GROWING UP ON THE ST HELIER ESTATE 1930–1950: School, Wartime and First Jobs
Local History Notes 36: by Albert A J Smith
Albert recalls his life at Dorchester Road and Dore Gardens, Morden, schooldays at the Canterbury Road schools, and work at Hawes Bros in Morden and Hope Brothers in the City, much of it under wartime conditions – including ARP messenger service in neighbouring Sutton.
LOCAL HISTORY NOTES – 36
GROWING UP ON THE ST HELIER ESTATE
School, Wartime and First Jobs
Albert A J Smith
This Local History Note condenses two documents entitled
Remembering – Growing up in a London Suburb and
Remembering – The Second World War, written by Albert
Smith (1928-1998) after he retired. They cover his first 20
years, and both documents end abruptly in 1948. We have
omitted some of his opinions of named individuals, his
lengthy reflections on his own intellectual and emotional
development, and quite a lot about particular girls that, as
a shy teenager, he never quite spoke to. Bear in mind that
the attitudes reported here are not contemporary, but were
developed over a long full life, informed by a Christian faith.
All the text is Albert’s, but the footnotes, picture captions
and Epilogue are ours. We are very grateful to his daughter
Corinne Male for permission to publish these memories and
reproduce family photographs.
The Editors Albert Smith, aged 602
Family and the St Helier Estate
I was born on 23 April 1928 at 13 Canal Place, Camberwell, a small terraced house facing the
wall of the old Surrey Canal, south of Old Kent Road, where my parents were staying for the
time being with my grandparents. Father was a printing trade machine operative, which explains
his meeting mother, who earned a living as a folder – women and girls who sat at benches in
the warehouse section of a printing office folding uncut sheets of printed pages in the correct
sequence to allow collation, binding and cutting into finished book form. Father’s employer
was the Cornwall Press, of Paris Gardens, off Stamford Street in Southwark, one of the big
London periodical printers and publishers. I developed a pride in the fact that my dad printed
the books I could sometimes see on display in shops. He was an amateur photographer when
young, and was interested in radio reception from the early ‘cat’s whisker’ days, building his
own receivers powered by accumulators. Another passion was carpentry and furniture making:
he was a good joiner, using glue and properly made joints instead of nails or scrap. At home
my father treasured his cardboard toy theatre, with miniature marionette characters; I was
never allowed to touch it, only allowed to watch him work it. He made me a large wooden
model stage with draw curtains and miniature lighting, operated by torch battery, which seemed
forever to be needing replacement from rarely available pocket money!
We moved to the new London County Council [LCC] St Helier housing estate at Morden in
1930. Our home, 36 Dorchester Road, was a terraced house, with a garden at front and back,
and father became a garden-lover, with fine flower beds and weed-free vegetable plots. At
the time of our move practically all the houses were brand new, and the estate continued to
grow around us well into the Thirties. It was purpose-built and landscaped, with strategicallyplaced
schools. The plans envisaged that no child would have to travel far or cross major roads
between school and home. In 1934 we moved about 100 yards to 10 Dore Gardens, a newer
end-of-terrace house with one or two refinements. I lived there until I left home in 1950.
A note on coinage
2 farthings = 1 halfpenny (½d)
2 halfpence = 1 penny (d)
12 pence = 1 shilling (s)
20 shillings = 1 pound (£)
(Coin) 1 Florin = 2s
(Coin) 1 Half (a) crown = 2s 6d
Dore Gardens, photograph W J Rudd 1975
Modern Comparisons (1940 vs 2019)
Minimum London bus fare 1d (0.5p) vs 75p
1 pint of milk 1s 2d (6p) vs 60p
1 loaf of bread 8d (3p) vs £1.00
Cinema seat 1s (5p) vs £6.00
(9d (4p) for Saturday morning
Being in advance of its time, our Dore Gardens home was well provided. The front door was
in a covered porch-way shared with the next house. The hallway had a flight of stairs, doors
to two living rooms and one into the back kitchen (universally called a scullery) with a door
to the spacious back garden. The kitchen had a deep sink with draining board, gas cooker and
oven and a gas-fired water boiler meant for the family laundry, with a hand pump that fed the
upstairs bathroom with hot water. There was an inside coal cellar, under the stairs with access
from the kitchen. Upstairs, apart from the bathroom and lavatory, there were two bedrooms,
one of which had a gas fire and the other an open grate. Lighting was by electricity with an
emergency gas light in the kitchen.
My brother was born in our house in October
1930. At first we had to walk to the original
Morden village to attend a child care clinic
on the edge of the estate. There was a village
general shop (Conroy’s) and also the nearest
pub, the George, next to the parish church. The
walk was through the elm trees along the old
leafy Green Lane, past St Helier station and
through part of the new Earl Haig Memorial
Fund Housing Estate for disabled former
servicemen. Later a clinic was built in nearby
Middleton Road. [See map p.19.]
Although the LCC made provision for shopping
and basic medical services on the Estate, it did
not provide for public houses. The brewers
managed to outflank this, because spare parcels
of land in two very obvious places sprouted
large public taverns in the second half of the
Thirties as the estate became complete. It was
not long before a large public house called The
Rose Tavern was built within walking distance
at Rose Hill. It was very popular on summer
evenings, with its open-air facilities that enabled
us kids to run around while parents socialised.
It was our ‘local’ and at first it really was
a family pub in spite of its size. It catered
for many tastes with its spacious ‘winter
garden’ tea room, ballroom, saloon and
public bars, and off-licence where I was
able to buy sweets. Cinema also loomed
large. At first, family outings attended the
County at Sutton, overtaken in fashion by
the very palatial Granada (sometimes the
really grand edition of that chain at Tooting).
But for us kids the Gaumont, Rose Hill,
was the picture palace. We watched it get
built and treated it as ours in a fashion fully
appreciated only by others of our generation.
Above: Mr Charles Conroy outside his shop
in 1936, photograph courtesy Romy Conroy
Left: bingo hall, formerly Gaumont cinema,
Rose Hill, photograph W J Rudd 19744
Schooldays – 1930s
In 1933 I started school, aged five, at No.2 Infants’ School in Canterbury Road, only about 300
yards from home. Schools for each section of the St Helier estate usually comprised a complex
of buildings in two parts, surrounded by all-weather play areas and grass fields. No.2 is the only
school I ever attended during my formal education. I started at one end of the complex in 1933
and left school at the other end on Friday 26 June 1942, the year I was 14.
On my first day at school we new kids huddled together, surrounded by slightly older kids making
fun of the handwritten name labels pinned to our clothing. I later moved up to Canterbury Road
Junior Mixed School, upstairs on the first floor of the same building as the Infants’ school.
Our estate schools started life with just numbers; by 1939, when I bought my first-ever school
diary, mine had been renamed. I became 11 years old in April of 1939, but it was on Friday 17
February that I spent my last day in the Junior Mixed School and on the next Monday that I
began in the lowest of the lowest class (1C) of the Secondary School (a larger building about
100 yards away, known as Canterbury Road Central Boys’ School). I must have been assessed
to be at the bottom of the streaming.
I was in poor health as a child; I seem to have been kept off school a lot – I remember visits
from what must have been school attendance officers. I was certainly the butt of sadistic teachers
throughout schooldays because I was excused from sport. I recall on one occasion riding in
a dimly-lit ambulance at night, to stay in the Nelson Hospital at Merton. The main things I
remember about being in hospital are developing a hatred of boiled fish, and the novelty of
fresh fruit and bread and butter mid-morning. My father, like many unionised workers, was a
member of the Hospital Savings Association (HSA), that made grants to hospitals and issued
vouchers for treatment.
We pupils knew about the Empire, principally Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Secondary
School had a special room full of artefacts and curios from New Zealand and the islands of the
Pacific. These were from a Merchant Navy officer on a regular run between Great Britain and
New Zealand. He had donated an epidiascope for this room and supplied numerous photos and
illustrations for us to enjoy.
No.2 School, photograph W J Rudd 1974
In the years between the wars the schools on the estate all enjoyed the patronage of philanthropists
peculiar to that time and place. The Hatfeild family, who had owned some of the land on which
the estate was laid out, and who supported the idea from the beginning, lived on the landed
estate of Morden Hall. They took a keen interest in the working class kids at the local schools
and regularly paid for school parties at Christmas and national festive occasions. During the
summer months their grounds were thrown open to each school, one day at a time, when we
would be marched down to the then private Morden Hall Park for a day of games and feasting
on lemonade, sandwiches and cakes, with free amusement rides and boating on a lake that was
part of the River Wandle.
A widely varied diet was unheard of in our family, apart from the Sunday roast or Christmas
turkey. One knew what to expect to eat every day at home; the day of the week could be told by
what was on the table. If mother was working, I had to prepare my own or my brother’s food: then
it was the same thing every time – porridge oats for breakfast and hot Oxo drink with bread in it
all other times. In season there might be homemade jam but very little else. This was not poverty,
it was working class ignorance. I can remember wartime highlights of tins of Australian quince
jam, which illustrates the novelty of a variation from the everyday. My father did bring variety
to our diet on occasion. He had a love of fresh salads in season and in his beloved garden he
would grow lettuce, tomatoes, and spring onions, which he would prepare with hard-boiled eggs.
I made the odd few bob [shillings] in prizes on occasion, usually a half-crown postal order – a
fortune to a child in those days. I won some children’s competitions in national newspapers,
and once, notably, at the local children’s Saturday morning pictures. This painting competition
was part of the publicity for You Can’t Take it With You, then to be shown as a new release, at
the Gaumont cinema at Rose Hill; I was 11. One day in morning assembly ‘Eggy’ Roberts, the
headmaster, announced that one boy had won a prize in the Daily Herald school handwriting
national competition. He called out my name and I went up to receive the prize book, Young
Lion Heart, the first novel I recall reading. At the end of term I was moved up to the B grade,
the beginning of proper schooling. Later I moved even further up to the A grade, where I started
to learn French as one of the normal class subjects.
In 1938 we were all required to attend instruction and fitting sessions for civilian gas masks, in
the case of my family at our school assembly hall. Every person was issued with a mask and
a thick card storage box. ARP units were formed from volunteers (with a nucleus of full-time
personnel) and their training begun. An Auxiliary Fire Service was formed in all built-up areas.
Boating on the Wandle, photograph courtesy of Madeline Healey
So war with Germany, when it came, seemed somehow natural and possibly exciting – except
to the older generation who dreaded a return to the conditions of the First World War, with the
added terror of aerial bombing. In the inner London boroughs the schoolchildren practised
evacuation procedures so that when the actual war started a year later evacuation of schools
and hospitals to the supposedly safe country took place. But at Morden we were considered to
live in a safe area, and evacuation of schoolchildren only took place as a private decision of
We had relatives on the estate; popular Uncle Ted Warren and Aunt Daisy in nearby Darley
Gardens had several children, all older than us. We had cousins nearer my age in the Royal family
in Glastonbury Road. In the 1930s every other house in the area seemed to have at least one
child of about my age so that games and ‘fairs’ were always going on. To hold a fair, kids would
collectively agree a day, time and place and would dream up games of chance or skill – skittles,
roll-a-ball, hoop-la, cards or peep-shows – and prizes and payments to have a go were always
in ‘ciggy cards’. In season the fairs would involve cherry stones (the ‘cherry ogg’ of legend)
bowled into traps or on to marks. Always the object was to acquire currency in cigarette cards1 –
many a kid developed his mathematical skills counting ciggy cards! Everybody collected them,
the older lads to make up sets that were fixed into booklets issued by the cigarette companies.
The only traffic was that belonging to tradesmen, and that was either horse-drawn or pulled or
pushed along by the vendor – one got plenty of warning. Only one trader, Bloom’s Bakery, had
a motor vehicle. Street games in season (or fashion) included cricket, football, and hockey on
roller skates – a real favourite with me. Some kids had bikes of a sort, and everyone tried to
have a cart – a box on a plank with two wheels at the back, and two smaller ones at the front
on a short wooden axle that swivelled on a central bolt and was steered by a loop of rope. It
required a crew of two – one to sit in the box and steer and one to push – and was a great source
of prestige and pleasure. Sometimes there were cart races, but a kid out on an empty street with
no companions could amuse himself for hours with his cart.
