Memories collected by Fraser from his Grandma Beatrice Render.
Were you evacuated?
No, I wasn’t evacuated because I was only nine years old when the war started and I was in a children’s home because my mother died when I was 2. My father could not look after me and my four sisters, plus there was no social service in those days. None of my sisters were evacuated either because they were also in the home but we were separated because they were older. I was only 14 years old when my father died and the war was still on at this time.
If you stayed in the home, how did the war affect you in the home? Did you enjoy staying there during the war?
We all had to have a gas mask and when we went to bed at night we had to take outdoor clothing up to the bedrooms in case the air-raid siren was activated, which it was on numerous occasions.
No, because it wasn’t a nice children’s home and I would have preferred to be with a loving family. It was scary at times because we didn’t have anybody special, like a mum or dad to go to if we were frightened and needed to speak to someone. The foster carers were not there to “love” us they were just there to run the home.
Did you have any experiences with air-raids and what was it like in the shelters?
Yes, I had numerous accounts with the air-raid siren and having to go down into the shelters. We were frightened to death in the air-raids, whether we were going to get bombed. There was no street lights, so if the siren was activated during the night, it was pitch black outside and we would be very, very petrified and we would possibly be made to run from the home to the shelter which was as far as 200 yards away. There would be about 20-25 children all running towards the shelter. We were never bombed but the planes used to fly over and that’s when the sirens used to go off.
The shelters were dirty, dank and they were not properly built shelters, they were just holes in the ground with a cover over the top made out of corrugated iron and with some earth over that for camouflage. They were made for about between 25- 30 children and foster parents. 3 tier bunks were made for sleeping purposes, with one to a bunk. The younger children were always pushed to the far end which was the darkest and smelliest place of all. Also they were forced to sleep in the bottom bunks nearest to the damp, horrible earth. There was no food or drink in the shelters; you could be there from half-an-hour to up to 3-4 hours, so at times we were freezing cold. I tried to be one of the first in the shelter so I was nearer the door and the fresh air. The toilet was a bucket for all the children if we needed it. I was very cold; there were no blankets on the bunks.
Even though sometimes my sisters were in the air raid shelter with me, I still felt very alone because we were raised in different annexes of the children’s home and we never became close.
What was your experience like with the black out?
All the windows in the home had to have brown sticky tape over them, criss-crossed over the glass to stop the glass from shattering inwards and curtains were lined with black material. I was ten when the black-out started and I was very scared of the dark when it started. By the time it ended I was fifteen and I was much more used to the pitch black by the time it ended. The saddest thing was seeing children being brought in from the streets crying because their mothers had abandoned them or turned to prostitution because their fathers were at war and the mothers were so poor. The children who were sometimes under five years old would come in dressed in rags and shoeless, covered in nits and dirt. All the other children in the home used to feel especially sorry for these kids.
What was rationing like?
Your age depended on how much bread you were allowed. 5-12 year olds were only allowed one slice of bread, butter and jam for tea, whereas up to the age of fourteen you were allowed two slices. All we had for breakfast was porridge, and lunch used to be whatever cheap meat the carers could get their hands on, there was never any chops , it was always meat that could be easily cooked and we only got a piece of cake once a week on a Sunday, yet the carers had buns every day of the week. This was the 1930’s; children’s homes were different back then. I didn’t even know what a banana was or any fruit other than an orange. The Home’s children did get sweetie coupons but these were taken from us because the foster mother’s brother owned a sweet shop and she used our coupons to buy a suitcase full of sweets and then we would have to use our pocket money to buy them from her. So we had to buy them twice, once with our coupons and then with our pocket money. We only ever got an orange at Christmas, we got an orange and a sugar mouse, and I can’t remember ever eating an egg or having milk to drink. The Boy’s Homes used to grow some vegetables for the homes. All I can remember is a mass of yellow on my plate which was boiled marrow which was yuk. Clothes rations meant you wore “Hand-me-downs” even shoes and I was fourteen before I had my first new clothes, which was a coat.
