Margaret Skipp - Dartmouth
My Dartmouth - Margaret Skipp
Margaret Skipp believes in living life to the full, travelling the world and immersing herself in Dartmouth life, always with a laugh and infectious enthusiasm.
She is currently planning a trip to Japan, where she will lay flowers in memory of HMS Speaker, the ship on which her late husband served during WWII, and the first vessel to bring prisoners of war home from Japan.
“Usually I go by myself, but this year my son is coming with me – well I am getting on a bit and you never know…” she said. Margaret will be 86 in November.
Her long association with the crew and friends of HMS Speaker has seen Margaret attend several reunions, usually held in the House of Commons and attended by the Speaker of the House, after whom the ship was named. She has also laid flowers in Singapore, Australia and Hiroshima in the ship’s honour.
This year she will visit Nagasaki and Tokyo Bay, from where the converted aircraft carrier sailed with its cargo of war ravaged prisoners more than 60 years ago.
“The funny thing is that Reg never actually made it out to Japan with the ship,” Margaret explained. “He’d come home on leave to London and got caught up in the Blitz. By the time he made it back to Devonport the ship had sailed. But he was told they needed volunteers for the Army so he immediately joined the East Kent Regiment and was dispatched to India, Burma and Singapore.”
The armed forces dominated Margaret’s upbringing. Born in Northfleet near Gravesend in Kent, she was brought up by her grandmother, a woman of strict Victorian values. Her father was in the Army and fought at Dunkirk, and when he married Margaret’s mother the couple were too young to qualify for married quarters, and could not find a private flat that would take a baby.
They returned to the North of England without their little daughter. “Those were different times and my parents were very young. But I had three lovely uncles who made my childhood fun.”
Margaret left school at 14, and just before her 15th birthday war broke out. “I had the chance of a wonderful career and to go to art school, but my grandmother would not consider it. It was not what young girls did. So I had to go into service. I wasn’t yet 15 and I ran a family house – four storeys and I cooked, cleaned and budgeted for them. It was a different world then.”
The war changed everything. With the men away, Margaret and other young girls went to work in factories. She joined Vickers Armstrong making munitions. “We saw a lot of bombs and a lot of dog fights. The doodlebugs and rockets were always overhead. The aim was to shoot the German planes down before they reached London.
One night there was a terrific raid and one of my cousins was killed. I was walking home from the cinema with two friends when a piece of red hot shrapnel sliced into the road in front of us.”
The excitement of being with young people all wanting to head out after a day in the windowless world of the factory clashed with the strict regime of Margaret’s grandmother. Aged 16, Margaret left home and ventured to Huddersfield to live with her mother. It didn’t work out.
Six months later she was back in Kent, living with an aunt, working in a cement works and helping to make drums used to manufacture Mulberry Harbours.
“I wanted to join the Royal Air Force, but I was told I was too young, so I stayed in the cement works, releasing a lad to go off and serve in the Army,” she explained. “When he came back I was out of a job, so I went back to the air force.
By this time I was 19 and three months – and too old! I was very cross! I think they realised because they offered me a job in the NAAFI so off I went to Dartford Heath to feed the forces.”
Margaret took to her new profession immediately and soon her reputation for trouble shooting saw her travelling the South of England, raising standards at bases across the region. She remembers feeding up to 1,000 men at a time in just a 15 minute meal break, and meeting baffled Italian servicemen and their families who had been brought back to the UK from North Africa.
In 1947 she married Reg. “Of course in those days you couldn’t work when you were married, so that was the end of my time with the NAAFI, but I had really enjoyed it.”
Overcrowded Kent had hundreds of servicemen looking for housing. The couple moved eight times in eight months. “We ended up in a Nissen hut in the woods, given to us by Kent County Council.” By this time they had a young daughter, Lynn. A son, Christopher, soon followed.
Margaret and Reg toyed with the idea of emigrating to Australia, but instead Reg joined the RAF and the family moved between Somerset, Libya, Warwickshire and Singapore. In the 1970s, now grandparents, they lived near Nottingham, both working in Mansfield for a canning company. It was redundancy that brought them to Dartmouth.
“We took redundancy so that younger people could keep their jobs,” Margaret explained. “My daughter and her sons had spent many holidays at Leonards Cove in Stoke Fleming, and we always liked this area. She found us the shop and we came down to run it.”
Margaret instantly became one of the best known characters in Dartmouth as she stepped behind the counter of Dixon’s Coffee Shop and Boutique, on the corner where Boots now stands. Again she was catering -work she loved - as well as buying clothes for the shop. The couple lived above the business, before retiring to Victoria Road where Reg, increasingly plagued by ill health, sadly passed away.
Dartmouth life and people have kept Margaret going – through good times and bad. She said: “I did guided tours of Britannia Royal Naval College for 18 years and met all sorts of people including all the Royals!” Photographs adorning her sitting room shelves provide evidence in abundance.
Margaret has been on the Sea Cadets committee for more than 20 years, chairman of the Royal British Legion for four years, is local welfare officer for the Royal Naval Association, a steward for the Flavel and a keen member of the U3A.
She said: “Dartmouth is a lovely place to live and the town has been very good to me. Life is for living and while I have my health and strength that’s exactly what I intend to do!”
First published September 2010 By the Dart