I was born on September 20th, 1936 in Aldbourne Wiltshire. I was the son of Alfred and Rose Palmer living at the shop at 6 Oxford Street, Aldbourne. This is the shop called Oxford House and it is now the Co-op. I had one brother, Walter, two sisters, Dorothy and Evelyn; they were older than I am, I was six years behind those. During the first period of my life of course the War, World War 2, had started. I was 3 years of age at the start of the War.
My earliest memory of the War itself was crying when they put a gas mask on, but those first few years, 40, 41, 42 are very limited in my memory. However by 43 and 44 and 45 of course they are much clearer..
My first knowledge of bombing was of reports as we had no bombing in the village although there was my sister told me, that the bombs did fall on Upper Marlborough Road, but I was not aware of that fact. However we did go up to Greenhills, some friends of mine, I think John Hunt and a few others, went up to Greenhill to see a German plane that had crashed in Greenhill Woods. But of course the strongest memory is of the planes flying overhead from Membury and Ramsbury Aerodrome. You would look into the sky and see 20 or 30 planes flying over at a time, which we’d never see again after the War was over. The other clear memory was, of course, of seeing those planes flying over and then men training for D-Day and drop by parachute out of the sky. That was an amazing sight for a six or seven year old boy to remember. The other thing about the War that stands out is the family structure. My father at the shop had a wireless. Now he was able to listen to the 9 o’clock news at night. By ’44 I was allowed to stay up to listen to the 9 o’clock News, but this was an event for him and some of his friends, Frank Jerram next door, Christopher Hawkins who lived up, just further up the hill and they had no wireless, so they would come and sit together with Dad and listen to the News together, and of course the 9 o’clock News was the News that gave what is happening during the War. The War is my first memory of that part of structure.
The other thing of course was, needless to say, rationing. We had a shop. The shop had certain customers who were rationed and they were recorded as registered customers with Palmers Stores, and they were then allocated their ration through the shop. And, so they were considered the real customers of the shop, although obviously everyone is allowed in. But they were able to get their rations if we had a supply of, lets say, canned salmon, which would be a major achievement, or corned beef, then they would be the ones who would get that product first and if there was leftovers then it would be available to others.
The D-Day event is very clear in my memory because my father was a baker as well as a shopkeeper, and of course he ran the bakery and he baked the bread and then delivered it all around the Shefford Woodlands area. On the night of D-Day, he was up there delivering bread, sometimes he didn’t get home until 7 0’clock at night because, you remember, you bake the bread in the morning and then you deliver it in the afternoon. So he was travelling all around there and he, on the night of D-Day he just got back home at 7 0’clock and he said “There is something big happening tonight. I only just got out in time.” His friend who was also a baker we found out the day after was stuck at Membury Aerodrome all night long. He was in the secure border area and could not get away, and he stayed overnight on the 5th June right through till the 6th, the day of the Invasion, when they let him go, because by then, every one of us knew that fact.
As the War drew to an end, and I am getting older, I am very much aware the progress of the troops as they are going across France, going towards Germany, and listening to both this on the radio, and the very limited newspaper we had, which I can clearly say was about two pages and a very rough looking piece of paper, but it did show the map and the expansion of the troops as we went across, as they moved across France into Germany, Holland etc. The other major impact of course of the fact of the troops who stayed in Aldbourne. Now there were English troops who were here before, before the Americans arrived, they also lived in the stables. One of these English soldiers, I am told, but of course was too young to know about this, he was living at the stables, opposite the shop and it was so cold in those stables he would come over, help my father make the dough for the bread in the morning, and then sleep on the floor or on the.. somewhere in the bakehouse because it was a lot warmer than that stable across the street. Then of course in 1944 the Americans arrived and they were all over. They were at the stables, and they were down Farm Lane, which was the Farm Lane area, which was the main centre of the soldiers there, so we had Americans all over and I remember them very clearly. I was under strict instructions, not like everybody else, you cannot go and beg from the Americans, my family was very strict, Puritanical Methodists, I will go into that a little bit in a while, and I could not go, though I do remember very clearly begging one American soldier for sixpence because I knew some of the other kids had got away with it.
