Extracts from “War Baby” by Joan I. Hands
These excerpts are from my Life Story, mainly from the section called War Baby.
I hope to publish the whole work one day soon, or at least present it to my five Grandchildren as a memento.
This material is copyright Joan Hands (2009) but extracts can be copied for personal or non commercial use.
Credit should be made to the author in each instance.
My first house move was when I was too young to realise what was happening. At the tender age of nine months, only eight months after war was declared and the nightmare of the next four years only just begun, my Mum did a ‘midnight flip’from Thornton Heath, Croydon, and returned to her childhood town of Leicester. Nan and Grandpa went too, whilst my Dad, who had been called up, was destined for Egypt by way of Durban. The intended short stay at 39, Derwent Street was to become a much longer sojourn of over twenty years for my family.
39, Derwent Street
The street. The all-important centre of our lives. The community, the houses, the back-yards, the entries, the very road itself, all a subconscious part of our being, unacknowledged but omnipotent. Derwent Street was just one of the many roads with Derbyshire connotations in the Spinney Hill area of the town. They marched in parallel rows, all running into Melbourne Road as it climbed the hill to the solidly severe Melbourne Road Church. (The church itself, I believe, had associations with Thomas Cook, the entrepreneurial force behind the travel agency that is now a world-wide name.)
Streets of late Victorian red-brick workers’ houses, cheaply yet well built. Long, unlit entries, many enclosed, divided the terraces into neighbouring blocks of eight or so dwellings, four on each side. These determined your immediate ‘clan’ – the people you acknowledged by name in the street or in the two small general stores that formed the focal points of street life. The next social division was the side of the street – the sunny or the shady side. We had the misfortune to live on the colder, darker side and even the inherent glow of the rust-coloured bricks could never quite dispel the air of foreboding as the day’s shadows grew longer.
Our front door had a step; all the steps in the street were treated with loving, but competitive care. The weekly clean with special red polish left them shiny and pristine, so much so, you hardly dare put a muddy foot on them.
The street was a community and we knew everyone who lived in it and quite a lot of their ‘business’, as my mother put it, not that she encouraged closeness or the popping in and out of other people’s houses which was commonplace at that time.
Strangers were much more fun and the regular, as well as the infrequent, tradesmen who called were always a source of easy entertainment for the local kids. The coal-man, with his great horse and cart, was a welcome visitor. We had to be positioned at the window to count the bags of coal as they were delivered ‘round the back’ to make sure we were not cheated. Fuel was scarce and expensive and every bit of nutty slack mattered.
The milkman also delivered his goods by horse and cart, and the manure left behind was assiduously collected for the vegetables that struggled for survival in the tiny, shaded backyards.
The British Restaurant
It was a long walk to the British Restaurant in East Park Road, especially for a toddler aged about three and a half. We (Mum, baby Eric and I) entered Spinney Hill Park through its grandiose Victorian iron gates, thankfully spared from being sent as scrap for the ‘War Effort’. Down the steep hill, trying to keep hold of Mum’s coat or Eric’s pushchair as it veered at an alarming rate past the bandstand (silent and half derelict, just a memory of balmier days when concerts on the grass were a weekly feature), we scuttled. Over the little wooden bridge, under which ran the ‘Brook’, infamous in later days for illicit paddling amongst the weeds and leeches, frightened to death by the ‘big boys’ who stated with glee we would all die from the creatures’ ‘bites’.
The Restaurant was held in the Hall adjacent to St Barnabas Church. The vomit-inducing smell permeated the surroundings, as we patiently queued outside. Mum tightly held the coupons, (it was a time dominated by coupons), and the baby and I engaged in some infantile game or attacked each other as young children do.
Wafts of Bisto gravy and powdered-milk custard mingled together, overlaid by the pungent aroma of greens cooked to destruction, but we went inside nevertheless. Any food was better than none! In fact, I grew to like the custard, especially if it was served with a man-sized helping of treacle sponge, and it took some time to get accustomed to custard made with fresh milk after the war.
The rows of tables arranged to seat the maximum number with little regard for comfort or privacy were soon filled with the plates of dinner and silence ensued as we ate as much as we could manage. “Who knows”, as some wise partaker said, “it might be our last meal”. Bombs had dropped on the town and shrapnel could be found and bartered in the street, at exorbitant exchange rates in marbles or colourful ‘fag’ (cigarette) cards.
The walk back home was harder, uphill all the way, and by the time we reached the top of Derwent Street all the energy imparted by our good dinner had evaporated and we were hungry again.
