Archives at Home, Housing, Memories, Women

Archives at home, part 20

The theme of this year’s heritage festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme. 

Many of the personal papers in our collection come to us via serendipity.  Perhaps they are found by new occupiers of a house on clearing out the attic, or by relatives when they have the sad task of clearing out a family home after a death.  Most of the time the would-be donor knew the person who created the papers – sometimes they were a close friend or relative.  Inevitably, these records are offered to us almost apologetically – with the caveat ‘you probably won’t be interested in these, but…’ and we just know  we are about to be offered something both ordinary and special!

Last year, we were offered two school jotters dating from 1926 which once belonged to Margaret White (1914-1979), who lived in Bolingbroke Road and went to Honeywell Road School.  One from housecraft classes, and one from cookery classes.  Margaret’s daughter wasn’t sure we’d be interested in these – but we were delighted to add them to our collection.  These two jotters tell us a great deal about the lives the girls in Margaret’s school were being prepared for.

Margaret was eleven years old when she wrote in these jotters.  Her very first lesson was in washing clothes – and there is a hint here that she got up to no good before even starting:


Washing and drying the clothes is broken down in Margaret’s jotter into six (seemingly straightforward) steps, which in reality would have taken several hours:


Quite apart from being horrified at the prospect of eleven year old girls sloshing boiling water around  and crushing their fingers in mangles, I was baffled as to what ‘bluing’ was.  Turns out that it is a process still used today, although far less common, and is largely for white fabrics.  Adding a touch of blue dye to the wash mitigated the yellowing and greying of the whites.  Further lessons documented in Margaret’s jotter include care and cleaning of glass, window cleaning, caring for leather boots and shoes, ironing, dusting, care and use of household brushes, cleaning cupboards, washing wood,  and cleaning utensils – all of which sound complicated and time consuming!

The likelihood was that Margaret and her classmates would have been putting the cleaning and washing skills they learned at school into practice at home – a reminder of this is the inclusion of infant care classes:


Apart from the [extensive] work involved in keeping the home clean and orderly, there is also cooking to be done.  Very little of which, it has to be said, sounds terribly appetising.  One of the first things Margaret attempts is ‘Baked Stuffed Fish’, which sounds as flavoursome at the title would suggest:


For her efforts, Margaret is awarded 6 out of 10 – and her teacher’s fading hand indicates that she should also have added parsley, suet, and seasoning [really not sure that the suet would have helped matters – don’t we use that mostly in bird feed these days?!].

I wish I could ask Margaret why she kept these jotters all these years.  It seems unlikely she would have referred back to them when cleaning her home as an adult, so perhaps her reasons were more sentimental.  Maybe she was fond of her teacher, despite the teacher’s tendency to be a harsh marker.  Or perhaps Margaret kept these jotters as a reminder of the expectations and limitations imposed upon women of her generation to share with her own daughter.  We’ll never know – but we’re grateful to give them a permanent home!

Archives at Home, Housing, Women

Archives at home, part 17

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme. 

Dr Sue Demont is a local historian, and was a teacher (and headteacher!) for many years.  She is an active member of the Battersea Society and the Friends of Wandsworth Common.  She was part of the War Comes Home committee which delivered a community project documenting the experiences of those who lived in Battersea during wartime.  Her most recent publications include ‘the Bombing of Battersea’ and ‘Battersea’s First Lady: the life and times of Caroline Ganley MP’.  Sue would have been leading a walk through Caroline Ganley’s Battersea today (though given the torrential rain and thunderstorms, she might be relieved it was postponed until next year!).  She has very kindly agreed to be interviewed about Caroline Ganley’s home life.

Ganley head and shoulders 1950s
Portrait of Caroline Ganley, National Portrait Gallery

Can you tell us why Caroline Ganley MP is so important?

 This is a big question with two big answers!

In terms of activity…65 years of public service in a whole range of roles, spanning a lifetime from Queen Victoria’s reign well into the Swinging ‘60s. Having left school at 14, Caroline Ganley became one of the first female magistrates in Britain, a district and county councillor, the first woman President of the 800,000-strong London Co-operative Movement, and Battersea’s first woman MP. Within and between these roles she was an ardent internationalist and peace campaigner, a strong supporter of women’s suffrage, the proud instigator of Battersea’s first maternity home and VD clinic, and a passionate officer of the Women’s Co-operative Guild at local, national and international level. In 1953 she was awarded the CBE, and she continued to sit on Battersea Borough Council until it was abolished in 1965 – by this time she was 85 years old and using a wheelchair.

And in terms of symbolism… Caroline Ganley’s life and work demonstrated what a working-class woman of limited education could achieve at the same time as raising a family in straitened financial circumstances – even before women had the vote.She proved that the money worries with which she grappled for most of her life need not prevent women from carrying out public and political service.Being elected the oldest Labour woman MP at the age of 66 she further demonstrated that age need not be a barrier to success. Caroline Ganley was a role model for other women both within Battersea and across the Labour and Co-operative Movements.

Caroline and James Ganley at a celebration for their golden wedding anniversary, image courtesy of Sue Demont

What was Ganley’s home life like, and how did it influence her work?

Caroline Ganley’s own home life was overshadowed by bereavement; her father died before she was born and for ten years she was raised by her Irish grandmother so that her mother could go out to work. When her grandmother died Ganley was sent to an orphanage until she was 14, when she left to take up employment, ending up as a ‘nurse domestic’ for a stockbroker’s family until her marriage in 1901.

This sounds quite grim to us today but Ganley emphasises in her unpublished memoir that her grandmother, ‘a good wife and mother’ was very affectionate towards her. She also instilled in her grand-daughter the belief that women had rights as free citizens well as responsibilities within the home. 70 years later Ganley wrote that it was ‘upon the foundations of thought laid by her (that) I have built my life’.

Ganley plaque unveiling Oct 2018
Unveiling of Battersea Society plaque at Thirsk Road by Councillor Tony Belton, image courtesy of Sue Demont

Can you tell us anything about her home itself?

Like many Battersea families the Ganleys struggled for years to find a decent home in which to bring up their family of three, and when in 1910 they managed to acquire no.5 Thirsk Road,with its own bathroom, it literally transformed Caroline Ganley’s life. She was to live here for the rest of her 56 years. A visiting reporter in the 1920s described no.5 as‘her pretty home’ and the house played an important role for generations of the family, including in old age Ganley’s mother Selina as well as her host of grandchildren. Even during the war Ganley continued to host regular Sunday family gatherings ‘where the news and happenings of the week were condensed into hours between the interval of meals and odd jobs.’ And it is clear that Ganley took her home-making role seriously; her memoir is full of references to domestic chores such as sewing, knitting, cooking and washing.

Ganley 4 generations
Caroline Ganley with her Mother, Son, and Grandson, image courtesy of Sue Demont

Mention should be made here of Ganley’s husband James, who appears to have been unusually supportive and accommodating of his wife’s numerous public roles. The two of them sometimes shared domestic tasks, for example James might cook the dinner or Caroline would help him fit new light switches, and on one occasion the pair of them combined to redecorate the Labour Party’s headquarters at 177 Lavender Hill. Their long and happy marriage was the first to be celebrated by a Golden Wedding reception in the House of Commons.

How important was the issue of housing to Ganley in her role as MP?

This was a huge issue for Ganley as a constituency MP elected straight after the war. Battersea’s housing stock had been devastated by bombing with over 28,000 homes wholly or partly destroyed. By 1951 a quarter of the Borough’s population had moved away yet there were still nowhere near enough houses for those who remained, and much of what did survive was overcrowded and insanitary. Ganley’s constituency case load was dominated by housing issues and their associated problems, including broken marriages. She never forgot her own experiences of traipsing round Battersea with three small children trying to secure a decent home for her family – even in the 1940s she was still recording in her diary her joy at being able to have a hot bath. This made her a strong supporter of Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health and Housing in the 1945 Labour Government who was fighting to build houses of good quality as well as in large numbers.

What impact do you think the Co-operative movement had on the lives of housewives?

