I met Hilda two weeks after she moved into a respite unit where she was staying until a permanent room could be found in a specialist care home. Having struggled to care for herself at home she was moved in at short notice with a small suitcase of clothes, a bag of toiletries and little else. She did not appear to have been told, or retain the memory of being told, that this was the first step towards a permanent move into care. When we met she was sitting at a dining room table telling three sleeping residents about her wartime experiences.
The first section of this story sketches in Hilda’s background using a few paragraphs from ten conversations spread out over four months. Section two is a transcription of one session shortly after her move into a new permanent care home.
This should all be written down so people would know what it was like. The truth is the truth and it’s best out. It’s so long pushed away out of sight that we were still living people back then, tucked away in the war. I was terrified. I’d run out into the street screaming and lie face down in the middle of the road. It all gets very mixed up now but I can visualise it still, going through my head like a film.
When I think about it now even walking to school was a hazard. Mother would take us to the local school three blocks down. Suddenly a plane comes over and there’s a boom, boom, boom… and then the other way… kiddies right in the middle of it. I remember standing under the trees on the opposite side of the road when the machine guns were going... sparks from the bullets hitting the path. Suddenly there was a screeching sound and a German plane was coming down low shooting people at random. I looked up and I could see the faces of the Germans in the plane. I saw the remains of people in the street and the milk float all shot to pieces. A kiddie shouldn’t see that.
My first memory is getting all my teeth out. I remember my mother holding my hand, walking me along the lane with the air force base on one side and the army camp on the other side. My teeth were bad from a poor diet and a lack of proper vitamins and my brother was even worse than me. I had all my teeth taken out before I was five years old.
I was always running to dad rather than my mother. He was an unusual man, a weightlifter, a banjo player, a London to Brighton cyclist. He worked at the brewery throughout the wartime. The forces needed someone to maintain their liquor. He kept the brewery going practically single-handed for four years.
He and his friends used to do patrols at night in the air raids. He once went out with a buddy into one of the camps nearby. Him and his mate were carrying a man injured by shrapnel. Suddenly there was a siren and they didn’t know where to run for cover so they dropped the stretcher on the floor in the middle of the road and ran into a doorway. The poor bloke was left in the road with shrapnel falling down all around him.
I was still in the Girl Guides at the beginning of the war. I was jumping around playing with my friends and not really thinking of what might happen or what was happening. I remember my father digging the hole in the garden to build the shelter. I would have been four years old.
I was terribly frightened… a shaking person… nothing was explained but there was no explanation needed… the war was almost in our back garden. There was a little wooden railing and then you were right in the middle of the camp. They were so close that the barrel of the anti aircraft gun used to tilt over the top of our shelter into our garden… boom… and the ground used to shake.
I stood there and watched the first aeroplanes going over, lowering their bomb doors. You could see every metal rivet on the wings. Then it all started. Aeroplanes coming over and being shot down… and the other way… aeroplanes shooting and bombing the heath ground… guns shooting and shooting to bring the bombers down before they got to central London. The German planes flying back from raids shot at us.
The house that we lived in was a little picnic bungalow prefab built for the returning First World War troops… a wooden bungalow type thing with white walls made of corrugated asbestos sheet. It was no protection at all really, no matter how much my father put additional pieces all round the house. By the time he’d finished it was like he’d built a house from the outside inwards.
A bomb went straight through my bedroom and blew the windows out. I can still see where bits of shrapnel were sticking out through my pillowcase. Can you imagine what would have happened if I’d not been in the shelter? I can still see that fear in me now. It blew the wall down… the ceiling was down… the bed things were all strewn about. My father dragged us out and put us in the shelter… we hadn’t been prepared for it. I remember when the siren went we’d have to wait for my granny. She had trouble stepping over the ridge into the shelter. It was always a panic. My dad would be having to throw her through the door. When you think my first memories were probably the war… it almost seems like part of me. I know it seemed strange when there wasn’t a war… when things were quiet… when the lights came on.
