Following on from last week, we look at more contributions older children made to the war effort during the 1940s.
Children did their bit in many different ways, mostly helping with the war on waste, salvage drives and the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, to keep the nation fed.
But, many more youngsters also risked their lives on a daily basis, keeping wartime communications flowing.
Just being a child in wartime was fraught with danger. More than one in ten air raid victims was under the age of sixteen. During the Second World War, 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 seriously wounded.
The youngest victim was a baby just eleven hours old. Countless children were orphaned or lost siblings.
The Imperial War Museum records note that, in the worst single incident involving children, 38 were killed and 60 injured, in January 1943, when a bomb hit a school in Catford.
Many youngsters played an active role in wartime civil defence. Boy Scouts and Girl Guides helped ARP (Air Raid Protection) services, acting as fire watchers during air raids. It was highly dangerous and significant numbers of young helpers were killed on civil defence duties.
With so many of the nation’s men fighting overseas, young teenagers had to rise to the challenge and grow up quickly.
Thousands of boys were called on to deliver messages, especially for the Post Office.
Most boys were just 14 when they took on this vital role, often carrying the dreaded telegrams informing families of loved ones killed or missing in action.
Some gave news of captured men taken as prisoners of war to enemy internment camps.
During the war, a massive network of teleprinters across the nation ensured telegrams were the fastest means of communication.
Most Britons dreaded the appearance of a messenger boy, fearing the plain envelope might bear crosses on it, signifying a death. Telegrams might also announce a loved one’s call up, or that someone close had been seriously injured.
One messenger boy was given the sad task of delivering the telegram announcing the death of one of his own colleagues who’d been killed on messenger duty.
On the UK mainland, the main dangers faced by messenger boys came from air raids and traffic incidents, especially during the blackout. But, elsewhere, at least one messenger came face to face with the enemy.
A book written and published by Martin Le Page, called A Boy Messenger’s War recounts Martin’s own experiences during the German occupation of Guernsey 1940 – 45, including one memorable episode in which the young messenger boy returns from his round, walks in to the Post Office teleprinter room, to come face to face with a member of the Luftwaffe, machine gun at his side! Fortunately for Martin, the German was asleep, and the Guernsey lad was able to tiptoe out, undetected.
Martin went on to receive the Imperial Service medal for long service in the Post Office from 1939 – 84.
Whatever the news, messenger boys risked life and limb to deliver it, often innocent witnesses to terrible grief. Part of their job involved informing neighbours of the bad news, so they could offer emotional support to the bereaved. The boys soon acquired a toughness and maturity beyond their years.
Huge numbers of postal workers had signed up to fight, leaving youngsters to step into their shoes. In the early days of the war, they delivered on foot or rode heavy, Post Office red bicycles, without gears. Some boys had to use their own bikes until wartime shortages eased.
Later on, many were given motorcycles. But, at first, wartime shortages meant the boys often had no protective clothing against the weather, or proper uniforms.
Earning around 15 shillings a week, plus a few tips, they risked danger from bombing raids and, sometimes abuse, from recipients of the Government’s ‘Absolute Priority Telegrams’.
In London, the messenger boys were known as “moppers”, as telegrams, there, were called “mops”. Other regions had their own nicknames for the boys. Closer to home, Brummie messengers were nicknamed “wags”, apparently short for “scallywag”.
On leaving school at 14, boys were assessed and had to be passed as fit by a Post Office doctor. If uniforms were readily available, boys were given a smart uniform of navy jacket and trousers, with red piping.
They also wore a distinctive, peaked pill-box hat. This also had red piping, with a red button in the centre of the crown and a badge number. If supplies were available, they were also given shoes for summer and boots for winter, together with a cycling cape and leggings for bad weather.
A smart appearance was essential and the newer boys had daily kit and equipment inspections. Boots and brass buttons had to gleam, and bikes properly cleaned and in top working order.
Regulation haircuts were also order of the day if the boys were to be allowed out in public.
To help them find their way, Brummie “wags” also bought a copy of Wakelin’s Birmingham Street Guide, from Stamford and Mann’s stationers, in Needless Alley, just off New Street. With total blackout at night, getting around wasn’t easy, especially during the mayhem of air raids. The “wags” were constantly at risk as they did their shifts.
Work started at 6am, with staggered attendances, 12 noon being the last weekday shift. There were also Saturday and Sunday shifts within the 48-hour working week. Birmingham endured massive bombing during the Blitz, as the Germans targeted the weapons and aircraft manufacturers based in the area. City residents learned to recognise the different engine sounds made by enemy planes as they huddled in shelters. The messenger boys were no exception, but they were often out in the thick of it.
During their initial training, messenger boys were given just a couple of days tuition by regular senior messengers, and then expected to familiarise themselves with the large areas where they delivered to. Before long, they grew incredibly knowledgeable, finding the best routes through the war damaged, urban areas. So much so that out of town visitors often stopped them to ask for directions.
Messenger Boys certainly risked personal danger during wartime. But their roles were often varied and there was a lighter side to life. Amazingly, until 1948, the public could actually post a human being! In reality, this was a service for people who, arriving in a strange town, could go to the nearest Post Office, where, for a small fee, a young messenger would escort them to their destination. If the destination was further afield, they could ride there with the postman in his van. Other lesser known Post Office services in those days included a public shopping scheme, costing from 6d to 1/-, and a dog walking service. ?
Quite strange considering that dogs are traditionally the arch enemies of postmen! Messenger boys also delivered bouquets and wreaths, an early version of Interflora.
If anyone has any stories about telegram messenger boys during wartime, especially in the Black Country, we’d love to hear them. Email edi email@example.com
In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about them, there is a fascinating website set up by former Brummie “wag”, Roger Green, at: HYPERLINK http://www. birminghamsandsclub /messen gerreunions.htm www.birm inghamsandsclub/messenger reunions.htm
Mr Green started the website in 2007. The idea is to reunite old pals and to tell the messenger boys’ stories.
Above all, it keeps their memories alive, reminding us of their valuable work during wartime and peacetime.