The wartime history of a Wearside house has been revealed - thanks to a chance meeting. Sarah Stoner finds out more
AN act of kindness to a stranger has taken a former Coles Cranes worker on a journey back in time.
David Rennoldson offered a helping hand after spotting a lady sitting in a car outside his Cleveland Road home looking “a little lost”.
But he was astonished to find 82-year-old Margaret Chaplin was no more lost than he was - as she had once lived in his terraced house.
“I went out to check on her, as I thought she might be in trouble. I was astounded to find my home had once been hers,” said David.
“She started telling me how she had lived at Number 194 during the war, so I invited her in for a look round. Her memories were amazing.”
Margaret, the only daughter of railwayman Jack Chaplin and his wife Beatrice, was born in 1931 and spent her early years in Fulwell.
But, following the death of Beatrice, the family moved to High Barnes - an area repeatedly targeted by the Luftwaffe during World War Two.
“I always remember 194 Cleveland Road as being a cold house - with only the warmth of the Beeston boiler in the kitchen,” said Margaret.
“The scullery had a stone sink and enamel bowl, so water didn’t stay very warm, and there was ice on the inside of the windows in winter.”
Cold water and indoor icicles were not the only problems, however, that the Chaplin family had to deal with during the war years.
Indeed, on April 8, 1941, a high explosive dropped in the street - damaging two houses. Thankfully, this time, there were no casualties.
“We had a brick-built air raid shelter in the yard, which had an “escape” panel of steel built into it,” recalls Margaret, a retired midwife.
“Unfortunately, without thinking of the consequences, I put a rabbit hutch right in front of it - and we were trapped for hours one night.
“We didn’t dare push the escape hatch open, as it would have hurt the rabbit. Fortunately, dad was on patrol and eventually rescued us!”
The shelter was to prove a life-saver on March 14, 1943 - when a parachute mine dropped at the junction of nearby Nora Street and Colchester Terrace.
The explosion demolished eight houses and left 70 in ruins. Two churches and four shops were also destroyed and seven people lost their lives.
A further 997 houses were damaged - including 194 Cleveland Road - while 42 residents suffered serious or minor injuries.
“We had been in the shelter for quite a while before that, and everything - meaning gun fire and plane noise - had become quiet,” said Margaret.
“Suddenly, there was a blinding flash which lit up everything and an explosion which was mind-splitting. The door caved in and the shelter swayed.
“My aunty started shouting for my brother, and eventually he called out saying he was struggling with the door - and that my father was on top of him.
“Dad, who had been on street patrol, had just returned to the shelter when the blast blew him right inside. Another second or so and he’d have died.”
As Margaret, her two brothers and her adopted aunt, Ethel Lovett, slowly recovered from the bombing ordeal, so Jack Chaplin went back outside to help.
“It was very harrowing for him,” recalls Margaret. “I remember him being very upset over the death of a lovely old lady who lived nearby.
“The blast just took the air from her body, and her mattress then curled round her. My father had to unroll that mattress before finding she was dead.”
Once Margaret and her brothers, Gordon and Alan, left the shelter, Margaret headed back to the house while the boys tried to help out in the street.
“As I ran into the house, I realised the ceiling was mostly on the floor. There was glass everywhere, but I found my cat under the settee,” she said.
“Going through the house was heart-breaking. The back bedroom wall seemed to be hanging outwards, and a window was embedded in Gordon’s pillow.
“Our clothes were black too, and I think the dust made them unwearable. We had to go to the Town Hall for clothes coupons.”
Margaret was evacuated with her Aunt Ethel, a health visitor with the Prudential, to Blackhill following the air raid - but returned within weeks.
“We used the house during the day, although we weren’t supposed to, and then spent the nights at a billet on the road to Houghton,” said Margaret.
“But, gradually, more order was restored to 194 and, once the damage was repaired, it once again became home.”
The next few years saw Margaret leave to train as a midwife, while her brothers left to get married and her father remarried and moved on.
Only her adopted aunt Ethel, who had looked after Margaret and her siblings since childhood, remained at 194. She was to stay until her death in 1958.
“I helped to clear the house - and that was the last time I was inside 194 until my recent visit. It was wonderful to “go home” again,” said Margaret.
“It was a great delight to see 194 looking so well cared for an loved. I always remembered it as a cold house, but it is so warm and comfortable now.”
Margaret and the Rennoldsons have been in touch via letter since her visit and David added: “Her visit was a lovely surprise - one we will never forget.”
German pilot in my sights
MARGARET’S wartime memories remain vivid after more than 70 years - and she still recalls a terrifying sight she witnessed as a 10-year-old.
“One Sunday morning, dad took me down to the fields at the bottom of Mount Road for drill in putting out incendiary bombs,” she said.
“But the siren went and, out of the sky, a plane came down at rooftop height towards us on Mount Road - obviously making for the sea.
“I could see all the airmen plainly - goggles, masks etc - so I waved and I waved at them, giving them loads of smiles.
“But, as it passed by, I suddenly realised it didn’t have British circles on the side of the plane - instead it had the German cross on it!
“By this time I could see quite plainly the rear-gunner - and I was still waving. Dad told me to ‘keep on walking, don’t run” and it passed quickly.
“However, he got a severe ear-bashing when we got home for not taking me to a public shelter!”