This is the transcript of a conversation between Mary Stopes-Roe (MSR) and James Holland (JH) at Mary’s house in Birmingham in 2011, in which they discussed the character, upbringing and home life of Sir Barnes Wallis.
MSR: He was devoted to my mother. The letters…oh God!
JH: It was a lovely courtship wasn’t it because he got to know her when she was 17 and they married when she was 20 and he was older.
MSR: He was 17 years older. Did you read the book The Mathematics of Love?
JH: No, but I’ve read the Morpurgo.
MSR: We never liked the Morpurgo very much, partly because he didn’t ask us one question. Children see their parents from a particular angle.
JH: He was quite close to his own parents, particularly his mother I understand.
MSR: He absolutely loved her. He was her favourite of her four children. There was John, then there was Barnes and then Annie, the only girl, and then Charles.
JH: Were they all quite close?
MSR: No. John and my father went to Christ’s Hospital together. John in 1899 and Barnes in 1900. Both got entry scholarships. My grandfather had a tough time. He was a doctor. He met my grandmother Edith at Edith’s sister’s. She was married to a fairly wealthy doctor and lived in Woolwich. My grandfather was a medical student. He and Edie got married when he was in his last year as a medical student. There wasn’t a lot of money. They had John and it became imperative that Charles got a job and he took the first one offered which was in Whitby. They moved up there and Edie hated it. She’s written wonderful things about it. The mining and steel industry. She hated that it was so far from London and her family. She was very family-minded and as soon as they could they went back to London. I don’t think Charles’s Oxford ways went down terribly well with the miners. They moved to New Cross which wasn’t nearly as poor then as it became. By this time they also had Barnes who was born in ’87. They moved to 241 New Cross Road – it has a plaque on the wall. Annie wrote marvellous memoirs of their time there. Edie had a bad chest all her life and tended to suffer greatly.
JH: Was it asthma?
MSR: Yes – very bad sometimes, and New Cross Road and the fogs and so on and in 1893 Annie was born and the little boys were sent away to old, grumpy Reverend George and his second wife Caroline – Barnes’s grandparents – and by that time he’d retired and gone to live in the Isle of Wight, and they went there to Ventnor. Edie wrote to the boys regularly, perhaps not very wisely, and she proclaimed a bit about a treat when they got home and it was a red scorpion. What sort of treat was that for 2 little boys? In the autumn of 1893, my grandfather got polio from a patient and was very, very ill for 6 weeks and then had a very prolonged convalescence during which time he stayed with Edith’s sister Lilly in Woolwich. The poor little boys were sent off again to grumpy George, having only been at home for about four weeks and they must have been away for a couple of months if not more. It must have been devastating for them. Edie wrote all the time and there were one or two letters from Barnes at that stage, but he was only six. They got home to find their father with an enormous calliper on his leg, very lame. Even I can remember that. He was lame for ever after that. He was very brave and very persistent. He was possibly a bit of a depressive but he had a profound religious faith and he and Edie passed that on to Barnes – a deeply held conviction.
JH: How did that manifest itself?
MSR: We went to church every Sunday as children. When we moved back to Surrey from Yorkshire he was very much part of the village – Clerk of the Parish Council and he also fixed the church clock.
JH: Did he read the bible and pray at home?
MSR: I am quite sure he prayed; whether he read the bible I’m not sure.
JH: Grace before meals?
JH: It was more a sort of private thing?
MSR: Yes. When he had achieved something, he went back to his room and got down on his knees and thanked the Lord. I think it was very sincere. My maternal grandfather was very religious, puritanical rather.
JH: You were saying he was a bit of a depressive but religious.
MSR: I think his life had been hard and there he was having to keep his family. He was not particularly wealthy. He became a panel doctor.
JH: What’s that?
MSR: The Poor Law guardians in all parishes were required to check out who couldn’t afford medical assistance and who they could support and there was a Poor Law Doctor who took on the poorer patients. In some of Edie’s letters there are references to how his patients loved him – were devoted to him. He was a very good man just not a very cheerful one. At New Cross he couldn’t afford a pony and trap and so he got a tricycle and pedalled around New Cross which was hard work. He was a good man.