As a child I was totally ignorant of politics and history, but there were always street games
with contemporaries, either Cowboys and Indians or British and Germans. Our mothers and
fathers were all of the First World War generation and many kids had articles of khaki military
equipment or clothing from that period. Everyone knew relatives who had served in that war
(though I could never get any information or reminiscences from my uncles), many in the Middle
East, so the Turks also came in for some stick. So, by implication, we always regarded Germans
(along with the odd Turk) as an enemy without fully realising why. Such was the influence of
the popular cinema that occasionally the North-West Frontier would enjoy a brief period as the
top subject for warlike games, if a pith-helmet could be found.
Currency on the streets was always cigarette cards, and apart from collection from adult smokers,
they were acquired in trade, as payment for rides on bikes or in carts, or at fairs. In summer I
might gather with other kids in the evening at the Middleton Road bus stop (the last stop on the
minimum fare stage from Morden station) where many buses emptied of local people on their
way home from work. We accosted every person in turn with ‘Any cigarette cards, mister?’
A contemporary with actual cash, even a farthing, was a rarity. You needed to be on an errand
for a grown-up to have cash about your person, and anyone who actually carried coinage was
regarded as a show-off – a ‘swank’ they were called, and as such held in contempt.
1 Small cards with a picture on one side, and some relevant facts on the other, issued in series as advertisements,
with one random card from the current series included in each packet of cigarettes.
A popular place for active play was Green Lane, which ran from Rose Hill to the original Morden
village through the middle of the Estate. It was the remains of a country lane left as such in
memory of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, who had enjoyed its remoteness during stays at
Merton – or so we were led to believe. It was a fantastic area for kids: bushes and trees to be
climbed or long summer evenings spent in Cowboy and Indian games up and down its wooded
area. It was also within summoning distance for our parents when they wanted us home. It must
have been a noisy place to live near!
A Junior View of the War – 1939
‘The day war broke out’, as a popular comedian of stage and radio used to start his act, was
Sunday 3 September 1939, at 11 o’clock. I heard the BBC broadcast made by the Prime Minister,
Neville Chamberlain, that morning while sitting at the foot of the staircase just inside the front
door of our home, which was open. I was listening to the radio that stood in the corner of our
small front room. This was a favourite place for me to sit because I had a passion for drawing or
painting on the sheets of white paper supplied by my print-worker father. I could rest the paper
on a pad or book on my knees. Sitting there was in the nature of being out of the way, as there
was no such thing as one’s own room in our working-class environment.
My school diary has one of its rare entries on that date: in a kind of box in the top left-hand
corner of the small area allowed is printed ‘HAD AN AIR RAID AT 11.15′. It wasn’t a raid, it
was an alert, signalled by an up-and-down wailing from the siren mounted on a high pole next
to a police callbox that stood at nearby Rose Hill. I do not recall how long it lasted, but I do
recall a kind of heavy silence in the street outside and in the house. For me there was first of all
a tingle of excitement followed by disappointment when nothing happened before the All Clear
sounded. Like most English kids I had absolute confidence that our RAF was able to prevent
any harm coming to me. I just wanted a chance to see them do it!
Adults must have had different concerns; there were hardly any air raid shelters built or dug. I
know my father took it all very seriously, while my mother talked of the Zeppelin raids of her
youth when German airships dropped missiles on London. To me this appeared promising! I
think my worst fear was that if there were to be a war we would somehow not be able to have
family holidays at the seaside, where we had been in June 1939 and in previous years.
Green Lane, photograph W J Rudd 1971
Local Air Raid Precautions (ARP, later renamed Civil Defence) authorities encouraged people
to provide gas-tight rooms, or under-stairs or cellar shelter areas. Heavy dark curtains or black
material went up at every window to create a blackout at night. Many homes and practically
every public building or shop pasted strips of paper or tape over windows to contain the glass
in the event of bomb blast and prevent injury from flying fragments. There must have been
temporary work available to the many unemployed, filling and stacking sandbags around the
entrances to public buildings and police stations, and digging air raid shelters in parks or open
spaces. And everyone had to carry their gas mask at all times. One could be stopped in the street
by officials or policemen and told to go home and get it if not carried.
Mrs Lodge, a civic-minded lady living in Dore Gardens, mother of my schoolfellow Beryl,
became one of the first Air Raid Wardens on the approach of war2 (post-war she became a
The first effect on me along with my playmates was that there was no school. Before children
could return to school after the summer holidays, provision had to be made for shelter from
bombing. The large playing field area around our school buildings became a vast mud heap as
gangs of workmen moved in to dig long, wide trenches (no earthmoving equipment other than
human muscle), line them with concrete slabs and roof them with the same. The whole was then
covered with the earth previously dug out, sandbagged entrances constructed and escape hatches
provided at opposite ends. Until this was done there was no school. For kids it was a romp! No
school, and workmen to torment as they slaved away with pick and shovel.
School playgrounds were ideal places to position ARP posts and fire stations. Ours became an
Auxiliary Fire Service depot. The asphalted playground areas became parking areas and training
places for Auxiliary Firemen, and the brick playground shelter of the Junior School acquired
sandbagged fronts along the open side of the shelter, to provide sleeping and rest accommodation
for those on duty. Various sandbagged constructions about the size of a large garden shed came
into being to house air raid warden posts. These activities provided much amusement and interest
at a time when television was unknown in our homes. War was great!
After what seemed a short time the extended holiday ended when we were visited by teachers at
home and organised into groups of half-a-dozen or so to attend classes taking place in selected
houses around where we lived. Schools such as ours must have had a very low priority, but the
2 Mrs Lodge was most unusual in this, as almost all Air Raid Wardens recruited before the outbreak of
war were male. Even at their peak, females never amounted to more than 10% of Merton and Morden’s
A still from the Wrate
brothers’ amateur cine
film of c.1940 about
the local Auxiliary Fire
Service unit based at
Canterbury Road School
staff did struggle to do their job. Teacher after teacher went off to serve in the armed forces,
and some pretty rubbishy replacements were dragged out of retirement. We weren’t to know,
but teachers suffered much from having us all day and fire-watching duties to carry out at night,
especially when the war really started for civilians. Hours were spent in air raid shelters, in
almost darkness, with us out of control of the sole teacher at the entrance who was supposed to
care for us. I was lucky as I was able to read and couldn’t get enough to read. My brother was
at an age when he should have been perfecting his reading and it was years after leaving school
that he eventually caught up. Despite the occasional air raid alert sounding, it was what became
known as the Phoney War and as kids we found it all to be boring. Especially as parents were
reluctant to let their children out of sight or to go to places to play in case of an air raid.
In the Phoney War period local authorities sent round gangs of men to deliver corrugated iron
sheets, to build a partly underground Anderson shelter in the garden of each house. By the time
the war really started in earnest for us they were ready, with degrees of comfort or elaborateness
that depended on the ingenuity of the individual householder. My father (who would now be
called a do-it-yourself fiend) had a field day.
With the outbreak of war the family wireless became a real part of living, and I began to find it full
of interest. Each evening had a pattern specific to that day. I had a special interest in Children’s
Hour, but I began to take an interest in news bulletins. My school diary has occasional entries
during December 1939 such as: Friday 1 December: ‘Russia started war on Finland today’
which suggests I got it from a news broadcast; Wednesday 13 December: ‘Graf Spee fought’;
and Sunday 17 December: ‘Graf Von Spee scuttles itself’. This was happening far away in the
South Atlantic and radio was the perfect medium at such times. Friday 22 December shows
that ‘I broke up from school today for Xmas’. Other entries show that sitting at home around
the fire (houses were very cold in those days!) would have been much in vogue, judging from
‘It snowed hard today’ on Thursday 28 December, ‘I had game with sledge’ the following day
and ‘It snowed again today’ on the Saturday.
As a kid I had no real sense of crisis, but I was aware of sweets being rationed, ice cream
disappearing, and my parents making strange efforts to provide food. At home we bred and raised
rabbits and tried to do the same with chickens – but only raised one very aggressive cockerel.
My father grew vegetables in every part of the garden, and engaged in trading and barter with
like-minded neighbours. His handyman abilities with metal and wood also brought added
income or goods. Regular school milk arrived in large quart bottles instead of the individual
one-third-pint size we had been used to. We were required to take a teacup to school to draw
our allocation of milk, and distribution was made the responsibility of monitors. I discovered
a taste for Horlicks tablets: they were sold individually from large tins at, I think, four for a
penny, again by monitors.
A Junior View of the War – 1940
The year 1940 is probably the most vivid in the memory of those who lived through it. In our
house, the wireless before the war was always Radio Luxembourg. It was the background to
life at home, but it stopped broadcasting soon after the start of the war, and we then listened to
A combination of blackout in the midst of winter, fear of air raids while at the cinema, and the
beginning of food rationing made staying at home with the wireless quite attractive. At Christmas
my father always made a great thing of putting up decorations and coloured lights, and, as such
things as oranges had not yet disappeared, we had our usual Christmas fruit. It is hard now to
appreciate our very working class tradition of having exotic fruit and nuts only at Christmas.
The start of 1940 was as boring and routine as the end of 1939. Occasionally there was an air
raid alert, but never a plane that did any damage. We got used to the occasional siren sound and
it lost its menace.
The principal interest in everyday life was shortages. Things formerly taken for granted became
rare and, consequently, luxuries. Government took an interest in nutrition, and vitamins were
added to basic foods. Bread became subject to control by the new Ministry of Food, so that
brown or white bread as such gave way to the national loaf – a kind of fawn-coloured bread
using all the grain instead of refined flour. A black market of sorts grew up where things like
cigarettes went under the counter and were only sold to friends or regular customers. This sort of
unofficial rationing began to apply to practically everything, with many items only available as
a favour or for high prices. This was only dealt with when the Government introduced rationing,
making it an offence to trade in such a fashion. At the beginning rationing applied only to food
and petrol and was fairly generous, but, as time went on, more and more goods went ‘on Ration’
and eventually such items as petrol and ice cream were removed entirely from the market. But
that was still largely all to come.
One piece of excitement in the war news came in February 1940 when, in the ‘Altmark incident’,
the Royal Navy sent armed bluejackets (they were still called that) to board a German ship in
Norwegian waters and release British merchant seamen prisoners. Good stirring stuff – a nice
change from the monotonous recitation of losses at sea that I felt was somehow unfair!
March brought an end to the war in Finland, and April the invasion of Denmark and Norway.
The Phoney War was ending. The invasion of Norway is still in my memory because the BBC
news and the press had much to say about it. British (and French) troops and naval units were
sent there. I was now aged 12 and taking more of an interest in the war because of reading
newspapers and long discussions among my peers.
By this time I was a regular reader of the Hotspur
boys’ weekly; in those days it was all printed text. It
carried ‘ripping yarns’, and at one time, naturally, ran
an account (probably highly coloured) of a destroyer
action off Norway involving HMS Hotspur. I used to
rush to a local newsagent during school lunch break on
the weekly publication day to get my copy of Hotspur.
Occasionally I had to take a substitute magazine, which
was a minor tragedy! The only chance to catch up then
was by a swop, but it did at least widen my reading.
Newsprint was by now almost rationed; newspapers
were smaller and restricted by Government edict to a
fixed number of pages. This printing trade problem
began to concern my father. He felt that the trade
was doomed by the war. He contrasted the present
with the 1914-18 War and claimed that newspapers
were king during the earlier conflict, whereas radio
had taken over as the main transmitter of news in the
Second World War. He was put on a reduced working week and at one time tried for a job with
London Transport. He had planned for me to enter the printing trade on leaving school, but he
now spoke of the ‘trade being finished’. He was a bit premature.
As the summer of 1940 progressed, the news began to get worse. British forces withdrew from
Norway, and in May a blitzkrieg started on the western front, with France, Belgium and Holland
all being invaded by fast-moving German forces. In those days the BBC seemed always to be
restrained and dignified in its news broadcasts. Naturally we kids took a great interest in it all,
even being excited, a different viewpoint to the adults, many of whom knew of relatives in
the Army who were stationed in France. Because of radio and the increased number of news
broadcasts people were constantly being given something else to worry about. In the fine early
summer weather parties of housewives and female relatives gathered at front garden gates around
the streets where we lived, speculating and consoling one another. I can still see us kids grouped
around watching all the concern and not fully understanding.
