Memories of the 1940's - Part 2
MEMORIES OF THE 1940s Part two
November 1940 - I had been rushed to Dulwich hospital with advanced peritonitis. I was operated on at some time during that day, apparently there was little that could be done, I understand that they cleaned me up as best they could and sewed me up again having inserted a drain. The prognosis was bad, there were no antibiotics available in those days; my parents were warned that there was little chance of recovery. For about ten days I lay near to death. I was not expected to survive, I can only imagine the stress on my parents. The bombing continued nightly, they still had the new home to sort out after being bombed out and they had my brother and sister to look after. Slowly signs of life returned for me.
I was given enemas every day for days and the drain was changed occasionally. I stayed in bed for some time before the drain was finally removed. Christmas day I had presents on my bed. I was very weak, but having survived I became a bit of a celebrity on the ward; at first I had a wheelchair, the sort where one could operate the wheels. I became a menace on the ward zooming around. The ward was a single long room with many beds along each side, many contained victims of the blitz. The floor was a plane smooth linoleum, cleaned thoroughly every day, ideal for the wheelchair.
I was quite happy in the ward by this stage and I spent most of my time reading. I read all the newspapers, not difficult because they were limited to two sheets giving just 8 pages. At night the bombing continued; bombs occasionally came close and the building rocked. There were large windows covered with heavy blackout curtains and on one occasion the fires in London were so severe that the sky was very brightly lit and the nurses drew back the curtains so that we patients could see; it was quite incredible. It looked as though the whole of London was on fire.
The nurses were amazing; they carried on in a reassuring and unperturbed way, just flinching momentarily if there was a near miss, but no doubt they were scared stiff at times. Despite the difficulties of the time and the high work load, they were strictly disciplined. The matron was like a sergeant major; beds had to be neat and tidy, uniforms had to be crisp and clean. Once patients were off the critical list they were restricted to the normal visiting times of 2hrs on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons.
I finally left the hospital at the end of February, after nearly four months, with a very deep scar where the drain had been, some occasional severe pains and the knowledge that I would need to return in the near future to have my appendix removed. Surprisingly I had mixed feelings about leaving the hospital. Still fairly weak I did not go back to school and it was decided that I should go to stay with my mother’s sister in the country for a while. I made the journey alone, travelling by train, but I was met in Banbury. My aunt lived in a small very pretty village 4miles outside Banbury, her husband was a director of a small tool company manufacturing, among other things, torque wrenches for which the aircraft industry had an insatiable demand. He had a nice Rover car with a generous petrol allowance, they had four children either side of my age, a nice big house and big garden.
It was another world, it was the land of ‘Just William’ and Enid Blyton. To a boy from London it was surprising to see the daily milk delivery by pony and trap. Villagers took their jugs out and the milkman ladled the milk from a churn into a measuring jug. There was no war, they only had their rations of course (I had to take my ration book) but the garden and local growers ensured a generous supply of fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs and there was the occasional rabbit. There were reminders of the war everywhere, however, mostly by the aircraft activity, many men in uniform and the posters urging us to ‘Keep Mum’, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ et al, (the one poster that was not seen was ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ that was never issued because it was intended for release in the event of a successful landing by German forces).
I was made very welcome at my aunt’s; I loved it there and I think I resolved there and then that, when I could, I would move away from London. I was only there for two weeks, but it was to be the first of many visits right into adulthood.
Back home the frequency of the night raids became slightly less, but they were no less severe, we had problems with incendiary bombs as well as HE’s. After the early experience with fire, residents of London streets were required to organize themselves into ‘fire watching’ groups. Our street was subdivided and groups of four were detailed to be on duty for one night each week in their section. It worked well as a means of getting an early response to incendiaries.
An incendiary bomb caught early could often be snuffed out before serious damage; some later types contained a small explosive charge to spread the incendiary material. Clearly these were more dangerous to deal with. Unexploded bombs were quite common, some were deliberately designed to delay the detonation and some, no doubt, had simply failed to function. Whichever, they were extremely disruptive causing people to be moved from their homes and roads to be closed. They were brave men that attempted to disarm the bombs, many lost their lives. They used to rush around London in small army pick-up trucks with bright red painted mudguards, sometimes with the disarmed bomb on board, drivers tended to give them a wide berth.
Also seen on the roads were the Auxiliary Fire Service Vehicles; mostly these were commandeered London Taxis towing a trailer pump, a very successful short term expedient (these pumps had brilliant Coventry Climax engines that later appeared in the Hillman Imp). Another common sight were the trucks used by the rescue squads, there were the ‘heavy rescue’ squads with large trucks, usually black and covered, with a large white ‘R’ on the side. The ‘light rescue’ had smaller vehicles.
On the streets everything looked different; many windows had sticky tape across them with the hope that this would help to hold the fragments together, although I never saw much evidence to support the theory.
