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Memories of the Second World War 1939-1945: In Norbury

by Surrey History Centre

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Surrey History Centre
People in story: 
Surrey History Centre
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Contributed on: 
05 May 2004

This story has been submitted to the People’s War site at Surrey History Centre on behalf of Evelyn Houghton whose mother Dorothy Lowe wrote the story. It has been added to the site with her permission, and she fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

War started on 3rd September 1939 (our 7th wedding anniversary) and finished in Europe on 8th May 1945. When war was announced I was making jelly with crab apples which the lady next door had given me.

Arthur enlisted in the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) in 1938 and had done a great deal of work in that connection before war was declared. His first job was to get papers filled in, in roads allotted to him, stating names and addresses of people living in those houses. Later identity cards were issued — one to everybody — and these had always to be carried. My husband’s number was CLCA296/1 and mine was CLCA 296/2. Later one of his jobs was giving out gas masks to everyone. He continued to serve in this capacity right through the war as he was in a reserved occupation with Henley’s. Henley’s made cables required for the war; one was a pipe line right under the Atlantic Ocean. He organised a Fire Fighting Rota with the neighbours in our road (Acacia Road, Norbury), people taking it in turns to be on duty for this, long before it became compulsory to do so. Each house had its sand bucket, and shovels were kept handy also. We did have occasion to do this once; we lived near a railway station (Norbury) which was a hazard.

People were asked to save money to help the war effort in the form of War Savings Certificates (which we could cash later) and when there was a special week concerning this throughout the country, Arthur arranged it in our road and a list was put up and people (without giving their names) wrote down how much they had saved that week and we did very well.

When Evelyn was born in 1941, when we left the hospital (after two weeks there, mostly in bed — how different these days) they gave me a gas mask for her. It was in a long cardboard box and I think in the event of a gas raid the whole baby was placed in it. Not just a face mask as given to the adults. Older children had a face mask looking like Mickey Mouse. Fortunately we never used these gas masks as there were no gas raids. In our garden in front of our house was a post with a specially treated board on top and if there had been gas, this board would turn green. I think the tops of pillar boxes were treated in the same way.

We adults always wore a whistle round our necks so that if we were buried we might be able to blow this which would help people to find us.

In May 1944 Arthur was rushed to hospital being in great pain and they operated and took away his gall bladder. The surgeon said he had never seen so many gall stones in one person. He had been home from hospital after a month’s stay there, for about two weeks and was to convalesce for five, when we attended his father’s funeral and during the night the Germans sent over their first flying bomb (doodle bug) which landed the other side of a high wall at the bottom of our garden. (This was the night of Tuesday, 20th June 1944, at 6 minutes past 4 a.m.)

By this time Hilary was two and a half months old and she with the rest of the family, was under our Morrison shelter. (Morrison shelters were introduced in 1941 and were strong enough to hold the weight of a house collapsing on top. They cost £7.0.0. but were free to low earners. It was a strong steel box-like construction with two layers inside used as beds. During the day the top became a dining table). We also kept a case there which had all our important papers in it. Arthur was of course not on A.R.P.duty. Previous to having the shelter Arthur and Mr Bremner at number 10 had taken down part of the fence between their houses and dug a shelter but we did not use this very much. (this was at the beginning of the war when we had no children) as the vibration from bombs was too great. Following that, Arthur and I had slept (when we could and he not on duty) in the cupboard under the stairs. We put boards over the coal and a 3ft. mattress on that 2ft 6ins space which left us just over 2ft for the two of us and I was VERY pregnant with Evelyn at the time of the Battle of Britain. When we did manage to sleep, if one just had to turn over for comfort, the other had to be woken up and we had to turn together.

My husband was travelling to Dorking for work every day including Saturdays and often travelled in trains and trams while air raids were going on. When he arrived home from work he changed at once into his uniform and most nights after a hurried meal went to his where the wardens met. Some nights he was on duty all night and then I had the ‘bed’ to myself. I changed into different clothes every early evening as we kept clothes on all night in case we had to escape from the house. We were almost living in this cupboard right through the Battle of Britain.

By the time Evelyn was born in 1941 we were able to sleep upstairs in our own bed (fully clothed of course) and the baby was in an improvised carry cot downstairs so that when we had to go downstairs because of a raid we could pick up the baby when we got down there.

