by Dr. Richard Talbot MBE
As we approach Remembrance Day each year, the events of the Second World War I often feel that for many they are just events recorded in the press or on film that took place both in the UK and Europe. But the reality is that for many cities, towns and small villages just like Penkhull, they too learned that the war was real and frequently found right on their door-step.
It is now over 80 years since the start of WW 2 and German raiders hit North Staffordshire for the first time on Midsummer’s night 1940. It was a sole German bomber, probably heading for Shelton Iron and Steel and using the line of Penkhull church spire and infirmary chimney as landmarks, dropped four bombs in the vicinity with the death of one civilian.
Penkhull Home Guard was manning as usual the church tower and heard the plane coming distinguished by its sound. Frank Marsden of Newcastle Lane was a sergeant on duty that night and records that fateful moment of the realisation that they were about to be hit.
The first bomb was dropped the Newcastle Lane just below Franklin Road where Mr Harry Beeston the churchwarden and manager of Boots Chemist and Stoke was fatally injured. The front of the house was demolished and Mr Beeston was found in the rafters. He was admitted to the City General Hospital with internal injuries later to be removed to Oswestry Hospital where he died on 7 August of the same year. He was regularly visited by the vicar VG Aston and other church members until the time of his death, indeed the wooden oak panelling beneath the organ chamber, hardly notice today, was donated in the in memory of Mr Harry Beeston the only person in Penkhull to have died as a result of enemy action upon our village.
The second bomb was dropped at the North Staffs Royal infirmary with a direct hit on the on the eye department operating theatre. The patients and staff by this time had moved to the safety of a nearby air-raid shelter just in time and the blast caused considerable damage to house’s nearby including Princes Road.
The third bomb fell onto the end of the new nurse’s home (not yet occupied) just off Queens Road. It was officially opened only two days before by Lord Horder otherwise the casualties would have been extensive.
The last bomb fell in Quarry Road, the home of Mrs Bagnall where again the front of the house had been completely demolished. On this occasion there were no injuries.
Photographs by courtesy of the Sentinel
Prelude to War
Following Mr Chamberlain’s smiling announcement of peace, a group of deaf children who had recently been evacuated from Greenwich to The Mount School for the duration of the anticipated war were within a week on their way back home, as the threat of war was now ‘over’ and everyday life as we knew it could resume.
Children from Czechoslovakia
It was following the Germanisation of Sudetenland and the threat to the ethnic minorities in Czechoslovakia that a massive campaign was launched by Sir Nicholas Winton and others to evacuate from Europe thousands of children whose parents desperately wanted to protect their children from Nazi persecution. In September 1938 when Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, the area of Teplice was formally ceded. In January of 1939 Charles and Hannah Strasser emigrated from Teplice to the UK. Charles worked in the pottery industry in Czechoslovakia and so he made his way to Stoke-on-Trent to seek work. Others fled Teplice to Prague where they explored opportunities to further escape from the country. Somehow they came into contact with Sir. Nicholas Winton or his team who arranged for trains to take children out from Prague to the UK, but each child had to be accepted, with money being put up first by families in the UK. The Strassers knew the family of Dash well and so gladly agreed finance the journey.
These children and others from Czechoslovakia came to be housed in what was Penkhull Cottage Homes (now St. Christopher’s Avenue). They arrived by courtesy of the Czech Children’s Refugee Committee in 1939. Amongst these children were Hugo Dash later to become a well-known local dental surgeon and his sister Lisa who attended Thistley Hough Girls School. Later Charles Strasser became the head of the national company, Photopia.
At first local people were apprehensive and objected to having refugees on their doorstep, recalls Ken Nutt who later became a friend of Hugo: because they dressed differently and spoke differently they were treated differently, but after awhile they were accepted and started to join in local activities.
In a tape recording done some forty odd years ago, I recorded Miss Phyllis Ashwell who used to live at Beech Grove. She was then into her late 80s and remembers them well. I recall the Czech children, Hugo, Hendrick, Frizz and Lisa well from the Cottage Homes. They used to come for tea at Beech Grove bringing their musical instruments with them. They were all so musical and after tea, often outside on the lawns we would sit and have a jolly good time listening to them play. As part of preparations for war, Hartshill Boy Scouts were employed in the filling of hundreds of sand bags at the NSRI The Czech boys by this time had joined the group.
