Wartime memories of Farnborough Kent children

by Sylvia Hodson. January 2005.

There were five of us. Our Mum whose name was Rose, my sisters Daphne and Beryl, plus Barbara. Finally there was me Sylvia. Our Dad never knew Barbara as he died six months before she was born in July 1939. He had served in the Royal Navy for ten years before the war reaching the rank of Chief Petty Officer. After being invalided out because of heart problems he trained as a plumber. We lived in Albert Road, St Mary Cray a short ride on the red double decked 51 bus from our Gran Mrs Mary Still who lived at 36 High Street Farnborough. Barbara was born there. Gran was tremendous in helping Mum to look after her four daughters during the early days of the war. Mum’s sister Florence, who we knew as Auntie Floss, lived next door to Gran in the old farm cottages called 3 Prospect Place. As Auntie Floss had had a stillborn daughter some years earlier also called Sylvia, she offered to adopt me. But my Mum wouldn’t hear of it. We spent quite a lot of time in Farnborough during the early part of the war attending the village school for about a year and stayed many long hours in Gran’s Anderson shelter when German aeroplanes attacked Biggin Hill Aerodrome during the Blitz on London.

When Doodlebugs started to come over in June 1944 our Mum decided it would be safer if we went to sleep in Chislehurst Caves. She knew that over 15,000 people had sheltered in the caves each night during the Blitz and thought that would be the safest place for her four daughters. The caves, said to date back over 8,000 years, are a labyrinth of tunnels that were dug to provide lime to help with the building of London and flints for tinderboxes and flintlock guns. Those Doodlebugs were awful bombs that had wings and an engine. The engines only had a bit of petrol in them and when it ran out, the engine stopped and the bomb just fell out of the sky. Then there was an awful silence waiting as you didn’t know where they would land and cause a huge explosion.  

To get to the caves we had to catch the 477 bus to Orpington Station and then take a train the short distance to Chislehurst. We must have looked a proper sight because Mum was pushing Barbara’s pushchair that was full up with sheets, blankets and pillows. Daphne and Beryl were each lugging a big bag and I was struggling with young Barbara who by then was 3 ½ years old. Us children thought it was very exciting! As the caves are next door to the station we were able to walk to the entrance where Mum had to pay six old pence (2 ½p) for her week’s stay although we children were allowed in free. They took us through the tunnels where hundreds of bunk beds were already occupied. After we had walked about half a mile; although it seemed to us children like miles and miles; we came to a big long eerie tunnel and had to walk through that too. When we came out of the tunnel in the Druids Section we had to turn right into another section where we were given a pitch of six bunks with thin mattresses on them. Every pitch had a number but I can’t remember ours.
  Knowing our Mum, when all the beds were made up and she had hung a curtain across the end of our bunks so we could be private, it soon looked like home. There were electric lights tacked to the ceiling every thirty yards or so but they were very dim. We were lucky because the bunks were in pitches of six and there were only five of us so we had a spare bunk to put all our clothes and stuff on at night. After a couple of hours Mum noticed that all the other families had scraped a hole in the chalk wall of the tunnel and put a candle into it. So we did the same and had it burning all night. Although the floors were uneven and made of chalk, it never felt cold and the temperature was the same right through the caves. There were huge fans to circulate the air, a hospital, a church, cinema, theatre, canteen and laundry. The toilets were awful because they were only portable Elsan’s that stunk of a disinfectant called Jeyes Fluid. At 10:00pm all the lights went out except for one here and there. Because it was so spooky, when we wanted to go to the toilet in the middle of the night we all went together holding hands. But somehow we always found our way back. Some days there was an air raid during the morning and although Mum and my eldest sister Daphne were allowed to go home and work, we younger children were not allowed to. So Beryl and I were left there all alone to look after young Barbara. Although at dinnertime we had to go to the canteen and were given cheese rolls and cocoa, you can guess how glad we were when Mum and Daphne arrived in the evening with our change of clothes and our tea.  

One of the other people there was a blind man from London. He had six children and had an accordion that he used to play in the afternoons so that we could have singsongs. We really were some of the lucky ones because mostly we went home most days and could go to school. But the children who came from London couldn’t go home so had to stay in the caves day and night.  

Once a week we had to help our Mum take all the bedclothes down to the laundry and have them baked. Not because they were damp but just to freshen them up. Everyone staying in the caves had their own stuff with them and nobody tried to take anyone else’s. Our mum used to have a large biscuit tin on the spare bunk and in it she kept all our sweets and biscuits. However, not once while we were there did anything get stolen because people were so honest. We children thought it was all great fun. Mum really was our Guardian Angel and thinking back now, I wonder how she ever coped.  

Suddenly our visits to the caves all came to an end. As more and more Doodlebugs flew over Kent and the even more terrifying V2 rockets started our school decided to evacuate the whole family, including our Guardian Angel, to Bangor in North Wales. We were sad to leave our nightly home, however another chapter in our lives was waiting round the corner. But that is another story.   

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