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Bill Thayer

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Part V
Chapter 4
This webpage reproduces part of
Angry Island

by Margaret Mackay

published by Rand McNally & Company,
Chicago • New York • San Francisco

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Part V
Chapter 6

Part Five
Change and Eruption

 p252  5 England

England . . . 'Hengland' . . . that never-never land from which ships had come — or not come — with food, and cast‑off crinolines or dungarees, and books which in the Bad Times were pulled apart to light fires and provide thread . . .

The refugees docked at Southampton on the grey morning of November 3, with another avalanche of reporters and officials. The Hon Hugh Fraser, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Colonies, greeted them and partly relieved their anxiety by confirming that the British Government would take financial responsibility for maintaining them while they were being resettled. They would be free to decide their own future, with every help.

In the dull November light they looked wan and weary; few had warm coats. They civilly told the clamouring reporters that Hengland was 'wery nice'. Then they were shepherded into a fleet of waiting coaches, and motored for three and a half hours through the strange, populous countryside to the temporary reception camp. At a tea‑halt each passenger bought two shillings worth of 'happles', bigger and sounder and riper than those whose possession they had had to race the rats on the Appling Days at Sandy Point.

At last they reached Pendell Camp, a former military installation near Merstham, Surrey. Organizations and individuals had been working hard to prepare the quarters in time. Mr Wheeler, Father Jewell and their own island physician, Dr Norman Samuels, were to stay in charge. The Women's Voluntary Services, the Red Cross and St John Ambulance Brigade were providing welfare and information services, additional medical care, catering, a room for recreation, television, billiards and magazines, a children's playroom and a small shop. Sir Irving Gane, son of their late great old friend, and now Chamberlain of the City of London, had reopened the Tristan da Cunha Fund. He had set a goal of £50,000 to provide expenses, furniture and equipment for resettling the descendants of the boatmen who had kindled his father's heart a year before they were lost for ever in the tragedy of 1885.

 p253  Shortly after the islanders' arrival I went down to Pendell Camp to talk to the children. The camp was set in a pretty meadow among the gently wooded Surrey hills. The rows of prefab wooden huts were more antiseptic, if less cosy, than the old thatch and stone. But there, incredibly, were the familiar groups of people — the scarfed and shawled women scrubbing their front steps, a bearded patriarch in wrinkled suit and sailor's cap, and a dark, handsome, dashing youth in a knitted cap with a pompon — he looked like a nice courteous pirate — buying sweets from the little shop tended by WVS ladies.

My taxi driver was proud of having seen the Tristanians many times. He had obligingly driven admiring groups around the camp for their first-ever car ride. (A wheelbarrow was called a 'taxi' on Tristan.) The cabman only complained that the people were too polite, and called him 'sir', which irked him.

With the aid of the Ministry of Labour and the sympathy of local employers, nearly all the colonists who wanted to work had soon found jobs. Many women obviously stayed at home to look after the children and the old. But a few did canteen or cleaning tasks in the camp. Some of the men laboured on the roads or loaded trucks. Four girls had jobs in Woolworth's in Redhill.

One islander told me that though they all marvelled at the traffic and the towns, he most minded walking down the street among 'all strange faces, and nobody saying hello.' A woman said she most missed cooking in her own kitchen — though the canteen was 'wery nice'.

'Wery nice,' was becoming the polite stoical phrase for the new life, as 'We's used to it' had been for the old.

Unfortunately the winter had started unusually cold — and the refugees had just come from a record cold winter in Tristan. The ground was ragged with patches of snow and of slippery ice, which most had never seen; they were taught how to balance without falling. Everywhere I heard coughing and snuffling. From their clean oasis where only the rare ships had brought a 'tissick', they were now prey to rampant influenza, bronchitis, pneumonia and other newfangled germs of civilization. They were plied with immunizing 'shots' and doses. Their own doctor and his English colleagues had been busy day and night in the sick bay. Two persons, frail and old, had already died; but two babies had been born.

In the Administration headquarters I saw big piles of donated clothing waiting to be sorted. There were masses of toys: luxurious  p254 pandas, giant teddy-bears, miniature wheeled vehicles, toy soldiers and dolls to delight the young from an almost toyless island.

The seventy‑two children were at the camp's prefab school. Father Jewell led me to the classroom where the elder half, the 10‑to 15-year-age‑group, were having their lessons under their former Tristan teacher, the kindly Miss R. M. Downer. The girls were allowed to knit the perennial white stockings (with wool brought from home) while we talked.

Here indeed, half grown, were the Tristan faces — dark or light, with fine Nordic features or blunt African lips, and the oblique cadence of the limited vocabulary. (Miss Downer warned me that often an unfamiliar term would stop them, tongue-tied.) They sounded both eager and homesick.

One boy and one girl I thought quite brilliant. One 'big little' girl — touchingly sweet — was mentally retarded; she knew it, and was ashamed. A pretty, delicate-looking older girl had to be excused for a medical appointment; she had a hole in her heart, and had so far been examined by fifteen English doctors.

The children were excited at having recently seen their first horse, when they had found one browsing on the other side of a ferry during a nature walk. And the trees were real ones — big tall trees, not just the familiar scrub. They were learning the names of the English woodlands: 'oak' — 'ash' — 'elm'.

Even a sparrow was an exotic stranger. Miss Downer had put some suet and a half-coconut outside the widow, where the pupils could watch the local birds pecking: tits, thrushes, blackbirds. The children told me enthusiastically of the migrant birds found in season on Tristan — the 'guttersnakes', and the gorgeous purple gallinules from southern America. (Nugget, the Simpsons' cat, had almost caught one, but it had been rescued in time.)

I asked them what foods they missed most. The stuffed roast mutton of the feast days, of course, and the stuffed 'buds' — birds.

'And potatoes,' added a little boy.

I was surprised. Surely there were vast quantities of potatoes in England?

'But not as good as Tristan.'

I attributed this to homesickness, until I remembered that some of the diaries from the first had pronounced the island potatoes the best they had ever tasted — a compensation, at least, for the limited provender of that barren land.

 p255  What the pupils all liked least in England they were too courteous to tell me, so Miss Downer said it for them: the constant nuisance of reporters and photographers.

The young English, like their elders, had been 'wery nice'. The Boy Scouts had entertained the Tristan boys, the Girl Guides the girls. With the Christmas holidays coming, there were to be parties, carol singing, a crib, pantomimes, films, 'dawnces', entertainments, plum puddings and paper caps. But they were lonely for the midsummer feasting of the Tristan Christmas, and the New Year mumming when — their eyes shone in the telling — the shrieking girls had hidden in the lofts in pretended fright from the merry-makers in grotesque disguise.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20