Bombs dropped in the borough of: Islington
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Islington:
- 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 Islington
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by Herts Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
Hello. My name is Alan French, and today is the 14th October 2004. The anniversary of the battle of Hastings. Well firstly I can’t remember a lot about World War Two, because I was wearing napkins at the time. My war time experiences were spent in Abbot’s Langley and Holloway.(Not the famous part, but the region in London.)I have got a feint memory of my father being close to my face going, 'Shhh! Shhh!' and hearing some bangs in the background, which I think could have been bombs. I can also remember some blue curtains behind him. I’ve been told there was a situation where I was having a tin bath, because in those days we didn’t have bathrooms, unless you were terribly posh or very lucky. There was an explosion somewhere, and my father grabbed me out of the bath. When he looked, there were all bits of glass that had shattered in the water. So I was very lucky. Very lucky indeed. My mother had a sister, Mary. She also had a brother, George Beales. Her sister married into a family called Bishop, elsewhere in North London. The Bishops moved to Abbots Langley in the late 1930s. During the war, for a few months, my mother and I, stayed with them, in Breakspear Road. So that is why I hovered between Holloway, where I lived, and Abbots Langley during this conflict. Tom and Mary Bishop, with my cousins, had two dogs. Bob and Toby. Bob, I have been told would guard my pram. He would not let people near me. (Although, of course it could be that he was comfortable and did not wish to be interupted.)It was during my stay in Abbots Langley, that one of my older cousins, whilst in the army at the time, was married. Although some of my earliest recollections, probably took place in the war they are not all war related. One thing I can remember very distinctly, and it’s something that I’ve seen even in adult life, is that you didn’t have to go far without seeing a bomb site. I mean, quite close to me, there was a whole school that had been blown up. Things like that were common place. It was also quite common in the street, for some years, to see people who were unfortunate to have limbs, or an eye, missing. I understand that I was born during an air raid. When, a few months later, I was taken to Abbots Langley, I gather there were nasty things coming down from the sky and exploding upon landing. I was just rushed into the van, car, lorry or whatever vehicle, and whisked off. So I consider myself to be very lucky to be alive. There are many who are not. And of course there are stories you hear from your parents, and there are some you don’t hear. When I sit back and think, I don’t really know much about the nitty-gritty details of what my father did and whether he saw things that he didn’t want to talk about. He wanted to join the Royal Air Force. He went up to enlist, and I gather they said, “You’re missing”.
Apparently someone with the same name was missing from duty. He worked for a leather firm in Somers Town, which is in another part of London which comes under St Pancras. If you think about it, leather was a very valuable commodity. Soldiers used/needed it for boots, straps for rifles etc. So he was required to do some work in this field. At least one lady gave my mother bitter comments due to my father not being at the front. My mother worked for a firm called Cossor's who manufactured wireless sets, as they were called then, radio today, also radar equipment. She did say that there was this bomb or rocket or something,that severely damaged the factory leaving this huge awsome crater. The firm was based at Highbury Corner. We lived in a road called Madras Place, which is a turning sandwiched in between, Liverpool Road and Holloway Road. Appropriately one entrance is opposite the Islington Library, so perhaps I should be recording this interview there.My parents became fire watchers. I cannot find it at the moment but I know I’ve got a Fire Watchers Handbook and other hand books, Battle of Britain, What to do if Hitler Invades, and if I come across them I will come down here some day and say, 'Look what I’ve got!' I have some memorabilia here, including a letter from the desert which I will read out later, because its very difficult to transpose. (See Part two.) I’ve got a photograph of me at some celebration. I don’t know whether its 1945 or 1946. Because there were a lot of Victory parties in 1946 as well.
Q. Do you know which one you are?
A. That’s me and the lady on the end is my mother, only just in sight. The only other person I know there, is a little girl, in the front row, called Wendy, who used to live next door. There’s another little girl I played with called Denise, who also lived nearby. But I do not think she is in the photo. I don’t know where it was taken. I think it was organized by some Canadians. I was forbidden to go to one victory party. Apparently I was too young. Babies not allowed. My mother wasn’t very happy. I didn’t know this until I was well into my adulthood. In compensation, the organiser gave my mother a toy for me. She explained that I never had it. She said, ‘Well it was one of these things you sometimes get in Christmas crackers made of metal, you press it and it clicks. I thought it was very dangerous for a baby, and what's more it was made in Japan!'
Remember, the Japanese part of the conflict, ended, for the first time ever, in nuclear warfare. Nazi Germany was also on the verge of an atom bomb. See the film, 'The Heroes of Telemark.' So World War 2 was in some ways a nuclear war.
Q. It must have been very difficult for your mum and dad to have had such a small baby.
A. Yes.From what I gather, they used to live in Westbourne Road, which is in the Barnsbury part of Islington. I think they were a little worried because they were living upstairs somewhere, and with bombs coming down, if anything happened... So they moved to Madras Place, in Islington's Holloway region. We lived downstairs. We had at least one bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a front room. There were other people who lived above us. There was Mr & Mrs Horton. Above them, at the top, there was a man I called 'Uncle' Jack. There was a lady who lived with him for a while. I am not sure in what way she was related to him. Before he moved in, there was a Mrs Bennett who died. I can remember quite clearly other neighbours. I have already referred to Wendy, who together with her brother Trevor,lived next door with their parents, Ted and Doris. On the other side of my house,there was a family called Biggs, Mr. & Mrs. Wheeler and another lady called Alice, all living above or below one and other. Mr and Mrs Biggs, had a son who was in the Navy. Thanks to him, I had my first banana. He got it from Gibraltar. There might have been a daughter called Babs. I can remember elsewhere in the street, a family called Rowbottom. The block of flats at the junction of Liverpool Road and Madras Place, I can remember being built. I can't remember what was before them. Denise, to whom I have referred earlier, lived at the end of Ringcroft Street. One of two roads that entered Madras Place from its side. I can't remember her father's name, but her mother's name was Grace. There are stories I have heard. I don’t know whether or not I should tell them on the air, because they may not be for the squeamish, so If I do tell , there will have to be some toning down. There are some nasty stories and some very comical ones. Do you want to hear the serious ones first?
Yes, tell the serious ones.
OK, I’ll try and tone down the first one because it’s not very pleasant. I gather a bomb or rocket came down and exploded. A pub's bar room floor collapsed with people on it, into the cellar. Unfortunately, there were spirits in the cellar. They ignited. There was a huge mass panic to get people out. I’ve toned that story down considerably. Another tragic one, is where a rocket came down on a house and a woman, who incredibly, had thirteen children, happened to be out at the time. All thirteen children were killed. Just like that. I have been informed by someone, who claims that he went into the building afterwards. There was nothing that could be done. It was a terrible sight. The children were just all huddled there. All that could be done,was just get their bodies out. There was nothing else you could do. I have also heard of a woman's husband being absoloutely riddled with bullets. So there were some tragedies. But I’ve also heard that sometimes, there were were things that could make you laugh. There’s the situation of a Costermonger, (Costers as they were also called as well as barrow boys) named Billy Hutchings, who when I knew him had a stall on the Holloway Road Pavement Market, as did one of my grandmothers, Lucy Offer. (Offer, by her second marriage.) Unfortunately, whilst he was taking his bath, (A tin one) a rocket came over Islington and split in half. One half just went into a roof without exploding. I don’t know if it was his house or a house nearby. Inevitably, something came down the chimney - soot, dust etc all over him. There is a story I can tell of a similar experience someone had when I moved to Hemel Hempstead but it has nothing to do with the war.
End of Part One.
The second half includes the reading of a letter from Tunisia as well as a continuation of this interview.
By the same contributor:-
'The Three English Brothers French.'
'The White Figure.' (A true wartime ghost story.)
Contributed originally by Pam Cuthbert (BBC WW2 People's War)
When the second war was declared, I was fifteen years old. I worked at the Admiralty in Westminster as indoor messenger, carrying files etc. from office to office. Although I was not in the forces, I think I can claim I had an exciting war. When war came, our duties were changed to twenty-four hours watch, twelve on duty and twelve off. Alternate day and night duty. Like sailors on ship, eight am until eight pm and the next day, eight pm till eight am.
My duties sometimes took me to the small telephone exchange in the building. I was fascinated with it, and wanted to be a telephonist. I asked one the men how I could be. He told me I had to be sixteen, and apply to the GPO.
The first year of my working life, I gave mother all my weekly wages, 10 shillings. She gave me back one shilling pocket money, paid my bus/tram fares, fed me and bought my clothes. The second year I had two and sixpence pocket money, but had to buy my own stockings! I was now earning 13 shillings a week. How much that bought I can't remember. I had to buy a snack in the canteen mid-session, but it was cheap. I think I mainly bought soup with a scoop of mashed potatoes in it. Tea and coffee as well in the breaks.
One night, the first of the London air raids, I left work at eight pm, got the tram to come to my home at Peckham. I was on the top of the tram alone. The noise of the bombs was frightening. In front of me I could see the sky red from the fires, possibly Surrey Docks. The nearer I came to home, I was afraid that I would find no home left. The conductor when I got off the tram, told me to keep on the road, in case of falling buildings. Home was about ten minutes walk from the stop. Bombers were above me and I took to my heels and ran. The road had recently been tarred and gravelled. I fell, scraping my skins and knees, ruined a new pair of stockings! (Clothes coupons were needed for them!)
I reached the house and made for the air raid shelter. No one was there. I waited until the bombers had gone and went to the gate in the fence between our garden and the neighbours. Mum and Dad were there in their shelter. They wouldn't call to me because of the bombers. They reckoned I would get to my shelter quicker than the other. Ron, my brother, had been evacuated. Imagine, a fifteen-year-old, naive girl in this situation!
I honestly think this was the first and last time I was scared all through the war and other events I had to face over the years. Like the time when we had incendiary bombs in the front and back gardens, I upended a heavy pot with a grapefruit plant in over one threatening to set the fence afire. I had grown it from a pip, was very proud of it. We had been warned not throw water on them, as they might explode.
The times the buzz bombs cut their engines overhead. You knew they were going to fall then. Once I came home from night duty to find my street cordoned off. The warder wouldn't let me go, until my mother came to the gate and waved to me. There was an unexploded bomb in the street.
All through the war years we had bowls and buckets in the top floor of the three story house. We had loose tiles on the roof which let the rain in.
At first when I came home from night duty, I would go to bed. If there was a raid, mum would wake me, I would go to the shelter with her. But I couldn't get back to sleep again, so I stopped her waking me, saying I would take my chance, I was exhausted from lack of sleep. The fact was, we were so used to the bombs and fires, we began to believe that was the norm. If we had a night free from raids, that was not normal!
At sixteen, I wrote to the GPO to apply for a job as telephonist, and was accepted. The first day I had to go to Old Street for training. At the weekend there had been bad air raids, especially the east end of London. I was climbing over the firemen's hoses etc. All the time I was there, the bombs were falling. It was very noisy. After a week I was sent to Faraday House, a few yards from St. Paul's cathedral. A much bombed area.
In those days it was the Trunk exchange. Callers had to dial trunks for calls outside London. It was very busy. When the training was finished I was put on the duty rota. The shifts were very funny times. One lasting for two weeks, we called up and down duty. From seven am to twelve noon, one day, the next day, twelve noon until seven pm. which meant in the winter I was going home in the dark and every other day, arrived in the dark. Eventually they built bedrooms with bunk beds in the basement. When we came off duty at seven pm we stayed there. There was also a common room and a canteen. The latter was on the seventh floor - the top floor of the building. The exchange was built on six floors, two switch-rooms to a floor. I worked on the third floor. One day, a buzz bomb cut the engines, we all stopped speaking, you could have heard a pin drop in the silence. A supervisor called out, "Get on with your work!" So, we did. Hard times!
