Saturday, 22 February 2020
I remember the 1940s
We had an air-raid shelter in the back garden, half-buried in the ground and accessed by a steep, wooden ladder.This is how I describe it in Chasing Shadows:
Joan was glad when the grown-ups told her the war had ended.
'Mum, does that mean I won't have to go down the air-raid shelter again?' She hated that shelter. It crouched in the back garden like a monster, waiting to swallow up the whole family as soon as it was dark. She hated the smelly paraffin stove that stood in the middle of the earth floor and threw huge dancing shadows around when her dad lit it.
I don't know if our shelter was erected by my dad. Perhaps it was already in place when we moved from our lodgings in Liverpool city centre into a rented, two-up, two-down terraced house on the outskirts soon after the outbreak of World War II. Anderson shelters were built from sections of corrugated steel and the government gave them free of charge to households whose income was below £5 a week, anyone earning above that had to pay £7.
Before our move from Toxteth, I was evacuated - very briefly - with my mother and older siblings. As I was only a couple of months old at the time I can't claim to have any memories of being taken into the home of a young doctor and his wife and have to rely on family anecdotes for the story that they wanted to adopt me!
I remember food and clothing being rationed, every family member having their own ration book, green for under-fives, blue for older children, and buff-coloured for adults. If you had a green ration book then the family were given preference if bananas appeared in the local greengrocers, but that didn't happen very often.
Baby clinics supplied orange juice and cod liver oil to under-fives and there were many 'tonics' or food supplements available. A jar of malt and cod liver oil was one of my favourites, my mother also bought me Virol, Parish's Food that turned your tongue purple, and bottles of a thick white liquid called Scott's Emulson. I look healthy enough in this photo, but by the age of eight I was in hospital for a month with 'a shadow on the lung' and had a couple of spells in convalescent homes. This was pre-NHS but because of being a low-income family we would have been exempt from charges. I also had sessions of 'sunray therapy' in a local clinic. Children with chest problems and other ailments would sit in front of sun lamps, stripped to our knickers and wearing goggles. In recent years, research has suggested that this practice in the 1940s has led to an outbreak of skin cancer in my generation, but we have to remember that we also played out day after day and had never heard of sun protection creams.
When I see photos of the amount of meat, butter, cheese etc, that was the weekly ration for each person, I'm amazed how meagre it looks - and yet I don't ever remember feeling hungry. I do remember my mother creaming together lard and margarine to make it go further. I also remember dried-egg powder, not very appetizing to look at, or smell, but a necessity when the egg ration was only one a week for each person. Anyone with a merchant seaman in the family could rely on extra treats - I can remember my granny's larder having big jars of pickled eggs and tins of jam.
The weekly sweet ration was 2ozs and oh, the excitement of walking to the sweet shop with your hand tightly closed around your two pennies, then choosing what the shopkeeper would scoop into the paper cone. Would it be dolly mixtures, or pear drops? Chocolate was a rare treat, but a home-made mixture of cocoa powder with a little sugar and licked from the paper made a good substitute. Less successful was experimenting with Ex-lax, it looked like chocolate and tasted like chocolate but as its name suggests, it had unpleasant consequences! I spent my eighth birthday in hospital and at visiting time my mum brought in a huge bar of chocolate, sent by my merchant seaman uncle. I don't think Uncle Tony ever knew that he actually treated the whole ward of 20 children, as the nurses shared the chocolate out between everyone. Only fair, I suppose, but it was a shame my older brother and sister didn't get to taste it. Children weren't allowed to visit, and parents were restricted to one hour on a Wednesday afternoon and one hour on a Sunday.
I'm not sure when this photograph of a toy shop dates from, but I could never dream of playing with toys like these. With my best friend Pat, I played at 'chip shops', scraping the pith from orange peel to represent the fish, cutting up the peel into little strips for the chips and wrapping the portions in tiny squares of newspaper. I also had a battered, tin, doll's pram, handed down from my older sister. I was ten before I had a doll of my own, but before that our tabby cat, Tinker, was quite happy to be wrapped in a scrap of blanket and wheeled around!
As well as wrapping pretend chips and fish, newspapers had many practical uses, a double sheet could be held in place with a shovel against the fireplace to help the fire 'catch', often resulting in chimneys on fire if the upward draught took the paper up the chimney! They would also be cut into squares, with string threaded through a hole in the corner and hung on a nail in the outside loo - no Andrex in those days; or you could take a bundle of clean newspapers to the local chip shop and get a free portion of chips for your trouble.
Mostly, I remember outdoor games, a home-made top and whip; chalking hop-scotch on the pavement; playing with two balls against the entry wall - with three balls once you were very experienced; tick; and perhaps my favourite, skipping, especially when it was a very long rope and there were plenty of little girls taking turns to swing the rope as the rest skipped in and out. There were many skipping rhymes - "Once you're in, you can't get out, until you touch the ground".
