I was born in 1937, the year of the Coronation of George VI, our Queen’s father, in Chorley (a small mill town in Lancashire).
When war was declared I was 2½ and not aware of the ‘phoney war’, Battle of Britain, or Dunkirk. By the time I was able to take any real notice, the war was well underway. The Germans had been thrown out of Africa, Crete, etc and the invasion of France was imminent, but I knew nothing of this. However, I do have some memories of the time.
I started school in 1942 at the age of five at a Church of England Primary School. The reception class was in a large room with a real fire and a large fire guard. On each side of the fireplace was a small circular metal rack on which a kettle or pan could be placed, and this could be swung in over the heat. The teacher (Miss Williams) used to boil the kettle for the teachers’ tea at break-time. There were four teachers, all ladies, three not married and they all met in the reception classroom whilst we went out to play. The room had a large rocking horse and every Christmas the same decorations came out – paper balls, paper chains, and paper panels. As we progressed through school we learned to write on slates with chalk. One side of the slate was marked off in squares for arithmetic. Eventually, by about seven or eight real ink was used, but not too often as paper was scarce.
We had large pre-war wallpaper sample books and carefully cut out pieces to mark up to make craft items such as bookmarks. We used wooden shapes dipped in watercolour paints to decorate them.
The school had an air-raid shelter in the grounds, two long grass-covered mounds that covered a large trench. We had to practise going into it from time to time. It was dark, poorly lit, and damp. There were long benches around the sides and we had to sit for about ten minutes before returning to our classes.
I remember the winters being very cold at school – the milk for the children arrived crated in glass bottles with cardboard tops. These were stacked outside. On very cold days the milk froze and expanded and pushed up the cardboard top by at least half an inch.
Many children had a school meal at lunchtime which was delivered in large boxes from a central kitchen. Pupils could only have the meal if both of their parents worked or were in the armed forces. As my mother did not work I had to go home for lunch. This was only ¼ of a mile away and lunch time was 1½ hours so it was not a problem.
My mother was a member of ‘the knitting group’ who met weekly to knit for service personnel. They knitted gloves, socks, scarves, balaclavas, etc. Until I went to school I was taken to these meetings. By the time I was eight near the end of the war, I can remember the meetings well as the ladies made a fuss of me.
My Mother listened to the Radio a lot and liked the comedy programmes of Arthur Askey and Tommy Handley. The latter had a popular show called ITMA (It’s That Man Again). A famous line from the show each week was from Mrs Mop who said ‘Can I do you now sir?’. She also enjoyed mystery and horror plays and when I was old enough I would listen to them with her. One of her favourites was Appointment with Fear narrated by Valentine Dyall who was known as ‘The Man in Black’.
My Dad’s job was engraving patterns on rollers which were used to print cloth. In later years we often saw coloured films at the cinema and my Dad would see a lovely dress and say ‘I engraved the roller for that dress’. He was very proud of his job. However, during the war, the job was closed down but because of his skill he was moved to the tool room of a shell-producing factory as an inspector of tools. He worked long hours and sometimes in the winter there was a lot of snow and roads were blocked. He would sometimes walk six miles through waist-deep snow to get to and from work.
In our garden we had a small air-raid shelter (made from concrete) which my Dad had made. We went in it in the early days of the war whenever we heard heavy planes flying over. My Dad said sometimes that they were on their way to bomb Liverpool. However, the shelter was uncomfortable, cold, and damp (in later years I had to pump it out with a stirrup foot pump). Eventually, we stopped using it and my brother Arnold (11 years my senior) and I went under the stairs and my Mum and Dad went under the solid oak dining table whenever aircraft passed over.
There was also a large public air-raid shelter on the piece of land between two rows of terraced houses. To my knowledge this was never used as a shelter but was a great place for children to play!
Alongside many of the public air-raid shelters there were large circular open-top tanks however (about 20’ in diameter). These had the letters EWS (Emergency Water Supply) painted on the sides and were to be used by the fire brigade in the event of bombing.
