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Islington experiences in World War II

by firststeps

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30 June 2004



The Second World War started a few weeks after my sixteenth birthday. When, like all other London schools, the one I attended evacuated, I remained in London and obtained employment, ultimately being taken on to the staff of the Bank of England, where I remained for thirty years.

The first Air Raid Warning sounded. within hours of the declaration of war. Carrying the gas mask and identity card which had been issued when war became inevitable, I went with the rest of my family to the National Safe Deposit building in Queen Square, the shelter allocated to people living, as we did, in that part of Bloomsbury. It was considered a ‘safe place’ because, for security reasons, the building was reinforced, and the steel shelved storage areas were expected to give protection against falling masonry. (Later in the war it was demolished by a direct hit.)

In October 1939 we moved to a house in Highbury, which we occupied for over thirty years.

How to document the period from 1939 to 1945 is not easy to decide, especially as a day-by-day account would be boring, so I have opted for a subject format, avoiding, as far as possible. repetition.

Air Raids

Air Raid Shelters varied. Some were communal like those underground at Islington Green, Finsbury Square, and on the platforms of Underground Stations; also underground were the Anderson shelters of corrugated iron installed in private gardens; another type, similar to a cage, could be placed under a table; but the most popular in Islington were the windowless brick huts constructed in the street for general use, or in back gardens for individual households.

Because of the importance of the shunting yards at Finsbury Park an anti-aircraft battery was stationed there, and a barrage balloon installed on Highbury Fields. Despite these defences (or perhaps because of them) Highbury attracted the attention of the enemy, not only with conventional bombs, but also with sticks of fire-bombs, VI’s VII’s and Land Mines, so even those buildings that were not destroyed, lost ceilings and glass. To protect themselves from the effect of this ‘blast’ many householders. fixed thin material, such as curtaining to their windows with such proprietory glues as Glarpex, which only minimally reduced the light, while keeping the splintered glass together.

The ringing of church bells was prohibited.

Among the buildings destroyed by bombing was the historic parish church of St Mary in Upper Street, so St Mary Magdalene, in Holloway Road, became very popular for weddings, with brides taking up ‘bag residence’ with friends living in that parish.

To avoid giving help to enemy bombers at night a complete blackout was enforced. Streets were unlit, and a strict check kept on buildings to insure that no light should escape through windows and doors. So essential was this black-out considered that even torches used by people finding their way about the darkened streets were extinguished once an air-raid warning had sounded.

Some people wore bracelets engraved with their name, address, and religion for identification purposes in case of injury or death through enemy action.


Clothing of all types was in short supply, and could only be obtained by the surrender of ‘clothing coupons’, which was very hard on those who, having been still at school at the outbreak of war, had no reserve of clothes, so school uniforms were picket to pieces to be reassembled in adult styles; aunts were persuaded to give up pre-war evening clothes which were transformed into day wear; curtains which were not suitable for blacking out light made pretty dressing gowns to wear at night in an air-raid shelter; and young men coming home on leave frequently found that their only suit had been transformed into one for a sister To help women with these sewing tasks Make Do And Mend classes were organised, the most popular in Islington being at the Union Chapel on Compton Terrace.

Stockings were a constant problem as, before the invention of nylon, they wore out quickly, but if one stocking, of whatever shade, was still in reasonable condition, it would be put to one side, then, when several had been collected, they could be boiled together in a saucepan, from which they emerge the same colour. Alternatively legs could be painted with a suitable brown dye and a line drawn up the back of the leg to give the impression of a fully-fashioned stocking with a back seam.

Knitting was another way of eking out coupons, especially if a pattern was economic. If the same colour was used to make more than one pair of men’s socks, when the feet were beyond mending, one pair could be re-footed with the good wool from the leg of the other pair.

Using up scraps of pre-war wool made fair-isle designs fashionable. When this source ran out darning wool was used. To discourage this method of avoiding sacrificing coupons the manufacturers were instructed to cut the hanks of wool into short lengths, but clothes-starve women soon discovered that each strand was just long enough to do one row for anyone of average bust size, as long as the pattern was not too elaborate.

Service women whose cloths were provided, received some clothing coupons with which to purchase an outfit for their wedding, but for those who wanted a traditional white dress, these were insufficient, so brides in America donated their own wedding dresses to a ‘pool’ of clothes to be lent to brides from the women’s forces and nurses.

Food and other rationed goods

Most food was rationed, and that which was not was in short supply, but somehow mothers managed to feed their children and men folk, frequently by going without themselves.

Such items as meat, butter, margarine, bacon, tea and sugar were rationed by weight; the number of eggs and amount of milk varied, but was frequently as little as 1 egg and 1 pint of milk a week; for tinned goods, dried fruit, dried egg etc. everyone had an allocation of ‘points’ to be spent on whatever was available; As households had different requirements it was sometimes possible to economise with, say, tea and sugar, which could then be unofficially ‘swapped’ with other households for butter.

Fish, although un-rationed, was scarce, so if a fishmonger was known to have received a supply long queues quickly formed outside the shop.

Much ingenuity went into making interesting meals - a slice of corned beef, or Spam (a minces, highly flavoured ham-like product) could be oven baked between layers of carrot, beetroot and mashed potato (known as ‘Woolton Pie’ after the minister of food); the whole family’s ration of bacon rashers, stitched together could be cooked as a boiled bacon joint; birthday Victoria Sandwich cakes were made with dried egg and liquid paraffin, Christmas cake had Soya flour and gravy browning to hide the lack of fruit, and a tame rabbit, slowly baked, substituted for turkey at Christmas.

