John Kenny

Recollections of Greenwich at war

By John Kenny

John Kelly recalls the experiences of his family in wartime Greenwich:  

"In September 1939 when the Second World War began the Downing family comprised Mum and Dad, Olly aged 20, Loretta (Lorly) aged 13, Jo aged 7 - myself, Sheila aged 5, and the twins Maureen and Billy aged 2½.

Experiences of evacuation                                                              

In September 1939 we were evacuated together to a farm in Wootten Bassett, Wiltshire. Off we went, the twins and three youngest girls with mum. The cat stayed at home with Dad. We returned to London after only three weeks, it was the ‘phoney war’, the bombing had not begun yet.

At this time Lorly was advised to leave the danger area of Greenwich to go to a school in Letchworth, Hertfordshire. She spent two years at this trade school learning millinery and a range of other subjects. Things were adequate but not perfect. A pig’s head in the larder was turned into soup, and there were earwigs in the salad. Lorly did not forget her family, though they were far away, she sent them a big pot of ‘viral’, like malt, to keep them strong. On leaving the school she was billeted with three different families. Some were businesslike and others were warm. It was not like home.

The next time the whole family was evacuated together they went to Kings Road in New Haw, West Byfleet in Surrey. It was during the blitz and Jo, Sheila, the twins, mother and Aunt Nell (Nell Palmer of Coburg Dwellings, Shadwell) shared an abandoned house. It was five miles to school and the scared Londoners were picked on by the locals. There were no sweets, only broken biscuits.

Keeping Dad’s Spirits Up

At that time Dad was back in Tunnel Avenue, living on tea. He hardly ever slept in air raid shelter. He was a barge–builder, a reserved occupation vital for the war effort.  He was at work on the ‘Mulberry harbour’, preparing for the invasion of France.       

On one occasion the whole family trekked home from evacuation just to surprise him. They still remember his expression when he walked in to see the home spic and span once more, the fire set in the hearth and all the children waiting for him. There were tears on his cheeks and great pride in his heart.

The bombing resumed though, and they stayed away for over a year. It was very stressful for mother. Dad used to come to visit by train and bicycle. A letter from Dad, written in 1941 during an air-raid to his family in the countryside, still survives. He thanks God and Our Lady that they are not in the London battlefield, explaining that that he could not write often because of the high cost of 2d stamps.

In the Anderson Shelter

Back home, the family was glad to be reunited but quite terrorised by the fear of bombing. They were all together when the entire docks were set aflame. There was broken glass in mum’s bedroom and continual use of the air raid Anderson shelter in the back garden, where mum would tell them old Irish ghost stories interspersed with d decades of the Rosary and her continual ‘my dear life and soul’.

One story she told was of a mother during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. She had nothing to feed to her children. Finally she decided she would put some stones in the cooking pot and tell the children that they were potatoes that took extra long to cook. The children were very excited to look forward to a good meal after so many months! Mother soothed them and told them to wait just a little while longer. Sure enough, exhausted after waiting for their meal, just as she planned, they all went to sleep. Mother was left alone in the silence of their hut, worrying, watching their health wane away for another day. But look, what was that? Miraculously the potatoes had turned to potatoes after all, look at them there, cooked and waiting to be eaten! My dear life and soul!

Greenwich under Attack                                                                  

Then came the time of the rockets and flying bombs. They were out to cripple the Greenwich gas-holders, the oxygen factory, and other local industry. Sheila and Jo had to be evacuated again Mum would only let them go, not the twins this time.  

In the meanwhile Olly had got married and was working for the Indian Civil Service in the famous seaside town of Blackpool in the north-west of England.  It was she who found a place for Jo and Sheila in a big house in Little Bispham, Blackpool.  It was 250 years old, with oak beams and a maid. They cried every night. The lady of the house was highly strung with pearls. She held her husband in awe, and her son even more as he was away serving in the Royal Air Force.

Lost School Days

What did Sheila and Jo do for education? At this time there was hardly any paper or books available. They went to school in a big house in Blackpool for couple of days but it did not work out. The other children were not keen on Londoners and the newcomers were very upset, being some way behind the other children because of all the disruption they had been through. Their education was so disrupted that the lessons made no sense. After that they had no school for six months (Sheila was 10, and Jo 13).

Sadly for the family in Blackpool, their son in the RAF was killed tragically. Jo and Shelia had to leave at once. Back in Greenwich, the girls went back to St Joseph’s school (the present Community Centre) with Miss Brown catching children by the cheek to get their attention. St Joseph’s school was running at low level with only one teacher. When it suffered from bombing the children had to go to Halstow School for some months. There she had he happiest memories of school, being encouraged by a lovely sympathetic teacher there.

Under Attack

Jo’s memories of an enemy air attack on Tunnel Avenue are very strong. The pilot who had bombed Sandhurst School in Catford at lunchtime on 20 January 1943 in Catford is believed to have attacked Tunnel Avenue too. The fighter low down the length of the avenue, machine-gunning all the way. Mrs Downing stood out in the road screaming against the pilot for the lives of her children. Luckily they were pulled into a house by a neighbour. As soon as they could they shot off home, praying together at the shrine in the hall, grateful still to be alive.

At Sandhurst school 38 children and 6 teachers were killed, 36 children and 2 teachers were injured. At the same time there were similar incidents all over South London and Kent including 44 strafing incidents. 107 people were killed in all, including 51 children. Also, 158 were seriously injured. The attack force comprised 28 Fokkerwolfs (FW190s) and 60 Messerschmidt escorts (Me109s)

In another incident, on 24 January 1945, Jo was passing by when a V2 rocket came down on the junction of Greenwich Church Street and Stockwell Street. The Post Office was demolished, a bank was badly damaged, and St Alphege’s Church, the Mitre, White Hart and Town Hall were badly shaken. A train also crashed at Greenwich as a result of the explosion.[1] Memories like that stay with you, and change you forever."

[1] Information from Lewis Blake’s ‘Bolts from the Blue’ and ‘Red Alert’.

This page was added by John Kenny on 12/05/2014.