- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Geoffrey Mitton; father: Frank Mitton; mother: Ida Mitton
- Location of story:
- North easth Lancashire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 December 2005
Many evacuees attended the primary school I attended until 1942. They were mostly from Bradford, especially from the poorer, rougher areas of the city. I remember one boy called Jimmy Stoiles who only had one eye; we were all frightened of him. I once threw a snowball which hit him by mistake.
My aunt and uncle lived in Mereclough and owned a big farm which they ran on their own. They took in four evacuees. Three of them were mad about farming, which was very convenient for my uncle because they were happy to do jobs like leading manure (carting). Unfortunately their parents came and took them home within three weeks of their arrival. My uncle and aunt were left with the fourth evacuee, a boy called Harry Graham who was only interested in playing Cowboys and Indians. He did a few easy tasks on the farm, but he had no real interest. His father would visit sometimes, wearing military style leather trousers. One year one of the wealthy ladies in the village gave a Christmas party for the evacuees, who were each allowed to bring a local with them. Harry had been told to take me, but he kept threatening me not to.
In 1942 I started at grammar school. It meant a long journey to school every day: one bus from Mereclough to Burnley and then another bus from Burnley to Colne. In the winter we had double summer time, which meant it did not get light until 9.30, so we had to go to school in the dark. Because of the blackout the buses were fitted with black curtains which had to be kept shut.
Most of our teachers at school were female; the few remaining male teachers were either in their 50s or were unfit for service. I remember that one male teacher who had volunteered to take us for physical training was quite portly; the students called him ‘Piggy’. Another teacher only had one eye, apparently because of an accident during a chemistry experiment. At the end of the war the men started to return and it was strange to have male teachers again. But as the male teachers we’d been used to during the war had not been as good it made a pleasant change to have capable male teachers again.
School dinners were served according to a weekly routine. One day it would be mince, another day mashed potatoes (which were usually old and mouldy and contained lots of lumps) and on Fridays it was always fish. Cabbage was plentiful but watery, and rice pudding was also a regular feature. We were also given a third of a pint of milk at breaktime free.
All resources were scarce, of course, so we had to use every scrap of paper we could get hold of, and we always used both sides. It was also difficult to get hold of textbooks, even from the shops, so we would have to buy them from the previous year’s cohort.
Just as resources at school were scarce, at home the food we ate was limited. We often had bread and jam after dinner and I remember my mother warning me not to put too much on: it always had to be spread thinly.
Compared to others, though, we were lucky as we kept hens, and sometimes we’d have a surplus of eggs. We found a shop in Burnley that would take the surplus and sell them on, and in this way my mother was able to make a few extra shillings. At that time, of course, all hens were kept naturally, so during the winter the hens stopped laying eggs. In preparation for this my mother would pickle eggs in isinglass in a big stone jar. They would be dropped into it raw in the shells, the idea being that they’d stay fresh and could be used for baking, but that didn’t always work and sometimes they’d go off anyway.
The other benefit of owning hens was that at Christmas we could have a chicken rather than having to use our ration cards to buy meat such as offal. My aunt had a sheep or pig head. My mother also grew potatoes, cabbage, carrots, rhubarb and strawberries. We would have to try and catch the cabbage white butterflies and scrape their eggs off the underside of the cabbage leaves.
My mother also made a bit of money with her stocking-knitting machine. As socks were made of wool and not nylon, toes and heels wore out quickly and frequently had to be darned, and she also had a client who wanted long woollen over-the-knee stockings.
The disadvantage of farm life was that work could never stop. There was one point during the big flu epidemic in 1944 that the whole family was ill at the same time. Despite his illness, my father had to keep working throughout to tend to the animals on the farm.
We always listened to regular radio programmes in the evening. One of the most popular was called ‘Itma’ with the comedian Tommy Handley. Everyone listened to it; it was quick-fire humour largely directed against the Germans. On Saturday nights there was a music hall show in which soloists such as Vera Lynn and duettists like Ann Ziegler and Webster Booth starred. These shows combined musical and comic entertainment. They had a set routine and were very popular; somehow these Saturday night shows were different, more light-hearted than the rest of the week. Later on on Saturday nights was the highlight of the week: the Saturday play.
When we moved from Hurstwood to Mereclough we moved from a small cottage to a semi-detached house with quite an expensive mortgage, so my parents decided to take in a lodger. Our first lodger was called Mr Mustha, who used the front room as his sitting room as well as occupying one bedroom and using our bathroom. One Christmas he went to visit his sister in Burnley and never returned. The second lodger was the manager of the Odeon Cinema who had probably chosen our house because he had a car and we had a garage. Through him we had two free balcony tickets to the Odeon every Friday night and free ice creams. Later he was promoted and had to move to Plymouth Odeon, which was bombed shortly after he’d started working there.
My father was in the home guard and would have to go fire watching on a rota basis. He didn’t get any time off his normal job, but would simply have to work through the night and go to work as usual the next day. Although most of the area where we lived was very quiet and was not generally bombed, there was an area on the moors to the east which was lit up to distract bombers and lure them away from the real industrial areas such as Manchester. The home guard assembled on Sunday mornings and practised throwing hand grenades from a trench on a practising range close to Mereclough. Over time the area where they threw them filled with craters which were full of water.
We always kept maps on the living room walls so that we could follow the progress of the war. At first we had a map of north Africa on which we plotted developments with pens and flags when we were listening to the radio. After the invasion of France we did the same with the advances there. I also remember hearing Churchill’s speech broadcast on the radio at the lowest point of the war about fighting on the beaches.
One time my mother had a fright when she looked through the kitchen window and saw a man with a leather jacket edging his way along the side of the garden wall trying to stay out of sight. She immediately thought it must be a German parachutist. He stopped suddenly by the wall, believing himself to be out of sight. I was sent to my uncle’s farm with the message that there was a suspicious individual hiding by the wall. My father and uncle came to my mother’s rescue: they confronted the man and marched him back up to the farm. He then confessed that he was a coalchap (the driver of a coal delivery vehicle), but had stopped at the pub next door but one to our house for a beer. After spotting a police car outside the pub he had tried to make a quick escape by nipping out of the back door and jumping over the wall.
Once during hay-making, when I was up on top of the cart helping to load and secure the hay (which was not put into bales but was simply lifted in forkloads up onto the cart), a German bomber suddenly came into sight. It was coming in low and slowly and heading straight towards us. Everyone on the ground scarpered and hid, but I was left up on the cart with nowhere to go but down into the hay, so I burrowed down as far as I could underneath the hay. The German plane took no notice of us, however, and actually it was probably lost because it just wandered off a couple of times and clearly wasn’t interested in our haymaking.
Another time my father witnessed a plane crash. First he saw a group of US planes overhead, and then one of clearly had black smoke coming from it before it plunged into a ravine. It was all dealt with by the emergency services and we found out afterwards the pilot had been killed instantly.
I also remember seeing the POWs digging in the snow drifts between Mereclough and the next village. The road was narrow and had walls on either sides. The POWs had scarves and caps but otherwise they were poorly dressed for that type of weather.
At the end of the war fireworks were allowed for the first time since the beginning of the war. In November 1945 we found out the fireworks were being stocked at a shop called Stockdales in Burnley. We caught a bus to Burnley and went to Stockdales, where we found a notice on the door saying that fireworks were being sold at the rear of the shop. When we went round to the back we found a queue 300-400 yards long. Still, we waited and eventually we bought half a crown of fireworks.
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Clare George of the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Story Gatherer Team on behalf of Geoffrey Mitton and has been added to the site with his / her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
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