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Doncaster Features: A schoolgirls wartime Doncaster by Margaret Herbert

This story was submitted to the People’s War web site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Margaret Herbert, and is reproduced here under the 'fair dealing' terms of it's copyright.

"When war broke out in 1939, I had just started at Beechfield infants’ school. Whilst on the summer holidays, my parents were informed that I would have to go to school elsewhere as the school was turned into a barracks for the army; I can well remember seeing soldiers on guard outside the school. The council quickly erected air raid shelters in the streets and the Anderson shelters in people's back gardens. Millions of tons of sand were brought in to fill sandbags, which were placed against window. I well remember the first time the siren went and to me, being only small, this was quite a terrifying sound.

My dad was George Cecil Skinner, a jeweller in Frenchgate, but he was also a part time auxiliary fireman and when war was declared, he was commandeered into the full time fire service. Within a short time, he was made station officer at Leicester Avenue fire station. The chief fire officer at that time was a Mr. Leadbeater who was not a well man and was absent more than he was on duty. My dad had to take over the running of the station. One of his deputies was a Joe Lingard who lived in Hyde Park.

My dad was responsible for arranging for various groups of the auxiliary fire men to be stationed in different parts of the town when the raids were on so that if any part of the town got cut off, there was coverage in all various areas e.g. Balby, Hyde Park, Thorne Road.

One of his fireman (as far as I can remember his name was Clegg) who lived in Bessacarr, I believe in the Patridge Flat Road, area was preparing to go on duty when he saw what he thought was a German coming down on a parachute. He told his wife he was going to get him and ran out of the back of the house. Unfortunately it was a landmine on a parachute and he was killed instantly.

Night after night my dad was woken when the enemy was approaching, and he dashed off to the fire station. I was popped into my siren suit and my mother and I spent many nights in the air raid shelter with a lady called Mrs. Ogden from across the road from us in Welbeck Road. I still remember to this day the rumbling of the bombs and planes going over Doncaster. Hull and Sheffield were targeted night after night and although I had many broken nights sleep, I still had to get up and go to school the next day. We all had to carry our gas masks and identity cards.

We all stayed for school dinners and as food was short, we got some really horrible meals, e.g. corned beef with boiled beetroot and soggy mashed potatoes followed by lumpy rice pudding.

I went to the convent school on Townfields and remember very well coming across the fields at home time one afternoon, and when my friend Jean Fox and I were nearly half way home, the siren went and we had to quickly decide whether to go home or run back to school - we ran back to school like most of the other pupils and spent about an hour singing hymns with the nuns in the shelter.

The nuns were insistent that we had full school uniform and this posed quite a problem, as all clothing was rationed and the family had to rally round to find enough clothing coupons for my school uniform, which consisted of navy blue gym slip, black stockings (fastened onto my liberty bodice with white suspenders), navy hat, coat and black shoes. Also navy shorts for P.E. with white cotton blouses and a gold and navy tie. Several of my school friends were evacuated to the countryside and two girls at our school went to Canada for several years.

My dad was very keen to see that all schools had fire drill and a team of the firemen used to go around the schools showing us how to use a stirrup pump in a bucket of water, and the other pupils kept filling the bucket up. When I think about it now, it really was quite primitive.

Then there was the day of the plant fire (December 1940). This was absolutely horrendous; the whole sky was alight. The fire started in the paint shop and spread quickly through the main body shop. This made a prime target for bombing, particularly as it had already been targeted with bombs. The idea was to stop the main line and the North Bridge, which was of course the main link from north to south at that time. Fire engines were brought from all over Doncaster and outlying districts, and my dad manned the fire station on his own - in fact he did not come home or have any sleep for 3 days, he tackled a fire on his own with a small pump on the back of a trailer in Cemetery Road fish and chip shop. He dealt with the fire and put it out, but on the way back, he ran over a cat. He was extremely upset about the cat and talked more about that than the fire.