My earliest memories are of the Methodist Church, also situated on Melbourne Road, but higher up the hill. A plain yet sturdy building, it faced the main road, but the entrance we little ones were allowed to use was in the side street. There were two large halls, underneath the body of the church, both used for Sunday School classes which were divided into groups according to your age. The cosy, newly-polished smell greeted us as we filed in on Sunday afternoons, leaving our parents in peace for a few hours. I loved the tiny wooden chairs, circling for protection from the outside world around our teacher’s lap. We listened without interruption in those better-mannered days and were rewarded with Victorian-style ‘scraps’ for our bibles, (if we were lucky enough to own one), or for our home-made scrapbooks. I can still see those miniature texts, surrounded by sweet violets or clusters of roses, which made ample reward for the effort of attending.
St. Hilda’s, the Anglican church, also held a Sunday School in its adjoining hall and I found myself becoming a regular there for a time, mainly because it made a change and one could meet new people (or new boys, which amounted to the same thing!). There was an old bell on the outside of the church, in the alleyway between the two buildings, and we were always daring each other to pull it. It was only rung during Communion as a rule, but we didn’t know that….
Melbourne Road Infants’ School
The infant school for the Derwent Street area was about a quarter of a mile along the main road. It was called Melbourne Road School; it had both mixed infants’ and senior departments, segregated into Boys and Girls at the secondary stage. My mother took me there for the first week or two, thereafter I was expected to go alone or with a group of friends from my street. We were not mollycoddled in those days and had no fear of strangers or crossing roads – all part of the ‘streetwise’ background I grew up in.
The school was a part of Leicester’s Victorian legacy, built in 1892 as a Board School for the children in the rows of terraced houses whose fathers worked in the nearby leather and shoe factories at the height of the era. It, too, was red-bricked and proud of it, its architecture defying its undistinguished surroundings. The infants, both boys and girls, entered through iron gates set into a high, prison-like wall. Was it meant to keep us in or undesirables out? Whatever the case, it felt a little intimidating to a small child, but the delights of the Reception classroom more than made up for its austerity.
Low tables and painted mini chairs were arranged around the large and airy room. A small cloakroom with pegs decorated with animals, fruits and flowers, led into the main classroom. I was given a bunch of cherries as my ‘peg’ symbol, it being thought that we were too young to be able to read our names. There was a pinafore, towel and flannel already hanging there, also with our logo, for personal hygiene. The two teachers helped us with our coats and took us through into the treasure room, or so it seemed to me. I did not possess many toys at home and to be surrounded by dolls, trains, rocking horses, dolls houses, jigsaw puzzles and a myriad other delights, including a large sand tray and, joy of joys, a book corner, were worth the journey.
The nights were always so dark and gloomy, indoors and out, during the War. The drab blackout curtains had to be drawn as soon as it began to get dark and the lights put on: gas mantles that had to be lit with a taper, standing on a chair or step ladder, before we ‘went electric’. The curtains survived much longer than the war, but I was very pleased to see them cut up for rags at last. The window overlooked our backyard. It hardly merited the term ‘garden’, but it was much loved nevertheless.
The living room, as distinct from the rarely used front room, had an open fire, on which kettles were boiled and flat irons were heated; it made the most succulent toast! We had our weekly bath in a big, battered, tin bath in front of this same fire. The water was heated in the copper in the scullery and carried in a jug at a time to fill it up. It was after such a bath, whilst sitting on my Nan’s knee having my hair towelled dry, that I fell onto the metal fender, (I do not recall if it was brass, copper or some other cheaper metal). Blood gushed from the cut and I had to be rushed down to the Doctor’s surgery that night on Melbourne Road, at least half a mile away, holding a basin under my head for the blood. I think I had to have stitches, but my memory is of an altogether unpleasant episode in my life. The very sight of wooden chairs with fretworked holes in the seat, as were the benches and chairs dotted around the surgery that night, is sufficient to bring it all back.
My earliest recollections of the layout of Derwent Street include a large but empty air-raid shelter that occupied about one quarter of the area of one side of the road. It could probably have accommodated most of the inhabitants, but we had our own brick shelter at the back of the house, a dank, unlit structure which mostly served as a storage area. It also served as an outdoor playroom for my brother and I and our friends.
The large shelter had locked doors at each end, and I presume our local Air Raid Warden had a key. As children do, however, a way in was found by some of the gang and we then had a thrilling few weeks. The older boys set up a pretend ‘ghost train’, and we had to run the gauntlet inside the pitch black, cavernous building. I was very relieved to get out at the far end without mishap, but the grown ups soon put a stop to our ‘fun’ and the shelter was pulled down after the War.
