- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Eunice Edwards, Evelyn (Ev) Edwards
- Location of story:
- Birmngham (Midlands)
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2005
Birmingham at War - as I Remember It
So many things were in short supply during the war. If you did go on holiday, you had to be sure to take everything you needed with you. You couldn’t just pop into a shop and buy underwear and stockings if you had no coupons; even ordinary things like hair curlers, lipstick, nail files, soap and face powers, were all in short supply. I used pipe cleaners for curlers. Paper was in short supply. Wrapping paper was always in demand for sending parcels to the Forces. String was another problem. We hoarded every piece of string and paper. Plastic wrapping did not exist nor rolls of sticky Sellotape. Envelopes were used twice by using sticky labels over the old address. Should there be a tiny baby in the family, terry napkins were in short supply so mothers bought rolls of surgical lint and used this instead. Small children had one bottle of milk a day for twopence. Adults had half a pint per day for four pence a pint. Milk was still delivered by horse-drawn float. We drank lots of watery cocoa and Camp Coffee — no Nescafe in those days. My friend Marjorie used to pop in each evening for such a drink before she went out to her first aid post as ambulance driver.
As the war went on, the rationing got worse, but Lord Woolton did a very good job as nobody starved. When I think of how people in occupied Europe fared, we were very lucky in comparison. There was always something for dinner. Breakfast was always very sketchy. You could have bread toasted or fried, but bread was not rationed. Early on the 2lb (pound) loaf had been reduced to 1¾ lb and the 1lb loaf was reduced to 3/4lb, so the slices were smaller. I do not think the loaves have reverted to their former weights. Potatoes were not rationed, neither were root vegetables. We were encouraged to dig for victory. People grew lettuces and tomatoes but as these were seasonal there was not an all year round supply of a lot of things. People bottled, jammed and dried all the fruit they could, including apples. We had a damson tree and a Victoria plum tree in our garden. The Ministry of Food produced leaflets on preserving fruit and Mother used Camden tablets. I do not know if you can get them now. In the country, everybody including children, collected rosehips to make rosehip syrup which was a great source of Vitamin C in replacement of orange juice.
Before Christmas we were able to buy small amounts of dried fruit so that people could make Christmas cakes and puddings. Ministry of Food Recipes were issued — a lot of carrots went into the cakes and puddings. Flour was not rationed, so we could make plain cakes, but you had to use your sugar ration (1/2lb per person per week) if you did so. So we had recipes for sugarless cakes, that is using treacle, saccharine, jam or dried fruit, and for fatless sponges (some people used liquid paraffin in cakes). A little bicarbonate soda made the tea stronger. Eggs were scarce. We were entitled to one egg per month as the war went on, but we did not always get it. So dried eggs came into their own. We could make cakes with these, also pancakes if we had milk which was also rationed. To substitute for a boiled egg, we reconstituted the dried egg with water, poured it into crock egg cups and steamed them until solid. Then you could eat them as a boiled egg. Also they were good sliced on top of a salad. We learned to make winter salads and these were lovely. Any root vegetables grated up (carrots, parsnips, raw beetroot) are piled onto a bed of finely shredded cabbage and sliced onion. The smell was delicious and served with whatever amount of cheese you could spare, boiled dried egg and bread and butter — it was a feast. We only had two ounces of butter, but I think we had half a pound of margarine so there was always enough fat to spread on our bread. Rationing started slowly at first, and then as time went on, more things were rationed. We were allowed so many points a month and we could use these to buy such things as dried fruit, canned meat, jam, canned fruit when they appeared in the shops. Sweet biscuits were non-existent. During the bombing we used to take cream crackers down the cellar with a smidgeon of margarine. After six weeks of this I never wanted to see another cream cracker. I cannot eat them now without thinking of bombs.
People were allowed to buy meals out at hotels and cafes without surrendering coupons. Working in the city centre, I usually bought a lunch. Gradually the shortages were felt. Portions of meat got smaller, puddings lacked sugar, yet there were plenty of vegetables. When I worked for Birmingham Corporation there was a staff canteen at the Council House. If you had soup to start plus a main course, you did not get a desert; likewise if you missed soup, you could have a sweet — but you had no choice in the matter. I hated the soup days, but always had the tea or coffee to finish. The Government opened up British Restaurants in various places where we could get a lunch cheaply (I think it was two shillings in old money [10p]). I tried it once or twice but the day I was served stale potatoes finished me. I did get a very bad attack of food poisoning once after a canteen meal and was off work for a few days. If one complained about anything at all, the answer was “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” That was the excuse for any bad service. However when we did get SPAM from America later on in the war, it really was delicious, much nicer than the Spam we get now.
If you were asked out to tea anywhere, most visitors took with them a teaspoonful of tea to put in the hostess’s pot. It was just considered the thing to do as tea was rationed. I think we had two ounces per week. To make her tea go further, my future mother-in-law used to go to the workmen’s café at the corner of the road and buy a jug of tea each afternoon.
As goods of all sorts became in short supply, it was more difficult to buy presents of any sort. My sister, Evelyn, turned twenty-one in December 1941 and we so wanted to buy her something to keep. The only thing we found was a large brass octagonal work box, fitted out with compartments for needles, scissors and buttons, etc. As she liked sewing we felt this was the best we could do. As time went on, anniversaries were marked by home-made cards, little poems and jokes. We had lots of laughs coming up with suitable rhymes and limericks. One could always buy books and records, which was a great help.
