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Childhood wartime memories of living in Queen's Park, Bedford Part One - Local Civil Defence. The Americans in Bedford. Memories of two bombing incidents.

by bedfordmuseum

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. Richard (Dick) John Hughes
Location of story: 
Queen's Park, Bedford, Bedfordshire.
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 October 2005

Childhood wartime memories of living in Queen’s Park, Bedford Part One — Local Civil Defence. The Americans in Bedford. Memories of two bombing incidents.

Part one of an oral history interview with Mr. Richard J. Hughes conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum

“I was seven years old and can remember hearing on the radio that we was at war and as children we thought that was quite exciting. But for a long time nothing happened, life carried on just the same. And the first experience we had of something happening was a lot of men came round and took all the railings from out the houses. Almost every house had about a foot high brick wall and then railings and a railing gate and they took everybody’s. They took everybody’s except one, there was a chap, his name was Bill Mingay. When he was a baby his mother dropped him and broke his back and he used to hang over his gate on an old mattress. And when the workmen came to do his they felt sorry for him so they left his and his was the only set of railings left in Queen’s Park. When I was a youngster as well on a Saturday afternoon his father used to pay for him and me to go to Empire cinema and I used to push him in his wheelchair from Queen’s Park over to the Empire. He was allowed to sit in the aisle and I had the end seat and I done that for quite a long, long time. We used to go whatever the weather, rain or shine.

I can remember the Home Guard starting. It wasn’t called the Home Guard, I think it was called the Citizens Defence Volunteers, it wasn’t called the Home Guard because my father was in it. He never had a gun to start with and he never had a uniform, he had an arm band and a trilby hat. Laughter! Funny, I was only seven at the time but silly things … and they used to meet in the All Saints Church Hall in Iddesleigh Road and now after a time they progressed, they had uniforms and guns. And they used to have exercises in Allen Park, they used to camp, they used to go up there and put a bell tent up and camp overnight. We used to go up there and watch them we thought it was great fun. Although my father was in the Home Guard but because he worked at Allen’s and he was one of the top machinists -Allen’s did lots of work for the Navy - so he was always getting called into work. So he didn’t have a lot of time for Home Guard because they considered what he was doing at work was much more important. I can remember during the war at times he got out of bed in the middle of the night, they wanted an urgent thing and he would trundle off to work.

I had two brothers and two sisters, one sister younger and all the others were older. My eldest brother was an apprentice and eldest sister was in the Royal Observer Corp in Bromham Road. My second eldest brother was at school and he started work just before the war ended. My second eldest brother was a fire watcher, you had to be 14 to be a fire watcher. He used to go, I think he went on top of the Moravian Church because the Moravian Church had got a tall, flat tower and he used to go up there fire watching. The one in Howard Avenue in Queen’s Park, it’s called the Moravian Church. He used to stop there all night, he used to stop there all night and he never saw a fire. All the times he went he never saw a fire. They always had two and they would take in turns and do a couple of hours and then sleep for a couple of hours. He thought that was great fun and of course they got paid as well. That went on for three or four years and then as we began to win the war it dropped off.

The trains, if you saw a steam train going by in the dark you could see the flames from the engine fire, they had to have special things to stop so that a plane couldn’t see it. All the cars and buses and the street lamps had baffles over them so that from a street light all you could see was just three little, tiny strips of light. And a car headlight, they had a hood with just the minutest piece of light showing. Everywhere, in the wintertime, it was dark. As soon as it got dark - you weren’t allowed to have a torch, you’d have the Warden shouting at you. Everybody when around in sort of semi darkness in the wintertime.

And then another thing they started, they started building, they called them static water tanks. They were big, they were made out of brick and lined with some sort of pitch, they were about 30 feet square and about five foot deep. They filled them full of water so that if there was incendiary bombs dropped the firemen had got water, instead of going down to the river they had got water on hand and they built quite a lot of those around the town. When we were children I can remember, being as it was stagnant water, the life in it — there was every sort of dragon fly larva, everything and we learnt more about natural history from that static water tank than we ever did at school. It was fascinating to see these things, they used to attack each other, it was you know, it was really interesting. They were dangerous really because they weren’t covered over. We used to clamber up and lay on the wall. In the country one or two people drowned in them but luckily none of us.

We had gas masks distributed. There was a centre, I believe that we went to the Moravian Church Hall to get them. They were in a cardboard box about 8 inches cube but that didn’t last long because we had to carry them everywhere. So they changed the design then and we had a round tin about 5 inches diameter, about 9 inches high that we used to hang around our neck. And you had to take that everywhere, to school, out to play and if you were seen without it you would be sent home to get it. I went to Queen’s Park school. That was about 200 yard from where I lived in Coventry Road.

We had an air raid shelter and I can remember I was Water monitor. Each shelter had a bucket of water and the first thing I did every day on going to school was to change the water to a new bucket of water so that if anybody wanted a drink. We had ONE enamel cup! Because we used to go to school and the sirens would go and then wed go down the shelter and there was lighting but not enough light to do school work so we used to sing or do poetry. It was funny because we could go down the shelter and when it came to dinner time if the raid was still on we were allowed to go home and have our dinner and then come back and go straight back down the shelter!

Another thing I can remember too about my early school during the war — some of the children used to come to Queen’s Park from over Allen’s bridge, they used to come from River Street and Garfield Street and some of them places around there. Compared with Queen’s Park, not being nasty but that was a poor area compared with Queen’s Park — and lots of the children that come from there were undernourished. I can remember now, the teacher used to have a great big jar of cod liver oil and malt and they had to have a great big dessert spoon and each of these children had to line up and have a great big dessert spoonful of this cod liver oil and malt. I never understood - they only had one spoon, they never washed it after each one they only had one spoon and every child that had it had it off the same spoon. But you see we were stronger in those days. We used to play marbles in the gutter we used to skip in the road. You know we used to do things, we were never washing our hands every ten minutes like they do now.

