From butler service to scabies – my WW2 years

Catherine Stafford with one of her many newspaper cuttings that have highlighted her experiences as a wartime evacuee.
Catherine Stafford with one of her many newspaper cuttings that have highlighted her experiences as a wartime evacuee.
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WARTIME life was a series of contrasts for Wearside youngster Kitty Thornton – from mansion house billets to sulphur baths for scabies.

Just nine when war broke out, and nursing a broken heart following the death of her mother Catherine, the little girl tried to take each day as an adventure.

“We heard the news that Britain was at war on the radio,” she said. “Dad was making breakfast and I was in the kitchen with my sister Joan and brother John.

“Obviously, I didn’t know what war was like at that age, so I wasn’t really scared. But the war would change everything for us.”

Kitty, the oldest of three children born to painter and decorator John Thornton and his wife Catherine, was living at Spark Terrace when war broke out.

“Dad worked in private houses at first, before he got the job of painting Wearmouth Bridge for Sunderland Corporation - it was an on-going task,” she said.

“After that he worked in the shipyards but, when war broke out, he joined the army and served in the Royal Artillery, as a gunner on the boats.”

John’s wartime service left his motherless family in need of care. Baby John was taken in by his grandparents, while Kitty and Joan were evacuated.

“We were evacuated with our school, Bishopwearmouth. I still remember being marched down to Millfield station, with name tags pinned to us,” said Kitty.

“Once we were on the train, we had no idea where we were going. I remember passing by South Hylton, then on into the countryside - ending up in Yorkshire.”

Kitty and Joan stayed with a cowherd and his wife just outside Moulton until Christmas 1939, before moving into the village to live with Winnifred Hall.

“Mrs Hall’s husband was a regimental sergeant major and they lived in a side house next to a mansion. She taught us how to bake and cook,” recalls Kitty.

“Colonel and Lady Vaux owned the mansion and had two children, Anthea and John. We played together and I attended Anthea’s birthday party one year.

“It was great living out in the countryside and I loved it. It was so peaceful there. We walked for miles each day, even in the snow, and I learned to ride a bike.”

Later, when Mrs Hall and her son were taken into hospital, Kitty and Joan went to stay in an even grander mansion in the village – with Lady Pearce.

“We’d got used to pumping water from the village spring and, if that was dry, we had to walk to the village stream to collect water for our tin baths,” she said.

“But at the mansion we had a great big bathroom with running water, and maids to bathe us.

“We also had our own playroom and our meals were served by a butler.

“In the breakfast room the walls were lined with cabinets full of bottled fruit, jams and pickles because, of course, they had their own orchards and produce.”

After that, however, life took a turn for the worse. The sisters were sent to a little place called Norton - where they ended up with scabies.

“We were scrubbed with sulphur and boy, did it sting! I can still remember that pain!” said Kitty, who now lives in Houghton.

A further move followed, this time to Wintringham, where they were the only girls billeted with 11 boys in a hotel. The move left the sisters unsettled, and unhappy.

“By this time, both Joan and I wanted to be home. We’d had four years of being shunted around, and we just wanted to be back with our family again,” she said.

John Thornton senior was still in the army when his daughters arrived home, but they were welcomed with open arms by their grandparents - who lived in Clanny Street.

“We arrived home just in time for the final - and worst - of the air raids on Sunderland. I still remember the King’s Theatre and Victoria Hall being bombed,” said Kitty.

“I only had to do one last term at school before leaving at 14, and I ended up working as a maid for a dentist in Grange Terrace after that.”

Kitty later worked her way up to the role of manager at the West End Paint Shop in Hylton Road, before marrying her sweetheart James Stafford - a merchant navy sailor.

“Apart from having to move around so much, which I did get sick of, being evacuated was a happy time. It certainly gave me a different outlook on life,” concluded Kitty.