Flashes of lightning and booms of subtropical thunder, a Queensland summer. For one Gold Coast resident the noise and light trigger traumatic memories unlike most can imagine, memories of a lifetime ago.
Hilda Fletcher, ne Phillips, has lived in Australia since 1950 and in that time has experienced many different sides of the ‘Australian Dream’. She’s traversed the country with her husband and three children, living in the back of a truck whilst trying to find work. She’s ran the kitchen of a boarding house, meandered through innumerable meaningless jobs and experienced the fruits of commercial success. However, before landing on these shores over half a century ago, the 97-year-old lived a life akin to a BBC period drama. Devastating war, whirlwind romance and the true story of a medical miracle, Hilda went from being a normal working class girl in pre-war London to an incredible woman in Australia with a tale fit for the silver screen.
Now based in Mudgeeraba, Hilda began her life in Staines, England in January 1921 to a war veteran father, a housewife mother and her three older siblings; Ida, Dot and Sonny. They were objectively poor, but Edwin Phillips made sure his children never went without. They saved money by sharing a house with another family, the Curriers. All eight of them, upstairs in the main bedroom and the six Phillips shared two double beds in the front sitting room. Before the Great Depression in 1929, the family managed to get themselves into a new council house in the nearby suburb of Surrey. “I remember thinking it was like a palace!” Hilda recollects, her English accent still shining through on certain words. “My sister, Dot, helped me pack up all my toys into my little wagon and together we walked the 1 or 2 miles to the new house. I thought we’d gone to heaven.”
Hilda grew up during the Great Depression, an era that spurred the idea of oranges as Christmas delicacies and the use of leftover animal fat as a butter like bread topping due to such a lack of expendable cash. The Phillips family made it through however, and in 1935 Hilda left school at age 14 to join the workforce. She did a little bit of everything, from making kettles to working at a button store before taking a job at the Vickers aircraft factory in 1939 before the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite the fact that they were building war machines in preparation for the inevitable outcome, Hilda enjoyed her job. She had good friends, she was paid well and even had the chance to learn how to drive in Windsor Park on her lunch breaks.
September 4th 1940 and Hilda decided to do something different for lunch. She and her best friend Alice shouted themselves to a large canteen meal, a whole roast dinner for today’s price of 12 cents (a whopping $4.16 after inflation) and then bought fruit from the vendor outside the factory entrance for an afternoon snack. They would usually take sandwiches to a nearby golf course green to enjoy the last remaining dregs of summer but despite the sunshine, the temperature had dropped. “If I’d done what I usually did for lunch, then we wouldn’t have even been there. We were waiting to clock back in, after getting the fruit, and Alice was quite a bit in front of me in line, and that’s when we heard the sirens.” Hilda sighs and stops her recollection.
Everyone in the vicinity hit the floor, arms over their heads as fast as they could. Some made it to the bell-shaped bomb shelter, which only held four, but the majority didn’t. The German bombers had used the glare off the hundreds of cars parked next to the factory as a guiding target and dropped several bombs causing almost complete destruction of the building. Hilda was the only one to survive from the area she had been standing. “I remember waking myself up screaming. I tried to stand and reached out my hands to grab onto a metal railing. I didn’t really feel it at first, but I lifted my hands up after a second and all the skin on my hands had been burnt off and blistered.”
She had glass shards covering her, burns to 85 per cent of her body, a large piece of blood-slick metal sticking out of her thigh and the detonation had destroyed large chunks of her clothing, fusing the fabric with her melted skin. The first volunteer to come into the building after the blast stopped in his tracks when he saw Hilda, the only sign of life in the wreckage, standing there politely asking for help. He managed few words, only a distraught “Oh my darling,” before helping her outside to find urgent medical help.
Hilda was given only three days to live. Her family was told to say goodbye and her husband of only four weeks, Henry, refused to visit her and see what the war had done to his pretty bride. They never saw each other again. But she made it past three days, then a week and then a month. She was bandaged head to toe, constantly in pain, had lost sight in one eye and was heartbroken but remained strong. It took months before she was even able to walk, and her own mother was made to lie to her about the fate of her best friend. “My mum, who’d never told a lie in her life, was told by the doctors to not tell me about Alice. I found out about six months later that she’d died in the bombing. Everyone around me had died, but poor Alice, she’d be cut right in half by a sheet of metal.”
