The Royal West African Frontier Forces
The date 1961.
The place Preston, UK
The circumstances, a struggling young family with 1.5 children on a soldier’s pay without marriage benefits or allowances. Financially it did not work.
What to do?
So we, yes it was us, looked for the best paid posting in the British Army and applied for a 2 year tour to join The Royal West African Frontier Forces. Just like that!
It seemed logical, but as we say in Lanky (Lancashire) ‘you don’t get owt for nowt’ but we didn’t think of the downsides.
5 days later, yes, FIVE DAYS, we embarked on a flight from Heathrow to Freetown.
It was a manic few days. Two families to say goodbye to, one in the north and the other in the south. A rented home to get out of. Get the baby put on a passport, and the rest. Getting the baby on the passport was not easy. A day trip to Liverpool was the only way, but when I got there nothing could be done because my husband had not given written permission for this. A day wasted and I had a further trip to Liverpool with the baby, and the letter. Anyway, in true army fashion and with the co-operation of our families we caught the flight to Freetown in good time.
The Flight to Freetown
One problem that presented itself was the luggage allowance. My husband, Nick, had the full allowance, 44lbs I think it was. But this included all of his uniforms, so there was no spare weight to give away to us. I got 22lbs allowance. This had to do for me, my baby and my expected baby. So it was a time for priorities. The expected baby would be breast fed but who knows what may happen so the first priority was 24 large tins of SMA baby milk powder. This came with us to keep the new baby alive for about three months,. That went in first. Then there were clothes and nappies for both children and a carry cot. As far as I can remember I took one maternity dress with a change of white collar, and a pretty maternity swim suit.
The flight was not direct. We stopped two or three times for a plane change. Senegal was one stop I remember. At each stop the aircraft and the airport terminals got smaller and smaller. The runways were like well kept lawns. The terminals smaller than a village cricket pavilion. We walked to and from the plane with responsibility for our own baggage. This, said my husband, is Empire Building!
Our first home in Freetown
We were put into a transit camp. Nobody told them we were coming so nothing had been prepared. Our accommodation was a room that was a concrete cube with a cut out space at the top of one wall from where we got light and air. I remember little of the camp but in a couple of days we were alerted by voices outside calling out our names trying to locate us. Ann and Dick rescued us and took us into their home until better accommodation could be found. This was the start of a friendship that has lasted 56 years, so far! My memories of staying with Dick and Ann are always peppered with beautiful recollections of the wonderful pink frangipane in their garden.
Our next home was condemned.
Yes really! ‘Unfit for human habitation’. We had rats running between the walls. You could hear them. The twin walls of the house were wooden slats on the outside and asbestos for the inner walls. The asbestos never bothered us as we did not know it was poisonous. It was inadequate as the rats had no problem eating their way through it leaving another hole which had to be repaired daily. The rats started to bother me so I went to see the army Doctor who pronounced that the baby would die if bitten by a rat. So word went round that the Hopwoods needed a home, a proper home. I said goodbye to the laden banana trees and we moved on.
The baby was due on Christmas Day and we were given a better house with a moving date of 24th December. So we went to Dick and Ann for Christmas Day. This home was really special. No 45 Hill Station, Freetown. I read now that there is a country club up there. Maybe they converted the Governor’s house near us. No 45 Hill Station had a fireplace and a fan in the sitting room. Reputedly, the only fireplace in Freetown at the time. We are moving up the social scale now. Not only are we on the same electrical circuit as Government House we were also on the same water supply.
Queen Elizabeth ll
Around this time the Queen came to see us!! We were thrilled. Nick was part of the welcoming party on the docks when the Royal Yacht came in. We were all so excited. We were all to be presented to the Queen. Well, at least I thought I was included but a row broke out between the senior wives as I did not have a long dress and could not be included to meet the queen. Anyway it was all sorted and I put on my clean white collar and went. We had a rehearsal and all went well, but on the day something unexpected happened. We had been placed at the junction of two rooms with adjoining double doors which meant that there was a buttress on each side. Someone had done a beautiful arrangement of flowers and placed it right in the centre of the doorway. No one had allowed for my, by now, rather enormous tummy and between me and the flower arrangement there was not enough room for the Queen to pass. So the flowers stayed put and we were relegated to the second room which was officially designated to the ‘odds and sods’! This really makes me laugh – I don’t know why. The Queen was wonderful, those eyes, so blue, so kind, so warm. I don’t think she noticed my short dress.
After the Queen’s visit we became The Royal Sierra Leone Regiment.
