The Williamsons of Widnes

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A Nolan's Story of Widnes

Our thanks to Theresa (Terry) Freedman (nee Nolan), whose great grandparents arrived in Widnes in the late 1850's.  Her story below presents a gifted picture the older families of Widnes will easily remember and  applaud!.   Terry and her family reside at Church Minshull in Cheshire.

Please check out the Nolan Family Web Sites of Ian Nolan and David Freedman linked opposite in the
"FAMILY INFORMATION" column!

Our Town, Widnes ©

 by Theresa Freedman  © (nee Nolan)

                      'A poisonous hell town’ The ugliest dirtiest town in Britain" (Victorian writers)

We didn’t know where Widnes was, though we could locate the USA, also Vancouver and even the Irrawaddy Delta. We ‘d have assumed it wasn’t worth a place on the map. Nobody told us that the world’s first rail – to - ship dock was on Spike Island, the very spot that saw the emergence of the country’s chemical industry. We used to trespass there to play on wrecked hulls of sailing barges and swim in the treacle black canal, unaware that Widnes Dock was the first home of our Irish immigrant great-grandparents. Unaware we’d ever had any great grandparents.Our great grandparents, Philip Farrell and Margaret Wallace, were married in 1855 and lived in Carroll’s Row, Widnes Dock. Dad never mentioned them, yet Great- grandma Margaret later lived with Dad’s family at 8 Major Cross St until she died in 1909 when he was eighteen.
Terry Freedman nee Nolan

I have her will which mentions the mahogany chest that stood on our landing, with its secret compartments and the Holy Drawer containing a set of cloths, candles and holy water for the last rites. We used to open the drawer at night and sniff its sacred odour, daring each other to taste the holy water. There are no photos of Philip and Margaret, only the will and the certificates of birth, marriage and death, but there is the hint of a story there.

Philip died in 1865 at the age of thirty four, leaving three daughters: Mary (to be our grandmother), Ellen and Margaret. Ellen later married a clever ambitious man, John Williamson, a journalist who became Mayor of Widnes before emigrating with his family to Canada where he worked on the ”Vancouver Sun”. One of his daughters, Eileen, was a poetess. These Canadian relatives were legendary figures to us children, not least because they sent exciting food parcels during the war with chocolate powder and syrup. To Dad, their communications always reminded him of when they lived in Victoria Road as children, his playmates who suddenly departed across the sea. In particular he missed his cousin Mona.

The death certificate of our great-grandfather Philip states that he died of a 14-day fever, as officially confirmed by a witness, Nicholas Harper, who had been godfather to one of the children. Just three months later, Widow Margaret was married again, to Nicholas Harper! Had he fancied Margaret for a while and seized his opportunity when the fever removed Philip? Did he do him in? Or was it a marriage of convenience for Margaret in immediate need of support and for Nicholas, a young alkali labourer, almost certainly in crowded lodgings as Widnes filled up with Irish, Lithuanian and other immigrants to work in the new chemical factories? In the early 1870’s, one of those in search of work was Michael Nolan who arrived in Widnes from a farm in Ferns in County Wexford where he had been in disgrace for the reckless driving and destruction of a horse and cart , with injuries to his uncle, the village school master. He found work as a labourer in Widnes and married our grandmother, Mary Farrell.

 

PHOTOS OF WIDNES

      
                            
Widnes 1904 - "The Smokey Glory"                                                           Widnes Dock (c. 1900)

Our teachers never spoke of the Irish potato famine which drove men like Philip and later Michael, our paternal grandfather, to leave the blighted farms of Ireland for work in Widnes. No explanation of the connection between England and Ireland. Nothing about Widnes being at the southern tip of the Danelaw, or what that was, just tales of Alfred burning cakes and Ethelred being unready. Obviously, Widnes had no importance in the proper world. It was also clear that it was a repulsive place. Our relatives never failed to turn their noses up when they visited. Most of them lived in London, Chester or beauty spots: the Peak District, Ainsdale, Salisbury and, most exotic of all, Vancouver. Those few who remained in the town had houses with gardens in the green area of Appleton near the Victoria Park.

