Memories of a Morden Lad 1932-1957
Local History Notes 30: by Ronald Read
Mr Read recounts his childhood and wartime memories of growing up on the Morden part of the St Helier estate in the 1930s and 1940s. He then takes us to post-war Europe following his call-up to the army in 1945. His return to civilian life in Morden in 1948 was interrupted by 18 months spent in sanatoria in Waddon, Southbourne and Cheam, after he was diagnosed with TB in 1952. Mr Read expresses himself bluntly, and some readers might be offended by his language, but his account is a valuable, and fascinating, record of his life and experiences at home in Morden and further away. At 72 pages, this is our most substantial Note yet.
From a review in MHS Bulletin 173 (March 2010)
government will change things; it’s the way people are at present; I think it is a problem for the whole
of the western world. Another problem for the west is that more and more of the emerging ‘have not’
countries are becoming ‘have’ countries, and shortages and price rises seem inevitable.
Now, at eighty, I feel happy that I lived my early life when I did, despite what people today might call
the hardships we suffered. Yes, we had coal fires and oil stoves, with no gas boilers for central heating,
washing facilities were poor, and many other things which people take for granted today had not been
Another thing we didn’t have was knives taken on to the streets by teenagers, some of whom are
prepared to use them to kill or maim, nor did we have drugs, and the robberies and violence that go with
them. The elderly could go out at night without fear of coming to any harm, and nowadays even many
a young person might feel unsafe, travelling on a bus at night.
Would I like to go back to those early conditions? The answer is no. It is because I have had a taste of
comfort; I have become soft; conditioned to comfort.
But we should not confuse comfort with happiness.
The occasional use of coarse language has been retained for authenticity.
Published by Merton Historical Society – May 2010
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from the Society’s website at
www.mertonhistoricalsociety.org.uk , or from
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MERTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY
LOCAL HISTORY NOTES – 30
Memories of a Morden Lad
I was born in Walworth, London, in 1927, in a very old tenement
block, run down and mostly bug ridden. Whether or not we had bugs
in our flat I don’t know. I can remember my mother calling bugs
‘Steam Tugs’; she had a wide vocabulary of rhyming slang which she
often used in her everyday conversation. I was something of a
surprise to my mother; at forty she thought she was finished with
rearing children. Now, in my old age, I am attempting to write about
some of the events in my life, as far as my memory allows.
I was one of four children, having two brothers and a sister. Our
births were spaced out over fifteen years, with my sister being the
eldest, followed by my eldest brother two years later, and then a gap
of eight years to my other brother; the first world war would account
for four of those years (when my father was serving in the trenches
in France) so perhaps that other brother was, like me, unexpected.
I came along five years later. My mother and I
I don’t remember much of my early life in Walworth, although I remember the gas lighting. I can recall
the fluctuating glow of the gas mantle and the slight hiss that came from it, and I remember the basements
called areas, which stank of cats’ urine; it seemed as if everyone owned a cat. We moved away when
I was five years old, but I suppose my memory was reinforced by visits to an aunt and uncle, who still
lived in those parts long after we moved.
It was in1932 that we moved
into a council house, in what
was to become the largest
housing estate south of the
Thames. It was designed for
families living in severely
overcrowded London, and was
called London Overspill. In our
district slum clearance would
not be too strong a description
of it. Morden was part of a
huge council house complex
called the St Helier Estate,
which comprised Morden and
Carshalton, but I don’t suppose
many of those houses are
council owned today.
It must have been Utopia for
my parents to find themselves
the proud tenants of a three-
bedroom council house, with
electric lights which came on at the touch of a switch, and power points, which meant that my father could
plug in his newly-bought radiogram, housed in a large freestanding walnut cabinet. I got a lot of pleasure
from it as I grew up, playing my 78rpm records. The radiogram was actually a very modern innovation
as most people had little radios run by batteries called accumulators, which were topped up much like
our car batteries used to be. My father also bought a piano, which sadly was rarely played. He would
make an attempt at playing to accompany my mother’s singing, but he couldn’t play a recognisable tune.
I think it was called ‘vamping’ where the left hand hits a low note on the up-beat; any one would do. My
mother would sing at various parties, at which point my brothers and I would leave the room,
embarrassed at mother ‘showing us up’, but she really had quite a nice voice.
I regret not trying to learn to play the piano as I’ve always had an interest in music, but where did one
get lessons? I don’t think my father took enough interest in me to give me any encouragement, and I don’t
suppose he would have paid for piano lessons. I tried to teach myself in my teens, just prior to my army
service, but I seemed to lack the co-ordination to read the music and transfer that to my fingers on the
I suppose my father could have done much better for us. Firstly, living the way we did in London, and
later, in a council house in Morden. He worked at theDaily Sketch, a newspaper no longer published
today, and earned well above the national average wage; he could have easily bought a house, but
unfortunately he liked his booze too much. I am glad now that we didn’t live in a private house in Morden;
it would have deprived me of a wonderful childhood, growing up on a council estate with a crowd of
lads of around the same age.
141 Central Road, Morden, in 2009. The porch is a modern addition.
Reproduced by courtesy of David Roe
schooldays in No.2 school, Canterbury Road, in Morden. This teacher made English come alive; his
lessons were full of anecdotes, quips and various little bits of wisdom. I shall never forget one piece of
advice he gave us, which was to avoid the ready-made phrase, the cliché, and I have always tried to do
that. Whether in these memoirs I have succeeded in this, I have my doubts; my story is probably full of
them, but I have always been mindful of it. The six months I spent at Princeton passed very quickly, too
quickly for me.
At the end of the course it was time to give us some sort of certificate and /or introduction to suitable
employment, although my memory is somewhat vague about this. As far as I can remember I was placed
with a builders merchants in Tooting; I was given the job of Bought and Sales Ledger Clerk. All entries
were handwritten , and despite my training, I wasn’t ready for the hectic world of commerce and I left
after a couple of weeks. I next got a job as a Cost Clerk with Decca Radar dealing with the costing of
Radar components for installations up and down the country. I suppose I was there for some three years
or so. The work by that time was getting a bit tiresome. It was all figure work and the ultimate result was
having to provide figures, produced by my section, for the Government inspectors at a particular date.
I decided it was time to give up the job.
During my time at Decca in 1957 my life was about to change quite dramatically. I met a woman a year
or two older than myself and separated from her husband, and there began a very physical relationship
– I think that is the most delicate way to describe it. I grew up in an age of restraint, ending up with two
years of hospitalization and recovery. This was all new to me, and I was quite happy to plunge headlong
into it. The sexual revolution of the 60s was three years away so I was ahead of the pre-marital, non-
marital ‘Merry-Go-Round’ which the 60s brought about. This was a very different part of my life which
concerned a lady named Sylvia. Sylvia could be the subject of a story in itself, which I may write about
one day but it is not part of my early life.
I suppose the 1950s marked the end of an era. The first half of the century had seen two world wars
and a great many changes, most of which were in the first quarter of the century; but the change from
horse-drawn to motor-driven traffic was still happening in my time. Shopping habits were beginning to
change; supermarkets were starting to appear in the fifties, though much smaller and with a more limited
range of items, and television had arrived, although these things were really in the second half of the
But these changes were nothing compared with the enormous electronics explosion in the second half
of the century which brought about a complete revolution in communications; computers and mobile
phones now dominate people’s lives; emails and text messages are the preferred means of communication;
mobile phones, in addition to making calls, can now take photographs and films, and, I believe, show
and record television programmes, and more extraordinary uses are being invented for them month by
month, or so it seems to me. Life has become more complicated, and people have changed; people
generally don’t seem to have much time for other people; they are too busy with their computers and
prefer to speak to remote people by means of messages on the internet. We don’t seem to be the caring
society we once were.
Our familiarity with crime today, brought about by the massive media coverage in the press and on
television of so many terrible murders, and the violence in plays and films, has blunted our sense of horror
and indignation at what goes on around us. It seems to me that there is a lack of will and determination
of people in authority at all levels to try to improve things.
People’s expectations are so much greater. They have tasted affluence and expect it to continue
regardless of their circumstances. The benefits system has been much abused. I have had just one week’s
unemployment benefit in my life which occurred when I moved house in the 1960s. I don’t think any
Soon after our holiday I received news that I was to go on a rehabilitation course. It was designed for
people who had been out of work for a long time, to get back to a working routine and in my case, taking
up a new occupation. I’m not sure how long the course lasted, I think it was probably six weeks, but
my memory may be letting me down here. Ironically the course centre was situated quite near Waddon,
where it all began. I was delighted with the opportunity to go on the course, where each day was spent
doing various arithmetical and simple mathematical exercises, English, plus intelligence tests made up of
simple problems to solve and patterns and shapes to match, all of which became harder each week. From
time to time we would have tests to monitor our progress. I saw people with many physical and mental
disabilities whilst I was there. One day whilst sitting at my desk a young woman close by threw herself
to the floor and was kicking her legs in the air, moaning and leaving a pool of urine on the floor. The poor
woman was having an epileptic fit. It was the first time I had seen anything like this and a bit frightening;
I thought she was going to die. Another time I was in the toilet when a lad who stood beside me at common
gulley (pedestals were still not in use at that time) and proceeded to reach to the bottom of his trousers
to urinate. It was a great shock; I knew nothing of the collecting bags for people with urinary problems;
I thought he was showing off, boasting or something. But I shouldn’t joke about this; he probably had
a serious kidney or bladder complaint. There were a number of people on the course with physical
disabilities as well as people who, like me, had had an illness, without any outward signs, which kept them
out of work for lengthy periods. Perhaps, like me, seeking work without a great deal of physical strain
and in my case, certainly without the dust pollution of a sheet metal workshop.
When the course was nearing the end we were told that a psychologist was coming to see us individually,
to talk and give us advice on the type of work we would be best suited for. When my turn came to see
him the first thing he said was, did I know I was of above average intelligence? Well of course I did! ‘Er,
no, not really’, I answered modestly. He said the tests we had been doing during the past weeks had
proved this was so. I told him that I didn’t want to take up anything that required mathematics, but he
said that the tests showed that it was maths I would be best suited for. I have always hated mathematics
right from my schooldays. I settled for something in the commercial world, like accounts, where
arithmetic was required, starting at the bottom dealing with ledgers etc.
What came about from this discussion was a six-month course at the ‘Princeton College of Language
and Commerce’. The college was in London; I am not sure exactly where it was but something at the
back of my mind is suggesting Bloomsbury. I travelled up on the tube each day from Morden and I believe
I took sandwiches for my lunch rather than going to the expense of buying a meal out.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at that college. I believe all of us were there because, as at Waddon, we
were unable to follow our previous occupations. One chap was a ballet dancer, who could not continue
dancing. He was without doubt gay, and would talk about his ‘friend’ who had a yacht. One day he came
to college in a bright yellow sweater which his ‘friend’ bought him; he said nothing happened between
them, but he just used to tease him. All the women in the class used to gather round him, which was, I
suppose, because of his feminine mannerisms. They felt he was one of them. There was a young women
there who had a club foot – I think it was what we used to call it – she had one leg shorter than the other,
and wore a boot with a raised up sole to correct this defect. She had a pretty face and a nice figure and
I was attracted to her enough to ask her to come to the cinema with me. I remember the film we saw,
which wasLove is a Many -Splendored Thing. The evening was not exactly a many splendoured thing
and there was no follow up to this date.
At Princeton we had lessons in shorthand, typing, English, and commercial English and book-keeping.
I learnt to touch-type; at no great speed but I could touch-type. I never completely mastered shorthand
but with some fairly easy tests I got by as well as the majority of the class. What I enjoyed most were
the English lessons; we had a marvellous teacher. How I wish we had had teachers like him in my
There was one modern
facility in Morden, which
was the Underground
Station, so we were only
about 35 minutes from
central London by tube.
We had the best of both
worlds as it were.
Station Easter Sunday
reproduced by courtesy of
Merton Library &
Plan of houses of the same style as 141
Central Road (left hand side),
reproduced by courtesy of Merton
Library & Heritage Service
I expect I shall mention my father’s
drinking again later. This reads as if I
disliked my father; this was not the case.
I did not hate him; I respected him, but
I don’t think I loved him. There was
never a close bond there.
Morden was a wonderful place for any
youngster growing up. In 1932 there
was a rural feel about the place. Half
way along my road, Central Road, was
a dewpond, which reached right out
almost to the middle of the road, a road
which was quite narrow, but the council
houses, which stood on either side, lay
well back from the road, so that when it
was later remade, it was reasonably
wide. I believe it is a very busy road
today. In those early days I’ve actually
seen cattle being herded along the road.
A granite horse trough stood at one end
and a milestone not far away, with 10
engraved on it, which, we were told,
was the distance in miles from Charing
Cross. One of the old born and bred
Morden inhabitants we chatted with
would say ‘Oi moind the toim’ when
telling us of the old days, in the manner
of a rustic yokel.
how little gold wire I had bought so any duty payable would have been a very small amount, costing much
less than sending a man out to Morden. It would have been much cheaper to send me a warning letter.
Eventually rolled gold was taken off the market. I’m not sure when this happened but it is not being sold
Two or three weeks into my homecoming, and trying to recover my fitness, Digger came to my house
with an idea for a holiday. It was for his brother Roy, Digger and me to drive down to the south of France;
Roy would be doing the driving. I was a bit apprehensive about this but went along with the idea although
I had some anxiety about embarking on such a trip, in view of my recent release from hospitalization.
It was rather ambitious considering the age of the car, and with it being a journey of several hundred miles
it was pretty adventurous. There was, of course the small matter of passports; we hadn’t got one between
the three of us!
About a week or so later Digger came to see me again to say there would be no trip to the south of France.
He had got his girlfriend pregnant and wanted some comforting words of advice. But what did I know
about such matters? All I could do was walk with him and, more or less, just listen to him telling me what
measures he had taken to cause an abortion, none of which worked. He was desperately worried
Ravensbury Park because of the disgrace it would bring on his parents and their feelings towards him because of it. I’m
sure that if it had been me, or any of our friends, in the same situation, we would have been equally
10-mile worried. It was the mid-50s and there was still a strict code of behaviour where getting pregnant was
concerned. Here was a young man of twenty-five, worried sick because he had got his regular girlfriend
memorial 141 pregnant. It seems laughable in these days of total sexual freedom.
I think I walked for about an hour with Digger while he poured out his worries and explored possible
ways of getting the pregnancy aborted. When all attempts failed he finally told his parents, who took the
news very badly, as expected, and all but threw him out. There was a miscarriage later, probably from
trough Morden natural causes, which would have got poor Digger off the hook and avoided so much anxiety.
In the meantime, Digger was determined that we should go on a holiday. I wondered afterwards whether
he wanted me to have a holiday after my long incarceration in sanatoriums. We decided on a trip to
‘Stink shop Cornwall and set out early one morning. Travel was slow. By evening we reached Tavistock on the edge
of Dartmoor, and by then a mist was descending. It was not the best time to cross Dartmoor, and we
looked for a place to stay. We eventually found a place; the owner was a BBC sound engineer and before
we left the next day he played some of his records. They were played through two huge corner speaker
units which stood some five feet high, and the sound coming from these was astounding; we had never
heard anything so close to live music in our lives. We spent an hour or so, listening to this marvellous music
before we left. We made it to Cornwall, where we toured all the picturesque coastal villages, staying at
bed-and-breakfast establishments on the way. We visited many lovely fishing villages in Cornwall. For
my part Polperro was the prettiest place by far. We came back along the north Devon coast where we
saw the after effects of the devastation caused at Lynton and Lynmouth where the floodwater had
cascaded down on to the villages a year earlier, causing a great deal of damage and, I believe, some
deaths. The holiday was most enjoyable and although it was only a week it was a sort of convalescence
That holiday was the last time I saw Digger. I heard that he married his girl friend Hazel, whom I had
never met. She had been a very private part of his life. His firm had moved to the new town of Stevenage,
in Hertfordshire, and they went to live there. It was a case of a new town and a new life. I never received
any communication from him. I think he just wanted to forget Morden and the trouble with his parents.
Modern street plan of Morden, showing location of places mentioned,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Design Unit, London Borough of Merton
A few years later we heard that they had three or four children, and it seemed that Digger must have
been very happy. It was not long after that we heard through his brother that he had died. It came as
a great shock. It was such a shame that he died so young. He was a lovely chap and a really good mate.
I found coming home to my council house a strange experience after the three establishments I had lived
in for the past year and a half. The rooms seemed so small and the ceilings low; nevertheless I was so
glad to be home and was looking forward to a healthy – rest of my life.
I took things easy for a time, going for short walks, and later, meeting up with my mates, those who were
still single. To pass the time at home I began making jewellery; buying brooch settings and sticking in
various coloured stones – topaz, aquamarine, peridot etc. as I had done in occupational therapy in the
San. I had hoped to sell them to give me a bit of pocket money to help out with my meagre sick pay.
One supplier of these settings I had dealt with, in Soho, also sold rolled gold wire in both square and round
section. It was sold by the ounce and I bought just a few ounces to see what I might make with them.
I also bought jewellery pliers, and using these I was able to make bracelets and earrings; this brought
a certain amount of skill to it as I was making things to my own design, making it much more rewarding.
They actually looked quite presentable. A young woman living nearby wanted two bracelets made for
her bridesmaids to wear at her coming wedding. I didn’t want any money but she insisted on paying for
I was engrossed in my jewellery-making, experimenting with various designs and planning to go back
to Berwick Street to buy more wire, but it was just as well I didn’t. One afternoon there came a knock
at the door. It was a man who said he was from Customs and Excise. He was enquiring about the rolled
gold wire that I had bought from Herring Morgan and Southern, a firm in Berwick Street, Soho. Their
inspectors had gone through the invoices and had found one with details of my name and address on.
I have since learned that rolled gold is made of brass with a coating of gold. What I had was not something
made out of rolled gold, but the raw material with which to make something, and duty had not been paid.
This was why the customs man had called. I don’t know why I was not told about this when I bought
the wire. The man wanted to know if I had sold anything I had made. I told him that I gave away anything
I made as presents, whereupon my mother started crying and saying that I didn’t make much money from
it and that I had just come out
of hospital and didn’t receive
much on sickness benefit,
which completely cut across
what I had just told him. It
really upset her; I believe she
thought I would go to prison
or something. He asked if I
had any of the wire left and I
was able to show him an
amount which was a
substantial part of the original
purchase. He seemed satisfied
that it was not worth bothering
about, and left with a warning
about any future evasion of
duty if I sold any more. When
the man had gone and I had
recovered from the shock I
thought how bloody silly the
whole business was. The
records would have shown Home again – in the garden of 141 Central Road, Morden
It seems to me now, looking back, that our parents were all in their forties when we arrived in Morden;
there were no elderly people to occupy our estate. Moreover all the friends I made, who lived nearby, must
have been born within a year either side of my birthday, and it seemed as though there were no childless
couples. I suppose it was by design rather than by accident; it was the way council house priorities worked.
I had some half dozen close friends, and our friendship lasted right through to adulthood, when firstly at
eighteen, each of us was, at various times, called up for military service, and then it was girlfriends and
marriage. I was one of the last to marry, reaching my thirties before that event. In the meantime we were
children, growing up in this marvellous environment, with fields and parks to play in. Morden was the
gateway to Surrey, which was, and still is, a beautiful county. But then it was totally unspoilt by housing
development. Of course the St Helier Estate is a housing development, but it is in the north-east of Surrey,
bordering on London. In fact it is now part of greater London.
To be young in those days meant play and more play. We would invent games as we went along,
uncluttered by the technology of today. Our lines of communication were simple – what couldn’t be said,
or shouted, to each other direct, without any telephonic aids, was left unsaid, and it didn’t matter a jot.
We had no televisions or computers to sit and watch; consequently we were fitter.
I had some childhood illnesses which occurred before we moved to Morden, so perhaps I was not quite
as fit as the other boys initially. My mother listed them as pneumonia, measles and scarlet fever. She has
since told me that whilst in hospital with pneumonia, measles, which I must have caught before being
admitted, showed itself when the rash appeared and I was transferred to an isolation hospital. The scarlet
fever was the last of these childhood illnesses which I believe came on me a few years later at Morden.
I was a breast-fed baby – so much for breast-feeding giving a child a greater immunity from disease than
those who were bottle-fed. Measles and pneumonia could be a lethal combination so perhaps the breastfeeding
might have saved my life, something certainly did. However, I shook off the effects of those
illnesses, and quite soon was as fit as any of my mates, enjoying the rough-and-tumble of the many
energetic games we played.
Occasionally, at weekends, my parents would take me to London on visits to my aunt and uncle. It was
in the early years of life in Morden and I think they wanted to keep in contact with their roots. My mother’s
brother, my uncle Alf, was a dustman as was his father. That’s quite a pedigree – my Uncle and
Grandfather both dustmen. My mother told me a rather amusing story about my grandfather.
Being a dustman, he wore very dirty boots, and one day my grandmother decided to give them a good
clean, and it seems, she did a good job, and gave him nice shiny boots. When my grandfather saw them
he went wild, calling her all the names which dustmen were prone to use. He said if he went to work in
boots like that he would be a laughing stock, and spent some time rubbing dirt into them to bring them
back to the filthy condition they were in before.
My earliest memory of visits to London was when I went out to play in Kennington Park with one of
my aunt’s nephews and his friends. We were all running across the park but being only about six or seven
years old I couldn’t keep up with them and became completely lost.
I began to feel rather sorry for myself and by the time I found the gate and went out into the street I was
starting to cry. As I walked around the streets sobbing someone stopped and asked if I was lost, which
I suppose was obvious. It was fortunate that I remembered my Aunt’s address, and it was fortunate also
that he was a local man and was able to take me there. It could have been risky if it had been the wrong
type of person who took me by the hand but paedophiles were unknown to us. Perhaps there were
people like that then, though I doubt if there were anywhere near the number that there are today. The
only case I knew about was of a teenager exposing himself to a group of schoolgirls. Our mothers never
had occasion to warn us against speaking to strange men.
Some years later, if we wished to see a certificate ‘A’ film which required a person to be sixteen or over,
or accompanied by an adult, we would stand outside the cinema and approach people and ask if they
would take us in. It didn’t matter if it was a lone man, woman, or a couple; we always had our half-price
admission money ready. We were rarely refused, and whether we sat beside them or made our own way
to a seat, neither I, nor any of my friends, experienced any molestation.
In what must have been the following year, again on a visit to my Uncle Alf and his wife Aunt Nora, I went
for a ride in a dust cart. In those days a horse and cart was used for rubbish collections and my uncle was
the horse driver on his cart. He took pride in his job, and cared for the horse as if it was his own. From
time to time, the Southwark Borough Council put on a special show in which the horses were judged and
the carts inspected. Each high-sided cart was thoroughly cleaned, the horses brushed, and brasses
polished. Horses and carts were assembled in the yard, as were the many local children who would be
going on the parade. The children were helped up into the carts, and with upwards of a dozen children
occupying each cart, a number of carts set out to parade around the streets of Southwark. My uncle Alf
being the driver, I was, naturally, one of the children in his cart, and what a thrill it was for me, singing
along with the rest ‘We are the Walworth Boys’, although by then, a Walworth boy I was not. Doors
and windows on the route were opened wide and people were waving as they watched the parade.
What seemed like hours later (our perception of time often becomes enlarged when we are young and
enjoying ourselves) we arrived back at the depot, where we children disembarked, and the judging and
inspections took place. My uncle received a rosette for his horse in the judging, but I’m not sure what
sort of award he himself received. I know the whole thing gave him immense pleasure, and I thoroughly
enjoyed my day. It appeared there were still many parts of Southwark that were not caught up in the
mass move to Morden.
1935 saw the Silver Jubilee of King George V, and a number of celebrations took place. We had a huge
children’s party in Central Road, organised, I suppose, by the mothers of children living in the street. The
road must have been closed to traffic, because a long table was placed along the middle of the road made
up of a number of trestles placed together end to end. I have a vivid memory of the whitest of white
tablecloths which covered it . This was decked out with cups and saucers, plates, knives and spoons.
My memory is somewhat sketchy as to the food, but I recall it was a wonderful party with paper hats
and all the trimmings, and I believe we all received a commemoration spoon to mark the occasion. Our
road was not exactly a minor one as it linked up with the main London road at each end, but there was
so little traffic then, that a diversion would have been possible, just for this very special day. Sadly, the
following year the King passed away.
It was round about this time that a tree outside our house was blown down during a gale. It was a mature
tree with quite a large trunk and luckily for us it fell away from us and across the road. It was fortunate
too for the people living opposite, that only the smaller, higher branches reached their houses. It
happened around midnight and got us all out of bed on both sides of the road. It made an awful noise
and shook the house. A very public spirited woman from one of the houses opposite spent half the night
shining a torch and waving a handkerchief to stop and turn back motorists. Come to think of it there must
have been someone on the other side of the tree to stop the traffic from the other direction, not that there
was much traffic, especially at that time of night.
Our visits to my uncle often included a drink in the local pub, and not wanting to stay in the house alone,
I would go along too, and stand in the pub’s recessed doorway. From time to time I would push open
the door and call on my father to buy me something to eat or drink. I mostly liked Camwals grapefruit
and a large round rusk-like biscuit. There were no crisps in those days.
It was on one of our visits that there was a rally by Sir Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists.
He always used venues in the poorer parts of town, and would attack Jews, and more or less anyone
for adhesions. I have undergone many checks, had needles pushed into me, pumping me up with air, then
drawing fluids off my lungs, that I had no qualms about this operation at all. It was just one more progress
check, although this was probably the worst. It was only my second time of having a general anaesthetic,
apart from my childhood days when my mother used to take me to London to have teeth extracted and
I would be given gas to put me out. Anyway, I think the bronchoscopy must have shown that there was
nothing seriously wrong as I never heard any more about it. Whether I had gone positive again or what,
I don’t know, but I was put back to bed on another course of drugs. A new treatment had come along
which was in the form of a large white tablet called isoniazid which I think replaced streptomycin.
One day a group of my friends from Morden took a trip to the West Country in a battered old Austin Seven,
very adventurous really. I had got word via my mother, who visited me each week, that they planned to
pay me a visit, which I appreciated as it was a quite a diversion from their route. I looked forward to it with
some excitement. I had told some of the other patients of this, so we were all looking out for them. Someone
spotted the car approaching and called out, ‘Here they come, Ron’ as they chugged into sight. I remember
Harry and Digger were among the group. It was wonderful to see them again.
