‘Here it comes’ Dad yells out and we all rush to the front door with our brooms. Sweeping frantically we try to stop the flood water creeping into the house but to no avail.
With all the news about the Harvey Irma and Jose hurricanes and the resulting floods and damage, I was reminded of our house when I was about 9 years old in 1954. We lived in Watts Cottages, St. Levan’s Road Plymouth in Devon England. There were four cottages situated in a small park, in a pretty grassy ‘dip’. and St Levan’s Road outside the park’s elegant metal railings was the main road for cars and buses. Upon opening our garden gate it led directly to the grass and the park. It was idyllic, except for one thing…..It flooded when it rained heavily. Plymouth is a very hilly area and our cottages were situated in that dip.
Shortly after my father bought the house, our neighbours could not wait to tell Dad that the four cottages flooded when rain was particularly heavy. Of course, nowadays a sale like that would never happen but this was only 9 years after WW2 and housing in our Naval city were in crisis. Thousands of people lived in prefabs – prefabricated homes built quickly after the war, intending to last for 10 years – and many families lived together, due to the bomb damage and shortages of homes, so for my Dad to find this pretty cottage, next to a recreation field and a main bus route was wonderful.
Side view of the Cottages in the park from the recreation ground, Our cottage was the third from the left.
We had lived in our home for about a year before it flooded. It had rained heavily all day and suddenly, the garden had a few inches of water in it, which rapidly became two feet. It crept towards the front door. When Dad had heard about the flooding from the neighbours, he had built a waist-high cement wall and a wooden door to slot in place when it rained. He was hopeful that this would keep the water out of the house – it didn’t.
After our frantic efforts to sweep the water out, it was obviously a useless exercise so my Dad made Mum me and my baby sister all go upstairs, whilst he waded out the front door to try and clear the sewer drain, which was outside our gate in the park area. He was over 6 feet tall, but soon, the water had reached his chest. We all watched the drama unfold from our bedroom window. He managed to get the drain cover off, and a huge fountain of water shot up into the air! It kept going for ages and we waited for the flood waters to recede but it did not happen and I must admit that at nine years old, it was kind of exciting to see! All the neighbours across the street were watching too. Buses stopped on the main road to watch the huge fountain of water cascading over the park. Such drama! What excitement!
The aftermath the next day was not so much fun though. No kind of help from anyone in those days. We just waited for the flood waters to subside, and then started the usual clean up. No Fire Engines to help pump out the water, no help from the local city officials, no shelters no home insurance just us, Dad Mum and me sweeping out all the stinking mud and trying to dry everything out.
None of the surrounding homes (pictured below) suffered flooding as those four cottages did, and always afterwards, the place smelled of mould and damp. No wonder I was always sick with bronchitis. It took many years – 18 actually – before those cottages were officially condemned and boarded up.
Long before then the residents including us had just moved out and left behind their dreams and investment. It took another 7 years before they were bulldozed and grassed over. The local council did then, once officially condemned, pay residents a nominal fee but nothing like the money put into our homes.
Front view of the site today, after the demolition of the Cottages, still a pretty site. The bare green area was where the cottages were situated. You can see how the area slopes downwards.
I have to admit that when I went back to England one year and visited the park, it was a shock to see the houses gone and an empty spot grassed over. It did make me sad and although the victims of the recent Hurricanes had a far, far worse time of it than we ever did, I do know exactly what they went through afterwards…..
My first memory as a child born at the end of WW2, was of playing mainly in our streets and neighbouring streets. I was still very small, but I do remember the barrage balloons still flying high in the sky, floating gently on the breeze, and we would lie on the ground and watch them. It was many years before I realised what they actually were, which was a large balloon anchored to the ground by cables and often with netting suspended from it, serving as an obstacle to low-flying enemy aircraft.
We would play among bricks wood rubble, stones large slate roof tiles and broken water pipes, in a site at the end of our street. The reason for all the rubbish was because it was a bombed site. A house, like the ones in our street had once stood there but no more. We had adventures in those bomb sites especially with the broken water pipes. What young child can resist playing with water? Especially if you can make dams and ponds with all the available stones bricks and wood. It was a sad day when the water was eventually turned off.
We also knew not to play in a bomb site with tape around it, as that likely contained an unexploded bomb. There were parks in Plymouth, but because of the massive damage caused by bombs dropping on this Royal Naval city, these had still not been cleared of the debris and were dangerous.
When I started school, at three years of age that same rubble was negotiated as we walked over it to get to the school building and again, when I was 11 and starting at the ‘big school’ – the same one my mum had gone too – there were still signs of war damage.
Shortages of everything was acute. Years later we had no books in our school. The teacher had one for each subject, which he or she would read aloud to us and then pass it around. We had paper pen and ink, but no copy books to write on, only a sheet of paper. Later, copy books were issued when I was about 14.
