My memories of the Royal Ordnance Board at Kemnal Manor 1939 to 1942
by Gretta Evans (nèe Edmonds)
I joined the Royal Ordnance Board at Woolwich soon after my 16th birthday in 1938. I joined as a clerk -typist at a weekly wage of nineteen shillings and ten and a half pence and I started at 9.45am, regulations for 16 yr olds in the Civil Service at that time. There were six of us in the top of the Victorian house, where the Board was, presumably the Nursery. I can remember nearly all the names of the typists. Head of us all was Mary Jones, a chain-smoker, always wreathed in smoke and ash - and we all loved her. Then there was "Hack" Miss Hachworthy a prim lady with glasses but always kind. Then Betty Heather, a lovely girl - and my best friend, Joan Guerr who I corresponded with until her sudden death at the age of 70. There was another Joan who later married one of the Scientists at Kemnal, so she was then Joan Symes, six of us. There were several officers in the building and they seemed to be from different Regiments. I used to do some work for a Captain in the Royal Inneskillen Fusiliers who wore a Green jacket and tartan trousers. As far as I can remember there was no khaki worn at that time, just the dress of the Regiments they belonged to.
One rather bizarre memory of those days was when a messenger came up to the office and requested us to join the Officers, in the Board Room - to listen to the Derby on the wireless! We sat at one end of the large oval table and all the Officers sat at the other end. In the middle of the table was the huge wireless, probably with batteries. We were each given the name of a horse on a piece of paper, and we listened, and I am afraid I can't remember who won- It wasn't me! I wonder if this was the possible first broadcast of the Derby (it was a Wednesday then) as the first broadcast of the Boat Race was in 1938. We were all very happy working together and Joan and I went to night classes to study for our Civil Service exams, which we both passed - so we were fully fledged Civil Servants.
In 1939 as war loomed, we were very alarmed when we were told that the Board was to be moved to a place of safety in the Country at Kemnal Manor - in Chistlehurst at the outbreak of war. It was better for me, as I lived in Welling and was within cycling distance. A few days before we moved in, I cycled up the long drive, and witnessed the furniture being moved out in two large removal vans - I was amazed how lovely it all was, and I couldn't wait to move in. I can't remember my very first day, but we had the dining room as the typist's office and my desk and Joan's faced the huge sideboard with mirrors, the window was behind us. The work came to us by the Messengers - men whose sole job was to do all the running about and came to and fro with work between the typists and the Officers, who were upstairs in the bedrooms and other bigger rooms on the ground floor. I never remember any telephones at Kemnal - there was perhaps a line to the Colonel - but we never had need of one - as the Messengers did all the communications between us and the Officers.
Life was very happy there - we had the grounds to wander in, the lake to sit by in our dinner hour and there was a tennis court, where we all played - having knock out tournaments, but this must have been later when we had a huge intake of staff. One thing I do remember in the first week we were there, September 1939, the staff already at Kemnal Manor were kept on, they needed gardeners and maintenance men and I am sure women must have been there to do the cleaning. There was a little hut where produce from the garden was sold to us, vegetables and surprise - surprise chickens! Chicken was something you only had at Easter or Christmas - it was a great luxury to have chicken! They were dressed ready for sale I think. This must have been soon after we all arrived and the gardens for food were no longer needed. Which is a surprise as they were digging up Danson Park in Welling for allotments for people to grow vegetables? Our cosy way of life was soon to end, as the volume of work was so great now the war was on, we needed a huge increase in the staff to cope with it. We had new desks put in the dining room and we were pushed closer together and for me the atmosphere changed and our cosy world of the six of us was over.
I cannot remember any of the names of the girls who joined us, but we must have all got on with each other. There were also a lot of men arrived who were called "Boffins". They were housed in newly built Nissan huts, and one of them "Leonard Evans", became the love of my life. (Leonard and Gretta are pictured on the right together in 1940 in Danson Park, Ed).There were Scientists and Physicists, working on guns and armaments and little secrets I'm sure. Quite suddenly the place seemed to be heaving with extra people.
One day I will never forget - our men had come back from Dunkirk - and we were alone and about to face the might of the German Army poised across the channel! We knew they were going to invade us by parachutes, so all the open spaces, including the fields outside our dining room window, were hastily made uncomfortable for them to land. Old farm carts were moved onto the field, stakes hammered into the ground, anything to impede their fall and we waited. We kept looking out of the window expected this white cloud of parachutes to arrive and we joked at what we would do when the Germans came but really we were all terrified. The days wore on and they didn't come - Churchill's speech - "we will fight them on the beaches" spurred us on and on the Sunday we all went to Church saying "Please God don’t let them come" and it must have worked as Hitler changed his mind and sent his troops to Russia instead.
As there were so many men on the site, it was decided to form a Local Defence Volunteer force - the Dad's Army and most of the men joined in including my husband-to-be. Their uniforms were a band around the arm with LDV on it and they practiced with guns in the grounds firing at targets (no bullets). We had guards around the Manor at night, because one morning the angle-poise lamp on my desk wouldn't work and I discovered the flex was frayed - then someone found a bullet in the wall left of the fireplace. It appears that on hearing noises in our office, the guard shot through the doorway and the bullet went through my lamp flex. There were rats about the place and their obvious droppings were sometimes on our desks.
The ladies toilet was upstairs in one of the bedrooms and was known as the throne room because a grand armchair was on a dais, with three steps going up to it on three sides, one lifted the lid and there was the toilet. Also in the room was a built in wardrobe and left behind was a very fat rose coloured - padded coat hanger - a reminder of its elegant past. There was a bathroom as well with the bath - a huge thing with a geyser at one end.
I usually cycled to work every day, but often came by bus and met Len, who had "digs" in Sidcup and we would walk up the drive together. One morning, we heard an ominous 'crump' a little way - away - then another 'crump' a bit nearer and on the third 'crump' was a bomb, which landed at the base of the large tree just before turning left into the Manor. Just before the bomb landed, a cyclist had passed us and had arrived at the tree when the bomb fell. Three more bombs fell, but missed the Manor luckily. We both felt the heat from the bomb, but apart from my legs caving in - we were unhurt. However the poor man on the bike we were sure had been killed. When the flames and smoke died down, we proceeded to the cellars under the house - and as we passed the 1st Aid station there was the man sitting on a chair covered in blood, but alive. We heard afterwards, that he had been flung from the bike by the blast and a telephone wire had come down and cut a vein at the back of his neck - causing a lot of bleeding, but when he was cleaned up - the only sign he had been hurt was a sticking plaster across the back of his neck - a miracle really! This was 8.45 in the morning - a lone German plane unloading his bombs - or did he know what was really going on below him.
We all enjoyed our war at Kemnal Manor - but after two years there, my fiancé (by 1941) had had enough of the Civil Service and decided to join the Navy as a Schoolie - a Schoolmaster Lieutenant based in the Holy Loch teaching Echo-Sounding-Anti Submarine device ASDIC. We were married in 1944 - and my contact with Kemnal Manor was gone.
At that time when a girl married and you were a Civil Servant, you had to leave, but soon after that married women were employed and a lot of the customs went. My husband and I were blessed with two wonderful sons, then five Grandchildren and now a little Great Granddaughter who is nearly two, but lives in Australia. I am now 87 and will never forget the happy years I spent at Kemnal Manor.