Last Argosy

Joe & Helen

Faced with a heap of old photographs, letters and diaries from my parents and grandparents it was an irresitable challange to try and make sense of their lives that had been separated by continents and the ravages of war. The collection includes both correspondence and replies enabling unique insights into the personalities of people long since dead, often heartbreaking as they cope with loss, loneliness and hardship. It has allowed me the priviledge of understanding the complex relationship between my parents and grandparents, laid bare by the confidences they themselves wrote.

When Joe and Helen received the letter from Oliver, their eldest son, describing the capitulation of the Germans from Lunenburg Heath on 5th May 1945, they fully expected that they would finally be able to plan a life together in Africa. Joe, who had been orphaned as a small child, had left England for South Africa some 40 years before. Ultimately, after many years spent apart between Africa and England, their family had been settled in Kedai, Kenya, where Joe was the manager of a sisal farm. The loss of their daughter aged 18 to typhoid, and their younger son contracting polio meant that Oliver and his brother were sent to England for schooling. Oliver was conscripted in 1942 and on duty in Holland, during Operation Market Garden in 1944 he fell in love with a Dutch girl from Eindhoven. Billeted just down the street from Hendrika he was welcomed into her circle including 3 brothers, and he enjoyed a warm generous relationship in the bosom of a close family, something he had not experienced since leaving Africa by boat alone for school in England aged 11.  His first real girlfriend, they continued their relationship throughout the following years. A collection of letters from the time describe the anguish and disappointment as when de-mobbed in 1947 Oliver chose not to return to Africa, but to make his life with Hendrika back in Batley Carr, Yorkshire and they moved in to live with his maiden aunt. In 1949 they married, marking the occasion with a small sherry before heading back to Holland to celebrate with the Dutch family. Dreading a return to a dark, cold and austere life in Batley, Joe and Helen remained in Africa until 1951, Joe wiping 20 years off his age and falsifying qualifications to remain in employment. Oliver with his skills learned as a signalman with Monty’s HQ in Europe had joined the telephone exchange as an engineer. His own education, having been interrupted by the war, was to continue with the WEA in Dewsbury where he became active in radical politics, studying social history and creative writing. He later joined the Civil Service working in the Employment Benefits office where he formed his political ideals. He campaigned with Edward Thompson for Socialist MPs and developed a dislike for all Imperialist and Colonial doctrines setting him directly at odds with his father. On returning to England Joe was to find that he and his son would never to reconcile their political differences, remaining a bone of contention up to Joe’s death in 1971. Oliver went on to help found the CND group in Dewsbury.