Iris Spearman (née Law) was ten years old when the war broke out, and living in Epping, where she still lives today.
Iris was the youngest of four children, two sisters and a brother. Her brother, Ernest, served in the army during the war, in the ‘Desert Rats’.
Iris’s daughter, Jane Pedley, has lived in Tilty since 1983; she has kindly provided us with a copy of her mother’s wartime memories for the project, together with several family photographs.
Iris originally wrote her story of the war years for her niece, Katy, for a school project. The rest of the family found it fascinating, and it is extremely well written; they have encouraged her to share it with others – and to carry on writing.
Iris’s Family in 1939
To set the scene I will first of all describe my family as it was in September 1939.
I was ten years old when the War began, and lived at 18 Allnutts Road, Epping, Essex. This was a Victorian, semi-detached, red brick house, with a clinically whitened front door step and a highly polished letter box, door knob and ‘No. 18’ in brass. Everyone knew everyone, a bit like ‘Coronation Street’. It had a little grocery store, run by Mr. Dingley, and at the bottom of the road was a high embankment along which ran steam trains to London, and in the opposite direction to North Weald and Ongar.
Mum and Dad were both true Cockneys; that is, they were born within the sound of Bow Bells. They moved to Epping from London at the end of the First World War. Dad was a fireman and had had a hard time fighting fires night and day. A bell would sound in his house every time he was needed for a fire and he would have to rush to the Fire Station or be picked up outside his house. He was actually gassed twice. At the end of the First World War my mum was on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of the continual ringing of the fire bell, so they moved to the peace of the countryside, where my dad went back to his trade of making hand-made ladies’ shoes. He did this in a shed at the bottom of our garden. (I could tell you a lot about the stresses and strains of that, but that is another story!).
My parents’ names were Frederick William Law and Clara Emily Law – née Shead. They were in their mid-fifties at the beginning of the Second World War. My dad came from Scottish stock; he was fair-haired and my mum, who was very dark-haired, had Spanish ancestry. My Dad left school at ten years old, was apprenticed to the shoe trade and completed his education at evening classes. With his beautiful copper-plate writing and knowledge of so many things, you would never have guessed he had left school so young. He was also a brilliant pianist, playing both classics and the latest dance tunes, and never had a lesson. There were four children:-
Winifred (Win). Dark-haired and pretty, with a very sweet nature; aged 26 in 1939. Newly married and living in Ongar with her husband Fred, who was a fireman during the whole of the Second World War.
Ernest, aged 24. Worked at home with his Dad making the shoes. Brown hair, very good-looking. 1st violin with the Epping Town Band, also lead trombone.
Gladys, 19 years. Blonde and beautiful, a real madcap. Very clever, brilliant at maths, but in those days girls’ education wasn’t taken very seriously. When she left school at 14 she was apprenticed to hairdressing, as was her sister Win.
Iris (me!), aged 10. My sisters and brother were so much older, I didn’t get very involved in their lives. I had a best friend who lived opposite, with whom I spent most of my time.
During the summer leading up to September 3rd, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of war.
My brother Ernest decided to join the Territorial Army and when he came home and told us what he had done my Dad went mad. ‘You silly little fool’, he said, ‘you’ll be the first to go’. My brother went off to training camps every weekend, bringing back his muddy uniform for Mum to wash.
Then on September 3rd 1939 came the fateful announcement on the radio by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain: ‘This country is now at War with Nazi Germany’. At the end of his speech came the words: ‘Will all members of the Territorial Army report to their bases immediately’.
My brother came rushing in to Mum. ‘Where is my uniform?’ he said. ‘It’s in the wash,’ she replied. ‘I’ll have to take it,’ said Ern – and so he did, all dripping wet, stuffed in his kit-bag. A few hugs all round, and he was gone.
Mum ran down to the end of the garden in tears and I followed her, crying also but not really understanding why.
Then an awful sound filled the air – the high-pitched wailing of the air-raid warning siren. Such a mournful and weird noise – impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t heard it – up and down – up and down. All the birds panicked. Deafening and frightening.
Unidentified planes had been spotted over the English Channel.
Sometime later the ‘All Clear’ siren sounded – one long note. This was to be the first of many alerts.
I missed my brother so much. Most of all I missed our special Friday nights. For as long as I could remember, he would collect his pay from Dad, hop on his bike and cycle up Bower Hill to Epping and buy Lyons cup cakes for the whole family. They were in pleated paper cups, with about one-third chocolate cake and two-thirds thick gooey chocolate on the top. I looked forward to them all the week. Then Mum and Dad would go to the local cinema, and Ern would stay in to look after me. I used to go to bed at about 7.00 p.m. and Ern would practise for his Band concerts on the violin and trombone (with mute). I would go to sleep listening to the beautiful classical music.
