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Home Fires Burning: Childhood Memories of Carlisle

by margaret bell

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margaret bell
People in story: 
Margaret Bell
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22 March 2004

I was born in June 1939 in Carlisle, Cumbria and in September of that year Britain went to war with Germany. Life would change for so many families now. Sons, fathers and brothers would be called up for National Service and be away from home for long periods, leaving wives and children to cope without them. My father served in the army and his brother Frank joined the air-force. My grandfather also did his bit by becoming one of the local home guard. Men in uniform were commonplace in Carlisle, the Border Regiment was stationed in Carlisle Castle and there were barracks at Hadrian’s Camp just outside the city. The air-force maintenance unit covered a large area of land about 4 miles away and there was a naval base at Anthorn about 20 miles away on the coast.

My first real memories began in 1942 with quite a traumatic experience. My mother woke me in the middle of the night, brought me downstairs and said “this is your daddy, say hello”. The man standing there was a complete stranger to me. I had no memory of ever having seen him before! He was home on leave after a long absence and I had completely forgotton him. However, after a while I was back to calling him dad and things were back to normal. Unfortunately, he was sent overseas later in the war, to India and Burma with what was later to be known as “The forgotton army”. It was a very long time before he was home again. He would send air-mail letters to my mother with crayoned drawings of the three of us together in front of the fire at home and he also wrote verses about how things would be when he came back. Looking at these when I was older made me realise just how home-sick he was along with the very real possibility that he might never come back. We said a prayer for him every night and he did come through the war without injury although he suffered terribly from malaria on and off for years afterwards.

On the home front the problems of running a home and feeding families was becoming more difficult. Food and clothing were rationed and some items were simply unobtainable. My grandfather took the “Dig for victory” slogan very seriously and he had an allotment where he grew all the vegetables we ate. We always had a big pan of broth on the stove even if we didn’t have meat to go with it. We were also lucky that my maternal grandmother had a small farm at Harker which I stayed at for weeks on end while my mother was working. My grandmother brought up 11 children (my uncles and aunts) on that farm, “Woodlands”. There were cows, pigs, chickens, horses and dogs, so there was always plenty to do. My uncles worked in the fields while my aunts tended the livestock, made butter and gathered vegetables and apples from the orchard to sell in the market in Carlisle on Saturday mornings. Every so often one of the pigs would be slaughtered and for days everyone would help making sausages, black-puddings, curing bacon and ham and using every part of the pig to either sell or eat. Eggs were collected daily (my job) and the cows were milked morning and night so the farm was a model of “self-sufficiency”.

When I was four years old I started Lowther Street infants school. I remenber my first day, seeing the teacher, Miss Nichol, a tall blond haired woman wearing a loose smock which billowed out behind her when she walked quickly, as she always did, it fascinated me for some reason and I’ve always remembered her with affection.
Children were suppled with gas masks in case of a gas attack by the enemy and every week in class we had to have a “gas practice”. We each brought our little cardboard box slung over our shoulders by a length of string contaning our “Mickey Mouse” or “Goofy” gas masks and when the teacher clapped her hands we had to get them on as quickly as we could. It was treated like a game because we were so young, but the idea behind it was deadly serious, getting the gas mask on quickly could save your life in the event of an attack.

Other things that stick in my mind about those early school days were the tins of “chocolate” powder (I think it was cocoa really) that the government supplied to school children. We used to lick a finger and dip into the sweet dark powder and it was heaven, there being a decided shortage of other “goodies”. To overcome the lack of toffees and sweets in general, instead of going to the sweet shop on the way to school we called in Robson’s chemist shop and bought 2ozs of cough pastilles or lozenges, cinnamon sticks and strong dark liquorice. A special treat were Horlicks tablets. These things were not rationed and it says a lot for the ingenuity of children that they managed to overcome the deprivation in this way. During the morning lessons we had the radio on for Ann Driver broadcasting for schools. It consisted of stories, music and excercises for the very young and I enjoyed this part of the school day best.

