High Explosive Bomb at Wilmot Street
High Explosive Bomb :
Source: Aggregate Night Time Bomb Census 7th October 1940 to 6 June 1941
Fell between Oct. 7, 1940 and June 6, 1941
Wilmot Street, Bethnal Green, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, E2 0AN, London
56 20 SE - comment:
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Contributed originally by BoyFarthing (BBC WW2 People's War)
I didn’t like to admit it, because everyone was saying how terrible it was, but all the goings on were more exciting than I’d ever imagined. Everything was changing. Some men came along and cut down all the iron railings in front of the houses in Digby Road (to make tanks they said); Boy scouts collected old aluminium saucepans (to make Spitfires); Machines came and dug huge holes in the Common right where we used to play football (to make sandbags); Everyone was given a gas mask (which I hated) that had to be carried wherever you went; An air raid shelter made from sheets of corrugated iron, was put up at the end of our garden, where the chickens used to be; Our trains were full of soldiers, waving and cheering, all going one way — towards the seaside; Silver barrage balloons floated over the rooftops; Policemen wore tin hats painted blue, with the letter P on the front; Fire engines were painted grey; At night it was pitch dark outside because of the blackout; Dad dug up most of his flower beds to plant potatoes and runner beans; And, best of all, I watched it all happening, day by day, almost on my own. That is, without all my school chums getting in the way and having to have their say. For they’d all been evacuated into the country somewhere or other, but our family were still at number 69, just as usual. For when the letters first came from our schools — the girls to go to Wales, me to Norfolk — Mum would have none of it. “Your not going anywhere” she said “We’re all staying together”. So we did. But it was never again the same as it used to be. Even though, as the weeks went by, and nothing happened, it was easy enough to forget that there was a war on at all.
Which is why, when it got to the first week of June 1940, it seemed only natural that, as usual, we went on our weeks summer holiday to Bognor Regis on the South coast, as usual. The fact that only the week before, our army had escaped from the Germans by the skin of its teeth by being ferried across the Channel from Dunkirk by almost anything that floated, was hardly remarked about. We had of course watched the endless trains rumble their way back from the direction of the seaside, silent and with the carriage blinds drawn, but that didn’t interfere with our plans. Mum and Dad had worked hard, saved hard, for their holiday and they weren’t having them upset by other people’s problems.
But for my Dad it meant a great deal more than that. During the first world war, as a young man of eighteen, he’d fought in the mud and blood of the trenches at Ypres, Passhendel and Vimy Ridge. He came back with the certain knowledge that all war is wrong. It may mean glory, fame and fortune to the handful who relish it, but for the great majority of ordinary men and their families it brings only hardship, pain and tears. His way of expressing it was to ignore it. To show the strength of his feelings by refusing to take part. Our family holiday to the very centre of the conflict, in the darkest days of our darkest hour, was one man’s public demonstration of his private beliefs
It started off just like any other Saturday afternoon: Dad in the garden, Mum in the kitchen, the two girls gone to the pictures, me just mucking about. Warm sunshine, clear blue skies. The air raid siren had just been sounded, but even that was normal. We’d got used to it by now. Just had to wait for the wailing and moaning to go quiet and, before you knew it, the cheerful high-pitched note of the all clear started up. But this time it didn’t. Instead, there comes the drone of aeroplane engines. Lots of them. High up. And the boom, boom, boom of anti-aircraft guns. The sound gets louder and louder until the air seems to quiver. And only then, when it seems almost overhead, can you see the tiny black dots against the deep, empty blue of the sky. Dozens and dozens of them. Neatly arranged in V shaped patterns, so high, so slow, they hardly seem to move. Then other, single dots, dropping down through them from above. The faint chatter of machine guns. A thin, black thread of smoke unravelling towards the ground. Is it one of theirs or one of ours? Clusters of tiny puffs of white, drifting along together like dandelion seeds. Then one, larger than the rest, gently parachuting towards the ground. And another. And another. Everything happening in the slowest of slow motions. Seeming to hang there in the sky, too lazy to get a move on. But still the black dots go on and on.
Dad goes off to meet the girls. Mum makes the tea. I can’t take my eyes off what’s going on. Great clouds of white and grey smoke billowing up into the sky way over beyond the school. People come out into the street to watch. The word goes round that “The poor old Docks have copped it”. By the time the sun goes down the planes have gone, the all clear sounded, and the smoke towers right across the horizon. Then as the light fades, a red fiery glow shines brighter and brighter. Even from this far away we can see it flicker and flash on the clouds above like some gigantic furnace. Everyone seems remarkably calm. As though not quite believing what they see. Then one of our neighbours, a man who always kept to himself, runs up and down the street shouting “Isleworth! Isleworth! It’s alright at Isleworth! Come on, we’ve all got to go to Isleworth! That’s where I’m going — Isleworth!” But no one takes any notice of him. And we can’t all go to Isleworth — wherever that is. Then where can we go? What can we do? And by way of an ironic answer, the siren starts it’s wailing again.
We spend that night in the shelter at the end of the garden. Listening to the crump of bombs in the distance. Thinking about the poor devils underneath it all. Among them are probably one of Dad’s close friends from work, George Nesbitt, a driver, his wife Iris, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Eileen. They live at Stepney, right by the docks. We’d once been there for tea. A block of flats with narrow stone stairs and tiny little rooms. From an iron balcony you could see over the high dock’s wall at the forest of cranes and painted funnels of the ships. Mr Nesbitt knew all about them. “ The red one with the yellow and black bands and the letter W is The West Indies Company. Came in on Wednesday with bananas, sugar, and I daresay a few crates of rum. She’s due to be loaded with flour, apples and tinned vegetables — and that one next to it…” He also knows a lot about birds. Every corner of their flat with a birdcage of chirping, flashing, brightly coloured feathers and bright, winking eyes. In the kitchen a tame parrot that coos and squawks in private conversation with Mrs Nesbitt. Eileen is a quiet girl who reads a lot and, like her mother, is quick to see the funny side of things. We’d once spent a holiday with them at Bognor. One of the best we’d ever had. Sitting here, in the chilly dankness of our shelter, it’s best not to think what might have happened to them. But difficult not to.
The next night is the same. Only worse. And the next. Ditto. We seem to have hardly slept. And it’s getting closer. More widely spread. Mum and Dad seem to take it in their stride. Unruffled by it all. Almost as though it wasn’t really happening. Anxious only to see that we’re not going cold or hungry. Then one night, after about a week of this, it suddenly landed on our doorstep.
At the end of our garden is a brick wall. On the other side, a short row of terraced houses. Then another, much higher, wall. And on the other side of that, the Berger paint factory. One of the largest in London. A place so inflammable that even the smallest fire there had always bought out the fire engines like a swarm of bees. Now the whole place is alight. Tanks exploding. Flames shooting high up in the air. Bright enough to read a newspaper if anyone was so daft. Firemen come rushing up through the garden. Rolling out hoses to train over the wall. Flattening out Dad’s delphiniums on the way. They’re astonished to find us sitting quietly sitting in our hole in the ground. “Get out!” they urge
“It’s about to go up! Make a run for it!” So we all troop off, trying to look as if we’re not in a hurry, to the public shelters on Hackney Marshes. Underground trenches, dripping with moisture, crammed with people on hard wooden planks, crying, arguing, trying to doze off. It was the longest night of my life. And at first light, after the all-clear, we walk back along Homerton High Street. So sure am I that our house had been burnt to a cinder, I can hardly bear to turn the corner into Digby Road. But it’s still there! Untouched! Unbowed! Firemen and hoses all gone. Everything remarkably normal. I feel a pang of guilt at running away and leaving it to its fate all by itself. Make it a silent promise that I won’t do it again. A promise that lasts for just two more nights of the blitz.
