Oral History Interviews

Playing on bombsites after war

We start with Margaret’s early childhood, the war was still one, she lived in communal block of flats with communal balcony outside. She’d play outside her door on the balcony and not intrude into her neighbour space. She drew with chalk on to the floor. She played with her sister at this age and there was always children around in the other flats. At this stage, about four, she’d play with only three or four others. As she got older there was an area for play in the middle of flats where all the children in the flats would play together, they were all pretty good friends, they were pretty insular, it was just kids from the block of flats. They used to play team games, spend the day running, playing release, or as it was called IT. They played ball games, though they weren’t supposed to. And then of course outside the courtyard they had bomb sites to play on. There was a big bombsite in the next street, which was like an adventure playground really, they’d have brilliant fun here. They’d build little brick walls pretend they were houses, make seats, make dens really. There was a beautiful old house that had been bombed, it was a shell really, she was about seven or eight now, and you could climb up into the house, even though there was no windows or bits of wall, they got right up to the roof, they saw no danger, it was just fun. They played out all day in the school holidays, even in the winter they would go out and congregate and just find somewhere to go and just play. Even at school there be out all the time. They didn’t imagine the danger of playing on these bombed sites.

They just used to roam, running, chasing, never walking she seems to remember. They used to go to Parliament Hill Fields and they had Lido there, which is still in existence. In the summer this was free and the children they would go all day, her mum sometimes came with them.

There was kids of different ages playing together, they’d make allowances, sometimes the older boys would go off and play football together. Occasionally a window would be broken. Up to the age of 10 they’d all play football together, she doesn’t remember any of the girls being girly, it was a bit rough and tumble. The girls gave as good as they got. She doesn’t remember any vicious fights between them though. The kids ages would be about 7 to 14, after 14 they’d go off to work.

She never had a bike, but remembers borrowing her sister’s new bike, well new to her sister, one day – she went down a hill and she was freewheeling down and it joined a quite busy road at the end and she didn’t stop and went careering into the road, fortunately she went into the back of the taxi, the rear wheel of the taxi and not the front, if she’d have went into the front she’d have been badly hurt. The taxi driver very kindly drove her and her mum to the hospital and then very kindly waited at the hospital to see she was all right (might even have driven them home). Went to Camden Town to the hospital, a good 10, or 15 minute ride in the taxi, it was very good of him.

They didn’t play on the stairs, they tended to stick to the play area. You don’t want to be caught by your mum and maybe have to do an errand, also there was a caretaker on site and he was very very strict. Out front they had trees and grass but they weren’t allowed to play on this area. If you did any think wrong he’d be on top of you like a ton of bricks. You have to be in by 8 PM, wasn’t just your parents setting this curfew, but the caretaker don’t want children outplaying after eight and they all obey’d him.

Talks about playing with a ball in the courtyard. Though there weren’t signs like you see today “No ball games”, they weren’t supposed to play with the ball in the courtyard and this was because the courtyard was surrounded on three sides with flats and these all had windows looked out onto the courtyard.

Sometimes they’d play on the stairs and run up and down with a stick banging against the railings until someone’s neighbour came out and shouted at them to stop.

Talks about the layout of the flats.

Talks about skipping, which all the girls did with a washing line and you can get eight girls skipping at once. She can’t remember the songs they used to sing. They would skip for ages. Other games they played well leapfrog and hopscotch. You’d skip for the whole verse of the rhyme and you have to have a turn skipping the skipping rope. You’d also do skip individually, in what they used to call ‘bumps’, in which she turned the handle, but she can’t really remember how to do it. It was just a bit of rope your dad cut down for you and if it caught your leg it was pretty painful.

Most mums were at home during this period. If they did go to work they would be going off at 5 AM to do cleaning jobs. Going into the city or to big houses in Hamstead. Talks about one lady who did a job at London zoo who lived on the flats. They were very part-time jobs. People in the flats would lean over balconies and watch the kids play. She never remembers her mum worrying about what she was up to. Very occasionally someone might say this strange man is about and to keep your distance. Even at Parliament Hill Fields there was a large open space and also playing in the woods at Kenwood house, where they weren’t supposed to go, they always found their way and never encountering anybody that was going to be a danger to them. The innocence of childhood.

We talk about playing on the bomb sites. They weren’t allowed to play on these bombs sites. She talks about some of the bomb sites having huge areas full of water ready for fires and after the war these were empty and they would climb down into these water storage areas and leap about from brick to brick, as there was rainwater in the bottom. They had lots of fun on the building site. They’d create dens and make paths. There weren’t the resources to police these areas. She never remembers being told she shouldn’t be on these bomb sites. The bomb site near them was quite a big place as it was whole street of terraced houses. It was a long time before this land was built on. She was nine or 10 when she played on bomb sites.

