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Wartime memories of Ampthill Part Three - The 'Home Front' in Ampthill

by bedfordmuseum

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs. Mary Smith (nee Sharpe)
Location of story: 
Ampthill, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 September 2005

Wartime memories of Ampthill Part Three - The ‘Home Front’ in Ampthill

Part three of an oral history interview with Mrs. Mary Smith (née Sharpe) conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“They had various ‘War Effort’ weeks. I can’t remember what they were called but we often used to have parades and that. There used to be Guides, Brownies, the Home Guard, the usual with a band to raise money. ‘War Weapons Week’ was one of them. Yes, we used to like them but there wasn’t much else going on really because you see most of the boys were in the Army and the Forces so you didn’t have those around, only the older generation.

Both my uncles were in the Home Guard and so was my husband. He was evacuated here from Romford in Essex when he was about 16. He was too young to go in the Forces so he had to work at the Brick Company, Stewartby until he was old enough to go in the Forces and they put him in the Home Guard as well. Laughter! I didn’t know him at that time but he was down here and he was in the Home Guard and then he went into the Navy and I still didn’t know him until he came out! They had young boys and they had the older men.

We tried to keep up with the fashions. You often wore hats, which you never did now. My hair had three sweeps up the front and a page boy at the back! That was at the beginning and then I changed it to all curls, sweeps up the front and all curls. In those days it was the height of fashion but now it looks slightly old fashioned! Laughter! Millions of curls. I had to put curlers in every night and sleep in them. Then there were various fashions. I used to have a snood, I can remember, it was a blue one with the holes in. Then it was the fashion at one time for skull caps with a stalk, they were nice I used to like them.

We always wore gloves or we used to carry them. I got married in white gloves it was the thing you always wore gloves. My mother used to say that you weren’t dressed if you hadn’t got gloves on. Even up to the day she died she used to say that, she’d always got gloves.

Clothes were on ration. I did used to have some made by a dressmaker but you couldn’t go out and buy material, you had to have enough coupons to buy the material to have them made. If you hadn’t got them you couldn’t have any clothes. If you could buy them that would be OK. The Irish workers used to sell their clothing coupons, that’s where we got some from. From what I can remember clothes were mainly cotton, cotton and wool I don’t think you had anything else, not then. I mean nylon didn’t come in. I can remember having some nylon stockings, I used to write to a girl in America and she used to send me some nylon stockings, not many because I don’t suspect that she could them. If you had a pair of nylon stockings, cor’, oh dear! We always darned our stockings if we’d got a ladder. Oh, yes, you couldn’t let those go, they were too precious, couldn’t throw them out. I remember we drew a line up the calf of our legs because they used to have them with seams in then.

Oh, we’d go to any lengths to be in fashion then, it was - well girls today don’t realise what we did have to do. You couldn’t get make-up! If you heard of a place that had got some in, oh, everybody used to rush there to buy it. We were lucky because they used to sell it in the Canteen if they had any, they would sell it in the Canteen at work because it was War Work and it was a factory and that’s where we used to get it. But where it came from I don’t know. I can remember it now, it was a pink square box and it was called Tokalon and I don’t know to this day who made it. It might have been any of the firms but it was always called Tokalon, it was pink and it was a square box, quite a stiff box.
That was the powder and then you used to have to get what you could. You couldn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ll have a Max Factor’ or that sort of thing you just had what they’d got. It could be anything, could be any colour. I didn’t like perfume much, I used to wear Lavender Water but my mother used to have Evening in Paris. She loved that and I wasn’t supposed to touch it. Laughter! There was another one called Californian Poppy that I can remember but apart from that I can’t really remember any others because as I say I used to use Lavender Water. But things were, well, nothing was there for the taking, you had to know where it was coming in to buy anything.

The hemline was more or less on the knee, it wasn’t above the knee it was about on the knee, I think. Then after the war of course it went much longer, the skirts were a lot fuller because you could get the material to put in but not in war time. You used to have pleats. If you had pleats you used to have to have more material and if you had the coupons and you had pleats you used to think you were really good. Box pleats, I used to like box pleats. Knitting, sewing. I didn’t do sewing because I was no good with sewing but a lot of people did sew, make their own dresses. We didn’t do too badly but looking at photos now of what we were then I think oh dear, what a lot of funny looking girls, but that was the fashion that we wore.

My father went into the Police Force as a Reserve and then he came down the factory and he was trained by Lyons in Cadby Hall to be a Time and Motion Study expert, to time the girls on the lines, on the belts, they work on belts. He used to time them to see if he could get them to do more output and he was trained in the factory at Lyons with the cakes. He had to come back and do it in the factory as they were working on munitions to see if he could get them to work quicker. Change things to make it quicker, more output. There were two or three of them doing it and they were successful. Yes. We used to cross occasionally but it was a large place and he used to be down the other end a lot because he was working on his job but he had got an office in my block. Again I read this down at the Library, that they were one of the best factories, they had the most output of all of them.

Well my father was just like an ordinary Constable but he did drive the police car for the Inspector. They had one police car and that’s how, talking about the bombs that I really didn’t know a lot about because that was the beginning of the war. Well he told me, he used to bring bits home. It used to be mainly at night when the siren sounded and we were at home, I think. If it seemed bad we used to come downstairs and we had a coal hole where we had the coal but Dad had made it into a kind of shelter. So we could go and sit down there with a paraffin stove and a light, shut the doors up and stay there until the ‘All Clear’. We had an old mattress which he’d nailed to the wall and then he’d made a seat so it was like that. No, we couldn’t sleep down there. We used to go back afterwards. It wasn’t like London it wasn’t bombarded all the time here.

I was going to go into the Wrens when I was 18 and then the War ended so I never did get there. But I used to love their hats they had lovely shaped hats, the Wrens. I used to think they looked nice. My friend over here she was a Wren. She tells a story about when she was an Orderly in the Wrens and she had to look after this Officer, he’d got a small house or something, what they used to do in this house was nobodies business! Laughter! There were two of them. When he was going away for the weekend they used to have the sailors in for a party and drink all his booze and everything. Laughter! You couldn’t imagine it now looking at her that she could ever do that. It’s the same with all of us really, you can’t imagine that they were like that. Because you never think that older people have ever had a life really, do you?

When VE Day was announced we were given holidays straight away and then we celebrated in the town of course, in Ampthill. We had a dance on the Market Square and that was good. If you had a dance on the Market Square now nobody would go and dance but in those day you just did and we were doing the Palais Glide and the Hokey Cokey, everything you can think of, the Lambeth Walk and old and young, they were all in. I couldn’t dance at that time but everybody was on there having a whale of a time. We had records. It was Andrew Underwood’s father, he was good he had that sort of shop, an electrical shop and he wired it all up, all these loud speakers and that. We all lent records to be played and that’s how it went on. We had a lovely time and then at the end they all did the Conga down the streets. I’ve never forgotten it. But I couldn’t image it happening now, I don’t think people would do it now. I mean everybody was so relieved and happy they thought it was the war to end wars. I don’t remember my parents being excited or even worried, anything really, not that I knew. Although my brother was abroad and he was going to various places, I didn’t know where he was half of the time. I know he went to South Africa and the last time he was away two or three years when it really on, he could have been anywhere - I don’t really know”.

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