Wartime memories of Valerie Ivison
Valerie Ivison, née Evans, was born in 1930 in Rusholme in Manchester and she was 9 years old at the start of World War 2.
This transcript records her memories before and during World War 2 together with other experiences.
The transcript and the video are about 1 hour 8 minutes long.
Recorded in Salford on 10th April 2018.
[Pauses indicated by ….]
Time codes on film indicated by Hour:Minute:Second for ease of reference between transcript and film on YouTube.
Valerie: Well, I was born in September 1930 in Rusholme and in those days as far as I know, if you could afford it, you went into a little nursing home, and I was born there, and we lived in Didsbury. But very soon, my father moved, and we went to live in Matlock for a while and then to Ulverston in Lancashire and that’s where I first went to school, a little school, a little primary school called Bardsea, because it was on Bardsea Bay. I don’t suppose it is there now. And we used to have to take our dinner and our teacher, makes me smile because I was a teacher, the teacher, if I took an egg, would boil the egg for me. I’d have my bread and butter and cheese, boil the egg, and sometimes, it was sandwiches, but we always had to take our own dinner because we were too far to go home.
And we left there when I was 7 and my father …. we went to Brighouse in Yorkshire which strangely enough was where my mother had come from. So, we were all busy doing circles and going back and we lived there from when I was 7 until I went away to be a student. And so, I spent the war years in Brighouse.
I went to primary school, to Carr Green Country Primary School and, in those days, you had to sit for the scholarship, and I got …. I was the only girl that got a scholarship. There was me and there were 2 boys and they went to the boys’ school, because there were no mixed grammar schools in Brighouse at that time. I went to Brighouse Girls Grammar School which is a two-form entry and it was very itsy bitsy and a bit lady-like and, well, in those days, you couldn’t, you hadn’t to speak at the change of lessons as you walked along the corridor in single file, and nobody spoke. And eventually, many years later when I became the …. when I became head girl, I reformed the place, and I thought that it was very regimented and didn’t give the girls any credit for having any common sense, etc. And I negotiated with the head. She was the head mistress, very much so, a head mistress …. I negotiated with her that as long as we were civilised, we didn’t necessarily have to walk like soldiers in straight lines and we were allowed if necessary, just to speak, along as we were let like ladies.
So, that was, that was probably my first move into reforming things.
And then I went away, I went to, this was 1948 when the soldiers were still returning from the War. We had very few universities and soldiers were taking a lot of the places. So, there were not many places for kids from school and, I had a place at Manchester to read History, but this was absolutely unheard of in …. when the exams, and the exams for the …. were late then, now they are very early. They were late and of all things, me that is never ill …. I had tonsillitis and quinsy and so, I couldn’t take what were Higher School Certificate, couldn’t take them. Now, because I was very young, the school said, and the university said, my birthday was September, and in those days, the date for change was the first of October, not the first of September …. So, I was very very young. Wherever I was, I was always the youngest in the class, or the group and the university and the school said, “Well, she’s very young, she’ll only be 18 when she goes again next year, so, stay at school another year ….” But, but, my father wouldn’t have that. So, I went to what was then a training college and I went for two years to train to be a teacher.
I was very cross as the years went on, because I did write to the, what was then the Department …. I think it was the Department for Education? Education and Science, DES, and I did say, “I had two years ….”, in those days, it was free, 2 years free, post-18 education, “May I have the other two that I would have had, if I had done 3 years for the degree and the year for the teacher training ….” “May I have those other 2 years and I will pay for a year, myself, because I want to go and do my degree ….”
And they wouldn’t have it. So, I have always been resentful about that. But, because I am me, I decided eventually that I should do a degree, so, I did my degree, part time. I had got a husband, two kids and a full-time job, but I did my degree.
And I went to Lancaster. The outpost was Chorley. I went 2 nights a week to Chorley and, some residential in holidays, and I did my degree that way, and eventually, when I was 44, I got my degree, but presented at Lancaster by Princess Alexandra and she said to me …. By this time, I had just got a headship and, which …. that is another side to the story.
I am not very good with little children, I wasn’t all that good with my own little children but, adolescents are my forte and I love adolescents, and I always worked in the secondary field, and I …. you perhaps don’t want to know this story at the moment, but it is quite an interesting story how I eventually became …. I went back to work part-time ….
The interesting bit here perhaps is …. but when I first started work in 1950, I got £20 a month. In 1956, I had my first baby and so I was out. I didn’t go to school; I didn’t work for 3 years. Then I did …. I had another child, and then I did part-time, and when I went part-time. Things had really progressed because I got what was £5 a week, £20 a month, exactly as much as I had had full time, when I started. I got £20 a month for doing part-time and when my children had, of course, being my children, they would be awkward. They had measles, not together but for 2 weeks and then 2 weeks ….
