It wasn’t just the ominous drone of planes that terrified little Julie Crispin as she huddled in a Portsmouth air raid shelter.
It was also the adults cramped around her talking about bombs dropping and what Hitler might do if he invaded Britain.
And then there was the lady in the curlers with the loud cackle, which probably brought relief to the scared adults, but made Julie think of witches as she sat in the darkness.
To any young child the Blitz was a trauma but Julie was more than just a little timid. She was anxious most of the time and would only talk to her close family. With everyone else she was silent.
Now 76, Julie tells the story of her childhood during the Second World War with plenty of expression and vivid detail.
These days she is Julie Scarborough and is well-known for her charity work. The Widley grandmother always has a house full, whether she is looking after grandchildren or raising money for good causes by holding charity events at her home.
But this outgoing, chatty lady explains how she once felt like an outcast rather than a pillar of society.
‘I was a real little worrier. I would only talk to my mum, my brother Mike and my cousin. I didn’t say much to my dad, I think just because he seemed so big. If I was out with mum and somebody came to talk to us, I would hide behind her and hold my head on one side – I don’t know why I did that.’
And she adds: ‘Because I was silent, I think people thought I couldn’t understand either. So they would freely talk about Hitler coming and bombs dropping in front of me. One night in the shelter I was so terrified of having all those people around me and the talking and cackling that I decided to go home to my nice, warm bed. I got in bed and fell asleep – while bombs were falling the worried adults were out looking for me!’
Julie had always thought she was ‘different’ and just didn’t fit in and knew people felt the same. ‘I felt like I didn’t matter, that I had no value. I remember being at a party when I was probably 11 or 12 and a boy saying who’s the girl with the lovely auburn hair. And somebody answered ‘she’s no one, she’s Crispin’s sister, but she doesn’t speak. I went and hid behind the settee.’
She says it wasn’t that people were being cruel, they just didn’t have a name for Julie’s condition. And it was only when she was studying for an MA in special education when she was in her late 50s that Julie was able to shed more light on the matter.
‘I was reading about something called elective (or selective) mutism and it fitted me perfectly. I was never diagnosed so I can’t be certain but I recognised everything they said about the condition.’
Children with selective mutism talk only to a few people and in certain situations. They can be anxious, very sensitive and may move stiffly or awkwardly.
Julie believes the terrors of war magnified her problems but she had developed the disorder before that. ‘I had really bad teeth, I think because my mum had a calcium deficiency while she was carrying me. Both sets came through decayed. I had to go to hospital and was always at the dentist and I knew I looked different. I didn’t want to open my mouth,’ she recalls.
Julie and her brother were eventually evacuated but her lack of communication made her isolated. At school she would play with dolls’ houses instead of learning with the other children. She would spend hours playing on her own and if she received attention it was comments from strangers about her striking auburn hair.
When Julie’s mum first took her to the fee-paying Daleys School in Kingston Crescent, Portsmouth, at the age of seven, she was told her daughter would have to learn with the kindergarden children.
And yet it was here that her life would completely change. The school did sterling work with the youngster and her mum sent her to a a voice coach, which developed Julie’s self-confidence.
By the time she was 16, Julie was top of the class, had become a student teacher and during a stay in hospital, recovering from pneumonia, was told off by the matron for being too talkative and making the old ladies laugh. But she says it had taken a lot of time and hard work.
‘I think if I hadn’t gone to Daleys, I wouldn’t have got to where I did. And also I had very good parents. I was very lucky.’
Julie became a teacher, got married and now has five children and 16 grandchildren. Her daughter Madeleine won silver and bronze medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1990 and now works in sports education. She lives in the same road as her mum, as does her brother Mark.
Julie’s home is full of the welcoming warmth of its owner. Pictures of her family look on as she chats away with openness, a gift for story-telling and a wicked sense of humour,
‘I remember seeing the woman with the curlers from the air raid shelter again after the war, when we were celebrating with a street party. She had all this lovely hair and not a curler in sight. Aunty Flo I think they called her, I recognised her by the cackle,’ she says, laughing.
Her stories are rich in detail as she beautifully portrays characters and situations.
Julie says this is one of the strange benefits of a silent life.
‘It made me very observant. Because I wasn’t talking I was watching, taking everything in.’
And it also led to her future career and charity work. Since retiring, Julie has been tirelessly fundraising for charities including the Portsmouth Hospitals Rocky Appeal, the Rowans and Naomi House hospices and the nuns at Park Place, Wickham, who help children around the world whose parents have died of Aids.
Her home has become the site of jumble sales, marathon coffee sessions and even a Santa’s grotto, complete with snowmen, penguins (not real) and, of course, Santa.
She recently raised money to install a stained glass window at St Colman’s Church, Havant in memory of the Daley family who ran the school.
She says: ‘I think because I’ve had problems, I’ve wanted to help people ever since. Becoming a teacher was natural for me because I’d always loved children. They found that out when they put me in the kindergarten when I was seven. I was good at looking after the others. I think it was because I didn’t find young children threatening.’
And the final legacy of her childhood condition is that she now never stops talking.
‘I think it was my son Shaun who once said ‘‘mum, you’ve more than made up for all those years you didn’t talk, could you be quiet for a minute?’’ she says, laughing.