I don’t remember much before 1943, by which time the German air force had been much contained and so we rarely saw aircraft over our small town. In fact, I believe that only one bomb fell on Chorley very neatly taking out two houses from a row of six. No one was in the houses at the time so nobody was injured. It was felt at the time that the German plane had off-loaded its bombs on the way home.
One part of the town was on the route to two of their targets, but they were difficult to find. During the war a German radio station used to broadcast to the UK. An American had a propaganda programme known as ‘Lord Haw Haw’, which revealed the names of towns and areas that were going to be bombed. Near our town was the smaller town of Leyland which housed the Leyland Motors Truck Company, which also made tanks and military vehicles. Lord Haw Haw stated several times that the factory would be bombed, but they only succeeded once. In the same vein, also nearby was an Ordnance Factory that also produced ammunition. Most of this factory, built in the 1930’s, was underground with the taller buildings covered in turf. The natural features, trees, hedges, farmhouses etc were kept and there were cattle in the fields to help with camouflage. This was never found by the Germans.
A number of American army bases were located near the town and one often saw GI’s in the town. If a truck load of soldiers went by we would shout ‘Any gum chum?’ and sometimes they would throw packets to us. There were stories of older female cousins going to dances with US troops and returning home with nylon stockings, which were normally hard to obtain.
Sometime during the summer of 1944 I was taken on a trip to Southport, a seaside town about 20 miles away. By then restrictions on movement in the UK had been relaxed with the danger of invasion receding. During this trip the coach drove along a wide dual carriageway road – this was wide with grass verges and tree-lined. On every available space were parked tanks, armoured cars, trucks etc all waiting, we were told, to move south to support the invasion of Normandy which was then in progress.
At this time I was an avid train spotter and often went to the London-Glasgow West Coast Mainline which was about one mile from my home. One day I was surprised to see train load after train load of tanks and armoured cars heading south all presumable for the invasion.
During 1944/45 large numbers of Italian prisoners of war were billeted near the town and were used to dig foundations for new houses. They worked adjacent to the school playing field. The prisoners were very friendly and gave us badges from their uniform in return for a few sweets or a cheery word.
We never went short of food and I don’t remember experiencing any hardship. An Aunty who lived a few doors away received parcels from a relative in Canada. This always contained bags of flour and she would make large barm cakes (baps) and give one to my family. They were about 10” in diameter. We enjoyed ¼ each with egg filling. No food was ever wasted as there were bins in every street marked ‘PIGS’ and all waste food had to be donated.
One day at school we were told to take in an empty dried milk tin. This was filled with chocolate drink powder which had been sent from Canada (we were told) to every school in the country.
At Christmas-time toys were mostly second-hand such as a wooden garage, metal clockwork racing car and construction sets (eg Meccano) which had been handed down through families. I was told that, as a baby, I had a blue teddy but at the age of three it was given to the new baby of a neighbour who had no teddy because they were hard to obtain.
Most of the time we wore clogs for school and play. These were made of leather with wooden soles and iron strips like horse shoes on the bottom. You could make sparks as you skipped along over the granite kerb stones, hence the ‘sparking clogs’ in the song about Lowry the artist. We wore wellingtons on very wet days and in snow. I gave up clogs when I went to the grammar school after the war and the 11+ test. We all wore shorts for school up to the age of 12 or 13 with a knitted pullover. We had zip-up leather jackets for outerwear and a gabardine mackintosh for wet weather, although the gabardine was never really waterproof!
During the war double summertime was introduced ie the clocks were moved forward two hours from March to October to give more daylight for farmers. I can remember going for a walk one summer evening with my Mother at 10.00 pm and it seemed as light as an afternoon.
I remember one exciting event in 1944 when men came to cut down the iron railings that were around most people’s front gardens, churches, schools etc. The metal was to be used for making tanks we were told.
Finally, the end of the war in Europe came. One day at school we were told that if the war was declared over during the night we were not to come to school the next day. It was declared over at midnight when I was in bed. Lots of people were out in the street celebrating and lighting bonfires. However, my parents decided that my sleep was more important and I missed all the excitement. Many of my school friends had been out and I was very disappointed the next day.
Derek Hugh Rigby 10th May 2018