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"A CHILD'S MEMORIES" (Wartime in Brighton, Worthing & London)

by AgeConcernShropshire

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Rosemary NEVIN (nee RUTHERFORD); Nora MILLER (mother); Annie CANT (granny); David RUTHERFORD (brother); Margaret Zoe RUTHERFORD (sister)
Location of story: 
Brighton & Worthing, Sussex
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 October 2005

Rosemary in her Sunday Best School Dress 1938 (This photograph was taken to send to her Uncle in America.)

The August of 1939 was a hot one. I was approaching my tenth birthday. I lived in Brighton with my Granny, brother and sister, who were both working. Granny was not really bothered what I did as long as I came home at meal times. This gave me the freedom to bathe in the sea, watch the concerts on the pier, and play around amongst the holidaymakers.

On the morning of September 3rd all that was to change. I remember being in the sitting-room with my granny, brother and sister listening to the radio. I am not sure if I realised what war meant but my brother had done a good job of scaring me to death, and fearing Germans. When the news confirmed war was declared, I left the room and came back in my Sunday coat and hat on with my suitcase. My sister looked at me and said "Where in God's name do you think you are going?". To be honest I had not really thought I just acted.

The change soon came the beach was out of bounds, the middle prom also. A huge grey naval gun was sited on top of the cliffs; streets of houses leading from the top prom were taken over as billets for soldiers, who soon arrived. Next a curfew was imposed this did not stop me going out. We were still allowed on the top prom and us kids watched the troops drilling all along the road, their caps used to fall off sometimes and we kids used to dive in between and pick them up, this was soon stopped! But we did run errands to the shops when they had a break, they would give us pennies. This was also stopped and the top prom was out of bounds. About this time a request was made by the army for games, books, in fact anything that would keep the men occupied when they were off duty. My brother had a dartboard, which he donated, to the delight of my granny as her door was full of holes. However it was decided that I should be the one to take it to them, I trotted round to the nearest houses full of troops and to my horror they were all paraded in the middle of the road. Undaunted I slowly walked up to the man in front, a sergeant I suppose and handed it to him, Now I was small for my age and felt even smaller when they clapped I turned and ran as fast as I could. The one thing that always stuck in my mind that he was inspecting their nails.

About a week later I returned to school in Worthing not far away, first we were given gas masks and practised wearing them, I hated the smell of rubber it made me feel sick. Identity cards were also something we had to have, we had to learn our number by heart and I have never forgotten it. An air-raid shelter was built and we used to practice air-raid drill in the middle of the night or so it seemed! I returned home for the Christmas holidays, there it was all going on - troops everywhere, curfew 9pm to 9am - in bed at night you could hear lorries driving round and men marching. Some days they practiced street fighting, one morning I must have been out before 9 0'clock because as I went round the corner I came face to face with a soldier pointing a gun at me, I don't know who was more surprised me or him. After a few choice words I ran home quickly. When I became a mother myself, I often wondered how granny could just send us out saying "If the siren goes go to the nearest shelter." It was during that time that we experienced our first bomb, opposite our house was a field. One night a loud noise woke us all up but it was not until the following morning that we went to look at the hole. It was quite small if compared with what followed later.

The winter of 1939/40 was cold and there was a lot of snow; even in Brighton surprisingly, as we were a seaside town. It was hard keeping warm although I do not know if there were shortages at that time. Like most people in those days we were poor in comparison to present day standards.

Back to school in January 1940, we were still in Worthing but changes were starting to happen. Lots of girls especially older ones had been evacuated abroad, the Army had called up the senior matron, young groundsmen had also joined up. Air-raids were real. We spent some nights in the shelter, we used to sing a song "It's a lovely day tomorrow" I have hated it ever since. We gathered nettles for vegetables and given little patches of garden; I grew radishes. Without a strict matron discipline was getting lax, we ran around at night instead of staying in bed, I was quite naughty, two or three of us had to go to bed early instead of being allowed to play outside. We used to go through the dormitory that lead to the air-raid shelter, we played on the other side of the hedge from the others and when the teacher blew her whistle we would scamper back to bed, we were never caught or told the other girls.