JH: And a kind man and a good father?
MSR: Yes. They came to stay with us quite regularly.
JH: He wasn’t forbidding in any way?
MSR: No. Just rather aloof. Men were like that then – older men. Edie died in 1911.
JH: That must have been devastating for everyone. She was such a live wire.
MSR: She certainly was.
JH: And a good foil for his personality?
MSR: He had a totally different temperament to her. She had a much warmer temperament. Barnes was definitely her favourite child.
JH: Where did that name from?
MSR: A Colonel Barnes Robinson. Charles’s mother was Annie Robinson and her brother was Colonel Barnes Robinson and I don’t know where his name came from, but Barnes was called after him. He was going to be Barnes’s Godfather but he died just before the christening. My father had quite a bit of ill health as a boy. He had a mastoid operation on a kitchen table; things happened like that. He was deaf in one ear and that ran in the family. They were never what you’d call socialites – that wasn’t part of our lives. Barnes went to Haberdasher’s Aske Prep School and I think he did well there apart from the ill health. Then he got a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital in 1900 and John was there. It was in London then and later moved to Sussex. Grandfather Charles did not want Barnes to forego a classical education because there would have been no way he could have got to Oxford without the classics. Barnes’s ability in maths was already obvious but he was hopeless at Latin and hated it. The headmaster allowed him to transfer to the modern side but he had to begin at the bottom again and he found that very upsetting and it knocked his self-confidence, but in the end he was very happy there and appreciated all it had to offer. He was an extremely keen rugby player and he played cricket and tennis. They moved from 241 New Cross Road up to Pepys Road for Edie’s health. Too late, of course.
JH: What did she die from?
MSR: Heart attack brought on by asthma and bronchitis.
JH: What about the school holidays? Do you remember him making things?
MSR: At Pepys Road he fitted the place out with electricity.
JH: He did it himself?
MSR: So it is reported. It would only have been the odd light bulb here and there. When he was an apprentice he had far more knowledge so it probably wasn’t when he was still at school. He did carpentry – made things. Made a chest for Edie, which is upstairs.
JH: Was it quite good?
MSR: Yes, to my simple mind.
JH: He seemed such a practical minded chap.
MSR: In 1902 they moved Christ’s Hospital to Horsham with running water and light and there was so much more space. He loved that and he does write about it. 1902 to 1904 were wonderfully happy years. He had a marvellous maths teacher – we called him Uncle Chat. He was lovely, and when he later went blind, my father taught himself Braille so he could communicate with him. Uncle Chat was taught by Professor H. A. Armstrong of the Holistic Method of Education. You might not know anything about this but it was a very interesting and I think very valuable movement at the end of the nineteenth century. His maxim was learning by doing and the lab was where Barnes spent his time. To get to Oxbridge, which is what Grandpa wanted, he would have had to have had Latin. He couldn’t take Matric at Christ’s Hospital because of the Latin and Uncle Chat helped him to take the Matric by himself. He sat it in the September and failed. By that time he was searching for an apprenticeship. He didn’t want to go into the sixth form. The lack of much money was on Barnes’s mind and he thought if he got an apprenticeship rather than going to Oxford, he’d be able to help financially with the upkeep of the family. Edie did have a lot of financial troubles but she still had a maid. It was all so different in those days. So he left school of his own volition. The school didn’t want him to and his parents didn’t either but he’d made up his mind and did it. He and Grandpa went around London looking for a suitable apprenticeship and he ended up joining Thames Engineering aged seventeen.
JH: Did he immediately do well?
MSR: He did when he could. Thames Engineering in 1904/5 – we were not preparing for war – and they didn’t have much work, and Barnes wasn’t getting anywhere except that it did start him off on a very great love of water and the sea. The sea was his first love; it really interests me that he ever went into the air. But it’s circumstances. He writes beautifully about the river. He was happy by the water. One of his step-uncles, who was very kind, found another apprenticeship for him at J. S. White Shipbuilding on the Isle of Wight. That was in 1908.
JH: Was that military ship building?
