By Robert Mason
l think it was late September 1940 when the first bomb was dropped in the Wirral. And from then forward, until May 1941, Liverpool and Merseyside never escaped a night without air raids and casualties. And who knew better than we who felt the full brunt of German horrors? We had an Anderson shelter. At times in this very congested space, there would be five adults and our three-year-old son lan. The first indication of an air-raid would be when the wireless station would go off the air. Then 15 or 20 minutes later the sirens would go — and what a fiendish noise they made. We would gather up clothes, rugs, candles and dash to the Anderson shelter. In it, we had wooden bunks which we got into.
And shortly after the sirens went, you would hear the drumming and throbbing of the heavy-laden bombers overhead. Then bombs would drop. The anti-aircraft guns blazed away, and if you were foolish enough to look out it would be like a vivid bonfire night with buildings blazing far and wide started by incendiary bombs. And now and again you would dash out and put out an incendiary bomb in your garden.
I think the longest bombing raid was in December 1940. It started shortly after 6.00pm and went on till 5.00am. Of course, we members of the Local Defence Volunteers — or Home Guard as it was subsequently called — could only spend one night in the air-raid shelter out of three. The other two were either inlying pickets or patrolling the countryside. And trying to work a full day as well.
It was around March 1941 that my wife Minnie was expecting our second youngster. No way was I going to allow Minnie to climb in and out of air-raid shelters with a baby expected. No, she was not to be subject to the horrors of bombing and all that meant in her condition.
So Easter 1941 saw us take a brief few days’ holiday in Skipton. Quite unannounced we put up at the ‘Red Lion’. It was most pleasant for us to go to bed and not have to worry about getting up to dash to the shelter. The people in the ‘Red Lion’ just couldn’t understand why at eight o’clock at night we would be off to bed at the same time as young Ian went to bed. We did. And then hours later you heard the steady ‘thrum, thrum, thrum’ of aeroplanes overhead. And we would think to ourselves ‘Liverpool will be getting a packet’.
Then right out of the blue, we had a letter from Edith Pratt, wife of my cousin, Turner Pratt, who farmed at Stirton.
‘Would we be interested in renting half of White House Farmhouse at Stirton?’
Turner and Edith lived in the nearby ‘Greenbank’, a house they had built for themselves. White House was occupied by the farmhand. We would have to negotiate terms with him if we were interested. We certainly were. I think we agreed on £1 per week for our half of White House. Main room, kitchen and two bedrooms and bathroom.
I was to become sister-in-law Barbara’s lodger during the week in The Wirral — and returned to Skipton to rejoin the family at the weekend. The only problem was how was I to get up each week to Stirton? Skipton was not on the main train route. You had to change at Hellifield and connecting trains between Skipton/Hellifield were not over frequent.
I resolved the problem fairly easily. I would take a train to Gisburn and cycle the eight or ten miles to Stirton. And then 5.00 o’clock Monday morning in the light of early dawn, I would be off on my bike. Lovely and fresh. No traffic — apart from a milk lorry I regularly met on the road at West Marton. And then I would ‘garage’ my bike in an outbuilding of the ‘Ribblesdale Arms’ at Gisburn. Catch the 7.00 o’clock train and would be in Liverpool, usually for 9.00 o’clock.
We had nine or ten very happy months at ‘White House’. What a relief and pleasure to arrive at Skipton late Friday night and stay over a glorious weekend. No bombings to fear, no sleeping in shelters. Instead of the peace and calm of the Dales, the Craven Dales.
Particularly do I remember one Sunday going with my cousin Turner Pratt, Jim his son, Minnie and young Ian. Turner had some cattle at Bordley on agistment. I had never been to that part of the Dales before. We were affectionately to call the area ‘Bordley Town’ from then forward. The peace and tranquillity of the area. Everywhere so green, so fresh, spring flowers in the hedgerow. So very, very peaceful. We looked the cattle over. Minnie was put at the gate to turn back any unwanted cattle.
‘You’ll fill that gap nicely,’ said Turner, referring of course to Minnie’s increasing girth from pregnancy.
But all night long it seemed you heard planes going over. And when you looked west in the night sky you could sense there were huge fires burning.
‘Liverpool’s getting it again,’ I said.
And I was right. It would be about the seventh day of the Merseyside May blitz. And Liverpool was just about brought to its knees. Acres upon acres of buildings had been flattened.
My first thing before reporting into the office was to go to the ‘Shakespeare Hotel’ in Williamson Square, where Minnie’s mother Mrs New and stepfather kept a public house. And I was glad I had gone. They told me their story. Normally they went to a nearby shelter belonging to a firm of wholesale grocers, Morris and Jones. But this night they hadn’t gone — I think the blitz had started early and caught them still in the pub. Anyway, they had spent the whole night cowering under the stairs. And as well they were not in the shelter because it had had a direct hit, and 25 people killed, never seen again.
‘You can’t stay here,’ I said to Mrs New. ‘Whatever you do or wherever you go, get away from Liverpool.’
They — Mrs New and daughter Audrey — agreed. They had had a horrible experience. Audrey, then in her early ‘teens, was very overcome with shock. I arranged to pick them up in their car. So about 6.30 pm we set off back to Skipton. And I will always remember the sight, hundreds, thousands of people walking the roads, like a football crowd at the end of the match. All intent on one thing. To get out of Liverpool. Some with a suitcase. Most with a blanket or rug. Anywhere, as long as it was away from Liverpool.
We would reach Skipton at about 8.00 o’clock. And there we saw people queuing to get into the second house of the pictures.
Truly one half of the world did not know how the other half lived.
My recollection of our stay at Stirton was that we were blessed with good weather for most of those early months of 1941. It was no hardship to make the journey from Liverpool each weekend. But I was realistic enough to know that once the bad winter weather arrived things would be different. But until the baby was born there was little we could do.
Son number two, David, was born in Skipton late on Sunday afternoon, October 5th 1941. I was emphatic that no way would I take my little family back to Merseyside whilst there was a chance of more bombing.
I placed an advertisement in the ‘Ormskirk Gazette’ enquiring if any house or cottage was for sale in the area. I only got one reply from a chap, who wanted to sell a semi-detached house in Rufford. We bought the property, which we subsequently called ‘Stirton Cottage’.
So a passage of our life, White House, Stirton concluded and Stirton Cottage, Rufford, took its place.
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