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- Location of story:
- Stepney, East London
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- Contributed on:
- 07 May 2005
Violet Rebecca Jones (née Barrett) 1936
It is an unwritten law that anyone of a certain age meeting a contemporary will automatically start to talk about the war. By this, I mean the Second World War; it is hard now to find two people who can discuss the First World War from direct experience or involvement.
As a small boy, I tried to talk to my grandfather about what had happened to him when he was in France during the First World War but he, like so many thousands of others involved in that conflict, having been disabled, disfigured, maimed and abandoned (by a “grateful” country), was reluctant to dwell on the grisly detail of the trenches of Passchendaele and the Somme.
My grandfather’s interest was in the Battle of Britain. Up in the sky, where he could witness the Royal Air Force giving the Boche a damned good thrashing and sending them back to Berlin, Hermann Goring and Mr. Adolf “Bloody” Hitler. Their tails scorched and flaming remnants of their twisted swastikas stuffed up their fundaments. In bloody route!
On many occasions, I sat on top of the air raid shelter with my grandfather out in the family garden, watching the likes of Douglas Bader and Sailor Milan knocking the hell out of Heinkels, Junkers and Messerschmidt 109s. My hero became exultant. Every single victory reported on the wireless by the BBC or in a newspaper was greeted with the war cry “UP YOURS ADOLF!”
My grandfather was almost stone deaf. His life had been saved by a medical orderly using a field dressing to push his brains back into his skull. He had been delivering messages between allied lines of communication when his horse had been cut from under him by a mortar shell, having been left for dead in No Man’s Land for 16 hours or so, the horse having been vaporised and obliterated.
Although I do not know how long he was in hospital, he returned a physical and mental wreck, to many people an unsightly and ugly monster.
To me he was Grandad, in my eyes the hero. I idolised him. He was brave to the point of stupidity, firstly by defying my grandmother, a martinet who brooked no nonsense from any living soul and secondly by refusing to vacate his bed in favour of the air raid shelter. He quite rightly pointed out that any bomb landing within the area of his bedroom and consequently likely to disturb his sleep (due to his deafness) was going to send the shelter and all who sailed in her to kingdom come!!
This is the stuff of legend and from it emerged my mother. The most beautiful creature alive, I saw her fleetingly in those early days of the war, emerging from my bed dazed after an interrupted night’s sleep in the shelter or coal cellar, she would hug me, kiss me and enjoin me to be a good boy and do as I was told. She would crawl into my still warm bed after a night of working in the local munitions factory and I would be led away by my grandmother and told “not to make a noise” for fear of making the sleeping worker.
I missed her so much during the day, often snuggling up to her outdoor coat, to seek out her scent from the lining or sleeve. I could not wait for he to get out of bed and, after a brief hour or so and a hurried meal, she would be off back to work. I could only look forward to the weekends, when we could be together and she would take me to the wonderful escapism of the local picture palace.
Prior to this she accompanied my father around England to be close to him during his various postings as a sergeant gunner in the Royal Artillery. I, of course, was dragged along with her. She would not have “her baby” farmed out as an evacuee to strangers”
Folkestone, Lowestoft, Portsmouth, Southampton and Plymouth plus several other east and southern port towns became our temporary homes. This inevitably brought us into confrontation with the “bleedin’ Germans” and several near misses. In Plymouth, we were bombed out completely and had to move house and, when eventually my father was posted abroad, she decided to return lo London — just in time for the Blitz!!!
We commuted between my two grandmothers who lived in Walthamstow and Stepney respectively. One being close to the main London reservoirs and the other next to the London docks!! Air raids and dodging bombs became a family preoccupation as both locations were constantly being devastated by either direct action (at the docks) or the unloading of unused ordinance, dumped by bombers to lighten their load over the reservoirs (at Walthamstow), hoping to damage them as they fled the attentions of defending, aggressive Spitfires.
At one time, much to my delight, the nearby school was hit and, on another, a row of shops butting onto the back yard of our house went up, showering the adjacent gardens with boiled sweets and sausages.
In Stepney, another near miss. On a visit to Dad’s family home in Longnor Road, E1, we stopped off at one of the pubs on the corner of what was known as the Island, a cul-de-sac off Bancroft Road. Dad was on leave and fancied a pint. Mum was in the off-licence getting Gran her “little drop of gin” and I was in the loo after the hour-long ride on a 661 trolley bus from Walthamstow. Suddenly, we heard the whine of an air raid siren. Mum grabbed me and, after a short debate, dragged the Old Man away from his pint!
All three of us fled up the road to no. 42, rushing through the ever-open door, along the passage, out into the back garden and down the steps of the Anderson shelter, with a quick hello to family members forgathered, just in time to shut the door. At this point came a devastating explosion! A German V2 rocket had landed on the pub that we had so recently vacated; it was a direct hit.
The devastation was total, leaving a crater 50 yards across! Not one brick was left standing on another. Every family in Longnor Road (except ours) lost a member!
The point of all this reminiscing is to illustrate that someone or something had been watching over our mother throughout her life.
Although she worked hard and never had very much money, she managed to survive and bring up a family, never letting life get her down. She was always ready to help other people and was loyal and good friend. In spite of her slight frame, she was strong and energetic, constantly rushing back and forth. Rarely sick or ill, she never spent a night in a hospital other than to give birth to Stella and June (my younger sisters) and she never broke a bone in her body.
On Christmas Eve 2000, her guardian angel looked away for a second and all was lost.
From that moment on, she was never left alone, her extended family drew up a roster of care around her that sustained her for a further six months, even though the attendant doctors at the time had given a prognosis of “weeks, rather than months”! They did not understand the tenacity and strength of this seemingly frail lady. Nor did they reckon with the love and affection she had engendered within the family that paid their dues in nursing her.
Gracing this earth for 86 years, she died peacefully at home in her own bed as she had wished, on 16th June 2001, after six months struggling with cancer, in the arms of her youngest daughter June.
She will live on in our memories - forever.
May she rest in peace.
Bryan M Jones
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