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GROWING UP IN PLUMSTEAD IN THE WAR YEARS.


By Jennifer Mellor

Looking back I suppose my education during the War years was a bit 'hit and miss'. I was 4 years old when it started and 10 when it finished. I had already been to nursery school at Wickham Lane School for a while, but can't remember much about that. When all the children in cities were evacuated on the Friday before Chamberlain's speech, my sister and I, along with my mother and grandmother, were put on a train with dozens of other children, babies and mothers and ended up at Barming in Kent. I think we were only there a couple of weeks and I can't remember going to any school. When we returned to London I spent some time at Wickham Lane School again.

Most of the War we stayed in Plumstead, but after the Battle of Britain we four all departed to Devon, under our own steam. We had several shortish spells in Devon during the next 5 years, coming back to Plumstead when things quietened down and going back to Devon when things took a turn for the worse, for example when the Flying Bombs (doodlebugs) started, and again when the V2 Rockets started.

Once I reached 7 years of age I started going to Purrett Road School, now called Gallions Mount. I have a feeling that we either went for just mornings or just afternoons. I can't remember who the head teacher was then; whether it was a man or a woman, I haven't a clue; but I do remember some of the teachers. One was Mr Paton, who had his favourites, but I do remember he used to read to us “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” and made it sound so exciting that it instilled in me a love of books and reading that has lasted all my life, so I am grateful to him for that. Another teacher I remember was a Mrs Murgatroyd, who was a bit formidable. I particularly remember Miss Stephenson, who was strict, but fair. Gallions Mount School was in those days (I don't know if it has been rebuilt now) a large Victorian building with big classrooms with very high ceilings, and the floor was staggered with wide shallow steps in rows where the desks stood. The naughty boys always used to sit at the back and if any of them were behaving badly and didn't take any notice of her first warning, Miss Stephenson would march to the back of the room, drag the offending boy down to the front by his ear, and bash his head against the blackboard. She wouldn't get away with it now; she would be sued by the parents and probably be dismissed.

In the basement of Galleon's Mount School during the War years was a Rescue Centre set up to shelter the people who had been bombed out of their homes. I don't think it was called a Rescue Centre then, the proper term evades me, but that is what it was. There were lots of mattresses and blankets there, and I believe refreshments could be obtained. I do remember us all taking shelter there when there were air raids. The girls' playground seemed huge to me then. On one side there was a very high brick wall, and believe it or not, there was a farm the other side. I don't think there were animals, but there were orchards. The toilets in the playground never failed to freeze up every winter.

In 1946 I took what we then called the 'School Scholarship', later called the 11-Plus. There were three papers we took then - Arithmetic, English language and, I think, General Knowledge. I did fairly well in English and General Knowledge, but my Arithmetic let me down, so I semi-passed the Scholarship. In those days, in London, there were three types of secondary schools: Grammar school, Secondary central and Secondary Modern. In Plumstead the grammar school for girls was Kings Warren, or The Brown School, because their uniform was brown. I went to the Woolwich Secondary Central School for Girls. In 1946 this was based in Bloomfield Road, and adjoined Woolwich Secondary Central School for Boys. We were kept strictly apart and no fraternizing!

Depending on the weather, I went to school by bus, along Plumstead High Street, to Lakedale Road, and walked up the hill, or by 53 bus from Plumstead Bus Garage, up King's Highway over Plumstead Common, or got the 696 trolley bus from Wickham Lane to Burrage Road, then a long walk uphill to school. When I got my first bicycle I'd cycle there occasionally, or I'd walk, cutting through the Ravine. This brought you out near the prefabhouses on the Common. They seemed quite luxurious to us then, as they had fitted kitchens and fridges! This was a pleasant walk, once passed Mackintosh's soft drink bottling plant; quite countrified.

Going home was all downhill and in summer we'd stop at a sweet shop where we bought sarsaparilla, orange squash and soft drinks by the glass. The school curriculum was a real eye-opener. We were taught subjects hardly touched on in Primary School. The school also taught commercial subjects such as shorthand, typewriting and bookkeeping. Having different teachers and different classrooms for each subject was a real novelty. In 1948 the girls' school moved to another school, in Ancona Road. It became Waverly Secondary School for Girls. Some girls from the original Ancona Road School joined us. I believe the boys from that school moved to our old school in Bloomfield Road. I think this was the start of 'Comprehensive Education'. Most teachers came with us and were joined by staff from the old Ancona Road School. We soon settled in to the new school.

I had my tonsils out that summer so I missed some more schooling. I was in Mr. Abel's class by then. He had taught my father so he must have been getting on then, but he was a nice man. Those of us who were leaving that year took it in turns to spend a day in the School Hall on Bell Duty. This meant sitting at a table, with a book to read, and the School Bell, and ringing it at the appropriate break times. Quite an honour! On the day it was my turn to do this; I remember looking out of the window into the distance and seeing the roof of St. Nicholas' Church on fire, so that was an added excitement.

