whole school to work, because it mattered very much if people went to supper and found they hadn't got a knife and fork, and it started them being irritable for the rest of the day.

RL: Was that The Mote or Hyde House?

MT: That was everywhere and urm... it was at Hyde, it was at, certainly at Mersham, very much so there...

RL: What are you memories of Hyde House?

MT: Well my memories of Hyde House, I think, really were the misery of the wartime you know, the fact that there was never enough water, never enough electricity. As far as I remember I had a room, I think I had a shared room, at the top of the house, and I remember Miss...not Miss Brown, I've forgotten what she was called, who looked after the girls and she was rather a sort of school matron type, and she used to come round seeing if everything was tidy. I can't remember much more about her but I do remember one member of staff who was a gifted woman she sang beautifully, she played the piano, she taught some of the younger children, but she was an unhappy lady and she wasn't with us for very long, but she was truly truly gifted.

Actually something I did at Hyde was to cycle. Because Marjorie and I, I had a borrowed bike, I wasn't keen on cycling but, of course, the roads were very empty and we used to go to Swanage occasionally, and we'd go to Wareham, and when John came on leave we'd go to Dorchester, well of course Marjorie would, but I would go to Dorchester and we'd go to tea in Judge Jeffreys Tea Rooms in Dorchester and I remember John ordering tea and saying “Oh, can we have scones and bread and butter” and things, and the waitress's eyes opened wide and she said “scones AND bread and butter?” because of course it was wartime and such things weren't available.

Having gone there in January, it was August at Staff tea one day when Miss Leila said to me “Oh, Margaret would you go to Dorchester and work with Frances, I've been asked to look after, and keep my eye on, a Hostel for unbilletable boy evacuees” and I don't know why because, you know, it suited me very much in many ways in Hyde. I said 'Yes'.

One of the other things I did at Hyde – being very muddled about it now – was, each Wednesday Carol Lovegrove, who was one person who had petrol, and I used to go to Wareham market and bid, amongst all these hardened farmers and people, for sacks of things like potatoes, and carrots and all those sort of things, sort of root vegetables and things like that and then Carol would come and collect me and the sacks of food to take them back. There was very little food. We had a local lady, a Farmers wife, who had a farm nearby, they used to bring us milk, they brought us eggs and sometimes I went to lunch with them because they were a very nice family; and the other thing we used to have was baskets and baskets of watercress because there were watercress beds nearby, which, though we used to get very bored and tired of it I have to admit, obviously, it was good for us.

The only thing there was to eat, if you were out in the evening and you came in, and the gates used to be locked at 10 (Ed: pm?) so if you came in after that you climbed over the gates with some peril but the only thing there was ever enough to eat, and some over, when you came in late at night and you were ever so hungry was cereal,and for years afterwards I never ever ate cereal. It just was one of those things, made me feel and think about the war so much.

I remember there was a large garden at Hyde and Miss Syer was in charge of it, of course. One of the things I remember about that which I'd never known before, and they were quite beautiful, was a large, large bed of 'pink' Lily of the Valley which was sort of new to us. Miss Hill used make large Stews with things like Butter Beans, and the other smaller beans and occasionally we'd get rabbits, I don't know who dealt with them but Miss Hill used to say that 'two rabbits had run through the stew' because that was what it was.

But on the whole no one went hungry but food was dull and not much variety but I must say, this 'Bonnybridge' thing, the cooker, was very slow and very difficult and poor Betty Hillyar had a very hard job keeping it going. She used to, sort of, get up and get it going and then she'd go and have a shower or bath, or something to start her day because it was such a mucky job. I remember once, it took so long to cook the porage, the porage was sour. And Miss Dave saying, it was all served out 'cause no one realised until they'd tasted it that it was sour, and Miss Dave being the sort of stoic woman that she was, said it showed peoples character if they could manage to eat it. But I'm sure no one did because it really was disgusting. But that was what this great enormous cooker was like.

RL: Were you still involved in catering when you went to Dorchester?

MT: Yes, yes I was, and as I say we did other things. If Nurse, I can't remember her name, but the nurse in those days she was a pretty girl and she was in pink which was the colour of her training place and Nurse Eileen Nobbs she wasn't in pink. I think she had a grey dress and she was [incomp] nurse, but I don't remember the name of the first one at all. But, after all the things that happened at Hyde I've never been back to that area ever... no I don't think so. Oh yes I, we did go to Portland, Bill it's called isn't it? We went to Portland Bill for a long week-end one time, suppose I was as near there as I ever would be but we went to Bere Regis which was only sort of a tiny place, I don't know why we went there, perhaps just for a change or perhaps it had a pub. I don't remember but we did go to Bere Regis and as I say we used to go to Wareham and I remember Marjorie and I cycling to Swanage.

