A holiday in Gloucestershire - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A holiday in Gloucestershire

From about 1942 Dad had been detached from Wakefield Prison to Britain's first 'open' prison: a prison without bars or locks near the small village of Flockton in the Pennine foothills about seven miles west of Wakefield. New Hall Camp, as the prison was then called, was made up of 65 acres of woodland and about 10 acres of arable land. It had opened in 1936 and was used as an overflow for Wakefield prison. The camp buildings were made of timber; the camp roads were rough tracks through the woods. Once the war started, the camp effectively became a farm because the prisoners, all male, were usefully employed in providing bacon and pork from their own pigs, and a wide range of vegetables "to help the war effort".


This is a scan of a well-worn photograph I found in Dad's archives. It shows Dad bidding goodnight to inmates at New Hall Camp open prison. Dad said that it was taken for use in a magazine article heralding the UK's first open prison and dates from the early 1940s (presumably in mid-summer because of all the light coming in through the windows!)

Dad told us that the prisoners at New Hall found conditions, though primitive, far superior to those within the main prison. (Looking at the publicity photograph above, conditions in the dormitory seemed to be at least on a par with those I found in RAF barrack huts when I enlisted in 1953, although I don't recall ever having a bowl of flowers in RAF huts.) The inmates had plenty of work to do to occupy their time instead of being locked up in tiny cells for 20-plus hours every day.

Left: That's Dad in the centre flanked by two colleagues at New Hall Camp c1942.

Only 'trusties' were sent to New Hall Camp because it would have been very easy to escape had they wished to do so - all they had to do was walk away. There was in fact little incentive for prisoners to escape and had any prisoner absconded it would have proved very difficult to remain free for long. Members of the public were exhorted by the Government every day on the wireless, in the newspapers, and on large advertising hoardings (then known as placards) around towns and villages, to be on the lookout for enemy paratroopers, spies and Fifth Columnists.

The prisoners had no identity cards and being unable to produce one when one when challenged would certainly have resulted in their immediate arrest. Perhaps the most important consideration, however, was that once recaptured they knew they would almost certainly be drafted into the Army and sent off to the war zones. All in all, the prisoners doubtless considered they were better off remaining within the relative comfort and safety of New Hall Camp for the duration of their sentence.

Above: Another pic from Dad's archives shows part of the grounds of New Hall Camp Open Prison in the 1940s
Official transport between Wakefield Prison and its satellite was usually in a large enclosed lorry painted in battleship grey. It was a well-known vehicle in the villages along Denby Dale Road between Wakefield and Flockton; folk referred to it as the 'Grey Ghost'. This was because most of its journeys were made in the early mornings or late evenings when its drab grey exterior merged into the background of blacked-out, tree-lined roads. Travelling slowly, very necessary in those conditions, the lorry made little noise and could appear suddenly out of the darkness with little warning. That was the fate of our near neighbour, Mr Pilbrow, as you may read near the end of this page. The Grey Ghost was very convenient for Dad because he could often arrange to be picked up and dropped off right at the end of our street. He normally went to Wakefield Prison only once a week to collect his pay packet, or when he was detailed for escort duty taking a prisoner to court, hospital, or another prison.

Early in 1946 Dad was sent on temporary duty to open up Leyhill Prison in Gloucestershire. He travelled from Wakefield in a prison lorry with seven trusted prisoners, one of whom was the lorry driver. It has always seemed odd to me that the Prison Service could have contemplated sending just one officer on a long road journey with a group of prisoners, even if they were 'trusties'. Leyhill was widely publicised at the time of its opening in 1946 as the very first 'open prison' in the country, which it was not - New Hall Camp was the first. Dad had been selected for this temporary duty because of his several years' experience of working at New Hall Camp during the war. Actually, Mum suspected that Dad had volunteered to go to Leyhill because temporary duty away from home attracted extra pay.

I took the image on the left using a long telephoto lens because I thought at the time it might be illegal to photograph a prison entrance.
In its early weeks the prison was referred to as either Falfield or Leyhill - both villages close by in the Parish of Tortworth. On arrival at what was to become Leyhill Prison, Dad found it was actually nothing more than a collection of huts in the grounds of magnificent Tortworth Court, more or less midway between Gloucester and Bristol. They had to settle themselves in with only the minimum of help from a small civilian advance working party. If I remember correctly, Dad and the prisoners actually spent their first few nights in rooms inside Tortworth Court itself while the wooden huts were being prepared. Over the following months the number of prisoners and staff increased considerably.

As a family we had expected 'temporary duty' to mean only a few weeks but it dragged on for two years. Dad's period at Leyhill turned out to be a very trying time for my Mother and sad for my sister Kathleen and me because we saw him only every four or five weeks. In the autumn of 1946 Mum, Kathleen and I spent a week on holiday visiting Dad. We all stayed in a delightful farmhouse on the edge of the Village Green at Falfield. There was no M5 motorway in those days of course; the A38, the main road between Gloucester and Bristol, passed through Falfield. I remember that main road well because its surface was a distinctive reddish colour and it was quite often completely devoid of any traffic for minutes on end. It was known locally as the 'Arterial Road'.

