Interview carried out by Nicola Williamson (Washington School)
So if you can tell me your full name, when and where you were born?
I was born Elsie Duffield, Im Ronald now. I was born at Southwick and lived at Southwick all during the war. For the first 30 years of my life I was at Southwick then I came to Roker.
Can you tell me a little bit about your parents, what did your father do?
Came from a whole generation of miners but my dad was working at the colliery and training to be a deputy when his lung collapsed and so he had to leave and he were on the dole until the men were called up then he got a job as a tram conductor and later on a tram driver.
Did your father serve in the First World War?
No he would only have been a child.
Did you have brothers and sisters and where abouts in the pecking order did you come?
I was the 2nd oldest of 3 girls and had a sister born in 1940 in the middle of the war and a brother in 1946 just after the war.
Did you have a happy childhood and what was it like growing up in Southwick?
It was a pleasant place, you didnt need to leave… lock your doors, everybody looked out for each other. Everybody swept their front street and cleaned their steps with Donkey Stone, this is pre-war of course. Things changed when the war started and we could play out in the street and there wasnt cars or anything like that. There was hardly any cars in a place like Southwick but there was some very nice houses in Southwick and I grew up in a cottage. But they were always kept perfectly like little palaces. The women were house proud.
Can you remember the build up and outbreak of war?
Not really, I can remember my parents making the blackouts for the windows and I think that must be the earliest time I was aware of the war because I was only 6 and 2 months and I don’t really know when my sister was evacuated and why I wasnt. I think it might have been because I was in hospital having my adenoids out and when I came back from the hospital she might have disappeared. I remember lying on my back on the bed and banging my heels against the wall crying ‘I want Jean, I want Jean’, because we had never been separated and I wanted her to play with and I was told she was evacuated and I wanted to go and be evacuated.
Did you ever worry during the war what might happen?
Oh yes I had nightmares and even 77 years later I can remember them. I had a vision of me mam and dad walking away from our street and it had all been bombed and they just had a little suitcase and we were away either evacuated or staying with grandparents and we didnt know where they were. But as for during the air raids I suppose our parents were worried all the time if there would still be a house when we came out of the shelter I don’t think we worried so much about that at such a young age.
What were the day to day living conditions like in Southwick? What was a typical day like?
Well there was blackout we didnt very much go out to play there was white paint put round the lamposts and on the kerbs so that, to try and stop people falling over or walking nto walls and things. there was an awful lot of queueing everything rationed, meat especially seemed to be scarce and of course fruit, we never seen an orange or a banana but I still remember going to Thompson Park to play whether it was later in the war or not because it was quite a long walk and I dont think my parents would have wanted us so far away. We had to change pour Sunday school because it was further away. We went to one at the bottom of Stoney Lane it was a queer end building and I can only remember it once very vaguely but when the war started we came to a nearer church dad was a methodist and m,am was a church of england so we went to the methodists which was slightly nearer.
What was it like being in the air raids?
It was frightening and it was terrible being woken up from a deep sleep and having to go into the shelter and of course the shelter wasnt all that warm or comfortable or anything ot had bunks in it of course and blankets and things and we heard the bombs dropping and if there had been damage round about the smell of the plaster and things. I remember one time we were in the shelter and there was a rat tat tat going and I thought it was somebody who had been bombed out wanting to come into our shelter and there were rattling this stick on the front door to get our attention to come in and it was actually bombews, not bombs, guns. Apparently they had guns on trailers they brought round the streets and it was the bullets going up. But I was still going let them in, let them in.
What was the food like and when rationing kicked in did you notice much of a difference.
Oh yes you might get one slice of corn beef or something whereas now you would have a roast and things like that, it was very difficult then and I think the… I think it was hard for parents but of course I didnt appreciate that at the time but my mother was a good cook and could skin rabbits and clean herrings and crabs and things like that. I can’t really remember being hungry but maybe my parents were i dont know.
Can you remember any funny incidents at all?
Not necessarily funny, frightening ones. My sister who was 2.5 years older she was more of a tomboy than me and she got me into all kinds of trouble. And, there had been a big raid in the next street to our school and instead of going straight home from school we went down to the next street to see the bomb damage and there were wardens picking up the debris and I was sure when they picked that great big piece of wood up there would be a dead body underneath it and I was absolutely terrified. There was one time where we were up for a walk on North Hilton Road and there was an aeroplane standing in the field and of course we went over to get to it but we were chased away as there was a guard on it. I think it must have been coming back to Udsworth and it hadnt quite made it and in those fields of course there was great big ditches dug or concrete poles cemented in so that aircraft could not land in them, must have greatly feared invasion at that time.
Can you remember anything tragic happening around your family or your community?
We always went out to see the bomb damage bu twe didnt actually, we knew people whose houses had been damaged but not anybody that had been killed, one of my cousins I never knew died in an air crash in Scotland, he had been a spitfire pilot during the war and died just after the war after it had crashed before VJ Day. I do remember hearing about this special bomb that had been discov… invented and that obviously was the atomic bomb. And that was the end of the war and after the war I remember seeing men back from the war with half a leg missing and it was just like a wooden stump and when we were at Sunday school ands there was a man used to come in and he must have been shell shocked because he just used to stand at the back and shout must have been post traumatic stress.
Must have been frightening as a child to witness the aftermath.
Yes and of course a lot of the soldier couldn’t get jobs and they were just scrapping about at things there was one man who had been in the air force was making little rocking horses and he took an empty shop at the top of our street.
