- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ann Gibbs
- Location of story:
- Buxton, Derbyshire.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 June 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Louise Angell of the CSV Action Desk on behalf of Ann Gibbs and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and conditions.
I first saw the light of day on 15th December 1939, in St. John’s Nursing Home, in Buxton, a beautiful, peaceful market town in the Peak District. The war had been underway for just over three months, but had not yet seriously affected the private citizens, as it would later do.
However, most babies in those days were born at home, and giving birth was a dangerous time; there were no scans, no antenatal clinics, and many women gave birth with the assistance of their neighbour, or if they could afford it, the local midwife.
There was no National Health Service, and for the most part, people only visited the doctor or dentist if they really had to, when all the tried and tested home remedies failed. We never needed an appointment; it was simply a matter of sitting in the waiting room, and taking your turn. We were still awaiting the antibiotic, and other magnificent drugs, which are available today. Ambulances were private hire vehicles, - in fact, my Grandfather ran a garage from West Road, and the ambulance was one of my favourite play places, and became our “hospital” on wet days; we played with the equipment, and really had a good game. Childhood illnesses such as measles, German measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, and mumps were regular occurrences, and epidemics meant fewer children in school. They all meant at least a week tucked up in bed, and being given lots of TLC.
Buxton was privileged to have a Cottage Hospital, but there was no maternity hospital in those days. The matron, Miss Johnson was very strict, and the hospital was well run and friendly. Minor, and indeed not so minor operations were performed in its theatre, by surgeons visiting regularly from Stockport.
Sadly, my mum died the day after I was born, having been transported to Derby Infirmary, and having a second, and unexpected baby, who was stillborn. This meant that I was taken to live with my Grandparents, and although my Dad lived with us until his remarriage six years later, they virtually became my parents, and I always called them Mum and dad.
What a Christmas it must have been for them, in 1939 - in addition to their grief, and the problems of dealing with a tiny baby who had to be fed every two hours, and bathed in olive oil, there were effects of the war, which were only just beginning to affect every family.
For the next three or four years, we lived on West Road, which was a very friendly area, and we children were able to play outside together, without any worries other than that we might fall from the tall rocks, which we loved to climb! Life seemed very carefree, although we had to suffer the “blackout”, which meant that thick black curtains had to hang from every window, to prevent lights shining through, and inadvertently guiding our enemies. For the same reason, there were no streetlights, and torches were not allowed as far as I can recall; what a problem it must have been, getting about at night! We also had very few sweets, biscuits or cake, as there was strict rationing, but we had never known any other way, and did not miss them! Even fruit was scarce, and bananas were not available at all, I vividly remember my first taste of the banana, which arrived as a gift from my Uncle, who was serving in the Navy, and as soon as he was free to do so, he sent a parcel filled with exotic gifts.
Clothing was also “on ration”, and I have vivid memories of my Gran, who I always called Mum, sitting at the table, sewing away on her machine, making underwear and nighties for me out of her old petticoats. “Make do and mend” was the motto of the day, wool was unroved from knitted garments and reknitted, socks were darned, and worn until threadbare, and everything, which would mend, was mended — and often passed on to others when outgrown. We had a set of “ Sunday best” clothes, which were never worn out, and these were always passed on to younger brothers, sisters, or cousins. We also wore more “layers” than is customary today — the vest, the liberty bodice, the petticoat, then jumper or blouse and cardigan! Sheets were turned “sides to middle”, and men’s shirt collars and cuffs were turned to prolong the life of the garments. Knitting wool was available, and supplied in skeins; I used to enjoy winding the wool into a ball, but if you were the one sitting with your arms stretched out, with the skein stretched out between your two hands, it was quite tedious and made your arms ache.
There were, of course, no washing machines, and no magic powders, so there was always an early start on Monday morning, when the “copper” had to be lit to heat the water for the weekly wash; the routine was very strict, and it was always the aim to have the laundered items ironed and put away before Monday was over. It was hard work, using a “posser” and “Dolly peg” and the big mangle, which was used to squeeze a lot of water out of the washing. Whiteness was always enhanced by a dip of the “dolly blue bag” Drying was another problem in wet weather, and in our house this meant a clothes maiden near the fire, and often a full “pulley” as well.
Telephones were only used for business, or in the homes of the well to do, and never used for long drawn out conversations!
Cleaning was also much harder work than it is nowadays, carpets (no fitted carpets, but carpet squares and rugs) were lifted over the clothes line which was in every back garden or yard, (no spin driers!!) and beaten with a wicker beater, something like a big tennis racquet; stairs and floors were swept with a dustpan and brush, polishing was done with wax polish from a tin, and A LOT OF ELBOW GREASE. No special sprays, or antibacterial products!
Another of my mum’s strict standards was that the front step had to be cleaned and rubbed with donkey stone, and the brass door furniture to be polished early every morning; the front path had to be swept and if necessary swilled with a bucket of water, “before people are about”
Many houses in the area did not have any electricity, their lighting was from gas lamps, or oil lamps, and candles, and some even had to use the loo outside in the back yard. Some houses did not have a bathroom, and the bath ritual was usually on Friday night I believe, in a tin bath in front of the fire.
