My War Years memories - Chapter 1 (4 of 4)

School Days

In 1940 there were two Woolworth shops in Grays High Street although only one was in business as a retail business. This was because Grays High Street had been bisected by the railway and the thoroughfare was often closed to through traffic by the long level-crossing gates. These were in frequent use because the railway line through Grays, as well as a passenger services, carried considerable freight traffic to and from Tilbury Docks and the Thames Haven Oil terminal. When the crossing gates were closed to the vehicle and pedestrian traffic in the High Street, large crowds would gather on either side of the track awaiting their re-opening. There was an open footbridge provided for the use of pedestrians but this seemed not to prove very popular except with us kids who, when a steam-hauled train stood in the station platform, often had its smoke stack discharging smoke and steam immediately below the baffle plate on the underside of the bridge’s walkway across the line. Often, when this happened, it was considered a delight by us boys to linger on the walkway and to be wreathed in smoke fumes and clouds of exhaust steam as the train departed from the station. The level-crossing was the reason for there being two Woolworth shops. When the company was first in business in the town it opened its premises in the parade of shops in the High Street just south of the level-crossing. As time went by and more individual retail outlets were opened on the north side of the crossing it became apparent that this was considered to be the more attractive shopping area and the High Street south of the crossing gates began to look more and more run-down and dilapidated, an appearance not assisted by the fact that even further south the same street was known as “Old” High Street because it was largely composed of 18th and early 19th century buildings that had seen better days despite the fact that their photographic depictions often appeared on tourist type greetings cards.

Woolworths in response to the falling off of trade at their first premises moved to a better positioned site north of the crossing and the original shop was left derelict until, during the war, it was reopened by Thurrock District Council as an emergency, British Restaurant selling ration supplement food in a similar manner to that opened at the Memorial Hall in Laindon’s High Road. What made the Grays High Street branch of Woolworths so attractive to us kids was that we could wander around inside the shop taking in all the sights, smells and sounds of the merchandise on offer without being challenged for not purchasing anything. In any case, although because of rationing, Woolworths famous “Pick and Mix” and other sweets were only a distant memory what was available that was edible was their equally as famous range of broken biscuits and three pennyworth of these could fill quite a hole in most juvenile stomachs. I would like to say that nobody among us kids attempted any shop-lifting when roaming among the counters in Woolworths but cannot speak for anybody except myself. It is possible that an odd pencil or eraser went missing from the stock on the occasion of our very first visit to Grays High Street, I don’t know, but one thing is reasonably certain, it was very unlikely that us boys were particularly interested in the cosmetics counter that was, in later years, to prove so attractive to teenage girls, both those who were light-fingered and those who were honest, years later.

Being young and full of energy, it didn’t take long for the Laindon contingent left to wander around the Grays shopping while waiting for the ENO coach service at 2.0pm to take us home to Laindon. Although for most of us this was a first visit, as it turned out, it was the first of many and over time I, personally, got to know the town quite well. It always, to me, seemed a busy and bustling place and, on this first visit, that impression was soon brought home to us as it coincided with one of those particularly active in the calendar of the “Battle of Britain”. While we Palmers pupils were running about all over the place in the middle of Grays one of the innumerable “dogfights” between the RAF and the Luftwaffe that characterised that period of the war broke out over our heads, accompanied by anti-aircraft gun fire, rattling machine-gun fire and the wailing of the air-raid warning siren. Unlike at Laindon where when such events took place, shoppers stood and stared watching the way things would develop, the ARP’s personnel and the Police in Grays became very active clearing shops of customers and herding them into the air-raid shelters that were scattered along the High Street. Needless to say, the Police, in particular, became very annoyed to find that among the pedestrians they had to deal with, were a lot of quite young school children all identifiably clad in the distinctive Palmer’s Boy’s School uniform. The school authorities were told in no uncertain terms that the situation they had created by closing half the school at 12:30pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and leaving us to roam around until 2:00pm could not be allowed to continue. I do not know what other possible solutions were considered but shortly after it was decided that on the days when sessions finished at 12:30, any pupils that produced a note stating that their travel arrangements home would result on an excessive wait was granted the permission to leave the school while lessons were still in session in sufficient time to catch an earlier service.

For all those Laindon area that travelled by the ENO Tilbury Riverside to Harwich service this meant leaving the classroom at approximately 11:55am to catch the coach from the stop in Palmer’s Avenue just after mid-day on those three days every week. As the last teaching session of the day was timed from 11:45am until the 12:30pm break for lunch, this meant the teaching time three times a week for whatever subject or subjects was reduce to just 10 minutes. Just how long this emergency arrangement, which hardly proved to be sufficient for good progress in the subjects affected to be made lasted, I can not recall. It so happened that on two of the days where this arrangement applied, my sessions involved French and Latin. I never was any good at languages!

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  • Further to Gloria’s remembrance of the beach at Grays, pre-war there was quite a large open air swimming pool adjoining which we often went to after school in the summer days and made us very late home as a result, we were still finishing our homework in the train the following morning. I don’t know how long the pool survived after the war.

    By W.H.Diment (03/06/2012)
  • I did smile when I read your pages John we have a school in Norwich which many of my village parents prefer to send their children to and much the same still happens. They catch the train from Lowestoft in the morning returning in the afternoon also our service is just one an hour single line track.

    Also I took my driving test in Grays and passed first time even though I had never been there previously. I also recall Grays haveing a small piece of beach I later found myself on.

    I have lots of records still I bought in Woolworths with their stickers on mostly “Top of the Pops ” Hallmark and Pickwick versions the cheapest one I have found amongst them is 1/9d which has Crackling Rose and Snowbird on it.

    By Gloria Sewell (01/06/2012)
  • Thank you John , that was a very interesting read indeed.  Particularly your account of the aircraft that crashed in a field near Markhams Chase School in Sept. 1940.  My brother Dennis was 10 years old at that time and would undoubtedly have been in the school.  I tensed up while reading your words but relaxed and let out a ‘Phew’ when learning it had narrowly missed the school.  Silly of me really, as he lived to the age of 79.   Dennis told me many stories of the war years but I don’t remember him mentioning that particular incident, so it was new to me.  I do however, remember my parents going on occasional trips to Romford and Southend to browse around shops such as ‘Gamages’, Keddies, Marks & Spencer, British Home Stores and Woolworths, i.e. those big department stores that Laindon didn’t have.   

    By Nina Humphrey(née Burton) (30/05/2012)

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