Woolwich & Districts
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
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
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!
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
growing up in Plumstead has left me with a lot of happy memories
and I wouldn't change anything.
Jennifer Mellor (nee Batcock)