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Whitstable at War - World War II

Family Life: Financial Pressures

  

Financial Pressures & Travel.....

  

Surviving the obvious dangers wasn't the only struggle. There were economic necessities and these often forced parents into taking calculated risks. Often it was down to "mum" with menfolk serving in the armed forces and elsewhere..... 

    

For most housewives, money was short in wartime with husbands serving in the armed forces. Delays in receiving service pay sometimes meant no money came into a household for perhaps several weeks. I know of one occasion when Mum received nothing for six weeks.  Whitstable’s wartime shop keepers were fantastic and helped many townsfolk through such periods selling goods ‘on tic’.  

Sometimes it may only have been a few pennies but that could mean a lot at the time of purchase. I remember going into Wraights in Canterbury Road and handing over 1½d but the amount would have been considerably greater at times.  

During such periods of shortage, mum and a couple of her sisters worked together until the crisis was over. Sounds simple?  One sister lived in London, another in Woolwich and a third in Southampton.  For me, that meant a number of ‘fun’ train journeys to those places - all of which were prime targets unlike relatively safe Whitstable. 

My London fireman uncle remained at home. His pay was regular - so that is where we went most times! His home was in Holbeach Road Catford -  a shrapnel/relics Mecca for me!  

On the corner of crossroads less than 100 yards from major railway marshalling yards, my Aunt’s house was alongside one of London’s prime targets easily identifiable to enemy airmen.  All six of the intervening houses had already been flattened. 

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing
Victoria
Australia

   

Our occasional visits to wartime Southampton offered plenty of interest for me.  From more flying boats on Southampton Water to shipping and industry, factories etc which we did not have in Whitstable.

In such a target zone there was also plenty of danger and risks which just meant more excitement for me and tales to tell back at school in Whitstable. But, unlike our Catford visits, any enemy attacks seemed to be more distant, ie out of sight perhaps obscured behind huge buildings, not overhead. 

Any visits to Southampton’s main shopping area meant dinner at the ‘British Canteen’ - meals I always enjoyed.  I think it was at the Civic Centre where the buzz of the, to me, huge crowded dining room added to the contrast with quiet Whitstable. But that was bombed and many people killed.  

When that bomb or perhaps it was "bombs" hit, we were just ‘out of sight’ in another street having finished our meal barely 10 minutes earlier.  We were unaware of the place having been bombed until my Aunt wrote, after we had returned to Whitstable, and told us of our near miss.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing
Victoria
Australia 

  

The Hop Gardens.... Piece & Peace Work  

   

One form of expedition provided help with the finances and an escape to the countryside for both locals and Londoners..... in the form of a working holiday in Kent's famous hop gardens. Whilst, this was a much safer place to be than in town or city, it still presented the occasional risk and wartime activity was never far away....

 

Like many other Whitstable women my mother would go hop or fruit picking each year in many cases as insurance against non arrival of their serviceman husband’s pay. 

For me, hop picking was great fun although not all fun. A number of Whitstable women, and maybe a few kids old enough to be useful, were picked up by lorry or bus (in our case from near The Noah’s Ark), and taken to various hop fields. 

Our destination was in Boughton but the ‘farm’ name escapes me. Unlike the Londoners, our accommodation was comparatively grand. It was a large ‘chalet’ type shed - off the ground with a ‘proper’ roof, windows and some facilities shared by 3 or 4 women and a couple of we kids. Each ‘family’ bedroom was curtained off leaving a kitchen/living room area. 

The Londoners had what looked like ancient cut down stables - each family with barely enough room to sleep.  I have no recollection of any facilities, toilets etc but, then, such things were immaterial to kids having fun.

As far as the actual picking of hops was concerned, kids weren’t welcome. The bailiff may claim kids damaged the hops. As far as the women were concerned, kids didn’t know the ‘tricks’ such as loading the baskets ‘light and fluffy’ – a packed basket took longer to fill therefore less money would be earned for the days work. 

Quite often, the Bailiff’s billhook failed to release the vines from the high supporting wires or the vines were tangled against others and remained too high for the women to reach the hops. I could shin up the poles to release them so I was quite popular with the ‘Whitstable team’ who gained some popularity with the Bailiff for not continually calling him back as other pickers had to do.   

From my vantage point ‘up the poles’, I had a good view of the surrounding countryside. One day, to my delight, I saw a twin engine plane coming in low down from the east heading towards Faversham. One engine was on fire and the other, I think, dead. But, as it got closer, I could see it was a British plane and, sad to say, it crashed and burs into flames just a mile or two beyond the hop fields. 

Another time, I saw what I would later realise was part of the Normandy invasion build up. For several days, there appeared to be a continual stream of army vehicles of all sorts heading south. I have to say ‘appeared to be’ because I couldn’t stay ‘up the pole’ hour after hour! 

Some of those vehicles were strange looking affairs -, especially tanks. Recently, I saw an episode of ‘Weapons of Invasion’, a TV documentary. Featured were the partially successful attempts at making tanks amphibious by adding canvas or rubberised fabric ‘skirt’s. Raising the skirt with compressed air formed a rectangular container, the tank forming the bottom. 

I guess some of those tanks I saw ‘wrapped’ in fabric material of some kind were those same amphibious ‘Weapons of Invasion’ tanks.  I hope those I saw were among the few which successfully floated when launched.

On one or two rare occasions, enemy fighters or perhaps a bomber turned back from London would appear low over the hopfields but generally the women didn’t stop picking.  I only heard of one hopfield, a few miles away, being hit by a bomb but no doubt there were others. The Londoners' huts were strafed by a fighter but all were empty at the time. The women were out picking and little damage was done.

One of our pursuits was to sneak into the oast houses for short bits of sulphur stick which we could take back to school after the holiday to trade. 

In 1945 a new treat was introduced – someone came around selling delicious cricket ball sized hot crispy donuts filled with plenty of rich strawberry jam. There being no hand washing facility in the fields, those picking the hops ate their donuts from hands heavily stained with a dark green residue from the hops. Finally allowed to pick hops, I also ate my donut with hop stained hands and became very ill for about 6 weeks. 

There was something in the hop I was allergic to and I still recall Dr Callendar warning me that I was never to drink beer as whatever I was allergic to transferred to the beer and could kill me. So, my wartime hop field experience ended on a sour note.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing
Victoria
Australia

     


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