MEMORIES OF A LITTLE GIRL by Jean Green (nee Watson)

“I suppose, like most kids growing up in Evenwood during WW2, I didn’t really appreciate the seriousness of what was going on and I was only two when it all started.  I remember very well the sound of the siren and the sighs of relief from the grown-ups when the ‘all clear’ was sounded and there were several false alarms but for one fateful day – more of that later.

Nobody was well off – we were all in the same boat and I suppose what you don’t have you don’t miss, so, for instance, rationing of a quarter of sweets a week was accepted as normal – if you could get them!  Howe’s’ shop next to The White Swan pub sold sweets and was popular with kids around our area.  More often than not they were unavailable anyway and we had to be satisfied with a few sprigs of Liquorice Root, which, I might add, were chewed down to a stringy, yellow, pulpy mess!!  Sweet coupons were very precious and on one occasion I had to go into hospital for two weeks.  Our teacher, Miss Sally Willan asked my class to write me a letter instead of doing a composition one week and I was overwhelmed with offers from nearly all of them offering their sweet rations to help me recover.  Now, that’s what I call generous.

We lived in Swan Street, second but one from the Coop or Store as it was known and, of course, as kids we never appreciated the worries our parents had to make rations eke out.  Times were tough but everyone seemed to manage.  I cannot remember any crime then, or yobs, and the worst “crime” the lads seemed to commit was raiding somebody’s orchard for a few apples.  Clothes were altered and cut down to fit and lots of people, including us, used to cut up old and worn out clothes and make lovely warm proddy mats.

Jenny Heseltine and family, two doors above us, used to keep pigs over in the allotments and whenever they had one killed for home consumption all the neighbours were given a small share of the bounty , be it black pudding, sausage, belly etc.  It was a very generous gesture and a very welcome treat.  One family I knew had three children all of whom liked different flavours of jam.  Well, jam of any flavour was a luxury and, to keep the peace, the mother of this household used to take the labels off and tell them it was mixed fruit and their favourite.  It seemed to work.  Who can remember the big bottles of Big Ben sauce?  By today’s standards it was revolting but, in those days anything was better than nothing and  one has to wonder too what went into the making of bread – white bread could look various shades of grey or brown, leaning towards black and resemble sawdust.  The grown-ups used to complain about it but I was under strict instructions that all crusts as well as the middle had to be eaten as my Dad threatened to write to the government who would then take away my ration book!

A great sadness hit our family in 1944.  On 25th February news of the death at sea of my Dad’s younger brother, Uncle Walter, came to us.  He was my favourite uncle and I remember well how dashing he looked in his naval uniform when he was home on leave only two months before, at Christmas.  His ship, HMS Mahratta, a destroyer, was torpedoed and sunk in the Arctic on Russian Convoys.  I was only six but when Dad told me, the realisation and pain of what the war really meant hit me hard.  Details of this sad event appear elsewhere in this book.

Later in the same year however, I had the treat of a lifetime.  Approaching my seventh birthday, my Grandmother, Mother and Mrs Lamb over the road at no. 42 saved their eggs, margarine and other rations for weeks and I had a birthday party.  At the height of the war with food scarcities biting hard, it was a surprise and a treat beyond my wildest dreams – a Red Letter Day followed by a trip to Risbeys’ photographers in Darlington to have my photo taken (shown here).  It was, I think, the greatest occasion of my life to that point. I still look back with love and gratitude.

Air raids were at night and quite a few people round our way used to gather on the ‘Store Fronts’ to watch and listen to that dreaded drone of German bombers heading for Newcastle, Sunderland and the docks.  The sky used to be lit up way over and beyond Toft Hill and I recall sitting on my Dad’s shoulders taking it all in.  In those days women rarely wore trousers but my Mother bought a pair for emergencies and Dad always said, having worn trousers all his life, he was a total non starter when it came down to the speed my Ma could don hers during an air raid!

At Evenwood School we used to practice our air raid drill by going into the shelter up in the garden and have regular talks from Mr Johnson, the headmaster, that on NO account were we to pick up tin cans lying around in the countryside as they could be bombs!  That all seemed very far-fetched at the time and I think whistled straight through our ears and was forgotten about.  Only when one grows older and wiser does it register that, of course, there could well have been incendiaries dropped from German aircraft.

Many of the men in the village were exempt from being drafted into the services as they worked at the pit and my Dad was one.  I can still picture the Home Guard and my Dad proudly polishing his brass buttons on the khaki uniform they were supplied with.  They used to march through the village on some Sunday mornings and I have often wondered over the years what on earth would they have fought with if the village had been invaded.  Broom sticks?

One day we really had it brought home to us there was a war going on was on what came to be known as ‘THAT THURSAY’   It started as a perfectly normal day, then the siren went and as it was daytime everybody seemed to sense this was something serious and took cover.  There was a lady lived opposite us, a widow called Mrs Creaser, who always seemed very austere and never really bothered about kids so I was more than worried when she grabbed me, shouted to tell my Mother where I was and promptly took me into the cupboard under her stairs.  Not only that, she sat me on her knee and kept dabbing my brow with a wet cloth which she kept dipping into a bucket of water beside her.  Scary stuff to that point but then, all Hell broke loose.  It was like the end of the world.  The ground and houses shook so violently, the noise was horrific and it was as though express trains were bearing down on us.  We were terrified.  The war had never really come to our village so nobody had experienced anything like this and Mrs Creaser’s odd antics were equally frightening for me.  I have no idea how long it all lasted, though I suspect it was over fairly quickly and I was ruddy glad to be released from that cupboard to run across the road and home – poor Mrs. Creaser.  I look back now and see a lonely old lady thinking she was protecting a child in distress.  She never knew how right she was!