The troops used to have fun with the children… they’d kick a rugby ball around or play with a skipping rope with us. They were children themselves many of them. Looking back I was terrified… literally shaking all the time and there was nothing they could do would stop that. I’d have my head buried down in the cushion with blankets over my ears. I’m still nervous in thunderstorms. You could feel the resounding of the bombs. There was an air force camp close by. Planes would come in landing munitions. They were so close to the back of our shelter that the Germans bombing the base bombed us.
My father got time off from the brewery to come and see us off at the station… Plumstead or Woolwich… we practically lived at Woolwich Station half the time… then we were away… we didn’t know where… no idea… just that it would be safer for us. They were spreading out some of the people that lived on the estate near the army camp. People in the village picked out who they wanted to give a room to.
At one time we ended up housed in a church. We had to sleep on old mattresses on the floor. There were a couple of dozen people sleeping in the icy cold. We had to build bonfires outside and bring shovels of hot coals inside to the fireplace. There was dust and dirt flying about and blowing in… it was filthy… untouched for years and then boarded up. I remember playing between the pews with my brother. Eventually they recognised it wasn’t healthy for us so we were re-housed in the cinema over Christmas. We spent quite a bit of time in the cinema. We had a bucket to wash and do our bits and pieces in. I spent Christmas in there making paper chains.
Most people seemed to welcome us but one old lady wanted to make sure nobody was sent to live in her house so she put poison in her water. They were very much like that, some of the old people. We’d still see raids going over to Nottingham so we were far from out of it. We’d be getting the tail of the bombers unloading before they scurry back to Germany. We weren’t much safer than London. There were planes going overhead all the time.
I saw a big bomber plane shot down practically on top of us in the local schoolyard. We had to walk down the lane to school with my mother… when we got nearer the school there was firing and things going on overhead so we ran into the farmer’s yard and lay among the straw and the bales of hay. My mother was gathering us around her. The plane crashed nearby. I think it must have been German because they made no rush at all in getting anybody out. Really, that’s how it was… first shot… hit… down.
Then it all seemed to slow down. People were coming back after being evacuated and the soldiers started coming home. The airmen moved out and people were re-housed in the base. I remember the excitement. I remember it so clearly. The streets were piled high with rubble from the bombed buildings… scrapped with rubble… all to be cleared out before the parties… the windows were loaded with flags… different streamers and things… people dancing… happy that someone was coming home.
I remember the quietness and satisfaction of meeting with your friends in the garden again… no sirens… no more having to carry your gasmask… nine out of ten times you’d forget it or you’d be in the shelter and it’d be left where it was on the kitchen table.
DC. Would you like to continue with this next week?
I would but I don’t know if I’ll still be here next week… I’ll have to see where I’m billeted.
DC. Where should we start?
How do these things start? I’ve no idea at all… except that they were getting loaded down with the number of people that wanted to do the… go there and have questions and… sorry I’ve forgotten what I’m saying… people and… I don’t know.
I can’t seem to work out when I was married… do you know I’ve forgotten my wedding date. I was born in 1935… then there was the war and then peacetime… mainly the war… parties at the brewery. Strange that I can’t remember anything at all about my own marriage… I can’t even remember how we met… how odd… I don’t know now if I’ve ever known… it really is very strange I can’t think how I met my husband… so annoying… probably a party or some midnight place… it’s not so clear as the earlier memories.
We both clicked straight away. I know I miss him… we were both in hospital together with cancer… he was the number one to die at Christmas time… it was all very stressful. I think maybe I’ve put it to the back of my mind. I know he wasn’t very bright… I used to help him with his reading and writing but it wasn’t his fault… his schooldays were completely ruined by the war… his school was all destroyed… a war place with everything dropping on it.
I worked with Hardy Amis. He was very flamboyant. We were working in the basement… about ten or twelve girls all doing the hand sewing round a table. We could look up and we’d see the young men walking in and out. Everybody knew what was going on… there were no secrets. He had royal friends and the ladies used to adore him so I don’t think he was ever in trouble.