My mother was getting a bit fed up with the weekly journey to visit me, which included a change of trains,
and quite a walk from the local railway station. I think she made enquiries and found there was a place
at Cheam, which was just a couple of miles from my home. So it was goodbye to the seaside, the lovely
walks in the peaceful surroundings, the croquet games and the wonderful, ‘best hotel I have ever stayed
in’, called Douglas House.
Cheam Sanatorium turned out to be a most dismal establishment, the most unpleasant of all the three
establishments, and holds no happy memories for me at all. The only thing I do remember was that there
were two Chinese teenage patients, who I overheard telling somebody that their mother was going to
speak that evening on the radio. Their name was Aylward. Some time later, I saw the filmThe Inn of
the Sixth Happiness. In the film Ingrid Bergman played the part of Gladys Aylward, who had, during
the Japanese invasion of China, gathered together a number of Chinese children and brought them back
to a better life in England. I then put two and two together, and I feel almost certain that these two young
lads (they must have been about fourteen or fifteen years old) were two of those children rescued from
war-torn China. This is assumption on my part but it has strong possibilities.
I spent some five or six miserable months at Cheam amongst the most humourless and unfriendly types
it has ever been my experience to share a ward with. I was only two miles from home but I wished I was
back in Southbourne. It made me look forward to my discharge, with a much greater relish than I would
have, had I been at Waddon or Douglas House, two places which gave so many happy memories.
A few years ago my wife and I were having a short break in Bournemouth. During our stay we took a
bus ride to Southbourne, a couple of miles away, hoping to find my Shangri-La of fifty years ago.
When our bus arrived we got off at Fisherman’s Walk, and walked through there towards the sea. It
was late October, the trees had shed their leaves, grey squirrels were running about everywhere, and
it seemed rather dilapidated. We called in a pub by the seafront, where we had a bit of lunch and I asked
the proprietor, who had lived locally for many years, if she knew of Douglas House, and that I was there
as a patient all those years ago. She had, and she remembered it when it was a sanatorium. She said that
I wouldn’t like what I saw if I went there now and told me that it had been a DSS hostel for many years.
Unlike in my army service when I went back to the hospital in Germany where I had worked, 77BMH,
which had become a modern civilian hospital, Douglas House was a derelict building up for sale, and
the beautiful croquet lawn was now a row of small terraced bungalows. For me, it was a most depressing
sight; I shouldn’t have gone back there. But I shall still cherish the memory of how it was.
When I first arrived I was put in a room with two beds. I shared the room with a man in his sixties who
coughed throughout the night, which was probably a smoker’s cough. In any case, it was a very bad
match for me to be sharing with a man so much older. I stood it for a few days, but eventually I had to
ask to be transferred. I did it discreetly as I had nothing against the man, but I was getting no sleep. I
was then put in a three-bed room with a couple of lads of about my age, and it was in this room that I
had the most extraordinary experience.
One of the two roommates had become very friendly with one of the nurses and with them both being
Irish, there was, I suppose, a sort of nationalistic bond between them. There was certainly something,
as we other two were to find out. I have spoken about rest hour, which took place in every sanatorium
between one and two pm, and it was normally strictly observed. On this particular occasion we had just
settled down, when this nurse walked in and sat on Irish’s bed. They started straight in canoodling (a
good old fashioned word) but then he turned to us and said, ‘Turn your heads away please lads’, which
we were only too happy to do. The rhythmic creaking of the bed told us that he was indulging in the most
extreme form of exercise possible whilst lying in bed. I have never shared a room with someone who
was having sex before, apart from the person I was having sex with, and lying there, I had mixed feelings
of embarrassment tinged with, I must confess, a feeling of excitement during those minutes the act took
place. After a while we heard the door open and the nurse was gone, Paddy said ‘Thanks, lads’ and
we were back to rest hour, which I think was the most unrestful rest hour that I had ever spent, and I’m
sure it was for Paddy. There is a footnote to this little episode. The two of them were caught having sex
in the bushes of the grounds. She was sacked, and he was discharged.
We had domestic staff to bring our meals, unlike Waddon where the nursing staff did it. We had a man
who brought our meals and looked after our non-nursing requirements, a chap by the name of Cloves.
I used to have a regular bit of banter with him. I would say ‘Here comes old Cloves in his old ‘cloves”.
He would say. ‘Mr – is it Read or is it read?’ (past tense of to peruse) and I would say ‘You can take
it as read’. He was definitely gay, although it was homosexual in those days. When he brought my teatime
sandwiches, he would say, camping it up, ‘You wanted BROWN bread’. He was a cheerful bloke with
whom you could swap jokes. He was just the right sort of person for that kind of job.
Some months into my stay at Douglas House, I was a bit naughty and went on a bus ride with a couple
of fellow inmates. One of them knew the area, and we took a ride to Christchurch, where we walked
to a little inlet of the sea, and to a place called Mudeford. It was extremely hot, and we took our coats
off, thereby breaking two of the rules that day.
Douglas House had a large entrance hall, and in it stood a beautiful white grand piano. It was often played
by one of the patients, a chap by the name of John Burnaby, who I believe, was the son of Davy Burnaby,
an old music hall comedian. The piano was probably his own. He was an excellent pianist, and I enjoyed
listening to his playing from time to time. I remember listening to the radio one day, whilst generally
convalescing at home waiting for the next phase of my life to begin. It was a programme called ‘Piano
Playtime’, a twenty-minute or half-hour programme of piano music, and there was John Burnaby. He
really was a very good pianist who played all the thirties and forties standards (Cole Porter and Richard
Rodgers etc) . I cannot recall hearing him again, although I listened in each week at the same time, but
no John Burnaby. I wonder what happened to him?
I was enjoying life at Southbourne, the walks to the beach, listening to the Salvation Army band on
Sunday afternoon and watching some of the Douglas House older chaps singing along with the hymns.
Every Sunday they played there, and every Sunday the old boys would be there, singing their heads off.
I must have had a setback at some time but can remember very little about it. I was taken to Southampton
General Hospital to have a bronchoscopy, which was an investigation of my bronchial tubes, and it required
a general anaesthetic. It’s funny when I think how terrified I was at Waddon, at the thought of my check
not of pure British blood. I suppose they could be compared with the British National Party, the extreme
right wing political party of today. But Mosley was far more powerful; he had some thirty to forty
thousand adherents, and his style was very much in the vein of the Hitler regime in Germany. He was more
dangerous. He was arrested in 1940, and was to have spent the rest of the war in prison; however, in
about 1943 he was let out of prison due to ill health, but was kept under house arrest. But that was a
long way off – this was 1935 and on this occasion it was for an evening rally outside Manor Place Baths
in Walworth. Earlier in the day we had watched the parade go past my aunt’s house from an upstairs
window; the men with their black shirts and some with long white beards, wearing long black gowns
which reached down to their ankles. Later during the visit to the pub, the meeting broke up in chaos, and
I pressed back into the recessed doorway as Mosley and his followers fled; he in his sort of armoured
car and the rest on foot, chased by an angry crowd shouting all kinds of epithets and pelting them with
whatever they found handy. It was all a bit scary for an eight-year-old.
It is a strange thing about eight, and I expect a psychic, a psychologist or perhaps a psychiatrist, might
find it odd that eight has been a number that has dogged me throughout my life. Firstly, as a young child,
I could not form a figure 8. I would use two noughts, one above the other; neither could I tie my shoelaces
in a bow, which again would form an eight. These things upset me greatly and I shed many tears over
them. I have never been hung up about those early events but eight and the addition of two or more digits
which made eight has figured prominently during my life.
The most traumatic, and I might add, dramatic event in my life occurred, when on the 26th of November
(2+6=8) I was diagnosed with TB, which caused a lengthy stay in sanatoriums. This completely changed
my life and I shall always be thankful that it happened. I am writing about this in a separate chapter which
I am calling Sanatoria. I consider Sanatoria one of the pluses in my life, there were others like my army
demob number, 71 (7+1=8), but there were many minuses also. On holidays if we were given a bad
room, and we have had plenty of those, more often than not, they were eight or digits making eight;
perhaps I have been looking for such phenomena, I don’t know. Perhaps it is just an eight phobia. I shall
be 80 in a few months time!
On one occasion, during a visit to my aunt and uncle, we were invited to the thirteenth birthday party of
a lad we hardly knew. He was the son of another one of my aunt’s sisters, and of course had no
connection with my family; my Aunt Nora being an aunt by marriage. It was thirteen, and unlucky for
some, as the saying goes. The party was going along nicely with everyone drinking, chatting and laughing,
when suddenly a fight broke out, which developed into a general brawl with fists flying in all directions.
Uncle Alf somehow got involved and was rewarded with a beautiful black eye. Someone had said
something insulting about the elderly matriarch, grandmother of the birthday boy. My father, who was
not averse to a fight if he had cause, was trying to bring peace, taking a tray round with drinks on,
somehow dodging the blows. It was in full swing, when there came a rat-tat on the door, and as I was
keeping out of the way of the fight, I was nearest the door, which I opened. There stood a policeman,
and in the road behind him was a Black Maria. My aunt came next to the door saying ‘It’s alright officer,
they’ve quietened down now’ ( there was a temporary lull in the fracas ) ‘There won’t be any more
trouble’, and surprisingly, they drove off, whereupon Aunt Nora rejoined the mêlée.
The police must have been driving around looking for trouble; no one would have had the means to call
I used to like our visits to London. One of the delights for me was the hot chestnuts which were on sale
outside most underground stations. The smell of them roasting on the glowing brazier was very
appetising. I believe they were threepence a bag in the early days, but later, cost sixpence, that’s old
pence, so it wasn’t expensive. In those days one could also go to the chip shop and buy a bag of chips
for three pence and fried fish for sixpence. I mentioned earlier that crisps were not available but I read
in one Sunday newspaper a while back, that Smiths established their potato crisps company in 1920,
although some were made earlier, but it goes on to say ‘Smiths later emigrated to Sydney and re-launched
their business there in 1932’. I still maintain that I cannot recall seeing crisps before the war, which is why
we would go to the fish and chip shop to snack, and I probably wouldn’t have opted for my giant rusk
at the pub if they sold crisps.
Sometimes, when visiting us in Morden, my uncle would bring a little gift for me. He had no children of
his own, and often it would be something unusual and I would say ‘cor unk where dya get that’ and he
would say ‘Aht the D’ – out the dust (dustbin). I never knew when to believe him as sometimes they were
bought items, toys mostly, but sometimes they were really ‘aht the D’. Not in dustbins as such, but put
out by shops to be collected; perhaps a bit damaged (although I didn’t notice it ) or their round took them
to a ‘posh’ area ( there were some in Southwark ) where the children had tired of them. I didn’t mind
this a bit.
I have tried to groupthe visits to and from London together although they were at intervals over several
Going back to my early days at Morden, I remember
starting school (I must have been five years old) soon
after we moved to Morden, where we had slates and
crayons to write with and the air was filled with the smell
of Plasticine, which we were given to make shapes of
animals or whatever. I don’t remember any more of that
school as the last of my illnesses must have intervened,
which was, as I have said, scarlet fever. My next
memory is of a different school, where we sat at desks
with holes at the top, in which sat porcelain ink wells, into
which we would dip our pens with the unserviceable pen
nibs, which invariably became crossed, or the split
points of the nib tip became spread apart. This often
resulted in a great blot on the paper from the overloaded
I recall another occasion, later in my schooldays, which
was somewhat embarrassing. I’ve always had an eye for
objects to be the way they were designed to be, and I
had this 12-inch wooden ruler which had a slight curve;
it didn’t exactly lie flat, and this greatly offended my eye.
I then tried to bend it in the opposite direction in an attempt to straighten it; suddenly there was a loud
crack as it broke in two. The teacher, being less than pleased, wanted to know what I was playing at.
In reply I said, stupidly, ‘I was trying to bend it straight’. This daft remark set the whole class laughing
and me wanting to find somewhere to hide.
My academic achievement was more or less nil. I didn’t show much interest in the lessons (which I regret)
except English, in which I was never out of the top three in class. I’ve always had a fascination with words,
but mathematics was something of a mystery to me. I believe geography was my next best subject, in
which I was, at best, mediocre. There were no such things as GCSEs or O Levels or anything like that.
The really bright pupils received scholarships to – I suppose – grammar schools, but there were very
few of those. I left school at fourteen knowing very little about anything. To be fair to myself, I must have
lost quite a bit of schooling due to illness in my early school years, and in my last year I had no lessons
for about nine months due to the Blitz.
Me in 1937
It must have been some time during May, or perhaps early June,
when I arrived at Douglas House. I remember the days were warm
and sunny, and I was not a bed patient, which meant I could get out
and take in my surroundings.
One of the first chaps I saw was my friend Fred Dellow. I didn’t
know he had come here, so it was a lovely surprise. He showed me
around the grounds, having been transferred here much earlier. I
thought he had gone home when he left Waddon. He introduced me
to a little chap called Bunny, a real live wire and a bundle of energy.
He started a house magazine and would create illustrations by using
silkscreen printing. It was something I had never heard of, let alone
seen, and it was fascinating to watch. Bunny could be a bit of a bore
at times; he would enter a room and bawl out, ‘Don’t get up, just
kneel’ and would repeat this ad nauseam, but he wasn’t a bad fellow
In the early days there, I would sit and watch the games of croquet, a gentle, gentlemen’s game which
was, at one time, the prerogative of the wealthy and the aristocracy, but the inmates didn’t quite have
that same finesse. It was normally played by swinging a mallet between the legs and attempting to tap
your ball through a number of hoops. You could roquet your opponent’s ball by knocking it away from
the hoop and stop him getting it through. The way some of these lads were playing bore little resemblance
to the games played a century or so ago with the gentlemen in their flannels and blazers and the ladies
in their crinoline gowns. It was a delicately played game with a rather complicated set of rules. We had
a very loose understanding of the rules and if an opponent’s ball was in the way of a player’s ball I’ve
seen them take an enormous swipe as if trying to drive off from the tee at golf, which rather tended to
spoil the game. I’ve seen some old hands playing, and it was a game requiring considerable skill. I played
quite a few games during my time there and although I had no great skill with the croquet mallet, I
thoroughly enjoyed playing it. It was also a good way of making new friends.
When I walked down to the beach, usually with two or three fellow inmates, one could always tell the
Douglas House people; they were all wearing jackets. Despite the warm sunshine, we were instructed
to keep our jackets on whenever we went out, but I couldn’t imagine why, perhaps it was the fear that
the warmth of sun might reactivate the TB bugs; the jackets would give us an extra layer of protection.
Other than that, I can’t see any possible reason for it. We used to stand and watch the fit young men in
their swimming trunks, all bronzed and healthy looking, running about with the young ladies. I don’t know
how the others felt but I was filled with envy; I was still only twenty-five and couldn’t help wondering
whether I would ever be fit like that again. I remember that during the early stages of the bug, at Waddon,
I used to dream that I was running as fast as I could across a field. I suppose it was in the hope that I
might be able to do so again, or perhaps the fear that I might never, which had lodged in my subconscious.
It was good though, just to be able to sit and watch the sea and feel free to walk about. The walking had
to start slowly with a limited distance to start with, and a limited amount of time to be out; then back in
bed, or else to sit in a chair by the bed. At Waddon, even if a patient was allowed up, there was nowhere
to go outside the ward. Waddon was about people, and the build-up of close relationships into a sort
of family of lads from different walks of life. Here it was about starting to live again in the most beautiful
surroundings and with a real sense of freedom. We were not allowed to use public transport, which made
us feel a bit like lepers, but I suppose it was understandable in the circumstances. We had checks from
time to time for positive TB activity, and if one threw a posi (the term we used for it) it was back to bed
and another round of drug treatment. If one had a raised temperature, it was also back to bed. We
continued to have regular checks as we did in Waddon.
Convalescing at Douglas House.
Fred is on right – a great bloke!
up for comparison. One day Pat, somehow managed to fill his bottle to within an inch of the top; this
brought a great cheer from the rest of us, he was the champion. I think he cheated though, he had some
beer brought in. Visiting could be very tiring as a lot of the time it would be a question and answer situation
with the patient being asked most of the questions by anxious relatives. We were pleased to get visitors
but were often glad when the two hours were up.
One of the most astonishing things I found at Waddon was that there wasn’t a smoking ban; we were
allowed to smoke freely, except during matron’s visits and doctor’s rounds. There we were, in hospital
because of serious lung problems, and those of us who smoked, which was the majority, all puffing away.
It seems incredible now with all the publicity telling of the dangers of smoking. I remember clearly some
of the card games we played in the evenings. Those of us who were up, would sit around the bed of a
bed patient in a cloud of smoke.
In December 1952 London and surrounding area had the worst fog in living memory. There was a coal-
fired power station less than a mile away from us, which added considerably to the already polluted air.
Incredibly, a nurse went round the ward opening the windows, which the more able patients had
managed to close. Nurses were obsessed with the need for patients to get ‘fresh air’, but this one had
taken it a bit too far. This ‘smog’, as it came to be known, claimed the lives of some 4000 people, mostly
the elderly and those with chest complaints. This was well documented in the press, and even in the past
year or so a television documentary was shown about it. Happily no one in our ward expired as a result
of it, no thanks to that particular nurse.
That is about all I can say about Waddon, my home for around six months. As I have said there were
sad times and happy times but all in all it was one of the most memorable periods in my life and I am so
glad it happened.
After the spell at Waddon, which lasted, as I’ve said, around six months, I was transferred to a place
called Douglas House, situated in Southbourne, near Bournemouth. It was another stage in my recovery
from the bug.
It was still early days in the use of streptomycin and other drugs and I think they weren’t taking any
chances by discharging anyone too soon. This place, although it had usual nursing staff, doctors and
treatment, seemed more like a convalescent home, than the sanatorium it really was.
Douglas House was a large redbrick building somewhat resembling a hotel or a large guest house. It had
three storeys, the first floor having a balcony overlooking superbly kept grounds. All the woodwork
round the windows and the balcony was painted white and in immaculate condition, or so it seemed to
me at the time, although my perception may have been enhanced by the contrast with Waddon, which
was a very austere establishment, it being an isolation annexe of Mayday Hospital, and, unlike Waddon,
with the two separate wards, one male and one female, Douglas House was an all-male establishment.
At the rear of the building was a large lawn, set out with croquet hoops. A beautiful cedar tree stood at
one side and slightly to the rear. Around the lawn was a path with bench seats on all sides, and the whole
rear area was surrounded by bushes and trees, giving total privacy. The accommodation was made up
of a series of rooms, housing two, three, and possibly four patients, but I couldn’t be certain; the
surrounding area was wonderfully quiet and peaceful. We were some five minutes walk from the sea and
what a walk it was. About a hundred yards along the road from Douglas was a beautiful lane, tree lined
and full of birdsong, called Fisherman’s Walk. There was a circular bandstand half way along it, where,
from time to time, various brass bands would play; at the end of the lane and across the road was the
sea. It really was, after Waddon and all I had come through, as near heaven on earth as anything I had
There was one pupil at my
school who found fame, though
not through any academic
attainment. This is the actor
George Cole, who is best
remembered for his role as
‘Arthur Daly’, in Minder. I
never knew him personally as
he is a year or two older than
me, and was in a higher form.
Incidentally, and I almost forgot,
there was someone in my class
who became a criminal serving
time in Dartmoor prison. I didn’t
know this until I saw a mid-day
edition of an evening newspaper
with his photograph on the front
page. The picture was of two Dartmoor prison escapees. And the story was that my one time classmate
had given himself up to get help for his injured fellow escapee, who had broken his leg or seriously injured
himself in some way. My guess was that he was too scared to go on alone.
School apart, my childhood was a happy one, a very happy one. We were free to roam without any fear
of abduction, assault, or abuse of any kind, and with so little motorised traffic, we had the streets to play
in, as well as the lovely Surrey countryside. Our parents were generally strict with us, strict enough to
teach us manners, and respect, and perhaps give us a clout if we misbehaved.
Most people would probably say they enjoyed their childhood, but I feel sure that we who were children
in the thirties, and even the forties for many of us, despite the war, had a far better life than children living
today. I couldn’t speak for those children who had the trauma of being uprooted from their homes in the
My childhood may not have been typical as far as environment was concerned, growing up on a council
estate. My wife had a very different childhood from mine. She grew up in Northern Ireland, where she
had a religious upbringing, in rural surroundings; it couldn’t have been more different; but the thing we
had in common was the period in which we lived. Life was simple; children had a sort of innocence; I
can find no better word for it. We council house children were perhaps more rough and ready; we
sometimes resorted to bad language, but in every other respect we had the same simple innocence. We
have often discussed our respective childhoods; many of the games we played, and the rhymes we
chanted were pretty much the same, with some local variations, and we both had the freedom to roam
for miles without our parents worrying and wondering if we were safe.
The world was so different in our young days and I was fortunate to be growing up then, and not in the
frantic technology-driven age children live in today. It seems such a shame to see children getting old
before their time and their childhood more or less passing them by altogether. I think that children have,
in many ways, become the victims of the technological progress which has taken place, which has
undoubtedly helped them educationally, but at the same time given them playthings. The computer games
and mobile phones seem to occupy so much of children’s time nowadays that they have no time for real
rough-and-tumble face-to-face play. I read in a newspaper some weeks ago of someone, I believe a
psychologist, saying that with all their techno-playthings, children today are not happy. He actually said
that parents should teach them to be happy! Is that really possible?
Canterbury Road Secondary School in 1957, formerly
Surrey County Council No 2 Central Boys’ School, Morden,
reproduced by courtesy of W J Rudd
I cannot argue against technology itself, although I find it bewildering now that I am an old man. Science
and technology have enabled me to live into my old age; without it the medicines would not have been
available for keeping me alive. I would have had to write this in longhand and with literally hundreds of
corrections and alterations made over the whole thing I would have found it almost impossible, although
the first draft was written in longhand and the whole thing typed for me by a friend and neighbour, to whom
I owe a debt of gratitude. I know that everything in our lives relies on technology and that computers
control our lives but I don’t have to like every aspect of where technology has led us. I believe that as
time goes by, more and more of the elderly will feel at odds with their surroundings.
I joined the ‘Lifeboys’ when I was about nine years old and got kitted out in a navy blue pullover with
a badge, and a sailor’s hat. The Lifeboys were to the Boys Brigade what the Cubs are to the Scouts,
and with similar ideals. I remember going on a week’s camping trip with them to Farningham in Kent
which, then, was right out in the country. We slept in a barn which was a great novelty for us. I remember
also, some talk of one of the adult leaders becoming over friendly with one of the boys. I don’t think the
police were involved, but it ruffled a few feathers. So there were a few of those types about in those days.
It is a very different world now,
from the one in which I grew up. In
my very young days the horse and
cart was the main commercial
vehicle delivering most household
requirements like bread, milk, coal
etc. It was fascinating when the
deliveryman stopped the horse
and cart by the roadside to have
his lunch break. He would put the
feed nosebag on the horse, fixing
it over its head by the straps
provided. Every now and then the
horse would blow down into it to
get rid of the husks, and
occasionally would bring its head
down until the nosebag reached
the ground, enabling it to push its
mouth deeper into the bag to get
more oats. A bucket of water was also obtained, from one or other of the customers, for the horse to
drink from, but the thing which I found both fascinating and entertaining was when the coalman’s horse,
a huge Clydesdale, urinated. An enormous pink extension came down from the penis releasing a
tremendous gushing stream, creating a cloud of steam and a great yellow pool in the road. I suppose I
was around six years old when I first saw this, which I think gave me one of the vivid impressions of those
early days. You don’t get entertainment like that from delivery lorries.
One of the first things to be delivered by lorry was fish and on the lorry were huge blocks of ice intended
to keep the fish fresh, but I don’t know how successful this was. We children used to sometimes find
a piece of ice which had broken off the block to lick. I shudder now just to think of it.
My mother preferred to go to the shops for most of our foodstuffs like meat, fish and groceries, and with
no supermarkets it meant going from shop to shop for each separate commodity. And where we lived
it entailed a fifteen minute walk before reaching the shops; hardly anyone had a car, and we lived a long
way away from a bus stop, so shanks’s pony it had to be. This was fine while she was reasonably young,
but as she grew older and became afflicted with arthritis, it was a painful experience for her. I was always
Horse and cart outside St Helier Station in 1969,
reproduced by courtesy of W J Rudd
to be there, it was drawn off by a hypodermic needle being inserted at the base of the ribs. There was
also the tomogram, an X-ray which gave an added dimension enabling the doctor to look deeper into
the lung and see particular parts of the lung. Another of the treatments for certain patients was the posture
bed. Why they called it that I couldn’t understand, but I checked with the dictionary, which gave the
definition as ‘a position or attitude of the limbs or body’. I suppose as a description of a posture bed it
is perfectly adequate, much easier than the full description which is ‘putting blocks under the legs at the
foot of the bed so that it sloped down towards the patient’s head’. This treatment was used in much the
same way, I suppose, as the air inductions, and was given to rest the lung and assist in the closure of any
cavity that there was in the lung. On the subject of treatments there was another one called plombage,
at least I think that is how it is spelt. It involved filling the pleural cavity with plastic balls; which was how
it was described to me. I only knew of one person who had this operation and that was my good friend
Fred Dellow. I believe the operation was quite a serious one.
The doctors came round the ward from time to time to see how we were and to let us know of our
progress or any treatment we might need. Unlike wards in hospitals today, where patients with different
complaints have different doctors come to see them, with all of us having the same complaint they would
visit every patient, where we would hope to hear of our improvement and whether our cavities where
getting smaller or not. As the doctor left each patient we would indicate with thumb and forefinger the
size of the hole in our lung. After he left Pat, he would hold up both hands with the thumbs and forefingers
touching indicating a hole nearly the size of his lung, there were grins all round but where doctors were
concerned we contained our amusement. On another occasion Pat asked whether he would be able to
play the violin when he left hospital, the doctor assured him that he would, whereupon Pat, using the old
chestnut said, ‘That’s good, as I couldn’t play it before I came in’. This time we really did laugh, much
to the doctor’s embarrassment.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is visiting hours. These were Wednesdays and Sundays 2-4pm and,
I believe evenings 7-8pm. My mother usually came on the afternoon visits but I was rarely visited in the
evening. I wasn’t too worried about this, as receiving visitors and having to converse for an hour in the
evening was a pretty tiring business when you just wanted to relax. My mother, when she came, always
brought me a pot of fresh single cream, which I proceeded to eat with a spoon. This probably raised my
cholesterol level quite a bit, but we knew nothing of that in 1952. Of course we were allowed to eat as
much as we wanted so as to build our strength and put on weight after the weight loss we suffered as
part of the disease.
