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15 October 2014
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Childhood in London

by Leeds Libraries

Contributed by 
Leeds Libraries
People in story: 
Vera Wright (nee Pike)
Location of story: 
Plaistow E13
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3567323
Contributed on: 
24 January 2005

My Mother Lillian Pike visiting me at the school

They were happy times but at the age of nine and a half, 1938, things changed. The powers that be decided I was small for my age and underweight so I was sent to an open-air school at Fyfield in Essex, where I spent the next 18months, being just a number amongst about a hundred and fifty other girls. We all slept in long dormitories with one side open to the weather except when we had a thunderstorm.

The classrooms were the same, each one set in a large open space. Meals were served in a large wooden hall on long wooden tables and we sat on long wooden forms. Brown bread and warm milk, porridge you could cut with a knife and if it was not eaten you went without. All meals were served in enamel mugs and dishes and to get one that was not chipped was a bonus.

Sunday walks to church are vivid in my mind. In lines of two, girls at the front and boys at the back we went through country lanes and little villages. Things of interest were pointed out to us and this is where I began to appreciate the beauty of the countryside.

Visitors such as parents were allowed to come to the school on one afternoon every three months and this was a great day. Every child had to learn to sing ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ and ‘Oh for the Wings of a Dove.’ These songs were sung at assembly when all the visitors had arrived and sometimes when I am resting I can hear the singing still.

One morning I was amazed to see a large balloon in the sky [barrage balloon — large silver balloon with ropes dangling from it to catch planes flying in low] we all thought it was an elephant! We were all frightened and wondered what it was going to do. No one knew what it was or where it had come from. It was some weeks before we were told and the mystery was solved. I can’t remember the exact day we were told to line up in the playground for a special announcement.

We were then told to empty our lockers, collect all our belongings and report back to the nurse who would give us our own clothes which we were to change into at once as we were being taken home. I was too excited to wonder why this was suddenly happening but late that afternoon we boarded buses and as we were driven out of the school gates buses were coming into school from the opposite direction bringing sick and crippled children out of London. These were the children from the hospitals and orphanages, any sick children that needed looking after. We’d never seen children like that because they were so sickly. We didn’t know why they were being brought in.

It was only when we got home we were told the country may be involved in a war and these children had to be brought to a place of safety in case London was bombed. At that point they were thinking about evacuating children.

Things were very different at home but I soon settled; only eight of us, out of fourteen children, were at home now with mum and dad, five boys and three girls. The others were all married. We were all happy for a while. September 1939 war was declared between England and Germany. Things would never be the same. Three brothers left home the same day, two went in the air force to France and ended up in Dunkirk and one went to Gibraltar and one into the army ended up in Burma. They were all in the Territorial Army before this so had to report immediately. I remember them putting their three kit bags on the table and packing their kit. I’ll always remember the three of them walking away together.

All civilians were given an identity number and identity card, a gas mask in a small square cardboard box with a cord attached to it to enable us to carry it everywhere we went. Tiny babies were given a ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas mask, it was coloured and they were put right inside it. Some of the small children had ‘Mickey Mouse’ gas masks so they weren’t scared to put them on.

Schools closed and cinemas and most places of entertainment shut their doors. Food, clothes and coal were rationed. I remember taking an old pram and standing in a queue for hours to get one sack of coal.

By this time another brother had been called up to go into the air force. He was sent to Egypt. The brothers who were sent to Egypt and Burma went on sister ships and met in Durban, South Africa, before one headed to Asia and the other to the Middle East.
When I met my husband three years after the war I brought him home and he recognised my brother. They had served together in Burma.

My brother ‘Bert was at Dunkirk and was saved by a colleague in the Air Force. He pulled him out of the water, into a boat, when he was being machine-gunned. The air man came to our house for us to say ‘thank you,’ met one of my sisters, married her and became one of the family!

Most of the children in London had been evacuated to the country for safety. I stayed at home; my parents wanted me with them. Before the boys went away they had put an Anderson shelter in the garden for our safety. It was a double sized shelter and took up most of the garden. There were bunks down both sides. We spent a few months sleeping in there every night, we never bothered going to bed upstairs, you knew you’d be woken up in the night.

Our house was in the East End of London and when the air raids started this part of the South of England was given the name of ‘Bomb Alley.’ It was very frightening. By this time we were getting used to the routine of going to bed in the shelter night after night.

Early one morning the police called us from the shelter and said, “Grab what you can from the house as time is short and go to the end of the road.” Everyone took a bundle of things wrapped in a sheet or tablecloth. Then the police told us to find somewhere to stay because there was an unexploded bomb near the house.

The air was full of smoke; fires were burning everywhere we looked. There were no buses so we had to walk to the safest station where we managed to get a train, after the ‘all clear’ sounded, to Romford because my sister had a house there.

Living in Romford was nice. We could sleep in a bed again and the bombing was not so bad. My youngest brother was called up for the navy but he was to be a Bevan boy, which meant he was sent up north to Mansfield, to work down the mines.

I suddenly found myself on my own with elderly parents and I had a much bigger part to play digging the allotment, planting veg, to help rations go round, making bread and standing in queues for hours. I also became a member of the training corps and was taught to fire a rifle.

At fourteen I started work. The war was still on and as soon as I was fifteen I took a job in a factory making wing ribs for Spitfires. Suddenly I had grown up and felt I was at last doing something worthwhile to help the rest of my family.

There were funny times in the factory. When the sirens sounded we had to switch off all machines and make for the trenches in the field across the main road. We would all crouch down and watch the Battle of Britain being fought above our heads. We didn’t have time to be afraid someone would see the funny side of the situation and we’d all begin to laugh, every time!

