A Slice of Life in Wartime Kempston cont.

9. Wartime Postage Stamp

The present Queens father George VI was our wartime king, and in 1939 a set of definitive stamps was in use, with the six low values to 3d being in dark rich colours. After that, they went up in penny stages to one shilling, but no 11d plum stamp, we had to wait until 1947 before this was added to the set. For parcels, we had half crown stamps in brown and green, five shilling in red and ten shilling issues in two different shades of blue. The set was not complete until 1948 when the £1 brown was added.

1940 was a very difficult war year, resulting in the rescue of the Allied Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and later in the year, the Battle of Britain. The Penny Black Centenary fell in May 1940 marking Rowland Hills very successful universal penny post, the very first in the world. As the penny black was the first postage stamp it did not need to bear on it the name of our country. Quite soon, the rest of the world also introduced their own postal systems. Our 1940 Centenary set consisted of six values in dark colours to 3d, bearing our own King and Queen Victoria’s head on larger than normal definitives. Later in 1941 and 1942, paler colours were used on the first six low values to conserve printing ink.

In 1941, the Germans invaded and captured the Channel Islands, who were also using the King George issues, being part of the United Kingdom. In Guernsey, post offices ran short of penny stamps and the postal authorities allowed 2d stamps to be bisected, corner to corner and each half used to replace the shortage of penny stamps. Covers bearing bisected 2d stamps are occasionally available today from dealers. 2d Orange current definitive, 2d penny black Centenary, and even a small quantity of King George V  2d stamps were used. In the occupation years between 1941 and 1944, two new Guernsey values of ½d green and 1d scarlet were printed on the island, some being imperforate and others with a slit style perforation.

Two stamps of similar design were printed in Jersey also. In 1943 and 1944 six hand drawn pictorials of views were issued in six values to 3d. These were printed in Paris.

The war ended rather suddenly in August 1945 with the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we had to wait until 1946 for the two Victory stamps to appear.

10. Coping with Wartime Rationing

My parents and two brothers lived the war out in Kempston, our youngest member being born in 1942. Food and clothes rationing began soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, and continued until the last item, meat was derationed in 1954.

Everyone was issued with a ration book, which was filled with pages of small coupons, allocated to different items of entitlement. If it was nothing else, the system was fair, with rationed items always available. Each person had to be registered at an approved butcher, grocer and clothing shop. Potatoes were never rationed and bread only for a short period of the war, when we imported large quantities of wheat from Canada and the United States. I will now briefly comment how our household managed on rationed goods.

There were several grocers and butchers in Kempston at this time, but we were always registered with the Co-op, because of the dividend they paid back to customers annually. All grocers had a bacon and fresh butter counter, and we were allowed 4 oz. of bacon per person each week. In those days fried breakfasts were more popular than they are today and we managed quite well. Eight ounces of sugar were allowed weekly, and this was our biggest problem item due to my dad having a very sweet tooth, so this had to be supplemented by other sweeteners. Also on ration, on a points system was honey, golden syrup, treacle, plum jam, sweetened condensed milk, and as a final solution, saccharin tablets. Most sugar produced was cane sugar from the West Indies and had to be shipped here across the U-boat infested North Atlantic. Two ounces of tea were allowed, and we managed with this.

At the butchers, about 1b 3 oz worth of meat was allowed, some of which had to be taken as corned beef, but we found it quite sufficient. In the Dads Army movie there is an excellent scene in the butchers shop with Jonesey serving the wartime ladies with scarves around their heads.

Two ounces of cheese were allowed, always English cheddar, and this was sufficient to eat for a 9pm supper with crusty bread, a little butter and pickled shallots, along with a cup of cocoa. At that time most people had much larger gardens than today and grew their own vegetables. At the end of summer, our shallots were pulled and dried and then prepared and put in to a huge glass Horlicks jar, and covered in loose malt vinegar from the grocers. A handful of mixed spice was added when available. This huge jar stood until December when the supper season began, and lasted well in to the following year.