It was almost a year to the day that Hilda was free of hospital. Deemed fit, she was immediately told to get back to work. She laughs as she remembers the first job she was offered upon her return to the workforce, “They sent me to another aircraft factory. A different one in an old theatre. I made it through the day but when I got home I told my dad that I was never going back.” It wasn’t until Christmas 1944 that Hilda found herself in a permanent job. She’d been given two choices: move away from home to work at a train station or join the Auxiliary Territorial Service – Expeditionary Forces (AFS/EFI.) She took the latter and started her journey with the British army in Dalkeith, outside Edinburgh in Scotland, in the middle of winter. Her training took three months, and in late February of 1945 she found herself travelling from Edinburgh to the sunny fields of southern Italy. Hilda counted herself lucky to be there as the fighting had moved much further north and the Allied Forces had a strong occupation of the area.
Hilda stayed a further two years in Italy after the war to aid in the recovery effort, returning home in the spring of 1947. London was destroyed but at peace. She’d lost countless friends and acquaintances, some to the war and some to marriage and family. She found herself with a lot of free time on her own, despite having a new job as a grocery delivery driver, and on a particularly lovely Saturday night in June Hilda decided to treat herself to a night at the pictures, a Humphrey Bogart film she recalls, after which she would gallantly walk herself home in the warm summer air.
Her journey took her past a lively town hall with a happening dance going on inside. Not wanting to be home so early on another Saturday night, Hilda stopped in the doorway. “I saw an old school friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in years, inside the hall. She was there with her husband, but she saw me standing at the entrance and came over to say hello and insisted that I come in for a dance and a catch up. So we’re chatting away and the band starts up again, and all the boys come rushing back in from the pub across the road and that’s when I see him for the first time.” A tall handsome man in a naval uniform dancing with a pretty girl in a scarlet dress. Hilda assumed she was his girlfriend, but when the next dance happened to be a tap dance (where the women tap a gent on the shoulder and ask to cut in) she took the chance and asked the handsome sailor for a turn around the floor.
They talked, they laughed but when the next song came around scarlet dress interrupted and Hilda, clearly having been told off, went back to her friends table. “A couple songs later, he comes up to me and asks me to dance again. I sort of said you know, ‘What about your girlfriend?’ meaning the lady in the red dress but he said that he wasn’t there with anyone tonight.” They danced together the rest of the evening and when the lights came on and the band packed down, both of them had outlasted the bus services for the night. The sailor, Leonard Fletcher, offered to walk Hilda home despite him living 11 kilometres in the opposite direction. “He walked me to my front gate and asked if I would meet him for tea the next afternoon in Windsor Park. It was then I twigged that he lived all the way in Windsor and had missed the last bus home to keep dancing with me,” she says with a glow still evident in her face despite the night being over half a century ago.
A whirlwind six weeks later, they were Mr and Mrs Fletcher. A small, tasteful ceremony in Windsor Park before Len had to go back to the navy ensured that Hilda would wait for her man, wait for their future together. In 1948 they welcomes the first of their three sons, Barry, and in the lead up to the turn of the decade Len asked his wife if she would consider emigrating to Australia. He had been stationed there during the war and had fallen in love with the carefree, sun loving lifestyle that those down-under enjoyed. Hilda, still filled with the sense of adventure that took her to Italy, agreed and in the summer of 1950 the small family found themselves aboard a refurbished troop carrier heading to the warmer shores of Sydney, like so many English ancestors before them. They struggled, they grew, they became successful and together they started a legacy of three sons, 12 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and 11 great-great grandchildren. A very happy marriage that lasted 64 years until Len’s unfortunate passing in 2011.
Today, Hilda is 97, but isn’t done grabbing life by the horns just yet. The summer storms may still bring back difficult memories, but she retains her cheeky outlook on life and devil-may-care attitude. She plans to take herself home to England to visit her 101 year old sister, Dot, next summer. The past holds no fears for her. Hilda lives her life in the present.