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A War Baby: In Sunderland

I was born in February 1941 in the Maternity Wing of the Hospital that was at the end of our street, so Mum didn't have far to go when she felt the onset of her contractions and I was born later that day in Sunderland General Hospital. My parents owned a Hardware shop and also ran from those premises a plumbing and electrical business. Father was classed at the beginning of the war as having a reserved occupation, as it was deemed that he provided vital services for the community and Mum ran the retail shop selling all the various things that hardware shops stock as well as selling paraffin and charging accumulators (these provided a source of rechargeable electricity to power the early radios which did not cope with mains electricity) and car and motorcycle batteries. However my Father had to join one of the voluntary organisations in the few months before war was declared, so he chose to train as a Fireman with the NFS National Fire Service, later I believe renamed the Auxiliary Fire service AFS. He had to report for night duty so many nights a week as his contribution to the war effort. This allowed the Fire Service to expand its establishment and provide the extra manpower resources to cope with increased fires from bombing raids and those fireman that chose to enlist in the forces.

Sunderland situated on the North East Coast of England only 12 miles from Newcastle on Tyne, was renowned for its heavy industry the foremost of which was shipbuilding. It was known as the being the largest shipbuilding town in the world at that time, for it had seven shipyards on the River Wear, plus two riverside works that produced world famous Doxford and Clark Sulzer marine diesel engines, along with all the allied engineering trades, specialist joinery works, pipe makers, boiler makers, Rope Making, everything for shipping from anchors through to propellers, also the allied trades of ships chandlers and specialist tailors making uniforms. With all this engineering and manufacturing experience available. At the onset of the war, a lot of factories were turned over to producing equipment for the Armed Forces; Rolls Royce had an Aero Engine building facility. EdiSwan (a company founded by the merger of the two pioneers in radio Thomas Edison USA and Thomas Swan UK) the Radio Valve and Tubes Manufacturers were engaged to produce components for Military Radios and communications equipment and as they were making the early new fangled Television Tubes, they were well qualified to manufacture the screens for Radar and Sonar displays. Other factories were producing everything from Hard Tack Biscuits for the troops, Furniture for RAF bases and Army camps, ships lifeboats as well as life saving equipment, Gerry Cans, Paint any colour you like as long as it was khaki, grey or blue, corrugated galvanised iron sheets for bomb shelters. The famous Pyrex glassworks was producing the basic glassware for the radio and tube factories just up the road and the Dry Docks and ship repair yards were converting merchant craft in readiness for war duties.

The Port of Sunderland was also busy, doing it's normal trade of sending colliers full of coal from the local mines via the coal staithes situated on the river banks, to feed London's power stations and move Iron Ore, Steel, Limestone and heavy engineering machinery to other parts of the country and the world, as well as grain from the farms in the surrounding countryside. It was an established importer for "The Baltic Trade" mainly timber but high grade Iron & Chromium ore, steel components like bearings from Scandinavia and it also had its own Oil refinery on the dockside along with the warehouses stocked with jute and hemp for rope making, sugar for the brewery and the sweet manufacturers. 

A small fishing fleet and tugs for moving the ships in and out of the port. As well as being self sufficient in power having its own gas works and coal fired power station within the town. All of this packed tightly into an area of four square miles. Shipyards, docks and refineries are all well lit areas to enable them to function round the clock day and night. It must have been a difficult job to provide adequate lighting, yet still observe the blackout regulations. Being a coal mining area also brought other "lighting problems." With the area having so many mines (pits),it had also had the waste from them in pit heaps, these were always situated near to the pit, fed by overhead runways with buckets carrying the stone and slurry from the coal washing plant, to an elongated pyramid of black waste. Spontaneous combustion was always an ever present hazard, and it meant that at night those heaps on fire, gave a glow which became a navigation marker for incoming bombers.

On the sea front at Roker at the mouth of the river wear, we have a sign pointing out to sea and on it says "Germany". So it was a foregone conclusion that when hostilities commenced "Jerry" (The Luftwaffe) would have us as one of his prime targets, because we were near, on the coast, with a high concentration of heavy engineering of strategic value to the British war effort.

My first recollections of the war was of an Air Raid siren wailing and my mum picking me up from my pram and putting me under one arm and in her other hand holding the draw from the shop cash register and dashing 100 yards diagonally across the street to our allocated Air Raid Shelter, in a neighbours back yard. I remember looking up and see this big dark noisy aircraft flying very low, flash over our heads at what felt rooftop level. My mother dashing to the open front door of the neighbours house, run through the house and making it safely to the Air Raid Shelter in the yard. This was a regular occurrence throughout the war years. Even to this day the sound of the siren sends shivers through my body.

