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I didn't get my own bed until brother joined army

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 17, 2014

  • My Mom and Dad - Lydia and Walter Tart - who had four children

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MY brothers, my sister and I were all born before World War Two broke out so we lived our childhood through wartime and our schooldays were the 'austerity years' thereafter.

There were six of us - Mom and Dad, Reg the eldest lad, Doreen my sister, John the next boy and me – the baby, a rank I exploited to the full on every possible occasion!

Mom and Dad had their own double bedroom, my sister had a small box-room and the three boys shared the third bedroom, John and me sharing a bed - an arrangement that most families of the day would be familiar with and regard as the norm.

I didn't get a bed, let alone a bedroom to myself, till John left to join the army when I was in my teens. I can't imagine many kids today accepting this!

We lived happily enough in our 1930s semi-detached house in Slaithwaite Road, West Bromwich, a short street linking a lane bordering the park and farm with rather neglected but quite grand Victorian houses, the other a main bus route, accommodating the hospital where I was born.

Most street lights were gas lit - but the few electric ones were poor by today's standards, giving little useful light for anyone.

Sweets and many foodstuffs were rationed. I was 12 before sweets came off the rations, but I am not complaining. With little or no fat or sugar our diet was limited, but healthy. We ate mainly potatoes, bread – with homemade jam or dripping as there was little (strictly rationed) butter – and bread in warm milk for supper at bedtime.

Meals were rabbit stew, soup, 'Spam' fritters, corned beef or fish, usually boiled as there was so little fat available. Like everyone else we grew what we could in our small garden producing only a few peas, beans and onions. Hard times!

Children had a daily spoonful of malt extract (a reasonably pleasant tasting if not very appealing looking deep brown 'gloop') and also a tasty concentrated orange juice, supplements to our diet aimed at boosting our vitamin intake.

Granny lived in a small Victorian terrace house in Grove Lane, Smethwick, one of many in a long line with no front garden, the front door opening right on to the street. She always drank sterilised milk and used margarine rather than butter.

'Camp coffee', a chicory based cheap substitute for real coffee, was popular. There was no electricity, lighting being provided by a gas-fired mantle controlled by a draw chain. Cooking was done on a black, coal-fired range oven. A small paved yard was out the back where there were communal lavatories.

No bathroom, just a tin bath that hung on the wall in the scullery and a washroom shared with about four neighbouring families, the usual arrangement then for the working classes.

There was a small kitchen garden where basic vegetables and herbs were grown - all quite the norm for most homes in industrial towns then.

The National Trust's 'Back to Backs' in Birmingham are pretty well identical so you can still see the sort of houses they were.

My memories of wartime are the smells and sounds - the rubbery odour of the gas masks, kept in its own cardboard box tied with string that hung round our necks at all times, the musty, earthy smell inside the half underground Anderson shelter we often had to dive into during raids. The condensation that formed on the whitewashed corrugated iron walls running down in small rivulets past the side of my bunk, the strips of brown 'Witney' blanket (with scorch marks) that Mom used to wrap around a hot cast iron 'sad-iron' (heated on a gas ring beforehand) used as a hot water bottle, the oil lamp with its tall glass top that gave such a dull but warm glow.

The drone of the bombers, ours and theirs, the searchlights, the air-raid sirens and the 'all clear' that even now makes my hair stand on end whenever I hear it on films. The brown tape stuck on windows in big crosses to prevent glass shattering everywhere should a bomb explode nearby. One night the next street was hit by a bomb and several houses were demolished.

Everyone had 'stirrup pumps', sturdy hand powered devices that were supposed to deal with incendiaries, but I doubt they would have delivered enough water to put out any but the smallest fire! Car headlights were shielded with metal covers with slits through which the merest glimmer of light shone (down only) so enemy bombers wouldn't see anything. Almost useless!

Selling iced cakes was illegal during the war so if anyone ever had an iced cake it would have been made at home after saving up sugar over the months beforehand! Birthdays were rarely celebrated, but Christmas was special and even in wartime was celebrated fully.

As a child the most anticipated present was my Rupert annual, something I got every year till I was about ten. Most presents were not simply gifts bought from shops but were hand-made things made at home. They weren't high quality but they showed that the 'giver' cared. We enjoyed making and putting up the decorations at home and at school - paper chains from coloured paper glued together or twisted strands of red and green crepe paper strips.

Christmas Day was traditional, a family dinner at lunchtime and visitors arriving in the evening for supper and games. Charades, involving much dressing up, was the favourite game. The company where Dad worked put on a show for the employees' families at Christmas and the 'Black Country Bible' was a favourite pantomime theme. Written in the local dialect it had such wonderful lines in it as: 'And the Lord said 'Let there be light'- and yo cud see for bloody miles!' Wonderful.

David Tart,


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