Coming home to Crawley at the end of World War Two

Crawley post office was bombed in February 1943
Crawley post office was bombed in February 1943

In 1997, historian and Holy Trinity teacher Roger Bastable wrote the first of a series of columns about Crawley’s history.

This, the first, was about life at the end of the Second World War.

Roger Bastable

Roger Bastable

Despite those unforgettable words of Rudyard Kipling – “their name liveth for evermore” – most of the Crawley men who had ‘joined up’ fortunately did return to the town of their childhood to pick up the threads of life suddenly dropped in 1939.

They came back home in that late summer of 1945 to a hero’s welcome and a series of parties arranged in their honour at the Sun Inn, on London Road.

For while Crawley 72 years ago might have been a small town, it was still a lively one!

The wooden floorboards of The Railway Hotel at the other end of the High Street, or the Boys’ Club along Church Walk, pounded most nights with the heavy boots and high-heeled shoes of de-mobbed servicemen and their girlfriends jitter-bugging or smooching to the ‘live’ sounds of Mrs Longley’s accordion band, the latest records from the Andrews Sisters, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots and, best of all, that darling of the ‘bobby soxers’, Frank Sinatra.

Mrs Longley's Accordion Band SUS-140919-095409001

Mrs Longley's Accordion Band SUS-140919-095409001

For those returning soldiers, sailors and airmen, who had not set foot in their home town for years, it must have been a relief to see how little Crawley had changed.

While landmarks from the 1930s – the post office, the Baptist church, West Green Infants School and a number of houses in Station Road and Oak Road – had been destroyed by a spate of air raids, Crawley, if shabby and scarred, was still reassuringly recognisable.

It had always been a town of shopkeepers and tradesmen and, although rationing and shortages continued long after the war, the familiar faces were still there – Mr Yetman the butcher, Mr Crowe at the art shop, Mr Sadler the chemist, Mr Hemsley the greengrocer, Mr Hill the baker and, perhaps most important of all, Mrs Hogger behind the counter of her sweet shop opposite Crawley Council School, in Robinson Road.

Despite its obvious terrors and uncertainties, the war had held mixed blessings for children, like eight-year-old Margaraet Bastable, whose recollections of air raids, collapsing ceilings and shattering windows were sweetened by memories of parties given by Canadian troops billeted at Tilgate Park, or by Mrs Hogger on VE Day when trestle tables laden with rare treats were laid the length of Robinson Road. Heaven!

Bomb damage in Crawley, February 1943 SUS-141203-171044001

Bomb damage in Crawley, February 1943 SUS-141203-171044001

Exciting though the war might sometimes have been for Margaret and her young friends, most of those who returned from active service had seen enough action, experienced enough danger and endured enough enforced travel to last them a lifetime.

With the Canadian troops and East End evacuees finally gone and its own sons and daughters returning home to civilian life, Crawley shook off the dust of war and looked forward to settling down to a quiet life once more.

Margaret’s father, High Street fishmonger Albert Bastable, had had a good war in some ways, although the worry of their three sons away on active service had taken its toll on his wife Violet, whose hair turned pure white almost overnight.

Their eldest son, Doug, had seen action in the Middle East before his ship was sunk and he was taken prisoner – later escaping across Germany – during which time he was reported missing presumed killed. On his demobilisation in 1945, he returned to Crawley and his father’s fishmongers in the High Street.

Bomb damage in Crawley, February 1943 SUS-141203-171029001

Bomb damage in Crawley, February 1943 SUS-141203-171029001

Yet, although it was good to get back to the familiar old routine, the war had brought some welcome changes, for less than a year later, in April 1946, Doug married Ethel Lay, a London girl who had been billeted with the ATS in Crawley and who had decided to settle in what to her must have seemed almost a country village.

For months, the Crawley Observer recorded a series of weddings between ex-servicemen and their long-standing Crawley sweethearts or girls on war service they had met while on leave.

Along with their mates from the Crawley Council School in Robinson Road or the nearby West Green Church School, Doug, with his younger brothers Philip and Peter, came home to a Crawley much as they had remembered it from their boyhood and which, mercifully, had been spared the relentless aerial attacks suffered by Ethel’s native Dagenham.

Crawley 72 years ago was much as it had been for a century before that - a small country town of a few thousand, centred around its ancient and historic High Street.

In the late 1940s, when the nearest Sainsbury’s was in Brighton and supermarkets still unheard of this side of the Atlantic, Crawley’s shopkeepers and tradesmen were characters in their own right - as their parents and sometimes even grandparents had been before them.

Some, such as Mr Crowe, Daisy Warren and Mr Hill, were also very prominent in their churches, parish councils, local sport or organisations such as the WEA (Workers Educational Association), while Norman Longley, of the East Park building firm, was a member of Horsham Rural District Council.

Yet if those who returned to Crawley in the late 1940s believed they were safely returning to the quiet, safe backwater of their childhood, they were soon in for a rude awakening.

Even as it was shaking off the dust of war and preparing to settle down for the quiet life of a small town where nothing much happened - the killing of a turkey by a Pease Pottage dog still made the front page of the Observer in October 1945 - plans were already afoot which would shortly unleash the winds of change on Crawley with all the ferocity of a major hurricane, unknown even in war time.

The new town was coming!

l Roger Bastable died in 2007, aged 56.