West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Memories and Recollections



William Wood recalled his memories of Pontefract during the 1930’s in The Digest, issue 19, September 2006, and in the January 2007 issue we published Part Two of his recollections which cover ‘the war years’.

North Avenue was a different experience to Headlands Lane. Number 98 was smaller and so was the garden. The back entrance was via an L-shaped passage. On the left was the toilet and after turning left the coal house was on the right, with the kitchen door facing. The kitchen had a Belfast sink with one cold tap. To the right of this was what appeared to be a large worktop made of floorboards battened together, but which, when lifted up, revealed the bath. On the right of this was a copper (a large cast iron boiler set into a brick surround, with a fire grate set underneath). On wash day mam would light the fire to boil the water, and the wash was then done in a wash tub and agitated with a peggy stick (a similar action to a paddle in a modern washing machine). The clothes were then run through a mangle (two rollers rotated by a handle on the side) to remove all the water before hanging out to dry. When the wash was finished the boiler would be refilled to warm the water for the bath, as wash day was also bath day. The light in the kitchen came from one gas fitting in the ceiling which had one mantle (a small silk bag fitted to a ceramic ring). Once used, the silk turned to ash but retained its shape. If touched at this time it would disintegrate. Also in the kitchen was a large black fire grate with another one in front. These could be used for baking etc. There was also a gas point in the kitchen where a double gas burner could be connected for boiling the kettle or a pan.

The two large, and one very small bedrooms had no lighting so we had to use a night light. These were the same as modern tea lights but without the metal cup on the bottom. They were stood in a saucer of water for safety reasons.

Some of the families living in the area at the time were Cuthberts, Hills, Ryans, Martins, Childs, Moxons, Dawsons and Jones. There was a shop on almost every corner. One off licence on Halfpenny Lane was run by a family called Pagdin. On the top of the road on Love Lane was the Co-op and further down towards the town was Sandy Illingsworth's chip shop. He also had a chip shop/restaurant on Ropergate where my mum and sister Ethel worked for a while.

Our house was the second one down from the ginnel where the miner's coal was tipped. It then had to be carried in buckets to the relevant coal house. Both the coal and the milk were delivered by horse and cart which ensured a small supply of horse manure for the small rear garden where there was an Anderson shelter.

Each evening you would see the large formations of bombers going out on raids over Germany, and in the early hours you would hear them return, usually far less in number than went out. One morning (possibly a Sunday) we heard that a bomber had crashed at Darrington so myself and a couple of pals decided to go and have a look. As North Avenue is near the barracks, we had quite a long journey, along Love Lane, Carleton and into Darrington. In those days the A1 didn't have a flyover but had a crossroads near the Darrington Hotel. The plane had crashed just the other side of the crossroads and had come down on some houses and the road. It was badly burnt. When we arrived there wasn't much to see, just part of a tail fin. Probably by then, most of it had been taken away as I did not see any engines or fuselage. I do not know what type of bomber it was but it could have been a Lancaster, based at Pollington, as that appeared to be its destination. I later learned that the firemen had a job trying to put out the fire because of the exploding ammunition. My cousin told me later that all the crew had died and been very badly burned. His uncle, who drove the ambulance at that time, had taken their remains to a makeshift mortuary, under the Castle Museum.

One day a barrage balloon came drifting over the top of the houses, trailing its cables over the rooftops. It had obviously broken its moorings. It drifted off in the direction of Glasshoughton. No doubt it would have been shot down later as this was the practice in those days.

The air raid siren would go off most nights, but very little happened, and when the all clear sounded, we kids would play in the streets as it was mostly moonlight, while the parents would stand and talk. One night in 1942, Jerry did come over and dropped incendiaries across North Avenue. One went through the roof of Mrs Child's house next door but one. Bombs were dropped on Mayors Walk, close to Baghill Station and one did considerable damage at the back of what is now Ringtons. A Mrs Fisher, (a friend of my parents) was injured. The bomb that fell on Mayors Walk landed in front of a house but did not explode. It was recovered and de-fused and had a slot cut in the side. It was then mounted on two brick plinths at the front of the Buttercross for collecting money towards a spitfire. The impact of the bomb had shaken the plaster off the walls and ceiling of the house and this was piled up in the road. The morning after the raid we all went round to try and recover bits as souvenirs. An empty incendiary container was found in our front garden and was handed over to the police. I still have the fins from an incendiary today, but sadly no shrapnel.

