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Childhood in Manchester

by Gloscat Home Front

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Gloscat Home Front
People in story: 
Prof. Gerald Mars
Location of story: 
Manchester
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A5922399
Contributed on: 
27 September 2005

The War:
I was two when we moved to the new estate, known as The Avenues, six when war was declared and twelve when we left Manchester. It was there I learned to listen, a frequent instruction of Mam's being "Keep your ears open." It has benefited me ever since.

With war came Evacuation. In September 1939, city children became 'Evacuees' - sent to the country for safety from air-raid - each with a gas mask and a name label. My evacuation to a farm in Belmont lasted a week. Auntie Dora, who for some reason had a car, came to see how I was getting on. She was horrified. She found me, billeted with my best friend Harold Harris in charge of Mr. and Mrs. Reece an elderly, kind, but ineffectual, farming couple without children. We'd been living idyllically alongside the pigs and cows while the Reece's fed us tinned fruit every day and hadn't required us to wash - which pleased us no end. One look at our filthy, happy faces however, outraged Auntie Dora. She snatched me up, took me home then contacted the Harris's who arranged a similar rescue for Harold. Mam, who had been doubtful about evacuation from the start, announced:

"If we're going to die, we'll all die together."

This view took hold as more of the Avenue's children started to reappear. If any of our houses had been bombed there might have been a change of mind - but government advice was never taken as gospel round our way.

The Avenues were full of young families though many of my friend's fathers were in the forces. Dad was called up but invalided out fairly early on and went back to his factory - now making uniforms. Others were excused military service because they were in 'Reserved Occupations' - jobs considered essential to the war effort. This often caused resentment - especially when they doubled as ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Wardens or Special Police Constables who had to enforce controls.

Mrs. West who lived opposite, was often in trouble with ARP Wardens. A big, belligerent woman, her main interest was telling everyone how she successfully demolished her latest adversary. One day, seeing Mam on her way back from the corner shop she crossed the road, eager to recount her latest conquest. With extravagant gestures and grimaces she described how the night before, she'd "really wiped the floor with that Robinson." Mr Robinson who lived in the next avenue was an ARP Warden in a Reserved Occupation. He'd been officiously checking lights that weren't adequately shielded in the blackout and might be visible to enemy aircraft.

"He came banging on my bloody door and you know what
he said? He said, 'Put that light out!' [the standard Warden's cry].Then he had the cheek to say 'Eh Missis. Don't you know there's a war on?' I gave it 'im. 'Yes' I said, 'Yes- I do know there's a bloody war on. I bloody ought to - My Man's in it. But do you know there's a bloody war on? Now bugger off - and don't ask me if I know whether there's a bloody war on'"

The Black Market: 'Keeping Your Ears Open.'

Car use, like much else, was strictly controlled and petrol for specified users, strictly rationed. Dr. Mc Bride, our GP had a car to see his patients and Henry Williams, our neighbourhood black marketeer, had another. Henry had a regular round, selling eggs to eager customers at eight shillings a dozen.

Everyone was always pleased to see Henry. Dapper, thirtyish, always joking, with the thin archetypal moustache of the 'Spiv'. But his visits were erratic. He would frequently disappear when the Military Police caught him - and then - failing to keep him, he would return a month or two later, smiling as ever. I realised only later that Henry must have been part of a well organised black economy circuit, oiled by bribery that covered production from the farms, with him doing the distribution via his illicit car -and illicit petrol - and with the whole circuit based on a willing, participative clientele. 'Mad' Frankie Frazer' one of London's East End Kray gang, explained how he'd completed his apprenticeship in crime, including black market crime, as a wartime gangster. On TV he told how the war had been a wonderful time for him and his friends:

'We never had problems - either getting hold of or getting rid of 'duff stuff.' Difficulties were always smoothed away - there was always plenty of people keen to have their palms greased .

In the Avenues everyone kept an eye (and an ear) open for extra food. People didn't worry about its source and information spread fast: contacts and friends of friends were key. Foot high bags of broken biscuits would occasionally appear from Lily, a friend of Mam's, who worked in a nearby biscuit factory. There was never any charge. An unusually large amount of their produce it seemed, was vulnerable to easy breakage and then taken by staff as a perk. We often passed some to Lucy, Mam's hairdresser friend. She in turn tipped us off when her friend - who sold Fruit and Greens - obtained exotics like oranges - available only on children's ration books.

