- Contributed by
- CSV Solent
- People in story:
- Ian David Hamilton and Harold Bright Hamilton
- Location of story:
- Upton nr Poole and Welwyn Garden City
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 June 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from CSV Solent on behalf of Ian David Hamilton and has been added to the site with his permission. Ian David Hamilton fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Born on 12th May 1931, I was 8 years old in August 1939. My father and mother had divorced in 1938 so I was living with my father and grandmother in Crouch End, London. In the run up to the start of the 1939-45 war I was more preoccupied with the atypical circumstances of my family background, the perceived stigma of being a child of divorced parents and the unusual situation of living with one parent and seeing the other on limited occasions.
The gathering storm barely touched my life although I can remember being fitted for and allocated my gasmask at a church hall at Gants Hill in Essex in early 1938 and later that year my father donning an RAF uniform at weekends, which at that point was as a volunteer reserve. In this capacity he was assigned to a barrage balloon unit and for this reason I began to notice their appearance more regularly in the sky. I just about understood their purpose but was unable to link it with any imminent threat to national security.
News announcements and adult conversation were above my head and so it seemed quite natural for me to join the summer camp of the 57th St Marys, Hornsey wolf cub pack, which was to take place in Dorset in the last two weeks of August. I was the youngest in the group of some 20 boys plus organisers and helpers who set off for Upton near Poole on 19th August 1939. I imagine that the adults in the party made certain that we boys enjoyed the camp and were insulated from any talk of war. None of their doubts and uncertainties was ever transmitted to me or any of the other boys for that matter.
We were due to return to London on 2nd September but were suddenly confronted with the news that we were to stay in Dorset for the foreseeable future. Rather than continue under canvas, which was not an option, we were taken under the wing of Miss Llewellyn who owned and lived in Upton House, a stately home nearby. She had strong connections with the Guiding movement and clearly had an affinity for our plight. Initially we were housed in the loft above the stables, sleeping on palliasses we each stuffed with straw, but it was not many days before we were taken into the big house to occupy the top floor that had served as a nursery for the family. We were allocated to rooms of three or four beds each with a communal room for dining and recreation.
Being the youngest in the group, it was probably felt that I would be best placed within a family unit and so it happened that I moved out to live as an evacuee with Mr and Mrs Selvey. Interestingly, he was the billeting officer for the area, responsible for settling evacuees and their families into the neighbourhood. The house was on the Lychett Minster road out of Upton near a level crossing and, whenever I could, I would look up to see the trains pass by. I attended Upton Village School which combined more than one year's age group together. I found it a great contrast to St Marys School, Hornsey, where everyone in your class was roughly the same age and we were all taught together by one teacher.
I made friends with the local boys and with them explored the mysteries of the countryside which was alien to me. I returned to Upton House once a week for the cubs' weekly meeting held in, of all places, the squash court. This had an unsettling effect on me with divided loyalties between a comfortable home, where I was treated like a son but by complete strangers, and the attraction of living in a big house among boys drawn from the same London background as myself. Eventually, I moved back to live with the cub pack and changed schools to Hamsworthy, where the pattern of classes more closely matched my earlier school life.
The war began, in a small way, to have its impact on my consciousness: the rigours of the blackout, the shrouded headlights of the vehicles, the departure of the younger men from the Upton House staff, reference to Dunkirk - although its enormity was lost on me, bus conductresses, wholesome but modest portions of food, distant signs of dogfights in the cloudless skies (probably part of the Battle of Britain) and hunting for shrapnel. There were more servicemen around whom you asked if they had "any badges or buttons" since these were boyhood collectors' items. Only once can I remember being hustled into a shelter, although these structures were everywhere and a reminder of the dangers overhead.
Christmas 1939 was helped along by all of us being invited round the Christmas tree in the main house and each being given a present by Miss Llewellyn. Parlour games were also organised for us. Col. Llewellyn, her brother and an MP was also present, appearing as somewhat of a father-figure. He became a minister in Winston Churchill's government.
As always for children, life adopted a routine of getting to, attending and returning from school. There was a long walk up a drive from the road to the House, which in places was overhung with rhododendrons making it particularly spooky and sinister in my vivid imagination. It was a daily walk I dreaded unless accompanied by others, but in such a macho environment it was not appropriate to reveal being scared. Holidays and weekends were spent roaming the estate and countryside. On one occasion, I witnessed my first cow giving birth in a field but had no idea what it was all about. One saw the seasons come and go and a particular pleasure was collecting conkers and playing with them and also feasting on sweet chestnuts. Was it this, I wonder, that gave me a lasting appreciation of the rural scene.
Over time, cubs would begin to drift back to London and by Christmas 1940, which was a repeat of the year before, there were many fewer of us left. My father had remarried in the summer of 1940 and had also suffered a perforated duodenal ulcer that required emergency surgery. He was invalided out of the RAF on health grounds and presumably felt capable of taking me back into his new family. He came with his new wife to pick me up in his car and drive me back to London and then by train to Welwyn Garden City to live with his new parents-in-law in a modest council house. It was here that I spent the rest of the war. The irony was that I heard more frequently the wailing of the sirens and one night the whine of a bomb as it landed mercifully on a patch of wasteland no more than 400 yards away, without exploding.
