Ros Tankard: WW2 Islington memories

4 Dec

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Ros Tankard is used to being in the thick of things – from the Blitz to campaigning against injustices. Her most recent plan is to run a memory project about the Hornsey Lane Estate, where she moved in 1941. Interview by Nicola Baird

Ros Tankard was in London - at the Essex Road tube station then used as a bomb shelter - on the night This iconic photo of St Paul's Cathedral saved from the flames was taken.

Ros Tankard was in London – at the Essex Road tube station then used as a bomb shelter – on the night This iconic photo of St Paul’s Cathedral saved from the flames was taken.

“I was five on the day the war started,” says Ros Tankard, 79, who has the keenest memory of World War 2 in Islington, though she’s also up-to-the-minute with what’s going on locally including the recent eviction of 150 squatters at nearby Ashmount School.

Ros has many hours on film about her life shot by TV crews interested in the old days in Islington. But Ros is an inspiration in other ways besides a great memory.

Cuttings about Ros Tankard's campaigns and community work.

Cuttings about Ros Tankard’s campaigns and community work.

For starters she’s recently re-wallpapered and added coving to her sitting room. It was only in 2007 she was being applauded by the Islington Tribune as the “battling pensioner [who] wins repair bill cut” against the council. As a leaseholder she was shocked to be given a £2,000 bill by the council in order to fit snow catchers on the ageing roof. Acting with others on the estate, doing all their own legal work, Ros managed to get the leaseholders’ bill at the Hornsey Lane Estate cut to a fairer £200 each.

And despite her health problems, including diabetes, Ros is also a courageous traveller.  “Last year (2012) I visited all the places that I’d heard about when I was young – like the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam and the concentration camps in Germany and Poland with their sentry boxes, electric wire and memories…”

Early days
Ros was born in a little artisan street – Bishop’s Street, N1 (originally Dean Street), in Islington in 1934, just as Hitler came to power. “We were Islington people – most people didn’t have oodles of money, and no one owned their own home. We lived at the poor end of Bishop’s Street, near St James’ church,” she says. “Mum and Dad were upstairs, my grandmother and grandfather on the ground floor, and my aunt and uncle and their three children, my cousins, in the basement. There was an outside loo. We were poor people, my dad was a bus driver, but it was very free – the kids did almost as we liked, even though we didn’t have big gardens. I’ve been very lucky. I like to remember, and I like to go back to that time.”

“My parents were married in 1929. The 1920s was a wonderful time to be young in London. They loved the theatre, I don’t think there was anyone famous they didn’t see. After six years they were going to go on a cruise when they discovered I was coming…”

See this short video of London in 1926

“Every Saturday my parents took me to the Collins Music Hall (now Waterstones on Islington Green). We always sat in the Grand Circle, but one day my dad didn’t get tickets and I remember I made a decision that if I was going to have to sit in the stalls then I wouldn’t laugh.”

London in the Blitz
Not long after World War Two broke out a 1,000lb bomb fell on St James’ Church where Ros had been christened. “The bomb never went off, but I remember a man called Davis, who was good at diffusing bombs – and had a bandage around his head – going to it. The whole street had to move while he did this, we were directed to the local school,” says Ros.

Astonishingly while everyone in the street was out a land mine fell and wiped out all the streets around (though the bomb at St James’ still didn’t explode).

“Our house was bombed to smithereens,” says Ros.

Suddenly the family was homeless. Ros’ grandmother hated the idea of staying at the school. “She felt like a refugee, not an evacuee,” says Ros, so, “My mother said why not go to the tube?”

Living underground 
The family went to Essex Road (which was then a tube station) and spent many weeks sleeping there to avoid the night-time bombing of London. “I don’t know if it was six weeks or six months,” says Ros, “but there’s a lot I do remember. You started queuing about four o’clock and they let you in by 5pm.  Everyone just knew when the Luftwaffe* (German air force planes loaded with bombs) would get here, you got very wise.

It was December 1940 when the iconic photograph of St Paul’s cathedral was taken – saved from the incendiary bombs and flames by brave volunteers pouring water on to the lead roof.  Ros has a copy of this photo in her home, but as a little girl she was very wise about the bomb attacks by then.

“My little coterie of friends would play follow-my-leader. There was a huge lift at Essex Road tube and we’d all go into it, then when the gates and door opened at street level we’d follow each other over to the oblisk on North Road and back, oblivious to the bombs going off, the noise and the search lights. As children we were very blasé – we’d be arguing about who hadn’t touched their foot in the middle of Essex Road! We weren’t thinking that we could have been killed.”

“Then we’d go back to underground and if I found my aunt I’d ask her ‘Where’s Mummy?’ And if she said Moorgate I’d take the train there, where she’d be wearing a pinny and headscarf, serving this ghastly stuff called cocoa – it’s like hot chocolate, but not nearly as nice. I’d help her for a while and then I’d take the train back. It’s hard to believe I was only six.”

"She never had a name."

“She never had a name.”