I remember in the early days of my treatment I was beginning to get a lot of stomach pains, and, thinking
I might have an ulcer, I was put on a milk diet, occasionally with a raw egg mixed in. I was fairly happy
with that as I could drink any amount of milk. I used to look forward to the milk we had in school at midmorning
and if anyone couldn’t drink theirs I would help them out by drinking it for them. I believe it was
a psychological hang up from my mother, keeping me on the breast so long as a baby, a quite old baby
so I’m told. I have said many times that nowadays, when I see a woman who is very attractive in that
department, I don’t see it as a sex thing, in fact what I feel is hunger; no one believes me though! Anyway,
tests proved I hadn’t got a stomach ulcer but there was evidence of scarring. This surprised me, as I
couldn’t recall having stomach pains in the past. I think that the pain I was getting was the start of my
irritable bowel syndrome, which is just a nuisance thing really, which flares up and gives me a bit of pain
now and then.
We used to have a problem with the afternoon visits; with visiting times being 2-4 in the afternoon it
followed rest hour from 1-2 pm and didn’t always give time for urine bottles to be given to bed patients.
In the early days, when our group of long servers were all bed patients, we got pretty desperate by four
o’clock. Bottles were duly filled which became something of a competition. We would hold our bottles
One day when we were about to have our meal, no cutlery had been put out for Fred to eat with. He
called out, ‘Nurse, can I have a fork ‘n’ knife’ deliberately slurring the conjunction. Eyebrows were
raised at this, but knife and fork were brought without comment. On another occasion when an Irish nurse
had served us and we had eaten our dessert, she called out, ‘anybody want seconds’. When we said
we had had seconds, she said in a strong Irish accent, ‘yas can have tirds’. We declined, no one had
an appetite forturds.
At one o’clock it was rest hour, as if we hadn’t had enough rest. This was an hour in which we were to
do absolutely nothing, no reading, no listening to the radio or talking, nothing but close our eyes and sleep
if possible. It was a rule, strictly observed, in all sanatoria everywhere.
The afternoons could be pretty boring; reading was the biggest pastime but there were other diversions
that were provided by the occupational therapist. During my stay I made items of jewellery – brooches
and things; I also did basketwork and even a bit of embroidery.
An amusing diversion was the bed bath. With screens round the bed, a nurse would wash the upper body,
legs and feet, while a blanket was covering the abdominal area. She would then give you the flannel
saying, ‘You can do the naughty bits yourself’. This was rather disappointing, but perhaps it was for the
best. It might set us back in our treatment. Often during the bath other patients would throw grapes over
the screens at an unseen naked target which added to the fun.
The beds were made and sheets were changed frequently, which was another diversion. Whilst the beds
were being made we would sit in a chair beside the bed and have a chat with the nurses, which wasn’t
always possible when they were busy with their routine tasks. Bed-making would be carried out in the
afternoon, which brightened up the most boring part of the day.
As I have mentioned previously, there were many treatments in addition to the drugs. In my case it was
Artificial Pneumothorax, AP for short. This was to rest the lung by inducing air between the lung and the
chest wall; it had the effect of collapsing the lung, in my case the left lung, and was carried out by my lying
on the opposite side to the affected one with my arm raised and my hand touching my head. A large
hypodermic needle with a rubber tube attached was inserted between the ribs. The tube was attached
to a large glass container linked to another container, which held an amber-coloured liquid. I don’t know
the technicalities of it, but somehow the liquid displaced air, forcing it into the pleural cavity. It was fairly
painless, but left me with about 500cc of air inside me. It was, as I have said, pretty painless, but gave
me a funny sort of fluttery feeling in my chest, especially when I moved about. I was topped up
periodically as the air was being lost, leaked somewhere, I don’t know how. This treatment was
discontinued after a month or so; it was never very successful. Apparently it was carried out as early as
the first quarter of the 20thcentury and carried on right until the early fifties. I reckon I might have been
one of the last people to have artificial pneumothorax. It would be interesting to find out when it was finally
Another treatment being used in this way was pneumoperitoneum, which was induced with the same
equipment, but the air was forced into the peritoneum. I don’t know how successful this was but it had
some alarming side effects as the air often took a wrong route and caused the testicles to swell up. I am
glad I didn’t have the PP, as it was known.
We would have chest X-rays every six weeks and occasionally screening, which entailed standing in front
of a type of X-ray screen, while the doctor, wearing a protective apron, was on the opposite side
watching a live image of the lung. I think I must have received quite a bit of radiation during my time there.
The doctor, after studying the image, would ask the patient to sniff to see the effect it had on the lung.
I think the main reason for this was to see if there was any fluid present, which would show up as a ripple
on the screen. This fluid looked the colour of the amber liquid used to induce the air. If fluid was found
prepared to go on errands to
the local shop for any occasional
extra item. I don’t think she
trusted me to go for the main
shopping. I recall an occasion
when my mother asked me to
go and get a tin of salmon when
unexpected guests had arrived.
I cycled to the shop on my
junior bicycle, propped it
against the shop, purchased the
item required and walked home
leaving the bike at the shop. I
don’t worry too much about
my forgetfulness today as it has
always been a problem with
I must admit that life today is considerably better for adults as far as shopping is concerned, especially
for the sick and infirm with the mobile buggies, which for some reason they call scooters. I had a motor
scooter in the fifties and it had only two wheels.
There were some unusual tradesmen in the early thirties. One was a seller of cats’ meat, usually slices
of meat, which looked like beef but could have been anything, probably horsemeat. He sold this from
his horse-drawn cart, which called once a week. We also had ‘the Indians’. They were probably Sikhs,
as they wore turbans, and they called door-to-door, with suitcases filled with silks and satins and things,
a sort of haberdashery and lingerie salesman. These were the only dark-skinned people we had ever
seen, and we didn’t see those very often.
The most unusual salesman was the peanut vendor. He walked around the streets with a tray suspended
by a strap around his neck. He usually came to us on Sunday mornings, when he would stand on the
corner of Abbotsbury Road and Central Road, and call out, in a very loud voice which carried down
each road, ‘Peanuuuuts’, and would add without a break, ‘Allfreshroastedpennyabag’. Our next-door
neighbours had a dog called Joff, quite a clever dog. He had a pocket fixed to his collar into which our
neighbours put a penny and sent him off to get the peanuts. It meant crossing the road and about an eighty-
yard trot each way. Luckily
traffic was light then, and Joff,
each Sunday, successfully
accomplished his mission and
came back with a bag of peanuts
in his mouth. I don’t know how
the dog was trained for this. I
don’t think dogs like peanuts;
anyway these were in shells so
he wouldn’t want to eat those.
Central Road in 1935, looking
towards the shops in Hazelwood
Parade, reproduced by courtesy
of Merton Library & Heritage
Shops in London Road, Morden, in 1971,
reproduced by courtesy of W J Rudd
I didn’t give it a thought at the time, but with 240 old pence to the pound, I’m wondering now just how
many bags of nuts he would have had to sell to make a living.
I ‘ve mentioned the absence of computers, televisions, mobile phones, etc but there are many other things
we didn’t have that are taken for granted today, such as DVD players; video players; compact disc
players; even vinyl records – long and extended play. In fact in those very early days some folk still had
wind-up gramophones. There were no household phones (except for the well-off and professional
people – doctors, etc), and there were no tape recorders. I recall buying one when they first came out,
a Grundig reel-to-reel, in about 1954. There were no refrigerators or freezers but, since these things
weren’t common in Britain, they were not missed. On reflection, I think of all these things a refrigerator
would have benefited us most, as foodstuff had a very short life in our larders, cool though ours was on
the north-facing side of the house. As for freezers, they would have been a real boon to my poor mother
making those long painful journeys to the shops each day.
There was no pre-packaging of goods; during those early days of the thirties nothing was pre-packaged.
The butter was cut from a keg, weighed, patted into shape with wooden butter pats and wrapped;
cheese, and I don’t remember anything other than cheddar, was cut from a large block; dried peas and
haricot beans, split peas and lentils were scooped from large sacks and put into thick grey paper bags;
sugar was dealt with in the same way; bacon was sliced from the cut-in-half carcase; ham was sliced on
the bone, and tea was scooped from foil-lined tea chests. There were some tinned foods available; but
not many. I can only recall sardines, salmon, processed peas and pineapple cubes in syrup which was
my favourite dessert. I think there were probably a few more tinned items but I cannot recall them at
Our cleaning materials in the kitchen were Sunlight soap, washing-soda-crystals and soap flakes. One
other item, which many older people will remember, was the Reckitt’s blue bag, which was a little circular
block of a blue substance, about one inch in diameter, wrapped in a piece of linen and tied at the top.
It gave a blue colour to the water when washing white items, apparently to maintain, and probably
improve, the whiteness. I don’t know how it did it, but it was used by my mother and seemed to work.
One thing I looked forward to was the Saturday morning children’s film show at the local cinema.
Sometimes, we would go armed with our peashooters, which we used to blow split peas at kids a few
rows in front of us. How we all enjoyed those Saturday morning films, usually a double bill, firstlyFlash
Gordon, the heroic spaceman, and in view of the time it was made, when so little was known about space
travel, it was about as fictitious as it could possibly be, but we enjoyed it. Space travel was not known
then, so everything seemed so
real to us. It always left off at a
cliff-hanger situation, which
meant having to go the following
week to find out what
happened. In the interval the
organ played for a singsong,
the words of which came up on
the screen. One song was their
own jingle and I’ve forgotten
most of the words, but I
remember the bit I was meant
to remember, which was
‘Every Saturday morning at the
O-de-on’. I have many
memories of the Odeon,
The Odeon cinema, Morden, in 1930,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
There were some rather unnerving moments, like when someone died. We had a patient who came in,
walking, and saying hello as he walked past each bed; he was put in a room at the end of the ward. The
next morning he was being wheeled out dead. I think he must have had a heart attack. A silence came
over us all for some time, until Pat said, ‘Leaving so soon, he couldn’t have liked it here’. That broke
the sombre mood and we all started laughing. Sometimes our laughter would have a touch of hysteria
to it; whistling in the dark is a saying that comes to mind. I’m sure there would have been tears if it had
been one of our long servers.
We had all become pretty emotional during our time there. I remember a time, some months after my
arrival, when one of our lads was leaving, whether he was going home cured, or moving to another
sanatorium, I’m not sure; nor am I sure who it was but it could have been Fred. All I know is, that the
rest of us were in tears, weeping openly as he walked round the ward, shaking hands, and giving hugs
here and there, and sometimes a kiss on the forehead.
We were like a family, and one of the members was leaving us; but we were pleased for him, knowing
he was on the mend. There may have also been a touch of self-pity there that it wasn’t ourselves.
I have already mentioned how our day began, temperature, pulse and Pas, which I think was at about
6.30.Blood pressure was never taken, perhaps the taking of blood pressure was not known then. Urine
bottles were given out, followed by wash basins, to the bed patients. The patients who were allowed
to get up were left to wash themselves in the bathroom. Patients were allowed up for various amounts
of time once the drugs had taken effect. This was if the patient had a negative TB reading over a period
of time, and provided that he was strong enough. Half an hour or so after washing we would have
breakfast which was pretty good, in fact the food in general wasn’t bad, certainly far better than anything
I’ve had in hospitals in recent years , which I suppose isn’t saying a great deal, but the food at Waddon
When breakfast was done with and we were settled down, came treatment time, which was always
streptomycin in the bum, all round. By that I mean to everyone, and in no way was it a description of
the bum, which is of course usually round, excepting in the most chronic and severe cases where the
patient became badly emaciated. We had one such patient at Waddon, possibly in his mid-fifties, who
must have had TB long before the modern drugs came along. He was obviously dying and was in a bed
at the end of the ward nearest the sister’s office. It was terrible to see him lying there wasting away, pale
except for a small bright red spot on each cheek. He died after I had been there a few weeks; we were
saddened by this and there was little laughter in the ward that day.
Mid-morning, there was matron’s round. Beds were all shipshape and tucked in tidily, patients weren’t
exactly told to lie to attention, but it was a pretty disciplined regime and the floor was spotless!
The matron was all-powerful and the nurses were in awe of her, but the patients quite enjoyed her daily
visits and looked forward to them. I recall one occasion when she asked me how old I was. When I told
her she said I was lucky to get the disease at twenty-five; I said I would rather I caught it at ninety-five,
which amused her slightly. I think she probably meant that it would be harder to treat in someone much
older, but I will never know for sure. We had the rest of the morning to ourselves to read or chat, which
took us up to the midday meal, the main one of the day. The nurses brought the food to us, unlike the
present day, where domestic staff do this job. This could have been because it was an isolation ward
and domestic staff would be exposed to the disease. The nurses did practically everything except wash
floors. Getting back to food, I had found that the main midday meals, although good, had got a bit boring
and I told matron on one of her rounds that I was a bit fed up with getting swede so often and could we
have cabbage sometimes. The next day when she came round she greeted me with, ‘Hello my little
Being in hospital is not much fun, but being a long-term patient, can, in a way, be rewarding; you get to
know people intimately, you share the highs and the lows of their emotions, you laugh with them and cry
There was Fred, a chartered accountant, a dry wit and really nice bloke, full of witticisms and sayings,
gathered from his northern (Manchester) origins. There was Pat, an Irishman with a great sense of
humour. A priest would come and visit him once a week, screens round the bed, candles lit, the full
treatment. He would take Pat’s bet on the horses when he left, although I doubt if he himself would take
it to the bookmaker. Catholic priest and bookie’s runner he was, but I suppose what he was doing was
a Christian act of sorts. Then there was Michael, poor Michael, another Irishman who was about 35,
poor Michael, in a sense that he was somewhat lacking in sense. He was definitely not quite complete
up top. Michael would make some utterance and Fred would say mocking Michael’s accent, ‘Michael,
what did you say before you spoke?’ Michael would look bewildered and just grunt. On one occasion
my mother had brought me in some grapes, and with Michael not getting many visitors and rarely having
anything brought in, she gave him some; he held up the part bunch and called out, ‘Anybody want a
tomato?’ One of the things we were told not to do was to raise our arms high above our heads to avoid
stretching, which might put a strain on the lungs. Michael would, from time to time, reach up and swing
on a rail which ran round the beds; we would all wince when he did this.
There was also an old merchant sailor in the ward; I think his name was Ernie. He didn’t have a great
deal to say but joined in the general banter and could usually see the funny side of things.
There were also others whose names I can’t remember and who didn’t have such a lengthy stay. There
was a pretty disagreeable fellow who didn’t join in the fun and games; he would regularly play his radio
loudly. The wards weren’t wired up with the radio relay system for headphone listening in those days.
He was in a bed opposite mine and something of a pest. Once when Grace came for our nightly session,
he started making lip-smacking kissing noises. This made her very angry, and she called (loud enough
to wake the rest of the ward), ‘Shut up and go to sleep’. Somebody, and I think it was the same man,
won some money on the football pools and gave £25 to each of us. I thought ‘What a nice man!’
The saddest case in the ward was a Down’s Syndrome boy of about eight years old. The nurses told
us that he had the mental age of a three-year-old and that he would probably not live beyond his teens,
but we had no way of confirming this, or knowing where they got the information from. There are many
people with Down’s Syndrome today living into middle age, but perhaps that is due to the modern drugs.
Our boy, whose name was Leslie, had a room to himself in the area at the end of the ward, close by the
sister’s room, but during the day the nurses brought him into the ward where he would sit on one or other
of our beds. We would all try to teach him something, but his concentration span was pretty short. He
could say all our names, after a fashion. Fred would say, ‘Leslie, call the roll’, and he would point to each
one of us in turn saying our names, with some variations of his own. He could say a few phrases like,
‘mummy or daddy come today’ or ‘Leslie likes this or that’. What Leslie hated was the daily streptomycin
injections. These were given in his room, but we would hear him scream and continue to sob for some
time afterwards. The strep injections could be pretty painful. We felt so sorry for him. On top of his other
problems his parents were separated, and though his father came to visit him after work, his mother rarely
visited him. We used to have little arguments with him, when he said, ‘Mummy come today’ we would
say, ‘Nah, Mummy come tomorrow’. In fact it would be many tomorrows before mummy came. His
father, on the other hand, was very good to him and visited him at least once a week, usually bringing
him something nice each time. I wonder what happened to Leslie when he was cured of his TB. I doubt
whether he could have gone home, certainly not to his mother, and his father couldn’t leave his job to
look after him. There wasn’t the care and assistance for children like Leslie that there is today. He would
probably go into some sort of institution, but what kind, I wonder?
Morden, which I shall come back to later. The main feature film was always a cowboy. My favourite
cowboy was Buck Jones. There was also Ken Maynard, Tim McCoy, Tom Mix and the ones with a
more lasting appeal, like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. These films were incredibly popular, and
we became so engrossed in the cowboy films, that we became cowboys and would gallop on our
imaginary horses all the way home from the cinema. The popularity of guns among children was at its
height at that time; those without guns would point two fingers at their enemy and shout ‘Daa’ which
represented the sound of their gun. Most of us had these guns, which could be loaded with caps on a
reel, which made a crack sound when the trigger released the firing pin (it was a bit like the sound of a
Christmas cracker being pulled).
There was no outcry about children being encouraged to use guns. Everyone knew they were toys and
accepted them as such. I keep saying this, but the world was such a different place then. Make believe
was so different then, before the somewhat sinisterLord Of The Rings. And even the Harry Potter
stories would probably not have been understood at that time. We played cowboys and Indians a lot
in those days. I had a rather unfortunate experience in one game of goody and baddy cowboys, when
I was shot and did a wonderful dying act and slumped to the ground right in a packet of newly produced
dog mess, which either goes to show how absorbed in the game I was, or how stupid I was not to notice
the mess in the first place. My mother wasn’t too pleased as she helped to clean me up.
Vandalism was, to the best of my knowledge, unknown. We weren’t angels but we were not villains.
We did the usual things children did in those days, such as knocking at doors and running away, and
scrumping. I remember on one occasion we were scrumping in an orchard when a police constable
happened to come along. After the preliminary admonishment he selected the youngest among us, and
producing his notebook asked him his name. When he said Ronald Cheek – I don’t know how many
ways it could have been spelt – but the copper wasn’t sure and asked him to spell it. He began ‘r o n
a l… …’ in a childish phonetic fashion, whereupon we all began to chuckle. With that he put his notebook
away, told us to clear off and not let him catch us scrumping again. Obviously we would try not to let
him catch us again. Scrumping was more of a sport than just stealing apples; the apples were mostly
under-ripe, and, more often than not, gave us a bellyache.
There was a pond, a very mucky pond, slimy, covered with duckweed, and very smelly, where we used
to go to catch newts. It was amongst trees in the approaches to Peacock Farm, a farm which was being
closed down when our estate was being built and now ceased to exist as a farm, although we still called
it Peacock Farm for long afterwards. The pond, known to us as the ‘Stink Pond’ for very obvious
reasons, had on the water’s edge, railway sleepers, which someone unknown had somehow joined
together to make a raft. The
sleepers were very heavy and
partially waterlogged, which
meant that they floated, but
several inches below the
surface, so it meant taking our
shoes and socks off before
getting on this slippery, rather
unstable raft. I think it was
capable of carrying two, but
I’m not sure, it was a long time
ago. Once aboard we punted it
out from the bank ( there were
always sticks to be found for
Peacock Farm, Lower Morden Lane, (now a garden centre), in the 1950s,
this purpose ) and when we got reproduced by courtesy of W J Rudd
a little way out we got down on our knees (it was a good job it was in the days before long trousers),
cleared a space in the duckweed and waited. When a newt came near to the surface, we would make
a quick grab, catch it in the hand and pop it in a jar; this kind of fishing rarely failed. I remember proudly
taking my newts home to show my mother, but she was unimpressed, and just a bit hostile. I think the
rather filthy state I was in had something to do with this. Now whether they got out of the jar which I had
left in the garden overnight, I couldn’t be sure, but, knowing the reception they received when I brought
them home, I had my suspicions…
Harry, one of the lads, had obtained a plan of how to build a kayak canoe, and a couple of us lent a hand.
We managed to get all the parts together and assembled the frame. Then we prepared to cover it with
what appeared to be tarpaulin, but I couldn’t be certain of that. The plan was for a single canoe but we
thought we would have more fun with a double one so we increased the length. This was a mistake; I
think we should have proportionally increased the width. However we managed, I don’t know how, to
take it to Ravensbury Park, which was almost a mile away, through which ran the river Wandle. I believe
it is a small tributary of the Thames. The boat was launched and two of the lads got into it; I was not too
keen as it seemed a bit suspect. They managed to paddle out to the middle and it began to roll from side
to side giving rise to some alarm as it looked like keeling over. At that moment the park keeper appeared.
He started calling ‘Boating is not allowed, come on, out you come’. By then the two crew members were
trying desperately to do just that. They managed to get back before it keeled over. It was a quite ludicrous
situation; very funny for those not in the boat. We subsequently fitted a keel to try to stabilise it but it still
behaved in the same way. I think that finally Harry set fire to it in his back garden.
No children in those days, at least no one I knew, was given pocket money, but we had ways of making
money, what little we needed; there wasn’t a lot to spend it on. If there was something big like a bicycle
for instance, or perhaps a pair of roller skates, they would be bought for us at Christmas, or on birthdays,
if we were very lucky. I did get a few small toys bought for me from time to time. We made our own
pocket money. Some children would help the baker or the milkman on the delivery carts. I helped on
the milk round a few times but not on a regular basis. Our money-making schemes usually followed the
seasons. In the spring and summer things were pretty quiet as far as money-making was concerned; in
any case we were far too busy at play during those months of endless fine sunny days. It’s funny how
we don’t seem to remember the rainy days.
One way we found to make a little money was by selling horse manure. With horses doing so many of
the deliveries there was usually some to be found, so with a shovel and bucket we would go in search
of shite, which would be sold door to door. But it was never a very profitable venture.
With the arrival of autumn and through the winter it was firewood, which was a much better proposition,
and it was fun collecting, chopping and bundling it. We would go to the yards behind the shops collecting
empty wooden boxes. The shops allowed us to take them; they were to be disposed of. The boxes were
usually made of wood, unlike the cardboard boxes used for foodstuffs today. Greengrocers, grocers and
fishmongers were our source of supply, with greengrocers our favourite and fishmongers as a last resort;
phew! There was a field in our street where we played in our younger days. It was sort of derelict and
had a fence on the side facing the street; it had been damaged over the years, and was never an attractive
fence. It had a framework of heavy posts with cross timbers to which were attached wooden slats, many
of which were missing, and these slats looked ideal for firewood, so we chopped them down. I suppose
this was an act of vandalism, which I think we regretted afterwards. At least it wasn’t wanton destruction,
randomly destroying or defacing something for the sake of it. It was a commercial venture for us, the fence
being a saleable commodity! There were no protests by local residents; as I have suggested, it wasn’t
a pretty fence. When the war came a communal air raid shelter was built in the field, and then, much later,
a block of flats.
It is difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced it, to understand the state of mind of a person of that
age, and always active, to be struck down with this horrible disease and shut away for God knows how
long. It became something of a mental thing as well as a physical one. It was after a couple of months
that I cracked up. I was told I needed a small operation to check whether I had adhesions – this is where
the lung sticks to the chest wall or something like that. I felt very nervous about it. With nothing to do
but lie in bed and think about it I began to worry; my anxiety was beginning to show itself. I was becoming
irritable and withdrawn, I didn’t care if anyone visited me or not. Grace looked in to see me whilst she
was off duty and I didn’t want to know; I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. I was not very nice to know.
That was the end of a rather unusual affair, and so ended my ‘Days – or rather nights – of Grace’.
As it turned out the adhesions investigation showed I had no adhesions and it was not the terrifying
experience I had expected. When I got back to my normal self I didn’t try to contact Grace again, I
suppose I was too ashamed and embarrassed at my behaviour.
I now settled down to the long haul of hospitalisation. I began to read books, a thing I had seldom done
before. In addition to the novels of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Nevil Shute and Somerset Maugham, which
were my particular favourites at that time, I started to read poetry and one poet who particularly appealed
to me was Alexander Pope. One of the nurses seeing me reading him one day said, ‘He’s alright but don’t
you think he is a bit too epigrammatic.’ I said that I agreed with her without knowing then, quite what
‘epigrammatic’ meant. Whatever one thought of Pope, like the nurse who seemed to write him off for
being epigrammatic, there was much wisdom in what he wrote. That and his wit appealed to me. We
have many sayings today which are quotes, sometimes misquotes, attributed to Alexander Pope. He was
a satirist who mocked the aristocrats and nobles of his time, not in some flippant and frivolous way, but
incisively. I recently bought a book of his poems from a charity shop. In it there was an introduction with
a brief account of his life. He was a brilliant scholar who had studied all the Greek and Roman poets.
He spent 11 years translating the Iliad and Odyssey. I also found out that he was dwarfish and
hunchbacked, thought to have been due to a tubercular ailment of the spine. It seems that we had
something in common, the TB, not the hunched back and dwarfishness. I think his deformity added a
biting edge to some of his work especially when writing about women.
I read many other poets, as well as humorous nonsense verse, limericks and clerihews, during my lengthy
hospitalisation. I even wrote a little rhyme about our medication;–
There’s nothing nycin
And no one has
A taste for Pas
My brother brought me in a complete Shakespeare which I had asked for. He also brought me a Concise
Oxford English Dictionary. The first thing I looked up was the meaning of ‘epigrammatic’. I read books
on Buddhism, but never got round to the Bible. The nearest I got to the Christian religion was in the books
of Lloyd Douglas, such as The Robe and The Big Fisherman.
I was beginning to change my way of looking at things, in a way which had never occurred to me before.
I had a strong desire to learn as much as I could about everything under the sun. I was becoming more
articulate. I don’t think anyone who has known me in the later years of my life would believe how shy
and diffident I was in those early days, although I am still rather shy when speaking in front of a large group
This was my metamorphosis, I would change from an ignorant sheet metal worker into a much more
enlightened ex sheet metal worker, and although in the months to come much of my enthusiasm would
be blunted, change I did, and, I believe, change for the better. I think my education began from then on
and all because of TB. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good!
An important part of a TB patient’s equipment was the sputum mug, which was made of stainless steel
with a hinged lid, and a thumb tab which one depressed to open. I quickly got used to the coughing and
spitting that went on; I coughed and spat along with the rest. This lessened as the drugs began to take
effect. There were a number of treatments other than drugs; these were designed to treat each individual,
depending on the position and severity of the cavitations; more about this later.
