John Rickman Roberts
The birth certificate that I have used throughout my life cost threepence in 1920, when it was issued.
I was born in Grantham, Lincolnshire on 2nd May 1920 in 86 Harrowby Rd, a Victorian terraced house. My elder sister Joan had been born in Derby in 1916, and five more children followed; Anthony, Veronica, Anne and Jane, all born in the Harrowby Rd house, and then Susan, born after the family moved to a larger house in Barrowby Rd, Grantham.
My earliest memory is of the lamplighter coming along the road at dusk, carrying a long, hooked pole with which he turned up the gas street lamps. Another early memory is of my father saying ‘Goodnight, and God bless’ to each one of us when we were tucked up in bed, and tracing with his thumb a small cross on each of our foreheads. That little gesture gave me a comfortable feeling that all was well, and I would go to sleep peacefully.
Hall’s hill overlooks Harrowby Rd- I first climbed it when I was two, with Joan encouraging me up the final, steepest part. Each winter there would be at least one cold snap with snow and ice, when we would be able to get out our family’s heavy wooden sledge and drag it up the hill to toboggan down at great speed- sometimes becoming airborne over a hump in the middle. It was hard work dragging the sledge back up after each run and I remember the feeling of utter, but happy, exhaustion at the end of a long afternoon’s runs. But how I longed for a lighter, Swiss-type toboggan which some families owned and which always seemed to go twice as fast as ours.
As a boy, I climbed the hill several times with my father. Once, when aged about eleven, I looked back with him over the little town and an overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. I could not understand why, but probably it was the realisation that I was about to leave behind the carefree days of youth and would soon go out into the wider world. Eighty-four years later after having been away for over sixty years, I climbed the hill again. This time with my walking stick!
When our family lived in Harrowby Road, Granny was boarded out with a couple who lived a few doors away. After the move to Barrowby Road she occupied a ‘Granny flat’ there. We children loved her and visited every Sunday morning after Mass. She always wore mourning- a long black dress reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s attire. She had a glass biscuit barrel, always well-filled and she sometimes gave us a silver threepenny piece, which she called a ‘ticky’ ( a South African term, I believe- Granny had a brother who had emigrated to South Africa) She was totally deaf, and my father communicated with her on his hands, using the deaf and dumb alphabet. She died in 1934 at the age of 84- my first experience of death in the family. I remember her funeral at Grantham cemetery, with the glass-sided hearse drawn by two magnificent black-plumed black horses, and the two gravediggers standing respectfully back from the grave.
The Appleby brothers were two more friends, living near us on Barrowby Rd. Both excellent cricketers, they followed in their father’s footsteps; he was captain of Grantham Cricket Club. Unfortunately, the brothers met a tragic end when driving along the Great North rd (now the A1) near Wittering aerodrome outside Stamford. The wheels of a low-flying aeroplane touched their car, causing it to crash and both brothers were killed. That led to the introduction of the current road sign warning of low flying aircraft.
My father’s uncle, John Daniel Roberts, (always known as ‘J.D.’) owned a hardware shop at 84 Westgate. He incorporated the business as J D Roberts (Grantham) Ltd., and when he died childless in 1916 he left a controlling interest in the company to my father. As it traded wholesale as well as retail it provided a good living, but the business did not expand because Dad, although thrifty, was not at all go-ahead. It had no delivery van, just a motorcycle and sidecar on which a long-standing employee, Mr Harvey, did the rounds of the country shops to which the business sold wholesale. As well as Mr Harvey there were two other full-time employees, Mr Westropp and Mr Towers (who was disabled and used a wheelchair), also a part-time shop girl.
My brother Anthony started work in the shop after WW2 and he could well have taken over from our ageing father- by that time, I had started work in the bank, away from Grantham. However, dad was reluctant to let go of the reins and the shop could not afford to pay another employee so Anthony, a natural salesman, found a better-paid job with a nationally-known wool firm and he quickly became one of their best salesmen.
