EJ Rudsdale on Twitter from 3 September 2019

30th September 1939

Orders have been given (by whom? No one knows in these days) that the ARP Wardens from the post in the Holly Trees field are to have a duplicate key of the Castle door, to enable them to open the [air raid shelters in the Castle] vaults at any hour of the night.

29th September 1939

Went up to “Gurney Benham House” again [to examine excavations for air raid shelters], and completed section. While doing so, discovered a child-burial, on the north side of the road, approximately 63 feet from its centre. The child, newborn I imagine, had been thrust into a grey cook-pot. The urn was now broken, but I collected all the fragments and the bones.

The Romans buried their dead in cemeteries outside the boundaries of their towns and in Colchester the roads leading out of the town were lined with burials. Eric's discovery of a child burial beside the Roman Road was in keeping with many found in this area. Cremated remains were often placed in a pot for burial and some graves were marked with elaborate tombstones, such as those now displayed Colchester Castle Museum.

27th September 1939

ARP shelters in the garden of “Gurney Benham House”, Lexden Road, have cut right through the [excavated remains of the] Roman road.

The section is very clear, so I went up there this morning and began to draw it. Quantities of potsherds about.

Links to the History of Colchester and Essex

If you are enjoying finding out about the history of Colchester and Essex through this blog, the following websites will also aid your discovery of the county's rich heritage.

The Department of History at the University of Essex is a wonderful resource for historical research. The Centre for Local and Regional History is based here and offers a forum for research and teaching in local and regional history in Essex and Suffolk.

History House - where you can dip into the history of Essex, provides a fascinating insight into the county's past. Researched and written by Phil George it allows you to search the history of towns and villages in Essex and includes feature articles on aspects of Essex history and updates on new resources for historians. One of the features of the site is the inclusion of data from the Directories of Essex for 1848 and 1874 which Phil has transcribed. This is a very useful source for family historians and I have located some of my ancestors from these listings.

If you are thinking of visiting Colchester to see some of the locations mentioned in Eric's diary, then the ColchesterGuide will provide you with all the information you need to plan your visit. The Guide also includes a history of Colchester and provides a great photo gallery where you can view how some of the places in Eric's diary appear today.

Camulos - The Colchester Webpages is a fun and lively website surveying the history of Colchester. It includes a virtual tour of the town's historical sites and has a wonderful gallery of postcards of old Colchester, many of which show the town as Eric would have known it. CP

21st September 1939

Curious little mediaeval beaker brought in today, found while digging in an air raid shelter up Ipswich Road. It is of light grey clay, rather gritty, and was apparently originally provided with a lid. I have not seen anything quite like it.

19th September 1939

Met Joy Allgood [a local school teacher] at 5 o’clock, and went to tea at Jacklin’s [Restaurant]. She is really a most charming girl. Just before the war began she was in Switzerland, and had to leave in a very great hurry. She says the journey across France was very bad. Museum Committee today. Nothing very much done. Nothing much can be done.

18th September 1939

It has now been suggested that in view of the fact that Chapman is the sole Special Constable at the Castle shelters, I and Harding should also be sworn in to assist him.

Chapman and Harding were museum attendants. When the Roman vaults underneath Colchester Castle were requisitioned as a public air raid shelter, Rudsdale and the museum attendants became responsible for opening the vaults to the public during air raids and were sworn in as special constables to undertake their duties.

Air Raid Shelters at Colchester Castle

Before the war began Eric recorded how Colchester Castle Museum was preparing for the conflict. On 25th August 1939, he wrote that Colchester's Air Raid Precaution officers had visited the Castle 'to see about converting the Roman Vaults into an Air Raid Shelter.'

The Norman Castle had been built on the site of the Roman Temple of Claudius and the Roman vaults of the Temple formed the foundations of the Castle. The Castle walls - which are up to 30 feet thick - also offered solid protection and work to convert the vaults into a shelter was begun immediately. The air raid shelter was sufficient for 150 people but had very basic amenities and was rather an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to spend the night. Today, visitors to Colchester Castle can take a guided tour of the site of the former air raid shelter in the Castle Vaults. Eric's future diary entries often refer to this shelter and its use by local residents.

