Memories of the R101, wartime and joining the Bedfordshire Times aged 15

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Former Bedfordshire Times reporter Derrick Holden shares his memories of his early career and wartime in the town

My earliest memory is being held in my mother’s arms in the back garden of our home in Queen’s Park, Bedford and looking at a strange object in the sky - it was an airship, the ill­fated R101.

I did not realise then that if it had not been for that craft I probably would not be here today, for working on its construction was how my parents first met.

The R101 and other dirigibles were housed in the two giant, lofty hangars which are still standing today at Cardington and being used for a variety of purposes. I must have been about 19 months old when I first saw the craft on one of its trial flights in preparation for its trail­blazing flight to India and other parts of the British Empire.

This was to be the travel of the future but the dream went up in flames when the craft crashed on a hillside at Beauvais in France hours after it had taken off on Sunday, October 5 1930. Only six of the 54 passengers and crew survived. One of my boyhood pals who lived near us lost his father in the disaster.

Some years later I witnessed another awesome sight in the night sky from the same garden. It was the horizon turning bright red as London, 49 miles to the south, took a pounding as German bombers began their blitz on the capital in the 1939­-45 war. Bedford did not escape the Luftwaffe’s attention. There were sporadic air raids on the town, causing loss of life and damage to property. One of its planes, returning home from the devastating attack on Coventry, dropped two land mines on the town. Fortunately one fell on a rubbish dump in Queen’s Park (Cox’s Pit), and the other on allotments at Kempston. In the former, roofs were damaged and windows shattered.

Nearby Honey Hill Road took the brunt of the raid but our house, a few hundred yards away in Ford End Road, only had a window blown out. I was quite excited to find a piece of shrapnel in the garden.

I clearly remember the day war was declared. It was a beautiful sunny September morning. I went fishing in the River Great Ouse at Honey Hills and on my return home my parents told me the news. I believe I replied “So what, when’s lunch ready?” Next day, just after breakfast, our next door neighbour came rushing into the kitchen. Screaming there was going to be a gas attack,

she grabbed mum’s newly dried washing and shoved it up our chimney. No such attack occurred and to this day I still wonder where she got the idea from.

My working life began a month after my 15th birthday, joining the editorial staff of the Bedfordshire Times in Mill Street, Bedford. I had not harboured any desire to become a journalist. Nor had I shown any particular literary flair, perhaps due to the constant interruption of lessons when the air raid siren sounded and pupils scuttled off to one of the reinforced classrooms which also served as a shelter. During these breaks we had to sing silly songs, supposedly to keep our spirits up. In reality, we were glad to get away from our books.

The alarms also provided the chance to sneak out of school. My destination was the billiards hall above Montague Burton, the men’s tailors, where I played matches with off-­duty American airmen. I nearly got caught one day. I had just got back to the school when I was spotted by form and games master Iowerth Evans, a Welsh rugby international, who asked where I had been. I pretended I was about to be sick and he pushed me away. After that experience I decided it was too risky a game to play. He was a master I never got on with, and I was a regular recipient of “six of the best” ­ administered on my posterior with his plimsolls.

My decision to enter journalism happened in a curious way. I was a Scout, and with a friend (George Coppin), we were the first in our Troop (8th Beds) – which used to meet in the social club of Bedford Gas Works in Lawrence Street ­ to become King Scouts. The local paper sent a reporter and photographer to cover our investiture by the District Commissioner (F W Kuhlicke), a master at Bedford Modern School, part of whose premises, designed by celebrated architect Edward Blore ­ whose other works included Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, were occupied by my school, the Harpur Central.

On a side note, the main hall of the club where the Troop met was converted into a music studio and Glenn Miller and his AFN (American Forces Network) Band broadcast from there. The band gave a concert at Bedford Corn Exchange and the event is marked by a bust of Miller fixed on the outside wall. Many famous names often made guest appearances in the broadcasts. Crooner Bing Crosby was reportedly seen strolling along Bedford Embankment, presumably after making a broadcast. British and Hollywood star, David Niven, was another guest. I had an amusing encounter with him during a break from a broadcast. He was wearing the uniform of a Scottish

regiment and I asked for his autograph but found I had no pen. With that disarming smile of his, he gently mocked me saying “An autograph hunter with no pen?” and then produced his to sign.

There was plenty going on in the musical scene at Bedford during this time, the BBC Symphony Orchestra moved to the town and its leader, Paul Beard, rented a house near ours.

Celebrated conductors Sir Henry Wood ­ founder of the Proms ­ and Clarence Raybould, also lived in the town, the former spending his final days here. Often when they were broadcasting from the Corn Exchange pupils from my school, a stone’s throw away, were drafted there to provide the audience ­sometimes to the despair of the producer when they mistook a natural break as the end of a piece and applauding enthusiastically.

