Chapter 1

Before the Balloon Went Up

I wasn't very old on 3rd September 1939, the day World War Two was declared. Five years and three months to be exact. They say you don't remember much of what happened in your early life and certainly not much at all before five years of age, unless, that is, you experience something violent or sensational then every minute detail can be recalled. I suppose the start of a World War and the events leading up to it must have been at least in the "sensational " category to a small boy, because I clearly remember that first day of the war. It was, in fact, two days after my sister and I were evacuated, together with several thousands of other children, from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. We were amongst the millions who were evacuated from the cities and towns most likely to be bombed, and sent to live in safe rural areas in the country until all danger had passed. My memories of those events and the war years that followed are as fresh in my mind as if they were yesterday.

I can remember plenty of things that happened before the evacuation, "before the balloon went up", as they used to say; from when I was four and even three years of age. Some of these things were not only violent and sensational but were also very frightening to me - such as the time they came to take my father away after he threw Mother down the stairs. I shall always remember that day. The shouting and arguing in the bedroom, then Mother tumbling down the stairs, picking herself up and bustling me and my sister out of the front room to the kitchen, then behind the slammed front room door the scraping and bumping of overturning furniture as Father, in one of his uncontrollable rages, roared and bellowed words we could not understand. Brenda, my sister, sat with me on the bottom tread of the stairs; she held my hand tightly and looked frightened, not knowing what to say to an even more terrified small brother.

"I saw some blood on Mummy's face."
"It's all right Georgie."
"Will she die?"
"Of course not."

Brenda was fifteen months older than me and I resented this. I was always trying to catch her up but never seemed able to. As soon as I was almost there - three when she was four, then four when she was five - she had another birthday and was two years older than me again; it just wasn't fair. All my friends had younger sisters and that's the way I wanted it to be. Some of our neighbours were standing at the front garden fence, they knew of Father's violent rages and the illness that caused them and they often took us to their houses until he simmered down a bit. Valerie's mother from next door knocked loudly on the front door and spoke through the letter box. We could only see her eyes and she said to open the door, but the Yale latch was too hard to turn so she said to push the key through, because she knew it was on a string.

A policeman came soon after that, but Valerie's mother had already taken us into her house and sat us down. We saw an ambulance pull up outside our home and two men in white coats take Father away on a stretcher, his arms and legs restrained by belts which held him tightly. Brenda waved from the window, as she always did when she saw him leaving for work, except that this time he wasn't waving back. We watched as the men in white coats carefully loaded the stretcher into the ambulance and closed the doors.

"Why are you crying Brenda?"
"Because Daddy's going away, in an ambulance."
"Does he hurt?"

All this happened on 1st February 1938, and I know it was this date because I have a letter which says so. I was born on 26th May 1934, so was less than four years of age when I witnessed this awful episode in my life, one which makes all others pale to insignificance and that includes the declaration of World War Two and the evacuation.

Soon after this, Mother was sent a letter saying he was to be kept at the Portsmouth mental hospital, known as St. James, and was not expected to be released. We knew this hospital well and had often been there to attend the out-patients department with Father. The grounds and buildings were fenced off with high railings and a locked gate, almost like a prison, which it was, of course, to many of the inmates. As children, Brenda and I were never to see him again. Mother, to our knowledge, never visited there, and we were expected to accept that he never existed, which was impossible for us to believe when we had always known him as a good Daddy, who never hurt or harmed us in any way.

Photograph of my sister Brenda and me, taken just prior to evacuation in 1939Photograph of my sister Brenda and me, taken just prior to evacuation in 1939

And so we kept our dreadful secret. Mother would never talk to us about him and became very angry if we asked anything. All Brenda and I knew about him was if we listened at half closed doors to whispered conversations, and heard terrible things about the father we had lost. Eventually we were told he was dead, which we did not entirely believe - especially after hearing more conversations and stories about how ill he was, when we listened again at those same half closed doors. But at least it served to close embarrassing conversations on the subject of our father, death being much more honourable than divorce or prison, and infinitely more so than being in a mental asylum. Mental illness was not understood in those days, families being ashamed or downright embarrassed if anybody in their family was known to be in such a place. I know that I always blushed at the mention of my father and this continued throughout my childhood.