As I grew up to become a teenager, I was increasingly aware of the impact and progress of the war. Blackout was a persistant theme with additionally paper crosses stuck over the windows to prevent bomb blasts shattering the glass. Utter darkness in the streets was stictly enforced. I soon became old enough to stand in food queues where items were not rationed such as fish. Handling of ration books carefully and securely was a priority. The family divided up the butter and margarine rations so their depletion was monitored. Bread became darker in colour. Digging for victory was taught at school and we each had our own plot of land to dig, prepare for sowing and raise edible food. The family garden was used to keep chickens, the excess eggs of which were stored in an eathernware jar covered in isinglass. Rabbit hutches and occupants appeared and I had to go out regularly and collect dandelion and hogweed leaves from the banks and hedgerows to supplement their diet. As a boy this was a chore I could have done without and it gave me no pleasure to eat rabbits which had ostensibly been pets or to see their skins stretched out to dry.
Winning a scholarship at 11 years, I transferred to Welwyn Garden City Grammer school and among my peers there was more talk of the war. I began to scan the papers, note the headlines and scour the maps showing first the progress of the Axis powers and then later the Allies. I even cut some out, stuck them to cardboard and made little flags of the two sides moving them as appropriate. The announcement of D-Day was particulary memorable and needed an entirely new map. A number of my friends had fathers in the services who they would see infrequently wheras my father, in civvies, I saw everyday. For a period, he was directed to work at nearby de Havillands aircraft factory but in an administrative capacity. Once this obligation was lifted, he went back to the City working in wholesale soft furnishings. He found a flat in Crouch Hill where he moved us as a family. I started at Highbury Grammer school, a single sex school in North London in autumn 1944. The premises had been badly damaged during that summer by a bomb blast from a V1 pilotless aircraft that had hit a block of flats opposite the school. School accomodation, particulary classrooms had been severly reduced and in my new 4th year form many single desks had to be shared by two pupils. The desks were typical of the time with a frame bearing a desk front with book storage and desktop and inkwell with a seat hinged at the back; not the most comfortable or good for posture, even more so when two had to share. Conventional air raids were by now very infrequent and one could not prepare for flying bombs less so for the V2 rockets which appeared out of the blue. Not often therefore did we have to take cover or retire to the cloakrooms. At Christmas the school moved to other premises, a typical council school in Offord Road, Highbury which gave the pupils more space and had a gym, assembly hall and 2 laboratories so schooling returned to some semblance of normality. The interruptions became a thing of the past.
Throughout the war, going to the cinema was first a treat and then became a routine form of entertainment. Entry to classified 'A' films was barred to children unless accompanied by an adult and it was often the case that one would stand outside the cinema clutching ones entry money and asking adults 'please will you take me in'. A regular feature separating the supporting from the main film was the news either Movietone or Pathe with the same reasuring voiceovers. Those items concerned with politics and strategy were mostly incomprehensible to a youthful mind such as mine but I could grasp what was happening in the war zones abroad, on the oceans, in the skies and at home where the effects of bombing raids were shown. Latterly attending school in London, I could see for myself the bombed sites, jagged ruins of buildings and especially the bunk beds lined up on platforms and in the corridors of the Underground. So I knew that the film images reflected reality. Listening to the radio in our house was also de riguer with regular news bulletins especially at 9.00pm and the various entertainment programmes devised for or performed by members of the services or for the war effort on the home front. On comedy shows such as ITMA, Happidrome, Life with the Lyons there were many parodies of the enemy as was the platter of comedians.
Toys also reflected wartime. Soldiers were much cherished so were models of planes and ships. A popular hobby was the assembly of balsa wood kits into models of aircraft most frequently on the news such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Wellington and Lancaster but also the Lysander, Swordfish and Tiger Moth etc. As aircraft design progressed so did the models which began to include American makes such as the Mustang and Typhoon, Flying Fortress. Towards the end of the war, the Mosquito became popular especially as it had been developed locally at de Havillands, Perhaps I was fortunate along with others to have seen it on its test flights.
Music was popular in our house as well. All the bands of the time were listened to, some of which were assembled from service personnel like the Squadronnaires and Glen Miller. Many of the lyrics had an optimistic message, some were unashamedly nostalgic and most were catchy and easy to sing or whistle. This broad spectrum of musical appreciation has remained with me all my life.
As the war in Europe drew to a close, in spite of the German's last effort in the Ardennes, it was clear to me as a 14 year old that we were going to win. The bombing raids on Germany, albeit with the daily total of 'numbers of our aircraft are missing', made civilain life safe as did the overrun of the rocket launching sites. On the cinema news, I gloated at the devestation caused in Germany feeling that they had got their just retribution for what they did to us. The unsympathetic feeling was reinforced as the plight of the concentration camp victims was revealed, It confirmed in my mind that the war was fought as just cause. I was too immature to be able to weigh up the full cost. I was, therefore, caught up in the euphoria of the declaration of peace. The adults had much to celebrate. There was uninhibited joy and celebration in Welwyn Garden City and I can remember the street party in the close where I lived with bunting, trestle tables laden with intersting food for tea and a general buzz of well being with all the close householders joing in. There was no peering behind net curtains on this occasion. Besides it was a couple of days off school!
That summer of 1945 was the first opportunity I had to go on a months harvest camp, organised by the school to Williton in Somerset. We boys were there to help the short staffed farmers bring in the harvest. In August, there was an ending of hostilities in the Far East following the release of two atomic bombs on Japan. Once again, I had no sympathy for the victims since I had been reared on the stories of atrocities committed by the Japanese and felt that they had got what they deserved. Celebrations in Wiliton seemed muted by comparison with VE Day partly I suspect because this time I was in the country. There was a bonfire and fireworks and the locals were out on the streets at night but with a rural population there was insufficiant numbers to make much of a general impact compared with a large town. In any case, being the summer holidays the occasion was not marked by any time off from school.
After two more harvest camps in 1946 and 1947, I left school at 16 years and pursued a career in agriculture which took me through the whole of my working life to retirement
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