Iris Lloyd, nee Cannings

Fly me to the moon

We were being evacuated!

Dad came home from work with this startling news. He had arrived that morning at hell-Mex House in the Strand to discover that a bomb had fallen on ·the roof during the night. It could only have been a small bomb, an incendiary probably, but it was enough to cause his employers, Shipman and King, to decide to evacuate.

Shipman and King owned cinemas, 36 in the Home Counties, and my father was their accountant. Two towns were options as our safe haven and the decision was made to go to Chesham. The entire Head Office and their families would be housed rent free.

It was September 1940 at the beginning of the blitz on London. I was nine ear old, my brother, Ray, seven. At the time we were living on the north-western suburbs of London, in Queensbury, Middlesex.

We had moved into that house four years previously, having come from rented accommodation in Clapham., south-west London. The house was new, in a terrace of four, on a new housing estate built on Stag Lane aerodrome, famous for its connections with aviators Jim Mollison and his wife Amy Johnson – our road was built along the runway and was named Mollison Way.

I had started my schooling in temporary wooden huts while the brick building was being completed, then was moved across into the new school. Everything was light and airy and modern, the school co-ed, and the bead teachers and staff must have been very young.

All our furniture was packed into our front room so that an aunt and uncle and cousins could come to live in our house, away from the centre of London, which was receiving a nightly pounding from the Luftwaffe. The only damage the house ever received was that the front door was blown open by a blast when a landmine dropped on a local sewage farm – we were told the smell was awful!

Dad went ahead of us to Chesham and stayed in digs with Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby and their family in Germain Street. My Mother, brother and I were to follow after a couple of weeks and take accommodation in one of the Embassy Cinema flats. He wrote that the Willoughby’s had a daughter, June, who was my age and who was going to the school that I would be attending, Townsend Road Junior – we could become friends, which we did.

Our evacuation adventure began on a Friday. I was carrying my large baby doll, the only toy I was allowed to take with me. I can’t remember what my brother chose to take.

Where was Chesham? He and I had never heard of it. We were told it was in the country but, as far as we were concerned, it could have been on the dark side of the moon. We travelled up to central London on the tube train and then caught the steam train, which we had only ever done when going on our annual holiday to the seaside.

We had to change, then caught another steam train for one stop only, and arrived at Chesham station, where Dad met us. It had taken all day to get there, so we knew it was a long way from London.

We walked to our new home, one room in a flat where, had we known it, we would be spending the next five years. It was a traumatic move, but the beginning of one of the happiest and most formative periods of my life.

The flat adjoined the right side of the cinema, above a boarded-up shop. The downstairs room was large enough for my parents’ double bed, a single bed for Ray and myself, and later as we settled in, my desk, a sewing machine, a piano my Mother bought, an easy chair, and a table and a couple of chairs from the cinema cafe.

The table and chairs were black bakelite and chrome. Incidentally, with all the comings and goings in the flat over five years, the only damage done to Shipman and King property was to this table and one chair. My brother raised a blister on the surface of the table when he and a friend placed a tray on it then lit indoor fireworks, most likely home-made; the metal of one chair rusted after being kept in the bathroom.

Next to our room was a small kitchen. Upstairs was a tiny front bedroom that was occupied by a young, newly married couple, who went back to London after only a short period, and a larger room for two single ladies and one of their mothers. There was also a bathroom and a separate toilet- a luxury! Outside the front door was a concrete balcony that gave access to a fire escape door from the cafe, and a flight of steps down to the gate and so into the entrance of the Embassy car park.

Other members of staff moved into digs in the town. Eventually, most of them returned to London and were replaced by local staff. We remained for the duration of the war as my Father was conscripted into the army and my Mother, brother and I were allowed to stay on in the flat. The cafe of the Embassy had been closed and turned into the Head Office. 

