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Memories of a child in Wartime — Part 1

by actiondesksheffield

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joyce Emms, Miss Hollyhead, Miss Pound
Location of story: 
Darnall, Sheffield, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Joyce Emms, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Memories of a child in Wartime — Part 1

Joyce Emms

When I was nine years old, I didn't understand why so many grown ups were so interested in Mr Chamberlain, the Prime Minister's visit to Germany. The first time he came back, everyone was happy and kept saying, "Thank God for that". I didn't know what they were thanking God for but I was glad they were not still looking so serious.
I was in Miss Hollyhead's class at school, in fact four of us had been in her class for over a year and actually stayed there until we sat our 11+ , which all four of us sat at 10! They had brought the age restrictions in and we were too far ahead for our age group, so had to stay put. The only thing I knew about Germany was what Miss H. had told us, she had been there on a holiday, which in itself in those days was rare, as people lived and died and never even saw much of this country never mind go abroad. She said it was a wonderful clean place, that if you threw litter on the floor, however small it was, the policeman would blow his whistle, come over and make you pick it up. This indeed seemed very unusual, but she assured us it was true because she had seen it for herself.

A short time later, in September, everyone was gathered round the radio again, but this time the Prime Minister sadly announced we were at war with Nazi Germany. The women started crying and the men looked very angry, saying we had shown them who was boss once and could do it again, that it would all be over by Christmas.

My dad was considered to be too valuable where he was in the steelworks, he had volunteered and wanted to go in the Navy but was rejected. He used to work very long hours, twelve hours with one week on days and one on nights. He volunteered for the ARP, and was made a Sector Warden. Many comical things have been written about this job but you can take it from me, it was no joke. The first job we did (I always helped him) was fill in cardboard notices for every house in his sector, telling them what to do in an Air Raid, where their nearest A.R.P. Station was and our address, because he was the Sector Warden. Then we had to take them round and try to impress on people to read them and keep them in a safe place.

The next thing to happen, which caused excitement to put it mildly, was when they tried the Air Raid Sirens out. Everybody said what a ghastly noise they made and even years and years after the war, if they were heard on old movies etc., it made your blood run cold. There was no danger of being asleep and not hearing the warning.

My dad's next job was making sure everybody's gas mask fitted properly. He had to hold a piece of cardboard under the front of the mask and when you took a breath, the card was supposed to stick to the bottom of the mask, this was to prove it was airtight round your face. We were supposed to carry them everywhere, and soon there was a thriving business in fancy cases to carry them in, a bit like the modern shoulder bags. Needless to say, as the war went on, the masks were left at home and the cases used for carrying schoolbooks, make-up if you were older etc. etc.
When the sirens sounded the Wardens who were not at work, used to have to go to their headquarters to sign on for duty. My poor old dad had it really rough, it seemed as though all the long nuisance raids, as they were called, used to fall when he was on days, making it impossible for him to get much sleep before going to work for 12 hours, and the trouble was, he never got used to sleeping in the daytime when he was on nights. This hard work with little food and rest took its toll on his health, and he looked much older than he actually was.
Meanwhile, we school kids had not been having a very happy time. There were no sweets to be had, no fruit, only rhubarb if you knew someone with a garden, and this had to be sweetened with saccharin, a sugar substitute that tasted foul. There were no street lamps, so the winter evenings were very long and cold because coal was rationed like everything else.

Clothes were also on rations and everyone guarded their clothing coupons, because they had to be used for everything, including towels and bedding, curtains etc. There was no proper wool available and the substitute was like knitting with string and about as warm, it also didn't keep its shape like wool, so no matter how nicely you knitted a jumper, after the first wash it looked rubbish.

People got very clever at adapting things. Outdoor coats were made out of army surplus blankets, dresses were made out of blackout material and blouses out of parachute material. I'm not sure, because I was too young, but I think many of these things were purchased on the black market. The wives of the men in the forces adapted their husband's clothes for their own and their children's use. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. Even food was adapted to make it more appetising, my mum once put an OXO cube into mashed potato and told me it was dripping. Spam was the most versatile new food, it was put into pies instead of meat, and it was fried instead of bacon with new powdered egg that the Government had introduced. Many people didn't like this but I really loved it; also something called Colact that was issued to pregnant women at the Welfare. It was like today's Drinking Chocolate and I liked it better than my usual cocoa because it was creamier and sweeter.

