You could see the spitfires fighting

We have been lucky enough to speak to an absolute gem of a lady, who was born in 1923 and has lived her whole life in England, both in London and the countryside.  We spoke about her experiences during WWII in London and do hope you enjoy the result!

I don’t think we really understood the immensity of the declaration of the war, actually.  Because we were English, it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t win in any case. Never ever.  There was no doubt about it. Didn’t matter what happened, we were going to win.  And that was said all the way through the war.  Very strange actually, looking back.

 I remember the utter contempt that we had for people who just gave in on the continent. When we heard people just capitulated on the continent, we used to think “We are English, we’re not them..” . We always thought people in Great Britain are quite different from people in Europe, and as young people, we didn’t understand anything about their history and upbringing or else we would have understood what we now know.

 I was going to be called up, and I certainly didn’t want to go into the armed services, I could never imagine myself fighting anybody. They were desperate for nurses at the time actually, and I applied to go to Middlesex Hospital and was just very fortunate. It was a very good hospital. Built near Foley Street, just here near Tottenham Court Road station.

There were lots of air-raids while I was on duty.  I just got on, it didn’t really make that much difference.  You need to get the job done, quick as you can, because there’s another patient waiting. You can’t get yourself emotionally caught up in it. I think the saddest thing of all is when you get a person in, say they lived in Tottenham Court Road above a shop or something, and the rest of the family had no home, so they were being put up somewhere. That was upsetting because the patient didn’t know what was left of their home.  I can’t remember the patients individually, but I do remember that sadness because it was hard for them, very hard.

The nurses’ home was in Foley Street, which is just behind the hospital, and we had an underground passage so we never had to go over ground.  So, (a) you could never be molested and (b) no matter what was going on in the sky or anywhere else, you could always get on and off duty. 

I do remember, we used to stand on the street, look up and watch the dog fights; cheer like mad when one of them came down.  Of course we always assumed it was a German that came down, but you could see spitfires up there, fighting.  It was incredible. Never, ever took shelter.

I think there were times when we were really anxious, though not afraid.  Now what were they called, buzz bombs, doodlebugs.  They came at an alarming speed and you could hear those, you see,  as there was the “zzzzzz” noise, but you could not see them.  When their sound cut off,  you knew they would explode, but it always seemed an eternity before they blew up.  It couldn’t have been long, it could only have been seconds, but it seemed ages - where did it land, you know.

The other things I remember watching in the daylight, because you couldn’t see them at night: land bombs that were on parachutes. And we used to say if you see one coming, walk towards it and get underneath and beyond it before it touches a roof or anything. Because they did have a devastating effect; they’d touch a building or touch a tree, and they’d blast the whole roof or tree. They must’ve come in whichever way the wind was coming I suppose.  You’d see them coming down very slowly, that’s the difference, and they were silent.

When the war was over people had tea parties in the street! Where they got food from, God only knows, as rationing meant food was very restricted.  I must’ve been at a tea party because I remember seeing tables all along in the middle of the road, Union flags flying, and stools or something for the children to sit on. I don’t remember adults sitting, I remember adults serving us.  One had never eaten in the road before.

I TRADED WITH THE SHOPKEEPER

social enterprise history perth elderly war musician

Our final excerpt in this series takes us to the end of the war, when our storyteller was eventually demobbed back in the UK.  We hope you enjoyed this special series.

"At the end of British activities in Egypt we went from Egypt, right across France to Lyon.  Even went through Monte Carlo.  We went by train. 

I went around all the music shops during that time; many were damaged.  I remember going into a shop full of music.  The music was in good condition, brand new.  I traded with the shop keeper 2 bars of luxe toilet soap for a Chopin étude, opus’ 10 and 25.  I managed to get the music back to England on 2 bars of soap!  2 bars of soap was really something valuable.  It was rare, not in great supply.   I still had that music when I got back to England.   

Eventually I was transferred to the army reserve to perform piano for the armed forces through ENSA (the Entertainments National Services Association).  Right at the end of the war, when arrangements were being made to send troops back to the UK from France, we found ourselves in the extreme north of France and I was told I had to go join a unit in Dartmouth, where I got demobbed." 