My Father used to send me parcels. He used to queue in Woolworth's which in those days sold food. He used to queue for a wonderful fruit cake and he used to buy a slab of this and send it to me; and at the time of year he would send things like Cherries and things like this and I had this parcel of cherries from my parents and Marjorie and I went off to Swanage on these bikes with this parcel of cherries and we sat on a hill and ate the cherries, I don't know whether we had anything to drink but we both fell asleep. It was sunny and wonderful, and we woke up surrounded by the Army because, of course, we were by accident, of course, where we shouldn't have been so we made a hasty exit to get where we could be.

Those were the sort of nicer things that happened because life at Hyde was tough, it really was but my room when I was at Hyde, well I didn't have a room I was in (one of) two little cottages at the bottom of the lane and Carol Lovegrove and myself and, I think, Miss Syer. There were three rooms and that (was)when I cycled 'cause I used to cycle up in the mornings, early in the morning, and Rabbits and the Hares and sometimes the young deer used to scatter in front of me going up the lane, those sort of dewy mornings, rather nice actually, I liked that bit of it.

We also at Hyde, and I suppose went on to Mersham afterwards, were young people who the Home Office recommended came to the Community and they they all behaved very badly and were always in trouble; and some of them I saw their names in the National Press afterwards always because, I'm afraid, they'd done something quite wrong.

But as I say I went off to Dorchester then with Frances Pott. Frances, like Miss Leila, was a Quaker. She didn't believe in holidays, the only time I ever got any time off to go back to see my parents was when she felt I was a bit 'crabby' and she'd say 'Margaret dear, I think you ought to go away for a few days'. Well, of course, I didn't say No!

We had about twenty boys, ages about 9-10-11 that sort of age. Their parents, very few parents ever came down from London to see them. They probably couldn't afford it actually, and they all came from poorer parts of London. And well, there they were. We used to have someone who was called Miss Nurse, that was her name, and she was also a part-time nurse I think. She used to come in and help put (them)to bed. We had another lady used to come and sit about two evenings a week and darn socks because the Home Office said it was cheaper to employ her than to buy new socks, so then of course there weren't any available anyway.

I always remember when we were told never to paint anything Red because that bought out the worst in people – an aggressive colour. I've never forgotten that because I've never painted anything at home in Red. I've never forgotten that one.

The house was a large, what you'd probably call a villa, a late Victorian villa in a row of similar villas. It was called "Langdon" It was in Prince of Wales Road. We weren't terribly popular at first until people found we were quite harmless and then they started to pop-in and call and said 'Oh! well we didn't know whether we'd liked to come, but now we find you're alright', referring, of course, to Frances Pott and me. And we had very kind neighbours called 'Buckingham' who I had known vaguely in Maidstone and they were very kind to us. But time-off was difficult in the summer period, and sometimes in winter time really, we were allowed to go within eight miles and Weymouth was in, within eight miles so we used to go on the train with packed lunch for about these twenty children and just let them loose on the beach where they used up quite a lot of energy and they were very... well they had boundless energy but they used a lot of it climbing what were all along the beaches, these great steel, sort of scaffolding really which was built for anti-tank barrier, and that kept them going, gave them something to do, and then we'd go home. Frances and I would be absolutely exhausted but the children would never be that. I was there for four years. I now look on it as the worst four years of my life, the least happy four years of my life.

Ivor, who was in the Army of course, and stationed in various places, mostly in Scotland, when he was on leave he would come down to Dorchester, stay in 'The George' and we would, well, probably go walking somewhere because it wasn't easy on transport, but I do remember going somewhere the day the Rhine was crossed because I remember going to this sort of cafe for coffee or something to eat something and they came and announced what had happened.

And of course I went back to Maidstone occasionally for a few days and I always remember being on the train and coming back to Dorchester and there was a soldier on it, with full kit, and he was, he sort of started asking questions and realised that he was on the wrong train. He was on the train to the wrong Dorchester because there is a Dorchester in Oxfordshire, isn't there? And I remember how sorry we were for him, it was pitch black and night time, but he got off at the nearest station and that was that.

At the end of the war, the boys just went home and I remember saying to Frances 'what do you think they are going to think, or remember about these years that we've been with them? after-all they were four years older than when their parents had seen them too.

As I said before, very few parents ever came down. I said 'what do you think they are going to remember?' and she said 'I really don't know, but I can only think it's having a clean tablecloth'.

I suppose by 'having a clean tablecloth' she meant that; but she also meant the sort of standard that I suppose we tried very hard to keep up and, well, I hope we did and I hope with some of them, because some of them will be really old now, I hope with some of them it stayed with them.

But then the war was ended and I went back home for a very very short while, 1945 wasn't it? Frances very kindly gave me some money which she said was a 'Thank you' for putting up with her really I think, she didn't say that of course but that's what it really amounted to.

