Our history - the war years

Envelope for a wartime letter sent from an HM ship.Envelope for a wartime letter from Baldry to Hardwicke sent from an HM ship.

Jack Baldry, who had completed his articles of clerkship under Mr Hardwicke, joined the partnership in 1936, and so, at the outbreak of war in September 1939, the firm had four partners: Hardwicke, Bubear, Evans-Vaughan and Baldry. But in January 1940 Baldry was called into the Royal Navy to serve aboard the HMS Kingston Onyx. Over the next three years Mr Hardwicke maintained a regular dialogue with Baldry and other correspondents to keep them informed of local developments. Thankfully these letters survive and, taken together, they offer a rare snapshot of life in the local area during that period. Extracts from them appear below.

War provisions

Rationing of such items as bacon, butter and sugar began in Bexhill and Hastings In January 1940 and from June all signposts, posters and bus signs bearing the towns’ names were removed, so as to confuse the enemy in the event of an invasion. Barbed-wire defences were placed all along the shoreline, while Bexhill seafront (named as a point of attack in Germany’s plans for the invasion of Britain) was sealed off.

As the Battle of Britain began, the residents of Hastings and Bexhill found themselves precariously positioned on the Luftwaffe’s flight path. Although London and other cities were the bombers’ chief targets, German planes were apt to drop their leftover bombs on the coastal towns, to lighten their load before returning to Germany.

The local area had its first experience of bombing on 26 July 1940, when 11 High Explosive bombs were dropped on Hastings, killing one and critically injuring two. But worse devastation was to follow when the Blitz (the sustained strategic bombing of Britain) started in September that year and multiple bombs fell on Hastings and Bexhill. The devastating and demoralising effect of the bombings is evident in a letter Mr Hardwicke wrote to Baldry on 19 Sep 1940, in which he contemplates closing the firm.

‘I cannot see how we can last for more than a few weeks,’ writes Hardwicke, ‘even if we are allowed to stay in the two towns, which is not likely – most other firms have closed down or gone to other towns but we cannot as our work is purely local as you know. Bubear won’t stay here and I don’t want to... most of the shops have closed down and the towns are really deserted… All the staff except Cole and Thomas have evacuated and I am living at Tunbridge Wells. Now the problem is how to get out …’

By that time the population of the towns had plummeted and thousands of school children who had been evacuated to the area were re-evacuated elsewhere. Nine days after Mr Hardwicke’s first letter, the situation had worsened. In a follow-up letter to Baldry, on 28 September, he writes:

‘…we have been badly bombed here and at Hastings and we have a time bomb just behind the Bexhill office and the whole area is closed. The population is down to about 8,000 and Hastings 20,000 and people are still leaving. There is no business and we have not had a job in for six weeks and are living on getting in our odd a/c etc – most of the other firms have moved to other towns and I wanted to last June but I could not get the others into line. As we cannot carry on we must get out as well as we can… I live now at Tunbridge Wells in a furnished flat. So far we have not caught very much but any moment a dozen bombs may fall for from the blue and wipe out the town. Still we are still alive and full of fight.’

Jack Baldry replied to Mr Hardwicke, confirming that he would ‘agree with whatever you decide’ but that the idea of closing the firm ‘after all our work together… raises rather a lump in my throat’.

A 1940 telegram from Baldry to Hardwicke.A 1940 telegram from Baldry to Hardwicke.

Hastings office bombed

On 30 September one aspect of the firm’s future was summarily determined, when a bomb exploded in front of the Plaza Cinema in Hastings (today a Yates’s bar), the fallout damaging several buildings, including Gaby Hardwicke’s office at 2 Cambridge Road. The event is described by Mr Hardwicke in a letter to Baldry penned the next day:

‘Yesterday at 11 o’clock a bomb fell immediately in front of the Hastings office and blew every window and door out and brought down all the ceilings, and the place is a complete wreck. Fortunately Thomas and Miss Whitaker were got out and I do not think they are very much hurt. I managed to get through the Police and climbed in through one of the broken windows and got the front door open, but everything was buried in six inches to a foot of plaster and glass with the wind blowing completely through. There was a quantity of money and cheques blowing about and I managed to shovel these out of the dirt. I got the ledgers and some of the vital records and got them into the safe, which I was able to shut after removing all the rubble and left the keys at Thorpes.’

‘The working bundles I got hold of and put them into the back waiting room where there is still half a pane of glass and managed to prop a door in front of the window to keep out some of the weather. By then I was all over blood and famished and I had to leave it. I am afraid this is the end of that place as it will cost hundreds to get it open again and it will be difficult to get any labour or do anything.’

Following this catastrophe, the Hastings office was boarded up and H. E. Thomas, its managing clerk, moved the files and deeds to the back room of his house at 190 Sedlescombe Road North. Remarkably, he kept the office running from this temporary address for the remainder of the war.

In his next letter to Baldry, on 3 October, Mr Hardwicke noted that the staff at Hastings comprised just Mr Thomas, while the managing clerk Bob Cole and ‘one girl’ (whom we know to be Brenda Haddon) were the only staff left at Bexhill office. ‘Any minute our Bexhill office will go up in smoke,’ writes Hardwicke in a state of paranoia. ‘They have hit all round us – Wilton Rd, St Leonards Road, Eversley Road lower, Devonshire Square, the Railway Station and so on. All these are within 100 yards. What they are after beats me!’

Mr Hardwicke’s letters continue in this vein and on the 9 October he notes that ‘Bexhill is deserted and bombs fall hourly. The staff sit in the cupboard and even if we had any work to do they could not do it.’ Understandably Mr Hardwicke continues to contemplate closing Gaby Hardwicke; but midway through October the letters show that his view has altered, and he instead resolves to do his utmost to keep the firm open, and agrees with the other partners that he will go it alone (a possible reason for this is offered by Brenda Haddon, whose reminiscences appear elsewhere on the website).

By this time Bubear had relocated to Somerset to work on a government farming scheme in aid of the war effort, while Evans-Vaughan had drifted away from the partnership. The partnership was therefore dissolved and from 21 October 1940 Mr Hardwicke was officially in practice alone.

Thereafter Mr Hardwicke continued his correspondence with Baldry and Bubear and his letters reveal that, while the most devastating month for the area (October) had passed, the risks posed by bombings remained very real. ‘We have been fairly free this week (so far), just a stray bomb or two each day and a machine gun do on Wednesday,’ he writes on 15 November. While on 3 December he assures Baldry, ‘Subject to being blown out of the town I intend to carry on at all costs as now that I have started I want to see if I can get through with it so as to be able to have a job for you to take over.’

His letters make reference to the bombing of various local buildings and establishments, but by March 1941 the frequency of the bombings had clearly diminished. The threat of further destruction, however, remained ever present. ‘No bombs now,’ he writes on 5 March, ‘but staff wear gas masks ½ hour daily for practice’.

Although less frequent, bombing raids on Hastings and Bexhill continued until 1944; but nevertheless Mr Hardwicke achieved his aim of keeping the firm afloat throughout the war. After the war, as he had hoped, Baldry returned from the Navy and rejoined the firm as a partner. Bubear and Evans-Vaughan did not return to the practice, but later several new partners would join, ushering in a new era for Gaby Hardwicke.

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