ONE LIFE, TWO WORLDS
The Early Years
My parents were born in 1922. My mother, Helen Jane MacDonald Allison, was born in Glasgow and brought up in Scotland. She was the youngest of five siblings, having two brothers and two sisters. I regret that I know so little about my mother’s family and upbringing, other than that the family home was in Glasgow and they had a cottage in Brodick on the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde, where they spent their summers. My father, John, was born and raised in Shute, Devon, where my grandfather, whom I never knew, was the vicar. My father was also the youngest member of his family and also had two brothers and two sisters.
My father was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and St John’s College, Cambridge, where he was a choral scholar and studied for a bachelor’s degree in music. He initially read natural sciences with the intention of becoming a doctor but this course was abandoned and he concentrated on music studies.
After two years at Cambridge and receiving a ‘wartime degree’, he volunteered for the navy and joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) as a rating in 1942. He was earmarked early on as officer material and, after sea time and training, was promoted to sub-lieutenant RNVR the following year.
In the summer of 1943, my father was posted to HMS Nimrod, the Anti-Submarine School in Campbeltown on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. My mother had joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) and was also based in Campbeltown. The Wrens, as this branch of the navy was generally known, was re-established in 1939 following its disbandment after the end of the First World War.
It was in Campbeltown that my father met Leading Wren Helen Allison, who was living in the Wrens’ quarters. On 18th May 1945, my parents were married in St Margaret’s Church in Newlands, Glasgow, following which they spent a few days’ honeymoon in the North British Hotel (now The Balmoral) in Edinburgh and a week in Bude, Cornwall, with my father’s family.
In 1946, following Father’s release from the navy, my parents moved to Salisbury in Wiltshire, where my father taught at the Cathedral School. My brother, Christopher, was born in Salisbury in August of the same year.
After two years in Salisbury, my father was interviewed by the Principal of Wells Theological College in Somerset and accepted as a married student. My parents moved to Wells in January 1948. Married students were expected to live in college lodgings and make arrangements for their families to be boarded elsewhere. So my mother and Christopher were installed in a flat on the third floor above a shop in the High Street, while my father lived in Vicars’ Close next to the cathedral.
On 21st October 1949, I was born. The family moved into a bungalow on the Bath Road, now sadly surrounded by hundreds of other bungalows and houses, but in those days looking out across the fields towards the Mendips.
In December of that year, my father was ordained into the ministry in Winchester Cathedral and we moved to Bournemouth in Dorset at the suggestion of my godfather, Philip Sprent, who was Vicar of St Augustin’s Church. My father’s appointment was as curate.
This was not the happiest period of my father’s career. My mother did not seem to be well much of the time and did not recover fully from my birth. What is now known as post-natal depression began to set in and the first of a long line of doctors and pills began to appear.
I believe that my parents’ marriage was going through a difficult time – even at this early stage – but they survived and set off to Sussex, where my father was appointed as a teacher at Hurstpierpoint College. My brother, Christopher, would later go to school there.
Of course, I have no recollection of this time but we lived in a house called Rectory Cottage near the old rectory in the village of Hurstpierpoint. My father seemed to enjoy this time, teaching mainly in the Junior School.
My mother’s ailments continued and she underwent two major abdominal operations, both of which it transpired were not necessary. She was in and out of hospital a good deal and my paternal grandmother came to stay and help. My parents also employed a girl to look after Christopher and me.
Although ordained, my father was not the chaplain at Hurstpierpoint College. After two years, the incumbent chaplain left and the headmaster asked if my father would like to take over the chaplaincy. However, there was no housing provided and, given the family circumstances, he reluctantly decided he could not take up the offer.
This position would undoubtedly have been an excellent opportunity. In the event, the Bishop of Guildford was a great help and, in the autumn of 1952, my father was appointed Priest-in-Charge of St Mark’s, Peaslake in Surrey.
Aged three, my first memories are of Peaslake. We lived in a lovely parsonage in the country, where we stayed for five years. The house, built in the 1930s in mellow brick, had a double drawing room, a study, a dining room and a large kitchen. Upstairs, there were four bedrooms and a bathroom. There was a big garden with a large hut, apple trees and a swing. The sun came beating down across the lawn onto the French windows, with views looking west to Newlands Corner.
Outside the front door was a large drive where my father parked the family saloon, a rather grand black Vauxhall Velox with a six-cylinder engine and a top speed of seventy-four miles an hour. I can even remember the number plate: NPG 950. He also owned what he called a ‘popper’, a motorized bicycle – an early forerunner of today’s electric bicycles – which I learned to ride when I was older.
