Vernon Kemp

Date of Interview: 28th Jan 2005

Place: Balmain, Sydney, Australia

Interviewer: Kevin Murray

Transcription: Catherine Sapir, Feb 2005


Vernon, would you like to tell us about the first photograph that you have which I am assuming is associated with your early childhood?

Yes well my earliest memories was of growing up in the country in England in Norfolk. I was an only child and so in some ways a rather lonely one but like all country children in those days I was fond of the country. I knew all the wild birds. I knew their nests, where you could get their eggs, things like that. I knew all the wild flowers and I knew about farming and of course in country places we all lived in a house that had a large garden so we all knew about growing vegetables and flowers. We grew all our own and were self-sufficient to that extent.

The house I lived in, thereís a picture of it,

was very much a country house. It had no electricity, we got our water supply from a well in the garden which was 72 feet deep, now in current terms thatís something like 20 metres, which is a deep well and thatís how we got our water supply in those days.

Was that well just for your house or was it for everybody?

It was indeed. It was just for our house. Every house had its own well and you put a bucket on a chain and let it down and it filled up with water and then the long business of cranking it up again and what you got was a bucket of water. Thatís it. That was your ration of water. If you wanted more you had to do another bucketful. Rather difficult sort of thing. We kept goats, and we kept bees which was interesting and at Christmas time we simply went out into the hedge rows and cut our own holly and somebody always gave us a Christmas tree Ė we never ever bought that sort of thing. You didnít in the country. We went to church on Sundays and I was sent to Sunday School which was a walk over a mile each way. In current terms, something like two kilometres.

One of my memories of it is that part of the walk was down the main street of the village which all the local children called the turnpike. Now that turnpike stopped, I donít know when, early nineteenth century, a long time ago, but the local people still always called it the turnpike. The Church is one which I now know as a rather interesting fourteenth century building. Itís where I was baptised - so quite an ancient village church and I was baptised there. It has a very early font with a rather fine Jacobean top. Behind it is a portrait of Edith Cavill. Her dad was Vicar there at one time and Edith Cavill, for anybody who doesnít know about her, was shot during World War I as a spy because she used to help/let prisoners of war escape and so there was a great-to-do about that and thatís the story of Edith Cavill. It was there also in that church that I was first put on an organ stool at the age of 6. I couldnít reach the pedals but I was fascinated because it had two keyboards and lots and lots of stops and this fascination with organs is one that remained with me for many years. My people bought me a harmonium to play on at home and then they bought me an American organ. A much larger instrument, with two keyboards, two manuals, a full pedal board and I was able to practice playing the organ at home which was great.

Did you have lessons in how to play or did you just teach yourself?

Yes I did. The way I had lessons was that around that time a man who was deputy headmaster of a private school in Norwich, had an extended stay with us. I canít remember the circumstances. He was, I never liked him very much, he was rather mean. He used to travel a lot but always by bus and he always sat on the back seat because his argument was that when the bus went around the corner the back of the bus would swing out and he would get a longer ride. Anyway, he was an organist and so he helped me with the organ. He played flute, he played the piccolo and another interesting thing that he introduced me to was the French language. I learnt a lot of phrases, short sentences, words, quite an interesting introduction to conversational French and for that I am grateful to him.

So what era was this?

This is 1920ís. As a small child I remember airships were on the go then. There was the R100 a successful airship, which was privately built, and there was also the R101 and both of those airships went over our house at various times and I can remember seeing them. A story there is that somebody gave me a chocolate airship for Easter one year, when I was about 5. It was covered in silver paper with R101 on it. I was so thrilled with this I hung it up on the light, I couldnít eat it, I didnít want to. It stayed there for a year until next Easter when somebody said well you really should eat the thing, itís a chocolate one. I took it down and it had gone mouldy so I never did eat it.

Perhaps an unusual thing about my Christmas days as a child in that house was that I never ever spent Christmas Day at home. Two of my childhood playmates were the sons of the master and matron of a nearby workhouse. Now thatís a big institution run by the local authority. It had 400 inmates and it was set up under some poor laws for the homeless and down-and-outs. My parents and I used to devote the whole of Christmas Day to them. We spent the day there. For me it was great fun, I loved it and we (the three boys) used to go around the wards and decorate them. Most of the inmates were illiterate and the odd one or two had a Christmas card we used to read it for them. That kind of thing. It was the only day in the year when their food wasnít rationed. So we helped them with their meals Ė the men got a bottle of beer, things like that you see. So we helped to give them a little cheer and in the evening we laid on an entertainment for them. So that one day in the year was when they were real people. The next day back to food rationing, work, that was it.