By the time of the Easter holidays my brother was in the LDV, as the Home Guard was first called. He was only about seventeen but as he had been in the Offiers' Training Corps and was able to handle a rifle he was given one. He would go up on the cliffs at night on guard. His rifle lived in the corner of the sitting room - not loaded I would imagine - I never touched it. I still played out and was in the communal garden playing with a little boy, near to his sister's pram, when without warning a German plane swooped out of the sky and machine-gunned us as we crawled under the pram. His mother came out of the house screaming, we were not hurt she took them in and left me to go home alone. It happened a second time when mothers and children were playing in the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion, the air-raid siren went off and we were all heading for the shelter under the Pavilion when suddenly a plane swooped down and fired on the ones at the end of the line. Seeing what was happening I ran the other way to the library. After that I always went to the library during an air-raid; the librarian would sit us around the walls with a book. Away from windows I suppose although they were taped up.

Back to school for the summer term, it was to be the last in Worthing but I did not know it then. The ice-cream man still came on his cycle every Saturday, it was sunny all the time. or so it seemed. We played in the hay field and swam in the little pool. We still had air-raids and I remember going back to Brighton with a group of girls and a teacher for a poetry competition. Which is an indication that life at the time was fairly normal.

Not so the summer holidays of 1940. Home for eight weeks and I was out and about as usual. Before the War I had made friends with a woman who had twin girls - Sylvia and Gloria - at that time they were a a year old. I would take them to the park on my own and they were quite happy to crawl around and be bossed by me. I still went with her for walks but not on my own with the babies. She had an Alsatian dog that would look out to sea and tug at her to go home if there was going to be a raid. One day as we headed up her street for her house a bomb dropped nearby. The street was
one of four-storey houses that swayed inwards, I was scared but they did not collapse on us. Night after night you would lay in bed and hear the drone of the bombers going to London, we well knew the odd one would lighten his load on the way home. Twice I watched dogfights between the an RAF fighter and the enemy, on both occassions the fighter came back and did victory rolls and us watchers would clap.

However, as I recall, it was the last week in August that the bombing in Brighton was really bad, especially one Saturday. I was in a queue waiting to go into the cinema for the Saturday matinee when the air-raid siren went, the father of the twins was a taxi driver and he saw me and took me out of the queue and told me to go home. My cousin had already gone into the cinema. During the raid the cinema was bombed, my cousin and her friend and little brother did not try to get out, they hid under the seats. They were fortunate to emerge with only cuts and bruises. I had just got home, followed closely by my sister - who had been hurried home by a warden on the corner - minutes later a bomb was dropped on a building on the opposite corner; the warden was blown to bits. When the firemen tried to put the fire out they were machine gunned on their ladders. Our only casualty
was my sister, at first we were in the sitting room but the wall shook so my sister thought we should go into the cupboard under the stairs. As she was trying to push us in, another bomb dropped nearby and the door slammed on her, breaking her thumb. It lasted many hours and my brother was called out, as the rumour was that the Germans were coming. Another rumour of the War at that time was that they had tried to invade but we poured oil on the sea and lit it. True or false I never found out.

In September 1940 I returned to school. Once again my life changed, all the school and what staff we had left, were evacuated to Lynton, North Devon. The only other experience of note after that was when I went home for the summer holidays in 1941. I was to travel with a few girls going south on our own from Lynton by bus to Taunton then by train from Paignton. First, we were ages waiting outside Portsmouth while it was being bombed. Finally we pulled into the station, it looked unbelievable. It looked like something out of a film, roof girders hanging down, amid rubble and smoke. The girl's mother took us for something to eat as we had been on the train for a long time, while her father went to find my train. He had difficulty and finally he put me on the only train going to Brighton, a troop train! As he was an RAF Officer I presume that was the reason they took me. I was put in a carriage with British Tommies and I sat very quiet and I guess scared. As far as I remember they were quite nice to me and gave me biscuits at one stop. Other troops on the train frightened me as they were so noisy, a mixture of Canadian soldiers, sailors and Scottish soldiers, but they did not come into our carriage. It was getting very dark and it seemed such a long time, I started to worry and tried to look out of the window. Then they got cross with me and swore at me and said "Do you want the train to be bombed?" - I sat very quiet but did not cry although I wanted to - but I had noticed a sign for Worthing so I knew I was nearly home.

