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Knottingley and Ferrybridge Memories

MEMORIES AS AN EVACUEE
TO KNOTTINGLEY


MICHAEL BURGIS

My story began in September 1939. I was almost three years old and living in Plumstead, Southeast London. I lived in a ground floor flat with my mother Florence who was twenty-eight years old, my sister Florrie aged seven, Sylvia aged six and Edith aged one. Dad was called Willie and was in the army somewhere up North - he was thirty-four years old.

Times were quite hard for mum and us, the flat was furnished in mostly old furniture and we didn’t have many clothes. The only colours I can recall were dark colours, mainly browns and blacks. Our main entertainment was a small radio or trips round the local park with mum.

All the neighbours were very friendly and used to sit out the front on the brick wall, talking and laughing until it got dark.

We kids of course were made to go to bed by seven each night, but my sister Edith was allowed to stay out late in the pram. With four children to look after it was quite a handful for mum and I think I was a bit of a handful too. I remember one time I climbed onto the back of the settee in the kitchen to reach a shelf. There was a jar on the shelf that looked like brown smarties. I ate some much to mums horror – they were iron tablets, and according to the lady in the flat above, wouldn’t do me any harm.

Mum’s favourite saying was "Just you wait ‘till your father gets home, he will pay you", which meant you’ll get a smack. I didn’t know how often dad came home but I always knew that mum wouldn’t forget to tell him what I had done.

Life was pretty basic for all us kids, whatever food was on the table, we soon learned to eat what we were given and not to refuse anything. Most of the time we were confined to the back garden and amused ourselves with whatever we had, as toys were very rare. The upstairs flat had a cast iron stairway which came down into the shared back garden. We had a swing hung from under the stairs and spent many hours on that.

The summer had come to an end but all the women were still sitting out late on the wall. The mood of all mums friends was quite serious and they all spoke of something called war. Dad eventually came home and put his bags in the hall, we were all pleased to see him and eagerly gathered round to see what, if anything, he had brought home. It was usually something in the food line, or a treat of some kind. Mum and dad hugged and mum had tears in her eyes as she asked dad what was going to happen soon, as the news on the radio was full of the troubles of war.

After all the excitement had died down with dad coming home, mum poured out all her troubles. It was usually about money and not being able to buy enough food. Then she told dad about what a little sod I had been, and how I had climbed up on the settee and ate some of her tablets. This was the moment I had dreaded, I thought mum would have forgotten the incident. Well, dad being the strict disciplinarian that he was, I got what I expected – the strap across the backside and sent to my room. As I walked along the hall to my room I tripped on dads bags. I muttered something like "These ruddy kit bags". Mum and dad thought I had said "You bloody shit bag", so yes you guessed it, up he came with belt in hand and gave me another couple of strokes on the backside. I cried myself to sleep and woke up the next morning very hungry as I had missed out on the last meal of the day.

Dad was home for a few days, during which time mum and dad discussed what to do with us kids. Dad said we should get away from this area as we were only a few hundred yards away from the Woolwich Arsenal. This meant that we would be a prime target for any German bombing raids. It was decided that Florrie and Sylvia would be sent away with the school evacuees. They went by train to Devon and ended up in separate homes in Newton Abbott. Dad took me back with him by train to where he was stationed. That left mum at home with one year old Edith. I didn’t know at that time how long I would be away from mum and my family. Mum went away to Kent for a while, but came home to be near her friends. Dad and me went by train from Plumstead to London and got the underground to Kings Cross station. I’d walk a little way then dad would carry me, as the whole place was crowded with soldiers, sailors and people all running in different directions. We eventually got onto a very crowded train and dad found a seat for us near the window. This was my first experience of trains and Kings Cross station was massive. Trains hissing steam and puffing out smoke would be a lasting memory.

Eventually our train slowly moved out of the station with packed compartments and corridors. Our journey north seemed to take all day, stopping at stations en route. I spent my time looking out of the window, watching fields fly by, and being excited about seeing cows and sheep. Eventually we arrived at Doncaster and made our way to catch a blue bus. Dad had to carry me most of the way as the journey by train made me feel sick. The bus journey took us through lots of villages to our destination Knottingley. We got off at the Town Hall and made our way down St Botolphs Road into Aire Street where dad was staying.

Across the road from where dad was staying (at hotel) was a greengrocer’s shop ‘Joe Rays’. He walked in carrying me on his shoulders and asked if anyone would like to look after me. A lady stepped forward and said "yes I’ll have him."

It was Mrs Shay, a lady who was to become my Aunt Annie for years to come. We walked back home with her, over the crossing into England Lane, to Northfield Avenue, no. 13. This whole experience so far was bewildering. Dad stayed for a while, then he had to go. I cried when he left, leaving me in strange surroundings with strange people. Annie picked me up and cuddled me. "Daddy won’t be long, he’s gone to get you some spice and a comic." I didn’t know what spice were but I soon settled down with a loving family.