At home with my mother and my paternal Nana and Grandad we carried on living as close to a normal life as possible, it is amazing how you can get used to finding ways of managing with very little. My grandad started mending and heeling his own shoes using a cobbler’s last and buying leather from a shop in town. In fact he was so good at it, he was mending all of our shoes in the end. It was in 1943 that we took in two evacuees, David from Newcastle and Edgar from Liverpool. I thought of them as older brothers and I went everywhere I could with them. We had relatives living in Newcastle and I went with my grandparents to visit them. They had a small miner’s house with a tiny back yard in which they had built an air-raid shelter. I thought it was a wonderful den at the time. It was really just a garden shed, right next to the wall of the house, with a corrugated tin roof added. Inside was a bench with a mattress on top and in the corner was a pail of water, some candles, matches and a pile of books. If a bomb had hit the house the whole shed would just have collapsed in a heap! I suppose the family felt safer out of the house when the air-raid siren sounded, but it really was a false sense of security. Thankfully the shelter was never tested out, the house was never bombed.

In Carlisle we didn’t have any serious bombing, although we heard aircraft passing over every night. My grandad would tell me when he heard the German planes going over, he said they had a different sound from our planes, they had a heavy drone, drone, drone when they were carrying a load of bombs whereas our planes sounded lighter and faster. I was quite good at recognising these differences myself eventually.

The park across the road from our house was also home to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries — a block of pre-fabricated buildings, standing adjacent to a prisoner of war camp for Italians who worked in the fields around the city during the day, under guard of course. My grandad had left a pair of home guard boots he had just polished just inside our front door and when he went to put them on they had disappeared. He swore that one of the Italian prisoners had stolen them although this was never proved, but that was his story and he was sticking to it! The park was also the venue for a visit from Field Marshal Montgomery (Monty) and I remember watching the parade from the city centre to the park where hundreds had turned out to watch. He was a very popular figure and I remember hearing people talking about him but I was too young to really understand who he was.

We had no television in those days, but we had a massive Sobel wireless which we listened to every night. When any news of the war came on my grandad would tell everyone to be quiet and he would pull his chair right up to the table where the wireless stood and press his ear to it, even though you could hear it perfectly well without. While sitting in the evenings with my mother’s family at “Woodlands” my aunts would sit in a circle with a large wooden frame covered in canvas on their knees and make carpets with strips of material cut from old clothes. They used a piece of wood called a stobber to pierce the canvas and press in the strips of cloth firmly close to each other, eventually covering the whole of the canvas. I don’t know how, but they even managed to get an acceptable design into the carpet and it has to be said the carpets lasted for years.

As far as bombing in Carlisle we were fortunate no major incidents occurred, so although some homes had shelters built, they were rarely needed. Our main living room at home was the kitchen which was in the basement of the house and was probably the safest place possible if a bomb landed near. We had a large house with two reception rooms (one of which was referred to as “the parlour” and only used when we had company), but everyone congregated in the kitchen which had a black fire range with an oven at the side. We used this oven to keep wood dry for lighting the fire, a gas stove was used for cooking. There was no central heating or running hot water then but there was always an iron kettle hanging over the fire so hot water was not a problem and a pot of tea could be ready immediately. We had an upright piano in the parlour and a violin and an accordian which were all played on Saturday evenings when my grandad’s brother Tom and his wife came round. This was something of a ritual and my mother always came up with something special for sandwiches, often a tin of salmon or ham which was quite a treat. I am sure she had a contact in the “black market”as she could produce things that were almost impossible to get any other way. At the market on Saturday mornings the farmers brought their produce to sell, including rabbits complete with fur which housewives had to skin and gut themselves, poultry with all the feathers on which had to be plucked at home and lots of home grown vegetables.

So life went on. Families trying to keep the wheels turning until the war was finally over and food shortages, air-raids and the black-out were in the past. During very hard times the people at home had kept the home fires burning to greet the service men coming back. You can’t ask for more than that.

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