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U3A Writing: 1939-1945

“To my shame I was taken on September 1st to a railway station in the centre of Birmingham with a label round my neck, my gas mask in its cardboard box and a bag full of sandwiches, sweets, fruit and books. A tearful mother waved me away.’’

John Ricketts became an evacuee at the start of World War Two.

In 1939 my father sold his two greengrocers shops and his small haulage contracting business in the middle of Birmingham and the family moved out to West Heath, ten miles away, just outside the Birmingham boundary.

My parents had visited Spain and had seen the results of the bombing and heard frightening stories from some of those who had experienced it. They expected similar destruction when the war came, as they were certain it would. One of the first things they did when they moved was dig an Anderson shelter in the garden. Most of the work was done by my father, who was 48, and my brother, then 23. I also tried to help.

Because of the fear of the war I was due to go to boarding school in the deepest country in the third week of September but the war came too soon To my shame I was taken on September 1st to a railway station in the centre of Birmingham with a label round my neck, my gas mask in its cardboard box and a bag full of sandwiches, sweets, fruit and books. A tearful mother waved me away.

After several hours on the train we found ourselves a few short miles away in a village called Tutbury in Staffordshire. We were all lined up on the platform and then marched to the village hall where we were given a drink and sandwiches. After we had eaten we were sorted out into age groups and the villagers were ushered in. A rush was made for the pretty little girls and soon only boys were left.

Some of the bigger boys were 14 and were quite hefty. They were the next to go. You could see their takers thinking that they would be useful on the farm or in their workshops. In the end there were three of us left and no-one to take us. The organisers got out their lists and went down them to see who had missed out.

Eventually we were marched out of the hall, escorted by a man and a woman, taken through the village and about half a mile along a road to a large farmhouse. After some argument on the doorstep we were taken inside. We were told that we had missed supper and taken up to a room at the top of the house where there was a single bed which the three of us were to share. Luckily there were sandwiches in the carrier bag so we didn’t starve.
I have very little recollection of my fortnight in Tutbury, though I know that the weather was glorious. My one memory is of being caught by the local vicar, crawling through a hole in his hedge with a shirtful of unripe apples. We shared the local school with the local children, going in for lessons in the morning one week and the afternoons the next. I remember that there was a Nestlé’s factory in the village which put its waste into the stream, turning the water white and warm. It was the favourite fishing place for the locals.

I can’t remember any fights with the local children because they were in school when we were out and vice versa. After a couple of weeks my parents came to collect me to take me to boarding school. The only thing I took away with me from Tutbury was a case of scabies caught from one of the boys I shared a bed with.

My mother and father had been married on 1st August 1914 so had lived as a poverty stricken couple all through the First World War. ( My father had T.B. of the skin and could not join up in the first war). They had known the shortages and so were prepared in September 1939. In the small bedroom, my sisters’ room was a large brown tin trunk which was kept locked. As I was away at school most of the time it was years before I saw it open. My mother had some fruit and was making it into jam. I saw her go upstairs and I followed her. She was kneeling in front of the trunk and opening the lid. It was half full of blue sugar bags which she must have had since the war started. By the time I saw it there was only sugar left but she probably had had many other things when the war had started.

In those days of shortage people used to swap things. We drank very little tea and always had a surplus to swap for other things. My dad grew things in his garden and his greenhouse which he swapped with Joe Green, our next door neighbour who kept chickens. Their eggs were a valuable commodity as the ration was only one a week each.

My dad was directed to work in the Austin Motor company where he helped to build tanks. As there was no resident bookmaker in the newly opened south works, he started a book. He soon became very well known with lots of friends. One kept pigs and each Christmas we managed to get half a suckling pig for the festive lunch. Nothing was wasted and all food waste was collected and made into pig swill even potato peelings and cabbage stems. About once a fortnight one of dad’s pals bought us a rabbit or something better.
I can remember being starving hungry at school, even digging up and eating pig nuts but I can never remember being hungry at home. My mother must have been a good manager.


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