London buses were better; they had a tough mesh material glued to the glass, just leaving a small rectangle, maybe 6inx3ins, clear, I have no doubt this offered considerable reinforcement. The bus conductors were slowly replaced by conductresses, ‘clippies’ they did well in a tough job, but they lacked the humour of their male counterparts, probably for good reasons. Buses were always crowded at peak times, queues were orderly but people would force their way on to already crowded buses until a rule of maximum five people standing was introduced and enforced by most clippies. If too many people got on the bus it would not move until some got off.
I was called back to the hospital in May to have my appendix removed. I was there for two weeks and then had more time to recuperate. By this time there was little point in attending school before the new term in September. I often went shopping, bread and vegetables were not rationed but could be in short supply. It was necessary to get to the bakers fairly early and join the queue, the ‘white’ bread was a sort of light grey/brown colour, it wasn’t at all bad but tended to go stale quickly. Queues at the greengrocers were shorter, I remember to this day that potatoes were 5lb for sixpence (2.5p), the greengrocers were quite good at mental arithmetic, weighing the food and working out the cost and keeping a running total in their heads. I would try to follow them and I think they were honest.
We were exhorted by posters to eat more potatoes. Potato Pete was the cartoon character on the posters. The grocer’s was the biggest nightmare; there were counters each side of the shop. One side sold tinned food, jams biscuits etc, for which there were coupons known as points,; different items required different numbers of points.
You had to ask for everything you wanted, serving was slow as the assistant noted down the price and points for each item before totalling up, then taking the cash and marking off the points. You joined the queue for this counter and, after eventually getting served, you joined the queue for the other counter where they sold bacon and fats, butter lard cheese etc. The cheese was usually disappointing looking, and sometimes tasting more like soap, (there were no detergents of course only soap flakes and soap sold in blocks, not much better than the cheese for washing). The bacon was sliced to order and cheese and butter etc weighed out as required. Because of rationing the weight had to be accurate to the ounce, and ration books marked off appropriately. It was all mind destroyingly slow. There was no plastic film (or bags), everything was wrapped in paper and put in paper bags. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had had fridges and freezers, but shopping was almost a daily exercise. There was a black market, but, except for one or two minor items, we never had anything over the ration. My mother was a genius in the way in which she kept us fed, I suspect not without some sacrifice on her part.
I was denied potatoes in their best form, i.e. chips, except for very rare occasions and even then they were fried in very shallow fat (nobody used oil). Many things that were not on ration were in short supply and disappeared from view in the shops, the shopkeepers kept these under the counter , saving them for favoured customers.
Soon after war was declared all cinemas and theatres were ordered to close, an order that was fairly quickly rescinded when it was realized that that was bad for morale. In the cinema it was rarely possible to hear an air raid siren, so the management would superimpose a notice on the screen, a proportion of the audience would leave to seek a shelter but the majority would stay and take their chances.
It was a nice summer that year, we used to play on Streatham Common, where we had a good view over Croydon. There were the occasional daylight raids and we were able to watch a battle that took place over Croydon on one occasion. I went to school in September, the first time in two years. Up to then, because of illness, including rheumatic fever, measles and other things, evacuation, returning to London with no schools, and peritonitis, I had not had two years of schooling in total and that was in bits and pieces in different schools. Now, however, it was plain sailing apart from night bombing and very occasional daylight raids. I found the school work fairly easy. I can’t remember exactly what we were doing but it was probably working with decimals, long divisions etc, simple fractions, writing compositions, spelling, plus a little of other subjects. Surprisingly decimals were alien to many people. Our units of pounds, shillings and pence, ounces pounds and hundredweights, pints and gallons did not lend themselves well to decimal sums.
The following April, after just six months, I took the 11plus. It wasn’t called the 11plus it was called a Junior County Scholarship. Successful candidates were funded to attend a grammar school; the grammar schools were mainly independent schools. The County paid the fees along with a small grant towards books etc. I don’t remember the details of the exam but there was, I believe, a maths paper, an English paper and a general knowledge paper. I found it straightforward and when the results came out I discovered that I had passed. It was all disturbing for me; no one that I knew had ever been to a grammar school. My parents had left school before fourteen, as did most children in the 1940s, less than 10% got to grammar school.
All grammar schools that I knew were single sex. I had a choice of school, even offered a place at DulwichCollege, a very selective public school, but practically all the schools had moved out of London taking their pupils with them. Alleyn’s school in Dulwich was an upmarket grammar school established by the same founder as DulwichCollege. They too had been evacuated but some of their pupils had returned to London and, with the help of the LCC they had established a school on their Dulwich premises, which also mopped up boys that had returned from other grammar schools. The staff were also Alleyn’s staff, some retired and some who chose not to go with the school. So that was my choice (or my parents’ choice). To be continued