- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Roy Atkins
- Location of story:
- London and St Ives, Hunts
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
I was born on 30/9/1930 in Tottenham. We lived in Pembroke Road N15. I went to Earlsmead School in Broad Lane, N15. Dad was a machinist at the JAP engine factory until the depression and after nine months unemployment started working as a conductor on the trams at Stamford Hill depot. My first recollection of the impending war was when a barrage balloon was flown from the school playground opposite the Palace cinema to publicise George Formby’s film “It’s in the Air”. The next was when the school listed us for possible evacuation. Then an Anderson shelter arrived. Councilmen dug a hole in the middle of the back garden and erected the shelter in it.
Outbreak of War.
I was on holiday at St Ives, Hunts (now Cambs) with my Mum on the day the war started. Our annual holiday was always a week staying with relatives, either at St Ives or at Halesworth in Suffolk. I can clearly remember listening to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast to announce the start of the war in the room behind my uncle’s shop in St Ives. In addition to our family members there was a boy evacuated from Hornsey who was billeted with my aunt.
Because I was on holiday I missed being evacuated with Earlsmead School who went to Baldock. At the end of the school holiday the school did not reopen, the teachers had all gone to Baldock with the rest of the pupils. During the period of the phoney war I stayed at home all day until Easter 1940 when part-time classes started in the church hall at St Peters in Broad Lane.
I can clearly remember the day the Blitz started. I was walking with Mum along St Anne’s Road, Tottenham, to visit my granny when the sirens started. We hurried to get to Beechfield Road but as we passed a public shelter the warden would not let us pass and we had to go in. That was the only time I went into a public shelter, it was awful, cramped and uncomfortable with hard seats. Later we heard all the local fire engines going to the docks and when it got dark we could see the glow from the dockland fires, bursting bomb flashes and ack-ack bursts in the sky. From then on we slept in the Anderson every night. It was very damp, the floor was the bare earth and the drainage pit in the corner had to be bailed out regularly. Visiting bombsites became a goulish pastime. We went to see where the first bomb fell in Tottenham, in Ida Road. The biggest was the parachute mine that wiped out several streets at Stoney South. One Sunday Dad took me into the City. I recall an enormous hole in the middle of the road (Old Street underground station in City Road?), beds hanging from the upper wards of City Road hospital and another building with a double decker bus embedded in its second floor. We used to collect bits of shrapnel, bomb splinters and bits of aircraft; one prized possession was a piece of land-mine parachute.
One Friday we were planning to go to St Ives to get a weekend respite. Dad was working an early shift and Mum had gone shopping. I was left at home playing with Margaret who lived at No 11 and when the siren went we went into the shelter. Just as well, within minutes a German plane dropped a stick of bombs south to north across South Tottenham. The last of the stick fell in Earlsmead Road that backed onto us. To this day I can remember hanging tightly onto the string that held the large piece of wood that was used as the shelter door while bricks, tiles and other debris from a house in Earlsmead Road hammered into it. When we emerged from the shelter there were no widows (or frames) left in the back of our house and there was debris in the room where we had been playing. When Mum and Dad got home we set off for St Ives and left the debris as it was.
During the weekend it was decided that I should stay with my aunt Elsie and Uncle Ron at St Ives and Mum would join me when Dad was called up a few weeks later. I could not go to the evacuee’s school because I was not an official evacuee so I started to attend the boy’s council school in St Ives. This school was totally different to Earlsmead, there were only four classes for the whole age range of 7 to 14+; at Earlsmead there were two classes for each year entry. There were only four teachers and each took their own class for all subjects all day long. There did not seem to be any timetable, e.g. If a sums test result was poor we got more sums all day. Earlsmead was a mixed school, St Ives was segregated. The discipline system at St Ives was barbaric, it relied entirely on corporal punishment. The cane was given with great frequency; it was given for lateness, talking in class and lack of attention as well as more serious misdemeanours. In the end it didn’t work! The more disruptive kids were beaten day after day but their behaviour never changed. The cane was also given for poor work! I remember more than one occasion when I was caned for poor handwriting. At Earlsmead we were taught to write in “joined-up writing” using loops on l, g, y etc. at St Ives Tom Palmer insisted I wrote script with a relief nib. After the punishment I could not even hold a pen yet alone write with or without loops. It didn’t make sense to me at the time and still doesn’t. The pupils were often given a choice of cane! Tom Palmer had rolls of different thickness of cane in his cupboard and would cut off a new length when he thought that the current cane was losing its stiffness. It was not so bad in the scholarship class; Mrs Frith did not cane but sent pupils to the Head, her husband Sammy, for beating in cases of bad behaviour.