Preparations for war commenced long before September 1939. It was clear that the news from Europe was not good and in March 1938 war seemed inevitable, as Germany demanded the return of the Sudetenland and the Government decided that local councils should commence preparations. On 1st January 1938, the ARP. Act (Air Raid Precautions) came into force, compelling all local authorities to set up ARP schemes.
In Penkhull a number of old cottages in Rothwell Street, one of which was the home of Winnie Alldis were demolished to make way for large water storage tanks. These were to be used in case of incendiary bombs starting fires if dropped on the village. Other preparations such as deep trenches being dug in Richmond Street Park and air raid shelters for the first time were being thought of. In April 1939, conscription was introduced; increasing the British Armed forces by more that 1.5 million. All British men aged 20 or 21, were required to take six months’ military training. This was further increased to all men between the ages of 18 and 40 being called up for service.
Just two weeks before war was declared, The Evening Sentinel reported that there was an urgent need for more than 1000 volunteers in Stoke-on-Trent and 400 in Newcastle to bring the service to the required efficiency. Mr L Bunn, Chief
Constable wrote with some urgency that only half of the volunteers to date had been trained and a serious deficiency was experienced in maintaining medical services. In the case of war there would be a deficiency of 554 ambulance drivers and attendants. The list continued showing serious staff shortages for rescue and demolition, decontamination and special constables.
All possible active men were to be mobilised. I recall Doug Jervis (from Penkhull Farm) telling me that he was pressed into night fire watching at Thistley Hough High School, but had to return back to the farm early to get his cows out to pasture. He later admitted that on many occasions during calving that he would not turn up for duty but managed to persuade Mr Swetnam the local organiser to sign his attendance book the next morning. On the other hand Mr Frank Peake of Kirkland Lane, and many others in Penkhull, became early volunteers to join giving up two or three nights a week and then having to go to work the next morning. Mr Peake with other members of the ARP. used to meet in Penkhull Infants School. His daughter Roslyn recalls clearly her father in uniform, but could never understand what use a bucket full of sand would be in case of fire that her father had to carry around!
Probably one of the most notable memories of war years was the Anderson Shelters attributed to the Home Secretary John Anderson. The idea of producing a cheap domestic shelter, for protection from bombing had been of concern for some time. They consisted of corrugated iron forming a shell six feet high by just under four feet wide and six feet long. They were fitted free for all earning less than £250 per year and those above that income contributed £7.
Those in Penkhull with gardens and even some with only brick backyards got to work installing their own shelters. Even today many still remain hidden by the undergrowth of sixty years. The biggest problem was that after heavy rain they often became flooded recalled Roslyn, as I talked to her about them. Even so, most made the best of the situation making bunk-bends and keeping blankets, oil lamps and a supply of water and food – just in case! And not forgetting a radio to keep in touch with the outside world.
The Local Authority had the responsibility for providing public air raid shelters. The Evening Sentinel published lists of places that would provide underground shelters for workers and shoppers. None in Penkhull were listed but it did include those near to Penkhull and the town of Stoke.
In Hartshill Road there was Midlands Hotel where accommodation was provided for 200. The School of Art in London Road 50, The Red Lion and the Noah’s Ark in Hartshill both providing 50. At Oakhill Hall there could be 150 housed in the large cellars beneath the building.
For the vast majority of people of Penkhull living in terraced houses, the pantry with three steps down beneath the stairs provided the only protection from air raids unless they had purchased the Morrison Shelter. These were in the form of a heavy steel table with steel mesh sides. With a large tablecloth placed over, it went un-noticed although I have not heard of anyone in Penkhull having one.
It was not until after war had been declared that the go-a-head was given to the provision of air raid shelters for schools. The Emergencies Measures Committee of Stoke-on-Trent met on the 9th September to decide on the action necessary. They were to meet the following day with the ARP Committee to finalise arrangements.
As with all events that happen, even those for the worst, such as war, there are always those who can make a few pounds as a result. The manufacture of air raid shelters was a typical example. Soon there were numerous companies around Stoke only too willing to supply them. The nearest to Penkhull was in Copeland Street, Stoke.
The Government announced on August 1st petrol rationing in the event of war. By this time coupons had already been distributed. Mr Lloyd, the Minister of Mines, stated that in view of the vital importance of petrol and other petroleum products, a comprehensive scheme would be implemented for the maintenance of supplies. Special arrangements would be announced for the supply to ambulances, fire brigades and the ARP.
