Thanks to W6okey (gus) for sending us this very interesting insight to 1940 Bermondsey
Christopher and Helen from Oliver
Between the beginning of October and the end of December 1940 I worked in Bermondsey in Rest Centres for the families who had been bombed out of their homes.
These letters were written to my mother in haste during my spare moments, without any thought of their being read again many years later.
Oliver Wrightson March 1977
LETTERS FROM BERMONDSEY OCTOBER-DECEMBER 1940
St. Andrew's Mission Hall, Bermondsey.
It only took me three-quarters of an hour to cross over from Kings Cross and I got a bus from Tower Bridge to Abbey Street. Preparing the 6.00 p.m. tea was the first job - in fact, most of the time is spent washing up one meal and preparing for the next.
There are 31 people here now, and the numbers get smaller each day as new billets are found. The ones that are here now look as though they've installed themselves for the winter, they came three weeks ago, and aren't making much effort to go. But at any moment a bomb may drop near, and the place will be once again flooded with people.
Anyway, I'm getting to know the ones that are here as intimately as possible. They are mainly middle-aged or oldish women,
dressed in black, and a few men and just one child called Rosie. "Gran" is the outstanding
character; she must be well over 70 and yet she preserves a pink- and-white complexion and sparklingly
In the distance, alive blue eyes.
with her white hair, she looks angelic, but closer to a sort of coarseness spoils the whole effect.
She nearly The ravages of age!
always washes up the dishes for us and occupies herself in the morn- ings scrubbing the floor and clean-
At meals she ing the dish cloths. tells stories which keep us amused, and nods her head at us and winks. When she was younger she must have been a flirt.
Then there's old Mrs.. Foster, a dear little old woman, neatly dressed, with black shoes and a hat to match, with a black brooch
She is very stuck through it. concerned about the bombings. "There's no sense in it. He doesn't gain anything by bombing hospitals". The guns at night rather frighten her, poor dear, and she wants to get out of the place as soon as possible, but these damn local authorities have bungled things hopelessly.
The little girl Rosie, who is about 6 years old, is a peculiar case, and at night she keeps many people awake shouting, "Goodnight, see you in the morning" again and again relentlessly, until I nearly yelled "Shut up". Someone did, but she took no notice.
After the first meal on Monday even- ing, the old women gathered up their brown paper bags and palliasses and set off for their shelters. At 7.30 the sirens went, and we locked the place up, and with the guns booming around us, made our way to an under- ground shelter at Marshalls factory.
While we were in Abbey Street, three bombs came down with a loud whistle and fell near the docks, and a few minutes later we saw a vast blaze, lighting up the drab houses with a lurid glow. I was pleased to get into the cellar, crowded as it was with hot bodies. I slept on an un- even palliasse, very inadequately packed with straw. My coat was the only thing I removed, and I had one rug over me and another as a pillow. With snoring bodies and bellowing guns I tried to get to sleep, down in the earth. How unnecessary it was to have packed my pyjamas! My sleep
was being broken by guns or bodies, not "Guns or Butter".
Up at five sharp in the morning to sweep the room, light the stove and prepare the breakfast. In the morn- ing there was a raid,
a raid, and I actually saw the planes, small and silver as pin-points, high up in the clear blue sky, like beautiful insects. But next moment they let loose a bomb which dropped about mile from here in Tooley Street. Before lunch I went round to see the Rector, a nice hearty man who said, "You're doing a grand job of work, you fellows, a grand job".
In the afternoon I had to sit at the desk opposite the door, and deal with people wanting themselves, their wives and children evacuated. I had to take down sex, name, dwell- ing etc; on one occasion the first was most difficult to determine and I had to ask! There were lots of pieces of paper and note-books on the desk, and I enjoyed noting down the particulars. "Take a seat,
please. You want your wife to be evacuated immediately. Yes, now let me see", and then I'd pull out some paper, scribble something, hoping for the best.
I gave the kitchen a good clean up after the evening meal, and then on my way to the shelter, more bombs dropped and again the docks were ablaze. When I got to Marshalls factory, the look-out man Bob suggested we should go right up to the top, on the roof,
What a and have a look round.
mad thing to do, when bombs and shrapnel were falling.
But I did
it. I thought it would be a thrill- ing sight and so it was. After a
few minutes we descended and I was back again amongst snores and booms and crashes (and the greatest of these is snores).
Next morning as we were getting the breakfast ready, a' fellow dashed in and said, "First-Aiders?" so we said, "Yessir" and followed him, wondering what we were in for. The casualty was an old man, who had had a fit of some kind and was lying unconscious on the ground floor of a small house. An ambulance arrived in no time, and we helped lift him in. was the last we saw of him.