The social structure of Aldbourne in those early years was like this. We were shopkeepers, but we were also Weslyan Methodists, so that in fact, under any social structure as a shopkeeper we were middle class, but as we were chapel then we dropped down a class, so we would have to have been classified as lower middle class. There were two Methodist Churches, there was the Weslyan Methodist Church on Lottage Road and the West Street Methodist Church which was the Primitive Methodist Church. The Primitive Methodist Church at West Street was much more strict in its standards, although even then the Weslyans were strict. As a family I was required along with my brother and sisters to attend Church in the morning, Chapel in the morning and we were always classified as Chapel, never Church. Chapel in the morning and Sunday School in the afternoon, without fail, week in week out. The stratus of Aldbourne Society at that time was that, if you were Chapel, you were a little bit lower and the Church of England you were up the top, so that the Church of England people were always classified as a class above us; but of course there was a very strict social structure to Aldbourne at that time which lasted all the way through my life in Aldbourne. I left Aldbourne, I left for United States, I now live in Washington DC. I left in 1961.
The social structure was such that there were obviously certain families that were considered up and above all the others. There were certain people who considered themselves up above and spoke with the so-called posh accent. The structure of society whereby there were the people who lived out West Street, the Browns who were considered, whether it was ever true or not, but were Lords of the Manor. They were placed in an upper class stratus by the society. We never, as a family, cowtowed to all the structure as others; it was a shock to me to learn that the shop in the Square, run by Mrs Arthur Stacey, if Mrs Brown came in the shop she was given priority over all those who were standing in line waiting to be served. She may have even got the extra can of salmon, I don’t know! But we gained, in fact, two or three customers because of this resentment of the preferences given to members of the so called upper classes. I developed, because of this, a very strong resentment of that class and of the posh accent, and it is still there with me today.
The War for most people in Aldbourne ended in the VE Day in May of 1945, even though of course the Japanese War was not over until the end, but for all intents and purposes most of the celebration was at VE Day, which was a major event in the village of course, and it stands out in my memory, and everyone elses memory, of the big bonfire in the middle of the village where Mr McKeon, somehow or other, managed to save some petrol from the War, and one of the men in the village, Mr Liddiard, threw the petrol on the fire and then fell in the fire and was burnt. Watching that is still in my memory and I can see it now and him being dragged out and I started screaming, scared, but it was a very eventful VE Day was a wonderful factor for all of us.
The other thing that must be remembered for someone of my age; I was now meeting people coming back into the village who I had never seen, and yet they were village citizens, born there, raised there and the fathers of some of my friends. They had all been away during the War and I was meeting people for the first time, because they had just come back from the War, and from either the War industries where they were working away from Aldbourne. It should be put in that respective that we… I actually didn’t know the fathers of some of my friends, because they were always away and they were just seen occasionally during the War. My father of course was much too old to be in the War, he had been in the First World War, and my brother who was too young to have gone into the War… he was … he didn’t go into National Service until after the War was over.
After the War was over, rationing still continued in the shops and everywhere for two or three years, and there were shortages right through up until the Fifties. The thing I remember clearly was going to the butcher’s shop to get meat and were limited to 4 ounces of meat per person per week. Imagine if you had represented a family of two and you said “Give me my 8 ounces of beef please.” Rationing included everything. Clothing, foods of all kinds, the things we saw right after the War for the first time, which amazed us obviously, were bananas and ice cream; just growing up without ice cream as a small child must be a very interesting phenomenon that this generation would never understand. But they did not exist and we had to manage without it. And bananas were of course very rare and I remember my oldest sister making a banana pie, and she had got some banana essence and some parsnips and somehow mixed them up, mixed them together to make it seem like it was a banana pie. How that worked I don’t know, but I know she did it.
In 1946, I attended the Aldbourne School. You must remember that the Aldbourne School was Church of England, so that we all attended that same school whether we were Chapel or Church of England; but we were required to go for training in the Church of England no matter what our own religious denomination. Once more I saw that segregation and class structure of this society. I remember one lady saying to me “Behave yourself in the Church, David, you’re not in Chapel at this time!” In other words that is the class imagination in her mind that we all misbehaved in Chapel. Probably we were much better behaved, but I don’t know. The other person that impacted me during the War were the two evacuees that came here. We had a lot of evacuees in Aldbourne living right next door to my shop, the Bowlers; but there was one brother and sister who were here and became my friends and still are to this day, that was Pat and Olive Robinson whose father came from Bermuda; and then he was away during the War, and the two children were sent to stay with their uncle, Fred Barnes, and they stayed during the War right up until 46 when they left. They were very very brainy both of them. Olive was my age, Pat was one year older than me. But what was rather interesting for society to understand they attended because of Fred Barnes the West Street Methodist Church, and I was at the Weslyan Methodist Church on Lottage Road. We had a competition for all the Methodist Churches, Chapels, for a special scripture prize where we all competed in answering questions on the scriptures; and then they were tested; and then the Sunday School that produced the best record got the prize for the whole area. With Pat and Olive at that West Street Church, they won every year. After they left to go back to their parents after the War, then we managed to win, but only because of that! But, rather sad and amusing all at the same time, is people would say it was not; they’ve got those brainy coloured people there. That was the society at that time.
