(c) Vin Callcut 2002-2017. Small extracts can be used with acknowledgements to 'Oldcopper.org' website.
Helpful comments are very welcome.
A Broseley Cockney’s War.
A few thoughts delivered to the Broseley Local History Society ‘Wartime Memories’ Evening.
Table of Contents
Evacuation to Brackley
Back to London
V1 Flying Bombs and V2 Rockets
His family lived in Walthamstow but local member Vin Callcut was born in the City of London Hospital, Finsbury Square, so is undeniably a true Cockney. By the time war broke out he was four years old and had only just started school. Most children were all evacuated together with their schools but Vin was thought too young to go. His sister, Iris, nine years older, went with her school to Bude in Cornwall. Cousin Geoff was sent off to Llanfairfechan on the North Wales coast and cousin Kath to Dorset. Vin stayed at home with his parents as they hoped that, in Walthamstow, they were not likely to be a target for the bombs. He started school at Handsworth Avenue Infants in Higham’s Park.
His Dad went up to London six days a week by train to work near Ludgate Circus. He left home at 6.15am and was usually home again by 7pm when Vin was just in bed. Having been in the Royal Navy during WWI, his Dad joined the Home Guard. Several nights each week he was helping to man the Bofors ack ack (anti-aircraft) guns on Chingford Plain, part of Epping Forest. In ‘spare’ time he had dug out a big pit in the garden and installed an Anderson shelter for the family. This was made of corrugated iron and covered with soil and turf. As recommended, an extra sheet was dug in at the doorway and banked up to make a blast shield. To start with, his Mum and Vin slept there, also his Dad on his evenings off. It seemed unfair to Vin that his Dad would go to the shelter doorway to watch the bombers in the searchlights and the ack ack explosions but it ‘was too dangerous’ for him to have a look!
Their home was actually only a mile from the British Xylonite plastics factory so the whole area did get plastered with incendiary bombs. The factory would have burnt very well but fortunately escaped serious fires. Two incendiaries came through the house roof. One landed in Iris’s empty bed and smothered itself in the eiderdown feathers, the other bounced down the stairs and fizzled out amongst the milk bottles. Three others landed in the garden and the remains of all were collected up and given to the air raid warden for salvage (recycling). In the mornings Vin would scour the area to see what shrapnel had come down during the night. Most of it was from the explosive rounds that the Bofors guns had sent up. The precision steel warheads were shattered into tortured shapes that were tinted yellow to blue to black by the temperature and were fascinating to collect. Most was handed in to the warden’s post but some formed a treasured collection in his bedroom. He thinks this was what started his ideas of a career in metallurgy.
At school all the windows were plastered with blast tape. Gas masks were issued to everyone. They were tested sometimes but never seemed to fit properly. During air raid warnings the children were led out to the brick built surface shelters in the playground and the enterprising teachers continued lessons without the aid of their blackboards. After school finished for the day the children found their own way home and always found something to do on the way. Sometimes it was a direct walk home, sometimes a diversion through nearby parts of Epping Forest or, if the right postie was driving, there was the possibility of a lift in his small red Morris van. There were plenty of adventure playgrounds around for the children as the Civil Defence folk had thoughtfully put chestnut fencing round bomb-damaged houses to keep the adults out.
His mother was in the Women’s’ Voluntary Service (WVS), sometimes helping with the issue of ration books but at other times attending new bombsites where people needed help. They may have lost family, home and possessions and needed to be escorted to a rest centre before making contact with other relatives or being re-homed somewhere.
Eventually it was agreed that perhaps evacuation was a good idea for Vin and arrangements were made for some of the family to go to Brackley, in Northants. The two grandmas went first and were staying in the farmhouse of a working water mill and he was sent to join them. It was idyllic since it was in the valley spanned by the 20-arch Great Central Railway viaduct and steam trains went across often. The farm kept a few pigs and there was a side of bacon hanging in the farm kitchen. He soon found that the pigs were very friendly and enjoyed having their food rolled down the slide into their sty trough. But unguarded water mills and small children did not mix, long before the Nanny State was thought of. He was moved to stay with two elderly aunts in a cottage but that was very small.
