Patrick Hogan's Memories of Whittington During World War II
In the late summer of 1939, my father, the civilian Chief Clerk at Aldershot Command Headquarters, was advised by his senior officers to rejoin the Army forthwith and transfer himself back to The North Staffordshire Regiment at Whittington Barracks. He was forty-six years old.
“We will be at war again with Germany within weeks” he was informed “and we need a functioning Regimental Office at your Depot before the men arrive. Now get cracking, Hogan.”
Within days, father was gone and everyone else in the family seemed to be packing something or other. Shortly afterwards my sister Desiree (19) returned from her job in London and started packing too.
Soon I was waving goodbye to all the little friends I had made in Aldershot and we were on our way. My two brothers, Michael (16) and Bunny (14) and our smooth haired fox terrier Bill had gone ahead of us in the furniture van some hours earlier.
Soon after we set off on our long journey to the Midlands I became aware of a great feeling of space and an abundance of nature. Green trees with leaves turning to autumn colours danced off branches as we passed. Lighter green fields alternated with brown freshly ploughed tracts of land and woodland. We passed through villages sometimes but towns hardly at all.
Driving down a lane between high hedges, we entered the village which was soon to be our home and turned left at a crossroads opposite to what I saw was a school. The houses were mostly red brick, some having gardens at the front.
Two hundred yards up a little hill, we pulled to a halt on the right of the road outside a large red brick house with a long conservatory in front. We were there.
On the facade of the conservatory, high above the pavement was set a stone plaque with two initials, R.D. carved into it. These were the intials of Richard Dyott of Freeford Hall who had had the Hawthorns built all those years ago. High on the front of the house, above the conservatory, another stone plaque proclaimed that it had been built in 1858, eighty one years before we arrived.
At the main door into the house from the conservatory, we were met by a motherly lady who welcomed us with cups of tea and sandwiches and fussed until she was satisfied that there was nothing else she could do for us. This was Mrs Pearce, a lady who proved for the next 19 years that she was always ready to help.
Mr Percy Pearce had leased the Hawthorns from the Dyott estate some years before and previous to us had sublet the front of the house to a Captain Bird . They lived in the rear as it was more convenient for the building business Mr Pearce had built up.
The Hawthorns had been converted into two dwellings by installing a wooden separating wall upstairs towards the rear of the upper corridor. On the ground floor there was already an easy solution and separation was already there in the form of what we called the “dairy door” through which each family could access the other should it prove necessary. There was a lock in the door but we never used it.
To prevent the door banging in draughts, Mrs Pearce had a tiny brass bolt on her side. A few knocks sufficed to bring either family to the door.
Getting to know the Hawthorns in Autumn 1939
St Giles’s Church, Church Cottages, Whittington Court and the Hawthorns all sit on top of the only real hill in Whittington. Waking in the Hawthorns on 31st October 1939 at the age of just seven years, I found a wonderland.
In 1939, all three of us boys slept in the largest bedroom of all, which had two windows facing west. Being the largest room in the house, it had been curiously provided with the smallest fireplace, the fire basket of which was not more than five inches wide. The chimney was also very narrow and didn’t draw properly, so skill and constant attention were needed to light a fire at all and then to stop it going out again. I think the whole object must have been to save coal.
Only in the bitterest winter weather when the ice was an inch thick on the inside of the windows, did we think it worthwhile to bother and certainly we got more warmth from the dizzying exercise of blowing reluctant coals than we ever did from the fire itself. Mostly after an hour we just gave up and got another hot water bottle instead. But the fireplace looked charming enough and in summer my mother would put a pot of flowers in the basket.
Our bedroom had good views to the west over the Pearces’ workshops especially to Cappers Lane and its hill. The last rays of the setting sun going down behind Cappers Hill would turn the long red brick walls of the house on the facing side a bright orange and bathe the inside of our bedroom in golden light.
The Bathroom was super and my second favourite room of the house. It had been built exactly the same size as the kitchen below and was the only room on the upper floor which was deliciously warm in the bitterest winter weather. It was large, spacious and had a cast iron white enamelled bath on claw legs. In the corner was a roomy airing cupboard with a meter-cubed hot water tank and a similarly sized cold water tank above it. The hot water tank easily provided enough hot water for two full baths of piping hot water. There was a good sized window.
The upstairs corridor had “back stairs” at the rear and “main stairs” leading down to the front of the house. In the middle of this corridor was a door opening to yet more stairs going upwards to another floor where three attic rooms and access to the roof waited to provide mystery and discovery. A spacious landing separated the two front bedrooms.
On the ground floor was a somewhat wider corridor accessing the drawing room, dining room, a door down to the wine cellar, another almost opposite down to a pantry and at the very end, the kitchen (which had originally been a scullery).
As soon as I saw it, the Kitchen became my favourite room. Everything about it was right, it was warm, solid, reassuring and practical. To start with, the wooden door from the corridor was wider than normal and it didn’t have a door handle, it had a iron latch with a big metal tongue to put your thumb on and press down to open the door. Very satisfactory for a small boy. Such practicality – far and away better than turning a handle – and it clattered loudly when it was used so everyone knew you had arrived.
The kitchen had a floor of grey stone slabs. The deep, thick, glazed earthenware sink was immediately on the left with two large brass taps. Directly above the sink was a wooden sash window through which, if I stood on a chair, I could see the eastern wall of the Pearce’s back portion of the house and Mrs Pearce’s chicken run with Rhode Island Red and Black Leghorn hens pecking about – and the strutting cockerel which would later fly at me when I wandered too near to his domain.
On the right of the kitchen was a wooden cupboard from floor to ceiling filled with food, crockery, pots and pans. An electric stove stood ready, not new for sure, but very strong and not liable to break down or get broken. An outside door led into the garden and through another window I could see the garden and the hens without needing a chair.
And lastly and the most precious of all the good things in that room or even the house, right at the end of the kitchen against the wall, stood a squat, round black, “Ideal” burn-anything stove with a 4inch wide stove pipe going up, then through the wall.
Mere words cannot do justice to the excellence of that little pot stove which proved day after day that it was the finest of its class in the world. This paragon of stoves heated all running water as well as boiling kettles, making toast and heating the kitchen itself and through the ceiling, the bathroom as well. It was strong, solid, child proof, and it was impossible to do it any harm. It was the very heart and soul of our home.
The blackout was severe and penalties for breaching it were serious. Air Raid Wardens and Police patrolled to enforce compliance, especially in the first months before it became second nature for everyone.
Before a light could be switched on in a room, thick curtains or blinds to prevent even the merest chink of light escaping had to be firmly in place. Woe betide anyone who let any light escape to assist the German Bomber planes which were expected nightly.
The angry shout “PUT THAT LIGHT OUT” was enough to curdle the blood. There was a real fear in everyone that if we showed a light we would be letting everyone else down by bringing danger to them from the bombers. It was all deadly serious and there was never any joking about it.
Outside, it was just as strict. There were no street lights of course and torches were forbidden. Car lights were reduced to three small slits, indicators and rear lights were dimmed. Buses crawled along with all the inside lights switched off, totally black inside. Bus conductors, who were nearly all women as the men went off to war, had the greatest difficulty in giving out tickets and taking money. They used dimmed mini pencil torches.
Life in a Rural Village
Those born in the village started learning of the relationship between land and people as soon as they could walk. They were surrounded by it and it touched every part of their lives. Children in Whittington were young realists in a practical farming village, learning about life in the country and wanting to be good at it like their parents.