 

It was, in one sense, the very model of a Victorian town. The centre was dominated by a red brick French Renaissance style town hall which I boldly entered when I was six to sell my handmade golliwogs in aid of Mrs Churchill’s Aid to Russia Fund for which she thanked me with a letter signed Clementine. St Paul’s C of E church stood in gardens behind an island of flower beds. We Catholic children never entered it, nor even dreamt of it. I was surprised sometimes to see the vicar looking quite kind and playing with his children. One day in the thirties King George and Queen Elizabeth were welcomed to Widnes in that square and I was hoisted on Dad’s shoulders to savour the historic moment. I saw I no crowns and ermine, only a disappointing couple, a thin man in khaki and a plump lady in blue.

The technical college and the library completed the main square. I joined the children’s library on my seventh birthday and read through the stock in a frenzy from the exciting ‘ Vanishing Island’ to the dreary and surely unsuitable, ‘Cloister and the Hearth.’ It was a dark room with an exciting smell of old paper, like cat pee and mothballs.
 

Victorian Era - French Style Renaissance Red Brick Buildings

        
                                     
The Red Brick - (2010)                                                                         Town Hall

 
There was a market next to our street where we had Saturday jobs. Liss worked in Siddall’s café, Michael and Paul had jobs with Bloomberg's on their greengrocery stall and I sold biscuits for Mary Cooney to the disapproval of Auntie Margaret because Mary Cooney had been Dad’s girl friend before she left him to have an illegitimate child with another man. Our house provided refreshments and a toilet for relatives from the smart part of town when they came to do their weekly shop. Uncle Jack came to crack jokes. He might well laugh, everyone said, considering he’d won the Irish Sweep. Big Auntie Kathleen lectured us in her rooster voice. Sheila Harper, granddaughter of opportunist Nicholas, drank tea with Auntie Margaret on their way to church. ‘You want to get up off your knees.’ Uncle Jack would say to them. He was particularly roused when he caught them knitting pullovers for the priests

There was a rugby ground, two parks, pubs (one known as ‘The Slutch ‘ole) and shops of every kind along two main streets. What gave Widnes its pariah status, was not any lack of amenities, but the great stench that pervaded it all day and all night too when it doubled in strength. There would have been about fifty factories making alkalis, soda ash, soap and bleach, all emitting foul gases and dumping effluents into the Mersey and Ditton Brook. After leaving school, one of my jobs at ICI was to put newspaper reports of excessive pollution on the desk of the managing director so he could deny responsibility. Our family lived at the heart of the stink. Not all the industry was chemicals. There was deadly asbestos processing and small factories like the Birmingham Corrugated Iron Co where Dad worked on Ditton Rd. He dipped the metal sheets into the poisonous vats, then into zinc. He wore a stout cotton shirt and a muslin sweat cloth round his mouth. His very skin was pickled in that smell and it seeped into his Sunday clothes as well. When he was on night shift, I was sent from the age of ten to collect his wages on Friday afternoons.

We shared with Dad a fascination with the river and the transporter bridge that linked Widnes with Runcorn. It was an ingenious Victorian solution to getting vehicles and passengers across the Mersey and over the Manchester Ship Canal without impeding shipping. A powerhouse on the Widnes bank controlled the transporter car which hung from cables and was drawn back and forth, carrying half a dozen vehicles and many foot passengers inside a shelter under the driver’s cabin. Spanner Adams, our neighbour, opened and shut the gates and the belch of a hooter started the transporter lurching across to Runcorn over the water. In summer it sprouted legs when boys leapt up from the ship canal wall, clinging to the underside to drop off into the canal just before the stop at Runcorn. In winter it swayed alarmingly in the wind and lost the odd wheel or cog. Once my friend Beryl and I were followed home from Runcorn over the railway footbridge by a stray dog and having been told to take it back where we found it, we put it on the transporter car just as the gates were closing and ran off to the sound of curses from the gate man.

            
   
                            Victoria Square (c.1904)                                                        Birchfield Road, Widnes (c. 1906

The Mersey and the Cut were our playground, but we actually learned to swim in the small town pool which cost 4d unless you queued on Saturday morning for the penny rush. On sunny days, we swam from the hard ribbled beach of the river. Firemen regularly had to rescue kids, including Michael, from the water. Occasionally we’d cross the river by the railway footbridge, avoiding the toll booth by climbing the wall, when the keeper was busy reading the Daily Herald. At the Runcorn end there was no ticket collector. Swimming in the Manchester canal was more hazardous, because of the ships. In November 1947, my friend Beryl and I played there by the deserted waterfront. The whole population seemed to be at home listening to news of Princess Elizabeth's wedding.

