Truro in the Second World War

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Alan Murton of Goonhavern was born and raised in Truro and here he recounts his memories of how life in the city was affected by the Second World War.

 

When did you first realise that the years you have lived through are “History” to others?  The shock hit me in my forties when I took my 13-year-old son and his French exchange visitor to a farming museum near our home “in exile” in Hertfordshire and discovered exhibited items that I had seen or used in my Cornish youth – milk separating machines, chaffcutters and a range of reaping and binding tools.

Yet I am not a historian, my interest is in the events, images and people that fill my memory and influenced my life, you may not find them documented elsewhere and if my memory is fuzzy or faulty then my picture of Truro between September 1939 and August 1945 will be more like a series of faded sepia prints than a magazine of sharp colour slides.  Many of the subjects I include in my essay I have chosen in order to point up the differences that just half a century – less than one man’s lifetime – can make to the way people live and the values they hold dear. Please do not look for a deeply researched record of the war, others have already done that with far greater skill and attention to detail than I could bring to bear… I would rather my words make you aware how different we all are for the experiences of those 6 years – whether we lived through them or not – and ask yourself the question: “For Better or Worse?”

I was just six and a half years old when I sat and waited with my parents for Mr Chamberlain’s announcement that war had been declared. My grandparents had come three doors up the hill to listen with us in case their set proved unequal to the task. They had no electricity, just gas lighting and a wireless set that depended for power on an accumulator, re-charged regularly by Edyvean and Lavanchy in Kenwyn Street.

My mother cried. There was no danger of my father being conscripted, he had served in 1914/1918, but my brother was 15 and sure to go to war if it lasted for more than a couple of years.  I imagine there were tears in many homes that day, those tears went with the belief in the “Just War” and that it was the duty of every able-bodied man to fight and, if required, to lay down his life for his country.

We lived in Richmond Hill, it’s still there – but I wonder does its flow of traffic continue to reflect the social history of today as it did in my memories of times gone by. The Hill is a hundred yards down from the railway station and a little further from what used to be the busiest marshalling yards south west of Plymouth’s Laira sheds, well within the rattle of shunted wagons and the whistle of the Riviera, in brown and cream livery, announcing its daily arrival. Great steam engines pulled the trains, noisy Castles and Halls, puffing their smoke and sparks through the planks of Black Bridge where I stood to watch the shunting or collect names and numbers.  They had a magic that the Diesel cannot reproduce but more important is that they were the main communication link between Truro and “Up-country” and Truro and the surrounding villages.  Flat-bedded carts drawn by huge carthorses re-distributed the goods brought by the trains.  I used to watch them take a full load down the hill, the driver leaning on the brake to stop the cart getting ahead of the horse, the metal trimmed wheels almost red-hot. Later they came back empty and on a cold evening their nostrils puffed steam, their muscles rippled and their hooves struck sparks as they strained against the collar.

Home was one of the sandstone terraced houses that opened out on to tiny front gardens on the south side. The gate and the spiked iron railings vanished in the 1940s – cut off by the blowtorch to make munitions for the war effort. The hill was lit by gas streetlamps and I can remember the lamplighter carrying his narrow ladder as he moved up the hill at dusk – his job was an early war casualty.

The cottages on the opposite side had doorsteps which came straight down on to the granite slabs of the pavement which was the stage for one of my most vivid images of the war. I can still see the sad crocodile of young children straggling down the hill after their lonely journey by train. Frightened hand clasping frightened hand as groups of London’s East End evacuees walked the last few hundred yards to St George’s Church Hall where nervous volunteer foster parents waited to collect them.

The war had come to Cornwall, it was in the sad eyes of those disoriented children sent into exile away from the Blitz, it was in the labels pinned to their clothes, it was in their gasmasks hung on string around their necks in square cardboard boxes.

We already had our own masks, fitted and tested in a tear-gas chamber brought to Bosvigo School playground – the very young were given Mickey Mouse shaped masks so that they should not be frightened.  In those early days we lived with fear because we had no reference for what being at war meant, what it would be like to be in an air raid.  Long before they built concrete surface shelters at the school – for the girls in their playground and for the boys in ours – we had been taken on air raid drills by teachers who led us in single file up Chapel Hill where the sandstone banks which towered thirty or forty feet high were supposed to protect us from blast and shrapnel.