One night when we were sleeping in the bunks, we were woken and told to dress and go to the common room. There was unexploded bomb in the courtyard between the four walls of the building. A friend and I decided to go back to sleep, fully dressed.
In the canteen there was no water, electricity or gas. For breakfast, we had a glass of milk, and bread and margarine, also marmalade. When we got to the switch-rooms, there were candles on the top of the seven-foot high boards! It was chaos, people had difficulty to get through to us, and we couldn't get through to them without difficulty. The bomb had severed the water, gas and electricity mains. I was very glad to get off duty, out of the mad house. In the night, buildings opposite us and all along the road were afire. I think it was 10th May 1940. It was a very dreadful night of air raids on London. Communications was considered an essential service, and we were not allowed to leave. Really, I would have liked to join the WRNS, but I wasn't able to because of working at the exchange.
I thought it was rather unfair, working during the air raids and not having any pleasure time, so I went to the cinema and to dances, causing my parents a lot of worry. When you are young, you don't think of that!
One day, when my mum was shopping a fighter plane machine-gunned the whole road, people were running and taking cover in shop doorways. I don't think anybody was killed. My mother was very shocked of course. We had several more buzz bomb situations. Then we had the rockets. But to me, the rockets were not so bad as the buzz bombs. We couldn't hear them coming, so the first we heard was the explosion. Then it was too late to worry. We could only hope the damage was not too bad. I'm sure there were more adventures, but owing to age and ill health, this is all I can recall now.
While working in the Admiralty, I met a marine, Bill, who became my boyfriend. When he went to sea, we corresponded. Thinking back, I think he was possibly on the Russia convoys. Meantime, I met an American, with a stupid name, Chuck, would you believe? He kept me supplied with candy and cigarettes, sometimes stockings. At that time it was hard to find any cigarettes, and sweets and stockings were on ration, so that was very good. A cousin of mine in the Canadian army visited my family and introduced me to a friend. So, now I had three boyfriends! The last letter I had from Bill, from New Zealand, he was thinking of staying there. Presumably he did as I didn't hear any more. The other two went their separate ways. I lost touch with them, but I wished them luck. I hope they survived.
Sometime after the end of the war, I met Spencer, who had been in the RAF. We married and had two sons. After eleven happy years, my husband had a fatal heart attack. My two sons were six and eights years old at the time. As I have said, a hard life.
I am nearly 80 years old now and a widow. My husband died in 1960 leaving me to bring up my two sons of 6 and 8 by myself. Two and a half years ago I had a stroke which left me with aphasia or dysphasia. This condition, which means I have difficulty with speech, spelling and language, was caused by damage to part of the brain which controls these functions. For about 2 years I had speech therapy to try to help correct these problems. After that period, the two therapists decided they could do no more for me, but they still keep in touch with me, which I appreciate and enjoy. For the last six months or so I have been having Acupuncture treatment, which seems to help in several areas. People tell me that I am speaking better and my vocabulary has broadened, but I am still unable to spell! I also feel that my use of language could be a lot better. The two things that I used to be good at were writing and spelling. Before the stroke, the war story would have been easy for me to write, as it is I hope that you can make sense of it. Ah well, that's life. I now write using the computer that my eldest son gave to me for Christmas shortly after I came out of hospital following the stroke. Before the stroke I knew nothing about computers, but now I use it all the time for writing my diary and letters to friends, family and others. However, I do find that if I don't use something for a while, I forget how to do it. My son comes to my rescue then.
This story was edited and corrected by my two sons, Brian and Jonathan Cuthbert.
Contributed originally by lee1934 (BBC WW2 People's War)
My earliest memories of my life were at Highbury Hill. I don’t remember leaving there to go to Ireland in 1935 and living in Inchicore, or returning, just being there.
My father was always without work in the thirties and so it was that his brother offered him employment and accommodation running a shop in a suburb of Dublin. The type of shop was commonly known as a huckster shop, it sold everything and “open all hours”. However we were unceremoniously evicted when my uncle took stock and found the empties my father had stored in various cupboards in the premises. People helped each other in those days and a relation by marriage, took us in and my younger sister was born in her house within a matter of weeks. That was December 1936. However my mother decided leave her with this saintly woman for 18 months, and return to London, where she would find work again and get a home together. A second reason was that I was sick with glandular TB and mother wanted to return to her mother and sisters, where she knew she would have a roof, and help with treatment for me.
My young sister came back to us in 1938 and we were looked after by a lovely lady and her daughters. We called her Aunt Agnes, but she was not blood relative. My mother had got to know her when they were both in service. My mother was twelve when she first met her and remained friends until Agnes and her daughters were killed with incendiary bombs at Highbury Corner in May 1941.
By 1939 we had a couple of rooms in Grandma’s rented house, the gas stove was on the landing. Auntie Bea and her husband and daughters lived above. She would also look after us as mother went from one day job to an evening job. Still my father was out of work and still drinking. The house was owned by Hammonds Butchers in Holloway Road, but Grandma lived there for 52 years, with various members of her family and lodgers that came and went over the years. Next door were the Miss Stones of the Ginger Wine. They were very gracious ladies and must have thought us a motley Irish crew, they were always sweet to us children.
I went to St Joan of Arcs at Highbury Barn by aged three. The church was a prefabricated building. I loved it there. Processions were held and the paths had lovely rose arches. I went back to look at it, I wish I hadn’t.
One day my sister and myself were taken to buy new winter outfits. Had I been older I would have thought it a bit premature in August..... and then directly to a photographer and had a studio photo taken, which I still have. Coat, bonnet for my sister and hat for me and both of us the gaiters with the button-up sides. There was, thinking now, some impending happening, though I cannot recall any conversation about the war. They didn’t talk to children then and we were still small. I was two months short of five and my sister not yet three.
I remember the gas masks being tried on and Grandma saying ‘old man Hitler’ wouldn’t get us, but little else until the coach in Holloway Road. We had our labels tied securely to our new coats and the Salvation Army band played “Wish Me Lucky as You Wave Me Goodbye”. My mother told me to keep hold of my sister’s hand. Off we went, I can’t tell you to which station, but do remember arriving at a hall in Cromer. There were kindly people and there were the others. Some people wanted children that were of a useful age....... not small children, and certainly not two small children. We were very tired and waited in the hall it seemed for ever, until someone grudgingly said they would have us.
Mother had rigged us out for the winter with our new outfits, but what else we were allowed to take I can’t recall, but small cases that would hardly take much and of course the gas masks. We had Mickey Mouse gas masks, which gave little resemblance to Mickey Mouse, they were red in colour with a rather strange long nose dangling in front.
We were not looked after. We would get a hunk of bread and wander most of the time. My sister fretted for mother and she spent most of the time locked in the woman’s cellar. It effected her all her life. I suppose it left its mark on me too, but I was the older sister, the responsible one, at nearly five. I don’t remember any particular ill treatment, except hunger and dirty. My mother came down to see us many weeks later and she had to take us to a cleansing centre as we both had scabies and fleas. There was a woman in a white coat, we had our hair cut off first, then we were put into very hot water and scrubbed with a very hard brush until raw. She then proceeded to paint us with some white substance with a very large brush, which stung like mad. My sister screamed all the while and mother consoled her this time, instead of m. We went home to Highbury Hill. The expected invasion of those weeks back hadn’t happened, or rather it hadn’t got going yet............
I have tried to think which came first, we had more evacuations but not yet.. We spent time with Grandma and Aunt Kitty, my mother was off working somewhere. Grandma never left the house, she spent her time making uniforms on her old treadle machine, when she had done her shift at the Ever Ready factory in Holloway Road. Kitty was on the buses, between them Aunt Agnes and Auntie Bea, we were cared for much as before the war. Auntie Kitty was very nervous and would not stay in the house and she would take the two of us down to the Arsenal Station to sleep. It was on one such night which had been very bad that I remember well. We came out of the station and clearly it had been a bad night, houses on the corner of Aubert Park had gone and dust and commotion everywhere. We got to Grandma’s house, the windows were all inn, but it was still standing, she opened the door with the inch tape still about her, covered in ceiling dust, but as calm as you like. Kitty said “mother I am worried sick about you, why don’t you come down with us”. Grandma’s answer to that was that she wasn’t going to hide in any shelter for a Corporal. Perhaps if Hitler had gone up the ranks a bit, a few pips etc., she might have.
My mother, though I didn’t know in the beginning had left my father, who stilled lived upstairs in Grandma’s house. She had “got together” with a gentleman she worked for who had a public house in Newgate Street. But not for long..... on December 29th 1940 it was burned down, when all around St. Paul’s was ablaze. That night we had a bed under the stairs, where we could see Grandma’s feet on the treadle machine. My mother and the gentleman who was to be our stepfather arrived early hours of the morning of the 30th. They had been sheltering in the cellars of Burnes Oats and Washbourne, Catholic Publishers somewhere in that area. Grandma had been singing Irish songs to us and telling about her “grand ancestry” Kearney Castle in Tipperary. She could have been telling us about Cinderella, but her stories were great. There was one about a neighbour of hers in Ireland, who would go in search of her husband after Duffy’s Circus arrived. Mick would go to help, with other men, erect the marquees. They would give the men a few jars for their trouble. She would take off to look for him complete with her straw hat and her apron. All the men had come back except her husband. Grandma said she would find him and place him in her ample chequered apron and carry him home. We laughed so much at her stories......
We were evacuated to Yorkshire, another mucky household, but they were not cruel. Also to Cromer this was definitely 1941. Lovely people, with a daughter who was a school teacher. She and her mother made us rag dolls. We collected sea shells and found crabs. They wanted to adopt us. We came home to learn that Aunt Agnes, Pat and Barbara had been killed.
Another ‘Aunt’ Doodie looked after us in Edmonton. Empire Avenue. They were a lovely family. She was the sister of Uncle Bill, father of Pat and Barbara. She became ill and died of cancer. She had two small boys and was unable to have us anymore, so on we moved again.
My stepfather sent us to a Convent in Tonbridge. I loved it there, but my sister was always fretful and wanted to go home. She was happy in Cromer and also with Aunt Agnes and her sister-in law in Edmonton. By 1941/2 my mother and step father were in the Pilot at Dungeness and it was there we went home on holiday from the Convent. It was a prohibited area for five mile radius and the Engineers built the Pluto line. Lesley Ayes (Aimes?) was the Minister for Food in the Area and arrived with so much ration books for mother, she couldn’t believe it. Little did she know how hard she would work in the Pilot looking after the top brass. She performed miracles on an old Aga and primus stove. The water had to be pumped in and they had a generator in the shed.
I went to so many schools during and after the war, that without that early start at St Joan of Arcs, I don’t know what would have happened. I was able to read at a very early age, which was a saving grace. I used to read to my young sister.
My Grandma was a First World War widow and she had to leave Ireland in 1923 with her children. I was later told in Clonmel that Cannon Walsh had asked from the pulpit if anyone knew where the Scully family were and that it was safe to go back. My mother was twelve.. The eldest girl went out to America into service with the Guggenheim family in New York. My grandfather is buried in Chatham Barracks, in a Royal Engineers grave, though he was never in the Engineers, he enlisted into the Royal Artillery in Clonmel, which was a garrison town. Grandma never said he joined the British Army, it was John Redmond’s Army.. He was one of a quarter of a million Irish who volunteered in response to Lloyd George’s appeal “help us win the war and then Ireland would will free”. He joined in October 1914.
There was sometimes bad feeling because Ireland was neutral in the last war. Sometimes someone would make a remark about it. My grandma would say “hold your head up, your not a nobody you’re a somebody”. I also remember when a bit older she would tell me not to do her shopping at certain shops because they had “No Irish served no Irish Employed” notices. As best my memory serves me, it was Sainsbury and David Greig. One a Jewish company and the other Scottish. Which must have been a bit wounding as a widow left with five children.
