Noreen and Vernon Kemp
Date of Interview: 4th Feb 2005
Place: Balmain, Sydney, Australia
Interviewer: Kevin Murray
Transcription: Catherine Sapir, Feb 2005
(Vernon,) tell me what work went on at the office and what were both of your roles.
Vernon: Iíll come to that. You see when I left school I had an offer of joining a city firm of opticians to learn the business of opticians and I turned it down. I canít really remember why and sometimes I do regret that I didnít take it up. But anyway what happened was that my parents were keen for me to go into business and what they had their eye on was a career at the head office of a large Insurance company which was in Norwich and was called Norwich Union. It was a mutual society, a big one in its day, and so to work there was rather a highly regarded position at the time. Now one of the residents of East Carlton, where we lived for a time, was an Actuary and he was former General Manager of this company and when he retired he was appointed a Director. And so a quiet word was had with him you see and very shortly after I was called for an interview and an entrance exam to this office you see. I was put up in one of the Directorís rooms and had to do this wretched exam. All sorts of stuff it covered, a lot of general knowledge mostly, thatís what it was and then I had an interview with one of the Actuaries and he said well of course we donít really want people who want a job we just want people who want something to do for a little pocket money. But anyway I started there and worked in a number of departments particularly in the legal department and so I got quite a good insight into what went on there and that was where I was when I first met Noreen and she came to the officeÖ
Noreen: Iíve told you about that in my previous interview how I took the same exam as Vee andÖ
Vernon: Yes, and they had to wear a green uniform.
Noreen: I didnít tell him that, but we had the ladies we hadnít long had ladies in the office
Vernon: You see when I went there were no ladies in the office at all. All men. They did shorthand, typing they did the lot. They wouldnít put their face towards employing women at all for it wasnít a womanís job you see at this head office.
Noreen: Nice little cosy place.
Vernon: Yes it was. Office hours were 9 to 4 you see and you quietly left at five minutes to four and went down into the basement and had a cup of tea. That was theÖand then you said good day and got your walking stick and went off home you see. That was the scene in those days.
So what year did you start?
Vernon: 19 I donít know, 39 I suppose.
Noreen: But you had only been there a little before I started in 1939.
Vernon: I must have started earlier then.
It was the war that changed their attitude to employing women?
Well I think that influenced them because they thought if there was a war coming along a lot of people would be leaving, joining up you see. Quite a lot of the chaps, the young chaps had volunteered as Reserves, Army Reserve so they were the first to go. As soon as the war was declared they all went. Army Reserve - they had some basic training and so they had to go. So that was looking forward a bit you see and they bought in a number of girls into the office and on the date when they first came is remembered ever after as Black Monday. So Black Monday was when the girls first came to the office you see and so we were able to see each other.
Noreen: I did wear those long overalls with long sleeves, green overalls.
Vernon: Long sleeved, green overalls. It was very smart really and that was it you see and one of the traditions of the office was that at Christmas there was always a Whist Drive for staff and virtually everybody on the staff went to this Whist Drive, it was at Christmas Ė a Christmas treat and so we used to go to the Whist Drive and it was all rather fun and a lot of people won prizes because directors, executive and others all used to give a prize Ė they were told to. You must give a prize for the Whist Drive and so one in four people at the Whist Drive got a prize, so there were lots of prizes you see and that was all rather fun. Then we lived not far from each other and so we used to cycle together to the office and so on. Have you got a picture?
Noreen: That was when we were cycling around the countryside before I started cycling to the office.
Vernon: That was us cycling around... and so that was one of our diversions to cycle around the countryside in the summer and we used to enjoy that and cycle to the office instead of simply going on the bus. We were cycling along on a country road one day Ė one of the things that used to be of nuisance value was low German aircraft flying over just looking for trouble. They had a few small sized bombs on them and a machine gun at the back and theyíd have a pot shot at anything that moved and so if we saw one coming along as we were cycling along we just got off quick and got in the ditch, and thatís what you did. It saved any possibility of being spotted and them having a go at you.
Noreen: I just wondered if you remembered the day we went in after that big bombing raid and everything was all in ruins Ė one morning when we cycled in?
