Authors: Sean O'Connor
Whilst based with the RAF in Grantham, Peter was hospitalized with a nervous condition. But he still managed to leave hospital every afternoon to go on illicit pub-crawls. Having little money, he began stealing cash from pubs in order to fund his drinking. On 13 October 1941 he stole £10 13s. 11d. from the Red Lion Hotel in Grantham and was duly arrested and charged. When he appeared before Grantham Quarter Sessions on 15 January 1942, he pleaded guilty to a string of offences. The recorder at Grantham thought the case ‘a very painful one’:
I have a duty to the public to perform. If you go to prison you will be looked after by the doctor and, if necessary, be treated for your mental weakness, and perhaps your moral weakness, but your long list of serious offences are such that I cannot overlook them. You have been cunning enough at any rate to go on what you call ‘pub-crawls’ and steal money and commit other larcenies. You have mentality enough for that.
He went on to say that he felt that Gardner was a danger to himself and others and was amazed that a man with his mental-health issues should have been allowed to join the RAF. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour, ‘such as [he] could perform’.
Hearing the sentence, Margery left the court in tears. She returned home to stay with her mother in Sheffield, where she worked for a time in a factory making parts for aeroplanes. But relations between Margery and her family were strained at this point with regard to Peter; she was still keen to support her husband but her brother Gilbert was very critical of him. After only six months, she decided that she would return to London, find herself a job and fix up a home for Peter on his release from prison. She would need to help him find a job as well, as he had also been discharged from the RAF after his conviction.
But the return to London was not the success that either Margery – or her mother – had hoped for. As she had promised, Margery provided a home for Peter when he was discharged from prison, but after staying with him for several months, she returned to Sheffield again – and this time her feelings towards him seem to have changed. According to her mother, she claimed that he was ‘mad and that he had maltreated her and had behaved dreadfully’.
Despite this, she returned to him a couple of weeks later. The relationship was by now dysfunctional, with both parties changeable, inconsistent and unreliable.
Margery found herself pregnant again in 1943 and perhaps she felt that this might be the opportunity for a fresh start. She gave birth at St Mary Abbot’s hospital in Kensington. The baby, a girl named Melody Ann, was born prematurely on Wednesday 24 May 1944 weighing only 3 lb 2 oz. Since the war had started, St Mary Abbot’s was one of the very few London hospitals that would still take maternity cases and it may be Melody’s premature arrival that prevented Margery from travelling to Sheffield to have her baby there. Margery proudly sent a postcard to her brother Gilbert in Burma telling him that Melody was adored by the nursing staff and prospering on oxygen and brandy.
Margery was still recuperating at the hospital when, on the morning of 6 June, the Allies began the invasion of Normandy by land, sea and air led by Eisenhower and Montgomery – the greatest combined operation in history.
By the end of the day, 150,000 Allied troops had landed in northern France and began their march into occupied Europe. For Londoners like Margery following the Allied advance on the wireless, this was a huge relief. However, exactly a week later, the Germans retaliated and once again Hitler targeted London. He was convinced that the ‘secret weapon’ he’d been developing would bring the country to its knees. On 13 June the first pilotless planes were sighted in Kent – the deadly V1s.
These weapons caused indiscriminate destruction as they terrorized the city. They gripped the population in constant fear and anxiety as they fell relentlessly at all hours of the day and night. As they left no craters when they fell, their blast power was much greater than conventional bombs. Within three days of the arrival of the first V1, 137,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, 499 people were killed and 2,000 injured.
The flying bombs were soon popularly christened ‘doodlebugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’.
As the doodling or buzzing grew louder, those below waited tensely in case the engine cut out. When the V1 ran out of fuel it crashed to earth with a deep-throated roar followed by a blinding flash and a tall, sooty plume of smoke. If the noise seemed to stop directly above them, people flung themselves on the floor, under the table or into doorways.
The artist, Frances Faviell, visited St Mary Abbot’s hospital at this time and observed several heavily pregnant and terrified women begging the nurses to be put under their beds for safety. Faviell asked the nurses how the patients coped with the growing intensity of the doodlebugs. ‘They’re not too bad . . . sometimes we get one who panics – that’s dangerous – they all panic then.’
At 4.05 a.m. on 17 June, the hospital was devastated when a V1 scored a direct hit. The bomb struck the nurses’ home and the children’s ward. One of the nurses, asleep in the nurses’ home, had been wakened by the sound of the approaching rocket. ‘It looked like a ball of fire in the sky,’ she recalled. ‘In a matter of seconds, there was a terrific explosion and the whole place seemed to blow up.’
Nurses, patients and children were trapped under the debris of the building. Five nurses, six children and seven adult patients were killed. Thirty-three casualties were taken to St George’s Hospital and the remaining patients, including Margery and her daughter, were evacuated. With London once again a target for destruction from increasingly sophisticated German weapons and the Gardners’ marriage under immense strain, Melody was sent to be cared for at the Wellgarth Nursery, a nurses’ training college which had evacuated from Hampstead to Bourton House in Shrivenham near Swindon. The fees were paid by Margery’s mother from her limited widow’s income. Children as young as ten days old up to the age of five were looked after at the nursery which tutored trainee nurses in the care of infants. Melody was one of forty children who lived there. The matron, Miss Talbot, fondly remembered their times at Bourton House, with bicycle rides over the hills, village socials and Christmas Days together with the children. The nursery relocated back to Hampstead in January of 1946, Melody returning with them.