One day I was at a friend's house after school, the two of us engrossed in playing with his Meccano, when his 'Bobba' (grandmother) came rushing in to breathlessly tell his Mam: "They've got [cooking] oil at Johnson's", (their corner shop). His Mam set off immediately so I said, "I've got to go," and rushed home to tell my Mam the news. She didn't wait, buttoned on her coat and was off to join what she found was a huge queue. She returned an hour later, triumphantly clutching her bottle. There was glowing praise 'for having kept my ears open'.

People were ingenious in getting extra. My Auntie Dora a very good mimic, an actress manqué, once went to the Food Office and speaking cockney, claimed to have been 'bombed out' in London with the loss of all her belongings including her precious ration book and identity card. When she returned she recounted, with full dramatic detail, the elaborate tale of tragedy, heartbreak and death she'd delivered to the officials.

"Everything gone - the whole house - all the furniture - just matchsticks and rubble. Even the dog."

They gave her an emergency ration card for two weeks.
Nobody condemned her. Quite the reverse - her enterprise was lauded.

At eleven I changed schools to attend Chorlton Central on the other side of Manchester and this allowed me too to enter the wartime economy. Chorlton had a richness of horse chestnut trees - a rarity in our part of Manchester. I was able to collect conkers in the lunch hour and sold them in a ready market for a penny each at my evening Hebrew School. Then my glamorous grown-up cousin Evelyn - who had a reputation as "fast" because she went out with US officers - had them collect the comic sections of American papers for me. These too were readily saleable at a double page for a penny. What didn't sell at Hebrew School, I brought back and sold in the Avenues. There was after all, a shortage of comics in the war and a block on the manufacture of toys.

The Blitz.
While our parent's lives were being dislocated by the war, we children were free of anxieties: to us the war was a great adventure - despite Manchester being a prime target for German bombers. Throughout 1944 the Blitz was intensive. During night-long air raids that could last ten or more hours, we took shelter in the Anderson family shelter - a badly designed corrugated zinc construction, half buried in the garden, invariably waterlogged, and if we were lucky, lit by candles. I was always far too excited to sleep even if this had been possible, against the drone of aero engines, the whistle and explosions from bombs and the periodic dull 'whump' from the nearby anti-aircraft batteries.

Dad seemed to find it all as thrilling as I did. During a raid we would both crowd to the shelter's entrance, gaze up at the night sky and follow the battle as it raged above us. It was always spectacular - waving searchlight beams criss-crossed the skies randomly trying to catch bombers in their beams to fix them for the guns. Often they highlighted inflated barrage balloons designed to prevent them flying low while flares periodically flashed and lit up wide areas of sky. Mam would get angry at both of us as she attempted to keep us away from the entrance - falling shrapnel was a real threat. But she often had little effect as we craned to watch the drama, tried to fix the direction of a bomb's mounting whistle as it hurtled to earth; attempted to sense its final landing and guess whether an engine's whine belonged to 'one of ours' or 'one of theirs.' The game never palled.

One night, at the height of the Blitz in 1944, we were both crowding the entrance, when there was a piercing whistle mounting to a shriek, followed by the loudest of ear-splitting bangs. It was a big one : the ground quaked - as if a giant thunderclap had directly struck. Dad said only, "that was close." And then was quiet. When, later we saw an orange glow in the nearby sky, heard the crackling of fire and smelled pungent, acrid smoke, Dad said: "It sounds as if Blacks has got it." Blacks, a big nearby factory, produced packaging. He was right. Blacks that night had got it - with considerable loss of life.

After a long series of ten or more, ten hour- raids, Mam had had enough. Fed up with our cold, wet Anderson, she devised a shelter in our main room by turning our heavy three piece suite on its sides, creating a space into which we could lie in comfort. Shortly after her brainwave, we had a visit from Mam's favourite brother, Uncle Lionel who was in the RAF but who always seemed able to fiddle the odd day off. He was staying the night when, once more, the sirens went. As Mam started to prepare our internal shelter, Uncle Lionel exploded with laughter. A jovial soul, he'd been a feckless ne'er-do-well before the war, until forced into the Services by a not uncommon police ultimatum: "Sign on - or we throw the book at you." The Air Force channelled his love of risk-taking by having him jump out of planes to test the design of parachutes. He knew about bombs and explosives.