This morning I went along to the Globe Cinema, and asked the
manageress if I could bring a party free of charge. She said she would let me, so sometime soon I will take a party to the films; it will take their minds off their troubles, I hope.
I had a chance to go round and look at the damage this after- noon, and borrowed a bicycle from Kenneth (Irwin). There was hardly a street in which there was not at least one demolished house. In most streets two or three had fallen in together. The Town Hall, a school and several factories have been hit, and reduced to a mess of brick and splinters. No wonder these people want to get away. Some of the ones who came to me at this desk were simply bundles of nerves. woman clutched me by the arm, when a siren went and said, "Where can I go, oh, where can I go?" She was very much afraid. If only something could be done quickly and the maddening thing is that I'm quite unable to do anything effective, except to say "Yes, don't you worry. You'll be One
evacuated very soon, and the chances of you getting a bomb near you are terribly small".
As I write, the old women are trudging out with their paper bags, containing, I should think, a slice or two of bread and an old handkerchief. They nod to me as they open the door and say goodnight, and I say "I hope you get a good night this time", and all the while a gramophone record, scratchy and old, of "I Cover the Water Front" is being played. The sirens have gone and the guns are tuning up.
There is a lot more to
you, and in my next letter I will tell you about old
Mr. Maguire, and Vi, and all the peculiar things that happen here and in the shelter. I must say I am enjoying it, although you might not think so!
Since I last wrote, I've really settled in here and like the work, and I get to like the people more and more.
Bombs continue to drop, and on my way to the shelter last night, three screamers were dropped near the docks and set going a vast fire. It was a bit frightening hearing the things up in the sky and not knowing where they were going to fall.
On Thursday, Miles and Hallam (Tennyson) came to say goodbye, before joining up. We took some of the girls to the Oxford and Bermondsey Club in Tanner Street and danced to the wireless.
Miles got a keg of cider and some beer, and with the guns booming around we played Murder and all sorts of games. I've seldom enjoyed any party so much!
That night the cellar was very crowded, boys and girls all mixed up together, and I slept on a wooden bench just wide enough to accommodate my
bottom. I say "slept" but that isn't quite true, as it was too uncomfortable for that, and at 2.00 a.m. I wedged myself in between two bodies on the ground and had three hours before get- ting up at five to deal with the breakfast.
I made a lovely apple charlotte for lunch the next day, using
Miss up stale pieces of bread. Smithers, who is known as the Duchess, had three helpings of it. She's a vast woman, almost gluttonous, but very grateful for everything, and she helps me clean out the stove in the mornings.
It is Gran's 70th birthday today. When she came in to breakfast this morning we all sang "Happy Birthday to you". She was thrilled. Kenneth and George (Grant) and I bought her a cake and seven candles. She was delighted with it, and we gave her a smacking kiss - much to the pleasure of the others. lunch we got the baker to roast a joint, and it was
delicious. They all had two help- ings, except the Duchess who had her usual three.
Afterwards, the door opened and who should come in but John
I showed him the
kitchen and the cupboards with considerable pride, as I'd cleaned them thoroughly the day before, and then the main room and my desk. Then we went out in his Army car to look at the damage,
It was specially near the docks. not as bad as he had expected. In terms of actual houses, perhaps not, but in terms of human misery it was "measureless to man".
One thing has impressed me a lot, and that is the way the people here wash. Every morning they come to the kitchen and ask me for hot water and then through the window I see them cleaning themselves really thoroughly, and combing their hair out and washing their teeth out, they use mouth-wash, never paste or powder.
In the afternoon I organised the scrubbing of the big main room, and the women were anxious to help, so I equipped them with pails, scrubbing brushes and carbolic, and they worked in 10 minute shifts. You wouldn't recognise it now. The school- mistress, Miss Scudder, who sits in a mauve suit at a desk near me said that we had made
"You boys, a huge improvement. you're marvellous," she said.
Actually, since Kenneth and George and I have been left on our own we've been rather spoil- ing them - cups of tea at 11, cups of tea at 4, and poor dears, it's about time they were given something approach- ing a decent time, or a "fair deal".
One of the nicest of the old women, Mrs. Foster (73 years old and she doesn't look it) told me the other day that she simply couldn't stick much more of the incessant bombing, and that the nights in the cellar made her "all dizzy
like". And yesterday a London Transport man came in here and told me he had room for one in
So I a bus going to Camberley. said, "Reserve that seat" and rushed off to dear Mrs. Foster, and was she pleased and grate- ful. It was the deepest joy to see her. She went away and
packed her old bag, bound it up with string, and trudged out of the door. I honestly felt like crying.
