Continued from previous post…
When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in Red Boxes by Gladys Hobson.
A pick and mix assortment of childhood memories 1939-53
Of war and play
By the time I left the isolation hospital, windows were criss-crossed with sticky brown paper but there was little else happening, as far as the war was concerned, in my own little world. The dolls house I had been promised while in hospital was never made. My father was too busy working long hours at the Ordnance Depot. He was also an air-raid warden and would have had the usual practice and patrol work to do in readiness for when the war started in earnest. The Chilwell Ordnance Depot, the local gun factory, the telephone manufacturers, and the nearby Boots pharmaceuticals factory were all to become targets for enemy action.
We were issued with gas masks which had to be carried at all times. Films at cinemas showed people how to use stirrup pumps. They were needed as an immediate aid to combat fires caused by the many incendiary bombs dropped from German planes. We had different kinds of air-raid shelters built. The ones in the park were half buried; the one at our corner was reinforced brick. We rarely left our warm beds to go into the cold shelter; cats and humans tended to use it as a lavatory.
Most of the time, the war seemed far away. We heard about it on the wireless (radio) and saw the news at the cinema. Tanks from the depot shook our house as they roared up the road from the depot, and everything was restricted or rationed, but I was not old enough to know much different.
We moved into our house in Beeston before the war began. It had two reception rooms, three bedrooms, a kitchen we dined and lived in, off which was a pantry with a cold slab (fridges were only for the rich). The bathroom had a rusting bath and was served by furred up pipes, which helped to preserve the five-inch water limit during the war. After the water reached a depth of four inches, our weekly bath was already too cold for comfort. There was a washbasin where I washed my hands and swilled my face. The lavatory had a temperamental pull-chain and an unsavoury seat. This was soon repainted with dire consequences for my sister who sat on it before the paint was dry! There was also an outside lavatory and a rough brick room that housed a coal-fired wash boiler and the coal store. Like most homes there was no central heating. In winter a smelly paraffin heater standing at the bottom of the stairs unintentionally provided heat to melt frost and snow on the roof. It certainly did nothing for us in our bedrooms!
Across the road some houses were being knocked down. We used to sit swinging on the gate (when the landlady didn’t catch us) watching the demolition, followed by the building of a cinema on the site. Before long, the red neon sign, Majestic, and light streaming out of the glass windows and doors of the foyer, told us entertainment was at hand.
Suddenly the light was no more. Street lamps no longer illuminated our way at night and we had to use torches with pencil beams. Windows had to be blacked out completely so that no light would pass through to guide enemy bombers. Moonlight was magical and stars were like diamonds in the sky – that is, when smog was not blotting out everything around us and clotting our lungs! I was six when the war began. What had been before, soon faded.
Coming out of hospital at the beginning of February 1940 was a new beginning for me. I had been living in a no-man’s land, from which the only escape had been in my imagination. Now I was free.
I recall watery winter sunshine and heaped up snow on the edge of pavements. The slush thrown up by passing vehicles splashed my legs and coat with dirty water and compressed snow. But after being in hospital it was fun to be in my home environment for another six weeks, when most children were at school. I was ready to go back but worried that I had a lot of catching up to do. The school I last attended had closed while air-raid shelters were being built, and the infants were sharing another school further away. It was a long, lonely walk. Because of lack of space, children were only getting half time education: one week of mornings followed by a week of afternoons.
My sister was now at junior school and I felt very much alone. Everything seemed so strange. The teacher was pleasant, but by now I had a fear of authority and tended to withdraw into myself. The first morning of our half-day schooling, I just sat at my desk and did as I was told. The last lesson of the morning was arithmetic and we were given two lots of sums to do. I finished the first side of the card and made a start on the second. By this time the bell had rung. Those who had finished their work were allowed to go home. Gradually the children left, leaving me on my own struggling to work out the sums. Tears began to run down my face as panic set in. The list of sums seemed endless. The harder I tried, the slower I got. I would never get home. I was a stupid child who could not do her sums! Seeing my apparent distress, the teacher came over to see how I was getting on. She looked at my work and then at the card.
