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Fragments of Autobiography:
Margery Burrows

Margery BurrowsWhat follows is an edited account of a document entitled ‘Three Fragments of Autobiography’ written by Mrs Margery Burrows in the 1930’s and given to the Museum by her daughter Mrs Patience Bagenal in October 2011. View the full ‘Three Fragments of Autobiography’ (0.39MB).

Although it is brief with so much unsaid, it brings her to life vividly. Also in the form of a story she describes the stresses, strains and joys of her early married life to a regular soldier constantly on the move.

Margery Burrows (1900-1941)

Margery’s father was Sydney Rhodes James, who was appointed Canon of Worcester Cathedral in 1919 after serving as a chaplain to the Armed Forces during the First World War, and who was descended from a long line of colonial sugar magnates. His father Herbert was a parish priest in Suffolk and his mother, Emily Horton, the daughter of a Yorkshire Admiral.

Sydney had a long and successful career as assistant and house master at Eton and did not marry till he was 42. Sydney married Linda Hoare who belonged to a well-known banking family. Sydney left Eton soon after he married when he was appointed Headmaster of Malvern and the School House was Margery’s birthplace. Margery’s elder sister Zoë was born in 1898, her two younger brothers; Peter (whose proper name was Sydney, was born 1901 and Philip was born in 1906).
Margery married Geoffrey Burrows, an officer serving with the Manchester Regiment, in 1919 and subsequently had three children, Richard born 1921, Anne born 1922 and Patience born 1926.

Margery and Geoffrey’s Wedding Day. After serving in Germany, as part of the Army of Occupation following the First World War, Geoffrey was stationed at Hythe for 3 years, then in 1929 Secunderabad, India. The Regiment was in Burma from 1931-32, returning to Secunderabad for a brief period before moving to Khartoum. In 1934 he became the commanding officer of the Regimental Depot Ladysmith Barracks at Ashton-under Lyne till his retirement in 1937. This was the base for him, Margery and the children for 3 years 

From 1937 Margery was constantly ill. Geoffrey became assistant Air Raid Precaution Officer in Winchester. From the summer of 1939 she lived with her sister Zoë at Kenswick, Lower Broadheath, Worcestershire. Geoffrey having returned to Lancashire as a Civil Defence Officer in 1939, Margery died at Kenswick shortly before her 41st birthday in 1941, from Cancer.

A short life lived with humour, love and much voyaging.

‘Voyaging’

What follows is Margery’s account of her family moving around the world when her husband was posted overseas. She has used fictitious names instead of her family’s real names.

Katherine Margery Burrows (Wife)
Guy Geoffrey Burrows (Husband)
Peter Richard Burrows (Son)
Ursula Anne Burrows (Daughter)
Joy Patience Burrows (Daughter)
Jane Mary Burrows (Geoffrey’s Sister)

“Katherine darling, I have a piece of news for you.” Her tall husband stood looking down upon her. Somehow his words had a familiarly portentous sound. “India?” she asked. He nodded,” We sail on the 22nd.” “Not of this month?” “Not before Christmas.”

The government was quite capable of sending them off at a month’s notice, but she had not expected to go quite so soon (February 30th). Just time to send Peter off to school and what about Ursula and little Joy? Would Jane come to the rescue, kind sister Jane, who had helped them so often before, and could the grandmother (Guy’s mother) put up with them if they spent all their time with her? Her mind seemed to be working in jerks. She held out her hands to her husband. He took them and leant forward to kiss her. “Don’t worry darling, we will all manage somehow,” he whispered. (The children were based at Crowdleham in Kent with their Grandmother and Aunt Mary and Uncle Philip Burrows from 1930 -1934).

“Don’t worry darling?” He was right. They had muddled through in the past, and no doubt somehow they would survive. She had come to him as a young inexperienced bride, hopelessly impractical and dreamy. Her early life had been spent in the cultivated atmosphere of a cathedral town in the midlands. Her father was a well-known divine, her mother his unconventional partner, a delightful friend and companion to all her children. She had grown up in the atmosphere of a happy home, where each member of the family was free to follow his or her bent. Too free she sometimes thought now, as she had never been disciplined to the unpleasant tasks of life.

She had been at school all through the war and it was there that she had met Jane, who had been her prop and mainstay ever since. She often considered what would have happened if she had been left to sink or swim on her own. Her young soldier husband, who had been a prisoner of war, had practical ability but no experience of life.