How did your life change during the war?
There was very little change in the way the homes were run between war years and non-war years. There wasn’t a great deal of difference apart from the air-raids. Life was very difficult and hard because we lived in a children’s home not because of the war. When lads were fifteen they were put out to farms until they were old enough to go to war and girls were taught how to house keep and were put to work cleaning homes, mostly in the Street Lane area of Leeds. Your pocket money was taken out of your wage and the rest of the wage was put into the bank until you were eighteen and then you had to leave the home and fend for yourself. There were lots of horrible incidents happened in the home which would hopefully not be tolerated now, I can remember during the war, one of the masters of the adjoining boys home tried to gas himself in the kitchen oven when it was discovered he was a paedophile. However, in those days things like this were covered up, he did live but no action was ever taken against him, although he did leave the home. The way I looked on life was dictated by all my experiences within the home, being a war child was just one of them. In fact, the “home” children were in some cases better off than the village children during the war because the village was a mining village (Rothwell). Many of the families were very poor, especially if the fathers were at war because they were originally miners who brought home the wages, and often the village children went to school during the war without shoes or socks whereas the “home” children always had clothes because they were passed down.
We went to the Rothwell Church School during the war, when we were in the Secondary section of the school, one of the teacher’s husband was in the Air Force, and all the girls would knit socks, we were taught how to “turn a heel” on four needles for the socks. We also used to knit scarves for the forces. This came in handy because when I was older I knit bootees for my own children. We left school at 14.
What did you do to keep yourself upbeat during the war?
During the air raids we were not allowed to do anything and it was complete darkness so we all just kept quiet. My family was the only ones in the “home” who went to Chapel and we were looked after by the Chapel congregation – when it came to Sports Day they always made sure we went home with prizes and goody bags even though there was a war on. The Chapel congregation were always nice to us but the village children hated us.
What were your emotions when the war had been won?
When the War ended we were all happy, the foster mother took everybody into Leeds and tried to get in to see a film for free but no-one allowed us to do this because there was too many of us, so we ended up in City Station at a continuous news report picture house which was showing pictures of the allies bringing the war to an end. We were allowed in here free and one of the pictures which remain in my mind is one of the allies discovering the Belsen Concentration Camp and the horrors therein. Everyone was glad to get out of the showing. I was 15 at the end of the war so when all the younger children were taken out to celebrate VJ Day I was not allowed to go. Rationing went on for many years after the war had ended. The only difference the end of the war made was we no longer had to go in the air raid shelters. I cannot remember any parades, fireworks or memorials – life just went on.
I think my Grandma was very brave and had a very difficult childhood not just because of the war but because she didn’t have a mum or dad as well. I also think a lot of the Foster Carers were very mean and took advantage of the children and their position so perhaps they ate better during the war years. The war seemed a very frightening time especially for the little children who were abandoned on the streets, which was upsetting because they could have been on the streets a long time before they were found and taken in. I could not go a whole week with only one piece of cake; my mum says she is going to make me try this to see how difficult times were. Even though I don’t like some fruit and vegetables the diet my Grandma had sounds really boring and I think I take things for granted, like the varied diet, nice clothes and school. Even though I don’t like some parts of school, it sounds much worse in my Grandma’s days. I also think the war years were very lonely for my Grandma because she was not allowed to see her sisters and I don’t know what I would do without my friends and family. My Grandma was not evacuated but at least when the war was over a lot of the evacuees went back to their Mums and Dads but the children in the home never did. It sounded like a great feeling when the war was over but my Grandma’s experience was not as happy as others because of what they saw at the Picture House. I am very grateful for what I have and the soldier’s victory. It shows my Grandma in a different light after talking to her about the war, because before I just saw her as my Grandma who did stuff like baking and knitting but she was very brave and courageous as a little child.