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Dennis Vokins, Transport Man [Part One ]

by The Stratford upon Avon Society

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
The Stratford upon Avon Society
People in story: 
Dennis Vokins
Location of story: 
West Country, Stratford
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 August 2005

42a - Dennis Vokins: I was born in Gosport, Hampshire, 1923, May, which was a Naval Base that was on the opposite site to Portsmouth Harbour.

I went to school in Gosport, and finished up in Portsmouth Municipal College, and I think … I can remember when I was in the infants school, it used to face the dockyard which was about 2 miles away, and at 11 o’clock in the morning and 3 o’clock in the afternoon they dismantled the shells from the Great War and they used to burn the cordite, a very big orange flame in the sky, used to last for about 2 minutes, it used to light the whole of the school up inside, I mean that’s something I can remember. And another bit I can remember was, the sea was very near the road when we went to school and if there was a flood tide it would come over the road, so we used to think we can’t get to school, we’ll do a bunk! And of course going to school, where were you? Couldn’t get in sir, the tide. Well why didn’t you come round the other way into school, but we never thought of that, and you got the stick for that! No, things like that, but it’s a job to remember a lot of your childhood, but I can remember a lot you know, different things.

I can remember the house near us, a little girl, her nightdress caught fire and she died, and there was another lad a few doors up, he got a gun out of the …, what we used to call “the mud” from the Great War, got all sorts of guns and that, got this gun out and messing about and it went off and killed him, it’s incidents like you remember, more than the good things I think.

And I suppose I was apprenticed when I was 14 when I left school to the motor trade, and I was there a few years, and then we started doing war contracts then, shifting people about with the coaches and that and I was working down in Bath for quite a long time, we were shifting people about up to Corsham there, there was a big underground works being built there, they were mostly Irishmen on the site, I think there was about 12,000 of them working up there, and we were doing a lot of the transport, shifting them up and bringing them back at night, and I used to stop in Milk Street in Bath and they started bombing very close from Bristol from around there, and we decided a few nights we would get the coaches and we’d move out of Bath and stop outside which we did. Fortunately we did, because, I can’t remember the exact date, it was 1942 they bombed Bath, Milk Street went, and we lost a lot of coaches there at the same time, so we were very fortunate there going up on the hillside and getting out of Bath.

And then I think beginning of about 1943 I came round here, and I have been here ever since. We were doing contracts for the War Agricultural Committee, War Office and people like that you know with coaches and trucks and various things, I suppose we used to run around 200 vehicles then, the people I worked for. And I used to look after all the vehicles, and such like then. Come in contact with a lot of different people, we did the transport with a lot of the land girls about in our vehicles, I know many of them but I don’t know their names, you know you know them by sight but you never used to know their names, and I suppose when the war finished, it would be ’45, I decided I’d stop round here because where I came from there was not much employment, but now there’s more employment there I think than anywhere, but I’m not sorry I stopped round here though, eventually I settled in Stratford.

Neville Usher: Portsmouth must have been knocked about a lot though?

Dennis Vokins: Quite a lot, Portsmouth and around there, various places yes. I had a few close calls I suppose during the war, as I say I was at Bath when it was bombed, missed that, and I used to go out repairing concrete mixers and such out on the building sites roundabout, and I was on Tangmere aerodrome one day when the Germans came over and strafed it all across the aerodrome, killed a few, I was lucky to get missed. And another one I remember, I …, we were in Gosport at what used to be the old Ports, Gosport and I forget the other name where the air force was, and there was the old moat all the way round, and there were about 12/15 feet deep, there was no water in them, but I can remember jumping over the wall there to get out of the way, they were strafing the aerodrome and I had a drop of about 12 ft., but I never got hurt fortunately. We used to do a bit of fire fighting and such like.

