Harry’s Ramblings. Back Gardens
by Harry Pope
When I was ten my back garden had a WW2 air raid shelter.
We lived in a place called Ewell, in Surrey, not far from Epsom where they run the Derby horse race. My dad bought the house from a distant relative, and it was a childhood paradise for a while, as the back garden was over 100ft long, reasonably narrow, and had lots of trees. He wanted the garden clear, so hired a father and son to fell all those lovely trees, something he told me in later years he regretted. There were over twenty, but it only took a short time before the garden was almost clear. My new friend was a boy of the same age, John, and we loved playing in that shelter.
There were two types of air raid shelter during WW2, the Morrison was a cage inside the house, so during an air raid the occupants would hide inside for the basic protection, which was pretty rudimentary and absolutely useless in the vast majority of bombs being dropped. You stood more chance of surviving by protecting under the sturdy kitchen table, which a lot of people chose over the Morrison, which proved remarkably unpopular. The question I have to ask now is if you are in the middle of an air raid, you haven’t been able to get out the house to go to the public shelter, where would you feel safest? – the wire metal cage, or under the robust kitchen table. Not much of a decision, but I know where I would prefer to take my chance.
The Anderson shelter was far sturdier, and in the back garden. You were provided with the concrete walls, you dug out a pit not too far away from your back door, inserted the shelter, and then covered the top with earth and grass. It should be proud by about two feet, be dug to a depth of about four feet, have wooden or metal slatted sides that were long enough to lie and sleep on, and steps leading down to it. It was usually horribly damp, you had to wear boots because despite best efforts the floor was a muddy bog, and had no toilet, so you had to take a special pail as you may be in the shelter for some hours before the all clear sounded.
It could not take a direct hit, but if the house had been severely damaged then those in the shelter should have been mainly okay. The Anderson shelter was there for self-preservation, not comfort. No electricity, so occupants used a torch. If the public shelter was too far away, then the back garden one would have to do. Again, choice between comfort and survival. It was an Anderson shelter in my back garden when we moved in during the spring of 1957.
John lived in the next road, with an adjoining garden, so we could climb over the fence. He was a pleasant lad, a mischievous smile, and for that summer we were the best of friends. As is the way of life, I only recall him being in my life for a short time, we moved away two years later, but when we were pals we had a little game involving the air raid shelter at the end of the garden. It was called chicken.
My parents were both smokers, so matches were always available in the house. They were both newspaper readers, so there was always yesterday’s edition ready in the bin. That was a fascinating combination for us two boys. We would hide in the shelter at the end of the garden, and then light some newspaper pages. Our eyes would start smarting, the smoke would enter our immature lungs, and we would be laughing at each other. The game would be who could stand it the longest, with smoke billowing out the door into the doorway escaping into view of my kitchen window. We tried to time it so mum wasn’t looking, but sometimes she saw and would take a deep breath before entering and grab both of us really roughly. Out we would be dragged, it was a draw. But sometimes the chicken game would last for five minutes.
It is a wonder to me that both boys weren’t overcome with smoke inhalation, we were lucky not to have killed each other with our determination, but hey, that was how boys were in those days. We survived, nothing woke about our lives, but it would just be interesting if John ever remembers the Anderson shelter at the end of my back garden and the summer of 1957