We made dresses for Jean Shrimpton and Shirley Bassey and Princess Margaret. I remember Margaret was so excitable. We made this elegant white cotton dress that had to fit all over her body to make her feel good and give her all the attention. What I do remember is that the state of her underwear was frightful… this perfect woman had awful grey bloomers down to her knees. She had the old baggy elastic round the knees bloomers and a bra that came right up to her chin so she was well protected.
DC. People say they always remember where they were when Kennedy was shot and when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Do you remember where you were?
I don’t remember either. I remember the rockets flying over and falling on our house… I think we suspected it was going on outside… you couldn’t see it from the ground… I think being the moon up there and undergoing the sort of bombing in the shelter… and flying over… I think it took the edge off the moon… I wasn’t there.
I think it’s interesting that at the end of the last session you said that you didn’t quite know where you would be because you were waiting to be ‘billeted’.
Billeted! That’s a word from the wartime. Why did I say that? Billeted… well that’s right, we were billeted… evacuated and travelling… moving out and arrivals. I remember being at the station with groups of families with children… not so much the man of the house, they were all off fighting… all women just like this. We were waiting in groups with our names and labels tucked onto our uniforms and dresses… everything had labels sewn on, same as here. I was excited… not nervous… just waiting for a train… doing something different. I think I can remember an air raid at the station so we had to take cover. This is like yesterday. I remember the air raid warden ushering everybody down to a shelter at the other and of the platform… oh goodness. I remember looking out of the train window with my brother… climbing on the seats and looking out.
I can see it like it’s today… the people coming out of the station with their bundles of clothing. We were all parked in a circle with the old women from the church… then they sorted out some kind of order in which they wanted to house us… Martha Somebody we ended up with… is that right? That name just came into my head.
I’d like to show you some photographs of the street parties after the war but they’re all lost recently. I was looking for them in the restaurant down in Piccadilly where we were having a party the other day. I never found them at the time… not found… very good photographs they were… they went there in a parcel and they arrived somewhere back stage. I remember seeing it, this package on the stage, I tried to make a move for it, somehow I couldn’t get there, and suddenly they seemed to be brushed away somewhere but I can still see it all in my mind now… my grandmother’s party… we were there… we did them all… and the big party at the brewery. I can only remember how things were for us… nothing for the history books.
I remember coming back on the train from Rempstone… with flags flying from the train windows… looking out of the train window and seeing all the bomb damage and all the bunting in the streets… picking the sticky tape off the windows. Plenty of my school friends had their houses pulled down because of the danger… the damage. I can’t recall it all. All this comes and goes in the brain.
It doesn’t seem possible but I went back to school after the war. It really feels like my whole life was before the war. How old would I have been… eleven or twelve? So most of this is before I was ten? How is that possible? But… yes… I did go back to school… I remember where I was… St Michael’s down near the church… at the foot of Lodge Hill… I have some good school photographs… war and shelters. I didn’t stand up to it very well… I was terrified of the bombing… I used to shake with my hands over my head… it still makes me want to get down under the bed.
DC. Can you remember moving out from your parent’s house?
Into the wild, wild world… not really… it’s a bit hazy… isn’t that strange? It’s not clear at all… I remember finishing school and the art school and taking a little job when I left the art school… my first job as a dressmaker… a smaller dress company. I really can’t remember much of anything afterwards… this is so strange there is a whole area of my lifetime and I really can’t remember it and yet it had the greatest effect on my career. There must have been something happening… I can remember the tea parties… but that’s the war again. I think the other memories are all still there… but I can’t seem to bring the later things forward… and why does it seem to stick out for being the wartime? I have a flickering of a thought of later things and then I can’t grip it. It all seems to fold back into the wartime.
DC. Have you always been able to remember your early childhood with this clarity? I certainly can’t do so well.
Really? It does seem clearer now like pictures coming up in my head. My husband… did you ask me before how we met? I think it was in the cinema… yes it was! During the interval… he was sitting beside me on his own and he started chatting to me… that’s it… quite clear… it clicked… the memory… it was the Granada Cinema at… I don’t know Woolwich or Welling… he came in during the interval and he must have seen me because he came right over and sat down… he was probably looking round during the interval so as I walked in he sort of shuffled along to make room for me to sit down… I remember… he was chatty… I can remember his hands going to work.
