David’s story of 'An Illustrious National Service'

Aged 18, David left his farm work on the Waveney Valley to embark on a life-changing journey on one of the five fighting arms of the Royal Navy.

David tells the awe-inspiring story of his life

Resident of Abbeyfield House, sheltered housing in Beccles, David, tells his story of National Service on the lead British aircraft carrier of World War 2; HMS Illustrious, becoming an author and his passion for agriculture.

Born in 1930, David was raised in Beccles, Suffolk, and before joining the Navy, had never spent a night away from home.

Growing up in Beccles

David lived a happy childhood despite growing up in the midst of a war. He was positive-minded and had a great interest in agriculture.

“I was just nine years old when the war (WW2) begun. There were some scary moments, I remember one occasion where some bombs had been dropped no more than 100 yards from our back garden. I was still very much able to enjoy life though, especially heading to the cinema on a Sunday afternoon to watch the football.

“Opposite where I lived, there was a hospital that was used by the troops. There were Czechoslovakian, Belgium and British troops. As a nine year old boy, living a stone’s throw from such people was fascinating – they were our saviours after all! I used to head over and talk to them every so often. Some of them even signed my autograph book. Little did I know, one day I’d be spending my National Service on the lead British aircraft carrier; HMS Illustrious. I was 15 when the war ended, and I remember it vividly. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people out and about, cheering and celebrating.

“I started working at twelve years old as the milkman’s helper. Back in the 1940s the milkman, like many others (including the bin men, would you believe!) was horse-drawn. It was my job to help him by keeping hold of the horse and watching the carriage whilst he made his rounds every Saturday morning. Even though I had gone to grammar school, as far back as I can remember I had always wanted to work on farms within agriculture, so that’s what I did. Following my job with the milkman, I landed myself a job on a farm in Gillingham, Norfolk. Each day I’d make my journey to work across the Waveney Valley, and back again each evening.

“I remember the NHS service coming into effect, both my parents were dependent diabetics and my dad had to buy their insulin every week, so when the NHS came in, they were so pleased, it would save us a lot of money as a family. If we hadn’t had a NHS throughout the ongoing pandemic, I’m not sure how we’d have coped. I think it has shone a light on how incredible our NHS really is."

‘An Illustrious National Service’

In 1948, David was called upon to join the Royal Navy. It was not every young man who got to do his National Service on board one of the most iconic warships; HMS Illustrious, but David made his ambitions clear, and as a result he was invited to join the fleet air arm. David left his farm work to embark on a life-changing journey on one of the five fighting arms of the Royal Navy.

 

Like so many other 18-year olds at the time, I had never spent a night away from home, I had rarely seen any other part of the country or met people from outside East Anglia. Only one in ten men would be accepted into the Navy, so I felt honoured. I knew the National Service was to prove a truly eye-opening experience.

 

“The petty officers in charge of us understood we were suffering from homesickness, they would say, 'you're missing your mum and dad aren't you, son', and they knew how to help us through it. In my case, scrumpy cider helped! Although we were privileged to head home and see our mother’s each weekend, thanks to a friend on deck. One of my fondest memories is of my mum baking cakes for me and my messmates to enjoy – we used to share them on the mess-deck.

“During my time on the ship, there were some periods of inactivity and unlike many others, I had no interest in playing tombola, or spending time in a pub ashore. So I took to writing letters (which, if you read my latest book, you will see), reading or walking around the local countryside. I remember seeing the pilots land on the ship, my goodness that takes some skill!

“One thing that surprised and pleased me over the years is that although my time in the Navy was short, it was a period of my life I have never forgotten. I made a lot of friends and it made such an impact on my life.”

(Left shows David age 18, and right shows Daivd now, age 90)

Life after the Navy

After around a year in the Navy, David returned to his home town, Beccles. In 1953, he began work at CWS canning factory in Lowestoft, where he spent the next ten years.

“At the factory, we canned beans, peas, soup; you name it – we probably canned it! I liked working at the factory as I was still very much connected to the farms. One of my duties was to go around them to see that the vegetables being grown under contract with CWS were well and looked after before coming to the factory. It was nice to still be involved with agriculture, even when working outside of it.

“After some time with the CWS, I was advised not to drive anymore on medical grounds. In search of my next venture, I became the most unlikely civil servant. For over twenty years I worked for the Department of Health & Social Security where I would visit people in their homes, see how they were doing, to make sure they were getting the right money and so on. I really enjoyed it and I'm still in touch with a few people I worked with.

“It was during my time with the Department of Health & Social Security that I learned about Abbeyfield. I visited a few of them in Lowestoft, and I knew of the Beccles house. At every place I would visit, I would get a feel for it, you know; the atmosphere, ethos and so on. Abbeyfield always gave me such a warm and welcome feeling, I liked the ethos, and in later life, that would contribute to my reasons for moving here for my own retirement.”

Making the move to Abbeyfield

David moved into Abbeyfield House after his wife sadly died in 2016. After spending a short time at Serenus Court in Ipswich, he moved to his now home, Abbeyfield House, Beccles.

“I moved to Abbeyfield after, sadly, my wife died in 2016. We were lucky to be very happy together for many years beforehand. I knew I was craving the comfort and socialisation that Abbeyfield could bring me, so I decided to make the move. I had always wanted to move into the Beccles house as that’s where I was born and raised, but there were no rooms when I wanted to move, so I stayed at Serenus Court until a room became available at Beccles.

 

Abbeyfield is a wonderful place. There’s friendship, care, and kindness, so much that it feels like a family. When I realised I needed to go to a retirement living facility, I knew Abbeyfield was the place I wanted to be. I’ve made many friends throughout my time living here, there are eight of us here at the moment and we’re all quite close, which is nice.


“I was familiar with a few of the residents when I came here, actually. I knew one of the lady’s, she had nursed me during a short stay in hospital, and an old acquaintance, John, who I knew from childhood – he was the telegram boy when I worked with the milkman. I remember when that the Beccles house was once a milk dairy – it’s those roots that also helped me with my decision of where to spend my retirement years.”

For the love of writing

David has a love for writing and reading, evident during his inactive days of National Service. Little did he know, one day he would become a published author of not one, but five books.

“I love to write,” said David. “I write about many things – my first book was a little unexpected to be honest! A friend of mine had written a book about Norfolk, and the publishers had asked him if he’d write one for Suffolk. He didn’t know much about Suffolk, so he asked me, and of course I said yes. That book was called ‘Larn Yarself Silly Suffolk’ which was published in 1997 and sold over 12,000 copies. My second book was a follow up from the first; ‘Tatterlegs for Tea’ which was published a year later in 1998.

“I then wrote ‘A Garland of Waveney Valley Tales’ published 2003, which was a series of tales based on my time spent at the Waveney Valley and working on the farms. The forth was called ‘Beccles School Days 1930 – 1948’, I wrote it with my good friend Colin Baker, and it was published in 2012. That’s what it says on the tin really! Our stories of life growing up in Beccles.

“In my latest book, ‘An Illustrious National Service’ published 2018, I relive my National Service through my almost 70-year old letters to loved ones. The book documents my experiences and the effect they had on me, through the letters themselves.”

Present day

Now 90 years old, David is happy at Abbeyfield House, just a short drive from his son in the place he’s always called home; Beccles.

“I will be 91 on May 15th and I know that my son, has arranged an outdoor get together with family and all my grandchildren for the 30th May – I’m really looking forward to that.

“I can no longer read very well due to difficulties with my eyes, but I can use my iPad to continue writing. I’m currently working on another book all about my memories at the CWS factory – that’s what’s keeping me out of mischief at the moment!”

 

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