Although Shinfield’s VE Day Commemorations had to be cancelled due to the current restrictions we’ve taken the opportunity to update our website to create an area about the impact of the Second World War, and the Great War, on the Village and its residents. This includes information from previous posts including accounts of evacuees and the impact of the wars on our village schools as well as new information.
We’ve also created a new Resources area on the website which will contain free downloadable files and information. With so many people taking advantage of the current restrictions to explore the area by bike or on foot, the first item to be uploaded is a history-focused walk along the Basingstoke Road.
Some people may feel that somewhere like this doesn’t have much of a history to speak of but we would beg to differ. All along the Basingstoke Road from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield there are hints and clues to be found which add interest to an afternoon’s walk, for instance the old orchards that used to grow where Apple Tree Lane now stands, a reminder of the village’s former history of market gardening. No need to walk the whole distance in one go but if you’re feeling energetic…
Evacuees came to Spencers Wood in September 1939 at the outbreak of World War Two. In a wish to keep at least our future generations safe, young children were removed from the cities and towns which were likely to be bombed, and taken to country villages. Spencers Wood, Ryeish Green, Three Mile Cross and surrounding villages were designated reception areas particularly for children from London. Mothers with very young children came also but most children came alone or as a group from school with a teacher. The children for this area travelled from Waterloo Station to Wokingham, where they transferred to coaches for the rest of their journey. They each had only a small case and the all-important gas mask in its box fastened with string round their necks.
Children were allocated to local residents and it is heart-warming to know that many children regarded their time here as some of the happiest of their lives. Not all placements were successful, of course, and some boys and girls returned to London when there was little or no bombing during the autumn of 1939. However most of them returned when the air raids began in earnest. The John Ruskin School and the Cypress School in Croydon brought whole classes of children here. The children had to continue their education and the local school buildings had to accommodate the extra pupils. At first, Ryeish Green (then a junior school) and Lambs Lane schools arranged to have separate sessions with their own children taught by the original staff attending in the mornings, and the London children having their lessons in the afternoons. This was soon changed and the children were mixed together to have lessons for the whole school day. It was quite a culture shock for both groups of children and rooms were described as “bursting at the seams”.
As the town children settled in, they regarded their surroundings with amazement. There were few of the amenities they were used to – no street lighting, few houses with electricity, many with no mains water. It was strange to get water from the well in the garden or from the communal well on the Common off Basingstoke Road. Instead of narrow streets with their neighbours’ houses and industrial buildings, there was all that sky and lots of open space with green fields, woods and animals! Children had to fit in with the customs of the families they were staying with, but many found plenty of time for play and for exploring the wide countryside. Children roamed with their new friends to Shinfield or to Grazeley, enjoying streams and woods. Clocks were put forward two hours in summer to get the most daylight in the evenings and everyone was expected to assist in getting in the harvest. Schools closed so that the children could help in these vital labour-intensive tasks since all the younger men were away at war.
With the abundance of children in the villages, special efforts were made to entertain them during holidays and at Christmas. Church and chapel were important. Concerts were put on and shows at schools were rehearsed and polished ready for performances there and in the village hall. Local children recall that some of the refugees were “rather boisterous” but that they all learned to become tolerant of one another and some formed lasting friendships. Several of the refugees who attended Lambs Lane School recorded memories reproduced above.
Thank you to the residents who have recently given us their memories, including war-time ones.
We heard about the family that lived in Church Lane, Three Mile Cross, where a bomb fell in the field opposite and damaged their house and they had to move out. Another bomb fell in a garden in Grazeley Road and blew off the front door of the house during the night while the family continued to sleep upstairs. We spoke to another resident who had been a child evacuee to Reading who was separated from her mother and younger siblings and housed with many different families and, at one time, even had to sleep in a garden shed.
The evacuee children from the London area came from Waterloo Station to Wokingham, where they were transferred to coaches for the rest of their journey to Spencers Wood. They each had a small case and the all-important gas mask in its box, fastened with string round their necks.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 caused a halt in the installation of main infrastructure services. Spencers Wood remained a rural village, causing amazement to the evacuee children who were sent from London and other cities. It was a shock to find no electricity, no piped gas, no running water. Dotti Johnson who was 7 when she came to Spencers Wood told us: “The grey stone cottage was without sanitation or running water. Drinking water came from a well in the back garden. Lighting was obtained by oil lamps and candles. Cooking was done by a small kitchen range.” Many houses had wells in their gardens or in their outhouses where fresh cold water could be pumped directly into a sink.
There were no street lights, and the wide starry skies sometimes over-awed the city children. However, they generally loved the freedom of the countryside, exploring and playing in the many surrounding fields and woodlands and picking fruit, nuts and flowers according to the season. Schooling was shared with the village children, and some teachers came with the evacuees. The resident grown-ups (all able-bodied men were called up into the armed forces) often felt that the village was over-run with children, and they arranged many concerts and other activities in the village hall. These delighted the youngsters. We have records from evacuees saying that this was the happiest time of their lives.
We recently received this letter from the daughter of an Italian who was held as a POW at Stanbury – it makes lovely and moving reading. Maria has allowed us to share her father’s memories. ________________________________________________________
When I was young I studied ancient history, Greek and Latin (I am gradueted in Ancient History and only later I studied Medieval, Modern, Contemporary History ), and I was not even interested in contemporary history; so I did not ask my father about his prisony and he would not remember this unhappy time of his life, and when I had finally intended to ask him some questions, he was already dead.
I share with you the only photo I have from England (I suppose, but I am not sure, that the place is Stambury House German Camp n. 135 in Spencers Wood but before this, my father lived also in Camp n. 88 Mortimer ,Berkshire), all other photos I have come from India. The photo represents a group of prisoners and their “leader” (my father told us about his “boss”??he was a famous soccer player, but I am not sure he is the same man who smoke in the photo, he could be another prisoner) my father is the fifth man on the left in the line of sitting prisoners.
