“It’s Not the Leaving of Liverpool that Grieves Me,
But my Darling When I Think of Thee”
(“The Leaving of Liverpool” – Unknown Composer)
In August 1940, stuck in the Albert Dock, Liverpool for 3 days, Norma Margaret Packer distinctly remembers looking through one of the ship’s portholes, watching Liverpool being bombed. She was just 14 at the time. Her parents didn’t know that she, her younger twin sisters and her younger brother, hadn’t yet set sail and were all still in the dock.
Before the outbreak of World War 2, Norma, who was born in Sittingbourne, Kent, left school at the age of 14, got a job and wanted to train as a florist. When war did break out, she says, everything changed over to horticulture and she was unable to pursue her dream.
Soon after, Norma and her siblings were evacuated from Liverpool as ‘War Guests’, her uncle having persuaded their parents that evacuation was a good idea. This followed his experiences with the breakout of the war, when he was evacuated from Dunkirk.
The family said their goodbyes and Norma and her siblings got into a tender, (a small boat), by which they were then transported to the bigger ship that would take them all on a 3 week journey to Canada. Their destination was the town of Cornbrook, which coincidentally was the name of the ship in which they would be travelling. However, the journey was delayed for 3 days as the crew suspected that there was contraband on board (illegal goods). It was during this time that Norma says that she “…can distinctly remember looking out of the porthole and seeing Liverpool being bombed”. The ship finally sailed and her first, real adventure began. “I thought it was great, until we hit the Atlantic breakers… I, the twins and my brother were all seasick for a few days”.
Throughout the 3 week journey, she celebrated her 15th birthday on board the ship, and experienced her first romance, a ‘Titanic’ moment. Norma’s first boyfriend, Stanley Davies, was a steward aboard the ship, having been transferred there from his original ship after it had been torpedoed. He was later transferred back to his old ship, but it was again torpedoed. This time, Norma and Stanley’s romance was brought to an abrupt end as ‘all hands were lost’ off the north coast of Scotland. Before Stanley left he gave Norma a photo album with the following poem inside:
“Dear Norma just a line to you,
With many greetings kind, true
I wish I could bridge the space
Just to kiss your smiling face,
Since this alas I cannot do,
I post my loving thoughts to you”
Norma and her siblings stayed in Canada for 3 years. Norma and oneof the twins loved the adventure. The other twin, however, hated it and pined for home. While out there, Norma continued her education at a local school and received her Higher Education Certificate. She also learned to ski and skate. Her life in Canada was very different from that to which she had been accustomed in England, but it was not difficult. Norma said that “… because of my age, I thought it was going to be very exciting and I was ready for an adventure. I didn’t worry about the situation, I just took things as they came, as I always had done, and led a normal teenage life – living to the full”. During the 3 years in Canada, Norma didn’t think once that she wanted to go home; she was enjoying herself too much by being at school and living her new, temporary life. At the age of 14, Norma did not really understand what was going on, although she knew what was happening due to the restrictions that were put in place. She did not take it too seriously.
In October 1940, her home village back in England was bombed. A bomb dropped in the family’s back garden while her mum was inside the house. The explosion blew all the windows and doors in, trapping her mum in a cupboard under the stairs where she was sheltering during the bombing. Her mum moved in with a neighbour, Mrs. Johnson, on the other side of the street while the house was being repaired. However, while Norma’s mum was out at a meeting, another bombing run took place. Mrs. Johnson’s house took a direct hit, and she was unfortunately killed.
“It is just the luck of the draw, as dad used to say, if there is a bomb with your name on it, you will get it”. – Norma
In 1943, at the age of 18, and having finished her education, Norma came back to England. As it was her choice to return home she had to immediately sign up with the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service). She could, of course, have stayed in Canada, but despite this, she was happy to be back home. Norma was posted to Scotland 4 months later.
In the WRNS, Norma helped merchant navy ships to stay safe by telling the crew if their ship’s magnetic field needed to be adjusted so that mines fitted with magnets would be repelled. In 1944, Norma played a more important role in the WRNS. She continued to carry out the same job, degaussing boats and landing craft, but this time it was in preparation for the D-day landings. Norma was in the WRNS until 1945.
16 years later, Norma started teacher training in Hartford for 2 years and began by teaching infants. “I wanted to teach juniors, not infants”, she says. Norma taught in one of the best infant schools in the area and later went on to teach juniors. She retired in 1984.
In her spare time, Norma is still keeping herself occupied with activities such as gardening, playing scrabble every week and attending a gardening club. She occasionally makes lace, reads and she traces back her family history. Currently, she has managed to trace back her side of the family (the Packers) to the 1600s. Her side of the family were all basket makers – her grandfather owned a basket making shop in Sittingbourne. When she first started tracing back her family tree, Norma used to visit the local records office in Kent to gather information. This was at a time when the internet was not so readily accessible. Norma does now have internet access and has managed to conduct her own research from the comfort of her own home, using such sites as Ancestry.com.
However, Norma is not just limited to online searches on family tree websites, she also uses Skype to keep in touch with the family she lived and grew up amongst in Canada. At the age of 85, Norma has a “Kindle” for reading her favourite books, some photography gear and a Mac PC: all of which she knows how to use confidently.
Norma obviously has plenty more tales to tell of her life and experiences, and has enthralled her pupils during her time as a teacher with these numerous stories. She now lives a quiet but active life in a bungalow on the outskirts of Stafford. She has invited me back, as she puts it, “if you want the whole story”.