After 10, she has grown up a bit, she didn’t play on the bomb site so much. She read a lot and went to the cinema a bit. She had after-school games and didn’t get home till 6PM. Playing hockey, netball, tennis. During the summer spending whole days at the Lido or go to Parliament Hill fields. Hang out and just chat, talk about boys and the pop scene as this was just starting to happen, listen to records. When she went to secondary school most of her friends lived a bus ride away and she would go to them because they were more of them – she would go to see them more often than not. They’d go look in the shops, try on hats at C&A. They’d get tuppence ticket and travel about on the trains for 3 hours, never get off, just ride the trains, never coming out anywhere, so they ended up knowing the Underground map very well.

We talk about where the money for buying records and riding the trains come from. Occasionally an aunt would give them a little. Or her mum might give the money if it wasn’t a lot. She didn’t have to do chores for the money. Her mother spoiled them as she had quite a hard childhood and her mum over compensated. Her friends would do chores and she would occasionally have to do something. She did have to pop to the shops and do errands. The weekly shops she would go and put in their order with the shops for her mum who would be following, as it would take the time to get it together, then she’d help her carry shopping home.

Playing indoors. Mostly this was when they were six or seven and it was a horrible wet day. They would make a den under the dining room table and crawling in and out, there was a lot imagination. Post Office was another game they’d played with a John Ball printing kit and they would stamp these bits of paper. Indoors there was no room so she mainly played with her sister and maybe one other. Bedrooms were very small and they’d play in the living room. Mainly imagination games. Not really boardgames. Space was a big issue. You couldn’t leave things lying around.

She didn’t go out with her parents to play much. She might go to a museum if her aunt was visiting and they would take them to see ‘the sites’. They’d go for walk in the summer, up to Parliament Hill Fields and stop at a pub on the way home. On Sunday’s she would go to Petticoat Lane market with her dad, she enjoyed going with him. He would be looking for valves and things for the radio and they had animals there she liked to look at. The radio was always on, always on the same channel – the light programme.

Her dad made them a record player, clever old dad. There wasn’t much on the radio, possibly one of the reasons why they would go out to play so much. She used to go to the library, remembers going to the library when she was a bit older and reading a book in the reading room and then getting another book to take home. She read Just William and boarding school books. Probably about 11 when she did this. She didn’t do this so much after going to secondary school as they had their own library and she was given homework to read. The library was on Highgate Hill, a fairly big library.

She went to a grammar school and nobody else in her block went to the school, so natural division happened, not immediately. But she made friends at the new School who she would meet and play with, these friends she made she is still friends with today. The school had great facilities and they were allowed to use them out of school hours. She’d talk to old friends in the block, but it was a gradual change as she saw them less and she had less contact with them. There wasn’t a youth club near them.

Though she did have to go to Sunday school and she remembers they did have a club there. They didn’t have to do churchy things, there was a certain amount of games played here. She was also in the Brownies until 10. She joined St John’s ambulance and went there once a week. Talks about going into Westminster Abbey a couple weeks after the coronation because she was in the St John’s ambulance and the group had been invited, it was chock-a-block with people and she remembers sitting in the choir area, that was quite an experience.

Talk about her time after starting grammar school. She’d still play IT or with a ball. There wasn’t a great deal of time in breaks, she had three quarters of an hour and had to get her lunch in that time as well. But they could play their after-school and  she’d play organised games. Talks about one time going into this cloakroom, against school rules, hiding behind this cupboard with her friends and just chatting, a teacher discovered them and they got in trouble. She remembers at school they weren’t allowed to eat an orange because the head mistress didn’t like the smell. The discipline was quite strict. You didn’t play up, you just didn’t do it, it was a brilliant lovely time at school, they didn’t want to go home and stayed until the caretaker locked the gates.

at Work in a photo shop, late 50s

She was never part of the teddy boy movement, but she went out with a Teddy boy. Talks about his clothes, very nice Velvet overcoat and skinny jeans. She was interested in clothes, high heels and hair styles that she saw in magazines. When she was 14 she got a Saturday job and earnt a little bit money. She’d buy lipstick and get dressed up, swagger down the High Street, go into a coffee shop, as coffee shops were in then, they’ve just started, they just sit there for a long time with a cup of coffee, it felt like they’d been out for a long time and thought they were in swing of things as they thought they were the bees knees. It was all pretty innocent stuff. They’d sometimes go to the Palladium and go up into the gods for a concert, it was right at the top and it was all standing, she saw Johnny Ray, Billy Eckstein. It would be crammed, they were sell-out shows. Then there was the pictures.

