The Forties - A Difficult Decade
by Newton Myers
1940 saw the second world war begin to "get up steam". Since this is not intended to be a history lesson I shall limit my text to personal memories. They may not be exactly chronologically correct but hopefully they will give some impression of how life was during this difficult decade.
It must have been around this time that I was transferred from Kenton High school to Priestmede school. Unfortunately my memory is very vague about this time of my life. Probably I have shut it out because of the many traumas that occurred in the early forties. I know that I was not at all happy at school and I’m not even sure if I went to school for the whole time. I recall some sort of extra tutoring going on. There was a tutor who I believe had an office next door to Kenton High, just over the top of Nash the Builder’s offices I think. Also at this time mum was particularly ill and spent a large amount of time in hospital.
So now I have a problem, namely exactly when were we evacuated to Collyweston? This is a most important date since my education eventually continued at the local school in Collyweston, and we were there for several months if not a year or so.
The Blitz started in September 1940 so I think we probably went to "Colly" late in 40. I certainly remember at least one Christmas there, perhaps two.
I think that it is safe to assume that we "moved" around November 1940. Arthur and Mary Sauntson were the owners of the 17th-century cottage known as "The Hermitage". Situated in the small village of Collyweston (Pop. 207), near Stamford in Lincolnshire. Arthur worked in a reserved occupation as a stone mason for Lord Burghley, consequently he was not called up for the army, although at that time I suppose he was in his early thirties or even late twenties. They had one small child, Jean, who was I suppose about 4.
My grandmother, Mrs Cummings, had made all the arrangements as she had already moved to Collyweston from her flat in Hampstead. As I mentioned earlier she had some relatives or friends in Easton on the Hill, the next village.
Collyweston was not what you would call a pretty village although it had a certain charm. It’s Population was 207 in 1940 and at that time it had three pubs, two shops, a church and five farms. Until comparitively recent times Collyweston was in Lincs, but for some reason best known to the beaurocracy it is now in Northants. I really do detest this constant meddling with boundaries etc. I checked on the meaning of the somewhat unusual name and found that it comes partly from the old english (OE) of West Tün meaning West Farmstead. The Colly bit comes from the pet name for Nicholas, namely Colin or Colyn. Apparently on Nicholas de Segrave lived there in the 13th century. So much for the history lesson.
Collyweston is located on the northern side of the valley of the river Welland and looks out across the valley towards Rutland, what was then England’s smallest county. Four miles to the East is Stamford a market town famous at one time for the fact that it had thirteen churches and eight pubs for each church! At that time Stamford stood abreast of the major trunk road, the A1. Even though there wasn’t anything like the volume of traffic in those days, there were frequently problems with large lorries getting stuck in the centre of the town.
You got to Stamford on the bus which ran approximately every hour, unless if was Friday or a Bank Holiday or early closing or raining or something or other. The timetable was a nightmare and only old inhabitants of the village really understood it. The fare I recall was fourpence and they had return tickets, something unknown on London buses. I think the fourpence was actually the return fare, what a bargain.
To the west of Collyweston is Duddington, a slightly more attractive village, and to the South, in the bottom of the valley, is Ketton famous for it’s cement. Grandfather Sauntson worked all his life at Ketton Cement and once arranged for us to have a tour round the works. I can only remember that it was very very hot. There was a tall chimney attached to the cement works and this local landmark was at that time probably the tallest free standing structure in Britain.
The Hermitage, our home for the next 18 months or so, was built in the early 1600’s and in 1940 it’s only concession to the twentieth century was electric light. Even that was on a slotmeter into which you had to insert two shilling pieces at regular intervals. The light always went out at the wrong time and no-one ever had florins (old name for two bob bits). The plumbing was, to say the least of it, primitive.
At the end of the house, and reached by walking up the garden, was the "Privy". A small and spider filled shed, this convenience had a wooden box-like structure at one end with a suitably shaped hole on top and a bucket full of you know what underneath. This bucket, iron and large, was emptied by the "Smelly Man" once a week. At the appointed hour, Thursday morning I believe, you would hear the drone of his truck on the High Street. We rushed to close all windows and doors and waited with baited breath, literally, until the Smelly Man had walked past twice, once with the full bucket and again with it empty and sprinkled with an evil smelling pink powder. Naturally by Wednesday night the bucket was pretty full and you had to be careful how you sat down and performed.
There was no running water at all. All water was fetched from a pump next door. I should explain at this point that the Hermitage adjoined one of the three pubs in the village, "The Engine", I suppose it was actually part of the pub’s structure. It was divided by a narrow passage from the street, but there was a gate in the garden into the pub yard and the pump. Only drinking water came from the pump. All water used for washing, both ourselves and other things, came from the water butt, in other words it was rainwater.
