This is Melanie Bassett recording for the War Widows Stories Project. It’s 11th June 2019. I’m here with Tracey Penfold-Green. Tracey, could you tell me your age and what you do currently?
Okay. I’m nearly 59. My name is Tracey, and at the moment I’m volunteering for different things. I took early retirement from the University of Portsmouth two and a half years ago to help look after my elderly mother, who is now not with us, and I’m now doing other things; a little bit of travelling, a bit of volunteering and catching people I haven’t seen for quite a few years. So it’s quite nice, actually, having a different focus on things.
Do you want to tell me what you volunteer for at the moment, the sort of things you’re up to?
Yes. Last year, I did the Poppies. The Poppies Wave up at Fort Nelson, which was great fun, and since then we’ve formed a little group where we meet up regularly and have coffee and talk about things, and then sign up for future volunteering, which is what we have just done and what we’re about to start on something else at Fort Nelson, about helping local lonely and isolated people get together. So that’s really, really nice, that is, being involved in that. Also, I’ve just been volunteering with the D-Day 75, down in Portsmouth, so that was great. This morning was the wash-up meeting for that. So yes, that was really satisfying. Yes, pretty good.
Brilliant, thank you. Could you tell me about your childhood and early life? Where did you grow up and a bit about your family?
I was born, with my sister, in Newbury, in Berkshire, in 1960. Just my sister and I. My dad was an engineer, a TV engineer, very busy. Mum was working as well. We only lived there for three years and then we moved up to Newcastle upon Tyne, into a new house, and my dad had another engineering job, which was a promotion. We were there about 10 years, so we started school up there. We got to know quite a few people and then we moved again to … That was Newcastle on Tyne, and then we moved down to Solihull, West Midlands for two years when my dad was promoted again as an engineer with a different company. So we started another school, then. Started senior school there at age 11. We only did a year there and then we moved again up to Runcorn in the North West, near Liverpool. We did 18 months there. That was okay but some of the areas we were in, we didn’t really enjoy. Some of the people we were at school with were difficult to get on with. We felt out of it a little bit because my sister and I didn’t have an accent the same as them. So they all had North West accents, from Liverpool, and we didn’t, so we didn’t really feel like we fitted in. So in order to fit in, we almost adopted their accents, really. So we were there 18 months/two years, and then we moved to Lichfield, and that was in 1973 when I was 13/14. I went to a local school there for the last five years. Then I left there and joined the WRNS.
So it was a very … It was a happy childhood but it was very busy. My sister and I went to six or seven different schools, so it was difficult, but we didn’t know any different because we didn’t have anything to compare it to. We just knew that we knew lots of people. But it was … Yeah, it was interesting, and I think from that it has made us very adaptable; to get used to all sorts of different situations. There isn’t much that comes as a shock, really, when you’re getting to know people and you know you have to … If you’re in a new area, you have to go out and make an effort to do things and to get to know people. So that’s what we’ve always done. That’s probably why I joined the WRNS in a way, I wanted to travel a bit more and see different places, and be a bit more independent. But not … I didn’t have enough confidence to backpack or anything like that, which was probably quite unusual in the late ’70s, so I decided to join the WRNS.
How did you become aware of the WRNS? Was there a recruitment thing?
I think my dad was in the army at the end of the war, and my mum always said that she wished she’d joined the Land Army or the WRENS or something, but she didn’t get round to it, then she didn’t have time as she was helping family. I think the seed was sown then, and it just looked really quite exciting so I thought I’d go for it, and I joined when I was 18. Yeah, I loved it!
Can you tell me a bit about your time in the WRENS?
Yes. I joined at 18, did the training down in Reading and in then in Chatham, then my first job was over in HMS Collingwood in Fareham not far from here. I did 18 months there and loved it. I think I liked it because it was organised and not necessarily disciplined, but I didn’t have a problem with the discipline because we’d always been brought up like that, I suppose. I didn’t really have any problems with the rules; it was quite nice that you knew things were being managed properly. I enjoyed wearing the uniform, I enjoyed the time on parade and the divisions, and the different things we could do, and the travelling that we could do from that. We could go out for day trips and there were all sorts of clubs we could join for free if we wanted to. I did lots of swimming with the Navy.
Yeah, there were more opportunities, I think, than if I’d stayed in Lichfield. I think because I was always used to living in different places, I wasn’t … I didn’t want to stay in the Midlands; I wanted to be by the sea. I think that’s maybe inherent, because Mum and Dad always loved being by the sea, even though they ended up in the Midlands. I think, yes, being by the sea was one of the things that I wanted to do, and that’s what I did. After then, I went to the Ministry of Defence in London, worked there for two years, then I went back down to Portsmouth for six months and then off to Hong Kong when I was 22, went off to Hong Kong. It was really scary because I flew on my own; there were some other navy people on the plane but I didn’t know anybody, so that was really hard. I’d always wanted to go there but when I got there, I thought, I don’t know if I wanted to be there. I was feeling pretty homesick. But it didn’t take long to settle down and get to know people. So yes, it was pretty good.
Did you go out and explore? Were you in a billet or anything?
We were in WRNS quarters. We worked and lived in the same block, and we went out to explore, yes. We did lots of that, lots of shopping, and lots of walking around and bus trips and things. Nothing really organised but as a group, we made our own … Did lots of sports, lots of open days and things and swimming events and team sports. So yeah, it was pretty good. Yes. I enjoyed wearing the summer uniform out there, the tropical uniform. All white, that was nice. You got a nice tan as well, before we knew about sun cream, really. We didn’t see it as an important factor in catching the sun, putting sun cream on first at all. You don’t think about it in your 20s. Yes, got burnt a few times but yeah, it was a pretty humid climate there, in the August/September/October – well, July as well, it was nearly 100 per cent humidity and probably 30/35 degrees as well. So pretty hard work if you had to do any work outside or parade work, you know. You were expected to sustain that without any problem. So yeah, some areas could have been a bit tough, I think, but you just get used to it, I suppose.
What was your rank at the time?
Leading Wren out there, and worked in the JSIS Department, which was the Intelligence area. Yes. Just as admin. Yeah, it was pretty interesting, yes. And that was a tri-service job, so it was nice to meet people from the RAF and the army, and the girls. So I worked with a whole different type of … a whole range of people, some civilians as well. Yes, it was really interesting and we had some good times, yes. We had some good parties and things, yes, some nice times. Some of the girls we met, and some of the guys, I’m still friends with now after all these years; that’s like 30-odd years, 35 years. So I think when you make friends there, when you’re living with people like that, they’re lifelong friends because you’ve been through so much together. Yes, pretty good. And that’s where I met my husband. Within three weeks of being there, we met. I think I’ve got some photos somewhere, I think.
We’ll look them out in a minute, yeah, brilliant. So tell me about your first meeting.
Right. I think it was in the bar, I think. I thought ‘he looks quite nice.’ Then we just started talking and we got on pretty well, and we started going out, doing things, visiting the different islands for picnics. And going for a few drinks and going for meals out together, so yes, it was nice. But then he left. He was due to move on within, I think, a few months, so he left before me and I had another year out there. So we were writing every week, and there were no emails or nothing, only letters; the blue letters. Then we carried on when I got back.
So was he on a ship?
Yes, he was on … He left there and went to a ship, then when I came back he was in Plymouth on a ships still. Then I came back and went to the Ministry of Defence, then he was at an office quite near, for a shore job for a couple of years, which was good. Then we bought a flat together outside London, then we got married in 1988, and that was like five years, was it? Yes, five years after we met.
Were there any restrictions on dating while you were in the WRNS or were they quite liberal with that?
