Selsdon 1938 - 1945 Part One 

We are constantly reminded that this year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, both in Europe and the Far East. Back in the year 2000, the editor kindly indulged me to share some personal recollections of Selsdon in 1940. Unwisely, perhaps, he has allowed me further latitude to share some more memories of events in Selsdon sixty years ago. 

What follows is not a detailed history of Selsdon during that time but more a series of vignettes. These are embedded in the vaults of memory, much like an old photograph retrieved from a shoe box which stimulates strong and enduring recollections. Such memories are crystal-clear, made so by what were momentous days for all who experienced that period and, fortunately, managed to survive them. 

I hope that some who read these notes, particularly those of the younger generation, may find them of interest.


To give some continuity, it may help to recall some of the events recorded in my earlier notes. These began in 1938 when the storm clouds of war were gathering apace. First, a description of pre-war Selsdon at that time. 

Although the virgin countryside had been intruded by the new development of Selsdon on the rising north-western slope of the North Downs in the late twenties and early thirties, the area was still very rural. What is now the Forestdale, Selsdon Vale and Ashen Vale estates were smallholdings, also much of Kingswood Way. Monks Hill was farmland as part of the Heathfield Estate. For me and my school friends, it was an idyll for open-air recreation and exploration during holidays and weekends. There were secret encampments to construct, most of which did not remain secret for long. Tree climbing competitions were held, the large beeches in Beech Way being seen as a major challenge. Wild life and nature were all around us - the ponds in Littleheath woods and at Sanderstead yielded newts, sticklebacks and frogspawn. Birds and their nests proliferated in the many unspoilt hedgerows. Myriad butterflies in the summer presented challenges in identification. The Fallen Oak in Littleheath woods was the main trysting place to meet with one's friends and, indeed at times, one's enemies!

The Selsdon shopping centre was not yet fully developed. The Selsdon Parade was a vacant space, occupied until 1938 by the original Bailey's Garage, later the Selsdon Garage next to Somerfields today. Between Barclays Bank and the Tudor Library block was also vacant space. (Some folk ask today, why Tudor 'Library'? As a supplement to its newsagency, it was indeed such; lending books out at l or 2 old pennies per week!). Apart from the Co-op (now the Julian Huxley pub), all the shops were small and many owner occupied. General stores, grocers, butchers, bakers, a dairy, a shoe shop, a ladies' dress shop and a fresh fish shop prevailed. No supermarkets then. The Co-op had a particular attraction for young people - the assistants placed money into a container which zinged along the overhead wire to a little booth where sat a cashier. Moments later, the receipt and change zoomed back. Fascinating. The general store run by old Mr. & Mrs. King (where Gardencraft is today) was a treasure trove. Entering the door which triggered a warning bell was like going back to Dickensian times. Mrs. King would appear through a curtain from her dining room, peering somewhat suspiciously over her half-glasses and usually with a pet marmoset monkey over her shoulders. Alternatively, Mr. King would appear wearing a battered flat cap and his lips clasping an ancient pipe, most times which was unlit. A wide assortment of affordable confectionery was always available for our pennies. How I later wished keeping in pristine condition that very first issue of the 'Dandy' comic bought from there in 1938! Also stocked was the whole range of 'penny dreadfuls' such as the 'Wizard' 'Hotspur' and 'Champion', the latter including the latest deeds of 'Rockfist Rogan of the RAF'.

Hobbies and interests centred on outdoor activities and sport or on creative and practical skills. Making and flying model aircraft was one such: creating trolleys out of soap boxes and discarded pram wheels another. A further construction task was to create sledges or toboggans (then it always seemed to snow every winter). Not for us the attractions of computers, game players or even television. Home entertainment and general communication was through the medium of the wireless. The highlight of outside entertainment was usually by a weekly visit to the cinema - price sixpence for a matinee seat (two and a halfpence in new money). The bus fare to Croydon on the 64 route was only half that amount. The resplendent and vast art deco Davis Theatre was usually good value, sometimes throwing in a stage show as well as a main feature film. During the interval, the Wurlitzer theatre organ arose as if by magic through the floor, looking like a block of cheddar cheese and played by a cheerful and very active organist. For very popular films, it was not unusual to have to queue around the block for admission marshalled by a strikingly uniformed commissionaire. We were seduced by the Hollywood glamour and revelled in screen heroes such as Errol Flynn with his dering-do exploits in Sherwood Forest or aerial combat in 'Dawn Patrol.' Cinema newsreels gave us dramatic accounts of the civil war in Spain and reports of the rise of Nazism in Germany. 

