Today (January 22) in London History – Operation Diaper

This will be the first time you’ve heard about this anniversary. Trust me, it’s a treat.


January 22nd. Let’s London Walks January 22nd. 

In other words, we’ll give all the obvious ones a miss.

Well, we can rifle through them. It’s almost like a hand of cards. We’ve been dealt two Kings. Edward VII was proclaimed King on January 22nd, 1901. Edward VIII flew from Sandringham to London on January 22nd, 1936. He’d been proclaimed King the day before in Sandringham but there was a second proclamation in London on this day. And an interesting aside, that January 22nd flight to London was the first flight by a |British monarch. And what else do we have in our hand? Sure enough, we’ve been dealt a Queen. Queen Victoria died on January 22nd, 1901. Lots of face cards. We’ve been dealt a Jack. Edward Seymour  – the Duke of Somerset – was beheaded on January 22nd, 1552. That was a family that was prone to losing its head. Same thing had happened to his brother Thomas three years earlier. We’ve got a fistful of honour cards. Byron, the great Romantic poet, was born on January 22nd, 1788. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan, the founder of the scientific method, was born on January 22nd, 1561. The poet T.S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, died on January 22nd, 1947. Ramsay Macdonald became the first Labour Prime Minister on January 22nd, 1924.

And look, a couple of London aces. The much-loved Alexandra Palace reopened on January 22nd, 1988. It had been badly damaged in a 1980 fire and undergone a wildly expensive restoration. And the Royal Aquarium – alas, now completely forgotten – opened on January 22nd, 1876. What a place. It wasn’t just fish tanks. There was a skating rink, an art gallery, an orchestra and a restaurant. Stood where Methodist Central Hall is today. 

Pretty good hand of cards. But I’m going to discard them all. I’m going to go with a wild card. Something none of you will know about, something that’s not in any of the annals books, something that’s not on Wikipedia. Something that’s very London Walks.

And here’s our wild card.

The great exodus of British G.I. wives and children began on January 22nd, 1946. Two trains – they were called the G.I. Brides’ expresses – pulled out of Waterloo Station that day. The first train carried 203 brides and 60 children. There were 141 wives and  56 children on the second G.I. Brides Express. The brides travelled in style. The trains were made up of first-class carriages only. The Women’s Volunteer Service ran a special refreshment room at Waterloo Station. Army personnel looked after the brides’ luggage. 

It was the first time in history that trains were set aside exclusively for such a purpose.

The trains took the young women and their children to Tidworth. There they were met by a fleet of motor-coaches. German prisoners of war handled the baggage. The motor-coaches took them to Southampton where they boarded the S.S. Argentina for a ten-day Atlantic crossing and a new life, starting with baseball and Broadway shows in New York City. And then on to Boston, Massachusetts and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and South Dakota and California and, well, wherever in the country that will have felt like a continent their G.I. was waiting for them. The young women were called “The Pilgrim Mothers of Today.” 

The 344 British girls on those first two G.I. Brides’ Expresses were the vanguard. By mid-July that year – right about the time I came along – some 50,000 brides and children will have made that journey. Looking back across more than half a century, one of those G.I. brides, now an old lady, recalled, “Americans were easy to fancy. We used to say, “American soldiers were oversexed, overpaid and over here. And those cheeky sods would say “the British were undersexed, underpaid and under Eisenhower.”

Well, be that as it may, the embers of that tale, the story of those 1940s pilgrim mothers is fully deserving of a puff or two of breath. It’s no bad thing to keep those embers glowing. Not least because Waterloo Station, the station the G.I. Brides Expresses pulled out of, has always had a slightly sombre, slightly sad feel to it. It’s often said there’s a faint air of sadness about Waterloo because that was the station from which so many troop trains left in the Great War, carrying thousands of British soldiers to their deaths in the trenches, carrying them to the industralised slaughterhouses known as The Sommes and Arras and Passchendale and Flanders Field and other World War I battlefields. Waterloo Station was where wives and children and girlfriends and parents and brothers and sisters said their final farewell to their loved one. Their fears and tearful memories haunt Waterloo Station, they linger there, they’ve long been part of its ambience. The G.I. Brides’ Expresses – those happy, eager, excited young women and their kiddiewinks – provide a small counterweight to that presence, that faint note of sadness that’s never far off at Waterloo. It’s a happy goodbye we’re waving to those British girls – and a happy goodbye they’re waving to us – as the G.I. Brides’ Expresses pull out of Waterloo Station.

From London – and London Walks – you go girls. Fare you well. And fare thee well to all of us, one and all, wherever we are. 

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