But back to how I entered journalism. Reporting events like covering the Scout ceremony appealed to me as something I would like to do. So, during half term break, I wrote to the editor of the Bedfordshire Times asking to become a trainee reporter. A few days later, in the middle of a French lesson, I was summoned to the room of headmaster, Capt. A B Wignall, who told me, to my great surprise and to his, that the editor would like me to start work immediately. So I left home a schoolboy and returned as a wage earner. My weekly pay was 30 shillings (£1.50 today).

The paper often recruited from the school because its pupils had the option of taking commercial subjects like shorthand and typing to fit them for a white collar job, or technical ones to prepare them for factory work.

I started work on June 5, 1944, the day before D Day and one of my early assignments was doing a vox pop on the streets of Bedford seeking reaction to the momentous news. From its offices in Mill Street the company published five papers covering the county. On Tuesdays four tabloids appeared ­ the Bedford Record, the Woburn Reporter, Ampthill News and the North Beds Courier (Biggleswade). Finally, on Fridays, it was the turn of the Bedfordshire Times, which was a broadsheet. The paper was printed on a flatbed press and the run started at 6pm on Thursdays and lasted for about 12 hours.

Editor Bill Janes impressed upon staff that when writing for the Friday edition we had to follow the staid style of the London Times but for the tabloids we could let ourselves go (although only slightly).

I once reported a court case involving a woman who blamed her offending on her pregnancy. My intro to the case was based on that fact, but it was altered to “A woman in a certain condition....” It was left to the reader to imagine what condition she had.

When newsprint rationing was in force papers had to stick to a strict ratio between news and advertising. It taught reporters the value of cutting out waffle and concentrating on short, sharp writing.

I remember reading how Lord Beaverbrook of Daily Express fame admonished one of his staff for blowing up a story beyond its worth. He reminded him that if the Almighty could tell the story of creation in a few sentences, the hapless reporter could be similarly brief in his account of some East End incident.

Eventually the Bedford papers were printed on a modern Rotary press originally belonging to the Bedfordshire Standard, which had merged with its rival. During the war the presses in nearby Howard Street were used as standby machines for the Daily Mirror, in case their offices in Fleet Street were bombed.

The newsroom in Mill Street was at the top of the building and reporters sat around a large table. I was surprised to find there were no typewriters provided, so we were expected to write our copy in longhand, which in one case had an hilarious outcome. I had covered a Founder’s Day service at one of the town’s public schools. The speaker, an Anglican bishop, spoke on “Our Worship.” Unfortunately it appeared in print as “Our Washing”.

During my early days with the Beds Times there were a number of stories which were fun to cover. One was a hue and cry which followed the unmasking of a man dressed as a woman found in the women’s lavatories at the Granada Cinema. The film being screened there was The Great Imposter. Another concerned a prankster who switched the brass plates outside Bedford Prison and a nursing home in nearby De Parys Avenue. There was one occasion when we were all left with egg on our faces. A reporter from Fleet Street had called at the office to get some background on a story he was pursing which duly appeared in his paper. However, he also wrote another one, concerning the owner of a junk shop only a few yards from our office. The shop had obviously intrigued him, with the result that he’d got into conversation with the owner and discovered his unusual hobby ­- lion taming!

When I first entered the newsroom to be introduced to the other reporters I was asked whether I smoked or drank. Bearing in mind I was only just 15, I replied in the negative. “You soon will” was the response. So at the lunch break, I bought my first – and last ­ packet of cigarettes.

They were called Sunripe and I nearly choked after I lit one. I was too young to enter a pub so I could not taste beer until I was that bit older. But when I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Perhaps it is inevitable for pubs become natural haunts for journalists. They are the places where you make contacts and pick up gossip which often provides leads for good stories, and it is not unknown for reporters to sell their contact books when moving on to bigger newspapers elsewhere.

Almost a year after starting work, the war in Europe ended, there were joyous scenes in Bedford town centre with crowds flocking to the Embankment and strangers hugging and kissing each other. I seem to recall the suspension bridge shuddering from the weight of those packed on it.

The celebrations were, however, gradually tempered by the knowledge that Japan was still in the war, and families were unsure of the fate of their loved ones who were held prisoner in the Far East. I was camping with the Scouts, near Whitstable, in Kent, when we heard that the atomic bomb (most of us hadn’t a clue what they were) had been dropped. Subsequently we learned of the inhuman treatment our servicemen had suffered at the hands of the Japanese who had captured them after the fall of Singapore. I remember waiting at Bedford railway station to watch the return of some of those former prisoners of war who, despite the benefits of the long sea journey home, still had the ordeal they had undergone etched on their faces.

