My friend Louisa moved out of her parent’s home as did I in 1941 to the streets of London, mainly to be closer to our workplaces. Louisa and I lived in the upper floor of a cafe of our good friend, Hugh who had owned it for many years. It had large windows overlooking the hustle and bustle of the streets. The streets where we worked, ate and slept.
The main room had a domed ceiling with a plastered rose around the edge. Louisa and I loved this room because it was large, airy and it had flowery wallpaper which reminded us of my parent’s home and the flowers that were in all rooms. We had a long dining room table with chairs and a big, old red bulky lounge suite with wide arms that usually held a book or drink. We shared a bedroom, which was a lot smaller but we were able to fit in our small brass beds and home made quilts made by Granny which made us feel at home in my own bedroom in Richmond. My Granny met Louisa and liked her so much she also gave her one of her many quilts. Louisa had a boyfriend at the time but was not ready for marriage, nor moving in with him.
Our parent’s home in Richmond had always been the heaven and haven after a long week at work. On my days of leave I mostly went to my family home. Occasionally, we went to the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew where mother and father worked as they always wanted to show me something new or we went together on long drives where I would sometimes help them in their research. We sometimes went on the river after our picnic enjoying the sunshine and the relaxed feeling that one gets by doing such a leisurely activity.
Shortly after moving in we heard from our parents that are childhood friend, Frederich was drafted into Hitler’s army as was many of our friends. Poor Frederich! He was devastated and in the first month I received a letter from him, I could feel his despair, depression and tears of anguish. He was a young German pianist, a pacifist, poet and vegetarian. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He was a sensitive soul. We all worried for his safety and the safety of our other friends. He deserted the Nazi regime shortly after writing his letter to me. He apparently didn’t get far before he was killed on the spot for desertion.
I wondered how many were just like Frederich! I learnt later on that young boys, as young as twelve were drafted into the Nazi army. It made me sick to the core of my stomach.
It wasn’t until I moved into my flat did I really realise the effects of war and the poverty that was in and around me. I felt my life had real purpose and that one’s life must matter. I walked the streets daily and saw homes demolished, ruined by bomb blasts. Children playing around bomb sites playing innocent games or looking for anything useful.
I remember thinking, our children today are our leaders tomorrow.
In the streets now in England there were dug trenches everywhere and piled barricades besides the roads. We would go down to the basement with the cafe owners and customers. The building shook and the windows rattled. The firing of the anti-aircraft guns were heard throughout the city while the German planes filled the sky with a loud, pulsating hum like a swarm of evil bees.
During this time while I worked as a welfare officer/social worker, I met many people who hid Jews from the Nazis and managed to emigrate to England. It wasn’t until much later did I discover how many courageous and beautiful people did the same. It makes me think of Miep Gies who with the help of her husband hid Anne Frank and her family for two years, as well as another family, the Van Daans. I read the ‘The diary of a young girl’ shortly after its publication in 1947. In 1987 Miep Gies’ published a book called ‘Anne Frank remembered, the story of how Miep Gies helped to hide the Frank family’. Apparently, Miep found Anne’s discarded diary and saved it for her return, but Anne, her mother and sister died at Bergen Belsen, northern Germany. It was given to her father, Otto Frank who was the sole survivor from the Secret Annex all those years ago.
My sister Rosy did her nursing training in 1932 and lived at the nursing school while she studied nursing and then began working at the Royal London Hospital where she nursed there as a Sister for a number of years. The hospital played a central role in organising emergency medical services to the north and east of London during the Second World War.
Rosy told me that from December 1939, two months after war was declared you wouldn’t know it in London except that sandbags were piled up outside the hospital walls and Matron had us sticking tape over the windows to stop glass showering into the rooms if there was a bomb blast. Most of the rooms had blackout curtains to stop the enemy planes spotting our lights at night. It also suffered heavy damage due to enemy action during and after the Blitz where a lot of staff and patients were evacuated to sector hospitals outside London, but essential services like accident and emergency, midwifery and outpatients remained at the hospital in Whitechapel Road. During this time a hospital annex in Brentwood, Essex, opened providing over three hundred beds, including seventy for patients with tuberculosis which was still a major public health problem. Rosy was sent to nurse patients with tuberculosis in Essex which was called Essex County Hospital, now Broomfield Hospital. The hospital was built with south facing “butterfly” wings that caught the sun for the benefit of the tuberculosis patients. Rosy told me that even during the winter months, patients were wheeled out onto the balconies. Fresh air, bed rest and good food were part of their treatment and a lot of the food for the patients was grown on the hospital farm. As patients with tuberculosis lessened, the hospital developed and acute general care gradually became the focus for the hospital. I went there many times to talk with the patients and many I knew from providing welfare and housing.
It is interesting to note that in 1943, penicillin was introduced which had a great impact on patient treatment.