Ditton Alps were the open refuse sites where we built bridges over the Blue Lagoons, lurid pools of liquid waste known as ‘liquor’ and we built dens in the tall grey grass that smelled of mould and death. Years later when the council began to clear the site for a golf course, work stopped due to extreme levels of arsenic. Once we crawled into dustbins and rolled down the slopes and emerged bruised and weeping. Often we organized raids, with opposing teams hurling stones at each other with bin lids as shields. A fragile boy called Gordon Shaw was knocked unconscious in one of these. Our safer pastimes were seasonal, hopscotch, alleys, stilts made from golden syrup cans. Out of shoe polish tin lids filled with wet mud, we made suckers to dangle on a string down the cellar gratings that were in front of most shops. If you were lucky, you hauled up a sixpence or a threepenny bit.

At the end of our street was the Top Field, a large area of black grit on which not a blade of grass would grow. This was where the circuses were held and where Dad treated us. I couldn’t tell him how I hated the animals and especially the clowns. One of the horses chomped a mouthful of my straw-coloured hair and I can still call up the feel of warm slime on my scalp. I liked the fair much better, except for Dad’s other treat, the dodgems, where I got my teeth rammed against the dashboard. Mick and Paul used to boast that they would win £1 by challenging a fat giant called (as they thought) Sully Blackarra (Son of Black Arrow). Barry got a job cleaning out the elephants and was unapproachable for the days. Our best tea set was won by Dad at a shooting gallery. Liss and I recently gave it to our brother Barry’s wife, Lana, to take back to New Zealand. I roamed the sideshows and sampled the hall of mirrors, the two-headed sheep and the mermaid, a child whose legs had fused together like a fish tail.

              
                                   
Widnes (June 1968)                                                                     Victoria Road (c. 1910)

The Top Field is where I suffered unforgettable pain. I was lying on my stomach with several other kids, peeping under a marquee where Pastor Ball was urging members of the crowd to declare for Jesus. As a couple of lads passed behind us, they stooped and pressed their lighted cigarettes into the back of each of my knees. My screams disrupted the saving of souls in the tent and I went crawling and sobbing back home. I couldn’t walk for weeks. A pious neighbour said it was a punishment for listening to heathen worship. ’Punishment me Aunt Fanny’, said Uncle Jack.

There were plenty of legitimate pastimes. Liss and Michael were in the guides and scouts for all their schooldays. Teenagers could dance at weekends at any of the church halls or the Knights of St Columba hall to a live band, but no alcohol. Girls lined up one side of the hall, boys approached from the other with the invitation ’Getting' up?.’ At the end ‘Can I see you home?’ meant anything but a concern for your safe return. Older men would place bets with furtive bookies hiding down back alleys, as gambling was illegal. To play Pitch and Toss, they went to Spike Island. Everybody, especially women, loved the pictures and there were at least seven palatial cinemas with moquette floors and seats, velvet curtains and organ music. The only time Dad and Mum went was to the Coop Hall across the road to see ‘Smiling Through.’

You were mercifully soon out of the area of maximum stink. Buttercups grew on the field called Dog Lane only minutes from the centre. The park was a haven of flowers and children’s roundabouts (though these were set in concrete and caused plenty of accidents). We took butties and bottles of water to Pex Hill near Cronton village, for mostly innocent play, apart from butterflogging which involved beating down butterflies with your jacket. We walked to Bluebell Wood and Owlers Wood. Just beyond the evil-smelling Ditton, there was the pretty village of Hale with its lighthouse and huge sky. Skylarks hovered above and in April the woods filled with golden daffodils, escaped from gardens, Top Widnesians, mainly directors of the chemical works, lived there in thatched cottages.

       Children did a lot of the shopping. To earn a few pence, we flipped up the neighbours’ letter boxes, bawling ‘Any messages?’ When I was four, I was sent to Barker’s for bread and met my first sliced loaf when I opened the bag to nibble a crust and was horrified when the pieces tumbled into the gutter. Our friends the Bloombergs delivered the weeks’ vegetables and fruit on market days. Milk, papers, coal and laundry came by horse and cart. Opposite our street was a parade of Coop shops: grocery, butcher’s, confectioner’s and a drapery, a shoe shop and a bank. The last three had a hushed church like atmosphere. Dad taught us to pay in cheques for his Transport and General Workers Union expenses as shop steward and arbitrator.

