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World war Two in Suburban Kent - A little girl's Memories

by CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
CSV Actiondesk at BBC Oxford
People in story: 
Doreen Shirley
Location of story: 
Petts Wood, Kent
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 August 2005

'This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Gwilym Scourfield of the County Heritage Team on behalf of Doreen Shirley and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.'

World War Two in Suburban Kent -
A Little Girl’s Memories

When World War Two began I was only an infant of eighteen months. Dad was serving in the Azores. I lived with Mum and my brother, Derek. Our parents paid rates to The London Borough of Lewisham, but our address was Bromley, Kent. Mum always insisted we were not Londoners — we were from Kent!

During the Blitz, my memories are subordinated by recollections from the family. In those days, sweets were wrapped in a paper bag, twisted at the top. I was proudly holding such a bag when a bomb landed so near to the house that the blast — and probably a fragment of shrapnel -left me holding just the twist of paper at the top. The precious cargo of confectionary must have all been blown clean away. Now that is what you call a near thing! I am amazingly lucky to be here to tell the tale. Sadly, the lady who lived next door, was killed with shrapnel from the same bomb.

My seven-year-old brother was in the lounge. He was blown across the room in the explosion, which shattered all our windows, adding a cloud of confusion in the form of a great belch of black soot out of the fireplace. There was an Anderson shelter at the bottom of that garden; Lord alone knows why were not in it. The house had to be boarded up after that damage.

Mum had an identical twin sister living in Petts Wood, near Orpington. After that terrible day, we decamped to her semi. My uncle was stationed in Jersey, but his little house still had to accommodate my mum and her sister, my Nan, myself, Derek and my auntie’s two daughters. That was another thing people were used to in wartime — sharing! At this house we had two shelters. Best of all was the Morrison shelter in the dining room. It looked just like a huge table with mattresses in the bottom. It was our stage! We performed all sorts of plays and dance entertainment from that auspicious platform. Derek slept on a settee in the dining room, but took shelter inside the Morrison shelter when there were air raid sirens. Somehow we all managed to get in there except Nan. She never came downstairs, whatever the Germans threw at us. There was a terrible panic after one raid when her bedroom door wouldn’t open. I am sure the adults must all have feared the worst (well, adults do, don’t they?) The blast had brought the linoleum up against the door, preventing it opening. That was all.

My brother’s school wanted them all to evacuate to Wales. He didn’t really want to go, but neither did he want to separate from his friends. In the end he went to Porthmadoc. He loved the seaside, though he missed home. We all missed him, too. One day we had a letter from him, inside which was a crab’s claw! You can imagine what it smelled like after travelling nearly three hundred miles in a mailbag! He eventually decided to come home, much to my delight. He was great fun.

I don’t remember being particularly scared of the war. As soon as the ‘All Clear’ sounded, my brother would be off on his bike or skates and we would all look for ‘trophies’. (He never walked anywhere!) One of these, a huge piece of shrapnel with numbers clearly marked on it, came home from the hunt still warm. It was on our windowsill for ages.

The bomb craters filled with water and provided more treasures — the biggest newts I have ever seen. We loved collecting them up and putting them into jars in our garden. Today they are an endangered species. In those days, we were!

Living with all my family in that house were some of the happiest days I can recall. We had all kinds of fruit and vegetables growing in the garden. Nan was a terrific cook, too. That was the ‘Something from Nothing’ generation as far as food was concerned. I remember her sitting always with a colander, topping and tailing black or redcurrants, or shelling peas, cutting beans. She was always busy. She made wonderful jam.

One day my uncle came on leave and gave my cousin a banana to eat. She didn’t realise you are supposed to remove the skin first! They were truly exotic fruit in those days. He placed his rifle against the wall behind the door. I was terrified of that weapon. I’m sure he would have had no idea of how frightening a gun might be to a little girl.

My mum loved those times, too, despite the imminent dangers and the threats her family were facing. She adored dancing. Her sister did, too. They would put brown cream down their legs and paint a black line straight up the backs to look like nylons; most of the time they danced together.

I was a sickly child, doubtlessly because mum was somewhat undernourished during her pregnancy. I had to go to Great Ormond Street Hospital. It was humiliating having to wee in a potty — long after I had been toilet trained! They made me take cod liver oil and malt after that. They gave mum a great big jar of that ghastly stuff. I had to have A and D drops in my milk, too. Ugh! I can still see that rotating twist of coloured oil floating on my milk. It was horrible. The dentist was always having to try to repair teeth that collapsed through lack of calcium. The only good thing about the dentist was being able to dodge the school milk. Imagine my disgust, when I returned to school one day from the dentist only to discover they had SAVED my milk for me!

I do remember some of the shortages. One day I was taken to another girl’s house to try on some shoes. New ones were clearly out of the question. Mum took sugar to a house (or was it a shop?) and we came home with sweets. That must have been a really good trade. One Christmas I had mumps and was isolated in bed. It was the Christmas I remember best because I had a farm brought to me by the church people; real farm to play with, with all the animals. I did better than anybody. We didn’t have many Christmas presents like that.

Two morbid fears have been a life long legacy of World War Two: I can’t stand searchlights and I absolutely hate the dark. You would think you would grow out of irrational terror like that, but you don’t; not ever.

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