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A Wartime Childhood

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 Jenny reminisced about growing up in the War years. This is her story, in her own words:

Jenny, born in West Hartlepool in 1929. I was ten year old when the war broke out. I went to Jesmond Road School. I had a brother in the regular army who was in China when the war broke out. We lived in Bellerby Terrace, next door to the police station. I had an older sister who was married and another two brothers at home. Neither of them could go in the war, because of health problems, so they did taxi work during the war. I was at school and had two younger sisters at the Open Air School at the top of Thornhill Gardens. It was like an enormous greenhouse to look at it, it was all of glass. They used to give them treatment with sunray lamps, and special food and milk that healthy children didn’t get. This was for children that had weaknesses. Violet had a weak chest, bronchitis and asthma, and Mary had very brittle bones.

Jesmond Road had air raid shelters in the school-yard, and we went there if the sirens went. If it was really bad we just went to school in the mornings, or just in the afternoons, so we had quite a lot of time off school, but we got a lot of homework to do. But I didn’t have much time to do homework, because my father had horses and wagons, and we had stables at the bottom of our gardens, and I used to help with the horses, clearing the stables out, going to the warehouses for fruit and vegetables to take round on the wagons. And I had a good brain, and was a good speller, and I used to do most of the paperwork and work the food coupons out for him, even though I were only twelve year old at the time. We had two horses at the time, a little white pony and a big brown horse called Paddy. When the sirens went, he used to try to kick the stables down because he was terrified. So I had to go down the stables, even if it was the middle of the night I had to get out of bed and go down the stables and sing to this horse, because that’s the only way we could keep him quiet! He loved “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”.

I used to get up early in the morning, go down the stables, feed them, clean them out and groom them, ready to go in the wagons. Me dad and me mam had a fruit and vegetable business, like they have a mobile shop now, but with horses and carts. When rationing came in we had coupons for this and coupons for that, and points and all the rest of it. My mother was a trained tailoress and dressmaker, and we used to have a lot of things home made, which was very lucky because she wouldn’t have been able to go to shops and buy them, being so many of us. I remember me sister got a great long length of blackout material, and she bleached it and then she died it yellow, and she made the most fantastic outfit, she made a skirt and a jacket and even a hat to go with it, and it looked really smart because it was yellow and she trimmed it with black.

I had to go down to Foster and Armstrong in Stranton every Monday and Thursday to get the horse feed, ‘cos even the horse feed was rationed. I had to go to the farms; there was one at Greatham and there was one at the top of Cameron Bank which was called Johnson’s, and I used to go there to get the cabbages and sprouts, lettuce and beetroots, sacks of potatoes and things like that to sell on the wagons.

I remember one day, it was on a Monday afternoon and the siren went. I was home from school and I went up in the attics and was looking out the window and I saw a bomb go right up between the row of houses, and it landed the other side of the Sacred Heart school, on a little bungalow that was there. All the windows in the school was blown out, yet the windows in our houses never budged, they didn’t even get a crack in them. Luckily the children weren’t at the school that day. I don’t remember being frightened at all, we just took it in our stride.

We used to get ferocious winters, the snow used to be really deep, and you got no extra fuel because coal was rationed. You just had to make do with what you had. We used to go down the beach and get sacks of seacoal. I remember taking seacoal round selling it for sixpence a bucket to people that couldn’t get down to the beach. You only got one sack of coal a week, I think, and food rationing you only got one egg a week, and I think it was two ounces of tea, two ounces of butter, four ounces of margarine and two ounces of lard, four ounces of bacon and eight ounces of meat for each ration book. I had to go along to the Co-operative Stores at the end of Duke Street, I got two pennarth of bacon bones, a sixpenny shank and any scraps off the cutting machine, and I’d take it home to my grandmother that was staying with us at the time. She used to make a big pan of stew, there was no meat in it, just the bacon bones and loads of vegetables and she always made suet dumplings just to help to fill us up.

The only person that got birthday treats was my sister Mary ‘cos more often than not she was in hospital. She got loads of toys – we weren’t allowed to play with them. At Christmas me mother used to get an empty chocolate box, one with a bonny picture and a nice ribbon on the corner, and she’d get a little sixpenny traycloth, or a pinny, or some little thing to be embroidered, and she’d put some silks and a needle and a thimble, and a tiny little pair of scissors in this fancy box, and that was my Christmas present. And off my aunt I got a sixpenny box of paints and a big colouring book. I always got a silver threepenny bit off me grandmother. At Easter me mother would make paste eggs, hardboiled eggs, and they were always coloured, she used to boil them with onion skins and make them really brown, and then me sister used to paint pictures on them. And my Aunt Doreen, she used to buy us a sixpenny chocolate Easter egg from Woolworths. I never remember a birthday.