In September 1943 I went to Huntingdon Grammar School. I had to sit two scholarship exams. After getting a place at Huntingdon Grammar the Hunts County Council insisted that Tottenham BC should pay for me to attend so I had to sit a second exam to satisfy the TBC that I deserved the place. Fortunately only the Head was allowed to cane and it was a very rare occurrence.
While staying at St Ives both Mum and me were involved in uncle’s business (miller and corn chandler), Mum as a ledger clerk and shop girl while I helped with local deliveries around the town on the shop bike. I recall being sent on the train to Histon to collect seeds from Umwins to sell in the shop. I also had to do my share on the allotment and looking after the pet rabbits and chickens, neither of which I had to do in Tottenham. Food rationing was not such a severe problem as in Tottenham. Uncle Ron operated in a “slightly grey” market. An extra bag of chicken feed to a farmer would result in a regular supply chickens and a bag of pig meal guaranteed meat for a month or more. Once a local butcher had an order for rabbits from the Officers Mess at RAF Wyton and all our pets (except one pregnant doe who miscarried from the shock) disappeared overnight.
Again there was some war sightseeing. During the winter of 1940/41 we used to watch bomb flashes, ack-ack bursts and fires in London from St Ives around 60 miles away. An oil bomb was dropped on a search light post in St Audrey’s Lane and with some friends I cycled to Needingworth to see a crashed Short Stirling bomber in flames just off the Bluntisham Road. The bodies had all been moved before we got there, there were only blood-covered sheets of corrugated iron that had been used as stretchers. The German bombers passed over St Ives on their way to the Midlands, the River Ouse being a good landmark. On one particularly bad night we slept or rather tried to sleep under the dining room table. We learned from the radio next morning of the devastation of Coventry.
Return to London.
After three years Mum was getting a bit fed up with living with relatives and raids on London had stopped so in July 1944 we returned to Tottenham and I transferred to Tottenham County School. It was only a week or so into the new term when the V1 doodlebugs started. It was at night when we saw the first one and we thought that it was a plane that had been hit and was on fire before crashing. It was a few days before details were released and pictures of them appeared in the papers. We did not use the Anderson and just stayed in the house, we were getting blasé about air raids! If the siren went off during school hours we had to go and sit on benches in the downstairs corridors. These warning periods were enjoyable; I was able to sit holding hands with my first girlfriend! The nearest doodlebug fell in Broadfield Road and later a V2 wiped out Fladbury Road and Osman Roads leaving an enormous hole in the ground.
In Tottenham women were being sent to compulsory work at the Lebus furniture factory, they were making bits of DH Mosquitoes. To avoid this Mum got a job in the accounts department of Bernard Wetherill, a family firm of bespoke tailors in Conduit Street W1. At that time their main business was making officers uniforms. Many years later the son, Bernard junior (Jack to the staff) became an MP and the Speaker of the House of Commons.
On VE night Mum took me up to Westminster. We took the Underground from Manor House to Trafalgar Square the walked down the Mall to The Palace and cheered the Royal family on the Balcony. We were on holiday at Halesworth staying with Auntie Ivy for VJ night and joined in the big bonfire celebration. The celebration meant most to Auntie Ivy because Uncle Leslie was with the RAF in Burma. The war was not really over for us until Dad returned in September.
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