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Wartime: Childhood Memories of Leeds

by stoke_on_trentlibs

Contributed by 
stoke_on_trentlibs
People in story: 
Pauline Amplett
Location of story: 
Leeds
Article ID: 
A2430271
Contributed on: 
16 March 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Stoke-on-Trent Libraries on behalf of Pauline Amphlett and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Grandma and Grandad Hemingway lived in a semi-detached house that had attics and cellars. I imagine it was built about 1900. Because it had two staircases above ground and one below ground, all rising above each other, it was considered very safe from the point of view of withstanding bomb damage. Whoever was in the house at the time of an air raid, friend, relative or insurance man, was invited to sit on the cellar steps until the raid was over. It could get crowded there at times but Grandma always insisted that everyone had a cushion or folded blanket to sit on. She was not concerned with our comfort so much as our health. She was afraid that if we sat on the cold concrete we would get kingcough in our bottoms. I never found out what this terrible disease could be. May be it was a corruption of whooping cough, although she pronounced that correctly when I had it a few years later. It was certainly nothing to do with haemorrhoids, because I was threatened with it in my chest several times and even in my back, for lying on the stone flags of her kitchen floor.

Mam, Dad and I stayed at grandma's for tea one winter's evening. When we set off for home it was pitch dark and Dad was guiding us along by moonlight whenthe air raid siren sounded. We were about half way home so Dad decided we should go on instead of returning to Grandma's. The shortest route was to walk straight across a piece of waste ground. It was known locally as the Rec because some football posts had been erected at one end and a few swings at the other. When we got to the entrance, Dad picked me up and carried me while Mam held on to his arm. I no longer needed to try to watch where I was walking, so I started to look round.

Very little was visible on the ground so I turned my attention to the sky. What I saw is etched in my memory. The sky was almost black and beams of light seemed to be waving down at me from all around. Suddenly Mam pointed up and said, "Look, they've got one." As she spoke all the beams turned to one spot, like a large white spider, and there was an aeroplane clearly visible in the centre. I had caught the fear in Mam's voice and started whimpering, but a few seconds later Dad said, "Its all right, its one of ours. Look they're letting it go." Sure enough the beams werestarting their continuous searching again and the plane disappeared into the night sky. Dad was unlocking the front door as the all clear sounded.

1940

About 12 months later, Mam and I had been shopping in Leeds. Instead of going straight home, Mam decided to call at Grandma's on the way. Auntie Alice was there with my baby cousin Ann. Ann was a very weak baby and she had been taken ill at Grandma's a few days earlier. The doctor said she was too ill to move. When we got there she was no better so Mam said we should stay the night so that she could look after Ann while Alice got some sleep. Uncle Harry and Dad were on night shift so there was no need for us to return home until the next day. Inevitably we spent much of the night on the cellar steps because of an air raid. On a couple of occasions the house shook and the grown ups said, "That one was a close one." The all clear sounded about 6 am I think.

Grandma was getting breakfast when Uncle Harry arrived. He was on the verge of collapse. I remember him sitting down suddenly and whispering "Ivy". He finished work an hour before Dad and he had gone straight home to find a huge bomb crater where our house had been. He knew that Alice and Ann were at Filey Street but he did not know that we had spent the night there as well. He thought Mam and I were under the rubble and he knew we could not have survived that. When Grandad realised that Dad would be on his way home by that time, he went out to head him off so that he would not suffer the same shock that Uncle Harry had done.

Later that day we went ot Model Road to see if anything could be salvaged. We did not find many of our things because the bomb had gone through my bed and the dining table below it, tying my bed irons in knots on the way. Dad fopund a chest of drawers he could repair and also my teddy bear. Mam found two unworn dresses of mine that she had just made for me, one blue, one white. She laid them on the remains of the back garden wall near dad's toolbox that had been found and went to see if she could find anything else. When we returned to the back garden both dresses and the contents of Dad's toolbox had gone! Neighbours, supposedly friends, had taken them. Alice found where the dresses had gone because she saw a local child wearing one of them a few days later. She tackled the mother about it but was told the girl's Granny had made it for her and it was none of Alice's business anyway.

