John Barnes lived a few minutes walk away from the Bethnal Green underground shelter in Poyser Street. He remembers the shelter as a playground where he used to play with other children, including the Kray twins. John witnessed the aftermath of the disaster the following morning on his way to school.
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Interviewee/s: John Barnes
Interviewer/s: Phillip Sunshine, Joy Puritz
Date of Interview:
11th June 2014
Location: John Barnes' home
Length of interview: 48 minutes
Introductions. John speaks about the immediate Bethnal Green neighbourhood he grew up in and some of his neighbours. He describes his parents' upbringing. His mother grew up with many siblings.
John and the other children used to go down into the tube station to play. The main attraction was sliding down the bannisters, but they had to dodge the wardens.
John often went into the tube station by himself, without his family. Neighbours looked after him.
On the night of the disaster, John was sleeping at home. The building later took a direct hit by a bomb, which, as he says, at least took care of the bug infestation. John recalls his brother attempting to deal with the infestation using pesticide candles on a regular basis. The neighbours did the same. The overall hygienic conditions of the home, especially the toilet, were very bad.
John’s father worked as a driver for a mail delivery service, earning about three pounds a week. His mother stayed at home to look after the children, which John now thinks must have been exhausting. There were twelve children altogether, with the daughters sharing the housework.
On the morning of the disaster, John and several of his sisters walked to school together via Roman Road because they had heard about an accident there. He recalls seeing the bodies of children being placed on an open truck near the station entrance and covered with a tarpaulin. One of the helpers carrying the bodies was John's neighbour Tommy Edwards.
People speculated that the disaster had been caused by rockets fired from Victoria Park. John thinks some form of missile was actually fired from the small patch of grass next to what is the Childhood Museum today.
The museum, which was also hit by a bomb during the War, used to serve dinner for a penny, which John often ate. On the day of the bombing, John was not there as he had decided to save his dinner penny to go to the cinema with his friend instead.
John recalls the different types of missiles used during the War. While the V2 had a characteristic hum that stopped suddenly when it started to fall and was followed by an explosion, later rockets fell without warning, but with a loud roar afterwards. John's family often took shelter in the garages opposite their house, which had been converted into shelters.
John only has vague memories of the other children he played with down in the tube shelter, including the Clay twins. He did not remain close with them as an adult, tough they still knew each other by sight and would greet each other in the street.
As a young adult, John joined the Army for two years of national service, which he enjoyed so much that he wishes he could reverse time and follow an Army career path. He explains that his time in the national service taught him discipline and respect for other people's needs.
While he was stationed in canterbury, he met his future wife, and they married in 1952. For the first two years, the couple lived with john's mother-in-law in Canterbury, then John took a job at the local gas works and they moved into a small house of their own. After he became redundant, they moved back to the East End.
John reminisces how easily he could have become involved with various East End gangs.
In the days after the tube disaster, John remembers seeing the funeral processions for those who had died coming down Roman Road. One of the victims that John knew personally was the older brother of his best friend. His sister's closest friend also lost her life.
John remembers the bombing of his family's home and the resulting fire. His sisters were in the house at the time and escaped covered in soot. John himself was in Norwich at the time, as he had been evacuated. John's father rescued a neighbour who was trapped upstairs by the fire, but unlike others who similarly rescued people, he was never officially recognised for his bravery.
He describes the Saxton family who lived in his neighbourhood, calling his street a kids' paradise. He recalls several children's games he played at the time, such as tin can coppers, riding the roundabout and visits from the man with the barrel organ. John remembers his childhood as a very happy time despite his family's poverty, because he had a lot of freedom.
As a result of the widespread poverty in the area, people were able to leave their doors and windows open. There were very few motor cars around, though John did get hit by a reversing lorry at one point and spent several weeks in Bethnal Green Hospital.