- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Ray Maurice, Denny and Lenny Hawker, Mr and Mrs Woolcott
- Location of story:
- Lambeth, Dulwich, Tatworth, Chard
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Wendy Wood of Hastings Community Learning Centre, a volunteer from BBC Southern Counties Radio on behalf of Ray Maurice and has been added to the site with his/her permission. Ray Maurice fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
I was an evacuee during most of the London Blitz. My mother died during my birth in 1930 after which I was lucky enough to be tolerated rather than fostered by my father’s sister and her husband, my aunt and uncle, whom I have since referred to as Mum and Dad.
I was born in Lambeth and lived in south-east Dulwich, but later moved to the first council estate built by the Greater London Council, GLC. It was an advance on the places we had previously lived in and was regarded as a slum clearance from the worst areas in London. I can remember two families who were both uneducable and one had to be very careful to avoid them and their part of the estate because they were petty criminals and dangerous. The school we attended was termed a Standard Elementary, forerunner of the Secondary Modern. We didn’t have a dinner service in every school in those days, so we therefore had to attend one school as a dinner centre for all schools on the estate.
Every house on the estate was issued with two types of air raid shelter; Morrison that went under the table and the Anderson that had to be let into the garden by digging a rectangular hole about half its total height in which to place it. It was put together with corrugated galvanised steel sheets and was very strong. We were all issued with gas masks and ration books
in those days to give everybody the minimum requirements of food, but one could obtain more coupons on the black market. There was a certain feeling of unreality and distance about the notion of war, I know as a child of nine there was for me.
However, I quickly understood the stark reality of war when I heard the air raid sirens droning followed by bombs being dropped on the city of London. I remember once walking with my parents along Rye lane in Dulwich while bombs were dropping, shops were falling and
Shrapnel was whistling past our heads. From Lancelot Once, when a group of us Pupils School on the Downham estate, south London, were trying to attend a dinner centre, (another school that served all the schools on the estate), we were machine gunned by the yellow Luftwaffe planes on their way to Germany. We could discern the faces of the pilots as they bore down upon us and fired a hail of bullets at us but we had pressed ourselves against the wall and the bullets ripped their way through the metal fence at that end of the school. We then resumed our journey to the dinner serving school. This sort of situation accelerated the evacuation process. and I along with all the children on the estate from all the schools were marshalled to the school hall where we were all issued with our gas masks and labels of identification and destination. I and a friend of mine were transported to a village in Somerset, called Tatworth near Chard. Here we were marched to the church school Hall to be allotted to our foster parents for the duration of the war; the children were gradually led away until the only two left were my friend and I. Two ladies were standing by the door; having arrived late had no option but to take us two scruffs away. I cannot remember where my friend was billeted but we all met up the next day at the village church school. I remember forming an immediate loathing of two local lads, Denny and Lenny Hawker. We fought every time we met in the playground but I could always beat them both at the same time. However, we eventually became the best of friends. I hated school and one day, Denny, Lenny, I, and several other tearaways, were swinging on the school gate, which was made of cast iron and about six feet wide. It was great fun, swinging and banging the gate against its stop. Eventually, the gate broke at the hinge end and therefore brought this act of self-expression to a close. For that, we all received six of the best from the Headmaster We accepted our punishment as nothing less than that we deserved in those days and something to boast about with our friends when we came out of the Headmaster’s office with our hands under our armpits and bent over almost double to ease the pain, When the gate was restored we did not swing on it anymore because it had lost its appeal.