There were several of these butts located strategically around the house to collect as much rainwater as possible. Hot water was provided either from the small boiler attached to the side of the range in the living room or from the copper in the wash house. The range was a coal fired fireplace with an oven on one side and the boiler on the other. This fire was kept going almost continuously, summer and winter. Arthur would light it every morning and fill the boiler with water for the day. You extracted hot water with a ladle and a white enamelled jug. This hot water was used for cooking and making tea etc. Although the more usual method was to boil water in the kettle on top of the fire. The oven was virtually uncontrolled as far as a level of heat was concerned. There was some sort of damper arrangement that enabled one to divert the heat away from the oven but it was all pretty hit or miss.
Notwithstanding the simplicity of the cooking arrangements I have delightful memories of some roast dishes produced by Mary Sauntson who was an excellent cook. I particularly remember the Yorkshire pudding. This incredible stodge was cooked under the meat in the same pan and therefore absorbed all the meat juices,... ambrosial!
Back to the hot water. When you required a bath this had to coincide with washing day. Next to the "Toilet" was the wash house. Also somewhat spiderfull, this building contained a wide variety of items including the garden tools, several bits of dead pig (curing ham) and sundry strange items. Hanging on the wall was the bath. A galvanised steel monster with big handles. On bath nights this tin tub was hauled into the kitchen/living room and filled with the hot contents of the other major item in the washouse, the copper. The copper was, as its name implies, actually made of solid copper. Set into a brick structure this cauldron was filled with several gallons of water. It was heated by a fire underneath which had to be kept stoked all day. The dirty clothes were put in the copper along with soap flakes (detergents had not been invented). A wooden lid covered the top of this wicked brew and everything was boiled for hours.
From time to time the clothes were agitated with an object resembling a milking stool with a long handle protruding from the centre of the seat. After a suitable amount of cooking the clothes were rinsed in a tin tub, again the long handled milking stool was used to agitate them.
Then the clothes were forced through the mangle. This was the predecessor of the spin dryer. It had two large wooden rollers connected by a series of gears and springs between which the wet clothes were squashed and most of the water forced out. I should also mention that this impressive piece of engineering played havoc with buttons unless they were folded on the inside of the clothes.
Now that the washing was finished the resulting "soup" was ladled into a bucket and transferred to the tub. Unpleasant as this sounds it really wasn’t that bad. Firstly the water was rainwater and therefore very soft indeed, no acid rain in those days, at least if there was any we didn’t know about it. Secondly the soap flakes made the water even softer and you just needed to soak in this delightful concoction to get clean.
We took it in turns to bathe. Youngest first, this being baby Jean, followed by me, then presumably the rest of the family, my mum, Mary and Arthur. By the time the adults got to the water we (Jean and I) were in bed so I can’t be specific about the order of bathing. It seems logical to assume the order was as outlined above.
At this time, Mum and I shared a bedroom but when Pop came up to visit I had to move in with Jean. One clear memory is of eating fried potatoes sitting up in bed. Jean and I had to beg her mother to produce this great treat. The sliced and previously boiled potatoes were cooked in some dripping or other over the one other means of cooking that The Hermitage boasted, an old and smelly oil stove. This strange device stood on the scullery table and burned paraffin. Consequently everything cooked on it was slightly flavoured with a not unpleasant, to me at least, oily taste.
The Old Manor
Next door to The Hermitage was a derelict building known as the "Old Manor". What exactly this structure used to be was shrouded in mystery. Certainly it was very old and had been a substantial building of some sort. You couldn’t at this time get directly from The Hermitage back garden to the Old Manor but first had to either go down the High Street or through the top of the garden into the Churchyard and then down Church Lane. Once into the Manor there were all kinds of childish delights.
The big wall was a constant challenge to our daredevil instincts. This wall stretched for about 30 or 40 feet and was about 15 feet high. Now here I must warn you, dear reader, that these sizes are as remembered at age 8 or 9. It’s quite possible that the wall was considerably less in stature but seemed much larger. However for the purposes of this journal I will stick with my estimates. The great challenge was to climb up on to the wall, one end was sufficiently broken down to form a sort of crude staircase, then to walk along the top of the wall to the end that adjoined The Hermitage garden and jump down in to said garden.
I’m sorry to have to admit that I never had the courage to do this alarming feat. I never had a good head for heights, besides which Mum would probably killed me if she’d caught me even trying it.
Another attraction was the "Big Stone’. It was about 4 feet by 3 feet and around six to nine inches thick. Not unlike a gravestone although there was no writing on it. None of us could lift it except for Hubert. Hubert was the local "Village Idiot", or at least that’s how we regarded him. In actual fact he was a rather sad case of mongolism. He was around seventeen and had enormous strength. His speech was very difficult to understand and of course in those days there were no special schools for such people. We managed to persuade Hubert into the Old Manor one afternoon and after some complicated negotiations got him to show us his great strength by lifting the Big Stone.
