I was born on 1st September, 1936, in Beckenham in a nursing home along the Croydon Road, which was to become a school, after the war.
Three days after my third birthday on the third of September war was declared on Germany. I was much too young to understand the implications of such a dreadful declaration but I can imagine now, as a parent, how frightening it was for my parents with my brother, Ian, aged 7, and me to look after.
I suppose Ian and I were lucky really; we didn’t get evacuated to some far distant area with a load of other school children. We had the luxury of Mum coming with us.
My mother had a cousin, Edith Morgan, who was a teacher and taught in a village in the Cotswolds named Eastleach. This lady arranged with friends for us to be accommodated for a short while until we could find long-term accommodation out of London.
The cottage we went to was tiny and the family consisted of a mother, a father and a small boy of about two years old. So now in this tiny house there were three adults and three children. My dad worked at Muirheads and was involved with important work in the war effort and had stay in Beckenham.
In that little cottage, there was no electricity, no running water and it didn’t even have a toilet, let alone a bathroom. The bath was one of those galvanised tubs that hung on the back of a door and was brought down on Saturday, set down in front of the fire and filled with hot water from the copper boiler.
The toilet was down the road and was shared by the whole street of houses. It was a brick built privy fitted with a plank, which had a suitable hole in it, and a bucket underneath. I don’t remember who had the dreadful job of emptying the bucket, but emptied it was, every day.
The walk from the cottage to the toilet went past a small enclosure which was below the level of the road so even a small boy could see down into it. In that small enclosure there was a large bull. But this was just part of the rural life and I don’t remember ever being frightened by that bull.
I was too young to attend school and it was Christmas 1940 which to me as a child was a magic time. The village children came round carol singing. They only knew the first line of one carol and this they repeated endlessly outside the door of the cottage — ‘We will rock Him rock Him rock Him, We will rock Him rock Him rock Him’, and so on until the lady we lived with opened it to give them a copper or two.
Michael the little boy of the family we were living with, loved to eat raw potatoes, something I couldn’t understand for I hated them.
My bed was on the landing for there was no room in the bedrooms. I don’t remember that causing me any distress. My mother was very caring and gave us lots of laughs. Ian attended school. It was the school in which my mother’s cousin taught.
Water? We had to go to the local tap which was a walk of perhaps three hundred yards, to fill a bucket, so clearly this had to be done every day and more than once a day. I always went with my mummy on that chore.
Sometimes we would walk over the Clapper bridge to the well. This was an even greater distance, but a very pretty walk, and sometimes I was allowed to paddle. Another source of water was the tap up some steps on the way to the village shop. Sometimes we would draw water from there. So there was some variation in the task of collecting water for the house.
The school was a pretty little village building of Cotswold stone with a dry stone wall enclosing a small playground. As I said earlier I was below school age, but on one occasion my mother had to go way for a few days and my aunt, the teacher offered to look after me provided I could sit in her class, quietly.
I didn’t like the idea of this at all. To be without my mummy was bad enough but to have to go to school too made matters much worse.
I sat in the back of aunt’s class crying and causing a nuisance. Aunt asked me what was the matter and I said I wanted to go to the lavatory. Aunt said well you had better go and asked another boy in the class to go with me and look after me.
The school lavatory was very fundamental, as were most lavatories in that part of the world. This one rather like the one at near cottage, was stone built but had a flush toilet, quite a luxury! But there was no lock on the door! The door had, above and below, a gap of about a foot. I went in and sat on the lavatory. The other little boy came in with me to make sure I was all right.
Then it was playtime. All the children were let out into the small playground and of course some of them wanted to spend a penny, which meant they had to pass the door of the privy that I was sitting in. The boys soon realised that I was in there and the door was flung open and a crowd of children, big boys to me, were jeering and laughing at me.
That was probably my first encounter with threatening behaviour from a crowd. It left a lasting impression on me. It must have done for me to remember it so vividly all these years later.
Aunt Edith lived with her own daughter, about the same age as my brother, and an old lady. The old lady, named Dinah, may have been Aunt Edith’s mother, but I am not sure. The cottage they lived in must have been a farmhouse, for it had a huge courtyard at the back, with stables and storage barns flanking the courtyard.
Behind the courtyard there was a small wood, and beyond that was a temporary airfield known to us as Hooks airfield. It wasn’t an active service airfield. Perhaps for training, perhaps a staging post for aircraft being moved around the country.
Summer evenings we would occasionally sit on an old haystack just outside the airfield gate and watch the planes coming and going. I thought then that the noise the planes made came from them scraping against the sky. I remember being puzzled as to why the noise was still being made when they were so low. I expect Ian explained to me that it was the engines that produced the sound.
We didn’t stay in the village for very long, it must have been about five or six months. One day, a taxi called, we all clambered in and set off for a nearby village calledColn-St-Aldwyn. Aunt Edith had found possible lodgings, more suitable for us there, with the village schoolteacher, in the village schoolhouse. It must have been after my big brother came home from school, for it was quite dark when we arrived. The village teacher, a formidable lady named Miss Knapp came to inspect us. She popped her head into the taxi to take a look at us and said something amounting to acceptance of this family from London to share her home.
The day came for us to move. There wasn’t much to carry. We didn’t have much in those days – just a change of clothes. All the household items would be provided by Miss Knapp.
Any one who had the facilities was expected in those early war years, to take children or families in. My brother and I were lucky. We had our mother with us. Most evacuees didn’t.
We lived in the school house, which was attached to the school. Of course, I was still too young to attend, so my summer days were spent playing in the large gardens or the school playground, or down by the river if my big brother was around.