It's about time I went to the cellar. There are so many nice people there, and when Kenneth and I arrive we usually find rugs rolled up as pillows for us. I am thinking of reading a "Simple Story" to them, though Rosie might interrupt and shriek "Shut up". Vi and Norah are both waiting for us to finish writing. They really are flirts and we have great fun with them. They always help us wash up and cut sand- wiches, and I find the women are much more kind and helpful than the men.
Thank you for sending my blue zipper, I'm wearing it now with I'll continue to my corduroys.
send postcards and letters, so don't worry please, as I can seldom remember when I've been so essentially happy.
So many things have happened since I wrote on Sunday, that I don't know where to begin. this week's New Statesman, read a first-rate article on
I was the "Danger of Disease". so impressed that I went out and bought lots of gargle, disinfectant soap, Dettol etc. and gave everything a real good scrub. This evening I said that gargle was going to be given to everyone leaving the hall, and that it was for their own good to take a little. I stood at a table with cups arranged on it, and a solution of diluted Glycerine of Thymol, and a bucket near the table for them to spit into. Do you know, not one person refused it.
old Duchess jibbed a bit, but at last she swilled it round her gullet, making a revolting noise. Little Rosie was laughing so much that she swallowed it, and her mother said "Oh, Rose" in that I'm superb Bermondsey accent. determined that these people won't catch any of the many epidemics that are certain to come in the winter.
I shall never forget Tuesday night. It was terrific. I thought that Monday was bad enough, but on Tuesday the guns were never silent for a moment. Fires were started all over, bombs were dropped by, the thousand. Bob the lookout man for Marshalls thought his last moment had come, when a bomb whizzed past the chimneys and landed in Stephen Street (next to Abbey Street) with an immense explosion. He always tells us in the mornings what sort of night it has been and on Wed- nesday morning he looked as though he had seen a ghost. When I arrived at St. Andrews I saw what I took to be shrapnel, but which turned out to be the
tiles and bricks of some new flats. When the light came we all saw the havoc that had been caused on the other side of the road. Consequent-
ly, at breakfast we had fourteen new people in, and to balance the slight excess of numbers a few of the old women got away in the afternoon. They were touchingly grateful and one promised to write to me "May the Lord spare you" she said.
This afternoon I had a typical case to deal with, that of an old woman, bombed out of her own home, who had been to her son's home, only to find it blown up
him. I asked her what she had brought with her, a pointing to her vast bosom "That's all I've got" she said. Poor old thing, she's sleeping tonight under a billiard table, as I couldn't find her any- where else. You see, she can't walk far, otherwise I would bring her to Marshalls.
On Monday I took a party to the Globe to see "The Ghost Breakers".
There isn't They all loved it.
such a good film next week, but I'll take them all the same.
There's a married couple in here now called Mr. & Mrs. Moon.
She is the only one who doesn't take
If ever I sugar in her tea.
offer it to her by mistake, she looks terribly surprised.
by the way, has started to call me "Darlin", that is, when she's not swearing at me for not clean- ing the saucers properly.
I saw a typical East-End sight this morning, when I went in search of gargle.
A small shop
had been destroyed, and amidst the debris a young girl had erected a sort of stall, with a Union Jack at the back of it, and those of her goods which hadn't been covered by the ruins, in front. There she was, carrying on as though the destruction of her shop was a slight inconvenience.
What a joy it was to see the pound note, enclosed in your letter. I will spend it on disinfectants etc. and the rest We I will put into Petty Cash. are allowed £2 a week, but we find that isn't nearly enough.
Now the aeroplanes are somewhere overhead and the guns are thudd-
It's strange ing away at them.
how unafraid I feel.
had better go to the shelter and
Things have been much quieter during the last few days, and our numbers are dwindling sadly. There are still left the old favourites, Gran, the Duchess, Rosie etc. and it seems that nothing is going to move them. In the afternoons there is sufficient time to go to sleep or to get some fresh air, and I'm torn between the two.
They've given me a nickname, "Checker" - because of my black-
Some of and-white check cap!
the girls got hold of it this evening and passed it from one to another, until at last Gran got hold of it, and before I could leap on her, she had put it under her skirt!
For our special benefit the dear old Duchess recited some poetry after lunch. She's by far the most intellectual of them all, in fact, the other day I found her reading Plato's Republic. Yes, it's true. If only she had had more opportunities she might have become quite a philosopher.
