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Doing My Bit in the St John's Ambulance Brigade

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project a lady (who preferred not to giver her name) reminisced about her time 'doing her bit' on the Home Front. This is her story, in her own words:

I was born on 25th September 1918 in Norton-on-Tees. In 1938 I was a clerk in the Medical Officer of Health’s Department, and, of course, with war looming our department set up First Aid courses to train people to be ready. My job was to go round to the various classes and take the roll call to see who was there. And, of course, the first thing that happened, the teacher in the First Aid class said “this is a triangular bandage. This is the base and this is the apex”, and I thought I’d better find out what happens between the base and the apex. If I was going to do it I might as well do it properly, so I joined St John’s Ambulance Brigade. Took my own First Aid course and qualified on the 1st January 1940. At that time the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was in four parts. There was the men’s division, the ambulance division, the nursing division, the boy cadets and the girl cadets. By that time I had taken all my exams and I had taken my Lay Instructor’s Certificate as well. I couldn’t teach, we had to have a doctor or a state registered nurse for the sort of upper things, but the lay instructors could teach them the basics. And over the years I moved up from an ordinary nursing sister till I became the Area Vice President. I served for fifty years or thereabouts.

War broke out in September 1939. We were on holiday in America, in New York. It was the year of the World’s Fair, and that was what we had principally gone for. Then when Czechoslovakia was invaded we decided we had better come home. So we came home earlier than we intended and we came back in the Aquitania. I think this was the sister ship of the Lusitania that was torpedoed and sunk in the North Atlantic. We were on board when war was declared, and the Cabin Class invited the Tourist Class up for a dance. So we celebrated instead of getting frightened. Well I mean, what was the good in getting frightened?

So I returned to work in the Medical Officer of Health Department and we set up First Aid posts and ambulance stations. Our fleet of ambulances were Co-op laundry vans! By this time we were living in Yarm, and in addition to being a member of St John’s I joined the National Hospital Service Reserve, which was a reserve of doctors, nurses, First Aiders, anybody who could help in an emergency. And I was only called out once, and it was to go in the middle of the night to Wynyard Station, where they were expecting a train to stop full of casualties and we were wanted to go and help. So we went to Wolviston and the train steamed straight through and never stopped, which was very fortunate because the casualties were not as many and not as serious as had been expected.

I used to go down to man a telephone at the report centre when there was a raid. I got what was called a yellow message which certain people got to call them out before the sirens went. I got a yellow message and I was in Norton Road in Stockton when the sirens went, and I was in an open car at the time and I got out and put the hood up. What good that would have done I really don’t know. But it was the sort of instinctive reaction to bombs falling and guns going off. But the girl who was manning the telephone next to me took a message, and she was a farmer’s daughter and it was their own farm that had been hit, and fortunately there were no casualties, but that was certainly a shaker for her. We had quite a scare on one occasion when the sirens went and we thought that parachutists were coming down. I asked my parents a rather silly question which was “how would they tell us when it was all clear?” They having lived through the First War couldn’t give me an answer because they would know very nicely that an invasion could be jolly serious and we might never get the all clear. However it was a false alarm, it wasn’t German parachutists.

I wasn’t in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade full time, just as often as I could go when I was not at work. But I had applied for a job in Hartlepool in the Ministry of Labour, which I got. My main job was registering and interviewing people as to whether or not they could be called up or whatever they could do. And it was a “reserved occupation” so I wasn’t able to volunteer for anything further. So the only active thing I did was go potato picking for a week, which was rather funny because it rained every day and I didn’t pick many potatoes. We had long hours at the Ministry of Labour and we only had three quarters of an hour for lunch and we only had about ten minutes at ten o’clock where we could get a coffee, and my desk was miles away from the canteen so I used to have to take a thermos. And on Saturdays we had registrations where we registered everybody between the ages of eighteen and sixty, and then after that they were called up to be interviewed. I worked so many days in Hartlepool and then I also had to go to Horden and Blackhall for a day a week.

Everything was rationed and we were all encouraged to dig up our gardens, if we had them, and plant food of all sorts. Where we lived at Yarm we had two orchards and we used to have a good apple crop. We also had hens. There were three of us in this house in Hartlepool registered for rations. It used to be delivered and as we were all out at work it used to be left on a pair of steps in the back yard so when we came in from work we had to wipe the flies off the meat before we could cook it. Sugar, bread, everything was rationed, and I think perhaps fish, with Hartlepool being a port, was the easiest thing to get. Bacon, we used to get about one rasher. If you used your lard ration to grease the tray you had got nothing to cook with! And that was about the amount you got. It was ridiculously small. We just learnt to do without. I think we were a lot fitter than we were later.

I married a Hartlepool man, and my husband was in the Auxiliary Fire Service and then he transferred to the Home Guard, and they used to have a camp every summer and I can remember him going on exercises. He was a Weapons Training Officer and they had a firing range somewhere halfway on the way to Elwick behind a farm. After they had finished their practice he was to bring all the unspent ammunition back and put it in a cupboard in the hall. Well, finally when the war did end all this ammunition was in our cupboard, and we thought “what on earth are we going to do with it?” Anyway the police had an amnesty that if anybody had any weapons or things like that they were going to take it in. So he knew when they were not on duty and he took the whole lot and left it on the doorstep of the police. So that got rid of that.

Petrol, of course, was rationed for a long time so we couldn’t use the car. But I remember on VE-Day we had a little open Morris and a limited amount of petrol and my husband and myself went to Osmotherley to a little pub that we used to know up there for a drink. But my mother didn’t celebrate VE-Day very much because, I think, she was worrying that my brother was still on active service in the West African Frontier Force. As it happened he was repatriated quite late in 1945.

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