And we had other things to watch. London (as with most likely targets) had a balloon barrage,
consisting of large gas-filled silver bags with fins, tethered by long lines to ground stations or
mobile mounts. The expectation of an air raid caused the balloons to be allowed to rise from their
winches, to create a fence of cables that would cause attacking aircraft to fly too high to bomb
accurately or else risk becoming entangled. The early summer skies presented a picture of these
things ascending and descending several times a day, and it was a subject of great speculation
as to how they worked and what they were meant to do. Some of the suggested ways in which
they were supposed to deal with aircraft were hilarious, though given in all honesty. One was
that when an aircraft flew over them the gas was let out to gas the crew, while another was that
when planes were approaching, machine-gunners climbed up and shot at the aircraft! As kids
we were mostly genned-up on such things from newspaper articles, but no one dared correct
an adult theorist.
All over France and Belgium the German army was advancing as it pleased. That was the
conclusion of ordinary people: the official communiqués on the BBC never referred to retreat, it
was always ‘withdrawing according to plan’. I know that I believed it – our army never retreated!
One of the strangest things about the war years is that I, and all those I knew, never once thought
it might all end in defeat. Such is British arrogance, but I am sure it saved us. Many folk had
coloured maps of Europe, published by newspapers, on which one was supposed to follow the
progress of the war, all dating from the early days in late 1939. After early 1940 I don’t recall
newspapers offering such items again.
At the end of May the evacuation of what was left of the British army from Dunkirk began.
For the next few days the whole population of the nearby streets practically lived at their front
gates, only going into the house to listen to the news or make a cup of tea. I remember the quiet
panic on adult faces: I was glad, perhaps for the first time, that I was a kid without adult cares.
I recall one local young man, saved from Dunkirk and freshly kitted out, coming home to his
parents in Dore Gardens weeks later. I asked his young brother, a contemporary of mine, about
him. I got no answer.
In May 1940 Winston Churchill formed a National Government, with Clement Attlee as his
deputy and a cross-party mixture in his wartime cabinet. This entered my consciousness only
in that Churchill was a forceful character, the first politician I ever took an interest in. He was
almost always in the newspapers and he made frequent superb fighting speeches, many on radio,
that even his enemies among Britain’s working classes admired.
The news got worse. Having kicked us out of France the Germans defeated the French, and
invaded the Channel Islands. Then Italy declared war on Britain. On the St Helier estate we had in
summer a travelling ice cream vendor who called himself Leo, for most such vendors pretended
to be or were of Italian origin in the first half of the century. Ice cream had not yet disappeared
under wartime rationing, and stories began to go around that Leo’s van had been attacked and
turned over. When Leo did resume visits to our streets he displayed on his decorated vehicle a
large notice carrying a certificate of some sort saying he was of Irish descent.
We kids played our street games as the summer holidays began. My father managed to acquire
rusty bits and pieces of different makes of bicycle, and started on the long job of creating a
working bike. He thought that he might need it to travel to work in London. There were more air
raid alerts but no actual bombing where we lived, but an alert meant delays on some Underground
lines, which were restricted when the tunnels under the Thames were closed by flood prevention
doors. My father would have used the Tube to Waterloo, just where the southern floodgates closed.
Conditioned reflexes developed in local folk, me included. If one was away from one’s house,
and consequently the air raid shelter, one ran home when the siren sounded. As successive alerts
did not produce a raid we gradually began to react more calmly, moving nearer to the house
if in the street, or making for home if away shopping or socialising. The rule from our parents
seemed to be ‘If you hear a plane, you come back right here!’
Although London stayed free of air raids, the German air force was attacking our fighter bases
and this brought the battle nearer to us when Croydon, the former London airport, had its first
raid.3 It was a fine afternoon and we could hear aircraft and the rattle of machine guns clearly.
Croydon was about five miles away in a straight line and we could see anti-aircraft shell bursts
appear in the sky. Because no alert had sounded there seemed not to be any danger to us and it
was like watching a show of some kind, as before the war when a ‘flying circus’ was performing
not far away. Then ‘our’ siren at Rose Hill sounded, the conditioned reflex came in, and everyone
in the street ran like mad to their homes. Slowly throughout July and August the alerts grew
in number and people seemed to become selective again – the rule was to keep watching the
sky and listening, and react accordingly. This became the time when long periods of each day
were spent in the Anderson shelter. I hated it, as I longed to be outside watching. My mother
was, understandably, quite scared during air raids: I was not; I was too young and too ignorant.
We were now well into what became known as the Battle of Britain, the summer of 1940. During
this period I did see several aerial ‘dogfights’ and they were like something out of a film; we did
not give a thought to the danger from falling shrapnel or spent bullets. It was about then that the
hobby of collecting shrapnel began with us kids.
I can remember going the several hundred yards or so to Green Lane, which was higher than Dore
Gardens, and marvelling at the sight of the whole sky over London being a mass of flame and
smoke; as the hour for darkness came, the sky stayed as bright as day. Even to my young mind
I could not imagine anyone living under that, and I had many relatives, including grandparents,
living somewhere in that direction. I was watching the beginning of what became the London
Back at school after the holidays we began a new existence. If an alert was on when we were
due at school we stayed at home, if at school we all trooped to the school air raid shelters around
the buildings. The disruption was immense. Running a school must have been a nightmare. Our
teachers, or the youngest and best, were called up for service in the armed forces and only the
older men, not our favourites, remained. Temporary or retired teachers of varying quality were
eventually brought in to assist them. One in particular of these was an absolute brute, a female
brute. Many pupils were missing from our classes because their parents had sent them to relatives
in safer areas of the country. In retrospect it is a wonder to me how anyone learned anything.
3 Thursday 15 August 1940
A subject dominating people’s thoughts in the summer and autumn of 1940 was the prospect
of invasion. This had a profound effect because of the way most of Western Europe had fallen.
The Surrey Downland to the south of Morden had many open spaces that would have provided
landing grounds for glider aircraft carrying German troops. Those areas became strewn with
broken-down vehicles, lumps of concrete and upright poles. Deep anti-tank ditches stretched
for miles across country or along roadsides, eventually to be backed up by concrete obstructions
and ‘dragon’s teeth’. Where a road needed to cross an anti-tank ditch, concrete and barbed wire
defences stood ready to be pulled across the road where the ditch had to stop each side. Machine
gun posts, called pillboxes, were built near road junctions and along field-side woodland areas.
Newspapers and periodicals carried illustrated articles on how to recognise German parachutists
(as opposed to descending aircrew) and what to do if they were seen. Bookstalls began to carry
hastily-printed booklets on how to hide if one spotted a landing, how to ambush a party of troops,
how to attack a tank! As a newly interested young lad I devoured such publications (they were
cheap) when I could. I was still only 12 years old.
All were warned of the possibility of enemy troops being disguised, as they were supposed
to have been in the attack on Holland, and Churchill’s warnings about fifth-columnists were
constantly repeated in newspapers. Thus there was a massive roundup of pre-war extreme Right
supporters of Hitler, and registration (and some internment) of all foreign-born persons. Every
British citizen was required to register with the civil authorities. National Identity cards were
issued to every man, woman and child (the personal number became our National Health number
after the end of the war), and these cards were to be produced on demand to any policeman or
serviceman on guard duty.
Local Defence Volunteer groups were formed from men of non-military age or those in reserved
occupations. Members were given armbands (classed as a uniform under the Geneva Conventions)
and basic drill and firearms training. They later became the Home Guard (‘Dad’s Army’) and
with time received full uniforms and better equipment, but in 1940 they were expected to capture
weapons from the enemy, delay him by trickery, and kill him with bare hands or pitchforks! BBC
news and newspaper photographs reported constant bombing by the RAF of massed invasion
barges gathering in the French ports just across the Channel. It apparently just needed the German
air force to defeat the RAF and the invasion could take place – but it did not happen. The year
end brought a temporary end to the invasion threat, but the possibility existed each summer
right up to the last year of the war.
My first diary entry [of the Blitz] was dated 4 December 1940: ‘A heavy raid last night. Sutton
suffered very badly. School has hits in playground. Garage entrances blocked.’; 5 December:
‘Three raids today on this district’; 6 December: ‘No raid today’; 7 December: ‘No raids on
Morden today’; 8 December: ‘One raid today, I saw a German plane today fly over tea time
very slowly.’ It came across from the open area of playing fields around our school buildings
and over Dore Gardens, flying east under low cloud. It was a Heinkel 111 bomber, so low that
one crew member appeared to be looking down on me.
There follow: 9 December: ‘A very big raid on London last night, started very early. DA
[delayed action] bombs were dropped by the dozen’; 10 December: ‘We had a quiet day and
night yesterday’; 11 December: ‘Raid warning was sounded at 5.00 pm. So far we have only
heard a few guns and planes (it is now 7.15 pm).’
The diary then falls quiet on detail suggesting that the weather got bad until ‘Christmas night
quiet’, followed by a moan about what a rotten Christmas it was! Most of our night-time sleeping
at that time was done in the Anderson shelter in the back garden. I do not recall how we kept
warm in those shelters, but I do know that the walls always ran with condensation. Illumination
was needed, and most folk used candles, but the demand and wartime shortages meant they
became precious. Although I know that some people did so, the public were advised not to
try to run electric power from a house into such shelters (for one thing, they were all metal).
Illumination in our case was by my father’s home-made paraffin lamps. He made many of these
and sold them. They consisted of small printing ink tins cleaned up, with the lid pierced to take a
small tube soldered into the top, which contained the wick. The body of the lamp was filled with
wadding and small holes were pierced at intervals around the base. When not in use the lamp
was stood in a container of paraffin to about half way up its side. When wanted for illumination,
it was removed to a separate empty tin of slightly larger diameter (to catch seepage) and it could
then be lit to give several hours of light from the fuel absorbed during the soaking period. A
semicircular reflector was soldered round one side of the top behind the wick to concentrate
light. I made a pencil drawing of the interior of the shelter, showing such a lamp in use. Being
able to sketch while my father read a book says much for the light produced.
A Junior View of the War – 1941
Darker nights meant a longer period when bombers could spend time over us, almost unhindered
by any opposition. Regular air raids, with long periods in air raid shelters, became the norm.
Parents were recruited (or conscripted) to form street fire-watching parties, who were given
training sessions at weekends and formed into pairs to serve on a rota basis at night.
The strange term ‘fire-watching’ is misleading: it meant that ordinary folk had to be prepared to
spend badly needed rest or sleep periods watching the street or their place of work during air raids,
which could last all night, and be prepared to deal with any incendiary bombs that landed on or
near homes. These devices, about a foot long, were released from aircraft in showers to scatter
over a wide area. They ignited with a cracker-like noise on contact and burned with an intense
and very bright flame. In theory (being made of magnesium) they could not be extinguished
with water, which would only supply them with extra oxygen. They had to be smothered with
sand, or the surrounding area wetted well in order to combat the spread of fire. London was a
big place and even thousands of the things being dropped meant only the odd few at a time in
individual areas, but they necessitated very many hours of lost sleep, just in case. Mostly the
things were dropped in the wake of high explosive bombs to set the debris ablaze.
I sometimes kept my father company on his fire-watching stints. I was growing up with a wartime
childhood, and later I had Boys’ Brigade training, which meant that I knew as much theory as
most adults about tackling firebombs – and maybe it allowed my father to doze! During the
summer of 1939 demonstrations had been arranged in the school playground for local adults to
learn elementary fire-fighting and the use of stirrup pumps. I had accompanied my father, and,
although only 11 years old, I seem to have absorbed much at those times.
