Growing Up In Mansfield
Most of my mother’s family lived in Mansfield and we moved here, in 1938, to live in one of the four small stone-clad houses then at the lower end of Clumber Street. Grandma & Grandad, two uncles and three lodgers lived at No. 100.
The Gelsthorpe family of four lived at No. 102. Our next-door neighbours, at No. 104, were Mrs.Jones, Norah, and their lodger, a jolly, red-haired Irishman named Bernard, who was soon to join the Navy and lose his life when his submarine was destroyed. The houses had steps up to the rarely used front doors. Originally there were also iron railings but these were removed to help the War Effort.
Communal Back Yard
At the far side of our house, there were more steps and a narrow passage, treacherous in winter weather, leading round to the communal back yard. The toilets and coal-houses were situated there, and it was also where the washing was hung. The yard backed on to a high stone wall separating us from Westhill Drive.
Each house had scullery with a built-in copper, which had to be filled and lit on washdays, a sink with one tap (cold water) and a gas cooker. There was a middle room, with a door to the stairs on the right-hand side, and a fire-place. This was an old-fashioned kitchen range type, with the coal fire in the middle (flat-irons could be heated and bread toasted here), an oven on one side and a boiler on the other. When we first moved there, the houses were lit by gas but we soon got hooked up to the electricity system. Upstairs there were two bedrooms and a large attic, surplus to our requirements, as there were still only four of us in he family. How Grandma fitted seven people into No.100, I’ll never know.
The Second World War
By September 1939, Dad was already a warden in the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions). He didn’t have a uniform – just a badge and armband. He spent his Sunday mornings at lectures learning all about such things as stirrup-pumps and mustard gas. Everyone gathered in our house towards 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 3rd to listen in to our rented Redifusion wireless and hear Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s important announcement to the nation. Redifusion advert I heard this announcement, too. I saw the men’s grave faces and the women’s tears but I didn’t understand what it was all about.
Air Raid Siren
I wandered outside, across the back-yard and into the loo, or ‘closet’ as Grandma always called it. In that semi-darkness, my young life was suddenly invaded by the weirdest, up-and-down wailing noise. Wailing in competition, I ran back into the house, to the shelter of my mother’s arms. “It’s alright,” she said. “It’s only the sirens. They’re just testing them. That’s the Air-raid warning. The All-clear will go soon. “It did and, as I was to learn during the next few years, it was a much more comforting noise.
Later that same Sunday, I walked up Clumber Street with my Dad. “What are they doing?” I asked, seeing men from the old stone cottages further up the street, working furiously on a piece of waste ground opposite. “Digging trenches,” he said. “Why?” I wanted to know. “In case the Germans come.” The Germans, I guessed, were due to arrive at any moment. Fortunately, they didn’t come that day or at any other time during that long War which seemed to stretch over the whole of my childhood. I was just eight when it began and nearly fourteen when it ended.
School Holidays and Gas Masks
That year, the school summer holidays were extended and gas masks were issued. These had to be carried around everywhere and at all times, slung round your neck and shoulders, in cardboard boxes which slowly disintegrated. Thankfully, we never had to use them in earnest. Later, when it became obvious the Germans didn’t intend to gas us all, we were allowed to leave them at home.
Rationing of essential foods didn’t begin immediately and some people’s attitude was far from patriotic. A young friend of mine grumbled about being sent all over town to buy sugar and wondered what his mother wanted it all for. “I suppose she’s ‘hoarding’,” I told him, using a new word I’d picked up. I think the wireless was always telling us not to do it. The weather, that September, was particularly fine and the blow of having, eventually, to go back to school was lessened by the fact that, at first, we only went half-time. One week the girls attended in the mornings and the boys in the afternoons; the next week the order was reversed. As a precaution, we had to run there and back, to avoid the risk of getting caught out in an air raid. When the air raids didn’t come, we all started full-time and stopped running.
One day, on my way from Broomhill school, I saw a crowd of strangers, women and children, waiting outside the Westfield Folk House, on Westfield Lane. They were, I announced confidently when I got back home, ‘evacuee’s and ‘expectant’ mothers. Two more words I’d picked up without knowing quite what they meant – I don’t suppose I got them from listening to ‘Itma’, ‘Children’s Hour’ or ‘In Town Tonight’.
There were other expressions, only half-understood. A tailors’ shop in Albert Street had a strange notice in its window. ‘Closed for the Duration’, it said. Local factories, which formerly produced radios, shoes, and hosiery, went over to ‘munitions’.
The Palais de Dance, on Leeming Street, was first used for issuing ‘Identity Cards’ (my number was RNJO 74-3. Dad made me learn it by heart, in case… well, I never did know why), and ‘Ration Books’. Later it became a ‘NAAFI canteen’ to which soldiers, billeted all over town, were marched at frequent intervals. Strangest of all, a loft in the corner of the Stag & Pheasant yard, suddenly sprouted the legend ‘Officers’ Mess’. My cousin and I thought this was hilarious and even when my mother explained it to us, we still giggled at the idea of officers either making or getting into a mess.
Joan Piccini October 1988