- Contributed by
- Pam Cuthbert
- People in story:
- Pam Cuthbert
- Location of story:
- Peckham, London
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 February 2004
When the second war was declared, I was fifteen years old. I worked at the Admiralty in Westminster as indoor messenger, carrying files etc. from office to office. Although I was not in the forces, I think I can claim I had an exciting war. When war came, our duties were changed to twenty-four hours watch, twelve on duty and twelve off. Alternate day and night duty. Like sailors on ship, eight am until eight pm and the next day, eight pm till eight am.
My duties sometimes took me to the small telephone exchange in the building. I was fascinated with it, and wanted to be a telephonist. I asked one the men how I could be. He told me I had to be sixteen, and apply to the GPO.
The first year of my working life, I gave mother all my weekly wages, 10 shillings. She gave me back one shilling pocket money, paid my bus/tram fares, fed me and bought my clothes. The second year I had two and sixpence pocket money, but had to buy my own stockings! I was now earning 13 shillings a week. How much that bought I can't remember. I had to buy a snack in the canteen mid-session, but it was cheap. I think I mainly bought soup with a scoop of mashed potatoes in it. Tea and coffee as well in the breaks.
One night, the first of the London air raids, I left work at eight pm, got the tram to come to my home at Peckham. I was on the top of the tram alone. The noise of the bombs was frightening. In front of me I could see the sky red from the fires, possibly Surrey Docks. The nearer I came to home, I was afraid that I would find no home left. The conductor when I got off the tram, told me to keep on the road, in case of falling buildings. Home was about ten minutes walk from the stop. Bombers were above me and I took to my heels and ran. The road had recently been tarred and gravelled. I fell, scraping my skins and knees, ruined a new pair of stockings! (Clothes coupons were needed for them!)
I reached the house and made for the air raid shelter. No one was there. I waited until the bombers had gone and went to the gate in the fence between our garden and the neighbours. Mum and Dad were there in their shelter. They wouldn't call to me because of the bombers. They reckoned I would get to my shelter quicker than the other. Ron, my brother, had been evacuated. Imagine, a fifteen-year-old, naive girl in this situation!
I honestly think this was the first and last time I was scared all through the war and other events I had to face over the years. Like the time when we had incendiary bombs in the front and back gardens, I upended a heavy pot with a grapefruit plant in over one threatening to set the fence afire. I had grown it from a pip, was very proud of it. We had been warned not throw water on them, as they might explode.
The times the buzz bombs cut their engines overhead. You knew they were going to fall then. Once I came home from night duty to find my street cordoned off. The warder wouldn't let me go, until my mother came to the gate and waved to me. There was an unexploded bomb in the street.
All through the war years we had bowls and buckets in the top floor of the three story house. We had loose tiles on the roof which let the rain in.
At first when I came home from night duty, I would go to bed. If there was a raid, mum would wake me, I would go to the shelter with her. But I couldn't get back to sleep again, so I stopped her waking me, saying I would take my chance, I was exhausted from lack of sleep. The fact was, we were so used to the bombs and fires, we began to believe that was the norm. If we had a night free from raids, that was not normal!
At sixteen, I wrote to the GPO to apply for a job as telephonist, and was accepted. The first day I had to go to Old Street for training. At the weekend there had been bad air raids, especially the east end of London. I was climbing over the firemen's hoses etc. All the time I was there, the bombs were falling. It was very noisy. After a week I was sent to Faraday House, a few yards from St. Paul's cathedral. A much bombed area.
In those days it was the Trunk exchange. Callers had to dial trunks for calls outside London. It was very busy. When the training was finished I was put on the duty rota. The shifts were very funny times. One lasting for two weeks, we called up and down duty. From seven am to twelve noon, one day, the next day, twelve noon until seven pm. which meant in the winter I was going home in the dark and every other day, arrived in the dark. Eventually they built bedrooms with bunk beds in the basement. When we came off duty at seven pm we stayed there. There was also a common room and a canteen. The latter was on the seventh floor - the top floor of the building. The exchange was built on six floors, two switch-rooms to a floor. I worked on the third floor. One day, a buzz bomb cut the engines, we all stopped speaking, you could have heard a pin drop in the silence. A supervisor called out, "Get on with your work!" So, we did. Hard times!
