- Contributed by
- People in story:
- The Blackburn Family: George, Margaret, Ronald, Dorothy, Audrey and Alan
- Location of story:
- Peldon Avenue, Richmond, Surrey
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 October 2005
On the night of Saturday 21 September 1940, a parachute mine fell on a quiet residential close of about 45 houses in Richmond, Surrey. My mother, my older sister, and my twin brother and I were asleep in our Anderson shelter in the garden. The explosion awakened me, and then the screams and cries of the trapped injured and dying mingled with the sounds of falling bricks and buildings and the shattering of glass. The silence which had followed the "All Clear" five or ten minutes earlier turned into a horrifying medley of terror and confusion. My mother managed to claw her way through the earth and debris which effectively blocked our only exit to the shelter, and called out that next-door's house was down - OUR house was down - they're ALL down ! She knew that the family next door on our left were sleeping in the house that night: the mother, three daughters and a son. These children were much the same age as us and we played together. Sybil, Stella, Margaret and John Danby. All the girls were scholarship pupils at Richmond County School for Girls. The bodies of the mother and the girls were eventually recovered, but John was found safe and unharmed and he was brought to our shelter by the wardens, along with an elderly woman (I believe she was a Belgian refugee) and another woman. In all some 20+ people died that night, the second week into the start of the London Blitz.
With no papers, money, clothes - nothing at all except the nightclothes we were wearing - we were taken to a primary school in Darrell Road, Kew, where an assortment of mostly quite inappropriate garments were distributyed to us, and then transported to Matthiaes Restaurant on Kew Road for a full English breakfast wth a silver servuce and the wautresses in full uniform. This must have been about 9 am - a truly marvellous gesture by the restaurateur and his staff.
Eventually my parents found empty accommodation where we could rest during the day (we slept in public shelters at night) but each time these rooms were bombed or set alight - King's Road, Mount Ararat Road and Friar's Stile Road - so because the blitz was getting worse my twin and I were sent to distant relatives in Yorkshire. We didn't know them and they didn't know us , and athough the lady did her best to cope with two young children we both felt very homesick and everything around us was totally unfamiliar. There were no books in the cottage, no radio, no electricity, no indoor water closet, no gas. Nor any toys, of course. Hot bricks wrapped in flannel heated the feather or flock mattresses, candles lighted our way to one of the two bedrooms (which we shared with a young woman of 20, much to her annoyance !) and chamber pots were used at night to save crossing the yard to the twin earth privies. Bathing was done once a week in a zinc bath in front of the coal -fired range, but our hair was never washed and consequently we had headlice which meant the weekly ritual with the spread newspaper and the steel comb.
We wasted a whole year in the village school, which seemed to cater for the lowest denomination of aptitude - many of the children were illiterate and lived in what were really slums. Not unnaturally, I suppose, the village children regarded us with a mixture of hostility and contempt, but we were wise enough to tread a careful line between our need to be accepted and our knowledge that were "different". After all, we didn't know if we would ever see our family again, or ever return to Richmond.
Life in wartime for a child living in or near London was a mixture of normality, adventure and danger. We enjoyed a freedom to roam undreamt of by the children of today's "stranger-danger" upbringing. The country was bursting with servicemen both British and foreign- and refugees from overseas, as well as the possibility of "booby traps" against civilians - articles designed to look innocent but in fact explosive - of which we were constantly warned. But we would spend all day in the few still-open museums in South Kensington or rowing a dinghy on the Thames, or 'tracking' in what remained of Richmomd Park. We had returned to Richmond in August 1941 where my parents rented a flat in Queen's Road, and my brother and I
went to the Vineyard School before winning scholarships to the Girls' and the Boys' County schools.
Shortages and rationing were not then thehorrific deprivation thatit would seem today. We got an old halfpennya week (that is a quarter of a penny today) for sweets, we didn't eat between meals or walking along the street. Potato crisps were bought and eaten by grown-ups in pubs, and that only rarely. Cake and biscuits were a weekend treat. People from the working class were often hungry and even cold, but nothing unusual there; it would have been the same before the war !
When the V1s and V2s arrived, schoolchildren had to sit at their desks in the playground in readiness to plunge into the shelters when the dreaded sound of their engines were heard. Once again we were sleeping in public shelters at night. The smell as one passes the old Bank Line at Waterloo is to me hugely evocative of the smell of shelters: damp concrete, sawn wood, sacking and unwashed humanity. Possibly the rockets were the worst weapons of destruction in the war, as they appeared from nowhere, silent menacing and random. They were indeed agents of terrorism.
There are some indelible impressions I have of my childhood from 1940-1949 (after which things did seem slowly to improve !), and which have significantly affected my attitude to authority and employers. One is that no allowance AT ALL was made for civilians - my parents and the father of the young family killed next door were treated like criminal paupers; they were asking for help when, it was implied, they didn't deserve it - they must look after themselves. The other is that, after sleepless and terrifying nights of raids and destruction, fire-watching and rescue work, people were still expected to report punctually for work and school; only death or injury was an acceptable excuse for absence. As children, we were expected to apply and behave ourselves as though we were still living in 1938. "Extenuating circumstances" was a phrase not then invented, but the extraordinary thing was, that attitude worked. It held the nation together.
The last impression is that the influence of the family is stronger than any other bond in human relations. In spite of losing everything they had worked for and valued, having two children (my older brother and by this time my older sister) serving on the Royal Navy (Ron on the Russian convoys), no help or support and in middle age, my parents made my childhood idyllic, free from fear, want, uncertainty and envy.
Here are some of the names that I remember of the people who lived in our little close, Peldon Avenue.
The Huggets, The Ferris family (twin boys), Wiseman, Isbels, Goodwin, Rodgers (at least three died),
Thorn(e), Johnson, Danby, Edwards, Pemberton.
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