My grandma’s friends were first world war widows or, ladies trying to scratch a living that had fled Europe. One such woman, I can’t remember her name, though I can see her still, would come to the house with a case full of second-hand clothes. I would be stood on a chair or on the table, whilst the garments were tried on. Then the bargaining would start, what ever amount was suggested, grandma would say “that is a terrible lot of money”, but eventually the deal would be struck when the woman said “it’s all from nobility in Highgate you know”. That was good enough for grandma. The woman would wobble with laughter, as although short she was very portly. I was always curious about all her gold teeth, which grandma said ““they went in for, where she came from”..
I remember we played bagatelle with Father McCarroll after mass on Sundays. Going to Chapel Street Market with Grandma. She would put me on a queue, whilst she stood in line on another, telling me to get oranges, or whatever and I ended up with a tin kettle. “I already have one of those” she said. Having given up all the sound pots and pans, the tin kettle was the thing, constantly having to be repaired, with a disc in and outside, which burned through in no time. The gas mantle was precious too..... the Muffin Man on Sunday afternoons and the lamplighter who made his way down the hill. Despite all the sadness of the war, the cosiness at Grandma’s house, the big holy pictures looking down upon us, our bed under the stairs, what could possibly happen to us
Contributed originally by David Draper (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was born on the ninth of April 1939,in the Dick Whittington Wing of St. Mary's Hospital North London, to Florence Margaret and Albert Edward Worboys.
Of course I had no idea at that time of what lay ahead of me.
Years after it was all over, in my teens and in a moment of some weird flashback, I asked my mother, "Did she ever try to stuff me into a basket, when I was a baby ?" She looked at me strangely and said: "Why do you ask ?"
I was lying on my back looking up, as this thing came down upon me it covered the whole length of my body (little did I know then, that I measured about 18 inches in full at the time)
It was shaped kind of oval and I could see a pattern similar to an Easter egg.
As it came down on me I screamed my head off and fought against it in sheer terror..... then blackness.
My mother said: "I tried to fit you into a baby gas mask chamber, you were too big for it, you were about nine months old, you didn't like it one little bit "
My first memory of the war.
I cannot remember, times, dates or even the year in which my memories of the war occured. Strangely, they are simple, vivid flashes, with nothing either side to identify what was happening before or after. Albeit, they have been with me all my life.
My father led my mother, then me, followed by my younger brother John, down the passageway of our home in Landseer Road, (off Holloway Road, Islington) Outside the closed front door I could hear explosions. My father was about to open the door. He stopped suddenly and said: "Wait". There was a high pitched pinging sound outside the door.
After it stopped, we went out to the shelter.
I often wonder, now what would have happened if my dad had not recognised what must have been shrapnel coming at and hitting our front door. I think I was about 18 months old at the time.
We had moved into my Grandmother's house at number 1 KIngsdown Road, in the next street, off Holloway Road. Air raid shelters had been built on the road directly outside the houses all along the street. Brick and concrete,shaped like giant shoeboxes.
Whenever I smell green concrete, I remember those shelters.
One miserable morning after spending the night in our street shelter,my mother and I had emerged to see a sky absolutely filled with flack. I looked up at it, there was a fireman standing near a fire engine.
I said to my mum and pointing up at the flack," Who gets that stuff out of the sky, mummy?".
Mum looked at me and at the fireman, who was smiling, then she said"The firemen do,my love" I replied "How"? My mum seemed momentarily lost for words and then confidently answered,"They go up on their ladders and clean the sky with their hoses".
I was very young then but the vision that came to me of a fireman climbing high up into that sky on a ladder with a firehose to wash out all of those little black clouds, didn't somehow ring quite true.One look at the firemans grinning face convinced me that"Mum" wasn't being quite accurate with me.
Sometime, about when it all began, I was huddled against my grandmother in the corner of the street air raid shelter, it was dark and the noise of the explosions,close by, was terrible. I said to my grandmother: "Nan, who is doing this ?"
She said:"The Germans."
I conjured up an infant's image of fire breathing dragons, I could not comprehend that other human beings were creating such terror for me and my loved ones.
As the war went on and during nights spent in the air raid shelters, my nan and I became very close.
One of our favourite times was when the "All Clear' sounded after a raid (or as it was later, an uneventful night in the shelters) I would go to her and she would take my hands in hers and I would say "All Clear Nan," and she would smile at me and say "Yes,my lovely all clear."
Now and again amid the noise, flashes, bangs and occasional screams of it's occupants the door of the shelter would open and a white helmet with ARP painted on it's front, would appear, atop the tiny head of Mrs. White, the wife of the cornershop grocer, "Everybody allright"? she would enquire, The reply was always "Yes,Mrs.White we're allright " Warm, comforting thoughts and feelings for each other were a way of life by then.
After the war we would continue to get our groceries from Mr. and Mrs. White's shop and comiserate with and help her when her husband became ill and began taking terrible fits. She was only a tiny woman but she had a great heart and magnificent patience.
I had started school with my younger brother John, at Grafton Road infants, (near Seven Sisters Road, Islington) and there we were in the assembly hall with all the other kids listening to Miss Somper the P.T. mistress telling us that "We were not allowed to take cherries on the train, which was going to transport us to the evacuation centres." "The stones and wrapping paper will make too much of a mess."
Dutifully, my brother and I did not take cherries on the train. We were the only little tots that didn't. There were purple wrapping papers, stones and stalks from one end of the train to the other. My brother and I had none.
Was it Banstead, Burk Hampstead or some other place I don't remember exactly. I do know it was an evacuation home and that ache that had been in my throat since leaving my family in London, was there as usual.
One of the nurses at the home collected a large group of us littlies and shepherded us down across the playing field to a "monkey climb" . She then proceeded to place the other kids on the "climb" and then placed me in front of it facing her. There were some other people there with cameras and one of them put a blindfold on her and then she,(the nurse)made as if to try and catch me.
I had returned to my family in Kingsdown Road(I don't think the war was quite over at the time). There was may grandmother and my mother, at the kitchen table and there was this newspaper "The Sunday Pictorial" They were pointing at it, for me to look at the front page. There I was, playing "blindmans buff" with the nurse. A full front page.
Was it that same afternoon that, as we all stood there in that room,suddenly there was a massive whoosh of air and the windows seemed to buckle in and out like balloons. My grandmother screamed and then it was all over and quiet again. I didn't know what doodlebugs were at that particular time, I do now.
After the war, the bombed areas(we as kids called them debris)became our playgrounds. On them we attended concerts organised by the local "talents", built barricades and engaged in territorial gang wars, climbed into the attics and out onto the roofs of derelict rows of condemned houses, took the lead out of the windows of the burned out church and melted it down, etc.etc.
The burnt out church in question was Saint Pauls and once stood at the corner of Kingsdown Rd. and Stanley Terrace. It must have been a beautiful structure before the blitz but had been reduced by incendiaries, to a shell whose walls and internal pillars only remained. It's pulpit was filled with a small mountain of rubble which extended from wall to wall at each side.
The door of the church had gone and the brickwork so patiently and continuously erected by workmen to seal it off was constantly being removed, just as patiently, by us kids, so we could get in and play. The floor was usually covered by about eight inches of water from end to end and made an excellent obstacle course for traversing across on old milk bottle crates and other junk.
One day whilst playing there, I and my mates, for some inexplicable reason decided to dig away at the rubble near the pulpit. We started at the left side and before long to our wonder and awe, we realised we had uncovered an arched opening over a large concrete shelf, beyond which we could see what appeared to be a small room. We clambered over the shelf,into the room one by one and as I stood there, my eyes becoming accustomed to the dark, feeling like an explorer,as I imagine pyramid explorers might have felt, entering a mummies tomb, another, strange,familiar feeling came over me.
I was looking at the walls;
They were patterned in gold diamond lattice over a purple background that I had seen somewhere before. I forgot about it and I and my mates continued on with our usual activities of getting thoroughly dirty and wet.
Weeks, maybe months later, I was talking with my Nan and out of the blue I said to her: "Nan, have I ever been in the old church, before it was burned?" My Nan looked at me incredulously and said: "How did you remember that?" I said to her: "It was the pattern on the wall in a room we discovered next to the pulpit". My Nan was amazed, she said: "You were only a baby then, we went into that room in the church to get a food parcel".
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 John Brownbridge (BBC WW2 People's War)
I'm 70 now, but there are things about the war I shall never forget. It's strange how the war could be so scary at times and yet there were times when it was so funny, or even exciting.
Air raid shelter
Our air raid shelter was down the bottom of the garden. It was really hard work digging the clay out to erect it. Our neighbours put theirs facing the wrong way and so they had to add a big pile of earth in front of it in case their house was hit and the debris fell right up against the entrance.
By the time we got ours dug out and the corrugated sheets in position it seemed a complete waste of time. When were the German bombers ever going to come? My dad decided to use it as a sort of shed and he put the straw for the chickens we kept inside it. The problems this caused were that it all became soggy and started to smell, and even when we got rid of the straw you could still smell it. London clay wasn't exactly ideal for a shelter as it got ever so wet during the winter and, of course, that seemed to be the time when we started to use it as an air raid shelter.
The bombers arrived in due course. My brother and I had to go to bed at our usual time and it was horrible down the garden with the smell and listening to the guns firing and the bombs dropping. One night I got so scared that I couldn't stand it any longer. I got out and started walking up the back garden in my jim jams. As I looked around it was pitch black, but there were hundreds of search lights illuminating the clouds, and if a German plane happened to be picked up he didn't seem to have much chance of escaping. I almost felt sorry for these Germans.
Defending the garden with a spade
But for me, the most scary part of the raids was this: what would I do if an enemy pilot got shot down and parachuted into our garden? I spent ages working out where the garden fork was and wondering if I'd be able to hit him with the spade. And to make matters worse, the kids in our street started saying that the house next door, which was now empty because the neighbours had left for the country, was an ideal place for German spies. We were right next to the railway from Liverpool Street to Enfield Town. Across the line was the Edmonton County School playing field which would be ideal for parachutists. They even erected 12-foot poles to stop planes and gliders from landing.
One spring morning I was still in bed when my dad called upstairs before he went to work on his bike. He shouted out that a German aeroplane had been brought down by our guns. It had crashed nearby and its propeller had ended up in our garden. Crikey! That would be worth a load of shrapnel in a swap. I shot downstairs to see it and my Dad smiled and said: 'April Fool!' It took me weeks to get over that, but now it really makes me laugh.
Dog fights in the sky
On the other hand there would be the excitement when you could sit on top of the shelter and watch a dog fight in the clear, blue skies. The planes seemed to go whizzing round in tight circles and you'd see the puffs of white smoke when they fired at each other. Sometimes other kids' dads came home on leave and brought models of aeroplanes they'd made when they were off duty. I was very envious of them but my dad, who wasn't fit for service, worked in a furniture factory, making soles for clogs and sometimes gliders. He made all the kids wooden tommy guns which had good sound effects, a bit like rattles that football supporters used to have. I was very popular then, even if I did keep the best one for myself.
Mind you, the war could be funny at times. One day old Mother Gutteridge up the road came out and told us off for throwing snowballs and smashing her front window. It actually turned out that my friend, Ronnie Gutteridge, became the proud owner of a shell cap which had gone clean through their window and buried itself in the floor boards behind their settee. Mrs Gutteridge didn't show her face for ages after that.
I suppose the real problem in these matters is that what goes up always comes down. Most of the shrapnel we collected started off as shells being fired up into the night skies by our own anti-aircraft guns and then coming rattling down on the tiles of our houses.