The family were Mr Ted Shay, Mrs Annie Shay, and their children Joe, Ted, Edna, Tilly and Harry. The Shay family soon became my family and the memories of my own family gradually faded away. I’m not sure how long dad stayed in Knottingley but I do know his visits to see me stopped. Mrs Shay had a letter from my mum to say I had a little brother "John" born in October 1940.

As time went by I adopted the local accent, but I was still known locally as the little cockney kid.

Growing up was a lot of fun at no. 13. If I was cheeky the girls would chase me round the table, and when caught it was usually a cuddle rather than a smack, so you can guess I got well and truly spoilt. Harry used to tease me a lot, especially at bedtime. With no electric in the house it was candlelight which led me upstairs to bed. Harry would creep up behind me and blow the candle out. When I got to bed I used to lay and read a comic for a while until I dozed off. Often I woke up during the night to the drone of bombers from the airfields in the area.

I remember Harry taking me for a ride on his bike to Pollington Airfield. I sat on the crossbar holding on to the handlebars. We saw some parachutists in the distance, descending on fields. They looked like toys and I shouted out to Harry to get me one. I couldn’t understand why he laughed so much.

Growing up I remember having the usual kids ailments. Earache was one I remember. My Auntie Annie would put some sort of oil in my ear, then cotton wool, and finish me off with a black headscarf tied under my chin. I got nits a few times. I used to sit on the floor between Auntie Annie’s legs whilst she combed my hair with a nit comb and crack them with her thumbnail when she found one.

I started school at St. Botolph’s and remember being frightened on my first day. I stood against the wall watching all the other kids running around the playground. It was a few days before I got settled in. I remember one day on the way to school I hid behind a big gate just down from the Town Hall (Jackson’s Gate). I stayed there until I saw the children coming out of school, then found them on the way back home. That’s the first time I ever played truant.

I remember the time it was coming up for Christmas. Having already looked in a catalogue book and chosen what I wanted, I had to get one of the family to write out my list. Then I had to throw the list in an open fire and watch it burn and float up the chimney. Of course I cried at this, but Harry assured me it was floating up to Santa. Whilst he stood there with his hand on the high mantle shelf he said call up and ask Santa if he’s got any money. This I did and a cascade of pennies came down and bounced off the hearth all over the fireside rug. I couldn’t pick these up quick enough. The laughter in the room from all the family was deafening. Then I was told to shout up the chimney to ask Santa if he had any more. Sure enough he did and the laughter continued. It was years before I learned that Harry was the culprit. I did get my own back on him in later years when I rolled him a cigarette and put some of my gun caps in with the tobacco. Half way through his smoke it exploded, leaving a bit of shredded paper and tobacco strands hanging from his mouth. Christmas came and I was spoilt - that I realise now. An Indian and Cowboy set and garden tools. They kept me busy for months to come.

I can describe 13 Northfield Avenue to this day, as each room is a photo in my mind. I remember the gramophone player in the corner, and the record that stands out in my mind is ‘The Angels Way Up Yonder’. The radio had an accumulator which had to be charged up. I remember one time the settee near the front window collapsed through the floor and the boys propped up the floor with sandbags and bricks.

Monday was washday and I liked to get out of the way for this. It was a gas boiler, tubs and peggy stick and dolly blue, and the kitchen table scrubbed white with years of washing. All the shirt collars and cuffs were starched. The whole day was taken up by this.

One day I loved was baking day, with bread being baked for the week. I used to like the flat rounds of bread straight from the oven with butter on. The bread was stored in an ali-baba pot with a bread board for a lid. In the early days I could get into this pot and hide.

On wet days when I couldn’t play out, I used to amuse myself playing with all the old shoes on the corner cupboard next to the fire. My favourite pair were rubber galoshes which one of the girls wore over high heeled shoes. When there was a break in the rain Jackie Emmerson would call round. "Is tha laking" he’d call. It didn’t take me long to get my wellies on and be off like a shot. My Aunt Annie would yell out "Don’t you get up to anything, now think on." We usually headed for our castle in England’s Lane.

The White Swan was only partially built and had all the cellars and walls up to ceiling height. We usually met all the gang there, Percy Shay, Goo Tunningley, Micky Hogman, David Penistone, Geoff Meadows, Dennis Curtain and Peter Bowers. Then of course all the girls, Janet Vause, Wendy Tunningley, Mary Hughes, Mary Bowers, Brenda Adams, Mary Hogman, Christine Hargreaves and Mary Curtain. We amused ourselves for hours on that building. One game was follow the leader, climbing up the walls and walking along the tops. There was an iron girder spanning two walls, which in those days looked like 15ft long. Jackie Emmerson walked across it to reach a chimney. He sat with his legs dangling in the chimney and within a flash he slipped halfway down. We had to call the fire brigade who had to chisel the bricks away to get him out.

