‘Houseboats at Milton, No. 24,’ (c.1945) painted by Edward King. Scroll down for Richard Peirce’s story, War Wounds, inspired by this painting.
Houseboats at Milton, No.24 by Edward King (image courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©)
by Richard Peirce
Migrant Workers, Ice Cream and Love
‘Lassen uns ice cream bekommen!’ Gudrun laughed, trying out English words as she grabbed Ingrid’s arm and bustled her over to the kiosk on the seafront. It was the summer of 1934. They had just received their first wages since they had arrived in the seaside resort.
The journey by train and boat from Austria had taken three days. Close friends at school in Salzburg, now barely twenty-one, they had made the arduous trip across Europe with the blessing of their parents. Fear of Hitler’s meddling in Austria’s politics was causing growing concern. Increasing numbers were fleeing the rise of fascism. Friends, who had arrived before them, had found them domestic work with families in the city.
Love found the young women at the kiosk queue where they met brothers Robert and William on their day off, relaxing and taking in the sea air and sun. Ten weeks later, Gudrun and Robert, Ingrid and William were married in a double wedding register office ceremony. For a time, love was enough.
Along the Milton shore, September 1940
Robert stood, hands in pockets, looking out across the creek. He imagined that it must be peaceful to live here in the houseboats, away from the crowded terraces of the city, though perhaps a tight squeeze for a family of four. He had enquired without success about renting one in order to get Gudrun and the children some distance from the Dockyard and HMS Vernon shore base. Oyster Street was too close. The raids in July and August exposed the threat to the city. The last one, a week before, had largely proved unsuccessful, thanks to the valiant pilots of the RAF, but he knew they were stretched too thinly around the country to provide a sure defence from Goering’s fearsome Luftwaffe.
Gudrun wanted to reassure him. ‘Just take care of yourself.’
It wasn’t easy with Robert away, people hearing her accent, muttering ‘What’s one of them doing here?’ but Gudrun was thankful not to be back home in Salzburg. Of course, she missed her family and worried about them too.
His ship, HMS Southampton, had been attacked twice already since the outbreak of the war. She wouldn’t know where Robert would be or what would be happening to him when he was away. ‘I will be strong. Just get home safe to us.’
For a brief while, that bright autumn afternoon, Gudrun and Robert let their worries slip away, listening to the breaking waves and screeching gulls. Their senses flooded with sounds, smells and the salt taste of the inlet. Their children, Harry and Elsie, seemed happy to be in the fresh air and sun. ‘What’s that man doing over there, Mummy?’ Harry was pointing along the shoreline to an old man sitting on a canvas chair partly obscured by an artist’s easel.
‘I think he’s painting a picture of the houseboats, Harry,’ his mother smiled.
‘Maybe he’s painting us,’ Robert added.
He rose early next day, washed and dressed. Gudrun had packed his kitbag for him the night before. They had made love quietly in the night to avoid waking the children. Now, as they shared a last breakfast, they made an effort to be light and cheerful for the sake of each other but it was a mutual pretence that they both understood. Robert kissed his sleeping children and gave his wife a lingering embrace before shouldering his bag and opening the door. A few tender words, last kisses and he was walking back to the Dockyard to rejoin his ship.
Operation Excess: Supply convoy to Malta, Alexandria and Greece; 10th January 1941: Letter to Gudrun
My dearest love,
You won’t get this letter before I bring it home and give it to you myself or perhaps until someone places it in your hands for me – if I’m not able to – but it helps me feel closer to you to write it.
We joined the convoy at Malta where William and his regiment safely disembarked. He always wanted to travel but I’m sure this wasn’t how he imagined it. There’s been a fair bit of action since then. The carrier Illustrious took the worst of it today but it managed to limp back to Malta. Tragically, some of the men didn’t make it. We still hope for some air cover but our anti-aircraft crew have been doing drills all day today and we are as ready as we can be.