MSR: Yes, I think they were making engines for destroyers at that stage or torpedo boats was it…Edie found him digs in West Cowes. She was there a lot. I think he was very happy in Cowes. He made a lot of friends. He was extremely gregarious. He played tennis and cricket and rugger and joined a team.
JH: How short-sighted was he?
MSR: He was always short-sighted but don’t know by how much. He was the Secretary of the Tennis Club and organised dances and so on, as reported in letters to Edie. He had a little sailing boat and went sailing with mates and once nearly got mown down by a torpedo gun-boat. He swam a lot; loved the water. Then he moved to the drawing office and he describes going on test trials in destroyers and he described to Edie how hot it was in the engine room.
JH: I know he was an accomplished draughtsman but did he sketch a lot as a boy?
MSR: There’s no report of him doing that. He had a lively sense of humour, which we all remember very well from ditties he’d make up on the spur of the moment. He was fun. Edie sent him food parcels. He sent his laundry home! He was devastated by Edie’s death. Annie and Charles found him rooms in Cowes.
JH: How old was Edie when she died?
MSR: Fifty-two. All through his childhood they had masses of animals – canaries, pigeons, doves, hens, dogs, cats, rabbits. They all had names. I don’t think my mother liked animals very much because we never had animals as children. I grew up with the impression that my father didn’t like dogs but nothing could have been further from the truth. I found that quite a puzzle when I read Edie’s letters and she talked about all these pets. In 1913, Asquith realised that German air power was vastly superior to ours and we were threatened and we had nothing. Vickers reconvened at the Barrow works. This chap Pratt, who had been at Barrow and then went to Whites, had warned the Mayfly would break her back as soon as she was hit by wind, and she did, so he was whisked back to Barrow and my father said to him as he was leaving, ‘If you need another pair of hands, don’t forget me.’ And Pratt didn’t forget him, and when he set up the airship design office in London – very secret – he asked Barnes if he’d like to join him, and he did. That was the end of the water and up into the air; sheer circumstance.
JH: Do you think he wasn’t progressing at Whites?
MSR: I’ve no idea. He and Pratt became good friends there. One of the things that intrigued me when I read his correspondence with Edie is that Edie talks about the development in air travel – the Wright Brothers and Bleriot and that poor chap Laysham – she writes about them to Barnes, and Barnes makes no comment whatever. According to his letters he’s simply not interested. It is odd.
JH: He was obviously forward-thinking.
MSR: I think it was sheer chance; the opportunity came along.
JH: One of the features of an inventor is that they are constantly looking forward; looking for new ways to do things.
MSR: I never asked him. It never occurred to me until I realised that Edie wrote about air travel and Barnes didn’t answer.
JH: That energy and vitality your father had – looking forward when he did become an inventor – seems to have come from his mother rather than his father. She seems to have more of those characteristics.
MSR: I think he did take after her more. His father was very lugubrious. The other thing is that the aeroplane industry was already going in Cowes.
JH: And across the water in Southampton.
MSR: We shall never know the answer…unless someone else already does.
JH: His passion for the water would have led people to believe that’s where his interests lay.
MSR: He was hoiked into the air anyway.
JH: And no doubts about leaving Whites?
MSR: Not that I’ve found. One only knows what one can find out.
JH: It was quite a leap from the balmy south to the north-east.
MSR: He made some very good friends up in Barrow that lasted all their lives. Then Vickers in Barrow closed down and the airship programme in general closed down in 1919 so Barnes was out of a job, but Vickers paid him a retainer of £250 a year.
JH: So he was designing and working all through the First World War?
MSR: Yes, in Barrow. He found digs.
JH: Thank God he didn’t have to go away and fight.
MSR: He tried three times, but every time he was hauled back. He cheated on his eye test by memorising the list of letters. But Vickers called him back because it was a reserved occupation. He was desperate to go. If only they knew.
JH: So in 1919 he was out of a job.
MSR: Yes, and interestingly, I discovered that his father had a nervous breakdown at that stage. What it consisted of I don’t know.
JH: Did you find that out from letters?