Did you have food rationing as well at that time?

No, not until the Second World War.

So it was because they were an Institution?

They were in an Institution. The object was to run the Institution more cheaply than paying out what was called Local Assistance. Paying them subsistence money. If you lumped them all together, put them in an Institution, it was a cheaper way of running it. Thatís what it was.

I attended the local school and a memory of that is that there were no books. We used to write on slates and have a damp rag to rub off what you had written you see. It was a relic of Victorian days of course but I did learn to read and write rather quickly. I learnt to do sums. Iím sure I learnt quite a lot there in spite of its being something of a Victorian relic.

Was the school a large school?

I donít know how big it was for a village school. 200 pupils perhaps. It was quite a big one for a village school. There were three teachers. I can remember my - somebody leant on me to become a Boy Scout but my dad stamped on that pretty quick. He said Scouts was too much of a military institution. He had been through the First World War and he said no. Itís too much of a military institution, so I never joined the Scouts. When I was 9 we then moved house again and we went to a nearby village called East Carlton. Thatís where I lived. This was a different kind of village, busier, quite a different environment although in some ways less complete. There was no pub in the village or village green. There was just one long village street really. It did have a sweet shop and that is where we were introduced to the art of decision-making because you could buy ten toffees for a penny. But you had a choice, there was a choice, of buying by weight and if you bought a penny worth of toffees by weight you stood the possibility of getting nine, ten or eleven toffees so that is why we used to think long and hard about that.

If you had a penny to spend on the toffees, how did you earn that penny?

Oh, got if from parents, pocket money, that sort of thing, yes. I donít remember ever earning money as such. Itís true that my dad used to give me coins for sweeping up leaves, tidying up the garden, odd things like that I got extra money for otherwise I never really had much interest in money somehow. It was never one of my things. It just doesnít mean much to me. I am a Warden at the local Church and as such I am responsible for all the Church finances and so I have had to learn all about accounts, what do you call it - business activity statements, all those horrible things but they donít mean much to me. Iím not that way inclined. In this village there was a splendid manor house and the occupants I got to know. They fascinated me. One of the reasons why they intrigued me was that they had a triple surname. Their name was Tyndall-Carroll-Wordsley and I had never come across anybody with more than one surname and this was three surnames linked together.

The Rector, I also got to know them very well and spent a lot of time at the Rectory because he came from a well known English legal family. He was in fact born in the Palace of Westminster. The Palace of Westminster is the House of Commons. His Grandfather was Clerk of the House so it was a very well known legal family and he belonged to that. He started off as a Solicitor in fact and then took Holy Orders. He was also a bit of a classic scholar, he was an Oxford man you see and so he used to help me with my Latin and Greek. Now again his wife was an Organ Graduate and so I had a lot of lessons on playing the organ from her and she showed me how to play the organ for Church services. And so there was that. I was very lucky because I used to go to the Theatre and Opera with them and so I had a lot of experience like that. On one occasion actually met the great Ė what was his name - the Conductor Ė Sir? so I used to spend a lot of time there. They had a big house and I felt that my education was helped along in that way. He used to say you must read the Times. Itís part of your education to read the Times every day and so thatís how I was able to do that.

Then of course going to High School. High School was in Norwich in the big city. I thought of the Conductor Ė itís Sir Thomas Beecham. He was a great character. He was a great character because I used to be fascinated. I sat in the audience and if somebody coughed or something he would stop the music and turn around and shout keep quiet in the middle of it. So going to High School meant I had to undertake a bicycle or bus ride into town to school in the city which was five miles every morning. At the end of the first term at High School the whole entry of that year had an exam. There were 128 in the entry and we all had to sit an exam and this exam determined which of the four streams we would go in. Now I came 11th out of 128 and that meant that I was in the L for Latin class. If I had come 10th or 12th I wouldnít have done Latin, I would have done Science instead and so thatís how I drifted into Latin and I was able to do Greek as well, which I have never regretted.

So you donít have any regrets about missing out on a Science career?

No I donít at all. I donít think I was interested in Science. I did Chemistry. No I donít regret that at all. I think that Latin and Greek were the most useful things I ever did.

Coming 11th was very fortuitous!

