Lilian Lacey was one of nine children. In September 1939 she was just 20, one of the three surviving ‘Butler girls’ who lived with their mother and her adored brother, Charlie, in Carnation Road in Gillingham, Kent. With perceptive eyes, a lovely smile, a warm chuckle, a sharp mind, and always comfortable ‘to ask for forgiveness rather than permission’, Lilian was a spirited young woman. In another age, another family, she should have been heading back to university that Autumn.
Mum’s father, Alfred, was a police sergeant. He died of pneumonia when Lilian was just 8, and the family hit harder times. There was no National Health Service and many medical discoveries that we take for granted had yet to ‘land’, and were certainly not available or the common man and woman. So, by 1939, there were just the four children left to grow into adulthood. Louisa, her mother, had buried her husband with pneumonia, Lilian’s brother Len with TB and sister ‘Louis’ with pernicious anaemia. The other siblings died as babes as World War 1 ended and economic depression prevailed.
Lilian had left school at 14. Although recommended ‘for the grammar’, the family was without the means for her to go there. She repeated three years in the top class of 11 years olds until she was allowed to go out to work. Quick-witted and personable, by 18 Lilian was the manageress of a small grocer’s shop. That was where she met her great friend ‘Auntie Lallie’, who was three years younger. She and Lallie shared many confidences, got into a fair number of scrapes and I imagine had some pretty narrow escapes as the war years went by.
The advent of war was no surprise. Everyone knew we were about to go to war against the Axis powers. My mother described it as an exciting time. The sense she shared was of excitement – there was work and activity. Also of course the Medway towns were already filling with adventurous young men who had crossed fields, or counties or oceans to ally to fight the Nazis. So it was that, late afternoon on Sunday 3rd September, just a few hours after war was declared, Mum went walking across the Great Lines connecting Chatham and Gillingham with a smart young man in uniform. I think it was Don, a Canadian who was a little older than she. As they walked past a No Entry sign, he quipped “Trespassers will be prostituted”. “Not this one won’t!’” she said.
Mum would tell that she got a ‘criminal record’ early on in the war. Forgetting to switch a light out in the shop she was fined. It didn’t happen again. Anyway, soon ‘Lil’ (a name she hated) was working in the NAAFI, the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes canteen and store. With a love of ‘figures’ that lasted all her days, Mum was quickly taken off the tills, and moved upstairs into ‘The Office’ to work in Accounts. She wanted to ‘join up’ but it turned out that working in the NAAFI was a ‘protected occupation’. ‘An army marches on its stomach’ as Napoleon said. So it was that she could tell when D Day had arrived because hundreds and hundreds, and then thousands, of small cakes arrived into the depot – ready for the men who were about to embark, and over the days for those who came back.
She would recount the story of an air-raid that started as she was walking up Chatham Hill. Sighting her as she ran up the hill, a German pilot circled around several times, strafing the road. Whether to show off, or to kill her she was unsure? What she did laugh about though, was why on earth had she not run down the hill, rather than up it?
Lilian spoke with less good humour of the V1 rockets, or doodlebugs, which caused thousands of casualties. Known also as buzz-bombs they made a distinctive sound. When the engine cut, people would count in the silence, waiting for the bomb to land. One dropped on my mother’s house in Carnation Road. They thought they had got away lightly, with no one hurt and surprisingly little damage. But as they cleared up the debris, drinking tea in the garden a couple of hours later, a lead drain pipe fell off the side of the house hitting Lilian full on the head. She was unconscious for 3 days and then seemed OK. Fifteen years later she was diagnosed with what was then known as petit-mal, a form of epilepsy, thought to have been caused by the injury.
Mum spoke little about rationing. Partly I think because times had been hard in her childhood, and partly because working in the NAAFI she had access to food. She did though talk about fruit – oranges and bananas. One of the troops would bring a banana out of the barracks for his pregnant wife hidden under his hat. Mum missed bananas during the war. And the cheese ration hit hard. All the more so, later on in the war, when my Dad, Jack, came on the scene, because he always loved his cheese.
Lilian’s wartime romances had started with Don, who turned out to be a thoughtful chap. He came to tea with the family regularly. Although seemingly ‘sweet’ on Mum he never made a move - but for a couple of years would turn up on the doorstep if it seemed she might be going out with someone else. What would be going through the head of a sensible young man at war? Meanwhile there was the charming, flirtatious Tex, who got someone else pregnant - they married quickly. Their baby was born in my Mum’s house. In a foreign land he had nowhere else, and no other family he could trust to look after his bride at their time of need, and Lilian’s mother had a bit of a reputation as a midwife. Then there was Bill with whom Mum was ‘very taken’ but her mother didn’t like him, so that was that! In between there were older, married Firewatchers, trying it on. “My wife’s away. I’ll change the sheets if you will, Lil?” Mum and Lallie stayed close, looking out for each other.
So it went on, until November 1941 when Lilian met a handsome Royal Marine who was on ‘Survival Leave’. My father once took me to the exact spot where he met my mother on the dance floor, at the Co-op in Chatham. Mum made Lallie follow her and Jack home that first evening. Mum was taller than Dad. How bad did it look?
They married on 15 March 1942. They wrote to each other frequently, writing ‘MIZPAH’ on the envelope, a Hebrew word meaning “May the Lord watch between you and me when we are far apart”
With service postings here and there, through and after the war ended, it was seven years later in 1949 before Jack finally came home for the pair to set up house together. By then, these two independent young people in their late twenties calculated that they had spent no more than 6 months together and had three children.