Knebworth during the Second World War
An oral history
By Ann Judge
These memories were recorded from local residents by Ann Judge.
The war years have many different memories for Knebworth residents. For those who stayed behind, some like Jim N continued to work at Creasy’s while at the same time doing his voluntary duties – I was a part time fireman. Well everyone left behind had to do something. And I became a fireman. And, well I had a bell installed at home. There was up to about a dozen or more of us I think. And I went at least twice a week. We had to go and spend the night besides the engine rooms, there was separate living quarters, and we used to go there at least twice a week anyway, in case of emergency. We kept the fire engine in the Recreation Ground , in Knebworth. You know when we was using the engine at night time, the people in Codicote, they couldn’t even fill their kettles up ‘cos the demand from the engine was so great, there wasn’t enough water. That was the trouble during the war years you know, shortage of water. The supply wasn’t big enough to take the, what the engines wanted to take.
Cynthia Ho’s mother did ‘war work’ at Creasy’s, and the two of them acted as firewatchers. Her father belonged to the Home Guard, as did Maud K’s husband – well, they just, went out like soldiers you know. They did have rifles and that. But, they had to have a meeting. I think there was, I think two nights a week.
A number of Knebworth residents took in evacuees. Vi N recalls – Yes, we just had to take you know, there was no choice at all. They came round , and, so we had in all, I should imagine we probably had about eight or ten different young girls. Once we had two young girls, Jewish girls. Once we had an elderly lady, once we had a Frobel schoolteacher and then the very last couple we had we became very friendly with them. Selby worked, he was one of the heads at Marks and Spencers, and we had his wife and son, and we did very well because Selby would sometimes bring, they used to have raids at some of the Marks and Spencers, and we would get some of the surplus goodies that were left over. So actually we did very well, as regards food.
The school in the scout hut
Bob O also remembers the evacuees – well, I suppose the first memories of the war in Knebworth were the evacuees. They came down mostly from FinsburyPark. Nearly all come from Finsbury Park. And when they first came down, they went to school in the Village Hall until, everything was arranged. And then there was the Frobel School, which went to the Scout Hut. And there was another school, I can’t remember the name of it, it was at Knebworth House, and I suppose they were my first memories. And of course many families who live in Knebworth now came here as families. They were evacuated into families, but there were also a lot of families that actually came to Knebworth and were given houses. Well, I suppose there’s about, there must be 6 or 7 families that moved here. We had two Jewish ladies, they were, I guess in their early twenties. They were billeted with us for a little while, they were very nice, two very nice girls.
Meals for the evacuees
Mrs H did voluntary work, providing meals for the evacuees – well, they used to march along from the school, and we had a cook and a number of volunteer helpers, on rota. And of course we had to peel the potatoes and prepare the vegetables, put out the supplies for the day, and of course we worked out a menu for the week. A very useful cook who was very good. She had worked up at Knebworth House one time.
The railway control room
The brick building next to the Station was built during the war to house the railway Control Room, controlling the signals from London to York. It has specially reinforced floors to protect it against bombing. Kath O worked there during the war – the boss, Mr Clay his name was, a lovely man. I used to have to get all his papers out, and sort all the filing out for him. There was a lot of people worked there.
Most of them came down from London each day. The man that was opposite me, he lived in New Southgate and he used to travel each day. My boss, he lived at Potters Bar. And they all came down. The typing pool was upstairs and there was about 20 people in there. And then there must have been, oh about 15 in our room. And then the actual control room was in the other road. And they would control the trains from there.
There are various other memories of life in Knebworth during the war. Nen B – I was very involved in the Girl Guides, and we did lots of so called ‘war work’. Collecting acorns for pigs. We did help with, they were called soup kitchens, providing meals for the people that came as evacuees.
Mrs H – of course there was food rationing. There was an office in the village, Mr Bell who ran it for the food coupons and that sort of thing. I do remember being in bed one night when a plane flew low down over the railway line, and shot at the houses along at the side of the line. I saw the tracer bullets come, and I shot out of bed very quickly, and some houses had roof tiles damaged along there. And there was an accident, at the railway bridge in Knebworth during the blackout. A train stopped on the bridge, and a man, thinking he was at the platform but in the dark couldn’t see, stepped over the parapet of the bridge and fell to the road below. I was told that he was killed but I can’t be sure of that. But that was, I think, during the middle of the war. Of course it was very, very black on the station, no lights were allowed because of, showing lights to planes.
There are also a few accounts of bombs dropping on Knebworth. Maud K – bit terrifying when the bombs dropped. I mean, we had some drop closer here than that, I mean across the field from here, one night we had six bombs. Yes. Just over where the main road is, one fell in the garden of the big house over there, there were six. And the first doodle bug that ever landed down here, fell where the motorway is now. Yes. We didn’t know what it was, it was just an explosion and a big hole, and that’s what it was put down to. ‘Cos there was no aeroplanes.
An act of God
Bob O recalls - its surprising how many bombs actually fell on Knebworth. I mean Old Knebworth was incredibly lucky. I mean it was so lucky, you could almost say it was an act of God. I mean there was a stick of bombs, the first one fell by the reservoir on the left-hand side of the road. And the next four, for some reason or other, it jumped about 100 yards to the right, and they went completely behind the houses, on the right hand side. I mean if they’d had been the length of a cricket pitch, to the left, they would have been direct hits right the way up that piece of road. And there was another stick of bombs fell on the golf links. There was another stick fell just over the railway, at the bottom of Deards End hill, over the Hertford railway. There was another one landed in the field, left hand side of Gypsy Lane, about where the motorway is now, about where that dip in the motorway is now. And of course, you know the really big bang in the village was a rocket that landed at what we call Firgrove, which is at the top of the hill as you go into Datchworth, by Swangleys Farm. Up there, where you get right to the sort of highest point on the left hand side, there’s a grove of trees and it landed just behind that. I always remember that, that was about 4o’clock in the afternoon. I’d just got home from school and I’d just turned the radio on and there was this ….. bang! And the radio jumped and all the crockery and everything shook. And of course this rocket went in, and we were taken up there from school to have a look at the crater. And there was this enormous crater where this rocket had fallen.