This oral history was kindly given to WarGen by Kitty Grove Stephenson who grew up in rural Yorkshire. It details her life during the Second World War and was extracted from a larger article.
War must have been in people’s minds from 1938 as I recall that, as a gesture of solidarity to our neighbours across the channel who were likely to be facing adversity, we learnt to sing “Allons enfants de la patrie” – it must have been in that year, as I know where I was sitting as we learnt it. We were told that the translation was “Ye sons of France awake to glory”, which would scan to the tune, but such was my understanding of a foreign language that I though that each syllable could be transposed to the other language.
I think air raid shelters must have been largely in place before war started too. At school they were built beyond the play-yards, on rising ground. They were long trenches lined and roofed with timber and were sufficient to hold the whole school, including the evacuees. They were covered over with soil on which the pupils grew vegetables – this made a change from being marched up to the headmaster’s house in Cemetery Lane to do his garden! At home, there was some unused land alongside our garden where a large hole was dug and into it was lowered a wooden “room”, completely prefabricated in the joinery shop of The Digger Works, a part of the Thackray business. There were steps down into it and some old car seats brought in and it would seat about 6 people (therefore not the neighbours who might have expected to have a share in the land it occupied!). Ventilation was through V shaped joists. Like the one at school, it was covered with earth onto which we sowed marigold seeds.
Gas masks were issued to all and tested out with mustard gas in a caravan. Other than that, life went on as normal. In fact we never needed the gas masks, and our forays into the shelters were few. Yes, the sirens went off now and again but we never heard a bomb. There was one occasion when some incendiary bombs were dropped but caused no damage whatever – in fact Monty brought home an intact one, which sat on the mantelpiece for years! And we once heard of a farm labourer who had a gun in his hand, for shooting rabbits, when he recognised an enemy aircraft quite low overhead, so, naturally, he fired at it, though with no result. Another time, a German aircraft did indeed come down and the pilot ended up in Malton hospital, where, according to Aunt Mary, who was nursing there at the time, he was pleasantly surprised by the hospitality he received, including cigarettes and the beverage that went under the name of coffee; and the Matron who proudly showed him the bullet that was removed from him and which she was keeping as a souvenir. One day a Messerschmitt flew low over the school yard, to the mixed thrill and fear of those who saw it, and on the day of my Great-Grandfather’s funeral we saw a Junkers flying very high.
I remember the Sunday war broke out. Monty (my father) had taken some of us children as he went on a business visit to a sawmill in Norton. When we got back, Nora (my mother) was in the scullery preparing dinner and she said, “It’s war”. In addition to the shelter, other measure had to be put in place immediately, mainly the blackout. We had some wooden frames made to fit a number of windows, those for the kitchen and scullery were covered with a tarry felt, and were lifted into place on the outsides at dusk each day; one for the bathroom was covered in heavy black paper and was put up inside, again at dusk. For the rest of the house, heavy curtains sufficed. Some of the windows were crisscrossed with sticky paper, so that in the event of their shattering, they would not scatter so much. And any fireplaces not in use, such as the bedrooms, were stuffed with something so that, if there should be a gas attack, it would not get down the chimneys.
The blackout was something we got completely accustomed to. No street lights, of course, so we always carried a torch. The few motor vehicles on the road had their headlights hooded, so that they only shone downwards, and very minimally too. The sky, though, was so much more visible than we know it in urban areas now, and we knew how to recognise all the major stars and constellations. Shooting stars were something we were completely familiar with and I even have a vague recollection that, one Sunday evening when we were coming back from the farm, we actually witnessed the aurora borealis.
And so, war started and the personnel around the village was all changed. Men were conscripted into the forces, though not Monty, whose job as a transport manager was declared a reserved occupation – after all, things had to be kept moving, especially food and farm goods. Whilst a new Leyland lorry was requisitioned, the firm was left with the Mammoth, its bigger brother the Mammoth Major, an old ERF and a small Commer. The core drivers stayed, but others came and went frequently. Our lodger, Captain Reynolds (whose presence had been necessary to help pay the mortgage), who was Comptroller of the Household to Lord Milton (heir to Earl Fitzwilliam who owned the whole of Malton) at The Croft, quickly went back to the army – we learnt much later that he falsified his age in order to be accepted into the Parachute Regiment, and lost his life at Arnhem.