I hear it coming from a long way off. Through the din of gunfire and the clanging of fire engine and ambulance bells, a small, piercing, screeching sound. Rapidly getting louder and louder. Rising to a shriek. Cramming itself into our tiny shelter where we crouch. Reaching a crescendo of screaming violence that vibrates inside my head. To be obliterated by something even worse. A gigantic explosion that lifts the whole shelter…the whole garden…the whole of Digby Road, a foot into the air. When the shuddering stops, and a blanket of silence comes down, Dad says, calm as you like, “That was close!”. He clambers out into the darkness. I join him. He thinks it must have been on the other side of the railway. The glue factory perhaps. Or the box factory at the end of the road. And then, in the faintest of twilights, I just make out a jagged black shape where our house used to be.
When dawn breaks, we pick our way silently over the rubble of bricks and splintered wood that once was our home. None of it means a thing. It could have been anybody’s home, anywhere. We walk away. Away from Digby Road. I never even look back. I can’t. The heavy lead weight inside of me sees to that.
Just a few days before, one of the van drivers where Dad works had handed him a piece of paper. On it was written the name and address of one of Dad’s distant cousins. Someone he hadn’t seen for years. May Pelling. She had spotted the driver delivering in her High Street and had asked if he happened to know George Houser. “Of course — everyone knows good old George!”. So she scribbles down her address, asks him to give it to him and tell him that if ever he needs help in these terrible times, to contact her. That piece of paper was in his wallet, in the shelter, the night before. One of the few things we still had to our name. The address is 102 Osidge Lane, Southgate.
What are we doing here? Why here? Where is here? It’s certainly not Isleworth - but might just as well be. The tube station we got off said ’Southgate’. Yet Dad said this is North London. Or should it be North of London? Because, going by the map of the tube line in the carriage, which I’ve been studying, Southgate is only two stops from the end of the line. It’s just about falling off the edge of London altogether! And why ‘Piccadilly Line’? This is about as far from Piccadilly as the North Pole. Perhaps that’s the reason why we’ve come. No signs of bombs here. Come to that, not much of the war at all. Not country, not town. Not a place to be evacuated to, or from. Everything new. And clean. And tidy. Ornamental trees, laden with red berries, their leaves turning gold, line the pavements. A garden in front of every house. With a gate, a path, a lawn, and flowers. Everything staked, labelled, trimmed. Nothing out of place. Except us. I’ve still got my pyjama trousers tucked into my socks. The girls are wearing raincoats and headscarves. Dad has a muffler where his clean white collar usually is. Mum’s got on her old winter coat, the one she never goes out in. And carries a tied up bundle of bits and pieces we had in the shelter. Now and again I notice people giving us a sideways glance, then looking quickly away in case you might catch their eye. Are they shocked? embarrassed? shy, even? No one seems at all interested in asking if they can help this gaggle of strangers in a strange land. Not even the road sweeper when Dad asks him the way to Osidge Lane.
The door opens. A woman’s face. Dark eyes, dark hair, rosy cheeks. Her smile checked in mid air at the sight of us on her doorstep. Intake of breath. Eyes widen with shock. Her simple words brimming with concern. “George! Nell! What’s the matter?” Mum says:” We’ve just lost everything we had” An answer hardly audible through the choking sob in her throat. Biting her lip to keep back the tears. It was the first time I’d ever seen my mother cry.
We are immediately swept inside on a wave of compassion. Kind words, helping hands, sympathy, hot food and cups of tea. Aunt May lives here with her husband, Uncle Ernie and their ten-year-old daughter, Pam. And two single ladies sheltering from the blitz. Five people in a small three-bedroom house. Now the five of us turn up, unannounced, out of the blue. With nothing but our ration books and what we are wearing. Taken in and cared for by people I’d never even seen before.
In every way Osidge Lane is different from Digby Road. Yet it is just like coming home. We are safe. They are family. For this is a Houser house.
Contributed originally by kenyaines (BBC WW2 People's War)
Sporadic air-raids went on all through 1943, but as Autumn came, bringing the dark evenings with it, the "Little Blitz" started, with plenty of bombs falling in our area and I got my first real experience of NFS work.
There were Air-Raids every night, though never on the scale of 1940/41.
By now, my own School, St. Olave's, had re-opened at Tower Bridge with a skeleton staff of Masters, as about a hundred boys had returned to London.
I was glad to go back to my own school, and I no longer had to cycle all the way to Lewisham every day.
Part of the School Buildings had been taken over by the NFS as a Sub-Station for 37 Fire Area, the one next to ours, so luckily none of the Firemen knew me, and I kept quiet about my evening activities in School. I didn't think the Head would be too pleased if he found out I was an NFS Messenger.
The Air-Raids usually started in the early evening, and were mostly over by midnight.
We had a few nasty incidents in the area, but most of them were just outside our patch. If we were around though, even off-duty. Sid and I would help the Rescue Men if we could, usually forming part of the chain passing baskets of rubble down from the highly skilled diggers doing the rescue, and sometimes helping to get the walking wounded out. They were always in a state of shock, and needed comforting until the Ambulances came.
One particular incident that I can never forget makes me smile to myself and then want to cry.
One night, Sid and I were riding home from the Station. It was quiet, but the Alert was still on, as the All-Clear hadn't sounded yet.
As we neared home, Searchlights criss-crossed in the sky, there was the sound of AA-Guns and Plane engines. Then came a flash and the sound of a large explosion ahead of us towards the river, followed by the sound of receding gunfire and airplane engines. It was probably a solitary plane jettisoning it's bombs and running for home.
We instinctively rode towards the cloud of smoke visible in the moonlight in front of us.
When we got to Jamaica Road, the main road running parallel with the river, we turned towards the part known as Dockhead, on a sharp bend of the main road, just off which Dockhead Fire-Station was located.
Arrived there, we must have been among the first on the scene. There was a big hole in the road cutting off the Tram-Lines, and a loud rushing noise like an Express-Train was coming from it. The Fire-Station a few hundred yards away looked deserted. All the Appliances must have been out on call.
As we approached the crater, I realised that the sound we heard was running water, and when we joined the couple of ARP Men looking down into it, I was amazed to see by the light from the Warden's Lantern, a huge broken water-main with water pouring from it and cascading down through shattered brickwork into a sewer below.
Then we heard a shout: "Help! over here!"
On the far side of the road, right on the bend away from the river, stood an RC Convent. It was a large solid building, with very small windows facing the road, and a statue of Our Lady in a niche on the wall. It didn't look as though it had suffered very much on the outside, but the other side of the road was a different story.
The blast had gone that way, and the buildings on the main road were badly damaged.
A little to the left of the crater as we faced it was Mill Street, lined with Warehouses and Spice Mills, it led down to the River. Facing us was a terrace of small cottages at a right angle to the main road, approached by a paved walk-way. These had taken the full force of the blast, and were almost demolished. This was where the call for help had come from.
We dashed over to find a Warden by the remains of the first cottage.
"Listen!" He said. After a short silence we heard a faint sob come from the debris. Luckily for the person underneath, the blast had pushed the bulk of the wreckage away from her, and she wasn't buried very deeply.
We got to work to free her, moving the debris by hand, piece by piece, as we'd learnt that was the best way. A ceiling joist and some broken floorboards lying across her upper parts had saved her life by getting wedged and supporting the debris above.
When we'd uncovered most of her, we used a large lump of timber as a lever and held the joist up while the Warden gently eased her out.
I looked down on a young woman around eighteen or so. She was wearing a check skirt that was up over her body, showing all her legs. She was covered in dust but definitely alive. Her eyes opened, and she sat up suddenly. A look of consternation crossed her face as she saw three grimy chaps in Tin-Hats looking down on her, and she hurriedly pulled her skirt down over her knees.
