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The Life of a Child on the Home Front — Part 1

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Peter Kendall
Location of story: 
Kirkham, Wakefield
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 May 2005

The Life of a Child on the Home Front — Part 1

Peter Kendall

Part Two is at:


Just before the war started, some people that we knew came round the area, fitting us all up with gas masks. I thought these things were awkward to use, because the eye-pieces misted up so quickly. I was never able to keep mine on for more than 5 minutes! We had to carry our gas-masks at all times, so all sorts of cases were designed to carry them. Some were like handbags and others were like round tea-caddies, in which the gas-mask just fitted. Some of the lads at school used to play football or conkers with them and the cases got so dented you couldn't get the gas-masks out!

The day I was told about the war, was a lovely warm day in September. I came home from school for my lunch and sat upon a chair-arm in the kitchen, whereupon my mother told me the news. We were at war. We had neither TV nor radio, and the newspaper didn't say much that I could understand, and my mother couldn't or wouldn't say much to me either. I suppose she didn't want to frighten me about events which could happen in a war, as I was only 8 years old.

That same night the Air Raid alarms went off. There were lots of mills and factories in our area, so we could hear quite a few, which meant that we a11 jumped out of bed, grabbed a few clothes and went down into the cellar, the dog included. It was cold down there after a warm comfortable bed, and we sat shivering, just wondering what was going to happen to us. However, after about an hour the All-Clear went, so we went back to bed.

We had 3 more days back at school, when we were all assembled and told by the Headmaster to go home, as the school was closing for the time being and we would be told when to return. We had just had our summer holidays and being sent home again sounded great stuff to us!

Then things started to happen. All the important buildings had sandbags built round their doors and windows. A11 the street lights (which were gas in those days) were not lit at night any more. Everyone had to have good thick curtains up at all their windows to stop any light getting to the outside. Cars were taken off the roads because people couldn't get any petrol, but worst of all, we all got ration books, which meant there was only a small amount of food for everyone each week.

My father was in the Prison Officer Service at Wakefield Jail. My mother was a housewife at home. My sister worked in Supplies in the Education Department, my brother was a joiner and I went to the village school. That was when I learned to do the shopping. I was given a list of items each week, and away to the shop I went for the goods. I say shop, because we had to register with just one shop, and could only get our groceries from there. It was near to where we lived, because everyone did the same, and of course, there were no big grocery shops, and supermarkets weren't even thought of then.

The shopkeeper would look at the list and assemble the items on the counter, one at a time, while everyone else waited in a queue. Shopping took a long time in those days. I used to go to town with my mother on a Saturday to see what was available from the market, where there would be queues at almost every shop and stall, and all that was available was mostly locally grown produce. There was nothing from abroad.

I was hungry. I was always hungry. Hunger seemed to be my main preoccupation in those days. I would stay at school for a lunch which cost 4d (that's about 1½p today), and I'd eat all I could (sometimes 2 or 3 helpings), and then I would go home for some mare; that's if there was anything available. I remember scraping the jam out of a jam tart and spreading it on 2 slices of bread. It wasn't much, but at least it was a little taste of jam.

People used to swap items of food, such as those who didn't use sugar, or never used their jam ration. My mother could do alterations to clothes (which were also rationed), and she often got paid for her work with a bag of sugar, or a jar of jam. The odd extra item of food like that was a feast to us.

When our school was re-opened after a few weeks, we returned to a fortress. There were sandbags built up everywhere. I was a tall lad for my age, so I was selected to help the teacher, who had to glue a piece of muslin (like bandage material), on every pane of glass on the inside of the building. This was intended to stop glass flying around if ever we were bombed. Thank goodness it was never put to the test, but it was my job to go round the school every week, to check that all this muslin was still well stuck to the glass.

In our classroom, we had hooks screwed into the walls, so that our coats and gas masks were handy, just in case we had an Air Raid and had to go to the Air Raid Shelter, which was on a piece of land near to the school. In addition we had 4 little folding beds, bottles filled with fresh water every day, several jars of barley-sugar sticks, toilet paper and a First Aid kit. These items had to be transported by boys and girls to the shelters, just in case we had to stay there for any length of time. An Air Raid practice was always an exciting time. Someone got us some small boxes of bars of chocolate to take with us, but the mice ate them first!

