Since a friend of mine and I are now in Y9 in a British school, it is the year to start our Duke of Edinburgh award, which is basically a type of tradition across all schools in the UK to do at 13-14 years old. There are 3 sections, including volunteering. For ours, we decided to team up and go volunteer in a Town Hall whilst it was hosting a Christmas dinner for the elderly. However, we wanted to take it a step further. We decided we wanted to learn more about the WW2 History of the people in Wandsworth, and so we conducted a few interviews with elderly people that had experienced the war. This is the full write-up of the first interview.
The questions aren’t grouped or in order of ‘theme’ or anything, because it is simply written down in the order we asked and answered questions, and some questions simply managed to make sense to ask during certain moments. However, if the conversation got a bit off track, you will notice that I ask a completely unfitting question to the last, but that will give us some interesting information about Wandsworth and the people themselves during WW2.
We met up with a 94 year old women called Joan Kimp. She was born 15 years before the war, in 1923, and so she was around 15 to 16 years old when the war began. From what we got to know about her family, she had a sister called Sybil, who was 2 years older than her. Her mother was called Sylvia, and she lived to be 103.5 years old. Joan married at 22 years old, the year the war ended, and had 3 children over the course of 10-20 years. Her first child was born in 1947, who’s name was Angela.
She was still at school when WW2 began, and planned on taking her A Levels the next summer. Sadly those plans were put to an end due to her evacuation. When Joan turned 16, she had to start working. Her description of her younger self was : “I was quite naive really” She worked at a post office located near Olympia.
How was it announced to you that a second world war had begun ?
“I was in a – I think it was a baptist church, that we went to on a Sunday morning. Soon after we got there, and suddenly during the service – and the minister stopped speaking and they made the announcement of the war; That had started with Germany. And then the sirens went straight away afterwards. And we all thought ‘ooh it’s going to be a raid’, but nothing happened. I don’t know why they sounded the-.. But uhm, yes that’s where I was. It was shocking to hear, because you had no idea what was going to happen. You didn’t know what war was like.”
Was the war a stressful environment for you as a teenager ?
“Yes it was, because we came home at the end of 1939, (from being evacuated to Windsor) the actual bombing started in 1940. So we were there for that.”
Her sister Sybil still went to school located on Trinity Road – Tooting, which her parents payed for.
“My husband, he was a conscientious objector. Because he was a christian, and he didn’t think it was right to kill. So – he went in the civil defence [picture] When an air raid went, if any houses got bombed, they had to go and dig people out – give them first aid and take them to the hospital. So they did quite a good job. He did that – first of all in London, and then they sent him to Devon. And we wondered, ‘its a nice place to go’ because it’s not somewhere you’d expect to be going during the war. And, in the end we found out why it was because they bombed Plymouth. I thought,.. Well there’s docks there. I met him at the church, there were a lot of people at the church married with each other, because there were a lot of young people. He died 10 years ago, he was 86 and I was 84. [we weren’t able to ask for his name]
My mother, lived to be 103.5 years old. So she did quite well. So maybe I’ve got some of her genes (:
We had a friend from the church (later found out his name was John) who was also a conscientious objector. You had quite a few actually. He went into the army medical core. And he was Dr. Arnum, at St. Hollands. And he was taken prisoner there.* Put in a prisoner-of-war camp. (HM Prison on Heathfield Rd.) But he came out, and he died only recently. He was about two years older than me. So he was about 96, or nearly 97. He sort of looked after the church when we first went, because we weren’t brought up in the church. And friends from school took us there. I was only 14 when I went there and I’ve been there now 80 years haven’t I ? He used to cycle down to Windsor on a Saturday sometimes, to see us.”
*the Royal Victoria Patriotic Building near Windmill road (Wandsworth) was also used as prisoner of war camp, as well as an asylum before that. (Joan mentioned that they probably did things such as harsh interrogation there) It is currently a performing arts school. Joan also remembered that a field that was close by used to be filled with cows at the time of the war. The Central London Golf Centre in Wandsworth used to also be a dairy farm.
