It started with my mother telling me she and I were going to a party to be held at the oil refinery, just down the road. This was interesting but something of a distraction from the many things that normally occupied my ten year old life on the Isle of Grain in 1955.
In those days, Grain was a child’s playground. There was a 1880’s fort, an 1855 Martello tower and WW1 gun batteries – all which acted like magnets to us. We weren’t meant to go up or down any of them, but did, of course. There was the estuary, too, the Medway flowing from one side and the Thames on the other, a sea of mud when the tide was out, with a ribbon of sand and the North Kent marshes to roam over. Allhallows on Sea is just up the coast from Grain, but I always thought there were better beaches at Grain.
Grain is not strictly speaking an island; it is a peninsula, stuck out at the far limits of the North Kent marshes, with only one road in.
In those days, not many people had cars, and it was a good hour’s bus journey to the nearest small town of Strood. Grain had always been an isolated rural community but the construction of the BP oil refinery from 1948 onwards, was changing its character. A new council housing estate had been built to accommodate its workers and the village had been invaded by newcomers. The refinery brought welcome work, but human nature being what it is, the changes were not always welcome to the established village families and there was very much a “townies” and “us” atmosphere. This spilled over into the school, where I can remember, with others, being picked on by the headmistress as a “town child” with a relative tendency for bad behaviour….
My parents and I moved into one of the new council houses in 1954. My father was employed at the refinery as a process operator. I remember how he used to come home smelling of crude oil, and that sometimes when he brought me a cake from work, I could barely eat it because of the ingrained smell like rotten eggs.
The refinery and its lights and its emissioins dominated the area for more than 30 years – not just its two flaming flare stacks that lit the entire area, day and night, but the enormous tank farms that hung on the flat marsh horizon, the tangles of piping and venting steam plumes that surrounded the individual units. These had names that came into ordinary everyday conversation and about which we children knew little at all though we were familiar with them – the Vacuum units – Distillation unit – Alkylation Unit – and the very thought provoking Cat Cracker and Cat Reforming Units. Nothing to do with errant cats at all – but the local pub was renamed the “Cat and Cracker” which did little to dispel the disturbing idea that cats were involved somehow in the production of fuel oil.
By 1955, the refinery was ready for its official opening, and this is why I was going to a party on that particular afternoon.
It was a secret, my mother said. We had to go down to the refinery, with some other children, as some of the managers there wanted to meet us. Why? Well, she told me, because they wanted to choose a suitable child to present the bouquet to the Queen when she officially opened the refinery.
I don’t remember being particularly excited. I do remember wearing my grown up green tweed costume with its pleated skirt and new black shoes. We missed the bus and had to wait for the next one, so were late arriving at the party, not an auspicious start. The other children had already eaten most of the party food, and were playing games, but someone sat me down and gave me a dish of trifle, and I remember not being able to eat any of it because people kept coming up and talking to me. What I do remember is walking home, and my mother saying to me, very quietly:
“You did it, Denise, you’re going to present the bouquet to the Queen.”
All due, I was told later, to the fact that I had put my spoon down and not talked with my mouth full – a lesson in table manners for any child.
I had to keep it secret for a while, apparently, though I don’t remember being told why. But my maternal grandmother rather spoiled it all, in her pride and excitement by going straight to the local newspaper, the Kent Messenger, and telling them all about it. There was a full page spread all about me, plus my latest school photo, and my doting grandmother’s fulsome praise.
Not everyone in the village was as pleased as my Nan; I think every village mother who had a child, especially a little girl, wondered why it was Denise Holland, and not theirs, who’d got the job. My mother told me the children at the party had been selected from the workers who had worked longest at the refinery and my father was one of them. But I do remember that the old village regime, particularly those who ran the village store, made my mother feel uncomfortable. It caused some awkward moments for me, too with my friends and their mothers. I don’t remember feeling very impressed at any stage. My main preoccupation was riding Mr. Pring’s pony, and, more fleetingly, passing the Eleven Plus!
My mother and I had to go to Leonards, a prestigious department store in nearby Rochester, to buy a dress. They allowed us to take several beautiful dresses back to the refinery for them to choose; I had fallen in love with a rustling organza creation patterned with silken bars of red, blue and green very opulent and vivid – but the one they chose was more discreet; white muslin with a smocked bodice and puff sleeves, embroidered with tiny golden yellow dots. I was to wear a headband, with clusters of yellow flowers on it, on the hair which my mother, an unrelenting fan of Pin Up, Toni and Twink, was going to perm three weeks before the big day.
