Seletar School Girl


It was either in September or October 1953, when my father, Sergeant Harold Pearce, (RAF No.1247256), came home from work and announced to the family that we would all soon be going to live in a place called Singapore for a couple of years. My family consisted of my father Harold, my mother Winnie, my older sister Barbara and my three younger brothers, Barry, Derek and Michael. My father would be setting off in just a few weeks and we were all to follow him at the end of the year. We were all very excited as this would be our second posting abroad, having previously lived at RAF Habbaniya, Iraq in 1949-50. My sister and I could remember those days but my three brothers were a little too young. So in what seemed no time at all, my father had received his necessary jabs and was on his way to RAF Seletar.

In 1953 we lived in a small town called Harpur Hill, near Buxton in Derbyshire and went to the local school. In due course, we children all received our own jabs and when the other kids at school found out, they used to prod us painfully on our injections. The worst jab I remember was the one for Yellow Fever. We had to go by train to the fever hospital in Manchester to receive that one and I remember that on the way home we all felt quite unwell. However, we all recovered and soon we were packing bags for our own forthcoming adventure!

On New Year’s Eve 1953 we set off with mother on the train down to London and stayed overnight at the Union Jack Club near Waterloo, a noisy place and we hardly slept at all that night, possibly not helped by the excitement of our journey and New Year celebrations taking place in the area. The next day we did some sight-seeing in the big city, taking in Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral, before catching the boat train down to Southampton.

When we arrived at the docks we saw before us our huge ship that would take us across the seas to Singapore. It was the troopship “Empire Orwell”. After going through the embarkation procedures we were all shown to our cabin and started to settle in for the next stage of our journey. Not long after our departure from Southampton, we had the dubious pleasure of a stormy January crossing through the Bay of Biscay, the rough seas making us all very sick for a while. I can’t remember how long the passage to Singapore took, but it seemed a very long time to an eleven year old girl.

photo 1

Joyce Pearce (right), with older sister Barbara

Eventually and early one morning, we arrived at Singapore Docks and I remember going on deck to see if our father was there to meet us. I also recall my first enjoyable experience of that lush, exotic smell of tropical vegetation and the new but tasty aromas of Chinese cooking. Having been reunited with my father, we boarded an RAF bus that took us to our new home, located within the partially completed Serangoon Gardens Estate. Looking out of the window we could see lots of Chinese ladies with coolie hats, carrying baskets filled with dirt and rubble, on long sticks across their shoulders. They seemed to have a fascinating swaying motion as they walked back and forth across the construction site.

To continue our education, we were picked up every weekday morning by an RAF bus or sometimes a 3 ton truck or “garry”, with seats down the sides, and taken to school at Seletar. The school building we used was a type of large attap hut on short stilts, known to us as a “basha”. It was a wonderful time, especially for us kids. At playtime we were given chocolate or strawberry flavoured milk and we would often go underneath the basha and play marbles in the sand amongst the stilts. All the kids kept their marbles in an old cigarette tin, the round type that originally had a foil seal which was removed by twisting the tin lid. School lessons ended at lunchtime and we were all taken home again by bus or garry. I always thought we looked really smart in our green and white gingham skirts, white blouses and white shoes. Nearly every girl also had a basket in which to carry her school books. While we lived off the camp we moved a couple of times, but I can’t recall where. One house was next door to an Army sergeant major and his family who became good friends with my parents.

photo 2

Seletar Secondary School Classrooms (Basha)

During our period off camp there was a bad time when lots of fighting broke out in the local community and gunfire could be heard from time to time. We were told that Chinese students were stirring up trouble, in their bid for national independence. My father came home one day and said that we all had to pack just one bag each, in case we had to be evacuated. I must say, that as kids we thought it was all very exciting. The garries that picked us up for school had all been modified with wire mesh screens of the windscreen and around the canvas sides and open back. We also had a guard with a gun. Usually we had been able to laugh and joke with the drivers, but they were now very strict and we were told, “When I say GET DOWN, you must all immediately lie on the floor”. (I will omit all the strong language that accompanied those instructions!). We soon realised that this was a serious business and we did as we were told.

