A very ordinary woman

by | Nov 16, 2008 | Stories | 0 comments

There is a quiet corner, well away from the main path through the cemetery, in the graveyard of All Saints Church in Orpington. There are about fifty graves in that particular section, and the headstones reveal that the earliest occupant was interred in 1932, and the most recent in 1951. The whole area carries an air of neglect and dilapidation. Many of the headstones are leaning sideways, some have toppled over, and none of the graves have been weeded, or had flowers placed upon them for many years. However, one grave is a little more ornate than its fellows. The inscription starts:-

Ivy Mildred Millichamp. Beloved Wife of Eric William Millichamp ….

Ivy was born on February 12th, 1911 into the very large Croughton Family. She had six sisters and five brothers, and together with mum and dad, lived in Rayleigh, Essex. Three of her siblings were younger than Ivy, and she liked nothing better than to mother them.

All in all, she was a very ordinary girl.

When she left school at the age of fourteen, she went to work at the Sunshine Home for Orphans at Shoeburyness. Initially, she was a kitchen maid, but because of her great fondness for children, was soon promoted to taking care of them.

As a good Catholic, Ivy attended mass regularly, and at the age of seventeen, with the help of her priest, she obtained a position with the Mission of Hope in Croydon. She ‘lived in’ at the Mission, which was for the care of ‘unmarried mothers and unwanted children.’

Ordinarily, Ivy would not stand out in a crowd, but when she smiled, her good humour and compassion transformed her face into that of a quite beautiful young woman. The nuns, who ran the Mission with a rod of iron, would sometimes turn a blind eye to Ivy’s deviations from the strictly disciplined regime, in her efforts to make the children feel more loved.

All her life, Ivy took great pleasure in the company of her family, and particularly her sisters. By the time she was twenty-two, at every opportunity, she, Maurine and Molly would take a tram to the Saturday dance at the Palais, Streatham. Ivy wasn’t sure if her leisure time activities would have met with the full approval of the hierarchy at the Mission, so, to be on the safe side, she didn’t mention it at work.

On one such occasion in the autumn of 1935, she met Eric Millichamp, and her life changed forever. They began to see each other regularly at the weekly dance, and on a couple of occasions, daringly, slipped away to the local Picture Palace. Eventually, Ivy shyly told her mother and father that she had become friendly with a young man. After a bit of discreet delving into his background, Eric was invited to tea at the Croughton family home.

Eric was twenty-six at the time, and had a good job at a small factory in St Pauls Cray, engineering electrical components for aircraft. After the required minimum of two years courting had been completed, Ivy and Eric were united at a very quiet wedding. Just the family were present to share their happiness – an arrangement with which Ivy was more than satisfied, since, as she was fond of saying, ‘she was a very ordinary woman.’

The Croughtons gratefully acquiesced to their union, for as her father said at the time, he still had three further daughters to be married off.

Ivy and Eric were fortunate to be able to rent an attractive little bungalow at 88, Kynaston Road, in Orpington. Ivy being Ivy was keen that they start a family as soon as possible, but fate decreed otherwise. As the likelihood of another war in Europe loomed over everybody, Ivy rather reluctantly gave her notice at the Mission of Hope, and took a position at the local laundry to be closer to home.

A little over a year later, Britain was at war with Germany. Eric was exempt from conscription, since engineers were considered to be more valuable than soldiers. However, after the fall of France in June of 1940, Eric joined the Local Defence Volunteers, which would later become the Home Guard. What with regular double shifts at his factory, and his soldierly duties, Ivy was not seeing much of her beloved husband.

One Saturday afternoon, in September of that year, Ivy and her sister Maurine stood outside Ivy’s house, and watched, transfixed in dreadful fascination, as just over a thousand German aircraft crossed the sky in wave after black wave, heading north.

At six minutes to five, the first Londoners died in the opening phase of what would later be known as the London Blitz.

