I was evacuated with my school to Welwyn Garden City, a town that had already seen an influx of evacuees from the East End of London come and go during the ‘Phoney War’ in 1939. That experience soured many residents and billets were hard to find. With a surname beginning with W, I was last in line. I just remember a very long day, with two volunteer women (and me in tow) being turned away time and again. Eventually, I was sitting on a doorstep, kind of tired, while adults argued my fate over my head. A little Scottie dog came out to be friendly and I petted it. “He likes the dog,” someone said, “All right, we’ll have him.”
I was seven, no just 8, armed with a book ‘William the Bad’, a toy pistol and a luggage label identifying me. Two toys were our ration. However, my previous experience with grown-ups was all good. I had every expectation of being treated properly and I reckon I was. Whether my mother would have agreed, had she known the full extent of my freedom that summer, is a different matter. The ‘adults’ in charge of me were, in fact, two teenage sisters married to soldiers who had immediately been posted abroad. They had set up house together and what they knew about cooking and child management between them could have been written on a postage stamp without obscuring the King’s head. Boiled eggs with curry powder was a staple. It was years before I attempted Indian food.
I found friends and went out with them at weekends – all day. I’d come back at 6 or 7 o’clock and the sisters would say, “Had a nice day?” And I had. No harm came to me except cuts and bruises and I learned self-reliance and independence.
Today, I think of myself as a liberal (with a small ‘l’) and am mostly against censorship. I can’t help wondering, though, if many troubled young children know too much. Looking back, I believe I and my companions were somehow protected by our innocence from the undoubted perils that surrounded us. Many of the police, gamekeepers and responsible adults had disappeared into the armed forces. We roamed freer than any middle-class child would today.
The woods did contain prowlers who tried to strike up incomprehensible conversations and lovers whose antics were equally uncomprehended, but were a source of interest and amusement. Our major sins were smoking cigars stolen by one boy from his father or, more disgustingly, dog-ends from the gutter, and scrumping apples to disguise the smell (and to tell the truth, the taste!)
Between the ages of eight and fifteen, boys went around together; girls were excluded. Occasionally we might show off by fighting, shouting or swaggering in front of a pretty sister, but we were really into adventure.
The Garden City had its own abandoned gravel pit and brickyard, where the Gosling Stadium now stands. The Home Guard had turned it into an assault course, where we naturally assaulted each other. I recall being caught by a rival gang and stuffed down a barbed wire filled trench and peed on. I don’t think that was part of the standard Home Guard training!
It was also a rifle range and a source of live ammunition. We discovered that cordite burned without exploding outside the cartridge case, but putting a bullet in a vice and hitting the detonator with hammer and nail wasn’t a good idea. Newspaper soaked in weedkiller and sealed in a steel tube made a dangerous bomb and why nobody I knew was killed is a mystery to me. Cuts and bruises were commonplace (my knees were always scabbed), but we all thought ourselves immortal.
The abandoned workings included a narrow gauge railway running down into the pit. By propping the broken rails on drums, we engineered a braking slope and, Sysiphus-like, endlessly pushed a little wagon to the top, leapt in, overflowing the sides, and entrusted ourselves to gravity and luck. Even today, when my feet get entangled in the bedclothes, I awake with a start from a dream of hurtling down a chute from which there can be no escaping the crash at the bottom.
The road down into the pit was cut through high banks and spanned by a water pipe; 30 feet above the roadway in the middle and maybe 30 feet from side to side. We shinned across this, sloth-like with our arms pulling out of their sockets. Extreme fear kept our hands closed when physical strength gave out! Close by was the Twentieth Mile Bridge with an outward sloping parapet protected by two strands of barbed wire. Walking on the roadway was dull, so we walked on the parapet outside the wire or, for variety, on our toes on the semicircular decoration on the outside wall of the bridge, holding on to the parapet with our hands. Remembering what we did, I used to worry about my own sons when they were out, since I didn’t expect them to be any different and I reckon we grew up by the ‘Grace of God and the turn-up’. The brickworks bridge, now long gone, was deserted and just the place to stand and try to drop half bricks down the smokestacks of trains passing underneath. We trespassed on the railway lines and stokers hurled lumps of coal at us. We put pennies and ball bearings on the lines; the first got flattened and the second drove wiggly channels along the relatively soft metal of the rails. On the Hertford line, little used, we found snakes and lizards under the corrugated iron sheets by the rails and took them home as (very temporary) pets.
When my mother finally caught up with me by visiting, staying and telling my Dad he’d better come too, she thought I’d become a street arab. I guess she was right.
I’d come from an infant school and was put into the toughest junior school (in Peartree Lane) in the town. I didn’t know any swear words or common nouns for rude parts of the body and I was wearing shoes. Such was the need for protective camouflage that I spoke ‘ertfordshire at school and middle class Hampshire cum Yorkshire at home. I used to write to my mother begging for boots so I could be like the others and maybe kick back.
In self-defence, I joined a gang (get the strength of a gang around you) and life improved. I used to have breakfast and go to the gang leader’s house to go to school with him. There I was given fried bread, a welcome piece of junk food. I was an adult before I realised I’d been sharing a poor family’s only breakfast. They also used to give me ‘bacon bones’, thin rib-like bones that could be chewed for the marrow. In war-rationed Britain, better than sweets!
Rationing – very small portions, unless you knew a black marketeer and had money. 2 ounces of butter per week was just a scraping on bread, so I mostly had dry bread and jam and saved enough butter that way to have at least one slice thickly covered. The dripping from beef was favoured as a coating for bread, especially with the brown jelly at the bottom of the bowl, liberally sprinkled with salt. Incredibly unhealthy by today’s lights, but such items were so small and distantly spaced, they were necessary treats in a dull but healthy diet.
So there I was in Welwyn and, after almost two years, my parents joined me in lodgings. They both got jobs and, at the end of the war, a place to rent. My father retreated into his books and a certain silence. My mother worked in a shop and found new friends in this new town.
Ours was a mother-centred family. She did the day-to-day discipline and if my transgressions merited intervention from the ‘old man’, I was in trouble indeed. It didn’t often happen and its rarity meant that he didn’t shout or bully. One quiet reprimand and a straight look kept me walking circumspectly until I was in favour again – never a long process!
An old Chinese curse is “May you live in interesting times” and certainly what interests historians can be exceedingly uncomfortable to live through. Surviving it, however, does provide for memories to enliven an old age. From working with horses on farms and drawing drinking water from a well, I’ve lived through a world war to see the electronic age, Concorde, men standing on the moon and a new understanding of our origins and morals.
Air raids were a way of life and every holiday, summer and winter, I would be sent to our friends in the Isle of Wight “to get away from the bombs”. The viaduct with two rails leading North was a constant target, as was De Havilland aerodrome in Hatfield. That was camouflaged, and Panshanger airfield exposed as a decoy – very successfully – it was bombed 44 times!