World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        Andrew Senior

The ENSA Years of ‘The Norris Trio’ - Part 2 - My Burma Story

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Pansie Marjorie Muriel Hepworth Norris, Maisie Norris, Max Norris, Tessie O'Shea
Location of story: London, Malta, Suez Bay, Bombay, Calcutta, India, Akyab, Burma, Ramree Island, Darjeeling
Unit name: Entertainment National Service Association, E.N.S.A.
Background to story: Army


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Andrew James Senior.

The ENSA Years of ‘The Norris Trio’
Andy Senior


The following story is an extract from the biography ‘The Music hall World of The Morris Trio’ written by Andy Senior who states at the beginning of the book:
“I found myself after the sad passing of a dear friend of the family Muriel Mason, looking through her many old photographs. I was besotted by not only how many she had, but also how far back in time the pictures went. I was going back into the past at an alarming rate. I spent a full day just looking at some of the sepia photos dated in the eighteen hundreds. Posters from the early twenty's, photo albums about the travels to Cyprus, and South Africa. Written accounts of times during the Second World War. Then various other items that were loose. I knew from the beginning of this epic journey into the world of the music hall that it would take me a long time to sort through all the fantastic stuff I had collected.

So this being my first attempt at writing a book on someone else's life story you must excuse any errors that might appear.

I have two people to thank before I start Muriel herself, for the many items and my dear Mum, who I am indebted too. For when I got stuck on various pieces, I would phone her up several times in one afternoon.

Yours Andy Senior.
Two weeks before Christmas 2004.”

By way of further introduction
Muriel Mason was born Pansie Norris on October 4, 1903.

Muriel was the eldest child and started in show business at 10 years of age in ‘Little Miss Muffet’ at the Royal Theatre Birmingham. Muriel had stated that “Coming from a musical family I suppose its only natural that we, my late brother and sister and myself should eventually land in show business.”

‘The Norris Trio’ comprised of Muriel (Pansie), Maisie, and Max Norris. Maisie was two years younger and Max four years younger than Murial. Another sister Ruby who was six years younger than Muriel had died aged five years old.

On August 9, 1931 Pansie Marjorie Muriel Hepworth Norris aged 27 married William Maxwell Mason aged 31. They were divorced on June 12, 1939 shortly before the start of World War II.

There is little information from the Decree Absolute document in 1939 until 1942 except for some photographs dated 1938 & 1939 to 1941 of Max, Maisie and Muriel performing in ‘On with the Modley’ which stared Albert Modley. Also amongst the collection of documents is a programme and song sheet from the Max Norris Production of “Brighter Nights” – “ The Cure for the Black-out Blues” described as “Their New 1940 Super Revue” Even brighter than our 1939 success “Bright Nights”

Muriel died at 101 years of age in 2004, and neither she or her brother and sister had had any children, and so because Andrew James Senior’s mother had been a close friend of Muriel Andrew inherited Muriel’s large collection of scrapbooks, photos and notes. At the time of putting this extract of the biography on to the web site it remained unpublished.

Roger Marsh
BBC Action Desk Sheffield

Part 1 - ‘Sinbad the Sailor’
We take up the story sometime in 1942…
In 1942 my late Brother Max who was producing and managing shows ,at the time, decided to put on ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, which is seldom played as it supposed to be an unlucky subject in the profession. The favourite pantos being Cinderella, Mother Goose, and Aladdin, these being the most popular ones. However, my Brother ignored the superstition and decided it was to be ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ and I was to he principal boy. "

Well the first thing that happened at rehearsals and just before we opened, one of the characters "The old man of the sea" was taken ill, so my Brother sent a telegram to a friend in London asking him to travel up straight away to take over the part. Luckily he was at liberty and came. Well! Of cause he was very tall, 6ft and also broad (the previous man was only short) & I had to capture him and carry him on my back! So you can imagine how I felt as I'm only 5ft 21/2inches. On the opening night, l was dreading this bit, I fell dawn centre stage with our friend an my back! And the curtain had to be lowered. There's more to came. We had hired the scenery and I required a small casket to be filled with jewels from the bottom of the sea. As they had no casket available they sent a large box? We wondered haw on earth we were going to fill that with prop jewellery. Then I got a brainwave to fill the box with tinsel and a few pearls and diamante an the top thinking this would be quite effective and shine on stage and in the lights. Well One child in the gallery spotted this camouflage and shouted out, “Them's not jewels it's tinsel!” much to my embarrassment.

Then finally I was supposed to be, flown up to Fairyland, and had wires and rope fastened on my back so they would not be noticed in the audience (Like Peter Pan) The man in the, flies had to haul me up with rope and then it was the interval and when the curtain were drawn I was hauled down again. Well on New years Eve the men were all in a hurry to get a drink I suppose, they hauled me up, tied me off and left me dangling in midair After hearing my screams, they realised what they had done, and let me down. Much to my relief? No wonder "Sinbad the Sailor" was said to be an unlucky Pantomime."

