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Wartime Childhood in Shrewsbury, Shropshire

by Genevieve

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Graham Brown and his parents
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25 November 2005

Wartime Childhood in Shrewsbury

The year 1939 was traumatic for my parents, as for others. First, I was born. Then my father’s job moved them from London to Shrewsbury in the early summer. Later they had to adjust to wartime living conditions. The Australian writer Clive James was born in that same year. His first volume of autobiography, Unreliable Memoirs (1980) begins ‘I was born in 1939. The other big event of the year was the outbreak of the Second World War, but for the moment that did not affect me.’

Nor me, either, in any especially dramatic ways. Shropshire didn’t attract much hostile attention during the War, and Shrewsbury itself suffered little damage. Anyway, life for a small child is what you are given. There’s nothing else to compare it with. You just get on with it. As far as I knew at the time, life was normal.

However, some aspects of my earliest years would have been different but for the War. Working for Post Office Telephones, my father was in a ‘reserved occupation’, excused from military service because of the value of his job. One War Office theory suggested that England risked invasion via the Bristol Channel, in Spanish Armada style. So he was posted for long periods to vital telecommunication centres in Swansea and Cardiff, ready to warn London of the approaching enemy. My mother and I remained in Shrewsbury, part of a fragmented family.

I recall one small thing when my father was home on leave once. He was standing with me in our back garden one day, looking at some small aeroplanes flying overhead. ‘Trainers’, he said. This meant nothing to me, though I realised later that it must have reassured my parents considerably. The high buzzing machines were Ours, probably from nearby Shawbury Aerodrome They were not enemy aircraft preparing to destroy somebody’s home or demolish an engineering works in the Midlands.

Sidelined from the ‘real’ armed forces, my father was in the Home Guard, which occupied him only slightly when home from south Wales. His khaki uniform hung on the back of the bedroom door. According to him, duties involved an evening meeting, probably a Friday, with a number of other blokes out in the Shropshire countryside. They all put on their uniforms and went off to test a couple of smoke bombs and produce a report on their effectiveness. This task probably detained them for about thirty minutes and they spent the rest of the evening in the nearest village pub. Sometimes he returned with a locally trapped rabbit or chicken, often poached, which he then skinned or plucked, a job my mother wouldn’t touch.

Meanwhile, his elder brother, my Uncle Bill, was aboard ship with the Clan Line, most often on the long Liverpool-South Africa-India-Australia run. Wartime regulations allowed food parcels to be sent from abroad back to the severely rationed and restricted family members at home. I can recall both my parents eagerly unpacking Uncle Bill’s substantial parcels on our kitchen table. We also received cast-off clothing from my mother’s very distant cousins in California. The food parcels disgorged dreamed of luxuries like plentiful tea and coffee packed in small wooden boxes, and a tremendous selection of tinned fruits.

The most startling article for me among these gifts was a tin of small peeled bananas in syrup. I knew about apples, pears and plums from our garden fruit trees, but this was very different. Born just before the War started, I’d never seen or even heard of a banana. They were both very excited at introducing me to this exotic fruit, and put one on a small plate on the table in front of me. At the sight of it, the emotion uppermost in my small psyche was actually slight fear. I’d no idea what it was, or what it might be like to eat. It just lay there in its little pool of juice, tinned and skinned. I obviously couldn’t pick it up and eat it like a ‘proper’ fruit. It certainly didn’t look like anything I could relate to or had ever imagined.

My mother sensed this hesitation and said something like: ‘It’s a banana, dear, you’ll love it.’ That was about as much help to me as my father saying ‘Trainers’ when the aeroplanes were going over. I needed lots more information and explanation to make any sense of this new experience. I poked it, prodded it and pushed it around with my spoon. In the end, to my mother’s great delight, I summoned my courage, cut off a small piece, and ate it. As so often, she was right - I loved it. Today, there’s one in nearly every schoolchild’s lunchbox in the country. In my own lunchbox years, they were non-existent.

Until I left school for work, my mother never took on any paid employment. For those times, this was quite usual. However, she devoted considerable time to several voluntary activities, both during and after the War. She worked on house-to-house collections for the Red Cross, and in many capacities as a member of the Women’s Voluntary Services, the WVS. My favourite WVS job was going with her, one or two afternoons a week, to do the refreshments for the servicemen as they passed through Shrewsbury railway station. Members of the forces, British and American, seemed to be constantly on the move up and down the country in tremendous numbers in crushingly overcrowded trains. Whenever one of these trains pulled in to the platform, the refreshment rooms were deluged by hundreds of men in khaki and grey-blue uniforms, all wanting tea, rolls and buns at the same moment.

