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An Evacuee's Story
By Alf Townsend
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Alf Townsend
All rights reserved.
Before the War
London in the late 1930s wasn't anything like the London we all know today. For a start, it wasn't as cosmopolitan and it had no large ethnic areas. In fact, apart from in the up-market diplomatic circles in Belgravia or the dock areas in the East End, it would have been quite difficult to spot a black person on the streets of our great city. If that rare event happened, all of us kids would run behind the unfortunate person chanting out a rhyme that probably originated way back in the time of the Black Death in 1664. We chanted in unison in the belief that it would bring us good health and keep away the deadly germs. It went thus: 'Touch collar, never swallor, never catch the measles.'
Unlike today, when vast areas of former working-class boroughs have been 'gentrified' by professional people like lawyers, doctors, stockbrokers and architects, simply because of their close proximity to places like the West End, the City or even Canary Wharf, pre-war London was so completely different. It was almost as if an invisible line had been drawn across the capital segregating the 'haves' from the 'have nots'. The 'haves' all had their spacious houses and apartments in places like Mayfair, Belgravia, Kensington, Chelsea, St Johns Wood and Hampstead. While us working-class lot lived our lives, often in abject poverty, in most of the other boroughs. The whole of South London had always been traditionally working-class, as had the East End. Not so today – in Islington, North London, the borough of my birth, house prices are now way beyond the reach of any of the local youngsters wanting to set up home. Back in the 'good old days' when generations of families all lived together in the same street, one of the old aunts or in-laws would always offer a room or two to the newlyweds. Unfortunately, over the next few decades, most of the working-class boroughs would be occupied by professional 'outsiders', the only people who could possibly afford the escalating house prices. I'm not knocking the process, just stating a fact. And the fact is that many of these outsiders literally just use their houses to sleep in. They don't patronise the local shops and they certainly don't use the local markets. But, you frequently see the little green Harrods vans making their deliveries.
It's a bit scary to think that after many hundreds of years of deep-rooted cockney history, this complete transformation of the way that Londoners live has been irrevocably changed in just over half a century! Even now, many thousands of the true cockneys are living on large council estates well outside of London, while their former council properties are being sold off to the highest bidders.
And So To School
One of my earliest recollections is being dragged screaming to the top of our street off Caledonian Road by my Mum, and taken into a little church-like school with a horde of other screaming four-year-olds. I often wonder if I possess an unusual, highly-sensitive, retentive, or photographic memory. I'm always questioning my good friends of my age group about their childhood, but they can't remember anything about being evacuated or even their time in nursery school! I sometimes question if the clarity of my memory is a blessing or a curse!
The smell of that school still lingers in my subconscious after more than sixty-seven years. A damp, musty smell that one always associates with old churches, coupled with the sweet, sickly odour of generations of sweaty little feet doing PE without shoes and socks. These were the days before any deodorants, or daily baths and showers. Once a week, down the old Cally Baths was the norm if you were lucky. If not, it was a ducking with strong carbolic soap in the old tin bath out in the back scullery. This sweet, sickly odour in the school must have permeated the parquet floors over a period of many, many years, because it hung heavy in the air. Our sweaty seat of learning and our old street, Ponder Street, just next to the railway bridge in Caledonian Road, has long since been demolished by the bulldozers after taking a right battering in the Blitz. It has been replaced by one of those many awful council estates typical of town-planning in the 1950s and '60s. I still reckon those old Victorian terraced houses would have lasted much better than these estates!
I distinctly recall this wizened old lady with white hair approaching my Mum with a fixed smile on her face. 'And who have we got here?' she said in a thin, reedy voice. 'This is little Alfie Townsend. Well, he ain't all that little, 'cos he was the heaviest baby born in 1935 in Islington,' Mum said proudly.
'Is that so?' said the wizened old lady with the white hair, with a look of total disinterest on her face. 'So, why are you making that awful noise?' she snapped, grabbing my hand in a vice-like grip. 'If you stop crying little Alfie, we'll put you in the band and you can play music with all the other children.'
She said this all with the same fixed smile on her face. But I was a rotten kid and I didn't want to stay in her smelly old school, or play in her soppy band. So I just carried on yelling and screaming. The next thing I realised was that my Mum and all the other parents had suddenly disappeared and I had had a triangle thrust into my hands, with what looked like a meat skewer to bash it with. The old lady started clapping and we all had to bash our triangles and drums in time with her. The sound was a cacophony of noise, absolutely unbearable and without any semblance of a tune. Then, we were all ordered to sit on the sweaty, smelly floor while she read us a soppy story from a dog-eared book. I was still crying and wanting to go home, so, in a vain effort to shut me up, I was given the job of milk monitor. This entailed carrying in a crate of little bottles of milk and giving one to each of the kids – whether they wanted it or not! I can remember Mum picking me up a few hours later – I was still snivelling. And that's just about the total recollection of my first day of school life.
