Some Wartime Memories from the Derbyshire Tomboy

Some of the early information, when I was a baby, was passed on to me by my Mom. My father was an unknown person who I only saw when he was on leave from the Navy for the next 5 years.

Mom was paid £1 and 5 shillings a week Navy pay. Unless you have lived through those war years no-one knows how hard it was, for those women and children to get by on such a small amount of money and meagre rations. I do believe that even though you were a small child, every event and hardship your mother went through included yourself. You seemed to be included in all types of conversation because it always centred on "What can I give you to eat?" and "What can I make for you to wear?" So mothers spoke to their children like adults. I think this is why I can remember so much about what happened during those war years and after.

We lived in two rooms with my father's Mom. It was a very basic cottage - no bathroom and an outside toilet, a wash-house for doing the washing, gas lighting in two rooms only. To go to bed you had a candle in a candle-stick and the same for going to the outside toilet. Washing was an all-day event starting with Mom lighting a fire under the big copper. The whole process would be boiling, rinsing, dolly blue, ponching, dolly pegging, then put through a mangle the size of a small mini! It would then be put on the line outside if fine and on the clothes-horse if wet, so you lived in a room of steam.

When my father came home on leave from Egypt and Arabia he brought Mom some little items, but the thing she liked most was a wooden box filled with shelled almonds – food was more precious than trinkets.

People were told to apply for air raid shelters. We lived five miles from Derby and because of the heavy industries manufacturing tanks and arms, Rolls Royce making planes, British Celanese producing parachutes we were well in the firing line. So Stanton Pipe works were manufacturing large underground water pipes to be used as shelters which were stronger than tin ones. Large craters were dug in your garden away from the house and the pipe lowered in, then the top covered over with soil. My father was on leave so he built a door on the open end of the shelter and two benches inside, with steps leading from above ground to enter in case of air raids. Mom added one or two items we might need, candles, matches, cups, spoons. Food or a flask would have to be brought with you. Mom said by the time she had got me and Granny out of the house she did not have time for food and flasks every time. Between Ockerbrook and Spondon the R.A.F. lookout base was built with long Nissan huts used as barracks for the crews who would warn of planes heading from the East coast inland for Derby. This was where the sirens would warn us from. I can remember well the wailing of the sirens. After a few trips and getting so cold Mom kept a few blankets near the door to grab on our way to the shelter.

At this time the Germans were sinking the supply ships coming from America with tanks and food supplies and that made our rations very meagre - 2oz margarine, 2oz lard, 2oz cheese, 2 eggs, 4oz sugar used for cooking, saccharine tabs as a sugar substitute in tea. The ration was 4oz tea - which was considered very important. Many a time we had used our tea so the tea leaves were dried and used again. The Co-op delivered bread and milk was sold round the village by a little old lady with a pony and trap from one of the local farms. The trap had a small door in the back and you would take your jugs and she would fill them with a pint measure from a large churn.

My father came home on leave and told Mom he was going onto the big battleships and would be firing the big guns. Mom said he had two big gold crossed cannons on his uniform already. The Germans had sunk H.M.S. Hood and morale was very low. She didn't see him again for several months. He did four consecutive tours protecting the Russian convoys.

During those early years of the war Mom had to walk two and a half miles to the clinic to get me weighed on the baby scales and collect my tins of milk, then walk back again. This applied to coal also. I was told that the coal trains would not deliver to the depots in Derby because they were too close to the factories and an easy target for air raids. So our coal was off-loaded at Borrowash station, which was nearer to the power stations. Mom said she went in all weathers pushing me in the pram with a big sack. They would weigh here quota then she would have to walk back two and a half miles with me perched on the sack of coal. Rations were very limited and trips to the butcher were pot luck. 2 rashers of bacon and one sausage with her flour allowance would make a pie to last several days, 2 slices of liver, sliced potatoes and an onion became a casserole, 2oz spam and 2oz corned beef was another meal. Dandelion leaves became lettuce, sour milk was put in a muslin bag, hung on the line and became cream cheese, the gather watercress from the local brook - and hey presto that was your tea.

I was now old enough to be issued with my gas mask and as a small child to have a stranger put this tight-fitting object over your face which smelt of rubber and made a funny noise when you breathed gave me hysterics. I have suffered from claustrophobia ever since.

Queues were another thing. Women would walk miles because they had heard there was a shipment at a shop. Mom and I would walk all over, then join a queue standing in the pouring rain not knowing what for, but hoping it had not all gone when we got there. Often it would be whale or horse meat or a tin of pilchards. Everyone was very thin. The children were issued with jars of Virol, a malt extract, and rose-hip syrup. Sometimes we were so low on food dinner was bread and dripping. Mom would scavenge up the fields for mushrooms, crab apples and blackberries. Of course the vile powdered egg – hens eggs were like gold dust. Mom knitted all the spare time she had. Most of my jumpers and cardigans had been re-knitted several times. Hems were let down and it was nothing to see kids with faded marks on their clothes. Women had no nylons so they painted their legs with a solution of gravy browning.

In 1943 my father came home from Aden and Morocco and produced from his kit-bag a coconut and two lemons. I was frightened of the coconut never having seen one before nor a lemon. The two lemons were auctioned at the Queens Head pub and fetched fourteen pounds for the "Comforts Fund".

By 1944 I had reached the age of six and remembered all that went on. But one event I have never forgotten. It was a Monday which was washing day and I had been watching while Mom did all the stages of her washing, trying not to get in her way. It was sunny so after the mangling Mom picked up her wicker clothes basket and we went to the front yard to peg out the washing. Mom had on a cross-over apron and her hair in a turban. I was passing small items to her when we heard this roaring sound coming from the area of Derby. It got louder but we could not see anything. Then there it was - a Spitfire swooping over the village very low and heading right for our cottage. His canopy was open and we could see him. He had a brown leather jacket and goggles. He put his hand up and waved to us then he was gone, most likely to his base in Lincolnshire. I have never forgotten Mom and I jumping up and down and waving to this unknown pilot and remembering that special noise of its engine and the smell it left behind when it had gone.

By this time of the war we became very careful of all we had and were grateful for it. Newspaper was cut into sheets for toilet paper, string was saved and also brown paper, greaseproof paper from your marg and butter rations were used again. Scraps of soap were boiled and put into a mould for reuse. Christmas dinner was half of a rabbit caught by my uncle's ferret. Old clothes were cut up to make peg rugs and Mom used to take me up to the fields to get twigs and broken bits of wood to help with the coal allowance. The bedrooms in the cottage had little fire grates but we did not have enough coal for them, and the wooden window frames did not fit properly, so the bedroom was cold and draughty. Many times after a frost you would get up to use the chamber pot and it was frozen solid. Sometimes you would just get off to sleep and the sirens would go. Mom would shout to me to get up while she got Granny and then out into the cold and damp shelter. Why we did not all die of pneumonia I don’t know!


Marian Walsh
April 2020

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