I was still holding the timber, and couldn't help smiling at the Girl's first instinct being modesty. I felt embarassed, but was pleased that she seemed alright, although she was obviously in shock.
At that moment we heard the noise of activity behind us as the Rescue Squad and Ambulances arrived.
A couple of Ambulance Girls came up with a Stretcher and Blankets.
They took charge of the Young Lady while we followed the Warden and Rescue Squad to the next Cottage.
The Warden seemed to know who lived in the house, and directed the Rescue Men, who quickly got to work. We mucked in and helped, but I must confess, I wish I hadn't, for there we saw our most sickening sight of the War.
I'd already seen many dead and injured people in the Blitz, and was to see more when the Doodle-Bugs and V2 Rockets started, but nothing like this.
The Rescue Men located someone buried in the wreckage of the House. We formed our chain of baskets, and the debris round them was soon cleared.
To my horror, we'd uncovered a Woman face down over a large bowl There was a tiny Baby in the muddy water, who she must have been bathing. Both of them were dead.
We all went silent. The Rescue Men were hardened to these sights, and carried on to the next job once the Ambulance Girls came, but Sid and I made our excuses and left, I felt sick at heart, and I think Sid felt the same. We hardly said a word to each other all the way home.
I suppose that the people in those houses had thought the raid was over and left their shelter, although by now many just ignored the sirens and got on with their business, fatalistically taking a chance.
The Grand Surrey Canal ran through our district to join the Thames at Surrey Docks Basin, and the NFS had commandeered the house behind a Shop on Canal Bridge, Old Kent Road, as a Sub-Station.
We had a Fire-Barge moored on the Canal outside with four Trailer-Pumps on board.
The Barge was the powered one of a pair of "Monkey Boats" that once used to ply the Canals, carrying Goods. It had a big Thornycroft Marine-Engine.
I used to do a duty there now and again, and got to know Bob, the Leading-Fireman who was in-charge, quite well. His other job was at Barclays Brewery in Southwark.
He allowed me to go there on Sunday mornings when the Crew exercised with the Barge on the Canal.
It was certainly something different from tearing along the road on a Fire-Engine.
One day, I reported there for duty, and found that the Navy had requisitioned the engine from the Barge. I thought they must have been getting desperate, but with hindsight, I expect it was needed in the preparations for D-Day.
Apparently, the orders were that the Crew would tow the Barge along the Tow-path by hand when called out, but Bob, who was ex-Navy, had an idea.
He mounted a Swivel Hose-Nozzle on the Stern of the Barge, and one on the Bow, connecting them to one of the Pumps in the Hold. When the water was turned on at either Nozzle, a powerful jet of water was directed behind the Barge, driving it forward or backward as necessary, and Bob could steer it by using the Swivel.
This worked very well, and the Crew never had to tow the Barge by hand. It must have been the first ever Jet-Propelled Fire-Boat
We had plenty to do for a time in the "Little Blitz". The Germans dropped lots of Containers loaded with Incediary Bombs. These were known as "Molotov Breadbaskets," don't ask me why!
Each one held hundreds of Incendiaries. They were supposed to open and scatter them while dropping, but they didn't always open properly, so the bombs came down in a small area, many still in the Container, and didn't go off.
A lot of them that hit the ground properly didn't go off either, as they were sabotaged by Hitler's Slave-Labourers in the Bomb Factories at risk of death or worse to themselves if caught. Some of the detonators were wedged in off-centre, or otherwise wrongly assembled.
The little white-metal bombs were filled with magnesium powder, they were cone-shaped at the top to take a push-on fin, and had a heavy steel screw-in cap at the bottom containing the detonator, These Magnesium Bombs were wicked little things and burned with a very hot flame. I often came across a circular hole in a Pavement-Stone where one had landed upright, burnt it's way right through the stone and fizzled out in the clay underneath.
To make life a bit more hazardous for the Civil Defence Workers, Jerry had started mixing explosive Anti-Personnel Incendiaries amonst the others. Designed to catch the unwary Fire-Fighter who got too close, they could kill or maim. But were easily recogniseable in their un-detonated state, as they were slightly longer and had an extra band painted yellow.
One of these "Molotov Breadbaskets" came down in the Playground of the Paragon School, off New Kent Road, one evening. It had failed to open properly and was half-full of unexploded Incendiaries.
This School was one of our Sub-Stations, so any small fires round about were quickly dealt with.
While we were up there, Sid and I were hoping to have a look inside the Container, and perhaps get a souvenir or two, but UXB's were the responsibility of the Police, and they wouldn't let us get too near for fear of explosion, so we didn't get much of a look before the Bomb-Disposal People came and took it away.
One other macabre, but slightly humorous incident is worthy of mention.
A large Bomb had fallen close by the Borough Tube Station Booking Hall when it was busy, and there were many casualties. The lifts had crashed to the bottom so the Rescue Men had a nasty job.
On the opposite corner, stood the premises of a large Engineering Company, famous for making screws, and next door, a large Warehouse.
The roof and upper floors of this building had collapsed, but the walls were still standing.
A WVS Mobile Canteen was parked nearby, and we were enjoying a cup of tea with the Rescue Men, who'd stopped for a break, when a Steel-Helmeted Special PC came hurrying up to the Squad-Leader.
"There's bodies under the rubble in there!"
He cried, his face aghast. as he pointed to the warehouse "Hasn't anyone checked it yet?"
The Rescue Man's face broke into a broad smile.
"Keep your hair on!" He said. "There's no people in there, they all went home long before the bombs dropped. There's plenty of dead meat though, what you saw in the rubble were sides of bacon, they were all hanging from hooks in the ceiling. It's a Bacon Warehouse."
The poor old Special didn't know where to put his face. Still, he may have been a stranger to the district, and it was dark and dusty in there.
The "Little Blitz petered out in the Spring of 1944, and Raids became sporadic again.
With rumours of Hitler's Secret-Weapons around, we all awaited the next and final phase of our War, which was to begin in June, a week after D-Day, with the first of them to reach London and fall on Bethnal Green. The germans called it the V1, it was a jet-propelled pilotless flying-Bomb armed with 850kg of high-explosive, nicknamed the "Doodle-Bug".
To be Continued.
Contributed originally by nigelquiney (BBC WW2 People's War)
By Nigel Quiney 2003
Having become attuned to the sound, appearance and behaviour of the doodlebugs in 1944, it came like a thunderbolt from the sky when the Germans then launched their jet-propelled rocket bombs later that year over London. There was no warning. You did not see them, and if you did hear them, you had probably had it!
Enough was enough. We had survived the blitz and regular bombing raids. We could put up with the doodlebugs which ponderously moved across the sky until their engines stopped but these V2 rockets which suddenly appeared from nowhere and exploded before you even knew it was coming, scared the hell out of everyone and the reaction was prompt. Oakfield School in West Dulwich where we lived offered an alternative country location from South London and parents were offered their choice. It was all decided with astonishing speed; the country school would be run by Kathleen Livingston, leaving her husband David, the head-master, to look after the original in Dulwich for those whose parents did not wish their children to go. So in January 1945, my brother Tony and I were evacuated from London.
For me the ensuing experience was my first taste of real horror. The war was a perfectly normal everyday thing as far as I was concerned, as were hardships, shortages and rationing. This was the only life I knew and I was a very happy and contented little boy of six years of age, who was very secure in the love and affection bestowed upon him from every quarter. The absolutely last thing I would have wanted was to be taken away from my parents and home, no matter what the danger. But this is exactly what happened.
