Life In Finsbury Barracks, 1939 - 51 by Margaret Worley
In the spring of 2009 I was sweet-talked by a very gentlemanly, persuasive Gordon Brown (adm. 1953) to reply on behalf of the guests at the annual Cadet Battalion dinner. Previously on these occasions we sat at the back, relaxed and enjoyed some tremendous speeches, what could I possibly add? Then inspiration struck of course, the date! The dinner was to be held on 8th May (VE Day) and by sheer coincidence I would be back at almost the same spot that I had been in on 1945, having lived at Finsbury Barracks with my family for much of the War and through until 1951.
When I had finished, the presiding chairman Geoff Ing (adm. 1952) suggested that the experience I had recounted should be set into the annals of the Company, as there might otherwise be no record of it from that time.
He felt I was well placed to recount those years to this August gathering, for whom it would prove either a trip down memory lane or a completely new insight into life in wartime at Armoury House and the Barracks itself. What you are now reading is the result, with some assistance from my brothers!
My father, Alan Winks, a Sergeant with WWI service in the Royal Horse Artillery, had been a PSI in Armoury House (where the regiment was based) from 1924-27. He then left the position, owing to staff reductions, and moved to Croydon Barracks until 1937, when he became Caretaker at Shaftesbury Street Barracks near Old Street. Incidentally, that year provided my very first recollection of Armoury House attending a children's Christmas party and finding myself at the top panelled staircase, where I was ushered into what was now the Medal Room.
From 1939, he became the Caretaker of Finsbury Barracks and my
mother Anne became the Housekeeper. My family moved into the
Barracks on the very day war was declared, 3rd September 1939.
My late brother Tom and I had been evacuated 2 days earlier, with
my brothers Alan (adm. 1952), Ken and David a few weeks later,
my elder sister Pauline remaining behind in the Barracks for the
Our flat, unfurnished as it was when we moved in, was at least
quite roomy. It was up one flight of stairs from the main entrance
to theBarracks (into the North Wing) with 3 bedrooms, a dining
room, a living room with fireplace, a small kitchen with a fire
escape down to the courtyard and a good sized bathroom. All
the bedrooms were on the north side overlooking Bunhill Fields
burial ground, which was opened in 1665 to take some of the
St Paul's Cathedral burials and was closed (filled) in 1854.
The Barracks were mainly an office complex, being the headquarters of the City of London Territorial Assosiation. There was quite a lot of activity there as the Drill Hall facing the courtyard was the HQ of 600 Squadron RAF, later stationed at Biggin Hill. The large roll-down door of the Drill Hall was always open and just inside was an old upright piano which an airman played for what seemed hours every day. His favourite tune was Deep Purple: 'When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls...'!
My eldest brother Alan has a very clear memory of the Infantry Battalion marching out of Armoury House led by the Band, with bayonets fixed and Colours flying, all looking and sounding marvelous. That must have been when, on 5th September 1939, they marched off to become 162 (HAC) OCTU at Bulford. All the men later were commissioned and posted to other regiments. A typical example was the late Ricky Pawsey (adm. 1934) who was commissioned in the Middlesex Regiment, went to France, came out via Dunkirk, got himself transferred to the RAF, flew Hurricanes and, after being demobbed, rejoined the Infantry Battalion where he remained a Private and Commanding Officer's driver - always with a box of chocolates under his seat - until he retired.
My parents' duties involved general housekeeping of the Barracks. Soap and cleaning materials were in short (or non-existent) supply, as were light bulbs, candles, brushes of any kind and towels, tea towels, coal and coke. Given that the Barracks was a priority, coal and coke never seemed to run out, although, the floor of the boiler room dad sometimes seem rather bare. The two boilers that Dad was in charge of
(the main Red Rose supplied the radiator while the smaller
White Rose gave constant water) meant that we were always
comfortably warm with plenty of hot water, which was not easy.
The fumes and dust in the basement boiler room caused him to
retire in 1951 owing to ill health. There was no health and safety
legislation in those days.
Throughout all of this was the constant punctuation of the air raids.
The buildings on two sides of the Artillery Garden were either
completely destroyed by enemy bombing, or had been left in such
a condition that they were unsafe; and not one of the buildings on
the other side was unscathed. On the fourth side of the field both
Armoury House and Finsbury Barracks had received hits and also
damage from incendiary bombs. There was a bomb crater and shell
holes in various parts of the Artillery Garden. There are photographs
in the archives that illustrate this, an unbelievable comparison with shots taken on the same view at a Royal Review just a few years earlier. Around the corner in Worship Street, my sister Pauline's place of work was destroyed in one of the first raids of the Blitz, but she was able to find employment for the War Office / MoD for the remainder of her career and was awarded and MBE for her services.
In the end, the water supply simply ran out, and some huge metal water-tanks were then installed in the bottom of the Artillery Garden and halfway up Bunhill Row side.
Also at this time, in the north-eastern corner of the field was an underground ammunition store, which was hit by an incendiary bomb. Fortunately it did not penetrate the surface and was soon extinguished. This incident was later recounted in 1950, when Dad was written to by the Chairman of the City Association, Lord Limerick, thanking him for good services to Finsbury Barrracks over the years.
