Bombs dropped in the ward of: Hyde Park
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Hyde Park:
- High Explosive Bomb
- Parachute Mine
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
Memories in Hyde Park
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by kenyaines (BBC WW2 People's War)
A few weeks after my family and I returned home to Bermondsey from our adventurous stay at Shepherds Bush, I was told that I'd passed the Scholarship, and was given a choice of schools.
We opted for St.Olave's and St.Saviour's Grammar-School, in Tooley Street by Tower Bridge. it was the nearest to home, also I wanted to go there and mother had a good report on it from a friend whose son was a pupil.
St.Olave's was closed in London and evacuated to Torquay in Devon, so I would have to join it there, and faced the prospect of being away from home on my own. When we were evacuated before, the family had been more or less together at Worthing, now I'd be 200 miles away with the added worry of them all being in London at the mercy of the german bombers every night. I was a bit apprehensive as well as excited. A few weeks later we heard that I'd been accepted by the school, and within another few weeks while the nightly air-raids went on unabated, I received my travel instructions.
On the day of departure, Dad took me across London by Bus and Tube-train to Paddington Station.
Of school uniform I had virtually nothing.
Clothing wasn't rationed yet, but was in very short supply, most of the clothing shops were closed or bombed out. It was to be another year before clothing coupons were issued and "utility" clothing appeared with the familiar CC41 label.
However, the school rules were relaxed for the duration, and the only mandatory uniform was the school-cap with it's sterling silver badge, and school-tie, which I obtained from the school.
We were met at Paddington by a well-dressed lady in her Thirties who was to be my escort. She told Dad that she would see me safely to my billet at Torquay.
Paddington Station had so far escaped the bombs. It was a busy place, with lots of bustle, and the occasional chuff and roar of a Great Steam Locomotive as it took off for the West Country, pulling a train of cream and brown coaches.
The Escort Lady led us to our Train, Dad saw me off and we were on our way.
The 200 mile journey took five hours, and was a bit boring until we got past Exeter.
Then the scenery changed dramatically as the Railway-line followed the coastal route.
The Train went in and out of short rocky tunnels on it's way round the coast, with the Sea on one side and the countryside on the other.
The colour of the ploughed fields changed from brown to the red soil of Devon.
I'd never been on a Corridor-Train before, and it was a novelty for me to stand there out of the Escort's sight with my head out of the window, catching glimpses of the huge Green and Black Engine with brassware gleaming in the sunlight, as it rounded the bends ahead of us.
However, I suffered for my foolishness.
By the time we arrived at Torquay, I had painful wind-burn blisters on my lips.
The Escort-Lady said that she did her job
on a voluntary basis, and was going to stay for a few days at the Palm-Court Hotel by the sea-front until her next assignment.
I later saw that this Hotel was quite a grand place, so she must have been a well-to-do Lady doing her bit for the War-effort.
She duly deposited me at my billet in Sherwell Valley Road, on the outskirts of Torquay close to the Picture-Postcard Village of Cockington, a famous Tourist attraction, it had picturesque cottages, and a thatched Smithy, where you could see a Blacksmith at work and watch a Horse being shod if you were there at the right time.
The village was only a short way away. At the end of the road where the houses finished, a footpath led through an Orchard and across a couple of meadows past
It was a nice walk, if one avoided the Cow-pats in the lush grass, and the local Farmer was friendly, he always let us go in to see the animals, there were horses and lots of Black and White Cows, sometimes we saw them in the milking parlour.
I was to stay with Mr and Mrs B, their fourteen year old daughter, Doris, and small son of about five.
There was already a Boy from St.Olaves staying there with whom I was to share a Bedroom and Double Bed.
His name was George, and he was a year older than me, so he was in the next higher Form at School.
I'd vaguely known him at home, as he lived just a few streets away, so we were to get on well together. George was an only child, a quiet, studious chap. I was glad he was there as he helped me learn the ropes at school.
For the first week or so, I was very homesick, and silently cried myself to sleep every night worrying about Mum, Dad and the Kids at home in the Shelter with the Blitz going on. I think that's when I learned the power of prayer, and to always have faith in God.
I was so relieved when my first letter came from Mum. I just knew they'd all be OK from then on.
The B's were quite good to us, but Mrs B, or Aunt Flo, as we called her, had her own fixed ideas about everything, she could be quite unpleasant when she wanted to, although she was kind to us in her way and meant well.
Theirs was a nice modern semi-detached House, with a long back-garden sloping down towards it. Inside all was spotless and neat. Lace D'Oyleys on the dining-room table and all.
The first thing that struck one on entering was the all pervading smell of boiled Cabbage.
As part of her morning ritual, Aunt Flo would put a Steamer of Cabbage on the Stove to boil at about eight o'clock, for dinner at twelve, by which time it was reduced to mush.
Other than that, she wasn't a bad Cook, the only thing was that her idea of the quantity of food needed by growing lads didn't coincide with ours. George and I were always hungry, as portions were small and there were never second helpings.
She sometimes cooked a Milk-Pudding called Junket which I'd never heard of before. It had an Almond-like taste, and was quite nice.
St.Olave's was "billeted" on Torquay Grammar School, about twenty minutes walk away. On our way there, George and I would stop at the Village Bakery and each buy a "Halfpenny Batch Loaf", actually a large Bread-Roll. We'd munch the warm fresh bread as we walked to School.
All our spare pocket-money found it's way to the Baker's or the School Tuck-Shop, where they sold pop and biscuits. But we always had to make sure we saved enough money for essential School items, such as ink and pencils.
School was a bit strange at first, but I soon got to like it and fitted in well.
The Masters all wore gowns and had nicknames given to them by the boys. My Form-Master was "Charlie", really Mr Charlwood, and Dr.Carrington the Headmaster was "Carrots", another one was "Boggy Newmarsh" our Latin Master.
We shared the School Buildings with our hosts, Torquay Grammar School, so our hours were somewhat irregular. Most days we started at 1pm and finished at 5pm, we also went to School on Saturday mornings.
The time lost was made up by us having about three hours Homework every day.
The B's home wasn't really a very happy one. Aunt Flo was MrB's second Wife. The first one had died when the little boy was born.
Aunt Flo doted on the boy, and spoiled him, but seemed to have a down on Doris, who'd just left School, and hadn't yet started work.
When the big Air-raids on Bristol started, MrB was sent there on Bomb-damage repair work, as he was a Telephone Engineer.
He was told that he'd be away for some time, only coming home for the occasional weekend, so they decided that Doris should stay at home and help Aunt Flo in the house until he was back home for good.
Doris was a nice quiet girl, tall and thin with ginger hair like myself.
I felt sorry for her, as Aunt Flo was always scolding her and treated her like a Skivvy, she was everlasting dusting and polishing and sat quietly doing her embroidery in the evenings, but she always seemed cheerful and happy when she came out with us, so I suppose she'd come to terms with things. She told me she wanted to train to be a nurse when she was old enough.
We soon got used to Aunt Flo and her ways, and learnt how to humour her. I used to get the job of holding up her skein of knitting-wool on my arms, while she wound it up into a ball, chatting all the time.
She told me that she was born in Newton-Abbot, a market town about fifteen miles away, and had lived there until she was married.
She'd worked as an Operator in the Telephone Exchange since she was a teenager, and met her husband there.
Apparently, she'd married late because she stayed at home to support her invalid Mother, so she had good reason to feel frustrated really.
One day, Aunt Flo showed me a photograph of herself in a long dance dress, taken when she was younger. I thought she looked very nice with her wavy blondish hair. She told me that she used to have it "done" at the Hairdressers every week in those days.
My time in Torquay passed happily enough, and we made the best of things. The only real downside was the long walk to school, as there were a lot of hills and it always seemed to be raining during the Winter.
However,Torquay was an excellent place to be at in the Summer.
We had some good times on the beach. George and I would go home that way sometimes and stay for a while, but one hot sunny day, I came to grief.
We went into the water, and it was lovely, but we had no towels with us, and foolishly dried in the sun when we came out.
George got away with it, as he had a dark skin, but with my Ginger Hair and Freckles I wasn't so lucky. By the time we got home, my Chest and Back were really sore, and by bedtime I was covered in Salt-Water Blisters.
I was in agony for a couple of weeks and didn't get much sleep, but I managed to keep it from Aunt Flo.There'd have been hell to pay if she'd found out we'd been in the Sea on our own. That was forbidden as neither of us could swim. It can be a bit dangerous down there, with the undertow from big waves.
Another time, we went down on to the Lower Promenade, intending to explore round Corbyn's Head, a Headland jutting out into the Bay. Although it was sunny, it was also windy, and there was a sudden squall. We turned to go back, but the Sea had got rough, and with the tide coming in, big waves were breaking over the steps on to the lower Promenade, some of them splashing over the top railings.
All we could do was make a dash for it between the waves, and eventually we made it to the stairs leading to the Upper Promenade, encouraged by the small crowd watching the action from behind the railings up there.
Needless to say, we were soaked to the skin, but escaped Aunt Flo's wrath by saying we'd been caught in the storm, which was true anyway.
One afternoon during a lesson in my first term at school, The Headmaster came into the form-room and I was called out. With my heart in my mouth, wondering what I'd done, I hurried to him. He smiled when he saw my worried face. "Come with me!" He said quietly. "You have a visitor."
To my astonishment, I found my brother Percy in the Head's Study seated with an elderly distinguished looking man. After my first surprise, I greeted my brother gladly. Dr. Carrington introduced the Gentleman as Dr. Platt, the County Education Officer.
Percy had been evacuated to Exeter, and was lucky enough to be billeted with Dr. Platt.
He had told him that I was at Torquay with St. Olave's, so when the good Doctor came to Torquay on a routine visit, he brought Percy with him so that he could see me. We were allowed to sit and chat in the Secretary's office while Dr. Platt conducted his business with the Head.
Percy said that Dr. Platt had a big house just outside Exeter, and he was happy there as the Doctor was a very nice man. Our sisters, Iris and Beryl were also at Exeter, billeted together. He told me that the schools in London had closed again because of the bombing, and all the schoolchildren evacuated. It was a lucky chance they'd come to Devon.
We spent half an hour or so exchanging news, then they had to go as Dr.Platt had other calls to make.
When Christmas came, Dad came down to Exeter and stayed for a few days. I went over from Torquay and stayed at my sister's billet, so we all spent Christmas together. I don't remember much about the place, except that the garden of the house backed on to the river Exe. It was cold and damp while I was there, with mist rising from the river.
Percy's luck had run out though, The powers that be had decided that Dr. Platt should take more evacuees in his big house, so Percy was moved out and a family installed.
Percy's new billet was with an old army major who was a bit of a martinet and resented having to take in an evacuee from London. Dad had a few words with him when he saw the situation, and the upshot was that Percy went home with him to London.
He had passed the exam for a Technical School, and got a place at the Borough Polytechnic which was open again.
Back in Torquay, we had a cold winter but Spring was soon on the way.
The B's House had a big garden, and with all the publicity about "Digging for Victory", I got interested in gardening and prevailed on Mr.B to let me have a patch of my own. He was only too glad, and gave me a
decent sized plot.
One Sunday Afternoon, I dug my plot over, and thought it needed some manure, so I got a couple of paper carrier-bags and went down to the Farm.
The Farmer said that Pig's manure was best for the garden, and I could take all I wanted. When he saw my Carrier-bags, he said I'd need to put one inside the other, as the Pig-manure was a bit damp.
With the double bag full of the stuff, it was quite heavy, and I hadn't gone far when the handles broke. I hugged the bag of smelly manure to my Chest and hurried home. By the time I got there, it was seeping through the paper, but I made it up to the garden, just about.
I abandoned my old gardening coat and managed to clean up a bit before going indoors, but I wasn't very popular with Aunt Flo when she got a whiff of me.
Things went on quite pleasantly until one Saturday as I walked home from school on my own. I took the usual shortcut through the park and was set upon by two boys of about my own age. It turned out they were also evacuees from London, but they thought all Grammar-School boys were cissies and needed beating up. I went home with a few bruises and a black eye to explain away, but I think I gave as good as I got, anyway, one of them retired early with a bloody nose.
As Spring gave way to summer, life got a bit more interesting as we went out a lot more. There was much to see around Torquay, and always something going on in the town.
One public holiday,when we were down there
we saw that the Town Hall was decorated with flags and banners, and there were a lot of people about, then we heard the sound of Bagpipes approaching and a parade of servicemen marched by. I don't know what the occasion was in 1941, but there were a lot of airmen there in their blue uniforms from the nearby RAF camp. They all wore a white flash on their forage caps, so I think they were all trainees.
At last, the end of the term came. George and I both went home for the Summer
Holidays, as did many of the boys at School. The Blitz had died down by then, and it was deemed safe to be in London for the moment.
To be Continued.
Contributed originally by addeyed (BBC WW2 People's War)
Iwas born in 1930 in Dulwich,the youngest of four boys. My parents moved to a new house in Grove Park South London after I was born.My mother died there when I was 18 months old.I was sent to live with grandparents until I was four years old when my father remarried. When the war began in 1939 I was evacuated with Baring Road primary school to Folkestone. My eldest brother had joined the Army in 1938 and was in Palestine with the Royal Dragoon Guards cavalry. The other two boys stayed at home with my father and stepmother. My father had been gassed in France in the first world war but worked as a hairdresser in New Cross. When the owner retired in 1940 my father bought the shop and sold the house in Grove Park. The family moved into the flat above the shop in New Cross Road.In early 1941 with the occupation of France by Germany and frequent enemy air raids over the South Coast my school was sent on to the safety of South Wales. I found myself living with the local milkman and his mother in a tiny cottage in Tredegar, Monmouthshire.They were very kind to me and I enjoyed helping the milkman with his deliveries in his pony and trap at weekends.He took the milk round in large metal churns and the housewives would come out to the vehicle with jugs to be filled. I stayed with Bryn Jones until I passed the 11plus school examination and was given a grammar school place.Since my family now lived in New Cross I was sent to the local grammar school Addey and Stanhope which at that time was evacuated to Garnant, Carmarthenshire.I was very sad to leave my schoolfriends and my fosterparents and even more so when I arrived at the dingy mining village which was Garnant. I found myself billetted with an elderly spinster who taught piano in her front parlour on Sunday mornings after chapel. She was already looking after another young evacuee but he did not stay very long. The cottage had no electricity and lighting was by oil lamps which were carried from room to room. It was very eerie going upstairs to bed at night with shadows cast on the walls. Cooking and heating was by the use of a coal fire combined with a blackleaded iron oven range in the parlour.Since there was no indoor toilet or bathroom one had to use the privy at the bottom of the garden and wash in the scullery sink. Baths were taken in a tin bath placed in front of the open range with water heated in buckets. Friday nights were always embarrassing when my fostermotherinsisted on washing my back!
Meals were simple fare.Breakfast was porridge and toast (using a toasting fork and the open fire)and teas was bread and jam with a home made welsh cake. Ihad schooldinners except at weekends. On Sundays my fostermother boiled a sheep's head and made brawn eaten with boiled potatoes and cabbage.Tea was tinned paste sandwiches with a slice of cake.
I made friends at school and did quite well in lessons, but I felt very lonely in the little cottage with the elderly spinster as my only company.I read a great deal though the lamplight was never very bright. There was a crystal wireless set in the parlour but it was hardly ever switched on.Miss Williams never bought a newspaper so I did not learn much about how the war was progressing. I had only an occasional letter from my father in which Ilearned that my eldest brother's regiment had exchanged their horses for tanks and were fighting in the North Africa Desert campaign. My two other brother had been called up and were both in the Navy.I did not hear from them at all.
Ihad to attend chapel three times on a Sunday with Miss Williams and since the services was mostly in Welsh I found them long and tedious until I learned a little of the language.One thing could not be denied-the Welsh locals enjoyed singing and the choirs were extremely vocal!
On Saturdays I would run the odd errand for my fostermother,going to the small shops in the village for groceries. During the summer I would fish in the small brook that run past the village with the aid of a homemade rod and line made from a small branch, a piece of string and a bent safety pin which served as a hook. Worms or a piece of bread served as bait. I rarely caught anything in the stream but it helped pass the time.Other days I would climb up the waste coal tip that rose up behind the cottages and slide down it on a battered old tin tray. It was good fun but often I went back home with grazed knees and grimed clothing which did not please Miss Williams. She preferred that I went and picked whinberries from the bushes that grew on the slopes of the steep hills that surrounded the Welsh valley and I must admit I was very fond of the pies my fostermother made from this wild fruit!