What a pathetic sight we must have been, that day on Liverpool Street station. We children were all so pale and thin and in the main wearing overlarge clothes handed down by mothers, from siblings and relatives. Not sure of exactly what was going on, I held firmly onto my mother’s hand and clutched my much worn and over-loved pale-blue teddy close to my chest. Children and grown-ups jostled each other, trying to avoid the porters pulling overloaded trolleys piled high with suitcases and large parcels tied with string as we walked along the platform past the waiting train looking for our carriage. Steam hissed through the clouds of belching sulphurous smoke as though a warning of things to come when I panicked and dropped poor teddy, who fell through the smoke and between the platform and the train and onto the railway tracks. It was as though I had dropped my own baby as my wail of horror rose above the general din on that terrible platform that fateful day.
Subconsciously, I must have known or even smelt my expulsion from the warmth of the family nest. Did I hurl teddy between the wheels of the train and the hard shiny steel of the rails as a cri de coeur, an agonised cry for attention to stop the impending nightmare? Maybe, but it did not change the ensuing course of events.
A kindly and sympathetic porter heard my cry and must have seen what happened and stepped forward to explain to my parents. He then crouched down by the edge of the platform and swung his legs by the side of the train until he was standing on the aggregate between the wooden sleepers. Carefully, he lowered himself until he was almost out of our view, as he scrabbled about under the train and then hesitantly and slowly he re-appeared until he was standing upright again and there in his outstretched hand was teddy. What a hero. A veritable champion.
We soon found our compartment and Tony and I and some other assorted older boys, accompanied by Kathleen Livingston from Oakfield School, were ushered into the train. By now, I was clutching teddy as though glued to my side and then we were off.
Slowly the great steel coal-burning monster hauled carriage- loads of vulnerable evacuees out of Liverpool Street Station and gathered speed for the perceived safety of rural Norfolk.
As the train chugged through the countryside that day, it began to dawn on me that the unthinkable was happening. We were being sent away from our family and home. I do not remember if my parents talked to me about what was going to happen. Probably not. I was only six years old and anyway how could I have understood. I would have screamed up a storm, so my guess is that my ten-year-old brother got the explanation and poor little chap, got the job of trying to explain and look after me, his very much younger brother. When you are ten years old, a younger brother of six is like comparing an eighteen year old to a twelve year old. What a bother, and what an embarrassment and what an annoying and unwanted responsibility. But I have to say looking back now, what else could my parents have done?
I do not remember the details of our journey except that we arrived in Norwich, changed trains and chugged back down the line and finally arrived at Eccles Hall somewhere in Norfolk. A beautiful two- storey sixteenth-century dower house facing east, behind which was Snetterton air force base housing the American 96 bomber group.
Not all the boys and girls were evacuated to Eccles Hall. My cousin Michael, for example, stayed on in London for some reason. In all though, about seven or eight small boys shared the junior dormitory and about twenty in the senior one. I was separated from my brother due to his four years of seniority.
Staffing was meagre. Kathleen Livingston was head mistress and also taught English. Miss Westall taught mathematics. She had been the original founder and owner of Oakfield School but had sold to David Livingston and had come out of retirement to help. Miss Wimbolt taught art, and something else which I can no longer remember. She was an extraordinary character. She only wore men’s dark, tailored double-breasted suits with all the accessories. Black brogues, shirt, with turn-back cuffs held together with plain gold cufflinks, and a silk tie. Her dark hair was cut short, and was worn with a side parting and to complete the picture she wore a monocle. She terrified me, not only because she looked like no other woman I had ever seen, but also because I thought that she resembled Hitler. Lawks-a-mercy!
Miss Cayley taught us nature studies and mainly looked after we six-year-olds. She was frail looking, fluffy and kind. I think! In truth I find it hard to picture her, so it must have been so. The villains are always easier to remember.
Which brings me to Florrie Johnson our matron and cook. A tall straight-backed woman of monstrous proportions. She had a big head with course mid-brown, lack-lustre hair pulled back into a heavy bun, small eyes and thick lips. She did not wear make-up. From her double chin down, she just grew and grew. Her shoulders were not that wide, but beneath grew mammoth breasts and from then on she appeared straight all the way down to the hem of her white matron’s cotton coat. Her sturdy thick legs were clad in brown woollen stockings and supported by sensible white nurse’s shoes. She had two children. A boy of about my age named Martin and his older sister Christine. Martin was blonde, slim and very pretty with a real peaches-and-cream complexion. Christine was blonde, fat and spotty.
Lastly came Ivy. She was Florrie Johnson’s little helper, and lived very much in the big woman’s shadow doing, I suspect, all the unpleasant jobs that were heaped upon her, for she was a poor mousy soul.
In the weeks preceding our evacuation, mother had lovingly put together a separate tuck box each for Tony and I. How she had gathered this collection of sweets, fruit, biscuits and cake for us I do not know. I am sure it meant that she and my father went without for weeks. She had also managed to provide some paper and coloured pencils which, along with our tuck boxes and suitcases containing our other few possessions stood along-side us as we waited together with the other pupils outside the imposing front of Eccles Hall.
We were segregated into sexes and then the boys were split up according to their age groups with Mrs Johnson taking charge. She explained that there would be no eating-matter of any description allowed in the dormitories and we were to hand over to her our tuck boxes for safekeeping. Then we were taken off in our groups to the relevant dormitory to unpack and settle in.
Of course, we never did see our tuck-boxes again. The explanation given was that all pupils’ tuck would be pooled and handed out in even proportions favouring nobody. Well, that did not happen. Mrs. Johnson, acting as custodian of the goodies, gave, I strongly suspect, two for every one sweet in favour of her family and in particular her children. We also got the least interesting and most ordinary from what was available. No wonder that Christine was so fat and spotty!
Tony and I felt thoroughly cheated, as did the other pupils. The subterfuge was so obvious and we all schemed that should further tuck come our way we would find places to hide it and not hand it over to Mrs Johnson.
Every Sunday we attended Eccles church, which was situated at the end of a lane just a short distance from our school. Close by the grounds at the back of Eccles Hall was Snetterton air force base, which was currently being used by the American 96th Bomber Command. Every so often we would see the occasional GI dressed so snazzily in their air-force gear and looking so handsome and strong it felt that they had come from another world. If they spotted us they would always welcome us with a wave and a smile. They almost became god-like in our eyes.
I remember well one morning after we had said our prayers in Eccles Church, sung hymns and fidgeted through the sermon, that upon leaving, a deeply touching event took place. As our straggly line of children walked down the lane back towards Eccles Hall we were suddenly aware of little piles of chocolate bars, sweets and packets of chewing gum lying in our path. The American GI’s had left them there for us, knowing that they would be enormous treats. Of course as soon as we realised that these goodies were meant for us, we scattered like hungry chickens at feeding time, to grab as much as possible. Those GI’s were so kind, it was as though they realised how homesick we were, but of course they too shared our feelings. It is heart wrenching to realise that some of them were only eighteen years old and thousands of miles from home. But over the whole time I was at Eccles, those GI’s were so kind and generous, but always in an anonymous way. They were never around for the thanks and gratitude. However, Mrs Johnson of course spoilt the event. As soon as calm was restored she ordered that all the goodies were to be handed in for redistribution at a later date. We all knew what that meant!
At the rear of Eccles Hall an additional wing had been built in the nineteenth century. This was to be used for the older boys dormitory, and would be where my brother would sleep, but I do not think I was ever allowed inside. My little gaggle of six and seven year olds was housed in a big bedroom at the rear of the original building and my bed immediately faced the door. Outside this door was a landing, with a passage running straight ahead, to the left of which was a big bathroom and at the very end, the lavatory. So began our stay at Eccles Hall.
I was incredibly homesick.