Also I send to you two picture of the exercise book, because my father studied English during the captivity in India and Great Britain but he never used this language for working in postwar time in Italy. In time of peace, he only spoke English with his daughters and wanted us to learn English (when me and my sisters made mistakes he used to call us: “Donkeys”!!) and when he was in love with my mother, my mother tell me he told her love’s words in English.
I send also a photo of a letter mailed from Stambury House Camp Spencers Wood and one of the music scores he brought from Great Britain in Italy: he played guitar and violin during his captivity, we have in our house the hand made violin he produced in India with teak wood. He loved English music and dances.
My grandfather Giuseppe, Pio’s father, was born in 1890, in 1905 he was a young socialist and in 1915 served as a soldier in First World War, then in 1921 he joined Italian Communist Party. During the Mussolini’s dictatorship he and his family were persecuted by fascism; when the dictatorship ended, in 1943, Giuseppe cooperated with partisans to lead through Gotic Line some English soldiers, who were prisoners of war escaped from captivity after 8 september 1943. Like him, some inhabitants in San Michele, my little village, gave shelter to English soldiers, escaped from Emilia Romagna detention camps. His son, Otello, Pio’s brother, sadly, was captured in march 1944 when he was a partisan by Nazi army and interned in a German camp in Germany, and was saved by Allied Army and when he returned in Italy in 1946 he spoke English language very well.
My father Pio was not a fascist but when English government asked italian POWS to cooperate, my father decided not to be a cooperator, due to his sense of honour and observance for Geneva Convention on POWs, I think.
The victories over the Italians by British forces during the initial stages of the north African campaign in late 1940 – early 1941 surprised english military commanders: the major consequence was in fact capture of 133,000 Italian prisoner of War.
Egypt was far from secure so general Wavell called a desperate appeal to evacuate Italian POW.India risponded.
My father surrended to a New Zealand soldier in Libia, in Bardia’s siege, in january 1941; he and his friends prisoners walked through the desert to Alessandria. In Alessandria they paraded on uncovered freight wagons before boarding to India. Churchill was concerned about the propaganda value of making the Italian white prisoners parade through the streets of Cairo, Alessandria and Bombay, although he also indicated that every care should of course be taken to prevent their being insulted by the population. My father and other prisoner paraded between egyptians but the local crowd insulted them and threw stones towards them.
By ship the prisoners arrived in Bombay, where my father lived in camp N. 5, then they were transferred in another POW camp in Bangalore. The first months of prisony in India were heavy. But time after time the prisoner’s life became better. Years later the POWs were brought in England to compensate for the lack of manpower. Initially in camp n. 88 Mortimer, then in n.135 Stambury House Spencers Wood.
Pio’s mother and father didn’t understand, while they were risking their life helping English soldiers prisoners of war (Northern Italy was occupied by Nazi army, my country was a partisan zone and Nazi made massacres of civil people in some villages), why their son did not collaborate with English people in England: English soldiers were dying to make Italy free.
My grandmother Anna got scared when the first letter from Spencers Wood arrived from Berkshire because on the letter adress she read “German Camp”. My father wrote to her that he had not become a Nazi or a Fascist and that he was not in danger, he was in good conditions.
My father understood that English people were suffering in time of war. He did not worked in industries but he helped working in road maintenance or other works. He admired English technical and scientific knowledges.
He brought to Italy some little scientifical tools and some english books and he was sorry because he left in England a large Bible with images he had never seen in Italian Bibles.
Year after year in his letters he told his mother Anna that “he was almost accustomed to prisoner’s life” (six years!!), and after his return, he told that he had hoped, after Cassibile armistice (1943), to return in Italy and fight for his country against Nazi and Fascist army but it had not been possible.
He was born in 31.12. 1920,when he left his town San Michele in 1939 for military service he was a young guy you see in passport photo; Mussolini declared war in june 1940 and my father went by train from Boves (Piemonte) to Neaples where shipped to Libia. When he returned from Great Britain to Italy in August 1946 his father Giuseppe, who was waiting for his son’s arrive in Modena Station, did not recognize him among the passengers, he thought his son would not arrive and he went away. They recognized themselves only when they arrived in Sassuolo.
The war declared by fascist regime and wanted by a huge part of italians people had destroyed his youth and changed forever his life.
I have about one hundred letters from Boves and Neaples in Italy, Bardia in Libia, Bombay e Bangalore in India and from England camp n. 88 Mortimer and from camp N. 135 Stanbury House Spencers Wood. My grandmother Anna gave them to me, before dying.
I am copying them down because I would like to publish them.
I am very grateful that you have mailed to me your village history book and that Great Britain have provided safety for my father in time of war. If he were alive he would be happy of this and be grateful.
I allow you to publish to members of history group and in other way you believe this letter I write, as you want.
Maria Antonia Bertoni, Maria Cristina Bertoni (my sister), Nora Bondioli Bertoni (my mother)
Prisoners of war and their captors in World War II, edited by Bob Moore and Kent Fedorowich, Berg, Oxford*Washington DC, 1996
Lucio Sponza, Divided Loyalties Italians in Britain during the Second World War, Peter Lang,Bern, 2000
Agostino Bistarelli, La storia del ritorno. I reduci italiani del secondo dopoguerra, Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 2007.
Isabella Insolvibile, WOPS I prigionieri italiani in Gran Bretagna (1941-1946) Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane,Napoli, 2012
And now : More from Our Village of Spencers Wood, Spencer Wood Local History Group, TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall, 2016.