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15 October 2014
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Memories of a Wartime Teenager

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
From 1934-1946 Gwendoline Stent of Hove East Sussex. Married name Field of Uckfield, East Sussex
Location of story: 
Hove, East Sussex
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4435616
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Karolyn Milam of Uckfield Community Learning Centre, a volunteer from BBC Southern Counties Radio on behalf of Mrs. Gwendoline Field and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs Field fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

On Sunday 3rd. September 1939 just after I returned from Sunday School the first air raid siren sounded, and the noise was very frightening to a young girl of 12 years. The sirens were placed on the top of prominent buildings, the one that I heard was on the roof of the Electricity station at the top of Holland Road.

People had been given some preparation for the impending war and had put brown strips of gummed paper at their windows to stop the glass shattering if bombs were about to fall close to their homes, also some people applied ad installed Anderson Shelters if they lived on the ground floor. Our family could not have one because we occupied the first and second floor.

My father was an Air Raid Warden, so at the sound of the sirens he collected his cycle and rode up Davigdor Road to his ARP post which was situated in the crypt of St. Thomas’s Church which was on the corner of Nizells Avenue, and it was there that there was a direct ‘hit’ quite early on in the war. There were some interesting Wardens, people from all walks of life, one lady I will always remember, she was Miss Mary Broadwood, who lived with her mother in Summerhill Lodge at the corner of Sommerhill Road. Mary was a cousin of Field Marshall Montgomery, and Mary’s mother made the christening robes for him. In Nizells Avenue we knew a family by the name of Box, they owned Box’s typewriter shop in Duke Street [which I think is Brown’s Restaurant now] and Box’s Commercial College in Gloucester Place, well they were affected by the bomb in their road. I do not recall the number of people injured or even killed. There was another time whilst I was still at school, this was East Hove Senior School for Girls at the corner of Holland Road and Davigdor Road, that a German plane crashed into the side of a house close to Holland Road Railway Halt and Lyndhurst Road. The German airman parachuted somewhere near Upper North Street.

Occasionally concerts were arranged in the crypt of St. Thomas’s Church, and I can recall one occasion when a sailor, home on leave, stood up and sang “I’ll Walk Beside You”. There was not a dry eye there — I wonder what became of this chap?

At my school it was decided to only have lessons in our building either mornings or afternoons and let the London Evacuees have the other times of the day, so some weeks we would be there in the mornings, and they would find another suitable building to use, I think they often went to the Ralli Hall in Denmark Villas, and we would go when they were in school to the Jewish Macabee Club in Lansdowne Road. Sometimes we would go and if it was fine we would have make-shift lessons in St. Anne’s Wells Gardens, which were very close by. We had an indoor swimming pool at our school, and as soon as the war started it was turned into a shelter. Our school building had an Infants section run by a Mrs. Austin. I am not sure what they did on alternative weeks. Our Headmistress was Miss Lillian Beaton [a great friend of my fathers, because they were both at pupil training college together in Pelham Street School in Brighton]. An amusing incident when we did manage to have a cookery lesson, we were told to economies as everything was either rationed or very scarce. On this occasion we were making veg soup and told to bring from home some bacon rinds. Well my mother was so upset because we had used our entire bacon ration for the four of us for the month, and I had to explain this to Miss Pollock, so I did not get a house point for my team [I was in St. Andrew’s house and we nearly always did well]. Clothes were very difficult to come by because we were only given a few coupons, but by my 2nd year there when I was nearly 14 yrs old my cousin Diana who had come over to England to finish her education from Kenya and went to Rodean College and as things were getting worse in England with the air raids etc., her parents decided she should go back to Kenya, so they gave me all her uniforms and as you can guess I looked very smart against the council school uniform. [Just on these lines, not long after she went back things became nasty out there; I think that was leading up to the MAU MAU].

When I reached the age of 14 it was decided that I would not learn any more at school; so I was to look for a job. This I did quite easily, it was as a general junior clerk at Hove Food Office in Hove Town Hall [I could not get far from my father, he worked in the Rates Office round the corner in Norton Road, next door to Hove Police Station]. I can recall my first pay envelope; it was 16 shillings and sixpence. This was working from 8.45am till 4pm [the regulations stated that I was not allowed to work any more hours at that age]. I really enjoyed this work, but as a child I was told not to take any money from strangers, so I was not keen to take the first weeks money!

