Memories of Post War Bodmin and a strong connection to The Keep

Freda talks to me about her connection to Bodmin Keep

Freda has been a volunteer at Bodmin Keep since 2017 and when I got chatting to her one day she started to tell me what drew her to the museum…

Freda has a strong connection to The Keep and feels it whenever she is there. As a young girl her mum used to say that the soldier embodied in the war memorial was her grandfather… so as a little girl in Bodmin she would always glance up and think it was her Granddad.

Freda, a child of the Blitz was born at St Mary’s in West London, she remembers playing on the bomb sites and picking up bits of shrapnel-like they were precious jewels.

She still has her London accent but it’s now tinged with a good dollop of Cornish twang! Having lived here and raised her own family here, she’s as much of a Cornish gal as ever there was.

Freda explains “My dad was born in Bloemfontein in South Africa, because his father (my Grandfather) was in the DCLI and was fighting in the Boer War. I believe he was Company Serjeant Major.”

Freda’s Grandfather was a Londoner, living in Fulham at the time when he signed up.  He was then sent to Cornwall and billeted in Bodmin where, as a newly recruited soldier with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, he caught the eye of a local Bodmin girl – Freda’s Gran. He was soon sent to Bermuda with the DCLI and this is where Freda’s Gran surprised everyone and showed such strength and courage in Freda’s eyes…

Although she was a small-town country girl from Cornwall who had probably not travelled very much at all, so in love was she with her new beau that she followed him to Bermuda to be married . “One of the original brides of the DCLI soldiers!” Her friend had also fallen for a soldier on the same posting so they travelled together to a new exotic land – far from Cornwall.

“All gran took with her was a portmanteau suitcase and a sewing machine, and went off to Bermuda to get married! For a young woman from Bodmin, who’d never been anywhere this must have taken some courage!” Freda explains.

It was soon after, when she was pregnant with Freda’s father, that her new husband (Freda’s Granddad) was posted to South Africa as the Boer War had started.  It was in South Africa that her Dad was born – a baby born of the Boer War.

After the Boer War and now in his thirties, he returned back to Cornwall.  He had served his time but when The Great War broke out he enlisted again and signed right up at Bodmin Keep! As an officer he was out on the front line but this time sadly he was never to return to Cornwall; he was 37 when he died at Passchendaele.

A fascinating twist of this story is that although Freda’s father was a Londoner, his own mother was German! Freda’s Great Grandmother Charlotte was 19 years old when she came to England to marry a widower. They had 4 sons (one of them being Freda’s Grandfather). So, this German woman was then to send all 4 sons off to war to fight the Germans, and to have only 1 return. All three sons, half German, died in WW1 fighting the Germans, one of which was Freda’s Grandfather.

And to add insult to injury, Freda’s Great Grandmother was never granted British citizenship, even though she sent 4 boys to war.  The King wrote to her commending her but still didn’t grant her citizenship. I asked if she was bitter about this at all, Freda doesn’t know but says she looks stern in all the photo’s she has of her, “She’s definitely not smiling in the photos!”

“She was only 19 when she came here, and there are German origins in all our names… Frederick is a strong name in our family. It must have been devastating for her to send four sons off to war and have only one boy came back – my great uncle. My Grandfather died, he fell at Passchendaele and left 2 boys. And in WW2 my Dad’s younger brother went to India and died of malaria”.

After WW1 life got back to normal and Freda’s father, now a grown man himself, was working as a manager in the Home and Colonial Grocers in Bodmin.  When an opportunity for transfer to London came up, he took it and off he went. He volunteered as a fireman when war broke out and Freda was born during The Blitz.

Freda remembers her father telling her about the time when, as a fireman during the Operation Overlord, he was part of a top-secret mission to go to Portsmouth.. “He wasn’t told why, he just had to be there with his truck along with all the other services and wait for instructions. I guess because the Normandy landings were a success, they didn’t actually have to do anything further, they were there as back-up, just in case.”   

A Strong Cornwall Connection.

Freda was born near Paddington, a west end girl, and as a child in London, she remembers playing on the bomb sites. “We lived in a cramped house with the whole family living on top of each other. It was just normal life in London during and post war, we were too young to really understand it all”.  But when she was 11, after her Gran had a stroke, Freda’s Dad took the opportunity to get a better life in Cornwall with his family, and look after his Mother back in Bodmin. So they all packed their life up and moved South West into St Nicholas Street in Bodmin with Freda’s Gran and her great uncle.

“I guess for our Father – he was bringing his family ‘home”.

It was a difficult transition for Freda’s Mum who took a job as a nurse at St Lawrence’s psychiatric hospital working night shifts and her husband now working as a postman.  She was exhausted and away from everything she knew, with a disabled old lady to look after during the day.  “It was tough for her.” Freda remembers. 

Bodmin Life

I ask Freda what Bodmin was like back then…

“I remember the soldiers – it was the county town, so quite grand with wide streets beautiful buildings.  Every way into the town felt grand and very special, you had The Barracks at the Lostwithiel end and all the big Victorian houses lining the street, all well maintained and looked after. You had the square and the Town Hall, always buzzing with judges in their robes on court days. And at the Launceston end there was the big church of St Petroc’s as you got down the hill. And at the St Austell end… you entered to the old asylum, which was where Mum worked and was in itself a beautiful old building. It made for quite a grand entrance to the town whichever way you came into it.”

