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U3A Writing: The War Years As Seen By A Seven-Year-Old

...The verger was walking down the aisle and he proceeded to the pulpit, up the half-dozen steps to whisper something in the vicar’s ear. There was a lengthy pause, followed by an announcement from the Reverend Corrin. “It is with regret that I have to tell you that, from 11 0’clock today Great Britain is at war with Germany”...

Shirley Lingwood was a seven-year-old, attending a Sunday morning church service, when she heard of the outbreak of World War Two.

It was Sunday morning and as usual, I was sitting with my parents in church. The vicar was just getting into the flow of his sermon when a rustling sound disturbed the quietness. The verger was walking down the aisle and he proceeded to the pulpit, up the half-dozen steps to whisper something in the vicar’s ear. There was a lengthy pause, followed by an announcement from the Reverend Corrin. “It is with regret that I have to tell you that, from 11 0’clock today Great Britain is at war with Germany”.

Yes, it was 3rd September 1939 and I was almost seven years old.

I cannot remember what immediately followed that sombre statement. Being so young I suppose I could not anticipate what being at war would mean for us all, but I do recall very clearly some of the happenings in the years that followed…………

My father, being in a reserved occupation, did not have to join any of the armed forces, but became Air Raid Warden in charge of our local headquarters, situated in a chapel building almost opposite our house. He was in possession of a device called a Ripley Alarm, which indicated an advance warning of an approaching air-raid – maybe 15/20 minutes before the siren sounded. This device was something like an over-sized shoe box with a bell or buzzer and lots of wires inside, and it had to be plugged in to a power point. It lay on the floor beside my parents’ bed and at the first buzz Mum and Dad were up and dressed within minutes. Dad had to go the Wardens’ Post and muster his ‘troops’, whilst Mum and I would go down to our own air-raid shelter in the cellar.

Ours was a 4-storey substantial house with a large cellar divided into 4 areas – the largest with a fireplace and sink with running water, where the weekly washing was done. I remember the galvanised tub and wooden posser and the backbreaking effort which seemed to tire Mother for the rest of the day.

Then there was the wooden mangle to extract some water before the clothes were hung out – weather permitting – or draped on the clothes-horse in front of that cellar fire, creating so much steam.

Behind that area was Dad’s workshop and alongside, the smaller coal store and then the under-stairs section. It was there that Dad’s handiwork was put to the test. He had shored up the walls and ceiling with stout props and built us bunk beds along one wall. There were shelves stocked with tinned food and blankets and changes of clothes, in case we should have to spend a long time down there. In the event, despite numerous air raid warnings, the worst I remember were a few incendiaries on the Hygienic Stove Company in St. Thomas’s Road – probably intended for the I.C.I. in Leeds Road, and a bomb on Pat Martin’s mill at Lindley.

As part of our war effort Dad decided to start keeping poultry in the back garden. A special allowance of corn could be claimed, pro rata to the number of friends and neighbours who had been persuaded to ‘register’ with us for their eggs. Of course this corn was not sufficient to satisfy the hens completely and had to be supplemented with adding all our potato and vegetable peelings along with any other scraps, which were boiled up daily and mixed into a mash. This was Mum’s job and became almost as important as making the main meal for her family each day.

An outer door from the cellar led to the back garden, basically an area of grass with a path leading to a small stone building, in past times the outside toilet, but after a little effort from Dad, became a Des. Res. for our family of chickens. It was complete with a long wooden perch and nesting boxes along one wall, each containing a deep cushion of straw and a ceramic egg, which I was told, made all the difference. Our feathered friends had the freedom of the entire garden, which had been fenced off to keep out any unwelcome intruders.

To say these birds were mere egg producers would be far from the truth. Be they White Leghorn, White Whinedot or Rhode Island Red – each one quickly and firmly established itself as a family pet, recognised by name. Books on poultry keeping were avidly studied and the finding of the first tiny eggs alongside the larger pottery ones, when the pullets attained that certain age, was a real thrill. Charts were meticulously kept to record the production of Daisy, Maisie, Dolly, Mary and Betty (and numerous others whose names escape me) and any variance from what the text books said was the ‘norm’, had to be investigated. Maybe an addition to the diet was required and I recall permanganate of potash being put into their drinking water, though for the life of me, I can’t remember what that was for.

However, it was soon to be discovered that the hens would have their problems, as well as we humans. Dad had to find solutions for soft-shelled eggs, in-fighting, and the reason for the pecking of combs and wattles until the blood ran down. When one of the birds looked decidedly off colour, though showing no obvious reason for its malaise, Dad consulted our near neighbour, Mr Ellam. He’d been raised in the country and seemed to know instinctively about things rural – no need for text books. He gladly came to cast an eye over Flossie and declared she was crop bound. Sure enough, feeling through the cushion of feathers at the base of the neck was a hard packed crop about the size of a small tennis ball. “No problem” said Mr Ellam, “Let’s take her indoors and I’ll deal with it”. He sat on a stool in the cellar with the bird firmly supported between his knees, and with a deft hand, smartly plucked out a few feathers over the crop.

A razor blade made a small, neat incision through the outer skin and the wall of the crop, and before you could say ‘Winston Churchill’, his finger had cleared out the offending mass. This was followed, equally quickly, by a neat stitching job, using a darning needle and linen thread from Mum’s workbox, and in no time at all Flossie was back, running about the pen with her pals.

In due course, inevitably, our family of chickens became old hens and had to face the beckoning stew pot – but can you imagine how we all felt about the prospect? What may have been imagined as a very welcome addition to the meagre, weekly meat ration became a possibility too awful to contemplate. Dad firmly declared there was no way he could bring himself to pull the neck of any of his charges, so once more had to call on the services of Mr Ellam. As for the prospect of a roast chicken dinner or chicken pies, our so-called registered customers had the benefit of those, as Mum couldn’t bear the thought of cooking and consuming members of her extended family.

The war was far from over and Dad was committed to supplying eggs for some time to come, so had to decide how to augment the declining numbers of hens. Initially he had bought young pullets on the point of lay, but this time opted to buy day-old chicks, which needed to be kept in an incubator. This he had built himself and had experimented for some considerable time to ensure that the series of light bulbs under the dome, switched on in various combinations, could produce just the right temperature for the well-being of the new chicks.

The incubator was housed in our large attic and, as you may imagine, became the focal point for all the children in the district to visit after school. Out of a clutch of probably 2 dozen day-old chicks there were several weaklings which had to be weeded out and mercifully put out of their misery. Over ensuing years we did manage to become a little more detached and look on the poultry keeping more as a business. Dad got around to being able to kill, pluck and draw the birds when necessary, but I do not recall ever eating any of their flesh.

The whole experience could not have been a greater contrast from his job in engineering, where his company manufactured catering equipment – ovens and heated cabinets for the hotel and catering industry.

After the war it was good to see the back garden restored and to be able to buy our eggs at the local Co-op, just down our street.


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