SELSDON   1938-1945  Part Six

Just as the cold and dreary winter of 1941/2 reluctantly gave way to a deferred springtime, the war news was becoming worse. Following the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941, which brought the United States into the war, the Japanese were rampaging through the Far East. In February 1942, the pride of the Fleet, battleships Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk by Japanese dive bombers in the Java Straits. Following the invasion of Malaya, Singapore fell to the Japanese, the defenders guns facing out to sea rather than inland. Madge Fitch (later to become my bridge partner in our riper years) managed to get away from Singapore on one of the last departing boats together with her baby son. She spent the remaining war years in Perth, Australia. Her husband, Fred, was a geologist working the north Malaya and was interned during that same time.

Although we were not to know it then,  the fall of Singapore marked the beginning of the end of British colonialism in the Far East. At school we had long understood that significant areas of the world map were marked in red, indicating the global extent of the British Empire. (This view would change markedly in the post-war years.)

As the Japanese invasions swept through south-east Asia like a forest fire, Burma was overrun and India became threatened. Despite the reverses being suffered by the Eighth Army against Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the desert, cousin Raymond’s regiment was hastily transferred to Burma to help stem the Japanese advance.

Back home, the only respite for us was the absence of nightly air raids. Although other cities underwent spasmodic attacks, Croydon and Selsdon suffered no bomb damage throughout 1942 and 1943. Conscription into the armed services or war work was stepped-up. Older men, aged perhaps into their thirties did not escape the net and left their homes and civilian occupations to don the King’s uniform. (I hope it fitted.) Young women also left home for the forces or ancillary uniformed services such as the Land Army or the National Fire Service. Local well-known faces were no longer seen around and Selsdon’s population took  on a  much older appearance.

In common with home based families throughout the country, bad news was sometimes received by some about injuries sustained by relatives or, even more regrettably death or posted: ‘Missing – believed killed.’ In such cases, relations and friends and neighbours rallied around to help provide support, both emotional and practical. One such incident remains in my mind.

I am spending the afternoon with Maurice Blunden at his home in York Road. His father is an Army captain in the War Office and his mother is also out at that time. Maurice has a large collection of lead model soldiers and he uses these to illustrate various historic battles. He is building a set piece of the Battle of Waterloo and is taking me through the various tactical nuances of that important conflict. Suddenly, there is a ring at the doorbell. It is a telegram boy on a bicycle. Maurice returns with the telegram  in his hand. Although it is addressed to his parents, he opens it. He utters an expletive. The message is that the Air Ministry regrets the death of his brother, Jack, in a flying accident in the north of England.

It takes us a while to take it in. No more of Jack, flaying fours and sixes from his bat during summer weekends at the cricket pitch in Selsdon recreation ground (much to the chagrin of some residents in Benhurst Gardens trying to enjoy a quiet siesta in their gardens adjacent to the ground.)  No more of  jolly Jack with his outgoing and popular personality. Only fond memories of him will remain.  It seems so unjust. Having completed his flying training in Southern Rhodesia, he had been posted as a flying instructor pending eventual transfer to operational duties. 

I leave Maurice trying to contact his father by telephone. The Battle of Waterloo is quickly forgotten. The present conflict in which we are all involved is the important one now.

The local Home Guard were becoming more professional and active and receiving proper equipment and training. There was a local mounted division, based at the Selsdon Park hotel riding stables in Old Farleigh Road. One had to show some care when walking through Selsdon on Sunday mornings as these were training times. 

One such morning, I had skived from morning matins at St. John’s and was walking through the Rec and  surprised to encounter some slit trenches inhabited by leafily camouflaged home guards with Bren gun barrels poking out of some bushes. 

Just as I entered Old Farleigh Road from Woodland Gardens, I found myself in the middle of a melee when a score or more of these part-time soldiers hurtled across the road towards the stables. Their task, I learnt later, was to storm and take the Stables by surprise attack. The defenders put up a stout fight with flour bombs but were eventually overwhelmed. The expected route for the assailants was through the Rec but the crafty platoon commander had routed them, by prior arrangement, through the back gardens of Birdwood Close and Hawthorn Crescent where they had been undetected until the last few seconds. As for me, an innocent bystander, I was covered in flour. In today’s parlance, I would have been described as ‘collateral damage’!

On another such Sunday morning, a few friends and I were intrigued by a series or nearby explosions whilst walking through the woods by Featherbed Lane. Adopting our best  skulking behaviour, we eventually discovered a glade where the Home Guard were undergoing mortar training with live ammunition. We got as close as we dared, with mortar shrapnel tearing into the foliage above our heads. Eventually, we retreated again undetected to whence we came. This was an experience to brag about to our school friends the following day. (Captain Mainwaring of ‘Dad’s Army’ would have summed it up nicely: ‘Stupid boys!’)

From time to time, we would tune in the ‘Lord Haw-Haw’s’ propaganda broadcasts from Berlin with his call-sign: ‘Gairmany calling….’  Although they were generally regarded as a bit of a laugh, there were occasions when we did wonder whether some of his allegations could be true. We did realise that our own Ministry of Information would not always communicate the full extent of bad news.