Another Grantham character was ‘Brammer’, who used to push a barrow around town selling fruit and veg. At the foot of Barrowby rd he would stop passers-by and try to browbeat them into helping him push the barrow up the hill. He once accosted my sister Anne in that way- wisely, she just ran away. Yet another eccentric was an ex-Navy rating. He would enter the Catholic Church just before 11 o’clock Mass wearing hob-nailed boots and freshly-laundered uniform in the material called ‘white duck’. Marching up to the Communion rail, he would kneel and loudly recite the Lord’s Prayer before clomping out again, but never staying for Mass.
Grantham market went on late into the evening and the Rock King’s stall was lit by a brilliant naphtha flare, whereas the other stalls used oil lamps. Another vendor had an automated sweet-making machine which he towed behind his van. The constituents were heated up in the machine and extruded from a container, automatically cut into slices and wrapped in paper twisted at each end.
I watched the hometown matches of Grantham Town Football Club at the old ground on London Rd with my friend Ken Blomeley who lived on Harlaxton Rd. In 1935 Grantham reached the first round proper of the FA Cup and played Notts County at home, losing 2-0. We watched the match- boys always got a good view, being pushed to the front of the crowd by the taller men. The ‘gate’ was usually about 2,000, with a record 4,000 attending that match. Our hero was our goalkeeper, Arthur Jepson.
In the early 1930s a touring circus visited Grantham, putting up their ‘big top’ in the field below Hall’s Hill. I was overjoyed at being able to help when extra hands were needed to haul on the ropes, which were secured by large metal-topped pegs hammered deep into the ground. Four men would position themselves around the peg, bearing huge club-hammers. One man would swing his hammer over his head to strike the first blow, the others then joining in, in turn- a circle of hammers, rising and falling as if in response to an unseen conductor.
In the 1920’s the metalled road from Grantham town centre towards Hall’s Hill led only as far as the old barracks at the Beacon Hill/Sandon Rd junction. From there to the top of the hill was an unsurfaced track, leading to a collection of wooden hutments which we knew as the ‘Pensions Hospital’ at the junction with Harrowby Lane where there is now a traffic roundabout. That hospital accommodated long-term patients who had been wounded in WW1, wearing ‘blues’- wounded soldiers’ clothing consisting of blue pyjama-style jackets and trousers, with white shirts and red ties. The New Beacon Rd area was built up between the wars, one of the roads leading off it- a cul-de-sac- being named Jubilee Avenue, which is where I now live and write this autobiography.
Reverting to my time at Kings School in Grantham, my parents decided that some discipline would be good for me. The school had an O.T.C. (Officers Training Corps) and I joined that, as did my close friend Robert Edwards. I would have preferred the Boy Scouts and was totally non militaristic but my parents regarded the scouts as rather ‘infra dig’, so the O.T.C. seemed the next best thing. We did our training on the small square of the old Barracks, under the watchful eye of the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Lincolnshire Regiment, who was billeted there. He was typical of his breed, with a fierce waxed moustache and a perfectly-fitting uniform.
We were issued with tropical gear and given a weekend’s home leave. I got the job of writing out the rail passes for the home leave, after admitting that I had some knowledge of office work. That taught me to be more careful of what I volunteered for thereafter. Before leaving Grantham I went into the Robert’s shop on North Parade to tell Muriel Roberts that I had been posted overseas. She wished me well, but at that moment Margaret, who had evidently overheard what I was saying, rushed out of the shop and started talking to me. But what a different Margaret from the happy child I remembered! She “buttonholed” me, began talking and would not stop, saying that she wasn’t going to stay in boring old Grantham but was going to go places and do wonderful things, etc. etc. She kept me there for a solid hour – I timed it from the church clock opposite – before I could get away; I began to wonder if she was mad, but subsequent events proved that she meant what she said – she became head girl at the K.G.G.S. (Kesteven and Grantham Girls High School) then went on to University, graduated with honours and took up research work. She met and married Denis Thatcher, had twins, then stood for Parliament as a Conservative, gaining a seat and eventually becoming a most memorable Prime Minister. The rest of her career has been well documented, showing that her policies were too right wing even for the Conservatives, who eventually combined to force her out of office, resulting in her ignominious resignation.