It was organised that his sister, Iris would leave Bude and come to Brackley and that cousins Geoff and Kath would also have to leave their schools to join them. They were found two billets in houses in the same street. Vin had to go to the infants’ school while the others were in the junior and senior schools. He soon realised that evacuees were not really wanted by the other children. If there was any school milk not drunk it was often offered first to the evacuees, who needed it most, and this caused extra jealousy.
The school classes were all crowded and frequent moves were made to balance the numbers. In one of his classes, Vin was enjoying himself weaving a tea cosy round a cardboard former using old wool unwound from old pullovers. Towards the end of term, it was nearly finished and he had his heart set on being able to give it to his mother next time she came. One morning he was told to move up to another class.
‘What about my tea cosy? He asked.
‘Oh, another child will carry on with that,’ was the unfeeling reply.
Later he was moved to nearby Brackley Junior School.
The billets were in good friendly houses but unfortunately an official decided to move them all into one house where the husband and wife said that they could take four together. They had never had children themselves but were glad of the money and the extra rations. Conditions were rather Spartan. House rules were draconian and frequently changed without notice. The husband enjoyed extra food and also enjoyed himself tormenting the younger ones, generally when big sister Iris was not around. Each week though, the children would cheerfully write home to parents with the usual opening ‘I hope you are well, we are all well.’ and add brief details of the week’s better events.
One week Vin wrote about the funny things that happened on ‘Market Day’. There were a lot of pens in the market square. Each Friday, a lot of farmers would come in to town to meet their friends. They would bring a lot of farm animals with them and put them in the pens. Then they would all lean on the rails and cluster together so tightly so that no one else could see the animals. After two or three hours the animals were put back into trailers and the farmers stood in open groups outside the pubs, still talking but with pints in their hands. It didn’t seem to have much to do with Brackley people.
Every Sunday there was a church parade for local troops. It was also attended by a lot of men in bright blue suits who were servicemen recovering from wounds. The army contingent marched into town behind a piper. As they filed into the church the piper fell out to spend the time outside practising. This was obviously a good way of getting out of going to church so Vin resolved to learn to play the bagpipes as soon as he could.
Of the streets leading out of Brackley, one was The Buckingham Road. This led down to a bridge over the river where the children could turn off to play in the water meadows. He had not been used to open fields, nor for that matter the cows that grazed them. The Buckingham Road was the approach used by any traffic from London. One Sunday there was great excitement because Mum and Dad had managed to get enough petrol coupons together to arrange a visit to their children. The weekly letter had asked that they bring along ‘Big Teddy’ who had not been ably to go to Brackley. In the morning, they got there early and waited for ages and ages down by the bridge. Eventually they saw Dad’s old Singer Junior coming – and there was Big Teddy looking through the windscreen with Mum! A very happy reunion, for all. Great sadness when Mum and Dad left again. That whole area is now in the middle of Brackley Industrial Estate.
An airfield was being built nearby, a big one for bombers. To a small boy, the name of the airfield was obviously ‘Wimpey’ as that was what was on all the lorries. In fact it was Silverstone that was being created from the Northamptonshire countryside.
One day Iris arrived back at the billet from school to find that her little brother was locked in the coal shed again, this time because he had accidentally spilt his water while eating the plain bread that had been given for his tea. She wrote a very different letter that night and they were soon back home, much better off with the blitz.
By then, the bombing had eased off and his parents had stopped sleeping in the shelter, preferring to get a good night’s sleep in bed. Vin had the shelter to himself so laid planks on his parents’ lower bunks and ran the hand-me-down old clockwork railway round at that level. Provided the trains did not leave the rails, the system worked well. However, a derailment frequently resulted in a splash as the model plunged into the six inches water now on the floor of the shelter. Nonetheless, all the models survived for years.
His Dad had dug up the garden for the ‘Dig for Victory’ Campaign. Chickens were installed at the end of the suburban garden and hutches for some rabbits. There was a bit of a row one morning when he was found with two of the rabbits with him for company (and safety!) on the bunks in the shelter instead of being in their hutches. Chicken, no problem, but he has not been keen on eating rabbit since.