They were okay with that. Yes, they were okay with that. I think it was frowned upon if you were going to go out with an officer, I think. I think it was frowned upon a bit. But yes, it was fine. But then it was different if you were thinking about getting engaged or married. Then, the rules were that you had to leave if you were getting married. I was due to leave anyway at the end of my nine years in 1987, which is what I did because I wanted to do other things. We got married in 1988, which was when he went for a commission at Dartmouth and we thought we would just confirm things, because it was easier being married in the Navy. So that’s what we did in 1988 and then we didn’t … We had our own place so it didn’t really make any difference, really, it just meant that in those days, it was easier to me ‘Mrs’ rather than ‘Miss’ in certain situations with the Navy, which was what we were going to do anyway. So yes, and it was quite nice, a nice, normal life, because I left the WRNS then I was working in London, temping, and then working for the Grosvenor Estate, that was in Mayfair. That was pretty good, I worked there for four years. So we had a pretty good life, I think. Lots of theatre and he was at home some of the time, then he was away some of the time as well. So we were used to doing stuff apart and stuff together. And I was used to running the house, anyway, when he was away. Yeah, we had a pretty good life, I think. South London; going out in London and doing trips and things, and seeing our friends all over the country, really, and a bit of travelling. There was nothing mundane. Each weekend we’d be doing something different, so yeah, it was pretty good. We didn’t think about kids at that time.
Can you tell me about your wedding day?
Oh yes. Yes, that was … Because we were living in South Croydon at that time, and no family lived near us, so we got married in Newborough. His family came from Derby and my family lived in Lichfield, which coincidentally is only like half an hour apart, and we’d met in Hong Kong, so that was … Maybe that’s one of the things that got us together, because he lived in Derby and I lived in Lichfield. So we got married near his mother’s farm in Staffordshire. In fact, we got married in a local church near there and had the reception at his mother’s farm, which was lovely. We had a marquee, and some music, and some food, it was lovely. Yeah, it was lovely. Very nice day, it was.
Did you honeymoon anywhere?
Yes. We went to Portugal for a couple of weeks after, I think it was a couple of weeks. More or less straight after, yes. It was lovely. Then we came back and went back to work. I think he went to sea. But it was … yeah, it was alright. Pretty good. Didn’t feel much different really, because we already had a flat then we bought a house in 1990, so it didn’t really feel much different.
You weren’t living on base or anything like that?
No, we had our own flat, then we had a house, and then he went for officer in 1998, then he went to sea for a little bit. But after that he didn’t need to go to sea because of the branch that he was in, which was pretty good. What was his first job …? Down in the dockyard somewhere, in Communications and things. Then a little bit of time at sea, when the first ladies were going to sea, from the Navy, he was involved in that on his first ship. Not his first ship, but one of the ships he was on. The ladies were starting to go to sea and there was all that integration, and that was a difficult time, I think, for the ladies and the guys then. Yeah, trying to work together and things; very different.
How did you feel about it as a Wren, a former Wren; their going to sea for the first time?
Well, the WRNS were disbanded anyway, because of quality and the woman were integrated into the Navy, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to make the choice, really [laughs], about whether to go to sea or not. Some of the ladies I knew did go to sea and some of them didn’t. But it did make a difference to your promotion if you didn’t go to sea, which is understandable, but then it would have been difficult to get promoted and go to sea. To have not been to sea and then go to sea as a Petty Officer, not having had the experience of going to sea, it would have been very difficult, I think. I’m glad I didn’t have to think about that. [Laughs] I think after my nine years, I’d had enough, really. I just wanted to do other things.
Can we talk about your career at that time? You were at the Grosvenor Estate?
The Grosvenor Estate, yes. I started off temping for a construction company. It was full-time. It was always full time, and that was in London, in the city for a bit. So it was busy, in the late 80s, very busy; commuting an hour each way. You know, you didn’t think about it, you just did it. I did it all then, you know, running a house, and working full-time, then we’d go away at weekends and things, then we had a car; very busy, really. But then, it’s not as busy until you have children, not busy at all. Yeah, it was a pretty good life. I was fine, doing a different role. I found that being “outside,” as you might call it, and not in the Navy, not in the WRNS, you were treated more as a grown up. Definitely treated more as a grown up than in the Navy, because it was always “them and us” with the officers and other ratings in there, in the WRNS and in the Navy, it was … Yeah, we were treated really well actually, in the jobs I had, with much more respect, and I was listened to. So I didn’t have a problem integrating into civilian life because I think my last job in the Ministry of Defence was quite similar to that anyway. We didn’t wear uniform and I didn’t live in an [shore] establishment so it was quite easy to transfer, really. There wasn’t much help, really. We had, I think a day’s course to help you write a CV and that was it. We didn’t have anything else. I mean, now, they get hundreds of pounds for what they call ‘resettlement.’ But I think it’s a very different world now, when you’re in the Navy and then you leave. It’s very different now, because a lot of them are at sea a lot more than they were then, really. You know, you’re expected to just go … Well, you were then but I think expectations now of what you want to do are different to then. You just did it then, but I think just people shout about it more now, I think. [Laughs] Because there’s more choice, a lot more choice now of different things you can do. Yeah, I think it’s a lot different.
Can I ask you about starting a family? At what point did you decide to have your son?
Yes. We’d been talking about it but we were both working full-time, and then we thought ‘hmm, not sure we’re quite ready yet.’ But I don’t know whether you ever are ready. But then when he got offered a chance to go to Washington DC, we thought well, maybe it’s a good time to start thinking about it. So we thought about it, and then we sold our house. That was a really, really stressful time because I was still working full-time; he was away at sea. I was selling the house and trying to finish everything, get things ready for going to Washington, and that was, yeah, that was really hard-going as we had to get removal, we had to have a storage facility as well. I mean, they helped you arrange it, but I had to do all the paperwork and stuff, but selling the house and working full-time. So it was really hard. Quite a stressful time.
But we did it, sold the house okay with no problems and we went to the States in ’92, August ’92. He worked in the Pentagon for the Communications Committee, which was really interesting for him. He had an English boss but it was tri-service and it was US/UK as well, and some people from Canada and Australia as well, all in the same department. So it was really a mixture of people in all different services as well. So I met some of them, met some of their families as well. It was like an ex-pat life, really, out there for two, two-and-a-bit years, I think. I mean, it was difficult. It was hard because I was at home, then James was born the next May. We were there from August/September and he was born the next May, which was a bit sooner than we thought might happen but you can’t really plan everything. But yeah, that was difficult because Mum and Dad were miles away. But luckily, they were retired so they could come out. They came out just before and then just after, which was great, just after James was born, so that was really helpful. I did find it really hard, actually, because I didn’t really know people that well yet. But yeah, I really enjoyed it. Everyone was so friendly, but it was still quite hard-going having a baby and not being near family, so yeah, hard for both of us, really.
What was your support network like over there?
There? Over there? Well, only the other naval wives, really. A couple of them were nurses and there was one health visitor as well, and local neighbours. They were pretty good, but not … I didn’t have any close friends there, so that was quite hard-going really. Then when James was three months old, I came back here to visit for three or four weeks, so that was useful. That was really nice, that, to see my sister. It was lovely. So that was good; to show him round the family and everything. Then we had quite a lot of visitors over the two years there, we had a big enough house to cater for that as well, so it was a busy time. Driving out there as well, that was interesting, because I had the car and my husband used to get the bus into work, so that was great. I had the car; that was great. Otherwise, I would have felt really cut off, I think, especially having a new baby because where we lived, there were no pavements and it was just easier having a car. I probably would have had to get another car, I think. Yeah. No, it was pretty good. Yeah, and it was nice having family to come out. My sister came out for about three weeks and we had some friends out. We did quite a bit of travelling, but it took longer to travel with a baby, yes. It was difficult, flying, because he always seemed to be travel sick as well, so that was really difficult. I think we would have done more travelling if he wasn’t so travel sick, so that was quite hard. He’s still travel sick now, and he’s 25.
