Saturday, 30 August 2008
Another hobby, born out of the wartime motto ‘make-do-and- mend’, was making flowers out of modelling wax. I don’t think modelling wax is around any more. It used to be sold in sticks of a similar shape and size to stage make-up. It came in every shade you could imagine and, if you were lucky, scented to boot!
Every one in the family had a go at this. There weren’t many fresh flowers around (it was frowned upon to use any ground space for growing anything but fruit and vegetables), so this was a good substitute that brightened up a table or a windowsill. First we picked twigs and stripped any leaves from them. Then we softened the wax, broke off little pieces and rolled them into balls. These were then flattened into disc-shapes and secured to the twigs, like petals. With practice, you could get quite good at it. Most households had a vase full of these horrendous ‘flowers’. If it wasn’t wax flowers taking pride of place, it was crepe-paper flowers: equally ugly!
There was no limit to the things one could do with an old sock or yesterday’s newspaper. Even empty baked bean cans were used to make flower arrangements. These were not for us children though, as this floral extravaganza entailed cutting the tin into long strands with scissors, and then twisting them into spirals! One wartime hobby that has now made a very fashionable comeback is he art of making rag rugs. Everyone who owned a sewing machine made these rugs. They were warm, very hard wearing, and could be made from any worn out clothing or scraps of suitable fabric. We made small rugs for putting in the hallway outside various doors, and larger ones for the fireside. The cloth had to be cut up into 4” squares, sorted into pleasing colour combinations, and then machined diagonally onto a sacking back. I used to cut up the squares, the younger children helped to sort them, and Mum machined like crazy. I helped make many of these rugs during the war, and also made quite a few for my own home in later life.
Before I leave the Bradford period I must tell, you the following tale. In the January 1996, I learned that Ruby was ill in hospital. I had not spoken to my cousin Rita for about four years and decided to telephone her to enquire about her sister Ruby’s state of health. Our conversation got around to the good old days and evacuation, and I asked her what had happened to her after we had left her behind in Grange-over-Sands.
‘I thought you knew,’ she said. ‘After you left Grange, Mr. Quarry had a heart attack and I was moved to another house. I stayed there a little while, and then was moved on again.’
‘What happened next?’ I asked. ‘Did you return to Oakfield Road before us, then?’
‘No’ said Rita. ‘ I joined you all in Bradford, didn’t I?
I had absolutely no recollection of her being at Duckworth Lane, but she told me details of the school we attended and the room we slept in, and she convinced me that she did indeed live there for a time. I’ve thought about this memory lapse of mine, and have come to the following conclusion. By the time Rita had come to Bradford I had formed new friends. She most likely wasn’t in the same school class as I was, and we probably did our own thing in our free time. If this was the case, I don’t suppose she was imprinted on any very memorable times we had. I have already found this to be the case with my brother Doug. I know that he came with me to Bradford, but I don’t have any memories of him being there either. Again, he would only have been seven years old (still very young) , whilst I was twelve and almost a teenager.
To be continued…
Friday, 29 August 2008
One time, I had a picture of a starlet that I didn’t know. Not to be outdone, I duly pasted her into my book and wrote beneath the cutting the word ‘anon’. This happened again, so I followed the same procedure; Mummy had told me years earlier what the word anon. meant. Later, at school, I was showing my collection to a girl in my class. She looked at the photographs of the two ‘unknowns’ and said ‘you’d never guess that they were the same person, they look so different!’
One of the side effects of the war was a paper shortage. Of course, there were a great many shortages, most of which we kids didn’t worry about. The smaller children didn’t remember things like chocolate and bananas, while oranges and lemons was just a nursery rhyme. I was quite aware that clothes and food were rationed, but as a family we never bought great quantities of either. Mum was a good manager and we never seemed to go short of the things that really mattered. But a paper shortage – that was different. That had a serious affect on my film star collection!
I had been unable to continue my hobby in Grange-over-Sands. We didn’t live anywhere near a newsagent, so I didn’t have the opportunity to buy my magazines. Then we moved to Bradford and it was all systems go! I hurried down to the local paper shop, which was a few doors away, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. The shopkeeper soon informed me that owing to limited availability Picturegoer and Filmgoer were only for regular customers who had always ordered them from him. I cajoled and pleaded, but to no avail.
Back home I sat and thought deeply about this problem. Then I hit on an idea. I would boldly walk up to the counter and, clutching my money, announce that I’d been sent by Mrs. Jones to collect her copy of Picturegoer. If questioned, I would tell the newsagent that Mrs Jones had a headache and couldn’t come out. I don’t think it occurred to me that he probably didn’t have a customer called Mrs. Jones. Or maybe it did, and I decided to live dangerously. Of course it didn’t work, although I tried it on more than one shop. From then on, until the end of the war, film stars were very thin on the ground.
To be continued…
Thursday, 28 August 2008
Coming from a working class background, our abode was very much make-do-and-mend, with Dad’s decorating prowess and Mummy’s homemaking skills well to the fore. We didn’t go in for quality furnishings. We couldn’t afford them. So Mr and Mrs. Quarry’s home seemed to me to be very posh. Looking back, it was just a normal middle class home.
Mummy, being Mummy would send little parcels to Dougie and I from time to time. They would contain small items of clothing, such as socks and underwear, and little treats like chocolate and biscuits. Se would write lovely funny little letters that would make us laugh. Rita didn’t often get any letters or parcels, and this didn’t go down very well with Mrs Quarry. I think, in a way, she resented me having a caring family and so favoured Rita more than me. Throughout all this Rita and I remained firm friends.