It was probably during my second week that Grace was on night duty. One of the nurse’s duties was
to walk round the ward with a torch, long after lights out, to check that everyone was sleeping soundly
and not requiring tablets or urine bottles etc. Being new to the game I was wide awake as it was still a
strange bed and I was never used to turning in at ten o’clock. Grace stopped by the bed, and asked if
I needed any tablets. I said that perhaps I would like something to help me sleep, and we then had a
Each subsequent night she would stop and chat some more. Eventually she would sit on the bed, and
later still we would have a cuddle, naturally no kissing, as I was still very contagious. When she went on
day duty I didn’t see much of her, and sitting on beds would be well out of order.
Back on nights, and the chats and cuddles would go on, and by now I was getting used to the ward routine
and I found that one night I was really tired and asked Grace to wake me up if I was asleep when she
came round. She said she couldn’t do that; I suppose it did seem wrong for a nurse to wake a sick patient
for a cuddle. Anyway, I was anxious not to go to sleep and rubbed my face and neck, and even flicked
water from my jug over my face, but to no avail and I slept soundly until morning.
I was wakened on this particular morning with Grace teasingly placing a thermometer between my lips
and saying ‘sleepyhead’. I wasn’t too pleased, but I did see the funny side, and so did she when I told
her about my vain attempts to stay awake. Anyway there would be other nights for chats and cuddles.
It was, in a way, a weirdly intimate sort of relationship we had, where she would have to bring me urine
bottles, and possibly bedpans, although I think I would avoid the bedpan situation arising where she was
concerned, and I can’t recall any occasion when this happened. There was a time when I was undergoing
a liquid intake and output test, and as I handed her a bottle I had just used, I said eight ounces. She came
straight back after measuring it, and said seven. I said it seemed like eight and it wasn’t a bad guess. My
bodily functions were known to her, but not the particular one I would have liked her to know about.
When Grace finished her stint on the ward, she delegated her friend to look after me, not in the same
way of course. One night, a patient was very ill in a bed across the ward from me. Screens were round
his bed and I think he was dying. This unnerved me somewhat; we weren’t supposed to die; we were
all being cured. I remember Grace’s friend happened to be beside my bed, looking after me, no doubt
as Grace had requested, and I remember clutching her hand, but it was in anxiety rather than affection.
Grace and I carried on a correspondence, with her friend playing postman. We wrote very affectionate
letters, full of hope for the future and how we would go out together when I was well again. As it turned
out, I doubt whether she would have waited the almost year and a half which my hospitalisation lasted.
I don’t know how long the correspondence lasted but I know I received and wrote several letters. I
would get annoyed when she wrote about the dances she had been to and the things she had done, and
said that I would rather she didn’t tell me about these things. I was envious and rather bitter; I had no
objection to her doing any of these things, and I had no right to have any objections, but I just did not
want to know about them. Anyway our correspondence went on in the same optimistic manner. My
letters were mostly about happenings in the ward, but sometimes I would write about my life before TB
and general background, my family and so forth, but always how much I looked forward to going out
with her once I was cured.
With the coming of November the fifth, it was penny for the Guy. Penny was the ‘spiel’ to approach the
potential contributors, but if a penny was all they gave, it wouldn’t be worth standing out in the cold for
two or more hours. I had a good pitch by a floodlit advertising hoarding where I would go with my Guy,
dressed in old clothes sitting in my barrow with his penny pressed-cardboard facemask painted to look
suitably evil. I made quite a nice sum in threepences, sixpences, and even the occasional shilling. The
money was ostensibly for buying fireworks, but sweets, comics and various small toys were also funded
by this money.
The term guy is nowadays used for anyone, male mostly, but sometimes, if in a group, both sexes; guys.
But we already have perfectly good words in chap, fellow, and bloke; there was even man in the case
of the male, although there doesn’t appear to be much diversity for the female. Another thing I will never
use is the greeting ‘Hi’. It is usage, I suppose, so I’d better get used to it, but the guy thing I could never
get used to using. It seems a sloppy and bland word, whereas chap, fellow, and bloke lend a shade of
meaning to the type of person. Call me a dinosaur, but that’s how I feel.
To continue with my story, penny for the Guy (Guy Fawkes) would be followed, with the approach of
Christmas, by carol singing. It was not a very profitable exercise, the money collected being divided
between four or five of us, but it was great fun singing a few words of a carol then knocking on the door.
We continued singing until the door was opened, and with some trepidation if we heard a dog bark; we
were never sure what was going to happen. People would sometimes ask who we were collecting for,
and to our credit, we never used a church name, nor any charity, but on the other hand we didn’t like
to just say ourselves. We remained tight-lipped until pressed on the matter, and hoped they would give
us something anyway. But I remember one occasion in the early days of the war, when people were
collecting for things to help the war effort, and we were asked who we were collecting for, one idiot said
in a very unconvincing way, ‘For the – er – Spitfire Fund – like – if necessary’. The ‘if necessary’ did
it; we just exploded with laughter and had a job to control our giggles at the next house whose occupants
would have the pleasure of hearing our beautiful singing.
There was one other money-making activity which depended on the weather; this was snow clearing.
It’s a fact, I’m sure, that we had more snow in the thirties and forties than we have today. We would
clear the snow from the front door to the gate, and the pavement around the gate, and we relied on the
generosity of the householder to give us any money, and our parents’ goodwill to provide us with shovels
Our money-making schemes make it seem as if all our time was spent looking for ways to make money.
This certainly was not the case; play was always paramount. We would cycle for miles out into the Surrey
countryside on our junior size bikes. Box Hill was a particular favourite of ours, Wisley another, where
we would go to swim in the lake. We had a lot of fun there, and I remember on one occasion we went
diving to the bottom to gather mussels, and I can recall taking some home. I didn’t know that they were
inedible but my parents put me right on that in no uncertain manner. I think the lake is privately owned
now; perhaps it always was. Wisley is now the site of the Royal Horticultural Society Gardens, and I
have been there fairly recently but I saw no sign of the lake.
If, on our travels, we became very thirsty we would knock on the door of a house and politely ask if we
could have a drink of water; we were never refused. The lady of the house had no fear of us causing
trouble; that was how it was then. Nowadays the householder would probably, and with good reason,
slam the door in our faces. I used the term lady of the house, because in those days very few women
went out to work; the men were usually the sole breadwinners.
There was roller skating, playing skipping and other games with the girls, or playing some extremely rough
game ( boys only) which would have horrified the ‘over-protection of children from anything enjoyable’
brigade of today. One game in particular, which was a very rough game indeed, was ‘Hi Jimmy
Knacker’. How it got that name I have no idea. The game was between two teams of four or five lads
depending on how many could be got together at any one time. It was arranged, as were all our games,
spontaneously, no organisation was needed. The game entailed one team, the defenders I suppose, with
an anchor man gripping railings, or some other fixed object, and the rest of his team in a sort of rugby
scrum position, one behind the other, each one tightly gripping the person in front so as make a strong
base for what was to come. The other team would, in turn, run up and with a leapfrog action on the last
man, propel themselves as high and as far forward as possible, so as to land heavily on the crouching chain.
This could be to the detriment of the leaper if he landed really badly! Each successive leaper tried to get
as close as possible to the one in front, to try and weaken the chain in one part. If, by some chance the
chain was unbroken for long enough for the cry ‘Hi Jimmy Knacker one two three’ to be called by the
crouching team, they won the point; if the chain collapsed, the other team won. After this the roles were
reversed. There were some stiff necks and shoulders afterwards but we all thoroughly enjoyed the game.
Skateboards hadn’t been invented but we had our roller-skates. Roller-skates have a much greater scope
and can be used to travel quite long distances with ease. Skateboards are used nowadays, and used with
much skill by some exponents, mainly to do stunts. On our skates we used to form a chain and go down
a slope crouched on our haunches, and on other occasions, we would hang on the back of a horse and
cart and later, as more motorised vehicles came along, hang on to a lorry just started up, but we wouldn’t
travel far as it got up speed. The best game of all was to play hockey on skates. For this we used a tennis
ball and an assortment of sticks of incredible variety. It was, like ‘Hi Jimmy Knacker’, a very rough game
with many blows struck on the opponent when tackling for the ball and shin injuries were common from
wild stick-swinging. One silly beggar actually had a tent pole, which was in two parts, joined in the middle
by brass tubing. He took a tremendous swipe causing the lower section to fly off and hit me in the neck.
I had a very painful throat for a few days. It was a good job it wasn’t the pointed end of the pole. It’s
a mystery to me why he decided on a tent pole. It was quite a thin pole, from a very small tent, which put
him at considerable disadvantage when trying to hit the ball. We became very proficient skaters over the
years, which stood us in good stead for ice-skating at Streatham ice rink in our upper teens.
Marbles was another of our games, which children don’t play today. We didn’t play in the orthodox way
which is played by adult teams in the international competitions held annually, where they flick marbles
into a circular pitch and try to knock the opponent’s marbles out. We played it a simple way by rolling
our marble to try and hit an opponent’s marble, which was rolled out in advance. If we missed, he then
rolled his marble to attempt to hit ours. When a hit was made that person won the other’s marble. Our
pitch was mostly the gutter, which assisted the accuracy of the aim.
Another game, played mostly by the girls, was ‘whip and top’. The tops were of a circular wooden stem
with a circular upper section forming a T shape, and the stem was pointed at the base with a metal stud
let in the bottom to aid the spin. The whip was a short stick, through which was passed a leather thong
and each time the top was whipped the spin gained momentum. It required a certain amount of skill, and
I’ve seen a girl keep a top spinning for close on ten minutes.
Hopscotch is still played today but in those early days hopscotch grids of varied shapes and sizes were
to be seen chalked all over the place. I suppose that’s the nearest we came to graffiti but it was just chalk
and was washed away quite quickly. Again this was a girl’s game really; they were so much better at
it. We lads used to try it but we couldn’t compete with the girls.
Then there was skipping, once again a girls’ game, but we used to often join in when two girls turned
a long rope singing a jingle with the words ‘ Vote, Vote, Vote for’ (the boy or girl’s name) to bring them
into the skip and with about three or four jumping the rope they would, one by one be voted out, after
a jingle which ended ‘So we won’t vote for ( child’s name ) any more’. The girls had many amusing
rhymes they chanted in time with their skipping. There were countless games which we played jointly
blood was coming from my lungs. They decided straightaway that I needed immediate hospitalisation
and I was to be taken to Waddon Isolation Hospital, an annexe of the Mayday Hospital.
What about my mother? What about my bicycle? My mother would be worried when I didn’t arrive
home. I was assured that she would be notified. I suppose it must have been by the police (our next door
neighbours had a phone installed, but much later, so it meant that the hospital had no number to call),
and a person unknown returned my bicycle to my home.
I was put straight to bed on my arrival at Waddon. The bleeding had stopped and I was comfortable
although apprehensive. My memory of the next few days is sketchy, but I remember having another
haemorrhage on the first night and I have a vague recollection of a light being switched on, screens put
round the bed and two or more people standing over me, but nothing else. My mother and brother came
to visit me the next morning looking very worried; I would even say that my brother had a grave
expression, which did nothing for my morale.
A few days later a young nurse came and spoke to me, not in a formal nurse to patient manner but a very
friendly one. She asked if I was really twenty-five, she had obviously been reading my notes. When I
confirmed my age she said she thought I looked much younger. I said stupidly that flattery would get her
nowhere. I couldn’t help wondering why she would check up on me; was this being chatted up? This
was my first meeting with Grace.
Grace was a very attractive nurse, somewhat full of figure, but not fat. She had a lovely smile and a kindly
disposition. I was attracted to her from the start; despite my saying flattery would get her nowhere, I did
feel flattered by her initial approach.
Waddon was, as I have said, an isolation annexe of Mayday Hospital and, as far as I was aware, was
exclusively for tuberculosis patients. There were two wards, one male and one female, and at one end
linking the two parallel wards, was the staff area and all the equipment rooms, which was an area common
to both sexes, although both sexes were never allowed in there at the same time. We never got any nearer
to a woman patient than the sixty or so feet that separated the two parallel wards. One would occasionally
glimpse movement or even a wave but the two sexes were kept strictly apart
I believe there were eight of us in the ward, with new arrivals put in either of two rooms at one end of
the ward. The nursing arrangements, as I recall, were a sister in charge plus two nurses on days and one
on nights. I am not certain of this but do know that Grace worked one week of days and one of nights
so I don’t know what happened to the other nurse when not on day duty, perhaps she worked nights
on the female ward. The nursing staff was changed every six weeks; this was presumably to limit the
chances of them becoming infected, or even, perhaps, to stop them getting too friendly with the patients.
The treatment consisted of daily injections of streptomycin, a timely lifesaver for me and for countless
others in the early nineteen fifties. These injections were given in the buttock, it being the fleshiest part
of the anatomy, as the arms and legs could become very thin due to the disease. In addition there was
a daily dose of an awful brown foul-tasting liquid known to us as P.A.S; I have long since forgotten what
the initials stood for.* To us, the treatments were known as Strep and Pas. I was told that Pas worked
by coating a cavity with a calcifying substance to stop any infection spreading and help in the shrinking
of the cavities caused by the TB; the strep was of course to knock the TB bugs out, to put it rather crudely.
Each morning we were wakened to have our temperature, pulse and respiration checked, followed by
the filthy P.A.S stuff, which looked and tasted like cascara, so I was told, as I was never given cascara
for my constipation. My mother used to try to give me syrup of figs, which made me heave. At least I
could take Pas. During my first week I was being washed and partially fed, and for the first six weeks
I was not allowed out of bed, not even to go to the toilet.
* P.A.S. = para-amino-salycilic acid
I must have been ill for some time, I had lost a lot of weight. I was never a heavyweight but now I don’t
believe I weighed much above eight stone, and various signs of being unwell were starting to appear. The
August before my TB showed itself, I had, along with three friends, cycled to Portsmouth, some seventy
miles from where I lived in Morden. From there we caught the ferry to the Isle of Wight where we hoped
to spend the August Bank Holiday weekend. This was early August, unlike the late, near September,
holiday of today. Not having booked accommodation we went from one guest house and bed-and-
breakfast establishment to another, finding every one fully booked, but in any case, I suppose four grubby
cyclists did not look the ideal guests.
Harry was a member of our group, and he remembered that a woman work colleague of his was
holidaying in Sandown, which by some coincidence, was where we were. Harry had never spoken about
this before we set out and strangely enough he knew just where she and her female friend were staying.
Hmm? It was fortunate that he knew, because we thought she might know of somewhere we could stay.
Unfortunately she couldn’t help us, other than to give us the key to their beach hut so that we could sleep
there. This we did and managed to settle down for the night, having put on every garment we could lay
our hands on, even our oilskin capes. I even put my legs through the sleeves of a pullover and wore it
like trousers; we must have been a sight to behold. We had stuffed newspaper in the cracks in the wooden
walls in an attempt to keep out the exceptionally cold wind for the time of year.
We were wakened in the early hours of the morning by the door being opened and a deep voice calling
‘Come on, come on, come on’, and a torch being shone in our faces. That, and the accompanying banging
on the wooden walls of the hut, was not the most pleasant way to be wakened. Someone, Harry I believe,
shouted, ‘put that bleedin light out!’, which did not endear him to the police constable standing there.
In those days the police had much more authority and respect than they have today. After answering a
few questions we satisfied him that we couldn’t find any accommodation and that the person renting the
hut had taken pity on us. We assured him that we would be gone the next day; we did, nevertheless, stay
for a second night.
We washed ourselves in the sea, but where we ate and generally spent the time is somewhat vague in
my memory. I can only recall going into a hotel bar where we had a few drinks and remember going for
a midnight swim in my underpants, whether for a bet, or out of bravado, I can’t recall for certain. All of
this and the cycle ride home must have taken its toll on me.
Through the next couple of months I was becoming more and more irritable and moody, and was feeling
poorly. By the late October I was starting to have night sweats. I had developed a cough, which I was
unable to shake off. I didn’t go to the doctors, but bought all kinds of cough sweets, which of course,
did no good at all. Then I started noticing small red spots on my pillow, which I put down to shaving nicks
although there had been no sign of blood on my face. I was getting the classic signs of TB.
A date I have never forgotten was 26thNovember 1952. I was working at my bench when I gave an
extra hard cough, and the taste of what filled my mouth made my knees go weak! I went into the toilet
to spit out the blood and knew I was now in urgent need of medical attention. A basic instinct of survival
took over, and without a word, I put on my coat, and set out for the Mayday Hospital some half a mile
away. Mayday! Mayday! was certainly uppermost in my mind. An early snowfall was beginning to cover
the ground and as I hurried along almost breaking into a run, but resisting that, so as not to put too much
strain on the lungs, I could see the drops of blood making red spots on the white of the snow. By the
time I reached the hospital, blood was beginning to bubble up. A couple of people waiting in casualty
could see I was in trouble and gave me priority. Two young doctors examined me and listened to my
chest with stethoscopes, showing amazement at the noises they heard, although it was obvious that the
with the girls, ‘O’Grady Says’, ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’, ‘Statues’ and ‘Who’s got the ball’, all of
which required one person at the front trying to catch the others out, sometimes facing the other children
and sometimes with his or her back to them.
Every winter, after a fall of snow, we made a slide in our cul-de-sac. As long as the snow was crisp we
would pack it down by sliding on it, one after another and each person sliding a bit farther each time.
We would finish up with a slide about twenty-five feet long. We would have great fun sliding along
adopting all sorts of silly poses, until some ‘nasty spoilsport of a woman’ would come out and put ashes
along the length of it, even though it was in the middle of the road in a cul-de-sac.
Boys all wore shorts in those days until they were about thirteen, which seemed to be an unwritten rule.
I suppose in our case it was a sort of ‘Bar Mitzvah’ for gentiles. It was a day we looked forward to with
some excitement, getting our first grey flannel long trousers. Everyone seemed to get grey flannels for
their first pair of long trousers. Whilst they protected our shins and knees from cuts and grazes to some
extent, the downside was that they might inhibit our activities; we daren’t dirty or damage our nice new
One really odd character lived in our street. This was Eggy, who was about five years or so older than
the rest of us, but tagged on to us from time to time. He used to hang around my brother and his friends,
all about five years older than us, but as they moved on and went their ways, Eggy had no further
development; he was decidedly retarded. I remember once we were skylarking around in a public toilet;
we weren’t vandalising, nor writing graffiti, but our laughter must have reached the ears of a policeman;
there always seemed to be policemen out and about in those days, which I believe was due to our
uncomplicated lifestyle. There was far less lawlessness to deal with. However this ‘bobby’ wanted to
know what we were up to. Straightaway Eggy piped up with ‘What if I don’t talk’, in the manner of the
gangster films of the day. One of the other lads said ‘It’s alright constable he’s a little bit’ – and indicated
with his finger to his head. When we came out Eggy was ready to hit this lad. Eggy was not quite right
in the upper storey, but he knew what this other lad was indicating. We thought his condition was due
to too close a relationship between his parents. Later on he came on a camping trip with us, having
obtained a tent from somewhere. We insisted he stayed on his own in his tent, which we pitched for him.
When he had first attempted this he was trying to site it on an ants’ nest.
Eggy later joined the army, which surprised everybody, but he was discharged pretty soon afterwards,
which surprised nobody. So much for Eggy.
I was reminded recently of a
big summer event in Morden
and Carshalton, which took
place each year. It was the day
trip to Littlehampton. It was
started by the local Labour
Party and must have required a
tremendous amount of
organization and planning. It
was taken over by the local
council in its later years. It
required a great deal of
obtaining the names and
addresses of all the children
1930s postcard of children waiting outside Morden Parish Hall for a tripparticipating, whose parents to the seaside, reproduced by courtesy of Romy Conroy
Charles Conroy outside his
shop in Central Road,
reproduced by courtesy
of Romy Conroy
paid a modest sum for each child. Children had to be eight years old
or more. I’m not certain of the upper age but it was probably fourteen.
Each child was given a packed lunch, a drink, a bag containing several
new pennies to spend, and an apple and an orange. My mother had
refused to let me go in the first years, so I didn’t go on any of the trips
except one, which was probably in 1938, the last one, due to the war
starting the following year. I deeply resented the fact that my mother
deprived me of those early trips. I remember the year I went being
given a voucher of some sort to go to a shop called Conroys and obtain
my bag of sweets. There were about fifty coaches, or charabancs as
they were called then, provided by the local Co-op. What a sight it
must have been for the local people and for those people along the
route. Everyone was waving and cheering. I could not imagine seeing
fifty coaches at one time nowadays. It seems hard to believe but it is
a fact, that around fifty coaches took part. This is documented in a
book I obtained from Merton Heritage Centre. Given that each coach
held, perhaps, thirty five to forty children, and I’m guessing here, meant
that getting on for two thousand children took part. There were usually
two adults in each coach to keep order. I can’t remember much about Littlehampton, except that the
tide was a long way out when we got there, so it was quite a walk to go for a paddle but I remember
it was a wonderful day out, and I was so glad that my mother finally allowed me to go. I wouldn’t have
missed it for the world.
We looked forward to Derby
Day, when we used to gather at
the top of a hill on route from
Epsom to London. It was
known to us as The George Hill
due to the fact that at the top of
the hill stood The George Inn,
which was where we stood to
cadge a few coppers on that
day. As each returning vehicle,
many of which were open
topped buses and horse drawn
vehicles, came slowly past we
would shout ‘Chuck Out Your
Mouldies’ whereupon a shower of coins was thrown out causing a mad scramble to pick them up. The
coins that landed in the road created quite a dangerous situation for those brave enough to retrieve them.
The road which normally had more traffic than most, was, on Derby day, a very busy road indeed, due
to the vast crowds of race-goers. It’s amazing that there were never any accidents.
I must have been about thirteen or fourteen, when, just for the fun of it, we would get into the cinema
free. This bunking in became a sport where we could see all, or parts of a film several times over. At one
of the exits of the Odeon Morden, inside of which was the gents’ lavatory, the safety bar on the door
for quick access didn’t always click home when people left, after seeing the programme up to the point
where they came in. The performances were continuous and people would come in and leave any time
during the performance. This gave us more scope for sneaking in at any time. We could easily prise open
the door and go into the gents’ lavatory. From there we would go into the cinema, hoping that it wasn’t
noticed that we hadn’t gone to the toilet in the first place, and always going in one at a time of course.
The George Inn, Morden, in the 1960s,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
there; just around the corner
was an excellent café, where
I ate my mid-day meal, and a
stroll along the high street
visiting various shops was
very pleasant. It is a very
different Croydon today,
unrecognizable to anyone who
only remembers the old
Croydon. I went there a few
years ago by coach. It was a
shopping trip arranged by my
old firm, ‘Dungeness Nuclear
Power Station, Retirement
Association’, and I was
astonished to see how much it
had altered; the modernization
which had taken place had done away with all the old shops I remembered.
When winter came I still cycled to work in all but the most severe weather. If the roads were icy or there
was thick fog I took the bus to Mitcham where I caught the 630 trolleybus to West Croydon. I used to
smoke in those days, and to go upstairs on that bus and be met with a thick fug from the cigarette smoke
gave such a pleasurable feeling of comfort and contentment. It felt so warm and cosy as I lit my cigarette.
Nowadays if anyone smoked within several yards of me I would be waving my hand across my nose
and showing much displeasure. It is strange that I can still write about smoking in that trolleybus with such
pleasant nostalgic feelings.
As time went by, during my fourth year, I was
beginning to feel more and more tired. The
work seemed to get harder and my
concentration was becoming impaired.
One day a Mobile X-ray Unit came to our
factory. It was a large van, equipped to take
miniature chest X-rays. I believe it was part of
a national program to tackle tuberculosis. A
couple of weeks later I received a letter telling
me to attend Mayday Hospital for a full-sized
X-ray, with an assurance that it was nothing to
worry about, saying it could be a fault in the
film. Soon after that came another letter telling
me the X-ray was normal. So it seemed I
didn’t have TB, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
What transpired in the last months of my
employment at the firm of J. Richards and
Sons has often caused me to wonder about
what was noticed in that mobile X-ray and not
in the full-sized hospital one.
No. 630 trolleybus at the Ravensbury Arms stop in 1958,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
A Mass X-ray session advertised at the Vestry Hall,
Mitcham, in June 1949, reproduced by courtesy of Merton
Library & Heritage Service
BACK TO CIVILIAN LIFE
After I had spent a couple of weeks ‘demob’ leave on army pay, I decided it was time to look for a job.
I believe it was law that anyone called up for the armed forces was bound to be taken back to the firm
they had worked for provided they wished to go back, and provided there was work for them to do.
Unfortunately my firm had gone into liquidation, being unable to make the transition from wartime to
peacetime production. I imagine there were many other organizations with similar problems, where
factories had sprung up, some employing a mere handful of employees producing some small but
important component. My firm, Messrs Ranelagh Ltd on the Merton Factory Estate was a large factory
with three workshops and probably employing over a hundred people. I thought it was a well established
firm and safe from a collapse of this kind. Not so; I was now unemployed.
I had to think of somewhere which would be the most likely place to look for work. It had to be a sheet
metalwork firm as sheet metalwork was all I knew.
I sat down and thought about it and decided that Croydon would be a good place to look. I don’t know
why I chose Croydon; there seemed no logical reason for it other than it was probably the largest town
within reach by bike. I didn’t want to go towards London where the traffic would be heavy. Travelling
to Croydon from Morden, I figured, was going away from London, which would suit me fine.
Some time ago Norman Tebbit, when he was Minister for Trade and Industry in Margaret Thatcher’s
government ( I believe he is Lord Tebbit now) was flaying the considerable number of unemployed for
not trying to find work. He said that his father got on his bike and went out in search of work, which did
not go down too well with the unemployed. When I got on my bike and went to look for work I hadn’t
heard of Norman Tebbit let alone his father.
I set out with no clear idea of where to look. It was summer, and as I cycled across Mitcham Common
I gave no thought to how it would be, having to make the journey by bike in the middle of winter.
I arrived at West Croydon, and, crossing the high street, turned left into a road which ran past one of
the two entrances to West Croydon Station. This led into Wellesley Road, and there, just a few yards
along to the left I saw a sign saying ‘ J Richards and sons Sheet Metal Workers’. I honestly don’t
remember having to cycle around Croydon and feel certain that this was my first point of arrival. It was
as if I had been guided there.
Propping my bike against the gate I went in and asked to see the foreman. I told him about the problem
with my previous employment, which meant that I had no references. I had all my own tools so there was
no problem there. I didn’t know whether there were vacancies or not, however he gave me a job and
said I could start on the following Monday. This was my place of employment for the next four years.
