A Wartime Childhood in Edgware
I was born (1st June 1937) and grew up in Edgware, Middlesex (Queensbury, to be precise). Our address was 7 Millais Gardens, Mollison Way, Edgware. Edgware was right on the edge of London then — a sizeable sprawl of the mid-thirties house building explosion. Miles of, mostly terraced (Bauerhaus influenced) , wide windowed houses occupied by respectable upper working class families with aspirations. I think that most were quite happy in their brand new easy-to-run houses in the leafy suburbs — and then came the War.
My childhood memories consist mostly of always going to sleep with searchlights continously passing across the wall and the distant sound of bombs dropping and gun fire. During the day barrage balloons all across the sky and how nice and cosy and almost homely they looked. Air raid sirens and the feeling of dread they produced in your stomach. Of course, the legendary air raid wardens yelling “Put that light out” which infuriated my mother and she used to have angry rows with him. Funny green tape criss-crossed on the windows of underground trains (it was still there in the mid-50s). Air raid practise at school — this consisted of crouching under wash-hand basins until it all went away.My mother found out we were sheltering under these basins at the teacher’s direction and every time the air raid warning went off, she used to run round to the school and take me home.
I grew up in an extended family of extrovert and batty people — I was the only child in a family of eight of us — my sister was twelve when I was born so was almost grown-up. We had two adjoining mid-terrace houses — my Mum and Dad, my sister and I in one house and my mother’s two sisters and their husbands in the house next door. The women had bitter arguments and there was always one sister who was not speaking to another sister but they all had very strong loyalty to each other, bonded together by the horrors of growing up in the Camden Town slums at the beginning of the twentieth century. They all idolised me and whenever one of them found a treat in the shops — either over or under the counter — it would come my way.
When the air raid siren sounded we went en masse to the shelter in the street which was very damp and always flooded but Mum and her sisters decided that it wasn’t very healthy in there and the neighbours were doing unmentionable things to each other which they didn’t want me to see. Therefore we had three Morrison shelters — one for each family. I suppose by then it must have been about 1942.
My sister was eighteen in 1943 and was “called up”. She had the choice of going into the ATS, training to become a nurse or becoming a bus conductress or working in a factory. She chose to join the ATS. She hated the idea of being a nurse or going into a factory and Dad said he wouldn’t allow her to be a bus conductress because they were all tarts (he drove a no. 13 bus!) So then there were just Mum and Dad and I and the cat to sleep in the Morrison shelter.
One night (I think perhaps in the Autumn of 1944) the air-raid siren sounded and we moved into the Morrison to sleep. We were fast asleep in the middle of the night when there was a terrible red flash and flames racing up the wall and I screamed “Mum, we’re on fire”. Immediately after the flash came the noise of the doodle-bug crashing into a house round the corner. It has always seemed as if the reflected flash of the fire came first and then the sound of the bomb. I think Dad must have called out “Is everybody allright” . My mother was screaming hysterically. I was crying because the cat wouldn’t come in that night and I was convinced he must have been killed in all the devastation that seemed to be going on outside. We were right under the window and all the glass from these wonderful wall-to-wall curved Bauerhaus windows blew in. A big lump was chipped out of the piano.
My Dad said “If I have to put up that bloody front door any more I will go mad”. Uncle Ern next door rushed out to see if everyone was allright and cut his bare feet to ribbons on all the glass on the floor. Then there was the sound of fire engines and water hoses and the fire seemed to be all round us. A man kept running up and down the street screaming “My wife is dead. My wife is dead”. I don’t remember any more about that night but I found our cat Sandy hiding in the garden the next morning quite unharmed. That day or maybe several days afterwards I can remember standing in the pouring rain holding the hand of one of my uncles and looking up at our two roofs with all the tiles missing. Some Irishmen were scrambling about trying to fix tarpaulins on the roof and I can remember asking “Will it be allright” and the uncle said “Oh yes I’m sure it will be quite soon now”.
My Dad drove a no.13 bus from Hendon, through Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus and across (I think) Waterloo Bridge. He used to come home covered in soot from all the fires he had driven through and once stopped just before a huge bomb crater somewhere.
One night I couldn’t sleep. It must have been deep in the winter because I can remember feeling desperately cold. My dad was in the bathroom having a bath and when I heard the door open I called out “Dad, I can’t sleep. I’m so cold”. Dad’s hair was sticking up in spikes (like a punk) from being washed. He said that when he was in the trenches he used to wrap the blanket right round the back of his neck and tuck it in tight. I still do that now with a duvet and it does work.
