Private ML Hickman
21st July 1940
I have just returned from 36 hours London leave and I think I can write you a very newsy letter of that wonderful city.
Jim [McDonnell], Ac Hallam and I were fortunate enough to get leave at the same time. From Waterloo Station we marched to the Strand Theatre in the Strand – the temporary headquarters of the ………[carefully cut out by the censor]. A committee of ladies all associated in some way with Australia had charge of social arrangements and gave information on the various places we should go. Ac Hallam the giant of the party was selected to accompany a New Zealander, a Canadian and an English sailor on a featured tour – a photographer and some other chap accompanied them – photos of them will be in the illustrated of about the end of July. Jim and I had lunch in the Corner House in the Strand and then walked around a few blocks – through Admiralty Arch and past Trafalgar Square where the famous Nelson Column stands. (inserted above: When the Armistice was signed in 1918 the Aussies lit a fire at the base of the monument and cracked a big piece of the stone.) There are thousands of pigeons in the square. People go there and buy a packet of feed for the birds. They are very tame and jump on to your hands, arms and head.
We walked back to the Strand where we joined a small party and were taken by a car driven by a Ladies Auxiliary driver to Parliament House as guests of Lord Denman – a former Governor General of Australia and the Duke of Devonshire. We were taken into the House of Lords. There was a debate on but it was not very interesting. From there we went to the House of Lords Library – a series of magnificent rooms containing nearly 100,000 volumes. There was a facsimile of the Charter signed by the members of parliament for the execution of Charles the First – the librarian told us that nearly all of them came to a sticky end. There was not much chance to scrounge anything because we were accompanied by a CID man. However I got some cards – one of which I am enclosing. As we walked back along the corridor I was talking to Lord Denman and Jim walking behind with the car driver. His nibs was telling me of a fishing trip he had at Lake Leake in 1912, and in the midst of it I heard Jim ask the lady if the old joker was the caretaker – Denman turned round and looked at him and grinned. It was about the best I’ve ever heard.
We had afternoon tea – including strawberries and cream – and then went into the gallery of the House of Commons for a while. It was then about five o’clock and Jim and I leaving the rest of the party went to the Charing Cross station and went by the tube train to Baker St Station from here we went to Madame Tussauds Wax works. This is the most incredible show imaginable – most of the works you would swear were human, every expression is there – perhaps the best of all is Roosevelt. There must be a thousand representations and the guide booklet is in itself a most complete history. All the Kings of England, the great figures of sport, statesmen, soldiers, sailors, scholars – a most amazing array that it would be impossible to describe. It was about half past nine when we left there and went by bus to Highgate where we saw the spot marked by a stone where Dick Whittington first turned back to London and at the Dick Whittington Hotel partook of a couple of beers. Had an excellent supper of steak and eggs and came back to the city and booked in at St Stephens Club – a tock (?) show for troops.
Up at six next morning we walked to Westminster Cathedral and from there to Buckingham Palace. The Palace is very disappointing from the front – we saw the changing of the guards. In front of the Palace is a memorial to Queen Victoria. The base of the main body of the memorial is very similar to the base of the shrine in Melbourne. On top of the various columns that form part of the memorial is a tympanum symbolising the various dominions and colonies all of whom contributed to the cost. St James Park through which you pass before reaching the Palace is very nice and Hyde Park some distance away is also vey good. Later in the morning we saw the Old Curiosity Shop, Drury Lane Theatre and Australia House. As I was stony broke – it cost nearly all my fortnights pay for the fare to London – I called at the Commonwealth Bank to see if I could raise some money. I told the accountant I had an account at the bank – he asked me if I had my book with me – of course I didn’t – oh well he said you can have five pounds if that’s any good to you. I felt like a millionaire. That afternoon we went on a tour of places of interest including one of the big breweries.
