A Windmill Girl and a glider pilot - wartime past of a modest Dollis Hill couple
PUBLISHED: 13:57 08 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:29 08 November 2018
When Alison Hopkins was a child, she had no idea her mother had stood on a theatre roof in central London putting out bombs that rained down during the Blitz.
Her father was a glider pilot and paratrooper during the Second World War, and her maternal grandfather an air raid precaution warden, while her paternal grandfather was a fireman in the London Blitz.
Both her grandfathers had lost brothers in the First World War.
The enormity of that history dawned on her gradually, as neither parent would talk at any length, never mind brag, of their experiences.
Her parents, Donald and Charmian McIntosh, who lived in Dollis Hill Avenue, met and married in the 1950s.
Alison, a former Lib Dem councillor for Dollis Hill and a strong community activist, has researched her parents’ lives in a bid to know more about what made them into the people they were.
She said: “We look at elderly people now, and simply see them as weak or frail – it’s all too often forgotten that they had fascinating and often quite astonishing lives.
“My mother moved to Dollis Hill during the 1930s and not only lived here during the Blitz – she was a Windmill Girl too.”
The film Mrs Henderson Presents, starring Judy Dench and Bob Hoskins, was based “quite largely” on her mother’s recollections, and she is credited in the film.
Because the Windmill Theatre’s auditorium in Great Windmill Street, central London, was below street level it was relatively safe during the bombing of London, and performances continued regardless.
The performers bravely got on with the show even during terrifying bombing raids, when the whole theatre would shake.
Alison said: “Their slogan was ‘we are never closed” – which some jokers changed to ‘we are never clothed’ – but what the Windmill Girls did was terribly tasteful. Very pretty girls stood in classical poses with no clothes on.
“My mother didn’t do that. She was a comedienne and singer at the Windmill Theatre all through the Blitz, and put out fire bombs that landed on the roof – as well as performing in anything up to seven shows a day.
“She would stand on the roof with a bucket of water and stirrup pump, so that when a fire bomb did land she could put it out.
“She died in 2009, aged 86, a true north west London girl.”
Her father Donald was digging anti-aircraft gun emplacement trenches in Gladstone Park in 1940, close to Anson Road, which are just grass mounds now.
A glider pilot and a paratrooper, he fought in the North Africa and Italy campaigns. He was badly wounded in 1943 when he stepped on a landmine in Italy just outside Monte Cassino. He spent two years in hospital and almost lost a leg.
Alison said: “The lunatic asylum – his rather incorrect words, not mine – at Colney Hatch was turned into a hospital for wounded soldiers.
“They would escape from the matron and go for a drink in the local pub. The only way they could get my dad out was to throw him over the fence, as he was in a full body plaster cast, from chest to ankles.
“If they took my dad with them to the pub they were guaranteed to get free drinks all night.
“He walked with a rolling limp for the rest of his life, one leg a good inch shorter than the other, but it never stopped him.
“He would say ‘anyone who jumps out of an aeroplane for fun is mad’.”
He died in 2011, aged 91.
Meanwhile Alison’s grandfather, Basil Innes, was an ARP (air raid precautions) warden. He would tell people to put their lights out.
“On the day the war ended, neighbours pushed him home to Dollis Hill Lane in a wheelbarrow, very drunk, from the Spotted Dog pub in Neasden,” said Alison.
“My mother’s sister married a German Jewish man who escaped here from Berlin in 1938 – all the rest of his family were murdered in the camps. I grew up knowing that, with cousins whose only family was us.”
She added: “My parents were very matter of fact about the war. They weren’t traumatised by it but my father lost many friends, as did my mother, including fellow Windmill performers. My father hated the fact that it was only on one day a year things got remembered and the rest of the year soldiers were forgotten about. They both loathed the glorification of war, too.
“I love these stories. I’ve done a lot of digging into my family history, and it’s so interesting to me.”