Could you say anything, just generally, about the social life you had as a Navy wife, when you were in the UK as well? Did you go to the mess do’s?
Yes, we did, before we went to Washington, but we only went to a couple because we lived in London, South London. So we didn’t get to go to many there. But we did travel down to Portsmouth where the ship was based and we did go to a few mess dinners and things, and a couple of Trafalgar nights or something like that. In Washington, they had a few things, we had a lot of barbecues and barbecues from US people, so a lot of that as a naval wife, with the US Navy as well. So that was good. Not too much formal stuff, really, which was great. He did more on his own with the guys; he probably did more of that. They did a bit of travelling with their job, and I managed to go too before James was born, which was good, over to San Diego two or three times. Then I think he went to Boston, then he went to Australia and New Zealand, but James was a few months old then so I didn’t go. That would have been too difficult to go. But I probably would have gone if we didn’t have James.
So that was hard going because he was away for James’s 1st birthday. That was hard going that was. And I was due to fly home on one of the Service flights but the plane went wrong so I couldn’t actually get home for three days, so I had to come back to my house, which was empty, then get ready again then get another lift out to the airport to get on the next plane, so that was hard going, that was. Then over James’s 1st birthday, that was really hard. I really missed everybody then, because the whole idea was to go home for James’s 1st birthday but I didn’t actually get home until … But luckily, he didn’t realise because he was only 1, but that was hard going, that sort of thing. It makes you really adaptable and you know, you need a bit of strength to get through that, especially when they’re travel sick as well.
So yeah, that was hard going, I think we went through all his clothes that time, but it was nice to get home and get the support. But there was no … You know, I thought ‘a few weeks here and then come home.’ There was no thought of staying there and not going back. Because I think I felt a bit of a duty to come back, you know, because that was what I was supposed to do. So it was probably a bit of that, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the weather and my lovely big house. But we were renting, for the same price as a married quarter, so it was nice, had a nice garden. I got out and about so it was quite a nice life to have, really.
Was he doing any classified work? Were there things you weren’t allowed to know about or was it generally quite …?
Yes, he was doing a little bit of stuff like that, so I didn’t know everything that he did, which is fair enough. I understood that because when I was in, I was doing stuff like that as well. I think that it was easier, because I was in the Navy as well, it’s easier for me to understand what they’re doing and why they have to go away. I felt sorry for some wives who didn’t really understand the life, who were civilian so they didn’t really understand why they had to go away and go away at short notice. Yes, there isn’t much that can prepare you for that, really, unless you’ve been in it. Then, because he was in the first Gulf War, I forgot to mention that, on Gloucester, yeah, which was quite involved, really. But I was never worried, I don’t know. I was never worried about that, because I just thought ‘oh, he’ll be home.’ And he was, it was fine. They had a little bit of combat on their ship, and I was working in London at that time, so what you saw on the news … We saw it on the news before we heard anything. So that was hard, really.
Did you have any conversations about preparations for the worst or …?
Yes, he had to make a will before he went to the Gulf War as he didn’t have one before, so we both made one then. That’s when we had our house anyway so it made sense really to make it all formal and make sure it was in place. But I think we just went with it, you didn’t think anything would go wrong, necessarily, but I’m glad we did wills then at the start of that, when we first bought the house. That’s about when he went to the Gulf anyway, so 1991. We were supposed to go on holiday to Dubai but then they were called to war so we couldn’t go, but I understood that, really. Some other ladies didn’t but I did so it was fine.
How were the communications at that time? Did you get to speak to him regularly?
No, no, not at all, no. Sometimes it was a snatched phone call in the middle of the night or a quick 5-minute call first thing in the morning. We just didn’t know when it was going to happen, when you were going to get a call. I think I had a call at work, because there were no mobile phones then, no emails. They had letters periodically and we wrote/ I sort of wrote as much as I could, but then they’d get letters all in one go or we’d get letters all in one go, three or four at a time. That was lovely to receive that when you got home from work; a lovely blue air mail envelope. But whatever he was saying, we knew what they’d been doing from the news, more or less anyway, so a lot of it was already old news by the time we got it, although he didn’t put anything in there that was classified. Yeah, that was good. There were good times. Then when he got home from the Gulf War, all the family came down to Croydon, then we all went down to Portsmouth to wave the ship in, so that was really nice. Then we all drove back to Croydon. Some of his family hired a coach, and everybody went down on a coach. My mum made ‘Welcome Home’ placards that we had across the front of the house, and we had a big buffet, and I was doing the food for that before, and family was staying. Yes, that was pretty good. Somebody from the family videoed it, we’ve still got that somewhere, I think.
It must have been relief more than anything as well.
It was, yes. It was. Then I think we had a week’s holiday or something, and when I went back to work, everybody clapped when I came in. It was quite nice, actually. Yeah, and I wasn’t worried. It’s funny, some people at work were worried for me but I wasn’t because I just thought ‘no, it’s going to be fine.’
I suppose they’re slightly removed from the frontline as well, aren’t they, in that way? They are doing the bombardment, or serving on an aircraft carrier.
Yes. It was very different to the Falklands, thank God. And they’d learned so many lessons in the Falklands that they were far more prepared then if anything went wrong. I’m so glad he wasn’t involved in the … Well, I didn’t know him then, and he wasn’t involved in that so …
Can you tell me, Tracey, about the circumstances that led to your husband’s death?
Okay. It was a normal day in December and I’d taken James to school. We lived in married quarters over in Drayton at that time. I’d taken him to school, came back and I had my hair done at lunchtime down in Cosham, then I went to pick him up at 3pm. My friend that I usually went with to pick him up was at home, and my other friend met me, and we went to pick up the children. I thought she was being a bit odd, but anyway, I came home and got in the door with James, then the front doorbell rang and I went to the door. And there was the Captain in full uniform and a padre from the local … A naval padre. And then I knew immediately what had happened. So I invited them in and sat down, then I rang my friend, my close friend, Kate, and she came along to take care of James. She took James away to her house for some tea. Then they told me that he’d collapsed and died onboard ship. It was in the English Channel, they were just starting some … I think some exercises or something. It was about 11:30am when it had happened and they were off Plymouth, I think they’d scrambled a helicopter and took him to Derriford Hospital but were unable to save him. He’d had a massive cardiac … A massive heart attack. And we were not sure … We don’t know why, really.
I don’t know whether he was particularly stressed with the job he was doing or what. I know they were doing some exercises, but they couldn’t save him. It was just … First of all, I got angry because I thought what’s happened? Has somebody attacked him? You know, your mind goes haywire. I just didn’t know what was … How to react really. It was unbelievable; I didn’t believe it to start with. Then I was getting angry, I said, “What’s happened?” They said, “We’re going to look after you.” I said, “I don’t want to be looked after. I don’t want to be looked after, I just want him back. It must be … it can’t be him.” I was saying, “It can’t be him, surely.” He wasn’t ill. He wasn’t ill – there was nothing wrong with him. Then Kate came back so she was there and she made some tea for the guys. She’d left James with her husband or whatever. But what I didn’t know then was that they knew before me because of the signalling traffic that had come into the ships, and where Kate’s husband was working at the dockyard. He’d been close to Trevor and he’d heard about the signal coming in. Then my friend Sue who worked in HMS Nelson who dealt with casualties and things happening, she’d seen it too, and she knew us both.
