"I took care of children from five weeks to five years old, from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night, while their mothers worked in the munition factories."
I was born in Blackfriars, which makes me a Cockney, October the 4th, 1925. The day I left school, went home to London to work as a children’s nurse after my training at Battersea. I took care of children from five weeks to five years old, from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night, while their mothers worked in the munition factories.
When I left home early every morning around 6:00 am, often the ‘all clear’ siren had not been sounded so I had to run to the tube station to get to work each day. We often had to duck into an air raid shelter on the way to the tube station in one of the office buildings and wait for the ‘all clear’ to sound off before running again to get to work on time.
The staff, where we lived, the LCC place, London County Council, the staff and my parents, we slept in the cold, cold room. We didn’t have fridges then, you see. And they had 700 men to feed. So they took over two or three big rooms in the very, an ‘airy’, they called it an ‘airy’, it’s like a big basement, it’s all concrete so it’s very, very cold rooms where they kept the food. Well, one of those rooms they’d had heated up, and it was used as our air raid shelter. Well, we had seven staff, mom did. So seven women, mom and I, we slept in the basement and my dad used to come down with an urn of tea and cut up sandwiches for us to have for our supper while we were all sitting down there. And he used to poke his head around the door, “My harem ready yet?”you know. (laughs) So we’d all sleep down there about seven, eight, nine, ten of us. And that was our air raid shelter every night. And after a heavy night’s bombing raid, my father was the first to go upstairs and open our front door to the street, to see if the streets had been cleared, because it had been a heavy night of bombing and there were always limbs, dead bodies, left out on our street and we had to wait until they were all cleaned up before I left for work at 6:00 in the morning. Now, that’s an honest fact, Dad used to say, “Don’t open the door yet until I’ve been out there.” Because we were right in the thick of the bombing.
And I’d run along the main street called Kingsway. I live in the Kingsway now, this is the funny part, because this is home here, it’s called the Kingsway. I used to run up the Kingsway, I’d look behind me was Australia House and if their flag was up, that meant immediate danger. So I’d be running and looking behind me. And then suddenly, this hand would come out and the Commissioner at the one of the builders on the Kingsway would grab me, “Come here missy, get downstairs, it’s a dangerous time, get downstairs in the air raid shelter.”
So you’d go down with all these people you’d never met before, which you couldn’t do these days. You’d go down there until the ‘all clear went’, then he’d shout down, “Okay, you can come up now.” And then I’d carry on running up to the tube station. It was quite a journey I had to get there. Then, that was all about maternity work, a lot of exams I know to pass for looking after children. And nursing them, nursing the mothers. I left as a nursery nurse, that was the top mark, then I rose to deputy matron. I left as deputy matron when I left there. And I enjoyed children. It was long days, it was long. The first job I ever got wasn’t far from my home, it was at Kingsway Hall and Nursery School, it’s a church arranging I think. I started work at 7:00 but I had to be there by half past 6:00, because the matrons slept in the building. And I have to be there and make a cup of tea and all the tray and deliver it to her bedside by, you know, half past six in the morning. So it meant me leaving home fairly early. But you did it. You did it. You took matron a cup of tea to get her out of bed.
The only service I was really interested in and that wasn’t reserve work, I heard later, I would have gone to the land army. Into the land army, that was making sure the food was there. That became reserved occupation after a while I believe, I heard recently. But I was needed more in the children’s work that I did because the moms had to go to munitions. Now, I’d get to work by half past six, between half past six and 7:00. And those children would be brought in, babies and up to five years, they’d come straight from bed. The mothers would just gather them up in blankets, bring them in, and this is the poor areas I worked in, very poor. And come straight out of bed. So of course, babies and children, that age, wet the bed. Everything would be wet, they wouldn’t have been washed or bathed. And I loved it. I’d bring them in, they were stinking and put them in the bath, wash their hair and comb their hair to get the nits or the lice out of their hair. I know it sounds awful, but it had to be done. And we’d bath them, I’d wash all their clothes and then they were our children during the day, they wore our clothes. Before they went home at night, you put their clean clothes back on, knowing they’d come back stinking again the next morning. But at least they were clean and lovely while we had them.
Like you’re in a group from five weeks say to a year old and then you’d go from the year old to two years old and two to five, something like that. Different rooms. In a big house, these nurseries were. As I got promotion, I moved or when I moved through the war, we had to move on. But they were run by the council too. And then we had one big house, we had Epsom in Surrey and it was a beautiful big home. So each room was for different age groups and they all had their little cots. We’d put them down after lunch, put them to sleep on these cots. And for about an hour, they’d sleep. We had a beautiful kitchen, yeah, cooking their meals. And I was married at this point, so the war was over, but they still kept these nursery schools going. But during the war, it was a big house, a Kentish Town, I went from the church place to Kentish Town. And that was a real poor area, Kentish Town in the Cockney area of London. So that, I preferred to work that way, so these kids were clean and tidy and nice during the day. They had to go home just to their cots or whatever they had and come back in the morning. We brought them up more or less.
But you still went out to the dances, you still did these things. You got on the tube train, subway, go to a dance and you’d run for the subway to the dance hall. You still did these things, otherwise, you’d be zombies. You know, during this, you just got blasé about it and carried on with your life.