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Memories of a Child (Part1)

by ray_smith

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People in story: 
Raymond Smith and family members
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08 May 2005

At the outbreak of war in September, 1939, Dad joined the army. My Aunt Peggy told me recently that when he told his mother what he had done, she cried bitterly and asked him why. The Great War had already cost the family so much. By way of answer, he produced a photograph of us children and said "That’s why". I like to think that his intention was to protect us, not get away from us!

Despite remembering the above, I cannot recall very much about the early part of the war. Dad came home on leave, following the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, that I do remember. He let Tom and I play with his rifle. It wasn’t loaded, of course. When he left us to go back, we didn’t think that we would never see him again. But that episode comes later on.

Because of the war, food was rationed. Everyone was issued with a ration book which entitled them to buy small quantities of essentials, like tea, sugar, butter, meat and so on. When I say small amounts, that is precisely what I mean. I believe that tea, for example, was limited to two ounces per week. Fresh eggs were no longer available and we had to make do with dried egg. Mind you, I thought that dried egg was delicious. The meat ration was one shilling’s worth (5 pence) per week and part of it had to be taken as corned beef. You will have seen this on Dad’s Army. Even clothing was rationed. Once the coupons were used up, you could not get any more until the next year. Black Marketeers, or spivs, as they were called then, made fortunes. They seemed to be able to get supplies of almost anything, at a price. Private Walker, in Dad’s Army,
was a spiv. Billboards were posted with various exhortations, such as "Dig For
Victory", "Careless Talk Costs Lives", etc. Wireless programmes (radio was called
wireless then) gave hints on make and mend and recipes for nourishing food made from
what would normally have been discarded. I can remember a dish called Woolton Pie
(named after its creator). It was made entirely from vegetables, with no meat at all. Sheep’s head broth became a staple part of our diet. Tom and I often went to the butcher’s shop in search of such a delicacy. The head came complete with tongue, eyes, brains and teeth. Mam used to boil the head, scrape off what meat there was and add vegetables. If the thought makes you cringe, cringe not. It was lovely. Dripping and bread was another favourite, because butter was rationed and jam was almost unobtainable because it required lots of sugar to make. The German U-Boats made imports of such a frivolous nature impossible. Items like bananas, oranges, and even apples virtually disappeared from the shops. You name it, we didn’t have it!

Our wireless was an old Ferguson which was powered by a lead acid accumulator. This was similar to a car battery and had to be re-charged at intervals by the local ironmonger. There was no T.V. then, of course. The wireless was our main source of entertainment and we used to listen every night, before going to bed. The news
programmes were heavily censored and only reported good news, which was very rare in
the early years of the war. Bad news was withheld or minimised. If we had lost, say thirty planes on a raid over Germany, the news simply said that "Some of our aircraft failed to return." The losses of shipping in the Atlantic was rarely mentioned and many a poor soul received word that her husband or son had been lost at sea, without even knowing that his ship had been sunk.

One of our favourite programmes was "ITMA". This stood for "It’s That Man Again". Tommy Handley was the star. One of the main characters was called Colonel Chinstrap and he was always full of bluster and drink Another was Flying Officer Kite, who constantly used expressions which were typical of RAF officers at that time. "Wizard prang", "Jolly good show", "Watch for the Hun in the sun", etc. Mrs.Mop, the
charlady, was yet another character. Her catch phrase was "Can I do you now, sir ?" I can hear her now. The British people have always had the ability to laugh in the face of adversity and to take a rise out of themselves. ITMA was tailor-made for us. Tommy Handley and all the others are dead now, but this country owes them a debt of gratitude for the way in which they lifted the spirits of the people during the darkest times. God
rest their souls.

"The Man In Black" was presented by Valentine Dyall and he was a teller of ghost
or horror stories. Mam used to let us listen and many’s the time we went to bed too frightened to sleep. The wireless provided the escape from reality which was necessary in order for the people to endure the rigours and hardships which the war increased a hundred fold.

In 1940, I started school at Hendon Valley Road School. Tom was already there of course, being older than me. Peggy started in 1941 and I can remember her first day. A teacher came into my class and asked if Peggy’s brother was there. Not knowing what to expect, I followed her to the baby class and there sat Peggy, in a puddle of water with
tears streaming down her face. The puddle that she was sitting in was of her own
making, although not from her tears. I managed to calm her down and she stopped
crying. No doubt that at dinner time, Mam changed her soggy underwear !

