Coral Pritchett's memories of Wartime

Bombs in Chislehurst and being evacuated to Devon

By Coral Pritchett

Photo:Great Ormond Street Hospital

Great Ormond Street Hospital

I was born in 1935 and my first memory is going to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children when I was about two years and nine months old. My doctor had recommended that I should have my tonsils out. My mother and father took me to the hospital and we passed through the main building, rather like the huts that soldiers were housed in during the war. I cannot remember exactly how many children were in the ward but it was quite a lot. The nurse in charge sat at a table in the middle of the room and adjoining her table was a Treadle sewing machine with a sewing table which folded out from the sewing machine.

I cannot remember anything about the operation itself but we were given jelly and ice cream to eat afterwards. If we behaved very well, after a day or two we were allowed to sit at the nurse’s desk and the sewing table to have our food. My parents were not allowed to come and see me until the following Sunday and then only for two hours.

My next memory was when my parents took my brother, Peter, aged seven and a half, and me on holiday to visit our Dutch cousins in The Hague in the summer of 1939. We were taken to a large room on the second floor of the house where there was an extremely large doll’s house and a rocking horse. In the dining room was an enormous sideboard with a very large box of chocolates on it with flowers on the lid. It was the biggest box of chocolates we had ever seen. In retrospect I think it was about 2’ x 15”. After having been there for a couple of days, my aunt asked my brother and I why we had not eaten any of the chocolates but we hadn’t dared to even open the box. During our stay in The Hague , Holland was celebrating the birth of a Royal Princess – I believe that she was Princess Irene.  The Dutch people were very happy for their Royal Family – The House of Orange – and everything was decorated with orange. The trees were festooned with orange lights, the girls all wore orange ribbons in their hair and the shops all sold orange-coloured sweets.  My aunt was very taken with my brother and tried to persuade my mother to let him stay because about six weeks after that, war was declared and it might have been a very long time before we saw him again, if ever.

We were living in Chislehurst at the outbreak of the war, just to the south of London and once the bombing started, my father persuaded my mother to take Peter and I down to Devon for safety. We rented a two-room terrace cottage, one up and one down. There was no bathroom, no electricity and we had to cross a cobbled yard to use a communal toilet shared between four cottages. The rent was two shillings a week (10 pence in modern money).

My mother was not very happy with the cottage and soon afterward she rented another cottage about half a mile out of the village of Bickleigh in the Exe Valley . There we were joined by a friend of my mother together with her daughter and new-born baby son. Rations were very short and my mother and her friend decided to open tea-rooms known as the Honeypot Café.   This augmented the rations because the Government allowed extra food for cafes and restaurants. As the war progressed, they used to get the Army and Canadian Military Police coming in for teas while out on manoeuvres. It was quite common for a lot of military vehicles to pull up all along the road – sometimes as many as thirty lorries. The officers would come into the café itself to have a boiled egg tea while the ordinary soldiers sat in the garden and had soft drinks. This was not as simple as it sounds since they all had to cook on one Primus stove and had to get water from a pump in the front garden. I do believe that having boiled the eggs in a saucepan, they then made tea with the same water!

I started my schooling at Bickleigh School in 1940. The whole school consisted of about thirty children divided into two classes – 5-9 year olds in one class under a Miss French and the 10-14 year olds in the other class under Mrs. Reader, the headmistress.

The local children were very docile and did not seem very bright. I suppose having lived on the outskirts of London , we were a bit brighter and my mother had already taught me how to read. On summer days, the younger class would take their little chairs out into Mrs Reader’s  garden where all the children , boys and girls would learn to knit – much to my brother’s disgust!

We saw my father whenever we could get away from his job and he often had to stand all the way from Paddington to Exeter – I think he actually sat on his suitcase in the corridor. In between his visits, we used to try and write letters to him (with my mother’s help) and often sent him a Swan matchbox with things we had found when we went out for walks, such as acorns, primroses and catkins, etc.

Once it was safe to return to Chislehurst we came back to an area we could hardly recognise because of the bombing which had taken place. Fortunately our house was still standing and we remained there for a time until further bombing made it necessary for us to leave the outskirts of London once again. We had an Anderson shelter in the garden and a Morrison shelter in the dining room. The whole family would sleep in the Morrison shelter for safety. This consisted of a reinforced metal framework about 6’ square with a steel top and metal caging around the sides. My mother never slept much when we were in the shelter and when she heard the air-raid siren, she would make us pull our feet in and then she would lower the caging along the front. I later learnt that the Morrison shelter was designed to give the people of the house protection from the chimneys falling into the house.

I remember very clearly when we saw the first V1 rockets (Doodlebugs) come over. It was dark and we were looking out of the back bedroom window and saw what we thought was a small plane on fire flying over the house. The noise was a sputtering engine sound and suddenly it went silent and then there was a terrible explosion as it hit the ground. At the time we did not know what it was but we soon found out that they unmanned flying bombs. They were aimed at central London but only went on flying until their fuel was used up and they would then drop anywhere. Again we had to leave home and then went to Northampton for a while. Some time after we returned home again, we experienced attacks from V2 rockets. These were really terrifying as there was no warning of them coming – sudden vast explosions which were then followed by the whooshing sound of them coming over because of course they travelled faster then the speed of sound.

When peace came, all the people in our road decided to have a street party and while our mothers were trying to get some food together, we children went about collecting wood for a bonfire in the road – mainly from the local bombed houses. My mother made about thirty red, white and blue jellies. The red and white colours were not a problem being made from strawberries and milk jelly but the blue was more difficult and I seem to remember that in the end, because there were no food colourants, she used Reckitt’s blue which in those days was used to whiten sheets in the wash. The party was a great success with sandwiches, cakes and jellies and tea and orange squash to drink. No one suffered any ill effects from the blue jelly, much to my mother’s relief. The police came to the road the next day because our bonfire had burnt a large hole in the tarmac surface of the road. As far as I can remember, no one got into trouble about it – they were just warned not to do it again!

During the war, my aunt who lived on a farm in Devon used to send us dead rabbits in the post. These still had their fur on although they had been paunched. Several layers of brown paper were tied around the middle of the rabbit and the front legs and the back legs were tied together with an address label tied to the back legs. Amazingly, these rabbits always arrived, despite the wartime shortages. I think it says something about the honesty of people in those days. I cannot imagine the rabbits ever arriving at their destination in later years even if the Post Office had allowed them to be sent. 

 

 

This page was added by Richard Potter on 26/07/2010.

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