My job varied, from being on the P.B.X answering the bell at the counter of the section for Hotels and Catering Establishments when they handed in their coupons, and to give them vouchers for things like liquid soap. Another counter was where the Mum’s and expectant Mothers came for their Orange Juice and Cod Liver Oil, and the one I liked best was writing the New Ration Books and Identity Cards for the new arrivals. When I was on the switchboard I struck up a friendship with the telephonist at the Brighton Food Office which was situated round the corner from Stafford’s Department store in Western Road. We seemed to have quite a lot of similar interests, and met from time to time when there weren’t any air raids — I often wonder what happened to her. I think she was a couple of years older than me; her name was Pauline Firminger!

Quite often I used to go into the British Restaurant round the corner in Tisbury Road next door to the C.A.B. and have a very nice lunch for only a few pence. This helped our rations at home, because like most people it was very difficult to manage from one week to another. Also, a certain member of staff who seemed to take me under her wing said she was going to Forfars, would I like to join her. This was usually Friday [pay day]. They had a very nice dining room upstairs in their Church Road shop close to Ventnor Villas. We knew Mr. Curtess the owner as he used to bring his coupons to our counter in the Food Office.

Another two people that I found helpful to me being the youngest member of staff was Vivian Pruen [I think she had been a model in the past — she was so smart even with clothed rationing]. Another person was Win Barker, who also to me was glamorous; she was usually on the Orange Juice etc. counter. Her husband was a pilot and towards the end of the war he was sent to the Middle East and his plane crashed and he died. Viv was away from the office for some time with the shock. His family owned Barkers of Kensington. My boss was a Mr. Charles Smith; his title was Food Executive Officer; his office was on the stage of the Hove Town Hall, and my first impression of him was quite frightening, as he was a huge bulky figure of a man, but had a quiet, refined voice and was always very understanding to all his staff. One other member of staff who was helpful to me was a little chap [a bit like the late Arthur Askey]. He used to do all sorts of jobs , even run errands if needed; his name was Titch Foxley, and he was a member of the Amateur dramatic club in Hove, sometimes putting on plays in the Raiii Hall or in the Pavilion Theatre, and on one occasion he asked me if I would like to play the part of a Chinese servant in a short one act play. I accepted and had such fun trying not to laugh when I had to speak! I was a typical teenager if the early 40’s

I can recall a time when I had saved up my clothing coupons so I had enough to get myself a new winter coat. So, as I often did, I cycled down to Driscolls [this was at the bottom of George Street, next door to Shaw’s Grocers Shop] and I allowed myself an hour before I had to sign in for work, so I propped my Hercules bike up against the window and joined the queue. This moved quite fast because I recall after getting the coat of my dreams, putting my bike in the cycle rack next to the Police Station I was walking through the round doors just before 9 am. [This shop Driscolls had a very good slogan — “While I live I’ll grow”].

There were sirens on the roof of the Hove Town Hall, so when they went off the whole of the Town Hall had to be cleared of customers and us staff told to take shelter in the allocated places. When the general public walked through the main revolving doors there was a very impressive sight to see the Mace Bearer standing there with his chain of office round his neck; but as you can guess in an air raid these had to be locked away in the vaults.

The Town Hall in this period was a very fine building, with a peal of belle which rang out various national tunes. One tune was “God bless the Prince of Wales”, but this had been erased at the time of the abdication. It was a tragedy when this impressive building, which dominated the whole of Church Road from Norton Road to Tidsbury Road, was mysteriously destroyed by fire some time after the war had ended. The present Hove Town Hall, modern though it is, to my mind is not a patch on the old one.

I would love to hear from any reader who has memories of East Hove Council School for Girls in Davigdor Road or Hove Town Hall during World War Two.

An amusing observation of my late father’s [who as Ralph Stent was a local historian who regularly broadcast on Radio Brighton] was regarding the four buildings at the junction of Holland, Davigdor and Cromwell Roads. They were a school, electrical generating station, a church and a public house, which he called the Four Asians — education, electrification, salvation and damnation. Strangely the only one left is……Damnation! My home in those days was in Lora Road, where the National Fire Service took over one of the large double-fronted houses, and military vehicles used the road as a car park. Some of the military personnel were Canadians — known then as the GO boys…

After leaving the Food Office I joined the W.A.A.F. and served as far afield as Egypt and Northern Ireland — I and a colleague even delivered some documents to Archbishop Makarios in Nicosia during our stay there in 1948

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