Sue Kerr – Memories of living in Wivenhoe during WW2
Notes taken by Helen Polom and Gillian Strudwick of an interview with Sue Kerr, March 2019 Article written by Helen Polom
The outbreak of war
I was watching father dig an underground shelter in the garden when mother rushed outside to say war had been declared. I was 5 years old at the time. We were living at Meadowcroft, Rectory Hill.
Concrete steps led down to this shelter which was set at right angles to the steps. There was a sump at the bottom where water collected that had flowed down the steps. I seem to remember we saw frogs in it. The shelter was dark and damp due to condensation and ventilation was via a chimney. I don’t remember if we needed to use this shelter because soon after we had a large Morrison Shelter which was inside the house. This was set up in our living room and looked like a large table. It had metal mesh sides with sharp corners and was painted a nasty tan colour. It was a good place to play “houses”.
Information about the war came from other people, listening to the radio and my Aunt who lived nearby got the News Chronicle. The radio was in the living room where the Morrison shelter was. I remember hearing information about recipes and there was also a slot where a doctor talked about keeping yourself healthy. Government leaflets were given to everyone with information such as rationing, Digging for Victory or war time recipes… I think the information was doctored and we weren’t told what bad things were happening.
On the outside windows of the sitting room at the front and side of the house we had big shutters. The other rooms had black out curtains that were homemade. Two strips of solid beige sticky tape made a cross on each window. I think this was a safety measure in case the glass was shattered. This was very difficult to get off when war ended.
Water was heated by a little anthracite stove in the kitchen. Fuel was in short supply at times so we were only allowed 4 inches of bath water. Father painted a black line around the bath so we kept to the limit.
I wore a little silver identity disc on a chain around my neck which had my name and address engraved on it. My father had one too.
We all had an identity number and an identity card. My parents encouraged me to learn this number before I could even read. In later years when I was working I realised that this had been incorporated in to my NHS number.
Life outside our home
“Salvage drives” were held where people were encouraged to bring old pots and pans, anything metal that could be melted down and reused. The children collected things on Salvage Week and we took them to school. Once we took a car tyre. Some towns had a collection to sponsor building of an aircraft or a tank. I don’t think Wivenhoe did that.
War felt exciting. I saw dog fights taking place in the skies above the garden. The sky was sometimes a sea of aeroplanes weaving about. It looked good fun. Sometimes “sparkle strips” were dropped which we children collected because we rarely saw anything sparkly in the war years.…I think these were thin strips of aluminium to disrupt the radar or telecommunications. I also collected shrapnel which I kept in a Marriages flour bag. We children would compare who got the biggest or sharpest piece.
Everyone was given a gas mask in a cardboard box. Families made a material bag with carrying straps so that it could be carried more easily but it still bumped on your hip when you walked about. They had a horrible rubber smell. When my brother was born in 1944 our family was given a gas protector for him. It was like an incubator and air had to be pumped in through a filter. My mother was very nervous and anxious about having to use it.
Search lights – It was very exciting to stand in the garden of Meadowcroft on a dark night and watch the beam of a search light sweeping the sky to locate an enemy plane. Once it was found sometimes a second beam would also focus on the plane and follow its movement across the dark sky. The plane seemed to move very slowly so I think they must have been fully laden bombers making for London. I think adults and children alike gave a cry of triumph when the search lights found a plane.
Barrage Balloons – From my bedroom window at the back of Meadowcroft I could see a gap in the trees on the skyline to my right. I could see part of the grading and washing machinery at the sand pit; beyond that I could see 2 or 3 barrage balloons in the far distance in the sky. The cables from the balloons were protecting 3 very tall communication pylons, at Great Bromley I think, from air attack.
Land Girls – The fields behind Meadowcroft were let to a farmer who kept horses, cattle and pigs in some rather dilapidated barns, reached by a wide pathway through a big farm gate from Rectory Hill. The access went alongside our garden so we often saw two sisters that we knew, who were working as Land Girls in their smart practical uniforms going to work with the animals. They always looked so healthy and happy working outside rather than in factory. I think agricultural workers received extra rations due to the nature of their work.
