Wartime Whitworth Street
Meet Geoff, aged four. It’s 1944 and he lives in Whitworth Street. His parents had the unfortunate luck of moving in just as war broke out in 1939, but nevertheless the family will stay at Number 12 until 2002.
I always love it when people send me memories of Greenwich, whether from wartime, the 50s or more recently, like the marvellous photos from the camera of Gerald Dodd (more coming up there at some point when I’ve worked out which ones I haven’t shared with you yet…) and I was delighted to hear from Geoff, and see the marvellous shelter in the back garden at Number 12.
Geoff says “My father dug out a pit and erected an Anderson Shelter, then covered it with earth, four wooden bunks, quite smelly & damp, but safer. After the war he dismantled it to make a shed.”
This one has been buoyed up with bricks and wood – here’s another shot with Geoff and his mum and brother, that (just) shows the famous corrugated iron arch:
Of course there are still Anderson shelters to be found in the back of some Greenwich gardens. I know of at least two, which have been made into garden sheds – now that people have started relocating again I sincerely hope that anyone moving into a house that has one doesn’t just turf it out, not knowing what it is…
The whole area round Pelton Road was (and continues to be) close-knit – his brother was mates with Raymond Gallagher and his gran lived next door to him in Christchurch Way. All the kids played together in the streets, throughout the war, no matter now dangerous it became. Definitely different times. It’s hard to imagine parents letting their children roam and play with all those H&S hazards around these days, yet Geoff remembers
“We played in the derelict buildings for years, dangerous but fun. The scrap metal merchant’s yards by the river were full of rats and machine gun belts, some live ammunition, if you had sharp eyes.”
Air raids were mere temporary interruptions to play, and sometimes not even that. Geoff’s brother was left, tied to a lamp post throughout one raid, having been ‘captured’ during a game of Cowboys and Indians.
Geoff has more reason to remember the air raids than most as both his parents were deaf, and relied on Geoff and his brother to tell them when the sirens went.
At first they evacuated to Tunbridge Wells, but it didn’t work out (there seems to have been a high failure rate – my own mum came sloping home after a couple of weeks) and until the Anderson shelter was built they hid under the stairs went the alarms sounded. Geoff doesn’t remember being scared at that point, and I get the impression that he found it rather exciting when his gran took him to the big shelters in Greenwich Park, protected by enormous barrage balloons.
The bombs continued. And Life continued. I find it weird to try to imagine a time when you just lived with the idea that at any moment you could be forced to go and sit in a tin hut and when you came out your house might have disappeared.
The family adapted their lives to survive in a wartime situation. Geoff’s father, a shoemaker, brought Army boots home to repair over the weekend, his mother made clothes from scraps, and everyone kept rabbits in the back garden, though they got a neighbour to actually kill them when they wanted a stew. In another ‘weird to think…’ Geoff was entirely unsentimental about this – I can’t imagine many four year olds being cool with eating their pets these days.
The whole family was involved in Wartime Greenwich. Geoff’s Grandma cooked supper and served cocoa for the firefighters at Rangers ‘Lodge’ (now ‘House’) and his Granddad, who had survived the trenches of the Great War:
worked loading coal for the new Power Station on the river – a prime target for Bombers.
Unsurprisingly, Geoff’s most indelible memory of those years was the Blackwall Lane mine that blew the back of their house in and the V2 that took out the front door and destroyed several shops in Traf Road.
I’ve been trying to work out which one that would have been – but judging from this map there were so many, I’d have to guess. The indstrial area, all along the river, was heavily bombed for strategic reasons. All I know is that as they watched the V2 Geoff’s brother said ‘No problem until the engine stops’. Unfortunately it stopped almost immediately overhead.
Sounds as though they didn’t make the shelter in time. There is still a photo extant of Geoff’s mother with her head bandaged from the flying glass wounds (no, I’m not sharing that…)
It’s easy to see why the parties at the end of the war were so reckless and excited, attended by absolutely everyone. Geoff’s VE Day Party had a bonfire made from the fence around Christchurch School, (local bobby unhappy) which burned an effigy of Hitler (local bobby less unhappy) and banjo playing to the early hours (everyone unhappy*)
Happier times were ahead.
*just joshing, banjo players of Greenwich, all…
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