There was also a ration of jam and preserves. Two ounces of butter and margarine were allowed each week as was 4 ounces of lard, used as cooking fat. There being no prepared meals around as today, housewives made pies and cakes from whatever basics they had. Eggs were rationed, and egg powder produced in the United States was also available, and mixing the powder with water or a little milk, you could fry yourself a reconstituted egg to go with your bacon ration. Dried imported milk powder and tins of the famous Spam, tasty pork luncheon meat, which is still available, today, were also popular.  Often in the evenings for a treat, we toasted thick slices of bread on the red embers of the fire, using a toasting fork with an extending handle. We had crusty loaves readily available, cut, sliced and wrapped bread had not then been invented. We saved all the dripping and meat juices from our Sunday joint to eat with the toast. All sweets, chocolate and confectionary were rationed eventually after disappearing from the shops for a short while. With the onset of clothes rationing, many people made or repaired older ones. Soap and soap powder was also rationed and the basic petrol ration was discontinued to be restored in 1945.

The British wartime sausage got rather a bad time with the radio comedians who called them “Breadcrumbs in Battledress”. During the war years, most adults were smokers, and there were shortages, but usually enough to go round. My dad smoked Woodbine cigarettes, which were 10 for 4d at the onset of the war, later he rolled his own with St Julian tobacco and A G papers. Often pubs would use up their beer quota and notices out front would say ‘Sorry No Beer’. Camera film was also often in short supply as were many manufactured small items. There were no bananas, oranges, peaches or lemons available, and greengrocers shops only stocked English fruit, vegetable and salad items that were in season. Our younger brother had his rations of cod liver oil and Californian orange juice supplemented at the babies clinic in Foster Road. Milk was also rationed, and we never seemed to have quite enough of it.

Finalising, I think the worst wartime and for a time, post war shortage was, of one shilling coins needed for the gas and electricity meters. The Treasury never seemed to have enough of these in circulation, most of them spending much of their lives inside shilling meters.

11. Les Button – Accordionist Supreme

Les was born in the docks area of Harwich around 1920. As a young lad he worked amongst the boats and became an apprentice carpenter. He continued amongst the Harwich/Hook of Holland boats until 1940 when Holland was occupied and sailings all withdrawn. Les had been in a Reserved Occupation, and was then directed to work in the Ampthill Road at Bedford to make wooden patterns for small castings for tanks and aircraft, often working extended wartime shifts.

The Billeting Officer placed Les in my grandfather’s house across the road from where we lived then. It was a big house, partly empty due to their two lads being called up into the Royal Artillery. Les soon settled down in Kempston and occasionally enjoyed the delights at weekends of some of the High Street pubs. Eventually Les took a fancy to the youngest daughter in the house, and he and Elsie were married at All Saints in 1943. All of Les’ family attended the wedding, and I can recollect the photographer taking a picture of Elsie after the wedding with veil blown straight up in to the air by a blustery wind. Elsie had taken piano lessons for some years and was now an accomplished pianist and played sheet music of most of the popular songs current at that time. The following Christmas, Les visited his parents in Harwich with Elsie and brought his piano accordion back to Kempston. Les could play all the popular songs of the day and became an instant success as a wartime entertainer, occasionally at the King William IV and the original Fox and Hounds. When the war ended, Les’ job ended also, so he and Elsie decided to find a house at Harwich, Les got his old job back on the boats, with Elsie working in catering, Harwich being the starting point for most BAOR troops, who got their first Continental Breakfast at the Hook as the overnight sailings docked.

Elsie and Les decided to return to Kempston every alternate Christmas holiday which they did until around 1980. Often I waited for the Bedford bus at the King William terminal. The place would be all lit up with crowds of customers inside, all singing and dancing to Les and his entertaining piano accordion.  After the war Les and Elsie had a fine son called Victor. As a lad he spent many summer holidays here, usually fishing in the river at Kempston Mill.

Elsie died rather prematurely in the early 1980’s, and Les followed a few months later.

Today I enjoy piano accordion music on my CD player, and often wonder if the ghost of Les, who brightened up the Kempston High Street for so long, so many years ago, can still be heard.

12. Some Entertainers of World War II

During the war years, the Music Hall and All Star Variety and ballroom dancing had just about reached its peak. There were thousands of servicemen and women all ready and eager to be entertained. Locally in Bedford we had four cinemas and the Royal County Theatre in Midland Road with orchestra conducted by Arthur Riley. There were also several cinemas in Luton and the Grand Theatre in Waller Street.  Also for entertainment we had the two BBC radio channels, the Home Service and the Forces Programme. From Kempston into town was just a short bus ride to visit the Woolworths store in Midland Road to see their extensive display of 78 rpm records and sheet music.

