Interview by Michael Thompson
Introduction by interviewer, Michael Thompson
Susan Grievson (née Thompson), born in July 1938 in Exeter, spent her war years in Topsham, Devon.
This interview records her memories as a child during the war and to some extent how things changed afterwards.
She was nearly 7 years old when the war ended in Europe.
Comments by interviewer in italics.
The War Memories of Susan Grievson
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Susan: The house had blackout curtains, which were pulled down every night as soon as we …. You couldn’t switch on lights until the blackout curtains were down in every room.
And we had terrible food, there was always a queue at the butcher’s because meat was scarce. I think offal was off ration so that you could have liver and things, and rabbit was off ration so we lived …. I don’t seem to remember much rabbit at home but certainly my grandparents [maternal grandparents, the Gladstones] we had it all the time …. And watery gravy, it was always very greasy water really. We didn’t have anything decent.
Daddy [ Major GTR Thompson ] was never there of course, I mean I don’t really remember him much, we did occasionally go to London on the train to see him, but I certainly remember one occasion but I don’t remember that we did it often. And I didn’t really know who …… we didn’t have men around – the only men really were very old or there was the doctor and the dentist. But men didn’t really exist in our lives at all.
We used to stay at the Strand Palace Hotel which riveted me for no other reason other than it had this sort of glass bannister that went straight from the fifth floor right down, or sixth floor or whatever it was, straight down to the ground floor and you put …. If you wanted mail posted you put your letter in the top and it slid down. And of course, all the shops had a similar sort of system in them …. They would write out a bill at the counter, you then paid them, and they put that in a sort of shuttle thing which went overhead through the room back to the clerks, I suppose, in the back, to put the change back in and the receipt, and it came shuttling back again. We thought that was fantastic, and it really was fantastic, actually. In some ways, one would really appreciate it now. I can’t remember when they were taken away but they lasted quite a long time.
So, I don’t really remember too much about London, because I expect it was quite frightening for me, you know. I don’t know where Daddy was …. And to me, he was a stranger anyway, I mean, I think we used to see people, we never stayed with them but people like Wilma (who was later killed in an air raid) [Wife of Tom Halsall, a cousin]. It was probably in the early years that we went when Daddy was in SOE [Special Operations Executive] and in Baker Street. So, I don’t know that there were air raids and things at that stage …. I don’t remember them, but I don’t suppose Mummy would have taken me had there been a danger of air raids, I don’t know whether she would have. I don’t think she would have. So I think it must have been in the early stages. And then later on, of course, Daddy wouldn’t have been in London anyway because he was in Tunisia and Algeria and Naples, and so on. So, he wouldn’t have been there for us to see anyway, so I don’t think we went. But I certainly remember that one [visit] and I think there were probably others, but you know I was very little.
Back home in Topsham
Queues at the butcher’s always. You went to …. We were forbidden to go to the Co-op but nonetheless Alice [housekeeper] always took me to the Co-op and you didn’t see food stacked on shelves or anything like that. It was always completely empty and anything that you wanted was always under the counter or outside in the back. But the shelves never had rows of tins, bottles or anything like that on them. I mean I didn’t know what it was to see a shop with things in the window …. Nothing was ever there.
And, every now and then, of course, there were bombing raids on Exeter, mainly I think they were dropping their bombs on the way home, probably, or on their way to Plymouth, I don’t know. But we had an air raid shelter in the garden which was dug down into the depths of the garden, and it stank of stale earth when you were in there …. It was disgusting and I think we kept supplies of stuff in there, but we hardly ever used it, I mean Granny [Mummy] would try not to use it, and sometimes we’d sit under the kitchen table which was tin. I don’t know why she thought it would protect us but I am sure it wouldn’t have.
And certainly at school the first thing you learnt was how to put your gas mask on yourself and air raid practice, and most schools had a sort of huge, looked like a table but covered …. And that was an air raid shelter inside, in the classroom, so we would have to learn to do that …. Where there would be whistles and things, and we would queue up to go inside. All of that came before learning to tie up our shoes or anything like that.
The school I went to which was backing onto our house, and Daddy cut a hole in the fence between the house and the school so I could go in without going out on the road. That had been evacuated from [Ashford] Kent so it was actually a school that belonged in Kent, but Kent was considered dangerous, so the whole school had been evacuated to Topsham which I wouldn’t have thought was a lot safer because it was very close to Exeter, but anyway, that was the case and after the war I had to leave it and the school went back to Kent where it still is, I think.
Brian [her older brother] was at prep school in Tiverton, so it was only me at home, actually, and Alice looked after me whilst Mummy went in and did war work on Exeter St David’s Station, which I think she preferred to looking after me.
Daddy came back before the end of the war, and I think he stuck Alice for about a few months and then she was sacked because Daddy thought Mummy could do the job which of course was very much the case.
