Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath
Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.
And get that man with double chin
Who’ll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women’s tears:
And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.
But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It’s not their fault that they are mad,
They’ve tasted Hell.
It’s not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It’s not their fault they often go
And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren’t look up and see the stars
But belch instead.
In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.
Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.
Slough by John Betjeman published in 1937 in Continual Dew
Slough is now one of the most industrialised parts of southern England.
But at the start of the 19th century, it was indistinguishable from the rest of rural, southern Buckinghamshire, though there was a tendency for new developments to spread along the main highway from London to Bath and Bristol. Baylis House, Slough’s finest building had been completed in 1696 for Gregory Hascard, then dean of Windsor, and was subsequently bought by a member of the Godolphin family. There were some signs of change. The Anglican church of Upton was falling into disrepair and it was decided to erect a completely new church in the Slough area. Close by, a workhouse was built. It occupied land that is now the site of Slough’s Upton Hospital. The Bristol Road was renamed as the Bath Road to reflect the rise of Bath as a leisure resort at the start of the 18th century. The road is still called by that name by local residents.
The first stage coach taking people from London to Bath had started in 1711. Around this time, Slough comprised about 30 houses and at least seven inns. But the pace of change was slow. Slough is reported to have had no more than 200 people by the end of the 18th century. Colnbrook, also on the Bath Road but about three miles closer to London, was then a busier place. One of Slough’s first claim to fame was the fact that the Astronomer Royal William Herschel lived and worked in a house in the town on the road to Windsor from 1786 until his death in 1822. He built an observatory which was used to discover Uranus, then believed to be the most distant planet in the solar system. The Observatory Building, as it was called, was demolished in 1963 during the modernisation of the centre of Slough which has resulted in the heart of the town being possibly one of the ugliest in England. There is now a major redevelopment project under way in the centre of Slough, which is hoped to inspire visitors to the town.
Salt Hill, now part of Slough, was then a separate village with a popular inn that had been visited by the poet Samuel Coleridge Taylor, who wrote The Ancient Mariner, and Pitt the Younger, British prime minister from 1783-1801 and from 1804 until his death. In 1814, George, the Prince Regent, entertained the King of Prussia and his sons, the Emperor of Russia and the Prince of Orange following the capture of Paris by a coalition which Britain forged against Napoleon.
But it was economics, not politics, which were to lead to a dramatic change in the social character of south Buckinghamshire. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, chief engineer of the GWR which was created in 1833, was mandated to define the route of a high-speed link between London and Bristol, England’s principal port and gateway to the Atlantic. It was decided to build the railway’s eastern terminus in the village of Paddington just outside London’s built-up area at that point. Descended from French Huguenot refugees, a political radical and a technocratic moderniser, Brunel, 27 when he joined the GWR in 1835, wanted to secure the most direct, point-to-point route to the west. But he was frequently rebuffed by the great landowners including the Church of England. They owned most of the land he needed to cross. In south Buckinghamshire, his most formidable foe was Eton College, which owned a stretch from the River Thames to the Bath Road. In an annual ceremony, the school would gather at Montem, a mound created by Celtic people of the distant past near Salt Hill. Brunel wanted the railway line to run through Eton to capture the business of its scholars and visitors to Windsor, including Queen Victoria and her family. The governors of the college, however, were resolutely opposed to the idea of noisy trains passing through their lands and bringing with them all the undesirable elements of the new Britain that Brunel seemed to epitomise. They rejected Brunel’s overtures. Frustrated, Brunel was forced to route the line north of the Bath Road more than a mile from the Thames and above the flood plain. A further problem was that the GWR was prevented from building a ticket office. Brunel had to be content with a stopping point. Eton’s objections to a station were only a temporary obstruction. But for about 18 months, those wishing to travel from Slough were obliged to buy tickets from a nearby public house called the North Star. It is said that Brunel decided to get his own back on the snobs of Eton. Instead of naming the stop after one of the ancient and lovely villages of the region, he plumped for a name that could irritate: Slough. The first section of the GWR from Paddington to Taplow, a village on the Bath Road between Slough and Maidenhead, opened in 1838. Slough finally came into its own after Queen Victoria herself used its station in 1842, the first time she was to travel by train. A connection to Eton from Slough, used by Queen Victoria and her family, was completed nine years later. A wide avenue to Slough station’s entrance was built to serve the queen, but it was undoubtedly a source of amusement to Brunel that his conservative opponents travelling to Eton and Windsor would have to purchase tickets to a place with such an ugly name and unpleasant connotations. The English establishment was well-read and everyone would have known of the Slough of Despond. It was described by the Puritan writer John Bunyan in his allegorical novel Pilgrim’s Progress, written while he was in prison serving a sentence for Protestant non-conformism in 1678. In the book, the main character Christian sinks into the Slough of Despond under the weight of sins and guilt.