After the war I worked in the school holidays picking apples at Plugars on Keelars Lane. I was given extra food rations because I was doing this.
There were food shortages so we were issued with ration coupons but as a child you just took this for granted as that was how it was. Mother had been to Domestic Science College so she was very inventive when it came to producing meals. We were never hungry.
Father was a butcher, C. A Everitt. He had a shop at the top of Station Road Wivenhoe and also a shop in Colchester at 93 Crouch Street. The shop manager in Wivenhoe was William Rule, “Bill”. My parents bought 11 Anglesea Road for the manager to live in. The hooves horns and skins from the butchers went to the glue factory at The Hythe. We were never short of meat. On Friday’s father met up for lunch with other businessmen at a café in Crouch Street in Colchester. On others days he came home for lunch. On Friday evenings father sat at the dining table to do his books. I was told to keep quiet because daddy was doing his books. I didn’t see much of my father because he left early in the morning and was home late. Father had a car but it was only ever used for business purposes because of petrol shortages. He couldn’t go far.
We kept chickens on the land where the house called “The Orchard” is now, opposite our house. If you had chickens you could have chicken feed instead of your egg ration. My aunt had the house opposite ours, called “The Orchard”, built. Bullace and wild cherry trees overhung the bank between the land and the road. The soldiers would take a rest on this bank.
People did swops for tea or cheese coupons. There was unofficial bartering. Money didn’t change hands it was bartering of food and children’s clothes. Because we had plenty of meat and didn’t use all our cheese ration coupons we gave these to the Special Constable in Wivenhoe who had two strapping teenage sons.
Mother didn’t use the Co-op store in Wivenhoe, food was delivered from Stacey Woods’s grocers. Mother did shop in Sainsbury’s that was next to the Red Lion Hotel in Colchester. Anthracite and coke was delivered from Joliffe’s yard.
Fruit and veg was delivered by Mr Newman with his horse and cart. The horse was called Major. When he stopped outside I was occasionally allowed to give the horse a carrot. The horse knew exactly where to stop, it knew the round. It was quite an event when it arrived.
Milk came from Lennox farm up near Vine house and Watchams was the dairy on the opposite side of Colchester Road. Beckworths dairy was in Bellevue road and they also sold sweets.
Our relatives in British Columbia Canada, who lived in the Frazer Valley, sent us food parcels. It was a very special time when it arrived. I can remember seeing tins of Sock Eye salmon and tins of butter as well as maple syrup which had the consistency of fudge.
My clothes were passed down from other family members who lived in Bellevue Road – my grandmother’s sister’s family – The Pullens. Knitting and fabric for clothing was difficult to get hold of so adult jumpers were unpicked, the wool washed and stretched to get rid of the kinks and it was reknitted into a children’s garment. Boys’ trousers would be made from the worn out coat of an adult and dresses for girls from those of adult women. Mrs Bacon, a seamstress in Wivenhoe, made some of my clothes. Her son Roger would deliver them. Everything was saved and reused such as string and wrapping paper. I still can’t get out of the habit of doing this.
Clothes were washed in Lux soap flakes at home, we had a “help”, but sheets were sent to the laundry in Colchester. A red laundry mark was sewn on in the corner of the sheets. Shoes were bought in Colchester. The dishes were washed in left over hand soap scraps. We had a metal gadget in which we put the soap scraps. This was swirled around in the water to make soap bubbles.
Shoe Repairs – In Belleview Road, at the start of the High Street, between the blocks of terrace houses is a short green lane. It used to lead to a small shed where we took our shoes and possibly other leather goods to be repaired. I remember being amazed to see him holding the nails in his mouth and deftly removing them one by one to tap into the sole of the shoe he was repairing. I could not understand how he managed not to swallow any.
Mr Mortlake owned Mill House on the corner of Rectory Road and Belleview Road. It had low barns on the right hand side. He dealt in animal feed. He had a pony called Mousey and a cart for deliveries. In the barn were huge commercial scales for weighing the sacks. Mother had me weighed there on these scales when I was 5 or 6. It had a lovely smell of grain. A slightly dusty place. I loved going there.