Vernon: Well yes. Well the story there is that Hitler was beginning to get a bit desperate and in the past he had always targeted industrial sites, places like Birmingham, Coventry Ė places where there were lots of factories and London of course, every night in London you see, bombing raids and then he said Iím going to bomb what he called Baedecker towns. Now Beidecker was a German travel guide Ė a very well known, you could buy Beideckers in all the shops. What he called Beidecker towns were the ancient, picturesque cities. He flattened Exeter in Devonshire which was a very beautiful place and Norwich was on the list, and so we cycled into Norwich one morning and saw what had happened. The place was absolutely wrecked and still on fire. It was really quite awful.
Yes you have a book there?
Vernon: Yes we have a booklet on what happened to the city and so the place was pretty well knocked about you see. And a lot of people lost their lives. It was really quite horrific.
You no doubt heard it. It happened at night
Vernon: There were subsequent raids but one thing that is rather odd, when I joined the Forces I was in the RAF and so I knew a little bit about this that the German raiders used to come over at night on a beam which directed them where to go. They just flew on a beam, it was as simple as that. It was rather, what we now know as a radio beam, we would now regard it as somewhat primitive, but thatís how it was done. And the RAF developed a system of bending these beams and I think this is the reason why on one or two occasions they came over to bomb Norwich, missed in completely and all their bombs were dropped in the fields outside Norwich. It is said that that is also how, I donít know if it was Dublin or somewhere in Ireland got some bombs because the beam had been bent and they had diverted them. We actually got some bombs, one or two bombs around where we lived. One dropped outside our house, Noreen got one dropped not far from her house, fell in theÖÖ..Would you like to talk about that?
Noreen: Yes, what I hated about the war was going to bed knowing that you would probably be woken up with the air raid warning siren. My father built us a shelter, quite near our home with sandbags and we went there at first. Then one night, after the all clear and we had just got back into the house, a German plane dropped a bomb in the wood behind our house. My dad was standing on our back porch and a piece of shrapnel flew into the post beside him. We still have it. After that, we never went into that shelter again. Either we sat under the dining room table or, if it was really bad, as it was sometimes, in the cupboard under the stairs which was the safest place in the house.
How old were you at that time of the bombs dropping?
Noreen: No, no, no. We met when we were eighteen. I think we were about nineteen or twenty. About that age.
How much warning did you have of the planes coming overhead. Was there sort or advanced warning?
Vernon: Yes, air raid warnings used to go. Yes there was advanced warning. Quite close to where I lived there was an anti aircraft unit mounted because it was a high point and so that used to take pot shots at things.
Noreen: Just tell them about, tell them about cocky losing his feathers.
Vernon: No, this is the point you see. Ö
Noreen: Tell them about that.
About the cockatoo?
Vernon: Well during the war years, yes, I think I mentioned that when this bomb dropped outside our house, it lifted the roof off and it dropped down again a little bit out of place and of course it brought all the ceilings down and destroyed a whole lot of stuff. We had a lot of stuff in the house, what is now days called Australiana, that dad had brought home from his trips to Australia including Cocky, which I told you about, and Cocky lost about half his feathers and he was very distressed about it, but he survived for another ten years.
Noreen: So when I went to see Vee I saw all these Australiana things, a big piece of coral and of course the cockatoo. Iíd never thought Iíd go to Australia of course, did I? Neither did you, did you?
Vernon: No, no indeed. So to that extent I knew a certain amount about Australia you see before I ever came out here.
Noreen: Just something Iíve forgotten to put in here about the first year Vernon and I got to know each other Ė thought Iíd got it down, but I donít seem to have it.
Well, just tell it.
Noreen: Vee taught me to enjoy classical music. I knew nothing about it, so he taught it to me and of course now itís my favourite. He used to play the piano to me, he played beautifully, the Beethoven sonatas and Bagatelles and in turn I introduced him to the Maddermarket Theatre which I used to go to. It was an amateur theatre, very well known in Norwich, very famous and Iíd been going since I was eleven. I went to my first Shakespeare play there... The Merry Wives of Windsor, and after that I was just hooked. I went to every Shakespeare play. They did three in a year and as I got older and had my own money, I went to every play and I introduced Vee to those and we used to go every month Ė they did one play a month in the one and sixpennies. Didnít we dear?
Vernon: Yes, they were the cheapest seats.