My life continued in this fashion until early March 1943 when a fellow pupil approached me in the school playground and told me my father was dead. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. He said that he had heard Miss Williams tell his fostermother that she had received a letter from my stepmother saying so and that I would have to go back to London. When I returned to the cottage after school I asked Miss Williams if the news was true.
She denied having received any letter and knew nothing about my father. The next day I caught the informer in the playground and called him a liar. I was always a easy tempered boy and never got into fights but I was so angry I punched him in the eye and knocked him down. He still insisted that his story was true.
When I returned to my billet after school I again asked my foster mother if my father had died. "N0", she said, "But it is true that I have had a letter and your parents want you to go back to London." "Why?" I asked. "The war is not over yet". "I expect they just want to see you"Miss Williams said. "You have been away a long time.I am sure you want to see them. After tea I will help you pack.Tomorrow I have to put you on the bus to Neath to catch the train to London.Someone will meet you at Paddington station.
With my head in a whirl I watched Miss Williams pack the few things I possessed in the battered old suitcase I had carried from London five years before. She made me kneel on the floor beside the bed to say my prayers as she always did and gave me a hug as I climbed between the sheets.In the dim light of the lamp I thought her eyes shone quite wetly. "Sleep tight,"she said "You will have a long day tomorrow."
I could not sleep. Everything was happening too fast and despite Miss Williams reassurances I was beginning to doubt that she was telling me all she knew. She had refused to show me the letter she had received and I suspected it contained news that she wanted to keep from me.
Early the next morning, after breakfasting on a boiled egg which I found hard to swallow Miss Williams took me down to the bus stop and we waited for the Neath bus.
When it came my foster mother gave the conductor my fare and asked him to make sure I alighted at Neath railway station. Then she gave another hug. "Don't worry, Jimmy," she said "Everything will be alright". This time I could see the tears in her eyes. She stood there waving as the bus pulled away. It was to be my last sight of her.
I alighted at Neath without any trouble but I was shocked when the London train pulled in.It was packed to capacity. All the compartments were full and even the corridor was crowded with standing passengers, many in uniform with haversacks, gasmasks etc. I had to squeeze along until I found a tiny space where I could put down my case and sit on it.I had been told that the journey would take about four hours. Even surrounded by chattering people I suddenly felt very much alone.
The train seemed to stop at quite a few stations, disgorging military personnel and civilians, all seemingly in a haste to get to their destinations, but with their places taken by others so that that there was always someone standing above me. I was a very small thirteen year old and felt it.
This was a different world to the village life of Tredegar and Garnant where the war seemed far away. The uniforms of American, Free French and Polish military personnel
mingling with British uniforms, and the unfamiliar tongues I could hear in conversation were a stark reminder that this small island had become a gathering point for the impending invasion of Europe. I wondered where my three brothers were and if they would survive the conflict. The thought led me on to wondering about my father. The nearer I drew to London the more I became convinced that my quick dispatch from Wales meant that something dreadful had happened at home, and it seemed probable that the boy in the playground had not lied to me. I tried to dismiss the idea from my mind but my heart was a dead weight in my chest.
As the train pulled into Paddington I stood up and tried to glance through the grimy windows. I had no idea who would meet me. Surely it had to be someone I knew and who knew me and yet I had seen none of my family in five years. Slowly I alighted from the train and found myself pushed and prodded down the platform by hastening passengers. Through the barrier I stopped and looked around. There were several groups of people standing around and others standing alone. I did not recognise anyone.
I took a few more paces forward anxiously scanning every face. No-one seemed to be looking at me.Suddenly Iheard a voice behind me "Jimmy? Is that you Jimmy?"
I turned, startled. The man was tall and lean in an Army uniform, medal ribbons on his chest. My heart jumped. "Bill?" I stammered "Hello,old son" The soldier grinned down at me."I was afraid I'd missed you. Give me your case. We will catch the bus outside." With that he took the case from me and with the other hand lightly clutching my shoulder he led the way briskly out of the station. I kept glancing up at him,hardly believing my eyes. He was so smart,so handsome, so manly! I had not seen him since 1938.The last news I had of him was that he was in Italy fighting near Monte Cassino.What was he doing here? I was afraid to ask.
We boarded the bus for New Cross and on the journey my brother asked mundane questions about life in Wales and my school.He never mentioned our father and though the question was on my lips I dare not ask it. It was not until we we walking towards the hairdressing shop that I found the courage. "Bill. My dad. Is he,is he,dead?"
My brother stopped. Turned towards me, looked down at me. His hand tightened on my shoulder. Gravely he said "Yes, Jimmy. I am afraid he is."
My eyes filled with hot tears.I blinked, brushed them quickly away. I had known the answer before it was spoken but it still hit me like a kick in the stomach.My mind then froze over and I could think of nothing more to say.If Bill said anything further to me before we arrived at the shop doorway his words did not penetrate my brain.
My stepmother Winifred was waiting to greet me in the flat above the shop.In appearance she was much as I remembered, tall and slim with her black hair parted in the middle so that it resembled a pair of raven's wings. She was dressed all in black but she wore her customary bright red shade of lipstick that matched the colour of her impeccably varnished fingernails.As I appraised her I felt the same nervousness that had always gripped me in her presence. She had always been a strict disciplinarian in the home and exercised strict control over my brothers and myself. Any wayward behaviour from us was met with swift chastisement, often physical, with the use of any instument that lay to hand. We soon learned not to defy her wishes.There had been no point in complaining to Father. His contaminated lungs made him cough and wheeze and he did not possess the physical or mental strength to enter into arguments with his new wife.Our guess was that not only had he been attracted by Winnie's allure but because as a nursing sister she seemed an ideal candidate as a wife and carer of his children. He was not to know that she did not have an ounce of maternal instinct within her body.He was unaware of Winnie's cold dispassionate attitude towards us for she did not show it in his presence.We loved him enough not to add to his burden. Our stepmother was all sweetness and light when he was home,which was only on Sundays in daylight hours. During the week he left for work as we were preparing for school in the mornings and usually arrived home after we had been put to bed in the evenings.By that time he was physically exhausted and only had the energy to put his head round the door of our bedroom to see if we were asleep.
The commencement of war in 1939 put an end to our torment. Though I was sorry to say goodbye to my Father I was thrilled to escape from Winifred's clutches and not be at her continual beck and call. Bill was with his regiment but I am sure Len and Fred
were both anxious to reach the age of call up so that they too could get away.
Now I was back under the same roof as our stepmother and at 13 years of age still under her control. I did not look forward to the future with much confidence.
Sitting in the small lounge of the shop flat that evening i learned that my father's funeral had already taken place. My three brothers had all been given compassionate leave to attend but Len and Fred had returned to their ships some days before. Only Bill had been granted extended leave because his unit had just arrived from Italy and was at the South Coast-preparing.as I found out later, for the D-Day landings in June. Within a few days he too had gone and I was left alone with my stepmother.
The following weeks passed slowly and drearily.Winnie kept the shop open with the asistance of two female staff who attended to the hairdressing needs of lady customers.Astonishingly Winnie took upon herself to give haircuts to men and proved quite competent at it. My role was to keep the salon clean, sweeping the floor and washing the handbasins etc.
Contributed originally by winchester (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was twelve years old in 1939. I had earlier in the year passed the scholarship exam at my Junior school in Duncombe Road in North London N19, and was looking forward to going to the Grammar school named William Ellis which was situated on the edge of Parliament Hill Fields which were part of Hampstead Heath.
About a week before the 1939 war began my father received a letter from my Uncle Fred in Tiverton in Devon. He offered to have me and two of my cousins Doris and Rosie who were sisters to stay with him and his family while the war was on. It was agreed that we would go although I wasn't asked for my opinion. There was a problem developing here but it wasnt thought of at the time. Doris's mum and dad were both deaf and dumb, and Doris seemed to have an aptitude to understand what they said and was a go between between them and other people. So by going to Devon her mum and dad would be left on their own.
My sister Lily who was twenty-four at the time and her boyfriend named Bob, who had a car, said that they would drive - we three potential evacuees - to my Uncle Fred in Tiverton. So on Saturday 2 September 1939 the five of us all got into Bob's car, which was a 1935 Wolseley Hornet open-top sports car. My sister and Bob were in the front and Doris, Rosie and me were in the back with our luggage stowed wherever it would fit between us.
We left north london at about 2.30 pm and drove up Highgate Hill and in time on to the A30 road to the west country. The roads were different in those days - not so much traffic. I remember we stopped at the side of the road somewhere near Bagshot Heath for a break and to check if every thing was alright. While we were stopped a coach went by and Bob said look its a Daily Mirror eight but what that meant I dont know. Fortunately it was a fine warm day so we didn't need to have the canvas hood put up as bob couldnt remember where it was amongst all the luggage.
After we had been travelling for some time it began to get dark, Bob had put some blue paper over the headlights before switching them on because he had heard that there was to be a practice blackout this night. We had reached some where near Salisbury when we were stopped by a policeman wearing a cape waving a torch at us, he told bob to put the lights out "didnt we know there was a war on"?. On we went with no lights on its very strange that in the country when its dark and there are no lights its possible to see but not very far. We had been travelling for about another mile or so when Bob became agitated, he wasnt happy that he had no lights on I suppose that we were moving at about twentyfive miles an hour when bob switched on the lights and there we were travelling towards a brick wall as the road took a sharp turn to the right, there was a screech of brakes and a heave on the steering wheel and round the corner we went with a sigh of relief. We stopped to recover our nerves and have a rest. I got out of the car and sat on the mudguard of the front wheel it was the sort that tuned whith the wheel, I rested my head on the bonnet of the engine and fell asleep. I woke up after a while and got back in the car and we went on our way. Eventually we arrived in Tiverton at about six o'clock in the morning, but lily couldnt remember exactly where Uncle Fred lived but we found it in the end, it was about a mile outside Tiverton on the Exeter road.
Uncle Fred lived in the Lodge Gate house to an estate called Howden Court, where he was a groom but also did other jobs. On one side of the house was a drive to Howden Court which was an enormous place, and on the other was a narrow lane about half a mile long leading to a farm. They were pleased to see us and we went into a large kitchen. Doris and Rosie and I were tired so they went upstairs to have a sleep and I had a sleep on the settee in the sitting room. I woke up and went back into the kitchen in time to hear Neville Chamberlain say that England was at war with Germany. I didnt think too much about it at the time, I was too busy scouting round the outside of the house,it seemed strange to look out on to fields and hedges, seeing cows and rabbits. It came time for lily and Bob to return to london. and of they went. We three were now on our own with complete strangers who we had never seen before and so the rest of the day passed with the grownups discussing what would happen now that war was declared.
Uncle Fred had been in the Royal Horse Artillery in the 1914/1918 war and was only one of three people in his battery to survive an attack by German soldiers simply because he had taken the horses to the local village to water them. No one had any idea what would happen and we all went to bed. I was to sleep on the settee in the sitting room. The following day Monday the 4th September it suddenly dawned on me that there were no other boys about. the house we were in was a three bedroom one and where everyone was sleeping I had no idea. There were six females aunts Ella,and Lucy, cousin Eileen who was about twentytwo, cousin Joyce who was about seventeen, then there was Doris who was about fourteen Rosie who was nine, uncle Fred and me. what was I going to do ?. There was one saving factor uncle Fred had a dog called Mopsey and Mopsey was the same age as me. After a while where I went Mopsey went and we became great friends.
A week later after we had settled in I was enrolledinto the local junior school which wsnt much use as I had completed all the work they were doing back in london. I stayed in this school for about six weeks when someone decided that I should be moved to the Tiverton Boys Middle school which was the equivalent to a Grammar school, so I went there. Now the school uniform colours of the Middle school were red and green which everyone wore, except me, the school colours of William Ellis Grammar school were Royal blue jacket with a golden Oak tree embroidered on the breast pocket so it was obvious that I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had one or two arguments with other boys at the school because I spoke differently to them but I began to settle in. The only problem I had was that I had missed the initial indoctrination at the beginning of the September term so I was behind in my learning although I had had so much upheaval in the previous few weeks that I didnt much care whether I learnt French or not.
Christmas 1939 came and mum and dad came down for a holiday apparently it was very quiet in london and they stayed a few days. It was good to see them. But I dont know where they slept. Uncle Fred told dad that I wasnt doing very well at school but I wasnt bothered I think I had switched of. Dad asked we three evacuees whether we wanted to go home to london, I opted to stay as I liked the country and had Mopsey the dog. Doris and Rosie wanted to go home, I think Doris was worriedabout her mum and dad so of they all went. At least that was two females out of the way. Aunt Lucy went to stay with other relations in Tiverton, so space was getting better and the family only had me to put up with.
One night there was an air raid, planes flying overhead all night. they used the river Exe as a guide to get to Bristol and other towns further north. Uncle Fred had us all take shelter under the Morrison table shelter that had appeared one day while I was at school. The top was made of quarter inch thick steel and the legs were of half inch thick steel and it was very cold under there in my pyjamas. On this particular night raid one of the bombers was attacked by a fighter, we could hear the machine guns firing and then there was the whistle of the bombs coming down, but they missed me and fell in a field the other side of the river Exe about half a mile away. Uncle Fred had joined the Home Guard by then and kept his rifle which was a Short Lee Enfield 303 by the side of the sideboard, I wsnt interested in it.
Uncle Fred was good to me we used to do many things together, play darts,and table Skittles against each other ,the ladies did their knitting.
Spring 1940 came and the country side came to life and I was able to disappear into the countryside with Mopsey but he was getting old. The Master of Howden Court used to hold a rabbit shoot where the local gentry would gather with their shotguns, Uncle Fred was the masters loader, I was chief dead rabbit carrier. uncle Fred shoed me how to hold a rabbit by its back legs and give it a rabbit chop to the back of the neck. I did it but I didnt think it needed it after having been blasted with a shotgun load of pellets. I had them all kept in a sack and mopsey was my guard dog.We would take them back to the court stables and lay them out in a row for the shooters to choose from when the shoot was over. Mopsey would sniff at them and then follow me back to the shoot.
It came to uncle Freds notice that Mopsey was having trouble getting out of the ditches,I used to go in and get her, I didnt mind but nobody said anything, but I came home from school one day and Mopsey wasnt there. Uncle Fred said that it wasnt fair for the dog to suffer so she had been put to sleep. That was another of my friends gone. There was only uncle Fred and me as Eileen was a telltale and Joyce was making eyes at the soldiers who had taken over part of Howden Court. They were also guarding a railway bridge which went over the river which was only about a hundred yards down the road.
Spring turned to summer and before the summer holidays the school used to hold a cross country race every year which was divided into upper school and lower school, I was in lower school. Now this race was not round a flat circuit, it went through fields, cow muck, over five barred gates through hedges, across streams over the Salmon steps and anything else that happened to be in the way at the time, but if there was one thing I could do it was run. I could run for ages. I was the fastest runner in my school in london. I won the lower school section of the race which was about two miles long with no effort at all. The headmaster the next day when presenting me with the cup said he thought londoners could only run for buses. My name appeared in the local paper and my aunt Elle basked in my notoriety when she went shopping in the Tiverton shops.
I put my name down to run in the school mile race which was open to the whole school, it was held round the school playing field, but the crafty devils held the race while I was at art class. I suppose they were frightened that I might win. I was annoyed at that.
The school holidays came and I went and worked on a farm. One day we had to take two Shire horses to be shod,one of them was a real softy and would nuzzleup to us, but the other one was called pat,and he was dangerous. the farmer had to tie the harness halter to the other horse so that we had the nice horse between him and us.
The family were avid church goers, Chapel in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, evensong in the evening, and I had to go to all three and each session involved a mile walk each way so I was walking six miles a day on Sundays.
Uncle Fred had an allotment which was on the road to Tiverton. His wheelbarrow was broken and he bought a rolls royce of wheelbarrows with a big fat rubber tyre. It had been made by a wheelright in a village on the same road that the cross country race had started and he asked me to go and get it. I had a large piece of string tied to the handles and looped it round my neck to take some of the weight from my hands. It was a marvellous barrow.