Petrol rationing was responsible for most privately owned motor vehicles being placed into storage for the duration of the war. Petrol was always in short supply and hard to find. Initially the ration was three gallons of petrol per week, so all but the shortest of trips were out of the question. The only petrol filling station in Penkhull was that of Harold Rowland in St Thomas Place, and in reality car ownership was almost non-existent, probably amounting to no more than fifty and no petrol could be supplied without coupons. Mr Rowland kept his business going during the war despite loss of trade, and like other properties suffered the effects of war with two incendiary bombs being dropped onto the roof, with nothing more than a bucket of sand and a stirrup pump to put out the fire. The storage area at the back of his garage was used to store a number of cars laid off for the war years.
Talking to Mrs Betty Burrows (nee Rowland) she remembers her father obtaining his petrol supplies from ‘Pool Petrol’ based at Etruria. Penkhull Filling Station was the major supplier to doctors at the hospital who received additional allowances because of their work. Mr Rowland maintained his service contracts with many doctors including Dr and Mrs Ramage, well-known supporters of Penkhull Church, who then lived in Queens Road. Betty tells me that for a few favours, the odd gallon of petrol could go unnoticed and mean probably the addition of a few extra rashers of bacon, or extra butter, to the table at weekends from many of their customers.
Although public sector vehicles received special petrol allowances, many ingenious alternative fuel devices such as gas storage bladders and generators were employed. The single-decker corporation buses were surmounted with enormous gasbags in some towns. People, who could afford one and were lucky enough to find them, equipped their automobiles with similar devices. The commercial sector, milkmen, coal deliveries etc. were encouraged to use horse drawn vehicles wherever possible.
Throughout all this the PMT kept the ‘Penkhull Circular’ going, that public service from the Majestic cinema in Stoke, through Oakhill, Penkhull and Hartshill, to return to Stoke and commence the whole process again.
War commenced with Germany on the 3rd September 1939, but August was a holiday period for many thousands of ‘Potters’. In those days Stoke Railway Station was bursting at the seams conveying tens of thousands from Stoke-on-Trent to digs in either Blackpool or North Wales. This was in addition to numerous day trips undertaken during the first two weeks of August. The Evening Sentinel reported: ‘Joyous Holiday Trek for Wakes Week – Crowds pour from North Staffordshire, 36,000 leave the district’, probably most thinking that this might be the last holiday they would experience for some years.
With over £250,000 of holiday money clutched firmly in workers hands, Stoke and Penkhull were deserted. The Territorial Army had gone off to their training camps. There was a Carnival of Queens in Hanley Park, floral splendour at Shrewsbury, and the famous Goldin, the illusionist was confusing audiences at the Theatre Royal in Hanley.
And yet to all these families it would be a very different Stoke and Penkhull that they returned to. They left with lights blazing, but they returned to a trial blackout as North Staffordshire was included in a 28 county trial, claimed to be the worlds greatest and the nearest thing to reality of war Britain had ever known in peacetime.
The Evening Sentinel promptly reported the event on the 11th August: Railway and road traffic necessitated by the return of thousands of holiday makers from excursions impaired the effectiveness in Stoke last night of the blackout for a period from 1.30 a.m. – 4.00 a.m. An ARP official summed up the event by stating that all drivers co-operated fully with the request to turn off their headlights. Headlights were only allowed at important junctions and roundabouts.
By the end of August, the painting of kerbstones had taken place; street lights were blacked out and hundreds of gallons of black and white paint had been sold for the purpose of painting out roof lights and the blackening of windows in shops and houses.
On the domestic front, Winnie Wyse and Betty Burrows remember having to place brown sticky paper cross ways across all the windows of the house to reduce the risk of shattering glass. In addition to this there was a huge demand for black material to make curtains for the downstairs at least. And where from? Harrison’s of Church Street, Stoke or the market. No light was to be let out during the war in case of enemy attack. It was an offence even to show a crack of light through the curtains. Some homes just made linings for existing curtains and each evening the ARP patrol would walk every street just to make sure orders were followed. Cars had a special cover fitted over the headlights with just a little slit making the light shine only to the road. Once more Mr Rowland was kept busy making these in his garage. If you did have to go out, a torch was a must because everything was so black.