In the meantime, back in Epping, all sorts of things began to happen. We had to black out all the windows in the house every night with cardboard or blankets and sticky tape so that no lights would show to disclose our whereabouts to the German bombers who had started to bomb London at night. If a chink of light showed through, the Air Raid Warden, who walked up and down the streets all night, would bang on the door until the light was hidden. As we were so near to North Weald Aerodrome, from which the Hurricanes and Spitfires intercepted the German bombers, there was a protective screen of barrage balloons and searchlights all over Epping and nearby villages. At night you could see these great big silver-grey balloons, looking rather like floating elephants without trunks. Hanging from them, glinting in the light of the criss-crossed searchlights, were metal cables. All this was to stop the bombers getting low enough to aim their bombs. Then you would see and hear the anti-aircraft guns – bright yellow bursts. It really looked rather pretty.
Then our ‘Morrison’ shelter was delivered. I seem to remember it was named after a Minister in the Government [ Herbert Morrison, Minister of Home Security ]. This was a very heavy-duty steel box, like a table with three sides filled in and an entrance opening on the fourth side, with heavily reinforced corners. All the furniture in the dining room had to be moved to make room for it and at nights, when the air-raid siren went, we all had to come downstairs with our blankets and get in the shelter. It was horrible being awakened from a deep sleep and dragged downstairs, usually every night, and staying there until the ‘All-Clear’ siren went.
We were all issued with gas masks and had to have them with us at all times. They were in a little square cardboard box on a shoulder strap and at school we had to have gas mask drill every morning. They had a horrible new rubbery smell and I remember when you breathed in, the rubber sort of sucked on your nostrils until you breathed out again. Very claustrophobic.
At the entrance to Allnutts Road was a very big house called Inchcape House where Lord and Lady Inchcape at one time lived. It was surrounded with lovely ornamental iron railings and when I was a little girl I used to try to peep through them in case I should catch a glimpse of Lord and Lady Inchcape or the gardens, which I imagined would be very grand, but I couldn’t really see anything – there was a hedge growing behind as well. Then one day a big lorry appeared in the road and a man banged on all the doors and said ‘Please hand over any old metal saucepans or frying pans or anything you can spare. We need them to melt down to make guns to help win the War’. Everybody found something to give and then, when they got to Inchcape House, they removed all the iron railings and piled them on the lorry. I couldn’t believe it. After they had gone, I went and looked at the short little brick wall left sticking up from the pavement and parted the hedge and peeped through, expecting to see the grand gardens. I was disappointed to find that they were not very special at all; I dare say the gardeners had been called up, and probably Lord and Lady Inchcape also.
Then came the exciting day when my brother came back to England after completing his Army training in Scotland. He was stationed at Thornwood Camp, just outside Epping and he was in the Band, playing his trombone. Every day he would march all around the streets of Epping with a procession of troops behind. I remember so well the big drum and the bright leopardskin draped over the drummer’s shoulder, swinging to the beat of the music, lovely military marches, and the soldiers’ boots keeping in time, crunch – crunch- crunch. At every opportunity I had I would join in on the pavement and I used to walk miles with my brother and his Band – I felt so proud of him. Shortly after this he was moved again to Witham, Essex to another Army Camp and was there for a few weeks. There he met a girl called Rose who was to become his future wife.
Most of the British Army were sent across to Europe to try to stop the German advance to Holland and France. We had a huge map of Europe on the wall at our house and two boxes of flags on pins, one box contained German Swastikas and the other box Union Jacks. As the announcements came through on the news bulletins each day – as to how the fighting was going and which towns had fallen – we placed the flags, moving them each day. Sadly, the Union Jacks were driven right to the coast by the Swastikas and our boys were stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. You will probably have heard the miraculous story of how every available boat from England and Wales, large and small, even rowing boats, were taken by their owners who bravely risked their lives with German planes machine-gunning them. They crossed the English Channel and brought most of our boys back home. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of the War.
Eventually my brother was sent to Africa to fight the Germans under their General Rommel. Ernest became one of the famous ‘Desert Rats’. The ‘Desert Rats’ were driven back by the Germans nearly to Egypt. The British Army then changed their Commander to General Montgomery, which gave them new heart, and eventually they drove the Germans back right across the top of Africa and over to Italy.