The senses working together provide a strong experience, as I found out first when I went to Mr Tom Windridge’s smithy. I stayed there for a long time with my sister Desiree, watching from first to last as a great Shire horse was fitted with new shoes. The smell of the sweating animal within the confines of the smithy was exciting enough, but as each red-hot shoe was bedded on to a newly pared hoof, a pungent smoke cloud which could be seen, smelled and tasted all at the same time, hissed and billowed out from underneath the horse. The smoke didn’t last long as the red-hot shoe was quickly taken off again and doused in cold water before being finally nailed on to the hoof, but the explosive moment when it was hot-bedded, imprinted itself indelibly upon my memory: all children fortunate enough to grow up in the countryside should witness hot shoeing for themselves - then they will know exactly what I mean and they will remember the experience forever, as I have.
On the top of Cappers Hill stood two large oak trees, one each side of the road. The one on the north side was my favourite climb, giving a wonderful panoramic view over the village and surrounding countryside.
Tender young Hawthorn leaves (we called them “Bread and Cheese”) could be eaten but not with any great enjoyment. The red pips in late summer likewise are mealy and best left for the birds. In the war when metal needles for our Gramophone (ancient sort of CD player) were blunt and new ones were not available, we snipped off the hardest thorns, roasted them in the oven and used them to play one record each.
Chestnut trees, like the ones in Bit End Field, were prized for they gave plenty of good sweet nuts to be gathered from under the trees in Autumn for roasting over the fire during Christmas. The cross cut into the shell on each side before putting them on the fire was supposed to remind us that we were Christians but was really done so that roasting nuts didn’t explode in the fire!
We ate the tender white inside stalks of various grasses which could be slowly pulled out. In this way we learned to know and enjoy that special, sweet grass taste that animals love. “Pig-nuts” like knobbly marbles under the grass were sweet and delicious. We looked for their curly foliage amongst the grass then ripped up the turf with eager fingers to get at the treasures beneath. Wiping the earth off, we popped them into our mouths and crunched them with our teeth to savour their sweet, juicy, nutty taste.
We learned and tasted field crops. Swedes and mangolds were the heaviest and both could be eaten raw. Sugar beet was of course, sweetish. Potatoes could not be eaten raw but a little wood fire was easy to make; the taste of a fresh field potato well roasted in a wood fire puts modern TV Chefs recipes to shame. Raw turnips, cabbage and cauliflower tasted best young and fresh.
The ears of green and growing wheat and oats were sweet and delicious, especially in mid-summer when the fattening grains were juicily soft and milky. Rye and Barley had too much sharp, bristly hair to bother with.
Animals were touched very carefully. We learned the feel of horses, sheep, cows, pigs, sometimes even Sydney Baxter’s bull through the iron bars of the air hole into his stall from Back Lane. The massive shorthorn bull loved his ears being scratched and munched the clumps of fresh grass we shoved through the hole.
Having daily contact with cows and knowing where hides came from, we breathed in the rich smell of the 8mm thick shiny, brown, tanned leather hides which blind Fred Owen hung up in his shed in the Croft. We watched him use his razor sharp knife to cut round the templates of soles or heels that he held on to the hides when repairing shoes. In those days almost all shoes were made of leather so Fred had plenty of work to do.
Readers born after 1950 may not realise how well cared for and neat, much of our countryside looked before the Second World War. Fields particularly, were surrounded by neat, tough stock-proof hawthorn hedges about five feet high. Hedge-laying and ploughing competitions were popular and often arranged together. Late October was convenient for both as the harvest was in, fields needed to be ploughed and the frosts had not yet arrived to still the sap in hedges and trees.
Stock-proof had to mean exactly that. A farmer whose hedges had not been kept repaired and allowed a horse, cow or sheep to escape was hard put to it to live down the knowing grins and winks he got from passing villagers in subsequent weeks. Escapes did happen of course, sometimes with more than one animal getting loose - and great was the merriment in the village when this happened. Everyone gave a hand to corner and recapture animals but tales of undignified efforts and failures by farm workers were delightedly passed on – each time slightly exaggerated to add a little spice to the story and discomfiture to the embarrassed farmer. Farmers and workers naturally did their best to avoid such loss of face and time, paying a lot of attention to their hedges. Passers-by would also keep an eye open and report any new damage. It was day to day village life.
Winning a Hedge-Laying Competition brought local prestige which lasted for years, for it required skill, strength and endurance and was rightly considered by onlookers as a country art-form worthy of respect.
I remember seeing Mr Percy Treadwell win a Hedge-laying cup. Broad shouldered and strong as an ox, he worked with precision, strength and certainty. When he was finished, his length of hedge was clean, strong and beautiful to behold.
Mr Treadwell and his family lived at Church Cottages, opposite St Giles’s Church. He was working at the time as Farm Manager/Stockman for Sidney Baxter at Church Farm. Mr Brown, the shepherd at Church Farm (who could also cure warts), lived next door.
Arriving in the village in 1939, I was fortunate in being just seven years old so I slotted fairly easily into the youngest class of the school at Whittington. I was to stay there for a couple of years. Not realising that my southern accent marked me clearly as a “softie” and potential future victim for some of the tougher farm boys, I adapted to the routines of Whittington Council School as it was known. The youngest children were taught in the rather handsome building which faced on to Main Street and we had our own entrance. The room was large and kept warm in the winter. Our days were pleasant for our teacher was the saintly “Miss Swain” - really Mrs. Swain, but women teachers were addressed by the courtesy title ‘Miss’, unless known personally.
The children loved Miss Swain dearly, for her kindness, gentle manner and obvious love for all in her class made going to school a pleasure for us all. Under her benevolent tutelage we learned to read, to write, the beginnings of arithmetic, practised drawing and were told about England, Staffordshire and Lichfield.
Unfortunately for us, Miss Swain was nearing retirement age and all too soon the sad announcement came that she would not be coming back after the holiday. The news was unsettling but being so young, we did not really wonder who would replace her in the Spring of 1940 for there were dramatic
and more important things happening – like the War. We were therefore quite unprepared for the cataclysm approaching.
On the morning of the first day of the new term, we little children were milling about on the pavement, by the gates and in the playground, playing, talking and jostling around.
Slowly, down Barracks Lane, rolled a little black car, which was unusual as most cars were laid up. It drew up outside the school. After some delay the passenger door opened and an enormous woman in her early thirties, clad in hairy tweed suiting, knee length woolly stockings, thick brown shoes and a shapeless hat, struggled and squeezed herself free of the car and stood looming over us.
A voice like a cannon bellowed “Out of my way children” and scattering us left and right, the apparition marched into the school and out of view. The Redoubtable Miss Spink had arrived.
Some of our children came from pretty tough homes but I do not think anything could have prepared us for the arrival of Miss Spink. She was straight out of Dickens via Desperate Dan of the Beano and she frightened the wits out of us. A large and bulky woman with an uncertain temper, she was not the sort of person to argue with.
All us children must have thought “Oh, Miss Swain, where are you ?”
Miss Spink took discipline seriously. Starting immediately, even slight lateness was punished, talking to others was forbidden and speaking to her without express permission was also not allowed. “Listen and remember” were her watchwords. Of course, being children, we adapted ourselves to the new regime but the zest for learning was less and school was endured rather than enjoyed.
Miss Spink had a fatal weakness. She was free with her hands and used her ruler often to rap the knuckles of inattentive children. This oppressive authority continued for some time until one day she overstepped the mark. One of the young boys from the Hurst, goaded beyond measure by her constant hectoring, rebelled and answered her back. Incensed, Miss Spink cuffed him so roundly round the ears that she made the little boy cry bitterly. We went home sensing that the matter was not over.
The next morning when we sat down, the boy was not there. A fact that Miss Spink recorded in her class register with a snort.
Suddenly the door flew open and an equally enormous farm woman leading the boy in question by the hand, strode purposefully into the room. “You hit my boy yesterday” - the mother said it accusingly, as a statement of fact, looking straight into the eyes of Miss Spink.
