Friday, June 7, 2013

Following in their footsteps – virtually

I’ve been looking at (and scanning) pictures of and by my parents, Betty Smith and John Blackwell, taken during the war in England, mostly in London. Some are inscribed on the back in Betty’s hand, occasionally with mention of where they were taken. The one below, most likely shot in 1944, is an example.  

The inscription reads: “John and I in front of the house on Old Church St. where some of the kids live – couple of blocks from us.” It’s not a great picture to begin with  the faces are blurred  and it isn’t helped by the finger print in the emulsion, but note the number on the building on the left side of the street that juts out a bit from its neighbours: 30, or it could be 80.

So this is what Old Church St. looks like today, 75 years later, courtesy of Google Maps Street View.

The grey storefront on the left that juts out from its neighbours is number 30. Note the arched opening and multicoloured brickwork in the building next door. Now compare it to the 1944 picture. Much else has changed, as might be expected, but I’m pretty sure this is the place. (Number 80 looks nothing like the 1944 shot.)

Betty apparently shared a flat with another RCAF Women's Division steno named Pat, and possibly other girls as well. We have many pictures almost certainly taken inside that flat. And many more likely taken in the streets outside. Here’s one inside. The woman with John is Pat. With them, according to the inscription on the back, is "the famous radio." Why famous, I wonder? I suspect John built it himself. Building radios was a hobby shortly after the war.

Where was the flat? I now know. Among John and Betty’s papers were some letters – love letters – from 1946, when they were still in London, but apparently on hiatus, Betty having decided she couldn’t carry on carrying on with a married man. A letter from Betty, dated Feb 7, bears the return address “#1 Glebe Place, Chelsea.” Here’s what it looks like today. It’s the first of the yellow brick row houses near the corner, jutting out from the others.

Chelsea today, it’s worth noting, is a very high-tone neighbourhood. Flats sell for well in excess of £1 million. But here’s another picture likely taken inside #1 Glebe Place, back in the days when it was a cheap rental for overseas service people.

The narrative in the body language and facial expressions is delicious. John: “I claim you, you’re mine, I adore you.” Betty: “Oh, lordy. What have I got myself into?” Note also the radio, included in the picture deliberately. Why? 

This last picture is inscribed on the back: “Dougie and me in the park across from our building.” The woman sitting with Betty doesn’t look like a Dougie to me, but never mind. There is no park across the street from 1 Glebe Place today.

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