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A Bermondsey Boys War. Part 5 - Home once again.

by kenyaines

Contributed by 
kenyaines
People in story: 
Kenneth Alford Haines. [kenyaines]
Location of story: 
Bermondsey, Southwark and Lewisham.
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2335457
Contributed on: 
23 February 2004

I arrived home at Bermondsey from Torquay in 1941 to find that things had changed dramatically.
The Shop-windows were still plate-glass, but all the window-frames of our House were covered in opaque plastic, which only let a little light in.
I was the last one to come home.
My eldest brother John, had left School and was now a GPO Telegram Boy, with blue uniform complete with red piping, Pillbox Hat and red Bicycle.
Percy took his place at the Borough Polytechnic, a Technical School in Southwark, so he was settled.
Iris and Beryl had also come home from Exeter, as they were unhappy there, and were back at the local Junior School, which was open again.
However, the biggest change was in the Shop, and to explain things properly, I must digress a bit.
At the top of Galleywall Road where it joined on to Southwark Park Road was the "John Bull Arch", named after the Pub alongside it.
It was (and still is), a wide brick-built Railway Arch with steel girder framework over the roadway on each side, carrying many of the lines into London-Bridge Station from Kent and the Suburbs.
There were paved foot-tunnels either side of the Roadway.These had been bricked-up at each end, and were used as Air-Raid Shelters.
They were fitted out with bunks, and many of the local people who didn't have a Shelter at home slept there every night.
The Arch suffered a direct hit on Sunday 8 December 1940, and over a hundred people were killed, including most members of a family who lived across the road from our shop.
One of them was a boy about my age, Charlie Harris, who went to my School before the war.
Recently, while doing some research on my Uncle, who was missing in WW1, I found that the War Graves Commission has a Civilian War-Dead Register, and there, sure enough, I found Charlie's Record of Commemoration. To read it made me feel very sad, but it's good to know that Civilian Casualties aren't forgotten altogether.
That Arch was a very unlucky place, apart from more near misses with casualties in the bombing, there were two direct hits on it by V2 Rockets in November 1944. The first one was on a Friday Morning. It demolished most of the Arch and devastated the area. Two Sundays later, when the wreckage had been cleared and a Temporary Bridge put up, another Rocket landed in exactly the same place, so the Workmen were back to square one, and we lost many more Friends and Neighbours in both incidents.
But back to 1941.
Along by the "John Bull" Pub, there was a large Greengrocer's Shop, which also sold a bit of Grocery. It was damaged in the bombing of the Arch, and the Couple who ran it had had enough by then, so they decided to close down and move out of London.
One had to be licensed by the Ministry of Food to sell Foodstuff during the War, and the local Food-Office asked Dad if he was interested in taking over the License, as his was the nearest Food Shop.
Dad was only too pleased to take it, as he was having a thin time of it with the Rationing.
He bought all the Scales and Equipment, so he was now also a Greengrocer, selling fresh Fruit and Vegetables, as well as some Grocery, Eggs and Butter.
This meant an early morning visit to Market for fresh produce every day.
Dad had a friend with a Greengrocery Business a little way away who had a Horse and Cart.
He would pick Dad up very early in the mornings, on his way to the Borough Market, near London Bridge, and drop our stuff off on the way back.
His name was Bill Wood, and he rented a Stable a few streets away from us, with a little Yard for the Cart.
I was home for the Summer Holidays, and of course I wanted to go to Market with them, and help in the Shop to earn some pocket-money.
I enjoyed my trips to the Market, and didn't mind getting up in the small hours. London was so quiet, with hardly any traffic before the Buses started running.
Bill's Horse was a Welsh Cob, Strawberry Roan in colour, named "Girl" or "Gell" as pronounced by Bill, who was a real Cockney of the old order, always immaculate in his tweed suit with Poacher's pockets in the jacket, cap, silk scarf or "choker", and brown boots.
Gell was a very intelligent animal with a mind of her own. Most mornings she was in a hurry to get to Market so that she could get her Nose-bag on, and would get a bit impatient at road-junctions if we had to wait. She knew all the horse-troughs on our route, and would snort and toss her head when we came to a corner near one if she was thirsty. Bill knew the signs and always let her have a drink.
