Bernie ‘Butch’ Baker lived at 13 Lealands Avenue and then at ‘the other’ Swiss Cottage from 1938 until 1945. He has lived in Queensland, Australia for many years, doing an amazing range of unusual jobs – including owning some sapphire mines! Having heard about the book ‘We Had Everything …’, he has sent some memories of Leigh during the War.
The Second Swiss Cottage
In the first article, he talks about the family’s strange temporary home and unexploded bombs. I am not sure how many people will know where our “house” at the Swiss Cottage was. The real Swiss Cottage had been built by the Crawfords at the top of Hollow Trees Drive on the left. From 1943, we lived through the gate straight ahead at the end of the lane, down a track past a shed; then you turned left past a pond and fifty yards into the hazels and willow wood was our Swiss Cottage. (I think we called it that simply because the Crawford’s Swiss Cottage was the nearest official house). The house was a delightful converted cricket pavilion, complete with a ten foot by twenty foot veranda facing the railway. I know that it has gone now.
It was when we lived in Lealands Avenue that we had the unexploded bombs – the UXBs. It must have been late in 1940 that the first one landed absolutely at the right angle point of Green View Avenue and Lealands Avenue, no more than six feet from the hedge. The second was about fifteen feet behind the bottom of our fence at 13 Lealands Avenue. There was another on the railway line and a fourth in the middle of the field beyond the sewage farm. Incidentally, this last bomb went into very soft ground and I reckon it probably went twenty feet down. Certainly the Bomb Disposal Squad never dug it out. It was almost exactly the spot where a bomber came to rest later in the year.
Because of the two bombs near us, all the houses around were evacuated to the Village Hall. But when we came back the bomb at the bottom of Lealands Avenue was still there. It was not until a few days later that the Bomb Disposal Squad came to start digging it out. That was my true introduction to real Army language. They put a little tape around the hole and us kids hung around at the top and watched them dig around the fins and expose the bomb. It was no more than six feet down. One of the bomb disposal men told my mother that the bomb actually had a note on toilet paper inside it in a “foreign language”. Whether this was true or not I don’t know but it boosted local morale to think that the factory workers in Germany were undermining their own war effort. (It could well have been propaganda but …
Memories of the Scabies and T.W.E.R.P.S.
Because of the unexploded bombs at the junction of Greenview and Lealands Avenues about thirty of us were evacuated to the large Village Hall.
As well as our family, there was the old lady opposite that loved cats; the people in the houses on both corners of Greenview Avenue; the Buckley family next door with all their beautiful daughters, as well as my friend Malcolm; our next door neighbours at number 15; and a couple of families from the cul de sac below number 13 and 15 in Lealands Avenue. There were also some evacuees from the top corner of Greenview Avenue and Lealands Avenue, opposite the tennis court, under a Roman Catholic priest called Hathaway. There must have been about thirty of us to start with in the Hall and only one, or was it two, toilets. Our meals came from out of the blue – I presume that it was a bit like meals on wheels. We all queued up. The grub was pretty poor and mostly cold.
After a few days, everyone started complaining of horrible little ‘wet spots’ coming up between their fingers and their toes and in the creases of our bodies. It spread through the Hall like wild-fire. Of course, we blamed the ‘dirty, filthy evacuees from the London slums’ – that was the way we thought because they ruined the chestnut trees around the Green by swinging on the lower branches and breaking them off. The itches were diagnosed as an outbreak of scabies and the Government sent a specially-equipped, long caravan-like truck/bus which parked outside the Hall. Over the next two days, we all entered one end, discarded our clothes, had a shower and we ‘dipped’ in a bath of anti-scabies fluid. Then we were given old clothes – I believe they were donated by the Australians – and we never saw our old clothes again. The treatment worked. By this time the Hall was beginning to clear a bit, with people starting to find accommodation around the village in dribs and drabs. We all had old mattresses on the floor and gradually, we had room to move around a bit.
One day, a little later, all the chairs had to be put back in their normal places as the village was to be ‘entertained’ as part of the War effort to keep morale up. That evening, a group of elderly folk arrived. They called themselves the T.W.E.R.P.S. – which stood for Troops Without Entertainment Require Plenty of Supplies. It was probably due to the discomforts and the times but I am eternally grateful to that little band of volunteer entertainers. I think it was the most enjoyable show I have ever been to. The Hall was packed by all the villagers for the evening but after the show, we, the inmates, soon put the place back in order to go to sleep.
The next day it was, I think, that we all went home. But it had been quite an experience.
Hopping in the Wartime
Each September during the wartime, we all went hopping up at Paul’s Hill. Some families will probably still remember my mother because, during the tea breaks, she played a Hohner mouth organ fitted with a special trumpet piece or horn to quite a large crowd of the hop pickers.
Old Morley would spend hours on top of the concrete bunker on Paul’s Hill to watch out for planes. There were dog fights and planes coming down all over the place. Whenever he thought the planes were a bit too close in our direction he’d blow short blasts on his whistle and the whole garden would run for the ditch at the bottom. Then he’d blow one long blast on his whistle and we’d all return to work. On several occasions, we picked bits and pieces out of the bins that had fallen out of the air – the most common item being empty bullet cases or the “clips” that held the bullets together. I remember at least twice we all had a look at bins that had actually had a bullet go right through them and in one case right through the woodwork.
I was exactly the right age for all of this type of thing. During the Battle of Britain, my sister Julia and I would go tearing over the fields to get to crashed planes as fast as we could. We had a big collection of bits and pieces from the aircraft for several years. We had an air raid shelter that was twelve feet directly from the back door of our house at 13 Lealands Avenue. After the War was over, it flooded and my father – who was a sergeant-major with the Coldstream Guards – threw dozens of pieces of aeroplane, bits of shrapnel, old common shells and all my ‘souvenirs’ into the shelter before he filled it in. So, if someone has the time and energy, I suspect that all these bits will still be there.
After the war – it must have been 1958 or 1959 when I was in the Surrey Fire Brigade – I had some holidays due. So I phoned Miss Goodwin and she agreed I could come and do some hop picking. My wife, Sally, my two sons and I all came down from Caterham. Miss Goodwin had sent a man up to the old pill box at the top of the hop garden and filled it with beautiful, sweet-smelling hay. So we camped in the pill box. We didn’t even have much cooking to do, as Audrey or Elsie Winsen would bring us cooked meals. They were very kind.
Looking back at the war years, it is difficult to remember everything because I was at an age where each day was a new, exciting adventure. But I do think of the people.
Parish Magazine Articles: July-Sept 2001: by Bernie Butch Baker and Chris Rowley