I remember when we took the dresses to show the people at the refinery we were allowed to look at the rooms set aside for the Queen to rest and powder her nose. I was very impressed when they said nobody was allowed to use that WC except the Queen. And I often wondered what happened to it afterwards but never dared ask.
Before the Big Day, my mother and grandmother and the rest of the family all helped with “rehearsals.” This meant my mother played the Queen, my grandmother smiled encouragement, clapping enthusiastically, and I respectfully practiced my approach and curtsey and backing away again. It never occurred to me that I might fall over or drop the bouquet, or do something wrong, but I remember thinking that my mother looked very grim when I presented my “bouquet” to her – one of my dolls wrapped up in a blanket – and hoped the Queen might at least manage a smile.
So the day came. They had built two great grand stands on either side of an aisle down which the Queen was to walk and these were packed with refinery workers and their families. It was quite overwhelming, the size of the audience wasn’t something I had thought of. They placed me and my family half way down, my grandmother in her best fur coat, my father in a new suit and my mother in a new hat – and I had my last minute instructions.
The bouquet was absolutely beautiful I can still see it in my mind’s eye – a mass of fragile soft blue and white lilies and orchids People came up and took photographs of me with the flowers still in their box. And then – she arrived.
Coat off, gloves on, flowers out of the box and the next moment I saw the car, and the group of people walking slowly towards us. I was startled by the great roar that went up when the Queen appeared. It seemed rather rude to make such a noise in front of her. She was wearing a cloche hat and a dark turquoise coat. It was all very unreal because of the noise of the crowd and waving of union jacks. I think I had imagined she would have been met with respectful silence.
I stepped out of the stands, and walked to the middle as instructed, and waited. Spying me, the royal party paused. I walked towards her, clutching the flowers, smiling a little, and then curtseyed. I do remember her soft voice almost drowned by the cheering.
“Oh, how beautiful they are. Thank you so much.”
And I backed off, and it was all over.
What did I feel? I was ten years old and after all that I was ravenous – and all I could think about was the promised packed lunch that BP had provided for all of us. I remember the Queen coming back, much later in the afternoon, and feeling very shy as she walked past us on her way home and wondered if she knew I was the girl who had presented the flowers. I also wondered what had happened to that beautiful bouquet. Did she take it home and put it on her bedside table, and think of the little girl in the white dress who presented it to her? Probably not; she was presented with flowers nearly ever day of her life, but for me, it had been a one off occasion.
The Big Moment had been captured by many people on their cameras and they gave us photographs. There was also an official film made by BP with a snippet of me presenting the bouquet – but to this day I have never seen it. What has perhaps lingered most tenaciously, is my being known as the Girl who Presented the Bouquet, even when I was grown up, and went to work at the refinery myself. It followed me around for years.
In fact, I was linked to the oil refinery, just like so many others, for life. When I grew up, I worked there for several years and I met my husband there when he was a young engineer in the planning department. My father died very young while he was still there, and my mother in her turn, took a job in the offices in the early days of her widowhood.
The news about the closure of the refinery in 1982 came as a tremendous shock to everyone. So many people were made redundant, so many lives altered, and the village, yet again, was poised on the verge of more changes that took a major work source away from it. A power station was being built out there, but the refinery, round which all our lives had centred for so long, was going for good.
My husband was one of the last engineers who stayed to oversee the decommissioning of the refinery, which was rather ironic, as he had been one of the very first apprentices. He was there at the beginning, and he was there at the end.
There was also another terrible and tragic personal legacy from the refinery for my husband and our family. In 1990 he died from mesothelioma, an asbestos-induced cancer. He had only ever worked at BP, and he had often told us about working amongst clouds of the asbestos which was used to clad all those thousands of miles of pipework.
But there is another, lighter memory. I asked him once about the day when as a sixteen year old apprentice he had watched me present the bouquet to the Queen and, what he would have thought if he’d known he was going to marry that ten year girl.
“I wasn’t there,” he said with a grin. “We skived off, and all went to the pictures instead.”
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