The family that looked after me, Mr and Mrs Woolcott and a daughter of six or seven yeas of age, were very religious and made me attend church twice on Sundays; Family service in the morning and Sunday School in the afternoon. I hated it but I had to go and pretend it was making a difference to the way I behaved. I must have been very convincing and a model Christian’s apprentice for my behaviour and punctuality, because at the annual prize giving I was awarded a book, called, Brindlewood Farm, where the family were very religious, rather like the family I was looked after by. My being awarded a book with such a pious looking picture of them all and knowing they were all perfect, was too much for an east end lad such as me and I wanted something with action, such as Just William or Tarzan and the Apes. However, I had to pretend that I liked it and hence read it
After a while the air raids over London became less frequent and I returned to London and my old Standard Elementary school in Lancelot Rd. where all the boys were entered for an entrance examination to the Brixton school of Building. I was the only one who passed and was sent to the college on my own. The College was situated in Brixton in Ferndale Rd., not far from Bonne Marche Store. My father bought a cheap brief case for me to put all my work in. I had to wear my best clothes and rubber soled boots instead of my usual ones of horse-shoe-heel toe-caps and hob-nails that real men wore. The college was quite different to my Standard Elementary school where the level of mathematics was far simpler than that that confronted me now and the staff walked about in mortar boards and gowns and I thought they were wearing frocks and fashionable hats. The Downham Estate was a rough, tough area where one had to belong to a gang. In my street was the Charlie Clarke gang while in the street parallel to us was the Reggie Guest gang. If you refused to join either of the gangs you would be tuned up by both of them. However, I belonged to the Charlie Clarke outfit but because of my college commitment I had no time for our tough games of Release and High Jimmy Knacker. Release was a game that required two teams and a prison. One team would be pursued by the other and held in the prison. After a while we would change teams to reverse the process. One can imagine the fights that developed where one team scuffled with the other to catch and retain them in the prison, usually somebody’s gate, while the other team tried to break in to release their members that may already be incarcerated therein. As one can imagine the results were bloody. High Jimmy Knacker was another tough game that required two teams. One team member would cross the road and bend over and grasp the privet hedge that ran along everybody’s front garden on the estate. Then one member from either team would run across the road and leap in the air to land on the member stooped over. If the member stayed on his back another member from either side would dash across the road to try and land on the same back. If he fell off he would have to stick his head between the legs of the member bent over and thereby lengthen the chain The next member from either side would repeat the process until all the members were used. The next team member, always the strongest, would cross the road, grasp the hedge and they would perform again. The team that was left with the most of their side sitting on the backs of the human chain was the winner. All these normal pursuits were finished now because of my college work. The gang felt I had deserted them and used to wait for me to get off the tram at Grove Park station to try and beat me up. However, I managed to survive these sessions until something happened that changed our lives forever.
It was the summer of 1944/1945 when Ocean Swell/Wave won the Derby. The summer day was warm and bright with everywhere bathed in sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. Then the sirens began their warning drone and dad ordered me to our Anderson garden shelter with next door’s grandchild while he called mum who was next door to come out as well. She came out and ran toward the gap in our dividing fence, (each house in the terrace had such a gap for quick contact with each other in emergencies), she just reached dad as she stretched out her right arm while dad reached out his left arm. Their fingertips touched and that was the last moment they shared with each other. One of Willi Braun’s rockets had landed and mum was blown to pieces along with 800 council houses and many of the tenants. I was rescued by a brave group of locals called the A.R.P-air-raid -precaution unit. They picked up my dad’s body and dumped it on a pile of corpses where they lay among the rubble and dismembered bodies, arms, legs etc all in grotesque poses as they protruded from their demolished homes and blackened by the extreme surface blast of the rocket. I told the A.R.P. that dad was still alive because I had heard him call out after the explosion. They picked him up and chucked him in the ambulance along with the other barely living. Next door the total remaining relatives of an extended family had decided, just the night before, to all coalesce and live together in their last remaining home. There were ten people, nine adults and a boy of nine or ten. All the adults were killed leaving the boy as the only surviving member of the extended family. A girl next door but one, of nineteen, (I was fifteen), would come into our house to look at my paintings and say how much she liked them and I always felt very flattered. She was a very beautiful blonde girl with big blue eyes and was the first none dismembered corpse I saw, it was laying beneath a sack with just her left hand protruding in a hopeless, gentle gesture, as though reaching for the hand of God. She was so beautiful. The A.R.P told me it was Iris. At that point I noticed a few people standing by the remains of our fireplace and every now and then would stoop down to pick up anything they thought was worth taking of our simple belongings that may still be intact amongst the debris. I felt that I could kill such creatures. As if the hell already caused was not enough, we had to suffer these dreadful people also.
There was a sense of unreality about the whole nightmare after the screams of the injured had subsided a little and one had to cope with the pea soup of very dense dust that now blinded everybody that had replaced hither to, brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky.
My immediate task was to visit my father in Lewisham Hospital to tell him that mum had gone. I did not want to do this and hung about in the foyer for a long time before plucking up the courage to approach his bed and confirm his worst fears. He was a very sad sight, his face barely recognisable because of his injuries. Most of his bones had been broken and he could hardly speak He knew what I was about to say before I said it. We looked at each other for a few heart rending moments before we fell in each others arms and cried and cried and cried and dad was part of a bare-fist fighting family well known in London in those days which implied that real men never cry. However, to lose the angel that made everything alright was a blow well below the belt of our endurance. Unlike Willi Braun, the homicidal psychopath who designed this V1.and now was developing his next toy the V2 This rocket travelled high into the ionosphere and then descended without warning to create a very deep crater as opposed to the surface blast of the V1.
When the war was over Willi went to America to carry on his evil research. It is of cold comfort to reflect on the fact that my mother and all others who were murdered at that time were sacrificed whilst trying to retain the nothing they already possessed.
The Downham Estate shared historical significance with CHINA, HADRIAN and BERLIN because they all were all noted for having a wall……………….They were all intended to keep people out. Downham had theirs at the end of Baleswood Road to keep Downham children out of Bromley. But it didn't!
War profits none but they that supply the means.
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