Sometimes a food parcel from relatives in Australia, Canada, South Africa, or USA, or brought home by service men who had been training in these countries, would bring great cheer, especially if it coincided with a wedding or other family celebration, enabling guests to be invited without the family going short of food for the next couple of weeks.

A limited choice of meals could be purchased in restaurants works canteens, state sponsored British Restaurants, and schools, while children under sixteen were given a drink made of cocoa, dried milk and sugar; expectant mothers and infants were entitled to cod-liver oil and a drink made from oranges; and those certificated as having a health problem related to died might, by giving up some other part of their ration, obtain extra milk and eggs.

Soap was another rationed commodity, but as shaving soap was exempt, many women used this instead, especially for removing make-up, which although not rationed, was in very short supply, so service personnel returning from abroad were encouraged by their women folk to bring toilet soap and cosmetic products home as presents.


The bombing of London left many people homeless. As an emergency measure Rest Centres were set up in church and school halls, and other large underused buildings, until more permanent accommodation could be found, usually in another part of the Capital. Fortunately there were properties whose normal inhabitants were living elsewhere. These were requisitioned, with several families sharing a house or flat. Most of these people, having lost everything, were dependent on the generosity of others for even the bare necessities. One retired East End headmistress had decided when war started to live with her daughter in Hampstead Garden Suburb. When ‘her school’ and the surrounding district was flattened she asked that her, now stored, furniture should be given to bombed-out families. This was done, and a few weeks later, two men appeared at her daughter’s house to thank her – both had been her pupils.

Pregnant service women, discharged from the forces, were not housed, so had either to return to their families, or if this was not possible, either hope to be taken in by a friend, or find a place to rent, but this last alternative was frequently a great strain on their meagre incomes.


Personal time was at a premium, so not a moment was wasted, especially when relatives or friends came on leave. The first question they would be asked was: ‘When do you go back?’ This sounds unwelcoming, but it was so that every moment could be enjoyed.

Dancing was the most popular form of entertainment, either at a services club, or a public dance hall (the Royal Opera House and Lyceum Theatres had both been turned into dance halls). For special occasions, such as New Year’s Eve, dances were held in hospital halls of residence for which invitations were issued to men either on leave or stationed in London.

A number of theatres remained open putting on everything from reviews to the classics, and
cinemas offered frequently changing programmes.

Sunday afternoon poetry readings for those in uniform at the Stage Door Canteen, given by stage personalities attracted big audiences, but musical performances, other than piano recitals (the most memorable of which were those given by Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery) were rare, as were works of art as the contents of galleries and museums had been pit into store outside the Capital.

Keeping contact with friends and relatives serving abroad was another leisure activity. This took various forms, the most usual being the Airgram – a quarto-sized sheet on which the letter was written, photographed by the Post Office, and transmitted in a much reduced form to the recipient. The reduction in size had curious results, as when a relative serving in India, found a cobbler willing to make bespoke shoes that could be legally delivered in England without involving the surrender of clothing coupons, all that was required was that an outline of the proposed recipients feet should be provided. Unfortunately the wife for whom the shoes were to be made, instead of sending a full-price airmail letter sent the information on an airgram, which, when reduced by photography, was the foot-size of a new baby.

It seems amazing that the postal service was so efficient that letters, and parcels were delivered to every theatre of operation. The parcels would contain not only books and games such as chess, but also for the 8th Army in North Africa, cans of DDT.

War Effort

Everyone, whatever their age, was involved in war work of some kind, even if it was only Digging for Victory, by growing vegetables in a garden, or on an allotment in the local park, stripping old cables into their individual parts to be used for making new cables, or giving their aluminium cooking pots to be re-cycles as aircraft parts Iron gates and railings were also taken towards the production of armaments, but these were commandeered without the consent of the owners.

Those under 18 were recruited to organisations such as the scouts, guides, and training groups run by the services, where they prepared for call-up by learning a variety of skills such as Morse code and first aid, and helped the civil defence services as messengers etc.

Over-18’s of both sexes were drafted either into the armed services, or some other form of work, unless, like myself, they were in a ‘reserved occupation’, when they did a full-time job, going on afterwards to duties as a fire-watcher, warden, fire-fighter, or nurse.

My normal timetable for those years will give some idea of what this meant.

In the hope of being called up and put into nursing, I had joined the British Red Cross at the age of 17, passed my first-aid and home nursing exams, and completed 50 hours work on a hospital ward. At the Bank of England my usual working week was 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, 1 p.m. on Saturday. Monday evening was allocated for Red Cross lectures, Tuesday for work at a health centre (usually washing neglected children and seeing if they needed referring to a doctor); Wednesday evening was ‘free time; Thursday – ward duty until 8.30, then supper, and, if there was no air-raid, bed at the hospital, but on call, until 7.00 a.m.; Friday duty with another VAD at Archway Underground, where we had a hut at the end of a platform from which we dispensed first-aid to shelterers there, and at another station on the Northern Line; Saturday afternoon was free time, with an evening duty at the first-aid post in a Holloway cinema (where, with another nurse, I sat in the front row of the circle, and if not called to an incident, had to watch the film at least three times); Sunday morning brought another hospital ward duty, but the afternoon and evening were free.

World War II Ends

V-E Day
Although this brought great relief, for most people it was not a happy day. Everyone had lost a
relative or friend, so the overwhelming feeling was that of mourning, and many, like myself, took the opportunity of a day off from work to visit the grave of a loved one.

There was also the realisation that many service personnel might be transferred to the Japanese theatre of operations.

V-J Day
It was not until after V-J Day that people dared hope that, however slow the recovery, the future had been worth fighting for.

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Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Nursing and Medicine Category
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