During this time, as you can imagine, letters from home were very important and the English girls were asked to write to the soldiers to cheer them up. My sister Gladys wrote to Ern and asked him if he had a friend whom she could write to and he gave her the name of his best friend, Johnny Teeder, who, like himself was a bandsman (trumpet) and a stretcher-bearer. The two things go together in the Army. If you are a bandsman you are a stretcher-bearer in battle.
My Dad, who I have explained before made hand-made shoes as his trade, found himself without work. Such luxuries were not bothered with in wartime. So he went on a re-training programme as an engineer. He did so well at it that he finished up as a toolmaker.
That means he actually learned to make the tools that were used to make delicate tools such as micrometers, which could measure the width of a hair. Makes you wonder what he would have achieved if he hadn’t left school at ten years old and had the education that is available today.
He went away to Welwyn Garden City to do his training and came home weekends. I was put in charge of the vegetable garden which was my own personal war effort. ‘Dig for Victory’ posters were in all the shops. Dad would tell me what to do, what seeds to plant and where, and every weekend inspection would take place. I would drag Dad up the garden with great pride to show him my neat rows of vegetables, with not a weed in sight. Sometimes my friends got fed up with me when they called for me to come out to play and I would say: ‘No, I can’t’, I must do my garden’. And we did all have to do our bit. Another thing we children would do for the war effort was to make lavender bags and sell them door to door; the money was taken up to the local organiser of the Red Cross to go towards buying bandages for our soldiers. We had a letter thanking us, of which we were very proud. My Mum continually knitted khaki balaclava helmets, gloves and scarves. Goodness knows how many she made. The wool was supplied free by the Government for the women of the country to use.
Girls, as well as boys, were called up at 18 years of age during the war, unless their jobs were of National Importance, or for compassionate reasons. For a while my sister Glad’s job as a hairdresser was exempt from National Service. The owner of the hairdressers salon, ‘Murella’s’, was Mrs. Murella Dowsing who was the wife of the Commanding Officer of North Weald Aerodrome, where Spitfires and Hurricanes were based. When the exhausted young pilots had a few precious hours leave at the height of the Battle of Britain, they would go to the shop and the staff, including Glad of course, would cut and shampoo their hair, give them a shave if they so wished and even manicure their nails. All this was free of charge and designed to relax them for a short while. Glad got to know them very well and you can imagine how sad and terribly upset she would be when very often one of her favourite ‘boys’ didn’t turn up for his next appointment at the salon because he had been killed in action when his plane was shot down.
Around this time – after Dunkirk – the War was at its height. London was being bombed every night and the Battle of Britain was in full swing in the air above North Weald and Epping. We used to watch the Lancaster bombers fly over every day, twelve to a squadron in four ‘arrows’ of three. The Spitfires and Hurricanes would take off from North Weald to escort them on their way to bomb Germany. We would wait several hours and then count them back. Sadly, one or two would very often be missing. Sometimes we would just pray they would make it to base.
Then there were the dog-fights when the German fighter planes came over to attack the escort of Spitfires and Hurricanes. Many came down over Epping. You would see the parachutes opening and fluttering down, and planes going down with flames and smoke streaming from them. Then ‘Dad’s Army’ would go out to rescue our boys and capture the German pilots and crew.
After a safe period had elapsed for this to happen, the local girls would go out looking for the parachutes which were always left behind. Sounds awful, doesn’t it, but in wartime clothing could only be bought with a very meagre allowance of clothing coupons, just enough to cover essentials, so a silk parachute was a real prize. Glad found one once and we all spent weeks unpicking the seams and making lovely undies and nighties for the females in the family. Couldn’t get lace, of course, so we did all the hems with ‘shell hemming’. Some girls who were married during the war actually had their wedding dresses made from parachute silk.
After a time my sister’s job was no longer considered a reason for her exemption from National Service, but as my mother had to have an eye operation, Glad was not called up into the Services, so that she could help out at home. However, she was not excused altogether. She had to do night work at Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Factory. She was picked up by a bus at the end of our road at 10.00 p.m. and returned at about 6.00 a.m. It was freezing waiting for the bus, so she made herself a pair of trousers, slacks they were called in those days, out of a grey army blanket. Dad was really shocked, as I think Glad was probably the first girl in Epping to wear trousers. But she defied him and carried on wearing them. I remember her saying defiantly ‘You should try waiting for that bus in the freezing cold wearing a skirt’. In time all the girls started wearing trousers. Sounds strange now, doesn’t it, but it was considered very modern and daring in those days!