My brother Alan remembers a night, probably in 1942, when a 500lb HE bomb landed on the northern end of Finsbury Barracks. It demolished two of the large stone chimney stacks (which have since been replaced) and also blew apart the large skylight that, in 1939, had been covered by plywood and sandbags. The debris from the skylight all fell down the stairwell and landed in the basement about 10ft from our bomb shelter room where Mum, Dad, Ken and Alan were sleeping.The noise was unbelievable but no one was hurt. There was a very large hole in the roof, and the flat beneath it (occupied by Mr and Mrs Walters, who were away at the time) was badly damaged; windows were all smashed, of course all furniture was all over the place with blackout curtains tangled everywhere.
I returned from evacuation (in Befordshire, Norfolk and finally Stafordshire) in early 1943; there was only the shell of Friendly House in the far right-hand corner of the Artillery Garden and a part of Whitbread's Brewery blocking a clear view of St Paul's Cathedral. At the south side of the Grounds was a barrage balloon and there was an anti-aircraft gun situated across the road in Chiswell Street where office buildings had originally stood. These two sites were manned by RAF and military personnel billeted in Armoury House and Finsbury Barracks, which also included a unit of Military Police standing guard at a sentry box, just opposite where the checkpoint is now situated. Another duty the Red Caps were assigned was to form guard duty at De La Rue's where printers of British and foreign currency and six Military Police plus a Sergeant formed up every evening at 5.40pm to march to Old Street to mount guard from 6pm.
As well as Military Police, various other units were billeted there including Grenadier and Coldstream Guards, Middlesex, Warwickshire and Signal Regiments, as well as members of the ATS. There were two dispatched riders who seemed to have been kept very busy until about 1944 when they were obviously needed elsewhere. The Royal Marines Voluntary Reserve had their HQ there, also the 600 City of London (Fighter)(now Auxiliary Squadron, with their headquarters between the Barracks and Armoury House where the PSIs' Bar is now situated. This squadron was formed in 1925, and in 1945 HM Queen Elizabeth visited the unit on occasion of its 20th anniversary.
There was a NAAFI situated in the basement, open every day from
6pm to 10.30pm. This was initially run by Mr and Mrs Blackman
and family. They left a few months after their youngest son George
was killed over Onsanbruck in November 1943. The NAAFI was very
popular, not only for the usual darts and cards, but you could also
usually find a game of Monopoly in progress. Mr and Mrs Jones and
their daughter took over the NAAFI until it was demobbed in 1945.
I always enjoyed helping out there some evenings. Additionally,
Saturday night dances were held there in the Old Vicarage (now
the site of the gym).
For the people living and working in Finsbury Barracks it was a very
friendly, close community with the residents (military as well as
civilian) being supplemented by the office staff and cleaners;
everyday living was tempered by circumstances in the surrounding area. Travelling was a very hazardous adventure on occasions, with public transport very much governed by conditions in the city; walking to work was more often than not the quickest way of getting about - that is if you could recognise the street you thought or hoped you should be on.
The fact that the Barracks is serviced by both Old Street and Moorgate tube stations helped, with Finsbury Square, although badly bombed, being an open area and trolleybus terminus. The four office cleaners all lived fairly close to each other on the north side of Old Street and they walked (or picked their way) to work every morning. Two of them had been bombed out a second time, resulting in a stay in hospital. She was soon back at work though, despite her injuries.
Meanwhile the air raid sirens would sound most nights and at first I would be reluctant to
get out of my nice warm bed, but Dad wasn't having any of that and I joined Ken and Alan
in the Winks Quarters in the basement. You don't need much persuasion when you hear a
bomb whooshing down to land who-knows-where.
Life at Finsbury Barracks during this time was a mixture of the normal and the bizarre. A
slice of normal life was being up on the roof on a Sunday afternoon watching the occasional
cricket match. Cpl Daniels (Dan), the Groundsman at the time, with the help of some
Italian PoWs, repaired the field and brought the sacred square and outfield up to the
acceptable state. And the bizarre? Seeing my first V-1 (Doodlebug) flying above Chiswell
Street one beautiful sunny afternoon and thinking 'it must be one of those new bombs
they're talking about'. It fell on Smithfield.
Towards the end of the war and for a while after, while the population were busy trying to
reassemble their lives, my younger brothers Ken and David found a new playground among
the nearby bombsite and makeshift allotment that sprang up around them.
On 8th May, 1945 (VE Day), there was a lot of excitement and activity around. It was such a happy friendly time with everyone joyous and sharing in it. There were at this time some military personnel still billeted on the premises who, together with people we knew and civilisation we didn't know, went singing along Bunhill Row to the public house on the corner of Milton Street. A wonderful evening. The next day three of us residents walked to St Paul's Cathedral to join the crowd of people there. At this time the area to the south of Chiswell Street had been cleared of rubble and the narrow streets were tidy with three-foot-high brick walls on the inside of the pavement protecting pedestrians from bomb damage of the buildings; some were just empty, cleared-out foundations. The thanksgiving public inside St Paul's formed a sharp contrast to those outside, but we were all the same public.