A wonderful thing happened to two items in the bombing. Mam and Alice had an older sister, Florrie, who had died a year before I was born. Florrie bought them each an identical mantle mirror as wedding presents. They were oval with bevelled edges and a chrome surround with a bunch of grapes draped along the top. They both hung from two chains over the respective front room fireplaces. In the houses in Model Road these fireplaces were back to back. The bomb blast blew the cimneybreasts out from between the mirrors and carried them back to back and hung them on the picture rail on Alice's remaining bedroom wall. Uncle Harry borrowed a ladder and got them down and neither had a scratch on it. I don't know what happened to Alice's, but Mam's is now hanging in the hall of my daughter's house in Bridlington.

We were now all homeless of course. Gfrandma and Grandad had two empty attic rooms so we all moved in together. Grandma and Grandad had the front bedroom, Uncle Bernard had the back bedroom. Alice, Harry and Ann had the larger attic and mam and Dad had the tiny back attic. I had a bed in the corner of my grandparent's bedroom.

While living at Filey Street I was due to start school. The nearest one had a clock tower on top and so was known as the Clock School. A couple of weeks before my birthday Mam took me to enrol. I must have been a precocious child as apparently I answered all the questions about myself. The only thing I did not know was the year in which I was born. The headteacher, Mr Smith, explained that he could not officially take me until I was 5, but when they looked round I had disappeared. They found me sitting at a desk in the reception class having introduced myself to Miss Rouen as the new girl. Mr Smith laughed and said, "Well I can't really send her home now can I?" I enjoyed school from that first day until I was in my early teens.

One morning we were having breakfast after an air raid when there was a knock on the door. It was the air raid warden. He asked us if we could leave the house as there was an unexploded bomb in the next street. Grandma and Grandad owned a fish and chip shop on the main road, about a quarter of a mile away, so it was decided we should go there. Although it was a lock up shop there was a small flat above it which was unoccupied. We put a few necessities in bags and away we went.

As we waited at the front for Grandad to go round the back and let us in, he met another warden who was a friend of his and who asked him what he was doing. He explained we were going to use the flat for a few days because of the bomb. "Oh no you're not," was his reply. "There are three more of them in the back here."

We decided to go to Grandma's sister's house in Wakefield. We took the tram into Leeds and then caugh a bus. By the end of the day we had all been billeted with various members of Aunt Edith's family. Mam, Dad and I were staying at a farm cottage with cousins who had a new baby. I was thrilled because I was allowed to nurse the baby. Thrilled that is until she overflowed her nappy on to my turquoise woollen dress. The stain never did come out and because our shortage of clothes and the constraints of clothing coupons, I had to wear that dress until it was almost threadbare and at least two sizes too small.

1941

We eventually returned to grandma's and life for a five year old went on. Mam and Dad started collecting household items. One night I heard grandma and Grandad talking in bed. Grandma had heard of a shop where some wallpaper was arriving the next day. She said she would go early and queue for some. She came home with enough to paper one room, which was all each customer was allowed to buy. There was a debate about which room should be done. Grandad said their bedroom needed doing most but Grandma and Alice thought the sitting room should be done first. It was soon my bedtime and I was duly put to bed. My grandparents never put the light on when they came to bed in case they woke me up so it was not until the next morning that my handiwork was discovered. I had started stripping the walls picking small pieces from the skirting board to tip toe height all round the corner where my bed was. Mam was furious but Grandad said, "Well we will have to do this room now. I knew when I first saw the paper it would look nice in here."

Every Sunday afternoon when the weather was fine Grandad would go for a walk. Sometimes dad and I went with him but when Dad worked Sunday shifts he could not join us. Living in a built up area there were no country walks as such. We used to walk along the Aire and Calder canal or go to the local park. There was a golf course alongside the park and we sometimes walked through it. These were the nearest I got to a nature ramble until I was about 11 years old. Grandad was a mine of information and although I didn't always understand everything he said. I never tired of his rich deep voice and his rough Yorkshire accent.

