War-time Letters from the Tottenham Home Front
We have obtained a copy of a wonderful paper which is titled as above and contains excerpts from letters exchanged between a mother and her son who was a serving soldier. It covers the period from the outbreak of war in Sept 1939 through to early 1941. The family lived just off the Great Cambridge Road so they experienced the same disasters and hardships as the war-time residents of Summerhill Road.
Obviously, we cannot reproduce every letter on this website, but we have extracted bits and pieces here and there that hopefully capture the events and mood of the residents at this time. In addition it helps to reinforce the reports we have already received regarding the Downhills Shelter tragedy and the evacuation of children from Summerhill Road. Following some of these extracts are the comments made by the author to help clarify some of the points. These are shown in Italics.
25th October 1939
"The children have been to school today but only for 1 hour. They have to go to the hall at the back of the church only 12 at a time and then they bring homework home to do."
With the evacuation of a million and a half mothers an children on 1st Sept 1939, schools were closed and many occupied by the military. half the school children left in London did not receive full time education and local arrangements had to be made for some lessons
12th January 1940
" How do you like this cold weather. I guess it is cold where you are with no heating or light. How do you keep yourself warm.. rationing is not too bad so far. Of course bacon or butter we cannot afford as you know. we are allowed 3.3/4lbs sugar a week but Dad went down to the shop for me and the woman let him have 4lbs. But the meat rations will be the worst as meat is very dear"
Meat was not rationed by weight but the price which was set at 1s.10d per person, and included bone, fat and gristle. It paid to be friendly with your butcher. Bread was not rationed until after the war
31st January 1940
" What awful weather it is, isn't it. We have had heavy falls of snow here. It was bitterly cold Saturday and Sunday. The children have not been to school this week. Some schools that have opened have had to close owing to frozen pipes. It really is serious. We are still living in the parlour as when we shall get the pipes mended I don't know as it has been freezing too much for them to mend them."
16th February 1940
" I hope to move into the kitchen tomorrow (Saturday). So I hope this is the last of this years freeze up anyway. Your Granny is stuck for coal now. I expect Brown will only have 1 cwt for us tomorrow. What a mess up the government have made of it. You see we are registered with coal and coke and you can only get it where you are registered. You cannot get it where you like even if you have the money. We shall soon be rationed with meat. I don't know how we shall go on then as meat is very dear now and scarce"
12th March 1940
I do hope that you will get leave for Easter. I suppose you will have 7 days the. If at all possible let me know when you are likely to walk in so that we have enough dinner for you as now we are rationed with meat. How we shall work it out we don't quite know as meat is terribly dear. In another 3 weeks we shall have another 1s to put to the rent as the rates have gone up owing to ARP (Air Raid Precautions) and evacuation. That will make the rent £1-1-9d. We have all had forms about second evacuation for school children if London is bombed but we are not letting the children go. I don't know of any that are going
Tuesday 16th April 1940
"Many thanks for your letter received this afternoon and also to wish you Many Happy Returns of the Day. How's this for good news. Dad has started work in the Waltham Abbey Powder Mills. He filled a form in last Wednesday. Friday afternoon a card came telling him to report to the mills at 9 o'clock Saturday morning. It is such a blessing that he is working. He is in the cordite section. I done my bit in the last war so did Dad. This war I am still doing my bit, Dad and your sister Dolly on munitions and you away. So that's that."
On Saturday 20th April 1940 an accident occurred in a mixing house at the powder mills causing a huge explosion killing five men. Following previous incidents, rumours of sabotage were rife. Over 800 people were laid off including Dad following just 4 days at work
Tuesday 14th May 1940.
"Well Tom it looks as though the war has really started now. I expect you know all about Churchill being Prime Minister. Isn't it dreadful for the Dutch and Belgium people. They came around all these house Sunday morning asking who would take refugees in. Mr Gloss was doing it. He said he no refusals at all from our square. What can we say. We would be glad enough for someone to give us shelter if we were bombed out of our homes. Here is some good news. Dad is at school at the GPO. If he passes the test at the end of 3 weeks he will be a temporary postman for the duration of the war.. p.s (From Dad) I am going to join this new corps. It is part-time. They want first class shots or marksmen. It is a defence against Germans being dropped by parachute. Oh won't it feel fine to feel a rifle in my hands again and to have a shot at them if they ever come over here. I wouldn't spare them for the way they have machine gunned the refugees"
Civil Defence Medical Aid Post - Turnpike Lane Underground
On 10th May, Germany invaded Holland and Belgium. Neville Chamberlain later the same day resigned and Winston Churchill was asked by the King to form a National Government.
Sunday 2nd June 1940
I am pleased to say Dad has passed all the tests in the Post Office and starts at Wood Green tomorrow. He has been measured for his uniform. So I have told him he will have to get a wardrobe all to himself. He has his best suit, his suit he is now wearing, he will have a postman's uniform and, if he gets a uniform for the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers), he will not be hard up for clothes.
Sunday 23rdJune 1940
Well Tom I am not sending the children away. I do not think we shall be be invaded. They will try I know. He will do his utmost to squash us. But I am keeping the carving knife handy and extra sharp and if any come walking up Cambridge Gardens, I am going to jam it straight into their bellies.. I expect before long we shall have some air raids here. But we have a good shelter and according to the papers they are standing up to the strain. (From Dad) I went to the drill hall in Park Lane this morning and was put in No.2 Platoon No.3 Section and shall be on the Great Cambridge Road somewhere so I shall not be far away. The major told us that he intends to have rifles for us as soon as he can. (From Dolly) You'll be pleased to hear that Pat's brother Harry who was in Dunkirk came home alright "
Monday 15th July 1940
Did you hear Churchill last night. We called in Granny's and Dad put her wireless on but it's very quiet so I could not hear very well about the fight over the coast of aircraft. Old Hitler is losing some planes. I think he must be wondering whether to chance invading us or not. There is a shortage of eggs and we can only get a little bacon. We are now rationed with tea. What a smack in the eye that was. Nobody could get any extra in. We start rationing with margarine and cooking fats next Monday. So we shall have to cut down some of it and have bread and dripping. Dad is now off to the LDV. They have to parade at the back of the Spurs football ground. He has got his armlet, no rifle, so when the Germans come he can show them his armlet "
Churchill broadcast on Sunday 14th July. He spoke of the impending invasion. His speech ended with. "This is no war of chieftains and of princes, of dynasties, or national ambition; it is a war of peoples and causes. there are vast numbers, not only in this island but in every land, who will render faithful service in this war, but whose names will never be known, whose deed will never be recorded. This is the War of the Unknown Warrior."
Sunday 18th August 1940
" How about air raids now, 2 today so far. OH BOY see the people run. The first on Thursday evening was about quarter past 7. Dad was just putting his hat on to go to the LDV. The children were standing up the end of the garden watching a bonfire. There were about half a dozen children next door playing shops, when the sirens went, didn't realise at first what they had all started for. That one only lasted about half an hour. Then Friday dinner time, away went the sirens again so had to drop everything and get the children down the shelter. Dad was down the Post Office to draw Grannies pension when the siren went. He went into the PO but they wouldn't pay him out and there he had to stop. Then in the afternoon I was half way home from White Hart lane with a bag of shopping. I tried to run with some woman who helped me along with my shopping bag. Some man passed us in a lorry and called out 'Run Missus Run'. The faster I tried to run the slower I seemed to go. So the woman asked me to into her shelter which I was very thankful for."
On Tuesday 20th August, Churchill addressed the House of Commons making what is perhaps his most famous speech in recognition of the gallant airman of the RAF who had repelled ferocious attacks by the Luftwaffe. "The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British Airman. NEVER IN THE FIELD OF HUMAN CONFLICT WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW".
Monday 26th August 1940
Many thanks for your letter we received Saturday. We were surprised to hear that you have been moved. I am writing this letter but may have to leave it any minute owing to a warning. We have had a lot just lately and some nasty bombs in Edmonton and Tottenham but am pleased to say we are all OK.
On Saturday night at 5 past 11. Well Tom I have never seen anything like it. We were in bed when we saw a bright searchlight shoot up in the sky, then another, then another, 4 altogether. I thought Good God what is happening now. We went downstairs and made for the shelter. We looked out the back door and really the sky was one mass of searchlights. I should think there were millions of them and the jerries planes were overhead. Dad made us get down the shelter and we were down there waiting for Mrs Lenny next door to come out with her children before the warning went.
They dropped bombs on 2 houses in Cornwall Road (Near Braemar Road), Mansfield Avenue (A turning out of West Green Road). We are not sure about Seaford Road. Several people were killed. Your sister Dolly's boyfriends family were blown across their kitchen with the blast from the bombs in Cornwall Road."
Devastation in Cornwall Road of West Green Road -1940
By the end of August, 1,075 civilians had been killed in the United Kingdom by air raids.
