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15 October 2014
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Growing up in Whitehaven, Cumbria during World War Two

by ritsonvaljos

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joan P. Toner (née Morgan), Joseph P. Toner 'Joe', William Morgan, Catherine Morgan, Mary Morgan, Moses Morgan, Josephine Morgan (née Todd), Patricia Fitzsimmons, Sister Hermengild, Elizabeth Mulholland, Lilly Hornsby, Frances Caulfield, Mrs Fanny Caulfield, Steven Caulfield, Lillian Douglas, Kevin Toner, Michael Toner, Mark Neiley.
Location of story: 
Whitehaven, Cumbria
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 April 2005

Joan Morgan, aged 12, August 1941. I am in my St Begh's School uniform. My mother used to get my photograph taken to send abroad to my sister Catherine who was a Missionary nun so she could see me growing up.


This article is submitted on behalf of Mrs Joan Toner (née Morgan) of Whitehaven, Cumbria who was born in 1929. Joan was a young girl of ten years old when World War Two broke out in September 1939 and a young lady of sixteen when the war ended in May 1945. The article uses Joan’s own words as related to me on Thursday 31 March 2005

I have known Joan and her husband Joe all my life. It has been a privilege that both Joan and Joe have shared some of their wartime memories with me. The terms of “The People’s War” website have been read and understood.

The family I was born into

“My name is Joan Toner. I was born at 52 High Road, Kells, Whitehaven, Cumberland on the 13th of March 1929. Whitehaven is now part of Cumbria. I was the youngest of four children. When I was born, my brother was sixteen years old, my eldest sister fourteen and my other sister was nine. My brother’s name was William and my sisters were called Catherine and Mary. I am Joan Patricia and funnily enough, my husband Joe’s initials are also J.P. and it causes no end of confusion, I’ll tell you!

Our family name was Morgan. My father’s first name was Moses and my mother’s first name was Josephine. Her maiden name was Todd. Of course, in our family we were Catholics and we were steeped in it! My sister Catherine is still alive at the age of ninety and living in Glasgow. Well, when I was five Catherine went away to be a nun. That was before the war, in 1934. She went into the ‘Little Sisters of the Poor’ and went out to India and Ceylon.

Now, when war the broke out with Japan they moved Catherine to Australia. They moved all the ‘white’ European sisters. So, she was in Australia for a time during the war and was all over: Sydney, Perth, Melbourne.

The way that my mother tried to let Catherine see me growing up was by having photographs taken, such as at the ‘Lakeland Studios’ which used to be in the town. Because, of course, I was only a little girl of five when she went away, you know? Catherine still writes letters and she will be ninety-one this year.

Schooling and work

I started school at Quay Street Catholic Infants School and I suppose that would have been in 1934, the same year that Catherine went away. Then, when the Catholic school opened at Kells we went there, to St Mary’s. That would have been about 1936 or 1937.

I was only there a couple of years really because the houses in Whitehaven town centre were all being pulled down. There was a big influx of people who went to the new Greenbank estate and their children had to come to St Mary’s. There wasn’t room for us all there so we went down to St Begh’s on Coach Road before we were eleven.

The teachers I remember at St Mary’s were Miss Patty Fitzsimmons, Sister Hermengild, Miss Elizabeth Mulholland and Miss Lily Hornsby. They all stayed at that school for years, until they retired in most cases. One of the teachers at St Begh’s was Miss Frances Caulfield although she wasn’t that much older than me. Her mother, Mrs Fanny Caulfield used to be in St Begh’s Church Choir. Frances had a brother Steven who went to be a priest and I think he eventually went overseas like my sister Catherine.

So, I was at St Begh’s School when war broke out and I was there for most of the time during the war. However, before the war finished, when I was fifteen I went to the Grammar School as a ‘late developer’. That was about 1944 I think, as the war was coming to an end with D-Day and that. I only stayed there about a year until I was sixteen and I took my School Certificate.

Then, I went to a Commercial College to learn shorthand typing. It was a private house on the Loop Road in Whitehaven run by Mrs Lillian Douglas, but she called it ‘The Lowther Commercial College’. She was a great teacher of shorthand typing. She had typing in the front room and shorthand typing in the middle room.

