We are grateful to Jack Pridham who grew up in Thornbury for his memories of the town during World War II.
“In many parts of the UK, particularly the cities, one of the biggest wartime burdens was ‘rationing’ although we are told that the British during that period, were never healthier. It started with food in January 1940 and very quickly it became necessary to hand over the brown, Ministry of Food Ration Book to the grocer in exchange for small amounts of cheese, eggs, fats, meat and sugar. Other items were later added to the list including soap and bread and ‘points’ were also needed for clothing.
Rural people had an easier time than their urban neighbours. All had their gardens, some had chickens (and rabbits!) and the grocers’ shops rarely ran out of the major food items – in fact they would often offer to sell you more than rationing allowed. This was possible because the larger families did not want all their allowances or more likely, they couldn’t afford them. I should perhaps be ashamed to say that as far as our family was concerned, we were well looked after by Mr Cecil Cook, a grocer in the High Street; he and his wife, Agnes, were good friends of my mother. As regards meat, Trayhurns the butchers, on the opposite side of St John Street, were our relations! The Thompson family with its two shops in the High Street, supplied us with all of the bread we required, which was usually a ‘large white tin’ a day and sometimes, particularly at weekends, a ‘small brown Hovis’. Rarely we opted for a ‘cottage loaf’ which always reminded me of a buxom wench – and still does! Occasionally, late in the evening, we went, instead, to Mr Roberts who lived at the top of St Mary’s (‘Back’) Street in a neat, bright red, brick house which contrasted strongly with the poorer section of ‘Back Street’. Mr Charlie Roberts was rather eccentric and rarely spoke. He could be seen in the evenings pushing his handcart around the town at high speed, selling bread which came from his bakery at the back of his house. Quite often one would knock on his door only to be told that the bread wasn’t ready – “Come back in a half an hour”. On returning, he would appear from his ‘passage’ (only the patricians had ‘hallways’!) holding a warm loaf in tissue paper. In the two minutes that it took to get home, bits of dark, yummy crust had usually disappeared! Mr Roberts was mainly a bread man but he made father’s favourite lardy cakes and some buns. Thompsons on the other hand, baked a great variety of things most of which I enjoyed. There were ordinary buns, iced buns – round and sausage-shaped – and Chelsea buns which were slowly devoured as they were uncoiled. There were cream slices (not real cream, which I disliked), custard slices, and ‘fancies’ which were quite definitely my favourites. I was always happy to attend Thompsons with my mother to make my personal ‘fancy’ selection for Sunday tea. They went down well with bread and butter or hot pikelets soaked in butter with, perhaps, some tinned peaches, pineapple rings or fruit salad. There are some stories to be told about Thompsons which were amusing at the time! Occasionally we found various things in their bread, including a packet of pins and a 2 ounce brass weight which they were so pleased to see when we returned it – they had wondered where it had gone! It was also claimed, on good authority, that a bakehouse assistant sometimes added saliva to the dough if he felt that it needed further hydration! Apart from the latter, ‘bakers’ inclusions’ were classed as accidents, a word which is now not acceptable in some circles, and the possibility of litigation never entered our heads. Trayhurns the butchers were not without their wartime problems. Mother was met by grim, pale-faced staff on one of her shopping trips. The day before they had used a bucket of pigs swill to make sausages instead of a bucket of minced pork and herbs. No one during that period noticed, however! With rationing, customers were only too glad to get sausages of any composition. When regular meat products were in short supply they turned to “Spam” or from the fish shop, tinned snook, a warm water fish from the Americas, or dried whale meat which was yellowish grey and piled high in the window. An alternative source of protein which was not on ration, about which there were many jokes, was the versatile dried egg powder.
A company of the Home Guard, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, commanded by a Major Lee from the Queen’s Head, was recruited to defend the town from Nazi invasion. Mr Alfred Riddiford, an ex bootmaker, was appointed Mortuary Superintendent: his house in Horseshoe Lane was also a collection point for blackberries and hips which were picked from the hedgerows by patriotic citizens, and small boys, for a few pence a pound. They were processed at Coleford in the Forest of Dean and were, of course, a valuable source of vitamin C for the nation’s health.
In preparation for the war a national “Dig for Victory” campaign was started. In my own case this took the form of hard labour on the Council School field, which was not just a field but our beloved and only recently acquired football pitch. The Grammar School did not sacrifice one square yard of its extensive playing fields so I am not sure why the Council School took the lead. Was it the unbridled patriotism of Mr Nicholls the Headmaster or perhaps the Gloucestershire County Council felt that the Thornbury Schools should make some contribution to “Dig for Victory” and sports at the Council School were deemed to be less important than those at the Grammar. A third possibility was that Mr Nicholls was some kind of minor psychopath who enjoyed mass torture – because this was what it was! Being told that the boys (not the girls!) were going to “Dig for Victory” brought initial pleasure as, we thought, this would take us out of the classroom into the fresh air. On Day 1 we were issued with forks and told to spread out across the field: each boy was allocated a frontage of about 3 yards and, at the drop of a hat, we all – well, all but Mr Nicholls who wielded a metaphorical whip – started to dig. I am not sure how many readers have dug and turned over virgin turf with a fork – it’s a task normally reserved for a plough – but we started off well and with boys being boys, there was even competition to see who could dig the fastest. Within less than an hour, however, peripheral nerve endings began to tell us that all was not well but we were not allowed to stop and after about 2 hours, there were blisters and aching arms and backs. The process was repeated on, perhaps, four other occasions by which time the blisters had broken and some were even bleeding. However, the job was done and I seem to remember that it was something that we boasted about for several weeks. What would be the reaction today, I wonder, if a head teacher suggested that a school should dig up its field? Possible forks through feet, tetanus infections, sunburn, strained muscles and broken skin – and visits from Health & Safety Inspectors and litigation lasting for years!
Other agricultural pursuits to help the war effort included hay making in the summer holidays, which for some reason we all loved and prayed that we would be asked to help. Like the school field, no payment was involved and, again, there were blisters and backaches. Potato picking for a small stipend, perhaps 2/6d, was physically more wearing – a whole day bent double following the plough. However, if this was in the Severn bank area, an unlimited supply of new scrumpy was available at the end of the day which was often followed by stomach ache and frequent visits to the lavatory!
At the beginning of the conflict there was also strong pressure from ‘the powers that be’, in this case the Thornbury Home Food Production Committee, to raise rabbits to supplement the meagre meat ration. Rationing had been introduced in January 1940. Father, as was normal, pursued this call for help with great enthusiasm. We bought books on how to raise the animals and recognise their medical problems: coccidiosis was one complaint that I remember because at that time I was impressed by long words and the parasite involved (like the scrumpy) produced unusual (rabbit) bowel movements! Father joined a ‘rabbit club’, bought a few breeding sables and chinchillas and built beautiful ‘terraced’ accommodation for them in the extension to what had been grandfather’s coopering shed in the garden. Much time was spent collecting dandelions and some ubiquitous plant which everyone called “rabbit food” (which may have been hogweed). Warm potato and bran mashes were prepared on cold mornings and then there was the endless task of cleaning out the foul smelling bedding and re-lining the hutches with straw. We treated the ‘bunnies’ well, they won prizes for us at horticultural shows and demonstrated their pleasure by reproducing as bunnies do! We had forty at one time; I have no idea what happened to them but none shared the dinner table with us, which was probably not exactly what the THFPC had in mind.”