The Second World War : 1939 – 1945

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Jean Reeve of Wakefield Libraries and Information Services on behalf of Esmé Dobby and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
Student Teacher, 1939 —41: a memoir.

Two weeks after the declaration of War, I went to Edge Hill College, but not to Ormskirk in Lancashire. The War Office had decided that the war would be like 1914-18, fought in France in trenches. They hadn’t read General de Gaulle’s book about tank warfare, either. He knew Hitler had when the panzers arrived. Whatever — they thought wounded men would be transferred to England. Hospitals would be needed. Liverpool was far from the war zone (so they thought) and our college was annexed and students sent to Bingley in the West Riding. We were allocated two Halls of Residence and doubled up two to a room. The college had just bought new divan beds so every room had one plus the old high hospital type. The Principal informed us later that she had had two weeks to effect the move and organise the transfer of such equipment and books as could be fitted into the education block. A small library was all there was space for, but we shared the Bingley College Library.

One fortunate consequence was that a good friend of mine who had chosen to go to Bingley was now only two halls away! So we both had a familiar face to cheer us. Another was that I shared the room I was allocated with Joan who became my friend for the next 57 years until she died in 1996. There were 80 girls and three staff in each hall. Our seniors were delighted with the change. Ormskirk is eight miles from Liverpool among the cabbage fields. The routine was very restricted. Doors were locked at 7pm in winter and 9 pm in summer. Bingley had a more relaxed attitude, 9pm in winter and 10pm in summer. These, like all other of their rules, were subject to the approval of the College Council of students. The principal had one vote like all the rest! They also had chosen a sensible and becoming uniform. Ours was straight out of 1928 (when the then principal was newly appointed). She was an Anglo-Irish Protestant called P.M. Smith — known inevitably as ‘Pip Emma’. Arrayed in shapeless dresses which hung from the shoulders to her ankles, her one concession to the occasional festivity was a pair of emerald green kid shoes with cotton reel heels. The tout ensemble was covered with a sack like coat and lampshade hat outdoors.

The education block was situated some distance from the halls of residence, approached through a steeply sloping garden. Not very pleasant in pouring rain or snow. There was a lot of snow both the winters I was there. The college was a short distance outside the town of Bingley halfway up a very steep hill which went on up to Baildon Moor. The view from our room on the 2nd floor was up the Craven Valley. Joan, a geography student, commented on this perfect example of interlapping spurs. Coming from the Shropshire plain with its farms and cosy cultivation, the moors and the hills depressed her. I was used to the moorland around Barnsley, so was not so affected.

Due to wartime conditions we had to sign out and in when we went to Bingley or the nearby larger city of Bradford. We were supposed to visit Bingley once a week and go to Bradford once a month after queueing up to get permission. A tour around the neighbouring countryside had to be recorded. We used to put down ‘Country walk’ and go to Bingley to the cinema, or ‘Bingley’ every Saturday and go to Bradford! As Joan said, it would be awkward if there was an air raid on Bradford when we were supposed to be in Bingley and discovered there. We were in a zone for evacuees so the likelihood of such a dilemma was low. There was one raid on Bradford, December, 1940, when the Rawson Market and Lingard’s Linen Store were destroyed by oil bombs. This was during the night, a clear frosty one with a bombers’ moon. We heard the crump of the bombs and the thud of the guns echoing up the valley. The Halls were backed up against the hillside with a basement connecting all five underneath. The front of this was sandbagged and the entrance to each hall basement had sandbags before the door. Coconut matting was laid on the floors and we had been instructed to bring a camp stool with us on first arrival. Shelter boots, fur-lined, and a travelling rug were also de rigeur.

1939 became known as the ‘Phoney War’ but nobody knew it at the time. It has become famous for the sounding of the sirens on the very first night. A false alarm but, again, no one knew. We had all seen the photos of the bombing of Spain and particularly Picasso’s shocking painting of ‘Guernica’ with its children’s bodies. So we can be forgiven for panicking. Air raid shelters were being installed but not everyone had one yet. Our house was built on an outcrop of rock and there was solid rock a few inches below the surface. Since the cellar was cut out of the rock we were told we would have the ceiling hatch reinforced and an escape hatch built. But not yet. The vicarage across the road had wine cellars cut out of the rock. The vicar told my mamma we take shelter there until ours was fitted up.