Parachute material – silk was used for nightdresses wedding dresses and ladies underwear. Mother was given a night dress made of this in 1944 when my brother was born.
Our Dr was Doctor Dean who was a friend of my fathers. He had a surgery in a ramshackle building off the side of Little Wick off Alma Street. It was very informal. Occasionally we visited Dr Radcliffe in his surgery at Gothic House on the upper part of The High Street. This was much more formal. Dr Radcliffe used to wear a starched white coat. The doctors dispensed the medicines. I was inoculated for diphtheria because my cousin had it. I think my father arranged for a doctor to come from Colchester specially to give it to me.
Father and the war
Father was in a reserved occupation but he had to write a letter to claim immunity from being called up. I remember him sitting by the pond near the top gates of Castle Park in Colchester and he was drafting his letter and I was bothering him. He told me to be quiet because “you don’t want your Daddy to do away in the army do you?”
He was in the Home Guard. They met at the pits opposite the entrance to what is now Bowes Road on Alresford Road. William Lovelace was in charge of the home guard unit.
School life and play
I started school soon after the war began. Both Halle Palmer, Dr Dean’s daughter, and I went to Grey Friars, a fee paying school on East hill in Colchester. The School was closed while the air raid shelters were built. During that time the children from the area who went to Grey friars came to our house at Meadow croft and a teacher would come for a couple of hours each day. Two children cycled from Elmstead market. Mary Betts cycled on a tricycle and her older sister Winnie on a bicycle. The Grey Friars School had a sand tray for us to play in. Avant garde at the time. Each class was also given a garden plot. I had lunch at school. We constantly had to practise fire drill so that if there was a raid we would be ready to take our gas masks down to our allocated shelter when the siren went. My mother made me a little cushion to sit on. We had milk at break time. The bottle tops from the milk had a hole punched in for the straw. We would use them for making pompoms by wrapping the wool through the hole in a circle. Going to school in Colchester, I was very aware it was a military town, there were always soldiers about. The walking wounded wore bright blue uniforms, it was a very distinctive colour. Towards the end of the war I passed the 11+ and went to the Girls High School on North Hill Colchester.
I played in the Old Cemetery with my “cousins”. We made up our own games of hide and seek or tag amongst the tomb stones. At home I played snakes and ladders and also with my dolls and dolls pram. I used to go to Boots lending library in Colchester on the corner of Head Street and High Street. The boys used discarded metal fuel tanks from aeroplanes to make a canoe by cutting an oblong hole in the top so they could sit inside it. The boys played with them on the river but I was forbidden to go there. I played in the little ponds that I could get to along the lane at the side of our house, up on Millfields or in Cockaynes wood.
Sometimes parties were held for the children. I went to one at Sunnymead farm when I was quite young. They had made animal masks for the children. I was quite frightened.
Evidence of the war
On D Day 6th June 1944 the sky was very clear and absolutely full of planes and gliders. It seemed like I was looking at a printed wallpaper pattern because the planes were all set out regularly in the sky. Sometimes when I was standing on the track towards Bowes farm, I saw doodle bugs flying across the river estuary towards Mersea.
I nearly got run over by a tank one day when I was walking back with our mothers help, Kathleen Gimm. It was coming from the Wivenhoe Park direction and we couldn’t tell whether it was going along Rectory Road or The Avenue. It swerved towards Rectory Road and we tripped and fell in the road. The tank just missed us but I grazed my knees. It is a vivid memory.
Early in 1944 an aeroplane flew over us in flames. It looked like it was coming towards Meadowcroft. My mother was pregnant with my brother at the time. We really though it was going to hit us. It came to ground over the allotments. The Home guard were guarding it. When they had their break the children swarmed over to the plane. It smelt horrible, of burnt rubber and metal. I found the pilots identity book in the cockpit. I showed it to my Father and he said “I better have that”. I don’t know what happened to it.
Visitors to Wivenhoe: evacuees, prisoners of war, and soldiers.
