- Contributed by
- heather noble
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 October 2004
10) THE SUMMARY OF FRANCES’S STORY — starts with her nostalgic recollections of the family’s suburban homes and those who shared them, in the 1940’s. The spacious Victorian Villa on Wandsworth Common, South West London, where she lived as a small child, her paternal family’s comfortable home in leafy Cheam, Surrey, which was a world apart from her maternal grandmother’s cramped council house in Lower Tooting. She also recalls visits to her parent’s hairdressing salon, the neighbouring undertakers, the cinema, The Locarno, the corner shop and the freedom to roam the streets of 1940’s London unaccompanied. She carries on her story with recollections of the Black Market and the impact of the “Doodlebugs”, which in 1944 prompted the 2nd mass evacuation of London’s children of which she was one — travelling with her mother to Wallasey, Liverpool, to stay with an elderly aunt. And on her post-war return, of being unhappily fostered whilst her mother was admitted to hospital...
FRANCES’S STORY — This is a nostalgic account of one of the most memorable periods of my life — living as a small child in the suburban surroundings of South West London during the 1940’s.
My Father Jack, was a successful businessman and although he suffered ill-health as a schoolboy- resulting in a disrupted education — by the time he was 21, he owned his own business as a Master Hairdresser and Beautician.
My Mother Janet, who had also trained as a Hair- Stylist, worked first for him then later married him in London on September 3rd, 1936, exactly 3 years before the outbreak of World War 2.
After a fairytale honeymoon on a cruise ship to Madeira, they returned to set up home on Wandsworth Common. The house of their choice was a spacious 3 storey Villa, I imagine built in late Victorian times. There was a small front garden and a larger one at the back, where in 1939, an Anderson shelter was erected.
Unlike most women of the 1930’s, my Mother - after her marriage — worked, alongside of my Father at their hairdressing salon, but more of this anon.
It was not until later in the war when I made my first appearance — in a private nursing home in Wimbledon. My Father was then 32 years old and had earlier served in the Army. But he had been invalided out, which meant that he returned to the salon and I believe, combined the business with working in the “A.R.P” (Air Raid Precaution)
At what stage my parents decided to employ a Housekeeper, I do not know, but from my earliest memory she was always there, running the home, whilst my Mother was absent.
We all enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in that spacious house on Wandsworth Common and I now see as I look back, just what a privileged childhood I had, although of course, I did not appreciate it at the time! It was not until much later, that I realised that not everyone had shared my good fortune, especially during those long years of 1940’s austerity.
Outside of our house, on the tree lined road, stood our black “Austin” car and it seemed to be the only one in sight! I remember sitting in solitary splendour behind the wheel and frightening myself into quaking terror, as I pressed the ignition, starting the engine into life!
As well as being the proud owners of a black car, we had a black telephone and a big brown wireless set, which my parents crowded around to listen to the 9 o’clock news on the Home Service and Churchill’s stirring broadcasts, whilst I looked forward to “Children’s Hour” and the familiar voice of “Uncle Mac” (Derek McCulloch) and his much-loved character of “Larry the Lamb”.
We were also the proud owners of one of the earliest black and white television sets. I do not know exactly when my parents acquired this prized possession, but we certainly had one during the1940’s. And my Father generously bought a set apiece for both of my Grandparents too. One of my favourite early post- war programmes was singing along with Annette Mills and “Muffin the Mule”!
My paternal family consisted of my Grandfather Charles, my Grandmother Evelyn, my Aunt Alice, her cousin, my Uncle Gordon and a lodger, known to me as “my Uncle Jack”. They all lived together in a pleasant house in Cheam, Surrey, which my Father had helped them to buy.
Unfortunately, my maternal Grandmother Isabel, a proud lady, was not so lucky, and lived alone in very, straightened circumstances, in a cramped council house in Lower Tooting — a world apart from leafy Cheam - and within quite a long walking distance away from our own comfortable home.
Her husband, my Grandfather, Thomas Bell, had served in France in the Scots Guards as a Sergeant in the London Regiment during the First World War and was one of many young men who had shared the fate of thousands of others. They tragically died from gas poisoning, leaving their young wives to bring up their Fatherless children on their own.
The atmosphere surrounding the house in Cheam and the house in Lower Tooting was very different. And it is the latter- where my Mother and my Aunt Kit grew up - that I remember most vividly.