Baths were normally only taken once a week, and hair was shampooed at the same time, hence the advertising slogan “Friday night’s Amami night”. There were no bath bubbles, and I don’t recall anyone using a deodorant, the only thing I remember was soap — I wonder if the world was a smelly place, it certainly didn’t appear to be; perhaps with cooler surroundings, and plenty of washing, it wasn’t so bad!
Even a simple chore like washing up was very different, as there was no special liquid, and the hard block of soap which stood on every kitchen sink, was swished about in the water in an attempt to make bubbles and remove the debris from the dishes. Hot water was supplied from the boiler situated behind the fire, and it was a commodity not to be wasted.
Cooking was always done for what today is termed “from scratch”, as there were no ready prepared meals, and no Supermarkets to sell them! There were no microwaves, fridges or freezers in the ordinary homes, or small corner shops, the only methods of preserving I can recall were “bottling” of fruit, jam making, pickling of onions and other available vegetables, and laying down of eggs in a large jar of water glass in the cellar. Pork or ham, if it could be obtained, could be salted and hung from a hook also in the cellar. Often the meat “safe” which was the fore-runner of the modern fridge, could also be found in this mysterious cave - and all it really consisted of, was a small wooden cupboard, the front door of which was made of netting! It was also very often empty during the war years, as there was no food to put in it!! Every street had its corner shop, and shopping was a daily chore for the housewife. Baking was something that every housewife seemed to be able to do, and without electric mixers, it was a hard chore, beating eggs and mixing cakes by hand. Most of us children loved helping out on baking day, and having the privilege of “licking the spoon” once the cake mix had been put into its tin and into the oven.
The end products of all this hard work were always delicious.
Monday tended to be a bit different because of the washing, and most families enjoyed (or suffered!) the cold meat from Sunday’s joint, accompanied by bubble and squeak and pickles, or fried potatoes; sometimes, if meat was still left over from this traditional Sunday treat, it was minced, and made in to cottage pie for Tuesday! Food, of course was also rationed — each person had a few ounces of meat per week, and a few ounces of butter, bacon and cheese; such food as was not rationed was scarce, often there were queues outside the local shops, and when there was any food available the word spread like wildfire. Control of rationing was by Ration Books, inside which were small coupons for the weekly allowance, which were torn out by the shopkeeper, when supplying the regulation amount of whatever commodity.
Although food was scarce, I remember every meal — even a boiled egg with bread and butterfingers- was served very properly, at a table covered by a crisp white cloth, and gleaming silver cutlery. Families ate together, and table manners were very important.
There were two laundries in the town the IXL and the Spa Model laundry, who would collect your sheets, towels, collars, etc., all listed down in a laundry book, and return them the next week, washed, starched and ironed. It was I believe quite an expensive luxury — but what a boon!
Housewives learned how to use sour milk to make scones and junket, and to use powdered egg, and dried apples. Coffee was replaced by an essence of chicory, called Camp coffee, which was a very poor substitute for the real thing, and tea (leaves, not bags!) was on ration. We children were told to eat up every scrap on our plates, and at our house the threat was that Lord Woolton (the Food Minister) would come if any precious food were left! No dry cheese, dry bread, or any other food was ever wasted, there was always a use for it as bread and butter pudding or breadcrumbs, which were kept in a jar, and cheese would be grated, and stored for use later in a sauce or topping for macaroni cheese.
Absolutely no waste of any kind — and every housewife became a magician, making meals out of nothing! I suspect that many mums sacrificed their portions in favour of the children; we certainly never starved! Anyone who could grow their own vegetables or keep hens had a big advantage, although eggs were only readily available during the “laying season” which was in the summer. Eggs in winter, being scarce, were much more expensive. Sometimes the diet could be varied with the addition of a rabbit stew, a jugged hare, tripe and onions, oxtail stew, sheep’s head broth, or brawn — dishes we rarely hear of today. Fish and chips was another way to help eke out the rations, and it was relatively cheap in those days; our favourite fish and chip shop was Mrs. Needham’s, on Dale Road, and my mouth still waters at the thought of her delicious cooking. We would deliver a dish during the morning, which she would keep on top of the fryer to warm, and later we would collect our order — I presume as well as helping to keep the food hot, this habit also saved on paper.
Vegetables and fruit were only ever available in season — it was impossible to buy salad items at Christmas, or sprouts in summer, for example.
Paper and cardboard were very scarce, and all re-usable wrapping paper was saved, along with string from parcels, which was rolled up and kept in a jar or tin. There was a weekly collection of paper and card, the Salvage Cart would call to gather in any such items, and I recall the ladies wearing their siren suits and turbans, standing inside the cart, ready to stack up any boxes or newspapers. Newspapers were only “spare” if there had been a delivery of toilet paper in the town, otherwise they were cut into squares, and threaded on to a piece of string to hang up in the loo! Greaseproof paper, which had wrapped butter, or the new margarine, was scraped clean with a knife, and saved to line baking tins! This shortage must have continued for many years, as I remember starting work in the Civil Service in 1958, some thirteen years after the war ended, when our scrap pads were made from obsolete forms stapled together, and we had to save envelopes from incoming mail to recycle with “economy labels” for use in sending out the office correspondence!
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