The future of this centre isn't
quite settled. It's possible that it may be closed down, in which case we should join the Oxford and Bermondsey Club. There is an enormous amount of work to do, especially in the shelters at night Some public shelters are without First Aid Posts and in an awful condition so far as
sanitation is concerned. We are going to turn our hands to getting them properly organised, now that there is time to sleep during the day. There is going to be a meeting in the Rectory on Thursday to talk things over.
Last week was uneventful until Friday night. At 9.30 that even- ing we heard a big explosion and knew a bomb must have fallen near. Soon after, George (who's in charge of the Abbey Street shelter) came rushing into Marshalls, say- ing he must have the key of St.
"Something Andrews immediately. ghastly's happened" he said, and that was all I knew until the morning. When Bob came down he told me he had heard the screams of men and women during the night. So I was prepared for something really bad. Apparently, George had been up the whole night gett- ing cups of tea for those who were still alive and for the rescue party who arrived in large numbers soon after the terrible accident. Immediately I had got after see- the breakfast ready
ing masses of cups dirty and bloodstained in the kitchen - I went round to the scene, carrying a large tea-pot, milk and sugar. I soon found out roughly what had happened, although the accounts
A 500 differed incredibly.
pounder had landed on the billiard rooms under the arches and had killed close on 100 people outright and injured many more. Many had been burnt alive by the gas which caught alight and others had been shattered by the blast. Although the rescue party had cleared away most of the bodies when I got there, it was a revolting sight, and the
I never stench was even worse. had a moment's rest from 8.30 to 12.30, pouring out tea and getting kettles boiled. All sorts of people appeared on the scene wearing badges and helmets with initials on them, all looking important and none of them doing anything.
What was most pathetic of all was the host of people of all sizes and ages who came among the debris and asked if "Joe" was safe. Had I seen their Tom,
One and was Mary still alive? of the worst cases was a young soldier, just back on leave, whose mother had been in the fatal billiard room that night. Oh, the misery of it all.
can't think of a more disgusting sight than those big shovels and their contents, and all those people peering round the ruins
those who for those they loved
had been hurled into eternity by a single bomb. One A.R.P. told me it was by far the worst thing he had had to deal with. Thank God there haven't been many direct hits on crowded public shelters. However, I musn't depress you with these awful stories It was headlines, by the way, in the London even- ing papers, and it so eclipsed all else that happened and made an impression on me I'll never forget.
This afternoon there was a con- cert, a sort of sing-song at the Club, and a B.B.C. man came down to lead it and to sing a
Most even- few songs himself. ings we sing down in the shelter, and have a lot of fun in one way
Nora and Vi and another.
stitched my blankets together
the other night you should have heard them all laugh when
I'll get my The name of Checker
I got into "bed". own back!
has stuck to me and Rosie now shouts to me "Goodnight Checker, God Bless, see you in the morn- ing".
I'd better stop now.
absolutely quiet outside.
last two nights have been entirely free from bombs, so let's hope it will be like that all next week.
The great excitement this week was when the Queen came to the 0.B.C. (0xford and Bermondsey Club) and talked to all the people there.
I'm told there's a photo in Wednesday's Times of her visit. I had to stay here and so never saw her disappointing.
The all-clear went at 9.00 p.m. on Thursday and so I said to Mr. Walker (we call him Sid) and Mr. King and a few others in the shelter "Come on, this Let's is a special occasion.
go and have a drink".
tell you we enjoyed ourselves, and all the other Bermondsey people in the pub had had the same idea. Someone was playing the piano very well and we all sang "I've got my eyes on you" and all the old favourites like "Dinah". Oh, what fun it was.
32 Tanner Street
We moved here this afternoon. It was very sad to leave St. Andrews although there were all sorts of crises it had many happy
associations. Before we left there was nearly a big romance an old spinster had a proposal from one of the homeless men. She told me confidentially about it, and said that she was going to refuse him as she had been "free and easy" all her life "It was noice of him" she said in that special Bermondsey accent.
There isn't nearly so much to do here as at St. Andrews. All the cooking is done by a domineering woman called Mrs. Lovat.
chief job is to avoid quarreling
On the least provoc-
ation she threatens to leave immediately. At lunch today I asked her for the salt, and she shouted "If you sodden well want it, you can bleedin' well take it", which was a little disconcert- ing. There's a girl working here called Rosemary Dean, who spends her time looking after Peter Marindon, the secretary of the Club. We had to collect some things from the Rectory this morning, and the Rector was in his usual hearty form, just about to take a funeral service.