Sunday, 1st September 1940
I am writing this and also waiting for the warning. We have had 3 already today. I am making some plum jam at the same time. So I don't know which will be first - Jam or sirens... The jerries makes a practice of meal times. We cannot make out why he never comes at tea time. We were waiting for him. It is just on 9 o'clock that is his time as well. Last night it was 10 o'clock, I suppose they stopped to have supper before they came. We make good fun out of him.... ( From Dad) I thought you would like to know that I saw a jerry plane brought down. I was on a delivery in Westbury Avenue when the warning went. I carried on until the guns started when a man offered me shelter in his dug out, as it was getting a bit hot overhead and a few tramlines and old bedsteads started whistling round, I accepted. Just as I entered the shelter he said 'Look postman' I turned round and there on jerry's tail was one of our Spitfires, he put a burst into the jerry who rolled over, our boy was after him, then jerry straightened out and tried to turn,then the Spitfire flew right over and under him and gave him another burst. I think he must have killed the jerry because he roared down with his engine full out. It was a grand fight, after seeing that I don't mind paying another 1/2d on fags.
On the night of 7th September the real blitz on London began. By dawn on the 8th September, more than 300 Londoners had been killed and 1,337 seriously injured.
On 17th September, Churchill told the House that during the first half of September, 2,000 civilians had been killed and about 8,000 wounded by air raids.
Wednesday, 18th September 1940.
We are having a raid now and this is the 6th today so far. But night time is the worst. The guns and barrage is awful. I hear it all night we can hardly get any sleep. They have done a tremendous lot of damage as I expect you see in the papers, especially in the West End. Dad says they dropped them in Wood Green last night, 5, all along there by the Green Stores and Woolworth's, but they managed to smother them before they set fire. Last Thursday they dropped bombs on Fore street just at the back of Grannies. It knocked her across the table and all those photos she has standing on the sideboard and piano, it sent them down on the floor. I shall be thankful when these raids ease up a bit. Fancy, Buckingham Palace has caught it... The all clear has just gone.
Tuesday, 24th September, 1940
I am writing this now but cannot say when I shall finish as we are all ready for the usual sound about this time...It goes earlier than ever now. But last night was a real night.. They dropped bombs all around us. We had 2 warnings this morning but never heard anything so we just carry on. WARNING. Cheerio (will) finish this tomorrow. Well Tom we have just survived another air raid. Banging and bombing nearly all night. Last Wednesday or Thursday they dropped bombs at Bruce Grove. I have not seen it but they say it is terrible, From the shops in Lordship Lane up to the High Cross there is not one whole pane of glass left. Marks and Spencer's, Woolworth's and all those shops along there are damaged more or less, the small shops are down and a place called Stoney South has not a single brick left.
Public Air Raid shelter in Bruce Castle park (Similar to Downhills)
A bomb was dropped on a public shelter in the Recreation Ground in Downhills Park. They say that about 300 have lost their lives. Warren on the corner house was helping to get people out. But Dad has not seen him to hear much about it. Mills equipment down Broad lane is down. Bombed and set on fire. The big brewery at the corner of Clyde Road near the Town Hall is down and they only just finished rebuilding it. There seems to be bombs dropped everywhere. The SW seems to get a lot of it too, that is where Uncle Fred lives... (From Dad) I can't stop to write much as I was late in, had a very heavy delivery and have soon to go back. Last night they brought three houses down and damaged several more in Mayes Road, hit the Barratts sweet factory killing 3, a house in Barratts Avenue Wood Green, and set fire to a school in Lordship Lane. Hope you will soon have your other four days so you can hear and see our fireworks display.
Editors Note: This tends to confirm the popular feeling at the time that many more lives were lost in the Downhills Shelter tragedy than official records show.
Wednesday, 2nd October 1940
I may not finish this tonight but will carry on as long as I can before the buzzer goes. Dad is on different duties now... He is late today, and I do hope he will have time to have his dinner before the warning goes. He only just got in Monday night, he had to eat his pudding in the Bedroom. I do wish he would give us a night off.Garrison Theatre is on tonight but I bet we won't hear it. The raids are not quite so noisy these last few nights. WARNING and Dad not home yet - Dad has just come in.
The cramped conditions inside an Anderson Shelter
I will continue with the news. Aunt Dorothy was out shopping one day when they started machine gunning people. Some man shouted 'Throw yourself down Missus'. She didn't quite get the idea for a minute but as she saw everyone laying flat on the pavement she done the same so was OK. Uncle Fred got caught one night in the West End in a raid . He thought his last hour was up. Bombs dropped round his bus. The driver took to the wheel and round all the back doubles and drove like mad and didn't stop till he got to Holloway Garage.
The Bedroom was now the air raid shelter and 'Garrison Theatre' was a popular humorous radio programme.