How did my mother look after me you may ask? When she had a shop to run and a young child also. In the early months of my life, I was put in my pram during the day and the pram was parked by the shop window so my mother could keep an eye on me and the customers could also take a peek at me. Some our regular customers even 25 years later were saying to me "I remember you, when you were sitting in the pram outside the shop, by what a bonny baby you were." I always took this as remark of kindness and remembrance of pastimes. When I was a little older I was eligible to go to a state run nursery which was in a large old house called "The Chesters" it had been bought by a local brewery (Vaux) to convert into a pub, but it was requisitioned by the Ministry of Health for use as a day nursery for working mothers, to enable them to drop their children off before going to work in the factories, and pick them up afterwards. It also had a great advantage, that we were fed 3 meals a day, breakfast, lunch and tea before our mothers picked us up, and none of the valuable food coupons were needed. My parents told me that we were fed items of food that were very scarce like eggs and butter as well as vitamins, cod liver oil to keep us healthy. We had a structured day of learning and play including having a sleep after lunch. 

The nursery was run by Matron Lawson, who was a fully qualified Nursing Sister with a staff of nursery nurses and helpers. We had the grounds to play in, supervised all the time, a big grassed area including a sandpit and a slide. The house was centrally heated as well as having coal fires protected by very sturdy fireguards. In later years after the war, the house was converted into a pub. It was the family joke as we were passing to say " and that's where you spent your early childhood years".

The town was subjected to many air raids in the early years of the war, and a lot of damage was done to buildings in the town centre, the residential areas as well as to the commercial and docks areas. My father as a fireman was on duty when some of these raids hit buildings and he attended them as part of a fire crew. I remember him telling me in later years of one raid where bombs had fallen in the docks area on a Bonded Warehouse, that had in its stores, barrels of spirit, a lot of rationed foodstuffs like sugar, fats, flour and other inflammable items and that when they got there the blaze was well alight and that there was no possibility of saving the building or its contents, and that they would have their work cut out, just trying to contain the blaze to the buildings on fire. The blaze was so intense that the wooden spirit barrels would get that heated, that they would explode and go up in the air like bombs, spewing fiery liquid into the air. A number of firemen were badly burnt as the burning liquid fell on them. The heat was so great that the nearby buildings had all the glass in the windows melt, the paint on the outside was burning, so the firemen had to play their water hoses on the outside walls of these premises to try and cool them down and try and stop them from catching fire.

Unfortunately one building couldn't withstand the onslaught of the heat and the water, and the 60 foot gable end without warning, buckled and collapsed into the road, strewing debris all over the area, burying fire equipment and the fireman who were playing their hoses on the building, some of the firemen were injured some were killed outright. It was days before the fire was put out, and fire crews had to standby and damp down the fire until it was out. A very stressful and tiring job for all having to be at the place day and night where fellow crew members had been killed and injured in all weather conditions. The only slight relief was that mobile canteen lorries staffed by the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) or The Salvation Army would turn up and offer hot drinks and buns to keep them going through the long hours and just get on with the job of being part time fireman. When it was over, they then had to pick up the threads of life and return to their daytime jobs till the next shift and the next call out.

After a major raid my father would come home and tell my mother what damage had been done that night. The railway station was hit and the explosion took the big arched roof off the station buildings, demolishing completely one end of the station entrance and booking hall and lifted goods wagons off the railway line 30 ft below street level depositing them in shop windows and on the road. The same raid hit a large department store on both sides of the road and completely demolished the buildings, another bomb missed the Central Library and Museum, but hit the large glazed winter gardens at the rear of the building, which had a lot of plants and exotic species of birds which all were destroyed and this was only replaced some 4 years ago. I don't recall hearing that much disruption was done to the shipyards on the river, but the housing around them was severely damaged, and in the after war years became playgrounds for us small children, "Keep off those bomb sites" was a continual cry from worried parents to their children.

The town being divided by a large river had a fireboat and still does to this day. This was an much valued facility, as when areas were bombed, often the water supply was disrupted or cut off completely, and the fireboat could pump water from the river, connect up with hoses to the land based fire pumps, they then could move the water to where it was needed, without this vital equipment, fires would have been left to just burn out and cause greater damage. As I got older I was sent to do messages like going to the local grocer or butcher to get food, with strict instructions to guard the ration book with my life for without that you got no food!

Eggs, Bacon, Butter and Meat and even the humble banger I remember being in short supply and substitutes like dried egg powder and Pom a dried potato powder were used as substitutes. Whale Meat was sometimes available off ration and being near North Shields where a whaling fleet was based, meant occasional treats of off ration meat. Fish seemed to be in reasonable supply it was quite often inshore fish, like whiting and herring and being on the coast with a harbour and piers available, a lot of people went fishing in their spare time just to catch anything they could eat. The beaches and the docks at low tide were another vital source of energy, coal. This is a phenomena of our area having vast reserves of coal out at sea as well as under the land and some of them are literally on the sea bed and it gets washed onto the beaches by the movement of the tides.

Even though we were surrounded by dozens of coal mines producing coal one literally in the town, it too was rationed. So going down to the beach on a Sunday and scavenging around the high watermark for black gold for free, was a regular pastime. Not every black rock was coal either, so you had to know how to differentiate between black rocks and the real thing. A hundredweight of coal literally kept the home fires burning, no central heating in those days. The coal burnt with a more blue flame and produced more heat it was Mother Nature’s way of making a coke like substance.

K Kennils

© Copyright K Kennils

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