I can remember one incident, we …, my brother was hung on the …, I think my brother was evacuated up to Cheltenham, and we had been down a couple of houses and put out a few incendiaries, and there was some big oil storage tanks near us and they blew up! They bombed one, I can remember all the contents were up in the sky, I can remember my brother Charlie saying I think we’ve had it, and the heat was terrific, we couldn’t do anything it was an absolute vast area and eventually burnt itself out, we were just showered in soot!

Neville Usher: What about the day that war actually broke out?

Dennis Vokins: The day war broke out, they stationed the fire engine alongside of our garage, and we were filling …, I was filling sandbags that day when the war was declared at 11 o’clock, and I can remember that very clear, I was filling sandbags, and I don’t know what happened after that, but we’d got these firemen stationed in the side of us and we’d got a little office we used to go and have our tea in, and they took that over from us and used it as their office, and they commandeered our gas ring and our kettle and everything else, and of course I wasn’t very old I didn’t care in those days, I said I’ll stop ‘em. What are you going to do? There was a chemist on the other side of the road, I went over and got three pence worth of Epsom Salts., and when their kettle was boiling I put it in the kettle! And after that they went and bought their own kettle; I don’t think they ever …, they never knew what happened, but I think they had a good idea, but I thought well that’s good, and we managed to get our kettle back and our gas ring back! I mean you wouldn’t dream of doing it now, but in those days, well, you didn’t bother much with things like that.

There was quite a lot of bombing in Gosport itself, and Portsmouth had even more. And I think, most was 1941 was the worst one in Gosport, quite a lot of people killed and in Portsmouth, but I still believe that the figures they used to give out, of casualties were far higher than the figures that were ever published I think, I am certain of that.

Neville Usher: For fear of causing panic?

Dennis Vokins: Yes. I’ll be about 14½/15, I was still going over to the Portsmouth Municipal College, and of course we used to go across the ferry to get there, well then they started dropping the ferries because of the bombing and that, I stopped school then and that was it, and I didn’t go to the College any more after that, it just went by the board.

Neville Usher: What about D day or VE day, any memories?

Dennis Vokins: Well I was in Stratford, and I honestly can’t say whether it was D day or VE day, and I stopped outside the Horse and Jockey, it would be about a quarter to eleven/eleven o’clock and I had got a radio in because you were allowed to have radios back in cars then, and I got the door open and listened, and I suppose there must have been perhaps 60 to 100 people round the vehicle listening to the declaration of the end of the war, and possibly there are still some people about who can remember it, I don’t know, but that’s one thing I remember. And at the same day, we went up to London with a mate of mine, we went up to London and I still …, I am still not certain whether it was the first one or the second one of the end of the war, and I know we went up we parked up and we wandered around the centre of London amongst all the crowds, that was ’45. For people it was absolutely like this, everybody was happy, on top of the world, and climbing on the vehicles, 20/30 sat on a taxi going around and things like that if they could move.

Neville Usher: But you said “allowed to have a radio”, could you not have a radio?

Dennis Vokins: During the war you weren’t allowed car radios until about 1944 I think.

Neville Usher: Why I wonder?

