My Second World War Reminiscences by the late Nancy Bell
3rd September 1939
Sunday morning, bright and glorious brought the message from Prime Minister Chamberlain at 11am on the radio that we were at war with Germany.
Life at Bishop Grammar
The following morning having passed the 11 plus exam as was the rule at that time, 11 years of age, I was due to attend school, the Grammar School at Bishop Auckland, the Girls’ County School as our section was known. With gas masks firmly housed in cardboard box with long strap attached enabling it to be hung over the head and shoulder we boarded our school bus, an OK bus, as it travelled from Butterknowle, Cockfield, Evenwood and West Auckland to school at Bishop Auckland. We were instructed in how to respond to any air raid warning (a siren) by crossing the school yard to shelters provided. I was nominated as monitor for one shelter which involved collecting a lamp with a candle, matches, plus a bottle of water as well as rug, blanket or whatever I was relying on for warmth in the shelter. A stray sniper from the air could have endangered me at any time which made me feel my form mistress was not as friendly as I had supposed!! After a short time, no air raids occurring in our area, it was decided we could stay in the school, huddled on the stone steps under the hall balcony and wrapped in rugs or coats as available we survived.
Quite soon after the outbreak of war, it was announced that a school from Jarrow would be evacuated to our school and in order to accommodate us all we were to arrange our attendance to mornings only and Jarrow pupils’ afternoons. Compensated by extra homework for afternoon/evenings, the two school arrangements did not continue for very long. They returned to Jarrow.
Despite food rationing we had a lunchtime meal and as far as I was concerned the “Oslo breakfast” of orange juice, cheese, wholemeal bread, tomatoes and/or salad and perhaps pickle was very welcome, even then I leaned towards a vegetarian diet. Rice pudding cooked in a huge gas boiler, such as my mother used to heat the water on washing days, was most welcome too.
No outings from school were arranged, no speech days in the Eden theatre as in previous years, nothing where travel was involved or a mass of people assembled together, just in case of air raids.
Mr. Cecil Corner
I recall that Mr. Weatherley, the Headmaster was leaving Ramshaw School for a new headship at Seaham. A new head, Mr. Cecil Corner was appointed during the summer to take up his duties in September. Mr. Corner, his wife Mary, 2 boys and baby daughter took up residence in “the Ford” near to the school. However Mr. Corner was a high ranking officer in the Territorial Army so he was immediately called up for army service. He never took up his post as Headmaster at Ramshaw School, did not return to Ramshaw and his family moved away. Mr. Arnold Watson was his replacement.
The War Effort
Girls older than me were recruited into the Services – A.T.S. (Army) W.A.F.S. (Air Force) and W.R.E.N.S. (Navy). Those with young children and indeed many older women were given work in the Munitions Factories at Heighington/Aycliffe. At that time, Newton Aycliffe was not yet built. All were encouraged to do something to help the war effort. My sister Winnie, a fully trained nanny, was given a job in the nursery/crèche at Bishop Auckland looking after the babies and toddlers of the women, enabling them to work at the Munitions. My mother was a carer to her young grandchild, Winnie’s son Michael.
Men unfit or too old for the Services went daily on buses, specially hired, for their journey to Catterick to build an Army Camp there. Men who before the war hadn’t been employed for some time were all given jobs, one benefit of war!
Coal was needed in ever greater quantities to keep power stations and industry working full time and so mining was a “Reserved Occupation” and miners did not have to enlist, but some did. Bevan Boys as they were called – named after Ernest Bevan, the Minister responsible for recruiting them, were drafted into the mines as opposed to the Armed Forces. I do not recall any coming to Evenwood.
Our garden railings adorning the top of the brick and stone wall were cut down and any old metal pans etc. were all taken away to be melted down and used in armament manufacture. Every employable thing or person was directed to the war effort.
At home our ration books were deposited at a chosen shop, the Co op in our case. My sister with a young child coming home when her husband was enlisted into the Army deposited hers with Walter Wilsons. When any unusual items such as tins of fruit or salmon arrived at the shops their regular customers were favoured, queues would form at the shop when news leaked that something scarce and special was on offer. War time rationing was soon introduced and lasted until 1953, well after the end of the war.
- Meat (beef, mutton) 1 pound (lb.)