[A small story about Captain Reynolds He had a little sports car which His Lordship sometimes liked to borrow and one day he was cleaning the car when he found a lady’s gold watch. He took this to His Lordship whose comment was “Get rid of it!” It was given to my mother, who subsequently gave it me and it served me for many years. It just might have been the property of Kathleen Kennedy (JFK’s sister) who later died in a plane crash alongside His Lordship. It was also common knowledge that when His Lordship was away, Her Ladyship was entertaining Sir Malcolm Sargent!]
In place of these absent men, the village was filled with evacuees. Our first was Marie Kane, who came with the Middlesbrough Convent. She was 11 years old and had to walk to the Grammar School every morning, as there was no bus to get her there for the 8 am start – the arrangement at this time was that the Convent would use the school in the mornings, and the local children in the afternoons. This amount of exercise proved too much for Marie in the winter and the billeting officer decided to move her into the town. I missed her, she was a delightful girl and we shared a bed, now that my two brothers had been moved into the bedroom vacated by Captain Reynolds. She began to teach me a few words of French and despite the four years between us, we were great friends. After she was moved, she and a friend came to see us most Saturday mornings – perhaps the fact that Friday was Nora’s baking day, and there would be apple pies, had something to do with it!
After Marie, the powers that be decided to billet army officers on us. The Royal Army Medical Corps had descended on the village (this included Sergeant John Ross who was to marry Aunt Mary in December 1940) and we were allocated Major (Dr) Forsyth. This involved a change of bedrooms again. My brothers got the smallest bedroom back and I had to make do with a canvas bed, topped by a straw mattress, in my parents’ room, for quite a number of years. Mrs Forsyth sometimes came to stay too, though he was not with us for very long before being replaced by Major (Dr) Dick Everett, who, again, was frequently visited by his wife from Mirfield, in the West Riding. They became lasting friends of the family. One lovely memory of Major Everett was my astonishment at coming downstairs on Easter morning and finding three large boxes on the table, each declaring itself to be “Severn Chocolate Easter Egg”. I rushed upstairs excitedly and said there were 21 chocolate eggs downstairs! We had never had chocolate Easter eggs before! They were a gift from “My Major”, whom I loved dearly even before this. At Christmas he gave me the huge “Monster Book for Girls”, which he inscribed “To little Kitty with love from your Major”. He was eventually posted to Iceland and I remember my tears as he came to my bedside to kiss me Goodbye.
After these two doctors, it was back to evacuees. Very briefly we had an infants’ teacher called Flora MacDonald and then a complete school from Sunderland had been incorporated into the village school, and unlike the locals, it included children right up to age 14 (the school leaving age). Their teachers came with them, and our new lodgers were both teachers, Mr & Mrs Roseberry. Again, it worked very well. They had two children who had to be billeted elsewhere in the village, but who nevertheless spent much time at our house. These were Eric, who was Brian’s age, and Pat, my age. The four of us spent many happy hours together.
Wartime rationing changed over the span of years, on the whole becoming more and more stringent as the years progressed, and not finally lifted until 1954, nine whole years after war ended. Sugar was an early casualty. Monty was allowed to continue to have sugar in tea, but the rest of us had to give it up. The tea ration seemed to be sufficient. But we had “ways and means”. Although my Clark grandparents left the farm in April 1942, there were other family members and the many farming clients that Monty was involved with. So dairy products were usually available, though fresh cream from village farms – a prohibited retail item – was seldom possible. Gone were the days when the wonderful Mrs. Beal would sell us a large mugful for threepence, and even the much less generous supply for sixpence from an alternative farm. Nora’s friend Joan, at Aldbrough had married a grocer, and sometimes our visits to them resulted in a boxful of rationed goods – tea, etc – coming home with us.
Ham and bacon were no problem, as Monty got a licence to own a pig, which was kept for us on a friend’s farm, and only came our way after slaughter. That brought Nora back to her farming days, when pig-killing time was very hard work for the women. Apart from the curing of the flitches and hams, all the rest of the animal was dealt with in the house – dealing with the offal, making sausages, rendering the fat into lard; and ending up with far more perishable food than could be consumed by the family and had to be parcelled out quickly.
