Pansy’s Wartime Gift

My mother has always been known for her beautiful flower garden in South-West London, but during the Second World War she worried about finding enough material to maintain her compost heap, the source of her rich garden soil.

Kitchen waste such as fruit peelings, vegetable leaves and skins that could not be used for stews or soups were collected regularly by a local authority for pig feed.

“You can’t even buy any natural fertiliser any more,” my mother sighed.

As well as being a keen gardener, she was also an animal lover who worried about the fate of animals during the air raids. “My heart goes out to all those poor, patient delivery horses that could be injured by bombs or flying shrapnel,” she’d say, close to tears. “And they must be terrified of all the noises – the bombs dropping, and the sirens.”

I wasn’t really surprised, then, when she told me in the summer of 1941 that she’d decided to turn our earless garage into a horse shelter. We weren’t the only people to do this. We’d heard that quite a number of families had adapted their garages for this purpose, but as far as I know ours was the first in our immediate neighbourhood.

My mother started cleaning things out of the garage straight away. “We’ll remove all the stuff we should have cleared out long ago,” she announced, pulling the old rolled-up garden hose off the wall and dumping in into the rusty wheelbarrow with many other useless items. “All we’ll leave are two buckets of fresh water, in case any of the horses are thirsty.”

Finally, we made a hand-printed cardboard sign identifying the garage as a temporary horse shelter. We nailed it to a post at the end of our short driveway.

“Now,” said my mother, “we only have to wait for our poor, dear occupants. I do hope the tradesmen will consider their horses enough to bring them in as soon as they hear an alert.”

The next morning the sirens started early and went on all day – first the alerts, then the all-clears announcing that the danger had passed.

This pattern went on for many weeks, and on some days our garage was well-used. The milkman, baker, greengrocer and many others brought their horses in for shelter and a drink. Some of the horses were quite nervous, others simply confused, but in the shelter with
their drivers, most would eventually settle down.

“Oh, isn’t he beautiful!” my mother would exclaim every time a different horse came in. I had to agree -they were indeed beautiful.

Eventually we came to know quite a few of these lovely animals, and to note their different characteristics, but it was Pansy, the milkman’s little brown mare, who remained the clearest in my memory. She was the first horse to use our shelter, and her master was proudly showing us how she would ‘clean her teeth’ after a snack or carrot or apple by taking a mouthful of water, shaking her head violently and then spitting it out when suddenly the all-clear siren rang out with piercing clarity.

Pansy’s ears flipped back, she gave a loud snort and then, without warning, relieved herself in a most dramatic way! her owner was immediately apologetic. “I’m really sorry about that,” he said. “I suppose all these noises are pretty upsetting for a horse.” he was clearly embarrassed. “Look,” he said, “if you’ll give me a shovel I’ll clean it up and take it away.”

“Oh, no you won’t,” my mother cried, a broad grin spreading across her face. “It’s all right. I’ll look after it” And she did, even while the sirens were still wailing! Eileen Cade-Edwards.