When war was declared on September 3rd, 1939, I was nine years’ old, just going up into Class 3 at Smallthorne School. We lived in Victoria Street (now Regina Street), next door but one to the side entrance of Victoria Methodist Chapel. The School was at the other end of the street. We already knew something of what to expect. Our Mum had had two brothers in the last war and, as a teenager, had been taken to London by her sister-in-law to wave off her eldest brother going to the Dardanelles.
Our Dad had joined the R.F.C. when he was only seventeen, and our next door neighbor, the caretaker of the Chapel, had her husband in bed in her front parlor, permanently an invalid, having been gassed in the last war. I used to go round to see him. We also had queues all along the street of people waiting to be given gas masks at the Air Raid Warden Post set t in a classroom at the School. We stood on our front doorstep and chatted to people we knew. We couldn’t start going to school after the holiday as the air raid shelters being dug in the playing fields weren’t ready. When one was ready, we were allowed to go part-time, mornings one week, afternoons the other, until all the children could be accommodated.
Dad was asked to take over an allotment. It belonged to Mr. Charlie Ball, who was called up as he was in the Reserves. Dad soon got us organised, hoeing and raking and picking caterpillars off cabbages and lettuces. We had our own supply of rhubarb and mint, always part of our Sunday lunch, and I would be sent to fetch a bottle of herb beer from Mrs. Church, who lived at the end of Primitive Street, backing on to the allotments. I must have shaken the bottle on one occasion, because the cork popped and I was sprayed with herb beer, all in my hair and over my face.
It was 1940 when we started having air raids. At school we were marshaled into the air raid shelters, having had practice runs, and we used to sing songs, or recite our tables, to pass the time. It was in 1940 that I was taken to Nottingham by my Dad. He worked as an Engineer’s Fitter at Messrs. Steele & Cowlishaw’s at Shelton. He constructed heavy engineering machinery in the factory and then was sent to install it at the purchasing company. This time it was paint mixers he had to install. He had already been there a few times and lodged with a workman and his wife who lived in a little terraced house hear to the factory. They were childless and very interested in our family. I had a brother four years older and two younger sisters, so I was chosen to be taken for a visit. The main thing I remember about Nottingham was that on every street corner was Placed something like a metal dustbin with a chimney on the top. At night, oily waste was set alight in these bins and a thick fog emitted from them. This formed a smoke screen which hung over the city so that enemy planes couldn’t find the factories.
We were always involved in what went on at the Chapel. We went to every Service and Sunday School. One event of note was the visit of an American Army Choir, all coloured men, who came on a bus which was parked outside our house. They sang beautifully to a packed Chapel. I particularly remember they sang “The Holy City”. One chap sang a part of it solo and I was intrigued by the way he pronounced “Jerusalem”.
Another important occasion of 1940 in our house was the arrival of another baby sister. On 13th September, a Friday, I wakened early in the morning to hear a baby crying. I went downstairs with my sister to find Mum in a bed in the front parlor and our Aunt, Dad’s sister who was also the local Midwife, holding this little baby. Such a surprises we were told that she had come in our Aunt’s black bags as I was the oldest girl, the care for this baby soon became part of my activities. I think the first song we taught her to sing was “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”. My brother, however, was not too pleased at having another sister. He was now fourteen, and just started an apprenticeship at the firm my Dad worked for. It must have been embarrassing for him. When asked if he wanted to see his new baby sister, he replied “I don’t want to look at wenches”. We didn’t have carry cots in those days, so the baby used to sleep in a large wicker washing basket. When we were wakened in the night with the air raid sirens, we could carry her easily down our cellar without her being disturbed. We kept our coal in the cellar, the coalman tipping it in an opening against the front door-step, so we had to clear one end and tidy it up so we could sit.
As there were now seven in our family, living in a two-up, two-down terrace house, we were a bit cramped. This was resolved by moving to a larger house on the corner of Chetwynd Street and Albert (Athlone) Street, very near to where Mum had been born. I was now in Class 4 at the School, top class of the Juniors. Because air raids were happening often, we were allowed to take a pillow to school to have a nap in the afternoon if we had had a disturbed night. We would put our pillow an the desk and nod off.
I went to Bradeley School in 1941, running across Bradeley Lane four times a day. T used to have to take the grocery order to Bradeley Co-op, and on one occasion, when Mum knew they were having a delivery of tinned fruit, I was told to queue for some before school. Consequently, I was late for School and was sent to the Headmaster’s room. I don’t know if Mr. Mountford appreciated my reason for being late, but I don’t remember being asked to do it again. At this time I remember that a lot of activity was going on along Bradeley Lane. We soon found out what the large Nissan Huts were being built for. Bevin Boys. Smallthorne was changing, with an influx of strange young men, speaking in weird dialects.
Another important happening occurred at the Chapel around this time. We were visited by the Cliff College Evangelists. A group of people from the College came and camped out in the Chapel. Every evening for a fortnight they held what we now call a sing-along in the School-room. The place was Packed with young people and children all singing their heads off. “My Cup is Full and Running Over” and “Climb, Climb Up Sunshine Mountain” were two of the choruses I remember. We had a signature tune –
Oh it’s jolly fine,
It’s for children under ninety-nine,
All are welcome, seats are given free,
Smallthorne Sunshine Corner is the place for me.
