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Gloria May Remembers a War-time Childhood

by csvdevon

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Gloria May, Pat - her sister, family and friends
Location of story: 
Park Street, Plymouth
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 January 2006

This story has been written to the BBC People's War site by CSV Storygatherer Coralie, on behalf of Gloria Ann May. The story has been added to the site with her permission and Gloria fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.

We lived in Park Street, now Charles Cross Police Station, and during 1940 my Dad, George, was serving in the Army in France. He was on one of the beaches at Dunkirk where it was 'every man for himself'. Dad was a strong swimmer and was swimming out to one of the small boats which had sailed from England to try and rescue as many men as possible. The boat he was swimming to reach was bombed by a German plane, so he swam out further and managed to reach a small fishing boat which eventually reached England full of war-weary soldiers. He very rarely spoke of his Dunkirk experiences, and never went abroad to fight again, his age being against him. He was stationed in Cromer, Norfolk and was a Lance Bombardier.

Dad would save his sweet ration coupons and when he came home on leave he would bring with him a box full of sweets and chocolates. If there was an air-raid when he was on leave, he would never come in the shelter with Mum, my sister Pat and me as he found the shelter too claustrophobic. He would go to the end of the street, Drake Circus, and talk to the A.R.P. men. I would be very upset about his doing this and was afraid that he would be killed — it was safer in the shelter, so I thought.

When we had to go to the shelter during air-raids Mummy took Pat and I had to run and get the bag, which I knew was very precious, that held Mummy's marriage lines, our birth certificates and the other important papers, to bring with us. I took this responsibility very seriously and always kept a tight hold on the bag. I remember sitting in the shelter on a little wooden stool, made by Uncle Frank. I wasn't afraid of the noise of gunfire or bombs dropping, but sat wondering how many 'creepy crawlies' were on the earthen floor. One night the door of the shelter was blown away and I could see Charles Church was on fire, but Mummy told me to come back and sit down. I wasn't afraid but thought it was really bright and crackled a lot. In the shelter there was just a candle, but I felt quite safe because I knew Mummy was OK.

Also in the early part of the war, my Auntie Lou joined the W.A.A.F.s and was stationed at Mountbatten. Unfortunately, she became ill with rheumatic fever and was confined to bed for 3 months. Mum, Pat and I would catch the Oreston Turnchapel Ferry from Phoenix Wharf on the Barbican, get off the ferry at Turnchapel and walk up the steep hill to Mountbatten to visit her in the sick bay. (Little did I know that in years to come my daughter, Helen, would have a house in Mountbatten). It was also fascinating to see the Sunderland Flying Boats (planes) coming in to land on the sea in Plymouth Sound. The Australian Air Force was stationed at Mountbatten during the War.

In summer 1941, when I was 5½ years old, I can remember being taken to Friary Station by my mother’s friend, Ellen, having been told I was going ‘on holiday’ in the country. I was evacuated to a farm at Bodmin, miles from anywhere, run by Mrs and Mrs Wills and their daughter, Muriel. During my time there Mrs Wills showed me no affection at all, although Muriel, in her 20’s, was very kind to me. Three elderly ladies were also evacuated to that farm.

I had to attend the village school, and needed to cross a field of cows to reach the bus stop. I was very frightened having never seen a real cow before, and at 5 ½ they seemed enormous to me. The first day, Uncle Tom, the farmer, took me across the field, but the second day he watched as I crossed alone. I felt sick with apprehension and kept my eyes on the ground. Next day, while crossing the field, I met a boy who was with the cows. I was scared by a big mark on his face, which I now know to be a ‘strawberry mark’, of course, however, he was very kind and tried to help me smooth the soft heads of the cows, but I was much too nervous of them. After 6 months there, my father came home on leave and took me home.

Three months later, I was evacuated again, to the smallholding of a Mr and Mrs Warne in Carnkie village in Cornwall, where I had to sleep on a camp-bed in their bedroom. I was with my cousin, Fred, his friend Roy and two brothers from London, and during our year there we all lived on fish and meat paste sandwiches, with bread and jam for tea! Needless to say, we always felt hungry.

I think I was about 7 years old, when our family doctor decided it would be sensible to remove my tonsils and adenoids. I remember having frequent very painful sore throats and a blocked nose. Mr Prance, the ear, nose and throat specialist carried out the operation at Greenbank Hospital. The nurse assisting him asked my name - I replied 'Gloria' — she slowly lowered a mask over my face and I heard people singing Glory, Glory, Hallelujah and later awoke with a very sore throat. As it was wartime, I didn’t stay in hospital overnight, and as I was still drowsy Mum took me home in a taxi. Quite a treat! It was great sleeping in Mum’s big bed whilst recovering — eating milk sops, jelly and custard. I spent my time home from school doing jigsaw puzzles, colouring and reading.

