Albert Rigby represented the UK in the EEC in Brussels, was a member of the Balance of Payments Forecasting Committee and the World Economic Prospects Committee for thirteen years, a career which stemmed from his early involvement with the Ministry of Food in Colwyn Bay. As an employee of the town information bureau he was witness to the meeting of two civil servants. Bert Fillmore (Senior Executive Officer) and Tim Deeves (Head of Branch) came to implement the dispersal plans and identification of all hotels and boarding houses in the area three months before they arrived in 1940.
Albert was himself later employed in the Ministry billeting office before enlisting. The guests had to be cleared, office furniture had to be installed according to instructions found documented. Divisions were Meat and Livestock; Butter and Cheese; Bacon and Ham; Sugar; Cereals; Transport & Warehousing; Tea Coffee and Cocoa; Finance; Billeting; Communications, Animal Feedstuffs, Oils and Fats, Points Rationing, Wartime Meals. A staff distribution list was compiled by him at work.
Albert’s story: ‘Queues at the unemployment exchange were part of the 1938-39 scene. I saw them forming in the early Spring and dispersing soon after the office was opened when it was apparent that there was no work for them. All this was to change within months but for the wrong reasons. I suppose I was too hard up to even consider having a steady girlfriend. Certainly at 16 or 17 we chatted up some of the local girls and met a few holidaymakers. Pat Collins fairground near the Pier Pavilion was a rendezvous for us, not that I can record any real successes. There were dances at the pier in the early weeks of the war started by the Council for young locals and for soldiers who were by now flooding into the area. The first twelve months were for many, many people the most significant they would ever experience. They brought changes no one could ever have contemplated. We did not know what lay ahead.
In Colwyn Bay we hardly knew there was a war on – people went to work as usual, trains ran on time, holidaymakers arrived but we did have to conform to blackout restrictions; we also began to realise that familiar faces were missing as the services made their demands. The orchestra played on the pier, we had no reason to cancel any engagements – it all seemed normal but yet unreal as we listened to our radios and saw the mask drill, ration books were issued, wardens appointed and so on. I wondered how long I would have to wait for call up – the medical would be the first requirement when I would then have to state my preferred service. There was not a doubt in my mind that it would be the Royal Navy but as time went by this seemed uncertain because of the needs of the army.
As I have said we just did not know what lay ahead as we entered the first weeks of the war. To the younger element there was the excitement of change, the uncertainties and the chance for fresh opportunities. Apprehension not fear was the operative word in September 1939; at least This was the prevailing mood in the quiet coastal town of Colwyn Bay. There was quite a large influx of people because it was a reasonably quiet haven – our beaches remained clear, not despoiled with barbed wire and mines and there were few gun implacements – features all too apparent on the south and east coasts. It was during this bewildering period in the last quarter of 1939 that Pat and I met – at a dance in the Pier Pavilion. This was the first time I had ventured into a ballroom as until then my dancing had been restricted to classes in a small clubroom. Pat, her friend and I sat at first in splendid isolation because hardly anyone else turned up. Johnny Neal the manager must have despaired at the lack of response to his efforts to brightening up the early weeks of the war. For me it heralded an important turning point in my life.
The following weeks are a delightful blur. Then came our first date and our first kiss on November 18th 1939 and the realisation we were falling in love. An eighteen year old boy and a seventeen year old girl could not have possibly known what love is but we did and so it has remained ever since. We met more often in succeeding weeks when work permitted and when Pat was not travelling to and from Chester to her ballet school on dimly lit trains through the blackout restrictions. I spent much of my spare time at her mother’s guesthouse – an active busy household with a succession of visitors throughout the year. People needed a break and came from far afield for a rest and to enjoy good nourishing meals which were as varied as the rations would permit.
Pat’s father and uncle had run a successful photographic business for many years, employing a large staff of photographers and darkroom technicians during the summer seasons. The business operated from a studio in Sea View Road. Uncle Frank was a skilled darkroom worker and Pat’s dad became a skilled press photographer and his photographs appeared regularly in national and local newspapers. The photographs they produced were of excellent quality and these must be gracing many an album. There is an illustrated book of North Wales containing many of Pop’s photographs. I am sure that in the houses of many Colwyn Bay residents there must be many studio photos bearing the Wrigley stamp and taken in the studio in Sea View Road in the 1920s and 1930s. Others will have retained prints produced from negatives taken at social functions, weddings, operatic and dramatic society shows. One field in which he became expert was in theatrical photography. He produced enlargements for display outside the theatre every week. Pop was barely making a living with photography when I appeared on the scene and Pat’s mother established a boarding house business. Pat was able to remain at ballet school and to gain distinctions. Her eventual success as a ballet teacher gave her parents immense pleasure and they knew I was proud of her as a dancer and supported their aspirations. Nevertheless, the war situation determined the future course of events and it was this, which brought about a change to Pat’s intended career.
