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.
To be continued...