That evening uncle Fred loaded the barrow with his seed potatoes with the early ones on the bottom then a divider and the late ones on the top. As I had wheeled the barrow home from the maker I was allowed to push the barrow to the allotment, unfortunately I lost the balance of the barrow, it toppled over and all the potatoes got mixed up, uncle Fred was upset but he didnt tell me of.
August came to an end and on 2 September 1940 my dad turned up to take me home. I hadn't known he was coming. I was sorry to say goodbye to uncle Fred and I would miss him and the country. So my dad and I caught a train tp Tiverton junction changed at Taunton and arrived at Paddington station about half past four in the afternoon of the third of September.
We walked up the slope to the street it was a beautiful day with a glorious blue sky, and all we could see were these airplanes flying round, with bombers being chased by fighters I said to my dad "I thought you said that nothing was happening." He replied, "If I had known it was going to be like this I wouldn't have brought you home". So we got on a number 27 bus and came home.
Contributed originally by peter (BBC WW2 People's War)
Setting the scene:
My Dad was the headmaster of a Junior Boys School, Attley Road, in East London, just round the corner from Bryant and Mays Match Factory.
I went to the local Infants and Junior School, "Redbridge" in Ilford, Essex
The transmission of news and public information was by the BBC Wireless, the Cinema News Reels and the National Newspapers. The whole impression, looking back, was of an extremely formal (and, as it later turned out, easily manipulated) information system.
The news had swung from the optimism of Munich to an increasingly pessimistic view. I sensed, even at my age of nine, that most people thought that the war with Germany would come and come soon. My reaction to all this and that of most of my compatriots was one of excitement tinged with some trepidation.
Every school in the area of greater London (and Manchester, Liverpool etc. I now know) had made plans to evacuate all children whose parents had agreed for them to so go. As my father was an Head Teacher it was decided that I with my mother as a helper would go with his school if and when the call came.
We started to prepare ourselves for what to me and thousands more children was to be the start of a great adventure. We had been issued with rectangular cardboard boxes containing our gas masks and these were mostly put into leatherette cases with a shoulder strap. We also each were to have an Haversack to hold a basic change of clothes, pyjamas, wash bag and so on.
During that late August 1939 we had a rehearsal for evacuation and every school met up in the playgrounds and were marched off to the nearest Underground Station. The next stage to one of the Main Line Stations was for the real thing only.
We each had a label firmly attached to a button-hole with our name, address and school written on. Each child had to know its group and the responsible teacher. This tryout was to prove its worth very soon.
The news was getting worse by the day. Germany then invaded Poland and it was obvious that the declaration of war was imminent.
At 11 am on Sunday the 3rd of September the Wireless announced that despite all efforts we were at war with Germany. It was, in a funny kind of way, an anticlimax.
My memory fails me as to the precise date of our evacuation. It was, I believe, a day or so before the war started, probably the 1st of September, no matter, the excitements, traumas and all those myriad experiences affecting literally millions of children and adults were about to start.
The call came. We repeated our rehearsal drill, arriving, in our case, by bus and train to Bow Road station and walking down Old Ford road to Attley Road Junior School. All the children that were coming, the teachers and helpers assembled in the play ground. Rolls were called, labels checked, haversacks and gas masks shouldered. We were off on the great adventure!
We "marched" off with great aplomb to waves and tears from fond parents who did not know when they would see their kids again, if ever.
The long snake of children and teachers arrived at Bow Road Underground Station and were shepherded down onto the platform where trains were ready and waiting.
Looking back, the organisation was fantastic. Remember, this was in the days before computers and automation! It was made possible by shear hard work and attention to detail. Tens of thousands of children were moved through the Capital transport system to the Main Line Stations in a matter of a few hours.
Our train arrived at Paddington by a somewhat roundabout route and we all disembarked making sure to stick together. We walked up to the platforms where again the groups of children were counted by their teachers. Inspectors were busily marshalling the various school groups onto awaiting trains.
We boarded our train together with several other schools. It was a dark red carriage, not, as I remember, the GWR colours, and settled ourselves down. The teachers were busy checking that nobody was missing and we then got down to eating whatever packed food we had brought with us. Many of the smaller children were beginning to miss their Mum's and the teachers and helpers had their work cut out to calm them down. Remember that most of these children had never been far from the street where they lived.
Eventually, the train got steam up and slowly moved out of the station. This would be the last time some of us would see home and London for a long time but, we were only kids and had no idea of what the future would hold. To us it was the great adventure.
The train ride seemed to go for ever! In fact we did not go that far, by mid-afternoon we arrived at Didcot.We disembarked and assembled in our groups in a wide open space at the side of the station where literally dozens of dark red Oxford buses were waiting, presumably for us.
It was at this point, according to my father, that the hitherto brilliant organisation broke down. A gaggle of Oxford Corporation Bus Inspectors descended on the assembled masses of adults and children and proceeded to embus everyone with complete disregard to School Groupings.
The buses went off in various directions ending up at village halls and the like around Oxford and what was then North Berkshire.
My father was by this time frantic that he had lost most of the children in his care (and some of the staff) and no-one seemed at all worried!
The story gets somewhat disjointed now as a combination of excitement and tiredness was rapidly replacing the adrenaline hitherto keeping this nine year old going.
Anyway, what can't be precisely remembered can be imagined! We, as mentioned, went off in this red bus to a destination unknown to all but the driver (and the inspector who wouldn't tell my Dad out of principle) - I'm sure, in retrospect, that this is when the expression "Little Hitler" was coined!!
On our bus were about fifty odd children and six or seven teachers and helpers. Most, but not all, were my dad's, but where were the rest of the two hundred or so kids he'd started out with? It was to take several days before that question was to be answered.
After some hour or, so two buses drew up together in a village and parked by a triangular green. There was a large Chestnut tree at one corner and a wooden building to one side. There was also a large crowd of people looking somewhat apprehensive.
We all picked up our haversacks and gas masks and got off the buses, marshalled by the teachers into groups and waited.
Ages of the children varied between seven and fourteen and naturally enough there were signs of incipient tears as we all wondered where we were going to end up. For me it wasn't so bad because I had Mum and Dad with me - most of them had never been separated from their families before.
A large man in a tweed suit, he turned out to be the Billeting Officer, seemed to be organising things and he kept calling out names and people stepped out from the crowd and picked a child out from our bunch. It closely resembled a cattle market!
My Father, naturally, was closely involved, monitoring the situation and trying to keep track of his charges while all this was going on.
Eventually, when it was virtually dark, everyone had been found homes in and around the village. Some brothers had been split up but, most of the kids were just glad to have somewhere to lay their heads.
While all this was happening we found out where we were; not that it meant much to me then. We were in a village called Cumnor situated in what was then North Berkshire and about four miles from Oxford.
At long last, after what seemed to me to be for ever, I was introduced to our benefactors who we were to be billeted with.They were a pleasant seeming couple of about middle age & we stayed with them for about 6 months before finding a cottage to rent.
The Village at war
It is difficult to include everything that happened during that period of my life in any precise order. Therefore, I have included the remembered instances and effects relating to the war.
The first effect was, undoubtedly, the upheaval in agriculture. Suddenly fields that had lain fallow ever since the last war were being ploughed up to grow crops. Farmers who had been struggling to make ends meet for years were actually encouraged and helped to buy new equipment to improve efficiency.
The war didn't really touch the village until the invasion of France and Dunkirk. That is, of course, not to say that wives and girl-friends weren't worried about their men folk serving in the forces.
Then, all of a sudden, you heard that someone was missing or, a POW. The war was suddenly brought home with a vengeance to everyone. Also, the news on the wireless and in the newspapers was very bad, although usually less so than the reality.
One of the village girls had a boy-friend who was Canadian. He had come over to Britain to volunteer and was in the RAF. He was a rear gunner in a Wellington bomber and was shot down over Germany during 1942.
For a long time there was no news of him and then Zena, her name was, heard that he was a POW. At the end of the war he returned looking under-weight but, happy and there was a big party to celebrate his return and where they got engaged! a truly happy ending.
Another memory, this time not a happy one, was the son of some friends, who was a Pilot in the Fleet Air Arm was shot down during the early part of the war and killed in action.
There was a Polish Bomber Squadron based at Abingdon and they were a mad lot and frequented a pub near to Frilford golf club called "The Dog House".
As the war wore on so the aircraft changed. Whitley and Wellingtons were replaced by Stirling's and Halifax's. finally, the main heavy bomber was the Lancaster. These used to drone over us from Abingdon and other local airfields night after night.
We also started to see a lot of Dakota's often towing Horsa gliders. In fact, several gliders came down nearby during one training exercise and one hit some power cables, luckily without major injuries to the crew.
More and more of the adult male and female villagers had disappeared into the forces and more and more replacements were needed to work the farms.
The result of all this was to put at a premium such labour as was available. This meant Land Army girls, POW's and me and my friends!
Various Army units appeared from time to time on exercises and the like.
It sounds strange now but, remember that everyone was travelling around at night with the merest glimmer of a light. Army lorries just had a small light shining on the white painted differential casing as a guide to the one behind. Cars had covers over their head-lights with two or, three small slits to let out some light.
Then there was the arrival of the Americans - I believe it would have been during 1942 that they were first sighted. They were so different to our troops - their uniforms were so much smarter and their accents were very strange to us then.
They established a tented camp just up the road from the Greyhound at Besselsleigh and naturally it became their local. This was viewed with mixed feelings by the locals as beer was in short supply and the Yanks were drinking most of it!
Their tents were like nothing we had ever seen then - They were square and big enough to stand up in without hitting the roof. They were each fitted up with a stove. Nothing at all like the British Army "Bell tents".
We all got used to seeing Jeeps and other strange vehicles on our roads, they in turn, got used to our little winding lanes and driving on the wrong side.
The Americans were very keen to get on with the locals and when invited to someone's home would usually bring all sorts of goodies such as tinned food, Nylon's for the girls and sweets for the kids. They knew that the villagers didn't have much of anything to spare at that time.
A British Tank Squadron came into the village at one time. They were on the inevitable exercise and were parked down near Bablockhythe, in the fields. We boys went down to see them and found about four or, five Cromwell (I think that was their name) Tanks parked with their crews brewing up. Naturally, the sight of all that hardware was exciting to us and we were allowed up and into the cockpit of one.
During the build up for the D day landings there were convoys going through the village day and night. There was every sort of vehicle you could possibly think of - Lorries, Troop Carriers, Bren Gun Carriers, Tanks of all shapes and sizes, Self-propelled Guns, Despatch riders and MP's to control and direct the traffic.
This almost continuous stream continued for what must have been a fortnight before it gradually quietened down to something approaching normality.
Naturally, during this time and whenever I was home from school I would walk up to the corner just below the War Memorial and watch these convoys with great interest and excitement.
There were troops of every nationality including French, Polish, Czech, Dutch, Canadians, Anzacs, Americans and so on. Obviously, the build up for the second front was beginning and something big would happen before too long!
Just before all this activity we had seen dumps of what seemed to be ammunition along local country roads and this was further evidence that the big day was getting close.
People's morale was starting to improve by this time. It had never been broken but, for three years the news had been mostly bad or, at the very least, not good and people's resistance had begun to wane a little.
North Africa had been a great victory and this coupled with the nightly bombing raids over Germany and the day raids by the Americans as well, really cheered people up and convinced them that we had turned the corner.
Everyone, including us teenager's used to sit with our ears glued to the wireless when there was a news bulletin.
People, during that wartime period in their lives, were much closer to each other than they had ever been.
Back to 1944 - The build up of men and materials continued and there was a constant stream through the village. Then a period of calm followed for a week or, so. And then came the news of the D Day landings - we all sat with our ears glued to the wireless whenever we could. For the first few days the news was fairly sparse and we didn't really know if the invasion was going to work.
After a week or, so the news began to be more positive and our hopes were raised. There were set backs and of course, there were casualties but, we were getting closer to the end of the war.
Then one Autumn morning in very misty conditions we heard lots of aircraft overhead. Through the patches of hazy sky we could discern dozens of Dakota's and the like with Gliders in tow. A few hours later they were to return with their gliders still hooked on.
Wherever they had been going to drop their tows must have been covered in the fog that had persisted most of that day over us. The result of this was gliders being released all over the place as the Dakotas prepared for landing.
A day or, so later the same "exercise" was repeated and this time the planes returned without their gliders. The battle of Arnhem had begun.
So the war continued for several months but, one could sense that the end was drawing ever closer.
The war in the Far East was to continue for several more months but, at last, the main enemy had been defeated.
How did all this affect us? In all sorts of ways - there were preparations for a General Election. The soldiers began to come home and there were frequent welcome home parties.
Food was still on ration as was petrol and clothes. So, there wasn't any sudden improvement to the rather dreary existence we had all got used to. In fact, it was a bit of an anticlimax. One of the few nice things to happen in that immediate post-war time was the return of Oranges and Bananas to the shops. We hadn't seen these for six whole years!
Basically, The United Kingdom was worn-out and broke by the war's end and to a great extent so were it's people. Our former enemies were helped by the USA to rebuild their countries and industries as also were France and the Lowlands countries but, we had to try to help ourselves for no-one else was going to.
Peter Nurse 1994
Contributed originally by Angiemum (BBC WW2 People's War)
Chapter 1 - Evacuation.
My brother and I sat eating our breakfast at the scrubbed pine kitchen table in the back of my father's shop. The radio was on and in hushed silence we heard that Britain was at war with Germany. In seemed very unreal on that sunny September morning in 1939 and as if to heighten the moment, an air raid siren sounded. Donning my gas mask, I walked sedately to the neighbour's Anderson shelter.
I was born in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. My parents were from well-to-do families that had lost their riches in the Great Depression. Now my father's fortunes had changed and he bought two furniture shops in the High Street, Ilford. For some time now there had been rumours of war. We had been issued with gas masks at school, the children making fun of the rude noises they made when we breathed out. I watched men parading in the school grounds, and the Black Shirt rallies in the streets. To a skinny hyper-active ten year old it all seemed exciting.
Our nextdoor neighbours had built an Anderson shelter in their back yard that flooded when it rained and now we sat with our feet in water waiting for the All Clear to sound. Mother had already packed a suitcase in case we had to leave in a hurry, her sister having arranged for us to live with a friend of the family in Somerset. Father rang for a taxi to take us to the station and, bundling us into the back seat, gave us each a bacon sandwich to eat on the journey. My brother was crying but I thought it was an adventure. We were going to live deep in the countryside and I imagined a little house like Hansel and Gretel snuggled in a lush green forest.
There were groups of frightened children at Paddington Station, hanging on to their cardboard boxes of gas masks and labelled so that they would not get lost. Mothers and fathers were waving farewell with trepidation. Many of the children had never been away from home and certainly not to the country. They thought milk came out of bottles not from cows' udders. Some of these children stayed with their foster families but many of them were to return to London after a few weeks.
My mother's sister had already gone down to Hatch Beauchamp with her children several weeks before, and was there to meet us at Taunton station. They were staying on a farm but we were to live with an elderly spinster school teacher in the village of Ashill, eight miles from Taunton and twelve miles from Ilminster.
Although from an early age I had become used to moving from place to place, the contrast in lifestyle was to be intense. From a busy city, with trams clanking down the main street and lights blazing through the bedroom windows over the shop, I was to experience total silence and dark lanes. I had attended a Roman Catholic school, went swimming every day in the Olympic swimming pool, explored the city environs with my younger brother and stood in the smoke from the steam engines on the overbridge at the station. I had learned to ride a bike, dive from the top board, done well at sports and art, and gone to church every day. Now nothing would ever be the same again.
We motored through open countryside enclosed with high banked lanes, a far cry from what I had imagined deepest Somerset to be. The upright three storey red brick house looked as if it had been planted in a field of vegetables. It had a large garden with an orchard of damson and apple trees. A straight path, bordered by Sweet Williams, led from the front gate up to the front door. There, a tall austere lady, with her hair tied in a neat bun and wearing a grey flowered frock, greeted us.
