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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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by BBC Open Day

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
BBC Open Day
People in story: 
Mary Wolf, Edna Bowers
Location of story: 
London, Stanmore, Middx
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 November 2005

Fairisle knitting

My friend Edna and I met at primary school, in north London. We were 10 when Neville Chamberlain announced, on the Home Service (R4), at 11 o'clock on a fine September morning (3rd), in 1939 that we were at war with Germany. I was peeling carrots. The air raid siren went off - noisy and scary.

Most of our friends were evacuated. Our parents decided to keep us at home. Our school was closed, to become a Civil Defence headquarters (Dad was a C.D. warden, with a tin hat, bucket and stirrup pump to deal with incendiary bombs). Our education stopped. Girls whose parents were in the PTA (Parent/Teachers' Assn.) got places at Harrow County Grammar School (where they learned about Shakespeare, lucky things:). Edna and I were sent to the Elementary School, where most of our lessons took place in the air raid shelters outside, when the sirens sounded their undulating wail; after the raid, when the All Clear single note sounded, we all trooped back into school. It was a basic education Reading, wRiting aRithmetic - and most girls left at 14 to work as clerks, shop assistants, etc. The boys' school was separate from ours.Edna and I were fortunate to go to Hendon Junior Commercial School, where we learned shorthand, typing and commercial French. I started work, as a shorthand typist at H.M. Treasury in Whitehall in 1945 - the year the war ended.Food was still rationed. I was 16, feeling dowdy in a jacket and skirt my Mum had made, and I remember being terrified when the telephone rang in the typing pool when everyone was at lunch: I had never used a telephone: We queued up for our wages - real pounds, shillings and pence - at the end of each week. A shy introvert, I could not shake off a huge inferiority complex; my bosses were the cream of Oxbridge, and I was intellectually ignorant. I wish I had had the self confidence to take advantage of the many opportunities that came my way. Wrong personality, and no Jewish Mum! (I can remember my father warning me not to get ideas above my working class station, as I listened to Bach on the Third programme (R3)!)

The oood news is that, at age 70 I gathered my six grandchildren aromd me for the picture of grandma in a silly hat, clutching her B.A,Hons certificate with + a triumphant grin: it took six years to do an OU, degree, while I was working at the BBC and after, in retirement. Now I know I'm not thick.

Back to the War. Edna and I did paper rounds, before school, for 7s 6d, a week. When a doodlebug appeared, and the engine stopped, one dived off the bike, under the nearest hedge, with the papers over the head.
England was, in 1939, a green and pleasant land indeed. Plastic had not been invented; no fast food; no drinks in aluminium cans (all drinks, including milk, came in glass bottles) - so no litter. Fish and chips was a Friday treat, wrapped in newspaper. We enjoyed the flicks twice a week (no television). Hardly anyone had a car - certainly not in our crescent of semi-detached houses with no garages- so buses moved easily within their schedules.

Clothing was rationed. Cloth, by the yard, cost coupons; Mum made most of our clothes, including bras and pants from off-the-ration parachute silk; such bras gave about as much support as a blancmange skin - which didn't worry me, a latedeveloper 32A.) Edna and I knitted lacy gloves, and bought skeins of manycoloured darning wool (off the ration) from Woolworths, from which we knitted fair-isle patterned pullovers; darning wool was cut into lengths which exactly matched a row of stocking stitch. We also knitted socks and balaclavas for the Merchant Navy sailors who braved U-boats in the Atlantic.

We would have liked to join the Virens (WRNS) (all the nice girls love a sailor!) but we were too young. I also fancied the Land Army breeches and hat. Se wore girdles (with suspenders) which gave a nipped-in waist and held one's rayon stockings up.Not such 'nice' girls (greatly envied by Edna and me) got nylons, chocolate and gum from 'Yanks' - which leaves me now, in an age of sexual freedom, full of regrets for what we didn't do: I remember making tea for rescue workers in the debris from the dreaded V2 rockets which were scary because, unlike the V1 doodlebugs, there was no warning. We lost many school friends and their families.

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