So, I paid my £5 which was a pound a day, a morning …. to a lady who came and stayed with my children, so I could go to school and keep going. I, I became Senior Mistress in a mixed school and a bit funny because the Head Teacher, a man, of course …. He’d been a …. oh, what was it? A Captain, I think, in the War and he was very …. a Captain very physically orientated and, in company at school and at meetings, he would always introduce me as MY Senior Mistress, which amused people and so, when …. and then, because of educational changes, this was all in Salford, I have always worked and taught all my life in Salford, and when there was some re-organisation and the school, I was working in was closed, the kids and teachers were sent to other places. And I went to Hope High School and I was, I worked there, and I started, one of things I started was, in school, was careers guidance. This was really quite bizarre at that time.
We had Youth Employment Officers, and I worked with a Youth Employment Officer and I was one of the first members of the National Association of Careers and Guidance Teachers, and I used to go to conferences and all sorts of things ….
Michael: What year was that?
Valerie: I can give you the year exactly, let me just work it out …. 70, about 70 …. 68, 70 ….
Michael: What I would like to do, if I may, because we, we’ve come away from the War, so ….
Valerie: Sorry ….
Michael: No, that’s all right, because we can come back, and we can come back to what you were saying a bit later on, but ….
Valerie: Go back to the War ….
Michael: Yes, what do you remember, if anything, about the advent of war and the outbreak? Do you have any sort of memories ….?
Valerie: I do, I can remember very clearly the nervous alarms, remember, I was a little girl. I was 8 in 1938 when Chamberlain went to Munich and I remember something about the nervous anxiety of my parents. So, I was an only child and I just remember the sort of nervousness, and perhaps relief that wasn’t relief and I remember, I remember 1939, very clearly because it was a very hot Summer and we had no fire. It was real fires, coal fires in the grate and we had no fire and I remember the outbreak of the War. I remember the horror when, and I can hear, as I am talking to you now, I can hear Chamberlain saying “I have to tell you, we have had no response and therefore, we are at war with Germany ….”
I do remember that quite clearly, I can hear him and, then there was this sort of quiet period when, of course as a child, I didn’t know, I didn’t know what was going on, but my father worked for, at that point. He worked for the Wool Control in Bradford, and the Wool Control was immediately evacuated to Ilkley ….
So, my father and all the people’s cars, ordinary people couldn’t have petrol and cars. So, my father had to live in Ilkley from Monday to Saturday. He came home Saturday lunchtime, and went Monday morning, somebody who was allowed a car to collect these people went and that’s what happened, so my mother and I were on our own and, well, I think the probably next thing to tell you is about Dunkirk.
I remember Dunkirk as well as it was last night because hot Summer again, everybody out in the road talking, the neighbours talking and worrying. People had soldiers there, family, sons and the one day, I am not sure which day, it was, I can’t remember, but my mother, because she had a child under, I was 9, I was nearly 9, because, this was in May 1939|, May and June ….
Michael: Yes ….
Valerie: This was May and June ….
Michael: That would be before the outbreak of War ….
Valerie: No, no, sorry, I was 40, 1940, that’s better, 1940, yes, May and June 1940, Dunkirk, and so, I was not 10 until the September, so it was just before I was 10 and my mother, because she had a young child, only had to do part time work, so, she went and worked, doing dinners in a local school, she was a dinner assistant in a local school and, the loud speakers came round the streets ….
There was a lot of information imparted by loudspeakers and, she had, all the women had to go to the Sunday Schools and this particular Sunday School because there was a train bringing soldiers from Dunkirk. We had been hearing the news
We knew terrible things were happening and we knew they were having to evacuate the soldiers and there was a train coming. Well, we knew in school, I don’t quite know how we knew in school but when I left school at …. in the afternoon, I went to Sunday School where my mother was, and the train had brought these soldiers, battle scarred, in blankets and very, very, some of them very distressed, and they put them on lorries at the station and they had taken them to this centre, which was opened, it was the …. the Sunday School centre where from somewhere had come tables and chairs and urns and food and equipment and along the trestle tables along the wall ….
They put underpants and vests and trousers and things, and there were people there and the soldiers were fed and watered and then they had to go along this row and collect their equipment, they were given kitbags and they’d collect all the equipment and then they had to get on to the lorries by which time the women who were doing the meals and seeing to them because there were Army people doing the giving out the equipment. The women were told to go home, and I went home with my mother and soon, the lorry came in the road and the officer came to the door, and he knocked on the door and he said, “How many people live here?”
My mother said “Two, myself and my child ….” And the officer came in to check the bedrooms and the beds and then he went out and he said, “Two!”
And two soldiers came. And what they had to do was give them a bath. They were told to go home and put the heating system …. In our case, of course, we had to light a fire to get hot water, because it was an old-fashioned back boiler, as it was in those days. And they had to be given a bath. They got their clean clothes to put on and then my mother had to make …. she made a meal and I think, eventually, I think they were probably paid for the meal, I think. They may have been given food, just remember we were on strict rations. And these soldiers had their meal, and I remember sitting on the mat, no fire in the grate because it was a very warm, very warm time and these soldiers telling us how the Germans dive bombed them on the beaches, how they were dive bombed trying to get to the ships. How some of the ships were blown up and some of the horrible things they had experienced.