The War was coming to an end. We youngsters did not really understand what that meant, but everyone around us seemed that much less anxious and more ready to tolerate our games.
I think it was the afternoon of VE day that we had our street party and what an amazing event that was to a five year-old little girl who had grown up with rationing and austerity. Cakes and jellies were conjured up from nowhere and the Leicestershire ‘cob’ filled with fish paste or corned beef was delicious. Trestle tables were arranged down the street and everyone joined in the spirit of the memorable occasion, neighbourly squabbles forgotten for the duration. We put on our party best, such as it was, and sallied forth into the night, being allowed to stay up late for that very special occasion. My histrionic talents were already blossoming and I remember ‘doing a turn’ for the admiring neighbours. Exactly what it was has vanished into the proverbial mists of time, but I do recollect the thrill and excitement that I felt at being the centre of attention. In fact, I probably got thoroughly over-excited and had to be bundled off to bed in a state of nervous exhaustion.
In those distant days of the 1940s and 50s, before television, home computers, game boys and play stations, entertainment was mainly based on ‘steam radio’ or the cinema. Rare treats were visits to the live theatre, usually the annual pantomime, or local church and school performances. The magic lantern shows at the Victorian Nonconformist chapel a few streets away on Mere Road were my earliest introductions to the mystical art of film making and they left a lasting impression on my young mind. The Passover and the Israelites’ flight into Egypt, Samson and the fall of the Temple, the Passion of Christ, were all depicted in lurid, hand-painted colours and with text spoken by the operator’s assistant, since not everyone in the audience could read the sub-titles. The overall feeling of impending doom and hell fire permeated my dreams for weeks afterwards.
We had a choice of cinemas, (generally known as ‘the flicks’), either the Melbourne (10 minutes’ walk away from Derwent Street), or the slightly more up-market Evington, (20 minutes’ walk), or, on occasions when it was showing a film my Mum fancied, the ‘flea pit’ (3 miles’ walk away). I hated going there, since at the interval the usherette sprayed everywhere with some kind of insecticide or air freshener. It was also a long way to drag little tired legs after a late night out. The Melbourne, being the nearest, was the obvious choice and we could go there as we got older on our own or with our friends.
The Evington had Saturday morning cinema for kids and we only had to pay 3d for the privilege. I loved its deep orange silk curtains with black silhouettes of Clarice Cliff-style trees and an owl on the topmost branches; it seemed like it was winking at us, with iridescent orange eyes.
Fun and Games
Each and every season had its designated game. Whip and top, with the tops intricately decorated in multi-coloured chalks, were followed by marbles, played ‘for keepsies’ against the kerb stones. There was very little traffic and the whole width of the street was our designated playground. Hoops and scooters sometimes appeared, latterly replaced by bicycles for the richer amongst us. How I longed for my own bike, as my friend Shirley rode her gleaming model up and down the road, occasionally letting me go to the corner of Derwent Street if I waited patiently enough. (I had to be content with that small offering until I went to the Collegiate Girls’ School, aged eleven, when I needed a bike to get to school.)
Ball games were legion. As well as football, played enthusiastically by mixed teams in the Spinney Hill Park at the top of the street, we enjoyed a whole range of skilful activities. We could throw and catch one, two and even three balls at a time in the air, or against a wall. We bounced them and jumped over them and threw them to a partner and to a group. We played ‘Queenie’ in the road, where one person tossed the ball behind them and someone in the spaced-out group got it; everyone then hid their hands behind their back and called out “Queenie!” The thrower turned round and had three chances to guess who had the ball. If they guessed correctly, they stayed as the Queen, if not, they changed places with the new Queen.
The Street Gang
All streets had a gang. Some were well-defined and exclusive, some allowed children from other streets to become almost ‘honorary members’, others fluctuated as the numbers of children rose or fell. Some were deadly rivals, others peacefully co-existed on adjacent territories, but all instilled unquestioning loyalty to their leaders. We did not have a name, or any formal qualifications of entry, but it was just acknowledged whether you ‘belonged’ or not. We certainly never carried any weapons beyond our own fists!
We had the most marvellous wide games, which went on for months. The alleyways and part-covered entries between the streets (Derwent, Diseworth and Donnington in particular) and rows of terraced houses made ideal playgrounds, and even if we did trespass constantly into other people’s backyards in our chases, we did not cause any damage. It was a far healthier lifestyle than today’s children enjoy, and we certainly did make the most of our freedom.
