This is a memory by Gillian Peall who moved to live in Welwyn Garden City in 1939 when she was 5 years old.
To set the scene, my parents, John and Elsie Cole, moved to WGC soon after the outbreak of war in 1939 when my father was invited to take over the Optical practice in Howardsgate, next to WH Smiths.
We moved into no. 8 Coneydale. I was entranced from the start. Our garden sloped, or rather was roughly terraced, quite sharply down to the bottom of the field opposite, which then led steeply upwards to a small wood. On this south-facing field there were hundreds of rabbits! The warren was at the top of the field by, or most likely, in the wood. The sudden appearance of a person in their field led to a mass rabbit exodus!
(As an aside to that, rabbit meat was a great help in stretching the meat ration. I don’t think our rabbit stew was WGC bred, as they came from the Dollimore Brothers from Codicote – they had a fruit and vegetable van which came round regularly. The rabbits were delicious in a casserole, but you had to be careful to spit out the shot!)
The hill to the right of the rabbits was known as the Observer Field, as at the top there was a concrete bunker-like edifice from whence the royal Observer Corps kept a 24hr watch across the skies. Any enemy planes spotted were immediately reported, and if necessary, sirens sounded.
That field was also the best mushrooming field I have ever known! You had to get up early , and my mother and I would go as soon as it was light and get a good haul! It was a fair bit of a walk, though, down Digswell Road to the corner, where there was a farm, a proper one with cows and pigs, and then up Digswell Hill, and my, was that steep, and into the Observer field through a gate at the top.
We had been living in the Coneydale house for a year, when during a raid a bomb landed on houses in Mandeville Drive, sadly killing two or three people. This was only 300 yds from us, and I imagine most people were a bit twitchy!
Two days later, on 4thOctober 1940 the sirens had sounded in the late evening. At that time we had a houseful of guests! My mother’s parents, my beloved Granddad Norris and Granny Norris, who had come up from Herne Bay on the north Kent coast to get away from sirens, shelling and the proximity of the enemy. My Aunt Connie, wife of my mother’s younger brother, who was somewhere in the Sahara desert, had come to have a change from the bombing of the Medway towns, where she lived.
Now anyone who lives in Coneydale knows their back garden faces north. (Bear with me, this is relevant). My father was just preparing for bed on the east side, my grandparents were tucked up in bed on the west side, my sister and I were in an alcove under the stairs, and my aunt on a camp bed in the hall. Mother was pottering around somewhere.
There was suddenly an almighty explosion, and the east side of the house disintegrated, leaving the bedroom and the kitchen below exposed and unsafe. My father was blown across the bedroom but fortunately unhurt. Had my grandparents been in that room, I do wonder if the results would have been quite so happy.
Fearing the house would collapse, we all seven of us went outside in our nightclothes, to discover the next door house had also been hit by a bomb, this time an oil bomb. It was intended apparently, that the high explosive bomb (ours) would ignite the oil from the oil bomb and cause a conflagration. As was happening across London in the blitz, of course.
I remember clearly all of us walking down to a friendly and welcoming neighbour and spending the rest of the night sitting in her living room, drinking tea!
During the night, because of the danger of fire – oil bomb, possible gas mains fractured – a fireman took one of our deckchairs and sat on the green opposite the ruins of the two houses, with hose at the ready. When daylight came it was discovered he was sitting directly over an unexploded bomb! I am told he moved very quickly!
The following day I was sent off to school, to get me out of the way, I would imagine, and I recall very vividly being taken by the hand by an unknown (to me) bigger girl to Sherrardswood School and taken into my classroom with the announcement “This little girl has been bombed out!” My other, equally vivid memory is the fact I was wearing borrowed clothes and WHITE SANDALS! My mother considered these “common” and our sandals were always boring brown!
We slept on a good neighbour’s hall floor for a week until my parents arranged for us to go to 31 Digswell Road, and there I remained until I left home, some many years later. My grandparents returned to Herne Bay, reckoning it would be safer than WGC, as did my Aunt, who had to go back to work anyway.
At the Digswell Road house, my father arranged for a proper air raid shelter to be built, using the very commodious coal house next to the kitchen wall and contiguous with the garage. The garage/shelter wall was strengthened with sandbags, and a big blast wall built on the garden side of the coal house. My sister and I had a small bed each there, and if the raids were very bad my parents would come in with us.
The two houses in Coneydale were demolished as they were dangerous, but never rebuilt. The gap they made was a godsend to the planners as after WGC became a new town in 1947 Digswell Road was re-routed through the gap and down to the Hertford Road, opening up all the farmland beyond to new housing.
There are so many new roads and houses where I knew only countryside that I get quite confused trying to work out where the places I knew have gone!
One which seems to have vanished is the old quarry, somewhere to the back of the Coneydale/Pentley Park/Mandeville Rise junction. My mother and I would go blackberrying there in the autumn . Facing south it was a wonderful suntrap and the blackberries that grew there were absolutely luscious. (I also used to play there with my friends, but Mum never knew that!)
There is a great deal more I remember about living in WGC during the war years. After all, it was all my childhood! Ration books had been issued, blue for children, buff for adults, and you had to register at a shop in order to get your rations. There wasn’t much choice, it was “The Stores” as Welwyn Department Store was known, or the Co-op in Howardsgate, and its branches. The Stores was nearer so that’s where we went to get our meagre rations of cheese, sugar, tea, meat etc. And you queued. Again and again. My mother was not in the best of health for some time, so I queued. I was a good little queuer, never giving up my place to a bigger, pushy woman! And I could look totally innocent when queuing for something that was off the ration, but in short or erratic supply or seasonal. I got, and paid for, the 2lbs of gooseberries, or 1lb of onions, walking away with my basket without so much as a glance at my mother who was disowning me several places behind me in the queue. (I don’t think its much good reporting us now – we weren’t the only ones, and there was a lot of fiddling going on anyway during the war!)
I don’t know if there were any more bombs on WGC but later in the war we had the doodlebugs, flying bombs, aimed at London, but erratically liable to drop short in the South East of England – known as “doodlebug alley”, or heading our way if they had overshot their mark. If you could hear them, chugging away with their distinctive droning, rackety sound, you were fairly safe. But if that distinctive sound stopped, and the engine cut out, then take cover, it was coming down! Evil things, they did a great deal of damage in London and to the south, but luckily, I believe in the WGC area most dropped harmlessly in fields or non-residential areas.
And lastly, I’m surprised I didn’t give my mother a heart attack sometimes. We had much more freedom as children then, and I can remember telling her about a big hole our “gang” had found out in the fields somewhere, which the boys were throwing stones in..
“Didn’t it have a fence round it?” she asked.
“Oh no” I said airly, “There was just a notice saying “unexploded bomb”!