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15 October 2014
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The Air Raid Shelter: Building It, Surviving in It, and Mam's Prize Exhibiticon for Recommended story

by EBalfour

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Miss E Balfour
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15 November 2003

It was on a Friday afternoon in April 1940 that rather a rough-looking man came to the door to tell us he'd left our 'Anderson' shelter on the pavement at the bottom of our steps.

Dad was out at work, so my schoolgirl sister and I dragged and tugged the various parts up to the garden. Mam was ready, as usual, with the directions, "Up a bit at your end." "Now lift your end and turn towards me." "Can't you make less noise?" You know the kind of thing.

There was an assortment of sheets of bright new corrugated iron, long straight pieces, short straight pieces. All the curved ones were long and they were the most awkward to handle. There was a bag made of sacking which held nuts and bolts which should correspond with the holes in the corrugated sheets. No sign of any instruction or diagram.

However, we'd seen examples on the newsreels at the Metropole, our local cinema, of smiling families looking out of the entrances to their shelters.

As soon as Dad had eaten his tea, we made a start. A hole had to be dug in the garden as far as possible from the house. All the soil was piled in heaps ready to be shovelled on top of the shelter when it was fitted inside.

It took all weekend, working hard, to get it finished. We crept inside, one by one, to try it. Neither Dad nor I could stand up straight. The roof was too low. Mam didn't like the idea of walking on bare soil, so Dad had to make a floor of duck boarding. That made it lower still. Then he made four very narrow bunks from the wood and springs of an old mattress, so we perched on these.

What heating and lighting we had came from nightlights inside clay flowerpots with other flowerpots inverted over the top.
The situation during 'air raid alerts' was just about bearable during the summer months, but once the long dark winter evenings came, it was grim. When the siren sounded we were told to just grab a blanket and run for the shelter. It wasn't long before we learned to keep thick jerseys, woolly socks, boots and coats handy. It was usually several hours before we could return to bed.

But on the night of our very own air raid, when incendiary bombs rained down on our roof and broke our windows, we didn't go to the 'Anderson' shelter. Dad's onion bed, the raspberry canes and his Dorothy Perkins climbing rose were ablaze. We threw a few buckets of water at them and fled.

Down the road we ran to the big public shelter at the comer of Vernon Road. This was a solid brick building, cased in concrete. A wooden bench ran all round the inside walls. The people there eyed each person as they arrived. Some wore their hair in curlers. But Mam's Spirella corset, with six long suspenders dangling in her arms was, without doubt, the prize exhibit.

Betty Balfour

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