Hostel stories

Folk drawing

Ian Martin b. 1930s
When I was 13 I worked as a newspaper boy for Chettles and I’d deliver the newspapers to the hostel. I’d have to go into the women’s section where the men weren’t allowed and the women would always tease me and call out ‘man on the loose’ and things like that.

Lily Simons b. 1910s
We used to go to dances up at the hostel and we also went to events at the American Air Force Base at Daws Hill Lane.

Norman Nea b. 1930s
When I came across from Ireland I went to live at the hostel. There were two to a room and it was warm and cosy there. There was always lots to do and plenty going on. There were dances and film shows and so on. The food wasn't special though. There was a real mixed range of people there, lots of nationalities, but it was a friendly place. That's where I met my wife to be, Joy Weedon, at a dance there.

László Gróf b. 1930s
(Photos courtesy of László Gróf)
It was late autumn in 1956, when I and a friend arrived in England as refugees following the failed uprising in Hungary. I had many adventures here, which I will relate to you later, but it was in 1957 that my travelling companion contacted me again. We had kept in touch and he suggested I come and join him. He was now working at Elco Plastics in High Wycombe and was living at Flackwell Heath in the hostel there.

So, in the late summer of 1957 I arrived at High Wycombe railway station complete with baggage and bicycle. My shiny royal blue suitcase, although made of paper mache, contained my belongings which did not represent much value, but that was all the treasure I had.

So this is how my life began ‘down South’ in Buckinghamshire. I started to work for Elco Plastics at their Desborough Park Road factory, just off West Wycombe Road in High Wycombe, and I, too, moved into the Broom & Wade Hostel at Flackwell Heath.

Here, in this rather nice hostel – much ‘posher’ than the one at Saunderton – there were already a group, perhaps twenty or so, Hungarians living among the many other nationalities, Poles, Latvians, Ukrainians, Irish and West Indians in good harmony, at least I had never heard of any serious disagreements, let alone fights. We lived two to a room, fitted out with two metal beds, painted bedside cabinets and two built-in wardrobes, and between the two single metal windows there was a wash-basin with running hot and cold water. Each block had a shower, and also a laundry room, where our clothes could be washed, dried and ironed. There were special blocks for single women and also one for married couples.

In 1957-58 the weekly fee, including breakfast and supper, was £4.15s.0 – about half the amount of an average wage. The meals were taken in the large dining hall and were served through hatches from the kitchen. Entertainment was provided by watching television in a darkened room with a large set put on a high pedestal, and in front – like in some small cinema – the chairs arranged in rows of about ten wide and also ten deep. Those arriving early took the front seats and could see the black and white programmes (no colour TV yet!), the late arrivals sat at the back trying to see something rubber-necked, like some human giraffes. Of course, there was only one station, the BBC, starting at 1.45pm and ending dead on midnight with the National Anthem showing the Queen and the Union Flag. Everyone stayed, eyes glued to their seats till the bitter end and until the picture cut out and the tiny white spot disappeared. Some at the back were already asleep and woke up when the light was switched on to clear the room.

Those not interested – or being able to squeeze in to watch television – could find recreation in playing snooker in the games room, read books in the small library or indeed play football on the grassy grounds at the back of the hostel. There was also a main hall, including a stage, which also housed a table-tennis table.

This is where my friend László Szabóki – Sasa for short – and I came into our own. We already played table-tennis in the county-town of Szombathely, in western Hungary, close to the Austrian border. David Withers, a young Englishman working for the compressor manufacturers Broom & Wade and also living in the hostel, saw us play and suggested that, with a Latvian named Puksis, we formed a team and play in the High Wycombe and District Table Tennis League. After registering with the name of Mercury we entered in Division III – and became champions in the first season. The following year we came second in Division II and thus were promoted to Division I of the premier table tennis league in the region.

However, life does not stand still and apart from work and sport, l’amour also appeared on the scene. First, our captain, Dave got married in 1959, and the same year I met my future wife, too. Dave and Jean’s wedding was at West Wycombe church, where Sasa and I had been kindly invited. Not being yet familiar with English wedding customs, after the ceremony at the church we quietly departed not realising that places were reserved for both of us at the wedding reception, too.

A year later our own wedding took place on 10th September 1960 at Saint Augustine’s, Amersham Hill in High Wycombe. With two of the team's players now being busy with other things the team of Mercury unfortunately ceased to exist and although we for a year or two continued to live in the hostel’s married quarters, Dave moved out and we lost touch only to meet up again in 2015.