War is a terrible thing, it is surprising how people would come together in times of need. Food was very short, rationing was hard but no one starved. If a child had a birthday all the neighbours would give what they could and a birthday cake would appear, and we would all get together for a party.

Christmas presents were lovingly made by Granddads who would make trains, boats, cars, out of old bits of wood. Anything that could be used was used, but no one ever made a toy gun. Grandmas knitted dolls clothes from unwoven woolly jumpers. My sisters and I made soft elephants and rabbits from old clothes and stuffed them with scraps of rag left over from the cloth rugs we made. Every house had a homemade rug. Strips of old clothes were cut and threaded through a piece of sacking ad knotted at the back and then a huge piece of sacking was sewn on the back. Patterns could be made with all the different colours of cloth and some were very grand after they were trimmed. Making rugs was a popular pastime, which kept us occupied in the shelters, young and old could all help.

Going out was not a thing we did unless it was necessary, even then we would be sure we could get to a shelter if the sirens sounded. I don’t think anyone was comfortable walking in the blackout. One Friday evening my brother was riding his bike home from work, in the black out. Unfortunately a family were moving house and had left a flat barrow piled with furniture in the road, in the complete darkness. My brother ran into the barrow with such force he bit his tongue in half. When he staggered in the house, blood all over him, everyone forgot me in the bath and dashed off to the hospital where a very clever doctor stitched his tongue together again. He still has a lisp to this day.

Travelling was difficult even with an identity card. I went to see my sister on the Isle of Wight. I had to go to the police, who gave me a permit to travel. That was because I would be going through Portsmouth or Southampton and they were royal navy dockyards.

My eldest brother was the civil engineer in charge of the American army camp at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. He came to London on one occasion and I thought it would be nice for me to back with him to his family for a break. He had a daughter my age. Once again I had to get permission from the local police and give them all the details of my intended movements.

What a holiday that was! They were still having barn dances in the local church hall. It seemed to me the war had not changed much. Italian prisoners of war worked in the fields in the camp. My brother’s house was on the road, inside the camp. Shirley was my niece and we were good pals. She was a brilliant musician and could play the piano and accordion.

Sometimes we would sit in the front garden of the house and she would play the accordion. In the field opposite Italian prisoners would be working. As soon as they heard the music they would sing their hearts out. They had a prisoner working in the house; he did the housework and was well behaved. Sometimes he would bring a list of music for Shirley to play. He said it reminded them all of home.

In 1941 the war was still raging. Most of Europe was occupied by German troops. France had fallen and there was only the channel between them and us.
It was not until I went to Yugoslavia, years later, that I realised how close to England France was.

So much had happened. I now had a brother serving in Burma, one in Egypt, another in the king’s flight with the RAF and one had returned safe from Dunkirk. Food, clothing, sweets and coal were rationed. Underwear was a big problem which some of us solved because we were able to get damaged parachutes. These chutes were made of fine white nylon and providing someone in the family had a sewing machine and a little bit of dressmaking skill the finished garments were beautiful. Also if we could acquire an army blanket or even better an air force blanket we could make a warm topcoat. I myself altered RAF trousers into ladies slacks. They were very rough on our skin but very warm. At one time after we had used all our clothing coupons up and we needed new shoes we tried clogs. That resulted in too many sprained ankles so we soon went back to the well worn out shoes.

The blackout was very necessary. We had to be very careful if we used a torch or lit a cigarette. The smallest light could be seen from the air and Air Raid wardens were always on patrol to make sure everyone observed the rules. If a light was seen you could be accused of signalling the enemy.

If we ventured out in the blackout we would always go in groups of three or more. Although we did not smoke, one of us would hold a lighted cigarette in our hand. This we hoped would make them think we had a man with us and made us feel much safer.

My sister lived in Romford and we were able to stay in her house until my parents could rent a house. This house was in the same road as my sister’s. There was a brick built shelter at the bottom of the garden and my father soon made bunk beds for us and we had a small camping stove on which we could make tea.

Some people had indoor shelters these were called Morrison shelters. They looked like reinforced cages. They were about six foot square and we had to crawl into them and lie down. There wasn’t enough room to sit up but with a blanket and a pillow you could be quite comfortable. Most families had them in the dining room and used them as tables.

Although we were away from London the air raids were quite bad and quite a lot of bombs were dropped on this part of Essex. Doodlebugs and V2 rockets were still coming over. People seemed to take everything in their stride and just carry on with their lives. We shared things we had and made the best of things. We always managed to see the funny side of something so there was plenty of laughter.

In 1941 Germany attacked Russia and it was bad news every time we listened to the radio. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and the United States of America came into the war on our side. What a surprise they were. There were sweets, chocolate, chewing gum, cigarettes and nylons. They had everything and soon became very popular with the teenage girls.
Dances were held at their barracks ever week. It was fun to see the girls changing from work clothes into dresses suitable to go dancing in. Coffee or tea was used to dye their legs and they would draw a line at the back of the legs to look like a seam. If it rained it was a disaster, the dye would run and their legs became striped.

The Glen Miller Band came over from the States and their music was extremely popular. Music While You Work was broadcast every morning to the factory. We all found it very hard to stand still. We would be Jitterbugging with hammers in our hands. Everyone cheered up and sang. The more patriotic the music the louder we would sing.

When things were going bad for the Allies some songs were banned. It was upsetting for some families who had relatives serving abroad. ‘The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot’ and ‘Russian Rose’ were two we did not hear again until the war ended.

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