When money was tight, mothers got their shopping 'on tick' at the local shops, and the pawn shop also came in handy to "tide me over until pay day". It was an era of 'Make Do and Mend'. Dads repaired the family's shoes until they were outgrown or fell apart. Mothers were rarely without a piece of knitting on the go, when cardigans or pullovers were outgrown the wool was unravelled and knitted up into another garment. Nothing was wasted, any food scraps, peelings, etc, were put to one side and a woman we called 'the pig lady' used to walk around the streets with a wheelbarrow, collecting them for her pigs. No-one around us had a car, but the rag and bone man's horse and cart used to come down the street - with a double benefit. If you had any rags for him he'd hand over a 'donkey stone', used for whitening the concrete front step, and if the horse left a bonus behind, Dad would send me out with a bucket and shovel to collect it for the garden!
Once coats and warm skirts were too worn to be handed down but too good for the rag and bone man, Mum used to cut them into strips and with a piece of canvas for the backing and a bodkin to push the strips through, made rag rugs. We didn't have carpets, upstairs we had lino and downstairs the floors were quarry tiled. Mum used tins of Red Cardinal polish on them and me and my sister used to enjoy sliding around the two rooms with dusters tied to our feet to give the tiles a good polish.
We were lucky in that our two-up, two-down had a long garden backing onto a field, but there was one drawback. Our kitchen door was always open in the summer and everything got covered in flies. I can remember the yellow, sticky fly papers hanging from the ceiling, usually next to the light or from the clothes rack that hung over the table, they looked disgusting when they were full of dead flies. As well as fly papers we were armed with a Flit spray. Hard to imagine nowadays spraying DDT around your kitchen, with food, crockery and pots and pans lying around!
I can remember people smoking on buses, which also had warning posters 'Spitting Prohibited'. People smoked in pubs, clubs, cinemas, theatres, restaurants, even hospital wards and my dad, a smoker from the age of 13 when he left school, was hit hard by the shortage of cigarettes. He often sent me out to shops within a mile radius to ask 'Ten cigarettes for my dad please'. I was about 8 or 9 at the time and if I was lucky the shopkeeper would reach under the counter and hand over ten Woodbines. Another little errand I remember being sent on was when Mum ran out of the right change for the gas or electricity meters, which only took shillings. I'd run to the bus stop at the top of the street and when the Crosville bus stopped I'd hand the conductor the half-crown or two shilling piece and ask 'Can you give me some change for the meter please?' A real treat was when the conductor not only handed over the change but also gave me the end of his ticket roll. To someone who loved to scribble that paper was precious.
I remember the first book I owned, Alison Utley's The Great Adventures of Hare. It was a school prize, awarded to me when I was seven for coming top of the class - a miracle never to be repeated! There were always books in the house, but they came from our local library, a mile away.
Thinking of Junior School reminds me of a painting competition run by Gibbs toothpaste. In hindsight, it must have been a concerted drive to improve the dental health of children - as well as a good marketing ploy - as every child who entered was given a tin of toothpaste!
Looking back, I'm sure it couldn't have been hygienic since everyone in the family rubbed their wet toothbrush across the 'cake' of toothpaste! Better than a visit to the dentist though - having a black rubber mask placed over your face and 'gassed' until you became unconscious, then waking up minus a couple of teeth, was not a pleasant experience!
I loved the free school milk that came in quart bottles, in the winter when you took the top off there was a little plug of ice on top of the milk. In the summer, when we had fresh milk at home it was kept in a terracotta pot that was half-filled with cold water, but we mostly used 'Steri', a long-lasting milk that came in bottles with a metal cap.
Remembering the 1940s means remembering harsh winters - especially 1947 when the snow drifts were so high we couldn't walk to school - but also long, hot summers when during the school holidays we'd roam far and wide with a bottle of water and a jam butty. As the railway line ran right in front of our house down to Cronton Colliery, and the train only passed twice a day, a safe walk was 'down the line'. It ran past corn fields, bluebell woods, and 'Hill 60'. We knew nothing about the significance of what that name commemorated, to us it was just a bit of a hill that we could run up and down. Towards the end of the line was a large pond called the 'Sour A' - I've no idea why! Bullrushes grew around the edge and Pat and I would carefully gather a bunch to take home to our mums. They lasted longer than the bluebells we picked, the poor things had always perished by the time we got them into water. I believe it's now against the law to gather wild flowers, or to take pebbles from the beach.
There are many other memories of the 1940s, being in the Brownies - I still have my metal Brownie badge; wearing fleecy-lined liberty bodices in the winter. I've no idea why they were called liberty bodices, they had tiny buttons made of rubber to save them being broken when they went through the wooden rollers of the mangle.
As the decade ended, the war had been over for five years; rationing was still in force, but my Spanish grandmother no longer had to register at her local police station as an 'Alien'. I was ten years old and the highlight of my life so far had been in December, 1945 when I was a bridesmaid at my Uncle Tony's wedding. As 1950 was ushered in, my little world was about to change.
I am indebted to various sources for these photographs. My apologies if any are subject to copyright, if necessary I will acknowledge and/or remove them.