"What", he asked, "will you do if there's a fire?" Within thirty seconds we were back in the Anderson.

The Avenues were fortunate. We were some distance from the main targets: the munitions and the Ford vehicle factories at Old Trafford (where Auntie Dora worked for a spell) and well away from the town centre's railway terminals. None of the Avenue's houses were damaged by explosive bombs - though one night a few incendiaries fell impotently on our garden.

VE Day and the Street-Party
.
What especially united us as a community was not so much the war - but that we in The Avenues, lived in 'modern' houses and were owner occupiers, unlike the denizens of Bunyard and Eckford streets at the bottom of the hill, who rented their Victorian 'back-to-backs'. There was no visiting their houses. Their children didn't play with us in our 'avenues' nor we with them in their 'streets'.

On VE Day, named to mark Victory in Europe, I was eleven when a group of fifteen or so women from The Avenues met in the road to arrange a children's street party. I went out to listen. One misguided male clerk, our next door neighbour Mr. Rimmington, happened to be passing. Foolishly he joined in. Worse, he rashly suggested extending the party to the children of Bunyard and Eckford streets.
"Wouldn't it be best," he mildly enquired, "to have one big party?"
This brought him a barrage of abuse:

"Who do you think you are?"

"This is for women. You've no place here"

When he persisted they became vicious.

"You? You're not a proper man- you're a clerk - in a reserved bloody occupation.

"You're a coward, excused military service - aren't you?"

"You've been having a 'cushy time' at home - while our men are away fighting".

Vainly he attempted to talk of unity but was shouted down and finally he gave up, and disheartened, slunk away. The Eckford and Bunyard Street mothers were left to arrange their own street party: they were not 'people like us.'

The Move
With the end of the war came the end of childhood.
By then three more brothers had arrived: Len, Mel and Mike, and with postwar development came economic boom. Mam became restless. She was worried about opportunities for her children in Manchester and had heard the schools were much better in Blackpool. Dad however, preferred to stay in the cocoon of his Yiddish speaking Manchester workshop but Mam had a sister and a brother both with boarding houses in Blackpool. Both were doing well and they were persuasive.

"Come to Blackpool. Open a boarding house. There's good money to be made," Auntie Kath assured Mam.

Big earnings could indeed be made. After the horrors of war, people were determined to enjoy the peace and, as holidaymakers, they clamoured to spend their demob gratuities - a money grant given to soldiers on discharge to kick-start the postwar boom. This too, was also the beginning of 'holidays with pay.' It was a time for change.

"Accommodation in Blackpool is scarce" insisted my Uncle Wilf .
"Why they'll even pay to sleep in the bath."

So Mam determined to move to Blackpool and open a boarding house. Getting a mortgage wouldn't be difficult. Credit was widely available and selling the semi would raise enough for a deposit. Dad, never one to move unless he was pushed, had therefore to be pushed. One day Mam took a day excursion to Blackpool leaving the family in charge of Auntie Dora who was staying with us with us on one of her periodic extended stays. Mam returned that same evening to announce she'd bought a four bed-roomed Victorian terraced house - ideal as a boarding house if we all squeezed together. Dad had a choice - and he had no choice.

With Mam firmly in charge, we moved to Blackpool, prepared to make our fortune with Auntie Dora as main help and four children - me, the eldest at twelve, and Michael the youngest at three months. Dad kept his job and travelled each day to Manchester. Mam further decided that no one would stay at a boarding house with a proprietor called 'Margolis.' "They'll think they'll get greasy foreign food".

So we became 'Mars', moved to Blackpool, and advertised in the Manchester Evening News:

"Mrs. Mars' boarding house, Blackpool's North Shore. Full Board 12/6 a day.

And we waited hopefully for guests who would, if necessary, sleep in the bath.

We didn't make our fortune - though the schools were better and all four brothers did do well. But Blackpool was far away from The Avenues. Everyone in Blackpool, it seemed, was frenetically 'on the make.'
Even the school playground was a marketplace. There was no room for childhood.

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