World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        Gordon Murfin 

Life in Upperthorpe

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Gordon Charles Murfin
Location of story: Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Gordon Charles Murfin.

 

The story has been transcribed from audio tape recordings.
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I’m starting at the beginning which was 1931, the year I was born. I have memories of living in a big yard, which was known as the big yard. There were 23 houses in the yard, covering three street addresses: Springfield Road, Hollis Terrace and Upperthorpe, where I lived.

They were hard times, a lot of unemployment; my dad was fortunate to be employed. He didn’t have a very good job; he was a dustman cum lorry driver for the council. He got £2.10s.0d (2 pounds, 10 shillings – £2.50p) per week. He got ten shillings extra for being in charge of the wagon and doing the driving, so the other blokes only got two quid.

The means test was active in those days. One of my earliest memories was of the bloke next door, Mr. Shepherd and his lodger, Ted Robinson. They were carrying a mattress along Upperthorpe, intending to dump it on some waste land. Well, the authorities used to send men round, men who were snoopers to try to catch people who were working, so their dole could be stopped. As the two were carrying the mattress round the corner, a very well dressed bloke came round the corner. “Bloody Hell,” they cried, “it’s the relief man.” They promptly dropped the mattress in the road and left it there. In panic, they fled. The mattress stayed there until it was dark, then they thought it would be safe to shift it. Such things happened quite often; people lived in terror of having their dole stopped.

We weren’t too badly off really, dad was in regular employment. We managed a holiday every year – only to Cleethorpes where we stayed with a very nice lady called Mrs. White. She used to charge us 2/6, or half a crown, as we called it, (12 ½ p) a night. That bought bed only, that was for the four of us. We’d go for a walk every morning with dad. He’d take us down to the tea stall, on the seafront, where he'd stand and have a cigarette and a chat with the bloke who owned it.

At 4 ½ years old, I started at Upperthorpe School. My mother took me to school on the first day; I started in the Infants’ School. The teachers were all women. The Head Teacher was a big buxom bonny lady called Miss Dunk. She was little, and wore glasses and folks lived in fear of her.

I hadn’t been at school long when they had that Coronation for Edward the 8th. It was a bit of a phoney Coronation, it never got off the ground. Boys were given a tin containing chocolates, with a picture of the king and queen on, plus a penknife. Girls were given a tin of chocolates and a pair of scissors.

I promptly started running round the playground, terrorising the little girls by waving the penknife around. Some of them told Miss Duncan, who slammed me into the hall and stood me in the corner, then she took the knife from me. She caned me on the hand with a big wooden knitting needle that she used as a cane. I’ve never seen the knife from that day to this.

At about 8 or 9 years old, I moved up to the big school, the one we called the senior school. That was really frightening because they were all male teachers. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Bill Mustaph (he was a little bit older than me and he’d been there about a year), showed me the ropes. The headmaster was Mr Whitfield, a big man about 6’2” tall. He used to wear those steel tips and you could hear him coming along the corridors. Nobody misbehaved when he was around. There were 40 to 45 kids in each classroom those days, yet everybody respected the teachers and did as they were told.

We used to enjoy going to what we called The Field, which was a school field at Myers Grove School. We’d play football and cricket. I didn’t like cricket, I was more into football. We always enjoyed going to the baths on Friday mornings. They taught me how to swim there, under strict supervision of course.

When the war broke out, Dad was disheartened. He went straight away and volunteered. During the First World War, he’d been a P.O.W. for two year, but now he was told that he was too old, so he did the next best thing and joined the Home Guard. He was in uniform, and felt that he was doing his bit for the country. He wore his medal ribbons and Corporal Stripes; they made him a Corporal straight away. Really though, I don’t know how he did it because he worked hard all day, then he’d come home, have a wash and shave, and off he went; he was out most nights. He was at an old farm at Redmires. He’d come home and tell us of various things that had happened. He was there one night when a Wellington Bomber came back from Germany. It was obviously lost and it crashed into a hillside. They fetched the Home Guard out. Most of the crew were saved; one bloke had broken his ankle. They were all Australians. The Home Guard pulled a gate from a field, and four of them carried it a couple of miles to the main road where they waited for the ambulance. They took the bloke to the Infirmary and dad went there to see him and took him some cigarettes.

The blitz had started. I wasn’t really terrified. Mum used to collect all the things that she’d kept handy such as eiderdowns and insurance policies that she kept in a little case, then we’d go to the shelter. Dad had made a good job of restoring the shelter with the sandbags and thick timber. One of the neighbours was away in the airforce. We had his wife and daughter in the shelter, there were about eight of us altogether. A bomb dropped about 15 yards from our house, a high explosive bomb. It blew the front of the house in, and part of next door.

We used to go round the streets collecting shrapnel. We put it into a cloth bag and took it to school, to swap with other kids. I got a flight from a German incendiary bomb; highly prized. My friend and I came down Wellfield Road, a steep hill (about 1 in 3). At the top of it was a bakery which had had a direct hit from a landmine. We found the top of the landmine and said, “Look what we’ve got.” It was really prized.

We walked down Wellfield Road carrying this between us. There were tapes and notices across the street, “Danger, unexploded bomb.” There were about six ARP’s; one said, “Hey, what yer doin’ here?” “We’ve just walked from the top.” “Do yer know there’s unexploded bombs here?” Anyway, they took the top of the landmine from us and sent us on our way.

