From blitz bombings to romance in the canteen

He pulled pints during the Blitz, dodged mortar fire in Italy, and found love in a school kitchen. Since Harold Smith moved to Dagenham 77 years ago, his life has taken quite a few unexpected turns. Born in 1923 in London s East End, Harold first came to

He pulled pints during the Blitz, dodged mortar fire in Italy, and found love in a school kitchen. Since Harold Smith moved to Dagenham 77 years ago, his life has taken quite a few unexpected turns.

Born in 1923 in London's East End, Harold first came to the borough with his parents and two siblings when he was eight-years-old. The family of five were offered a council flat on the newly built Becontree Estate and Harold soon enrolled at the nearby Becontree School.

However, childhood came to a halt early in those days and at the age of 14 the young lad started full-time work: "My first ever job involved sweeping the floor and changing accumulators at Plaistow Radio Service. I got 10 shillings per week."

In 1939, shortly before World War II broke out, the Smith family made the move to Emerald Gardens in Dagenham, to the house where Harold still lives today.

The rent, he says, was a little less in those days: "My parents paid £1 a week for this house, which might sound very cheap, but you have to remember the average wage then was £3.50."

When the war began Harold recalls his family built an Anderson air-raid shelter in the back garden: "It was pretty useless though, as it just kept filling with water. It wasn't a very nice place to be - pretty cold, damp and miserable. My dad often refused to use it. He would say: 'If I'm going to die I'm going to die.'

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"This was the kind of attitude many people had during the war. You just got on with it. It was business as usual for most."

For a while Harold pulled pints at a pub in Bow, but in 1942, at the age of 19, he got his call-up papers. After military training in Scotland he boarded a troop ship in Liverpool and headed off to war. "There were 3,000 of us on that ship, with little idea of where we were going. Although we were nervous, it was an adventure, so there was a lot of excitement as well."

The next few years would take the young soldier, who had had never left British soil before, to such far flung places as Sierra Leone, South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.

Although he began as a gunner in the artillery, most of his army career was spent as a driver - a job, he says, which led to some hairy moments: "When we were stationed in Italy I often had to drive across no-mans land. On one of these trips a mortar shell landed just in front of the truck, sending shrapnel flying into the vehicle. Luckily I had time to jump out before the truck was hit - otherwise I doubt I would have survived."

Harold stayed in the forces for two years after the war ended. He still has the release book given to him as he left in 1947. The book describes him as 'a very good driver' and 'a most likable person, who is always smiling and cheerful.'

Back on 'civvie street' Harold spent a few years as a delivery driver and railways worker before starting as a school bus driver for Barking and Dagenham Council in 1965 - a job he liked so much he stayed for the next 22 years.

"I really enjoyed driving the school buses. It was very uplifting to help out in the community."

There is, however, another reason Harold looks back fondly on his bus driving years - if it hadn't been for this job he may never have met the love of his life, Mary.

"Our paths crossed in 1965 when I was delivering school dinners to John Perry Primary School in Dagenham, where Mary worked as the head cook. Romance soon bloomed and in 1968 we got married."

The two had been happily married for 35 years when Mary was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Her condition deteriorated quickly and in January last year she passed away.

"I miss Mary very much - she was a lovely lass. We had a great time together and it's difficult not having her around. There is a plaque in her memory at Eastbrookend, which I try to visit as often as possible."

During the last few years of her life Harold would take Mary to the Memory Lane carers centre in Althorne Lane, Dagenham, which offers support to dementia sufferers and their carers. Since her death Harold has continued to help out at the centre every Friday, something he says means a lot to him.

Despite the last few years, which have not always been easy, Harold says he has been pretty lucky during his 85 years.

"I've had a wonderful marriage and a wonderful life. I don't regret one minute of it.