We possessed a wind up gramophone and a radio powered by a six volt accumulator. Everyone listened to the nine o’clock news, and in the early years of the war, things did not go too well. I can remember Alvar Lidell reading the news, and accounts from the war fronts by Frank Gillard. My dad’s favourite programme was Music Hall which was a variety show staged at 8pm on Saturday nights.

I will now mention a few artists of the war days with a few brief comments. Bing Crosby was perhaps the top crooner of the war years and he recorded many numbers, I enjoyed his rendering of Ave Maria. He also made movies with Bob Hope. Robb Wiltons wartime monologue about the Home Guard was a gem. The Royal Family asked him to perform it at Windsor Castle at one of Princess Margaret’s birthdays. The Billy Cotton Band played comic songs, dance music and many excellent renditions of military marches and featured Alan Breeze and Kathy Kay. The Victor Sylvester strict tempo dance music was very popular and made many recordings.

The BBC ITMA programme was a very popular comedy wartime success. It had a lively signature tune, a lot of very amusing characters, hosted by Tommy Handley. Betty Driver and Paula Green were well known radio vocalists. The RAF Dance Orchestra, The Squadronnaires were also popular during the war years and made many recordings. A few continental stars entertained us. The strong voice of Edith Piaf from France, and Marlena Dietrich, star of the 1930s film The Blue Angel transferred from Germany to Hollywood and made more movies. Perhaps her most popular recording was the song Falling in Love, I Can’t Help it. Another continental star from Austria was Richard Tauber who settled in England and made several movies and starred in the West End musical Old Chelsea. He had an excellent voice and sang serious ballads with a very slight but attractive accent. Perhaps his most famous numbers were Vienna, City of my Dreams and My Heart and I.

During the war there were plenty of stand-up comedians around. Vic Oliver would come on with his violin and ask all those in the front row who were eating ice creams to please lick them quietly. Then would come a few jokes and a short piece on the violin. Most comedians had a catch-phrase to identify themselves. Sandy Powel used to say “Can you hear me Mother” before launching into the popular Al Jolson number ‘Mammy’.  As he got to the second verse two arms slowly extended from his special jacket to eventually reach the floor. The laughs got louder as the song went on, and the audience caught on.

Headmaster Will Hay did comedy school sketches on stage with Graham Moffat and Moore Marriot. He also made a number of movies, perhaps the best being Oh Mr Porter. Cyril Fletcher entertained us in wartime with his Odd Odes, which were poetry combined with comedy.

Perhaps our most famous wartime orchestra was Glen Miller who had many local connections and broadcast from the Bedford area. There is today a local Glen Miller Museum. His signature tune was Moonlight Serenade. My favourite number is his rendering of the Londonderry Air. He was tragically reported missing when his small plane failed to appear for the 1944 Christmas concert in Paris. No trace of him has ever been found. Three close harmony groups from America were very popular here during the war years. There were The Andrews Sisters, The Mills brothers, and The Ink Spots with lead singer Bill Kenney.

Many of our variety stars did overseas tours to entertain the troops. I have seen Tommy Trinder pictures from Rome telling jokes from the wall of the Coliseum. Vera Lynn undertook a tour in Burma under difficult conditions. She was eventually described as ‘The Forces Sweetheart’ and became very popular with her number We’ll Meet again. George Formby was very popular with his comic songs, and he too entertained the troops and made several wartime movies, featuring George in the Navy, Air Force and the Home Guard with Ronald Shiner. A number of subjects for comedy were banned by the BBC, and usually in the last verse of a comic number he would introduce one of them. Some of his lines were a bit near the mark, but the grinning, toothy ukulele player seemed to get away with it. I quote from The Chinese Laundry Blues. “Mr Wu. He’s got a naughty eye that flickers, You ought to see it wobble when he’s ironing ladies blouses. George was a superb master of the ukulele, especially in his rendering of Tiger Rag. His most popular number was his only serious ballad called “Leaning on a lamp post at the corner of the street”.