An entertainment highlight was a visit to the observation roof of the hotel at Croydon airport, then the main one for London. It is difficult today to realise how flying then was endowed with glamour and romanticism. Passengers then flew in their best clothes (no shell suits then) and all were treated as VIP's. The big twin engine Handley-Page biplane Horsa and Hengist series flew to Cairo. (Where? That surely was the other side of the world?) Passengers sat in Lloyd Loom chairs and were served four-course freshly cooked meals served by white coated stewards. The father of one of my friends was a pilot with Imperial Airways (later to become BOAC) and he was treated with awe by many of us. For the fortunate who had managed to save or purloin the then princely sum of five shillings, this would buy a flip around the airfield in a De Havilland Rapide biplane. This relative state of tranquillity and youthful unconcern was soon to be changed. 

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from his meeting with Herr Hitler in 1938 and waved a piece of paper declaring it was 'peace in our time'. Most of the parents hoped that this might be true but breakfast table talk suspected that this was unlikely. My questions about the first war failed to get much response, later realising that the widespread trauma of that conflict was still too painful to open up much discussion. Preparations for defence gathered pace as Hitler prepared to let slip the dogs of war. In Selsdon, an air raid siren was erected at the Triangle and tests were carried out so we could get used to the wailing banshee tones. Gas masks were fitted and issued to everybody at the old library in Langley Oaks. Throughout London, anti-aircraft gun emplacements were built and scores of the elephantine barrage balloons sited. The corrugated metal Anderson air-raid shelters were supplied and many weekends in 1939 were taken up in erecting these in gardens. My own father declined to do so. He was later to change his mind rather hurriedly.

On Ist September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Prime Minister Chamberlain was due to speak on the wireless at 11.00 a.m. on 3rd September. However momentous the announcement, my friends and I with typical unconcern of youth thought it no reason to postpone the customary Sunday morning game of cricket in the Rec! Shortly after 11 o'clock, the wail of the sirens chilled our blood - we upped stumps and ran. A few minutes later, the 'all-clear' sounded - it had been a false alarm. 

A new routine was established. The blackout frames and blinds had to be fitted over each window at dusk and not removed until the following morning. Any obtruding chinks of light would evoke demands from officious air raid wardens: 'Put that light out!' Walking the streets at night became hazardous. Bruised shins were common until white lines were painted on lampposts, telegraph poles and kerb edges. Car headlights were masked and front bumpers and wings were edged white. If driving at night was a traumatic experience, crossing the road was also dangerous. The windows of buses and trains were covered with mesh with only a small diamond through which to view the dim world outside. It was only too easy to miss one's stop under these conditions. The BBC closed down their television service (then available only to a few) and reduced their radio stations from eight to one; the 'Home Service' (now Radio 4). Later they created the Forces programme which after became the Light Programme (now Radio 2). 

Local young men disappeared from the scene as they joined the armed forces, some going with the expeditionary force to France. My namesake cousin turned up several times, resplendent in his newly commissioned uniform of the 7th Hussars. (We learnt later that his visits were more to do with a romantic liaison with a raven haired beauty in the Selsdon estate agents, Henry E. King. Alas, she later threw him over in favour of a more glamorous RAF fighter pilot, name of Stanford Tuck!). 

As we entered the phase later called the 'Phoney War', nothing much happened. Activity occurred on the naval front and we were dismayed to learn of the sinking of the Royal Navy battleship 'Royal Oak' by a U-Boat in the Scapa Flow. This setback was later compensated by the scuttling of the German pocket-battleship
'Graf Spee' outside Montevideo after the battle of the River Plate. The winter of 1939/40 was very cold. Few houses had central heating in Selsdon at that time - most of us awoke to heavily iced windowpanes. On 8th January 1940, food rationing was introduced - 4 ounces of butter and bacon each and l pound of sugar per person weekly. 

Apart from these privations, the established routine was bearable. Suddenly, the situation became fraught when German troops occupied Norway and Denmark. The lessons of 1914 were not remembered by our military commanders then the 'Panzer divisions poured through the Low Countries, by-passing the much vaunted Maginot Line defence and entering France through the Ardennes. Our fears and foreboding grew as the situation daily became more serious. Prime Minister Chamberlain resigned and Churchill took his place. 

Late in May 1940, when the wind was in the right quarter, it was possible to hear the gunfire across the English Channel. Anxieties were etched in faces. The sense of foreboding was tangible. England and particularly the south-eastern quarter were to be in the front-line of the ensuing conflict. This would, of course, include the residents of Selsdon.