So, that was very clear in my mind and then, we got, we had an evacuee later, from London, a little girl called Elizabeth, Elizabeth Kirby and we looked after her and I took her to school. And one weekend, her parents came up to see her and, they just had a carrier bag, they didn’t have a suitcase or any…., they had a carrier bag, and I don’t think they had much in the way of the sort of things we would take if we were going away for the weekend and they wanted to go out and take her out. Of course, my mother couldn’t say “No ….”. So, they took her out, but a neighbour later told us that this little girl was sitting on the doorstep of the pub, down the, down the hill and the parents were inside, because in those days, apparently, you couldn’t take a small child in ….
Anyway, we had her for several years during the War until she went home.
Other things, I remember about the War. Although we were fairly safe in Brighouse, there were a lot of raids on Bradford and we used to sleep, we had a big square table and we used to sleep, my mother and I, and this child, under the table. We used to put the mattress and the eiderdown and everything, we had an eiderdown. [laughing] No duvets in those days, we had blankets and an eiderdown, and we slept under the table when there was a raid on ….
Michael: Was that a special table or just ….
Valerie: No, no, no, it was our dining table, we had a big square dining table and we had to get underneath, and do as we were told then, what else do I remember about the War?
I remember at school, by this time, I was at the Grammar School. We had adjacent to the school, the land rose and in there, they had dug some tunnels and they put seats along each side of this rather horrible tunnel, and there were some lights, and when there was a daylight raid in Bradford which occasionally, very occasionally, not very often, we had to go, we had our lessons sitting in this tunnel. I remember that and then, eventually, I remember D-Day and, and I can see it, I was in a Latin class and the school secretary, we had a secretary in the school, she came round, and she just knocked on the door, opened the door|. She said, this must have been what? About 10 o’clock on the morning of the 6th June and she said, “They’ve landed! They’ve landed, it’s started!” So, we were all excited and …. and then soon after that I remember being at home plus the communicat…., nobody really had telephones and communication was by telegraph boys, young boys who had recently left school on bicycles being sent, and it was a yellow, very yellow envelope with the message in, and I remember the, the boy coming to the house next door, his name was, the man, the airman, he was an airman that lived there with his mother, and ….
He was, he was called Harold King and he was a pilot. He was only very young. I don’t know whether he was, I don’t know what he was flying but this telegram came to say that he had been killed in action and I can hear the mother screaming. That was horrible. And lots of other people that we knew lost relatives and husband, fathers and things ….
One thing, I remember about the rationing because I had a green ration book, so, that was very special and if there was a …. a shipload of bananas had come, then it went round the town like wildfire. I don’t know how everybody knew but you know about the grape vine and there were bananas. So, for green books only …. So, I think babies were blue, children above toddlers to perhaps, would it be 14 or 15? It was green, and then the adults had a buff coloured one. So, green ration books could have a banana, so, my mother and all the other women literally, literally, ran ….
Now, we lived up a hill, so, she ran. You had to go all down the hill, down Huddersfield Road into the town to where there was the green grocer’s, where they had got the bananas and she got in this queue, tremendous queue and she was 3 hours in that queue and she got 2 bananas. Right? That was wonderful because when I came home from school, there were 2 bananas. Well, a banana in those days was a meal. So, I had a banana and some bread and butter, and that was my meal and later that night, it was quite strange, the way this happened. Later that night, my mother went to the Missionary. What did they call? The London Missionary Society, I think, and they used to meet, once a week in somebody’s house and they were knitting, and they were knitting 6″ squares which one of them then sewed together, and those were, I never knew a soldier who had one, but they spent hours knitting squares to make blankets for soldiers and ….
My mother was going round the, round the corner to this house and when I had done my homework, I, although there was blackout, it was only round the corner. So, I …. so, I went to meet her and walk home with her because that was my little bit of exercise and when I got there, knocked on the door and was let in. I went in, and there on the sideboard, there was a fruit bowl with a hand of bananas in! Well, I looked at this and I said, “Bananas!” and the lady of the house who was the wife of the Churchwarden, who had no children, said, “We know the greengrocer ….” And that was my very first moment of questioning people who are religious, but these were the people who ran the Church, these were the …. the people who told us what was good, and how we should behave ….
My mother had queued for 3 hours to get 2 bananas on my ration book and this woman with no children had, I seem to remember there were 6 …. How could it be? But the stupid woman hadn’t had the common sense to leave them in the …. So, I am not, I know we are not here to tell for me to tell you my other experiences, of things that shook me and made me sit back and question but there were, there have been things at stages in my life that made me question ….
Anyway, so, that was the bananas, that was the rationing. How did we eat?
