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Farm Work and Air Raid Shelters in Orpington, Kent

by agecon4dor

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Constance Audrey Hendon
Location of story: 
Orpington, Kent
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
30 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from Age Concern, Dorchester on behalf of Mrs Constance Audrey Hendon (née Clayton) and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs Hendon fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.


I was 12½ at the beginning of the war and lived in Orpington in Kent with my mother and father and two sisters. In the days before the war I was filling sandbags. We were told to be very careful not to get a stone in the sandbags because in the Spanish Civil War sandbags were exploded, the stones included, and they killed or badly injured people.

The Reality of War

With the dying notes of the All Clear fading away I scrambled from the air raid shelter into the half light of another soggy winter day. I was 13, cold, and convinced that my entire life was to be spent in climbing out of various holes in the ground. I thought longingly of the previous summer when the raids had first begun – the Battle of Britain fought high in the sky over our heads so that we had, in retrospect, been spectators at a joisting tournament. The victorious Spitfires performing an exultant victory roll whilst the vanquished Messerschmitts fell from the sky in a grey spiral of smoke. Sometimes the pall of smoke was not an enemy’s and the first hint of invasion was heard - so as to foil enemy gliders, tripods of tree trunks were erected in the fields as the crops were cleared.

Working in the fields

I had never been cold last summer. Day after cloudless day I had walked the two miles to the fields to help stook the corn. The able-bodied men had already left to join the Forces and we were a motley collection of old men, farm boys and local children, with one aim in common – to gather in the harvest and ensure food for the country in spite of U boats.

The horse-drawn reaper and binder clanked its way towards the middle of the field, leaving the sheaves in neat rows. As the centre square was reached all seized a stick to try to kill the rabbits as they ran from the diminishing cover to the sanctuary of the hedges. I could not look and I was thankful when it was over and we could begin to stook the sheaves in sixes, first two upright and then two slantwise either side, so that the rain would run off and grain and straw dry in the wind. The farm boys effortlessly lifted two sheaves at a time but, try as I might, I could only manage one which meant two trips to each of theirs, and my slowness irked me. At first it was fun, then hard work but satisfying. As the days drew on it became real toil, the hot sun burning my tired arms, my back aching. We moved from wheat to oats and now my hands burned for the crop was infested with thistles, but the knowledge that our work was vital gave us children stamina and a determination beyond our years. The fine weather broke, the fields were empty, the harvest gathered in and the duels in the sky became fewer.

Life in an Air Raid Shelter

With a sense of anti-climax I became once more a schoolchild and returned to everyday life. Now, however, the daylight bombing raids started and the long, cold winter in the air raid shelters began. No longer burnt by the sun, I froze in underground shelters - dank, stagnant, often flooded, always dark and cold, so cold. Piling on extra clothes and with the aid of torches lessons continued underground. Our numb fingers, encased in hand-knitted mittens, struggled to write with the fountain pens we were allowed to use – the only concession I can remember. Up until then we had always used a dip pen with a steel nib as an aid to character in our handwriting. The cold was not good for the fountain pens either, and I usually had a bottle of ink leaking gently in my pocket. If only washable Quink or, sheer bliss, Biros, could have been invented earlier.

Shelter life was surprisingly healthy and each day I negotiated the bombed streets on my bicycle to the haven of home and the comfort of macaroni cheese and tomato to warm my tummy and a snug kitchen to set my chilblains tingling.

As the winter advanced the bombing raids were switched to the night time. No more warm, blissful nights in bed to recover from the cold days. Sometimes we would not go to the shelter when the siren sounded but wait in the hall, which was fairly warm and certainly dry, until we heard the unmistakable engine noise of one of Theirs, when we children would be roused from our sleep, curled up on the bare carpet like puppies, and rushed down the garden to the shelter.

The all pervading cold was matched by a cloudless sky – Bombers’ Moons we called them - and we longed for the fog that Britain is famed for. As the nights wore on the flames of the fires started by incendiaries would light up the darkness, culminating in the night when the whole northern horizon seemed to be aflame, and from our frosty garden in Kent we watched the new Fire of London which would lay waste the City, leaving St Paul’s silhouetted against the crimson sky to be taken as a Divine sign that London would never be conquered.

The raids had become less in intensity since that night and today a thrush was singing as we scrambled into a new day. I was still only 13, and the previous summer seemed a million years ago but, though none of us knew it, the Frost-Fire Winter was nearly over.

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