So all the people I knew in the school playground … A lot of them knew, too. My poor friend, Sue, had to walk up the hill with me knowing that I was going to go home and have these people at the door within a few minutes of getting home. Because they did try and knock at the door at 3 o’clock, but I was down at the school then, so there must have been some neighbours who had seen them as well. But they got back in their car and then waited until I got home, and that was about half past three. It was just … [Pause]. It just feels like yesterday, talking about this now, it just feels like yesterday. So James had some tea at Kate’s with her husband and the kids. That was good, because he was really good friends with their children, then he came back … [Sniffs]. Kate was stood there … [Pause]. Then I had to tell James that his dad wasn’t coming back, that he’d been hurt. He took it really well. His age, he was just 4 and a half. [Sobs].
[Interview pauses and resumes]
Can I ask you, Tracey, what support you had and advice you had from the Navy? Did the padre and captain offer you any direction when they were at your house?
Yeah, they were pretty helpful. Because I was just really concerned about what happens. Does everything stop? What do we do about the house? I was starting to panic, and this was just like an hour after I’ve been told. I didn’t know what to do. And the padre said, “Oh, his pay will stop,” and I was starting to panic a bit then. But I found out soon after that it didn’t actually stop; we did have his pay for a few months after that. Because I was thinking ‘how am I going to pay the rent, the married quarters rent? What do we do about staying in the house? Can we stay in the house?’ There were so many unanswered questions that you’re thinking about when you should be thinking about you’d just lost your husband, and not the practicalities.
So that was … Everything was just jumbled up in your mind. I didn’t really know what to do but they said I’d be okay and I would probably be getting his pension, because he wouldn’t be here to have it so I would have it as a dependent. But I didn’t know what that would be or whatever, so I felt a little bit better, I think, with reassurances. They said that somebody would come round from the bereavement team and talk to me about what was going to happen, then about the funeral and stuff. But you just don’t know what to … Don’t know what to think, really, on the first day. Well, the priority was, really, to tell James and [pause] hopefully it would sort of sink in, what had happened. I don’t think he realised … He didn’t realise for a few days, and I didn’t tell him that he wouldn’t be coming back. I just said that he was ill and he’s, you know, he’s died. He didn’t really. At four, at 4 and a half, he wouldn’t have. He wasn’t able to grasp anything more than that. I had to try and stop myself thinking about how it would affect him because that was tearing me up. So I was trying to think about the practical things, really, to sort of get me through.
My neighbours and friends were so helpful. Everyone was coming round, just turning up, which was lovely, because some people maybe are not able to do that, but I think all of my friends did, which was lovely. My mum and dad … The captain and the padre had said, “Who can we phone?” So I said, “My mum and dad,” and I phoned my dad. This was about half-an-hour after, because they said, “You need to phone, you need to start letting people know before any news gets out.” So I phoned my dad. And my mum was out in the garage, because I said to him, “Where is she?” He said, “She’s out in the garage,” and I told him what had happened and he didn’t believe me, he didn’t believe me at the start, so I gave the phone to the captain and he told him, or the padre – one of them – and he told him. But then Dad thought the same as me, that somebody had attacked him or something, or some sort of fight had broken out. We just couldn’t believe that he’d had a heart attack and had died on the ship. We just couldn’t believe … Just couldn’t take it in. Then I was getting angry, saying, “I don’t want him to have a …” They’d said he could have a full military funeral but I said, “I don’t want that, I don’t want that.” You just don’t know. You just don’t know what to think at that time. My poor friend was with me, making cups of tea, and I kept saying to her, “Make them another cup of tea,” “Make them another cup of tea,” and I don’t know why I was so concerned about whether they had tea or not, it was just something you do. So she was making tea all the time, then whoever else came to the door and came in, and I was saying, “Do you want a cup of tea?” Then I thought ‘what am I talking about? I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Then people were phoning and it was just a bit mad … A bit mad.
Then I had to phone his family and tell them! Oh, it was hard. I phoned his brother first, his older brother, and he told the rest of them, so that was helpful. Then Trevor’s mum rang me soon after that, and that was hard going. Then my mum and dad, they actually came down the same day from the Midlands, which was really good, really good. Then my sister came down a couple of days later when she’d finished work. This was on the Thursday and she came down on the Friday night, on her own, which was good, as she had got a son then who was 11 or 12. He took it badly too as he got on well with him. [Sniffs]. But she came on her own and she was really good, very practical, because Mum and Dad weren’t too good with things, really, because they were so upset for me. So at least we had room to put everybody up, and they were good with James; took him out and stuff. I think he had the next day of school, I think, the Friday, off. It was all a bit of a blur after that, really. The guy from the Bereavement Office at HMS Nelson came round, I think, the next day, and we were talking about the funeral.
One of Trevor’s colleagues came round, and then his old boss from when we were in America who we knew really well, he lived locally so he came round and he actually took charge of the funeral, which was great as I don’t think I could have done it, really. So he took charge of that, and we had the service in the church that we were married in, up in Staffordshire, and he was buried up there. So that’s near his mum. She said she’d take care of the grave and everything, which is what she does, and replaces the flowers. But now her husband is buried there as well. So that’s quite nice to have that to go to when we do go up. James has been a few times as well. He’s got a military grave, which is quite nice. There were a lot of people there in uniform as well. Bearing in mind it was 11th December, and just before Christmas you’re trying to organise for the funeral to be before Christmas so we could say goodbye before Christmas, which is what we did. So that was organised. Organisation for that to take him up to the Midlands from here; they did really well to do that.
We had a really nice service with hymns and readings. I couldn’t have … James didn’t come. We decided it was too upsetting, so he stayed with my sister’s son and they were with some friends so they had a good day. I think he’s glad now that he didn’t come to the funeral. I’m glad he didn’t because he didn’t have to worry about it. But it was difficult for Trevor’s family; he had two brothers and a sister. It was difficult for them. I think it’s still difficult now, losing one of them. Then his mum, because she’s not even 80 yet, to lose one son and now, one of his brothers has got cancer, he’s got bone cancer so we’re not sure whether he’s going to be okay. Hopefully he is. But that’s really hard on Janet. We all get on okay, which is good.
I was just going to ask that.
Yes, we all get on okay. I’m always in touch with them on Facebook and messaging. He’s actually coming down, Clive and Denise are coming down this weekend, so that’ll nice to see them. They come down quite regularly as they’re doing lots of travelling now, because when he feels well, he does as much travelling as he can. So that’s good. Yes, since that we’ve all got a lot closer now really, which is [laughs] … Which a shame, really, to be closer after a tragedy like that, but it’s helpful. It is helpful when you all feel the same like that.
It’s nice that that bond is still there with your husband’s family – for your son as well.
Oh yeah, yeah. He gets on really well with them. Yeah and his cousins, which is good because there’s not much family on my side really. I’ve got my sister’s two, but then we’re probably not that close to them, really. They’re still in the Midlands, my niece, she’s in the middle of A’ Levels and she’s fully immersed in all that, which is hard going for her because they’re quite a struggle, and my nephew is still quite angry. He’s lost his mum, which is understandable. He’s still quite angry.
So anyway, we spent … In the married quarters, we spent another few months and then we found this house. We moved in August ’98 after things happened in the December before. But it helped us move on tremendously, coming here. Even though it’s just over the hill, it just helped us move on, a new start. Yes, pretty good, but hard going, doing it on our own. But family were down, helping. Then people assume that I’m divorced. People just assume that you’re a single-parent family and divorced, and whatever, and sort of put you in a box. So that was quite hard because people are judging you, thinking they know your circumstances when they don’t. That’s happened since as well, you know? You’re a single-parent family and it ends up being a bit of a stigma. Because a lot of friends we had as a married couple, suddenly aren’t around as much because you’re different then. Because you’re on your own with a child and not in a couple, and it’s different. That’s when you find out who your friends are.
