Houghton-le-Spring at War

Wartime Memories from Harry Smith
Edited by Paul Lanagan, 2009
Memories from 1939 - 1945

Blackouts, Bombs & Raich Carter

For anyone my age I suppose everything now is either before the War, during the War, or after the War. As a 10 year old, one my earliest memories of that first week of the War was of four eighteen or nineteen-year-olds from our street who had joined the Territorial Army earlier (probably to have some fun and get away for a fortnight’s camping in the fresh air and get out the pit for awhile). We watched them walk away up the street in their brand new khaki and kit, never dreaming that it would be five years before we saw them again. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Houghton got off fairly lightly as far as air raids were concerned I think. Most damage was done by shrapnel from our own guns landing on roofs. It was scary enough hearing the bombs going off in Sunderland. Hetton-le-Hole, up the road, had a couple of streets flattened in one raid. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

I don't think I've ever heard a more horrible sound than those sirens warning of the impending raids. We called them ‘wailing whinnies’, or a more beautiful one was when they blew the all clear. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

A searchlight in action during World War 2.  From: www.worldwar2database.com

School was closed in the early days but soon started up again for half days or so. If there had been a raid the night before we were excused school next day because of broken sleep. So it wasn’t all bad!

The blackout had to be experienced to know what it was like. On a moonless and starless night it really was a nightmare. We lived in a terrace of fifty-four houses at Sunniside; with front doors straight off the path, people were forever walking in the wrong door. They would walk in, look round, and if they didn't see anyone they knew, say sorry folks and walk back out. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

There was plenty of light during raids of course - from the searchlights. I can remember a couple of times seeing them focus on German planes with the guns banging away.

Gasmasks were a bit of chore later, but in those early scary days we made sure we had them handy. One day at school a guy came to show us some apparatus. He would be an ARP warden (air raid precautions), one of a lot of people who after they had done their own work for the day would do voluntary stuff, like making sure the blackout was observed, fire watching and the like.

Anyway, in front of the assembled kids he demonstrated this gear, which I can best describe as looking like a bird table but with the board on top slanting forward so you could see it. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

A child tries on a gas mask, 1939.  From: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk

He said if the Germans dropped any gas we might not be able to detect it ourselves. So this board, which was stuck in the ground near the school entrance, had special paint on it which would change colour if there were any gas about. Naturally, like most of the others, I didn't take my eyes off it for three weeks, and in class from wanting to sit beside the exit, now everyone wanted to sit by the windows!

We soon as got back to normal, until one day a lad had been to the toilets (which were of course outside) came back running through the school, still holding up his pants, screaming at the top of his voice “Sir! Sir! It's gone green, it's gone green!” Pandemonium and any gasmask will do!

However, when it was sorted it was found the lad had got himself a load of plums and scoffed them the night before. It was his poo that gone green and frightened the shite out of him! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

A ration book, similar to those used during the Second World War

One thing that never changes is the need to eat. Ration books came in with gasmasks and soon became one of the big things in life. Half way up Sunderland Street, next to Harland’s the butchers, opposite Red Stamp Stores, what had been a little empty shop became the Centre of the Universe - The Food Office.

This place was there to offer help and advice on rations and all things nutritional.

They handed out bottles of cod liver oil, concentrated orange juice and tins of powdered milk, to make sure the youngest amongst us got a fair start in life during those difficult times. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The Food Office also seemed to have a plentiful supply of leaflets and posters when paper was in short supply. If you could find a chippy open, you had to take your own paper to wrap up your fish and chips! The leaflets were really good with their tips. To make a rhubarb pie try to get really thick stalks, as they don't need as much sugar as thin ones.

Butter was scarce so had to be scraped really thin on bread, however if bread was put in the mouth upside down (butter side down) one tasted the butter more! Also, how to make a steak and kidney pudding with half a rabbit!

The poster campaigns could be really something: “Eat More Potatoes, Save Bread” for a few month, then “Eat More Bread, Save Potatoes”, then the added graffiti “Don’t Eat”! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Some of posters could be quite educational. One lot implored everyone to be careful what they chatted about in public, especially about what was in letters from people in the Services. Any stranger within earshot could be a spy! “Careless Talk Costs Lives” they cried.

Even at that young age I had pretty well sussed that there was a difference between boys and girls. But I wasn't ready for the furore that followed when some bright spark had a poster printed “Careless Talk Costs Lives, Be Like Dad, Keep Mum.” Get it? Keep mum! The fact that the Ministry of Information thought every married woman was a kept woman, in any sense of the word, nearly started a war! The letters to the Editor pages were of the general opinion that the Minister should be taken to the Tower and have something chopped off! This, mind, was seventy years ago. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Then there was the “Wings for Victory Week” or “Buy a Tank Week” or “Minesweeper Week”. This was in a chosen week when the whole town gave all their energies to raising enough money to buy, for instance, a Spitfire. I don't know what a Spitfire cost then, probably about the same as a footballer’s car now. So, with a big model of a thermometer stood on the Broadway to monitor progress as the money came in, everybody got stuck in.

Careless Talk Costs Lives

Door to door collections, concerts, raffles, bring and buy sales, home made cakes galore. Where the hell all the flour, eggs and butter/margarine came from for the latter Christ knows, but there it was. The best us kids could do was gather scrap metal, so in gangs we spread far and wide and by the end of the week we had quite a pile of rusty old scrap in our schoolyard. Aluminium was much prized, so if anyone found a kettle or pan of this precious metal it was kept to one side in a smaller pile. Apparently there was a lot of aluminium in a Spitfire.