Sunnymead farm (Alresford Road) had two prisoners of war working for them. I went to play there because my father was friendly with The Duttons. One of the men was called Werner. They were healthy young men. They were talked about in Wivenhoe but not in a nasty way. There was no feeling of animosity. Wivenhoe is not that sort of place. I believe they stayed and married two local girls. I think they lived in Prospect house on Keelars lane which was owned by the Duttons.
I was very friendly with an evacuee called Anne Rivers who lived at Oak Lawn in Bellevue Road. The people who lived there were friendly with my parents. She was only in Wivenhoe for about a year.
The soldiers came on marches and passed the house. Sometimes they sat on the bank opposite Meadowcroft to have a smoke. Mother would insist I take cigarettes to the “poor chaps”.
There was a scheme where local families gave hospitality to overseas soldiers. Two soldiers came at a time on R and R (rest and recuperation) to visit a family and have hospitality at their house. We kept in touch with several Canadians. The English widow of one of them came to visit us in Wivenhoe and I was writing to her for many years. A Canadian soldier taught me how to ice skate. I had been using my mother’s skates. When he returned home he sent me ice skates of my own.
My father also became very friendly with a Canadian soldier, Don Burgher. When he returned home he gave his new born son the name Everitt as his second Christian name.
A Polish soldier made me a birthday cake with icing on which was unheard of as we couldn’t get icing sugar at the time. A Czech soldier arranged a pen pal for me when he returned home and I continued writing to him during my teenage years. We had some unofficial visits too. I remember two soldiers saw our family sitting eating apples in the garden on a warm day and my father invited them to come and have a cup of tea with us. These friendships made in the war had a profound and lasting effect on me. I realised how important friendships are across nations.
A few weeks after the end of the war when people had saved their ration coupons a Street Party was held at the top of Rectory Hill. It was on a school day so most of the food had been eaten by the time I got there, I was disappointed. The food was laid out on trestle tables.
I was given a printed certificate from Buckingham Palace thanking me for being a brave child during the war.
My Aunt Mary Harvey, secretary of the Colchester County High School for Girls, also occasionally gave private shorthand lessons and used my home at Meadowcroft rather than have her pupils walk up to “Pitfield” on the Mill Field. Two of her pupils were Jean Coe and her sister. These girls eventually went to work in a munitions factory (Jean was at the Royal Ordnance Munition Factory at Stone Staffs.) where there was a terrible accident and Jean Coe was fatally wounded. My Aunt, as indeed all of Wivenhoe, was devastated by this loss of life. Jean Coe’s name is on the war memorial in St Mary’s churchyard. I used to sit in on the shorthand lessons so I knew the Coe sisters quite well.
Soldiers in Colchester
My aunt also did voluntary work at the “Services Club” in Queen Street, Colchester and sometimes took me with her. I can remember being very aware of the smart uniforms worn by American soldiers. The top quality of the cloth and cut of their uniforms. A young G.I gave me a large crisp apple, still warm from his pocket. Wonderful! Fresh crisp apples were not available out of season in England during the war. The “walking wounded” from the Military Hospital in Colchester were often seen in the town in their bright blue invalid’s uniform.
My godfather Wilf Hodgson, sanitary inspector for Wivenhoe, lodged in a bungalow in Tower Road Wivenhoe. He became a friend of my parents – either through sailing on the River Colne or perhaps having to inspect my father’s shop in Station Road. Eventually he was called up into the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and saw service in the Middle East and North Africa. Where ever he was he brought me home a present. A lovely book, a “Pressed Flower from The Holy Land” bound in olive wood and once a lovely filigree bracelet.
He also wrote interesting letters. These had to pass through censorship and often arrived with words or sentences blacked out. They were on photographic paper for some reason I still don’t understand. The original handwritten letter was censored, photographed, and then sent to the recipient. On one leave my Godfather Wilf and my mother and father devised a simple code so he could let us know where in the world he was. The Capital letter at the start of the first few sentences in the letter would spell out the name of the town or country where he was. The next letter we received from the war zone spelled out C.A.I.R.O. It was so obvious, yet the censors had not spotted this very obvious code. Wilf’s letters were illustrated with tiny little drawings: palm trees and animals such as a camel. I wish I still had them to look at.