By Alfred Henry James Titmuss (1884-1988)
Transcript of taped conversation 1985
Almost the first thing I remember in my life was, my mother sent me on an errand one morning, gave me the money and told me to go through the passage to Horse Ferry Road. It was at James Street, Walthamstow. I was going through the passage and a woman said to me. “Give me your bag and your money and I will go and get the errands.” This I did and I went home, of course the woman never came and she took my money and my bag. I was about four years old.
I remember going to Wood Street School, Walthamstow, in about 1899 I was five or six. I remember passing the big chestnut tree and the butchers shop was they were always killing animals.
Our school was a little further down the road on the right; it had only just been built.
The next thing I remember we lived in Lea Road, Walthamstow. The Boer War was on, and my father had lost his job…. and was out of work for a long time. He had been working in the City, it was a posh job…. working for a stockbroker.
Being out of work for a long time…. they had to sell home trinkets to keep going. There was no social security in those days. We managed to get over it.
One outstanding thing was seeing all the placards stuck around the place persuading people to get inoculated against small pox… that had just come in. I was inoculated at that time.
We moved from Wood Street, to James Street, Walthamstow, over a butchers shop. I was about ten or eleven (1904/5).
On a Saturday night, the butcher used to stand out front and knock the meat out cheap. He would put a little apron on me, a straw hat, a coat, and sit me up on the butcher’s block. He would send me around the corner for a penny worth of tea, with halfpenny worth of milk in it.
After that we moved from there and we went into Bickley Road, Walthamstow, it was just lower down from the Bakers Arms. This was all in Walthamstow!
I remember my two sisters going to school.
A cyclist knocked down my little brother (Harold Augusta), later he had meningitis and peritonitis and died, (1902) and he was about three years old.
It was due to the accident!
I can remember, let me see! I was about nine or ten, and then we moved from there.
My mother always seemed to be moving. We moved into some new flats in Ark House Road, Walthamstow. Rent for seven shillings a week. It was about a mile away from were we used to live.
My father was working in the City at Squires and Ponds, as a checker in the grocery department. He used to check all the orders that were sent out.
I got a job!
A milkman used to come round with the milk and he persuaded me to go out and help him deliver the milk.
They made a little barrow for me, put a churn on it and I used to go round and deliver the milk of a morning, for which I used to get about eighteen pence a week and a glass of hot milk every morning. I got tired of that and started selling newspapers, then delivering newspapers.
We moved again, I think my mother moved to dodge the landlord.
However, times were hard those days and I remember on one occasion we had rabbit for dinner and my mother gave me two or three rabbit skins and told me to go and get some money on them. I took them to the man, and he said. “That they were too light and deceiving”. So I went home and told my mum and he didn’t want them, and what he had said.
She said. “You mean that they were too late in the season.” Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
I remember all this.
“Are you going to keep that?” (Dora’s remark)
However, I was going to school in those days to Lee Bridge Road School.
“You tell him, that I have been married to him for over sixty years and he hasn’t taken me for a holiday yet.” (Dora’s remark)
That will all be on there!
It sounds funny when you hear it repeated.
Maurice has asked me to carry on with the story of my life.
“He keeps telling me he loves me, but he has never taken me for a holiday in the last sixty years” (Dora’s remark)
I remember I used to chase out of the flat to delivering papers, or milk, chase down the road to school, because I was late, and jump over the fence to get to school on time.
“Tell him how many times you fall out with me, he doesn’t know what to say now” (Dora’s remark)
Having carried on my argument, I will continue with the story of my life.
Where was I! I was going to school at Lee Bridge Road. It used to be all fields and rough, and today it has big factories and building estates on it.
Anyway, after a time we moved again to Norfolk Road, Walthamstow, my father was still working at Squires and Ponds, and he got me a job there.
“He doesn’t want to know all that.” (Dora’s remark)
I was just fourteen. No! I left school on a labour certificate about thirteen and a half, for I had reached standard six, which was the top anyway.
I remember going to my schoolmaster and quoting an incident to him. I had been in a gardening class, which he had been giving instruction.
He had told me to go back to a shed to get a tool. I want back to the shed and there was a pot of paint spilled all over the shed floor. I got the tool down, and stepped over the paint, went out and took the tool to the schoolmaster.
He fell us in, took us back to the shed and we cleaned our tools. He said, “Who spilled the paint on the floor.”
Everybody looked up, nobody said anything, and I blushed, He said to me “What do you know about it Titmuss”
“How do you know you blushed?” (Dora’s remark)
I did! I came all over hot! That is Dora, asking me how I knew that I blushed.
