I join the Salford Wardens - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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I join the Salford Wardens

I was off school in the last week of January 1952 confined to bed with yet another bad cold and associated symptoms. It may seem odd that I had to stay in bed all day long with a routine bad cold, but it was the warmest place to be; there was still a critical coal shortage and we could never afford to keep a fire going all day downstairs, sickness in the family or not. I had fixed an extension loudspeaker up to my bedroom from the 3-valve wireless downstairs, so I listened to the wireless a lot during the day as well as reading books. I did not do any school work: I convinced myself that doing school work would not help my recovery.

On Thursday of that week I listened to a live commentary on the departure of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip from Heathrow Airport at the start of their Commonwealth Tour. The BBC commentator described how the King and Queen were on the tarmac to wave goodbye to the Prince and Princess and he especially mentioned how Their Majesties were both wrapped up warmly against a biting wind. The commentator added that the King looked better after his recent illness and that he had insisted on being present to see off his daughter and son-in- law.
Below: my diary entry for  31 January1952

It is difficult in the 21st Century for some people to understand how popular our Royal Family was in the 1950s. For example, the National Anthem was still played at the end of every film show in cinemas and theatres and most people dutifully stood to attention at their seats until it finished. There were, of course, always a few who tried to get out of the cinema before the National Anthem started, not necessarily because they were anti-Royalists, but simply because in some odd way they found it embarrassing to stand up in public for the Anthem. Most cinemas faded the house lights up either just before, or during, the playing of the National Anthem.

By Sunday 3 February, I had recovered sufficiently to be up and about again. I listened to Elgar’s 2nd Symphony on the wireless, the very first time I had heard that majestic work. In the evening I went on out my bike around the local area to deliver some messages for the Salford Wardens that had just been delivered to me by hand.

The Wardens had nothing to do with hospital wardens, countryside wardens, or similar groups of wardens that we come across today; they were a hangover from the war, a kind of local Home Guard but without the uniforms or weapons. As I recall things, most of the wardens were elderly gentlemen, but anyone over the age of about 40 seemed elderly to me! The Salford Wardens were, however, extremely dedicated to their task. Their Central HQ was in an old warehouse on Adelphi Street, on the bank of the River Irwell near Salford Crescent. The idea seemed to be that in the event of an "unexpected invasion by any foreign power", the entire warden force would be alerted by a small band of bicycling teenagers known as Salford Messengers.

I can't remember how I first came to be involved with the Messengers - it was not a school initiative and none of my school friends were involved. Before I could be enrolled, I had to pass an extensive oral examination demonstrating that I could commit to memory a lengthy series of dictated orders and instructions and then repeat them, word perfect, to a recipient who was at a location, usually his home or a local pub, often several miles away. The messages, which tended to consist of map references, dates and times, and code words, were always dictated to us individually by one of the 'senior' wardens. It was stressed that the messages were secret and were not to be discussed with other messengers. I had a good memory and I could do that sort of thing easily - I wish I still could! It all seemed a bit exciting.

We were also regularly tested on our knowledge of the roads, streets and back alleys in Salford so that we could find our way around quickly by day or night without the need for a map - which were in any case still very hard to come by. We were often told that the shortest or most obvious route had been blocked by "enemy action" and, therefore, we would have to find a different way. Because I cycled hundreds of miles each year in and around Manchester, Salford and neighbouring boroughs, I had no problem passing that test. Inevitably, what with school for us teenagers and work for the adults, most of the Wardens’ and Messengers’ work was carried out in the evenings - even in mid-winter and regardless of the weather. I don't remember ever attending a Messengers' meeting on a Saturday or a Sunday.

It was never clear to me how we boy messengers (never girls) would be alerted in the first place in the event of an "unexpected invasion" because very few families had a telephone in the house. There were meetings at Warden HQ most Monday evenings but, after I had been a messenger for several months, most of the messages I was called upon to deliver to the homes of wardens were to tell those who were absent that the following week's meeting was cancelled. On Monday evening 4 February 1952, I went to the home of Mr Lappin, the Group Warden, as he had several letters he wanted me to deliver to various addresses - including one addressed to his own wife! His wife was surprised to see me but invited me into the house while she read the message. She then gave me a French textbook as "a reward for delivering messages" and showed me out. I had already started to wonder whether I was wasting my valuable evenings working for the Salford Messengers. The last mention of the Messengers in my diary was 20 May 1952.  Although I didn't write what happened at that meeting, I think I had become so disillusioned that I simply stopped going. In any case, by May there were far more important things on my mind.

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