Worthing man shares memories of being a small boy in wartime

I was evacuated to Worthing twice during the war, between 1940 and 1942 and again in 1944-5. My grandparents lived at 26 Marlowe Road, so I had a short spell at the infants school in Dominion Road.
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My dad was called up in 1942 for the Operation Torch landings in North Africa and was with us in Marlowe Road on his embarkation leave.

My mother and I, along with my grandparents, watched him walk up Goldsmith Road, kitbag and rifle slung over his shoulder, but he never looked back. I doubt if we would have see him clearly anyway because, like him, we were full of tears.

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We returned to London until we finally back to Worthing in 1954-5. to 3 Wyke Avenue. Like Dad, I was called up into the army. After demob and various occupations and marriage, I am still here now.

Bob Spanswick on the beach at Worthing as a boy with his familyBob Spanswick on the beach at Worthing as a boy with his family
Bob Spanswick on the beach at Worthing as a boy with his family

My mother was almost 97 when she died. During the war, she looked after me, she scrimped and saved her coupons so as I could have trousers with no holes in them, or shoes, which were scarce as gold dust.

She queued for my orange juice and dried egg, that came in a gold-coloured tin courtesy of the USA. She stuffed me in a bath when I came home dirty and combed my hair with a nit comb because the teacher said I was lousy.

She wrapped a pudding cloth around my cut knees and sent me to bed early when I was caught scrumping apples, although there was always an apple pie next day.

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The good old days, were they good? As a boy I think so but as for the grown-ups, maybe not. Anyway, here are some of my good memories, along with a few sad ones.

Harry Spanswick, with a picture of his wife Edith and son Bob in the corner, which he carried until he came home from the warHarry Spanswick, with a picture of his wife Edith and son Bob in the corner, which he carried until he came home from the war
Harry Spanswick, with a picture of his wife Edith and son Bob in the corner, which he carried until he came home from the war

I was born in 1938, around the time Mr Hitler was marching into Czechoslovakia and Mr Chamberlain was smacking him on the wrist and telling him not to be a naughty boy. We lived at 95 Penderry Rise, Catford, one of a block of six terrace houses. On one side lived the Braybrooks, and Mr Braybook became the air raid warden. On the other side lived the Gammons, and Mr Gammon became my Cub and Scout leader in later life.

My mum was fair and just, although she had a heavy hand when the occasion warranted it. My dad was a gentle man, often stepping in to defend me when I was about to get a clout. My dad was everything a boy wanted in a dad. He built me a bicycle from bits collected from who knows where. He also made me a wooden fort and came home one day with a collection of lead soldiers, many whose heads were stuck on with matchsticks.

When war broke out, he was working for Associated Newspapers in London. He was originally called up and rejected because he had flat feet. Not to be outdone, he joined the ARP as a driver, because he was one of the lucky ones to own a car of his own. The car I remember stood at the bottom of the garden in the alleyway, propped up on bricks to save the tyres. It was a big red American car, which, to my memory, never went anywhere. He later swapped it for an Indian motorbike and sidecar when he came home after being demobbed.

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Looking through his photographs and medals, his ARP badges and unit insignia brings back memories of nights when he was, if not in tears, close to them. Later, mother said that he was sad because of people that died, especially children. Driving an ambulance all through the Blitz in the East End must have been a harrowing time.

Bob Spanswick, who grew up to be a longshore fisherman, with his family on Worthing seafrontBob Spanswick, who grew up to be a longshore fisherman, with his family on Worthing seafront
Bob Spanswick, who grew up to be a longshore fisherman, with his family on Worthing seafront

Anyway, flat feet or not, in 1942 Dad was called up and away he went. I crept under the dining room table made from an Anderson shelter and cried my eyes out because he never looked back when he reached the end of the road and waved. Later he told us that if he had looked back, he would not have gone. What a brave man.

I went to school at Torrington Road when I was about four. Torrington Road was the nearest school, the next one being Sandhurst Road. A stroke of luck there, for in January 1943, Sandhurst School was bombed by hit-and-run raiders, and 38 children and six teachers were killed.

I remember the day well because my mother came and collected me and everywhere people were in tears. I was fond of a girl called Gillian who I sometimes walked home with, holding hands when I was not showing off, throwing myself through somebody’s front hedge. I never saw her again.