Our lessons in the junior section were simple but not unpleasant. Mostly, they were nature studies with illustrations and names of birds, animals and flowers. There was much to see within the grounds of Eccles Hall and particularly fascinating to me was the flock of peacocks, which nested there. Every so often their screeching reminded us of their presence. Being January it was extremely cold and there was not a lot of activity to see on our walks. The countryside was fairly flat, with the occasional pretty lane winding gently through it, bordered by hedgerow and with fields beyond. There were some copses of trees partly surrounded by wild unkempt bushes and shrubs, intertwined with rambling blackberry and dog roses and bits of honeysuckle and ‘old man’s beard’, all of which made for quite exciting exploration later on.
Kathleen Livingston helped further with our hand writing, spelling and reading. We also had lessons specifically for writing letters home to our parents. These were particularly interesting because most of us started to write in our different childlike ways, of our being so unhappy and could we please come home. However, these letters were clearly not acceptable to teacher and were promptly binned.
We were then instructed to write our letters by copying the text written on the blackboard by teacher! My mother kept these letters and after her death nearly fifty years later, I found them neatly held together by ribbon in a shoebox. Here is an example of what I wrote:-
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
I hope you are both quite well. We are all feeling
very happy this morning because the sun is shining
so brightly. The daffodils are coming out now and
we can see their lovely yellow trumpets. The bees
are on the golden pussy palm getting the sweet nectar
and brushing the yellow pollen on their backs. The
thrushes are singing now on the topmost boughs.
Their singing is sweet. We know a poem called ‘The
Song of the Thrush’.
My love and kisses,
What must they have thought? The spelling and punctuation were perfect and although I quite liked nature studies, were these the thoughts and writing of a six-year old sent away to boarding school? They must have seen through the message with grave misgivings. All the letters are similarly written. Perhaps the most poignant one though, was the first, sent just after we settled in. It reads:-
Dear Mummy and Daddy
We arrived safely at Eccles Hall.
I am quite happy with the children.
Would you believe it? However, nothing could be done to change events and the rhythm of daily life settled in.
Apart from the terrible homesickness, I had problems with one of the regular meals. Every day the menu changed a bit but after a week, was repeated exactly as the week before. Absolutely fine, except for one thing. The food in the main was perfectly edible and some of it was truly delicious. I particularly remember Thursday’s supper and this became my day of downfall. For starters we had baked beans on toast, which I just loved and my plate was clean as a whistle. I think I was introduced to this classic treat at Eccles Hall. Perhaps the beans only came in big catering tins for I have no memory of them at home or indeed at Oakfield School in Dulwich. My downfall came with what followed as a dessert. This was called Bakewell tart and if made with the correct ingredients, was delicious. Sadly, this was wartime, and the necessary ingredients were not available. No doubt Mrs. Johnson or Ivy thought it would be a great treat. It was not!
Instead of finely ground almonds, egg yolks and sugar topped with lemon icing, nestling in a biscuit pastry, what did we get? Breadcrumbs soaked in water, which was heavily flavoured with artificial almond essence, together with a spoonful of powdered egg, poured into a pastry base and baked in the oven with jam on top. I just hated it, as the resulting pasty sticky desert saturated with almond essence had a strong chemical taste which almost withered my tongue but at Eccles Hall you ate everything, come what may.
I took a mouthful, chewed, swallowed and heaved. I swallowed again and managed to keep it down. I began to sweat. I complained to Ivy that I did not like it, but she had had her instructions from Mrs. Johnson. All food had to be eaten and nothing would be wasted. I had to eat it all and that was that. Then bedtime.
Later as I lay in bed with pale-blue teddy protecting my back and a brown monkey glove puppet named ‘Gibber’, a hand-me-down from my brother, clasped to my chest in a cuddle, I threw up. Poor Gibber! I vomited all over him as well as the bedclothes, and guess what was visible for Mrs. Johnson to inspect when she finally arrived on the scene? It was, of course, baked beans!
I was taken to the bathroom and thoroughly washed. Ivy changed the bed linen and I was back in bed and soundly asleep within seconds. The next day Mrs. Johnson advised me that baked beans would now be banned from my diet, as I was obviously allergic to them and the shortfall of food would be made up with an alternative. There was to be no argument and that was to be that.
Poor Gibber. He was boiled in the copper boiler along with the soiled bedclothes. He sort of survived but, my, he did age. His button eyes withdrew into his head and I felt very guilty. It was entirely my fault.
Then came the following Thursday and as decreed I was denied baked beans on toast. I protested strongly but to no avail. Then horror upon horror, I was given a double portion of Bakewell tart. I pleaded with Mrs. Johnson but now it was a battle of wills and she was determined to see that I ate every last crumb. So determined indeed that she stood over me watching in case I tried to secrete a spoonful or two and discard them under the table. Yet again I took a mouthful, chewed, swallowed and heaved. After the third I broke into a sweat. I pleaded with Mrs. Johnson that I felt sick.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You are just playing up because you aren’t fond of pudding and hope to get a double portion of baked beans. Eat it up immediately and I do not want any more of your whining.”
By now I had turned cold as I forced down this chemically flavoured sludge, and then the inevitable happened. I had turned round to beg her to let me stop, when I vomited with a projectile force and threw up on the boy sitting next to me, and all over Mrs. Johnson’s white cotton coat. I stood up terrified at what I had done, with my hands clutching at my mouth, when it happened again. This time sick spewed through my little fingers and onto the dining table. With a deep whimper and gulping sobs, I turned and fled from the room. Every eye was on me.
Luckily, Kathleen Livingston had seen everything and she followed Mrs. Johnson who was following me, so I was saved from matron’s obvious fury and God only knows what retribution which she was going to hand out. The ending to this story is that the following Thursday I was given a double portion of baked beans and I was allowed to go without the Bakewell tart. But Mrs. Johnson did not forgive me and I knew it. She bided her time for her revenge, but it did not come about for many weeks.
The weeks and weeks slipped slowly by towards spring and a new routine took over my life. It was not unpleasant except for my continuing desperate homesickness. However, by now I concluded that Mrs. Johnson was decidedly spooky. Take, for example, bedtime.
We juniors would gather upstairs in the dormitory and undress down to our vest and pants. We would then line up in the corridor outside the bathroom and those with the need would go to the lavatory. However, anyone taking longer than a couple of minutes was in danger of a worrying reaction from Mrs. Johnson. She would demand to know what we were doing and would bang on the door or worse push it open, usually just at the moment when one was leaning forward, bottom off the seat and about to wipe with a small piece of paper torn from a telephone directory. I do not know why this should be so embarrassing but it was. We all do it, but heaven knows what she thought we were doing in there.
At this point I must record a weekly episode, which took place every Sunday and was to do with “inner cleanliness”. I cannot remember the exact timing, but I suppose it must have been just after supper. Being a Sunday there was no homework and we finished our last snack of the day, something like bread and dripping, with a nice hot cup of tea. But it was tea made from Senna pods, which worked extremely efficiently and the end result was a rush upstairs to the toilets and a good and rapid emptying of the bowels. There were times on these Sundays when the supply of torn-up telephone directories ran dry.
Mrs. Johnson knew exactly how to make one feel vulnerable and control was the name of her game. It also did not help the business of emptying one’s bladder and bowels to feel that one was being timed. For the on-looking children, however, it was all very amusing until, of course, it was their own turn.
The bathroom was large and housed a huge tub in which would be a very meagre four to five inches of tepid water. Two boys would then get in the bath together and be soaped down, with Ivy helping Mrs. J. The water soon became rather grey and scummy but in truth we kids did not care and I think the original water was used for all us; eight youngsters per session. We were towelled dry and dressed in our pyjamas and then back to the dormitory where we were allowed about half an hour before lights off. The idea was, I suppose, for us to unwind gently and perhaps read a book.
