Memories – Lol Merreyweather

Lol Merreyweather, 86 lives in Alnwick with his wife of 63 years. He was seven and living in West Bridgford during the second World War, he tells us his story here.

One Small Boy’s War

Our family moved to West Bridgford, Nottingham in 1937, when I was seven. We had a three story Victorian terrace house which overlooked the car park of the Hall, the centre of the local administration.

The storm clouds of war were gathering and even I was preparing for the inevitable. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime Minister, announced he would address the nation on the wireless and on Sunday September 3rd 1939, he revealed that Germany had not withdrawn its troops from Poland despite earlier promises to do so, consequently we were now at war with Germany. It was a beautiful autumn day and everyone at home was about to have the traditional Sunday lunch. We all listened in stunned silence. Things would never be the same again.

In the car park, two large concrete air raid shelter were being built. These were the first of a design which was to become the standard pattern. Only one of these shelters survives to this day, (Type no. B34TYB) in Abbey Circus, West Bridgford. It is protected by having become a site of Special Scientific Interest. They were long, half buried in the ground, with strong steel doors. Inside were two long benches. There was an emergency escape hatch at the centre of the top. A very heavy steel door. It was too heavy for me to left, (yes, I did try it!) I suppose they would accommodate about 100 people.

At that time the Chief Constable of Nottingham City was Athelstan Popkess. Soon known affectionately by the local lads as Poptain Catpiss. He was the youngest Chief Constable ever appointed, and was a man of considerable forward vision. Under his command, Nottingham was the first city to develop an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) network in which the City was divided into zones, controlled by report and control centres with 45 auxiliary fire service stations. His other innovations included the first forensic laboratory in England, the introduction of police dogs, an advanced driving school, traffic wardens, and wireless communications between the 39 cars and motorbikes of the Mechanised Division.

At this point, I ought to record that Bridgford Road and Central Avenue were the only streets in the country to be lit by sodium lamps. They were turned off at the beginning of the ‘blackout’ and were only restored after the tide of war had turned and the bombing had ceased. The blackout was very effective. Unless there was a moon, everyone had to carry a torch, in fact most people had several torches to cope with all conditions. At the Trent Bridge end of Bridgford Road, a small shop sprang up which sold only torches and batteries. They did a roaring trade and small queues would form when the batteries were due in – on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If one was going to the cinema, a small pocket touch was carried and if one was walking the dog, something large and bright was necessary.

The bombing was real and most severe. Although the Midlands escaped much of it, there was a heavy raid directed at Nottingham, Derbyshire and Leicester on the night of May 8th 1941. 100 Luftwaffe bombers were employed, 175 people were killed and 350 injured. In addition to the blackout, many smokescreens were deployed in Bridgford. They compromised a large steel tank, with a chimney about 4ft high, in which filthy waste oil was burned. The Nazi bombers used to navigate their way, in the early days, either by following a train or following the River Trent and this mucky cloud of smoke helped to obscure them.

Barbara’s father was a main line goods driver and his train was strafed several times; he mostly carried munitions. The infrastructure of Bridgford received a pasting that night, with one bomb (a 500 pounder) dropping smack in the middle of the bowling green in the park. It was the pride and joy of the Chief Park Keeper and he was not amused!

One of my young friends, Pete Salter, had a bad time that night. One house on Musters Road received a direct hit, killing the occupants. Pete was sleeping in the second floor bedroom, over the front door, and the bomb passed through his bedroom, right to left, before exploding next door. He was awake and saw this. He had a nervous breakdown from which he never fully recovered.

In those days, we were still celebrating Empire Day. The children from all the schools marched to the park in huge ‘crocodiles.’ A makeshift stage had been erected, onto which a piano had been manhandled. A local worthy delivered a peroration of the wonders of the Empire and then we all sang. I can’t remember the whole programme, but it included, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’. We sang our little hearts out!