Food and Rationing
The food that Alice cooked was always absolutely revolting.
We had a gas stove, I suppose it would be very old fashioned by today’s standards, I mean, it had four rings, I think, and an oven and we had a gas fridge of all things but I think they considered themselves lucky to have a fridge at all …. So, and I don’t think much was kept, it was very small so I don’t suppose much was kept in it.
I think the quantities of food that we were allowed on ration was very small, I mean it was something like two ounces of butter each a week, and I think there were extra allowances for children for things like milk, possibly meat, I don’t know, but I think it wasn’t much more than two ounces of meat a week …. Tiny tiny quantities.
We grew our own vegetables and we had Bantam hens which are smaller than hens and they lay smaller eggs. I am not terribly sure why we had Bantams and not full sized chickens …. I have no idea why that was, so we had very small eggs.
Mummy later on, I mean, [speaking to interviewer Michael Thompson, her brother] you may even remember it, used to leave the milk out all night usually on a low flame (and in the days when she had an Aga later on she did it on the Aga). She would leave the milk out overnight on a low flame so the cream formed at the top, and then she would scrape that off and put it in a glass Kilner jar and shake it until it formed butter, but it was never very nice, or I didn’t like it very much, I got very fed up with it. I think she didn’t put enough salt in it or whatever. And I mean if people think it is dangerous now to eat things that haven’t been in the fridge, we must have spent our lives eating things that hadn’t been in the fridge, and this milk that had been at a lukewarm temperature all night, we drank …. We appear to have survived it. I can’t remember if we had more tummy upsets as a result, but possibly …. Every year we seemed to have ‘flu’ and we would be put to bed for a week.
But there was no central heating or anything like that so I think they lit fires in our bedroom …. I can’t imagine anything more dangerous than that but that was what happened. As small children, we were just left in bed with a fire.
The German aeroplane
Brian [her brother] and I were out in the garden at one stage, we used to play French cricket against the garage doors and an aeroplane went over and Brian reckoned there was a Swastika on the outside of it, and he went rushing in and said to Mummy there was a German plane going across, and Mummy said “You naughty little boy, do not lie to me” or something to that effect, and anyway, the next day we heard that a German plane had indeed crashed into the roof of the pub not very far down the road and so he had been proved to be absolutely correct. And obviously he [the pilot] must have had engine trouble or something like that and was on his way back from Exeter …. Topsham was only four miles from Exeter so …. Anyway, Brian was vindicated.
The car of course was up on blocks so that the wheels weren’t touching the ground inside the garage and of course we never used it because …. And there were no cars …. Nobody …. I mean I got into awful trouble with Mummy because she found me standing on my head in the middle of road …. But you know we were not used to cars, there never were any cars because nobody had any petrol. So we used the road as our playground really, and there were an awful lot of children living in our road and we all used to meet up and …. We never had anybody following us or with us at all, I mean, we just used to run up and down the road and play, and as I say, we used the road as our playground.
There was a station immediately opposite the house and in fact the road we lived in was called Station Road and that train went straight, direct, to Exeter, I think, either Exeter Central or Exeter St David’s, I don’t remember which.
Trains in those days were completely different from now … they were stoked with coal and consequently as you …. If you had the windows open at all on the train because it was hot, you got covered in black soot, all over your clothes, your face and so on. It may have sounded terrific but it was a pretty grubby way of travelling.
All trains had corridors and they were all compartments, and in the compartments, there would be …. I can’t remember whether …. I suppose it was eight seats on one side and seven on the other or …. I can’t remember …. It was six or eight and then, there was always a loo, so each compartment had a loo in it, which was rather grand, I suppose. [Corrected after the interview – actually four and three seats]
In the war years, the troops all sat in the seats and we usually had to sit in the corridor, sitting on our suitcases, because it was always considered that the troops should have the seats. And trains were always incredibly crowded, but of course there weren’t any buses, I don’t think much because of the petrol problems.
So, it was easy for us because, arriving …. I suppose it was only one stop from Topsham to Exeter, and then we could change to whichever direction we wanted to go, whether it was London …. Brian and I quite often used to be put on a train to Braunton where Grangran [maternal Grandmother] would pick us up, and …. I don’t know how we got to Saunton …. I think there was a taxi and we were taken that way, I can’t remember now. But we did go to Saunton occasionally. Well, Brian and I used to be shipped off during the holiday time and sometimes Mimi [paternal Grandmother] would come down and join Per [paternal family children’s nurse] to look after us, which we hated because we never liked Mimi, any of us.
She lived in Torquay at that time in a flat with Annie Brown [paternal family cook] who was the cook, and every now and then, we were packed off to stay with Mimi, again, which was always a very unpopular move. I remember going on one occasion with a cough, and I wasn’t allowed to cough by Mimi …. Can you imagine when you are desperate to cough, not being allowed to? So, I used to go and hide in the loo and cough my head off.
