Ray Cobbett interview: During the war

Can you describe what you remember of Wimbledon during the Second World War?

Living in Ridley Road in South Wimbledon we were not as badly bomb damaged as some other parts of Wimbledon, as we know from the historical records maintained by the Air Raid Wardens (ARP). My first, flamboyant memory was the day the petrol station in Merton Road took a direct hit. My mother took me to see the flames which seemed to be a mile high as the petrol tanks and rest of it went up. Another time I can remember we were in our Anderson shelter in our little back garden in Ridley Road and there was an almighty “crump”! My mother, with a sort of sixth sense, said: “That would be the coalman’s house then.” I think his name was Mr Elsen but can’t be sure. But, true enough, when we went round to look along Quicks Road where he lived the next day, there was a gap like a missing tooth where his house had been.

Other memories: I suffered from acute asthma when I was a youngster. There was nothing like the medications available for this condition nowadays. I was once taken to Gap Road hospital – that’s long gone. It was situated next to the main railway line and Durnsford Road power station so was very exposed to being bombed. I always had excellent hearing, almost ultrasonic, and this uncanny ability to detect approaching German bombers long before the official siren picked them up. The nursing staff recognized this and decided that I would be their advanced warning mechanism. So I used to say: “The bombers are coming.” No-one could hear a thing but I could and I was always right. This enabled them to pack up the ward fairly quickly and get us all out of harm’s way – at least out of the hospital. They called me their “Little Siren” – rather weird actually.

We had very few luxuries. We were subsisting on most things. I remember that one of the highlights of the week was when Price’s, the baker, turned up in his horse-drawn van with cakes on board. This was a rare luxury. I remember my sister arranging all that. And then there was VE Night itself – 1945. The whole of Ridley Road came out to celebrate with a mammoth street party. There was a very large bonfire which I was terrified of – I thought it might set the houses on fire it was so large. There were pianos and goodness knows what on it. And there was of course bunting and community singing.

My father was in the Home Guard (he had served with distinction in WW1 in the East Surry Regiment) or “Dad’s Army” and was a bit of an entertainer. When we went down to shelter in our local Underground station – South Wimbledon – when it got really dangerous and we were advised to do so. My father would like to “do a turn”, telling jokes, and leading a sing-song. He was very amusing, practically a cockney and kept everybody laughing which was the general idea at the time, while it was all going on upstairs. South Wimbledon Station became an air raid shelter.