A Memoir From The Home Front

By Martyn Cooper (b. 1961) from the tales of his parents and grandparents.

A Memoir From The Home Front
The Cooper Family Just Before WW2


There is only one person still alive who has first-hand knowledge of my family’s experiences during WW2.  That is my mother, who was born the day before Chamberlin returned from Berlin, proclaiming “Peace for our Time”, in 1938.  I have put this memoir together with her help, but it is largely based on the tales both my parents and grandparents told me as I was growing up.  As a young boy/teenager I was fascinated with what my family had lived through and was so glad that I have never had to experience “total war”.  Like any aural history this is subject to the vagaries of human memory, but I have fact checked where possible.

The family’s situation at the outbreak of war

Both my maternal and paternal families lived in South London at the outbreak of war.  My paternal Grandfather was a schoolteacher in small private school and his wife a violin teacher.  They had 3 children, the youngest of who was to become my father (b. 1936).  They were a quiet, religious, lower middle-class family.
My maternal Grandfather was a skilled toolmaker and my Grandma was a waitress, who had previously been in service.  As already mentioned, their eldest child, who would become my mother, was born as war brewed in 1938.  They were a typical working-class family.  Both the parents had moved to London in the depression of the early 1930s looking for work.  My Grandma came from the North East (she was a true Geordie) and my Grandpa from the Welsh mining valleys.
A Memoir From The Home Front
The Cooper Children at the Outset of WW2 (The little boy became my father)

Grandad Cooper’s tale - a Conscientious Objector

My paternal Grandfather was a deeply religious man; a member of The Brethren church.  His interpretation of the 10 Commandments and especially the commandment “Thou shall not kill” meant he could not in all conscience take up arms to fight.  I don’t know what options he was given by the authorities, but he ended up having to work on the land to help produce food – a vital part of the war effort.  [Incidentally, a generation down my father volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps for his National Service.  He saw active service in what was then, in the 1950s, Malaya during the Malay Crisis.]  So, a significant part of my Grandfather’s war, in addition to his school teaching, was spent travelling out to farms just outside London and undertaking the role of a farm labourer.  I am proud that he took a principled stand even if it was not what I would have done in his place.

Grandpa Aylesbury’s tale - a reserved occupation and ARP

My maternal Grandfather was in a reserved occupation.  His skills with lathe and other metal working tools meant that he was required in the munitions’ factories.  In addition to this he had to act as an ARP Warden at night out inspecting for people with inadequate blackouts and on fire-watch duties at the time of the many air-raids and later V Bomb attacks on South London.  My Grandma used to tell tales of a man exhausted by having to work these two jobs day and night for much of the duration of the war.  However, I also know from my Aunt, his younger daughter, that he was very active in his trade union at this time.  I remember my Grandpa as a quiet man who sat in the corner with his newspaper or went out for a mooch round the junk shops; but I think during the war he was quite a firebrand. 
A Memoir From The Home Front
Grandpa Aylesbury
A Memoir From The Home Front
Grandpa Aylesbury's ARP Whistle

The role of strong women - Grandma Aylesbury & Grandma Cooper

The mums in the war had to struggle to just keep the families fed.  I do know that my maternal Grandmother became a vegetarian during the war; not for any moral reasons, but so that the young children and her husband could have what limited meat there was.
Under rationing each person was permitted one egg each a week. Grandma Aylesbury kept hers for the Yorkshire pudding on Sunday.  She was quite resourceful with powdered egg and her extra cheese allowance, adding it to a savoury rice dish. My Mum recalls them eating lentil soup, spam and corned beef. On rare occasions they had some strawberries.  Mum as a young child was often sent to get in the line at the butchers if word got around a consignment of mince or sausages were to be delivered.  Grandma used to stuff sheep’s heart, then sew it up before roasting, it was a bit like liver.  Grandma liked tripe, however the children didn’t! Bread was still rationed after the war and Mum got sent to the corner bread shop to get one loaf, she loved crusty bread, and ate a good chunk of the crust before she got home and was in deep trouble for that.
I have no stories to tell about my paternal Grandmother because she died when I was only about 12.  However, I am sure she too had to be strong as she protected her young family.  In fact, I do know they were bombed out of their home 3 times during the war.  The last time as a result of a V-Bomb exploding nearby.  She must have had to be a homemaker over and over again.  My imagination has her keeping her violin in the air-raid shelter and using it to play soothing music during the times of heightened fear. 

Children in Wartime – Evacuations, Air-Raids and Adventure

Many of London’s children were evacuated during the war but my family did not participate in the Government organised evacuations.  Instead for part of the war at least they went to stay with relatives in what were thought to be safer parts of the country.  My Mum and her two younger siblings went down to South Wales and stayed with her father’s family.  If my memory is correct there was at some point 17 people staying in a 2up/2down miners’ cottage (as needs must).  Despite the hardship these were happy times with plenty of tales of fun had climbing the mountains above the village, picking wimberries.   My father was not so fortunate, when he had been bombed out in London he was sent to stay with an uncle and aunt in Shirley, Southampton.  Because of the docks and the railway infrastructure Southampton was also subject to heavy bombing.  Another time they stayed with relatives in Bournemouth. 

A Memoir From The Home Front
The Aylesbury Family Just Before WW2 – the other two children were war babies. (The little girl became my mother)
In one home the Coopers had the type of shelter that was a reinforced table which the family could dive under very quickly, they probably had blankets and pillows in there. My father was told a story after one night of raids, a railway embankment must have added some protection as the road the other side of the railway was completely demolished.  My father was fascinated that amongst the remaining meal left on the table stood a bottle of milk still upright, but a cup had upturned itself on the saucer, but was not broken; this stuck his mind.
My mum recalls several incidences during air-raids that illustrate the responsibility taken by very young children at these times of high risk.  One is that, after the siren had gone, she sheltered under the stairs with her mother, the younger siblings, and the sowing machine as the most prized possession.  Another is, as a 5-year-old, taking her younger brother down to the brick shelter in the garden as her Mother gathered the baby and essentials for the night.  Then further, a few yards opposite their home a bomb dropped on the large allotment, which also was the site of a huge gasometer, which fortunate did not explode, but the eyewitnesses saw root vegetables flying in every direction.  Later in the war my Mum started school and was given the following advice if an air-raid happened when she was walking to or from school “get down on your knees against a brick wall and hunch down with hands over your head”.  I find it hard to imaging one so young living with that level of fear.
My father used to tell tales of cycling round the streets after a night of air raids and being a typical boy collecting interesting pieces of shrapnel and other debris. 

Concluding Reflections

As you can tell from this account none of my immediate relatives saw military action during WW2.  However, their lives were intimately affected by the war.  In their own way they took a stand against Hitler and the evils of Nazism.  I am tremendously proud of this part of my family’s history.

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