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James Bell

A Child's View of the War in Exeter

I remember the first air raid instructions which were given to the school children at St Mary Arches infants. We all left the school in single file and went down to the catacombs in Bartholomew Street - we stayed for about ten minutes. This was in 1938! Mary Arches School was so badly damaged in the blitz that it did not open again.

My Mother wrote in a letter on the 21st February, 1941:

'Charles (my brother) has a very bad boil. All Exeter children suffered from boils, I gave up counting how many I had.

'This week is Exeter Weapons Week. The city hopes to raise £ 500.000 - up to this morning £ 600.000 has been raised so now they are hoping for a million. There has been two grand processions through the streets and planes roaring overhead.'

'Hundreds of Bristol children have come to Exeter and other parts of Devon, as a result of the bad raids in Bristol. Hilda and Edith, (my sisters) are away from school today as they want the premises to sort out the evacuees.'

'The Guildhall has been bricked up, It is like going through a tunnel on the pavement under the arches.'

'Mabel & Marjorie (my sisters) have to do 2 months night duty without a break.' They were nursing in Portsmouth

'They are to receive two shillings a week war bonus back dated for 7 months.'

The Evacuees

In the early months of 1940, two London Buses came down Haldon Road. I remember them well, because I had never seen a double deck bus in our road before. And these had open staircases which were new to us.

They were full of evacuees - billeting officer's went round knocking on doors, asking how many rooms have you got ? how many people live in the house? Based on your reply it depended on whether you had any evacuees stopping with you. Although we were a large family, there were five bedrooms, and three reception rooms, plus basement living rooms. They were looking for emergency accommodation only, meals were to be arranged for them at St Davids Institute in Haldon Road. Despite fathers protest, two mothers with five children under six were brought to the front door by the billeting officer, who said we had no choice, we had to take them in. They were given a large bedroom, a single and double bed.

They had come from the east end of London - they were all verminous, full of fleas and lice. The children were incontinent, and had no change of underwear or other clothing - my mother give them what she had. They urinated in the fire place and emptied chamber pots out of the window. After three days two men turned up and moved in as well. The men were supposed to be their husbands.

Father saw the billeting authority and they were moved after 10 days. The mattresses had to be thrown out, with much of the bedding, the room fumigated and everything cleaned and disinfected, and there was no compensation. There must have been more than these two London buses that came to Exeter - it would have been a very tiring journey for the children.

Rationing and Food

When ration books were introduced each person had there own book which had to be registered with a shop for twelve months. This shop received all the ration entitlement against the number of books registered with them and provided your provisions each week. It was not possible to receive more than one weeks supply. When Exeter was blitzed, many people lost there ration books, and many of the shops where there provisions were available had been destroyed. As a result, the authorities, flooded the town with food. Within reason, you could get as much food as you wanted, but not at the same shop! Parts of Exeter had more of this provision than others. Many people took advantage of this bonus and stocked up. This lasted two to three weeks.

I remember once being in a butchers shop in North Street, where the Matron from a local nursing home was in the shop dressed in her furs, and with her Scottie dog 'Whiskey'.

"Do you think I could have a nice piece of fillet?"

"Oh yes Matron, we will find a piece for you"

"Thank you, put it on the account there's a dear."

The butcher handed her the steak, and she unwrapped it and gave it to her dog! Every one was horrified, I don't think she got any more steak after that.

I was passing the Crown & Sceptre Hotel on the Ironbridge, when a fish lorry lost a box of fish which fell into the road. He did not stop, and some twenty large cod fell out of the box. Housewives passing, rushed out and fought each other. In less than a minute the only thing left was ice, even the box wood disappeared.

I was fishing with a school friend in a little stream on the road approaching Exwick from St Davids Station when a swan got caught up in some barbed wire. Lots of people stopped. Then a women come from Exwick village, and she had a sack. My friend said "thats my mum, she will know what to do". She covered the swans head and extracted it from the barbed wire. Back at school I asked my friend what happened to the swan? "Oh" he said "we had it for dinner!"

As a family we did pretty well for food what with fathers stores, and the food parcels we received from all over the world every 6--8 weeks from the end of 1942--1946 - they came to us from Plymouth Brethren sources.

Our Allotments

My father was very enterprising and had four allotments at one time, we grew all our own vegetables. The first one was in Willey's Avenue in St Thomas. After clearing the ground and planting seeds and potatoes, he was given two days to leave. The site was used to store coal for the rest of the war.

The second was the green opposite Bury Meadow and the Buller Statue. We in common with others, as it was just opened for allotments, kept digging up human bones - there were skulls lined up on the edges to mark your site. It was soon closed down.

Next was in a field beyond what was then the New Cattle Market, in Marsh Barton, it was very successful, we often lost the produce through theft. All tools had to be carried to and from the site, and it was a long way from Haldon Road. We had a hand cart or sometimes a pram. You were not allowed to erect a hut, some did, but there was no point as they were always broken into overnight and any tools removed. Father had to give this allotment up at the end of 1943 so that the Americans could use the field. The Americans also had most of the Cattle Market.

The next one was in a field opposite Exeter Cricket Club on Prince of Wales Road. We grew lots of stuff there - in the adjoining field there was an anti aircraft gun with a search light and barrage balloon.

Father bought some day old chicks, "Oh yes Mr Bell they have all been sexed. They are all hens" - each one started to crow, much to the annoyance of the neighbours, so they ended up in the pot.

© 2005 James Bell/David Cornforth

James Bell - was born in Exeter in 1932, to a Plymouth Brethren family, and was one of twelve children. This article is an edited selection from a series of emails I received relating his memories of Exeter during the Second World War.

Guildhall front The Guildhall front was bricked up

Exeter War Weapons Week began on the 15th February 1941 with a procession. The motto for the week was 'England Expects Extra from Exeter'.
Exeter in the 1940's - Todd Gray

During February, it was estimated that there were 12,600 official evacuees in the city. There were possibly the same number in private accommodation. 7,000 were from Bristol.
Exeter in the 1940's - Todd Gray

Every citizen of Exeter had to register with a butcher for meat rationing by the 8th January 1940.
Exeter in the 1940's - Todd Gray

The City GateNow the City Gate, the Crown & Sceptre - the roadway in front was the scene of a mad scramble for fish. See City Gate Hotel - North GateThe green in front of St Davids Church The green in front of St David's Church

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