The effect of fire-watching on our schoolteachers can be imagined. The Blitz was the time when
I remember the work of our headmaster, an absolute saint of a man. There were fewer daylight
raids, allowing us to spend longer periods in the classroom. Mr Cross would spend hours in
class, sometimes a combined class, not able to teach us all, but giving us pep-talks or reading
passages from Kipling or Shakespeare in a most exciting way. He was an inspiring reader of
books, and a great one for holding the attention of us growing lads. All this was apparently to
keep us occupied while his exhausted staff got a few hours sleep in the staff room!
An air raid during the first London Blitz is best described from a sight and sound point of view.
The principal ingredient most of the time was noise. The bombers would fly over with their
twin engines unsynchronised, thus producing a two-part drone, like a repeated m-n-m-n. It filled
the sky with sound and made it difficult to assess the number of planes or in which direction
they were heading. It was worse if there was low cloud to exaggerate the sound. Whatever the
impression, the aircraft must have been at a great height or they would have fallen foul of the
cables of the barrage balloons in the darkness.
In the early days the only gunfire heard was in the distance, and it seemed to precede the approach
of aircraft. It was in the nature of a continuous rumble, with bright flashes and crackle sounds
overhead when the shells exploded in the air, followed by the tinkle and crash of chunks of hot
metal falling as shrapnel – this was why it was best to stay under cover during gunfire. The tin
hats that many folk acquired privately, or wore as part of their issued equipment, were of little
use except to give a false sense of security. The dropping of bombs produced a crump-like sound,
preceded by a flash of light. The distance away could be gauged by the time taken by the sound
to arrive after the flash. Sometimes, in fact most times, bombs were dropped in ‘sticks’, one after
the other, all released from an aircraft at the same time. The height of the aircraft might mean
that an individual bomb fell in one street and the next some distance away. Many delayed-action
bombs were dropped, either with delayed fuses or with faulty ones. When a second bomb was
known to have been dropped it delayed any rescue attempts until the second bomb exploded or
was defused by a very brave group of men.
Sometimes there were searchlights but, it seemed, not often. Distant fires would light up the
sky at times, and give an all-pervading glow in the streets for many miles if there was overcast
cloud. A heavy raid seemed to provide all the illumination one needed in the blackout. Sometimes
an aircraft would drop a magnesium flare which lit up the sky, but in general fires started by
incendiary bombs provided the aircraft with aiming points – hence the need for fire-watchers.
Air raids varied greatly in intensity for no apparent reason. The worst raids often involved the
dropping of parachute mines. They were packed with explosive, drifted down silently, and
exploded on impact at ground or housetop level.4 Not being buried in the earth meant that the
blast affected a much wider area than a conventional aerial bomb. They were horrific in their
destructive and killing potential. London’s massed little houses were destroyed by the hundred
by such devices.
My writing up of a diary was always done in the house, so that might explain the sparseness of
detail and, because of long periods in the shelter, the long breaks when I eventually gave up. I
would also get periods of intense ‘artistic inspiration’ when to do drawing, painting or modelling
was more interesting.
We stayed in the comparative warmth of the house so long as we dared, but to sleep we moved
out to the garden shelter. If it was particularly noisy outside and gunfire was very heavy we would
always go to the shelter. Many times it seemed that mobile guns were nearby in the street, or on
the railway not too far away; then the racket would be unbelievable, each firing reverberating
round the streets from house to house.
So began the year 1941, the Blitz continuing and dominating everyday life in many different
ways. The diary records on 11 January that ‘some fire bombs fell round here last night.’ Several
fell in Dore Gardens and I visited the scorched area along the pavement in our fairly spacious
street. On 12 January, my first night of fire-spotting, I was allowed to stay in the house at the
open front door watching the darkened street during the air raids. It appears that up until then
4 Though believed at the time to be naval mines dropped over land, these were a conventional design with a
it had been a type of voluntary neighbourhood watch scheme, because the entry of 15 January
1941 records that ‘everyone from 16 to 60 must join’ (the district firewatchers’ service). On 18
January ‘The first daylight and worst raid for a long time’, while ‘Italians getting it bad in North
Africa’ means we were being cheered up by news that suggested we were winning somewhere!
On 28 January: ‘Worst day for a long time. We never done any work at school because of raids’;
29 January: ‘The first night raid for a long time’ (perhaps the weather influence again).
On 30 January: ‘no work done at school except in shelters’. This is misleading. The shelters were
long trenches, cold and damp and dark. We sat in a line on each side, facing one another, and
reading or writing was not possible. The only teacher activity I remember during sheltering is a
roll call. Pathetic attempts were eventually made to conduct lessons but it was hopeless. On 31
January: ‘Air raids all day. I did not go to school this afternoon because of them … It was a bad
night’; 5 February: ‘Guns and bombs sounded at 7.20,’ but the air raid siren ‘did not go till a long
while after. Big fire in direction of Croydon’; 7 February: ‘Nothing much to write about’ – and
that was the last entry in the first of my diary-keeping efforts, begun only in December 1940.
Diary two began the next day but it is mainly recycled newspaper stories. Extracts record: 17
February: ‘Sutton & Cheam Hospital hit by fire bombs, as well as other places’; 21 February
shows ‘worst I have seen this year’ at Dore Gardens; 8 March has ‘the noisiest this year’ – it was
a moonlit night and the diary reported me ‘seeing vapour trails of night fighters and bombers’,
indicating how high they flew to bomb; 9 March was ‘worse than last night’; 10 March: ‘One
short raid early tonight and then they kept on all night’; 12 March: ‘A very bad raid tonight the
worst this week nothing but guns & bombs so far’. On 19 March I wrote ‘Worst raid since start
of war [again!]. Hill [St Helier] Hospital hit by mine – another opposite’. That constituted a
local ‘worst’. On 22 March this particular diary ended its short life.
To sum up the first, and best known, Blitz: it lasted a long time, all winter, and only stopped
when lighter nights made aircraft visible to our armed services. Individual experience of the
Blitz depended on where one lived. I do not suggest it was a continuous peril, but that every air
raid could have been one’s last, although as a kid I didn’t think like this.
Relatives living in central London experienced more regular damage than we did. One night
in 1941 my maternal grandparents suffered the effects of a bomb along with everyone else in
their little street. Suddenly they were homeless, having to live in a communal rest centre after
trying to salvage a few items of their personal belongings from the wreckage come daylight.
For people in their seventies it must have been terrible. They had a lodger living with them,
a nearly blind old lady, and my grandfather had to take care of her as well as grandma. They
came to live in one room with us at Morden until they were found a new home later that year.
One morning early in 1941, before my grandparents came to stay, I recall waking in the Anderson
shelter to find that our house had been badly damaged by blast.5 Apart from the obvious racket of
the bomb, the family dog was outside the shelter instead of safely in the house. All the windows
were shattered and the doors blown open. My recall of the event is that I slept through most of it
and that we had to stay in the shelter. The bomb that had fallen about 200 yards away wrecked a
terrace of houses in Netley Gardens, but there was also a delayed-action bomb lying nearby. This
had to explode before anyone non-essential could be allowed to emerge. On another occasion a
bomb fell on houses about 50 yards away from the first, in St Helier Avenue. During the whole
war I never did get hardened to seeing homes and buildings badly damaged by high explosive;
it always seemed so wrong!
5 Soon after 11.00 pm on Wednesday 16 April 1941
In those days very few homes had telephones and when a member of a family was absent at
work, school, shopping, or visiting there was a tendency to be apprehensive if an alert sounded
or bombing was heard. The Blitz for most ordinary people consisted of varying degrees of worry
or mental strain for a very long period, with the occasional hurt. Looking back I am very pleased
not to have been an adult with responsibilities.
Many changes had to be made to the habits of a lifetime. For my father, journeying to and from
work became an uncertain business. Since moving to Morden he had travelled by Southern
Railway from St Helier station to work in central London, except in foggy or hard winter
weather, when he used the Underground from Morden (a dearer way to travel if one used a bus
to reach Morden station). The Southern Railway route he used was a loop line, winding over a
wide area of south-west London to serve as many stations as possible. Bombing was much more
likely to affect over-ground train travel due to destroyed sections of track, stations or trackside
buildings. So he became a regular Tube traveller for the first time. The Tube was not entirely
free from danger. Nevertheless, pressure on the safer underground system did mean delays or
nightmare crowding, so in fine weather he took to the road on his reassembled bicycle bits. This
was not easy after bombing because of debris, especially broken glass, or wide diversions due
to fires or unexploded bombs. Another problem that restricted his cycling to the longer days
in the year was the demands of the blackout. Cycle lamp batteries were hard to get in wartime
and, even though almost useless for seeing one’s way, they were needed to enable pedestrians or
cars to see you. It was not an easy journey, and employers in those days were not at all tolerant
of absenteeism or lateness whatever the cause, so using one’s own transport (a bicycle) was
preferable in many respects. This mode of travel led my father to acquire a steel helmet for use
when cycling during an alert.
For mothers there were different worries, against the background of heavy losses at sea of ships
bringing supplies to this country, and the destruction at the docks. Basic foods (other than bread)
were rationed, or in short supply in the shops, and it got progressively worse as the war went
on. Shopping might consist of waiting in line for limited supplies, even of normal rations. The
shops one regularly used (where one was registered for rationed foods) could be damaged or
the staff injured, or worse.
Cooking, heating and lighting were often affected by bombs cutting gas or electricity supplies.
A bomb in the street would start a gas main burning so that supplies had to be cut off until the
break was sealed or the supply rerouted. Mobile canteens, dispensing food and hot drink, were
a regular feature at practically every ‘incident’. Blast from nearby guns or exploding bombs
always brought soot down from our coal-fired heating flues, and age-old dust and dirt from
anywhere, and broke glass or smashed crockery that was difficult to replace in wartime, even
if one had the money.
One of the good things that came out of wartime was the official interest in nutrition; ordinary
cheap foods were given added vitamins, and sugar was in short supply. Every family was
encouraged to grow its own food. The rules against keeping livestock on council housing estates
were waived, and all who could kept chickens, rabbits, or even a pig! Our small back garden
was of limited use to us for food production. Concessions allowed one to trade in egg ration
coupons for grain to feed livestock. Local authorities collected kitchen waste to be used as pig
food at temporary pig farms on waste land. Paper, rags, old iron or non-ferrous metal (collectively
called ‘salvage’) were collected to be reused.
A much appreciated Government initiative was the British Restaurant. These were large canteens
set up and run by local authorities under the overall control of the Ministry of Food. They did
vary in some ways that reflected the area in which they were situated; in the City of London the
British Restaurant at St Paul’s Churchyard had a much more middle-class feel to it than, say, the
one next door to Colliers Wood Underground Station, or our local one at the British Legion hall on
the St Helier Estate, both of which I used. But the overall rules were the same for all: a selection
of midday meals of wholesome food, served hot and fresh for a very reasonable fixed price (a
maximum of 9d, at a time when the average wage was about £3 per week). This was in addition to
what a person could get with their food ration books. I enjoyed British Restaurants and the food.
Coal for home heating was hard to get, so my brother and I would have to push a home-made
barrow a couple of miles to Sutton gas works on Saturday mornings, and join other children
and the odd adult in a long queue to buy the coke by-product. It comes back to mind as hard
and depressing work. Bombed buildings and homes were regarded as a source of timber to be
salvaged for carpentry or fuel. It was a not very legal thing to do, but the police usually had
much else to do and they didn’t have personal radios or patrol cars as now. But looting could
and did bring down rough justice – it is the most despicable crime imaginable to working people
with few possessions.
Sometime in 1941 a terrible change came into my schooling: someone must have decided
that we were to ‘Dig for Victory’! Somehow from somewhere a very large number of brand
new, schoolboy-sized, gardening tools arrived at the school. We acquired a new subject and
books to go with it. So began an attempt to make us into keen gardeners. On a large area of
the furthest playing field (in what was the Infants’ School area) we collected spades and forks,
hoes and rakes, and started practical lessons in digging. I distinctly remember the finding of
a concreted area just beneath the surface, perhaps the remains of a temporary railway used
to build the housing estate. I am sure that the school caretaker was roped in to supervise us.
