"See When You Look Back…"
Reminiscences of the Home Front, 1939‑45
Publisher: Mitchell Library, Glasgow 2005
There are many books and official records of the Second World War, mostly written from the point of view of military historians. But what of the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and sweethearts of those who joined the armed forces? This book tells what it was like in Glasgow for some of the women and children whose lives and families were equally caught up in this terrible war. Till now, their voices have scarcely been heard, so their story is told here in the words of some of the women who were there. Folklorist Dr Margaret Bennett collected these reminiscences of life in Clydeside at the time of the second World War. Those sharing their memories and (songs) are the good ladies of the Kinning Park Over Sixties Club. Gripping, touching, funny, their stories are an important insight into what it was like to be on the Home Front in wartime Scotland. The sections include Rationing, The Blackout, Women at Work, The Clydebank Blitz, Evacuees, and of course, entertainment and Songs. There is a CD of the ladies singing and reminiscing included with the book.
1. Lilli Marlene
2. Yes, We Have No Bananas
3. Hang Out the Washing
4. Dave Willis in the Pavilion (Helen Nicol)
5. Wee Gas Mask
6. Maizy Doates
7. Run Rabbit Run
8. Roll Out The Barrel
9. Pack up Your Troubles
10. Flitting (May Anderson)
11. Christening Pieces (May and Nan Millar)
12. Scrammles (May and Nan)
13. Rationing (Jean Michie)
14. Our ARP man (Jean Michie)
15. We laughed through the tears (Jean Michie)
The background—or, ‘How we got started’
For more than twenty-five years, the Kinning Park Over-Sixties Club has met in Ibrox Library most Thursdays for discussions, entertainment and other activities. In 2001 they took part in an inter-generational project organised by the Mitchell Library at Ibrox Primary School. The aims of the project were to exchange information across generations and to encourage children to write. On the two days that the ladies from the club visited the school, they shared their school memories of the Thirties with primary seven and showed them some of the games they played. In exchange, they received demonstrations about computers from the youngsters who helped them in a ‘hands on’ session. There were animated discussions about how our language had changed over the years—who would have thought that the web had nothing to do with spiders or that the net neither caught fish nor kept your hair from becoming dishevelled? And that was only the start. Neither the youngsters nor the ladies will forget the day they all played peevers together in the playground, took turns of ca’ing ropes and skipping to their favourite rhymes, or improving their skills with gird and cleat.
Since the Mitchell Library had asked me to be the writer-tutor, I was involved with the class once a week for six sessions, encouraging them and sharing ideas. We had a lot of fun together, the children all put their best effort into writing. At the end of the project they impressed their teachers, and even surprised some, with their imaginative writing.
My regular visits to Ibrox created a sort of stepping stone to the Kinning Park Over-Sixties Club. As the school is just along the road from Ibrox Library, the organiser and founder of the group, Mrs Jean Michie, invited me to be their guest speaker or singer on several occasions. It did not take long to sense the vitality and the importance of their collective memories, so I recorded several of them and, as a tribute to their 25th anniversary, put together a small exhibition for Ibrox Library entitled ‘See, When You Look Back…’
There were several suggestions that the exhibition panels should be made into a little book, and, while we agreed, it raised two issues: funding to pay for printing would be prohibitive to the Club, and also, it seemed to me that there were many more memories to record if only an opportunity could be found.
Our hopes were raised when Mrs Michie brought up the idea of applying to the Lottery funded Home Front Recall Project. Shortly afterwards I wrote a proposal on behalf of the club, with the slightly more ambitious plan of recording a CD (with musician Sandy Stanage) as well as writing a book of their wartime memories. As one of the women remarked just before I sent in the form, ‘If we don’t tell children and grandchildren what it was like on the Home Front, who will tell them?’
We were all delighted when this project proposal was chosen and are extremely grateful to the Home Front Recall Fund for making it possible for future generations to share these memories and songs.
As a folklorist, I believe that the most accurate way of presenting memories is to record the words of the tellers. It is by no means the easiest way of writing a book, (as some might think), but it is by far the most vibrant, for it preserves the vitality of the speakers and reflects their personalities.
All the tape-recordings made in the project were transcribed in full so that copies of them could be archived and available for future generations. Inevitably there is far more material on the tapes than could be used for the book, but it is important that this also be preserved for posterity.
In compiling the CD Sandy has interwoven songs with spoken ‘sound bites’ so that listeners can get a much better sense of the ambience of the group. As well as doing the studio work and mastering the CD, he also entertained the group with his virtuoso guitar playing.
In editing the tape transcriptions for the book I have tried to be as faithful as possible to the speakers, retaining individual style, grammar and syntax, ever aware that the printed page gives a paler reflection of the speaker. Occasionally I have made slight adjustments to the transcriptions, mainly for clarification, and usually because (as often happens) the speaker had given the information outside of the recording session. I have tried to extract comments from all the tapes, regardless of whether they were from the same discussion.
Recording the women of the Kinning Park Club encouraged me to record my own mother, Peigi (Stewart) who, being the same generation, shared similar experiences. Though Mrs Michie invited her to visit, she was not able to do so. Nevertheless, it was decided that, since her memories were so relevant, we would include some of them here. In the section dealing with Evacuees, I have also included a recording made of someone who might well have been a member of the Kinning Park Club had she not been evacuated from Glasgow, never to return. Since Ethel MacCallum’s story adds another dimension to the Ibrox account, it is also included here.