“And the milkman, he used to come around with a horse and cart. And you had the milk in a jug, you didn’t have bottles (: You took a jug down to the street, and the milkman had great big churns, milk churns. He poured it into your jug, and you payed him and took the jug upstairs (: It’s funny really when you think about it isn’t it ? (: I think he did come around every day, because you didn’t have fridges to keep anything cold. I can remember my mother sending us to buy a quarter pound of butter that was usual sizes – half a pound. And you took a quarter – something like that. And it melted, because you were at the top of the house, and in the sun it melted. Got so hot.”
Were you in London during the Blitz ?
“Yes, I was in London. We were in BurntWood lane, second house in. So one time I can remember, my husband was home on weekend eve, the air raid siren went, and we stood in the back door – just looking out and the guns were going. They were very noisy they were ‘round Clapham Common. And then we saw this doodlebug. They were like a bomb with so pilot, and it was timed to cut out at a certain point, and when it cut out it didn’t drop straight down, it just went slowly all the way down and crashed when it came down. So this one, we saw it, and it cut out above us. It landed further up Tilehurst Road, and it knocked down two houses. You know, you heard this big bang. They had different kinds of bombs in those days. Doodlebugs. They chugged along like you know ‘chug chug chug chug’ always, and then on the playing fields – they had a barrage balloon. Great big thing, they blew it up and before the sirens went, the barrage balloons used to go up in the sky to stop any planes coming over. So you always knew, when you saw them going over, there was going to be a raid.
We had an air raid shelter, in the garden, in-between our next door neighbour and us. We sort of took the fence down and put it in-between. It was made of concrete. It was just all concrete blocks. Concrete floor, and no heating of course. It was really cold there in winter. And then there was bunks, around three sides. Two layers of bunks. Just wooden. We took something in to lie on, it was horrible because my father snored. We slept in there sometimes, it wasn’t very nice. It was damp and you couldn’t really sleep very well in there. So we used to lie in our beds until it got really really bad. At times we came downstairs and went under the dining room table, hoping that would keep a bit of the rubble of us. I think my father had the shelter built.
I’ll tell you one thing that’s interesting, we had a dog, and when the air raid sirens went, the dog was always the first to go by the door to go in the shelter (: I don’t know how he knew. I thought it was quite clever. Dogs are clever aren’t they (: I think at first, before we had that shelter built, there was a sliver (split) between our house at next door’s. So what they did was, they sandbagged the open end of it. Then we used to sit in there with our next door neighbours. If they wanted to go in there, you know, they didn’t always want to come in but.. You just sat in there and talked (:
We didn’t go in there unless it was going to get a very bad raid and it was very noisy, because the ‘ek ek’ gun, they call them on Clapham Common – really huge ones, and they made an awful lot of noise. Very very noisy, you could hear them firing at the bombers as they came out. And the noise of the bombers, you know the drone of them coming, if it got really bad you knew. You were kind of sitting there. You thought it was safe – it probably wasn’t really safe in there but (:
The nasty thing was, when you went to work, you didn’t know if your house was going to be there – if it was hit during the day. Fortunately for me, our house didn’t get hit. I suppose Clapham Junction got it quite a bit. But in Swanage Road, there’s some little flats, and it that place there were houses. They were bombed.”
Around there, there was a space with houses that got bombed as well, which remained as an empty space for quite a while.
“Sometimes they (destroyed buildings) were left for quite a while, and grass grew on the side you know. When the library was bombed, there was quite a big area of grass and wildflowers over there. And I remember our church had a mission. They had this man, and they took a piano out on the site, and I had to play the piano (: Funny when I think of it (: And they had the children, you know, in the services for the children. Now it’s got little flats on it now, rebuilt the library – but now it’s a children’s school. I miss it being the library because I used to go over there a lot, now it’s in Garret Lane (Wandsworth Town Library) I don’t go down there much, I did go in there this week to look if they had some books for sale. But the adult books were upstairs and I had my shopping trolley so I didn’t. I looked for children’s books but they didn’t seem to have many.”
Did you ever see any other forms of fighting than bombs, such as the use of infantry ?
“No, not in Wandsworth, but in Windsor – it’s like a garrison town isn’t it ? There were soldiers, often you’d see them take over a house. So you’d see them outside a house. And they’d say hello to you when you went by, you know we were school girls. That was quite interesting. But we weren’t allowed to go out, even to church, on our own without an adult. Because all these soldiers were around. They did take over places because the place where my husband was stationed in Devon, I went to see it and it was called Barton Hall. And it was originally like an old manor house, with big grounds and fields and stuff around it. Then the army took it over, habilitated the army in there. They did that quite often. Or made places into hospitals.
