- Contributed by
- The Stratford upon Avon Society
- People in story:
- Tom Pilling
- Location of story:
- Bolton and Stratford
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 August 2005
41 — Tom Pilling, born in Bolton in 1933, gives a schoolboy’s account of the War:
“It was traditional in Bolton, because of there being so many cotton mills, that they closed for a week at the end of June, and I think it was the September holiday. Because there was a war looming, we didn’t take a family holiday. I went for some reason to Luton to stay with an uncle along with my father, and on ‘the day war broke out’ we had to come home rather quickly.
I recall standing at a bus stop and seeing some advertisements, huge hoardings, and the word ‘FYFFES’ and that really puzzled me, because I was about six at the time, could just about manage to read it, and asked my father what it was, and he said that’s ‘Fiffies,’ and they supply bananas, but you won’t be seeing very many of them for much longer because they come from overseas, and because there’s a war coming the ships will be needed for something else. That was my first recollection of war, but in reality it was to do with the blitz in Manchester and Liverpool and all the misfired bombs that landed around Bolton.
Well if you’ve seen the National Trust programme recently to do with back to back housing in Bolton, or Coronation Street, then this is what the neighbourhood was like. The back streets were no more than about four yards wide with a little pavement, with millstone grit slabs, and then cobbles in between. These were our football pitches and cricket pitches, and if we happened to hit a good shot for six with the ball or kick the ball too hard at football, it would go over into somebody’s back yard. Some of the neighbours were cooperative and would give us our ball back, but there was one notorious old bat who would never give us our ball back, even if our parents went round, I think the name was Strickland, I’m not sure.
Of course rubber was in short supply, so to have any sort of ball to kick around was a prized object, and I got an old leather case from a football, and we used to go to the butcher’s shop to buy a pig’s bladder, he used to leave just a little bit of the outlet from the bladder on, so that we could blow it up, but when we were getting the football as hard as we could, of course it blew back at us, and the taste and the smell were pretty ghastly — but we would do anything to have a ball to kick around.
Well of course with the blackout if there were an air raid then no lights had to be on; we had to get dressed as quickly as we could to go to the nearest air raid shelter which was at the local junior school. Well, being untidy boys, my brother and I always had a struggle finding our clothes in the dark, and my mother tells of me going along to the shelter with the rest of the family, wearing one football boot and one clog, and clogs were the standard footwear in those days. But they had irons attached to the wood, so it was clip clop, clip clop. Mother said hush, be quiet, they will hear you in the Zeppelins — she had gone back a war!
When we got to this air raid shelter of course it was very dim and dark in the school ground, and apparently I stood on Mrs Strickland’s toe with the foot that had the football boot on and crushed one of her toes with a stud, and she believed that I did that deliberately, but it was a pure accident.
Eventually we had shelters built in the back yards, at the far end of the back kyard from the house, next to the midden, the outside loo. But my father, being a builder, did quite a good job inside - he built a fireplace and bunks, mantelpiece and a clock. And there was a chemist’s shop on the road nearby, with a strange name of Crumblehulmes, and they had two sons, Barry and Winston, who used to come to an elderly lady next door; I think she may have been a grandmother but I am not certain, and she was so proud of the job that my father had done on the air raid shelter that she used to bring people round and ask if she could show them.
Well my mother had been doing the usual hand knitted socks and the darning during the raids, and that previous night she had lost her darning needle, couldn’t find it anywhere. So when these two boys came, one of them seeing the bunks and that they were quite springy, decided to hurl himself on backwards, and landed straight on the darning needle! And my mother had to get a pair of pliers to retrieve it!
And then there was another time when the raids were quite heavy, either Manchester or Liverpool, there had been the sirens and we were all in the shelter, nothing seemed to be happening. My brother said that he rather fancied a cup of tea, so mother said well then go and make one, and make one for the rest of us as well. And just as he was coming out of the kitchen door with a tray of tea a bomb went off quite nearby, a huge one, and I think he was back inside the shelter before the tray of mugs of tea hit the ground! He was always reminded of that event.
I have very, very stark memories of the Christmas Eve midnight service: my father, brother and I were in the choir so it was a recollection of singing ‘Silent night, holy night,’ with bombs going off right, left and centre in the Manchester blitz, and as we came out of the church, the sky….well it was like daylight with all the incendiary bombs hanging around. It was a sort of paradox with Silent Night and the bombs going off.
My father was in the ARP and I was really, really keen on chemistry, and I think I had the biggest chemistry set in the area, poured all my pocket money into it, and the great hobby at the time was making fireworks. My father came home with part of an incendiary bomb, the magnesium base to it, and I spent hours and hours in his shed, with a rasp, filing it away to put the magnesium into the fireworks, and make these vivid sparklers.
Food supply was making do — ‘cos in the towns it was just a matter of the bare rations, people who lived in the country often kept their own pig and things like that. We occasionally got, off ration from the grocer, spare ribs, ‘cos he used to cut the bacon off the ribs, which left very little flesh on the ribs. But a popular dish, whenever my mother could get the bacon ribs, was to boil them with cabbage, and well, we got quite fed up of that, but the horrible thing about it was the little splinters off the ribs getting into the cabbage, and we had pricked tongues and roof of the mouth — as children we really didn’t like that. And worst of all was not on the ration — cow heels, and it was a very popular meal to eke out some of the meat ration and make steak and cow heel pie! And I shudder at the thought of the glutinous mass (it would be good for us, it would put a poultice on our ribs, so we were told) and its horrible smell when it was cooking.
I think that was still popular in the war; there was a branch of UCP in town (United Cow Products), bits of offal weren’t on the ration, so we did have those rammed down our throats to nourish us, but that wasn’t very appetizing.
It was mum’s job in almost every home, to eke out the half decent meal from the scraps available. We could have on our bread either margarine or jam, but not both at a time! I remember the children used to have ‘dip butties,’ and my father would have the ham or the bacon ration from which the dip came, so they were very tasty, and I suppose the fat and the bread were sustenance of some form, but he being the wage earner, had the ham and the bacon. We used to supplement the sweet ration by cutting up Rowntree’s jellies into small cubes; we would also go to the greengrocers and get a ha’porth of pay swats
(pea pods), and a man used an old ice cream cart to sell black peas — boiled peas in what was the ice cream tub, or a basinful for a ha’penny or a penny (only in Bolton, I think).
(My father) was sent away for a time to work in London, as he was too old to be in the forces. I can remember him bringing an atlas back. A school had been bombed and they were clearing all the rubble, and in the rubble he found, I think it was a Philips World Atlas. That gave my brother and me hours and hours of enjoyment, finding the rivers and remembering the pages they were on. We were also experts at drawing aeroplanes; as my father was in the ARP he had the aeroplane identification books, so we knew them all and could draw them all.
Finally, even though it was a coal mining county, fuel was rationed. Sometimes we would get wind of coal being available at a particular place, and my brother and I would push a pram to go and get a sack of coal, perhaps two miles, and sometimes we would get there and it had all been sold — fuel was also in very short supply.
Having spent twelve years after the war working in (chemical) laboratories, I suddenly wanted to teach, nothing else, I wanted to be with people, young people, ‘cos I had done a lot of work with youth clubs until then, and enjoyed it, so I went to teach at a boarding school in Sussex, which happened to be fifth in the pecking list of the most expensive schools, after Harrow, Eton, etc, and after four years there it had to be somewhere in the country — and I came back up to Stratford, where I taught at the Girls’ Grammar School for almost 25 years.”
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