MSR: Yes, and various medics’ reports and things tucked away in boxes, some of which are going to the British Library. Anyway, he came back to London, to Pepys Road, New Cross. By that time, he’d married his second wife, a girlhood friend, married in 1916. She was a girlhood friend of Edie’s who happened to be my mother’s aunt, Fanny, a lovely lady. My mother’s aunt was a girlhood friend of Edie’s.
JH: Everyone was happy about it?
MSR: Oh yes. No-one in the family had an unkind word to say about Aunt Fanny; a dear soul. We never knew poor Edie. Barnes did Matric – he went to night school in 1911 and passed in time for Edie to know about it before she died, and then he got his degree – did it in five months. At the same time he met Molly. Molly went to stay with her beloved aunt Fanny in New Cross – you might as well read the book The Mathematics of Love rather than me tell you. It’s fascinating.
JH: They got married when she was twenty?
MSR: Yes, on April 23rd and she was twenty-one the next September and he was thirty-four. My maternal grandfather was very upset about it. He didn’t want to lose his favourite child. He had five daughters and one son and he loved them all dearly. He was a wonderful father and grandfather. He died in 1940. A stray bomb cut the house in Epsom in half and my grandfather and aunt and uncle were killed. My very neurotic grandmother and the two little boys survived, and my parents were in Effingham, and they were rung up immediately and they went over and whisked off the boys and granny. Our local GP knew the family inside-out and knew granny was an odd lady, and he took her in and my parents took the two little boys.
JH: Had your father and grandfather made up by then?
MSR: Yes. Barnes at thirty-five was at the top of his profession and earning very nicely thank you, and could support Molly very well. Her older sister and husband couldn’t do anything. They had no money.
JH: So he got paid a fair whack, did he? The house in Effingham is still there, is it?
MSR: Oh yes. I don’t want to go back. It was a lovely childhood. Grandpa said she was too young and she was only seventeen when they met. Grandpa said they were not to correspond but they got round that. Molly was determined to be a doctor which was one of the things that struck Barnes about her, but her maths wasn’t up to it and Barnes said he’d coach her by correspondence and he did – he wrote mathematics to her! Delightful! After a year, she decided that being a doctor wasn’t for her and so she only did a year. Then grandpa realised there wasn’t any getting away from it. He had an enormous affection for Barnes when he got to know him.
JH: Were they at Effingham by the time you were born?
MSR: No, I was born in York. My brother was born in London; older brother and a younger sister Elizabeth and Christopher at the bottom. My older brother, Barnes Junior, became an aeronautical engineer after Cambridge and worked for my father for a while. I miss him bitterly; dead for two years now. Christopher went into civil engineering and made his mark especially in restoration – windmills and all sorts. He’s been dead for four years. We went up to Howden in ’26 – the ex-Royal Naval airship station. My brother was born in February ’26 and they moved up to a bungalow which was exceptionally uncomfortable and freezing cold…My sister wasn’t born until 1933 – five-and-a-half years later, and she doesn’t remember half as much as I do about the thirties. I went away to Godolphin in ’39, partly because my brother was at Dauntsey’s.
JH: Why Dauntsey’s?
MSR: My brother was sent away to boarding prep at the age of seven. It nearly broke my mother’s heart, but that’s what happened to gents’ sons. Poor little boy, and I did miss him dreadfully. I think it was hard for my father too but that was what was done then. I suppose they thought Wiltshire might have been safer. My father always thought we were poor. I don’t suppose we really were. My mother kept masses of account books; every last thing was noted down. They were always extremely careful.
JH: Did you enjoy Godolphin?
MSR: I loved it. I went there just as war broke out. I was just twelve.
JH: So was your father’s work building up in the 30’s?
JH: He’d moved from airships onto aircraft? Was he doing Wellingtons?
MSR: Wellesleys. When the R.101 crashed and they scrapped the R100, Vickers closed the airship works at Howden, and so he was out of a job again. But Vickers didn’t want to lose him and they sent him to Vickers Supermarine on the south coast and they expected to move to Southampton. But Barnes and R.J. Mitchell didn’t get on very well – don’t know why. So Vickers put Barnes in Weybridge and that’s where he stayed for the rest of his working life. He didn’t always get on with management, but there we are.