The house which was to be our home for the next six months, had a typical Victorian layout. The staircase was immediately opposite the front door, with the drawing room at the left and the kitchen/scullery to the right. The drawing room smelled musty and contained an old out of tune piano, only played for hymns on Sunday, a horsehair stuffed sofa and chairs with antimacassars and hand embroidered cushoions and the nondescript rug on a wood floor. A large aspidistra in a brass pot on a stand stood in front of the heavy lace curtained window, defying any vestige of sunlight to pass. The plastered walls graced pictures depicting departed parents, a boy blowing bubbles and Jesus knocking at a door with a lamp in his hand. We were told this room was only for entertaining visitors.
In contrast, the living room was comfortable with a large polished dining table and Victorian round backed stuffed chairs. An oval rag rug was spread on the flagstone floor in front of a coal range. A huge oil lamp, various lace doilies, china dogs, and vases of dried flowers stood on a big sideboard against the wall. In the corner of the room a beautiful grandfather clock ticked away the hours. A rocking chair was drawn up beside the range where a large black kettle was steaming on the hob. Memories of the comfort and warmth of this room linger with me to this day.
There was no electricity so cooking was done in the range oven or on an oil stove in the scullery. Lighting was with oil lamps and we used candles in the bedrooms. My bedroom was in the attic, furnished with an iron bed with a feather mattress and a cotton counterpane, a wash stand with a large china jug and basin, and a small wardrobe. A chamber pot under the bed and a rag rug strewn over the bare wood floor completed the room. Apart from a large chest of drawers, my mother's bedroom on the landing was identical. Because I wet the bed, my brother was to sleep with her in the double bed.
There was no bathroom and the outside toilet was a wooden shed attached to the house inside which was a bucket covered by a wooden seat. A tray of ashes from the fire was trowelled into the bucket on top of the excrement. When the bucket was full, the contents were tipped over the hedge onto the farm midden ready to be spread on the fields at muck spreading time. On a hook just inside the door was a bunch of torn up newspaper tied with string to be used as toilet paper. The place was cold, dark and dank and a haven for spiders. We waited for as long as we could before going there. My brother preferred to mess his pants rather than do so.
If we wanted a bath, the copper in the scullery was filled with buckets of water from the hand operated puimp outside the back door. The fire was lit underneath it until the water was hot, then allowed to go out. Mother did the family washing, then my brother and I bathed, using rain water from the water butt outside to wash our hair. When we had finished, mother put a zinc bath in font of the coal range, filled in with buckets of dirty water from the copper and had a leeisurely bath all to herself in front of the blazing fire. Afterewards, she dragged the bath to the back door and emptied it outside. I hate to think of the pollution it might have caused to the well water. We did not bathe very often. Hot water was sometimes brought up to my bedroom for washing in the morning, but more often than not I washed in cold water.
It was soon realised that the school teacher was not used to catering for a family and so my mother decided to do the cooking. Large cottage pies, steak and kidney piddings and blackberry and apple pies put weight on us. We had never eaten so well. Vegetables from the garden were soon eaten up, as were the fruits. Breakfast of new laid eggs, clotted cream and h9omemade damson jam on newly baked crusty white bread was a delight. I was sent down a deep muddy lane to the local farm to collect skimmed milk in a billy can and a jug of clotted cream that was always on the table for practically every meal. The cream was used instead of butter.
We were soon enfolded into village life. All the children were expected to help with haymaking and stooking of sheaves of grain. The hay was cut with sickles and pitchforked onto large haywains drawn by cart horses. It was taken away to make into hay ricks. It was hot a prickly work with biting insects that brought us up in hives. Men, moving along the rows in long slow movements, scythed the grain and I was allowed to try my hand at it. Tractors and mechanised farm machinery were looked at with suspicion and regarded as "new fangled". Farmers preferred to use horses and farm labourers. The only concession was a traction engine that threshed the grain and provided straw for the stables and cow sheds.
We also had to collect apples for making cider. It was an almost mystical occasion with the men manning the presses and sampling the casks as they came out of the barn. It was the pinnacle of the harvest.
I loved the secret lanes bordered with tall grasses, stinging nettles and Queen Anne's Lace. Further down the lane from us two old ladies lived. One of the sisters had bright henna hair tied in a bird's nest bun. She was stone deaf and held a hearing trumpet to her ear. Her sister always wrote down what we said to her. They sold new laid eggs, and one day when we went down to buy some, they said they were not able to sell them to us because the Government were going to make them into dried eggs. They were to be rationed.
Since the nearest Roman Catholic church was in
Taunton, Mother decided that we go to the Baptist chapel in the village. Our local butcher offered to take us in his pony and trap. His teenage son drove the horse and I was fascinated by his crisp dark curly hair. We found the Baptist Minister kind and welcoming and the congregation very caring. The butcher had his farm across the fields from us, where he killed his own meat and sold it from the back of his van. This was to end too when meat was rationed. I went to watch a pig being killed one day and saw it rushing around the yard with blood pouring from its neck. My mother was horrified when she found out.
I was also asked to help with milking the cows. I had to hold the cow's tail and pump it up and down otherwise the milk did not flow. It was a long while before I saw the joke. Cows were milked by hand then, and it took a long time in the cold abnd dirty cowsheds to clean and milk the herd. I also learned about foot rot in sheep and watched while their feet were coated in tar and the maggot infested dags were sheared. I peered at the piglets in the sties, visited Ferdinand the bull in his pen, and scratched his forehead. He loved to sniff the flowers I brought him, with an ecstatic look on his face.
The butcher's wife was in charge of the duck and hens and kept a sparkling kitchen, scrubbing the flagstone floors every day. Mother said she worked too hard. She baked an enormous amount of cakes and bread in her Aga oven and was always mixing something in her crockery bowl. Invitations to afternoon tea were a stomach groaning adventure with pies, cakes, scones and the ever present clotted cream and homemade damson jam.
My brother and I went to the local village school where just one remarkable and talented elderly teacher taught children aged between four and twelve in an open classroom. I was the eldest girl and the oldest boy used to have competitions with another boy to see how far and how long they could piss down the white line in the road on the way home. I quickly learned the Somerset vernacular and dialect. I had one language for home and another for school.
It was about two miles down one hill and up another from our house to the village. My mother used to accompany us on a sit up and beg bicycle, and when it rained she held up a large black umbrella whilst cycling along. This plus singing at the top of her voice was the most embarrassing thing she could ever have done. I wanted to hide. At school I was put in charge of teaching the little ones reading, writing and alphabet. Each morning the whole school faced the blackboard and called out simple word spellings in parrot fashion. I learned far more than I had ever done at my other schools. Fractions and decimals were explained thoroughly, and I was given freedom to write about anything I wanted to. All the girls learned sewing, knitting and spinning, while the boys learned to weave, make models and create a topographical map of the village from clay.
I often finished my work well before the others, so I was sent outside to feed the chickens with dandelion leaves, take caterpillars off the cabbages and put them in jars so we could watch them turn into chrysalis, and prepare the soil ready for planting seeds. I learned how to read the clouds and the leaves to predict the weather, and designed a weather chart for each day. We were told how to tell the difference between birdes, and rabbits and hares, and shown the secrets of herbs and tell when it was time to harvest the wheat. We learned about shapes of trees and habitats of flora and fauna. The teaching was imaginative and rich and it served me for the rest of my life.
As soon as an aircraft was heard, all the children rushed to the windows of the classroom. We soon could tell the difference between types of aircraft by the sound but as yet there were no enemy planes. There was only one other evacuee at the school and she and I used to make up things about where we had lived and what we could do. There was a French Jewish boy who was being repatriated who did not want to go home, and two Quaker girls who wore long pigtails down their backs and funny flat hats. They did not mix with the other children.
The village shop was over by the butcher's farm and I used to be sent to pick up groceries and coat-tail packets of rasberry drops. It was customary to pick blackberries on the way and one day I lost the change from the envelope I was carrying. Mother had a violent temper and was none too pleased. However, although I looked I never found the money and mother thought perhaps someone picking mushrooms must have got lucky.
Towards the end of November and the beginning of December, the village was busy preparing for Christmas. The puddings had been stirred by us all in the big crockery mixing bowl, the almonds shelled and chopped, the muscatels seeded, suet chopped and breadcrumbs grated. The final addition of barley wine meant we could all sample some and scrape around the bowl. The pudding basins were plunged into the copper and boiled for hours and then placed on the shelves in the scullery larder. The Christmas cake had been made and baked slowly in the oil stove. Apples were cored and sliced and strung on strings in front of the coal range to dry. Plums were dried and eggs pickled for winter. Jam and pickles had been made earlier and the jars sat neatly on the larder shelves. The whole place smelled of wood smoke, clotted cream, spices and baking.
We were all invited to the Hatch Beauchamp Christmas school concert and one of the older boys led the community singing of "We'll Hang Out the Washing on the Zeigfreid Line" and "Run Rabbit Run" amid loud applause. There was a nativity play and then the Mummers came in from the back of the hall with the dragon, the doctor and Saint George. The uproar and laughter they created was wondrous and when the doctor pulled a string of sausages out of the unfortunate dragon's stomach, the house was brought down. The dragon was healed and promisede not to terrorise the people any more and Saint George passed around a hat for coins. Afterwards we went to another farm for an enormous supper.
I was asked to write a nativity play for school to be acted in front of our teacher. I had a doll for baby Jesus that was brouight down from Heaven by an angel. The farm children with their knowledge of birth and death must have thought it very strange. Previously we had made large envelopes decorated with pictures from last year's Christmas cards and cut up white paper for snow. I had no idea what they were for, but on the last day of school we were given them filled with all kinds of items that the teacher had saved from Cornflakes and soap packets throughout the year. We each had something, including samples of chocolate and sweets. I had a lace making wheel, a French knitting spool and a painting set. I still have the lace making wheel.
I do not remember a lot about Christmas Day but on Boxing Day we visited a farm near Sedgemoor. The robust sons came in from shooting rabbits and pheasants amid lots of excitement from the guests. There were a lot of people there and we played all kinds of party games before sitting down to a great feast. We viewed the hounds in the kennels and watched the horsemen in their red coats getting ready to hunt the fox. Some of the hound puppies were not yet weaned and they smelled of that special smell of sweet dog's milk and hay that only puppies have.
After Christmas it snowed with drifts up to the top of the hedges. Sheep were lost and cows stood on the barns with icicles hanging from their noses. Each morning when I woke there were fernlike fronds of ice on the windows and I had to break the ice on my water jug to wash myself. I suffered terribly from chilblains that burst and mother wrapped them up in bandages soaked in castor oil. The snow lasted for weeks and soon it was spring again
with primroses and pussy willow catkins in the hedgerows. There was no sign of war starting, let alone ending. The French appeared to be holding their own and the British were supporting them as best they could. Father had sold the shops and was enlisted to work in Hawkers aircraft factory in Kingston-on-Thames. He had found a rented house near Worcester Park, Surrey, and wanted us to come home. Mother's sister was already back in New Malden nearby and so we said farewell to all our friends and never saw them again. I often wonder what happened to the children at the village school and the teenage farm boys.
Chapter 2 - Air raids
The Head Teacher in my new small private school called us all into the assembly room. We sang "For Those in Peril on the Sea" and she told us how British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk. Small private vessels were being sent out to rescue them because the larger ships could not cope with the numbers. It was one of those defeats that Britain makes into heroic victories. Our school motto "Ad Astra" had been taken from the Royal Air Force motto, and we were to wear our school uniform with pride, always reaching for the skies. We were given "girl power" with examples of female heroes and role models. Women could do anything and were now the backbone of the nation because our men were fighting in the war.
We were now living in the ugliest house I had ever seen in a speculative building estate. In the plot next to ours there was a huge electricity pylon that crackled when it rained and mother utilised the ground beneath it to grow vegetables and soft fruit. The windows had been prepared with gummed tape against bomb blasts and blackout curtains put up. Barage balloons like tethered Dumbos drifted in the sky and reinforced brick bomb shelters were being offered to be put in the lee of the house walls. My father decided we could shelter in the downstairs toilet or in the cupboard under the stairs.
We had watched the Battle of Britain from our back garden, marvelling at the spectacle of vapour trails winding in and out and the occasional aircraft spiralling to the ground. Without any warning at all, there was a sudden explosion that shook the house. My father was upstairs getting ready to go to work and he was so frightened that he fell down the stairs in his hurry to get to the shelter of the toilet. We crammed into the toilet, taking turns to sit on the seat until the All Clear sounded. The thunderous noise had come from an anti-aircraft gun that went up and down the railway close by.
Very soon the air raids began in earnest. At school our lessons were often interrupted and we took shelter in the basement of the large Edwardian house, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as we marched down the steps. My father worked at the factory on a night shift and came home totally exhausted, his clothes covered in oil and his shoes encrusted with iron filings. Eventually the factory was bombed and he took a coach to Slough where he stayed during the week.
Bombing became a way of life. It was mostly at night, and people went about their business as usual during the day. After a raid it was peculiar to see houses with half their contents lurching crazily into the road, the front walls stripped away, leaving toilet and baths precariously hanging on by their copper pipes. Shrapnel littered the roads, and rained down on roofs during the raids. Only the wardens were allowed out during a raid. My brother and I used to go out and collect shrapnel in the mornings, and sometimes hoped to see bits of people in the wreckage. We never did. I cannot remember ever being frightened, and my father said that if our number was on it then so be it. We became philosophical and people, places and things became valueless.
Deep underground shelters were built near the recreation ground, and we took eiderdowns and blankets with us to sleep in the bunks. The smell was foetid from bad breath, cigarettes, and body odour. My mother disinfected our place with Lysol to get rid of the smell. We were told to keep very close to the elm trees on our way to the shelters in case we were strafed by a German fighter. One of the shelters took a direct hit and my mother decided she would rather die in bed.
On the way back from the shops one day my brother and I heard a plane diving, and as we ran to shelter underneath the railway bridge we heard the bullets hitting the road. Sometimes a German plane was shot down and we would look for pieces of the wreckage. Once a German pilot baled out and was hanging on top of the gasometer amid lots of excitement by the Home Guard. I learned to speak German in case I met a pilot trying to escape. German planes had a very distinct sound to their engines and I could easily distinguish between our planes and theirs.
Food and clothing were very strictly rationed and we got used to wearing hand-me-downs. Mother used to make us clothes from old garments, pulling back old woollen jumpers and making new ones. If our shoes wore out, my father patched them with a cardboard mixture. I used to go up to Worcester Park to the Community restaurant run by the Womens Volunteer Service. They served Spam, corned beef stew, or toad in the hole with processed peas and potatoes. For desert we had suet pudding and watered down custard.
Mother eked out the two ounces of butter a week with margarine and milk, and made jam from marrows from her garden. We picked blackcurrants from the gardens of bombed out houses, and collected rose hips and ornamental apples to make juice. Sweets were rationed, so we ate flavoured gelatine from jelly packets.
One night there was the most incredible raid and the house rocked all over the place as if an earthquake had hit us. My brother and I had taken shelter in the iron Morrison shelter that we had in the back room. The shaking was so intense by bombs dropping fairly close by and the anti-aircraft gun thundering on the railway line, that when we finally emerged we were covered in flakes of rust from the shelter.
The bombing was spectacular and we went upstairs to get a better view and were astonished to see the most remarkable fireworks display we had ever seen. The sky was a dazzling orange from incendiary bombs, search lights, tracer bullets and aircraft plunging in flames. It seemed to go on all night. London was being mercilessly attacked. My father went up to London to help and to rescue my grandmother. She came to live with us until she found somewhere else to live.
The French doors in the back room were regularly hiked off their hinges and dropped intact onto the lawn. Apart from this, we never suffered any damage, nor knew anyone who died in the war. However, a land mine landed in the oak tree at the bottom of the garden and we were evacuated safely out of the way until it had been made safe. A reinforced brick shelter was put in our garden and mother, my brother and I squashed in there like sardines during the worst raids. Perhaps the only time I really felt scared was listening to the bombs whistling as they fell, wondering if they were going to fall on us. We began to live on adrenalin.
