Holiday in Bournemouth, 1946

A Cockney voice from just along the row said: “Not exacdy the crahn jewels, are they?” The jewels’ in question were a pair of very basic
cufflinks stamped out of some dubious-looking yellow metal – all part of the civilian kit being handed to each one of us in the middle of 1946 by a grateful government for our years of service in His Majesty’s armed forces.

There was a suit, which in spite of the music hall jokes was of good quality and fitted reasonably well. Looking at the size and shape of young men today, it’s difficult to realise that we were of average size and weight of the time, nearly all between eight and nine stone.

Then there were shirts, socks and a tie, and finally a smart trilby hat in either blue or grey. Since then I have heard ex-servicemen say that instead of the tie and trilby they were offered a silk muffler and a flat cap, which might be fact, but I didn’t see anyone so attired.

Like many others in that group I’d returned from service in South-East Asia the previous year and married the girl who had waited for me through those long, anxious years. Being shunted around this country to various camps, we had spent very little time together, and as we were now keen to make up for lost time we booked a holiday.

We were both very unworldly in these matters, neither of us having gone on holiday since our early teens, and even then with parents who had made all the arrangements.

We booked at what was described as “a small family-run private hotel” in Bournemouth. This proved to be a very grandiose description for a rather run-down place which had almost certainly been closed down during the war years.

The train journey would have been described today as horrendous, and would probably have made the national press, with demands for the resignation of whoever was running the outfit. We didn’t even comment as we sat on our cases in the train corridor for hours without a drink or a bite to eat.

The country and its people were in a strange mood in 1946. We had won the war and gained the thanks of the free world, and although Winston Churchill was no longer our prime minister, he was revered as the most important man on the planet. The euphoria of victory had passed, the men were home or on their way home, and everyone was talking about getting back to normal. The problem was, what did ‘normal’ mean?

We arrived in Bournemouth, my wife looking wonderful in an outfit of grey which must have taken all the clothing coupons she could lay hands on, and no doubt contributions from parents and even friends. I was wearing the demob suit. By today’s ideas it would seem to weigh a ton, being of solid worsted wool, but after five years in heavy serge uniform it felt strange indeed. I remember a long time after this General Eisenhower retiring from the Army and saying that wearing civilian clothes felt like walking out in pyjamas. I know just how he felt!

Reaching our hotel, we were shown to a room so high up we were sure we higher than the seagulls. Even by wartime standards the portions of food were small, and being vigorous young people we were constantly hungry. Straight after an apology for a breakfast we made for the British Restaurant and tucked into fish and chips or whatever was going.

Like everywhere else Bournemouth still had barbed wire and anti-tank obstacles along the beach, so swimming in the sea, even if it had been warm enough, wasn’t possible. Nothing daunted, I went along to the local swimming pool and my wife sat up in the visitors’ seats to admire my prowess. I had no swimming costume so I hired one, and when I took to the water she hid behind the seat in sheer embarrassment. The costume was just like those on Edwardian seaside postcards, and emblazoned across my bottom in huge letters was the legend ‘Property of Bournemouth Corporation’.

The weather was kind, and we enjoyed the holiday, getting to know each other after such brief times together until then. We found a mutual love of live theatre and went to see See How They Run, which still pops up in rep and amateur to this day.

It’s sad to think that many marriages fell apart at this stage, but we left Bournemouth convinced our choice was right and that we could make a go of things. We are still together more than 50 years after that holiday on the English South Coast.

Dennis Sheward