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Len Denham

The War went on and on and I collected every map that I could from the newspapers and assiduously followed the reports of the war correspondents on the desert campaign and the invasion of Italy, never dreaming that I would, in years to come, one day come to know Field Marshal von Kesselring, the German commander, personally. Then came the buzz bombs and the V2 rockets, which persuaded Mum & Dad that we should be evacuated from London. Strange that we could endure the London Blitz and almost four years of the war but because these weapons were unmanned and often unannounced we were to be evacuated. We were not alone as several of the parents on the estate made the same decision and we found ourselves one morning on St Pancras station ready to start a journey into the unknown.

For some reason my pal, Don Donnelly, who lived just two flats away from us, had been separated from his tomboy sister Veronica with her flame red hair and temper to match. So immediately we four boys vowed to stay together wherever we might be going and whatever terrors we were to face. We set off early in the morning and by evening found ourselves in a church hall in Leeds being viewed by potential substitute parents. As you can imagine nobody wanted four evacuees and we would not be split so gradually people came and selected the child or children that took their fancy and we were left, just four children in the hall. Then in came Mrs McGuiness and said that she would take us all. We were by then completely tired out and the house on the corner of the road seemed like heaven as we were introduced to Mr McGuiness and without further ado piled into bed and fell instantly asleep.

What this childless couple had in mind when they agreed to take four evacuees I do not know. Day one set the pattern for our short stay with the McGuiness household. We were awakened at a very early hour and Les was sent to collect some item or another from a local shop. It appeared that his performance was not satisfactory and he was told off by Mr McGuiness who, it transpired, worked nights. It was no surprise that, with our chores completed, we made a certain amount of noise playing in the yard. For this we incurred the wrath of Mr McGuiness and were sent off to find somewhere else to play. So we did and gave him the widest berth possible thenceforward. For some reason he always picked up on Les to get up at 5.30 each morning to fetch his paper from the shop and perform numerous chores and generally made his life a misery.

There was a piece of rough ground beyond the McGuiness's back garden, which was in the form of a little valley. We rapidly adopted a strategy which involved disappearing from the back of the house down into the valley, through a little wood avoiding the gypsies who camped there, into a deserted printing works and thence freedom for the day. Like most children of the time we made model aircraft, more often from a piece of scrap wood than anything resembling a kit but occasionally we obtained a piece of balsa wood. Acquiring paint for these models was a problem until we found the aircraft factory. At least that is what we imagined it was for there were no signs stating, "Aircraft made here", but there was a yard that took deliveries, which included drums of paint or 'dope', and here they collected the empty drums for exchange. Waiting until there was no one around we would sneak into the yard and empty the dregs from an empty drum into a jar and make off with enough dope to paint all our models. The only snag was that it was always grey!

One way or another we kept out of mischief and out of sight of Mr McGuiness but we were not happy. The only outing of any sort was a trip to the Easy Road cinema, where the films broke with monotonous regularity and the décor defied description and bore no comparison with the Queen's Cinema at home in Cricklewood. We wrote home, for there was no telephone and it would not have proved of much use if there was as Mum and Dad did not have one anyway. Our letters brought Mrs Donnelly to Leeds and she decided to take Don home. She explained that she did not have the authority to take us as well. About half an our after she and Don left a telegram arrived from my mother asking her to bring us back home if we were really unhappy.

We were indeed unhappy and we determined to do something about it. We had made friends with a local greengrocer, Mr Hall, whom we helped to display his fruit and vegetables and polish his apples. In return we received an apple and hung around his shop for most of the day getting to know his regular customers. His was the first real friendship we experienced in Yorkshire. One of his customers was a Mrs Ellis who knew of our situation and was willing to take one of us but could not accommodate three. However she had a daughter married to a Mr Falkingham who could take the other two of us, although she lived on the other side of the city in New Wortley. But nobody knew how to go about getting us transferred. So we went to the Billeting Officer who had an office on the ground floor of the recently built Quarry Hill Flats.

I cannot imagine that this sort of thing would be permitted today but at eleven years of age I explained our predicament to the Billeting Officer over a counter not dissimilar to that of a Post Office. The answer to our request was that they did not have other people wanting to take on evacuees so we would have to stay where we were. "But we do not want you to find a new billet", I explained, "We have found our own." I was then asked for the name and address of Mr & Mrs Ellis and Mr & Mrs Falkingham. That stumped me. Promising to be back we sped to Mr Hall's and waylaid Mrs Ellis. Armed with the addresses we returned triumphantly to Quarry Hill Flats and lodged the addresses with the Billeting Officer. Within days we had transferred to a new team. Les stayed with Mrs Ellis and Ron and I went to the Falkinghams. Whilst we were much happier than before, I did not settle well in New Wortley. I suppose that today it would be described as a culture shock. I could not understand how grown-ups could possibly not know where St Albans was in relation to Cricklewood. Of course, the Leeds folk had never heard of either place.