One of the scariest moments I had in the war was to do with things going up and then coming down. One evening towards the end of the war my dad told me to go on my bike up to Tramway Avenue for some fish and chips. I had to cross the railway and then ride along Galliard Road.
As I was riding along with the shopping bag dangling over my handle bars I heard a noise like an old motor bike. And then I saw it. It was coming along Galliard Road straight at me. It was a doodlebug. And then the worst possible thing happened. The engine conked out.
I turned my bike round and pedalled like mad, watching it over my shoulder. But then the wind started blowing and it tipped sideways, turned and drifted out of my sight over the rooftops. In less than half a minute there was a massive thud and a column of smoke rose over the tops of the houses. To be perfectly honest I had the fright of my life but I couldn't help feeling guilty because I knew that some other poor blighter had copped it while I was still riding my two wheeler.
Contributed originally by Michael McEnhill (BBC WW2 People's War)
"And some are sung and that was yesterday
And some unsung,and that may tomorrow be".
Francis Thompson (1859-1907)
"Stop there!" A harsh voice came out of the darkening night.Susan McGinley brought her bicycle to an abrupt stop at the very top of the steep Black Lion Hill, Shenley.
Preventing her from going any further and shining his torch directly into her dazzled eyes, the village policeman surveyed his "catch!" Close up, he took in the firm set face with blue rebellious eyes. Perched on her head was a navy blue cap which matched her coat,of such length it draped her knees, outlining the sheen of fine, strong legs.
He pressed her with questions. "What was she about at this time of night with a war on? Where to? Where from?"
After giving her name, she told him that she lodged at the base of the hill with her married sister, but that she was originally from Altaneerin, in Donegal, if he would know where that was. She was going to her place of work until he had stopped her. She had still three more miles to travel to Clare Hall Hospital in South Mimms. She was a qualified State-Enrolled nurse in an urgent hurry to get to her work in time, war or no war, and attend to desparately ill patients.
The policeman showed no inclination to be rid of her or to listen to her entreaties as to the plight of her patients or her own personal position. Rather, on this cold night in the latter part of January 1941, the policeman officiously pounced on the fact that her rear light was not functioning, to which Susan McGinley weakly exclaimed that she had tried reviving her battery on the kitchen range, but it must be "whacked" and that she would have to purchase a new one.That was not good enough for the policeman who summoned her to appear before the Magistrates Court at Barnet.She would have to push her bicycle the remainder of the way to the hospital where she worked.
She struggled along the lane,fearful, solitary and weary.At times a rake of searchlights sent up pillars of light into the black sky to laser back and forth.At ground level anti-aircraft emplacements were ready to puncture the night air, the banter of the crews reaching her across the leafless hedges.
The Matron,Mrs Spaley, gave her a severe talking to when she arrived late. However,it was not until a few weeks later when Susan McGinley was fined ten shillings by the Court and her case had made the columns of the Daily Express that the indignant Matron gave full vent to her feelings."I admire your fine words which have found their ways into the paper, - 'as a nurse it was my duty to relieve the sick and suffering'. However,I take grave exception to the fact that you made the location of this hospital thoroughly well known to Mr Hitler and his cronies, and I, myself, and all my staff, will be forever up and down to the air-raid shelter from this time on.I've a good mind to sack you!"
She discussed this proposal with the Medical Superintendant, Dr Simmonds, who opined that it was for her only to decide. Fortunately Dr.Laird the surgeon of the hospital came to her support declaring that she was an excellent nurse and should continue to be employed by the hospital.
Thereafter, she lost herself in her work, putting her patients before herself.'Self' in those days was a luxury one could not afford, one's patients were always at the forefront of one's thoughts. The hospital at Clare Hall had moved from Clerkenwell and was originally devoted to the treatment of small-pox diseases and has a history of over two hundred years, being situated here in 1896. The incidence of small-pox was high in 1901, and the surrounding village suffered for which the hospital was blamed for the contagiousness of disease.
At that time nurses were recruited from the old Nurses' Co-operative Society at three guineas a week, a sum regarded as a high reward, for only the best nurses were to have charge of such a serious disease.
It was in May 1911, that Clare Hall Hospital treated patients with tuberculosis. It was used for treating advanced tuberculosis patients so there was an air of gloom and despondency about the place in 1935: 39% of the patients were discharged by death; with better investigation and treatment results were more cheerful and patients were happier. Although the known causation of the disease at this time had been isolated as Koch's Bacillus, it was still maintained by medical practitioners that one could not cure a fool of tuberculosis owing to the treatment being long and troublesome.
With the diminution of small-pox cases medical forces were directed against this more prevalent scourge and it took all the resources of the medical and nursing staff, both mental and physical, to forestall its ravages of the population.
USA Army Surgeon-General Bushnell's famous remark lies at the base of all treatment: "For tuberculosis we prescribe not medicine but a mode of life".
This is where Clare Hall Hospital and its nursing staff came into their own. As the disease was highly infectious the patients had to be isolated. Endless steadfastness, courage, self-discipline and self-denial were required of them. They were housed in a hutted sanatorium which was part of the Emergency Medical Service. The 'huts' were of brick construction with asbestos sheeted roofs.At the onset of the war it was adapted as a general hospital to meet the needs of the civilian casualties, acting as a base hospital receiving local and transferred air-raid casualties from London.
However, very soon the need for a special effort to combat tubercullosis under war conditions meant that all the beds were occupied with tubercullosis patients by December 1942, a total of 540 beds.
Surgical methods of radical character only began just before the war.
Susan McGinley worked throughout the war.There were several hundred nursing staff employed at the hospital during this time.Nurse McGinley tells me that at least half the nursing staff were from Ireland, 'from the four corners, as they say'; she herself enthuses that they indeed were a credit to their country.While others were fighting a mighty battle in Europe and in the desert sands of Africa and even further afield, she and her colleagues were fighting the furious tuberculosis disease, with no let up,in the sanatorium in South Mimms.
The nursing regime was arduous for the disease requires very skilled treatment, the esentials of which are: rest, both of mind and body, fresh air and sunlight, routine and discipline, and correct feeding. By its very nature of confinement, owing to the disease being highly infectious, the disease was doubly trying and the barrier nursing required scrupulous attention to the rules of hygiene. Patients were confined to to bed at night for ten to twelve hours, necessitating more blanket baths, more bed linen changes, and all this with very difficult and demanding patients.
Along with the tremendous bouts of coughing, pain and all round debilitating ill-health, the patients exhibited what was known as a TB temperament when they would be very irritable and show extremes of temper to the nurses or for that matter anyone else who happened unfortuantely to cross their firing line.
Nurses would suffer and be expected to take many a 'tongue-lashing!'At such times the patients could also 'act-up' when smuggled cigarretes would be secretly smoked under the sheets in their beds. They would also abscond by donning a flying jacket or army greatcoat or such like over their pyjamas and make haste for the 'Old Guinea Pub' a few hundred yards from the main gate with, invariably some nurses in hot pursuit. They would be read the riot act and threatened with immediate expulsion from the hospital.No doubt within a few days they would be welcomed back into the folds of tender and loving care again.
Dr. Simmonds, in a Medical History of Clare Hall Hospital says: 'With the decline in the incidence and mortality of tuberculosis the hospital should be used for pulmonary, cardiac and other chest conditions. Tuberculosis had been largely beaten at that time and the nursing staff deserve to be honoured for relieving the suffering of many thousands of patients and making known to people not only the essential cure of the disease but also the socio-economic origins in poor housing, environment, diet and life styles".
Now, there is nothing left to tell the tale, just the sycamore tree with fresh new branches, where the nurses used to sit many years ago.
There is a worthy adendum or supplementary history to this story surrounding Susan McGinley's exploits during World War 11.
The people of America alerted by 'The Philadelphia Inquirer' as to her predicament in being dragged before the courts at Barnet were outraged that this should happen to a valuable night-nurse during the blitzkrieg, of London.
About to enter the war themselves it was a subject of contention throughout America as to the conduct of the War. They went so far as to invite Susan to their country and promised to provide her with a new bicycle.She would be paraded in the great cities as the 'Florence Nightingale Flyer' who defied Hitler during the height of the Blitz determined to see to the wounded and dying serviceman injured during the war. A medal would be cast in her honour.
Years later we were invited to contribute to Guy Michelmore and Louise Bachelor's programme retrospective film 'Memories of War' but I am sad to say nothing came of it. There was talk of the film being too expensive.
Contributed originally by firststeps (BBC WW2 People's War)
WORLD WAR II
The Second World War started a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday. When, like all other London schools, the one I attended evacuated, I remained in London and obtained employment, ultimately being taken on to the staff of the Bank of England, where I remained for thirty years.
The first Air Raid Warning sounded. within hours of the declaration of war. Carrying the gas mask and identity card which had been issued when war became inevitable, I went with the rest of my family to the National Safe Deposit building in Queen Square, the shelter allocated to people living, as we did, in that part of Bloomsbury. It was considered a ‘safe place’ because, for security reasons, the building was reinforced, and the steel shelved storage areas were expected to give protection against falling masonry. (Later in the war it was demolished by a direct hit.)
In October 1939 we moved to a house in Highbury, which we occupied for over thirty years.
How to document the period from 1939 to 1945 is not easy to decide, especially as a day-by-day account would be boring, so I have opted for a subject format, avoiding, as far as possible. repetition.
Air Raid Shelters varied. Some were communal like those underground at Islington Green, Finsbury Square, and on the platforms of Underground Stations; also underground were the Anderson shelters of corrugated iron installed in private gardens; another type, similar to a cage, could be placed under a table; but the most popular in Islington were the windowless brick huts constructed in the street for general use, or in back gardens for individual households.
Because of the importance of the shunting yards at Finsbury Park an anti-aircraft battery was stationed there, and a barrage balloon installed on Highbury Fields. Despite these defences (or perhaps because of them) Highbury attracted the attention of the enemy, not only with conventional bombs, but also with sticks of fire-bombs, VI’s VII’s and Land Mines, so even those buildings that were not destroyed, lost ceilings and glass. To protect themselves from the effect of this ‘blast’ many householders. fixed thin material, such as curtaining to their windows with such proprietory glues as Glarpex, which only minimally reduced the light, while keeping the splintered glass together.
The ringing of church bells was prohibited.
Among the buildings destroyed by bombing was the historic parish church of St Mary in Upper Street, so St Mary Magdalene, in Holloway Road, became very popular for weddings, with brides taking up ‘bag residence’ with friends living in that parish.
To avoid giving help to enemy bombers at night a complete blackout was enforced. Streets were unlit, and a strict check kept on buildings to insure that no light should escape through windows and doors. So essential was this black-out considered that even torches used by people finding their way about the darkened streets were extinguished once an air-raid warning had sounded.
Some people wore bracelets engraved with their name, address, and religion for identification purposes in case of injury or death through enemy action.
Clothing of all types was in short supply, and could only be obtained by the surrender of ‘clothing coupons’, which was very hard on those who, having been still at school at the outbreak of war, had no reserve of clothes, so school uniforms were picket to pieces to be reassembled in adult styles; aunts were persuaded to give up pre-war evening clothes which were transformed into day wear; curtains which were not suitable for blacking out light made pretty dressing gowns to wear at night in an air-raid shelter; and young men coming home on leave frequently found that their only suit had been transformed into one for a sister To help women with these sewing tasks Make Do And Mend classes were organised, the most popular in Islington being at the Union Chapel on Compton Terrace.
Stockings were a constant problem as, before the invention of nylon, they wore out quickly, but if one stocking, of whatever shade, was still in reasonable condition, it would be put to one side, then, when several had been collected, they could be boiled together in a saucepan, from which they emerge the same colour. Alternatively legs could be painted with a suitable brown dye and a line drawn up the back of the leg to give the impression of a fully-fashioned stocking with a back seam.
