My grandmother in Trafalgar Square c1950, about five years after the events in this story. Photo: my own.
Hope you are all having a lovely Christmas! As a bit of a treat, here’s a story from my grandmother’s memoirs about the Second World War. Would you believe that when I first tweeted about my ‘grandmother’s war stories’ some cheeky git asked ‘Which war?’ and then went on to surmise that it must have been the Napoleonic?! Bloody hell. How old do I look?
Anyway, a few notes about this story – travelling out to Kent for a few weeks of ‘hop picking’ was a bit of an annual event for families in the East End of London as it was both a holiday and also a way of earning some cash for the autumn and winter months. Paddock Wood, where my family went, was one of the major centres for this and it is estimated that around 8,000 Cockneys would descend on the area every summer when the hop picking was at its height.
The events in this story took place in 1945, at the end of the war. My grandmother’s uncle Fred was the first man in his company of Royal Artillery to die after landing at Dunkirk and their house had taken a direct hit during the Blitz – luckily while my grandmother and her family were living as evacuees in Woking, Surrey.
A family (not mine!) hop picking in Kent. Photo: The National Archives.
As we made our arrangements to go off into the fields of Kent for our annual hop-picking, there was nothing to warn me, at eleven (nearly twelve), that this was the year I would grow up, the year that I would fall in love.
My brother David, sister Joyce and I had looked forward for weeks to this day. It was a chance to get away from the London streets, from Father’s iron discipline, to run wild in field and orchard.
My father journeyed with us to the mainline station where we were to meet Aunt Alice and Cousin Christine. My Granny Mac (mother’s mum) had arranged to travel by lorry. We were full of barely suppressed excitement as we met relatives and friends of former years. The station resounded with greetings of people who had not met since last year’s hop-picking or, in some cases, since before the war, as they eagerly caught up on gossip and news while waiting for the “hoppers’ train”.
At last we were ready to depart! After saying our goodbyes to Dad, with many strictures from him for us to help Mum and to behave, we were off! The train was crowded and, as usual, we children had to sit on suitcases in the corridor: we did not mind – it was all part of the adventure.
It seemed that at no time at all we were at Paddock Wood. We were lucky and managed to get on to a lorry which would take us to the farm just outside the small village about six miles away. We travelled over a route that was very familiar to us and we gleefully pointed out remembered landmarks to each other: there was Miller’s Moat, a slime covered pond surrounded by tall rushes, a disgusting place to adults, but a delightful, secretive haunt for us; there was The Chequers, frequented by most adults on Saturday nights. Next appeared Number One hop field, the first field to be stripped of its luscious green hops. A few yards more and we were at our destination – rows of huts standing in a large field that was to be home to us for the next five or six weeks.
A family having a break during a hop picking holiday, c1935. Photo: Museum of London.
Our family shared two huts between us; the interiors were stark but once we had put our own possessions in, they were quite comfortable. A table and seats took up one wall and along another was a large cupboard into which went everything from clothes to cups, but the majority of space was taken up by the enormous fitted bed in which all the hut’s occupants slept, regardless of age or sex.
Our first task, being the youngest, was to collect the fresh straw to fill the huge tick that was to be our mattress. It was a surprisingly comfortable bed, so long as the straw was well smoothed out. The next job was to get the cooking fire going outside. Fred – the faggot man – had dropped bundles of wood for each hut and soon the smell of woodsmoke hung in the air.
Once we had finished our chores we made off to renew old friendships and make new ones. At the ends of the rows of huts were the earth closets, set beside a rather dark, wooded area which enclosed an evil-smelling pond. This was good thinking on someone’s part – anybody asking the whereabouts of the lavatory was told to ‘follow his nose’! Smells or not, we children loved that pond area which became our jungle and wonderful games of Tarzan were played there. We swung on ropes which had quite probably been hung from the trees by our grandfathers. By the time we had tired of our games dusk had fallen and gnats were biting us. Scratching and yawning, we returned to huge platefuls of stew and mugs of tea in huts now lit by oil lamps.
The huts we occupied were not only side by side but also back to back and, since the dividing walls did not go quite up to the ceilings, there was no real privacy. Thus conversations or quarrels could be carried on right along the row with nobody having to go outside. The hut which backed on to ours was always occupied by an ancient widow named Becky. Becky did not believe in walking to the toilets, her excuse being that they were ‘unelfy, bleedin’ places, them’ so she kept a capacious tin bucket in her hut. Unfortunately for light sleepers she had to ‘spend a penny’ quite often throughout the night and frequently we were rudely awakened by the thunderous sound of water hitting tin. The night would resound to the moans and groans of disturbed sleepers with loud cries of ‘For Gawd’s sake put a cork in’ and ‘Is it rainin’?’ On one such occasion a newcomer had innocently called out, ‘Was ‘appenin? Who’s that?’ My Granny Mac had called back ‘It’s bleedin’ Tinklebell again!’ and for big, clumsy Becky the name had stuck. She was known as Tinklebell for ever after.