Well, to start with we …. we dug up the lawn and we grew potatoes and we grew various bits of things and one of the things that my mother and I did because remembering we had no plastic bags or anything, we only had paper bags that we put things in, and …. and there were wicker baskets, you did your shopping with your wicker basket.
Now, once a week, my mother and I, we had some big gloves and we lived quite near to Bradley Wood. Anyone who is watching this and lives in Huddersfield or Brighouse, they will know Bradley Wood and if you are going on the Motorway, the 62, and you are going down the hill from Brighouse, go right down to the river, the, the …. oh, gosh, the Calder right down to the river and up the other side towards Leeds, all on that left side is the Bradley Woods, although, if they are still there, they were Bradley Woods.
My mother and I, we went there with this big wicker basket and guess what we collected? Nettles! And we came home with a great big basket of nettles which we washed, and we shoved in a pan, pushed it down as it boiled, and it was the …. it was just like spinach and we had that with bread and butter and that was a meal, once a week, and I always say when people say, “Good God, woman ….”, I say, “That’s why I am so beautiful, it’s all that Vitamin C and all that chlorophyll that I got from the nettles ….”
So, that is one thing we had. Another thing, we had stuffing. Everyone knows how to make stuffing. You tear up the bread and pop it down and shove it in the fat in the hot oven. Well, we did that, but if we were lucky, we had an egg. I had, as a child, most weeks, I had one egg. Many weeks, my mother didn’t have any egg at all. Sometimes they were lucky, and they got and egg but there was some stuff called ‘Dried Egg’ that came from America in a tin, which they mixed, and you could, you could make omelettes and things with it and we did. But this one egg of mine would go into the big dish of the stuffing that was made and one egg and, of course, remember bread was rationed as well. One egg and the bread, and the onions and the sage mixed all up into the hot fat in the oven and all crisped up, lovely and crispy and we had that with an Oxo cube and that was another meal. And we had a thing that some, I don’t know why, we called it ‘Decent’ and it was a small piece of potato boiled up with an onion and when they were cooked, the water was drained off, most of it, and a little milk added and cornflower of flour, some sort of thickening and then we had 2 ounces of butter a week, so, we had this potato and onion and a bit of thickening in a bowl and we’d have a little, little nob of butter put on it and we’d watch it melt into the …. and that was another meal.
And that’s how we lived, and that’s one reason why I and when I was poor, when I was first married and so on, and we lived on things like sheep’s heads, a sheep’s head was 8 pence. Chop it in two, take out the brains, put them in a Pyrex dish, and a little milk over a pan of boiling water and that did the baby twice with a bit of mashed up carrot ….
The head, I washed it in the …. in the washing up bowl in some salty water and then I put it in the pressure cooker and with a bit of, with some lentils and barley and onion and carrot and I did it in a pressure cooker and then I took out the tongue and the cheeks and I made potted meat and that potted meat with some bread and butter did my husband and myself for a tea ….
The next day, the … I parted with the skull but the soup, I put dumplings in, and that was a meal.
And if you look at me, all these years on, what, 70, 70, 70 or more years on, and I am not fat. I must be fairly healthy and that’s how we ate when I was a child and a teenager into my early married life ….
So, I have become a little bit impatient with how people can’t always manage their money, you know, I know how to do without because we had to do without.
Our clothes, I know how to turn a sheet because you couldn’t buy sheets really, you had coupons, you had so much, so many clothes, and there weren’t many clothes to buy anyway but right into …. well into, long into my married life, I would take sheets, I presume they were cotton in those days, cut it in the middle and sides to middle it and it did another couple of years ….
Michael: I doubt that many people will remember that actually ….
Valerie: No, well, that’s …. I did that ….
Michael: Just coming back to the end of the War, what do you remember of V.E. Day?
Valerie: Right. Well, I remember that everybody was out in the street in the road. I lived on Daisy Road up the hill and everybody was out cheering and clapping and so on and we listened to the radio because in those days, we didn’t have a television in 1945 so, we listened to the radio and in those days, we also, we went to the pictures. We went to the pictures every week, we walked all the way down the hill and across the river and into the town to the cinema and we went and watched what was going on from the newsreels, the big newsreels.
Tell you something else I’ve just remembered. We had collecting a big thermometer in the town square to show how much money we had collected, and we’d be doing for submarines and we collected for submarines and to other battleship and there were those ongoing efforts ….
On V.E. Day, we …. the celebrations were more the people in the road …. the radio, I listened to the radio, and then running out and telling people what we have just heard, “Have you heard ….” and all this, this and talking to the neighbours. And then we all went to the pictures because we wanted to see the newsreels to see what was going on because that was the only way we could do it.