Eton seems to have got over whatever slight Brunel intended. Etonians sometimes jokily declare that they attended Slough Grammar, a school in the east of the town attended by three of Pat and Ted’s sons.
The coming of the railway was a turning point for south Buckinghamshire. Speculative builders erected villas for office workers with jobs in London. Slough became a dormitory town, one of the first examples of the phenomenon that we now know as the commuter belt. As people came, so did commerce. Warehouses and workshops were built around the station. On the well-drained soil around Slough, huge rose plantations and other market gardens were established to serve London’s booming population. Charles Turner ran the Royal Nursery in Slough and commercially developed the Cox’s Orange Pippin apple which had been originally bred in Colnbrook. A telegraph connection was built in 1843. Gas lighting came in 1849, probably the year that Ted’s great-grandfather Daniel O’Sullivan arrived in Southwark from Limerick.Slough station played a part in one of the era’s darkest dramas. John Tawell murdered his lover Sarah Hart in Salt Hill Park in January 1845. The body was found and Tawell was pursued. He had got ahead of the police and took the train to London. A telegraph message was dispatched and Tawell was arrested when he arrived in Paddington. He was hanged for murder in Aylesbury prison in March that year. It was the first instance of a criminal being caught thanks to telecommunications. A secret scandal that was only to emerge much later was the fact that Slough was probably for a period the home of Ellen Ternan, the mistress from 1858 of Charles Dickens, the English author. She lived in Church Street, south of Slough High Street. Dickens travelled to Slough by train, occasionally using neighbouring stations, including one in the Thames village of Datchet, to camouflage his intentions.
Initially, Slough had a transient population, but a settled community developed that needed the normal range of services. The Royal Hotel by Slough Station was converted into an orphanage and then transformed again in 1921 into the Licensed Victuallers’ School, a private educational establishment for the sons of the owners and managers of public houses. Slough Secondary School was opened in 1912 to provide grammar school education for boys and girls. It was divided in 1936 into Slough Grammar School for Boys, which occupies a site on Lascelles Road to the east of the town, and Slough High School for Girls. The oldest secondary school in the town was St Bernard’s Convent, north of the Bath Road close to Slough Grammar. It was based around a house that had been bought by Bernadine Nuns in 1897. St Bernard’s later became a girls’ Catholic grammar school, though it had fee-paying students, and was attended by both Pat and Ted’s daughters. It went co-educational and became a voluntary-aided (fee-paying) grammar school in 1989. The nuns moved out in 2006. The records show that the region’s first Catholic school was organised in Baylis House by English converts in 1830, when the house was owned by the Godolphin family. It had by then inherited the title of Duke of Leeds. The school was to remain at Baylis House for 87 years.
Slough’s population grew. The 1851 census recorded it was 3,575. James Elliman opened a modern factory in the town to make an embrocation that is still produced, though not in Slough any more. His most lasting contribution to the town was landscaping Salt Hill and then donating the land to Slough Urban Council just before the 1st World War. It was Slough’s first public park. By the end of the 19th century, Slough’s population had ballooned, but was still modest. The census of 1901 shows it was about 11,000. Slough’s first cinema opened on the Bath Road in 1910. The next turning point came during the 1st World War. Much of Britain’s munitions production was in the London area. Once Zeppelin attacks on the capital began in 1916, it was decided to disperse munitions and equipment out of harm’s way. The British Army set up a war vehicles repair depot, known locally as The Dump, at Cippenham Court Farm on the Bath Road west of Slough. After the conflict ended, the War Office sold the depot and a 600-acre site with workshops, machinery and vehicles to a group of business people. They created the Slough Trading Company. It was renamed as Slough Estates in 1926, the year of the general strike which Ted’s father Mick participated in. It was the world’s first modern industrial estate. By then, Slough trading estate, as it is usually known, was employing 8,000 people.
