A Child Of The War – Recollections

Blackouts, Evacuees and Dad`s become volunteers

I was just four years of age in September 1939; my parents had moved to Weston Coyney in 1936 and my memories of the years before the war are limited to my early childhood at home, which was number 17, Parkhall Avenue., and my first schooldays. Due to the rapid expansion of Weston Coyney, Caverswall school could not cope with the increased numbers, and therefore Stoke-on-Trent Council agreed to take a small number. As a result, all children living in the Parkhall area were educated at Adderley Green, travelling there and back initially by service bus, and later by a school bus.

I was blissfully unaware of the almost immediate significance that Neville Chamberlain’s announcement on that fateful Sunday morning, the 3rd of September, was to have for me , for the following day the war was to manifest itself on Weston Coyney in the form of a crocodile. Earlier that day, at literally five minutes notice, the parents of the children of Crowcroft Park Junior School, Longsight, Manchester, were told to prepare their offspring for immediate evacuation, and by midday, their train was pulling into Blythe Bridge station. They were then taken by bus to Caverswall and ushered into the Coach House at the Castle. There they received a sandwich lunch and afterwards proceeded to the Church school, which had been closed for the day. No arrangements to house some of them had been made, and by mid-afternoon the aforementioned crocodile of children wound its way down Parkhall Avenue to the astonishment of the residents, preceded by Billeting Officers who had the very difficult task of accommodating them. Just how difficult can be judged by the fact that out of all the houses in Parkhall Road, Avenue, and The Crescent, only two children and one teacher were placed. The two children were a brother and sister, Alan and Nora Garside. My mother took in Alan and Mrs Hey,our near neighbour had Nora. The only other evacuees I can remember were the two Bradford boys, who went to the same house in Caverswall Road. Each child had been given a half pound bar of Cadburys fruit and nut chocolate, an orange and a comic. I was an only child, and whilst this was a new experience for me, it was traumatic for these little strangers from the big city. Our house backed onto fields, and the following morning my new seven year old “brother” wandered to the top of the garden, soon to return shouting that there was a monster looking at him. His first close encounter with a cow!

Alan quickly settled down , and together with all the other evacuees was enrolled at Caverswall School. This must have been quite a feat of accommodation, as the building only had three rooms. Nora could not settle and after a short while, she gathered together her belongings and set off for the railway station at Meir, from whence she travelled via Stoke to London Road Station, Manchester. She was, of course, apprehended at the ticket barrier, and eventually arrived once again on her mother`s doorstep. Quite a journey for a nine year old, but her parents decided she could stay.

Alan,on the other hand stayed with us quite happily for almost three years until all signs of the Manchester blitz had gone. After he returned, he kept in touch for the rest of his life, which sadly was to end at the early age of thirty. That was not to be quite the end of the story, however, for in 1993 I saw in the Sentinel `s “The Way We Were” an article on evacuees, and there looking out at me were Alan and Nora arriving at Caverswall School all those years before. I obtained copies of the photograph, and from old correspondence was able to trace Nora, now married with a grown up family, and take the picture to her. An emotional meeting followed, and I am pleased to say that we now write to each other regularly.

The first few weeks of the war saw the formation of local volunteer organisations “for the defence of the realm”. One of the first to appear in Weston Coyney was the Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.); their “Fire Station” was a small wooden building erected adjacent to what is now the Social Club in Caverswall Road, at the bottom of the garden of what was then the first house . An old Humber car, together with two wheeled pump trailer, was allocated and garaged in the fire station. The father of a friend of mine was in the A.F.S; each man had a uniform, helmet, boots and fire-axe, and practice drills were held. I remember one such drill being held at the top of Park Avenue one Sunday morning, when a small bonfire was put out with a stirrup pump to the amusement of a crowd of villagers. Otherwise, I never heard of the A.F.S. being called into real action. Had the local population been aware of what was being constructed on Parkhall Hills, they would no doubt have called for several proper fire engines! By the middle of the war, the fire service had been disbanded, although the Fire Station remained in situ for many years as a domestic garage.

All street lights had been switched off, and no houses were permitted to show any lights. This was the “blackout”. A few men joined the Air Raid Wardens(A.R.P.) who patrolled the area knocking on doors if the slightest chink of light was showing. They were supplemented by the Special Constables, of whom my father was one. He was assigned to assist the Caverswall police officer, Tom Cumston. This intrepid pair patrolled the Caverswall, Dilhorne, Blythe Bridge area by bicycle, usually from pub to pub. The most prominent service, of course, was The Home Guard. The Weston Coyney and Caverswall platoon were based at the empty Weston Coyney Hall. The hall was completely concealed from the village by bushes, trees and the high orchard wall. This was the ideal playground for local children, but the occupants of the Home Farm together with the Home Guard made it very difficult for us to get near. I remember very well seeing these local heroes in khaki uniform, climbing over our garden fence from the field and running down the drive into the Avenue, usually on Sunday morning “manoeuvres”. One prominent member was a Mr. Pye, as I recall a fairly short and ruddy faced gentleman who lived in Parkhall Road. He had a very large moustache, and we thought that the very sight of him in an angry mood would have been enough to put any German soldier to flight !

