World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                     Ida Beaumont 

The Night of the Blitz – Sheffield 1940

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Ida Beaumont (Nee Copley)
Location of story: Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Ida Beaumont.

The Night of the Blitz – Sheffield 1940
Ida Beaumont (Nee Copley)

I was born on the 26th May 1916, in the middle of the First World War. My father worked in an foundry, making railway wagon wheels at Samuel Osborne's, down Penistone Road in Sheffield. He needn't have, but he volunteered to go to the front, firstly with a local regiment and later, after he had been invalided out and recovered, with the Black Watch.

My Father rarely talked of his wartime experiences as we were growing up. I do remember though, my mother had made, a little dress and Tam O Shanter, for me out of his Black Watch kilt. I was only a small girl then of course, there would have been plenty of fabric in that kilt. I loved that outfit.

Looking back, I realize how lucky we were that Father had come through, so many didn't. He was a strong man though, physically strong, his working conditions saw to that.

Little did we know then that war would come round again, and that this time, I was to be directly involved. I could have joined up at the outbreak of the second war. But my mother wasn't well at that time and I was her principal carer, which meant that I had to stay at home.

In the cities, men and women who were of an age to do so, if they hadn't joined the forces, were encouraged to work for the 'war effort'. Most of the service industries and manufacturing were directed that way. Sheffield was known as the 'city of steel'. Now it's all gone and you can't believe it. My father, and a generation before him, at least, were all engaged in the metal trades, moulding, grinding, cutting and filing from cutlery to massive castings for civil engineering. During the conflicts, of course, all that skill and expertise was invaluable to the war effort.

Women were called in to supplement the labour force in the manufacture of armaments. A lot of it was shift work. I couldn't manage it with my mother. I needed something a bit more flexible so I could get home to her in the day. We'd had letters, like call up papers, I suppose. We'd to go to the Labour Exchange and sign up for something. I forget if I had any choice in the matter, but I was assigned to the 'transport'. I was to be a conductress on the trams. It was quite an adventure for me. I was twenty-three or four.

I'd had jobs in the past but none of them lasted long because of my mother, she needed me at home. We began with two weeks training, that's all, at the Tenter Street Depot. Our first task was to learn all the fares and practise adding them up. I remember, from town to the terminus was tuppence. Then there was threehalfpence, a penny and a halfpenny fare. The ticket machine was like a metal box. You had to select the appropriate ticket, they were all different colours, and clip it to show it was valid. I think, in some areas, female conductresses were called 'clippies'. Actually I was lucky. I had worked in a shop and I was used to handling money and adding up. I was always
reasonable at it.

My placement was always on one of two routes, Ecclesall - Middlewood or Malin Bridge to Fulwood. Just occasionally I'd do relief on a special run, down the east end to pick up steel foundry workers and bring them back to the city. I'm not sure what the purpose of this run was. All I know was that I dreaded it. The tram would be crammed with these men, there were no stops and I had to collect all their fares in double quick time, as the thing rattled and rolled towards the City. There was a lot of banter you know, you'd struggle to concentrate at times. It was all good-natured. You rarely felt threatened. Just occasionally, if you picked up drunks, late at night, but that wasn't often and you learned how to deal with it.

The drivers were men who were too old, or unfit for war work. On the whole they respected the woman. Some were a bit dour, they didn't speak to you much but most were very kind. When the tram reached the terminus, you had to move the pole, you know, on to the other line, for the tram to return. It was really the conductor's job but it was heavy and difficult for a woman, so the driver had to do it. They'd do it willingly, most. Some of them had a little joke with you.

In fact it was good for me. I'd led a fairly sheltered life at home with my mother. Although I was mature in a lot of ways, I hadn't been out and about much. I enjoyed the work too, on the whole. The uniform was smart, skirt, tunic top and peaked cap. We had to carry a gas mask all the time. My fellow workers - I remember a Betty and someone called Jack Walker - after all these years. I'd make a beeline for them at break time, at the canteen. Yes, there was a particular kind of camaraderie, particularly after the blitz, when everyone had to gird up and pull together.

I missed all of that really, I made good friends. I didn't work the duration of the War because I'd to go back full time with Mother. There was no help then. If your family members needed care, you'd have to provide it between yourselves. Of course we had to learn the drill, in case of an air raid. There was a big operations room somewhere. They controlled all the tram routes and movements, they knew exactly what ran where and when. When a raid was predicted, we had to lower the lights, you know, blackout. We ran on just the dimmest light imaginable. I remember the colour purple. Was that the signal for us to dim, or the dimmed lights themselves? I can't quite recall which, only that it was really eerie, rattling along deserted streets with sirens wailing in your ears. Of course in times of real danger, you'd to evacuate the tram and head for the nearest shelter.

