Old Monovians; Memories

Dick langstaff's Memories

Much of the summer vacation of 1940 was spent preparing for my first year at Monoux. The new first form mwere to be evacuated to a small boarding school in Herefordshire called Lucton School, in a village about six miles from Leominster where the rest of the school was accommodated. The day of departure soon came round and, resplendent in our new uniforms, we assembled outside the Monoux School. The date was 7th September 1940 and what made this a very unusual first day at school was that there was a ferocious air raid in progress. This was the day on which the Luftwaffe fired the London Docks and a large amount of the East End and South East London. We were driven to Paddington Station where we entrained for Leominster. Buses took us from Leominster to Lucton where the Monoux boys were established in a dormitory at the top of the building. We had at our disposal for lessons and communal recreational area, a separate, new, two-storey block at the side of the main building. Meals were taken, with the boarders, in the school dining room. When the Luctonians returned, each school settled down to life without any great friction between the two groups. Some isolated instances of thuggery occurred. One particular instance, possibly the worst, happened when a sixteen-year-old Lucton boy held one of our boys and clamped his hands on the steam pipes in the boiler house until they blistered. This meant a trip to the school nurse and staff were told. When Ken Peacock, our Monoux teacher, learned what had happened he sought out the miscreant, told him to take his glasses off and then hit him so hard it must have rattled his teeth. Instant rough justice, but a speedy resolution of the problem. I wonder what would happen to the parties involved today? Social workers would have had a field day.

In the period coming up to Christmas three boys went down with Scarlet Fever. A few days after one of them returned to school, I succumbed to it. I was taken by ambulance to an isolation hospital just outside Hereford. Few remedies were available at that time for any of these childhood complaints, and the only solution appeared to be "sweat it out of 'em". I was put to bed, covered in blankets and wheeled in front of a roaring fire. How long I stayed there I do not know, but in due course the fever subsided and I was returned to a more normal regime. We were not allowed out of bed under any circumstances, being 'potted' and blanket-bathed as necessary. Looking back, this treatment must seem almost Victorian in its approach with no antibiotics. If there were no complications all was well, if there were, the outlook could be grim. There was a diphtheria ward at the hospital, and there was a death in it during my stay. My enforced stay lasted over the Christmas period, and we had all the usual trimmings that hospitals find for children at that time, despite the privation of wartime.

I was a bit 'wobbly' for a short while after my return to Lucton from hospital but was soon able to resume some sporting activities. Lucton was a rugby playing school, and so we also took up the game. I used to play in the forwards. Poor eyesight did not prove to be a great handicap. Wallowing in mud with 29 others trying to hack a peculiarly shaped balol in one direction or the other does not require 20/20 vision! One of our teachers, Henry Horton, always known as 'Hairy' Horton, had a visit from his wife and she stayed a few days. Our dormitory overlooked the staff's private rooms and one of our number shouted out early one morning whilst we were getting ready for breakfast, "Look, Mrs Horton is standing in the window and she hasn't got any clothes on". Although my bed was near the window I did not stand a chance of getting there. The rush down the dormitory resembled the charge of the Light Brigade and I was left well at the rear of the pack! We also-rans had to content ourselves with descriptions of the scene from our fleet-footed fellow pupils.

A more sombre memory relates to May 1941. One evening, as we were getting ready for bed the dormitory was, as usual, resembling a very noisy bear garden. Suddenly 'Hairy' Horton appeared, called for quiet and just said "The Hood has been sunk" and left. There followed near total silence and everybody just got into bed. To us small boys it was inconceivable that the pride of Royal Navy could have been sunk. The news a few days later that the Bismarck had suffered a similar fate was part compensation, but did not completely remove the feeling of loss.

The Lucton year came to an end in July. Instead of returning to Lucton School after the summer holidays we were sent to Leominster, a town about five miles from Lucton. This was the usual procedure, Lucton being used for the first form boys only. We were allocated to various billets in the town. I was placed with a Mrs. Eliza Wood, a comfortably-off widow, in her three-bedroomed, semi-detached house. She had had two other Monoux boys billeted on her previously and was therefore quite used to coping with boys, although she had never had any family of her own. She was a kindly woman with an enquiring mind, and encouraged me to use the extensive stock of books in the house to great advantage. In this respect I was luckier than some evacuees, or 'vaccies' as they were often called. Many of them were quite shamelessly exploited, particularly if they were billeted at a farm where they were sometimes treated as an unpaid, overworked farm hand.

