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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
Barnsley Archives and Local Studies
People in story: 
Emma Peck
Location of story: 
Leeds, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3862000
Contributed on: 
05 April 2005

"This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Barnsley Archives and Local Studies Department on behalf of Emma Peck and has been added to the site with his/her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions."
I was born in Leeds (1922) and lived down by the river at Leeds Bridge. We were right by the river as my Dad was a boatman. When I was seven they came to demolish out houses and we had to move. We went to live in Middlestown. I remember my Mum crying, she said ‘Oh my God we have to go in the bug van. What will people think?’. In those days you moved by horse and cart. But to go to a new estate in those days you had to take everything you owned in this bug van. My Mum said why we have no bugs, but they said we have to make sure, so off we went.

When I left school I worked in the mill at Stanningley. I joined the St John’s Brigade and loved it. All I wanted to do was be a nurse. The first that really hit me about the war was we had a team of four girls and we had won a silver rose bowl that year. They said we are going to try for nurses are you coming and off we went. One by one they went in to be interviewed and came out thumbs up. We are in. Then came my turn. They said we are very sorry but will you come back when you are 18 and I was very upset.

When I got home mum first said don’t worry love you will get another chance, come and see what we have got in the back garden. They had just been and delivered the Anderson Shelter, which we all had to have. When my dad came home he said to mum they are building some new flats in town called Quarry Hill. If war comes they will knock late night trams off and when I get wet through on the river it’s too far id 5 miles to walk, so mum said yes.

We moved in on the Friday as war came on the Sunday. All the people panicked as the sirens went that same night. The air-raid wardens were shouting everyone to the shelters.

The week after I went to work on the munitions. I worked at Booths of Rodley making 100lb gas shells. My brother joined the army, The Kings Own Scottish Borders.

We had three shifts to work on munitions. The first week I was on 6 till 2 and there were 6 machines and a tool setter in our corner. We had special buses to take us there. We always got there at ten to six and we girls and the man used to sit on the shells for 10 minutes. They all smoked but me. This morning Harry said to me come on Emma come on spoilsport have a cig with us. I said I don’t know how. Harry said Oh come on its easy, just put it in your mouth and take a deep breath and blow it out which I did. Oh dear the next thing I know I had fallen over the shells in a dead faint and the foreman playing pop with Harry. It was a long time before I smoked again. We had lots of fun too on the night shift. We used to get sacks of rags to wipe the machines down. Old dresses, scarves, nighties etc. We used to dress up in them and dance around the machines whilst they were running. Until one night the big bosses came in a caught us all, he was very mad but went away laughing. We had dances and raffles at Bramley Baths in aid of comforts for the soldiers, so it wasn’t all sadness.

One day I was putting a shell in the machine and Vera the girl on the next machine behind me came too close to me. We had to crane them up into the machines. Anyway, hers slipped out of the rope straight down the back of my clog, which we wore and spliced straight down the back of my heel. There was blood all over. Miss Pearl White our office supervisor came out and rushed me off to Leeds Infirmary, where they couldn’t stitch it being my heel. But they bandaged it and stuck it together somehow and sent me home on crutches. Just imagine this was the day before Christmas Eve. In those days everything had to be washed for Christmas. Every pot, every glass, all the rugs taken up and all the floors scrubbed. Well we arrived home. Pearl White knocked on the door and mum opened it. Oh my God what have you done, come in she said. Well you can just imagine it, plain wooden table filled with pots, glasses everything you could get out of the cupboards. Rugs rolled up all over and my mother in a harding apron with the washing up bowl in the middle of the table. Any way Pearl said will you be OK now. I said yes and mum took her to the door and let her out. The next thing I knew was a crack straight across my face. Mum what’s that for I screamed. What did you do it today for she yelled; you know everything would be upside down today. I have a good mind to give you another, she didn’t seem to care I would be on crutches all over Christmas.

1940, the raids got worse we were having to run to the shelter. These were underground down the middle of New York Road. While we used to be down there I used to pass the time knitting balaclava helmets for the soldiers. By this time my mum was pregnant, she was 7 months and one Friday night we rushed to the shelters, dad used to fire watch on the roof tops but he came to help mum as there was a lot of steps. As they got half way down a bomb dropped at the top of the road. The blast from it caught mum and dad and threw then down the steps, this put mum into labour. This lasted until the next day. We had 2 doctors and a nurse in the house all day. About nine at night out came this horrible little Thing, my brother. At three pounds he was horrible, no hair, nails or anything. The doctor said can you go and phone this number. We have to give this baby a name and send him to the hospital, but we can’t move your mother. He was rushed off and in hospital for weeks. The thing that saved his life came from the American Jewish Relief Fund and it was just like feeding him through a fountain pen pure liver, it was horrible, but it saved his life.

Then came Dunkirk. Lots of flats were empty so we were turned into Army Barracks. The poor soldiers were all marched in just as they came form France, some a horrible state.

The empty flat opposite to us was turned into the Guard Room. We had to have special ID cards to get in and out. Mum used to do the washing for the lads on duty. This was quite good for us because the lads used to slip my mum a bit of tea, some cornbeef and sometimes a tin of spam. So she used to make the lads cornbeef hash and dumplings and they loved it. At this time the boy I had been courting who was in the RAF was killed in France, so that was a sad time. The war dragged on and as it got into the East my elder brother was presumed missing in Burma. So what with this and my baby brother being so ill my mother was in a sorry state.

The war went on and in 1945 they decided to close out shell shop down and we were all made redundant. To get a job straight away I was sent to work a Leeds City Tramways and worked as a conductress till the end of the war. This was where I met my husband after he came back from the war.

We got married and had two children and came to live in Barnsley in 1963. We kept the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Barnsley and made some very good friends over a 25 year period.

These are just some of my memories of wartime Britain.

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