Crisis in the Cotswolds: Wartime stories
PUBLISHED: 16:18 18 May 2020 | UPDATED: 16:18 18 May 2020
Take heart: the current crisis is a terrible one, causing hardship to untold millions. There have been other crises before this one, of course – and within living memory. Katie Jarvis revisits conversations she’s had with Cotswold residents, some of whom lived through not one but two world wars; and takes much-needed succour from their stories
Miss P. told me in the office that the Bath Assembly Rooms had been gutted by fire in the raid on Saturday night. It has upset me dreadfully that so beautiful a building, hallowed by Jane Austen and Dickens, should disappear like this in a single night.
What must it be like, to have everything you know and take for granted falling around you like ninepins? Take the diarist James Lees-Milne, who awoke on Tuesday, April 28, 1942, to discover that his beloved Bath Assembly Rooms – a masterpiece by John Wood the Younger, built in 1769 – had been bombed a few days previously during the Bath Blitz. (News did not travel at today’s lightning speed.)
As an architectural historian (and the National Trust’s expert on country houses), James’s anguish was intellectual and emotional. His friend Eardley Knollys – a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists - had been staying in Bath during the raid. He filled James in: the Circus – another magnificent piece of Georgian architecture - had a huge crater in the middle of the grass; two houses in Royal Crescent were burnt out, and the Abbey windows gone. “I positively want not to survive the war when things like this can happen,” James grieved.
The coronavirus crisis has been compared to a war many times over the past few weeks. There’s not the physical destruction witnessed during the 1940s, of course; but there’s certainly a horrible synergy.
So what are the positives I might learn from Cotswold residents, many of whom lived through not one but two world wars? Did they have wisdom that might be valuable now? In 2001, I interviewed elderly people in Nailsworth and Minchinhampton – many of whom have since died - for an oral history book I was writing. These are some of the lessons I’m taking to heart in the current lockdown.
Generosity of spirit
I’m amazed by the stories I’m constantly currently hearing about the selflessness of others. Indeed, in times of hardship, people have often come together to help each other – even though they might have little themselves. When the Second World War broke out, many Cotswoldians took in evacuees – often young children, with little understanding of the countryside. “Why do you keep your vegetables in the ground?” asked one young Londoner, who’d never seen carrots growing before.
The Sawyers were a Nailsworth couple with a child of their own; but they didn’t hesitate to take in Arthur Long, a five-year-old from Eastbourne, who arrived wearing trousers worn through the seat. “So we took him down to Yarnolds [a Nailsworth clothing store] and rigged him out.” When the next cohort was brought from Birmingham, Kathleen Sawyer didn’t feel they could help any further. But then a neighbour took on one of two inseparable friends, leaving the second heartbroken. And so, Kathleen recalled, “I told him to come with me… My husband arrived home to find an extra child, but he didn’t mind.” Fairly soon, they also had Kathleen’s niece from Bristol, who turned up out of the blue with her mother in a taxi. “They’d had a terrible night because the bombing had started there,” followed by a Land Army girl. Winnie, from Ilford, had hurt her back driving a tractor. She came to the Sawyers for a couple of weeks’ recuperation and “in the end we decided she should stay too.”
I was puzzled, when I first began interviewing. I used regularly to ask, “Did you see any poverty?” and these elderly people would shake their heads… before telling me about having to wear their sister’s cut-down boots to school; or relying on catching rabbits for food, and selling their skins for gloves. It took me a while to realise that my ‘poverty’ question was nothing to do with material goods; it translated directly to them as, “Did you ever not have enough to eat?”
During both wars, there was food rationing. Omelettes were made with dried egg; sugar was given up in tea.
But there was plenty of ingenuity. Lilian Day, from Nailsworth, told me, “You’d be surprised how we got by. In the Second World War, I used to make sponge sandwiches with liquid paraffin.” She put her fingers to her lips with a smile, as she confessed, “It wasn’t really allowed! It was used as fats, and the sandwiches would come up lovely, spread with raspberry jam out of the garden.” As she’d been born in 1902, it can’t have done much harm.
Everyone pitched in
Iris Dyer – or Ellins, as she was at the time – was nine years old when war was declared in 1939. She still vividly remembered, all those years later, her mother’s despair as Mr Neville Chamberlain made the announcement on the radio. The thought of another war was almost unbearable.
In 1941, during War Weapons Week, people throughout the country were asked to raise money. Iris, back home in Minchinhampton, racked her brains. “There was an auction sale under the Market House, and I donated my beloved dolls’ house. I couldn’t bear to go to the sale to see how much it fetched.” But the auctioneer did his bit: by telling the buyers a little girl had given it, he ensured it raised a handsome sum.
Hardship was accepted as commonplace
Kitty Dowding, born in 1884, (I was kindly allowed to access recordings she’d made), even remembered the Boer War and the torchlight processions round The Park in Minchinhampton when Mafeking was relieved.
Later, during the First World War, she helped produce munitions at Newman and Hender, a two-mile walk from home across the common. “Once, when we’d been working all night, we came out and the snow was up to our knees. I never thought I’d get home, but eventually I did, and we went again the next morning and walked all down Nailsworth.”
It brought different people closer together
Many Cotswold residents had never seen anyone other than a white person; but one summer evening during the 1940s, 900 black personnel arrived to camp on the edge of the village of Box. All the white Americans had been placed on the Park in Minchinhampton, a short mile away. The black soldiers had no water and very little food – their supplies had been delayed; when they asked for help from their well-supplied colleagues on the Park, they were refused. And so, “Local people gave them things for the three or four days before their food came,” said Vera Harvey (Smith at the time). “And remember, at this time we were well into food rationing.”
The Box villagers weren’t looking for reward; but they received it in unexpected fashion. When Mr Brooks invited the soldiers to the chapel in Box, he suddenly found three or four hundred of them following him. “The singing was wonderful. They chose the hymn, When the roll is called up yonder, and other Negro spirituals.”
When difficult situations end, the rejoicing is intense. Hardly surprising when the daily paper would be full of the latest casualty lists. Jessie Kirby, born in 1909, recalled her grandfather turning up each morning to read it out to her mother, “and my mother held her breath because, of course, my eldest brother was in the war. She was quite all right after grandfather got beyond the ‘k’s.”
Then came the Monday – November 11, 1918 - when it was announced that the Armistice had been signed.
“My mother was doing the washing, and she was so excited and so thrilled to think that the war was over, that during her washing she starched the woollen socks”.
My admiration for those hardy, spirited, kindly Cotswoldians knew no bounds after my conversations with them. So take heart, keep safe, and hide the starch for when good news arrives – as it assuredly will.