To address the housing shortages resulting from the influx of industrial workers and their families, the territory of the Slough Urban District was extended in 1930 and it took over parts of Burnham, Farnham Royal, Stoke Poges, Langley and Cippenham. By the start of the 2nd World War in 1939, most of the area was covered with new council estates. They included a string of large houses built on Oatlands Drive which ran from the Farnham Road to Stoke Poges Lane. Pat and Ted O’Sullivan were to live in Oatlands Drive in the 1960s and 1970s. Slough’s first proper town hall was opened in 1938, the year Slough was reclassified as a borough. The town’s booming economy attracted people seeking jobs. During the post-1st World War recession, which deepened into depression after 1929, thousands came from across the UK. A large Welsh community developed. Some miners walked all the way from the Welsh coalfields along the Bath Road. It is said that Slough residents put signs up in their windows saying: “Keep Walking Taffy!”
By the start of the 2nd World War, Slough was a prosperous town of about 30,000 people, most of them working in factories and workshops. The 2,000-seat Adelphi Cinema, the town’s first large picture hall, opened in 1930. The Granada Cinema was opened on the Windsor Road in 1938 by Leslie Howard, a celebrated British movie actor. Slough was eventually to have at least five cinemas including The Ambassador on the Farnham Road which the O’Sullivan family used to visit. The Ambassador and the Adelphi have been demolished and the Granada no longer operates as a cinema. The sole legacy of a period when most people went to the pictures at least weekly is the Pavements of Fame, slabs of concrete in which were imprinted the palm marks of some of the stars that acted in Pinewood studios and came to Slough for promotional purposes. They include those of Bette Davis and Bob Hope. The pavements are kept by Slough Council.
Slough Estates boomed during the interwar years. For those in work, real earnings rose and this led to a growth in spending on the consumer goods that the new factories based in Slough produced. The town was also close to London which had benefited from the huge increase in the number of civil servants working for central government during the Great War. Factories set up in Slough included Aspros, which opened in Slough Estates in 1927. Forrest Mars Senior founded a confectionary factory in the estate in 1932. He had fallen out with his father Frank Mars, who had founded a confectionary business in Tacoma in Washington state in the US. Forrest Mars started to produce the Mars bar which was similar to the Milky War candy bar produced by his father in the US. The Slough branch of Mars was later to be a confectionery innovator. Several brands developed in the town, including Skittles and Topic, were subsequently introduced into the US. Mars remains privately-owned, though family members are no longer senior managers. Mars is still a major employer in Slough though it closed one of its two factories in the town in 2007. The Mars family temporarily put Slough at the cutting-edge of the fast-food revolution. Desperate for American-style hamburgers during their visits, the Mars family set up their own hamburger bar named Crockett’s on the Farnham Road at the end of the 1960s. A further confectionery product made in Slough was Wagon Wheels, a chocolate biscuit filled with marshmallow that was invented by Garry Weston, an Australian businessman. Production of Wagon Wheels was moved to Wales in the 1980s. Chix, a US confectionery firm that made chewing gum and sweet cigarettes, also had a factory in Slough. Gerard, Ted’s 2nd son, worked there in the summer of 1973 and remembers seeing birds nesting inside the factory. It was the scene of a bitter labour dispute later in the decade when its workers, mainly recent immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, tried to form a union.
An expanding region of south Bucks was proletarian-ised to the lasting disgust of the established families of the county. The large housing estates built around Slough provided spacious and sanitary accommodation for impecunious migrants from northern industrial towns, Scottish and Welsh mining villages and the length and breadth of Ireland. Dance halls and cinemas were opened to entertain the newcomers. On Saturday nights, Slough pubs would be packed. Initially, the migrants to Slough were overwhelmingly male. The ancient trades of the night flourished and there was a ready supply of prostitutes. The irreverent newcomers were inclined to vote Labour. The rest of Buckinghamshire invariably elected representatives of a conservative disposition. The Second World War gave a further boost to the town. Tens of thousands more arrived and Slough sprawled east and west along the Bath Road, south towards the Thames and north towards the foothills of the Chilterns. The ancient settlements of Cippenham and Upton-cum-Chalvey were absorbed. A large power station with cooling towers visible for miles was built in Slough trading estate. The distaste of the genteel English middle classes for this expression of a new, egalitarian and technocratic Britain was satirically expressed by Sir John Betjeman in his poem about Slough. It was originally written in 1927 and published just before the Second World War. It articulates both misanthropy and snobbishness. Its first line is one of the most remembered in English poetry. People from Slough find it amusing, but also residually insulting. Betjeman later regretted writing the poem, which was about the Slough trading estate rather than Slough itself. His daughter formally apologised to the town after he died in 1984.