Yet nursery school didn't last too long for me or my classmates. Something terrible was about to happen. Something so terrible and frightening that we would all remember it to our dying days. Many of my classmates, their parents and their relatives, would perish as tons of high explosives fell on our great city and a generation of young men would fall in the bitter battles to come. Untold millions of innocent civilians would be butchered, simply because they were considered 'undesirables' and didn't comply with the twisted Aryan beliefs of a madman and his bunch of murderous thugs.
This madman was controlling a massive and well-trained fighting force and leading his people into total darkness! The many heroic battles of the Second World War and the Blitz will forever be remembered. But unlike any other conflict in the past, most people will remember it as the war when civilised man turned into a vicious animal and slaughtered more than six million civilians, simply because they were Jewish. The German dictator, Adolf Hitler, had decreed in his twisted mind that it was the Jewish bankers who had caused Germany's capitulation in the First World War. The German people were desperately searching for a strong man to save their bankrupt economy and they wanted someone to blame for the humiliation of the 1918 Armistice and the loss of so much of their land. Hitler became the man of the moment and conveniently fitted the bill. His rantings against the Jews, the gypsies and any other non-Aryan race were accepted by the gullible German people. This created an open door for the 'Final Solution' and the terrible holocaust that followed in the Nazi death camps. I find it inconceivable that despite innumerable reports from Jewish organisations about the Nazi death camps and gas chambers that the authorities in Britain never really believed it – or rather didn't want to until it became unavoidable. Yet, strangely, these terrible facts seemed to be common knowledge among the ordinary London folk. My old Mum would sometimes threaten me if I was particularly naughty by saying: 'I'll get "Jerry" to put you up the chimney, Alfie.' Surely that's a clear indication of knowing about gas chambers?
The full story of the lack of action by the Allies against the many Nazi death camps may never be known. But the latest evidence about the Second World War seems to indicate that the death camps were situated deep in Poland and originally out of range of Allied bombers. Even after the Allies invaded Normandy and were sweeping across Europe, the decision was taken not to bomb in case they killed all the inmates! In my mind a sad mistake and one the Jews, quite rightly, are still angry about to this day!
The faint sound of rumbling in the distance – almost like thunder – was enough to wake me from my childish reverie. I tried in vain to snuggle down under the rough blanket and shut out the sound, but the rumbling got louder and louder and quickly became a mighty roar. I sat up in a blind panic not knowing where I was or what was happening, my heart pounding and my eyes full of tears. Then whoosh! – a blast of warm air hit my cold face and the long, red monster, with the one shiny eye, went hurtling past the platform like an absolute nightmare. Then there was total silence – broken only by my loud snivelling!
This was London during the early days of the Blitz. The 'Phoney War' was over and now the Luftwaffe was pounding London every night. I was one of many thousands of kids and adults trying to sleep in the comparative safety on the platforms of the underground stations. But, as an impressionable five-year- old, the early morning, non-stop train that rushed through the Caledonian Road station used to frighten the living daylights out of me. This fear has never left me and gave me terrible nightmares right through to the early years of my marriage. Even now, when boarding an aircraft, the latent fear expresses itself with clammy hands and feet as the jet engines roar into life and we bump down the runway.
I remember Mum used to say to us kids after school: 'We're all sleeping down the Tube tonight, we've been told that Jerry's coming.' I didn't have a clue who the hell Jerry was. Maybe he was like the insurance man or the 'tally' man who came a- knocking on our door every so often for his money. But, we didn't have to sleep down the Tube when he came round. Mum just used to tell us kids to be very quiet until he got fed up and went away! Then Mum would proceed to busy herself by loading up an old pram with sheets and blankets and all the paraphernalia required to keep four kids happy for the night. Off we'd go from Offord Road, turning right into Roman Way and walking past the dreaded Pentonville prison. I well remember one teatime when we were walking past the "Ville' – that's what the locals called it – and a stray German bomb had breached the main wall the previous night. Our Dad informed us in his local cockney jargon that 'Sixteen cons had had it away on their toes through the hole.' What the hell are 'cons'? I thought. I didn't have a clue what he was talking about!
Then as soon as we arrived at the Cally Tube, we'd pile into the big, smelly lift, our eyes all big and shiny with excitement as we waited for the whirring sound. Then there were loud screams from all the kids as the lift started descending and we got that funny sinking feeling in our tummies. Then we'd run out when it stopped and dash onto the platform like madmen. It's very difficult to try to describe the scene that greeted my young eyes. In fact, the kids of today just wouldn't believe it – sometimes I don't believe it myself! There were literally hundreds of people on the platform and lots of rickety old double-bunks leaning against the walls. Air-raid wardens in their white tin helmets were shouting out instructions. There were a couple of coppers chatting to people and all the parents were yelling at their kids and telling them to stop making a noise. Some of the older people, like the old boys with their flat caps and wrinkled faces, were just sitting quietly reading their papers and having a puff on their fags.