School was OK, but all the teachers were old and not very interested in anything new and certainly they did not catch my interest but I did love History, Geography and reading. English comprehension writing and spelling were favourites too. Sums were completely beyond me, and nobody cared to go over it again if I got lost, or to take the time to explain anything. There were about 45 children in each class so on reflection, there must not have been much time to explain everything again, but just to get the lesson over with.
Re-building our country was a long time coming It was the early 1950’s before the clearing of bomb sites even began, and I grew up in the 60’s watching our city being completely razed and then rebuilt.
Years later as English social history became an interest, I was to learn about the Anglo-American Loan that helped the rebuilding of our country. ¹ ²
“The Anglo-American Loan Agreement was a post World War II loan made to the United Kingdom by the United States on 15 July 1946. The loan was for $3.75 billion (US$57 billion in 2015) at a low 2% interest rate; Canada loaned an additional US$1.19 billion”
By the way, these loans were eventually paid off in full, in 2006!”
²BBC NEWS | UK | UK settles WWII debts to allies
“It is hard from a modern viewpoint to appreciate the astronomical costs and economic damage caused by this conflict. In 1945, Britain badly needed money to pay for reconstruction and also to import food for a nation worn down after years of rationing. “In a nutshell, everything we got from America in World War II was free,” says economic historian Professor Mark Harrison, of Warwick University. “The loan was really to help Britain through the consequences of post-war adjustment, rather than the war itself. This position was different from World War I, where money was lent for the war effort itself”
Below are newspaper cuttings that my Gramps saved during the war and gave to me for a project I had to write for school about our ancient city. They show Plymouth before and after the blitz, and were the kind of bombed sites I played in as a child.
These two photos show Plymouth City Centre before, in 1939 and after an enemy raid in 1942. I find the captions very interesting.
Below, St. Georges Baptist Church a before and after view 1942
Plymouth Shops before and after the Blitz
Credit given for photos from ‘The Plymouth Evening Herald’ Plymouth, Devon UK.
by Marian Bulford
Our group or ‘gang’ never went out with the local lads. Every Saturday night we went dancing at the NAAFI and met up with the young sailors from all over the British Isles who were stationed in Devonport. The NAAFI was a huge social club ….
It was always with the young sailors stationed in Devonport, from all over the British Isles that we met every Saturday night when we all went dancing at the NAAFI – the Navy Army Air Force Institute – a social club for all the services and service families situated in the centre of Plymouth and covered a whole city block. At one end, it was a hotel for service families and the other end was a restaurant three bars and a huge dance floor.
I was an excited 16 year old, with the whole world in front of me. Plymouth Devon, in the UK was my home town.
It was a naval port and had been for centuries. Who has not heard of Sir Frances Drake, the celebrated Tudor seafarer, famous for circumnavigating the world on the Golden Hind and fighting the Spanish Armada? Or the Mayflower, the tiny ship that transported the first English Separatists, known today as the Pilgrims, from Plymouth to the New World in 1620? 
Most of my family on both mother and father’s side, were Royal or Merchant Navy and had lived in or around the areas for centuries the same places I lived as a teenager.
Ships of all sizes were always in and out of Devonport, the area I lived in and when a ship arrived ‘home’ there was much celebration in the local pubs and dance halls. This was my town and I loved it.
It was also a very popular summer holiday area with lovely hotels and guest houses. This area of Devon was described as the ‘Riviera of the South’ we even had our own palm trees.
This poster shows ‘Plymouth Sound’ and ‘Drake’s Island ‘ in the background, the beautiful Tinside Art Deco Lido Pool and of course, the sailors. I could have been one of those girls in the poster……
Over the last year, my 16 year old school friends and I had built up a close group of boy sailors, ‘Matelot’s’ as we called them, the young 15 to 16 year old Navy boys learning their trades as apprentices on board various ships at the Devonport Dockyard, where many of my ancestors had worked over the centuries.
The Plymouth NAAFI Club
We were all very excited in 1961 because the NATO  fleet arrived in Plymouth!
About 15 foreign ships would be arriving and the population would swell. The local population was pleased as money would be made and our group noticed a lot of ‘strangers’ in town when the fleet arrived. Lots of ‘ladies’ from London arrived, or ‘unfortunates’ as my Gran called them, and they stood out because of their accents.
Many foreign languages were also heard in the streets of Plymouth, some I was only hearing for the first time, and we tried to communicate with some of the sailors with lots of miming laughing and hand waving.
The biggest ship in town was a United States Aircraft carrier, USS Wasp, which caused great excitement: it was as big as a small town.
But imagine our reaction on the following Saturday, when we went to our usual dance at the NAAFI and saw our very first black men in the flesh AND they were doing the twist, the dance craze at the time!
We had never seen black people before, there were none in our part of England, and especially not ones doing the twist! Boy, they were ever good! Not a patch on us or the local sailors and we could not wait to copy them. But that is another story….
 NATO Fleet: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1952,
Greece and Turkey became members of the Alliance, joined later by West Germany.