The third growth wave came after 1945 when successive UK governments sought to honour their commitment to provide houses for returning soldiers, replace homes destroyed during the war and demolish the overcrowded slums in which many still lived. Slough was selected to be one of the places where new housing, sometimes called London overspill estates, was to be built.
For the 1945 general election, the new constituency of Eton & Slough was created. It returned the Labour Party candidate Benn Levy, a former screenwriter married to the American film star Constance Cummings. He was to sit in the House of Commons until 1950. Levy was to be replaced that year by Fenner Brockway, a First World War conscientious objector and a founding member, like Levy, of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Brockway was defeated in the 1964 general election and became a peer. A statue in his likeness can be seen in Red Lion Square, site of the Conway Hall where he often spoke at public meetings. Slough was the location for the next phase in Pat and Ted’s life. They set about their new challenge with characteristic energy. But it was incredibly hard work.
“The new job was initially exhausting. For a fortnight, I was compelled to rise at about 4.30am and walk from Farnham Common to Farnham Road, a distance of more than two miles. It was practically killing me, so I demanded that the existing manager Mr Hughes vacate the flat. He did and we immediately moved from Farnham Common. The accommodation, which encompassed two floors, was excellent, but the hours were long. I would open the shop just after 5am and close it at 6.30pm. After, I would have to cash-up, check the tills and pack the money in the safe.”
The Farnham Road shop was almost industrial compared to the village enterprise Pat and Ted had previously run. Opposite were the factories and offices of the Slough trading estate, the largest light industrial zone in Europe at that time. They included a huge plant on the opposite side of the Farnham Road owned by Harris Intertype, one of the world’s leading typesetting equipment manufacturers. A large illuminated clock on its exterior wall was often referred to by the O’Sullivans by the simple expedient of looking out of the window of their flat. The factories were booming and some operated shift systems. This generated a steady flow of business with workers calling in to buy newspapers, cigarettes and snacks early in the morning and picking up evening newspapers when they returned home. The shop had a large confectionery counter and a huge range of tobacco. It was a more challenging and satisfying job for Ted. But there were regrets.
“Annoyingly, we had barely settled in Farnham Road when Eton wrote offering us a council house. Shortly afterwards, a letter arrived from Australia House offering assisted passages to Melbourne for my family. The move had exhausted our savings, so we soldiered on. The first stock take after about three months showed that the shop’s loss had been eliminated. Only once in the next 12 years would it reappear. Edwards agreed that the deficit had occurred because the accountant had made a tiny percentage miscalculation in valuing the stock. He changed his accountants but lived to regret it.”
Being closer to St Anthony’s encouraged more involvement with the parish.
“We had just taken over 240 Farnham Road when Jimmy Eyre, the husband of a St Anthony’s teacher, called at the shop and said that he was placing St Anthony’s order for Catholic newspapers with us. I pointed out that the only way the newspapers could be supplied was at retail prices. This would not be any good as there would be no profit on sales and no returns of unsold copies. A private arrangement was reached with Barry Egerton, a wholesaler, who would supply the papers personally at the wholesale price. The money would be gathered from sales on Sundays and paid to Barry monthly by cheque. This would have worked well if much of the money from people attending the first Sunday Mass and buying newspapers had not been removed. Often, the revenue from the sales did not cover the amount due to the wholesaler. This ridiculous arrangement was to last 25 years.”
In April 1955, Churchill retired as prime minister and was replaced by Eden who called an immediate general election. The end of rationing, rising living standards, low unemployment and the government’s highly successful building programme, which delivered 300,000 homes a year, had consolidated the Conservatives’ reputation in the eyes of the British people as competent and fair. The Labour Party, still led by Atlee, was divided between moderates and left-wing Socialists who gathered around Bevan. In parliamentary elections in May, the Conservatives sharply increased their majority in the House of Commons, winning 345 seats compared with Labour’s 277. The Liberals held on to their six. The defeat was the end for Atlee, never a popular figure in the Labour Party but respected for his self-effacing manner and role as deputy prime minister in the war-time coalition. Hugh Gaitskell, an economist aged 57 who had previously been shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, beat Morrison and Bevan and became Labour leader. Gaitskell seemed to epitomise a new Labour Party approach to British politics. He was more like a manager than a politician and sincerely believed that the divisions in British society could be cured through a combination of public spending, careful economic policies, redistributive taxation and highly-selective increases in public ownership. The left of the party hated him, probably because he defeated their hero Bevan in the leadership contest. Gaitskell included Bevan in his shadow cabinet as colonial affairs spokesman and then, in 1956, as shadow foreign secretary.