That night, the bombers came back. For fifty-six consecutive nights, the Luftwaffe pounded London. Planes damaged by anti-aircraft fire, or night fighters, often jettisoned their deadly cargo over the suburbs to the south of London.
Eric insisted that whilst he was working nights, Ivy should join the nightly flood of refugees who sheltered in the Chislehurst Caves. When he was on day shift, they would take their chances with the Luftwaffe, and cuddle up in their own bed. They were prepared to die, as long as they could die together. It was not until June of 1941 that the heavy raiding lessened sufficiently for them to think it safe enough for Ivy to spend her nights at home.

Along with all other young women without small children, in the autumn of that year Ivy was conscripted for war work. She was sent to work in a small factory manufacturing munitions. Eric worried constantly about the danger inherent in Ivy’s job, and wished that she could work in a safer environment, but Ivy was quite content to make her contribution to the war effort, being well aware that survival was almost entirely a matter of chance.

Ivy was devastated when in June of 1944, the Mission of Hope was hit by one of the first doodlebugs. Luckily, the casualty list was not as long as it might have been, but even so, Ivy shed many a tear for what she thought of as ‘her children.’

The war dragged on and like most British women, Ivy’s main concern was how to make the meagre food rations stretch. She prided herself on her ability to make a tasty meal out of almost nothing, and her ingenuity gave Eric a further reason to adore her.

In February of 1945, Ivy, Eric, and her two favourite sisters celebrated Ivy’s thirty-fourth birthday at Kynaston Road. They, like everyone else in battered but unbowed Britain, knew that the war was drawing to a close. The three musketeers, as the sisters called themselves, planned how, on the day that peace was declared, they would catch the Greenline bus up to the West End and dance the night away.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, March 27th, SS Gruppenfuhrer Kammler and his eight ‘rocket troops’ were emerging from a forest in The Hague with their mobile launching gantry, and his last two V2 Missiles. Over the last week, most of their weapons had been launched at night, so as to be free of interference from the rocket carrying RAF Typhoons. Acutely aware that allied troops were only a few miles away, he decided to launch his last two rockets in daylight. At 1630 his next to last V2 blasted off on route for Antwerp. In a final act of defiance, Kammler decided to launch his last rocket against London. The co-ordinates were fed into the range finder, and at eleven minutes to five, the eleven hundred and fifteenth V2 to hit the British Isles was on its way.

At 88, Kynaston Road, Orpington, Eric Millichamp, being on nights that week, was asleep in the front bedroom. At the back of the house, Ivy was preparing Eric’s supper. As she washed the potatoes under the tap, the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window caught the diamond in her engagement ring. She smiled to herself and started to sing, very softly, what she and Eric always thought of as ‘their song.’
‘Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea;
Oh carry my loved one home safely to me.’

. The V2 reached the zenith of its parabola at a height of five miles. Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, carrying one ton of high explosive in its nose, it built up speed until it was travelling twice as fast as a bullet. At six minutes to five precisely, it pierced the clouds above Kent.

In the back garden of 96, Kynaston Road, Orpington, two small boys who had been told categorically not to play in the family Anderson Shelter, defied their mother. Doing so undoubtedly saved their lives.

A police inspector at 69, Court Road was listening to a wireless programme about the war being over when the house fell on top of him. He survived.

Preparing their meal gave Ivy quiet pleasure, for she was a very ordinary woman.
‘Swift wings you must borrow, make straight for the shore;
We marry tomorrow

Ivy Mildred Millichamp
Beloved wife of Eric William Millichamp
27th March, 1945 Age 34.

The last person in Britain
To be killed by enemy action.
Always in our hearts
Remembered with love.

The time that Ivy’s death is recorded, 4.54pm, is strangely significant, because that is the precise moment when the first Londoners died in the blitz, on 7th September, 1940.

Footnote: Less than a year after the loss of his beloved Ivy, Eric Millichamp died at the age of thirty-six; it was said of a broken heart.


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