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- Ewell, Surrey
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- 20 June 2004
MEMORIES OF A WARTIME CHILDHOOD (part one)
The author of this story understand the rules and regulations of this site and had agreed that her story can be entered on the Peoples’ War web site
Living in Ewell during the war years, we were on the outskirts of the terrible devastation that was suffered by London, so we were fortunate in many ways. As children the years were roughly divided into three parts, the Blitz in 1940, the quieter period in between and then the flying bombs and V2 rockets in 1944.
In 1939 I lived with my parents and young brother in Ewell and was five years old when the war broke out. I had just started school at West Ewell infants' school in Ruxley Lane which had recently opened, leaving the older building as a junior school.
At that age I was not really aware of the political problems that were hitting the world, and I certainly don't remember the radio announcement that we were at war.
My first introduction to it all that I remember was being fitted with my black gas mask which I found frightening and claustrophobic. My brother, being younger, had a young child's red mask which I envied. After that we had to carry these masks in cardboard boxes all the time. Later quite stylish containers became available and I was quite proud of my orange one.
I suppose it was the summer of 1940 when my next memory occurs of being in the back garden watching a "dog fight" between planes overhead, which was quite exciting until my father said "I think we had better get indoors." At that time we had our dining room ceiling covered in a fine mesh wire to stop debris falling, galvanised metal sheets over the windows, and large timbers supporting the ceiling. We slept on mattresses on the floor. It was not until later in the war when the flying bombs started that we had an air raid shelter.
Of course, by this time we had to keep a strict black-out so that no lights could be seen from outside after dark. What a palaver this was to do each evening! Dad had made wooden frames with black paper covers that fitted each window; we also had a few windows curtained with black material. Torches had to have their light partially masked, which made it almost impossible to see if you went out in the dark. It was also necessary to turn out the lights before you opened an outside door and then stumble out in the dark, there being no street lights. It was really quite dark indoors during dull days as the windows were criss-crossed with brown sticky tape to prevent broken glass flying too far.
"Dig for Victory" being the slogan, my father and various neighbours all applied for allotments and were given plots in the fields between the Hogsmill river and Meadow Walk. Even at my young age I can remember being aware of what hard work it was clearing the ground ready to plant crops. My mother used to make a picnic and the whole family would spend a lot of time there. Unfortunately my brother hurt his ankle here and picked up an infection, and spent the next two years in an orthopaedic hospital. Young children were not allowed to visit hospitals in those days so it was a long time before I saw him again. My parents were only able to visit once a month as it was too expensive and too far to travel. Apart from the allotment we also grew a few crops in the garden and kept a small lawn as a play area. A large part of Nonsuch Park was ploughed for wheat.
To my knowledge nobody from our road was evacuated, but of course Ewell was not heavily bombed. Sometimes people would go to stay with relatives in the country areas for a short visit. A house was badly damaged at the bottom of our road when a bomb fell and also one of our local shops suffered. I believe there were quite a lot of incendiary bombs and I can remember Dad clearing everything inflammable out of our loft in case of fire. There was an unexploded bomb near the rear entrance to Ewell Court Park. I don't know how long it was there for - the area was cordoned off until the bomb disposal people came to collect it - but I know I was rather fascinated about the idea of being fairly close to it when we went to the park.
I don't ever remember being afraid of the noise and gunfire around us, possibly because our parents courageously managed to keep their worries and fears away from us.
Air raids became more frequent and mothers took it in turns to take a group of us to school. If a raid happened on our way we would be shepherded into houses along the route. Even to this day I can walk along Lakehurst Road and say "I've been in that house and that house ..." Our time in school air raid shelters fell into two periods, one during the Blitz and the second when the flying bombs (Doodle Bugs) and V2 rockets began. The shelters were long, underground, damp and rather dark places with bench seats on either side. There was a ladder at the far end for emergency escape to a trap door above. The only toilet was a bucket behind a sacking screen, avoided unless one was desperate! The only advantage that I could see about the shelters was that it was possible to pass your rice pudding to your neighbour without being seen in the dim light. You may gather I didn't - and still don't - care for rice pudding. In the shelter in our younger years, to keep us occupied, we were given squares of material to keep fraying the edges until it was just a bundle of soft threads (to stuff pillows for the war effort?) As we grew older multiplication tables had to be chanted, songs sung, stories were read to us, and anything educational took place that could be done in difficult surroundings.
Many people had Anderson shelters in their gardens. These were a cement-lined hole beneath ground level and an arched galvanised iron structure above, usually covered with soil, and often made into an attractive rockery. To turn out in the middle of the night to these damp and dark places was not very comfortable, but I knew one or two families who had made them very cosy. They were not 100% safe havens, as tragically my friend's mother was killed in theirs by a flying bomb that fell close by - my first close contact with tragedy, and very sobering.
In our house we eventually had a Morrison shelter which was used indoors, and was like a large metal table or cage. A double mattress was put inside and we would all squeeze in during a raid. It made a good place for playing lions and tigers. Once we were at the butcher's shop when the air raid siren sounded, and he made us all go into the large meat fridge for protection - although he didn't shut the door, thank goodness. I was really frightened in there. Quite a lot of men in our road were not called up for military service. I think that several were over age and some, like my father, were in reserved occupations. Dad worked in the City of London, and many times when the rail lines to Waterloo had been bombed, he and others cycled to the nearest Underground station to get to work, our nearest being Morden about seven miles away. Of course when he reached London it was a matter of negotiating bomb damage and fire hoses. He was expected to do fire watching duty at the office on a rota basis and was also an ARP warden at home. The ARP post (a small square brick building) was on a traffic island in a small cul-de-sac. It contained two camp beds, desk, telephone and lots of official papers. I sometimes went to visit him briefly during the day if he was on duty. If they had a quiet night and the weather was fair, the wardens would take their camp beds outside and sleep under the stars. I longed to be a warden as I thought that idea was very exciting. We had an ARP sign by our front door plus a bucket of sand, a bucket of water and a stirrup pump standing in the porch. The stirrup pump was a hand-operated pump with a hose attachment. I suppose one bucket of water was better than nothing.