Do you think they were threatened by your single status or was it just too alien for them to socialise …?
I think it was just a bit alien. They did, but sometimes it felt a bit awkward as well. And I did, when I started to make new friends, I didn’t want to be involved as much in … Because I wasn’t a naval wife anymore so it was a different feeling. And I think some of them found it difficult because they didn’t know how I would be, or if I’d be miserable all the time, talking about it or whatever. So I just took it as it happened, and my real friends kept in touch, yeah. My real friends kept in touch. But whereas before, we would have maybe been invited as a couple, I didn’t get invited out and about, really, very much from couples, which is understandable because they think you’re going to be talking about your situation the whole time, which I never did, really. Or they were thinking I might ask them to do something in the house or something like that, you know. I don’t know; that’s the impression I got from some people. Weekends are hard. Weekends are very hard as a single parent. They are. You don’t realise that until it happens to you. You don’t realise that. I’ve got quite a few friends now who are single and I quite often see them at weekends, because I know how it feels. It’s hard going. Very hard going.
And why is that? Because you’re the only one that’s doing everything – you’re bringing up your son so you don’t get the rest …?
Not so much that, it’s just when you’re out and about on weekends, you see people in families and couples, and it’s all family orientated. And we weren’t a family anymore; there was just two of us. [Pause]. So that was really hard. That was hard. Then James got into sports, and tennis, and I was taking him to tennis and things. Then it’s usually the mums that drop them off at tennis and the dads that pick them up, but I was doing all the journeys, so that was hard going. That was hard going as well. But you just get on with it; you just get on with it.
Can I ask what sort of financial support you got? Were there any pots of money that they said you had access to, or would be entitled to? How did that help your decision to buy a house?
Ah yeah. Well, after the padre had said that I would lose his pay, we ended up having his pay for another six months, which was really helpful to pay the rent. Then after that, his pension kicked in; the Widow’s Pension from the Navy, that kicked in. Also, because we were on our own, we got help with the … Well, the rent went up a little bit, the married quarters rent went up a little bit, which included the council tax, that was included in that figure so that was taken care of. Then the pension kicked in, and also I was awarded a State pension; a State Widows’ Pension as well and so was James, he had his own little pot as well, and that was based on Trevor’s national insurance payments over the years. So that was okay. Then a couple of months after that, I was awarded a War Widows’ Pension as well, so we were okay. I didn’t need to work at that stage, I didn’t want to really. I wanted to be there for James, to take him to school and pick him up, that was most important. I didn’t want him going to any childcare … Going to any childcare, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. Maybe a couple of times friends picked him up and he went for tea or whatever, which was fine, but I think he thought … He was quite clingy, I think he thought that because his dad had disappeared so quickly, that there may have been a chance that I would have gone too. [Sobs].
Were you given any avenues you could explore to look after his wellbeing as well as yours?
Just Cruse, really. Just leaflets. Cruse leaflets, and I had some counselling. I think James was okay, he didn’t want to do anything at that time. He didn’t want to speak to any strangers at that time, so that was fine. You know, he was OK with me at that time.
Can I ask you about what informed your decision to stay in the area you were living in rather than move up towards the Midlands where your family was?
Yeah. I think because I’d spent … I felt like my roots were here rather than in the Midlands because I’d only lived in Lichfield in the Midlands for five years before I joined the WRNS. Then when I joined the WRNS, I spent quite a lot of time in and around Portsmouth, and I felt like my roots were here rather than in the Midlands, so I made the decision to stay here. Once I made that decision, I was relieved because I’d made it, and I think I made the right choice. I’ve got a good support network here and a lot of friends, and I felt like it was the right thing to do to keep James in the school that he was used to and some friends that he had at the time, and it would have been too difficult for both of us to move back up to the Midlands where we didn’t really know anybody except for family. We would have had a lot of babysitters, I think, up there, but nowhere to go as I didn’t have any friends up there because a lot of my friends have moved away, and the people I’d made friends with at school were in different places. So I didn’t have a friend network up in the Midlands, it was just family, really. I could have started again but it would have been too difficult, I think. I think I made the right decision because I always wanted to be near the coast anyway, and we were thinking as a family of buying somewhere around here, so I wanted to carry that on, really.
And the weather, the weather makes a difference as well. It does. Some people think it doesn’t but it does; it’s a lot nicer down here more often than not than it is up in the Midlands. I think that did probably upset my family and my parents, because they didn’t really understand why I stayed here. But I felt more comfortable … They respected that decision and that was fine. They thought oh well, they had somewhere nice to come to, and I was still in touch with them every day, and I didn’t expect them to come down to babysit or anything; I had a good network of friends that could babysit and we had a points system with the navy wives which I still carried on with that. It was a token system where you could have babysitters and things. There were lots of people around that could babysit locally, so friends’ teenage daughters and sons of friends, so if I needed anything there were people around who could help.
So yeah, I made the right decision. Also, I only had a year’s … I had to make a decision within a year, and find a house within a year, because the Navy were going to pay for the move and they said if I stayed on they would increase the rent. The rent would double of the married quarter. So I had to get out really, and it was a lot easier to look for a house here than up North, because I was here. I had to be here for James’s school, so it would have been doubly difficult if I was going to get those benefits of the Navy paying for the move, so I had to go with that, really. So I was forced into it in a way, but it was the right decision as well. And because we had that project to do, it gave us a purpose, really. So James and I were looking at houses as a couple on our own, so it was okay. We found this one quite soon. I wasn’t 100 per cent sure but then I couldn’t find anything else at the time suitable and in the right price bracket, really. But on the whole, it’s been pretty good living here. I would have liked to have moved on again but James never wanted to move. He’s ready now if I want to move. He’d help us if we wanted to move now. We’re thinking about it but we still haven’t done anything about it. So I think in the next couple of years we probably will move, I think. It’ll be somewhere in the same area but yeah, we’d move on and start another chapter, I think. That would be nice.
You mentioned earlier that your social circle started to change?
What spurred that on? How did you go out and find new friends? Were you doing something to find new friends or did you just move in different circles?
I still had quite a few friends within the Navy but I joined the WAY [Widowed and Young] group; the Widowed at a Young Age group. I joined that and did a bit of socialising on that, and met some new friends through that. People in the same situation where they’d lost a partner at a young age. So we used to meet once a month and then I got friendly with a couple of ladies and we used to meet up with their children. So that was really helpful because you’re in the same situation. That’s really helpful because you can exchange ideas and notes. It was quite nice to move a little bit away from the Navy because it was still quite hurtful being involved in Navy things when I wasn’t in the Navy and not a naval family anymore, really. So it was easier not to join in with things like that, I think, although I still saw my friends who were navy wives and James went to the same school as some of them. He still went to the same school right up until he started senior school, which was round the corner from here, so I drove him to school every day and then came back, or went to college or … Then when he was 6, I started to temp in Portsmouth. So I was doing some work within school hours and term time, that’s why I wanted to do the temping and I’d been used to office and admin work for years, so that worked out quite well, really.
You mentioned that you retrained and went back to college, at what point was that?
I started that course before my husband died, and it was just to update my computer skills: Microsoft Office. I’d been out of the loop for about five years so just needed to … I just felt ready to start that, and that was about a year, a couple of years that I did that. Not fulltime, but in-between other things. I got a couple of certificates so that worked well. I had a few weeks off obviously but went back I think January/February and carried that on again. Then when James was 6, I started to temp locally in Portsmouth and the Cosham area. Then I got a temp job with the University of Portsmouth. Then after a few months there I had a couple of different jobs and then got a permanent contract. So I was quite happy with that. It was school hours at that stage as well, which was good, but not term time in that time, so that was something we had to work out. I managed to get some childcare for that.