I went off then with a Grant from Kent County Council because Miss Leila was on the Board of the Education Committee and I had this Grant quite easily, it wasn't enormous money but it, well it was large money then, something like £50 or something which enabled me to go to London each day for six months and I went to, in those days – they don't now, but in those days 'Good Housekeeping' had a 'School of Cookery'.

The first three months were sort of catering for small numbers, and then the next three months was catering, large scale catering and there were no eggs, no fresh, very very little fresh meat but I used to get what was called 'the workmen's train' from Maidstone for one (shilling) and six (pence) return, and my parents very kindly kept me and I did that for six months and enjoyed it all immensely.

At the end of the six months I had interviews, Oh! I was offered a job at Good Housekeeping but couldn't take it because I couldn't afford to take it because the salary, I can't remember what it was but obviously I had to find accommodation and I just couldn't afford to take it, so I had to say 'No'.

I often wonder what my life would have been like had I taken it but I then had two interviews, one was the Blue Coat School and one was for Rugby School, and I went off to Rugby School, and we were called 'Lady Housekeepers'. There were eight of us on this so called...no, we had eight maids who all came from the North East of England and the Matron and myself, and of course the family – but that wasn't anything to do with the Community.

But I kept in touch, when I went back to Maidstone I used to go to them - of course by now they were at Mersham-le-Hatch and I kept in touch with various members of staff and and I remember going over, well I remember going to see them and sort of talking over old times with people like Nurse Nobbs and Audrey Watson, and people like Diana Howarth.

I'd been at Rugby two years, I wasn't going to stay, it wasn't my life, it wasn't really what I was, or my life style really and truly, and Miss Dave wrote to me and said 'will you come back?' because Miss Hill was going off to New Zealand to see her brother. Actually she had seen her brother because I saw her brother because he came over to fight in the war; but anyway it was for Miss Hill to go to New Zealand for a different life-style all together, and to be with her brother. Miss Dave said 'will you come back?' and I just said 'Yes' and that was...

RL: What year was that then?

MT: 1947 and well I mean, life was the Community life then, you know,

RL: That was back to Mersham?

MT Yes, Yes, I was at Mersham then. I slept over in the village. (Ed. Smeeth?) I think it was the Post Office lady. I didn't only sleep there, that's all... used to walk over, you know, in the dark and sometimes of course in the dark in the mornings too and I remember, well I remember best about that episode was this lady had the most enormous feather bed and I'd never had a feather bed before in my life!, but she was very kind and also the other people who lived opposite where I used to go to sleep were the Gladstone's and everybody who has been to the Community over those period of time would have known John Gladstone who taught woodwork and also if there was any bother with the boiler or anything like that, John was there.

And Doreen Gladstone, his wife, who has died quite lately, she was lovely lady and they had three or four children. They were both most hospitable, we'd go to supper and that sort of thing. They were very kind and John was ex-Navy and like most ex-Navy people could turn his hand to absolutely anything in the house and when I left to get married, in 1949, (Ed. married. Ivor H.K. Thorne at Maidstone) Doreen lent me her Mother's wedding veil which was just one of those lovely things because at that time things were very short and you never could have got one such as she lent me. Her Mother had died.

Diana had a clapped-out car with hardly any bottom to it, our feet used to got through the bottom and we used to go to Hythe after supper if we were free and swim, or just sit on the beach if it was a lovely night and eat ice cream, something like that if it was possible.

I of course was able to go back to Maidstone on the bus and and I sometimes go to London by an early train, very cheaply actually. I remember going with Miss Hill once and we went to a play in the afternoon, and we also then went to the cinema before we caught the train back; and the film we saw was 'One flew over the Cuckoo's nest' which I remember. The play we saw was about that, what was it called? it was about that young Army Subaltern or what they're called, who was accused of stealing money; I can't remember the name now, but that was the play we saw, and with sort of actors in, long since dead but well known people.

I remember Miss Leila's birthday which is in October. I remember the sort of parties, and when Miss Leila had the OBE we had a grand party and Elizabeth Lloyd did a sort of 'skit' on life at the Community and I was labelled the 'Queen Mother' and anyone who had any Pearl necklaces, good or bad or indifferent, lent them, so all these were strung around my neck. I happened to have a blue dress which I had for a wedding, as a guest at a wedding, so I was the Queen Mother and we had this thing about life at the Community which, of course, was quite naughty really, not rude or horrid, but quite naughty, and I remember someone saying 'Where's Miss Dave?' - this is all part of the skit – 'Where's Miss Dave?' and then a lot of voices all said 'Oh! she's having a day off' which was cause of great...it was a sort of rather naughty joke because Miss Dave hardly ever had a day off; and if she ever did have a day off, she'd be taking the dogs for a walk.

And, of course, the other thing about Mersham was the dogs. I can remember one being called Sally, I can't remember what the other was called...

Here the Interview suddenly ended so that Margaret could deal with some unexpected, and urgent, personal matters initiated by family phone calls.