Suburban Hearth and Home/Schoolsdays during the war

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Chapter VI: Schoolsdays during the war

By the end of 1940, the nation had developed a core of fortitude, mainly by the upper and lower middle classes. This was not obvious to the casual onlooker but showed underneath - increasingly by grim determination – a flame that was not going to be extinguished. This was backed up by leftist government propaganda - Liberal and Labour political views, and Trades Union newsprint…; but most of all, by Winston Churchill’s willingness to resist by all means possible Hitler’s belligerence and false overtures. When Germany invaded Russia, the following year, the working class began to warm to the nation’s struggles. Eventually many became communist with a small ‘C’ admiring the mighty efforts of a beleaguered nation… There was enormous sympathy and admiration for Russia, which the majority of people felt and recognized… The British nation was now united in its efforts! The increase in national resolve gradually strengthened as ‘all out war’ was declared.

My mother took me to Primary School in September 1940 - one year after the declaration of war. I was just over five years old. I can still remember walking past the station holding her hand. I felt nervous, but very grown up!

The Introductory Class - the first classroom on the right from the main entrance and stairs caused me the normal fears all children have to cope with. This was the only time I ever remember my mother attending one of my schools - I am sure she must have, at sometime, but I do not recall it. After my first days at school, I continued my attendance walking with my brother until I was conversant with the route… the distance was about a mile. This initial period took a few weeks by then I walked on my own following the crowd. Nearly forty children were in the first year, all sitting on tiny chairs in front of tiny desks. The whole room in keeping with the furniture – all on a Lilliputian scale. Children's paintings decorated the walls and cupboard surfaces... it was colourful, cheery and welcoming.

As well as recognising letters and numbers every day of the week, we were taught how to sew - with very blunt needles, to paint and to sing. On the windowsills, boxes of wet flannel grew mustard and cress and jam jars, lined with blotting paper, demonstrated the growth of peas and beans. I took to it all immediately… all my fears evaporated… so did my cap! Throughout my schooldays, the uniform was the same – jacket and trousers. I never had a greatcoat or raincoat, through wind and rain, my jacket had to suffice… the same for all my friends. The first two years followed the same syllabus mainly devoted to printing the alphabet – concentrating on perfecting the shape of each letter, progressing to simple words. Each member of the class stood up to read a line from ‘the class reader’. Numbers were treated in much the same way advancing from tens to hundreds, and two times table to five – setting out simple additions and subtractions. This was done in such a routine way that it became unstressful, and achievable. There was no dissention or rows, no bad behaviour or tears; it was a happy class, with more girls than boys.

From nine onwards joined up writing was the next stage in the art of writing. Individualism was not acceptable – up and down strokes were to be on top of each other, loops banned; each generation seemed to have their own preferences in letter writing form – with or without loops – continuing without space from capital to lower-case… more paper covered, more notebooks used, than any other task. Row upon row of individual letters, repeating page after page all designed to perfect the writing. Each letter had a finger space between each as tongues protruded in concentration. Another daily task was repeating multiplication tables by rote in a singsong fashion every morning… on and on… it passed a great deal of time, only to be interrupted by the air-raid warnings which occurred mainly in the first two years of school life… to again be heard when Hitler’s vengeance [V] weapons started flying over – first the pilotless flying bomb then the rocket.

We learned music from visual aids - Tonic Sol-Fa draped over the blackboard. Music pieces played on a record player and the tune picked out on the piano – a demonstration of variations within the piece… the time rapped out on the desk. Music increasingly became an important part of the curriculum. This was due to the government’s recognition that it was important; the public's habit of listening to the radio, and an increase in concert going in town halls, and parks, after the war. Posters decorated the walls with multiplication tables, nursery rhymes and a nature scroll. There were painting lessons, highly coloured daubs with an almost hairless brush… reading Janet and John type books – fingers running across the page - each child having to read in turn. An emphasis was made on pronunciation - every syllable and every word - articulating distinctly.

