- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. David Bernstein, Mr. and Mrs. Ethel Smith, Henry George, Johnny Stockton, Mr. ALan Locke and Glenn Miller
- Location of story:
- Bedford, Bedfordshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 October 2005
An evacuee’s memories of life in wartime Bedford Part Two — The freedom of living in Bedford.
Part two of an oral history interview with Mr. David Bernstein conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.
“So I was billeted with Mr. and Mrs. Smith in York Street, near Russell Park and The Embankment, in Bedford. it couldn’t have been better. Henry George (a fellow evacuee and friend) says that, I think he spent four years or five years in Bedford, he said, ‘The happiest years of my life’ and that’s a very strange thing to say when you think the war was on, but it was for him and it was for me really. The happiest of my life I don’t know? But certainly some of us landed on our feet and a lot of us look back on it. Although there were times when your world imploded because suddenly you had to leave your billet or you were very worried. Maybe your home — luckily it didn’t happen to me — but your home got bombed and of course there were casualties as well so it wasn’t by any means all happy. People’s brothers, fathers were in the real front line so it was tough as well. But we seemed to remember the happy times.
One of my regrets is that how little I empathised with the billet lady whether it was mine or other peoples billet ladies until it was too late to say things. It was only as you became an adult that you realised - for example what your parents were missing and what they were worried about but also what the billet ladies gave up at the end of the war. They had to give it up! They didn’t voluntarily give it up — the kids - we went back to our parents. But they had deputised for a length of the war, they had built up relationships, they had become surrogate parents and suddenly their children had gone! I’d never realised that. They said, ‘I’ll miss you’ and I said, ‘I’ll miss you’ and all that sort of thing, they are things you say.
I walked to school until I could ride a bike. I couldn’t ride a bike when I left London. I learnt to ride a bike while I was in Bedford. Mr. Smith told me where I could buy a bike. I think I bought a bike for 5 shillings, 25p, so I was able to cycle. My dad, who was in the Civil Defence in London, he suddenly, I had no idea he was coming to Bedford, but the second Mrs. Smith knew and told me, he’d written to her. He’d bought me a brand new BSA bicycle and rode it - my dad rode it from London to Bedford. I was so proud of him. It was a full size bike, so I was lucky, I had a real bike. So I used to cycle, most of the time cycled to school, cycled to the Meltis Ground which was our Sports Ground. Cycled to Bedford Modern School swimming pool and things like that, the Fives Courts. We all had bikes. A bike was … one of my friends who died recently, he is in the book* -Johnny Stockton, called the bike — a ‘corporeal’ extension - and it was. So we went to school on bikes and we learnt I suppose to occupy Bedford Modern School in the afternoon while they occupied it in the afternoon. We occupied the school in the afternoon and we went to other places in the morning. We went to various places, the Liberal Club, the Oddfellows Hall, the Co-Operative Rooms, some of us went to a pub called ‘The Angel’ which is strange because we came from ‘The Angel’, Islington or the Riverside Club in Goldington Road. So we went to various places in the morning.
It really worked out very well and the strange thing, something I don’t know if I realised at the time, but it was very odd that you were sitting — you had an old fashioned desk, went up like that — there was no evidence in this desk of the person who had been using it in the morning and vice versa. That’s quite amazing isn’t it that leading these lives? Somebody wrote a play once, a Victorian play called ‘Box and Cox’ it’s a woman, a landlady and she thinks of a way of earning more money is to let this room in the night time as well the day time. So people could sleep in it but in the daytime it could be let to a night worker. So Mr. Box and Mr. Cox had the same room, the bed and everything but they don’t know about each others existence until the end of the play, so we ‘Boxed and Coxed’ and that phrase is actually quite common, well it was. It used to be very common, turn and turn about. We were hardly ever conscious, ever. We had the notice boards that they’d obviously had but there was no evidence — very strange, very strange. And also I think there was very little contact between the two schools. We might know them through a third person that maybe a boy who was going to Bedford Modern School was a friend of a friend of somebody that we knew through our billet lady or something like that but quite little, quite little fraternisation went on, very strange.