Across the lane there stood the vicarage. The vicar and his wife had three sons, one of my brother’s age, one of my age, and a baby. These people were different from us. As a child I didn’t understand that, but I did know that I wasn’t allowed to play with my contemporary without being invited to do so by his mother. My brother was allowed to play with his contemporary whenever he wished, or so it seemed to me. I would spend many hours willing the vicar’s wife to invite me over, but it didn’t happen very often.
The vicarage was such a lovely house for boys to play in and around. The house was huge with extensive attics full of interesting things that rich people store in their lofts. There were various roofs on the house giving lots of different attics, all joined together by roof spaces that we had to crawl through, to reach.
The gardens were extensive, with terraced lawns, huge flowerbeds forming islands to run and chase each other around. At the top end near the house, there was a walled garden with massive green houses, built as leanto’s onto the walls. We would mount those walls and run around them together – but we were in trouble if we were caught!
Furthest away from the house, there were stables. These stables were substantial, and they too had large lofts, which were reached by ladder. I was afraid to climb those ladders, but when I eventually plucked up courage, what fun we had up there.
I don’t think the vicar liked me very much. Once I was playing with some water in an old tin bath used to water the horses. He shouted at me to leave that water alone. That put me on guard to anyone who had a dog collar on. I still feel slightly apprehensive about them to this day.
We played a lot of Monopoly. There was a small games room off the hall where a table was set up for board games. It was very cosy and on wet evenings, five or six of us would get around the table and play till mum came over to take us home to bed.
We didn’t see dad very often. He would visit in the summer for his one week annual holiday, and at Easter and Christmas, when he must have taken a day or two off without pay.
The winters were very cold in the Cotswolds. The local water meadows would be flooded over in the early winter and would freeze over, creating huge areas of thick ice which all the village children would play on. The children from the richer homes had ice skates, while us other kids just slid around in our shoes.
It was a very ‘them and us’ type of place. The manor house was behind the school house, surrounded by very high walls, and approachable only up a long drive, apart from a personnel door into the church grounds. In the summer, garden parties were held by the Lord for all the villagers. I used to love that day. All the goings on, and the posh people made it very special.
There were quite a few evacuees in the village. All those up to the age of eight attended Miss Knapp’s school. She ran two classes, one for the evacuees and one for the locals. She would take a class of thirty or forty children ranging in age from five up to eight. Somehow she managed to teach the different age groups with suitable subjects, and levels of subjects. Quite a task but she was very good at it because such was her reputation that the local gentry sent their children there until they were old enough to attend boarding schools.
The second class, for the evacuees, was taken by another lady teacher.
The vicar’s oldest son attended boarding school, so once term time came around, my big brother lost his friend, which meant he didn’t go over to the vicarage and that in turn meant I didn’t either. That to me was horrible!
Sundays were a bit of a trial for us youngsters. We attended Sunday school in the mornings, for which a single bell was rung to summon us. One Sunday, I arrived at the church to find it empty. This was most odd and I was worried that there was nobody there to ring the bell. Well, there was the bell rope hanging in an alcove, and it looked so simple to me to ring the bell myself. And so I did. Not long after I started, there was the sound of the door swinging open and feet rushing up to where I was pulling the bell rope. I expected to be patted on the back for my helpfulness, but alas, all I got was angry words from the vicar telling me how naughty I was.
Afternoons were either spent indoors or mum would take us out for a walk. There were many walks. The local landowners didn’t mind us using their fields and woods, and there was scant traffic on the roads making them safe to walk on. One walk I used to love was to the nearby village of Bibury. We would walk there and sit by the river with a picnic, and walk home again in time to listen to the wireless before going to bed.
At Easter, we would all walk to Eastleach to see mum’s cousin the teacher. Being Easter and having no chance of having a chocolate egg, mum would prepare a picnic in which she included eggs that were boiled with onionskins around them. This gave the hardboiled eggs rather nice patterns in shades of brown and orange. We would be given an egg each and we would tap each other’s with the pointed end until one broke. The last one to have an unbroken egg was the winner. – not that there was a prize!
On the way home from one of those trips, we were stopping to pick violets that were hiding between stones or just inside the woods. Halfway back to Coln, we came to a field that was a profusion of those flowers. The scent in the evening air was delicious. We went through the open gateway – the gate was wrecked, and started picking them. Ian went further into the field than me, and suddenly cried out to mum and me to come and see what he had found. He was standing on the edge of a quarry, in the bottom of which, there laid dozens of animal skulls – big ones. Among them there were complete un-decomposed horses heads. It was such a grizzly sight. I didn’t like the dark for a while after that.
Coming home from another one of those walks, we were nearing home, walking along a road that was lower than the fields either side, when a herd of horses came galloping down the road behind us. There were no riders, so these horses had escaped and Mum was very frightened by this and helped us to scramble up into the field, out of the way. Of course, once we were up there, she was stuck in the path of the now very close horses. Ian and I grabbed a hand each and pulled mum up just in time for the horses to go racing by and disappear from sight around the corner.
Miss Knapp must have loved teaching. I was well under school age, but she decided that I should learn to read and write before I reached five years. I can’t remember much about the initial lessons, but I do remember being forced to use my right hand when I was really left-handed. Writing practice was the Lords Prayer, and for reading, it was Alice in Wonderland. Oh how I hated that book.
I don’t know for sure whether being forced to write with the wrong (to me) hand had any lasting affect on me, but I do know my reading never really picked up any speed, and sometimes I don’t read what I can see. Perhaps this happens to every one – I don’t know!
The nearest town to our village was Cirencester, which the locals all called Cister. There was a bus twice a week to Cirencester, one of those days being a Saturday. We very rarely went there, simply because there wasn’t enough money to make it worthwhile.