Our head teacher thought it would be a good idea if we wrote to some girls in another school in Lake Forest, Illinois. I chose a girl whose mother was on the campaigning committee for Adlai Stevenson and who knew the Kennedy's very well. I still write to her at Christmas. America was not yet in the war but was providing Lease/Lend. My penfriend sent us parcels of tinned food, and material to make clothes. I also wrote to a boy in New Jersey who eventually joined the Navy Seals and went to Guatemala, but who I never heard from again.
Around about this time there was a threat of invasion, and mother had packed a suitcase ready for us to be sent to Canada. My father asked his brother who lived in Edmonton if we could stay with him until the war was over. We were about to embark the following day when we heard that the ship that had sailed before ours had been torpedoed and hundreds of children drowned. Our sailing was cancelled. Incredibly my mother became pregnant because, she said she could not imagine life without children.
Mother was often in a hysterical state of collapse during the last stages of her pregnancy and I was expected, as the eldest to be responsible for her and my brother while father was away. My sister was born in April 1941 in the middle of an air raid. My brother and I stayed with a neighbour while mother was in the nursing home and I slept with the teenage daughter. I had never had to dress my own hair, so it was a shock having to weave my plaits and tie my school tie.
One of my friends at school became fascinated by a Dutch merchant seaman who was convalescing in a home at the end of the school avenue. We waited outside the home until Cornelius came out to talk to us. He had been torpedoed in the North Sea and rescued by a British tanker. There were also Polish pilots staying there who had been shot down in the Channel and rescued. He gave me some stamps with Hitler and Mussolini on them. I threw them away.
My father hardly came home now, and finally he left having fallen in love with a woman in the factory. My sister was about six months old and mother put her in my bedroom for me to look after. The bombing was not so intense now but another type of bomb was to threaten us. Mother could not afford my fees any more and wanted me to stay at home to look after the baby and the house while she went to work. At school the head teacher offered a compromise. In lieu of fees I would become a student teacher at the school and she would make sure that I continued with my studies. I had already passed School Certificate and taken Royal College of Art exams. I was Head Girl and captain of the netball and hockey teams. Apparently I had a lot of potential but no one ever told me what in. In fact I felt very inadequate at school, always terrified of getting things wrong, and because I was in a class with girls much older than myself, I was socially inept.
Suddenly the flying bombs started with a vengeance. 8000 rockets were launched in the space of a few months. These bombs were terrifying since no one knew when the engine would cut out. Often they would start up again and take off just when they were about to land and explode. My cousin came home once covered in mud when she had dived into a ditch to avoid a flying bomb that had flown under the railway bridge and taken off again.
My school was evacuated to the country and although the head teacher suggested I went with them, mother would not hear of it. I left school just before my fourteenth birthday.
American troops were now stationed in Bushy Park near Hampton Court. As well as the Tommy Handley Show, we could now listen to the American Forces Network and the Glen Miller Band. Bob Hope came to entertain the troops and Charlie Macarthy was popular on the radio. I fantasised about all things American and quick-stepped around the room doing the housework to String of Pearls. An American soldier came to visit a girl staying with one of my couusins and I tried to make every opportunity to visit. However, I was so overawed by him that I could not utter a word without being terribly embarrassed. He gave me chewing gum and a magasine with Sad Sack in it.
We watched with amazement to see wave upon wave of flying fortress bombers blackening the sky over our house, and just as amazed when, still in formation, they came back with large gaps where the planes had been shot down. Once I watched a crippled plane limping home and I prayed for it to land safely. My brother and I often played by the Hogsmill Stream down the road from our home, and one day I heard an incredible rumbling sound coming from the Kingston Bypass. Investigating, I was startled to see line after line of tanks squeaking down the road for miles. The noise went on all day and all night for days, and the main road through New Malden was nose to tail with troop carriers and trucks. We waved to the soldiers as they went by. They were getting ready to invade France.
We learned about the war from newspapers and the radio. One of my uncles who worked for the Evening Standard became a War Correspondent with the American Forces. He told us about the fiasco at Arnhem and how many of the soldiers were crushed when the gliders landed and the jeeps fell out. Suddenly, from all the months of frighteningly exciting activity and noise, everything went quiet and I began to understand what it must have been like for men who had been in the front line to be sent home.
A German Prisoner of War camp was built at the corner where an old farmhouse had been. The men helped to rebuild houses that had been bombed and clear the land. Prefabricated dwellings were built opposite the camp for homeless, and eventually after the war some ugly Council flats were built over the campsite. The elms died from Dutch elm disease. Many of the German soldiers did not want to return to Germany. There was nothing to go back to.
By the time I was fifteen I was working in the City of London. The war was still continuing with news of the fall of Germany and of the death of Adolph Hitler. Eventually I worked at British American Tobacco Company in Millbank and I and my boyfriend watched the wonderful victory celebrations from the top floor of the building. For us the war was over and all the promise and expectations of reconstruction and peace began.
My mother continued to work and retired and died in New Zealand. She never married again. My father died alone in a bed sitting room in Worcester Park shortly after war ended and my brother joined the Air Force and immigrated to South Africa where he died in 1988. My sister married, went to New Zealand and had two daughters. I married, went to New Zealand, had two sons and a daughter and eight grand children. I divorced and came back to Dorset in 1995.
How the war shaped our lives I do not know, but what I do know is that we are the survivors.
Contributed originally by Bournemouth Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
The train drew into Hayes station slowly jolted and shuffled to a standstill\ the carriage was so hot that with a feeling of relief I heaved and collected my gear and dumped it on the platform, wondering very much what was coming next. I wished that the little brown eyed man, who was the M.O.T. official, who had met me so efficiently at Waterloo to escort me across the whirl undergrounds; assuring me when the noise was slightly less than usual] that I was' especially lucky to have Miss Gayford as my trainer; was still with me to help me face this marvellous person. A brisk voice behind me asked to carry my kit bag, said its name was Miss Gayford ' Everyone calls me Kit'. That was over. The owner of the voice was slim and extremely vigorous aged about thirty five [this I afterwards found was too generous] black hair, gold earrings, muscular brown arms and legs, which I envied and hoped to emulate as soon as possible, a rosy weather-beaten brown face, long nose and a friendly smile, delightful green eyes. She was dressed in an old red frock with an open neck. We walked across Hayes Bridge to the other side of the ‘Cut’ where the Boats were lying. Oh magic words my inside throbbed violently with excitement and time so to speak stood still. Its a funny thing about Hayes but nearly always I have noticed that the sky seems to be covered with thin white cloud, the sort of cloud that makes a sunny afternoon chilly but still bright and Hayes bridge which is built of white stone, is very wide and seems to pick up the light of the sky and reflect it so that looking westwards it all seems like a river of light, across which if one happens to be there about five in the afternoon, the swarms of cyclists returning home to tea form a dark stream of people flowing against the current of light. Rather like Blake's River of Life. Though perhaps a rather far-fetched comparison.
We dumped my gear on board the motor Battersea and went off to find the food office about ration cards. On the way we met Kay. My first reaction was' My God' and so apparently was hers. Especially as we were to be cabin mates in the motor cabin, by far the smaller of the two cabins. One is apt to wonder what ones mate is going to be like.
Kay was middling height and seemed very blonde - with-a, very brown face, very blue eyes-very wide red mouth - an extremely short cotton print frock and most striking of all exceptionally pure white legs. I couldn’t think how this had happened and remember thinking rather idiotically perhaps she is one of those people that never tan all over. Her voice terrified me, it was sophisticated in the extreme, frightfully efficient and wordy. I sounded completely helpless the moment I opened my mouth and felt it. However when we got back, worse followed Miranda appeared from the butty cabin to put a pie the star in cupboard. She too was fair but not so fair, had long aristocratic features, ice blue eyes that gazed at me with no expression at all. At Kit’s introduction ' ah yes Hallo' and disappeared. Not encouraging. But very much, I thought, what I had expected and remembered Baker's remarks about tough women. Frightfully, frightfully you know with unexpected warmth.
Miranda was left on the butty, Kay was taken by Kit on the motor. I was given a piece of' Boater's Pie' to fill the increasing gap in my middle. It's very good 'Boater's Pie' either hot or cold and is much like Cornish Pasty made of mince and cold potato. I ate and listened to -them start the engine. Kit's engine was a dream to start, rarely needing more than a couple of turns with the crank before she would slip into gear and burst into a rhythmic powerful throb; it would vibrate through our little cabin, separated from the engineer room by only a thin partition, in a very definite way. Sometimes when we were tired and trying to get a rest at the end of a long day - it could be just hell. But then it was just exciting.
I got my things unpacked into the drawer and top cupboard which were mine, Then had a mighty struggle with my mattress getting it stowed away into the bed locker where Kay already had hers stowed. Hers however was small and blue and mine a mighty stripped thing that fought against imprisonment like a wild thing. I wondered if this had to be done everyday as I supposed it had, just how we were going to cope. I still wonder. The cabins of canal boats are, I think, feats of carpenters’ skill. There is everything one needs for a completely well supplied, if not comfortable existence in a space 'of 8ft by 6ft. The motor cabin is smaller than this, having the extra room taken up by the engine room. The final effect is that from the outside the butty appears to have less space than the motor. You descend from the false step, false because it is taken out to be scrubbed regularly and dried to pure whiteness on the cabin top on to the coal box. A triangular affair which fits under the step, its lid must always be spotless. On ones left is the stove slightly at an angle to give as much space as possible, it has an oven rarely used as such, usually for drying wood There is an open grate on which a lot of cooking is done in winter .It is customary to keep one's primus or oil stove on the left hand corner of the fire for extra cooking. The background to this corner is painted sax blue. The stove should be brilliantly polished. Then come the cupboards. The food cupboard with its arch shaped table forming its door and held at the top so that one lets it down for meals. Below this is a small cupboard in which saucepans may be kept. Adjacent to this one of the large drawers for clothes. Above this the locker for bedding, quite a deep affair, the front of which is at night' let down across the centre space of the cabin supported by the bench on the other side. Forming one of two beds and can if need be be used as a double one. Above the bed are two small lockers for small private possessions and toilet items. At the end of the butty cabin is a door leading into the annexe. A neat little stall place divided from the actual hold by a board partition and tarpaulin sheets. One keeps vegetables/brooms/oilskins in here. It's inclined to be troublesome, if the rain doesn’t get in the coal does and when they both get in together as not infrequently happens one is in for a hell of an afternoon spring-cleaning. '
Emerging once more from the annexe, observe our neat bookshelves and a hook for coats. The side-bed bench is about one and a half feet wide and runs completely down one side of the cabin. The drawer takes up the first half of it. Then comes what is commonly referred to as under the side bed. A large hollow space which one reaches through the top. The kindly carpenters having left several of the planks loose therein are kept shoes and other glory hole items. The far end of this space is partitioned off for the battery. These batteries last about a week giving a very good light. They are charged off the motor so one the advantages of motor cabin life is constant good light. Cups and jugs hang neatly on hooks along the cabin wall also hurricane lamps if one has them. It doesn’t seem to me that the space could be more neatly used. There are in addition a flap for the side bed which is raised at night and rested on the coal box and a wooden plank which goes across the bed space for a small extra seat. Beneath this if one is lucky one has a painted bread tin and somewhere hanging on a hook, its allotted space to cover two small ledges for pan and floor cleaning materials at the door end of the cabin and over the stove a lovely rose covered 'Arnbowl' or hand bowl in which all ones washing is done. The regulation issue for the G.V.C.C. are scarlet, lovely they look when new. But they can never compare in gaiety with the riot of flowers that cover the dark green surface of the hand painted ‘Arnbowl’ with their spotless white interior and the dainty castles painted on their bottoms for display when they are hung up. But this did not occur to me then. The cabins of the training boats were dingy and dark and very well worn. Nothing was very well polished - not that there was much to polish- it was hot and stuffy. So as soon as I could I changed my smart clothes and put on an ancient summer dress that had seen its best days harvesting and emerged on deck. To emerge from a cabin is the only way to describe it, the entrance is steep and narrow and awkward, especially on the motor where one has to avoid the gear handle and the steerer, who wants one out of the way as quickly as possible. The result is a series of bruises about ones shoulders for the first week; after which one becomes agile from necessity. We were on that occasion all set, that is we had our loading orders for London Docks and nothing to collect from the Depot. So in grand we sailed past the Depot, I can't remember anything about Hayes Corner ‘A famous and fateful spot’ then and on for the top of the locks where we were to tie for the night.
The run down to the docks was peaceful as there is no traffic on a Sunday evening. The water is good, one only has to slow down to pass lines of little bobbing pleasure boats that have been bedded down en route or long swaying herds of barges creaking and slamming each other in an elephantine manner; sometimes if badly tied swinging savagely out and snapping at ones heels. A snap from a twenty tonner is no joke. You creep past with a weather eye and scarce a ripple from your bows. "Little Rosie, Gert Winnie or Golden Girl gives a wild lurch, a groan and sinks back to eye you morosely and vengefully.
The evening was warm and lovely, the sunlight golden making kind the endless rows of little suburban houses and tiny gardens. The sweep of the golf links green and rich dotted with sheep and small figures moving slowly across the artificial hillocks in search of pleasure. I looked and looked and breathed the sunlight, felt my hair lift in the breeze and felt utterly indescribably alive, happy and free. The beat of the engine gets into ones blood and makes it race and we were moving too. Kit explained that the butty was short strapped on cross straps for travelling light and that my job was to stand at the long wooden tiller of the butty and if her stern got too near the bank I was to put the tiller in the direction I wanted her to go and swing her away. Easier done than said, thought .I and found out otherwise. Through some of the more gingery and difficult bridges she showed a surprising and alarming tendency to swing in from the motor right in under the curve of the bridge to the danger of life and limb not to mention the chimney and the water can. Both these articles are detachable in times of crisis, frequent in ones early days. One has to do a lot of chimney removing. We chugged steadily rhythmically and easily onward. After a while Kit sent Kay onto the butty and took me along the catwalk of planks laid along the cross beams of the boat which are level-*with the gun whale and therefore suspended about 4ft 9 ins above the bottom of the hold, to the fore end of the butty. The motor slowed down the butty bows slid forward level with her stern counter Kit jumped lightly down followed not so lightly by me.
The stern of the motor - sits down in the water when one is travelling light and her bows rise in comparison. Both boats have a draught of about four foot, nine inches when empty, no draught at all to speak of, so that the difference between loaded and empty boats is incredible. Especially to the steerer who has to see round her cratch when empty. The cratch is the wooden triangle at the bows which is the fore point of the sheeting up framework. Now, I began to wonder about my relationship with boats. Kit told me to sit on the cabin roof and I was terrified to realise that I had to walk round the gun whale which appeared to be about six inches wide and jump onto the cabin roof which has a depth of about three foot from the gun whale. God! I did it in a terrified way and thought eyeing the dark green swirling water slipping between my feet, what is going to happen if I miss it when I jump off. However that could wait, the view became suddenly breathtaking, we had left Suburbia behind and after miles of factories, warehouses and barges, suddenly rounded a long bend, there before us lay two huge gasometers, one camouflaged, one white and dazzling, a long curving white concrete edge of canal before we reached them/beyond which lay London at our feet. All the spires drifting smoke and the immensity of it. In the immediate foreground lay Paddington shunting yards. Someone murmured something about bombs and we looked at those snaking masses of rail, thinking how easily one well placed bomb could have finished them off or heavily disorganised them. Italian prisoners, the first I had seen, waved at us cheerily looking good in the dark green battledress they wear, some more dashing with red tam-o-shanters.
On we went, the warm summer breeze whipping the water into a semblance of those little grey green waves in Botticellis Venus. The clouds golden and warm above the golden haze of the distance it was all an Italian painting, gasometers included. We beat into their shadow and our world went dark-- on a little further, bridges and railways everywhere. Kit said we would soon be in the slum area. Tall buildings blank walls rose on either side of us, cans bobbed in the water and the grass on the banks went dead. The towpath had an evil look about it and the walls turned into houses with blind eyes and balconies that over hung the Cut. The dirt was incredible filthy curtains, filthy windows, carpets hanging over balconies and only odd scrawny scarlet geranium here and there to cheer things up. One old bald headed man with a shiny ruby red face and an incredibly fat belly, attired in his shirtsleeves and very unshaved, gave us a toothy grin. A sudden babble of yells rose from the other side of the Cut where bathing naked in the canal were a large crowd of youths, some swimming vigorously towards us others drying themselves round a large camp fire. I watched them curiously, the ones in the water looking exactly like seals their hair streaming over their faces. Their horse cries making little sense above the noise of the engine. They yelled and whistled until we disappeared, one or two others watched us pass or dived hurriedly into the water.