It was transformative for many women. The Women’s Co-operative Guild was one of the first ‘safe spaces’ within which women could gather and discuss not only the issues that affected their own lives but big social and political questions like divorce and abortion. The Guild ran extensive training programmes on public speaking, chairing meetings and setting up organisations and events, enabling women to participate in public life on more equal terms with men. One elderly member recalled in the 1970s that these programmes ‘altered the whole course of my life… I always had something to talk to’ whilst another noted that her Guild role made the drudgery of housework much more palatable because she always had something interesting to think about.

On a practical level the Co-op reached even more women, as the daily food shop was the one area of home life over which they had control of both purchase and purse. The Co-op prided itself on the quality of its goods and the fairness of its distribution,and its women members led numerous campaigns to promote the movement’s healthy eating options.

How important was female friendship to Ganley?

This was something else she particularly gained from the Women’s Co-operative Guild, though her friends were by no means confined to this area. The Guilds certainly knew how to enjoy themselves, running a host of social activities such as birthday parties and drama productions, and Ganley clearly relished these. Reading her memoir one is struck by the constant approving references to collective action and shared endeavour at every level. In 1929 she attended an international Co-op conference at the Hague and praised the hospitality of ‘our Dutch friends’, whilst at the other end of the scale she was much loved by the Lavender Hill Branch of the Guild, who referred to her as ‘our Mrs G’, always ready to do any small job.In Parliament she counted Prime Minister Clem Attlee and Liberal MP Lady Megan Lloyd George as her friends as well as the Labour women MPs.

Like any woman in public life before the late 20th century, Ganley had to operate in male-dominated arenas, and she clearly appreciated the support of her fellow women activists.These included Charlotte Despard, who engineered Ganley’s first public speaking engagement in Battersea Park, and her local colleague Mrs Winton Evans with whom she had fun over the issue of children’s feedingat the expense of the Chairman (sic) of the LCC’s Education Committee.

What made you write your book on Caroline Ganley?

Put simply, I felt it was terribly important that she shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most of the women MPs of 1945 (Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee, Bessie Braddock, Edith Summerskill etc) Caroline Ganley does not feature in the history books and has left no published memoir. Her constituency of Battersea South was abolished decades ago as were the LCC and Battersea Borough Council; even the Women’s Co-operative Guild has finally been disbanded. Yet these institutions were crucial to the history of our borough and our city, and to the history of women across Britain, and I wanted to salute the woman who made such effective use of them all to improve working people’s lives – especially those of women.

Many thanks, Sue!  To purchase a copy of Battersea’s First Lady: the Life and Times of Caroline Ganley MP, please email




Archives at Home, House history, Housing, Women

Archives at home, part 16

This fortnight would have been the Wandsworth Heritage Festival.  Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service coordinates the heritage festival each year – but it only happens because so many of our local societies, organisations, and members of the community give up their time, knowledge, and enthusiasm so willingly.  The theme of this year’s festival was to have been Wandsworth’s homes and housing.  Luckily, the work our contributors took in researching their walks, talks, exhibitions and open days will not go to waste, as this year’s events will be postponed until next year.  However, we thought it might be nice in the meantime to explore some of the items in our collections which tie in to this theme. 

Jeanne Rathbone has been a resident of Battersea for many years – she worked in the laboratory of Gartons Glucose factory at one point, so was more familiar with the unique aroma dubbed ‘the Battersea Smell’ than most!  Jeanne has many hats (literally as well as figuratively!), including local historian, campaigner, and humanist celebrant.  She is passionate about Battersea’s history – specifically its historical women.  For the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, we were looking forward to hearing Jeanne’s talk on some of Battersea’s most interesting homes and their occupants.  Jeanne will be doing this talk next year, but for now she has very kindly agreed to tell us a little about four 18th century houses around Lavender Hill and their occupants.

Gilmore house
Gilmore House, courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Gilmore House 113 Clapham Common became the deaconate established by Deaconess Isabella Gilmore 1842-1923, widowed sister of William Morris, requested by Bishop of Rochester to serve in impoverished Battersea. Deaconesses were a mix of nurse, social worker and policeman. Her brother said of her that ‘I  preach socialism, you practise it’ The house was one of a pair built 1750 called the Sister Houses overlooking Clapham Common. As the house had to be in her name this prevented it from demolition. She added a chapel designed by Philip Webb which has a Burne-Jones window. She is commemorated in Southwark Cathedral and listed among the Calendar of Saints.