           
   
                   Victoria Gardens, West Bank, (c. 1906)                                        Ditton Junction (1884)

Another of the many things we didn’t realize was that we were poor and that our rows of terraced houses were slums. Reading ‘David Copperfield’ and’ Oliver Twist’, I saw no similarity between us and the poor of Dickens’ London streets. When Miss Herbinson, my fourth year primary teacher, told us we were members of the Great Unwashed, I knew we could not be. We were washed night and morning at the sink, in between times we had our faces scrubbed with damp flannels and to make sure, Mum and Auntie Hilda dabbed our faces with a spit- upon hanky. I envied really poor children of Widnes. They wore brown paper instead of vests in winter. I particularly fancied the way they had the toe cap cut out. When their shoes got too small. They drank tea and cocoa from jam jars and got their evening meals from the chip shop.

Below the poor were the tramps, mainly men, apart from the Hoolahans who were a mother and two children of no fixed abode. Mrs Hoolahan was rouged and powdered like a clown and they were all carefully, even formally dressed, but the clothes were old and worn and from some bygone age. They flitted like ghosts round the market on Saturdays evenings, searching for rotten fruit and leftover tripes and trotters. They were not much mocked, unlike Baldwin. He ate at the priest’s house or from the rubbish bins and slept in sheds. He was trailed by gangs of jeering boys as he sang his way round the town and the outer villages. One day he passed our school giving full voice to The Rose of Tralee. Miss McDonald hushed our giggles. ’That poor man has a fine voice. ’ she said. We listened to it right through.

Our relatives on mother’s side were, like her, refined folk from Ainsdale and Derbyshire. She didn’t complain much about Widnes, but one thing that did upset her was Widnes speech. I came in for most of her correction, being the eldest. I knew not to pronounce ‘yes’ as ’yis’ or to say ‘any road’ for any way. She taught me to say ‘Bags I’ instead of ‘Bally me’ to get first option on something. The very hint of a Liverpool intonation upset her. Little did she know how her speech, embarrassed us.

‘Oh, rath - er!’, she’d reply in answer to a question. We were on the alert in case our friends heard her. ‘Hoorah! ‘ she’ d call out, if we let her near the school sports. Michael and I were forced to be bilingual, talking one language indoors and quite another with our street mates. As the family grew, she gave up on the younger ones. She accepted that dirty town where the washing was speckled black in minutes and where not even weeds would grow in the back yard, but she never made any concessions in her own refined speech. She ignored the various gangs in our street and referred to them all as ’the Naughty Boys.’ She never acknowledged the nicknames: Old Master, Panda Bates, Smelly, Spanner Adams, Pongo and Wrecker McNulty, Teggy and Moggy Burke. She would have been appalled to learn that Barry was known as Patch-arse. This referred to an extra square of material sewn in scarlet stitches on the seat of his pants. Dad had bought a whole bale of blue serge from the sale room, a popular place for bargains. Until that ran out, he made all our clothes from it on his mother’s Singer sewing machine, jackets and pants for the boys and skirts and boleros for the girls. Unfortunately part of the job lot was a supply of red cotton thread, which he insisted on using. I darkened mine with my school pen and ink.

While other women read ‘Woman’s Weekly’, mother pored over ‘The Lady’ with its advertisements for decent couples to manage country houses in Devon or Surrey or companions for country gentlewomen. Closing our bedroom windows on nights when the smells were enough to keep anyone awake, she would remark optimistically that probably all the gases would give us immunity against adult diseases. After all, our grandparents had lived to a great age.

The old town pattern has gone now. The main shopping streets and the dignified Coop stores are full of charity clothes, the cinemas demolished, the churches turned into bargain stores. Supermarkets rise from the old waste tips. Spike Island is now the Catalyst museum and park and the transporter has been replaced with a real road bridge. There are reports of live fish in the Mersey . The health of the population has greatly improved and the smells diminished, though if ever you go to Liverpool by train you may still pass through the old chlorine clouds on the edge of town.

