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The unhappiest period of my life

by nottinghamcsv

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ellen Smith
Location of story: 
mainly Reading and surrounding area
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by CSV/BBC Radio Nottingham on behalf of Ellen Smith with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

My parents and I lived in a substantial house in a lovely Surrey village. I remember listening to the wireless (as we called it then) in one of our front rooms to hear Sir Neville Chamberlain’s speech. On hearing his words ‘so now we are at war with Germany’ I remember being filled with fear and apprehension and these emotions still remain strong today and have caused me to burst into tears twice when visiting the war museum in Whitehall. Anyway, after hearing Chamberlain’s speech I remember walking down to the front gate and looking up into the sky half expecting Germans to parachute down! The air raid siren then suddenly sounded (a false alarm) then a Home Guard cycled past and called out to me ‘Go in Miss…the Germans are coming’. So I went in, locked the door wondering what was going to happen to me. My father said he was going to the shed to get tools- I suppose we hoped to defend ourselves with spades and forks!

I cannot remember the sequence but a friend who owned a shoe shop in the next larger village was called up for the air force and asked if I would help run the shop with another girl whose husband was in the army in Egypt. This I did for a few months, cycling two miles four times a day, shoes by then being rationed to shops. Although at that time there was no military presence in the area German bombers passed over and as I cycled I saw the dog-fights in the sky and heard shrapnel dropping on the road. Now and then the Germans dropped their bombs when escaping back to Germany, and once a number of people were killed by a falling bomb in a nearby pub and the force of the blast blew out the windows of the shoe shop. They dropped unexploded bombs in a field I cycled by each day and this road was then cordoned off and guarded, which meant a long detour for me! When the guard was removed we shifted the barrier and cycled along as usual and one day a lorry passed me and the driver asked me where the bombs were and I airily replied ‘over there, but don’t worry, they’ve been there for ages and have not gone off!’ I then realized they were the bomb disposal squad!

I had then been called to Reading (a train and bus ride away) to an interview for war work at the Labour Exchange where a lot of women were being interviewed, all of them looking as apprehensive as I was. I was offered the choice of A.T.S or factory work. Not wanting to join the services, a munitions factory was my lot and I was told I would be sent to Theale. Never having heard of Theale, I thought she said Lille and thought ‘my God, I am to be parachuted into France!’ I was to await my call.
My father was then terminally ill with cancer, my mother nursing him in a downstairs room. The village had no hospital within 6 miles and no doctor. There was a district nurse but a doctor did come and give him drugs etc. so I was deferred from war service for six months before my call up.

Eventually the time for me to leave arrived. I had my beloved dog shot as I knew he would grieve and my mother would not be able to feed or look after him and the house was to be sold. So eventually my beloved home where I had spent over 20 happy years was no longer ours. My mother and I had discussed running it as a guest house one day but that was now out of the question as it would be requisitioned by the Air Force to house the young chaps doing mysterious things in Nisson Huts in a field- early radar but we did not know it then.

So I reported in due course to Reading Labour Exchange where we formed little groups and walked around Reading with a leader, knocking on doors and billeting ones and twos, sometimes to mixed receptions from the householder. Myself and another girl who I had never seen before were the last and by then feeling very miserable and apprehensive. We knocked at the door of a small terrace, and I remember the door opening and a lady saying ‘no, I’m not having any more, I had enough trouble with the last two!’ and she banged the door shut. What a welcome! I remember our leader knocking again and telling the lady she had to take us and we that we would behave much better than the last two. (how did she know?!)
So reluctantly she let us in and showed us a double bed, which I was to share with a complete stranger. The poor girl with me was even unhappier than I was and had never been away from home. Girls did not backpack round the world in those days! But gradually the landlady, husband and small daughter realized that we were indeed ‘better than the last lot’ and did their best to make us feel as home as they could. I know there was a downstairs lavatory but cannot remember if there was a bathroom or if we had a basin and jug in the bedroom. I remember my companion sobbed bitterly until she fell asleep.

The next day we had to report to the factory at Theale- not in France- a bus and train ride away outside Reading where we were interviewed, received a brief medical check and allotted jobs. I was given a navy overall and told I was an I.N.O girl —an inspector of naval ordinance —goodness knows why as I did not know one end of a gun from another!

My companion was given a khaki overall and was to be working on machines making things for the army. Goodness knows why we were separated, it would have been so much nicer to keep us together and frankly I felt I had the better job. We were allocated our work stations at different ends of the factory floor.
The factory had been in the process of being built as a tobacco factory and requisitioned when half built for war work. There was some air conditioning but due to the heat and oil from the machines and the intense noise the air was foul and some girls went down with TB. Oil sludge on the floor meant your heels sank in so you kept an old pair of shoes there. Our landlady did not provide a main meal so in the lunch break we walked out to the canteen, mainly to breath fresh air.
The food was awful, caterpillars in the cabbage, maggots in the fish so we persuaded our landlady to give us a sandwich of whatever she could spare from rations, which was mainly beetroot or tomato. I still like beetroot sandwiches even today! People from the asylum were working in the kitchens and they might think it funny to put a rat in the tea urn and it was common to find cockroaches swimming on the top of your tea mug when it was poured but you were so thirsty you spooned them off and drank it. Walking over there at night rats ran over our feet because of our proximity to the river. Walking back to the factory you were stopped in your tracks when the foul air hit your lungs until you got used to it and the noise started as the machines were switched on again.

As I mentioned earlier, my friend (as she had become) was working on those machines. I was sitting with a group at a table running ‘bits’ through gauges, checking if everything was o.k. From time to time a very smart Naval Officer arrived to check things and lecture us sternly about a ship, which had sunk because their guns had not functioned properly- inference being it was ‘our’ munitions at fault. Who knows?