This year my brother David was to sleep in my Gran’s hut as my father’s mother, Nanna Lee, was coming to stay with us. I was looking forward to her arrival as I loved my Nanna Lee and got on very well with her. I was her favourite. This meant a great deal to me as I kept myself distant from most of my other adult relations, even my mother. They had a rather cruel sense of humour and woe betide anyone vulnerable or sensitive. Around them I was usually quiet and secretive and tried never to let them see if I was upset or feeling low as they would usually react by calling me ‘Silly Girl Lemon’ or would tell me that I was ‘just like my father’ – I could never understand why that was so terrible although I knew that my father heartily reciprocated their dislike.
Monday morning arrived and we arose at the crack of dawn to start our first day’s work to the accompaniment of yawns and moans all along the row. After a simple breakfast we left for the field. If we were quick enough we could get a lift on a horse drawn cart; if not, we walked. My Gran and Aunt Alice shared a bin (a wooden cradle affair with a large sack fastened on) and until my Nanna Lee arrived my mother had a bin to herself. We young ones lost no time in escaping before we were commandeered to pick hops – we had far more exciting things to do. There were fields and woods to be explored, haystacks to be climbed and at certain times we would rush to the fence along the railway line to watch ‘the Golden Arrow’ race by.
When we heard the whistle for tea or lunch we would rush back to the bins to collect jugs and bottles and wait in line for the tea-lady from the cottage hospital. She would soon appear, driving her van across the field and an orderly queue would rapidly become a shambles as we kicked and fought our way to the front (there was always the danger of the delicious sausage rolls running out before one was served). Order was usually restored by the nearest adult handing out a few ‘thick ears’. It was not long before my jug was full of hot, sweet tea and, armed with this and my sausage rolls, I made my way back to my mother.
It was at that moment that I saw them: three men, all wearing unfamiliar brown-coloured uniforms, were tidying up the stripped vines. I looked at them curiously and, as I stopped and stared, two women carrying bottles of tea passed me, one of them muttering as she went, ‘It’s a scandal them bein’ ‘ere – bleedin’ Nazis! I ‘ope my Fred don’t see ’em when ‘e comes down.’
So that was it – they were P.O.W.s: the first that I had ever seen. I had spent almost five years hating the Germans and wishing them all dead and now here were three Germans, very much alive, right in front of my eyes. I stared at them as both sausage rolls and tea grew cold. As if conscious of my piercing stare, one of the men turned: he was young, even to my immature eyes. I had time to notice that he was very handsome with black curly hair and brown eyes as I fell instantly fathoms deep in love.
‘Gut day, Fraulein,’ said my God, my hero.
I mumbled a ‘hello’ while my heart fluttered and my legs turned to jelly. We stood and looked at each other: he, friendly and smiling; I, flustered and overcome with adoration. I heard my mother screaming for me somewhere in the distance and came to a start.
‘The tea! The rolls!’ I’d be in deep trouble now, that was for sure. I left in as dignified manner as I could and was only thankful that my new found love was not near enough to see the box around the ears that Mum gave me.
From that day on I lived only for a glimpse of my German. I had found out that his name was Eric, he was twenty one and was expecting to be repatriated very soon. I had stopped going off to play games because the P.O.W.s sometimes helped with the hop picking. One blissful day, Eric helped us for almost the whole day. Much to my Mum’s and Nanna Lee’s surprise, I stayed and helped as well. My leisure time I spent dreaming of Eric: I said his name over and over again to myself. I dwelt in a most painful, agonising kind of heaven and would stand for ages, at the end of the working day, waiting for the bus which took the prisoners back to the camp at Tonbridge, just to wave at Eric.
Two children with their mother on a hop picking holiday in Kent, c1935. Photo: Museum of London.
Weekends were a torment: I had very little interest in the other children now and merely existed in a fever of impatience as I waited for Monday to come around again. One weekend my brother lost his temper completely with me: we were playing hide and seek and it was my turn (supposedly) to be seeking. Instead I was sitting with my back against a corn sheaf, daydreaming. Never had the sky seemed so blue or the air so heavy with the scent of freshly cut corn. I was an ardent film fan and very romantic; my eyes were full of tears as I dreamed about my unrequited love, when, abruptly, the others converged on me in fury. My brother kicked me in frustrated anger and yelled at me, ‘You’re no fun any more! You’re stupid!’ His words bounced off me like rubber arrows striking steel armour. What did I care for him or any of the others with their stupid games? I turned my back on them.