“Gladys, you are doing tomorrow’s sums. You only had to do one side of the card today. Off you go.”
Relieved, I went home. But I was feeling even more stupid.
Soon after returning to school, something really dreadful happened, the shame of which was to be with me for a very long time. It was a cold wet day. Playtime, spent in the classroom, was over and it would not be long before it was time to go home. The lavatories were across the other side of the playground – cold smelly places, usually devoid of toilet paper and with brown marks streaked down the walls! There had been no rush to go there during the break. Before long, children were asking to go to the lavatory. At first, permission was given, but after a while the teacher said we must learn to go at the proper time. She sounded very cross.
I needed to go urgently but was afraid to ask. I would just have to hold it until the end of the lesson. I was terrified that I would wet myself. I sat with my legs tight together, utterly miserable. I knew that it was too late to plead with the teacher, I was so uncomfortable that just moving might start the water flowing. I became more and more nervous, and such was the pressure that it was beginning to hurt. I was in agony trying to hold on. The inevitable happened. The warm fluid began to flow into my thick school knickers. Some of it soaked into skirt, socks and shoes, but the rest hit the floor with the sound of splashing water. Alerted, the girl sitting next to me quickly jumped up, afraid of getting wet herself. Gleefully, her hand shot up.
“Please, Miss, Gladys has wet herself!”
There was a shocked silence. All eyes turned towards me and then rested on the tale-tale puddle. Whispers and giggles broke out as the teacher approached the evidence of my dreadful deed.
“Why didn’t you ask to go to the lavatory?” she said, with a mixture of anger and incredulity. She turned to my classmate. “Fetch the headmistress, Marjory.”
The headmistress arrived. With a look of shocked disbelief on her face, she approached me as I stood in painful distress.
“Why didn’t you ask to go to the lavatory?”
“Teacher told us no one else could go”
I stood head down, my face scarlet with shame, as the tell-tale fluid continued to drip from the desk seat onto the floor. My thick knickers were now cool and clinging uncomfortably to my skin, my skirt was wet against my thighs and my socks and shoes were heavy with fluid. The dark stain of liquid told the world that I was a dirty little seven-year-old.
My teacher was not going to accept the blame. “Of course she could have gone. Gladys only had to say it was urgent.”
“Never mind,” said the headmistress. ”Gladys, go and fetch the bucket and mop. In future go at playtime.”
My clothes dried on me during the rest of the lesson and on the long walk home.
I lived in fear of my family finding out. Eventually, a child told her elder sister, who passed it on to one my sisters, who then told my mother.
“Our Gladys wet herself at school.”
Eyes turned to me. I shrank in my chair. Mother looked puzzled.
“Gladys would never do such a thing.”
“It was someone else,” I lied.
I felt sick with guilt but I could not let my mother, and the rest of the family, know that I had done something so shameful. She trusted me, and I had let her down badly. I did not want to disappoint my mother, nor did I want to get into more trouble. I would have to live with yet another lie on top of the dreadful shame I was already suffering. As my mother always said: “There’s no rest for the wicked.”
One day when the school was working afternoons, my mother had to go out to work for most of the day, which meant that I had to see myself off to school. When the time came for me to set off, I couldn’t go. I clung to our dog and told her my problem. I allowed tears of self-pity to roll down my cheeks. Jenny licked my face and comforted me. I stayed that way until it was too late to get to school on time. When my mother returned from her work later that afternoon, I gave the excuse that I was not well and so nothing was said. Another lie! More guilt!
But there were happy times at that school. Close by was an abandoned building site. It had lots of partly built walls and a curious flight of steps going downwards for no apparent reason. The children used it as an adventure playground. It became my greatest achievement to leap over the wide space above the steps, defying my fear of falling, and to run along the fairly low walls. I was being no different to the rest of the children. If I was being stupid, so was everyone else!
