A pitman’s son’s memories of British rule in India

Boldon pitman's son Richard Clemens, who served in India during British rule.
Boldon pitman's son Richard Clemens, who served in India during British rule.

It was an era when half the world’s map seemed coloured colonial pink.

For more than 70 years, Britain had ruled the Indian sub-continent, the landscape of literary classics like A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown.

Continuing the military tradition. Val's brother Philip being presented to the Queen.

Continuing the military tradition. Val's brother Philip being presented to the Queen.

And Richard Clemens spent six years at the heart of it, caught up, through Army service, in the twilight years of the British Raj.

It was a far cry from growing up a pitman’s son at Boldon Colliery, but it turned Clemens into a witness to British rule in India – now to be heard described, in his own words, on-line.

More than 30 years after his death, tapes made by the British Army serviceman in the 1970s have been uploaded by the Imperial War Museum from its collection.

They make for absorbing listening, as he describes everything from contracting sand-fly fever, to witnessing the riots between Muslims and Hindus in Cawnpore in 1931, which claimed more than 100 lives.

Richard Clemens served under the flag of the British Raj.

Richard Clemens served under the flag of the British Raj.

“It’s strange hearing my dad’s voice again,” says his daughter, Val Dunmore, at her home in South Shields.

“There was a lot he didn’t tell us about his Army service, but then I think a lot of soldiers were like that. But he did teach me, indirectly, never to be prejudiced. I actually feel, I think, an affinity with the Indian people.”

Richard Clemens was born in 1908, the son of Vernon Clemens and his wife Francis. Vernon belonged originally to Hackney, in London, and was a veteran of the Boer and Great War conflicts. He had come home a hero, with, among other decorations, the Meritorious Service Medal – reputedly presented to him by Winston Churchill.

In the 1970s interview, his son Richard talks about how, aged 21, fed up after five years at Boldon pit and remembering his father’s military service, he decided to join up.

The troop ship Nevas, on which Richard sailed to India.

The troop ship Nevas, on which Richard sailed to India.

He enlisted as a private in the 1st Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, with whom he eventually sailed to India aboard the troopship Nevasa, later recalling how overwhelming the heat, sights, sounds and smells of India were on arrival in Bombay.

He and his comrades had been told little of what to expect.

“But we had been told ‘try to be kindly to these people, because we may never know when we might need that same kindliness from them’.”

His subsequent memories of India, before returning to the UK in 1935, are of getting to grips with mosquitoes and lizards, of visiting bazaars and learning Urdu and, in the final year, of his time as a drummer with the Corps of Drummers, which included playing at functions at the Governor’s residence in Lucknow.

Richard's daughter, singer Val Dunmore, found it strange hearing her dad's voice again on the Imperial War Museum tapes.

Richard's daughter, singer Val Dunmore, found it strange hearing her dad's voice again on the Imperial War Museum tapes.

Later, during the Second World War, he served in Egypt and Palestine, among other theatres, and took part in the D-Day landings.

For his daughter, her father’s Army service is an important chapter in the bigger story of her military family, and it is marvellous, she says, that her father’s memories of a significant period in British history can now be heard by others.

After the war, Richard left the Army with the rank of sergeant and joined South Shields Corporation Transport, rising to the post of inspector by the time of his retirement in the early 1970s.

His son, also called Richard and after National Service with the Army, also worked with the Corporation Transport department, later Busways, as a driver, becoming a leading figure, locally, in the Transport and General Workers’ Union, as well as a magistrate.

Richard Clemens Snr died in 1982 and his wife, Florence (nee Carney), in 1996.

Another son, Clive, would become a metallurgist, working at Taylor’s Foundry in Shields; while son Philip joined the Royal Engineers, seeing service in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, and eventually retiring, after 40 years’ service, with the rank of Major.

By the way, many people will know singer Val through the many musical events she has helped organise over the years, to raise money for charities such as Help The Heroes.

That work is now on the back burner after a diagnosis of heart trouble.

It has, however, freed up more time for family history research, which she hopes one day will take her to a connection with one Samuel Clemens, better known as the writer Mark Twain.

“It’s always been said in the family that we are related, and that an ancestor of his came from the same area we did!”

l To hear Richard Clemens’s memories of his time in India, search for him HERE.