I gave Sid Walker a pair of brown trousers from the parcel Mr. Piper sent and they exactly fitted him. He was terribly pleased, as he had had his pair for over ten years, and they were wearing thin in the seat. Sometime I must go round the Arches and see who is in need of warm clothes, as it's mad to have lovely warm things and then not to use them properly. There must have been a Parish collection, so please tell Mr. Piper how pleased the people are with what he sent and I'll write
and thank him myself.
I'm having to deal with a rather awkward case of a 60 year old
man who wants to go and see the woman he's been lodging with - she's been evacuated to Stafford. The difficulty is that she's not legally his wife, although they've been living together since his first wife died. To all intents and purposes they are husband and wife; they just didn't bother with formal ceremonies. I don't think the Town Hall will give him a visiting ticket, in fact I'm sure they won't, and yet he misses her terribly and wants to go and see her. She, by the way is quite astonishingly ugly and wizened even for 83. Anyway, we're going to have great difficulty in arranging for him to go to Stafford.
We're going to have a visit to the Raven and Sun tonight, as George wants to celebrate Roosevelt's election.
We're still here and there doesn't There seem much chance of moving.
are about 35 people here from all the other centres, and the Duchess is still one of them. I'm afraid that she is a bit of a scrounger, getting something for nothing suits her well. Gran left when we left St. Andrews but I see her every evening at Marshall's shelter.
Yesterday evening I was proposing to go to the Arches, and just before I left the 0.B.C. I heard a noise like a "rushing mighty wind" and with one of the curates
It seemed lay flat and waited. to take a minute to fall and then after awful suspense one of our windows smashed and I thought it When had actually hit the Club.
it was all over we went out to see what damage had been done and where exactly it had fallen. There were lots of air-raid
wardens outside running about and blowing whistles.
tripped up over the debris.
was so light in the streets, that
I expected a really bad night. The moon may be all very well for tides and romance, but it's the devil so far as bombing is
We discovered in the morning that an aerial torpedo had been dropped, and fallen near the railway; in fact one of the lines was covered with debris. Something had also fallen through the roof of the Club and made a mess of one of the rooms in Peter's flat, hardly anything broken, but just bricks and splinters and glass.
I feel that
having had one so near, there is much less chance of being hit or isn't that very logical? Never shall I forget that moment on the floor and the roaring swishing noise getting nearer and nearer. Anyway, enough of that; mercifully no one was even injured, and it's all over now.
We've still got the two old Dads here, who sit next to each other at meals. They have both got large moustaches and they nearly always, in an incredible way, have their jaws and moustaches going up and down together when
they are munching!
Lovat's son is celebrating his 21st birthday, and so there's going to be a big party, and I will certainly do: "They're going to pull down the village pub" (cries of Oh) "But they're build- ing a bigger one (cries of Hurrah)!
We are going to move to another place next week and start a hostel for old and solitary people, a permanent place, with a charge of 1/- per day. The building was used as a school once and has got very good cooking facilities and it's called Griggs Place.
Just a few minutes ago we heard a whistling noise, just like we had heard last week, and threw our- selves flat on the ground, expect-
The noise got ing another bomb. louder and louder, and then instead of a violent explosion, shatter- ing of glass, blast etc. it got fainter and fainter.
realised it was a tram going past! Of course, the Rector had to choose that precise moment for coming in, and he found Mr. Evans, Rosemary, George, Kenneth and myself on our faces, and he excelled in his heartiness "Come on, chaps, come on" and he seized us by the arms.
Last night I did a "shelter crawl" to see who needed warm clothes and rugs. Some of the Arches are horribly cold, and when it rains, the water trickles in and soaks through the blankets. There was a big concert going on in 61 Arch, and a crowd of close on 500 such as one sees at a football match. I was shown round by an A.R. P. man and saw the new bunks the Council are putting in. Young babies, old women, tarts, middle-aged men, youths of all sizes and shapes, all mixed up together. I've never seen such an extraordinary sight; it was like a weird dram the sort of
thing one might see after taking opium - and I couldn't quite believe in its reality.
In the morning I took clothes
round to the people who I had seen the night before in the
I enjoyed going round to their houses and talking to them in their kitchens.
My latest idea is to provide hot drinks last thing at night and to charge ld. a cup. I will use the money (about 2/- every even- ing) for hiring a wireless or for buying Christmas "boxes" for them. Hot chocolate and Oxo are the most popular drinks and I feel it's good for them to have something hot before going to sleep.
