- Contributed by
- Audrey Lewis - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- Audrey Lewis (née Colman)
- Location of story:
- Rotherham, South Yorkshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 November 2004
Author wearing her 'Ingrid Bergman' hat, 1945
I left school on my 14th birthday convinced there was something more exciting 'out there' for me to do, and besides, school didn't seem to be leading anywhere. I was bored and void of inspiration except for Miss Jacob's drama classes. Wanting to get out into the world, I found there was little conducive work available so took a job behind the counter of a local chemist's shop. Roland Green was the chemist. For two years I exchanged pleasantries with people worried about the war, their offspring serving in the forces and families living in London and places subject to heavy bombings. It made me very sad to hear about personal losses in the different war zones.
In the shop I remember the emptying shelves where once had been cough mixtures and cosmetics. Everything seemed to be in short supply. The chemist taught me to mix liquid leg make-up, because we couldn't get stockings. Women painted their legs and drew a seam line with a pen down the back of the leg. How we all hated the rain! It was so thick with soot and so heavy with acrid odour from the factories as they belched thick smoke from the Bessemer chimneys. I knew that when I reached my destination the carefully painted legs would be a mess and black filthy rivulets would have drifted down into my shoes. The state of hair, so carefully arranged, is left to the imagination.
Mixing potions for ailments and carefully counting tablets for prescriptions, I also took the odd swig of liquorice and chlorodyne (sic), kept hidden behind the shelves. It anaesthetized my tongue and prepared me for a taste of the chemist's black coffee. My wages were seven shillings and sixpence for a five and a half-day week, but had risen to 12 shillings before I left. Pocket money was one shilling and sixpence and not enough for a growing girl of sixteen to pay bus fares and buy an occasional tube of lipstick that Granny called 'wicked'. It was a shilling for an elocution lesson.
My next employment began two years later at the Rotherham Health office in the hospital services accounts department. My great uncle Isaac was later to become head of the office with a female staff of all ages. He was a pleasant man with a twinkle in his eye, and was very popular. He gambled on the dogs, though, and lost many a fortune and even his home with Aunt Kate. He'd rattle his keys in his pocket when he went to the only telephone to put on his bet, thinking the noise would cover what he was up to.
It was very cold there in winter. Stringent wartime practices to save heating were in force. We sometimes secretly lit a candle under an upturned clay plant pot to provide a little extra heating during office hours. Black sheets and blinds hung over every window and made the place so dull and dark. One of my jobs was to go to a hospital clinic opposite the Health Department to pick up specimens and take them to the hospital, about a mile away, for analysis. I carried them carefully in a small basket without any knowledge of their content. It was only later I learned that they were venereal disease specimens. I don't think I had even a clue to what that meant.
Being able to walk to and from the office (about two miles) meant I could save money for a dripping sandwich for lunch from a little café near by. Some of the younger members of staff volunteered to help with hoeing in farmer Baker's field on Saturdays. It was hard work for a shilling a day.
While at the office opportunities came my way to join one or two factory operatic societies and a group of madrigal singers. The Rotherham Repertory Company, courtesy of Miss Jacob the producer, cast me as the cockney maid in 'Gaslight'. She had heard me read with a French accent and thought I could tackle a London accent for the play. At fifteen, I was given a sharp telling-off for kissing the leading man too passionately. The shows were great entertainment and were always well attended.
My mother, when at home, had the radio on in the background all day with music and talk. It featured so largely in our lives. Whenever possible I listened to plays, shows and musical programmes. Workers Play Time, Forces Favourites, Tommy Handley and ITMA, Henry Hall and his band and all the big American Jazz bands. My younger sister, Sylvia, intent on disrupting the end of a play to spoil it for me, would regularly interrupt the drama. No amount of pleading helped — she made every noise she could to drown the radio. Often I had to read the play to find out how it ended.
Although the times were grim in some ways and the dark nights long, we had a good time. We went to the three cinemas in town to see every film we could, 'White Christmas', 'For Me and my Girl'; Bogart and Bergman in 'Casablanca' (I bought a Bergman-style hat to emulate her sophistication). There were heroic naval epics and films starring George Formby, Gracie Fields and our favourite singers, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Big bands and crooners were all the rage. 'This is the Army, Mr Jones'. Vera Lynn's, 'We'll meet again' and 'White Cliffs of Dover'; and the swinging music of Glenn Miller and his American Air Force Band.