After all that, there was the peace of the empty city at the weekend, accompanied by the smell of the hops from Whitbread's Brewery. In season, my mother made mulberry pies with fruit gathered by my father from the plentiful trees in the Artillery Garden; delicious. Unfortunately these trees were destroyed by the great storm if 1987, to be replaced by the Magnolia grandiflora which now frame that Artillery Gardens. For a long period of time, the mulberry trees had not been the favourite of the the cricketers; the juice stains were extremely difficult to remove from cricket whites!
On reaching the required age, my four brothers all joined the HAC Cadets; their stories would require a separate article! Conversations at mealtimes were often dominated by the various activities and filial rivalries between them. There was also the odd cadet or two who would come up to our flat, all very keen and proud of the role they were taking on; when a guard of honour was due, the place was a hive of activity.
On parade nights my father would sometimes watch from a discreet distance and I do remember a comment he made to my mother: 'those boys are a really smart bunch of lads'. As an ex-Artillery Sergeant he expected to see a high standard and with RSMM Jock Freeman on charge, an excellent standard was the norm.
In those days, the Lord Mayor's Show was always held on 9th November unless that date fell on a Sunday, in which case it was held the day before. Disruption on the City later determined that it would be held thereafter on the second Saturday in November. As on the present day, the Artillery Garden was used as an assembly point for the bands and marching personnel, one group of which was the HAC Cadets. It was a very special day to be able to watch them from the roof of the Barracks, forming up the marching out and then pick up the whole parade on its way back along the Queen Victoria Street. The theme of the 1945 show was sport, a good subject to interest the public and to lighten the gloom of those post-war years. Another highlight was witnessing my first post-war Flank Companies' Ball in 1947. My sister Pauline and I were again able to watch from the roof all the glamour and splendor that was - and still is - the Flank Companies' Ball. Even seeing the marquees and fairground being assembled was a totally new experience. Two years later my brother David (aged 14) and his friend Gerry Parker (aged 15), both cadets, were kitted out in scarlet and bearskin to stand either side of the entrance to the House. Given their ages, finding uniforms to fit them was not easy.
For Alan's 18th birthday party in 1946, we had the run of quite a part of Finsbury
Barracks, so there were plenty of places for games such as Sardines. After
dancing to the latest records we finished with a conga outside, by which time
the sentries had long gone.
Football played a large part in our lives, with my brothers playing: Alan was
first team centre half and later Captain; Tommy was first team left wing,
David was in goal for first and second teams and Ken was left wing for the
second team, with my husband Fred Worley (adm. 1996) eventually joining
as a referee. In November 1955 there was a picture of my four brothers in
The Star, an evening paper of the time, with the heading 'HAC soccer brothers'.
After the War, Dad kept up another of his duties on 11th November every year: he would take a wreath and place it on the war memorial at the Royal Exchange. He would do this very early in the morning and in the early 1940s this would have been very hazardous. The wreath was laid with reverence and dignity, as it is to this day. This was certainly the duty of which he was most proud, given that he had been a sergeant int he Royal Horse Artillery in World War I. His meticulous notes of the range and trajectory of the shells fired at the Battle of Cambrai are a treasured family possession.
My brother David's favourite place in the Barracks was the Armoury, where he and his brothers played Cowboys and Indians with real guns (again, no health and safety back then!) and the Armoury fostered in him a love and interest in weapons which has lasted all his life and given him a career in antique arms and armour and fine sporting guns; he is renowned in his field and is a member of the Worshipful Company of
We were very sad to leave in November 1951, but the memories of all the good
(and not so good) times, and all the people we met and came to know, have
stayed with us throughout the years. As a family we have always felt immense
pride in living at Finsbury Barracks. Both Alan and I were married there in
1951 and I had my wedding reception in the Royal Marines Officers' Mess
adjacent to our flat. In later years I celebrated with my husband Fred, our
Golden Wedding anniversary in the new building's PSIs' Bar and my 80th
birthday at Armoury House on 16th March 2010.
My late brother Tommy (who was awarded the Captain-General's Prize in 1973)
remains on site, his ashes placed by the Cadet Battalion Tree on the south-east
corner of the Artillery Garden alongside some of his comrades He lived, worked
and played at Finsbury Barracks and Armoury House. He was very proud to dedicate so much of his time to the Regiment and, latterly, to the HAC's museum and treasures collection.
When I look back, I realise what a safe and secure childhood we had; and a privileged one too. I think the history and tradition we absorbed there has given us all a love for both the HAC and our country.
By Margaret Worley (nee Winks) as published in the Honourable Artillery Company Journal Spring 2012, Vol 89, No 482.
Alan and Anne Winks outside Armoury House in 1947.
The Infantry Battalion marching out of the Artillery Garden and down City Road on 5th September, 1939.
The Artillery Garden after the Blitz in 1941 showing a view through to St Paul's Cathedral.
Margaret Worley on the roof of Finsbury
The Worley family on Margaret's 80th birthday at Armoury
House (l to r) Richard, Mark, Margaret, Fred and David.