Joyce Blackwood - Memories of life in Wivenhoe during WW2

Helen Polom

Joyce at a QRRA Summer Party in 2009
Pat Marsden
Joyce begins by describing the soldiers in Wivenhoe and then seeing the sky full of German aircraft on the way to London

This account is a shortened version taken from the transcript made from a recording  with Joyce Blackwood on 26 February 2019.

If you wish to read the full account of the interview it can be found at the end of this article as a PDF document.

Joyce was born 8th September 1928 in Queens Road Wivenhoe. She was the youngest of 3 children. One brother was living away and her other brother was 10 years older than her. Her father worked as a seaman and her mother kept house. Her father died of cancer in 1940 leaving Joyce and her mother living together at Queens Road. This account is a shortened version of an interview where Joyce describes her memories of life growing up in Wivenhoe during World War 2.

Joyce attended Phillip Road School in Wivenhoe until she was 11 the year WW2 began. She went on to The Girls High School which meant a bus journey to the lower school which was at Greyfriars at the top of East Hill. Later in the war she moved to the upper school which was situated where the 6th form college is today on North Hill.


Starting school

I grew up in a very happy household. Mother laughed a lot which was very good fun but I was desperate to get to school and used to spend hours across the road at a friend’s house looking over the fence into the school playground to see what was going on and so when the day arrived and I went to school it was the happiest day of my life. It was a bit disappointing because we were given a tin of plasticene to play with and it was all grey and horrible and mixed up and a board which was all scrappy and dirty. I wanted to write. I wanted to learn.


Move to secondary school at the outbreak of war


I left that school in 1939 and we had just heard the war had broken out but at school there hadn’t been any preparations at all. There were no shelters or anything like that…  they came just after we’d left. The school that I went to in Colchester….The High School…. I went one day a week for 6 weeks till they had put the shelters up and it was the same lessons I got every week, needlework and a Maths lesson but when the shelters were finished then we went daily. Although during the time I couldn’t go to school we were able to if we wanted to… to go over on the ferry to Rowhedge to a High School teacher who would take us…. so I used to do that and she happened to be a French teacher and so I started to do more French than anything else at the time which was very pleasing…. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Once the shelters were ready we just carried on as normal at school… although going to school on the bus it sometimes had this thing behind it which was a gas thing to help with the petrol you know because there were petrol shortages. Years 1 to 3 were on the top of East Hill. It’s now a hotel. Greyfriars it was called. Very impressive building. Great garden with a huge cedar tree in the middle of it.


Changes at home


You had gas masks that was one of the first things that came and you had to carry them everywhere. They were you know a square little wooden box. My mother made a cover for that so it wouldn’t get knocked about too much and you had drill at school and you had people coming to inspect the gas masks at home just to see if they were working right and they were horrible things. They smelt horrible when you put them on and they made rude noises when you breathed out laughs raspberry noises. Thank goodness they never had to be worn. Everywhere you went yes you had it with you in the classroom and had it round your neck when you went out to play. It was just an essential thing that you had.

The day after my father’s funeral there were people knocking at the door to ask my mother if she was going to move because she’d got a 3 bedroomed house and word was she going to move as there were only 2 of us there but of course she had no intention of doing that. There were more problems to doing that than to not.

Our rent was 5 shillings a week and she got 15 shillings a week Widows Pension and 5 shillings for me so then she had 15 shilling to work on. There was no other money coming in. She didn’t work. She was 42 when I was born so she was an elderly mum

Things got a bit harder as far as food was concerned you’d got your ration books, you’d got your identity cards which I remember DCRB63 was the number on mine and you had to carry those as well and rations well you learned to cope with what you were allowed. You cut down on various things like sugar and meat and stuff. You stretched it you know by putting vegetables with it if you could get hold of the vegetables and in order for that to happen they asked people to grow their own vegetables. My mother wasn’t a gardener and didn’t do that but the man who lived in the house next door had an allotment on the entrance to the playing field. They put 6 allotments there as you go into the playing field

Fruit… bananas, oranges and things like that. They disappeared altogether.