In addition to some occasional classes in the local grammar school we had classes in the local Quaker meeting house and another church hall and, by and large, we followed a timetable akin to a normal peacetime one. There were some staff shortages, inevitably, but these were often covered by other staff teaching a second subject, other than their own speciality. Not the least of the problems faced by the school staff was what to do with us after school hours. They were in 'loco parentis' and the job of keeping a large group of boys aged 12-18 out of mischief was no mean task. The Quaker meeting house was turned into a recreation club during the evenings where we would play table tennis, billiards, play cards, etc. It was staffed by teachers on a rota basis. They were assisted by Valerie Fortescue, the school secretary, aged about 25, quite attractive if not especially beautiful. Whenever Valerie was on duty she managed to bring along some item of exotic lingerie which was in need of repair and whilst she was doing this she would be surrounded by a pack of sixth formers whose eyes were popping out of their heads!

Mum and Dad sent me a bicycle and, after repairing it (the railway company did not handle it with kid gloves!), I found it very useful for getting around, visiting Ludlow and many other places in the area. The day of the week which had the most regular pattern, was Sunday. Mrs. Wood was the Treasurer of the Leominster Congregational Church and so I was taken along twice a day, mornings and evenings, to the little church in the town centre. Mrs Wood was above all else a rabid teetotaller. She used to thunder on about the evils of drink and was incandescent when she found out that 45 beer trains a day left Burton-on-Trent! She was quite disgusted when she saw a picture of Lord Halifax, then Foreign Secretary, I believe, having a drink with a group of soldiers. In a way these attitudes showed that same people like her lived comparatively out of touch with the realities of the war. The Army, in the shape of the Monmouth Regiment, was also stationed in Leominster, taking over many buildings including some of the commercial hotels. One incident involving the troops sticks in the memory. A Bren-gun carrier, a tracked, open-topped armoured personnel vehicle came down the hill into the centre of town but, instead of turning sharp right, failed to turn at all and ploughed into a wool and needlework shop! Fortunately no-one was hurt but the mess was very extensive.

One aspect of life during the war, which today's reader may find hard to imagine, was the blackout. No lights whatsoever were allowed to be seen outdoors except for hand torches. Vehicles used heavily-hooded, dipped headlights and traffic lights were masked with just a cross showing. Houses generally had heavily blacked-out ground floor windows but, in order to avoid putting black-outs on upstairs windows, light bulbs would be removed from upstairs rooms and torches used when going to bed. Everyone owned a torch and the No. 8 battery, which was most used, was often driven to the limit of its use by heating it up on the top of a stove so as to get the last glimmer of light out of it.

On one occasion the rumour spread through the town that the King was coming to Leominster. This turned out to be true, but he only got off a special train in the station to review the troops paraded on the platforms and then departed without visiting the town. Leominster was on the railway line which ran through Ludlow to Hereford and places south, and Hereford was close to a munitions factory. A munitions train from Hereford caught fire just south of Leominster, probably due to an overheated axle box, and the resultant fire gave one of the best fireworks displays that the town had ever seen. Some six wagons were destroyed and the rest of the train was only saved by the intervention of a railwayman who uncoupled the burning wagons. Air raids were still occurring in London and so nights were generally spent in the air-raid shelter. This shelter, half buried in the back garden, was constructed of corrugated iron, was provided with a concrete floor and housed four wooden bunks which had wire mesh to support the mattress or bedding. In front of the opening a brick blast wall was provided. Earth was heaped on the sides and top of the shelter to provide a means of deflecting blast waves, and it was reckoned that the occupants were safe except for a direct hit. Our shelter often held more than four, for we shared it with the couple next door, Mr and Mrs Bradley, and when I was home it became rather crowded. In the early part of the war when I was away, my aunt Hilda who was living with Mum and Dad at the time used to squeeze in as well. The shelters were, of course, not heated and so in winter one slept fully clothed. Despite the continuing war and the shortages of everything, life for me was not too bad when home. I spent much time, often three or four hours, queuing for off-ration food such as fish, as well as for meat for our animals. Christmas was an occasion when most people managed to enjoy themselves, even getting little extras by means not always legal, i.e. the 'black market'. We would sometimes go to Hilda's flat in Hampstead where she would often entertain a dozen or more people at Christmas, and luxuries such as an enormous turkey from a source unknown would appear. An event memorable in my life and of continuing significance occurred on Christmas Day 1942. I paid my first visit to the Orient football club! At the outbreak of war the normal Football League programmes was abandoned. A regionalised programme was set up to restrict travelling. "Is your journey really necessary?" was a wartime slogan. Teams were allowed to recruit players from any source and often famous players could be found 'guesting' for quite lowly clubs such as the Orient. On the occasion mentioned Dad, my uncle Tom and I walked over to the Orient whilst Mum and my aunt Dora got on with preparing the Christmas Dinner and, no doubt, having a gin and vermouth whilst we were out. Christmas morning football, even in wartime, was always a special sort of match. Spectators turned up sporting new gloves and scarves and smoking cheap, revolting cigars, presents from Father Christmas.


