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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Wartime Parenting

by historycentre

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Christine A Field nee Pyer.
Location of story: 
Tooting S.W. London.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 October 2004

It may have been in the Autumn term 1944 or early ’45. The buzz bombs fell without warning on London. We learnt to count to seven after the sound of the engine cut out, then came the explosion. The tell-tale smoke rising would tell the adults the direction to speculate who had ‘caught it’.

I was at school in Tooting Broadway. A lovely old manor house, a former country home of Lord Nelson.

My Father, too old for call up at the start of the war was directed to a reserve occupation which in his case was as a Metropolitan Police reservist. My Mother, a former civil servant, who was obliged to resign on marriage, as was the rule in those days, was ironically welcomed back into the Ministry of Food this time. My Father earned £3.00 a week in his new occupation which was not enough to keep us, so Mother returned to work soon after the start of the war when I was about 3 years old. I was cared for away from home by different relatives for five days a week. The older children taking responsibility for the younger ones in varied ways.

However from the age of 6/7 I enjoyed a freedom and sense of personal responsibility not widely available to youngsters today. I was old enough to be a latchkey kid and live at home. The nights spent in the garden shelter with my mother. The searchlights showing through the sacking that covered the entrance. Grandma was assisted into the refuge of the understairs cupboard making no concessions to war by wearing her white starched full-length nightdress, ruffled at the neck. A favourite Uncle had a bed for occasional use when he wasn’t dealing with London burning. The nights Dad wasn’t on duty he preferred to sleep soundly upstairs in his own bed after settling us in the shelter. Even when the bedroom windows were blown out I don’t recall him changing his ways, which added to my Mother’s concerns.

The incident described is their story, on behalf of all the tired parents who also needed at times to support homeless elderly relatives. Parents who turned out for work after broken nights. Mothers who still had to join ration queues and rustle up an evening meal for hungry families. They must have been grey days.

Not so the kids. We dreamt of bananas. We saw pictures of them, my age group did not remember tasting them or oranges but we knew that they were the good times that would come after the war. I do not remember fear. Sometimes I heard my Mother express some anxiety to my Father. To kids it was just life and there was plenty of it. Gas masks! The implications did not resonate with children. Collecting jam jars for the war effort and getting a farthing each. A quarter old penny! There was Brownies, shrapnel in the garden after an air raid and I was free to go to the British Restaurant and spend my school-meal money. Some children went home for dinner who did not have out-working Mothers. Memory is that children walked to and from school either singly or in groups from the age of 5. My journey would have been about a mile each way. I had a younger child to collect on the way and see safely across the Broadway. And what delights to pause and ponder on the way home. Inside the boarded display windows and dim lighting, Woolworths yielded treasures: pencils, crayons, hair slides and papers. In reality the choice must have been limited but it was a distraction on the homeward journey leading to much debate as to where that 2d pocket money should be spent.

School dinner was a burnt jacket potato and a sardine and you had best eat up because apparently the sailors risked life and limb to get it to us. Similarly not too much rubber work, don’t make mistakes in your work because, the nuns told us, those sailors had taken risks to get those erasers to us!

The British Restaurant in Tooting was a corrugated iron building erected on a bombsite providing hot meals served from a counter by another band of hardworking women. I doubt the menu varied much. Waterlogged cabbage featured, boiled potatoes and spam but then there were puddings to send you back to school feeling sustained. Steamed sponge and custard, delicious and warming. Something to tell about on return for those whose parents wouldn’t indulge such independent behaviour in their 8 year olds. Trestle tables that could be shared with shop girls, bank managers and barrow boys enjoying a subsidised hot meal before returning to work. A heady sense of being part of their independence before returning to the comforting disciplines of a child’s world.

The blast shot shards of glass across the second floor classroom. The children that were cut were of course the ones that were shocked. I suffered no injury, recall seeing the plume of smoke in the middle distance. It was secondary damage. The next bit was good when the whole school was marshalled downstairs into the school hall. Miss Cook, the gym mistress played cheerful tunes on the piano and we were allowed to talk amongst ourselves.

My father arrived in his policeman uniform to collect me from this jolly party atmosphere. He consoled me by saying that we would go to the pictures. At the first phone box we stopped, he put through a call to my Mother who was now employed on the busy London Transport switchboard at Chiswick. I was handed the phone in order to reassure her, I later realised, which I guess I must have done by telling her I was going to the pictures.

Just another everyday worry and heartstopping moment in parental life during the war, when you learn that a bomb has dropped in the vicinity of your child’s school.

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