Anyway, I told him that when he sent me for the tool, I saw the paint on the floor.
He disbelieved me. I think!
Anyway, when we went back into class we were into the lesson and he put a big “P” on the board. I went red again, and he said to me its no good you trying to deceive anybody Titmuss, you give yourself away when you blush.
That was just an incident by the way. But, I went to tell him that, when I went to get my certificate to leave school. I had to go to Leyton. He gave me my certificate and I said. “You know Sir, you disbelieved me when I said the paint was on the floor but it really was there, I never spilled it and he believed me then. He gave me a good character so….
“It must be true! Because he has told me over and over again” (Dora’s remark)
“Yes”! They are things that stick out in your mind.
I went to the City and worked with my father in 1908. It got around towards Christmas and my father was taken suddenly ill and he had the keys of the premises, so I had to take the keys up and say he was unable to come to work.
Next day all his head became swollen, and he had erysipelas. The doctors couldn’t do anything about it, so they took him to Whips Cross-Hospital, a big modern hospital that had just been opened, he was there but a few days, and he passed on. but, eh!
I knew it was very difficult for my mother then, she was a maternity nurse and she would go out nursing, and I used to take her from one job to another, sometimes in the middle of the night, which she only got a few shillings a week, and she had to do the confinement and everything else.
We got on very well. My sisters were growing up and going to business… and went to work for Pascals . . . (sweet manufacturer) I think a factory in Mitcham, Surrey. We lived in Surrey then, my mother moved to Streatham because her sister was a maternity nurse there, and said she would find her plenty of work, which she did!
We went on quite all right until the 1914 war broke out, and then I went straight into the army. I did everything in the army from a sanitary man, to N.C.O. and lieutenant, and finished up in Germany with the Army of Occupation as a Transport Officer.
Where did we go to first? (Maurice)
Belgium! We went into action in 1916… I think it was. The first time I was in action, was in Bethune. They used to send me out on patrol. I was an N.C.O…. then one night the company officer said to me.
“Go up and see the colonel you have been recommended for a commission”.
I went up and saw the colonel, and I told him I was quite satisfied with my rank and my allowance to my mother. I wouldn’t get that as an officer, but he told me that officers were going to get an increase in pay.
I went to see Major General Hull of the Second Army Corps, and I remember him writing on my paper.
He is of good physique, seems to know his own mind, and should make a good officer with training.
I remember, I got back and waited…
Oh! We were going to take action, and the engineers had been up in the line and dug a forward sap. I was the corporal that was going over to take the outer rim of the sap.
An officer came around the night before and said “What is wrong with you corporal?” I said, “I feel ill Sir”. “You’re funking it Corporal!”
“Go down to the first aid post, I will put you on a charge for funking it.”
I went down to the first aid post. They took my temperature and it was 103F, and they put me in hospital.
I avoided that action altogether. The next week my papers came through and I was sent home for my commission.I remember running along La Bassee Canal, and they were shelling like anything. I thought to myself, I will never get home like this and I was dodging from one place to another as the shells came over.
I got down to the transport line eventually. They took us to the railway, and when the train came in, there was sacking in the place of doors and windows, which were broken.
There were a load of chaps going on leave and one thing and another…. I was only too glad… It was so bitter cold…. two or three passed out on the train, when they went to sleep
We had three months training and then sat an exam. The night before we sat the exam, I sat on my bed, laid back then pulled a book down off the shelf above my bed, titled Field Service Regulations. It fell open at a page, and it developed an action in three phases, which I read through. The next day in the exam I was given a map reference, a certain action had to be developed in three phases, as depicted in the book the day before, and I wrote it all out as I had read it from the book, the night before.
I put my paper in with the other question papers and felt sure that I had passed. Which I had done!
Although I had only had an ordinary education…. there were fellows that had been to Cambridge and Oxford….They failed because, not only did they try to develop us with regards to knowledge… it was also the way you handled men.
In training, one day you were a Lieutenant Colonel, and next day you were a Platoon Officer and the next day a Sergeant, and so they used to develop you that way, and the way to handled men and things.
I got my commission (1 Aug 1917 The 3rd Queens Regiment) and went out to Bethune, France, and joined the 11th. Battalion of the Queen’s. Commander Major General Hull, 2nd Army Corps. We were behind the line at the time, and we actually never went into action, because we were put in reserve as a flying column.
At that time the Italians were falling back in Italy. They put us in some cattle trucks at Dunkirk, and we went all the way down to Marseille…very leisurely.