When there were extras in a shop everybody told everybody else so you rushed there and there was a queue to get it if you were lucky enough get what they were selling.

Something extra in the soup

My mother could make something out of nothing. She was very good at that. Whatever she had you know you were going to get a really good meal from it and she would always try to get her meat with a bone in it so then you had the bone to stew up… marrow bone so you could make more soup and one day she’d made some lovely soup. It really was very nice indeed and we’d had one plate and she said it is so nice shall we have another and I said oh yes and then I said, what are those little white bits in it? And we looked very carefully and they were maggots that had come in with the semolina that she had put in to thicken but we had enjoyed that meal so much laughs it didn’t worry us at all. She didn’t use the rest of it but…Oh that was a real good laugh it really was because we had been eating maggots. But they were well cooked.


Make do and mend


Clothes were rationed and because I’d got big feet I got more coupons. As far as we were concerned the clothes coupons were adequate because we couldn’t afford to buy much. It was school uniform for me that had to be bought and you did without other things, special things… like shoes. I’d got big feet but all of summer at home I wore plimsolls because they were easy and they’d last a long time. To go to school I had to have proper school uniform and you had to buy it from a certain place in Colchester which was expensive. So my mother used to go to the Coop for her things because that made such a difference. I know I was very jealous of a friend of mine because she had a velour hat, a real velour hat but I had a felt one from the Coop but I didn’t mind.

My mother made a lot of clothes. She made a tunic because the High School tunic wasn’t a pleated thing. It was an easy one to make and she could buy the navy serge from the Coop but she couldn’t make the blouses. She wasn’t skilled enough for that so a lady across the road used to make the blouses for me and I believe I had two. One off and one on and a school tie you had to have and you had to wear the skirt. My mother used to make her own sheets. She used to buy unbleached linen and make them from that and if they got to a stage where they were getting a bit thin she’d turn sides to middle and use them for a little longer. She was quite good with a machine… I mean it was only a hand machine but she used to do quite a lot of work on that.

We had no radio which was why we were so used making things, always made a rug in the winter out of thrums that you cut from old coats and skirts and things that you could get at a rummage sale for a few pence that was made into a rug and every year we made one. The best one went into the front room and the other one went into the kitchen you know you moved them round.

It was usually people like the British Legion or the Women’s institute who ran these sales, rummage sales, to make a bit of money but I mean people didn’t always wash them before they took them so they weren’t always very pleasant to go to. They were a bit smelly but they made money and people who were really hard up could get something for almost nothing that was probably better than what they had already and there were a lot of people who were extremely hard up in those days because wages weren’t as they are now and of course during the war there were less people to provide you with money if they had gone into the services.

Making a rug

Well you had a piece of canvas or a sugar bag which if you went to the grocers and the bags were empty they’d give you a sugar bag which was a lovely canvassy thing. Otherwise you could get it from, where The Nottage is now, Mr Barr had a Chandlers shop and you could buy a length of canvas to do it and you had a little thing called a pricker which was sort of an ivory point and you’d pull up one of the threads of the canvas and stick this thrum in and pull it through

A thrum was an inch and a half long and you’d take the end and you made a strip and you’d cut these off in strips.

The middle of the rug was usually all colours but you tried to do a pattern, a single colour round the edge and another line of a different colour inside so that you had something that looked reasonable when it was finished. Very comfortable they were and they shook well if you shook them outside. None of the thrums came out and if you put one in the next one tightens up the thread that the next one goes under. That was good fun I enjoyed doing that.


Changes in the village


In the village then there were things happening. The iron railings were disappearing rapidly. They disappeared to help with the war effort  which was a shame from my point because the house in Queens road opposite had got lovely railings and it was a good place to tie your skipping rope to.

