Wearside Echoes: The dark days of war

HAPPY TIMES: Sheila and her brothers enjoy their final days of playing freedom just before the war.
HAPPY TIMES: Sheila and her brothers enjoy their final days of playing freedom just before the war.
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A LIFE lived in darkness – that is the overwhelming wartime memory for Sheila Jones.

“We had to put up blackout blinds and there were no street lights at all. It was pitch black outside and I was always frightened of the dark,” she said.

“We couldn’t play out in the street in winter, as it was too dark to see. Once, when I was coming back from the chip shop, I walked into a lamp-post. The next day my face was a mess.

“When war was over, everything seemed quiet. It was lovely to be able to open the curtains again and put the lights on.”

Sheila, only daughter of George and Jennie Harvey, was born in Nelson Street, Hendon, in 1930, but spent her childhood at St Aidan’s Avenue, Grangetown.

“Most of my time was spent playing in the street, with skipping ropes, tops and whips and marbles. I had a lot of friends and we had quite happy times,” she said.

The war, however, was to change the lives of Sheila and her pals forever. The freedom to play outside without fear all but disappeared as enemy bombers repeatedly targeted the coast.

“I was nine when war broke out. My parents told myself and my two brothers what was happening as, being children, we were unaware of the scale of what was going to happen,” said Sheila.

“Our school, Commercial Road, had to be bomb-proofed, and air raid shelters were put into everyone’s gardens. We also had to carry a gas mask, slung over our shoulders, at all times.

“We had to stay in our own street to play too, as close to our homes as possible, in case of air raids. As soon as it was dusk, we were back in the house.

“When enemy planes came over, the noise was deafening, and we were very frightened.

“A bomb dropped at the top of our street one time. Our whole house shook to the roof.”

Two of Sheila’s pals’ parents were killed by the Nazis for being Jewish.

“Trudy Shiffman and Paula Hacker came to our school. We had been hearing stories of the terrible things happening to Jewish people in Germany at the time,” she said.

“Teacher told us not to ask too many questions, so we helped them with learning English, how to play skips and how to do ‘two balls on the wall.’ We were all friends together and they said they were very happy.”

The blackout was not the only wartime regulation which cut into Sheila’s playtime – queuing for rations also took her away from her pals.

“I sometimes had to wait an hour and sometimes they ran out before I was served and I had to come home disappointed – as did everyone else.

“Sometimes, fruiterers would sell us bruised fruit for pennies.

“We’d cut the bruised bit off and, if there was not enough to share out, mam would stew the best bits and make custard.”

The lack of a balanced diet took its toll on the health of the Harvey family – with Sheila, her parents and brothers all developing large boils.

“We tried to keep well. We used to get toffee malt with halibut oil. It was in a big jar and tasted lovely. It was good stuff, as we ailed very little – until the boils,” she said.

“I had mine on my neck, and they were very painful. We bandaged up what we could, and used a lot of Dettol.”

Christmas brought a welcome relief, with Sheila’s parents striving to make the day as “happy and worry-free” as possible.

“We didn’t get many toys, but my dad was a lovely joiner. He used to bring home lots of wood from the shipyards and make some wonderful forts, castles and wooden dolls,” said Sheila.

“To get the wood home, he would put it down his trousers – which meant he couldn’t come back on the bus and had to walk.

“He could hardly walk for wood, and mam had to take him apart bit by bit!

“We always got one present we had asked Santa for, as well as a book, something to wear, sweets, an orange, if we could get them and some nuts. We were very happy with that.”

Trips to the Regent cinema in Grangetown also provided a little light relief, as did visits to the two Lockharts cafés.

“On a weekend we tried to do things like playing out with friends. We used to skate up and down the estate, but didn’t dare go any further,” she said.

“The winter nights were very dark. With no lights, we could not go out to play. I used to knit things for my dolls instead, using wool pulled out of old jumpers, as you couldn’t get new wool.

“Nearly everyone could knit then, even boys. Boys made a lot of aeroplanes from kits too, – both ours and enemy ones.” Sheila spent her leisure time knitting socks and gloves for the soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting abroad, as well as making visits to injured servicemen at Ryhope General Hospital.

Swimming trips to Ryhope beach, Sunday school activities, holidays in a cottage near Barnard Castle and the chance to learn cookery at school were welcome diversions too.

“We had some lovely times when I look back, although we did not think so at the time,” she said. “By the time the war finished, I was working in an office at Joplings. We had street parties that had tables down the whole length of the street.

“Many years later, my brother Eric and I would reminisce about those days. For all the nasty things that were going on, we tried to be happy.”

l Do you have wartime memories? Write to Sarah Stoner, Wearside Echoes, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland SR4 9ER or email sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk