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15 October 2014
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A Lady Driver's War

by prettyterrier

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Betty Handley
Location of story: 
Melton Mowbray
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 July 2004

Betty’s War

1939-aged 20
When war broke out I was working in Leaders Shoe Shop on Nottingham Street Melton Mowbray. Within weeks I volunteered for the ARP which was based in the Cattle Market refreshment room. One evening a week we attended lectures on first aid given by Dr Bishop, when he spoke about compound fractures I passed out, and ended up draped over a wall outside. As they were so short of drivers I carried on driving without any more lectures. The two ambulances were in fact the Melton and District Laundry delivery lorry, and C. B. Paynes furniture lorry. These were converted every evening by runners being fixed to the inner sides and stretchers being put in. We were on a rota of around 12 people taking turns to sleep there on camp beds using sleeping bags, but were on call at any time of the day or night leaving work immediately the siren sounded. Some weekends we took the vehicles on training exercises. Within a few months we were given two very old army field ambulances and uniforms of navy overalls and berets. I am 5ft tall and had to sit on a cushion and have a big one behind my back or I couldn’t see out. There were two incidents in the town during the eighteen months that I drove the vehicle. The first early in the morning on Nov 23rd 1940 thirteen bombs were dropped the targets Stanton Iron Works and the Gun Range, Four men on their way to work were killed and a little girl. I was with the ambulance that took the little girl and some of the wounded to hospital. A few weeks’ later four bombs dropped on Brook Street wrecking houses, a garage, and uprooting a tree.
A ruling came in that younger women without children couldn’t work in shops or offices, as I had a driving licence I couldn’t go to the Navel Stores with my friends but was sent to the Co op to drive the bread round to the local villages, and as this involved getting to the bakery at 5.00 in the morning I had to give up the ARP. The bakery was in Kings road. Bread wasn’t rationed but only one cake a week was allowed. Once a week I drove up to the “Remount” on Welby Lane, which was an army depot and where guns were made, to collect boots for mending and take to the Co op shoe repairers, and return those already repaired. Villagers were very friendly and we were given many cups of tea, and stopped at the Rose and Crown at Hose for lunch once a week, luxury! One winter it snowed very hard. Getting around was difficult and involved a lot of walking with a heavy breadbasket. I had my own smaller basket as I couldn’t carry the usual one.
My fiancé Cecil Handley was in a reserved occupation at the Steel Works and in 1942 we got married and moved in with my parents George and Alice Atkinson. Six months later he was called up into the Service Corps and sent to Ascot I was allowed to leave work and join him there, and we lived in rooms. Within 3 months Cecil had embarked for North Africa so I returned home to live again with my parents.
As I had been away I had to register at the employment office and because I had a driving licence I had no choice of occupation and went to the Midland Garage in Burton Street. My duties were to drive the taxis, and the Melton ambulance, which was garaged there. Mr Cis. Ladbury was the owner of the garage. Taxis were limited to a round trip of 20 miles unless the customers had a doctor’s certificate. The charge was 1 shilling a mile. Petrol had to be strictly accounted for, we also sold petrol and only had replaced the amount in the book Headlamps were covered so that night driving was using 1inch slits, and there were no signposts. I drove a Daimler, a Rover, and an Armstrong-Sidley belonging to Mrs Van Rensler, a charming lady. This car had been specially made for her and she was 7ft tall, fortunately she didn’t drive so it wasn’t too big in the front otherwise I couldn’t have driven it. Fetching Service personnel from the station to home was lovely but taking them back very very sad. Driving for weddings also very pleasant but of course funerals more difficult especially if I knew the people. Every friday I drove the cashier from Patten and Bouldings woollen mill to fetch the wages, one Friday a girl from the mill had impaled her hand on a spike from the spinning machine, I managed to drive to the doctors but passed out in front of Horace Burton as soon as we arrived and finished up on a couch in the doctors myself. This was seen by another taxi driver who told Mr Ladbury, when I got back to the garage Mr Ladbury said he had poured out a large whisky for me as I had been ill but as I seemed to have recovered he would drink it himself, which he did. I drove some of Egerton Park Cricket team when they played at Oakham, to earn my tea I had to score for them. Late one night I was called to fetch a pregnant lady into Melton Maternity Hospital, driving in the dark with very little light and no signposts was worrying but we arrived in time. Thank goodness I had a nurse with me.
In 1944 my sister in law Gladys and her baby died in childbirth leaving my older brother George Atkinson with a young daughter and large grocery and cafe business. Mr Ladbury was very understanding and allowed me to leave at once to go and live my brother. I was soon delivering groceries to the villages and in the town, and also cooking and serving in the shop, in fact any thing that was required. Most goods came in bulk everything had to be weighed out, butter, biscuits, cheese, dried fruit among other things. Hams cooked and then sliced. Tuesday being market day visiting farmers queued up the street to have lunch. My father “manned” the pay desk talking to every one at great length. He always maintained the piece of cheese in his ration was the bit for the mousetrap. He kept chickens in his garden and pedalled off most days with 2 buckets on his bike full of peelings and things to boil up for the chickens to eat. In 1946 my brother married Dorothy the French mistress at the girls school I went back to live with my parents but stayed working at the shop.
My husband Cis, came home on leave for a month after being away for four years, but had to return to Italy for another year because he wasn’t called up until a year after war started.
When he was finally demobbed we couldn’t find a house to buy for a year, but eventually bought 6 Clumber Street
And moved in 1947.

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Message 1 - A Lady Driver's War

Posted on: 12 July 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hi prettyterrier

Just a line to tell you that I very much enjoyed reading your story.


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