The church did not escape either, or the school at the top of Trent Valley Road. Both had to be blacked out after war was declared. The windows of The Greyhound were also covered over as seen in an old photograph. If any events were organised, they would coincide with a full moon so people had the benefit of natural light whilst walking in the village.
One thing followed another, there was no let-up, and the issue of gas masks became necessary to all. It was the responsibility of the ARP to issue these. For those in Penkhull they were distributed at the school, which was by this time the official H.Q. for the ARP. All residents had to go and collect theirs, a normal size respirator for adults whilst babies under the age of two had to endure (if the necessity arose) a whole unit complete with air pump at the side for mother to keep a supply of air within the unit. All gas masks were supplied with thick cardboard-like boxes with string for carrying over the shoulder or around the neck of children.
It became standard practice to carry in the box Horlicks tablets, just in case anyone was caught in a raid without food for any length of time. The problem was that children used to eat them as fast as they were distributed. However, in the early days people ignored the importance of carrying their masks with them, so much so, that the Chief Constable gave out a warning that appeared in The Evening Sentinel stating that: all must wear their masks said Mr Bunn. At the same time it was announced that the City had formed a ‘Food Committee’.
I recall Frank Marsden who lived at 100 Newcastle Lane, talking to me one evening of an incident of a light showing in what was Commercial Row just off Penkhull New Road. It was late at night and a small patrol was sent to investigate after Fenton wardens had rang through to Penkhull to inform them that a light was showing. The usual warning of turn out that light was shouted from the pavement. Upon hearing this, a rather stout lady came to the window and responded with the words (or something similar) if you don’t clear off; you will get this lot over you. Not to be outdone, the ARP wardens replied only to be showered with the contents of a chamber pot that had been quickly retrieved from under the nearest bed. Frank remembers it well as all concerned had to be sent home because of the unbelievable stink.
So how did Penkhull receive the news that war had been declared with Germany? Many stayed at home that morning from church to listen to Chamberlain declare that he had received no assurances from Berlin and subsequently we were at war with Germany. Those who did attend church received no sermon from Rev Aston that morning, instead as the deadline approached, a portable radio was ‘hooked up’ in church by Mr Frank Bell. At the 8.00 a.m. service prayers were offered for peace. The mood was sombre, hopes faint and eyes turned to our first boy in uniform wrote V G Aston.
The news at 10.00 a.m. offered no improvement. The time limit of the ultimatum to Germany was to expire in one hour. The Prime Minister would speak directly to the nation on radio at 11.15a.m. The 11.00a.m. service consisted of a few prayers, the radio broadcast and two hymns. The children’s Sunday school was cancelled. At 3.00p.m. village boys asked if they could prepare the schoolroom for games as all public amusements were cancelled. V.G. wrote: at 6.00 p.m. we hear the voice of our beloved King. “With God’s help we will prevail”. Sunday Evensong reflected the mood of the village. The hymns, appropriately chosen were Oft in Danger; Holy Father, in Thy mercy, and O God our Help. It was a real test and many shed tears at that service wondering just what lay ahead. The real first blackout found a strange acceptance of what was to be, but resolution and courage were the real marks of the first day at war for those of Penkhull.
So what was showing in the local cinemas in Stoke the night before war was declared? The Hippodrome in Kingsway was showing Tyrone Power, the heartthrob of the thirties in Jesse James for the first half of the week, and George Formby and Googie Withers in Trouble Brewing for the second half. There were, however strict conditions to the reopening. All premises must be in readiness, with a fire squad, together with full fire-fighting equipment including sand, long-handled shovels and means of dealing with incendiary bombs. A person must also be on duty throughout the whole period for the purpose of listening for air raid warnings. And yet, despite all this people flocked once more from Penkhull to the ‘flicks’ at Stoke, not only to see the films on show but also to see the Movie News, as there were no televisions in those days.
Football matches were also allowed to play from Saturday 16th September, but only friendly games, no league matches because they would attract too many people. Stoke played Coventry at a packed Victoria ground and The Evening Sentinel reported that Stoke had nineteen players available to play.