It must have been awful for hospitals in air raids, because they couldn’t push everybody somewhere safe could they ? They would take their change I suppose. I remember one day, when I was in the post office building, which is a very very huge building, I don’t know if its still there now but, in the basement they had the printing press things. And one day there was a raid and we were all made to go down in the basement. And there was all this machinery there. We were there almost all day because it was a really bad raid.”
Could you tell us anything about the use of rationing in WW2 ?
“You had a book of coupons, and you took that to the shop, they took the coupons out you know each week as you use them. So we had a tiny bit of butter, very tiny, a few eggs, two eggs or something.”
Where you used you tokens, was it a normal grocery shop, or was it a type of ‘special ration shop’ ?
“The Grocery. My father used to go right over to St. John’s Hill to a little tiny grocery shop, because there weren’t big supermarkets then so you went to small shops. He always wanted me to go. I used to go right over there with a pram with one baby in it, and the other one toddling along, or sitting on the end of the pram – to get my shopping. Then I couldn’t do that anymore, and I had three of them. So I went to Alfarthing Lane School, and opposite there there used to be shops. And one of them was called St. Anne’s Dairy. They’re Welsh people. And the father had a milk-round. The three girls, Betty, Jenny and Eleanor – they were nice girls – they worked in the shop. And just behind the counter they each had their own little bit. In those days, you didn’t have very much. You had tins on the shelf of the back and, if you wanted any bacon they would slice it. And they cut the cheese up into bits, you know you didn’t have it all ready like they do now. It was quite different really.”
And I suppose that there wasn’t any candy or chocolate or things like that ?
“No, that was all rationed. And fruit, you know, nobody had bananas – or oranges. Because that came from abroad.
We had coupons for clothes. So, you didn’t have many clothes in the war. I can remember, because I worked in the big post office, I used to get on the bus at lunchtime sometimes. You only had 3/4 of an hour. I got on the bus and went up to Kensington High Street, and look to see if there was anything in any of the big shops. And I once got like a sheet of cotton material, but it was coloured. It happened to be pink, and my mother-in-law made me a dressing gown out of it.
My wedding dress was made of lace, cotton lace, I managed to get that without coupons. Then I had it stolen from the bus afterwards. My mother told someone to put it on the bus, you know the buses were different in those days. As you got to the little places under the stairs, where you put cases. Somebody must have just got off with it. So I lost my wedding dress, my headdress and vile, shoes, everything was in that one case. It was rather sad. I was married in 1945 in June. I was married at Westside church, but it looked different then because it had stairs down the middle. Since then, because it got blasted.”
Noah’s Ark Nursery Schools, which is connected to the church, used to be the library.
“Before that there was another library. And that library was bombed. But it was a landmine. In those days they had these great big bombs, bigger than the usual bomb, they dropped it and it came down by parachute. And then when they exploded they really covered a big area. Where all the new little new flats are, that was all bombed. There were all houses there. There was another house in Melody Road quite near that must have been either hit by a bomb, because there is a more modern house there. Usually when you see a gap with a house that doesn’t quite match the other, it was a bomb.
I can remember going to work, and this was before I was married, on a number 19, and its 209 now, and I used to go right to the top and then go down Alma Road and get the 28 sometimes. And that day, as we went by on the bus, I could see all the smoke and dust coming out from near the church. And I thought ‘Oh I hope its not the church that’s gone’ or ‘I hope nobody’s got killed’. The church was quite blasted. You know it had a lot of windows broken, and it had to be rebuilt – a bit of it. The library had gone, and the houses around it had gone. That was quite a nasty one there.”
Did anyone who you were personally close with pass away during the course of the war ?
“The only person in my family was my cousin, he was married with three children, and he was on the Lancastria when it was coming back from Dunkirk. Not a small boat, it’s a big one. You had people on it as well as, forces – people, you know. He was on that, and the Germans came as it was returning to England, it bombed it, so it was sunk. I think they must have found his body, because I think he’s got a grave in France somewhere. Loads of people killed on that.”