To get back to the flying bomb; it was evidently the high wall at the bottom of our garden which saved the people on our side of the road. One elderly lady died of a heart attack on the way to hospital and Babs Handley at number 14 sustained an injury to her foot with flying glass and has suffered with it since then although treated in hospital at the time. Hilary at two and a half months was blown over under the shelter and I found her head where I thought her feet were. For several months she had trouble with her eye and it is thought some dust or plaster got in it. We did not put the wire guards along the side of the shelter (the side away from the wall) as we thought they would be a nuisance in case of a fire. So we had some very heavy dining chairs there, but these were blown towards the fireplace and a wallet which had been on the chair was found up the chimney. The damage to our house and contents was considerable and freakish. Most of our china and glass was broken or chiefly disappeared altogether. Dinner service, bottled fruits (very precious as very difficult to get) jam jars etc were destroyed. The only thing not troubled in the larder in the room where we were sleeping was a cut glass bowl with our egg ration in it — 5 eggs. One week’s ration. In the dining room downstairs ornaments were broken and best china in the sideboard. A Wedgwood biscuit barrel was never seen again except for the lid which was found in the road in the front of the house. A large Wedgwood salad bowl which had stood next to it was still alright and in perfect condition.

By holding on to a wall I was able to get up the stairs and found floorboards up in the children’s bedroom but was able to recover from the rafters some crochet, some cotton and some silver 3d pieces. The dolls from my childhood which I had saved and which were on top of a wardrobe were no longer any good. The windows in the dining room were on sash cords and one of the weights was found only a few inches from my husband’s head. Our cat who had been in the kitchen, wandered in covered in plaster. Milk crates were found in our top back bedroom (where the floor was also up), having been blown from the dairy the other side of the high wall at the bottom of the garden.

Within a few hours of being homeless Ray Petty offered us, very kindly, shelter in the basement of his large motor show rooms in Streatham High Road, and they were very good to us. We went to the rest centre in Norbury Methodist Church for a meal, but we could not have it there as we were not sleeping there. We were fortunate to meet a friend, Mrs Finch who we knew because she and her husband had an allotment near ours. Many people had applied like us at the beginning of the war and we obtained a piece of land about 10 minutes walk from where we lived and we grew vegetables there. Mrs Finch told us there was a brick shelter at the bottom of the garden next to hers, and the people had evacuated and said anybody who needed it could use the shelter. So this was our home for ten days.

Fortunately it was summer and good weather. We wandered the streets most of the day with Evelyn and Hilary in the pram, dashing into public shelters or even between tall houses when raids sounded. I did a bit of shopping taking something back to the shelter to eat. All our meals were cold. Evening and night we stayed in the shelter.

It was a good thing that Hilary had a good digestion. Her 6a.m.feed had had to be heated and prepared at 9p.m. the previous evening, with the previous night’s 10p.m. feed, and although wrapped in nappies and cotton wool, it was only just warm when she had it. The 10a.m. feed she did not get until about 11.30a.m. as we had to wait for the milk to be delivered to a friend at a nearby house in Green Lane (Violet Parker).

After ten days the Croydon council offered us living accommodation at 296 Norbury Avenue. We had often seen this house when walking to the A.R.P. hut and had called it Sleeping Beauty’s Palace as shrubs grew right up the steps to the front door. The shrubs were cut down and we moved what furniture we had left into this house. We paid rent each week to the council for this accommodation. Our Morrison shelter was moved into here. We were to share the house with Mr and Mrs Bremner, but they put their furniture (what had been retrieved) in the house and then went to live with friends in Purley. So there was just us and our bits of furniture in this big house.

We moved into the Norbury Avenue house at the beginning of July. On 10th July we went to stay with my brother Harold and his wife Amy in Oxford. They were having no raids there and we stayed with them until 10th September.

Two days before we returned from Oxford the V2 rockets started, sent across from France by the Germans without pilots. Our train was 3 hours late arriving in London (we did not know about the rockets and the damage they had caused). Fortunately the taxi we had ordered to meet us at the station had waited for us. This was my first experience of a car with light directing signals (indicators) and I could not understand what the clicking noise was in the car, indicating a right or left turn.

These rockets caused a lot of damage and Arthur often had to go out in the night to rescue people. His lungs became very affected with the dust and a few years later as he got older this made him very ill.

When we returned to Norbury Avenue the windows were soon blown out and just covered with brown paper. The winter was approaching and while the small supply of coal lasted we lived in the very large dining room where our shelter was, and sat very near the fire with our thick overcoats on and travelling rugs wrapped round our knees. Later we gave this up and lived in the downstairs kitchen and had the gas oven alight with the door open to give us warmth. The kitchen and garden were overrun with rats and mice but we survived. When I sat quietly in the kitchen in the evening mice would come running over the chairs and table. Sometimes I heard a little noise and saw a rat’s snout coming through a hole it was gnawing in the floor. As I stood at the sink by the window washing up I could see rats running about outside. The council said they couldn’t do anything about it.