I was there at the Commercial College about ten months until I started work in August 1946 at the local Income Tax Office. I stayed there until after I got married to Joe in 1952 when I became a housewife although I did have some part-time jobs over the years. I had two boys, Kevin and Michael. I went back to work at the Hospital and retired in 1989 a couple of years after Joe retired.

I didn’t really know Joe during the war. He was in the RAF after 1941 so he really never experienced a lot of the same things as I did in Whitehaven such as the rationing. We’ve read a lot about the war since we retired and go to a lot of commemorative events about the period.

Wartime evacuees arrive in Whitehaven

Anyway, I was ten when the Second World War broke out on the 3rd of September 1939. On the day war broke out we already had an evacuee, Mark Neiley and he was also ten years old. Mark had been brought to our house on the previous Friday night, the 1st of September. He was from Scotswood in Newcastle.

Mark came to Whitehaven with a large number of children accompanied by their teachers, one of whom was a nun belonging to the Order of the Sisters of Charity of St Paul, the same as Sister Imelda. Mark’s mother and five of his brothers and sisters were all billeted in the Kells area of Whitehaven, where I lived on High Road.

Of course, there wasn’t enough room at school for all of us. So, while the evacuees were here we went to school part-time. Some weeks this was in the morning and other weeks it was in the afternoon. Mark stayed with us about fifteen months and when his mother and some of his family returned to Newcastle he missed them and so he went back home.

The plane crash at Whitehaven, 14th October 1943

During World War Two, West Cumbria was considered to be a ‘safe area’. I believe there was only one bomb dropped in the Whitehaven area, at nearby Moresby. The only incident I remember was when a Canadian plane crashed on the ‘Brows’ area of the town near Arrowthwaite, killing all the crew.

A reference book about the war gives the date of this accident as the 14th October 1943. This happened as we were coming out of St Begh’s School on Coach Road at about 4.00 pm. We saw the plane circling the town before the crash.

Wartime restrictions

We had full blackout restrictions right from the start. Buses and cars had their headlamps partly covered. Street lighting was also very restricted. All homes had to have blackout curtains at the windows. My parents made wooden frames and nailed blackout material to them. These were fixed up to the windows each night when it was getting dark. You didn’t dare show a chink of light or the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens would knock on your door and tell you a light was showing.

We wore yellow discs in our coats when we went out at night. This was so we would be seen and that we could see other people in the dark. Of course, any time we did go out at night we were always accompanied by an adult.

We had very strict rationing during the war. In those days there was no ‘fast food’, no trays of food or ‘TV dinners’! However, we did have plenty of vegetables. Our lawns were dug up and potatoes, cabbages and other vegetables were planted.

Everybody had a ration book and I still have it written down what we used to get. It’s hard to believe now, but we’d as little in one part of the war as:

Bacon and ham - 4 ounces
Sugar - 8 ounces
Tea - 2 ounces
Meat - 1/2d (one shilling two pence) worth
Cheese - 2 ounces
Butter - 2 ounces
Margarine - 4 ounces
Cooking Fat - 2 ounces
Shell eggs - 1 egg per 2 weeks
A packet of dried egg - 1 packet for every 4 weeks
Liquid milk - 2½ pints
Sweets - 12 ounces per 4 weeks

There were no bananas at all during the war. There were a few oranges but these were mainly kept for babies and children under the age of five.

Clothing coupons were introduced and once you had used them you had to ‘make do and mend’ until the next allocation. Curtain material wasn’t on the coupons and so you often saw some unusual dresses and suits!!! They had obviously been made from the curtain material.

When we had a hole in our woollen stockings our mothers darned them and we wore them again. In the summer months older girls painted their bare legs. Sometimes this was with cold tea and gravy browning! This was because of the shortage of silk stockings during the war.


We did go to the cinema a lot. At that time we had three picture houses in Whitehaven: The Queen’s, The Empire and The Gaiety. Programmes changed twice weekly with a matinee on Saturday afternoons. I remember seeing ‘Snow White’ and a lot of ‘Shirley Temple’ films. She was an American child star of that time. We also saw wartime new reels on ‘Pathé Gazette. Remember, at that time we had no TV and not always a daily paper.

