Ellen Wicks’ War

A perfectly peaceful, private, sunny lane in rural Essex, generally uphill, heading towards the road back into the village. Here you could be miles from anywhere lost in an undramatic but quintessentially English idyll on this warm, sunny Sunday in May 2018.

Enjoying these peaceful, exquisitely picturesque surroundings and their welcoming, understated but distinctively quiet manner are Paul and Sharon Warwick now well within range of their 70th birthday and their 50th year of marriage. They have made their visit and still tingling a little from their experience stop to take this last photograph on their reflective return journey up the gentle incline toward their car parked up on the road into the village.

On just such a day in 1945, also at the height of summer, another couple who had just left the building behind us, then Gulsons farm, now just Gulsons, made their way up this lane to start their life together. These were my parents, Ellen Wicks who was then 22 and Percival (aka Sam) Warwick then 25. They would be married and together for 68 years until separated by Ellen’s death in 2013.

My parents were just ordinary people living through difficult times but who had survived those times thanks to their extraordinary strength, resilience and character. To myself, a so called “baby boomer” my parents were an inspiration and to my mind almost heroic. This story arose from my efforts to comfort and distract Ellen from her situation in the last few weeks of life when at 89 she was diagnosed with end stage heart failure and in rapid decline. Ellen had been sent to Gulsons Farm with the Women’s Land Army and had often said that those years had been the happiest years of her life. In the traumatic last few months reliving those memories animated her and made her smile when nothing else seemed to help and so I set about discovering more about Gulsons.

It had taken a while for a more balanced emotional perspective to prevail after Ellen’s death. The circumstances surrounding Ellen’s last few months for Ellen herself had been traumatic but I had fallen seriously ill due to the after effects of major emergency surgery from 2011, Sam had died in 2015 and shortly after this I inconveniently succumbed to a second stress breakdown. However in May 2018, modern medicine being a wonderful thing and with the very kind and generous permission of the present owner of Gulsons, my wife and myself were able to visit the ‘farm’ as it is now, a beautiful and atmospheric private residence.

After our somewhat subdued and reflective exploration around the back of the house and garden (the owners were away) we found ourselves back in this lane on our way home and were both captivated by the poignancy of the moment. We were standing where my parents had left the farm, excited, in love and leaving for their great adventure in life together. We stopped to absorb the atmosphere and to photograph this lane climbing away to their future, a view which must surely have remained almost unchanged since 1945. Here then is the story, as much as we can now recall, of Ellen Wicks’ War, Gulsons part in it and our cathartic visit there some 70 years afterwards.

Ellen Wicks was born in Trego Road, Hackney Wick, East London in 1923 to William and Ellen Sarah Wicks and was just 16 when WWII broke out. Life for the younger Ellen had already been difficult. Her father William Wicks had contracted the so called Spanish flu which had left him with a destructive form of Encephalitis, Encephalitis lethargic as it was then known, and this had given him tremors with sudden bouts of rigidity and had driven him to disruptive, violent behaviour at home and to several suicide gestures. These usually involved attempting to jumps, in just his nightshirt, from a nearby bridge over the Lea Valley canal into the Hackney Cut! It was after one of these attempts when the younger Ellen was just 13 that William was taken away by ambulance and admitted to Banstead Hospital, at that time one of London’s three large psychiatric hospitals, never to return home. This left the elder Ellen on her own to raise Ellen and her younger brothers Dennis and William surviving by cleaning on the night shift at the Mile End Hospital where she later trained as a nurse.

Whether the younger Ellen was called up, volunteered in order to escape the home or just needed to escape Hitler’s best endeavours to obliterate East London along with all those who lived there (they were bombed out three times) is not known, Ellen could not remember, but in 1942 the now 19 years old young woman joined the Women’s Land Army. This photograph of a proud and happy Ellen in her new Land Girls’s uniform and probably still completely unaware of what she was about to experience was taken and tinted by a local studio and must therefore have been quite an expense for her mother to commission.