Noreen: The front two rows
Vernon: But they were good seats and we saw a huge number of plays.
Noreen: Oh yes, they did plays of everything from ancient Greek plays to modern kitchen sink plays. They did absolutely everything, didnít they. It was wonderful all the Oscar Wildes and of course I Ďd always loved the theatre, still do.
Were you in an amateur group?
Noreen: I was. I was in the Dramatic Society at school as well as doing the ones at home and of course I thought when I grow up Iíll join the Maddermarket. But of course I never did, I met Vee and then there was the war. We couldnít get to the Madam Market at night because there was no buses everything was blacked out, nothing, no late night buses. So I never ever achieved that ambition because then there was the War and then we got married and that was that, but that is what I would have loved to have done.
Did you take up music in any other way, other than appreciating it?
Noreen: No I didnít. Well I learnt the piano when I was a little girl but I was no good at it. I soon gave that up Ė I wasnít very good. But my grandchildren are all very musical, they must have got it from Vee, they didnít get it from me.
Vernon: Perhaps I had better tell you a little bit about myself in the war years, because you see the time was approaching when I would be called up. All the young people were called up in the war and I thought Ė what shall I join? Shall I wait until Iím called up Ė Iíll go into the Army which I wonít like at all and I thought well shall I join the Navy and my dad said no donít join the Navy, itís much too dangerous. So, all that was left was the RAF Ė I didnít know anything about military things, anyway I volunteered before I was due to be called up you see and went into an RAF office you seeÖ..
And that was to give you the choice Ė if you were called up you wouldnít have had a choice?
Vernon: I wouldnít have had a choice so I chose the RAF and volunteered and I went into the office and they said well what would you like to do? The girl ran off dozens and dozens of trades and things that you could do in the RAF from air crew down to general duties which was peeling potatoes and cleaning you see and I hadnít a clue about any of these jobs and I stopped her at one particular thing and it turned out to be radar and wireless stuff you see which of course I didnít know anything about and she said well yes thatís the top paid job you see, well I didnít have a clue. I joined this you see and so I was sent to one of the big RAF places called Cranwell and Cranwell was a big permanent RAF base where I did basic training and stuff like that. An interesting thing about Cranwell was that while I was there, there was a rumour going about, that across the other side of the airfield, and it was a really huge area Ė you could hardly see the other side of the airfield, over there, there was an aeroplane being tested which had no propellers and scorched the grass as it went along and of course I thought oh rubbish, you canít have an aeroplane without propellers but it turned out that they were experimenting with what proved later to be jet aircraft. They were the first primitive engines were sort of rocket things, which is why they scorched the grass you see but anyway they were testing aeroplanes with this new type of engine and it was all rumour whilst I was there.
From Cranwell I was sent to Birmingham. Birmingham Polytech, to do an Electrical Engineering course. It was a crammed course and I loved Birmingham. I was billeted in a large house, some directorís house you see in Edgbaston which is the smart area of town and used to go to the Tech every day and do this course in Electrical Engineering. Birmingham was nice and when I graduated you see they said we have got a list of vacancies on various Air Bases Ė you can choose which you would like to go to and so we all chose the Air Base nearest to our homes. The nearest for me was Ipswich, in Suffolk -Ėa small municipal airport which had been taken over as a training base Ė flying training. I was there, so I could get home on my day off every week, which was rather fun and I was there for a bit and I got to know Ipswich which was newer to me and I was able to fly in the aeroplanes that they had there. They were always glad for people with this specialised radio direction finding gear that they had on to go with them and so I had the first experience of flying which was rather fun.
What plane was that in, do you remember?
Vernon: They were called Airspeed Oxfords. They were made of plywood, they had two engines Ė not very fast Ė about 150 mph but rather nice aeroplanes. They were good in that they didnít stall until they got to a very low speed. We had one on one occasion that simply wouldnít stall. Stall is where itís not going fast enough to stay in the air and when it gets near stalling speed these things tend to shudder. They shudder and then they go down. Well this one, they reduced the speed, they said letís see how slow this will go and reduced speed to 60mph, 50, 40 and it was still going strong, quite smooth you see and 35, 34, 33 and at 32 it just went over Ė no warning, nothing, just like that but of course you only do that at a pretty good altitude so that thereís room toÖÖ.And so, that was Ipswich.
