‘Everything was alight… as a child it was terrifying’

History group share harrowing, moving memories of the Second World War for VE Day film

Friday, 7th May 2021 — By Helen Chapman

Jean Chapman dad William

Jean Chapman’s father, William, a wartime fireman

A HISTORY group is releasing a film to mark VE Day with memories of the war from those who lived through it.

Pensioners from the St Luke’s History Group in Finsbury have lived in the area all their lives and share heartfelt stories about growing up in the post-war period.

Jean Taylor, 84, remembers growing up on King’s Square during the war. She was eight years old at the time.

Ms Taylor told the Tribune: “I can remember the siren would go and we had a shelter in the park. In the city you could see the sky lit up. We had a big concrete shelter with bays and we all had bunks. They opened up a canteen down there because you could be down there for hours.”

Ms Taylor said she could remember her mum queuing up for meat at Smithfield market during the rationing period.

Jean Taylor (left) and Jean Chapman in the film

She said: “The butchers got hit by a rocket and I had a cousin that worked there. He was OK but died of cancer at 34 and we thought it was because of that shock that did it.”

Finsbury was a standalone borough council until 1965 and the group members – now mostly in their 80s – talk about the innovative housing and health projects during the 1930s and 40s. The film also features their recollections of life in Finsbury during the Blitz.

Jean Chapman, 86, said: “The street before us got hit and we thought it was going to come down and hit our estate. It blew up and we saw all the bodies. It was terrible.”

Ms Chapman’s father, William, was as a fireman at Clerkenwell Fire Station during the war.

“He was in the thick of it,” she said. “My mum was always worried about him and as children we didn’t think of it.

“I just used to say to my mum, ‘why are they bombing us?’ I didn’t understand.”

Members of Finsbury’s St Luke’s History Group

Ms Chapman recalled being taken by her father to Parliament Hill Fields to avoid the bombings, adding: “Everything was alight. The whole of the city was alight. He took us to Parliament Hill Fields and we could see the flames. It was horrendous. As a child it was terrifying.”

The film, out this week, was made last year with members meeting up in outdoor locations to explore and discuss the war and the years following. It uses material from the Islington Local History Centre archives.

Polly Mann, who leads the history group and produced the film, said: “It was great because it got people to get together but also something to do that is social. For many it is a real social lifeline.

“When you say Finsbury most people think you mean Finsbury Park. We wanted to make the film for younger people and work with schools in the area who want to find out more about the area they are in.”

Ms Taylor added: “The area has completely changed now. It’s disappointing because the community has gone – there used to be families who we knew and everybody knew everybody.

“I miss the friendliness of it all.”

After the War: Finsbury Stories will be aired on togethertv at 6.45pm tomorrow (Saturday).

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