We tended to be sent to bed rather earlier that we had been used to at home in London. Sometimes we would read our books but, on one occasion, we invented a new pastime, which we were to regret. One of us, I can’t remember which, discovered that if we curled the corner of our handkerchief into a spiral and inserted it up our nostril, by gently tickling the inside of our nose, it would produce very loud and violent sneezing. How stupid can you get? After a time, Mrs Quarry, who had been listening to the prolific sneezing from downstairs, hurried up with doses of medicine for the pair of us, insisting that we were ‘going down with something’. We didn’t dare tell her the truth, so we took our medicine.
LIFE IN BRADFORD
Meanwhile, back in London, the raids were still very bad and the Government had now decided to offer evacuation to mothers with young children and babies. This, of course, included Mummy and Gwen.
My mother sent a letter to me at Grange-over-Sands telling me that she had moved with Tina, Sandie and Billy to a place called Bradford. She and Gwen, with the four small children, had been allocated a large house in Duckworth Lane. Sharing the house with them was another young mother who had been evacuated from a place called Wood Green in North London. I had never heard of Wood Green and I had no idea that it was to have such a big influence on my life in future years.
Once Mum had settled in, she quickly realised that Bradford wasn’t that far away from Grange, so she came to visit us, leaving the small children with Gwen.
We were beside ourselves with excitement at seeing Mummy again. Unfortunately, we weren’t going to see Dad for some time, as he had been left behind in London. He had to continue to work and earn money to keep our flat going until we could all return to Oakfield Road once more.
We walked Mummy round the town, showing her all the places we frequented. She in turn told us stories about Billy and Sandie and the things they were getting up to. I was also very interested in the progress of the new baby, little Tina.
When we returned to the Quarry homestead, Mrs. Quarry told Rita and I to go and play in the study while she and Mr Quarry talked to Mummy in the lounge. I felt very upset and cheated. I hadn’t seen my mother for such a long, long time, and now I was being shut out of the room while Mr and Mrs Quarry took up my precious time with her. What I didn’t know was that Mum was arranging to take Dougie and I to live with her in Bradford.
Mrs Quarry assumed that, because Gwen was Rita’s sister and also Peter’s Aunty, she would want to take them to Bradford as well. Nothing was further from the truth. Gwen was a young, newly married wife and mother of a newborn baby, whose husband was away fighting in the war, and Gwen and Rita were actually stepsisters. They shared the same mother but had different fathers, and although she of course loved her sister and nephew, Gwen really didn’t want the added responsibility of two more children to care for, and who could really blame her?
The Quarrys were aghast at this news, and poor, old Mum had to take the brunt of it because Gwen wasn’t there to say her piece. When Mummy left us to go back to Bradford, the atmosphere was less than cheery at Grange. It was therefore with great joy that Dougie and I left to join Mum and be a family once more.
72, Duckworth Lane was a three storey, Victorian house with a flight of stone steps leading up to a solid front door. Once inside the front door, we found ourselves in a large hallway with more stairs going up to our part of the house. The ground floor was occupied by a mother and daughter. They had fled the German occupation of Jersey in the Channel Islands, ending up, like us, in Bradford. They were both French, but could speak English. The little girl was about seven years old.
Leading off the hall was the cellar door. The cellar was a large, almost empty room with a flagstone floor. In one corner was a copper with a sturdy, wooden lid. This was where all the laundry for the entire household was boiled, rinsed, and mangled.
Our living area on the first floor compromised of two large rooms, one overlooking the back garden and the other the front main road. The room at the front was quite large and was a communal kitchen/living room,
There was a gas cooker just inside the door, and a large, old fashioned kitchen table stood in the centre of the room. Around and about, were a settee and various armchairs. I imagine all the furniture was supplied to us by the Bradford Council.
A further flight of stairs led to the top of the house, where there were two more large bedrooms. The front rood had dormer windows from which you could se the sky. Although this was my bedroom, I never liked being in it. There were tales of it being haunted and the room used to spook me.
Apart from this, I was very happy living in Bradford. I went to the local school, picked up a broad Yorkshire accent and became a teenager. This all happened in a short span of time. Quite a lot of other things happened during our stay there.
Daddy came to visit us and became bedridden there for a while with his ulcerated legs. These were a legacy from a traffic accident and were to stay with him, on and off, for the rest of his life. Of course we loved having him there with us, and we would all sit on the bed while he showed us how to draw and colour.
While we were in Bradford, we all caught mumps and then chicken pox, though not at the same time! We also acquired head lice! Sometimes I wonder how Mum coped with all our traumas, and us, but she did.
Tina was an especially tiny baby at birth (and I believe that to this day she is the shortest member of the family) and Mummy worried about her. One day Tina was taken ill and rushed off to the Bradford Infirmary, where they suspected meningitis. Mum was told that they would have to perform a lumbar puncture on Tina, and the doctor asked Mummy to phone the hospital at a given time for the results. We all sat watching the clock and, at last, it was time to telephone. Mummy was too frightened to make the call, so she asked me to do it. I didn’t really know what meningitis was, only that it was something that my mother greatly feared, and that Tina might have it. Thankfully, the results were negative, though I don’t know what I would have done had they been otherwise!