Sweets were a real deprivation to most children, but I soon decided that I didn’t even want my allotted 2 ounces a week, and could gain favour by such small gifts as a 4 ounce box of chocolates. Those who were desperate would resort to cooking chocolate, and I recall one time when a quantity of that came into the house, and Bobby suggested, “Let me hide it somewhere where I won’t know!” Cough pastilles or lozenges were classed as medicines and not rationed, but they were in very short supply. When it was known that a chemist had a new supply of “Victory Vs” we would all rush down and buy the permitted one ounce. These liquorice flavoured items were quite acceptable in such stringent times.
Petrol was in very short supply and private motoring was simply not allowed. Many people laid up their cars for the duration – put them in a garage with the wheels jacked up off the floor. My father had one petrol-driven lorry (plus the diesels, of course), therefore a pump, but many were the times when we were driven to the farm, or even once on holiday to Scarborough, in a lorry, children hidden under a tarpaulin. Coal, too, was rationed and people were exhorted to save on hot water, to the point of bathing only once a week, and then sharing. Since most homes were heated by coal in those days (central heating only became standard decades later), the restrictions were very real. The change to smokeless fuels only happened after an extremely severe smog in London in 1952 when there were many deaths, and a dramatic loss of cattle at the Smithfield Show. Initially, the switch was to smokeless solid fuel, but gas quickly became more popular thereafter.
It was actually after the end of the war that even bread and cakes were rationed – trans-Atlantic ships could indeed bring in the grain, but the country was bankrupt and could not pay for it. Whilst the liberated nations of Europe were quickly revived by American Marshall Aid, poor “victorious” Britain struggled for half a century and more to repay its debt to the US.
Imported fruit such as oranges and especially bananas, were a rarity even in 1950. Such fruit as fresh peaches or apricots were not even considered and in fact were only known to us in the tinned variety which might be produced as an occasional treat for Sunday tea. Oranges, at least the more expensive Jaffa ones, used to come before the war wrapped individually in tissue paper – this was always kept and used as lavatory paper! And I had never heard of melons, avocados or fresh pineapple.
The rationing of clothing meant that nothing was wasted – lots of handing down as well as the “make do and mend” campaign. It was quite a problem for larger children, whose requirements were for adult-sized clothes but they only had a child-sized ration of coupons. One year, I must have been about 13, we were all measured at school – any child whose height was above a certain level was awarded 10 extra points. Then 10 more if the weight was over, and a further 10 if the shoe size was over these levels. I came out of that with all 30 points, even though I was not really overweight. My mother’s home help (known then as a charwoman), Mrs Wright, had children who were very glad of our hand me-downs, and she paid for them in coupons, which boosted the family supply.
So, what else of the war years? Aunty Emmy and Uncle Bert used to come to stay fairly frequently for respite from the horrors of the Hull bombing. For their visits, I had to give up my bedroom and go across to my grandparents house to sleep. Aunty and Uncle were lovely people, and very generous – well-heeled too. Uncle was a shipping agent and he and his partner opened a branch office in Norton, to be away from the bombing, so it fitted in well for them.
Monty had taken over full ownership of the transport business from his father in 1940 and although he had to do a lot of filling in, he was around most of the time. He had more money too, and if it had not been for wartime restrictions, things would have become much different quite quickly.
We had two holidays in Scarborough – usually getting there on the back of a lorry, hidden under tarpaulins! The first was on the South Cliff where we stayed with a Mrs Fisher and her daughter, and we had a first floor sitting room and two bedrooms. We were the only guests and we found it a very congenial place. Though there was very little to do – the big swimming pool down in the bay was closed, and in fact used by servicemen – I once saw a man dive from the topmost board – it was lowered before it was reopened to the public as it was considered dangerous. The water under it was 15 feet deep, the pool itself being 110 yards long. Later on, I used to love this pool, where one could really swim undisturbed – with its unheated sea-water it was not popular and eventually the council was forced to close it again as been too much of a drain on finances and has subsequently been filled in.
The second Scarborough holiday was, by request of us children, on the North Side, where our dream world was Peasholme Park, with its lake and canoes, its island and pagoda, and the stream that came right down the vale. Then there was also Northstead Manor Gardens with its water-chute and pedalos and even its wonderful Open Air Theatre. Of course, during the war-time there were no evening performances, but I think we saw something there at that time. The stage is on an island and its waterfront often used by floating an illuminated barge across and perhaps staging a ballet on it. I remember Gounod’s Faust there, also The Student Prince and Robin Hood. The way the ground rises opposite the island make it a natural amphitheatre.