Within the same area of ground, and elsewhere, there grew sweet flowering nettles. I followed the lead of others and picked the flowers, sucking out the sweet nectar, ignoring the little beetles and ants that ran around inside the flowers. I chewed the young leaves of the hawthorn bushes, which we called bread and cheese. Thankfully, before trying out mushrooms, some concerned person told us they were poisonous. But we picked many blackberries and knew which wild berries not to eat. We even chewed on chunks of pitch, but I wasn’t keen. With sweets being rationed and few treats available, we didn’t get fat and we kept our teeth!
We had very few books at home. Sometimes I would scan the dictionary looking for naughty words. The only one I remember finding was hospital – it said spit in the middle of it. How shocking! At Christmas we sang carols at school about a virgin. The Salvation Army sang about a virgin; people on the wireless sang about a virgin. What was a virgin? I looked it up. I was none the wiser. It said something about intercourse. I looked intercourse up. Connection by dealings? I was completely baffled. I asked my mother.
“What’s a virgin?”
“A woman who hasn’t had a baby.”
So how could Mary be a virgin mother? Simple. Evidently, God gave her the baby.
Apart from the weekly library book, I did very little reading. We all followed the adventures of Rupert Bear in the Daily Express, and Christmas would not have been Christmas without the Rupert annual. We received Dandy and Beano every week. And later on, Radio Fun and Film Fun broadened our vocabulary. They helped me to read. By matching phrases to pictures, the written word was beginning to communicate in a way that school books had not done, and the comics helped bridge the gap between infant readers and more challenging reading.
My sister Phyllis and I both liked the Alison Uttley books. So when an elderly friend of my parents gave each of us a half crown, we went off to the bookshop. On the way we dropped the money and it rolled down a drain. We looked through the grating and could see one half crown resting on a ledge. We both stood crying bitterly at the loss of our precious money. A lorry stopped next to us. The driver jumped out to ask why we were crying. We pointed to the money in the drain. He dropped to his knees and lifted up the grating. Down went his hand into the filth. First he picked up the coin he could see. Next, he fished around in black smelly sludge until he found the other one. He wiped them both on a rag and then gave them to us. We were overjoyed and thanked him most sincerely. He smiled, returned to his cab and drove off. I can’t see it happening today; such a person seen getting out of his cab to talk to children might well come under suspicion.
We knew not to go with strangers but we did not live in fear of them. We had a lot of freedom to play where we wanted. Not far from home there was a little brook flowing between trees where we used to play. We used to call it the dyke. It was murky and muddy. There were no fish but frogs spawned there, and we knew that leeches waited to suck our blood! In the trees there was a little den with a bendy branch to sit on. We would take some pop and spend some time there. There were a few planks across the brook and I would float sticks to watch them flow under the bridge.
I fell in.
It was like a slow motion film. One moment I was bending over the planks, the next I was looking at the sky through filthy water. Within those seconds I imagined myself covered with bloodsucking leeches and drowning a horrible death. I rose the few inches to the surface, spat out the foul water, and yelled for my mam! I clambered out and ran home.
My mother had just finished washing. The dolly tub was about to be emptied when I turned up soaked to the skin and disgustingly smelly. My mother was furious. After a morning of ponching, scrubbing, boiling, mangling and hanging clothes to dry, she had to start again. She stripped off my wet things and dumped them, and me, in the warm soapy water and gave daughter and clothes a good scrubbing. We were going out that afternoon and I had been wearing my clean clothes.
Poor mother, she had her own private war with a big family of three youngsters and four adults – my dad, my elder brother and two elder sisters – to look after. By the time Jack was in the Air Force and Betty and Barbara were married, Mother had to put up with the temper tantrums of my distraught father as he grew more and more disabled. By that time she was cleaning the cinema to earn much needed housekeeping money.
When I was old enough, I thought about joining the Guides and went to a few meetings. We had to line up and answer questions. The leader asked each person if they had a clean handkerchief. I said that my hanky was always clean (handkerchiefs were boiled white at our house). She smiled and said she meant a spare one for emergencies. I went red and felt very silly – nothing new!
One day we went for an adventure picnic. Rain poured down, I nearly ate the leader’s sandwiches by accident, a fire could not be lit, and I was cold and miserable. I did not go to the Guides again.