- Bacon/ham 4 ounces (oz)
- Butter 2 ounces
- Margarine 4 ounces
- Cheese 3 ounces
- Sugar 8 ounces
- Milk 2 ½ pints
- Jam 2 ounces
- Potatoes 4 pounds
- Loaves of bread 2 ¼
- Root vegetables 9 ounces
- 2 carrots
- Dried egg optional use of points for other items
- Tea 2 ounces
- Sweet ration 1 small bar of chocolate
Somehow from this meagre provision plus from our well stocked garden of vegetables and my dad’s prized marrows, my mother was able to feed us well and occasionally send off a baking (in a biscuit tin wrapped in brown paper and string) to my brother Denis who served in the Air Force. Occasionally eggs came from neighbours and if plentiful were preserved in a bucket of Izing glass for future use. Other neighbours with a pig occasionally gave us sausages and black pudding following a killing. To help the meagre butter ration my mother collected the cream from the top of each pint of milk, delivered in bottles at the time, and after a few days putting it into a kilner jar the whole family sitting around the living room fire in the evenings would take time to shake the jar and eventually produce the very welcome extra bit of butter. The living room had the only fire which had to heat the whole house. It heated some water in the boiler alongside the fire as well as heating an oven on the other side. Coal was not a problem being delivered regularly to those employed at Randolph colliery.
Clothes were rationed on coupons as we called it and growing from an eleven year old at the start of the war to seventeen years of age at the end, the teenage years were very difficult in that regard. A skirt was made from an old overcoat from a friend of my father, parachute silk was prized for underwear (and apparently wedding dresses) and we knitted and knitted not only for ourselves but socks, mittens and balaclava helmets for the troops. Old woollens were unravelled into new balls of wool and a particular favourite jumper of mine was one row knitted in one colour another in another colour and so on, just whatever was available. A local dress maker helped in transforming garments from one generation to the next.
A Hard Winter
In 1941, we had a winter something like November/December 2010 – perhaps worse – snow piled high from Evenwood Gate to West Auckland level with the tops of the fences. No buses were running so for me; it was no school at Bishop Auckland. No snowploughs in those days, no salting of the roads. Men with large shovels moved the snow from the road. After a few days, we young folk were able to walk to West Auckland then saw the buses were running to Bishop, so we walked back to Evenwood – we decided to give Bishop a miss! We were glad for our well burning coal fires and plentiful supplies of coal in Evenwood unlike some of the rest of the country. Coal was urgently needed to keep the war time industries and power stations operating.
There was little in the form of entertainment, no TV’s, no portable radios. We gathered round the one wireless in the living room to hear the news of the war mainly but also restrictions (news blackouts) on what we were told – nothing to assist the enemy in any way. It was music that was most welcomed. Of course “It’s That Man Again” with Tommy Handley, Works Canteen Lunch-time Concerts broadcast daily from up and down the country and Sunday lunch time Forces Favourites, sending messages from families here to loved ones in the Armed Forces, along with dedicated songs from Vera Lynn and others were a delight and eagerly looked forward to by millions of us.
The community hut – a wooden green painted structure standing alongside the road in front of what is now known as Devonshire Place (originally the Aged Miners Homes) was then commandeered by an Army Unit (the Leicester’s) and these lads stayed with us for a few years, 2 or 3 marrying Evenwood girls. The hut previously used for dances etc. was no longer available to the village community soon had girls making their way to Barnard Castle & Stainton Army Camps for dances there. Troops would come from there to Bishop Auckland by bus on Saturday afternoons to visit the “picture halls” as we called them then – “the Odeon” built 1938 now demolished and “the Kings Cinema” opposite (what was) Woolworths in what is now an arcade, “the Hippodrome” on Railway Street, now a Bingo Hall and perhaps “the Eden Theatre” now demolished. Relationships were formed then too.
We had a local cinema in Evenwood of course, now long gone – a dark red painted corrugated iron hut situated at the end of West Terrace and behind the Congregational Church (demolished 2010). I have little recollection of going there during the war years except on a fine Sunday evening in the summer months. The youth of Cockfield, Butterknowle, Hilton etc. would come along as no other village cinema opened on Sundays. I suppose the long walk from home in Alexandra Terrace to the cinema would not be considered safe in the black-out and I didn’t attend regularly.
I do recall at least one concert held there – funds raised for “comforts” – food parcels, chocolate for the troops when 2 teachers from the village school, Mr. Claude Cree and Mr. Frank Mitchell did a comedy double act. Patty MacDonald (later Bailey) sang a solo. No doubt there were other occasions and forms of entertainment there too.