Imagine the shock when there was absolutely nothing underneath it, apart from a large yellow toad. I’m not sure who was more surprised, us, Hubert or the Toad!
In the early forties and particularly in country areas such as Collyweston, carbide was still used to a limited degree to produce gas for lighting. Carbide when placed in a container with water gives off large quantities of gas which can be directed through a suitable jet and ignited. It was used in early car headlights and also for hand lanterns. Close to one of the farms in the high street was a shop that sold carbide, they also recharged accumulators for radios and supplied bicycle spare parts and other goodies.
Someone in our gang - by the way this gang consisted of three young boys, Alan and Cedric and me (by this time my nick-name was "Lucas Lighthouse", don’t ask me why I can’t remember) - as I was saying... someone hit on the bright idea of using carbide to make an explosive. It worked this way... You needed a small tin can with a replaceable lid. Andrews Liver Salts tins were ideal, they had to be airtight to keep their contents dry. A few small chunks of carbide were placed in the can, a little water added, pee worked just fine and was always available! So you peed into the can and immediately rammed the lid on tight, carefully placed the tin on the ground in an upright position, and ran like hell. After a few minutes, probably only seconds, there would be a loud explosion and the lid of the tin would sail tens of feet into the air under the pressure that the gas generated.
Sometimes we jammed the lid on so tightly that the tin actually did explode and burst at the seams. If this happened it was something of a tragedy since the tin could not then be reused and there was always a shortage of Andrews or ENO’s tins. I am amazed that none of us were blinded or at least injured by this stupid game, we had a few narrow escapes of course, especially if the tin didn’t go off quickly enough. In this event we would creep up to it and investigate, maybe the lid wasn’t on tightly enough, whatever the reason for the non explosion it wasn’t unusual for it to explode just as we were examining it.
Winter came to Collyweston with a vengeance in the early 40s. It snowed like they hadn’t seen it for years. Now was the time for winter sports English style.
Since the village was on the side of a valley it followed that the fields sloped down to the river. The road to Ketton ran down the side of the valley in a gentle incline. My first encounter with tobogganing was in the fields just off this road. At first I couldn’t make out what was going on. Small groups of children were huddled together sitting on the ground, or so it appeared, then one at the back of the group would stand up and start pushing all the others down the hill. What could it all mean?
I went into the snow covered field to get a closer look. In fact there were several of these groups of seated kids, they were not sitting on the ground however. Each group had a piece of corrugated iron, the stuff used for roofing, about 6 to 8 feet long and with one end turned up to form a kind of prow. In the top corners of this prow were holes, one in each side. Through the holes a piece of rope was knotted to form a primitive harness. As many children as possible climbed onto this makeshift sledge, holding onto the rope or each other, the whole thing was pushed off down the sloping and by now highly polished field.
Tremendous speeds were generated and of course you all fell off at the end or when the sledge went over a hillock or slewed round to one side. I cannot recall how many blissful hours I spent slithering down the side of the Welland valley, to me it was absolute joy.
A more sophisticated form of sledding involved the same basic machine, however you now started at the top of the High Street, itself a considerable incline. At the bottom of the street there was a right angled turn along the bottom road. This bottom road was fairly short and level. If you were really lucky you gathered sufficient momentum to carry through to the next incline, the valley-side road. If you didn’t have enough "go" to get you round this final bend you just pushed, you that is who was the last on the sledge. Once round this final obstacle there was a clear run right down to the bridge over the river at the bottom. The total distance must have been in excess of a mile.
Of course the really painful bit was the long trudge back up to the top again. But it was all very much worth it. A very tired and wet gang eventually tumbled into bed for those few nights of snow.
Then came the thaw. Down each side of Collyweston High Street were brick built drainage gullies. They comprised one brick set on its edge as the bottom of the gully. It was therefore about 9 inches across, the sides were also bricks on edge but set up at an angle to the bottom. The resulting channel had an overall width of something around 24 inches and was only about 4 to 5 inches deep. During the thaw, melted snow coursed down these gutters on its way to the river. naturally we discovered that it was great fun to create huge lakes of water by the simple process of "damming" the gutters with what was left of the snow. When a suitably large lake had been made we would open the flood gates, by smashing a large hole in the middle of the dam. The resulting deluge of water and slush rushing down the street was enormously satisfying.
I can’t help feeling that today’s kids are very deprived in the sense that they could not possibly understand the pleasures that we found in such simple things. I realise that this is a cliché but I’m not talking about hundreds of years ago, only 50 or so. There was no Television even though it had been invented and some transmissions were made before the war. There was no cinema in Collyweston and only one in Stamford. Because it was wartime there were precious few comics or any other amusements of that sort, we just had to make our own.
