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A Bermondsey Boy's War. Part 1. 1939- Evacuation to Worthing.

by kenyaines

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Kenneth Alford Haines [kenyaines]
Location of story: 
London and Worthing, Sussex.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 February 2004

In 1939, I was ten years old and lived with my family in a terrace house in Catlin Street, off Rotherhithe New Road, Bermondsey, South London.
I had two older brothers, John and Percy, two younger sisters, Iris and Beryl and a little brother Ron. My mother was expecting another baby in December who was to be my sister Sheila.
During the summer, war-scare was the main topic on the radio and in the newapapers, lots of preparations for Civil Defence were started.
Everyone was issued with a Gas-mask in a cardboard box with a shoulder string. Children under five got a "Mickey-mouse" model in pink rubber with a blue nose-piece and round eye-lenses.
There was a special one for infants, which completely enclosed the baby, and came with a hand-pump for Mum to operate.
It was a time of some excitement for us schoolchildren, clouded a little by fear of the unknown. All I knew about war was what mum and dad had told me about the Great War, when dad was a soldier and mum's family were bombed out in a Zeppelin raid when they lived at New Cross, Deptford.
Of course, things didn't happen all at once, you went to collect your gas-mask when it was your family's turn. Similarly, throughout the summer, gangs of workmen came round erecting Anderson shelters in the back gardens, street by street, a slow process. So the main topics of conversation at school were: "Got your gas-mask yet?" Or perhaps: "They've dug a big hole in our back-garden and are putting the shelter in today." This made one quite a celebrity, with looks of envy from others who were still shelter-less.
It was in the summer holidays when we got our shelter, so I didn't get a chance to gloat. Brother Percy remembers getting timber and plywood off-cuts from the local timber-yard to floor it out, but we were never to use this shelter in an air-raid as we moved to our new home in Galleywall Road before the Blitz started.
On the Wednesday of the week before War was declared in September, us school-children were told to pack our things and bring them with us to school next day as we were going to be evacuated from London. Although John and Percy went to different schools, they were allowed to come with Iris, Beryl and myself in order to keep the family together.
We duly turned up next morning with our little bits of luggage and had a label with our details on it tied to our coat lapels. Some of the kids were a bit quiet and weepy, but most were excited and chattering, speculating about where we were going.
Eventually, we walked in a long crocodile all the way to the back entrance of Bricklayers Arms goods station in Rolls Road. An engine-less train stood beside the wooden platform in the dim light of the goods-shed. We all got in and waited for what seemed an interminable time, then we were ushered out again and marched back to school. Our evacuation had been cancelled and we were sent home again. We never heard the reason why, but I think it must have been something to do with the railway being busy with military traffic.
On Friday the 1st of September, we assembled again at school early in the morning and walked in our procession to South Bermondsey Station, just a short distance away, each wearing a label, gas-mask case on shoulder and carrying a case or bag.
This time it was for real, and there was a special electric train waiting at the station, with plenty of room for all of us, but to the consternation of the big crowd of Mums and Dads who came to see us off, no-one could tell them where we were going, so it was a mystery ride.
The old type train carriages had seperate compartments and no corridor, so there were no toilets. I don't remember there being any problems in my compartment, although I was bursting by the time we arrived at our destination, but I expect there were some red faces in the rest of the train, especially among the younger children.
The journey took for ages, as we were shunted about quite a bit, and by mid-day we were getting hungry.
At last the journey ended and we found ourselves at Worthing, a seaside resort on the Sussex coast
Tired and hungry, we were herded into a hall near the station and seperated into groups, family members together.