After he was taken away, Mother earned what she could to supplement her income. She swept out clubs and dance-halls at two shillings a time, with me trailing along with her. Brenda was already attending school but it was a long time before I would start. Mother sold everything of value to raise some money -insurance policies, jewellery, clothes, pieces of furniture, and most of the things belonging to my father. Even his World War One medals were sold, those same medals that he had pinned on me and let me march around the room. I remember that once he placed a lighted cigarette in my mouth as well and said, "You're a proper soldier now Georgie", and it felt good because this was something girls could never do. He had applied for a War pension back in 1928, but as this was for a nervous disability - not easily recognisable in the same way as a missing leg or gassed lungs - he was not awarded one. Not many in this category were. The horrors of trench warfare in that dreadful war, the paralysing fear, the mud and the effects of "shell shock" (a term hardly known then let alone understood) were to cause many ex-servicemen to suffer for the rest of their lives. My father's illness was eventually diagnosed as a form of schizophrenia, but I think they were only guessing and it was years before any effective treatment was available for his condition.

It was serious enough for families with a breadwinner, but for us it became desperate. We had no immediate family living nearby, Mother and Dad having moved from their home town of Sheffield to Portsmouth during the mass unemployment of the early thirties, in the hope of finding work. The allure of Portsmouth's sea air and the promise of a council house, with bathroom and garden, was much more appealing than the factory chimneys of Sheffield, home of thirsty steel workers and coal miners for generations, with its cobbled streets and row upon row of smoke-blackened terraced houses. It probably seemed the right thing to do at the time, before becoming trapped by a regular wage packet and half a football team of kids, in "Mucky Sheffield". That was how Mother and Dad came to live at Portsmouth.

Mother struggled on, living a life balanced between deceit and martyrdom. For reasons known only to her she did not ask for help from her family in Sheffield, or consider returning there. It would have been the easy way out, the close community spirit and family support of her home town would have solved everything. But better starve than admit failure in her eyes; nobody was going to tell her, "I told you so". My sister and I knew that the next stop for us was the children's home, the thought of which we dreaded. Mother threatened us with this if we were naughty, or told us tearfully when there seemed no end to the burden and stress of living for her.

We lived near the sea. It was no more than fifty yards from our house, where a small inlet from Langstone Harbour led to a boatyard and quay. A high corrugated iron fence with large double gates and a sign saying, "PARKSWAY QUAY", overshadowed our foreshore playground. Each new tide brought exciting flotsam to be picked over, discussed, and maybe even taken home. At low tide we could walk out to seaweed-covered rocks and rock pools, where shells, scuttling crabs or small fleeting fish were always to be found. One evening we came home late, why we were out so late I can't remember. Mother was pushing me along in a pushchair of some kind. I could walk of course, but with me in a pushchair and Brenda holding on we could travel much faster, and save on bus fares as well. She walked past our house instead of going in and we giggled as children do when adults do something wrong. Mother always carried a bottle of water, to pour on one of the wheels which squeaked. It stopped the noise for a while until it dried out, then she would go through the whole performance again.

She stooped to water the wheel but didn't say anything, then walked to the sea wall. I felt a sense of danger and could see Brenda was opening and closing her fingers, which she always did when she was nervous. Familiar things were no longer happening. A dog barked in the distance and the sound travelled across the water to break the silence that surrounded the three of us. The tide was out and Mother stood close to the edge of the sea wall. Normally the water lapped the wall at high tide and was dangerous because there was no hand-rail. The moon shone on the mud, highlighting an old bicycle wheel and other debris. The smell of rotting marine life hung heavily on the night air and the mud was shining and glistening, like some great frozen lake; so unlike the yielding softness we knew so well in the daytime. Why Mother went to the sea wall that night I shall never know. She never did it again. On reflection, maybe I should be glad the tide was out - perhaps our mother had wished it was in.

As the likelihood of war escalated, Mother's spirits rose. She must have been one of the very few people, with the notable exception of Herr Hitler, who was actually looking forward to the onset of hostilities. The evacuation of children in the event of war had been contemplated and partially planned over one year previously, London sending several thousand children to safe rural areas following the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938, but they were soon returned.