The canal widened and after a series of wide sprung bridges and a reach of canal far statelier in width than it's surroundings warranted and a particularly filthy stretch of flats known as 'Valentine's Row', we reached Paddington stop. Here, when loaded boats are gauged or tested to find out if their draught is the same as it was when the boats left the docks. When travelling empty you can if you wish collect water, but you have no luck with the office. It's a narrow place through which boats can go breasted up - but in any case one has to creep, as otherwise a tidal wave would submerge the company offices, a nasty jar for them! Just beyond the stop is a wide turn - you creep from under the bridge, swing widely through another narrow bridge and into the tunnel. As it was Sunday there's no need to enquire the 'Tug was coming through'.
On weekdays this is a ritual because every half hour or so a busy little tug collects the light barges going down and takes them through to the top of the locks and brings the loaded ones back up. We whistled through the engines suddenly alarmingly loud and hollow - the air, cold and clammy and the water ink like and slapping violently at the sides. We were out in a few moments - two more bends between towering warehouses; suddenly we were there 'The top of the locks' Camden Lock! We slowed down, Kit released the butty from its shorts straps — handed Miranda the cotton line with which she walked up to the bows climbed round the cratch slipped the noose and was ready to step calmly onto the butty bows as they slid past, do the same to her, the two boats swung together gently.
Contributed originally by Bournemouth Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
Kay wanted a motor cabin to herself and also to be captain of a crew. My friend Wendy also on her first training trip with another trainer. It seemed just right. I liked Kay and felt we’d probably get on all right, it solved the problem of who we were going to work with. Miranda, of whom I was still a little in awe and certainly hardly knew, was going off with someone called Nora. “Only one trip” reassured Kit. It seemed Nora was a very poor boater and could never keep a crew. Miranda didn’t look very happy about it. But whistling around, the willowed bends of the Willow Pound, it seemed all my troubles were over. The breeze blew, the trees went silver and the water slapped. I suddenly remembered Bob and realised I hadn’t thought of him at all for quite a long time — anyway I was going home soon. I might even see him much better than abstract though! Heaven itself was a small thing! He went down the Paddington Arm and unloaded at Glaxo — a filthy job with a grab. I was reminded repressibly of Bill the Lizard out of Alice. The little man in the crane kept saying “Bill here, Bill no, here. I can’t move the crane all over for you — what’s that? Can’t hear, up here, it’s the wind — you bloody well keep it where it is — what? — what difference does it make to you anyway?” The poor little main in our boat, a very hen pecked type, kept making wild attempts by gesticulating to point out what he did want — all quite hopelessly and helplessly. He swept the coal out of the side sheets with a hand brush and out of the boat with a broom. That night it being Kay’s last night with Kit at the end of her second training trip, we all went to the local pub. A vast suburban pub that I didn’t really like. Kit bought me a sherry and I sat and watched the people, the other three played darts with cockney partners very gaily. I liked the friendly atmosphere but was surprised at the poverty of the people in comparison with the surroundings. I hated the beer slopped on the wooden tables and the smell of sweat from some of the customers and went home before they did. Kay came back and we both felt flat and rather miserable. Kay talked of Jeffrey who should have been getting a divorce from his wife and who wasn’t and with whom she had already lived with for two years. I got a sort of ache in my chest. I knew what that was and went to sleep cross with everything. Next day we finished unloading and empty and tidy we whistled off for Hayes and the depot. The breeze, the sun and the clouds chasing each other across the sky — our spirits soared and I packed my things ready to bolt as soon as we arrived. We were finished by 4pm. Feeling rather odd in my travelling clothes, I walked down the lay-by — conversation stopped in the little groups as one went past and I was conscious of not being a “boater”. One’s clothes and appearance made so much difference to whether or not one was accepted! On the train I felt dirty and “interesting” but once home after a day or so I realised I felt just the same, although it seemed I must be different! I wasn’t, most peculiar!
The Second Training Trip
I went back to the cut regretfully, leave had been good. But I was going back to work with my friend Wendy who was a friend from my Art School days. It was her idea to go on the canals in the first place and I decided we would have fun working together. It would also be interesting to see how her training trip with Daphne Frend another trainer had gone. In what ways it had differed from ours with Kit. The cabin was already well inhabited by Wendy I thought — when I eventually found our motor having her engine overhauled, rugs on the seats cushions and photographs. I packed my things away. Wendy landed tightly on the roof “Jean!” We had not seen each other for nearly a year, not since Wendy’s nervous breakdown. There was so much to talk about. It was really grand. Suddenly Kay appeared looking very clean and glamorous — quite a stranger. Wendy and Kay liked each other immediately — we were astounded to hear Kay was leaving to get married — Who!!!” “Well a commando named Pat that I met on the train.” They had fallen for each other just like that! Something inside me said “that was a bit quick!” But I kicked myself for a cat, who was I to talk! Kay was returning next trip and was keen that as her prospective crew we should learn as much as possible to make up for her lack of a third trip. All was enthusiasm. I decided to make a notebook of the trip as soon as possible. Miranda was also in town and ensconced with Nora sharing her cabin. She had brought back a very sweet little dachshund puppy and was busy teaching it cabin manners. The third of their crew was a tall Irish girl with long straight golden hair and an exceptionally beautiful face as of Botticelli’s Venusin some lights and just plain ugly in others, most odd. She had a glorious soft Irish accent, Susan Blood. Nora herself looked masculine with her square cut face and brown curly short hair and a soldier’s jacket. But there was a disarming kindness on her blue eyes and I wondered — why all the fuss? Later in the evening I chopped wood on the cabin roof and extraordinary girl called MayFlood appeared. Golden curls, bright blue eyes and very red tanned skin. She seemed very excitable, talked volubly and turned out to be one of Wendy’s former companions. I had heard a rumour that Billie their third crew member was very excitable — a rough tough girl and I began to wonder exactly what Wendy had been through on her first trip. It sounded like the Marx Brothers. Next day after meeting the third crew member a very quiet spinster type of forty, pale blue eyes that were very direct and a pair of riding breeches that she wore faithfully the entire time.
Vera, Wendy, Kit and I went over to listen to a radio broadcast of a canal programme in Frankey’s cabin. I knew Kay detested Frankie as a bully — she was also a trainer and had a mate called Christian an art student which interested me as a fellow student. Frankie was enormous and very vigorous she had a great admiration for Kit and sense of humour at awkward moments. Her ancestry was half Mexican and half French, she was handsome and exotic and blatant way with her heavy black fringe, her almond shaped brown eyes, her freckles, brown skin and powerful arms. A scarlet scarf round her throat and white shirt, dark shorts, a husky compelling voice and a throaty attractive laugh. Both were dirty although their cabin was spotless. Christian was quiet, also dark fringed with dreamy wide blue eyes and neat features. I liked her. We all had a lively argument on art after the radio programme, great fun. Franky, talking of Augustas John and Graham Sutherland in easy tones of familiarity. We went to bed, tired but happy and overslept completely till Kit called us at seven. Whereon, we rushed into clothes and had to eat our breakfast after the first lot of locks. I saw Miranda again at the docks and heard she had fallen in and been fished out by Nora. The docks thrilled me stiff as usual. It’s the excitement of coming down into the world of ocean going liners and feeling the link with the world beyond, being part of it, a working part as a spectator never can be. I wanted to draw but there was no time. I became aware of George Smith yelling at me at one point — a tall handsome young boater waving a coil of rope — he was just feeling cheerful. I was furious with myself for blushing scarlet. He laughed, although I am sure of that he was oblivious, I cursed myself for a fool. We toiled back up the locks, loaded with steel again and into Hayes two days after our start from the docks. There we were astonished to see Kit introduced to an American by Mr Curtiss our enormous boss. The American we eye’d with distrust. He was ugly but attractive. Had a graceful figure like a young panther easy and supply. He also carried a camera, we felt resentful. Kit informed us, he was coming with us for four days and would sleep on the steel. We went on after ‘Jeff’ had settled himself in. It was quite impossible to dislike him. He was cheerful and friendly getting us to do scatty things with ropes and jumping off to take the boats at odd angles from bridges etc. He worked too, taking a windless and doing his damnedest to the paddles. By evening Jeff was ‘in’. The next day I went in a silvery mist to lockwheel. I lay on the lock gates watching with fascination the bows of a boat slide into a lock under the bridge. The engine beating softly, the bows parting the water into arrow shaped ripples on either side. Sometimes everything about boats has an exquisite rhythm and beauty entirely incompatible with their bulk. We were locked up at North Church on the summit due to low pounds. There is a spring, there were the water from the lower stretches of canal is pumped up to the high pounds. The spring is crystal clear and pure. We washed ourselves and everything in it and hung clothes to dry in skatty rows from a clothes line between shafts. Jeff photographed and photographed and cursed the English weather and the fitful sun. Eventually he had to leave us to catch his train back to his unit. We were very sorry to see him go, all of us. There was a gap for some time. Wendy and I went for a long walk and Wendy was rather silent, she and Jeff had fitted as people do sometimes. Next morning, the water was translucent and green one could see everything on the canal bed, the only time I’ve ever seen that happen! An odd thing happened the afternoon before when Wendy and I got back from our walk a W.A.A.F and her friend came to look at our boats. Thinking us real boaters, we looked up and I realised she was an old college friend whom I hadn’t seen for years. They drank tea with us and went away — truly an odd coincidence. We went over to Mathas next day. It was truly a golden September and the trees were beginning to turn. The summit with its long wind between trees was lovely, berries trailed from the yellowing leaves. The heat was oppressive and quivering. Wendy and I went into town in the afternoon in Leighton Buzzard to the flicks and out to tea at a very amusing and prim hotel where we ate polite cakes and giggled about the possible reaction of the surrounding “polite” people to the announcement that we were bargees! Later that evening we sat on an open hillside gazing at the sky and talked of deeper subjects. I can’t remember what we talked about but we wandered back to the boats slowly and silently as those who have unburdened their thoughts are apt to. Next day we went on and as we went on things began to go wrong. Ropes broke and went in the blades, we jammed in locks, things went overboard and nearly always it was Wendy who was somehow involved. She began to worry about it and Kit talked seriously to me. “Second trip, must improve or I shall have to throw her out — she doesn’t seem to care”. It was difficult, Vera and I had our hands full with our own troubles. Kit talked to Wendy and for two days there was astounding improvement but I noticed she wasn’t sleeping well and talked in her sleep. Anyway I thought “It’s a hangover from last time, take no notice, that’s the best thing”. So I didn’t. But suddenly, the rocket went up. Wendy cooked an exotic lunch one day, it took so long to prepare that she had to go on duty, bang slap, on top of lunch — never the best time. We were on the Oxford canal. Those dire bends, the worst we stuck on good and proper. “Fool!” shrieked Kit. Wendy gave her a long slow look and muttered something in an undertone as she went to get a shaft. For no known reason my hackles rose like a scared dog and Kit realising perhaps that she had said something wrong was very kindly. We went lock after lock.
Wendy was in an incomprehensible mood and talked of great troubles and what one should do and I not knowing what she was getting at, avoided direct answers. When eventually we tied up for lunch below Hatton she was odd and kept staring at me and muttering again. I thought “Don’t be a fool, it’s over-tiredness” and tried to throw it off. But I couldn’t lose a sense of unreality and that rising hackless feeling of fear. We drank cider from the pub and went up Hatton’s twenty-one locks and on to the “Black Boy” pub tie. She was very strange that night and even Kit noticed it and looked at me oddly. She talked in her sleep and I was too worried now to sleep — I listened and my blood ran cold — things my friend Wendy should never have known or spoken. I lay stiff and silent and prayed. “Bob, oh my Bob — I must have some of your strength and your sanity — Oh God!” Next morning I got hold of Kit on the butty and we talked worriedly. When we got into Tysley docks I felt better but so tired I could have dropped. In the afternoon Wendy seemed keen to go to the Baths. Her skin was so yellow now and her eyes blank and unknowing, she was slowly under my very eyes changing into a stranger. I would almost rather she had died than that.
We went into Birmingham on the tram and she started an uncontrollable giggling. People stared, I cling to Bob — I must be calm and look as if nothing had happened, especially not let Wendy know I knew something was wrong. We went to the Victorian Public Baths we had gone to on our first trip. Wendy talked loudly, hating my publicly and laughed wildly and muttered. I bathed and was so weakly relieved to hear Vera’s voice I could have hugged her. I implored her to stay with us, Wendy after a eulogy on Vera’s stalwart character in comparison with mine — now infamous, agreed to the idea. We went to the flicks — she laughed hysterically and cried and fought off soothing hands. I stand literally dripped sweat throughout the film. How we got home, I don’t know, but we did, Kit was out. Blow one. We got supper and I talked as firmly as I could, Wendy sat and watched with malevolent brooding eyes. I lit the stove with meths and she seized and swung the bottle onto the table and over the straw mattress and lit the proceeds. I put it out with the floor cloth, I was far too surprised to be scared. We ate supper in silence. I thanked my lucky stars for my Log Book and took it up to go over to see Kit suggesting Wendy went to bed in the interval. When I got into see Kit only Vera was there — I just went flat on the bed and laughed it was altogether too much — we talked over what had happened and decided it was definitely a breakdown and finally Kit returned and we explained the position and I went back for the night. It took a lot of time getting Wendy to bed, but she was docile, thank heaven, she just talked and talked the most utter filth I’ve ever heard. When finally we were in bed I weighed my chances of survival till morning and hugged my thoughts of Bob to me. Thank God for his friendship I thought and could never thank him enough for his unwitting help that night.
Next morning we unloaded. Kit suggested Wendy changed to her cabin as a normal part of trip procedure. It rained steadily. Wendy was unanimated. Vera clambered over with all her things. The workmen who knew nothing of all this joked Vera “stand there missy and you’ll get tipped in”. Sure enough next time as she climbed over arms full of clothes, a piece of steel went up like a bird and so did the boat, precipitating Vera like a ton of coals into the “cut”. It was the last straw. Kit dived in and fished Vera and clothes out and we laughed helplessly in the rain while Vera dried herself in my cabin. We went down Camphill next day. Kit said she never expected to lockwheel the Bottom Road with a lunatic. It rained and was filthy and the butty swayed like a sulky cow. But I could have dealt with any number of butties so long as I didn’t have that nameless terror again.