Water and electricity
Both of these commodities were in short supply. Both commodities had poor infrastructure, so when either of them ‘went off’ it was a guess whether it was an official cut out or a breakdown. This is where it was an advantage to be near to Government House. We thought they would get priority if there were any priorities going and we were piggy backing on their supply. Sometimes the cut was for a couple of hours and sometimes it was for a couple of days. On one occasion we had been off electricity for three days when we realized it was a breakdown and needed mending and we should have alerted the PWD (Public Works Department) to get it mended. Whenever the electricity went off in the evening we just used to pick up our uncooked supper and drive round to Dick and Ann. If they were ‘off’ they picked up their supper and we all went to Anita and John’s. This went on until we arrived at the fifth couple. If we got to the fifth couple and they too were cut off we all buckled down to a shared barbecue.
One of the worst days of my life. It hurt to my heart.
We had been without water for a long time, say three days. Initially we had filled up pans and containers and the bath. The water level was already near to the bottom of the bath which we used for cooking, drinking and sterilizing baby bottles. That day I went into the bathroom for a saucepan of water and there was my husband, sitting in the last inch of our precious water. He was covered in orange mud and had just been playing in a rugby match.
Because there were no shipping containers in those days goods were unloaded onto the dockside, then later shifted into warehouses. From there it went to the shops and so on until we got it home into the fridge. We estimated that most of our food had been frozen and part thawed about 7 times before we consumed it. Sometimes certain foods went off the shelves for months, so we could be completely without a commodity. One year the UK had an excessive crop of potatoes. The British Potato Marketing Board then allocated a grant for surplus potato crops that were to be fed to livestock. To distinguish these potatoes from those for domestic consumption the potatoes for livestock were dyed purple. Sadly the Ministry got their sums wrong and dyed too many potatoes purple. So the government in UK had to source lots of potatoes for domestic consumption which they bought from the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands quickly ran out of potatoes. In Sierra Leone we bought our potatoes from the Canary Islands, but as the British Government paid more we did not see another potato for months.** Word got round quickly and within hours of panic buying there was no pasta, no rice, no bread or any farinaceous products in the shop. When a commodity ran out it would take just three months to get another delivery by sea. So when the potatoes became unobtainable that was when I started to make all of our bread and did so for about 20 years until after my husband died.
At last the baby arrived mid January. They had not had a birth in the hospital for 6 years so you can imagine how excited the staff were. They all fussed around me like a class of schoolchildren. Matron, Isabel, was competent and lovely but she was too proud of her hospital to allow the families’ Doctor anywhere near! What was so amazing he did what she demanded of him and he stayed out of the hospital, well certainly out of the maternity Department. Blanche was to look after me during the delivery and I could not have been in better hands. Blanche, a Sierra Leone, was very pregnant with her 6th baby and as she always delivered her own she was good at the job. Omo, which was the name of a well known soap powder, came to be our Nanny and our baby sitter. Omo was so kind, patient and gentle. I was not at my best by now and she was my sanity.
I can remember being in the hospital where there were neither shutters or glass in the windows, only tief wire. There were no staff on at night. I was in this part of the hospital all alone. Feeding the baby in the night I did not feel alone and sometimes I could see a pair of white teeth from the smile of one of the guards passing the window and watching our feed. Guards were something I found threatening and would prefer to have gone without. When Nick was up country I had an armed guard on the house at night. Every hour he used to present arms then march round the house noisily on the wooden balcony. It was excruciatingly frightening.
Marriageable age at last
Although we were legally married in 1959 this was not recognized by the British army who refused to acknowledge marriage for soldiers under 25 years old. Hence our personal poverty and the reason we were in this posting. Nick then had the birthday we had been awaiting for 3 years. Marriage allowance and travel was payable. Wives and families were acknowledged. We were entitled to a home provided by the army. All good. We continued with our now idillic life, a nap after lunch followed by a few hours on the beach with all of our friends. It was the same every day. The sea was glorious and at times the rollers were big. The sun set and we all looked for the green spot as it went down.
As all things come to an end so did our tour. We left the house with the fireplace. We said our farewells to Omo, Kamora the wash boy, Polly (the parrot) and Ali. Ali had been in the ack ack at one time and was hugely proud of it. Ali kindly shinned up the avocado tree and picked me a few fruit to take home to his favorite ‘Blighty’
We said farewell to our loyal friends who so freely gave and took our friendship. We are still in touch 56 years later. We laugh a lot. Often the laughter is triggered by something as simple as a name or a single word. We are down to eight of us now. We started at 10, five couples. These friends came from all over Europe and Africa. We speak on the phone and email each other from time to time – with pictures – and we even had a 55 year reunion last year.
** As a Matter of complete co-incidence Barbara mentions this same potato famine in her blog, BARBARA IN GHANA. At that time, 1960, she lived in Ghana and they too were without potatoes for some considerable time, so it is possible that the the countries on whole of that West African coast were unable to buy potatoes from Madera.