During the war
by Denis Colclough
Certain incidents happened in wartime Britain that affected children and had a lasting impact on their memories. The passage of time has heightened the awareness that social life altered during that period, and children experienced changes in their lifestyle. Everyone who lived during those times can recall events that affected him or her. The following are a few of the things experienced by many.
Officialdom arrived on the doorstep in the shape of two men who issued everyone with a blue identity card, each with an individual number. We were to carry the cards with us at all times, in the interests of national security, we were told!
Later, two more men called to provide everyone with a gas mask, at the end of which was taped an additional charcoal filled filter. This was to enhance its protective qualities against the noxious gases that the Germans were believed to be intending to drop on us.
The gas masks, for which most mothers made leatherette cases, were carried to school. Every morning we had to wear them as a 'gas mask exercise'. We learned that, to avoid being lost in a breath induced fog of condensation within our rubber masks; it was advisable to smear the internal visor with soap (there were other places where soap would be better applied, some of our mothers thought). To arrive at school without a gas mask was regarded as a serious matter and would be punished. A campaign was launched to persuade parents to allow their children to be 'evacuated' to areas less likely to be the target of German air raids. A number of children were transported to places of relative safety, but many more stayed at home.
It was decided that several schools could not function, particularly if air-raid shelters were not available near the site. Consequently, certain schools were closed and children were divided into small groups to receive part time tuition in private homes. Later, a system of school sharing was adopted. A school, with shelters, was used by the pupils and staff of two schools, one school having the facilities on mornings, the other school using the buildings in the afternoon. This part-time education came to a halt when it was decided to allow the use of all schools and so full time education resumed.
Schoolchildren in Smethwick were allowed to visit the Smethwick School Camp at Ribbesford, Bewdley, for a period of two weeks during the summer. Schools in the Borough visited on a rota basis with the attendees being either boys or girls of the same age, children beneath the age of 11 years, 1 believe, were not able to take advantage of the opportunity. Teachers of the appropriate sex from the attending schools accompanied the children. The resident Superintendent at Ribbesford was Mr. H Whiteleg, who had departed from Waterloo Road School during the early days of the War to take up the post.
The land at Ribbesford had been given to the Borough by Frank Chapman, a long serving Town Clerk of Smethwick and was in use as early as 1928. Currently the site, which consisted of modem brick built buildings and also a heated indoor swimming pool, is known as the Frank Chapman Centre. Adults as well as children from all parts of the country, presently visit to study the flora and fauna of the Wyre Forest and its surrounding area.
'Gliderways Coaches' of Bearwood transported the children to Ribbesford. They stayed in open windowed, wooden verandas and slept on straw-filled palliasses placed on wooden beds. Meals were taken in the dining room; the resident cook, who had previously been the domestic science teacher for the girls at Waterloo Road School, prepared them. All of the buildings were of wooden construction, but lessons took place in a recreation hut during inclement weather. However, the overall emphasis was on outdoor life with sporting activities, rambles and lengthy walks alongside the River Severn, through the Wyre Forest and to many sites of historical interest.
On the second Sunday of the fortnight the parents arrived for a brief visit to their offspring. They arrived aboard a Gliderway's coach, or charabanc as they were then known. It was the turn of the children to wave their parents goodbye, on their departure. Five days later the children returned to their homes to be replaced by another intake from another school.
The social impact of what happened during those days should be considered. For many children who were, by today's standards, living in deprived circumstances, it was the only 'holiday' they would have. The desire of Frank Chapman to provide an experience for children, who would otherwise be deprived of knowing a little of what country life was like, was achieved.
"Blackouts" were rigorously enforced. Every window had 'blackout' curtains installed and exterior doors had heavy drapes to prevent the escape of light, believed to be of assistance to enemy aircraft in locating their targets. People were also advised to apply sticky brown tape to their windows, in a variety of geometric patterns, in order to minimise damage caused by flying glass should a bomb explode nearby.
Street lights were either very dimly lit, or not lit at all, and the few motor vehicles that were allowed petrol had their headlights obliterated by a black shield except for a very narrow horizontal slot which allowed a thin dim light to escape. Going out after dark, to assist the Air Raid Warden with her stirrup pump, bucket of water, or bucket of sand to extinguish incendiary bombs was an exciting time for some youngsters. Joining a 'fire watching team', however, was an activity restricted to adults.