I’ll be getting some rest now but I always look at the photos of you and the children before I close my eyes. Be safe and keep your spirits up Gudrun. Give Harry and Elsie a kiss from their daddy. I long to be home soon so I can hold you all in my arms again. If that is not to be, please know that my constant thoughts are of you. I could not have had a greater blessing in my whole life.
With all my love,
your adoring Robert.
Journal entries, Telegraphist, Chief Petty Officer Robert Page of HMS Southampton, South East of Malta
11 January 1941
We heard of the pounding they gave to Illustrious yesterday. The crew and pilots put up a brave fight. Many officers and men paid the highest price. Others suffered horrific injuries. We feel greatly the loss of our comrades. I can see it in the eyes of the others but we know that we must shake off the grief because we have to keep up our morale and get on with the job we have to do. The carrier will be out of action for a long time, so now we will have to manage without her.
13 January 1941
The day after Illustrious was put out of action, it was our turn for a battering.
We were out on escort duty with our sister ship HMS Gloucester. The now familiar wailing siren of the Stukas, diving out of the sun, filled us all with terror. Our pom pom two-pounders blazed into the sky, plucking a wing from one or two hapless predators. But they could not prevent the relentless onslaught. Some bombs fell short or overshot, detonating harmlessly in the sea, sending huge waterspouts into the air, enveloping the ship in an eerie mist. Their aircraft screamed down from several thousand feet. I could see the faces of the suicidal German pilots, only just pulling out of their dive and releasing their payload within mere feet of the deck. I felt the crunch as one bomb, then another, tore into the deck moments before detonation. I remember the shock wave sweeping me off my feet – then nothing.
They told me later that when they pulled me from the water, they were not sure if I was alive or dead. On board the Gloucester, lying in a bunk, I heard that a fire had swept though our ship, trapping some poor souls below decks. When they had rescued all they could, they scuttled her with three torpedoes from the Orion.
The doctor says I’ll be on my way home and I should make a good recovery. Many of my shipmates in the other bunks aren’t so lucky and they know that life is going to be tough for them and their families. All of us are thinking of those who will never go home and our mates who have to carry on the fight. Their folks will still be waiting for them but my heart lifts to think I will see my loved ones soon.
Robert stepped out of the Dockyard gates onto the Hard. His physical injuries were already beginning to heal, though he still walked with a limp and used a stick. The hospital ship had eased into Portsmouth Harbour that afternoon on the incoming tide. He had glimpsed from the deck some of the damage the city had suffered in the bombing.
Two weeks before, the Southampton’s captain had summoned him to break the news that his wife and children were killed in the night raid of the 10th of January, the night he had written his last words to Gudrun – the same letter he now kept in his shirt pocket.
He walked along Ordnance Row, past St George’s Square with its shattered houses and fire-ravaged Church. After weeks at sea, it still felt as if the ground was moving under him and he stopped several times, leaning against the walls of the railway arches and HMS Vernon to rest and steady himself. It took him another thirty minutes to make his faltering way up St George’s Road and St Thomas’ Street. The devastation that he couldn’t imagine till then began to chip away at the shield-wall of disbelief he had built around his heart.
As he made his way along the rear of the cathedral, his steps faltered to a stop. Before him, the blasted, roofless walls of Oyster Street houses demolished the last defences of his denial. He had been plucked from the Mediterranean swell only to be drowned in the grief that engulfed him now.
The street warden found him unconscious, crumpled in the ruins of No. 21, like the remains of someone they had overlooked on the night of the raid.
Working in the fields at St James’ Hospital
Robert refused work in the laundry. ‘He says he needs to be outside – not shut in all day,’ the nurse explained to the doctor. Working on the hospital farm suited Robert. The routine tasks, like tending the cabbage field, helped him not to think, helped him to stay shut down. It was largely solitary work too, so he didn’t have to talk with anyone for hours at a time. When he did speak, it was usually only a word or two. Other patients learned to leave him alone. Sometimes they would see him just standing in the field, looking north towards the hill on the horizon. If they were close enough they might have heard him speaking quietly as if in conversation with some invisible companion close by, his voice fractured, indistinct. Then the silence would fall around him once more.
