Wartime rationing and Bevin Boys - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Wartime rationing and Bevin Boys

Halfway along Avondale street, a short distance before the LMS railway bridges at the end, there was a gap on the left which opened into a very large waste area completely devoid of grass, vegetation or proper paths.

Below: This was Avondale Street in 2010. On the right, between the red car and the telegraph pole, was the opening onto waste ground referred to below.

This area, which was used by kids from several 'pieces' in the area, was bounded by Denby Dale Road, the 99 Arches, and the LMS railway. Almost underneath the 99 Arches was the entrance to the once famous Wakefield greyhound racing track; a rough path by the main entrance to the stadium continued through to Thornes Lane Wharf. There were several very large mounds of earth and building material dumped throughout the area and they gradually became a 1940s equivalent of a BMX and skateboard park. Once we had graduated from three-wheelers to two-wheel bikes and without the benefit of any kind of protective clothing, my friends and I often raced our bikes around that area and frequently returned home with punctured tyres and bruised limbs - but it was jolly good fun. That whole area is now covered by industrial works and the gap on Avondale Street has been filled with another couple of houses.
Above: This is Thornes Lane photographed in August 2010. In the distance is Bridge 58 of the 99 Arches carrying the East Coast Main Line (Leeds off to the right). The Co-op, where we were registered for rations was where the modern red building is on the left and our favourite fish and chip shop was on the other side of the road, directly opposite. Christ Church Primary School where I started my education was behind the railings on the left.
Mum had registered at the Co-operative store on Thornes Lane as soon as we arrived in Wakefield from Manchester. That meant that she had to produce our ration books so that our family details could be recorded. Thereafter, Mum bought all our rationed food from there, except meat which she got from Hoffman's, a butcher's shop in Wakefield town centre, because the Co-op didn't deal in fresh meat. Before I started school, I usually walked with Mum to the Co-op. I assume my sister, Kathleen, came along with us in her pram. Going to get the rations was something of a social outing for the women and they used to stand around for ages in the Co-op gossiping, or 'calling' (pronounced with a short 'a'). Those boring interludes allowed me to wander around the darkest corners of the store seeing what I could discover.

Another reason for the women folk to hang around was to see that they didn't miss out on any desirable off-ration items that had just arrived in the store - and also to ensure that one customer didn't get something to which she was not entitled. Rationing, albeit fair to everyone, was a bit haphazard: for example, you never knew how many eggs, if any, or how much butter or bacon or sugar you would get on each book, each week. Quite how store assistants kept track of such things I can't imagine. When the cost of the goods had been totted up and the appropriate number of coupons crossed through, or cut from, the ration books, the assistant would hand Mum a slip of paper on which Mum added her Co-op dividend number. Mum then handed the slip of paper, and the money, to the cashier and receive in return a tiny dividend receipt that was carefully stored away in a special purse. Once every few months was 'Divi Day' when the dividend credits were paid out. The Co-op always tried to have a few extra treats in the store on those days to tempt Mums to spend their dividend in the store rather than taking it home in cash to spend elsewhere.

The Co-op was quite small but a fascinating place for little boys like me. The blackout blinds on the windows seemed to be permanently partially drawn so it was always gloomy inside. There were liberal quantities of sawdust strewn on the floor and all manner of exciting tins, packets and bottles piled up on shelves which stretched from floor to ceiling. There was often a box of broken biscuits standing on one of the counters and sometimes one of the store assistants would give me a few pieces. Even by the age of six or so, I had already learned to read many of the labels on the bottles and cans. One side of the label on the HP Brown Sauce bottles was always in French and I can still remember some of that: 'Cette sauce de haute qualité est un mélange de fruits orientaux' - or something like that. I used to enjoy reciting the whole label from memory although I imagine it sounded nothing like French.

I remember also the bacon slicing machine which stood on another counter. Every time I went into the Co-op, I carefully studied the mechanism to see how it was that the platen holding the bacon moved smoothly backwards and forwards when the man, who was probably the manager, rotated the large red wheel at the front with his left hand. I can still hear the strange swishing noise as the circular blade sliced through the bacon. How deftly the man's right hand received each slice of bacon as it dropped out of the machine and how carefully he laid it on the grease-proof paper standing on the adjacent weighing machine.

Next to the bacon slicer was a cheese board on which pieces of cheese were carved using a length of wire with a T-shaped wooden handle on the end. Eggs were secreted under the cheese counter; in the darkest days of the war we were lucky to get one egg per person per week. To me and my sister there never seemed to be any shortage of food in the shops but, of course, we were too young to have known anything different. I do know my parents struggled to keep us fed and nourished. There were certainly no obese children in the 1940s - not in Wakefield anyway.

The National Coal Board did not come into effect until 1 January 1947. Before that all coal mines were in private ownership. In the early 1940s there were literally dozens of small, privately-owned, coal mines in and around Wakefield. I can only imagine how appalling conditions underground must have been. Every day, usually around either breakfast or teatime, I would see miners coming home from an underground shift; they were always covered from head to foot in black grime because the mines had no pithead baths or showers. When they had to travel on the bus, miners coming off shift always carried an old newspaper to spread on the bus seat before they sat down, and they always folded it and took it away when they left the bus.

Those fathers who were coal miners when war broke out, continued to work in the mines and lived at home. Other men continued to live at home because they were employed on essential war work in one of the several Wakefield factories; I can remember at least three within 300 yards of where we lived that had been converted from their peacetime roles to produce war materials.

In December 1943, Ernest Bevin, the wartime Minister of Labour and National Service, devised a scheme whereby a ballot took place to direct a proportion of conscripted men into the collieries rather than into the armed services. It was a very controversial scheme because selection was based on the last two figures of an individual's National Service registration number and it took no account of an individual's social background, physical abilities, health, or family circumstances. If you were selected, there was no appeal. Those 'Ballotees', nowadays a largely forgotten 'army', eventually became known as 'Bevin Boys'. They were absolutely essential because the factories and the electricity and gas power stations needed an ever-increasing plentiful and guaranteed supply of coal.

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