In front of the pub there were heaps of red clay which came out of the foundations. On wet days the clay was just right for modelling and we made all kinds of creatures. In one of the cellar rooms we created our own museum of animals which we displayed on clay shelves stuck to the walls. One of our gang was especially good at making alligators, not sure who that was now. When we got bored that’s when the mischief element took over. With a small ball of sticky clay stuck on the end of a thin stick, we could fire them right across the road and land a few good shots on the windows of the houses opposite. It was run and hide in the cellar time then. In the main room of the cellar there was a hole in the wall which we got into. On our hands and knees we would crawl to the end and sit and write our names on the ceiling with candle flames. I wonder if they are still there?

Whilst growing up we had crazes in all kinds of home made toys. We had kites, miniature cricket bats and stumps, whip and top, stilts, wheel bowling, bows and arrows, balls made from bike inner tubes, elastic band guns, marbles and catapults. The first bike I ever rode was a full size mans bike. The tyres were stuffed with old newspapers and I had to ride it with one leg through under the crossbar. Janet Vause had a hand in teaching me to ride.

We played a lot of street games, cricket, pavement drawing, with one lad, Geoff Meadows being our pavement artist. Mischief night was always a favourite. Looking back now I wouldn’t condone it. We had a game on dark nights called "Holla." There were two teams and as one went off to hide the others chased. The chant was "If you don’t shout holla, we shan’t follow". The end of the night usually finished up under the lamplight at the top of the street, singing all the old songs.

Growing up I remember going to Weeland Road School where my teacher was Mrs Hollingsworth and the headmaster Mr. Treadgold. He was very strict and kept control with his two inch leather belt. I was in a play called "There was an Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe". On the day that it was to be staged I remember playing sick so I didn’t have to go to school. I went to Ropewalk School for a very short time and remember a Mrs Jessop being one of my teachers. One lasting memory of school dinners was having rice with stewed apple, which is still a favourite of mine now.

One morning in 1943 I woke up to the sound of a baby crying. I went downstairs to find my Aunt Annie holding a baby girl "Ann". A woman in a blue uniform looked at me and said "Hello Michael". I asked Aunt Annie where the baby had come from. "This missus has just brought her in an aeroplane" she said. I ran outside only to find that it must have taken off.

It was about this time that my Aunt Annie asked mum and dad if she could keep me. This I found out from my mother in later years, as mum and dad objected to this. So arrangements were made for me to return to London. Edna and a friend took me back as dad was still away in France. This was about 1944. I can remember walking with them down this strange street and knocking on mum’s front door. By then mum had moved across the road into a bigger house.

So I was introduced to a mum I didn’t know, along with a brother John, and sisters Florrie, Sylvia, Edith, Edna and Brenda. I can remember standing in the kitchen and crying to go back home. My mother said "you’re staying with us now, I’m your mother so you’ll have to get used to it". I must have been coming on for eight years old and had a family I didn’t know. It took me a long time to settle in to their ways. Needless to say I was always getting into trouble. The houses in the street where I now lived had taken some bombing damage, but the next two streets must have taken direct hits. These derelict buildings became our playgrounds until they were cleared and rebuilt after the war.

My Aunt Annie kept in regular touch and sent me parcels for birthdays and Christmas. The best present of all though was a letter each year with a postal order for my train fare to Knottingley. My father would take me to Kings Cross and put me in with the guard and off I would go for the whole of the school summer holidays. Annie would meet me at Doncaster. This went on every year until I left school so I never lost touch with all my Knottingley friends; each year friendships were rekindled and the adventures continued. I was often sent on errands and these are a few that I can recall:

I was sent to Mowbray’s shop to get a half-pound of smarties. Marrion said "Are you sure Michael?" I said "yes." On the way home I ate a handful, only to get told off because I should have got half a pound of "tomaties." Mr. Shay sent me to get some cigarettes from ‘Valenti’s,’ a shop down past the Town Hall. As I left the back door to get my bike, he shouted "Don’t bring Pasha’s." I came back with five Woodbines in a sweet packet.

I had to go to a friend of Aunt Annie’s to take something. She had a big Alsatian dog. It had a large basket by the fire with a large boulder in it. She said it was kept in the oven during the day to heat up. It was whilst I was there that a man knocked on the door for her son. As he wasn’t in I was asked to help him do a job. In a church down Ropewalk he had to tune the organ. It was freezing cold so I wore a borrowed army overcoat and sat at the organ. He wrote the letters on the keys and from the back of the organ he would call out for me to press them.