Whilst at Greycoat School all children were entitled to a bottle of milk, 1/3 pint, which cost about one halfpenny (1/2 d). During the winter months, the bottles would be put near the radiators to take the chill off the milk. As a monitor, it was my job to move the bottles around to make sure each one was warm enough to drink. There was a cardboard top to the bottle and you were given a straw to push through the centre enabling you to drink the milk, which was delicious. You were allowed to keep the cardboard tops and many girls would wind oddments of wool around these tops and make colourful pom-poms to wear on hats and coats.

In Gibbon Street, just off Park Street, a Mr Brown owned a Gents' Barber Shop. He had a lame leg from a wound in the First War. Pat and I had our hair cut very short, because Mum said lice only lived in long hair, and was washed with Derbac soap and rinsed afterwards with a vinegar solution. Mr Brown cut our hair and I swept it up and tidied the magazines and newspapers. I came out of school each day and went to the Barber’s Shop to ask Mr Brown if he needed my help; perhaps two or three times a week I tidied and swept and he gave me 6d - quite a treat in 1944. I also remember going along the street to the corner shop, Pardews, for five Woodbine or Star cigarettes for my Mum. The cigarettes (ciggies) would be wrapped in newspaper.

I saved pennies (1d) from my pocket money to buy 1d postage stamps —six stuck on a card you exchanged for a 6d saving stamp. We children were told this way of saving helped the war effort! Another way was to get boys and girls to collect newspapers and magazines — you were rewarded with a badge and depending on how many you collected could become one of Dick Barton’s Gang, or even Dick Barton himself. I remember calling at the houses in Park Street, often let out in single or double rooms to single folk, 'old people' to me as a girl of 8 or 9, who would save their papers for me.

To get extra pocket money I also asked whoever lived in these houses if they had any empty jam jars that they didn’t need. The jars I would wash with cold water and, with Pat in tow, take them to the rag and bone man's massive store next to the Plaza Cinema in Exeter Street. It was a very smelly place, and so was the rag and bone man — smelly, fat and dirty. He scared Pat and me, but he gave me a 1/2d for each jar and I needed the money for all sorts of things, so I pretended to be brave.

In 1944, I was bridesmaid to my cousin, Ida, when she married a GI from Virginia, by the name of Paul Hampton. The wedding was at Emmanuel Church and my cousins, Jean Croft, Violet Beck (Ida's sister) and my sister, Pat, were also bridesmaids. Auntie Liz made the dresses and Violet wore a blue dress, Pat, Jean and I wore pink. Clothing coupons were gathered from family and friends, even bought on the 'black market', to enable the material to be bought for them. We wore white shoes and pink crochet gloves with bands of pink and white flowers on our hair. Paul was a handsome soldier and his best man was named Johnnie. They were very generous to us giving us gum, sweets and fruit. It was great having an American for a cousin, and a constant supply of goodies which I would sometimes take to school and exchange for marbles and comics. Mum never knew that before Paul Hampton joined our family, I would stand at the end of Park Street, at Drake Circus, with my friends and Pat, who was sworn to secrecy about this, and beg the Yanks for gum. We would say "Got any gum, chum?"

I was 8 years when I joined the Sunday school Brownie pack. My 'six' was called the Fairies. My uniform was a brown dress with the Fairy badge on the front, woollen hat, brown belt and yellow woggle. I became a ‘sixer’ of my pack at 9 1/2 years.
In 1944, I also had a part in the Sunday school pantomime. I was Mummy Bear in 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears'. The bears had to do a dance to the song 'The Teddy Bears' Picnic'. There was a photograph in the Evening Herald, but I couldn't be recognised because I was dressed in my bear costume - so very disappointing!

The minister’s daughter, Janet, who was about the same age as I was, was in my Sunday school class at the Methodist Central Hall. We became great friends and quite often I was invited to her house, somewhere in the Peverell area, for tea. Rev. and Mrs Nix, who were very friendly people, always made me feel at home. They had the whole house to themselves with an indoor toilet and separate bathroom. Janet even had her own bedroom. Visiting this house, I first heard the lavatory called a ‘toilet’ and from then on I also used this word. It felt good to have a ‘posh’ friend!

At 9 years, it was discovered that I required glasses, being very short-sighted and the right eye was worse. Mum was determined I wouldn't wear the horrible school glasses so borrowed money from Auntie Lou and I had a posh-looking gold-rimmed pair. Some of the boys at Greycoat School called me names — 'four eyes' and 'cross-eyed'. I replied that wearing glasses made me able to see how ugly they were. I was only allowed to read in bed for about half-an-hour before Mum would switch off the light. As Pat would already be asleep after I had read a story from one of her favourite books, and someone had given me a torch, I was able to continue reading — so naughty wasn't I!!

