The Early Years
Audrey Hills was born in London’s Guy’s Hospital in 1927, the eldest child of George and Elsie Hills. The family lived half a mile away, on the ground floor of a 4 storey Georgian house in Merick Square.
It was a big house, and George let out the remainder of the property to lodgers, with one toilet for all to share. The Hills were still living in the house when youngest child, Richard, was born in 1935.
The property was maintained by the landlord, Trinity House, who charged a rent of £14 10s a quarter in 1937. George worked as an insurance clerk at Hearts of Oak Benefit Society in the Euston area, and Elsie looked after the boarders.
Aged 10-11, Audrey won a scholarship from London County Council, giving her a place at a London grammar school of her choice, together with the choice of a sewing machine, or typewriter to purchase; she chose the sewing machine, and took a place at St. Saviour’s and St Olave’s girls’ grammar school, in Southwark. She received a grant to pay for her school uniform, but knew a girl whose parents were in better financial circumstances than her own, so did not qualify for the grant. Her friend was unable to go to the grammar school, and instead attended a technical school.
They would take the bus to Dulwich for games on Wednesday afternoons, and half the fare was refunded by the school, until they staff and pupils moved out of London.
Wartime and Rationing
After war was declared in 1939, the Government compiled a Register of the civilian population, then issued every person on it with a National Registration Identity; London cards were prefixed with an “A”. Ration books were issued to every adult and child with an ID card, but they had to also register at a shop to be able to buy their rations.
Evacuation and Education
On 1 September 1939, the entire school was evacuated to the South coast (split between Hove and Portslade), without their families. The girls were initially educated in a tin chapel in Portslade, but were later allowed to use the Hove Boys’ school. Although the boys were taught separately from the girls, Audrey remembers the boys would be around school on the days when the girls had their medicals!
Whilst at Portslade, Audrey was issued with her National Registration Identity Card, prefixed EJLC. Teachers and pupils were all feeling the effects of being away from home, and there wasn’t much to keep them occupied. Audrey and a friend would walk from Portslade to Hove and skate on the seafront there. Even though she would be leaving the school, she helped persuade the Latin teacher to start teaching Greek, as it was something new for the remaining pupils to do.
At the onset of war, Hearts of Oak transferred George Hills from the London office to Herstmonceux in East Sussex. George volunteered to stay at Herstmonceux with another colleague for the first Christmas of the War. Audrey, her mother and brother went to Sussex to spend Christmas with him. They stayed at the Monkey Puzzle.
After Dunkerque (Dunkirk) in 1940, the South coast was no longer considered safe for the children. Three schools were put on a train, without the pupils knowing their destination. Audrey saw a platform sign at Havant in Hampshire, perhaps one of the last directions / location signs to be taken down. They eventually disembarked at Chertsey in Surrey, and were allocated to houses.
Audrey was hosted by the Warrinton family, who were bakers in Guildford Street. Her first impression was of the door being opened by Mr Warrinton, a short, hump-backed man wearing a pink shirt -which was unusual for 1940. The Warrintons were good to her in the year she stayed with them.
In Chertsey, the school occupied Pyrcroft House which was said to have been the property Charles Dickens had in mind when writing “Oliver Twist” (it became a grade 2* listed building in 1951). Despite Dickens’ inspiration, Audrey’s school report records that her English Literature exam result was lower than expected.
Audrey admits that she may have spent more time looking out of the window than answering the questions on that lovely sunny day. Her form-room, accommodating 15 pupils, over-looked the garden, and her desk was by one of the windows. (Decades later, she passed ‘A’ level English).
There was a gardener who spent a limited amount of time at Pyrcroft House, but in addition, each girl had her own square plot in the garden if she wanted to use it. Audrey was awarded a sound B grade for “Biology and Gardening” in her final school report.