Europe continued to be dominated by Cold War rivalry. Nikita Khrushchev became undisputed leader of the Soviet Union in February 1955. Soviet bloc countries signed the Warsaw Pact treaty in May, nine days after the Western powers recognised West Germany as a sovereign state. Later that year, the new country started taking steps to create an army. The division of Germany was to last for 35 more years. The raw material for a generation of British spy novels was created when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, both foreign office officials, appeared in Moscow and were confirmed by the British government as having been long-term Soviet agents. After riots in Cyprus, a British possession since 1870, a state of emergency was declared on the island in November. It was eventually to become independent at the end of 1959.For the British people, there were two far more interesting stories in 1955. One was the announcement that Princess Margaret, the queen’s younger sister, would not marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, a former equerry to King George VI, a decorated fighter pilot and, crucially, a divorcee. It is believed that the decision broke Margaret’s heart. The second source of excitement was the start on 22 September of an advertising-financed television channel that broke the BBC monopoly over the medium. It was the start of the rise of commercial broadcasting in the UK. The year was special for other reasons. In July, Ruth Ellis was hanged in Holloway Prison in north London for murdering her lover. She was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. In February 1956, MPs voted in favour of abolishing the death penalty, but executions continued until 1964.
The following year was to be dramatic. It started with Elvis Presley’s song Heartbreak Hotel becoming number one in the American charts. A film of Bill Haley performing Rock Around the Clock was shown in British cinemas and there were disturbances in some. The Rock ‘n Roll revolution had begun. It is still with us. A new era in British theatrical drama began in May 1956 with the first performance of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It began an era of realistic theatre collectively known as “kitchen-sink dramas” which featured “working class heroes”, ordinary men and women living ordinary lives. But 1956 is mainly remembered for the Suez crisis in which Britain and France conspired with Israel in an attempt to regain the Suez Canal nationalised by Egyptian leader Abdul Gamal Nasser in July. The British and French attack began at the end of October but was quickly called off following international and, in particular, US pressure. They withdrew, but the canal had been blocked. It was clear evidence that the US would henceforth be the principal power in the Middle East and not Britain and France. It was a disaster for Britain’s reputation and was the end of Eden’s political career. Sick and disillusioned, he resigned as prime minister in January 1957. He was succeeded by Harold Macmillan, the epitome of the type of progressive Conservative politician that had been thrown up by the experiences of two world wars and the great depression.
By contemporary standards, Macmillan would be regarded as left-wing Labour. Macmillan established a new populist style in a speech in March 1957 in which he said: “…most of our people have never had it so good.” The phrase is now used to define the whole 1950s.
The second drama was in Hungary, which had been a German ally during the Second World War. Following the end of the conflict, Hungary was a multi-party democracy but under effective Soviet occupation. Soviet pressure built up and Hungary fell under Communist control in 1949. After the death of Stalin in 1953 and Khrushchev’s secret speech to the CPSU in February 1956 which denounced the dictator, hopes flared in Eastern Europe that the Soviets would allow more political freedom. In June, a Polish workers’ rebellion in Poznan was violently repressed, but a genie had been released and the mood spread to Hungary. On 23 October, a students’ demonstration in Budapest was attacked. Fighting spread and developed into all-out rebellion. That night, the Communist government requested Soviet support. Despite the arrival of Soviet tanks, the uprising continued and Hungary’s Communist leaders fled the country. Hungarian militants battled Soviet tanks in the streets of Budapest. Fought to a standstill, the Soviets agreed a ceasefire on 28 October. A new Hungarian government headed by a Communist reformer Imre Nagy was formed. The peace lasted less than a week. On 1 November, Soviet forces were ordered back into Hungary to put down the rising and restore Moscow’s control. Soviet tanks reached Budapest on 4 November. Final pockets of resistance were crushed on 10 November. The Soviets imposed a loyal government headed by Janos Kadar. Nagy was executed for treason in 1958.
Ted’s reactions to the Suez crisis and the Hungarian rebellion were consistent. He believed the UK’s attack on Egypt was illegal and immoral. He also argued that the behaviour of Britain and France over Suez provided some of the pretext for the suppression of the Hungarian rebellion which Ted supported. Ted had no illusions about the Soviets. He had seen the Red Army on the border between Austria and Yugoslavia in May 1945 and did not like what he saw. Ted was a loyal Catholic and loathed the Communist’s repression of Christianity. But for many who believed the Soviet Union represented hope for the future, the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion was the end of a dream. Communist parties across the world lost members and many supporters who were to become firm anti-Communists. It was the final death of an era in Western politics. Practically no one now believed Communism was an alternative to the status quo in the UK and the West. There was another consequence. The US and the West made no attempt to support the Hungarian rebels. Their policy in Europe was clear. The aim was not to roll-back Communism but to contain and co-exist with it. It was a strategy that was to shape international affairs for more than 30 years.
The British economy continued growing and living standards improved. Pat and Ted and their family were also prospering in the way most families did in the mid-1950s. Like millions of others, the O’Sullivans sampled the pleasures of low-cost holiday camps created to serve ordinary people with an increasing amount of money in their pockets. In the 1980s, British holiday camps were parodied in the popular BBC television comedy Hi De Hi! It was an affectionate but patronising depiction of what was a distinctly British phenomenon in the 1950s. At the time, it gave many Britons a taste for more comfortable ways of enjoying their leisure time. The holiday camp was the forerunner of the foreign beach holidays most Britons now consider to be their right.
“Around this time, we changed our holiday venue and tried Butlin’s at Clacton. We found this perfect, as we took our holidays in early June, to coincide with Whitsun, now known as the Late Spring Bank Holiday. We enjoyed ourselves so much, and were freed from the children so often, that we went three more times, once with my brother Tom and his family. Butlin’s, at that time of the year, was quite thinly-occupied and the large staff were prepared to help families, particularly those who participated in camp activities. We joined in everything. Each evening, the children slept immediately, exhausted after a long day of intense activity. They won prizes for beauty and dexterity in various competitions. June was also a good time for a holiday since it was cheaper at that time.”
“The children were growing fast and we decided to abandon Butlin’s as a holiday venue. At the start of 1958, we saw an advertisement in Daltons and we wrote away for furnished self-contained apartments in Par, Cornwall. We travelled up to Paddington and there took the Cornish Riviera Express. We booked seats and lunches in the dining car. The first snag came when two of the childrens’ seats were usurped by a couple with their pet cat in a basket. We were incensed when we heard them complain to friends: ‘We are stuck with a cartload of kids.’ We kept our tempers. They were later rebuked by the ticket inspector as they were travelling on privileged tickets. They were railway staff. We were the customers. We never booked again.”
“Although something of an industrial town because of its docks and china clay, Par allowed us an enjoyable holiday. The first week we spent touring Cornwall by train. The fare for adults was 17/6 (87.5p in decimal money) for the week and 8/9d (about 44p) each for the three oldest children. It was the best value we had ever experienced. Using the then-existing network of railway lines, we saw all parts of Cornwall. The second week we spent locally and went for walks. We had a wonderful holiday, but we decided not to return to Par because of the China clay spoil heaps. In addition, the accommodation was not first class.”
History was again on the move. In March 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome which founded what is now called the European Union (EU). Greek Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios, who had been arrested the previous year and exiled to the Seychelles, was released in April 1957 and moved to Athens. The Greek Cypriot guerilla group EOKA, which wanted union with Greece, resumed its operations. The IRA, dormant since the 1930s, launched attacks along the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The empire was beginning to evaporate. Ghana became independent in March 1957 and Malaya followed in August.
The space race started with the launch of Sputnik 1 by the Soviet Union in October that year. The following month, Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb. The word Beatnik was probably used widely for the first time in the UK to describe young people with unkempt hair, casual clothes and a taste for jazz music, which was favoured over Rock ‘n Roll by students and intellectuals. Tommy Steele, the first modern British pop star, began his career in 1957.The next year began sadly. In February 1958, a BEA airliner crashed in Munich, killing and injuring many of the Manchester United football team which had won the league championship in the previous two years. They were known as the Busby Babes after Matt Busby, the team manager. The tragedy eventually became a legend. Bernard O’Sullivan, an enthusiastic football player and centre forward who was to become captain of St Anthony’s primary school team, became a fan and watched them win the European Cup at Wembley in 1968, though his attachment to the club was to wax and wane over the years.
The British youth movement gathered further steam in 1958 with the first of what became annual Easter marches of protest organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to the UK government’s nuclear weapons research centre at Aldermaston near Reading. The trigger was the announcement of a plan for nuclear missile bases in the UK. CND secured the support of some leading British intellectuals and writers including the philosopher Bertrand Russell, the novelist J B Priestley and Lord John Russell, a Liberal politician. A darker side of Britain was revealed in anti-immigration riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in August and September.