My dad and Uncle Ern and Uncle Fred used to go fire watching in the flats across the road. They used to sit there all night playing cards and smoking and drinking brown ales. One night they must have all fallen asleep and one of them must have left a cigarette still burning — it set the flat alight and they had to run round to the ‘phone box and call for a fire engine!
My sister who was a good looking girl, came home on leave from time to time with various boyfriends who were in the Services. She also had several American boyfriends but they always seemed to be killed in Europe. She was also engaged to a boy called Frank Ritchie who was serving in the Navy — she used to work with him in a butcher’s shop in Burnt Oak before the war — I think he was the owner’s son. He was killed the day after the war finished. He was in a jeep with a gang of American soldiers — I guess they were celebrating the end of the war. The jeep crashed and he was killed. My sister was devastated and I don’t think she ever really got over it.
Uncle Ern’s sister Gwen was going up to Glasgow to join her sister. My mother was having a sort of nervous breakdown — it’s her nerves they used to say. They all decided I should go up to Glasgow to be away from the bombs and to give Mum a break. We had a nightmarish train journey up there. The train was tightly packed and I think we had to sit on our suitcases for the whole twelve hours it took to get there. The lights kept going out and the train kept stopping while the bombs were dropping. One of the soldiers on the train kept bringing us cups of tea.
I can remember when we got to Gwen’s sister’s house (the sisters had six children between them) she pointed to the Morrison shelter which was full of kids and said “You’ll have to sleep on the top. You can see there’s no more room in there!” I decided I wasn’t going to like it there. Then they made me take cod liver oil before I went to bed and also to drink Ovaltine made with water — Mum always made it with milk at home. So I thought I don’t like it here. I’m going to make such a pest of myself that they’ll send me home. So I kept crying and saying I was homesick and wanted to go home. I used to listen to them talking when I was supposed to be in bed and very soon they were saying “We’ll have to send her home. She’s a horrible child”.
I was there for a month so I did quite well really. I had a great time playing with the children though. I think I did the journey home on my own and the whole family was there (apart from Dad, who was driving his bus, I expect). I had in a month acquired a very strong Glaswegian accent and my mother burst into tears and said she couldn’t understand a word I said.
We used to have wonderful Christmasses. Somehow, between them all they used to produce some wonderful food and lots of drink, despite wartime privations. We always used to have a chicken — a real once a year luxury then. The men always used to do a “turn” for Christmas night — once they each had a sand covered tray which they danced on, doing what they imagined were Egyptian type gestures, copying a comic music hall team whose name I have forgotten. They also loved dressing in drag and larking about. It was their proud boast that we were always the last people to still be celebrating in the whole street and we used to take great delight in doing the conger down the street and all singing very loudly just to wake the neighbours.
When I was a bit older my sister and I rehearsed some duets ( the only song I can remember now is “Sentimental Journey” — I did the descant, I think) to sing at the family Christmas party. During all of this Aunty Vi would sit in the corner, occasionally sipping a small sherry, looking very disapproving, and knitting furiously!
We were always quite hungry — there just wasn’t enough food in the shops most of the time. I think it was during the war that my mother brought home some whale meat. She didn’t know what to do with it so I think she just fried it. It was quite disgusting. Like eating very dense, very fishy liver.
Early in the war Mum and Dad decided to keep chickens. I regarded them as my best friends and used to sit in the hen house talking to them for hours. My favourite one was always pecking me. The smell of potato peelings stewing for hours was quite horrible but we did get fresh eggs — worth their weight in gold then, although they always seemed to be going broody and we had to leave a china egg in the broody one’s nest, which was supposed to encourage it to lay. When one of them got too old to bother any more, Mum used to keep nagging my Dad to ring its neck which he hated because they kept running round the garden even though they were dead.
One day, amazingly, a duck flew into the garden. I fell in love with it immediately and christened it Donald, of course. On my birthday we had a special meal with this rather strange meat . I remember thinking that it was Donald but that I’d eat it anyway and then look for him in the hen house and if he wasn’t there, I’d make a big fuss and cry a lot to show how upset I was.
I can remember going to the Victory celebrations and being carried high above everybody else on Uncle Fred’s (he was quite tall) shoulders.
That’s about it. My Dad and my uncles died many years ago. My mother died aged 95 living in an almshouse in the Hertfordshire village where I now live. My two aunts are still alive and living in care homes in Clacton-on-Sea — they are now 99 and 97.