Nobody could forget the day war was declared. For most folk, the memory of hearing the news is fixed in their minds forever:
Jean Michie:I was actually staying in Alloway, at the time, 1939, the 3rd of September I was in Ayr. And I was standing in Burn’s Square with a lot of other people who had come down because these mikes were placed outside a bettin shop so that we could hear what was being said on the radio. Well, war being declared I think changed everybody’s life. Life was never the same for the next five years. To begin with, whole streets were joinin up, all going for the ‘King’s shillin’. And they were all going into the same regiments—The Argyll and Southern Highlanders and The Black Watch were the common ones in Kinning Park —that was the two regiments that actually they went into.
My sister went to try to join up, but they rejected her because she was the breadwinner, the oldest in the family, and they didn’t take the breadwinner at that time. My father had been badly wounded in the First World War and had 36 war wounds including the loss of limbs. My father would never talk about the war. After the trauma in the First World War they never spoke about it; they just came back and they got on wi’ whatever life they had left. The War Office didn’t give them big pensions even although they were a hundred percent disabled through wars.
Marie Huxtable: I was eighteen and I worked in MacDonald’s biscuit factory—that’s when we heard that war had broken out. And the very thought of war! I don’t know what it meant to me—we’d never experienced it but my dad used to talk about the First World War … you know, in the Argylls, in tartan, lying in trenches in the wet. It must have been dreadful that war. He came back, but he was always bothered with his stomach, in and out of hospital with ulcers. My father died at 58 and I do believe that it was the effects of the war, the conditions that men went through. But that was all I knew about a war.
Like many Highland folk, my mother and her sister, Peigi and Effie Stewart, (born and brought up in Skye), went to Glasgow to get work. They both learned bookkeeping and accountancy at Burroughs’ College, hoping to earn a living in the big city:
Peigi (Stewart) Bennett:I was in Glasgow when war was declared. I was working at A. & J. Mains, a structural engineering company, doing their books—mostly wages and calculations, time-sheets. Remember the day? Very well! My sister Effie and I were staying in Kent Road—we were renting a room in this house, owned by an old man who had it on his own. It was one stair up, 103 Kent Road, and we just rented a bedroom and we had use of the kitchen. Normally you paid about half your wages in rent, probably about ten bob [that’s ten shillings, now fifty pence] or something like that, and had to eke out the rest to keep yourself in food and clothes and tram fares, Well this old man, an awfully nice old man, used to go down for his paper every morning. I remember it as clear as yesterday—he told us. He would have knocked at our room, I suppose, but we were always in and out of his kitchen anyway. And he was showing us the paper, and saying that war had been declared. What a shock!
Not everybody had even a radio in those days, and with us being in digs, we didn’t have such a thing as a radio. But of course, when you went to the pictures in those days you got all the news reels on the screen, so we saw it there as well.
Since the national school leaving age in Scotland was fourteen, all the girls were expected to find a job to make a sorely needed contribution to their families’ income. They’d leave school the last day of term and be out looking for a job the next.
Grace: I got my first job in 1938, the year before the war—I was fourteen. Well actually there was a depression on, and I went into Glasgow and went round shops—for a sales girl job, anything at all. And of course, you couldn’t get work. And you didn’t say ‘I want to do this’ and ‘I want to do that’—it was a case of you took whatever you could get. So we met this girl, and she said, ‘Oh, they’re looking for workers in this factory.’ So, right—it was up on the top floor, and we ran up five flights of stairs—we never stopped! And the manager said ‘Come in tomorrow, and we’ll start you.’ So I started work and I trained as a seamstress first of all, with Moore-Taggarts at Glasgow Cross—this factory. And I remember, the first wage I ever earned—it was six and eightpence-ha’penny a week. And we worked from eight in the morning till six at night, and from eight till one on a Saturday.
Long hours to say the least, but with the outbreak of war women were about to find themselves taking on night shifts and doing work traditionally done by men. Since the mass call-up of young men for the armed forces almost emptied factories of their labour force, women had to take over jobs such they could never have envisaged. The war also created an urgent need for new factories to make munitions and military supplies and a workforce to man those industries.
Before the war, girls grew up without questioning the centuries-old idea that men did ‘men’s work’ and women did women’s. It was fairly unusual for women to drive cars, far less heavy equipment such as cranes and tractors. When they left school, young women might become shop assistants, domestic workers, secretaries, nurses or teachers, then, when they got married, they were wives and mothers for the rest of their lives. ‘She disnae work’ was the common phrase applied to someone who put in all the hours God sent doing endless housework, eking out the family budget, knitting, sewing, looking after children and often an elderly parent as well. Women dressed in skirts and ‘peenies’ or wrap-around overalls, were seldom seen in trousers and wearing dungarees was out of the question.
The 1939—45 war was to change all those ideas forever. Suddenly overalls and dungarees were essential clothing for some, as were heavy boots, protective goggles and head-gear. Posters were pasted on factory walls warning the new workforce to cover their hair for safety lest it catch in machinery. Girls being girls, however, often took advantage of the turban-style headscarf, which quickly became a wartime fashion, to go to work with curlers underneath, so they’d look their best after work. ‘You might have a date!’