Lavender Sweep House back garden possibly taken by Lewis Carrol
Lavender Sweep House,  courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Lavender Sweep House was home to Tom Taylor 1817-1880, editor of Punch,  playwright wrote Our American Cousin watched by Lincoln when assassinated, and his wife composer Laura Barker. They attracted visitors like Dickens, Tennyson, Clara Schumann, violinist Joachim to their house and musical soirees. Lewis Carroll took the photos of the house and Ellen Terry said  Lavender Sweep was a sort of house of call for everyone of note… a mecca for  pilgrims from America and from all parts of the worlda home from home for people from all the walks of literary, artistic and theatrical life


Tom inherited a Stradivarius violin that Laura played with Paganini and Louis Spohr.


G.F.Watts, Jane Elizabeth Hughes - J.Elizabeth Hughes / Watts/ 1858 -
Jeanie painted by Watts Wightwick Manor, Staffordshire (The National Trust). 1858.  Image courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Elm House Lavender Hill now the site of Battersea Town Hall was home to Jeanie Nassau Senior, the first woman civil servant. Jane Hughes was known as Jeanie, and her brother Thomas wrote of their early life in Tom Brown’s Schooldays.


She was appointed government Inspector of workhouses to report on the education of “pauper girls”, was co-founder of the British Red Cross, and founded the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants

Friends included Florence Nightingale, Octavia Hill,  Carmen author Prosper Mérimée, Anny Thackeray, Kate Dickens, George Eliot, Tom Taylor and Marie Spartali. George Eliot wrote about her, Millais and Watts painted her, Jenny Lind sang with her, and Clara Schumann played with her.

As a trained soprano she tested the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall.  She is due to have a Battersea Society plaque.


The Shrubbery
The Shrubbery, courtesy of Jeanne Rathbone

Marie Spartali 1844-1923, a prolific Pre-Raphaelite artist lived in The Shrubbery Lavender Gardens, an Italianate villa which overlooked Clapham Common, now behind St Barnabas Church. She sat for numerous paintings by Ford Madox Brown with whom she trained, for Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Whistler, Stanhope, was photographed by Julia Cameron and was friends of William and Jane Morris. She exhibited at the  Royal Academy. She married American William Stillman a widower with three children and they had another three, lived in Florence and Rome and was the only Pre-Raphaelite artist to work in the United States. She featured in the recent Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. An application for an English Heritage plaque to her has been successful.


Many thanks, Jeanne!



#VEDay75, air raids, Archives at Home, Women

Archives at Home, part 9

In the run up to the 75th anniversary of VE day this Friday, we will be looking at how World War II is reflected in our collections.  We’d be very interested to hear from those of you who would like to share your own memories.

You may remember a few posts back, I was concentrating on the collection of Geoffrey Haines, who was the husband of Wandsworth Mayor, Olive Haines.  We have a transcript of an oral history interview with Olive Haines – we don’t know who carried out the interview, unfortunately, but we do know it took place on the 27th March 1988 and largely concentrated on Olive and Geoffrey’s experiences of the war.  Part of the interview is transcribed below:

Would you like to tell us a little bit about the beginning of the 2nd World War?  Where were you on the day it was announced?

At the time of the second world war, the government had already arranged, they knew war was imminent, and they had asked for volunteers knowing that the general population would have to do things.  And Geoffrey and I had chosen to be air-raid wardens.  We neither of us liked very much anything to do with first aid, we didn’t want to drive ambulances.  And we were already organised to some extent.  And in 1939, the government got very agitated about gas, fear of gas, and so they were determined to deliver gas masks to every person.  And people were asked to go and collect them in Disraeli Road.  Geoffrey was home one week.  We were already organised in groups and we knew people that we could call upon.  And one weekend he decided that it was much too slow asking everybody to go to Putney.  So we asked the borough to deliver gas masks at various sizes and we sat volunteers up and down every road near us and said, ‘come now to Larpent Avenue and we’ll test you for size of gas mask and you can take it away with you’.  We got a lot of people helping.  One poor lady spent the whole afternoon disinfecting the masks afterwards, and we never saw her again, and I don’t blame her.

