The Stonnall GI Bride
I was born in Penkridge in 1923 as Dorothy Maud Besant. When I was little, I stood out because of my very red, curly hair. The family spent some time in Footherley, but I was just a few years old when we settled in Rileys Cottages in Hilton in the Stonnall area. I went to Stonnall School and afterwards to the senior school in Walsall Wood. I left school at the age of 14.
I worked as a cleaner for the first couple of years after leaving school, but I was just turned 16 in 1939 when I was able to get a job at Lichfield Laundry that used to be in Ivanhoe Road. I really loved working there. Like many other girls who lived some distance away, I cycled to work every day. Eventually a van was laid on to collect girls who lived in outlying areas.
The business took in laundry from all over the area and one of its biggest customers was Whittington Barracks. We worked from 8am to 8pm, so the hours were very long. I was involved mainly in ironing work. There were many hot pipes in the laundry, none of which was insulated, so practically every girl had burns on her arms. It was thirsty work and water was distributed with a pail and a single mug that everyone had to share.
The Second World War
Just at that time the Second World War was breaking out. Not long after, German bombing raids were taking place over Coventry and Birmingham. From Hilton we could see the effects of the raids with the resulting flames lighting up the night sky. We would look out and say: "Oh look, that’s Birmingham going up!".
Although not so badly affected where we were, after raiding Birmingham, the German planes overflew Stonnall before heading eastwards back home to Germany. It seems that any remaining bombs were jettisoned from the aircraft at this stage and I remember one of them landed in the canal next to the Boat Inn on Walsall Road very near where I was living. There were several other similar incidents near Hilton and Stonnall during the Birmingham Blitz.
Wartime was a period of austerity, rationing and deprivation. But of course as young girls we wanted to have some fun, which could be found at the various nearby dance venues. The Guildhall in Lichfield held weekly dances and there were similar but smaller scale events at Stonnall Institute.
The Margate evacuees
Very early in the war, hundreds of children were evacuated from Margate and many of them were billeted in the Stonnall area. We took in one girl at Rileys Cottages and her name was Jean Wisdon. She was a few years younger than me, but we got on very well, became close and I came to regard her as a sister. We still see each other regularly.
She stayed in the area and eventually married locally, becoming Mrs Jean Miles, living at Muckley Corner. I mention this now because she will reappear in this story in a context that I never would have expected.
When American forces began to arrive in the area, many GIs were stationed at Whittington Barracks, where shortly afterwards weekly social events were taking place. The girls would be picked up in a truck and taken directly to the door of the dance hall. They were not allowed to roam the barracks in any way.
On one such occasion, one of the GIs approached me and said: "Come on Red!" and without further ado, we were dancing together.
He said: "I’m going to marry you Red!".
I said: "You’re a typical American then!".
We laughed and joked and I found out his name was Roy Ellis and that he was from Tennessee. He then asked me where I was living. I told him and he said that he would find me, but I didn’t think he would be able to locate the address, so I thought little more about it.
Romance and marriage
A day or two later, much to my surprise, he turned up at Rileys Cottages, having cycled from Whittington Barracks. He spoke to my mother and asked her for permission to marry me, to which she replied: "Yes, if she’ll have you".
He was a good-looking man of medium stature and very charming. The romance blossomed. We married in 1945 at St John’s Church, Wall, with Rev Lionel Freer conducting the ceremony.
As a married man, he was allowed to stay with me at the cottage every other night. He worked as a chef and was very good at his job. The Americans were completely unaffected by austerity and rationing and had some of the best supplies that could be found anywhere and so we wanted for nothing at Rileys Cottages. He would bring over apples, oranges, cakes and other items that were unavailable to other people most of the time.
Our first child
In August 1945, my first child, Jane, was born at the cottage and by then the war had ended. Roy’s company was moved to Germany and then very shortly afterwards he was repatriated directly to the United States, where he was discharged from the army.
At that time, there were literally thousands of GI brides in Britain and it seems that the American authorities felt duty-bound to reunite the separated family members by transporting wives and children to the United States.
Moving to the United States
I was contacted and asked to travel by train to an American camp at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain. Jane and I then boarded a ship in Southampton and early in 1946, along with hundreds of other women and children, we were bound for New York.
The voyage took about ten days and eventually we arrived at Ellis Island, where we stayed for a day or two while our paperwork was processed. We then took a train in New York and we arrived at Roy’s home town, Cowan, Tennessee, about one and a half days later.
The railroad passed through the centre of the town, just as it is often depicted in American movies. Roy was waiting at the trackside for us. The reunion was a happy one. We hadn’t seen each other for months and he was delighted to see me and his daughter Jane once again.