Saturday morning pictures; my friends and I never missed a week. More often than not we would go to the Odeon in Welling; sometimes the Odeon or the Granada in Woolwich. We never went to The Kinema in Plumstead (later called the Century). For 6d (5 cents) you really got your money's worth. The programme usually started with a Disney cartoon, followed by an interest film, then a feature film (usually a Western), finishing with a serial. Each episode ended in a cliff-hanger, so you had to go again the following week to see how the hero got out of his predicament. In the 1940s, the cinema was a great place for entertainment.

Most cinemas, especially the smaller ones, changed their programmes mid-week. There were always continuous performances, so you could go into the cinema in the middle of the film, see the end, and then wait for it to come round again to see the beginning and then up to where you came in. So you knew how it ended as soon as it restarted! My grandmother was a great cinema fan. She often took me with her. We must have seen all the MGM musicals and Betty Grable films. We loved all the singing and dancing. Plumstead had another cinema called the Plaza, just along from Lakedale Road. This had once been a Methodist Hall - my mother and father were married there in 1933-but due to a change in its fortunes was turned into a cinema. I seem to recall that the floor of the cinema was level, not sloping like other cinemas, so if you were sitting near the back it was difficult to see the screen. I remember my father taking me there to see Laurence Olivier in ‘Henry V.’

I have always believed my sister and I were lucky in that, although we were evacuated, our mother and grandmother were always with us and they gave us as normal an upbringing as possible during war time. I never felt any fear about air raids, and regarding going down to the Anderson shelter when the siren went as a nuisance, rather than anything to be scared of. Even when I was older, towards the end of the war, I never felt that I might be hurt or killed when the Doodlebugs or V2 Rockets started, and I am sure that was because my mother never showed her fear (and she must have been terrified) and so my sister and I always felt safe. I can remember when the Doodlebugs (flying bombs) first started; one Sunday my mother was bathing us when suddenly we heard the tell-tale drone of a Doodlebug going over, and the engine stopped, and she dragged us out of the bath, threw us down on the floor and herself on top of us while we waited for the explosion. It came soon enough. The bomb landed on the caretaker's house at the entrance to Plumstead Cemetery, and killed all the occupants inside. Another Sunday, probably the next, my sister and I were at my cousins' house, while the rest of the family were just down the road at my other grandmother's house, when another Doodlebug went off nearby. Later we all ran down to this house to find all the windows blown in, everybody badly shaken up, but no one killed, thank God. That one had fallen in a field next to the “We Anchor in Hope” public house opposite. A very close call! After two very close shaves, back to Devon we went until the war ended.

In between this excitement, when not a lot was happening on the Home Front, and we only had the occasional raid, we carried on as normal. I can remember playing Cowboys and Indians on Plumstead Common, or Robin Hood; and once Phantom of the Opera when one of our friends put his coat on as a cloak and took the Claude Rains part from the movie.

Jennifer is the girl with the glasses on teh left side of the apex of the 'V'One of our favourite places to play was a large area of waste ground we called 'Fanny on the Hill'. This was named after an old inn close by. There were allotments here, and on the far side an old infill site (which was strictly out of bounds). Best of all though, there were woods with bluebells in the spring, and blackberries in the summer, and a very shallow stream where we caught minnows, newts and sticklebacks, and paddled. We would spend hours here in the summer and make camps. We would go off in the morning with a bottle of cold tea and jam sandwiches and our parents wouldn't see us until teatime. Oh, the freedom of those days! Occasionally we would see a 'flasher' but we would just shriek with laughter and run off. There were always about six or seven of us, so there was safety in numbers.

When I was about 14 my father acquired a bicycle for me. It wasn't new, but I treasured it. Later on I'd cycle into the Kent countryside with friends. In those days, around Dartford and Bexley we used to think we were in the heart of the country. When I first got my bike I rode round the block. Every street had a 'pig bin', where people put scrap food in, to feed local pigs. This particular day I decided to shut my eyes and ride round and, you've guessed it, I went straight into the pig bin, knocking it over, falling off my bike, and landing in the contents of the bin! I didn't do anything so silly again!