The school’s air-raid shelters were installed in 1940. Large concrete pipes, originally made for enclosing streams or sewers, about six foot in diameter sunk into trenches in the ground. A bombproof entrance and exit steps built at either end then the whole lot covered in eighteen inches of soil turfed over. Duckboards covered the floors and slatted forms provided seating at the sides. They were dimly lit, smelly, cold, and damp. When the sirens sounded, we left our classes and streamed to the shelters, each class having their own place. I do not remember any lessons being taught or even attempted to be taught whilst we were there. We sang many songs in the round, took part in general knowledge quizzes. Using a cotton reel with four small nails over which wool was looped, forming French knitting. Eventually a long knitted tail was made which could be sewn together to make a round mat or stitched together to make a rug. Wrapping wool round a cardboard ring with a hole cut into the centre was another craze... Threading the wool round, through the centre – from the outside into the centre, until the centre totally filled with wool. The outside edge then was cut, the cardboard removed in pieces, producing a ball of wool. My Infant school-days consisted of many such tasks… fortunately, the raids did not last long… their warning, given by undulating pulses, and the ‘all clear’ – a continuous wail. The maximum time in the shelters was tree-quarters of an hour… often as soon as we got into the shelter the all clear would sound. We all had our own gas masks in a square cardboard box equipped with string shoulder straps. Very soon, after the masks issued and the Battle of Britain fought the fear of enemy troops landings diminished. We were told gas masks need not be carried but must be kept near to hand, so they were consigned to the cupboard under the stairs never to be got out again.

Although adult conversations were about the war, children did not participate – their talk was about the latest film from Hollywood, the latest action in the Beano, Dandy or Comic Cuts… perhaps, about some sporting event or train spotting. Life continued…, it appeared, as if nothing untoward was happening… As children, we never noticed or commented on the lack of men - that the shops and town streets were only populated by women;– that was normal, for most men left the town in the mornings - to go to work in peacetime. Radio news programmes were highly censored giving a report on the wars progress in line with government’s plans. Newspapers took their line from a similar agency keeping in mind the necessity of keeping up moral. Everything was said and done to help the country’s war effort. Programmes such as Wilfred Pickles ‘Have a Go Joe’, Tommy Handley’s ‘Itma’, Workers Playtime, or ‘Bombed Out’ written to raise the nation’s spirits. There was never any doubt about the result only about how long it would take.

The Germans instigated the planning and equipping for Operation Sealion - the invasion of Britain. Goring promised to put Britain’s airfields and radar stations out of action… a sensible decision if completed. It was acknowledged by German military scientists that considerable confusion and damage could be done to an invasion fleet by Britain’s airforce. Shortly after the German initiation of this policy - when many airfields and radar stations were damaged or put out of action, Churchill demanded a retaliatory bombing mission on Berlin. This had the effect of goading Hitler to reciprocate - attack London, diverting his forces. Churchill and the military leaders never appreciated the result from this fortuitous order… The newspapers praised the fighter pilots... for London, the raids continued, further draining Germany’s resources… but most of all relieving the pressure on Britain’s fighter airfields and radar installations. Eventually Hitler put off the thought of invasion… marched instead into Russia. This heralded the end of the blitz particularly raids towards inland sites.

I observed the air raids at night over London. It was exciting and not frightening. The air raid sirens would start their interrupted pulsating wail that told you to take cover – approaching bombers were within range. At no stage did we as a family take cover or go to the air-raid shelter. The searchlight batteries would illuminate the night sky flicking their beams of light about in an attempt to locate the planes. The interrupted drone of the unsynchronised engines of the German bombers punctuated the night. Occasionally the searchlight beams caught a bomber making it look like a silver, midget fly. The bombs would be exploding making a dull crump then flames would shoot up eventually making the eastern sky glow orange and red like a semi-circular, northern-lights spectacular. I could see the searchlights seeking out and occasionally lighting up an enemy plane – the beams of light flickering across the sky forever probing for the aircraft. Then the ack-ack guns firing - trying to shoot the bombers down. At night, you could hear the pieces of shrapnel falling onto the roof. Finally, the sirens would give the all clear by a continuous tone and the searchlight would begin to flicker out. In the morning, it would be a rush out to see who could find a piece of shrapnel.

It is interesting to remember that Winston Churchill declared ‘total’ war early on. Germany’s total war effort was not declared until 1944. Total war is about every person - young, old and women, involving every field of human endeavour. Pre-war Britain had more merchant ships than America and Japan combined. By the end of the war, 5,150 of those ships were lost a total tonnage of more than its pre-war fleet. The country lost its prestige, its world position, becoming deeply indebted to America, which would take many years to pay back. Britain’s world position would never be the same again.