We lived near the school and Doug and I used to come home for lunch each day. As we came through the kitchen door, Mummy would be standing at the cooker preparing a hot lunch for us all. We’d all sit down round the big, wooden table and, while we ate our lunch, we would tell Mum what we’d been up to at school. Usually the radio would be playing in the background and we’d sing-along with Bing Crosby and ‘Swinging on a star’ which was top of the hit parade.
One day, the Head Teacher found out that I had never been given the chance to sit my eleven plus exam. I don’t know who thought of it, or how they managed it, but I was given a message for my parents, saying that on a certain day the school had made arrangements for me to sit this very important examination.
When the time arrived, Mummy made me feel so special. Off I went to school in a smart, white shirt and navy gymslip. I thought most of the papers were quite easy: nearly all Mensa-type puzzles and multiple choices. And, since I had always been adept at reading and writing essays, the English paper was a piece of cake.
I came home lunchtime; Mummy had made me a special lunch and laid the entire table nicely for me. She said it was important that I felt cosy and relaxed. Bless her for being the darling Mother she was. I felt like a princess! The sad part of the story was that we went back to London before the results came through. Because it was wartime and chaos reigned everywhere, I never did find out if I passed or failed the exam.
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Shortly after this, the Government decided that all school children should be given the chance to move to a place of safety. Bill, Sandie and Tina, the latest addition to the family, were not yet of school age, so were exempt from evacuation. Sylvia had started work, so she wasn’t eligible either. That left Douglas and me, and Rita and Peter who could be sent away to a safe place.
Because of Dougie’s state of health, Mummy had made me promise that, come what may, I wouldn’t allow the authorities to separate us. When we reached our destination, as yet unknown to us, I was to tell everyone that we must be billeted together so that I could take care of Douglas. It’s only now that I write this that I can fully appreciate what terrible torment my parents must have been going through. Did they know where our destination was to be? They certainly didn’t know into whose care we would be given; this would not be decided until we actually arrived at our destination.
So there we were, the four of us (and a few hundred more) on the train to ‘somewhere in England’. We stayed overnight in a church hall: God knows where. Next day we reached our Yorkshire destination, Grange-over-Sands, a coastal town that I’d never heard of. We were ushered into yet another church hall where the share out of children proceeded.
I stuck to my guns and my promises, and said that ‘My brother and I mustn’t be parted’. Because they were cousins, Rita and Peter also wanted to be together if possible. I knew something was afoot when various WI-type ladies started to go into huddles, looking at us and murmuring amongst themselves.
‘We have these two very nice houses, quite close to each other,’ said one of the ladies, fixing me with a purposeful stare. They only have one spare bedroom each, so it isn’t very convenient to have both a boy and a girl’. I knew what was coming next.
‘If you and your cousin Rita stayed with Mr. & Mrs Quarry, your little brother and his cousin Peter could stay with Mrs. Pickering and Miss Watts’.
I opened my mouth to protest but was carried along on the verbal avalanche.
‘The two houses are so close that you’ll be able to se each other from your windows and call on Douglas every day. I’m sure your mother wouldn’t object to that; it would be very jolly for you all to be so close to each other’.
What chance did a small child of nearly twelve, in a strange place, with no one to back her up, have against all these grown ups? I shyly gave in.
Rita and I got on OK but I felt I’d let both Douglas and Mummy down. Peter and Douglas loved it where they were. They were spoiled and cosseted by the two elderly ladies. Miss Watts was companion to Mrs Pickering and they lived alone in the house at the bottom of ‘The Crag’. Apparently, Mr. Pickering was a permanent patient in a nearby institution.
Mr. And Mrs. Quarry were grey-haired and also elderly. Mr. Quarry had been a banker, but was now retired and lived only for his garden, which was beautiful. Mrs. Quarry was pleasant and kind but somehow didn’t radiate any of the love and affection that I had grown up with; so it wasn’t home, by any means. They had two grown-up children: a son and a daughter. The son was away at university somewhere and the daughter was a nurse. I never saw either of them.
The Quarry’s house reminded me of Aunty Sissie and Uncle George’s home. The curtains and carpeting (we never had carpeting at home) was co-ordinated with the three-piece suite, which was leather. There were highly polished coffee tables and heavy oak bookcases laden with leather-bound books. As well as possessing a bathroom, Mrs quarry had a kitchen that was only used for cooking and a dining room that was only used for eating in, a luxury I hadn’t encountered before.
Rita and I were allowed to sit in Mr Quarry’s study and play with his son’s solitaire. It was one of those large, carved, polished, wooden sets with beautiful, rainbow-coloured marbles.
The food was good and quite plentiful and the Quarry’s did their best to make us feel at home. We grew quite fond of Mr Quarry. He sometimes made up silly, little songs that he would sing to us at bedtimes. One such song went like this:
Come into the garden Maude
And see all our beans and peas
Come into the garden Maude
And see our evacuees
And see our evacuees.
Not exactly brilliant, but it made us giggle, especially as Mrs. Quarry’s name was Maude.
to be continued...
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
If the evenings were filled with great fun and excitement the mornings were sheer Hell. The fact that I could never go to sleep till the last train pulled out didn’t make getting up (literally) at the crack of dawn very easy.
The rule was that all members of the general public using the station, as a shelter must vacate the platform before the first train arrived in the morning. To get everyone up, dressed and packed, took ages, which necessitated extremely early rising. Of course, I was very, very tired and operated on automatic pilot most of the way home.
Early on in our tube shelter days, Mummy discovered, while talking to her bedfellows, that there was a house at the street level of Manor House tube station that would store bedding till the evening for a shilling (5p) a week. At least now we didn’t have to carry everything back up the hill to our home as well as struggling to carry ourselves.
