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A Shout From The Attic: Signs Of War

...Decorative iron gates were removed from front and back gardens, railings and balustrades taken down and hauled off with only molten stumps to remind us where they had been. At one fell swoop, the gorgeous artistic ironwork of Victorian Huddersfield vanished overnight...

Ronnie Bray tells of unfamiliar events in a Yorkshire mill town at the onset of World War Two.

They came for the railings some time during the war. This was done in the name of that great catchall ‘The War Effort!’ Around this time, they asked for pots and pans. Patriotic housewives piled their aluminium saucepans into heaps to make their contribution, unaware that they were of no use to the war effort. But it helped them to know that they were making their sacrifices just as the menfolk were doing in the forces.

In many ways, their sacrifice was greater because they didn’t know what was going on. Signs of the war were all around. Shop windows had anti-blast mechanisms fitted. These were a pair of diagonal iron rods connected to a round iron, felt-lined boss fixed at the centres of each side of the pane. This, it was hoped, would prevent flying splinters of glass in case of a bomb blast.

House windows were criss-crossed with brown sticky paper tape inside and outside to achieve the same benefit. How efficient brown sticky paper was in preventing splinters of glass flying in all directions when impelled by high explosives I never discovered first-hand, but there are thousand who will have learned just how useless it was.

But the principal reason for the sticky paper, and so many other war-time familiarities was not their effectiveness against sudden disaster, but in making us feel secure in our homes and in the streets: a great purpose, and one that helped millions of ordinary Britishers remain calm and confidant in spite of the hardships and privations of the war economy and the fearful dread of receiving a telegram which meant only that curtains would be drawn and those without mourning dress would wear black arm bands or sew black diamond shaped patches onto their coat sleeves..

Men with wagons and flame-cutting equipment came to our streets. They removed every railing around Greenhead Park. The park gates were no longer locked at dusk. Instead they lay waiting their turn to be melted down into something less satisfying but more useful in armed conflict.

No longer would children, too busy at play in some imaginary scenario deep in the bushes beyond the sight of the stern park ranger, realise the lateness of the hour and rush to the nearest gate only to find it locked shut for the night.

Decorative iron gates were removed from front and back gardens, railings and balustrades taken down and hauled off with only molten stumps to remind us where they had been. At one fell swoop, the gorgeous artistic ironwork of Victorian Huddersfield vanished overnight. Some had the stumps covered with a levee of mortar to remove the unsightliness. Railings and gates were left where their removable might prove dangerous, such as outside cellar steps. The initial impact was ghastly. The result can still be seen over fifty years later. Some things never recover.

Six-inch cast iron pipes were laid in Trinity Street’s gutters from the reservoir between the top of Trinity Street and Mountjoy Road in case of assault by enemy incendiary devices. Everyone carried a gas mask in a variety of cases. The standard issue was a stout brown cardboard box that the unimaginative carried by means of a string sling. The more artistic either knitted or crocheted covers for these, or rehoused them in tins of divers shapes decorated according to the instinct and abilities of the owner.

The most prized gas masks were not the straight-faced black issue with the celluloid window that quickly steamed up when fitted at regular ‘gas mask drills’ held at school, but the Mickey Mouse type that had round goggle eyes and were much prettier all round. How one was favoured with one of these sought after contraptions I never did find out. The most amazing gas mask was the one provided for babies and young infants. They were the most grotesque machines imaginable. The child was placed inside and strapped in. Air was supplied through a pump that the parent operated by hand.

Sometime after the war Willie Hudson, Frankie Knight and I attempted to make a submarine using the baby respirator gas mask belonging to Willie’s younger and tormented brother as the submariner’s capsule and air supply. We frightened a few ducks on the big pond in Greenhead Park, got unexpectedly cold, shrank our vests, but made no advances in the field of submarine technology. The Huddersfield one-man-gas-proof-submarine was laid carelessly aside as we considered our next assault on the world.

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To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

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