Peter and Brenda Williams – a life spent on the move


Two Catholic childhoods during the War

My family was in the greengrocery business in Yorkshire, though my father was a civil servant. My parents, Francis and Dorothy Kennedy, had been going out together and then split up. When they finally married ten years later I came along on 4 March 1936. I was an only child.

My father was Catholic, one of six children, originally from Ireland. He was an accomplished violinist, playing mainly classical music, but was also the leader of a dance band. My mother had older sisters, and I was brought up in an old-fashioned environment. I was so innocent; I was never taught about the facts of life. I went to church with my father, and attended St Augustine’s school.

During the War we had to climb into our Morrison Shelter in our house in Leeds whenever there was an air raid, and stay till the “all clear.” The shelter doubled as a big table if we had visitors for tea. Later my father was posted to Wakefield, so we moved. I went to St Ignatius School till it was time to leave and start work. I didn’t enjoy school as I wasn’t very academic. The nuns were strict, and you were shown up in front of everybody and questioned if you missed mass.

My first job was in the Readicut Wool Company in Horbury, and two or three evenings a week I went to night school to learn shorthand and typing. It wasn’t long afterwards that my father was posted to Plymouth, and I got a job with the South Western Electricity Board, where I stayed till my marriage. It was in Plymouth that I met Peter.

I was born on 25 September 1936. My mother, Eunice, was from Wales and a schoolteacher, and my father, George,  came from a family of fishermen, boatmen and shipwrights. His father was one of 14 children. George didn’t follow the way of the sea but became a labourer with Plymouth City Council.

The flat in which I was born was small, and in 1939 we moved to a shared house just before my sister was born. This was a wise move, as it turned out, because the flat was destroyed in the first bombing raid on Plymouth. Our “new” house was in poor condition, and we lived in two rooms – a living room and a communal bedroom, and one toilet outside shared with another family. The house was adjacent to the notorious Union Street, known to sailors from all over the world. In its one mile there were at least 40 pubs, three cinemas, a variety theatre, and an indoor “fun fair” (strictly for adults), known as the Snake Pit. Night times were quite lively.

Plymouth was heavily bombed, and we spent many nights – and sometimes days – in air raid shelters, hoping that when we emerged the house would still be there. We were lucky, but many weren’t. I remember one particular air raid when I was in hospital with diphtheria. I don’t remember feeling frightened. Rationing was bad, and we didn’t have much, but I never felt deprived. It was a happy, if eventful, childhood.

My mother was a staunch and uncompromising Catholic. My father was a nominal Anglican, and went along with her wishes regarding our education and upbringing.  My primary school was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, in the grounds of Plymouth Cathedral. The headmistress, Sister Mary, tolerated no nonsense, but was a kindly soul at heart. I worked hard at school, though, and did well. Soon after my First Communion in March 1944 my mother arranged for me to become an altar server. At that time Mass was a dialogue in Latin between the server and the priest (who had his back to the people, facing east) with little to do with the congregation, which was a long way off. I still know those responses by heart! Because the school was adjacent to the cathedral I could be called upon to serve Mass at any time. Funerals were good, as I could earn a shilling.

At eight years old we were taught about Mortal Sin. How can a child of eight know about mortal sin? I remember we said the “Hail Holy Queen”, and when we got to the “To thee do we send up our sighs…” I thought it meant our size, and I knew I was a size seven!

Catechism and the “strap”
Having passed my Eleven Plus I went on to St Boniface’s, which was run by the Irish Christian Brothers, who were big on sin on corporal punishment, which they administered freely with the “strap” – two lengths of leather stitched together to give it weight. Offences were many: not having your catechism in your pocket, not wearing your school cap, missing homework, and anything they could dream up, especially if they could link it to a sin! The class stood up on the hour, every hour, to say the Hail Mary; religious instruction commenced at 12 noon with the Angelus followed by a discourse on (usually mortal) sin, and a chapter from the Penny catechism which we had to know by heart, and recite at a moment’s notice.

I was a keen Boy Scout, often to the detriment of my homework (more strap!). Our scoutmaster was a devout and kindly man, with one brother a priest and another a Benedictine monk at Buckfast, where we spent happy times camping.  The highlight of my scouting life was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII declared a Holy Year, and the Catholic Scouts of Great Britain made a pilgrimage to Rome with the Catholic Scouts of England. There were 1200 of us for two days and a night in a train, all fed on ration packs. Rome was a revelation after the austerity of Britain – and the sun shone. We saw all the sights, and the climax was the audience in St Peter’s with the Pope.

In 1948 we had been rehoused because of slum clearance and went to live in Plymouth suburbs. I then went to Mass at St Paul’s church. In Lent 1954 when I was 18 we were doing Stations of the Cross, and I was carrying the processional cross. Between stations three and four I saw a pretty girl in the congregation. Between stations four and five I got closer. She was by station 7. When I got home I said to my mother, “I have seen an angel!” This was Brenda on a visit to Plymouth.