The work at the Gunpowder Factory was very dangerous. The factory was a target and Glad had to brave the air-raids to catch her bus and travel there. She had to stand in water wearing wellingtons, and did her work through holes in a thick rope curtain, to protect her from the occasional explosions which occurred. The material she worked with was called cordite.
Eventually Mum’s eyes became very bad just before her operation, and Glad was allowed to work locally. She was given a job at Epping Laundry which she absolutely hated. However, during the War you just had to put up with things you didn’t like.
I was a little girl of ten when the War started, and a grown-up young lady of 15 when it ended. The early years were as I have described above. Food was rationed and luxuries disappeared altogether as they would have had to be brought to England by sea, and the ships risked being torpedoed by German submarines – very many were. They were called the Merchant Navy. Therefore only really essential goods were imported at great risk to the brave sailors who manned the provision ships.
Lots of families sent their young children to America as evacuees. Mum and Dad decided not to send me as one or two ships carrying these English children were sunk and they didn’t dare take the chance. I was very pleased that I didn’t have to go. As I was so young I didn’t realise how serious things really were and carried on cheerfully, playing with my friends and carefully following my brother’s progress in Africa and Italy from the news bulletins. His letters home were all censored and he was not allowed to say where he was or anything about the War.
We continued to spend uncomfortable nights in the shelter. My sister Win used to come over once a week to clean the house for Mum. She had brought her very snappy poodle dog with her on one occasion and there was a big air-raid over Epping. We all wanted to get into the shelter to take cover, but the dog ferociously guarded the entrance, snarling and snapping. My Dad was furious. ‘That dog is not welcome around here any more,’ he said to poor Win.
Another night while we were in the shelter after a raid we heard a funny clicking noise outside the back door. My Dad grabbed his garden fork, which he had sharpened up in his factory like four little bayonets, and went outside, fully prepared to capture his first enemy parachutist. The rest of us were all very scared, but relieved when Dad returned and told us that the noise was two hedgehogs performing their mating ritual on the garden path.
Eventually the day arrived when I was fourteen and it was time to leave school and get myself a job. I was very good at English, and had done two or three lessons at night school in shorthand/typing, so I went to the Labour Exchange to see what was going. I found that the local hospital, St. Margaret’s, which was also a Workhouse, was advertising for a shorthand typist. Well, I thought I would have a go, and applied for an interview. A very stern-looking man interviewed me. He was the Master of the Hospital and Workhouse and his name was Mr. Harry England. He asked me what my speeds were and I replied ‘Well, actually I haven’t started doing speeds yet, but I am progressing very fast and feel sure I shall soon be able to do this job as I intend to work very hard at it.’ The man’s stern face broke into a smile and he gave me the job of Trainee Shorthand Typist; ‘for my cheek,’ he said. So it just shows you what you can achieve if you have confidence in yourself!
I shall always remember collecting my first weeks’ wages – £1.50d (old money). On Friday afternoons everyone who worked for Mr. England was summoned to the Boardroom to collect their money. You had to knock on the door after the previous employee had come out and Mr. England would call out: ‘Come.’ You then had to open the door and walk down to the end of a very long narrow room over a really highly-polished floor towards a desk at the end. At this desk sat Mr. England with another man, the Treasurer. Mr England looked at the time sheet with your name on the top, then asked the Treasurer to place the correct money in a small brown envelope. When it was returned to him, Mr. England would write your name very slowly and carefully on it, and seal it down. At this time he would sometimes comment on your good work or give any instructions he had for you. Then you would say ‘Thank you very much, Sir’, turn round and walk back over the slippery floor, hoping you wouldn’t fall over, and return to work. This ritual took place every Friday afternoon for the whole of the time I worked at the hospital, which was seven years.
Well, I did work hard at my shorthand, as I had promised, taking down the News bulletins for practice and getting my Dad to read out bits from the newspaper at every opportunity and continuing with evening classes twice a week. Quite soon I had a certificate for 130 words per minute for shorthand and a high typing speed, can’t remember what it was.
Around this time the hospital doctors needed a secretary of their own so I asked Mr. England if he would let me do it. To my delight he agreed and I became the first Medical Secretary at St. Margaret’s. It was a marvellous, interesting job and I really enjoyed doing it. They gave me a white coat and I would accompany the doctors in their Clinics or in the Wards, notebook in one hand, portable typewriter in the other and urgent letters would be dictated and typed on the spot, sometimes with my little typewriter bouncing up and down on the end of the patient’s bed. No computers in those days; things were very basic and simple. If you didn’t do your job well you were sacked, and that was that.