Bill showed me how to hold the reins between my fingers and guide the Horse with one hand, and soon I was able to drive the Cart, under supervision of course.
I would meet Bill at the stable every morning and learned to groom the Horse, harness her up, and hitch her to the Cart, actually with a lot of help from "Gell", who knew exactly what to do, and would hold her head down while I slipped the collar upside-down over her head, then turned it the right way-up on her neck.
She would even back on to the shafts without being told while I held them up, pushed the ends through the slings and fixed the Traces. Soon, I was doing it on my own while Bill "mucked" the stable out and spread fresh wood-chips for the next night's bed.
Bill had trained Gell very well, he had a way with Horses as he was an old Cavalryman.
He never used the whip on her, but would let her know he had it by flicking it gently along her flank if she got the sulks.
I learned a lot about horses from him. He showed me how to look out for ailments and said "Always look after your horse and she'll look after you". When he showed me how to do something and he caught me trying a shortcut, he would say "There's only one way to do a thing Ken, and that's the right way!" I've always remembered that, and it's stood me in good stead.
I suppose it's not generally known, but Horse-food was actually on the ration during the war, at least oats and grains were. Hay-chaff was plentiful, but not much good for a working horse. We used to go to the Corn-chandlers every so often for Gell's
allowance of clover-chaff and oats, which was ample anyway. Every month, Bill was also allowed a bale of Clover, which had a lovely smell and was a treat for Gell. I don't know why, but horse-food was always referred to by the old cockneys as "bait".
Our way to the Borough Market took us across Tower Bridge Road, along Druid Street past the burnt-out roofless shell of St John's Church on the corner, it's slender white Spire with Weather-Vane still intact after being fire-bombed.
The first time I saw the gutted Church, surrounded by wreaths of mist at daybreak, I thought it was still smouldering. It was a very sad sight. The smell of damp, burnt timber that hit the nostrils as we passed was unforgettable.
Our route then led us into Crucifix Lane and St Thomas Street past the bricked-up Arches of the roads underneath London-Bridge Station that lead to Tooley Street.
These Arches were used as Air-Raid Shelters by the Residents of the many Tenement Buildings nearby. They thought they were safe, and used to sleep in them, but around 300 people died when the Stainer Street Arch received a direct hit through the Station at the height of the Blitz.
Later in the War, many more people sheltering in the Joiner Street Arch opposite Guy's Hospital suffered the same fate
It was a bit creepy, and I felt a bit uneasy going past these places in the small hours at first, but gradually got hardened to it and became fatalistic like Dad and Bill.
The "stand" for our Cart was right at the top of St Thomas Street between Guy's Hospital and the Borough High Street junction.
The trader's vehicles were tended by a Cart-Minder, who would direct the Market-Porters to the right vehicle when they brought the goods out on their barrows.
Our Cart-Minder was called "Sailor". He was a quiet old chap. You couldn't see much of him as he wore a stiff-peaked Cap over his forehead, and his face was covered in whiskers and a walrus moustache. He always wore a black oilskin coat down to his ankles, and rubber Wellington boots, perhaps that's why he was called "Sailor".
The Borough Market was a fascinating place to be at in the early morning before dawn. Because of the Blackout, the open-fronted Shops only had a small lamp at the back above the Salesman's desk.
My faourite place was the open Square behind the "Globe" Public-House, backing on to Southwark Cathedral. Here the Growers from the Farms in Kent and Essex had their Pitches, and did business by the light of Oil-Lamps.
There was always a lovely aroma of Apples, Plums and other Fruit round there.
I can still imagine the delicious scent of fresh-picked Worcester-Pearmains and Cox's Pippins even now.
The Growers didn't mind us sampling the wares, and I had many a good feed of fruit before Breakfast.
There was a Cafe in the other open Square known as the "Jubilee" behind the covered Market. Dad and Bill took me there for a snack when they'd done their business. The tea was always good, and the Sausage Sandwiches with Brown Sauce were out of this World.