It starts to come back to me, as I write this, exactly what the chronology of these events was. We must have arrived in Collyweston late in 1940 as I’ve already said. I think as a result it was decided not to send me to school until I had settled down and also until it was certain whether Mum and I would be staying there for any length of time.
With the usual long Christmas holidays, about three weeks, I probably didn’t start school until mid January 1941 having left Kenton High School in October or November 1940. This accounts for my recollection of a long period, long by a child’s standards, without going to school.
I didn’t go to Priestmede until after we returned to Kenton in 1942. I’m so happy I’ve got that sorted out at last!
So to school. Collyweston Village School, co-ed and small. If I remember correctly there were just two classes, juniors and seniors. I certainly started in the juniors and again strangely enough do not remember a great deal about any of it. I must have been there for over a year however. One thing that does stick in my mind was learning a poem...
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack
Butting through the channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron ware, and cheap tin trays.
I learnt that particular stanza and recited it to the class along with the little girl who sat next to me. The rest of Collyweston school is lost in obscurity. I can’t believe that the standard was very high and in fact I believe this is why I had the extra tutoring mentioned earlier. This was probably necessary to get me into Priestmede school in 1942.
There were many other pleasures of country life in Lincolnshire.
Lincolnshire is great farming country. It’s beautiful almost black loam soil supports growth of all types of crops and in particular the humble spud. In those early days mechanisation of potato picking was not very advanced. To get the potatoes out of the ground a device known as a spinner was attached to the back of a tractor. This machine had a plough like blade that sliced through the base of the raised rows of potatoes and then there was a spinning fork like object at the back that threw the spuds to one side in a fairly neat line.
This is where the potato pickers came in. The field was divided up into "Stints". This is the original country meaning of that word. Each stint was about 100 feet long and was normally worked by one adult. The spinner travelled round and round the field, starting at the outermost edge of the field and gradually working towards the middle going down one side and up the other. Naturally as it worked its way across the width of the field it took less and less time to come round. The reason being that the journey across the ends of the rows got shorter and shorter.
The pickers were each equipped with a basket or perhaps two baskets per stint, these were dropped off by another tractor or horse with a cart behind it. The picker waited till the spinner had passed and then, bending low, gathered up all the spuds on his or her stint putting them in the basket or baskets. The tractor with the trailer and baskets also had a man walking alongside who grabbed the full basket and he emptied it into the trailer, at the same time threw the now empty basket back at the picker. There was a great demand for pickers towards the end of the summer and we children were encouraged to participate. You got paid 10/- (ten shillings, 50 p) per day per stint. However since we were too young to manage a whole stint we had to share one and therefore received only 5/- (25p). This was in fact a princely sum and after only four days work you had a whole pound to yourself. I think I only managed three days. But what a three days they were.
It all started at the farmyard around 6 o’clock in the morning. Breakfast was made by the farmer’s wife if you wanted it. Then onto the trailer, the one with the baskets, and off up to the field. Work started at seven sharp and continued till 10 at which time you had your break. Then on again till 1 and lunch time. Work finished around 4 o’clock and boy, were you dead beat. Bending down and lifting pounds and pounds and pounds of spuds gets to be very back aching and exhausting work. We certainly earned our 5/-. I only did it once, us town boys obviously were not equipped for such manual labour.
This was yet another back aching, hand blistering job. After the pea crop had been harvested the now dead pea plants were laying all over the field in rows. Our job was to collect these rows into orderly heaps so that they could be more easily collected for cattle fodder. One afternoon’s worth was all I managed of this one!
Visually this has to be the most exciting event in the old country calendar. Before the days of combine harvesters the corn was cut and bound into sheaves by the farmer using a reaper. (not a combine remember). This reaper had a mower like attachment at the front which cut the corn about three inches off the ground. The cut corn was transported up a conveyor type belt and formed into sheaves or bundles of uniform size.
A second operator, apart from the driver of the tractor, pulled a lever at the appropriate time and the sheaf was bound round with string and discharged from the back of the reaper. The harvested corn was allowed to lay in the field for a few days and then "stooked". This meant the process of collecting a large number of sheaves together, standing them on end, and arranging them in small vertical stacks with spaces between. This enabled the corn to dry.
The next sequence was the actual "threshing". There were a few threshers around the area who travelled from farm to farm throughout the late summer and early autumn. A typical threshing outfit comprised, a steam driven traction engine (coal fired) The threshing machine itself, and a baler. All these vehicles were hooked together and travelled along the roads like a small train. The traction engine would puff away and it’s solid cast iron wheels could be heard rumbling along for miles. When we lads heard this sound we were off after it to follow and see where it was going to operate.
By this time the stooks of corn had been collected and were awaiting the thresher. Duly set up in a field, the traction engine now facing the threshing machine and connected to it by a huge black leather belt from it’s flywheel. Numerous other belts were all over the outside of the threshing machine and then one more large belt to the baler at the end. The whole set up would probably be 50 or 60 feet long.
