Memories of Childhood by Alan Connon

Shortly after this period, whole families were summoned to the King Edward’s School to be fitted for gas masks

 

Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday School; this was at the Wesleyan Memorial Church North Shields. I would attend there on morning and afternoon. When the morning service was almost over we would rise to our feet and quietly follow our class mistress out of the church and receive our regular small reminder of attendance there. This could be a biblical picture card or a small version of the Holy Scriptures. For example, Miss Stapleton gave me the whole book of Matthew’s Gospel to read at my leisure. I was very proud of having been given this small book which I could call my very own. What I remember most about her was her kindness it is something I never forgot.

Linked with the previous recollection is the association of the declaration of World War Two, for, on a Sunday morning after leaving Miss Stapleton, the fearful sound of the air raid siren broke the calm magic of a perfect sunny afternoon. Quickly, my brother Thomas and I made our way home to be greeted by my mother telling us that the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had announced that from this day on we would be at war with Germany. This, as you may have already guessed, was the late morning of the 1st of September 1939. For some unknown reason, I seemed to grasp what was really in store for us and I broke down and cried. As I was only eleven at the time, I suddenly felt much older I would have responsibilities now as the eldest in the family.

Shortly after this period, whole families were summoned to the King Edward’s School to be fitted for gas masks; even a baby would be supplied with one. Naturally this was not fitted to the head; instead, the baby was carefully tucked inside the respirator. Having the mask fitted was very important; it must be as close to the skin as possible so that it operated efficiently. You could not keep the mask on very long as your face got hot and sticky which was very uncomfortable – besides the smell of the rubber which it was made of it had a sweet sickly aroma. The mask was given to you and became your own responsibility. You carried it everywhere in a little cardboard box with a piece of string threaded through, then slipped over your head.
Now when I think of the gas mask I think of the time when my brother Thomas and my sister Jean and I were marshalled into Linskill School playground with bags packed. Labels were attached to our lapels and a foreboding of what our future would be. We were to be evacuated somewhere in the country to escape the bombing. In a way, it was a bit of an adventure. We marched to North Shields Railway Station and put on to a train to Newcastle Central Station. From here we boarded a train to take us to Morpeth which turned out to be our destination.

It was only a short walk to the local school, which was just down the road. Inside the school main hall, we were sorted into groups so that families could be together. Prospective surrogate parents would be introduced to the children allocated to them. Thomas and I would be living with the Canon of the local church. He took us with him to the rectory and amazingly he asked me if I would like to cut the grass verge of his garden. I felt quite shocked that I had been asked to do this as by this time we were really tired and not in the mood to cut some one’s grass. Life at the Rectory was suffocating we were never allowed out on our own.

The Canon stated that the A1 main road was too dangerous to cross on our own unless an adult accompanied us; this was possible but rarely happened. Most of the time we were on our own searching out places to play hide and seek, or among the vegetables in the enormous garden. The vicarage was self-sufficient in everything that was grown on the property; every vegetable you ever wanted was here. Russet apples grew alongside the vegetable garden and were very easy to pick because the trees were not very high; sometimes we would take some to school and share them with the other children.

Early in my story, I mentioned my sister Jean. Well, unfortunately, she was unable to come and stay with us at the rectory. Only later did we find out that she was taken by a family to a place called Callaly near Whittingham in Northumberland. We never saw her again for I don’t know how long, I just can’t remember.

Sometime later I came back home to my mother and father. My brother Thomas was taken to live with a family in Thropton near Rothbury. I didn’t see him for a long time. Occasionally, my mother would suggest we go on a trip together on the bus to visit Jean at Callaly. This was not an easy journey for mother. After getting off the bus on the main road to Wooler, we would have to negotiate fences and open fields. This in itself did not disturb mother but bulls or any kind of cattle filled her with fear. Thankfully, the day I went with her the cattle were in another field. She really was terrified of them. From all accounts the people who were looking after Jean were taking good care of her and made good friends of the family, so all was well with Jean.

Coming back home I suppose put me in a cosseted position because I had my parent’s full attention. Often, I would get little treats that if my siblings were with me I would have to share. There were times when I was asked to run errands for my mother, and as a reward, I would receive a Mars Bar that made me feel special.

There were times when the siren’s wail would strike fear in our hearts; where would the next bomb drop, would it be near or far? You never knew we might be killed, and the thought always runs through your mind hoping it never happens, and it didn’t. We were very lucky the nearest we came to being hit was when the High School, on Hawkeys Lane, sustained a direct hit with an incendiary bomb. On that occasion we were living at number 4 Cleveland Terrace; we were very lucky indeed – the distance involved I would say to be about 200 yards. The next nearest bomb was in the towns Old Cemetery on South Preston Grove.

It is ironic that at this present time I am writing this account in a building that is adjacent to the very same cemetery. I now live in sheltered accommodation at The Orchard; South Preston Grove, North Shields. It seems I am destined to stay here for the remainder of my days.

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