Christopher and I had a lot of fun. We used to play in the garden and pick apples. I remember smoking lavender, which grew abundantly around the house, and mucking around with bits and pieces in the hut.
One hot summer night, we decided to sleep under canvas in the garden. I think my mother probably pleaded some ailment and sensibly decided to remain indoors. Unfortunately, there was a huge thunderstorm with heavy rain.
‘Come on,’ my father called, suddenly awakened by the storm in the middle of the night. ‘Let’s get inside.’
‘Can’t we stay in our tents, Daddy?’ Christopher pleaded.
‘No, it’s too dangerous. Come on.’ And we all had to make a very hasty retreat indoors where we faced Mother, who had come downstairs, a note of mockery in her voice.
I used to creep out of bed at night to check that my father and mother were downstairs in the drawing room – perhaps the precursor of an insecurity which endured for some years, apparently the result of my mother having been unwell and absent for significant periods of my early childhood. I was later to leave notes for my father saying ‘KS’ or ‘Keep Safe’, which I think continued until I went to boarding school at the age of eight. My father was very caring and kept these notes for years.
My parents employed a live-in girl called Phyllis to look after Christopher and me and to help generally. She was quite a character. There was a drama one day when I went missing. I have no idea why I went wandering off – a naughty prank, perhaps – but there was a huge sense of relief when I was discovered somewhere up the lane near the house. Phyllis married a local boy called John and my father conducted the marriage ceremony in Peaslake Church in 1955, with Christopher and me apparently dressed up in kilts as pages!
I started to have piano lessons at this time. I was taught by a Miss Cureton and another teacher too, Miss Lejeune. They were good teachers and gave me an excellent grounding in playing, which I would continue to do for many years to come.
‘You must practise harder, Philip. You must practise your scales every day,’ Miss Cureton would tell me regularly. I have never enjoyed practising scales but I did apply myself, which no doubt put me in good stead for the future.
Peaslake was a very high-powered parish socially, with all sorts of well-known artists and writers and wealthy stockbrokers. My parents were invited to innumerable cocktail parties and I was sometimes looked after by the Walkers, who lived in a large house and frequently offered me real hot chocolate – proper chocolate flakes melted in hot milk.
I attended a school called Cockers Hill, which Christopher had attended before me. I have few recollections other than learning to read and being picked up from school one afternoon by a friend of my parents in a Morris Minor and skidding down the hill on black ice.
Miss Moody, the headmistress, wrote in her report for the summer term, 1956:
Philip is proving a delightful child to have in the class. He works hard and seems to enjoy doing this. He has a keen sense of humour.
If he continues to develop as he has begun, he should be up to the required standard or beyond when he leaves.
We all loved Teddy, a black furry dog given to my father when he lived in Salisbury. He roamed freely all over the village, which was quite normal in those days – no doubt siring a few puppies along the way – and getting into all sorts of dangerous scrapes. Sadly, one day he never returned. We waited for him to come home and bark outside as he did at night sometimes when he’d been out, but he never came. My father was heartbroken and made enquiries of the police, the RSPCA and Battersea Dogs Home. He was never found. There were some Polish farmworkers on a farm nearby who probably didn’t like Teddy because he used to bark at them – and perhaps the sheep too. We believe that he may have been shot and buried, but we never knew.
A year after Teddy disappeared, my parents acquired another dog, a golden retriever called Marcus. He was a beautiful dog, if not the most intelligent, but was sadly given to the daughter of one of Father’s colleagues sometime after we moved to Windsor; partly because it was generally felt that a dog was not suitable in the cloisters, where we lived, and also because he really wasn’t happy without long country walks. It was a difficult decision, but a sensible one, and he enjoyed life with his new owner.
The years following the Second World War were lean. Like so many others during this period, my parents needed to be prudent with money but, while there were no non-essential purchases, I do not recall us ever going without. In those days, very few women worked after they were married and did not contribute to the household income. As a priest, my father took home a modest stipend – I recall a figure of around £400 a year.
Rationing, introduced in January 1940 to ensure fair shares for all, continued after the end of the war. When the Queen came to the throne in 1952, sugar, butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fat, bacon, meat and tea were all still rationed. Food rationing did not actually finish until 1954. To buy most rationed items, purchasers had to present ration coupons to shopkeepers with whom they had registered. I remember shopping with my mother in the local stores. Meals at home were simple but adequate, often supplemented by vegetables grown in the garden.
Petrol rationing ended earlier, in 1950, but was reintroduced in January 1957 for five months during the Suez Crisis when Egypt and Syria blocked supplies.
There was no central heating in the average home and, although fridges were becoming more common, freezers were unheard of. If you were lucky enough to have a washing machine, it would be a twin-tub with a mangle on top. There were no supermarkets, so my mother would visit the local baker, the butcher, the greengrocer and the grocer one by one.
