This story relates some anecdotes about Bryn’s childhood and youth.
Some readers may think that this story is a little far-fetched. However, everything related by Bryn actually happened. He grew up in Cwmavon, near Port Talbot in South Wales, with a sister and two brothers. The family was poor, the early years of his childhood were difficult and the children were very much left to their own devices. Bryn’s parents separated when he was young, and his father died at an early age. In the 1930s children of poor families were often poorly educated and would play outside the home for most of the day, often only making an appearance in the home for the evening meal before bed time.
This part of Bryn’s story (some of it in note form) tells of the misfortunes and escapades that befell him as he was growing up in South Wales and afterwards, many of them quite hair-raising.
He also came across the Bahá’í Faith in his middle years and became a Bahá’í. His encounter with and subsequent acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith are related here.
Childhood memories from the 1930s
Milk Man Sims and horse
I was only 8 years old when I asked the milkman for a ride on his horse. The time was just before war broke out in 1939. He looked at me and said “you can’t ride my horse so there.” He had just delivered our milk out of one of two churns carried as a back pack on the horse. He had removed the lid and using the pint measure as a stirrer, he mixed the cream and milk together, and then ladled out the milk into a jug which my mother was holding. The reason for the horse was that we lived in a row of houses called ‘Tyr-Arthyr-Row’ near a village very unsuitable for motor vehicle access, Cwmavon, near Port Talbot in Wales. I asked the milkman again if I could have a ride on his horse and again he said “no” but I was stubborn and kept asking him for a ride. In the end he said “If you swear for me I will let you ride my horse”. I replied that I must not swear, to which he said “no ride then”. After several requests and refusals, I became frustrated and blurted out “give me a ride on your bloody horse”, to which he said “there’s a good boy”. He stooped down, picked me up, placed me on the horse’s back and let me stay on until we reached the end of the street. Then he lifted me down, saying “now off you go and don’t tell your mother you had to swear for the ride”.
1940-41 … More childhood memories
My attempts at smoking a cigarette and its consequences: haystacks are not for smoking. I didn’t want my mother to know that I had been trying to smoke a cigarette so I said that I had dropped a match on the hay. The police then said that was an act of arson! I didn’t know what arson was, but all hell and damnation were poured on my head by the police, and it scared me so much that at the first chance I ran away with a neighbour’s bicycle. I didn’t know where I was going. I just felt I had to get away as far as possible from impending doom.
Memories of remand homes and approved schools
I was sent to a remand home in Aberdare, the war was on and any bit of land that could be cultivated was dug over and planted with vegetables. Finding a ring in the allotment, I showed it to one of the boys who promptly said “give it to me or I will tell the staff that you were going to try and run away”. He took the ring and told the staff that I intended to run away anyway. So I was marched in front of the Headmaster, and told to strip off till I was naked. He then produced a long cane and told me to put my hands above my head and jump up and down on the spot. Every time I flagged he gave me a smack across the buttocks with the cane until I just collapsed in sheer exhaustion. The staff then said “Now think twice before you think of running away” but instead of deterring me from escaping it made me even more determined to try and get away from this sadistic hell hole. I was then transferred to an approved school near Barry called Bryn-y Don where I was systematically raped by the older boys. I was one of the smallest boys there and very vulnerable. When I complained to a master of what was happening I was told I was just making it up to cause trouble.
So being in a situation where I was not believed and I was being abused, I decided there was nothing for it but to run away, where to I didn’t know but anywhere was better than this, so in the middle of the night I squeezed out of the dormitory window which was three storeys up and climbed over to a drainpipe and down to the ground. I climbed over the main gates and made my way down the road to the railway track and walked along it until I came to Barry railway station, which took me several hours. The station was blacked out because of the wartime situation and I was able to get about without being detected. I walked back along the track for a while and then headed for the seashore near Sully Island where I found there was an American army camp where I was able to scrounge some food and coffee from their cook house.