The Middle East was again in the news. In July 1958, the Iraqi monarchy was deposed in a military coup supported by Arab nationalists, republicans and Communists. King Faisal II, who had been educated at Harrow, was murdered with his close family and some advisers. Among the supporters of the new republican regime was Saddam Hussain, then still a teenager. He was to become one of the world’s most notorious figures in due course.
Meanwhile, the O’Sullivan family was getting bigger. On 17 September 1958, Stephen James was born, Pat and Ted’s third son and fifth child. He was red-headed like Catherine. The three-bedroom flat on Farnham Road was getting crowded. One room was for Pat and Ted, one for Marian and Catherine and the third for the three boys. Earlier that month, Marian had started at St Bernard’s Convent in eastern Slough. This was the only Catholic girls’ grammar school in the area. It also accepted fee-paying students who came from the wealthier middle class areas around Slough. It consequently felt something like a public school. The girls wore smart felt hats, blazers and skirts in the winter and light blue dresses topped with a straw hat in the summer. Marian took to the new environment. It was a sharp contrast to the proletarian tone of St Anthony’s which mainly drew its pupils from working class Irish immigrants.
The year closed with Charles De Gaulle becoming president of France’s 5th Republic. He promised to keep Algeria French, but he was eventually to change his mind. In January 1959, Fidel Castro became president of Cuba after deposing the US-supported dictator Fulgencio Batista.
In August that year, the British Motor Corporation launched the Mini, a compact and economical vehicle that became a symbol of Britain in the early 1960s. Ted was proving to be an excellent small businessman and ran his shop efficiently and profitably. Pat and Ted’s children, when they came of age, played various roles from shop assistant to paper boy. The product range was extended, though Ted was quick to discontinue sales of semi-pornographic magazines and condoms which the previous manager had stocked. Despite the cost involved due to their large family, Pat and Ted were able to start in 1959 a sequence of three annual fortnight-long visits to a farm in Cornwall.
“The next three years took us to Cornwall but further afield. Once more using Daltons, we discovered a cottage at a place called Maenporth, a village beyond Truro. We wanted the weeks in May which corresponded with Whitsun that year. The farmer, named Mr Clewes, was letting his former home for the first time. He was pleased to have such an early offer but had misgivings about us. Five children and from Slough! He collected us from the express at Truro and took us along the sea road. Catherine was feeling a little car sick. Fortunately, we were at the Maenporth end of the footpath to his farm. Marian, a very resourceful 11-year-old, took Catherine along the path whilst the remainder carried on in the car. One could almost see that Mr Clewes was already regretting taking us, but at the end of a gorgeous fortnight of perfect weather, he was full of praise for our children and begged us to book for next year. We walked everywhere as a family. Often, Pat would remain on the beach at Maenporth, while we explored. Little Gerard, a sturdy child, would walk for miles. We came the following year with my parents, and they enjoyed themselves very much. My father and little Stephen would be seen walking hand in hand around the farm; dad 66 and Stephen not yet two. When we arrived in 1961, Mr Clewes was very upset that we had not brought my father.”
Cornwall in the summer is close to heaven. The O’Sullivan children loved every second of their three holidays on the farm. Most days were spent on the beach, sometimes picking winkles that would be boiled, seasoned and used in delicious sandwiches. The farm itself was full of wonders. An enormous barn containing bales of straw was a perfect adventure playground. The animals were a delight, though Gerard once received a head full of muck after getting too close. Fresh fish were served for tea. There were blackberries for blackberry and apple pie. The taste of Cornish ice cream – golden, creamy and with nuggets of ice embedded – was more than enough to turn the young O’Sullivans’ heads. Ted was now in his prime as a businessman and wanted to expand.
“The business was booming and we decided to extend the shop. This was done with the help of John Horsewood who was engaged as assistant manager. It was discovered that the partition at the end of the shop could be moved quite easily. This we did by reducing the stockroom space. A professional builder constructed an extension, which was to become the main store for the tobacco and cigarette stock, the most valuable part of our merchandise. Into this new strong area was moved the safe. I redesigned the shop and opened up the windows, moving back the counters. This was against the then modern practice of having a quick service window on to the street. It turned shops into mere kiosks. The idea was to encourage customers into the enlarged premises, with its stationery and books on display. The gamble paid off and sales immediately rose. Edwards saw the potential and adopted the redesign for the premises at Ryefield Avenue, Ruislip where Arthur Thomas, who had been my former colleague at Hawkes in 1946, was the manager.”