In 1946, at Aldbourne School, and throughout England at that time we had to take what was called the 11 plus Exam to decide whether you went to the Grammar School or the Secondary Modern. We had, in my class at Aldbourne, we had a quite a large class, and many of us passed, but we had three girls who were well ahead of all of us, which included Olive Robinson, Susan Barnes and Ann Liddiard. They were very brainy and Carol Wentworth and I came on a little bit behind, but we managed to qualify. But Susan decided not to go, or Mother decided she would not go to the Grammar School; so it was Ann Liddiard, Carol Wentworth and David Palmer and Anthony Liddiard who went to the Grammar School, while the rest went to the Secondary Modern. This was immediately a point break in our lives, for the people going to the Grammar had to stay during the week and board in Marlborough. So I boarded from 1947 right up until I left, at Wye House at Marlborough, along with Ann and Carol Wentworth and Anthony Liddiard, who only stayed for two years. We were joined a year later in 1948 by someone who became my very good friend, well known throughout the village, Nicholas Monroe. He had moved there and he came and stayed at Wye House, and we stayed friends and shared a dormitory for five years. Nicholas, the Munroe family, there was Stuart who was the younger one, lived in Aldbourne, and of course I am sure many of you know, she later married Johnny Morris, the BBC radio and television personality, so they became very good friends of mine. They had a great influence on me and widened my outlook on life considerably and I will always be indebted to that. There was a wonderful experience to be with them and as friends, and to know Johnny Morris and the family. Nicholas became later a great artist and sculptor. I had moved on in 1961.
I will just go over two or three other memories of special events; the War itself I’ve basically covered and, remember, these are the memories of a very young boy, so there is going to be a limitation as to how much you remember except the end of the War. Now one of the things that occurred every July was Aldbourne Feast and the Camp Meeting. The Camp Meeting was a meeting at the field at the back, just behind the Memorial Hall, where the Methodist Churches had a Camp Meeting, where they preached in the open air and sang hymns and preachers rallied us forward as good Christians. But this also coincided with the Aldbourne Feast when the Fair came to the village. That Fair actually came all during the War. How they managed that I can never understand, but they did it and a Fair Company called Scarrots came with those great big tractor like … I can’t remember…. Steam engines bringing the Fair equipment all the way into the village and setting up with their own power to entertain us, and we had swings and we had the, whatever the machine is that goes round and round,,, chairoplanes, I think they were called. And of course the big thing was Miss Foster, who was the lady who lived just down by the Square, and she gave, put up, so much money for free rides for all the children in the village. So that was, you know, a wonderful experience; and the Fair will always stand out, and it went straight on through to ’53, every year, always there, as well as this famous Camp Meeting where everybody was preached to continually. The other event was of course the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. That was all through the Village. Johnny Morris and the Monroes lived at the Pond House, next to the old paper shop, and the whole village celebrated, and I can always remember Johnny Morris jumping in the Pond and swimming about in the Pond. I guess he was wading, I don’t think he could do too much swimming, but I remember that and all the celebrations of that great event.
Getting out of the village was a little unusual for most of us. I did have an aunt living in London, and I went to London in 1948, during the summer of ’48, to stay with her and I actually watched television and watched some of the Olympics on television. No such thing as television existed in Aldbourne at that time but I did see television for the first time going to London and staying with an Aunt and watching the Olympics. Of course the other was, the aunt took me around London and I saw all the bomb sites in London. That should be realised that someone growing up in Aldbourne knew about the bombing, but had no real experience of bombing compared to you know the big cities. Swindon was bombed, I know, and, but to see London and how it had been bombed and what I knew about it, was an amazing feat. Our only communication with the world was the Pathe News and the Gaumont News at the Cinema, and we of course, in the Memorial Hall, had a film show once a week; they were sometimes a little bit out of date, but they were there and we could go every week to the film in the Hall. That didn’t start until after the War but I did gain some information. Then you could also go to Swindon and you go to the Savoy or the Regent and watch the cinema there; and you would get the News there, so visible news was through the cinema. Listening to the News was on the radio and music, and it was mostly BBC. And very little light music, comedians were mild and moderate. It wasn’t until much later that we had some rather more interesting comedians such as the Goon Show. That was a much later date and had a great affect on the world around us. But radio was the communication, television came later.