The list of artists seems to go on and on so to finish will include a few more that come to mind. Arthur Askey, Cavan O’Conor, Arthur Tracy, Anne Shelton, Flanagan and Allen, Issy Bonn, Jack Warner, sisters Elsie and Doris Waters, Al Bowelly, The Western Brothers, and finally Max Miller. It is said that the late train to Brighton on a Saturday night, was often held up a few minutes for Max to appear and board the train home.

13. The Saturday Chap

I never knew his name, where he came from or where he went, but he visited my grandparents and their family every Saturday from 1939 until at least 1950. He was a tall kindly and friendly man, and arrived at the house in Bell End at around 11. 30 am on a large black, sit up and beg 28” gents bike. There was a carrier fitted over the rear mudguard which housed the largest brown paper parcel you had ever seen on a bike. He wore a thick overcoat and a ‘Gor-Blimey’ cap which most working men did at that time.

The Saturday chap brought his large parcel into the house, set it on a bed in the corner and undid the cords to reveal a large colourful display of haberdashery. The girls in the house mostly made their own clothes, and the Saturday samples were used for finishing. In the parcel was wool, silks, ribbons, studs and fasteners, sets of assorted buttons on cards, all kinds of knitting and crochet needles and yards of assorted elastic. Whilst the ladies sorted amongst the treasures for about an hour, the Saturday Chap enjoyed two large cups of hot, strong and sweet tea. Neighbours often called in and bought also, whilst the Saturday Chap talked football with the menfolk. At about 1pm he left to visit his next customer, he became a good friend of the family and part of the Saturday scene.

The other big event in Bell End was the arrival of the fish and chip van on occasional Saturdays. Usually the chip van negotiated the shallow water of Water Lane and parked up and began frying. The cooking unit was coal fired and a chimney with a cowl protruded through the roof from the fryer. Soon there was a gorgeous smell of fish and chips in the Bell End air, and the locals all came out to buy their Saturday treat. One day in winter when water levels had risen, the chip van sank down into the deeper water which covered the exhaust pipe and stopped the engine, so no fish and chip treat for Bell End residents on that Saturday.

In those days we had milk delivery six mornings a week, bread delivery, crusty freshly baked loaves two or three days a week, and if you had a regular order with your butcher, then the errand boy would deliver on his bike.

At that time, Bell End was often flooded and cut off from the rest of Kempston, but nowadays all flooding problems of the area and the road adjacent to the Half Moon are now resolved, and the Fish and Chip van is just a happy memory.

14. The Wrong Carpet Bag

Just prior to the war in 1939, many local clubs, societies and groups, would get together and organise a charabanc day trip to the seaside, usually to Clacton or Southend on Sea. Two coach companies were current in Kempston at that time, namely Horace Hill with his Bedfordia coach in red and white situated in a garage between Beatrice Street and Marne Street. The other company coach was Cyril Symes Kempstonian in brown and cream, with a board in the front garden adjacent to Farrar Street.

One day, as a small lad I went on a charabanc trip to Southend on Sea with my mum, her sister and grandma. Everything was packed in to a carpet bag and the coach picked us up in the very quiet High Street at 7am. The sun came out and it was a lovely day when we arrived at the beach at Southend. We enjoyed an excellent fish and chip lunch, rather as you would today, and descended to the very nice sandy beach. When grandma opened the carpet bag to get out the swimsuits, towels to sit on and three sets of plimsolls, she discovered that she had brought the wrong bag. This one contained grandads dinner.

Meanwhile at lunchtime at the Britannia Works grandad sat down with his mates, and to their amusement he pulled out a number of swimsuits and other bathing gear. But no lunch.   Grandad did not appreciate being made a laughing stock amongst his workmates.

Meanwhile, at Southend, the ladies spent most of the afternoon paddling in the sea.

When the charabanc party reached home later that evening, grandad was not in a very happy mood. So grandma told him she had bought him a present from the seaside, fished in to her bag and brought out the biggest drinking mug that I have ever seen. On one side it said “A Present from Southend on Sea, and on the front in big letters it said “FOR MY OLD MAN “. This also did not help matters, and this giant drinking mug eventually disappeared.