When everything started up the sounds were enormously evocative. First the puff-puff-puff of the traction engine, the slap of the main belt, the hummy whine of the threshing machine itself, the jiggle joggle of the trays that sorted the wheat from the chaff. Then there was the baler clanking away at the end. It had a large arm with something resembling a horse’s head on the end that went up and down continuously stuffing the straw into it’s innards. Right at the end of this chain of events emerged finished bales of compressed straw all neatly bound with baler twine or was it wire?
Staples and Livestock
Even though this is early in the forties certain things were still relatively simple. For example our milk was fetched direct from the farm across the road. You walked over with a white enamelled jug that had a lid and asked the farmer to fill it. I can’t remember how much this cost but I suppose it was only a few pennies. Similarly, butter was purchased from the farmer, whose wife would make up a package on demand from the churn.
Arthur Sauntson kept a pig and this provided large quantities of pork, ham and bacon. The pig was kept in the pub yard next door and fed on a disgusting mixture of leftover scraps from our table plus a bran mix of some sort. This was the original pig swill and looked and smelled thoroughly unappetising, the pig however, went nuts over it.
Chickens were kept in a field up above the top road. This field adjoined the blacksmith’s house where Cedric lived. Remember Cedric was one of the gang. The field had a small pond and Arthur had a few ducks as well as the hundred or so chickens. The chickens produced large quantities of fresh eggs and presumably the surplus was sold off to augment Arthur’s modest income from Lord Burghley. Naturally we also had chicken for dinner fairly regularly.
Generally speaking I suppose we must have lived quite well. There were of course the usual shortages, tea, sugar, bananas, oranges and so on but there was always plenty of home grown vegetables, fruit and meat. Across the street from The Hermitage lived the butcher who also acted as the local slaughter house. I can remember my mother trying to make sure that I was out of earshot whenever a pig was being slaughtered. On one occasion I did hear this gruesome although necessary act being performed. Believe me it’s unforgettable.
More Love Life
For the second time in my so far short life cupid’s dart struck. This time in Collyweston. Her name was Margaret Middleton and she lived on the top road with an aunt. Also an evacuee Margaret came from somewhere in Essex and was attentively wooed by both myself and my great friend and rival Alan. The actual courting consisted mainly of hanging around outside her front door in the vain hope that she would be allowed out. however auntie kept a pretty tight rein on her activities.
The other courting comprised seeing which of us deadly rivals could buy her the most presents even though we had precious little pocket money. The most Popular present were Toffee Bars. Again I can’t remember what these were called exactly but I do remember that you got four for a penny. Margaret remained singularly aloof to all this largesse, it was probably confiscated by her aunt anyway.
There was never any long term relationship established either by Alan or myself and in fact shortly after we had started the courtship she went back to Essex and we turned our minds to more interesting things like...
As I’ve already mentioned prefabricated amusements were pretty limited but we were remarkably resourceful when it came to providing our own. A bicycle wheel stripped of all it’s spokes, hub and tyre made a most excellent hoop. Furthermore if you obtained a stick about two feet long with a knob on the end you could use this to direct the hoop. You slotted the knob into the groove of the wheel’s rim and propelled it up and down, along and through; the street, fields and gardens.
I managed to obtain a chromium plated racing bike wheel, a much sought after possession. One benefit of this amusement was the extreme amount of exercise we got from all the rushing about. It all seems rather aimless looking back but it was great fun at the time.
One Saturday morning the gang were idling about on the steps of the passage up to The Hermitage when we heard a strange rhythmical clicking noise. It was coming from the bottom road and getting closer. We rushed to the corner to see Charlie, one of the farm boys, shaking his hand frantically and making this wonderful musical sound. This was a variation on the spoons so beloved of old music hall artists.
Two pieces of grey slate were shaped to form rectangles about four inches by one inch. One was placed between finger and thumb and the other either between first and second fingers or between second and third. By rapidly shaking one’s wrist the two pieces of slate clacked together and castenet type rhythms were produced. Hours and hours of practice were necessary to produce any sort of recognisable tune and the attendant blisters were agony. This craze lasted right through the summer.
Whilst talking of slate it should be noted here that Collyweston has a world wide claim to fame. Small though the village is, Collyweston Slate was at one time shipped all around the world and you will frequently find reference to it in travel books describing local architecture. Collyweston slate is peculiar to a strata of rock running North South at the Eastern end of the village. The Slate mines run for hundreds of yards deep underground and although I never went on one , there were organised tours underground. I believe my father did go, and hated every minute of it.
