Visit Wimbourne House on Bedford Hill, the sheltered and retirement housing unit, and you’ll find that one of its occupants has a fascinating story to tell. Jenny Chellappoo, now 90, has lived at Wimbourne for 13 years and the photos that fill practically all the flat surfaces of her flat give some indication of both the life she led when young and the expansive family that surrounds her today.
One of ten children, Jenny was born in Mauritius in 1924 when the island was under English rule, as was India where her parents were born. With an economy based on sugar cane and the production of rum, brandy and whisky, Jenny remembers the island as “a barren land”.
She learnt French and English at primary school and left at 13. With no career path expected for girls at that time, she learnt how to sew and created garments for her family.
“I made pyjamas for my father, blouses for my mother and all the clothes for my brothers and sisters,” she recalls.
But learning about Shakespeare and Dickens and the history of France and England at school awakened her desire to be more than a seamtress and her elder brother fed her thirst for knowledge.
She declined the suitors her parents lined up for her and at the age of 19 joined the throngs of men signing up for the army. Her parents would never have agreed to such a move so her elder brother signed all her papers, committing her to a three-year term.
“I was the only girl to do so,” she says. “I brought shame on the family because I didn’t want to marry as my family were from a high-class Indian family.”
Jenny left Mauritius by ship for Egypt. The year was 1943 and the Second World War had been raging for four years. The importance of the Suez Canal caused Britain to station major British army forces in Egypt and Jenny found herself in a clerical job there, in the pay office. She was stationed in Tel el Kabir, a huge camp between Cairo and Alexandria and one of many in the Suez Canal zone.
“I wore khaki uniform, a skirt, shirt, tunic and hat and we worked 9am to 5pm and had two days off a week,” she says. “I enjoyed that period.”
Originally housed in basic barracks with 30 other women, Jenny persuaded the officials that she needed her own room as she wanted to continue her studies. “They were too noisy and I was a quiet person,” she says. Jenny took evening courses on weekdays and at weekends painted, read and spent time in the games room. Army personnel were not allowed to mix with locals. She particularly enjoyed painting flowers on plastic sweet boxes and also encouraged the other women to educate themselves.
In her last year there, when she was 21, she met the man she was happy to marry one evening over a meal. Chandran Chellappoo was a 28-year-old Sri Lankan Christian in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineering division. They soon got married, in Cairo, then Jenny returned to her homeland leaving her husband to work the remaining two years of his contract before joining her.
Back in Mauritius, Chandran secured a job as a headmaster in a private secondary school and Jenny entered the nursing profession. “I can’t sit down at home during nothing,” she observes of that early period of her married life. Three years of study followed before the first of her five children were born.
Keen that they would all have the best education, she came to England with her family, using the free passage offered to ex army personnel. “I was very harsh with my children but it paid off,” she says.
Her first son Raj studied as a mental health professional; her second son Bima went into hotel management (and now runs a hotel in Washington DC); her first daughter Mala trained as a teacher (and is now a professor at UCLA Berkeley in the US), her second daughter Indra won an English scholarship and went on to become a physiotherapist in Australia (and has since retired); and her last daughter Shanta works as an occupational therapist in the borough of Lambeth.
Looking back on her long and eventful life Jenny is cognisant of the impact army life had on her. “It developed me from being closed up with an orthodox family and opened my mind,” she says. “Had I stayed in Mauritius I would have had an arranged marriage. I’ve done well for myself ,” she says.
British born Ted Larkin, aged 94, played in the Fire Service Band during WW11 and was awarded the Civil Defence medal by stammering King George. He is an avid poet and was a Pearly King of Wandsworth.
To say that Ted Larkin has enjoyed a full life is something of an understatement. Born in 1920, his early career was as a Catering Officer ordering food supplies and when war broke out he wanted to enlist in the RAF but three attempts proved fruitless. He settled instead for playing trombone, fiddle and euphonium with the Fire Brigade Band during WW11.
For his efforts he was awarded the Civil Defence Medal, presented to him by the famously stuttering King George V1. The medal was in recognition of the non-operational military and certain types of civilian service posts held during the war. Ted complains that it took “three years to get it”.
Ted was a keen poet and wrote a book of poems, many of them linked to his experiences during the war. ‘On the end of hosepipes’ and ‘The Fire Bridge’ are the titles of two of his poems.
A year before the war ended he fell ill with gastroenteritis and “an angel came knocking at my door” he recalls. The angel was a nurse called Hazel and Ted remembers, “the day that changed my life was when sweetheart Hazel became my wife.”
He has two daughters and two sons and sadly, Hazel passed away in 1999, the same day that one of his daughters got married.
He has been VP of Gillingham Ladies FC, a Pearly King of Wandsworth and has helped raise £20,000 for a baby’s intensive care unit and £22,000 for cots at Guy’s Hospital, although he concedes in a typically self-effacing way that Sir Richard Branson made a generous donation to this worthy cause.
Ted’s early childhood memories are of long holidays caravanning on the Isle of Wight. His father, who was in charge of brick works in Essex, enjoyed long holidays during the summer months and the family would set off to the south coast and the ferry crossing to Sandown.
Since 2011 Ted has lived independently in Wimbourne House, the retirement housing unit on Bedford Hill in Balham, and cheers on Chelsea at every match.