When all was ready a large party of us boys were marched with supervising masters, spades
and forks, about half a mile from the school building to a vast (to me) field that lay behind
shops and council flats very near to St Helier station. The area was far from smooth or level,
and covered in weeds, tangled couch grass and assorted rubble. We were grouped into sets
of four boys, supervised into marking out areas of a fixed (allotment) size, and set to dig the
area. It was to be ‘ours’, all four of us, to till and sow, cultivate and harvest, and generally
make bloom! What a hope! I was always a puny lad, and I don’t suppose my companions
were much better, but I don’t remember them, so they could not have been particular friends.
Like most of our contemporaries in those days we only had two sets of clothing, school or
everyday, and best. Two pairs of footwear was the norm, plimsolls for play and boots or
shoes for wet weather wear. Wellingtons would have been a luxury, except among the really
poor who wore them or plimsolls all the time as being second-hand or the cheapest footwear
available. Gumboots were used by the Fire Service and Civil Defence personnel – that was
elite ‘gear’. So we were badly equipped, fearful of parental anger at ruined shoes or clothing
and, mainly, bone idle!
We would never believe stories of food shortages. It must have been in the winter or late
autumn: it was cold, and the plan was to open up the soil to let the coming frosts break it up.
We were required to dig up the top soil and grass, carry it to the far end of our plot (a mile
away it seemed to me) and pile it up, grass-side down, to make a raised area where we could
grow marrows. I have never liked marrows. My father grew them and I didn’t like his, so
there was a motivation problem right away. Parents were required to find cash for us to take
to school to buy seed for our allotment, so each family was supposed to have a stake in our
efforts. If it was not raining we were likely to find ourselves being marched to our plots. If it was
Detail from Geographers’ 4-Sheet Map of Greater London, SW section c.1950, annotated by Albert Smith
raining we would sit in class and learn the scientific theory of growing and soil management,
or the various needs of each vegetable. All this was under the guidance of a kindly, but easily
panicked, ‘Willie’ Watkins. I am sure Dig for Victory in the school was a complete failure.
During the second half of 1941 the nightly bombing gave way to occasional raids that would
come and go with varying intensity, until the final terror of the V-weapons, but I speak only
with a suburban experience; central Londoners would have had different views. We still half
expected an invasion attempt and exercises to deal with a landing took place regularly. It was
still forbidden to sound church bells, the signal that enemy troops had landed. Most folk were
now fully adjusted to being at war, and glad to have come through the Blitz.
But for me the most memorable thing at this time was that my maternal grandparents were
billeted at our house. I always enjoyed their company. Grandad was full of interesting stories
from the Army of pre-1914, of India, and of life in the London docks and on the Surrey
Canal where he had worked. By the end of the year my grandparents had found a new home
at Tooting; I began to visit them there on Sundays, and it became a weekly thing to do once
I was a working lad.
In the last two years of formal schooling two very important things had happened to me that
shaped my life for ever after. The first was being allowed to join, after a struggle, the Boys’
Brigade in June 1941, which gave me a new outlook with new friends with shared interests.
This gave me a definite life of my own for the first time, the biggest single boost for me until
my father gave me his bicycle some time later. The second thing was that I became a practising
Christian through being influenced at the Bible classes we were required to attend as part of
The Brigade company I joined was the 8th Mid-Surrey, and we met at a mission hall in Farm
Road, Morden. I found in the Brigade older boys who would help me make model aircraft in
handicraft sessions, and I took up classes in various subjects to obtain proficiency badges. Being
wartime these included Air Raid Precautions, Firefighting, and First Aid. I was hooked on the
BB from day one, but I never got far in the pursuits of PT and gymnastics; as with my efforts
to learn an instrument for the band, I was hopeless!
Farm Road Mission, photograph W J Rudd 1975
Because of the demands of war production, the Government introduced compulsory registration
for ‘direction of labour’. My mother started work in one of the munitions factories that had
been converted from peacetime activities on the industrial estate at Merton. This meant that my
brother and I often had to take care of ourselves during the day, while she slept after night work.
This meant having to make my own breakfast or tea, and my introduction to eating at British
Restaurants with the money given to me to buy a midday meal.
The end of 1941 brought the war with Japan: once again depressing news, but it was a further
example of the pig-headed attitude of us at home that we were convinced it would all turn out
for the best. Adolf Hitler declared war on America, bringing the USA into the war as our ally.
Historically it was a turning-point, but there was still a lot of war to come.
A Junior View of the War – 1942
Most of 1942 is documented in a fashion, for I had a Boys’ Brigade diary for that year, and I
managed to get a lot of childish scribble and bad spelling into it by the year end. In January I
enrolled for evening classes in French language. Entries that refer to my attending or not continue
into May. The class was very small.
School was still its very half-hearted self, but I am surprised by an entry that I sat exams on
Monday 16 March. The note says ‘… half way though we had an air raid, the first for nearly a
year.’ That must refer to having to use the school air raid shelters, because there were certainly
night raids. There was a kind of library in school where I began to borrow books, which I read
under the desk during lessons. The elderly retired teacher brought in to teach French seemed
not to notice or mind when he doubled as a Maths teacher, for it was then that I retired to my
book. About this time I wrote and produced by hand a couple of magazines – childish cartoons,
stories based on popular radio comedians’ material, or teacher peculiarities. I tried to become a
budding press baron, by circulating these to be read by classmates at a farthing a time. I think
I was pleased if I made more than two pence by this method. I must have been cheated or my
peers were illiterate. But two pence was not to be sniffed at, for that would purchase about 16
Horlicks tablets [but see p.9], a favourite with me as a substitute for strictly rationed sweets.
Screen shot from a 1944 amateur cine film of 8th Mid-Surrey Boys’ Brigade Battalion church parade.
Albert must be in here somewhere, but other parts of the film make it clear there were well over
200 people on parade. Image from londonsscreenarchive. org. uk/title/699/,
courtesy London Borough of Sutton Local Studies and Archive Service
Mostly school time was taken up with fund-raising in one form or another for the various
patriotic schemes encouraged by the authorities. This made school interesting to attend but
useless for learning. What comes to mind is War Weapons Week and National Savings Week
(when we were supposed to increase our National Savings). This I remember as the occasion
when I entered two competitions for a poster and a slogan, and won one and came third in
the other. A brief moment of glory with my name in the papers, but the presentations were a
big let-down! In March was Warship Week, when I made a model that won a prize and was
displayed in a local showroom at Morden, but was too delicate to paint! We also organised
concerts, with pantomime-type plays, and raffled things for the Red Cross – anything to keep
us occupied until we could leave school to enter the munitions factories, I suspect!
First Job – Hawes Bros in Morden (1942-44)
Formal schooling ended for me on 26 June 1942, when, aged 14, I left to find a job and start
work. After finding me a newspaper round from W H Smith at Morden Station on leaving school,
which lasted two weeks and brought in five shillings per week in pay, my father took me to the
local [Wimbledon] Labour Exchange (indicative of my father being off work himself) where
they consulted their files to offer what was considered compatible employment. Thus, after
interview, I was engaged for my first full-time job to assist at Hawes Bros, a small department
store at Morden, to start on Monday 13 July. I was now officially ‘grown up’.
The nearness to home brought economic benefit in that I could ride to work by bicycle. My
travel to work, and elsewhere, was by means of the heavy old pedal cycle that my father had
given me. It was one of the finest presents I ever received. The 1940s were good days for
cyclists; we were kings of the road because of petrol rationing for the private motorist. I could
eat at home at lunchtimes, and bring £1 a week into the family exchequer, of which I was to
be allowed, after protest, 2/6d pocket money. It was lucky for all concerned that membership
of the Boys’ Brigade was not expensive, and I showed no disposition to smoke, drink – or
gamble! The ‘me’ that started work at Morden might have seemed a pathetic little kid. My
clothes for everyday working wear were cheap grey flannel trousers (always smart when new,
Hawes Bros and ABC, corner of Abbotsbury Road c.1950,
image reproduced by permission of the London Borough of Merton
For more images of historic Merton visit www.merton.gov.uk/memories
with a fluffy exterior that soon rubbed off – typical low quality!), and a second-hand (from
an older cousin) sports jacket. I suspect that shirts and tie came from the same source. I had
one other outfit, a shiny blue serge ‘best’ suit that I would wear on Sundays, and sometimes
for Boys’ Brigade parade nights. Most of our shopping for clothes took place at Harvey and
Thompson, at Rose Hill, a wander-round, crammed, double-fronted, sell-all shop always open
to the elements on the street side. Clothing was not rationed at that time in the war, although
it was soon to be so.
Hawes Bros was a typical small town department store, on three floors, with large walk-around
display windows and an arcade at the front. It stood on an island site at the end of the Morden
Station shopping area, lying next to an ABC (Aerated Bread Company) teashop and opposite a
‘caff’-type place used exclusively by the four non-management male staff for our refreshment
breaks. The ABC teashop and restaurant was the province of the large female staff.
The ground floor had all kinds of genteel departments, selling gloves, knitting wools, haberdashery,
hosiery, underwear, bed and house linen, and curtaining. It had a basement at the back with a
delivery bay, a porter’s office (for the do-it-all handyman, called Lawrence by all the staff), and
a boiler house for the heating. It was also where a lot of the really heavy rolls of linoleum for
sale were stored. A customer requiring such had to be taken there to see what was in stock, and it
was measured and cut there. It was also the way to the brick-built air raid shelter. The first floor
was carpeted, and here could be found ladies’ clothing – hats, coats, suits, dresses, handbags,
etc. I took very little interest in either floor except as somewhere I had to pass through to and
from my place of work, which was on the second, or top, floor.
My department at Hawes was the carpet department. I now realise it to have been a newly
created department for selling anything of a non-clothing nature that could be obtained in
wartime, thus diversifying what was essentially a clothing and haberdashery store. This was, I
suspect, a kind of wartime intrusion, set up in what was formerly a storage area to capitalise on
the need for household supplies to replace house furnishings and bedding damaged in air raids.
Though called the carpet department, carpets it hardly ever had, they being considered a luxury
in wartime, strictly limited in supply, and much sought after. We sold ironware, furniture and
bedding, crockery (lots of crockery), kitchenware, doormats, linoleum, and anything that Mr
Wade, the buyer, could get hold of to make a few bob. I recall him coming across a source of
rough wooden toys one Christmas that were being turned out by wartime firemen in their free
time using salvaged timber; I felt ashamed to be expected to sell and ask money for the stuff
and was surprised at how it seemed to be in demand – but that was my job.
This area was a sparse place, with nothing covering the bare wood of the floor, and uncurtained
windows just under the flat roof. Also on this floor were the administrative offices, cashiers,
and the manager’s office, all behind a wall at the end. One part of the floor was partitioned off
to form quarters for the night-time firewatchers, with access to the roof via a flat area over part
of the first floor, overlooking the delivery yard and Morden Hall Park. Hawes was part of the
Air Raid Precautions system all such business areas had to join.
Whereas every other department had a Lamson Paragon vacuum tube cash delivery system
for customer dealings, we had to walk through to the cashiers’ counter to pay in cash and get
change. The carpet department was under the control of the kindly but at times pompous Mr
Wade, essentially generous in spirit. I was often treated to a cup of tea and a cake at the café
by him or by Lawrence, both much older, which I was very pleased to have, otherwise I don’t
suppose I would have taken many tea breaks. Apart from higher pay they made a bit of spare
cash doing fire-watching duties, and Mr Wade earned commission on sales, so he was pleased
to have a staff member under his control. Although of military age he was not in the forces as
such, but he was in the Home Guard and did, on occasion, arrive at Hawes in the morning in
uniform, having been on duty during the night. Having me as staff, he was able to be late, or
absent on buying trips (he said), leaving the department to be run by me. I realise now that the
management at Hawes were pleased to get me to work at the place, as finding staff for such work
in wartime was difficult. War factories paid more money, and work in central London would
have had more prospects. I suppose I was fairly well behaved and polite.
The fourth member of the male staff was Mr Evans, whose job was window-dresser: at one
time I was put to work under him in order that I could learn a trade. At age 14 I was still too
young and sensitive, thinking that everyone was looking at me, and hated being seen in the
windows. The elderly spinster ladies who made up the bulk of the Hawes staff were OK, but I
still remember the months of purgatory experienced from having to talk to female customers
or girl contemporaries at work.