15. The Wartime Holiday

In wartime, holidays were not the big feature that they are today. My dad spent his holiday working in the garden and on his allotment usually clearing weeds from the vegetable crops that everyone grew. So with some surprise it was arranged that I cycle over to Stanbridge and stay for two weeks with Auntie Hilda, who had six children, four boys and two girls. A couple of the lads were around my age, so had plenty of company. Auntie had eight ration books and her eldest boy Fred had just started work at a local farm where there were plenty of eggs and milk available.

At that time I was a bit wild on a bike and had come off several times, once on Stagsden Hill and another time missed the bridge at the Half Moon end of Water Lane and finished up in the drink.

One day, whilst out cycling with the lads at Stanbridge I ran out of road and hit a substantial brick wall head on at high speed. I was not hurt, but the bike finished up in poor condition with front forks bent back and front wheel pushed well towards the front frame. But then it was Auntie Hilda to the rescue. She arranged next day for me to walk the bike in to the cycle repair shop in Dunstable to leave it there for a few days to have new forks fitted.

So next morning I began the long walk in to Dunstable. I made good progress through Tilsworth and on to the A5 Dunstable Road. I had got about halfway to the garage and settlement at Chalk Hill, when a policeman passed me on a bike and asked what I was doing in such a lonely spot. So told him the story and he stopped the next lorry that came along and asked the driver to drop me and the bike off at the cycle shop in Dunstable, which he did and I came back to Aunties on the Stanbridge bus.

A few days later when Auntie went shopping, we called at the shop and I retrieved the bike, and Auntie paid the bill. At the end of the fortnight I returned home quite refreshed from the country life and living with a larger family. I visited Auntie many times in later life, she died in the early 1970’s and I remember her well for her kindness to me.

16. The Longest Day

By the summer of 1944, the war had taken a turn for the better, with America coming in after Pearl Harbour, and German cities and manufacturing areas of the Ruhr being bombed by day by the U S Eighth Air Force and by night by ‘Bomber’ Harris Royal Air Force, plus a few 1000 bomber raids on Berlin. During that summer thousands of Allied troops were making their way to the south east coast, secretly and quietly, ready for the invasion of Europe. In Kempston when the invasion came on June 6th the BBC read out a short piece that just said that this morning allied troops had successfully landed on beaches in Normandy and that the operation was going well.  On the 5th of June all was well for the landings, but the weather was unsettled and winds and tides not suitable. Five star General Eisenhower had to put the landings off for 24 hours because of foul weather. On the 6th the weather improved temporarily and the invasion was on. Parachute and glider borne troops were landed at strategic points inland and were later relieved by troops advancing on from the beaches.

17. Victory in Europe

The war ended in May 1945, and many people, all very happy took to the streets and also gathered in the Addison Park. All the buses stopped running for a few days, but a lot of happy people visited the Russell Park in Bedford, where Lew Keay played dance music until the early hours with his band. With the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the war was now well and truly over. However, rationing of a sort continued well into 1954. During that summer of 1945, many cars were brought out of storage and often changed hands at rather inflated prices. This shortage continued for some years, and the motor industries boomed.

Finally, towards the end of the war and just after, tins of baked beans in tomato sauce began to appear in the shops on the ‘points’ system. At home we really did not know what to do with this new product. We had an ancient tin opener with a large wooden handle, and a spike at one end. So we punctured the lid and placed the can in a saucepan of boiling water for 20 minutes.  Then with some difficulty the lid was cut off holding the hot can with a cloth. The system, although difficult seemed to work well and so occasionally we had baked beans with our dinner. One day, mum forgot to pierce the lid, and quite soon there was a loud bang from the fireplace and a jet of red hot beans and tomato sauce shot out across the floor and sprayed the wallpaper adjacent to the fireplace. There were never any more baked beans in our lives after that. When the house was cleared in 1973, there was still a semblance of the beans explosion on the brown mottled wallpaper.

As conditions improved, confectionary appeared in the shops again, but on the ration.  It was a cheerful beginning to recovery. My younger brother who was born during the war did not see a banana or orange until he was five years old.

In wartime, there was a large colony of nesting rooks making a lot of noise in spring from a few very large and tall elm trees adjacent to the War Memorial. Due to Dutch Elm disease, the trees are long gone, but I am pleased to see the rooks returning again now that replacement trees are of a suitable size.  Oh, how life has changed since those far off days of the 1940s.

Doug Rowland