Courtship and marriage

I pursued Brenda fruitlessly; she didn’t want to know me as I was “grubby.” Others were after her who had more money.  By this time I was an apprentice in the naval dockyard (since I was 15). I wanted to go to sea, but the family needed the money. I earned £1-13s-3d a week, and my mother had £1–10s of that. When I did my National Service I wanted to go into the Royal Navy, but you either had to sign up for 12 years or go into the Army. So at 20 I joined the Merchant Navy and stayed in till I was 26.

I wrote to Brenda when I was at sea, and most of our courting was done by letter. In the Merchant Navy I was earning good money, and we went out together when I was on my first leave. Gradually the relationship developed, and I wrote to her “When I come back on leave I have something to ask you.” But she said “no”!

Eventually she said yes, and we got married when we were 22. Brenda arranged the wedding. We honeymooned in St Ives in Cornwall, and I went back to sea. I left the Merchant Navy in 1961 because Brenda was expecting Christopher. I went to work as a draughtsman for the Admiralty in Devonport. We had five children in the fullness of time, and money was tight. I was offered a posting in Cyprus. In July 1971 we left RAF Brize Norton, walking across the tarmac with five small children in tow. When we arrived the heat just hit us, but we soon acclimatised.

Cyprus: An idyllic interlude

Brenda: Cyprus was idyllic. Because of the heat everybody worked from 7am till 1pm, and you could be on the beach by 1.20pm. Everything was provided for us: board, lodging, healthcare, education – and friends. It was a wonderful time, and probably the happiest of our family life.

Because of the proximity of Cyprus to the Holy Land we took the opportunity to make a pilgrimage. Peter took Christopher in 1972 and I took Nicholas in 1973. It was a wonderful, uplifting experience.

Peter: Two memories of this are uppermost in my memory: serving Mass with Christopher at the church in Gethsemane, and finding myself alone in the grotto beneath the church of the Nativity, at the spot traditionally recognised as the site of the manger. How many millions had stood in this place and how many since?

The “Wandering Williams”

We got out of Cyprus one week before the Turkish invasion in 1974. We still have friends in Cyprus, and we have been back several times. I was posted to Manchester, where we were five years, as a draughtsman working for the civil estate. But I missed working with the military, and determined to try for another posting.

In 1979 I was offered a job in Germany at HQ BAOR at Mönchengladbach, by this time Christopher was 18, so we had shed one child as he went to live with friends in the UK. We were four years in Germany. We enjoyed being in a service environment again, where everything was provided.

Brenda: I was able to work on the garrison as the children were older by then and settled in school. I was offered, and accepted, a job with SSAFA (the Armed Forces charity), which I enjoyed.

Peter: In 1983 we returned to Manchester, but I left again this time to work with the Army in project management in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. It was the height of the Troubles, so I flew out every Monday morning. Security was tight, and the family stayed in England. It was dangerous but varied and rewarding. Any contractor who worked for the British was a target for the IRA, and we lost people. Cyprus had been dangerous as well. But I enjoyed it. We lodged in the Officers’ Mess – probably the best-fed mess in the British Army, as my ever-expanding waistline showed.

Then I received a promotion and a new posting to Hanover, where I arrived on my 50th birthday. We lived in the community rather than the garrison, and although there was a NAAFI handy we shopped locally, and made many German friends.

We were there when the Berlin Wall came down.

Brenda: By this time we were down to two children, Julie and Joanne, who both found employment with the military. I was offered a job at the “Hive” (Help Information and Voluntary Exchange), which catered for arriving and departing Army families, providing a mass of vital information such as “Yes, you will have to put your budgies into quarantine when you return to the UK, and yes, while the wild birds can travel freely, rules are rules!”

And so to Harleston

Peter: Thatcher’s cuts meant my civil service career came to an end, and I took early retirement when I was 57 or 58. We went back to Manchester where we had a flat. Our three daughters had all moved separately to East Anglia for various reasons, and in 1991 we followed them, and bought a house in Snape. I became a tour guide for Sizewell B power station. However, Snape was a bit cut off for us, and we worried about being stuck as we got older. So in 2000 we moved to Harleston. This is the longest we’ve been in any one place, and here – I think – we will stay.

We went to Mass at Jay’s Green for the first time in February 2000. The first people we saw were Alma (Chapman), Helen (Kemp), and Father Edward. Almost immediately I got put onto the PPC by Edward, and I’ve been embroiled ever since. I used to help Alma as sacristan. I love that little chapel, and I love doing what I do at Jay’s Green. I wonder which of us will survive longer – me or the chapel!

Brenda: In all during our married life we moved 19 times. It wasn’t easy upping sticks and moving with five children. We were known as the “Wandering Williams.”

A firm faith

My faith means a lot to me. When Peter asked me how I’d like to go and live in Cyprus I said “There is a God!” My prayers had been answered, as I had prayed to get out of Plymouth. Recently, when I was in hospital I was within 24 hours of having my leg amputated. I didn’t know if I’d come out of hospital; I thought “This could be it.” I knew everyone was praying for me. It was a miracle…the young consultant found I was allergic to penicillin, and within hours I had turned the corner. It was the power of prayer.

Peter: My faith is very important. I am a simple Catholic – a Penny Catechism Catholic, and I’m uncomfortable when people are more radical. I know I was indoctrinated when I was young, but I don’t resent that. I was taught never to question – you could call me a “Pennycatosaur!”