Interview with Margaret Irene Maxwell


Interview with Margaret Irene Maxwell


Margaret was almost 12 years old and living in Romford, Essex at the outbreak of World War Two. She remembers the announcement being made by Neville Chamberlain on the radio on 3 September 1939. Margaret recalls being issued with a gas mask, and how cafes, restaurants and cinemas were, initially, closed. Her local church, St Andrew’s, remained open and provided daily social events such as table tennis. Her school, Romford Intermediate, made some preparations for the war, including digging a trench in a field. Later, brick air raid shelters, which could house up to thirty children, were built on a playground. She also recalls rationing, but never felt hungry and feels that rationing made people be more inventive with cooking. They kept hens for eggs and had an allotment. She experienced the Blitz shortly after it started as, one Saturday, she was in Romford market when the air raid sirens sounded. She recalls how frightening it was, and how she cycled home as fast as possible, as the aircraft batteries began firing. Her friend Joyce was bombed out of her house three times. Her family did not qualify for an Anderson shelter, but the neighbours invited them to sleep in theirs. Later, her father built a brick shelter in their own garden. She travelled by train to visit family in Warwick during the Blitz. That night Coventry was heavily bombed, and Margaret witnessed the damage the next day, including walking through the ruins of Coventry cathedral. Margaret recalls landmines, a V-2 rocket in the neighbour’s garden and unexploded bombs, as well as details such as a bomb crater outside the Parkside Hotel which a bus fell into. Just before she was 17, she travelled to London every day on the train and could see the bomb damage. Margaret worked as a secretary in the cargo industry and, due to the nature of the work, had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Her father had served in the Army at Ypres during the first World War. He became an Air Raid Warden during the Second World War. Her future husband Jim served on a balloon battery at Primrose Hill and survived been impaled on iron railings by the blast of a bomb. Margaret’s brother, Ken, was in the Royal Navy and his ship, HMS Lawford, was sunk in the English Channel by a new aerial weapon. After helping other crew members, he was rescued and spent the next six months recovering at Milford Haven.




