- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Val Shoulder
- Location of story:
- Pembridge, Herefordshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
Some of my earliest memories go back to the time when at the age of four years, I was standing in line at a local school together with my brother Tom and lots of other young children as we were awaiting transport to take us miles away from our homes in London for evacuation at the start of the second world war in 1939. For several months we were shunted around from one billet to another and at one of these, we had to share with several other evacuees. I recall that, in this small house, we were made to sleep in a big double bed, top and tail with boys and girls all in together. It was not surprising that among those small children, incontinence problems were experienced and it does not leave much to the imagination to guess just what that environment was like, especially as quite often, the sheets were just dried around the fire and put back onto the bed. I also recall that the older children belonging to the parents at that particular establishment, used to enjoy playful 'torturing' of us evacuees when left alone by stringing us up by our hair to a nail in the wall. Thankfully, we did not stay there for too long and were eventually moved on to the village Rectory with another group which, for the short time that we were there, was great fun. I remember the high-jinks that we shared when left alone to play in their beautiful large lounge where several comfortable armchairs were situated, we would run and jump, causing their lovely furniture to topple backwards, which of course, gave us a super soft landing!.. We also used to play hide and seek in their large garden and, no doubt, trampled on their lovely shrubs and flowers so, it was no small wonder that we evacuees were regarded as a nuisance and were soon moved on.
So it was in this small country village, on the outskirts of Wales that I spent most of my childhood years in a little cottage close to the rectory with 'Auntie Vi'. She was an elderly lady and was very strict. I suppose that she must have been kind to take me in but, in all the years that I stayed with her, I can never remember any show of affection towards me whatsoever. For a while, my brother Tom was accommodated next door but he was later moved to be near my elder brother Arthur. At first there was another young girl from Liverpool at the same billet as me. She was a little older and was quite obviously the favourite with Auntie Vi as, with me coming from the East end of London, it was automatically assumed that I was from the slums. In this case it was more or less so and as such, at the tender age of no more than five or six, I was expected to help with the housework, which included black-leading the kitchen range and scrubbing the stone floored passage and front door step. The cottage was very antiquated with no running water of electricity. For drinking purposes, it was necessary to take a bucket some way up the road and place this under a water-spout, which ran underground from a local well, to be collected some hours later. Water for washing was obtained from the river which ran about fifty yards from the back door, unless it rained heavily when it would be much closer! It was usually my job to collect the bucket which would sometimes be full to overflowing and therefore too heavy for me to manage so accordingly, by the time I reached home, my shoes and socks would be saturated, which of course, incurred the wrath of Auntie Vi.
It was with some trepidation I recall, that, in order to visit the loo, (which was simply a wooden seat across a kind of bucket, the contents of which would overflow into a large container at the back), I had to negotiate a long winding, up-hill path, usually chased by next door's large hissing gander with outstretched wings, followed by a flock of geese! Of course there was no such luxury as soft toilet paper and, if the little squares of newspaper ran out, which hung on a piece of string behind the door, well there were always the ivy leaves that grew in abundance around the outside! (I often recall this awful memory when impressing the importance of personal hygiene upon my own grandchildren). Before I leave this unsavoury subject altogether, one other incident comes to mind was, on one cold dark night when I was suffering with a tummy upset, which I often did (and was not surprising as I used to eat the leaves that grew in the hedgerows, commonly known as 'bread and cheese', when I was hungry), I couldn't quite make the up-hill loo, so I 'went' through the fence into the adjoining field and then spent the rest of the night fervently praying for rain in the hope that it would be washed away before the morning came. It wasn't. So next morning I was made to clear it up!
Auntie Vi used to assist not only with school dinners but also at the Village Hall with refreshments at the occasional Saturday evening dances, which were held for the benefit of the Servicemen and women that were stationed at the local aerodrome. On these occasions, I would be taken along to sit and watch until I fell asleep on one of the benches and when I awoke some time later would often find that some kind Airman had covered me with his overcoat. Upon returning home soon after midnight tired and weary after helping to clear up after all the Service personnel had left and then walking home in the pitch black darkness, with only the aid of a torch to light our way, Auntie Vi would open the front door and light the oil lamps. The sight that greeted us was always the same; the floor would be covered in black-beetles or cockroaches, which would scuttle towards a small hole in the wall that backed on to the coal-cupboard in the scullery. Within seconds it seemed that every last one would disappear and it's strange now to relate that this spectacle caused me no alarm whatsoever and never seemed in any way abnormal.