The teacher, whose face had become red at this invasion of her territory and authority, spoke equally sharply back. “Yes, I did, he answered me back” she snapped. The mother said no more, but with an arm as broad and strong as a ham bone she slammed her fist to the jaw of the furious teacher and knocked her senseless to the floor. Looking down contemptuously at the prostrate form below, the mother said “But I bet you think twice next time”. And sending her boy to his seat, she strode triumphantly from the room.
That was the last time the bullying Miss Spink laid a finger on us. A farming mother from Whittington had tamed her in about ten seconds.
After the summer holidays we moved up to the middle school in the other building, coming under the care of Miss (Grace) Burgess, who was of the village. In those same holidays, Miss Spink had moved to another school. We never saw her again.
Moving from the Elementary School to the Middle School was a big step and involved more than a change of building, important though that was.
The Middle and Senior classes were housed in that part of the school on Church Street adjoining the cross road and housed the two classrooms and the Headmasters Office.
There were two classrooms in the building, one for the Middle School taken by Miss Burgess (who lived a little way up Darnford Lane on the left) and the other for the senior pupils looked after by Mr Hughes, the Headmaster, who lived further up Church Street on the right, next to my friend Pat Withers. Schooling in the village finished at the age of fourteen when pupils were released to look for jobs on local farms or further away in factories, shops and other businesses.
Miss (Grace) Burgess was in her prime at about 50 years of age and intent on equipping her charges as well as possible for their future life. From this class were selected those pupils judged to have some sort of chance of passing the annual “Scholarship Examination” which could take them on to free higher education in Lichfield. Not all the children wished to go in for this exam of course, so it usually came down to about four or five pupils per year who for one reason or another were unable to escape selection. For these unfortunates, cramming began in the summer holidays and continued inside and outside of school hours until the exam was finally taken the following late Spring.
On reaching the Middle School, certain things became apparent. Vestiges of an ancient suspicion of “foreigners” still existed in Whittington in the early nineteen-forty’s and this led to some of the older boys emphasizing that they were genuine villagers and others had better know their place.
Firstly, I had not been born in Whittington and so was not “of the village” but much, much worse – I had a south of England accent. Like a white hen put into a flock of black ones, my non-Midland way of talking was a invitation to some boys to mock, challenge and chasten me - to encourage me to speak proper English. Secondly, I was not naturally aggressive, which was confirmation for some that I must be a softy and fair game – he who doesn’t fight must be tested by others!
One classic encounter finally did the trick. One particular farm boy, Stan Rogers, who lived in a cottage at Huddlesford, a mile northwest of the village, decided that he would settle my hash once and for all. He was a year and a half older and a head taller than me and strong with it, so he could see no great difficulty in the undertaking.
He started baiting me when we left school in the afternoons, on my way up Church Street to home. Having had no success with words previous days, he decided to stick with me all the way up Church Street one afternoon, punching me on my left shoulder and daring me to fight. I stood it as far as the gate into Croft gate where he normally left me to go to the Crossroads and then suddenly, with certainly the hardest punch I had ever thrown, I floored him in the street. Surprised and bleeding from his face, perhaps even shocked that the worm had finally turned, he was not done and we had to finish the matter in the Croft itself, egged on by enthusiastic non-combatants.
Of course I lost that fight to the bigger boy, but I managed to hurt him enough in the process that he lost his appetite for a return match and never bothered me again - nor did anyone else. I too lost some blood, and my nose received a slight permanent twist to the right, but that was a small price to pay for acceptance by the village lads. They had seen that I would stand up for myself and that was important to them.
It was Summer 1942 and Miss (Grace) Burgess had selected the 5 children she would coach for the Scholarship Examination of the following Spring. Much work had to be done so that we did not let down the good name of Whittington Council School. For the two secondary schools in Lichfield, about 30 boys and 30 girls would be selected from up to 1000 candidates who would take the exam in the quite large catchment area surrounding the city. Passing meant an education at Grammar School standard without fees, though books, uniforms and sports gear still had to be paid for by parents.
There were about 10 Whitttington children who had passed during the previous 5 years and Grace was naturally anxious to keep up her good record of success for the school. So in addition to providing a good education for those who were not taking the examination, Miss Burgess provided extra tuition in her own time at no cost, to the ones who were to sit the following Spring.
Our parents bought pens, pencils, rulers, writing books and little leather satchels for us and hoped that the expense would be justified. Two evenings per week, we walked to Miss Burgess’s little house in Darnford Lane where, after being ushered into a darkened parlour, the blackout curtains would be carefully closed and the electric light turned on so that our extra tuition could begin. For 2 hours on each of the evenings we would be coached in English, Arithmetic and General Knowledge. Week after week this went on, with Grace Burgess cheerfully giving her time and advice to help our future.
In July 1943, Alma Jacobs and myself were listed as having passed the Scholarship Examination. Alma went to the Friary School and I went to what everyone still called the Grammar School though King Edward VI had granted it permission to use his name way back in 1552 (it was founded by Bishop Smythe in 1495).
Fred Owen’s Hut in the Croft
Fred was in his early forties and had been blinded some years before. Some said he had fallen down when he was a child and hit his head and others said he had been working and there was
some sort of an explosion at his workplace. However it was caused, he couldn’t see any more but still needed to work to live.
Some time before the war, after he had been rehabilitated at a training school, someone arranged to get Fred a good sized wooden hut where he could work at shoe repairing and earn money. It was decided to place it in the Croft on the north side of the path leading from Church Street at about 20 yards from the Chapel Lane exit. This made his Hut convenient for Main Street, the Rock and Church Street too. Fred did most of the shoe repairs for the village and very well too. He also sold lemonade, Vimto and “Dandelion and Burdock” drinks and crisps.
To heat the hut in cold weather he had a small “Ideal Stove” with a black stovepipe going up through the roof. Outside was a heavy iron coal bunker. On winter Saturdays, Fred’s Hut was a favourite place for youths from the village to sit in the warm whilst Fred was working and customers came and went.The lads would chat, play cards, drink pop and eat crisps. Someone put up a dartboard which made it even more popular.
Fred didn’t mind, he liked the company and sold a few extra bottles of pop. Any village boys who were back on leave from the War would come to say hallo to Fred and have a chat.
Fred had a Staffordshire terrier dog and the two of them walked to and from home with Fred always scuffing one of his boots to keep his bearings. He lived with his mother next door to Mrs Britt of “MICOT” in Church Street. Fred always knew where he was when walking. When he neared the wooden gate from the Croft into Church Street he would put his hand out in front of him ready to touch and open it.
Everyone liked Fred and no-one in the village took advantage of him being blind, cheated him or took coal from his coal bunker, no matter how short fuel was.
Nurse Darby in the War
Nurse Darby had already worked in Whittington for over twelve years, but when the 1939-45 War started, she became vital.
There were no doctors in Whittington, the nearest were in Lichfield. But to get to Lichfield people had to walk or cycle – and relatively few had a bike and not all were able to walk so far. For in the War, only one bus per hour ran from Coventry to Lichfield (the Midland Red 765) and to catch it, one walked to Freeford Lodge and waited, hoping that the bus was not full. Usually it was over-full and just crawled on past. Consequently, in the first War years, some older people never left the village at all.
Nurse Darby thus became the healthcare lifeline for the village, cycling everywhere to tend people. Nurse Darby was unusual in that she even rode her bicycle neatly, always looking the capable professional.
Any problem with illness, accident or pregnancy meant that a call went out for Nurse Darby. She lodged with Mrs Leach who ran the largest grocery shop of the village on the western side of Main Street and she was usually contacted by someone going there to get Mrs Leach to telephone to some house on her route that day or passing the message to her when she came back in the evening on her bicycle.
Nurse Darby never said no to a call out, always putting other peoples needs first.
She did everything. If possible she would treat and cure the problem herself. If it was beyond her, she would organise special permission for local transport to use ration petrol to get the sick person to Victoria Hospital in Lichfield.
In really urgent cases she would get them given first aid at the army medical centre at the barracks then get them transferred on to the hospital in Lichfield.