The hills are out of bounds and the Yanks drive through.

Parkhall Hills was a landmark for many miles around, because of the line of tall trees along the top. The authorities decided that these trees might the enemy to pinpoint their position, and sadly in 1939 they were chopped down. Weston Coyney  soon became a part of the invasion preparations.  Overnight , it seemed, posts appeared in the fields opposite Parkhall Hills; these were designed to hinder the landing of German troop carrying gliders, but only succeeded in hampering farming operations.When these fields were ploughed for the first time in living memory in 1942, the posts disappeared. All the telegraph poles in Weston and Leek Roads received two roundels of white paint in order that the local population could see them in the blackout. Along Weston Road, between the houses either side what is now the entrance to Brookwood Drive, a very large water tank was constructed for use by the fire services. About six feet in height, and some twenty feet across, it remained full of water until well after the war, no doubt a useful supply, but a great danger to inquisitive children. Then all the road signs were removed, in case invading troops needed to find their way about.  But the most dramatic manifestation of hostilities was the fencing-in of Parkhall  Hills. To the great dismay of “our gang” and all local dog walkers, the hills were enclosed with wooden paling fencing.

This stretched from the junction of Hulme Road and Parkhall Road, all the way along the Parkhall Road frontage of the hills, and then up the side to Park Avenue. Several notice boards appeared, issued by the Ministry of Defence, pointing out that trespassers would be prosecuted, or , as my father put it, probably shot. So we kept away for a while. In addition , the road to Hulme from the Parkhall side was closed, as it was from the Hulme village end. Rumour followed rumour, but the truth soon emerged when half a dozen or so RAF personnel were billeted in the village. Their Ford truck was parked permanently when not in use on the grass opposite the top of Parkhall Avenue, and surprisingly usually left unlocked. It very often became an adventure to creep into the cab and pretend to drive it. The reason for their presence leaked out, a decoy aerodrome was under construction at the back of Parkhall Hills. The idea was that lights could be displayed at night to lure the enemy bombers into dropping  their bombs in the wrong place.  In the event bombs did fall on Hulme Banks, but whether this was due to the decoy aerodrome we may never know. The area certainly was on a main flight path for enemy bombers visiting Manchester and Liverpool, and many was the night during 1940 and 41 that we huddled under the stairs listening to the unsynchronised drone of Heinkels and Dorniers.

At the entrance to what is now the Country Park, opposite the former Coalville Estate, (Weston Heights) there was sited an anti-aircraft battery. The searchlights from this area lit up the night sky frequently during the first two years of war, although we never heard the sound of “ack-ack” guns. The battery and the decoy aerodrome fell out of use when the German bombing campaign ceased against the northern cities, but long before then we had breached the fencing of Parkhall Hills and soon the former control room, now abandoned by the RAF, became a new playground. Remnants of it remain in situ today. Over quite a large area of the Hills, short wooden posts had been driven in to the ground leaving about six inches exposed. These were at intervals of  some two feet apart, and inter-connected with barbed wire. The grass soon hid the wire, and for some years it was difficult to walk on some parts of Parkhall Hills without tripping over- which was the idea! One morning, the area around the Hills was found to be covered in strips of aluminium foil, which we boys hastily collected. This material had  been dropped from aircraft during the night and was part of the process codenamed `window`. This was a  successful method of cluttering radar screens with an overwhelming level of reflected signals.

Generally, most residents in the village never bothered erecting the famous “Anderson” shelter, so well known in city areas, but at the rear of the top of Park Avenue  was a small, disused sand quarry, and into it`s face a group of enterprising local men dug two parallel tunnels, joined at the back, which was used as a bomb shelter. Later in the war, it collapsed, fortunately no one was inside at the time.  The only other shelter I can recall was made for Mr. Archie Stowe, of the Longton printers. He lived in  Parkhall Road, and a large hole was dug in his driveway outside the rear door. This was roofed in, all but for a trapdoor access, and on descending a short ladder, a very comfortable shelter was found, complete with plush upholstered seating.

