- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John Lillian NORMAN & Family
- Location of story:
- Romford, Essex
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 July 2005
This story has been submitted to the ‘People’s War’ We Site by Betty & don TEMPEST of Lancshomeguard on behalf of Mrs Joan Lillian NORMAN and has been added to the Web Site with her permission.
‘ I had my Obituary in the National Press!’
I was 7years old when the war started. I remember hearing it on the radio, Mr Chamberlain saying ‘that we are now at war with Germany’. The words just went through you. I can even remember where I was standing at the time of the announcement. In those days we children used to listen to the radio quite a lot, perhaps it was because our parents did. At first the news came as quite a shock, but nothing much happened and we just carried on with our lives. We lived in Romford, Essex, just outside London at that time.
We did get quite a lot of bombing when the Blitz started, and that went on for quite a while. We had to have Air raid Shelters, underground, at the school, we had to go to school everyday, carrying our gas masks in their cases everywhere you went. I don’t think it was so bad for the children, who looked on it as a great adventure. Whereas our parents knew just how frightening it really was. I don’t remember being scared about what was happening in the war, but I know that my parents were very stressed. They wouldn’t allow me or my brother to be evacuated, because they couldn’t bear to be parted from us, I suppose most parents felt like that, I know that I wouldn’t have wanted to be separated from my children.
In those days, at Christmas, we used to make presents, because you couldn’t just go out and buy something. My mother used to knit me dolls and things, and my brother and I only got one bought gift each. All the other presents were home made. We used to also make present for our friends, either something made out of beads, or something we had sewn. I remember once looking for a brooch for my friend at school, whose birthday it was, and all that I could find was one shaped like a car made out of tin. I don’t know what she must have thought of it, but it was all there was.
On a particular night in 1944, a month before Christmas, we had already been down the Air raid shelter once and had come back after the All Clear. Mother told us to keep our dressing gowns on in case there was another Air raid. Well about an hour later the sirens went, but mother called from her bedroom and told us not to get up but to stay in bed, as we were all tired and we had to get up for school in the morning, also father had to go to work.
The next thing I remember is not being able to move, I thought I was having a nightmare, so I tried to get out of this nightmare, but I just couldn’t. After a while I realised that it wasn’t a nightmare, it was real. I had trouble opening my mouth and I could hardly breath. I soon realised what had happened, but I still thought I was in my bedroom at the top of the house. I could hear voices shouting, “Tell us where you are, tell us where you are!” I shouted, “I’m upstairs in the front bedroom”. They then asked if there was anybody else in there. I said, “No. There’s only me”. For some unknown reason I thought that the rest of the family were waiting on the pavement for me. I thought I could hear a cow mooing, and that really flummoxed me, as we lived in the middle of town, and the only time we saw cows was on Market day. It wasn’t until much later, when I had come out of hospital, that my brother told me that he was in a position where he couldn’t answer the rescuers so he started making these mooing noises hoping someone would hear him. Strangely enough, the only person who died that night was an old lady who lived a couple of streets away and had a heart attack when she heard the explosions. It’s funny, but when you are in the middle of the bombing, buried under your house, you don’t hear a thing. I was amazed when they finally did dig me out, after a few hours, that I was on the ground floor, I thought that they would have to take me downstairs on a stretcher, but no, they just took me across the road to an ambulance. It was pitch black and pouring with rain, and my mother was on a stretcher next to me. I realised that we were all in the same boat, the house had collapsed on us and everything we had was gone.
My mother was convinced that my Father and Brother had been killed, because she hadn’t been allowed to see them. But actually they were taken to the men’s department of the hospital and weren’t allowed to communicate. So my mother thought that the hospital was keeping their deaths from her. She suffered the most injuries and was kept in hospital the longest. Some of the neighbours came to visit her and didn’t see me in the next bed. One of them said, “Oh, Lillian, we don’t know what to say to you’. My said, tearfully, “I knew it, my sons dead”. They said, “No, It’s your Joan. She has been killed and her obituary is in the National Press”. My mother said, “Don’t be silly, Joan’s lying there, in the next bed”. Well, the neighbour nearly fainted. Apparently rumour had got round that I had been killed and that is how it got into the Papers, there are not many 73year olds who can say that they had their obituary in the paper when they were only 12year old, is there.
When my Father, Brother and myself eventually got out of hospital we had to go and live with my Aunty, who lived a couple of streets away from where we had lived, but her and my mother didn’t get on very well and hadn’t spoken for years. My mother was still in hospital of course because she had the worst injuries.
When I came out of the hospital I had hardly any hair, because it was so full of rubble that they couldn’t get it out, so they cut it out, I just had enough hair left at the back to tie a ribbon in it. Shortly after coming out of hospital I had to go back to school, which was the High school and they had a very strict dress code. On the day I went back, my Aunty tied my hair back with a bright blue ribbon; my mother said she did it on purpose because her children didn’t go to High school. She knew we were only allowed to wear black ribbons in our hair.
When I got back to school the Headmistress called me into her office, she said, “Hello Joan, it is nice to have you back. How is your family?” I told her that my mother was still in hospital, and she said, “I’m sure she will be all right. But what I really want to talk to you about is the fact that you are not wearing any of your uniform”. I told her we had nothing left after the bombing and that we were wearing clothes that the American WVS had given us, which were all shapes and sizes. The Headmistress took the ribbon out of my hair and gave me a piece of string to tie it back with. She then sent me down to the school shop to get a second hand uniform, which was all patched and darned. My mother would have had a fit if she had seen it. To top it all the Headmistress said, “Tell your mother that she doesn’t have to pay for it until she gets out of hospital.” That was all anyone at school ever said to me about the bombing. No one said, ‘Poor Child. Take six months off to get over it!’
We didn’t stay with my Aunty very long. I’m afraid I wasn’t in her good books, because one day she was making porridge for her children, (My brother and I never had porridge) Well, on this particular morning, I was getting ready for school and she told me to get washed with the water in the kettle on the stove. Well, the only thing on the stove was a large pan with water in it, so I tipped it into the sink and had a wash. Aunty came in and went mad. She said, ‘You’ve just washed yourself in the porridge’. I said, ‘Well it just looked like water’. She said it had only just started and hadn’t been stirred yet. So, I had tipped the family’s breakfast down the sink.
When my mother eventually got out of hospital, we were allocated a house in the smart part of Walford. Gidea Park, where they had just built these new houses, called ‘Sunshine Houses’. I suppose they were the first Solar houses, they were in the experimental stage. In the summer they trapped the sun, but in the winter they were freezing. It was a very large house, with a large hall your could have a party in, a long winding staircase going up and up, but we had no furniture in it. My mother eventually gathered some furniture as they were given £120 for loss of their belongings. They were also given points which you could use in exchange for furniture, rugs, ornaments etc. The stuff had been sent over from all corners of the world. My mother picked out an odd assortment, some useful, but some just pretty and decorative, because all her ornaments had been lost in the bombing.
I’m glad that I lived in those days, even though it was hard, I think that we were the last generation that wasn’t spoilt. We were all in the same boat, nobody had anything, and so you couldn’t have anything.
I went to Art School from the age of 16years until I was 21years old, and do you know what, I never heard any of the men swearing. My parents used to have big rows, but the strongest word my father used was ‘Bloody’. Men didn’t swear in front of women and children in those days.
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