Grandma Cummings lived in Collyweston, in one room of a house owned by Arthur and Mary’s cousin or some such relative. Tea with Grandma was a dutiful ritual performed as infrequently as I could make it. The main objection to going to tea with Grandma was her bread. It came from the Co-op and whether or not it was always stale I don’t know, what I do remember vividly is that it made my jaws ache. The other memory of Grandma is her one remaining tooth. This tusk like fang was a constant source of fascination to me. Located just off centre in her upper jaw, I would watch it entranced while it vainly sought to spear a large pickled onion, one of Grandma’s favourite treats.
About fifty miles from Collyweston is the steel town of Corby and close by there is Kettering. An annual trek to Kettering was made in order to visit Wicksteed Park. Those of you old enough to remember the now extinct park slides and swings may recall that the name Wicksteed was cast into the iron frames of these machines.
Wicksteed Park was the demonstration area of this manufacturer and it contained numerous items not normally seen in your local recreation ground. Slides were made twice as high as the average and some had interesting switch back effects. There were also roundabouts of most unusual configuration.
A trip to Wicksteed was considered to be a great treat and especially as it involved going on the bus for about an hour and a half. Again such simple joys and excitements.
Life in the country was pretty idyllic, of course at my tender age I didn’t realise this fact. One thing was certain, we were far away from the blitz that was, by now, raining down on London. There must have been a lull in the London blitz because mum and I went back to Kenton, probably around late 1941. It was then that I had my first experience of what it was like to live through an air raid.
Back in Kenton for Barbara’s Wedding.
By now Barbara was engaged to Lou, or to give him his full title Louis Ambler Danielli. Up to the his being called up Lou had worked for the B.B.C. as a sound effects man. I believe they used to call him “Dan, Dan the noisy man". One of the radio shows he worked on was ITMA (It’s That Man Again) starring Tommy Handley. This aired every Saturday night and was one of the very first "sitcoms" In December 1942 Barbara married Lou.
The wedding took place in a Kenton Church followed by a reception at the Rest Hotel. This latter hostelry was situated adjacent to the railway bridge that crossed the L.M.S Euston to the North line. Since the war was now well under way the reception was, as I remember it somewhat spartan. Actually I don’t remember a great deal of the actual wedding or the reception however there is a record of the event in this photo taken outside the church after the happy event.
Every district had one of these machines. They were usually mounted on a tall pole or on top of a building. I suppose someone had worked out the exact distance between them so that all the local areas were able to hear them. There must also have been some kind of central control system. I imagine the telephone was used to alert each keeper of the siren as to when to fire it up. The warning signal was a constantly rising and falling note which lasted for about 60 to 90 seconds. Once this had sounded the noise of enemy aircraft was usually heard just a few minutes later. We always thought we could recognise the sound of German bombers by their peculiarly guttural sound.
Then came the bombs, perhaps... I say perhaps since the aircraft were sometimes just passing over on their way to more strategic targets. Of course it is a well known fact that much of the German bombing was directed at private citizens in retaliation for what the Royal Air Force were doing over Germany. If bombs were dropped in our local area you would hear the whistling as they came down, followed by the explosions as they landed. They used to say that if you heard the whistle, you were safe. It was the bomb you didn’t hear that got you.
If the bombs landed close enough you would be able to feel the air compression caused by the explosions. This was extremely unpleasant, and could result in smashed windows, tiles ripped off the roofs and so on. Initially we were very lucky, nothing fell close enough to us to do any damage.
Air Raid Shelters
There were all kinds of shelters available, from outdoor Anderson shelters to indoor Morrison shelters. The former was a partially buried structure built in the back garden.
It consisted of shaped pieces of corrugated iron bolted together. They no doubt saved many lives during the blitz, however they suffered from being extremely cold and damp particularly in winter.
The Morrison was an indoor shelter made of solid steelplate and heavy gauge wire mesh. It was erected in your living or dining room and could double as a dining room table since it was about table height. Again these must have saved many lives. Neither of these shelters could withstand a direct hit but protected you from flying or falling debris. In particular the Morrison was designed to withstand the weight of a house collapsing on it without being crushed.
There were also many public shelters built in the streets. These were brick built with cast concrete roofs. Inside were rudimentary wooden bunks. They became very unpleasant as people got blasé to the bombing and stopped using them. They were then used as unauthorised public urinals and places for the odd illicit lovemaking.
The Myers household in Kenton had a custom built indoor shelter. I have no idea where the idea for this came from or for that matter who built it. It was made out of several large and solid wooden doors which formed one wall. It was situated in the back room up against the dividing wall and against the party wall with the next door neighbours. Thus it was located more or less in the centre of the house. The rest of the structure was built out of what must have been about 2" x 2" timber. The roof was made from floorboards and had a covering of corrugated iron. This roof sloped away from the dividing wall presumably to lessen the load in the event of a total collapse of the house.
In area it was probably about 9’ x 6’ or thereabouts. The entire family crammed in here from time to time, I believe that neighbours also joined us during particularly heavy raids.
This strange structure quite likely saved my life later in the war. At any rate it certainly saved me from what would have been some nasty injuries. More about this later.