We used to pull into a siding, let the fellows get out and stretch themselves and kick a ball about. Then get back on the train again and off we would go.
We were seven days going from Dunkirk, along the French Riviera to Genoa, from Genoa up through the Venetian Alps to Padua. We were put in the front line on the River Piave, against the Austrians.
By the way! As we were going up the line there was a battalion of Italians coming along, and it was a very crude sight of soldiers. They had their stew pots hanging on their rifles.
They split up, and went either side of the road, we marched in column through them and we started singing.
“Oh! Oh! Antonio, put me amongst the girls….” I forget how the thing went but it ended up with….” the Italian and his ice cream cart.” “ They didn’t like that”!
“Was that where you were shot.”? (Dora’s remark)
“No, I wasn’t shot in Italy, I was shot in France.”
It was an autumn day, (1917) and it was threatening to snow when we got up into the Alps amongst the vineyards. W put up canvas on the side of a hill… I remember we were tired after trekking up
though the mountains, and we all went to sleep very quickly when we went to our tents that night.
Next morning you could hardly hear reveille, and we wondered why? We shook the tent, as it was sagging. It was covered in snow. We had a pretty rotten time up there in one-way or another, until we got billets in an old country house. We were fairly comfortable and the men were billeted also. It was too near the front line for civilians to be about, so we had it all on our own.
I remember Christmas day, we had our meal, and there was some shooting going on…. machine gun fire. We went out and saw Austrian planes were flying over shooting at everything they could see that was moving. Some of our men got up into trees in the orchard, and fired their Lewis guns and shot down two planes.
After that we went on till March…. we did garrison duty on the side of the River Piave. The river was low down, flowing through a gorge, and I used to have to go down to a strongpoint we held in the middle of the river. We had a sort of a bridge sunk under the water, and used to walk across this bridge…. we would take a bag of socks, some whale oil, and rum.
I would give the fellows on duty, a drop of rum, and I had to see that they took their socks off, rub there feet with whale oil, put
After that we got around to March (1918) doing garrison duty up there, we never did any fighting, we just held the line on one side of the river and the Austrians were on the other.
At night the Austrians had searchlights shining across the river, we used to have to go down by the side of the cliff, as the searchlight came on, we would turn our backs to the cliff face and stand perfectly still, the searchlight would come around, and you would have thought that any minute they would have spotted us, but they never found us. We used to stand still till the lights had gone then we would continue our journey.
We had information through headquarters that there was a likelihood of us going back to France, as the Germans were expected to attack us on the 21st of March (1918).
This was a few weeks before that, so we got on a train and they rushed us back to France, where we detrained at Acheux le Grande, that’s on the Somme, we went into Doullens, and we stayed there behind the line for about a week or so.
The attack took place on the 21st of March as headquarters had predicted. There was such a tremendous attack that our fellows fell back to Albert and practically into Acheux le Grande.
We pushed forward at night, as the Fifth Division had been practically annihilated.
We had been told we had to go four kilometres to the front line. Instead of four we went ten, and we went marching into the German lines.
As far as we could gather they were on all our flanks, the next day. Anyway! They started shelling us with wizz-bangs, we dare not show our heads or they would fire at us with these small cannon.
I lost contact with the people on my right, so I sent two runners out and got no contact. I went myself into Douglas Haig’s Line, which was anti-tank trenches, they were made very wide and if a shell was to burst in them it used to knock out a lot of men.
However! I got out in the open and got shot at, got a bullet through the thigh and immediately fell down. I saw this chap shooting at me with a rifle, I had only got a revolver, and it was no good trying to hit him with that… so I tried to crawl along, and got another bullet through my arm. I had lost a lot of blood from the bullet in my leg, and the next thing I remember was…. two stretcher-bearers had got hold of me. My arm was around my back. I said to them. “Give me my arm.”
They pulled my arm around and with the branch of a tree; they made a rough splint for it.
I was carried back put into an ambulance, and taken to Albert, but the Germans were coming in the other end of the town, so they rushed us out and took us to Acheux la Grande, then to Doullens.
I was put into hospital there, and they did my leg up. Luckily it was only a flesh wound; it went right under the muscle, dodged the bone and came out the other side. My arm was shattered actually, just above the elbow, they put it in a splint, and we were put on the train to Boulogne.
I was in hospital there for three days, and they operated on my arm and put on a splint. I was then put on a boat for Dover. I remember it very well! It was an old Belgium paddleboat, and they were using it as an ambulance ship. I was lying on a stretcher in the fore part of the vessel and I could see out of the porthole.
They gave the alarm, there were submarines about, and we were having destroyers racing around us all the time, right across the Channel. They got the convoy over without any trouble.