Some of us were given a white carrier-bag containing rations, which I believe was meant to be given to the people we were billeted on to tide us over, but following the example of my friends, I dived into mine to see if there were any eatables. All the bag contained was a tin of condensed milk, a tin of corned-beef, a packet of very hard unsweetened plain chocolate that tasted like laxative, and two packets of hard-tack biscuits, which were tasteless and impossible to eat while dry. I think they must have been iron-rations left over from the first World-War.
A Billeting Officer took charge of each group and took us round the streets, knocking at doors until we were all found a billet This was a compulsory process, and some of the Householders didn't take too kindly to having children from London thrust upon them, so there were good Billets and not so good ones.
Some would only take boys or girls, but not both if they only had one spare room, so families were split up.
It was all a big adventure for me, and I wanted to stay with my schoolmate, Terry. We had teamed up on a school holiday earlier in the summer, and were good friends.
My two brothers were put into the same billet, and my sisters together in the house next door. They were all well looked after, but Terry and I were the luckiest
We went to stay with Mr and Mrs L at their house in Ashdown Road, Worthing. They had a teenage son and daughter, and Granny L lived in her own room upstairs.
Auntie Mabel, as we came to know Mrs L, was a lovely person. She treated us as if we were her own, and her Husband and the rest of the family were all good to us.
Auntie Mabel was always cooking and baking, and made sure that we ate plenty. Her Husband, who I will call Uncle L as I forget his first name, was a Builder and Decorator with a sizeable business and had men working for him.
He'd spent most of his life in the Royal Navy, and served on the famous Battleship, HMS Barham, during the first World War when it was in the Battle of Jutland. He had many tales to tell of his sea-faring life, and lots of photographs which enthralled me and made me want to be a sailor when I grew up.
His son, I think his name was Dennis, had only recently left school and started work. He became our special friend, and took us on regular outings to the Cinema, sporting events and the like.
His sister was a couple of years older. I don't remember much about her, except that her name was Edna. She was very pretty and worked at the local Dairy.
Granny L was very old. I believe she must have been in her eighties at the time. She used to wear long dresses, and wore her grey hair in a huge bun on top of her head.
She looked just like one of those ladies seen in old pictures of Victorian scenes.
She was very nice, and reminded me a little of my own Gran back in London.
We immediately hit it off together and became firm friends. She had lots of curios and pictures. Her husband had been a Captain on one of the old Sailing-Ships before the age of steam, and sailed all over the world.
He'd spent a lot of time in the South- Seas, and brought many souvenirs home. I remember some lovely Corals in a glass-case, and a couple of the largest eggs I'd ever seen. Granny L said they were Ostrich eggs, and came from Africa.
The L Family were Chapel-goers, and took us to the Service with them every Sunday evening.
It was quite an experience, being so informal after the strict Church Services we were used to at home.
Auntie Mabel looked rather grand in her Sunday clothes.
She used to wear her best coat and a big hat, which I thought was shaped like an American Stetson with trimmings. These hats were fashionable at the time, and it looked good on Auntie Mabel. She was a nice-looking lady, always smiling and joking.
It was a lovely summer that year, and the weather was fine and sunny when we went to Worthing, so we made the most of it and were on the beach on the morning of Sunday September 3.
We heard that Mr Chamberlain had announced on the radio at eleven o'clock that we were at war with Germany. Not long afterwards, we heard the wail of Air-raid Sirens, then the sound of aircraft engines, but it was one of ours and soon the All-clear sounded.
In the ensuing days and weeks, everything seemed to carry on as normal, the Seafront and beaches were open and without any defences, although this was all to change in the coming months.
The following weekend, it was still warm and sunny, and our little group were walking along the crowded Sea-front, when who should appear in front of us, but my Mother, and Auntie Alice, her younger sister.
They had both been evacuated from London as expectant mothers a few days before. Mum had heard rumours that our school had gone to Worthing, but our letters home hadn't arrived by the time she left, so she wasn't sure.
It was by a lucky chance that they'd come to the same place, and they knew we'd be at the Sea-front sometime if we were here, so they kept a constant look-out.