THE SYSTEM WORKED WELL

social enterprise history perth memories boxing war

Here is the second in our three-part August series about time serving in the British army during WWII, from a man with so many stories that we can't wait to sit with him again to hear more.  We love his frankness, his dry wit and his cheeky behaviour! 

"In our off time, a rugby club had been organised by a major, or someone high up, because the morale in the army was going down as we seemed to be losing all the time.  We played against the French army.  They beat us - they beat me – because I was carried off the field!  I was transferred from where we were playing in France to the 63rd General Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, needing an operation on my knee in order to be able to walk.   All because of a rugby game!

I was then transferred to be a first class clerk for an officer in Suez.  As a clerk I had a recognised lunch hour.  During lunch hours I tried to keep fit.  We went swimming in a roped off area in the ocean in Port Tewik. We took possession of a dhow boat moored there and we used to dive off the mast into the water.  A trainer took me under his wing and taught me to box for maybe 2 years.  I did weight lifting as well.

At that time I had a good deal of freedom.  I could hitch hike if I wanted transport.  Just went down to the road and signalled to get someone to stop.  You could get practically any kind of transport.  The system worked very well.  I played the organ at a wedding in Cairo and turned up at the wedding in an army truck.  No one thought that was particularly strange, they just accepted it." 

 

THE LUMP IN MY THROAT

social enterprise perth history memories elderly soldier musician

 

We are delighted to have had the opportunity to speak with such a fantastic and interesting man.  There was so much morethat we wanted to hear from him but unfortunately we have not yet had the time to hear his whole story.  Our storyteller was born and raised in County Durham, UK in the 1920s.  Extremely talented at languages and music, he was a professional classical pianist as well as a teacher.  Over the course of August we will be releasing his memories of being called up during World War II.

"I was called up to serve in the British army on 16 October 1939 and served with the Royal Engineers Corp.  I didn’t realise that I was ‘in the war’ when I first got called up.  I was trained immediately.  It's funny, but I can still remember my 7 digit army number today.

Royal Engineers was a non-combatant unit.  We did about 6 months in France – that’s all the British forces lasted for there.  At one point I was within 8km of the Siegfried Line, a famous loading off point for the army.  

When the unit was retreating to the north of France, my commanding officer suggested that if I wanted to save all my music I should put it with the office papers and it would be taken with everything carried below. I remember the lump in my throat as we marched out of Brest, leaving my music behind in an effort to preserve it.  It was all music I’d picked up in various leaves, as I’d moved about quite a bit in the north of France.  That’s when I saw the unit base going up in flames.  That’s how the Germans dealt with any allied possessions that they came across." 

 

Cursing the cars

Perth community history 1940s

We treasured our time with Val so much that we just have to share this additional story!  While we were chatting, she described how she, and others in her neighbourhood cheekily caught outdoor movies without paying for them, while she was growing up in the 1940s. 

"Where we lived, we used to walk 2 or 3 houses down, and take some cushions, and we'd all sit across the road like that and watch the outdoor theatre.  And, course, if the wind was coming the right way we'd get all the talking and everything.  But the only problem was that when a car came along we all had to get up and move our pillows and walk off to the side of the road.  We used to curse the cars coming from Inglewood across to Maylands!  You know, the whole street used to do that!   So that was lots of fun, we used to have good fun there."

Cupcakes for dad

Perth community history 1940s family

While talking to this fascinating lady about her childhood in country Western Australia, she recalled a family pastime making cupcakes for her father.

"When we were kids, if mum was cooking, we would all stand round the table - us 3 girls anyway in the family, not the boy - and we had little toy egg beaters. And mum would put that little bit of sugar and that little bit of butter and break up an egg - one egg would do the 3 of us - just to make a cupcake for dad's afternoon tea.

And then we'd all stand around while he ate 'em to see which was the best, you know. So I can remember, yea, standing there with this bloody little egg beater.

He could never find out which one was the best. They were all good, you know.

Typical dads!"

There was no extra charge for that entertainment!