Some of his words definitely registered with me. One day on the golf course I was running round a tree. He told me never to shelter under a tree if there was a thunderstorm. "If lightening strikes the tree it might fall on you, or the lightening could pass through youand kill you. Its better to get home wet through than not get home at all." This warning came back to me 20 years later. I was working as an insurance agent for a well-known company and part of my round was on the housing estate next to this same golf course. One of my sad duties was to pay out the death benefit to the family of a young woman who had been caugh in a thunderstorm while crossing the golf course. She had been struck by lightening as she sheltered under a tree.

I think I enjoyed the canal towpath walks the best. There is something about water that transports the imagination and transforms even the dullest landscape. It was on these walks I learnt about the wild forerunners of rhubarb and parsley; and about the relationship between dog-daisies and marguerites, and wild roses and the beautiful roses that Grandad grew round the edge of his allotment. I was told why ducks didn't get wet; how fish always face upstream when they are resting; how crows and rooks return to the same rookery every year; and why the towpath was so named. I even remember seeing the odd horse-drawn barge.

One of the higlights of these walks was buying ice cream at the kiosk. We would sit on a bench and talk. This was when I learnt about growing plants from seed and the difference between annuals and perennials.

Every effort was being made to provide materials for the ammunition factories and other war projects. All the school and park railings had been cut from their bases and people put everything they could into the 'salvage' bins that were provided alongside the dustbins. I knew that we all had to help so I never threw anything away not even the bags that I got my sweet ration in. I was saving everything I possibly could to make a 'Fire Spit'. I am told I had an excellent command of language for my age, but there were three words I remember having difficulty with; one was Spitfire, another was uyion for onion and the third was unkmy for monkey. One afternoon before we were bombed out, we were getting ready to go home from Grandma's and I had just finished eating some sweets that Grandma had given me. I started walking towards the gate and then remembered the swet bag in my hand. "I'll just put this in the salvage to make a fire spit," I shouted and set off to run back to the house. I ran straight into the backdoor steps and fell flat on my face, cutiing my chin, hands, knees and my nose was bleeding. Grandad picked me up and took me in saying, "I'll shoot that fire spit myself!"

1942

I hadn't been aschool long when I had to make a change. Mam and Dad were offered a council house in Sholebrook Street on the other side of town. If you didn't take the first house you were offered it was assumed that you no longer needed one so you were taken off the housing list altogether. My first school had been an old building with tip-seat desks arranged in serried ranks. The windows were too high to see out of unless you were 8 feet tall and the playground was wall to wall tarmac. Miss Rouen, although very kind, was of indeterminate age and had grey hair pulled back into a tight bun. She always wore grey or black skirts and grey twin sets.

Pottertown was a modern single storey structure and my first day there was an eye-opener. Suprise number one was Miss Marsden the headmistress. She had grey hair, which was curled and was wearing a grey skirt and cardigan but her blouse was blue. When I went to my classroom I had my second suprise. There were no rows of desks with iron frames and attached benches but there were square tables with chairs. These were made of light wood and the table tops and chair legs were bright red. There were plenty of children about and a lady with auburn hair, a bright green dress and high-heeled shoes. I thought she was a mother but Miss Marsden took my hand and led me to her and said, "This is your new teacher Pauline." I wondered how she could be a teacher; she was wearing nothing grey!!

Because I lived quite a distance from the school and my mother worked in the munition factory, I stayed at school for dinner. We ate in the school hall and then went into the playground. Even this was different to the Clock School. There was only a small amount of tarmac, the rest was grass with a paved area outside each classroom. When we returned to the classroom after lunch it had been transformed. Some of the tables were stacked against one wall and in their place stood easels, complete with paper, paints and pots of water. We had a whale of a time. Everyday after lunch we painted, made models, cut out and pasted or played with plasticene.