“Another result was that one of Edwards’ former army colleagues called Teddy Moyniham, a rich ex-Kenyan, became interested in investing in these sort of businesses and he asked to work in the shop to discover how one operated. He was impressed at the end of a fortnight but gave up the idea of entering the news and tobacco retail trade because he thought it was too much like hard work. He convinced Edwards, however, that I was underpaid and suggested a commission on my ever increasing sales. This raised my remuneration and we were now comfortably off.”
It was, however, physically exhausting. Ted opened the shop before dawn to take in the newspaper deliveries. He then marked them up with addresses ready for the paperboys who delivered to Ted’s customers. At that time, paperboys, and the occasional papergirl, were as familiar as postmen. Ted was in the shop until about 1pm when he would have lunch prepared by Pat and take an afternoon nap. He would be back in the shop for the afternoon until closing time at 6.30pm. Pat, meanwhile, was raising a large family, doing the shopping and preparing the meals. Like other retail establishments at the time, the shop closed for half a day on Wednesday but was open until 12 noon on Sundays. In total, Ted would work an average of 60 hours a week in the shop. On top of that there were administrative duties including managing the books and the annual stock-take. If Ted was reasonably paid, he was earning every penny. The burden of work eventually took a toll on his health.
“One spring I noticed that I was losing my voice and could speak barely above a whisper. I called at my doctors in Farnham Royal and found that a locum was in charge. He told me not to worry, cut down smoking and avoid using my voice. This was a useless suggestion for a man who worked in a shop 12 hours each day. I went back and saw Doctor Milward who sent me immediately for examination by a specialist. I was ordered to hospital for an emergency operation. I had no idea what was wrong. I waited a month and went to see Doctor Milward again who rang the hospital. He told me that a polypus on my vocal chords had been discovered and that he had not known until then that it was benign. I was to see the specialist every three months. Later, a customer told me that her husband had gone in for the same biopsy but had died in hospital with cancer. I was fortunate. By being kept inadvertently in ignorance of how dangerous my problem might have been, I avoided months of worry.”
Despite the pressure of his daily job, Ted had energy to spare. As well as running the business, he was a member of the National Union of Newsagents, an employers’ organisation protecting small traders. Ted was appointed honorary secretary of the Windsor branch, a position he held for about eight years. When he retired from this post, he was given a silver beer mug with a glass bottom. It was one of the very few personal possessions, apart from clothes and books, that Ted had.
Pat and Ted were very proud of their children. Marian was enjoying being at St Bernard’s. An excellent scholar and sportsman, Bernard was doing well at St Anthony’s which Catherine entered in 1957. Edmund, who everyone called Gerard, attended the Slough Community Centre nursery just off the Farnham Road. This was a local authority facility, an innovation at the time. At the end of the week, Pat would collect Gerard and buy him a bottle of orange juice and a chocolate biscuit. Sugar rationing had ended, but sweets were still an occasional treat. The children were given a couple of coppers each week as pocket money which they invariably spent on confectionery from Pat and Ted’s shop after Sunday lunch, which was always a traditional roast washed down by a glass of “pop”, usually R Whites’ lemonade or Tizer, a raspberry-flavoured fizzy drink. Ted would occasionally make himself a shandy, a mixture of brown ale and lemonade.
Like his father Mick, Ted was a very light drinker. His sole obvious vice was an addiction to Senior Service, untipped cigarettes. His taste for the brand had developed during the war when Senior Service made up his cigarette ration. Pat would smoke an occasional cigarette, but gave up entirely in the 1960s. Ted was never to master his nicotine addiction.
Harold Macmillan called a parliamentary election in October 1959 and increased the Conservative majority. Ted was contemptuous of the suggestion that the majority lived in the lap of luxury and voted Labour. But the Conservative era was beginning to draw to a close. Things were stirring in St Anthony’s. In 1954, Father Houghton had moved to Bury St Edmunds and was replaced by Father James Reidy, a graduate of London University who had been a teacher before deciding to train for the priesthood. He was ordained in 1941 and ministered to Catholics in Luton, Ipswich and Biggleswade before moving to Slough. Reidy, who was accompanied by his spinster sister, was to be a dynamic force in the parish for more than a decade.