My new-found wealth did allow me a new indulgence that autumn of 1942, fresh fruit. This
was sold from street traders’ barrows in the back streets near to Hawes. These traders were
subject to a certain amount of harassment from the police for being unlicensed, so they tended
to work from out-of-the-way places. For the first time I enjoyed the novelty of eating fresh fruit
in season, mainly plums.
Having a tendency to be ‘artistic’ at any opportunity meant that I was soon making signs and
price cards for my own department using the backs of blank sale cards I found in a small store
room. (Sales were unheard of in wartime – except of war-damaged stock, after the compensation
claim had been settled. There was never a need to shift unsold stock because there were constant
shortages and virtually anything sold.) This talent became noticed by various ladies on the staff
of other departments who needed to change a price or display card, or alter a notice in some way.
I was supplied with odd pieces of white card and a bottle of Indian ink, pen and brush. I enjoyed
this – it was better than work, and it got me much appreciated compliments. Hawes Bros had an
arrangement with a firm of signwriters to do this job and their representative called periodically
for orders. I don’t think that he was pleased, especially as I was able to alter their work, or create
passable imitations that matched the style of their work well enough to pass muster in window
displays. But they never offered me a job! My departmental boss did not like to have his staff
at the beck and call of every other department, but there was little he could do, especially as he
also used my skill to keep down his own department’s expenses. I must (I suspect now) have
saved Hawes Bros a mint, and, of course, I never received a penny for all this talented faking.
At a quid a week they were all getting a bargain!
Sometime during 1941-2 two big changes came in the form of clothes rationing and utility
furniture, aiding the ambition of the buyer to obtain and sell furniture. Government control over
supplies of materials, the amount used on each article of furniture, and a range of utility designs,
made the best of shortages and increased supplies at a time of great need to replace furniture
destroyed in air raids. The carpet department began to get limited supplies of furniture and it
was in great demand. This led to an increased delivery system to customers, two days a week,
when a van was hired from one of two haulage firms to collect goods from suppliers, move
goods between the two branches of Hawes (the other being at Clapham Junction) and deliver to
customers anywhere in south London. Previously Lawrence had been the only accompanying
‘delivery boy’, but some time in 1943 I took over that job.
This widened my horizons, as some trips were quite lengthy. I got to travel, and tips added to my
income. I discovered the delights of carmen’s pull-ups in several parts of London, all of which had
a reputation for good value. The drivers were knowledgeable and fatherly, and kind to this kid.
They seemed to take pleasure in finding me a café with nice cakes or bread pudding and custard
which I was guaranteed to enjoy. Following on to my introduction to these transport cafés around
south London I began to live a separate life from my family so far as eating was concerned.
There was a darker side to the life of these vans that I became aware of when I got better
acquainted with individual drivers. Vans were often used at night to assist the evacuation
of personal belongings and families from bombed homes or rest centres. One of the smaller
unmarked vehicles I travelled in was given a slip-in alloy floor with three sides and used by Civil
Defence authorities for transporting human remains after air attack. This was a Bedford van,
and it was the first motor vehicle I was ever to drive, with the aid of its kindly driver. Travel to
areas unfamiliar at first brought a better awareness of what was happening to other Londoners
during the air war against civilians, and I was shocked at the amount of devastation wrought by
air attack since the beginning of air raids in 1940.
Before I eventually left Hawes Bros for another job, I experienced delivery trips made in daylight
air raids during the ‘little Blitz’ of 1943 and the flying bomb (V-1) attacks from June 1944. Then
I had to either hang out of the cab listening for an approaching V-1 or watch the activities of
pedestrians in the streets to see if they were reacting to, or watching, something happening in
the sky. If so we would stop, ready to leave the van. Worse was to come in September when V-2
rockets began to fall on London and the south-east; with them there was no hint at all of an attack
unless one caught sight of a vertical vapour trail in a clear blue sky. If it was right overhead one
could only hope, and their suddenness could be frightening. Despite the official silence and lack
of detail (to avoid giving information to the German launch teams) everyone in London knew
what was happening; the explosions could be heard or felt, and often seen. The drivers, because
of the nature of their work, were a mine of information on the rockets and the devastation. Along
with most Londoners they had the same remark on hearing an explosion: ‘There goes another
gas main!’ This referred to an explanation dragged from a reluctant Government department
early in the attacks when they were asked by newspapers to explain a sudden devastation.
It was during the V-1 attacks that Hawes itself suffered damage from blast, one Saturday night
in 1944.6 Someone called at my home on the Sunday morning and told my parents that I was
wanted at work, where all staff who could be contacted went to spend the day clearing up and
removing the stock from the display window area that was in the process of being boarded up.
There may have been other occasions, but I only remember one.
The flying bombs required yet more adaptation to everyday and working life. In order that
normal business or life in general could continue during the all-day alerts, a system was devised
in factories and businesses of having watchers at some high point on the building to signal the
actual approach of a flying bomb making for one’s own location, also when it had passed over
or landed elsewhere. I took turns with Mr Wade at climbing up to the flat roof of Hawes Bros
to watch during air raid alerts, and stand close by a structure that had a bell-push fixed to it.
I would press this on seeing or hearing the approach of a V-1, and staff and customers below
would know to retire to the brick air raid shelter if they wished. There was a very tall building
at Morden at that time (the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society department store) and it had
what I assume was an Observer Corps post at its highest point. This had direct contact with the
anti-aircraft system and received warning of flying bombs crossing the coast and heading for
our part of London. When this happened their watcher moved a fire bucket to prominent view
and we were thus warned to start listening and watching.
6 Soon after midnight on Sunday 18 June 1944. This was the first V-1 to arrive in Merton and Morden, landing
in the grounds of Morden Hall, not far from the junction of Kenley Road and Morden Hall Road.
It is obvious that blast from anywhere within half a mile could have blown me off that flat
roof where there was no cover whatsoever. The almost all-round view enabled me to watch the
progress of an approaching or passing ‘doodlebug’, as some American had named them, but at
that stage in the war I had a dread of being inside a building during air raids. The open air was
definitely the best place in my limited experience.
Civil Defence Messenger Service (1943-45)
Outside of my working for a living at Hawes I had, naturally, another very different life. I was
still a member of the Boys’ Brigade. I spent practically all my spare time either at, or with
friends from, the Farm Road Mission Hall at Morden, which was where the Brigade company
was based and where a youth club would soon be started. I was now a Brigade NCO, a lance
corporal. Several of our NCOs were part-time members of a Civil Defence Messenger crew
in the nearby Borough of Sutton and Cheam. When our Brigade meetings coincided with their
duty nights they attended in their ARP uniforms, prior to going on duty. As they were called up,
others volunteered to fill the Messenger crew vacancies when they reached the age of 15. In
the summer, a crisis at home enabled me to persuade my father to let me join the Civil Defence
Messenger Service of Sutton and Cheam.
To join involved attending the Messenger Service headquarters and depot in Cheam Road,
Sutton, with my parental permission signed, and taking an oath. Other requirements were that
I had to have a working bicycle, be reasonably fit and have a recommendation from another
Civil Defence member. This was no problem because Crew Two, that I was to join, along with
my friends Tom Walsh and Bob Veneer, had always recruited from the Boys’ Brigade in one
form or another and had once been commanded by Boys’ Brigade officers who had now gone to
serve in the armed forces. I was issued with a dark blue ‘battledress’ uniform and yellow printed
or embroidered badges and shoulder flashes to sew on it, a dark blue greatcoat, boots, leather
gaiters, beret, civilian service gas mask, steel helmet and two white capital ‘M’ transfers to put
on back and front, a rubber groundsheet-cum-cape, and an ARP hand-lamp. I also received a
Civil Defence identity card. The crew normally had nine or ten members. I learned that I was
required to be on duty at the depot every fourth night, from 20.00 hours to 06.00 the following
day. Every second night in between would be a standby night
when I could be called out. I would be paid two shillings
and eightpence subsistence allowance a night, monthly,
with a further two shillings and sixpence cycle allowance,
held to cover the cost of things like bicycle tyres or inner
tubes, which I could get from the depot (a boon at a time of
wartime shortages). These were riches indeed! In addition
we got vouchers for sandwiches at the ARP canteen at the
nearby Sutton Public Hall and plenty of tea when on duty.
I did keep a kind of diary showing in advance the dates I
was due for duty, and I usually entered a brief word about
the night against each date. The principal reason for this
was to record what training and exercises I had completed.
With the exception of Sundays we had something of that
kind every duty night to enable us to gain proficiency. The
notebook also contained telephone numbers, the location
Albert Smith in his uniform as an ARP Messenger. (Note headlamp
and ‘speedy’ inverted handlebars on bicycle.)
Courtesy Corinne Male
of Civil Defence depots, wardens’ posts, hospitals and Home Guard company headquarters and
rendezvous points. These were marked junctions and meeting places where road convoys passing
through the borough could be met by a Messenger to act as a guide. During the invasion scares
of 1940 every road or direction sign had been removed to avoid assisting a landing army; these
were not restored until the end of the war in Europe.
My first full night duty as a Civil Defence Messenger was Thursday 12 August 1943, and my
service continued until the stand-down of all Civil Defence services just before the end of the
war in Europe in May 1945. I passed my proficiency exam on 14 December 1943 and was
given a silver metal badge to wear on my beret to display the fact. The crew was lead by a Crew
Leader and a deputy, both senior NCOs in our Brigade company, and the depot was under the
command of adult Civil Defence personnel, some full-timers. There was a total of four separate
crews stationed at the depot, but contact between crews was limited to the Christmas party or
lectures from specialists. We were required to know our way about the whole borough, be able
to direct or lead other emergency services to where they were needed, and generally act in any
capacity that required the passing of messages whether by hand or by telephone. This last was
inside work for which we trained to take over from adults in an emergency.
In the basement of our depot we had a duplicate Civil Defence control centre ready to come
into operation in the event of the main control centre being put out of action. We lads trained
in telephone message receiving, sending, and processing. Our depot officers plus relief officers
became borough and regional controllers of services in such an event. The object was to keep
services going until better arrangements could be brought into being. Some of our training
was shared with the ‘real’ control centre staff at the main site in the bowels of Sutton High
Street. I have often wondered what these grown-ups thought of us young kids being given such
responsibilities – but, as the saying went, ‘There’s a war on’.
Some of the training involved very arduous bicycle journeys, long periods of loneliness on nighttime
journeys to distant Civil Defence establishments, sometimes in neighbouring boroughs.
The very worst occasions were when required to ride through thick fog in the blackout; I can
hardly believe it to have been possible without injury. There were occasional counter-invasion
exercises which we shared with the Home Guard and the Army. Every duty night was shared
with my own friends from the Boys’ Brigade, and although we were made to realise it was not
meant to be a game we mostly enjoyed being in the service and carrying out the duties. So long
as there was no alert in progress we were allowed to attend Brigade parade nights or church,
provided we made straight for our depot if an alert sounded. Another facet of life was the
paternal (and maternal) interest that well-to-do Sutton residents took in our Messenger crews.
One family supplied the depot weekly with clean tea towels for our use at their own expense,
and when early in my Messenger career I had been sent to their house they had shown friendly
interest, inviting me to take coffee. This, I am sure, was my introduction to real coffee (then
more of an upper-class thing, and not rationed in wartime).
Our Crew was very lucky so far as real action was concerned, although we happened to be on
duty during the first night attack by flying bombs, Thursday 15 June 1944, when my duty book
records ‘Alert at 23.40, All Clear at 09.18 Friday’. But we had no idea that it was a flying bomb
attack. To our ears planes were passing over all night, some crashing, or bombing, judging by
the distant explosions and the engine cut-outs. Pickets (which we had to mount during all air
raids to warn of fire) reported that aircraft were on fire when they crashed. Pickets also told
of many Home Guard being about in the streets along with police and other services – we
began to think that there might have been a counter-invasion after the D-Day landings of the
The next morning, during a coffee break at Morden, I got the first of many sightings of a low-
flying V-1 as it passed over towards London proper. Soon after this my brother was evacuated
along with his school chums to Manchester. There were one or two occasions when I did duty
at flying bomb incidents (attending the incident officer as his messenger) in Sutton during the
next few months, but there was a Wardens’ Messenger Service in the borough, which attended
most incidents with the Wardens. The Fire Service also had its own messenger service, equipped
in like fashion. One of my cousins of the same age, Reg Royal, served as such.