One Saturday was spent on a train trip up to London with his Dad who had the day off. From Higham’s Park station one of the gutsy Great Eastern N7 0-6-2 tank engines was at the head of two Greseley Quint-Art sets of five oak-sided articulated coaches as usual. His Dad told him that during the rush hours the coaches could seat six a side in each compartment with ten or more standing squeezed up very closely to each other. The weight of the passengers would cause the coach frames to droop a little which tended to jam the teak doors. To keep to the ‘Jazz Service’ schedule, the drivers had to accelerate hard from each station and keep the regulator wide open until almost into the next station before slamming on the air brakes.
Near central London, the journey was over viaducts that gave vistas of heavily bombed suburbs where the Londoners were still trying to keep to ‘Business as usual’. At Hackney Downs there was always the penetrating odour from Yardley’s perfume factory that heralded the dive down the tunnels to Liverpool Street. There were sandbags everywhere and old glazed arched roof of the station was in a bad way but the station was as busy as ever. His Dad knew his way round the City well including all the short cuts usable when main streets were blocked with rubble. Sadly, his birthplace, the City of London Hospital in Finsbury Square had been blitzed and never returned to its home. The day’s objective was to visit St Paul’s Cathedral, still standing proud amongst burnt out office blocks. It could still be admired inside, though some areas of the nave were fenced off for repair. In the North Transept the damage was worst and you could see through the floor down in to the crypt.
A holiday week was spent with distant relations at a chicken farm in Pledgeden Green, near Bishop’s Stortford in Essex. An airfield there was fully operational with American Air Force Marauders taking off frequently but the chickens took no notice. Naturally, there was a big interest in how many planes came back. Guns were tested as they took off and spare ammunition rained down round the farm. Of course, his Dad collected plenty. Some of the ½” ammo was turned into cigarette lighters, more was kept for many years until it became an embarrassment. The airfield is now called Stanstead Airport.
When the V1 flying bombs started coming over in broad daylight, there was an added interest to life. Their progress was watched across the sky with fascination as long as that throbbing pulse jet engine kept going. Only when it cut out and the bomb tilted down was it time to look round for somewhere to shelter. For some reason it seemed OK just to crouch down behind the hedge in the nearest front garden. Again it was deemed that Vin should be evacuated so he was sent up to relations in Glasgow. By then this city had had plenty of bombing round the shipyards but was now well out of harm’s way. Amongst Scottish friends, it is still quite a claim to fame to say that he was one of the few Cockneys evacuated to Glasgow, even if it was for less than a month.
His host in Glasgow was suddenly taken ill and soon died in hospital. As the V1 threat receded, he was brought back to London again. This turned out to be just in time for the arrival of the V2 rockets which travelled faster than the speed of sound, just arriving with a tremendously destructive bang which was followed belatedly by the roar of their approach. In the school playground one day he was lucky enough to see one go across the shy and down but it did cause a big loss of lives in Walthamstow. One Saturday he went to visit a friend in North Chingford. A V2 came down not far away, just by the Royal Forest Hotel and King Henry VIII’s hunting lodge. Naturally the friends went up to see what could be found and were disappointed to find nothing but a very big hole in the clay – no shrapnel fragments could be found anywhere. After cycling back home at the arranged time he was bursting to tell the tale and expect some sympathy. Instead, it was made quite clear that his mother had seen the explosion and column of smoke in the distance and, since it came from where he was visiting, was extremely worried that her Vin was under it and might be seen no more! This was before telephones were common so she had had no way of checking.
He had returned to Handsworth Avenue School in the juniors and was happy there but the school was converted to a secondary school and all the juniors had to walk a mile further to Selwyn Avenue. Towards the end of 1945 the family moved a few miles to Chingford Hatch and he transferred to King’s Road School in Chingford for most of his last year in the juniors. After passing the 11 plus exam he was accepted by Sir George Monoux Grammar School in Walthamstow but missed his new friends who mostly went either to Chingford County High School, the South West Essex Technical College or Chingford Secondary Modern School.
Vin thinks that his very varied childhood experiences stood him in good stead during working life. Having started as a laboratory assistant in 1952, he studied by day-release and was then promoted from time to time. He retired as a director in 1999. Hilary and Vin moved to Broseley in April 2002 and say that they have never felt more at home anywhere.