- Contributed by
- Bournemouth Libraries
- People in story:
- William Ewins
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 April 2005
29th August 1916 was a very hot summers day in Wandsworth, London and in the largest bedroom of a small terraced house in Bendon Valley I was born. It was so hot the midwife had to remove her collar, so mother told me many times. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and the children were just coming home from school. I was the eighth child born to Rebecca and Charles Ewins. Brother Fred was the eldest and the first born, Mother lost three boys, the next living child was Harry, then Annie and Gladys. I came next, followed by Pat six years after. She was the youngest.
My father, Charles Fredrick had lived in Wandsworth for many years. Born in 1874, he married mother nee Hanner Rebecca Barratt at St Anns Church, Wandsworth around 1894. He had been a policeman, then a Drayman at Youngs Ram Brewery, then a Stoker at Wandsworth Gas Works, where he worked until he retired. His age and work stopped him going into the army in World War 1. At the time I was born my eldest brother Fred was 17 years old. He went into the army. He was on a course when the rest of his regiment were sent out to France, they were all killed. It was just before the end of the war when he was demobbed he went to work in WanGas with his father. Harry joined the army under age 3 times, twice my parents got him out but the third time he changed his name to Smith and was in India by the time my parents found him.
Annie and Gladys were at home. Even in this tiny house in Bendon Valley, my mother would take in lodgers. It was a very cramped existence but compared with others around us we were comparatively well off as father was always in work. Mother did a part time job in a laundry nearby when she could. The house was lit by gas as there was no electricity then. An outside toilet in the small backyard, where we also kept rabbits and chickens. These were kept and fattened for food. Mother looked after them. She wore an old peaked cap and a sack apron around her waist. At Xmas the big cockerels were killed for dinner. Father would never let anyone see him doing this. I went to just one school from the age of 3 to 14 years. We graduated from Infants to Juniors then to Big Boys. The infants were mixed but after that it was all boys or all girls.
Lots of children in our school were very poor, they had no shoes on their feet and they wore tom or patched trousers. Some were dirty and from poor homes. I was able to go home every day for a good hot dinner, but the children from poor homes, or whose fathers were out of work were given a green ticket. They took this along the road to another school where they got a free dinner.
I suppose I was one of the best-dressed boys in the class. My father always bought me good strong lace up boots and my grandfather on my mother’s side used to repair them when they needed it. My schooldays were happy days, I loved going. We respected our teachers, our parents and the police. It was a pleasure to help them. I remember very often being left in charge of the class if the teacher was called away to a meeting. I felt very important doing this and would pace up and down the rows of desks keeping them in order with a ruler in my hand although I never used it.
I was often called upon to read to the class. I suppose it was because I had a loud clear voice and was a good reader. I enjoyed most though, the sporting activities. Cricket in summer, football in winter. These were my chosen subjects, English and Maths were next on my list. I am 82 years old now and my mental arithmetic is excellent still. I did not do much swimming. In summer after an afternoon of cricket on Wandsworth Common, usually a Friday afternoon, I used to be allowed to take the bag of cricket gear home with me for the weekend and take it back to school on Monday morning. It was very heavy and a long walk from the common to Bendon Valley. But I was so proud being in charge of the bag. In winter it was football. We played on Clapham Common in a spot called the Frying Pan. I was in our school team. I also played for the Wandsworth and Putney schools team and was also selected for the South London schools team.
When I was 13 years old, the grocer in a shop on the main road Garret Lane, asked me if I would like a Saturday job. I always wore a peaked cap with a button on the top. He would tease me, pulling it down over my eyes whenever I went in. This day he said ‘would you like a job boy?’, ‘Yes please’ I said. So that next Saturday I started my part time job. I would weigh up Soda, Rice and Sugar, etc. Food in blue bags, non-food like soda in grey bags. After a few weeks I had a stall on the pavement outside selling eggs and broken biscuits. Later I used to boil York hams in a big copper at the back of the shop. They used to have frozen rabbits in from Belgium, which I was taught to skin. Skinning cheeses used to make my fingers very sore. On Saturdays I worked from 8am to 9pm. During the evening I would take the deliveries out on a big old iron bike with a big basket on the front.