I also remember, about this time, coming home from school and Mum telling me to go to the bedroom. To my utter delight, there stood a piano with highly polished wood and a beautifully patterned front. Mum arranged lessons for me with a Mrs Pike, at 2/6d an hour. The first piece of music I learned to play was called 'The Fairy Wedding Waltz'. I had lessons until I was 12 years old, but money was short so I then had to give up learning the piano.

Mum and Auntie Lou loved going to the 'pictures' at the Royal, Odeon and Gaumont Cinemas which cost 1/- (shilling) for adults and 9d (pence) for children under 14 years. I remember we queued for what seemed like hours to see 'Gone with the Wind'. My favourites were Bambi, Pinocchio and musicals. On one occasion at The Royal, after seeing a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Pat and I went to the toilet and on leaving I said "Let's dance down the stairs like they did in the film". Unfortunately, Pat fell and broke her ankle and had to go to Casualty. Mum was very cross with me over this.

I can recall looking out of the kitchen window in Park Street seeing barrage balloons flying over the city (what was left of it after the terrible bombing) and on the Hoe. After an air-raid, I would look all over the back garden for pieces of shrapnel to take to school, and barter with the bigger junior boys for ‘allees’ (marbles). After one very terrifying air-raid, the gas and electricity was cut off. In order for people to have a cooked meal, bakers were told to let people use their ovens for cooking. I remember queuing in the back lane outside Gerrys, the baker, to have a rabbit pie cooked.

I can remember Mum working part-time in the afternoon in the shop called Underhills — Printers and Stationers - in Tavistock Road. They also sold fancy pieces of china and glass, all wrapped in tissue paper. Mum would bring home the tissue paper for us to use in the toilet — better than newspaper!! Mum’s job was to make the afternoon tea for the staff and manager, unpack various goods, checking them against a delivery note, dust the goods off, and if necessary wash the glass and china before the items were priced.

My job was to set the table for tea, cut the bread and spread it with margarine or, if we were lucky, there would possibly be some small mount of butter remaining from our rations, which lasted very differently from wartime margarine. I had to put jam in a glass dish, as we never had a jam or marmalade jar on the table, fill the kettle and call Pat indoors. We then washed our hands, put on our aprons and sat reading our books until Mum arrived home. We listened to the wireless at tea-time — 'Children’s Hour' with Uncle Mac, and we also enjoyed Dick Barton - Special Agent, with Snowy, Jock and Ginger. During the programme 'Monday Night at 8', I remember drinking Fry’s Cocoa.

In 1945, Miss Marks, Headmistress of Greycoat School, arranged a concert to celebrate V.E. Day. My Mum made short skirts out of the blackout material from the classroom windows. The edge of the skirt was piped in white and my troupe of five girls wore short-sleeved white blouses, white socks and shoes (I had white tap shoes) and white ribbons in our hair. I was learning to play the piano at this time and one of the pieces of music was 'The Sailors' Hornpipe' to which we danced. Miss Marks played the piano. My friends in the troupe were Lilian Warn, Margaret Palmer, Joanie Codd, plus, of course, my sister Pat.

On quite a few occasions, Victory Parades were held in the city and service men and women from our country and the Commonwealth, A.R.P. wardens, fire-fighters, ambulance men and women, and nurses marched past the crowds of people lining the streets from Henders' Corner to St Andrew's Church. Everyone cheered and waved flags. The Americans always marched to popular tunes — Glenn Miller type of music.

When the war ended in 1945, it took a while to get used to having street lights, and no black-out blinds on the windows. My Dad was demobbed in August 1945 and he returned to work in the Dockyard. I would wait for my Dad at the Drake Circus bus stop and carry his lunch box home for him. Pat took ages to get accustomed to Dad being home again. He was a tall, big built man with a very deep voice and was quite strict with Pat and me, and Mum had, on many occasions, to remind him he was no longer in the Army.

When the war ended, the German and Italian prisoners of war were allowed to come into the city to do their shopping. They were billeted in camps on the outskirts of Plymouth and worked on farms and clearing the bomb damaged ruins. The P.O.W.s wore a dull uniform in a muddy shade of brown and khaki. Many people would shout at the P.O.W.s. I even remember seeing both men and women punching and spitting at them. I told my Mum about this and she replied "They deserve all they get. The misery they have caused should never be forgotten". Mum's brother, Uncle Edward was killed in Tunisia, North Africa, in 1943.

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