Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children

by John Riches. 2004.

Charles Brown, referred to by grown-ups throughout the village during the war as “Charlie,” but to we children as a respectful “Mr Brown,” lived in one of the terraced cottages near Farnborough Green. The one between Matthews the butcher and Doutch’s the greengrocers – just along from Jack Toms’ the snobs hut and almost opposite Mr Moule’s New Bakery alongside the path to the Scout’s Hut. Oh, but I nearly forgot. Most of you won’t remember as they’ve sadly long gone.

Mr Brown had an upright, smart almost military manner – but that’s not surprising as he served with distinction in The Great War between 1914 and 1918.  In the years immediately after the war he was one of the leaders of the British Legion parades that marched from the Methodist Church at Farnborough Green, along the High Street to the War Memorial at St Giles. But during the war he was an Air Raid Warden and was to be seen cycling round the village with a steel helmet; irreverently known as a “tin hat” in those days; perched on his head with the large letters ARP painted on. He was based at the village’s ARP Wardens’ post to the left of the Village Green. The village pond opposite had large cement cylinders sunk into its bed to increase its water capacity so that the Kent Fire Brigade would have a ready source of water for fighting fires caused by incendiary bombs. We children were a bit upset as it disturbed the water for the newts, tadpoles and frogs that we caught there in jam jars and took to school for “Nature Study.” Charlie’s responsibilities included making sure that when “Moaning Minnie” the air raid siren perched on the top of the telephone exchange sounded, villagers filed safely into the shelter complex under the village green. In fact I believe it’s still there and although the entrances were blocked in 1945, during hot dry weather brown grass indicates where the old shelters lie just beneath the surface.

"This isn't Charlie Brown is it?" An ARP Warden wearing a gas mask and holding a stirrup pump.  Photog.raph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

During air raids Charlie and his colleagues would patrol the village and if any bombs fell they would try to make sure that people and their property were safe. He must have been present on 1st September 1940 during the Battle of Britain when German aircraft were bombing RAF Biggin Hill. Sadly that day a small stray bomb landed on the shelter of a house called St Fillers – number 2 Orchard Road – killing John Lawrence, an 8 year old boy in Class 3, his small brother David aged 5 as well as Percy (30) his Dad and his Mum Phyllis (32). I can remember my Dad telling me about the tragedy and that their dog survived because it had been left in the house. Graham Wood remembers that dreadful day clearly. Roy Pearce, whose parents were the landlords of The Woodman public house at the time, had been visiting his friend John Lawrence and only returned home shortly before the air raid. As a result of that tragedy so close to their home, Graham’s parents Cyril and Doris Wood decided that “What would be, would be!” and probably to Charlie Brown’s disgust, they would not have an Anderson air raid shelter dug in their large garden behind the Parish Room, but would rely instead on a specially reinforced table in their living room. When the Germans dive-bombed Biggin Hill the resultant explosions caused their door-knocker to rattle and his Dad had it muffled for the duration of the war.

During the Battle of Britain, Charlie must have provided local knowledge to help the workmen who erected stout, tall wooden posts on each side of the straight stretches of the main arterial road. These supported thick wires that criss-crossed the road surface and aimed to prevent enemy aircraft landing there.
  Another of Charlie’s duties was to patrol the village to make sure that no lights could be seen during the “black-out” as German bombers wanted to know where the towns or villages were situated. In our cottage in Pleasant View, we didn’t have thick blackout curtains like many people so my Dad made shutters that fitted into the window frames. These made sure that the light from the mantels in our gaslights – we had no electricity then – could not be seen from outside. If a chink of light could be seen round the shutters a loud knock would be heard on the window with Charlie’s stentorian voice shouting “Put that blooming light out!” or words to that effect. Then my Mum would tear up strips of paper and stuff them in the offending cracks.

"Charlie Brown told us that the butterfly bombs tended to lodge in trees or on houses". A German SD2 anti-personnel "butterfly bomb" hanging from the guttering of a house. 
Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Charlie took posters to Farnborough school “up Starts Hill,” warning children of the dangers of “butterfly bombs.” These were stated to be small cylindrical anti-personnel mines complete with vanes on the ends of a steel stick. If one exploded they could kill or maim! As Charlie told us that the vanes tended to lodge in trees as the bombs fell from enemy aircraft, when we went to play “up the Firs” - or Mill Hill as it’s known on maps - we kept a sharp look out for these very dangerous objects. “Is that a butterfly bomb?” someone would cry. So we would throw stones and bricks at the offending object and I think were quite disappointed that nothing ever exploded. Charlie warned us of the dangers of this practice but I don’t think we took too much notice, as wartime was in fact very exciting for children!

Everyone, including children and even tiny babies, had to have a respirator or “gas mask” as we called them. We were supposed to carry them everywhere we went and at school they were hung over the iron frames of our desks. Our teacher would regularly arrange gas practices. In the middle of a lesson; perhaps to liven us all up; she would suddenly say “Gas attack!” Then we had to get our gas mask out of its cardboard container and put it on. Of course it was impossible to talk, we could only make muffled grunts and I often wonder if the teachers used that technique if we were all getting a bit too noisy.

The mobile gas chamber sometimes called into the school to make sure that our masks could protect us in the event of an enemy gas attack. The Germans had used gas in the First World War and Prime Minister Mr Churchill; “Old Winnie” to us; was scared that there would be gas aerial attacks on England. Children were asked to file through a container on the back of the lorry filled with tear gas. If when you came out you were crying, then your parents were ordered to take you to the air raid wardens’ station opposite the pond to get your mask repaired.

On March 25th 1942, Peter Whiteman, who had been repeatedly asked to get his useless gas mask repaired, was excluded from school until it was fixed. As my gas mask didn’t fit properly – even then I was very tall for my age and thus had a big head – my Dad took me to the ARP station. One of Charlie’s colleagues mended it on the spot and said, “That’ll be eighteen pence!” One shilling and six pence!! That was a lot of money in those days and many of the poorer families in Farnborough had a real struggle to pay such sums.   

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