Hilary lived under the Morrison shelter for many weeks, just being taken out for feeding and washing. Evelyn and I were in the kitchen and when there was an air raid warning or we heard the planes we used to hold hands and run across the kitchen, then up some stairs, then across a large hall, then across the large dining room and almost fall under the shelter. I laughed at this ‘game’ which seemed to keep Evelyn happy without apparently realising how serious it was.

The kitchen was not a basement but was down more steps. We lived in the upstairs room (and slept there also) during the summer even though we had no glass in the windows. By the winter we moved down to the kitchen in the daytime where we had some warmth from the gas cooker.

I have forgotten to mention that even before the war started the air raid wardens were checking with people that they had arranged heavy dark curtains at the windows so that when lights were on, no lights showed outside. They checked up on this night after night. Lights in trams, buses and trains were very dimmed, and on what cars were running. Only essential petrol was allowed and this to such people as doctors. People who had to go out in the dark carried very small torches. There were no lamps alight in the streets.

In the house we had difficulty with baths. We were able to bath Evelyn and Hilary (not very comfortably) in the sink, with water heated in a kettle but for us we used what little coke there was to light the boiler down in the cellar. Half an hour later we went upstairs to the bathroom and turned on the tap and warm water came out in a trickle. Twenty minutes later we went up again and there was about 3” of warm water there which we then used for our bath.

After Acacia Road was bombed it was decided by the council that they were not going to rebuild but later because there were so many damaged houses and the foundations were good they changed their mind and rebuilt. In August 1945 our Acacia Road house was ready for our re-occupation and we moved back there, on VJ day, August 12th. . Hilary was now 16 months old and Evelyn 4 ½ years. Hilary was no longer the baby as Malcolm had been born on July 3rd 1945.

Throughout this time we tried to lead as normal a life as possible. The two girls were able to play with dolls and we had been lucky enough to buy a small dolls’ pram, and teddy bears were pushed in this. At one time after we were bombed out of our house, a nearby school (Kensington Avenue School) sent a letter to say that children who could, had brought toys they could spare, to be given to children who had lost their homes. We went along with Evelyn and she chose a teddy bear, which she still has. It wasn’t in very good condition then, but since has been played with by her and Hilary and Malcolm so now it is “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair, So Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t Fuzzy was he!”

I also had two patchwork quilts given me for the cots. These had been sent to a depot from Canada.

As the war progressed we were rationed for more and more things. Even after the war was over the weekly rations went on. Meat, fats, (butter and marg) cheese, bacon, sweets, jam, milk, bread, eggs. We were sometimes able to get dried eggs in powder form. These came from America. And sometimes we could get liquid paraffin (medicinal) which we used in making cakes.

We had clothing coupons and had to give a certain number of these according to the value of the goods we bought. When we were bombed out we were given a few extra clothing coupons. Clothing was one of the things rationed until 1948 because the country needed a lot of money to pay back what had been borrowed, so we exported clothes and material to earn some of this. I remember if we heard that a shop had socks or shoes for children, we tried to work out what size they would grow into and buy while available.

There were many more bad things than I have told you about but these were my own personal experiences.

Many people slept on Underground Station platforms. Many were without homes. Many children had to go and live in the country without their parents. Some went to Canada. The hospitals were overfull with injured people. Fathers, uncles, brothers had to join the army, navy or airforce, to fight. Everything for everybody was, at least, very uncomfortable, with shortages of food, clothes, houses.

But as I have been writing this I have realised that several things could have been worse for us and even more inconvenient. We were looked after by our loving Heavenly Father whenever man’s will would allow.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Memories of the Second World War 1939-1945

Posted on: 05 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Evelyn

This is a very fine contribution and is a great credit to your mother. It is full of very interesting detail.

Aside from lots of other interesting facts, Dorothy refers to her "first experience of a car with light directing signals (indicators)" in late 1944. This, whilst clearly true, quite surprised me. The first light-indicators I ever saw were on buses in Germany in 1952. They struck me as being very practicable and I wondered if they would catch on.

Best wishes,



Message 2 - Memories of the Second World War 1939-1945

Posted on: 30 May 2004 by lizwi98

I found the post really interesting because my parents were living in Norbury too at the beginning of the war only they got married in 1939. We always said that this caused the war to start! I think they were living in my Granny's house which was called Tokyo and then when my Mom was expecting me she was evacuated to Hertfordshire and I was born there. My Dad was away working on Mulberry Harbour or some part of it. After I was born we went back to Norbury for a while and then later on we moved to Compton Dando in Somerset and after that to Bournemouth.

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