The big thing for me was the football match. A match would be arranged between a side of local lads and team from the Royal Air Force. The RAF, of course, would have some big names from the professional game that had been called up for service. So I got to see the one and only Raich Carter strutting his stuff on Houghton Colliery Welfare Football Ground. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

At the end of the week the thermometer always showed the target had been reached. So everyone was left with a warm glow of satisfaction and we had all done our bit.

One perk of the War years was Double Summertime. That is the clocks were put forward two hours and we had daylight till about 11pm for a month or so. It was great on a warm summer evening when all three cinemas emptied at same time and Newbottle Street was blocked solid with people making their way home. It did seem as if everyone from the Coli was heading for the Grasswell and Newbottle end, and those from Empire and Grand for the Hetton Road end, causing a bit of a pile up. But, hey, what good-natured crowd. The three cinemas and three ice-cream parlours were our main source of recreation, however, it could be frustrating when sitting watching the Houghton premier of Ghunga Din to have a message flashed on the screen: “The air raid warning is sounding, the programme will continue, but anyone wishing to leave for the shelters please be as quiet as possible.” In an air raid! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The Coliseum Theatre on Newbottle Street

The three ice-cream parlours were very popular, with most of us having our favourite. Dimambro's was deemed the classiest, with its lovely mahogany booths and seating, and for me the nicest ice cream when they could get the ingredients to make it. Jaconelli’s was more spacious with little round tables. Riani’s seemed smaller and darker, but there was the dark eyed beauty Sonia to feast your eyes on. A lot of Italian men were interned during the War but Mr Jaconelli did a stint as a Bevan Boy down Houghton pit and worked with my old Dad. Sometimes Dad would come home with some sweets that Mr Jaconelli had given him. This was a real treat at the time.

I had to visit the doctor lately and was most impressed by the gear he had. After a poke at me he would tap away on his keyboard, wires connected to me went off to I don't know where. It made me think about a time during the War: at school we were warned the school doctor was visiting us the next day. I suppose we got the early warning so we might have a bath that evening. Next day, in the school hall, thirty or forty kids stood in a line and this elegant lady walked along the line giving each lad a gentle squeeze on his upper arm, occasionally giving a lad a tap on the head. Guess what? Those chosen half dozen or so got free milk! Yeah, free milk! Obviously concerned about our health and well-being, the lady then came into the classroom and said: “Who likes fresh rhubarb?” All hands went up. Then she asked: “Who eats it with the skins on?” Not so many hands went up! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Looking back from where I am now, I see what we took for granted and what seemed natural then would seem extraordinary now.

I left school in 1943 at 14 years old, and got a job as an apprentice painter. Thing was, all the men from the firm were away in the services and this left: the boss, who did little else but boss; two sixteen-year-olds, who were the ‘men’ on the job; and us, two fourteen-year olds.

The two sixteens, George and Clarence, did everything the men would have done: handling blowlamps, toting and climbing thirty foot ladders, and spray painting with white lead the inside of Graham’s bakery at Colliery Row. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

Houghton Police Station, Dairy Lane, Houghton-le-Spring

The four of us painted the outside of Houghton Police Station. Now there was a job and a half; the size of it! Apparently when it was being built in 1938 some of the more cynical ratepayers were asking if the authorities expected Houghton to have a Chicago style crime wave!

Someone writing on the Houghton Heritage website mentioned the cottages at the Lake entrance and a Mrs Forester who lived there. Well, I hardly knew the lady but I'm sure her son Joe was one of the men who were away at time I mentioned above. Joe plodged into Normandy on D-Day, walked half way across Europe with all that entailed, then came home and got a job painting. He and his mates, Jimmy Fitzpatrick, Nick Turton from the Army, Billy Thornton from the Navy, who had been on a landing craft on that day, and lots more like them, came home, had a few days off, then came in to work on the Monday morning, picked up their tools and got on with it! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The lads I saw off in that first week of the War came home safe, thank God. Some had been on the other side of the world, some had been prisoners of war in Germany.

Extraordinary hardly covers it.

Harry Smith, 2009


Collected & Edited by Paul Lanagan, local historian
September 2009


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The Gilpin Crest as found engraved on Bernard Gilpin's tomb

PAGE UPDATED: 06/09/2009

sergeant frank stamp and houghton-le-spring 1941 Hurrican fighter plan crashed in Houghton-le-Spring.
A tank parked outside of Robinson's Brewery on Durham Road, Houghton-le-Spring, during the First World War.
Frederick Denby of Houghton, joined the Durham Light Infantry, was a prisoner of war for four years and returned home at Christmas 1918.
Soldiers marched along Church Street, Houghton-le-Spring, 1940.
Bombing raids in World War 2 in Houghton-le-Spring, included four high explosive bombs being dropped onto Houghton Cut in July 1940, and an incendiary bomb being dropped between Houghton and Seaham in March 1943.
Houghton-le-Spring's adopted warship is HMS Welland, which was adopted during Warship Week in December 1941.
George Fenton of Houghton served with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, and was a Prisoner of War in Stalag 8B.
During the Second World War, in 1941,a Hurricane fighter tried to make an emergency landing on Houghon Golf Course. The pilot Sergeant Frank Stamp of the Royal Canadian Air Force sadly lost his life.
Captain William Brown, a Territorial Officer, was a solicitor in the Sunderland Street firm of Legge & Miller.