As much as fifty percent of the county’s food was imported before the Second World War. Food rationing started on the 8th January 1940, organized by the Ministry of Food. The country was warned the previous November - it was scheduled to happen first for the purchase of butter, bacon and sugar... all meats followed. The following January; cheese, cooking fat, and tea, joined the list. All families had to register for rationing and to nominate a shop of their choice. The government believed that it was possible Britain could be forced to surrender - by the sinking of food supply convoys, and wished to share out the food available; they were also aware that hording - by the ‘well off’, was likely to occur. By 1941, people began to get more accustomed to the limited supply - to experiment with unusual ingredients - imported tinned sausages and spam, powdered milk, eggs, sugar and potatoes. We hardly ever had to resort to any of these new foods although school meals included them.

Children had a daily spoonful of cod-liver oil and malt, which was free for children under two. Years later, the cod liver oil scheme was changed - to one of concentrated orange juice - to supplement the Vitamin C intake. At school, we had a third of a pint of milk thought beneficial for health – particularly Vitamin D, to prevent rickets. How to save scraps of food to make further dishes and how to conserve fuel and water was practiced. The radio doctor Charles Hill, later to be Minister of Health, told the listeners how to make simple diagnostic tests and how to treat basic health problems - what to eat to keep healthy. He became an established radio celebrity whose advice was avidly listened to and followed.

The population was coping, becoming progressively more frugal. There were hints on how to make clothes last longer. Clothes rationing, needing a separate clothing book, introduced, after food rationing in June 1941. Early the following year each person allocated sixty coupons, which had to last for fifteen months. People were encouraged to Make-do and Mend. The government introduced the ‘utility’ scheme designed to save material. Much later, this scheme involved all household goods and brought about the utility kite mark.

Being Ink-monitor was a chore, for the reservoir pot was large and heavy. Trying to fill the small inkwells was difficult and messy enough without having to retrieve them from each desk and return them full up. All pupils allocated a School House, which identified the member, by a coloured diagonal band, especially recognisable for sports and team games. Ink pens were issued in our forth year and the first efforts broke or crossed the nibs. Blots, splatters and smudges littered the pages. Ink stained fingers mark shirts and stains handkerchiefs.

School Assembly, held first thing in the mornings, had all the school in the main hall. The headmistress gave out the notices, said the Morning Prayer... and we sung the one and only hymn. After the final announcements we marched from the hall, to the tune of a popular march, back to our respective classrooms. At sometime in the school year we had to parade in front of the Nurse to have, our ears looked into, and our hair searched for lice. My co-educational primary education completed, without any streaming, selection, or altering of class position. I do not remember any child having behavioural problems – towards each other or against those in authority, or, not being able to keep up with the rest in lessens. There were no official tests in the infants, which would have blighted my day.

On Empire day, we were allowed to go to school in cub uniform. The Union Jack flown on the flagpole and The National Anthem sung. Even at home, if the anthem played on the radio one was almost made to feel disloyal if you did not stand to attention. The playing of the National Anthem outside the home in theatres, cinemas, concert halls, or parks demanded total respect. No one would dream of being anti-royal or casting aspersion towards the hierarchy. King and Country was maintained and claimed as the highest ideal.

School dinners served in the hall, sometimes divided to accommodate overspill classes. Some children went home for their meals – those who lived nearby. Milk drunk from third pint bottles with a straw at the morning break-time continued for several years. In the winter, the milk was cold - sometimes frozen solid and in the summer warm, often tasted sour. Friday afternoons at school was the time when our teacher read us a story. Coral Island or Wind in the Willows – a great favourite. During the reading of these stories by the teacher, I can still remember how much they excited me. I could quite ‘get into them’ and could imagine all the descriptions - of people and places… It was the best school day of the week!

I continued with the same class of children throughout my period in the primary school. There were tests and reports in the juniors; whatever the result, in my case not too good, my parents took no action to motivate me to do better. They did not demand any homework or to my knowledge require any explanation as to what they should do to improve my education. Eventually I went upstairs to the Junior School and the educational process continued. It became obvious to all - parents, teachers and students, as we progressed through the school, who were the most academic children. In the main they were the best dressed, mostly girls, and the quietest. They never engaged in rough play or allowed themselves to be involved in fights. They might be categorized as goody goodies, but we did not think so, we looked up to them. From visiting their homes it was apparent their behaviour reflected their parents demeanour, desires and educational abilities.

All children were taught to read and write in a manner laid down by the education authorities. Conversational English based on the language of radio announcers – the Kings English. Sums were a compulsory part of the curriculum as was scripture, music, nature lessons and model making. Every year had its sports and Empire day, dancing round the May pole, cricket and football - when the field was dry, which seemed to be rare. It was a good school although unfortunately my period there coincided with the war, which interrupted most lessons. Sex reared its head in a very innocent way with, ‘I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours,’ which never to my memory produced anything other than mild amazement.

