How life was changed utterly on a national and local scale by the world wars

With Remembrance Sunday taking place this weekend, ROGER HAWKINS examines wartime experiences among the general population, including what happened in Morpeth, for his latest Morpathia article.

IT is not easy to remember, and for anybody born after 1950 quite unknown, how all-pervading the world wars were on everyday life.

Realisation came slowly in World War I. If you look at the files of the Morpeth Herald for August 1914, what dominates the news is the jollifications for the bank holiday. The international situation gets a mention, but the real news is about excursions and social events.

This goes on for perhaps eighteen months, but gradually the war takes over – the grinding toil to survive shortages and high prices, the men away at the war, the introduction of rationing, and most shocking of all to the modern reader, the increasing length of the deaths and in memoriam columns.

As the war went on, people began to set up what they called shrines – the home-made forerunners of the war memorials we are familiar with now. There was, of course, still fun and laughter, but the jolly days of Edwardian England were over. The 20th century had begun in earnest.

Most moving are the insertions for fathers, sons and husbands missing in action. Nobody knew where they were or what had happened to them, but the urge to remember, to hope even, was overwhelming.

Both the people and the authorities knew better what to expect in 1939. Men who in peacetime had enlisted in one sort of army reserve or another found themselves called up at 24 hours notice. Rationing and other preparations came in very quickly.

Buildings of every kind were taken over for war purposes. The county education department in Newcastle was evacuated to the newly built Newminster School. The Town Hall and the large Victorian houses behind the County Library, Beechfield House and The Willows, were all taken over for purposes that had little or no existence in peacetime.

In 1939, the late Mrs Norah Cuthbert, of Burnside, was a GPO telephone operator in London. One of the first things they discovered when war broke out was that an underground telephone exchange existed, all complete, underneath the building they were working in.

Another incident she remembered was two young women, who were on the personal staff of the head of the establishment, going out and buying a lot of smart new clothes, which they naturally showed to the other girls. The next day, clothes rationing came in – the boss had given them a confidential tip-off.

The late Mrs Sylvia Stokoe, of Fenwick Grove, was a clerk-typist at the police headquarters at The Kylins at the same time. She was promptly enrolled as a uniformed policewoman but otherwise continued in the same job, the object being to avoid her being directed under wartime regulations into some other occupation.

It is hard to imagine the impact of the war on trivial things. When I was in infant school in Leicester, a few years after the war, I went on holiday with my grandmother to Southbourne, near Bournemouth.

Lo and behold, there was my headmistress, Miss Ross, staying in the same hotel. The two ladies got on well together and I remember Miss Ross describing how her father ordered a suit at the beginning of the war, I think from Alexandre’s – then a well-known firm of men’s outfitters.

When he went to collect it, wrapping paper was no longer to be had and they told him apologetically that he would have to take the suit as it was. The old gentleman was scandalised and told them he was not going to walk through the streets with a five-guinea suit over his arm. So, upon his solemnly promising to bring it back, they found a sheet of brown paper and wrapped his suit for him.

Mustard gas had been used with horrible effect as a battlefield weapon in World War I, and much of the planning for air raids in the 1930s was based on the assumption that it would be used against civilians. In the event, the bombs were either high explosives or incendiaries.

Gas masks remain, however, a potent image of civilian life in wartime. They were made of black rubber and strapped to the head so as to cover the face completely.

Babies’ ones were like a large black tub that you put the baby in. Apparently mine had Mickey Mouse on it. I have no memory of it, and sometimes wonder what difference Mickey Mouse would have made to the awfulness of a gas attack.

We had a gas mask in our shed after the war. I remember me and my friends trying it on. It smelt rubbery and was difficult to breathe in at all.

I may be wrong, but I have an idea that the chemicals in the filter would be considered a hazard to health and safety nowadays, but needs must when the devil drove.

Ours was the ordinary sort with the filter on the front, making you look like a scary version of the Elephant’s Child in Rudyard Kipling’s story. My friend next door’s father had been an air-raid warden and his had a face mask with a tube like a vacuum cleaner pipe going down to a red box that the warden presumably wore on his belt.

The air-raid sirens went off when a raid was imminent – a doom-laden sound that still makes me shiver to hear it. From then until the all clear sounded was the blackout.

The job of the wardens, most of whom had a day-time job as well, was to patrol the streets telling people to put lights off or close their blackout blinds and, if a bomb did drop, to help the wounded, keep order and restore calm. Keep Calm and Carry On wasn’t a joke.

The work could be dangerous. A former acquaintance, Mr Fred Parrack of Whitley Bay, told me that he was once on patrol when a bomb fell at the end of the street, blowing in all the windows. He had his back to the blast. It came along, picked him up bodily, and carried him for several yards before depositing him on the ground.

Our pictures show two survivals from World War II. I think the big yellow circle in Copper Chare must be gas paint, a chemical composition that changed colour if mustard gas was present.

It was put on the tops of pillar boxes and other prominent places to warn air-raid wardens and the public generally. This particular example was probably there for whoever was using the Drill Hall that stood across the road.

The ARP post was in the undercroft of the house at the top of Dogger Bank. Until recently, the sign was completely overpainted and could not be seen.

But when the paint was burnt off, my wife noticed the faint trace of the words ‘Wardens Post’. These doors must be at least seventy years old and in the process of being repaired and renovated, have revealed a little bit of Morpeth history.

• For more on the wartime uses of buildings, see Alec Tweddle’s ‘Town Trails for Morpethians’.