How I remember St Vincent’s in Grantham

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My father, Sqdn.Ldr Ronald (Bill) Williams, returned from the Far East in late October 1950 and, after a period of repatriation leave, he was posted to the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) at RAF Spitalgate, Grantham as a Course Director.

The OCTU ran courses for recruits, principally National Servicemen, leading to National Service or Short Service commissions and there were usually several courses going at a time, each under the control of a Course Director. National Service was then obligatory and lasted for two years. My father was an excellent organiser and, I think, a very good teacher of adults, so the job suited him. But he expected complete co-operation and a positive response from his trainees. He would never have made a schoolteacher. Spitalgate was not a flying station and had no runway, although a few Tiger Moths or similar were based there for occasional use. My father’s work included running day and night exercises and I know the planes were used to add extra interest to the proceedings. Once in fact one of my father’s junior officers was hit by a very low flying plane and he was lucky to get away with only a badly broken leg.

Spitalgate was on the top of a hill, said to be the highest between there and the Urals, and we lived in a big house, St. Vincent’s, half way up the hill. The lengthy drive continued a little way further up the hill to a courtyard surrounded by the Ostler’s house, the slightly larger Groom’s house and what were presumably originally the stables. A large rear gate between the two houses led out to a lane running up to a farm and on towards Spitalgate. The main house had been used during the war as the Headquarters of 5 Group, Bomber Command, controlling operations from several of the RAF Stations in the area and the operations and plotting room was still there in case it was needed again. After the war the main house and the two smaller houses had been converted to officers’ married quarters and the stables still contained a lot of radio communication equipment though I doubt if it was in usable condition.

Our family moved to Spitalgate in February 1951 and initially we had the Ostler’s house which was a minute one room and kitchen downstairs and two rooms above. My parents had one bedroom with their baby daughter, only a few weeks old, and my older sister, age 12, had the other bedroom. She was sent to the Kesteven Girls’ High school in Grantham. I, age 14, was away at boarding school and in the holidays I slept next door in one of the radio rooms. Playing around with a small electric motor one day, there was a large flash as a fuse blew and all the lights went out. The radio equipment would have certainly have needed repair after that but nothing was said.

Parents sometimes used to go to functions on the Station and Jackie and I would baby sit. I recall one frightening experience when we suddenly heard a loud drilling type noise on the big gate beside the house. With some trepidation I went out to investigate and got a chair so that I could see over the gate. When I looked over someone jumped at me and cut my thumb (I still have the small scar). We were terrified and phoned parents at the Mess. They arrived quickly and a big search ensued. I believe it was eventually found that it was some local boys having a prank. Some time later when our neighbours (in the Groom’s house) were away, mother and I heard a noise in their house and went to investigate. The house was in a dreadful mess with drawer contents strewn everywhere. Nothing was ever said but I assume we must have disturbed a burglar.

Later on we moved down to the main house and had the large and convenient flat on the first floor, which was a big change from our previous cramped conditions. I remember parents having the odd party there and a few other events but, being at boarding school, I was only there for a relatively short time in the holidays. That was where my mother did herself a nasty injury. It was late summer, father had gone to the Farnborough Air Show and we had picked blackberries which mother was using to make jam. Lifting the saucepan off the cooker she slipped and threw boiling jam up over her neck and face. Jackie or I rushed to the phone and the Station ambulance came down very fast indeed. We took Mum up to the medical centre where the RAF duty doctor swathed her in impregnated gauzes. I waited up for Dad that evening but he was late home and I was asleep when he arrived. He came in, distinctly merry, and saw Mum lying there in bed completely bandaged up. As he said later, he had never sobered up faster in his life! But in a few days she began to heal and when the bandages were finally removed there was not a trace of a scar anywhere. Quite incredible, but the RAF did know a thing or two about the treatment of burns.

Grantham itself was a railway town and, being on the A1, also a major through route for vehicles. It had two quite nice open air swimming pools, one each end of the town, where we used to go in the Summer holidays and there was a cinema. The town itself was of no particular interest, at least to a teenager. It was famous as the birthplace of Isaac Newton but is now also remembered as being the birthplace of Margaret Roberts, later Thatcher. Her father, an alderman, had a corner shop and she went to the Kesteven Girls’ High School but she had left before my sister went there. The story was that if you went in to the shop and Alderman Roberts was behind the counter you could get five sweets for a penny, but if daughter Margaret was on duty it was only four sweets!

By 1953 my father knew that the Air Ministry would not extend his Commission any more and that he would have to leave the Air Force. He had been trying to find another job in the UK but had no success and when the offer of a Civil Defence post in Malaya was made he readily took it. So in May 1953 we left Spitalgate and Grantham.


June 2011