A year or two later I joined the Girls Life Brigade. We did a little cooking, sewing, craft work, and were offered various useful activities. One night we had young army cadets come to teach us how to read maps. The older girls were giggling and making eyes at the young lads, and that really annoyed me. I thought the boys were rather horrid. One of them was obnoxious and told rude jokes. All they did was flirt with the girls. The boys had masses of teenage pimples, which I thought quite revolting. I had no reason to like cadets anyway. When I was going home one day a group of them dragged me into a garden and forced me to kiss one of them. They all thought it great sport. I was utterly humiliated. After the cadets’ visit to the Life Brigade, I was put off going again.
During the war we children liked to do our bit for the war effort. We were asked to collect books and magazines for the troops. We were given army ranks according to the number we collected. I was very enthusiastic. I went from door to door, determined to make it to General. When a cousin called one day with a great pile of education magazines, I was overjoyed. I was about to become a Field Marshal!
To save food crops from destruction, posters were around to tell you to look out for certain beetles and butterflies. We formed a club and got rid of hundreds of them. Unfortunately, pretty butterflies were killed too. I doubt if we made any difference to the availability of food in the shops. Fortunately, we came to see the error of our ways by killing indiscriminately and we gave up the club. We took to watching nature, rather than killing wild life.
Throughout our childhood we had a common stock of games to play. Whips and tops, skipping, and ball games. Some children were quite athletic and liked to perform cartwheels and handstands in the school playground. I was not one of them. We had our playground games, which we played in groups or gangs. ‘The farmer in his den’ was one of them. It should have been dell, not den, and we also ended up patting the bone rather than the dog. But then games did not have to make sense to us. ‘Poor Mary sits a weeping’, ‘A hunting we will go’, ‘In and out the windows’, ‘There’s a little sandy boy sitting all alone’, were all games we regularly played. No one organised us. We children rounded up those who wanted to play and, before long, others would want to join in. If it was a gang that had got together then intruders were not welcome. Occasionally this led to fighting. I could pull a girl’s hair as good as I got!
Skipping was always a favourite game, whether at home or in the playground. Some children had posh ropes, with handles and jingling bells. I was quite happy to get a piece of old washing line. We would count to see how long we could go on for, sometimes doing little hops and various routines to make it harder or more interesting. Sometimes we would skip in two’s, or a number of children would skip together, running in and out while two others turned the rope. It could get quite competitive; I won one or two prizes. Sometimes the skipping would be accompanied by rhymes or singing.
Ball games of every kind were played as they are today, but the ordinary little hand ball was in constant use, especially by the girls. Usually we had our dress tucked into our knickers so that we could bounce the ball under a leg before it hit the wall. We would clap in various ways between throws and catches, and all together perform a great variety of movements. Sometimes we would sing to accompany the movements:
“Charlie Chaplain went to France, to teach the ladies how to dance, heel, toe, under we go, heel, toe, under we go.”
Hopscotch was another favourite game. Belinda had paving slabs in their drive, which were just right. The slabs were numbered in the usual way and we would develop complicated ways of hopping and skipping up and down. We usually competed against each other but sometimes we played with others and occasionally formed teams.
If there was one game that brought together children of all ages, it was marbles.
During the war the traditional glass marbles were in short supply and greatly valued. We could buy brown clay marbles as a substitute, but there were glass ones to be won or swapped. We had a great variety of games to play, but children were pretty good at devising their own. The ‘wide-boys’ of the marble game soon devised ways of increasing their valuable collection.
Objects that cost nothing but gave enormous pleasure were conkers. Once it was discovered that the nuts had reached maturity, the children did not wait for high winds to dislodge them, but rather began an onslaught of heavy sticks and stones. Sometimes more pleasure was found in getting the conkers than playing with them. I felt rich if I had a pocket full of conkers. They were smooth and round to the touch and such a rich colour. I do not recall ever having one that gave me victory but I just liked to have them. They soothe out tensions in the body.