We were put on the train at Dover. I was asked, “Where did I live.” I told them London.
We detrained at Victoria and they took me through to a private hospital just behind Selfridges, in Manville Place. I was there for a few weeks, and they sent me to convalesce, at the Duke of Westminster’s estate, Eaton Hall, near Chester.
I was there seven weeks, met and went out with Dora (Thelwell), my nurse, and got quite friendly with her by the time I came away.
I was sent to Command Depot down at Eastbourne for training and rehabilitation.
That was in October… (1918). I think it was!
From there I was sent to Command Depot at the Queen’s Reserve Depot, Sittingbourne, Kent. One day I was out training with the troops, when the hooters went off all along the Medway. The troops slung their hats up in the air. The armistice had been signed. The war was over. (11 Nov 1918) They still kept us there, and I was sent to a battalion of A4 boys. They were boys that had just come of age, just as the armistice was signed.
They had a certain amount of training, and we were sent to St. Albans for a few weeks, and then told we were going over to Germany as the Army of Occupation. I went to Germany (11 Apr 1919) and we went up to a place called Euskirchen, which is East (South) of Cologne.
Cologne Bridge was our bridgehead, from our point of defence, in case of any trouble.
I hadn’t been out the very long when the colonel sent for me and said.”
Titmuss I want you to take over the transport.” I said “Transport sir I don’t know anything about horses.” He said “You are the only Subaltern that can ride one.”
I hadn’t ridden a horse from the time I was eleven years of age. I got on a horse and could ride it. Just like riding my bicycle.
We had a good time out in Germany. We used to go into Cologne and buy a bottle of champagne for eight shillings, and had a jolly good time, good meals, and everything else.
You would think that the Germans had not been at war, because they to seemed to live a good life, and a life of jollification in the evenings.
I took over the Transport as the colonel had asked me to. They were a very rough lot and not very disciplined, and one thing and the other. I told the sergeant in charge of the Transport to fall the men in, in fatigue dress.
When they fell in, some of them had trousers, some had trousers and putties, and some had on just britches, with no putties.
I said “They look a shamble…. like Fred Carno’s army.”
I told the sergeant to dismiss the men, and fall them in again. This time dressed in fatigues. They all turned out in proper fatigue order ten minuets later.
After that I told them that we were going to have an inspection by Winston Churchill on the [Exertsio] Platz, Cologne, and that they had to polish everything up, and make it look smart.
They worked hard for about a week, they made a totally different figure of themselves. We went marching into Cologne all dressed up, and I was at the head of the Transport Column. My horse slipped on the cobbles and went down. I got up, wasn’t hurt and just brushed myself down, mounted again and rode on.
We assembled on the [Exertsio] Platz that was just open ground. Eventually Churchill came along, and he got out of his motor, came across and just walked through the lines, complemented us on our appearance and that was that.
On another occasion I was put in charge of a guard of honour, to meet Sir William Robinson outside the Cologne cathedral. He was to meet a French General there, and we were the guard of honour… my platoon.
We were going to be demobbed and I was with the 2nd/4th Queens, I demobbed that lot of Transport, and was transferred to the 11th Queens Battalion, and also got rid of that lot of the transport.
After that, they got us ready to come home, we made a slow journey through Germany, over to Dover, and went down to Dartford in Kent to a demobilisation depot.
I got my papers and came home on 4 March 1920
I went into partnership with two fellows and we opened a business called the Globe Boot Company. (12 Plashet Grove, Upton Park, London.) It was my money that opened the firm, one of the fellows was a representative for the firm.
He got all the stock in on credit. I found this out later and got rid of them both and run the business on my own and sold off a lot of the shoes…. but I had to get a solicitor. I did everything to cover myself . . . but it didn’t do me much good.
Alfred Titmus was married to Dora Elizabeth Thelwell in a double wedding with his sister, Marion Irene Titmuss and Harold Mason at Tooting Parish Church, London the 3 June 1920.They had three children:- Joyce (7 Sept 1922), John Ernest (12 Feb 1926) and Maurice (27 Jan 1930)
They lived above the shop (Globe Boot Co), till 1941 when the premises was bombed by a parachute mine, during a German air raid on London. The family relocated and shared a house at 47 Tawny Avenue in Upminster, Essex for a year with the Childs family whose home had suffered bomb damage at the same time. Alf and Dora continued to live in Upminster and moved to 3 Aylett Road from 1956 till they died. Dora, 5th July 1988, (98 years). Alfred 3rd Dec 1988, (94 years).