How did you cope generally day to day with fear, was it something you though about a lot or was it just when there was an incident?
I remember if we were out for a walk and we saw a man coming towards us we’d think ‘ Eee he might be a German thats crosse dover, of course as a 6 year old I had an imagination. I remember just after the war a slightly funny incident , I was 12 year old I must have been very naive. There was a German submarine had been captured and was on show in the South dock and we were taken down from school to walk through it and all the way walking through this kind of galley I was thinking, ‘There will be a German in those cupboards and he will jump out on me’. I mean 12 year old, I should have been past that, a modern day 12 year old would have been!
Where were you when the war ended and what can you remember about it?
Just hearing about the special bomb, I cant really remember VE Day. We used to listen to the news my dad used to say ‘come on sit down and be quiet, listen to the the news’, of course as a child it didnt mean a lot and my Nana who lived next door didnt have a radio and we would be sent to tell her like ‘Belgium has been invaded’, only it was just words and sometimes she came into listen to our radio. And I remember one time she disagreed with something the newsreader had said and she said ‘If I tell him whats wrong can he hear me?’.
What were the changes at school during the war?
The schools closed immediately I was in the infants, I must have just been in the first year of the infants and they closed. Some of the junior schools went to houses but just for odd half days and then after a few months I went to join my sister who was evacuated and the village school having all these extra children there were 2 classes in one room, one facing the front and one facing the back and I think the local children resented us a little bit. I dont think they were friendly. I wasn’t evacuated long. There was the Phoney War, the raids had not started but they started when I got back. In 41 and 42 which was horrendous with air raids.
Do you ever think back to the war.
I have very much lately because I thought I better write things down, I’ve written my life story because I thought it would be a shame for my nieces and nephews who have no experience of these types of things so Ive been thinking about it quite a lot and I am very interested in local history and I have thousands of books, so I do think about it.
Did you want to show us some of the stuff you have brought through?
There was an air raid shelter under the green at Southwick and when we were going to school me sister and I sometimes walked through it, must have been for a dare. It was frightening but that’s in Mulberry Park but it must have been something like that, we walked in at one end through the shelter and out the other end, it was dark and quiet and frightening. The beaches were closed, they had those rolls of barbed wire to stop invasions so I dont know how I think I seen that picture. Thats the fishermans cottages and Im sure I have seen the roofs like that but I dont know quite why, how, when the beaches were closed. I remember after the war Marsden beach was open and the whole family of us walked to Marsden from Southwick and ke brother was int he prm and me sister was sitting on the pram and the rest of us including me Nana who would have been in her 70’s all walked to Marsden to get on the beach. I live 5 minutes from it now and dont go. But we were used to walking in those days.
Must have been a novelty to have the freedom back?
It must have been. I should have taken more notice at the time but..
And is there anything else you remember from the time that you’d like to let us know about?
Well it was fun when we were evacuated. Me sister had been there for a while, well maybe a month or so before I went and I remember walking down from Southwick with my Mum and dad and it must have been very early in the morning because the first trams were coming out of the tram depot at the wee chief and they were all lacked out and there was blue paint on the windows and the lamps were shaded so this must have been between 5 and 6 in the morning and I got on the train. There was a lady taking me and she was going to visit her son in the same village place and Id been bought a comic as a treat and I looked at t for a bit and then put it down because i wanted to look out the window and she said ‘Shall I put that in me bag?’ and I never saw that comic again and I feel as if she stole it after 77 years. I mean I don’t think I had finished it and certainly my sister hadnt seen it so why did she take it and that annoys me to this day. But it was interesting because the man was a blacksmith and we saw the horses coming to get their shoes put on. I love seeing blacksmiths even to this day. Last year we went down and found the house again its changed a bit since then but it was nice to see it again.
You mentioned that you had gone down to the Imperial War Museum?
What was it like experiencing that so many years later?
It was more frightening than the actual raid actually, it was a brick shelter the same as we had in our back yard ands we sat in long benches at the side and heard the bomb dropping and even though we knew it was a mock up we were sitting like this as if it were real. And when we came out we smelt the plaster and everything… off course we didnt see houses demolished round about us like we had in the 3ar but it was frightening I suppose bing older it had more impact that was about 1992 or 1993. It was some commemoration it might have been DDay or something. Have you interviewed any soldiers?
No not yet.
Because I have a sister in Hampshire well her father in law is 101 and he was on the D-Day beaches bright as a button he is and he just got a medal from France. He could probably tell you some interesting stories.
Id love to speak to him yes,
I will see if I can get his phone number and I will email it to you.
Have you seen the veteran walks in Mulberry Park.
I have, its nice to see new commemorations starting.
People seem to be taking more notice of it now.
I think there is an appreciation of what your generation went through and did for everyone else.
Well I wasn’t in the army or anything. I had a friend who was in the air force and she used to go out to planes that had crashed and see injured pilots or maybe even dead crew on the aeroplanes but she doesn’t talk about it and I had another friend who didnt want to kill anyone so he volunteered as a bomb disposal and he was the most decorated man in the world. George Cross, George Medal and bar and he had some interesting stories to tell but you can’t interview him because he’s… gone.
And what’s your life been like after the war?
Ive had a good life, if I die tomorrow I can’t grumble. I am 83. I worked, left school on Friday and started working in an office on Monday and children cant expect that nowadays. I enjoyed my job and worked hard. Had a good marriage, I’ve been a widow for 26 years. But Im still doing my bit.