Olive Haines when she was Mayor of Wandsworth, fifth from right, presenting a prize at the horticultural show, c1956, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

We were by then known as a group.  And then the  actual day war was declared [came], we knew it was probably going to be, and we assembled with some of these people.  I think it was a Sunday so that Geoffrey was there as well and we put on our white helmets and went round the roads but of course nothing happened, so that was a mercy.  We had one lady from another flat who was nearly 100; she was a friend of ours and kept us company as well.

Well then we met fairly regularly after that to practice, to learn something, not about details of bombs but to know what to do if a raid came.  Then the borough had actually built refuges, so to speak, or posts in parts of the borough.  But in our case there was no very suitable place and we offered our front room which they occupied for the remains of the war.

Could you just tell us, when you say they occupied the front room, what did it look like?  Did they make it into a sort of office or what?

No, it was just our ordinary dining room, and we took up the carpet and had bare boards and the borough provided us with an electric fire…Just opposite, as it happened, there was a lavatory and there were double doors, so they were not part of our house.

Well, they proceeded to dig this safety place, but of course they couldn’t do it quite quick enough so they put sandbags up right to the top little windows in this dining room.

Well, later on, when war was declared, they appointed two people who did 8 hour shifts, and I was one of these people.  We had one cat, beloved cat, called McGinty, and [he] used to come in and out of the back of the house because there weren’t many people there.  He suddenly discovered the sandbags.  And he had very sharp nails and he was soon able to scratch his way to the top and he found a little open window sill and [a way] into the house.  I can’t say the wardens always liked it, but he did.  And I was fascinated one day to see him on the window sill and he kept on looking up at the open window and stretching himself out to see how high it was and finally he decided he could do it and he jumped straight up from a window sill.  You can imagine it was quite a feat.  So after that

Haines 2
The Haines’ daughter, Anne, outside their house in Larpent Avenue, from Geoffrey Haines memoir collection, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service

of course, they were in and out more than ever.

What was your official title?

Every group together was called a post and our part was divided into 8 posts.  Our area was called B so our post was B7 and there was a post warden in charge – I’ll mention his name, Pat Bull – and I was his deputy post warden.

Were there many women doing this?

Yes, I should think about an equal number.  And they came during the day when they were free because I did 8 till 4 so then we had 4 till midnight to be filled up and nearly always they had men only at night.  Of course, eventually we realised that that would be the bad time, the busy time.

And what were you actually doing in your 8 hour shift?

First of all, we had to send people round to every house or flat and make a very careful list of the age and sex of the people there, and if possible next of kin, which of course eventually when there were bad bombings, was very useful.  And we spent a lot of time putting these cards ready and available.

What, in your front room?

In our front room, yes.  I think I provided a typewriter, but otherwise I don’t think anybody could do any typing but me, and mine was only amateur.  But we were kept quite busy.  And we had an hour off in the middle of the day and the women all went home and the men, we were slightly amused, the men were allowed to go to a restaurant.  We were given rations of potted meat, sugar, and tea, I think.

Haines 1
Geoffrey Haines, from his memoir collection, Wandsworth Libraries & Heritage Service


Why weren’t you allowed to go to the restaurant?

I don’t know.

Didn’t anyone complain?

No, I’m afraid we didn’t at that time.  I did tackle the lady who organised it and was a councillor, after the war, but she said everybody was very tiresome to do with rations, so perhaps some people did complain.  Of course there were the British Restaurants but we didn’t really have time to go to them, only when we were off-duty at the weekends , probably.  The men did a lot of the duty at weekends, when they were there.

We used to have exercises with the telephone, and somebody would be told to go out to a certain place where an imaginary bomb had fallen, and they were told what had happened.  They then had to go back quickly to the post and make our a special form, which we learnt how to do.  We had to know how to describe positions, Hazelwell Road junction with so and so, so it had to be done as accurately as we could of course.  Later on, when we had a variety of bombs, they instituted a thing called the Bomb Reconnaisance Officer and Geoffrey ad Pat Bull, both of them, went and were taught by the Engineers exactly how to realise what kind of bomb it was.  I mean, we had oil bombs, we had 1000 kilo, 2000 bombs – and later on of course incendiaries as well.

