Bombs dropped in the ward of: Highbury East
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Highbury East:
- 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:
No bombs were registered in this area
Memories in Highbury East
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 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 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 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 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!
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