Contributed originally by Bournemouth Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
Wendy’s white blank face reproached for my disloyalty — but as she hated me bitterly now, there seemed to be no sense anywhere. At the bottom of Saltby locks, we had to wait, Wendy and I on the butty. Unable to bear her blank scrutiny any longer, I made to leap on the roof to go and see what was happening. But she seized my arm with an unknown strength and threw me into the hatches. She had her steel windlass, which she fingered while she looked at me. “You’re afraid aren’t you!”. I was so glad the boats moved on then! Kit and Wendy went to the doctor. We felt unable to take the responsibility for what she might do to herself or to us and Kit was determined she should go home. She phoned the G.U.C.C. Depot for advice. The depot were stupid in the extreme and said impossible bring her back. Kit was furious and decided to wire her parents and make the arrangements herself, which she did. That night Wendy talked in her sleep and when she woke asked Kit “If it wasn’t nice to be under the sea?” Kit said that was enough. They went up to London the same day. It was breezy — the clouds flying. Wendy went quietly with Kit and without a backward look. I don’t think she had any idea what was happening. Vera had gone to see her father the evening before and I was alone. I spent the whole day washing. The wind was so strong it shipped my washing up bowl into the Cut behind my back. I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life — I spent the day feeling as if I was sleep walking. Kit and Vera came back in the evening and we tried to sort things out, the why’s and wherefors. There didn’t seem to be any. Although references by Wendy to an engagement to Billie made us suspicious. It was all to quote Miranda’s pet phrase “so fantastic”. We went on to talk about lesbianism on the Cut and I discovered that it was considered an ideal occupation for lesbians. The only trouble being that the odd numbers of the crews made for jealousy. I began to understand veiled hints about a number of the people I had met and to wonder about everyone with an uncertain shiver. However, people can’t help their make-up. I decided so long as they left me alone it didn’t matter. The rest of the trip began in a very light-hearted manner. We sailed gaily along the Bottom Road in two days without sticking once, our backs ached with the butty pulling, but anything practical and real was such a relief that we worked like demons. Kit appeared once looking so much like a drawing by “Geo M” from Punch, that I collapsed with merriment. It was very cold and she was glad in a balaclava, a three quarter length leather jerkin, a pair of slacks tucked into her boots complete with belt and windlass. Not to mention the 40ft Shaft she was carrying over one shoulder! Perfect! We loaded at Bedworth. A very dirty little back alley of a loading place. Vera went out one night. I did my washing. I pegged it out and for some reason as I walked back along the gunwale turned round to see if it was all secure. I had a strange sinking sensation and suddenly a complete shock as the oily water closed over my head. I came up spluttering and was fished out by Kit with a bit of cotton line round my bottom. We laughed weakly but the pair behind us roared. I thanked my lucky stars I had hung out my washing first and wiped the oily water off giggling helplessly. Kit gave me some hot soup and I felt better than I had for ages. Next day we were loaded. Coal dust all over everything. I’d never been so black! Even our cabins, do what we might about shutting them in, there was a thin film of dust over everything. Getting out of Bedworth loading place is an art. The channel will just take boats breasted and a single pair. At the end is an exceptionally narrow entrance and you go into a blind turn to get into the main channel. There is mud on the opposite bank and in the bend. It is necessary to strap the butty up short as you turn and hold her stern to the bank so that she turns like a pivot with the motor. We were helped out by a cheery but dirty lad named Alf, with a donkey. Kit didn’t agree with his methods but he took no notice, also there was a sudden call on the horn — a pair of empties came whistling through the bridge putting us squarely on the mud, despite the donkey! We had the hell of a time getting off again. The run home was uneventful. Vera and I took the motor between us. Kit lived on the butty. We trailed back over Tring Summit to the Cow Roast on a particularly wet morning — with Kit steering the butty — she had an enormous umbrella up and was eating a boiled egg at the same time and in oil skins! We were all tired and irritable through reaction, though by the time we reached Hayes, Kit had said bitterly several times during our return journey, that she thought Wendy had been so ill she had never noticed our faults. But as we met boats at one lock, I heard her say proudly that “We’d come down pretty well two handed and were doing well!”. The sky went gold! I packed my bags and cleared out of Battersea next day. Bid a sad farewell to Kit. We wrote up the last of my log that night. Buzz bombs came over while we did it. The gilt was off the gingerbread, as far as our next trip was concerned. With both Wendy and Kay gone I didn’t even know who I would be working with. I was so tired now that we’d stopped working that I simply didn’t care and only wanted to go home and sleep and sleep. When I got home mother said “You don’t mind do you, S (her brother) is here, he isn’t very well — it’s a kind of nervous breakdown”. He wasn’t bad just rather helpless but I felt my inside, which was aching to unbend, go rigid, here again was a necessity to be someone else and play a part. No rest in bed. Mother frantically busy and plenty to do. My twenty first birthday. I felt all day as if I was in a coma. Nothing seemed to touch me physically or mentally, in the evening when everyone was in bed, I wept with pure self pity. No presents, no key, no rest, oh hell! Next day the gang took me to a concert — we listed to Eine Kleine Nacht music. Tiny and I sat together and suddenly thrilled together at the music. I felt a warm throb of happiness and could have hugged him for no reason at all! We went to tea at Joy’s to meet Ian. Home on leave from the Fleet Air Arm. For some reason, he was not in the Gang’s good books. While we were arguing hotly on their right to criticise he appeared and everyone behaved like snarling dogs walking round on their toes. I felt weak and wanted a laugh, but felt Ian needed moral support and that was hardly the best way of giving it. Suddenly I thought this is daft, it’s Bob I want to see more than anyone else. I didn’t see him till Wednesday, when I worked at College and I saw him in the middle of the morning. I was a windy sunny day and we just suddenly met. I waved joyously and he ran down the steps to meet me, both thrilled for once or anyway pleased! I could have flown the clouds. We talked of all sorts of things — he asked me if we ever went to London. I had to say not often! We parted. I feeling radiant. We met in the evening and had a misunderstanding over tickets for the dance on Saturday. Bob left me his eyes thunderous. I felt my inside collapse and suddenly everything, boats, Bob, Wendy came like a black blanket over me. Ivy, angelic, let me howl on her shoulder and we sat in the still dark by the static water pool and I cried more completely than ever before. The stars looked down silent and kind. “If it’s meant to be, it will be“ said Ivy and I went home aching and empty.
I went to the dance and had a wonderful time but I couldn't keep my eyes off Bob. We said good-bye at the end, in a hurry as usual. I thought we can't just say good-bye like this. We can’t. I went home with Tony. Anthony tall stalwart, impersonal being, whom I liked very much and they kept me from thinking. When I got home in the small hours, I wrote Bob a note wishing him goodbye and well, telling him how I felt. Next morning, I was due back from leave; but my mother was ill and I had to stay for two days. I went back watching the sidings of Bournemouth station slide away with a heavy heart and no care for anything. Into Paddington that other world. That had somehow become unbelievable during my last leave. Back at Bulls Bridge, and the boats, there was Kit. "It's Kay and Miranda" she said "Your boats are at the end of the lay-by." I walked down, there smelling strongly of paint and dazzling in their newness, lay "Astra and Corolla”. Miranda looked out of the butty and said "You're living with me this trip, let me give you a hand with those things”. My heart sank. I had a crazy hope that Kay might have lived on the butty. Instead her broad grin appeared round.
Second trip with our own boats
We went up Cowley and up to the Summit fairly well; the weather was cold blowy and wet, but this time we had a cargo of steel and at least we had no lists to worry about. Going up Stoke Hammond Kay had a nasty experience. She was on the motor and so went right into the lock with her boat and as soon as she had put her in forward gear; jumped onto the butty roof, climbed onto the chimney and leapt up the wall. It's easy enough on the fairly shallow locks around Mathas; but these are deeper so in the third lock. Miranda and I dealing with the side ponds. Heard a sudden cry. Looking round saw only Kay's fingers clinging to the edge of the lock. We both moved like greased lighting and heaved her over; but I shall never forget the sight of Kay hanging down the black slippery wall; the butty having swung away from the wall and the swirling water hissing through the narrow gap beneath! Rrr! Kay never jumped those locks again. We achieved Rugby without incident; but there the water was very bad; and we had a grim time getting up the pounds. They were so low that the boats practically scraped their way along. Getting into the locks was a nightmare. We towed our butty in every time and tried breasting up the boats but that was of no avail and under the bridges it was difficult to do anything about it anyway. By the third and fourth lock the usual torrential downpour, which seemed inevitable whenever we were in difficulties had started. Anyone who has tried to move 25 tonnes of steel and boat on a muddy canal bottom will know that it takes less time than to tell to lose one's temper with it. At the fourth lock something went in the blades. It was beginning to get dark. As the engine chocking fitfully and pouring black smoke, we started up the longish pound below the top lock. The lock keeper said "Go on the tow rope, you can stop 'er going in the blades then if there’s trouble", we did. The butty got stuck and there was no direct pull to get her off so we put her on a short strap, the moment she was going nicely we let her off, the tow rope snaked out like a devil whipped round the head lamp and snapped it like a twig and snapped the tow rope like string! The butty had hit something else as we released her. "Oh God" said we and tied up in despair, soaked. Tired out, and miserable. Next morning we got the rope out of the blades and started through Braunston with no lights on the butty. The cold weather had made everyone light their fires and as luck would have it we met a string of boats. The air in the tunnel grew thicker and thicker; it became almost impossible to see one's own bows; certainly only just possible to see anyone else's lights. I was on the motor and had a bad patch of bumping; that is that I couldn't judge my distance and kept ricocheting from one wall to the other. Terrified that at any moment I should see the bows of approaching boats slide into my light; Suddenly there seemed to be a cotter beat to my own engine and staring into the dark dimly distinguished and approaching orange glow. I slowed right down and kept my bows crashing into the wall on my side of the tunnel; anything I thought is better than for them to swing over to the wrong side. Where my butty was I had no idea but could hear vague crashes and prayed they could see the motor cabin light to steer by. Suddenly and only just as our bows swung over the long crocodile nose of a boat without lights crept past ours. Their light was suspended from their mast which had given it the appearance of great distance in the cloudy atmosphere! My entire inside did a sort of wild flap; I certainly hadn't expected them for at least five minutes and vision of what a crash in a tunnel could be like were too awful to contemplate! Not quite so amusing as an experience had by some other trainees. Slatty was on the motor and beating quite cheerfully through the tunnel when something made her Ulm rolled to observe with absolute horror that the butty had disappeared;- there was the snubber and that was all. She began anxiously to haul on the trailing end of rope convinced that it must have broken and visions of a long reverse down the tunnel. So convinced was she that they had dropped off that it didn't occur to her to shout. Suddenly the bows of the butty, -swam into view and slapped into her stern. 'What the hell!?" screamed the butty steerer "Whatever ARE you doing!" The butty lights had merely failed to function suddenly and she had been cheerfully steering by the distant motor light. Very difficult to explain! Tunnel stories are man}' and varied: one tells of two sailors who tried boating after the last war. They disliked tunnels and decided on a new technique. They neatly jetted their boats, set the engine ahead, steered them into the tunnel and walked off and over the hills; to arrive the further entrance just in time to stop a pair going in. "Boats coming" they said. "Don't be daft that don't make no difference, who's are they since you're so bright?" "Ours." The startled boaters stopped just in time to see the sailors step gaily onto the bows of the breasted pair: abreast and sail off! Another, this from trainees in Blisworth tunnel. They were proceeding through one evening when Margaret. Steering saw the lights of boats approaching, she slowed down and kept her nose into the wall. The" seemed to be no sound and she watched their approach with interest. The bows and cratch slid past hers and vanished!
No explanation has ever been offered for that one; especially as the person concerned was a very unpsychic type! I always had a horror of falling off a boat in a tunnel and once when our lights failed and we had to crawl along the top planks to strap on a hurricane lamp it nearly came true; fortunately we were broken backed and loaded with coal so it would have been a long slide first. But still -! We had a difficult time going round the Oxford bends and got muddied on the really wicked double bend in the middle. Someone, bless their hearts, came and towed us off. We eventually achieved Birmingham, but on that trip decided that we'd try and do the three our pound from the top of Knole in the dark: on the assumption it was to be a moonlight night. It wasn't of course, merely rammed and got darker and darker/finally/as we were about to give in Kay having hit a bridge. Through night blindness, it cleared up and the rain clouds parted and it turned into a heavenly night. I shall never forget coming into Tysley; I was on the motor and having crawled round the bends getting by degrees the business of steering; having to half all the shadows to find the bank, was beginning to enjoy myself.
Contributed originally by jill_murch (BBC WW2 People's War)
(Jill Constance Murch — nee Mayersbach ) d.o.b. 29 January 1931
I remember the 3 September 1939, the beginning of World War II, very well — I was 8 years old, my sister, Jacqueline just 4, and we were both suffering with Mumps. My father had boarded the windows of the living room downstairs, in which our beds had been moved for safety — and there we suffered with painful, stiff necks in semi-darkness. I remember hearing the siren warning us of the start of the war and the bustle and coming and going of friends and neighbours.
Earlier that summer of 1939, while on our last holiday beside the sea for many years to come, I recall being given a ride in a REAL tank by the Army along the beach and bumping my head — the first of many frightening, dangerous — but strangely exciting episodes over the next 5 years, until the war ended when I was 14.
I also recall in those first days of war that there was some pact or understanding between my parents, that should my father be taken away or killed if occupied by the Germans, that my mother, sister and I would be prepared to take our own lives — how, I have no idea - I think tablets — but I have no recollection of fear — just it being a fact of life/death/war, etc.
The next few months were strangely quiet, but busy, with an Anderson shelter being built in the back garden (later covered forever, it seemed, with bright orange marigolds) and kitted out with bunk beds for Mum, Dad, Gran (of course), my sister, myself, plus our Manchester terrier, Nippy, and my pet canary! At school we practised getting into the air-raid shelters, built on the school playing fields, without panic and having our gas-masks continually updated with extra filters being taped on to the ends.
During 1940, however, it got noisy — very noisy! The air-raid sirens whined continually the throb of bombers flying overhead, ack-ack guns firing throughout the night and the sickening thud and vibrations of bombs dropping. There were other silent dangers — land mines descending by parachute and devastating whole streets and always incendiary bombs to fire buildings and light the way for the enemy bombers.
There were the searchlights too, criss-crossing across the night skies and the barrage balloons to try and stop the bombers — which were often fired and flared into flames. Flames from the burning London Docks also lit the night sky all the way to the suburbs where we lived and during the daytime fighters — Spitfires and Hurricanes — could be seen attaching enemy aircraft — dogfights we called them. The images are still strong in my memory — I can visualise them clearly — but they still, strangely, held no fear — just a perverse excitement. Of course, when the ‘all clear’ sounded, and each morning on the way to school, we all — as children — searched for trophies and souvenirs of the bombardment - the priceless pieces of shrapnel, which we hoarded and gloated over; pieces of aircraft and stray spent bullets were even found. I have often wondered since how these happenings shaped the adults we became — I know I still find life extremely exciting and have no fear of ‘taking chances’.
With regard to EVACUATION — at the beginning of the war there had been meetings at our schools to organise being shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas, but because ships with evacuees were being torpedoed and sunk, it was decided to keep together as a family and accept the consequences … so we continued to sleep in our cosy Anderson shelter most nights. On one occasion we emerged from our cave to find what looked like a cannon-ball on top of our shelter — we quickly called the local air-raid warden — who laughed and told us that the local bowling green pavilion had sustained a direct hit the previous night and all the ‘woods’ had been sent flying across the town — with one coming to thud on the roof of our shelter- it was used for many years thereafter as a souvenir door stop.
Britain became filled with soldiers, sailor and airmen from all over the world — Free-French, Polish, Norwegian, West Indians, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, etc., and, of course, after 1941, the Americans. These young men — and women — in all manner of smart uniforms, brought even more excitement to our young eyes — they were so full of life and enjoying themselves — aware, now I realise, that they could have been close to death — as we all were.
I watched avidly each day the newspapers and the thick rows showing how the armies fought back and forth across the continents — especially the progress across North Africa and then across to Sicily and Italy. The place names are still imprinted in my memory.
As D-Day, 6 June 1944, approached, huge waves of Allied bombers throbbed overhead towards Europe, and the surrounding roads and lanes in Southern England were packed with tanks and trucks full of servicemen.
The Germans then began a further blitzkrieg with thousands of unmanned flying-bombs — the Doodlebugs or V1s, followed later by the devastating V2 rockets. The sound of the throbbing engines of the flying-bombs cutting out followed by a terrifying thud and shudder, still echo in my head.
My family, having resisted being separated, now had to accept the inevitable evacuation and in late June 1944, my sister, Jacqueline (now aged 9) and myself (13) along with our fellow pupils and schoolteachers, were put into coaches to be driven to Paddington Station. I remember seeing tears in the eyes of my parents and wondering why they were upset — I have understood very well since and will never forget their sadness.
We journeyed westwards from Paddington, complete with our Evacuee luggage labels attached to our jackets and were excited by where we might arrive. Single railway coaches full of children were left at various stations long the way, but we continued westwards and I hoped that we would cross the’ border’ into Wales - we did and reached the little market town of Builth Wells in mid-Wales. At the local school we were lined up and picked or chosen by local people — my sister and I were almost the last, as most families only wanted one child, but I had promised my parents that I would look after my sister and refused to be separated.
A family of mother, father and small son, took us initially, and we slept in the attic on camp beds with just blankets — which felt itchy, not having sheets — and I was expected to do housework and look after their small boy.
However, it was fun with our fellow evacuees and the local children, although we had our lessons separately in the local church crypt with our own schoolteachers. We discovered the local Monday market with all the sheep and cattle, the new smells and noises; the beautiful River Wye nearby, the fish shimmering below the bridge and the hills, mountains and quarries in the surrounding countryside.
