World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Gwen Mitchel 

Childhood Memories in St Augustine's, Chesterfield

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Gwen Mitchell (nee Sims)
Location of story: Chesterfield, Derbyshire
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Norman Wigley of the BBC Radio Sheffield Action Desk on behalf of Mrs Gwen Mitchell.

I was a child during the war and lived in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I remember my eldest brother who was 19 and serving in the Navy, coming home on leave one day with his wife – we didn’t even know he had a girlfriend! His wife was in the ATS. They had got married while they both had a 48 hour pass. She was from Newcastle. My mother said we had to look after her as she was having a baby. My brother said “Don’t tell anybody that Wilhoumena is here.” We just accepted what they said – it was an adventure. We thought as kids that she might be a spy!

Not long after she arrived, the Military Police called looking for her. My mother was converting a chest of drawers into a doll's house and just on the spur of the moment, hid Wilhoumena inside it. They never found her and came back three times, but then on the fourth visit she coughed, and they found her. I remember a big scream and they took her away.

My mother had to appear in court, charged with harbouring a deserter, but she was pregnant at the time and the court fined her. She had to pay this off at so much a week, but luckily, escaped any further punishment. My brother had returned to sea by the time all this was happening. My mother had promised to look after her and kept this promise, even though she was punished for it. My brother and his wife stayed together for about eight years, but rarely met as he continued his Navy service. I don’t know what happened to his wife – I don’t remember seeing her again, but I am sure that she never was pregnant, as she would have been discharged dishonourably from the ATS. They never divorced. My brother returned home after the war and found a new partner and had children.

We were a big family; I was one of thirteen children. I remember in June one year, each of the six girls picking a doll each from Sharp’s Doll's Hospital in Chesterfield, but we could only have one pram between us. They had to be reserved until Christmas and my mum paid for them in instalments. The eleventh child was born at home – she weighed only three pounds. She was delivered by Dr. Davy from Sheffield Road Surgery in Chesterfield. He had a big mop of white hair and a big bushy beard. We kids sat on the stairs while the baby was being delivered and the doctor went away and made a small cot for the baby; the baby was wrapped in cotton wool and the doctor would call three times a day to see the baby. He would cycle three miles each visit.

When I was 15, my brother died; he had always been ill. About two weeks before he died, they found he had a brain tumour and could do nothing for him. How mum and dad got through this must have been hard – there was no counselling in those days. At the same time my sister who was training to be a nurse got polio and went into an isolation hospital very ill. The outlook didn’t look very good, but things turned out not so bad and she went on to marry.

I remember going to see our grandparents. They lived in a small cottage, two up, two down, with a toilet down the yard. Grandma always made a cake and home made lemonade, which we ate and drank while sitting on a rug outside; granddad always had cheese on his cake. The door of the house was left open and we could see the furniture. It was highly polished and everything was spotless - perhaps that’s why we were never allowed inside. On the way home, we went back through the woods. Mum knew all the names of the wild flowers. We passed a river where we could see fish swimming about.

We lived in a new council house on St Augustine’s estate. When we moved there we could choose either a coal fired oven or a gas cooker, but not both. We had the coal oven but coal was rationed and the baby had to be kept warm by the fire, which had to be kept going all the time. We weren’t considered a needy case for extra coal, so my mum marched about five of us, on a cold day to the Town Hall. We went to an office at the back which faced the top of the hill, to see a man there for a ‘chit’ for extra coal, but it was refused. My mum said the office was warmer than our house and so we were going to stay there. He changed his mind eventually and we got the ‘chit’. When we left, it was cold and going dark and we had to walk through the fallen leaves along the avenue, singing a song, ‘Pal of my Cradle Days’, all the way home.

When we got home my brother had to run to the coal merchant’s on Derby Road before they closed, to get this extra coal. One bag was all we got, which he brought home loaded on a pram, but it made the difference between us being warm and cold.

All the houses used to collect all the food scraps and peelings in a bin we were given, in the corner of the yard to feed the pigs, collected by the Council once a week. Nothing was wasted in the war; and I can remember every Friday night, a man in a bowler hat and a rolled umbrella coming to collect a shilling from my mother for the doctor’s bill. This went on year after year even after the war. If she hadn’t got the money she would say so and he would come back the next week.

I can remember evacuees coming by train, walking from the station and being taken to our school at the end of our road for people to collect. Mum and the other mothers went along to help; there seemed to be lots of babies, all in white shawls and lots were crying. The older children all had bags or cases. All their clothes seemed to be either too big or too small – none seemed to fit. Some came to our school, and I remember that to us, they all seemed to talk funny. Lots of children had nits and scabies, and some had something called rickets, which was because you could not get proper food or fruit. If you had children under school age, you got concentrated orange juice. We were also given cod liver oil and malt – it was horrible. All the kids worked collecting nettles to make soup. In the war nothing was wasted.