The Life Story of Charles James Daborn MBE DFM

My life began at 00.30 hours on 7 June 1921 (or did it?). My father subscribed to a mutual or friendly society which paid out benefits for various things, including a bonus if a child was born within two years of marriage. My parents had been married in the manse of Dalserf Church on 6 June 1919, so they were one day out – until one of my uncles worked out that British Summer Time had come into force, so the time of birth was actually 11.30 p.m. on 6 June! Apparently it worked, but when I later claimed two birthdays each year, I was given short shrift. I was born in a flat at 4 Barrack Street in Hamilton occupied by my father’s parents — my grandfather being a retired quarter master sergeant from the Cameronians or Scottish Rifles.

He was also called Charles James as was his father, who apparently sent a telegram welcoming the arrival of Charles the Fourth! Both unfortunately died when I was only two or three years only, so I have no direct memory of them. I was told that my grandfather used to take me on his shoulders to the Public Park to listen to the bands playing in the bandstand there — did this create my liking for serious music? I like to think so. Grandfather had been a military bandsman (and tailor) and also played the French horn in local orchestras. I have absolutely no memory of my paternal grandmother who died early from the dreaded tuberculosis just after I was born. She was born in military barracks at an army prison, whereas my grandfather had been born in military barracks in Edinburgh Castle. My father in turn had been born in military barracks in Aldershot, so I have a very mixed nationality problem – I’m Scottish despite the name!

My mother was entirely Scottish, although some people have suggested her surname has Northern Irish origins, but I can find no trace of such connections. The family background was in West Lothian, with the menfolk all being involved in agriculture. She herself was born in Slamannan, but her parents moved in about 1900 to Lanarkshire (presumably because of better money in working in the coalfields) and they settled in the miners’ rows at Swinhill, just South of Larkhall. John and Jane Shields went on to have NINE more children in a two-roomed terraced house with a scullery and a single cold water tap — no toilet or bathroom — a “midden” outside served the needs of about ten families. I can still recall the smell when the council men came to empty the contents into their horse-drawn cart.

After my mother there were eight further daughters (of whom seven lived to maturity and marriage) and finally a son, John Shields. Surprisingly all the eight daughters produced offspring (giving me a whole raft of first cousins) but the son was childless. It was customary then to farm out girls when they left school  to go into “service” — my mother to the local doctor’s and the others in turn to “big houses” ranging from Paisley to Falkirk and Bothwell, This obviously left space for the younger children, but I can recall some hectic Sundays when there were get-togethers.

My parents apparently met up by chance, when both grandfathers got together to discuss some Masonic business, and Grandpa Shields brought his daughter with him to Hamilton. This must have been during the latter stages of the First World War, since I have a photograph of my father in his Cameronian uniform sent to my mother expressing his love. I know he left the Army after the War, having joined as a boy of 14, and got a job as a locomotive cleaner with the Caledonian Railway Company. This was the first stage of progress to becoming an engine driver, but years followed as a cleaner, then a fireman, before being trusted with a steam engine. They were married as I mentioned earlier in 1919, then moved to Stewart Street in Burnbank where my brother John (Jack) was born in 1923, with Duncan following in 1930. Again our accommodation was quite basic — a two room flat with a scullery and a cold water tap and a coal-fired range, plus a lavatory in the staircase shared by three families (queuing sometimes necessary). One advantage was that Glenlee Public School was exactly opposite our house, and we all attended there until the age of 13. I must have been quite brainy then, because I left in 1934 with (a) the boy’s dux medal for the year, (b) a free place to the prestigious fee-paying Hamilton Academy, and (c) a bursary from the Burns Society to cover the cost of books for the next three years, the latter because I wrote an essay on the life and times of Robert Burns. What a swot I must have been then — but as usual it didn’t last and I left the Academy as a pretty average scholar. But this was 1939 — and the great uncertainty had begun. Further education was now out of the question, apart from the obvious fact that my father couldn’t afford university fees. So — I left school, got a job with the City of Glasgow Approved Society at the fantastic wage of 17/6p per week. This still covered my train fare from Glasgow to Burnbank, and a filled roll and glass of milk at lunchtime, and a meagre contribution to my mother (which as all good mothers do) gave it back to me during the week.