Our Christmas parties were a class by class affair, held in our own classrooms. We all took something to eat or drink, which the teachers set out for us. After a few games, starting at 2 o'clock in the afternoon (because the school had no black-out), we devoured every crumb of food. Nothing was wasted. There were no party or fancy clothes, no decorations, no music, just ourselves and any songs that we could sing. We all seemed to enjoy ourselves and went home in a happy mood.

At night, the Black-out was total. One night the moon was brilliant and the stars really did twinkle in every part of the sky. The silence was unbelievable. Some men wore clogs as footwear and as they walked down the road, they could be heard half a mile away. Every vehicle had its headlights masked, which directed the light onto the road only.

The start of the war meant that everything was directed towards the war effort. Most shops closed at 5.30 pm or 6 o'clock and they closed even earlier in winter to save electricity. The markets outside had only torches if it was dark. To help with daylight we had Double Summer Time and it was almost dusk until midnight. We also had staggered hours, when some workers started very early in the morning and finished early in the afternoon, whilst others started much later in the morning, but finished in the evening. All this was to spread the industrial demand for electricity. We at home were cut off anytime with no warning. Thank goodness we had coal fires, an oven and candles, so we could keep the home going.

We had recently moved to a larger house and were only just getting used to this new "electricity". In the kitchen was a black-leaded kitchen range which consisted of an open fire with a back boiler for hot water, and an oven. My mother did all her cooking and baking in the oven and used the open fire for boiling the kettle, and cooking the vegetables in saucepans. The fire made lovely toast, using our home-made toasting fork and we used to cook "cheese and cinders" underneath the fire. It was so tasty.

My mother worked very hard, looking after the family and the house, and later on, she had to register for outside work as well. This was to help with the war effort. She was allocated a job at an Air Ministry Supply Depot where she used to pack socks, shirts, shoes and garments for the men in the RAF. She was given the choice of either taking in 3 or 4 evacuees or working. I don't think she felt she could cope at home with looking after any more people. If we had taken in the evacuees, the children would have slept in our living room and we would have had to live in the kitchen, as there were only 2 rooms downstairs. We had 3 bedrooms, but there were 5 of us already and my mother was barely coping with all the extra tasks which the war had brought with it. If she took a job, at least she would be bringing in some extra money.

All the washing was done by hand in those days, as there were no washing machines; we only had a scrubbing brush, a washboard and a mangle. Mother had a "peggy-tub" to do the washing in, and pounded it up and down with a "posser". She had a "ladling can" to transfer water in and out of the tub; a bag of "dolly-blue" to put in the rinsing water to make the washing look whiter, and an indoor creel to hang the washing on when it was raining outside. It was hard work scrubbing working shirts and overalls by hand, as they got very dirty indeed. Then they had to be rinsed, put through the wringer and hung out. We even had to make our own clothes pegs. We were surrounded by steam trains, factory and mill chimneys, so the air was usually full of soot, and sooty smuts often landed on the washing, or blew through ill-fitting windows into the houses, which meant extra work trying to keep the house clean. Furniture and carpets were available, but were all second-hand. Even new things, which were available, were of poor quality and most people had very little money, so you had to look after what you'd got, or "make do and mend".

Most people got into the habit of saving everything they found, or were given, in case it would come in useful. The deprivation was so bad that these habits became ingrained and this is one of the reasons why old people who lived through the war, have a tendency to hang onto things and never want to throw anything out! My mother used to take wrapping paper off parcels very carefully, iron it and use it again and again. We used to take all the knots out of string and re-use it because everything was in such short supply. My mother even used to unravel old knitted jumpers, wash the wool, and then knit a "new" garment with it!

My mother was a very thrifty person, she had to be. She made use of food from the garden, hedges and trees, and made bought food spin out, so we all enjoyed it as much as possible. Mother's day started very early. She was always up first and had to light the fire before she could even start cooking the breakfasts. We used to have toast with butter, margarine and sometimes dripping. We got dripping from the small joint of meat, or from a boiled-up bone which we could buy from the butcher, off ration. Sometimes we had fried cheese, or half an egg, which we shared, or some dried-egg mixed with water or milk. Mother would
make fish-cakes, with much more potato than fish, beans on toast, some fried tomatoes, really anything we could get. We drank tea or coffee.


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