Life continued in Leominster much as before, senior boys were called up almost as soon as they left school and several were killed shortly afterwards. In all, some 78 Old Boys were lost during the war. By 1943 the intensity of bombing of London and other cities had diminished and it was decided that it was safe to return the School to Walthamstow at Easter. I bade farewell to Mrs Wood, giving her a brooch as a token of thanks for the good time I had had with her. I count myself very lucky to have had a good billet; several others did not fare as well. Returning to Walthamstow, we had a summer break to get through before returning to school. The occasional air raids still occurred but by and large we did not feel the need to sleep in the shelter every night. My first experience of the Monoux School showed a building as well prepared as possible for war. Full height blast walls had been built in the corridors which ran round three sides of the school. Most of the windows were lead lattice and so did not need the usual sticky tape, but, as will be seen later, near misses could still cause damage.


The return to near-normality meant that laboratories and workshops were now available and science lessons were much more interesting. Although we were studying general science, my main interest was chemistry. My life-long interest in the subject was started by the gift of a Lott's chemistry set, and I feel that the present day 'safety at all costs' attitude militates against young people developing the same interest in the subject. I did have occasional accidents, including a dose of chlorine poisoning, but, providing common-sense precautions are taken, much enjoyment can be had from 'home chemistry'. The return of all Monoux boys under one roof enabled the resumption of the normal pattern of classes for each year. The brightest third of each year's intake was designated the A class, the next third was the B class and the lowest third was the C class. Thus even in grammar schools streaming took place acknowledging that the 11+ examination, whilst creaming off the best, did not differeniate between the various abilities of this top slice. I spent all my first five years in the B stream, with the exception of year 4 in which I achieved the giddy heights of the A stream. Life continued through 1943 and into 1944 much as before except that the war was going better for us. Shortages of most things continued, with prolonged queuing at shops - but not much to worry us. We were, however, rudely shaken out of our complacency over air-raids. We had taken to sleeping in the house under the dining room table rather than using the air-raid shelter and one night when Dad was on Air Raid Warden duty, Mum and I were suddenly woken by air-raid sirens. A lone aircraft had dropped flares over us to illuminate his target and, before we could get dressed and out to the shelter, we heard a stick of bombs come whistling down. All we could do was to hide under the table feeling utterly helpless. One violent explosion near us and others further away marked the end of the attack. Dad came running down from the ARP post thinking that we had been hit, but the explosion was in Copeland Road, about 80 yards away. There was a direct hit on a row of houses and about eleven had been killed including a boy I knew, Ronnie Stokes, who was a couple of years older than me. The other bombs caused similar damage on the same estate but further away from us. It was ironic that, having returned from evacuation, we should have had a close shave in a supposedly safer London. Surprisingly, only one Monoux boy was killed during the war and then by a defective AA shell, not a bomb, which exploded in his house. In 1944 there came a new, more sinister development in the war. One night we stood in the garden after the sirens had gone and watched what was, apparently, a succession of German aircraft crashing. Their engine (or engines) stopped and there followed shortly an explosion. It was only a day or so later that it was realised that these were the first of the Germans' terror weapons, the V1 or flying bombs. Nicknamed the 'doodlebug', their sound became very familiar over the next few months. Our defences attempted to counter them by moving anti-aircraft guns down to the coast to prevent them reaching London but they did not account for many. Until the advent of the Hawker Typhoon fighter no plane was fast enough to catch them although some did manage to intercept and even tip them over using their wings. So it was back to the shelter every night. One Saturday lunchtime we heard the sound of a V1 approaching and Mum and I went into the shelter. As it went over its engine stopped, we expected the worst but it re-started, having apparently been damaged by AA fire, only to stop finally and drop on Hitchman's Dairy depot in Hoe Street causing many fatalities. Aunt Dora had a lucky escape; having mistaken a whistle blown at the Baths for the local warning of imminent attack, she took shelter, otherwise she would have been in the dairy. As summer approached in 1944 we could see the endless waves of our bombers flying over on their way to Germany, sometimes taking hours to pass, there being often a thousand aircraft taking part. Although the flying bombs continued to come, we soon became aware that another weapon was being deployed. Mysterious violent explosions not caused by aircraft or V1 weapons were being reported, being attributed to exploding gas mains! It soon became apparent that we were under attack from rockets, the V2 weapon. One of these dropped at the end of Grove Road one afternoon. Dad ran up to see what help he could give, but there was not a lot that could be done for many of the casualties. Our house suffered damage. All the windows were blown out and many of the ceilings came down making a fine old mess. Mum was standing making a bread pudding and suddenly found the kitchen windows mixed in with the fruit and flour so that all had to be thrown away. On another occasion one of our acquaintances who lived in Eden Road came out of his shelter one morning to find a rocket minus its warhead sticking up in his back garden. Sometimes the rockets disintegrated in mid air, the warhead separating from the rest of the body. I actually saw this happen once. Monoux School had a near miss one lunchtime. I had returned home to collect something and heard a loud explosion from Chingford direction. When I arrived back at school I found it intact but substantially without windows and various other bits and pieces. A rocket had dropped on houses in Sturge Avenue at the rear of the school causing about eleven fatalities and many injuries. Many of our boys had been on the playing fields and saw the rocket come down. They described it as glowing, presumably from air friction. Several boys in school had been cut by flying glass, but there had been no serious casualties. Another rocket dropped on houses on the other side of the school in Chingford Road, though this occurred at night and not when the school was open.

