Hello, I’m Brenda May and I live on the Isle of Wight but Im am not an Islander. I was born in Berkshire in 1936. My Grandchildren have often asked me to tell them what it was like living through the second world war years and here are some of my most vivid memories.
My earliest memory is of a boy coming to live with us. He arrived in one day on a lorry with a number of other young children. They all carried a small case or bag with one change of clothes in it, and each one had a gas mask and an identification card hung round their neck. The children were told to sit and wait until the adults with them had found a family willing to give them a temporary home. It was not compulsory to take a child in, but if you had a spare room it was hoped that you would. My Mother already had two small girls to care for but she was more than happy to look after another child and we had a room to spare if my sister Betty and I shared, and that was how Leslie Cook came to live with us.
He was older than me and about the same age as my sister, we all got on well together and were happy, Leslie was lucky to have been placed in a kind and loving home as not all of them settled. After a time his parents asked if my parents would consider taking his older brother Bernard as well. Bernard had not settled in his placement home and missed his young brother, by chance their cousin Maureen Cook had been placed with a near neighbour, so it was a good idea to bring them all together to help them get over the trauma of leaving their families and living with complete strangers at such a tender age. When I think about it now I’m stunned by their bravery, I don’t recall them crying for their mother, but I expect they did when they went to bed, they must have been very sad and lonely at times.
The Cook’s were a very close knit family from the East-end of London and as the bombing of the city worsened they decided to leave London lock stock and barrel and head for the west country where it was much safer and of course Leslie, ,Bernard and Maureen went with them. This was just as well, as in due course Berkshire became a target for the enemy as well. Incredibly Mum lived in the same house for the rest of her life but sadly we never saw either of them again.
Perhaps, when the war was over they decided to make a new life for themselves in Canada or Australia. I like to think that they did.
After Bernard and Leslie left, we had trainees live with us for a few months at a time, my sister and I enjoyed having different people live with us. We found it exciting and interesting especially as they all had lots of stories to tell us about their families. The trainees came because there was a trading estate nearby. It was built on a site that had been used to dump old army vehicles after the first world war, and was known locally as the ‘The Dump’.
A large number of factories were built on the site at the beginning of the second world war. At that time many were seconded by the government to adapt their machinery to make equipment needed for the war effort. However, they needed skilled people to operate the machines but as most young men were in uniform, they had to recruit men and women from all over the country who had not been called up, and train them to operate the machines. Again, the local residents were asked to help out by letting a room in their home to a trainee.
The first trainee to stay with us was Harriet, she too was from Londons’ East End
and what a character she was. She was happy go lucky and loved to sing, she knew all the old music hall songs off by heart and on Saturdays after an evening at the local pub she would come home in very high spirits and entertain us, she usually ended with a rousing chorus of ‘knees up Mother Brown’ followed by hoots of laughter. Now I’m older and wiser I can believe that because their future was so uncertain the young people of the day made the most of everything that came their way and enjoyed each day to the full. At the time my mother had made my sister and I a makeshift bed under the dining room table which she had pushed against the wall beneath the window. Her idea was to protect us from flying glass should the windows be blown in from the force of a bomb exploding nearby, but the best part of it for us was that we had a birds eye view of the fun that went on and if we kept quiet they forgot that we were there.
Another trainee that I vividly remember was Mr Regal, he was a British naturalised German and was always very polite. He had a grown-up daughter and after a weekend with his family he brought back a big double jointed doll, with real hair, big blue eyes, and teeth, I was in awe, I thought that she was absolutely beautiful, but Mr Regal gave her to my sister who was three years older than me and far more sensible. Betty wasn’t bothered about dolls and wasn’t really interested in her but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her and I finally did. But Mr Regal was right, I was far too young to appreciate how delicate she was, and in no time, I had managed to poke her eyes and wreck her hair. My mother did her best to put things right by sticking her wig back on, and gluing bright blue satin in place of her eyes, but sadly she never looked the same again. If I close my eyes today, I can still see her with the awful blue satin eyes.
Over the years I have come across many dolls that look exactly as she did when I first clapped eyes on her, beautiful. I don’t know what became of her, but in due course my mother had two more daughters and no doubt my younger sisters between them finished her off, poor thing.
The war changed many things that had been taken for granted; the streets were pitch black at night. No street lights or chinks of light from the widows, the windows had to be blacked out with blackout blinds and Wardens would patrol the streets to ensure that their orders were obeyed, they would knock on the door and admonish us if we did not.
Smoke screens placed on pavements pumped out thick smoke to hide the town from enemy aircraft flying overhead. They were an enormous hazard and must have caused many accidents. Search lights were placed in a nearby field scanning the sky for enemy aircraft.
It wasn’t compulsory, but if you wanted an air-raid shelter to protect you and your family from falling bombs, the authorities buried a corrugated iron shelter in your garden. Thinking about it now it’s hard to imagine that we ever used the shelter but we did use it a few times. Today it would be considered a health hazard at the very least. It was bitterly cold and damp inside, we had an old carpet laid on top of a soil floor, a sack hung over the entrance and there were bunk beds inside that smelled of mildew, also it was home to a very large number of spiders, it was quite disgusting. I can only remember using it a few times at night so I guess Mum and Dad had similar views and decided to take a chance on us being blown out of our beds and let us sleep in our warm comfy beds in the house.
We, like our neighbours planted flowers in the soil on top of the shelter to disguise it from the air and make it less of an eyesore in our garden. In latter years it was removed from the ground and erected again on the surface and we used as a shed, there it stood an ugly reminder of those troubled times until my dear mother passed away in the Nineties and we sold the house.
Towards the end of the war I saw a V1 (Flying Bomb), they were very scary as they had a distinct throb but when the noise stopped the bomb continued to fly, you never knew when it was going to suddenly drop from the sky and explode it would happen in an instant. Fortunately for me the one I saw continued to throb well past our house and finally fell in Cippenham just missing the important trading estate it was meant for.
I also recall lord Haw Haw and his radio messages with his signature ‘Germany calling Germany calling’ he frightened me a bit.
Like most streets in the country the end of the war was celebrated with a wonderful street party. Everyone joined in and made a contribution as there was little money to spare and food was rationed, so little of that to spare as well. Mrs Dickens was a fantastic pianist she had her piano pushed outside and entertained us for hours on end with her repertoire of songs. Those that could, dressed themselves up in fancy dress or made sure that they wore red, white and blue. The horror was over and we could all move on. Years later I was given a photograph of the street party and I can recognise many of our friends and even recall their names, I often wonder how many are still with us today.
The reason I came to write this is because some time ago my daughter was asking me about my childhood and suggested that I made a record of the things in my life that had left an impression on me I have never forgotten, this is my second instalment, I hope that you enjoyed reading it.
What it has brought home to me is that nothing lasts forever, and in time life will get back to normal and the horror of ‘Lock Down’ and Corona Virus will be another memory.
Perhaps you have had many similar experiences, why not jot them down while we are in Lockdown, I’m sure that your family would love to read them one day. Good Luck, and stay safe