I can well remember feeling so tired that I kept blacking-out as I was walking, waves of unconsciousness sweeping over me, just for a second or two, and my feet keeping on walking. The walk must have taken us about three-quarters of an hour, but by the time we were nearly home I had begun to wake up.
It fascinated me to think that each day, as we turned the bend in the road, there could possibly be a hole where our house had been. A couple of my school friends had been bombed out, and I didn’t see why some morning it couldn’t just as easily be us. But, each day, there was 71, Oakfield Road, standing as it had since Victorian times.
RATIONING AND SHORTAGES
Almost all goods and food were in short supply; some were very scarce and a few items just vanished from out lives altogether for the duration of the war. One of the items that disappeared was the lemon. Oranges and bananas were still being imported spasmodically and reserved solely for infants less than five years of age. As Mum and Dad always seemed to have two or three children under the age of five, we did, from time to time, savour these delicacies.
I recollect a day, round about the time that the war ended, being asked to go to the local shops to purchase something for Mum. About halfway to the shops I saw, in the gutter, something bright yellow. Bending down to investigate, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Wonder of Wonders: it was a piece of real-life lemon peel. I picked it up and held it to my nose, inhaling deeply. What bliss! I had forgotten what a wonderful smell the zest of a lemon had. I held the lemon peel tightly in my hand, all thoughts of errands consigned to oblivion, and rushed back home with my treasure so that all the family could have a sniff!
Food was under strict control and everything was rationed in varying amounts. Ration books were colour coded: buff for adults, blue for children and green, I believe, was for babies. On the rare occasions that bananas were delivered to the shop, word would quickly spread and there would soon be a lengthy queue of mums waving green ration books ant the greengrocer.
Meat, eggs, butter cheese, tea sugar and bacon were issued on a weekly basis of so many ounces per person, whereas flour, biscuits, dried fruit and tinned goods were allocated on a points system. A set amount of points were allowed in each ration book per month, and these could be ‘spent’ as and when needed. People saved points up for Christmas and birthdays and weddings, so that they could buy little extras.
Since there were eight members of our family at this time, we had more than we needed of some items and not enough of others, This meant that a bit of wheeling and dealing would go on (strictly on the quiet, you understand). For instant, Dad didn’t eat sweets, so us kids had his sweet ration and he got our cheese for his sandwiches. We were never well off enough to have real butter, even at the best of times, so Mum would swap our butter rations for extra packets of tea. So long as Dad had his cup of tea and cigarettes he was happy. Mum would sometimes sell a few clothing coupons to make ends meet. This was known as ‘selling on the Black Market’, which was illegal.
Most people dabbled in a very minor way in the Black Market, but it was really the ‘big boys’ that the police were eager to catch, not housewives trying to bend the rules a little.
Some time towards the end of the war, an empty High School a couple of blocks down was suddenly taken over by the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Services) and things started to get busy. Vans were parked outside and ladies in bottle green uniforms scurried in and out. Grown-ups had a habit of being boringly unconcerned about these sorts of things, but us kids were agog to know what was going on in the old school.
We didn’t have to wait long. Notices went up in the windows announcing that we could, on certain days at particular times, obtain whatever we needed in the way of clothing, no money or clothing coupons required to change hands. The notice invited the public to enter the building and go to the large room at the top of the stairs, where all would be explained. Mum told me to go and find out what it was all about and to report back to her.
In fact, it was a very good idea and worked extremely well. All we had to do was to take any unwanted or outgrown item of wearing apparel, including shoes and slippers, and hand them in to the WVS worker on duty. She would examine the article and allocate it a specific number of points (according to it’s worth), which was then entered into a book and set against your name and address. If you had a particular need at the time, you could spend all or part of your points on a garment that someone else had bought in. If there was nothing you wanted or fancied, your points remained in the book until you came back another day.
As far as I was concerned, this was all great fun. I could go shopping without any money at all, and come home with new clothes. All I needed was a few unwanted garments from home.
Sorry about the double photo. I can't get rid of it and am a bit worried in case I end up deleting the entire blog!
Sunday, 24 August 2008
Sleeping in the London Underground station
Mum and Dad decided that we would all be safer out of the house during the night-time air attacks, so we joined the ever growing band of Londoners who took their ‘beds’ to the local underground railway station.
At the start of the war, the government had refused to allow the London underground to be used an air-raid shelter. They seemed to think that the population of London would all rush underground and stay there for the duration of the war! This, however, did not stop the general public from buying platform tickets and just staying on the platform. It became a case of might being right, and the government relented.
By he end of 1940 some 170,000 Londoners were taking up their positions throughout the underground transport system, in an effort to shelter from the German bombs,
A couple of years later, the Leach family and other residents of 71 Oakfield Road added to the above figures.
Each evening, like a band of wandering gypsies, we would wend our way from the top of Oakfield Road (no cars in those days), to the Manor House tube station. Mummy would be carrying Sandra, who was a tiny baby, at the same time hanging on to Billy’s hand. Usually it would be my job to look after Dougie who was by now about five or six. Anyone who was big and/or strong enough, helped carry the bags containing night-time necessities. It was. Of course, Dad’s job to carry all the bedding needed for the whole family. This was usually rolled up, put into blankets, and tied up in large bundles.