Lives of entire families were changed, especially after 1941 when there was a call-up of British women to join one of the auxiliary services. The choices included the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRNS), the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), or they could become part of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) which recruited and trained women to do agricultural, horticultural and forestry work. City girls who might never swung anything heavier than a handbag, were soon volunteering to swing six-pound axes, as they learned how to fell trees. The forestry section was trained by seasoned lumberjacks, (mostly recruited from Canada and Newfoundland, which was still a British Colony) and became known as ‘Lumberjills’, felling timber for shipbuilding and pit props, not to mention soldiers’ coffins. They had to endure cold, damp accommodation in little better than huts, even in freezing weather. The majority became ‘Land Girls’ and worked on farms supplementing, or even replacing, the labour force desperately depleted by the call up. The jovial little song that was part of the government’s advertising campaign didn’t quite fit the job description:
Back to the land, we must all lend a hand,
To the farms and fields we go.
There’s a job to be done,
Though we can’t fire a gun,
We can still do our bit with a hoe.
The girls soon discovered the reality of handling a hoe meant agonising blisters on their hands, skelfs in their fingers, and
backbreaking fatigue. Life wasn’t quite as portrayed on the posters of the attractive young woman standing with her hoe in a glorious golden autumn or holding a cute wee lamb on a sunny spring day. Many of them had to learn how to handle heavy horses and all kinds of farm machinery, as they did most of the jobs traditionally done by men.
What the Women’s Land Army girls all had in common, however, was an indomitable spirit. Their zest for life unwittingly boosted the morale of many farm and forestry workers, who, to this day, recall the girls with their willingness to pitch in and do their part, their sense of fun, their shrieks of laughter and hilarity, and, not the least, the touch of glamour they brought to the countryside.
As the women often said, ‘Everything was for the war effort. ‘ Not to say, however, that they earned the same as men, even when they did the same job. For example, at the start of the war, men recruited as the full time ARP personnel were paid £3 a week while women got £2 for the same duties. Now, sixty years on, as the women tell about their war effort, they make little or nothing of the hardships, but reflect the same moral fibre that carried them through the war. They remember the good times, the songs and music in the factories, the ‘Workers’ Playtime’, the late night dances in the village halls. And they still have their natural ability to lift the spirits of those around them.
I wasn’t called up for the services but my sister was called up—to the Air Force. She was drafted to Scapa Flow, to the Orkneys. And there was a big boom there, to try to keep out the U-boats, but I think there was two managed to get in. And quite a lot happened there—she spent it up at Scapa Flow. And I wired the instrument panels for Lancaster bombers. Well, you had to do something for the war effort! To begin with, they sent me to Stow College to train in welding—electric welding. And as far as the instrument panel on an aeroplane in concerned, there wasn’t a lot of room to work, so you had to use a mirror when you were soldering the wire and all that sort of thing. So that’s what I done—very fine work, but you had young eyes. And then these instrument panels would be fitted onto the bombers, oh, I’ve no idea where, to some aircraft factory to be assembled. After I was finished, that was it—you wouldn’t be told where. I worked on instrument panels till the war started to wind down, and then I had a son, of course, and then gave it up. And that was it. So I can wire a plug!
Margaret: I worked at Prestwick Aerodrome during the war, on the Lancaster Bombers. We were unloading the planes that came in from America. And reloading them and refuelling them. I met all kinds—I met Clark Gable! That was a long time ago… Well, that was in the forties.
Anne Cameron: Before the war I was a carpet finisher at Templeton’s Carpet Factory on Templeton Street. Then after the war was declared, no many folk used their carpets, so the factory changed over—they made glass fibre which made the parachutes. And they trained us to make the silk threads for the material to make parachutes. Well, they did come in and show us what you had to do. And there was three shifts in the factory. There was six till two, two till ten, and ten till six in the morning. So there was six of us doing these three shifts, working round the clock—Saturday night and all, so I missed the dancing on a Saturday night! We used to get the glass in, green glass, and you had to wash it all. And when it was all dry you had to go up wee stairs going to a furnace and you put the glass in there and it all melted. Now the wee furnaces that you had to work with were white hot. And you had to watch you didnae burn yourself. And when it melted it came through this wee thing, and when you saw it come through you had to put it all on bobbins. And when you’d done so much, you had to cut a bit and weigh it. Then you had to write down the weight of that, the glass silk. And that all went to wherever they made the parachutes.
MB And where were they made?
Anne: Well, that was a secret. A big van took them away. And all the bobbins were in a big, big box and they just sealed up the box. You didn’t even see the van arrive—you just seen them go away out. I don’t know where they went to.
Mamie: I worked in Templeton’s as well, the one on St Marnock Street. Well, a lot of the girls of our age, they put you to Ammunitions to work in Bishopton, where they made gunpowder, or other Ammunitions works in other places. But we were working at Templeton’s so it was only a matter of retraining, on the looms where they used to make carpets they taught us to make canvas webbing. So Anne worked in Templeton’s, and so did I, but different ones, different jobs. And I made canvas webbing for the soldiers. The stuff came in big hanks and they put it onto bobbins, and then it was put on the looms and you made your canvas webbing. It was used for the kit bags and all that sort of thing, khaki canvas webbing. And when it came off the loom it was folded. Then it got sent away to somebody somewhere else to make the kit bags and all the other stuff they made with canvas webbing. Of course they didn’t tell you where that was. There were a lot of secrets during the war!
Anne: There had to be! Nowadays they think you have to put everything on the BBC.
Peigi: It was a strange time. You just didn’t know what was going on with the world, you really couldn’t see the bigger picture because the whole system of news coverage was so different. You didn’t get news of what was happening until weeks and weeks later on.