Page of Meon Road (infants) School Log Book Meon Road (infants) School Log Book, with entries for the period covering the evacuation.

It had been decided that Local Authorities would be responsible for the evacuation of, "Danger Zones", of which Portsmouth was one. The names of all school children were registered at their schools, Brenda's and mine being added to the list of Meon Road infant school, in the Milton district of Portsmouth.

Preparations for war, apart from the evacuation itself, had been going on for some time. This gave an atmosphere of fear and nervous anticipation, where everyone seemed to talk of nothing else. The delivery and erection of air raid shelters was feverishly in progress; either in peoples' gardens, as an "Anderson" shelter, or inside the house as a "Morrison" shelter, which was in the form of a stout metal table one sheltered beneath. If neither of these family shelters were suitable then brick built shelters were available, built in roads or on spare ground, or in school playgrounds, which could accommodate large numbers of people. All types had been tested, and apart from a direct hit could survive any blast from a high explosive bomb. We had an Anderson shelter erected in our garden at Eastern Avenue. The shelter was installed half underground, set in concrete, and half above, the top curved sheets of corrugated steel being covered with soil which soon became overgrown with weeds. Some neighbours planted vegetables and flowers on them, but we planted blackberry suckers on ours; it was to be another twenty-five years before the rampant growth of these bushes was halted and fifty years before the shelter was removed - Mother refusing to pay the thirty shillings asked by the Council to demolish them after the war. Even after fifty years they were still serviceable enough to store compost and grow mushrooms, a tribute to their sound construction.

Brenda and I only slept in this Anderson shelter once, which was when we came back to Portsmouth for Christmas 1940. The Blitz was at its height during that month, but a truce had been agreed with Germany for two days of the Christmas period - Christmas day - and Boxing day - but nobody really believed it would hold. We heard one bomb explode on Christmas Eve, so scooted to our garden shelter. Unfortunaterly the sunken refuge followed the water table, and water started to rise through the floor at around midnight.

Sleep was impossible and fear of drowning imminent, so we moved back to the house.There where no further bombs over the Christmas period (as promised), but an air-raid began the following day. We therefore returned to the Isle of Wight quickly, relating in fine detail to our village friends with wild exaggeration the horrors of the war which we hoped they would never have to face as we had.

Gas maskGas masks were issued to every civilian, for protection against poison gas, a weapon expected to be used immediately by Germany because of its effectiveness in the First World War. We had to carry them at all times in a strong cardboard box, which was provided with a cord to sling over the shoulder. Posh kids had a special case made out of material, or even leather, but it was still cumbersome to carry around with you. The mask was made of rubber which sealed itself to the contours of the face and had a long, pig-like snout, which housed a replaceable filter. Straps went over the head and there was an oval window to see through. A "Micky Mouse" model was available for young children, which I was actually offered, but I would rather have been gassed than be seen in one of those.

At school, we practised putting the mask on and off and keeping them on for a few minutes. We did this in the classroom and out of doors and even did lessons with them on. Some children, especially infants, simply couldn't be made to wear them and I found that if you cried long enough, you could get away with it. A class of children, looking like a flock of geese with shorn-off beaks, caused some laughter at first. Not that laughter, or speech, could be heard much 'with them on. Shouting helped, but that needed more air, so deep breaths were required to fill the lungs again. This caused a rasping "rude" sound, which increased in volume as one took deeper and deeper breaths, which then, made the visor mist up. Thus you ended up with a class of small children, some laughing, some gasping for breath, and others panicking because they couldn't see. The bribe of a sweet for those keeping the mask on longest did little to persuade us to keep the contraption on. How the teacher kept a straight face, watching the bobbing heads of small children, who were talking like mewing kittens, through misted masks, and all the time issuing noises like a herd of flatulent cows, is beyond comprehension.

On 1st September 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the evacuation order was given by the British Government. My sister and I were evacuated on this day and within three days most of the unaccompanied schoolchildren had also been transported to so-called safe areas. War was officially declared on Sunday, 3rd September 1939.

Mother's problems may have been solved, but ours were just beginning.

Evacuation PosterEvacuation Poster