Of all the pleasant places to be away from the realities of war, there can hardly have been a better hideaway than Westmorland during World War Two.
Any bombs dropped were done so accidentally; self-sufficiency in small farms lessened the hardships of rationing; and fewer menfolk were forced to leave their families because so many of them were already in reserved occupations working the land.
Despite this, the Second World War still had an enormous impact on the area, which played host to hundreds of evacuees as well as to both Italian and German prisoners of war; the war effort involved both men and women in new ventures, like the manufacture of the Sunderland Flying Boat on the shores of Windermere at White Cross Bay, and in addition to the enthusiastic work of the WVS, there was the defence of the homeland against enemy invasion left in the hands of Dad's Army, the famous Home Guard.
World War Two, just half a century away, is but recent history; and yet anyone with any sort of personal recollection of childhood in wartime will not be far short of fifty years old; while most of those who were on active service will now be in their seventies. This month, "The Way We Were" explores local accounts of those six war years in Westmorland, the disruption and inconvenience to everyday life they caused, and the way in which our area organised its war efforts. Seldom has any one subject brought forth such vivid memories from so many people; for however lightly Westmorland escaped the cruellest aspects of that war, its effects were still experienced by everybody at every level of society.
The declaration of War in 1939 brought the arrival of some six thousand evacuees to Westmorland, of whom only two thousand were left by the time the War really began in earnest in 1940. The children sent to this area were from Newcastle, South Shields and Barrow, and there was little choice as to where the children went. The billeting officer worked on the number of bedrooms available in every home, and families were simply told how many extra children to expect:
"I had five girls from Newcastle, five schoolgirls up at the Kelsick Grammar School. I tell you, they took some looking after, because they had white blouses, white socks and I had all the washing to do, and soap was rationed, you know. It was a problem."
Town children unused to country ways brought other problems:
"Everything was strange to them, I think. When they saw a bottle of milk on the table, they couldn't believe it. So I said, what do you have at home? Tins, tinned milk you see. And potatoes. They'd never seen a whole potato scooped. There were chips, always chips. And of course a lot of the people down here had fruit trees in their gardens and they were full of fruit, it being September, October. And everything was stripped! The trees were all stripped of their fruit in a very short time. There were all these youngsters!"
Feelings were very tolerant to start with towards the newcomers, many of whom were flea-ridden:
"I think some of them were glad to be away from home. They were better cared for, better looked after; because my four, the parents never bothered with them, only once. And they didn't even get a thing at Christmas."
Only one pair of boots arrived for one child during the entire year the four stayed there, and their clothing, which was infested, had to be burnt on arrival. Host families were given 8/6d a week to feed each child (10/6d if over sixteen) and when parents did actually come to visit, ration books got left at home, and the host had to provide for parents as well. Many evacuees returned home within months, and when a further wave of evacuees arrived in the area in 1944, it was very hard to place them with local families after those early experiences:
"There was a sweet shop in the village, and they used to go in there, and one boy would go in the shop and ask for something, and while she was serving this one, the other was pinching bottles of pop. And when I asked them to open the drawer which was locked in the bedroom (because it never had been locked), it was full of stuff they'd pinched from the shop. Just cards of mending wool and such like, cottons and nothing else, just for the sake of stealing! I just don't know."
But what was it like from the point of view of a small child to be separated from parents, even brothers and sisters, and dumped in a strange house with reluctant hosts?
"The whole school was there, (on the station) and we all had labels round our necks and gas masks. It was rather chaotic, I just remember all this crying."
That little five-year-old girl from Barrow was evacuated with her brothers and sisters from the bombing only because her mother understood they would all be kept together. They were immediately split up, and eventually only the little girl and her seven year old sister were left unplaced, probably because they were the youngest and nobody wanted such young children:
"They were quite an old couple who obviously didn't want us. I think she already had somebody from Newcastle with her there and they hadn't any family of their own, so it must have been very difficult for them. We weren't very happy there."
For other evacuees, the experience was somewhat happier; the older boys enjoyed farm life, and regarded their wartime billets as "home", still visiting them years later. Helping on the farm frequently led the lads into farm work, and some even stayed in the area and finally farmed their own land.
Being a conscientious objector refusing to serve in the military was no easy option, with the sort of criticism such a stance attracted in a small community. But several people in the area declared their pacifism at the start of War and were soon sent to work doing some of the most unpleasant tasks on the home front. Barrow, with its shipyards and steel works, was the nearest target for enemy bombs, and the Germans soon wiped out whole streets of the town. Defending Barrow's vital war industries involved blanketing the whole town in thick, oily smoke, a job which fell to the non-combatant Corps:
"There were a few people who went in the non-combatant Corps on conscience grounds and they worked on what were known as 'Smokey Willies'...these things were a bit like old tar engines which used to tarmacadam the roads and they belched out filthy horrible smoke - thick, thick smoke, and this did happen whilst I was there, after 1942, to hide the area of Barrow. Whether this was experimental, I would never know, because I never heard of it happening anywhere else but the smell was absolutely awful. It was foul-smelling whatever it was they used and it made almost a thick fog, a pea soup fog and the poor men who worked them looked absolutely dreadful. One of them used to come to us and he couldn't have been blacker or more greased."