MB: Do you think that’s better or worse than knowing exactly what’s happening? Like, the whole world knew exactly where the Black Watch was when they were in Iraq last year.
Peigi: Well, in a way, I think it’s better. I think you see far too much of that nowadays. I think really sometimes they exaggerate things such a lot.
Nan: In those days they just got on with the job. As Churchill said, ‘Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job.’
Rose: All women who didn’t work, or who did not have children to look after, had to do war work—that is, work which would help in fighting the war. I worked in an engineering firm called Miralees Watson, situated next to Scotland Street School, which is now a museum. And I had to be dressed up, of course, in dungarees and the heavy boots and the skip hat. And my brothers all started to laugh when they saw me because I was that small, and the bottoms of my trousers had to be rolled up so I could get into them. To begin with I was that shy about it, but then I got that I could laugh at it all. I helped to make torpedoes—that’s a kind of bomb or missile fired at enemy ships. They were fired from submarines, these boats which sailed under the water. Each torpedo had a number and went to a specific submarine and whenever an enemy ship was sunk the workers from the factory that made it were told. So when it was one of our torpedoes, we all cheered—which, when you think about it, wasn’t very nice because it meant that many sailors had died. So there was a sadness about it too —well, all the boys on that other submarine, you know, were somebody’s son, somebody else’s boy, husband, brother. And it was really quite an experience. My daughter was away at the time, in hospital, so I had all the time in the world to do that. We did a month day time, and a month night time. But if it hadn’t been for my mother I never could have done that because I was running to the hospital in between times, you know. However it worked out. My husband was in the army—he wasn’t abroad, he was all over England, but he wasn’t abroad at that point, thank God.
Jean: It was two or three big factories that were involved in the torpedoes, different stages in each factory, you see. The big steel tubes came from one factory where they were started off. Then they would come to the next stage and when they were finished they’d would go to another factory. An’ right beside our home there was a munitions factory. They made the bombs and they made the torpedoes, and they used to come out one door, through our street and in another door because they couldn’t go straight through the factory because I think there was a kind furnace in between, so they couldn’t take this part through—that’s why they came through the street and up an’ in, to go out the other door. I had pals who worked in the munitions factory, and oh, the yarns about the factory—you got yarns from every factory, so you did! We’d heard there were rats in the place. You’d not dare go yourself! And they used to hold the show ‘Workers’ Playtime’ an’ got some quite famous people—they’d come for the hour you were in the canteen, and they would sing an’ we’d all join in. It was good —I made quite a lot of friends there. You really had your good times as well as your worrying times. The spirits had to be kept up. And yet another times it would be sad—when word came back to the factory that a torpedo they had sent out had hit a submarine. And Maclellan Street was quite an important street, because there was Howdens—that was one of the munitions factories on Maclellan Street. And at the top end, there was what they used to call ‘the hole in the wall’ because Maclellan Street went from number two to a hundred and thirty six and when you got to the top end, it was a hole in the wall—just before the war started, they knocked the wall down so that you could go straight through. And at the top end was the jam works, then there was Butters Brothers Cranes—they built crans for all over, to go all over, and they went all over the world, so they did. Beside that there was Howdens, and next to Howdens there was Maclellan, next to Maclellan was the Kipper Works. They smoked kippers and then there was a fish shop and the chemist—a busy place. It was the longest street in Glasgow without a break.And the ship building industry was there, on the Clyde, that stretched fae Stevenson’s Yard to Harland and Wolff’s, from one end to the other, and we also had the docks there.
Isa Hyslop. Well I was too young before the war, but when I left school, that was during the war, I worked in a grocer’s shop in Glasgow. Not on the counters—I was at the desk. I did the accounts. That was my first job after I left school.
Helen: I worked in Grey Dunn’s Biscuit Factory. We made biscuits for the soldiers—they were called ‘hard-tack’ because you’d to steep them in water for a while, for about an hour, before you could eat them, they were that hard! I had a small family then as well, and my mother looked after them while I worked. Everybody had a different part of the process and I was at the bit where you solder the lids on. And we used to put wee notes in, before we soldered the lids on! Oh, aye, love an’ kisses on the bottom of the notes! And S.W.A.L.K. [laugher] We’d put in these wee notes so it would cheer them up, opening the tins, having a wee laugh and finding a wee note.
Anne: Templeton’s girls used to put them in with the blankets they washed—I remember that. I used to hear them tell us, they washed the blankets and when they put them back, they put in wee notes, and some even names and addresses. But I made glass fibre for the parachutes, so I never got the chance to do that! No sense in putting a note in wi’ a parachute—it’d be fluttering oot afore you could read it!