For the people of Whittington she became a living, breathing National Health Service all by herself, before such a thing existed.
Pleasant, calm and proficient, she always looked smart and professional and gave confidence to everyone in the village that despite the conditions of war, they were still being cared for as well as possible. Mrs Leach, for her part, tried to ensure that Nurse Darby was not taken advantage of and I remember how carefully she questioned calls for her services to make sure it was really necessary.
Nurse Darby treated me once in our drawing room in 1942 after a thorn that had disappeared into my right hand some days before, turned violently septic and blew up my palm so that it looked like a yellow golf ball. Utterly calm and proficient, using a bottle of ether from her bag and copious amounts of boiling water, she lanced the throbbing yellow ball so that it exploded pus into the enamel basin below. Under my fascinated eyes she removed the rotting wood, cleaned it all out and cut away the now surplus flap of skin.
As she bandaged me up she said that I’d been a brave boy. As a nine year old I felt honoured indeed to have been paid such a compliment by Nurse Darby. She was much respected and much loved.
Police Sergeant Woodward
I can’t remember ever seeing Police Sgt Woodward when he was not on his bicycle – except for once – and then I couldn’t see him at all, and that was great because he couldn’t see my face either.
He had collared a great gaggle of us boys by the little wooden gate which led into the Croft from Church Street after dark one cloudy night when there was no moon. Cloudy and no moon, after dark, in the War, meant you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.
But he had still caught us red-handed by using the old trick of riding silently towards the sounds of our voices having turned off his dimmed bicycle lamp. “Right you lot, stand where you are” came the menacing words out of the darkness. We stood quite still where we were – the voice of Sgt Woodward was unmistakable and his words were Law.
“Now some of you bright beauties held black cotton across the road to try and take my helmet off a little while ago but it was too low and it hit me on the chin. Now you might think that’s funny but what if I’d been Nurse Darby going to help one of your mothers’ who’d fallen down and hurt her leg ? How would you have felt then eh ? Not so smart eh ?”
“Now I know who you all are ‘cos I’ve been here a little while listening to your voices, and I tell you this. If ever again anyone in this village holds cotton or anything else across a road at night, you can wait for my knock at your door.
Now get away with you and remember I know all your parents as well. Go on – off you go.”
And we went away silently in the darkness and never more in Whittington was cotton held across a road on a dark night.
Delivering the Milk
In Whittington early in the war, fresh milk was delivered daily both by Charlie Mann of Rock Farm and by Baxter's at Church Farm. Also, from Pearce's Farm at the Crossroads, each morning and evening Eric (Tubby) Bratten, Laurence (Lol) Wakefield, Reg Clay and Derek Leedham would use delivery bicycles to carry bottles of milk to customers around the village. There may have been other deliveries but they don’t come to mind although we could get milk if we went to almost any of the farms with cows.
Initially, after arriving at the village in 1939, we got our milk from Charlie Mann, meeting him shortly after he got married. His two full grown Old English Sheepdogs, Jip and Shep used to come lolloping along behind his milk float. Perhaps because Charlie was unable to carry on his delivery after many of his farm workers went off to war, a year or so later we changed to having our milk from Baxters at Church Farm which was quite near to our house.
From 1941 onwards I used to help Audrey Evans, the eldest daughter of the Evans family, delivering milk from Church Farm. Audrey had joined the Land Girls early in the war and had been lucky enough to be posted back to Whittington, so she was able to live at home and work at Church Farm.
The Evans family lived at Green Farm which by then had ceased to be a working farm as we understood the term.
Early in the war, Church Farm had about sixty cows, some Ayrshires, plenty of Shorthorns and some Friesians too. They also had their own bull which was kept in its own brick built bull house with a bull pen made of strong steel pipes welded together. It needed to be strong as the Shorthorn bull was immense, powerful and often bad tempered.
Church Farm was a T.T. attested farm. That meant that regular tests were made to ensure that the cows on the farm were free of tuberculosis so that milk could be sold directly to the public. Cows were milked twice a day, early morning and early evening, both by hand and by the automatic milkers run by vacuum. The milk was all fed into a cooler, then bottled or put into churns. From the evening milking, about 5 or 6 churns each of about 10 gallons were kept cool overnight for the morning milk-round with about 6 crates of 24 pint bottles each.
Apart from local deliveries, milk produced at Church Farm and the other village farms was collected in churns seven days a week by the Crows Nest Dairy lorry from Lichfield, calling a couple of hours after morning milking had finished.
The milk float at Church Farm was loaded up with full churns and crates of bottles by 6.15am each morning. Audrey had the delivery book and pencil ready to note down what each house took and a strong leather cash bag with a shoulder strap.
Payment was usually done on the spot in cash or weekly in cash. Our starting load was altogether about 624 pints but since we always gave extra measure to those who preferred milk ladled directly from a churn into their own jug, such a load was probably worth only 560 pints in money terms. Any milk left over on return was fed to the pigs.
After houses in the village had been done, the regular route was straight up Barracks Lane (Common Lane) to Botany Bay delivering along the way. Then into the barracks where married quarters were served plus the Barracks Post Office where the Moreland family lived in the second part of the war.
The last leg was towards Freeford Lodge and then back along the road to Church Farm, picking up the last houses along the way as we went.
We used to hope to be back by 12 noon when empty bottles would be put into the bottle cleaner, surplus milk taken to the pig sties and the empty churns washed and cleaned ready for the next morning.
In summer the dray horse would be taken out of the float, hosed down and turned into the meadow. In winter it would be put into a stable and given water and hay. The milk float was hosed down and the leather reins cleaned, dried off and hung up for the next day. With luck, all would be finished by about one pm or just after, then home for lunch.
I was fond of the milk round. The work was not over-hard and on most days it was a pleasure to be out in the open air. Customers were soon friends and always glad to see us and pass a few words before we had to be off to the next place. Driving the horse and float was easy with the horse ready to stop at each customers house as we went along. If curtains were drawn or they waved “nothing today” then we just kept going, giving a wave back and a ‘thank you’.
I never got paid money but could take a couple of pints of the left-over milk if I wanted or some eggs. It was all great fun and Audrey was a family friend anyway so I was glad to help.
Sometimes I came back for the evening milking and helped. Milking by hand was interesting but machine milking was always quicker and more efficient. The cows knew the routine as well as we did and were usually ready to be unhitched and plod away back to field or stall before we could get to them.
All in all, Church Farm was a nice place to go for me in the war. Eventually even Sydney Baxter himself would pass a pleasant word or two when he saw me. I learned a lot about farming and about people through helping on farms. It was well worth while and enjoyable to boot.
Later in the war (we believe on a Christmas carol-singing visit to the Colquhouns at Whittington House) Audrey Evans met an Australian pilot in the R.A.A.F, married him and went to Australia to live. She was a sunny intelligent girl with a great sense of humour and we missed her when she went.
Up to the Second World War there had been a tradition in Britain of village families keeping a pig in a small sty at the bottom of their garden, fed with household scraps, “pig potatoes”, old bread, sour milk, bran, root vegetables and anything else that could be collected. If there was common land or a wood nearby, a pig might also be walked on a line and allowed to forage for itself.
The pig was always slaughtered in early December so that everything would be ready for a good Christmas with plenty of meat left over for the New Year. This custom went back to the Middle Ages.
The first I knew of the pig was in October 1942 when Les Fradley told me to come with him to have a look at it.
”We’ll have to take some food with us or they won’t let us in” he said.
We put some old bread, little potatoes, sour milk and plenty of fat earth worms out of the garden into an old stockpot and set off.
As we reached the Bell, Les turned left to the back of the pub and knocked at the gate. One of the bar staff came and said “That for the pig ?” and let us in.
At the back of the pub outbuildings was a closed sty with a stable door. He opened the top part and there it was, the biggest pig we’d ever seen. We could easily have ridden on it - both Les Fradley and myself, together.