The blitz did quite a lot of damage round our way. Oxford Street got a real hammering; a big tabernacle church got flattened and quite a lot of houses. On the corner was a chip shop. That didn’t get a direct hit, but all the windows and the door were blown in. When the raids started, they were actually cooking chips and fish. They left it just as it was, and after several months, the smell of the chips and fish in the pan, with the oil was simply disgusting. People walking down the street used to cross over to avoid the smell. Eventually, the building was pulled down, but they ought to have done that from the start.

At the top of Portland Street was Oliver’s, they were hay and straw dealers. The Germans dropped several incendiary bombs. They couldn’t have found a better target, it was full of hay and straw. They used to take it out on carts with their horses. The place went up like a torch. Dad went running down, he never went into the shelter, he always stood outside. He kicked the door in and led the horses out and tide them to a tree.

We were in our yard one night, when a great big American flying fortress came over and it was so low, we could actually see the faces of the crew looking through the window. Endcliffe Park was about 2 miles away and the pilot’s attempt to put the plane down there, wasn’t to be successful. It hit a bank at the other side and all the crew perished. We picked up a few pieces of aluminium from it.

Food was rationed; we bought stuff from the black market. We had problems getting sweets. Somebody at school told me we could buy a laxative chewing gum at the chemist’s, soak it in boiling water (the laxative was in the coating), the coating used to come off, then we just had the chewing gum.

Mum went down to Langsett Road and queued at the fishmonger’s for a rabbit. On the way back, she called at the butcher’s for a piece of steak. She came home, put them on the table, then looked round and saw the fire had gone out. She started preparing the fire, went down the cellar for some coal, when one of the neighbours’ cats came in, jumped onto the table and took the rabbit and started to turn up the yard dragging the rabbit. Mum dropped everything, ran after the cat and retrieved the rabbit. She came back, just as our cat jumped on the table and made off with the steak. She dragged it back, then washed the rabbit and the steak. She didn’t tell us about this until a few months later.

We were always short of cash, there was no point asking our parents for any, they didn’t have any to give. We used to do odd jobs to earn a few coppers, things such as chopping sticks, or move the snow for people. There were some coal yards nearby, from where we could buy coal. I was coming home from school one lunchtime. There was a lady living nearby; she was quite well off actually, Mrs. Green. She said, “Could you do me a favour, could you fetch me some coal? I’ve no fire.” She gave me the money and I went to the coal yard, got half a hundredweight of coal and paid the old man for it. “Bring that bloody barrer back ‘n’ all,” he said. He’d lent me this great big barrow. It was a right job, pushing it on the ice; it had big iron wheels on it. I eventually got back with it. I tipped the coal down the cellar grate, took the barrow back and even swept up outside. Mrs. Green gave me a couple of dry biscuits; that was the last time I fetched any coal for her.

There was a lady in our yard, we used to play tricks on her. One day, we found a purse and we placed some newspaper that we’d cut into pieces the size of pound notes into the purse. Then we tied some black cotton to it and put it on her doorstep. From across the yard, we fired a catapult at the door. She opened the door, looked round, closed the door and went back inside. We did the same thing again, this time, she looked down and saw the purse. As she bent down to pick it up, we pulled the cotton. We did this three or four times before she realised what we were doing. She was following the purse across the yard as we were pulling it. Needless to say, the air was blue when she found out what we’d done.

One time later, she stopped me and Bill Muscroft and said, “I’ve got an old tom cat – it stinks, will yer take it to the cat shelter in Spring Street and have it put down? I’ll give yer a tanner (sixpence - 2 ½ p). She lent us a fishing basket. We put the cat into it, then we set off with it. We walked to the top of St. Philip’s Road, to a bomb site and sat down. We thought, “This cat’s quiet, perhaps it’s died, if so, we can bury it.” We had a look inside, the cat shot out and it ran. We ran after it, but it ran up some yards and disappeared. We couldn’t find it anywhere, so we said, “What we’ll do, we’ll stay here until about four o’clock, then we’ll go back.” This was in the morning, about 11 o’clock. So we went back, knocked on the door. She said, “Yes?” We said, “We took that cat Mrs. Ruskin, and had it put down.” “Have yer?" she said, "come here yer buggars.” The cat was sat in front of the fire washing itself. She didn’t ask for the money back.

Things went along at school, I was quite good at English, but never any good at arithmetic. I was quite good at art, I used to get posters on the wall. They picked four to go to the College of Arts and Crafts. I’d have loved to do that, go there and develop what I was good at. Dad said, “No, that’s no good to you, you want to learn a trade, you’re not going to pick anything up there, being an artist or a window dresser, so it fell through. One of the lads who did do it, started his own business doing sign writing. I thought, “That could have been me.”

The war ended, and we dragged all the bunks out of the shelters and had a massive bonfire. The ladies made toffee apples and roast potatoes; they did well considering there was rationing.

We’d a bloke called Les in the yard, he was a good pianist. They carried a piano out into the yard. He must have sat there for four or five hours and never played the same thing twice. He’d no music; we kept plying him with beer, it was a really good night, people were dancing and everyone enjoyed it.

The war was over and I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a leaded light maker. I’d watched a Scotsman doing it, and that’s what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t to be. I became an apprentice to a local plumber and property repairer. I left school on the Friday and started work the following Monday. The wages were 14 shillings (70p) a week. It was bloody hard work, 46 ½ hours a week covering 5 ½ days. We used to do work at Gilmour’s brewery, bottling stores.


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