Then I'd go back and wait on the Cart for the Porters to bring the goods out, and help load it up.
London Bridge and St Thomas Street was a very busy place first thing in the morning.
Swarms of People made their way down Borough High Street from the Railway Station, and many passed us in St Thomas Street on their way to Guy's Hospital.
I'd see a lot of the same faces every morning.
Guy's had already suffered a bit of bomb damage, but was still up and running, as it remained throughout the War.
In 1943, I had occasion to visit a friend who was injured in a road accident and taken in there.
The Wards were shored up with massive timber scaffolding to protect the Patients from roof collapse if there was a hit by a bomb.
I marvelled at this, one never stopped to think of the fact that bed-ridden Patients couldn't go to the Air-Raid Shelter, and there were hundreds of Patients in Guy's Hospital.
By the time the School Holidays came to an end, I was an old hand at looking after the Horse and helping in the Shop.
Luckily for me, Colfe's Grammar School at Lewisham had opened as the South-East London Emergency Grammar School for Boys who were not evacuated, and I was able to prevail upon my Parents to let me stay at home and go there.
I never saw Aunt Flo and her family at Torquay again, but George came round to see me a few times when he was home for the holidays, so I got all the news.
I enjoyed my couple of years at Colfe's, although it was a long Bus journey to Lewisham every morning, and I was usually late, because the Bus service was unreliable with hold-ups for one reason or another.
Because of the fuel shortage, some Buses towed a little trailer behind them carrying a gas-tank, and one of the strangest sights to be seen on the road was the Doctor's Car with a rectangular fabric gas-bag on the roof-rack billowing in the wind.
Things were a bit more free and easy at Colfe's than they'd been at St Olave's, and as we all came from different Schools, Uniforms didn't matter so much.
Some of us who came from a long way off, and needed School-Dinners, used to make our own way to the Convent at the top of Belmont Hill near Blackheath Village where our meal was waiting for us.
On the way up the hill, on the right-hand side of the road, there was a shoulder-height brick wall enclosing some open ground, and you could see over it across the rooftops below to Deptford and Bermondsey beyond.
One bright sunny day in 1942, while walking up Belmont Hill on our way to the Convent, my friends and I heard the sound of Aircraft engines and loud explosions. There hadn't been any Air-Raid Warning, but as we peered over the wall, we actually looked down on two German Planes swooping low and dropping bombs.
It was all so clear in the bright sunlight, like something out of a colour movie.
I could plainly see the khaki, green and yellow camouflage, the black crosses, swastikas, and numbers on the Planes.
I even saw the heads of the two crew-men in the nearest one as it turned after it's dive, with the sunlight flashing on the cockpit glass. Then the bombs exploded and smoke rose from below.
Just then, a shadow fell across us, and we heard loud engine noise as another Plane dived from behind us towards the lower ground, it's Machine-Guns chattering.
We crouched down close to the wall, hearing splinters flying, and as soon as he'd passed over, ran hell for leather up to the Convent.
This must have been the Plane that callously bombed and machine-gunned the School at Catford, close by Lewisham, where children were playing in the Playground at Lunch-time, and many were killed and injured.
I heard afterwards that Jerry had made a hit-and-run attack with Fighter-Bombers. Flying low under our Radar-screen, they caught our defences napping.
This was why there'd been no Air-Raid Warning, and the Barrage-Balloons hadn't gone up.
One of the bombs we saw being dropped landed quite near home. On a road-junction near Surrey Docks, known as the "Red Lion", after the name of a Pub on the corner.
It demolished the Midland Bank, killing the Manager as well as injuring Staff and Customers.
Also killed was the Policeman on Point-Duty at the Junction. He must have been blown to pieces, as only scraps of Uniform were found.
He was a Special Constable, a friendly man, and a familiar figure in the district.
He had a large Hook-Nose, which often had a dew-drop on the end in the Winter. Some people referred to him as "Hooky," and others as "Dew-Drop."
It was very sad that he went like that. If the Warning had sounded, he'd have taken cover.
To be Continued.

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