Having no bathing or showering facilities at home, we were used as a family of 4 males, to walk on a Sunday morning to the public baths in Almada Street in Hamilton where they had lumps of carbolic soap and plenty of steaming hot water together with a large tub that working men could lie in and be scrubbed clean by their children and a shower to wash the soap off, followed by a dive into the chlorinated water of the swimming pool where the local chimney sweep Geordie Smith, whose back we had scrubbed, taught us boys how to swim. The said Geordie had a motorcycle with a sidecar which carried his brushes and sacks, but he always stopped at the bottom of the brae between Hamilton and Burnbank which was still cobbled to give horses a grip. Geordie then searched for nuts and bolts and anything which might have been shaken off, to add to his collection. We were walking back from our Sunday “Dookers” Club on the morning of 3”’ September 1939, when Joe the Pole (who was in fact a Lithuanian immigrant) came out of his bicycle shop to inform us that War had been declared. And so started another change in my life.

My father’s immediate reaction was to say “Right – I’ll be taking you along to Hamilton Barracks to sign up for the Cameronians Regiment”. His intention was obviously to keep up the family tradition, insofar as he himself had bee in that regiment , as had been his father and grandfather. Indeed my grandfather, when he was discharged from the Army, was employed as a recruiting sergeant, standing at the gates of the Barracks and inviting likely young me to “take the King’s shiIIing”. The fees he received kept him going at the public house across the road, a practice which brought on his fairly early death in 1925. He was also a relic of the days of the Raj in India and had curry for dinner every day! I was told that in India he used to teach pet parrots belonging to colleagues by suspending them on a rope down a well shaft, and talking to them until they could repeat his words. Whether they were swear words or Hindi commands I do not know. I had no intention of joining the Army, favouring the Royal Air Force. When I was young I used to make model aircraft from Meccano bits and pieces, and I had an unforgettable day in about 1936 when I walked miles to Dungavel Castle to see Sir Alan Cobham;s Flying Circus with his stunt pilots and variety of machines. Needless to say I couldn’t afford the five shilling fee for a “flip in the air”.

Within weeks of the outbreak of war, one of my colleagues in the office , who must have been a reservist, came back in his uniform, and his enthusiasm for the RAF rubbed off on me — so off I went to the Recruiting Office in Glasgow despite my father’s antagonism — only to be told to go home as the professionals would have the war over in a few months! Several months later the position had changed with Hitler now in control of a lot of Europe — so back I went — to be accepted this time as a trainee ground wireless operator. I had no crazy ambitions about being a flying type, wearing glasses all the time and not being very robust. So, in mid-1940 I was given a travel warrant and told to get on to a train from Glasgow Central to Warrington in Lancashire, where I climbed into a big truck along with some other Scots lads and taken to RAF Padgate where we were given huge platefuls of baked beans on toast accompanied by large mugs of strong sweet tea. I don’t recall anything else about that place, although I assume we were kitted out with uniforms and boots, a set of “irons” (knife, fork and spoon) and a “housewife” (comprising needles, thread and wool) for DIY repairs —- no mothers now! And that started my career of over 7 years in the Royal Air Force.

Next stop was Blackpool where we were billeted in a boarding house run by two dear old Salvation Army ladies. We marched up and down the streets of the town, learning “square-bashing” and how to kill a German with a bayonet! The more practical training in wireless telegraphy took place in the old tram sheds in South Blackpool and this entailed marching in columns all along the promenade in all weathers, with one man at the front carrying a white lantern and another at the rear with a red lantern, to avoid being hit by trams in the blackout. From there to Yatesbury in Wiltshire — a bleak, miserable place, sleeping in wooden huts, with a coke-burning stove in the middle and a linoleum floor covering which had to be polished like mad every day. We were also badly bullied by sadistic corporals and sergeants. I hadn’t been there long when a call came out for volunteers for aircrew duties and I was quite interested, although expected to be turned down on medical grounds (my glasses again). A wee Scottish doctor examined me, then took my glasses, held them up to the light and said “Well, laddie, you can just fold these up and put them away for the duration. You’re fit enough for aircrew”. And he was right — I didn’t wear glasses again until about 1960!

The training now changed, and within days I went on my first flight. This was in a wood and canvas biplane , a De Havilland Dominie with two small engines, a civilian pilot complete with bowler hat and r