My mother and her colleagues would be prepared for the rush with thousands of filled bridge rolls that they’d spent the previous hours splitting, smearing with ‘official’ margarine, and filling. When the troops arrived, I sat on a shelf beside one of the serving hatches. This was a good position. It kept me out of the way of the roll-filling tables where I would probably have been trampled underfoot by kindly but very busy WVS ladies. I could also be the temporary centre of friendly attention from Our Boys. The soldiers would lift me up in the air, make me laugh, give me a sweet or chat to me while they waited. Several of them passed through the station quite regularly. They got to know me, expecting me to be there, and would promise to bring me some sort of surprise next time. Some did, and one American soldier brought me a toy car or train of very superior quality. When they offered me American chewing gum, something normally completely unobtainable, my mother would accept it on my behalf, but then keep it, saying it was bad for me. The true reason, as I discovered later, was that she wanted to save this wartime treat for herself.

Other unconnected fragments come to the surface. There was ‘The Baron’. A rented house on one side of our back garden accommodated an Austrian refugee couple. They were, or claimed to be, of minor aristocratic stock, so my parents called them The Baron and the Baroness. They sometimes invited me in to see them, and I can see myself sitting listening to the Baron telling me something at great length in a dark, book-lined sitting room. I know I found their brand of accented English strange and interesting and probably made fun of it later. My name ‘Graham’ gave them some difficulty and it came out as a series of ‘aah’ sounds: Gr-aah-aah-aahm.

Uncle Ted, my father’s handsome youngest brother, was in the RAF, the glamorous branch of the forces. A bachelor during the War, he sometimes came to stay with us while on leave and once gave me a thick piece of broken Perspex from the cockpit of a crashed aircraft. You had to show this to your friends time and again, enhancing your reputation with those who didn’t own such a special object. I kept it for years. After the War, he gave me his RAF cap and a badge.

Whenever we needed new Ration Books or government-issue orange juice or halibut oil capsules, we queued at the Food Office, which I think was somewhere along New Street, en route to Frankwell. Our regular butcher (Mr McNamara?) was certainly along there, where we queued for our corned beef. Our grocer was Mr Paintin in Frankwell, whose shop had chairs for people to wait, a gigantic old coffee grinder and a bacon slicer. When my mother had given him her order, and he’d cut the necessary coupons out of the Ration Books, she’d ask the key question sotto voce: ‘Anything under the counter today, Mr Paintin?’ With a knowing look, as though none of his other customers enjoyed this privilege, he would then offer her a few extra ounces of something or other that had come his way. Anything from ‘under the counter’ cost money but not ration coupons.

The radio news on the Home Service gave me strange words at different times during the War, such as ‘the Oder’ and ‘Hong Kong’, words I used to repeat incessantly, first amusing and then exasperating my parents. I remember the Bren-gun carriers clanking up or down the (old) A5 at the end of Radbrook Road, and the concrete blocks and huge coils of cable to be strung across Porthill and other roads in the event of invading tanks coming our way — like the chains stretched across the Thames in the 1660s to deter Dutch warships from menacing London. One wartime sound we heard frequently was guns firing when the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (the KSLI) were practising shooting in Shrewsbury Barracks.

Some of the books I read, or had read to me, were printed during the War and contained, on the copyright page, the symbol of a lion couchant over an open book with the words BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD. Beneath this was ‘The paper and binding of this book conform to the authorized economy standards’. Also from that period, I’ve recently found one of my father’s old Ordnance Survey maps, Sheet 60 Shrewsbury and Welshpool, with the mention ‘Second War Revision 1940, published at The War Office, 1942.’

The War ended shortly after my sixth birthday, and I’d mostly lived my first few years in complete ignorance of it. But the Second World War’s long shadow has darkened my entire life ever since as every anniversary has been noted, marked and commemorated by public ceremonies and by ever more books and hours of broadcast coverage. History since then, as well as for centuries before, shows that the most recent horrors do nothing to deter us from waging war again, and repeating it all time after time. Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, Falklands, the Gulf War, and now Iraq. Where next? Our leaders appear to behave as though war is inevitable and carry on doing it. There’s little we can do except say, as we do so helplessly, History will judge.

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Graham Brown of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on his own behalf and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully undertsand the site's terms and conditions.

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