Ros still has her treasured companion from childhood days, a sweet-faced doll. Now the doll’s head is slightly askew so you can see the straw she’s stuffed with peeking out, but she’s wearing a lovely knitted outfit. “She cost 6 shillings 11 pence from Woolworths in Chapel Market,” says Ros fondly. “She never had a name, but I thought of her as Vacooee, because I couldn’t say evacuee when I was six… Her eyes blinked as I walked along , so people knew it was me coming!”

Days were spent walking around London, schooling abandoned. “My mother wouldn’t allow me to be sent away, and I’ve heard such horrendous stories about what happened to some evacuees that I’m glad. “

“In the day we’d find a shop which wanted to continue trading, although it didn’t have glass windows any more, but would have a sign saying ‘business as usual’ where we would pay a fee to store the rolled up [straw-stuffed] mattresses we slept on. We called them paliasses, it was a word I knew from Bible classes. When the bombs came at night if you hadn’t made it back safely to the tube shelter you’d hear a thumping noise, then bump as it exploded. But as long as I’d got my mother’s hand I was safe. But when we came out in the morning, there was always someone telling you which of the landmarks we knew had gone.”

How’s Islington changed?

  • Heavy on the jelly. Every day from the time I was one year old Mr Gidding the local fishmonger in Popham Road, N1 would send round a bowl of jelly from jellied eels. I still worship them! And think of all the protein in that jelly…
  • No one spent the war in one place as a civilian. We went to St Albans – bombs dropped. We went to the Midlands – and you know what happened to Coventry.  The final place was a village in Wales, Ystradgynlais. I went to a lot of schools too.
  • V1s (bombs) compared to V2s were almost friendly. They wobbled along – it wasn’t until the engine stopped and they dived that you worried.
  • When I was unhappy about the way my mother was being looked after in Barnet in a mental hospital (she had Alzheimer’s) our MP Jeremy Corbyn offered to come with me. He told the staff “Oh Ros and I are old pals,” and then he winked at me. He’s kind and his visit helped.”
  • We’re reaching a stage where only the very, very poor and the very, very rich can live in Islington.
  • The St John’s Way medical centre, N19 runs a jazz and jabs clinic once a year for pensioners. I always go.

Finding a home
For this interview Ros focused on just one aspect of her life – her experiences during the Blitz. But her experience of housing is equally fascinating. She explained: “My father got this flat in 1941 by walking into the Town Hall and saying ‘There’s nowhere to bring my wife and child home to’.  They said ‘do you want to go and see it?’  He asked, ‘Has it got walls and a roof? If so then just give me the keys.’ After the war Hornsey Lane became a sink estate, but now it is the council’s flagship and we’ve got our own community centre.”

Ros’ plan is to share some of the stories about the estate – which was built  just before the war – at a memory evening sometime before her 80th birthday in 2014. “People no longer call the area with the green grass on Hornsey Lane ‘The Trenches’, but that’s were the bomb shelters were. It’s where we slept.”

The end of World War Two may have been celebrated with VE day but food rationing continued for several years. Ros remembers being 11 and helping the milkman (a woman) when she started her round again. “I liked holding the horse or taking the milk to the doors. It made the milkman’s life easier and she gave me a shilling for helping. But what I really liked was milk being delivered again, it meant normality at last.”

For a girl whose fifth birthday was marked by the outbreak of war it’s lovely to think how having real milk for a breakfast cup of tea made an 11-year-old realise that London was safe to sleep in again.


Luftwaffe* Clips from the Bitz and info about the impact of the Luftwaffe from the BBC here.

Locate Hornsey Lane Estate Community Centre here.

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.


6 Responses to “Ros Tankard: WW2 Islington memories”

  1. Mrs ada gulsin December 5, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    I live on hornsey lane estate I have lived here for 32 years and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else

    • nicola baird blogs December 6, 2013 at 9:01 am #

      Mrs Gulsin, thanks for reading the interview – very glad you are another one who loves living on the hornsey lane estate. Nicola

  2. Mrs ada gulsin December 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    I know roz very well. We used to sit on the emb board we were both board members she used to be chairperson and I was treasurer when estate management board was first established

  3. irene dublin February 14, 2016 at 9:39 pm #

    Has anyone got any photos of Bishop Street, London N1 before the bombs dropped i was born there in 1945 and would dearly love to see what it looked like?

    • nicola baird blogs February 15, 2016 at 8:50 am #

      Thanks Irene for your visit to islington faces. You could try an online search of either Islington Museum or the Bishopsgate Institute – or make an appointment and visit. Both are great resources. Nicola from Islington Faces Blog.


  1. Jeremy Corbyn, MP: a tribute to the brilliant Islington North MP | Islington Faces Blog - September 2, 2015

    […] “I was very unhappy about my the care my mother was getting in Barnet. Jeremy Corbyn came with me to the mental hospital. He told the staff: ‘Oh Ros and I are old pals,’ and then he winked. He’s kind and that helped me.” You can read the full Islington Faces interview with Ros Tankard here […]

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