- Contributed by
- Harold Pollins
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- Harold Pollins
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- 14 January 2004
My family lived in Leytonstone, in outer east London. It was then in the county of Essex even though it was part of built-up London. Now is it in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. In the summer and autumn of 1940, when the Battle of Britain began, we used to have air raid warnings but no actual bombing. The activity was in the more southerly part of the country. I recall our small fox terrier (called, for some reason, ‘Toots’) going into the garden and barking and then, some minutes later, the local air raid warning would go off. I suppose he may have heard a distant warning when he had barked. In this early part of the Battle of Britain we often spent long hours in our cellar which my father had had shored up with a steel vertical girder.
I was sixteen and wanted to continue in the sixth form of the school I was attending. I had stated that I was an intending teacher and as a result I had to undergo some teaching practice in order to have my father relieved from paying a small sum for my education (some payment, on a means test basis, was exacted before the Education Act of 1944 abolished such payments in state schools.) I therefore spent a month at a local primary school which had not been evacuated for my teaching practice. The headmaster was an old customer of my father’s. However, for much of the time we had to go to the shelters during the day and our nights were interfered with by the air raid warnings and our staying in the shelter. As a result I was only able to deliver about four lessons. I was greatly surprised and annoyed to find that the headmaster had filed a report on me in which I was judged to have failed.
Our family got fed up with the cellar as a shelter. Perhaps my parents were afraid of being buried if we were bombed. So we started using a public shelter on open ground near us, on Wanstead Flats, part of Epping Forest. This was jus a short distant under the ground and it so happened that this was when the severe blitz on London began, with attacks on the docks and on the East End of London. I am sure I’m right that in the first two or three nights of the blitz there was very little anti-aircraft retaliation but suddenly there was a great concentration of guns which fired for long periods, a marvellous cacophony. Again, I don’t think I’m misremembering if I say that everyone was highly pleased with it and, despite the noise - or perhaps because of it - people slept for the first time. A school friend, whose father was a docker, told me of the horrors his father has seen on going to work on the docks . Numerous houses were bombed and very many people were killed. Because of the damage to the docks his father was directed to Scotland to work on the docks there.
After a short period we looked for other shelters. On one occasion we went to the unfinished extension to the Tube railway in Leytonstone (work had begun in the 1930s and was to be finished after the war.) We went to the entrance but when we saw the mass of people in it I think we went home. The we began to use a surface shelter which belonged to the factory behind our house. We had to cut a way through the back fence and every night we would go to it, carrying our mattresses and accompanied by our dog, Some other locals also used it as did employees of the factory who were acting as firewatchers. I was told that as part of the war effort the workers in the factory began to improve their output. As a result, being on piecework, their wages went up. Apparently the employers thought it quite wrong that the girl employees should earn as much as £3.10s. a week and cut the rate. The girls went on strike - it was a non-union factory. I was quite annoyed to hear the firewatchers from the factory saying that they should not have struck and that the employers were right. Unfortunately the dog did not last long. It caught distemper from which it did not recover.
We made two other changes to our night-time arrangements. First, for a little time, we used to travel out each evening to Harlow, in Essex, then a small village although after the war it became the focus for a New Town. I suppose my parents had found the place. We travelled by Green Line coach, part of the London Passenger Transport Board, whose route lay on the main road in Leytonstone where we lived. At the house we used to sleep in the beds while the house-owners went to the shelter. We obviously must have thought that Harlow was in a safe area. Finally, we used to travel each evening to a farm near Ongar, In Essex, which belonged to a farmer-customer of my father’s. We, and another family from Leytonstone, took over an unoccupied agricultural worker’s cottage to which we repaired in the evenings and left in the mornings. We used to travel back from both Harlow and the Ongar farm wondering what damage had been done and whether there would be a home to find. I think it must have been on week-ends that I stayed on the farm and did some work. I hoed sugar-beet (although I sometimes wonder if, in my ignorance, I weeded the seedlings rather than weeds.) I tried to milk a cow by hand. I managed to drive a horse and cart, the horse being a magnificent shire horse. It was a very large animal but it was no trouble, being accustomed to his travail.
Although we lived in east London very few bombs landed near us. Admittedly we suffered from bomb blast; many slates from the roof were dislodged and windows were broken but nothing more. We were
lucky I suppose.
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