Cultivation of back gardens and spare plots of land continued apace in Selsdon. Any supplement to the increasingly stringent food rationing was welcomed. The horticultural society attracted high attendances to their annual shows, particularly the autumn one. After the prize giving, a highlight was the auctioning off of all the exhibits. These auctions were generally run by  Mr. Starr (Kath’s father), a very tall and distinguished man with a wonderful baritone voice which gave authority to the proceedings. In 1942, there had been a myriad plague of white butterflies whose caterpillars were decimating the cabbage crop. The horticultural society offered prizes for the greatest number of jars containing white-winged corpses. Pesticides then were not generally available. )

Our editor’s meticulous research reveals an interesting story about Selsdon’s British Restaurant. Early in 1941, The Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, had called for some community feeding and the first civic restaurant in Croydon was opened in March that year. I recall an excellent one at a later date in Poplar Walk when it was possible to purchase an excellent hot meal for about 1s.3d (less than 7p).

There was local lobbying through the SRA for one to be opened in Selsdon but the local Council were not convinced that the demand was there. A local questionnaire was sent out to assess views. Mr. Hollerhead, husband of the lady who ran the local WVS, wrote to the Croydon Advertiser in August in strong terms. Only 413 out of 860 questionnaires had been returned and he felt that the majority of people were indifferent to the proposal and Selsdon was not the place for such an amenity. Valuable time and money should not be wasted on such a frivolous and unnecessary scheme.  The SRA secretary, Mr. Bridge responded promptly, re-stating the Association’s case and their impression that Selsdon would like its own facility. He added: ‘I think it would be a kindly act to draw a merciful veil of oblivion over Mr. Hollerhead’s witless farrago of nonsense rather than waste your space and readers’ time in categorically destroying item by item his jerry built structure of misconception and misstatement which can only, I fear, be the curious offspring engendered by prejudice out of  passion.’ (They don’t print letters like that any more!)

The restaurant was eventually opened in September 1942 in the hall above Bailey’s garage. I went there on a few occasions and found it to be of good value. However, and to cut a very long story short amid much local dissension, it was eventually closed in December 1943. It was never patronised enough to make it profitable. It would appear that Mr. Hollerhead was proved to be right. And it should be said that Mrs. Tullet’s Sanctuary Tea Rooms (the Village Club today) offered excellent home cooked meals at good prices. I guess she welcomed the lack of competition.

Despite the adverse war news, the summer ended on a personal high note. Because of his well-known  singing prowess,  brother-in-law Lionel had secured a minor lead part in the Croydon & Operatic Dramatic Society’s show at the Grand Theatre, featuring Edward German’s ‘Merrie England’. His influence enabled me to enter the cast as the ‘third pikeman on the left.’ It was a large cast, about seventy in all. By some means, the society had managed to engage the services of two internationally famed professional singers, Gladys Palmer, the contralto who played Queen Elizabeth 1 and the renowned lyric tenor, Heddle Nash as Sir Walter Raleigh. On the opening night, the manager of the Grand Theatre came on stage and announced that every single seat had been sold for that week. The show was then extended by a further week and played to full houses at every performance. It was my introduction to a thespian experience and a most enjoyable one.

There were drawbacks due to the war. Then, only professionals were allowed their own make-up and greasepaint. Amateurs had to queue to be made up. As part of the ‘overture and beginners’ opening scene, we pikemen sometimes only made curtain-up by a mere second or two. Our tunics had about two dozen hooks and eyes at the back – these could only be secured by standing in a circle and buttoning-up a colleague in front. Then there were problems with the helmets. Put on as they were, they came over ones nose and eyes. If one stuffed a towel into the helmet beforehand, this had to be done with care else the helmet spun round rapidly if knocked. Bizarre.

I was astonished by the high quality of acting and singing achieved by the local amateurs. But it was hard to suppress giggles at the asides which were only audible on stage. At the stately entrance of Queen Liz in Act II, Heddle Nash would sweep a low and elegant bow with his plumed hat in hand. The sotto voce comments would vary from each performance but would include offers like: ‘Would madam like any new lavatory brushes today?’ The response would also vary but was  often about the aiming  of the regal foot in the direction of a  certain cod piece. At the dramatic conclusion of Act II when Queen Liz goes into a fury on learning of the love between Raleigh and Bessie Throckmorton, Heddle Nash takes Bessie, played by a singing angel name of Doris Sansom, towards backstage.  People used to say to me what a marvellous actress Doris was and she cried real tears at that time. Little did they know that it was because Heddle was telling her the latest ribald jokes. The end of Act II culminated with the rousing ‘Yeomen of England’. Heddle Nash stood next to me and we eventually made up our own non-patriotic words to the well known tune. The conclusion required us to turn smartly right and march off-stage. The audience may have wondered why I sometimes leapt off somewhat quickly. This was usually because Heddle’s sword was placed smartly between my legs. Heddle became a firm family friend, helped no doubt, by the fact that he was a school friend of my mother.  This had been a happy distraction from the trauma of war.

Then, in the last few days of October and early November, a true cause of celebration. The Battle of El Alamein had been won and the Rommel’s Afrika Korps was in full retreat. The church bells in the country had been silent since 1940 – their use restricted solely to announce invasion. Now permission had been given for the bells to ring out across the country in celebration. The solitary bell of St. John’s rang away and from across the fields we could also hear the peal of  St. Mary’s at Addington.  I attended the morning service that day at St. John’s. The church was packed by those wishing to give thanks and perhaps,  more private thoughts for loved or lost ones.

But, as Prime Minister Churchill said: it was not the beginning of the end – more the end of the beginning. There was still a long way to go, when the resolve and stoicism of the population would be tested even further. And Selsdon and our part of London would undergo some further trauma.