 World War 2

    In the summer of 1939 when I was three, we took our first and only family holiday. Dad, Mum, my brothers Michael and baby Paul and I stayed at Mrs. Bolt’s boarding house by the lake in New Brighton. On day trips to the Wirral we had always taken the Mersey ferry, a thrilling trip for us then and even now. I still love it. This time with our big trunk that had to double as Paul’s cot, we went by road in Mr. Stubb’s taxi. It was our parents’ first time in the Mersey tunnel and they passed on their excitement. Think of that big river right above us! What a feat of engineering! Between them and Mr. Stubbs there was also another kind of talk: Belgium, Hitler, war. Amongst the adults it went on all week at mealtimes, on the boating lake, amongst the parents on the beach as they sat in deck chairs, fathers in their best suits, trousers rolled up, and mothers in tweed skirts and crepe de Chine blouses, while we played in the wind - blown sand in our bathing suits.

           
                         
St Paul's Church (C of E) 1900                                            Arial View of Widnes (1937)

I had an idea that war was to do with knights and fairy castles, so the announcement of the outbreak of WW2 on September 3 and its effect on my parents was incomprehensible. The kitchen was warm in the autumn sun and there was fruit ready for jam making. Mum and Dad strained to listen to the broadcast over our prattle as we played on the rug. ‘Hitler, War, Hitler’. They murmured it to each other, the wireless blared it to the nation over and over again. Something so serious that Mum didn’t even notice the wasps that were closing in on the plums bubbling on the stove, some settling on Paul’s head as he slept in his pram.

Barry and Felicity (Liss) were born during the war and even Mum’s gentle twin Hilda took a poor view when she was called in to help at yet another birth. ‘They say blue-eyed men are highly sexed’, she muttered to the midwife.. ‘And what with being a Catholic into the bargain…’ Dad couldn’t explain for laughing when I put it to him.

None of us children had any memory of before 1939, so wartime and the years of austerity up to the fifties were our normality. Ration books and being registered with certain shops was how things were. Shortages of supplies meant nothing because we had no experience of plenty. Every now and then, in what must have been a desperate quest for unrationed protein, Mum queued for floppy wet tripe and shell fish, or cuts of whale meat, when we had witnessed the massacre of the cockles, we refused to try them. She put them in a pan of cold salted water and set us to alert her when they felt at home in the briny element and opened their clamped shells. Mum turned on the gas and boiled them alive. Then she and Dad ate them straight out of the shell, seasoned with salt and vinegar. We had reconstituted dried egg on toast instead. We loved the government issue of orange juice, black currant puree and rose hip syrup. Our treat after a morning’s swim in the public baths, was the sixpenny Square Meal at the British Restaurant on Victoria Rd, part of a government scheme, where, without coupons, you got brown soup, vegetables, meat and potatoes, with a sponge pudding dessert. In the evenings, mothers and aunties unravelled old pullovers and unpicked worn clothes to make into new for us. Ladies coats were refashioned into siren suits, all in one garments with hoods on to pull on quickly to go into the air raid shelters which were being built along the centre of the streets. If we protested, some adult would point out posters of a fat old man in a siren suit. ’ Get it on now ! Mr Churchill’s wearing his’.

Outside we wore white identity discs round our necks and gas masks strapped on our shoulders. Pre- school kids like Paul had a Mickey Mouse gas mask and babies had to be completely encased in theirs. One day we came upon Mum and Dad trying to stuff raging baby Barry into a sort of giant Easter egg with a transparent windscreen. Boys took a great interest in a vast water tank labelled EWS placed on waste ground at the end of the street as a resource for firefighting, but day to day the firemen were occupied in pulling little boys like Michael out of the water. I used to pick at the parcel tape that criss-crossed our blacked out windows until Mr. Jackson next door showed me the poster in the chip shop ‘You can’t be too careful!’ and he said I was guiding German bombers to our house. Mr. Durbin’s fish shop on Victoria Rd displayed such posters between the salt cod hanging like frozen washing from the ceiling ‘Careless talk costs lives’ and another one simply said ‘Sh-sh!’ We watched the great barrage balloons that hovered in the skies tethered on cables to ensnare German bombers. When one broke its moorings in a high wind, word went round the street kids who called each other by rattling the letterbox of the front doors and bawling ’Out Terry, out Michael’. We followed its progress till it disappeared over Chester way. I never had any sense that the Germans had it in for us. ‘They’re aiming at the ship canal’ or’ They’re trying to stop ships from going to America,’ we were told.