While my father was occupied with all these activities, my mother looked after us, tried to make attractive and nourishing meals for us, made clothes from cut-down larger clothes, patched and darned, queued for ages for any luxury groceries that occasionally came into the shops, did gardening and washing. Washing was put in a large boiler and swished around by a hand paddle (often my job), put through the mangle to squeeze out the water, rinsed and mangled again. If it was a wet day it was draped around the kitchen to dry by the heat of the boiler fire.
My uncle was in the Home Guard, and as he and my aunt had no children I used to be invited to the Home Guard Christmas parry in the Drill Hall in Ewell. I remember it as always being a very jolly celebration.
People were always very good to the children; neighbours gave us their Christmas tree decorations as they were impossible to buy. Paper was in short supply, but we were given some "coloured" paper to make into paper chains. The paper was such a pale pastel colour that it was little more than white, but we were pleased to cut it up, and using flour and water paste made our chains. In school we had to draw extra lines and make smaller margins in our exercise books to save paper, and pencils were inspected to make sure that there was only a short stub left before we were given a new one.
I suppose wall paper was hard to come by as I can remember my parents painting over the old paper with distemper (pre-emulsion paint) and my mother carefully painting around the design of flowers at the corners of the old paper, so that the flowers still decorated the newly painted wall.
It is hard to realise how difficult it was to get any basic things - even a piece of wood was valued. If Dad's office had had a crate delivered, the employees would share out the planks of wood that were small enough to be carried home on the train. One piece was used for a shelf in the kitchen.
Central heating was unknown in ordinary houses in those days. We had a boiler fire in the kitchen fuelled by coal and it was used to heat the hot water in the house. This was a cast iron stove with opening doors on the front, which when opened made the kitchen very cosy, and was ideal for making toast using a long toasting fork. The top had an opening with a lid so that coal could be fed into it. To save gas, Mum often removed the lid and stood a heavy duty saucepan on it for cooking. We frequently squeezed into the small kitchen for warmth to save lighting the open fire in the other room as coal was also rationed. We could attach a trivet - a kind of metal stand - to the grate of the open fire and place a kettle or saucepan on it to heat.
Of course food was rationed to quite small quantities. I think it was only one egg a week each, and once one of the eggs was bad so Mum scooped it up into a jam jar (a revolting sight) and took it back to the shop to exchange for another one - you couldn't afford to lose your ration. After that we started to keep four hens and also a cockerel, which we fattened up for Christmas. Up to that time we had a rabbit roasted for our Christmas meal. We then had to use our egg ration coupons to buy chicken meal, which we collected from the Upper Mill in Ewell village. This was mixed with potato peelings and odd scraps that had been cooked in an old saucepan and fed to the hens. When the hens were laying well any spare eggs were put in a bucket in a mixture of water glass (a kind of sealing agent) and were kept for several months. Tins of dried egg were available and I quite enjoyed an omelette made of this, although nothing like a normal omelette.
Runner beans were preserved by slicing them and putting them in a large pot with layers of salt, but however much they were washed before cooking they were very salty to eat.
We were all rounded up to go blackberry picking each autumn and any fruit available was bottled or made into jam - that's if there was enough sugar available. One year we collected wild rose hips for rose hip syrup (a good source of vitamin C), but whether it was not successful or too complicated we never did that again.
Bananas disappeared during the war, I believe because their vitamin content was low and the difficulty in transporting them was not worth risking merchant convoys crossing the Atlantic. Oranges were better for you and were sometimes available, and neighbours would pass the message around and then they all queued at the greengrocers for ages for a few oranges. I think it depended on the number of children's ration books you had. We were always told to eat lots of carrots to help us see in the dark, and fish, which was cheap and plentiful, was supposed to be good for your brain! I'm not certain if it was rationed.
We used to have lovely "banana" sandwiches at our house until I caught my mother mashing parsnips and adding some banana flavouring. Stupidly I wouldn't eat them after that as I didn't like parsnips.
If the family were invited out to tea we used to take our own milk, sugar and margarine as we couldn't eat into our hosts' rations. As you can imagine, these were tiny little packets as our rations were already small quantities.
All vegetable peelings and waste (not rhubarb leaves, which are poisonous) had to be put in a bin at the end of the road and was collected to be made into pig swill. I think there was also a bin for bones (to be made into glue?) Newspapers had very few pages but any unwanted were collected - early days of recycling.
As my grandmother lived alone, her house was commandeered for a family who had had their house bombed and my grandmother moved in with my aunt and uncle until after the war, when she eventually got her house back. Another uncle and aunt were moved to rural Hampshire for his job, so had to let other people live in their house in Ewell. My other grandparents lived near Dartford in Kent close to the river Thames. This was known as a restricted area and you had to have permission to visit it. I was rather frightened when we got to Dartford station, as we had to show a policeman our identity cards and say who we were visiting in the area. On a return journey from there at the time of the flying bombs we were caught in an air raid at Waterloo station and my parents pushed us under the train seats for protection - it was filthy. The flying bombs had such a distinctive shape and stuttery noise that we became quite used to them, and it was only when the noise stopped and it was about to fall that we would make a dash for shelter close by, sometimes just a ditch if we were out in the fields. This was impossible with the later V2 rockets which were silent.
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