The Lancastria was ordered by the British to act as a form of evacuation. Many people other than soldiers from Dunkirk were aboard for evacuation. The sinking of the Lancastria was described as “Britain’s worst maritime disaster in history”, therefore also being one of the most famous ships to ever sink due to German attacks. About 4,000 people lost their lives, which is the largest amount of people to die in one event in British Maritime History. The fact that Joan’s cousin has a grave somewhere in France would make sense, as the ship was sunk near the French port of Saint-Nazaire. Winston Churchill ordered for a media blackout to occur, because he feared that it would harm Britain when its already at the last brink of hope.
Here are some links that will give more information about the ship and its sinking, whilst remembering that Joan’s cousin died during this event :
Joan’s cousin also fought for the British at the Battle of Dunkirk itself, and survived that fight.
“There were all the little ships that went out to Dunkirk, and coming back you know the Germans tried to bomb them. I mean, people from here were trying to drop bombs in Germany as well so it was all horrible.”
Did you ever learn anything about the first world war ?
“No. I know my father was in the first world war (part of the infantry forces), but he never really talked about it much. All I knew was that he was gassed in the trenches. You know they had those trenches ? And they used lots of gas, you know the enemy used gas. That was a horrible war I think – it was sort of hand to hand fighting in that war. I think he did take part in major battles in France (he survived them). I had some medals upstairs, which I think my son took up to Yorkshire to try and find out what they all were. Some of them must have been my father’s but-.. Sometimes they ought to automatically get medals for being in a certain battle. I didn’t know much about the first world war, I just remember hearing him saying that he was gassed when he was in the trenches. That’s all they had to hide in, they dig these trenches and hide in them. They had horses too didn’t they ? I think a lot of them were killed weren’t they ? And I think my father rode a motorbike – doing what ? I don’t know (: But, he did during that war. The first world war. He used to wear these things – for around their legs. I had a picture of it somewhere.
During the second world war, he was an air raid warden. So ‘… Road’, when they built it, there was a little bit in the middle. We used to call it ‘the dump’. It was just a little garden, they made a little garden of it. And there they put an air-raid warden’s place, where they gathered. During the war, when the air-raids sounded, he had to go up there, and they had to go out and look through all the streets and make sure nobody was showing any light out of their window – get fined for that. You could see the search-lights shining up to the sky, to help get guns to see where they were and what they were firing at. Always the sky was lit up with stuff.”
We know that all people had to carry gas masks;
“Oh yes, you had to carry them all the time. In a sort of cardboard box. And they were horrible to put on, you know. I never wore it or had to wear it, but I had to practise sometimes with it. Nasty, thats how you couldn’t breathe. Yes, and rubbery as well.”
Were you ever evacuated during the course of the war ?
“We were evacuated to Windsor, very nice couple. I was 15 when I went, but the next month I was 16. I was there from September till December. We came home at Christmas. We decided, my sister and I, that we missed all the friends from the church. Decided we’d try and persuade my father to just come back, so we put on a little act, crying and saying ‘Oh we don’t want to go away’. We persuaded him to let us stay. So, he did. Because the dog had been sent to a farm, and my mother could come down with us a bit later after we went; to help the lady with the cooking. Because she was dumped with 3 of us. My sister and I, and then a young girl who was about 16 who worked in a laboratory. So that was hard for her. She had a little baby boy of three months, and I was more interested in the baby boy of three months than I was going to school.
It was quite hard to study in those days, there’s a lot of us around, and not anywhere quiet to do it. You’re only having half a day of schooling.”
This was because, in the temporary school she was attending, the girls had their education in the morning, whilst the boys had their education in the afternoon. Schools weren’t mixed at this point in history.
“I had a teacher that taught me German at school, who I didn’t think was very nice, but she wasn’t German – she was Scottish ! There were 4 groups, and because I was in the top half, I learnt German and Latin. And I could do it quite well, I learnt it fairly well but because she was so fierce – so horrible to us. When she was giving the books back after she’d mark them, she threw them at you. You’d go out to get them and she’d ‘poof!’. So I was quite frightened of her, so I never put my hand up to answer a question. Not until I thought she’d got somebody else. Once she got me and another girl cleaning up her cupboard in her classroom, and there’s all these things about Hitler. She was obviously pro-German, pro-Hitler. I don’t know wether she was put in prison but she was put somewhere during the war, in this country. Because she obviously favoured Germany. There was all this Nazi stuff, so she was a Nazi I think. Her feelings were with the Nazis. It was interesting.