The pig gobbled down what we had brought and turned back to carry on destroying a bale of straw which had been thrown in for him. We went home.
It must have been on a Saturday morning in early December that I next saw the pig. I knew nothing about it until, all of a sudden, Ron Kerr arrived in a van at our house with my father. I was told to keep out of the way while everyone scurried back and forth at top speed carrying freshly slaughtered pig meat up the stone steps of the conservatory, into the house, along the corridor and down into the cold pantry where iron meat hooks hung from the beams – perfect for pieces of pig. The two enormous sides of cleaned and gutted pig were laid on to the scrubbed stone tables under the window, followed by the great, heavy hams. The pig’s head, the tail, the trotters and two enamel pails full of blood and offal were carried through into Mrs Pearce’s kitchen where she was waiting to convert them into brawn, pork pies, black pudding and jellied trotters.
I was called into the cold pantry and shown how to rub saltpetre (Potassium Nitrate) over and over again into hams and the sides of bacon. Apart from breaks for meals and cups of tea, that is what Bunny my brother, and I did for the next two days, till our hands were raw and the soft pigmeat was changed into hard cured pork and bacon.
By Sunday night both great hams and one enormous side of pork were hanging proudly from the iron hooks in our cold pantry, ready to be sliced, carved and cooked as we needed. I never saw where the other side of bacon went. I supposed that Mr Farnsworth the village butcher, and Captain Bradbury got some, as well as Ron Kerr. I also remember that Police Sgt Woodward seemed less abrupt with me after that time.
But no-one in Whittington ever said a word to an outsider about the pig - nor that my father had won it in the secret village raffle. It was all as if it had never happened.
But I remember that it lasted us the best part of two years and tasted just wonderful – worms or no worms!
When the Yanks came
The first Americans came to Whittington Barracks in 1942.
The barracks had been emptied in advance except for a few British liaison officers who remained as “token landlords” and the Regimental Band of the North Staffordshire Regt which was based there for the rest of the war. Throughout 1942, preparations were made at the barracks for the arrival of the tens of thousands of
U.S. Forces which would arrive in the coming years.
Americans soldiers were not intrusive as far as the village was concerned. Soldiers on leave or off duty tended to make for the attractions of the large cities especially, of course, London itself. Locally, Lichfield and Tamworth attracted them more than our village although a few long serving Americans soldiers did in fact become “regulars” at the Dog, Bell or Swan. At weekends, parties of newly arrived soldiers might wander down Barracks Lane (Common Lane) to check on the village but they seldom stayed long before moving on to the towns.
American soldiers were incredibly generous. It soon became a problem to refuse the unending amounts of sweets (and cigarettes) that were proffered. The Americans had so much of everything that we had not. They had real difficulty in comprehending that we had got used to doing without sweet things and could not suddenly accustom ourselves to such deluges of goodies. After three years of spartan rations in the war, many of the things they took for granted as being essential to life were not considered important by us – we had grown leaner and harder through the early war years and knew what we needed and what we didn’t.
I remember sitting in the snow by the side of the canal with a number of other boys in the winter of 1942. Some of them had pockets full of chocolate, sweets and packet after packet of Pall Mall, Camel, Philip-Morris, Chesterfield and Lucky Strike cigarettes, given to them by the Yanks. The bigger boys lit up and passed the packets round till we all tried a cigarette. Some of us went green and some were sick in the snow. None of the younger boys finished their cigarette. I didn’t smoke again myself until I was twenty – and then only briefly from boredom in the Egyptian desert. The sweets and chocolates remained mostly uneaten and were passed on to other children.
In December 1942, the Americans laid on a Christmas Party for all the children of the surrounding area. American army trucks brought many hundreds of us into the barracks to sit down at tables groaning under the weight of food we hadn’t seen for years - if ever!
Turkey, cooked meats of all sorts, sweet potatoes, vegetables etc etc etc. stood ready for us in profusion. This was not a party – it was a FEAST. Our plates were piled high by cooks and serving men anxious only that our stomachs should be filled to the brim with their excellent and superbly cooked fare. Bloated after doing our best not to disappoint our noble and generous hosts, we sat back in our chairs for a breather. Not a bit of it – with a blast of trumpets, enormous bins of red, white and orange puddings were wheeled into the great dining hall and each child was presented with a large bowl filled with sickly-sweet pudding covered with ladles full of blanc-mange.
As we left the hall on our way back to the trucks which waited to take us home, our ears ringing with American good wishes and “Merry Christmas”, I ducked desperately into the scrupulously cleaned lavatories which had been prepared for us – and was sick again and again and again.
I was not alone, plenty of children were there before me and after me, doing exactly the same thing.
I was mortified that the Americans should see us and believe that their food was perhaps not good.
It was good alright, it was excellent. It was probably the best food we ate in the whole six years of the war. It was just too good, too rich and as far as the pudding was concerned much too sweet, for our young wartime stomachs.
The Boy’s Club Room
The Boys Club Room was constructed of wood, creosoted black. It was built so that the narrow end nearest to Church Street, was about twenty feet in from the road itself. The Club was about seventy feet long on its north south axis, and about twenty two feet wide east/west. It had a projection housing the kitchen on the western side at the end nearest to the churchyard. The most used entrance was a door at the narrow end nearest to Church Street. A double door was situated in the middle of the eastern side facing the church but was seldom opened. There was an outside door from the kitchen. There was a toilet that was accessible from an outside door on the south western side, near to the outside door of the kitchen. The floor was also made of wood and was raised above the ground. A small outside staircase with two or three steps accessed the door nearest the street.
Inside, there was a little lobby leading into the main room, In the main room itself there was a full sized snooker table with plenty of room each side at the northern end. When entering the club, one passed to the right of the table. When functions were held, the snooker table was usually covered to prevent damage. Cues and snooker balls were kept locked in a cupboard until needed for play.
There was a large black iron stove about half way down which was fed with wood, coal or coke. Windows on all sides gave light from the outside, they all had blackout curtains. The building was lit by electricity and had mains power.
The club was so situated that there was still plenty of room (75 feet or so) between its long eastern side and the wall separating the Church Path from the car park itself. The separating wall was covered thickly with ivy.
The Church path climbed to be some feet higher than the car park itself as it neared the entrance to the Church on its western side under the tower and steeple.
The Boys Club was the largest and most used meeting place in the village. It was used by the Womens Institute and any other village group which needed somewhere enclosed and safe from the weather. Dances were held in the war, and jumble sales, occasional cinema shows, talks etc also took place.
In the first part of the war the Boys Club was used as the HQ of the Home Guard and was manned every night by a fully dressed and armed squad of men (who mostly played cards all night till it got light in the morning)!
Ron Kerr was one of them and he won all my brother Mike’s pay one night.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, though mains water was available to most houses in the village, a surprising number of places in Whittington still had a working manual water pump in the kitchen or in the yard outside. Local workshops often had one too, as did Mr Windridge’s Smithy. The back of the Hawthorns had a good one inside Mrs Pearce’s kitchen.
The underlying sandstone of Whittington was a good water filter and I can’t remember anyone getting ill from well water. If a house had both, then good Midland common-sense dictated that the first choice for water for drinking or cooking would normally be mains water - although some people still preferred the taste of “pure” well water without chlorine added to destroy bacteria. For washing clothes, many housewives opted for well water too if they had it. “Clothes smell better afterwards”, they averred.
Pumps were kept well maintained with efficient washers, usually made of leather lightly greased. It took a bit of “dry” pumping to get the water up from the well until at last it gushed out of the pump-neck into the stone sink. There was nothing fancy or beautiful about pump sinks. Older ones were sometimes made from a solid block of limestone, basalt or granite and they were massive, heavy and virtually unbreakable. If something heavy and metallic was dropped by accident on to a pump sink, the chances were that it would not break the stone but instead get well dented itself.
