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Memories of Slough (1939 -46)

by Milton Freeman

  At the outset of World War II, I was one of the steam of children leaving London for safety in the English countryside. But fortunately for me, aged 5½ at the time, it was much like leaving for a seaside holiday, as I left NW London together with my parents, my brother and our nanny – all squeezed into the family car – and headed to Slough. It appears that Londoners were advised on September 1st 1939 that as war could be declared within days, those Londoners who were able to send their children out of the city should do so without delay. But, for our family -- why Slough?

  My father owned a women’s clothing store in London and when asking his landlord if he could break his lease and leave the city, his landlord offered him a vacant store in Slough High Street. So Slough it was – and with 20-20 hindsight, my years in Slough – more especially in the rural countryside on the edge of town -- profoundly influenced my future. As a child in a city, pigeons, sparrows and starlings were the only birds I knew, and tradesmen’s dray horses were the most familiar animals, apart from my pet tortoise.

  The first new animals I encountered on leaving London were rats. We had no house to move to, so we lived on the upper floors over my parents dress shop in the High Street. Next door to the shop (which my parents named ‘Genards’) was a grain store with a stable behind it – both providing a good source of food for rats that also scavenged joined us in the shop. Our living conditions were primitive – an Ascot ‘geyser’ supplied hot water and heating came from small portable paraffin (kerosene) and wick stoves. My brother and I would lay awake at night looking up at rats running along exposed pipes by the light of the flickering gas lights turned down low. Air raid wardens patrolling the High Street outside made sure not a glimmer of light from those glowing gas mantles would escape the heavy black curtains covering the windows.

  My earliest memories of the High Street were mainly of the walk from our shop, past an adjacent Dolcis shoe store across the street from a Lipton’s that was next to a lane leading to a covered market. Each school day my brother and I walked to the Windsor Road and past the Granada cinema (where we watched cowboy and Walt Disney films during Saturday afternoon childrens’ matinee shows) to Tower House School, set back among trees across the Windsor Road from the Herschel family house.

  After little more than a year living in the high street, we moved to a house on Park Lane, which in 1940 was an unfinished housing development to the east of Lacelles Playing Fields. Quaves Road, Buckland Avenue and Kendrick Road were completely built up, but Park Lane at that time only had houses along its south side, with only a few houses constructed on the north side of the street. The field in front of our house included two open-sided sheds containing building supplies – but during the war years, no further construction took place, and one nearly completed house remained unfinished, lacking floors, windows or doors.

  Park Lane was still unpaved, and each day we would carry the ash and cinders from the kitchen stove to vainly try to level the gravel road in front of the house, initially numbered 96 Park Lane (not the current number). At about the same time, my uncle (Joe Freeman) my aunt and two cousins -- our near-neighbours in London, who moved with us to Genards in the High Street -- occupied a house close to us in Park Lane.

  Within a year, house number 97, with the name ‘Windermere’, came available, and we moved there, with another uncle and aunt and cousin moved into number 96. We became quite agrarian – and my closeness to animals grew. We still had rats to content with, doubtless attracted by our back-yard chickens. My uncle next door (who had been wounded in WWI so was exempt from the army) grew potatoes, cabbages, brussel sprouts, leeks, peas, runner beans, carrots, lettuces and tomatoes. Our own garden next door produced fewer vegetables, as one third of our garden enclosed a dozen chickens with a hen house from which I would collect warm eggs daily. We also had an air raid shelter in the backyard – not a corrugated-iron Anderson shelter, but a square semi-subterranean concrete shelter which was covered with soil on which we grew marrows, radishes and onions. However, the shelter was very dank inside, so we never used it. During night-time air-raids, my brother and I moved from our upstairs bedroom and slept under the stairs.

  Air-raids were certainly scary for me. The bombers flew over – we imagined them either on their way to bomb London or perhaps the munitions factories at the Trading Estate, or maybe trying to obliterate Windsor Castle. The anti-aircraft (ack-ack) Bofus guns kept up a furious barrage as the planes flew over, and we were never sure if the explosions we heard were from exploding ack-ack shells overhead or bombs hitting the ground. In truth the bombs in those first years of the war were incendiary bombs (not high explosive bombs) and all houses had the required pails of sand and water and a stirrup pump and shovel outside the front door to smother and extinguish any fires if bombs fell nearby.

  I don’t recall many bombs falling on Slough during the war. We went to see two or three of a row of houses that were hit on the Bath Road opposite Salt Hill Playing Field, and another just north of the Bath Road, near Rambler Lane I think it was. One bomb was reported to have fallen in the fields south of Upton Road where we picked mushrooms early in the morning before the dew had disappeared. But we never found the bomb crater.

  I remember my daily walk to school, along the Upton Road, past Farmer Cornish’s farm, then on past the wondrous ancient yew tree -- whose spreading boughs were propped up by iron supports in Saint Laurence’s churchyard -- and then along Alpha Street toward the High Street and my the school on Herschel Street. My teacher there was Miss Smith, a stern but grandmotherly lady – who I later thought was likely brought back from retirement as the men (and women) teachers contributed more directly to the war effort. We were required to carry our gas mask in its case; how I hated the rubbery smell when told to put it on during any of the required drills in school.

  Out classes were sometimes interrupted by the wailing air raid sirens, at which time we filed out the classroom to the concrete air raid shelter in the playground, where we sat on hard wooden benches along the walls of the dark musty-smelling shelter. Later I moved from Miss Smith’s class to the single-storey National School on Osborne Street, lit by gas lamps and heated (if you were fortunate enough to have a desk near the centre of the room!) by a centrally-placed coke-burning iron stove and a hot stovepipe that ran beneath the ceiling before exiting the red-brick building. Mr. Kent was my teacher (I believe he was the headmaster, and I don’t recall any other teachers), an elderly and kindly man – and the person who introduced me to the wonders of science when he brought out a classroom microscope and I marvelled at butterfly wing scales and water fleas on glass slides.