Marie: I worked in MacDonald’s Biscuit Factory at Hillington, this side of the river. Of course it was glass roofs on the factories you know, ‘cos it was all new on Hillington Estate. They had moved from the top of Craigton Road—that’s where the old biscuit factory was when I started in there when I was only fourteen. I was actually in the chocolate room then, [laughing] where the biscuits had to get covered in chocolate, you know, a nice thing to do when you’re fourteen! After I’d worked there for so long, I went to work in the Regent Picture House—my sister and I worked in there for some time and then when the war started my father said he could get us a job as a crane driver, down at Hillington. However, my sister thought she would like it, then someone was sent to the Regent to tell me to come back to MacDonald’s, because before I left we’d been doing army tins of biscuits for the soldiers and the sailors. And I used to watch them doing the soldering and I’d say ‘I’d like to do that’, but I hadn’t worked at it. And I was sent for, to see if I’d come back to MacDonald’s to do this. So I decided to leave the Regent Picture House and I went back to MacDonald’s. And I did the soldering on these huge, big round tins, about two feet tall, and you put a circular lid on these, about the size of a dinner plate. It was electric soldering irons we had, and you had the resin there, and you put that on first, and you did so many tins at one go. Oh, once you’d done that for a while, you could go out and do stuff with your hands, with the soldering iron. My son kids me on, says ‘Oh my mother could solder!’ We lifted these and they were heavy, full of hard tack—they were like hard dogs biscuits, no taste to them, you know—that was the army biscuits. There were no labels or anything on the tins but some people used to put wee notes inside—like Helen! I enjoyed that work, then I was asked by the manager Mr Tavern—funnily enough I can remember his name—to work on the production line. The men had got called up and were away in the army, in the services, and they needed people to operate the big machines and look after the ovens. Well, I had never done it, so naturally I had to learn. At first I was asked up to the part where the dough is made—it’s churned in these great big machines. You lifted out the dough, and you put it into another machine where it got rolled out, cut and then put on trays. So I learned how to do that, then I went on to do different things in MacDonald’s, the various stages of the process. You know, you might think to yourself ‘I could never do that,’ but they must have had confidence in me, because after I did that for quite a while, I was asked to go to the ovens. And these ovens ran the whole length of the factory—great, big, oh huge things. And the dough went in at one side, on these big trays, and went right through these ovens, which are lit, right along on this conveyer belt, right through. And I was on the ovens till I got married, and then I was in at the packing. So I’ve worked my way around and I got quite a bit of experience at different stages, right enough. And we did month about, night-shift, day shift. And I remember one night, oh we had all to go to the shelters—that was the night Pontins was bombed.
Agnes McLean: I was born in 1923, on MacLean Street. When I left school at fourteen I got a job, then my second job was working at Paisley Thread mills, J & P Coates—that was my job during the war. We worked shifts, 6 a.m. till 2 p.m. and 2 until 10 p.m. and Coates put buses on to take their workers. I enjoyed the job—and they needed a lot of thread during the war!
Jean Michie: I worked in the Co-operative shirt factory making American shirts for the service men. That was my job during the war. I was what was known as a ‘feller’, and a feller has a two-needle machine, right, and you sew up both sides. So I did the side seams, which, if you look at a shirt, is always a ‘run and fell’ seam. Then somebody else would do the next bit. We worked on a conveyor belt and that conveyor belt never went off.—well it started down the conveyor belt from me, and somebody was actually doin the collars, and then somebody would do the shoulders, and actually when it came to the feller, they put it all together. [Jean whistles, to indicate the speed at which the women worked.] An’ at the back of that, somebody did the buttons, and the button holes, and then at the top end they were put into boxes. The ironers stand, iron and fold an’ put them in the shirt boxes. So each person had their own expertise. Now, if you had difficulty, maybe your needles got so hot and maybe you ran into difficulties an’ the shirts were pilin up and somebody at the back of you was waitin to iron an’ they were shouting at you, you know uhm. It had to be a team work, you know, team work it had to be. And you got paid a little for every shirt that you put together. I can’t remember how much, but it was just so much a shirt. It was piece-work.
M.B.: So, what colour were the G.I. shirts?
Jean: Well sometimes there was the khaki, sometimes it was the air force sometimes it was the navy. And we used to put our names and addresses inside the pockets—great fun, you know. ‘So if you want to write to me, if you feel lonely, I run the lonely hearts club…’ And we didn’t say that we were good looking, or we were this, or we were that. We’d say ‘I’m a wee girl and I’ve got bowly legs,’ an that! We made fun of ourselves. And when we actually put in our names and addresses, many a letter that we got and we wrote back. Make somebody laugh and smile, that’s what it was all about, trying to laugh through the tears, because everyone had their sad times.
M.B.: Who made the Scottish Army shirts then?
Jean: We made them as well, oh yes! Not just the American shirts, no, no, we made shirts for all the Forces, anybody that the Co-Operative got the orders for, they went ahead and they did them. All made in Glasgow, in the Co-operative. And further down from the shirt factory was the ham works where they smoked all the Co-operative hams that came in. The Co-operative played a big part in our district. In the ham works they were working to get the hams out and to get that food out to the soldiers, sailors and airmen. They also made soup, big seven pound kegs of soup, and steamed puddings and all that went out. And in the Creamola factory, further up, they made seven pound packs of Creamola—you dilute it with water for a flavoured drink. They had the ginger works as well. So the area was a very busy area. We also had the coffin works and my sister was a French polisher in the coffin works. And if you worked in the coffin works, when you finished your apprenticeship, one of the rituals they did to the French polishers, was they put you inside a coffin and paraded around the factory. And when my sister became fully-fledged French polisher she was put in the coffin and paraded around the factory. But this time they put the lid on her and so when they took the lid off she was out cold! That was the ritual—supposed to be just for fun. And something similar went on in the barrel works where they made the whisky barrels—they would put the young lads with a barrel round them, and all tarred but they had nothin on under the barrel and if some of the spars came off the barrel there were shouts within the district, and they were paraded round the district. I’ve actually got photographs of that.
MB: Now at the end of the war, what happened to your factory work with the shirts?