Overall, I think that I quite enjoyed the simple life in this quiet country village, remembering little else of course up until that time; however one painful memory of my young life will stay with me I am sure. At about the age of eight, whilst playing in the school playground, skipping with my friends, a young lad was being a nuisance and would keep pulling at the rope and spoiling our game. In the end, I lost my temper and hit out his legs with the rope, which seemed to have the desired effect and I thought that would be the end of the matter. After playtime had ended however, when we returned to our classrooms, a message was sent to our teacher that the Headmaster wanted to see me. I had no idea what this could be about but he informed me that, as a result of my action in the playground, the little boy had suffered an epileptic fit and accordingly I was to be punished with four strokes of the cane.
I then had to take the cane back to my classroom and ask my teacher to carry out this barbaric punishment, with two strokes on each hand, in front of the whole class. Before each stroke was administered, the cane was placed upon the hand, as if to mark the spot on which it was to land,(and so prolonged the anticipated agony) and with each stroke getting harder and stronger, still I would not cry. At the end of this humiliating and painful ordeal, I was made to take back the cane to the Headmaster's study and return to my, by now, stunned and silent class. It was only then that I put my head in my arms on the desk and sobbed my heart out. Fortunately the kindly pupil sitting next to me tucked her hankie under my arm into my hand, to help mop up my tears. Of course the stinging pain in my hands soon passed with time but the ache that I felt in my heart then is still with me until this day. If that wasn't bad enough, Auntie Vi, found about the incident so that when I arrived home after school, I received another hiding for misbehaving and for showing her up!
Of course there were happier memories, one of which was the annual event of hop-picking. For many of us, it was the only 'holiday' that we knew and most of the children were allowed to play happily among the vines. Unfortunately, it was not so for me and, come rain of shine I had to sit on the hard criss- cross supports at the end of the 'crib', which was a kind of large canvas container in which the picked hops would be collected. At intervals throughout the day, a team of men would come around in order to release the vines with their long poles and when a shout of 'Clear 'em up' could be heard, that was a signal for the hop-pickers to take out as meany leaves as possible to enable the hops to be weighed. For each bushel that was picked, the appropriate token would be issued and, at the end of the season, these would be exchanged for cash. As the small box into which I picked was emptied into Auntie Vi's crib each time it became full, the contents were not weighed separately but it was assumed that throughout the day, I had picked about one bushel and was allocated tokens accordingly. One Saturday however, Auntie Vi was unwell and unable to accompany me to the hop fields so I went along with the other Pickers and in one morning alone, found that I had picked two and a half bushels directly into the crib. It was with a sense of injustice therefore, that I collected my share-out at the end of the season and was made to feel that I should indeed be grateful for it.
It is said that we only remember the good and happy times but I shall never forget one evening whilst left alone at home, the neighbour's child from next door, decided to pay me a visit. It was felt that the fire was too low and needed refuelling, after which we pumped it into red hot flames, using the bellows that hung beside the kitchen range. For some unknown reason, our neighbour’s child decided to 'test out' the heat of those bellows on my knee. Evidently, my screams could be heard quite some distance away and I still have the scar to this day. Nowadays it is illegal for young children to be left alone unsupervised at home but at that time it was not the case therefore it was on one such occasion when Auntie Vi was out that I found myself in the company of her young relative a teenage lad of about fourteen who had come to stay for a holiday. 'Tony' also had a younger handicapped sister at home called Wendy who had spent much of her life hitherto in a wheelchair. It is supposed that, in order to gain sympathy and to play upon my soft-hearted emotions, Tony would take great delight in relating to me how 'accommodating this poor lass was to him and of the 'things' that she allowed him to do. Much of the detail is lost to me now, but I do recall how at every available opportunity, he would remind me of his 'poor sister' and surely if she could then so could I!
Returning home after the war had ended, at the age of ten, I found myself very homesick for this Spartan village life. I missed Auntie Vi and also the many friends that I had made at this time of my young life. It did not help either that I returned to a very unhappy home where my Father would get drunk and knock my Mother about, often resulting in her ending up in hospital. Being the eldest girl, it was expected that I would run the home and look after the younger children in her absence, but there, that is another story!
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