PUT THAT LIGHT OUT!
MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD IN WARTIME LONDON
This personal account was published on the web in 2000 on www.macksites.com. It disappeared in 2010, so I have reproduced it here..
In 1939, two days before my eighth birthday, war was declared. I remember it well because I cried as I thought Adolf Hitler had done it on purpose to spoil my birthday party. When the announcement was made on the radio my mother and father rushed out into the back garden to talk to the next door neighbours over the back fence. I can remember my mother being very agitated. Of course my party wasn’t cancelled but there was an air of gloom surrounding everyone.
Within a few days everything seemed to be happening in my small world – air raid sirens were being tested and we had to go and be fitted with gas masks. The latter being one of the worst experiences of my childhood and I can still smell the rubber smell that came from these awful things. I created such a fuss when the gas mask was being fitted that the people concerned could not get me to keep still long enough to fit one, so for a good part of the war I carried a gas mask that really didn’t fit properly!
One of the exciting things at the beginning of the war was playing victims of the bombing. Volunteers were recruited for casualties in a pretend raid and all the children in the street would come forward to have their arms, heads, legs and other parts of their body bandaged and to be carried off on a stretcher. Shelters had to be built in the school grounds. Whilst this was under way at my school – Roe Green Junior Mixed School in Kingsbury – we had to have lessons at a school about 2 miles away, which meant children walking there and back on their own as fathers were at war and mothers directed to war work. These lessons were only on a few days a week – not every day – and lasted only a few hours.
Once our own shelters were built we had practice of going down into them class by class. I believe there were three or four shelters in all. They were quite large and seemed such a long way done to an eight-year old. When the siren sounded we would file down (clutching our gas masks, which went everywhere with us) and sit waiting for the "all clear" to sound. When the school shelters were completed shelters were erected in the streets. These were brick buildings and didn’t appear very safe – in fact, in our street the shelters were mainly used by the children for play areas. They weren’t used very much in air raids as most people in the street used the school shelters at night, stayed in their own beds or took cover under the stairs. A lot of people had Anderson Shelters in their gardens (which more often than not were very damp) or like us had a Morrison shelter in their homes. These were like big iron tables with a cage underneath. We used these during the day if there was a raid and they were used more when the worst of the blitz was over.
When the blitz started in l940, my family used the school shelters every evening. Directly after we had had our tea it was "action stations" and we hurried across the road arms full of blankets, pillows, hurricane lamps and whatever else we needed. My father would see us settled in and then, as he was an A.R.P. warden (Air Raid Precautions) he would be off helping with various aspects of the bombing. Sometimes he would be out all night, come back for a couple of hours sleep, and then up for work the next day. He would often bring home some lonely figure who had been bombed out and have no where to go and my mother would give them a bed for a couple of nights – in fact more often than not they would come down the shelter with us.
One night I remember the lady who lived next-door-but one to us went into labour. It was a particularly heavy raid and we had to wait in the house because it was too dangerous to move to the shelter – bombs were dropping everywhere and a lot of the houses in the street were ablaze, the sky was unforgettable with fires burning all around. This poor lady was in the house all alone – her husband was absolutely terrified of the raids and when things got bad he just left her and ran. My mother stayed with her whilst my father got the midwife, all this time I was with a neighbour, trying to get across to the shelters.
We emerged from the shelter the next morning – it had been a terrible night. We had all sat huddled together and the grown ups were endeavouring to get sing-songs going to take the children’s mind off things – it was horrendous. In the school playing field there was a bomb crater which you could have got a double-decker bus in and all around were houses bombed. There were houses devastated further up the road to the right and left of us and in front and behind us and yet our house barely had a pane of glass broken!
My junior school was so very much a large part of my life at the beginning of the war as my mother was directed to factory work and therefore had to leave very early in the morning and wasn’t home until way after school time. We were all catered for though and had breakfast, dinner and tea at school. The headmaster was a wonderful man and he and his wife would stay at the school with us each evening and play games, such as drafts, dominoes etc. We would then just have time to go home, and prepare to go to the shelters.
After these heavy raids we children would go around looking for pieces of shrapnel – each of us trying to get the biggest and best piece. Most of the children in my area were evacuated at the beginning of the war but I didn’t want to go away from home and my mother and father didn’t take much persuading to let me stay. It was suggested that I went to a friend's sister in Winnipeg, Canada but after a ship carrying evacuees to Canada was torpedoed my parents felt we should all stay together! Most of my friends at home and school went away – that is why the school could cater for just the few pupils who were left – and I really didn’t feel too lonely because there wasn’t much time between lessons, school food and the shelters to get lonely. There was just one other girl who lived near me who wasn’t evacuated so we would play together. However, this situation didn’t last very long as one by one the evacuees returned home. I don’t remember anyone staying away too long.