A decisive battle was fought at Sidi Barrani at dawn on 9th November 1940 against the Italian army. Accurate artillery fire from Italian gun positions hindered the British attack at first, but the Italian army proved to have no stomach for a fight and within two hours their army was beaten and the survivors surrendered. It was said that the British commander, General O’Connor, asked his aide-de-camp how many prisoners had been taken and received the reply “we haven’t counted them yet, Sir, but there are four acres of Officers and about forty acres of men”. British casualties were light – twelve killed and about thirty wounded. We got the wounded into tarpaulin shelters and treated them there overnight, putting them into ambulances for the long journey back to Alexandria.
By an extraordinary coincidence, I have recently again met one of those Italian ex-prisoners of war, a Mr Proddi. After having been brought back to England he had been put to work on the land, and on release at the end of the car, he settled in Grantham. He now speaks perfect English and I see him frequently as, being a Catholic, he attends Mass regularly at St. Mary’s church.
While I was waiting for X-ray the delayed shock made itself felt and successive waves of extreme weakness came over me like the tide coming in and then receding, leaving me trembling and covered in a cold sweat. Those are the classic symptoms of surgical shock and I was given mugs of hot, sweet tea – the standard army remedy for shock. When it was my turn for the operating theatre (a mobile theatre was already in use there) I was given an intravenous injection of pentothal which put me out, although I kept coming round and vomiting throughout the night. Next morning the surgeon, a New Zealander named Captain Spring, told me I had a hole in my back big enough for him to put his fist into.
The wound was treated by a generous application of sulphanilamide powder (antibiotics had not yet come into use) with Elastoplast strapping round my waist. Another painful day and a sleepless night followed, during which time I received no painkillers. After another painful day I accepted an intravenous injection of morphine and found myself in a drug induced state of euphoria – I felt as if I was floating in a warm sea, with all the pain gone, and I drifted into a long, blessed sleep. Knowing that morphine is highly addictive I refused further injections and was then put into a ward. Although not paralysed, I could hardly move a muscle for the first few days. It was in that ward that I first detected the vile, unmistakeable sickly smell of gangrene, from a leg wound of one of those patients. Our surgeon, Captain ‘Butch’ Bailey, successfully performed the emergency amputation.
The other memorable casualty was Pipe-Major Rab Roy, of the Black Watch. In accordance with that Regiment’s tradition he had piped them into battle during the attack and I could clearly hear the skirl of his pipes. In that situation he was, of course, a prime target and was hit in the leg, but got up and continued piping. He was again hit in the leg and went down, but got up again and carried on piping. A brave man, he was hit for a third time, this time in the buttock and he stayed down. When I reached him he was most despondent – for a member of the Black Watch to be hit in the backside was, he thought, a fate worse than death and he told me he wished the bullet had finished him off properly. None of his wounds appeared to be life-threatening, as evidently no artery had been severed so I bandaged his leg. I could do nothing about the buttock wound which I assured him was not serious, although I was rather worried in case there might have been some internal damage.
My spell in the U.K. was short, lasting only from January to July 1945. That period was uneventful but I had the opportunity of some sporting activity, and I joined the Grantham Badminton Club and played for them in a few matches. I also played rugby for Kings School Old Boys in that year, Old Boys v. School match at the school playing field (the last occasion on which I played Rugby). During that match my friend John Pacey had the misfortune to break his collarbone. John was always in the thick of any action, becoming known as Grantham’s World War Two hero, having been awarded the M.C. (Military Cross) for an action shortly after D-day, in which there was some hand-to-hand fighting and John had despatched two Germans with his revolver. He was not a belligerent person, but told me he was convinced he was in a ‘kill or be killed’ situation and simply decided to take as many of the enemy with him as possible.