A pump handle was up to a yard long and water was sucked up the vertical pipe each time the end of the pump arm was pulled down. On the return movement, air was expelled through a non-return valve. In time, out gushed water from the pump neck.
For today’s younger readers it may be helpful for me to describe the village houses as they were in the 1940’s lest they think of them as being just like modern houses. They were not. Life was simpler and harder then and people didn’t expect as much comfort as today. Though most houses had been well built by traditional, skilled Midland craftsmen, they had not been built to the standards of energy efficiency and insulation of today. Mostly built with solid not “cavity walls” and without loft or wall insulation or central heating – houses were cold in winter except in rooms where there was a fire burning.
Many older houses had the toilet in a brick shed at the bottom of the garden built over a cesspit, removing the need to flush as gravity did the work instead. Visiting one of those on a frosty night was a test of stoicism and need.
Except for the kitchen with its cooking stove, and possibly the bathroom above, rooms were usually unheated and cold. The air near windows in winter was always much colder than in the rest of the room and by morning, it was not unusual to find the inside of bedroom windows thickly caked with ice from our own respiration. Heavy curtains helped and everyone wore much more clothing in winter than today, both outside and inside houses.
Sitting rooms (lounges) and sometimes dining rooms had fireplaces, but these rooms were only used occasionally as fuel was short. Lofts were not insulated and since bedrooms usually had no heating at all, they were even colder than ground floor rooms. Bedding was ice cold.
In larger houses there might be a token fireplace in a bedroom – but it was often only 5 or 6 inches (15cm) wide, difficult to light and more trouble than it was worth to keep burning. Nor did it give out much heat so it was really all wasted effort to bother with. The biggest problem of all was that coal was rationed in the 1940’s, and cost good money if you could get it. Money was short too.
A great aid to going to sleep in a cold bed in an icy room was the ubiquitous hot water bottle or its ancestor, the hot brick wrapped in thick newspapers or cloth. From experience, the much vaunted copper ‘bed-warmer’ containing hot embers in a closed pan placed between sheets, was too complicated and accident prone. Scorched sheets were not unusual and beds sometimes caught fire.
Hot water bottles and hot bricks were the best answer. Once inside the bed it was up to ones own body to make up the heat slowly lost by a cooling hot water bottle. Most children spent their first minutes in a cold bed in the foetal position wrapped round the hot water bottle with feet drawn up to avoid the icy bottom of the bed. Fast running exercises in bed from time to time helped warm up the legs. I remember lying in bed, breathing in ice-cold air through my nostrils then ducking under the covers to breathe out warm air from my mouth to warm up the inside of the bed quicker. It worked but I got a bit dizzy after a while. Some older people still wore bedcaps in bed because of the cold bedroom air.
The winter of late January 1941 struck suddenly, viciously and without warning as roads and railways throughout the country were blocked by snow drifts.
In our district, the important roads vital to the war effort, joining Tamworth, Lichfield, Burton on Trent and all the Black Country towns had to be cleared. Lacking modern snow ploughs, the Army helped by civilian volunteers set to work immediately to dig out and free roads and blocked railway lines.
Locally, it was important to get the A51 and A38 open and keep them open. The Barracks had been sensibly sited on high heath land next to the main A51 road between Tamworth and Lichfield and quickly provided men to dig those roads clear and more to dig out the main LMS railway line as well.
Down in Whittington village a mile away, also knee deep in level snow, we were a bit out on a limb and had to deal with matters for ourselves.
Cappers Hill lane was drifted so badly that the snow lay flat from the top of one high banked hedge straight across the road to the top of the opposite hedge. It lay very deep indeed and was left at first, being too big a job to clear.
At that time, Whittington was more self sufficient than today. Everyone had a garden with vegetables under the snow and with the food already in the shops, most people could carry on for a while at least. Mr Aston the baker had enough flour for about a week and Mr Farnsworth kept some meat in his cold store and could butcher local animals as needed. Pubs had at least some beer in stock which could be eked out by rationing. Milk was a problem - not for us in the village, as we could dig our way through to the farms and fetch it - but with getting it to the Crows Nest Dairy in Lichfield to feed people there. After all, milking had to go on twice a day no matter what the weather.
And so, with farm tractors to help, people turned out to dig out the most important road –
Common Road -- to connect the village again with the A51 at Freeford Lodge and thus to Lichfield and Tamworth.
Before that first winter day was finished, just about enough snow had been dug out to allow one vehicle at a time to struggle through. Thereafter, passing places were dug out at intervals until vehicles could just about get through the deeply drifted snow in each direction.
Everyone checked on their neighbours of course and those too old to walk through snow had food carried to them by somebody who lived near. Coal for fires and cooking was short anyway so trees started to be felled to keep houses warm!
Farmers needed help to get their animals fed, watered and cleaned and to make sure the twice daily milking and distribution continued.
Schools were closed for a while of course. It was too much to expect children to struggle through such deep snow. Better that they help to dig a path from their house to another house so that eventually, routes of a sort could be opened up. Bicycles were not able to be ridden but were very useful as “pack vehicles”. A surprising weight could be carried on a bike pushed by even one person. Makeshift sledges were used to get food and supplies from one place to another over roads still blocked by
drifts. Sick people were also moved in this way to where they could be picked up by some sort of vehicle and taken on to hospital. Everyone helped each other at a fairly basic level – and it worked.
Police Sgt Woodward, all the special constables and Major Coxe and his Home Guard lads did sterling work and the two HQ’s and nerve centres were the Boys Clubroom and the Police Station. Telephone contact was at first only through the Police Station or though those houses with a phone. The three village pubs, The Dog, the Bell and The Swan stayed open most of the time at first, as places where people could go to ask for help. Shops also stayed open longer and even when they were closed, shopkeepers would answer repeated knocking and sell people food. Everyone shared – no-one was allowed to go without.
Any slope was used by us to slide down the ice and snow on shoes or improvised sleds. The ‘’Cut’’ by Peel Bridge was checked for ice thickness daily till it was judged thick enough, then it was used as a skating rink (without skates of course) by us children.
I feel sure that adults living near would have also kept their eye of the ice thickness to avoid us all disappearing through thin ice. It wasn’t necessary though – village boys are not stupid and they checked it every day – the water was only 3 or 4 feet deep so if anyone had fallen in there would have been no tragedy as he/she would have been quickly dragged out to the nearest house to dry out in front of a warm fire with a cup of cocoa. It only happened once though, to Les Fradley, and he was soon dragged out, dried out and warmed up.
With coal for house fires being rationed, gathering firewood came strongly back into fashion for us children on a regular basis and a remarkable amount of fuel was collected to help keep the home fires in our village burning until Spring came again.
The scenario of early 1941 was repeated in January 1945 and particularly in the longer and exceptionally severe winter of early 1947 after the war was finished.
It was better then since the men were back in the village but not so good in other ways. After the War, food rationing was even more severe, with bread and potatoes rationed for the first time and we were worse off for house coal too as Britain was exporting it again to try to drag the country up from the total bankruptcy which the war had caused.
But come through it we did – of course we did.
Annual village carol-singing was held in aid of a national charity. The organisers were the three Evans sisters of Green Farm plus Mavis and Eleanor Pearce who lived next door to us. I was co-opted (or allowed to come) as were Roger and Alec Pearce and Roy Evans. There were plenty of others too and we set off over twenty strong. Meeting up at Green Farm we sang at pubs and some of the larger houses in the village before finishing off at The Old Hall and then finally at Whittington House where Wing Commander and Mrs Colquhoun lived. We were royally provided for at this final call where there was usually a party going strong with many service guests. We stayed there for a couple of hours singing carols off and on and eating and drinking in the festively decorated drawing room.
