The recollections of a family in Barrow-upon-Soar
Now in our 70’s, we were once two young sisters, who lived with our five brothers, a hard working Mother, and a Father who spent some time in the Home Guard and the rest of the war in the Royal Navy, and whose two brothers were in the Royal Marines and the Metropolitan Fire Service respectively.
Soon after the outbreak of war, we had just moved from the middle of the village to a bigger house on the main road, which ran through the village. The eldest of us children was 15 and the youngest an infant. One of our earliest memories is of gas masks and the blackouts on the windows, at night. The baby in the family had a special cradle which he had to be fitted into, and the gas masks looked so silly on our faces, we all thought them very funny. At school there were air raid shelters and every day, during morning Assembly, we sang hymns for our family members in the Armed Services. I recall singing particularly loud when 'Eternal Father Strong to Save' was that day's hymn, after all we were very proud that our Dad was in the Navy.
There were just 2 years difference in age between my sister and myself, so we seem to remember the same things that happened during the war years. The blackouts stand out because the ARP Warden would come around the houses at night, and woe betide anyone in a house that was showing even the tiniest chink of light through a not quite closed blind. I clearly recall him standing outside our house one night, blowing his whistle and roaring at the top of his voice: "Put that bloody light out in there, how many times do you need telling?" We all froze as we lay in bed. Then Mum went outside and told him off good and properly for swearing, and he said it was alright he didn't mean her, it was next door he was addressing. Mum was having none of it, she said there was no excuse for swearing, came in and slammed the door. The Warden never swore in our hearing again.
Mum was always knitting. She knitted socks, mittens, balaclava's and thick blanket squares for the boys ‘over there’, who Vera Lynn was singing for. We listened to Forces Favorites programmes on our crackly radio, which my sister called an 'Accumalator' and we all had to give a hand with chores whilst Mum was knitting. Bags of wool would appear at the side of her chair and she would put her knitting down during those years only to do other essential chores. We were also taught to peg rugs for the fireside. We kids were sent out with jars for blackberries during the season, and we trekked for miles over the local fields to gather mushrooms and blue-stales, as well as kindling and fallen logs for the fire. At one stage we recall collecting rose-hips and elderberries. We took the rose-hips to the local chemist and he sometimes gave us a penny, but more often he gave us a special treat, licorice-root and sometimes we got a little bag of Sherbet lemon with a hollow licorice tube to suck the sherbet through, and oh boy! did it make your eyes water! In the right season we would go and knock walnuts off a huge tree in the grounds of the ATS Billets on Drivers Hill, but we had to be sort of hush-hush, or we’d get caught. We also joined with a few of the local lads and lasses to go ‘scrumping’ for apples, pears and plums. Mum asked no questions when food was scarce and especially when the Navy money hadn't come through, which happened with monotonous regularity throughout the years. One year, Mum had put some little items aside at the local store for Christmas and she was waiting for her Navy pay to come so that she could pay the last payment and collect her Christmas goodies. There was nothing in the mail on Christmas Eve morning, but in the afternoon the postman had to deliver a telegram nearby, and he rang his cycle bell and yelled to Mum as she opened the door that the Navy pay had arrived, and she’d better hurry up because the Post Office would close at 4pm. Mum put her coat on and ran all the way, quite some distance, to hear the Postmistress lock the door as Mum reached for the handle. Mum didn't waste words, she battered on the door and a crowd gathered, because she was fiercely determined her children were not going to go without food and a few Christmas comforts. Fortunately the Postman arrived back and persuaded his wife to open the door and give the poor family a decent Christmas. In hindsight, mum was amazed that Bobby W. hadn't been sent for to arrest her!
She wasn't often aroused to temper tantrums, but the lousy war and Dad not being home for another Christmas had just been too much.
Unless you were well off to start with, the war made ordinary people much poorer, especially those with larger families. We had to scrimp and scrape, very often went to school in leaking shoes, with no lunches and freezing cold hands and feet, in the bitter cold winters. We had to walk everywhere, no problem for active children normally, but in snow four feet deep followed with melting slush on black ice, it was no fun. Wartime left its mark on many a family. Ours was just one of quite a few large families in the village, and I’d like to bet we lived the furthest away from the school and chapel, which we eventually had to stop attending because we just had no Sunday clothes to wear during the war years. So, we were all rather fed up and the novelty of the war had worn off. It was about this time that our baby brother got double pneumonia and Dad suddenly turned up.