In her correspondence Margery makes frequent reference to the state of her health and the weekly medication that she was taking. It’s possibly due to this that she was not called up by one of the women’s services for war work. Her constant worries were about money and work. The only options that seemed open to her were unskilled jobs ‘drudging’ as a waitress or a cinema usherette, which would only bring in £2 a week. This she wasn’t prepared to do. Writing to her mother, she despaired: ‘I could do it for someone I loved, I suppose, in order to keep a home together, but I just haven’t the heart to do it for myself.’
She had been working as an artists’ model but for a two-hour session she’d only earned 7s., so she resolved to join the Film Guild to see if she could get work as a film extra. However, she feared it would be ‘a dog’s life’ of getting up early, with long hours and lots of hanging around doing nothing. The greatest frustration for Margery was that she couldn’t find a way of making her art work pay a sufficient income, but with the city in the midst of war, art was not a priority for many. At this point in her life, Margery seemed paralysed by a sense of helplessness and possibly depression, when even the benefit of her former pleasures seemed to elude her. As she wrote in a letter to her mother on 27 July 1945, ‘I feel altogether too worried and unhappy to want to draw.’
It was presumably due to this malaise, her deteriorating marriage, her worries about money and her ill-health that she decided against looking after her daughter herself, though she visited Melody frequently and exchanged regular letters with Miss Talbot at the Wellgarth Nursery.
Despite the birth of their daughter, as the war came to an end, the relationship between Margery and Peter seems to have deteriorated. Though Mrs Wheat thought that her daughter and son-in-law had stopped living together by the November of 1945, she suspected that they continued a casual sexual relationship. Peter claimed that he and Margery had got on very well together for four years, but that the relationship then began to fall apart. In his statement after Margery’s death, he said that she was drinking heavily and spending too much time in pubs and clubs. Though it is certainly true that Margery lived at the heart of the Chelsea drinking scene, many witnesses challenged this, several saying that they had never seen Margery drunk.
The Gardners’ unstable relationship was typical of many of the fractured marriages that floundered in this period. As the war had progressed and ended, the number of divorces had reached record numbers. In 1944 divorces had risen sharply to 12,314 (almost twice the number in 1939) and by 1947 they would reach a peak of 60,190.
The war had confronted ordinary men and women with the realities of conflict and the fragility of mortality – and in this war, death, destruction, injury and loss were not the sole preserve of foreign battlefields, but experienced as never before, close-up, first-hand in the streets of Chelsea and the suburbs of Sheffield. Such experiences led many couples to reassess their relationships in an attempt to redefine their post-war lives.
By VE Day on 8 May 1945, Margery and her family had come through the conflict alive, if not intact, and she now faced a precarious future with no income and a marital relationship that was at best draining and at worst, violent. With the war over, Margery attempted to at least resolve this latter issue by getting a divorce. She arranged to meet the family solicitor, Ralph Macro Wilson, who was also godfather to her daughter. He had known Margery for ten years, having started to look after the family’s interests when her father had died. On 2 July, he travelled down from Sheffield to discuss the state of her marriage. Margery met him at Waterloo Station where they discussed the options for divorcing or arranging a legal separation from Peter on grounds of ‘venereal disease, desertion and ill treatment’.
However, no action was subsequently taken and Margery and Peter remained legally married.
In the last year of her life, relations between Margery and Peter were unresolved, though he had left her in order to live with a woman called ‘Tiddles’. In a letter to her mother on the 27 July 1945, Margery was exhausted by emotional and financial problems, but her prevailing worry was now her husband.
The biggest burden of all is Peter and I’ll try to make you understand just how I feel about him and what a spot he has put me in. I met him the other day – he saw me coming along the road, dodged into a doorway and then popped out so that I almost ran into his arms – almost at once he started begging me to come back to him and told me a lot of lies about his home life with ‘T[iddles]’ etc. I knew he was lying but he persisted and finally flew into a rage when he tried to find out if I’d seen anything of Tony or anyone else and when I said I wanted a separation he dashed off, having first tried to get back the 10/- he’d just given me. He told me that he wasn’t making any money at Car Driving – he’s not working at Max’s – so couldn’t give me any. In reality, he’s keeping Tiddles and the child (by her former husband) in a ghastly place miles from here, as she told me the next day. She was nearly crying as she told me what a hell he’s making of her life – apparently he talks of me and Melody every night and is terrified of a divorce. The awful thing is that she tells me that she ‘would crawl on her knees for him’ which is just what he’s making her do – they both get dead drunk every night and from what she told me it’s pretty plain that Peter is rapidly getting worse – and I feel that I can only thank God for sparing me (if he has) from some awful end.
Now what can I do? I can’t go and tell the police – they’ve got enough on him as it is and his one great boast is that I never will – if I do he’ll go inside for failing to pay for my maintenance and what would happen to that little bunch of misery and her child? By this he means the woman he is living with now. At the same time it’s not fair that he should be supporting her instead of me – his lawful wife.
, can you understand why I seem to be doing nothing? I just can’t bring myself to administer the death blow – which is what it would amount to. Everyone else says I must do so and have no pity for him and only feel very sorry for me – but I understand Peter better than anyone – and I
he’s not responsible for what he does. However, as I realize it can’t go on like this – I’m being pressed on all sides – I will see my lawyer friend, with Michael and discuss with him the possibility of writing to P[eter] and telling him what I intend to do.
I must stop now – I shall be very grateful for what you can spare, tho’ everyone’s been very sweet in helping me out – but I will pay you back over and over some day, I hope.
All my love,