Through a combination of pure chance and good luck I had been looking with some nostalgia at the Flackwell Heath and Loudwater Local History Group’s website on the internet, where I happened to see a picture of an overturned lorry at the bottom of Treadaway Hill. Seeing this calamity brought back the memory of an earlier accident, when in the winter of 1959 my friend Sasa had overturned our beautiful Austin Metropolitan car, which we bought jointly at Gibson Cars in West Wycombe Road a few months before. Spurred on by memories I made a comment on Facebook mentioning the sad occasion and adding, that at that time I lived at the hostel in Flackwell Heath. Having no pictorial record of the overturned Metropolitan, I had decided to put the picture of the winning team, naming its members all those years ago. To my greatest surprise an answer appeared almost immediately from Local History member John Gurney saying, that Dave Withers lived opposite him and he could even see him watching TV! How is that, for a million to one chance?

Quickly e-mail addresses and telephone numbers were exchanged and I am happy to say, that after more than half a century we have now met Dave and Jean, we are all well and still married to the same spouses. During the intervening years we all had families – now grown up - and Dave travelled the world through his job with Broom & Wade, and was taken hostage in Kuwait, which luckily only lasted a few weeks. We discovered that both wives also travelled widely, mainly to the Middle East and China, but managed to avoid being kidnapped. I myself, went onto establishing a successful food distribution company and took a history degree at Oxford, while becoming a gymnastics coach in my spare time. To our great surprise Jean prepared a lovely lunch for us, to make up for that missed wedding reception!

Here is the story of my first experiences in the UK:
It was 1956 and, although heavily guarded, under the cover of darkness with a friend of mine (it is always a good idea not to travel alone, in case they shoot you – at least someone bears witness and can send a message of the fact) we crossed the border without incident. We spent the night in the village school in Austria and the next day were given the chance either to remain there or go to England. We boarded our train mid-afternoon at Graz station and travelled through so far unknown countryside, as in Communist Hungary we had no passport and no chance to travel anywhere. By the evening we crossed into West Germany and arrived at Ulm around 2am. On the platforms there were people with sandwiches and various fruit, including oranges and bananas! Oranges I remembered as a child from Christmases before the war, but bananas we have not seen before, so one of the lads started to eat it without peeling it.

Our train pulled into Victoria station at around 8pm on 21st of November, where coaches were waiting for us to be transferred to Chigwell School’s summer campus. It was raining… and foggy. Really thick fog, mixed with smoke. We were given police escort, as we sped through the shiny London streets. I found the London bobby’s smiling faces very reassuring and their helmets unusual and quite funny…

At Chigwell on our arrival we were given towels, toothpaste and a toothbrush and went to sleep in one of the wooden barracks allocated. The night was quite cold, but we could sleep in peace. The following day our details were taken down, we could choose from the clothes collected and were given a pound note! During the day Pathe News arrived to interview people, although very few – if any – could speak enough English to tell our story. I could not speak a word… So to pass the time we played table-tennis, and they filmed that.

However, our stay in Chigwell was very brief. A few days later we boarded buses again and were taken to the Midlands, to Alfreton, where a miners’ hostel became our new home. Here a couple of Hungarian interpreters – both of them miners, who had came to England as prisoners of war and stayed here – helped us to settle in and answer any questions we had. The hostel’s Nissen-huts were spartan, but comfortable, the full board consisted three meals a day, and the £1 pocket-money allowed us to visit the local café, where I could taste Coca Cola for the first time! What a disappointment… The local cinema, the Odeon, very generously allowed us free seats during matinee in the first three rows – which was lovely, despite having to turn our heads, like at tennis matches, to watch the wide-screen films – mostly westerns, where cow-boys and Indians were beating the s***t out of one another. However, the rather basic language of “sit down”, stand up” or “shut up”, together with the action helped us to learn English much better, than the first language lesson, where the first sentence to be mastered was “I found the pronunciation difficult” – a totally useless phrase if ever there was one. Everybody knew I found it b****y difficult.

At Alfreton I met Feri Farkas, a very kind interpreter, who later became my life-long friend, until he sadly passed away in the early 1990’s. He managed to secure a cook’s job for me, so now I could not only eat what I fancied, but also earned money! So, gradually I was able to buy myself some clothes and an expanding suitcase to put them in! A few weeks later with Feri’s help, first I got a job in an iron foundry with much higher wages, around £10 a week, and soon at the open-cast coalmine where he worked. Here I had to start at the bottom – literally. Right down at the bottom of the mine, on the coal-face, where the money was even better, I was nearly killed by a moving Caterpillar Dozer tractor. Having survived, I became the master-blaster.

By this time I lived in Chesterfield and to make travel to the mine at Sutton Springs easier I bought a bicycle. Not just any old bike, but a racing one! However, as all the coal was extracted, the mine closed and I had to look elsewhere for work. My friend, with whom I arrived in England from Hungary, was by this time working at Elco Plastics in High Wycombe and living at Flackwell Heath. So I came down and joined him.

Laszlo outside the hostel in Flackwell Heath in 1958

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