               
          
                   Appleton Village (before 1900)                                           Widnes Road (ca 1920)

At this time, my future in-laws had no such illusions of security, well aware that as Jews they were doomed if the Germans invaded. My father –in-law, Charles Freedman, had to register daily at the police station as an alien, born in Russia. He had rented Grotto House in Hayfield for safety and travelled from Derbyshire to his Manchester warehouse every day by train for the duration of the war. Meanwhile, Deborah, who was to become my mother-in-law, prepared to take the whole family to safety in America, but the Germans began to torpedo Atlantic shipping. In despair, she started to a accumulate quantities of sleeping pills for a family suicide in the event of an invasion. Mum’s Uncle Teddy’had married a French woman and his widow, Frisette, fled from Lille to Marseilles and managed via the Red Cross to write of life under the Bosch. With those people in mind, I am ashamed now to say that the war years and the ensuing long period of austerity brought for us a childhood of great stability and equality, while on vast areas of the world it wreaked destruction and fearful changes. Sixty one million people died.

For the most part, nothing and nobody changed until I was about seventeen. On government orders, there was large scale call up of men to the services, but Dad was over forty and exempt. City kids were evacuated to the countryside, but Mum and Dad didn’t want any separation. Everyone had identity cards and could not change residence without permission, so the same teachers (except Miss Fairfield) were with us all our school days, as were the assistants at the local shops and offices, the priests, the doctors. Pretty Miss Fairfield was suddenly no longer there in our classroom. I only saw her months later in Clarke Gardens wheeling a pram. Grown ups said she had been knocking about with the Yanks.

A few people had access to black market goods, or were said to be favoured at the local shops. In Liverpool and Warrington there were men called spivs who sold goods that could not be found in the shops, like nylons, but the rest of us, rich and poor, could only buy food and clothes with coupons and a range of skimpy household goods labelled ‘utility’.

There was a lot of excitement for us children. Though I feared the wail of the siren , I loved the times when we donned our siren suits and were carried out to the dank shelter. Grown ups put us to sleep in the bunks while they played cards or made rag rugs out of old clothes. The morning after air raids we were out in the streets gathering shrapnel. Collecting our small sweet ration from Whitty’s on Lugsdale Rd was a weekly treat. The rest of the time, we chewed liquorice root or sticks of rhubarb, Mum made sherbet with cream of tartar and cakes with peanut butter and parsnips instead of fat and sugar. We heard of a family who poisoned themselves by icing the Christmas cake with laundry starch .

The Japanese entered our lives, They had done something terrible at Pearl Harbour. Soon after, Burtonwood airfield, north of Widnes, was filled with twenty thousand American soldiers, smart men, healthy men, with shaved heads and pockets full of gum and chocolate for which we trailed them.' Got n’y gum chum? Young women loved them, adults, especially men, hated them. We were warned to stay away, They must, I assumed, be the enemy, especially after whatever it was they had done to Miss Fairfield. As soon as my brothers could ride a bicycle a few years after the war, they were off with the street gang to scour the Yankee dump where they picked up chocolate, boots, leather purses and torches. On the other hand, the Italians came empty-handed with downcast eyes, but were clearly our friends. When the cry went up on Sundays that the It-eyes were coming, women and children raced to the end of our street to see the men in dark green, escorted by English soldiers as they marched to St Marie’s church. ‘ Aren’t they gorgeous!’ said the women, trying to pass gifts of biscuits. ‘Lovely dark eyes. Aw, bless ‘em!’. Some of them worked on the farms, some were allowed into the town and they could be seen visiting Gandolfo’s the ice cream parlour, which now sold cones filled only with stiff vanilla custard. We chanted to the tune of ‘La donna e mobile’

Amy Gandolfio

She sells ice creamio

She takes Italianos

Into her homio

 Amy, a tough dark-eyed lady swatted us away with her apron.

