Jean’s life story
One of our Abbeyfield Scotland residents, Jean, shares with us her remarkable life story.
I was born Jean Wade, in London 1929, and I am the 2nd of three sisters. For almost 11 years, we lived with our maternal grandparents in London as our parents were permanently residing in Dodoma, Tanganyika, in the British Colonial East Africa, where the British Geological Survey Department employed our father. He was of Dublin Irish & Scottish descent, my mother’s family were from London.
We had to stay in England to go to school, as there were none in East Africa. My mother’s father was a London Councillor and so we were invited to the Royal Princess’s birthday parties & the Mayor’s Children’s Ball every year, which was a real treat, & the fancy-dressing a pleasant distraction, but I desperately missed my mother, whom we had to live without then. I only saw her a few times for short periods in my early years. It was very difficult for her too; she loved us dearly & was a wonderful mother, but had to help her husband in Africa. That was the ‘done thing’ in those days. While she was gone, War was declared in September 1939, two weeks before my 10th birthday.
I can still clearly remember the dreadful air-raid sirens at school and the horrible looking smelly gas-masks we carried everywhere with us. Children gathered hurriedly into lines, huddled into noisy, stuffily packed air-raid shelters, grateful for a small chocolate bar in a pocket. I would stare up at the countless Barrage Balloons in the sky, wondering how they stayed up and how they trapped the enemy, and wondering when this strange & scary time would end. The tense fear that surrounded everyone was palpable and awful.
We were sent with our cousins & other children to stay at a farm in Devon for a short while, to keep us safely out of London. I remember walking across the snowy fields to school, jumping over streams, closing all the many gates behind us, and finding wonderful hiding places and secret passages in the farmhouse and playing in the countryside rich with gifts for our imaginations!
Fortunately, my mother came over to England to fetch us & take us away to safety in South Africa, as my Father had relatives living in Natal. After months of waiting for a ship, we were finally told we had a passage to sail, on 3rd July 1940.
The ship “Winchester Castle” was to leave from Glasgow. We were allowed only one suitcase each, and we left Paddington Station on the Boat Train at about 3pm. It was a nightmare. The station was packed with parents crying, shouting, running to get the last glimpse of their beloved children. The mothers would not leave the sides of the carriages, but hugged their children’s little shoulders and kissed whatever part of them they could reach, and finally had to be pulled off them, wailing, as the train started to move off. As we slowly left, the mothers ran alongside, trying to keep their children in their sights, weeping bitterly, arms outstretched. It was horrible. I was so grateful to be with my mother and felt desperately sorry for the other children who were leaving theirs behind.
Later on that evening around midnight, in the pitch-dark night with no lights to be seen anywhere, it was near Crewe when the air-raid sirens went off, and the train stopped suddenly, screeching in its tracks. Immediately in the eerie silence that followed, we could then begin to hear a dogfight, a roaring battle going on up in the sky. The blinds in the compartment were down, of course, we were in the dark, but out of a corner in the darkness, I knelt to watch the fight above. We could go nowhere; we were trapped inside the compartment. For more than a half-hour, bombs were dropped around us, we were completely terrified, waiting to die, but mother began to softly sing children’s hymns that we had learned at Sunday School, and her lovely voice calmed us. When the planes had finally left the area, it was deathly quiet, and we eventually slept.
Morning came, and there was a weak sun. We had got to Glasgow safely. Hundreds of people were getting aboard the Winchester Castle, walking up the gangplanks, mostly all children, with here and there a lone teacher or a single woman in charge, trying to organise everyone. At about 11am, the ship started up and we slowly left the U.K. bound for Durban, South Africa.
The ship was horribly crowded. The four of us had a cabin, but many others slept in the bathrooms and in the passages. No portholes were allowed to be open, no lights at night, and as we came closer to the Equator, it was like being on fire! Every day the crew held a Life Boat Drill. My sisters and I were usually scattered all over the ship, playing in different areas, while our mother sat with other women knitting socks for the British Army. But when the siren started, we all had to be at the Life Boats in orderly queues, waiting to get into the nearest boat. Practising this every day filled us with dread; you knew that this might have to save your lives. We had to sail in a zig-zag formation all the way to Durban to avoid the German mines and U-Boats, which were numerous. One day we were told that a U-Boat had followed us all of the previous day!
It took us six long weeks to get there. On 23 August 1941, we finally disembarked in the hot sun, relieved the long journey was over & glad to be safe & together still. We started a new life without our father, who was still far away in Dodoma. I had not been with him since I was four & still did not see him again until I was a young teenager when he retired early and came to live with us in Pietermaritzburg, Natal.