Well after a while people were joining the army or the navy and then they started this Welcome Home Society so they were raising money so that when these people came back hopefully from the War there would be something to hand out to them. To raise money you’d have a dance one week and the next week you’d have a social which involved games as well. The dancing was usually to gramophone records but occasionally they had an army band and there was a young girl locally who sang with the bands. She became quite well known.

I joined the St John Ambulance Brigade as a cadet to learn first aid just in case it was necessary and there were quite a few of us in that group that was run by one of the school teachers, a Mrs Munson who ran the Guides and ran the Cadets . That was good I’m glad I did that and I got in mind that perhaps it would help me when I wanted to be a nurse but eventually I changed my mind because I knew that the nurses pay wasn’t as high as teachers and I thought my poor old Mum would need some help and so I changed my mind as I got older.

In the High Street opposite where the library is there was a lodge, you know, one of the bigger houses they used to have open air dances on there in the summer on the lawn and everybody used to go to those and join in.

And of course there was the local Home Guard. Mr Loveless was the Officer in charge of the Home Guard and they were a bit like Dads Army when they started because they had nothing in the way of equipment or anything like that and they used to train up near where the pits are, you know the sandpits, and people who were not going into the Army generally did join that and you’d got the warden, air raid wardens who’d come round and make sure all your lights were all covered.

Where I lived in Queens Road there was a gap between the two houses opposite and you could see the planes in their hundreds going towards London following the river. There were dogfights and shrapnel and stuff, bullets and things. I mean it was frightening to see it and you could hear the thud of them as they were going and you knew they were on their way to London and of course there were Barrage balloons in various places that were supposedly to stop them but they could get past those all right. There was a model wooden submarine where the sailing club  is now as a decoy you know giving them some idea there was something going on there so they could drop the bombs there and it would be better than them taking them to London .


Visitors to Wivenhoe


Soldiers were in the village because they were in the Park as a camp. Where the university is now. The trains used to bring tanks and they would come over that bridge… the railway bridge. They must have unloaded them on the marsh and they came up… you would see them coming up the village to join them at the Park

It was quite a thrill to see it because that was something that hadn’t been in the village before and we thought well we’ve got all the equipment here that is going to help us in war time if we need it.

You didn’t ever feel threatened even when you went out in the dark which I did. I used to go to these dances even though I wasn’t very old… that was our entertainment. And to come home in the dark was fine you got so used to it although you did some times hear someone say  “Put that light out!” laughs if someone had got something a bit brighter than it should have been.

They did drill and they came down and marched. They were training before they were sent overseas and that sort of thing but that did make a difference. There were one or two girls who eventually married… you know soldiers from there but they didn’t make their presence uncomfortable or anything like that. They were just there to do a job and they were doing it.

We didn’t have evacuees. Quite a few came but very few stayed very long. After things quietened down a bit they drifted back to London and I would think there were about half a dozen who stayed for ever. I can remember the family across the road had two little girls to stay and when they went to bed the first night they got underneath the bed because that’s what they were used to doing.


Bombing of Colchester


I was at school when that big one off Essex Street happened. By then I was at North Hill School and we were up in the second floor of the school and the fire alarm went and you had to come down 3 flights of stairs on to the field where the shelters were and you could see these planes coming very low on Essex Street as you were running down there. We were extremely lucky, they didn’t machine gun us you know the children because the whole school were going down there. There were lots of children about. That day Essex Street and Chapel Street were quite badly damaged and people were killed but I think that was the worst one they had in Colchester.


VJ Day


I was in Oxford at that time when Japan finished, where I was on the first one I can’t remember. Mr Gosney was the rector of the church then and he’d sent me to Oxford for a Sunday School teacher course and VJ Day happened then which was out of this world I mean Oxford is a big place any way to be in when you’re a teenager  and there were people everywhere, up lamp posts and you know it was just absolutely amazing and the train when we went there and to get home again was full of people sitting in the corridors standing everywhere that was an amazing place. That was a lovely place to be when that happened because it would not have been as lively here as it was when I was down there.


This page was added on 04/02/2023.

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