Tuesday, 15th October 1940
"I expect before long we shall have to make a dash for it. Well Tom talk about excitement. We thought our number was up last night. The siren had gone, we were all ready to get down below, we were in the kitchen. I told them to come on. Dad said 'yes he is up above us', Dolly said 'lets finish this now' (she was knitting). I said 'Never mind about that, come on'. So we went, we had just got in the shelter when crash, the shelter shook, Dad was just shutting the shelter door when with another crash and fire, the house and greenhouse was alight, not really but it looked so. The first one fell in Acacia Avenue and the second one in White hart Lane just this side of the wardens post. They were both fire bombs. But oh Tom it was awful as we looked out the top of the shelter door, we all thought our home had gone. Dad admits he thought the place was on fire. My poor legs and knees still knock when I think of it.
Now to continue. Dolly heard today that bombs were dropped in Philip Lane and High Road last night. Dad hasn't been out today. He is on a weeks holiday (don't laugh) so we haven't heard where they dropped.
Oh I must tell you the all clear went early on Saturday or rather Sunday morning at 2 o'clock so we went upstairs to BED first time for a fortnight but it took a long time to go to sleep. It seemed so strange but it was good to be so comfortable... Garrison Theatre is on Saturday. Hope we can hear it. Did you hear Princess Elizabeth speak on Sunday. Wasn't it nice."
Princess Elizabeth broadcast in Childrens' Hour on 13 October 1940
Monday 21st October 1940
" I am writing this as usual in 'Our little Anderson Shelter' Dad and your brother were getting it ready for the night when they told us to hurry up. Planes were up and guns were going. So we had a mad wash up and other odd jobs, was down here before 7 o'clock and no warning until 10 past 7. So now we are waiting to see what excitement we get tonight.
Registrar for Births and Deaths - High Road, Tottenham
Last night was real bombardment. A bomb was dropped in the High Road opposite Spurs. There is a crater big enough to put this house in. You remember the Catholic Church on the corner. Then there is some little old cottages with their shelters in the front garden, you should se the way they are all smashed about. The crater is just in front of them.. Old Hitler had a good bashing last night didn't he. The German people are beginning to think and wonder.
Monday, 4th November 1940
WE have more news this time of bombs and excitement since our last letter. I found one large lump of shrapnel just on the dug out path the other morning when I called the children up for school. WE had a rather warm time on Wednesday night. A bomb in Compton Crescent, just opposite the library. One house is just flat, the next one to it is very badly damaged, the people have had to move out. There are 3 time bombs round by the White Hart Inn. But they all came down one after another. Of course we were all down here and our shelter floor went up and down. Bombs were dropped all over the place that night I think. On Saturday I discovered there was a hole in the roof. Dad went up to the loft and found there were 2 holes one over our bedroom and one over your bedroom. Fancy tomorrow being Guy Fawkes day. I hope they do give them a fireworks display in Berlin"
The night of 3rd November was the first for nearly two months when there was no air raid. Mums letter explained what a terrible night it was weatherwise.
Sunday, 10th November 1940
"I'm afraid we are not going to get a night off tonight like we did last Sunday. We have had a very exciting week. How's this - 5 large lumps of shrapnel all the same day, 3 inside the back gate and in front of the bathroom drain, 1 piece on the shelter and 1 piece in front of the front door by the lilac bushes. Dad saw Lill Clow who lives in Wood Green somewhere. She said Ward's Stores on the corner of Seven Sisters have caught a packet also Tottenham Hospital and the Jews Hospital.. Last Monday night he dropped bombs in Harringay and St Anne's Road.
I expect you heard that Chamberlain has passed away. Poor old chap. I fancy it broke him when he found that old Hitler was going to make war after him flying all the way to Munich to make peace. He is at rest though... "
Sunday, 24th November 1940
"The warning has gone.. We are not able to go down the shelter now as it is so wet. I don't think there are many people who can use them now. Last Saturday night it was pouring with rain, we went down as usual. Dad had a good look round the shelter Sunday morning and the bedding was soaked top and bottom. Dad brought down our bed and spring, not the bedstead itself and we sleep on the front room floor now. We have been more comfortable and warmer than in the shelter. We must just chance our luck. That was terrible raid on Coventry. They are up in the Midlands more now."
The terrible raid on Coventry on 14th November resulted in 507 being killed and more than 420 seriously injured. There was a full moon and for over eleven hours over 400 bombers came and went.