Colchester Castle's Roman Vaults, which were used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War


In a letter to his cousin, dated 7th December 1939, Eric describes the use of the Castle Vaults as an air raid shelter:

The only way in which we are compelled to acknowledge the existence of the war so far is the use of our vaults for air raid shelters. I opposed the use of Ancient Monuments for war purposes at the very start, but I am now compelled to admit that we certainly have the best and perhaps the safest shelter in the town. Also, what extra fittings that have been provided, seats, lavatory etc., do not in anyway interfere with the structure, and in fact do not even stop the usual conducted tours of the place.

So far the place has only been open twice for an alarm, but it has proved tolerably efficient.

For more information on the other air raid shelters constructed in Colchester Castle Park, see Eric's diary entry for 31st October 1939, 27th November 1939, 4th March 1940 and 19th April 1940.

Colchester and Evacuees

The following entries from Eric's pre-war diary record the arrival of evacuees from London.

1st September 1939

About 11 we heard that the Germans were moving into Poland. I went up to Benham's office [the local press office], and there was a telegram in the window. Everybody looked very gloomy, but the appearance of the streets was normal, except for an enormous barricade of sandbags being erected against the basement windows of the Town Hall. Went into the Bank and drew £20 of my £200, and converted this into silver from the Castle takings, just in case anything happens to bank notes. Although there is so much gloom all about, there is great bustle and excitement - thousands of London schoolchildren began coming into St Botolph's [railway] station this morning and were taken away by "National" buses into country districts. Some, with mothers and babies, are to go to Shrub End and Lexden, but few are staying actually in Colchester itself.

Army billeting officers were about today, in the New Town District especially.

More sand-bag filling today, and I had Bob out this afternoon to cart them across to Holly Trees, to cover up the windows of the Muniment Room. I dare say old Bob worked in the last war, and now he works in this one.

Rose [Eric's girlfriend] is terribly worried, threatens to close down the cafe and get a National Defence job. I advise against it, and say wait for a time. The BBC partly closed down today.

2nd September 1939

Many of the shops are boarding up their windows. Others are bringing out the old-fashioned shutters which I remember when I was young.

Tonight full black-out regulations in force, evening paper placards say "Poles Stand Firm", but many still say "Full Results", and the boys still call "Football, Full Time Results". Crowds going into the pictures tonight. Billeting going on in our road, men brought round in lorries, and dumped at each house. Children are still pouring into the town at St Botolph's Station, thousands of them. Saw Miss Deville, Hamilton Road schoolteacher, [who helped to make arrangements for the evacuees] who told me that the whole affair had gone very well.

In his book 'Essex at War' (1945, pp 16-18), Hervey Benham recorded that 14,000 evacuees including children, expectant mothers and women with babies arrived at St Botolph's railway station in Colchester during the first three days of September 1939. According to a detailed scheme, already drawn up, the evacuees were then dispersed into the neighbouring districts by bus: 5,500 in the Lexden and Winstree Rural District, 5,500 in the Tendring R.D.C., 1,600 in Brighlingsea, 900 in West Mersea and 500 in Wivenhoe.
Benham continues:
'The order to evacuate London was put into operation on Sept. 1, 1939, and trains began to arrive as per schedule; the unaccompanied children first in charge of their teachers, and later mothers and young children in hastily organised trainloads. Before being despatched by bus to their new rural homes all were "watered and fed" at one of three schools and issued with 48 hours' emergency rations. The staffs of these three reception schools, Wilson Marriage, St. John's Green and Canterbury Road, had a very strenous time. ...
The picture in the villages whence those evacuees went has been drawn for all time in "The Oaken Heart", in which Margery Allingham tells the story of war-time life in Tolleshunt D'Arcy, thinly disguised for the purpose under the name of Auburn. ...
But before the bombs came most of the evacuees and the plucky little schoomistresses who braved the discomforts of a cruel winter in the un-centrally heated villages had gone back whence they came.'

Preparations for War

Eric did not write an entry in his journal over the next couple of days and so to fill this gap the next few posts look back to the diary entries he wrote just before the war started.

28th August 1939

The number of visitors to the Museum is now very seriously affected by the rumours and scares which are daily getting worse - the takings for Castle tickets today were only 7 shillings, instead of about £2. We hear that most of the visitors to Clacton and Walton have left now - terrible hardship for the boarding house and hotel people. Anti-aircraft guns are being moved into position. Hull [the Curator] very "jittery", and shows great anxiety, running in and out all day long.