One night when we were sleeping in the bunks, we were woken and told to dress and go to the common room. There was unexploded bomb in the courtyard between the four walls of the building. A friend and I decided to go back to sleep, fully dressed.
In the canteen there was no water, electricity or gas. For breakfast, we had a glass of milk, and bread and margarine, also marmalade. When we got to the switch-rooms, there were candles on the top of the seven-foot high boards! It was chaos, people had difficulty to get through to us, and we couldn't get through to them without difficulty. The bomb had severed the water, gas and electricity mains. I was very glad to get off duty, out of the mad house. In the night, buildings opposite us and all along the road were afire. I think it was 10th May 1940. It was a very dreadful night of air raids on London. Communications was considered an essential service, and we were not allowed to leave. Really, I would have liked to join the WRNS, but I wasn't able to because of working at the exchange.
I thought it was rather unfair, working during the air raids and not having any pleasure time, so I went to the cinema and to dances, causing my parents a lot of worry. When you are young, you don't think of that!
One day, when my mum was shopping a fighter plane machine-gunned the whole road, people were running and taking cover in shop doorways. I don't think anybody was killed. My mother was very shocked of course. We had several more buzz bomb situations. Then we had the rockets. But to me, the rockets were not so bad as the buzz bombs. We couldn't hear them coming, so the first we heard was the explosion. Then it was too late to worry. We could only hope the damage was not too bad. I'm sure there were more adventures, but owing to age and ill health, this is all I can recall now.
While working in the Admiralty, I met a marine, Bill, who became my boyfriend. When he went to sea, we corresponded. Thinking back, I think he was possibly on the Russia convoys. Meantime, I met an American, with a stupid name, Chuck, would you believe? He kept me supplied with candy and cigarettes, sometimes stockings. At that time it was hard to find any cigarettes, and sweets and stockings were on ration, so that was very good. A cousin of mine in the Canadian army visited my family and introduced me to a friend. So, now I had three boyfriends! The last letter I had from Bill, from New Zealand, he was thinking of staying there. Presumably he did as I didn't hear any more. The other two went their separate ways. I lost touch with them, but I wished them luck. I hope they survived.
Sometime after the end of the war, I met Spencer, who had been in the RAF. We married and had two sons. After eleven happy years, my husband had a fatal heart attack. My two sons were six and eights years old at the time. As I have said, a hard life.
I am nearly 80 years old now and a widow. My husband died in 1960 leaving me to bring up my two sons of 6 and 8 by myself. Two and a half years ago I had a stroke which left me with aphasia or dysphasia. This condition, which means I have difficulty with speech, spelling and language, was caused by damage to part of the brain which controls these functions. For about 2 years I had speech therapy to try to help correct these problems. After that period, the two therapists decided they could do no more for me, but they still keep in touch with me, which I appreciate and enjoy. For the last six months or so I have been having Acupuncture treatment, which seems to help in several areas. People tell me that I am speaking better and my vocabulary has broadened, but I am still unable to spell! I also feel that my use of language could be a lot better. The two things that I used to be good at were writing and spelling. Before the stroke, the war story would have been easy for me to write, as it is I hope that you can make sense of it. Ah well, that's life. I now write using the computer that my eldest son gave to me for Christmas shortly after I came out of hospital following the stroke. Before the stroke I knew nothing about computers, but now I use it all the time for writing my diary and letters to friends, family and others. However, I do find that if I don't use something for a while, I forget how to do it. My son comes to my rescue then.
This story was edited and corrected by my two sons, Brian and Jonathan Cuthbert.
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