After a while we moved onto Seletar camp, to a house on Mornington Crescent. It was a great place and we used to walk to the swimming pool, splashing about and learning to swim, or playing rounders on the grass in front of the houses. A short while later we moved to what would be our permanent married quarters, at No.16 Brompton Road. We had only lived there a few weeks when our brand new Secondary School opened, located on Piccadilly opposite Mornington Crescent. It was a single story building and very modern compared to the old basha classrooms we had grown used to. I remember us kids helping to load the chairs and desks, from the basha onto the garry, for the move to our new school. We were sorry to be leaving our old familiar surrounding. I remember all the school children at Seletar going to the Astra cinema for a School Concert. We sang our heads off, all joining in with stirring favourites like “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Jerusalem”, getting a standing ovation from our parents and having to sing an encore!

photo 3

Seletar Secondary School (New 1956)

Other random memories that come to mind include standing in our garden where the ‘praties’ grew, which I always thought were flowers but turned out to be potatoes! There was always so much to do, such as Sports Day, or Seletar Open Day, when we used to watch a variety of demonstrations. Or there was Swimming Galas, with the RAF competing against the Army. The RAF usually won, or is that just my selective memory? Our family friend, Dickie Taylor, was a good swimmer and a member of the Seletar men’s swimming team. (He was a good looking man and I had a bit of a schoolgirl crush on him!). He actually married a lady called Eileen Mary Palmer, known to her friends as ‘Rusty’, whilst they were both serving at Seletar.

My parents used to have house parties a couple of times a year, when those lads doing their National Service would be invited. Mother put on a huge spread of food and father would get in a stack of beer and other drinks. It would be nice to think that some of those lads might remember my mother and father. As children on the camp we seemed to have such a privileged time, with great events like Bonfire Parties and Christmas Parties.

photo 4

Joyce’s mother Winnie Pearce, with some home party guests

The memories continue. My mother used to show us how father’s stiffly starched shorts could stand up on the floor by themselves, making us all laugh! Father bought a car and we went on trips to Changi beach, the Tiger Balm Gardens and took boat trips to many of the little islands surrounding Singapore, including one I knew as ‘Coral Island’. We also went across the causeway to Johore and Malaya. On one of those trips “up country” we were coming home and got stuck in a long queue of traffic. Looking around we were surprised to see that we were surrounded by soldiers in uniform and carrying guns. It turned out that they were all extras, dressed as Japanese soldiers and taking part in the filming of “A Town Like Alice”.

One day at about teatime, and whilst we were living at Brompton Road, all the family except my father were out and I was home doing my homework.. I was gazing out of the window when I saw a man riding a bike go straight into a monsoon ditch. I watched for a couple of minutes and he didn’t reappear. I told my father, who went out to have a look and being nosey I was right behind him. He told me to quickly get some towels whilst he helped the man out of the ditch. After briefly tending to his wounds he took the man to the sickbay. I had never seen so much blood in my life, but was later told that the man was recovering and would be ok. Because of that poor man I got out of doing my homework for that day!

My father got quite ill whilst we were at Seletar. He got bronchial asthma and had to spend some time in the sick quarters in the base and we went to visit him after attending Sunday School. I enjoyed going to Sunday School and was asked to play ‘Angel Gabriel’ in one of the Christmas Nativity Plays. The play was narrated so I just had to stand on a chair, wearing wings and a halo, with my arms up in the air!

Sunday was a special day for the family and we would listen to our favourite programmes on the radio, including Family Favourites, The Billy Cotton Band Show, The Huggets, Jimmy Clitheroe and the music of trumpeter Eddie Calvert, especially his huge hit ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’. It was a great time and place to be a child, a wonderful experience and as I write I can detect a slight scent of Singapore come to me. But alas, like all good things, it all had to come to an end. In 1956 we all came home to the UK by aeroplane, a Hastings I think, and it took just three days. We had several stops en-route, first at Calcutta, then Karachi, Ankara, Brindisi and finally Hendon. Wonderful memories of Seletar and Singapore, from all those years ago and hopefully to be cherished for many years to come.

Joyce Davies. Silloth, Cumbria. September 2012.