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A Wartime Childhood by Evelyn Mitchell

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 Evelyn Mitchell from the 'Writing Together' group reminisced about her memories as a child. This is her story, in her own words:

I was six when the war started and had just started infant school at Jesmond Road, our part of the school was requisitioned for soldiers so we were farmed out to anyone that had a spare sitting room and was willing to put up with us. The added bonus of this was that we only went to school half a day. I thought this was excellent.

Eventually we were fitted with our gas masks by the ARP and issued with the square boxes to put our masks in and we spent the next few years with them bumping against our bottoms everywhere we went. My brother, who was three years old at that time, was as wide as he was tall and resembled a squat Michelin man, was too young for a junior mask and was issued with a baby gas mask. This looked like a large black rubber egg with a plastic visor and my brother, protesting vigorously, was crammed inside this thing, the trouble was his fat little legs hung outside and he looked just like Humpty Dumpty. There was nothing in between the egg and a junior mask so he was destined to spend the first two years of the war without any protection. My mother was in constant terror that her youngest offspring would be offed in a gas attack. I PRAYED FOR ONE CONSTANTLY.

The war was a year old when it was announced that all children aged five years and over were to be evacuated to Whitby and my cousin Mary and I were to go together. I was in seventh heaven as my maternal grandparents came from Whitby and it had always seemed to me that everybody in the family had been there but me. Off we went, my gas mask bumping against my body in my haste as I scurried along, worrying all the while that she would change her mind (I didn’t trust my mother). We got to the cemetery gates, in sight of where everybody was to meet when she stopped, “You’re not going – if we are going to go we will all go together”, she said. I was dragged off protesting but to no avail. Looking back I have often wondered how I would have coped as the bond with my mother was very strong. My cousin Mary stuck it for two years before absconding, she was picked up in Middlesbrough bus station as she waited for the Hartlepool bus. She was nine years old at the time (mind, she was a masterpiece – everybody said so).

When I moved to junior school we had regular tests on what to do during an air raid/gas attack, by then we had brick shelters built in the school yard with wooden benches built in them. Every few weeks the Fire Brigade would turn up to fill these sheds with black smoke (in lieu of gas) and we would stumble around in complete darkness, wearing our gas masks. If we had dirty faces when we came out our gas masks were leaking. As you can imagine, these tests were not popular with us as we came out with cuts and bruises and the occasional black eye. Mercifully, we were never to use our gas masks or the school air raid shelters and there was great relief all round when they were eventually demolished.

The air raid warden in our street was a Mr Garrington who was over the moon at being appointed warden. He was a nice man who took his ARP duties very seriously; he was on the point of retirement when the war started so it gave him a new lease of life. Unfortunately he became quite pompous and strutted up and down the street telling everybody what to do; he became a bit of a pain in the neck. My father wasn’t the kind of man to suffer fools gladly and regarded our air raid warden as an “old fart” and didn’t hesitate to let him know this. Mr Garrington paid him back by knocking on our door every other night accusing my father of “showing light”. This infuriated my father because the whole street knew it wasn’t true but he still had to go out and check.

My father was in the Home Guard after he was discharged from the army on health grounds; he was considered a prize because he had done his “square bashing” and had been trained to fire a rifle and small arms – but most importantly he had been allowed to keep his rifle (it was before Dunkirk) and his uniform, as it was known he would be going into the Home Guard.  My father did a full days work in the shipyard and then reported for guard duty most nights, leaving home about 7 o’clock in the evening and returning about 5 o’clock the following morning face grey with fatigue. Sometimes he was wet to the skin, but he never said where he had been or what he had been doing. He had a couple of hours sleep and went to work. His life was no different to any man still at home, everyone did something. On top of these extra duties everybody had to do fire watching, usually at their place of work or at public buildings. This involved looking out for incendiary bombs which were dropped for the sole purpose of setting fire to buildings.

My mother was one of the street deputy wardens and her best friend was the other, mother manned the hose pipe and her friend was in charge of the stirrup pump. Mother was 4ft 11ins tall and six stone ringing wet and her friend was 5ft 9ins and looked like Olive Oyl. When the ARP turned up to test their fire fighting skills the whole neighbourhood attended to watch as it was better than going to the pictures. The sight of my pint sized mother lying prone in the road trying to hit a bucket with a hose where the water came out in fits and starts, remains with me to this day; her friend, whose job it was to supply the water hadn’t the strength in her legs to raise the water pressure no matter how frantically she pumped away. I don’t think they ever hit that bucket.

Two of my uncles were in the AFSI; as they were in reserved occupations they were not eligible for call up. They both worked for a local builder and were experts in demolishing houses and so, at night they fought fires caused by the bombing and during the day they made the damaged houses safe. It was dangerous and dirty work, especially if they had only a couple of hours sleep the night before but it had to be done as long as the bombs kept falling.

The blackout was a real problem because it was literally what it was – pitch black; if there was no moon you did not know where you where, not that you wanted a moon as it lit up the place like a Christmas tree and the blackout didn’t matter, we were sitting ducks. My mother was in dire need of a new coat before the war started but because of clothes rationing it took two years before she managed to save enough clothing coupons to buy one. She used to borrow books from a library a local newsagent ran as a sideline, it was only a few hundred yards away in a straight line. Unfortunately she couldn’t resist wearing her new coat and, as several streets ran off the road she was using, she veered right in the pitch darkness and walked into a wall. She stumbled home with a broken nose, her new coat held to her face to stem the blood. The coat never recovered. I smashed my front tooth in a similar fashion, only I walked into a lamp post.


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