So yeah that was good. That worked out alright. Then I went for a job share in one of the Faculties in Portsmouth Uni and got that, and that was only 2 and a half days – two full days and then half a day. I managed to get James into that school club, the after-school club and then someone else would take him to school or pick him up from school and that worked out okay. He was maybe 7/8/9 then, so that worked out okay. He was old enough to be okay with that. I think it was good for him, really, to be in other clubs and spend time with other children in the same situation, so that worked out okay. It was a bit of time for me and a bit more money, which was good. So yeah, it worked out quite well.
In terms of the earnings coming in, you had your part-time job, you also had the pension, and then the War Widows’ Pension?
Can you tell me how you found out about the War Widows’ Pension?
When the captain of Trevor’s ship came to visit, he came to visit a couple of times, and he said that there is a War Widows’ Pension I might be able to receive and he said he’d write to them on my behalf, which he did. Then I received some application forms and filled them in, and within a few weeks, I was granted a War Widows’ Pension, which was nice. I didn’t really expect that. And James received his own little bit as well until he was out of full-time education. So we received that and that was good. So I was able to change my car as well to get a more up-to-date, more reliable car, and slightly smaller, because the family car we had was quite big between the three of us so I wanted to downsize on the car really as it was using quite a bit of petrol. So I got a more up-to-date car. I was able to do that with some of the War Widows’ Pension, which was good. Yeah, we were okay.
How did you feel about being labelled a ‘war widow’?
I didn’t really tell anybody, because it was our business, and a war widow … I didn’t see myself as a war widow, at all, because it wasn’t … He died in active service but he wasn’t at war so I didn’t feel … I didn’t tell anybody that I’d got that pension and I didn’t want to be labelled a ‘war widow’ because I wasn’t a war widow. I didn’t see myself as that. And I was quite surprised to receive it, really, but we fulfilled the criteria. So I didn’t tell anybody, really.
Has your perception of that started to change recently?
Yes, it has. I’ve never been involved in any of the meetings for the War Widows’ [Association] because I always had the impression that it was all older ladies but it’s not, as I’ve found out, and after attending the AGM this year for the first time, I’m really pleased I did! I’ll go to the next one as well. Yes, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed meeting the ladies in the same situation, yeah very good. And I wish I’d done it before, really. But I didn’t really address it because I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. I think its name … I think the name needs to be changed to change the perception of it, really, I think. Because you say ‘war widows’ then you immediately think of older ladies. It doesn’t seem to encompass men, and it doesn’t seem to encompass young widows. So it needs to be updated. Something needs to be changed in that respect, because I’ve missed out on all those AGMs and all those local meetings that I could have gone to, where I could have met other naval wives who have been in the same situation and I didn’t. I didn’t have any information to find out if there were any. Even when it happened, I was given a leaflet for naval widows and it was a long telephone number so I didn’t pursue that. Hopefully, it’s changed now. But I found the Widowed at a Young Age; that was a really helpful group for me, so that worked at the time.
So how did you find out about the AGM?
The AGM? Well, since I’ve been receiving a War Widows’ Pension, I’ve always received a magazine which came every quarter, called The Courage and I’ve always read it and I received information about that each year, which before I dismissed, really, the AGM, because I assumed it was just older people that went, which is really, you know, it’s wrong for me to dismiss it like that but I felt as though I was okay with what I was doing at the time, and what we were doing worked for me. I don’t think I wanted to meet … I didn’t feel the need that I needed to meet other naval widows at that time either because it just reminds you what you haven’t got. Maybe I should have done, would have been helpful, I suppose, but I didn’t feel I needed to at the time. My friends were helpful and I was meeting other people in other circles. I joined a couple of singles groups as in supper clubs and things with a couple of other ladies from the WAY [Widowed and Young] group, which was good as you could join together as a group and found new friends, which was really helpful to move on. I wasn’t looking for anything else really. Just a bit of a social life, because it can be very lonely, very lonely, especially at weekends. Especially at weekends, yeah. But a couple of my friends from the WAY group were in a similar situation so we used to maybe see each other at weekends, then a couple of my naval friends whose husbands were away, we used to meet up at weekends as well with their children so that was helpful. That’s all I needed at that time, so it was good. It was a busy time, working, a single parent running a house, and a bit of socialising as well, so it was okay. I did okay, really.
Can I ask you about the effect the bereavement had on your wellbeing, mentally and physically? Can you describe …? Was there anything in particular that you felt was off or was different after the bereavement?
Well, it just turned your whole world upside down. I think, to start with, your mind is just full of that and it’s difficult to think of anything beyond that for a while, really. And then just making sure that James is okay. I think you’re living on adrenaline for a bit. I think you are, because six months and other people are still feeling what you’re feeling, and then after, say, six months to a year, other people feel better with the situation but you don’t. You didn’t feel much better, really. Once we’d moved here, once we’d got the house and we’d moved here and things settled down, I think that’s when I started probably to feel a bit lonely. Then James was settling down a bit more, he’d made new friends, and he was settling down a bit more. And I think that’s when I started to feel a bit lonely, yeah. I was making more of an effort to see different people and different friends and maybe moving a little bit away from the Navy, because it made me just remember things that we didn’t have. Or things we would have done with my husband if he was here.
Holidays were difficult, you know, where do we go on holiday? So we went with family a few times, but then that’s was fine. My sister was a single parent for a while as well, so that was good but then she met somebody and then it’s different again. So yeah, it’s hard. It’s not what you expect it’s going to be like because you don’t think it’s going to happen, because I probably, if I’d stayed single, I wouldn’t have probably had a child but it changes things completely when you have a child or you’re a single parent. It changes things completely, and it changes the perception of you because people assume you’re divorced or whatever and then they make a judgement. Then they also assume that you’re desperate for a relationship with somebody when you’re not, actually. Yeah, people do assume. I don’t know what it’s … I’ve forgotten the feeling now, but I’m not sure how people would feel now, how people feel in this day and age when they’re single, a single parent. I don’t know how people would feel now, I don’t know. But it’s hard, hard going.
So did you have any physical symptoms or was it just more coping and trying to keep your head above water and things?
Yeah. I did have some counselling through Havant Council. That was really good, yeah, for a bit. And I didn’t think I needed to get anything for James. Maybe I should have done but I didn’t, but he was quite happy and he didn’t really want to talk to strangers so I didn’t pursue that. He was fine with me, with us, and he used to talk to my mum and dad, which was good, about things. Then we had a very good babysitter and he used to talk to her as well, when prompted. So yeah, he was okay.
Can I ask you about your feelings on birthdays, and anniversaries and holidays? Is there anything in particular you do to remember your late husband or share good times with your son and reminisce?
Yeah, we always remember birthdays. I think the most difficult thing was when James’s birthday came round and moments like that. It was more difficult because he wasn’t there to share James’s next milestone or James’s next birthday. That was really hard. Then having kids’ parties on our own that was hard going. James didn’t really remember, I don’t think, because we only had a couple of parties when Trevor was here, so he didn’t really remember Trevor being here, but I did so it was hard. I had a couple of friends always with me so that was good, and we’d have a bit of a party. My sister would come down or something. But I didn’t always remember Trevor’s birthday with James. I did with my sister and his family, always, but not necessarily talking to James about it because he’d enough on his plate. Now I do, but not then. He didn’t need to know “This is your dad’s birthday.” He didn’t need to know that. But whenever we went up to the Midlands, we would go and visit his grave. Or maybe me and I’d ask James if he wanted to come and sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. It was easier to go without him. But he’s been now on his own to see the grave.