Move to Orpington
Audrey finished school in 1941, and moved to Orpington to be with her mother and brother. Elsie and Richard had continued living in Southwark until a bomb fell at the end of their road. They then moved to Pitts Farm, in Scabharbour Lane, on the Weald, where Elsie’s sister, Ettie, lived with her husband, a farm worker. Over eighty years later, the smelly loos on the farm remain a strong memory!
Elsie’s search for a new place to live brought her to Orpington. She came up from Sevenoaks, went to Levens Estate Agents, at the bottom of Station Approach (now a mini-cab office) and rented no. 38 Station Road, which had a square-ish little lawn, and a vegetable patch in the garden. It was opposite The Maxwell pub, close to the air-raid siren, and the two railway bridges over Crofton Road and Tubbenden Lane, which were home to bats.
George came home every other weekend, and would not come empty-handed. Once he brought them a hothouse-grown banana which he surgically sliced into four equal pieces. Richard bragged about its delicious taste to his school friends, but the truth was he thought it was like damp cardboard though his “Schoolmates were impressed, and I was briefly important”. George also brought tomato plants from the cess-pits at Herstmonceux, and Audrey remembers the tomatoes they produced were exceptionally tasty.
Spitfires and Doodlebugs
George told them about the skies above East Sussex -about the planes making a change of direction at Herstmonceux, as if the castle were a visual marker. Back in Orpington, Audrey remembers the skill of the Spitfire pilots who flew close to the speeding V1 flying bombs to bring them down without using ammunition: the pilots would use the tip of their aircraft wings to bump the wing of a V1 doodlebug, which would disrupt its gyro mechanism, forcing the bomb to nosedive to the ground.
In Orpington, it was a regular thing for the other Hills family members to go up to the front bedroom during raids, to watch the fighter pilots, scrambled from Biggin Hill. Tower Road was not built up, and there were clear views across the valley from Station Road, although sometimes it was difficult to distinguish between the bombs and the aircraft. In the evenings, they watched flashes in the sky, as the RAF shot at the V1s, and they witnessed the skilful wing-tipping of the bombs which were diverted to explode (usually) harmlessly in the fields just outside Orpington. The pilots would then perform a victory roll, before continuing their mission, whilst the family would cheer them on.
Wartime Life in Orpington
Audrey was company for her mother. They listened to the radio and heard Princess Elizabeth’s speech to the children. She made clothes using the sewing machine she had won as part of her scholarship – a blanket transformed into a coat for herself, and trousers for her brother, made from her father’s old trousers, in keeping with the national ‘Make do and mend’ campaign.
Arranged by church groups, she visited patients at Orpington Hospital, which looked after long-term civilian patients evacuated from Guy’s, as well as the military patients. Audrey remembers talking to a girl who couldn’t walk. She also carried out simple tasks, such as rolling bandages.
Audrey has no memories of going to an air-raid shelter, and can’t say where public shelters were located. She says that they “Just got on with it”. Much of life continued as before. She went to Hayes with friends to see the May Queen parade, and got told off by a policeman for cycling three abreast at the top of Crofton Road.
She remembers being at the Commodore cinema (on the site now occupied by McDonalds) watching “At the Balalaika” starring Nelson Eddy, when the air-raid warning came up on the screen, accompanied by a terrific banging. She got out of the cinema, on to the High Street, and a bus came along. When the driver asked if she wanted a lift, she replied, “yes please” and he dropped her at the Maxwell. She, has to this day, never seen the end of the film.
Richard recalled one time that a low-flying doodlebug approached as he was playing in the front garden. It was LOUD, a snarl that suddenly fell silent. Immediately pedestrians flung themselves flat on the pavement, and waited for the explosion. When it came, it was several streets away. Richard saw the pedestrians stand up, brush themselves down and walk on, appearing to be unconcerned by the experience.
An unfamiliar sight in the sky was a Catalina, an amphibious aircraft, seen by Richard whilst he was away from Orpington. A gum-chewing American soldier, who called him “Sonny”, explained to him that it was a flying boat. Richard, an observant young boy, noticed that American Army sergeants had their stripes pointed upwards, unlike British sergeants whose stripes pointed down on their sleeves.