Baker, Stoke City’s outside left; heading the ball gave City the lead in their friendly match with Coventry. Baker’s header followed a free-kick by no less than Stanley Matthews. Stoke 3 Coventry 1. (Baker, Peppitt and Sale scoring.) And the cost of a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment? Boothen and Butler Street stands 2/-, Butler Street corners 1/6d, Boothen and Butler Street paddock 1/6d, Ground 1/-, Boys 6d and soldiers in uniform were to be admitted to the ground or just 6d.
The following week, the residents of Penkhull saw the delivery of National Registration forms through their doors. ‘National Registration Day’, as it was known, would be held the following Friday, September 29th. By midnight every person living in each household would have to be listed on the registration form giving their occupation and other particulars. On Saturday and Sunday, following registration day, enumerators would collect the completed forms, and there and then, issue Identity Cards to every member of the civil population.
The National Registration compiled, served as the basis for food rationing. In Stoke-on-Trent there were no fewer than a 250 enumerators, responsible for a district each comprising of about 300 houses. The North Staffs Infirmary had an enumerator to itself.
National Registration was not confined to British Subjects. All persons had to complete and those whose nationality was seen as in conflict would be interned for the period of the war. One such person from Penkhull was Mr Delducia, the Italian ice cream man from the cottage that stood down the passage at the side of Penkhull D.I.Y. shop in Newcastle Lane. Even though he had been brought up in the UK and was considered by his friends as not a threat to national security, but because of his nationality he was still interned.
Just a few weeks after the declaration of war, Penkhull Parochial Church Council met to discuss the urgent need for blackouts in the church, which would conform, to the new regulations. V.G. Aston stated that the best way would be to board up the three stained glass windows from the outside but it would be far too expensive, and if all the windows were painted it would mean the church would always be in darkness. It was finally proposed by Mr Dobson that the matter should be left in the hands of the vicar and wardens to sort out.
Civil Defence and School
It was in March 1933, that local authorities had been chosen as the agencies to be responsible for the local organisation of the Civil Defence Services. Under that umbrella, a sub committee was formed called the Air Raid Precautions sub committee. This small committee had actually operated in secret from 1924. When in March 1935, Germany announced that she had re-established her air force; the ARP department went to work and began to issue instructions to local authorities. In January 1937, the first ARP broadcast was made and an appeal was made for volunteers. In the first years of their existence, the ARP personnel had only a helmet, a silver ARP badge and an armband.
As soon as war was announced, all schools were closed initially; Penkhull Infants School at the top of Trentham Road was no different from all others. What was different, was, that it was designated to become the headquarters of the ARP. The PCC minute book confirms that the sum of 8/- (40p) per week would be paid by the ARP for the use of the rooms. At the same meeting after war had been declared, it appears that more concern was expressed as to whether it was more important to pay the fire insurance premium on the scenery used for the annual Revue!
Another good friend of mine, George Hulme, was aged seven in 1939, but remembers clearly the events of the day. The school appeared closed for some time after the six weeks school summer holiday because the air raid shelters had not yet been built. Eventually there was a shift system of attendance. Some classes went to school in a morning and some in the afternoon and then they alternated. You can imagine the confusion, children often turning up on the wrong shift. Some children were transferred to the Cottage Homes for lessons.
After several weeks, a few classes were transferred to the Close School, where dividing the assembly hall had created an additional classroom. Here there were two large cellars, plus a new concrete tunnel and air raid shelters in the grounds. George remembers at least three air raid warnings when pupils were evacuated to the shelters, which usually meant a sing-along with the teachers and a welcome break from lessons. Surprisingly George recalled the exercise books being of grey paper and not white as re-cycled paper was used. And it goes without saying that he was delighted for a welcome ‘snooze’ on folded arms on the desk at school along with all the other children if their previous night’s sleep was disturbed by air-raid sirens.
Still looking fit, in 2010; Gilbert Richards of Barnfield recalls that he was one of the early volunteers as a young lad to join what was known as the ARP Messengers. It never really got organised but the idea was that if ever the telephone lines were down, the messengers would be the first call to carry out the service of transferring information. At first we were based in the Penkhull School, the room to the left just as you go in. The building was fitted out with thick black curtains and the windows were all taped up. Later the messengers moved to the control room in the basement of what used to be the Electricity Offices in Kingsway. This was the HQ for the Civil Defence.