On arrival at Manor House tube station, we would manoeuvre ourselves down the escalators – no mean feat for us lot. Daddy would take us down one or two at a time, leaving each of us at the bottom waiting for the next delivery to arrive.
We were then all shepherded on to the platform.
Each family or single person was allocated a particular place on the platform. Whether this was official policy, or was bought about by the general camaraderie of the times, I don’t know. Some people had bunk beds. These must have been given to the first families that applied for shelter. Anyway. We had our place on the floor of the station platform, and it was in exactly the same spot every night. No body ever put their bed down in another family’s plot.
Two white lines were painted on the floor, one eight feet and the other only four feet from the edge of the platform. Until 7.30 we were only allowed to ‘camp down’ behind the eight-foot line. After 7.30, people were allowed to make their beds up to the second mark, which was only four feet away from the edge. Once the trains stopped running for the day, it was every man for himself and the floor became a sea of bodies.
There were big bodies and small bodies: bodies with pink, shiny, tranquil faces and bodies with smelly feet and snoring faces; babies with bottles; children with teddy bears; people with false teeth and old people with no teeth at all; people who slept in their day time clothes, and those that insisted on wearing their curlers and pyjamas each night.
After greeting and exchanging the latest news with their ‘neighbour’, Mum and Dad would busy themselves making up beds for us all. Then they sat and drank cups of tea and chatted. Occasionally, Dad would go ‘up top’ to see if there was a raid in progress and assess how bad it was. When all the children were tucked up in their beds I was, as the eldest, allowed to stay up and wander around for a bit. This was all very exciting and great fun.
I imagine that Aunty Minnie and her family must have been there with us, because I don’t remember being on my own once the little ones had gone to sleep. My companion (who must have been Sylvia or Rita) and I would stroll through to the platform where trains travelled in the opposite direction. Sometimes there’d be community singing going on. Or a member of the public would be playing an accordion or mouth organ, and we’d hang around, listening. We’d beg Mum to let us go for a ride on the tube train.
‘Promise me you’ll only go one stop and then come straight back’, she would say. We would agree and, feeling so grown-up and brave, wait for the next train to draw in. Then, as the automatic doors opened we would jump aboard and stand there, trying to look like seasoned travellers. After just one stop, we would jump off the train and cross over to the other platform to catch a train back.
There was never any concern about us getting into trouble or danger. Parents never seemed to have that worry in those days, especially during the war. Everybody you met was in the same boat and treated each other as part of a big, friendly family.
The WVS would come down to the platform at some stage during the evening, dispensing cups of tea and biscuits, and if we were really fortunate, doughnuts. I can’t recall if this service was free or not but there was always a long queue. We didn’t mind waiting, as it was a way of passing the time.
Finally, when the last train had travelled through Manor House underground station, the lights would dim, and all would be safely gathered in, and the ‘concerto for snorers’ would start.
Saturday, 23 August 2008
Oakfield Road, Stroud Green, wasn’t really ready for us. The road was very long and tree lined, filled with large, Victorian houses that had seen aristocratic days. Mostly elderly, retired, business people now inhabited the houses, and there were few children to be seen.
How well I remember the day we moved in. It was a hot summery day in 1942 and our house was right on top of the hill. We looked along the length of the road and it seemed so quiet and peaceful. The hot sun shone through the green leaves and, as we walked up from the bottom of the hill, we crossed over a railway bridge and heard a train puffing along. This was nothing like the noisy, dusty, treeless street we’d just left behind and I felt that this would be a good place to live. I was almost eleven years old.
The reason that we’d come to North London was because of my mother’s widowed Aunt Minnie. She had rented this rambling old Victorian house and lived there with her three single daughters and an infant son, a war widowed daughter (Ruby) and her son Peter, and her married daughter Gwen. Minnie’s small son Wally was about two years old, next eldest was Rita, who was the same age as me. After Rita came Sylvia who had just left school, Edna who was about sixteen, and Ruby. Aunty Minnie said that, provided we were all prepared to’ muck in together’, we were very welcome to stay.
I enrolled in the top class of the local junior school and, and Douglas went into the infant school which was in the same building. Billy was still only about two years old, and Sandie was soon to come upon the scene.
All the children slept in the large back bedroom, the boys in one bed, and all the girls in another. There was lots of fun to be had reading under he bedclothes, playing jokes on each other and frightening the more timid members of the family with ghost stories.
On one occasion, a very elaborate midnight feats was planned. Sandwiches, biscuits and cake were saved from our meal times and surreptitiously hidden. We older ones ‘borrowed’ things from the larder to embellish our feast. We weren’t really hungry but it was very exciting and seemed like a daring thing to do, I was at the time heavily into ‘The Girls Crystal’ and boarding school stories, so it was probably all my idea!
After a short period of time, Mum and Dad and their growing family (which now included my first new baby sister Sandie) moved into the flat upstairs.
Then the raids started again. Now Germany had invented a new type of bomb: the buzz bomb or doodlebug. These bombs were, in effect, pilot-less aeroplanes, self-powered by petrol and compressed air. They were steered by gyroscope and designed to stall when they ran out of fuel, exploding on impact. The buzz bombs often fell in the daytime, and on busy streets. The sound of them droning overhead was very scary, to say the least. When the engine cut out, and the deathly silence followed, I was really terrified. I though my heart would stop beating and held my breath until the big bang told me that this time, we weren’t all going to be blown up.