Following an air raid it was usual for boys to search the streets for shrapnel. This was any small fragment of metal remains of anti-aircraft shells, which had disintegrated and fallen to the ground, after being fired at the enemy aircraft. Occasionally it would be possible to find parts of an incendiary bomb, this scrap metal had no intrinsic value, but its collection became a craze amongst boys that rivalled the collection of marbles or cigarette cards.
Iron-railings surrounding public buildings and parks were removed and used for the war effort. This resulted in many parks, which had formerly had their gates locked at a prescribed time by the park keeper, being readily accessible at all hours. The social consequences of this can be imagined. Lorries regularly toured the streets and people were requested to donate metal implements, and particularly aluminium saucepans and frying pans to be melted down to provide the material to build aircraft.
Bins were placed in the streets into which everyone was requested to place their food scraps. Frequently the bins were emptied on to a wagon and taken to one of the many pig farms in the area. People were asked not to put eggshells into the bins; they apparently played havoc with the pigs' digestive systems.
Many people kept fowl in their gardens to supplement their food supply. It was possible to obtain corn from the chandler's. Eggs and chickens were useful additions to the diet.
Mothers faced many problems with food rationing and long queues at shops when supplies became available. Ten pennyworth of meat per person, per week, was the allocation at one period. There was a shop in Digbeth, where horsemeat was sold. Every day a long queue formed outside this shop; horsemeat was, of course, not rationed! However, a great deal of inside trading did occur. Anyone with access to one commodity could trade with someone else with a different commodity.
"British Restaurants" were opened where, for 1 s.6d. it was possible to obtain a meat and two vegetable meal. the meat was usually of questionable origin. For 4d. one could have a passable interpretation of a pudding with custard. The pudding was on occasions mashed turnips heavily disguised with banana essence with the custard being made with heavily watered milk. "Nail varnish" tart, 1 recall, was also frequently available. But then, our taste buds had not yet developed the sophistication of the epicure.
Clothing coupons were issued, restricting the ability to buy clothes, most of which bore the' C41' logo of utility clothing, and children who were above a certain height and or weight had an extra allowance of clothing coupons.
Older girls, and young women, finding stockings to be unobtainable, bought a substance from the chemist, a brownish liquid, which they painted on their legs. Getting both legs the same shade was, 1 was led to understand, rather difficult, also the substance rubbing off on the bedclothes was a problem to be faced. There were occasions when sand and water, when thoroughly mixed, was the means of providing the required leg colour. A dark coloured pencil was sometimes used to draw the seam of the stocking on the coloured leg. This required an artistic expertise that was usually beyond most people. The problem was eventually solved when American servicemen were stationed in the area and nylon stockings became readily available.
Sweets were rationed and coupons had to be surrendered to the shopkeeper when buying his wares. The teeth of wartime children, it has to be said, benefited from this deprivation of sugar.
Following air raids, a list of the civilian casualties was posted outside the Central Library. This made sombre reading, for we often knew the names of some of the victims.
Restrictions in the use of paper. wood pulp being an imported commodity, resulted in newspapers being drastically reduced in size. The song sheets that contained the words of popular songs of the time that were broadcast on the Home and Light programmes, ceased publication too. These 3d. song sheets, it was rumoured, could still be obtained in certain parts of the country.
Nights in the garden shelter became a thing of the past. The corrugated iron Anderson air raid shelter that was buried in the garden, became at its best, damp, and was often waterlogged. The two tier wooden bunks became a 'den' where 'the gang' used to meet, but as a refuge from German air attack, it was not regularly used.
The indoor Morrison air raid shelter, also named after a Home Secretary, which some people had, was a hideous iron table under which people were encouraged to crouch during an air raid, and dine on top of it in more peaceful times.
Incidents that happened in the past are part of our life experiences. Thinking of the past can cause contentment in the present, particularly if you can sit a youngster down away from his/her computer, and tell him/her what it was like in the olden days.
© QLHS 2005