Most households had a vacuum cleaner and a cooker. Entertainment was provided by the wireless or gramophone, although more and more people were acquiring televisions. My first memory of a television set in our home – made of Bakelite – was in 1956. These, like telephones, were rented, not owned. All television programmes were in black and white and there were only two TV channels to watch: the BBC and the commercial channel.
After five years in Peaslake, it was time for my father to move on to a new position. It came about that a minor canonry at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, became vacant. My father went for an audition with the Dean and Chapter and was offered the post. The move to a town, to a house with no garden, was in complete contrast to the country life enjoyed in Peaslake but it was the beginning of a completely new chapter in my life.
In February 1957, the family moved into No 10 The Cloisters, Windsor Castle; for me, ten formative years that would change my life. Christopher was ten and I was seven.
One of my first memories of No 10 was arriving at a rather grand mulberry-coloured front door with a black iron bell-pull with a notice beneath it saying: ‘Please do not ring unless an answer is required.’ This was a four-storey house, plus basement, and I suppose that residents of the house were reluctant to climb up and down innumerable stairs to answer an unnecessary call. In November 2019, Christopher and I revisited the house, where it appears the same bell-pull exists – but without the words underneath.
The atmosphere of the castle itself was, of course, unique. We entered under the Henry VIII Gateway, where uniformed soldiers stood sentinel with their rifles and bearskins. Police were present too; if they knew you, they would let you in. Today, security is much tighter. Then you passed through the Horseshoe Cloister, opposite the west end of St George’s Chapel, with plane trees and beautiful buildings all around you. There was a feeling that you were in the Royal Palace. There were guards and police padding about all day and night. I don’t believe we ever locked the doors while we lived there.
Numerous visitors poured through the castle and cloisters, visitors of all nationalities, who the residents felt were an intrusion into their privacy. My father told me that they used to look at our front door with the figures ‘one nought’ on it and he could hear people with confused ideas saying, ‘Look, it’s No 10’, and he supposed that they thought the prime minister lived there.
No 10 is situated in the Canons’ Cloister, which dates from the fourteenth century and forms part of the foundations of the College of St George. Construction work on the original buildings of the Canons’ Cloister began in 1351 and was completed in 1355. It seems that the west end of the cloister was destroyed or damaged beyond repair in the 1640s, during the Civil War. It was rebuilt in the 1660s, following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, as Nos 9 and 10 – now St George’s House, founded in 1966.
The house was arranged on lower-ground, ground and three upper floors. The front door led into the main hall with the dining room, which had tall sash windows, high ceilings and wood-panelled walls. It faced west and overlooked what is now known as Denton’s Commons. (Denton’s Commons, the former common house for chantry priests and choristers, was built in 1519 and originally referred to the lower part of this area.) Besides the dining table, sideboard and chairs, there were two armchairs and a television. This room was the main focus of everyday living. The back door opened onto the Canons’ Cloister. Immediately adjoining the back door was the chapel choristers’ vestry, a room that I would come to know well.
Downstairs was the kitchen at lower-ground-floor level, a rather large old-fashioned kitchen with barred windows, the top half of which allowed a restricted view of the outside world. There was a rope-and-pulley dumb waiter, which fascinated Christopher and me, serving the dining room above. My parents did not enjoy this rather dark and inconvenient space and created a kitchenette next to the back door on the ground floor. This served our everyday needs, with a Belling cooker, fridge and sink.
My father told me the story – possibly apocryphal – of some visitors looking into the kitchen through the half window and, unable to resist the temptation, he seized the bars, screaming up at them, ‘Help, help. Someone let me out. I’ve been locked down here for years.’ They ran away, looking frightened. Such was my father’s humour and dislike of the hundreds of visitors who passed our house every day. Two years after we arrived, Canon Bentley, who lived almost next door in No 8 The Cloisters, instigated the closure of Denton’s Commons to visitors, egged on by my father, so that the residents could enjoy some privacy. This plan was indeed implemented, much to the relief of all.
Another amusing memory of our basement kitchen was when Christopher and I decided to play a very unfair prank on our daily, Mrs Watson.
‘Mrs Watson, we’ve just cooked breakfast and thought you might enjoy a fried egg,’ I said, offering her the tempting plate as she came towards the kitchen table.
‘Oh, thank you, dears, how kind,’ she said and tucked in with knife and fork, only to find that she was cutting into a plastic egg.
‘You are wicked, you boys, I don’t know.’ Poor Mrs Watson, who did not have the best eyesight, was taken aback and laughed awkwardly. No doubt we sniggered but we should have been ashamed of ourselves.