21 Interlude: Somerset Children’s War Experiences

Pilton  Girl    I hadn’t long started school, so I must have been about five, and one of my earliest memories of the war was the horrible machine they had in the village.  This is how I first came across it.

You come out of the village and you come along the flat bit and then there’s a very steep hill that runs down by the church, and the churchyard’s on the side of the hill.  Well, sometimes for fun we used to run through the churchyard and come out the gate on the side of the hill and go off down that way.  Some older kids had gone on that way and I ran on after them but what I didn’t know was that they were taking down the railings in the churchyard, around the family graves, and they had this lorry.  The lorry was backed into the churchyard.  I was only small, only five and it was a monstrous thing, huge and black.  It had a huge cabin and an enormous trunk thing, and this terrible noise coming off it, like awful grinding noises, and there was steam coming out of it.  And I just sat there and I screamed – I was terrified by it.  That was the first time I saw it, in Pilton churchyard.  Sometimes, later, I could see this blasted thing coming up the road, and I would go into Gould’s Garage, because I was terrified to go on down the main road, and it wouldn’t be until someone told me that they’d seen it go up over Whitston Hill that I would go on, to go to school. (1)

Street Girl   The biggest effect around Street was the New Zealanders coming here.  Now they really did do something.  They were huge men.  I remember them as being enormous men.  They upset the local neighbourhood because they used to go riding calves, and throwing steers, and any horse in a field, they used to get it out and ride it for miles.  Different cows use to disappear, and they’d find them in fields somewhere else.  That caused a lot of upset.

Stoke under Ham Boy   I lived in a police station at Stoke under Ham most of the war.  My Dad was a copper.  The police station was always an open house to anybody.  So you wouldn’t take in evacuees, you couldn’t.  If a soldier or an airman needed somewhere to stay temporary, we had to put them up.  We were always putting people up. The evacuees at the school were a pretty rough bunch.  It was the evacuees who would pick a fight, but it altered after a while and we all mixed in.  The evacuees didn’t know a thing about the countryside.  They really thought milk came in bottles, and not from cows.

Street Girl   It was disturbing for the children who were evacuated from London – some were very young – and it was disturbing for local children, where there were evacuee children in their home. They had to share or give up their bedroom, and to give up their toys, and give up perhaps their clothes.  They had to share.  Perhaps they had never had to share with anyone before – especially in an insular community where it’s still – not so much now – each keeps to his own.  Each little plot of land.  Each house.  It didn’t used to be so much an open house as it was in London for a lot of these children.

Pilton Girl  I remember when some evacuee children came to Pilton school, ‘cos some of them were billeted at East and West Compton.  They used to come all the way down over Burford Hill and walk to school.  They weren’t terribly well dressed because their clothes weren’t terribly good, and certainly they were jeered a bit.

My Aunty had a super boy billeted on her called Billy Roe, from London.  And when he finally returned to London – I think the bombing was over – he used to visit her, and cycle down, all the way from London.   We thought it was incredible of him to cycle all that way, because to us London was like one hundred thousand miles away.  When Aunty would say Billy’s cycling down next week, we all thought that was fantastic and everybody would be waiting for him.  And then when he went off again, everybody would be down the bottom of the council houses to see him off.  It was like the Tour de France.  He used to knit, which was incredible too, because at that time it was a ludicrous sort of thing for a boy to do.  Aunty had two boys of hers about the same age, and he taught them to knit as well, and they all did French knitting with the reel – the cotton reel – and the  four nails bunged in the top.

Stoke under Ham Boy  Everything found was brought to the police station, whatever it was.  Once it was a big square  silver kite which the Germans dropped – they were supposed to land in the telegraph wires and put them out of action.  I used to fly that up on Ham Hill.  I used to try and direct it towards the telephone wires but it never got them.  Another time my Father brought this bren gun home one day.  It had a great big round cartridge thing round the barrel.  Looked like one of those things the gangsters used.  My Grandmother had gone to the lavatory outside, and I stood outside and waited until she came out and I had the bren gun and I went “Rat-tat-tat!”, and she passed straight out.  They got this blue bag of smelling salts to bring her round.  By the way, you were forever being told at school not to pick anything up – fountain pens, anything – because we were told the Germans could make a bomb disguised as anything.