Then I was moved to, in fact our Unit, was moved to an RAF base not far away, still in Suffolk called Wattisham. But the thing about Wattisham was that it had been taken over by the American Air Force. Theyíd just come in, in fact it was their first English base and so we were put up in the corner there, do you see, but there were no other RAF people you see so we mucked in with the Americans. We had our meals in their mess and you get your meat and two veg and your pudding and custard all on one plate together, thatís their system. But, it was all rather fun and all the money on the base was in American dollars, which was a pest, but we used to use the PX which is their shop, so we could buy all kinds of things that you couldnít buy in the shops in England and that was wonderful. I enjoyed my stay there and getting to know the Americans.
Can I ask you Noreen, do you remember the Americans being in England?
Noreen: Oh yes I do and later on youíll get to hear how we got to know them even better.
Vernon: And from Wattisham I was sent to another Air base near Oxford. Two Air bases there as a matter of fact which again I liked very much. It was whilst we were at one of them that we got married.Do you want to talk about that?
Noreen: Yes, Iíll go on from there, if you like.
Well of course, mine is not so exciting. While Vee was doing all these exciting things, I continued at the office but I moved to the Actuarial department where it was a lot harder Ė a lot of maths which I hadnít liked when I was at school but I started to enjoy. I became an Air raid warden in our village and so when the siren went, if I was on duty, I had to walk up and down Long Road which is a road there but I lucky I never had any bombs fall near me, I always had a quiet time.
One of the people I used to walk with was a young lad called Kenneth Vine. He was another warden and comes into the story later because he marries my sister.
Vernon: Can I just say that the chap in charge of the wardens there was a Bank Manager and he was exactly like Captain Mannering in Dadís Army. Just exactly like him Ė old fashioned in his ideas and rather staid and stuffy you see. Captain Mannering, he was in charge of the wardens. Yes,carry on.
Noreen: Well we had to do Red Cross work. We had to learn all about Red Cross, looking after bandages and things like that. Anyway I got a 100% for my Red Cross exam so I was rather pleased. I have never forgotten about that and I always remind people about that.
Vernon: And you get reminded!
Noreen: And then we used to go in for competitions. Our Air Raid Wardens would meet other Air Raid Wardens and do quizzes and we were quite good at that and besides the Wardens I fire watched at the office. As they dropped a lot of incendiary bombs we used to have people watching on the roofs to see when they were starting to drop them, you see, so I used to take turns at the office on the roof some nights fire watching. Again I was lucky.
Was that a scary experience being so exposed up on the roof?
Noreen: Not really, you didnít really think about it. You had someone else with you, you see.
Vernon: It was the effective way of dealing with fire bombs. Fire bombs were quite small things, phosphorous things and they dropped them in large numbers in order to set fire to buildings and so what you did you had a long rather like a spade on a long pole and if one dropped you just scooped it up and threw it away somewhere safe.
Noreen: And of course we had to learn to use the stirrup pump. My father was a Warden as well and this stirrup pump was just a bucket of water and a pump but again you used it for fires. Iíve got a picture of my dad and me in Wardens doing the stirrup pump but I think itís a bit dark, I donít know whether itís any good.
Noreen: And thereís me as a Warden. This is Vee and I in our garden on one of his leaves. Then in September, 1943 we married at Framingham-Earl church. We had been engaged since 1941. It was a wartime wedding. Vee was in RAF uniform and I borrowed a white wedding dress. We only had so many clothing coupons and I used mine for my going away outfit. Clothing you see was rationed, but we did have some luck. If a place was bombed that sold materials, the materials would be sold off as bomb damaged and you could buy them without coupons and so you could often quite nice stuff. I made my lingerie for my honeymoon from bomb damaged stuff you see. Of course, food was rationed too so everybody had to chip in and help with making the cake and things, for example each person only had 2 ounces of butter a week Ė very small rations they were. Anyway, mother made us a cake with people helping and we put grated carrots in it. Now that was unusual to help out the fruit which was also rationed. Nowadays we have carrot cakes and nobody thinks anything of it but that was unheard of to put grated carrot in a cake you see, but we did it for that
So your mother invented the Carrot cake?
Noreen: We didnít call it that. But there you go...