Knitting was another way of eking out coupons, especially if a pattern was economic. If the same colour was used to make more than one pair of men’s socks, when the feet were beyond mending, one pair could be re-footed with the good wool from the leg of the other pair.
Using up scraps of pre-war wool made fair-isle designs fashionable. When this source ran out darning wool was used. To discourage this method of avoiding sacrificing coupons the manufacturers were instructed to cut the hanks of wool into short lengths, but clothes-starve women soon discovered that each strand was just long enough to do one row for anyone of average bust size, as long as the pattern was not too elaborate.
Service women whose cloths were provided, received some clothing coupons with which to purchase an outfit for their wedding, but for those who wanted a traditional white dress, these were insufficient, so brides in America donated their own wedding dresses to a ‘pool’ of clothes to be lent to brides from the women’s forces and nurses.
Food and other rationed goods
Most food was rationed, and that which was not was in short supply, but somehow mothers managed to feed their children and men folk, frequently by going without themselves.
Such items as meat, butter, margarine, bacon, tea and sugar were rationed by weight; the number of eggs and amount of milk varied, but was frequently as little as 1 egg and 1 pint of milk a week; for tinned goods, dried fruit, dried egg etc. everyone had an allocation of ‘points’ to be spent on whatever was available; As households had different requirements it was sometimes possible to economise with, say, tea and sugar, which could then be unofficially ‘swapped’ with other households for butter.
Fish, although un-rationed, was scarce, so if a fishmonger was known to have received a supply long queues quickly formed outside the shop.
Much ingenuity went into making interesting meals - a slice of corned beef, or Spam (a minces, highly flavoured ham-like product) could be oven baked between layers of carrot, beetroot and mashed potato (known as ‘Woolton Pie’ after the minister of food); the whole family’s ration of bacon rashers, stitched together could be cooked as a boiled bacon joint; birthday Victoria Sandwich cakes were made with dried egg and liquid paraffin, Christmas cake had Soya flour and gravy browning to hide the lack of fruit, and a tame rabbit, slowly baked, substituted for turkey at Christmas.
Sometimes a food parcel from relatives in Australia, Canada, South Africa, or USA, or brought home by service men who had been training in these countries, would bring great cheer, especially if it coincided with a wedding or other family celebration, enabling guests to be invited without the family going short of food for the next couple of weeks.
A limited choice of meals could be purchased in restaurants works canteens, state sponsored British Restaurants, and schools, while children under sixteen were given a drink made of cocoa, dried milk and sugar; expectant mothers and infants were entitled to cod-liver oil and a drink made from oranges; and those certificated as having a health problem related to died might, by giving up some other part of their ration, obtain extra milk and eggs.
Soap was another rationed commodity, but as shaving soap was exempt, many women used this instead, especially for removing make-up, which although not rationed, was in very short supply, so service personnel returning from abroad were encouraged by their women folk to bring toilet soap and cosmetic products home as presents.
The bombing of London left many people homeless. As an emergency measure Rest Centres were set up in church and school halls, and other large underused buildings, until more permanent accommodation could be found, usually in another part of the Capital. Fortunately there were properties whose normal inhabitants were living elsewhere. These were requisitioned, with several families sharing a house or flat. Most of these people, having lost everything, were dependent on the generosity of others for even the bare necessities. One retired East End headmistress had decided when war started to live with her daughter in Hampstead Garden Suburb. When ‘her school’ and the surrounding district was flattened she asked that her, now stored, furniture should be given to bombed-out families. This was done, and a few weeks later, two men appeared at her daughter’s house to thank her – both had been her pupils.
Pregnant service women, discharged from the forces, were not housed, so had either to return to their families, or if this was not possible, either hope to be taken in by a friend, or find a place to rent, but this last alternative was frequently a great strain on their meagre incomes.
Personal time was at a premium, so not a moment was wasted, especially when relatives or friends came on leave. The first question they would be asked was: ‘When do you go back?’ This sounds unwelcoming, but it was so that every moment could be enjoyed.
Dancing was the most popular form of entertainment, either at a services club, or a public dance hall (the Royal Opera House and Lyceum Theatres had both been turned into dance halls). For special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, dances were held in hospital halls of residence for which invitations were issued to men either on leave or stationed in London.
A number of theatres remained open putting on everything from reviews to the classics, and
cinemas offered frequently changing programmes.
Sunday afternoon poetry readings for those in uniform at the Stage Door Canteen, given by stage personalities attracted big audiences, but musical performances, other than piano recitals (the most memorable of which were those given by Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery) were rare, as were works of art as the contents of galleries and museums had been pit into store outside the Capital.
Keeping contact with friends and relatives serving abroad was another leisure activity. This took various forms, the most usual being the Airgram – a quarto-sized sheet on which the letter was written, photographed by the Post Office, and transmitted in a much reduced form to the recipient. The reduction in size had curious results, as when a relative serving in India, found a cobbler willing to make bespoke shoes that could be legally delivered in England without involving the surrender of clothing coupons, all that was required was that an outline of the proposed recipients feet should be provided. Unfortunately the wife for whom the shoes were to be made, instead of sending a full-price airmail letter sent the information on an airgram, which, when reduced by photography, was the foot-size of a new baby.
It seems amazing that the postal service was so efficient that letters, and parcels were delivered to every theatre of operation. The parcels would contain not only books and games such as chess, but also for the 8th Army in North Africa, cans of DDT.
Everyone, whatever their age, was involved in war work of some kind, even if it was only Digging for Victory, by growing vegetables in a garden, or on an allotment in the local park, stripping old cables into their individual parts to be used for making new cables, or giving their aluminium cooking pots to be re-cycles as aircraft parts Iron gates and railings were also taken towards the production of armaments, but these were commandeered without the consent of the owners.
Those under 18 were recruited to organisations such as the scouts, guides, and training groups run by the services, where they prepared for call-up by learning a variety of skills such as Morse code and first aid, and helped the civil defence services as messengers etc.
Over-18’s of both sexes were drafted either into the armed services, or some other form of work, unless, like myself, they were in a ‘reserved occupation’, when they did a full-time job, going on afterwards to duties as a fire-watcher, warden, fire-fighter, or nurse.
My normal timetable for those years will give some idea of what this meant.
In the hope of being called up and put into nursing, I had joined the British Red Cross at the age of 17, passed my first-aid and home nursing exams, and completed 50 hours work on a hospital ward. At the Bank of England my usual working week was 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 1 p.m. on Saturday. Monday evening was allocated for Red Cross lectures, Tuesday for work at a health centre (usually washing neglected children and seeing if they needed referring to a doctor); Wednesday evening was ‘free time; Thursday – ward duty until 8.30, then supper, and, if there was no air-raid, bed at the hospital, but on call, until 7.00 a.m.; Friday duty with another VAD at Archway Underground, where we had a hut at the end of a platform from which we dispensed first-aid to shelterers there, and at another station on the Northern Line; Saturday afternoon was free time, with an evening duty at the first-aid post in a Holloway cinema (where, with another nurse, I sat in the front row of the circle, and if not called to an incident, had to watch the film at least three times); Sunday morning brought another hospital ward duty, but the afternoon and evening were free.
World War II Ends
Although this brought great relief, for most people it was not a happy day. Everyone had lost a
relative or friend, so the overwhelming feeling was that of mourning, and many, like myself, took the opportunity of a day off from work to visit the grave of a loved one.
There was also the realisation that many service personnel might be transferred to the Japanese theatre of operations.
It was not until after V-J Day that people dared hope that, however slow the recovery, the future had been worth fighting for.
Contributed originally by chamberlaine (BBC WW2 People's War)
"I'm the king of the Castle. You're the dirty rascals". . The words were half shouted, half sung by Tommy Carroll, a six-year-old, standing atop a large heap of yellow building sand, it was both a boast and a challenge to the other young and very grubby boys, gathered around the base of the castle. The lads all wore short trousers and knee length socks down around their ankles. They had been playing with and around the sand for some time and it showed. Sand in their shoes, sand in their hair, sand covering the grazes on their knees.It was in the spring of 1940.
A communal air raid shelter was being built in the road outside numbers 97 to 107 Hemingford Road, Islington, London, N1. This was a little part of the preparations for the expected mass raids by the Luftwaffe.
The boys were too young to appreciate the dire times in which they lived and as boys of all nations will, they found some fun in almost all circumstances. As the builders had knocked off for the day, the boys naturally put the building materials to a good boyish use.Tommy was doing his dance at the top of his castle when one of the lads ran up the hill to dethrone him. After a brief struggle the lad came sliding back down. Another attempt was made without effect and then up went little Georgie Chamberlaine. Now it was Tommy's turn to take the slide to the bottom. "I'm the king of the castle. You're the dirty rascals" shouted Georgie. One abortive attempt was successfully fought off and then Terry Khober took a turn. Terry was victorious and this time it was Georgie's turn to take the slide. But he went down head first and in so doing struck his skull on the granite kerb at the bottom. His friends gathered around him to ascertain whether he was badly hurt, he had a bloody cut on the head. "Looks bad they said, we had better take him home." So a small procession went to 93, though he was quite capable of walking unaided, one boy on each side supported their injured comrade. They knocked at the door and presented Mrs Chamberlaine with her injured son.George was the youngest of Elsie Violet Chamberlaine's four children. He had come six years after the youngest of three girls, Elsie who was now twelve and at school. In answer to the enquiries of the concerned parent the boys said, "We were only playing on the sand Mrs Chamberlaine and George hit his head." "You boys know that is not a playground." she reprimanded them and took her son indoors.
Once the blood and dirt were washed from the wound with an antiseptic solution it was found not to be serious. Within half an hour, having had a slice of buttered toast with jam and that well known British elixir, a cup of tea he was back outside with his friends, sporting a white bandage which he had been instructed to keep clean and not play anymore on the sand pile, which instruction he immediately forgot.
There were three of these street shelters in Hemingford Road and another around the corner in Ripplevale Grove. They were squat looking buildings of brick and reinforced concrete. While being proof against blast they would not withstand a direct hit without serious damage to the structure and to at least some of the occupants. However they were relatively safe as compared with the houses. This was early days in the great conflict. Later the lads would stand on the steps of their houses, witnessing the skies to the south being turned red as incendiary bombs and high explosives dropped by the Luftwaffe turned the East End and the largest port in the world into a blazing inferno.
Hemingford Road was a different place then. There were never more than two cars parked in this street of about 200 houses. Much of the traffic, of which there was little, that came by was horse drawn. Games of cricket were played in the middle of the road, hopscotch was marked out in chalk. All these war children could think of was ways to enjoy themselves, their parents though were thinking about the war.
Mothers had to find how best to make meagre food rations go as far as possible with ever hungry young children to care for. The young ones did not realise it at the time but this was often accomplished by the mothers giving up part of their own ration for their children.
The Anderson Shelter
93 Hemingford Road was a substantial terraced Victorian house of four storeys with basement rooms. Part of a terrace built in 1846. Fred Chamberlaine, the father, worked at Harris Lebus in Tottenham. Lebus had been a furniture manufacturer but now it was an aircraft production facility building for Mosquito fighter bombers, an aircraft that was to become famous as the war progressed. Later they would also build Hotspur gliders to carry men and armour to the liberation of Europe. Fred would go off to work each morning very early, taking the workmen's bus which offered a cheap fare, and he would return late each evening. As the air raids intensified Fred became a fire watcher and with his comrades carried out fire watching duties on the roof of the local synagogue in Lofting Road. From this vantage point the fire watchers would spot fires and keep the fire brigade informed by telephone. After a sleepless night on duty he would then again be off to his job at Lebus. There was little rest for any able-bodied civilian.
