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Two Rooms And A View: 31 - Return To Reed Street

...The school leaving age had been raised to 15 years of age and evacuees returned home to bomb-damaged houses, overcrowded schools and too few teachers. Food, coal and clothing were in short supply, power cuts and strikes were frequent and rationing got worse, not better...

Robert Owen tells of austere days after the conclusion of World War Two. For earlier chapters of Robert's vivid autobiography please click on Two Rooms And A view in the menu on this page.

Britain in 1946 was a country trying to adjust to peacetime conditions. The social and economic cost of victory had been very high. Now the war was over, many people expected living conditions to improve immediately. This did not happen. Industry attempted to change from war to peacetime production and thousands of demobbed ex-servicemen returned to seek nonexistent jobs. The return of ex-prisoners of war also caused as many problems as happy reunions. Many had been away for five years and some were physically or mentally disabled. Others returned to children they did not know and had great difficulty with adjusting to peacetime married life. Divorce proceedings took five years, yet numbers quadrupled from 1945 to 1947.

The school leaving age had been raised to 15 years of age and evacuees returned home to bomb-damaged houses, overcrowded schools and too few teachers. Food, coal and clothing were in short supply, power cuts and strikes were frequent and rationing got worse, not better. The new Labour government embarked on a wide programme of nationalisation and the town's M.P., Mr Chuter Ede, was appointed Home Secretary. With Alderman Barbour as Mayor, and John Reid as Borough Engineer, the local authority started rebuilding the bomb-damaged town.

About 300,000 servicemen and women unfortunately did not return from the war. News that saddened my mother on our return to South Shields was that two of my cousins on my father's side had been killed in the conflict. Chief Engineer Albert Dunn, who lived at Horden was the son of my father's sister Jane. He was lost at sea on 24th January, 1942, while serving on S S Tai Sang in the Hong Kong merchant navy. Also Lieutenant William Owen, the son of my father's brother William was killed at Cassino in Italy on 22nd May 1944 while serving with the 51st Royal Tank Regiment.

In contrast, some good news reached the family. Ken Christie, the husband of my cousin Jane, who was the daughter of my Uncle Jack in London, was one of the few who returned home safely after a horrendous three-and-a-half years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. After recuperation and years later, Ken went on to be Head Postmaster at St Austell in Cornwall. Also, my second cousins, James and Hunter Owen, were happy to be home again after four years as evacuees in Canada.

At a family level, my father was still sending his mandatory weekly maintenance money of 1.10.0 per week when the average weekly wage had risen to over 6. Addie had moved to Birmingham and Jenny still lived in Cranford Street with her husband Leslie and three-year-old son. This then, was the environment to which my mother and I returned in August 1946. Our two rooms and a view took a lot of getting used to after the space of our Finchale Terrace abode at Fence Houses.

Our accommodation was bad but there were many worse than ourselves. Indeed, the immediate post-war housing situation in the town was acute. The Government's solution was to manufacture temporary houses that arrived in a kind of kit, with units ready to assemble on site. These became known as pre-fabs and as soon as a bomb-site was cleared, the prefabs were erected. In fact it was possible to identify where bombs had dropped and the extent of the damage, by the number of the pre-fabs on a site. Some people said they looked like large rabbit hutches.

The interior of the one I visited with my mother was amazing, with all modern conveniences and plenty of space. We would have exchanged it willingly for our Reed Street flat any time. The pre-fabs were said to have a maximum life of ten years, but I believe some were still there after 25 years in Shields and some of the residents didn't want to move!

During the post-war years, in addition to a housing shortage, there was also a shortage of labour. This in turn gave birth to mass immigration. The first boat with 500 men from Jamaica arrived in 1948. Five years later, approximately the same number were arriving every month. Not many came to South Shields. The town still had its population from overseas who arrived before 1930. Numbers were small and most lived in the High Shields/Laygate area of the town. Years earlier, my mother warned me about keeping away from any dark-skinned men. She need not have bothered because we rarely saw any.

Two items had priority after we returned to Shields. First, I had to find a school and second, my mother wanted another job. All schools were extremely crowded after the war and as described elsewhere, it was only at the second attempt that I managed to get into Stanhope Road
Secondary. My mother had even greater difficulty in finding a suitable job. There were plenty of jobs available but the problem was, she wanted to be at home when I went to and returned from school. The result was that she took a part-time job and I was often told, "Go to Jenny's after school."

One of the first members of the family to visit us after our return to Reed Street, was Edith Falconer, my cousin and daughter of my father's sister Caroline. Edith, her husband, and two small boys, David and Keith, lived in Barehirst Street near St Mary's Church. Knowing our limited income, Edith asked my mother if she would like to babysit on a Friday night, and be paid an agreed amount. She jumped at the chance and it became a regular night out. After the boys had gone to bed, I was sent to the local fish shop and we shared a fish and chip supper.

These Friday nights at the Falconers offered me one of the very few opportunities to mix with other children within the family, even if they were much younger than me, and second cousins. Due to being born relatively late in my parents' life, and with both my parents being the second youngest in their respective families, I had no cousins of a similar age. Like Edith, they were about twenty years older than me and I was nearer the age of their children.

One of the first things I wanted to know when we returned to Shields in 1946 was the location of the town's football ground. (I was already aware of the whereabouts of Wood Terrace, the town's cricket ground.) This was discovered in a roundabout sort of way.

It happened fairly late one evening when I was waiting with my mother for a trolley bus at Westoe. We may have been to the Regent Cinema and I remember seeing crowds of men, mostly clad in raincoats, caps or trilbys and not looking very happy, coming from the direction of the Ingham Infirmary.

"Where are they all coming from?" I enquired of my mother. "The Dogs!" was her two-word reply. This meant nothing to me and only stimulated further questions. I eventually discovered that they were coming from the Greyhound Stadium at Horsley Hill. "By the look of them, they have lost all their money," was my mother's woeful comment.

I was aware that South Shields football team played at Horsley Hill, but I had never been to the ground. I soon put that right and was vastly disappointed. It was obviously a greyhound stadium first and a football ground second. Also, the pitch was too small for F.A. Cup ties, and home games had to be played elsewhere. In a preliminary round in 1947 they played a team from a minor league at the school's Cleadon Recreation Ground and won 13-1. Chris Marron scored ten goals, which I believe is still a competition record.


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