At the beginning of the week a very nice married couple came in with the sweetest little 5 year old daughter. Luckily she hadn't got any sort of scarf, so I gave her the red- and-white one you sent me. She was so pleased with it that she thought she would keep it until Christmas before she wore it, but her mother
persuaded her to wear it now in the cold.
I read aloud "Wobblejuice and
the Robber" (Gladys Konk) to them and they loved it. I put in a few remarks about A.R.P. and Balloon barrages etc. to the stories, which made them laugh.
We've been spending the last three days cleaning out Griggs Place. What a mess it was in, when we started on Friday morn- ing, dust and cobwebs everywhere. But now it's ready for moving in, except for lavatories and wash- basins which the L.C.C. are deal- ing with. We come directly under the L.C.C. for everything, as they provide us with plates, cups, brooms, soap etc.
new relief-centre-plus-hostel scheme is being started in Bermondsey before the other Boroughs, and if we make a success of it, the others will probably adopt it; so it's a very important job to be in on, and I don't think I ought to be away at the beginning, and
so it's difficult for me to know what to do about coming home on the 23rd. There are such enormous opportunities in running a place like this. We haven't yet settled the actual day on which we'll move in, but if the L.C.C. get on with their jobs, it should be next Wednesday.
It's been much quieter here during the last few nights, and we haven't had to fling ourselves on the floor, even for a tram! Friday night I heard the planes very low and from the top of Marshall's factory saw enormous fires down Lambeth Way. Bob who
always tells us the most awful things in the morning said in a typical way "He simply plastered the place", (meaning Lambeth). He always refers to the German planes as "He".
I've been doing some more shelter visiting and the discomfort is
There are simply appalling.
lots of cases of water trickling in through the walls of the rail- way-arch shelters, and the light- ing is awful, very dim, so that
only the women very close to the light can see to knit. Last night I saw some families lying on the pavement under one of the arches. Don't think it's stupid of them to go there; there just isn't room in the other shelters which are terribly overcrowded. I've already given the blankets and rugs which Mr. Piper sent to the most deserving cases.
The hot drinks at night are a great success and I've collected nearly 4/- in three nights.
only some of the shelters had gas-rings or primus stoves, they would do the same thing, so the men told me when I went round.
The little girl I gave the red- and-white scarf to, Margaret Rose, is too sweet, she's far
She the nicest child here.
recited to us this afternoon, when a B.B.C. woman came down to a concert in the 0.B.C. This one sang a few songs with a glorious red flower in her purple bosom.
About the only new people in here are Mr. & Mrs. Fuller, and he has gone "all queer" since the bombing began. He nearly got had-up for standing underneath a ladder and shouting and swearing at the man on top of it! We had a policeman round here and it was very awkward At meals he for poor Mrs. Fuller.
gets up and shouts out "Roll out the barrel" and then sits down, overwhelmed by Mrs. Fuller telling him to "turn it up", in other words to shut up.
I hope you will understand why I want to stay here until a week or With Griggs so before Christmas. Place just opening there will be lots and lots of things to do.
At the moment I'm listening to one of the fellows here playing the most perfect jazz on the piano, all the new tunes and some old favourites, and there's someone else with a Ukalali.
They're both incredibly good. They're now doing "After you've gone", and we've been standing round the piano, jazzing about. And now it's "Somebody stole my Gal" it's just so hot that I can't sit down!
They've finished now, so I will be able to go on undistracted. We've been continuing to get our new place cleaned out, and a number of very dirty little schoolchildren insisted on coming in and helping.
were an awful nuisance and
finally we had to turn them out when they bombarded their friends with stones from the windows.
The drinks at night are a great success and I'm just off to the shelter now. I'll let you know for certain about coming home when we finally get to Griggs.
(NOTE At the end of November I went home, and slept in my own bed, between sheets. only serious deprivation was that the butler had been called up).
Griggs Place Grange Road
Bermondsey took the brunt of Sunday night. Landmines in Abbey Street. Incendiaries all over. Helpers all alive still, but one Hundreds or two friends killed. homeless, both here and at 0.B.C. Fantastically busy. All except
two windows here broken.
magnetic mine got caught on a signal box over 61 Arch, within 2 feet of the arch. Letter to- morrow, if any spare time.
At last a spare moment after three of the most hectic days ever. We had 236 people on our books, as a result of a vast landmine in Abbey Street on Sunday night. The numbers are gradually going down, but what a rush it has been. There are more here than at any other Rest Centre in this district. I only wish I had been
George on the spot last week.
and Kenneth were up all night dealing with casualties and putt- ing out incendiaries, and the
next two days cooking and register- ing etc.