Most of our journeys during the wartime were by lorry, whether to one of the farms, or even on a shopping expedition to Leeds. I recall one time when we were on our way to the farm and, going up a steep hill, I suddenly noticed fire in the floorboards of the cab. I screamed my head off! Monty was able to quench the fire by throwing quantities of roadside grit into the engine. Somehow a message was got to my Grandfather (no telephone there, of course) and he came and took us the rest of the way, whilst Monty had the vehicle towed back to the garage, where he was able to cleanse it of the grit with the help of compressed air.
After my grandparents left the farm in 1942, I spent several holidays on other family farms – at Foxholes with Aunty Alice, Uncle Fred and cousin Barbara; or at Far Falls Farm, Wetwang, with Aunty Evie, and cousins Lucie and Alec. This latter was the more exciting, as Lucie was a real tomboy and much involved in the farm life, with its horses especially. As it was a much more compact farm than Squirrel Hall, it was easy for us to get to the harvest fields and to be involved, even to ride on the horses, to play amongst the stooks and really to enjoy all that was going on.
The October half-term holiday was always called Potato-picking week. Even in primary school, many of the children would go out picking, for pocket money – perhaps two shillings a day, which was real money to a child. When we got into secondary school, this holiday was extended to two weeks, as the child-labour was vital, with all the men away at the war. Transport was provided – lorries, of course.
There were soldiers in the village most of the time up to D Day, the last lot being the Royal Army Service Corps. It was from this regiment that we got to know Freddy Young and Bob Nixon, whose billet was at the back of the village shop. Both were staff sergeants in charge of provisions. They came over to our house a great deal, almost daily at coffee time (not that we knew coffee then, at best it was Camp Coffee, but more likely to be just tea), and Nora’s baking day most certainly brought an extended visit. Freddy in particular was tall, dark and handsome, and this teenager took a shine to him. He was from London, with a strong Cockney accent – the bit we remembered most was his constant “Oh dear, oh Lor!”, whereas he remembered Monty’s “By gum!” His wife Nona came to stay a few times and we remained in contact up to his death.
The Tank Corps were around too in the year before D-Day, seemingly with blanket permission to tear up any of the countryside, regardless of crops, hedges, livestock. The Moors were left in a badly scarred condition and the local farmers simply had to accept the havoc. It seemed the last straw after all the demands to maximise food production – meadows were ploughed up and even the near edges of the Moors were cultivated; the “Men from the Ministry” were much feared as they had power to turn a farmer off his land if they deemed that production was falling below what was demanded. And then this devastation. Sometimes, a string of tanks would stop in the village for their break and we children would swarm over them – I even went inside one myself.
The cinema was our principal entertainment. There were two picture houses – the Palace in Malton, which was originally the Corn Exchange, with a classical frontage, and the Majestic, just over the railway crossing in Norton. The latter was reputed to be a flea-pit, though in fact it was no more than shabby when I knew it, and not infected. It lacked comfort and is no longer there. The Palace was a good deal better and was favoured by courting couples on account of its double seats near the back. The two cinemas may well have been in joint ownership or management, as their programmes never conflicted. Programmes changed twice a week, so there was always a choice of 4 films a week, usually quite new releases, though probably about 6 weeks after they had appeared in London. British films were in the ascendant and I saw almost every new one that came out. The standard programme was a Pathé newsreel, about 15 minutes of a big band, next week’s trailers, and the feature film, which was normally about 90 minutes long. The whole programme just over 2 hours, and there were 2 shows each evening, starting at 6 pm. Prices were the same in each cinema – 7d., 10d., 1s.3d, and upstairs 1s.9d. When I went alone or with a school friend, I was told I must go in the 10d., not the cheapest. If I was with Nora, it would be upstairs.
Only the Palace had Saturday matinees, for children, when the prices were 3d., or 7d. upstairs. You had to be over 12 to go upstairs unless you were accompanied by someone of this age. Roy Rodgers was the staple fare.
