On the night of the disaster Hilda went to the pictures with a friend. When the siren sounded a warning flashed on the cinema screen so Hilda went towards the station shelter where there was chaos. Hilda had never been down the shelter at Bethnal Green. She arranged to meet mother at the top of the stairs. Hilda couldn't find her mother and spent all night walking around trying to find her. Eventually her body was located and her brother was given a bag, her vest and clothes. Some of her hair and blood was on the clothing. Hilda was orphaned at 14.
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You can listen to the interview RECORDING below:
Date of Interview:
15th January 2014
Location: 3, Western Mews, Billericay, Essex CM12 9EA
Length of interview:
MONO 000 Length 18 mins 59 secs
Any other info: A short time after the recordings (January 15th 2014), Hilda’s sister Sadie died.
A number of photographs were available including one of the purse which Hilda’s mother was carrying on the night she died. Hilda has kept this in her bedroom drawer ever since that day. These photographs (as JPG files) have been sent to the UEL and also to Bishopsgate Institute.
They include a family portrait of Sarah and her husband Stanley Rolfe; close-up shot of Sarah and Stanley; Copy of Sarah Jolly’s marriage certificate.
Hilda is a frail 86 year old lady with some sad but reasonably accurate recollections of the event and her time living in Bethnal Green. It was an unhappy childhood but enjoyed being evacuated to Somerset.
Her mother, Sarah Jolly, was one of the 173 victims. There is a picture of her marriage certificate showing her age as 25 in 1917. She was born in the East End probably in 1892 but these details need to be verified.
The interview with Hilda was in the presence of her son, Ian Rolfe, who was visiting his mother from his home in New Zealand. Hilda clearly felt more comfortable talking to me with him nearby.
00 m 05 sec
Hard life; all details of food purchased was written down in a red book; Hilda’s father died at 37. There were four children. Sadie, Tommy, Rosemary and Hilda. One died as a baby. Struggle to live on basic food.
Mother worked as a French polisher. Worked six days a week.
Walked a mile each way to work
Two bedrooms. Had a flat the Burnham estate. Three children slept together in one bed. Bugs in the wallpaper. Shared beds with siblings. Double bed and single bed in one room.
Interviewer: Can you remember any happy moments? (a long pause)
I don’t think so. The war started. No I can’t think of anything happy.
Mother use to go up and down stairs to get water for the bath. Only cold water was available. Had to collect water from outside. Was heated in front of fire.
What about your time as a child? Free milk at school. Others had to pay a penny. Holes in sandals so cardboard used in old shoes to keep rain out. Clothes passed down from siblings. Had two sisters and one brother. Tough old life.
Mother always owed money at end of week. All purchases were noted in the red book. Paid debts at end of week. It was real poverty. I don’t know how we managed to live on it. They were very poor. No sweets and nothing special for Christmas.
Question about the bombing and the blitz. Concrete place (shelter) at the flats where people went but it was smelly. Sat under the table for protection during air raids in the flat during the war. Too many steps to go downstairs.
Hilda was evacuated until 14 years old then came home to start work in a shoe factory where her sister worked. Then Hilda went into the Land Army at 19. Also worked at Conway Stewart pen factory. Working on angled nibs.
Hilda enjoyed being evacuated. It was beautiful in Somerset. Cows looked in through window. Nice and warm in the bedrooms. All the heat came through the floor boards into the bedrooms so it was nice and warm.
Infants juniors and seniors were all in one school. People in the village didn’t like the evacuees. Local village children were horrible to East End evacuees. Came back home to start work at 14 years old.
Question: What happened on the night of the disaster? On the night of the BG disaster Hilda went to the pictures with a friend (Rosie). Didn’t want to go but mother persuaded her. Describes what happened when siren sounded. The warning flashed on the cinema screen so Hilda went towards station where there was chaos. Hilda had never been down the shelter at Bethnal Green. This time she arranged to meet mother at stop of the stairs leading down to the station. .
Mother went down stairs earlier; then someone shouted bomb and that’s when they were pushed down the stairs. Hilda didn’t meet her mother and spent all night walking around trying to find her. Couldn’t find her mother. Her brother (Merchant Navy man) also went looking and eventually found Hilda’s mother.
Brother came home with a bag carrying found her vest and clothes. Also some of her hair was on the clothing. Blood over the vest. That was the end of her life. Took a long time to find her and never did.
Hilda was orphaned at 14. She was then in the flat on her own. Sister in Air Force; brother in Merchant Navy. It was a horrible life. Her brother then got married so Hilda was thrown out of the flat and went to live with a friend. Didn’t like that at all because she was completely on her own. Brother paid the rent 7s 6d but sister didn’t pay anything. She was completely on her own all the time. She then had to go and live with a friend nearby.