The Nottingham Evening Post, a broadsheet, carried hundreds of adverts for cinemas in those days. It was one of the things that kept us sane during the war. Our local haven was ‘The Tudor’. It was built in 1937, to a design by a local architect, in a Tudor Revival style. It was a very handsome building and we spent many happy hours there watching Hollywood films. There are virtually no British films then. It was the fist cinema in the county to be equipped with the Western Electric sound system. There were two huge vertical, wide-range loudspeakers, one either side of the screen and one behind it. The circle seats were approached by a 28ft spiral staircase. I seldom went upstairs, but I did attend the Saturday morning children’s performance, which closely resembled a riot! The kids would not remain seated, charging up and down the aisles, firing cap pistols.

All travel was banned during the war, so ‘Holidays at Home’ weeks were introduced. These were left to the local authorities to organise and were a roaring success. Bridgford had a large park, where the stage was erected, together with a huge refreshment marquee redolent with fruit cake and tea. There were contests for both ‘beauty queen’ and ‘most beautiful baby’. There were many musical shows. Mostly amateur which ranged through solo piano accordion to singing and dancing. These went on until quite late at night. The winner of the beauty queen contest worked at the local Boots and although heavily made-up, was a good-looking lass. It ‘went to her head’ however and she became quite unbearable.

The year after the air raid, the Americans sent over a car full of food parcels for the poor starving Brits. We were a bit sniffy about this, but in fact they were a godsend. Apart from the tins of jam, they introduced us to the Spam. It was pork luncheon meat manufactured in Detroit. Some had slightly different names (Mor and Treet for example). We had never had anything like this before. We had to go to the Hall with our identity cards and rates demand note to prove our entitlement and they doled out a parcel suited to the size of the family. This went down well, as meat together with butter, tea, cheese and cooking fats were all on ration. Eventually even bread was on ration.

To help alleviate the food shortages, it was decided that each Council would compulsory purchase some land suitable for allotments; the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. My father was the first in the queue and we secured one. It was a field along a lane called ‘Midland Cottages’ and ours was immediately inside the gate. He lost no time. Within a week he had the whole lot fenced with chain link, a shed built and erected and a well dug. The water table is very high in Bridgford so he didn’t have to go down far. With a pump fitted he was able to irrigate without walking 50 yards to the tap. He grew peas, carrots, lettuce, tons of potatoes and outdoor tomatoes. I can see him now, proudly pushing his wheelbarrow full of produce back to my mother at home on Bridgford Road.

One of our favourite play venues was ‘The Quarry’. This was at the top end of Melton Road. I suppose it was about one acre in size and quite deep. It provided the clay for Smarts Brickworks which were adjacent. It had mine cars for transporting the clay to the huge oval kiln. All mining operations stopped at the outbreak of war and it was commandeered by the Home Guard as a training area during the weekends. It had a huge backstop comprising a large earth bank, backed up by railway sleepers which carried targets in a steel frame which could be raised and lowered from behind this barricade. The weapons they practiced with were varied. Standard Lee Enfield .303 rifles, Thompson sub-machine guns with drum magazines and spigot mortars. During weekdays when no one was there, we were able to push the mine cars up the hills and engineer spectacular crashes. Both the Army and the Home Guard made use of Thunderflashes during their war games, to simulate hand grenades. These were large fired ‘bangers’ and all the boys wanted to get their hands on them. Our gang took part in several raids to Army Camps at Owlerton and Charnwood Forest to steal them. This involved long bike rides at night in the pitch black darkness of the blackout with the bikes heavily laden with bags, satchels and huge saddle bags. When we got home we were faced with the task of hiding them. Where DO you hide 100 Thunderflashes in the average garden shed?

The end came however. Germany was defeated. Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun took their own lives in his bunker in Berlin, with the Russians storming the city.

In England, a public holiday was declared for May 8th 1945. It was a glorious sunny day. Our gang was sprawled on the grass in Bridgford Park and a Lancaster bomber came over low. The waist doors were open and the crew were firing Very lights and signal flares in all directions. That really signalled the end for us. The war really was over!

With great thanks to Laurence Merreyweather

First published by West Bridgford Wire 11 November 2016
Reproduced with permission