We have got two new helpers who call themselves Boz and Raz, real shockers, I'm afraid. And then there's Miss Leigh-Wilson, a retired hospital nurse, super- efficient.
She wears blue overalls and a blue handkerchief over her head and gives us a good "blitzing", if we put a foot wrong!
get help from two giggling girls, both called Florrie, and at odd times odd people come drifting in, and give us a hand.
pathetic stories from the unfortunate victims of total war. I'm just getting to know all the names and I have made some real friends among them.
It was lovely to get back again. If you had seen me come into the 0.B.C. you would have thought I was a film star or something like that! I went round to the shelters after tea and saw all my friends. It was much too long to be away.
Patrick (Alington) and a friend came down yesterday and I showed them a few shelters, and introduced
them to the Duchess, Gran and the other old stagers.
The more I think about being a Judge's Marshal and wandering round in a top-hat, the more I hate the idea. This is my place for the war, among people who really need help and comfort.
Griggs Place and 0.B.C.
There is just so much to tell you that I simply don't know where to begin. Every day has had its excitements and I have met so many new and wonderful people. Tuesday evening till Saturday there were literally very few mom- ents in which I could sit down and relax. Up each morning soon after 5, lighting the boilers to get hot water for the people to wash in as soon as they came out of their shelters; making the fires cheery; preparing the porridge and strong sweet tea. George and Kenneth and I organised everything, and helpers like Miss Leigh-Wilson, the super- efficient blitzer, and three cute
little girls who have been bombed out came in with us and worked tirelessly. Breakfast began at 7.30 and seemed to go on
and on; whenever we thought we had served out the last helpings, another family would come in, someone would shout "Six more porridges over here" and then Miss Leigh-Wilson would shout at Florrie, a buxom Church worker, "Come along now, get to work".
And so it went on. Preparation for dinner had to be made when the cups and plates had been washed up, and the women helped us peel the potatoes. I usually took the opportunity of going round to the 0.B.C. to have a good wash and tooth-clean and to talk to my friends there. From 10 o'clock onwards there was always plenty of work both in the kitchen cleaning up, and in the next room doing clerical work, i.e. filling in forms for the L.C.C. I loathe that red-tape business of official- dom; it only takes account of numbers and figures; like modern industry it neglects human beings and their happiness. No wonder the people here prefer these centres
run by voluntary helpers to those organised by straight jacket
Anyway, there was always time to go round and talk quietly with the old dears who have lost so much.
In the evenings, when most of the people had gone off to their shelters, we used to put some records on and dance.
What fun it
was. And then I would go round the shelters seeing my friends. I can't remember when I've felt in such good form, so essentially happy, for so long at a time.
Then the blow fell on Friday even- ing. The rector and a pompous L.C.C. man told us that all our people had to be moved round to the Laxon Street Schools. pleaded with them and said it was tantamount to sending them into the streets, that none of them would go to Laxon Street etc. But it was of no avail, and I had to tell them that day at tea that Saturday was going to be their last day. Oh, they were so disappointed.
There was a funny side to it.
bus was sent round to Griggs Place to take all the people round to Laxon Street. The driver was prepared to make several journeys, seeing that we had 234 on the books. Well, precisely two want. An old couple called Peck tottered
I into the bus; and the others? expect they went to the shops and the arches. We managed to fit some of them into the 0.B.C., two exceptionally nice families.
On Saturday evening for the first time since I returned I had a chance to sit down and write Xmas cards and letters. Later on I went to a Nativity play in Feavers shelter, performed by the women who work at the Time and Talents. I'm afraid I thought it terribly funny. Big, beaming Mary Turner as a centurion with her face heavily browned and a brass helmet stuck on top!
This morning I went out with Mrs. Evans to the Woolworths in the Strand to get Xmas presents for everyone in our shelters. It was great fun choosing things for each person. I went to Foyles for a lovely book on Cathedrals
for the Duchess, and I put them all into a suitcase. I also went to Dolcis in Oxford Street, but, oh so stupidly forgot to bring the credit slip. I have an awful feeling I have lost it, and I did so want a nice warm pair of shoes.
I had lunch with Susan (Fass) and saw one of the best films I have ever seen, the most emotionally thrilling called "Our Town".
And now I come to something which is going to be difficult to tell you, as I know you'll be horribly disappointed. In short, I've decided that I ought not to be the Judge's Marshal.
down here I'm sure E am.
