- Contributed by
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- Delphine Rowden
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- 16 May 2005
This story has been entered by a volunteer on behalf of Delphine Higgs. The author has seen and agreed to the People's War House Rules.
The days settled into a regular routine, wake up, work, blackout and bed. The young boys we had fun with were now over seventeen and had had to join the Services, so we wait for them to come home on leave, write to them and receive their censored letters. I joined the Ballroom Dancing Classes and entered competitions at the Victoria Rooms.
About this time the Americans came into the war, we were all very pleased as now we were not standing alone. I had also left The Gas Company and was working in the offices of The Imperial Tobacco Company. One afternoon I was leaving Kingswood, where I had been shopping, when I became aware of numerous bombers flying in formation overhead. Everyone stood still pointing and trying to count the numbers - this is what it meant to have America in the war on our side. What power! My first thoughts were "I'm glad they're not going to bomb us". Later I pondered on what was going to happen to some unsuspecting human beings "over there" by the time night fell. Why must we have all this killing when, if we could be tolerant to one another, we could be happy and dancing together? Why are people so nice and so horrible?
Soon the towns and streets were full of American soldiers chewing gum, they were all so well dressed that they looked like officers. I didn't feel very happy about this. Our boys had been in the thick of it for years and their uniforms were nowhere near as smart, nor did they receive as much pay. It didn't seem fair that these soldiers were taking over our city. On the other hand I'd heard they were very friendly and generous giving children sweets and chewing gum and some girls received pairs of the new nylon stockings.
The real differences however became apparent when these Yanks, as everyone affectionately called them, invaded the Dance Halls and Ballrooms. No Waltzes and Quicksteps for them, it all became Jitterbug and Jive. Being physically fighting fit young men their dancing took on the form of an athletic performance. Their partners changed as well and girls that had shyly taken the floor for a Foxtrot were now being thrown in the air and slung between legs. Instead of looking at smart young men and pretty dresses, we now watched Tarzan and the swirl of legs, stocking tops, suspenders and knickers.
These Yanks, being away from their wives, sweethearts and families, had quite a lot of spare cash and it became their habit to walk close behind any girl they fancied jingling the cash in their pockets. Lots of us young women, starved of luxuries, fell for this, coupled with the sweet talk, and soon became the proud possessors of the fine nylon stockings, make-up and extra food for the family, then later, not a few became the mothers of bonny bouncing babies.
To avoid some of this aggravation, on Saturday nights I usually opted to go out with my parents to the Council House, which was mostly built but not finished. At this time the lower floor near the Cathedral had been turned into an amenity, a sort of British Restaurant plus. The largest space was a dance floor with groups of tables and chairs and at the far end a kitchen and snack bar. Near the entrance there were two rooms, both comfortably furnished, one for reading and writing and the other a quiet room where no talking was allowed. I would usually take a girl friend and all four of us would walk there and back. We could enjoy the music and dancing while my parents made friends with other elderly people but above all we enjoyed excellent sandwiches, snacks and cups of tea with sugar which was a very nice Saturday night addition to our meagre weekly rations.
The Americans were in camps all around Bristol and every evening truck loads of American soldiers arrived in town for entertainment and to meet their girl friends. Later in the evening the trucks would return to take them away again. The pick up point was at the end of Old Market, nearly opposite the Empire Theatre. It was at the side of the old Brewery, now Castle Gate, the paved lane there led to Jacob Street where it edged St. Philips & St. Jacobs churchyard, a quiet and convenient place to rendezvous. Passing this place in the late evening, it would be crowded with American soldiers and their girl friends saying goodnight. At first I didn't think anything of it but after a short while that lane became notorious. Early every morning the City Council sent a team of road sweepers to clean up the place before many people were about, they picked up hundreds of "French Letters". It's no wonder that the Council men and the local inhabitants changed the name of the lane from Church Lane to Contraception Lane!
There had always been some black Servicemen in the British Forces, they were from our colonies, fine, we welcomed them. Now black Americans came into our country, fine, we welcomed them all and many Bristol girls were walking out with them. It seemed that, apart from dancing and the cinemas all Yanks loved the Fun of the Fair, the bright lights, the rides, the music and just at the back of the Almshouses in Old Market there was a Showground, under canvas, Charlie Heals. Returning home on Saturday nights we would pass the back entrance in Jacob Street. At the Old Market Street junction we would see line of American trucks and jeeps, manned by Military Police, waiting. One week we would see the MPs carrying out black Americans and the following week the MPs would be carrying out white Americans and this went on for five or six weeks.
For a change, my friend and I decided to go out on our own, we went up to Durdham Downs, I believe we had been dancing in a marquee with a band arranged for "Holidays at Home". Walking home to The Dings together, we came through The Centre, Clare Street, Corn Street and Wine Street and were passing the British Restaurant which had been erected on the roped off cleared land at the corner of Peter Street and Dolphin Street. Suddenly from Castle Street we were confronted with hordes of wild white Americans, all arms and legs and in ugly, angry mood. A young woman with a black American was just getting over the rope intending to proceed down Castle Street. The white American soldiers surged forward and hit the black American soldier on the head and he fell to the ground with the girl screaming. My friend, Joan, and I ran as fast as our legs would carry us making for Bridge Street and Bristol Bridge, followed by screeching American trucks. As soon as the trucks reached the bottom of Bridge Street they swerved to the right and left blocking off the road. We made our way over the rubble of the demolished shops to the bridge before we looked back. Bridge Street was empty but the masses of troops seemed to be making their way to the Centre via Wine Street, Corn Street and Clare Street. What in the world was happening?
We regained our breath and walked along Bath Street, passing Georges Brewery, over Halfpenny Bridge (St. Philips Bridge) to the Central Health Clinic corner at the bottom of Tower Hill. We hesitated, still wondering what was going on, as we could hear something was happening. Our curiosity got the better of us, and cautiously we made our way up to Fosters corner at the bottom of Castle Street. What a sight! As far as we could see in the direction of West Street - American soldiers. The whole area was a seething mass of American soldiers, it looked as if the whole American Army was there with not a space between them. Once again the mood seemed to be very angry, they were up on top of the brick/concrete Air Raid Shelters that run the length of Old Market and there was a lot of movement and shouting. Overhead there was a white mist which partly obliterated the shops from Carey's Lane upward. As we looked we could hear firing which seemed to come from the Drill Hall where I understood black Americans were in barracks. Perhaps they were firing Tear Gas to disperse the crowd I thought. My glance only lasted about half a minute but the picture will remain with me for ever. RUN. We ran back to the Churchyard, then Broadplain and Unity Street, all was quiet. From the corner of Unity Street we looked across to the shops in Midland Road, where, sitting or stretched out on the pavement, under the windows we could see a line of wounded soldiers. Definitely time to go home!
Of course, at that time there were notices everywhere telling us to "Keep Mum" say nothing, there was never any news of that sort in the newspapers and only those who were involved, or saw it, actually knew what was going on. For my part I am convinced it was trouble between the black and white American soldiers, and I've heard in later years that there was some rioting in the Centre and Park Street area. To this day nothing has ever been mentioned about this event but for some days afterwards there were no American soldiers on the streets at all. All confined to barracks. Fairly soon after this nearly all the Americans vanished as the D-Day Landings took place.
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