I had a grandmother and aunt and uncle who lived right in the heart of London and so right in the middle of the dreadfully bombed area. We used to go and see them quite regularly but always made sure we went early and arrived home well before the dark, because it was after dark that the bombing started. The journey was by the underground and on our return people would be claiming their places on the platform for the night (the underground was obviously the safest place during the blitz) sometimes we would have to step over them to get onto the train. Every station the train went through it was the same the platform was covered with make-do beds and children lying down ready for sleep. After a while bunks were installed on the platforms, back against the wall and away from the lines and this made it easier for parents to put their children to bed. These people seemed happy to me, but of course as a child I only saw the exciting part of it and not the anxiety etched on the parents faces. They would be preparing for a night of singing and comradeship, which helped them forget all that was going on above ground and wondering what they would be going home to the next morning.
The blackout was very quickly introduced in the war and I can remember every household was busy taping their windows to strengthen them and prevent the glass splintering too much. Blackout material was made available and with this the women either lined their existing curtains or made blinds to put up each night. It was an offence to show even a chink of light and if anyone accidentally turned a light on without their windows being covered someone would usually shout "PUT THAT LIGHT OUT!" Every night the ARP would come round and make sure that everything was all right. If you had to go out after dark you always carried a torch with you because everything was in complete darkness. Buses had their headlights virtually blanked off and so it was so very dangerous because they couldn’t see all that well or be seen. Inevitably there were a lot of accidents at the beginning of the blackout – at least until people got more used to moving around in the dark. Cars wouldn’t have been a problem as there were so few cars around then – in fact no one I knew had a car and those who did have one could not get the petrol to run it.
1940 brought with it rationing and ration books. Each member of the family had a ration book – these had to be taken to the butchers and grocers of your choice and so you were registered with them for all your provisions. The amounts allocated to each person were very small and our mothers had to be a genius to cope with the shortage and provide a near substantial meal everyday for us all. Of course not everything was rationed but most things were in very short supply and if you heard of a shop having a delivery of just everyday items you would hurry to join the queue to make sure of getting some. These queues were sometimes very long and you waited in them what seemed like hours to us children.
The ration of meat, bacon, butter, cheese, sugar and tea was really so inadequate but being only eight years old the thing that made the most impression on me was the sweet rationing – 12ozs every four weeks. What a godsend it was having a grandmother and grandfather living quite near who would give me some of their rations if I helped out with little errands. My father used to keep most of his and my mother’s ration and every month he would queue up after work on a Friday and buy some Terry’s chocolates and we would sit down over the week-end together, listen to the radio and share them. What a treat that was! One egg a week – that’s all and you never really knew how fresh it was. Omelettes were unheard of in our house. My mother did try making them with dried egg but as they tasted rather like leather she decided to give that a miss and save the dried egg for baking. The lady across the road used to keep chickens and we would save all our vegetable peelings for her and in return she would give us one or two eggs now and again. The warmth in my hands from these freshly laid eggs is still with me.
My mother was a wizard at making lovely cakes and did absolute wonders with the few ingredients she had. She also made sweets and I can remember helping her in the kitchen to make peppermint toffees and honeycomb.
Of course clothes too were rationed. We had so few clothes compared with today’s children and we wore out what we did have. I was really only involved with clothes coupons at the age of eleven when I went to the grammar school and the whole family rallied round to help get the uniform. I do remember that all beds and furniture had a mark called a "utility mark". The furniture itself was quite sturdy and well built but the finish was so pale and uninteresting. My mother by trade was a French polisher and she had many requests to re-polish pieces of this utility furniture. Usually she did this after school so I would go with her while she did this transformation.
"DIG FOR VICTORY" that was the cry and dig my father did. He turned the whole of our back garden into one big vegetable patch. The lawn was dug up and potatoes planted – the rest of the garden for the other vegetables. He made a cold frame and in it grew cucumbers, melons and tomatoes. So many tomatoes that I think we supplied half our neighbours and there again they grew things we didn’t and so we all helped each other out and helped to make the rationing bearable.