Quite often when I knocked on the door the lady of the house would shout out, ‘come in boy’ and I would pull the string and enter. The mother would be bathing the children in a big tin bath on the kitchen table in front of the fire. I would take in the groceries and she would give me a sprasy. That was a small silver sixpence, this was my tip which I put in my pocket. My wages I gave to my mother and very proud I was to do so.
Another memory is of joining the Sunday school held in an old iron hut at the end of the road and called the ‘Mission’. I attended well before Xmas so that I could go to the Xmas parties. Derby Day also brings back memories of the Charabancs going and coming home from Epsom races as they passed along Garret Lane. We would shout out ‘throw out your mouldy coppers’. Then we would all scramble and fight to pick them up.
My mother always had a day out on Derby Day. She and her friend would go. She used to dress beautifully, with huge hats and ribbons and feathers. She loved the horses and used to bet, but we never knew if she won or lost. Dad on the other hand, if he lost would be a misery and take it out on everyone. He was very fond of a pint although never drunk, but he liked the pub atmosphere. Mother on the other hand, enjoyed parties at home with good food and used to get very cross if in the middle of a Saturday night party, dad and all the men would clear off up to the pub for an hour, leaving all the women and children. They came back merry and would gather round the piano in the front room, singing songs till well after midnight. Dad used to do shift work, so it he was on night shift, he would have to leave to go to work which did not please him.
There were factories at the bottom of our road and lunchtime and knocking off time, the siren would sound and all the workers would come rushing out. It was like a football crowd turning out and as children, if we were playing marbles or fag cards in the road, we would gather up our bits and go indoors until the rush had passed to get out of the way. During school holidays, mother would pack me sandwiches and a bottle of pop and with my mates, we would go to London on the tram. We would spend all day in the museums in Kensington, the Science, Victoria and Albert and Natural History, which were all free.
Other days we would spend on Wimbledon Common fishing for tiddlers in the lakes and taking them home in a jam jar with string tied round the top for a handle.
Other days we spent in St Georges Park. On some waste ground near the park we would have brick fights. We would get sheets of corrugated iron to make shields for protection. It was all good, clear fun. We never abused people, in fact we were only too willing to help older people by running messages for them, helping them cross the road. The police we also respected. They used to wear black leather gloves which they carried. If you were doing anything wrong, they would clip you around the ear with them and you would laugh and run off. Summers Town Football Club was also very close. I enjoyed going to see them play. Over the back was a knackers yard where horses were brought from all over London to be slaughtered for cat and dog food. We would stand on the top of the bank and watch them.
My father worked in the furnaces in Wandsworth Gasworks and sometimes I had to take him his dinner. This was on a plate covered with another to keep it hot and was tied in a red and white cloth to carry it. Most days he took sandwiches, they had no canteens then. They all had an enamel mug and could boil water so mother would put a teaspoon of tealeaves in a spoonful of condensed milk. This would be put in a piece of greaseproof paper and screwed up. He called this his ‘tommy’. He only had to put it in his mug and add boiling water and had a good cup of tea.
One day when I took him a hot dinner the foreman said ‘would you like to see where your dad works’ I said ‘yes please’ and he took me into the retorts. I could not recognise my father, all the men’s faces were black with soot. You could just see their eyes, but I knew dad by his voice. It was so hot in there. They used to have to rake out the red-hot clinker from the ovens where the coal was burnt to extract the gas. The residue that dropped down below this was coke and was sold later. It was a cheap fuel. People would queue up outside the gates with prams and barrows to buy it.
My elder brother Fred also worked in the Gas works all his working life, apart from two short spells in the army. In the First World War he was called up. He was very lucky to be on a course when the rest of his squad were sent to France and were all killed. This was in 1918, almost at the end of the war. He married and had two daughters, Lily and Lottie and continued to work in the Gas works. He became a Foreman. Harry was in India. Annie and Gladys went into service like many girls did at that time, working very long hours for very little pay. I continued at school and by the time I left was Head Boy. My first job was at the Colombia Gramophone Company in the machine shop. We wore short trousers until we left school. My first long trousers suit which I had to start work was a second-hand one.