Perth community history pastime 1930s

It seems there was no end to the mischief of some people, especially this fabulous lady, who grew up in country western Australia during the 1930s.  We loved this gem of a story the about trouble that she and her siblings caused one hazy summer.

"Dad used to believe in breeding ducks. 13 weeks before Christmas they had to hatch out. Then he would fatten them up and they’d be ready for the shop to sell.

So we were all outside one day on the lawn and these little ducklings were running around. And my parents had a box there with this little wet hessian sack in it for the ducklings to sleep in. Us 4 kids put all of the 12 ducklings under the wet bag. We weren’t too popular for a few days after that, because the ducklings all died, didn’t they!

It was over that side of the lawn, the mint patch was on the other, the lawn was up the middle and we were having a great time. Until dad caught us. Oh god."

She also described to us a standard Saturday night in the country town she grew up in, such a hoot!

"Saturday night was movie night at the town hall. Except the last Saturday night of every month, when the hall was free to hire for parties and balls and so on, and the pictures then would be on a Friday night. It was usually a full house. Those old deck chairs, I remember them. Sometimes if they’d been left out in the weather a bit long, they’d be weak at the back. Then all of a sudden in the middle of the movie there’d be a crack, a great thud and some screams because someone’s chair had broken and they’d fallen straight off! That happened quite often, you know. There was no extra charge for that entertainment!"

We didn't have a chance to get up to mischief

Perth community history 1930s pastime

Hearing about life growing up in the 1930s and 40s never ceases to peak our interest.  During a session with this lady we learnt more about how illnesses impacted children at that time, as well as more about what she did for fun, growing up in Perth's eastern suburbs. 

"We didn’t really have a chance to get up to mischief because our dad was away during the war.

 We used to play in the street. But I had rheumatic fever when I was little so I couldn’t go outside when it was wet because I couldn’t get cold. So that sort of restricted me a bit. I used to have to sit in the classroom at school too while everyone played outside if it was a bit damp. They didn’t know much about rheumatic fever then.

 And I didn’t like getting dirty so there were a lot of things I wouldn’t do. There was a family of boys who lived next door to us. They eventually taught me how to climb and sit up on the roof with them all. I remember sitting up there thinking ‘Well here we all are’ but then it was a battle to get me back down again!

When I was older I loved to dance.  We went to a lot of tea dances.  I met my husband at Anzac House on the Terrace. There was a crowd of us and we all sort of danced with each other. Some of the girls drank; I wasn’t a drinker. There was a big hall. There were seats all the way around. You’d sit there and then somebody else from down the other end of the hall must have liked some of us girls and they’d come up and say ‘can we have a dance with you.’ We really did have a good time!"

School wasn't my favourite spot

Perth community history 1940s school

Our chats with this lady were so vibrant and colourful.  She is quite the storyteller!  She told us stories about growing up in the 1940s, including about school life. 

"We always walked to and from school, it wasn’t far. Walked there, walked home for dinner. Walked back again after dinner, and unless there was going to be a fight under the tree, in which case you’d go to watch that, you walked home again at the end of the day too. Nice big shady tree that was.

School wasn’t usually my favourite spot but I’d go because I had to.

Well you’ve got to get up to mischief. There’s no fun if you don’t, is there? Trotty used to say ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING’. ‘Nothing sir’. ‘WELL PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE ‘EM.’ We’d probably have been playing noughts and crosses or something. And that was the cane for us, wasn’t it.

If you only got the cane a couple of times that day you’d had a good day. We had teachers who liked giving out the cane. Two sums wrong, you got the cane. Two spellings wrong and you got the cane. You’d go home and you’d say, "mum Trotty give us the cane" and she’d just say "well you must have deserved it." That was the only sympathy you got."

Because it was a boy dog!

Perth community history 1940s family

We loved the time we spent with Val.  Among other things, she described to us her memory of spending time with her father at the local town fair in the suburbs of Perth during the 1940s, when she was little.