No way. Kids will be kids and the biggest, strongest or eldest would usually start by hurling his pillow at a lesser and then trying to leap on the victim and in the ensuing struggle, remove his pyjama trousers. Once done, an attempt to hide the trousers added to the fun. What bullies these boys could be. Control freaks in the making.
I remember clearly one episode, after just such an event. My bed was located immediately opposite the dormitory door and because of this it was my job to keep cavey and warn of any possible surprises. Because it was winter and dark the landing was always well lit and the position of the overhead light would produce the shadow of anyone approaching our dormitory. This would be projected against the gap between the door and the floor. From my position in bed it was easy to see.
That evening the unmistakable shadow of Mrs. Johnson approached our door and I gesticulated wildly to advise of her presence, but the wrestling and de-bagging was so intent that my frantic waving was not noticed. I held my breath waiting for a cyclonic Mrs. Johnson to burst into our dormitory. Instead, however, the shadow became larger as though Mrs. J was crouching down to lean against the door.
She must have heard the noise of fighting and squeals of protest as pyjama bottoms were finally removed and the bully of the day leapt off his victim waving his booty. Then, I thought, is she peeping through the keyhole? Again the shadow changed shape and I knew that she now had her ear pressed to the door.
She stayed in that position for several minutes during which calm slowly descended on our dormitory. Pyjama bottoms were found and put back on and finally all the children were back in bed and between the sheets. As the quiet of impending sleep became obvious, the shadow shrank and re-formed into two segments representing her ankles. Mrs. Johnson was back on her feet. I then realised that our Mrs. Johnson not only liked eavesdropping but was a peeping tom as well. I suppose not so terrible really, but ...
A rather more worrying event took place towards the beginning of spring. At the rear of Eccles Hall was a large, well-kept lawn and on both sides were lines of fir trees. These were so large and thick that at the base they had almost joined up. This produced wonderful and exciting spaces for a child to explore and this is precisely what I was doing.
I imagined sheltering there, snug and protected from a violent thunder storm, or creating a hidden nest where I could share tuck with my imaginary friends Mrs. Yonksford’s lad and Mrs. Cronation’s lad who were still my constant companions. It was then that I found an incredibly beautiful feather. I carefully pulled it from the branches where it had been caught and studied it. It was over two feet long, and at the wide end shimmered blues and greens like the butterfly wings that were used in Victorian times under glass for decorative finishes. I held it gently against my side and continued exploring. Then I found another and a little further on, yet another. What a great find I thought, remembering those proud peacocks displaying their splendour. I then backed out of the dense foliage and onto the lawn clutching my three treasured feathers protectively.
“What have you got there?” boomed a voice, which I instantly recognised as belonging to Mrs. Johnson.
“Only some feathers, Mrs. Johnson,” I nervously replied. “I found them in the bushes.”
“That is nonsense, Nigel. I know what you have been up to,” she snapped. “You’re a very naughty boy, pulling feathers from those poor peacocks. Give them to me at once.”
She grabbed my arm and marched me off towards the house. We entered through the back door, climbed up the stairs and continued down a corridor until we reached the front landing.
“Stay here!” she commanded as she opened a door to one of the adjoining private rooms and shortly returned carrying a small wooden chair. This she placed directly in front of the big window centrally positioned over the main door.
“Now take off all your clothes Nigel,” she ordered, “and I mean all of them.”
I did as I had been told and at the same time protesting my innocence but she was having none of it. I folded up my clothes neatly and when I was stark naked she ordered me to stand on the chair in front of the window looking directly over the gravel drive.
“You are to stand upright, with your head held high looking straight ahead until I tell you to stop,” she said in her dictatorial tone.
I stood naked on that chair for about ten minutes, in full view of anyone below who might have looked up, before she relented and let me get down. If anyone had seen me up there, what on earth would they have thought? How would she have explained it all? So it was a punishment for pulling ‘armfuls’ of feathers from the peacocks tail. Big deal. Spooky?
In today’s language, Mrs. Johnson would have been considered a sick ticket!
As I have previously mentioned, bullying existed at Eccles Hall. This is not surprising. Bullying sadly exists everywhere in life and Eccles Hall was no exception. Luckily for me I was not a wimp, but I was one of the youngest and thankfully did have a knack for avoiding the worst of the bullies and their antics most of the time.
However, I was attacked by a rather rough, and older lad one day. I have no idea what started it all but the end result was a fight and my opponent suddenly produced a weapon in the form of a very sharp pencil. This he stabbed at my face, but mercifully a split second before hitting home, I wriggled and the pencil hit me just to the side of my left eye. The sharp lead end snapped off.
I screamed blue murder. Blood gushed, and I was now the centre of attraction. Kathleen Livingston arrived on the scene and I was rushed off to the bathroom. There, my wound was washed carefully and well cleaned with a good painting of tincture of iodine to ensure an antiseptic cleanliness and I screamed even louder as the iodine started to sting.
The wound healed with no problem but the pencil contained indelible lead and the end result was a blue line a quarter of an inch long, looking very much like a tattoo. I was rather proud of it and I have it to this day.
As I write this I remember that tradesmen used these pencils writing out invoices or receipts and many were in the habit of licking the lead point before writing. This produced a darker and permanent imprint on the paper and an amazing effect on their tongues but this was before ballpoint pens were invented which finally rang the death knell for indelible lead pencils. I wonder if their indelibly streaked tongues from 1945 are still marked to this day?
Sometime in March my brother Tony fell ill and it became clear that this was not just a bout of influenza. He was finally moved out of the senior dormitory and put into a small box room by himself. I was not particularly aware of this problem because the senior children did not really mix with us juniors, except for meal times and even then they sat together and separately from us.
Kathleen Livingston was obviously very concerned and ‘phoned my parents advising that she feared the possibility of my brother contracting infantile paralysis, nowadays known as polio. The medical profession had recently isolated this very serious disease and the dangers for young people were known. These were the days prior to anti-biotics being available and for serious illnesses we were given M&B tablets (these initials stood for the manufacturer, May & Baker). Such a puzzling name for a drug, by today’s way of thinking, when scientific-sounding brands are so common.
On hearing this worrying news, my parents made the journey to Eccles Hall. They arrived with one of my father’s cousins, named Eric, bearing a tuck box each for my brother and I. I was overjoyed to see them, literally throwing myself into my mother’s arms and sobbing with relief, somehow believing that they had come to take us back home. Wrong! Big disappointment, but it was wonderful for me to be with them, even for only a few days. We went on trips and even had a picnic on one of the warmer days. I was a very happy bunny. Tony was also clearly on the mend with the dangerous period of his illness over, so the time had come for them to catch the train back to London. I was allowed to see them off and Kathleen Livingston accompanied us to the little station of Eccles. As we waited for the train to arrive, the terrible ache of homesickness slowly spread through me and as the train pulled into the station I clung even more firmly to my mother’s neck.
Now, panic racked my small body as the train finally stopped and a few people stepped down onto the platform. Eric opened the door to a compartment and got onto the train. My mother was weeping as she tried to untangle my arms from around her neck and then I knew for certain that I was going to be left behind.
“No, please no!” I sobbed, burying my head against my mother’s shoulder, my tears streaming down my face and onto the collar of her jacket.
“Don’t go,” I pleaded, looking wildly around me for some saviour.
By now all three grown-ups were also in tears. The train blew its whistle and Kathleen Livingston gently put her arms around my waist and tried to pull me off my mother, but to no avail. I clung on for dear life with my arms still firmly around mother’s neck. At this point, poor father had to force my hands apart and loosening my grip, Kathleen was able to pull me away and into her arms. In no time Eric and my parents were in the carriage, the door shut behind them and with a great belching of smoke and hissing of steam, the train pulled slowly out of the station.
“Mummy, mummy!” I screamed wildly but they were gone.
