A Slice of Life in Wartime Kempston

by Doug Rowland

1. Early Days

On the day war broke out I was sitting on the first Kempston Mill river bridge doing a spot of fishing, when a man on a bike rode on to the bridge at a furious rate and excitedly shouted that war had just been declared. However, the river remained quite calm and I can only recollect one incident there regarding the war, and that was one day when some boffins arrived with machines from the Royal Tank Regiment, which were being run in the river to check for leaks, probably in preparation for the D Day landings which came much later in 1944.

Not very much happened during the first six months, which the media called the ‘Phoney War’. Rationing of food items began, and we were all told to dig for Victory. Many houses then had much larger gardens than today and dads everywhere began growing all kinds of cabbage and sprouts, root crops and lots of potatoes. Often these were also grown in quantity on allotment holdings, which were fairly readily available then. Many dads like my own soon found room for a pen to keep a few chickens, often breeding a few in summer with a sitting hen. These broods usually produced more cocks than hens. The cocks were run on for Christmas when they were prepared for the table, making a special treat. Feeding the chickens was not too much of a problem as potato peelings and stale bread were generally available and not rationed.

About once a week my dad used to meet with two of his farming and smallholding pals in our living room to discuss chickens, ducks, geese and rabbits and anything else to do with farming. Joe Vintner spent much of his earlier working life managing and coping with a herd of milking cows down at the end of the Hill Grounds road. His pal John ‘Cheddar’ Parrot worked for the Beds War Agricultural Committee and was in the know as to what was going on at farms and smallholdings at the time. One day my dad went to an ex Army Sale and bought several wooden cases full of tins of Army corned beef, unfit for human consumption, which had been stored in the rain and were a bit rusty on the outside. When we opened a can for the chickens the corned beef smelt fresh and lovely. Another item available for chickens at that time was sacks of small ‘pig’ potatoes which had come through the small holes of the riddle. These were boiled and made good eating for the chickens mixed with a little bran.

In 1939 we lived rather a different life to that of today. In our kitchen was a small New World gas stove, a washing gas boiler which was supposed to supply hot water for the bath also, but never did, so we had no hot water or central heating, just a coal fire with a not very useful oven alongside. There’s not a single three pin electrical socket downstairs at all, the one in the back bedroom never worked anyway. There was a very small inadequate fireplace in the main bedroom. Our refrigeration was a large concrete slab in the pantry. The coal barn and toilet were outside the back door. Despite these privations our family of five plus evacuees and billeted soldiers survived the war years and the austerity quite well.

2. The Billeting Officer

At the beginning of the war, the Billeting officer sent us two soldiers for six weeks whilst they did their training on a waste piece of ground on the Chantry Estate at the rear of the Cryselco Works. After that we had two more and finally two more after that. We gave them bed and breakfast and evening meal. Later on we had a London wife with us during the blitz and a baby was born. Her husband worked in London and came to see his wife every weekend. Looking across from where we lived we could often see a red sky after dark above the Cryselco works which was London burning.

We had an ancient battery powered radio on top of the piano. Only two services were available then called the Home Service, and the Forces programme. My dad used to listen to ‘Music Hall’ for an hour on Saturday nights, when people like Cavan O’Connor, Arthur Askey, Frank Randle and the like would perform. In those days the radio comedians had little material to work with, trains and buses all ran on time and jokes about lodgers, nudist camps, old maids and first nights were all frowned upon or censored by the BBC. This was called at the time The Blue Pencil. However, George Formby featured all these subjects in his comic songs, all on sale in Woolworths Store as 78 rpm 10” gramophone records. These records were played on our wind up mechanical gramophone.

Clocks and shilling coins were a universal wartime problem. We did not possess a decent clock or watch in the house. We had a Woolworths mechanical wind up alarm clock on the mantelpiece. Often we would forget to wind it up and it would stop in the night. The radio did not start very early, but was our only hope. Later the clock would wear out, and it would then face several weeks of running very indifferently and unhelpfully face down. At that time there were two public clocks in Kempston, one outside the Council offices and the other in the shape of a teapot above the entrance door to the Consumers Tea Company on the corner of Margetts Road where ‘The Elephant’ is now. But there was always the one further down at Britannia Works.