Within reach of the village there were three options for swimming. The River Tame about two miles to the east, the “Cut” (canal) which half-circled the village on the eastern and northern sides and finally Rakemore Brook which crossed the Old Burton Road about 500 yards northeast of the railway bridge after the Swan Inn. Ponds for animal drinking water often contained leeches so they were not favoured.
The River Tame was awkward as it had some steep banks and it was a bit far away, the “Cut”, about four feet deep, was used quite a lot for swimming until the increase in canal boats carrying coal and industrial fuels for the war made canal water too dirty and oily to swim in.
Rakemore Brook was the answer, but it had a drawback in that it was only about 3 inches deep for most of the year – however, a solution was found. Some farmers dammed the flow where it passed through their fields to get a better depth for their animals to cool off in. Some of us, wandering over the fields as we did, found the dams and remembered them for future years. Fresh stream water up to two or three feet deep was very acceptable to us and most of us worked with cows and had no fear of the lumbering beasts.
As the weather grew warmer in late Spring we would wait for news that Rakemore Brook had been dammed again and where. Off we would run on a bee-line to the spot and check out the dam and the depth. Happy with both, we would strip off, leave our clothes on a bush for safety and jump naked into the fresh water – which was still running, for no dam totally stopped the flow.
Cows quickly got used to us and since we made sure that we stayed upstream of them, we co-existed easily as neighbours. In fact cows were an advantage to have around, as bluebottles and horseflies stayed with them and didn’t bother us so much.
It was gorgeous, as for hours we dived, swam and splashed each other and swung from overhanging branches to drop into the water. With practice, a cupped right hand, banged forward hard on top of the water can direct a spurt 30 feet through the air to hit someone in the ear – he would return the compliment of course, and so the hours would pass.
Late Spring gave us the chance to look for raw coots eggs in the bushes by the stream. In August, blackberries were everywhere but picking them without clothes on is a fine exercise in cautious moving!
By September we could munch fresh wild mushrooms for a snack.
No one ever brought a towel so if the sun was shining we would stretch out wet on the grass and got brown as well as dry – if it was cloudy we’d chase each other around the field till we dried off in the wind.
In the late afternoon we would trudge home for tea relaxed and pleasantly tired, with hair tousled and unkempt from natural drying.
The Midland Red 822 bus from Lichfield to Whittington, was dropped from the schedule when War started and there was no bus at all to the village. The Midland Red 765 bus running between Lichfield and Nuneaton (sometimes Coventry) via Tamworth (but not via Whittington) thus became our “lifeline” in the War. The bus ran along the A51 and did not deviate.
Only single-decker buses were used as some bridges were low. When the number of buses was reduced, new wartime regulations permitted the carrying of as many passengers as could be crammed into a bus. To get in the maximum number, passengers (especially children) would sit on the laps of family or friends so a seat built for two often carried four passengers. The aisle would be so crammed full with standing passengers that they could hardly move.
A poor old bus would trundle along carrying twice its designed weight and the conductress had an awful time giving people their tickets. Passengers would help others by passing money and tickets back and forth. Everyone was grateful to be inside rather than having to wait for the next bus or walk, especially in foul weather.
The 765 bus to Lichfield
At first we caught the bus by walking to Freeford Lodge and having got there, joined the queue. There was usually a queue waiting.
As the War progressed, the bus often got completely filled up at the Barracks so when it arrived at Freeford Lodge, it just didn’t stop. That meant either a wait of
another hour or walking on to Lichfield. We walked.
We then changed our route and walked up to the Barracks stop, to have more chance to get on the bus. This worked well enough until 1942 when thousands of
U.S. Army arrived and small boys were at a disadvantage in getting on buses.
So we changed our ploy yet again, either walking to Botany Bay to catch the 765 bus to Lichfield before it filled up at the Barracks or - just walked to Lichfield.
The 765 bus to Tamworth
To get to Tamworth by the 765 bus needed different strategies.
At first, Freeford Lodge was fine as it was a mile or so before the Barracks.
After the big build up of American soldiers however, the Freeford Lodge stop itself was swamped by US soldiers coming from their tents all over the Common.
We would therefore walk right past the great gaggle of G.I’s waiting there to get the bus to Tamworth as if we were on our way to Lichfield. Down Jockey Hill we would go, out of sight of the soldiers, until we reached the Horse and Jockey pub, two stops earlier. And as the bus reached the great crowd of US soldiers at Freeford Lodge, we would be sitting innocently in our seats, watching them fight to get on.
Digging for Victory 1939-1945
Most vegetable gardens in Whittington in WWII were flourishing and immaculate.
This was not really surprising, for although most of the men between 18 and 45 years old had gone away to the Forces, their fathers and grand-fathers had stayed behind - and they were the really experienced gardeners of the village !
The great slogan in the War concerning gardening was Dig for Victory ! and we saw posters proclaiming this almost everywhere. “Self-sufficiency” was the stated aim.
With merchant ships bringing food to Britain being sunk by German U-boats, the Government used every means to get as much food as possible produced from within Britain itself. Farmers were required by law to bring any unused land into use so that more animals and more arable crops could be produced. Such land was almost always less fertile so the Government paid subsidies to the farmer to enable high levels of fertilizer to be used to maximize the yield from poorer soils. Even with all this new land however, it was estimated that there would still be a food shortage unless the gardeners of Britain could be persuaded to produce all their own vegetables plus some to sell or give away.
Experienced if sometimes elderly, the gardeners of Whittington vied with each other in an effort not only to grow enough to feed themselves but also to show off to any passer-by the excellence of their crops of tomatoes, potatoes, greens, peas, runner beans, onions, marrows and other vegetables. The neatness of a garden was a source of great pride to them with arrow straight paths, runner bean poles erected with precision and flawlessly tilled and raked loam between their regimented rows of thriving vegetables - with not a weed to be seen. I remember that the plot of Mr Paddy Withers was a joy to behold!
The late summer one-day Garden Show in the Boys Club room, usually set up by the Women’s Institute, was always well attended and enjoyed, with friendly rivalry shown by those exhibitors hoping for a prize. Some judges came from outside the village to avoid any accusations of favouritism, though village people with unassailable reputations, like the Rev. Fleming, Mr and Mrs Corn, Wing Commander Colquhoun and Mrs Wakeman amongst others also did a stint. Flower entries were appreciated, especially by the ladies, but vegetable exhibits had distinct pride of place.
Many gardeners who didn’t already have one, erected a stout fox-proof hen house and a hen-coop or hen-run to accommodate a dozen or so day-old chicks bought from a neighbour or at the market in Lichfield. When fully grown, the best cock birds would ensure the future and quality of the flock and the rest provide winter roasts. For much of the year, the hens would provide plenty of eggs and when they were off laying, eggs already preserved in jars or pails of isinglass (waterglass) would see the family through. Hens which ceased laying altogether, provided a meal as their last farewell and poultry droppings were treated as a valuable addition and accelerator for the compost heap.
Rabbits were kept in hutches too but many in the village preferred to snare or shoot wild rabbits in the countryside instead, reckoning that they tasted better.
All this, remember, took place well before the clandestine introduction into England of the vile myxomatosis viral disease to infect wild rabbits in 1953 – a disgraceful act which revolted us all and which was made officially illegal in 1954 (after the horse had bolted). After 1953, rabbits were no longer shot or trapped to eat. In Whittington, it was felt that our countryside had been poisoned and its traditions damaged by vested interests seeking only a quick, cheap fix for the increased population of rabbits after the War – regardless of the consequences.
Like many another boy in the village, I used to take a couple of pails and a small shovel to fields where cows and horses had grazed, collecting dung for our maturing manure heap. We didn’t use fertilizer as dung was free, more natural and added fibre to the soil. Dung also encouraged big earthworms to aerate and improve the soil as they ate through it.
“Dig for Victory !” was a resounding success and stayed so throughout the War. In 1945, it was judged that our population was better fed and fitter than it had ever been.