Our new home
We lived in his mother’s house, which was somewhat peculiar by British standards because it was raised on stilts and its facilities were rather primitive. My mother-in-law was absent because she was living with her daughter in Chicago, but we shared the house with Roy’s brother, Joe.
Roy was working in a nearby restaurant and he took us there to show us off. People were saying things like: "Where did you get such a beautiful wife?".
Things go awry
Unfortunately, it wasn’t very long before things started to go wrong. Firstly, I found out that Roy could neither read nor write. All the letters that I had received from him were written with somebody’s assistance.
Also, within a short time it became clear that he was very fond of corn liquor and that his frequent bouts of drunkenness were affecting his behaviour and judgement. In his sober moments he was a charming, generous and loving man. One of my abiding memories is of him cradling Jane in his arms while singing hillbilly songs. But drinking moonshine completely changed his personality for the worse.
One night, when Roy was out, Joe offered to make me a cup of tea. Roy arrived home just as we were sitting together in the kitchen and he accused us of having an affair. He said that he was going out to get a gun and then come back and kill us. Joe disappeared and I was left on my own absolutely petrified . I had nowhere to go and I had no choice but to stay in the house with Jane.
He came back, saying that he had tried to borrow a weapon from somebody, but that the person had told him: "Nobody wants a gun at this time of night for any good reason!". We had been saved by someone’s good sense.
His odd behaviour continued and a day or two later he came home with a horse and brought it into the house. He was behaving irrationally and I was scared out of my wits. I had no-one to turn to, nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. The future now seemed very uncertain, if not dangerous to me and my child. I decided that I had no choice but to flee.
Escape to New York
I gathered up Jane and a few personal things. I wasn’t wearing any shoes, so I ran across the road and begged a woman for a pair. They were a bit small but I managed to get them on. Fortunately, I had a few hundred dollars in a bank account which Roy had set up for me, so I withdrew all the money and made my way to the railroad station where I caught a train to New York. Our stay in Cowan had lasted only a few weeks.
My sister-in-law had told me that she had an aunt and uncle, Mr and Mrs Blakemore, in New York and that I should look them up if I was ever in the area. I arrived at the address, explained my situation and they agreed to take me in. We had to sleep on a couch on their verandah for a few days but at least we were now safe.
At the Blakemores’ suggestion, I went to the English Speaking Union office to seek more permanent lodgings and possible employment.
Finding work and somewhere to live
I found work and lodgings with Mrs McMaster, who lived at 60 East 92nd Street between Madison Avenue and Park Avenue, so it was a very posh part of town. The McMasters were very good to me and paid me a reasonable wage for very light domestic duties, which was usually their ironing. We lived in a room at the top of the house.
The McMasters told me that the arrangement would need to be temporary because they always spent the winter in Maine and there was not, unfortunately, enough room for more people in their holiday home.
In October 1946 and with winter approaching, I went back to the English Speaking Union to try to find some other accommodation and employment. Co-incidentally on that day, the Duke of Windsor was visiting the office and I was one of the people who chatted with him. [NB. There is a video clip that recorded the actual moment when Dot chatted with the Duke at the ESU.]
Anyway, somebody offered me a job in Ardsley near the Hudson River. I can’t remember her name, but she was the wife of a Hungarian diplomat. The couple had five children and a big, beautiful house. My job was to take care of the children.
In the meantime, I had been writing home to my parents to explain to them what had been going on. Of course, to them things appeared to have been going badly, what with a threat to our lives and a chaotic end to my marriage, but things had been going quite well for us in New York: I had found work and lodgings fairly easily and we were doing things like going shopping and taking walks in the park.
The hotel had a car park in its basement with a turntable for long vehicles such as this bus.
By now, Jane had become a very cute toddler. I took her to a modelling agency to see whether she might be accepted as a child model with the possibility of building up a nest egg for her future. I was told that the agency did not employ child models, but they offered me some work. I was very flattered, but I decided that I did not want to go into that industry.
We used to go to the cafe at the Hotel Dixie in Times Square for coffee and cakes. That was the place, by the way, where I had watched television for the very first time. Our lifestyle was very pleasant and Jane and I were close to making a permanent life for ourselves in the city.
My parents, who obviously had our best interests at heart, had other ideas and were determined to bring us home. The Besant family had long been regulars at the Boat Inn ever since we moved to Hilton. My parents arranged a series of whip-arounds in the pub and by that means were able to raise the money for a passage home. A ticket was purchased from Thomas Cook and I was informed by letter of the date and time of embarkation.