I went to school there, when did I start… It was 11+. 1933 I would have been 11. So I probably started September of that year. She was there when I first went. I don’t know but she was probably nice.”
And when the war started, did she turn into this mean teacher ?
“Well I don’t know, because we didn’t know that she was a Nazi, until we cleared out that cupboard and found all this Nazi propaganda, so we wouldn’t have known. I just knew I didn’t like her because she frightened me. Because you know, I was learning German quite well. She taught me, so she obviously knew German. She must have been a serious Nazi.”
Did the girls at the school have to do anything to contribute to the war, just like boys would have been making bullets and ammunition ?
“We learnt to knit, and to sew. I was quite bad, I was short sighted and they (teachers) wanted me to go to a special school. But I just started this grammar school, and I didn’t want to leave – nor did my parents want me to. So they stopped me doing needlework at school. I did some at home. We knitted things for the forces. I remember my sister knitted a pair of socks – but it had a seam right down the bottom, you know, when you walked on it (: She didn’t do a proper sew. I’ve done socks where you turn the heel, you know.
Another thing they used to do is, we had sheets and blankets in those days. And what you used to do was, when you changed the beds, instead of changing both sheets – because you might not have enough sheets – you put the top one on the bottom, because that one didn’t get very dirty. And then you washed the bottom one – and then you put a clean one on the top (: So, sometimes if they got warm – they called it top & tailing, you turn them around and sew them together. Did all sorts of things like that. Because you had to, otherwise you wouldn’t have had anything.”
At school, were you taught by both male and female teachers ?
“No, we never had any male, they were all ladies. And they were all single ladies. ‘Miss. somebody’ It was sort of like they gave their lives to being a teacher. There was one married one, she taught Geography. So, I think it must have been like that in most schools. I remember Miss. Evans was the one who taught me Latin. She was quite nice, she taught Classics, Latin, Greek; and we had a lady – she was a Lady. Cynthia (Rasquit) She was Lady Cynthia (Rasquit). And she taught me, Classics they call it didn’t they, she taught Greek, Latin – but she didn’t teach me. Miss. Evans taught me. And Miss. Evans went to Windsor, and she was visited in Eaton. We went there for out Latin Class. There, sitting in this window seat in this very old house in Eaton. With a sort of gable that overlooked Eaton High Street.”
What would you do for fun, when you weren’t attending school ?
“We would just stay at home. Or one thing, my sister and I used to go swimming in the river Thames in Windsor. They had a special bit that they petitioned off, to stop rubbish collecting there. And they had a few little changing cubicles, and that’s where we used to love to go.
We used to listen to the radio, because we didn’t have televisions in those days, or mobile phones. There was this man, don’t know if he was German, he was pro-German anyway, he used to give reports of things. They weren’t always true. He was trying to distress people over here really. That’s all we got, we never saw anything, like you see it all on television now don’t you ? And the gentleman we were staying with liked classical music, and we would sit and listen to it. John (the friend from the church who visited them sometimes) used to say it’s good for you.”
“I think one of my worst memories of the war is when there was a blackout. Everything was completely blacked out, you had to black out your windows so black curtains under your usual curtains, and no lights. I don’t think there were any cars on the roads, and no street lights. So it was pitch black, and the worst of it was – we had these awful fogs. You’ve probably never seen a fog like that. You couldn’t see anything, it was black, thick horrible dirty fog. I remember coming home from work, and I think it was a number 49 which I’d got that day, and the driver crawled along, and he got as far as the Battersea side of Battersea Bridge, and he said he couldn’t go any further. So we all had to get off. So I had to get from Battersea Bridge to BurntWood lane, in the pitch black.