Jean: It stopped immediately because the Americans stopped putting in the orders the other nations also stopped putting in orders and we only had our own orders and then we were switching over to white shirts, blue shirts., so it carried on as a shirt factory for a couple of years after that. And then I think that’s when I left and I went into the Creamola factory. There was more money—that’s why I went, there was more money there.
Winnie: The night of the Clydebank Blitz, when the bombing started I wasn’t actually on a bus—I was standing at Anniesland Cross the first night of the Blitz, waiting to get on one. So I had to come right from Clydebank and up the hill to a place called Duntocher. And the bombs were falling all the time, you know, and when I got on the next bus, the clippie on that bus, oh, she was in a terrible state! There was a priest on the bus, and she kept saying, ‘Oh Father, save us!’ But I don’t know what she was expecting Father to do! [laughter] Well, I got back to Clydebank, back home, and then in the morning I got up to go to my work, and I had about a mile to walk to the garage, where I was stationed , and the first thing I saw was a dead crow, lying on the ground—like an omen. But all around was very frightening.
MB You got up to go to work, so were you in your own bed and not in the shelter that night?
Winnie: We couldn’t have been in the shelter. We were probably under the table—or the bed, that was the favourite place. And we awoke to utter devastation, because they were aiming for the shipyards. And the river was misleading—there was a place called Second Avenue, which was up from the main road, and right along there, and there was nothing left standing. Now, one bomb fell on Yarrows, and killed seventy men in a shelter. So you weren’t even safe in a shelter. Rushing to air raid shelters had been the way of life for eighteen months, and most folk were beginning to weary of sleepless hours spent in cramped discomfort during countless false alarms. Suddenly, around 9.30 p.m on the March 13th 1941, the genuine horrors of war became reality; this was the start of Glasgow’s infamous Clydebank blitz.
As Winnie stood at Anniesland Cross waiting for her bus, little did realise she that she would be in the very thick of a night neither she nor anyone in Glasgow could ever forget. The next day, newspapers carried news that Winnie had seen for herself: ‘Second Avenue wiped out. No survivors’. The nation was stunned by the extent of the destruction aimed at the pride of Scottish shipbuilding. Because of the Clyde’s crucial importance in maintaining Britain’s war fleet, Glasgow became the prime target. By morning, there was scarcely a corner of Clydebank not affected by the merciless bombing that killed 1488 people and seriously injured nearly 2000 others. Municipal buildings, shops, offices, houses and tenements were flattened, reducing over 4,000 of them to rubble. When silence resumed, only twelve houses stood intact, and more than 50,000 people were homeless.
Adjacent areas of Glasgow were also badly hit, as the folk who lived there remember all too well:
Jean: Everyone talks about Clydebank because it was horrific, but there was also Tradeston.
Alice Robertson: My mother was living in Laidlaw Street, off the Paisley Road, and my sister and her family they were in Nelson Street. in Tradeston—that’s where my sister and her family got killed by the blitz there. And there would have been another sister might have been killed who was going down to sleep with that one, because the one that got killed, her man had met in wi an accident comin from his work three weeks before that, and he was in Phillipshill Hospital. So this other sister o mine, Chrissie, my mother said, aye, she could go down after her dinner when she got home fae her work at night, and sleep at Jessie’s and jist go tae her work from there. And that what was done. And that night o the blitz we were sittin at our meal when the sirens went. She jumped up, she said, ‘Oh quick, get my coat, quick!’ My mother said, ‘Where are you going?’ She says, ‘I’m going down to Jessie’s.’ ‘No!’ My mother says, ‘No! You’re not going out that door until the sirens gives the all-clear. You’re not going! Sit there!’ And Chrissie wisnae very pleased. So it wis a good job, or she’d have been away along wi them. And after that it took them ten days tae get their bodies. They were under the ground for ten days. And my mother went round a’ the schools and a’ the places she could think, from Nelson Street, where Jessie lived, and she went up tae Crossmaloof Ice Skating Rink every day to see if her body’d been found. But it wasn’t. And the chap that eventually found them knew them, and he sent word to us—that was Jessie an her family lifted an’ away tae the Ice Rink at Crossmaloof—that was used as the mortuary. And that’s where she got them. They were all thegither when they were found. And then when my mother couldnae go up whenever she heard that they were there, it was my husband and my brother who went up to identify them—they were a’ takin their turns to give my mother a wee bit rest. And when they went up, they found my sister, her two boys, Robert and William, and the girl, Jessie, called after her mother. Then they found my sister’s brother-in-law, who stayed next door to her. He was in the next cubicle up fae her, in the ice rink. Aye, my husband lost a family as well, but it was just the brother-in-law that they got, they didnae get the other ones, their two boys. So, if they got them later on or not, I couldnae tell you. It was a sad day, I don’t mind telling you. And the four coffins came to my mother’s house, and they were buried from my mother’s. But Jessie’s husband, he wisnae able to be there, he was still in hospital and wasn’t fit to get out… And that man had to come out the hospital and he hadn’t a stitch to put on him. But jist by luck, he was the same build as my husband. So my husband gave him a suit to get out, and he bought him underwear, and a pair o shoes for when he got out—he took the same size as my husband. It was a bad day. Oh, it took my mother long enough, years, before she could get over it…probably never got over it, just learned to live with it. But that was the family—our own doctor said they wouldnae had got time to feel anything, it was too sudden. And it fact, that whole close, they were all killed, because it was next to the steam washers, you know how it used to be your mother went to the wash-house.