Richards’ was a very general sheet metal workshop producing a varied number of items out of many
different metals, unlike Ranelagh’s, where the production of aircraft parts meant that only metals such
as aluminium and Duralumin were used. In the beginning I was given a light job, shaping and soldering
small brass covers for catchers of table crumbs. I can only assume that brushes were to be fitted and
to work in the way that carpet sweepers did, I expect for restaurants or some large wholesale distributor,
because large quantities were produced. This work was very simple, but I worked my way up to working
with drawings and then on the production of a great many items in every kind of metal.
There were a number of health hazards; the work was very dirty. I don’t remember anyone wearing face
masks when they were working with a sander or grinder although I can’t be sure of that, and if they were,
those in the vicinity at the time received a share of the dust, and a spark from a grinder landing in the eye
could be very nasty. Added to that was the noise of dozens of hammers and the noise of the various
machines; it’s no wonder that I am deaf today. But the work was interesting and I was enjoying my time
There were occasions when all the seats appeared to be taken, and I walked straight through and out
through the front entrance. There was one occasion when two girls got in and came into the lavatory.
We got a bit panicky over that, as they would spoil everything if they went in the cinema from the gents’
toilet. While we were telling them to push off someone came in to go to the toilet; the girls ducked into
a cubicle as a young boy came and stood at the urine gulley. I’ll never forget the look of consternation
on that boy’s face when he glanced around and saw two young girls peeping out at him.
On another occasion the cinema attendant came into the toilet and caught us, but one lad, not realising
that the game was up, had gone into the cubicle but had not locked the door. There was the attendant
calling ‘come on out’ and pushing on the door and the lad, who we called Digger, pushing against the
door on the inside and calling out ‘I’m vacant, I’m vacant’ in his confusion instead of ‘I’m engaged’. This
is one of many fond memories I have of Digger who, sadly, died of bowel cancer in his late thirties.
Digger and I would occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, take the tube up to London to see a concert
at the Albert Hall; I suppose we were about thirteen or fourteen at the time. They were usually popular
concerts, playing pieces like the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky and the Polovtsian Dances from Prince
Igor by Borodin. Digger and I would stand in the gallery, which was as high as you could get in the Albert
In the nineteen thirties and forties, the cost of bottled beer and lemonade included a deposit on the bottles,
usually threepence on each bottle. We were always glad to take bottles back for the money we could
get on them. Our local pub had an outbuilding where these were stored, and we happened to come by
a key that fitted the lock on the door of that building. How, or where we got it, I don’t remember, but
we had a steady, if modest, income in threepences from the empties taken back to the off licence in twos
and threes at a time – until they started stamping the returned bottles.
If there was a day that stands out in my childhood memories more than any other, it was ‘Ciggy a Go’.
It revolved around cigarette cards, which could be found in packets of most cigarettes before the war.
They pictured various film stars, footballers, cricketers etc; they usually made up sets of fifty of each kind
and were collected by most children. Some would amass as many as possible and exchange them for
ones of which they were short. Those of us with fathers who smoked had an advantage, but many were
collected from packets thrown in rubbish bins. Cigarette cards were the big thing among children then.
Much bigger, I feel sure, than any of the Japanese card collection crazes of recent years. Ciggy a Go
began spontaneously with a few lads, myself included, in competition to win cards from each other by
some simple game like leaning cards against a kerb and flicking cards at them to knock them down; it
was quite silly really. We then tried some other games like laying cards down well spaced out and one
had to flick cards to lie on them to win. Other games were springing up as more and more children arrived.
Some games involved marbles rolled through holes in a cardboard box and some were games chalked
on the pavement; it was becoming like a fairground with dozens of children having a wonderful day
gambling with cigarette cards. It all took place in a cul-de-sac about thirty or forty yards by eight,
including pavements. With the cries of ‘Ciggy a Go’ringing out the whole summer’s day long, we must
have presented a most unusual spectacle. It’s possible that our adult neighbours got a bit fed up in the
end, but there was not one word of complaint directed at us.
It was so typical of the time. It could only have taken place then. There were no dissenting voices, no
one coming along wrecking the games, just a lot of children thoroughly enjoying themselves. I mentioned
to my friends from those days (two are still living today) that I was going to write a piece about childhood
they both said, ‘don’t forget to mention Ciggy a Go’. As if I would. It was a unique and wonderful day
in what I think was a wonderful, adventurous, and I think, exciting childhood. Although it was,
chronologically, not the end of my childhood story, as I suppose I was about ten years old at Ciggy a
Go time, I have saved it until last as I think Ciggy a Go was something special.
THE WAR 1939 – 1945
I was a month short of my twelfth birthday when war broke out. I can recall the anxiety that was felt in
the months before it started; I don’t think anyone thought it wouldn’t happen. Life went on as usual, but
all the news bulletins were full of war, and despite Neville Chamberlain’s to-ing and fro-ing to talk to
Hitler, I think most people thought war was inevitable.
We had all been issued with gas masks, and preparations for air raid shelters were well in hand; in fact,
I understand the ‘Air Raid Precautions Act’ was passed as early as December 1937. We were told to
prepare for the blackout, which meant no light must show from our windows. For this we would put up
extra thick curtains to comply with blackout regulations. If a light showed, the air raid wardens were only
too ready to shout ‘put that light out’.
We children had a lot of fun in the blackout during the winter, when it got dark early. It gave a great
advantage to those who were hiding over those who were seeking. I don’t mean ‘Hide and Seek’ as
such, but games such as what we called ‘One Chase Two Chase’, where one boy was in pursuit of the
rest and each one caught helped to catch the others. This game was often played in the blackout.
Another game was ‘Tin Can Copper’ where one person had a tin can at his feet, which he would tap
on the ground and sing out a jingle saying ‘I spy (boy’s name) one two three’ when a boy in hiding was
spotted. The seeker would have to move away from the can to seek out those in hiding, which meant
that one of the others might run out, pick up the can and throw it, enabling those who were caught to run
free and hide again. Needless to say this game was usually played in daylight.
One thing I can remember very clearly was the brightness of the stars. On a moonless and cloudless night
one could look up and see a wonderful display of stars shining so brightly, without the street lighting, and
other light pollution from the passing traffic spoiling the show. But the blackout brought no enjoyment
to the public at large, road accidents had almost doubled, and there were many accidents caused by
people falling into rivers and walking into lampposts and trees, toppling from railway platforms and so
Barrage balloons were much in evidence in and around London. The function of these was to stop low
level bombing attacks and they were sited on open ground and in parks. They looked like airships, but
were gas inflated balloons, anchored to the ground by cables, and wound up and down when
maintenance was required. They were maintained by a special section of the RAF. One day one of them
broke free of its mooring and floated over Morden. I don’t know where it finished up. Could it be that
a Womble, ahead of his time, had set it free?
We listened to the radio broadcast on that Sunday morning of the 3rd September 1939, when, at
11.15am, Chamberlain spoke on the radio announcing the declaration of war with Germany. He said
he had given Germany an ultimatum to pull its troops out of Poland or we would declare war. The deadline
of the ultimatum had been reached without compliance with our demands; therefore a state of war existed
between our two countries. I remember being fascinated by the actual wording, but now I can’t recall
exactly what was said.
I usually had a bath on Sunday morning (we didn’t take baths as frequently as we do today) and a little
later than usual my mother turned the tap on the kitchen boiler to run the water up to the bathroom
upstairs. It was somewhat primitive compared with today’s facilities, but a huge improvement on
London, where one had to fill a galvanised bath manually. I had undressed and was about to step into
the bath when the air raid siren sounded. This first air raid warning of the war came as quite a shock. I
was dressed and downstairs in double quick time. I remember how we all sat round the table, my father,
mother, brother and I, with our gas masks on the table in front of us. We didn’t know what to expect,
but were prepared for the worst.
About ten years ago we were
staying with our German
friends Erika and Herbert,
who drove us to Wuppertal. I
had with me a small black and
white photo of 77BMH from
my army days which Erika
showed to some people whilst
we were in a cafe. It was
instantly recognised by a
woman in the group who said
the word ‘Bethesda’. I knew
straightaway that this was our
hospital because the word was
across the front of the building,
something I had forgotten over
I have since learned that Bethesda was a pool with healing powers, where a paralytic was healed by
Jesus, something that, not being familiar with the Bible, I didn’t know.
We were told which bus to catch and after a short ride we arrived at Bethesda. I had a strange feeling
come over me, I was both nervous and excited; it was more than fifty years since I was there.
It had been painted, fairly recently, I thought, and looked immaculate. It appeared to be run by nuns.
I say this because we were greeted by a nun on our arrival, but I’m sure the medical staff were all qualified
doctors and nurses. I told the lady about my working there when it was a British Military Hospital, and
it all got very emotional. I was welcomed like a long-lost friend and I have to say, my eyes had become
quite moist. We chatted a while, then she took a postcard photograph from a group of charity cards on
sale, and gave it to me with a handshake and her blessing. The photo was the same view as on my little
black and white photo but looking down, whereas mine was viewed from below looking up. Before we
left we had a look round a couple of floors; it was all modernised and bore little resemblance to the
hospital I knew. It was certainly a day to remember.
I was glad that we have such good German friends. I don’t think I would have found Bethesda without
them. I feel I have gone full circle in my German experiences.
Bethesda Krankenhaus (formerly 77 BMH) 1999
Wuppertal department store 20
April 1999 (This was Hitler’s
birthday. I wonder that they
would get away with that!)
The pubs had a special licence around Fleet Street allowing them to open early in the morning to allow
printers to catch up on their drinking. I remember him coming home from work one morning, with two
men holding him up between them. One of the men had his false teeth in his pocket – he was pathetic!
Neighbours would say, ‘Saw Mr Read being brought home, was he taken ill at work?’ My mother would
say ‘Yes, that was what it was, he was unwell and his work colleagues brought him in a taxi from the
station’, but I don’t think the neighbours were fooled. I think it had some profound effect on me as I just
drink the odd half pint now and then, apart from my army service, when we had binges from to time, and
of course my time at the Wimbledon Palais (pre 18) which was a bit naughty. I went into the army hardly
knowing my father. The only real interest he had in me was when I boxed for the school, and I have to
say that my grief was not great at his death.
He liked puns and plays on words, which I suppose I got from him. He liked Spoonerisms and would
say things like ‘You’re a fart smeller’ instead of ‘smart feller’. I remember, once when I was very small
going to the seaside with my parents, and as we neared our destination there were lakes which I saw
from the train window. Being a townie and with my background, I said, ‘cor look at all that wa’er’, using
the glottal stop, which, being, more or less, a cockney, was the way I spoke then. My father corrected
me saying, ‘It’s water’. I thought I was showing them up in front of the other passengers so I repeated,
‘Water’. He then said, ‘That’s be’er’.
I only had about two months service before my demob, so I tried, on compassionate grounds, to serve
that time in England, but unfortunately I had to go back to Germany.
My demob came in June 1948, and as I was departing the Germans were only then starting to clear and
crush the rubble prior to the rebuilding of their country.
On arrival in England, I travelled by train to the demob centre in York. I was in the same category as
wartime servicemen with a demob number which was 71, and a joke to some of the old sweats. I was
not on National Service, which came in a bit later, and for a fixed term; I think two years. I must have
been one of the last recipients of a demob suit, which included a grey pinstripe suit, trilby hat, shoes, and
I believe, a raincoat. I can’t remember how I got it all home.
I am adding the following as a follow-up to my time spent in Germany as I think it might be of interest.
I love Germany; it is a beautiful country, much neglected, perhaps understandably, by British tourists.
I have no love for the Germans as a race. I hated what the Germans did during the war to the millions
of Jews and others, and I hated them for causing so much misery and destruction throughout the world.
But over the years my attitude to individual Germans I have met has changed; I have found them
courteous and friendly.
I have seen two Germanys; one, destroyed and in total defeat, and the other rebuilt and flourishing. I must
say I like the latter best.
I suppose it was because of the time spent there in my army service that I decided to learn German. So
in 1990 I attended Folkestone Adult Education Centre and spent some fifteen years learning the
It opened up a whole new world for me. I went on a student exchange and met a lovely German couple
with whom my wife and I have been friends for the past seventeen years. This resulted in our visiting each
others’ homes for holidays over the years. In addition to this, the teacher at the Folkestone school was
German and she arranged holidays for groups made up of students from the school and friends. There
were usually two trips to choose from each year. As a result my wife Ruby and I have travelled to many
places in Germany, north, south, east and west and made many friends.
After about ten minutes the All Clear sounded, a sound we would all come to relish when the war really
got going in earnest and bombs started falling. However, on that first occasion the warning was caused
by the approach of an unidentified aircraft, which was presumed to be the enemy, but turned out to be
friendly. A few more false alarm warnings were sounded over the next few months, but no air raids
occurred for several months. I believe this period was called the phoney war. It was June 1940 before
a few sporadic raids occurred in southern England, although one or two industrial towns in the north had
In the early stages of the war, we would have gas mask drill at school, where we would all assemble
outside in the playground, and when commanded we would don our masks. The noise in that playground
of a hundred or so children, all exhaling hard, making the rubber at the side of the face vibrate with a loud
farting noise, was like a herd of cows after a feed of beans. We always carried our gas masks to school
in the early days of the war, and many adults carried theirs to their place of employment. I believe that
some employers insisted they bring them to work. We children would go to school with our little square
cardboard boxes on string slung round our shoulders, some children swinging them about knocking into
objects, and some even walloping each others’ boxes as if they were conkers. However, the habit of
carrying them soon fizzled out, and by the end of 1939, just three months into the war, no one carried
them. I believe that in May 1940, after Dunkirk, with the threat of invasion, people were urged to carry
them again, but that only lasted a short time. Thankfully gas was never used in the Second World War.
Children were being evacuated from London to safer rural areas but I don’t recall anyone I knew being
evacuated from Morden. I would have thought living ten miles from central London might have qualified
for this; I think it was the luck of the draw. We did have a few bombs falling in our suburb.
I read that out of around 900,000 children evacuated from London, some 600,000 had, by the end of
the year, returned home. I think a combination of boredom and homesickness was responsible for this.
There was another phase of evacuation when the bombing started, so perhaps many of those who had
come back, got another chance to go in that second phase.
I remember our school being sounded out with regard to evacuation to Canada. I quite liked the idea
of that, but I’m sure I’d have hated it in reality. Anyway, nothing came of it. We heard later of a ship
carrying such children being sunk by a German U-boat and causing great loss of life. The whole scheme
was abandoned after that. The Atlantic was a very dangerous place, with the U-boat packs just waiting
to sink anything that came their way. It was crazy to think of such a scheme, when the danger must have
been known. I think that children were probably safer in a shelter during the Blitz.
Meanwhile life went on as usual; newsreels showed films of the wonderful Maginot Line, built by our
French allies to stop the Germans from invading. The Germans had their Siegfried Line (famous for
hanging out washing on) but they decided to invade the Low Countries and go round the Maginot Line.
The great lumbering tanks of France and Britain were no match for the mobile, heavily armed Panzers.
There were no more comforting newsreels by May 1940 when it became a matter of the survival of as
much of our army as possible. After the Belgium and Holland breakthrough by the Germans in May 1940,
things moved so swiftly that it was only a matter of a few weeks before the Dunkirk evacuation.
From then on the war was really brought home to us; the German invasion was expected soon. Bells
would be rung in all the churches to warn us that the invasion had started. Churchill made his speech about
fighting them on the beaches, etc. We even received a leaflet through our door, telling us what to do if,
and when, the invasion came. I don’t know how wide a distribution of the leaflets there was, perhaps
only in southern England. I wish I had kept the darned thing, as I have not heard of anyone having one
today. Road signs were removed so as not to give any help to invading forces, and concrete blocks were
constructed in many roads, but I don’t think they would have been much of an obstacle to a Tiger tank.
After the initial anxiety, and no immediate invasion, things quietened down for a couple of months or so.
My first experience of the war at firsthand was when, one day in August 1940, I heard a lot of aircraft
sounds, and went to the door to investigate. There were planes, some way off, twisting and turning, and
the rattle of machine gun fire was loud and clear. It was a raid on Croydon Airport and although this was
some five miles away, the raiders must have been intercepted much nearer to us. I had a job to persuade
the family to come and see this for themselves as they thought I was joking; such was the mood of people
now that the immediate threat of invasion had passed. We had been lulled into a sort of complacency,
but this was all set to change in the coming months.
I wrote the following account of a British fighter plane which was shot down over Morden. There are
factual inaccuracies in it regarding the pilot, which were not known to us at the time, and not known to
me when I wrote the piece. Everything else is a true account. I have left it in as it is part of my story.
One Sunday in August a Hawker Hurricane was shot down, crashing in Morden Park. We lads had gone
to the wrecked plane and found no one there, and I assumed that perhaps we were the first on the scene,
and that the pilot had baled out. We climbed all over the wrecked plane, which appeared to have come
down at quite a shallow angle. Live bullets were scattered around and we took quite a few away with
us. We later removed the bullet heads of some of them, by some means, I can’t remember how, and took
the sticks of cordite out (they looked like uncooked spaghetti) and laid them end to end, lit one end and
watched the flame run along the line to the other end. I was reminded by my mate Harry that we took
some bullets to school in our pockets. We had no fear of the fact that these were live bullets.
I had previously been put in touch with Merton Heritage Centre, via Morden Library, for information about
the children’s outing to Littlehampton. I purchased two books from them, one of which was ‘Reminiscences
of St Helier Estate’, in which one contributor had written about a ‘Spitfire’ being shot down, and the pilot
steering it away from the houses and crashing in the park. In the middle of the book was a small map showing
all the places where the events and happenings took place, as in the memoirs, listed. One item was shown
as where the ‘Spitfire’ pilot crashed. This didn’t fit in with what we had found, and I thought he had got
the whole thing wrong. We knew it was a Hurricane and I was keen to get official proof to correct the
information I had received from Merton. I even contacted the Aeronautical Museum at Hendon, but they
were unable to help me; they needed to know the date when it happened. I couldn’t tell them this, but this
was the only plane which had crashed in Morden during the war and I would have thought there would
be some reference other than a date. I then went back to Merton Heritage Centre, who eventually, after
investigating this (for which I am extremely grateful) came up with an amazing story of bravery.
I received various sheets
of information, plus a
copy of part of a Merton
newspaper from 1972,
when Group Captain
Leonard Cheshire VC
had unveiled a plaque in
one pilot’s honour. It
was very sad to read
about this 19-year-old
young man, Peter
Walley, a Flight
Sergeant, with only one
month’s service in the
squadron, and only
becoming operational in
the August of 1940.
Plaque at Merton College in honour of Peter Walley,
reproduced by courtesy of David Roe
I felt even more of a swine when I took a coward’s way to finish things when I got back, by getting
someone to tell her I had got engaged whilst on leave.
I was wakened early one morning by someone who said I was wanted on the phone and warning me
that it sounded like trouble. I went to the phone in the corridor where a voice, which I knew was my staff
sergeant’s, came over. ‘Read, get down here at once’ he shouted, and I did just that. When I got to the
basement I was horrified at what I saw; various German workers were trying to mop up a completely
flooded basement. I paddled my way to the stores where sacks of sugar and other items were being
moved onto higher places. Jock was there also and I sheepishly joined in, incurring a certain amount of
my boss’s wrath, as no doubt, had Jock.
One of our duties in the store was to put lemonade powder in a large bin-like container, place it under
a tap, and fill it to the required strength and flavour. Unfortunately on this occasion nothing came from
the tap; there was a break in the water supply. Now, and this is the crux of the thing, someone, it could
have been Jock, or it could have been me, forgot to turn the tap off. The water supply was restored during
the night, causing the flood. Knowing how forgetful I have always been I think I was the odds-on favourite
for this oversight. The funny thing was, neither of us was put on a charge, but then, which of us was guilty?
I felt certain it was me. It was certainly a chargeable offence. However nothing more than a reprimand
occurred and soon all was forgotten. I think the fact that Jock and I knew so much about the goings-
on with the staff sergeant and his chums helped us both to get off lightly.
Life went on without any complications as I continued working in the stores. I had one job which not
many people would envy, and that was setting out once a week at 6.00am in the back of a canvas-
covered truck to the ration depot some twenty miles away. We had a German driver, and beside him
in the cab was the sergeant or corporal in charge, so I had to be in the back to keep an eye on our rations.
The winter of 1947 was, in Britain, one of the coldest on record and in Germany it was usually colder.
I was wrapped in my jersey, duffel coat and body warmer, and I had sacks which I also wrapped around
me. Among the rations was an 80lb keg of butter and several French stick loaves. I always took a knife
with me, so with cuts off the loaves and chunks of butter I helped to keep out the cold. I think that was
a well-deserved perk.
On the 1st April 1948 someone said the CO wanted to see me. I thought ‘Oh yes April fool’ but he insisted
it was genuine, so I went to see the Commanding Officer. He told me that my father had died, and I was
given immediate compassionate leave. We had customs checks on arrival in Britain and on this occasion
I expect I looked worried. They must have thought it was guilt, as I was pulled into a side room and body
searched. I happened to have a bottle of Guinness in my greatcoat pocket, from the stores of course,
but there were no questions as to where I got that.
When I got home I found my mother in an awful state. I went into the back room of the house to see my
father where he lay in his coffin – in those days it was quite a common practice for the body to be kept
in the house until the funeral. I had seen quite a number of dead bodies during my time in the medical corps,
but they were impersonal, I knew nothing about them, but here was my father, my own flesh and blood.
I was shocked by seeing him lying in a coffin, and the sight of this made me tremble; I was saddened but
there were no tears. My sorrow was mostly for my mother and how she would be feeling.
The day of the funeral came, and before the coffin lid was screwed down my mother rushed in and was
kissing my father. We had a terrible job to get her away and comfort her.
When I think of the fights they had in the past. Being the youngest and still a child I would be in floods
of tears. They must have had a very volatile relationship; his drinking was the cause of most of the rows.
My father was just sixty when he died from lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker, and working nights
on the printing presses didn’t help.
There was not a great deal of fraternisation with the Germans, and the Germans generally didn’t want
much to do with us except for a few of the women where it was a mutual desire to get something from
each other, and often our blokes got more than they bargained for.
Venereal disease was rife. Thinking back to my time on ward work, I was on a ward where we had one
chap in an advanced stage of, I’m not sure whether it was syphilis or gonorrhoea, most likely gonorrhoea.
He was in an awful state, his limbs were bloated and he had, as far as I can remember, his arms bandaged
with splint-like supports, and his face was puffed up with a fluid. I had to assist him into a urine bottle,
with his arms being splinted. He was to be sent home on a repatriation train for treatment in Britain and
it looked as though he needed a lot of treatment. Another chap, who worked in the hospital, had the job
of taking out supplies to the married families of servicemen, and would take an extra box out for his
Fräulein. But she gave him something in return, and he was also due to go back to Britain on repatriation.
I kept my nose clean, metaphorically speaking. I didn’t indulge in any sexual activities, I had seen too
much. We had a prophylactic treatment centre in the hospital which one had to attend after sexual activity.
The penalty, if anyone didn’t attend and was not signed in by the orderly in charge, and a disease
followed, was to be put on a charge. This did not seem guarantee enough for me.
I had a German lady friend for a while. She had been married to a soldier who had been killed on the
Russian front. She had a very young child and I suppose I felt sorry for her. I found her good company,
and it was nice to have a bit of female company. We used to wander round the nearby streets
communicating with each other somehow, she in the odd word of English and I in the squaddies’ slang-
type German. One thing we had in common was singing, each teaching the other songs in our respective
languages and with harmonies. We were both glad the evenings were dark, in my case because I would
look bloody silly wandering around singing, and for her part she feared her neighbours’ attitude towards
her parents if she was seen with a British soldier; some Germans were still understandably very anti-
I was able to get a few bits from the stores and some chocolate from my own supply to give to her.
Margaret was very thin and pale, she probably had TB which was widespread in Germany at the end
of the war. The war ended in May 1945 but the shortages didn’t end there. There was considerable
deprivation and shortage of food in the early post-war period. She showed me a photograph of herself
in her happier days. She must have been in a show of some kind; she was wearing a top hat, a frock coat,
tights, high-heeled shoes and carrying a cane. She looked terrific. On my birthday she gave me a homemade
birthday card with the rather grand greeting – ‘Felicitations for your Birthday’ with love from
Margaret and family, which she must have got from an English / German dictionary
One evening there was a bomb scare in the hospital and we were confined to the premises. We all retired
to the bar in the cellar, whilst a search was carried out. It turned out to be a false alarm. A bloke who
was out before the alarm was raised came in bringing a letter for me, ‘from some German bird’ he said.
The envelope was addressed ‘Soldat Ronald Read gib die Rationen,’ which I found alarming, to say the
least. If my staff sergeant saw that I would certainly get chucked out of my job in the stores, and I didn’t
want that to happen. Her letter read ‘I wait by the KPD, you no kommen why?’ The KPD was a large
political hoarding of the Kommunist Partei Deutschland, for an election in the near future, the place where
we used to meet.
I was beginning to tire of my lady friend by the time my home leave came along. I told her I was going,
and mentioned that I was catching a train at 5.30am. I shouldn’t have told her; there she was on the
platform, with a small package in her hand, something for the journey. On the train I opened the pathetic
parcel of bits and pieces including an apple, which was all I could recognise. I felt awful as I threw the
contents out to the begging children along the line. She must have gone to a lot of trouble to give me that
package when they were so short of things themselves. I felt a real swine.
On Sunday August 18th he was not due to fly, but talked his way on to the duty roster. It was a hazy day,
although sunny. His section was attacked by several Messerschmitt fighter planes escorting Dornier
bombers. I think they must have been attacked out of the haze; four were hit; two of the pilots baled out,
and one managed to land at Croydon Airport. Peter Walley’s plane was on fire; it turned over and went
into a dive, but the fire died down and he began to look for a place to crash-land. I now quote from the
newspaper report. ‘Undoubtedly he was somewhat lost and his radio had been shot through. Without
knowing he found himself over South London, above Morden …….the crippled fighter hurtled out of
the glittering haze, cleared the high tension cables near the Sutton by-pass, and flew at rooftop height
right across the St. Helier estate ……..turning steeply to avoid houses along the London Road, then as
it lost flying speed it nosed down, disappeared from view, and crashed.’ There were several eye-witness
accounts; among them was one which summed up this act of bravery. ‘Peter was killed instantly, but in
his last moments had stayed with his damaged fighter to avoid the houses and to save the lives of the
people whom he was fighting for, rather than take to his parachute and let his machine crash into a built
up area’. One of those people whose lives he saved might have been me. When I read the report I was
both humbled and saddened, at the loss of this young man in such circumstances. What puzzles me is
that neither Harry, nor I, saw the plane come down; we knew that it had, but neither of us can recall how
we knew. Someone must have told us; but why was no-one there when we arrived on the scene?