We had a shilling coin meter for gas and electricity with no regular contingency plan for when the gas or power suddenly was switched off abruptly by meter. Then followed a scuffle in the dark to find matches and a candle, followed by a successful or unsuccessful hunt for a shilling coin, maybe dropped in to an old vase or somewhere. Often I was sent along the street in the blackout with two sixpenny pieces to visit neighbours. The Royal Mint never did issue enough shilling coins which in your shop change were rarer than hens teeth. When I grew up I decided that I would never posses a shilling meter. And I didn’t.

Identity cards and gas masks were issued to everyone, and food rationing began, which was fair and adequate. Some of the meat ration had to be taken as corned beef, and wartime sausages appeared. The radio comedian called them ‘Breadcrumbs in Battledress’, for they did not contain the percentage of meat that they do today. Trains and buses ran to time. The basic petrol ration was eventually discontinued and only vehicles of essential services were on the roads, which at times were near empty. Owners of private cars lifted them just off the ground, usually on several house bricks, and started and ran them for a few minutes, using the starting handle, at odd times. By 1945 the value of these cars was to rocket when returning soldiers with good gratuities decided to become mobile.

Perhaps the most popular mode of transport through the war years was the bicycle. These appeared in thousands on our almost car free roads. Almost everyone had a bike. At the beginning of the war with the blackout in full swing, cyclists were required now to have a red light on the rear frame of the bike in addition to the white one on the front. Sometimes dry batteries were in short supply, and the government recommended that you warm spent batteries in an oven to get an extra lease of life from them. In the Beds Times on a Friday there were strings of cyclists fined ten shillings for not displaying a red rear light on their bike. One day I saw my dad had been done for ten shillings.

3. The Daily Newspaper

For news of the war, everyone listened to the radio nine o’clock news, often tinted a bit to try and put the best face on what was often bad news, such as the London Blitz or the Dunkirk evacuation. We took the Daily Express throughout the war years and we followed it all through with the help of small maps of the wartime fronts. The local Home Guard, defending the country from potential German invasion from 1940 was a very serious business and not the comedy show that is portrayed on our television screens today.

In wartime, everyone of age, or most of them, smoked cigarettes or a pipe, and handing round the cigarettes was a social custom. Cigarette lighter parts and lighter fuel were readily on sale and with this availability, many working people in factories designed and made their own cigarette lighters. As most tobacco was imported from Rhodesia or Virginia, USA, some shortages were inevitable leading to under the counter sales or notices appearing saying ‘Regular Customers only’. There were a few more pubs around than there are now, and often notices could be seen ‘Sorry No Beer’.

My Dad smoked Woodbines when he could afford them, but very often rolled his own using Saint Julian tobacco and A.G. papers.

4. Land Mines, Haircuts and Housewives

One night a land mine exploded across the road from Kempston Barracks which made a very large hole on an allotment plot and shattered windows in the area.

There were two military establishments in Kempston at the Barracks and at Grange Camp, which eventually became a Military Convalescent Depot, where soldiers, discharged from hospital could recuperate before becoming fit again and returning to their units. Many wore hospital blue suits with white shirt and red tie. Occasionally there would be Church Parades from Grange Camp on Sundays with special policemen holding up the traffic. Very much time and effort in the army is ensuring that all soldiers had a frequent haircut, always to be short back and sides. This obsession favoured just one local Bedford Road hairdressing establishment. With deductions from pay, an arrangement was soon made that the Grange camp soldiers could call regularly for their “free” haircut.

Being a wartime housewife was no easy task. There was food rationing to cope with and just a sink, gas stove, table and dresser as standard equipment in the kitchen. There was no hot water, washing or dishwashing machines, no microwave ovens, or food mixers, electric irons, refrigerators, or vacuum cleaners and no supermarkets selling prepared food items, so everything was very basic. But in wartime you just had to cope, and everyone did.

5. Buses, Iron Railings and Cinemas

In wartime we had an excellent and regular bus service in to Bedford. In order to increase the standing room, bus seats were taken out and refitted all around the sides of the buses, and hangers put in to allow for three rows of standing passengers. On Saturdays and busy times it must have been a conductors nightmare.

Towards the end of the war there was a shortage of steel and cast iron with which to manufacture armaments, so for a few days our metal fences and railings were all cut free and taken away in a giant scrap metal drive. Even the two WW I large German cannons in front of Bedford Road School quietly disappeared.