What about the experience you yourself had with bombs because there were quite a few, weren’t there?

Well, we had bombs at the top of our road.  A stick of bombs.  The Germans used to put you know a little gap in between and then you’d have another bomb and it came so quickly, perhaps we hadn’t had the air raid warning from control.  I don’t know that there wasn’t time for us to get down the official air raid shelter which by then had been built, and so I can remember lying under the table.  Of course we [had] the house I suppose, on top of us and we were told the shelter would take the whole house safely if it should fall.

And Geoffrey had gone up to the front in order to…um…wonder whether he should go and see what’s happened, and we were waiting for people to come and report where the bomb had fallen , and the glass fell all over him.  And I remember Pat Bull coming out and saying ‘get up, its all over now’, we’d had the last one, and Geoffrey said, ‘I’m sorry, I was seeing where I was going’…I had been under the table and was alright.

Was that the very first bomb?

No, that was after quite a bit of time.  There were two others in Putney that we heard all right.  One was on the tennis club near where our first house was; I don’t think anybody was damaged then.  And the very horrible one; and I only had to deal with this because I had to go with Geoffrey, was down on the Upper Richmond Road; opposite the Methodist church, which people do remember because there were a great many casualties.  We were very nearly a casualty ourselves because we were due to go and take something down; it was again a Sunday, so Geoffrey was with me, and we heard the sounds and waited.  I think by that time it was a flying bomb, so we waited for a bit anyhow.  The car wouldn’t start so we were delayed, then we heard a bomb fall.  We got in the car, by then it worked, and when we got there we found a bus lying on its side, I remember.  And also some buildings that are still there, they haven’t built behind them, and people standing on them looking through the window and looking awful.  Geoffrey had to stop the railway because the bomb had damaged the railway and this bomb had been shot down, actually, by the engineers, and we understand it was the last bomb that was ever shot down over London.  We used to sit in the shelter and say when the first ones come ‘Go on, go on, you go to some trees’ a long way from here which they mostly did, thank goodness, although there were two we had to help cope with on the Roehampton Estate, which sadly happened again on a Sunday.  Quite a lot of people got damaged.  But mostly my job was to see that when we got a report in that to the best of our ability, the report was as clear as it could be.  And, actually, the one in the Upper Richmond Road, I went with Geoffrey and then he sent me back to go and get a blue flag on a blue lamp you had to have to show when people were rushing .

Would you like to tell us about the different kind of bombs?  You said that last one was an incendiary bomb – what sort of bomb was that?

It was a long, rather fat pencil-shaped thing, and when it falls it lights anything near, and they used to come in groups and one time I remember there was a whole shower of them all the way up Putney High Street.  And we had quite a number of bombs one night , including incendiaries.  The nearest Incendiary was in our next door garden – that was very quickly put out.  We learnt how to put fires out with stirrup pumps.  The fire brigade laughed at us.  They didn’t laugh when the war had started some time.  They really were efficient.  Well one morning one of our wardens, I’m surprised to say, rang me up and said he was just going to the office – this was the night of the incendiaries – and that one incendiary had landed in his front garden and his wife and children were very interested and he wanted it moved, would I please come and move it.  I said, ‘You know there are no men at the post at the moment. ‘You’re in charge, you’ve got to move it’.  So I went innocently along and picked it up, and there as his wife and small children all at the window.  I didn’t know how much, I thought it was out, but still I made them go and lie on the floor.  As far as I could, anyway.  I may say that later on they crept back without my noticing.  Anyhow, I picked up this incendiary, I don’t remember what it looked like, I walked with it to my house which was about 6 or 7 minutes I suppose and thought ‘well I don’t know anything about it, I’ll put it in the middle of our front lawn away, as much as possible from the houses in the square.  And I then rang up borough control, and they sent somebody to remove it.  When I told Geoffrey, he was horrified, because he had this special training and he knew and nobody had been told that the Germans had a new kind of incendiary which, after it had gone off, had done its burning part, could be explosive.  I could very easily have been killed.  Mercifully it wasn’t an explosive one.  But that was my nearest.  I did see others.  I saw one oil bomb, which comes down slower, I was in the garden one day and there was an alert, and I saw this thing, like a great big milk pan or something, going round and round, and it fell on a house, I know where it is now, it was a complete wreck afterwards.  I don’t think there was anybody in the house, though, mercifully.