It was the experience of attending incidents and what I saw in Morden that put me off the
idea of being inside an air raid shelter or a house during an air raid. Merton and Morden
suffered badly during the V-1 attacks. One of the earliest attacks knocked out a whole Civil
Defence Rescue depot, in a small group of buildings in the middle of Farm Road (Morden)
recreation ground, effectively removing 50% of Morden’s Civil Defence services. Our crew
leader’s father was killed in that attack.7 Over the next month I often came across the same
windscreen- and window-less light rescue crew vehicle around Morden, obviously a survivor
from that depot.
One of my friends, Harry Tizzard, went off duty on three occasions to discover his home
badly damaged. Flying bombs had an uncanny tendency to repeat themselves. In one case, a
quarter of a mile from Dore Gardens, at Middleton Road by Moreton Green, there were three
separate impacts, each one widening the area of devastation created by its predecessor. This
cannot be explained by them being launched from the same site because I watched one of the
three perform aerobatics, diving and turning in several directions before flying low through
a previously bombed site into houses at the back. That particular V-1 is the only one that
actually prompted me to lie flat on the ground. Part of its antics involved it diving straight
down towards our front garden before turning and flattening out to head for its final impact.
It had not got my name on it, as the saying went.
A grimmer memory is of an incident on 15 November 1944, when I was one of two messengers
(with Bob Veneer) attending the incident officer in the early hours near Frogmore Gardens in
North Cheam. A flying bomb had landed sometime after 2.00 am and rescue operations took
place well into the morning with the aid of plenty of floodlighting, while all around house
lights blazed as people tried to tidy up their blast-stricken homes. It added to the unreality
of the scene as the bodies were recovered in the full glare. At one point I was required to
guide an ambulance through the dim-out round the back streets of the area to the nearest aid
post, and in lieu of the required blue lamp attached to the back of my clothing, I was lit by
the ambulance’s headlamps.
When the V-2 rockets entered the fray in September 1944, Sutton and Cheam and Merton
and Morden were two areas of Greater London that escaped actual impacts. Most Londoners
knew about V-2s; many folk, me included, had actually seen them descending through clear
blue skies on occasion since the commencement of attacks. But my messenger duty record
tells me that it was not until 10 November that it was announced officially that they existed!
The messenger duty record that I kept does not continue beyond the end of 1944, although
we carried on regular duties every fourth night until the official ‘stand down’ in May 1945.
This diary records that I was on duty on Sunday 24 December 1944, and that we had a crew
party. Tom [Robinson] was our crew leader, about 18 years old then, and one of our Boys’
Brigade staff sergeants.
7 Monday 3 July 1944
Next Job – Hope Brothers in the City (1944-48)
In late 1944 I got sufficiently ambitious to reply to an advert from a City menswear shop
and I got the job. The main attractions were that I would have to work only a half day and
not all day every Saturday, and that the hours were shorter (due to the shop closing at 4.00
pm in wartime because of the blackout). Also, the move to a men’s outfitters in the City was
in the nature of a career move. There were supposed to be prospects in a job with such a
company of outfitters. So I left Hawes Bros for Hope Brothers, Gentlemen’s Outfitters and
Shirt Manufacturers, of Ludgate Hill in the City of London. Even in wartime Britain, Hope
Brothers was still nearer to the ways of Victorian London in its methods, staff, and, particularly,
its behind-the-scenes facilities and attitudes. Once I got over the many shocks, I began to find
it interesting; it was certainly very different. Working in the City did seem to have a different
meaning, and the actual atmosphere and ways of the head office of Hope Brothers, where I
worked, deserve a separate book.
The war was not over, but it seemed as though it might not be too long coming. Hope Brothers,
along with most central London outfitters and shops, began to find themselves getting trade
from members of the armed forces of European nations who had come to Britain to continue
the fight after their countries were invaded. They were expecting to return home and wanted
to take goods with them. There was also much trade with American armed services personnel.
The general lack of air attacks by manned aircraft meant less danger in working in London,
not that there was much left to
knock down in the City at the
end of 1944. It did mean that
coming off messenger duty
at 6.00 am involved a great
rush to wash and change, to
get to the station and travel
to the City by the 7.30 cheap
workman’s concession train.
Bob Veneer, one of my fellow
crew members, was a daily
travelling companion, for he
was an apprentice to a printer’s
just off Shoe Lane, near to
Holborn Viaduct station, and
we travelled to work together.
In April 1945 I became 17 years
old, and wanted to volunteer
for the Army. I went to the
recruiting office at St Pancras,
HQ of the Artists’ Rifles. I was
medically examined and passed
Grade B2, and I signed on for ‘7
and 5’ – 12 years. I was given a
travel warrant made out in the
name of the RASC and told to
attend a selection test at a place
in Whitehall. When I arrived
Hope Brothers, looking eastward across Old Bailey from Pageantmaster
Court, c.1930. Courtesy & © The Gentle Author at Spitalfieldslife.com
I was lined up with other lads in front of a brutal-looking NCO whose remarks and attitude
made me immediately sorry for what I had committed myself to. I took the test and learned
that I would be called up when I was 17 and 6 months. I never heard another word – I do not
know why, but I am grateful not to have been called up then.
Moving my working environment to the City from the then almost country town atmosphere
of Morden was a very big step for someone little more than a boy. I was, after all, only aged
16 in late 1944, even though I had taken an oath of allegiance to the Crown when I assumed
Civil Defence responsibilities, and regularly spent whole nights away from home at the beck
and call of whatever duty might be expected by the Borough of Sutton and Cheam. The shop
where I was to work was on the ground floor of the head office of the company, at the corner of
Old Bailey and Ludgate Hill. The building was a survivor of the terrible fires of the Blitz that
destroyed so much of the old City; all around were the wide open spaces where buildings of a
like character had once stood, with only the basement areas still visible. Opposite my place of
work, separated only by a narrow lane, was another shop with its own manager and staff known
as Old Bailey. At Hope Brothers I would get a wage of one pound five shillings, less than that
paid by Hawes, where Mr Wade had been instrumental in getting me rises by the end of 1944.
In compensation I was supposed to be able to earn a monthly ‘premium’, a form of commission
whereby every item for sale had its own value in reward for the assistant who sold it. It was graded
in amount to take account of the average price of the items in that particular department: a £3
shirt would attract the same commission, perhaps, as a £1 tie. Every shop assistant specialised
in one or two items of apparel and attended at that counter, where he would earn his premium.
He might be the first- or second-on attending to customers coming for the items available at
his counter in his department. The Ties salesman only sold ties and the Shirts salesman only
sold shirts or collars. If my customer expressed an interest in buying a shirt to add to the tie
I had sold him, I would conduct him to the first-on in Shirts, and vice-versa. There were, in
theory, equal opportunities to earn premium, although in practice it may not have been so well
regulated, or I would not have had to start in Ties! I was first on Ties and second on Gloves,
under the overall control of Mr Flegg, a kindly man who seemed to me elderly. He was first on
Gloves and second on Ties; we were adjacent along the line of the counter, just inside the shop
corner doorway where almost all customers first enquired. He had a grave, deferential, almost
servile way with customers, but he also had a sense of fun and enjoyed gossip. Status was
everything; this was, after all, the head office! I had to enter and leave the building by a staff
door with a time clock and doorkeeper at the side of the building, whereas the Floor Manager
and Directors entered by the front door after the shop was open, and left that way before it
closed. A floor walker, a kind of usher who acted like a deputy manager, would unlock and raise
the blind on the shop door on time and remain stationed nearby to spot the approach of any of
the directors, when a warning to all would be given. It was expected that you would look busy
and take no notice of these imperious individuals as they swept by. The shop manager was the
first to enter the front door in stately fashion, black homburg on head, umbrella on arm, pipe
taken from his mouth to be carried in a raised left hand as he greeted everybody individually
on a measured walk to his office at the end of the first angle in the ground floor layout. This
was more or less a hint that the managing director, Mr Randall, would soon sweep through the
door in his whirlwind journey to the first floor via the grand stairway that led to his suite of
offices and to the more spartan working areas. It was all so contrived! They both lived in the
region of Guildford and must have travelled to work (‘the office’) on the same train. It was a
study in stage management to observe this infallible charade every morning except Saturday.
Very Dickensian! To be able to work there without bringing the whole edifice crashing down
I had to change my name: there was a company
director/company secretary in the building named
Smith, therefore I had to become Mr Albert, and that
I stayed until the day I left.
While I was working in the retail shop I did receive promotion to Shirts and Collars, and then,
much later, to become the complete staff of Footwear, before I left the shop for the warehouse
floors upstairs – where wages were fixed and from where supplies were dispatched to the 30
or so branches around London and the provinces. This move came when post-war supplies of
footwear started to pick up and a return to a full department and warehouse for footwear, with
increased staff, was justified. In the warehouse I did not have to wear a ‘sensible’ suit and I had
more freedom to move about – and get lost!
The outside of Hope Brothers, with its curved glass windows and display cases in brass surrounds,
was in keeping with the company’s idea of itself. The building was part of the well-known London
view of St Paul’s seen from Fleet Street. Large entrance doors of shining wood, bevelled glass,
brass fittings and panels, led to an interior of mahogany and glass counters, display cabinets,
and fittings reflected in shining mirrors at every turn. Impressive hanging lamps flooded the
area with light, which could overflow through the leaded coloured glass tops at the back of the
tall display windows onto the street. This overflow was the reason for the early closing times in
the darker months of the year, for the retail shop area had no provision for blackout as required
by ARP regulations. The warehouse and counting house (yes, counting house!) on the floors
above were much more spartan.
To leave or enter, I and others used a small, discreet, door in a corner of the tailoring area that
led to the staff entrance and another world. A back staircase led to all departments above and
below, goods lift, and the dispatch and delivery area. To walk in the opposite direction would
take one back down two steps, past the cashier’s desk, and through the grandly appointed Hats
and Umbrellas area to exit through another impressive doorway on to the pavement of Ludgate
Hill. There was an area in the basement for the use of shop staff, with a cloakroom/washroom
Hope Brothers shirt and ties, from nationaltrustcollection.org.
uk courtesy & © National Trust, photos nos. Tie 745366,
Tie 745458_13 and Shirt 1152356.1
and toilets. The latter were under part of the pavement that ran round two sides of the building,
lit from above by glass blocks in the pavement and ventilated by small cast-iron grilles in the
wall at ground level. We were individually supplied with small yellow squares of soap cut
from bars of ‘Sunlight’, and the allocation on one day each month had all the seriousness of the
distribution of a rare treat.
When I started my City career, the end of the war in Europe seemed to be in sight, although we
still had air raid alerts and the occasional flying bomb. It is worth recalling that the Government
had instituted the ‘dim-out’, a relaxation of the blackout, such was official confidence. The
dim-out meant that, although street lighting was still not back to pre-war standard, house lights
and vehicle lights could be allowed to shine at night. It was a good propaganda ploy, a real
There were occasional V-2 rocket landings to concentrate one’s mind. One such saw me standing
behind the gloves and ties counter near to the door of the Ludgate Hill shop, when the leaded
glass panel above the back of the display window in front of me bowed inwards for a few inches
and then went back into position. This pressure change was followed within seconds by the
sound of an explosion. It was one of the worst incidents: a rocket had landed in the Smithfield
Market area less than half a mile away, inflicting terrible casualties.8
Still having messenger duties every fourth night meant a rush away home from the depot at 6.30
am to catch a train at 7.30 from St Helier and travel to Holborn Viaduct to arrive around 8.00,
to get the much-needed half-fare concession. I did not start work until 9.00 am! Being behind a
counter, having a fixed area to stay, was very difficult for me to get used to, for at Hawes I had
held a roving commission. The stock I was required to sell opened up a world I had never come
across in my working-class life, for it included club and regimental ties. I had a large-format
folder of cloth patterns to guide me. Every regiment, sometimes sections of that regiment, had
a tie. Schools had a tie. Cricket or rugby clubs all had a tie, in fact every club had a tie. Even
the British Union of Fascists had a tie! The Navy had four ties – RN, RNR, RNVR and Fleet
Air Arm; the Merchant Navy had a tie, as did the former Royal Naval Air Service. The RAF
had several different ties; so did the Brigade of Guards. Then there were the Scottish clans who
each had a tartan, in fact three tartans (everyday, hunting, and dress tartans) which could be
worn as ties. I am still able to recognise ties worn by strangers thanks to the experience, little
good though it may do me!