The Land Mine
One of Adolf Hitler’s less pleasant weapons was the land mine. This was a large high explosive bomb that was dropped suspended from a parachute from a plane. It resembled a sea mine in shape and packed a considerable punch. One night, while we were all fast asleep we were wakened by an enormous compression followed by a very loud explosion and sounds of glass shattering and tiles falling off the roof. A land mine had landed in our back garden!
The gods were smiling on us that night. The wretched object fell right into the stream or brook at the bottom of the garden. Since this ran in a small valley about 6 feet deep the blast of the land mine was largely deflected straight up and thus damage to our house and our neighbours was relatively trivial. In fact houses on the other side of the street, further away from us had more damage than we did. The theory was that the blast went right over our house and then attacked the houses across the road.
The Flying Bomb
In the summer of 1944 disaster finally struck us in the form of a doodlebug.
The so called conventional blitz was over. By conventional I mean that the Germans were no longer sending over planes and dropping bombs. They resorted to a devilish weapon known as the V1 or Doodlebug as it was "affectionately" christened by the brits. This nasty piece of work was an unmanned flying bomb that was launched from various easterly parts of Europe and then flew across the channel until a pre-set timer cut off its engine, put it into dive, and it crashed into whatever was below. Since it was carrying a payload of TNT of considerable proportions the ensuing explosion was spectacular to say the least of it.
The Royal Air Force did a fantastic job of chasing and shooting down these little "buzz bombs" and certainly more than halved the number that actually got through. The fighter pilots also devised a technique of flying alongside the little buggers while they were still over the channel and tipping them on their sides using the wing of the fighter plane. This upset the internal guidance system in the buzz bomb and it immediately spun down and exploded harmlessly in the sea.
Since Kenton was in the North of London we were initially spared the onslaught of V1s. Their range was only sufficient to reach South London and the South coast areas. However they eventually increased their range and our first experience was one Saturday evening around 5 o’clock. We heard this strange rasping roar overhead and being stupid we rushed out into the front garden. There to the south of us at about a 500 feet was a doodlebug being chased by a Spitfire fighter. Just as we spotted it the engine on the doodle bug cut out and it plunged downwards. There was a huge explosion and we felt the blast and saw a large column of smoke and dust rising on the horizon. The bomb landed far enough away for us not to be harmed in any way.
Then a most amazing thing happened. The main road, which was just a few yards from our house, suddenly became fully of traffic. Cars, motorbikes, bicycles and so on all rushing towards the site of the explosion. Apparently they had been chasing this thing for some distance. The exact site of the explosion was on the Kenton/Harrow border about a mile away from us. I don’t remember the details of casualties but I do know that the fighter plane pilot came round the next day to apologise to the survivors for not having been able to shoot the doodlebug down. He had been trying to get it down onto the local golf course over which it had flown.
So much for our first experience of the doodlebugs. We were not troubled again for several weeks. We heard them going over but learnt that if the engine was running when you heard them you were probably safe. It was when the engine stopped that you ducked or made a run for the shelter.
It must have been sometime in the early summer of 1944. By now mother had died, Barbara and Lou were married and living with us at number 5. I was now attending Harrow County School and on the morning in question I had a dentists appointment. For this reason I was still in bed at 8:10, having a lie in, fortunately inside the already described indoor shelter. Barbara was in the kitchen ironing. father was in the bathroom shaving and I suppose Lou was on duty. He was in the RAF at Stanmore at this time.
This picture shows Kenton Gardens before the Doodlebug. (Ignore the "Old Man" fooling around...again!) The two semi detached pairs from the right hand side of the picture plus half the next pair were demolished by "Our Doodlebug"
Without any warning there was a colossal compression and explosion immediately followed by all kinds of crashes, bangs screams, sounds of breaking glass and god knows what else. Barbara started screaming in the kitchen. I was, needless to say, terrified. At 12 you really know what is going on and I knew we had been hit by something rather nasty.
I clambered out of bed and through the door of the shelter, out through the back room door into what was left of our hall. There was dust everywhere, Barbara was still screaming in the kitchen and there were other yells, shouts and screams coming from other places. At this moment my father appeared staggering down the stairs which were still relatively intact. His face was a mask of blood and he was shouting "this is the end, this is the end" over and over again. As we met at the bottom of the stairs he picked me up and rushed out into the front garden with me in his arms. Then he put me down and I rushed back into the house. I went into what was left of the front room. The mantelpiece had come away from the wall and was lying horizontal across the sofa. The bay window was halfway out into the garden. When I looked out and to the right all I could see were what appeared to be the roofs of our neighbours houses.
