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At School in Wartime

by cambslibs

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Peggy Bartlett
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
16 November 2004

In 1940, after my father died, and having had a few narrow escapes from incendiary bombs and land mines, we decided to move out of Greater London. In 1941 I was sent away to an endowed boarding school near Guildford.

My most abiding wartime memory was going to bed in my dormitory with what we called our 'trench bundles' close at hand. These consisted of warm clothing, including a pixie hood - does anyone remember those? - and a gas mask. If the siren went during the night, we got up, donned our warm clothing and hurried to an outside door. There we waited to be sent out in small groups, in case we should be seen from above!, to run across the grounds to the air raid shelter. There we lay down on slatted wooden bunks covered with straw palliasses. This was all very well if you were on an upper bunk, but on the lower ones you were constantly bombarded with loose pieces of straw. No-one slept much, and it was difficult, sometimes, to stay awake in the following day's more boring lessons. Occasionally we had a practice lesson wearing our gas masks which were hot and rubbery smelling.

Although times were difficult, travelling to and from school at the beginning and end of term was an adventure - the trains were usually packed with service men - I never felt threatened and there was always a strong arm to help me aboard and a space made amongst the kit bags for me to sit on my case in the corridor. Community spirit was strong and everyone went out of their way to lend a helping hand where needed.

Everything was in short supply. When I came home for the holidays, having grown out of most of my clothes, I was pleased to wear made over hand-me-downs from my sisters. They made underwear and nighties from parachute silk, which was not as easy as it sounds as the silk came in triangular pieces. Food was sufficient although one person's week's rations could be carried home in a paper bag! When extra supplies came into the shops, the great British tradition of queueing began. You usually had no idea what you would receive when it was your turn and sometimes it wasn't a nice surprise! It might be a shock, a hitherto unknown fish or whalemeat sausages - a taste not to be repeated. Sweets and chocolate almost disappeared and children born during the war had never seen a banana. It was hazardous for ships to bring in things like tinned fruit so housewives became expert at bottling local grown fruit in kilner jars. Anyone who had a garden dug up their flower beds and lawns in order to grow as much as possible for their own consumption or to exchange with friends and neighbours. Some people kept a few chickens which they fed with scraps, although I think there were rules about keeping poultry. Even schools started sessions of 'Dig for Victory' on strips set aside from playing fields. Cookery lessons were limited and more lessons on making use of what was available. I remember, one Christmas, making a cake with gravy browning, grated carrot etc.included in the ingredients, the whole thing being covered with soya 'marzipan'. Economy was the new word - used not quite in the same way as we do now. Economy meant 'be frugal, waste nothing' - what a difference from today's throwaway society

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