Childhood memories in WW2 - growing up in London

As a small child I lived in a house in Maberly Road, Upper Norwood London SE19, the home where I was to spend the first eight years of my life. I was born in August 1937 to my parents Ivy Drucilla and Hiram Charles Johnson who were equally delighted in welcoming a daughter after two sons, my elder brothers Michael and Adrian. I was christened at St Paul's Church, Upper Norwood. My younger brother Conrad was born over four years later in 1941.

My mother recalls that not long before I was born, her pregnancy prevented her from accompanying my father to witness the shocking destruction by fire of the magnificent Crystal Palace (he later retrieved a piece of the crystal glass, which I still have today). One of my earliest memories occurred in the Crystal Palace grounds when I could not find my parents. Apparently they could see me, and on seeing my distress, rescued me. I was nearly 3 years old at the time. I can still taste the lime ice lolly which they brought to console me … and I have never had one since that tasted so delicious!

Although I was only two when the war started, I was eight when it finished, so I remember many aspects of it very vividly. I remember my maternal grandmother, Nana Rogers, Auntie Ruth and Cousins Anthony [Tony] & David coming to live with us. Tony was my age and David was two years younger. We used to play together sometimes in the garden at the back of the shelter making sand/mud pies and sometimes in the attic playroom, until we heard the eerie sound of the air raid siren. That sound would see us all scurrying "down to the shelter out of Hitler's way...and when the all clear goes we'll be happy and gay!" This was one of the many rhymes and songs my paternal grandmother, Nana Johnson, used to make up and sing when she came to stay with us for extended periods from her home on the Isle of Sheppey. The mention of Nana Johnson`s name brings back so many poignant memories. Strong aromas followed her: lavender toilet water; Pears soap; Wilson`s S. P. Snuff [always half an ounce bought each time] ...and her choice of cheese - Italian Gorgonzola! Adrian would say "When is Nana going home and taking her smelly cheese with her?"

Aunt Ruth came to stay with us because Uncle Albert had joined his regiment to go overseas. My father was also called up, but as the result of sports injuries he was not considered fit enough to join the fighting force. Instead, in May 1940 under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act 1939, he was employed in the capacity of skilled officer in the Civil Defence (ARP Rescue Service). My father's youngest brother, Robert Quintus wrote a vivid description of his wartime experiences in the army, including his escape from Dunkirk. Another brother Claud Steven, was in the navy. On one occasion when he visited us in his uniform, during the war, my young cousin David announced to everyone "the gasman is here!".

At the beginning of the war an Anderson shelter was put into our back garden and a second one was added when my grandmothers and Aunty Ruth came to stay. In each one there were two bunks on either side for us children and a mattress in the middle for our parents. Sand bags were stacked at the small entrance with steps leading inside. We would go to the shelter when the warning alert came from the air raid it was always in a rush. One night Michael sleepily and hurriedly pulled on his pullover, mistaking them for his trousers, over his pyjamas before going out into the cold night air. On another occasion, he went crashing into a door as Adrian mistakenly closed it and sped ahead of him. However as the war continued, my mother put us in the shelter at bedtime. She would make it fun as though we were camping...with a jug of cocoa, she would lead us down and read us a story when we got there, before going back to the house. One bedtime I was wide awake chatting loudly to Cousin Tony in the other shelter, when my father popped in before going on duty. I knew we should be asleep so I quickly shut my eyes and pretended to be. My father, gently lifting one of my eyelids, knowing full well that we were awake, called out to my mother, "We won`t hear any more talking tonight Ivy, they are good children. They are fast asleep."

Michael and Adrian used to suffer from asthma. One night Adrian had a particularly bad attack, so my mother sent for Dr. Anne Sutherland [Our Doctor during wartime]. Just as she arrived the air raid siren sounded. Dr Sutherland, her chauffeur and her dog all crowded in the shelter with us....and in the confusion, the thermometer got broken. She stayed with us until the all clear went.

I remember during the raids, the drone of planes overhead, and the guns in the requisitioned nearby golf course banging nonstop...then there would be the screaming sound of bombs coming down. I remember saying my prayers each night asking God to keep us safe.

Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child,
Pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee.
Fain I would to thee be brought, dearest Lord forbid it not.
In thy kingdom of thy grace, grant a little child a place.
God bless and keep safe Mummy, Daddy, Michael, Adrian, Conrad,
Grandmas, Aunties, Uncles, Cousins and all kind friends.
Make Elaine a good girl this night and forever more.

One morning, after an extremely bad night, our two inch thick oak front door had been blown off its hinges, there was broken glass everywhere and our dining room ceiling had come down...but thankfully we were all safe. A bomb had exploded in the Crescent on the house that backed onto ours. The owner was killed as he stood at the door of his shelter. My mother thought the bomb had hit our house as we all felt the shelter shudder. She was so worried for my father, who was on duty, but he came rushing home, as soon as he could, to check that we were safe. The work he had to do with his team of rescue workers was very distressing. When I was older he told me about some of it. On one occasion a crying baby from beneath the rubble was the only living person that he carried away from one bombed house; on another he felt the top of the head of an elderly lady trapped under the rubble and, unable to rescue her quickly enough, talked to her until she died. On another day returning from shopping for our rations, our mother reported that all the houses going up to Crystal Palace Railway Station were flattened and the shop of Mrs Boon`s where we usually got our groceries was no more.