I then proceeded to make myself a shelter in some thick undergrowth in the woods from some pieces of wood and canvas which kept the worst of the weather out. I found a package labelled ‘Gas Cape’; on opening it I found it was a large bag made of some sort of plastic, the top half being transparent and the bottom camouflaged, and big enough to get into and offer some protection from the wind and rain. While I was trying to make myself comfortable to get some sleep, the cover was flapping and making a lot of noise! Suddenly I heard a voice saying “What the hell is it” and another said “It might be some sort of animal – shall I shoot it?”, at which point I shouted out “It’s only me in the bag.” I quickly got out of the bag to show them that I was not some kind of animal. Two camp guards with their rifles at the ready were there to greet me. I explained that I was trying to sleep in the gas bag. They left me alone and I managed to get some sleep but when I awoke I was very soggy with condensation, not a very good shelter!
Being very near to Barry Docks the idea occurred to me to try and stow away on a boat and get out of the country somehow. There were lots of ships at anchor in the Channel, and also the docks were full of ships, some of which appeared to be carrying rather large flat-bottomed boats, which I later discovered were in fact landing barges. I managed to get into the dock and aboard one of the ships and hid in what I thought was a lifeboat. I tried to get some sleep, then I heard a voice – “Sergeant there’s a kid in this barge!”
“I’ll take him off the boat” said the Sergeant, who marched me off to the local police hut nearby where I was put in a cell until morning when I was given a hot cup of tea and a large slice of bread and butter.
The police wanted to know where I had been hiding all this time and I explained to them I had a small hide out in the bushes near the American camp. They took me to the camp, asked if they had seen me and one of the men in the canteen said he’d given me a hot drink and food a few days earlier. They then asked me to show them where my hide out was, so there was a policeman, two armed guards and a Lieutenant of the American army following me into the woods. I was walking quicker and quicker and got a little ahead of the others and suddenly I sprinted into the long grass and dived flat on the ground turning 90 degrees and crawled as quickly as I could into the woods. At the same time I heard the guards cocking their rifles and the American officer suddenly yelling “don’t shoot.” I have no idea how close I was to being shot, but I did get away.
As things were, it wasn’t long before I was found and returned to the approved school and taken in front of the headmaster and given a severe dressing down. I was told to take my trousers down whereupon I was beaten on my bare buttocks with a leather strap which had been cut into 3 strips, which was extremely painful, and as a result I decided to try even more to get away. I was also beaten up several times by the older boys. On one occasion one of them tied a towel round my neck and hoisted me into the air on the towel rack. Fortunately the hook broke and apart from being a bit dizzy I was OK. If the hook had not broken it might have been a different story.
My bids for freedom. Memories of a 1000 bomber raid
On another occasion I managed to escape from Bryn-y-Don but it was a desperate affair. I had to leave my shoes behind, so in stockinged feet for a while and then in bare feet, and travelling by night, I remember hearing a huge number of aircraft flying overhead. All I could see was the blue glow from the engine exhausts. I believe it was one of the thousand bomber raids on the way out to Germany from St. Athan Airfield.
I managed to make my way to Barry Cold Nap where there was an open air swimming pool which was empty. It was being used by a barrage balloon unit manned by WAAFS from whom I managed to scrounge some food and tea. Later I noticed that a policeman had spotted me. I tried to run off but my feet were very sore and scarred through not having any shoes.
Sent to Newton-Le-Willows approved school and Escape to Birkenhead
Three days with no food, entered bakery and found a biscuit tin full of money, £600 approximately, took it, found guesthouse, arrested by police within half an hour. Still extremely tired and hungry, crooked police landed me with 22 extra criminal charges to be taken into consideration and kept £540 of the money. I was too tired to complain. I only signed the statement so that I could get some sleep. Walton gaol at the age of 15, return to Newton.
Escaped again, the injustice of court, and crookedness of police, determined to get out of country, managed to get to Birkenhead, stowed away on a banana boat, sailed around the corner into dry dock. Southampton, gained access to liner Queen Mary and hid in lifeboat, found by a crew member, sent back on pilot cutter.