What nights to remember they were! The excitement started weeks before, when we all made our own ‘Guys’ from newspaper-stuffed old trousers and Dads’ cast-off shirts. We concocted a suitably gruesome mask, or bought a lurid ready-made one if we could afford it. Then we paraded up and down the streets, pushing poor old Guy in a doll’s pram or younger sibling’s beaten-up pushchair. The money we begged went into our money-boxes, (mine was in the shape of a red phone box), to be lovingly and assiduously counted every night.
When we could bear it no longer, we set off to the paper shop across Melbourne Road to spend our pennies and three-penny bits on our personal collections of fireworks. The very names had such an air of magic – Witch’s Cauldron, Silver Fountain, Golden Rain. The boys’ favourites, the ‘bangers’, had equally explosive names, and these, as well as the Catherine Wheels and Rockets that completed the armoury, were all arranged and re-arranged methodically in the Oxo tin, until it was doubtful that any gunpowder was left inside them.
Our Daily Bread
There were two grocery-cum-greengrocery shops in Derwent Street, both too expensive according to my mother to shop at regularly, but handy when supplies of essential items ran out. The one near the corner of Derwent Street and Mere Road was on the same side as our house, at No. 39 and was the more ‘old fashioned’ of the two. It was a real ‘gossip shop’ and service was slow. I remember buying a bottle of Camp coffee there once, the wartime substitute for the real thing. The one lower down on the same side was a newer, more ‘with it’ establishment and the one preferred by my Mum. I was often sent there when she had run out of something and the young son was the same age as my brother, so they sometimes played together in the street. On occasions, a van came round the streets selling fruit and vegetables too.
The preferred shopping area was about half a mile away, where the much larger Co-op was sited on the corner of Conduit Street, opposite yet another fish and chip shop. We had a Co-op number and received an annual dividend on our purchases, a crucial help to low-waged people in those days of wartime austerity. Woe betide me if I forgot to ask for the ‘divi’ when I went to do the errands! The whole street was full of little shops and I think my friend Shirley’s grandad or uncle kept the sweet shop, but it was virtually empty until sweets came off rations. Most things were sold straight from the jar or bag, no pre-packaging then, and we always took our own shopping bags, the ‘greener’ option today.
Spinney Hill Park
The park was my second home. It was the next best thing to being brought up in the countryside rather than in a terraced row of Victorian houses. From a very early age I can remember going up Derwent Street, where I lived with my mother, baby brother Eric, Nan and Grandad and my mother’s uncle whilst my father was away in Egypt during the Second World War, to play in the park.
Across Mere Road and past the grandiose iron gates and we were there. The wide path of the hill swept away into the distance, all the way down to East Park Road in the valley. It was a huge expanse for a small child to play in: acres of grass, trees, shrubs, flower beds, cricket and football pitches, tennis courts, bandstand, an enclosed playground, a small stream (the Brook), drinking water fountains, a park keeper’s house, and, at the very top of it all, a grand pavilion. Well, it had once been grand in its Victorian hey-day. The shrubberies and flower beds were a little neglected during those war days, with the labour force of younger men called up into the armed forces, but that only made it the more exciting for us youngsters. There were places to hide or play doctors and nurses galore and we truly believed that no-one else knew about our ‘secret’ dens. My favourite was amongst the small trees and overgrown shrubs next to the pavilion itself, where some sawn off tree trunks made perfect seats and the surrounding branches hung down to shield us from prying eyes.
The Park was the only open space for the Highfields district until one reached Victoria Park on the London Road, quite a distance away. It was the meeting place for kids of all ages, come rain or shine. We sometimes joined up with the children of other streets to play hide and seek, football or rounders. We had mock battles with other gangs in the swing yard, always under the watching eyes of the Park keeper’s assistant. He had a little hut all to himself in the playground and if we got friendly with him he would let us go and sit inside on cold or rainy days.
The swings were wonderful. There was a row of really high ones that would swing you up almost to heaven and two rows of smaller ones for toddlers, which may have had bars across for safety. They were all made of wood with large metal chains to suspend them. Once, I fell off the taller swings when I had worked my way up to the highest point. I hit my head and lost consciousness for a few minutes, but I never told my parents or I would have been forbidden to play there.