Because of so much produce – seasonal of course – we had to have ways of preserving it. Bottling was the main source in our house and my mother bottled everything she could get her hands on. No freezers in those days – we didn’t even have a fridge, in fact no-one did. All the plums, tomatoes, pears in their bright bottles lined the pantry shelves and if rations were short one week a piece of fried bread with bottled tomatoes tasted lovely. Lots of people kept rabbits for the table during the war but we’d had our Billy since before the war started and no way was he going to be eaten even if we were starving. My grandfather would call to see us, walk up the garden, lick his lips and say to my mother "there’s a good dinner going waste there!" I can’t honestly say what happened to Billy but I do know he didn’t grace any table at dinner! Soon after the main rationing was introduced we had bread rationing. Little coupons called BU’s – bread units and when the bakers had their bread delivered we queued up yet again clutching our BU’s.
Everyone was trying to find ways of getting more food – the black market was out of the question for most ordinary working people although now and again little parcels appeared that were not quite above board. My father joined a "Pig Club" and used to pay into this regularly – one day I went into the bathroom and there hanging over the bath was the carcass of a pig – head and all. My father didn’t give any explanation only to say it wasn’t staying long. The next day it was on its way to all the members of the club and there were many happy, satisfied families around! Two or three years after the war started my brother enlisted for the Royal Navy and was soon at sea in the Pacific Ocean. We all worried about him constantly as he was very young. I wrote to him nearly every week and can vividly remember my mother making him a Christmas cake every year. She would put it in a Smiths Crisps tin and my father would solder the lid on to keep it airtight. This would be done at the end of August and sent off, sometimes he wouldn’t get it until well after Christmas. Most of the time the cake was still pretty good but I think the icing was a bit discoloured!
I also had an uncle in the trenches in Holland and Germany and he, too, had his Christmas cake. We would often send my brother and uncle a parcel of goodies (which were difficult to get hold of) and always included a packet of oxo cubes as these were very much appreciated because all they needed was hot water for a very nourishing drink. We obviously didn’t have addresses to send them to just an address for all army and navy personnel. My uncle was wounded during the fighting and I can see him now walking along the road to our house in his "blues" this was the colour uniform of all men who were sent home injured in the war. As soon as he was better though he was sent back to the front. The radio was a godsend to us during the war as this was our main means of getting the news and everyone would gather round the radio at news times. Also there were lots of comedy programmes and variety shows from work’s canteens to help brighten people’s lives. Sunday evening was extra special and there would always be a good play broadcast. Of course we had the radio on constantly for news of my brother’s ship, which was fighting in the Pacific. Most night’s before it got dark Mum and I would stand on our back doorstep and count the bombers going off to bomb Germany – they would fly quite low over our back garden so it was easy to count them. We would wake up in the early hours of the next morning to the drone of them coming back. Then we would listen to the radio at breakfast to find out how many were missing – rejoicing if it was none and feeling very sad for those who didn’t make it.
After the awful blitz things quietened down and we all just seemed to carry on from day to day as normal as possible until – "the flying bomb" or "V.1" arrived. These were really frightening, we called them "doodlebugs" – they were a pilot less plane and when they ran out of fuel they just dropped from the sky blowing up as they hit the ground. We soon learnt to distinguish them from an ordinary German aeroplane and on first hearing them would run to the shelter and wait as there was absolutely nothing we could do – we just sat and prayed. If it passed over we knew we were safe but some other poor soul wasn’t. Some of these "doodlebugs" were shot down by Spitfires, usually as they crossed the channel from France. At least the "doodlebug" gave some warning of its approach unlike its replacement the "V2 Rocket". This gave none at all.
I can remember vividly one day I had come home from school (I was at the grammar school now as I was 13 years old) and my mother had come home from work so that we could have lunch together. Mum was putting the kettle on and I was helping with the lunch when there was the most horrendous explosion I have ever heard – the house shook. We ran to the front door (Mum still with the kettle in her hand) and all our neighbours were outside. The smoke and fire in the sky was terrible. The rocket had come down about a mile away from us and we learnt later that it had demolished virtually the whole street and lots of people were killed – like us they were home for lunch. This experience really frightened everyone, at least in the blitz you had a chance but with these dreadful things you had none. I do not remember another one coming that close to us but of course on the other side of London it was a different matter. The following year, 1945, saw the end of the war in Europe.
Everywhere there were street parties, bonfires, fireworks, music and flags. We had one big party in our road. A bombsite was partially cleared and a large bonfire blazed – fuelled by the children with anything they could find i.e. old tyres, wood etc. – and on it was burnt a rather large effigy of Adolph Hitler. A piano was dragged into the road – sandwiches and cakes made by all the women, beer provided by all the men and so we enjoyed a party, which seemed to go on for days. We had finally "PUT HITLER’S LIGHT OUT!" A few months later V-J day was declared (victory in Japan) – time for more celebrations – and the lucky ones amongst us had a future to look forward to and our dads, brothers, uncles etc. would be home for good.