There’s a great novel called Ursula Under by Ingrid Hill, “a daring saga of culture, history, and heredity”. A little girl falls down a mineshaft and we learn of all her wonderful ancestors who were born thanks to minor miracles that brought their parents together or saved them from early death. By quirks of fate does our personal DNA come together.
Obviously I would not be here today if my parents had not met. So in a way I owe my existence to World War II and specifically to the manufacture of explosives by the Royal Navy…
My father was from South Wales, my mother from South Dorset. What could possibly have brought them together?
Sadly my parents died long ago – my mother when I was 10 and my father when I was 21. And I so wish I had asked more questions and paid more attention when they did occasionally talk about the past. I don’t even know if they met at a dance or if she worked in the same place as him for a while. So I have had to piece together what I can from Google searches and my own childhood memories.
In the mid 1930s Germany left the League of Nations and Hitler began rearming the country, defying the Versailles peace treaty signed after World War I. Meanwhile Japan occupied Manchuria and Italy invaded Abyssinia.
So Britain looked at its own arms needs as global conflict became more likely. The cordite factory at Holton Heath, on a backwater of Poole Harbour in Dorset, had been there since World War I, but a site was needed for a second factory, to produce more of this cordite, an explosive used for propelling bullets and shells.
The second factory would be built to the north of the village of Caerwent in Monmouthshire, on the border in South Wales. And by chance my father lived in the village with his adopted parents, who were market gardeners, his “mam” from Swansea and his dad, by coincidence, from Dorset.
Building work started on the Caerwent RNPF site in late 1939 and the area enclosed by the factory fence was a huge 1,163 acres. The fence was black in my time and I recall running up against it while climbing Llanmelin, an old hill fort to the north west of Caerwent. It was a surprise.
To anyone using an Ordnance Survey map in those days the whole RNPF site would have been a surprise. I had such a map and all it showed was little farms, woods and Roman remains (Caerwent was once Venta Silurum, a Romano-Celtic market town). The map was a ghost of what had once been…
We called the factory “Dinham” – clearly because it was on the site of what had once been a village or hamlet of that name, still shown on the map…
But back to Holton Heath. From 1940 there was a steady stream of staff from the Dorset RNCF to the Caerwent RNPF plant. Some local staff, including my father, who was simply a production-line worker as far as I can tell, also spent some time in Holton Heath, learning the ropes. He often spoke the name of the place but I remember only that dangerous nitroglycerin was used in the process.
Dad sometimes held his trousers up with a rubbery strip of what he called cordite, square in section and off-white in colour – was that REALLY cordite?
Just like the Caerwent factory, the Holton Heath facility was near a village – this was Upton, where my mother’s family lived during my childhood, although I have no idea whether she lived there at the time she met my father. Previously she had lived in Longfleet, a central area of Poole.
I visited Holton Heath for the first time last summer, when I noticed it from the train. We drove there on a sunny day and I took loads of pictures, trying to spot any buildings old enough to have been there in the 1940s. I was so excited and distracted that when I got back into the car I looked up and found a very surprised young man in the driving seat, looking at his mobile phone. Oops! Sorry, wrong car!
However my parents first met, when he was 35 and she was 20, he brought her home to Wales and they stayed together until she died, aged just 45. This is the last picture I have of them both, at a family wedding in the 1960s…
I would just like to say one thing to them: Thanks for having me!