I was a proper tomboy with being brought up with five lads. Because what they could do, I could do better. If they’d climbed a tree, I’d climb a tree, but I’d climb higher. If they’d run along a wall, I’d run along a wall, but I’d run faster. I had to be better than them.

During the war there was no toys. I used to go down to Lynn Street at Christmas, and there was a shop called Lithgo’s the pram shop, and they always had dolls in at Christmas. And in the window there was this marvellous baby doll, fully clothed, and I longed for that doll. I never got it, but me mother knew I wanted a doll. One year she got me this great big baby doll, it was a celluloide, and I thought it was wonderful. Me sister had made a set of clothes for it and I was playing with this baby doll on Christmas morning, and I must have been about twelve or thirteen. We were called to have our Christmas dinners, so I left me doll in the parlour on the settee. Me grandmother was with us at the time and she was pretty hefty. And when she’d finished her dinner she went back into the parlour and when I went in me doll was on the floor absolutely flattened – she’d sat on it. Being celluloid it just squashed like an eggshell. I broke my heart over that doll, and I got into trouble for leaving it where she could sit on it! I never had another doll, not a new one. But I managed to scrimp and save pennies and ha’pennies by running messages for people, and I saved up because there was a girl at school said she had a doll and would sell me it for thirty shillings. That was an awful lot of money to a child during the war. You’d run to the ends of the earth for a ha’penny. I’d sweep the back street and I’d swill the yard, I’d do anything to get an extra couple of coppers to get this doll. And it had a paper mache head, arms and legs and it wasn’t very beautiful to look at but I thought it was lovely and I called it Ann. And one day me brother Kenneth threw it on top of the shed roof, where I couldn’t get it. Before anybody could come home it started to rain. Well you can imagine what happened to it, being paper mache. It just went to a mush. It was absolutely ruined.

There was a cookery class at school. One day we’d do laundry work, and the next week we had cookery class. I used to love doing the cooking. We used to have to take a couple of vegetables and we always made a great big pan of stew. And the children that didn’t have very much at home, if they took a ha’penny they could have a bowl of this hot soup. And if you took a penny you got a bun as well as the soup. I used to love it when I could go to school and get a bowl of hot soup. ‘Cos more often than not, on the way to school I’d have a slice of dripping bread, that was the fat off the joint, and we’d have a slice of bread about two inches thick with this pork dripping on in your hand, running to school. By the time breaktime came round I was ready for something to eat. 

During the war leather was very short, and they used to make wooded-soled clogs for kids and they were one and eleven pence a pair, and I loved those clogs. But one time I got a real good hiding off the old man ‘cos the kiddy-catcher came round asking why Jenny hadn’t been to school. Jenny hadn’t been to school because her mother had got her a real old-fashioned pair of lace-up boots like in the olden days  - someone had given my mother these and they fit me so I had to wear them and I wouldn’t go to school in them, I was so ashamed of them. They never bought me girls shoes ‘cos I was so heavy on them. They used to make me wear me brothers’ boots that they grew out of, and I was ashamed of them as well. I was always getting into trouble for something.

I passed the eleven-plus but me father wouldn’t let me go because you had to buy your own uniform and books and everything and they couldn’t afford it. He said “I didn’t bring you up to be a lady. You were brought into this world to work.” So I started working with the old man when I was twelve, heaving hundred-weights of potatoes around and cleaning stables out and grooming horses. I had to help with the washing and the housework and the baking as well.