What joy, what bliss, such happiness! Our first term at Eccles Hall had ended and we were going home for an Easter holiday at East Dean, a village in the South Downs a couple of miles from Eastbourne on the south coast. Tony had completely recovered from his illness and the news from the European front about the war was looking to be in our favour. We had had a wonderful time and people enjoyed an enormous sense of optimism highlighted by the fact that in August 1944 the beaches had been cleared of mines and were open to the public. Now, instead of just gazing down over the barbed wire towards the beckoning sea, we were able to cross over that forbidden line and explore. It was truly blissful.
I returned to Eccles Hall with a heavy heart but without the same fear and trepidation of the first journey. I think that by now I knew that my stay was not going to be for very long and that a few weeks or months would see the end of it for good. Certainly by summer we would be back again to beloved East Dean, and endless adventures.
I had by now been introduced to birds-nesting by Michael, my great East Dean chum. I have to say that today I am horrified by even the idea of finding a bird’s nest and stealing an egg or possibly two but Michael was very clear with his rules, which I happily accepted. They were that only two eggs maximum could be taken, one for each of us, but come what may we had to leave at least two eggs in the nest. We also had to remove the eggs in such a way that those remaining were not touched or moved at all. The idea being that our interference would somehow pass un-noticed. Having stolen the eggs we would very carefully pierce each end with a pin and holding it between thumb and forefinger, blow out the contents. This is what was known as blowing an egg. Once empty and dry it could be stored and the start of a collection begun. All this greatly appealed to my hoarding instincts and I still have my egg collection fifty-two years later albeit stored in the loft.
Back at Eccles Hall I now put my newfound knowledge of birds nesting to the test and with a few other children, we set off to see what we could find. I seemed to have gained some confidence since the previous term because I think I was the leader of this little expedition.
So, just like at East Dean, we set off and were soon on our hands and knees tunnelling through scratchy thicket hunting for nests. In these circumstances time stands still as happy hours slide by. At East Dean I never had any sense of time and just waited for my mother to call my name. It is amazing how far her call of “Nigel ...!” could carry. She would stand in the front garden and cup her hands to her mouth and after filling her lungs call, “Ni i g e l l l ...!” She would do this four times but each time changing her direction so that her voice would carry north, south, east and west. She knew I would set off for home immediately, even if it took half-an-hour. In those days there was no traffic and her call only had to compete with bird song or the wind.
But, we were not at East Dean. We were at Eccles Hall and I had found new territory to explore. None of us heard the tea bell and time slid by. I only became aware of how late it was when darkness slowly crept upon us and then, of course, I realised that we were in for trouble.
As the afternoon turned into evening, our teachers became increasingly concerned. Heaven knows what they must have been thinking but they were clearly greatly relieved to see us for by the time we trudged wearily into Eccles Hall it was pitch dark. This however was not the end of the story. We were given a very late tea, sent to bed and told, rather ominously, that the headmaster would deal us later when he arrived in a few days time from London for the weekend.
Time rather dragged in those few days before Mr. Livingston’s arrival. Kathleen Livingston had already told us of the severity of our crime which included the nastiness of birds-nesting as well as the extreme lateness of our return to the school, causing everyone great concern and worry. On Saturday we waited and waited for something to happen. I knew that David Livingston had arrived from London. He had not been struck down with illness, as I had been praying for and looked extremely fit.
Late that afternoon we offending children were called together and once again the severity of our misdeeds was outlined to us. I cannot remember what happened to the others but I was called into Kathleen Livingston’s study where David, her husband, sat looking huge in what was her chair. Again he went over the details before finally standing up. I could not help but be reminded of how big a bear of a man he was. I nervously watched him open a cupboard and gulped as he took out a springy riding crop from within. He then pulled forward a wooden upright chair and told me to drop my trousers. Quietly, he told me to bend over the seat and proceeded to give me what was known in those days as six of the best.
It was very painful and tears fell from my eyes as I pulled up my pants and trousers.
“What do you say, Nigel?” he gently asked of me.
“I am sorry, sir,” I stammered through my tears.
“And what else?” he queried.
“Thank you, sir,” I responded and left the room.
Our expectations were finally rewarded with the first peace on VE day, May 8th, 1945 and at the end of July we left Eccles Hall for good. My delight in packing up my meagre belongings and leaving Eccles Hall was boundless. My whole being surged with happiness. Mother and father collected us from Liverpool Street Station in the Morris and it was like being reborn though now somehow older and wiser. The war was over and the thought of being home again with my lovely family filled me with a terrific excitement. A new life now lay ahead of me, free from bombs, air-raids, fear and destruction.
Contributed originally by BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK (BBC WW2 People's War)
"I'm a cockney born in Kingsbury Road near the Ball's Pond Road in the East End in 1937, so I was like 4, 5 and 6 when all this happened. I went to a Catholic School and during the Blitz when the air-raid sirens went, we'd get under the table and our teacher would say 'now you've got to pray' so we all prayed until the all-clear went.
One morning at 3, my mum's sister cam in and said 'there's a big bomb dropped near the old lady's house - that's what we called my gran - but she said she's all right. We rushed down the road and saw that a bomb had dropped on a school. I'll never forget, there wasn't a window left in none of the houses around. We went into a schoolhouse, the door was wide open, and there was blind man upstairs which they got our early; the whole ceiling had come down on him. We went into the kitchen and there was only about three bits of plaster left. The plaster round the rose on the ceiling was about the only bit left. I asked the blind man if he was okay and he said 'yeah' so I made him a cup of tea. We was lucky because if that bomb had dropped at three o'clock in the afternoon it would have killed all the kids.
I'll never forget this, the front door swung open and a fireman stood there. He said 'Everyone all right?' and one of the women said, well, I can't say what she said, but to the effect of 'that xxxxx Hitler can't kill me!'
We lived off the Ridley Road at the time and during one of the air raids one night, everyone went down the shelters and my dad said to me "Want to watch the airplanes?' My mum said 'That's not a good idea', anyway, he put me on his shoulders and we stood in the doorway and watched the dog-fights overhead. And I tell you, when them German planes got caught in the headlights, they had a hell of a job to get out. Anyway, the morning after these raids, all us kids'd go out collecting shrapnel from the shells, I had a great big box of the stuff.
Was I scared? Only when I was in bed at night and the air-raid warning went. When you're asleep and you suddenly woke, you didn’t' know what was happening so it was pretty frightening. At that age, you didn't know what air raids were all about. Some of the time I slept in the cupboard under the stairs and it felt a bit safer there.
One day, I went round to the corner to my aunt's house and she was sitting by the window when there was an air-raid warning. Inside the window where she was sitting was a table with a statue on it. They told her to come in away from the window. I'll never forget this, there was a bomb blast, the window come in and the statue toppled off the table and onto the floor. If she hadn't have moved, she'd have been covered with flying glass.
My dad didn't go in the army, because he was wanted on the railways. He took me down the dog racing one day at Hackney Wick. This flying bomb - a doodle-bug it was - suddenly appeared over us. You could see every detail of it. We all ran. It went right across the track and dropped in a field somewhere.
One day a landmine dropped near us in Kingsbury Road and didn't go off. A fellow came down from the Bomb Disposal unit, to try to disconnect it and he got killed. Opposite us there was a block of flats and they named it after him - Ketteridge Court.
I was evacuated for a little time, to Kettering, but I don't remember much about it, only that I didn't like it. I'd have to ask my mum about it. She's 100 but still remembers everything.