29 August 1939

Hull ordered all hands today to fill sandbags and pack [the best of the Museum] collections. The whole job was done in a terrible rush, and as we were much understaffed I fear that some things are bound to have been broken. However, there seems to be a decided impression that none of us here will ever see the stuff unpacked again, so perhaps we shall escape blame.

I see from the papers that the British Museum and all the other museums are also packing, the British Museum packing everything that is not too big to move.

We all stayed until 8 o'clock, then I cycled home with Tovell, as the roads are so dark by 8 now, and full of troops and lorries.

31st August 1939

More pottery packing today, and sandbagging. All the papers today talk of conferences, phone calls, planes flying between London and Berlin. Very deep depression everywhere, except Poulter, who is still bouncing with optimism - War Loan has gone up, so he's made a bit! Went to the Hippodrome tonight, on the idea that this may well be the last time I shall ever go to the flicks. George Formby on. Full house. There are thousands of troops in the town already.

At home I fixed up thick curtains in the dining room and one in my bedroom. I am sure that tonight is the last night of peace. Hundreds of searchlights across the sky, visible from my bedroom window.

12th September 1939

Went over to Heckford Bridge this morning with Poulter to see the sale of old Brown's tools and equipment at the blacksmith's shop. It seems strange that a blacksmith should close down at a time when many horses will be needed on the land. He gave us one or two small items for the Museum.

Eric was a keen supporter of rural craftsmanship and agriculture and opposed the decline of rural industries in the face of increasing mechanisation. Throughout the 1930s he had been responsible for building up the Museum's collection of rural artefacts in an attempt to record old agricultural traditions and crafts before knowledge of them was lost.

Eric in the News

Thank you to everyone who has logged on to read Eric's wartime diaries to date and welcome to new readers as well - I hope you will continue to follow the blog.

Readers may be interested to know that since its launch on 3rd September 2009, Eric's on-line diary has attracted much interest and has been featured in 'The Daily Gazette', 'The Essex County Standard' and on BBC Essex. CP

9th September 1939

Today I applied for the Curatorship of York Castle Museum, without the slightest hope of getting it.

As Eric suspected, the appointment of a curator at York Castle Museum was withdrawn owing to wartime economy cuts. A permanent appointment was not made until after the war.

6th September 1939 - An early air raid

I woke early today and lay reading Pickwick Papers, when at about 6.50am the sirens sounded. Oddly enough I did not feel frightened as I did on Sunday, but I thought “O God, are they going to do this every morning?” I could hear a lot of talking outside, but no planes came across the blue, sunny sky. I heard women’s voices in the cottages in Winsley Road, and then a man’s voice say “Well, I’m off to work.” There was no sound of traffic, but I could hear trains in the distance. ...

At half past 8 the “All Clear” sounded, and one could hear a distant murmur as traffic got started again.

Interesting find came into the Museum today when digging an air raid shelter in Mercer’s Way – some pieces of coarse Roman wares, apparently the remains of a burial, and about a third of a late Celtic polished bowl, with pierced base.

Although the general feeling of alarm still maintains, people are not quite so anxious, now that the promised giant air raids have not materialised. If the Germans really did have 70,000 planes, as we were told, it is odd that they have not sent them over. They are winning easily in Poland however.

However, in spite of the lack of raids, all picture-houses are closed by order of the Government, so the wretched soldiers have nowhere to go at night except the pubs. All the same, there is no drunkenness in the streets at night, but everywhere soldiers going back to billets and barracks singing “Roll out the barrel”.

Colchester’s rich archaeological remains often came to light as a result of excavations for air raid shelters and these artefacts were then presented to the Museum.

Cinemas and theatres were closed on the outbreak of war as a precaution against air attacks but the lack of air raids in the first few months of the war, and the demand for some form of entertainment, led to the restrictions being lifted in full by November 1939.

5th September 1939

This afternoon I went over to Sudbury with Poulter [the Assistant Curator], to collect a very nice Queen Anne doll’s house for the Museum’s collection.

Sudbury looked much the same. Big piles of sandbags all round the police station but no other signs of war, except soldiers all over the place. It was a lovely drive home, I fear the last we shall ever have in this old car, as Poulter intends to lay it up shortly.