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We had a Morrison shelter in the garden. We never used it for a shelter but I kept frogs in it as it was always full of water. Outside the back door was my collection of shrapnel. After the night's raid, I would go out and scour the streets for the remains of the shells fired up at the raiders. If one was lucky, one might find a piece of the cap or a piece with writing on. However, as they were kept outside, they soon went rusty, not the treasured pieces though, they were kept in my room.

Edith Spanswick with Bob as a babyEdith Spanswick with Bob as a baby
Edith Spanswick with Bob as a baby

My Uncle Joe was a bit of a shady character. He worked on the docks and always had boxes of butter and things for the kitchen. I remember once watching him and some others cutting up whole lambs with a saw.

Around 1944, the Doodlebugs started coming over. They made a noise like a motorbike and came over quite low. Uncle Joe and I used to watch them go over. If they had a long flame coming out of the back that was all right but if the flame went out then into the shelter we would go.

One night there was an almighty explosion at the back of our house. A Doodlebug had landed in the next road. My mother came and fetched me but we could not get down the stairs. The front door had been blown off and was wedged at the top of the landing. Mr Braybook fetched a ladder and we climbed out of the window and spent the rest of the night in his house.

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To earn a little extra, I used to drag my little cart around the houses and collect jam jars. Pound jars fetched a penny, half pound ones a halfpenny but the two pounders two pence. Off I went down to Robertson's jam factory. Later, I would help one of my uncles sell cockles, whelks and jellied eels from his stall.

I had a grand collection of birds' eggs, sky blue with black dots from the song thrush, mottled grey and blue from the blackbird, white from the wood pigeon, all blue from the hedge sparrow and white with reddish spots from the robin.

There were many more eggs, mostly swapped with older boys who could climb higher and venture out farther from home. It’s not allowed now but 70 years ago, it was great fun and we never took all the eggs, we always left some.

We caught butterflies and pinned them to pieces of cork. We made bows and arrows. We collected cards and played games with them. One game was to see who could flick the card the farthest. If one stuck two cards together, they went further. We played them up against the wall, the nearest collected the lot. Another game was to try to land your card on another one, sometimes there would be ten to 20 cards to be won.

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We got small sticks and rolled melted tar on to them from the road in the hot weather until we had something like a toffee apple. Messy. We made small pipes from the base of an acorn, stuck a small straw in it and smoked tobacco from dog ends. We collected cigarette packets and match box labels. We collected bus tickets, train tickets and definitely prized of all were the big, long, colourful tram tickets.

We got dried peas from the corn chandlers and cut pipes from hogweed stems to use as blow pipes. We fired metal staples from elastic bands. We caught bees and wasps in the large funnel blossoms of the convolvulus plant, and then stuck them in the sand like humming tops. We climbed trees, annoyed the park keeper, swam in the static water tanks. We also bunked in the back door of the local cinema, collected newspapers and swapped them down at the fish and chip shop for crackling.

We played conkers, we collected marbles. We collected anything, stamps, bus and tram tickets, cigarette packets. We followed the milkman’s horse and waited for him to leave a nice pile of steaming brown balls. When we had filled up our bucket we would knock on doors and sell the contents to eager gardeners.

Mum always knew what we had been up to and threatened us with a bath but not always as hot water was a luxury, coal being on ration. Everything was on ration. Mum had a ration book for butter, meat, eggs, cheese and sweets. Bananas and ice cream were things that grown-ups only talked about.

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What do boys do now? They play on their computers, or games on their PlayStations. They come straight home from school, go up to their bedroom and hide away. They know nothing of the outside world, nothing of the things around them that are free. Sad.

Still one good thing about it all. Nobody is trying to drop a bomb on you now. No one is going to take your dad away. Nobody is worrying about Doodlebugs that have no target except whoever they falls on. I suppose that is something to be grateful for.

Secretly, I miss the old times, especially two things. One, the street party after VE Day. Flags and bunting all over the place, piano out in the road, chairs dotted around, It's That Man Again on the wireless and the trestle tables loaded down with homemade cakes. Slyly sipping someone’s beer drawn from a real barrel. Being allowed up really late and not told off if one was sick from all the drink and food.

What was the other one? The day my dad came home, back from the war, safe and sound and we were a family again. Sadly, he died at 58 from lung cancer.

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