We did actually get …. oh, touched the [microphone]. We did actually get a television in 1947 for the Queen’s Wedding and we got this little black and white television in the corner and we moved the furniture and we got all the stools, and all the neighbours came and watched the Wedding in our house. I remember that. But I don’t remember much else about V.E. Day except the euphoria and the relief and being in the road with the people, with the neighbours and this continual running to the pictures to see the newsreels.
Michael: Did V.J. …. excuse me ….
Valerie: Oh, I can tell you about V.J. Day, yes. Well, V.J. Day, that was in …. in August, that was a few weeks, May, June, July, August, three or four months later, 6th of August. We were, we, we used to go to Southport, for a week, for a holiday and we stayed in a boarding house where ….
I don’t, probably people today don’t, don’t, will be surprised to hear this, the lady supplied the breakfasts and it would be something quite simple like a …. because we had to take our, we had to take rations …. We had to take things, she couldn’t supply much but …. and my mother would then go to the shops to try and buy something which the lady would then cook for our lunch and our tea would be something simple like beans on toast and one of the things that I did because I hadn’t got a bicycle, everybody else had a bicycle ….
This is, this is probably coming after the War and so, I saved my pocket money and, it was, I think it was 6d for the hour and went and hired a bike and I rode about and I had to walk down the pier, Southport pier, for anybody who knows it ….
I had to walk down Southport pier and I had to pretend I had a book on my head and I had to walk along a plank and to my mother for making me do that. I am grateful because that gave me the beginning of what I has been advantageous for me in my career you know.
So, so that …. V. J. Day. We were in Southport and my, my mother and I …. Where my father was, he wasn’t there but my mother and I were in the Floral Gardens, people who watch this will probably know the Floral Gardens. We were in there, listening to the Band and my mother could hear, about 4 o’clock, my mother could hear the paperboy shouting as they used to. They used to walk along the Front shouting, [Loudly] “Paper! Paper!” So, my mother gave me some money, it was only coppers, wouldn’t it then? And told me to get a paper. So, I did, and he was shouting that the War was over, Japan had surrendered, and I brought this paper back …. Japan, I can see it, “JAPAN SURRENDERS.”
I brought it back to her, I said “Look, look, look what’s happened ….” and she said to me “Right, go and stand where the platform ….” where the conductor was. She said “…. and when he has finished his piece, poke his leg and give him this ….”
So, I did that, and I poked his leg and I gave it to him and he, on his microphone told and announced, and he read it to the people.
So, that was that was my part in the Armistice for the …. when Japan was finished, I don’t suppose, probably now is …. you will have people who will tell you about what happened, but I do remember quite a lot of the stories that people told when they came home about the …. particularly about the the cruelty of the Japanese ….
Michael: I mean, one of the concerns, I think, was that people who had been captured by the Japanese didn’t come back in a terribly good state ….
Valerie: Well, I was only a child and they kept these people away from us but I do know that somebody down the road …. He, he couldn’t work, and he couldn’t anything, he was, I suppose today we would call it ‘traumatised’, would we?
Michael: Probably, yes ….
Valerie: And he never recovered from that. It was the mental shock, the mental illness, perhaps, worse than the physical things.
Michael: Yes ….
Valerie: Yes, so, so that was sort of there, but at that point, the War was over, we had to get on with it, we were to put the World right and I remember things. I remember when Roosevelt died. I remember the meeting with the Russians in, oh, in Ukraine …. oh, not, oh, the Crimea. They went and met. I remember that because we …. we heard it on the news, but we always had to go, it is difficult for people today, because they see everything.
Michael: Yes ….
Valerie: But the only way we could see anything was to go to the Pictures which we did, and I remember the founding of the United Nations and, by this time, this was nineteen forty fifty, 1950, I think [Actually established in 1945] ….
I was, I was doing my final exams, I think this is probably quite interesting because I was doing my final exams and I, apart from all the education and the teaching things which was amazing, we were amazingly, amazingly taught how to be a teacher, how to manage a classroom ….
As the years went on, and I received students from Manchester University, my school, when I was Head Teacher, I couldn’t believe they didn’t know the basic mechanics. They hadn’t been told the basic mechanics of classroom management ….
However, we’d done all, I’d done all that and, and I was, I had done history, geography, politics and economics and it must have been my history paper and the question was because they were planning the United Nations.
Or, the United Nations was in, I know, it was operable by then, they’d planned it and got it going but the question was, “What chance is there of the United Nations doing better and being more effective at keeping World Peace than the League of Nations?” That was the question.
This was 1950. What was it, June, July? And, I wrote, I remember quite clearly because we talked about this that unless the United Nations had a physical force, to force a recalcitrant country to come into line, it would fail like the League of Nations had failed.
Now, between me writing that and it being marked, North Korea invaded South Korea so, it was very pertinent to what was going on. Yes, because the League …. United Nations was formed straight after the War, of course, but this was its first real test in 1950.
And, I think that was soon after that when my neighbour was in Korea and Hong Kong. So that was perhaps quite telling, particularly to what is happening today because we are, because we are all taught. We are all what my Grandma would say, “We are all piss and puff ….”