As far as I know, Badger never lived in Whittington village but he was an unforgettable part of my growing up there in the Second World War and afterwards.
Badger Davis was elusive. He was not there - then he was there - then he was gone again, rather like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. People said he was a good poacher.
I saw him sometimes in the village - a smallish, self-assured, cheerful, vaguely scruffy man in a worn, grey raincoat and a trilby hat which had seen better days. Everybody seemed to know Badger except me, as he grinned and passed us before shuffling though the door into the Dog Inn.
It was said that Badger was a market trader with “connections” in Birmingham where he went (by means unknown) to get supplies for his stall of fruit, veg and game. He was thought to sell from his market stall in Walsall and Burton as well as Lichfield.
Badger was more “of the district” than of the village but he sometimes came. More so after his sister rented a little place at Highlands Cottages opposite Pearce’s Farm at the Crossroads to be near the American serviceman she was going to marry.
And that was all I knew about Badger until one evening in 1943/44 when my sister Desiree, being still busy with a twelve months old Camellia, asked me to carry a bulky basket over the Croft to Badgers sister at Highlands Cottages and tell her that she would be following shortly.
As she opened the door to me, I saw her for the first time, a radiantly beautiful young woman with cascades of the most striking red-auburn hair I have ever seen. She was alone, clearly pregnant and looked a little nervous. I am sorry that I cannot remember her first name.
Happy to see me, she ushered me into the kitchen and unpacked the nappies, baby clothes, Ostermilk Number 1, concentrated orange juice, cod liver oil and the feeding bottle from the basket. Giving me the empty basket back, she asked if I was quite sure that Desiree was coming over. I assured her that she would not be very long, wished her goodnight and went home.
I do not know why she was suddenly alone but she was such a ravishingly beautiful girl that I cannot believe that she was just abandoned. Soldiers do get killed in wartime and I rather think that might have happened to her American lad. Certainly she was devastated, I was told later.
At that time, for a girl to have a baby without being married was a scandal and I have been told that Badger’s sister was shunned by many in the village at the very time when she needed help. My sister Desiree heard about it and immediately took her under her wing and did everything in her power to make sure she was well looked after and had everything she needed before the baby came and afterwards.
More importantly, Desiree gave Badger’s sister companionship, love and protection when she needed it most. Camellia’s baby things were passed on, along with the experience Desiree herself had had, from having a baby a year before.
Most of this I did not know at the time. Going to school in Lichfield during the day I missed most of the subsequent to-ing and fro-ing that went on between our house and Highland Cottages until, still without me noticing much, Desiree assisted when Badger’s sister had her baby. A while later mother and baby departed the village to go I know not where.
It must have been shortly afterwards that things started to turn up at our back door in the middle of the night. One late evening I was coming down the back stairs in the dark (of course) when I heard a knock on the kitchen back door. This was unusual, as that door led only into the garden and could not be reached from the front of the house. I thought perhaps, that it might be one of the Pearce family.
It took some seconds to switch the kitchen light off, draw the door’s blackout curtain and open the door. As my eyes got used to the dark, I realised that no-one was there. Stepping out into the garden to make sure, I stumbled over something and feeling around in the dark, I found a cardboard box lodged against the step. Lifting it up, I carried it through the door, pulled the blackout curtain closed again and turned on the light. I called my mother and the box was opened on the table.
It contained twelve oranges, four bananas and two dead rabbits. There was no note. We had hardly seen an orange or a banana for years so this was really something special. We’d had a few rabbits on the table of course but another pair for the pot was always welcome. We had no idea where all this could have come from and whoever had brought it had disappeared into the blackness of the night.
Similar unexplained gifts of exotic fruits and game came on and off for the rest of the war, always at night. No-one was ever seen.
Years later, on leave from the Army, I called into the Dog to see if any of my friends was there. There was no-one, except in the corner, at the end of the bar, Badger Davis. He bought me a beer and we talked, just about general things, nothing pertinent.
But as he got up to go, he turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and said “You know, Pat, you had the most wonderful sister. We loved her a lot you know. Goodnight, God bless”.
I never saw Badger again - but I remember him.
Whittington Youth Club Football Team 1946-1948
Whittington Village had a Soccer Team before the Second World War, It was called ‘Whittington Villa’. I saw one of the last games played before the war took the team away, it was in the first week of November 1939. I was seven years old and we had arrived at the Hawthorns only a few days before.
Walking up Barracks Lane (Common Lane) we watched them play in a field on the west side of the road nearly opposite the Rangewardens house where Mr Isaacs and his family lived. There was a big crowd to watch because some players were leaving soon for the war.
I can’t remember the score, who won or even who the other team was. What I can remember is my first feeling of “belonging” to Whittington. We shouted encouragement to our team, as our visitors did to theirs. Both teams played their hearts out before going away to fight in the war. When the game ended, we “villagers” of Whittington trooped down Barracks Lane again and back home. It was an “event” to remember.
Five and half long years later, most of the men came back, though some, sadly, did not. Many who went to war little more than boys, came back to the village as serious grown-up men, with experiences they seldom spoke about.
The adult Whittington Villa football team was taking a while to get off the ground after the war and since the youth of the village had more free time and were keen to play soccer against other teams, Mr Percy Treadwell who lived in Church Cottages opposite St Giles Church and was the stock manager at Church Farm, decided to help us out. In the summer of 1946, Percy Treadwell got permission for us to use the field beyond Boot Farm (on the other side of Harry Berks’ house, Holly Villas) as a football ground. He gathered us together to clear the field with him and mark it out. We had to vacate it sometimes for grazing but this was less of a problem in the playing season which of course, was Winter. From somewhere or other, he found goalposts, nets, a football and some old football strip and began to train us. Organizing fixtures, transport and travelling with us for away games in Lichfield and Alrewas, Percy managed our Youth Club football team during the first seasons.
Gathering us together, he directed the cutting and then mowing of the reasonably flat field. He next found two goal posts, nets and corner flags. Where they had all been hidden in the war, I do not know.
Next came “strip” as we called it. The shirts, shorts, socks and boots he found were in poor condition but better than nothing. Additional kit from individuals helped.
Training was started and after some reluctant agreement over positions, a Youth Club team of sorts gradually evolved and we began to play games. Firstly there were one- off matches but soon we were thought good enough to play in a Lichfield junior league. Such pride !
The team was composed of players 17 and 18 down to those of 15 years old – quite a mixture, though all were keen as mustard.
The best, most gifted players were Laurence (Lol) Wakefield, Eric (Tubby) Bratten, Leo Harrison, Derek Leedham, Wilcox (centre forward) and Dennis Treadwell. The rest of us did our best not to let them down.
Anecdote from Fisherwick in the late 18th Century
This anecdote was told to me in 1949 by Mr Cole, the tinsmith working at H.L. Johnson, Ironmongers, 22 Bird Street, Lichfield. Mr Cole was over eighty years old at the time (and still working) so he must have been born some time before 1869.
Horserace meetings used to be held firstly near Fradley and later at Freeford Common, attended by noble and commoner alike. After racing was finished, winners would often make their way to Lichfield where they would celebrate at the Swan Hotel in Bird Street.
On one particular evening after a race meeting, a drunken Lord Donegal reeled out of the Swan and hailed a cab to take him to Fisherwick Hall, Whittington where he was staying.
On arrival at Fisherwick, Lord Donegal couldn’t find money to pay the fare and then got angry, abused the cabby and had him sent away without being paid.
The next morning, the cab was back on the streets of Lichfield but with a difference.
Written large on the side of the carriage for the whole world to see was the following placard:-
I, John Ball
Took Lord Donegal
From Lichfield City to Fisherwick Hall
For which he paid me nothing at all.
And the sign stayed up till Lord Donegal sent the fare.
© 2016 Whittington History Society