Seeing the artist again
On a clear, brittle spring morning, on the way to the farm, Robert noticed an old man by an outbuilding, standing up from a canvas set up on an easel. As he drew closer, a fragment of recognition woke within him. ‘Was it you at Milton shore, by the houseboats, last September? Did you paint us?’
‘Yes, I remember. I put you in the picture. Do you want to see?’
‘Yes, I would like that.’
The artist invited him into the building. Sunlight through the window splashed on painted and blank canvases, boards, timber, brushes in jars and half-used tubes of paint. More work was stored under dust sheets in corner shadows. He smelled paint oil and turpentine mixed with pine and must of age and damp. ‘It’s here somewhere, I think, though I have given some away.’
The old man started looking through a stand of paintings. ‘It was only a small piece, if I remember. It’s … Yes, I think this is the one.’ He pulled out a board of about two feet by three and held it up, turning his back to the window to allow the light to fall on it. ‘Here you are.’ He placed the painting on an easel and stepped back. Robert saw again the houseboat, the foreshore, the bank about three feet above the beach. Standing on the bank, looking out over the water, a man, neither very young nor old. Sitting on the grass, a woman with a young boy and an infant on her lap – just a few Impressionist daubs of paint – but his recall now was like the cut of crystal.
Robert inhaled deeply. ‘I didn’t know it would be the last time. I thought it would be me that might not make it but I never thought …’ Shoulders trembling, head bowed, he raised a hand to his face and wept.
The next day, the chaplain found him sitting in the hospital church gazing at the light strewn window above the altar.’ Do you have some spare time?’ Robert asked.
‘Do you want to talk?’ The chaplain raised a beckoning hand. ‘It’s more private in the vestry. I’ll make some tea.’
Robert was discharged from St James’ Hospital in 1944 and from military service in the same year. He received the 1939 – 1945 Star, the Atlantic Star and War Medal 1939 – 1945 for his service.
He later married Ingrid, his brother William’s widow. After fighting in the Mediterranean, William had been killed in action in the Burma Campaign. Robert and Ingrid settled in a terraced house in Queen’s Road, Gosport. They both found great comfort having shared memories of their lost ones, now only photographs, but with pride of place on their mantelpiece.
© Richard Peirce (2017)
Richard Peirce was born in Gosport, the son of an English naval transport driver and a Tyrolean mother. With varied experience in electrical engineering, teaching and psychotherapeutic counselling, he has taught mathematics in Portsmouth and Hampshire for more than forty years. A trades union activist and poet, he has travelled in Western Europe, Russia, Turkey, The Far East, including China for afternoon tea, Central Africa, the USA and the Isle of Wight. He has read his work at numerous poetry events in the southern counties and abroad and has supported and hosted poetry and music events in and around Portsmouth for more than ten years. His poems can be found in anthology publications, This Island City: Portsmouth in Poetry, and Ariadne’s Thread and has been involved in sound and video performance projects such as Voices from the Front: M33 Ship and Shore.
I was interested in Writing Edward King: Cityscapes of Portsmouth after writing a poeminspired by one of his paintings exhibited in the museum in 2010.
I chose ‘Houseboats at Milton, No.24’ for this project because of the people in the frame, my memories of similar houseboats in Gosport in the fifties and the history of my parents’ generation around the time of the painting. Other paintings of blitz damage evoked memories of a childhood when bomb sites were our adventure playgrounds. I am also interested in the therapeutic process of healing through art and the spoken and written word.Richard Peirce
We would love to hear from you.
Please click the button below to find out all the different ways to get in touch.
All Edward King images used on this website are courtesy of Portsmouth Museums ©.