I liked painting best but also liked looking at what other people were doing. I was curious about the old man with a white beard sitting on a chair in the sky in some children's paintings. One day I asked my new best friend who it was. "Oh, that's God sitting on His throne in Heaven," she told me. I had been taught that God was invisible. At home, after tea, I told my parents about the pictures and they explained that not all children realised fully about God but that they would understand one day. They also told me that there were some people who did not think there was a God at all. I thought about this and I think it prepared me to accept that people differ greatly in their beliefs and customs.

We had been in our new house a short time when Mam got a job with the school meals service. Many women were working in the munitions factories and the hours were much longer than school hours. The schools in Leeds started serving breakfasts and teas as well as dinners to the children because of these workers. Parents brought their children to school about 7.30 and collected them around 5 o'clock.

Mam and I arrived at school around 7.15 when the breakfasts were delivered. It consisted of porridge or cornflakes, jam or marmalade, sandwiches and cocoa. I was not officially entitled to breakfast and tea at school as Mam no longer worked in the factory, but I think an exception was made as she was serving the meals. After school the delivery van brought tea - usually fish paste or potted meat sandwiches, a cake for each child (yes, they were counted), and orange juice or weak tea. I don't know if Leeds was the only city to provide these meals, I have never heard of it happening anywhere else. Mam continued to serve all these meals until after the war when the practice ceased. After that she was a dinnerlady for some years.

There was a grocery store on the estate where we lived and in the window was a doll's house used as an advertisement. It had two bedrooms and two rooms downstairs. Going up through the centre was a staircase with a large landing. It was sparsely furnished and there was a doll taking her shopping home. I thought it was beautiful and stopped to look at it everytime we passed. Toys were not a top priority in our house, as we needed too many other things having lost our first home. I had a doll and a teddy. Mam and Grandma made doll's clothing for me and we often played tea parties. Eventually the house in the shop window disappeared and mam said she thought the shopkeeper might have given it to his little girl.

The house we were in had the bathroom downstairs, off the kitchen and the toilet was just outside the back door in a little covered porchway. Just before Christmas the handle came loose from the bathroom door. Nearly every morning I went to get washed and pulled it off in my hand. I used to tell Dad that he really should mend it and he promised to do it when he had time. He even used to open and close the door for me when it was bathnight which was only a couple of nights a week in those days. I soon got used to washing in the kitchen sink.

On Christmas morning of course, Father Christmas had been. I had hung my stoking up as usual and as usual it had been filled. There were the normal stocking fillers and other odds and ends that wartime allowed. I could hear Dad lighting the fire downstairs which was unusual because he was normally as excited as me on Christmas morning. I went into their bedroom to show Mam my things but she was just about to go downstairs and suggested taking my things down so Dad could see them as well. At the bottom of the stairs Mam slipped through the living room door and then pushed it open for me to follow. I stepped into the room and there, facing me, was THE DOLL'S HOUSE!! Just as it had been inthe shop window but with more furniture. I could not believe my eyes. The walls had been papered and the floors carpeted. A bathroom had been made on the landing. Dad had made new furniture and Mam had painted it. There were even pictures on the walls and a standard lamp in the lounge. The whole front was hinged and opened right back to reveal the inside. The roof was flat, with a raised part at one end that opened like a box, while at the back was a switch. Dad had wired the whole house up to a battery in the roof box. Every room had a central light and the standard lamp in the lounge worked. Even the fireplaces had bulbs with red and orange wool in them. It was a little girl's dream come true. It stood about 30" high and was just over a yard wide and 18" deep. Dad and mam had been working on it on a board over the bath, behind the broken bathroom doorknob! On bath nights it had been secreted in the air raid shelter until I was asleep in bed.

During this time Uncle Bernard received his call up papers and went into the army. He was mam's youngest brother and he had always made a fuss of me. While he was away he wrote to me - not to Mam or Dad - to me. I would be 6 years old and it was the first letter I had ever received through the post. What made it more special was that Uncle Bernard had printed it and I could read it myself without any grown up assistance. I was so excited as I was dressing that I put my liberty bodice on and buttoned all 8 or 10 buttons, then I undid them again and put my pyjamas back on!