My mama was not a good sleeper and had probably been expecting the sirens. She shot up in bed and cried, ‘They’re here already’. My father refused to believe it and would not stir. My brother and I were driven to get dressed and go across to the vicarage. It was daylight though early and all quiet. Our knocking at the vicar’s door eventually produced a bewildered clergyman in his dressing gown. ‘What has happened?’ he said. ‘Haven’t you heard the sirens?’ cried my mama. No, he hadn’t. I was very embarrassed but in a Christian spirit he took us in and fetched his wife. She made tea in true English fashion but my mama insisted on ‘going down into the cellars’ to drink it. Fortunately it was quite warm weather and the ‘All clear’ sounded in about half an hour. It was very awkward but typical of the feeling at the time.

At Bingley College we had a system of warnings from the air raid warden’s post, and the staff were so jumpy about their responsibilities that they sounded a klaxon horn even when there was little danger. From September to December we were roused up practically every night for no reason and had to go down to the shelter in our coats over our dressing gowns, in our boots. Wrapped in our rugs, we perched on our flimsy stools. The inevitable happened. Tired after a day’s lectures and exercise, we slipped down on to the floor and slept. Next day we were not in our best mood or at our brightest. The Principal, true to her austere beliefs, said the night’s alarms were no excuse for being late for lectures. Mutiny was about to erupt when it was decided that only the urgent warnings would be sent to us.
After Christmas it was quieter and when the raids increased later in the year a system of fire watching was started. Three people on each corridor would man a stirrup pump. They would don overalls and rest on their beds until the sirens sounded. This never happened until the raid on Bradford. There was a rota and we took our turn. The local Fire Brigade instructed us in the use of the pump and made us crawl through smoke to put out a bucket of smouldering rags.

The College had our ration books and the food was not too bad the first year. Many things were not rationed at first. Clothes, sweets, rice, bread and cakes. These, of course, all disappeared ‘under the counter’ along with soap, talc etc. Nobody would sell us soap in Bingley shops because we were not registered with them for other groceries. My Mama used to send me parcels with soap and biscuits. The only person who let us have soap (if he had any) was Mr. Lamb, the chemist. We scoured the markets in Bradford for talc and face powder etc. Lipsticks and perfume were like gold. We had all outgrown our own clothes and could not get many new ones. I had three winter dresses, a wool skirt, blouses and jumpers. Shoes were a problem. Stockings were not too bad. For summer I had cotton dresses and a ‘best’ dress and coat and hat for chapel. We had a white dress for the Choral Society and a black hat for school practice! Our blazers were our casual coats and I still have mine! It was of finest Huddersfield cloth in dark green. In many a cold school during the war I was glad of its warmth. I gardened in it in cold weather and wore it over my overall years later when I worked in a near freezing Circulation Department in the West Riding County Library. It cost more than my winter coat but it was well worth it. Ravenscroft and Willis who made it are still in business.

The rest of the uniform was antediluvian. A tunic in navy gaberdine with side pleats and V-neck was worn for games over a white blouse. For PT we had green cotton flimsy tunics, very short with matching knickers. Jersey in those days was very saggy. Gym shoes and hockey boots completed our kit. You could buy wool in the college colours of purple, green and gold to knit your own scarf. Joan got the wool but never finished it. The blazer was edged with matching cord and there was a depressed looking badge allegedly portraying lilies. The motto was something rambling about virtues from St. Paul. Too long to fit on the badge. This archaic uniform (along with the black hat) were a ‘source of innocent merriment’ to the Bingley students. They wore divided skirts, smartly pleated, to the knees in bottle green worsted. Paler green blouses and matching green pullovers completed their games kit. Their blazer in bottle green with silver cord trim sported a badge of the white rose with their motto ‘Hilariter’ (‘gaily’ to the non-Latin students among you) embroidered beneath. We had to put up with a lot of false sympathy. Even Joyce, my friend, was not above sneering at our discomfiture. Our only consolation was that there was worse. At least two establishments in the north inflicted purple tunics and blazers on their hapless students.