At half past six we were making our way to Waterloo to catch a train back to camp when we met two Australian nurses. They asked us where we’d been and told us we should have gone out and seen Windsor Castle so we had a conference and decided to go AWL for a day. The nurses took us to the Overseas Club – a fine place where there was a good dance – a mixed crowd of all nationalities – French, Dutch, South African, English, Poles, officers of all ranks – but their stars and crowns meant nothing there. We had several dances and supper. The girls went to their hospital and we went to St Stephens Club again. Next morning we caught then first train to Windsor – about thirty miles from London. We arrived at the gates of the Castle – a colossal stack of stone – at half past six. The constable at the gate said we weren’t allowed in unless in a party for which arrangements had been made by the Colonel and then only on Sunday. After a lot of talking however he put his coat on and showed us round – couldn’t go inside of course nobody can but we saw all the outside and he told us some interesting sidelights on the character of King George V. It seems he hated yes men and loved an argument. He said they (the constables) had often listened to the King arguing with his Secretary Lord Wigram over the phone. Lord Wigram is now Governor of the Castle. All the Kings are buried in the vaults of the chapel. In one of the oldest parts of the Castle the Military Knights of Windsor live. A grapevine climbing over the walls of this section was planted to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. When we were leaving the constable told us that there would be a service in the chapel at a quarter past nine and if we came back then we could see inside the chapel. We walked a cross the river and saw Eton School – not a very inspiring place although a great mecca of Public school life. Then we had breakfast and returned to Windsor.
The Chapel was open so we went in. It’s a beautiful building built in a perpendicular Gothic style, peculiar I believe to English churches. We’d had a good look round the main hall at the tomb of King George V and the many crests built ;into the ceiling when the service started int he small chapel. More out of curiosity than religious fervour we went in. I’ve never been to a church service like it in my life. They tricked us at every turn – we were sitting when we should have been standing, standing when we should have been kneeling. There were three clergymen and they all said a piece and whenever we did the wrong thing they scowled very appropriately. It was a most embarrassing situation. but the glorious display of banners of Knights of the Garter and crests and the wonderful carvings justified it. In the ceiling are the crests of all the Kings since William the conqueror. I forgot to mention that the choir was excellent – one of the best in England I believe.
We returned to London about dinner time, had some lunch and then went to St Pauls Cathedral. It’s absolutely marvellous – you’ve got no idea of the splendour of this place – in the crypt right under the dome is Nelson’s tomb and in the main body of the Cathedral the Duke of Wellington and other great men are buried.
From the Cathedral we went and saw The Monument – a column erected on then site where the great fire started in 1666. Later the same day we were at the Marble Arch – among other places we saw were The Tower (outside only), Tower Bridge, the Cleopatra needle, the Masonic Temple, St James’ Park and Palace, Pall Mall, Nell Gwynn’s cottage, the Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Lambeth Palace. That night we came back to camp. It was the best experience I’ve ever had and though I’m paying for my misdemeanours the experience was worth the price.
Well Mother, Duty calls so cheerio and all the best to you, dad, May and Anne
My regards to Mr and Mrs Phillips, Laurie and the boys
PS Jim sends his best regards to you and the Pater. As with me, the army’s cut down his beer ration – it’s eleven pence a pint here.
Comments and Questions
...’ it cost nearly all my fortnights pay for the fare to London’…
According to Wikipedia (entry on Second Australian Imperial Force) an unmarried private in the AIF was paid 5s per day in Australia, with an extra 2s per day after embarkation for overseas. Dad often spoke of being on ‘two bob a day’ so I wonder if he had signed over the other five bob to his parents (or his own account in Hobart) rather than having it entered in his Army pay book. The fare would certainly have been exorbitant if it had really been nearly a fortnight’s pay at 7/- a day!
…’the army’s cut down his beer ration – it’s eleven pence a pint here.’
Even if they were receiving their full 7/- a day, eleven pence would be astronomical: they would only be able to buy 7 pints from a full day’s pay. Imagine if that were the benchmark for the basic wage today!
I’m amazed at how far they walked and rode around London, and the time they were able to spend in tourist attractions. They left Madame Tussaud’s at around 9.30pm and caught a bus…and were still able to get a substantial meal in a hotel.
Money from the Commonwealth Bank
Dad did acknowledge in later years that the teller had recorded his army service number, so they would have been able to pursue him if his claim to having an account in Hobart had turned out to be false.
There are many nicknames in Dad’s letters. I have no idea how ‘Alfred’ became ‘Ac’ Hallam. In The Footsoldiers he’s referred to as ‘Hack’. At least two different men were referred to as ‘Snow’ and two others as ‘Nugget’.
The penalty for the extended time spent in London is detailed in later letters, but he never changed his view that the experience was worth the penalty.