By the time the war was over we knew much more about what war meant, our play reflected the high-profile glamour that Hollywood and the British film industry projected – we fought the land and sea battles that the film stars fought, in desert and jungle, in submarine and cruiser and lost in rubber dinghies… We learned the horror of air raids from the cinema newsreels that blasted out the gaunt truth of devastation in London, in Coventry, Bristol and Plymouth and Falmouth, so much closer to home, where at night we could see the glow of fires burning or go to inspect for ourselves the damage a bomb could cause.  We knew the fear of the siren wailing its warning of approaching enemy aircraft but my nights of crouching under the pine kitchen table do not compare with the hours of uncertainty so many spent in shelters not knowing if they would have a kitchen to go back to in the morning.  My wife survived the blitz in Plymouth and even now the first rumble of thunder revives memories she wants to forget.

It was business as usual at Bosvigo School, even time lost to the occasional daylight siren was not allowed to detract from the importance of teaching the “Three Rs” and the task of preparing all pupils to hold their own in the world and go out as good citizens.

There may have been sticky paper criss-crossed over the windows – to prevent glass flying in an explosion – but there were still multiplication tables to be learned – no calculators or computers then.  The coke that fired the circular cast-iron stoves in every classroom might have been in short supply but there was usually enough to warm the pasties for the few who stayed to dinner and brought them to be placed in the tin box on top of the stove.

The staff were almost all women, dedicated vocational teachers who could control the most unruly and inspire the willing. I promise you that is not rose-coloured hindsight because they were led by a visionary headmaster – a giant in the scholastic sense. I regret not having ever discussed with Leslie Treloar his role as he perceived it but I guess that his record of success in the number of pupils each year who went on to Redruth or Falmouth Grammar Schools or who won Governors’ scholarships to Truro School was the envy of his peers. Those results were not at the expense of the academically less able who received the same care and consideration. We learned to compete at a very young age.

To an extent the 1940s were the threshold of educational opportunity for all – it revolved round the “Intelligence Test” which pupils could take in each of their last two years at the Primary School – I can’t believe that any of us were the worse for it.

Paper was in short supply so I was lucky when my father brought home off-cuts of newsprint from the “West Briton” and we all scrounged for coloured paper strips from the back door of Solomon and Metz, Printers, which opened on to Bosvigo Road – if we were lucky on a hot day we could see the press running, driven by a belt from the shaft that turned every machine on the site.

My father operated a linotype machine, an engineering miracle of keyboard, levers, cams and cogs that produced lead slugs from brass letter moulds which his fingers sent to the melting pot in the right order – every slug a line of the newspaper.  Every error picked up by the Reader meant a re-type of that line before the paper could be “Put to bed” and the type locked into wooden frames so that a curved lead impression could be made to fit the rollers of the printing press.  A far cry form – sorry – from the often slap-dash computer compositing of today.  My father learned to strip and re-assemble the hundreds of moving parts of his machine, something forced on him as the armed forces swallowed up more and more service engineers.

By comparison with Falmouth and some other towns Truro was lucky, the city was allegedly included in Hitler’s “Hit list” but his bombers made only two significant attacks that I can remember. I was staying during school holidays with an aunt and uncle in Malpas when the daylight raid by a lone warplane occurred.  We heard the explosion and the siren that accompanied it and waited fearfully for news from the men returning home after a day’s work.  There were many versions – in spite of all the propaganda advising against spreading rumours – but what was evident was that the Royal Cornwall Infirmary (later the City Hospital) had received a direct hit, the building was damaged and there were casualties.  My mother had left the hospital just a few days earlier to convalesce in a home at Perranporth – I could go and see her there but children were banned from the gloomy green corridors and wards of the Infirmary.