The winter of 1946/47 was one of the worst of the 20th century. The first lot of snow fell just before Christmas, before we broke up from school. I can remember walking home across the Common with friends in a terrible blizzard. We decided to cut the corner of the Slade off by going through the Ravine. The snow was so heavy that we got completely disoriented. It was what we now call a ‘white-out’. We couldn't see any landmarks at all. Eventually we did manage to get back to the road, all looking like snowmen, and absolutely frozen! This bout of snow thawed, but more heavy falls in the New Year had snow piled on the ground until the middle of March. This dreadful weather was all the worse because of food rationing. (I would say we had more shortages then than we had during the war). Bread was rationed, and I believe potatoes were too. Everybody relied on coal to heat their homes in those days, but the stockpiles of coal were frozen in the coal yards and couldn't be moved. So there was a shortage of coal too. The power stations also relied on coal, so there was a shortage of electricity, with many power cuts. It was awful; I hope I never have to go through anything like that again. My father bought an oil heater and we kept that going. This was heated by paraffin, so, being the eldest, I had to walk down Wickham Lane carrying the oilcan to buy paraffin to an ironmonger's shop at the bottom of the Lane.
Because of all the power cuts and coal shortages schools couldn't be heated, so had to close during the worst of the weather. We children didn't mind this at all! It left us free to go to ‘Fanny-on-the-Hill’ and go tobogganing. My friend Glenys had a large sledge made out of curved pieces of old air raid bunker iron. You could get three passengers on this and we had wonderful times dragging it up the hill and hurtling down on it, more often than not landing up in a ditch and getting scratched by brambles! We would be there until it got dark, only going home when we were hungry.

This was a dreadful winter and when the thaw came, in the middle of March, it was so rapid that it caused very bad floods in many parts of the country. This was followed by a wonderful summer, surely to compensate us for the hard bitter winter. I went on holiday with my friend Glenys and her parents to Bournemouth and the weather was very hot and sunny. We had a wonderful time.

At Waverley School we had to work hard. We had lots of homework every night and especially at weekends. This homework had to be in on time, if it wasn't, woe betide you. I loved English, French, History and Biology, but Mathematics I found difficult. After our second year we dropped Algebra and Geometry, which I hated and couldn't get to grips with. I mastered basic maths in the end, doing quite well when taking the RSA School Certificate. The shorthand and typing stood me in good stead all my life. I stayed on at school until I was 16. There were only 11 of us in the class of 1951 when I left school.

A strange thing occurred when I was about 15 at Ancona Road. Our classroom had been a Science lab. with large desks with Bunsen burners set in them. At the back was a small anteroom where Miss Stevenson, our form mistress, kept a projector. There were large glass-fronted cupboards down one side of the room. One lunchtime, a friend Jose and I went back to the class to get something. As we looked through the glass door I saw someone standing at the back of the room. As we opened the door she looked up and smiled. When we got into the room there was no sign of anyone! I said to Jose, “That's funny, I could have sworn someone was in the room.” She said, “So could I”. We hunted everywhere, under the tables, behind the cupboards, in the anteroom, but the room was empty. This wasn't a reflection that we both saw. The figure was solid. I'm not a fanciful person, but I can't explain this mystery.

When I think of the things schoolchildren get away with now at school, it is like another world. The school rules at Waverley had to be obeyed. We had to wear school uniform at all times; no jewellery (only watches). Part of the uniform was a navy beret, which we had to wear summer and winter on our way to and from school. One girl was spotted by a teacher throwing her beret in the air whilst on a bus. She was hauled over the coals for doing that when she got to school the next day. If you did anything wrong, you got a ‘D’ for Detention. If you excelled at anything you got an A plus. If you got either of these your name would be read out to the whole school during Morning Assembly. I lived in fear of getting a ‘D’, but luckily I never did.

My father was a great one for taking us on local walks. We lived near to Bostall Woods. We often went there. He taught us a lot about trees and wildlife, especially birds. We often went to Rockcliffe Gardens. It was said these gardens were built on the site of old chalk workings, so no houses could be built there. These chalk workings covered a large area and several houses in Alliance Road were unoccupied for years as the story was that a hole had appeared in the garden of one of them and had swallowed up a baby in a pram. Whether this was true or not I don't know, but I do know that these chalk mines extended as far as Grasdene Road. At the time of my marriage, there was a hole fenced off in the road and the chalk workings were being filled in to make the whole area safe.
Now and again we would go on the Woolwich Free Ferry and go over the river. Older people always talked of “Going over the water” when they went to North Woolwich. Often, my father and I would go on a bus to London visiting the museums. We both shared a love of history.


My younger sisters followed me to Waverley School: Gillian in 1949, and Frances in 1956, so all three of us were there at any one time. My father had also attended the school, when it was still called Ancona Road, in the years after the First World War. I believe the old school was knocked down some years ago and a new one built on the site.
When I left school in 1951 I first worked in London Wall. I travelled to Cannon Street every day. Later I worked at Unilever House, Blackfriars, where I stayed for 8 years. I was working there when I married at St. Nicholas' Church in 1957. The wedding reception was held at the Co-op Hall, Lakedale Road. After I married I moved away from the area.

Yes, growing up in Plumstead has left me with a lot of happy memories and I wouldn't change anything.

Jennifer Mellor (nee Batcock)



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