Territories, air raid shelters and German bombs - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Territories, air raid shelters and German bombs

At the rear of the Cotton Street semi-detached houses was a wide stretch of waste ground about 200 metres long, known to the occupants of the street as 'Our Piece'. When I first went out to play there, I thought that 'arpeece' was a single word because that is how it was pronounced and so I never needed to ask anyone what it was a piece of. Whatever it was called, it was a super and exciting playground for little boys. I remember that at one stage my pals and I became keen on playing at jungle trackers; the very tall vegetation that covered 'arpeece' created ideal hiding places because, when crawling on hands and knees, we were invisible from parents and from anyone else nearby.

Above: That is 'our piece' as it is now, actually little changed from the 1940s. Our house was at the far end off to the right of the white gate. The LMS railway embankment is still there and there are more trains than ever.

I have no idea what most of the vegetation was although I do recall that there were a lot of nettles and so we got a lot of scratches - and stings - to arms and legs. On the plus side there were also a few wild blackberry and raspberry bushes and even some wild rhubarb plants. The railway embankment at the end of Cotton Street was also a seasonal source of wild strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and rhubarb which I and my friends used to pick and eat straight from the stalks without any thought of creepie-crawlies or hygiene. Our free feasts never seemed to do us any harm - in fact, they were valuable supplements to the meagre wartime rations. I also remember the fun we got looking at each other as our mouths, faces, fingers, and probably our clothing, became liberally stained with fruit juices.

Eventually I learned that there were several more 'arpeeces' in other areas not far from Cotton Street. Those other pieces were effectively no-go areas for my new friends and me unless we wanted a beating from the lads who lived there; they probably kept away from ours for the same reason. Yes, even in the early-1940s, there were gangs and territories - but the only weapons were fists and sticks. I imagine all the so-called 'pieces' were unfinished left-overs when the men who had been building new houses went off in 1939 to fight in the war. No doubt the original intention had been to provide Cotton Street with a proper rear access street but, even today, what was our piece is still largely a wasteland. All the other pieces in the area, and their surrounding houses, have long since disappeared and new streets and houses built on them.

One of Dad's first jobs after we moved into had been to plant lots of vegetables in our long front garden. I remember him planting carrots, cabbages, potatoes, peas and runner beans, as well as some flowers and a small lawn. The practice of growing our own vegetables was known by the Government of the day as 'Digging for Victory', a campaign that had started nationwide in the autumn of 1939. The rear garden remained uncultivated because it was, as Dad always put it, "too difficult to work." We always referred to that area as 'out back'. On it, at one side, stood a large, black, windowless and decrepit wooden shed with a flat, black, felt roof: it seemed a really mysterious and forbidding place to me and my sister. That shed was so out of keeping with the rest of the house that I assume it was an old store left behind by the builders on the outbreak of war. Dad used to keep his gardening tools in it but the rest of the family rarely ventured inside.

Early in 1940 an Anderson Shelter kit, a free gift from the Council, was delivered to every family on our side of Cotton Street. The shelters were named after Sir John Anderson, the Lord Privy Seal with special responsibility for preparing air-raid precautions immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II. Those who lived in the town houses on the other side of the street had no gardens in which to build an Anderson Shelter so they probably used their cellars as refuges.

Dad had to dig a large hole in the back garden for our shelter. It was extremely hard work because of all the boulders and building debris still littering the area. I tried to do my little bit to help but while trying to prise a large stone out of the ground using a hand fork while Dad wasn't looking, I accidentally stabbed my left knee right on the bone. My loud scream certainly got Dad's, and Mum's, attention. To this day I still have a vivid blue scar under the skin just above my left knee to remind me of that incident. Once the shelter's foundation was fully excavated and the bottom flattened, the corrugated steel components had to be assembled and bolted together to make the rudimentary shelter. Finally, the earth that had been removed to make the hole was spread over the top and sides of the shelter to add an extra protective layer. Inside there was a wooden bench along one wall, which served as a bed for my sister and me, and two wooden boxes for my parents to sit on. Dad acquired a smelly paraffin lamp from somewhere for lighting and heating. The door to the outside was simply a number of old sacks roughly stitched together and nailed to the roof - they had to be secure enough and thick enough to maintain the blackout at nights.

