Out of School - Wartime
My first experience of the War was when I was playing outside with my friends. It was October 16, 1939 during the daylight raid on the Forth Bridge and Rosyth Naval Dockyard.
I could see German planes droning overhead with RAF planes in pursuit. I stared upwards, eyes transfixed at the spectacle and all the time hearing the sputter of machine guns. Next thing I knew it was auntie Chrissie frog-marching me indoors. Thereafter it was nightraids. This was my first experience of the country being at war and I found it exciting. Obviously I was too young to appreciate the anxieties felt by my elders at the dangers facing us.
One night while I lay awake in bed I overheard my grandparents discussing Dunkirk, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France in 1940, and although I detected some concern in their tones, it didn`t register any worry for me. The innocence of childhood.
Our local swingpark was to be found in Henderson Gardens, a short walk from the Wynd. I was present in this area when I became aware of a crowd of older boys milling and shouting around Lannie`s ice cream shop. I knew something was amiss. All of a sudden they began throwing stones at the windows breaking them as a result. I could not understand the reason for this, but was surprised and very pleased when a box of chocolates was thrust into my hands. I knew the lad that gave me them but even now will not reveal his name. I later learned that the reason for this was that the Italians had entered the War on the German side.
Street lights had been removed at the outbreak of the war as well as every stair light with a total blackout being enforced. Other enforcements were households required to have black blinds; personal torches, semi-shaded, could only be flashed on the ground a few feet in front of you, and car lights, similarly hooded, dipped a short distance in front of them. All of these measures were strictly enforced by air-raid wardens.
As children, we found this very exciting and loved to stay outside until the darkness enveloped us. In those days children could be left out like this with the assuredness that no harm would befall them.
Despite the lack of space in the houses in the area, it was not uncommon for friends to be invited in to play in the evenings. One of the games we got up to was to challenge each other to see how much water we could drink. Dry bread could be eaten to assist.
We had a wide choice of cinemas in Leith, five in fact, and with the programmes changing twice a week, there was no lack of features. We made full use of them but only matinees were open to unaccompanied children. We got around this by standing outside the cinema and asking adults to pass us off as being with them. We did of course give them our admission money, a sixpennny piece. This would be taboo today asking strangers to do this.
The films shown in those days were mainly American productions. Often having sat through the programme, we would hide beneath the seats and wait for the house lights to dim and watch it all over again. When we finally emerged from the cinema, we would relive the adventure all over again and make believe we were part of it.
Of all the cinemas in Leith, I think the State was our favourite. Being the nearest may have, in some part, been the reason for it. Regardless of what was being shown, Mondays and Thursdays were our `State` evenings. Smoking was part and parcel of an evening at the cinema then. In fact I think there were many who used the cover of the place for a covert cigarette.
The manager, a little man with a dark moustache and dressed in an evening suit , paraded up and down the aisles operating a large syringe spray dispersing a highly perfumed disinfectant. At least that was what we thought it was.
There was no in-house sales of sweets or ice cream in those days; we had to take along our own that was saved from our rations.
Everybody was issued with sweet coupons, `d`s and `e`s, during the emergency, and how you used them was your own business. The rations were worked out monthly, the ounce values of each lettered coupon varied according to the time of the year and the availability of stock as determined by the Ministry of Food. Christmas was invariably a period when the value increased.
Some blew their monthly quota in a short period while others made it last throughout the month. The general practice was for the coupons to be handed in to the local sweet shop and the proprietor would receive sufficient supplies to meet them. In most cases locally, Mrs Wells would take them. Her shop was situated in Giles Street overlooking the Broad Pavement (Parliament Square).
She would be instructed by our elders that on no account should she allow us to withdraw upon our rations in one go. If the permitted allowance was 8oz per month, then 2oz per week would be our allotment. No cajoling or pleading could make her relent.
To compensate for the lack of sweets, it was not uncommon to suck upon an Oxo cube, a piece of liquorice root or a cinnamon stick. The latter we would sometimes light up and smoke it as a cigarette especially under the cover of darkness in the cinema.
As well as sweets, Mrs Wells`s shop stocked a variety of other wares. She always had plenty pf potatoes that were stored in a large wooden bin with a hole at the bottom from which she shovelled them out. The most common amount asked for was a `forpit`, a fourth part of a stone (31/2 lbs) These would be weighed off and poured into our tattiebag.
Where did we get our money to finance our regular cinema attendances and other expenditures? Our pocket money didn`t stretch far. I can honestly say it was not ill-gotten. So then how did we get it? The truth was we sold chopped kindling firewood.
We would visit various shops, mainly fruiterers in Great Junction Street and ask for old fruit boxes. These were not required for the war effort. With an old axe we would rest the wood against the roadside kerb and break it into kindling. This was then stacked into loose bundles that nestled in our arms. We then hawked them around the doors of the Corporation Buildings. Priced at 3d per bundle, there was never a failure in the sales drive. Often enough it were the old widows who were our regular customers.