I started by joining the Army Cadet Force and I didn’t think it was - I suppose today we would call it sexy — like the RAF because the RAF was the ‘glam’ thing. So I think I was a Lance Corporal in the Army Cadet Force and then I became a Corporal eventually in the Air Training Corp. That was great fun, we went away to camps and things like that. That was good. The interesting thing was that if you got your proficiency certificates in the Air Training Corp that, when you eventually went into the RAF, that knocked two weeks off your initial training, you were only there for six instead of eight weeks, things like that. There was a feeling that when you joined one of these Corps that you were — a football analogy — you were in the Conference League as opposed to the main league. But if you were at the top of the Conference League you went into the main league, so there was a feeling that this was a step, a progression, but that was good fun.
My friend Alan Locke and I were members of the Saturday Afternoon Club. That was in the early days — what about Saturdays — keep them together. We can look after them Monday to Friday because they have got school to do, they have also homework to do over the weekend but is there something else we can do for them. The teachers, for heaven sake, they were what we call today, 24/7. They were working whole time - apart from doing their normal job and also probably being Fire Watchers as well in the evenings and things like that - so it was very full time. There was this Saturday Afternoon Club which was fun and we’d maybe have a picture show. I think I was saying in the book about when we had this magician and he asked, he really didn’t know his audience — he had this top hat and he said, ‘Take whatever you like. You just shout something out and I’ll take it out of here.’ We yelled out words like sweets and chocolate, marbles, whatever, and he said, ‘Did anybody say, petrol coupons?’ Of course nobody had said, ‘Petrol coupons’ and it was a very early lesson in ‘know your audience’.
Then it was the — for the more senior boys — there was the Friday Evening Club. That was tremendous because the standard, I’m not talking about the stuff I did which was nothing and not very good but the standard of performance. We had some really bright blokes who could imitate, play instruments, tell jokes and that was — you had to be in I think the 5th Form or maybe just the 6th — to be allowed to go, to perform. It had started, the original arrangement was that the first part would be serious and the second part would be fun. The first part could have a lecture, a discussion — something like the ‘Brains Trust’ that was on radio then and then fun and games for the remainder. At one stage it was held at Goldington but later and Mr. Locke may correct me, ‘Victory Hall’, that’s right, above Braggins and that’s where the Saturday Afternoon Club had been, just opposite the school.
I’m a lousy billiard player but the Billiard Hall you felt no end of a bloke being in the Billiard Hall because it wasn’t off limits, I think it could have been off limits for Juniors but it certainly wasn’t off limits I think for the 6th Form. There were some pretty louch characters there and we had one or two players who were very good and it was actually quite cheap and if you happened to smoke well you smoked there. It was ‘wicked’.
I went at least once a week to hear the BBC Symphony Orchestra, I probably went twice if I possibly could. We went and got tickets and we often just left school a little early so we went to rehearsals and we went to recordings and we went to live programmes. So what was beautiful about that was your musical education was laid out for you within I suppose a year you’d heard all the major repertoire, well not all but certainly the majority of it. That was superb. We were so lucky. Some people had the luck of knowing, maybe a Conductor or knowing some of the musicians because they were billeted locally. So we rubbed shoulders literally, we may be queuing, standing in the fish and chip shop queue with them. But that was tremendous, we were so lucky.
