My granny and me

Catherine Moyes first met her granny, Ethel Phillips, in 1935 when she was three years old. It was the start of a very special relationship.

I was born in Toronto, Canada in 1932 and I came over to England with my mother in 1935 after my parents separated. This was when I first met my granny, who lived in Devonshire.

My mother and I lived in lodgings in Birmingham, because that's where she had a job. She took me on the train to meet Granny for the first time and after that first visit, I did the journey on my own. I used to go down on the train with my ticket in a little bag round my neck. The guard would look after me and help me change trains at Exeter to get to Newton Abbot. I was three years old.

One of the reasons I loved spending time at my granny's was because as an only child of a single parent - which was very unusual in the 1930s - I enjoyed playing with the local children in Devon. I didn't spend much time playing with other children when I was in the city. While my mother was at work, the lady who we lodged with in Birmingham would look after me.

Staying at Granny's

Catherine in granny's gardenGranny lived in a bungalow in Kingsteignton, with a monkey-puzzle tree at the front. For those days, it was a very modern home with an inside toilet and hot running water. There was a veranda, a garden and a big greenhouse, with lots of plants including tomatoes.

Granny also had a smallholding. She kept chickens so we had plenty of eggs. As well as collecting eggs, she taught me how to pluck a chicken and skin a rabbit. We would buy the rabbits from the butcher with their skin on. We didn't keep rabbits and anyway, I don't think I would have liked to skin a tame rabbit.

My granny looked quite stern, but she was nice in lots of ways. She had very bright auburn hair, and would bustle about. Granny and I baked together and made preserves. I had a marvellous time when I stayed with her.

I used to go down to Devon on my own quite often when I was small. My mother would come and join us for a week when she was having her holiday from work, and then take me back with her.

Trips out

at the seasideGranny and I went on lots of outings. Going to the seaside was our most special trip and sometimes my mother would come with us, too. I had a swimming costume that my mother had knitted. When I went into the sea, it stretched, although my mother looks pretty pleased with her handiwork in this picture.

I also remember us going to Dartmoor, and on one outing I got a little toy pixie, which I kept for years and years. It was a lovely cloth green pixie, and it was special because I'd always wanted a teddy bear and I never had one, so that pixie became my teddy. This was before I started school so I must have been four because I remember I started school in Birmingham on my fifth birthday.

Granny and spiritualism

We also used to visit Newton Abbot, to go to the market and the spiritualist church, because Granny was a spiritualist medium.

My granny wasn't brought up as a spiritualist. She converted to spiritualism, which a lot of people did during the First World War, because they were desperate to make contact with relatives who'd been killed in action. I think Granny was trying to help other people, because she didn't lose anyone during the war. My grandfather, Philip Phillips, fought in the war and survived, but he died in the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more people than the war itself.

Granny used to hold séances in the bungalow when I was staying there but I didn’t ever go to one and I can't remember hearing anything. It freaked my mother out, though! She didn't like the idea that Granny was a spiritualist medium, although she tried going to a spiritualist séance once. But she said it was nonsense and stayed firmly in the Anglican church.

I remember being so angry with my mother when Granny died because she wouldn't allow her to be buried in a spiritualist graveyard. She had to be buried in the Church of England graveyard and I thought that was all wrong.

Outbreak of war in 1939

During the first six months of the war, I stayed with Granny in Devon. On the day the war started, I'd already gone down to stay with Granny and my mother had come for her week's holiday. I remember the broadcast on the radio. I didn’t know much about war, but I said, "Oh, the poor soldiers."

The radio broadcast said that women and children who lived in cities, but were in the country when war broke out, should stay in the country. But of course my mother couldn't because she had to go to work. So she went back to Birmingham and I stayed with Granny and went to school there. I was seven-and-a-half at the time.

friends in DevonOn the first day Granny walked me to school, but after that I went on my own. I loved school in Devon! It was small, with small classes, and I had one of my drawings put up on the wall. Never before and never since! So that was lovely. And the walk to school was beautiful going past all the little streams. It was idyllic.

I remember that I made a handkerchief out of plush [a fabric with a deep pile] in needlework. It cost a farthing and Granny wouldn't buy it because it couldn't actually be used as a handkerchief!

My last visit

After I'd been at Granny's for six months, there was a lull in the bombing so I went back to Birmingham. When the air raids got bad again, I was evacuated to the Forest of Dean with other children from my school rather than going to Devon.Ethel Phillips

I didn't go back to Granny's until 1942, when I went with a friend I'd made in the Forest of Dean. While we were staying with Granny, she became ill. I sent a telegram to my mother and she came to Devon. And while she was with us there, Granny died.

My friend and I weren't allowed to go to Granny's funeral, because children didn't in those days. On the day of the funeral, it was early closing day in Kingsteignton and the lady who owned the local dairy took us to the seaside in Teignmouth for the day.

Caught in an air raid

While we were there, the lady from the dairy took us onto Teignmouth Pier. During the war, the piers had removable planks in the middle, which were taken up during air raids in case the Germans invaded. I can't see how that would have stopped them coming ashore, but that's what we did!

While we were on the far end of the pier, an air raid started, so we were stuck there for the duration. Although it must have been terrifying, I don't actually remember the noise or anything else about the air raid. I think I shut down while it was happening and to this day that's what I tend to do if there's danger around.

Once the air raid was over, the planks were put back and we returned to the beach. The planes had machine guns and we could see that people on the beach had been shot. Lots of people had died there and I remember that they’d even shot the dummies in the clothes shops.

We caught the bus back to Kingsteignton and, on the way, we passed some huge gas containers [gasometers]. One of them was alight and we saw men falling off the edge.

Years later, I wondered if I'd imagined what happened that day, but recently I was on a train journey to London and met somebody whose friend was in Teignmouth at the time. And she said, "Yes, it did happen exactly as you describe it."

Remembering my granny

Catherine nowMy granny was 60 when she died of heart failure. I was 10. I don't have any photographs of us together, as she used to take all the pictures.

When I went back to Kingsteignton many years later, they'd built five bungalows where Granny's bungalow, garden and smallholding had been. It's sad, really.

I'm in my 80s now, but I still remember my granny with love.

Tell your own story on the Storyboard.

Come and chat on Logarty talk.

Alone on a train at the age

Alone on a train at the age of three? How times have changed! It's an intriguing tale, but what I want to know is… what happened to Catherine’s dad? Did she ever hear from him again? Bringing up a child alone must have been incredibly tough for her mum. I'd love to know how she dealt with the stigma associated with single parenthood in the war years.

A fascinating account,

A fascinating account, Catherine Moyes, of difficult circumstances and how for the most part you enjoyed the adventure. A wise child and no doubt a wise elder. I would love to hear some of your reflections on those early days and your experiences in adulthood and later life.

Share this page