We worked on a rota basis, a few nights a week, most of the time just playing cards. Many would fall asleep whilst on duty. I recall Earnest Tew who worked so hard as an ARP warden and also Ken Nutt of Queens Road. The senior warden in Penkhull was Stan Mansfield. There was also Mr Harthern, the preacher from Franklin Road. He also served as an ARP warden and was in charge at Stoke H.Q. At Kingsway the one attraction was the canteen, a good meal for a matter of pence. There was no skimping on rations there, which was probably the attraction for many young lads to join.
Winnie Wyse, whose father was the caretaker of the school, recalls: all the extra work involved in keeping the school clean and tidy. By night the ARP, and later the Home Guard used the school at night and by day children. There was no end to the hours my dad spent at the school during the war, it was tough for him remembers Winnie. Miss Roslyn Peake of Kirkland Lane remembers that her father, Frank gave up two or three nights a week as an ARP warden. He was self-employed therefore could make up his sleep the following day if he was not busy. He, like the other wardens would walk the streets making sure that curtains were closed and no light showing. He always carried with him a bucket of sand in case of incendiary bombs dropping on Penkhull. Like all the other young children in the village we had to go to the school to collect our gas masks and at the same time receive our quota of Ovaltine tablets in case of emergencies.
Full time ARP wardens were paid the sum of £3 a week for men and £2 for women. Later in 1939 all part time wardens received payment and those in the rescue teams received more.
‘War Work’ for Women
It was only a few months following the outbreak of war, or early in 1940 that women were ‘called up’ to serve in those jobs deemed necessary for the war. One such person in Penkhull, amongst many others, was Mrs Cecily Beech (nee Platt) of 58 Oxford Street. Who talks of the initial shock at being suddenly called-up. One day the letter just came through the post, she explained, I had no choice; I had to go to Swynnerton. I was just seventeen, and came home from work on the first day after being picked up by bus in Princes Road at 5.30 a.m. and said to my mother, I’m not going again. However the next morning I was there waiting for the bus at 5.30a.m. along with other girls from the village. We all had our part to play for the war effort so I could not refuse.
We worked three shifts and earned 10/6d a week for working with yellow powder on the tracer bullet production line. You were searched on the way into work every day to make sure you weren’t taking matches or cigarettes into the factory. I remember one time I had a match in my pocket. I had to take it back to the main hut and leave it there. I could have been suspended for it though. It was quite strict there. You couldn’t have any time off without a Doctor’s note. We used to wear green overalls. I wanted to take mine home to wash and left it on under my coat, but I got caught and searched. I do not recall having holidays either.
But all told, they were happy times. The mention of Workers Playtime on the wireless with Wilfred Pickles and his ‘Give em the money Mabel’ phrase brings back so many valued memories. But munitions were not the only occupation women were called to do. Many had to work in factories, especially those producing guns and machines for the war. Others were called to jobs working for the local electricity company, the Civil Defence or for education as unqualified teachers. Many ended up working on farms out of the district or on the buses.
Nearer comes the War
Penkhull Survivor of HMS Courageous
IN FIRST LIST OF SAVED
read the heading on the front-page headlines of The Evening Sentinel only a matter of days after war was declared. On Tuesday 19th September, it reported the sinking of aircraft carrier ‘Courageous’ by enemy submarine where only 681 survived the attack out of a total crew of 1,260. Amongst the first to be listed as saved was Leading Signalman John Siddorn of 150 Oxford Street, Penkhull where he lived with his parents. Like many others, he had served in the Navy for a twelve-year term until the previous May, but after three months of civilian life he was recalled to service to serve on the ‘HMS Courageous’.
St. Thomas’ Church, like so many parish churches, became the focus for people to express their thoughts and to receive whatever comfort they could in times of national trouble or conflict. The Vicar, Rev V G Aston commenced writing a war diary in the church magazine, which gave an insight to events, and expressions of concerns as seen though his eyes.
To bring home the thoughts of the loss of our young men, he wrote on Tuesday 5th September, that the troops from Hartshill barracks passed through Penkhull at 5.00 a.m. marching to their training camp. We learn of the R.A.F. raid at Kiel. He mentions also, that for that week choir practice was forbidden, owing to the new lighting blackout order. Although he continues to discuss the efforts of redecorating the church, he recalls rather sombrely that at Sunday evensong the cross was carried by a soldier, and prayers were offered for two village lads who were to sail to France the following day, ending the sentence vividly Thus nearer comes the war.
