- Contributed by
- People in story:
- David Rich
- Location of story:
- Drybrook Glous
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 November 2005
Apparently, one lone German bomber, chased away from an airfield dropped its bombs on an area of London, and Churchill retaliated by ordering the bombing of Berlin. On 7th September 1940 Hitler made a major blunder. This would prove to cost him and his fellow countrymen the Battle of Britain. His strategy was to transfer from bombing military targets to bombing towns and cities, starting with London. In the event, this strategy gave our fighter aircraft squadrons the respite they needed, but also the increased number of Germans being shot down caused them to give up daytime attacks and switch to night time bombing. They started with the London Docks using the moonlight reflection from the Thames to light the way along the estuary. The glow in the night sky from the fires started by the German bombs could be seen quite clearly from Ewell. Thus began what was to become known as “The Blitz” short for Blitzkrieg or lighting war. This strategy was deemed to bring about a speedy victory for the perpetrator. The Germans bombed in and around London and many other major cities throughout that winter. My father being fearful for the safety of his family arranged through a close friend he had made in the air force for us to evacuate to a village called Drybrook in the Forest of Dean and so in October 1940 we took up residence in Gloucestershire.
We took the train from Paddington to Gloucester and then went by bus to Drybrook. The day was one of those typically English days, dull with persistent moderate rainfall. Railway stations provided Government with the opportunity to reach the masses, so propaganda posters speckled the eye line. The slogans read “Is your journey really necessary?” and “Careless talk costs lives” or another to remind us that there maybe spies around “Be like Dad keep Mum”. This journey on a mainline railway on a train hauled by a large steam locomotive had an added thrill for a small boy. The Southern Railway used largely electric trains on their suburban services. Small boys tended to have a latent desire to grow up to be the engine driver in complete control of one of these steam and smoke belching steel monsters. The trains at this time were always full to capacity despite Government requests not to travel. There were soldiers, sailors and airman either going or returning from leave or transferring to another camp. There were passengers such as us trying to avoid the bombing. Service personnel filled the corridors to capacity standing or sitting on their kit bags, and sometimes to be seen asleep on the luggage racks. The seats went to the lucky few as in today’s commuter travel. Much has been said since about the stoic British, carrying on as usual despite Hitler’s bombardment, but the bitter truth was that we were frightened. However, there was little alternative other than to do whatever was necessary to survive in those bleak days. This was the period when Britain stood alone against the Nazi’s.
My responsibility was to transport the family’s rations packed in a brown paper carrier bag. Plastics were a post war invention and anyway there was no spare oil for making such luxuries. By that time food supplies were short due to the effective blockade by German submarines. Each person was rationed to a small amount of certain essential food products which were to last a week. If these were consumed carelessly or lost for whatever reason then hunger would ensue. My task was an onerous one of being in charge of the family’s entire week’s rations, a valuable commodity to pack into a frail paper bag. I had failed to comprehend that a paper bag placed on wet pavement would soon disintegrate, and this it did. Without reference to my good intentions, the bag poured out its contents onto the roadway as we crossed a main street in Gloucester. My mother paying no heed to the rights of would be passing vehicles lunged forward to save the family from the doom of starvation. The trail of the family’s food supplies was salvaged. To say the least mother was not at all pleased and informed me so in the way mothers have of letting their feelings be known, which left me somewhat chastened by the experience. In our present day world no doubt my mother would have thought twice before plunging herself forward into the roadway at the mercy of today's motorists. She would probably have opted for the starvation route.
Life in Drybrook was another world from that to which I had become accustomed. The bungalow we went to live in had no electricity, what lighting there was after dark was with paraffin oil lamps. These gave an inferior light to our own electric lamps and also smoked quite badly. Cooking was also by way of a paraffin oil pressure stove. Living with so few modern facilities was a new experience and a bit of a shock to a townie like me. The village primary school was another shock as it amounted to no more than three classes. All the children shared one room with wooden screen doors that slid across after morning assembly to divide the classes. The level of education was good, but I felt that it lagged a bit behind what I was used to.
Across the road from the school was the village cinema. This was a wooden structure clad with corrugated iron sheets, with wooden benches to sit on. I was not a frequent visitor but I remember sitting on the wooden benches and seeing the popular film “The Battle of the River Plate”, which was about the defeat of the German Battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
The place where we lived at that time was the home of the village builder and undertaker. I often used to watch the joiner making coffins and on one occasion this curious lad went with the workmen to deliver one. The deceased’s house was a very small two up two down affair with the stairs climbing from the living room. There was no possibility of getting the coffin up the stairs so the men carried down the corpse to be placed in the coffin. It was necessary to manoeuvre the body round the angle at the top of the stairs. This caused the corpse to give out a loud groan. I dallied no further, and with death on my heels I headed for home at full pelt. My curiosity had been satiated and my fear fully exposed.
