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Thursday, 26 April 2007


By Septuagent of Seventy and Rising

I stood on our front door step with my father. It was late evening and the sky dark. We were high enough to see southwards where along the horizon a red glow coloured the bottom of the sky.

"They've hit Beckton Gas Works", he said.

I just remember that, no more details as to what happened thereafter, except that we had no gas. In those days before central heating you had a fire in your living room, and if you wanted heat anywhere else you used a paraffin stove. Ours was a "Beatrice". A tall black cylindrical object, oil reservoir and wick in the base with a brass control wheel sticking out through a slot in the casing. Ornate metal work, a window to see the wick and give out a nice comforting red glow, the name "Beatrice" worked into the design, and a flattish top, a bit like an inverted soup plate. Many a time have I sat in the bath as a child looking at this warming stove taking the icy chill off the bathroom.

When you are a child, having no gas seems no big deal. Meals continue to turn up, but obviously they are more often than not, cold. Mum was able to boil potatoes on top of this Beatrice, so we just camped out at home. I suppose if this was the Battle of Britain it was probably September and the weather was quite nice for much of that time, so we were inconvenienced, but in no real hardship as it seems to me all these years later.

After some time - was it about a fortnight? - longer ? - blackboards appeared in the street. I think there may have been a Wardens' Post not far from us. The chalked messages warned that the gas might be coming on soon. Then - instructions on what to do. Turn on the gas - and wait! Light a match and apply to the burner, and observe! Keep doing this until the gas lit properly and burned steadily.

Mum did as she was told. Turned on the gas, waited, she and I sniffed hard. A bit of a gassy smell - quick! - light the match! The gas roared and spluttered, quite unlike anything we had seen before. Flames appeared in the air, dancing, coming and going about 6 inches to a foot above the gas ring. I think Mum turned everything off and we waited a bit more. Presumably other intrepid neighbours were all following the same drill. Another go. Better this time, less popping and spluttering, until Lo ! - the flames suddenly behaved themselves, and sat down neatly all round the ring as in former times.

Father would have come home from work that night, and no doubt my Mother would have said, "Gas is back", and my Father would have said, "Oh. Good".

And that was that.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Very nice. I love homely stories about the War. My mother was in Coventry and Dad was in the RAF.

Me too. Mum was in Hackney and Dad was in the RAF. Mum watched the docks burn almost nightly (Tate & Lyle's sugar factory was a notable hit, which burned fiercely). Dad finished his RAF service in Japan. They are coming up to their 82nd and 85th birthdays next month.

I was a child during the war, and about all I remember was food and gasoline rationing, and the occasional blackout. I would like to read more about your experiences back then.

I, too, find stories about day to day life for civilians coping with WWII, especially from countries directly in its wake, to be of interest. Even as an elementary age child, I was acutely concerned and curious about what the lives of others were like during those times, especially children and their families like mine.

What if war came to our shores, what would I do? Would I be brave? Would I have the courage to help others in need? How could I do that? There was no question in my mind I would resort to duplicity if necessary, aiding in the organization of an underground force to combat any foreign force in our country. I used to fantasize what the life might actually be like for those in that situation as I was walking home from school. The rare airplane would fly over and I would half expect to hear the eerie whistling sound of bombs, or wonder what if the plane suddenly were to dive. I imagined what I should do, where I should go as I would hastily scan my surroundings -- could I get home? What about my mother? So much more, as I learned of death camps. The war was never romanticized in my mind. My brother was gone from our home and I was concerned about whether or not he would ever return. He did.

I am in awe of the people who have actually endured what I've only read about. I think of civilians who lived during these times as great unsung heroes.

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