Out of genuine respect for the hardworking friendly warm people of Yorkshire, Billy sincerely hopes that his observations of Halifax will not be offensive.
The scene at the Halifax RASC camp in 1947, which was located at Ovenden Park a few miles north of the town, was like a really old black and white movie, completely devoid of colour. The soot from the nearby industry blanketed the whole area and everything including the hills overlooking the camp and the grass in the park, were the same muddy grey colour. The dark stonewalls separating the fields contributed to the stark scene and the dampness from the fine misty drizzle penetrated his bones. It was the winter of Billy’s discontent.
On the first weekend he couldn’t wait to get away from the camp and decided to investigate the town. He had no appreciation for the old magnificent architecture and was totally unimpressed with his new surroundings. To add to his disillusionment he returned through a heavy industrial area, which looked like Dante’s Inferno. The factories and foundries responsible for the discoloration of the area were in full swing, with fire and sparks blazing away and chimneys belching out black smoke. Large pieces of iron and steel of all descriptions lay around the landscape waiting their turn in the ovens and the whole place resembled a huge untidy noisy junkyard. He had never seen anything so unsightly and was appalled.
Back at the miserable camp he was determined to make the best of his situation and settled into the new billet, which was a concrete single story structure with holes intended for a door and windows. No carpet, no furniture, no sheets, no pillowcases or pillows and only a pot-bellied stove for comfort. Furniture did appear in the billet one day when the general was expected to visit and was returned to storage forthwith. The soldiers committed no crimes justifying these pitiful conditions resembling the dark ages and it’s amazing how low the acceptable standards for other ranks were in those days. What on earth did he do to deserve this place he asked himself - He had committed no crime, which was discovered. And then he remembered that it was his own entire fault for scheming the posting to Halifax, assuming it was in Nova Scotia.
Rather than curse the darkness he decided to make the best of a bad situation and investigated the local amenities. Within a stones throw of the camp there was ‘The Ivy House’ pub and a small general store where he would purchase fags one at a time for 1 or 2 pennies when he was broke. There was also a NAAFI, inside the camp which was a one-room arrangement with bare tables and chairs and wooden hatches separating the servers from the recipients of the tea and wads – The hatches were specially designed to prevent the soldiers from seeing the female face behind the voice and was an effective obstacle to fraternisation. The ladies were occasionally observed outside the NAAFI building and in addition to a reputation for not being raving beauties; many of them were old enough to be grand mothers and few soldiers attempted to date an unseen face behind the hatch. The only other place with a potential for making whoopee was the cookhouse, which had a wooden floor and doubled as a dance hall on occasions - Paradise Island it was not!
Billy always suffered from ‘Athlete’s Foot’, which was getting progressively worse, probably as a result of the primitive hygienic conditions at the camp. Having a mind that was always attuned to opportunities he decided to try and turn this unfortunate medical condition into an advantage. He then started walking as much as possible and purposely not changing his socks for days. He went to the first dance at the camp where three soldiers and two girls sat around looking at each other while a gramophone churned out old-fashioned music. He ingratiated himself to the lesser of the two evils and danced the night away, walking the young lady home to exacerbate the condition of his feet.
Reporting to the medical office the following morning with an exaggerated hobble the invalid presented his bleeding toes which were a horrible sight resembling raw meat ready for the grill. He had to plead his case to a medical orderly, because it was the doctor’s day off and he wondered if he had suffered all this discomfort for nothing. The challenge now was to convince the medical orderly to do his bidding and with the best-anguished looking face he could contrive, he explained that this problem never existed until he started to wear boots. In actuality although the boots were not ideal for dancing they were quite comfortable and really practical for army life, but he just didn’t like the look of them and also didn’t like wearing gaiters. He pleaded with the orderly to give him something to relieve the pain and also excuse him from the offending footwear.
It was his lucky day because the medical orderly also suffered from Athlete’s Foot, but admitted that he had never suffered as badly as Billy, - who knew exactly why! The orderly was very sympathetic and prescribed the best he could, which was to provide him with powder, suggest he change his socks as often as possible and keep his feet dry. The orderly told him that the doctor signs everything he places in front of him and he would make out the necessary paperwork for excused boots and tuck it in the pile for the doctor the following day.