The first Christmas celebrations of the war was held as usual with a little more poignancy, no one knowing what future Christmases held in store. Rationing had not yet taken full effect so there was no desperate shortage of food. Family gatherings were notable for the absence of some of the young men who were already in the services and of course there were no bright lights in the streets or windows. We arranged a party for our friends as this would be the last time we would all get together before being destined for the Navy and the RAF. We all survived the conflict and came back with different stories and changed ambitions. In the post war years there would be changes to our lives that not one of us would have predicted.
The early months of 1940 brought the realisation that the war would not come to an early conclusion. Instead it would bring distress and sorrow to millions throughout the world. We faced the future with hope. In the Spring of 1940 we heard that Colwyn Bay was to become an evacuation centre on a much larger scale: several groups of children had been evacuated from Liverpool – some stayed for years but most preferred to return to their parents and take their chances when the bombing started. Houses and hotelswere being requisitioned for the army and before long we discovered that civil service departments were being moved from London and Colwyn Bay was included in the plan to accommodate them. I worked at the information office for a time and I was loaned to the billeting department. I was involved in the preparatory arrangements to receive the Ministry of Food. Two civil servants came to the advertising office to find out what accommodation was available in the district. The same process was underway in Llandudno with the Inland Revenue eventually monopolising the town.
Evacuees, civil servants and others seeking sanctuary in a relatively safe town must have wondered what life would be like in Colwyn Bay. At Rhyl and Prestatyn there were also evacuees but they had to cope with a greater preponderance of troops than we did in Colwyn Bay. Nevertheless British soldiers were billeted in many of the houses and local girls were not long in forming attachments. As time went by there were some girls married to British soldiers abroad who tired of waiting for their men to come back and started liaisons with home based servicemen, civil servants and later with American forces who were stationed in the town prior to the invasion of Europe. Many girls had hopes of a new life-style in the USA – some hopes were realised, many were shattered. There was a short burst of activity when soldiers arrived direct from Dunkirk. They were confused and bewildered, hurriedly billeted in boarding houses whose landladies had been told by the authorities to turn out their paying guests to make way for the dispirited soldiers The soldiers stayed a couple of days then dispersed, some on leave, some to their units. Disgruntled landladies soon forgot their problems and filled their houses with new guests.
Then the civil servants arrived complete with billeting notices – Guinea pigs they were called as for £1 1s. 0d. per week anyone giving accommodation to a civil servant was required to provide a room, bed, breakfast and evening meal. Some of the Ministry staff on low wages did their best to maximise the conditions and paid no more, others supplemented the allowance and got a better service. Very soon men sent for their wives and children, secured rented accommodation and began an enforced sojourn away from bomb-threatened London. They wondered how their London homes were faring during the interminable blitzes. Many wives preferred to brave the conditions and never joined their husbands in Colwyn Bay.
The arrival of the Ministry of Food provided many work opportunities and prospects for local people, far beyond anything they contemplate. For some of us it was another turning point in our lives. It was a strange blend of temporary and permanent staff, and many temps took the opportunity of taking civil service exams when they were re-introduced in 1946. After assisting in the initial billeting arrangements I was recruited as a temporary clerk in the Billeting division of the newly arrived Ministry where I remained as personal assistant to the billeting officer until I joined the Royal Navy. The work was pleasant enough, my colleagues were fine and I made friendships, which continued into the post war years, particularly in Guildford to which the Ministry was dispersed in 1949.”
Albert Rigby was the author of Before We Cross the Bar and MMS 172: A Telegraphist’s Experience of Wartime Minesweeping which has had several reprints and is in libraries in Canada, USA, Japan, Belgium and Australia. . Field Marshal Lord Carver asked to use some chapters for his book The War in Italy 1939-45. In his civil-service career Albert represented the UK in Brussels, attending Commonwealth conferences at Lancaster House and Marlborough House, visiting the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and being a member of the Balance of Payments Forecasting Committee and the World Economic Prospects Committee for thirteen years. He was photographed with the Lord Mayor of London at the Saddlers Hall in the City, when his books were presented to HMS Bangor by the Worshipful Company of Tax Advisors.