Pilton Girl  My Uncle —– from somewhere or another got this great big supply of hand grenades.  The grey council houses were up then because we were living in them.  The red ones were not up then, and where the red brick council houses are, ’round by the side of the grey ones – that was waste ground.  In fact it was called the Waste Ground.  If you were going out to play you said you were going out to the Waste Ground to play.  There was an enormous sewer at the bottom.  The thing I remember about the council houses, growing up there, wind being in the wrong direction, this filthy smell.  You use to say “Sewer’s stinking today.”

Anyway, Uncle —— had all these hand grenades, and he had to get rid of them.  It was Sunday afternoon after tea, and he was out on the waste ground and it was in the summer and he was pulling the pins out.  I was playing outside our front door and I could see something exciting was going on up there.  But when I went up there I was terrified.  Every five minutes you’d get this explosion and my brothers ——- and ——– are also  just picking the pins out and chucking them.  And then something terrible happened.   ——– didn’t pull the pin out quick enough or he didn’t let go quick enough and he got blown up.  He got burnt.  The next thing, the ambulance was coming down.  My grandmother hauled me in the front room and was shouting abuse at my Uncle across on the waste ground, and my Mother was going mad.  And there was —— shuffling down the garden path like an old man, with burns on his arms and legs from the grenade, and there was Uncle walking ’round in a trance.

Stoke under Ham Boy  As kids we were brought up to hate Hitler, and we did.  I wanted to stick a pitchfork in him.  You absolutely hated him, but you didn’t really know why.  That’s terrible, en’t it?  One of the good things about the war was all the pictures, the films you could see.  They used to have a cinema in Stoke under Ham, in a house.  A huge room with all these chairs and they were nearly always George Formby films.  That was put on as a booster.  They used to have cinemas in vans as well.  On the back of a van.  I saw an Arthur Askey film on the back of a van.  When the Americans came they used to put on parties for all the kids in the village hall and they showed films every week.  I can remember the films as clear as could be.  For instance, Hellzapoppin’ was great. A really fantastic film with weird effects.  You’ll see the film and then a shadow of a person goes across the screen, and then the words come up on the screen ‘Will the person walking about kindly sit down.’  All that kind of stuff and I loved that.

Pilton Girl  We had a fish and chip van that came on Friday nights.  We thought that was fantastic.  We thought that progress had come!  The fish and chip van came when the Land Army girls came.  Before, we had to go to Shepton for fish and chips.  One of my earliest memories is being pushed in a grey pushchair down to the Post Office, some kids much older than me, by my side, maybe my brother, talking to my Mother about bananas and ice-cream.  I was able to speak and I said to my Mother: “What are bananas?”  And she said “Well, you might get some after the war.  You won’t get them until the war’s finished.”  I can remember the first cluster of bananas I ever saw in my life and I couldn’t believe that’s what they were. When fruit started coming into the country again, you bought them whether you needed them or not, because we were very poor and really didn’t get fruit unless it was at the week-end or had won on the horses.

Stoke under Ham Boy  When the Americans were here I think a lot of people got a lot out of the Americans, because they were poor and not well off, and they got masses of presents from the Americans.  In my case, not just me – they had Clothing Exchange shops.  There was one at Yeovil and every time I used to go to Yeovil I used to go and change my jacket for another one.  That’s how I went on right through the war like that.  But as I say, the Americans had lots of stuff and would give it to you.  They’d give girls nylons.

At Ham Hill a lot of the Americans were based there, in tents.  They had shooting ranges up there and we used to have a fantastic time.  Gangs of us kids would go up there.  I lived next door to a fish and chip shop and these Americans soldiers would always want fish and chips.  So what they would do is, if we got the fish and chips, they’d let us play up there and we could use their tents.  And do you know they left the tents with all the equipment in – machines guns, ammunition, all that was left in the tent, and we used to play in there.  Fortunately nobody loaded anything.

The Americans also gave us rides on the Jeeps.  Ham Hill was completely ripped up by tanks.  On top of that, Ham Hill is full of banks that go up and down – it used to be a Roman fortress.  They used to tell us to hop on the back of a Jeep and they’d drive as fast as they could over these hills, and this Jeep would literally take off, and there’s all of us holding on.  They didn’t seem to have no responsibility of the fact that you’d probably get killed falling off the thing.  Though you didn’t think about it, as kids.  They even shot a bazooka through the Prince of Wales Hotel in the village.  Right through a bedroom window.  That’s how irresponsible they were.

1.   There was a compulsory campaign, began in 1940, to salvage metal for the war effort, particularly railings, and gates.  The ‘lorry’ was probably either a steam wagon or a traction engine.

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