In southwest London we didn’t see a great deal of the Battle of Britain, although I saw a few
‘dogfights'(machine gun battles between aircraft) overhead when I walked home from school and back
at mid-day; there were no cars to transport us. Although the number of car owners had increased by
1940, by this time petrol rationing had reduced the numbers on the road. School meals were not available
in those days, so I came home for my meal. It was a ten minute walk, and I liked to walk through the
recreation ground, which usually meant upwards of fifteen minutes in my case, because if I wasn’t
watching ‘dogfights’ I was trying to catch cabbage white butterflies. I did this by throwing my school cap
over them as they flew just above the grass. I always let them go afterwards. The aerial combats I
watched were at quite a high altitude, and were mostly when the raiders had attacked targets like
Croydon, or one of the smaller airfields in Surrey. The raids were mainly on airfields and defence
installations in the southeast.
What happened in the Battle of Britain is history. The news of the numbers of German planes shot down
each day raised everyone’s spirits and was a great boost to morale. After the war it emerged that our
Ministry of Information had inflated the figures slightly to keep people’s morale up. One figure of 176
German planes shot down in one day was, I believe, an example of this, but I’m not sure what the true
It was the Blitz which really brought the war close to home for us. My mother insisted on sleeping in the
Anderson shelter. My brother had got married a few months earlier and left home, my other brother was
in the army in Egypt, and with my father working nights, that left just my mother and myself; I could hardly
let her be alone in a shelter in the garden, so I also slept in the Anderson.
My sister and her five-year-old daughter came to live with us when her husband, who was a soldier, was
posted to Wales. They slept in the shelter with us for a very short while, and soon after the Blitz began
my brother-in-law arranged for them to go and stay in Wales for their safety, even though he himself was
about to be posted to Egypt. There was more room in the shelter after they went, but I missed the
The Anderson shelters consisted of corrugated galvanised steel sheets, curved at one end, which were
bolted to other facing, curved sheets forming an arch, and these were bolted on to straight corrugated
sheets to form the back. In the front were two sheets bolted to the top and sides, leaving an opening of
2ft, with a short, narrow section on the top bolting the two side pieces together. The structure was set
in a hole in the ground to a depth
of about 3ft, the floor was
concreted, as were the sides,
creating four inch walls up to
ground level. The height to the
centre of the arch was about
6ft. The entrance through which
we had to crawl was roughly 2ft
6 inches high, and 2ft wide. The
whole thing was covered with
between 12 and 18 inches of
soil, and in front of the entrance,
some two feet away, we built a
blast wall of sandbags; this was
our bedroom for much of the
duration of the Blitz.
My estimated measurements
are all imperial. At my age I
don’t feel inclined to convert all
these measurements into metric; besides all this happened long before metric came to this country.
Each evening at nightfall the sirens would sound and we would go to this hole in the ground, six feet square
less the four inch wall of concrete. I don’t think we had a mattress, just a waterproof sheet on the floor;
we also had cushions, blankets, hot-water bottles, torches, candles, and sweets – as much as rationing
would allow. Everything had to come out each morning or it would have been rather wet by the next night.
We didn’t undress; I’m sure we would have been very cold if we had. We spent most of the winter of
1940/41 in our Anderson (the Blitz began in September and ended around mid-1941) and I think we
must have had special warm clothes for it, but I can’t be certain of that. Despite the cold and damp, and
the lack of sleep, I don’t remember either my mother or myself being ill because of it. No colds or flu,
which seems surprising now. Strangely enough people seemed healthier then. Our diets due to rationing
may have helped – no excesses. But I think that’s probably a doubtful piece of conjecture on my part.
In the suburbs, we didn’t experience bombing to the same degree as in the central London area, where
the Blitz brought great devastation, though we did have a few houses flattened during it, and lots of bomb
craters, thankfully in the open parkland nearby. We had a lot of fun playing in and around those craters,
especially if there had been a lot of rain which might leave them with perhaps a foot of water. We never
gave a thought that one of the shallower craters might have contained an unexploded bomb.
The worst thing for us, in our little shelter, was the sound of the anti-aircraft gunfire, which we were in
the thick of. These guns made a colossal noise and the flashes were blinding; we put a cloth up to the
shelter door to lessen the glare, and to help keep out the cold. It became easy to distinguish between
the gunfire and bomb explosion; the anti-aircraft guns made a sharp ‘pang’ sound, and the bombs, apart
from the ‘shu shu’ sound when falling close, landed with a sort of ‘balomp’ noise causing the ground to
vibrate even at quite a distance.
I find it hard to imagine that my mother and I spent every night in the shelter for the whole of the Blitz.
There may have been some nights when there was no raid, but I cannot recall many. There were raids
on other towns during this period; Coventry was one example where I believe in one night an intensive
raid by several hundred planes caused great devastation. Plymouth and Southampton also got a
plastering from the Luftwaffe.
Everyone in this Anderson shelter survived a HE bomb
in Inglemere Road, Mitcham.
Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
There was one very exciting event due to take place in Wuppertal; the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
was doing its first post-war tour and was coming to the town. It was, and still is, a world-famous
orchestra, and had, then, one of the world’s greatest conductors – Wilhelm Furtwängler. Whether or
not Furtwängler was conducting at this concert I couldn’t say for certain, but he was the conductor during
that period. Understandably the concert was a complete sell-out.
Along with a couple of mates I went along to the Konzerthalle, which appeared to be undamaged by
the bombing, hoping to get in to the concert, which would have been the high point of my time spent in
Germany. We had plenty of cigarettes and chocolate, which were the desirable currencies of the time.
The people were queuing to get in despite the fact that they had tickets, possibly because they didn’t have
seat numbers. We went along the queue offering them our goodies in exchange for their tickets. Not one
person would part with his or her ticket, which says a lot for the German’s love of music. But then, if I
had been in their shoes, maybe I wouldn’t have parted with my ticket; this was a very special concert.
Having failed in our attempts to barter we resorted to sneaking in at a side door, shades of the Odeon
Morden, and found ourselves under the stage. Unfortunately an attendant also found us and chucked
us out – in the nicest possible way of course.
I did get to one musical event when a production of the operaCarmen came to Wuppertal. I went with
a couple of lads of our group; we actually managed to buy tickets for this. I thoroughly enjoyed it, more
so than a production I saw in England, some time after I left the army.
During an interval between acts when, in Britain, people would leave their seats to go to the toilet or
perhaps go for an ice cream or drink, the German audience began walking in a slow orderly fashion in
the aisle around the theatre. Of course in Germany, early post-war, there was nothing for them to buy
anyway. Not wishing to be sitting alone in our seats we got up and joined the procession. That’s what
I call a Promenade Concert. It must have been a custom of the classical theatre, as my wife and I have
been to shows in Germany. We saw a German production ofCabaretthere in the 1990s, and there was
no promenading then.Cabaretwas set in Berlin during the rise of Hitler and Nazism. It was interesting
to watch the mocking of the Hitler salute and the goosestepping. The Germans laughed a lot and found
it highly amusing. We were rather surprised to see how far they had moved on since 1939-45, but it was,
after all, fifty years ago.
In the days of 1946-48 there was of course no nightlife, nor day life, outside of the hospital. One saw
very few people about in the streets; they must have got their provisions from somewhere but where were
the shops? There was no social life, which was why we had our drinking sessions either in the bar in the
cellar, or in one of our rooms. During one of these drinking sessions we ran out of booze, and went to
the sergeants’ mess and nicked some of their beer, which was in crates in the corridor outside. One of
the sergeants caught us and told us to put it back. We put some back and kept some; they were all rather
drunk anyway and would not have noticed the loss. The sergeants were a reckless lot; with a few drinks
inside them, one or two of them used to climb out of a window onto a ledge which ran round the building,
make their way along it, and enter a window further along the ledge, all the time calling out encouraging
words to each other. The ledge looked only about fifteen to eighteen inches wide and was on the third
floor. There were no falls during my time there, but I don’t know how long they could go on doing that
and getting away with it. All this drinking makes it seem as if that was all we did, but in fact we did a full
day’s work each day.
We sometimes took a walk in the local countryside during the summer evenings; the surroundings once
away from the town were very pleasant, much like the countryside in England. We came across a German
pub (akneipe) which was a great surprise, and like an oasis to us, but it turned out to be more of a mirage.
We asked for a beer each and what came up were glasses of sweet tasting, very weak, Germanbier(I
suppose a wartime substitute) and very far removed from that which is sold at the MunichBierfeststoday.
hangover, at least not from the party. All went well and I was back on duty quite soon. I didn’t leave
my heart in San Francisco but I left my appendix in Wuppertal. 77BMH was well equipped for a military
hospital, having an X-ray department and an operating theatre, it served the troop bases in the North
Rhine Westphalia area of Germany. The next nearest BMH was in Iserlohn, some distance away. I had
occasion to go there to see a specialist when I was suffering from persistent headaches.
There was a venereal disease department there. No, my headaches were not brought on by VD. All the
patients in army hospitals everywhere wore ‘Hospital Blues’; white shirt, blue jacket and trousers and
a red tie, but in the case of the VD patients it was open-neck shirts to mark them out. It seemed as if
it was because they were naughty boys for catching a dose of the pox. There was an all-girls band led
by Ivy Benson, which was quite popular in Britain in those days. They played instruments unlike the so-
called bands of today which are guitar-strumming singing groups. The Ivy Benson Band came to Iserlohn
as part of a visit to entertain troops in Germany. Whilst they played it was funny to see that all the front
seats were occupied by the unabashed tie-less ones, but I don’t supposed it was noticed by the band.
We had a wonderful weekend boat trip up the Rhine,
something which people would pay a lot for nowadays. It was
organised by CSEU (Combined Services Entertainment
Unit). We set out from Cologne on one of the pleasure boats
similar to today’s tourist boats; there was plenty of beer to be
had on board, which added to the pleasure. This trip was not
quite like the Rhine trips of today. The Cologne bridge had
been destroyed and half of it was down in the river, and
several bridges along the river were in ruins. We travelled to
a place called Marksburg, which was the name of the castle
on the hill overlooking the village of Braubach. We spent an
overnight, maybe two, under canvas, camped on a broad
grassy area on the river bank, and whilst there, a few of us had
a swim in the Rhine. I had no trunks, so I swam naked; it was
flows so fast
that we had to
swim like mad
just to stay in one place. Eric had a camera and took a few
photos, one of which was of me when someone snatched
my towel off, five copies of which were printed, one for
each of our group. It was fortunate that he worked in the
X-ray department, which meant he could do all the photo
printing he wanted, and it was always five copies of each.
The photographs were about 3inches by 2inches and of
course black and white. I still have the lot, except for the
naked one, which I tore up. Out of our group, Eric was the
one I could relate to the best; his sense of humour was very
much in tune with my own. He was a Romford lad and the
only one I had any contact with after leaving the army,
when I was invited to his wedding. That was the only time
I saw him; this was how it was with army mates, but I shall
always remember Eric.
After our swim in Rhine
When the London Blitz began
we stayed indoors. I can recall
my niece Norma, hiding under
the table in her frightened state,
and I would try to keep her
calm by drawing pictures but I
think it was to calm my own
nerves as much as anything.
But that was only for a few
nights. Once we realised that
the raids were going to be a
night after night bombardment
we decided to take cover in the
Not everyone slept in the
Andersons; some went to the
underground stations to sleep
on the platforms, some went to
brick built shelters and some to
the communal, partially
underground concrete ones,
which were covered with earth
in the way the Andersons were.
The really brave ones just
stayed indoors and took their
I would find having to sleep in
the Tube unbearable. It’s bad
enough just being in there to
catch a train, let alone with
perhaps hundreds of people
spending the night there. Many,
it turned out, were not just sheltering there, they were living there. To quote my research source –
‘Queues were forming as early as six o’clock in the morning to ensure a place could be found for the
family that night. There was no sanitation or washing facilities and the stench was awful’. I can recall
carefully treading my way round and between shelterers when I have travelled on the Tube; I have to
say, I think stench was putting it too strongly and greatly exaggerated the situation in my experience.
Perhaps I used different stations from those of my book source. Neighbours of ours regularly went to
shelter in the Tube. Where we lived in Morden, the Tube trains came out into the open of course, which
meant they had to catch a train to South Wimbledon station to be underground, and carry their bedding
with them each time they went. What with that and with the hubbub there must have been in the communal
shelter, I think the Anderson was infinitely better.
The partially underground communal shelters could hold quite a number of people. There was one of
these in our street in the field where we chopped down the fence. They formed three sides of a square
of tunnel of around 60 feet in length on each side, with an entrance in the centre of the middle section,
facing the street, and with escape hatches at the two farthest corners from the entrance.
Bomb damage on the St Helier Estate. This photograph from the
Wimbledon Borough News was passed for publication 3 December 1940 by
the General Section Press & Censorship Bureau. The caption read, ‘Folk
here had just gone to bed when the bomb fell but they were uninjured’.
Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
31 May 1945 saw the dismantling of the last of the bunks placed on
platforms at South Wimbledon Station, which was used as an air raid shelter
during the War. As many as 1400 people took refuge in this shelter at times.
Reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
The communal shelter was used
by many people in our street
who lived nearby, mainly those
on the opposite side of the
street. On the same side of the
street, it was flanked on one
side by a recreation ground,
and on the other by a large
house owned by a Justice of
the Peace, who I’m sure
wouldn’t have dreamt of going
into a communal shelter. Hilda,
a lady friend from those early
days, used the shelter regularly
during the Blitz. Apparently,
when she came home from
school, she used to go from her
house across the road, taking
blankets etc to lie along the
benches, ‘to book bed space’
for her family. Several families
of neighbours of Hilda used to go there, and I believe my old mate ‘r o n a l…’ sheltered there along with
his parents. There were arguments between some of them, almost coming to blows over territorial rights,
perhaps because someone moved another person’s bedding to make room for their own. From what
I remember of the shelter, the rows of benches on either side hardly looked wide enough for sleeping
on, although I was informed more recently by Hilda that, eventually, wider sleeping accommodation was
installed. It must have been noisy at times, especially if someone came to join the family after an evening
in the pub. Hilda said it got a bit unpleasant when someone brought fish and chips in with them. Another
problem with this type of shelter was that the rain came through in places during a heavy downpour; all
in all the Andersons were preferable.
It’s good that I still have contacts with times past. I have known my friends Hilda and Harry since we
were about seven or eight years old. If my memory lets me down about some general aspect or other
I can probably fill in the gaps by making a phone call. Of course most of the incidents are my own
recollections of things that happened. I don’t suppose many people could claim to have friends from
seventy years ago, with whom they are in regular, if not frequent, contact.
Thinking back I don’t know how we coped with the night-after-night loss of sleep, added to which was
the element of danger, and we still had to go about our normal routines the next day. I, like most people,
would wonder just how long this night-after-night bombardment would go on but there was nothing we
could do about it. I suppose one could get used to anything in time. It was pretty demoralising though.
I still had to go to school, where there were surprisingly few absentees, but after a while it was decided
to close the school down for an unspecified period, which turned out to be about nine months; more or
less the duration of the Blitz, whilst air raid shelters were being constructed. These were to be made of
concrete, partially buried and covered with earth, in the same way as the communal shelter in our street.
It meant part of the playing field being dug up. During those months we were to be taught in the houses
of pupils, who had volunteered their parents to host classes. These consisted of groups of about half a
dozen or so from members of the volunteer’s class for one morning each week. We had homework, but
the educational value of this was minimal. The reason the school was closed was because the Air Raid
other saying was, ‘Wo gehen sie Fräulein’ (where are you going Miss) which most of the blokes knew.
In general we didn’t learn much German, except a few phrases like those I’ve mentioned. I was more
fortunate in that I learnt the names of all the commodities in the store.
The German women cleaners used to come to the store for cleaning materials. One of them was rather
cheeky; we used to have a joke with her, mocking the German language. She would respond with ‘You
English you speak th- th- th’. With no ‘th’ in the German language, saying something with the tongue
against the teeth was very funny to them. This same woman, having heard an English phrase in common
usage had a corrupted version. She would say ‘komm, mach dein bloody finger aus’. The German
workers were more fortunate than most Germans in that they received a bowl of soup in addition to their
pay, to supplement their meagre rations. They may have received other perks, but I’m sure nothing came
from the store.
I did a bit of petty pilfering from the store, perhaps a couple of eggs, some bread, a little butter and some
Horlicks, which I shared with my pals in a room feast. I had managed to bribe Hermann the German,
the hospital butcher, with some chocolate and cigarettes in exchange for some fresh meat. Someone had
a stove so we had quite a feed. I recall an incident when Hermann was watching us unload vegetables
from the ration wagon and a sack of Brussel sprouts broke open. Hermann shouted with delight ‘ach
Rosenkohl’ (rose cabbage) and dived in to pick them up. We let him keep the few he did pick up.
Hermann could get plenty of meat, but he was as short of vegetables as any other German.
There was an ardent Roman Catholic who would look in his diary to find a saint’s day for us to celebrate,
and there were plenty of those. We used to have drinking sessions in one or other of our rooms, where
we would sing really disgusting songs. One evening, the matron, who must have heard what we were
singing, looked in and said, ‘Keep the noise down lads, we’ve got patients on the floor below’.
Eric, one of my mates, was the hospital radiographer. Whilst preparing for one of our room parties, Eric,
knowing his alcoholic limitations, put paper down around his bed to catch the anticipated throw up. We
drank spirits as well as beer – gin I believe it was – and I’ve no idea where it came from and how we
came by it. The next day, Eric didn’t show up for breakfast. After a while, a couple of us went to his room
to waken him. Eric was lying there, bedclothes smothered in his sick, the paper without a spot on it. He
managed to go down for the midday meal and had a brave try at eating it but got up abruptly to leave.
As he walked towards the door I called ‘all right Eric’. I shouldn’t have done that. He gave me the thumbs
up and as he opened his mouth to speak a cascade of vomit came out which must have rather spoilt the
appetite of the other diners.
Jock, whenever he had been drinking the night before, would break an egg in a cup, add some vinegar,
give it a stir and swallow it down. At first it seemed pretty disgusting, but when I tried it I swallowed it
without any trouble at all. I don’t know where Jock did his drinking; he was a work colleague and not
one of our group.
On the subject of drinking, one evening, Staff Sergeant X, my boss in the store, was having a party in
his house in the married quarters, and Jock and I were invited. It went on until quite late, long after we
should have been back in the hospital, and we had to climb a fence to get in, not very easy when you’ve
had a few drinks, but we got back alright. I know some people can get a bit aggressive when they have
had a few, and with Jock’s background, I was slightly wary. It was comforting when he put his arm round
my shoulder and said ‘Yer a guid lad Ronnie’.
The next day I had developed quite a bad abdominal pain, which continued into the following day. I then
decided to go on sick parade where it was diagnosed as appendicitis, which meant surgery, and who
was the surgeon? None other than a Major N, who was one of my boss’s chums, and with whom I had
been drinking at our staff sergeant’s party. A few days had elapsed since the party so I knew he had no
There were a few dirty deeds done with the commodities, like making tea to the right colour to mix with
the whisky (the whisky was for a ration to be given to patients in the Officers ward), the bottle to be
topped up after depletion by the staff sergeant, and his crony officer and Regimental Sergeant Major
visitors. The RSM was a regular visitor to the store and when he came in it was ‘Read, cup of tea for
the Sergeant Major’. This would occasionally be followed by a drop of whisky.
Once in a while we were paraded outside, to be attended by those of us who were not on ward duty.
The RSM taking the parade, had, on his visits to the stores for his usual tea and/or a drop of the staff
sergeant’s special, known I was trying to grow a moustache and had a few, barely visible, hairs above
my upper lip. As he walked along the lines inspecting us he stopped by me, and in a very loud voice
bawled ‘Read, your moustache needs trimming’ which caused a chuckle in the ranks and proved that
RSMs actually had a sense of humour.
There was a flourishing black market in Germany after the war. Jock had managed to accumulate seven
pounds of coffee over a period of time, which he exchanged on the black market for a Leica camera,
one of the finest in the world pre-war, so I was told. Jock, obviously, got it for what it would fetch back
home, I couldn’t see him as a photography buff.
We were receiving a free issue of chocolate and cigarettes periodically which enabled me to do some
black market deals. I bought a lovely silk square headscarf; Wuppertal was a textile town before the war.
I also bought a collapsible umbrella, at that time an innovation, which I am sure wasn’t available in
England. I had never seen one before. These were to take home to my mother.
I’ve spoken about the black market in cigarettes and chocolate. It’s no wonder there was such a demand
for cigarettes on the black market, the German men were so eager to get a smoke that they would pick
up the ‘dog ends’ which we threw away. Some rotten blighters would nip the hot end off in the dark,
so that the Germans desperate for a smoke would be scrambling around hoping for a discarded cigarette
end, and burning their fingers on the hot ash. I was approached one day by a German who spoke the
words in near perfect English saying, ‘excuse me sir, but may I have your cigarette end when you have
finished with it?’ Whether he was prepared to follow me until I had finished it, I don’t know. I was so
taken aback I just gave him my freshly lit cigarette, and
almost gave him the packet, I was so surprised. The black
market was rampant; as I’ve said, a packet of ten cigarettes
would get you a week’s pay, and only the blokes going on
leave would attend pay parade, where they would draw a
tidy sum which had built up. Eventually a system of forces
currency was brought in, which replaced the German
mark, and put a stop to that. This currency was called
BAFVs, standing for British Armed Forces Vouchers,
which made German marks useless to us, with no shops
where we could spend them. We could still barter for
goods with our cigarettes and chocolate, and plenty of that
was done. We had a German window cleaner, so called,
who went around with his bucket with a cloth draped over
it, which he would pull away revealing a dozen or more
We learnt some important German phrases, one of which
was ‘Was kostet?’ (what does it cost, or how much?)
another was ‘Wieviel Cigaretten?’ (How many cigarettes)
the currency was always cigarettes or chocolate. One
Precautions people would not allow schools to function unless there were shelters. It made life a little
less stressful, not having to go to school after being kept awake half the night by the air raids. In the more
central areas of London, most of the schools had been taken over as rest centres for the homeless, whose
houses had been destroyed by the bombing. Many of the pupils who attended those schools were, I
suppose, evacuated anyway.
Many teachers had been called up for military service, adding to the problem for the education
authorities. We had two temporary women teachers in our school for a couple of years. Ours was an
all boys school of 11-14-year-olds and previously had only male teachers. It was an interesting and
amusing experience having women to teach us.
We used to play in our communal shelter before the raids came. War games were the thing at that time.
It was our fortification, our Maginot Line. We had to have enemies, and of course we had to have spies.
I remember, in the winter of 1939 when snow was on the ground, a stockpile of snowballs was made
which was stacked in the corner under one of the escape hatches. This was snowball corner, where the
enemy spy, if caught, was subjected to a barrage of snowballs. The shelter would get pretty wet by the
time our games were over. This, of course, was about nine months before the shelter was used in earnest.
One of the games we used to play required the use of sticks which we called ‘mudslingers’. We used
sticks which had a springiness in them to which was attached a small ball of clay. We became an antiaircraft
battery and when a flight of gulls approached ( the enemy aircraft ) someone would shout ‘Fire’
and a volley of clay balls was sent upwards. I doubt whether, if one had been hit, it would have harmed
it, in any case they were usually out of range of our projectiles. These gulls roosted in the sheds which
housed the Tube trains, when they came out into the open in Morden. I don’t think any of these gulls had
ever seen the sea.
We used the shelter for lots of other games later, one of which was kiss chase with the girls, in the pitch
dark of the unlit tunnels. We were a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds, and kiss chase was all it was; there
was not the massive media bombardment of sex which we get today; the word was rarely used, except
as a distinguishing label of gender. Because of this we had a certain – I hesitate to use the word
‘innocence’, although I used this word in my childhood chapter. We knew all the facts of life, nevertheless
we were innocent where sex was concerned, it didn’t enter our heads. Even later, when, in our mid to
upper teens, it did enter our heads, we held back from the ultimate act. I’m not saying that there was no
physical contact of a sexual nature. There was some foreplay of various kinds, and the female breast
would receive a certain amount of attention whilst in the cinema and that would be it. As we might have
put it in our simple way, ‘a handful in the back row of the pictures and you have had a good night’. I
remember one night taking a girl of ample proportions to the cinema, and fondling her plump elbow for
most of the evening. I think it was there as a barrier.
But if, in my upper teens, I did contemplate the ultimate act of sexual intercourse, and to contemplate
it was usually all it amounted to, I would visit the local chemists and walk nervously up and down outside,
waiting for the other customers to leave the shop, and making certain there was a man behind the counter.
Plucking up courage, I’d go in; bother! The man’s gone into the back room. I say, nervously, to the young
lady waiting to serve me, ‘Tube of Macleans toothpaste please’. I felt sure she knew what I really wanted,
and as she handed me the tube of toothpaste; was that a knowing smile on her face? Or did I imagine
it? Did she seem to blush? I couldn’t be certain of anything. I just wanted to get out of that shop.
It wasn’t always a case of the lads holding back. There was the problem of the girl fighting to protect
her honour – for the sake of a better word for it, fighting all the way to protect her virginity. I doubt if
anyone today, in their mid to late teens, could understand or imagine a situation like this, with the pill and
other contraceptives so freely available. But this was how it was; sex before marriage was taboo. We
were very much constrained by the moral climate which prevailed; the stigma of pregnancy before
marriage was a thing nobody wanted, but at the same time, protected sex was equally bad before
marriage. It was different for people in the forces, away from home, and in wartime; one lived a very
different life, where I’m sure there was a good deal of extra-marital sex. And it was the same at home
where the husband was posted abroad for long periods without any leave.
But now we were children, and we played virtually right up until we left school at 14 to go to work.
We were urged to ‘Dig For Victory’ by a massive
publicity campaign resulting in the number of
allotment holders being doubled. At our school
the classes in their last two years had allotments.
They were in part of the Morden recreation
ground, which we were allowed to dig up for this
purpose. There was always a teacher in charge, so
we had to work. I enjoyed these visits to the
allotment; they made a pleasant change from the
classroom. We grew quite a lot of vegetables, and
I remember taking home some shallots which I
helped to grow. Unfortunately no one seemed to
like them in our house. I think the teachers had first
pick of the crops.