Ellen had never been anywhere else other than the East End or the City itself and in her own words had “no idea what the countryside even looked like”.  The “countryside” in question was going to be Gulson’s farm and its surrounding areas in the village of Boxted in Essex near Colchester where Ellen arrived by train in what must have been early spring because en route to the farm her revelation was to find out where “lamb” came from. Ellen was later to recall the fruit trees in blossom lining the drive down to the farm house and that she had started on the same day as another new recruit Gladys Hellyer who was about a year older.

Meanwhile another youngster, who had joined the Royal Artillery at Weymouth in 1940, graduated to Search Light Operator and had, by 1943, become paid acting Lance Bombardier Sam Warwick. Sam rather than Percival, because on joining he was renamed to Sam by a Seargent Major unable to cope with an excess of Percivals. Percival was a popular name at that time and there were 5 in Percival’s unit so Percival became Sam, the same name as his father and his elder brother. Here is the very presentable and young Private Sam Warwick, 1705505, in 1942. Sam had joined up at 20 then trained and deployed on defensive duties with the Royal Artillary but things were about to get a great deal more serious.

Sam always claimed that he had volunteered for the SAS because it doubled his pay from 1/- to 2/- an hour and that would certainly have been characteristic of the Sam Warwick we all knew. The real reasons where probably more involved than that but whatever they were in December 1944 Sam was transferred to SAS 2 regiment and arrived in the Colchester area for initial training not far from the farm where Ellen Wicks was hard at work in the fields. Unfortunately records have not helped to discover where exactly this was. Several units, Army, RAF, both British and American were operating in a number of locations and airfields in the area around Colchester and at least 5 locations in the case of the SAS.

Dad’s story in the SAS was short in duration but would be long in the telling of it. A great deal happened in that short time, all of it brave, nonchalant, youthful, desperate, determined and resourceful but traumatic and life changing. That is a story for another time. In between missions however he met, courted and won the heart of Ellen Wicks. They met at a dance held locally either in one of the pubs or in Colchester. To the WLA girls the tough and I guess a little swaggering, SAS soldiers would have made quite an impression. Even the Military Police avoided the SAS. In any case they were mostly occupied in controlling wayward Americans and according to Sam would even ask the SAS lads for help when the brawling US visitors became too rough for them to handle on their own.  Sam’s impression on Ellen did not get off to an altogether good start. Arranging to meet up the following night the young Sam was forced to admit that he had been so drunk on the night they met that he had no idea what Ellen actually looked like.

Meeting up with young men and having boyfriends was not just deprecated at Gulsons it was officially banned for the WLA girls. They must have been a determined bunch because Mum reports climbing in and out of a downstairs window for their clandestine escapades to the local meeting spot at Boxted Mill. We know that Sam met up with Ellen several times in the garden at Gulsons on different occasions and that he wasn’t the first. Ellen later (much later!) admitted that there had been a handsome American called Slim but that he “had his hands everywhere” and was consequently turned down. Sam however, as in later life, was a complete gentleman and not, in her words, “after the same thing all the time” and succeeded where Slim had dismally disappointed. The very particular and reserved Ellen thought Sam “special” by not being the like the rest.

As a youngster Ellen had been a somewhat shy girl but with a sharp, wilful temperament. Her two younger brothers, Dennis and William, referred to her as “the little Tartar”. Work on the farm and camaraderie in the WLA must have helped Ellen overcome at least some of her shyness and reticence by the time Sam came along. Away from home and her two younger brothers, life on the farm had been a culture shock compared with life in the tough but relatively sheltered communities of the East End. Both physical and emotional resilience was required to cope with the wide range of outdoor work, tools and conditions in addition to fitting in with the other girls and the farm hands. This life however seemed to have suited Ellen, her time on the farm she later recalled as her best and happiest years.

Gulsons was a mixed farm with livestock, vegetable crops and orchard. Only a few of the WLA girls worked with the animals, the rest with the crops but they were employed on the full range of jobs you would typically expect. On her first day Ellen was set to work cutting cabbages but she was, over the three years she stayed at Gulsons, put to work hoeing, hedging, ditching, fruit picking, harvesting, cutting and pruning. These were long days of hard physical work in all weathers starting early and finishing late which in winter meant before daybreak and until after sunset trudging home across the fields in the dark..