We got many American servicemen in the shop. I was intrigued, but then I learned of emergency
ration coupons, loose just like postage stamps. They could be used in isolation, were not
withdrawn once used, could be moved around at will, given as an unofficial gift, and used and
sold in the black market where they had a definite cash value. About half a crown per coupon was
the usual price. Americans would often bring in large cartons of beautifully packed cigarettes,
nylon stockings, and ‘candy bars’. Cigarettes were in short supply for civilians and often subject
to unofficial rationing at shops. They were a big item with the black market, but the American
forces’ PX stores seemingly had no restrictions. Not being a smoker, I would take cartons home
to my parents.
Of less direct interest were the lunchtime visits from pairs of overcoated and homburg-hatted
gentlemen who would buy shirts, underwear, coats or suits. One day I supplied ties or gloves for
some of these gentlemen and I was told to make out a bill and not to worry about the necessary
ration coupons – the other assistant would see to that on another counter. I suppose it was mainly
curiosity that prompted me to speak about this matter with the much older colleague who had
8 Thursday 8 March 1945
taken charge of all the business when he served them from his counter. Then I learned that they
never tendered coupons – they had an arrangement. Further conversation caused me to voice
the fear ‘Supposing the police got to know about all this?’ The other chap smiled. ‘They are the
police’ he said, and some were barristers, or judges’ clerks.
Bob and I met each weekday morning to travel to Holborn Viaduct terminus. We would then go
to one of the many Welsh dairies that dotted the City of those days for tea and toast or bread and
dripping, before Bob went to his printing works. It was a cheap way for me to get a breakfast.
It was then a short walk to Ludgate Hill where I would be too early to start work and so often
went up to St Paul’s to walk around or just sit in the quiet.
This casual reference to Welsh dairies needs elaboration. Until I went to work in the City I knew
nothing of these little grocery shops in the narrow back streets off all the City thoroughfares –
they later gave way to sandwich bars. No doubt many little dairies had been destroyed during
the wartime air raids that left vast areas flattened, where only the roads had been restored. The
dairy that Bob and I patronised each morning was, unsurprisingly, called Jones’s. It was in Shoe
Lane, and such was its blackened and blacked-out front that you would pass it without knowing,
if you were not a customer. Its main interior lighting was over the counter at the back and we
dined standing against a wall in dim greenish-white gaslight. Its dark but snug atmosphere was
filled each morning by pen factory girls and men fortifying themselves with tea and toast before
starting work. During the various stages of my working life I used these dairies to buy fresh
milk for office ‘tea clubs’, to get a tea-can filled each morning and afternoon with strong tea or
milky coffee, and very often to buy some stodgy ‘cheesecake’ or cream bun.
In the City backstreets they were usually dark little places that one often had to step down
into. They were peopled by a busy little owner and his family, always heavily accented as only
expatriates seem obliged to be. They were always too busy for any socialising and there never
seemed to be any humour or banter about. Being surrounded by tall buildings in narrow streets
meant that the electric lights (and sometimes gas lamps) were nearly always on. They had a smell
of gas being used, of cheese, milk, steam from hot water urns, and years of food handling. They
were the working man’s Lyons Corner House, always open when you wanted them. I am certain
that now they would be driven out of business by post-war food regulations. Some families
always spoke to one another in Welsh; Clerkenwell was in fact a home of Welsh expatriates, for
the London Welsh Club was situated in Gray’s Inn Road, the Welsh National Opera rehearsed
there and the Rugby Club met there. Clerkenwell was like that, with the Italian population of
London firmly established around Mount Pleasant, and the Scots at the top of Gray’s Inn Road
around King’s Cross.
The emerging love of my London working life became Jimmy’s, an eating house on the south
side of Pilgrim Street just off Ludgate Hill, owned and run by a family of Italian origin who
all seemed to live at Streatham in south London. I always had enough cash for my ninepenny
workman’s train fare, with a few pence for eating that mostly allowed a morning cup of tea
and a slice of bread and dripping. If I lacked the shilling or so that lunch might cost, I bought
a cake from Jimmy’s or the ABC tea shop in Ludgate Hill. Food was cheap in wartime, even if
monotonous or of low quality. Saturdays was the worst day: then I had to go by bus to Morden
for the Underground to St Paul’s tube station at twice the weekday fare. It is only now that I
realise how impoverished I was, but I don’t remember thinking so at the time. There were days of
great wealth, when I got my monthly payment of subsistence allowance from the Civil Defence
Messenger Service, or the monthly premium payment in my Hope Brothers wages. Messenger
pay could amount to two pounds, one shilling and four pence so those were high days indeed.
Then it would be spam and chips at Jimmy’s. Great stuff!
I got another shift in department at this time, becoming the total sales staff of the shoe department,
a small realm of my own. It was all shining wood, with a large shielded work bench area, and
walls of shelves and pull-out boxes – but very little actual stock! This being so, I often found
myself called out to assist elsewhere during a lunchtime rush. I began learning about footwear,
leather, and the variously named styles.
The war in Europe ended when 8 May 1945 was declared a national holiday, except for the
employees in public transport, who kept the buses and trains running all day. The memory of
the actual day is something to treasure, totally incapable of reproduction or even of adequate
description. In the morning of VE Day I still went to the City, but by bike. I leaned my bike against
the railings outside St Paul’s and attended the public service of thanksgiving inside. After cycling
home I teamed up with Stan Fiveash for the rest of the day and night, and we went back into
London and just wandered about. By the evening we were part of the crowd outside Buckingham
Palace, shouting our heads off, even if not knowing why. There were several appearances of the
Royal family and Churchill on the floodlit balcony, each to an ear-splitting roar. The atmosphere
was almost unreal, everyone with a permanent smile on their face, crowds everywhere, the
streets a teeming, friendly mass with spontaneous serpents of people, nearly always led by an
American in uniform, weaving everywhere, performing some silly routine and chanting. It was
infectiously good-natured. As I walked back home from Morden tube station through the estate
late at night, every street had the remains of a bonfire burning in the centre of the road, with
folk standing about radiating happiness and friendship. Although VJ Day, 15 August, when the
war in the Pacific ended, was another public holiday and people took to the streets and tried to
relive VE Day, it was not the same; there cannot be two such days in one lifetime.
By the end of 1945 new faces began to appear at Hope Brothers, as former employees returned
from war service. When better supplies became available in the shoe department in 1946 I got
the assistance of an older colleague, a
former serviceman who had had a shoerepairing
business at Carshalton before
being called up (when he had had to
close his shop). With time this would
lead to my move to the second floor of
the warehouse, and a proper wholesale
shoe department with a full-time buyer
in charge, away from the sales counters,
and on a regular wage of £3 per week.
In the late forties there was a real
difference in social contact that is only
obvious now; maybe it was a kind of
national feeling of relief at the end of war
and a new start to things by the people
returning to civvy street. Conversation
grew easily, and everyone seemed to
have developed easier social graces from
their time in one of the wartime services.
Barrack room language was taboo, as was
discussion of actual wartime experiences
except to say in what service one had
served. Hope Brothers frontage on Ludgate Hill, c.1910
© Museum of London, picture no.142469
Hope Brothers were shirt makers, and noted as such. Occasionally the factory made up cloth
that contained a small flaw in the weave, often hard to find, so that the item became a ‘second’,
not for sale to the public. Seconds were put aside in the warehouse for sale at low prices to staff
only and, once I found out about it, I took advantage of this facility whenever I felt flush enough
to buy a shirt, or even pyjamas. They were sold at a staff price of one shilling for each clothing
coupon required, which still had to be tendered. Thus a collar-attached shirt cost five shillings
and five coupons, a separate-collared shirt seven shillings and seven coupons – all regardless
of quality, which was always of a high standard. With a few reject ties as well I began to be
better dressed. Staff discounts at a time of wartime price controls, which continued post-war,
also helped my evolution from drably cheap clothing. Purchase tax did not apply to damaged
(seconds) goods. My move to wholesale (the warehouse) not only allowed me to wear more
casual clothes, but gave me a lot more freedom to move about, as I did not have to be constantly
available to attend to someone who walked in the front door to buy something. I got to know
more people in different departments, with time to learn and discuss in a way that was restricted
behind a counter. This was especially so when the buyer, my immediate boss, was out of the
building, which was often. His was a real skive of a job if ever there was one!
I made a couple of friends in the stationery department on the top floor, a different world of
printing machines and processes – a real attraction to one of my family background. With a
seemingly pompous little boss strutting around, who in reality was one of the boys, they tended to
look after themselves up there, with almost constant tea-making, fascinating activities associated
with the art and mysteries of printing, and a free-and-easy atmosphere, almost never interrupted
by a visit from a director or other bigwig. All the printing and printed supplies for the Hope
Brothers branches throughout London and the provinces came from that top floor.
Winter 1946-47 was the infamous great freeze. Britain’s war-worn railways and industry ground
to a halt through the lack of fuel in the terrible freezing weather. There were electricity cuts on a
rota basis all through the day every day to ration power to industry. At Hope Brothers the shop
area had candles and small oil lamps going most of the day. On the upper floors daylight helped
work to continue but heating and processes stopped for hours on end.
By the end of 1946 I reached the age when I was required to register for National Service
and for reasons I cannot remember I expressed a preference for the Royal Navy as part of the
registration. In due course I was called to my medical, which I found to be much more thorough
than that I had gone through when I had volunteered for the Army in 1944. The medical found
me not to be A1 and to have defective hearing because of a punctured eardrum. I was referred
to King’s College Hospital and I became an outpatient. July 1947 brought me an unexpected
three weeks paid ‘holiday’, when I went into Horton Emergency Hospital at Epsom. The place
was a purpose-built mental hospital taken over by the Red Cross as a convalescent and treatment
hospital for the armed forces. I was sent there for observation and treatment of otitis. I was left
with plenty of time in fine summer weather to enjoy the extensive grounds, and the evening
social life organised for the servicemen patients.
I attended Unity Theatre to see the show one Sunday, when I had to pay a nominal fee and join,
because it was a Club Theatre. Sitting on the centre aisle steps in the gods of a packed auditorium
I immediately fell under the spell of live theatre. I had found a new interest. Unity was always
looking for new members. I allowed myself to be persuaded into the large cast needed for one
play and eventually trod the boards for six weeks on a nightly basis with a matinee on Saturdays.
Although I eventually found it too demanding of time and energy, living so far from the theatre,
at Goldington Crescent in Camden NW1, I do not regret a moment of that Unity period.
Published by Merton Historical Society – May 2019
Further information on Merton Historical Society can be obtained from the Society’s website
Merton Library & Heritage Service, Merton Civic Centre, London Road, Morden, Surrey SM4 5DX
Albert left Hope Brothers in July 1948, and worked for
a while in a gentlemen’s outfitters in Streatham, where,
among other duties, he created window-dressing displays.
Eventually, on 25 March 1950, Albert Arthur James
Smith, shop assistant, married Jean Margaret Loveman,
industrial photographer, at Morden Register Office and
left Dore Gardens forever. He later followed his father
(another Albert) into the printing trade, where he pursued
a long and successful career, much of it with The Times
newspaper. Albert eventually retired to Ealand, South
Humberside, where he wrote his memoirs in the 1990s.
Publicity photo of Six Men of Dorset, Miles Malleson’s
play about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, presented by Unity
Theatre, a social-political volunteer theatre group. Albert
is third from the right; fourth and fifth are the professional
actors Warren Mitchell and Hilda Fenemore.