VG comments on events near and far as the first months of the war continued. Concerned with the news reports of the treatment of the Poles by Germany and the horrific, almost unbelievable atrocities against humanity being carried out in that country he proclaims . . . God help them in their struggle. But he returns to local issues by stating that the busiest part of the village was the school with the ARP, and on a personal note, reflects with some humour, how he collided with the church wall (to the detriment of the former) during the first week’s blackouts. He concludes his notes for that week with the news that Russia was now invading Poland and finally crushing those brave people. Their end is certain now!
Other activities in Penkhull responded to the call. The Penkhull and Hartshill depot for the Red Cross Hospital War Supplies was established at The Mount blind and deaf school. The depot was open two days a week for contributions for the purchase of materials. The chairman was Mrs N S Follwell of the school, and the secretary Mrs W Johnson of Tilson Avenue.
In the month of November, V.G. again gives us an insight into village life with his Parochial War Diary. This was to be the last, as restrictions on publications, war efforts and recordings for security reasons and propaganda applied to church magazines equally as to the newspapers and the wireless.
The day schools (Church Hall) are being further prepared for a long tenancy by the ARP. The children are to attend other schools in shifts. The first of many Church Parades during the war and after took place on Sunday 24th. Many of our boys are present under the command of Major Piggott and they joined heartily in the service wrote V.G.
Once more V.G. recalls the struggle in Poland with the fall of Warsaw. Was there ever the like? The place was bombed out of existence he concluded, and finally passes comment on the war with the fact that the Germans were sinking neutral ships.
On the local front, butter was to rise to 1/7d per lb. and V.G. was visiting many troops in the parish with the comment they are a fine lot and asking for any gifts to be passed on to him. On Sunday 1st October it was announced that many of Penkhull’s young lads were to be called up, as the age was now to include those of 22 years.
The Home Guard
Most of us have, at some time or another, enjoyed the BBC television series ‘Dad’s Army’, with its somewhat lighthearted look at the Second World War’s Home Guard. However, despite this portrayal, in its time, the Home Guard represented a formidable force of willing volunteers ready to give up their lives in protection of their country.
I recall that in around 1967, I took my portable tape recorder, and with a deep breath, knocked on the door of Major George Campbell, M.C. of Queens Road and asked if I could interview him for his memories of the Penkhull Home Guard. Welcoming me in, he talked at length of his involvement and how it all started.
The Home Guard all came about following the invasion of northern France by 2,000 German tanks under Lieutenant-General Heinz Guderian. Anthony Eden, the secretary of State for War, called for a Local Defence Volunteer Force (LDV). He asked for men aged 17 to 65 to serve in this new force. Before the broadcast was made, men were volunteering, and within twenty-four hours, a quarter of a million men had come forward. In August 1940, Winston Churchill renamed L.D.V. the ‘Home Guard’.
Major Campbell, in an instant recalled all the facts: Eden’s call to those who were in the First World War bought a quick response. Following the broadcast I went down with the first group of volunteers from Penkhull to the Drill Hall in Booth Street, Stoke, where Lt-Col A R Moffat was in charge. I was furious and almost shouted at Moffat “I’ve got all these people outside, done a day’s work and no one here to receive them.” In the first place the H.G. was certainly not very organised.
The idea was to have one battalion for the whole city, and the HQ was to be at Victoria Square Barracks in Shelton. Penkhull formed a part of Stoke Company, which also included Stoke, Hartshill and Hanford, and under the commanding officer Mr C J Noke where Major Campbell was placed in charge of the Penkhull Platoon. The correct title was ‘C’ Company and its officers included the following: Major Campbell, Lieuts. W E Gott; C Bellamy; J Taylor, J A Jolly, P C Edwards and R W Cranham. Within the first year Major Campbell was promoted and Mr W Gott took command.
Major Campbell knew Rev V G Aston quite well and asked if the newly formed Home Guard could use the Church steeple every night as a lookout.
The P.C.C. minute book dated Thursday 13th June 1940 confirms – The vicar stated that: the local defence corps have asked for the steeple to be used as an observation post to assist them in their duties in protecting homes against possible landings by enemy parachutists. He then gave an account of what this entailed, and the matter was thrown open for discussion. The feeling was that every help should be given to the government in their prosecution of the war, and Mr Meiklejohn proposed that This council is of the opinion that the Defence Corps shall have the use of the tower as an Observation Post and that this resolution be submitted to the Archdeacon for approval. This was seconded by Mrs Ramage and carried. Note was made also that the church insurers should be notified of this action.