Prior to the war years, cinemas remained closed on Sundays. However, later in the war, they were allowed to open on a Sunday, but were limited with opening times and had to show old films. This met with opposition at first, but was gradually accepted as the norm.

6. Some Wartime Outdoor Cucumbers

During the war years, no tropical or temperate fruit or out of season fruit and vegetables were to be found in shops and markets as today. Very few people had a warm glasshouse to grow in, and the emphasis was to Dig for Victory and grow English fruit and vegetables in the garden. Most gardens and allotments were devoted to the growing of potatoes, which families needed in larger quantities to see them through the year. Some of the keener gardeners started off plants of marrow, cucumber or tomato, usually in paper cups, on sunny window sills.

We lived next door to a quietly spoken chap called Cyril whose asthmatical wife had died in the early years of the war. But Cyril was a keen gardener and grew vegetables and salad crops throughout the year.

One spring six little heaps of well-rotted pig manure appeared in his garden. These were mixed up with some fine rich compost during mid-April. A week or so later, small cucumber plants were set on top of the little hillocks of compost. At the time, I thought it rather early in the year to plant out cucumbers, especially as we had been having bright sunny days and several very frosty nights. However, the frost did not seem to harm the little cucumber plants, and this remained an unsolved mystery for a couple of weeks.

Very early one Saturday morning our mother was outside pegging some washing on the line and saw Cyril removing a large cardboard box and a couple of handfuls of straw from each cucumber plant. The mystery was then solved. The plants eventually did well and spread across the ground, producing many small and rather juicy outdoor cucumbers. Soon after this, Cyril remarried and lived on well into the 1980’s.

7. The Hundred Percent Bike Man

During the war years we always had an excellent bus service in to Bedford, supplied by the Eastern National bus company. But in those days, all active people owned a bike of some sort, from a ‘sit up and beg’ type to a racing job with a high saddle and very low handlebars. I always had something in between, which I rode hard, and often was in need of repairs of some sort. Fortunately for me, across the road lived Fred who was laughingly called a ‘bike-faker’ by local clientele.

But Fred was rather more than that, he had excellent self-taught knowledge of every part of the bicycle, and was always enthusiastic and full of interest for a bike needing repair.  Fred kept me and my bike on the road for over 30 years. He would always help, even late at night he would repair a puncture for you so that your bike was ready for you to go to work next day.

When I first knew Fred he was working at the Gas Plant at RAF Cardington, and had a substantial 12ft x 12ft corrugated iron bike shed in his garden. In here were kept all manner of new and second hand parts for many makes of machines. Fred rebuilt and reconditioned discarded bikes from scratch, and eventually many finished up in the Peacocks auction shed in Commercial Road in the town. The auction of bikes always began at 1.30pm on Saturdays.

Fred often bought rims and packs of spokes and rebuilt wheels; he also repaired three speed hubs on occasion. In wartime when cycles had to have a red rear light, Fred fitted hundreds of these, and fitted dynamo lighting. In those days you could leave your bike anywhere and there was no need to lock up as today. But I am afraid the heyday of the bicycle, along with Fred are long gone, but happily remembered.

8. Evacuees

Kempston housed many evacuees from the blitzed areas of London, and many of the children went to school here. I can still recollect Percy Davis and Reginald (Cozzy) Barker from my schooldays.

The Horseshoe Coaches came here from Culross Road, Tottenham and stayed for some years. In the High Street Mr E E Smith brought from London, his wife, three sons and his hair styling business for the war years. He always wore a West End style overall which buttoned up smartly around the neck, leaving Mr Smith looking a bit like a vicar.  The shop was located next door to the Kempston West Church. Mrs Smith had a shock of fine real ginger hair and ran a ladies hairdressing salon upstairs. Down below, Mr Smith had three chairs in his shop and called everyone Sir. There was no waiting as the proprietor or his eldest son could cut your hair efficiently in 10 minutes. On the way out there was a shop that sold cigarettes and just about every toiletry that you would need.

At that time a white emulsion hair cream called Brylcreem was very popular with men. We always called Air Force types “The Brylcreem Boys” and they called soldiers “Brown Jobs”. There was a general shortage of hair creams, so Mr Smith made his own liquid Brilliantine in several colours and offered the bottles in his window. When the war ended, Mr Smith and his business went back to London from whence they had come. Later the shop became the Albany Café, and today I believe is a Music shop.