Yes, it was just luck. It was a silly system. Those who werenít in the Science or Latin groups you went into an X form. X was the sort of in-between people who didnít know (miscellaneous)ÖÖ.and the bottom ones or those who came bottom, went into an M form Ė M for mokes they said. So that was it. I was keen on French of course, because I already knew some and I liked History and English, especially essay writing. They were my thing. Somehow I became interested in Dialect. Dialect was very much a going thing in those early days you know and I liked the local words. There were lots and lots of words peculiar to Norfolk that you didnít come across anywhere else. They were Scandinavian words, old Danish words, many of them and I used to feel I was expert enough to be able to tell the difference between somebody who spoke with a Norwich town dialect and the Country dialect. They were slightly different and if you listened carefully you could tell the difference and so I thought I could do that. I was interested in that sort of thing. I was intrigued because I knew quite a number of people who used the old English en for plural. House Ė houses, theirs was house Ė housen. I even knew somebody who used the, I donít know what this word is Old English or what it is. Mouse the plural is mice so he said house Ė hice. Thatís the kind of thing that interested me. So in sport I was always in front in cross country. I was good at cross country Ė I donít know why. I didnít care for Football and so I played Fives and Tennis. Coaching was nonexistent in my school. The Masters werenít interested in sport much so I didnít get any training or coaching in sport.

One of the highlights at High School was going on a cruise. There was this offer of going on a cruiseship of some kind. From South Hampton we went down toÖÖwe were going to Algeria but there was some trouble on at the time and so we went from South Hampton down to Lisbon in Portugal, had a look at Lisbon, vastly intriguedÖ..

How old were you at this time?

14 and from there we went to Madiera, the islands of Madiera. It was there that I first saw bananas growing. I was greatly intrigued and of course the place was full of hibiscus in bloom and so I loved there. From Madiera we went to Casablanca which is in North Africa, French Morocco and very tropical Arab. From Casablanca we took a train across the desert. I had never seen a desert before. Across the desert to Rabat(?) and There we went through the ancient markets there, I forget what they were called, and that intrigued me vastly.

What a wonderful experience for a 14 year old!

It was a tremendous experience. I have never forgotten it and I simply loved it.

Tell me, was this organised by the School?

No, I donít know who organised it but there were people from Schools all over who went so there was a large number of people on that cruise you see. I think itís that perhaps that must have given me the taste of travel. It was a great experience. I loved it.

That would have been a rare experience in those days.

Well it was a rare experience. A great experience. Nowadays the grandchildren go all over the shop. One of them wanted to go to England next year you see Ė half a world away. Never thought weíd do it - anything crazy like that.

Now about my Grandparents. I only ever really knew one of them. That was my fatherís mother who lived alone in the High Street in Aldeburgh in Suffolk. This was a seaside place, picturesque, lovely pebbly beach Ė great place for lifeboats Ė two lifeboats, not just one. Two lifeboats kept on the beach. A cousin of mine was a volunteer on one of the lifeboats and one day he fired a, they had a system, a rescue system using a rocket which you fired from the beach and it fired out to sea to the stricken ship with a cable attached to it. He did this and it blew one of his fingers off. So that was that. It was very much Benjamin Britten country. Benjamin Britten lived there and he created the Aldeburgh Festival which is now an International Music Festival.

Before you go on with that, you mentioned your grandparents. What about your parents and anyone else in your family?

Iíll come to that. If I could just say that in Aldeburgh I knew a fisherman there by the name of Ward. We used to visit him. He was illiterate but he was an expert in making model ships and he used to make model ships and put them into bottles. He had that trick. He made the most wonderful examples. My dadís favourite joke, see my father was born in Aldeburgh and his favourite joke was - why is Aldeburgh like a hospital? Because it was full of wards. There were so many families with the name of Ward in the town. My father went to school in Aldeburgh because his mother paid sixpence a week to enable him to go to school and he learnt to do the most beautiful copper plate writing. When he left school he worked for a shipping company called the Orient line and so was able to travel extensively to South Africa and America and especially on the run from Tilbury in London out here to Sydney. In fact I think from what I can gather, the Orient line ships used to tie up in Balmain. I think they did, but he knew Circular Quay certainly.

During his many visits home he bought lots of souvenirs from Australia. In 1914 he bought a cockatoo from a street trader in Melbourne, took it home on his ship, paid somebody five shillings to smuggle it ashore for him and so I was brought up with Cocky and had my fingers bitten many a times and in 1942 we had a bomb drop outside the house and it brought all the ceilings down.