Jean: And there was Plantation, just across the road from Kinning Park, there was Linthouse… Ninety people were killed in Blackburn Street at Plantation. In 2001, the day of the World Trade Centre disaster in New York, I wasn’t watching the television, but the television was on, and I looked up from my papers and I said that must be a picture, an a film. But then I heard the commentator describing the 11th of September, and all of a sudden the smell seemed to come to my nostrils—from the night of the 13th of March 1941 when Blackburn Street was bombed. I remembered the smell of dead bodies and burnin buildings. On that night I was actually in the school shelter along with my mother—it was down where the furnaces were, and because the school was just across road from us, that was the shelter that we used. But my father didn’t get out as he had to put on an artificial leg and that night he said, ‘Go now,’ to my mother. Meanwhile one of the neighbours who had five children and whose husband was in the war, she couldn’t get the children together because the oldest was about five and she had twins. And she looked at my father, and she said, ‘Everybody’s away and I can’t get the children downstairs.’ And he says, ‘Well there’s only one thing we can do, and that is this.’ So they went into the lobby—not a hall, the lobby—and they closed both doors, the room door and the kitchen door, and they sat there until the raid was over. She always, always spoke about that, how he was the man who kept the children amused, the five of them. And she said, ‘He was the one who kept us together.’ But it was a terrifying night. Emergency medical services were stretched to their very limit. So also were the Rescue Services with their teams of workers whose basic training was based on earthquake rescue operations—they had been taught to cut off gas, water and electricity supplies to damaged buildings, and were trained in resuscitation and stretcher-bearing. Nothing could have prepared them for the carnage of Clydebank, working on a precarious bomb site with the gruelling task of sifting through ruins to search for survivors and carry out the dead. There was also the challenge of finding housing for so many people. Everybody pitched in to do their bit, whether it was comforting the bereaved, taking in orphans, sharing food, helping folk to find somewhere to live—any make-shift bed would do—or taking part in the relief operations during the aftermath. Time and time again, the women remarked with a matter of fact ‘We just had to get on with it.’ And, despite all the hardships and tragedies, get on with it they did, as their parents had done in the previous generation. Many of the Kinning Park and Ibrox women pointed out that their parents and grandparents didn’t talk much about the First World War. Similarly, their own generation seemed to make little or no mention of the horrors of war. Over the years, they preferred to talk of the good times, and who could blame them? As a result, my generation, ‘the Baby-boomers’ , as post-war children were called, grew up knowing very little of the sheer terror, the trauma, or even how our own families were affected. Perhaps we didn’t think to ask, or, more likely it was because our parents were determined that children growing up in the fifties and later would be protected from the awfulness of war.
Until I began recording the women at the Kinning Park Over-Sixties club, I scarcely appreciated that my own family had a very close encounter during the Clydebank blitz. My mother had not been in Glasgow very long when that awful night devastated the city:
Peigi: We were bombed out of Bankhead Avenue in March of ‘41, the night of the Clydebank Blitz. Up until that night, we were in the shelter quite a lot because we used to hear the sirens going off, but then you see, nothing would happen. And then after, och, quite a short time, half an hour, or less than an hour, the All-clear would go again, and that would be it. You could go back into the house and we’d sleep in our own beds till morning unless a siren went off again. But I don’t remember ever hearing the siren going off in the middle of the night. Anyway, this night—you see it was dark early, as it was March—but this night, even though we heard the siren, we didn’t go out to the shelter, because we were fed up with going to the shelter with nothing happening. And Granny wasn’t very well so I suppose we thought what’s the point in making it worse for her by rushing out. In any case, we’d been drilled that if you didn’t have a shelter, you were advised to go under the bed. So we didn’t go out to the shelter this night but it was no time after the sirens went off when this huge landmine was dropped on Bankhead School just a couple of streets behind the house—we were in Bankhead Avenue. You see, Knightswood is so near Clydebank and the shipyards, and I’m sure that really was what the enemy planes were after—March 13, 1941. So there we were, in the house, because Granny wasn’t very well. And of course, we all tried to scramble in under the bed—Nancy and me, and Granny and Grandpa, and then there was Ivie Cochran as well who used to live in the house. He was a cousin of Granny’s, and he slept in the back bedroom. Your dad was in the army, so his sister Nancy and I slept in the front room, and then, Granny and Grandpa in the living room. So we made for the back bedroom, we followed Ivie in there, to go under the bed in the back room. But the window had been blown right out, there was a huge hole in the wall, and the window was lying across the top of the bed. So we made for the front room, to go under the front room bed, there was no window in the front room either because the front window had gone straight out the other way. Five of us thinking we’d go under the bed! Oh I remember! Well, we couldn’t nearly get in under the bed, all of us, so we thought about trying to get to the shelter in the back garden. And I remember that when Grandpa went to open the back door he couldn’t open it, because, with the blast from the bomb, the door had become wedged somehow or another. But anyway, we eventually did manage to get out and get to the shelter, and then we sat there from 9 o’clock at night until 6 in the morning. Oh it was a terrifying experience, it really was a terrifying experience because you could hear the planes coming over and then you would hear bang-bang-bang right round you, and you wondered if you were going to get the next one. And then you would hear the sound getting faint again, and you’d think, ‘Oh that’s them passed over.’ Oh well, you would just heave up a little prayer, you know, you’d say, ‘Thank God for that,’ and then the next one would come. And there wasn’t a lot of time in between all of them. I don’t know how many planes at a time would come over together but you could hear them, like, oh, I don’t know how many planes. Exactly what kind they were, I was too terrified to give it a thought! You just knew that they were enemy planes coming over, because they were dropping the bombs all over the place. And even though you were in the shelter, oh, well, if we’d got a direct bomb there’s no way we’d be safe in the shelter. But if there was a bomb fell somewhere nearby, you would probably be safe enough, being underground—the shelters were half underground.