There was a Witch’s Hat, a roundabout that went up to a point in the middle, hence its name. We sat on a wooden bench, holding onto metal rails, and worked it round with our feet or one of the older kids would pull us round, up and down – it was very exciting. The other roundabouts were made of thick metal bars and we used both our feet, and then jumped up onto the bars holding on as tightly as we could to avoid being swung off altogether by the momentum. Or there was a wooden one which we sped round with one foot on its side platform and one on the ground. Or we just sat on them and chatted with our friends. The playground was in the middle of the park at the bottom of the hill and it was divided into two, with a path running through the middle from Park Vale Road. There was a see-saw and swings in each half, but only one Witch’s Hat. Nowadays, with Health and Safety rules everywhere, I doubt if all of that apparatus would be allowed, but it did us no harm. We learnt to have daring fun without unduly hurting ourselves or others.
The Big Freeze, Winter 1947
The snow came in the night. We had been warned on the radio, but not to expect anything like that. I could hardly see out of the back window, there was so much piled up on the wide window-sill. Opening the front door was not an easy task either, regardless of the cold blast that swept through the house when my mother tried. Dad had to dig his way out to the shed with the coal shovel, normally kept by the fire and not intended for tackling a three-foot layer of fluffy, crystalline snow.
Our friends had ventured out too and soon the street was filled with whoops and screams as snowballs hurtled through the bitter cold air. I do not think I enjoyed that part much, but one had to endure it to be part of the gang. The two sides of the street made natural trenches for a snowball war and we stayed out to play as long as our numb fingers and toes would let us.
Warming our steamy clothes by the fire took up much of the time that week and many a chilblain did I suffer for my pleasure. As the days wore on and the snow seemed to have no intention of going anywhere in a hurry, we travelled farther afield. Spinney Hill Park was only at the top of our street and a natural ice playground for thrill seekers of all ages. We trundled our sledges up to the gates and along the main path, which ran parallel to Mere Road. Opposite the Pavilion there was the most daring slope, a veritable Cresta Run, hundreds of yards of steep hillside. Being only seven years old, I did not attempt to hurl myself down that well-polished sheet of sheer ice, but bumped gently down the lesser slopes on each side. Even there, it was difficult not to get knocked over or tumbled off my sledge by the bigger boys who seemed to have no fear or regard for us young kids. I suppose it all added to the excitement and sense of danger. In fact, someone was killed on that run and the news made us all apprehensive.
Up Town and Down Town
There were two options in my young life. You could either take the ‘uptown’ or the ‘downtown’ bus. They both traversed Melbourne Road, but in opposite directions. From where I lived in Derwent Street, the downtown route went down the hill, past the Melbourne Road Schools, (attended by my mother and my younger brother, besides myself), St. Hilda’s Church, the Melbourne Cinema, along Nedham Street, (where my mother lived in her teenage years), past the shoe factory, (where Grandad worked part-time after ‘retirement’), and so onto the main Humberstone Road. This led past shops, offices, factories and houses to Humberstone Gate, one of the main arteries of the city centre, culminating in the Clock Tower.
The uptown bus stop, opposite the Methodist Church I once attended, was a few yards further up the hill. Past identikit streets of red brick terraced houses wistfully, or ironically, named after Derbyshire Dales, the circular dome of the church associated with Thomas Cook, the travel entrepeneur, filling the skyline at the top of the hill. Past the doctor’s surgery and the fascinating old chemist’s shop, with its cane baskets for weighing new born babies and shelves of large glass retorts filled with densely coloured liquids, to St. Peter’s Church, where I was christened and was later a bridesmaid to Irene, my mother’s cousin. Past the once elegant town houses and the side road that led to my grammar school, the Collegiate School for Girls, down the main road to the imposing Midland Road Station. The covered forecourt was always full of taxis, shining black cabs, ready to whisk the lucky few to their secret destinations. And so on into town.
The memories come wafting back; the wooden floors and warm lights of ‘Woolies’, with its mouth-watering counters arrayed with every kind of goodie money could buy – not that I ever had much of that in my pocket. The essence of decadence, the aroma of freshly ground coffee drifting over the market from the Home and Colonial Stores. The pork pie and sausagey smell of Sainsbury’s, in those days a small and neatly tiled emporium, with well-placed bent cane chairs for weary customers to rest on as they placed their individual orders. The piles of rotting cabbage leaves and squashed tomatoes, with their putrid, earthy odour, left in the rain at the end of a busy market day. The penetrating, all pervading fishiness of the separate Fish Market, water constantly running in channels between the marble slabs, the slabs covered in serried rows of eerie sea creatures laid out as in a morgue. The cream-soda flavours of the Italian ices mingling with the traffic fumes of the old Fords and Morris Minors chugging and spluttering their way round the congested central streets. Uptown or downtown, the city was certainly a magical place!