Their first baby Peter, now eight years old, had been born while he was serving in Ireland. He did not see the baby till he was six weeks old and for the next two years there was a continuous separation, that time in the Channel Islands with Peter a year old, and Ursula only a few months on the way. They were to be there for three years and came away after three months. That was the first time that Guy had said portentously “I have got a piece of news for you.”

The battalion had a day’s notice to return to Ireland and Katherine was rescued by Jane and carried safely back to England. Ursula was born soon after and they returned to the Channel Islands to finish their tour of duty.

Little Joy arrived four years later when they were stationed on the Rhine. Katherine felt that life had been kind to her and had in one way tempered the winds to the shorn lamb. She had many friends, a devoted husband and healthy babies. She was also a good sailor. This was sometimes a disadvantage as it meant she always had to cook as well as look after the children as her nurse was always seasick. She found one always felt a little squeamish cooking milky food over a methylated stove in a rocking, stuffy cabin. Then later came the much longer journey from the Channel Islands to Cologne. Katherine could never think of the number of times Jane had come to help pack up and travel with them.

The furnished house had to be left in apple-pie order. They left the Channel Islands in October 1924 and joined the British Army of Occupation at Cologne in Germany. She remembered running back from the taxi to see if all the windows were shut and the wastepaper basket tidied away. Then they arrived at the quay where the crowds were assembled to see the troops go on board. They had hand luggage for a three-day journey by boat and train with two babies, a nurse and a maid. There were no porters and no-one took any notice of them. The officers were busy while the troops were going abroad. Guy was nowhere to be seen. They waited disconsolately for some time. Her mother had always preached at her “Don’t fuss”. She did try.

She knew it was no use, did no good and made matters worse. The Adjutant, a kindly man, came up to the group “Can I help at all?” he said. Jane, who had been standing clutching the folding cot, thrust it at him “Yes please, hold this,” she said and gathering up as much hand luggage as she could, set off for the steamer.

Katherine still laughed when she thought of his expression. No officer in uniform may carry a small parcel and the sight of the immaculate officer holding the cot at arms length was unforgettable. She took it from him and explained the situation. He looked relieved and went to find Guy, who appeared at length saying “Hurry up; we are due to sail in 10 minutes.” So like Guy to put her in the wrong Katherine thought, and was sorry for the unkindness, but it did not prevent her saying rather peevishly “Where have you been all this time?” “Seeing to the troop’s darling, I’m afraid I won’t be able to look after you very much. Wives have to fend for themselves on these occasions.”

Katherine was beginning to realise that the journey was not going to be an easy one. Guy did his best, he managed to get his soldier-servant off duty to carry some of the hand luggage and at last the whole party got aboard.

Peter aged three and Ursula one and a half, were too young to do more than gaze in a bewildered way at the unfamiliar scene. There were at least eighty other children on board. She tried hard to think if they had remembered everything, and if they had enough food for at least an extra day as well as milk for the children and toys and picture books. They had extra bedding and cots for the children and things for a couple of nights, and the baby’s bath. Suddenly her heart gave a thump. She looked wildly round and clutched at Guy who happened to be near “the pram!’ she gasped. “What about it?” he said. “We sent it down to the quay last night, has it been put aboard?” Katherine could laugh about it all now, but then she had felt the possible loss of the pram as an impending disaster of the first magnitude.

Guy went off to have a look, “I can’t see it anywhere,” he said. Katherine began to lose her head. She had had an exhausting morning, and was not in the best of health. Jane was below seeing to the storing of the hand luggage. “I can’t go on without it” she cried almost in tears. “They say there are no decent prams to be had in Germany.” “There is no time to get it now” said Guy, “we are due to sail.” Katherine’s heart seemed to turn right over. Her knees were shaking. A quiet voice beside her asked what the matter was. “It’s the pram?? We left it on the quay.” The gangway was still down. The Colonel (Colonel Dorling) walked towards it and leisurely went ashore. “They can’t go without me” he said, with a twinkle in his eye and Guy dashed towards the shed and found the pram and together they pushed it onto the deck. Katherine could only smile her thanks.

The rest of the journey was a nightmare devised by some ingenious spinner of red caps at the War Office. Guernsey to Ostend had evidently not appealed to the powers that be. Katherine could only remember isolated moments, each of which at the time had seemed like the last straw. The troops seemed to play skittles with cannonballs overhead or gave endless mournful interpretations of the latest sentimental ditty. There was a continual wailing chorus from the eighty other children aboard and all the usual thuds, rattles and bangs that accompany the removal of baggage from the hold. Katherine played a game to while away the time.