There were some other kinds of bobs which had to be watered all the time or else they became incendiaries.  I can remember one poor man, somewhere in Putney, spent hours, until he was removed, continually holding a hose over one of the bombs.

Also later on, we also got something called the V2 bomb, which were much more frightening in a way.  They were when the Germans were really being beaten.  And they went up, and nobody knew, they went right up in the sky and came down nearly silently until they got near the ground and therefore no alerts could be given, and [they] were more frightening.  Again, it was at the weekend, and Geoffrey and I heard the alert but there didn’t seem any reason at that moment, and we looked up and we suddenly heard a sort of noise of something falling and then there was an explosion right away from us; almost in Kew Gardens and Geoffrey said, ‘I can see more or less the direction, I’ll go and look’, so he got on his bicycle and went off.  And when he got there, there was a large hole, quite a lot of damage round.  I don’t think there were many people because I think it was near a cemetery.  And they said, ‘oh it’s only a gas thing that’s exploded’, but I knew quite well that it wasn’t.  And after that, we had a lot more of these, and many people found them more frightening.

Because there was no warning?

Yes.  I mean, I used to go out with my next door neighbour shopping and take my bicycle too, and then if there was an alert, I’d get on the bicycle and get home quickly to do my job.  Or sometimes, if they were near, we’d both lie down in the kerb – didn’t help us very much.

Which bombs were called ‘doodlebugs’?

Those were the V1s.  Yes, the first kind, they were a pilotless aircraft.  Geoffrey had been told about them but he was told that they would go along…sent off with nobody in it.  They went on a designed height always, and direction.  So after a bit you could guess, more or less.  This is why they tried shooting them not very successfully, in the one case.  They had a light it was said, out at the front.  One day, actually Geoffrey’s parents, because it had been calm for a bit, came to stay with us on their way to changing house and we put them in our own air raid shelter, and then we got an alert, to our surprise, and everybody went out looking and Geoffrey was going along a road nearby and he saw this funny object with light coming out of the other end to what he’d expected.  Well he didn’t really know much about it.  And there he was met by a man there who said , ‘well, I’ll tell you that this is a new kind of bomb’, it wasn’t quite, we knew about it but we didn’t know very much.  Because they sent them off at regular intervals, and I don’t know where they were first heard, perhaps coming over the coast, we were then able to alert our people and send them out on patrol and so there were some people available quickly to come to the post to tell us where they fell.  And, as I said you could tell, to some extent once they’d started they would be going for sure in a straight line.  In fact we have got a map, which Geoffrey has planned, of all the bombs that fell.  Every kind, I don’t say every incendiary but all the V1 bombs and, I think, the famous bomb that had to be watered all the time, I think as well. 

Later, after the war…the stick, which was usually a certain number, one we couldn’t hear, had no report of where it had fallen.  Later on , after the war was over, an un-exploded bomb was found exactly where we thought this one should be.  So we felt justified in marking that on the map as well.

So mostly you were concerned with things to do with air raids.  That was your job.  Did you have alerts sounded by siren, or what sort of thing?

The alerts came through by telephone.  We got it before anyone else.

You knew and then there was a public warning.  Was that a siren?

It was a siren, yes, and when it was finished and safe, you had another siren and there were a different sound so you knew.  The only things that didn’t know where the cats , and they always rushed into the house whether it was…(laughter) rather funny.

What about all the other things that happened, like people getting bombed out of their houses and so on.  Was there a team of people to look after them?  That wasn’t anything to do with you, was it?