Dennis Vokins: I don’t know why the reason for that was, whether you think you might pick up enemy broadcasts or you broadcast to them or what I don’t know, but you weren’t allowed car radios. I think it was about early ’44 or late ’43 when they allowed you to have them back in, but I must admit I suppose all these years nobody can do anything, I had a radio in, and it was under the dash, and for an aerial I had a great bit coil of copper tubing, and it was just taped onto the roof and I used that as an aerial so nobody knew I had got a radio in, and I used to listen to the radio. I mean they were old fashioned radios, because they were not like they were not like they are now, they used to have what they called a vibrator in, to get the high tension current, and it would vibrate very fast, to give you from 6 volts up to 120 or so, and the contacts were going like that all the time and they used to stick together, and you used to have to take them out, undo ‘em, and file the contact put ‘em back and they’d work alright, but that’s something you don’t get now.
The taxis in Stratford were the yellow taxis and the black and white taxis, and a gentleman by the name of Overington used to run those, and they were at 6d. a mile in those days. The black and white ones were 2 seaters, they were Ford Anglias and with just 2 seats at the back and I think they were 6d. a mile, and the others were yellow taxis and they were probably a little bit more expensive, but he used to run I think about 20/25 of those at one time. And then, about 1947 I went to work for him and I looked after the taxis for about 2 years for him till I moved on more, but it was quite an event in Stratford, all these black and white and yellow taxis, I suppose not many people remember them now.
And actually if you go into Henley Street, his office used to be right at the top of Central Chambers, and he used to have taxis park on Henley Street and if he wanted anybody, there’s two, there’s a blue and a yellow light up there, and he’d flash the light then he’d go to the telephone in Cook’s Alley, but those two lights are still up there! And if you go down Henley Street and look up opposite Argos, they’re right on the top of the building and they’re still there after all this time and they’re still there. And just ring them, and they’d go to the phone in the Cook’s Alley, I mean nothing like nowadays, you’ve got a mobile and things. But mainly I think he worked from Rother Street there, taxi rank.

Neville Usher How long were you working on the taxis then?

Dennis Vokins About two years I think, I was looking after them for ‘47/49. Till ’49 I think, something like that. Various things like that, since then different jobs, and then I think I worked for the Maudsley Motor Company for about 35 years, building … I think at first we were building chassis, AEC chassis, engines, then AEC engines, then we were building AEC then we were building AEC dock trucks, they were somewhere in the region of 14ft. wide and high for off the road work you know, open cast coal and then we, after that we were building the Standard diesel engine, we were building those at about 250 a week, Standard diesel engine. Then that came to an end, and I was working on building axles, differentials and axles for AEC, and then we became part of British Leyland, and they decided they didn’t want they didn’t want all the different divisions, and they sold Maudsley Motor Co. to
American Rockwell International, the spacecraft people and that, and the last few years I was working for Rockwell, and we produced axles for commercial vehicles there, we done up to a thousand a week or something like that, they used to go all over the world they did, and then it became cheaper labour abroad, and the plant gradually went to Italy, Portugal, and by about 1990 I suppose, the plant was finished. ’94, something like that, it would be about ‘94/95, now the plant at the moment is virtually derelict now, they’re waiting for permission to build on it, they want to put housing on it. But the last I saw in the paper, there’s an application in to build a home for retired people, to hold 550 people and the locals were opposing it, and said it would bring too much traffic in so I don’t know what the outcome of that will be, but it was a vast site there. It came there during the war, Maudsley Motor Company.

Neville Usher Where exactly where was it?

Dennis Vokins At Great Alne. They moved from Coventry because of the bombing, and that was what they called a shadow factory for building aircraft stuff and like that, and that must have come into operation I presume about 1940. And then it came over to building chassis and engines and things like that then, but strangely I have been associated I suppose with Maudsley all my life. Because when I had left school, we had coaches to work on, they were Maudsley coaches, and then I was associated after that for a long time, and then I used to go round to the Maudsley Factory because I was living round Great Alne, and they used to have a lot of old chassis round there, trying to get hold of spare parts but they would never part with them! They used to have them stacked outside, and eventually I went to work for them, so to some extent I suppose I have been involved with them for most of my life, the Maudsley Motor Company.

Neville Usher: Somebody in Sherbourne I talked to, saw a plaque in the church to Henry Maudsley, wondered who he was, and the only relative left as far they could trace, is an unmarried niece in Scotland. They started investigating him, and found that he was part of the Dambusters, and he was 21 and he was killed on one of the raids, and they went over to Germany and they met the bloke, who was 16 years old at the time in charge of an Ack Ack gun, and he’d shot down Henry Maudsley.

Dennis Vokins I think that is another part of the original Maudsley, but I don’t think that was really anything to do with the Maudsley of Parkside in Coventry.

Neville Usher: I think they said Maudsley Motors, when they used to make cars way back, and also part of the Standard Motor Company.

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