I’m glad we did that, I’m glad we didn’t get him cremated. I’m glad that we went down that route. But it was very, very emotional doing that. More emotional doing a burial than a cremation because when it came to when my sister died, she was buried too because that was what her partner wanted. But when it came to my mum and dad, they knew they wanted to be cremated so that’s what we did, but that was less emotional and more of a celebration of their lives, really, rather than … Because they’d lived a long time. Dad was 87 and Mum was 89 so they did really well [laughs], so that was more of a celebration for them. One of the Navy guys suggested, “Would you like to do a memorial service a few weeks after Trevor’s funeral?” and I agreed to that. I wished I hadn’t; it was like having two funerals, really, and it was for the people who didn’t make it before to the funeral. I should have said no, really, but we did that in the church on the dockyard, and they arranged that. There was a naval chaplain that Trevor knew, his name was Green as well, they used to share car space, which was quite funny. So he was quite happy to do that, Reverend Green, he was quite happy to do the memorial service but I wished I hadn’t, really. It was too painful because it was only a couple of weeks after the funeral, it was like two funerals.
Anyway, once that was over, then it got … You were able to move on, really. Then the first year was full on getting James back into school then looking for this house and sorting out all the admin and doing all the probates and all that. Even though we only had a car and a married quarter, a few savings and a car, we still had to probate – even though there was a will. There was a lot to do, a lot to do. We had to do probate because one of the life insurances needed to see a Grant of Probate. I suppose it’s another security level but it’s just a lot of work, but my dad helped me with that, which was great. Yeah. But I feel like after doing probate now for my mum and my dad, I feel like an expert now. It’s not what you want to be an expert in, doing probate, is it, or deciphering wills and things? So I could help anybody else now if they want help with that. [Laughs].
Can I ask you about Remembrance Day? Is it something that you hold as particularly special for personal reasons?
Yeah. Emotional, it’s just emotional, yeah. Very emotional. I don’t like going to the services because it’s too emotional. But I like watching some of the bits on TV, but I don’t really want to go to a service. It was very emotional doing the Poppies [Wave] up the hill, yeah, but it was a day-to-day thing, that was more fun, really, because it was seeing the public through them, watching them seeing the poppies, that was good. But to sit and think about it, you know, it’s quite emotional, really. But we had some good laughs up there, a bit of fun as well. Yeah. But Remembrance Day, I don’t link that to his death, really. I link it to the older veterans, like D-Day, which is what we’ve just been helping with in Portsmouth. I link Remembrance to those veterans, really, which I think is safer for me, really, otherwise it just takes over. Yeah.
Can I ask you at what point did you feel that you could move on and start – ‘moving on’ is a horrible word, sorry about that –
At what point did you feel you could start, sort of, rebuilding and broaching new relationships? At what point did you feel you’d got into a position where you could start forging new relationships and you meeting people in a romantic way, almost?
It was probably about two years. I think I did start to have a look at maybe dating after about two years. I just met somebody briefly and we had a few dates, then that didn’t really work out. I think I was too vulnerable at that stage, still too vulnerable. But then you have to work through that for the vulnerability to go away. I was quite keen on meeting different people just to see … Just to have a bit of companionship, really. So I did go on a few dates, yes. Then had a slightly longer relationship with someone, which didn’t really work out in the end. James wasn’t that keen on him and that was always going to be a no-no if James wasn’t keen, then no, that’s not fair. It’s got to be, if I’m going to be with someone and have a good time with somebody, it was going to be somebody that James liked too, definitely.
A package deal.
Yeah. Definitely, yeah. So I did go on a few dates and I didn’t really tell James what I was, you know, that I was going on dates. I didn’t want him to think I was seeing hundreds of different men, which I wasn’t. [Laughs]. But yes, a few dates, just to get some practice, really, because I’d been with Trevor for like 15 years, so it’s a huge thing. You just feel like you’re left wide open, you know. It’s like learning to ride a bike again, I think. So yeah, I had a few dates and I think I was still vulnerable, really. Still vulnerable and I’d met quite a few people and thought ‘oh, I’ll leave it for a bit’ then didn’t do anything for a bit.
Then I picked up… I was in a chip shop with James and I picked up a magazine called ‘The Friday Ads’, just round the corner from here, and I was just looking through the personal columns and the “Would Like to Meet” columns, and I saw an advert for somebody saying they’d like to meet ladies and they liked jazz music and Elvis, and the Army Cadets. I thought he sounded nice so I rang and listened to his voice, and he sounded really nice. It was the word ‘jazz’ that got me ringing his number and we met a couple of times, and introduced him to James and he got on really, really well with him, and now we’ve been together for 16 years, so that’s really nice. I’ve been married for 13, nearly 13 years so that’s worked out really well. So there was a gap of, I’d say, was it six years in all? Six years we were on our own before I felt ready to date seriously, yes. Then I felt like I was betraying his memory a bit, but James was quite happy; he wasn’t too upset about it. Anyway, he met Mike and they got on really well from the start. It was somebody to do something with, somebody to have a bit of rough and tumble with, so yeah, he was very pleased.
How did you broach your situation to Mike?
Well, I just told the truth. Even, because we had a few phone calls before we met and I just said … He asked me what my situation was and I told him straight away, yes. So he was fine. He didn’t ask too many questions because he didn’t want to appear nosy, which he wasn’t anyway. But no, he always was, and is, very respectful of the situation. He’ll talk about him as though he knows him, really, and he’s actually been up to his grave as well with me and on his own, which is really nice. And had a chat with him. No, it’s very nice actually, I couldn’t ask for anything better, really.
Did he come up with you to the AGM?
Yes. Yes, which was brilliant because once you feel … Once I’d met him and we started to live together, that’s when we found out that I couldn’t receive a War Widows’ Pension anymore.
So that was cohabiting?
Yeah. Yeah. Cohabiting, yeah. When I got the info about the AGM, I thought ‘I’d quite like to go to that.’ So I rang up and spoke to Susan … Williams, is it, the Secretary, I think?
Moira, is it? The social … The one who does the events. I think it’s Susan?
I asked her if we could come up together and she said, “Yes, of course, you know, people move on. There’s quite a few of us who’ve got married again.” So that was fine and he was really made very welcome, and it was great. So he’s going to join as an Associate Member now, which he can, which he didn’t realise. Yeah, and we’ve already booked a hotel for next … Belfast, April. Are you going to that?
It’s a mad weekend. It’s exhausting. Exhausting. God knows how Mary and the others do it, with all the stuff they have to do as well. Yeah, but it’s really emotional for me, really emotional. I think it is for some of the others as well. For me, it was the first one as well, really emotional. Because the last time I was in Scotland was when we lived there, in 1995, so that was quite hard. In Edinburgh as well, that was quite hard going, yeah. But I’m glad I did it, it was good.
Can I ask you about how you found out that you would lose your War Widows’ Pension? Did they notify you or …? What happened?
No, they didn’t. In all my paperwork … I was reading my paperwork, and I thought that I would … If I cohabited or got married again, because that’s set out in all the newsletters and everything that come out, so I rang them and said what was going to happen, and it stopped when we started to live together, then we got married anyway. So it stopped.
How did that make you feel when it stopped?
A little bit disappointed because I’m still a widow, James has still got no father. And also a little bit cut off really, a bit disappointed. But we understood, I understood those were the rules at the time, and our relationship [Mike and Tracey’s] was worth more than that. We wanted to be together. And the same thing happened with the State Pension as well; that stopped; and James’s bit of the War Widows’ Pension stopped, which I don’t think was fair. He was only … What was he when we got married? James was 13, so his bit stopped as well. Maybe I should have said something, I don’t know.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, because there’s an assumption that because you’ve remarried, they’re willing to provide for your child, and that’s not always the case is it?