At the same time as householders were building their personal Anderson Shelters, Council workers built a couple of large communal brick shelters, one in the middle of Our Piece and the other on Tew Street but as far as I can remember they were never actually used as air raid shelters. They would not, in any case, have afforded much protection against bombs since they were just ordinary brick buildings standing proud on waste land. For several years they were exciting places for kids to play Hide and Seek in until, soon after the war, workers came and demolished them.

When the German night bombers regularly started passing over the Wakefield area in 1941, we and our neighbours used to take to the Anderson Shelters as soon as the air raid warnings sounded and we returned indoors only when the 'All Clear' was heard. Harry Houtby who lived at No 25, father of Irene, Anne and Denis, was a coal miner and he occasionally visited us in our shelter when he'd finished his evening shift "dahn t'pit" on those nights when he knew our Dad was on duty at the prison or on fire-watching duties elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Anne Houtby was about my sister's age; Irene was about eight years older than me. Dennis must have been about 12 years older than me because he had a motor-bike and occasionally took me on the pillion for a short ride. I suppose he must have had a job but I have no idea what it might have been.

I had difficulty understanding what Mr Houtby was saying because of his very strange accent - he came from Barnsley, a small mining town 9 miles south of Wakefield. Even today the Barnsley accent is quite different from the Wakefield accent. Mr Houtby was, however, a mine of information about aircraft and it was he who taught me how to recognise the difference between the steady drone of "wun of 'arz" and the desynchronised heterodynes of "wun o' thee-ers" as unseen RAF and Luftwaffe bombers passed overhead. Decades later Nora Batty's hen-pecked husband Wally, played by Joe Gladwin in early series of the BBC Television's much loved Last of the Summer Wine programme, always reminded me of Mr Houtby Snr; they looked and sounded uncannily alike.

I can personally remember only two enemy bombs falling on Wakefield. One completely demolished the home of the Toppin family who lived in Thornes Road about a mile from where we lived and, if you know where to look, you can still see the gap where that house once stood. The other was a time-bomb that bounced off the park gates along Denby Dale Road opposite St James' Church, less than a quarter of a mile from our house. It failed to go off, or perhaps the Home Guard defused it before the 'time' expired. The bomb caused superficial damage to one of the ornamental park gates before partially burying itself in the soft ground alongside. It was eventually dug out, emptied of its lethal contents and placed adjacent to Queen Victoria's majestic monument in the Bull Ring, right in Wakefield city centre, where for a while it was used as a receptacle for money being collected to "help the war effort". There were other bombs in the Wakefield area, probably aimed at the many munitions factories, but I didn't know about those bombs at the time. Eventually the German bombers stopped coming over and my parents and most of our neighbours decided that there was no longer any need to subject ourselves to the inconvenience of sleeping in the Anderson shelters. Ours became, for the rest of the war, a repository for household goods no longer in daily use, a sort of underground garden shed.

Nowadays local television and newspaper reporters frequently refer to areas such as Cotton Street as ‘close-knit communities’ where everyone allegedly knows everyone else and their business. I don't believe the residents of where I lived in the 1940s could ever have been described as close-knit. Although it was considered important in wartime to be helpful to neighbours when necessary, that didn't mean you had to be forever going in and out of each other’s houses. In my experience as a youngster, adults never visited neighbours without a specific reason or invitation and they always referred to each other as Mr or Mrs as appropriate, never by their first names; it was known as "minding your own business". The Houtby's were the only exception as far as I can recall and my parents kept in touch with them for several decades, long after we had moved away from Wakefield.

Minding your own business probably accounted for our lack of awareness of one particular family, the Pilbrows, who lived only four doors up the street from us. Mr and Mrs Pilbrow had a daughter, Jean, about my age although I don't remember ever talking to her or her parents. One day word 'went around' that Mr Pilbrow had been killed when he drove straight into the back of a lorry on Denby Dale Road during the wartime black-out. A short while later we heard that Mrs Pilbrow had re-married, to a Mr Shaw from Halifax who had invented the amazing 'cats-eyes' that were installed in the centre of main roads to reflect oncoming vehicles headlights. Apparently my parents only learned about those events from the local weekly newspaper, the Wakefield Express.

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