Taken to Morpeth approved school north of Newcastle, learned to be a blacksmith. Put in charge of sewage plant, escaped in mid-winter of 1947, extremely cold, found car with its key in, taught myself to drive it and drove to London. Arrested in London by police.
Sentenced to Borstal institution in the Isle of Wight. Very violent inmates, threatened, retaliated, beaten up by gang, escaped with stitches in the head. Returned to Borstal, escaped again, took boat, boat sank, swam ashore, went to Cowes, took rowing boat and rowed across to mainland in fog using a compass. Caught by police.
Wandsworth prison Borstal punishment centre, six weeks punishment, three weeks on a restricted diet, bread and water morning and evening and porridge for lunch, no mattress to sleep on. An execution by hanging occurred while I was there. The atmosphere was extremely tense and when nine o’clock arrived all hell broke out in the prison, and everyone seemed to be banging their doors and crying out ‘You murdering bastards’ and other like expletives. When we were allowed back in our cells I got up on the chair at the window and being on the top floor I could view the area where I saw some prison officers shovelling white powder into a grave (probably quick-lime). This left a deep impression on me, and having experienced how I was treated by the police, I was left wondering if they had executed the wrong person.
Re-allocated to Rochester Borstal
Thinking about my efforts to get out of the country somehow but I seemed to be thwarted at every attempt so I started to think along unconventional lines and the thought of flying came to mind. I asked if I could get some books on flying, as a result of which I was presented with a number of different flying magazines, such as Flight, Aeroplane, and some books. I read all I could on flying, and practised in my imagination and concentrated on the most popular light aircraft available at the time. The Auster Autocrat was the simplest that I could think of and I focused on that. After a few weeks I decided to escape and put theory into practice. I slipped out again at night and walked in the pouring rain towards Gravesend. I thumbed a lift from a van but when it got close to me I saw the word ‘police’ on the front of it. I had tied a handkerchief over my head to keep the rain out and I still had my Borstal uniform on, so how they didn’t recognise me I don’t know. They wanted to know where I was going, and where I had come from so I held my ground and didn’t run, and explained to them about going to Gravesend to join my ship which was due to sail in the morning. They then asked me for identification but I explained to them that I had left my documents on board in my cabin! They then told me to climb into the back of the van which had a canvas cover which I quickly loosened in places for a quick getaway. However it was not necessary and when we arrived in Gravesend they gave me directions to get down to the docks which I proceeded to do. I spoke to some crew members of a ship and they offered to help me be a stowaway on a freighter bound for Mombasa. I reluctantly refused, thinking I would stand out like a sore thumb in a place like that so instead I made my way to Sywell airfield, Northamptonshire, and looked at the aircraft in the hangar, which was an Auster J1. I thought this was the right aircraft for me and proceeded to wheel it out. I broke the lock on the fuel pump and filled the fuel tank. Suddenly I was aware of someone approaching with a torch. I left the aircraft and lay down in the long grass nearby. The man with the torch was a night watchman on his rounds and I thought he might go to get help. It was 2 am and I had to choose either to abandon the attempt or go for it at night. The moon was about three-quarters full so there was some light to see. The way I felt at that time was that I had nothing to lose so I set about priming and hand starting the engine.
I was elated and excited as the engine burst into life. I clambered into the cockpit, strapped myself in and I knew I had to warm the engine up before trying to take off so I slowly taxied the aircraft in the limited visibility onto the field and pointed it into the wind. I then went through the pre-flight checks which I had read up about in the flying magazines – T T M F F – throttle friction wheel tight, trim neutral, mixture rich, fuel on, flaps take-off position.
