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The Fears of John Thornhill Ward - a Child from Poplars Farm, Anslow.

by ambervalley

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

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People in story: 
John Thornhill Ward, Thomas and Mary Ward, Arthur and Dora Ward, Peter, Elizabeth, Margaret Lucy and Richard Ward, Madge and Phyllis Ward and James Curzon, George Botham, Sergeant Docherty, Mr Venables, Tommy Weston, Arthur Walker, The Taylor Family, Arthur Holmes
Location of story: 
Poplars Farm, Anslow, Staffordshire.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 December 2005

The Amunition Dump at Fauld in Staffordshire was adjacent to an alabaster mine that employed a lot of people in the Tutbury area, lots of my school friends parents worked there. They mined the alabaster for Statons Plaster Mill at Tutbury who produced plaster of Paris. The actual dump itself was in the disused part of the mine and one day in 1937 as George Botham, a watchman at the dump was passing my father, Arthur Wards gate to his farm house (Poplar Farm) George said "if ever the dump blows up it will flatten Derby as well as Burton Upon Trent". As an eight year old boy it frightened me to death. Mr Venables another watchman at the Dump liked Anslow so much he purchased a plot of land from Tommy Weston, the local Blacksmith. In 1938 plans started to go ahead for the Burton Upon Trent bye-pass, leaving the Litchfield Derby Road at Barton Under Needwood, going west around Burton Upon Trent, going west at Claymills. It was all pegged out and took out Mr Venables building plot! It was a 10 mile detour around Burton-Upon Trent and if it had been built it would have taken out an awful lot of farmland, as it was it was built many years later and it went straight through Burton taking out only six houses.

1938 was also the year that the 11-14year olds left the local village schools (Hanbury, Draycott in the Clay, Rolleston, Stretton and Anslow) and went to the top school at Tutbury under the headship of Mr S W Stephens a man then in his sixties and a very good headmaster.

Living in a large family with a lot of political interest, parents, grandparents, aunts, six children a wireless and the daily newspaper, there was always a lot of information about the impending wars. I lost a great uncle in the Boer War, George Thornhill. Dad was seventeen at the start of WW1 but worked on the farm so was exempt but he talked of his memories of that and his fears for the next one.

1939 the 1st September, I was sitting on the front doorstep of Ivy House Farm, Warton, Staffs on holiday with my aunt when war was declared, it was a lovely sunny day. September, Arthur Walker, a retired farmer, who worked for the now Ministery of Agriculture was in the farm yard telling grandad that the government wanted him to plough up 30 acres to grow food, wheat, potatoes and cattle food for the cows, that would have made 40 acres in total under the plough out of 112 acres. Dad was poorly but started to get the job done with three old horses an impossible task!

Christmas 1939 I went with my brother Peter to my grandparents at Wolverhampton leaving Burton Upon Trent station changing at New Street Station for Wolverhampton. On the return after christmas about six o'clock in the evening my brother and I as two small boys on New Street station platform, aged 10 and 13 years were swamped by soldiers getting onto the train, I have never been so frightened as I could not get my bearings and could not see anything beyond the walls of soldiers.

1940, was very cold and we had a lot of snow, we all worked on the farm including us six children, the evacuees started to arrive from Coventry and Birmingham, they were poor little things who didn,t like the countryside, or the cold, they didn't like our parafin lamps or our outside loos. We did not have any evacuees up at the farm as there were too many of us but some were placed at the village. I once took two little boys who were lodging with the Taylor Family at the Thatched cottage, in the village out on a sledge to feed the beasts, my grandad told me off when I got back because I had taken them out in the snow (up to our knees) and they were half frozen to death, he said I almost killed the poor things. I was 11 years old.

March 19th, grandad saw James Curzon a local waggoner and asked him to come and work for him on the farm, the answer was yes. Jim had worked for grandad before from 1930-35.
March 29th dad went to Frank Goodwins sale at Stone(his friend). There were 29 horses at the sale dad had the marked catalogue both he and Frank had a sale catalogue with the acceptable sale prices marked on them, if they did not go for the required amount then dad would appear to buy them back in for Frank. He came back with one five year old gelding called Captain for 63 guineas. Captain later became the last horse to go into Bass's breweries at Burton Upon Trent as a workhorse for 100 guineas!

We used horses on the farm all through the war because dad said while I can make a profit on horses and I have you lot to work on the farm I don't need a tractor. We eventually got a tractor in 1953.

1940 Jim Curzon the waggoner took on the horsework and ploughing and dad and grandad looked after the cows. At this stage grandad was 72 and not very well, dad was 44 and mother was 40. Us children were between the ages of 1-14 years.

At the outset of the war the financial outlook for farmers improved remarkedly. It was not called farm subsidy it was called food subsidy.

Spring went on to summer and a lot of trainer planes were flying overhead from Burnaston Airfield where Toyota is now situated. On hot sunny days, the shadows from the aeroplanes used to frighten the horses, they were a damned nuisance!