JH: I think people can read too much into these things.
MSR: They moved south to Brooklands.
JH: That was quite a leap up from the bungalow in Howden.
MSR: It was indeed, in every way. But Molly did love Yorkshire. But they made friends.
JH: And then got involved in village life in Effingham? Did you say your father was clerk to the Parish Council?
MSR: Yes, from almost the moment they got there.
JH: It sounds to me like your father was very down to earth – not a snob.
MSR: No, but he had very high principals. I think there were certain prejudices against the nouveau riche; not what an out-and-out gentleman does. You get my meaning?
JH: I do, but taking account that things were different then. He was a high-ranking designer in Vickers, the premier armaments manufacturers, and yet he was still prepared to be Clerk to the Parish Council. That shows he wasn’t above himself.
MSR: He was very germane in organising Effingham Golf Club – lovely clubhouse. He enjoyed his golf. But he didn’t prop up the bar.
JH: Would he ever have a sherry before dinner or anything like that?
MSR: He was very sweet. When we were young marrieds, all four of us, and when we all gathered round, I don’t know how my mother coped. All the cousins got on, and there must have been more than 20 of us, and before we had supper he would say, ‘Would you like a sherry?’ We always had a sherry before supper – and my mother who was economy personified would say no, and would have some from her bottle of red label cooking sherry. He did like a good beer; but only ever a half a glass, my dear. But to people who came – builders and such like – he would say, ‘Do we have some cheese and a beer for Mr. Green’, or whoever it was. He would talk with these people – providing they did a good job. And there was the gardener, who would have a Sunday afternoon bottle of beer.
JH: But was there wine at dinner?
MSR: No, not at all. They’d have wine if entertaining, but my Mother wasn’t good at entertaining. She was wonderful at coping with all of us, but not entertaining. She was not what you would call gregarious. But she did the welfare clinics – all orange juice, rose hip syrup and cod liver oil. She loved that, but that was because it was babies.
JH: But you had a good childhood?
MSR: Oh yes, idyllic. But we had to tow the line. We had to be in time for breakfast, and apologise if we weren’t. We had to go to bed when told. But we had such freedom compared to the young these days. We could go to the park. The Canadian Army were stationed near the house and we were allowed to talk to them, and well, not exactly play with them, but we used to march up and down behind them. I was allowed to go and visit the Italian prisoners – but I had to go with my brother John – who were on a farm nearby, and apparently happy to be out of the war. Any my best friend Julie from down the road and I, and sometimes her brother Humphrey, although he was a bit of a squit, were allowed to go out on the common all day. Wouldn’t happen now. Anyway, it was a great childhood. The uncles and aunts were lovely, and the grandparents were lovely.
JH: And was your father warm and approachable?
MSR: Oh yes, until the war, when I must admit it got a bit more severe. His standards were always high. You were not rude; top and bottom of it. Nothing wrong with that. From that point of view, I may have had a strict upbringing, but I never felt it was strict. And I think it was done with a backup of affection and concern, and he was always interested in our school reports, and how we were doing with our music.
JH: And when you came home from school, did you always have supper together around the kitchen table?
MSR: Oh yes. Oh wait – in the thirties my parents would eat alone and we had our high tea after school with blessed darling Nan, who came to my mother when my mother was born, and there she stayed until Granny, who was neurotic, took against her because Nan had queried something she was doing with George. And Granny said, ‘Grandpa, Nan must go’. But by that time Mummy had Barnes and me and so Nan came to Howden and stayed until she died in autumn 1943 of pneumonia. It was a ghastly time.
JH: She was there in the house with you all that time?
MSR: Yes – not that my mother wasn’t the most mothering mother you could ever imagine, but Nan was always there. She cooked…she was the greatest gift. It was very, very sad and difficult when she died. I don’t know how my mother coped. She had to feed us all. She could cook, of course, but she hadn’t cooked much because Nan did it and she had to feed six of us. I don’t think she could have eaten anything herself.
JH: Did you ever have supper in the dining room with your parents?
MSR: Not while Nan was there, and then I went away to school and in the war I don’t think it would have been very easy for my father to eat with us.