Now that the Christmas rush is over, I must try and tell you some of the things I've been doing. Most of last week has been spent in getting things ready for the parties in the shelters, buying presents and food, putting up decorations, streamers, holly, mistletoe,
fixing bells, candles of all colours on the trees. The first party was
It started at Feavers on Saturday.
at 4.30 with an enormous tea, cakes and jellies and mince-pies. There were close on 250 people to cater for and I had to organise the pouring out of the tea, which was quite a formidable job, actually. Then there was a comedian, who told us a collection of extraordinarily silly jokes; after which the Rector
To end up put on a cinema show.
with, there was dancing and coffee to drink. I didn't get back till well after midnight it was a really
Feavers good party.
is one of the biggest, cleanest, safest shelters I know, and there are a lot of friends of mine in it.
That night the guns were louder than ever, and I thought we were going to have another Sunday night. I felt very insecure as I was by myself in the 0.B.C.
nothing was dropped in this district.
The last few evenings we've been going round the shelters in a carol-singing party, about 15 of us, a strangely mixed collection of human beings. Gwen Franqcon-Davies
came down to sing and she held an enormous audience at 61 Arch in
complete silence for nearly half- an-hour.
There was another party on Tuesday at Welch Margets on which is used as another shelter for homeless people and in which the Duchess sleeps. On this occasion she excelled herself; with her hair curled, a grey blouse, and a paper hat from a cracker she really looked rather charming. She made the speech, thanking the helpers and then she danced reels, gave a recitation, and was altogether the belle of the ball! The decorations were even better than at Feavers, and Father Christmas, in the person of Mr. Evans, gave a present to every single person. I took the baby's vest down to Mrs. Martin and she was thrilled to get your letter "Lovely, ain't it", she said. She hopes to see Margaret Rose as soon as her trouble is over.
Christmas day in Bermondsey was a day never to be forgotten. The day was so packed with excitements that I couldn't possibly describe all that happened.
The dinner table, beautifully decorated, the
Christmas tree, the visit of the Mayor, games in the afternoon, the big meal at Marshals, all
these are still a bit of a confused jumble. The mistletoe was in con- stant use throughout the day, and before I left the Club to go to Marshals, I kissed every single member of the female sex in the
Then I room. What a party.
dressed up as Father Christmas and gave out the presents to Gran, Rosie and all the others down in Marshals. At about 9.30 I went out with a large jug of tea and marmite rolls, down to a damp, cold cheerless arch at the end of Abbey Street. How pleased those people were. I felt that hot tea was more appreciated by them than any other present I had given. Then I went round to the party in Abbey Factories, the shelter George is in charge of, and where
I most of the 0.B.C. people go. found a lot of them over at the Raven, and so I had a few drinks there myself. We all sang songs and generally behaved in a dis- orderly way. But what fun it was. An what a marvellous Christmas. There were moments during the day when I felt like
crying; there was something rather pathetic about it all despite the outward joy and cheerfulness. Gran was nearly in tears in the evening at the thought that it was the first Christmas she had ever
I think spent away from her home. we must all have had that thought; so many of the older ones had lost their husbands and wives, and the younger ones were separated from
The Duchess the people they loved. was quite overcome when I gave her a book on the Cathedrals of England. I've never had so much emotional feeling in one day.
Do please come down and see me here, as I want you to meet, everyone; you'd love them. Must help with lunch now, but will write again
On 2nd January 1941 I was called up and joined the Army in Liverpool. My letters contained frequent
references to Bermondsey. just two of them.
I'm less depressed than when I arrived at this place, but I still feel Bermondsey-sick. I can't think when I've spent happier months and made better friends.
I got away before lunch on Saturday and immediately went back to Bermondsey. You can imagine the excitement when I arrived. It really was grand to see them all again, and they evidently thought my uniform very smart! In the evening I went round the shelters and saw all the old friends, and it was like the good old days George, Kenneth and myself; only there was a difference, as I was
no longer free to do what I liked. The heavy gas-mask, tin-hat and haversack on my back kept on reminding me that I was in the grip of the Army.
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Thanks for sharing, BermondseyBoy. What a fascinating glimpse into wartime Bermondsey and those that were part of it! So descriptive I can almost visualise it in my mind’s eye. Would love for my kids’ schools to incorporate real history like this into the school curriculum. Thanks again for sharing
W6okey wrote:Its amazing what you find in charity a charity shop. I hope you enjoy the letters.
Hi Gus (W6oKey), welcome to the site. What a great find and a brilliant look into the past and the hell those people at that time went through. For me the mention of the Globe, streets, and places which are no longer there and which I knew, brought back so many memories. Thanks for posting.
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