Joan Pelling: 'World War II on my doorstep'
Updated: Mar 29, 2020
After talking with Joan Parker (Miss Pelling at the time) who was 7 when the war broke out, she discussed with me what it was like growing up in Cleadon Village, with World War 2 underway. These stories are from between approximately 1939 and 1942. Having spoken to a few people who were young when they faced WW2, each one has had a different experience. From having to run down to the street's shelter, to having a shelter custom made in their kitchen with railway sleepers, or excavated in the garden. It appears that when War breaks out, people can make anything work, as long as they have the initiative.
“We had an Anderson Shelter that was only a couple of steps away from the kitchen door. In the Anderson shelter, my mother had a narrow armchair that opened up on to like a bed. And my father, being in the navy, he brought back a hammock. So, I had the hammock. And in there, there was also a paraffin heater. So that’s where we spent a lot of time when the sirens went.”
Cleadon Village is a small down in the North-East of England, as it currently stands (2011) it has a population of 8427 people, however in World War 2, it was drastically smaller and was generally covered in grassy fields and farm land.
“Next to our garden was a field, there [were] lots of fields. One of the fields next to us had the search light, the dynamo. The dynamo was making the noise all the time when the air raids were on. They [the air raids] more often than not, happened through the night. My mother and I worked out that we wouldn’t [have to] go down [to the Anderson shelter] until the ‘big guns’ went off – so we stayed in bed where it was warm.”
Personally, growing up in the 90's, I had always been taught that if you were to make a meal with an egg or multiple eggs, (like that of a cake or scrambled eggs) the thing you had to do was crack each egg separately into a cup. This had become a tradition, regardless of the meal, a cup would be used to 'check the egg'. This tradition has ever-since continued, even though eggs are rarely ‘bad’. Funnily enough, the other day as I was going against tradition for the first time, I pondered “how often do you honestly get a bad egg?”, and at that moment, a bad egg entered the cup. Tradition, in some instances, should continue. Mrs Parker recalls what it was like in World War 2 when tradition originated,
“Each week you got a certain amount of rations and if you were lucky – you got an egg. This particular time, [I] broke the egg, and it was horrible. It stank and it looked awful. The thing is, I had to take it back to Mrs Sidgwick’s (the general store that was also the post office and grocers), so that I could have a new egg. And because of that, I took it back to prove it, and so to this day - I break an egg in a cup to be sure that it’s not bad. That’s the absolute truth.”
Upon asking, ‘What meals did you have while the war was underway?’, Mrs Parker recalls a treat. Whilst their family had access to a lot of bread, the meat that her mother was able to provide was always dry, in ways she described it as “tough, you couldn’t eat it” - But the highlight was the, “dripping, and you could dip your bread in”. There was no option for fancy meals, so you had to work with what was available, the other treat that she had was condensed milk on bread, a sandwich of condensed milk. Which I am not sure sounds that 'appealing'.
Often young Miss Pelling and her mother would visit her Aunty who lived in Grangetown. Instead of returning home one night, as were their plans, they had to stay the night as Sunderland was getting hit with bombs. The following morning they rode the tram down to Sunderland,
“My mother and I took the tram back down to Sunderland, and this is what we saw. This is what we were greeted with. The whole place was alight.”
Due to firefighting teams on the scene, their pathway to the bus station was covered in rubble, spot fires, heavy smoke and braided fire hoses. There was talk that Cleadon Village wasn’t fortunate in the air attack, and that it had been damaged, “That’s bombed out”. However, upon returning to the village, it “was fine, no damage”. The attack had hit a town down the road.
Not all World War 2 stories were romantic. And as Mrs Parker (Pelling) began this story, I imagined it would be another beautiful scene from a film set. I was oh so very wrong. There was a singular petrol station / garage in Cleadon Village during the War, and it wasn’t far from Miss Pelling's house and the local amenities, like that of the Police Station and Grocers/Post Office. A young Scottish army soldier was also visiting the garage upon Miss Pelling's arrival.
“I was with a basket in one hand and a letter in the other. I came up ‘round the corner and this gentleman soldier (young man) called out, ‘You going to the post office?’ and I said, ‘yes’. ‘Will you post me one?’ I said, ‘yes’. He said, ‘come in’. I went into the little office and he suggested I lift my skirt. And I was up and AWAY."
It wasn’t her fault, but at the time she thought it was her fault. Bearing in mind that Miss Pelling was also only about 9 years of age. She posted her letter and Mrs Sidgwick knew there was something wrong with how she was reacting, and quickly scuttered across the road and told the police. Later that day a policeman made an appearance to Miss Pelling's home. She vividly recalls the moment she saw the policeman's cap through the window pane above her front door.
However to end on a good note, all life in Cleadon Village,
“Wasn’t all gloom and doom. One of the great treats was the illuminations, which took place ‘round about October. The seafront from Fulwell/Seaburn to Roker was all lit up along the promenade. Roker had a lovely park, the usual duck pond, bandstand for the Salvation Army, lovely walks in the Fairy Dell.”
There were even parts of the park that had been dug out in the ground so that puppetry shows could take place. This scene is just missing the romantic dancing. Mrs Parker continued,
“in the middle was a little girl doing ballet”.
It appears that even in the midst of terrible tragedies, people can often film glimpses of happiness, of joy. Like Miss Pelling, you may be a young child trying to navigate through what happened during World War 2, but you can still find joy if you look closely enough.
May you enjoy these stories, laugh a little, and reflect on times gone by. If I can recommend anything, ask a friend to hear theirs, if not – I will.