JH: I just wondered if there was a time you regularly got to see your father when he was there.
MSR: When he was there we did, and we had wonderful camping holidays in Dorset, outside Swanage, and then in 1938 Lyme Bay. We used to go for a whole wonderful month. We went to Dorset because my best friend in Effingham, her mother was a Dorset lass and knew the county well. In about 1932 she said, ‘Would you like to come down to Dorset and camp with us?’ And we did. We had a little row of three bell tents apart from the other family. My father joined the Territorials and absolutely loved the routine, the discipline and the order, and our camp was run on those lines and, by gum, it had to be run properly! And we loved it.
JH: Did you cook over a fire?
MSR: No, we had Primus’s.
JH: Lots of walks and down to the beach?
MSR: Yes, and we’d go to Wimborne Minster and Dorchester and Wareham – day forays. In 1938 they bought an ex-milk van and my brother learnt to drive in it. My mother drove. She didn’t have to take a driving test, she just drove that and my father drove the car down. My mother laid in stores – you’d think there weren’t any shops in Swanage! The farmer used to store the tents for us over the winter. The last time we went was in 1956. It went on after the war. I remember people coming down from Vickers – my father’s right hand man was a devoted fellow called Mr Grant – and others, they came down and had consultations, and my father always had work down there. Sometimes he’d have to back, leaving my mother in charge. We didn’t go down there at all during the war – 1939 was the last summer and then not again until 1946. Then, of course, it was not just us, but all the additional people as well: friends, chaps, grandchildren. In 1956 there was a great storm, which blew down the tents and ripped them into shreds. My number three was born in March and this was August. Barnes Junior’s number one the same and so Jen and I were both nursing and it was all very dramatic. We decamped to the lighthouse that belonged to Harry’s mother in Portland. My mother-in-law [Mary Stopes] and I were not on good terms – she detested me. She was a very powerful woman. It was very difficult but we behaved well – we went to stay in her beautiful house outside Dorking. She wasn’t at the lighthouse, though, otherwise we wouldn’t have gone. That storm was the end of it. Still, things can’t go on forever.
JH: He didn’t leave his work behind, but he really lightened up on holiday did he?
MSR: Oh yes.
JH: And how about life at home for your parents?
MSR: He used to sit and chat and read both at the same time. She did too. And he always had a book, even when he ate.
JH: What did he read?
MSR: For light relief, detective stories. Agatha Christie and so on. He had an enormous collection of those. It took his mind off endless other worries. And of course, The Times. Naturally, dear boy! He also used to read to my mother while she had her enormous piles of mending and darning. He’d read her Austen and Hardy and Dickens – all the good stuff.
JH: How conscious were you of his war work?
MSR: Well, I was away at school, but as far as I was concerned he worked and that was it. He had his upstairs study which they put in specially in ’31, I think. I think the reason we were not conscious of his work was, and this may sound odd, he never made any mystery of it. I mean, we were all there and chased the marbles. So it was – well there you are; so what? When we were on holiday we would be skimming stones, and he would get his to bounce eight or nine times. I don’t know what I was doing wrong, but mine only went one or two times.
JH: But you knew he was an inventor; a designer.
MSR: We knew he designed the R.100 because I had a doll called R.100. She still exists; she’s up at the trust in Yorkshire. She’s not as beautiful as she was, but she’s very much loved.
JH: Did you ever ask him to explain what he was doing?
MSR: He didn’t not explain, he just didn’t explain. We didn’t ask him. He wouldn’t have minded me asking him; he never minded telling anyone if they asked. There would be sketches on menus. My impression is that we never bothered talking about it because why should we?
JH: There must have been a heck of a strain when the war was on and life harder than ever. Did you feel a bit cut off from him then?
MSR: No I don’t think so. He was more abstracted, more tired, more in the study, more away, but so was I as I was away at school. You might get a different picture from my sister because she didn’t come to Godolphin till ’44.
JH: Did he feel strongly that the cause was just, and that Hitler was evil and had to be knocked out?