Hilda came back from Somerset only 4 days before her mother died. Back to her days as an evacuee. (Question: Did her mother visit Hilda in Somerset?) She came just once. Couldn’t afford it. Mother use to send box to Somerset with a bit of cake and biscuits but couldn’t afford much else.
More details on why her mother died. Her friend called out “she’s coming” but was pushed down the stairs by the crowd. Hilda was then on her own but stayed a few years with her friend. Then begins to talk about her walk. (Repeats herself during the recollections of her unhappy childhood)
She was on her own at 14, sitting there alone at night and poking the fire. Then her friend opposite offered her a bed in her house. Went and stayed a few years over there. Then went into the Land Army. Worked in a shoe factory before that.
Rough life being an East Ender. Tough life. Cardboard in her shoes. Unhappy time. Used to get free milk at school.
Talks about being in the Leytonstone Homes with her brothers. Sister ran away. (This could have been an orphanage). This would have been before the war.
Talking about catching a bus to Hackney for work. The fare for sixpence. Used to walk home through Victoria Park.
Always thought about the disaster. Always on her mind. Told her children what had happened. People knew about the tragedy. (Grandchildren?) Two boys – no babies. “I was looking forward to that”.
End Part 1 18 min 49 secs
Hilda resumes talking about her how her brother found her moth’s body and the bag of clothes. Hilda wanted to see her mother but her brother said no and remember her as she was.
She recalls a big funeral (but isn’t sure). A mass of people at the funeral. They were all buried together but Hilda didn’t go.
Question: You know it wasn’t a bomb? It was a fella calling out bomb. Ha-ha. Joke. Caused all those people to die. She then talks about the noise of the new gun in the park that was being fired. She didn’t know that a woman carrying a baby fell down the stairs and caused the disaster.
Tell me about your work. Bored stiff. Worked there for four years before going into the Land Army. Poor pay and piece work. Had to work for your money. She was standing all day working on shoes and sandals. The foreman told her she was good at her work.
Went to Buckinghamshire with the Land Army. Enjoyed it there. Worked in the greenhouses. She met Germans that were working in the fields. Prisoners. Worked in the Land Army for 4 years and came out when it closed. Enjoyed the outdoor life and working in the fields.
Somerset as an evacuee and Land Army were the best periods of your life?
She was with people all the time instead of being on her own.
What happened after the Land Army? Hilda can’t remember but her son speaks (off-mic) about a motor-cycle accident. Hilda’s legs were crushed and she spent nine months in hospital.
End Part II. 06 mins 32 secs
Interviewer introduces Hilda Rolfe again. She repeats some of the earlier descriptions about what happened on the night of the disaster.
Brother found out where her mother was. All the bodies were in a school near Victoria Park. Brother went all round trying to find where the bodies were. Hilda thinks it was Moulsham Street (?) School near Victoria Park.
She talks about being in the cinema as the siren sounded. Mother would wait at top of tube but she got pushed down. Hilda didn’t know what was going on and walked up the street looking for her Mum.
Some refused to pick up the bodies. It was too much for them.
She remembers only brief details of the funeral. She didn’t go to the cemetery.
She doesn’t seem sure where her mother was buried. Believes several were buried in the same place.
Are there some happy moments in your life? Getting married. She goes on to tell how she met her husband. He “fell” for her. She “had a nice figure then. A 24 inch waist”. Got married after receiving compensation from the motor-bike accident when the bus hit her. She talks about buying a house and Ian (off-mic) interrupts saying that a bungalow in Hornchurch that his mum and Dad bought a bungalow in Hornchurch for £2,500 and it recently sold for just under £1 million.
She married at 27. Left it so long because they couldn’t afford to marry until the compensation money came through. Husband worked in the furniture industry. She talks about the motor cycle accident and Ian provides more details.
Talks about always being ill and having two mini-strokes, macular degeneration, cataract.
End Part III 09.10
Hilda talks about her hard life as a child in Bethnal Green. Sarah worked as a French polisher and the family (parents plus 4 children including Hilda) lived in a two-bedroomed flat on a local (Burnham) estate. Her mother kept a little red book noting all the money she had spent on food and cleared any debts after she was paid at the end of the week.
During an air raid, Hilda would sit under the big dining table because there were too many steps to go up and down to the flat. She was then evacuated to Somerset but came back to Bethnal Green to start work in a shoe factory at 14.
On the night of disaster she went to the pictures (cinema) with her friend when a noticed flashed on the screen about an air raid warning. She went to the shelter but could find her Mum. Her brother searched everywhere and discovered her mother’s body the following morning in the nearby makeshift mortuary. Hilda became an orphan at 14.