In the daytime when the warning sounded, we all rushed down into the cellar and sat on the stairs, huddling together. The very young children didn’t really know what was going on, so they were quite happy with events. Mummy tried to be brave for the sakes of all the children, but I was old enough to know the danger that we were all in, and not old enough to put on a brave face. I would occasionally whimper or say Mummy’s name over and over again, but the way that Auntie Minnie behaved was almost as frightening as the air raids themselves.
She would sit on the lower cellar steps, with her arms clasped around her knees, her feet jumping up and down making a noise on the stone floor like machine guns firing. Crying over and over again, Oh, God! Oh, God! She looked like someone about to go into a seizure, and it frightened me a great deal. More than sixty years on, the memory of buzz bombs and Aunty Minnie still go hand-in-hand.
Friday, 22 August 2008
For reasons unknown to me, Mummy decided to send me to a Catholic church-school at the bottom of Brixton Hill. I can truthfully say that his experience left me with the most unhappy memories of my entire school life, but that's another story.
At least it didn't go on for too long because we were soon on the move again.
The next house in Rymer Street, was quite small after Madora Road. Even the road was small. Once more, we were just around the corner to the park, and back living with the ack-ack guns and the search lights. For a while life was fun once more.
We all loved Aunty Audrey. She had a lovely singing voice, and would sing 'The Toy Drum Major' for us. She and her little girl Annette had a room upstairs but unlike the other houses Mum and Audrey shared, we now all lived together, ate together and played together. Audrey worked in a war munitions factory and Mummy used to look after Annette while Audrey was at work. I remember the BBC visiting the armament factory where Audrey worked. There used to be a war-time radio show called 'Worker's Playtime' which was transmitted each day from 'A factory somewhere in Britain'. The basis of the show was that any worker who was talented and suitable could perform on this programme, if they could pass an audition. Audrey had volunteered to sing on Worker's Playtime, and we were all very excited. We never did hear her on the radio though. At the very last moment she'd got a terrible attack of nerves and chickened out!
Our next door neighbours at Rymer Street were the Johnson's. There was a daughter Rene, who was the same age as me, and a son Freddie, who was the same age as Dougie. We all became the best of friends and frequently played in each other's homes. Looking back, I could see that they really weren't Mum and Dad's type, but during the war years everyone befriended and helped everyone else. Mr. Johnson was a typical London cockney. He wore a flat cap. braces and a white silk muffler round his throat, which he tucked into his shirt or vest. I don't think I ever saw him without his cap and muffler. Mrs Johnson was always hard-working and, as I recall, looked a little like Andy Capp's wife, although she never wore curlers in her hair: it was straight, dark, and slightly greasy, anchored on the side by a large kirby-grip.
I don't remember many air-raids at Rymer Street. Maybe there was a lull in the bombing for a time. I do remember, however, one especially bad night. The warning sounded and we all say around waiting to see what would happen. We didn't have to wait long. Soon, the German planes came over and the bombs started falling.
If they were near enough, you would hear the swish or whistle as the bombs fell from the sky, then the explosions as they hit their target. We always said a silent prayer to thank God that it wasn't us, but you knew that someone, somewhere, had copped it.
On this particular night the bombing was very heavy, the searchlights were sweeping the skies and the guns in the park were bang-banging away. Daddy thought that we would be safer in the shelters, so we put our coats and hats on and opened the front door.
As I said, Rymer Street was only a small street, and there weren't more than about six or eight houses on each side of the road. The park ran across the end of the street, and the air-raid shelters were just around the corner to the right. It was very dark, the only light coming from the flash of the guns and the searchlights in the park. We all waited for a lull in the firing of the guns, and then made a run for it with Mum. Dad, and Aunty Audrey trying to keep all the children together. The shrapnel from the guns was hitting the pavement and houses, making an awful noise. As each new rain of shrapnel bounced around, we'd scuttle into a doorway and wait, ready for the next pause in the action, then we'd dash off again.
At the time, I was quite thrilled with the excitement of it all and Dougie was busy ear-marking bits of shrapnel that he would claim the next day - which he did.
to be continued...
Monday, 18 August 2008
And so we arrived in New Park Avenue, Palmers Green. The house was beautiful, and the garden a showpiece. We weren’t allowed to pick any flowers, or walk or sit on the lawn unless Uncle George gave permission. Even then, we couldn’t wear shoes, only slippers, and we had to sit on a blanket provided for the purpose. My Aunty and Uncle were very kind and quite fond of Doug and I, in their own way. They just didn’t understand children or their ways and found it difficult to communicate. Billy was called ‘the brat’, in a jokey way (as were all the other little Leaches as they appeared in the world!)
At first we were made very welcome. Then small, insignificant events started to get on the grown up’s nerves. Like me having a cough that wouldn’t stop tickling my throat. Uncle George was convinced that I was coughing deliberately to annoy him. Of course I wasn’t, but that, together with Dougie doing head-over-heals in the lounge and Billy having baby bodily functions, meant that things were magnified out of all proportion, and it was soon time to move on again before relationships got too strained.
A house on the opposite side of the road to Sissie and George’s was unoccupied. The owners were away because of the war, and wanted to let it out. I have no idea how Mum and Dad managed to secure the property, but they did. It was like being let out of prison! We ran up and down the stairs and in and out of the garden; the freedom was wonderful. We were happy, Mum and Dad were happy and, most of all, Sissie and George were happy to have their own little nest back again.
