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15 October 2014
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A Whitehaven 'Screen Lass' Remembers World War Twoicon for Recommended story

by ritsonvaljos

Contributed by 
ritsonvaljos
People in story: 
Annie Ferguson (née Sharp), James Sharp, Mary Ann Sharp, Sister Rose, Sister Mary, Mary Mahone, Neville Chamberlain, Isobel 'Belle' Connor, Josephine 'Josie' Gregory, Josephine 'Josie' Philips, Joyce Smitham, George 'Geordie' Smith, Stephen Bell Tyson Ferguson, Mary Elizabeth Ferguson, John Burney, Charles Sharp
Location of story: 
Whitehaven, Moresby, Lowca, Patterdale, Glenridding, Cumbria
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3633725
Contributed on: 
07 February 2005

Annie Ferguson relaxing at home. Just before WW2, in 1939, Annie moved back home from Patterdale to Whitehaven and became a 'Screen Lass' at Haig Pit, Kells, Whitehaven. This work involved manually sorting coal from stone, metal and other waste.

Introduction

This article has been submitted on behalf of Mrs Annie Ferguson from Whitehaven, Cumbria who worked in the coal mining industry during World War Two, being employed as a 'Screen Lass'. This is Annie's personal testimony as told to me on Sunday 6 February 2005.

Annie understands that it can be placed in an archive for use by others. Other researchers have interviewed Annie on numerous occasions about her life and work, which are inevitably more detailed than this submission. Annie has been a close family friend for as long as I can remember. I am pleased to honour Annie and her family by assisting in the writing of this account of her memories about World War Two.

Before the War

"I was born in February 1923 at Birley Court, Queen Street, Whitehaven. It used to be known by other names as well, such as Hamilton Place. My parents were James and Mary Ann Sharp, so I was born Annie Sharp. Then when I would be about six or seven years old we moved to High Road, Kells, near Haig Pit.

My first school was Quay Street School, near Bardy Lane down near the harbour. After that I went to St Begh's School on Coach Road Whitehaven. They were both Catholic schools. Sister Rose and Sister Mary used to be our teachers.

Like everybody else in those days I left school at fourteen. So that would be in 1937. I think jobs were hard to come by then, but I went to work at Patterdale near Ullswater. What happened was that I had a school friend who was a just a little older than me, Mary Mahone, who worked at Wilson's Farm, Glenridding. That's also near Ullswater, the next village to Patterdale. Mary found out they were looking for someone at this farm at Patterdale, so she wrote to me, and I went there. I went to Greenbank Farm, Patterdale. You got board and lodging plus six pounds and ten shillings at the end of each term. Most of this went home to help mother look after the rest of the family.

I don't know how long Mary was there, but I stopped there for three 'half terms'. A term was six months. I finished in the November, which would be 1938. So I left farming and then I came back to Whitehaven. In the February I was sixteen and it was then I started work at Haig Pit as a 'Screen Lass'.

Work and marriage during the war

If I'm not mistaken, it was Sunday 3rd September when we heard there was going to be a war. We hadn't had what we called a 'wireless' very long. Everybody was new fangled with the wireless then. We all listened to Mr Chamberlain on the radio on the Sunday morning saying we were at war.

All through the war I worked as a 'Screen Lass'. This was on the 'Pit Top' and involved picking metal and stone out from the coal. They were a really good lot I worked with on the 'Screens'. In 1939 some of the others I started work with were Belle Connor, Josie Gregory, Josie Philips and Joyce Smitham, who was later Joyce Farrar after she married. On the 'Screens' during the war we worked shifts. I worked 'First' and 'Back' shifts on alternate weeks. One week I was on the 'First' shift and the next week I was on the 'Back' shift.

The gaffer was Geordie Smith. He used to watch down on us working from the gantry. Everything was on a conveyor belt. Then two of us had to shovel the waste down a chute into a crusher and the wagons below. It was a great big shovel and you could be on this for the full eight-hour shift. They've got one of the shovels in the Haig Mining Museum now.

I was a 'Screen Lass' about seven years, until 1946. In 1942, I married my husband Steve Ferguson. We married just after Christmas, on Boxing Day. By then Steve was in the Air Force, Ground Crew. After we married and he'd finished his leave he had to go back and I didn't see him at home again for three months. We haven't really got any photos from then, only Steve in his RAF uniform. There weren't that many cameras around in those days.

