A WARTIME CHILDHOOD – by Margaret Waddingham
A warm Sunday morning, eighty years ago. My mother sitting at the dining room table, my father standing half
in and half out of the French window. A man’s solemn voice over the radio. My father coming into the room to
listen: my mother hugging me tightly.
I had no idea that Sunday, 3rd September, 1939, that the man on the radio was announcing the outbreak of the
second world war.
I don’t remember the remainder of that day or anything of the previous day when my two sisters, Gwen and
Beryl, together with one of Gwen’s friends, were put on a train to Bournemouth to stay with an uncle of hers. They,
like so many other children, had been evacuated. Had I been a little older I would have gone too.
Two weeks later, my sisters came home because things seemed not to be so bad as everyone had feared.
Later, they were scheduled to go to Canada, but after the first two boats carrying children were torpedoed that
idea too was shelved.
The country was on high alert. Gas masks were issued to everyone which had to be taken with us whenever
we went out. Strips of brown paper or thick netting were gummed to the inside of windows in all public places to
lessen injury from flying glass. Air raid shelters popped up everywhere, one right outside our house. We never
used this shelter – mother thought they were unhealthy. Names disappeared from the end of all our roads and
railway station and sandbags were piled up outside important offices.
My mother was talking excitedly over the fence to our neighbour one day. As we ate lunch, she listened
intently to the radio, then turned it off and said, “There’s been a miracle. I want you always to remember it,” and
she told me about Dunkirk, almost a humiliating defeat, but instead a remarkable victory as thousands of trapped
troops, sitting ducks for the enemy who continuously bombed both them and the ships that tried to get them away.
For days the seas had been too stormy to help them but the sea calmed and the rescue began and hundreds of little
civilian boats joined in and struggled backwards and forwards across the channel. “Never forget the miracle of
Dunkirk” said my mother. I remember her telling me this almost word for word. To this day I can’t sing ’Eternal
Father strong to save,’ because the following Sunday, in a packed church, my mother and others wept openly as they
sang that hymn.
After the midday news bulletins, there was always a list of those dead or missing. One day the son of a friend
who lived a few doors away, was reported missing at sea. My mother and I went to see her – she flung herself
uncontrollably sobbing upon my mother whilst I stood awkwardly in the bay window chasing a bluebottle up and
down with one finger. Patrick never did come back.
Then came the blitz. As soon as the air raid sirens wailed, I would listen out for the low throb of German
bombers which was often followed by a whistling noise and a heavy ’crump’ as bombs dropped. Fingers of light from
the searchlights lit up my bedroom, criss-crossing the night sky to pick out the bombers and ack ack guns got to
work on them. Every night I asked whichever parent happened to be tucking me up, “Will we win the war?” And
every time, I had the same comforting answer, “Of course we will, but don’t forget to ask God to help”
During this period everyone had a suitcase stuffed full of essentials kept by the front door, which you could
grab as you rushed to the air raid shelter, so that if your house was bombed at least you had a set of clean clothes
and a toothbrush with you. One day ours was stolen. I don’t remember it ever being replaced.
By now my father was in the ARP which meant that every time there was a raid, he rushed out of the house to
patrol the streets to make sure no lights were showing. When my eldest sister was about 16, she too joined but
as she was too young to do proper ARP work, which would have involved helping to dig out the dead or wounded
from bombed out buildings, she was given the job as messenger girl for the road. So she too rushed out with my
father and spent the entirety of the raid rushing up and down with any messages there might be. At this time my
father also took his turn as a fire watcher at his place of work, Odhams Press, right in the heart of the bombing. He
slept there when he was on duty, watching for any fires that were about to break out in the building and then
attacking them with a stirrup pump.
The light issue was most important. There were no street lights, trains and buses were only dimly lit, headlights
shielded, as were those of cars and bicycles. Even the centre of cities or a minor town like ours were frightening
places to walk through in the dark days of winter. I remember all the family walking home from church, arm in arm
– five of us in a row across the pavement.
Posters appeared everywhere. One told us to ‘Dig for Victory’ which had everyone turning gardens into
vegetable plots. And there was ’Make do and mend’, which appeared when clothes were rationed. Knitted
garments were unpicked and knitted up into something else, coats turned inside out, unwanted curtains became
clothes, and, later there was vile coloured bright green or orange parachute material. My mother got hold of a lot
of it and made interesting items of underwear for my sisters and me. At the end of the war she managed to get silk
maps of the world. These were pastel coloured and these became blouses for my sisters. Apparently they were
great conversation pieces.
My sisters and I slept under the big deal dining room table during the worst of the bombing, retreating to the
cupboard-under-the-stairs with my grandmother if things got really close. There wasn’t enough room for my
mother so she sat just outside the door.
Rations began to hit hard. We kept chickens and my father kept bees. I remember him bringing home his first
brood, wrapped only in newspaper and string, first on the underground then on the train from Marylebone. We
grew everything that we could grow, and my mother jammed, bottled and pickled for what seemed like the entire
summer. Eggs were put into isinglass to preserve them and she used honey to sweeten all sorts of things. This put
me off cakes and puddings made with it for life.
As rationing bit deeper, we had to go to a special food office for our ration books where mother queued
patiently for the books, green for children, buff for adults. Mothers in particular spent a great deal of each day
queuing, often not knowing what they were queuing for, and, since I wasn’t yet at school, I queued too. Just before
sweets were rationed, mother gave me a choice – one last bag of sweets or an ice cream. I chose ice cream and we
went to Woolworths where she bought me a strawberry cone for two old pence. It came like a miniature Swiss
roll with paper wrapped round it. I savored every last drip and then licked the melting drops that clung to the paper.