Temporal Coverage




00:16:09 audio recording


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MM: I can’t remember the date.
[recording paused]
DB: This is an interview with Margaret Eileen Irene Maxwell at her home in Coggeshall in Essex. It’s the 4th of September 2019 and it’s 14.20 hours. Also present is her daughter Ann Maxwell. Margaret, can you tell me more about your experiences during World War Two?
MM: I was just about to turn twelve when World War Two was declared. It was Sunday morning and mum and I were sitting on the back doorstep of our house at 98 Parkside Avenue, Romford in Essex. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain was scheduled to speak to the nation on the radio at 11am 3rd of September 1939. As soon as we received the news a siren sounded. We later found out it was a false alarm. I went across the road to see my friend Barbara. I knew it was a serious situation because the year before we had had the Munich Crisis and Chamberlain had declared peace in our time. However, by the time war was declared we had already been issued with gas masks which everybody had been instructed to carry with them at all times. I detested my mask and recall the awful smell of rubber when I had to try it on. We all carried them religiously to start off with but we got a bit lax about later carrying oh sorry a bit lax about carrying them later when it appeared there wouldn’t be a gas attack. The first year after the declaration things appeared to be quiet. We continued in our daily lives including going to school. At the outbreak of war cafes, restaurants and cinemas all closed but as the war progressed they started to open up again. I was too young to worry about the closure of cinemas, restaurants and theatres but I remember the local church never closed and put on social events every day. We had table tennis, shove ha’penny and card games. The Wykeham Hall next door to St Edwards Church held a dance every Saturday and as I got older I used to go there with my friends. We also went to Warley near Brentwood for dances. As it was all barracks there were many servicemen there. There were no preparations to speak of at our school Romford Intermediate, Park End Road apart from a trench which was dug in the middle of one of our playing fields. We knew that we had to use the trench for protection in the event of an invasion. If Hitler had invaded at this time the general consensus was that we would have been overrun as we were ill prepared. Later brick shelters were built on one of the playgrounds and each shelter could take a class of about thirty five children. There was no electricity and I remember spending hours in the gloom knitting. We also had many singsongs to pass the time. Our lunch break was changed in order to allow us to go home earlier but at the start of the war we were not allowed to leave for home until someone appeared to accompany us. Before the war no one living fairly close the school was allowed to cycle to school but the war changed that as we all needed to get from A to B as quickly as possible and for many people the bicycle provided that speed.
[recording paused]
MM: Prior to the war we all had a one third of a pint bottle of milk a day. During the war this milk was delivered in large quantities and especially appointed milk monitors were tasked with decanting it into metal mugs. The milk was often warm, especially during the summer months as there was no refrigeration and as the metal mugs were frequently not washed properly we had to get used to it tasting rancid as well as tasting of metal. It was a disgusting experience. Our education was disrupted in other ways. One of the first casualties was the science department. The chemicals contained within that department would have been a hazard if fire had broken out with an incendiary or a bomb. Incendiaries were specifically designed to start fires whereas the bombs caused massive damage and immediate loss of life.
[recording paused]
MM: Domestic science was taught on a rota basis. One term cooking, one term needlework and one term laundry. Rationing made a huge difference to the cooking lessons as we had to take our own ingredients. As a direct result of the war we were taught to cook in a [haydocks] A large box would be lined with hay, a casserole would be brought up to heat on a cooker and then transferred. Transferred to the box, covered in hay, closed in and left for a number of hours to cook in its heat. Rationing had an effect but we never felt hungry. For most households cooking was done by the mother and rationing forced people to be more inventive. An example of rationing would be one egg, about two ounces of sugar, two ounces of butter per person per week. Dry egg powder was more available. Eventually we surrendered our egg ration in exchange for chicken food called Balancer Meal which we fed to three hens. We got many more eggs that way. I used to spend hours queuing up in the market for any food that wasn’t rationed like offal. We would visit the cornfields after harvest to glean what we could to feed the chickens. We also had an allotment which my father hated tending. It was my mother who liked the gardening.
[recording paused]
MM: One of my most vivid memories was of Hitler’s concerted effort to raze London to the ground known as the Blitz which was fought during the period of 7th of September 1940 to the 10th of May 1941. Shortly after it started I was in Romford marketplace on my bicycle like many thirteen year olds. The air raid siren went and I knew I had to get home. It was a Saturday and the market place was very crowded which was usual. However, as soon as the siren sounded the marketplace emptied in an instant. Just like rabbits disappearing down a burrow. I pedalled furiously up North Street to get home. It seemed an age as my bike was only small. There were anti-aircraft guns being discharged somewhere nearby and it seemed to me that as I was racing to get home these guns were following me and I was absolutely terrified. When I reached home I threw my bike in to our small front garden and dived in to the house through the already open door. My friend Joyce was bombed out of her house three times so her family frequently had to be found somewhere else to stay. On one occasion the roof fell in and Joyce was in her bed at the time. Our house shook very badly one night when a bomb exploded nearby and shrapnel came through the windows. I still have a coffee table which was damaged in that raid. At that time we did have, didn’t have an Anderson shelter. The criteria for being given a shelter by the government was that the head of the household should not be earning more than £5 a week. My dad did earn £5 a week so did not qualify for the shelter. Our next door neighbour’s head of the household George Lambert was only earning £3.50 so they qualified for the shelter despite that fact that four other adults were all earning reasonable wages. George’s wife Hetty was a school teacher and his three daughters Dorothy, Hazel and Kitty were all working so that they certainly pushed up the household income well beyond £5 that my family of four had coming in. It was very unfair.
DB: Okay.