My divorce from Roy was settled at around this time. He did not contest the proceedings in any way.
Collecting letters and a fateful assault
In Ardsley, it was necessary for me to walk down a quiet road to an office in the railway station to pick up my mail. The road had embankments on either side of it and there were rarely any pedestrians or traffic for certain periods during a typical day. The day before I was due to leave, I decided to visit the post office one last time to see if there were any more letters waiting for me.
As I was walking along the approach road, I became aware that a man was walking beside me.
He said: "Hello, how are you? Where are you going?".
I said: "I’m going to see if I have any letters".
He said: "I am too, so I’ll walk with you. You’re not from round here , are you?".
I said: "No I’m not. I'm from England and I’m going home tomorrow".
He said: "Just a moment" and with that he grabbed me, dragged me over one of the embankments and raped me. Then he ran off.
I returned to the house and explained to the lady what had happened. She said that I had to tell the police. I really wanted to do that, but what worried me greatly was that it would probably mean missing the boat home the next day and all my parents’ efforts in raising the money for the cost of our passage would come to nothing. I lay on my bed and cried and cried, but there was really nothing I could do.
Returning to England and an unexpected twist of fate
So, the next day, Jane and I set off for England as planned and we arrived in Southampton about a week later, having stopped off at an Irish port briefly. I then caught a train to New Street Station in Birmingham. The taxi drivers at the station seemed very reluctant to take my fare at first. Hilton is not that far away, but none of them knew where it was. I practically had to beg them, but finally one of them agreed to take us.
Well, by now it was 1947 and we were back home safe, but by no means sound, at least as far as I was concerned. To my horror, I found out that I was pregnant as the result of the assault in Ardsley. The pregnancy went to full term, but I felt with a very heavy heart, that I had no choice but to give up the baby boy for adoption.
He was handed over to his adoptive parents almost immediately, but in those days it was necessary to attend court to agree formally to the adoption. The boy was already 12 months old when the case was heard and I was able to hold him briefly with his new parents' consent. Quite understandably, he didn't know me and wanted to go back to be held by his new mother. I could have cried but I had to maintain my composure in the court setting.
For years I wondered what had become of him during his childhood, teenage years and manhood.
My second marriage and another cruel twist
Shortly after, I met and married my second husband Alex. He was a tough guy, war hero type who had been captured in Germany and Italy while serving with the British Army during the war, but who had nevertheless managed to escape on both occasions.
We settled in Stonnall and we had three children together, John, Alan and Joann, but fate had one more brickbat to throw at me. I was devastated when John was killed in a road accident in Hopwas in 1973. He was only 23 years old.
The three boys on the left at the front:-
Alan is partly obscuring his brother John and Julian is kneeling down beside them.
Roy never tried to trace me while I was in New York, nor after I had returned to England. However, his sister did contact us and Jane has returned to the United States several times to visit her aunt and cousin.
We heard that Roy had come to a sticky end. He had become involved in an argument with some men in a bar. They returned with a truck and they used it to pin him against the wall of the building. He died several days later from his injuries.
My first son, who as I have said, was adopted almost immediately after he was born, was informed of his status by his adoptive parents. Having become an adult and at the age of 36, he decided to trace me, his biological mother.
One day, I was sitting at home when the telephone rang. It was Jean Miles who, you will remember, was one of the Margate evacuees during the war. She said: "Dot, I've got a bit of a surprise for you. Your son is here! Would you like to see him?" I said: "Of course I would! I'll be over in 10 minutes" and I got in my car and drove straight to Muckley Corner. We met for the first time in over 30 years. He said: "Hello Mum". There were tears flowing and we hugged and hugged as if we would never let go.
My long-lost son had found some old paperwork with Ellis and Rileys Cottages typed on it. He found the cottages and some local people had told him that Jean had once lived there. As soon as he found Jean, she understood the situation immediately and telephoned me straight away.
Needless to say, we were both delighted to be reunited and we have stayed in touch ever since our very emotional reunion. He is now 69 and a successful builder.
At the time of writing, I am 93 years old and happy to be surrounded by the people I love and those who love me, and quite naturally we now come towards the end of my story. For all of the ups and downs, hopes and fears, twists and turns, trials and tribulations that life throws at us, we at last come to a happy conclusion.
During the course of my life, I have endured several deeply distressing incidents and setbacks, and yet I have survived and matured into a contented old age in which I can look back and say that I have done the best I could, both for myself and my family, sometimes in extremely adverse circumstances.
© Dot Smith and Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons 2014
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