One cold, foggy afternoon in February 1942, I was at home from school at half term. Suddenly, the electricity supply was cut, the result, we soon discovered, of an aircraft crash in Caverswall Road. All the boys of the village rushed to the scene, located at the rear of what is now Hayner Grove, to discover that a Spitfire had come down, cutting the electric supply cables in the process. The gate into the field was guarded by the army, but after the bulk of the wreckage had been removed we sneaked into the field to retrieve souvenirs.  I well remember my  friend Gerald Piper carrying home on his shoulder part of the propeller blade. Sadly, the pilot had died,  as had by now a number of the area`s sons. The local shop on the crossroads was owned by Chris Sproston, a cheerful  man, much loved by villagers. Great sadness was felt by everyone when his son, Boyce Sproston, was killed when his aircraft was shot down in 1939.  Boyce is remembered today on the Memorial  Window which was placed at the former Longton High School and also on the memorial inside St Peters Church at Caverswall.

To the west of the village stood the other country house, Park Hall. Set amongst trees, this imposing three storey red brick building looked  eastward over a lake, with the dominant hills to the left and with woodland to the right. It was, of course, a no-go area for we children. Empty since the departure of the Parker-Jervis family in 1937, it had been rented at the beginning of the war by Pickfords, the removals company, as a storage unit for furniture, much of which had been hastily removed from large houses in  areas considered in danger from bombing. At the rear of the house was a cottage occupied by the Jackson family, who acted as caretakers of the Hall. One of their sons was a classmate of mine at Adderley Green School. From time to time  we would creep down the drive, lift a ground floor sash window, and  wander about the large silent rooms filled with sheeted furniture, or wander up the marble staircase the daylight shining through a stained glass window. Mr Stanford Jackson would chase us out of the Hall and grounds if he knew we were there. On the great terrace at the front of the house stood a row of several small cannon, the significance of which escaped us at the time. Had I but known of the naval connection of it`s former owners, I would have been much impressed at that time of war, for here, one hundred and fifty years before, had stood Sir John Jervis. He became  Earl of St. Vincent, First Sea Lord and Admiral of the Fleet and all those years ago he had sought the hand in marriage of  Martha Parker of Park Hall. Admiral John Jervis was to become  known as the `Father of the Royal Navy` as a consequence of the reforms that he introduced, many of which remain in place today.

On the site of what is now the Weston Coyney Social Club, in Caverswall Road , stood a long wooden hut which housed what was known as the Weston Coyney Workingmens and Social Club. It contained a pair of billiard tables, and in a small room, a table tennis table. As  Weston Coyney did not have a Village Hall then, this building was frequently used during the war by the Ministry of Food for  the distribution of Ration Books, children’s orange juice and dried milk, and on one memorable occasion for me, as an immunisation centre. It  also served as an important social point where Whist Drives and concerts were held. A similar use was found for the bowling alley at the Red House, Caverswall, now it’s Function Room.

Perhaps my most abiding overall memory of the war years in Weston Coyney was the silence and the relative peace. There was no traffic to speak of; milk  was delivered largely by horse and float from local farms and smallholdings,  and the local coalman , George Jackson, also used a horse-drawn cart from his coal yard behind the old Toll House in Leek Road. There were relatively few people about during the day. The quiet was only accentuated by the dull thud of the pumps at the colliery. However, it was not always the case. The loudest noise I heard was the detonation of a very large bomb dropped  some miles away in Dilhorne pool, and another, infamous, explosion rattled the windows and shook the house one morning when the bomb dump at Fauld went up, some fifteen miles away. Then there were the sirens, of course, one of which was located on the top of the electricity sub-station in Weston Coyney Road, and  another at Parkhall Colliery. At times you could hear the aircraft which were being flight-tested from the Rootes factory adjacent to the aerodrome at Meir. The worst offender was the Harvard trainer, which at a height of around one thousand feet had a particularly intrusive drone.

Weston Coyney was located on a very useful North-South road, the A520, and in 1944 down through the village came the seemingly endless convoys of American troops, on their way to  France. We soon learned the most strategic positions from which to shout for gum and “candy”, and were often successful. In the very early morning of June 6th that year, my father took me outside to witness, in the early dawn, the fantastic sight of a sky literally filled with aircraft, something I have never forgotten.. So the war dragged on to it`s final conclusion, and VE day was celebrated in the Village with a childrens party one sunny May day, in Parkhall Avenue, when the whole road was laid out with tables and chairs. It seemed that everyones mum did her best to make this a  memorable occasion. The celebrations were concluded with a bonfire in Parkhall Road which had been organised by the Home Guard.

During the six years of the war and during the first few years that followed, Weston Coyney and Caverswall had remained virtually unaltered. Sadly though that was to inevitably change, the rural community which had cocooned my childhood was about to change forever, but that, as they say, is another story.

Gordon Ellis

 

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