Photograph of my grandmother in Trafalgar Square, c1953. Photo: my own.
I went to visit my grandfather in Winchester at the weekend and was thrilled to find a folder containing the short stories that my grandmother wrote about her experiences of growing up during the Second World War. I wasn’t sure what to do with them but have come to the conclusion that posting them here on my blog is probably the best plan.
To say that my grandmother and I didn’t get on would be a massive understatement in that she totally hated me, but as I read the stories through again for the first time since childhood, I started to warm towards her and wish that maybe we’d got along a lot better. I remember her writing these stories when I was a little girl and she was studying for a degree in English at the University of Aberdeen. I think it was her intention to publish them one day but unfortunately that never happened and my grandfather tells me that she asked him to destroy the bulk of her writings while she was dying. These few fragments survived though, thank goodness.
The picture at the top of his post is of my grandmother in the 1950s, sitting on the edge of one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square. I suspect my grandfather took it while they were ‘courting’ – he was a dashing Scots Guard at the time and she was a bored and frustrated former grammar school girl working in a telephone exchange. I never saw her like this – in my memory she was unhappy, difficult and often cruel but I think I’d rather remember her as she was when life, as she would have put it, was still ‘golden’.
Postcard, c1939. Photo: Museum of London.
I can remember the day that war started: I was almost five, and I had just said a rather naughty word in front of my parents. My father was angry and asked me where I had heard such a word, and I blamed my cousin Joannie Tibble who lived opposite. My mother was probably relieved that I hadn’t blamed her, as she was my usual source.
My father marched me across the road to his sister’s house. Her name was Beatrice, but she was always known as Beattie. She came to the door with my cousin in tow, and my father asked her to tell her daughter not to teach me to swear. ‘What! My Joannie? Never! She doesn’t swear!’ was the answer. (All four of us knew that this was not true!) After the exchange of a few sharp words, my father marched me back across the road – and just then a man came around the corner at a run shouting, ‘It’s war! It’s war!’ I didn’t of course know what it meant, but it seemed that the whole adult population of Star Lane came into the street asking excited questions.
My next memory is of my father going away to be soldier, and then I don’t know how much time went by before we were told that we were going away – ‘we’ being myself, my brother David a year younger, and my sister Marion, two years younger.
The great day arrived. We were made ready with our parcels and gas masks and, of course, the labels bearing our names and destinations pinned to our coats. My brother was bawling his head off; Marion was too young to take it all in; I know that I was terribly excited. We had been told that we were going to a beautiful place in the country with fields and trees and flowers. I didn’t feel a bit upset at leaving home and family. It was going to be an adventure.
I must have settled in straight away ar ‘the home’, I don’t know its name, or even if it had one, but it was somewhere near Woking, in Surrey and was, I think, an orphanage. I know that the people looking after us were kind. There seemed to my young eyes to be hundreds of children, but there were probably only a dozen. We had a daily routine to follow. I can remember we all had to sit on potties after lunch and then take a nap. Sometimes two lovely ladies used to come in a car and take one or two of us to their home for the day, and that was a wonderful treat, as one room we were allowed into what seemed like an Aladdin’s cave full of toys. It was a probably the nursery. I know that we always went back to the house bearing gifts.
One day lives in my memory as particularly exciting; it must have been a fine day, as we were having tea in the garden, when suddenly an air-raid warden and some soldiers appeared. They had a hurried conversation with our nurses, who then took us aside in groups and told us we had to go very quietly but very quickly into the house and lie down very still on the floor. We heard a lot of shouting going on outside and then it went quiet.
After a while, the air-raid warden came in to say all was clear. One of the nurses started to cry, she must have been awfully frightened. Those of us children old enough to be curious asked what had happened, and were told that a nasty German had been hiding in a tree at the bottom of the garden, but he had been caught and we were safe now. We were frightened for a while after that, for by now we had heard enough talk to know that the Germans were all the monsters and bogeymen of our worst nightmares.