Workmen came to put an Anderson shelter in the garden at the rear of No. 93. A hole of about 8 ft by 6 ft and of 4 ft in depth was dug and in this the shelter was erected, protruding about 3 or 4 ft above ground level. The sheets of corrugated iron were shaped so that the top was a semi circle, the structure was then covered with soil from the excavation forming a layer of about 18" deep. The builders erected a simple shuttering inside so that concrete could be poured to form a wall rising about 3 ft from the inner base. Almost as soon as the workmen left, the shelter flooded. Fred Chamberlaine dug a deep sump in the clay underneath to drain the water, he then made and fitted a floor of wooden slats, built a pair of bunk beds and placed a wooden wall in front of the entrance for protection from blast. Against the outside of that wall there was a rockery with a variety of flowers which could be seen from the basement kitchen window.At night during the Blitz Kreig, as the air raid sirens sounded their wailing tone, the family would get out of their comfortable beds and troop into the comparative safety of the shelter. Sometimes they would be joined by the Kays, a family who had the top part of the large Georgian house and preferred the Anderson to the street shelter. There might be as many as eight or ten people in this confined space. For lighting there was a hurricane oil lamp.The occupants would take turns resting on the bunks, two to a bunk laying head to toe, or sitting on the wooden bench. At some time an adult would go into the house to make a warm drink of tea or cocoa. To young George, sitting in the entrance of the shelter, the night sky was a fascinating sight, lit by searchlights and flares, there were barrage balloons all over and with the accompanying noise of the anti aircraft guns at Highbury Fields and the more distant crump of the bombs it was exciting.
Anti aircraft shells did not need a direct hit, they were designed to explode at the height and hopefully close to the aeroplanes. As the shells exploded in 'flak' a cloud of shrapnel or steel shards would be scattered and any Luftwaffe bomber close by would be at least heavily damaged if not brought down."Look Dad there's one in the search lights." "Yes the lights are locked on him for the gunners." "See, those are parachute flares. The Germans are dropping them to show their targets." "You Georgie come back in here." "Oh, its alright Mum.". "Your Mum's right. Come on inside, son. "George had a broken air rifle, given to him by his cousin Derek. He really wished it would work so he could have a shot at the huns. Though his dad told him that if it did work it wouldn't reach them anyway. Despite asking, his dad never did fix the gun for him, he said he didn't know how. But George knew his dad could do anything like that, he just didn't want to for some reason. Hemingford Road was not badly hit at that stage in the war. Even so the youngsters would find pieces of shrapnel laying in the road or even on the roof tops, where they should not have been looking. Some of the lads started collections of interesting items such as burned out incendiary bombs, bomb tail fins as well as the larger shrapnel pieces. Some of it was sold to the scrap merchants, enough would buy a cinema ticket.
Many Years later, George was talking to a German friend, Hans Bracht and Hans told of how when he was a child in Hamburg, he and his friends collected shrapnel to sell as scrap metal. Children are much the same the world over. What goes up must come down. One night, a house just around the corner in Ripplevale Grove was gutted by an anti aircraft shell which had failed to explode until it went through the roof, fortunately the family were in the street shelter at the time.
There were also underground shelters in Richmond Gardens at the top of Richmond Avenue and some in nearby Barnsbury Gardens. The underground shelters were a maze of concrete lined tunnels which provided a good play area for the boys. They played at Tommies and Huns, of course the Tommies always had to win. "I was a German last time, I don't want to be a German this time!"
Girls played too, they were nurses, some of the boys seemed to get wounded a lot. Another play area was the bomb houses of Sheen Grove and Box Grove just off Richmond Avenue. The houses there were not flattened at that time. Islington Boro Council did that after the war as they preferred to build a park rather than homes for the many homeless families on their housing list. These houses were gutted and roofless but at that time still standing. Floor boards were missing, they had been used by the youngsters to make push carts and by some of the grown ups to build garden sheds and the like. They made ideal club houses and the infant pretend armies could practice their house to house fighting skills. Clambering across rooves, climbing in and out of windows, running across boardless floor joists and trying to out manoeuvre the enemy. Terry Khober one day slipped off a joist and fell through two floors to the basement, so breaking a leg. But young bones mend quickly. The Armsby family lived in Ripplevale Grove. Mr Armsby was a coal merchant. Sometimes he would let his son Ronnie and a friend ride the pair of great cart horses that pulled coal wagon. They had a Morrison shelter in their house. This was a large dining table made of steel under which the family could retreat during air raids.
Later, came the Doodle Bugs and then VE Day with celebration street parties and bonfires.
Contributed originally by hemlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
The Three English Brothers French.
By Alan French.
Once upon a time, in a country called England, there was a very poor area in the London Borough of St. Pancras, called Somers Town. It was here, that three brothers were born. Their names were William, Thomas and James French. Sadly, their father died of wounds that he obtained during the dreadful Battle of the Somme, in 1916. This left their mother, now a young widow and parent, having the unenviable task of having to make ends meet, like a lot of others, in a very hard and tough environment. Eventually, their home was demolished. I believe this was due to a government scheme to smarten up the area. The French’s found themselves acquiring new accommodation, which was, believe it or not, next to Pentonville Prison, in the Caledonian Road, in the London Borough of Islington. The residence was known as Burns Buildings. It was possible that at a certain vantage point at this address, the prisoners could be seen exercising in their yard. That is providing the warden could not see you.
Their mother, Harriet, never remarried. As time progressed, their lives went down each respective path. The one crisis which was common to them was the outbreak of what became another world war.
Their mother survived this dreadful time in human history, and died during its post war period.
The following is a brief as possible account, of what happened to the three brothers during the conflict.
William. Known by me as Uncle Bill. And possibly in some circles as Watford Willie. :-
Uncle Bill, when leaving school, forsook a potential career with Marconi. Instead he worked for the local railway’s, road haulage service. Originally with horse and cart, and subsequently by motor vehicle. This job prevented him, upon the outbreak of war, from serving in the armed forces. The job had a reserved occupation status, as it was deemed valuable to the war effort. So in his spare time, he became a member of the Home Guard. (Dad’s Army.) In this capacity, he found himself on duty, in a park near Buckingham Palace. Here he manned guns. Although it is doubtful that the gun shells ever reached the range of the respective target, it did boost the morale of people who felt that something was being done in the interest of their defence.
I have heard that possibly due to the fact that his employer required him, he was unable to join the army as he wanted, and be alongside with his youngest brother, Jim.
Uncle Bill was a family man. He had a wife and two children. His wife, I knew as Auntie Anne. His two children, a girl and boy, were named after their parents. Uncle Bill never spoke much of his Home Guard experiences, as far as I am aware. After the war, life resumed back to normality. Late in life, he moved from Somers Town.
However, his son, on one occasion, as a wartime evacuee, attended a church. When the collection plate came round to him, he found he had a minor problem regarding money. He therefore, made his donation and then, quite innocently, took some change from the collection plate. I think it best, at this point to move on to the next brother.
Thomas. Known by me as ‘Father’ and to my cousins as Uncle Tom:-
He was the second oldest brother. As mentioned elsewhere, he planned on joining the Royal Air Force. But his employer eventually stepped in, as they required him for their contribution for the war effort. They were a leather firm based in Somers Town, with the name of either Connolly, or, Colony Brothers.
I have heard him say that when he went to enlist in the R.A.F. he was told that he was reported missing. Obviously, it was someone with the same name.
Because he did not become one of the ‘First of the Few’ he became a Fire Watcher.
I gather my father may have been asked to supply a character reference for someone, who it was felt should not have been serving in the armed forces, and so was causing concern to certain people. I regret the full details of this are not known to me. Therefore I am not able to say anything further regarding this matter.
Although I have heard my parents often referring to the war, it is not until I became involved in this project, how little I know of his actual wartime activities. This seems to be a common situation.
My parents lived in Islington during the war. Originally, in Barnsbury and subsequently the Holloway region of this London borough. This is where I was born. My mother’s name was Rosina or Rose for short. The reason why they moved from Westbourne Road to Madras Place was because they were near, or, at the top, of their dwelling. This was not an enviable position to be, should they have had cause to evacuate the premises, in an emergency.
I, however, must be grateful to my father on one particular occasion, when our address caught the blast of an explosion. My father instantly grabbed me from my portable tin bath. Had he not done so, I, as a baby, would have been lacerated. For bits of glass went in the water. I am indebted to that man for this action.
We eventually, in 1950, moved from London to Hemel Hempstead.
After my father’s death, many years later, I did come across a letter that was possibly used as a reference, praising him for his loyalty and reliability as a Fire Watcher. I have a feeling that should he be alive today, my father would have a very interesting story to tell.
For not only saving me, but on behalf of anyone else he may have helped, I must owe him a debt of gratitude. Thank You.
James. Known by me as Uncle Jim:-
Uncle Jim was the youngest of the three brothers. He, like his two older brothers, had a sense of humour. He was a very popular member of the family. It is therefore with some degree of sadness, that I have to say what I have to, during this narration.
He was the unfortunate one of the brothers. He saw action, much to the detriment of his health.
His wife, I knew as Aunt Flo. His eldest child was Brenda. When she was old enough, but still a toddler, Brenda would sing ‘Pistol Packing Mama’ in the air raid shelter. (I wish I had a record of her performance.) Her brother Jimmy was born after the European segment of the war had ended, but the Japanese part was still on. During the now peacetime, two more daughters came on the scene. These were Pam and Jackie.
Uncle Jim served in the Royal Fusiliers during the war. His love of football earned him a place in his unit’s team. (Well, after all, he did live near Islington’s local football team’s stadium: Arsenal.) He at one point became a corporal. It is known that during his army career, he was billeted somewhere on the European continent where there was a little French girl. The soldiers, I gather, would sit her on their knees and try and teach her some simple English.
But war is a gruesome business, and sooner or later, niceties vanish. Uncle Jim’s unit was involved in an operation, shortly prior to the action of Arnhem. He was, somewhere along the line, wounded. He was in a snow covered ditch. We do not know where. He was mistakenly, left for dead. Who knows what thoughts went through his mind, as he lay there? Not only wounded, but he had now contracted snow blindness. How close to death? No-one knows. How long did he lay there? I don’t know. Eventually, a booted foot belonging to an American soldier, trod on him. This caused Uncle Jim to groan. This saved his life. He was mistaken for a French Canadian and sent to a hospital for Canadian soldiers. Again, I am not certain where the hospital was. It was during this stay that the Arnhem campaign was in full swing, causing horrific casualties. Some of those casualties were admitted to the same hospital as Uncle Jim, who, in turn, heard the terrible cries of pain from those who were badly burned. At length he was transferred from mainland Europe, to his native England. Oxford, in fact. This enabled him to be visited by his friends and relations. He was a patient for some time.
Eventually, he was discharged from the army. With his discharge papers was his pay book. It read, “Services no longer required.” His army mates wanted to know what to do with his kit. He issued instructions for them to sell it and have a drink on him. The experience left him very bitter. So bitter, that he refused to receive his medals. I must admit, that I think that the army’s phraseology in his paybook seems too abrupt and cold. I appreciate that on medical grounds they had no option but to discharge him, but I think they could have put it more delicately. It could still have been short. But as the wording stands, it displays no human depth or gratitude to a man who had fought and suffered for his country. It achieved the adding of metaphoric salt to an emotional wound, which became soul destroying in the process. Possibly to the extent of a de-humanization factor, leading to contempt. I feel angry and emotional myself, as I relate the story. I can well understand Uncle Jim’s bitterness and frustration. He was more than a name, rank and number. He was a flesh and blood human being.
Uncle Jim’s sight did return. But the snow blinding experience did pose problems on occasions. With the progression of time, and certainly in his very late years, his sight badly deteriorated.
In the late 1950’s he moved from Islington. The penalty, if you pardon the expression, was that he was not close to the Arsenal Football Stadium. He eventually retired from his maintenance job with the London Underground.
