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The War and Us: A Daily Record of the World War 1939-40 in the Village of Woodley by J.W. and Phyllis Dodgson

1930s photo taken at Woodley Aerodrome

The 17 volume diary was handwritten by John Wallis Dodgson with stories and reminders from his wife Phyllis. He was inspired to start it after reading an article in The Observer newspaper urging people to keep a personal record of the war. He continued writing until his death in 1950.

He was a chemistry lecturer at Reading University who retired in 1934.He had been warden of St David’s Hall. When he moved to Woodley, he named his house in Reading Road: St David’s. It is now no 93. Their phone number was Sonning 3209. He married in 1935 and his wife Phyllis was a teacher who was 30 years younger than he was. He was asked to return to lecturing in 1941 because so many staff had been called up, which he did until the end of the war.

In 1939 Woodley was a village, despite the growth of the Aerodrome and Miles Aircraft. It was administered by Wokingham Rural District Council. His house, like many others, had water from a well and a septic tank which was emptied once a year. The Dodgsons owned two houses in Western Avenue called Messina rented to Mrs Shipton and Granada let to Mr and Mrs Bradley. In 1946 he paid to have them both connected to mains water and sewage.

Neighbours in Reading Road were Harry Russell the builder at 71, Major Phillis at 103 Olden Oak, and 105 was Bulmershe Manor. The Dodgsons had a home help Mrs White and a weekly gardener Mr Bartlett.

People knew that war was coming and the Dodgsons put up blackout curtains before it was declared.

Evacuees

They arrived without any warning on Sept 1st, two days before war was declared on Germany. Miss Player, who lived at The Warren, was the billeting officer. She gave the Dodgsons Mrs Thorne and her infant son Leslie from Battersea. They went back to London after two weeks because this was the period of the phoney war and there was no immediate danger. Boys from Archbishop Tennison’s School in Lewisham were also evacuated to Woodley. They had been intended for Petersfield in Hampshire, but a 15-minute delay on the railway meant that they ended up in Woodley. They rented South Lake House, later The Thatchers, now The Waterside.

Mr and Mrs Dodgson had Dr Pinchbeck, a language teacher at Archbishop Tennison, and his wife billeted on them from October 1939 to Easter 1940. In 1944-45 they had Leonard Lush, a 15-year old pupil at the school. From November 1945 to January 1946, they had two Dutch girls Anya and Tilly to stay. They had spent 2 months before in a camp at Hull being treated for malnutrition.

2 mothers, 9 children and a London County Council official to cook for them were billeted at Bulmershe Manor. The government paid 8s a week for each evacuee.

There were a lot of complaints about evacuees from London. The money from the government was inadequate to feed them, some of the children wet the beds, they were dirty, had lice or bad habits like breaking furniture or stealing from allotments.

Mr Dodgson worried that the high water table and lack of mains drainage in Woodley was insanitary. In wet weather sewage floated in gardens and there was a bad smell from the Aerodrome. He wrote to Wokingham Rural District Council that Woodley was not fit to receive evacuees. 

War Work

The local head warden was Mr F. Dyer. Mr Phillis was an ARP warden who provided gas masks. Col Mascall was a warden too. Mrs White was an assistant warden and Phyllis volunteered at the Ambulance station. She also helped at ARP practice and ordered a pump for fire watching work. 

Phyllis went to Goodey’s dump near Twyford to train for driving ambulances. Mr Goodey kept pigs and had a scrapyard.

She became Hon Sec of the new Infant Welfare Clinic. She was also a member of the Woodley Womens’ Institute, the WVS, the Nursing Association and helped at the American Red Cross club in Reading. She collected money for the Spitfire Fund, Wings for Victory week, War Savings, Salute for Soldiers week and raised money for Royal Berks Hosp. The Aerodrome workers gave generously because they had high wages.

In 1942 Phyllis was called up to work at the Aerodrome for 8d an hour in the canteen. The Dodgsons paid their daily help 10d an hour. Local people said Phyllis was more useful doing voluntary work as she was active in so many organisations. They supported her appeal and she was exempted from war work.

John Dodgson was a freemason, treasurer of the Albert Victor Rose Croix Chapter in Reading. He did voluntary work at Watlington House, was a member of the Berks Archaeological Society, the Athenaeum club, the Natural History Society, the Woodley Parochial Church Council and the Institute of Grocers. He read the lesson at St John’s every week.

During the war he became the Voluntary Food Officer for Woodley.

The Aerodrome

In Sept 1939 he went for a walk to the Aerodrome and found that the road and footpaths to Hurst had been closed. Searchlights were switched on in October and there was an anti-aircraft battery at Bulmershe Court, as well as defences and camouflage paint at the Aerodrome. Fences were patrolled, several lines of barbed wire and armed sentries at gates.

There was a shortage of rooms in Woodley because as well as evacuees, there were soldiers and Aerodrome workers who needed accommodation. Mrs White said that people were charging 27s 6d a week for a shared room with cold meals, except for Sunday lunch. Royal engineers were in The Hut on the recreation ground and other soldiers occupied Sandford Manor.