There was also a large Italian prisoner-of-war camp nearby and these strangers with curious accents talked to us children over the fences and hedges from their camp and excited our imaginations as to who these aliens were and from where they had come. Their camp was close by another river — River Irfon — across which was strung a ‘swing bridge’, which swayed alarmingly and below which we paddled and tried to catch minnows in glass jars on string.
In early August 1944 our parents arranged to visit us, but that very weekend our original foster family had moved us to a new family with a motherly lady originally from East Anglia and a married daughter working in a local war munitions factory, whose husband was a prisoner in a Japanese camp in Burma — I never knew whether he survived. As our parents arrived, a message was received that our home near London had been hit by a Doodlebug/flying bomb, so my poor father had to return immediately. However, I feel had they not been travelling to see us, they may have been killed as the raid took place about midday on a Saturday and they would have both been t home in the house.
As there was now no home to return to my mother obtained work as a housekeeper/cook in a large house/farm in a nearby village, and when we visited her there — by walking along the local railway line — we got to know the local Land Army girls, who came indoors to see my mother for meals and to warm their frozen fingers after harvesting potatoes, etc. I was intrigued by the tales they told my sister and I about their adventures!
At school we were taught a poem remembering the slaughter of the Allied parachutists at Arnhem in Holland and the local recreation ground - or Groe —alongside the River Wye became a parking area for a huge convoy of American servicemen, awaiting their turn to be sent over to the battles in Europe. (I wonder how many survived?) As with the Italian Prisoners-of-war, these servicemen were kind and gentle, appeared relaxed and patient to talk to us all, and answer our incessant questions and curiosity about their homelands.
Around Christmas 1944, my father, weary after long journeys to visit us and having been blown off his bike by bomb blast on his way to war work in a munitions factory, arranged for us all to move nearer home at a relative’s farm in Hampshire and where my grandmother had been living. This gave us yet more new experiences — collecting cows from the surrounding fields for milking, finding hens’ eggs, watching the butchering of rabbits for food (I still cannot face eating rabbit) and bathing weekly in a tin bath in the kitchen by gaslight, with candles only to climb old strange stairs to bed. We also watched Dakota aircraft flying in and out of nearby Hurn airport with supplies for the European front.
I started attending a commercial college in Bournemouth and being curious — yet again — the Canadian servicemen housed in all — it seemed — the hotels along the cliff tops. It seemed to our young yes that all the young men in the world were wearing uniforms, even the local village boys in their sea cadet and air ranger uniforms.
May 8th, 1945 — the end of hostilities in Europe and everyone in the village of Throop celebrated around a huge bonfire. Within a month or two, my mother, sister and myself returned to our home to rejoin our father — at least, living initially with a kind neighbour, until our poor old war-damaged home had been patched up and we could return to some sort of safe and peaceful life again.
I only realise now, as I’ve grown older, how anguished my dear parents must have been — worried about the welfare of my sister and myself and distraught the loss of their home together — although at the time we were not along — a huge number of families had similar, often worse, sadness. Accepting the love and care which we did not question, my sister (I believe) and I (for sure) recall the War Years and especially our evacuation, as a huge adventure and jolted my innate curiosity and fascination with other peoples and their ways of life which has never left me.
Contributed originally by Bagpuss1961 (BBC WW2 People's War)
Shortly before he died in 1998, my Dad started to write down his life story - he was a great believer in 'passing things on' and I know he would have been delighted to share his memories via this project. The following is an extract from the chapter he called 'My War Years':
"In September 1939 the waiting was over and war was declared. For a while nothing changed and life carried on fairly normally, there were a few scares, but no fighting. Then on August 8th 1940 Dad decided he should 'do his bit' and without waiting to be called up he went and registered as a Voluntary Reserve in the RAF. Looking back, I can't help admire him, and Mum, for the decision they obviously both made. They had no idea what was going to happen, or even if they'd ever see each other again. It took a great deal of guts and I'm still proud of them today.
Dad eventually got called up on 21st August 1940. By this time I was just turned six and was at school. I was attending Downsell Road Infants, along with my mate Derek. Dad went off to the Middle East in February 1941.
So, there I was, just turned six, fatherless and probably wondering what was happening in my young life. Looking back now, I realise that the five years that Dad was away were important ones for both of us. We lost forever the years of togetherness that Father and Son normally share. The period from age five to ten are years when their relationship is built and established for the future. They can never be replaced, and although I loved my dad dearly, and I believe he felt the same about me, I always felt that there was something missing in our relationship. There were many things and experiences that we could and should have shared but didn't and I feel sure that dad felt the same way. We never really did talk about it and I wish now that we had.
Mum and I stayed in London for a while during the early days of the 'Blitz'. I can vaguely remember being in the shelter, hearing bombs and 'ack ack' banging away. One night, there was an extra loud bang when a bomb hit the house a few doors away. Fortunately, the family survived, but the house was a wreck. I can also recall seeing a massive bomb - I think it was called an Aerial Torpedo - sticking out of the High Road at the top of Victoria Road. It hadn't gone off, but it brought all the Trolley Bus wires down and made quite a mess.
It was about this time that my paternal Grandfather stepped into the act. Grandad wasn't a Londoner by birth, he originally came from Warwickshire, having been born near Stratford-on-Avon. He had a number of relatives living in and around the Stratford/Birmingham area, including a half brother, Bert, and his wife, Lil, who lived in a little village called Alderminster, 8 miles outside Stratford.
Anyway, Grandad decided that Mum and I should leave London and go to Alderminster to escape the bombs. I believe he was doing this at Dad's request, who probably had discussed it with Mum before he went abroad. I'm not sure whether Mum was fully convinced it was the right thing to do, but anyway, we went. Grandad came with us by train from Paddington to Leamington Spa, then on to Stratford and finally by bus to Alderminster. He stayed for a while then went back to London. I believe this all happened around the autumn of 1941, so that within one year, I had lost my Dad and been moved to a strange place with people I didn't know.
My Grandfather's half-brother Bert and his wife Lil were a childless couple in their late forties who lived a pretty basic life in this quiet country village. He worked for the County Council as a road maintenance man and she was a normal country housewife, involved in church and village activities. At first, the relationship Mum and I had with them wasn't too bad. Mum helped out in the house and garden as much as she was allowed, but it was obviously a strain for her being away from her family who were all still in London. I probably didn't help matters, I got up to lots of mischief and that only added to the friction that began to build up. I know Mum made a couple of attempts to go back to London but I assume that Dad's letters and Grandad persuaded her to try and stick it out. Anyway, by this time Grandad had put all our furniture etc into storage for the duration and our house had been let to someone else. So, we stayed.
As a result, I had to go to school and I recall being dragged along the road by Mum, kicking and screaming, on my way to my first day at the village school. The school was situated in the middle of the village and took pupils from all around the local area up to the age of 11 years. The teaching staff consisted of two ladies. The Headmistress, Mrs Randall, lived in the house built onto the school. I soon settled down and quickly made some good friends amongst the other pupils.
To get away from the atmosphere at Bert and Lil's and to earn some money, Mum had reverted back to her service experience and got a job helping out at the local vicarage. The Vicar and his wife took to Mum and obviously realised the stress she was under. They suggested that Mum and I should move into the vicarage. It was a genuine Christian act of helping out someone who was probably at the end of her tether. So, we moved in.
Moving to the vicarage was a tremendous change. It was a home, and even though Mum was their 'employee', we very soon became part of the family. At that stage the Vicar and his wife had no children, but I was accepted with all my mischievous ways.
The vicarage was a large building with five bedrooms, a dining room, a lounge, and a study, plus a kitchen, scullery and a sewing room. There were two bathrooms, lots of cupboards and an enormous loft, which extended across the whole house. It was set in its own grounds, with an orchard, fruit and vegetable garden, and a massive front lawn with flower beds round it. There were a number of out buildings, including stables, pig sties and greenhouses. To me, it was an adventure playground, which was there to be explored.
The Vicar had been a medical student but had changed career paths and gone into the church. He had a great sense of humour and liked his pint. He and Mum got on very well and I recall her being quite cheeky to him at times, but he seemed to enjoy it. Apart from his church work, which covered three other parishes as well as Alderminster, he used to drive around the countryside in a Ford Prefect, towing a trailer which held his equipment for showing films to the local troops. As I got older, I used to go with him sometimes, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. He'd be in the Officers' Mess after the show, drinking his pint, while I'd be drinking a glass of lemonade somewhere.
His wife was a lovely lady, tall and elegant, kind and with a pleasant nature. She and Mum seemed to hit it off very quickly and they shared many a laugh together, so in a way I believe they helped each other cope with the stresses of the war. She was also very involved in the Church, playing the organ at most services and generally organising Church life, including Sunday School.
Although there were no other children at the Vicarage, there was for me the attraction of two dogs and a cat. The dogs, Dasher and Peter, were cocker spaniels, with Dasher being The Vicar's gun dog. The cat was called Fluffy and she seemed to be continuously having kittens, which I used to play with.
Mum and I shared a bedroom and had our own small sitting room, which gave us that little bit of privacy, and we greatly appreciated it. In the meantime, I had settled in at school and made some good friends including several children from the village and local farms. There was another evacuee in the village called Keith, who came from Doncaster. We were all about the same age and so became great friends, doing most things together. Initially I was teased a bit for the way I pronounced certain words like 'duck' and 'bus', but I soon picked up the local dialect so that when I eventually went back to London at the end of the war, I was teased again.
Apart from the absence of Dad, my life in Alderminster was idyllic. It basically became school, play - often at Barton Farm - and church. The latter aspect began to have an increasing influence on my young life. I started going to Sunday School, then joined the choir and eventually became Head Altar Boy and Server which meant that I went to church about 7 or 8 times a week!
Mum and I often used to take trips on the bus into Stratford-on-Avon and it was there that we met Grandad's half-sister, Daisy. Aunt Daisy was as different from Bert and Lil as chalk and cheese. She was a spinster, tall and slim with a bubbly personality and a lovely sense of humour. She lived over a shoe shop, which she managed, in Wood Street. The building was very old, like lots of houses in Stratford, and her flat was full of oak beams and creaky floorboards. She always made Mum and me very welcome and used to make quite a fuss of me. Later in the war Aunt Daisy 'adopted' a crew of a Lancaster Bomber which flew from one of the local aerodromes just outside Stratford. They were all Canadians and she used to refer to them as her 'boys'. I can't recall all their names, but I do remember a 'Long Bob', 'Little Bob', Dusty, Smitty, and a 'Peewee'. As far as I know they all survived the war.
Mum had made a few friends, including Bill the village baker, and his wife, and Mum and I sometimes helped out in the bakery. I used to make the meat pies on a pie making machine. It was good fun! I got on well with Bill and he became another 'proxy' father. He was a keen fisherman and he often took me fishing with him.
Quite often during those war years there were visitors to the vicarage. The Vicar's in-laws sometimes came to stay. He was a retired Naval Captain who had been called back into active service and was based at Dover, working on shore. I believe he had been involved in the evacuation of British Troops from Dunkirk in 1940.
Mum and I also had visitors during these war years. The Vicar's wife kindly let Mum invite her sisters down for a break, so my Aunts and Cousins came to visit. They all stayed at the vicarage and it was nice having their company, especially for Mum as she was obviously worried about them living in London during the bombing. We were lucky to be out of it, but at the time I didn't realise how lucky. The nearest we ever came to such danger in Alderminster was the night the Germans bombed Coventry. I can clearly remember standing at the bedroom window with Mum and seeing a big red glow in the sky and hearing the thud of explosions. We didn't know where it was at the time until The Vicar told us next morning that Coventry had been hit. The fires raged for quite a while and for a few nights you could still see the reflection in the night sky.
Looking back on those war years in Alderminster, I realise how lucky I was. Apart from missing Dad, I was completely protected from what was going on in the world. I saw it in the newspapers and heard the news on the radio, but it didn't seem real at the time, it was happening in another world. My world was the village and it was one big playground. I had a great circle of friends and we used to roam around the village getting up to mischief and having fun. We'd go paddling and 'skinny dipping' in the River Stour, which ran through the village. There was a cave in the river bank at the back of the church yard, which became our den. We used to help on the local farm; feeding the new lambs, helping to stack the sheaves of wheat, and I can clearly remember during the long summer evenings of double summer time, taking the supper down to the men working in the fields. They were wonderful days!
I appeared in one of the village pageants, which were organised to raise money for the war effort. I remember I was a Cavalier and a girl called Joyce was my Lady and we had to dance on the lawn of the Lodge, a big house in the village, to some appropriate music, which I believe was 'Greensleeves'. There were other occasions when I 'trod the boards', one of which still brings back painful memories. In May 1943 when I played Yankee Doodle Dandy all dressed up in a white silk suit - made from a parachute I believe. Unfortunately, as I jumped up onto the stage I knocked my shin, so there I stood, in considerable pain, blood flowing down my leg, trying to sing. I've still got the scar today to prove it.
Mum and I were getting fairly regular letters from Dad who by the middle 1940's was in India. He had gone with his Squadron to fight the Japanese in Burma, but had been transferred to Signals Head Quarters in Delhi. It turned out to be a good move as I believe his Squadron - 45th - was wiped out in Burma a few months later. I'm sure Mum was relieved that Dad was at least away from the Front Line action. She had enough on her plate raising me and she had to try and play two roles with no support from a husband. I shall always be grateful to her for that stage in my life and regret that I never found the time to tell her.
At the start of 1943, unbeknown to me, Mum had heard that Dad was on his way home. I woke up one morning to find I was alone in our room. I assumed that Mum must have got up early and gone downstairs, so I got up as well. I couldn't find her and began to get a bit worried, then I remembered seeing one of the spare bedroom doors was shut. I couldn't think why she should be in there but I decided to investigate. I remember opening the door and there was Mum in bed with a man who I immediately recognised as dad. I think I leapt about six foot from the door to the bed and landed on top of them. It was a marvellous moment and one I shall never forget.
The next few days were great, getting to know Dad, unpacking his gifts, looking at photographs and generally being happy to be with him. I was very proud of him in his uniform, he was a Flight Sergeant now. I think we spent some of his leave visiting relatives in London because when we came back to Alderminster he was taken ill with Malaria. He was taken to hospital in Stratford-on-Avon at first, but was later transferred to a special hospital in Liverpool. This created another problem for Mum as she obviously wanted to be near Dad. Fortunately Dad's brother came to the rescue. He and my Aunt were living in Swinton just outside Manchester and Mum could get to Liverpool from there. So she and I travelled by train from Birmingham to Manchester, then by bus to Swinton. I remember it was pitch dark, we'd no idea where we were. We stayed about six weeks and Mum visited Dad most days. I had to go to school in Swinton and it was tough, pupils and teachers alike. I was about 9 or 10, came from a quiet country school with two female teachers to one where the teachers all carried canes and used them regularly. It also wasn't unusual to get beaten up by your class mates. I was more than pleased when we left Swinton and took Dad back to Alderminster for convalescence leave.
He settled well into village life. He got on with The Vicar and used to go with him on his trips to the Army and RAF camps in the area. I went sometimes and used to sit in the car with my glass of cider and crisps while they got a bit drunk.
Dad also used to help out in the bakery and made use of his skills as a barber doing haircuts for the villagers. Eventually his sick leave was over and he was posted to a new Squadron based in the Shetland Isles. Not as far away as India but just as inaccessible, however we thought he was safer.
Life returned to normal in the village. I sat the 11 plus and surprisingly passed. Mum was pleased as it meant I could go to the grammar school.
The war finally came to and end in mid-1945 and Dad was demobbed early. He came back to Alderminster on leave during which time he and mum considered the possibility of staying in Alderminster. He was offered the chance of a job in Stratford and I would have gone to K.E.G.S. (The King Edward Grammar School) in Stratford where most of my male contemporaries went. In the end they decided to go back to London and Dad returned to the Barber Shop in Angel Lane, Stratford.
So, somewhere around August/September 1945 we finally left Alderminster. It was a sad occasion for everyone. We had made some good friends, had five very happy years there and had been protected from the horrors of war. As far as I was concerned it was home and I viewed the prospect of returning to London with some concern. I was going to a new school where I knew no one, I had no friends apart from cousins and the thought of returning to a big city was very daunting."