History and Heritage

Yan Boogie - Memoir of Eileen Baker

I first met Eileen (Baker) Campbell at her home in Swansea in August 2005, where she gave me a signed copy of her book 'Yan Boogie', for Yeargroup Archives. She had called it Yan Boogie because it was the nickname her brother had given her after listening to American bands on the radio. Later when her second book was published I needed no second thoughts. Her first book was so fascinating that I purchased 'Eileen' and was not disappointed.

I called in to see her most weeks and over a cup of tea, Eileen recalled some of the stories of her most interesting life. Although not under the same circumstances we had both lost our only daughter and I could fully understand the devastation that had descended upon her family as it did mine at the time. The grief, she believed, brought about the early death of her beloved husband, my marriage finally ended in divorce. Eileen had been born in 1919, in Hereford to working class parents, her mother originally from a Welsh speaking background in Neath and her father, from Dorset who began employment as an agricultural labourer. When only 6 months of age, her parents and elder brother moved to Gurnos where her father had been given the job as signalman at the Ystalyfera station. The Gurnos Cottages have long gone but throughout the book Eileen has recalled those days of her childhood with such accuracy that she enables anyone familiar with that part of the Valley, to become a part of her story. In her own words: "I believe the whole experience was God given and inspired."

Within the cover of 'Yan Boogie' she had stapled a piece of paper upon which she had written
How it came to be written:
"When Ruth, our eldest child and only daughter, died at the age of 39 years from cancer, the whole family was grief stricken.
Back in our bungalow in Cornworthy, my husband John immersed himself in the Book of Job. I found myself remembering my early childhood and the wonderful love of my parents.
Memories started coming back with such clarity - it was almost as though I was a child again. At the same time I had a great urge to write these memories down. John encouraged me and as he was, for a time, part of the memories, the whole experiences helped us enormously.
By the time chapter 13 was completed, I felt it was time to stop. With a huge sigh of relief, I leaned back and signed the document - Eileen Baker. That was my maiden name and it seemed the most natural thing to do. ......................................................."

Eileen Campbell (Baker)
July 2001 Swansea

Her second book 'Eileen' was just as informative. At the age of 15 she had answered an advert to become a maid in a middle class household. She had left the Valley to work in Birmingham but it was to all intents and purposes not a nice experience. She had dreamed of becoming a nurse and eventually she trained as a nurse and midwife. In 1944 she and Jack were married at the English Congregational Church in Ystalyfera.

And then came the surprise. I was at a car boot market last week and my husband called me over to a stall. He had found a copy of Yan Boogie and wondered if I wanted it. Skipping through the pages I noticed three pieces of paper, two where scribbled recipes but the third held my gaze. Okay how much for the pieces of paper. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I HAVE THE BOOK.

Returning to the car, he wanted to know why the recipes fascinated me so much. They did not, it was the picture of Eileen that I was interested in.

Her picture was on a page from THE SOUTH WALES EVENING POST dated Monday 27th September 2004 and the headlines: Risking death for those less fortunate by Jill Forwood.

South Wales Evening Post has given me permission to reproduce the article and therefore below is a part of that interview given by Eileen in 2004:

He was young, desperate - and armed. He jumped into the taxi carrying John and Eileen Baker and raised the gun to John's head, Eileen, paralysed with fear, held her breath.
John looked past the gun and started speaking, very gently, to the boy.
"What he said exactly I couldnt take in," Eileen remembered. "I think he said, 'You know this is wrong and your family will be ashamed'. Then suddenly the gun dropped and the boy got out as quickly as he had got in."
The incident happened in the Madagascar Republic, in the tense years after it gained independence.
Former missionaries John and Eileen, both from the Swansea Valley, and Malagasy speaking, had returned to teach English.
And it wasn't the only time they faced naked hostility and the risk of sudden death. "Generally, the people are beautiful and gentle," said Eileen.
"But the political atmosphere had changed. There was a real hatred of white people - and it showed."
During one school holiday they were moved and given a room whose memory still makes Eileen shudder.
"It was indescribable filthy," she said. "The bed was dirty and covered with stained sheets. The lavatory was cracked from top to bottom and completely unusable." Venting her anger was not an option.
"We had to be very careful what we said. We knew we could have been punished, even shot."
Eileen had gone to Madagascar as John's wife, but his workload was so heavy she had no choice but to help him, taking classes of up to 50 pupils. After two years she returned home while John stayed, trying to establish a training centre where their students could become teachers.
Then, during the mid 1980's, came the blow which she believes killed her husband and, ironically, catapulted her to public notice. Their only daughter, Ruth, died at 39. John, now back home, buried himself in the Book of Job and died, broken hearted a year later...........

...........She married John, a childhood friend who had become a Congregational minister, and in her late 40's, when her five children were off her hands, trained as a teacher.
Madagascar, where three of her children were born, brings back conflicting memories. "The country is lovely," said Eileen, "but even when we first went as missionaries, there were problems.
"We knew independence was coming and we had been told to help prepare the people for development. The older missionaries didn't like this at all. They wanted to go on as before.
"We came home one Christmas holiday, expecting to go back a second time. On Christmas Eve we were told we couldn't go. We had left everything in Madagascar and there was nothing we could do."
It was several years before John felt compelled to return.
"We were then living in Devon where we had a beautiful house," said Eileen. "He had retrained as a school counsellor and I was teaching. He suddenly said how unfair it was that we had so much and the Malagasy people so little. My heart sank, but I agreed to go with him"...............

As a widow, Eileen came to live in Swansea. At 85 she takes greatest pride in the loving relationship she has with her four talented sons.
"It's very much like the relationship I had with my parents," she said. "I count it my greatest achievement. I think love is the most beautiful word in the dictionary."

Visit the website for the South Wales Evening Post.

Her books were:-
'Yan Boogie - The Autobiography of a Swansea Valley Girl' printed 1992, and
'Eileen Memories of a working class girl in Depression and War' published in 2006.

The History and Heritage of Ystalyfera is put online by Swansea Valley researcher Val Trevallion and Wolfian Design. All copyright remains with the original copyright holder, and all original research is copyright Val Trevallion, YEARGroup.

You can contact Ystalyfera History by emailing Val Trevallion at yeargroup@hotmail.co.uk.