Skip to main content

Socking it to them

The war-time memories of south London pensioners Lillian Murrell and Lil Burnett are providing a rare resource for local schools. Carolyn O'Grady reports.

Six years ago Lillian Murrell (then aged 76) saw an advertisement in her local paper asking for someone who could speak about their experiences as war-time evacuees. Recently widowed and ready for a challenge, she applied immediately.

Last month Lillian and her friend, 71-year-old Lil Burnett, were at Lee Church of England Primary in Lewisham, south London, talking to a class of 10-year-olds about their lives during the Second World War. They took two black cases from which they conjured up gas masks, night lights, photographs, ration books, tins of powdered eggs - the paraphernalia of a world which the children had only seen in history books.

Lil and Lillian are volunteers with The Reminiscence Centre in Blackheath run by the charity Age Exchange, which aims to improve the quality of life of older people by emphasising the value of their memories.

School groups can visit the centre to see the displayed artefacts and the mock-ups of an old shop and kitchen, with occasional exhibitions on themes such as hop-picking and the evacuation. They are shown around by older people who give the objects life with their anecdotes and descriptions.

Or their guides will visit schools, bringing with them "reminiscence boxes" filled with objects which children can handle, wear and even play with. Particularly popular is a box of toys and games, an intriguing treasure trove for children of the TV and computer age.

For Lee School, Lil and Lillian took boxes called "World War Two" and "Make Do and Mend", which shows the children how people re-used and recycled long before the words achieved their political and environmental resonances.

Age Exchange has given Lil and Lillian some training, but they are natural teachers who know how to involve the children. Calculated to interest the most determinedly cool kids is their demonstration of how to wear a gas mask. Pupils queue up to try it on.

Children also love to put on the fire guard helmet, startled to find how much it weighs. "Imagine having to wear that all day everyday," says Lillian. "It'd give you a headache, wouldn't it?" They pick up the huge gas mask which Lillian had to carry for her baby, after she has demonstrated with a doll how she used to slip the child inside.

"If you have a sock and it's got a hole in it, what would you do?" asks Lil later on the subject of making do. "Throw it away," comes the reply as she produces the wooden, mushroomed-shaped article that all good housewives once used to mend a sock. "Take your sock off," she asks one pupil and she demonstrates how it works. To a boy near the front: "Let's have a look at your trouser hem. Once it would have been long enough to cut out a patch."

Lil and Lillian never pontificate; they only speak from their own experience, bringing history to life in a way a lecture never could. Lil's brother and sister were evacuated to Devon. "Imagine how they must have felt. They had to report to school with their little cases; not knowing where they were going or who they were going to."

Yes, they had been frightened during the 56 consecutive nights of bombing of the East End, but then spending each night in the air raid shelter had become a way of life, and they had even become a bit blase, they suggested.

"If you were in a cinema and a warning appeared on the screen, 'There is a raid - if you want to leave the cinema, please do so quietly', no one moved. You weren't going to miss the film were you?" The children's expressions confirmed they would have been out of the door in a flash, but they began to think about what people can get used to. And Lillian's almost throwaway comment that she emerged one day from the shelter to find her house a pile of rubble, must have confirmed their view.

Wartime deprivation is one of the two women's strongest themes. "I never saw a banana, apple or orange during the war," says Lil. But most shocking of all: "We had no pocket money. How would you like it if you couldn't go into the shop for sweets?" "I'd die," came one reply.

Toilet arrangements always fascinate children and they listened agog to Lillian's account of how she had to find her way to the outside toilet by the light of a candle, terrified of "creepy crawlies".

Potties under the bed and buckets in the air-raid shelter; silk-stockings with seams - if you couldn't afford them, and few could, you made do with liquid stocking paint and painted the seam carefully down your leg; doodlebugs, incendiary bombs and ID cards - Lil and Lillian ranged far and wide and rarely lost the pupils' attention. A barrage of questions was fired at the end and children clustered round the two women to ask more as they began to leave.

As teacher Jo White says: "There's nothing to beat holding and seeing things. They look up to these people (Lil and Lillian); they've been through it. I haven't. The children know that they know the answers."

The Reminiscence Centre is based at 11 Blackheath Village, London SE3 9LA. Tel: 0181 318 9105. Using memories of older people, it also publishes a range of books and joins up with professional drama groups to perform plays which can be booked by schools. Two recent productions are Routes, based on the memories of Punjabi elders, and When the Lights Go on Again, based on memories of the end of World War Two "Lil and Lillian never pontificate; they only speak from their own experience, bringing history to life in a way a lecture never could".

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you