So, coming from London,  Freda remembers Bodmin as beautiful and vibrant. “It was a High-class town with wonderful shops like double fronted haberdasheries. There were trains from Wadebridge, and a big posh hotel in the middle called The Royal Hotel.”

Freda remembers watching the regular parades from The barracks.. 

“If there was a big ceremony or something, there would be a parade from the barracks , and on 11th November  every year there would be a massive parade with all the dignitaries, the RAF would come from Newquay and Culdrose they would all come to Bodmin!”

“We would stand outside our house at St Nicholas street, and watch the soldiers march down. The DCLI do a quick march, and the boots would make such a noise, and mum and me would worry that they would slip – they never did though!”

Freda lived in Bodmin from the age of 11 to 23 years, that’s when she remembers the soldiers. “They were a big part of the community!”, she explains that the soldiers would be in all the pubs, and at the weekly dances.

“There were 17 pubs in Bodmin back then, and a cinema, working men’s clubs, the Garrison Town was a real social hub! The Duke of Cornwall’s pub was down by the church, we have the stained glass in the museum”.

Freda had a much broader accent back then, so she felt that she stuck out like sore thumb amongst her Cornish school mates. Her brother who was a bit younger seemed to gel easier at school. “But for me it was harder, people would think I was a Cockney and Mum (originally from Durham) had her Geordie accent, so we never really fitted in. We’d be crying and missing Portobello Road, as we used to go there all day on a Saturday. So on Saturdays in Bodmin, we’d think about everyone in Portobello having a right old time and then be so sad! I loved to come to Bodmin on holiday, but I did not want to live here – I missed London so much!”

School was difficult for Freda, as she left a brand new school in London with all its modern conveniences; electricity and glass and then to be moved out to Cornwall and to a church school in Bodmin which had gas lights, a pot belly stove, parquet flooring and folk dancing! To a young forward-thinking Freda, from London, this all felt a little backwards. 

Freda tells me that it all changed when she became a nurse, “I started to love Bodmin, I made lovely new friends at the hospital” and with her new independence and wages she could get the train up to London whenever she fancied. “I’d go up on the train, and stay with Aunty, we’d go to jazz clubs, ban the bomb marches… then come home on the Sunday or Monday… and go straight to work. We’d turn a few heads with the clothes we’d come back to Bodmin in as we were able to get all the latest fashions!”

Connections to The Keep

Each time I chat to Freda, I’m always so interested in her connection to Bodmin Keep, so she explains…

“Gran Fenn, the one who went to Bermuda, and then South Africa is who I feel a strong link too, and I have a strong pull to the Barracks because it being such a large part of her life; and that of her husband, sons and brother.

She once told me that the soldier on the war memorial was my Granddad – she’d say “he modelled for that”, so, I believed her! And even now when I pass the monument, I look up and I think of him.  

“The barracks has always pulled me… and as I’ve got more time now, I thought I’d offer to volunteer. There’s a picture of my Granddad in one of the old photographs here somewhere, I feel close to them all, whenever I’m here.”

Freda is a published Author and also writes poetry, she writes about anything and finds the process incredibly cathartic and addictive. She’s written a poem about her beloved Gran, the lady she feels so connected to… 

My Gran.

A poem by Freda Ely

When I want to cry and feel sorry for myself, I only have to think of my beloved Gran,

In an age when stoicism and getting on with it, was all part of life’s daily plan,

Now, when world travel is so easy, and we think it was ever thus,

It’s hard to imagine that in her day, it was not taken for granted like us,

So, her journey to the isle of Bermuda to marry her handsome officer beau,

Were brave for a timid young woman a small Cornish town was all she knew,

Marriage and the birth of her young children,

Two healthy boys she was rightly proud,

Seems to foretell a life of peace and contentment,

No indication of the future’s black clouds,

Her world must have surely have shattered when the war to end all wars invaded her life,

When her darling Frederick was killed in Belgium,

Like so many she was a widow, no more a devoted wife,

If that wasn’t enough her youngest son Berkley,

Was to die in another world conflict, far away in India and again no grave to visit,

For much needed solace and comfort,

And so her life took on a pattern,

Her only son making his way in London town,

Caring for her invalid brother was to be her lot,

Yet it never seemed to get her down,

Her church was her greatest comfort, and I went with her whenever I could on our regular trips to Cornwall to see Gran,

Memories still in my mind happily flood,

Then yet again, fate was to deal her a cruel and brutal blow, as infirmity held her in its grip, a dense stroke was to render her paralysed and speechless, bed ridden and only able to sip,

For many long years she endured this torment, the loss of dignity and all she held dear, it broke my heart to see her suffer so, her eyes full of frustration, sadness and fear,

Finally, it was over, peace at last for this dear lady arrived. Is she with her husband and boys now?

I can only hope, so many tears for her I have cried.

So yes, when I feel fed up and hard done by, I have only to think of my dear Gran.

Suffering and misery, I know nothing of it, I’ve been dealt a cushioned and much gentler hand.

Freda And Linda collecting the Cornwall Heritage Award we won for Heritage Hero.
Freda And Linda collecting the Cornwall Heritage Award we won for Heritage Heroes earlier this year.