Poultry Clubs had sprung up throughout the land
with a total membership of over a million, and,
apparently they accounted for a quarter of the
nation’s egg production. There were also pig
clubs, the pigs being fed on kitchen waste. We had
a dustbin on the corner of our road, specially for
the collection of these scraps. People did their bit
in any way they could, to help the war effort and
gladly assisted in filling the bin. There was a
wonderful spirit then, with everyone working for
the common good. I remember the time my
mother had gone shopping, and took some scraps
to put in the bin on her way. She had lifted the lid,
put the scraps in, and found herself absentmindedly
carrying a dustbin lid quite some way farther down
the road before she realised what she was holding.
In October 1941 I had my fourteenth birthday, and at the end of term, in December, I left school and
got a job in an aircraft factory, initially, making parts for the Whitley bomber, a rather unsuccessful plane,
which finished up being used for training purposes, towing gliders, and for paratroop dropping. Far too
many were made, and to quote from my information source: ‘ Even the production of useless aircraft was
preferred to no aircraft at all. Such was the thinking of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The Whitley
was obsolete right from the start, and, so many were produced during the war, that many, perhaps most,
scarcely left the aircraft storage units’. And this was my contribution to the war effort! Anyway, there
I was in a factory, starting as a sort of dogsbody, assisting men by holding a weight against a rivet on one
side of the aluminium engine cowling, whilst the man on the other side hit it with a hammer and a short
steel rod with a concave dome in the end, which made a nice round head on the rivet. On my side the
rivets were countersunk, so they had to be dead flush with the curved cowling, and woe betide me if I
hadn’t held my weight spot on and part of the rivet-head projected.
The allotments in Morden Recreation Ground can be
seen beyond the fence in this photo from the adjoining
back gardens in Faversham Road, taken in 1961.
Reproduced by courtesy of Rosemary Turner
There were some lighter moments on ward work, like when one of the British civilians, a member of the
Control Commission Germany (CCG – which we called Mil. Gov.) came in suffering from concussion.
The CCG people were in Germany as part of a programme of helping the country get back on her feet;
to stabilise the infrastructure, and to get things moving towards democratic government. Our man was
put in the officers’ ward in keeping with his status, which was where I happened to be working at the
time. He must have been badly concussed, because one day I went into his room to find him sitting on
the window ledge of an open window, two floors up, calling ‘tweet tweet’ to the birds. Whenever I went
into his room to ask how he was, he would say ‘fine, fine’ but I had reason to doubt how fine he was,
when I went into the bathroom one day to find an enormous turd in the empty bath. I think nowadays
it would be called dementia rather than concussion.
We had another civilian on the ward, who was a rather high-ranking British police officer, probably CID.
The story was that he was investigating something in a damaged building and fell through an upper floor,
fracturing his spine. As I have said, that was the story but there was some doubt about this, and there
were murmurings that he was up to no good. He was in a plaster cast from neck to the base of the spine,
and one of my jobs was to rub his bottom with surgical spirit and dust off with talc to avoid him getting
bedsores. He was a very large man, verging on fat, so there was a lot of bottom to rub. People wouldn’t
believe me if I told them I used to rub a copper’s arse. He was very apologetic about it and gave me
a pound each time, for my having to perform such a task. One sneaky, unscheduled job was to watch
out for the sister while his fellow, and I suspect felonious, officers, all senior British police officers, with
bags of brass and braid on their uniformed shoulders, who had come to visit him, smuggled his Fräulein
in to see him. I understood that his wife was being flown out the next day to be with him; that’s coppers
On one occasion whilst on night duty on the Officers’ ward, I was very tired (I don’t sleep well in the
daytime) and, it being a solo duty, I was in charge of the few patients in the ward. I was wakened in the
middle of the night by the matron gently shaking me. I was full of apologies but she was very nice about
it and I received no reprimand. I wondered afterwards, what was a matron doing, on duty in the middle
of the night?
I saw some really nasty things whilst on Emergency squad. One night a sergeant was brought in dead,
having been beaten up, presumably by one of the gangs of youths who wandered about at night singing
their Hitler Youth songs no doubt, and accompanied by a guitar. This chap’s head had been smashed
in and his brains were exposed. Our sergeant in charge went through his pockets, which was probably
part of his duty, but when he started reading aloud his personal correspondence, and making uncouth
and insulting remarks, his callousness sickened the rest of us.
Before I came off ward work there was one other unpleasant experience. A chap had died on our ward,
and the sister asked me to assist in cleaning up the body before it was to be sent back to Britain. I had
to move him around while she cleaned him, and stuffed cotton wool in and around every orifice. The thing
I hated most was when on the instruction ‘lift his head’ I tried to do it with care, she snapped, ‘Lift it by
his hair, you can’t hurt him!’. I reluctantly carried out this most disagreeable part of the whole business.
It was a great relief to me when I was moved to the ration store. There were three of us, a staff sergeant
in charge, myself and another private who happened to be a prizefighter in civilian life. He was a
fairground boxer, who took on all comers, and his face showed the signs of his profession; he was cross-
eyed, had a broken nose, and the fact that he came from Glasgow added to his credentials as a real
toughie. I got along with him really well, which I suppose was to be expected in the circumstances. I
enjoyed my time in that store. Jock was a really decent bloke and a pleasure to work with. Although we
were both privates, he was in the store long before I came and I suppose was the senior member, but
he never at any time came the heavy or got bossy.
Another thing which was also still intact was the
Schwebebahn, which was still operating,
although it may have suffered damage in the
bombing, but it was in use now. The
Schwebebahn is a railway system, the carriages
of which are suspended from a rail above; the
carriages are usually two tram-sized coaches
joined together. The rail is supported by bridge-
like girders at intervals along its length which
sloped out to supporting bases either side of the
River Wupper, a fairly narrow river, the course
of which it followed. In my time in Wuppertal it
was the only suspended railway in the world; I
believe some other countries may have similar
railways now. The Schwebebahn has been a
public service vehicle for many years; in fact it
was opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1900. We
used to enjoy riding on it, taking it to explore
other parts of the town, some of which were
slightly less damaged than others but all of them
were lifeless. It would sway a bit when it got up
speed, but it was a fun ride. We would never use
it after dark. It wasn’t safe to be too far from
home territory. The Schwebebahn has been
modernised and is now a much-used means of
transport, competing with buses and trams, with
the line greatly extended and crossing roads as
well as following the river. It is part of the
integrated transport system of the town.
I was put on ward work again at 77BMH. I hated it, but I suppose, being in the medical corps, nursing
was to be expected. I found it depressing as I was taking on all the problems of the sick and injured. I
think it was made bearable by having some good mates. There were five of us who went around together
and drank together. The
drinking was done in the bar
which was in the cellar, or
perhaps in one or other of our
rooms, because there was
nowhere outside where one
could go as no pubs, cafés or
bars were to be found. There
was the NAAFI, but they only
sold tea and cakes, no alcohol.
Some dodgy schnapps was
being sold on the black market,
but there were tales of men
going blind after drinking it, so
that was out.
Schwebebahn suspended railway carriage
With mates in Wuppertal NAAFI
My duties included getting tea for the men during tea break and water for them to wash their hands at
lunchtime. I would get the water from a hot tap in the toilet and carry it to the workplace in a large bucket;
they all shared this! When lunchtime came it would be ‘You gonna get the old ‘fisherman’s daughter’
lad’. Being familiar with rhyming slang, I knew just what they meant. These were my customers, some
half dozen or so. There were a couple of other lads who did the fetching and carrying for their men. I
was given a shilling a week, and, from the less generous, sixpence a week for carrying out these tasks.
These coin denominations would be equivalent to five pence and two and a half pence in decimal coinage.
However they meant for me about five shillings and sixpence a week. This doesn’t sound too bad when
my wage from the firm was only seventeen shillings and four pence per week. The tea and water fetching
was voluntary of course, but I did it gladly for the extra money.
One day I had a fight with a lad, who, in company with another lad, was bullying me. I said to him ‘I’ll
fight you fairly in the alley’. He took up the challenge, and in the lunch break with the men crowding round
we fought. I split the other lad’s lip and he called enough. The men had thoroughly enjoyed the fun; holding
my hand up and shouting ‘The champ’. They were not partial in this, and I’m sure if the other lad had
won he would have had the same treatment. We were the best of friends after that.
I spent my first two years doing the menial jobs at the beck and call of the men. There were some angry
exchanges, when someone ‘poached’ a lad before the man he had been working with had finished a
particular task. The trouble was, you were never certain when a job was finished, and you might agree
to work for someone else, which would give rise to a lot of ill feeling.
So, I went into this environment straight from school and had I not been a bit of a street urchin, the bad
language, dirty jokes and songs might have shocked me, but I had heard much of it before, though I quite
enjoyed their versions. There was one rather vulgar little song they used to sing, which I had never heard
before. It was sung to the tune of ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’, and it went like this;
‘Bums, bellies and tits
Bums, bellies and tits
There’s nothing so pleasing
As constantly squeezing
Bums, bellies and tits.’
I started smoking, as every time I worked with a man on the riveting jobs, and he lit a cigarette, he would
offer me one, which meant that not only were my morals being undermined by rude songs, my health was
being damaged as well. But I enjoyed my time there; most of the blokes had a great sense of humour
and a tremendous fund of quips and humorous songs, many of which were clean ones.
When I reached sixteen I went ‘on the bench’. This meant having my own bench area, buying my own
tools and working alone. I undertook an un-indentured apprenticeship through the Union of Sheet Metal
Workers and Braziers; being wartime I couldn’t have a full indentured one. However, it gave me a greater
interest, doing many different jobs and learning a trade, and I have to say that all of these jobs were on
parts of aircraft other than the, apparently useless, Whitley. I continued this until I was eighteen and was
called up for the army, which unfortunately cut short my apprenticeship.
The Blitz ended mid-1941, but there were still some raids, though they were fewer and farther between,
when the Luftwaffe turned their attention to other large towns up and down the country.
In an isolated daylight raid one Sunday morning, we heard a plane overhead, then we heard the bomb
that it dropped, there was the ‘shu shu shu’ sound it made, and my mother ran three times up and down
the hall calling ‘Oh my gawd, oh my gawd’ with me in pursuit trying to calm her, but there was no stopping
her; this, for the seven or eight seconds it took to hit the ground. It struck a coal depot some quarter of
a mile away, and being Sunday, no one was working, so there were no casualties. My mother and I
laughed at this incident afterwards, and I smile now, as I think of it.
Now that the Blitz was over, we lads decided to resume our camping weekends. For this, we had made
a box cart to carry some of our gear. Unlike the steering four-wheel kind, this had just two pram wheels.
We had obtained (we always seemed to obtain things, from where, nobody quite knew) a length of iron
gas-piping which we curved into a sort of flattened S shape. It was done by pushing the tube into the
slots in a drain and putting a slight pressure on it and moving it along a little at a time. It had to be done
very carefully or the pipe would get a kink in it and weaken it at that point. We then flattened one end
to bolt it to the bottom of the cart, and the other end we flattened in the opposite direction to bolt to the
saddle stem by a circular clip, also of our own making. On the first run we found there was up-and-down
stress on the tubing, but this was cured by putting stabilising bars from the tube to the side of the cart.
We felt that, all in all, this piece of engineering was pretty resourceful.
We had some wonderful camping weekends, about which I could write a separate chapter. On one of
these weekends, we were camping at Runnymede when an air raid took place, and, with the town of
Staines being quite close by, I felt a little uneasy. It was an isolated raid and didn’t last long, but I was
a bit concerned when the anti-aircraft gunfire opened up, in case shrapnel (shell particles) fell on the tent.
On another occasion we were camping on a farmer’s field in Ripley, and one vivid memory I have is of
the farmer, who arrived on the Sunday morning, a skinny red-faced farmer, accompanied by his equally
lean red setter dog, which came sniffing around the tent and managing to find and devour some of our
precious dried egg, a powdered wartime ‘delicacy’. This farmer had a terrible stutter and with some
difficulty said, ‘Sh sh sh shillin’ a head’. Keeping straight-faced, we all paid our shillings and without
another word he walked off. I can’t explain why this incident made such an impression on me but I can
picture that farmer so clearly after all these years.
Aunt Nora and Uncle Alf were now living in Morden, having been bombed out of their house in London.
They were fortunate enough to be rehoused in a council house similar to ours, in Garendon Road. One
night during an air raid, I had gone to the front door to get some fresh air, when I heard the faint ‘swish,
swish’ sound, which I knew was a land mine; why they were called that I’ve no idea, I suppose it was
to distinguish them from sea mines. Like the sea mines, these were dropped by parachute, which meant
they didn’t go deep into the ground but landed more gently causing much more widespread devastation
and injury. When the explosion occurred I knew it wasn’t far off; it actually landed in Love Lane, very
inapt for such a hateful act. The blast from this damaged houses in adjacent roads including Auntie’s.
About half an hour later there was a knock on the door and there stood Auntie, face black smudged,
and with her little dog under her arm. Her first words were ‘The bastards have got us again’. She and
Uncle came in; she put the dog down and he promptly ran round the room twice, messed on the mat and
stood shivering. This is another incident which I can look back on with a smile, but it was far from funny
at the time.
They lived with us for several weeks until their house, which was damaged but not destroyed, was
habitable again. Teams of workmen would go around bombed areas making good where the damage
was not too severe. They were paid by the government and I think they did well out of it.
We had a few alerts whilst at school when we would go to the school shelters. This was from June 1941,
when the shelters were finally ready, and in the last six months of my schooldays. During these visits to
the shelter we couldn’t have normal lessons, and I remember the teacher in our shelter giving us a talk
on astronomy. On one occasion (in the teacher’s absence) I had a fight with another lad in the shelter;
I seem to have had a lot of fights when I was young. The teacher came back and caught us, and it was
straight to the headmaster’s office. It resulted in the other boy and I being caned. Six of the best; three
on each hand. Nowadays an irate parent would come to the school to sort the teacher out, or report him
to the police for assault. In our day we would have thought to involve the police was a joke. Nowadays,
of course, corporal punishment is against the law, and I suppose it does protect children from excessive
a Belgian car. It appeared that his ambulance was hit on the side by the car, and just turned over. The
ambulances were tall boxes on wheels, and possibly because there were no patients being carried at the
time, it made the thing lighter and more vulnerable. I can remember how, every time he heard a car horn
sound from the traffic in the street nearby, he would cry out weakly, ‘Bastards’.
It was decided that he needed specialist treatment back in England, and would be flown back by special
plane from Brussels airport. I was told to pack my small pack ready to travel with him. We were taken
to Brussels airport to meet the plane but when we arrived, it was to find that an RAF medic would be
travelling with him instead. I was relieved in a way. I don’t know how I would have handled a crisis in
his condition, I wasn’t trained to deal with a really seriously ill patient.
One day a rather unusual job came my way. I was detailed to go and collect some German prisoners
who were being repatriated to Germany. They were arriving at the Hook of Holland, a port now in use,
which had become the route to and from Germany.
It seemed that one of the Germans had been told he would be killed when he got back to Germany, by
his own people presumably, for what reason no one knew. He had tried to commit suicide by jumping
overboard during the sea crossing. We set out in an ambulance, just the driver, and another chap and
myself in the back, armed with sticks, which someone had thoughtfully given us. We had an arrangement
with the driver, that on a signal he was to stop and come to our aid in the case of an emergency. We arrived
to find the situation not nearly as bad as we had expected. We were escorting just four Germans, one
of whom was a stretcher case. We got them into the ambulance and set out for 106BMH. We had no
idea which one was the unstable one, but we treated them all with suspicion. The stretcher case would
sit up from time to time, rolling his head round and round, which was a bit unnerving. We stopped for
a pee by an open field and stretched our legs, and one of our charges decided he would like to take a
walk across the field, but with our shouts and stick waving we managed to get him, and the others, back
on board to continue our journey. It was a very interesting afternoon out.
After I had spent six months in Antwerp it was decided to close the place down and, presumably, hand
it back to the Belgians. There were very few British troops left in Belgium at this time.
Now it was goodbye to the bright lights of Antwerp and back to desolate Germany.
There, I was posted to a
hospital in the town of
Wuppertal. Much of the town
was reduced to rubble. The
hospital itself was on a hill on
the edge of the town; a grand
six storied building untouched
by the bombing. This was
77BMH, my home for the next
year and a half. There were
many thousands of bodies
buried in the rubble of
Wuppertal, so we were told,
which probably accounted for
the smells which were much in
evidence. A walk to the NAAFI
in town was through streets of rubble, and in the town centre was one of the few buildings still intact; the
77 British Military Hospital, Wuppertal c.1947
their share of flying bombs. The port of Antwerp was rendered unusable by the Germans before they
left, but I suppose they wanted to destroy all remaining facilities; they still had plenty of flying bombs left,
and Antwerp was the obvious target, after south east England was beyond the range of their launch sites.
Despite this, there were not too many signs of damage in the town. We could go into town and have a
good evening in a bar drinking and eating hard-boiled eggs, which all the cafés kept in large glass jars.
Or we would find a restaurant where we could get things like steak and chips. It has occurred to me now,
that knowing French and Belgians’ fondness forcheval, the steaks could have been horsemeat. I’m glad
it didn’t occur to me then.
The Americans were also in Antwerp! As we sat in one café having a mid-morning cup of coffee and
a snack, the proprietor and her daughter were entertaining us in a somewhat over-friendly way. The
mother was groping one lad (inside his trousers) whilst the daughter went round kissing us all in turn. There
were four of us there, and the chap getting the special treatment from the mother sat at one end. We didn’t
get the chance to see whether we would all get a turn with mother, whether she would extend her
hospitality further, as at this point a Jeep pulled up outside and two helmeted Americans got out, came
into the café, and went straight into a back room. The hospitality shown to us was at an end; our ladies
also went into the back room no doubt to provide our American allies with a more comprehensive
Every three months or so we were allowed a forty-eight hour short leave. I remember I spent some time
in Brussels but my memory of it is somewhat sketchy. One thing I remember quite clearly was standing
on the steps of Brussels Central Station taking in the scene when I was approached by a young lady who
asked if I would like to come up to her room. Her profession was obvious and I said I hadn’t any money,
whereupon she walked away. Speculating afterwards I thought in the extremely unlikely event of her
saying something equivalent to ‘that’s alright you can have one on the house’, I think I would be the one
In Germany we were the wealthy ones, where a bar of chocolate or ten cigarettes could get us a week’s
pay; here, with no black market we were playing with our own money, but we got by. I enjoyed my off-
duty time in Antwerp, but not the working day, where I was put on ward work, doing nursing duties which
meant being bossed around by a nursing sister, and she was a real bully. She had the rank of lieutenant
and had the capability of putting me on a charge if I stepped out of line. All I really did was take round
the pills and medicines, assist in bedmaking, clean lockers and perhaps take the odd temperature— and
We didn’t have guard duty, which they had in other army units; instead, we had emergency squad duty,
which meant occasional nights on standby, which was done on a rota basis. These duties could be a bit
unpleasant, like when a body was brought in at about 3am, and we had to take it to the morgue. It was
quite creepy. As we opened the iron gates they creaked and groaned. It was like a scene fromDracula.
This was a very old, one-time civilian hospital. We put the body on a slab as quickly as possible and got
out of it. On another occasion, whilst on emergency squad duty, we were told a body was being brought
in which had been washed up at the Hook of Holland after being in the sea for quite some time. It arrived
in what was supposed to be a sealed wooden box, but that didn’t stop the leakage of awful smelling fat
which covered the floor of the truck which brought it. I wouldn’t have liked the job of cleaning that up!
We unloaded it, and I cannot remember what happened to it afterward, but I don’t think it went to the
Whilst I was on normal ward duty, we had one of our ambulance drivers brought in after being involved
in a bad accident whilst driving his ambulance. He had serious internal injuries; I heard a ruptured spleen
mentioned by the doctor, but I think probably more than that. I recall that as the doctor was examining
his genital area, a jet of blood spurted into the air – it came from his penis. The accident was caused by
physical abuse, but, from what I have read in the newspapers, it seems to me that it is loaded in favour
of the villain who kicks the teacher in the shins, or makes allegations of maltreatment. To us it was fair
game; you misbehaved; you got punished; no complaints.
Night raids didn’t finish altogether at the end of the Blitz; there were sporadic raids, one of which was
the cause of us playing hosts to my Aunt and Uncle. One evening I went with my Aunt to the cinema;
the film was New Moon with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald, and I remember well how the
announcement came up on the screen: ‘The alert has sounded; those wishing to leave please do so as
quickly and quietly as possible. For those remaining the performance will continue.’ Auntie chose the
first option, and we were out and on our way home, but I wished we’d stayed where we were. The planes
came over, searchlights swept the sky and a tremendous anti-aircraft barrage opened up, and we were
still ten minutes from home and nowhere to shelter. As we hurried along we could hear bombs dropping
some way off, but the most alarming thing was the sound of the shrapnel falling around us, hitting roofs
and other hard objects with a loud clatter. A large one of those falling from such a height, I’m sure would
go right through the skull. However, we made it home safely, but it was a rather nasty experience. I’ve
been to the pictures on other occasions when the siren had sounded and stayed put. The gunfire could
be heard above the sound of the film which was a bit distracting, but I felt much safer.
We used to go out collecting shrapnel in the mornings after the raids. Most mornings you could see boys
walking around the parks and open ground, eyes to the ground, and what a prize it was when you found
a shell nose cone. Funnily enough I was digging in my garden about a month or so ago and I found what
I’m certain is a piece of shrapnel, so at least I have some, belatedly and found by accident.
One morning after an air raid we found an incendiary bomb in the local recreation ground; it was just
burning harmlessly on the grass and we had some fun trying to put it out. It took quite some time as it
kept re-igniting every time we thought it was out. I think we smothered it with soil eventually. The
incendiary bombs were about eighteen inches long, like elongated wine bottles, with a flight at the top.
They were made out of a lightweight material, aluminium combined with a flammable element. The
aluminium flight was quite a collector’s item. Many incendiaries had gone through people’s roofs and
ignited in lofts. It must have been an appallingly harrowing and dangerous task trying to put them out in
those circumstances. The standard way to move them was on a shovel, but how would you get them from
a loft that way?
One thing I should have mentioned before was the protection from injury by flying glass. What we did
was to stick adhesive tape or sticky brown paper criss-cross on the windowpanes. Ours being multi-
framed small-paned windows made it a fairly easy task, but I don’t know how people managed with the
larger single-paned ones like shop windows. The idea was to stop the glass splintering but I’m not sure
how effective it was.
The same sort of thing was found on the Underground trains, only this was done with a closely woven
mesh of a dark thick material which could not be seen through, which was stuck to the windows. A small
opening of about six inches by three inches was left in the centre of each window which made it very
difficult to read the station names. An advertising campaign was under way, emphasising the importance
of the mesh and the danger of removing it, with a poster showing a man pulling the mesh away from the
window. Another man was placing his hand on the first man’s shoulder, and the caption read –
‘ I trust you’ll pardon my correction,
That stuff’s there for your protection.’
In one train on which I was travelling, a wonderful piece of graffiti had been added which read –
‘I trust you’ll accept my explanation,
I want to see the bleeding station’.
I’m not sure of the exact expletive used, it could have been stronger. This piece of graffiti is one of many
unforgettable memories I have of the war. Graffiti today have lost their cutting edge; there is no wit any
more. It’s all done by would-be Picassos.
It seems hard to imagine that a Tube train could be vulnerable, but I read that a bomb could penetrate
hard ground to a depth of fifty feet, and perhaps shock waves could cause glass to break, and, besides,
many of the trains came above ground at sometime anyway. There were two big Tube station disasters;
one at Balham where 68 of some 600 people sheltering there died when there was a direct hit on the
station; the bomb tore through the road above, smashing water mains and cable conduits, and flooding
the platforms. There was another bomb disaster at Bank underground station where a hundred people
died. I had known about these disasters but some of the detail I obtained from my reference source to
fill the gaps in both my memory and the background information not known to me at the time.
In the summer of 1942, the RAF launched the first of its thousand bomber raids. The target was Cologne,
and I saw for myself what those raids did to Cologne whilst serving with the forces in Germany. There
were further thousand bomber raids on other large towns and cities in Germany. Late one summer’s
evening in 1942 – it was probably getting on for 10 o’clock, and still daylight owing to double British
Summer Time – I saw an amazing sight. The sky was filled with hundreds of Lancaster bombers; they
must have been part of the assemblage of one of those thousand bomber raids. It really was an astonishing
sight, and the sound they made filled the air. It wasn’t exactly a roar, more a loud steady drone. We knew
the consequences for the Germans, but we had suffered the blitz and the sight of these planes gave us
heart; it was a real boost to our morale. I felt elated by the sight of so many aircraft. It gave me the feeling
that we were winning this war and were going to destroy Germany. I don’t think I was alone in my
thoughts which included ‘Give the bastards what for’.
We had quite a number of isolated air raids during 1942 and 1943. I remember on one occasion a Heinkel
was flying around in daylight for what seemed the best part of half an hour. The sky was overcast and
the clouds were very low, the plane came out of the clouds at a very low level and fired off a burst of
machine-gun fire; the crosses on the wings and swastika on the tail could be seen very clearly, and I could
even make out the pilot’s head. After this first burst he went back into the clouds. He emerged after a
short while to fire another burst of gunfire, and so it went on. What the target was I couldn’t imagine;
he was only over our council house estate, hardly warranting such display of firepower. It was as if he
was lost – most odd.
In 1943, I was sixteen, and, along with two friends, I joined the Air Training Corps (ATC). Sunday
mornings we would assemble in uniform to practise marching and to carry out various drill movements.
Occasionally we would join other organisations in a parade with bands playing. We marched with great
pride when the band struck up the RAF March Past tune. During weekday evenings we would learn
aircraft recognition of both German and British planes from silhouettes showing them at different angles.
We also learnt the Morse code and would test each other in our spare time, relaying words to each other
using dit-dah for the dot and dash; this caused much amusement. The words we most enjoyed dit dahing
were rude ones, the very rude four-letter ones were the easiest of course. Whilst writing this I tested
myself in my mind with one word in particular knowing I hadn’t touched Morse in over sixty years. When
I checked with a book which contained the Morse code I found I was spot on; funny the things one
remembers, especially with a mind like mine. We also learnt the phonetic alphabet which was different
from the present-day one. I learnt this to such a degree, that even today I could recite it at the same speed
as saying the ordinary alphabet.
In the spring of 1944, when air raid activity had more or less come to an end, I had an opportunity to
do something which would be the envy of many a lad of my age. Being in the ATC I was going to get
a flight. I should have known what to expect from a Tiger Moth! I knew it was a very old biplane with
The railways throughout Europe were in chaos due to the war being fought less than a year earlier, plus
the fact that the RAF had really hammered the German rail network with repeated air raids. I doubt
whether either the Germans or the French had the manpower or material resources available to carry
out the work required.