And I really don’t know what I would’ve done but, when I was getting off, somebody else got off. And it was the lady from the church. And I always felt that, sort of God must have put her there – because, I’d never seen her on that bus before. And so, together we went arm in arm, and we struggled and struggled. You couldn’t see a curb, you couldn’t see a house or anything. You didn’t know really where you were walking. You managed to find a pavement, and you couldn’t see the curbs going down and up. And so I think we got up to Lavender Hill, and then went down Lavender Hill, up East Hill, and then through Melody Rd. or something like that. And we stopped at the road there was someone who went to the church, and we knew he had a phone. So, we went in there, the (Messins) lived.- Mary (Messin) the one who came home with me, she lived in Swandage Road. So it’s so far away. So from there we phoned my parents, and they wondered where I was. And I had a camel-coloured coat, and it was covered in black, sooty deposits from the soot from the fog. My hair was all hanging. Wet and horrible. And I had to go to work the next day.
So, I remember that because I used to think, if Mary hadn’t been there, and we’d sort of did it together, I don’t know how I would’ve started out. It’s quite frightening. Yes, she was actually my teacher one time. And I’d never seen her on a bus before, I don’t know where she worked – so that was,.. I always thought that was lovely, that she was on that bus. I honestly wondered what I would’ve done. Because, not to be able to see where you’re going – you don’t even know if you’re going in the right direction.”
Joan also had typical locations where she would go when Blackouts occurred, such as HM Prison on Heathfield Road.
“I remember, my father said he’d come and meet me at the prison. I held on to the railings on the wall all the time to get myself around to the prison. But I got right up and I hit something hard, you know, I found I was at the prison door, there was a big door there. After that they built a big wall around it didn’t they ? There might be a bit of a wall now, I used to just put my hand on the wall and go round, came to the front door. And eventually I found my father, I don’t know how we found each other in the dark but we did. And then we got home, it’s nice to have somebody with you thats so nice, not to be alone. I was only about to be 17 there.”
Celebrating the allies’ victory & life after the war
“I remember, we lived in (A…?) Street and we were there. In fact, the two boys were born in (A…?) Street, and I had one daughter. And she was born where my husband’s parents lived, because that is where we had to live – because we couldn’t find anywhere else. And they painted the curtains red, white and blue (: I think it wore off after a while. And another thing, they took all the railings – you know the old houses used to have gates, iron gates and railings. They took all those gates and railings away to make ammunition. Didn’t put them back again after. So we had a house in (A…?) street we bought. Actually, from the parents of the lady I met on the bus that time. (During the blackout->worst memory of the war) So we had 10 years in there and then we saw this house and thought it’d be nice to be nearer the church. It’s the one opposite West Side church.
I can’t remember much about 1945. We were married, and it was the war – the year it was over – but not the Japanese war. So it hadn’t quite finished, and then the rationing went on for quite a while afterwards. So thats why, you know, it was hard to be able to make a Christmas cake, because you couldn’t get the ingredients of fruit, and you could only get so much sugar. Yes, there wasn’t really much in the shops that you could find, when we were married we didn’t get many presents because there wasn’t anything else you could buy. Some people gave us second-hand things, things that they had – I obviously didn’t want (: We had a silver muffin dish, it’s like a silver dish and then a lid that goes on the top. People used to – well I’ve never seen it but – obviously people must have cooked muffins, and put them under there to keep warm. And we had one of those. And, just little things. We didn’t have very much, not like people get these days.
One thing I remember, after all the austerity of the war, and not being able to buy clothes or anything, where you couldn’t get much because you had these coupons. And there was a fashion called the ‘New Look’, came in.”
Interestingly, online it says that ‘New Look’, the apparel shop, was founded in 1969, but there must have been predating shops as Joan told us the store came into the public eye a bit after the war ended.
“We had very very full skirts, then you had a petty-coat underneath. It was either knit, and it was stiff, or I think I had one that wasn’t knit. And I had two of those dresses. One on and one off, you know. So when the ‘New Look’ came in it was sort of – it’s like we were saying ‘goodbye’ to austerity and dresses were long, lots of material. Was quite pretty really (: “
END OF INTERVIEW
It was an incredible experience, and one I don’t think many people will get the chance to have. It was very lovely to see how she started remembering all of these things, and wouldn’t stop explaining and telling stories because she got excited over memories or even certain days of her younger years. My favourite questions and answers were definitely the ones that were more personalised, such as the questions about her school life, and what she enjoyed to do to keep busy whilst the war was ruining the world around her. I think that this interview shows that, even if you weren’t some crazy strong artillery fireman, you still had incredibly interesting experiences during WW2. I mean, Joan was only 15-22 years old, and still had all of these interesting stories to tell us.