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  • In the June issue of Best of British

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Enjoy pages and pages of readers’ letters about all sorts of topics relating to Britain past and present, as well as responses to items that have appeared in the magazine.


Old before my time

I was raised by my grandmother as my mother died when I was born and my father was in the Army, training soldiers for WWII.
My grandmother was secretary of the local Old Age Pensioners Association, who met one afternoon a week to socialise, sing the old songs and have a cup of tea. Once a year they organised a day trip to the seaside – usually Margate, Broadstairs or Worthing – which was subsidised by the National Federation of Old Age Pensioners. We were fairly poor and couldn’t afford holidays away, so these trips were looked forward to very much by me, as I always went with the old folks.
When I was ten, an order went out from the head office of the NFOAP to the effect that, from now on, only members of the federation could go on trips. This meant that my only annual visit to the seaside would be stopped.
Now, my gran was a wily old girl and, on checking through the rules, she discovered that they had omitted to state a minimum age for membership. You can guess the rest!
At the tender age of ten, I became a full paid-up member of the Old Age Pensioners Association. I must have been the youngest member ever. I was very put out because I couldn’t have a lapel badge.
Bernie Dent, Seaford, East Sussex.

Football crazy

When Match of the Day started on BBC television it was on BBC Two only and we only had BBC One at the time. As we lived in a flat over the top of a TV shop, I arranged with the shop manager to set his time switches to make sure the telly in the window came on for Match of the Day. My brother and I would then go downstairs and stand on the pavement outside the shop window watching the football on TV.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t hear Kenneth Wolstenholme’s commentary and we would stand out there in all weathers. It was snowing one night, so we took a flask. But it was worth it and the story was featured on the 500th edition of the programme. And yes, we were mad!
Mike Payne, Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire.

Going to the wire

It is well-known that bits and bobs used to ‘disappear’ from factories during the war, and the methods devised to avoid being searched on the way out of the gate sometimes bordered on the unbelievable.
Once the obligatory shelter arrived, our pocket-sized garden in London lost its appeal, and my father decided he would keep chickens and rabbits to help supplement our diet. His first problem was obtaining the materials, all of which he did, except the wire. By sheer coincidence, some wire appeared at the factory where he worked. After the initial joy at seeing this, doubts began to arise. How was he going to hide it until the fuss died down and then how was he going to get it through the factory gates without being searched?
Dad was an engineering blacksmith and the floor around the forge was dust and dirt. He cut a length of wire and hid it under the floor, and it only remained to think of the next step. Then eureka! He decided he would wrap it around his body and proceed to cycle through the gates as normal.
The night came when he decided to put this plan into action and amidst the number pedalling away bent over their handlebars, was this one man, back like a ramrod. No one thought to question what must have been a very strange sight. His heart must have been thumping at a great rate, and he must have felt that the ensuing bruises after a four-mile ride home were worth it.
Margaret Norgan, Harlow, Essex.

Furthering the war effort

In the autumn of 1938, I started work at ICI at Blackley, Manchester, for £1 a week. I was what is now known as a management trainee, but my initial job was as an office boy, delivering mail around the offices and wax cylinders to the typing pool.
Another job was to carry the very heavy typewriters down from the typing pool to the mechanics’ workshop for servicing. We decided that carrying such heavy weights down two flights of stairs was much too much, and lots were drawn to decide which of us should do the unthinkable. It fell to me, but I would never have guessed into how many pieces a typewriter would break when dropped on a concrete staircase. We never had to carry them again!
My friend Ted Croft, whose father was works manager at Blackley, and I decided that the time had come when we ought to acquire at least a smattering of social graces and we enrolled in dancing classes, at 2s 6d a lesson. With the outbreak of war I don’t think either of us had much opportunity to test our skills.
The war came in early September and, in accordance with the requirements of my OTC certificate A, I wrote to the War Office offering my services. I was instructed to attend for interview at Manchester University on September 25th. Far from just being interviewed, I was medically examined, sworn in as a private in the Manchester Regiment, given a day’s pay and ration money, transferred to the Reserve and told to go back to work until I should be required – all this in the course of one afternoon.
In the spring of 1940, recruitment started for the Local Defence Volunteers. I joined the local unit, which was based in a small police station alongside a moorland area, and our main task was to prevent German paratroopers from landing. For this purpose we had one rifle and, initially, no ammunition. Our uniform consisted of an armband bearing the letters LDV.
In those early days, everyone was required to carry their identity card at all times and early one morning, feeling we must do something to justify our existence, we decided to check the identity cards of the passengers on the rush-hour trams going into Manchester. Needless to say, at least fifty per cent of them did not have their cards and our efforts soon had a long line of trams held up. This tailback was only relieved by the arrival of the police, who begged us to exercise discretion in furtherance of the war effort – most of the passengers being on essential war work!
The calling up of older men resulted in my promotion to the cashier’s section at ICI, with an increase in pay to £2 a week, and later a move to the accounts department. There I stayed, an unlikely accountant, until the war situation in August, 1940, required me to report to the Cheshire Regiment Depot some three miles outside Chester.
This was to be my home from home for the next four months, on an all-found basis and 2/- a day, later increased to 2/6d. We never saw a full week’s pay, for there were always stoppages for one thing or another and my first two weeks’ pay amounted to 10/1 and 11/6d respectively.
Mr A. N. Donaldson, St Neots, Cambs.

Rustic revellers

After Empire Day in May, the next big event at school was Alexandra Rose Day, which took place in June. At Hearnville Road School in Balham, London, our rose queen was chosen by popular vote. Like Britannia, hers was a non-active role. Once she had made her entrance, and was crowned and gowned with her train bearers in attendance, she remained regally enthroned throughout the performance.
The queen’s court varied little over the years. There were always milkmaids or shepherdesses, sometimes cymbal dancers and boys dressed as farming folk, with smocks and squashy hats. They could supply their own props – a clay pipe, walking stick or popgun.
“No Michael, you may not bring a six-gun,” and to another surly protester, “These are not frocks, they are proper smocks, like shepherds used to wear.” Miss Cox brooked no argument; her word was law.
A maypole was erected in the school hall. Only Miss Ollett could persuade the unruly lads that prancing round clutching ribbons, over and under, under and over, and worse, partnered by girls, was not a sissy thing to do. All in their best summer whites, all clean and unusually tidy, the boys had to grin and bear it.
Miss Ollett was not only in charge of drill and dancing, she was also the demon of decimal lessons. It was as well not to upset her. We had a rollicking good time with Uncle Tom Cobleigh at Widecombe Fair, and other groups were Bound for the Rio Grande. Their favourite was What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor, with actions. What fun they had with ‘put him in the scuppers with the hosepipe on him’. The boys had all the jolly songs, whilst we girls warbled about Nymphs and Shepherds or ‘summer is a-coming in, loudly sing cuckoo’. Honestly, how unfair.
There were country dances, like Gathering Peascods, whatever they were, and a cymbal dance involving lots of swooping and swaying and clashing our cymbals in unison. Solo talents were encouraged, tap and acrobatic acts, a dramatic poem or humorous monologue from one of the big boys.
There I am then, complete with mob-cap and cardboard bucket, among the milkmaids. How the milk got from cow to bucket to the Co-op milk bottles was a mystery we preferred not to probe. Few of us had ever seen a real life sheep or cow, so these rustic revels were quite alien to us!
Pam Buckland, Petersfield, Hants.

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