One of hundreds of identical dwellings, they had been built at the turn of the 20th century on land bordering the lavender fields of Mitcham. It was then very rural. But by the middle of the century, the estate had become a very depressing place indeed. Up until my Granny’s death in 1958, the black-out blinds were still in full use, making the atmosphere even more depressing!
The only redeeming feature in that gloomy home was a wonderful old dolls house that an Uncle had made for my Mother when she herself, was just a little girl.
I think it was made in the “Queen Anne” style and came complete with furniture, little figures and a toilet. I adored playing with it!
Outside of my Grandmother’s back door was a small scullery and a lavatory. Both had the fresh and unforgettable smell of coal tar which came from the big blocks of “Lifebuoy” soap, with which during my visits I washed my hands in the old stone sink.
Absurd as it may seem today, then, I felt quite sure that my Grandmother’s house was haunted!
My parent’s hairdressing business was called “Maurice Loader” the Permanent Waving House,” in Upper Tooting, and daily my Father left the house early, to work there. Sometimes my Mother accompanied him on the days when she helped in the salon.
Upstairs was a Barber’s shop, which my Father ran and downstairs was the Ladies Department. “Marcell Waving” was then a popular style amongst their female clientele. And in the privacy of separate cubicles, the lengthy process of creating continuous waves — tram lines — was achieved by special irons!
There were several local, theatrical residents and many of “The Stars” of the day, regularly frequented the shop. One name which comes to mind is Betty Box, the famous film producer, who with her brother Sydney, produced wartime documentaries.
When I was older I was occasionally taken along to the salon to watch my Mother at work — I suspect when there was no one available to look after me at home. But I cannot remember being particularly interested! I much preferred the busy atmosphere of the neighbouring Undertakers! This business was owned by a good friend of my parents and I often found my way into the back of these premises. Here, I was fascinated to see the coffins being made and stacked. I just loved the smell of all that wood!
One day I was given the most bizarre toy — a small, wooden coffin with a tiny “body” inside. It had some sort of magnet and when the lid was lifted, the body popped up! I do not know if it had been made especially for me. But I have never seen another!
Despite heavy penalties, being imposed, the Black-Market was rife and I believe a certain amount of this “unofficial trading” was carried out behind the scenes of both businesses. At this distance in time, I cannot say with any certainty, from whence this dubious merchandise came, but I suspect that much of it had” fallen off the back of lorries”, before finally finding its way under our counters and no doubt under the coffins too!
Across the road from our home lived a family of four children — two boys, two girls and their Mother. There was no sign of their Father. When anyone asked after his whereabouts, it was said “that he was serving in the British Army”. Years later I suspected that he was probably serving time in “H.M Prison” as that feckless family had a reputation for being light-fingered!
The youngest boy was called Christopher and despite my parent’s understandable disapproval — that he might lead me astray — Christopher soon became my special little friend. Tagging along behind him, together we’d climb over the locked railings of the deserted recreation ground to play on the slides, swings and roundabouts. For then it seemed perfectly safe for we children to venture out alone and it was quite taken for granted that help to cross the roads would be willingly given by a kindly passer-by.
Sometimes Christopher and I wandered down our road, hand-in-hand to the corner shop to buy iced lollies. Those brightly coloured lollies came in a variety of colours and tasted absolutely delicious. But alas, they were eventually banned, once it was discovered that they contained traces of lead!
Another memory I have, is going into Christopher’s bathroom. Here we licked the pink “Euythymol” toothpaste from the tin, pretending it was sweets!
It appeared that Christopher knew his way around the capital very well indeed — hopping on and off the red London buses — presumably” forgetting” to pay his fare! One of his scams was to “lift” produce displayed outside of Greengrocer’s shops, with the irate shopkeeper invariably giving chase!
And another was to ask Servicemen — of which then, there were very many — for money! He soon realised that he was more likely to be looked upon favourably, if he had a little female accomplice — ME!
So one memorable morning I was “persuaded” to accompany him! Fortunately, a concerned neighbour saw us setting off on our spree and alerted my parents. Needless to say, they were absolutely livid!
In common with millions of others, one of my Mother’s greatest pleasures, when not working, were regular visits to the cinema. These “Picture-Goers” queued for hours, in all weathers, for a seat in one of the many “Big Picture Houses”, which had been created as escapism away from the bombed-out and darkened streets of Wartime Britain .As well as the main picture, such as Hollywood’s offerings of
“Mrs. Miniver” and “Gone with the Wind”, there was a B- Movie, the ever important newsreel and an organ recital.