While I was a medical secretary at the hospital there were special wards put aside for wounded British Servicemen and German and Italian Prisoners of War. Each day the ‘walking cases’ took their exercise round the hospital grounds in processions. The British boys were in what was known as ‘hospital blues’ and everyone smiled and joked with them as they passed by. The German prisoners were dressed in grey and the Italians in brown. They made a sorry sight, miserably walking or limping along, legs in plaster, heads bandaged, looking at us girls and hoping for a friendly smile. They didn’t get one, of course; after all if your brother was a Desert Rat…
When Servicemen were killed or wounded, a telegram was sent to the relatives at home by the Army or whatever Service they were in. They used to be delivered by a postboy on a bicycle. We would watch fearfully for him when the battles were raging, and one dreadful day when the war had been on for about four years, he came to our door with a telegram. We were all terrified to open it, and Dad eventually did so. It said ‘Lance Corporal Ernest Law has been wounded in battle’. We were relieved that he hadn’t been killed, of course, but didn’t find out for ages how badly he had been hurt. Eventually we were told that he would be coming home. He had had a wall fall on his head at the battle of Monte Casino and was knocked unconscious, but the reason he was coming home was that he had a shrapnel wound in his buttock. His friend Johnny Teeder continued fighting in the dreadful battle of Monte Casino, one of the worst of the War, and said he was a ‘lucky devil’. However, Ern died at the very early age of 45 from a brain tumour, so we all felt that something happened to him when he was blown up and had the wall fall on him.
As the War progressed a new weapon was unleashed by the Germans. These were called ‘doodle-bugs’. They were basically a flying bomb that looked and sounded like a small low-flying aeroplane. They made a funny, heavy droning noise, which was easily recognisable and when the engine stopped you had about twenty seconds before the explosion as it hit the ground. Many times as I cycled to and fro to work I was forced to leap off my bike and lay in the nearest ditch, fingers crossed, until the explosion occurred. Very scary, I can tell you.
After the doodle-bugs came the rockets, V-1s and V-2s. There was no warning with them and one landed on the hospital where I worked at 10.00 p.m. one night. The hospital was also a Workhouse which was a place where old tramps and vagrants could get rest for the night and a good meal. One of the General Office staff had to be on duty every evening to book them in, and one man who I knew very well was on duty that night and was killed, together with many of the tramps. Nobody knew who they really were and as they had no known next of kin, it was a nightmare to sort out. We were so shocked to lose our friend from the office so suddenly and tragically. The only good thing that I can say about the whole incident is that next door to the Workhouse accommodation was the children’s ward, Cherry ward it was called, containing about thirty sick babies and children. They all miraculously escaped injury and so things could have been a lot worse.
At about this time my brother came home. I shall always remember his first night back. I had used his room whilst he was away, but I was very pleased to move back in with my sister Glad, and that night happily lay in bed listening to my brother playing sweetly on his beloved violin (which had remained in the top cupboard in his room for the whole time he was away). He played ‘Estralita’ (Little Star) and all seemed right with the world again.
Ernest’s fiancée, Rose, came over one day and the two of them went to London on the train for the day. Just before they were due to arrive back home, a rocket fell on the railway line and we were so scared that the train had been blown up. However, they arrived home safely, but very late, and you can imagine how pleased we all were when they walked in. Soon afterwards they were married, and I was bridesmaid; the happy couple went to live at Witham after Ern was discharged from the Army.
My sister Win was expecting her first baby and he was born just before the end of the War. When the baby, David, was christened I was godmother, and Win asked her friend Maude to the ceremony. Maude had a son, Alan, who was on leave from the Navy at the time so Win told her to bring him along too. That was my first meeting with the man who would become my husband. He looked very handsome in his Navy uniform and we immediately struck up a close friendship. Soon after the Christening he was sent to Australia, as we were at war with the Japanese as well, but the War was over before he actually had to take part in the fighting, thank goodness.
When peace was declared there was great rejoicing with parties in the streets. Johnny Teeder, Glad’s pen-friend right through the dark days of the War, came home and they fell in love at first sight. They were married within a month, and I was bridesmaid again.
I hope you enjoy reading my reminiscences. Of course many terrible, and wonderful, things happened during the Second World War which you can read all about in the history books. But these are the things that stick in my mind from the years between 1939 and 1945.
(Last updated 1/3/2015)