After the War, we started to…they came and installed the sewage system, so we didn’t have an official sewage system in the village until after the War; and the whole village was dug up. The sewage lines were put in. At the shop we had our own system, and we did have a real bathroom with water coming in from a tank up above, and we did have an actual flush toilet going into a sanitary sewer and then, of course, we connected. But these weren’t…. to understand that the village structure was such that there were still many houses, quite a few houses, without electricity; but there were not public sewers, so the outhouse was basically and bathrooms were just unusual for most people. The standard at that time was a bath on a Saturday night, and that was the way it was for many of the families throughout the village, even those who won’t admit it to you today; they were stuck with one bath a week.
Employment in the village during the War and right after was of course a lot of farming but that was gradually changing. People were going to work in Swindon. They were going into the building industry, construction was an important development as housing developed after the War; and many houses were built in Aldbourne and in the area. People upgraded their housing. Not… and as the years moved on after World War 2, there were less and less people working on the farm. Farms were being modernised and new tractors, no horses, you know, some people still had a few horses left over; but they were not used for ploughing anymore and the people who had worked with the horses were going off to work other places, such as the Harwell Atomic Research Station, which took a bus through the village everyday, taking people to work in that facility; and many of them had…grown ups, some I knew had worked all their lives on a farm, but they got a lot more money working as a cleaner at Harwell than they did working for one of the farmers. The farmers who stand out in my memory was, of course, Charlie Hale, who was up the top of Baydon Hill, and anybody who is listening this would know about him. He was the most important farmer to me, because we knew him well, and he was the closest farmer. I knew his brothers and a few others. We knew of Anthony Brown’s farm but had no close friendship there at all, just knew who he was, and, of course, his so called social standing in the society.
The Memorial Hall was changed after the War when we added the Memorial to those who died during World War 2, and you can see the plaque, and you can see the difference between the size of the plaque for World War 1 to World War 2. What I can…we…those of us of my generation, cannot imagine the horror of that First World War and the number of people from Aldbourne who lost their lives; their lives were taken away from them, it was horrendous. It was terrible, World War 2, and the people we lost then. Ronnie Hacker’s father, many many others, but there is no comparison to World War 1 when a huge number were slaughtered. The conversation with older people at that time would be, what it was like growing up in the War and after the War, what it was like during World War 1, in comparison to now, and life before the War. It was…for modern generations would, of course, they would say we are as bad as the others, but they all keep talking about what it was like before the War. So ”before the War” was a catch phrase in conversation with older people in Aldbourne.
These are my observations and, of course, all the other people have been interviewed. We had five pubs, we had five bakers, of which my father was one. We had the clothing store, which my mother ran as well, which was slightly unusual, because nobody else had a clothing store, but we had grocery and clothing in the shop. I, of course, and the rest of my family, didn’t have any choice but we had to work part time in the shop anyway. Luckily, when I was away in Marlborough during the week, I didn’t have to work in the shop, but I was required to work in the shop in my spare time, and then, of course, even when we were closed, occasionally, someone would knock on the side door and ask for some cigarettes! Cigarettes were a very good sale in Aldbourne and everybody was smoking; there was no thought of not smoking in public and my father was a cigarette smoker; so it was a normal part of society. And of course, the other thing, it would be unusual for you to know, is that we sold cigarettes individually. You could come in and buy two or three cigarettes.
Holidays were, you know, the obvious school holidays as far as I was concerned. I often went away for a summer holiday with my aunts and cousins and sometimes, later on, with Nick Monroe, but that is later on, after ’53. My parents couldn’t close the shop so they never went away on holiday, but I did get away and would go to the seaside, whether it to Bournemouth or to Southend, and everywhere but this was lucky because I had a cousin who would let me come with them. My mother and father paid for it but they did not have the opportunity, with a shop, to go anywhere, except on Thursday afternoons when we closed and on Sundays; so that was the limit of our thing. Now we did have a car all during the War because of course my father delivered bread all around, so we had petrol and a car which others didn’t have, so I did ride around in a car quite often, and I would go with my father in later years, delivering in the car, so… it…that was a normal part of my life; but I know for many of my younger friends during the War, and immediately after, a car was a rarity and getting petrol was very difficult, and now, it is thinking about it, that rationing, that continued well up to 1950. In 1951 I did go to London for the Festival of Britain and the exhibition there, which was an eye opener to the world, and it gave me a lot of my interest, which was always there, in the world around us and the rest of the… the history of the world…History became my subject and geography, later in life of course, after ’53 and I now live in Washington DC United States. I left in 1961 and I’ve lived since 1961 in Washington DC, USA.