We listened to the radio a lot. There was “Children’s Hour” between 5.00 and 6.00 pm. On Thursday evenings, there was ‘ITMA’ ('It’s That Man Again' with Tommy Handley). That was everybody’s favourite. I used to read a lot. Often this was by candlelight or a torch while I was in bed. We used to play games like ‘Ludo’, ‘Snakes and Ladders’ or simple card games.

Air Raid Precautions

Everybody was issued with a gas mask and an identity card. We carried our gas masks and identity cards everywhere. We used to have an Air Raid Drill while we were at St Begh’s School on Coach Road.

There was an old building with cellars at the top of Coach Road. That was to have been our shelter if the Air Raid siren sounded during school hours. We would have had to stay there until the ’All Clear’ siren went. Fortunately, this never happened.

Restrictions to daily life

Holidays were very restricted. Trains were used mostly for the transport of the Armed Forces and were few and far between. The only people with cars were doctors and other essential services. Petrol was restricted and the few people with cars didn’t use them. What they did was that they garaged them for the duration of the war.

Schools were open during the holidays and the teachers organised games and sports to pass the time. It was great, because there were no lessons! You couldn’t use the beaches because they were all out of bounds and sealed off with barbed wire. This was in case of invasion by the enemy.

Films for the camera were almost unobtainable. You had to go to a studio if you wanted your picture taken. There is a photograph I have of me in a Girl Guides uniform which I think was taken in 1942. I was in St Begh’s School Girl Guides. The photograph was taken outside the school by a teacher who had managed to get hold of a film.

An earlier photograph of me in my St Begh’s Girls School uniform was taken in August 1941. As I mentioned earlier these were taken so that my mother could send them to one of my sisters who was a nun and spent most of the war in Australia. When I show this photograph to children these days most of them have never seen a gymslip before! I was sixteen when the war ended. So at last on that day we had a wonderful celebration!

Sharing wartime memories

My daughter-in-law has asked me to talk to some schoolchildren before and I’ll do it again in the future. I thought I wouldn’t mention Adolph Hitler in case I frightened them. But when I went into the classroom they had posters all over the wall, including a large one of Adolph Hitler! They had learnt about the war in class. Joe and me believe it is important to share our wartime memories with younger people. We like to try and help anyone who wants to know about the war. It’s important that people know and remember what happened. For a long time after we married we never thought much about the war. We were so wrapped up with our family.

My father was in the First World War and he used to talk about it a bit. I’ve got to say, as children we got a bit bored with it. I used to say, “Oh Dad! Don’t start talking about that again”. You don’t realise until later that you wish you’d listened more.

I sometimes wish my Dad was here now because we would have got first-hand knowledge of the trenches, you know? He used to tell us of the privations they went through in the trenches. It was dreadful! So, really we were very lucky that both Joe’s father and my father came home again from that war.

My Dad always went to the Remembrance Services at the Cenotaph in the park at Whitehaven. When I was a little girl he used to take me. We always used to go and my Dad never, ever missed. He used to put his medals on and we went there. I used to like going when I was little because he would buy me a treat at the café afterwards.

I don’t know whether he used to march before the war like they do now. I can’t remember whether they marched around the town. Men used just go and congregate at the park where the Cenotaph is. There weren’t any services during the war either as I remember. They started them again after the Second World War.

Of course, before the war it wasn’t this Remembrance Sunday. It used to be on the day, really, of the Armistice of World War One, the 11th of November. I can remember when we were at school they did the ‘Two Minutes Silence’ and then there was something on in the park. Of course before the war they used to sell poppies at school as well. All these things about wartime should be remembered.”


Joan and her husband Joe have kindly assisted me over the years with my research about World War Two. Joe served with the RAF during the second half of the war. Although they had differing wartime experiences they are both generous to the post-war generations in sharing their memories.

As mentioned in the above account, from time to time Joan is invited to local schools and talks to schoolchildren about growing up during World War Two. Joan usually gives a short talk, answers questions from the children and show them photographs and other memorabilia from the war years. This is one way that Joan hopes to share some of her wartime memories and keep them alive. It is an honour to submit this article on Joan’ s behalf.

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