I must say the hats did not get worn much. But the black swimsuits we had to wear to the local baths in Tuesdays were a definite cross to bear. The council would, or could, not give us a private session. The public could not be excluded. I expect it was sheer lack of experience that led the College authority to allow Tuesday to be our day, or rather afternoon. After all, they had had their own pool at Ormskirk. The college, founded many years ago in the Edgehill district of Liverpool, had moved out to Ormskirk in 1932. Bingley dated from pre-1914 and had no such amenity. The students quickly found out the disadvantages. Tuesday was early closing day in Bingley. There were a good many shops in town employing youths aged 14 to 18 who were at a loose end on Tuesday afternoon. Word spread quickly that groups of girls were to be seen in the baths on that day. At first, there was such a crowd we were unable to do any lengths in comfort and diving was impossible. Not that I was sorry. I am no water-baby. I must say some of the costumes were very smart and we all wore colourful caps. Of course, the novelty faded and we had more space but never entirely free from spectators. Our seniors told us that the PT lecturer at Ormskirk, one Miss I.C. Baugh (!) would have petrified the youths with one look. She was a gorgon of the first rank and insisted on swimming, before breakfast, every day for all! Fortunes of war had removed her from the scene. She had gone to be a PT instructor in the ATS — Heaven help them.

For the first term we had a semi-retired maiden lady for PT. She decided we would do country dancing in cotton frocks. My old school ginghams came in useful. Then we had a large, red-haired Amazon who taught us Greek dancing. We leapt about ineptly, waving our arms. Needless to say, I was undistinguished until the day I trod (with bare feet) on half a split pea spilled from a bean bag by the Infant teachers who had preceded us. My howl of anguish and spectacular leap were loudly applauded by Miss Preedy. ‘Do it again’, she carolled as I collapsed in a heap. My ankle proved to be sprained so I could not oblige. The second year we had a charming Austrian refugee who taught us Central European folk dances and ‘self-expression’.

The final drop in our cup of bitterness was that Bingley wore silk dancing dresses in a choice of six colours. And they learnt things like the Tarantella! Vera Giggle in her flame coloured slip doing the Tarantella was a sight to see. It is a wonder we did not hate them. They never asked us to their theatricals or concerts and did not come to ours. The assembly hall would not have held them and us. We were 160 all told and they were about the same and 50 combined staff who lived in St.Hild Hall. Our principal lived in Priestley Hall which along with Acland was one of the Halls given over to us. I was thankful to be in Acland where we rarely saw Pip Emma except when she came over to preside at a small table for four at lunch or dinner. We had to make up the four in turns. I think I only did that once. The poor souls in Priestley had it most days and their hall was like a tomb when you went in the evening. It was very hard to make conversation with Miss Smith but we realised that if you referred to America, she was away. A lecture on her experiences would last throughout the meal. Or a reference to the butter ration. She disapproved of margarine which we had for breakfast and said she had been shocked in 1928 to find the college was still on a wartime regime with no butter — ‘I put them on butter at once,’ she said, ‘much better for growing girls.’

The subject of butter was a vexed one in the second year. At breakfast six people shared ¼ lb of margerine for toast. At teatime there were six butterballs on the table. The ration was 4oz butter per week. Sugar was in a bowl ad there was no more if it was used up until the next meal. At tea time there was bread for the butter and jam or cake, alternating each day. At weekends there was more cake, resembling cardboard most days. One Saturday we went down to the basement to tell Florence the Head Maid that we were not in for High Tea. She was engaged in making butterballs from the rations. We knew half our marg rations was used in cooking. We watched as she proceeded to make eight butterballs from a piece of butter. She put seven in a bowl of cold water and one in another bowl. We asked why. She explained that 4 oz. of butter made eight balls of butter but we only got one a day for seven days so there was a surplus. We asked where it went. She gave us an old-fashioned look and said, ‘Have you seen any of the lecturers having tea in their rooms?’

I had once been called into Miss Kenrick’s room at teatime for some report on school practice. I was cross at the time because we had High Tea, first hot meal of the day, after school practice. I was about to eat mine when she called me. She was lying on her couch with a 3-tier cake-stand at her elbow. There was a top tier of sandwiches, 2nd tier jam tarts and a cake on the bottom tier. ‘Well, the spare butter goes to the chef to make those cakes for the lecturers.’ ‘Not any more,’ declared Joan who was Head Student of Acland Hall! ‘We’ll ask for our butter ration to do as we wish. And half our sugar ration, too!’ So it was and we happily made toast on the Common Room fire and spread our butter. The food had deteriorated in 1941. A severe snowfall, which blocked the main road and the drive up to the college cut off our meat ration from Bradford for several days. There was a farm next to the College and the farmer had rabbits eating the bark off his trees in their search for food. He shot a great many and sold them to our cook. So for several days at lunch and dinner we were served stewed rabbit with mash and veg. Joan and I did not like rabbit.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.