THE SECOND WORLD WAR
In 1943 Barney Welch was a private in the Service Corps. He had been recruited the previous year. He was classed A1 fit and detailed to go with his unit to fight in Italy. He was also classed as a good rifle shot, so his service on the front line seemed pretty certain. Prior to his embarkation he was given a week’s leave and came home to Drayton for Costessey on the train. During his leave he injured his knee while doing some digging on a building site (in civvie street he was a builder). As a result of his injury, on his return to barracks he was downgraded to B2 and considered unfit for overseas duty. He didn’t seem to mind(!) in fact I rather get the impression that he was thoroughly delighted. Although it sounds suspiciously like a deliberate injury, I don’t think Barney was brave or devious enough to engineer this. He spent the rest of the war working as a kitchen porter in the Officers’ Mess in the camp at Shefford in south Bedfordshire. I should remind you that Barney was the son of Frank Welch, the Subpostmaster of Costessey PO, who had died of a heart attack in 1942. Frank’s widow – Barney’s mother – had taken over the job which she occupied for the next 20 years.
It was during the last years of the war that he met his future wife, Janet Cullen. She was working in an ammunition factory. The TNT turned her hair red. She was sometimes troubled in later years by thinking of the scores of people that had been killed by the bombs that she had made in Shefford. One of those to be blown up could easily have been her. The huts where they worked at their task were separated by high banks of earth to prevent any explosion from spreading to the adjoining buildings. The TNT dust that she breathed in may have affected her long term, as she had a lot of health problems in her later years.
After the war Janet went as civilian employee to work at the local RAF Station. I have a large embroidered table cloth that Janet (who had no children of her own) gave me. It was almost completed by the personnel at RAF Henlow while waiting in readiness to be called on duty. Janet inherited the table cloth as the one fixed employee among the ever moving personnel of the ops room. My mother-in-law finally finished it off, as Janet was no needle woman (unlike the flying crew at RAF Henlow!) and it is sitting on my dining table as I write. It is revealing that the men’s preferred occupation during the hours of waiting was the peaceable and feminine matter of needlework. Janet’s job involved working closely with these men in uniform. The war was over and RAF Henlow was restyled as a training centre, but the warlike atmosphere remained as the Cold War was beginning by the late 1940s.
As long as her mother was alive she lived in Shefford to care for her, and did not leave for Costessey to marry Barney until her mother died sometime in late 1955. During this period Barney continued to work as a builder in Costessey and lived with his mother in the Post Office. As a result, for ten years Barney spent a lot of his spare time in Shefford, driving over nearly every weekend. How he managed this with petrol rationing (which didn’t end until 1950) I don’t know. Janet and Barney married at the Catholic Church next door to the Post Office in 1959. Living in Costessey Post Office Janet became very involved in running it, as by then Barney’s mother was in her eighties.
By coincidence one of Barney’s old friends from Costessey was also living in Shefford in the post war years.This was none other than Bluey Drake, who I have told you something about in a previous post. The Drakes were, as I have said before, a travelling family or to use the non-PC term, gypsies. They were not always on the road, but they had bases across the eastern counties and one of these was in Shefford.
Shefford is also a few miles from Ayot St Lawrence, the home of George Bernard Shaw, the famous 20th century playwright. His house was surrounded by a good thick hedge which made it a suitable location for Janet and Barney to do their courting. One day they were kissing and cuddling by the hedge when the bearded face poked itself out from between the bushes and looked at them with a quizzical gaze. Then it disappeared as suddenly as it had come. It was GBS himself, although he had said not a word.