I can’t really (sort of) think too much more of those days, we didn’t think anything of it because …. Well I suppose Brian might have thought more because he was five when we came back from France [in 1938] …. Five or six, I think, but …. You know, I didn’t remember France so …. When you are born into something, and that’s how you spend your childhood, you don’t think there is anything strange about it. You accept it and after all, rationing went on for quite a long time after the war had ended, so …. I mean it must have been much more difficult for the adults because they had obviously had known better times, but for people like me, I never knew anything else.
The War Ends
Daddy was at home and I rushed home from school through the hole in the fence full of excitement …. I didn’t really know what it meant because I didn’t really know what war meant, I mean, I didn’t know anything else. But like every child, you catch the excitement of the grown-ups, so I rushed home from school shouting to Daddy that “War has ended, war has ended!” and it was hugely exciting and there must have been buses by this stage, at this stage, because I remember that Daddy and I caught a bus in Exeter, maybe we went by train to Exeter and then caught a bus to Woodhayes …. I don’t …. I know I remember getting on a bus because I dropped my precious soft toy that I had …. I can’t remember …. That was a little bear, I think, and I dropped it and got in a terrible state …. Somebody very kindly from the pavement threw it onto the bus. So, I remember, I remember that and we went into the nursing home to see you [her brother, Michael Thompson]. So, it was big celebrations, I expect, more so in the evening, but I would have been in bed.
And don’t forget there weren’t the numbers of people there, it was women and children really. And the women wouldn’t have been allowed …. Able to leave their children. So I don’t know how much celebration there was. I mean, Daddy was one of the few men around.
There was an American camp, that I should think in the later end of the war, towards the end of the war, probably, I don’t imagine it was there in the early days but it was not far along the road from us, big American camp which Alice used to …. And she used to make me walk with her to the American camp where she used to hang around on the outside, and I suppose expect stuff to be given free because I was a child and she thought that …. And we used to get things like chewing gum which of course horrified Mummy …. When she found me chewing gum and I was made to throw it out. But of course, it was sugar to me, we hadn’t anything like that.
We didn’t have bananas or oranges or anything like that, that was imported of course. I do remember having my first banana and being extremely excited about it, that was probably a year or two after the end of the war. May be Alice managed to get one off …. I shouldn’t think so …. I think she used to get the odd tin of food or something like that which kind of boosted our range, but I don’t know what else she got off them, certainly chewing gum.
It was the change after the War, it was very gradual, so you didn’t really, I suppose …. I mean potatoes were off ration anyway and we grew them, but …. I don’t know, I expect the quantities of meat and things that we were allowed were probably increased very gradually. Sweet rationing was on for a very long time after, so was butter …. I mean when I was at boarding school, say nine, and certainly even at my second boarding school butter was still rationed …. Again, not kept in the fridge, but kept outside and towards the end of the week, it would be fairly rancid but we didn’t seem to mind that. But I imagine the change-over was so gradual that you didn’t really notice. We did notice when things like bananas became available and oranges and so on, because we’d only ever had apples. We had apples in the garden of course …. I mean everybody …. And plums and things …. And everything was pickled. Any excess of any sort was bottled or pickled, eggs were pickled, can you imagine anything more disgusting? But they were, and Granny would …. Mummy would …. Any surplus plums or anything like that were put in Kilner jars, packed tight, I don’t know, with some sort of preservative. They weren’t very nice when we had them but they were usually put into a pie or something.
Adjusting to change
When Daddy came back from the war, we had to pull ourselves together. We were made to eat meals in the dining room around the table that I have got now, the folding, that was our dining room table at the end of the room, folded down and we had to eat properly with napkins. I don’t think we had a table cloth, we probably had table mats, I can’t remember now. But certainly, we had to sit down and eat properly at lunch time anyway, which certainly during the war years, we had never done. I mean, I ate in the kitchen where Alice fed me everything, and so …. And then Mummy must have eaten on her own in the evenings …. I can’t remember …. Brian was a boarding school, whether he ate in the kitchen with me in the holidays, I can’t remember now, but certainly we didn’t have a proper sit down with napkins or anything like that until Daddy came home and things changed.
I was only seven when the whole thing ended and Daddy will have come home when I was six, so you don’t really remember much …. I remember a way of life rather more than individual things because I was born into that life.
End of transcript
After the recording, Mrs Grievson wrote: “I also forgot to tell you about the sirens which went off before an air-raid and then there was an "All Clear" siren afterwards. They were the same as we used to have when there was a fire locally. We also used to find shrapnel from the bombs that were dropped on Exeter and I used to have quite a collection that I found in the garden which would have killed us had we been outside.”
Recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, on 26th December 2016 in London.