He had been refused compassionate leave and actually told his commanding officer that he was going to walk off the base right now and they’d have to put him in prison to stop him going to see his dying son. They didn't stop him. Dad came home, and when the local doctor arrived the next day, prepared to fill out a death certificate, our baby brother had passed the crisis point and eventually made a full recovery, (which Mum always credited Dad with). Dad returned to Portsmouth and Mum received no Navy pay for the next two months! We just tightened our belts and got on with it.
When the air raids started over our area, we had to sleep all over the house. We took turns sleeping in the bath, under the heavy dining table, even under the stairs in the ‘cubby hole’ where the gas meter was! Our eldest brother finally decided it wasn't worth getting out of a warm bed for nothing, so he stayed where he was; after all, he was upstairs, so halfway to heaven anyway! Oh he was brave… My sister and I took turns at sleeping at the tap end of the bath. That tap was huge and often got in the way of a good sleep. It was so exciting and really we had no fear as children. We never saw the gas masks after the first day. After the warning siren went, we all went to our allocated stations and settled down until the all clear went off, then we all trooped back to bed. It was quite a lot of fun for kids.
We had two cousins who came to stay with us after Leicester was bombed. That meant sharing beds. They were called Evacuees and were with us for quite a while. A lot of villagers took in Evacuees, especially from London. At one stage the town water was cut off and stand-pipes appeared on the side of the road. We had to queue in an orderly manner (of course) to fill a bucket with drinking water. Washing was to be done using the often greenish water from the rainwater tank on top of the flat roof over the bathroom and outhouses. During the summer, small birds and animals would often fall in and die in there; it was an open topped tank. Although unpleasant, Mum would handle it with her usual shrug of the shoulders and ‘lets get on with it then’ manner.
Each family was issued with ration books during the war. Mum sold any coupons she could, to buy necessities. A lot of Mothers did the same. We got dried egg powder, household milk powder and simple staple foods with the coupons. A younger brother went to the nearby shop to get a tin of Household milk for Mum, and had a shopfull of people in 'stitches' when he mispronounced the word Household and boldly asked for "a tin of A…hole milk for Mam, please…"
Remember the naughty lady who let the light show though her blackout blind?
She was the same lady who was carrying a basket of ironing down the street and was unfortunately alongside the local shop when a bomb blast blew the window out and nearly blew our neighbour to Kingdom Come… We also heard that two sisters who were in the row of houses behind ours were cleaning their bedroom windows and one saved the other one’s life when she almost fell out of the window onto the concrete yard. One of our schoolmates Father, a pilot, lost his life when his plane came down short of the nearby aerodrome, and the village grieved when one of its favorite Soldier sons was killed overseas. There was more than one in the village who never came back, but as children we weren't told everything. A bomb dropped on a lane nearby and demolished one of the railway cottages. We used to go and play in the crater for years after, oblivious of the danger. More bombs dropped in the villages behind ours but in retrospect I guess we got off pretty lightly compared to other places, especially London.
One night we had a burglary and all hell was let loose in the village. A neighbour chased one offender halfway down the village before he realised he was only wearing a short nightshirt and nothing else! The miscreants had ‘done’ most of the houses in the street by then, but were apprehended in the next village. That was the last we heard of it, but we’d lost our last loaf of bread and the last shilling our Mother had in her purse to last until Navy Pay day, a week away. Neighbours rallied around, but our nearest neighbour complained the thieves had urinated in her sons new shoes and she couldn’t afford to help anyone else in the street. Tales of the 'big robbery' were bandied around for weeks, and I loved to tell my school friends about the funny side of the story.
Sooner or later, the effects of war: rationing, shortages of food and other things, takes its toll, and our villagers suffered visitations of head-lice, scabies and in some cases malnutrition. The jolly little district nurse eventually came to our house and examined us all very carefully, pronounced us fit and well, but as a precaution against scabies we were to go to a place near Leicester and have a ‘special’ treatment. We all went to the place and were examined but only two of the younger brothers had to have the ‘treatment’. One of them went into the next room where he was stripped and unceremoniously dumped into a deep bath of coloured water. He came out shivering with cold and the other one went in. The door closed. Suddenly there was an ear-splitting shriek. Our eldest brother wrenched the door open to see his younger sibling wrestling with someone who was trying to get him into the bath, and shrieking like a banshee. He got away from the nurse and leapt across to the door. He never had the ‘treatment’ and none of us ended up with scabies, because Mum dosed us all up every day with cod liver oil and malt, which was horrible. I think we were all too scared of having to go for the ‘treatment’ if we acted up, so naturally we were little angels.
When the local farms needed pea-pickers or potato pickers, we were always there on hand to help. Our Mother was heavily pregnant with her last child and gave birth to him soon after we arrived home from the pea field one day, after we had walked all the way through the village, because the farm truck could only take us part way.
