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Monday, 28 September 2015

A Memory from 75 years ago (A Wedding in the Blitz)

As talk recently has been of The Blitz 75 years ago, I though it would be apt to share this little memory from Dad's memoirs: of the day they got married in the middle of an air-raid in London on 28 September 1940.


"Elena and I became engaged on the 17th April 1940, which was our joint birthday!  Not the same year though.  Elena was a Senior Clerical Officer with the Post Office Savings Bank HQ, near Olympia, West London.   I was a dispensing optician with the Ministry of Pensions (Acton, West London), helping to turn out THOUSANDS of pairs of gas mask type spectacles for the whole of the armed forces.   We also made and fitted artificial eyes for those who unfortunately needed them as a result of warfare, including, believe it or not, prisoners of war!

We arranged our wedding for Saturday, 28th September 1940.   Father-in-law was the deputy Mayor of Stoke Newington (North London) and was quite prepared to give his daughter a super reception at the Council’s premises…  BUT on Sunday, September the 8th, (the day Jerry set fire to London’s docklands), father-in-law’s house suffered a direct hit.  Fortunately dad and mother-in-law were safely in their shelter.

Elena and I used to go to Church on Sunday evenings and then went back either to her place or mine, both houses being about the same distance from the Church.  On this occasion we decided to go back to my place (a flat shared with my mother).   Just as we arrived home the three bombs fell on Elena’s home.   Had we gone back to her place that evening, we would have arrived just as the bombs fell!   The thought of all the implications shook us all quite a bit.

Elena wanted to speak to her dad… but couldn’t find him!   Apparently, after the bombing, as he had nowhere to live, he lodged with his Bank Manager… but forgot to tell us.  During the day he was very busily involved at the Town Hall looking after Heavy Rescue services; with all the bombing around he was kept hard at it, so much so that Elena had to make an appointment to see her own father!

He said the reception would have to be cancelled.   Fairly rightly he felt there would be a lot of criticism having a posh reception with all the devastation around us.  At least we had a superb three-tiered wedding cake.

Further disaster struck.   On Monday, 23rd September (we were getting married on the 28th) an unexploded land mine fell on the wreckage of the previous bombing of father-in-law’s property.  (He was a master builder, and his wrecked timber yard was adjacent to his home).   The Navy mine disposal squad examined it, but decided the mine was so precariously buried in all the piles of timber it would be madness to chance doing anything with it… so they arranged to detonate it on the Thursday, two days before our wedding!  Everyone within half a mile had to be evacuated.   All traffic was stopped.   They (the authorities) would not allow precious foodstuffs to be cleared from the shops – the whole area was deserted, waiting for the big bang.  Here ended father-in-law’s home, business offices, works, etc.  About seventy houses were demolished by the blast, with some of dad’s scaffold poles found over a mile away!

It was the law in those days that people were not allowed to congregate in groups or more than twenty – for safety purposes.   Also, it was the law in those days that all marriages had to solemnised by 3.00 pm.

Elena was now living with my mother and me…  with most nights spent sheltering under the stairs.   All very romantic – especially when we had to go out and smother incendiary bombs with a dustbin lid!  With all the shrapnel falling from Ack-Ack shells, we were made to go out in the streets.

We had no telephone (telephones were a rarity in those days) so, as a measure of propriety I stayed the night before our wedding with my best man, Sid.   We arranged for the car that took Sid and me to the Church to then go on and pick up Elena and father-in-law; by so doing, they would know we were already at the Church.   Excellent organisation you would have thought… but Jerry, who already had made two attempts to mess up the wedding, had other ideas.

Just as the car pulled up outside the Church, the air-raid warning sounded, and the Vicar said sorry, but the Church will remain closed.   All pleadings were in vain, he just was not prepared to risk sixty to seventy people getting hit in the Church – and in any case, it was against the law.   All the congregation dispersed into Clissold Park opposite the Church, where, fortunately, the tea rooms were still operating.

Sid kept up pressure on the Vicar, stressing the fact that if we were not married by 3.00 pm we would be in a real mess.  In the end he (the Vicar) relented and agreed to re-open the Church somewhere around 2.30 – but there were to be no hymns.   Sid then had to dash around the Park to tell everyone he could find, “it’s on”, and the car went off to collect Elena and her father, who had spent the previous hour walking around the garden watching the aerial dog-fights going on.   What a way to spend a wedding day!