On thinking about it, the manager of the cinema, Mr. Griffiths (Griff), must have found it very difficult to have Head Office breathing down his neck all those years. At first the cafe cook, Mrs. Humphrey , and Iris, her assistant, were kept on to cook our meals, but when they left, my Mother took over. We had all our meals cooked and eaten in the cafe. When patrons saw us there, they sometimes tried to get in, thinking the cafe was open.

All these changes must have been much more traumatic for the adults than for my brother and me. I don’t remember that having to move from our new house into one room seemed such a hardship, except that we had to leave our book and toy behind.

What we were thankful for was that we were all together and safe from the bombing. Not quite… We had been there less than two weeks when there was an air raid late one evening and several bombs were dropped along Germain Street.

In the dark (no street lights, of course), a van had nearly driven into one of the hole . Ra and I were asleep, but the adults had not yet gone to bed and at the first sound of danger, Mum threw herself on top of us, saying later she didn’t think about suffocating us both. My brother remembers being annoyed at being woken up so unceremoniously!

One of the staff in the flat, Miss Goldsmith, or Goldy as we called her, who was about 23 years old at the time, had been in the Red Cross in London and had joined the Chesham branch.

She went out immediately to see if there was any help she could give, and came back with two very dirty little girls. Their brother had been taken to Mr. Harley in the sweetshop opposite their bombed house.

The three children had been evacuated recently and were staying with part of their family a few doors away, on the other side of the entrance to the Embassy car park, next to Gooding’ workshop.

The adults had been sitting eating their supper, the children were in bed, when their house received a direct hit and one aunt was killed. I passed the house next day and remember seeing, through the bombed wall, a bottle of tomato sauce still standing on the supper table.

One at a time, Mum stood the girls in a bowl of water and washed away the bomb du t and grime, then found them some pyjamas, and put them into bed with Ray and me, we at the head and they at the foot.

The children’s mother from London was visiting them for the weekend but had had to sleep elsewhere in the town. In the morning, she came looking frantically for her three children. She had already found her son, and had tears when she came to the flat and found her daughters safe and well. She was so grateful to us for looking after them. I wonder where the ‘children’ are now.

The bombing had unnerved everyone, and the following night it was decided that all the office staff should sleep under the reinforced balcony at the back of the cinema stalls.

Later, my brother was told by Mr. Griffiths how much the girder above us weighed- twenty tons, he thinks. There must have been about twenty of us. The women and children went in first and got undressed and into bed on their mattresses, then the men followed.

I think this happened for two nights, after which everyone decided that Hitler wasn’t following us about, the bombing had been a fluke, and we were all better off in our own beds.

What pleased Ray and me most of all was that we were allowed complimentary tickets to the cinema, which the office staff could visit at any time except Saturdays, when there were always long queues.

We took full advantage of this, and as Shipman and King also owned the Astoria, and the programmes changed mid-week, we often saw four films weekly. That meant there weren’t many war-time films that we missed, except those we were not allowed to watch because they were deemed unsuitable by my father, such as Fanny by Ga light and Bette Davis in The Little Foxes.

l have not seen either of them to this day and would still feel guilty doing so! Another memory is of Mrs. Benning, one of the cinema cleaners, who had a good voice and used to sing as she went about her work every morning.

The cinema became our playground on Sundays. Ray and I would go exploring- out of the cafe, down either of the plush curving staircases on each side of the vestibule, past the box office and cloaks check-in counter and through the swing doors into the huge, art deco cavern of the auditorium – and how creepy it was in the dark!

There was not much to do in there except run along the rows of tip-up eats, and it was not a place in which we wished to stay for long. From the upstairs lobby. outside the cafe, we could go through a door and up steps to the usherettes’ restroom and, if another door had been left unlocked, on to the flat roof. One room we  were never able to enter was the locked projection room.

Another playground was the Embassy car park. There was a rough, overgrown area and interesting old sheds behind the shops fronting the market place.

And schools? Ray went to Whitehill and on to Germain Street. When he first started, his teacher asked my surprised Mother why he arrived late every morning. At home, because of the nightly air raids, children were allowed to start school at 9.30 every morning, and she continued to send him at that time. He didn’t tell her that he should have been there at 9 o’clock!