School days were often punctuated by air raid warnings and we used to have to go into the shelters underneath the school. More often than not the alarm was false, and most air raids were during the hours of darkness. For about the first three years of the war it was compulsory to carry a gas mask at all times, in case the Germans resorted to gas warfare. Drills used to be carried out at school to get us used to putting them on. The masks were made of rubber, with a clear plastic eye piece and a charcoal filter in the part which came below the chin. The youngest children had special masks with two round eye pieces and rubber ears. They were known as Mickey Mouse masks, for obvious reasons. At the front of each mask was a rubber valve which allowed the air to get out when you breathed out. We soon discovered that these valves were capable of making
rude noises if you blew out your breath. They provided a heaven sent opportunity for
those of us who tended to make real rude noises !

The war years were a source of great excitement to us boys. We were too young to realise what was really happening in the world. Air-raids were ten a penny and we soon got used to them. I can remember Nana Smith sitting through many a raid with us,instead of going home. It was too dangerous to go outside during a raid because of the bombs and the shrapnel which fell from the sky. The enemy planes used to drone overhead for hours at a time. They were not always dropping bombs on us, but en route for another target. Nevertheless, when the sirens wailed, it was time to take cover because only the Germans knew where they were bound.

Shelters were provided for everyone but not everyone used them. Our shelter was a steel box-like construction which was in a small room under the stairs. It was about
the size of a double bed and was about three feet high. It had a steel plate top mounted on steel corner posts and steel mesh ends and sides. Named after its inventor, it was called a Morrison Shelter and would have given us a good chance of survival in the event of the house being hit. I remember that during one raid we were all in this shelter when
we heard a furious knocking at the front door. Mam wouldn’t answer the knocking
because she thought that it might be a German parachutist! Eventually the knocking
stopped, but was re-started on the back door. Again, Mam wouldn’t answer the door. All went quiet, apart from the noise of the raid, then the window in the small room was subjected to a flurry of blows. An unmistakably English voice demanded admittance, so Mam went to the back door and opened it. There stood a very irate Air Raid Warden who ordered us to leave the house immediately. He said that a stick of bombs had landed in the front street and had failed to explode, but could do so at any moment. Panic ensued! Mam got us up, hastily threw our coats over our pyjamas, thrust our feet into wellingtons, which were all she could find at the time, wrapped Peggy in a blanket, shoved her into the push chair and set off at a gallop through the night. Mam decided to
go to Nana Smith’s at Grangetown, which was only about a mile away.

As we ran, bombs were whistling down, anti-aircraft shells were bursting
overhead and search-lights were sweeping to and fro across the night sky. We boys thought that it was great! Halfway along Hendon Road a dark figure loomed from out of the shadows and asked Mam what she thought she was doing. After a tearful explanation, the policeman told us to hurry along and sent us on our way with a merry jest. On arrival at Nana Smith’s house, Mam collapsed in an extremely undignified heap and was only revived by a cup of very strong tea, for which Nana Smith was famous. We were received with open arms and a great deal of tutting and fuss, kindly meant of course. We stayed there for about five or six weeks, as far as memory serves.

During that time the bomb disposal men defused and dug out the unexploded
bombs. They must have had hearts like lions. I believe, from what I have read since, that most of them were conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the war on ethical or religious grounds. If that is the case, then they certainly chose a dangerous alternative.
When we did go back home, they were just hauling the last bomb out of a hole which
they had dug in the street. It was battered and rusty and didn’t look at all frightening, but such bombs usually did enormous damage. The house was just as we had left it, but with broken glass everywhere and tumbled furniture all over the place, which was the result of yet another raid. Black tar paper had been nailed over all the windows, because glass, like everything else, was in short supply. The glass was replaced eventually, but until it was we had to have the lights on all the time. Our canary had died
in its cage and our cat was missing. Perhaps it had joined the army, where it was safer!

All of us children used to go out after air-raids and look at the damage. It has been estimated that one third of all the buildings in Sunderland were either destroyed or damaged during the war and I can well believe it. Hundreds of fine Edwardian and Victorian buildings were gutted. I won’t bore you with a detailed list, but I will mention just a few. The Central Station, St.Thomas’s Church, The Winter Gardens, The Victoria Hall, Binns, The Continental Hotel, The Arcade, and The Bromarsh Cinema all disappeared for good. Hendon Valley Road School too, much to our joy !