We were all revitalised, and the Teachers at School could sense the buzz in the air. They asked why children were going to school with croaky voices, so we told them . It had really cheered us up. The War was changing our Christmases, as toys weren’t being produced and food wasn’t so plentiful. Our Mum was a very practical person and she soon had us making things for ourselves. She was good at dressmaking and made us new clothes from material she was able to buy or hand-me-downs from an older cousin. She had us knitting cuddly toys for our baby sister and Dad made a clown and a Parrot which somersaulted on a frame from a piece of plywood. We still dressed the small artificial Christmas tree as usual, making tassels from some colourful skeins of silk thread Mum had been given. We all helped to make a Christmas pudding as usual, saving the ingredients bit by bit. The war didn’t stop us from being a happy family.
In February, 19z2, Dad had to go to work on the Isle of Skye, to install hydro-electric machinery they had constructed at Shelton. Mum knitted him some mittens because it would be so cold. When he came back he said that when he had suggested he worked on a Sunday, to get the job done quicker, he was told that the crofters would set their dogs on him if he worked on the Sabbath. As a matter of interest, he worked on a similar job at Loch Leven in Scotland.
In 1943 I Passed a Scholarship and went to the City School of Commerce in the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem. I had to have a uniform, but these were hard to get. Mum went to work with her sewing machine and managed to make me a gym-slip out of a navy-blue serge coat, and we bought a blazer – maroon with gold braid edging – and a black velour hat with a maroon and gold band, from the Howard family of Ball Green. Their daughter had been to the same school.
The people who were caretakers at Smallthorne School, Mr. and Mrs. Boulton, started a sort of youth club in the school. The idea was to form some sort of entertainment group. I remember Reg. Lock] 57- played the piano and Albert Wilson played the piano-accordion. There was also a boy named Dennis Smith who played a banjo or ukulele. I remember him because he had a neighbour who kept chickens in a bedroom. Part of their War Effort I suppose. My sister and I used to sing. The group was taken to the American Red Cross Club in Hanley to a children’s Christmas Party. (That was where I found out I didn’t like Coca-Cola). My sister and I stood on a little stage and sang “You’ll Never Know Just How Much I Love You” into a large micro-phone. Another member of our group was Betty Davenport, who recited a poem “Alf Plum’s Party” in our Potteries dialect. I don’t know what the Americans thought of that! Probably didn’t understand a word . We also had a Christ¬mas Party in the School Hall with people who lived round about, inviting a group of soldiers who were stationed at Cobridge Barracks.
My brother was called up about this time. I remember how upset Mum was when he went, and the change in him when he came home on leave after six week’s training. His feet were all blistered and he had had all the inoculations. He looked terrible. He joined the REME’s, having engineering experience, servicing,, and driving lorries, etc. I used to write to him and he would reply when he could. It is funny what trivial things occur to you when called upon to remember. The fact that he always ended his letters cheerio, but spelled the word cherrio, has stuck in my mind. Spelling wasn’t his strong point, but he was very good at maths.
People were urged to try and raise fund3for the War Effort. Two events have come to mind. One was at the Smallthorne Picture Palace, or “The Scratch” as it was more commonly known. The Management were allowed to open for a showing on a Sunday night. Unheard of before. I can’t remember what the film was, but I remember queuing outside for ages before they opened. The other effort was at the Norton Cricket Groun4 where I had been a member from when I was eleven. They had a dance for the Red Cross. It was on the grass outside the front of the pavilion (when it was still a veranda) and we danced to records.
I left the School of Commerce at Easter 1945. I had enjoyed my time there, learning shorthand and typing, book-keeping and French. Having to travel each day on the bus to Burslem increased my confidence and I wasn’t quite so shy. I had even been persuaded to sing in a school Christmas Concert. T sang a duet “The Indian Love Call” from “Rose Marie”, wearing a bridesmaid dress borrowed from a class-mate, with a tall, thin boy named Ian Coghill, who’s voice had just broken. Quite an ordeal! My friend’s uncle got me a job at his brother’s Joinery Works, in the office, and I hadn’t been there long before we had V.E. Day. The Germans were defeated. I had taken great interest in reading the newspapers and seeing the arrowson the maps where the fighting was taking place. It was at this time that our troops were coming across the atrocities of Belsen and Auschwitz, etc. Photographs of these appearing in the newspapers have left me with a lasting hate of bullying and bigotry. Every human being is equal and no person or race should be treated in that way. We had a day’s holiday for V.E. Day and then V.J. Day. We had parties in the streets, making jellies with pop and gelatine, making fatless sponge cakes. We dressed the streets with bunting and had bonfires, not having to bother about the blackout. In our family we had always seemed to be well fed, having rations for seven. We’d learned to make do and mend, and not cause a fuss if you couldn’t have what you wanted. We became ingenious, resourceful and adaptable, and I’m sure that today’s pensioners, who seem to thrive on adversity and put up with life’s knocks, are products of the ups and down suffered in the war.
What was important in our family was that my brother would be de-mobbed. he had been sent to the Sudan, not the European front, and had sent us photographs of the native people, called Fuzzy-Wuzzies because of their frizzy hair. Two of our uncles had also been in the war, one in North Africa and Italy and the other in Europe, ending up in Germany. They both came home safely, thank goodness. Instead of food becoming easier to get, rationing became worse. We had to tighten our belts even more as bread became rationed, but that didn’t stop the feeling of relief that the fighting was over and we could feel optimistic that everything would soon be all right again.