- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Elsie Roe
- Location of story:
- Toft Hill, and Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 30 June 2005
I want you to be a Time Traveller — not into the future but into the past. Come with me — to more than 60 years ago when the Second World War began.
I was born here in the village and I was only 8 years old when the war began. Then, the village was not as it is now. There was only one long street of houses down Toft Hill and in High Etherley and Low Etherley.
Southfield Park, Auckland View, St. Cuthbert’s and Garth Meadows did not exist. Red Houses, Bankwell Drive, Rudland Way and Witton Way had not been built: there were only fields. Where Red Houses is now there used to be a beautiful mansion owned by the Stobbart family. Stobbart Court is named after that family. As children, we played in the derelict house and we pretended to be ‘posh’. The old house had stables and orchards and a garden all around it. During the First World War it was an army hospital, my aunty was a nurse there in the First World War.
What happened when war broke out in 1939? Our lives changed and yet didn’t change. We went to school carrying our gas masks in a box. The school received evacuees and their teachers from towns at high risk from German bombing raids. The school became very crowded and many people had evacuees staying in their homes in the village. Uncle Tom, who had the fish shop in Church Street, had a boy called Henderson who peeled the potatoes for the chips. The peeler was a big barrel which was turned with a handle at the side.
Our Chapel had men billeted from the army. They slept on the floor of the Sunday School with their kit beside them. Many families befriended these men and we had two men who came to tea. Tommy Entwhistle and Yorky, I never knew his other names. Uncle Tom’s fish shop was the guard house for the quarry below the Community Centre. Here, the big anti-aircraft guns were stationed. As we lived in Church Street, I had to go on Friday (baking day) with the tea cakes and a jug of tea for the soldiers on guard.
As we were living in such close proximity to the soldiers, there was an epidemic of impetigo in the school. The mothers had great difficulty fighting this skin disease. In spite of the war we, as children, had great fun as children do and at the time were unaware of the seriousness of the situation. The windows were taped, the black outs put up at night. Our dads were out checking at night for chinks of light. We lived on the hill and we could see the coast getting hit in air raids and the skies were lit up and beautiful. We had no thought as children of what was happening to the people. Until we were bombed!!!!! It was in daylight. We children had been playing in the Quarry. Fortunately, we had come in for dinner at 12.00 as you did them. We heard the planes and the noise. I lived in Church Street right beside the Quarry. Under the stairs we went, Mam, Raymond and I, with the pantry door pulled towards us. The bombs fell in the quarry and in Garth Meadows, our windows were blown out and the glass ping ponged on the door which my mother was holding or trying to. The young boy I mentioned, Henderson, was killed as he ran for the Quarry steps. The bombs fell and missed every house except the one next to the school. They had an evacuee and they were away for the day at Evenwood. Mam’s sugar ration on the pantry table was ruined!!! Full of glass.
Women and men were all called to the forces and some who failed the medical, worked in munitions. Before the war only men worked and women looked after the children. Those who were exempt worked for the Ministry of Defence in the munitions factories, making shells and bombs. There were factories like this underground and they were camouflaged with grass on the roofs. My father worked there but not in the very dangerous shell filling part. These brave people went to work every day knowing that they were putting their lives at risk. They filled the shells and bullets with gunpowder.
My cousin Thora’s husband Geoff went to work at Aycliffe munitions and many women from the village also worked there. Thora and Geoff had recently been married; he knew the dangers and wouldn’t let Thora work in the factory. Thora pleaded with Geoff and eventually he consented to her going to work at the munitions. I remember the men and women in the village had a yellowish tint to their skin from the gunpowder. They were the brave people, the people who filled the shells. Many had accidents, fingers blown off and damage to their sight. The girls wore boiler suits and had to wear their hair under turbans. They used to say their hair would turn green if they didn’t cover it up.
Thora loved working there and she and Geoff did their bit for the War Effort. She was a beautiful girl who loved dancing and music. It was she who taught me to ballroom dance in the kitchen. One fatal day her life changed!!!! She had been made a Blue Band in charge of a section in the factory. A man from Butterknowle dropped a box of high explosives and produced a disaster. The poor man, unfortunately, was killed and Thora was terribly wounded. The first person to reach Thora was my father who naturally went for her husband. She was fully conscious all the while and lucky to be alive. My mother, who was the only mother Thora had known, as her real Mam had sadly died of cancer, recounted this part of the story to me.
Thora was taken to the Army Hospital at Winterton for an operation. Shrapnel from the blast was removed from her body, her injuries were many. As a child, my mother would not let me visit her when she was so ill. Mam went to visit regularly even though it took two bus journeys to reach the hospital. When Mam deemed that Thora was fit enough for me to visit I went along to see her. I shall never forget it!!!! The smell from the wounds of the soldiers, injured children and other victims. My beautiful cousin, I didn’t recognise her. She looked drained and just like a witch. I was shocked.
Thora was in that hospital for a year and had soldiers running with her held in a spinal clamp, from the cinema up and down the hill. She never lost her fighting spirit, she never gave up. Life was enjoyable for her in spite of her injuries. When she was finally sent home she had a built up shoe. One leg was 6 inches shorter than the other. Like I said earlier she was young, beautiful and a dancer. She would not accept being like this. Determined to be normal, another surgeon was sought at Darlington Hospital. Another year passed and she had hips broken again and had physiotherapy until the leg was nearly the same length. The spirit she showed and the prayers and the help from God gave her life. She was an Aycliffe Angel. She wore stiletto heels until she died at the age of 70 from a heart attack. Still with shrapnel in her body from the factory explosion, she had four beautiful daughters.
Only recently have the Aycliffe Angels been recognised as the brave people they were. The Northern Echo have held a campaign for them to be given their rightful place in history and to receive our thanks for their remarkable War Efforts.
Just imagine what would have happened if the German bombs had fallen on the factory!!!
Angels come in many disguises.
Disclaimer: Submitted by Catherine Dawson of Woodhouse Close Library, on behalf of Elsie Roe.
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