‘Begone!’ I thought. ‘Leave me to my dreams.’
One night the prisoners stayed over as they were helping to spread the hops for drying in the oasthouse. I hung around the door until Grace, who worked on the farm, asked me what I wanted.
‘Please, Grace, I want to help.’
‘Well, you can’t. Off you go! If Maister catches you, we’re for it!’ She turned away and went up to the loft. I could hear her giggling as I walked disconsolately away. Great ugly bumpkin. I hated her.
During our last week, the prison camp bus pulled up one evening at our field and six prisoners (minus Eric) alighted, carrying cases. They went from hut to hut trying to sell various things which they had made in the camp. Some people sent them away with shouts of abuse; some bought from them. Nanna Lee purchased a bracelet each for my sister and me.
After that my Nanna and I sat by the fire watching the progress of the Germans. At the last hut the occupant told them, in no uncertain terms, what they could do with their goods. I cringed in pity. My Nan saw me. ‘I know, love. It’s a shame,’ she said, ‘but you can’t blame people for being angry. Some of these women have lost husbands and sons and nearly all of them have lived through years of air-raids and lost their homes.’
I knew that this was so. Granny Mac had lost a son, my Uncle Fred, and our own house had been blown up. Because of Eric, however, I still felt pity for the prisoners as we watched them return to the bus. My Nan continued: ‘They’re little more than kids, some of them. I should hate them, I suppose. My Bill was killed in the last lot.’ For the first time I wished that I had known my grandfather: he must have been someone very special for my Nan to have loved him. The love was still in her voice when she spoke of him.
She sighed. ‘How can you hate those poor boys? They have mothers and wives worrying about them too.’
I moved closer to her as the bus pulled away. ‘Nan, what did you feel like when you fell in love?’ I was amazed at my daring and could have bitten out my tongue.
‘Much the same as you over that Eric, I should think.’
I gasped. Had I really been so transparent? Then I cast a horrified glance towards my Mum and Granny Mac who were gossiping outside the hut. My Nan hugged me. ‘Don’t you worry, love, some people can’t see what’s going on under their noses. Don’t you be ashamed of your feelings,’ she went on. ‘It isn’t soft or daft to feel love or pity or tenderness. It’s nice if you can think about other people’s feelings. Falling in love is all part of growing up: you’ll do it a dozen times before you find Mr Right.’
I knew she was wrong. Of course I could never love anyone but Eric, but I felt only affection for her understanding. ‘How will I know when I am really grown up?’
‘You’ll know, never fear.’
We sat on in companionable silence until the chill air drove us into the hut.
Mother and children working on the hop fields in Kent, c1935. Photo: Museum of London.
All too soon the day came for us to return home. Everybody had been paid and most people had left for London on the Friday evening but we had decided to wait until the Saturday morning. Mum and Aunt Alice had arranged transport to Paddock Wood station on a horse-drawn wagon. After piling our luggage on to the wagon and climbing on ourselves, we were off across the fields – the quick way. We were halfway across the first field when we saw Eric, a pitchfork across his shoulder, coming towards us. Sam, the wagoner, stopped to pass on some orders to Eric. We all jumped down and crowded around Eric to say goodbye. I saw Mum and Aunt Alice give him some cigarettes and money, as did the two grans. Tears of gratitude were in Eric’s eyes as he wrung their hands.
‘Goodbye, good people,’ he said.
Sam was impatient to be off, so everybody climbed back in. While Mum and Aunt Alice helped the grans, I gave Eric a quick kiss and, totally overcome, I clambered back into the wagon, keeping my back to everyone.
‘Auf wiedersehen, Fraulein,’ Eric said gently. I had dogged his every move for five weeks, had spent hours gazing soulfully at him. He must have been well aware of my feelings and yet, not once, had he been unkind or laughed at me.
The wagon started off again as, pulling my misery around me like a huge cloak, I sat and watched Eric until he was hidden by a hawthorn hedge.
‘Poor little sod,’ said Mum. ‘I wonder what’ll happen to ‘im now. He has to go back to the Russian zone.’
This was just one more horror for me to wallow in. I was determined not to let the others see my tears but they flowed copiously for the whole journey. When I realised that we were near the station I asked Mum for the damp flannel and comb that she carried in her bag.
‘What’s come over you?’ she asked.’You volunteering to have your face washed! Never been known before!’
‘Ah, but!’ said my Nanna Lee. ‘She’s grown up now!’
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