There were no sweets to buy but the evenings saw these places wreathed in cigarette smoke. Even Nora used to smoke there, but seldom elsewhere. Ice cream was very scarce in the wartime, on account mostly of the sugar. Kitchings, confectioners, in the Market Place, made quite nice ice cream but it was rarely available. Somehow, though, another supplier managed. He was Maggiotti (pronounced, not in proper Italian, but as Maggy-Otty). He was, indeed, Italian, but had lived in Malton quite a long time and was a real fixture. He had premises in the Co-op yard and plied his trade on a bicycle with his tubs in a trailer behind. His notions of hygiene were, shall we say Mediterranean? He had just one cloth for wiping his scoops, his nose, his bicycle, or whatever. It was only after the war that inspectors caught up with his premises and got him cleaned up.
Monty made frequent trips to Leeds on business –legitimate or otherwise! – and sometimes Nora would go with him, and I, too, went very occasionally. About the only thing I remember of these early visits is the novelty of the escalator in Lewis’s store. But I also remember being in York with Nora when we went for a cup of tea in Leak and Thorp’s café – the waitress warned us before we ordered, that the cakes were fourpence each! Definitely only one each!
It was around Easter 1945 that Monty was asked for a quotation to move a railway carriage, used as a caravan, from a farm site at Reighton Gap. He went to look at it and quoted £50. The owner said he’d sell it for that, so Monty bought it there and then. From then on, we spent a great many weekends and summer holidays there. It had to be moved from the farm, but only onto a caravan site just along the road, maybe 150 yards from the cliff top. In fact we were there when VE was celebrated, and we missed the great celebrations in Old Malton, including my grandfather’s monumental bonfire.
There were the remnants of anti-invasion preparations – large concrete blocks all along the beach and the foot of the cliff as well as a “pill-box” which inevitably smelt unsavoury. A gravel-extraction firm had right to excavate on the beach and were constantly there with a big “navvy” and a stream of dumpers to take the spoil half way up the cliff to a washing plant. I haven’t been there for many years, but I believe it is much changed – no concrete blocks, no gravel extractions, and indeed no ramshackle “homes”, just a regimented estate of mobile caravans. It is now called Reighton Sands.
Nylon stockings then were so precious that there were numerous shops which would mend them – a small machine would pick up the thread and re-knit it up to the top. It was only when the stretch nylon became more usual that “ladders” stopped happening. Silk stockings had been the ultimate luxury but so very fragile that a single wearing could see the end of them.
Rationing of food and clothes lasted long after WW2, in fact food right up to 1954. Things got quite a lot worse after the end of the war, with the country bankrupt and unable to afford even the amount of wheat that had been coming in earlier. So even bread and flour were rationed then. I don’t remember much about the actual quantities, which did vary from time to time, but I know that, at its worst, meat was at 10d. worth per person per week. Sausages were outside the ration, containing little meat, but given out at the whim of the butcher. Bacon was separate but also rationed, down to 1 oz per week at its worst. Sweets, at worst, were 2 ounces a week, sugar, I think, got down to 4 ounces a week, eggs – one per person, butter 2 ozs, margarine 4 ozs, cooking fat (a very hard vegetable fat – lard was unobtainable) 4 ozs.. There were flexible “points” which could be spent on tinned or dried goods, coffee, biscuits, etc. Tea was rationed, but I can’t remember how much, may have been 4 ozs (coffee was little used until after the war). Milk was one-third of a pint per person per day, more for children, who also had the school milk which was one-third of a pint daily. Cream was unobtainable. Soap was rationed. Oranges came occasionally but were restricted to supply to young children who, however, were eligible for the highly concentrated orange juice which was generally thought to be awful. I recall my regular visits to a Ministry of Food office in Norton to get this whilst Joan was eligible. Bananas were hardly ever seen. Anyone getting married and setting up home, or having an addition to their family, was given “dockets” with which they could buy a minimal quantity of furniture or household linen.
When I went to France in 1949 I was astonished to find that there was no rationing whatever – the shops were full of gorgeous clothes (Dior’s New Look predominating) and gourmets like the Bouzoms were able to eat anything. They were so surprised that I couldn’t get past my grasping at bananas, which I had barely seen for 10 years. They had meat galore, fresh cream, absolutely anything. So much for the difference between victor and vanquished! After the war, the Clean Up Britain brigade sprayed, nationally, all the grass verges with weedkiller.