In Spring 1940 Mr Groombridge, the Aerodrome Manager, told his wife who told Phyllis, that they were building a shadow factory in Swindon. This despite the campaign to Keep Mum and not spread rumours or information which could be used by 5th columnists. Mr Goodson, an ARP warden living in Western Avenue, had rented a room to an Irish lodger. Plans of the Aerodrome were found in his room when he left. This was reported to the Wokingham police.

The Bull & Chequers hut was lent by the landlord for use of as a Club for the armed forces.

A nursery for 2-5 year olds was set up in the vicarage in Church Road for Aerodrome workers to use.

Mr Dodgson said Loddon Bridge Road was the richest part of Woodley as many Aerodrome workers lived there and wages were high.

He was critical of Miles Aircraft’s poor work practices “they could not survive 3 weeks in peace time”. Mr Williams their neighbour was a storekeeper and often had valuable tools stolen.

Bombs and Air Raid Shelters

The parish magazine in May 1940 said “As Woodley has been scheduled by the government as a D area (relatively safe from air raids), air raid shelters are not considered necessary”. Pupils at St John’s school were supposed to shelter in the school or church, because the buildings were regarded as substantial enough to protect them. Woodley Secondary Modern had just opened in June 1939 for older pupils. It had shelters because its large windows and lighter construction were not considered “splinter proof”.

28 June 1940 night – residents of Loddon Bridge Rd ‘stormed the gates of the school to get access to the air raid shelter’.

During the height of the invasion scare after Dunkirk (June 1940), there was a barrier on the road from main road to Aerodrome (Reading Road).  Concrete cylinders about 4’ high & diameter.  2 on each side to constrict traffic; other available to completely block road. Mention of pill-box ‘in our road’. The London Road bridge was fortified and partly blocked. There was a strong point on the Wokingham Road guarding Loddon Bridge.

Air raid shelters were built in July 1941. Mr Dodgson called them “houses of indecency”. He also wrote about air raid shelters: “The men leaving the two public houses in the village have found a use for them. The wardens hope it is not their duty to clean them”.

“Nearly all the bombs which have fallen in Woodley have fallen without any air raid siren. Seldom when the siren has gone have bombs fallen”. He and Phyllis had a strong point under the stairs in their house and did not go out to an air raid shelter. They had a bucket of water and one of sand, food and a travelling bag packed with clothes in it. He sometimes slept through the siren and only learned about it from his wife at breakfast!

16 Aug  1940 4 bombs and 24 Aug  timed bomb fell on Aerodrome.

28 Aug 5 bombs fell on Holme Park and killed some cows.

Sept 17 1940 bombs near Aero. 4 explode and sec school children sent home. Some timed bombs were sandbagged and detonated by the military.10 bombs in all.

Sept 29 bombs and AA fire. Woodley air raid siren often did not sound but you could hear other ones nearby.

Oct 1 bomb at Earley Court near Whitegates Lane.

Oct 3 bombs on Aero between the hangar and Falcon Hotel and Berkeley Avenue and Coley. Craters at Suttons trial ground.

Oct 6 loud bangs 2 bombs dropped on fields between the church and Aerodrome. The house of Mrs W’s sister in law badly damaged.   Machine gunned 2 women delivering milk and a paperboy, all escaped injury by hiding in ditches. It had been condemned with nearby cottages, demolition postponed because of war. Mr Campbell of the Aerodrome rescued a woman from the house. Hit by Junker 88.

Oct 13 bombs at Bulmershe Court between the house and canal. No one hurt at RAMC post there. More bombs on October 14.

Oct 22 Confirmed bombs on Aerodromeo Aug 16, 26 and Oct 6th. Junker pilot shot down and killed at Shoreham discovered to be a pilot who had trained at Woodley.

Oct 28 several UXBs at Aerodrome, fell on night Sat 26. Mr Campbell’s farm hit by bombs same night, broke water main and they were still without water. The Wee Waif café on London Road was also hit, and lost their gas main.

Oct 29 2 bombs fell. I on Wokingham near The Rifle Volunteer pub.

23 April 1941 Poplar Cottage bombed.

21 June 1942 bombs near The Chequers and 1 UXB in lake

May 1943 a training plane crashed on the roof of Richardson’s farm aka Foster’s Lane Farm.The pilot was killed, co-pilot badly injured and the plane exploded setting fire to the house. The family escaped when they heard the plane in difficulties but the house and furniture were destroyed.

 Nurse Bowles, the relief nurse for W was visiting a patient on her bicycle when machine gun bullets fell around her, from the German bomber or the Spitfires pursuing it?

Mrs Campbell of Sonning Farm said her husband and his Home Guard platoon had a shell burst over the shelter where they were stationed.

A regiment of black American soldiers was stationed at Bulmershe Court. The Dodgsons could hear the bugles every morning. They welcomed American servicemen from the nearby camps to tea and at St John’s church. But they worried about English girls getting pregnant and hoping to marry Americans.

Rationing

Nov 8 1939 the Dodgsons received ration books and registered for bacon with Messers Geary of Cross Street in Reading.