It is a memory I shall never forget. I remember the last pot of cream too. Mother had some bananas – it must have
been before the real shortages began – and we were going to have ours for lunch. For the first time I was sent off on
an errand by myself and I ran as fast as I could to buy cream from a dairy which was not far away. The dairy was
cool and clean with terracotta tiles on the floor, and the cream came in a little orange and white tub and was thick
I had two doll’s prams, of which I was hugely proud. A little girl and her mother moved into our road to stay
with her grandmother because they had been bombed out and her father lost at sea. My mother suggested that it
would be a nice gesture to give one of my prams to this little girl who had nothing. I took a long time choosing
which one I should part with, but eventually gave her one, but with little grace. I would much rather have given her
something I wasn’t so fond of.
As the war progressed, father pinned up a map of Europe just inside the dining room, to plot troop movements
with little flags – both Union Jacks and swastikas – and every day he moved them around so that we could see how
we were, or weren’t, doing.
Hardly any primary schools were open in the area as most children had been evacuated and the buildings used
for government offices. Eventually, when I was six, Miss Roberts and Miss Stovold opened a very small school within
five minutes walk away from home, in a large converted house. It was at a busy junction and there was a high brick
wall all around it. The wall terrified me because I was convinced that naughty children would be thrown over it into
the path of the busy traffic. I’d been there for about a term when someone explained that it was to protect us from
bomb blast. As it was, when there was an air raid, we all crouched under our desks for the duration which was not
very comfortable and, in retrospect, not particularly safe. I left when I was eight to attend a convent in
Rickmansworth with Beryl. This was five stations up the line, a much safer area that had escaped the bombing – I
think North Harrow only got it either because the bombers overshot their targets or were jettisoning their bomb
load before flying home. One morning, Beryl, her friend Pam and I, had just climbed the first flight of stairs to the
railway platform when there was a huge crash and the glass roof, made a little safer by the usual stiff netting, began
to collapse behind us. My sister grabbed my hand and hauled me up the remainder of the stairs and we all looked
back in horror as the entire roof collapsed, narrowly missing us. Somewhere, in the strange silence that followed,
the siren wailed, then suddenly, everyone was running back down the stairs through the tangle of glass and metal.
Beryl and I raced home, to find my mother about to come out and look for us. All the windows of our house had
been blown in – the only real damage suffered during the entire war – but when Pam got home she found that the
bomb had landed on the newly opened British Restaurant which was just in front of her home, the front wall of
which was so badly damaged that her grandmother could clearly be seen sitting up in bed. Pam and her father went
up to help her, collected as many of her things as possible and threw them down, and both stayed with her until all
were rescued by the ARP and firemen.
The British Restaurant was rebuilt quite quickly. These had sprung up all over the place. The food was quite
awful, though cheap and sustaining. When ours was bombed the second time, there was a hint that Hitler was on
our side after all.
News came that my cousin Gordon had been taken prisoner by the Italians and then, in 1944, my sister Gwen
was badly injured. Now 18, she was working at Cable and Wireless in London, and she was literally blown several
yards along the road when she was passing Australia House just as it was hit. She had glass and 32 pieces of
shrapnel removed from her body in St Thomas’s Hospital, before being moved to Surrey to recuperate. Since that
was such a long, difficult journey for my parents to visit her, Beryl and I were sent to my Aunt and Uncle, parents of
Gordon, in Manchester. My aunt was in the WRVS, and one afternoon we went with her to ‘help’ serve tea to a
crowd of American servicemen. It was a lively afternoon. One of the soldiers played boogy woogy on an out of tune
piano and lots of them danced with Beryl and me. While we were staying there, our parents came up for a weekend
and we all went to a zoo. There were hardly any animals as they had also been evacuated, and we sat sheltering
from the pouring rain trying to eat big, heavy buns. I think we were in Manchester for just over a month, after which
Beryl returned home but I was sent to Chester to stay for a further few weeks with our ex-neighbours.
Then, on the 8th May, 1945, peace was declared in Europe. I remember a feeling of mild surprise. I knew it
would happen one day of course, but somehow war seemed to me normal as I couldn’t remember peace. By now
almost 10 years old, I went out on my bike through the streets of North Harrow that morning, my plaits adorned
with patriotic ribbons, and saw everywhere was decorated with flags and bunting. Everyone seemed to be smiling
and laughing and later that day we had a street party. Long trestle tables were set up in the road, a piano arrived
from somewhere and everyone sang whilst we children sat at the tables and were plied with more sandwiches,
jellies and buns than we knew what to do with. Then there was an impromptu concert with a man telling funny
stories that I didn’t understand and someone with a wavery voice singing ‘Come into the garden Maud.’ And then
more singing and everyone dancing and talking to everyone else and there were flags flying out of every window and
on lamp posts and bunting tied all across the road and there were lots of people in uniform and everyone was
laughing and kissing each other.
In the middle of it all I remembered the little girl who had my pram and wondered if she was happy, for we
now lived in a different road. And Mrs Moore who sobbed all over my mother when she heard about Patrick. And
Gordon, who still hadn’t arrived back from Italy. No-one knew then that Italians had been hiding him for months in
the mountains. And as I looked round at the happy crowds, even I, as a not quite ten year old, saw that quite a few
people looked sad and quite a few were crying.
A WARTIME CHILDHOOD – by Margaret Waddingham
A WARTIME CHILDHOOD – by Margaret Waddingham