What did we do for entertainment in these times? The cinema was very much the only non-sporting entertainment and also one of the few sources of visual information about the war. Pathe newsreels accompanied the feature and 'B' film and conveyed pictures, albeit often censored, of war activities. It may seem strange or even bizarre to you readers that audiences used to cheer and applaud the forces when they appeared in these scenes. I can remember the wild enthusiasm which greeted film of the Malta convoy, 'Operation Pedestal', which brought vital supplies to the island. There was plenty of sport to be seen. Although the first football match I saw was at Orient I did not see very many games there during the war. Rather I used to go over to White Hart Lane to see either Tottenham or, more rarely, Arsenal. The latter were ground-sharing with Tottenham, as Highbury was being used for war goods storage. As already mentioned teams were chosen from whoever was available and on one occasion I saw the legendary Stanley Matthews play for Arsenal and he even scored, a most unusual event for him. I used to go to Lord's in the summer for the cricket. The ordinary county championship had been abandoned and a programme of one-day games had been substituted. These generally comprised anyone who was available and we saw many famous cricketers from the pre-war era performing in these scratch games. One I can remember was Maurice Leyland, and others included A.P.F. Chapman (a former England captain). One game involving, I believe, Eton College had a remarkable incident in it. A flying bomb made an unwelcome appearance on the skyline and its engine stopped. All the players and both umpires flat on the grass and some enterprising photographer took a picture which was duly published in the next edition of Wisden.

The news of D-Day did not come as a great surprise, it having been obvious that eventually a landing to liberate mainland Europe would be made. As the troops gradually moved up the coast towards Northern France, there was the prospect that the V1 and V2 launch sites would eventually be captured. This did not happen for some time, however, and I was sent back to Empingham for a holiday with the Browns and to escape the raids. Whilst there I could walk over to one of the nearby airfields and watch Horsa gliders practising take-offs and landings, presumably for the airborne landings at Arnhem and Nijmegen in September 1944. Returning to London I entered the fifth form at school to prepare for exams due in summer 1945. The V1 and V2 attacks had virtually ceased and, apart from shortages of everything, life was reasonably normal. In the summer of 1945 I sat examinations for the General Certificate of Education. These comprised the subjects English Language, English Literature, French, Spanish, History, Geography, Mathematics and General Science. To get a certificate we had to pass in six subjects, and to gain exemption from the University entrance examination, Matriculation, we had to pass five subjects at Credit Level including English and Mathematics, a language and Science. This broadly based examination at age 16 has always seemed to me to be a good basis for further studies in any area and quite why it was thrown overboard in favour of GCE 'O' levels I am at a loss to understand. It was obvious that the war could not last very much longer and when the end did come to the war in Europe in May 1945 it was no great surprise. Nevertheless there was much rejoicing and not the least spectacular effect was the turning on of the lights. We went up to London to see the sights, including a large fireworks display on the South Bank site.


The next objective on everyone's mind now that the war in Europe was over was to see the end of the war in Japan. When it did come it was not, however, accompanied by the same patriotic fervour which greeted VE day. This was probably due to the way of winning, by the dropping of two atomic bombs which abruptly terminated conventional hostilities. Everyone was overawed by the impact of these weapons which would mean that any future war was likely to be radically different from anything which had gone before. The genie was out of the bottle and it could never be put back.