On Christmas Eve 1951, my father was lost at sea off the Welsh coast in Cardigan Bay. I was 4 and a half years old, and my mother had just discovered she was expecting what turned out to be my little sister. This event left my mother destitute, as my father was a handsome, charming man, loving and a joyous companion, but prone to borrowing and putting bills behind the clock on the mantelpiece, metaphorically speaking, and never actually getting round to paying them! He left debts of over £3000, an enormous sum at that time.
We travelled wherever Mummy could find live in work, until my father's father also died, and left money in trust for my sister and I. My father's brothers bought a little terraced Victorian house in Canterbury (almost the exact twin of the house we rent now) for £500, and spent a further £500 gutting it, restructuring it and fitting it out to a modern standard. That left a further £1000 to be invested to provide a little income, and gives a reasonable idea of the scale of my father's debt!
About 18 months after we moved into the house, I was sent to boarding school, just before my 8th birthday in 1955. My father's aunts had discovered that because he was a Merchant Navy Master Mariner, we were entitled to free education at the Merchant Navy School, which meant that my mother did not have to house, feed or clothe me for 2 thirds of the year - saving a fortune. So, in the spring, off I went to Bexhill, on the south coast, near Hastings.
Let's gloss over how I felt, which was pretty bloody awful, to be frank. I knew this was taking an enormous load from my mother's shoulders at the time, and have only understood more deeply as the years have gone by - she was doing the very best she could for me, painful though it was for a frightened, lonely and bereaved little girl. I was fed and clothed for 10 years, better than I could ever have been at home, and taught to think.
That education was an enormous, incalculable gift - because it truly was an education, rather than mere processing through a schooling system. I met some extraordinary people, both fellow pupils, and fascinating and dedicated staff members. In the post war years there were still many British service families posted residentially all over the world, sending their children back to Britain for their education, and many of my peers only saw their parents for the summer holidays.
Many of the staff, too, were still in recovery from their experiences in the war, seeking out their way forward in the peace time world, emotionally and physically battered by their war time lives. However, with few exceptions they cared deeply for the children in their care, and we were lucky. I remember the first few weeks of my first term, when I, and a couple of other little girls, were desperately homesick, the head master came to tuck us up at night, chat to us and sing us to sleep!
I was a funny little scrap, desperately short sighted, but not yet with spectacles, so I couldn't see the blackboard, and buck teeth to put a rabbit to shame. I was also desperately shy and unconfident - a bully's dream! It was a mixed school, unusually for boarding schools of the day, and the boys got much entertainment, for much of my school life, from pressing my buttons.
I was taught to have an open mind, to ask questions, and to understand, rather than merely store information, and do/be what was expected of me. I was taught to respect others, but that respect needed to be earned, too. I had an education, while most of my contemporaries got schooling. I shall always be grateful for that.