Because Dad was out of work and we’d lost all out furniture, the new house was a bit Spartan looking to begin with. Aunty Sissie gave us a table and we sat on boxes. Mum and Dad gradually got furniture together. I don’t remember how, but I do remember we were never without the basic essentials for long. Somehow, Mum and Dad always made it OK again. It wasn’t long before, being the miracle workers they were, my parents had managed to build us yet another home. Dad got himself a new job with a building and decorating contractor, and life settled peacefully down once more.
My mother wanted to put curtains up at the front windows. Of course, we had the obligatory blackout curtains, but these didn’t look very cosy, and weren’t intended to take the place of proper curtaining. Being the wonderful homemaker that she was, Mum somehow managed to acquire some biscuit coloured lining material. This material, after being given Mummy’s own individual touch, became our new curtains. Together, we collected different sized cups, glasses and jam jar. Mum placed these upside down on the curtains and drew circles around them that overlapped in various sizes and patterns. She then spent the next few days embroidering these circles in different coloured embroidery thread, letting me help her. This must have occurred about sixty five years ago, but I can see those pretty curtains now, and would love to be able to hold them and run my fingers over the chain-stitch embroidery.
It wasn’t too long before the real owners of ‘our house’ decided that they wanted to take up residency once more. Mum and Dad received a letter from a very old friend of theirs called Audrey. She was, and still is, referred to as Aunty Audrey to all of us. Audrey’s husband Herman was in the RAF and stationed in Wales and Aunty Audrey had moved there to be near him. Now she wanted to return to war-torn London. It was then that we moved from New Park Avenue to Madora Road, Brixton, and Aunty Audrey joined us.
Sunday, 17 August 2008
On one occasion my Aunty bought me a pale lemon, silky, party dress, which she embroidered with little, lavender French-knots (she was heavily into embroidering French- knots at the time). I remember that I was given my new dress to wear at Dougie’s 4th birthday party. We had a jelly and cake birthday celebration, and my friend from the garage was invited. I can’t remember much about her, except that she had some sort of skin complaint and had to wear a funny pixie-hood with her party dress. I was very polite and pretended not to notice it, while all the time I was dying to see what was hidden beneath the hood. Also at the tea party was our Daddy. He had come to Blackpool to see us, and I assume, to bring birthday presents for Douglas.
By the time summer came around again, Lennie had returned to Bolton, and Mummy and Daddy had presented us with a new baby brother named Billy (in honour of Uncle). My mother told me that Billy came into the world in the middle of one of the worst nights of the London Blitz. When she went into labour the spitfires were battling overhead. She, together with my dad, Aunty Lily and Uncle Len (relations of Daddy) had to stay in the house. They were unable to get as far as the local air-raid shelter in the park.
Dad and Uncle Len went to the bottom of the garden, to watch the planes dog-fighting in the sky and left Mummy and Aunty Lilly to their own battle in the bedroom. Mum said that the bombs were falling all around and, because we lived next to the park where the ack-ack guns and searchlights were stationed, it made it a very dangerous place to be. Aunty Lily was sure that they were all going to be blasted to kingdom come before Billy was born! However, all went well and the next time we saw Mum and Dad there was a new baby to cuddle.
It was thought that it would be safer for all our family to stay together for a while in Blackpool. The air-raids in London were still raging, and the air-raid shelter in the park had recently been bombed, killing a lot of our neighbours and some of the local shop-keepers. Mum, Dad and Billy were somehow fitted in at Aunty and Uncles Blackpool house, and things jogged along. Daddy found work and Mummy helped Aunty and Uncle look after the air force boys.
I don’t remember how long my parents actually stayed in Blackpool, but it all ended in tears, like so many family get-togethers do. One day, all our things were packed up and we went home.
Well, not quite home. When Mum and Dad had come to be with us in Blackpool, our house in Norwood had stood empty. They had left our house keys with neighbours, in case of an emergency. Now that we were moving back, Daddy travelled down to London ahead of us, to get things ready for our return. To his horror, the neighbours said that they were surprised to see him: they thought we’d moved away from Norwood Road.
Apparently a group of removal men had collected the keys, let themselves into he house and removed all the contents. When Daddy finally got into the house through a window, he found everything was gone, even the cutlery. There was nothing left. The House had been ‘cleaned out’ and closed down and we could no longer live there. Even my dearest, old teddy with half an arm, which had been with me most of my life, had gone, never to be seen again. This should have been a traumatic experience for me, but to be honest, we moved house so often that it somehow seemed perfectly normal that we should be ‘on the move’ again.
I was a mere child when all this happened, and so I don’t really know the finer details of the story. I feel certain that Mum and Dad must have had their suspicions about the identity of the person who took the keys but, if they had, they didn’t seem to do anything about it.
I had no notion of the drama going on between the grown-ups, and don’t remember much about the lead-up to my next adventure. All I know is that my Aunty Sissie (Mum’s sister) and her husband Uncle George had said they would put us up until we could find somewhere else to live. This must have been very hard for both sides. Aunty Sis and Uncle George had no children (because they didn’t want them) and Mummy and Daddy probably felt very embarrassed but had no other option. They said how grateful they were, which of course they were, but it didn’t sit easily on their shoulders.
The photo is me in my party dress with Dougie
Saturday, 16 August 2008
Because Aunty and Uncle had a large house, they were allocated a certain amount of RAF airmen who had been sent to Blackpool for training. I don't recall exactly how many of them were billeted with us, but the house seemed to be full of young men in air force blue uniforms. Aunty and Uncle called them their 'boys' and treated then as if they really were! All the lads adored them. They must have been the most loved, well-fed-and-watered airmen in the whole of Blackpool.