The photo is of Muriel as "Sinbad the Sailor" the date on the back is 1942, so the Trio were still entertaining during the first years of the war, many theatres at the time had to close due to restrictions and the call up for many members of shows. The next part of the Trios life is when they joined E.N.S.A. The real name being Entertainment National Service Association.

(We once again take up Muriel's narrative. She left several notebooks, and it seems clear whilst reading through them that she would pause for sometime before continuing with the story. This was written when she was 92.)

"Well I've had a very interesting life, meeting people and some Stars, who unfortunately are no longer with us. I am very thankful for my good health and also was able to go and entertain the forces in India and Burma during the World War 2, but that's another story, I am now 92 retired of course but with many happy memories & lovely friends. I hope you enjoyed reading my "Peep behind the scenes "? So bye for now. "


The ENSA Years of ‘The Norris Trio’
Andy Senior

Part 2 - My Burma Story
We all have memories of past events and interesting happenings in our lifetime; some of my more vivid memories and experiences are Of India and Burma during World War Two, when I went out to entertain the forces. I had previously worked for two years far the American Red Crass in this capacity- but in England- South Coast mostly during the Doodle Bug period, and as our Head Quarters was in London. Most of our nights (after the shows) were spent in the crowded tubes. In 1945 we were asked to go to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. The Head Quarters for ENSA-Entertainments National Service Association- or as the troops used to say- "Every night something `appens!" We formed a small unit of six – three boys and three girls- a conjurer 2 girl acrobats- my late brother was the entertainer and compare and I was the pianist. We did a short tour (In England) of the munitions factories, first known as Workers Playtime, and then off to H. Q in Drury Lane again to be kitted out for our wardrobe for India and Burma. And we also had to have 9 inoculations and vaccinations for Malaria and all the other diseases in the jungle.
Eventually we set sail at midnight on board a Troopship in Convoy- this was all very Hush! Hush! & We were not allowed to know the Port of departure. Later on however we found it was Oban in Scotland.

Lifeboat drill was a must everyday and in choppy sea, this was not very funny as you can imagine! Particularly in the Bay of Biscay. We passed Gibraltar and Tangiers and then arrived in Malta in glorious weather, but we were not allowed to land in the evenings we had a singsong in the ships lounge and even a dance. Then on to Port Said and through the Suez Canal, which was very uninteresting and monotonous (This was before the blockade of course) and we anchored in Suez Bay for three days. We also had a Gang show on board and we alternated with them in entertaining the forces and the ships company in the evenings. We were now approaching the Red Sea after leaving Suez and it was extremely HOT! So in the afternoons one had to rest and switch on the electric fans on. Eventually we docked in Bombay after a month's voyage and saw the famous Gateway of India.

"Oh? Before we left England -I forgot to mention this- we were kitted out with soap, towels, cook utensils, bedrolls, Mosquito nets and even toilet rolls, as these we were told were unobtainable in BURMA? We also had hurricane lamps and candles- we really wondered where an earth we were going!

We were all issued with Officers uniform and ENSA Flashes and if the other ranks did not notice our Flashes- much to our amusement -- they would salute us thinking we were officers of course."

"Well eventually we arrived in Bombay, and checking our luggage on the dockside -- I discovered my personal trunk was missing, so there was 1 standing on the dockside in a strange country miles from home and in TROPICAL Heat with just the clothes I stood up in. No undies, toilet bag, night attire (Not even a tooth brush) so you can just imagine how I felt! I went straight to HQ (Head Quarters) in Bombay to report the loss of my luggage."

"They said "Don't worry it will be found and sent on to me in due course. " Well to cut a long story sort. Almost a fortnight elapsed and still no sign of my luggage, so down to Head Quarters I went again to tell them nothing had arrived, and they gave me same cash to buy the bare necessities.
We stayed in Bombay for about three weeks and it was a lovely place we used to go into the cinema at MIDNIGHT to get cool and then get a coffee or an ice! "

"Our Shows were on for about three hours in the evenings and sometimes the journeys out to the various camps were long and tedious, and many times after the show was over -the mini piano I had was taken into the mess for a sing song for an hour for the Boys.

Leaving Bombay we went by train right across India to Calcutta-a very slaw procedure-they were like the old steam trains-only slower and went about twenty miles an hour. We kept stopping at stations for refreshments, and the tea was awful as they only had GOATS milk.
We used our bedrolls on the train, as the seats had to be pulled down to put the bedrolls on -- not very comfy you can imagine? After a three day journey we arrived in Calcutta a much HOTTER and HUMID place than Bombay and not so nice."

"There were plenty of insects and flying beetles and these were like Cockroaches with wings, and night Mosquitoes. We had to use Mosquito cream, and being fair skinned they were all very fond of me! After two weeks in Calcutta I contracted Ringworm and enteritis and had to go into Hospital for a week and the Show had to find a deputy pianist. I went to see a skin specialist when I came out of hospital and he told me I was allergic to K. D. (Khaki Drill) and so I had to have a new battle dress and a dress made in white Moygashell.
(Not quite sure on the spelling, but we think it is a kind of thin material like silk #Andy).