Harold Poulter’s decision to put his car into storage was made in response to the introduction of petrol rationing in September 1939.

4th September 1939

Men working all day moving the Roman tombstones in the Castle Museum.
Irreplaceable museum artefacts, such as the Roman tombstones, were moved to places of safety as a precaution against bomb damage. Colchester Castle's Roman tombstones can be seen here.

3rd September 1939 - Eric's first post on the day war broke out

On 1st September 1939 German troops invaded Poland and on 3rd September the British and French governments issued an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw or face war. As a result of the horrifying air attacks experienced in the Spanish Civil War, people had been warned to expect a civilian war with aerial bombing and gas attacks being launched on towns and cities. Eric's diary account below records these developments as they occurred on the day that war broke out:

Woke up at 7. Beautiful summer day, hot and sunny. Heard on radio across the way that an important announcement would be made at 10am. Sounded very ominous. Went to feed Bob [Eric's horse], and decided to go down to the Fire Station to see if I could do anything in the AFS [Auxiliary Fire Service], thinking that if anything is going to happen in Colchester, I might as well be in a front seat to see it. ...

The Fire Brigade now take themselves very seriously and the general appearance of the station is that of a besieged fortress. Great masses of sandbags block every window and door, so that you have to crawl through tunnels to get into the watch-room. I offered my services but found to my amazement that there are now no volunteers – all AFS men are full-time and are paid! Apart from the fact that I was gently told that I was not suitable physically, this of course put a very different view on the whole matter, as I have no intention of leaving the Museum. While I was there the 10 o’clock announcement came through, which was to the effect that an ultimatum had been delivered to Germany which expires at 11 o’clock, and that the Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain] would speak at 11.15. I felt I could not hear this, so I went off on my bike but as I came along Mile End Road, I could hear radio booming from many houses and could not but stop. A man saw me from his window and called out “It’s come matey”.

I went back to town. Lots of cars on the By-Pass, mostly people rushing back from the coast, with bundles of bedding tied all round. Very few going the other way, but some cyclists were.

Went down to Bourne Mill and rowed out in the boat, trying to think. Twenty-five years rolled back – the last war, “the war to end war”, they told us there could never be another and we believed it. Think of the millions of lives lost in the last war, all wasted. Think of the misery now of relatives, who have believed that their dear ones died “to save civilisation”. Now they want another million to die. What rubbish. What rotten, sinful rubbish! Now the first to go will actually be the sons of those who died 25 years ago.

This afternoon went to tea with Rose [Browne – Eric’s girlfriend], who was rather distressed – so was I. Much talk about pacifism and should she close up the cafĂ©? I said no, people will always eat.

Later: When I went to bed last night, I somehow felt that we should have a raid. Bright moon and stars, “lovely night for a raid”, as they used to say 25 years ago. I was dozing when every siren in the town leapt into life at half past 3. I jumped up and pulled the curtains to see out. The moon shone brightly and the air was filled with the most incredible wailing noises, while all over the town dogs were barking. ...

I put on gum boots and a Mac and went out into the front garden. Bugles were sounding in the barracks and the big siren sounded again. The moon shone beautifully and I thought how incredible that people we didn’t know were coming away from the east to kill us. I thought God, they said 7 minutes warning at the most. Am I really going to be dead 7 minutes from now? I caught a whiff of a funny smell and thought, my God, is that gas? But it was only our dustbin. I kept thinking, well, this is it, it’s come at last, just like they all said, though no one believed it would. Father came out in the road. We could hear voices at several front doors down the street. He looked at the sky and said that there did not seem to be much to see. The noise of planes could be heard flying east, very fast and high. We talked stars for a few minutes and argued mildly about names of planets. Our local warden came by, quite unhurried and fully dressed, even to his collar and tie. Suddenly the “all clear”, sounded, a long, wailing cry, which went on and on. I went in and started to make tea.

Are we to be scared like this every night for years to come? What a terrible time for people with children. When the wailing stopped we could hear bugles blowing up in the barracks and people talking all up and down the road. I locked up, we all drank tea. Back to bed. Looked out of the window and could hear the trains shunting. The Co-op Bakery, over the back, started up again. Time, 4am.

These extracts appear courtesy of the heirs of Eric Rudsdale's estate and Essex Record Office.