I was born at five past two in the morning on 25th June 1940 in St. Andrews’s hospital, Bromley by Bow in the East End of London during an air raid warning. However, it was a false alarm as no bombs were dropped. Apparently this was the nearest hospital that could take my mother at the time. My first memories are of air raid sirens, the uneven drone of German bombers, bombs whistling down and exploding and the sound of breaking glass as windows in the street were shattered, a sound that remained with me well into adulthood. We lived in two rooms and a scullery in the basement of an old Victorian house and our passage was reinforced to serve as an air raid shelter for us and the families who lived on the floors above us. The landlord and his wife however, thought that it wasn’t safe and used to spend the nights in the underground station at Chalk Farm. My father also thought that it wouldn’t offer much protection so he stayed in his bed! One night there was a particularly bad raid and although I was probably only a year old, I remember hearing a whistling sound getting louder and my mother saying “I think this one’s for us, goodbye everybody”. Thank God she was wrong but the bomb landed in the next street and blew our front door open and broke several windows. It also rang the doorbell, as this was an old cowbell hanging on a curly spring in our passage!
I remember our scullery had a large stone copper in one corner with a fire beneath it to heat the water to wash clothes. In another corner was an old shallow stone sink with just a cold water tap. Mrs. Abrams, who lived on the first floor, had a mangle, which stood in the third corner, and finally, my mother’s gas cooker lived in the last corner. When you went out of the back door there was a flight of about four or five steps up to the ‘garden’, or more correctly, back yard. At the end of this short ’garden’ there was a huge factory wall that was covered in a lovely white climbing rose in the summer time. It also had a small hole through it into the factory, I don’t know why, and the workmen gave me a lot of wooden off-cuts to play with as building bricks. I think they made pianos but I am not sure.
The landlord and his wife, Mr & Mrs. Scott, lived on the ground floor although they spent most of their time in a little kitchenette over our scullery, the front room only being used when guests were entertained. I was to spend quite a few evenings in this kitchenette when they bought a small nine inch television soon after the war. The programmes started at seven thirty in the evening and finished, with God save the King, at ten thirty! Eventually, they bought a magnifying glass to put in front of the screen and enlarge the picture. This was fine so long as you sat directly in front of the set otherwise the picture got distorted. They used to take me to Wembley Stadium most Thursdays to see the speedway racing. I found the noise and smells most exciting.
On the first floor lived Mr. & Mrs Abrams. I spent many, many hours with ‘auntie and uncle’ Abo, I suppose I couldn’t say Abrams, and loved the stories of the First World War he would tell me. He was taken prisoner in that war but still managed to win the Croix de Guerre on what was to become my birthday, 25th June. During the second war he worked for Gilbey’s, the whiskey makers, and on one occasion when he was on fire watch duty he took me along to see the factory. I was fascinated by all of the roller conveyors that transported the crates of whiskey from one place, and even one floor to another. One sunny afternoon, (it must have been 1944) the Abo’s and I were near the top of Primrose Hill, just outside of the gun site fence, waiting for my mother to bring over a pot of tea and cakes for a picnic. Suddenly, they threw me to the ground and lay over me and there was a tremendous bang. At the bottom of the hill a flying bomb had crashed right into the allotments beside Regents Park Road. By the time we walked down to see the crater there were bits of hot metal still smouldering and smoking. I used to visit ’Auntie’ Abo regularly until the day she died in 1965, just before my daughter, Trudi was born. I was one of the few children who were not evacuated as my parents attitude was that if they were killed there was no-one to look after me so it was better that we all ‘went together’.
When other children returned home from evacuation, Jackie Ward, who lived next door at No. 9, and I would play in the derelict gun site on Primrose Hill and in the public air raid shelters on the Primrose Hill and at Chalcot Square. They were always full of water and rubbish and were most unpleasant places to play, but that’s kids I suppose. I believe the shelter at Chalcot Square received a direct hit and many people were killed and injured. When they were being demolished after the war, I would watch the workmen use the wrecking ball and bulldozer with fascination on my way home from school. The square was then restored to a nice garden area.
In those days speedway racing was more popular than football and one of our past-times would be to collect some floor boards from bombed out houses and ask the local garage for some old ball bearing wheels. We would then buy a couple of screw eye’s and a long bolt to make a hinge for the steering and make a scooter. Then we would decorate the front by collecting old bottle tops from around the streets and nail them onto the front in the shape of a number or pattern. The Georgie Anderson gang, about six lads who were about four years older than me, would organise races down Primrose Hill Road pavement but they always let me join in even though I was younger. When I was still very young, I was playing in the street when suddenly this ‘gorilla’ appeared from behind a doorway. I screamed and ran home for all I was worth. When my mother and I went back to investigate we found it to be Georgie Anderson wearing a gas mask! Another friend who was again older was Brian, his parents were Swedish, and because he was quiet and studious, he was not accepted by ‘the gang’ so he would often play with me. He went to William Ellis grammar school and was quite clever. His ambition was to be an aircraft designer. I went to Princess Road School but I learned a lot from being in his company.
Although I lived just across the road from Primrose Hill we had to play football or cricket at the end of our street as the park keepers used to chase us off of the park. There was always a dustbin at the end of most streets which were used to collect waste food for the farm animals and were usually referred to as pig bins. We used this as our wicket. Sometimes, if the police were called by a grumpy neighbour, we would be chased out of the street also.
My mother purchased a 24 inch second hand bike for me from one of the local lads who, we found out later had built it from odd parts that had been dumped on bomb sites but it served me well until I outgrew it. Bombed out houses were often used as rubbish tips and were ready made adventure playgrounds for us. Another pastime would be to get an old door from a house and use it as a raft in one of the many emergency water stores that were built for the fire brigade during the war but which by then only contained rain water so were not very deep.
London Zoo was only a short walk through the park from our house and was a frequent day out for us although we never paid to get in. We would either squeeze through the railings on the canal bridge or, once, we squeezed under the exit turnstile but I got stuck and had to be pulled through by a man who then told me off. But I was in! An easier method was to go to the service entrance and as several of my mates fathers worked at the zoo, one of them would tell the man on duty that his dad was Mr. So and So, and we were allowed through. The Zoo used to have Christmas parties every year for the employees children and I managed to get invited to a few of them thanks to my pals parents who worked there.
Another bit of fun was to see how far you could go for a penny on a bus. We would get on a number 68 bus at Chalk Farm terminus and ask for a penny fare which should take us as far as Camden Town, but we would stay on until the conductor threw us off, usually with a few choice words.
The above is my childhood memory of living at 8, Rothwell Street, N.W.1.