"The town hall wasn't far from us, you know, just around the corner, the Maylands town hall.  And they used to have beaut fairs there.  And one year you could take an animal and dress it up.   So we took our dog.  And we had a doll's pram.  It was a fox terrier.  I don't know if you know foxies, they're only a little dog, it's a zit-dag dog, you can do anything with it.   And we dressed it up and had a baby's dress on it and had booties on it.  It loved the doll's pram, you know, it used to just lay back like this, you know.  And we won first prize!   We had a bonnet on him, and everything.  And then they found out it was a boy dog, and they took the prize off us, because we had it dressed up as a girl!  It's name was Ringer."

And that's what you did on Anzac Day!

Perth community history 1930s

We have had an incredible time capturing the stories and memories of this fabulous lady this month.  Born in the 1930s, she recalls Anzac Day in her household when she was a child. 

"It would have been after the war was all over when they had the Anzac service in Coolgardie.  And as kids we used to like to go, because you would go down to the RSL hall, which was just about a block away from where we lived, and the Women's Auxiliary, they would make coffee afterwards.   And there was an old fellow there called ole' Frank Brennan, and he had a bugle with him that he must have brought from the war, because it sounded like that when he played; and he would sound the Last Post.  And then after the service was over, they would put rum in the coffee.   Now I don't like coffee but I used to have a drink! 

And that's what you did on Anzac Day!

And then you went home, because you'd been up so bright and early, and you cleaned the house.  It was one of them cleaning days when you moved all the furniture around, you know, polished the floor and away you went."

I was like Olive Oil. So thin

Perth community history 1950s

This amazingly brave and frank lady, born in the 1920s, spent the day with us telling us about her past.  Here is a glimpse of what she described.

"You could only come over to Australia if you were invited.  My father had a call from the government of Western Australia to come over in 1907.  He was a Cypriot and when the Turks took over he shot through from Cyprus to Greece, where he met my mother.  It was from there that they applied to come to Australia.  Australian authorities told my father ‘If you are not happy here we will pay for your fares to go back but you can never come here again’.  But my father stayed.  He earned on the mines with my oldest brother and sent money home to Greece.   They worked very hard.

We were very lucky.  Our family all lived happily.  We never had any problems or nothing.  Our family was quiet, no mischief, no out of order.  Clean life. 

In 1936, this Greek gentleman came to Northern Territory because he had a cousin there.  I was only 18.  He first saw me when I was taking my younger brother to the hospital to get a clearance to return to school after he had had the chicken pox.  In the houses in Northern Territory at that time the kitchen was separate.  My 2 brothers and I were washing up and heard people talking.  The boys said ‘Hey sis, they’re marrying you off.  That Greek man who came to Darwin, he’s asking dad for you to marry him’.  I asked my dad later why he was marrying me off.  He said ‘He can give you more than we can’.  Things at that time were very bad – you had to work very hard all the time.  It was not like it is now. 

My husband, he was a very good man, 10 years older than me.  He was a gentleman, he looked after me.  He knew I was only young.  I was like Olive Oil, I was so thin.  Only 6 stone.

I helped my husband in the shop down in Claremont, Perth.  Later I got a job at the asylum.  I had a very good job.  Because I had been in business with my husband I had a lot of clues.  I used to look after the matron and the deputy matrons.  I had to answer their phones.  I had 2 girls under me.  I was in charge. 

My 2 older brothers joined the world war from Darwin in the Northern Territory.  One was in Timor, the other in Waratah.  I was very good to them.  I used to send them things.  I used to buy a loaf of bread, or a double loaf.  Take the guts out of it.  Put a beer in it.  Or cigarettes.  Or soaps.  Or greek food I had made.  I mean we didn’t know where they were, we weren’t allowed to know; ‘Address unknown’.  We just sent the parcel to a standard army address.   My brothers always wrote to say they’d received the parcels.  When they came home from the war they weren’t the same people.  They had a very bad time.  They both came home sick. 

Later, there was tragedy in the family. 

The government in Northern Territory at that time would ship whole little houses on trucks to new land.  My youngest brother was a carpenter.  The chap he was working for always reminded them to turn the electricity off before shoving the houses off the truck.  But this time there’d been an accident and the electricity wasn’t turned off.  My brother was at the top of a house, a wire touched him and he was gone.  He made one somersault and he was burned.  He was only 24 years of age."