They registered for everything else with Mr Saunders, the Woodley grocer. His shop was at 404 London Road near the junction with Reading Road. They also shopped with Mr Francis the butcher in Headley Road.

Meat was rationed but not offal. Offal was unobtainable because it all went to army camps. Phyllis wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph about the high price of rabbits and was rewarded by being sent several through the post!

John Dodgson was interested in the rising prices of food, what was in short supply and often mentioned shopping in his diary. He became an Emergency Food Officer for Woodley, responsible for stored food. Some was kept at the Hut, St John’s School, Woodley Secondary Modern, Shepherd’s House and at Woodley Institution.

A typical day’s menu was:

Breakfast:  scrambled egg (dried egg), coffee. Bread, margarine & NZ honey

Midday meal braised oxtail (not rationed), potatoes & cabbage, apple dumpling

Tea bread & butter, berberis jelly, oatmeal scones, homemade cake

Supper: cold roast beef & salad.  Cheese, margarine & biscuits

People sometimes claimed to have lost their ration book in order to get another one. Or sold coupons for 6d each.

Feb 1940 cheese and eggs rationed. Many eggs came from Ireland and went bad by the time they were in the shops. Dried egg was also used.

July 1940 tea and fats were rationed.

Feb 1942 soap rationed.

April 1942 coal rationed.

July 1942 sweets rationed.

1944 fuel shortages with new restrictions on railway travel. No fuel to be used for heating between April and the end of October.

May 1945 meat ration cut because the Americans cut their exports of meat to the UK by 75%. Fat and bacon rations were cut.

Weather

The winter of 1939-40 was the worst one for years. Their evacuee Dr Pinchbeck had to return to the London house to deal with frozen pipes. The Thames froze at Caversham.

In Feb 1942 skating on Whiteknights Lake for 6 weeks. 

Weather forecasts on the wireless were banned during the war. It was feared that they might give useful information to the Germans. This caused problems for gardeners and anyone planning outdoor events!

Dig for Victory

Mr Dodgson was an enthusiastic gardener. He often recorded the yield of crops he grew- fruit and vegetables. A typical diary entry was “The Americans invaded Sicily. Picked 6lbs of gooseberries today.” Phyllis bottled and canned with the WI.

Casualties

Mr and Mrs Dodgson did not have children. But they had other family members to worry about. They also kept in touch by letter with a network of former students and lecturers from Reading University who lived abroad. 

Mr Phillis lost his son Bruce in a bombing raid over Dusseldorf in 1944.

 May 8 1945 Phyllis heard a story about a woman at the Infant Welfare Clinic whose husband was a prisoner of war since 1940. She got a job at the Aerodrome, brought her furniture from London and rented a flat in Woodley for her and her child. But he was killed in an Allied air raid. The Germans made British prisoners of war walk westwards after being released. The PoWs were sheltering from the air raid in railway wagons and he was in one that was bombed. The little girl still tells friends “Daddy will come back on VE day”. 

At Red Cross club in Aug 1945, Mrs Tanner had a young American soldier thanking her and Phyllis for their kindness, saying perhaps they had sons in the forces and that was why they were doing it. Mrs Tanner finally said “I had 2 sons in the forces but I haven’t now.”

Miscellaneous

Thames Valley Traction buses were always crowded, often 2 went past before you could get on. Shortage of drivers but they were reluctant to employ women.1943 outbreak of bicycles being stolen in Reading – 500 in 6 months.

Long queues for cinemas.

1943 war going well for allies, Wokingham RDC was asking for ideas for post war development.

Hard to get people to collect metal for salvage because Woodley residents could see previously collected garden railings in a Southern Railway siding nearby.

Mrs Goffe at Wheelers Green PO had taken £10000 for war savings

Mr Tapper owned a house in Reading Road but could not get it back from his tenant at the end of the war, so had to live in a caravan.

Appendix: Woodley in WW2 from Mike Cooper’s book Early Closing Day

Details are from ARP wardens’ reports of bombings.

HE  = high explosive

Compare these official reports with Mr Dodgson’s observations.

By August 1940 Woodley had provision for 1344 people in 28 air raid shelters. Most were within a 1000 yard radius of the airfield.

1940

16 August              4 HE bombs, 1 damaged a Miles Magister training plane on the airfield, 1 exploded the following day.

12 September        8 HE bombs and many incendiaries started heath fires near South Lake

16 September        10 HE bombs on the airfield including 1 UXB which was made safe the next day.

3 October              4 HE bombs, 3 of which were delayed action reported by ARP warden. The logbook of No 8 Elementary Flying Training School on the airfield reported 6 bombs.

6 October              3 HE bombs, 1 person injured and 2 houses destroyed near the airfield. One house was Poplar Cottage in Headley Road belonging to Mr Lee who ran The Fountain off licence. No 8 EFTS reported 2 bombs on the allotments north of the airfield.

1941

30 January            2 HE bombs east of Butts Hill Road

1942

22 June                2 HE bombs near North Lake and east of Crockhamwell Road, north of its junction with Ford Lane (now known as Fosters Lane). I UXB.

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