He was a salesman of some sort down in the market… it wasn’t such a cosy job but that’s what he did… I think he got his hands on some cheap watches and he was selling them… he was a sort of dodgy character… a bit of a Del Boy. You didn’t know quite how to take him… he was fun… he wasn’t at all miserable… he was always a happy person… he’d sit for hours talking to my father when he was over at our place… how they’d put the world to rights.
Tommy was a very good amateur boxer. He boxed at the Albert Hall quite a few times… and a few pub fights in his own back yard around Holborn. I saw him do somebody over once. He liked his drink didn’t he… and he’d get into the odd argument in the pub and the next thing was the fists would start flying… The drinks go down and the fists go up. I was there a number of times to see it… I should have known better but I didn’t… he had such a charisma about him that you just wanted to be with that person… he had a tough life, did Tommy. I think he boxed bare knuckle in the streets for money every now and again… I thought it was all rather exciting… he had the odd cut here and there around the face but he was OK. He could carry a punch.
We were engaged for about a year. I remember my own wedding quite clearly… I got married in the registry office… I can’t remember where… I was just going to say it and it went… my family and my parents and my brother… they all came over and crowded into our bed-sit flat for a few drinks… it was pretty poorly… no that’s the wrong word… small… a small gathering of people… Tom wasn’t doing so well… I was the breadwinner… he’d go off for three or four days to Norfolk where he had people who’d buy his dodgy watches. He said he had receipts for them but I think they’d been faked in case the police stopped him.
Tom had children from his first marriage and… you know I can’t even remember their names… it’s as if someone has just come in and wiped them off the board… funny. I can see their faces. I took my husband’s children as my own.
Sorry, I’ve lost track. We’re talking about childhood, is that right? What happened to circus people in the war? They’d come and put the tents up next to the bandstand. We used to stand pressed against the base of the bandstand watching them play on the stage… the old bandsman with his long oompah trumpet over his shoulder. My parents would be sitting having a drink on the grass. I remember being below the bandstand level looking up so I must have been very small… four or five… just been able to stretch to put my face over the top.
After the war a Pandora’s box opened and everything came back to life… it was there new, like it’s never been again. My dad played all the old-fashioned jazz type music. I’ve got a liking for jazz myself… I’ve been to quite a few jazz clubs over the years… Humphrey Littleton’s place… he was brilliant… he had a younger expression… he played that rather than the old type.
Each night would be different to the next… a crowd of people from the art schools going from place to place. I can remember something going on in a basement in Gerard Street… Mick Mulligan I remember… art students doing something bohemian. I can remember meeting a lot of the young artists who were in favour at the time… crowds of people. It didn’t occur to me that we were creating something… it just seemed natural… just be there and enjoy the night. Potter off and come back two days later and do the same thing again. I think it all started to go bad with the… what was it… those boys… the Beatles… I think it went out with their music… it wasn’t so highly jazzed up as before... it just seemed to pass me over.
People come and go… it’s hard to remember. George Melly I knew... I was going to tell you something and it’s gone… he used to play in the club just off Regent Street… it was a place full of all jazz people drinking together… this must be in the 1950’s. George used to drink and drink and drink but what a fantastic character. I was well in with them all… drinking after hours in the back room. Tom used to come along sometimes… I’d come to see him box and he’d come with me. Sometimes we didn’t stay together… I’d go off to the jazz club and Tom would go off and see his mates in Piccadilly and get in a fight… that’s life.
We danced to whatever was being played but the jazz scene seemed to disappear… maybe television took some of the crowds off… people sat in more than they would have done before… instead of being down a club somewhere they’d sit in and watch television instead… it completely turned round peoples’ idea of what entertainment was… don’t go out… sit down and eat your egg sandwich in front of the Coronation Street.
(Hilda died the same day)
 During Hilda’s last month in respite care she started to refer to the other residents as passengers and the care home as a train.