Steve's grandmother had been a 'Screen Lass'. In 1887 she was one of the local 'Screen Lasses' who'd been picked to go all the way to London as part of a deputation to protest against women being employed on the 'Pit Top'. She'd maybe never been any further than Parton before then, but anyway she went and met the M.P. for Whitehaven and the Home Secretary.

Steve lived in the Newhouses, which had been built by Lord Lonsdale for the miners. He was one of eleven children: four sisters and seven brothers. One of the sisters had died so there were ten of them then. He worked at William Pit until 1941 when there was an explosion and then he went into the RAF until the end of the war.

Steve was in the William Pit accident in June 1941 before we were married. It happened on the 'Back Shift' and Steve was on the 'First Shift'. He had swapped shifts with John Burney because John had wanted to go somewhere. John Burney was Steve's 'marra' so they used to take over from each other down the pit and John was one of those killed in that accident. Steve was still down the pit at the 'pit bottom' on the way back up and went back to help. Some of Steve's best friends were killed or injured in that accident.

After the war, Steve was again down William Pit when there was another explosion and over a hundred men were killed, but he got out. My own brother Charlie Sharp was killed in an accident at Lowca Pit on 15th December 1946. When it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Lowca Pit accident, there was a memorial service at Moresby Church, next to Lowca village. They had an exhibition of all sorts of mining artefacts on display before and after the service.

Food and rationing

After we married we moved in with Steve's Mam. During the war the food situation was bad. As I said before, Steve's mother had eleven children and of course food was on ration. We used to have to eke everything out, and we maybe only got one pot of jam every four weeks or so.

You had to stand in queue for nearly everything. Steve's mother used to stand in Jenkin's shop for cakes, but Grandma Ferguson liked to bake bread. My own mother used to make Sheep's Head soup in the Set Pot when she was able to get a sheep's head off the butcher. The Set Pot was also used to wash all the clothes in, but everything was scrubbed out clean. Then she used to take jugs of this soup around to other neighbours and friends. All the people on Kells did that, sharing out whatever food there was.

After Steve came out of the RAF we got a 'prefab' house at Hensingham, the other side of the valley in 1946. Then we could get the groceries at Jane's, Hensingham. They were good with getting eggs, which had been bad to get through the war. We never got any bananas during the war. But when we moved to Hensingham, we got bananas at Jane's with us having 'Green Books'.

Meat was on ration in the war and for some time after. Steve's mother used to get a shoulder of lamb and then eke that out. I used to help with the cooking of course.

What we did away from work

There was the blackout on in the war of course, so everywhere was pitch black at night with no street lights. I wouldn't do it now of course, but what we all liked to do was walk round the harbour or down the pier. In Whitehaven then you felt as though you'd be safe walking out, even at night.

The problem with the blackout on was that sometimes you couldn't see where you were going. For instance, my brother Charlie got a black eye when he walked into a lamp post one time! He was a well-known local boxer and only twenty-six when he died.

We used to like singing and sometimes got sheet music, even after the war. We liked a lot of music and listened to the radio or went to shows if we could. Then, when we could afford it, we went to the pictures. On a Sunday night I might go out with Steve and we used to like a walk down the pier.

Another thing I liked, when I was with Steve was that he would maybe take me for an ice cream, especially at Ennini's. This was a real treat then in the war. It was on the corner of King Street and Lowther Street opposite Burton's. There were a few Italian families in Whitehaven from before the war with ice cream shops, fish and chip shops or cafés. I was recently talking over about these ice cream shops in Whitehaven with my daughter Pam.

Reminiscing about the war

Over the past few years I've had lots of people wanting to ask me about working as a 'Screen Lass', the William Pit disaster of 1947, or about the Newhouses where Steve's family lived. The Haig Pit Mining Museum interviewed me, and Steve, about these. They produced a book and a play based on it. I've had the BBC and Border TV write to me.

With a few others we took part in a project about 'Screen Lasses' and used to meet up now and again. In 2004 I was interviewed by BBC radio for 'Woman's Hour'. We had some really good times working on the 'Screens'."

Conclusion

As referred to in the above testimony, Annie's brother Charlie Sharp was one of fifteen men who died in the Harrington No 10 (Lowca) Pit explosion. He was a married family man aged twenty-six years old and lived at Greenbank, Whitehaven.

Annie and Steve have been happily married for over sixty years, since December 1942 and have one daughter, Pam. I would like to thank them for sharing their memories about the war.

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