And then of course there was Glenn Miller subsequently because the Yanks came and Glenn Miller used the place as a base. I got his autograph! We knew on the grapevine what was going, if there was going to be a concert or this and the big concerts came from the Corn Exchange and I got to the Corn Exchange an hour before the concert, just in time to see Glenn Miller arrive. I went up with my autograph book and he said, ‘After the show, son’. So I had an hour to wait before the show started and then there was the show and then they down timed after that so I had quite a wait. Anyway when the show proper started, opposite the Corn Exchange were places for the military cars to park. And there was his staff car and really it was a converted jeep and his driver, a Sergeant was sitting in it and he beckoned me in and he said, ‘Why don’t you listen to the show on the radio?’ It was coming from there and so I sat in Glenn Miller’s seat listening to the show! (Because he sat next to the driver.) I listened to the whole show and at the end I thanked the driver, got out and went up the steps up to the Corn Exchange to wait for his autograph. People came down, there were various singers and other entertainers came down and eventually Glenn Miller came down. But he was being shepherded by a very, very officious British Major and I had my book and I went like that (motioning towards Glenn Miller) and the Major swept me aside. Glenn Miller tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I promised the kid’ and the kid still has the autograph! That’s one of my highlights of the war.
I’m not sure we realised how streetwise we were until we got to Bedford, some of us I think, myself included, showed off. I think we were saying these are hicks, these people, it was only a sort of joke. There was just a feeling that we had come from the ‘smoke’, we were Londoners, we were important people and so on, there was a bit of that. But I think what we began to realise was that there were great advantages to Bedford but we in our own way had not accepted or not thought about one of them which was that you had tremendous freedom here that you didn’t have in London. You see in London it was, you went to school and you got a bus or a tram or a tube home, quite a way, we didn’t cycle and it could be quite a way. Here everything was within bicycling, even walking distance and there were things to do with your friends after school. There was little of that, you may have had a couple of friends who were at school near where you lived but here we were all together. The other thing of course was that we were all part of the same community and there was this sort of camaraderie of being, I won’t say clinging to each other, but there was a sense of that that we’d got to keep together. But it was the freedom that we suddenly realised we had. And I do believe that a lot of the billet parents were possibly freer than our parents would have been, not that they were lax at all, it was just that they wanted to encourage us to enjoy life there. And the thing about having a bike and being really a country town is that you could be in the country so easily whereas in London you couldn’t. The country was maybe a once a year event in London, here it was just round the corner, you had a bike and you were there. And you’d go out and also if there had been, for an adventure, say an aircraft had crashed you go out and try to look for it. When you were in the Air Training Corps, the Army Cadet Corps a lot of the activity took place outside so you cycled there. As I said the bicycle was an extension of yourself, very important!
Well, we swam in London but I don’t think with such frequency as we swam here. We certainly didn’t swim in any river because that is what happened here and we certainly did not row in London and we rowed here and we did terribly well at rowing. We actually beat Bedford Modern School at rowing, the First Eight, eventually the year before we went back, that was a great achievement. We played Fives which we’d never done in London, so that was good. I don’t think we played tennis until we got here. We lost to Bedford Modern School at tennis, Bedford Girls Modern School, so we don’t talk about that! But the funny thing was that we played cricket obviously, we could play cricket against the local schools but Bedford was a rugger place and we were soccer so the question was whom did we play at soccer? And the funny thing was because there were no Bedford soccer schools at all, maybe at the junior level they played soccer but certainly middle and senior did not play soccer and because of that our soccer improved. The reason being we played against adults. We played sports clubs, there was a sports club called St.Cuthbert’s which played at Russell Park, they were attached to a church and we played against Services. We played against Service teams and so all this amazingly difficult fixture list made our soccer first rate. And the first we got to realise that we had improved while our rivals from London maybe had not was towards the end of the war, by no means just before it finished, our First XI went to play Highgate. Highgate were a top soccer school and they were evacuated to Devonshire but they decided to come back and we went and beat them, first time they’d beaten for ten years! That made us suddenly realise, because we were playing against Seniors, we had a pretty good standard, so there were ups and downs.”
*’Well Remembered Fields — the story of one school’s evacuation 1939-1945’, edited by Mr. Martin Mitchell and Mr. David Bernstein, Park Russell, 2003. ISBN 0-9545687-0-2
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