I can remember the BBC Orchestra coming to the Corn Exchange. We had, oh I can’t think of the man’s name, we had a man who played the cello, I can’t remember, I’m talking of 65 years ago, but he came and showed us that. I remember too that they put on a ballet at the Corn Exchange and we went. We didn’t understand what ballet was and I couldn’t understand when we went why they didn’t sing. But it was fascinating.

At school, at Queen’s Park school, the cleverest boys used to have a class with the Headmaster, Mr. Johns, well Captain Johns he was and I was lucky enough to be one of his and we used to run the school really, we used to be the monitors. We used to be milk monitors we used to collect money for school dinners. I remember school dinners it used to cost five pence a day for a school dinner.

Another thing about meals there was an organisation called the National (British) Restaurants. We had quite a few of those in Bedford. We had one in Midland Road, we had one in the Pentecostal Church in Gwyn Street and we had one in Mill Street as far as I remember. And in there you could get a two course dinner for a shilling. A lot of single people who hadn’t got a lot of rations could go there each day and get their dinner or old aged pensioners, people who couldn’t cook they could go there and they were sure they had a hot meal. There were lots of things during the war more so then, looking after people then than are now.

I can remember was the Americans coming. In Queen’s Park, perhaps you might know, in Lawrence Street there’s a building called the Co-Partners Halls. It used to be the social club for the Gas Works but during the war that was requisitioned for the American Forces Broadcasting Network. And we used to go and stand at the gate and I saw down there Bing Crosby, got his autograph, saw Bob Hope, I saw Glenn Miller and I saw lots and lots of famous American film stars. They used to come down there and broadcast for the American Forces troops. We used to go down there on a regular basis and see all these famous people. Our favourite thing with the Americans, was ‘Have you got any gum, chum?’ They used to give us Dentine chewing gum.

I remember the Americans used to give parties for us. We used to have Longhurst and Skinners (Furnishers) in Midland Road, on top of there, there is a big room, I think it was called the Rendevous Club and there was another one over Hebblethwaites, the furnishers in Midland Road. There was a big room on top that or behind that and the Americans used to give parties for us children. They used to have entertainment and they were very good.

A lot of people moaned about the Americans over here but I always, from my recollections of them, they treated us very well. As I say they gave us parties, they used to give us chewing gum and sweets. I, you know couldn’t really find any fault with them. They used to have some smashing cars to drive about in. I remember when Bing Crosby came to Co-Partners Hall, he had a huge, a huge car because in real life he was only a little, tiny man. I remember I got his autograph and Bob Hope, Glenn Miller. I wish I had them now! They’d be worth a fortune. They used to give, quite a few of the American ones gave concerts at the Corn Exchange and also they used to have concerts in the Assembly Rooms in St.Peter’s. I believe it was later the Glider roller skating rink. They used to have concerts there.

I can remember too the American Military Police used to drive around in jeeps with their hats on and they had a big hickory batons and if any Americans caused trouble they was out of their jeeps and whacked them. There was no asking questions, they just whacked them and chucked them in the back of the jeep and off they went. Yes, I can remember seeing that several times.

Then another vivid memory I have got is going to school one morning (23rd July 1942), just getting into the playground and looking up and there is a German aeroplane coming over and all of a sudden out of it came bombs. And it bombed the theatre in Midland Road and it also bombed the railway sidings. They said they were looking for Allen’s factory but I can remember that, I can see it today. I can see these bombs raining down from this aeroplane.

Another real big event was we had two land mines drop in Bedford. One of them dropped in Cox’s Pits which is in Queen’s Park and one of them dropped in Kempston just in front of the Kempston Barracks (night of 14th November 1941). Luckily they both dropped on soft ground and didn’t do a lot of structural damage. But there was a Mr. Moss, the baker, in Honey Hill Road saw this parachute coming down and thought it was a German parachutist. So he rushes out to sort of arrest him and luckily, they said that he was so close to the explosion, but it sort of went over him and all he had was a broken arm but he wasnt more than 20 or 30 yards from it when it exploded. We went to look at it and I got a piece of the silk cord from the parachute and bits of shrapnel. In Bedford, we had one or two incendiary bombs up what they called the Black Tom area but apart from that we never had a lot of bombing.

It was exciting! The Americans used to fly Flying Fortresses from all round Bedford. And in the summer time when they used to go over Germany early they would come back over about half past eight to nine o’clock and we used to see these Flying Fortresses with holes in their wings, with engines missing. And they had a series of different colour flares. And they used to fire a flare from the aeroplane to say, one colour, I think it was red meant that they had dead on board, another colour was if they needed to landed immediately or if they were able to carry on for a bit they would fire a green flare. And we were just standing there and saying that ones got dead on it and that ones got to land and so on.

Another funny thing I can remember later on during the war. We had a convoy of tanks, this was getting towards the Normandy D-Day and they were parking through Bedford on their way down to the coast. And for some reason they decided to park them in the Slipe in Queen’s Park which is a sort of park area. And all these tanks drove onto there and come the morning when it was time to go it was so soft they couldn’t get them out and I can remember to this day they had great big winches winching these tanks back off of this muddy field. They tore it to pieces. They were bogged right down, they couldn’t, even being tanks they couldn’t get out, they had to drag them out. There must have been about 50 of them. They stopped in Bedford overnight”.

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