The kitchen ceiling came down on Cocky and he lost about half his feathers. He didnít like that very much at all but anyway he lived another ten years. In 1917 my father was on an Orient line ship called the Orama. There were two Oramas Ė he was on the first one coming over to England and off the Scilly Islands, which were just south of England, the Orama got in the way of a torpedo and the ship was lost with all hands so the family at home in Aldeburgh were mourning his loss and then three weeks later dad walked in the front at High Street. Grandma thought she had seen a ghost and fainted.

Why wasnít he lost?

Well he wasnít lost because when they were in the Mediterranean he changed ships and he didnít know anything about the Orama being lost. He knew nothing about it you see. He thought what was all the fuss. So all his shipmates would have been lost. He was on another ship. I donít know why. He never told me why he changed ships but he did.

The following section was recorded one week later...

I should say a little piece about my parents, I only ever knew one of my grandparents and that was my fatherís mother. And I only ever met her once , she lived in a house in High Street in Aldeburgh in Suffolk a pleasant seaside town has become into fame because of Benjamin Britten and it was in fact through going to the town that I learned quite a lot about Benjamin Britten who set up what is now an internationally famous Aldeburgh Festival each year.

Another chap I remember that I got to know in Aldeburgh was a man named Ward, he was a fisherman and lived in fact quite close to Benjamin Britten, we used to visit him because my father knew him when Dad went to school. This chap never went to school in fact he was illiterate, but he was something of an expert at making model ships. Not only that but he made these little model ships and then inserted them into bottles, quite a skill and so I found that rather intriguing as a child and I do remember that my Dadís favourite joke was ďWhy is Aldeburgh like a hospital?Ē and the answer is because it is full of wards, because Ward was easily the most common surname in Aldeburgh at the time. As I said Dad did go to school, not everybody did in his day, his Mum paid sixpence a week to enable him to go to school, I donít know quite how much he learnt, what he learnt but he did become rather good at copperplate writing I do remember. He had a brother Gordon who also lived in Aldeburgh, Gordon lived in what the locals called the back street, I canít remember its proper name, but the thing about back street was until there were some sea defences put up in Aldeburgh it at any high tide in sea, the water would come over the beach and run down the back street, that was one of the hazards they had to cope with.

Did it inundate the houses?

Yes one thing that I do remember about Uncle Gordonís house was that you had to go up several steps so he probably wasnít too bad, but he said that the sea running down the street was a bit of a pest. Dad also had a sister that he found, rediscovered living in Lincolnshire and her husband grew fields of daffodils and tulip bulbs on a commercial scale that was his thing, I only ever met them once. Another sister lived in Hamilton in Ontario in Canada and I never met them but we did get in touch them with for a short time and then lost them somehow. The other brother was Uncle Fred and through some contacts we traced his whereabouts to Windemere in the English Lakes District.

We got in touch with Uncle Fred who said ď oh well come and stay, come and have a look at Windemere youíll like itĒ and as a small child I remember first going up there because Iíd never seen mountains before, Iíd never seen lakes before, and one thing that gave me a bit of a shock was that Iíd always thought the clouds in the sky were miles up, miles high and then to discover that sometimes they were lower than the tops of the hills that was quite a shock to me as a small child. But anyway we got to know Uncle Fred and Aunt Emily quite well, they had three children, two girls and a son also called Fred who was a boat builder, the thing about young Fred was, being a boat builder, when the war came along he was in reserved occupation and spent the war building small air sea rescue boat, and I was most intrigued by these as they used to put second hand Rolls Royce Merlin engines in them that had come out of crashed fighters. So these boats although they were small had these huge engines in them and used to go at thirty knots at quarter speed, wonderful things they were. So I got to know the Lake District very well, used to scramble over the hills and learnt something of the art of sailing. Uncle belonged to the Royal Windemere Yacht Club and I also learnt to row and a great achievement of mine was to be able to row across the lake, Windemere at its widest point in twenty minutes. Windemere and the Lake District, I mention this because it has remained one of lifeís pleasures. We go there every time we go home on a trip and its one of the joys of life. In fact I was staying in Windemere with Uncle Fred in September 1939 when the war started and this was awful really, knowing that a war had started, but I was greatly cheered because everybody said ďoh well it will all be over by ChristmasĒ. So I cheered up no end over that, but of course when Christmas came it had hardly started.

Was the Lakes District a popular tourist place in those days?