  Even as children, we did our duty to support the war effort: we brought to school any scrap ‘silver paper’ or aluminium and sorted and counted the coupons that grocers, butchers and clothing shops clipped from ration books in exchange for food and clothing. We also brought in jam jars containing captured cabbage white butterflies, their cocoons and caterpillars, our valiant efforts to reduce the species’ ravaging vegetable crops and so increase food production.

  I have two other memories of my years at the National School. When I was in my last year there, I was one of the boys who wheeled the crates of empty half-pint glass milk bottles back to the dairy where they would be washed and refilled. The dairy was a short walk from the school, and the clinking of the empty milk bottles as we pushed the trolley along the uneven pavement, and the milky smell inside the hot humid dairy remains a strong memory to this day. Near the school was a tuck shop – actually the front room in a small house. Although all sweets and chocolates were strictly rationed (a 2 oz. chocolate bar or an equivalent amount of sweets per person each week), the tuck shop sold ‘imperfect’ Mars bars without the need for our ration books; the bars had some part of their chocolate coating missing and so were not wrapped and sold in regular shops. The tuck shop Mars bars were cut in half and we lined up to buy a half-bar for one penny. I only remember buying half bars, even though the price of a whole bar was1½ pence. Maybe we only had a penny to spend, or perhaps we had not yet mastered our fractions in school. In those days there was a half-penny coin and a quarter-penny coin (the farthing) that did have value.

  My other memories were of places – each school day, breaking my walk along Upton Road to take a few minutes to look through the Cornish farm’s wood-rail fence at the chickens, dogs, pigs and piglets and cows – and hopefully to catch sight of Farmer Cornish driving his horse-drawn cart. The Trading Estate, where we went to see Christmas pantomimes in a hall past the impressive statue of the asbestos-suited man. And Burnham Beeches in the spring when the bluebells carpeted the ground. In the summer, keeping cool under the weeping willow trees and paddling in the stream flowing over the low weir in Salt Hill Playing Fields. The Slough cattle market (near the Great Western Railway station) and the sawdust strewn stone-floored MacFisheries (where we bought day-old chicks to replenish our backyard egg-layers and meat-producers). I also remember being awed passing a church along the Farnham Road with all the information outside written in ‘a foreign language’ (Welsh). I also have memories of cooling off from the summer heat sitting under the horse chestnut trees fringing the Eton College playing fields and summer picnics from a punt on the Thames at Datchet or Windsor. The Long Walk in Windsor Great Park leading to George III’s Copper Horse monument before the towering elms lining the Long Walk were felled by Dutch elm disease, and in the spring, wandering among the blooming rhododendron bushes near to Virginia Waters. For a child Beaconscot model village was a magical place for children, even though during the war years, the model trains were not running.

  We followed the war news on the radio, in the newspaper and the newsreels that preceded the main film features in the cinema. The radio did it’s part to boost morale: Tommy Handley’s ITMA (“It’s That Man Again”) and Vera Lynn (“When the lights go on again”, “We’ll meet again” etc). All our friends, in addition to assembling battalions of miniature Britain’s lead soldiers, tanks and artillery pieces, also collected any war items, including shrapnel found in the streets after a night of anti-aircraft activity. We also crawled through the fence surrounding a huge mound of badly damaged aircraft (situated near the junction of Quaves Road and Upton Road) that included Wellington bombers, Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, and the mostly-plywood Mosquito fighter-bombers (among so many others) whose fuselages we scoured for spent cartridges, self-sealing rubber from the aircraft petrol tanks – or anything we could scavenge (red or green navigation lights at the wing tips were prized trophies).

  In regard to collecting, my brother and I were fortunate for our father joined the Royal Army Ordinance Corp, so supplied us with (used?) army insignia, such as regimental cap badges, officers brass shoulder ‘pips’ (one for a second-lieutenant, three for a captain). One day, walking to school, I witnessed a huge barrage balloon (a tethered blimp without people on board) caught fire – I watched, as if spellbound – a memory that has over the years been vividly re-awakened when seeing historic film of the Hindenburg airship disaster.

  But perhaps the most recurring memories of Slough during the war years were seeing the pale-blue uniformed wounded and maimed young servicemen with missing limbs or scarred faces on the streets or the grounds of Upton Hospital. My cousin Lily, who lived next door to us on Park Lane and worked at McMichael’s factory making radios, became engaged to one of the patients, Nat Davidson. Nat was a tailor, and when he was discharged from the forces and he and Lily married, they lived in the flat over their small men’s tailor shop on the High Street next to a large music store. Slough High Street was considered by many shrewd business people to be “the Golden Mile” where many retail businesses flourished after the war. Within a few years Nat, Lily and their two children moved from their upstairs flat over their shop, to a large home, The Whispers, on Rambler Lane off London Road. My own family also expanded their retail business, opening a second ladies’ clothing store facing Genards, then later a shop close to the Slough library in the High Street, under the name ‘Milnors’ (a combination of my brother’s and my name: Milton and Norman). Later they enlarged the store by buying a photographer’s shop next door (owned by Harry Bloom, another neighbour on Park Lane) and removing the inside wall to double the size of Milnors. Even after the war ended, and we had moved back to London, my parents opened another clothing store on Farnham Road.

  I am now 75 years of age, living in Edmonton, Alberta, on the Canadian Prairies. I look back fondly on my formative years in Slough – a relocation that transformed me from a city boy to a naturalist who spent most of his working life getting to know the great outdoors, from ‘coast to coast to coast’ as we say in Canada.

  Milton Freeman Edmonton, Alberta Canada (July 20, 2009)

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