There is no ‘oomph’ and it is very difficult but unless there is some force to make an invader do as they are told or stop bombing or do this, if we have no force, it’s not a lot of use.
Michael: In a way, I guess you are probably saying that history tends to repeat itself to an extent ….
Valerie: Sadly, yea, but you see, if you are talking about history, because I read history if you are talking about history. Somebody should have told Hitler about history because the thing that finished off Napoleon really was his Russian Campaign and if Hitler had studied history, he would have known better than to go to Russia in the way he did, because that was really his death knell ….
Since …. since those times, I have been to Russia, I went to St Petersburg. I went to St Petersburg in 197…., this may be interesting, in 1979. Now the Russians went into Afghanistan in January and in February half term, I had, I was planned and booked to take 30 children to Russia, to St Petersburg and Moscow for a week.
So, this terrible thing happened in January, and I thought “Oh ….”, so, I got onto the Education Office and I said to the Senior Inspector, “Will it be safe for me to go to Russia with the children?” and he said, “Well, it would be a good idea if you have a meeting with the parents.”
So, I called a meeting of the parents and I, it was on the News, by this time we had all got tellies and so on, so, everybody knew what was going on ….
“Would it be a good idea to go to, you know, have a bit of, you know, call this off?” and the parents like one person says, “Oh, it would be all right with you!” I thought “Right!” ….
So, so, I got on to the …. wherever you get passports from, the Foreign Office and I got …. Instead of them all having their own passports, I got a communal passport so that I would carry the lot, just in case. So, we …. I prepared them as best I could for what we were going to, because I wouldn’t go anywhere anyway without preparing them ….
And everybody was all keen, and very excited that they were going to Russia but, I …. I knew that in the 6th Form College …. I knew the Vice Principal who actually taught and spoke Russian. So, I asked him to come with me. So, there was me, and him and I had 2 members of staff and a condition of him coming with me, he wanted 6 of his top students with him, Russian speakers ….
So, that was fine. So, we were all ready and we had a few Russian lessons and we could say “Das vadanya” and all these sort of things, and we went. Now this was February ….
We, we flew to Russia via Helsinki and in a snowstorm and I never thought the plane would get up. We had to land because people were getting on there. Anyway we, we got to St Petersburg ….and I had the passports and I had the money and the …. as we went through, they were very nasty with us, and…. they wouldn’t let me through with all this money.
So, all the kids had to come back, I had to give them all some money, they went through, I went through, and then they all gave me the money back, that was how silly it was ….
Lots of silly things like that happened to us, we were conscious that there would probably be some surveillance. In the rooms, kids were all lectured and threatened by me. And it was interesting that, at the end of the corridor on which the …. our rooms were, there was a table, with a Russian lady, a big Russian lady sitting, and she had a television screen.
So, every night at six o clock, we went, and we watched what was going on, because it was showing about the war. Now we couldn’t understand it of course because it was in Russian, but we could see and learn.
Now, that was where, in Russia at that time, I learned not to have milk in my tea. Because they only had what we used to call sterilised milk because it was winter and there were no cows and there was no transport bringing milk in and it was this horrendous. Well, I mean sterilised milk you used to buy when you made milk puddings, it makes fabulous rice pudding, and you can’t get it now. But I didn’t like it in tea. So, I began to drink my tea without milk, and I have never had it in tea or coffee since.
The food was abysmal, even by my standards that can manage on anything.
We had soup which was water which had had cabbage leaves in. And so on. And I had had the presence of mind, I can’t remember quite how or why, it was a long time ago. But I took with me a big, in my …. and they let me in with it, strangely without I took a big bag of All Bran, of bran, bran, proper bran. I took this bran and every night, I put a good spoonful of this bran into this horrible water flavoured by cabbage leaf and I ate it and of course, the kids said to me, “What you doing, miss? What’s that?” And I said, “Well I’m having this just to make sure I’m not constipated”. And they were all like “Oh, ho ho”.
They all laughed you see. But, as the week went on, they were saying, because there was no fruit or anything, no proper vegetables, and I’d taken some chocolate to help, to dole out. But as the week went on, they were saying, “Eh miss, can I have a spoonful of your stuff?” [Laughs]
So, I was, I was the …. the doler out of, of …. bran towards the end. Plus, what else did we do? I’ll tell you what we did ….
Now, this is interesting. In the St. Petersburg, the, the Square and there’s St Isaac’s Cathedral and opposite, there was the Square, and opposite there, there was a …. either town hall or it was some official building, with a, a …. it wasn’t a clock, it was the temperature and it showed the temperature and how low it was, we were well, well, well before [below] freezing. And we went in, we had, we had, of course a guide because it was all arranged, and we had, we had the guide, and the Russian and we went in, in buses to where we had to be.
