Wartime 1939-46

Front view of the cottages

The war years '39-'46
How aware were we as children that a world war was raging throughout most of our childhood?

Few families were touched directly by the hostilities. The Waterworks employees and the farmers were exempt from call-up. But most had families outside the community, where relatives were involved in war service, and in many other ways our lives were affected, but more so for the adults than the children.

As with every other household across the nation, we observed black-out regulations, and, like many, stuck brown gummed paper across the windows to minimise the effects of shattering glass. The community had its own Dad’s Army, though that was largely shrouded in mystery. The only sign in our house was the rifle issued to Home Guard members. Jack remembers being allowed to take his dad’s rifle to pieces, oil it and put it back together again. Strictly supervised, he doesn’t say, but most likely.

We had ration books, for food and clothing but from long practice the mothers knew how to make a little go a long way. Growing our own vegetables and being used to ‘make do and mend’ was the norm. Everybody’s standby was the humble rabbit, a versatile meal, rabbit pie being my own favourite. Keeping hens was also a bonus - dried egg was never a happy alternative. My mother and I used to try to make butter in a small hand churn, once we had saved enough top-of-the milk to serve our purpose. Other ways were there to be tried, such as using liquid paraffin as a fat substitute in cakes. We were not encouraged to indulge in sugar in drinks, developing a generation of sugar-abstainers. The few carriers that had called with groceries were now severely limited or non-existent, and Fenwick Rutherford’s grocery deliveries came by rail.

When food parcels arrived from our Canadian aunts in Montreal, it was cause for great excitement. They revealed tinned butter, meats, dried fruits, maple syrup, the whole contents always wrapped around with cast-off clothing or furnishings from the wealthy household where they were ladies’ maids. Real treats, and young though I was, I was told very clearly that these luxuries had come at a price, packed with love, and transported to us by the brave merchant seamen who dodged the German U-boats.

We were all issued with gas masks, mine a Mickey Mouse. Jack remembers his as a ‘funny black thing with a funny smell’ and found his baby brother’s infinitely more interesting as it was more like a box with a huge window in the lid, the baby being placed bodily inside, should the need arise. I wore a silver chain wristlet with my identity number engraved on a disc – the same numbers that took on another life post-war as our National Health Service numbers under the Welfare State.

Prisoners of War, both German and Italian, were billeted on some of the farms. Ian again: ‘haymaking with the Italian prisoners of war. They wore blue overalls with a large yellow spot. We had two at Blueburn, really nice fellows. One showed me how to make a hay rope out of the side of a hay stack’.




Haymaking at Newbiggin, Willy Stephenson above: left to right: Tom Bewick, German POW and Noel Eggleston

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Newbiggin had both German and Italian men, hard workers and cheerful. We got to know them at haymaking time, and one at a farm near Wingates made for me a toy that was both novel and valued, as toys were a rarity and a treat. It was a kaleidoscope, made from glass, mirrors, coloured silver paper minutely folded, and all kept together with passe par tout tape. Quite ingenious and much treasured by me.


Noel's balancing parrot

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Other toys were largely created by Lilian’s dad, Noel Eggleston, using his wood working skills. Noel’s ‘balancing parrots’ and model aeroplanes made wonderful prizes for any home made entertainment or fundraising.

We enjoyed being invited to be part of the audience at concerts organised for the troops at Nunnykirk. This meant quite a hike, but our enthusiasm carried us along. My cousin Celia, often visiting Fontburn as her Dad was in the forces, at that point used a wheel chair, and would join the convoy, with me riding on the footplate. Another very real exposure to what was going on in the world outside our little closed community was the arrival of the land girls. These cheerful and lively women became our lodgers, as they worked on forestry labour at Ewesley. They livened up life at Fontburn with their good humour and generosity. We had two lovely women staying with us, who used to read me bedtime stories and tell me about life beyond the confines – for in reality, Fontburn was ‘off the map’.

Sign posts did not point our way, as obviously the reservoir and dam were strategically important. Our own air planes used the stretch of water for low flying practice, but thankfully we did not experience enemy bombing – with one exception. A stray bomb by Lordenshaws farm. Dad and I biked along to look at the damage, and do I remember the end wall of the farm blown out, or does my memory play tricks, coloured by the sort of scene we were more used to on the newsreels ? Equally lasting images burn inside my memory of the night time sky aglow over to the south east. We learnt later that it was a massive air raid on Sunderland. Mam and I had stood on the high ground and watched anxiously, worrying about my dad who was then in Newcastle RVI with peritonitis.

Ian, too, has a vivid recollection, but of a different kind. Even then, in those dark days, it struck him as quaint. It happened at Long Witton station, the station between Ewesley and Scots Gap. ‘The station mistress had put up a full colour poster featuring German uniforms, ranging from Field Marshall down to Private. This was so that she would be able to recognise a member of the Fatherland who might wish to purchase a ticket to Berlin ….She was also issued with a foot-long truncheon with which to take immediate action if necessary. I used to think: if a German parachutist lands and is stupid enough to try to buy a ticket, dressed in all his finery, he should be given one free for his cheek!’.

Rejoicing at the War’s end, both in 1945 and ’46, the community came together. Funds were raised to hire a bus to take us all on a trip – to Newbiggin-on-Sea! Not very far nor even very exciting by today’s standards, but for us it was pure novelty and magical. More funds were raised and prizes given for a party. Sandsby’s, that old hostel that had served the hutted community in the first decade, and remained to be our dads’ workshop and our playground, was commandeered for one final fling. It was scrubbed out, and made ready for a party in the big middle room. Eddy Percival and Noel Eggleston provided the piano accordion music for dancing. Eddy was rather shy and would play only with his back to his public, but this didn’t matter. Food was brought and pooled, and a wonderful time enjoyed. A real celebration, followed by a bonfire on the shallow hill above the houses, on what had become the traditional spot for bonfires, to remain so for many years, while other changes rapidly took place around it.

A relic of the war stayed with our family for many years. This was the wonderful garden swing that was made for me from redundant tank traps post 1945. This swing accompanied us to the top house and later to Cumbria, forever a source of pleasure as well as a reminder of those war years.

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