In the home, things were dreadful when the air raids really started. Everyone had to make sure no lights could be seen at their doors and windows, this meant heavy curtains to the windows and doors, and turning the light out before you opened an outside door. My dad was a really clever bloke and he rigged a contraption on our outside door that flicked a switch to turn the light out when the door was opened, and when the door was closed it flicked the switch again and the light came back on. Later many gadgets were sold to do the same thing but as usual, dad had thought something out for himself.

We had two terrible raids that were called blitzes. During the first, a lot of very high explosive
bombs were dropped on the reservoirs that supplied all our water. They used to bring carts round with water tanks on the back, and you had to fill whatever you could or you got no water until next day. The second blitz was even worse because incendiary bombs were dropped all round Darnall where we lived, because we were surrounded by the big factories at Attercliffe and Tinsley. When the all-clear siren went and we emerged from our shelters, it was an incredible sight. Although it was the middle of the night and as I have already said there were no lights allowed, it was like daytime, there was a red circle all around us in the sky.

Dad was at work when he heard Darnall was blazing. The guards on the gate were not supposed to open them, but many men lived in Darnall and wanted to get home to their loved ones. My dad told the guard that if he didn't open the big gates, he was going to climb over them, when the guard saw how determined he was he opened them.

As he walked home through the area that is now the Arena etc., everywhere was blazing and people were crying out because they were trapped in cellar shelters of the burning buildings. Normally my dad would have tried to help these poor people, but his only thought was for his own family so he and the other men pressed on for home. When he arrived he was so overcome to see we were safe that he broke down and cried, he only stopped because mum told him he was frightening me.

When he knew we were safe, he went to see if he could help the rescue services. He met an old friend coming up Darnall Hill, his home had been one of the casualties. He had a lot of children who were all crying because they were hungry. Dad told them to stay put, then he came home and put all the new bread mum had made in a bag and took it to this poor family.
The man and his wife always told my mum and dad that it was the best bread they had ever tasted. That night, along with hundreds of other families, they slept in the schools and churches.

After these two raids, the centre of Sheffield was unrecognisable. Large stores were just a pile of rubble and some buildings had to be pulled down because they were unsafe. As if this wasn't bad enough, during another raid, a landmine was dropped at the bottom of Darnall Hill. It wiped out four streets of houses and damaged property as far away as ours at the top of the hill. We had no windows and no slates on the roof, so we all had to sleep in one room downstairs. My dad slept on the end of a mattress on the floor, mum slept next to him, then my Granddad Bill. They had to sleep like this because the old man had terrible asthma and my dad being a light sleeper, as I have said, would have been unable to get any rest. I was on the three settee cushions under the table. Old Bill embarrassed my mum to death because he told his mates in the local that he'd never been as warm in bed for years.

After this, we kids were put on Home Service, this meant we had our lessons in people's front rooms. It was not an ideal way to get our education, the poor teachers had no sooner started a lesson than it was time to pack everything up. In one of our classes, the teacher in charge got a map out and showed us where the fighting was taking place. It was a most unusual geography lesson!!!

During these years, I had developed into a very good swimmer and was entered in a race at Attercliffe Baths. Because the other girl and myself (she was also one of the four in Miss. H's class for so long) were so young, there was no suitable race for us to enter. Instead they called us the Water Babies and we just swam the length of the bath. She had only had a very light meal for her tea because of the Gala. I'd had meat and potato pie. They all said l would sink like a stone but instead I beat her and my prize was my first fountain pen and propelling pencil set, it was a Platignum in silver grey and I loved it.

After this event, our Headmistress, Miss Pound had us all out in front of the school in Assembly and we all showed our prizes. She also said that if our parents would let us, we could share her private swimming lessons at Sutherland Road baths. Mum wasn't too keen on my going but one of the much older girls said she would keep her eye on me, and that it would be a shame to miss such a wonderful offer. It was lovely having a specialist teacher and also the pool to ourselves. Apart from taking part in Miss. H's plays (we knew Pinocchio by heart) and being good at needlework, I didn't pull many trees up in individual sports. I liked rounders and team sports best.


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