MM: When they got their shelter they did invite us to share it with them so sometimes there were nine of us in one shelter in their garden. The three girls drifted off. I was too young to realise or to be told where they had gone but I assumed some sort of war service. This led my family to share this shelter with the parents. Unfortunately, there were wooden floorboards, wooden boards on the floor and after one particularly wet night in the shelter my mother woke up on the boards and they were floating with her on them. She vowed never to spend another night in it and my father decided to have a brick shelter built at the top of our garden. I recall feeling much safer in our neighbour’s Anderson shelter than in our own brick shelter although I cannot say why. During the Blitz I heard bombers going over us as most of the air action took place at night. We had no street lights which older teenagers felt useful if they had a boyfriend and didn’t want their dad to see them kissing him goodnight. Later I had an American boyfriend and my dad was not happy about it. The Americans were disliked but I realise that it was mainly because they didn’t seem to suffer the same deprivations as us. They always seemed to have enough clothes, lovely food and the luxuries we couldn’t get like chocolate. Some relatives who lived in Warwick invited my family to stay during the Blitz so we travelled up by train. We travelled at night so I couldn’t see very much. Later on during that night Coventry was hit badly and in the morning we went on our hired bikes to survey the damage. I walked through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and I thought it looked so much like London. There was destruction everywhere. I had an uncle who lived in Leigh on Sea and although it would have been lovely to visit him at the seaside we weren’t allowed to go there. It was only residents who were allowed in to seaside towns. Obviously because they were important to our defences. With the benefit of hindsight I realise that my teenage years were very different from what they would have been if I had been able to live a more normal life. As the years passed we all got used to it. My father had served in the Machine Gun Corps in the First World War and had seen active service in the trenches in Ypres, Belgium. He developed nephritis as a result of being up to his waist in water day in and day out and was discharged from the Army. He was only aged thirty nine at the outbreak. You ought to put in there out the out [pause] Sorry.
[recording paused]
With the benefit of hindsight I realised that my teenage years were very different from what they would have been if I’d been able to live a more normal life. As the years passed we all got used to it. My father had served in the Machine Gun Corps in the First World War and had seen active service in the trenches in Ypres, Belgium. He developed nephritis as a result of being up to his waist in water day in day out and he was discharged from the Army. He was only thirty nine at the outbreak of the Second World War hostilities. However, as men were called up for military service by age starting with the younger men by the time my father’s turn came he was too old so became an air raid warden. He worked full time as an office manager for Marks and Clerk Patent Agents in Lincoln’s Inn Fields during the day. It was the only job he did until he retired after fifty years with the same firm. He would come home and after dinner we would wait for the 6 o’clock siren to sound as we knew that would be the signal to go to the shelter.
[recording paused]
MM: Sorry. Okay. Dad used to go out during and after an air raid to assess the damage and make sure people were safe. I remember seeing a huge bomb crater in the middle of the town after one raid and when dad looked in to it heard a ticking sound. It was an unexploded bomb and we had arrived before the defence services. We got away pretty quickly. The nose of a V-2 rocket fell into our neighbour’s garden and I remember being surprised at how huge it was. Another bomb made a crater outside the Parkside Hotel and a bus fell into it. There was a furniture shop called Henry Haysom’s in North Street and during one bomber raid it was completely burned out. A land mine ended up in a tree, also in North Street but that was safely removed and diffused before it could hurt anyone. I’ll stop now
[recording paused]
My brother Ken joined the Navy and he was on the bridge of HMS Lawford when she sank in the English Channel. Although the facts of the sinking were kept quiet we later discovered that the vessel was the first casualty of a German aerial torpedo. My brother gave his lifejacket to a chap who couldn’t swim and as a result of the time he spent in the water and the shock he spent six months recovering at Milford Haven. When he came home he refused to sleep in the shelter saying if his name was on a bomb so be it and he slept in his own bed. On those occasions mum stayed in the house too. I was too frightened and I stayed in the shelter. When I left school I was almost seventeen and I used to travel to London by train each day. I could then see the number of buildings that had been destroyed as you get closer to London. So many of the tenement buildings had been burned and damaged by bombs and incendiaries.
[recording paused]
MM: My first job was as a secretary for a firm of stevedores and master porters. I had to sign the Official Secrets Act because we saw copies of bills of lading for goods which were going from Tilbury and obviously they all related to our war effort and were top secret. I later worked for Mr Charles William Hill, the senior partner of [Bronden] Hill Solicitors in Gray’s Inn Square. I was getting used to the legal terminology and had to learn the shorthand for these words. Although Mr Hill was a perfect gentleman most of the time I remember him telling me that my shorthand was, ‘No bloody good,’ because sometimes I couldn’t read it. Part of the building had been bombed but the staircase remained and I had to walk up these stairs to access my office every day. My future husband Jim was working on a balloon site in Primrose Hill when he was blown up by the blast from a bombing raid. Most iron railings had been removed but where Jim was working the railings were still in place. The blast threw him up in the air and he landed up on these railings pinned on spikes which entered his body under the arm and through his leg. He was hospitalised for a time recovering from his wounds. Although it seemed quite exciting at the time the war had a profound effect on me and even now I cannot hear an air raid siren, an air raid siren without it triggering some awful memories of the death and destruction. By the end of the war I found it very difficult to sleep and could only get a good night if my father stayed with me until I fell asleep. I would have, I would have preferred to have grown up without the trauma of war but we all made the best we could of it. I made some good friends and despite the circumstances we had a great deal of fun. We all looked forward to a better life when peace was declared.


Denise Boneham, “Interview with Margaret Irene Maxwell,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 19, 2024,

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