During these years I went to Love Lane Junior School and as the school was below road level the entrance was through a gate (one at either end) and down a ramp into the playground. Some of the teachers at that time were: Mr. Wheatley who lived at Purston. He only had one arm. As he was a smoker he kept a box of matches in his coat pocket (always a sports coat), and invariably they would burst into flame to the joy of all the class! Mrs Wilberforce who was very nice and kind. The Headmaster was Mr. Tomlinson who lived in Hartley Park. He was a rather stocky man and always wore a dark suit with a waistcoat and tie. Once a week he would assemble all the school into the hall for what could be described as a music lesson. Usually this was the singing of Hubert Parry's 'Jerusalem'. We had to keep singing over and over again until we got it right, and sang it as Mr. Tomlinson wanted to hear it. He seemed to take great delight in conducting. The singing was accompanied by one of the teachers playing the piano. I can only remember two of the other pupils at the school, and funnily enough they were girls - Sheila Webb and Violet Wormald, who both lived at the top of Spring Gardens.

Dad would come home on leave on odd occasions and on one occasion he came home looking as if he had gone through some barbed wire. It transpired that he had borrowed a bike from the camp and gone into the local village. After a few drinks he tried to return to camp and in the dark with no lights had ridden straight into a slit trench.

In the apple season dad would send us a large cardboard packing case full of apples, which was very well received. On one occasion he told us that he had met David Niven who was filming on his base. The film was to be called 'The Birth of a Spitfire', a film which we all came to know later as 'The First of the Few'.

Dad had progressed very quickly up the ranks to Flight Sergeant until disaster struck. Mum was sent for, as dad was seriously ill in hospital. She took my eldest sister, Ethel along with her whilst an aunt looked after my sister Mabel and I. The outcome was that dad had most of his stomach removed and was medically discharged. He went on to take a job at Robinson and Wordsworth's at Nevison, a firm who overhauled aero engines. At Ferrybridge crossroads there were two concrete bunkers containing engine test beds. The engines were taken there after overhaul to be run up. Propellors would be fitted and the engines run flat out. The noise was horrific and could be heard in Pontefract. Those test sheds were still there many years after the war.

Radios seemed to be a rarity during the war and the only one available was called Radio Relay. We supplied a speaker which was fitted with a three way switch - on/off, light program and home service. The volume was fixed at a level and could not be turned up or down. A small fee was paid to Mercer's at Castleford who relayed the programs. Every evening at 6.50pm, no matter what we were doing, we would rush indoors to hear 'Dick Barton, Special Agent', and never missed it if we could help it. We also listened to 'Workers Playtime' and ITMA with Tommy Handley.

Mam worked for a while in the munitions factory at Thorp Arch. She caught the train from Baghill Station each evening and returned home early each morning. On one occasion she told us that a colleague had tried to get off the train before it came to a halt and had fallen between the train and platform and lost both her legs.

I now had a brother, Brian, born April 1943. We heard that a plane had landed in the park so went to take a look. It was a Lysander, the sort used to take agents into France. Dad had taken up politics again and had also taken over the Horse Vaults Hotel next to the Town Hall. It was around this time, late 1943 / early 1944, that we left North Avenue.

During the war, cinema played a large part in our growing up. There were four cinemas to choose from - The Alex, The Crescent, The Playhouse and The Premier. There were many favourite films such as Buster Crab as Flash Gordon, Our Gang, The East Side Kids and of course the western. Johnny Mack Brown, Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and not forgetting The Sisco Kid. The baddies in black and the goodies in white. At The Alex you would find Mr. Thompson in his uniform with long frock coat and peaked cap, all in blue, with gold braid. He used to keep us all in line. The Premier was rather quaint in as much as you had to go round the back, where there were two wooden doors, through which were some concrete steps. We went up the steps to where a cubby hole was set in the wall. This was where you paid and then you went down the side of the building and were let in through a fire door by an usherette. We were only allowed to sit on the front three rows. It was during these years that tunes would be played with the words on screen so we could sing along. A ping pong ball bounced along the words so you could keep up with the music. They always started with a 'B' picture, then the news, followed by the main picture. The National Anthem would play at the end, and everyone would stand for the King.

William Wood.

Also by William Wood:

Pontefract Senior Boys and Beyond
Memories of the 1930s


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