My older brothers used to watch the planes flying high overhead trying to distinguish them; were they our bombers going to Germany or were they German bombers going to bomb us. They remember ours and theirs dog fighting in the sky. I remember going out after a raid looking for shrapnel with my friend of the time, Gwen Robson....a warm piece was a great find. As the war progressed Doodlebugs, as we called them, would appear day or night with the sound of their drone, the drone would stop, and they would fall from the sky and we would wonder who got hit. Sometimes they were close enough for us to hear the explosion! I can still visualise my father standing at the door of the shelter one evening, when a Doodlebug stopped right above us. He jumped into the shelter with his arms outstretched trying to protect us all. The bomb landed a few streets away. These were the V1 pilotless planes, later there were the V2 rockets which had no warning drone, they just landed and exploded! [After the war there were numerous bomb sites all around our neighbourhood.... and my parents would shake whenever there were loud noises like thunderstorms].

During the war at night everywhere was in darkness. There were no street lamps, no car headlights and every house had blackout curtains at their windows. A member of the local ARP patrol would walk the streets checking that no light could be seen. If a curtain was not drawn properly and any chink of light was showing, he would tap the window with a cane and call out."Put out that light."

We all had ration books; different colours for adults and children. Each person was allowed varying amounts of staple food: meat, butter, margarine, sugar, dried eggs, milk powder, sweets, etc...and also there were coupons for new clothes. My parents supplemented our diets firstly by growing vegetables and fruit in the garden, secondly getting an allotment and thirdly by preserving food by bottling etc for the winter months. I remember allotment visits with joy as we had fun playing, whilst Auntie Ruth and our parents gardened. One day when they had finished and were making their way home, the air raid siren went, with German planes overhead. Everyone ran and took shelter under a nearby lorry, only to find when the all clear sounded that it was an ammunitions truck! The Government had other ways of supplementing children`s diets too. We all had cod liver oil and cod liver oil with malt. Conrad had orange juice as well...and my mother went even further! She gave us extra vitamins and Beecham`s powders disguising them in teaspoonful of homemade jam. [It took a long time after the war for me to start liking jam again as I could still taste the powder in it.].

In the early part of the war when my brothers went to school, my mother would take me to meet them. I will not forget the day the German planes swooped down from the sky shooting just above the heads of the children as they came home from school. Michael could only have been about ten at the time, but he had the presence of mind to push me down into the gutter and lay on top of me. My mother said that this German action happened more than once. It was understood later that the Germans had no intention of killing the children, it was part of their plan to demoralise the people of London.

I joined my brothers at school when I was four and I loved it, especially when the air raid siren went because we all trooped down to the cloakroom to sing songs, have stories, whilst one of the teachers poured us all cups of cocoa! [I love drinking chocolate to this day]. In the afternoons we would have naps on unrolled mats on the floor.

One day gas masks were delivered to our home. Toddler Conrad had a Mickey Mouse one, but mine was just ordinary....I felt a bit jealous! I can still remember the horrible rubbery smell of those gas masks when we put them on [the smell of rubber is repugnant to me till this day] ...thank goodness we never had to seriously use them...although we had to take them wherever we went and had to practise wearing them at school.

Many children under the Government Plan were evacuated from our school at the beginning of the war, but our parents did not want us to go. We had our lessons at each other's houses. However after the Blitz had devastated our area of London and the war seemed to be getting worse, they were worried for our safety. A teacher friend of my parents, Miss Robinson, told them of the plans to evacuate another group of children and if my brothers and I went, she would make sure that we were happily placed. So with this and the worsening situation, my parents, after much heartache, decided to let us go. But that is another story.

As the war came to an end there were bombsites everywhere. In some areas whole streets disappeared. We had to move from our lovely home in Maberley Road to a terraced house on a hill in the town`s centre, where the traffic was heavier and trolley buses passed by. In Maberley Road the lamps were fuelled by gas and a lamplighter, used to come each night to light them after the war ended. How different the lights were in town. After Brownies one night, outside our new home, the bright orange lights came on glowing above our heads....and later like red balls of fire on foggy days. London, in those days, had smog rather than fog because of the many atmospheric pollutants.

So life began to get back to normal. We were back at our old schools, back to attending Brownies, back to dancing and music lessons … and one day, which I will never forget, when I came home from Sunday School there was a pot doll sitting on the piano with a card saying Mummy Elaine I am yours. However, rationing continued for a number of years after that and 2 ounces of sweets each week was the limit!

Elaine Oldham
October 2019

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