This was a joint effort involving several boys, and it was usually the younger boys that had to enquire as to the availability of empty boxes. Because of this, we the older members, 8 to 9 years old, would sometimes encourage the youngsters to seek out the raw material from unusual sources. Oh the devilment of it. "Try Stoddarts, they are bound to have some spare wood," we would suggest. Off they would go.
The Stoddart brothers Alex and Russell ran the local undertaking business in the area. Entering through the front door, you would be confronted with rows of upstanding coffins arranged along each wall of the shop. The back room was hidden by draped bead curtain. As well as the office, it was where their mother manufactured the shrouds.
Both brothers were the epitome of their profession, tall, gaunt and dressed in black. Standing amidst the wares, the youngsters would be confronted by one of them. "Well," would be the growl of the emerging figure from behind the screen. "Any old boxes, Mr Stoddart?"
Anticipating the answer, the questioner would be making a hasty retreat to the door as the proprietor waved his arms in sheer annoyance at the impertinence of it. I knew the scenario, for I had been there before.
Before leaving the Stoddarts I must mention another episode involving Alex. We used to play football on the waste ground in Cables Wynd with coats or jerseys filling in as goalposts. Alex regularly walked his cairn terrier down the Wynd in the evenings and would often stop and watch us play. If he stood behind the goalkeeper we would tease the boy concerned by telling him Alex was measuring him up for future reference. Both we and Alex would laugh at the boy`s discomfiture.
School Summer Break
Our summer break of seven weeks away from school was utilised to the full during this war period. Corstorphine Wood was a favourite haunt of ours. The No 12 tramcar from the Foot of the Walk took us direct to our destination. The journey was not always uneventful. Our preferred seats were at the front of the upper deck immediately above the driver. Flushed with the excitement in anticipation of what lay ahead, the noise we created would often have the driver stop the car and threaten to have us put off. I suppose we did quieten down, for we were never ejected.
On reaching the woods, our favourite game was simulating the adventures of Robin Hood, the film of which, that starred Errol Flynn, was still currently being shown.
Our elders would have died had they known that we inserted nails into our arrows for greater effect. Only one accident arose from this practice and that was to Jock Scullion. An arrow pierced his knee and remained impaled until he reached Leith Hospital. Can`t remember the doctor or nurse`s comments on it.
HMS Cossack returning to Leith in 1940 with rescued British crews from German ship Altmark
Football was our main pastime, mostly played with an old tennis ball, believe it or not. Our `home` pitch was the square in the middle of the Corporation Buildings. The `coppy`, the colloquial name for them consisted of three polished red brick tenements of four storeys each with communal balconies at the rear that looked inwards towards each other, thus forming the square. Clothes lines were slung back and forth across the divide at all levels by means of ropes and pulleys. We were not supposed to play football here, and the resident caretaker, auld Broonie was forever shouting at us. We never spoke back to him unless in a pleading vein, but this only fell on deaf ears. We just stopped playing until he returned indoors.
The `coppy` or `buildings` as it was sometimes called, was the home to 84 families of varied sizes. None of the houses had any more than two rooms although they each had an inside toilet. None had electricity or running hot water. Gaslight was the norm during the War.
A communal wash house was situated beneath one of the blocks. As well as providing the washing facility, it was also a place for gossip exchange.
Although the area was Protestant and Catholic in equal ratio, no sectarianism was apparent except when sides were picked for football. Catholics against the Proddies. On the contrary, the two sides got on well together, and each was dependant on each other.
To highlight an instance of this, take old Mrs Grant, Mrs Connolly and Mrs Urqhart. These three ladies administered invaluable service to the community whenever births or deaths occurred. A family faced with an emergency such as these would immediately send out a cry for them. They acted as midwives to those in labour as well as preparing a deceased person before the undertaker called. My own grandmother was one such latter case.
Some of the rescued crewmen
In those days most children were ignorant of how babies came about. I was no exception. Future mums only got fat. I was told babies were brought to Leith on the boat from London and the doctor collected it there and brought it to the house in his black bag.
My young cousin was born on 2nd June, 1942 and I was told that the London Boat had just arrived. I just took it for granted.
Before leaving this page, I have to recall another episode relating to this period. We had been let out of school to gather at the Foot of the Walk to welcome back returning prisoners of war. These servicemen had been deemed to have had no fighting capabilities left due to their war wounds suffered before being taken prisoner.
Britain and Germany had agreed to this exchange of prisoners that had been arranged and supervised by a neutral nation. A shipload of these returning men had arrived in Leith Docks.
Dr Bell`s, as with all other Leith schools, allowed every pupil to be present at the kerbside to witness the arrival home of these heroes. Each one of us waved and shouted as the bus loads of the blue uniformed soldiers passed by on their way up Leith Walk.
I can still recall the emotions of all those present, adults and children, as the soldiers waved back. For them, the war was over but for others it had yet awhile to go.
We were all present again in Great Junction Street when the King and Queen drove by in their police escorted limousine. We only caught a fleeting glimpse as they returned our waving and cheering.