Sunday, 1st December 1940
The air raids have not been so heavy lately. Last Monday there was no warning at all.. Friday was a very noisy night. But the all clear has gone earlier than it used to. We have had 3 warnings today...(and a short one in the evening) so if we don't have any more we shall trip upstairs again tonight I hope. It is very cold and foggy now.. and a white frost everywhere.. You have certainly been having excitement up your way. (From Dad) The other night was a bit hot. We've got a big gun near us,when that starts it shakes the windows and you can hear the shells going up and you will no doubt hear it when you come home. When that gun opens fire jerry always drops his load and we get the S!*!s.
Monday Morning (From Mum) We were not able to go upstairs to bed as we had hoped..there was heavy gunfire for sometime. But I think the all clear went early morning. I hear on the wireless the Germans lost 8 planes yesterday. That's good. Didn't Southampton have a terrible raid the other night."
Southampton had a severe air raid on 30th November
Wednesday, 18th December 1940
I am writing this while Joan has her breakfast but will not post it until the postman has been. I am going down to post a parcel off to you as soon as the Post Office opens. I hope you get it before Xmas. It's the best I could do for you. I have walked all over Tottenham to try and get an egg for the Rice cheesecakes or else some Lemon Curd but cannot get either. I am sorry Tom as I know how fond you are of the cheesecakes.
We are not having many air raids just lately. It has been quiet since you went back. There was no warning at all last night so Dad and I have been able to sleep upstairs.
Sunday, 5th January 1941
We were very pleased to hear you were quite well and that you got the parcel OK. I hope everything was alright and not bent at all. We are glad you had such a good time on Xmas Day especially the dinner. Our Xmas day this year wasn't too bad. We had the two chickens. Of course we could not have any ham this year.. so I managed to get a small piece of beef to go with them the next day. Oh Tom I must tell you you that we had our first egg today. Dad bought 4 more hens yesterday so if all 6 start laying it won't be too bad. If we hadn't had the chickens we would not have had any poultry for dinner as it was a terrible price.
We are getting plenty of air raids again now, there is one on now. Last Sunday night (29 Dec 1940) they nearly burnt the City out as I expect you know. We saw the fire from here and we knew it was a terrible fire. On the Friday night before, 2 days after Xmas we nearly caught it. He dropped landmines in Silver Street Edmonton and at the back of the Spurs Football ground and another at Clapton Common. We heard the one in Silver Street alright. Didn't half make us jump."
The raid of 29 December 1940 became known as the Second Great Fire of London. Waves of bombers flying over the heart of the City rained thousands of incendiary bombs on it's historic buildings. St Paul's alone remained practically unharmed. but was ringed by flames which destroyed many of Wren's famous churches and the Guildhall.
We took a 1s ticket on the trolley bus from West Green Road and rode to Shoreditch and walked and walked until we got to Westminster Bridge...great big factories and warehouses gutted out, just a mass of bricks and twisted iron girders. But Oh Tom the most exciting thing. We had a wonderful view of Mr Churchill. We were walking along and came to Downing Street. There were crowds on the corner waiting. We just waited a few minutes and then walked up Downing Street. Of course we could not go very far up because of Soldiers and Police. But some people standing on the edge of the pavement went away, so we just took their place. We were only there for 5 minutes when along he came in a car and took his hat off and waved it. Of course there was one great cheer. He does look a nice old boy, jolly smiling face, seemed quite pleased with himself. Of course our old man is kidding himself he waved his hat to him. I suppose when Churchill saw him he thought Good God there's that silly looking xxx standing there that was out in France. But I was pleased I saw him.
(From Dad) Well Tom your mother has told you where we went on Monday. We got off the bus in Shoreditch High Street and walked through the City, up Ludgate Hill through Fleet Street into Trafalgar Square then down Whitehall. Some of the places we saw reminded me of the devastation in France. Though he has given London a knock he hasn't flattened all of it and he can't break the spirit of the people.
Your mother has told you how Winnie raised his hat to ME..."
The raid on the night of 10 May was the final fling against London before the Luftwaffe moved eastwards against Russia. On this night they had dropped 498 tons of high explosives and incendiaries and land mines, causing the highest casualties of the Blitz with 1,436 people killed and 1,800 serious injuries. The second Blitz of London occurred in 1944 and 1945 with the V1 and V2 weapons. The front door at No 7 was blown off twice with blast from these attacks but the family survived to celebrate VE Day on 8th May 1945.
(Note : These extracts have been taken from 'The War-time Letters from the Tottenham Home front' By T.W Gough and we acknowledge the Edmonton Hundred Historical Society who originally published this paper. These extracts only scratch the surface of some wonderful letters that covers the Battle of Britain and the Blitz and portrays the life of a working class family in War-time Tottenham )