We also saw the Pathé News, even American troops marching to Boogie-woogie music, and sat entranced by it all. We were mad about uniforms. Even at fifteen, but not considered old enough for boyfriends, we would imagine ourselves dancing with some handsome military partner but had to make do 'bust to bust' with our girlfriends instead. Dad was always on the watch for any boy who wanted to take advantage of his little girl. He was always at the entrance to the church hall or at the gate to make sure I returned home by ten o'clock. That sometimes spoiled things a bit.
Clothes were a problem and the only way to get new ones was either to collect unwanted coupons or buy remnants of material in the Market. Making up dresses from different pieces of cloth was a tedious job and not always successful. You would never believe the variety of frocks put together for a dance at the local church hall. In addition there were hand-me-downs and second hand shoes either too big or too small. No wonder surgeons have long been dealing with the consequences of the agonies suffered and physical damage done.
Growing older, I was allowed to attend dances at the Rotherham Town Hall where a Canadian swing band entertained and the girls could hardly contain themselves when the Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra songs were played. Tapping our feet and swaying to the rhythms we longed for and hoped some lovely airman would swing us into action on the dance floor. We tried every dance, learned the new steps, and prepared to be carried away on cloud nine. On one occasion I wore a long, home made, blue gown, modelled on a famous film star's dress. The band struck up 'Alice Blue Gown'; I was taken into the arms of a very strong Canadian Airman to dance - and was so flattered!
There was also a very talented young Canadian pianist who played the most amazing boogie-woogie music. It was almost mesmerizing. I often wondered what happened to him in the war.
I have good reason for remembering the 'talent-spotting' sessions in the cinemas and at the Regent Theatre. (Sadly, no longer there.) Friends persuaded me to enter with a French sketch that I'd written. To my surprise I won and was given ten shillings as the prize. But a professional theatre entertainer and older man, a violinist, invited me to his rooms to discuss our becoming a partnership in the theatre. 'You're just what I need in my act,' he told me. Very naively I followed him to his lodgings not far from the theatre, was shown into his bedroom and pushed onto the bed. At that moment his landlady came in and in a loud voice laid down the riot act to him and told me to GET HOME! Very shaken, I went to Granny's but was too afraid to tell her what had happened.
There was great excitement when it was known that Phyllis Dixie was in town. Her show of 'nudes' was dubbed as 'disgusting' by my grandmother. For the devil of it I persuaded my friends to go with me to see the show at the Regent Theatre. We watched in utter amazement when the music played and the curtains were drawn to reveal the picture-frame tableau posing of immobile girls. The boys in our gang thought it all a 'a swizz' because the so-called nudes wore skin-coloured body tights.
I was at the Odeon cinema when there was an air raid. I filed out with the rest and followed everyone into the shelter. Sandy McPherson had been thrilling us at the cinema organ. He came with us into the shelter where we all sang together until the early hours of the morning. Later on, I heard my father's voice at the entrance but didn't let him know I was there as I thought he would be very cross with me. He had been everywhere looking for me and was greatly relieved when I arrived home safely.
I was asked to join a concert party led by Bessy Sharp, a highly talented local pianist, and invited to entertain the Canadian Airmen at their camp. I was under age but tall, looked older, and was passed off as eighteen. The cast consisted of a pianist, violinist and cellist. I filled in with dramatic recitations. The men were more interested in the 'get-up' of my popular blue frock modelled on a glamorous Hollywood film star. The whistles and calls were so flattering — but not all for my recitals!
With dad working all hours and on ARP duty he was barely been seen at home and mother was manning the telephone exchange for the fire station. Growing up and spreading my wings, I was looking at boys and finding new friends at local church youth clubs and being hired out to keep aunts company at night when their husbands were away on night patrols. When Victory in Europe in 1945 was followed by Victory in Japan the following August I had spent all my teenage years under the shadow of the Second World War. Now I began to set my sights on new horizons — and auditioned for RADA in London at a time when, it seemed, every young and ambitious hopeful had applied for a place. My elocution teacher, Gwen Hughes, had done a good job on me and I got a place. Going there in 1946, the scenes of devastation hit me hard and the suffering of so many people made me realise just how fortunate we had been that only three bombs had fallen on my home town of Rotherham.
I was at RADA for six months until my father could no longer support me. I was offered a loan from the Education Department in Rotherham, but my father wouldn't accept it, 'No girl of mine is going into debt'. The war years had its impact on me; I followed my love of uniforms and volunteered for the WRNS, serving at HMS Drake in Devonport until late in 1948.
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