No. Why should he? Then I rang the Navy, the Royal Navy, and told them, and they said the rules had changed and I could keep that pension. So that was a surprise and we weren’t expecting that, so that was nice that we could keep that and it was all above board and we weren’t doing anything … We let them know what we were doing and that I’d changed my name and everything.
So that’s the Service Pension that you kept and the War Widows’ Pension you lost?
We lost, and the State Pension we lost, yeah. So I had to work full-time then, which was hard.
So how do you feel knowing that some people have had their War Widows’ pension reinstated because of the change in the law, but you’re one of the ones that haven’t?
Yes. Left out. Very upset and left out that that’s happened. Yeah, upset that we’ve been forgotten. Through no fault of our own, we’ve been forgotten. The fact that the Royal Navy have changed their rules, it’s a shame that the War Widows can’t … Aren’t allowed to have that reinstated, for the people who’ve lost out all these years.
Do you know the justification behind it? What have they told you?
Nothing. Nothing. I just heard. I heard, when I rang and spoke to Susan about booking the AGM, she said, “Are you a full member?” I said, “Well, I was in receipt of a War Widows’ Pension but now I’m not, and I told you at the time, but I still get all the information.” She said, “Oh yes, you’re still a full member even though you’re not …” I don’t know what constitutes a full member, I don’t know, but I don’t receive the pension. I’m still a member because I’m still a war widow in their eyes. So yes, it is a bit upsetting but we’ve lost that, because we would have been able to maybe move and start our own chapter without having to stay in the family home. It would have been nice to be able to maybe move and start again as a new family but we haven’t really been able to do that. So yeah, a bit disappointing, but hopefully they’ll keep fighting for us and hopefully things will change. Hopefully. It’s just about timing, I think.
So if I could ask you just some general round up questions?
In your perception, do you think there’s any changes in the experiences of war widows from when you were widowed to today that you can think of?
I would hope now that there’s a lot more in place to help families now. I don’t know what happens now with married quarters or whatever if you’re … I don’t know what happens now, but I would hope that there is more in place to ensure that they’re not forgotten and there is more help for the families to make them feel valued still, yeah.
Did it feel like your value was wrapped up in your husband’s service, is that something that…?
I think, yes it was. I think it was. I felt like I didn’t have … Because I wasn’t working at the time, because we were travelling around and then I was at home with James so I didn’t feel like I had my own identity really, because it’s very difficult to work, with two years in America and I was pregnant for one of those. Then you certainly didn’t want to work in the first year out there. That would have been really difficult and you want to be there to support them, really. That’s the way I felt. Then we moved home to Scotland and then James was at playgroup and it would have been really hard to get a job. So I did feel that I didn’t have my own identity, yes. Then when he died, I felt like I was sort of in limbo, really, because I wasn’t a naval wife but I was still living in married quarters patch. So I did feel out on a limb, I didn’t feel I was included really. So I hope there’s a bit more help now, for families. I think there may have been if I’d maybe looked a bit further, but because we were quite self-sufficient and I was used to dealing with things on my own, I just got on with it, I think.
What would you want people to know about war widows that they don’t? What are the big myths or assumptions that you’d like busted?
I think people’s perceptions of ‘war widows’ is that war widows are all old, and ladies and not men, which isn’t the case. Just that, really. And we’re all people. I think when you think ‘war widow’ you think maybe they’re unapproachable, a bit scary maybe and you wouldn’t know what to say. Yes, I think it needs to be brought up to date a bit more, yes.
Finally, is there anything that you want to cover that we haven’t covered? Any topics, or anything you think would be particularly useful?
[Pause]. I can’t think of anything at the moment. [Pause]. No, I can’t think of anything at the moment. Just when it happens, and dealing with grief … Dealing with grief, you know, as I think I’ve said, for the first six months to a year, you’re working on adrenaline and that’s when you start to feel lonely, after then. That’s very, very hard, and that’s when you maybe have your counselling, you know. People get back to normal and people assume that you’re fine and you’re not, and you don’t really realise that in yourself until you start addressing it, if you can. So I think there needs to be more … Maybe more contact from your Service, regularly. I had no contact, nothing. Nothing, unless I contacted them.
I think probably more of that, more contact, rather than they assuming that you’re fine after a year or two years. Even though you’re not in a married quarter anymore, you’re still a naval widow, you’re still a war widow. But I didn’t get anything, apart from a newsletter every now and again. Nothing, no. So then you’re relying on the goodwill of your friends and family, really, but at the time you don’t think about that. You don’t realise that maybe things could be improved like that, and they certainly could.
I hope things are different now. Yeah, I hope so. We just got on with it and we were okay. We found our way. We found our own way because we had to and we were fine. We are now. We’re okay. But it could have been dealt with differently I think, yes, afterwards. Especially [as] that was after the Falklands as well, yeah. You’re still a naval widow and still a war widow. Yeah, there was no contact. Nothing. So I just hope things are different now.
Sorry, it sounds really morbid. That all sounds really morbid but you know, we’re fine now. We’re fine.
Do you think things should be sharpened up with the communications so that you find out earlier or …?
Find out earlier as in …?
That you were the last person in the street to know.
Definitely. They were concerned about that. Yeah, they were concerned about that when they came to tell me. I told them that … Well, I didn’t tell them then because I didn’t know, but I told them the next day or the day after that they knew before me, yeah. I don’t know what they can do about that, I don’t know. Because that happened with listening to Mary … Yes, Mary Moreland’s [War Widows’ Stories interview]. Yeah, that happened to her as well. I don’t know how they can change that. I don’t know, because it’s local … It’s even worse now, you know, with all the Facebook and … If that happened then when it was signals and phone calls, you know, like telegrams and phone calls. If that happened then, I don’t know how they’d deal with it now. I don’t know what happens now. I don’t know how they could improve that but they need to.
So is there anything that you wanted to add about maybe positive aspects, or the things you’ve learnt about yourself or others since becoming a war widow?
Yeah, I think that with my son now, I’m just so proud how he is now, considering everything he’s been through. He’s now 26 and he’s turned out to be a lovely, well-rounded, grounded young man, and he’s not bitter at all about what’s happened. He is lovely and he’s really thoughtful and selfless, which could have … He could be so different, and I’m just so proud that he’s turned out that way, and I think that’s because I’ve always talked to him and shared things with him and tried not to shelter him from stuff. Because I couldn’t lie about how I was feeling because you can see it, see it in my face. So from the start, he’s been … You know, I’ve been honest with him about things and when he’s asked questions I’ve just answered them. He’s very, very thoughtful and not at all selfish and I’m not sure … I think that’s a positive thing that’s come out of it.
I think it’s made me, after all these years, 21 years now. It’s made me more aware of people’s situations and not assuming and not putting people in boxes and labelling people. It’s made me more aware of people’s situations, and on the face of it, even when people may look okay, but you really don’t know what people are going through. So not to assume, and certainly I don’t judge anyone. I don’t think I ever have but people do. Other people do judge people on their first impressions and I don’t do that. I think that’s probably what I’ve learnt; not to assume that people are okay when they’re probably not. I think that’s probably why I like volunteering now because I can see where people need help and I get a lot of satisfaction from that. From helping people, and the latest project we have is helping lonely and isolated people who may not necessarily realise that they are.
Yeah, so positive things do come out of tragedy sometimes, and it helps you move on and it helps you … I’m not bitter, I’m not really angry about things anymore, which I could have been, and James isn’t either. So there are a few good things that have come out of it. And on the way we’ve made some lovely friends, lifelong friends we’ve made through this, and I think our lives are quite rich now. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
[End of Recording]
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