On another raid, a land mine fell on Station Road and demolished the whole of the bottom half of the road opposite the Grand Theatre. My first concern when my dad came home was to ask him what had happened to the Grand. The only damage was to the glass canopy over the main entrance where all the glass was shattered when a statue above fell through it. A lady living in the Beehive Hotel in Factory Lane, left her bed to go to the shelter and later that night when she returned, all her pillow was covered in glass and shrapnel - lucky lady!

The show at the Grand was Carol Levis discoveries. Sadly an airman standing on the steps of the Y.M.C.A. next doors was killed instantly. Later on, the Civil Defence was formed and my dad became a Civil Defence Officer along with Inspector Howard and Inspector Lindsay, and they set up offices in Pillar House on South Parade, and later extended to Morris’ old wallpaper shop on St. Sepulchre Gate, next to Scarborough Bros. My dad had his desk upstairs and one night when Station Road area and West Street was bombed and shrapnel went in the window opposite his desk and out of the one at the other side; had he been sitting there, he would have been killed.

I had an aunt who was a dressmaker and she used to try to keep us all in clothes. All the family tried to eke out their coupons for weddings and funerals, and my mother and my aunts used to unpick old clothes and make them into new ones. Parachute silk was sold on the black market to make underwear, albeit bright yellow.

My aunts and grandma used to sit around the kitchen fire showing me how to make peg rugs and I took a great delight in collecting bits of material for this wherever I could.
We were lucky in that 3 of my uncles had allotments and grew vegetables, kept hens etc., so we generally managed to eke out food between the family. My uncles used to come round and bring cabbages, potatoes eggs and salad stuff. At Christmas grandma always managed to have a turkey on the table for the family and my uncles used supply chickens from time to time. Sweets were very few and far between.

Everyone had blackout curtains at their windows, so no lights were shown and friends and neighbours used to swap things like sugar and tea for soap and toiletries, of which there were very few. I well remember Izal toilet paper at home and newspaper at school, the nuns used to give us scissors and the papers to cut into small pieces and place them in tins in the toilets.

Firewatchers were made up of all walks of life, from dustmen to solicitors and accountants. They all turned out night after night as did the home guard. The women of Doncaster turned to working on munitions as the factories were turned over to war weapons, they all used to wear the very popular `turbans', and I can remember as I got older, trying to fold a scarf into a turban. I thought it was very grown up to have one.

Occasionally we would go to the Grand Theatre to see a show, but even the variety shows had a war time theme, e.g. Elise and Doris Waters (better known as Girt and Daisy), Two Ton Tessy O'Shea, Henry Hall and his band with Betty Driver (now Betty Williams in Coronation Street), the happy Dorm Enoch, Ramsbottom and me. They all wore tin hats and talked about Hitler. When we left the theatre, everything was in black darkness, people had windows painted and paper strips stuck across them in case of bomb blasts, to stop the flying glass.

Balby got quite badly bombed and several people were killed in the Sandford Road area.
I remember sitting by the wireless with my grandma and listening to Mr. Churchill, and thinking what a wonderful man this was who was going to save us all. My grandma had complete faith and trust in `dear old Winnie'. I also remember hearing the news; people listened to every bulletin and there was a look of anxiety on the faces of the family.

Holidays were out of the question but Doncaster council did arrange shows in Elmfield Park through the summer, called `holidays at home' and the kids all loved these shows, especially when we were allowed to take part in the talent competitions with uncle Will Raymond who was also a ventriloquist. Quite a few of the stars who were appearing at the Grand Theatre used to come and entertain us in a very large marquee - I lived just around the corner so I was always on the front row. This helped to keep the kids happy and occupied. Doncaster had two large airports, Finningley and Lindholme and all day long there would be Spitfires, Lancaster Bombers and fighter planes going over. As we used to come home from school, long convoys of the army and air force used to be going down Bennetthorpe with tanks and guns following on behind.

I can still remember thinking when is all this ever going to end, but it did and everyone celebrated with street teas, parties and dancing. It was quite amazing what people managed to find at the back of the cupboards for the street teas. All the soldiers and airman started to come home."

Margaret Herbert

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