Oh in those days it was a very exclusive sort of place, you got quite a number of continental people coming over, it was seen as an expensive place to stay, no Blackpool crowds or anything like that you see, it was lovely, I enjoyed it. But nowadays itís quite different wall to wall people in the summer and in fact theyíre getting worried like a lot of other places, because the tracks over the hills are becoming used by so many people that theyíre getting worn away and they donít know what to do about it and the roads are twisty and very steep, what about one in three?

Noreen: lovely

Vernon: Yes, theyíre gorgeous, so the trick is to go out of high season.

I never knew my motherís people, she was born in a north Norfolk village called Stiffkey a place known locally as ďStoo-keeĒ a seaside place where the tide goes out and you can hardly see the sea when the tide goes out and got mud flats and you walk over the mud flats looking for shellfish called cockles and the particular sort of cockles that you find at Stiffkey are called Stiffkey Blues. Mum was born in Stiffkey but was brought up in Walsingham another north Norfolk village and the thing about Walsinghan if you donít know is that since the thirteenth century it has been a place of national pilgrimage an abbey was built there and crowds used to flock to Walsingham in those days, kings came on pilgrimage and of course people still come to Walsingham in their thousands, transports easy now, you come by car or bus there are national pilgrimages organized so there are still huge crowds come to Walsingham, so we go to Walsingham as much as we can.

Noreen: the shrine of Our Lady is what they come to see

Vernon: Yes, Our Lady of Walsingham, theyíve built a new shrine which was built in the nineteen thirties, Anglican shrine and of course the Roman Catholics want to be in on the part you see, so they have their own just outside the town.

In pre war days, you know what it was Anglican and Romans a little bit of enmity there, but things are OK now and so people flock to Walsingham in their thousands. In fact only last year shortly, before we were there the Archbishop of Canterbury was there on pilgrimage. So thatís about that. Mum had two sisters there was Aunt Bessie who lived in Norwich, in fact she lived almost opposite the dame school where Noreen went to school as a youngster. Aunt Bessie had no children and there was also Aunt Ethel who lived in Burnham Thorpe another north Norfolk village near Walsingham just along the coast there and she lived in Burnham Thorpe which was the birth place of Admiral Lord Nelson so everything is Nelson in Burnham Thorpe, do you see, his Dad was the vicar of the parish you see, so itís all Nelson there, and she had one son called Ivan who I knew. I was envious of Ivan because from the age of I donít know soon after he left school, he had a motor bike oh a marvelous thing it was, he used to tear about the place and he interestingly became a potter and he worked for the Earl of Leicester whose estate was not far away and he used to do pottery, and another thing about him was he was six foot seven inches tall, I donít know what that is in metres, centimeters whatever but itís jolly tall and he married a land girl, these were girls who used to work on the farms during the war, because people had gone off to the war and they needed farm workers and girls were brought in and an organization called Land Girls, he married one of them, but he died when he was about forty and so she went back to Birmingham where she came from and I lost touch.

Mum had a youngest brother called Horace who killed himself on a motor bike whilst motor cycling to work and her older brother was Iram who mad a great thing of not knowing how to spell his name, whether it was Iram or Hiram, but anyway he spent most of his life in Surrey, but he died in a retirement village attached to the cathedral in Norwich, so thatís a little bit about them.

Do you have photographs of any of these people?

Noreen: well later on there are photographs them, but not earlier ones dear.

Vernon: I donít think we have, we somehow didnít have pictures of them

Not earlier years?

I think they had the photos and they all got lost, you know how it is. Well there is a picture of Mum and I canít comment on it. Grand dadís mother it says on the back.

Noreen: thatís because I did it for one of the grand children

Vernon: I see, well that was Mum but I have no idea who the baby was. In fact itís not a very good picture but from left to right it is a picture of Uncle Iram

Noreen: thatís the Canada lady came to see us, the aunt from Canada

Vernon: are you sure

Noreen: yes I know she did, because we learnt all about Toronto, where she lived

Vernon: oh she came over

Noreen: Yes, she did

Vernon: Yes I remember taking her now to Aldeburgh where she was born and brought up and I was so disappointed because I took her down the High Street where Mum lived and she looked around Aldeburgh and she said ďI couldnít live here anymoreĒ

Oh dear, so whoís in the photo?

In the photo from left to right is Uncle Iram, Aunt... goodness knows what her name was... I canít remember what her name was (back of photo says "Ethel").

Noreen: from Toronto anyway

Vernon: from Hamilton, Noreen with Alix and me.