Maurice Legg

Chapter 7 … Some consequences of World War 11

    At this point, I must take as step backwards. World War 2 started on Sept 3rd 1939 and was to have an enormous impact on our lives, as I argue, for the better!  With an estimated 55 Million people killed it is strange to look for benefits but they are to be found from all wars. War accelerated social change. As a couple of examples, women baked biscuits in WW1, made shells and aircraft in WW2 and flew warplanes in the Gulf War. The Suffragettes were only an interesting piece of history. The American Negro did not participate in WW1, he had support roles only in WW2 but in the Vietnam War he formed 65% of American combat force. And their equal rights crusade leapt and not only because of Martin Luther King .These are two examples of ways that war had a great impact particularly on the working classes. The rhetoric was there too- “make homes fit for heroes to live in” is one we all remember. The slum clearance programs of the late 1940’s were made easier because large swathes of London had been wrecked by the war. The inequalities in Britain , in which 95% of the land was owned by 5% of the people, were becoming evident and were captured in a widely read book called “Unequal Shares” 1945 saw the election of a labour government and the start of the NHS and other parts of the benefit culture. Britain was famous before WW2 for basic industries ships, bridge building, railways, steel making, etc but the war introduced different ”new” technologies jet engines, computers and revolutions in aircraft and car design. Unemployment was very high in 1939 when it was viewed by the people who owned Britain as necessary to maintain the order of things. In 1945 unemployment was non existent and has been seen by successive governments as an evil and full unemployment has become a measure of a country’s economic success.

I consider this overall context important and the narrative now reverts to my own life and the opportunities that were created for me and my generation by WW2. The opportunities open to me and my contemporaries in a small town north of England were very limited for two principal reasons. Firstly the range of skills which we could acquire were limited by one’s social class. You could theoretically enter the so-called professional classes, doctors, solicitors, bankers, farmers etc but it helped immeasurably if there was a tradition in the family towards that profession. Then the way in was known, the fees were forthcoming and a “practice” could be bought. But the work horizons of my own social class were shaped by the big employers and so the jobs available were those in the steelworks and the mines. So the first constraint was the limit to the sorts of jobs available to us. The second constraint was our knowledge of the world of work beyond our own environment. We knew the careers of teaching and of nursing and at school many were targeted to those professions. Indeed brother John was in the teaching profession all of his life and I may well have done the same had I not at one point realised that there were other possibilities. Children of today, through career counselling and the television, now know of the range of jobs which exist in the world of work.

I went to Newcastle University (then a college of Durham University) at 18 to study physics. I had volunteered for flying in the RAF knowing that I would be exempted for 1 year from military service. My tuition fees were covered but no other allowances were paid. A typical day for me started with a walk from home to Blackhill railway station of about 4 miles followed by a train journey of 45 minutes to Newcastle and then a walk of 20 minutes to the University. 3 hours of lectures and labs in the afternoon and then retrace the morning journey. It was a hard day. My brother had pioneered the sport of rowing in the family and had rowed for his college and I followed in his footsteps managing to be on the river 3 afternoons a week and on Saturday. To use another metaphor, I took to it like a duck to water and by the end of the first year I was reasonably competent though I wasn’t selected for anything. On several previous vacations I’d earned good wages pushing wheelbarrows full of concrete for 12 hours a day along planks with a boss with a whip at each end of my little walk. As a result, I was strong in the arms and shoulders and well balanced and it turned out that this is a rather better training for rowing than a rowing school!

I passed my exams and on September 3rd 1945, I went to Bridgenorth in Shropshire and joined the RAF. Although I’d pre-qualified for flying, the war was over and flying training had stopped. I was disappointed but, on the bright side, unlike several of my contemporaries I’d survived the war. I also survived the ritual abuse known as initial training, learning such skills as how to polish boots to a mirror like finish, obey orders unquestioningly and take verbal abuse from the drill sergeant. Since learning to fly was not on, I went to another camp on the Isle of Sheppey to “reclassify” and I changed to being a Physical Training Instructor. This hardly seemed a brilliant piece of career selection by the RAF because, apart from rowing a bit, I hadn’t much of a sporting pedigree. However I then went to Physical Training school for 8 weeks emerging as a corporal with a licence to teach P.T.  referee football games and umpire cricket games – activities which I’d hardly considered before. Standing in front of 100 recruits and running through a schedule of exercises for an hour seems relatively simple and straightforward but it isn’t! For an introverted, shy, chess-player it is a nightmare but I grew into it in two years and was even promoted to Sergeant. I won’t speculate how valuable my years in the RAF were to the country but it gave me a self confidence that nothing else would have given me and a realisation that nothing was off-limits. I had had two years of what is now known as “assertiveness training” and it changed me. After such an experience it took a lot to phase me ;  I was no longer a pushover  My RAF career came to an end on Feb 15th 1948 and I then needed a plan to take me up till Oct when I would return to university for my final two years.

My final posting in the RAF had been to West Kirby in the Wirral and I had returned to rowing with the Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club. The club was not exactly in the top echelon of rowing clubs but it had a young and enthusiastic membership and a brilliant coach called Ken Tarbuck. Ken had rowed with some success before the war and was a renowned mountaineer who had come up with many of the new techniques which were changing mountain climbing and making it safer. His day job was manager of the in -house branch of Barclays in Liverpool University and he was a very personable and charismatic figure. Our lives are punctuated by the people we’ve met and been inspired by. For me Mr Kinzl , my chess teacher was the first and Ken the second. Both treated me as if I was somebody! Most of the members of the club were old boys of Wallasey Grammer School and Ken was able to persuade 8 of them to commit to rowing until July 1948 when we would enter Henley . Their average weight was about 10 stone which was a bit small but I didn’t have a better offer so I also committed. Rowing took place on the Mersey Docks and that had its advantages and its disadvantages. On the one hand there were no currents and generally little wind so you could row between fixed points and measure your improvement. On the other hand it was a lonely, miserable piece of water with plenty of hazards. Our first race was to be the Chester head of the river and we began to practice very intensively. Ken was the best coach I ever had – and I subsequently was exposed to many with enormous reputations. Before long the 8 was going very well and we were enjoying it, quite prepared for the long pull to Henley . I myself slept in the attic of the club and was a house steward and helped with the repair of the boats. I was on the dole and went to the dole office every Thursday to get my dole money and ask whether there was any risk of a job for me! ( One day I was standing in the dole queue and this man came up saying he represented the union and asking for 10p dues. I expressed some surprise at the notion of a trade union for the unemployed and asked him what his union did. He said “If they find you a job, we’ll fight your case for you!”)

 We duly competed in the Chester Head of the River coming 5th behind Thames and London but ahead of Royal Chester and 20 other crews. By Henley time we’d won several senior events and were the best 8 in the provinces. Henley was going to be another story: we were the lightest crew ever and were up against the best in a sport where weight matters. In our first heat of the Thames Cup, we were unlucky to meet Kent School, the eventual finalists, who were 2 stone a man heavier than us and we duly lost by a length and a half. Extrapolating times, we could have beaten more the half of the other 31 other entries, we’d rowed well and so we felt very pleased with ourselves. The other crew members, some I still know, remember it as the race of their lives.  Henley 1948 was Thames Rowing Club’s finest year. They won the Grand and the Stewards Cup in fine style and I made a note to myself. Shortly after, I returned home to prepare myself to return to university, terrified because I hadn’t cracked open a physics text book for three long years!

Chapter 8 … University and Rowing
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