At last we arrived, now a policeman was always on the barrier and I had to have a letter from granny to say I was expected home. My sister was stood with him and he told her if I was not on this train, goodness knows where I was. They were shocked to see it was a troop train, however, amongst the troops they saw a little dot in school uniform, me! After that I never went home again for two years.

Two years later when I was thirteen I went home to my mother in London for the summer holidays, by this time the Brighton house had been bombed and granny had gone back to Lincolnshire to live with two of her sisters. My mother had remarried and I found I had a baby brother. My experiences of war-time are vivid, especially that holiday. Every evening me, my mum and my half-brother went to the air-raid shelter.

Ours was a re-inforced basement of a tall house, where you slept in a blanket on a shelf! For that is the only way to describe your bunk. You did not get much sleep, listening to bumps and crashes, as well as snoring, and the arguments that broke out sometimes. Also most people were well aware that if you had a direct hit you would be buried. Other shelters in our street looked like garages, they were built in the road near the pavement, I doubt if these had been hit they would have been any safer. We had no Anderson shelters, all our homes were flats and only the garden flat had a small garden.

In the day my mother had to work so I looked after my two year old brother. When there was a day-time raid and we were in the flat, I would just close the large shutters that had an iron bar across. Other people came into our sitting room if mum was home, as they felt safer and cups of tea would be made. I remember once as my mother closed the shutters a doodlebug exploded nearby and the force of it blew her across the room and the shutters open. That doodlebug had fallen just a street away and when we went to see what had happened, we saw that a whole street of quite tall solid London houses had collapsed like a pack of cards. The police and firemen told us to go home.

As our flat was along side a railway line that was used solely by the Military we were constantly bombed. On the bridge outside the block of flats was a barrage balloon over the railway, and when a raid was on, women soldiers would run onto the bridge with an ack-ack gun. During one period of the bombing we had what was called (as I recall) Molitov bread basket bombs, these on landing broke into dozens of small of small fire bombs. When this happened men or boys used to go on the roofs and balconies and kick them off. Many fires took hold all the same.

My mother worked in a munitions factory near Wembley Stadium, so she never knew if her home or her children were safe until she got back. One morning after a particularly bad raid she said there were families lined in the street around Shepherds Bush Green. They were outside the undertakers waiting for coffins. We children were not allowed to play near the Green that day, for the Green was the garden for the mothers and kids of the area.

In those days we played football and cricket in the streets, we did not seem to notice the War and carried on as usual, going to the nearest air-raid shelter if you were caught out. I had to take my little brother with me wherever I went. We used to go to the Community Centre for our dinner, for sixpence we had a meat and two veg type meal and a pudding. No chips or pizzas! But fish shops did exist and we went to the chippy sometimes at night, mainly for a penny scallop like a potato fritter.

I once saw saw a doodlebug passing overhead as I made my way home one afternoon, we knew as long as it kept going we were OK. It was when they cut out that they came down and then whole streets could be destroyed with one bomb. At first no one knew what it was, the police said it was a gas main blow up. This my second experience of bombing and war. My first was when I was nine when the War started.

This is how I remember the years from 1939 to 1945, at the end of the War I was working.

Footnote: It was being negotiated at the start of the war for me to be evacuated to an uncle in America. My passage was booked, but for some reason my mother said we should all stay together in England, it seems odd as she was never with us. As it happened it was just as well, the ship was torpedoed off southern Ireland. I believe the children who did survive lived out the war there. The photo added to this story is the only one I had taken as a child. It was taken to send to my Uncle in America.

Story: This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Muriel Palmer (volunteer) of Age Concern Shropshire Telford & Wrekin on behalf of Rosemary NEVIN (author) and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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