1943

For some time I had been keen on the idea of learning to play the piano. What I did not know was that Mam had been saving her wages to buy one. The day came when she had enough put by so we went to the music shop in Kirkstall Road in Leeds. There were quite a number of pianos there and most of them were positivelt ancient. There were walnut panels that looked like the faces of horrible monsters; ugly brass candlesticks; yellow keys that remionded me of old men's teeth; keys with the ivory missing showing the wood underneath; in all, a child's nightmare! But there in the corner was the one! Made of rosewood, it had no monster faces, no candlesticks, its keys were intact and the white ones were white and the black ones were black. To me it was the king of pianos. Fortunately it was also my mother's choice. She paid some money and agreed a delivery day.

Mam often told me the price of things and how much we paid in rent etc. She said it would teach me the value of money, and it did; so much so that I did the same when my girls were growing up. A few months after the piano arrived, when she was talking about the expense without revealing the actual cost of it, Auntie Alice said, "Yes, I saw you give the man £5 and you didn't get any change." I had no concept of leaving a deposit and paying the balance on delivery, and I genuinely thought the piano had cost £5. When we were alone Mam told me the real cost was £50, a great deal of money to a working class family at that time. She also told me never to discuss prices or fees with anyone outside our own little family, not even with grandparents.

About this time Grandad had the opportunity to buy another fish and chip shop which had living accommodation attached. He bought it and put Mam and Dad in it as managers. My parents were delighted because they had never really settled in Sholebrook Street. Not that there was anything wrong with the area, but a very dirty family had lived in it before us. When they left the house needed to be fumigated so long that the family next door had to be moved out for two days. I can remember Mam and Dad scraping black stuff out of the corners before they decorated. Apparently this was the bodies of all the dead bugs. Our new house was at 48 Winchester Road, Armley, Leeds 12 and was directly opposite one wall of Leeds prison, or Armley jail as it was known locally.

It was the end house of a terrace of back-to-back two-bedroomed houses. Instead of two living rooms we had a living room/kitchen and a fish shop. The preparation area for the shop food was in a tiled kitchen down in the cellar. On the first floor were the sitting room, my parent's bedroom and a tiny bathroom. This was literally a bathroom, there was nothing else in there. No wash basin, no toilet. My parents put an old wash hand stand in there but the toilet was four doors down the street in a yard and we had to share it with the next door neighbour. Another toilet in the yard was for the other two houses and there was an area for the four dustbins.

My bedroom was the attic room that had a window in the gable end. The other attic, which only had a skylight, was used as a storeroom. That bedroom was great. When the shop was open at night, which it was for five nights aw eek, both Mam and Dad were busy in it and they could not hear what I was doing. On summer evenings I used to read until dark and in winter, especially on moonlit nights, my bed could be anything from a pirate ship to a fairy castle. As I have said, our house was directly opposite the jail. In fact half the other side of our road was taken up with the jail wall and a grass verge wit iron railings all round. They were the only railings that had not been taken to help the war effort.

My new school was only two streets away from home and was called Castleton Elementary. It was a very old building with only a small playground. I do not remember much about the school except that it had another playground on the roof. Boys used the ground floor playground and girls and infants the playground on the roof.

Most food was rationed although Grandad could still get potatoes for chips and sometimes fish to fry in the shops. Very often there was no fish left after the dinnertime opening and we sold just chips and potato fritters in the evenings. In those days fish and chip shops did not sell peas, gravy and other things they sell today. There came a time when there was no fish available at all, so Grandma boiled vast quantities of rice which was quite easy to obtain. The boiled rice was then packed into shallow trays to cool. Grandad then cut the solid cold rice into slices which were dipped in batter, fried and sold instead of fish. Even when fish became plentiful again he was sometimes asked for rice fritters.

1944

My parents soon moved me to Armley Park School. It was further away from home but had a better reputation. The big drawback to this new school was that I had to cross the main Leeds to Bradford road which was also a tram track. The decision to move me was only made when they learnt that there was a police crossing patrol near another school that I had to pass on my journey.