At the time of Ellen’s arrival at Gulsons the main building appeared to be two farmhouses joined into one and employed exclusively as a WLA hostel. 40 girls were housed there mostly from the East London and east of London areas. Downstairs was the dining room and a separate lounge which contained a battered old piano where the girls would spend their evenings and have a sing-song. At least two of the girls played the piano quite well but Ellen would also pick out the popular tunes of the day by ear.

The girls shared bedrooms upstairs, there were three other girls in with Ellen. This picture, taken at the time, shows the view from what is now the back of Gulsons , Ellen’s room was behind the top right hand small window in which she shared a bunk bed with Mary Higgins (Ellen on top). Two sisters, Ivy and Doris, slept in another bunk bed. Ellen recalled nightingales singing in the bushes beneath her window. Mary Higgins became Ellen’s best friend and when the war was over the two kept in touch well into old age until Mary’s death. Here below is Mary sat by the veranda steps with one of the farm cats.

My first attempt to find out more about Gulsons followed the normal pattern. In other words, “Gulsons Farm” was typed into Google’s Search Engine dialogue box and I started from the top of the results list. Amongst the items listed, most of which were irrelevant, there were two which made reference to separate issues of the Dedham Vale Society magazine. The first (as a PDF file) had an interesting article about WLA girls in the Dedham Vale area generally but not about Gulsons in particular. The second (also a PDF) had an article specifically about Gulsons and to my utter amazement Ellen, my Mum, appeared on the screen of my tablet. The article contained a section written by one Gladys Benton, Gladys Hellyer as she then was in the Land Army, the girl, it turns out, who arrived at the farm on the same day as Ellen. Gladys had made her own pilgrimage back to the farm in the belief that she was then the sole surviving member of the WLA who had served there. I already had a copy of this picture, Ellen is the girl on the left in the second row.

This photograph was taken from what is now the front of the house (the black wooden cladding at the lane end of the building is on the right hand side).

The then owner of Gulsons put me in touch with Gladys through her nephew  and also posted a copy of the magazine from which I could read to Ellen the full article about Gulsons which included Gladys’s own words.

Thanks to Gladys there are some names that can be attached to this rather magnificent group of strong,  determined looking young women keeping their country nourished during these uncertain times at least in fruit and veg.

Starting with the girl to the extreme left and working along the top row they are:-
Peggy, Dorcas, Mary, Gladys Hellyer, Yvonne, Joan Fairbrass, one unknown
On the next row:-
Ellen Wicks, Toots, Audrey, Margot Heyhoe, Dorothy Ridgewell, Mary and Ellen (Sisters) and Marjorie Matthews
On the bottom row kneeling:-
Dorothy King, Jean, Marion, Margaret, Marie, Peggy and Barbara Judge

Gladys Hellyer later became Gladys Benton, Margot Heyhoe became Margot Cyrrus, Dorothy King became Dorothy Simpson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above are earlier pictures and these two are from a later time in Ellen’s posting. Ellen Wicks is bottom left in both of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this last picture the girl to the left of Ellen in the short, light jacket and the obvious belt buckle is Hope Monks. Hope was not a WLA girl but the cook and according to Ellen not a very good one. Ellen later in life remembered all her time in the WLA with great fondness except for the sandwiches made from fish pie left-overs that Hope made for lunch which ended up in the ditches around the farm! Cooking proficiency or lack of it not withstanding Hope was awarded the MBE later in her life for services to the Leyton Swimming Club and as a Lollipop lady.

So now it is 2018 and here I am, Ellen’s eldest Son, standing on the same veranda. It is a spine tingling experience to say the least. The current owners have given us, my wife and myself, their permission to visit the garden in their absence. It feels as though we are remote and alone with the atmosphere of the place. These steps and this verandah, completely built of bricks and now irreplaceably warm, encrusted and timeless are just as they were when Ellen and the other WLA girls were there to enjoy them. Somehow it feels like 1944 here, perhaps in one of those ominous silences which engulfed the hard working girls after German bombers had passed over en route inland with their payload of destruction and misery, bombers possibly even heading towards the East End and Ellen’s home where her mother worked scrubbing the floors of the Mile End Hospital. But here today on a warm breeze the twitter and giggling of all these young and vital girls is everywhere as they pose for photographs and gather round me standing just where my mother stood as I look about the garden where Ellen and Sam would have silently embraced before hurrying off to the privacy of Boxted mill.