Me and my family are Pearly Kings and Queens and we do a lot of charity work, entertaining with music and the old cockney songs and that (Phone 020 8556 5971). We are now the biggest 'Pearly' family, made up mostly of the Hitchins (my mum's family name) in Hoxton, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Clapton, Shoredich, Hommerton, Dalston, City of London, Westminster, Victoria, Islington and Stoke Newington. "
Contributed originally by Pam Cuthbert (BBC WW2 People's War)
When the second war was declared, I was fifteen years old. I worked at the Admiralty in Westminster as indoor messenger, carrying files etc. from office to office. Although I was not in the forces, I think I can claim I had an exciting war. When war came, our duties were changed to twenty-four hours watch, twelve on duty and twelve off. Alternate day and night duty. Like sailors on ship, eight am until eight pm and the next day, eight pm till eight am.
My duties sometimes took me to the small telephone exchange in the building. I was fascinated with it, and wanted to be a telephonist. I asked one the men how I could be. He told me I had to be sixteen, and apply to the GPO.
The first year of my working life, I gave mother all my weekly wages, 10 shillings. She gave me back one shilling pocket money, paid my bus/tram fares, fed me and bought my clothes. The second year I had two and sixpence pocket money, but had to buy my own stockings! I was now earning 13 shillings a week. How much that bought I can't remember. I had to buy a snack in the canteen mid-session, but it was cheap. I think I mainly bought soup with a scoop of mashed potatoes in it. Tea and coffee as well in the breaks.
One night, the first of the London air raids, I left work at eight pm, got the tram to come to my home at Peckham. I was on the top of the tram alone. The noise of the bombs was frightening. In front of me I could see the sky red from the fires, possibly Surrey Docks. The nearer I came to home, I was afraid that I would find no home left. The conductor when I got off the tram, told me to keep on the road, in case of falling buildings. Home was about ten minutes walk from the stop. Bombers were above me and I took to my heels and ran. The road had recently been tarred and gravelled. I fell, scraping my skins and knees, ruined a new pair of stockings! (Clothes coupons were needed for them!)
I reached the house and made for the air raid shelter. No one was there. I waited until the bombers had gone and went to the gate in the fence between our garden and the neighbours. Mum and Dad were there in their shelter. They wouldn't call to me because of the bombers. They reckoned I would get to my shelter quicker than the other. Ron, my brother, had been evacuated. Imagine, a fifteen-year-old, naive girl in this situation!
I honestly think this was the first and last time I was scared all through the war and other events I had to face over the years. Like the time when we had incendiary bombs in the front and back gardens, I upended a heavy pot with a grapefruit plant in over one threatening to set the fence afire. I had grown it from a pip, was very proud of it. We had been warned not throw water on them, as they might explode.
The times the buzz bombs cut their engines overhead. You knew they were going to fall then. Once I came home from night duty to find my street cordoned off. The warder wouldn't let me go, until my mother came to the gate and waved to me. There was an unexploded bomb in the street.
All through the war years we had bowls and buckets in the top floor of the three story house. We had loose tiles on the roof which let the rain in.
At first when I came home from night duty, I would go to bed. If there was a raid, mum would wake me, I would go to the shelter with her. But I couldn't get back to sleep again, so I stopped her waking me, saying I would take my chance, I was exhausted from lack of sleep. The fact was, we were so used to the bombs and fires, we began to believe that was the norm. If we had a night free from raids, that was not normal!
At sixteen, I wrote to the GPO to apply for a job as telephonist, and was accepted. The first day I had to go to Old Street for training. At the weekend there had been bad air raids, especially the east end of London. I was climbing over the firemen's hoses etc. All the time I was there, the bombs were falling. It was very noisy. After a week I was sent to Faraday House, a few yards from St. Paul's cathedral. A much bombed area.
In those days it was the Trunk exchange. Callers had to dial trunks for calls outside London. It was very busy. When the training was finished I was put on the duty rota. The shifts were very funny times. One lasting for two weeks, we called up and down duty. From seven am to twelve noon, one day, the next day, twelve noon until seven pm. which meant in the winter I was going home in the dark and every other day, arrived in the dark. Eventually they built bedrooms with bunk beds in the basement. When we came off duty at seven pm we stayed there. There was also a common room and a canteen. The latter was on the seventh floor - the top floor of the building. The exchange was built on six floors, two switch-rooms to a floor. I worked on the third floor. One day, a buzz bomb cut the engines, we all stopped speaking, you could have heard a pin drop in the silence. A supervisor called out, "Get on with your work!" So, we did. Hard times!
One night when we were sleeping in the bunks, we were woken and told to dress and go to the common room. There was unexploded bomb in the courtyard between the four walls of the building. A friend and I decided to go back to sleep, fully dressed.
In the canteen there was no water, electricity or gas. For breakfast, we had a glass of milk, and bread and margarine, also marmalade. When we got to the switch-rooms, there were candles on the top of the seven-foot high boards! It was chaos, people had difficulty to get through to us, and we couldn't get through to them without difficulty. The bomb had severed the water, gas and electricity mains. I was very glad to get off duty, out of the mad house. In the night, buildings opposite us and all along the road were afire. I think it was 10th May 1940. It was a very dreadful night of air raids on London. Communications was considered an essential service, and we were not allowed to leave. Really, I would have liked to join the WRNS, but I wasn't able to because of working at the exchange.
I thought it was rather unfair, working during the air raids and not having any pleasure time, so I went to the cinema and to dances, causing my parents a lot of worry. When you are young, you don't think of that!
One day, when my mum was shopping a fighter plane machine-gunned the whole road, people were running and taking cover in shop doorways. I don't think anybody was killed. My mother was very shocked of course. We had several more buzz bomb situations. Then we had the rockets. But to me, the rockets were not so bad as the buzz bombs. We couldn't hear them coming, so the first we heard was the explosion. Then it was too late to worry. We could only hope the damage was not too bad. I'm sure there were more adventures, but owing to age and ill health, this is all I can recall now.
While working in the Admiralty, I met a marine, Bill, who became my boyfriend. When he went to sea, we corresponded. Thinking back, I think he was possibly on the Russia convoys. Meantime, I met an American, with a stupid name, Chuck, would you believe? He kept me supplied with candy and cigarettes, sometimes stockings. At that time it was hard to find any cigarettes, and sweets and stockings were on ration, so that was very good. A cousin of mine in the Canadian army visited my family and introduced me to a friend. So, now I had three boyfriends! The last letter I had from Bill, from New Zealand, he was thinking of staying there. Presumably he did as I didn't hear any more. The other two went their separate ways. I lost touch with them, but I wished them luck. I hope they survived.
Sometime after the end of the war, I met Spencer, who had been in the RAF. We married and had two sons. After eleven happy years, my husband had a fatal heart attack. My two sons were six and eights years old at the time. As I have said, a hard life.
I am nearly 80 years old now and a widow. My husband died in 1960 leaving me to bring up my two sons of 6 and 8 by myself. Two and a half years ago I had a stroke which left me with aphasia or dysphasia. This condition, which means I have difficulty with speech, spelling and language, was caused by damage to part of the brain which controls these functions. For about 2 years I had speech therapy to try to help correct these problems. After that period, the two therapists decided they could do no more for me, but they still keep in touch with me, which I appreciate and enjoy. For the last six months or so I have been having Acupuncture treatment, which seems to help in several areas. People tell me that I am speaking better and my vocabulary has broadened, but I am still unable to spell! I also feel that my use of language could be a lot better. The two things that I used to be good at were writing and spelling. Before the stroke, the war story would have been easy for me to write, as it is I hope that you can make sense of it. Ah well, that's life. I now write using the computer that my eldest son gave to me for Christmas shortly after I came out of hospital following the stroke. Before the stroke I knew nothing about computers, but now I use it all the time for writing my diary and letters to friends, family and others. However, I do find that if I don't use something for a while, I forget how to do it. My son comes to my rescue then.
This story was edited and corrected by my two sons, Brian and Jonathan Cuthbert.