September, the battle of Britain, my parents and grandparents were very worried over the war news, air raids and all that, nobody knew what was going to happen. We now had more horses than our stables could hold, dad and I took two out to the Pump field (on the side of Bushton Hill) every night so that we could fit the others into the stable sufficiently. We would sit and watch the night sky and listen to the bombs on Birmingham 25 miles away. Then one night it looked like a sunrise in the south, the raids had started early that night and by 10pm Coventry had gone up in flames, it was only about 17 miles away from us. As we stood looking at it we thought of all of the men women and children caught up in it.

Early in November I heard a landmine was dropped on farm land at Kingstanding about five miles from the dump, then came our turn...

It was the 22nd November 1940, the sirens had gone earlier but we had all gone to bed very tired, Peter and I were both working on the farm both before and after school, mostly milking by hand. At 4.20am on the 13rd November, I was awakened with an almighty bang, the house shook and there was glass all over the bed. Horses had escaped from the Pump field and were galloping up the road. A dazed and very frightened family got up, grandad and grandma made the ktchen fire and a pot of tea, mother sorted us children out whilst dad and Jim went round the farm to assess the damage. Although it was dark they could see that the damage was extensive we sat around the fire by the light of the parafin lamp (we did not have electricity until after the war). It was whilst we all sat and chatted that I learned about my Great Uncle, George Thornhill who was killed in the Boer War, in view of that mornings events it made me feel extremely apprehensive. At 5.30am dad, grandad, Jim myself and Peter went out to the cowsheds, grandad and Peter started milking the first two cows in the longshed, I looked up at the roof and saw it was moving, I shouted MOVE to Peter and grandad, grandad went back in and managed to let the cows loose before the roof caved in. It had been weakened by the expolsion. Daylight revealed that we had had a very lucky escape, the parachute of the land mine was on one side of the farm buildings and the crater from the mine was 170 yards away from the house on the other side. There was a lot of damage to the roofs of the house and buildings and all of the glass windows had gone. By 10.00am that morning Arthur Holmes and Sons, the builders from Burton Upon Trent had turned up with hardboard and tarpaulins. By bedtime all of the windows were boarded up and all of the roofs were sheeted up. The speed of their repairs even today still amazes me! It took days to clean the glass up and months to get the glass back into the windows but that did not matter, we were alive. The following Wednesday night about 10pm we were taking the horses down the road and could hear a plane in the distance, we rushed back to the house as quickly as possible, no sooner in than there were 12 explosions in quick succession and very close together, the morning reveal a stick of bombs had been dropped on Stockley Bank, one of our fields, it had wounded three beasts, one had to be destroyed.

The following Wednesday night about 10pm a further stick of bombs was dropped on Stockley Park Farm, (our neighbours) fortunately nothing was damaged the total number of casualties was one mouse for the landmine and three beasts for all of the raids near to our farms. As our farm was on the top of a hill and the Dump was under another hill about a mile and a half apart the pilot must have known the area quite well and was getting closer to the dump every time although he could not have damaged the Dump from above, they say that he was shot down after the last raid and he never came back again.

Things sort of got back to normal and my work followed much the same pattern as any young teenager. I left school in 1942 still only 13, I could not get away fast enough, I did not like learning and could not see the point of it. Although I was always in the 'A' class.

March 10th 1944
All the emotions happiness saddness and dispair had been rolled at the death of my grandfather on March 10th 1944 I had been rolling wheat on the Pond field and he had died in the morning, I can still see him 61 years later.

And always at the back of my mind was the Dump one and a quarter miles away, it still worried me remembering George Bothams remark about everywhere around being flatterned all the way to Derby.

Monday 27th 1944 started like any other, at 6am I was milking the cows by hand, dad mother, aunty Madge and myself. We had eaten our breakfast by nine and put the horses out. I was carting cabbages for the cows, Jim was cutting mangles off (from the beetroot family) aunty Madge and dad were working in the cowshed. My horse was standing in the yard with its second load of cabbage on and I was in the house having a drink, we all heard the two explosions, I was sitting by the back door with my cup of tea, I got up after the first explosion but could not open the door, it was stuck then we had a second explosion after which the door opened. When I got into the yard, my horse was going out of the yard with the cabbages, two explosions in one lifetime was enough explosions for any horse. He had already experienced the landmine in 1940. Jim came up from the field very shaken, he and I got 2 bicycles and rode down to Hanbury in case we could help. As we were on the hill we could see that it had been the Dump that had been hit. Thankfully my fears of the land around being flatterned had come to an end. En route, as we passed Gregsons Farm at the foot of a tree was a calfs head blown off the body from behind its ears. Next we came to the village Hall that I had been dancing in the weekend before, it had been blown into a thousand pieces into the top of what had been a hedge. By this time the army had closed the village off.

Those who were in the know said that only a ninth of the dump had blown up and it took an awful long time for the army to cart the rest of the bombs out into Needwood Forrest and they were then covered with camouflage nets. The disturbance of the area was so great that the well by the kitchen door of our farm dried up and never filled again, I capped it two years later.

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