The only problem was that they were at ground level with no houses underneath them. Dust was everywhere, there were still screams and moans coming from the buried, dying and injured. My friend Stuart from across the street came running over with his grandfather. They had been standing at their front door checking the weather when the incident occurred. They were physically blown backwards the length of their hallway into the grandfather clock that was on the back wall of the hall. By some miracle they were not hurt.
Neighbours started to appear and help wherever they could. Someone rescued Barbara from under the kitchen dresser which had come away from the wall and trapped her by the shoulder. father was taken off by someone for first aid to his bleeding face. He actually had the most miraculous escape of all of us. As I already said, he was shaving at the time. The bathroom sink was under the bathroom window which was in the front of the house.
Attached to the centre post of the window was his shaving mirror. He was leaning forward shaving when the entire window disintegrated and came in at him. How he wasn’t blinded we’ll never know. In fact his injuries were extremely minor and superficial. It seems that the glass virtually granulated and became like a powder. For this reason his cuts were really quite trivial and healed in a few days.
The only thing was that for several weeks, if not months, he would find small bits of glass that had been imbedded in his scalp and that had gradually worked their way out. Barbara had to have some stitches in her shoulder but fortunately there were no broken bones. My only injury was through stepping on a nail protruding from the smashed top of our tea trolley. Thanks to the dentist appointment and the indoor shelter I had been fully protected.
Normally at this time I would have been having breakfast at the kitchen table. This table was smashed to smithereens by the huge glass fronted dresser that came away from the wall and crashed on top of the table. I would have been under that dresser and whilst it probably would not have killed me it might well have severely injured me. Mind you, I still don’t like going to the dentist !
The toll of this incident was 13 dead including one who was never identified.
The investigators concluded that it was one of the infamous "glider" doodlbugs that got us. It is believed that the engine cut out over Kingsbury, about 4 miles away. Instead of diving as the earlier types did, this bomb glided in a low trajectory towards the back of our row of houses. Its point of impact was four houses away from ours and it was calculated that it actually struck at the base of that house. One extremely unpleasant fact was that the owner of that house was believed to be feeding his pet rabbits at the time of impact. The rabbits were housed in hutches at the back of the house, precisely where the bomb impacted. The only consolation is, I suppose, he never knew what hit him ! They never found his remains.
Before long the rescue teams arrived and started the grisly task of recovering the bodies. I was unlucky enough to see one of my friend’s sisters on a stretcher under a blanket being carried past me towards the ambulance. As the stretcher bearer passed me, a doctor pulled back the blanket, I had the unpleasant sight of someone who had been completely flattened. Not a pretty sight.
One neighbour had a lucky escape. He had just returned from his night shift, was tucked up in bed and just going off to sleep. Since the bomb came in at such a low level the base of his house was blown away and he came down on top of the rubble still tucked up in bed. They carried him through the remains of our back room on his bed, blaspheming mightily about getting even with the $^!!@#@% Nazis.
Number 5, although still standing, was too badly damaged to be habitable. However I was relieved to learn that it would not have to be demolished.
The rest of that day is a little hazy. I know that some neighbours further up the street provided endless hot sweet tea and obviously sometime later that day the three of us were reunited, both father and Barbara having returned from hospital.
We spent the next few nights in Wembley with Lou’s parents. My only memory of that short stay was sitting in their outdoor brick built shelter. Lou’s father was Secretary to Taylor Woodrow the huge contractors - I guess they built it for him. As we sat there shivering we heard a series of doodlebugs passing overhead. None cut out within hearing distance, fortunately.
This whole incident had a disastrous effect on my nerves. Up until now I had borne the bombing with typical British phlegm. However now I begged my father to take me out of London. I was panic stricken and absolutely terrified.
His ex secretary, Phyllis Mabey was staying with friends in Taunton, Somerset. She arranged accommodation for us both at a pub in Taunton called "The Four Alls". I clearly remember standing on Paddington station waiting for the train. It seemed an age before it left and I was trembling with anxiety. Eventually we got to Taunton, I don’t remember anything of the journey. I’m sure that every minute of it made me feel less anxious.
The Four Alls was a typical small town pub. Pop and I shared a bedroom and a double bed. I had great difficulty in getting off to sleep. It was on this occasion that he gave me a tip that I still use to this day, fifty years later. What was the tip? You must imagine that you are sitting in a darkened theatre in the most comfortable seat you’ve ever sat in. You are gazing fixedly at the stage curtain which is closed and made of black velvet. You are waiting for it to open. That’s all there is to it. Works like dream!
A few days later I came out in a dreadful rash that itched like hell. We at first suspected bed bugs or fleas but since father was not affected and we shared the same bed we came to the conclusion that the cause was something else. father took me to a local doctor who asked "Has this boy been subjected to some sort of traumatic experience recently?". Of course the doodlebug was the trauma, I was suffering from an allergic nervous reaction. I’m not sure what the cure was, some sort of sedative I suppose. Anyway the rash cleared up and I was fine thereafter.