For about six weeks we had no school to go to and enjoyed the forced break, but then the Education Authority found alternative places for us to go. The first of these places was above a workmens canteen in Herrington Street and the only entrance was up an iron fire escape. There were two rooms used as class rooms and it was there that I first set eyes on Miss Burnham. She was a newly qualified teacher and was, therefore, young. It was love at first sight! I would have done anything for her, but she was unaware of my juvenile infatuation. She was a lovely person, with a genuine interest in her pupils and she
was well respected by everyone. Her father kept a fresh fish shop in Bridge Street North,just about where the Fry-Fry was in recent times. In later years she married Mr Olswang the dentist and lived in Ryhope Road, just by Barley Mow Park. When our Dad was killed she was extremely kind to our family and tried very hard to bring a measure of comfort to us all. I remember that she took us three children to Newcastle or Gateshead (I’m not sure
which) to see a pantomime, and she got her dad to take us in his car and collect us
afterwards. We also went to their flat above the shop for tea.

After the canteen rooms we went to school at St Barnabas Church Hall in Suffolk
Street and a church hall in Cairo Street. It was at Cairo Street that I fell in love for the second time. Her name was Wendy Fenwick and she was a very pretty, golden haired girl, who always had a proper handkerchief with her. That may surprise you as being hardly worth mentioning, but in my young days handerkerchiefs were made from any old material that could be torn up and used. Proper ones were strictly for the gentry. Sadly, so was little Miss Fenwick and she never even noticed me! We were all eventually found places at Commercial Road School and resumed our lessons in a more normal environment.

The Winter Gardens were situated in Mowbray Park, adjoining the back of The
Museum. It was a beautiful Victorian edifice, built of ornamental cast-iron and glass and contained exotic plants and trees, goldfish in a round pond and brightly coloured parrots. The Victoria Hall was hit during the same raid and was so badly damaged that it had to be demolished. The latter place was the scene of a tragedy in the late eighteen
hundreds, 1883 in fact, when one hundred and eighty three children were killed in a stampede down the stairs. The doors at the bottom of the stairs opened inwards and the children simply piled up on top of each other and were crushed or suffocated. That is why doors on all public buildings now open outwards.

Hundreds of houses too were flattened and many people were killed. The
Germans even dropped bombs in Backhouse Park. Goodness knows what they were
aiming at. Perhaps they were trying to hit the barrage balloon site or the A.A. gun site which were both in the park, but I doubt it.

Barrage balloons were big, silver coloured gas bags, filled with helium. They
used to be flown at the end of steel cables, to deter low flying aircraft. Most of them were managed by women, as were a lot of the A.A. guns and searchlights. I can remember seeing one balloon, which had broken its cable, being shot down by an RAF fighter. It landed in the sea, just off Hendon beach. The A.A. guns used to fire a terrific amount of shells during air-raids and the fall of shrapnel was almost as lethal as the bombs. Shrapnel is the remains of a bursting shell and the fragments were
exceedingly jagged and sharp. We all had collections of the stuff, as it could be found all over the place after a raid. The searchlight crews used to try and hold an enemy plane in their beams, while the gunners took pot shots at it. I don’t know how many planes were actually hit, but I can recall that one fell in Suffolk Street, part of it demolishing the house in Ward Street where I was born in the process. One of the engines was unearthed quite recently when Hendon Health Centre was being built. It still contained oil and was in good condition, considering that it had been buried for about forty years. It is now on display in the Aircraft Museum at Usworth.

Tom and I witnessed the raid during which Binns was gutted, from our upstairs bedroom window, whilst Mam was still asleep. The sky was glowing with the many fires which had started, Tracer shells were arcing their way skywards, searchlights were shining upwards and bombs were coming downwards. Not a very fair exchange, that! Next morning we dashed off to the town centre and passing through Mowbray Park, noticed that the duck pond had been drained by the firemen in their efforts to quell the blazes. Binns store was still well alight and firemen were throwing all kinds of stuff
out of the upper windows. One large wooden box hit the pavement and burst open,
spilling rubber balls across the street. You should have seen the scramble to get one. Despite their efforts, the firemen were unable to save the store and it stood sadly for many years before it was knocked down. Binns did eventually rebuild it and there it stands to this day. Boarded up and empty, alas.

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