Clare Lerner started as a first aider in the East End. Bombs fell, walls crumbled, and Clare barely slept. The experience inspired her to co-found the Country Hospitality Scheme. Such a scheme allowed first aiders like Clare to relax in the countryside for a weekend, and to return to London refreshed.
How did you become involved?
” Two weeks before the war broke out I was in the south of France. When I got home there were letters from Middlesex Hospital first aid post, asking me to report for duty.
We spent 24 hours on and 24 off. We had cots to sleep on, and meals, but you didn’t leave the hospital.”
What did you do?
” At the first aid post there were a number of people of all kinds. A lot of them were officers in both St. John’s and the Red Cross, and they could get away for weekends. Mrs. Joan Woollcombe had a cottage in Hampshire; she used to go there every weekend. She would come back and say, `I feel terrible, you girls are all here and there I am, sleeping every weekend. We really ought to do something about this.’
We put our headstogether, and decided that it would be wonderful to get civil defence workers out of London into the country for a night’s rest. Lord Horder, who was the King’s physician, said he would write a letter to The Times. He wrote a letter saying that the civil defence workers of London were preventing London from falling. Well, by the next post we got letters from all over the country, because by that time civil defence workers were the heroes and the heroines, and the people in the country felt they owed them a debt.”
Any special memories?
” So there we were, with all these letters, and two women. We then had to get people to go. Here were all these hostesses just clamouring for the brave civil defence workers and not one on hand to send.
We decided very firmly that if this was going to succeed you absolutely had to interview everybody. I became the head interviewer.
You found out what their interests were. You weren’t going to send a little cockney who wanted to be near a big town somewhere deep in the country; he wanted a sort of local pub and things like that. And you had to get in touch with the hostesses.
We did have a few bed-wetters, which hostesses didn’t care too much about, as you can imagine, but this is all par for the course. But apart from that it all went very well. Daphne Du Maurier was one of our hostesses, when she was at Fowey.
The whole idea of the vacations, and getting people out of London, was to prevent breakdown. If the civil defence of London had broken down, England would have fallen. So that was the Country Hospitality Scheme and the three of us worked like dogs. [It] become a permanent part of the Joint War Organisation. “
People who lived in the East End of London were hit badly by air raids during the Blitz, because their houses were around the docks, which were a particular target. 10,000 high explosive bombs fell on London in September 1940, mostly in Stepney, Poplar, Bermondsey, Southwark, Lambeth, Deptford, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Holborn and the City. Find out more about the Bombing of UK Cities.
During the Blitz, people had to get up very early to get to work because transport was badly affected. As well as this, many people undertook duties after work, or simply couldn’t leave work because of an air raid. Grace Lister worked at a first aid post underneath Guy’s Hospital in London: “Sometimes we couldn’t change shifts for the raids were so bad that the on-coming shift couldn’t get in and we couldn’t get out. Sometimes you were there for twenty-four hours. We never went to bed all those years. We had to lie on stretchers or deckchairs but we managed.”
First aid posts were intended to treat people slightly wounded as a result of air raids. They were usually set up in adapted buildings or in Casualty Receiving Hospitals. Each first aid post had three sections: one for receiving and sorting casualties, a second for giving treatment and a third where patients could rest before being sent home or to hospital. Find out more about First Aid Posts.