- Contributed by
- BBC Cumbria Volunteer Story Gatherers
- People in story:
- Margaret Harper
- Location of story:
- Selside, Cumbria
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 October 2005
A family wedding picuture taken at Cooper House, Selside in 1921. The picture shows the monkey-puzzle trees that 'stood tall and majestic' before the bombing on 16 April 1941.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Janine John of the Cumbria volunteers on behalf of Margaret Harper and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions. Within the account told occurs a piece written by the author which is acknowledged as such.
When the war began in 1939, Margaret Harper was living on a farm called Hill Fold near Burneside. Just nine years old at the time, she remembers Cumbrian life in wartime and the bombing of Cooper House, Selside…
The Home Guard in action
My father was a farmer and was therefore exempt from joining the forces. Instead he joined the Home Guard and was the first to get a uniform because he was the average size. My mother was very concerned because she thought he would have to be in the front line of battle if it happened. One day in the early forties, our neighbour, who was never known to move very fast, came running into our house.
“You’ll have to come quickly. There’s a German parachuted onto your land and we must get him. Get your bayonet and we’ll go!”
The farmhand, my father and this fellow went with our neighbour’s wife, my mother and I following at an extremely safe distance. They walked right up onto the hilltop and you could see the parachute that had just arrived. With caution they poked and prodded it gently but no man came out. It was actually a barrage balloon which had broken free in Barrow-in-Furness. There was nothing they could do so they folded it up and dragged it all the way down the hillside; it was quite large and was a green-gold silky material. They put it in the barn and sent word to the local police and the Ministry about what had happened, then, after a while, they said we could keep it. My mother and all the neighbouring ladies took their scissors, cut it into pieces, and everybody had cushion covers or anything that they could make out of it.
Civilian life from a child’s perspective
We lived in the country and there were the restrictions with blackouts so no trips to the cinema or anything like that. We had a radio that had what you called a ‘wet battery’ and you had to take it to the town once a week to be charged. You had two so you took one to be charged and then you had the other in the radio. By Friday night it was desperate because so often the charge had gone down that you couldn’t listen to the radio.
Winston Churchill tried to keep the spirit of things moving. If you collected for the Red Cross during the war you got a certificate. They were great on their certificates just to keep things going.
The rationing wasn’t too bad in the country because we had room to grow vegetables and if a hen didn’t look terribly happy it could ‘get the chop’ — not so often because you needed to produce eggs. That was a means if you were getting desperate though. The Ministry of Food as it was in those days also supplied extra rations for outside workers. During the hay season and the harvest you got extra rations because you had to work so hard to do the harvesting. You were allowed a little more sugar, so that helped. There was also a little bit of a swapping system. Some town ladies would eat out and so they would swap the milkman if he could let them have an extra pint. They’d give him their sugar points, their sugar coupons. The milkman was often a farmer so he might let some of his friends have something; my father probably let him have a few turnips. So there was a little of that going on. I think most country families were allowed to keep one pig for human consumption and it was supposed to live on scraps. When the pig was slaughtered, which was a horrible thing on the premises, it was custom to always give your neighbour something — the spare ribs or the rib section. That had some food on it but not a lot. The spare rib was always given off and perhaps another bit of pork of some kind. That was a red letter day, especially if you had apples in the orchard, because you had apple sauce with it or sliced onions on it. My mother used to put the spare rib into the oven with sliced onions on it, then serve it with apple sauce and it tasted marvellous.
It was about four and a half miles for us to get to the shop in Kendal. We used to combine it with a market day on a Saturday because they allowed us that amount of petrol and that’s when we’d go to town. You were always governed by the amount of petrol you were allowed. If my father could work it, he would order two bags of cattle feed from the cattle feed place that was near the Palladium cinema in Kendal and they would arrange to put it in on the step so that he could collect it. He parked the car there, put the cattle feed in and then we went to the pictures. Ice-cream wasn’t plentiful but you could get a six penny ice-cream if you were lucky in town and the word spread round by Saturday afternoon that ‘that chap’s still got some left.’ I used to meet my Grandpa who would maybe say,
“Have you had an ice-cream today?”
“Yes,” I used to say.
“I heard that shop’s still got some. Go and get another!”
The Bombing of Cooper House
Margaret Harper wrote:
‘It was as a bewildered child that I heard the terrible news from my parents on April 16, 1941, that my grandmother’s home had been bombed in the early hours of the morning, killing outright eleven of its occupants.