The tail fins of a High Explosive bomb were reported found in the Millpool but there was no explosion. One version was that the bomb, intended for the Cathedral, had bounced in the Millpool, split in two and the “Business end” had ricocheted to explode at the Infirmary – much as I like the apocryphal tale I cannot believe that a loving God would have deflected a bomb intended for His House at the sick…

The second raid lasted most of the night, many ‘planes were involved and the city was ringed with flames from incendiary bombs – whether as precursor to a high explosive follow-up that was aborted we will never know. The theory of “Open Cities” had gone up in the flames of Coventry and the railway marshalling yards could have constituted a legitimate target. After the raid – notwithstanding dire warnings – my school friends and I went souvenir hunting and found that the carbide deposit from an incendiary mixed with water in a glass bottle would blow the cork yards…I wonder did I get a penny for those bottles from the vinegar factory in the alley off Francis Street?  It is not unusual still, when I hear a plane I cannot see, to trot out the re-assuring: “It’s ok – it’s one of ours…”

Catch phrases and slogans were part of the way of life and poster propaganda was everywhere. “Careless Talk Costs Lives” – any unknown foreign-sounding member of a group killed conversation stone dead. My grandfather “Dug For Victory” on his allotment behind the Crescent – just as he had been forced to dig to help feed his family of five. A sugar boilermaker at Furness’s biscuit and sweet factory he made sure that I had a few boiled sweets over and above those which my coupons would provide. He worked by day and was a firewatcher by night, sharing shifts on the roof of the City Hall – a volunteer occupation that many of the older generation were pleased to take on to “Do their Bit.”

“Put that light out…” the cry of another volunteer group, the ARP Wardens, trained in first aid and the use of stirrup pumps, they did sterling work in blitzed areas but most of their war in Truro was dealing with breaches of the Black-out regulations – every Monday the West Briton carried the list of offenders fined in the Magistrates court.

The Home Guard developed from the arm-band days of the Local Defence Volunteers armed with broom and axe handles into a uniformed militia, disciplined, trained and well-equipped. My father was typical of the younger World War One (1914/18) veterans who were quick to volunteer and help train the young men in reserved occupations – they shared their evenings drilling, their weekends at Idless Range and many a night patrolling the railway viaducts, Buckshead Tunnel and Truro’s marshalling yards.  When he became Weapons Officer I became familiar with the Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren and Sten guns, grenade launchers and “Sticky Bombs” that had temporary storage next to the gas meter in our passage…

Such was the impassioned belief in the war effort that the few who took out Conscientious Objection papers to avoid call-up into the fighting forces became despised victims of hate campaigns. Yet there were men incapable of fighting who had just reason to exercise their right to face an inquisition to establish their reasons for not wanting to join the conflict in a militant role – some served as stretcher bearers and medical orderlies, later some joined the Bevin Boys in the mines. How much better than the fate of the son of an immediate neighbour, called to join the Army for which he was temperamentally unsuited, who gassed himself in his mother’s kitchen – no less a victim of the war than those killed in action. It was my first close encounter with sudden death and its aftermath.

Before the war had been in progress long Truro’s casualty list started to grow and every day it seemed that the Telegram Boy carried a sad message to another grieving mother or a widow left alone to bring up her family. Every week the West Briton carried a Roll of Honour and by the time the war ended far too many names were to be added to the War Memorial in Boscawen Street including two of my father’s colleagues.

It was by the War Memorial that the staging was built to carry the dignitaries taking the salute at one or other of the parades that marched from St George’s Road through the city streets – the traditional annual Carnival route – many finished with a service in the Cathedral. Often the parades were linked to the latest fund raising, National Savings, push – for example “Wings For Victory.” Towering “Thermometers” kept us informed on progress towards targets for sums of money that we could read but had no reference for, or to tonnages of wastepaper that would have kept a daily newspaper in print for a year.

