Betty Vince remembers World War Two in Whitehawk, Brighton

By Betty Vince

Shows a photograph of St Cuthman's Church after it was bombed in 1943. Part of the roof has collapsed and smoke is billowing from the spire. There are several people milling about in the foreground.

Bomb Damage wrecks St Cutham's Church in Whitehawk 1943. Picture by kind permission of Brighton History Centre, Royal Pavilion, Libraries, Museums and Brighton and Hove City Council.

In response to recent moves to renovate the air raid shelter in the playground of Whitehawk Primary School, local resident Betty Vince offers her wartime memories.

"Things I remember about the war. They certainly won’t be in order, but just as things stand out in my memory.

I was in Whitehawk Avenue with my Mum collecting the coal club money when it came over the wireless that war had been declared. The lady whose house we were at went crazy, crying and carrying on because her two children were out playing and she wasn’t sure where they were. After visiting two more houses with much the same result, Mum gave up and we went back home.

Every man, woman and child had to carry a gas mask. I’m afraid my name was at the Town Hall more times than enough for a replacement gas mask. I would go out flower picking or blackberrying and loose the mask somewhere. New babies had a thing like a miniature incubator - glass or Perspex dome over a small nest type bed. Everybody also had to have an identity card. I can still remember my number, E.G.C.M 167/3. The three showed I was number three in the family.

One dinner time as all us kids were coming out of school and packing into the path between the then Infants and Senior schools, a German aircraft flew low over us machine gunning. Every child fell flat one on top of another. Although some of the kids were crying through fright, I can’t remember any child panicking.

Some of the Mums waiting at the top of Whitehawk Avenue did. My aunt for one was screaming blue murder. As far as I know, not one child was injured. The bullets landed either side of the pathway. We heard later that most of the schools in Brighton were targeted at the same time. The school in Comb Road had a bullet go through the outside school clock.

Every house, shop, factory, school or anywhere where electricity was used had to have blackout at the windows so as to stop light being seen by the German planes. A.R.P (Air Raid Precautions) wardens would patrol the streets and if they spotted the tiniest chink of light they would knock on the front door tell you about the light and order you to cover it up.

Nearly every house around our way had an air raid shelter of one kind or other. Either one dug out of the back garden or, like us, a cast iron table model indoors. It was large and took up nearly all the space in the living room. A double and single mattress was put inside and the beds made up. A large beer bottle of fresh water was also kept inside. The sides were made into a mesh that was supposed to help stop blast and allow people inside to breathe.

Ration books were issued to everyone. Food had to be rationed because so many of the cargo boats that brought our food by sea were being torpedoed meaning all the food went to the bottom of the ocean. Not only was food rationed, but so was coal, petrol and things like toilet paper were non-existent.

The Sunday newspaper was cut into squares and hung on string behind the lavvy door. We only every got one bath a week because the water was heated by the coal fire or heated up in the electric copper, and soap was scarce and rationed and it wasn’t scented good soap mostly it was plain laundry soap.

Sweets were not only rationed but in very short supply. If the word went round that the sweet shop had a jar of sweets in, you asked Mum for the sweet coupons and the pocket money you’d earned and ran as fast as you could to join the queue. If you were lucky to get the sweets before they were sold out, you got perhaps two ounces.

Almost every household kept chickens, rabbits and pigeons not only to help out with the meat but also the eggs, because you usually only got one egg a week from the shop. In every street were swill bins. Any vegetable peelings or scraps you couldn’t cook up for your own poultry had to be put in the bins which were collected twice a week and used to feed the pigs on local farms.

Every house also grew all the vegetables that they could. People with very large families, like our next-door-neighbour, even planted their front gardens full of potatoes. We had an allotment at the top of Warren Road because our back garden was full of chicken houses and runs, a large shed for the rabbits and another with a flight run for the pigeons.

During a bombing raid one night St Cuthman's Church was bombed. A bomb also fell into the bank on the football pitch in Whitehawk Road. Luckily it didn’t explode. If it had I might not be jotting down my memories now. Also a bomb fell in Wilson Avenue, killing the donkey man’s donkey.

My Dad was in the fire service and stationed in the bus garage on the Broadway. He was just leaving when we called in to see him. Suddenly the siren warning started up and at the same time the ack ack gun started firing. I turned to run back into the garage, running as fast as I could, yet I didn’t move one inch. I was on an oil patch. Some of the firemen and passers-by in the Broadway laughed until they cried. Thinking about it, it must’ve looked funning seeing my skinny little legs going like windmill sails yet going nowhere!

A lot of us kids used to earn extra pocket money by gathering dry wood from bombed out houses, chopping it up into kindling and selling it for 3d a bucket. Thick wood we sawed into logs and sold for 6d a sand bag full.

If a woollen jumper wore out, it was unpicked and then wound round around a chair back and made into a couple of skeins then washed in clear warm water and allowed to drip dry. That way all the crinkles in the wool fell out. When dry our Mums would knit it into socks, gloves, scarves and pixie hoods.

I think I’d better stop now otherwise I’ll keep remembering things.

More Brighton and Hove WW2 resources:

VE Day - 60 Years: WWII Coastal Defences At Cuckmere Haven
VE Day - 60 Years: Brighton In The Line Of Fire

Explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews by visiting the main 24 Hour Museum VE Day index page

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This commemorative trail section was funded by the Big Lottery Fund through MLA.

Visit the BBC WW2 People’s War website to read personal stories contributed by people from Brighton, Hove and Sussex.