Amongst the scrapes into which I led us was a trip into Leeds City on the tram after I had been forbidden to go there. By an incredible piece of bad luck Mrs Ellis happened to be going in the opposite direction to visit her daughter, looked out of the window at the tram passing hers and saw Ron and me. The game was up and another talking to from Mr Falkingham loomed. They were a kindly couple but found me difficult to handle. Whilst I could not understand why Mr F thought it good for us to dip our faces in freezing cold water and open our eyes whilst our face was submerged, in general I liked him and we got along quite well. He took me to see Leeds United play Bradford Park Avenue at Elland Road and also to some unfathomable Rugby League game about which everybody seemed to get very excited. But he was a good husband and supported his wife who was a little hysterical on occasions, usually as a result of something I said or did, so I was often in trouble with him. I did try, though, and swallowed my pride when taken to a jumble sale for clothes. I suppose we were growing out of things but Mum had never relied on charities to clothe us.

Then came the crisis. Before I was evacuated I had passed my scholarship and was due to go to Christ's College. It appears that Leeds Grammar School had no place for me and I was to go the elementary school. But I had other ideas. The outcome was that Mum came to Leeds to sort things out. I remember we went to Roundhay Park and I fell into the boating lake, probably to the secret delight of Mrs Falkingham! It may have been during this visit that Mum met Mr Hall. Talking to him some thirty years later on a business visit to Leeds he told me how much he had enjoyed meeting her. The outcome was that Mum took me back to London. That railway journey seemed interminable. I stood all the way from Leeds to Kings Cross and the train took six and a half hours to travel 198 miles. I had spent six weeks in Leeds and it felt like a lifetime.

Ron stayed with Mr and Mrs Falkingham for another few months but was clearly homesick so he then came home but Les stayed in Leeds for almost two years and eventually came home with a wonderful Yorkshire accent. He had got along famously with the Ellis family and was a big favourite of their soldier son. I was amazed at the amount of food the men in this family managed to eat at Sunday dinner. We were familiar with Yorkshire pudding, which accompanied roast beef if we were lucky enough to get it but in this family it was something quite different. The Yorkshire puddings that Mrs Ellis made were not dissimilar to pancakes in shape, size and texture and were served with gravy before the main meal. Incredibly the Ellis men would eat seven or eight of these and then tuck into dinner followed by pudding and custard.

Back in Cricklewood, the air raids continued at night but not with the same frequency as during the blitz. One evening around nine o'clock I was in our living room with Dad and Mr Strutt who were about to go out fire watching when Dad literally threw me under the table as a bomb whistled overhead and exploded with an enormous bang between the Estate and the railway. This was the closest we came to a high explosive bomb although we did have a problem with a huge land mine that landed in a tree in Farm Avenue on the other side of the estate. This was eventually partially disabled and detonated without major damage but not before our negotiating skills had once more been called into play. Ron and I were making our way home up Cricklewood Lane on a Sunday around 1.00 pm after a trip to Kilburn with Dad. He had stopped off for a pint of beer leaving us to complete the journey home. As we reached Lichfield Road we were stopped by police at a barrier put up to prevent people entering the area. We had to persuade them that we were a special case. As I recall they were intransigent so we solved the problem by turning right along Lichfield Road and cutting through the back way past "The Italian's" or more accurately Mr & Mrs Merino's general store.

With hindsight I feel quite sorry for the Merino family who were probably not Italian at all. The estate children must have made their life a misery at times with their rather cruel taunts and songs like "Talianos sells fish, three ha'pence a dish, cock your leg up, pull your drawers down, Talianos sells fish." Of course the fact that the Merinos did not sell fish was irrelevant. One can understand Mrs Merino's wrath, especially if my assumption is correct that she was not Italian anyway. I suppose that in the end she had the last laugh as the shop prospered and I suspect her family ended the war with greater wealth than any of those responsible for the taunting.

I recall my mother describing a much worse situation concerning bakers called Reims, a family of German origin, who were located in Kingsgate Road in Kilburn diagonally opposite to her home in Lowfield Road. Despite the bakers being well established for many years, the Kilburn locals broke the shop windows early in the Great War and the family were driven out and, I believe, interned for the duration. It was such a sad effect of war and the jingoistic propaganda of the times.

Written by Len Denham