Uncle did all the cooking and housework (he made a mean Lancashire hot-pot) while Aunty seemed to spend all day sitting at the kitchen table with a Pekinese on her lap, smoking cigarettes and reading the newspapers. Sometimes she knitted.
Each tea-time Uncle would set a plate of sliced cheese by the hot cooking range. When it had melted and was all runny and stringy, Aunty would spread it on her toast and eat it for her tea. This was a daily routine that never changed.
As the young airmen came into the house they would salute Dougie pretending he was an officer and Dougie would salute back. Auntie and Uncle became really enthusiastic with this 'game' and decided that, for Dougie to do justice to this new role, he must indeed become a 'proper' officer. Whereupon a tailor was found and commissioned to supply a made-to-measure RAF Officer's uniform to fit Douglas. He looked very smart and at the same time quite cute. The sleeves of his jacket were trimmed with gold braid and there was a forage cap to complete the picture. It was correct in every detail. Dougie would stand to attention, a little four year old RAF Officer, and salute all the boys as they came in and out of the house!
Aunty and Uncle's house in Blackpool was situated behind a shop-front. They didn't use the shop, so this was always locked and empty, and our front door was down a side street. However, all the other shops in the street were occupied, including 'Miss Dorothy's' which was next door to us.
Miss Dorothy ran a little haberdashery shop, and I recall Aunty sending me in there to buy myself a pair of shoes that we'd seen in the window. They were shiny, black patent, with fancy little holes punched in them through which glinted bright red patent trimming, like minute, red berries. Oh, how beautiful they were, so bright and shiny! I was completely besotted with them.
To be continued...
There were many wonderful advantages to be had living with Aunty and Uncle. One was that they seemed to be quite rich, and another was that they lived at South Shore, Blackpool. When we were young children living in pre-war London, the seaside was, at most, a very occasional day trip provided by the Sunday school or the Girl’s Brigade, of which I was a member!
Looking back at my time spent in Blackpool, I can see that we were very spoiled, and Aunty and Uncle didn’t do our parents any favours regarding our upbringing. Aunty would send me across the road to get lamb’s kidneys for her two precious Pekinese dogs Ming and Chang. She would give me the money for the errand in one hand and into the other would press two shillings (twenty-four pennies) to ‘buy some sweeties’.
Back at home with my Mummy and Daddy; one penny was the most I was ever given at any time, bearing in mind that with one penny I could purchase four sweets at a farthing each. You can see how I very soon got used to a new way of life that included sweets and toys every day.
Aunty had a nephew, Lennie, who lived in Bolton. He, too came to stay with us in Blackpool, and was probably about thirteen or fourteen years old, very good looking, and I adored him. We went everywhere together, the three of us, Lennie, Dougie, and I. Some days we played in the sand dunes or under the pier. Others were spent in the Pleasure Gardens, joining in the merriment of the Laughing Sailor in the glass case, or trying to win a china doll in a crinoline.
Lennie told us that if you set alight the stems from smoker’s pipes, they burned very fiercely and gave off a very peculiar smell. We found that these were sold in the Woolworth’s Store at the base of the Blackpool Tower. We often frequented Woolworth’s where we would buy four or five of these brown, bakelite stems, stuff them into our pockets, and hurry to the cavernous spaces beneath the pier. There we would build miniature ‘native type’ fires with them and set them alight. I can’t imagine what the attraction was. It now seems a pretty boring thing to do, considering all the other marvellous things around us!
Of course ‘little brother’ was only a spectator at these events; we knew better than to let him play with fire. To give Len his due, I don’t remember him ever letting me touch the fire, or the matches, and I suppose, compared to us, he was very grown up.
Time passed from autumn into winter, from sunshine and sea to sandstorms and snow, but it was all tremendous fun.
To be continued…
Friday, 15 August 2008
I was playing under the kitchen table with my little brother Douglas who was just four years old, and my father was talking to my mother about preparing an air raid shelter in the garden for us to use in the event of enemy planes bombing South London. I suddenly became afraid as I sensed the seriousness of the situation from my parents' manner. My dad went into the garden and started digging. I was certain the a war meant everyone would be killed, I was terrified, and began to cry. My mother cuddled me and tried to reassure me that all was well when suddenly a loud, wailing noise bombarded us from all directions. It was the siren giving our very first air raid warning.
Neighbours ran out into their gardens and started talking excitedly. Daddy had hardly started working on our shelter, and everyone ran around, like headless chickens, wondering what to do next. We didn't have to wonder for long because after a few minutes the siren sounded the 'all- clear'. It wasn't apparent why the alarm had sounded in the first place. Perhaps it was a false alarm or a practice run. Anyway, it wasn't an 'enemy attrack' and we all settled down again.
Some days later, Auntie and Uncle came to visit us. I don't know if it was planned, or if it was one of my father's on-the-spot decisions (later on in life, I was to learn he often made these), but it was decided that my brother Douglas and I should go to stay with Auntie and Uncle who lived in Blackpool, in case it became too dangerous for us in London. And so, we joined the many evacuee children leaving the capital.
Mum and Dad must have been truly worried about our safety, to allow us to live apart from them. We'd never been separated from them before and, when I too became a mother, I realised what an awful wrench this must have been for them.
Of course I missed my parents a lot, but life had suddenly become so exciting that I didn't have time to mope, (no doubt all part of the great plan), and my baby brother and I were off on our first adventure!
More to follow