We had a delightful and very busy week. My sister and I had never been anywhere outside the grimy, smog-laden city centres of Leeds, Manchester and Wakefield. Everything we did and saw was a new experience. I was astonished at the sheer emptiness of the roads and byways; there was hardly any road traffic and very few people around and it was quiet enough to hear birds singing in the hedgerows. For the very first time I heard a cock crowing at dawn; I savoured the multitude of countryside smells; I marvelled at the animals on the nearby farms; and we enjoyed farmhouse food that was quite out of our world, far superior to the wartime austerity food we had been used to for so long. For the first time ever, my sister and I had thick slices of fried ham and two eggs each for breakfast.
Left: That's Dad, sister Kathleen and me outside Tortworth Church - pic taken by Mum.
The owners of the farmhouse had a wind-up gramophone and amongst their sizeable collection of 78rpm records was one disc of a Haydn symphony. I already knew that Haydn had written over 100 symphonies and when the owners of the farmhouse realised that I was very keen on classical music, I was allowed to play that disc. I was frustrated to find that you had to turn it over to "listen to the other side" and that the discs with the rest of the symphony were missing.

We walked many miles that week and the weather remained excellent. Several times we stopped off for refreshments in a roadside cafe called The Orange Umbrella on the A38 near Falfield. We didn't stop because we needed refreshments but for the sheer novelty of being able to buy food and drinks off the ration. The Orange Umbrella had been open for only a few days so we were their first 'regular' customers. I have a vague memory that there was a large orange-coloured ornamental umbrella in the garden at the front facing the main road, but I might be wrong about that.

We went on day visits by bus to Wotton-under-Edge, Bristol and Gloucester. An afternoon out in Thornbury was especially memorable because we missed the last bus back to Falfield. We had no option but to start walking the 5 miles along narrow twisting roads in gathering darkness. Mum and sister Kathleen were getting very tired but Dad kept telling us that "The Woodman is just round the next corner". We knew that the Woodman Inn was just a stone's throw away from our lodgings but the journey seemed endless, especially since we had already been on our feet sight-seeing for several hours. Many corners had to be turned before we eventually reached journey's end. Even now in 2015, my sister and I often comment that somewhere is "just round the corner from the Woodman".

One morning we called in at Charfield railway station, the nearest station to Falfield, and asked the ticket office clerk to suggest an interesting day out. He was very helpful and we accepted his suggestion of a trip through a single-track tunnel under the River Severn to Lydney by the local train - which just happened to be standing on the single platform, steamed up and ready to depart. We were the only four passengers and we had a splendid day out - and we were also the only four passengers on the return journey. Sadly our family's Box Brownie camera had run out of film by then and we had no spare money to buy another roll.

We all thought it was a wonderful week and we were really sorry when we had to return to Wakefield - especially without Dad. He was able to come home from Leyhill only every five or six weeks or so. This was partly because of his shift working duties and partly because of the expense. The journey from Leyhill Prison to Wakefield was long and arduous. First of all he had to get transport from the prison to the nearest mainline railway station, Charfield. Public service buses ran only very intermittently so he tended to rely on hitching a lift in a prison vehicle when one was available. At Charfield he had to join a local train to Gloucester from where he could usually connect with a through train to Leeds. Sometimes the train stopped at Normanton, which was a major LMS junction pre-Beeching for connecting trains to Wakefield Kirkgate only three miles away. When there was no scheduled connection at Normanton, Dad had to go through to Leeds and then take the bus to Wakefield all of which added at least an hour to his journey. One way or another, the journey took up a whole day. Since the return journey took at least that long, and was actually impossible on Sundays, Dad needed at least a week off duty in order to make the journey home worthwhile, so we had to rely on letters and telephone calls to keep in touch.

Dad couldn't telephone us because there was no telephone in our house. At least once a week Mum, sister and I walked the short distance to the public call box adjacent to the main gates of Thornes Park on Denby Dale Road more or less opposite St James' Church. I still remember the telephone number we had to ring: Falfield 292. First, Mum had to dial 0 to call the local operator and then ask to be put through to 'Trunks'. It sometimes took ages before the trunks operator answered because the cheap evening calls started at 7pm and lots of people around the country were always waiting to take advantage of them.

Above: I took this photograph of St James Church on Denby Dale Road in 2008. The road in the 1940s was a narrow single carriageway almost devoid of traffic. These days it is a major road out of Wakefield towards Holmfirth and the non-motorway route to Manchester.
As soon as Falfield 292 answered, Mum had to put the necessary coins into the telephone and press Button A - that started our three minute ration. (I seem to remember it cost one shilling for three minutes - but I may be wrong.). The number rang somewhere in the Staff living quarters at Leyhill and Dad was usually standing by the phone waiting for our call. Mum spoke first, to get the latest news and to pass on any domestic matters. Towards the end of the three minutes Kathleen and I each had a brief word with Dad and then we left the telephone box so that Mum and Dad could talk privately until the operator came on the line to say that the three minutes were up.

Phone calls to Dad were a weekly highlight of our lives but in addition Dad and Mum wrote letters several times a week. Dad's letters always included separate pages just for Mum's eyes but the last page was for all three of us to read. Kathleen and I usually wrote a few sentences on the end of Mum's letters but I always found it difficult to find something to write about. The postal system was extremely efficient. If we posted our letter at the General Post Office in Market Street on a weekday before 6pm we knew it would reach Dad mid-morning the following day. The night postal trains must have been faster than the daytime passenger trains.

2017 Note: There is an excellent history of Tortworth Court, now a fíne modern hotel, here (opens in a new window).

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