And in fact, one day, I said to the driver and this may not be very accurate now after all these years, but I said, as I remember I said “Kak massa but?” which I thought was “How are you?” [Как ваши дела?] “How do you do, how are you?” And he nearly ran his bus into …. [Laughs] because this, this, this English woman had actually said something to him and, you know, startled him.
Anyway, we went into St Isaac’s Cathedral and if ever anybody watching this has the opportunity, go there, and check if this is still there. You know what Foucault’s pendulum is?
Michael: Yes ….
Valerie: Yes, well, Foucault’s pendulum hangs from the ceiling, very high, down to the floor. And on the floor, there’s the North, South, East and West set out as a …. and I think in St Isaac’s, it was in, in tiles and the pendulum is swinging, and as the pendulum swings, it continues to swing in its own path and it looks to be moving round, because it’s showing how we’re moving and the earth is moving because it’s not swinging straight North to South, it begins to swing differently. But that’s not moving, we’re moving and that is, that is, the most wonderful experience for kids to learn that the world is indeed turning.
And actually, there was one in the Buile Hill mansion in …. in Buile Park [Salford] …. there was one there hanging because it was a lovely entrance hall with a beautiful spiral staircase and they had a Foucault’s pendulum there ….
Michael: If I remember rightly, there is on in the Science Museum as well ….
Valerie: Yes ….
Michael: I think if I remember rightly.
Valerie: So, so, you know, so, so …. And other things we did in Russia….we, we stayed in the Rossiya Hotel, and many, many, many, many, many years later …. I was on a cruise and I went back there, all posh hotel, posh done up ….
Now, that was the hotel where Hitler had planned his triumphal banquet when Russia had collapsed. And in that hotel, in 1979, that was a long time after the war, but it was still there, there was a display case, which had like, like a pyramid, with two sides with the glass and the things displayed and on the bottom the things displayed, and it was the menus, the invitations and everything that was planned for this great banquet, which was going to be held in the Rossiya Hotel.
Now, I couldn’t believe that when I went back in, in the late 90s, more than twenty years later, nobody, nobody in the hotel knew anything about it. And I think that’s very, very sad. Surely nobody’s destroyed that because, of course, of course, he never did conquer Russia and all of those things that he got prepared, were never able to be used. So, they were the most amazing historical documents, and some idiot lost them, but I had seen them.
Michael: Can we just go back? I think we’re probably coming towards the end of the interview now, but just one thing that I wanted to ask you. You probably alluded to it earlier already, but was your father in the First World War?
Valerie: In the First War, not the Second. Yes, my father and his brother, there was my father, there were four of them, my father, brother and two sisters. And of course, if I tell you about them, you see the tragedy of the amazing death toll because although it was only four years as opposed to six for the Second War, we lost more men and …. and the women, who were at home. There were no men to marry and we had all this mass, thousands and thousands of, of old maid spinsters, of which my two aunts, they were two.
My father was in the war, and he was injured, he had a leg injury which troubled him for all of his life. And he would never talk about the war, no matter what I did, even when I was a history teacher asking him about it, I couldn’t get anything out of him at all except that he spent his twenty-first birthday in the trenches and there were four of them, shared a tin of bully beef. That is the only …. and the fact of his wound, I don’t know where he got it, what happened to him, except he was taken to a field station, and then to the hospital away from the line, and then brought home.
Now, a different story for his brother Norman. Norman was in the first wave on the first of July 1916, the Battle of the Somme, and he was in the Manchesters. They were, they were right in the forefront, and he went what was known as over the top, and that’s one reason why the current play, ‘Birdsong’, at the Lowry …. Well, it was there, there the other day, shows something of the horrors of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. And he was killed before half past eight and he was just nineteen.
So, that was before my time, but I’ve heard those stories ….my grandma, her brothers, she had two younger brothers, who were considerably younger than her, who were strangely enough, their children, my grandma’s brother’s children were really my mother’s cousins are younger than I am.
They’re all dead by the way, but they’re younger than I am, and those two brothers. One was in the, I think it was the last cavalry regiment, the last lot of our soldiers who went to war on horseback. And he was wounded and captured, and he was in a prisoner of war camp for I think, two, two or three years. And, the other brother had an arm shot off so, that was the toll on our family. One killed, one wounded with a permanent wound to the leg, one lost an arm, and one …. and one was, he was gassed, so, he was all, the one who was a prisoner was gassed and he was always, you know gasping for breath and sort of invalid ….
Michael: Just to, before we finish, thinking back – you’ve lived quite a long and interesting life. If you were to give advice today to youngsters as to how, how they might benefit in the future – what advice would you give them?
Valerie: Right, well that’s a hard question. But I would give them advice about money and food and living to start with because if you’ve no money, and nowhere to live and no food, you’re in a mess and that’s one reason why I don’t know but I am told that in schools today, they don’t do Home Economics because they should be learning some of the things that I learned and could do. They should know, that if you’ve only a little bit of money, how you manage it.