Elsie had been used to keeping busy, looking after the boarders in London. In Orpington, she was a housewife, but would do occasional jobs like delivering papers for Mrs Leach in the paper shop. Audrey had to share a room with her brother when their mother took in a lodger, who wanted to live closer to her husband, who was in the Army. The lodger had a job in the bunker under Orpington station, and would go through a door in the subway under the platforms to get to her work, which was very hush-hush. (We now know it was a communications hub.) Audrey stood outside the door, but was never allowed in.
The subway led to a narrow cinder track, which was the route used by Audrey to take her younger brother to Crofton School, where Mr Tomalin was Headmaster. When the air-raid siren sounded, the children were ushered to shelters under the school fields, holding their gas-masks. Seated on wooden benches, they sang to pass the time “One Man went to Mow”, “Der Fuhrer’s Face” .and the rude list of Hitler’s genital defects….. until the ‘All clear’ sounded.
There were fortifications around the Railway Station and Council Offices (later occupied by Baxters Accountants) as countermeasures against invasion: there was a pillbox in the bank below the Council Offices, with slits from which soldiers could make observations or fire weapons. Across the road, there were “tank traps”, angled pieces of metal railway track, set into holes in the ground, which were intended to impede the movement of tanks and other invading armoured vehicles. ‘Pom-pom’ anti-aircraft guns were mounted on a railway wagon, and would take up different positions on the track, firing loudly into the sky.
The 52nd Kent Battalion Home Guard was close by, providing further support, higher up the hill, in Locksbottom. The unit was stood down in 1944 when all danger of invasion had passed, and is commemorated by a plaque on the Old Police Station.
The British Restaurant, a war-time favourite, was located on the site later occupied by the civic halls. There were two long wooden shacks, overlooking Orpington station, where a meal could be bought for 1s 6d. A typical meal would be mince, gravy & veg. Anybody could go and it wouldn’t be counted as part of their rations, though the maximum amount permitted to be spent on a meal out was half a crown. (12 ½ pence in decimal currency).
To purchase their rations, the Hills had registered with one of the many shops in Orpington High Street, which included a Mac Fisheries at the North end. The shop-keeper would cut the voucher out of the ration book, or mark it off, depending on the purchase. Not all food was rationed, and there was a black market operating in Orpington.
Aged 14, Audrey was old enough to go to work, but instead was able to continue her education by cashing in savings books, comprising sixpenny saving stamps, which her father’s mother, Ellen, had bought for her. The course fee for her one-year secretarial course at Clark’s College in Bromley was £23 and 2 shillings, with books an additional £1 10 shillings.
She went to college on her bicycle, as it was cheaper than the train, pedalling up Crofton Road to meet a friend from Maple Close, in Petts Wood, an area which was then home to a lot of people who worked in the print business (there were special trains for the print workers). Her friend’s father had chosen to dig up the tennis court to grow vegetables.
At Clark’s College (Mason’s Hill in Bromley), she was one of six Audreys, and one Audrida taking the General Business Course. If an air-raid siren sounded, they all ignored it.
Having completed her course, Audrey was taken on as a shorthand typist for a publisher, the National Sunday School Union, in London. She commuted to work by train to Cannon Street, and would look out of the window on the journey. One day in January 1943 half of one building that had been there in the morning, was not there in the afternoon. It was reported that a German plane had flown over Sandhurst Road School, and that the children had waved at it. The pilot then dropped a bomb destroying the building, and killing 38 children and six teachers. Their memorial is at Hither Green cemetery, close to the railway line.
Audrey’s next employer was the South Metropolitan Gas Company Engineering dept, in Tubbenden Lodge, a three-storey house in Tubbenden Lane. It had a tennis court in the front garden (not dug up for fruit & veg!), but Audrey didn’t play tennis there. Next door, lived the designer of the new Waterloo Bridge, which subsequently became known as the Ladies Bridge, after the many women who took part in its construction during the war.