Saturday morning cinema club either at: the Granada Cinema, Harrow, the Odeon, Rayners Lane or The Embassy, North Harrow. They all had their theme songs, which we children all sang loudly in time with the spot, which indicated on the screen the next word. Their special clubs, which passed out badges of membership, were much prized. I can still remember the songs and feel the tense excitement. Westerns, with Roy Rogers taking the lead, detective mysteries, with Mr Ching, the Bowery Boys who were led by Slip Mahoney. Laurel and Hardy comedies, Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick humour, and the Keystone Cop’s mad antics were the most frequent comedies. There was the usual competition for small boys to try to get to the front by crawling under the seats to get nearer the screen. On special occasions, live actors and singers gave a concert during the middle of the show. The organ at the Granada would rise out of the floor and the white coated figure would strike up the tune to a roar from the whole audience. A two penny, round, Lyons ice cream cornet was a particular delight.

Although I never took part there were always ‘crazes’ going around the school. Either: special cigarette card collections, a particular coloured or sized marble to swop; flicking cigarette cards against the wall to see the card fell nearest to the wall, or covered other cards. There were gangs of boys who leaped upon each other’s backs to see if they could get higher than another team – British Bulldog, girls screaming at catch, skipping, or hopscotch. Boys playing football with a tennis ball or just riding on each other’s backs to see who could knock another pair over. However, the greatest collectors were those who could produce the largest piece of shrapnel.

I joined the cub scouts… I was eager to attend. My father took me to the Scouts shop in Hindes Road, Harrow, where I was fitted with neckerchief, woggle, cap, and jumper in the Headstone Wolf Pack colours. Tags and badges brought home - sewn-on by my mother. My life as a cub scout began. We learned our scouts promise, sat for badges for fire lighting, telling the time, and tying our laces up. One of my greatest regrets is that I was never able to swim. A whole group of us would go to the outside swimming baths in Harrow. There, the group played team games in the water. Because I could not swim, I used to pretend by hopping about on one leg. It was a shame not being able to join in properly.

The VI had an engine noise which was distinct – had a sort of spluttering sound. Everything was all right whilst you could hear the engine going, but when it stopped, you knew that the plane was in a steep dive to the ground. The plane was guided by its ramp position and amount of fuel. Three fell in the summer of 1944. One fell in Parkside Way, another in Rowland’s Avenue, and a third fell seven doors away, between numbers 49-53 in Cumberland Road, also damaging the British Restaurant and Home Guard hut. The doors and windows were blown in, and part of the roof collapsed. At least five houses were blown-up and many more damaged. A number of neighbours died and others seriously injured.

I was getting ready for school after finishing breakfast. My father was there also having just dressed into his uniform. We were all milling about in the kitchen mum was putting on my tie and my brother Stan still sat on the box seat. It was a normal start to the school day and we were about to head for the front door. There was a whooshing sound and then the explosion, an enormous cloud of plaster dust took hours to settle – actually all quite unimpressive for the devastation it caused. There had been no air-raid siren sounded - we had been taken by surprise... A number of neighbours killed and one lost his sight. My father took charge, immediately headed down the road - to see if he could offer any assistance, and to organise the relief services. We meanwhile started to clear up the mess.

It was not long before workers came round to repair the damage – to make the house fit to live in. It was during this time that the floors were lifted and the void beneath was filled in with rubble. This to some extent cured the problem of damp. Many of the rotten joists were replaced and so too the damaged floorboards. My father’s, spell in the Home Guard ended in 1944, when it was clear to the government that Hitler was not going to invade. On leaving, his rank was made substantive – he was now a Major, although not on the serving list. His move back to the railway, had two important effects on the family. One was that his car had to be given back to its rightful owner, and two, life got back to the routine left behind - four years previously.

My best friend played an important part in my early years. I realised now how lucky I was, for we saw each other every day for twelve years - first in the infants class, then the juniors, secondary school, and work, doing everything together, from joining the Scouts and Boys Brigade to camping, going to cricket matches, and playing in the park. I was at his house more times than my own. We made up the same gang with a couple of others. He was interested in ancient and early history giving our many walks an entertaining storyline to while away the time. We must have walked many miles, every Sunday after Church Parade. I was never lonely, without a companion, or at a loss - what to do.