Film shows were even given to “tube- dwellers” in the London Undergrounds. I do not know if these unfortunates were enjoying such a show on that fateful night - when Balham Underground received a direct hit, killing hundreds- but in a local cinema, my Mother and my Aunt Alice certainly were. So engrossed in the films, they sat on until the end of the evening — completely oblivious to the tragedy that was unfolding nearby.
As soon as I was old enough, my Mother took me along with her to “The Matinees”, to see films which she thought would appeal, such as the spectacular musical comedies with their ravishing costumes, and Walt Disney’s “Dumbo the Elephant” and “The Wizard of Oz,” with which I was enchanted.
Sometimes we went to the glamorous “Granada” in Tooting Broadway. There, the usherettes wore gold blouses, blue slacks, cloaks and pill box hats!
Occasionally, as an extra treat, my Mother would take me upstairs to the gilded restaurant, and here, in their frilly white caps and aprons waitresses served us afternoon tea.
Later, there were the occasional outings to the “Locarno Ballroom” in nearby Streatham. Here, the popular “Tea Dances” of the 1940’s were then in full swing. From the Spectator’s Gallery, we watched a sea of young couples take to the floor. Suspended high above them was a huge glitter ball, which as it revolved, sprinkled the dancers with a rainbow of reflective lights. And to the accompaniment of the music of one of the big bands, the girls in the arms of their partners swayed to the evocative strains of such wartime songs as “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Seranade”.
In June, 1944, just a week after the D-day invasion of Europe, the first V1’S and V2’S arrived — nicknamed “Doodlebugs”. My Mother told me that the V1 engines emitted a buzzing noise, but once the engines stopped, there followed a sudden silence — when if time permitted — we took refuge in our Anderson Shelter. There, we waited for the ear splitting explosion!
On other occasions my Mother huddled in our sitting room under our “Baby Grand Piano” with my Father- when he was at home — shielding her with his body on top!
One day a bomb eventually hit but luckily missed the house, landing in our back garden.
In contrast, the V2’s rockets arrived without any warning whatsoever and their missiles fell with a supersonic bang! These last of Hitler’s revenge weapons — which killed and injured thousands - prompted a 2nd mass evacuation of children from London. And it was then, that my Mother and I evacuated to Wallasey, on the Mersey, Liverpool to stay for a brief respite, with an elderly Aunt. We travelled on a crowded train packed with other evacuees, whilst my Father stayed behind to look after the business.
Later in London, my Mother told me that one night, she was so afraid she purposely became a little tipsy. And on another, as a distraction from the exploding “Doodlebugs” we sat in bed together and one-by-one she took out the curlers from her hair, saying, “There, goes another one Bang!” — pretending they were bombs!
Even after the war officially ended, I distinctly remember the spine chilling sound of the Air Raid warning, followed by one long sustained note, which heralded the “All Clear”.
It transpired that these post-war wailing sirens were being tested. For what I wondered!?
It must have been about this time when my Mother was admitted to hospital to undergo surgery. As she stayed there for quite a while, and there was no one to look after me, it was arranged for me to be sent away to be fostered.
When I first arrived at my foster home, I was shown a special chair which I was told would be mine during my stay. But the reality was a little different. There were several other children in the family and so my chair was seldom vacant! Being an only child, I was not used to this and I became withdrawn and fretted that my parents had deserted me!
One day my Father came to visit and although he did not take me home with him, as I had hoped, he must have seen my distress. As shortly after, he came and collected me.
Just before we reached our house, he stopped the car, crossed over to the other side of the street and went into a toy shop. When he emerged, he was carrying the most beautiful large red trike! I assumed that this wonderful gift was my compensation for being so unhappily fostered. Oh, how I loved that trike!
Home at last and our housekeeper kindly agreed to care for me until my Mother’s return.
Although at that time, children were rarely allowed to visit patients in hospital, somehow it was arranged to make an exception in my case.
I can see my Mother now, propped up in bed against her pillows, in her frilly nightgown with such a loving expression upon her face. Everyday after that, I was taken for a walk to the hospital. There, in the grounds I waited expectantly for a glimpse of her at the ward window, through which we delightedly waved.
My Mother’s re-appearance had re-assured me. And it was not very long before I was back to my old self once again.
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