There was a butcher's shop near my new school that sold off ration sausages on a Saturday morning. They were nearly all bread and seasoning but they looked like meat and they made a nice change from meatless dishes we often had to make do with. Each customer was allowed only one pound of these sausages, so Da d and I used to cheat a bit. We would walk a few yards apart when we approached the shop and try to stand a few places apart in the queue. We would each buy a pound of sausage and then join up again about 100 yards down the road. I thought these Saturday morning trips were a very daring adventure!

We had only been in the Winchester Road fish shop for a fairly short time when the cost of potatoes rose very sharply. It meant that the cost of a portion of chips would have to be put up from 1d to 2d. When people asked for chips they did not ask for a portion, they asked for a pen'orth. The day after the price rise I was in the shop helping to stack paper on the counter when a little boy came in. He looked at Dad and said, "Hey mister does a pen'orth o'chips cost tuppence now?" It tickled me to death; how could it be a pen'orth if it was two pen'orth?

While we were living at the fish shop my Dad's sister had to go into hospital for a major operation. She had four childrenm but the three eldest were working. Edward was about my age and it was arranged that he come to stay with us while Doris was in hospital. He was also to attend my school while he lived with us. On his first morning he walked to school with me and arranged to wait for me to walk home together as we would not be in the same class. For some reason his teacher let his class out 15 minutes early. Of course there was no one else about and Edward thought he was late out and I had gone without him. He made his own way home.

I came out at the normal time. I waited until everyone elase had gone and then went back into school to look for him. There was no one about so I set off for home. The nearer I got to home the more I started to panic. I burst into the house sobbing "I've lost Edward," and there he was sitting eating his tea. When I finished shouting at him for not waiting I asked how he managed to find his way home. His strategy had been simple - he looked up every srteet he passed until he saw the jail wall and he knew that was the right one.

1945

One morning Grandad brought our supply of fish for the shop as usual and asked about the excitement. We knew of no excitement so he took us outside and showed us a rope hanging down from the jail wall. During the night a prisoner had escaped from the jail directly opposite our house door and we had not heard a thing!

On Friday nights I was allowed to stay up late and either have a friend round or visit a friend. One friend I loved to visit was called Norma and her father made model steam engines. He used to power them up and let us see them running. Only one was a locomotive, the others were ship's engines or the kind with big flywheels that were used to drive the machinery in the early factories.

When I had friends at my house things were quite different. I had a toy cooker, which was heated by methylated spirits. Between 8.30 and 9.30 there were very few customers coming into the shop, so Dad would come through and ligh it for us and under his watchful eye cooked miniature dinners. The three pans, which fitted into grooves so that they could not be knocked over, held about a capful of diced vegetables each. We usually had peas, carrots and potatoes. The little boiler held about twice as much and we put meat and gravy in there. We could even bake Yorkshire pudding in the tiny oven. Elastoplast came in flat tins in those days and the bottom of one of these tins was just the right size to fit the oven. If there was no meat available, we steamed fish instead.

While we were living at the fish shop the war ended. This was a cause for great celebration. Almost every street held a party, or rather two parties, because we celebrated VE Day and VJ Day. Long trestle tables were set up in the street and every house was empty of chairs. We all took a spoon, a dish, a plate and a mug. People made sandwiches and cakes, jellies and trifles and enormous pots of tea. There was also orange juice for the children. Young babies were allocated orange juice to supplement the meagre supply of fruit available. It was meant strictly for the babies but we older kids got our ration of it at those parties. All the rations that had been hoarded were brought out and tins of salmon and fruit appeared as if by magic. I think there could well have been a few upset stomachs after the jollifications were over!

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Message 1 - Wartime

Posted on: 19 April 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Pauline

I really enjoyed reading your story about wartime Leeds. I was born in Leeds and all the places you mention bring back memories, although I was away from Leeds from 1940 to 1946.

Yours is a very well written account, full of fine detail.

Best wishes,

Peter

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