South Africa was a British Colony, and so we were still a part of the War. Being so far away from Europe, we had most of the younger crowd up in North Africa, fighting the Germans and Italians. There were hardly any men around; teachers were all retired ladies or young students, and the churches were full of elderly folk and children. Petrol & groceries were in very short supply, as many things were imported by sea. Letters to our family living in London took six weeks to get there, and both our grandparents sadly died during the War. I remember my mother getting the belated news of her parents’ deaths & weeping with grief. My older sister’s fiancé was an RAF pilot and was shot down over France, his body never found.
Italian Prisoners of War were kept in different camps in the town and were put to work building huge dams, bridges, and other infrastructures. We could see them at their barracks, playing cards & football outside. We all got on well; it was fine but strange. They were just young men, far from home, caught up in the same mad war.
After the war ended, we stayed on in South Africa for many years. We had settled down in our new country, and so learned to love it. But I hated school & at 15 years, I began training as a Nurse and became highly certified, well experienced working in Operating Theatres, Midwifery & Public Health. I returned to England in the 1950’s & worked in London, at Soho Hospital, & when I had time off, I enjoyed travelling Europe with my younger sister.
When back in Africa, I met and married my husband James Stewart in Zambia, North of Rhodesia, in 1960. He was born in Oban, Scotland, in 1929. He schooled at Fettes College in Edinburgh. James’ parents owned the Keil estate, in Duror, Appin, on the West Coast of Scotland. The property lost much of the forest to the war effort and became difficult to sustain at that time. When James was 18 years in 1947, they sold up & went to Salisbury, British Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Interestingly, my husband’s family clan are the Stewarts of Appin, famous historically and cousins of the Royal Stewarts. A summary of the Appin Stewarts’ history is provided by my daughter Lorna, at the bottom of this article.
We had two children. My son James was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia, and my daughter Lorna in Cape Town. Sadly in 1967 my husband died young at 37 years from Pancreatitis when Lorna was just 18 months old & James only 4 years. It was difficult being a busy nurse and raising two young children alone, and I never remarried. South Africa had no welfare system or medical benefit scheme to help anyone. It was tough financially, but I did it. I scrimped and saved and tried to give my children a happy, nurtured home life. My elderly mother lived with us for a few years before she died, and I had loving support from my family when the children needed somewhere to play after school or being taken to a dentist or doctor, which was a huge help. I worked in Nursing for nearly 50 years and was very pleased to retire.
My children live in Scotland; my son lives near me with his wife and has two adult sons. My daughter lives with her partner in the rural hills above Blair Atholl. I finally returned to Britain in 2014, initially living with Lorna. But, the cold Highland climate got the better of me and I moved to a lovely warm Abbeyfield house in North Berwick, with a beautiful garden and a sea view from my window. So we are all home again, and we love Scotland. Its strong, proud, and colourful character; its awesome beauty, and precious history are very fulfilling. It is the ancestral home of my children, who are very pleased to live here, even if their accents do not sound that local!
I spend my time reading my plethora of books and crochet blankets and toys for charities, and love to feed the numerous birds that alight on my window ledge. I enjoy going to Church and sitting outside in the garden reading or crocheting or walking across the road to the seaside bench when the weather allows. I use messaging apps on my phone and am a ‘silver-surfer’, regularly emailing friends and family, researching new crochet patterns, or browsing my many varied interests online. I have wonderful, caring church friends, and I love to see my family whenever I can. I have had an interesting and full life and feel very blessed. I have just enjoyed my 91st birthday, and I look forward to every new day with interest and joy.
About the Appin Stewarts
Alexander, the 4th High Steward of Scotland’s first son, was James (who became the 5th High Steward, whose son Walter, the 6th High Steward, married King Robert The Bruce’s daughter Marjorie and sired Robert the 2nd, King of Scotland and first of the Stewart Monarchy.) Alexander’s second son was John, whom the Appin line originates from, and who was killed during the Battle of Falkirk where he commanded the Scottish Archers during the First Scottish War of Independence. His son Sir James Stewart of Pierston was killed in the Battle of Halidon Hill during the Second War of Scottish Independence and his descendants are the Stewart Lords of Lorne, Earls of Atholl, Earls of Buchan, Earls of Traquair and the Clan Stewart of Appin. 92 Stewart of Appin men died at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
The Appin Stewart’s clan animal is the Unicorn and their historical clan seat is Castle Stalker (isn’t that wonderfully, poetically Scottish!) Stalker was built by Sir John Stewart, the 2nd Stewart Lord of Lorne, whose son Dugald was the 1st Appin Chief. Sir John was famously murdered at Dunstaffnage Castle on his wedding day, after marrying Dugald’s mother.
So, among my children’s great grandfathers were the first four High Stewards of Scotland, Lords of Lorne & Chiefs of Appin, & the spirited, courageous clan history makes for them being very proud Scots indeed!