Some prices which were held throughout the war and for some years thereafter. For the benefit of readers who don’t remember old money – s. = a shilling; d. = a penny (dinarii). There were 12d. to one s.; 20s. to £1. Conversion to decimal money – 1s. = 5p.; 1p. = 2.4 d. Large loaf of white bread (unsliced and even unwrapped in wartime due to paper shortage) 4d. A pint of whole milk 4d. 2 pints of separated (skimmed) milk 1d. A pint of beer, in the region of 1s. Bus fare (adult) Old Malton to Malton (1 mile) 2d. Bus fare, return Malton to York (18 miles) 2s. Train fare day return York to Leeds 3s. 3d. Train fare return York to London £1. 12s. 6d. Two weeks package holiday by air to the Costa Brava could be as little as £27 full board; Majorca £30 (ferry from Barcelona as there was no airport on the island). Amount of money allowed to be taken out of the country, £25 per year, raised to £50 after a few years – had to be marked in the passport, including a calculated sum for hotel costs. Postage on a letter 2 ½ d., on a postcard 1d. (these had been raised during the war to discourage unnecessary posting). Registered post 6d. extra. An “airgraph” to a serviceman abroad 3d. Basic cost of a telephone call from a phone booth 2d. for 3 minutes. Fried fish, depending on size, might be 6d., portion of chips 1d. Ice cream, when you could find it, a tiny one from Maggiotti 1d., more usually 3d. or even 6d. for a sandwich (cones for children, sandwiches for adults!). Chocolate – there were some tiny Nestlé bars for 1d.; a 4ozs bar generally 6d. Our Saturday penny would go on sheer junk – a bag of kali (a sort of sherbet, a mixture of sugar, a fizzing agent and a bright colouring matter) complete with a hollow piece of liquorice to suck it through (if there were no liquorice pieces, we ate it from a wet finger) ; or 4 coconut mushrooms; or 4 liquorice boot laces; or a single chocolate marshmallow. A quarter of a pound of Black magic £1s. 6d. Oranges, when available after the war, a very large Jaffa could be 4d. Tea, depending on brand, around 9d. per 4ozs. Sugar 4d. per lb. Large bottle of lemonade 4d, inc. 1d. returnable on the bottle. Midget pork pie 1d., standard 3d. Woolworth’s advertised themselves as “the 3d. and 6d. store”. To put things into context, when I started work as a junior typist in 1949, my wages were £2.15s. per week; when I finished work in 1953 I was earning £5 per week. Women were paid much less than men, though I knew from doing the wages at the Press Office that female journalists had parity and were earning £11 per week in 1953.
KITTY’S WAR EFFORT
In 1942, at the age of 10 years, I decided to do a war effort of my own. I lived in a Yorkshire village, not much touched by the war at that point, but a cousin of my mother’s was a Prisoner of War captured at St Nazaire. What I felt I could do was to have a jumble sale – with clothes rationing this was not a strange idea. I collected whatever I could, which included a collection of Goss china from a great-aunt, which I sold for threepence or sixpence a piece (now collectors’ items!). I had a doll given which someone dressed in a nurse’s uniform and I asked the local Red Cross organiser to name it. She gave it her own name, which was guessed by 4 people, so I had to draw lots in the end. On a Saturday morning, I borrowed a trestle table and put it up on the footpath outside our house, and got a younger friend and my younger brother to help me. We made just £4, which I proudly sent to the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund, and it paid for 16 parcels for our prisoners held in Germany.
I repeated the exercise the following 3 years, though by 1945 our prisoners were all back home, so the money went to some other Red Cross Fund. I think I raised about £27 in the 4 years.
During this time, I had also been enrolled to sell “flags” in the town, and Poppies around the village. By 1947 I was bolder as asked permission to sell poppies at “the Camp” – this was a POW camp on the outskirts of the village (now Eden Camp Museum), where the Germans were by this time preparing for repatriation and were not held as captives. I expected to sell poppies to the guards. I went up to the main gate and stated my business and was escorted to the Commandant’s office. To my surprise, he grabbed the first passing German (I remember him well, young, blond and handsome, called Ernst) and said “Take this young lady round the huts”. There were not many Germans on camp at that time, but those who were simply relaxing in the huts were really interested in what Poppies were about, and gladly gave me their meagre coppers for a poppy each. I felt very privileged – these men were friends.