There was great excitement amongst the more adventurous spirits one day when we heard an aeroplane flying just over the rooftops. This plane crashed in a field just over the railway line, and made a huge crater in the ground.* The village suddenly bustled with police, army and airforce personnel, including those we called 'The Yanks', who were stationed in the next village. No-one was allowed over the railway lines, which had a pedestrian crossing over it. The gates were shut and guarded, and 'The Yanks' came over from the crash site and threw chewing gum and other stuff over to the crowd. One teenage girl later boasted she’d got nylons, but of course I didn’t know what nylons were at that stage. It was that night that the ARP Warden came round knocking on every door and warned the occupants not to answer their doors to anyone as there might be Germans on the loose. We all lay in bed listening for noises, but soon went to sleep and forgot about it. Some said the plane was a Dakota that had been stolen by the enemy and was either trying to destroy the railway line or was headed for the nearby aerodrome at Wymeswold.
We were allowed to go outside some nights and watch the sky to see the searchlights in action, crisscrossing amongst the stars, trying to capture enemy aircraft in their path. We were taught to listen for the staccato hum of the planes, and could tell the difference between ours and the enemy planes. You don’t comprehend the meaning of death and destruction when you are children, unless it affects you directly I suppose. Christmases were still jolly; we each had an apple, a few ‘monkey nuts’ and a little gift in the bottom of our pillowslips on Christmas morning, and we all sang carols and pressed our noses to the windowpanes hoping for snow, which we always got-usually on Boxing day! On one Christmas day, there was mad panic, we’d lost the youngest but one. We raced around the house searching for him, and finally found him curled up in the bottom of his pillowslip, fast asleep. Life was never dull in our house. We had to make our own amusement during the war years. We all played our own comb and paper music. Dad bought his first mouth organ in Portsmouth at the beginning of the war, and recorded under an inner lid of the box, all the places he went to with the British fleet. Very highly irregular. I still have that mouth organ. When he was on leave, we all sat around playing our music or singing to Dads mouth organ, and Mum would be busy with her knitting as usual. This was when it was raining or bad weather, otherwise we’d be out and about, walking for miles together, or along Quorn slabs playing ‘conkers’ in season. We’d go down the lanes and make little dens under the hedges. I would go with my brothers to pick up lumps of coal off the railway lines after falling from the coal trains, and can recall walking with my older brother and sister to the next village to get the baby’s pram filled with a bag of coal. There was none left in the coal yard, so we arrived back home with sticks we had retrieved from the hedgerows on the way back.
Another memorable event during those awful 6 years was when Dad was overseas in Gibralta or Malta. He was a CPO in the Navy, and somehow managed to get a box of provisions sent over to us. We all crowded around the table. There were gifts for each of us and for Mum, then out came the most odd looking items, all these long bent green things. Mum said they were unripe bananas. She had to store them in a drawer until they turned yellow, then we could eat them. It took the longest time, but finally we could eat them. Mum cut some in halves and told us to take our share to school to show the teachers and other kids. The Mum took the skins we’d discarded and went up to the main road and laid them all at the side of the road. It nearly caused a traffic jam. All that day there were people getting out of vehicles to see what was on the side of the road. Mum had a wicked sense of humour. I guess it got her through a lot of heartache and deprivation as she was bringing up seven children during the war.
Finally, the day came when our next door neighbour yelled to Mum over the garden fence that the war was over. Then there were tears and rejoicing, street parties and our heroes coming back from the war. Of course there was rationing and many years before things settled down again. Since my sister and I were children during the war, dated and times didn’t register in our memories and cannot be recalled so easily, so we have concentrated on events. We are both in our 70’s now but the memories of certain events of our childhood are still crystal clear. Diaries were to come later. We have deliberately omitted personal names, but could provide many if necessary. We often wonder how many of those of us who lived in Barrow-upon-Soar during 1939-45 are still around today and will offer to share their memories with the present generation of the village.
We think it’s a great idea.
There is probably a great deal more we haven't yet brought to light in our personal reminiscences but local records would confirm the bombing of the Ely Lane house adjoining the railway line, and the mysterious case of the aeroplane which crashed in the field over what we knew as The Pingles .The local shop (re. the window blown out) was then owned by a Mr. Willis; the Bowlers owned it at the time of the 'Household milk' gem. The Kitchen family owned the general store opposite Bowlers.
Margaret McDonald and Mavis Green
25th May 2006
* On the 10th January 1945, a Dakota crashed in fields between Barrow and Sileby, killing 3 crew on board. (Cartwright, T.C. 2002. p.19)