Although some details of his army experiences were known, many were not. He did not want to talk about them. However, it is after the sad death of his wife, my Aunt Flo, during the closing months of his own life, that he started to open up on the subject.
Uncle Jim fought for his country, and peace, as a soldier, during World War 2. In peacetime, he lived for his family. Here his services, I am pleased to say, were required.
There you have it. Three brothers who lived through two dreadful world wars. Each of them raised their respective family. Each had their ups and downs, like most people. I am pleased that I both knew, and was related to them.
But was the effort worth it? Did the achieved peace, work? Did civilization live happily ever after? That, my dear fellow members of the human race, is now up to you.
Copyright Alan French. May 2005.
By same contributor:
Alan French: War Baby: Interview . Parts 1 & 2.
Uncle Jim: Send Him Pictorious!
The White Figure. (A true wartime ghost story.)
Handed to Hemel Hempstead Library in conjunction with the BBC’s People’s War Project, May 12th 2005. Subject to conditions related to this project.
Contributed originally by Billericay Library (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was born in a two bedroom flat in Shoreditch. I was the youngest of three children. My sister Beatrice but called Sis was three years older than me and my brother Vicki was three years her senior. My father, who was ten years older than my mother, suffered form a stomach ulcer and successive haemorrhages necessitated his removal to hospital at frequent intervals. Even when in good health, this being the years of depression, work was hard to find, and money was often a cause of dissension between my parents. Even so, from old photographs we all appeared to be plump and well cared for.
Hamilton Buildings, as our flats were called, had a large asphalt playground in front of them, gardens were non-existent. Our complete surrounding consisted of grey brick scooters out of orange boxes with ball bearings for wheels. Everyone knew everybody else in these flats, which was not surprising as none of them had bathrooms or toilets. These, meaning the toilets, were at the end of a passage and they were shared by at least four families.
I started school just after my third birthday. This was quite a usual practice at the time, as it enabled the mothers, some of whom found it easier to find employment than their husbands, to leave their children. I cannot remember much about school except that anyone naughty enough to swear was taken to the washroom and made to rinse their mouth out with carbolic soap. I think this must have deterred them for life.
My father’s family who lived next door to a church in St. John’s Street were very religious and, although to the best of my knowledge he never darkened a church door, we were all duly dressed in clean, white ankle socks and packed off there each Sunday. After church we visited our grandparents and on the way home we stopped at a pub in the main road, where by this time on a Sunday my father could be found and where we were sure to get a glass of lemonade.
About the middle of 1939, when it became obvious that a war was inevitable, arrangements were made for the whole school to be evacuated. We were issues with gas masks and out clothes were packed and deposited at school and each day we went to school with a fresh pack of sandwiches just in case it was the day to go. No one, not even the staff, knew our destination. It never ceases to amaze me that so many parents were prepared to go along with this. Three days before war was declared, off we went in a long line, with our bags and gas masks and a label stating out name tied on us to Liverpool Street station; that evening our train came to a halt at Hunstanton in Norfolk. Here we were out in coaches and driven around the town and were literally dumped on anyone with sufficient room to accommodate us.
My brother and sister, five other children and myself were placed in the home of a well to do spinster who lived in a large villa on the outskirts of the town. She protested strongly to the billeting officer at the imposition of having us thrust upon her. He assured her that he would do his best to find us other billets as soon as possible. She had a plump housekeeper named Mrs Williams and we were relegated to her charge in the kitchen while she withdrew to her drawing room.
Our parents were informed of our whereabouts and on the Sunday my mother and father arrived to see if we were alright. Such was the nature of our unwilling hostess that she would not even invite them into the house. Dad was furious at being treated this way and was all for taking us straight home again but my mother, fearful about the war, prevailed on him to let us stay.
After three weeks of trying to cope with eight children in her kitchen, Mrs Williams protested to her employer, who in turn protested to the billeting officer, and then my brother and the three other boys were taken to another billet in the little village of Old Hunstanton three miles away. So our family was broken down one stage further.
My sister and I stayed here for about two months, and then late one autumn afternoon, we were also taken to a new billet in this village. It was about five o' clock and already dark when we arrived at the tiny thatched cottage. The door opened to reveal a short old lady who held an oil lamp in her hand; her hair was scragged back into a bun and her face withered and wrinkled. I was terrified of her. To me, six year old with a vivid imagination, she looked just like an old witch. I clung to my sister and it was weeks before I regained the confidence to let her out of my sight.
Granny Matsel, as the old lady became known to us, was a very good old country woman and she cared for us very well. Mt fear departed and I began to take notice of the countryside around us.
The winter came and was very severe with a very heavy fall of snow. An eight foot snow drift blocked the lane, cutting us off from the other end of the village. The village pond froze and the children made a long slide on it. I think this must have been my first experience of snow and I was delighted with it. All the trees and bushes coated with frost made everything look like fairyland. We settled down here very well. We went to the local village school and the old Norman church. Every Saturday we went to the cemetery to tend the grave of Granny's husband. Everything in this cemetery was so well kept and peaceful that death held no terror for me. Somehow the sense of oneness with creation, which country people seem to possess and which gives such tranquillity to their natures came into me and I was happy.
The spring came and to me, a city child, it was like a revelation. To walk through a wood and discover a beautiful blue periwinkle hiding under a leaf and to find that elderberry stalks when cut open contain a deliciously spongy substance which could be used as an eraser, were things that gave me so much childish pleasure. Spring turned into summer and everything was fine until some beaurocrat decreed that all the evacuees in the outlying villages were to go back to town, where a large residence named Hatfield House had been obtained as a school. Our original school which had come from London was to be reconvened. Granny, who had grown fond of us by now, fought hard to keep us, but all to no avail. The green Rolls Royce, loaned to the W.V.S. for the duration of the war, arrived and we were whisked away.
Fate was kind again though and we arrived at the home of Mr and Mrs Page, Granny Page and their eighteen-year-old daughter Olwen. This family was very good to us and once again we began to settled down. We were given our own jobs about the house, for which we were paid pocket money, we joined the brownies, in fact we did all the normal things that little girls do, but not for long. Mrs Page became ill and it was soon obvious that this was a serious illness. So reluctantly they had to say we must leave.
We moved further down the road to the home of a woman called Mrs Crown, who had a husband and three grown up sons. Mrs Crown did not really want us but had agreed because of Mrs Page's condition. We were not being properly cared for and soon the school informed the billeting officer. She visited Mrs Crown and pointed this out. Mrs Crown said she hadn't realised that she was responsible for all our washing as well as everything else. We had been there six weeks so you can imagine the condition we were in.
Hitler came to our rescue when one night a stray German bomber, as it headed homeward across the North Sea dropped a solitary bomb and it landed smack outside our house. We awoke to feel the plaster form the ceiling falling on us. When we tried to get out of bed, we found the weight of the plaster too much to shift. By now Mrs Crown was out of bed and standing on the stairs screaming hysterically, 'The stairs are gone, the stairs are gone.' While we struggled to free ourselves form the bedclothes and her husband tried to pacify her, one of her sons felt his way along the banisters and in the darkness gingerly tried each stair in turn and found they were, in fact, intact.
Hunstanton, being a holiday resort in peace time, now had many empty houses and one was quickly found for Mrs Crown and her family and with the job of making a new home for herself and her family, she had a legitimate excuse for asking to be relieved of us.
My father had by now received the school report on our condition and had decided that my mother should apply for a release from her job at the Air Ministry and come to Hunstanton to look after us herself. Holiday accommodation was very cheap to rent so a lovely four bedroomed bungalow, which stood only a hundred yards back from the barbed wired east beach was obtained and we all gladly moved in.
My brother was brought form his billet and my father came to see us every alternate weekend. This worked well for the whole of that summer but by autumn Mum could see that Dad, who was supposed to be on a strict diet because of his stomach ulcer, was not looking after himself properly and his health was deteriorating. One day she met a young army wife, who, with her two young children, rented a very large flat over a butcher's shop in the High Street. Between them they agreed that we should all live in this flat together. This would help the young woman financially and enable our mother to leave us at weekends and go to London to take care of Dad. His health continued to deteriorate and soon after Christmas she decided we would have to go back into billets again.
My brother, who was fourteen and old enough to leave school, went back to London with her and we went to live with an old spinster called Miss Hunt. Miss Hunt already had two other evacuees, both girls, named Jean and Vera and it was really too much work for her to look after us all properly.
About this time, the school discovered that a number of pupils had ringworm of the scalp. We were all examined and I was found to be infected so, along with about ten others I was taken several miles away to an infirmary. Here we all had our heads shaved and there (liberally daubed with Gentian Violet) we stayed for three weeks. We must have looked a pathetic sight, a ward full of little baldies like a row of coloured Easter eggs. The after being pronounced clean, we were issued with new clothes from the W.V.S. Mine included a navy blue raincoat and flat black boys' shoes. Thus attired the shorn lamb returned to Miss Hunt's.
One day a letter came for Miss Hunt; she gasped as she read it but hurriedly put it away in her apron pocket. All through tea she was fidgety; she kept getting up from the table and going out into the kitchen for no apparent reason. At last, as we were all clearing away the tea things, she sent the other two girls into the kitchen and said, 'It's no use, I must tell you, your father has gone to heaven.' So Dad died and miserable and uncomforted we stayed on at Miss Hunt's and our family was broken down again.
At Whitsun Mum came to see us. She looked marvellous, all dressed up in a navy pinstriped suit with a little hat and a beautiful Silver Fox fur. We were delighted to see her looking so grand; it never occurred to us in our naivety, to wonder where these things had come from. We asked if we could come home but she explained that she was going to move and we would have to wait until she was settled at the new house. We waited all that summer and autumn and then in November Miss Hunt decided she could not manage any longer and wrote to say we would have to go back to London. So just before Christmas, bursting with excitement to be going home to see Mum and our brother, we returned to Highbury.
The house we were to live at in Highbury was a four storyed house which had different tenants living on each floor. It was owned by a diverse pair of Jewish sisters who lived on the ground floor. The elder sister was frumpish and strictly religious, while her younger sister, a peroxided blonde, was definitely liberal. On Saturday, strictly in accordance with the law of Leviticus, no fire would be lit by the elder one, so her sister, before going out to enjoy herself for the day, would light the fire and I would be paid a shilling to go down and poke it for her.
When we arrived here, we looked around the house. We occupied three rooms on the first floor. One small room was my brother's bedroom. One large front room was my mother's and our bedroom and the other room was a kitchen cum living room. We asked where our brother Vicki was and were told not to disturb him as he wasn't feeling well. When we asked what was wrong with him, she explained that Vicki had hit her so she had asked my Uncle Jack, who lived in the next street, to come and deal with him as he was six foot tall and more than she could manage. Uncle Jack was a bad tempered and sadistic man at the best of times and with an open invitation from my mother to come round and give him a hiding, had done just that. It was three days before he came out of his bedroom and when eventually he did appear, his face was swollen and blue with bruises. I wondered why he had it her and it wasn't long before the answer appeared.
Bill Daycott, a short, dark haired French Canadian soldier of the Black Watch regiment, arrived, complete with food parcels, on the Friday evening. It was obvious that he was expecting to stay for the weekend. That night, I slept in the armchair and Sis slept in the camp bed while Mum and Bill slept together in the big double bed. With the puritanical moral vision of youth, which sees things as clearly as either black of white and not as mid-grey, which age and compromise blend most things to, I was shocked and disgusted by her behaviour, jealous also that someone else was receiving the affection that I felt so deprived of. I began to understand things better now, the fur and my brother's behaviour. Everything began to come clear to me; I was growing up fast.