Somehow, in spite of rationing, we managed to have parties. When Dennis in my office eventually got called-up, we all decided to give him a good send off. With the permission of the General Manager, we were allowed to use the office canteen (no alcohol!) after office hours and despite rationing, a wonderful feast appeared. All the girls (about twelve of us) bought home-made cakes, jellies, trifles, sandwiches, winter salads and celery. Dennis was speechless. Afterwards we played daft games and there was lots of laughter and singing. It was a wonderful send off for him. Luckily we had no raids that night. (I must mention that trifles had no cream on them but a marshmallow topping made from Carnation milk (on points). It was very good and I am sorry that I no longer have the recipe.)
Men’s clothing changed little during the war — that is for civilians. The most obvious was the disappearance of turn-ups on trousers. I think it was eighteen coupons for a suit. The mother of my friend Laurie, on the occasion of her husband buying a new suit, decided the trousers were too long. She thought to shorten the legs by two inches. Having done one leg, she was distracted by something and then proceeded to cut two inches off what she thought was the second leg. Horror of horrors when she shortened the first leg again! Eventually she sewed back the piece mistakenly cut-off, but her husband wasn’t too pleased. Three piece suits went out of fashion as waistcoats were considered unnecessary.
Another incident I remember was when I was asked to work for a gentleman from London for two weeks. A couple of days before he was to return, he stood in front of a portable electric fire for a few minutes. Next thing, the bottom of his trouser leg was on fire. There was such a commotion as everyone rushed to put out the fire. Fortunately he wasn’t burnt, but a patch of cloth about six inches square was missing from his trousers. Desperately he asked me to mend it! What could I do with all those burnt edges? I had no needle or thread and nothing to use as a patch. He was far from home and had no coupons. He just had to return to London in his ragged trousers.
I think men’s suits were only single breasted. When hostilities finished and service men came home each man was given a ‘demob’ suit. I can only remember seeing single-breasted ones with no turn ups. The lads were glad to get out of uniform and into civvies, but didn’t think much of their free suits. They also had £100 each.
After the bombing, the thing I most hated was the ‘blackout’. Every window in the house had to be blacked out, either with black paper or black curtains. Also lots of people bought gummed sticky paper about two inches wide and this was stuck to windows, criss-crossed all over. This was supposed to stop glass shards scattering if bombs exploded nearby. If you showed a chink of light, the air raid wardens would soon bang on the door. Care had to be taken that when we left the house during black-out hours - the hall light was turned off before the door was opened. Failure to do this would have also resulted in the air raid warden shouting ‘Put that light out!’ I remember at one time, shops were allowed to put a candle in their partly blacked out windows. Cars' head lights were screened, having black louvered covers that allowed only a small shaft of light through, about eight inches by two inches. We had no street lamps whatsoever. On moonlit and starlit nights we managed to find our way but when it was cloudy and no moon, it was frightening at times. Complete darkness is almost suffocating. Foggy nights were worst of all. One night coming home from work, the buses stopped because of fog. I was with two workmates and we set off to walk the five miles home. When we got to a forked junction I found I was following the wrong kerb. If had not been for my friends I would have really got lost. If you travelled home on the buses, you had a hard job not to pass your stop and relied on the conductor to shout out the stops. The conductors were very helpful to weary workers who worked long shifts and fell asleep on the buses going home. Often they would wake the sleeper to tell him or her they had reached their stop.
So many people went fire watching or were air raid wardens after they got home, or were in the Home Guard and then went to work the next day. Nonetheless in the darkened city, people still went to the cinema, theatres, dance halls and pubs. Predominately it was women in these places as more men were called up. Our spirits lifted as the bombing lessened and Winston Churchill’s speeches gave us hope. We always found something to laugh about at work. We managed to keep ourselves decently clothed with ‘make do and mend’. Girls kept a pride in their appearance. We still had our hair ‘permed’, used Fuller’s Earth for powder, painted our legs to save on stockings and spent our clothing coupons wisely. Birmingham Corporation still insisted on women wearing stockings to work, even in summer time. One of our typists rebelled at this but was told she must keep a pair to wear at work even if she went bare-legged outside.
We knitted vests of wool (for which we had to give up coupons) and also out of a cotton-type yarn which was coupon free. We also made undies out of any material we could scrounge. How lucky the girl who got hold of some parachute silk! You may laugh at us knitting vests. We needed all the clothing we could find. The temperature in our office one day was a chilly 45o F. For a typist constantly touching metal keys, this was really cold and made accurate work difficult. We wore rayon or lisle stockings — no silk ones were available. We were issued with clothing coupons — I seem to remember this as thirty-six a year, but today, there seems to mention of greater numbers — I don’t recall anything like sixty! A pair of stockings was three coupons, as were a vest or pair of knickers. A coat or costume (ladies suit) was eighteen coupons. In spite of this, most people looked smart on top, with lovely hairstyles. If it was rumoured that a particular shop had had a delivery of lipsticks, shoes or stockings, soon a queue would form. One day, someone came into the office and said a tiny greengrocer’s shop nearby had got some oranges. Even our supervisor could not resist this. We were allowed out a few at a time to take a turn in the queue. We returned triumphant with two oranges a piece. Tiny children had never seen one. The summer of 1944 was a hot one. Nearly everybody had a wonderful crop of tomatoes. We had tomatoes on everything — in salads, on toast, in sandwiches. If you went to a café for tea, tomato sandwiches were the only thing on the menu. We were still battling our way through Europe and kept thinking it will all be over this time next year - and so it was. Yet the rationing and shortages still went on long after that.
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