Months later there were many tales of lights showing from the house due to ineffective blackout precautions, unguarded storm lanterns out of doors, and various other reasons for the bombing, but official opinion at the time was that the pilot of the German plane, returning from a bombing raid on Barrow-in-Furness shipyards, decided to jettison his load.
One land mine fell on the hill ground of Whinfell Beacon, and the other, a direct hit on Cooper House, Selside, near Kendal. Those killed were five members of the Wood family, one housemaid, who was a Langdale girl, and five evacuees from London. Two farm men survived, one sustaining several injuries from which he recovered.
It was thought that they were fortunate in the fact that they were sleeping in the opposite end of the house to where the land mine fell. Also their bed base was of the old palliasse type which had helped to break their fall during the blast.
I clearly recall seeing, next day, the desolate scene of smoking rubble where the house had been, and the torn trunks of the monkey-puzzle trees which formerly stood tall and majestic in the garden. In contrast the farm buildings were undamaged, and the stock alive and unhurt.
Very few material possessions were salvaged from the debris, but a few small items were found in the surrounding fields including my grandfather’s watch chain, which I now own.
It was for us a sad time, as for many more families affected during the 1939-45 war, but time passes, and life must go on. Cooper House was rebuilt to make it a complete farm dwelling once more.’
On remembering the bombing she added:
It was amazing because those monkey-puzzle trees were extremely large and one was just knocked off like a daisy. My grandfather had been a very prominent farmer and had shown cattle, so the house had all this silverware and in those days it was silver cups and medals and goodness knows what — not a sign of anything was left. It had just all gone to dust. The impact was utterly horrifying. It was a house full of solid, old furniture as they had in those days — solid oak and solid mahogany which doesn’t destroy easily — and when we went up the next morning it was just like a site of debris with little small fires here and there. It was very hard to comprehend what had happened.
It had been a very happy place for me. My grandmother was one of those lovely, kind gentle ladies. I used to go and stay with my cousin and she would bring us breakfast in the blue bedroom and spoil us! The odd thing is that my grandfather was extremely superstitious. He died two years before the bombing but he would never allow thirteen in the house and there were thirteen in the house the night the bomb hit.
After the bombing we were all unsettled — we lived probably four miles as the crow flies from Cooper House and we all slept outside in the fields for the next two to three nights. Being in the farming area, we slept near another farm and cottage, laid down a big tarpaulin sheet and the ladies brought out blankets and rugs. I thought it was quite exciting to sleep outside and I slept near these trees for shelter. My neighbour’s wife was extremely deaf so she couldn’t hear the bombers going over low. She used to bring us out drinks at intervals and we said she mustn’t risk going out of the house.
“I can’t hear so it doesn’t matter!” she’d say.
It was interesting having slept out of doors. Everybody was just too nervous because of it. We were two houses that didn’t have cellars. People with cellars felt that they had somewhere safe to run but we didn’t.
We heard planes coming over from Barrow to bomb the Barrow ship yards and of course they had captured Norway so if they could get their planes over to Norway they were safe. Our bombers chased theirs and if they could get to Scandinavia they were OK. That was how it happened. We did hear the drone but nobody believes it’s going to happen until it does because they were bombing the cities — that was the policy to establish that they were going to wipe out the country.
Barrow wasn’t as big as a town but they were trying to eradicate the shipyards. The people of Barrow had a very rough time. My Great Uncle had a business there and he would turn up on our doorstep, having got the train from Barrow to Arnside, Arnside to Burneside. We lived North of Burneside. He would turn up at the door at seven o clock in the evening and he’d say,
“I’ve come to get a good night’s sleep.”
My mother always had the spare bedrooms ready and he’d come and have a good night’s sleep. He used to say to my father, because he in turn had been a farmer’s son,
“Can I go and look at the sheep on the hills for you?”
He’d go up and do the shepherding for my father and sometimes my father would go with him. He’d come back, have his lunch and then make his return journey. He had a butcher’s business and he used to often bring a pound of sausages in his pocket which was wonderful with rationing. He used to say that that was his lifeline. His daughter similarly did that but she played the organ in the church so she felt that she must really stay at weekends. Just occasionally she used to come, as she said, ‘for a good night’s sleep’.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.