As the evening wore on, after most of the kids had settled down for the night, the men arrived back from a drinking session in the local pubs. The atmosphere livened up for a while with everyone joining in the singing of all the old cockney pub songs and music hall numbers. What fascinated me was the fact that most everyone knew ALL the words of ALL the songs! Fair enough, even I knew some of the words of 'Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner'. But everybody knew the words of such weird songs as 'The Biggest Aspidistra in the World' and 'When Father Painted the Parlour You Couldn't See Him for Dust'. The final song was always a rousing rendition of the classic 'I'm 'Ennery the Eighth I Am'. The words are still implanted in my subconscious.
I'm 'Ennery the Eighth I am, 'Ennery the Eighth I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door, she's been married seven times before
And every one was a 'ennery, not a 'arry, or a Willy, or a Sam
I'm her eighth ol' man called 'ennery, 'ennery the Eighth I am
But, when the eerie wail of the sirens started, sounding for all the world like a demented soul in torment, it all went deathly quiet – even the boozy mob suddenly sobered up. Then came the deep drone of the aircraft, the sound of the ack-ack guns and the thud of bombs hitting the ground. Thinking back to those harrowing times, I often shudder to think what would have happened if the station had suffered a direct hit, as did the unfortunate Balham station in South London. Nobody really knows how many perished simply because nobody knew how many people were down there at the time. The story was the same at other terrible tragedies of the Blitz, like the school in Agate Street in the East End. Originally more than 600 people had been shipped there by coaches, supposedly taking them away to safety after their homes had been flattened by the hordes of German bombers. For sure, the school had a concrete roof but it was still far too close to the docks. Thankfully, after the first night, half of them had been shipped elsewhere. Sadly, the following night the school received a direct hit, the bomb literally cutting the school in half on impact, exploding inside and killing many innocent souls. One half of the building then slid into the crater before the rescue teams arrived. They started digging and putting body parts into rubble baskets, then loaded their gory cargo into ambulances along with intact bodies. The local swimming baths had been drained of water and used as a temporary mortuary and the gory cargo was unloaded and hosed down. The mortuary attendants were left trying desperately to match the body parts in a nightmare jigsaw puzzle. Horribly, there were all kinds of bits and pieces left over. The official death toll was recorded as just seventy and they were buried in a mass grave before the scene was concreted over. Nobody knew how many had died because, again, nobody really knew how many people were in the school on that terrible night. Locals believe more than 200 perished with generations of the same families being completely wiped out.
It was the same horrific story in Bermondsey close to the wharves in Tooley Street. One of the railway arches in Druid Street had been sandbagged on both sides and converted into a shelter. Someone had got a piano inside and everyone was having a jolly-up on a Friday night, 25 October 1940 – the shelter was packed out. Suddenly, a large bomb went straight through the railway line and penetrated the shelter from above before exploding inside it. Again, nobody really knew how many poor souls were inside in the first place because many had simply just walked in off the street. Even so, the official death toll was listed at only seventy-seven. Rumours swept around London during the Blitz that the various council depots were stacked high with many thousands of coffins. These rumours were in fact correct. In 1937, the Air Ministry had estimated that the probable terrible outcome of some 600 tonnes of bombs falling on the city would result in 20,000 casualties.
Thankfully, what the authorities hadn't predicted was the large numbers of displaced people who had been made homeless by the savage bombing. So, the 600 tonnes of bombs dropped on 7 September 1940 only caused about one-tenth of the estimated 20,000 or so casualties. As for us, we were only half a mile up the road from the prime German targets of Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras stations and the giant gasometers. The Luftwaffe pilots were quite happy to shed their bomb loads if they couldn't quite reach their targets. So, our area of London took a right pasting nearly every night and for many nights until the end of the Blitz.
Early the next morning, it was pack up all your things and walk the return journey back home. I well remember the smell of London after an air raid. It smelt like when Dad made a big fire in the garden to burn all the old wood. And there was this strange glow in the early morning sky, a bit like the sun, but not. During the daylight hours, us local kids used to scour the streets for shrapnel, especially after we saw the dogfights in the sky between the British and German planes. The most prized possessions to swap were any pieces with German writing on them – most prized of all and worth child-like fortunes were those pieces that had part of the black German cross or the swastika! With a piece like that, you were the local king! Other less fortunate kids were often maimed and even killed by picking up unexploded bombs and grenades.
Excerpted from Blitz Boy by Alf Townsend. Copyright © 2014 Alf Townsend. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Before the War,
2 Mum Says it's a Trip to the Seaside,
3 Penryn Purgatory,
4 Newquay for the Duration,
5 Another Move to Pentire,
6 Our Final Move,
7 Return to War-Torn London,
8 Victory in Europe,
9 Newquay: Sixty-Odd Years On,
About the Author,