At each particularly loud crash she said “There goes our silver box” or “There goes the linen.” When at last there was no more baggage left, she and the children dozed off to sleep. At Dover the troops were marched up to the castle for a meal and Katherine and her family and friends who had come to say “goodbye” lunched at the Lord Warden Hotel. It was a welcome respite Guy was able to join them and they would laugh and joke over their experiences.

There was a bit of a breeze outside as they set off down the pier in a procession. They looked about for the transport which was to take them to Ostend. Jane carried Peter and the nurse carried Ursula. Katherine walked with her father and mother-in-law and the female factotum brought up the rear with the soldier-servants. Dover pier is long. Large cranes lifted package after package and dropped them on deck. That must be the transport which was going to take them to Ostend.

The breeze was freshening and the sea, a wrathful green monster, swept in long curves to the shore. Katherine realised that on any other occasion she would have been delighted at the prospect of further adventure. Now, however, a feeling of sick apprehension overcame her. Gathering the wraps more tightly round them the small party battled its way up the pier. Here they found a scene of intense activity. The transport, though obviously old, was larger than what it had appeared at first sight. The decks were swarming with troops which had arrived before them.

They clambered up the gangway onto a deck which was slippery with salt water. The transport had obviously done one journey that day, bringing over the battalion that was returning from Germany. They found their cabin with difficulty. It was small, stuffy and housed the receptacle used by the previous seasick occupier. The soldier-servant was called to the rescue and bravely, amidst cat calls from his mates, stepped with it at arms length to the rail.

Then came ‘Goodbye England, home and serenity!’ The children, their eyes heavy for want of sleep, waved their arms in meaningless farewell. Everyone was waving too. It was part of the game. The crossing was a long drawn out nightmare. Ursula, who had not yet shed a tear, now howled and clung to her nurse who was seasick herself and could do nothing for her. Jane lay on the floor of the cabin. Katherine tried to comfort both the children but they were beyond her help, until tired out they slept. The general factotum wandered round the ship declaring she preferred the fresh air, but possibly there were other attractions.

The Colonel met her on her peregrinations and his suspicions roused, asked her what she was doing on board. She did not recognise him and she replied with dignity that she was travelling with one of the officer’s families. He felt the intended snub and repeated the conversation with relish at a later date.

Katherine felt that she had never got to the bottom of Alderney. It was a mysterious little island which kept itself to itself. The very windows, of the houses in the crooked main street seemed to contain half-hidden secrets and to peer with resentful curiosity at the stranger who dared to look up at them. The French names over the shops and the quaint tradition of self-government seemed to throw a romantic glow over what after all was a small fishing village.

The little fawn and white cows, each economically tethered and moved as often as twice a day, provided an industry for half the population and a large granite quarry exports yearly tons of rock to England. For the rest Katherine could not help thinking it rash of the islanders to ship loads of their territory. She pictured the last man finally hacking away at the rock on which he was standing till he too was engulfed and Alderney was no more.

Housekeeping was difficult with supplies dependent on the weekly boat, water from the village pump and local butter at treble English prices. Guy covered the 10 miles to the port from the house in a baby car which had to be landed by a pulley and winch from the mail boat. He was immensely proud of his achievement in doing 600 miles in the month on an island four miles long and one and a half miles wide. But it had been a happy time.

There were carefree days picnicking at Telegraph Bay at the foot of the mighty cliff which year in year out defeats the Atlantic breakers, its grandeur enough for a much longer coastline. Huge boulders are piled one on the other making archway and barriers to fascinate the climbers. Bathing there is sheer joy.

Warm clefts and recesses form natural nooks and shelves for clothing and other belongings. The sea that laps these granite shores has a transparency which must be seen to be believed. Guy used to dive in from the rocks and Katherine, who could clearly see the bottom, would watch his long form curiously foreshortened, swimming down and down only to return without the pebble he had tried to reach.

‘Stealing a Policeman’

What follows is an account Margery wrote of an incident she experienced in Cologne, Germany in about 1925.

It must have been 10 years ago when I made a fool of myself; but I can still remember the forlorn feeling of standing, later one night, outside the Opera House in Cologne, watching the traffic passing on its way, bearing with it the other British people, the officers and their wives who were rapidly disappearing by tram, car and taxi.

