It would be churlish to ignore totally the little man on the left. He was the Secretary of State for Air, Howard Kingsley Wood, and his visit to RAF Kidbrooke in 1939 occasioned the arrival of the photographer and hence this record of the event*. In fact, I am only really interested in the tall, uniformed figure accompanying the distinguished guest. This was James Bevan Bowen, Air Commodore, whose happy combination of family circumstance, quick thinking and kindly thoughtfulness made him the blue-eyed boy of a lot of old ladies in our corner of North Pembrokeshire.
The Air Commodore was the son of Sir George Bevan Bowen and had been brought up at Llwyngwair, just four miles along the A487 from Dinas, where his family had lived for generations. However, by the beginning of the war he was in command of anti-aircraft balloons in South-East London and his family had evacuated itself to Cambridge. Sir George Bowen, his father, still lived at Llwyngwair but when he died in 1940 the Air Commodore knew that the army would probably commandeer his childhood home. At that point he got in touch with the Salvation Army and offered the house to them.
The Salvation Army accepted with alacrity and, apart from two bedrooms for the storage of family furniture and a plot for a caravan for Bowen holiday visits, they took charge. The house was run by a Major and 3 or 4 Lieutenants – all women. It was cleaned from top to bottom and kept immaculate. Within a few weeks the old ladies arrived from the East End of London and, with two or three beds in each room, the house was able to accommodate about twenty elderly victims of the blitz, at any one time.
The relationship with the Bowen family remained close and friendly. When the family arrived from Cambridge for holidays they spent time with the residents and Christina, the youngest, would be allowed to start off the evening bible discussions organised by the Salvation Army by picking the quote of the day from a bowl that would be passed around. The ladies loved her father and called him their ‘blue eyed boy’; I’m sure they loved having his children around too.
The Salvation Army left the house in 1946 and different branches of the Bowen family returned to Wales to live at Llwyngwair and Berry Hill.
The inevitable funerals from Llwyngwair during the war years took place in St Brynach’s Church, Nevern, and the ladies were buried in a large plot in the churchyard marked by a slate headstone.
By 2010 the slate had badly deteriorated and the writing was barely legible. Attempts at that time by the Bowens to clean the stone and consider how to restore it led to further discussions and the decision that the memorial needed to be replaced. Generous contributions from the Bowen family and others covered the cost and here is the fine new replacement.
When I first visited the new part of the graveyard and saw the headstone I was drawn by the bright blue decoration and the sculpted hands; I was then struck by the unusually affectionate wording relating to people who were obviously not local to Nevern. At that time I knew nothing of the story behind the journey of these elderly ladies from the blitzed East End of London to the safety of West Wales and I am now really grateful to Christina Woodhead (née Bowen) for sharing some of her childhood memories.
I would very much like to know more of the lives of the elderly ladies who ended up at Llwyngwair Manor. We have some of the names on the gravestones, I wonder if anyone has personal knowledge of their lives before their move to Pembrokeshire. I would love to hear from them.
The names on the headstone are: Agnes M Bennett, Amelia E Berning, Annie E Smith, Eleanor Wiggins, Elizabeth A Dorman, Esther A Loh, Jesssie A Press, Leah Hunt, Marie E Rice, Mary J Albrow, Mary Moulan, Sarah Allen, W. Adams.
Since writing the above
Heather Hill, a family historian whose Dinas roots overlap with mine and who is working on this project with me, has revisited Nevern’s new graveyard and taken some more photos. See below. Behind the main burial site she noticed the two crosses that are individual memorials to Sarah Jane Allen and Mary A J Albrow.
I’m really pleased that you recognised James Bevan Bowen in the photograph – I can go back and add his name to my post. Such serendipity that you spotted it on my blog. Great post and I will be interested if anyone contacts you about the names on the headstones.
I’ve just been adding a link to your blog. So interesting. I love it.
Congratulations on tracking down the story behind the grave – and what a story! I’m imagining these elderly ladies arriving, perhaps in a charabanc, to take up residence in a country mansion that could not have been more of a contrast to where they had come from. I can’t help wondering whether their rather high death rate was partly due to all the trauma and turmoil they had experienced. It must have been such an upheaval and so far from their families if they had any.
(I noticed you have written Esther Loh as Low here)
I too was perturbed by the number of deaths from this small group but average life expectancy at that time was only about 68 for women and these individuals must have suffered considerably more distress than the average.
There are lots of differences between then and now but perhaps it’s worth noting that the median survival time for anyone admitted to residential care today is only 26 months or so.
Thanks for pointing out the spelling. The names need to be right for anyone with information to end up at my post!
I have made contact with a descendant of Jessie Press and sent her the details of this story.
I have now made contact with a descendant of Esther Loh and have sent her details too. I’m awaiting replies from a couple of other possible contacts too. – Mary Moulan (could be Moulam), W. Adams, Leah Hunt and Eleanor Wiggins. Not sure yet if they are correct though so fingers crossed!
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This may be a little off topic, but I recall going to Llwyngwair in 1970 for the wedding reception for Janie Bowen and Alan Ferguson. Janie’s father was George B Bowen and her mother was Betsy, maiden name I think was Dwyer. My late father was a friend of the family, and I recall George telling him that the Christian names George and James alternated each generation, so I guess that James Bevan Bowen in your photo could well have been his father. I also recall that George and Betsy had a son named James but he had died in a motorbike accident.
George and Betsy lived in Oxted, Surrey; there was another daughter, Joanna. I think that Janie and Alan went to Australia (Alan was Australian) and Joanna followed them there.