In fact I was the only white ENSA Artiste in India if you know what I mean? But it was a much cooler outfit and suited my skin much to my relief? After a month in Calcutta H. Q. we were sent us on to Burma."

" We flew of course and had to make a forced landing in a paddy field near an American Camp in Fenni. When we walked in the boys rubbed their eyes, seeing three English Girls, they hadn't seen a white woman for about three years and they thought they were dreaming! After about an hour or so and a meal, we eventually got another plane into Burma and arrived in Akyab.

Well now the next part is all very primitive but I can assure you it was an actual fact.

Whilst in Burma we lived under canvas and had to put canvas buckets out for washing, water etc. and the "Loo's" were nobody’s business! Just a hole in the ground, a large bucket and four poles with four sides of canvas nailed down to hide you so that if anyone passed by all they saw was your head, although they knew what was happening. Also if you had the urge to go to the loo it was well over five minutes walk away, it was lovely during the Monsoon season, you can imagine? In the evenings we only had a Hurricane lamp in the Basha Hut (As they called it) so it was fun and games if you lost a Hairgrip. These were very precious as there were no shops to buy anything like this-just the NAAFI Which only sold Tea and Coffee, Sweets Cigarettes and matches - not that matches we much use as they got so damp in the monsoon, they would not strike, so we had to rely on anyone who had a cigarette lighter if we wanted a light!

We had to take Mepacrine tablets to avoid Malaria, they were on the table during all meals and if you did not take them you were politely reminded to do so by the M.O.

Sometimes we had to use car headlamps for the shows in-the evenings and the monsoon flies were on the piano keys whilst I was playing and also buzzing around my hair!

We went to Ramree Island and we three girls were invited to stay at Maharajah's Palace in Magatala. (Excuse spelling) The Palace was a really lovely place and we felt like Royalty for three days, and were waited on hand and foot. We also had General Stockwell as our host on one or two occasions on his yacht and used to sail up the Chongs, which were rivulets of the Irrawaddy.

"Whilst our stage piano and footlights went on ahead with eighty West Africans, to prepare and put up the stage etc., before we arrived.
Another very primitive episode was on one occasion later we had to go on a Barge for a four hours journey, and four Burmese natives were steering us. One of the girls and I wanted to go to the toilet. Well of course there was no toilet and four hours is a long time! So in desperation we saw an old bucket by the back end of the Barge so we used that! I told my Brother afterwards and he said we were being cursed in Urdu by the natives as we had used their "T" Bucket (They Evidently knew what we were up to)”.

“After spending about three months in Burma we were all feeling tired and so H. Q. phoned saying we were to go on leave for two weeks to Darjeeling for a rest. We were very relieved and Darjeeling (A station in the hilts near the Tea plantations was really lovely and cooler - it was in Nepal)”.

"We then returned to Calcutta for a few days and went an to Bombay again where the unforeseen happened. My trunk had been found and was waiting for me in the Hotel after an absence of about sixteen to eighteen weeks! Well I did not know what on earth to do as although I had received a cheque for compensation, I had spent the money to renew the things I had lost. Luckily my brother went with me to H. Q. in Bombay to see a Captain Kershaw, with whom we got quite friendly. We explained the situation and he told us to get rid of the trunk (Which was a bit the worse for wear) - buy a new one and say nothing! What a relief that was you can imagine? So we started preparing for home packing and buying presents etc. and feeling very excited at the prospect of home again. It was still very hot leaving Bombay but on the ship the weather gradually got cooler and rougher and I remember standing on Southampton Docks with three coats on and shivering in September!

It was very hard work at times and oh! Those flies, but we thoroughly enjoyed the trip and the experience and the troops too were a marvellous audience, so we felt it was all worthwhile. We were out there the same time as Vera Lynn, now Dame Vera Lynn, and whenever I see her on TV or listen to her on the radio and watch the Armistice Day programmes, my mind goes back to " memories are made of this. " I do hope you enjoyed listening."
(At this point on the tapes Muriel left she begins to play her organ and gives a performance of some old wartime tunes Andy.)

I came across about four school note books written at different times during the last twenty years or so, each one telling the same tales, but the hand writing beginning to get a little harder to read, her last account was written when she was 92.

There is one foot note that is worth a mention, on one of many tapes she left of her playing her Yamaha organ mostly Old Time Music Hall songs, She mentions:
"I worked with Tessie O'Shea on the American Red Cross and then in her road show playing the piano for her, as her pianist had had his call up papers."

She also said something about having to play in the orchestra pit because Tessie didn't like anyone on stage when she was the star of the show.

From the forties onward we have no written account of life with the "Trio" from Muriel only several photographs of this decade, with Max and Maisie.