MSR: Oh, goodness, yes. He was immensely patriotic and loyal, and believed immensely in the Commonwealth and the benefits thereof. He thought we could dispense the rule of law, and that’s old fashioned. But that’s how he was. So he would have fought right to the bitter end. We did some wrongs inevitably, but on the whole we did right. He believed that Nazism was a real threat and had to be dealt with. He didn’t articulate it in so many words, but it was the background to so much of our thinking. My younger brother, who was then about six, used to say, ‘Silly old Hitler.’ It wasn’t so much a threat as a background, which we must aware of but were taught to be not frightened of. The generation of our parents did an incredible job; we were not frightened. I was not hungry – mind you, the boys were, perhaps. They kept such stoic upper-lips that we never thought the Germans were about to invade. They had enormous guts. I mean they’d only been through the same flipping thing twenty years before.
JH: Did you grow much in the garden?
MSR: Yes they did, a few vegetables, which he occasionally would go out and do a bit of help with.
JH: Was your father a music lover?
MSR: Yes. We had a gramophone. I don’t remember the wireless being a big part of our lives. They loved Vaughn Williams – that was modern in those days – and possibly Ravel, a bit of Debussy now and then. Mainly turn-of-the-century composers. We all played instruments. I played the violin, Barnes the cello, Christopher the viola, and Elizabeth another violin.
JH: Did your father play anything?
MSR: No, but he sang. We had singing lessons in the thirties. Every year the Wingfield Festival was important and was a big part of the string activity, and the Bookham Choral Society attended. We sang in the church choir, but not our parents.
JH: Your mother must have been a young mother
MSR: Yes she was. We always had lots of games. Christmas was such fun. Charades and all that sort of thing. We had Christmas parties, always with games. Wonderful guessing and memory games. And Beetle drives. Nowadays it’s so much more individualistic. I mean, we had a family quartet, and we had family concerts every Christmas. My mother played the piano; she’d play and my father would sing. They loved Brahms’ Requiem.
JH: Did you ever hear about the Dams Raid at all?
MSR: No, not a damn thing. My first memory was the house mistress at school saying, ‘Well, your father’s done it again, Mary.’ I said, ‘Done what?’ I think she probably shouldn’t have known because it was hush-hush, but presumably someone let it out. I did dig up a letter from my mother to her best friend in which she says that it had happened, and then she writes again in great haste and says this is not to be told to anyone else as it is a secret, but plainly someone had mentioned it. I think she just didn’t realise; she didn’t think either. She knew it was a big test for him and a big strain, as he didn’t know if it would work, but he always said that all the credit must go to the crews. I think the crews knew that, and that’s why they felt so warm to him. He was absolutely devastated by the loss of life. You may wonder how people can expect anyone to fly at 60 feet above water in an alien country and not come a cropper. Afterward when he was designing the Swallow, there were test pilots who were agitating to fly the model and test it for him. He said never ever again would he risk human life; he would not have it tested. So the prototypes were all electric radar-controlled and launched from a pad. There were no test pilots.
JH: Did he ever talk to you about the Dams Raid in later life, after the film came out? After all, it must be strange having yourself portrayed on screen.
MSR: Yes, he did like the film very much, and Michael Redgrave did tag around after him. Michael was very good, but he was a little bit too ‘soft’, ‘kindly’ – not that the impression was given that my father was withdrawn and not unkindly. That was not true; he was devoted to his workforce always, and they to him, and he always led from the front. He was the sort of chap who was up when they were up, working with them. There was no question of him managing from a distance.
JH: The British military achieved a lot in terms of converting scientific theory into practice.
MSR: Yes, but I think I am right in saying that even the Germans had thought about some kind of bouncing bomb long before him. He certainly did not claim that it was his idea, it’s just that he made it work, which no-one else had done before. And more importantly, the pilots managed to deliver it. I mean, the idea was no good without someone to put it into practice. He always said, it’s up to them. That’s why he set up the RAF Foundation. It sounds like chicken feed now, but at the time it was significant. To fly that low in daylight is a feat; to do it at night is quite incredible.
JH: Particularly over land you are not familiar with. Navigating then was so hard.
MSR: They were clever and brave men, and so he would have said too. In fact he would have said it louder than anyone else.