 We did a lot of marching round the streets singing about Hitler the ‘funny little man’, and how he lost his pants in the middle of France. Away from any parents, we sang

Hitler has only got one ball

Himmler

Is sim’lar

But Goebbels

Has no balls at all

      
                                    
Plaza Cinema (1939)                               Wade Deacon Grammar School Widnes (ca1935)

It has always intrigued me how in wars, people go about in the midst of the danger. Giorgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, roamed France with her retinue at the height of the French Revolution. Today in 2009, kids play football while the Israelis bombard Gaza. In the forties when Liverpool was blitzed by night and staff were burnt to death in the lifts of Lewis’s, we passed through on our way to Ainsdale and Birkdale to aunties and uncles. Michael, Paul and I caught scarlet fever and ended up in the isolation hospital near Hough Green and were never moved to an air raid shelter. Some nights the nurses told us to get under the covers because Gerry was overhead. Unfortunately that was confusing as ‘gerry’ was our term for the chamber pot. The staff were far more concerned that our fever sores should not get infected. ‘ Don’t pick those scabs or I’ll cut your tails off!’ As soon as breakfast was finished the chief scab pickers were fitted with cardboard splints up to their armpits until the next meal. They fenced, whacking each other with their splints as soon as the nurses were out of sight.

In the winter of 1941, when our sister Liss was about seven months old, mother went into Whiston hospital and we four children were put in the nursery there as Dad couldn’t cope, being at work all day. It was a delightful warm place with jolly nurses and plenty of toys and we saw mother and the baby once a day. One weekend there was an abrupt change. The wards and the play area were needed for returning soldiers who were sick or wounded. We were taken by taxi to St Joseph’s orphanage in Billinge.

Life became far less pleasant. The winter of 1941 was extremely cold, The nuns at St Joseph’s were harassed, unloving women who punished the orphans with a clout over the head. I had a conviction that nobody must strike me, but how would I stop them? An orphan called Mary who had a ten shilling note in her liberty bodice explained what an orphan was and how she planned to run away when she was thirteen. I came near to getting a clout one Friday, the day girls collected clean underwear for the week from a big table in the basement where I counted out seven pairs of knickers and vests. Mary grabbed them from my arms ’It’s one a week, you daft thing!’ Michael and I were marched to the village school through snow and ice. Our teacher had a voice like Gracie Fields, great warmth and a gift for story telling. At the beginning of Lent, instead of morning prayers, she trooped us round the stations of the cross in the local church. ‘’Ah, see how patiently he hangs!’ she cried as we paused at Christ crucified. She stirred our pity for Mary having to face the murder of her son. We despised Pontius Pilate with her for the way he refused to stand up for Jesus.

As the eldest, I had been told that our stay was temporary, but Michael had not. He ran away one morning and was picked up on the road to Wigan and returned by the police. I was afraid they would clout him then, but the kitchen nuns gave him hot milk and put him to bed.

One weekend, it could have been months, but was probably about three weeks later, the Mother Superior gave us some Pontefract cakes, bid us goodbye and we were taken home by taxi.

My idea of the conflict was confused, pieced together from cartoons and comedy, overheard bits of news on the wireless and from adults. Hitler wanted to seize more room for his people. He was a madman who danced with rage, chewed carpets and was chased by a British bulldog. The Japanese were yellow with big teeth and insane grins, Both of them would lose the war because we were protected by God, Mr. Churchill and Uncle Sam, whoever he was. Into this cocoon, created by childish ignorance, propaganda and sheer luck, the horror of war intruded only every now and then. Our parents must have been terrified the whole time. When the Germans began to bomb the port cities, Widnes, 12 miles from Liverpool, was often hit as they targeted the Manchester ship canal. Usually when the sirens went, we were wakened, hustled into our siren suits and laid on bunks in the shelters. One night an air raid warden hammered on the door of the shelter and dragged an unconscious man inside with the help of our parents, He was placed on sandbags just below my bunk, blood seeping from somewhere under his head. Peeping down at him through the night, I saw no movement and nobody approached him except to cover his body with blankets. When I woke up he was gone and Mrs. O Brien was starting up a prayer for him. We didn’t always make it to the shelter. On those nights, we huddled together with supplies of biscuits, milk and flasks of tea. Then there was palpable terror. Our family was squashed in the cupboard under the stairs for hours listening to the planes overhead. Mum was trembling when Dad ventured out occasionally. None of us slept, not even the baby. Even worse, some nights, we were crouched under the kitchen table on the coats dragged from the hall. Barry was about two when houses across from us in Wareing street were hit. He had been put into bed with me while the others were squashed into another bed, all of us in the safest middle room. There was an explosion close by. Barry rose into the air and down again onto me. It seemed ages later that he began to scream. Our back yard wall had tumbled down and in the morning we saw the houses in Wareing St cut into longitudinal sections. Mrs Price who had luckily been in the shelter sat in our kitchen clacking her false teeth and drinking tea. She was most concerned about her bedroom on show for all to see. ‘They won’t let me in for me dressing gown’, she kept saying. Next to her dressing gown over the lurching bed rail in full view was an array of large celanese knickers and a pink corset. Until the ruined houses were demolished, we wriggled through the barbed wire to play and forage for treasures in the rubble.