Truro VE Celebration Parade (Photo: West Briton)

All the local volunteer services marched behind the bands in those parades, Home Guard, ARP Wardens, Observer Corps and the Land Army girls in their figure hugging breeches and green sweaters.  The fighting forces were represented too – the County regiment, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, Royal Marines and the Royal Navy, detachments from the Royal Air Force from St Eval, Perranporth or St Mawgan, Gunners from Royal Artillery anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries centred around Falmouth and, to demonstrate the strength of support from the Empire, units of Canadians with “Cowboy” hats and smartest of them all in Khaki Drill and puttees, Gurkhas from the sub-continent. There were turbanned, bearded Sikhs from RASC units with horses and mules. When the Americans entered the war and brought their tents to Truro’s golf course, they added their glamour to the show – just as they took Truro’s pubs by storm, helping drink what supply of beer and under-the-counter spirits were available, smoking cigarettes with unfamiliar names while local smokers queued for their Players or Woodbines and pipe smokers experimented with dried tea or dock leaves to supplement the real tobacco in their pouches.

Truro is a river town and the river played its part – further down the Fal warships hid in King Harry Reach and much of the D-Day landing force was assembled between its banks – the DUKW (Duck) landing craft were a familiar sight as far up the Truro River as Boscawen Park. Truro people have always enjoyed their leisure on the river, bathing at Sunny Corner – before the days of pollution, hiring rowing boats from Sam Martin, the Gunns or Burleys at Malpas or taking a river trip to Falmouth on the latest vessel plying from Lemon Quay. Today it is the “MV Enterprise” not the steamship “Queen of the Fal” that takes day trippers to Falmouth and back. The “Queen” was requisitioned in the 1939/45 war. I last saw her moored where Tesco’s customers now park their cars – on a mission to raise funds for the war effort. Her red and black livery was hidden under battleship grey but her proud little smokestack still carried a band of scarlet. She was armed with a 6-pounder and “Pom-Pom” anti-aircraft guns, whether they were ever fired in anger I don’t know.

Truro City AFC continued playing their matches during the war and the ground was also used for fund-raisers and exhibitions – the GIs treated bemused Truro people to an evening of baseball on a diamond hastily prepared in front of the galvanised iron grandstand.  Spectators queued for admission just as everyone queued daily for almost everything – the merest suggestion that a shopkeeper was a source of something in short supply was enough for the queue to form.

Each of the three cinemas, the Palace high over the old ‘bus station by Boscawen Bridge, the Regent in what is now the City Hall and the Plaza in Lemon Street attracted nightly queues, sometimes with children under 16 soliciting their elders with the cry, “Take me in mister?” to see an “A” Certificate Movie. “O Tempora O Mores!”

Continuous performances ensured that provided you were in your seat early enough you could cry your way through “Mrs Miniver” once and whoop your way twice through an appalling Western “B” film with Hopalong Cassidy or worse, Gene Autry…I came close to a hiding for sitting twice through John Wayne’s “Stagecoach” in the front row of the Regent – it’s still compulsive viewing for me when one of the television companies is re-running the John Ford Westerns – they don’t make ’em like that any more…

Many of the films produced were supportive of the Ministry of Information in its drive to maintain morale and sustain the “War Effort” – for example Noel Coward’s “In Which We Serve” and “Desert Victory” which included live scenes from the battle at El Alamein…Many were escapist, lots of glamour and pretty girls and some were rushed unashamedly, to cash in on the war and its battles – “Bataan” I remember and Errol Flynn re-capturing Burma almost single-handed.

The war – temporarily at least – created a great spirit of togetherness. The long-established voluntary organisations – like the WVS, Women’s Institute, the Salvation Army, St Johns and Red Cross – all contributed in a variety of ways to winning the war on the Home Front – whether it was in providing cups of tea for travel weary evacuees or support for bereaved families. The “para-military” organisations – for example the Home Guard, ARP Wardens, Observer Corps etc – drew their members from every walk of life and class and status disappeared in the anonymity of uniform.  Many pundits have seen the war as the catalyst for the waning of the class influence if not the collapse of the class structure in British society. These war-based groups became a centre for social activity and the Railwaymen’s Club by the station, the St Johns Ambulance Hall in City Road as well as Moresk and Hendra Drill Halls echoed to Glenn Miller tunes played by Ruby Richmond’s dance band or on the most powerful radiogram that could be found – supportive ladies performed miracles of catering with limited supplies, sausage meat pasties, dried fruit-shy saffron cake, splits with home-made blackberry jam…

There was hardly a national chain store in Truro’s streets – Montegue Burton & Hepworths perhaps and Lipton’s and Home & Colonial – almost all of Truro’s retail trade was in family shops. Roberts and Malletts have grown and survived but so many more that I remember with affection have been lost for ever, victims of the supermarket syndrome and the belief that “Big is beautiful….” In the 1940s every street had its own corner shop.