Billy was delighted when he was subsequently handed the signed piece of paper officially declaring that he was excused boots. And so with the first smile on his face since he entered the camp, he immediately presented the paper to the Quarter Master Sergeant who exchanged his boots and gaiters for a nice pair of shoes. Billy felt like he had accomplished something really important.
No more boning big unsightly boots and no more baggy trousers from the gaiters. Billy was hoping that he would also be excused from guard duty, because he wouldn’t be properly dressed – But no such luck even though he looked a little out of place in his shoes. The strangest thing is that the whole time he was in the army he was never challenged to produce the paper showing he was excused boots. Had he known that he would have ditched the boots a long time before!
The next time Billy was on vehicle guard duty, he was standing on the pathway leading to the NAAFI in the afternoon, when a girl carrying two shopping bags approached from the main gate. "Halt! Who goes there?," he commanded in his best military tone, recalled from one of the old movies. "Joyce from the NAAFI" came the reply. "Step forward and be recognized," he ordered and Joyce complied in the spirit of the occasion. This was the first time he had set eyes on a NAAFI girl and he was delighted to see that she didn’t have horns.
She was in fact quite young and not altogether unattractive, so he carried her bags to the NAAFI and made arrangements to meet her at 11.10 pm that evening.
Instead of drinking tea and sitting around the potbelly stove with the other lads after being relieved at 11 pm, he quietly opened a back window in the guardhouse and crawled out. True to her word the girl was waiting at the back door to the NAAFI and the courting couple strolled around the camp getting to know one another. That night the temperature dropped drastically forcing the couple to find shelter to keep warm. The only place they could find was an empty billet, exactly the same as the type he was assigned to, with holes where the door and windows should be. They stood in a corner holding each other closely in an attempt to keep warm and further their relationship, but it was to no avail, because the building offered no respite from the bitter cold. Finally Billy reluctantly escorted the girl back to the NAAFI, climbed back in the guardhouse window and took a place around the potbellied stove with a mug of hot tea. He never thought it possible that he would ever be pleased to be in a guardhouse and his existence was starting to resemble a nightmare.
Billy returned to Halifax in 1992 and would you believe it was still drizzling when he entered Overton Park. However he was astonished to find that the industry no longer existed and the hillside and parks having been washed for many years by the rain were now as green as grass should be! The camp was demolished and abandoned in the 50s and only concrete bases of the buildings remain as evidence of the past.
The area is still a park where people walk their dogs and The Ivy House and the small store were still there. Billy was tempted to enter the store and ask for a woodbine, but thought better of it. The buildings around the park and in the town are still the same grey colour, which is typical of Yorkshire and it’s any ones guess why!
An ex-Yorkshire man now living in New Zealand advise Billy that after the heavy industry closed down in the 60s and 70s and the chimneys stopped pouring out smoke, the black sheep up on the moors were revealed to be white. The soot had discoloured their fleece.
The ex-soldier soaked up some of the more pleasant history of Halifax in the nearby Imperial Hotel, which dates back to the 1800s and enjoyed a splendid meal in the hotel’s Wallis Simpson restaurant. A far cry, but only a stone’s throw from the camp at Ovenden Park, which was the low point of his army service and a long time ago.
- Note: In 1771 Lt. Governor Michael Franklin of Nova Scotia travelled to northern England to seek immigrants. He was looking for skilled farmers who could take up lands formally cultivated by the displaced Acadian minority, and who could counterbalance growing republican sentiment within both Nova Scotia and the Colonies to the south. For five years, until the British Government began to grow alarmed at the scale of emigration to North America, agents actively recruited settlers in Yorkshire.
- The first of these Yorkshire emigrants arrived in 1772 aboard the Duke of York. This vessel departed Liverpool on March 16, 1772 with 62 passengers, and reached Fort Cumberland on May 21, 1772. On board were Charles Dixon, Thomas Anderson, George Bulmer, John Trenholm and others. During the period 1773-1775 additional vessels left for Nova Scotia, the largest number arriving during the spring of 1774, when 9 ships carried settlers from England to Halifax. In all, more than 1,000 people emigrated from Yorkshire.
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
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