In the middle of the war a letter arrived from Uncle Phil in Birkdale to say that his son, our cousin Edward, had been killed in action in the Middle East. He was one of my adult cousins, a soldier, the quiet one of a lively family where we stayed sometimes in the summer. Just before his last leave ended, I watched him bathing his feet, fascinated by his green big toe nail. Dad sent me with the letter to the other relatives in Widnes. Dad’s sisters, Margaret and Polly happened to be together at Kathleen’s house and I stood twisting my hair in a corner while each in turn, read the news and collapsed in shrieks and tears. They forgot about me so I had to leave the letter with them and slink home .

Towards the end of the war, we never had enough fuel and the coal ration was eked out by Dad’s trips to the slag heaps after work to gather bags of clinker . Kids went in a gang to Owlers Wood for kindling with home made carts which was a fun trip. The unrationed coke from the Gas Works was a different matter. Whenever news spread that it was available, Michael and I had to take our ramshackle old pram chassis to Lugsdale and queue in the frozen yard hoping supplies would not run out. A grumpy man would heave the sack onto the vehicle and we ‘d push it, wobbling and slithering all the way home, weeping if it fell into the road scattering the precious fuel. Our second worst job was collecting horse manure for the vegetable garden when we stayed at Uncle Phil’s in Shaw’s Rd, Birkdale Milk, coal, salt, red raddle for cleaning steps, rags, dustbins were all transported by horse and cart in those days. At the sound of hooves, Auntie Jane armed us with buckets and we followed the cart scooping up the steaming dung.

At the end of the war there were street parties with jelly and custard, wild celebrations. There was a bonfire at the end of the street, beer and pies were passed round, a lorry load of strange men arrived singing and next morning Mrs Martley from across the street had gone away with one of them.

Almost the same scarcities continued for years into the fifties. Prosperity came slowly and not at all to us. Dad was in his fifties and ill, with a family of six to keep, for Celia was born in 1947, while many of our contemporaries had young ex-servicemen fathers with well-paid jobs, able to give their daughters and sons crimpeline outfits, biro pens and bicycles. Bing Crosby’s creamy voice was heard everywhere, dreaming of a white Christmas, from radiogrammes bought on the new hire purchase system of weekly instalments, which Mum and Dad disapproved of.. Celia, born in 1947, spent her first days with only one set of clothes until Mum’s friend brought baby dresses made from parachutes. The morning Mum wrapped her in one of Dad’s shirts for the day, I knew we were truly poor.

 WW2 made me a pacifist, but I only took in the horror of the war piecemeal. In 1945 I had seen Pathe News at the Empire cinema and the liberation of the concentration camps, allied soldiers moving through crowds of ghost people in striped rags and mounds of corpses heaped like the dead rats on Ditton tip. Dad had told us about his WW1, in the Signals Corps. He’d joined up enthusiastically with his brothers to go to France. In his own original way of seeing things, as soon as he witnessed the slaughter in the trenches, he was sickened by the futility of war, disgusted at the loss of life and decided that he personally was not going to kill anybody. Luckily, before he could put that into practice, a wound, followed by a bout of pleurisy meant that instead of being executed for cowardice, he ended up in hospital at Etretat for months, then did duty guarding German prisoners, who he found to be decent men who’d rather be home with their families. He exchanged rings with one prisoner and kept this for years together with a photo of the man’s wife and child.

We had to protect ourselves against Hitler, but ‘ Never again’ was the cry in 1945. ‘Jaw not war’ was Churchill’s motto for the future. Since then, without the excuse of self defence, we have sent British troops to war in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan and to other smaller engagements. It is as if, subconsciously, we are driven by some ancient instinct to cull young men in large numbers every now and then in order to keep the population down.

Midi Music is "Brian Boru's March"

 

Copyright ©  Theresa Freedman, 2010

Published August 2010 by August Enterprises