I went to Townsend Road Junior School and felt I had stepped back a century. Instead of a bright, new building , the school was 50 years old (almost out of the Ark to a nine-year-old).

 Instead of modem, young teachers, they were old and old fashioned – Miss Howson, the music teacher; white-haired Mrs. Dolan; Miss Hayes with her grey hair pulled back into a bun; and Miss Wheeler with a cartwheel plait round each ear. Only the headmistress, Miss Hawkes, and Miss Keen were young Added to that, the pupils were all girls! And they had such funny Bucks accents!

For the first couple of weeks I was very homesick and under-occupied as I was put into Miss Keen’s class, a year lower than I should have been. However, I soon went up into Miss Hayes’ class and a year later into Miss Wheeler’s.

Once settled in, I spent a very happy time there. Who else remembers Friday afternoons and Miss Wheeler reading The Mill on the Floss to us, and chairing our favourite quiz game, Who Knows?

Another memory is of going on nature walks. During one of these, we were picking elderberries. I ate all mine and the other girls were giving me theirs. I can’t say I particularly liked them, but I couldn’t stop eating them. Next day, I was so ill! I haven’t touched an elderberry since, and as an adult have discovered that I cannot drink a second glass of elderberry wine without feeling ill again.

The class voted me May Queen in 1942, when the school organised a beautiful ceremony in the playground. I wore a long bridesmaid’s dress from my uncle’s wedding in April 1940, white with a red taffeta sash. Photographs were taken by Miss Hawkes but, because of the shortage of film, only those with fathers in the forces were allowed to have them.

We received a good education that sent many of us off to Amersham Grammar School with a scholarship. The Grammar school (we didn’t call it Dr. Challoner’s then) opened up a whole new world to me. First of all, I was back in a co-ed environment.

Then we had school uniforms, four competing houses, homework., and a school magazine, the Alauda- all very grown up, almost like the boarding school and Girls’ Crystal stories we devoured. Attending A.G.S. was a very happy chapter in my life, mostly because of the friends I made there. We went to parties, Scout and Sea Cadet socials, a small church youth club in Bellingdon Road (the Methodist), ballroom dancing classes (I was already taking ballet lessons at Chartridge Reading Rooms with teenage Yvette Sargent), for country walks and had ‘dates’ at the Embassy.

I became a St. John’s Ambulance Brigade cadet and passed exams under the tuition of Nancy Melville. In our tent at local fetes, we attended to cuts, grazes and bee stings. She drilled us like a little army on the ‘parade ground’ at Bury Farm, which her father, Major Melville, owned. This meant that we were smartly turned out on the many parades through the town for War Weapons Week and the rest, and during one inspection, from memory, on the football field Marina, Duchess of Kent spoke to me. 

The American G.L ‘s from Bovingdon air base were very evident around the town. We were too young to have much to do with them, but my friend’s mother used to invite some of them in for meals, so we got to know a few socially. l remember Ken, who played “My Guy’s Come Back” on the piano, and Mick, who married Margaret, a Scottish girl. There was a family of three sisters from Pond Park, the youngest only I 7 years old, who used to hang around the Astoria of an evening in the hope (usually fulfilled, I suspect) that the Yanks would take them inside. 

Of course, I have years of memories of people and events – too many to recount here. 

When my family left Queensbury for Chesham, our dearest wish was to go back home. However, after five-and-a-half years, when the time came to return, it was one of the greatest changes, I think the most traumatic, of my life. To return to a fresh school, make new friends, gradually being distanced from those I had come to love, is an experience I have never forgotten. I am in touch with and occasionally see some of them, but of course, we have all gone our separate ways, four of them emigrating to Canada and America. It took me three years to find another niche where I was as happy, and that was in an Anglican church youth club. 

I will always be grateful to Chesham for allowing us to submerge into its life with hardly a ripple and for affording us safety and happiness for all those war years. It has become part of my fibre and I would not be the same person without that experience.

July 2007