My approach to taking off at night was, to say the least, one of apprehension and anxiety. I gingerly opened the throttle and the aircraft started to move and to swing a little so I began to get the feel of the controls. I countered the swing with a little bit of rudder and then opened the throttle completely. I held the stick forward, slowly brought it back as the tail came up and kept the aircraft level until all controls felt quite firm. I then eased the stick back and I sensed the aircraft leaving the ground. I could not see the horizon so when I felt the controls going quite slack I suddenly realised that the speed was too low so I eased the stick forward and felt the controls becoming firm again. So I proceeded for a while like a roller-coaster until I got the feel of the controls and my confidence began to grow. There was no instrument lighting in the cockpit so I could not see the instruments but everything felt all right. I can only guess at my direction as the moon was somewhere to the south. I flew like this for about 10 minutes then I decided it might be prudent to try and make a safe landing before visibility dropped to zero. I saw a field and came in to land. I went to approach it but I lost it, couldn’t find it again and so flew a little further until I saw another field but this time I kept my eye on it and came in to land. As I got lower and lower with my peripheral vision I was suddenly aware of the hedgerows. With the throttle closed and easing the stick back the touchdown was quite gentle except for a continuous banging from the rear wheel which I could not understand. I stopped the engine and the aircraft rolled to a halt. I opened the parachute pack and wrapped the parachute around me to keep warm, because it was a cold October night, and I tried to get some sleep while waiting for the dawn.
When I woke from a rather fitful sleep and saw that it was light, I rolled up the parachute and put it in the rear of the aircraft and then started the engine again. I slowly taxied back to the end of the field and then found out what had caused the banging on the tail wheel the previous night. The field was ridged and a landing across them caused the tail wheel to strike each one. There was no damage but one of the main wheel tracks was less than three feet from a water trough. I suddenly noticed a man in long johns standing in the farmhouse nearby, probably wondering what had appeared in his field overnight. I turned the aircraft into wind and proceeded to take off again. This time I was able to see the instruments and steered a course to the south at a height of 2000 ft. I flew like this for a short while but had no idea where I was until I landed in a nearby field. I got out of the aircraft, walked over towards the hedge alongside the lorry and asked the driver where the nearest town was. He replied “London”, and pointed down the road, which was the A5 Watling Street.
I took off once more and headed south at an altitude of 3000 ft. I suddenly saw an air field below with numerous aircraft around it. I didn’t know it then but it was Heathrow in its infancy. I continued flying until I came to the coast and was over Beachy Head cliffs in Sussex. I then descended till I was only 30 ft above the water and reduced speed to 60 knots. Although over the sea, it was quite turbulent and I remember seeing two water spouts, something I had never seen before and it rather fascinated me.
I headed south for France, landed in a field and asked for directions from some farm workers. I couldn’t speak French but I showed them a map I had in the back of a diary and they pointed to the town of Dieppe. I took off again and flew for about half an hour until I felt the need to relieve myself, so I selected a rather large field and landed with no problem. Afterwards, I turned to get back onto the plane and was somewhat surprised to see a farmer, his wife and two daughters watching me from close by. I couldn’t understand them but the wife pointed to her mouth and said, “vous mangez”. I understood this was an invitation to eat, and only then did I realise just how hungry and thirsty I was. They took me to the farmhouse, sat me down and gave me a hot bowl of vegetable soup and some bread. I offered them the only money I had, which was half a crown (at the time, two shillings and sixpence, now twelve and a half pence) but they refused it. I thanked them as best I could, returned to the plane and headed south once more. At 3000 feet I had a good look at the surrounding countryside to see what my options were and soon realised that I was nearly out of petrol.
I landed near Vendome and hitched a lift to Orleans. I made up a tale that I was going to find my ship which I had missed at Cherbourg and I was hoping to rejoin the ship at Marseilles on the Mediterranian coast. The driver however must have heard news on the radio about the stolen plane. He put me up for the night and in the morning the police came and arrested me. I was sent to prison for a few months in Vendome, where my days were spent in making up fishing kits for children. I was then transferred to La Santé prison in Paris.
Bryn’s story continues here as he recounts his working life on leaving prison, and his encounter wtih the Bahá’í Faith.
Llanelli, Wales, April 2016