The Chief Civil Engineer, Chief Mechanical Engineer and Chief Civil Engineer worked in Tubbenden Lodge, and below them, an Engineering manager and a Civil manager who shared an office. Audrey, the youngest employee, carried out secretarial duties for the managers, working alone in the loft room on tasks including issuing petrol coupons to the staff. One time, she heard a doodlebug’s engine cut out, and immediately rushed down three flights of stairs to the Drawing Office where she declared, “If I’m going to die, I’m going to die in company”. The doodlebug crashed, but Audrey didn’t know where.
End of the War
Audrey has no memories of celebrations in Orpington for VE Day. Life carried on.
Audrey’s father had taught her to be ‘fairly handy’ so when a friend asked her to fix a dripping tap, she was capable of the job. Thinking her friend to be a ‘helpless sort’, she went to her bungalow on the Davis estate, carried out the repair and sat down for a cup of tea. The radio was on, and the Announcement came that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. It was August 1945.
At the end of the war, George returned from Herstmonceux, and the family left Orpington to go back to London.
The ‘make do & mend’ campaign continued after the war. In late 1940s, after she had started work, Audrey acquired a pair of Canadian ice-skates from a friend. When the weather got bad, she took the blades off the ice-skates and used them as walking boots.
Post-War Return to Orpington
In 1952, Audrey married Cyril Cook. Two sons were born in London, before Cyril and Audrey moved to Orpington in 1959. Two daughters were born whilst they lived in Cloonmore Avenue, in a house backing on to the grounds of Orpington Hospital. The children would bunk over the fence to play in the empty fields. (now a housing estate).
After a decade, they moved to Warren Road, to a house built in 1906. It was one of a pair, that had been bought by Mr Osgood. The other house was for the Rector of Chelsfield. The house next-door-but-one had been demolished by bombing during the war. The Cook’s house had survived, but with shrapnel in the roof.
In the garden there was an air-raid shelter with an electricity supply, and two bunkbeds. Over the years it has been filled with the likes of old bits of wood, but the escape hatch is still visible in the garden, as shown in the photo.
Audrey continued to travel to London. On one train journey, Maria Callas was on the train. The opera singer had been staying with friends in Petts Wood, and was either singing or practising vocal exercises, whether the other passengers were fans, or not. Audrey steadfastly ignored her.
Until the 1960s, Audrey had been a supporter of the Conservative party. During the by-election campaign in 1962, they watched the Tory candidate walk up the middle of Cloonmore Avenue, with ladies in hats knocking on doors asking the residents if they wanted to meet the next MP. The Tory seemed arrogant. He didn’t live in the area. She, like the majority of the Orpington electorate, gave her vote to the Liberal candidate, Eric Lubbock. He was a “decent bloke”, who remained MP for Orpington until 1970.
Audrey doesn’t remember any local commemorations marking Winston Churchill’s death in 1965. They had got a television to see the Queen’s coronation in 1953, and watched Churchill’s funeral on tv. The lowering of the cranes, in silent tribute as Churchill’s coffin passed down the Thames, remains an emotional memory, some 58 years later.
Although they lived in Orpington, the Cooks had a stationery shop round the corner from Borough Tube station, supplying bottles of ink, birthday cards etc. Knowing the mark up on birthday cards, Cyril later resented buying them (to send). A second shop was planned to provide a more secure future, but wasn’t needed when Cyril moved from working in Southwark Townhall to a new job with better prospects.
Over the years, Audrey has seen a lot of change in Orpington, including much housing development – gardens sold off, and development of other sites including schools, Orpington Hospital, and the top of Tower Road. The view across the valley where the spitfires flew, is no longer there.
Acknowledgments. Thank you to Audrey and her family for allowing us to share her memories. Richard’s memories are published by agreement of his family.