Two other interesting items are worthy of mention, for at that meeting the only lady there was Mrs Ramage, all others sent their apologies because they were attending the weekly whist drive (at war and all they could think of was a whist drive!) and as the vicar was using his car to visit soldiers it was agreed that he should be reimbursed for the petrol.
In the first instance Penkhull’s Dad’s Army only had an armband proudly displaying the initials LDV – weapons were to come much later. While on patrol in those early days we had to improvise, recalls Earnest Tew, with such things as pikes, truncheons, pick axes, broom handles and anything else that easily came to hand.
Fred Marsden of Newcastle Lane recalled his memories, referring to the use of the church steeple as a lookout. There was a wooden platform built around the inside walls so we could see from the window slit at the very top of the steeple. I recall many names, Fred Maskery, Spencer Furber, a young Ken Nutt, Mr Sidney Payne, Dick Pattinson and Mr Shufflebotham. It was certainly cold up there and we had measuring instruments provided and Bill Gott managed to get hold of some large maps of the area. There would always be two of us up there and one on guard below at the church doors. We would go up the narrow stairs from the porch to the first level. Then via a rope ladder that took us up through the trap door to join the pigeons on the top floor. We were relieved from duty every two hours.
My old friend Frank Walker remembered that rope ladder only too well. Some of those on guard used to nip into The Greyhound for a quick pint (or two) when it was available. The problem was climbing the rope ladder again which was not an easy task for anyone, even when sober. The other problem was that alongside the rope ladder dropped the bell rope. All church bells were silenced during the war unless there was an emergency. After a few pints it was not unknown that those unsteady on their feet would grab out to the bell rope to steady themselves and as a consequence the church bell would clang, bringing with it householders from the neighbouring streets and the ARP stationed in the school opposite.
In the first week of the church tower becoming part of the war effort, there was trouble with V G. The problem was that an over zealous Defence Volunteer refused to allow him in to his own church. Major Campbell recalls. I gave orders to the sentry on duty that no one was to enter the church apart from the DV. The young guy wrongly included the Vicar much to the annoyance of V.G. He came knocking at my door in a terrible state, demanding all sorts of things. I quickly went to the church to sort out the guard, only to be told, that it was my orders not to allow anyone in church. Totally dumfounded, all I could say was that that didn’t include the Vicar you fool. Or should it have been ‘stupid boy’.
In 1953 a booklet compiled by F S Jones, gave a short history of the North Staffs Home Guard entitled ‘Remember Those Days’. This account lists those members of ‘C’ Company who were Penkhull Home Guard. Capt George Campbell MC, was a family member of Campbell Tile Co. in London Road and lived in Queens Road. Others were Lieuts Bill Gott, C Ballamy, J Taylor; 2/Lets. W R Hook, G P Windsor, W T Hardiman. After a while Capt. Campbell was later promoted to 2nd in Command of the Battalion. Afterwards Capt. Bill Gott took charge of the ‘C’ Company until it was ordered to ‘stand down’. Mr Gott lived in Trent Valley Road and was a leading figure in Penkhull church choir at its height along with Colin Simpson.
The amusing thing was that during the first phase of Dad’s Army, the only identification was a khaki armband. On the 3rd of July, two suits of khaki denim overalls were issued to each of the five companies’ patrols. Unfortunately there was only one set per two volunteers, so they had to share with the patrol on the earlier rota, having to disrobe in the church hall H.Q.
The big event that Frank Walker remembered so well was when they learned that five rifles and ten rounds of .303 ammunition became available but only for an emergency. Owing to the impossibility of proper training during those early days and the dire emergency which threatened, it was usual for patrols to be composed of at least one ex-Service man of the First World War, with one new recruit. Major Campbell sent out a personal directive to all members of the Home Guard informing them that five rifles were on their way. The big day came and the new rifles arrived at Stoke Station. The five were allocated to Penkhull and turning to the Major Campbell I asked what use would only five be if Penkhull was suddenly under attack. I would not like to repeat what he said. Then someone asked the question, never previously thought of ‘where are we going to keep them?’
Edited from The Royal Manor of Penkhull © Dr. Richard Talbot