John Dowman

A Man of Wickford

John Dowman is a Wickford man through and through, having been born above a chemist’s shop on the corner of Market Street in 1932. He has spent the last 82 years living in the town. All the major events in his life have taken place in the area, having gone to school, served as a bricklayer’s apprentice with Carter, the builders, and got married.

John’s Early Days. Although John was born in Market Street, his family moved while he was quite young to Woolshots Road. Sadly, when he was only five his mother died and as his father was working and unable to look after him he was passed round to various members of his family, finally finishing living with an aunt in Elm Road. He lived with her until he married his girl friend, Val, in 1956. As a boy, his aunt used to give him six pence (old money) to get her errands.

Schooling. At school he was terrified of the strict headmaster, who would cane the boys for anything ; mind you, he does admit making darts out of pen nibs and dipping paper in ink and pinging them at the ceiling with a ruler. Like most boys during the 30s and 40s, he went bird nesting and would wander for miles searching for nests. When he found one, he would prick a hole in both ends and blow out the contents. In those days, it was not considered wrong.

John Dowman’s Memories of World War 2.  On the 3rd September 1939, John remembers sitting round the kitchen table at his aunt’s house listening to the radio, while she prepared dinner. Suddenly, Chamberlain came on and announced that Britain was at war with Germany. He also remembers some of the famous radio broadcasts by Mr Churchill, whom he found very reassuring, especially when he heard the Prime Minister’s famous speech that Britain would fight on the beaches, in the hills and would never surrender. During the war John went to Wickford’s Infant School and said that the raids in 1940 were really bad and the school spent most of their time in the school shelter having lessons. The toilet was a bucket in the corner with a curtain round it. One night in September 1940, John and his uncle were in the garden admiring the stars when his uncle shook his head and said “ They’ll be coming tonight” He was right, for as they stood there looking towards the River Thames they saw hundreds of German bombers and fighters following the river up to London. Soon, the sky over London was bright red as the docks burned. The Germans did not have it all their own way because the night was filled with the flashes and thumps of anti aircraft guns. They watched in awe as dog-fights took place above their heads. He remembers watching three Hurricanes attacking a squadron of German bombers. The nights he will never forget were the 10th and 11th of May 1941, when 1400 people were killed in London. Following the British Forces retreat from Dunkirk John remembers some of The Highland Light Infantry being billeted in the public hall and with local families, including his aunts. One evening in September 1940 John went for a walk with his aunt and uncle. They had just reached Woolshots Road when they heard ack-ack firing in the distance and saw search lights flashing across the sky seeking out enemy aircraft. Worried, they caught a bus home. They reached the place where Turpin’s Tyres is now, when all hell broke out and bombs rained out of the sky. Suddenly, a blast blew the bus sideways and it rocked back and forth. Passengers screamed in terror! John’s aunt and uncle decided it would be safer to get off the bus at Wickford Broadway and when they did they were horrified to see the whole area alight from dozens of incendiary bombs and Herbert English throwing buckets of sand on to the fires in an effort to put them out. John’s aunt screamed as she saw smoke curling up from behind the Co-op and they all thought their house was alight. They ran down the road and turned the corner expecting to see the flames licking out of their house but to their relief, found the house unscathed. After the invasion of Europe on the 6th June 1945 Germany sent over the Doodle Bugs, whose engines had a distinctive sound and when the sound stopped that was when you hit the deck. Worse than those, were the V2’s. You never heard them until they exploded. There was no defence against them and they killed thousands of people. One dropped near his wife’s family house and blew it to bits but luckily nobody was hurt.  One of John’s vivid memories during this time is coming home from school and his aunt telling him of neighbours’ sons or husbands who had been killed, wounded or was a prisoner. She would say Mrs “So- and –So’s son is missing”. He was sitting in Wickford’s cinema watching a film when it stopped and they flashed up on the screen, “The War is Over.” We went wild! We could not believe it. No more fear of being bombed. Next morning at school the head master, Mr Rose, announced it in assemble. Along with the rest of the country, Wickford went mad. Even normally sensible people, like his church going aunt, sang and danced in the street round bonfires.

Leaving School.  John left school at fourteen and started an apprenticeship with the local builders, Carter and Ward, and along with forty other local boys built five pairs of houses near St. Catherine’s Church. There is a plaque on the wall of one of the houses that can be seen today. One of his first jobs was to build a small screen wall in an outhouse. He took great care to get it right and was just laying the last brick when the supervisor, Bill Young, came along, looked at it, grunted,and said “That’s a load of rubbish!” and put his foot through it. He was very proud in 1947 when one of the houses he had worked on in Highcliff Road was allocated to his friend Jackie Joyce.

John Dowman’s National Service. It was normal for a man of eighteen to be called up to do National Service unless he were doing an apprenticeship, like John, in which case he was called up after he had finished. After he had completed his time he was ordered to report to the Worcestershire Regiment. Soon after he started his basic training he was told he was taking part in the coronation parade of Queen Elizabeth II. on the 2nd of June 1953. He was sent to No.1 Training Regiment in Malvern Worcestershire where he was put through a rigorous training programme involving marching for miles. A week before the big event the unit moved down to Aldershot where the whole area was marked out with chalk and tape, just like the real parade. John’s unit was selected to march in the procession and was moved to Earls Court. The forces lining the route were not so fortunate as they were stationed under canvas in Kensington Gardens. They woke on the big day to the patter of rain. In the early hours of the morning they were taken to the starting place and waited around until the procession began. The bands struck up and they started marching proudly despite the rain. Soon, their white blanco started to run down their blue uniforms in great long streaks. After all their hard work of weeks of cleaning and bulling their equipment, it looked a mess. When John started his National Service the Korean War was at its height and he was posted to Japan for six weeks. From there he was sent to Korea, but luckily the war had finished. One day he was walking along the street in the Far East when somebody tapped him on the shoulder. He looked round and was surprised to find it was one of his old bosses, Roy Carter, but John was now a corporal and Roy was a private; their positions had been reversed, but when John was demobbed, and he went back to his old job, the status quo was once again established.

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  • Hi Jim, I was most interested to read about John as I knew him quite well back in the days of war. It would have been about 1945/6  when one day I met John pushing his bycycle along Jersey Gardens. On the rear carrier of the bike was a shoe box securely tied on. John then removed the lid from the box and proudly showed me the contents. It was an ostrich egg, very well protected in cotton wool.  Now I am sure John must remember that egg, they being so rare at that time, and I recall him as saying he would be taking it to school to show the class.

    By Des Lawrence (24/06/2014)

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