The two largest grocers of the war era were Kemps and Jennings – their owners larger than life characters who each contributed in his own way to much of Truro’s life. So many successful businessmen repaid the community with public service and benefaction – when local elections were held it was the independent candidates who won the suffrage. It was as magistrates that they issued the standard fines for breaches of the black-out, riding without lights and poaching rabbits to help fill the pot.

Rationing and wartime shortages notwithstanding, shops still had distinctive smells of their own – the richness of coffee beans ground to order, the fruitfulness of currents, sultanas and raisins (when they were available) mingled with cheddar cheese or – as in Rundle’s shop in Richmond Hill – a mixture of oil pumped from the brass tap, wax candles and firelighters. Potatoes were sold by the gallon, cockles by the pint and strawberries by the punnet – not a kilogram in sight.

George Venn kept the dairy and green grocers in Frances Street but delivered his milk in a float pulled by a horse who knew every stop on his round. Customers bought milk measured into their own jugs straight from large churns, covered it with a beaded lace top and put it into a milk safe in the back yard or garden, there to rest alongside the meat ration for the week.

Clothing coupons played havoc with Truro’s several ladies and gents tailors and with drapers’ shops like Collett & Seymour, Roberts and West End Drapery where Edgar Walkey waited to welcome customers to the family drapery, millinery and haberdashery departments. Dressed in pin-striped trousers and black jacket he seemed to welcome every lady by name and summon the immediate attention of an assistant to serve her smallest need – whether purchasers or not, none ever left without a courteous good-bye at the door held open for her.

As victory came nearer and Stalin increased his pressure on his Western Allies to open the Second Front the whole of the Duchy seethed with troops, British and American, the Fal and its estuary got busier and busier. Richmond Hill became victim of almost endless convoys of Army vehicles that shook the cottages as they rumbled about their business – separating our front bedroom floor from the wall as the sandstone bellied out.

At last D-Day dawned and it seemed to be no time at all before the war in Europe was over.

When the atomic bomb raids on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were announced and the war was finally over, the sense of joy was beyond belief. The awesome message that those two bombs demonstrated man’s potential to destroy the world was detected by very few of the millions who celebrated. My own brother, serving in Combined Operations on a Headquarters Ship, HMS Largs, had come through invasion landings in North Africa, Sicily, mainland Italy and D-Day and was in the Far East for the Rangoon landing – can you imagine the relief in 25 Richmond Hill? I can never join those who condemn the use of those two bombs, I see only the tens of thousands – on both sides – who survived the war just because of them. God knows I pray that there is never a need to make such a decision again.

Truro celebrated with the rest of the United Kingdom – dancing in the streets, massive bonfires in the children’s playground at Hendra, brass bands and the Flora danced from the soccer ground at Treyew Road down Lemon Street. Traditional Cornish heavy drizzle could do nothing to dampen the joy. Truro became a town of bells again as the belfry of the Cathedral and local churches were re-opened to add their joyous peals to the celebrations.

The Edyvean & Lavanchy Public Address van was everywhere, pumping out music for the longest Conga chains I have ever danced in, old and young, rich and poor, officer and other ranks each grasping the waist of the one in front.

The war is over – four words that wrote “finis” on more than just the conflict. The world would never be the same again, but I doubt if anyone in that conga chain could imagine the degree or rate of technological and social change that the next fifty years were to bring…

 

© Alan Murton 20 November 1995

Truro born and educated Alan Murton returned to Cornwall in 1994 with Writing as a key aim in early retirement after a course with Open College of the Arts with Cornish poet Philip Gross as his mentor. He sent some of his writing to Cornwall Today and was soon a regular in its pages until the West Briton took it over. He joined Truro Creative Writers in 1995 and worked with them, for 20 years as Chairman/Secretary.
Apart from competing in Old Cornwall Society competitions he wrote for two subscription magazines and has been published nationally as well as locally.

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