Three years after entering the newspaper world, I was called up to do my two years National Service duty in the Army. I had to report to Kempston Barracks before moving across the road to Grange Camp from where I could see my home. The medical officer decided I was underweight and needed fattening up so I was transferred to a medical treatment centre at Saighton Camp by the River Dee at Chester. It was run by the Army Physical Training Corps whose job was to put recruits through their paces. I had been there only a day or two when the commanding officer called me in and said he knew from my records I could do shorthand and typing and wanted me to be his secretary in the absence of his civilian PA. It was a stint which lasted three months, the length of the course and, when finished, recruits were expected to show their prowess at the various exercises they had undertaken which, of course, I had not done. I explained the dilemma to the CO who said he would fix it with the NCO in charge of PE who asked me various questions like whether I could run around the barrack square carrying all my kit in so many minutes.

Naturally I replied “Yes” to all of them and passed with flying colours. I was also rewarded with 10 days extra leave.

After completing my basic training I was posted to Dettingen Barracks at Deepcut, near Woking. It was winter and a severe one at that. The barracks were primitive; the water supply was frozen so to wash we had to boil snow on a large stove. I fell ill with tonsillitis and was admitted to the army hospital at Aldershot. While recovering, patients had to clean up the hospital. My destination was Germany, which I did not fancy, so I persuaded the medical officer I was not yet fully fit. Consequently, I was taken off the draft and put to work in the Record Office from where in January 1948 I posted myself to the War Office in London. The main office was in Whitehall but the army had also requisitioned other nearby buildings and the one I was based in used to be an hotel. On reporting there was given the rank of corporal and told there would also be a special allowance to compensate for the high cost of living in the capital.

Accommodation was not provided and we were handed a list of approved lodgings for which an allowance would also be paid. I went to a house near Victoria Station where I was expected to share a room and a bed with another soldier. I stuck it for one night before deciding that it would be easier and cheaper to commute from Bedford, less than hour’s journey away.

Some might consider I enjoyed a cushy existence for most of my National Service.

The department to which I had been assigned dealt with legal matters and all the officers, although in the army, were either solicitors or barristers ­ one of whose jobs was to prosecute at court martials. All the National Servicemen who I worked alongside had a newspaper background – I assume we were picked because we could take down shorthand. To prevent us from being tempted to tip off our contacts in the newspaper world about interesting cases we had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and I believe we are still subject to its provisions. Curiously, we did not have to wear uniform because we were working alongside civil servants. Indeed, the only time we had to wear them was for the weekly pay parade. That fact must have puzzled fellow commuters who saw me wearing civvies most of the time and then in uniform but they were too polite to ask why.

There were two centres in London catering for service people – the Union Jack Club near Waterloo Station, and the Nuffield Centre ­ near the West End ­ from where you could get free tickets for the major West End shows. And where, incidentally. I drank my first bottle of Coke. During our lunch breaks a group of us used to wander around nearby Soho, and one street that fascinated me contained shops selling nothing but radio valves, which must now be museum pieces.

When we could afford it we went into Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square. It was an incredible place, occupying several floors that offered a variety of meals and entertainment. On one floor, for example, Edna Savage was at the mighty Wurtlitzer organ and on another a Palm Court Orchestra. They were indeed the days!

Lyons had one of its shops in Bedford High Street at the top end of Silver Street. It was where we reporters on the Beds Times used to go for our mid morning drink. It had been built on, or near, the site of the Palace Cinema, which in turn must have been close to where the prison that held John Bunyan (1628 ­88) was. At lunchtime if we felt we needed stronger refreshments we went to the Fleur de Lys pub, run by Jim Ives in Mill Street, or the British Legion club, which was opposite the side entrance to the paper and where the steward, whose name I am sorry to say I forget, coped manfully with work despite intense breathing problems caused by inhaling mustard gas in the 1914 – 18 war.

I was 15 before I had my first ride in a car .That was not unusual. Apart from the fact that petrol rationing was in force few ordinary families could afford the luxury of owning one. It was run by Arthur Davies, the paper’s photographer. So to carry out assignments or routine calls reporters either walked, took a bus or cycled for which we got an allowance of one and a half pence a mile. Sometimes if we had to cover an inquest outside the town we cadged a lift with the coroner, Reginald Rose, a solicitor whose office was in Howard Street. I once got ticked off for charging expenses when the office had arranged for me to get a lift with the undertaker mentioned earlier.

I was thrown in at the deep end when I started work. Normally a trainee would shadow a senior to learn the ropes. But because most of them had been called up that did not happen, so it was a case of sink or swim. Fortunately for me I survived, and it led to a door opening on to a world I never thought I would enter in a month of Sundays, as well as seeing and doing things beyond my wildest dreams and bringing memories that will last forever.

I returned to the Bedfordshire Times after National Service, earning less than I did in the Army, but after three years I decided it was time to move on. I was offered jobs in Norfolk and Northampton and chose the latter. That was in early 1953, and one of first people I met warned me that if I stayed in the town longer than 18 months I would be there for ever. I scoffed at that, explaining I was in the town to gain experience on an evening before going on to bigger papers and finally landing up in Fleet Street. I passed that advice on to others but failed to act on it myself. I have no real regrets about that. Things having worked out pretty well for me – marriage, two fine sons and three lovely grandchildren. What more can a person ask for?