Snobs or jacks were good games, but it was usually boys who played them. We had board games such as draughts, snakes and ladders, and ludo to keep us amused. We used counters from board games and little buttons to play tiddlywinks. Homely paper and pencil games, such as noughts and crosses, hangman, squares, and battleships and cruisers, kept us amused for hours. As we became older we grew in knowledge and that enabled us to compete in making alphabetical lists of flowers, towns, countries, rivers, vegetables, and so on. We also painted, stitched, embroidered and knitted. But when my friend’s family bought a game of Monopoly, that really did interest me. Sometimes I was invited to play with them. I thought it quite a privilege to handle the paper money and be given £200 every time I passed go! All our games were simple and without the expense of modern toys. Dolls prams, roller skates and Meccano were the toys to dream about, but new cycles or ice skates were presents for the better off.
But, with few cars and restrictions on petrol, any kind of cycle was a must for those who wanted the convenience of their own transport. Not having a cycle, I always walked or used a bus. So many people used cycles to get to work, there were times of the day when it was impossible to cross the road. You would hear the hooter of the local firm and know that you had about two minutes to get to the shops across the road before columns of cyclists completely blocked your way. No use going to the traffic lights. As soon as one army of men on two wheels came to a halt, another battalion, from a different factory, were already coming round the corner.
I couldn’t ride a bicycle and I didn’t really want one. I liked dolls but they were expensive. One Christmas I was given a life-size baby doll. It had a china head with eyes that could close. Delighted with my present, I ran next door to show it to an old lady my mum kept an eye on. The ground was icy and over I went. The doll’s head was smashed to pieces. I was devastated and ran back home in tears. I knew I would never get another doll. Money was scarce in our family home.
My father told me to collect all the pieces. He spent ages gluing the parts together. To cover the cracks, he repainted the whole head. I could not say so, but I hated that doll afterwards. It no longer looked like a baby. With the hard paint colours my father had used, it looked like an ugly shrunken adult head dipped in chocolate! And yet my father had spent so much time on it. I felt a very ungrateful child. But, when the doll finally came to pieces, I had terrific fun pretending the arms were telephones.
Throughout all my childhood, one thing soon became clear. Women were born to serve men. The men always came first in our house, and probably in most other homes. They never poured out a cup of tea for themselves. They always had the best portions and we girls just went along with it, in fact we helped keep up the tradition. When Bill was younger he had his share of washing-up to do, but I strongly suspect that after the hospital experience Bill had reached the ranks of manhood. When my mother was in hospital I had to take time off school to make sure the chores were done, and the men’s meals were cooked and on the table. All I got from them was criticism.
“This cauliflower isn’t cooked. I’ll get constipation,” complained Jack.
“This salt needs drying out,” grumbled my dad.
I put the salt cellar in the warm oven and I got: “You’ll crack the glass! How did I ever breed such bloody stupid kids!”
My sister didn’t escape the whiplash of my dad’s tongue. Although she started work at fourteen, she was always helping at home, including assisting Dad with his motor repairs. She made the mistake of swearing in his presence. Men swear; ladies never!
Dad’s eyes flashed. “I’ll have none of this bloody swearing. If another daughter of mine goes into a factory, I’ll bloody cut her throat!”
It was normal for dads to swear. One friend’s dad not only swore at his daughters, but slapped them too if they did not behave ladylike.
No doubt, when we played mothers and fathers, we reinforced all our early training. Likewise our subservient attitude to those in authority. I remember playing school in our garden. I was going round whacking all the dead flowers with a cane.
“You naughty, wicked children,” I shouted, as I vented my suppressed anger on anything that got in my way. “Take that! And that! And that!”
Mother always said, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” I don’t know who I thought was being so very wicked!
To be continued…
When Phones Were Immobile and Lived in Red Boxes
Published by Magpies Nest Publishing IBSN 0-9548885-0-2
The print run was sold out but it may be possible to get a second hand copy. Unless there is a big demand there will not be another edition.
Visit Magpies Nest Publishing for other books by Gladys Hobson (aka Angela Ashley and Richard L Gray)