Progress was very slow. We had to zigzag our way, switching to minor local lines and back again. The
compartments of the train had wooden slatted seats, not very comfortable for a long journey of about
four hundred and fifty miles. We had stops for haversack rations and one stop where we were allowed
to leave the train, have a meal and take on board further haversack rations, which were always
unappetising sandwiches. The journey took the best part of thirty hours. Sleeping was difficult, with the
‘clang, clang’ sound as we passed rail junctions and the stopping and starting for signals.
We reached Germany as daylight came up, and I don’t think any of us was prepared for what we saw.
The devastation seemed total; there were ruined buildings everywhere we looked, but the thing that
shocked me most was the sight of children begging for food all along the line. We all started throwing
out our sandwiches, and they made a mad scramble for them. They really were half starved; Germany
was on its knees if these children were anything to go by.
As the train travelled farther into Germany and we passed through the one-time industrial Ruhr, the
devastation was even greater. Germany’s largest rail junction at Hamm was a mess. Before the war
Hamm and Clapham Junction vied for the busiest rail junction in the world, although Clapham was a
passenger junction and Hamm an industrial one. Hamm was certainly not in the running now. Lines were
twisted and buckled, one rail going straight up in the air some twenty feet or so.
We reached our destination, the town of Bielefeld, around mid-day. We travelled from the station to the
barracks by lorry. The barracks which accommodated us was known as a holding unit, where army
personnel of all regiments and corps were sent prior to being dispersed into their final operational bases.
It seemed funny to think that the large barracks where we were housed, might once have been occupied
by Nazi storm troopers. I spent a few nights in this stark, yet very civilised establishment, where at
mealtimes a small string orchestra played in the
dining hall, and very pleasant it was. I was
surprised when they played ‘Cruising down the
River’, a popular song back home. This was well
received by the diners.
I liked my short stay there as we had nothing to
do but enjoy our leisure time whilst we waited for
When it did come, it came as quite a shock; I was
being sent to a military hospital in Belgium,
106BMH Antwerp, just about the last place I
would have expected to be posted to. I had
travelled all the way to Germany, only to learn
that I was to travel back over half the way I had
come, to a hospital in Belgium. What a change
Antwerp was from depressing, desolate
Germany. Belgium seemed to have made a
remarkable recovery from the war. It was a land
of apparent plenty although there must have been
some shortages; all the cafés (bars) were open
and the Stella beer flowed freely. They had had In Antwerp in the winter of 1945-6
RAMC, Royal Army Medical Corps, where my medical experience was nil. All that toughening up
training for nothing!
It seemed that with no war to be fought the army wanted to train recruits to be medical orderlies in the
MI (Medical Inspection) rooms and military hospitals in the various bases, in this country, and the
countries where we had occupation forces. With so many of the wartime servicemen being demobbed
the medical units were in danger of becoming understaffed.
I had to hand in my rifle as I was now a non-combatant. I would have handed in my bayonet also, had
it not been nicked somewhere in my primary training. No one seemed to notice its absence, which I
thought was a bit lax on someone’s part as it was a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. In exchange
for handing in my rifle, I was given a nice little card with a red cross at the top, which stated that I was
protected by the Geneva Convention, which was a great comfort! From now on my army life would be
different from every other corps and regiment in the army.
I next found myself at the RAMC training depot in Crookham, Hampshire, where we studied anatomy,
physiology and something else which I’m darned if I can remember.
Being a vocation, nursing doesn’t lend itself to a bunch of conscripts who haven’t the slightest interest
in medical matters, so, come the exam at the end of the lectures, we, almost to a man, failed. This resulted
in us all being confined to barracks for a week with more intensified lectures, and when the exam was
repeated, miraculously, we all passed. I was now a nursing orderly class 3: wow!! It meant that I was
ready to be posted – and this was another weird experience.
We were paraded on the barrack-square, where we were asked which of three postings we would like
to go on; it went something like this – ‘Malta and Gibraltar over there, Italy over there, and Germany
over there’ – and we duly went to the various groupings of our choice.
Wouldn’t a wartime serving soldier have enjoyed the luxury of choosing where he would like to be
It was like choosing one’s holidays. I chose Germany. I wanted to see for myself the country we had
been at war with, a war which had, during those six years, seen me go from twelve-year-old boy to
eighteen-year-old young man. I wanted to see what Germany was like in defeat, to see what we had done
in the bombing of the German
cities, all those places I had
heard about in the news when I
was a seventeen-year-old and
following the war through the
media. Now I was off to
Germany, which I found an
We were taken to Dover for an
overnight stay, and the following Calais
day put on the ferry to Calais, Brussels
and from there by rail on the
long and tiring journey into
Germany. There were no ports
usable any nearer to Germany,
so by rail from Calais it had to
Sketch map showing my various locations during my time in the army
an open cockpit, which worried
me a bit, but it was the chance
of a lifetime and with
arrangements well in hand I
would look very foolish to back
out at such a late stage. We
were driven to a small wartime
airfield at Kenley in Surrey. For
me it turned out to be twenty
minutes of terror. I was kitted
out with flying suit, goggles, the
lot. When I sat down in the
cockpit the thing that alarmed
me most was how much of me
was on the outside. I spent most
of the flight trying to keep myself
on the seat, not entirely trusting
the straps which held me in. We
went up to a height of three thousand feet and I think the speed was about ninety to one hundred miles
an hour, which doesn’t sound very fast for a plane but I found if I peered round the side my cheeks flapped
like mad. ‘Talk about Biggles’. The pilot, whose name I remember to this day was Pilot Officer May, was
pointing out all the various places as we passed over them, and I remember Virginia Water and Windsor
Castle were mentioned. I tried to show interest, peering nervously over the side but the pilot must have
noticed my fear. After a while he told me to grasp the stick (control column) which I did, swallowing hard,
and trying to keep a steady hand. He said, ‘You are now flying the plane’, which, being a training aircraft,
had dual controls. He had me do a few manoeuvres, like nose down, nose up, and dipping the wings from
one side to the other. He took over again and then banked to turn round. I winced, the plane was briefly
on its side. Having turned it gave me heart that we were going back to land and end the ordeal.
I thanked the pilot and joined the group. I left the ATC soon after that; it put me right off planes altogether.
However, I have flown many times since, on holidays, and on one nineteen-day holiday flew twenty-four
thousand miles to Singapore and all around Australia on five different flights, but these trips were in nice
closed-in Boeings of various numbers, and I had no qualms at all. When I recall how spineless I was
during my short flight that day, and compare it with the bravery of Sgt Walley and his self sacrifice, shame
on me. By a strange coincidence, Kenley was the airfield from which Peter Walley had flown.
Things had quietened down during the early part of 1944, when the preparations for the invasion of
France were under way, although there must have been a lot of activity in the south coast towns.
One night, later in the war when fewer people were sheltering, I was seventeen, and was returning from
the Wimbledon Palais. I remember that between the up line and down line on South Wimbledon station,
there were makeshift toilet areas, men’s and women’s toilets being separated by a thick canvas sheet.
Having had a few drinks, I arrived at the station, and with a full bladder, I dashed into the nearest toilet,
which happened to be the Ladies. Before I had finished an enormous woman underground worker was
dragging me out. No time to ‘adjust my dress before leaving’ and making my pants a trifle damp. It was
very embarrassing, even though I was ever so slightly drunk. The toilets, incidentally, were quite primitive,
a galvanised dustbin with a rough wooden seat.
We spent many a Saturday evening in the Wimbledon Palais, usually spending a considerable time in the
bar getting tanked up to give us Dutch courage to ‘chat up a bird’, and ask for a dance and perhaps ask
Local ATC members marching in a Coronation Day procession in 1953,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
(When I was in the ATC we had forage caps, not berets as shown here.)
if we could see her home. By
the time we came out the ‘young
ladies’ were mostly fixed up,
spoken for. We did dance
occasionally, and if we were
lucky we might ‘see a girl home’
and if we were extra lucky,
make a date for the following
night. Those occasions were
rare. More often than not we
would, after singing a chorus of
our own version of ‘Who’s
taking you home tonight?’,
which the band usually played as the last waltz, and happy in the knowledge that the Ken Macintosh band
was good, and we had enjoyed our drink, walk to South Wimbledon underground station to catch our
train to Morden.
It is well known that D Day, the Normandy invasion, took place on the 6th June. It gave rise to much
jubilation and an expectation that the war would soon be over. No more air raids, or blackout, no
rationing (although as things turned out rationing didn’t end until long after the war ended) and the promise
of peace after five weary years was something I just can’t describe.
A week after D Day something happened to dispel all our joy and jubilation at the news of the invasion.
The air raid sirens sounded at nightfall, the war had come back to London and the Home Counties,
bombs were falling, guns were firing and we saw flames coming from what we thought were planes being
shot down. We were cheering, not knowing that these planes, as we thought them, were full of high
explosives; they were in fact flying bombs.
This was the start of the V-weapons programme, Hitler’s secret weapons that would turn the tide of the
war, so he thought. They were known by various names to the general public, Doodlebugs, Buzz Bombs
and Fly Bombs. Officially they were the V1s. We had no idea that such things could exist until the morning
after the first night of these raids, when it was announced on the radio, in the early morning news bulletin,
that the Germans had begun to use this totally new form of aerial bombardment.
These flying bombs were being launched from sites in northern France. They were aimed at London but
were far more indiscriminate than the bombs which were dropped by the Luftwaffe. The flying bombs
relied on the amount of fuel used; when they ran out of fuel they dropped from the sky. They were supplied
with just enough fuel to get them to London, but I think that weather conditions like strong winds could
affect just where the engine cut out, which meant that the Home Counties also received a fair share. I
have read that one hundred and forty fell on Croydon, which was in the direct approaches to London,
and many fell in Kent, Sussex, and in Surrey. They made an awful noise, like a motorbike without a
silencer. It was loud and quite terrifying. We didn’t spend much time in the shelters, but I suppose after
five years of air raids on and off we had become a bit blasé about it. That’s not to say we didn’t take
cover sometimes, especially during the day, when you could see the thing approaching, and the threat
was more immediate. The Buzz Bombs were coming over by night and by day and I believe, at their peak,
they were coming at a rate of a hundred a day. Not all of these got through; some were shot down in
the more open rural areas where there was less likelihood of loss of life. I believe that eventually all the
anti-aircraft gun batteries were arranged along the coast to shoot them down before they could get inland;
the fighter planes would intercept them over the open countryside. This strategy proved quite successful,
but of course a number were still getting through.
The former Wimbledon Palais in 1979,
reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
We had to carry a man a hundred yards; run a hundred yards in full pack; and there was boxing and
wrestling, and many more strenuous exercises. The course was designed to build us up gradually. It was
tough but I found it a most enjoyable ten weeks, spent mostly out in the lovely Sussex countryside. At
the end of the ten-week course I had put on ten pounds in weight. We were told that any weight we put
on would be muscle, and I’m sure that it was; we had no special diet, just normal army grub. I don’t know
whether or not we had been given anabolic steroids, but I don’t think so. Were they being used as early
as 1945? However, I felt really super tough, and very good about myself in general. We were told that
we would feel that we could push a house over, which was slightly hyperbolic, but I could understand
what they meant. The physical training instructors, who led our training, all had the rank of warrant officer.
They were a marvellous bunch of blokes, so much so that when the course ended we all clubbed together
and bought our instructor a present. I’ve never felt that generous about anyone above the rank of private;
that goes for lance-corporal right through to the most senior officer I came into contact with. I think we
were all sorry that the course was over. I for one would have been happy to have done another ten weeks.
After this it was back to Canterbury to finish my primary training and to something very surprising indeed.
Whilst I was away at Storrington, a contingent of Danes had come over to be trained by the British army
and to this day I’ve no idea why this was. They were not joining the British army as they had their own
Denmark flashes on their shoulders. Perhaps it was in exchange for Danish bacon!!
Along with another English chap from the P.D.C, I joined a squad of Danes at a similar stage of training;
eating, sleeping in the same barrack room and undergoing arms training with them. We were to all intents
and purposes Danes for three or four weeks. They were very raw recruits, one even put his gaiters on
upside down, and with the lower part being shaped to fit round the boot they looked ridiculous when
worn upside-down. It was quite amusing with a sergeant instructing us on taking apart and cleaning a
Bren gun, and the whole thing being translated into Danish as he went along. They were friendly, easygoing
lads with a wicked sense of humour. There is a word which foreigners learn whenever British troops
have been in contact with them, and this was demonstrated in the NAAFI one day. I remember one of
our more innocent Danes needing some blanco or brass cleaner or something whilst in the NAAFI, being
told by his mates, to ask for a ‘fucking’. The girl behind the counter seemed flustered at first but seeing
the situation with his friends all laughing, let him down gently, realising he didn’t know what he was saying.
One of them in our hut was a bedwetter, which was rather sad. I don’t know how he got this far in his
army life; I wondered how long he would last in the army.
We would go out in the evenings with two or three of them into the town; there was a bit of a language
barrier but we generally made ourselves understood. One or two of them spoke a little English. I
remember one of them, Johannes Larson, was a real wag; I recall him telling me a certain phrase meant
‘strawberries and cream’, but I didn’t believe him, I suspected it meant something less innocuous. He
came from Odense, where Hans Anderson came from. Johannes was something of a storyteller himself.
We exchanged addresses, though neither of us followed it up. The most bizarre thing I experienced was
when we marched through the streets of Canterbury, and while they sang Danish songs (probably
disgusting ones) in time with the marching, our two English voices were busking along with them.
I went through the usual basic training which included Bayonet Practice, throwing a Hand Grenade and
Passing Through a Gas Chamber using a Respirator, as well as the usual marching drill known as Square
Bashing. Unfortunately I made a right mess of target practice (I probably fired at the wrong target). It
was obvious I wasn’t to be trusted with a rifle, and was quite unsuitable for an infantry regiment. So when
basic training was completed it looked as if I would be going into one of the corps. I thought RASC, Royal
Army Service Corps, or REME, yes, that was it, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. I had been
a sheet metal worker – a trainee improver– so I thought I would apply for the REME. Unfortunately,
it was decided that my sheet- metal-work experience was insufficient to qualify me, so I was put in the
The war in Europe was over. The war in the Far East continued until the atomic bombs were dropped
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulting in the Japanese surrender in the mid-August of 1945.
A Labour government was voted in on 5th July with the massive task of rebuilding ahead of them.
Churchill was a great war leader but now the people were looking for a good peace time leader; whether
or not Attlee was a good leader, the political historians will have had differing views on the subject.
Whichever party was voted in had a colossal task of reconstruction ahead of them.
Iwas eighteen in October 1945 and eligible for military service. I had my medical a couple of weeks later,
which I passed A1, and duly received my call-up papers telling me to report to Canterbury barracks on
the 15th November. It was quite a wrench for me as I had never been away from home for more than
a couple of weeks at a time before, which was probably the same for many of the other new recruits.
My apprehension as to what army life would be like and how I would settle into it was in no way eased
by the sight of my living quarters, a very old long wooden hut with a solid fuel stove at one end. The hut
was so old, it must have been there since the first world war, or possibly the Boer war. But I got used
to the life very quickly and had no time to worry about my plight as the training kept us all pretty busy.
It was, I suppose, fortunate that I was born in 1927, which meant that I missed wartime army service.
I am grateful for that. However, I possibly saw more of the war, living where I did, than some wartime
service personnel who were not front line fighting soldiers. What was worse, for those who were not in
the fighting line, was being away from home. If it was a Middle East or Far East posting it could be several
years – in fact the duration of the war – before they came home.
I had only been at Canterbury about a week when we were told that a woman had been murdered in
the town, and a witness was coming to attempt to identify the killer who, apparently, was a soldier. The
whole camp was formed up on the square while the witness, a woman, went along the rows scrutinising
each of us in turn. I found it a bit unnerving. What if I got picked out because I looked like the killer?
As it happened no one was picked out, as far as I knew. It must have been almost a needle in a haystack
situation to find one person among so many.
I was half way into my six weeks of basic training when I was singled out to go on a physical development
course. I say singled out but there were a number of us, drawn from the various training centres in the
country. I was sent there due to my being slightly below the desired weight for army service. Many others
had the same problem, some had posture problems and others had various minor physical disabilities.
Despite this we were all classed as A1.
I was pretty resentful about going on this course as I was as tough as anyone I knew, pale and slim though
I was, right from childhood. I remember once, when I was quite young, being sent home from school
for the afternoon, because I looked so pale; the teacher thought I was ill, but I felt fine and enjoyed my
afternoon off school. I was in the school’s boxing team and took part in many other activities. As for the
weight problem, I had always been a lightweight; when I boxed it was at a very light weight, though I’m
not sure what the designated weight class was.
At the P.D.C (Physical Development Centre), just outside Storrington in Sussex, we did physical
exercises of one sort or another for every minute of each duty day. First thing after breakfast, it was outside
in vest and shorts for on the spot exercises to warm us up for the day ahead. Warming up was certainly
what we needed as it was midwinter during my time there. The following is a list of some of our activities:–
route marches in full pack, interspersed with runs at intervals; cross-country runs; gymnastics – leaping
and diving over a wooden horse etc. We lost one of our group with a broken collarbone during the
wooden horse exercise, a chap named Owen, who was the least athletic out of a bunch of non-athletes.
There were times when I would be out with my friends or perhaps with a girlfriend, when the local siren
sounded, which meant that one was coming our way. There would be a distant growl, which, as the thing
came into sight, developed into a deafening roar. You held your breath and hoped it would continue on
its way, which more often than not, it did. When the engine cut out overhead you just ducked down to
the ground, preferably beside a wall of some sort, but not a very high one. The words on everyone’s lips
at that moment were, ‘it’s stopped’, a very obvious observation, but it was what we all said at the time.
I was watching anxiously as our army advanced along the coast of northern France where I hoped they
would overrun the launch sites for V1s. The trouble was, new sites were being created farther along the
coast; they continued to be moved right back into Belgium.
The fly bombs continued to come and we got used to diving for cover when one came near. If at home,
and there was immediate danger, it would be in the Anderson, and if at work, it was the firm’s air raid
shelter. Most of the offices and factories had ‘roof spotters’. I suppose there was communication
between these spotters who would warn others down the line in the direction the fly bomb was heading.
This is an assumption on my part, but it seems logical. The roof spotters would warn staff to take cover
when the local siren sounded and then watch for the approach of the thing and calculate approximately
where it fell.
In our factory shelter we heard the fly bomb cut out, then the explosion, and waited for the all clear to
sound. The roof spotter always told us where they thought it landed if it was in the vicinity. I was greatly
alarmed when he said it was Central Road, the road where I lived. I was, of course, allowed to go home,
and along with two other lads who worked in different departments of my firm, who also lived in Central
Road, set off by bike for home, which was about a mile and a half away. It was the longest mile and a
half I have ever ridden and no doubt my friends’ hearts were beating as fast as mine. When we reached
the corner of our road we were horrified by what we saw. Alan’s (one of the lads) house was flattened;
it had received the direct hit. Mine and the other chap’s were badly damaged. It says much for the
Anderson shelter when we heard later that Alan’s parents, who were in the garden shelter, just a few
feet away from the house, were safe.
My house was in a row of four elevated terrace houses with six steps at each end. My mother was sitting
on one of the steps sobbing. She was wearing a pair of wellington boots. It was comical in a way; my
mother had never worn wellington boots in her life. She must have dashed to the Anderson either in her
bare feet, or else in her slippers,
and an air raid warden had put
the wellingtons on her to protect
her feet from the rubble which
lay all around. I didn’t see my
father but I understood that he
had got out of bed (he worked
nights of course) and made it to
the shelter also. It is as well he
wasn’t in bed, as a large piece
of masonry was lying on it and
he might have been killed, or
certainly badly injured. Groups
of neighbours were all gathering
round making sure others were
safe. Air raid wardens were
also much in evidence. We
Flying bomb damage on the St Helier Estate,
found out later that the only reproduced by courtesy of Merton Library & Heritage Service
casualty was a coal deliveryman’s horse. It was killed as it stood in the road nearby. The coalman had
managed to take cover in the brick-built shelter opposite the direct hit, which surprisingly withstood the
Only a day or two earlier, a fly bomb had landed in the Morden recreation ground just a few hundred
yards from us. The only damage it caused was to the cricket pavilion. I suppose it could be interpreted
as a warning that they were closing in on us.
For some reason my mother felt that I should let my sister-in-law know what had happened. She was
the wife of my brother, who was serving with the army in Egypt. I don’t know what my mother thought
she could do to help in any way, but I think she felt that, Betty, my sister-in-law, would be glad to hear
we were all safe, but then I thought, how could she know that we weren’t? She wasn’t to know that we
had been bombed out. However I set off on the six- or seven-mile cycle ride to Chessington, and told
Betty about our misfortune; she was sorry to hear the news, but was pleased no one was harmed, and
she hoped we would soon be back in our house when it was made habitable again. I was rewarded with
a cup of tea and a snack before setting out for home.
This demonstrated the communication problems we had in those days, as far as the general public was
concerned. As I mentioned earlier, phones were owned only by a small percentage of people, usually
those with the high incomes. Of course doctors, hospitals and other essential services would have phones
but scarcely anyone had the means to phone them, although I believe there were a few public phone
boxes, but I can’t be sure of that; if there were there were very few of them.
I suppose it was about 2 pm when I got back from Chessington, but I didn’t go back to work that day.
I am not sure about the next thing we did straight away. I probably cycled to my Aunt’s to let her know
we were coming to stay with them. Carrying as much as we could (no car) we made our way to
reciprocate the stay they had with us when they were displaced by the Luftwaffe. I am not sure how long
we stayed, but I made frequent visits home. The date of our displacement was the fourth of July, a date
easy to remember, it being American Independence Day, but we had no celebrations. As a matter of
fact, on the day I typed the first draft of this, it was the sixty-second anniversary of that day, and it really
does seem like yesterday, such is my long-term memory. What really happened yesterday – was it a
hospital appointment? These occupy much of our time these days.
On my first trip back home, I wasn’t sure what I would find. The front door was still intact, and I let myself
in. We hadn’t lost electricity, so I was able to switch the light on; I was glad of this as it was rather dark
with the windows boarded up. Treading over the fragments of glass and masonry, I made for the
radiogram; it worked. I tuned in to the American Forces Network, where they played all the swing
records of the time: Glen Miller and the like. Then I would tune in to a Russian station where I listened
to their battle victory celebrations. They would play the Russian National Anthem followed by a many
gun salute by Russian artillery. It’s hard for me to describe what effect the Russian celebrations had on
me; I was thrilled and greatly moved by these sounds. These were our allies who were driving the
Germans back as they pushed ever closer to Germany. Each time I came back to 141 Central Road I
made straight for the radiogram, pitted as it was by the flying glass and fragments of masonry, and each
time I would tune in to AFN for more of the music I enjoyed so much, then more of the Russian Victory
salutes, and to their national anthem which was both stirring and moving.
We and the Americans were advancing from the west and did not celebrate our battle victories, it was
not our style. But we didn’t have half our country overrun by the German army and huge numbers of
civilians killed, women raped and property seized. The Russians were going to take their revenge, and
when they captured Berlin, they did the raping and pillaging in a very big way. The German women were
utterly terrified and rightly so.
We settled into our temporary accommodation with Aunt Nora and Uncle Alf. Uncle Alf, like so many
other people, kept chickens, during the war, and collecting eggs was a great novelty for me. I sensed
there were moments of friction at times between our two families, no open warfare, but I suppose
differences were to be expected in the circumstances. Aunt Nora’s brother Sonny, a very unsavoury
character, would turn up and stay for a few days from time to time; he had done a spell in prison for
Grievous Bodily Harm and was quite vicious. His presence didn’t help matters much.
My sister, who was staying in Wales, wrote to say her hosts would be pleased to have me, and a friend,
spend a couple of weeks there. I jumped at the chance and, along with Harry, set off for a welcome break
from the flying bombs. It was to a pretty village in North Wales, and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.
We were even able to visit Harry’s younger sister who had been evacuated to Bury, then just outside
Manchester, nowadays part of greater Manchester. I believe Harry’s mum had come up there also, and
if my memory serves me right, we spent the day in Manchester. Soon after my stay in Wales we settled
back into our own house.
After the Flying Bombs (V1s) there were the V2s, which were purely rockets. There were fewer sent
over than the V1s. There was no warning of these; the first thing you heard was the explosion followed
by the sound of the thing falling. They were more destructive than the flying bombs and I was glad that
none fell within a few miles of my house. I recall one night being at my front door and seeing a big orange
burst of light in the sky followed by a loud bang – I think it was a V2 exploding in mid air. The last V1
and V2 fell in March 1945 just two months away from the end of the war but I don’t recall a great deal
of V-weapon activity beyond the end of 1944.
Towards the end of the war the first stirrings of political activity were beginning. A General Election was
called for July 1945, which was before the war in the Far East had ended, but the Japanese defeat was
inevitable. One of the lads had heard that someone from the Liberal Party was due to speak in the local
community centre. It was a few years before we would be eligible to vote, nevertheless we thought we
should start to interest ourselves in politics.
We arrived at the hall to find the meeting had started, and the hall was rather full. This meant that we had
to be seated separately in various parts of the hall, and the speaker stopped what he was saying to allow
us to settle. As we sat listening I began to wonder why he was dwelling at such length on the care and
feeding of chickens and egg production figures. I was not alone in wondering this as there came the snort
of a stifled laugh from across the hall. I was beginning to get the giggles, and one by one, to the
consternation of the speaker, we got up and left the hall. Once outside we just exploded with laughter.
That was the night we inadvertently ‘gate crashed’ a Poultry Club meeting.
At last the end of the war in Europe arrived. The Germans surrendered on May 7th 1945 and it was
announced that the following day would be celebrated by declaring a national holiday. So VE day was
May 8th, and what a day that was. We used to hear a lot about the feel-good factor a while back, a phrase
we had never known then. It was personified that day. I think everyone bubbled over with feel-good.
We lads had prepared a huge bonfire about ten feet high; we hadn’t managed to make an effigy of Hitler
but we did make a large swastika to put on the top.
In the evening, as we were preparing to light it, two Canadian soldiers came by with their lady friends.
I shall never forget what one of them said as we allowed him to light it – ‘I’m gonna get that bastard up
there’ he said as he pointed to the swastika.
Certain statistical information and details of events which were known to me but required supporting facts
and figures I have obtained from a superb book by Angus Calder calledThe People’s War.