Evenwood was not a target that day but German bombers were, I learned later, being chased and hounded so they jettisoned their bombs in a bid to escape.  Several fell around the area of the village and a field beside The Sun Inn collected one, leaving a large crater.  Sadly a piece of shrapnel seriously wounded a grey heavy horse owned by farmer Kit Parkin and it was a sorry sight in the Pit Fields for weeks to come to see it hanging its head with a deep and long gash in its neck.  Fortunately it did eventually heal.  However, I learned in later years of a most miraculous escape on that same day……

I used to work in the Coop office and we delivered groceries all round the countryside.  One of our customers was the Hope family who lived on a farm at the top of The Heugh, above Ramshaw.  All unmarried, there were two brothers and Bella and she was a character.  The eldest, Steve, paid the bills and never ever knew that he paid for hundreds of Woodbines with each delivery of groceries, all destined for Bella who was a prolific, secret smoker.  Life was tough and Bella swore like a man and worked like a man!  On ‘That Thursday’ she was out feeding the hens and collecting eggs when all the drama started to unfold and she heard something awfully loud and approaching.  Instinctively she flung herself down on the floor of the hen hut amongst all the “poop”, quite convinced her time had come.  It was all over very quickly and Bella survived the bomb but, when she got to her feet, there were dead hens in their boxes, killed by shrapnel and only three feet above where she had lain.  Whenever she retold this story her language and opinion of Gerry was something to savour!

None of us in the village knew why at the time but the build up to D Day saw the massing of troops being prepared for the invasion of Europe.  Evenwood had its share with lots of soldiers being temporarily stationed in the chapels and I can certainly remember them in the Wesleyan Chapel.  Also, we saw lots of tanks coming roaring through the village and the Store Front was a very dangerous place to be.  The bend at the Coop leading into Oaks Bank saw a lot of these tracked vehicles skidding off the road on to the Store Front and churning up the road surface as they skidded round the bend.  The noise was tremendous – frightening and at the same time, exciting.  There was obviously something big going on for our village to see this kind of activity and of course it became evident later what it had all been about.

We had our good times too.  The Empire Cinema or “the Ranch” as it was known gave countless families both pleasure and escape from the mundane grind of blackout, work, rationing etc. Inside that shabby, corrugated tin facade was a veritable ‘pleasure palace’ where adventure, glamour and excitement all came together to transport us into a world of make believe.  The fact we had long runs of cowboy films starring the likes of Randolph Scott mattered not a jot and there was a standard joke about taking your shovel along to clear the horse muck!  Anything and everything was welcomed and we kids lapped it up, giving Walter Bowen a big cheer when he went up the steps at the side of the screen to open the curtains.

The first few rows were wooden benches, boys on the left and girls on the right and the ticket price was sixpence.  Behind them, on normal cinema seats sat the courting couples and teenagers who paid nine-pence then, upstairs was the posh end where mams and dads paid a handsome one shilling and threepence.  Baddies got booed throughout the night, goodies got cheered and little girls like me were overawed with the glamour and beautiful costumes worn by Rita Hayworth, Dorothy Lamour etc.  For me it was generally two hours of bliss except when Charlie Chan came to the ‘Ranch’ then my feet barely touched the ground as I ran home scared stiff.  The head projectionist was Cresswell Dixon and he had a young assistant, a schoolboy, who worked with him on weeknights for extra pocket money.  I didn’t know it then but that young assistant was George Green – the boy I eventually married.

Looking back there were very few fancy goods for parents to buy for their families during those austere years but Christmas was still a big treat.  I never knew until years later that the beautiful books I used to get from Santa had belonged to my Mother when she was a girl and I still have them.  Simple things like a small blackboard and easel with chalk, probably a pair of fancy coat-hangers, tops and whips together with apples, oranges and probably some nuts made for a wonderful surprise treat on Christmas morning.  No cycles, mobiles, computers or televisions then.  In fact nobody I knew had a telephone at all.

Our only source of news was the Northern Echo and the wireless and we used to have to carry the accumulator (a horrendously heavy battery) the length of the village up to Farncombe Terrace where Percy Parkin would re-charge them.  It was worth it however because on week nights between 6.45pm and 7.00 pm I was perched on the edge of a seat, glued to the set to hear the latest exploits of “Dick Barton – Special Agent”.  He and his men, Jock Anderson and Snowy White constantly battled our enemies and each night left me worried sick as to whether they would survive. I always had to tune in again the following night and, of course, came the relief of knowing they had beaten the baddies again!  I was absolutely hooked on that programme.

The issue of gas masks to every household was a stark reminder of the times we lived in and I was very miffed at the fact I was given a silly little Mickey Mouse one whereas the grown-ups got big black ones.  Fortunately, they were never used. I never understood why our iron railings were removed from the front and side of our house – surely nobody could come along one fine day and just cut them off and take them away.  Well, yes, they did that to every household and my Dad told me they would be used to make big guns to win the war.  I didn’t feel too bad about it after that.

1939 to 1945 was a momentous and dark period in our village history but I had a very happy childhood in Evenwood, surrounded by a loving family and lots of friends, largely unaware of the hardships the adult population endured.  What the village lacked in economic wealth was more than made up for by a strong sense of community created by honest, hard working men and women who were both resourceful and resilient.  We all suffered and fortunately, survived  those dark days.

Finally, to finish on a lighter note – like all other kids of my generation I never saw a real banana until way after the war had finished – I cannot forgive Jerry for that!