I don’t know how long I stayed at ‘the home’, but after [lost passage] never went back to ‘the home’ again, for when it was time for me to leave hospital my father came to collect me. He had David and Marion with him, and they told me he had found billets for all of us near his camp at Knaphill. We were going to be together again as a family! My father informed us, while we were waiting for the bus, that we had a new little sister, and we all resolved there and then that we were going to hate her!
After a short bus journey, we arrived at the billets my father had found for us. The landlady, Mrs White, who was about my mother’s age, met us at the door with hugs and kisses. She nad her husband, who was in the RAF had no children so we were very welcome – but it was not long before she changed her mind!
We stayed at Knaphill for a short while, and we started at the local school. It was at the top of a hill, and consisted of one room and an outdoor toilet. The toilet was awfully high and Marion always wet her knickers while trying to sit on it. For some reason she always took her wet knickers off and threw them away and consequently the bush just outside the toilet was almost daily adorned by a pair of navy blue pants.
After a few months we were asked in no uncertain manner to leave the billet, as my mother and Mrs White had the most terrific row. One wet, boring afternoon we, (David, Marion and myself) had stolen into Mrs White’s room and used up every bit of her makeup and perfume – and as these were extremely precious and in short supply she was justifiably incensed. We had to leave.
Since in the time we were at Knaphill, our house in London has been bombed to the ground, we would have been homeless had my father not found billets again, this time in Oswestry in Shropshire, where he had been posted for a short time. I retain no lasting memories of Oswestry or billets: we didn’t get into any mischief there, so everything was probably kept under lock and key.
My father was then posted back to Woking. He was due for embarkation, and was frantically trying to find us a permanent home, and he was in luck, because he met a Mrs Rowe who did a few hours voluntary work, (inviting soldiers to tea, or something like) and at one of her tea parties for Britain’s Brave Soldiers, she heard of our plight. She must have had some kind of power in Woking, for my father sent for us to leave Oswestry, as we now had a cottage in Old Woking, a village between Woking and Guildford.
We set off once again, full of excitement, at least on our part! My mother was probably fed up, carrying a lively toddler and having three anything but biddable children in tow. True to form I made the journey memorable: as we neared Woking, I became ill, and instead of boarding a bus to Woking, I was put into an ambulance and taken to hospital.
Postcard, c1939. Photo: Museum of London.
I’ll stop there for now but will post more in a few days time. I have just a few notes to add though!
Both sides of my grandmother’s family were Cockneys and extremely fiercely proud of this fact. I’ve spoken on here about my great-great-great grandfather who was in H Division in Whitechapel in 1888 – he was the grandfather of the soldier father in these stories, although he was long gone by the time the war started. My great grandfather, the soldier father, was by all accounts a mathematical genius with a deep interest in politics, particularly of the socialist type and very much involved in trade unions. He studied economics at Ruskin College, Oxford and took part in the Cable Street riot, which he was very proud about. He was also a devoted West Ham fan.
My great grandmother, whom I remember very fondly, was as Cockney as they come and I still delightedly remember her teaching me her favourite East End songs when I was a nipper. She was descended from Irish Catholic immigrants and was somewhat rougher around the edges than my great grandfather’s family which led to terrible rows by all accounts as they believed that he’d married ‘beneath him’. Another ardent West Ham supporter, the team sent a wreath to her funeral when she eventually passed away.
Star Lane, where my grandmother was living when war broke out is in Newham, East London near Canning Town and Stratford. Luckily my family weren’t there when a German bomb flattened their house but you can see it listed on the excellent Bomb Sight website, which lists most of the bomb sites from World War Two and makes for sobering viewing when you pull back out of the view and London vanishes completely to be replaced by a huge pustulating rash of red dots.
Just under two million children were evacuated at the start of World War Two from the 1st of September 1939 onwards when ‘Operation Pied Piper’ was implemented. My grandmother and her siblings were relatively lucky in that they seem to have been speedily reunited with their family and would remain in Surrey for the rest of the war. Many other children were less fortunate.
I haven’t been able to locate the house that my grandmother was evacuated to in Woking but I suspect it may have been something like Kilronan Nursery, which was a home for evacuated children in Woking.
I hope you enjoyed this!