Mum and Auntie Alice were billeted quite a long way from us, so we only saw them at weekends, but it gave us a feeling of security to know that Mum was around.
However, she only stayed at Worthing for a couple of months or so until the first war-scare died down, although we had to stay on as there were no Schools open in London.
Our education carried on as normal at the local Junior School. One thing that stands out in my mind is that after we'd been there a while we were told by the Class-Mistress to write an essay on the most interesting thing we'd found while at Worthing.
At the weekend before, Dennis had taken us up on the South Downs behind the town to Chanctonbury Ring, a large circular clump of ancient trees on top of a hill.
There were prehistoric remains in the vicinity, and it was dark and eerie under the trees, the ring was reputed to be haunted.
There were quite a few tales going the rounds at school about it, especially the one about what happened to you if you ran round the ring three times, then lay down and closed your eyes.
You were supposed to experience all manner of weird things. On reflection, I think one would have needed to lie down after running round the ring three times. You'd have ran at least a couple of miles!
Needless to say, my essay was about our trip to this place, and I was all-agog to read it out in class when the Mistress randomly selected one of us to do so.
However, she chose Ronnie Bates, another friend of mine who lived just round the corner at home, and I can still see the look of horror on the Mistress's face as Ronnie proceeded to read out his lurid essay about the goings on at the local Slaughterhouse, which was on his way home from school, and seemed to fascinate him.
He often managed to get a peep inside, it was an old-fashioned place, and opened on to the street with just a small yard for the animals going in.
In the run up to Christmas, they formed a choir at school, and I was chosen to be a member. Then we were told that the BBC were organising a children's choral concert to be broadcast from a local theatre just before the Christmas Holidays.
Choirs from all the many London schools evacuated to Sussex taking part.
When the day came, we spent all the morning at the Theatre rehearsing with the BBC Orchestra, and Chorus-Master Leslie Woodgate. He was quite a famous man, well known on the radio, and really good at his job, so he got the best out of us.
Even I felt quite emotional when the concert ended with everyone singing "Jerusalem" acccompanied by the full Orchestra.
What seemed strange to me was the way Mr Woodgate mouthed the words at us as we sang, he looked quite comical conducting at the same time.
There was a sort of Lamp-standard with a naked red bulb on the front of the stage, and when it came on, we were on the air!
The Concert was interspersed with orchestral music and soloists as well as our singing. One item that I particularly recall was a piece by a lady Viola player, accompanied by the orchestra.
I had never heard of the Viola before, I just thought they were all Violins except for Cellos and Double-Basses.
The rich tone of the instrument impressed me very much, although at the time I was dying for the Lady to finish playing so that I could dash out to the toilet.
We were afterwards told that the Concert was a big success, but none of us were able to hear it on the radio. It was a live broadcast, as most radio programmes were in those days.
The weekend after school broke up for the holidays, Dad came down in a friend's car and took us home for Christmas.
I didn't know it when we left, but that was the last time I was to see Auntie Mabel and her family, as we didn't go back to Worthing after the holiday, but stayed at home in Bermondsey.
It was the time of the "phony war". Many evacuees returned to London, as a false sense of security prevailed.
Our parents allowed us to stay at home after much worrying. We heard that our School was re-opening after the holidays, and as I was due to sit for the Scholarship, I'd be able to take it in London.
This exam was the forerunner of today's eleven-plus, and passing it would get me a place at one of the private Grammar-Schools with fees paid by the London County Council.
To my great regret, in all the turmoil of events that followed with the start of the Blitz, and my second evacuation from London to join my new School, I didn't keep up contact with Auntie Mabel and her family. I hope they all survived the war and everything went well for them.
{to be continued}.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 11 February 2004 by Susan Nolen - WW2 Writing Buddy