Me granny used to bake three times a week. She used a stone and a half of white flour and half a stone of brown flour. We never had bought bread, it was always home-made. But me mother used to buy a twopence-ha’penny loaf, a white one, from the top shop for me dad. And he always had the best butter. Us kids had the margarine and the dripping. Dad got the best butter. But he always had his crusts cut off the bread. We used to fight over who was going to have the crusts because they had a little bit of butter on. But I can honestly say we never went hungry. Me mother always made sure we had a hot meal at least once a day. She used to get stale bread off customers for the horses. She used to get the best clean bits out, and soak it in milk, and squeeze it all out and mix it with a handful of sugar, a good sprinkling of mixed spice and a handful of raisins and it was baked and it tasted lovely. And my grandmother used to make custard, and she made it so thick that when it was cold you could slice it. We’d have a slice of cold custard between two slices of bread and we thought it was a treat! Mother used to mash some boiled parsnip and flavour it with banana flavouring so it was like mashed banana, and we’d have that between bread and margarine, and that was a treat ‘cos you couldn’t get real bananas. And we had chickens down the garden and she used to collect the eggs and put them in isinglass, it was this solution you used to put the eggs in to preserve them, so when the eggs were short, we were never short of eggs. Mr grandmother always made the Christmas cake, and she made them a year previous. She used to wrap them up in cloths and keep them for a full year.

Our house had a scullery, a kitchen, a big dining room and a big parlour. One flight up there was a great big bedroom, and a bathroom and an indoor toilet. Up another flight of stairs there was a small bedroom, the big front bedroom which mother and father was in, and the big back bedroom where us three girls slept. Then up another two flights of stairs was three big attics and the lads slept up there. In the back yard there was an outdoor toilet, a great big coalhouse, a bicycle shed and a little conservatory place. Across the back street was a long garden. We had electricity. Me mother had an electric cooker in the kitchen, and she had electric boiler as well. Oh we were very posh! We ate our meals in the kitchen because as kids we weren’t allowed to sit in the dining room. Oh no, it was too posh! That was only for special occasions like Christmas. At Christmas mother would make us what she called a “mistletoe”. It was hoops of an apple barrel, and she’d put them interlocked. She’d wrap crinkle paper round them and tinsel, and hang these little baubles on it and we’d make things out of paper like rosettes and little flowers and animals and we’d get acorns and fir cones and paint them and tie bits of wool on and put them round this “mistletoe”. And that was hung in the kitchen. 

We had an Anderson shelter in the garden, but we never used it. Me mother wouldn’t take us out in the garden in the middle of the winter, we used to stop in our own house. The old man used to say “if you’re gonna die you might as well die in bed”.

Me and our Violet were supposed to have gone on this ship to Canada when they were evacuating the children abroad. At the last minute the old man changed his mind and he wouldn’t let us go. Which I am very pleased about because the ship was sunk. So it was just by good luck.

At Christmas time all the family used to come to our house, it being such a big house. My mother’s people come from Ilkley in Yorkshire and they used to get a charabanc to come through at Christmas time. I remember my grandmother and our Lilly paid into this fund so me, our Mary and our Violet could go to this party in me granny’s street.

I met me husband during the war. It was the end of the war, 1945, and I was fifteen. He was in the navy. I had a cousin who wanted me to go out with her on a Sunday night. I knew she used to go to meet these sailors, ‘cos she was older than me. She said “just come with me ‘cos you’re not allowed on the docks on your own, you have to go in pairs.” She said “just come with me, then when we come back off the dock you can come home.” So I went and I wasn’t allowed make-up or anything like that, ‘cos the old man would have killed us. So her boyfriend saw two of us, and he went and got this friend to come with him. So he said “you can’t go home, I’ve come to take you for a walk.” We went to the shows up at Seaton and we were supposed to get the last bus home and we missed it. So we walked home, and by the time I got home it was eleven o’clock. Me mother was out looking for me. She grabbed me by the hair and she made me run all the way home ‘cos she was on her bike. Luckily enough Bob followed us, he didn’t slink off. And me mother thought he was so charming – he could charm the birds off the trees. So she asked him in and gave him a cup of tea and talked to him. And she told him he could call again. The next time he came later in the week he brought some rum. Of course the sun shone out of him after that. She wouldn’t have a word said against him, and I ended up marrying him. I met him in the August and we got married on January 5th. He was nearly twenty-one and I was sixteen in the February but I got married in the January. I didn’t tell the officials because you weren’t allowed to get married under sixteen. But I wanted to get married because his ship was moving down to Harwich and I wanted to go down to his people, because he wouldn’t be able to get back up here. So my mother let us get married. We had a wedding cake, which most girls didn’t have. It was a Christmas cake, and she put almond paste on it. And me wedding dress was powder blue. My sister had made it. She had got a white blanket off someone she knew and she made me a white hat and coat. And we got married in the Registry Office in 1946.  

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