Ellen had worked at Gulsons for two and half years, long enough to have settled into outdoor life, the work and the society of the other WLA girls (not to mention the attentions of American Servicemen stationed nearby!) by the time Sam Warwick had arrived in the area as a new SAS volunteer. Some evenings were spent going out dancing and although Ellen was not an alcohol drinker there was clearly plenty involved and the SAS men were adept at getting as much as they wanted to eat and drink. Their reputation in some quarters as a desperate crew of hard men and villains seems to have been justified although nobody who knew Sam in later life would ever have ever thought that of him. Ellen obviously saw through whatever bravado manifested itself in the smoky hothouses of Colchester pubs and clubs of the time and committed herself to Sam after knowing him for just a few weeks. They had met sometime between January and February 1945. In mid April Sam was despatched on a mission to France but before he left he had proposed and had written to Ellen’s mother asking her permission to marry. Her permission was received at the SAS post office on 29th March by letter. Imagine how nervously Sam must have opened this  envelope in reply to his proposal.

This treasured letter which Sam would keep close to him for the rest of his life was only found after his death 70 years later. My grandmother’s letter is a poignant record of a war time mother struggling to deal with events around her and with the loss of her beloved daughter to a man she had met barely once or twice. A man in a newly formed regiment widely regarded at the time as a band of desperados, misfits and semi criminals. Her words are a model of natural apprehension controlled with unselfish restraint and fairness and is reproduced in full at the end.

Sam it would seem made as much of a good impression on the elder Ellen as he had with the younger, she has signed it ‘Mum’ and I can record the fact that my grandmother idolised Sam for the rest of her life often referring to him as ‘my’ Sam. Interestingly this letter also reveals that Sam and Ellen had visited Ellen’s mother at least a few times in those short months.

While Sam was cherishing this letter, indeed carrying it with him on missions (this letter has been to the Belsen death camp!) Ellen, absorbed and afloat on romantic hopes and dreams, was also saving newspaper cuttings which betray the strength of her hopes and feelings for her soldier. Quiet Corner poems and reflections of Patience Strong were published in the Daily Mirror from 1935 to 1946. Mum kept two favourites in her purse for the remainder of her life.

Sam returned from France on the 10th May 1945 and was immediately posted to Norway on the 15th May, they were to have just two days during which to meet briefly and make plans for Sam’s  return. During this time Sam would leave Ellen with a quantity of ‘items’ he had brought back with him which would, on his return, pay for the wedding arrangements and pay for an old gold ring which his mother-in-law acquired on the black market down Brick Lane. (New gold was more or less unavailable for jewellery and brass rings were used instead as make-shifts by many newlyweds).

On 30th August Sam returned and collected his bride-to-be from Gulsons probably within a few days. Ellen did not leave the farm with permission but left unceremoniously and without any goodbyes at the farm to anyone except her closest of friends Mary Higgins and Dorothy Ridgewell. The young couple, silently and secretly made their way warily with Ellen’s few belongings and Sam’s bag of loot and headed off down this lane.

This lane pictured here where we stand now, my wife and I, hand in hand, contemplatively recalling our memories of Ellen and Sam and their life together which was to be long, eventful, rewarded with two sons, 6 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren and for Sam, a great, great, grandson.

They were married on 15th September 1945 at St Lukes, Leyton near to Ellen’s home. After a long enforced silence Churchill had allowed the bells to sound for newlyweds that day for the first commemoration of the Battle of Britain. These two newspaper cuttings together with her favourite Patience Strong poems were discovered in an old purse where Sam had kept them together with his letter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Percival (Sam) and Ellen Warwick Married on the 15th September 1945 at St. Luke’s, Leyton, London. Ellen Warwick died in August 12th 2013 at 89 years of age and Sam died September 22nd 2015 at 95.

Written by Paul Warwick, January 2019.

Notes: I am planning to follow this little endeavour with a matching piece entitled “Sam Warwick’s War” when research is complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to Sam Warwick from Ellen’s mother, Ellen Sarah Wicks, dated 25th March 1945 replying to Sam’s request for permission to marry the younger Ellen.