Before she was 10 or 11 she went to Saturday morning pictures which was good fun, they were raucous affairs. If you can imagine the whole picture house was full to bursting of kids. Then have all these trailers on and sometimes singing. Sometimes the project might break down and they’d all be jeering. ABC Minors it was called, the nearest to her. Talks about the manager having to manage the children at Saturday cinema. She doesn’t recall anybody been horrible. She doesn’t remember eating sweets or having ice cream at the cinema, she doesn’t remember any of the kids eating or drinking. It was very close to their home and she would walk there. Within walking distance there was three cinemas, they’d change the screenings twice a week. The ABC and the Goumount where the two big ones.

She didn’t have a phone, only one of her friends had a phone because her father worked in the coroner’s court and so they had to have a phone, so they could phone her. They’d arrange to meet the day before. If you couldn’t go that was tough, but usually you went.

We now talk about Margaret’s experience of free time as an adult. When she stopped school she stopped any kind of sporting activities. She might go out with a boy for a walk or go with him to the pictures. Every Saturday night you’d go dancing. The rest of the time you wouldn’t go out, you stay in, you’d read. Some people had sporting facilities at work. Her leisure stopped quite dramatically on leaving school. She’d still see people who lived in her block of flats, she known them for years now and they’d chat to them when me she saw them. She feels there is more of a divide in those days in what was expected between men and women.

If you went on a date you went to the pictures, you didn’t go out to eat. The Coffee bars where in the West End, so you went to these only occasionally, locally you just had a greasy spoon. Pubs were for old people, she was too young to go the pub. Coffee bars were in Soho. When you went to the pictures that was the whole night, you didn’t get out till 10:30, that was your night out.

If you went dancing you went with your girlfriends and you might meet a boy there. You’d go to the Lyceum and afterwards went to a black-and-white Coffey bar on the Strand – this place was all black-and-white with mirrors everywhere. You might see somebody you’d seen at the dance, trouble is people come from all over so to see them again you’d have to arrange to meet them then and there and arrange to meet somewhere quite central. But you’d keep you’re eye on the time to catch the last train, she never remembers getting a night bus. She doesn’t remember getting in very late, midnight she’d usually be home.

We go on to her leisure time after getting married. When she got married to she’d still go to the pictures. Her husband played football and she’d go away with the club to matches on a Saturday. They’d all go on a bus together. The home team would prepare a meal for them to eat after the game. They’d socialise with friends going to each other’s houses for an evening meal. Very occasionally they’d get a train to somewhere like Brighton for the day. Or places like Windsor.

Once children arrived you get wrapped up in what your children are doing, so you’d visit other friends who had children, by this time they did have a car. When her husband was at work should try and see her parents. Saturdays were still taken up by football which her husband played, but now they would drive in the car rather than going in the coach. Doug played for Epping, which is a nice place to go with a lot of space to run around. She doesn’t think she had any time for her own leisure, she still read, did some macramĂ©, she didn’t have a babysitter on tap. Her friends lived quite a way away, so she couldn’t get over to see them. She made one very good friend at the young mother’s club. She feels at this time in the early 60s it was quite a thing to have even just a mother’s and toddlers group. She talks about doing a work placement in a mother and toddlers group, of taking children out on a big pram and being in charge of these children at 14. She goes on to talk about the friend she made at the mother and toddlers group, how she was a skilled dressmaker and designer, they just used relax and share without the children.

It was a happy time.


  1. It’s funny how one remembers their childhood when they reach the golden years of their life. I have done nothing else since reaching my 70 birthday. As I look back to those carefree years I realise how wonderful they were. We lived in South London from the early 1940’s. I was born in Tring, Hertfordshire in 1943, mainly to escape the feared destruction of the flying bombs. We moved back to South London about six months later. At the time the Doodle bugs were still flying over and I nearly lost my life by one exploding nearby. Had my Nan not pulled me out of the cot before all the windows in her block of flats imploded I would have been covered in glass. We moved to Leander Road, Upper Tulse Hill, SW2 soon after and that is where I grew up for the next 17 years of my life.

    We had a wonderful time playing on the bombsites in the area. Scrumping – Saturday morning pictures was a treat for the week, collecting old news paper and taking to the Black Prince waste site to earn a couple of shillings. We would beg someone for their old pram to make a barrow with and then crash it after going too fast down our street (not many cars about in those days), even a book and skate was great fun. Loads more I could talk about! Maybe I will write a boo9k before it’s too late and get it all off my chest.

    • FreeTimeAdmin

      Thanks Keith for your comment.

      As we have been concentrating on play, we are hearing the best side of life though. But not everyone remembers their childhood as the golden years. We have heard people speak of a resentment that has remained with them throughout their life.

      If you live in the surrounding areas to Dorchester, Dorset, we would be happy to add your memories to our archives.

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