And, one of the things, and I was, I was a headteacher, I became a headteacher and I’m very proud that I was a headteacher of a big mixed school. The first woman in this part of the world to be so. And one of the things that we did, we did budgeting. They learned to fill in tax forms. We did …. You see I believe that, man does not live by bread alone. You have to be trained in order to have a skill to earn your living…. And I deplore the fact today that, we are concentrating, like blinkers on for kids to get ten ‘O’ levels and go onto Higher Education and then you know we’ve got some people might not like me saying this, but we have a large number of very second rate universities and university courses and the kids end up with second rate, tenth rate degrees. In fact, I believe that there are some universities at this moment that have actually accepted kids unconditionally that’s ridiculous. Because the kids end up, they can’t get the jobs, they end up in shops and the shops are closing, and they end up in a mess. While at the same time we do not have a very strong practical workforce. We do not have enough plumbers, joiners, brickies, electricians etcetera.
And I’m very proud of a girl that I used to teach who has been in construction in South Africa. She’s back home, horrified at what she cannot find for young white working-class boys. And she is …. and there is money to be had. She knows money, and there’s money in the, the, philanthropic money, the banks have money, whatever we say about them, the banks they have money and I’m hoping that she, she’s set out on this course, that she’s going to establish some apprentice schools. Carillion, the Carillion buildings they’re there, there were people who worked with youngsters.
[Carillion failed during 2018, after this interview]
And if you think about here, think about Bury, where the army has the recruiting and disbanding of soldiers. Many of those soldiers have no work, they come here and they’re then out of work. But if they’re there with skills, I’m hoping that this girl is going to and she’s already working with the people in charge at Bury to see if she can get them to work with her to train youngsters.
And then she needs, and the sad thing is, from my point of view, is that I am now, if only I was even ten years younger, I would ask if schools would let me in, so that I could talk to the kids and latch them into this. Because my children in my school, they could all do, they all did whether they liked it or not, they all did practical work.
All my girls went in the workshops, all my boys could sew buttons on, we did all these things. They all went in factories, and they all went in different places of employment. They all did sporting activities …. you know, billiards and ice skating. Those are the sort of things that they did and our exam results were just as good as anybody else’s, and they spent two afternoons a week doing this.
And …. and also …. and you may want to cut this out later, but we also did sex. I was the first school to actually get to grips with the problems that some of the schools had with pregnant girls. I didn’t do it, I got experts, but all my kids did a six week …. one afternoon, one afternoon for six weeks with the experts. And soon I had to …. I had to get the staff to agree, and I get the parents and the, the Chief Education Officer and so on ….
I had to get permission because it was a very tricky and dangerous thing to be doing in the mid-seventies. But I did it, and within a couple of years, I seldom had a pregnant girl. They were all in the Catholic schools because the meeting with the Chief Education Officer and the Medical Officer of Health which we had in those days, today, one of the sad things is we don’t have those people. And we had a meeting with them to promote this and of course, the Catholic heads wouldn’t have it. I think it’s probably different now, they’ve come to terms with it. So, that was one thing.
And if you’re saying to me, what would I say to the children? Those first things I’ve said. Learn to manage your money. Live, cut your coat according to your cloth.
If you’ve got a pound, only spend nineteen, well nineteen pence …. it was nineteen shillings and sixpence it used to be, but learn to manage. There are ways to make cheap meals, there are ways to manage. When I was first working as a class teacher, my first job, I had to, it was two bus rides away. And in those days, they were what they called stagers. And I used to walk two bus stops, to save one ha’penny right? And if I could do that coming back, I’d save a penny, that was five pence a week well, when you only have five pounds a week for everything, your rent, your food, everything. Five pence was very valuable, it added up. But that was, that’s the brain set I would try to inculcate into kids.
It’s all right if you’ve plenty money, and if you’ve plenty money, be generous with it. But, more than that, be generous with your time. Because there are plenty of people today who could be helping others. And one thing I used to do, I used to take children when I was a class teacher, on journeys to London.
And we used to go, we used to do lots of things, but one of things we did, we went into St Paul’s Cathedral. And in there, there’s the Holman Hunt picture of The Light of the World. And strangely enough, I just saw a bit of the University Challenge this week and one of the questions, the answer was the Holman Hunt Light of the World. Now that picture, I’m not sure it’s still hanging in St. Paul’s, it used to hang on one of those great big pillars, and I took the kids there, and it’s a picture of Christ, with trees, and birds and bees and things animals and underneath.
I think I’m right now, it’s a long time since I saw it, but I think the caption says, ‘Any good I can do, let me do it, for I may not pass this way again’. And it’s from, I can’t remember where it’s from in The Bible. Perhaps some clever person can find out but remember, ‘Any good I can do, let me do it, for I may not pass this way again’.
Michael: Valerie, thank you very much indeed, that’s absolutely great.
End of Transcription
Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Michael Thompson and Lizzie Oliver.