We asked if we could see Dad's grave and one day Mum took us to the cemetery at Highgate. The chaotic arrangement of the mammouth pieces of monstrous monumental masonry in this place, with its General Booth obelisk and Karl Marx bust and innumerable winged angels, contrasted so strongly in my mind with the peace and orderliness of the cemetery in Old Hunstanton. It took us nearly an hour to find Dad's grave and when we did, I was filled with incredulity that there were seven other people all in the same grave. Communal lavatories I had grown up with but communal graves was something that at nine I was not psychologically prepared to accept. The peace about death I had experienced had now departed and I shuddered every time a funeral passed me, which happened frequently in war time London. Funeral parlours advertised their services with the inexpensive in a prominent position. Not that they needed to advertise as there was no shortage of customers.
Contributed originally by hemlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the Peoples War web site by Hertfordshire Libraries working in partnership with the Dacorum Heritage Trust on behalf of the author, Mr Alan French. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I am uncertain as to whether I was present during the following tale, for the event I am about to relate, was experienced by my mother. Let’s face it! If I was conceived prior to this happening, it could be intelligently argued, that I was there. Even if it were by what some people might term as a small technicality. On the other hand, that may not have been the case. Irrespective of my possible presence, my mother unfortunately, did experience another presence, one that absolutely terrified her whole being. One that, pardon the expression, was liable to haunt her, for the rest of her life .
It took place in the London Borough of Islington, during the dark days of World War Two. My mother, whose name was Rosina, or Rose for short, was what was termed as a volunteer fire watcher. By day she worked, as far as I know for Cossor’s, at Highbury Corner, a firm which manufactured wireless/radio and radar equipment. Therefore, she was involved in doing some very valuable work. In fact, deliberate or not, possibly due to the nature of the firm’s products, the premises received some very serious war damage, leaving a most terrifying crater in the ground, where there had been a substantial part of the building. My mother could be a very compassionate and conscientious person. She was probably more conscientious than this story implies. Although, as we are about to discover, she did have some relapses.
My father’s name was Tom. He was a very honest and trustworthy person. He was also very conscientious about his responsibilities. His ambitions to perform his duty in the Royal Air Force were eventually quashed by his employer, a leather firm, called either, Connolly, or Colony Brothers.
This firm was based in another part of London, named Somers Town. Therefore he also eventually became a volunteer fire watcher, when not working. This enabled him to still do “his bit” for this dreadful war. On the night in question, my parents dwelled in a small turning named Madras Place. It was sandwiched in between Liverpool Road, at one end of the street, and Holloway Road, at the other end. There were also two side turnings that led to the inside of Madras Place. They were, Morgan Road and Ringcroft Street. Opposite, was a church called, Saint Mary Magdalene. The church grounds could be described as part park and part gardens, containing the occasional tombstone. The whole area was often referred to as the Chapel of Ease. There was, and still is, as far as I know, a low wall bordering some of the ground. The metal railings surmounting this wall were removed, and subsequently melted for whatever requirement necessary, because of the “war effort”. Despite this, the grounds were locked up at night. This was an interesting procedure, due to the fact that anyone, wishing to gain access, could quite easily lift their leg up over the said wall, and then follow up the action, with their other leg. The grounds may well have looked attractive to the eye, but one thing some people may have considered spoilt the view, was the small public toilet constructed within the wall. Although, bearing in mind that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it must have been transformed into a beautiful sight to have beheld, and occupied, should it have been necessary to utilize the toilet’s facilities in an emergency.
I am not sure where or what my father was doing on the night in question but although he was no doubt doing his best where needed, he was still unavailable, which meant that my mother had to report for duty on her own. Self conscious of this fact, and considering herself a respectable married lady, she decided not to report, and carry out her fire watching function on the front doorstep of her dwelling. Should anyone query her actions, her logic was that she was performing her duty. Albeit from the entrance of the house was immaterial. She was still looking for fires, wasn’t she? Furthermore, there did not appear to be a lot happening that night. It did not seem that anything was likely to happen either. So what were the odds? The doorstep was her post. Whether the other fire watchers would see it that way, was another matter. Oh Dear! She would soon be sorry for her decision. It happened thus:-
She stood as planned. Nothing significant seemed to be happening. At length, this situation changed. From a distance came the sound of explosions. Obviously, at least one air raid was in process. It did not sound very good. She felt that someone, somewhere, was “getting it bad” that night. Apart from that, in the immediate vicinity, all seemed quiet. Or was it? For after some time, she thought she heard something. Nay! She did hear something! It was rather like a rustle. There! It had occurred again! It seemed to have been emitted from the grounds directly opposite her standing point. Still remaining on the doorstep, she peered over into the direction of the Chapel of Ease area, but could not detect anything of significance amid the dim light and shadows. Most of the dimness was due to the building of Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church and the trees within the grounds. During the daytime, this was a pleasant spot, but tonight, it started to become a bit too creepy. In fact the atmosphere was very macabre. There it was again! It was definitely a rustle. This time my mother was more certain from which direction the sound came. It was no good dismissing that the sound’s identity was, for example, a bird or some other harmless creature. After all, this was war time. She was on watch. It was her duty to see if she could confirm what the cause was. For all she knew, Adolph Hitler’s plan to invade, might have already started here, in the Holloway Road region of Islington. And so she once again, bravely, stared as best she could, opposite. This time, from her vantage point, her eyes scanned more deeply into the grounds. It was when she peered more to the left, where she had possibly not glanced before, she experienced what must have been one of the most frightening sights in her life. There it was! A very tall shining white figure! Such a conspicuous contrast to the surrounding area’s darkness! The apparition was too tall for the average tombstone, but more alarmingly, it was also too tall for a living human being. The sighting was so eerie, it must be a ghost! What other explanation could there be? It was definitely a phantom- like figure. Oh Dear! The possible reality of the situation had started to sink in. Despite her fear, she nervously accepted that she was witnessing a spectral sighting. A supernatural experience was not one that she wished. My mother was of a nervous disposition. In fact, she could be sometimes exceptionally highly strung. Looking at a ghost whilst performing fire watching duty from her doorstep was not what she needed. She required something to calm her down. She could utter no sound, for her vocal chords became useless. She could not move. She could only stand, transfixed in stoic silence. Then something else strange started to happen. It was a condition that she had heard of, but as far as I am aware, had not experienced. She claimed that she actually felt the hairs on her head move. My mother firmly believed that they were stiffening and standing on their ends. That is how terrified she was.
I personally, find this aspect of the tale most intriguing, as she was wearing a metal helmet upon her head at the time. I shall refer to this phenomenon later.
I am not certain as to what happened immediately after this incident, but one evening, my mother told the story to some visiting relations. Irrespective whether they considered the story being true or a joke, they were unaware they too, were in for a shock. When the front door opened, for them to depart at the end of their visit, they all jumped back in amazement. There, opposite, in the Chapel of Ease, was this same strange white figure!
I can assure anyone that the story is true. But is there a rational explanation as to validate this tale? Or is there a more sinister truth that will fill one’s emotion with unease? In my opinion, there are fascinating facets to this narration that require explanation.
One explanation, concerns the hair standing on end. At the time of writing, I view this from a new perspective. Yes, I agree that it is possible that my mother might have utilized poetic licence, when telling the story. I also have considered the genuine possibility that her hair may have moved beneath her hat, albeit, in a limited fashion. But now I realize that inside that style of helmet, there was a design enabling the wearer to feel more comfortable. Inside the rim was a leather band which encircled the head. There was also a lattice system, constructed from soft material stemming from inside the leather band. This enabled the lattice to rest on top of the head. It also helped prevent the wearer coming into contact with the metal of which the main part of the helmet was constructed. I personally think that any unfortunate person, experiencing something that was exceptionally terrifying to them, causing their hair to move due to a nerve condition, even wearing a metallic helmet, could well be telling the truth. Their hair would have ample space to move through the gaps, within the lattice framework. There was still some room above the framework, and the helmet’s main metal structure. Therefore, the hair could continue to pass through this lattice, up to the inside of the domed shape roof of the helmet. However, I doubt that the stiffened hair could contain sufficient strength to move the hat off the wearer’s head. And of course, if the wearer was using the chin strap affixed to the helmet, assuming that there was a chin strap, the hair would be even more suppressed. Nevertheless, I find this situation is now definitely more plausible, than originally thought by me.
Secondly, had my mother heard about the ghost, or was she aware of anything suspicious concerning the grounds, before this particular night? Some people may logically, query why, living opposite the church grounds, she had not viewed this apparition until more recently. Regrettably, neither my parents are alive for me to ask. However, I can surmise, that one reason for this, is that the apparition could only be seen during certain conditions. Unfortunately, I cannot expand upon this point during my narrative, without revealing certain facts, which I would prefer to explain later. Another possibility, is that I do know that it was sometime during the war, that my parents moved to this particular street. I do not know how long they had lived there, prior to the incident. It therefore, could be possible that they were not living in the vicinity long enough to have had the opportunity to see the spectre.
Now for the real nitty-gritty question, and the respective answer. Did my mother see a ghost? I do not know exactly when the problem of identifying the ghost was resolved. Let us examine some clues. It was not of human appearance. It was taller than a human being. The spectre was shining white and very eerie. It stood motionless. It was seen after the sounds of rustles. It was taller than the odd average tombstone or memorial that occupied the grounds. So what was it? The average tombstones and memorials, irrespective of their dimensions, may not have been taller than a human being, but there was one that was above the average in height. It was basically a four sided column, which was surmounted by a vase and cloth like sculpture. This was the ghost. At least I hope it was, just for my mother’s sake. By day, it did not look pure white. In fact, this family memorial could have possibly done with a clean. There was nothing to betray the memorial’s startling nocturnal appearance in certain lighting conditions, especially by moonlight. Oh! What an incredible transformation! It is also worth mentioning that in the war, should there be an air raid, there were black-outs. During these, there was no street lighting at all. The street lighting used was also different to the lighting system that was in some cases installed after the war. I must also remind you that there were trees within the grounds which could also obstruct the view of the memorial. Not forgetting that at some angles, there was a public toilet as well. And also my mother did not make a habit of standing on her doorstep for a long time, gazing yonder. Remember that she did not see anything immediately. When she viewed the ghost, she had to look in a direction, at an angle, to her left. So the apparition was not quite geometrically opposite the house. She occasionally donned spectacles. I am not certain as to whether she was wearing her spectacles at the time, which may have made some difference as to how she perceived the situation. We are also dealing with someone, as also explained earlier, who was very highly strung. The eerie atmosphere, the rustles and then the following sighting, which climaxed the event, added a new psychological depth to the experience, emotionally, it brought to the fore, her nerve condition, which in turn, moved the hairs of her head.
Oh Dear! Was this some form of poetic punishment, for not reporting for duty, in the official manner? Who can say? Your guess is as good as mine. Embarrassingly enough, my mother, had occasionally played near this memorial, when she was a little girl.
Should anyone wishing to study the memorial, it can easily be viewed. Just go along Holloway Road, until you arrive in the vicinity of the Central Islington Library. Opposite, is one of the entrances to the area in question. Just inside, is the memorial. At least it was there when I last visited the Chapel of Ease.
I do not know what my mother’s subsequent attitude was when reporting for duty. I personally would be most surprised if she performed her watch on the doorstep again. But that surprise would not compare to the traumatic surprise that she experienced on that unforgettable evening long ago, during World War Two.
Sweet dreams everyone.
“The White Figure.” Copyright by Alan French 2004.
Copyright wavered only for the BBC People’s War campaign, Remembering World War Two. This story was issued to this project October 14th 2004
An extract from, “A French Collection.” Copyright 2004. Amended version.
By the same contributor:
Alan French: War Baby: Interview (Amended.) Parts One and Two.
The Three English Brothers French.
Uncle Jim: Send Him Pictorious!