After we were marred, and the Vicar was saying a few words, the ‘all-clear’ sounded… and you could hear a very audible sigh of relief from everyone present.

I have already mentioned that the reception was cancelled, and it was just going to be a family get-together at my mother’s flat.  That meant father and mother-in-law, my mother, Elena’s bridesmaid, her brother, Sid my best man, plus Elena and myself, that’s about eight of us.   Nothing ‘special’ had been prepared, although we did have a bottle of wine and the 3-tiered cake.   BUT father-in-law, in spite of cancelling the reception said to everyone while photographs were being taken, “You’ll come back, won’t you?”  Where upon, some sixty or so people arrived at our two-bedroom flat.   Most of them had to sit on the stairs!

For our honeymoon we decided to get well out of London for a week.   Friends of ours lived in Fownhope, south of Hereford and we had written well beforehand to get them to book us in at the “Green Man”… but up to the time of our wedding we had not heard from them.   Wartime posts were a bit erratic, as you can imagine.

Nothing daunted, we set off in the evening from Paddington Station on the train for Hereford.   What a journey!   No lights were allowed on the train, and travelling times were extremely erratic and often disrupted.   When we got to Gloucester we had a    15-minute halt to get tea, etc. (no buffet cars!).  The train was already a long way behind schedule, so I got out and asked a policeman if he thought we might get accommodation in the town.   In a rich dialect voice he said, “Well sur, the last train brought us 2,000 refugees and there’ll be more on this one, so if I was you I’d stay on to Hereford” – which we did arriving there some time before midnight.  We immediately looked around for a waiting car or taxi, but there was NOTHING.   So off we went, with me lugging two fair-sized suitcases, to tramp the streets of Hereford to find somewhere to stay for the night.   We found two hotels, all shut up.  We rang the bells, and after some time the door was opened a couple of inches, only to be told, “Sorry we’re full up”.  We trudged further, and as luck would have it, we came to the Imperial Hotel, which was still open!

The ‘Boots’ sized up our predicament and said, “The Guv’nor will probably let you sleep on settees in the lounge if it comes to the worst.”   Can you imagine our relief?  He said we would have to wait until the BBC News on the radio was over, as the Guv’nor insisted on hearing it from the beginning to end… and it used to last an hour in those days.

Soon after one o’clock we were ushered into the dining room and met the affable Guv’nor who was sitting with another affluent looking gentleman, having a nightcap and a cigar.   This other gentleman took an immediate interest in us, ordered suitable refreshments, and then asked us most searchingly what things were like in London.   We had plenty to tell him, especially about our wedding.  It transpired that this other gentleman was the Impresario, Henry Sherrick, who had evacuated his whole theatre company from London to Hereford to rehearse his forthcoming production of “Chu Chin Chow”!

It was well past 2 am, when the Guv’nor said to the ‘Boots’, “Is the Doctor in?”   On being told, “No”, he said, “In that case, he won’t be back until Monday.  Would you mind sleeping in a single bed for the night?”   Let me assure you, we were so dog- tired we both slept very soundly until the morning.

After breakfast we made out way to Fownhope and contacted our friends, who said, “Didn’t you see the car waiting for you?”   **!!     We checked in at the “Green Man” and were shown our room, which had two single beds with a very large circular table between them.  On returning to Reception our friend said in a loud stage whisper, “They’re just married.”  After lunch we returned to our room, which was now minus the table and the two beds pushed together!   I wonder why!

We had a super week’s holiday.  "

Additional Comment

My mum also recalled walking up and down the garden path in her wedding dress with her father watching the dog-fights whilst waiting for the car.  
As Dad stated the vicar said "no hymns", but I can report that they eventually had their hymns at their Golden Wedding Blessing fifty years later!   I also gather that as the vicar declared them Man and Wife the "All Clear" sounded.

Mum and her bridesmaid (my godmother) also recounted the story of making sandwiches at her "reception" back at the the house to try and make the food for about 9 people stretch to 60!   A bit like the two loaves and five fishes parable!

Thanks for popping by - and hope you enjoyed this story of a Wedding in the Blitz