By the time I was 16, the Columbia had amalgamated with HMV and I had become redundant. They offered me a job with HMV in Hayes but it was too far to cycle, so the Manager approached a firm called Corfields in Battersea to see if they could take me. They did and I went into the machine shop there making tone arms for gramophones. Then after a while I was again made redundant. I next went to Mullards at Wallington, they made radiograms. Then again there was talk of closing down so I came away from that industry and went into painting and decorating. Then building and carpentry becoming a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none!
My brother Fred was doing well in the Territorial Army and advised me to join his regiment saying war is coming and if you join you will get training and you will be with chums you know. This I did, I joined the 54 City of London Regiment. The drill hall was in Putney we had to do three drills each week and one summer camp a year. We were paid £5 per year for this. I did two summer camps, 1936 and 1939. When we returned from this camp we were all called for war service. We were all taken by lorries to a stadium and billeted under a football stand. It was dark and we were not told where we were. As soon as it was light and I looked out. I knew we were in Woolwich. I remembered playing on that pitch when I played for Wandsworth & Putney at school against Woolwich Boys. We were in the army stadium on Woolwich common. I told everyone where we were.
There were four 4.5 heavy anti aircraft guns on Woolwich common outside the stadium. We did 24 hours guard duty and 24 hours off, resting in the stadium while the huts were being built. We were part of the defence of London. My job was on the height finder. Many tales are written about those days but only if you were there could you know what it was like. Night after night on watch with very little rest during the day, so tired that you could sleep on bricks. You would lay down anywhere and drop off to sleep. My brother was a sergeant in our regiment but I got no favours from him apart from making sure I was not on duty when our parents visited us. Most of us were the T.A. boys from Putney, we also had conscripts drafted in to us. Our parents could visit on Sundays in the early days. They came on the train a good hours ride. There was a big iron hut on the site, it was taken over by the church army, we could take visitors in there. It was warm and we could buy mugs of tea and cocoa.
As time went on and we settled in, our huts were finished and they called them spiders. Everything was connected by corridors. While at Woolwich Xmas 1939 our officers decided to organise a dance to which they invited nurses from the Brook Hospital. This changed my life for I met my wife, (read the story of Lillian), I will continue with my army story.
I made two very good friends in those early days, one was Teddy Bence who was in the T.A. in Putney, he also married a Charlton girl who he met in the church army hut. I was the best man at this wedding. I still see him as he lives near me and it is now fifty years on. He lost his wife a few years ago. My wife invites him to lunch sometimes and we have a good chat. Another good pal was Sid Doze, he was one of the conscripts from Bethnal Green in London. He had never been away from home so I took him under my wing and helped him all I could. He told his wife after the war that I was like a mother to him. He was the best man at my wedding. He passed away some years ago. I had planned to be married at Easter 1942.
In 1941 they started bringing A.T.S. girls on to the gun sites, training them to do our jobs, leaving us free to be sent overseas. In the middle of December we were kitted out with tropical gear and we were given two weeks embarkation leave. My wife who had been planning a big white wedding at St Thomas’s Church the following year did not want to wait until after the war so, it was a special license and we were married at Greenwich Town Hall on 18th December 1941.
After my leave when I rejoined the Regiment we were all held back as Singapore had fallen and that’s where we had been bound. The troop who had gone before us and were already on the high seas were taken prisoners as they stepped off the ships. So we had to wait awhile on various London gun sites and it was not until May 1942 that we were rekitted out and sent to Leeds. From there we were sent to Liverpool to board the Troopships. We had to do a lot of zigzagging about to dodge the U boats. We called in to Scotland to pick up more troops. We also had a lot of tractors and farm vehicles which were off loaded on route. The ship was the Athlone Castle. There were three to four thousand troops packed in. Our first stop was Sierra Leone, they got rid of a lot of the farm vehicles there. We did not stay there long, it was a terrible place.
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