We had to do it.  This is part of the reporting.  The wardens would report how many houses were damaged and if there was anyone who knew a bit of first aid, they could do it on the spot.  But they all, sort of more or less [knew] how many ambulances were needed and how many rescue teams.  In fact, rescue teams had to learn because, right at the very beginning, very sadly, they had a bomb on a United Reform Church and flats nearby.  And when the time Geoffrey had been told about, he was in charge, an Incident Officer they called it, and there was one or two in each post.  And they could hear people speaking but they didn’t realise the danger of taking the stuff off and they were suffocated very sadly, by the air.  This is how the heavy rescue people, of course, had to learn all these things.  It wasn’t always very easy.

So the first people suffered really, while everyone else was learning what to do?

Yes, or course, like any job, you’ve got to learn it.

You say you were appointed an air-raid warden and there was training and so on.  Who was in overall charge of the operations in the borough – was it the borough council or what?

Yes, the Borough Council.  I think it was the Town Clerk who was known as the person.  But of course, he had to learn as well.  He was later helped by these trained reconnaissance officers.

I was going to sat because we were there alone with the gas masks, our post, probably everybody’s post, became a regular port of call for people, and they would come and ask for information and sometimes help.  And I can remember two funny things that happened.  This was before the war even started.

One old lady in my road rang up and said would I come and inspect her gas mask after a certain time.  I didn’t know how to inspect it, but still, I think she was lonely you see, and of course we were only too pleased.

Another lady in a big house in Gwendolyn Avenue asked if we could make parts of our house gas free.  And she got one room, quite a long room with a very good cupboard, and she wondered whether that could be done.  I said, of course, I’m not an expert, but I’ll come along and see you first anyhow.  So along I went and she had this big cupboard, all the way down the side of a big room.  When she opened it, it was full of fur coats.  Never seen so many, except in a shop before.  I don’t know [who] she was.  Of course there were people who reported that there was an air raid.  And you always had to send somebody to see.  In the end you didn’t hurry, perhaps, quite so quickly.  We could tell from the sound and that no wardens had reported it.

I think it was quite a friendly group we were.

This interview can be found in our local history files regarding World War II.


Home Front, Women

13-19 June 1916: Coping with a husband in the Forces

The Batstone family, as mentioned in this post, kept the majority of their letters and many diaries, which give a great insight into how one family dealt with the war. They had two young children when Walter was called up, and in this week in June 1916 he was away training whilst Maree tried to handle things at home.

Maree Batstone only wrote one diary entry this week, which started with her receiving two letters from her husband Walter in the morning and afternoon posts. Walter was training in Edinburgh, based in Bruntsfield School, and in his letter explained that he had “been re-drafted + Am now in the 9th draft (when last I sw you I was in the 7th).  Dye & I & abot 12 men are on the board tonight as drafted with the 9th draft, isn’t it amusing.  I am afraid I have this job at any rate tomorrow – I shall be glad when it is over”.

According to Maree’s diary, the “job” was that of Orderly Corporal – meaning long days, Walter even includes a schedule of his day for her, starting at 4.45am. At 5.30am he had to do the rounds to ask is anyone was going sick and take details, at 6am they had to attend at Gillespie School with a list of defaulters (this is James Gillespie’s School, which is 5- 10 minutes walk away).  By 7am he was making out sick reports in triplicate and breakfast was at 7.45am.  Lights out were at 10.15pm, after a day of sorting mail and other duties – “you are always on duty and liable to provide men for any emergency – today, two men to fetch beer for the sergeants mess”.

His second latter was dealing more with family business and answering questions she had sent him, including whether or not he required his birth certificate. There was also a complicated answer to a question about the family account with the piano tuner, where it was not clear if the account had been paid – something that became more complex due to all discussions having to be done by post.  Maree appeared to be struggling slightly with their daughter Molly, who was a toddler, Walter’s response was hopefully lighthearted: “Am so very sorry you are having such a beast of a time with Molly – she is a naughty little swab-hound and ought to be spanked, can you pack her off (as a boarder) to Em’s School?”

The rest of Maree’s day revolved around cycling into town to get Devonshire cream for her Aunt Emily’s birthday, shopping for her mother, and trying to put the children to bed early – slightly disturbed by a visitor coming after they had been bathed.

Letters from Walter Batstone to Maree, ref: D211/2/1/16

Maree Batstone’s diary, ref: D211/18/2/14