I was on duty the night of that first massive raid. Luckily, or unluckily for us, when the real heavy bombardment started, we were on our break off the tram, but in the city. We were somewhere down Chapel Walk getting refreshments and it started. "We should get to one of the shelters," we said, "there's not enough protection here." Marples Hotel at the corner of Fitzalan Square, was reputedly the biggest and the best in the vicinity, so we thought we'd make a run for it down there. There was a few of us driver and conductress teams. Then, there must have been a bit of a lull and one of the drivers suggested we try to make it back to H.Q. at Tenter Street. At least then we would know the score, be on tap if services resumed and we were needed. Tenter Street wasn't too much further, in the other direction from Marples.

We set out, it was fine, but then, it started, like Dante's Inferno. I don't know what was raining down, bombs or incendiaries; the noise was terrific. Buildings were on fire. We ran, dodging into shop doorways and just stood, aghast. You weren't frightened as such, because, well, it was just such a spectacle. I just remember Paradise Square. It's a rather elegant square of Georgian houses at the back of the cathedral. It's probably the only bit of elegant architecture Sheffield has. We had to cross it to get to Tenter Street.

My driver was lame which was why he was on the trams and not in the forces. A lot ran on ahead, but I wanted to stick with my driver, he was slow, limping along, but I couldn't abandon him, even though I could have moved ten times faster. One or two of the others stuck with us.

Looking back, it was like a film, shot in slow motion. Paradise Square had us moving through it in the midst of all this chaos; bombs falling and bullets raining down and here we were in this place. It was unreal, so strange. I still have this abiding image of it in my mind.

As we neared the depot, we were stopped in our tracks by this dreadful sound, indescribable. One of our companions shouted in alarm, something I couldn't hear and the next thing, my driver, who had been slightly behind me, pushed me into a doorway, onto the ground, and flung himself on top of me. There was the most enormous explosion, everything shook, and there were sounds of falling masonry. I was frightened then.

We were so lucky; it had been very close. But to this day, I've never forgotten the unselfishness of that driver. He acted to save me before himself. And he was a family man. But it was so like him; he had been kind to me from day one, despite his disabilities.

That incident was the closest I got to the war; close enough. Later that night, I walked home to the outskirts of the city. The streets were eerily deserted, but I wasn't scared. My main thoughts were for home and family then, hoping that they hadn't suffered a hit. Quite a few suburban areas did. As I turned the corner into our street, everything was fine, but there was no one in at home. They were in next door but it was a shelter for practically the whole street, because their's was sturdily built. The man of the house had seen to that. Most of the neighbours, my father included, had been rather half-hearted in the attempt to build an Anderson shelter. I think he thought we wouldn't ever need it.
Anyway, I went and put my head round the door. My mother greeted me with tears of relief, the men looked rather rueful. They knew things were serious in the city. Here they were, huddled in the shelter and a young slip of a girl had walked it through the blitz! It was nothing unusual for me at any other time but that night, it was different. Of course, I had to recount all my experiences then.

It was strange after the Blitz. The damage was immense. You'd have no idea if you were to look at Sheffield today. I mentioned earlier that my one abiding image was of Paradise Square, well I have another: when we got back on the trams and back to our routes, Malin Bridge to Ecclesall, we came right through the city centre and down the Moor. I couldn't look at the Moor, but I did because I had to, but it was awful. That made me want to weep; such devastation. When I was on the tram, I used to avert my gaze, look at people's feet, anything to not have to look. The seriousness of it was brought home to me then.

It was bad when people as far away as the other side of Chesterfield talk of that night. They knew something dreadful was happening to Sheffield because they could see and hear it, from that distance. They could see the red glow in the sky! We were so lucky. Marples got a direct hit that night. But for a blink we might have been there. Many lost their lives or family members. I know of one man whose father and brother were in the steel mills down the east end that night. Wherever they were had suffered a direct hit. The next day the man went down, digging with his own bare hands in the rubble of the building. Neither their bodies, nor any part of them, were ever found. He was never the same again. He suffered dementia at an early age and died quite young. I'm sure that dreadful experience had a lot to do with it.

When you think of the victims of war around the world today, it's often the civilian population that come off worse. But lessons don't seem to be learned. We don't seem any more civilised in our dealings with war.
I'm a good age now and I've lived through so many changes, quite remarkable advances that have affected ordinary lives like mine.
Then there are just a handful of incidents in my life that have been quite extraordinary, such as I've just described. When you get older, you sit and reflect on them sometimes. My memory isn't too good but I hope I've managed to convey just a little bit of the atmosphere of those times.