Air raids were very few in this area – my only recollection of a “near at hand” one was when I was staying with my newly married sister and her young baby. They lived at the Five Lane Ends in Spennymoor. We all huddled under the stairs when we heard some “activity” and later discovered, when her husband returned home from ARP (Air Raid Precaution) duty, that the Tudhoe Co-op store took a direct hit from incendiary bombs and we went outside to witness the blaze.
Incendiary bombs were dropped in quite large quantities in and around Evenwood, particularly in and around the railway line at Ramshaw, but most didn’t explode – manufactured by our friends in Czechoslovakia (over run by the Germans of course). A large bomb dropped near the Sun Inn adjacent to the Esperley Road, formed a huge crater but caused no damage. We were extremely lucky compared to towns and cities like London and Liverpool which we later discovered when news was uncensored.
Regarded as a safe area, bus loads of evacuees from Hebburn on Tyne came to the village to be housed and educated. Depending on spare bedroom capacity, a family was allotted 1 or 2 children and as we had a single bedroom vacant while my brother was away in the RAF, we took in a young boy 8 or 9 years of age. His older sister was billeted next door with Mr. & Mrs. Barton and a younger sister with the Million family in the Centre.
We weren’t what would be considered now to be well off but these poor things were from real poverty, clothes in rags – my mother burnt some of them in the fire, much to the alarm of the young lad which she compensated by buying 2 new shirts from Marks & Spencer with the first money she received for his maintenance and together with flannel trousers made from a discarded pair of my brothers and a red blazer of mine, now too small with altered buttons for a boy. He strutted up and down our yard on the first Sunday morning feeling like a prince! He didn’t stay many years but long enough to be accepted into the family and sometime in the early 1950’s he paid us a surprise visit on a Saturday afternoon. Some evacuees remained in the village after the War so accepted were they into families.
There were tragedies of course – the war touched the village and others around with news of lads killed or wounded or maybe missing, perhaps later to be confirmed Prisoner of War in Germany. My most poignant memory is seeing my friend since coming to Evenwood at the age of 3, walking very slowly, almost leaning into the wall opposite the St. Paul’s Church at Brookside and sobbing so heavily that I imagined she had lost her job, had a row with her boss or some-one was seriously ill maybe and crossing the road to speak to her said:
“What ever is wrong?”
She slowly, and with some difficulty through her sobbing, said:
“Our Maurice has been killed”
Maurice was her only brother and now she was the only child – Myra Wilkinson, now Marshall.
Our family remained intact but a cousin of mine, Reginald Mole from Chopwell, of whom I was very fond although we lived some miles apart, was in the Royal Navy (HMS Whitaker) and was lost at sea. An only child, his mother, my father’s sister never recovered from the shock.
At school in assembly, when we sang the hymn:
“Eternal Father, Strong to Save,
Whose arm doth bind the restless wave
Oh hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea……….”
found me broken up and in tears and even today, I feel quite emotional when that hymn is sung.
Locally, the depressing thing of the war, especially in the winter months was the absence of lights – a total blackout was demanded – not a chink of light had to escape the houses or any building. Heavy curtains or blinds at all windows and if leaving the house, the light was switched off before opening the door otherwise a warden would shout, “Put out that light!” There were few cars owned then anyway but buses were blacked out too. A school friend of mine from Cockfield after visiting another school friend could not find her path home. She stood perplexed for some time and it was only when the 8.20pm “OK” bus coming down the street – no lights inside but with metal hooded lights next to the front of the bus illuminated slightly the edge of the pavement on the main road, she was then able to find her way home. Apart from returning joys of normal living, troops returning home over a period of time, places of entertainment re-opened, we were overjoyed at the return of lights! To travel in a bus any distance and see the whole countryside dotted with lights was truly enchanting.
The end of the war was celebrated with spontaneous dancing on the village green – I remember well and it took some time to understand that the war with Germany was over and life would return to normal – at least for those of us lucky enough to see our families remaining intact. Then there were still some, of course, unlucky enough to be engaged in war against the Japanese and it was only after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945, that those lads too started returning home with their stories of horrific treatment and torture at the hands of the Japanese. It is hard to imagine wars of that description ever being fought again – not in Europe any way.