On another occasion a young boy had died. It was the custom in those days not only to walk to the church from the house of the deceased, but for boys to be enlisted to carry the coffin containing children from the house to the church for the funeral on something called a bier, which resembled a stretcher. Also petrol was strictly rationed and scarce so not always available for such things a funeral hearse. Needless to say I was called upon for this duty. The English weather took over the event and my memory of that day. It was, of course, a damp, dull day and my clearest memory of that sad day was the thud of the clods of earth on the coffin as they started to fill the grave. These two experiences had such an impact on my imagination that they prevented me from attending funerals for a very long time to come.
Shortly after Christmas we moved to other lodgings. Evacuees were not exactly popular. The extra money gained soon incorporated itself into the host’s family income and kind thoughts faded as reality set in. The hosts resented the intrusion of the outsiders who were no more than strangers who took up space in their home. The evacuees felt uncertain and insecure in their strange environment, and the strain of not intruding took its toll.
During my stay in Drybrook I witnessed and took part in another West Country custom. When couples got married the local lads used to chain up the church gates and refuse to unlock them until the bridegroom threw the lads a hand full of loose change for which, they would to have scramble to collect.
This new lodging was with a Collier and his family. The Collier worked in one of the shallow coalmines near Cinderford, of which there were several scattered around in the Forest of Dean. To supplement his family’s income he also kept a small flock of sheep. My arrival on the scene turned out to be a godsend for him as lambing time was upon him. This nine-year lad’s small hands and arms were invaluable and I found myself employed as midwife to a number of ewes that were having difficult births. This was an unplanned journey into a new world, the world of gender, reproduction and sex and I was entreated not to disclose what was going on to my mother
This family’s house was on a hilltop just outside the village and it was my first experience with a chemical toilet housed in a hut at the end of the garden. Not an exactly pleasant experience. This was a world of stringent economising, where the watchwords were “waste not, want not”. Store bought toilet paper was a luxury that could not be afforded. We managed by using last weeks’ newspapers. These were torn into squares about 150 mm x 100 mm and threaded on a string. They served two purposes. Firstly, these sheets were the only toilet paper provided, and secondly they were a continual source of reading matter. The downside was that stories became fragmented and separated from their correct sequencing. An irritating consequence of careless tearing and pairing. The best part of a story was always missing. Since then I have found more comfortable places to ready my daily. The plumbing in this house was very basic. The only running water was a cold-water tap in the kitchen cum living room and another in the washhouse. This was another unhappy experience for a lad used to a coal fired kitchen boiler and hot running water providing the boiler was kept alight. Washday began early with the wood fire under the copper being lit. This container would heat the water in the washhouse and eventually the washing could begin. It was necessary to maintain the heat of the water throughout the washing process. A stiff brush was employed and with strong downward strokes, a hard caustic soap was pummelled into the clothes, with a corrugated washboard used as a backing shield. These washboards later found even greater fame as instruments in Skiffle bands in the 1950’s. The next process involved each item of clothing being put through the mangle. This operation would extract water from the clothes leaving it ready to hang out on the garden washing line, weather permitting. The mangle consisted of a large cast iron structure holding two substantial wooden rollers through which the clothes were passed. The clothes were then inserted between the rollers and by turning a large hand wheel at the side the rollers would turn and squeeze the water from the clothes. On wet days the clothes would be hung in the kitchen to dry. This meant that meals for the rest of that day were eaten with drips of water from the washing slipping down your neck as you ate. Technologies were still a long way from the spin dryer, tumble dryer, and other modern appliances. Cooking in this house was on a coal-fired range. An older more primitive method than the paraffin oil stove, but in many ways a more efficient way of cooking, for it heated the room as well and with a kettle always on the top, there was a ready supply of hot water. Having a bath required a great deal of planning and organisation. This took place in a small-galvanised bath placed on the floor in front of the kitchen range and then filled with a mixture of hot and cold water to suit the bather. Other members of the household had to be forewarned to avoid embarrassment and confusion. There was an established pecking order for baths, which was strictly adhered to. First Dad, being the head of the household, had place of honour. Offspring were bathed in order of age, each knowing their rightful place in the queue. The matter of Mum’s bathing rights was never discussed, and to this day I am unaware of how she fared in this respect.
It was during the spring of 1941 that I had to go into school alone one Saturday morning to sit for “the scholarship”. Later on this became known as the 11plus. This resulted from me being set the exam by Surrey County Council although at the time I was living in Gloucestershire. If I had passed, which I did not, then I would have gone to a grammar school for my secondary education. I have since heard teachers say that many pupils are left with feelings of failure as a result of not passing the 11plus. Not so in my case. There are many ways to learn and not all take place in the classroom.
Three months later we were on the move again to another house at the opposite end of the village. During the spring and early summer I came to know about some other aspects of country life. These included haymaking, keeping chickens, and pigs. Many country folk kept a few hens, for the eggs, other chickens, and a pig or two, which at the right time could be slaughtered for meat. Witnessing the killing of a pig left an imprint on my mind. I felt certain that the pig knew what its future was, by the squeals and struggle it put up at the moment it was laid out just before its throat was cut. This was the only way the slaughter could be carried out because pork is bled meat, and there was no alternative in method, although the odd one did run around briefly after having its neck broken.
Continued in Part 3
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