My husband’s Battalion had only lately joined the army of Occupation, and these people were all strangers to me, but they did represent security. If I had been quicker I might have plucked up my courage, and asked someone for help. But the little car had been obstinate about starting before, and I had never really doubted my ability to get her going. Anyhow, it was too late now; the theatre was empty.

My companion too had left me in the lurch. My husband having gone to camp, I had been glad enough to get someone to come with me to the Opera. She could speak German well, and I could only understand a few words. But when she saw the car would not start she said she thought her husband would be anxious, and I had very little difficulty in persuading her to go home on the last tram.

I climbed into my ‘Baby Rover’ and tried once more to start the engine. It made a rasping noise, a splutter, and that was all. I began to feel rather nervous.

It must be remembered that Cologne in those days was an occupied city. The Germans, although much more kindly disposed towards the British than they had been to the French they were still “the Huns”. British officers were obliged to wear uniform on and off duty. The “hate” propaganda had left its aftermath on both sides. Fear and distrust were natural in the circumstances, and this must had explained my very real panic when a kindly German taxi driver approached and asked if I had run out of petrol. His guttural voice and Teutonic aspect roused my worst apprehensions. I did not know what fell design he might have on my car or my person.

I waved him away and jumped out of the car again to look for a telephone box. Oh, joy! I could see a solitary military policeman, in kindly familiar khaki, marching up the street. I sped up to him and recited my woes: “Car won’t start….terrified of the Germans…husband out in camp…nervous companion gone home by tram…what should I do?”

He looked tall, strong, brave, competent, but he knew nothing about motor cars, and had nothing to suggest. However he was just going off duty, and I could see that my plight did not strike him in any romantic light. I was simply an impediment in his path. I found myself asking him to stay by the car while I went to telephone. I showed him by my manner that I thought it was his duty to look after me. I felt I must throw my weight about, in case he deserted me, though I feared I might get into trouble next day for interfering with a representative of the law.

The regulations were very strict at that time. You could not book a room in a hotel, without asking the Town Mayor’s permission. Wives of serving officers were grouped with “camp followers” and, as such, subject to military law. So it was with mixed feelings that I left him brooding gloomily over the little car while I went off to put my call through. Could I be prosecuted for stealing a policeman? I do not know, nor did I care.

It was just as I feared. Captain M... the only officer left in our lines had gone to bed, and had to get up to answer the telephone. I explained my predicament and he promised to come to the rescue.

Reassured, I returned to the car and my unwilling guardian. I said that help was coming, and asked him to stay until it came. I cannot remember what we talked about. I could see he was getting restless, and did my best to keep up a rather one-sided conversation as the sound of passing traffic gradually died away.

There was a longish interval to fill in, and I just began to mark a slight unbending on the part of my companion, who by now I suppose, had resigned himself to his fate, when the squeaking of brakes and the sound of English voices announced the arrival of my rescuers.

What a feeling of relief to see a friendly face once more! Captain M... apologised for keeping me waiting for so long. He told me he had some difficulty in rousing the mechanic at the circular garage where we kept our car. Then they started off in an ancient taxi, only to find a punctured wheel, in the first hundred yards. There was no spare tyre, so back they had to go, and this time took a client’s machine that was in for a minor repair and, with renewed apologies, here they were!

I was equally sorry for dragging them our so late at night, and hoped there was nothing seriously wrong with the Rover. Perhaps one of the plugs, I suggested, or a fault in the starting gear? I was afraid I was no use with machinery, and I had not liked to let strange Germans tinker with my car, especially so late at night.

They quite understood, and were only too glad to be of assistance. The mechanic began poking about under the bonnet.

I felt it was high time to release by captive. I shook him warmly by the hand, expressed my thanks as well as I could, and sent him home to bed.

That is really the end of the story. You can guess the rest. Yes, the tank was dry, yes there was a can of petrol on the running board. My shame was complete.

Nobody could have been kinder than Captain M... He passed if off as being quite a natural mistake. He even made me feel he had quite enjoyed the adventure.

I found it harder to meet the mechanic’s eye. He had lost his beauty sleep for nothing, and might get into trouble with the owner of the garage for messing about with a customer’s car. But oh how I thanked my lucky stars that I had dismissed my unwilling chaperone before the humiliating truth came out! Perhaps he still cherishes chivalrous thoughts of the young and foolish officer’s wife who kept him on duty an extra hour one night in Cologne? I wonder!

The End