I should mention that Grace and I were on different shifts- she did three weeks on day shifts of 11 hours and three weeks on night shift of 11 hours. I was on two weeks on and off day and night shifts of 11 hours so this meat that sometimes we shared the double bed and sometimes when we returned home the bed was still warm if it had just been vacated by one of us. Often we did not meet but left notes in the bed for each other.
Our landlady became ill and was going into hospital so we had to be re-billeted as her husband was on vital war work and there was a small schoolgirl to look after. The second billets were very different. Again a double bed, again a washbasin and jug although there was a bathroom. You were allotted one bath per week but we both had been able to get home when our shifts allowed once a week. In these billets both landlady and husband worked, they had at times four or five other lodgers including two Irish labourers sleeping in the bathroom! You turfed them out when you wanted a bath! An evening meal was provided but it was horrible. I often remember being very cold and we were very unhappy there. My friend and I were on opposite shifts but via our notes knew each was feeling ill with heavy colds. One time I returned from a day shift to read that she felt so ill that she was going to work because she felt she might otherwise die in the ‘digs’ which we hated it so much, but if she felt no better at work would go home instead. I felt ill as well but went to bed, got up next morning feeling no better so told my landlady I was returning home. I left Grace a note, which she never got because unknown to me she HAD been taken so ill the factory nurse had sent her home, by train and buses- as it happened, to die. But I did not know that because I too had been certified unfit to work and sent to bed by my doctor in my village. Some days later a letter arrived from Grace’s mother telling me that she had died of pneumonia and the funeral was the next day. This letter had gone to our digs then re-forwarded so I received it too late. I made it to her funeral but received a cold reception, not surprisingly as she had been calling for me and the doctor said ‘if only this person would come it might save her life as she is using all her strength’. But I did not know and this is something I have never got over. Her mother did not know my home address and ‘ordinary’ people were not on the telephone in those days. I was also ‘cold shouldered’ by her workmates as they had liked her very much and they too thought I had failed her. If only I had known she needed me…..

I went back to the ‘digs’ with a very heavy heart then the landlady said she was putting another girl into the room and the bed and I felt that was something I could not take so I asked around for other billets. The Exchange would not find you other digs just because you did not like those you had. Reading was packed to the seams.
I heard of a small room, very comfortable, food as good as rations allowed, clean but somehow I did not fit in. My fault I am sure but decided to move again. I was still going back home when I could (bus, train and bus when there was one, if not it was a 2/3 mile walk) on my meager wages- factory workers got about 35 shillings a week.

At this time ‘home’ still meant a small room in my sister’s house sharing a single bed with my mother. With luck someone I worked with told me of a neighbour, whose lodge was leaving and who was dreading what the Labour Exchange might billet on her. So I took the room and spent a very happy time with her, her husband and her schoolboy son. They had little money, kept animals and made me welcome and shared what they had with me. I enjoyed helping in the garden when I could. I was probably there about 18 months until they took a small holding further away, saying I was welcome to come but it was too far away for me to get to work so once again I was on the lookout for a home.

Meanwhile I had been taken very ill one night waking in great pain and sickness and felt that if I was going to die I wanted to do it in my own home so I made the journey back to my mother. Heaven knows how I made it because I was doubled up with pain, creeping along walls for support and causing concern to those who saw me! But I got there, collapsed and my sister went to the call box and phoned for the doctor. Eventually he came and after examining me rushed out to the call box and insisted on getting a surgeon away from his meal, telling him he must operate on me at once or I would die. I had acute appendicitis. The ambulance came six miles in thick fog and the blackout with one of the crew walking in front to guide it. I was loaded up (past caring by then) and I remember the six mile journey back again being a very slow one.

I was in hospital for three weeks. The wound would not heal and turned septic. Penicillin was only for those in the services, not for civilians. When I left the hospital I returned to our one room home and told to dress it myself but still seeping I was sent back to the factory. My workplace had been filled and I was to be a ‘travelling I.N.O girl’ walking two floors of the factory up and down flights of stairs. Still weak, bent over I could not do it and collapsed. I was just factory fodder. There were plenty more where I came from.

Knowing I had to do some sort of war work but lighter I tried for something from home but the only offer was a six mile cycle ride away (we never had much of a us service), impossible. So back to Reading Labour Exchange, I dreaded being sent back to that dreadful factory.

And here I must say that we came from all backgrounds, private school educated, prostitutes from Portsmouth docks, women using language I had never heard before! I learned to get on with all sorts. Some were happy in the factory, obviously better fed and with freedom and money they had never had before. It takes all sorts, but I dreaded it and hated it.

Then my guardian angel arrived in the form of the Office manager of one of the branches of the Board of Trade based in Reading. Looking for a junior clerk, of any age, sex, but with more gumption than those he had been previously offered. He interviewed me and I started the next day and I went back to my nice ‘digs’ as I had kept up paying rent so she did not let the room.
I was to be just an office 'boy' running errands, working the ancient switchboard, making tea etc and I did my utmost to please in case I was sent back to the factory. The Labour exchange was furious and demanded I go back to the factory but my boss refused to let me go and convinced them I was doing something vital for the war effort. Actually it was a long time before I knew what we were doing. No one talked. Everything was TOP SECRET. It was not until D-Day that I understood we had been preparing by taking over all sorts of places in order to moves equipment etc for the invasion of France.

I worked for the Board of Trade for the rest of the duration of the war and was relatively happy. I was gradually given greater responsibility and finally felt I was doing useful and that my contribution mattered. Overall however, the war years were the unhappiest of my life. War is a terrible thing and there should never be another.

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