You see they were trying to hit the Clydeside ships, the shipbuilding, trying to bomb the shipbuilding yards. That went on from 9 o’clock at night until six in the morning, and when the all-clear went it was just getting daylight. And when we came out in the morning, oh, the place—bombed to bits! An awful lot of people were killed–it was just terrible. There were quite a lot of houses down round about us, and you’d see these poor people trying to salvage what they could out of the houses. But we were lucky the house didn’t fall down, though of course, we had to leave the house. We had to take what we could, I suppose, and oh, everything had to go into storage. That’s what happened, everything had to go into storage, and we all had to find somewhere else to live, of course. Grandpa was working in the hospital—he was a blacksmith to trade and his job was to maintain the boilers, so he went and stayed at the hospital—he got a bed there. And Granny and Nancy went to Aunt Nellie’s, Granny’s sister’s, in Menstrie [Clackmananshire], and I went out to Clarkston, to stay with my cousin from Skye, Teenie Grant—she was an ambulance nurse. I stayed there till I got moved again.
MB: Was it safer in Clarkston?
PB: Well I suppose it was safer in a way, because Knightswood was only at Clydebank. But even staying in Clarkston made no difference to my cousin—she used to be out in the ambulances. Well, you see, that was her job, and she’d be out in the ambulance in the thick of it. And talk about danger! Some night she’d be gone all night to the most horrific cases, and you’d wonder if she’d get home. Oh, she saw some awful things as well.
MB: And was there a workforce to repair those wrecked houses, in the meantime?
PB: Oh, no, you just had to leave it for the whole of the war. That’s right, for the whole of the war, because it was just a wreck. I mean there were no windows in it or anything. Oh, it was a terrible time. Well, your father came home on leave a few days after that, and he didn’t know where everybody was—what a shock. When he saw the house bombed, of course he wouldn’t know if we were alive or dead . I think he just sat down and cried there, you know, there was nobody there. By the time he got there, the houses were all cordoned off. I suppose the Home Guard were on guard because there’d be lots of looters around, you know because it would be difficult to get everything away into storage and get things sorted. And he said, ‘That’s where I live and I’m going into it!’ And he was told, ‘Well there’s nobody there,’ and he said, ‘I’m still going in!’ And he went in, and I think he just sat down and cried, he didn’t know where anybody was or even whether they were alive or dead.
MB: It’s funny, I never heard him mention that, ever.
PB: Yes, that’s right, and you see he went down to the hospital, where Grandpa worked, and of course then he found out where everybody was—we were all alive, thank God. Well, after that, I remember the two of us going to Clydebank, and Margaret, you would not believe what it was like—you would not believe it. There was a picture-house standing there and it was the only building, it seemed to us, for miles around that was standing. The whole of Clydebank was flattened. You know, to think about it now, it’s almost incredible! You saw the bombings in Iraq on TV this year—well, it was just like that. In fact, I think it was even worse, the whole of Clydebank. There must’ve been an awful lot of people killed there—all of Clydebank was just flattened, all the buildings. It was really awful. But of course, we just had to carry on. Oh, it was grim days, yes it really was—grim days.
We were telling you about how we remember the dances and everything else—well, that was at the beginning of the war. But as the war went on, and all the troops were away, and every place was getting bombed to bits, it was no picnic. It was a terrible time, because after Clydebank was bombed they took a lot of the bodies into that hospital where Grandpa worked, Blawarthill Hospital. Grandpa was part of that, rescuing people and retrieving bodies from Clydebank. And they had to lay them out in the hospital. Day after day, weeks of it—and it must have affected him deeply.
MB: When we were children, in the fifties, he didn’t talk much about it, but I do remember him talking about one wee girlie, he often talked about this wee girl—do you remember this?
PB: Yes, I remember—
MB: He still worked at Blawarthill in the fifties, and we used to go to meet him from work when we visited Granny and Grandpa during the school holidays. I loved that—we’d watch for him coming over the bridge in his old boiler-suit and would have this big smile for us. And I’d get to hold his hand all the way home! He wasn’t a talkative person, like Granny! But every now and then, maybe when he had a wee dram, he’d bring this up. A sad look would come over him, and he’d tell us about this wee girl. He had no idea who she was or a thing about her, only that he had found her in the rubble in Clydebank and he had to carry her out. He said she just looked like she was asleep, she was about six, and she was just a beautiful child, blond curls, a sweet little face, and not a mark on her. And he had to take her to the mortuary to lay her out.
PB: Yes, not a mark on her,
MB: And he said it just broke his heart. And he still felt it, after all those years. That one little girl seemed to epitomise all of it to him.
Till the day he died, Grandpa told us nothing of the danger or the horror the rescue and recovery teams saw in Clydebank, but only of the innocence destroyed by the useless cruelty of the blitz. In a similar vein, May Anderson, whose birthday falls on March 13th, shifted the focus from the tragedy by concluding, ‘That’s one birthday I’ll never forget!’