The ravages of war on the home front

Residents show their spirits will not be beaten during the wartime bombings by the Germans on Hastings
Residents show their spirits will not be beaten during the wartime bombings by the Germans on Hastings

TEN years ago the Imperial War Museum mounted an exhibition called The 1940s House, which was so popular its display time was extended by several years.

In meticulous detail the exhibition recreated the interior of a house furnished in period style.

Thousands of such dwellings were destroyed in WWII bombing, leaving their occupants homeless and often without possessions.

In Hastings alone 463 houses and other buildings were demolished and 14,818 suffered varying degrees of damage in air raids. Many bombed-out families moved in with relatives; others made do, camping out in their partially destroyed houses. By 1941 there was also a desperate need for all sorts of basic furniture and a utility manufacturing scheme was set up. The Board of Trade dictated the amount and quality of materials for making basic items of furniture. Each piece was made of strong and serviceable oak or mahogany with mortised or pegged joints. Veneered hardboard was used for panelling, as plywood was unavailable. Handles and knobs were of wood; metals and plastics were needed for the war effort, but metal screws were specified in utility construction, adding to the strength of the finished furniture. Items bearing the utility mark are still doing service today. A War Damage Act was brought in to enable people who had lost their furniture and chattels to claim compensation, but the new act gave opportunities to those with criminal inclinations. Hastings Magistrates’ Court heard the case of a man whose goods were damaged when the repository in which in which they were stored was bombed; the accused claimed compensation for falsely described possessions. He was found guilty and given six weeks in prison, a sentence more lenient than the statutory three months and £100 fine. At least two Hastings furniture stores were bombed; the best recorded of these is Reeves Repository that stood on the corner of the High Street and Courthouse Street. After the explosion feathers from stored bedding filled the air until the fire brigade hoses damped them down.

Unscrupulous wartime Hastings estate agents took advantage of the situation and bombed-out residents were becoming subjected to what today is called gazumping. A victim of this exploitation, a serviceman, wrote to the Hastings Observer in 1943: “I found a new home for my wife and little girls, who are homeless due to bombing. But the agent said he had another client for the property I wanted, but if I agreed to a rent increase I could still have the house. I have been in the army for three and a half years and I did not know such ghouls existed among civilians.” The problem of shortage of homes increased following peace-time demobilisation and the inevitable flood of marriages. Newly-weds were obliged to set up home with parents, often having only a bedroom to call their own. The shortage of proper housing persisted for years after the war. Thanks to IWM for the images of 1940s House. Further reading; The Slow Turning Tide by Victoria Seymour. Available from Waterstones price £9.99