I hope it is continued. My dad was about the same age as you. He always complained about how bad the bread was and I never once saw him eat whole meal bread, or any bread that was remotely brown in colour. He used to say, you should see what we had to eat during the war!

I do love your sense of humour that comes out in the writing--" I think they must have been iron-rations left over from the first World-War."

"There were quite a few weird tales going the rounds about it, especially the one about what happened to you if you ran round the ring three times, then lay down and closed your eyes."

I hope you expand on this. I was really interested in reading this. I just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed reading this! Hope to see more.

Susan WW2 Writing Buddy.


Message 2 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 11 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Your most welcome story deserves a wider audience. Unfortunately you have posted it to the General Home Front Research desk where it will only be seen by voluntary WW2 Rearchers like myself and a few other Volunteers like Susan. A Research Desk is where you can ask questions about WW2 or search for long lost comrades, relatives, or friends; in sum, where you 'Ask a Question'.

Your story should be sent to the Editorial Desk. To do so now follow these instructions:

1. Highlight all the text of your story. Either by dragging your mouse pointer over it or by going to the Edit menu and clicking 'Select all'

2. Copy it: on your keyboard press Ctrl (far left) and 'c' together. Usually indicated by Ctrl+c.

3. In the green column on the left, click on either Personal Story or Family story, depending if it is about you or someone else.

4. Follow the instructions.

5. When you come to the window where you type your story, paste yours in.
To do this jusy press Ctrl+v.

6. You can Preview it for final adjustments.

7. When you are happy with it, send it to the Editorial Desk.

I look forward to seeing it there and also the next instalment. :)

All the very best,



Message 3 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 11 February 2004 by kenyaines

Hi Peter,
Thank you for your reply and comments.
I sent my story to the Editorial Desk
yesterday, and when I looked today, it had "Remove" alongside it. I wasn't sure whether it was rejected or needed editing, and I couldn't find any info as to how to proceed, so I clicked on "Remove" , expecting
instructions. With nothing to go on after it disappeared, I sent it to you for review hoping for a response. I will now send it to the Editorial Desk again, and hope for the best.
Thanks Again
Ken (kenyaines}.


Message 4 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 12 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Ken

Only you can see a Remove button next to your own story. Put in other words, we all have a Remove button next to our own contributions, not seen by any other. It is there for you alone to use, should you wish to remove your story.

Your reaction has made me think; perhaps a confirmatory box should appear on pressing it with "Remove Story? Yes - No". I will suggest this to the WW2 Team.



Message 5 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 12 February 2004 by kenyaines

From Ken [kenyaines]
Hi Peter.

Thanks for your reply. I carried out the instructions and submitted the story. I think it got a bit jumbled up and duplicated in the pasting process, and wasn't accepted by the Editorial Desk. It now seems to have disappeared. The original story is still on my Personal Page. How do I re-submit it to the Editorial Desk.
Thanks for your help,

Ken [kenyaines].


Message 6 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 12 February 2004 by kenyaines

From Ken [kenyaines]

Hi Susan,

Thank you for your comments, they are very encouraging. I will expand on the weird bits in my story if I can get it back to edit. I was trying to
condense it, but if it doesn't matter
about being a bit long, my memory seems to be coming back in my old age,
so there'll be plenty more to come!
To tell you the truth, my war memories
are an extract from a Journal I have been writing over the last couple of years, of everything I remember
since I was a small child, that's why they go on a bit, and I do tend to see the funny side of things, It,s nice to know others appreciate it too.
Thanks Again,

Ken [kenyaines].


Message 7 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 13 February 2004 by Susan Nolen - WW2 Writing Buddy

Hi Ken

I am so glad that you are writing a journal. That is something I keep promising myself I will do one day and have yet to do. I keep trying, but pages remain blank!

One of the key things I find so interesting about your story is the tiny tidbits that you have included. You just can't find those things in history books and for me they are precious jewels. They really bring the time alive for someone like me who was not even born yet.

Don't worry about the length, just break it up into subjects.

Looking forward to reading more. Let me know if I can be of any help.


Message 8 - Chapter one- the phony war

Posted on: 13 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Ken

In reply to your Message 5, follow the detailed instructions I gave in my Message 2, above.


Message 1 - General Home Front desk: A2283211 - Wartime Memories of a Bermondsey Boy

Posted on: 11 February 2004 by kenyaines

Entry: Wartime Memories of a Bermondsey Boy - A2283211 Author: kenyaines - U527966


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