I often went to Pettit’s the butcher. All I had to say was "Have you got a bit of summat for Mr. Shay’s tea?" The shop was empty of any meat, and the window and shelves were just draped with papers. The butcher would disappear into the back and return with something wrapped. I often went to Millar’s farm behind St. Botolph’s Church. I would take something in a bag and in return would take home a chicken. There was a lot of wheeling and dealing in those days and I can remember people swapping coupons from their ration books.

It was always an exciting time when the feast came to Knottingley and set up on the flatts in Aire Street. It was the first time I ever went on the waltzer. It was Doreen Lawrence who made me go on by paying for me. Was I sick and bad! - it spoilt the rest of my evening and I have never been on it again to this day.

I can remember crossing the ferry with my Aunt Annie. We sat in a small rowing boat and the ferryman pulled us across the river with a rope line.

We also went to the picture’s which we called the "bug hutch." We queued up at the back door and paid a penny to go in and sit in the front row seats which were wooden. We used to get a stiff neck from having to look up at the screen.

I can remember spending a lot of time looking in the window of the Habro toyshop, at things I couldn’t afford. I suppose that’s where we got the inspiration in those days to go home and make a toy.

I used to spend a lot of time on the allotment with Mr. Shay. He had a pigeon loft there. It was good fun shaking a tin of corn to call them in. I also shared his excitement when he clocked in his pigeons on race days. The allotments were where the school playing field is now in England Lane. My friend Ronny (Bruno) Brown’s mother kept goats on the same allotments and one day whilst milking one, she sprayed Ron and me with milk, all over our clothes and face.

We often played in the depot near the level crossing. We used to play "Cock of the North" on a bank near the coal loading bays. Somehow we used to get tar on our hands and this we removed with grease that we got from the axle boxes on the wagons. We often went pea pulling and used to catch a farm lorry near the Town Hall. I can remember pulling eight bags and earning one pound from 8am to about 3pm. Some farmers used to give out tickets which you cashed in at the end of picking. We used to take snap and a bottle of cold tea, and one of our ideas was to fill your jam sandwich with fresh peas.

Sunday is a day I always remember, when peas were on the menu. We always had a cup of peas with vinegar during the morning. Mr. Shay used to go to his club and be back in time for dinner. I remember one time a tramp called "Bulla" used to hang around the front gate and my Aunt Annie would give him a dinner and a pint mug of tea. Mr. Shay would come in and get on to Annie "you’ve bloody gi’n Bulla my mug again."

We always had something to do, unlike kids of today. During wet days we still played out and one lad used to build a camp. We built them out of any old tin, wood and sacks which we found in the back squares. We even had indoor fires with chimneystack’s. One lad dropped something down the chimney of Percy’s camp, which caused Percy to exit quick with a sooty black face.

We frequently had coach trips to places like Harrogate, Knaresborough, Bridlington, Scarborough, Whitby and Cleethorpes. I can still recall a familiar call to the driver: "Stop at a pee field." We never had motorway service areas then. For those who remained on the bus, watching people flicking up their dress and bobbing down, laughter was spontaneous. I do remember one time at Cleethorpes when I stood outside the house of fun too scared to go in on my own. A young woman offered to escort me in and halfway round someone grabbed her leg and she screamed. I spotted this was by a man in a small door down at floor level. When he tried it on me I promptly kicked him and the door shut pretty smart.

We used to spend a lot of time on the bridge over the level crossing. We would stand in all the steam and smoke. Sometimes we were moved on by the crossing keeper, Mrs Warby. One time we were all on the bridge when a horse box came over the crossing. We all ran after it down to Metcalf’s farm. It was the first time I’d seen a stallion do its stuff.

The street lamps around were all lit by gas. We had a local lamp lighter called Albert Bagley. He had a stiff leg so his bike had one pedal and a fixed rest. He used to drive round with a pole and turn all the lamps on.

Our adventures went on summer after summer, perhaps too numerous to mention. I have only scratched the surface of all those Yorkshire memories, spent with a great bunch of lads and lasses. One of the highlights and a great personal achievement of mine was to cycle from London to Knottingley when I was about seventeen years old. I left my home in Southeast London about five thirty in the morning with every intention of camping en route. By one in the afternoon I was at Stamford so I kept going. I stopped at Grantham and had tea, cakes, bread and butter and two boiled eggs, all for 2/6d at the Bell Hotel. Arriving in Knottingley at around 9.30pm there wasn’t a soul in sight. Everyone had gone with the club on a train excursion to Blackpool. Fortunately for me, Harry’s lady-friend, Lillian Draper was in and she soon fixed me up with home cooked fish and chips.

To this day, me and my family make regular trips to Knottingley to visit old friends and family and rekindle those happy days growing up with a family that loved me as their own, and friends that are still around to tell the tale. So until we meet again, I will be thinking of you all. Maybe some of you can fill in the gaps with your own tales. I look forward to any replies featured in the monthly magazine.

Michael Burgis

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