Lester Cunliffe was born on 29th May 1934 in South Manchester and his sister, Sylvia on 4th June 1937. They had another brother and another sister, who were born during and at the end of the War.
Their father, Samuel Cunliffe, was born in December 1910 (recorded in February 1911) and their mother, Lily (nee Lynch) was born in November 1909. During the War, they all lived in Withington, South Manchester, Samuel Cunliffe being a Tobacconist window dresser.
Lester and Sylvia both remember elements of the War, Lester being about 5 years old when it started, and Sylvia about 2 years old.
This transcript records their 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 Chorlton-cum-Hardy on 6th February 2019
[Pauses indicated by ….]
Time codes on film indicated by Hour:Minute:Second for ease of reference between transcript and film on YouTube.
Lester: Well, obviously you know the names of my mother and father, Sam and Lily and I’m led to believe that when I was 2 years of age, I moved from Moss Side into Corporation Properties …. Mother and Father been on a list for a new home and this was a relatively new building site, Withington.
We moved there in …. when I was 2 which would be 1936. In 1937, I was 3 and I became very friendly with the family across the avenue which …. I think you know about, Robert Burrows, Bobby Burrows was my best friend for the whole of my life.
But going back to my mother and father obviously …. we lived in a cul-de-sac and obviously had no memory at that time of motor vehicles, transport, there was no cars in the road, cars in the Avenue at all, so it was perfectly safe for us to play out, without any worries at all to our players. When it was time for bed, you’d be called in and we’d go and get washed and put to bed.
Eventually, I started at an infant school in Old Moat and then my first real memory of the War was when it broke out in 1939. And my father volunteered, and he went in the RAF which left my mother, myself, and my sister, Sylvia, who was only 3 at the time, and we had to sort of …. well it was a funny time. My memories of …. of that particular time …. there’s the War breaking out …. was things changed dramatically in as much as, we certainly at night time had to draw curtains. No lights were to be shown and searchlights outside and wandering around …. they were looking for aircraft ….
Michael: Can I …. I am going to suggest we just stop at that point for a second because we’ll come on to the War a bit more detail, and we’ll just hear a little bit from Sylvia, because you were born really …. Oh, about three years after, weren’t you?
Sylvia: Yes, yes, yes, Lester was three. I do have some very early memories that must be pre-war because …. maybe it’s just that I’ve been told about them, you never know what you’ve seen and what you’ve been told.
Sylvia: but there’s an image in my head we had a swing in the back garden, and they used to set me on the swing and Dad would sit on a chair, reading his paper, just pushing the swing with his foot, but not disturbing himself at all. He was always a master of doing two things at once and I …. I remember, we had very good neighbours next door. They were Scottish and much older than my parents. The husband had served in the First World War and had been gassed. And I think I possibly must have started to go to nursery just before the War began ….
Sylvia: That, I remember because we had these coarse grey blankets that have been blanket stitched all the way around with symbols on and your symbol you stuck with and that was on your coat hanger and …. and then after lunch you were put on these fold-out army camp type beds ….
Sylvia: …. for a sleep …. [Laughing] It doesn’t happen now …. and covered up with this grey rough blanket …. and I remember having nits. And my mother went to the school and she played ‘merry dibble’ with them. “My daughter’s never had ….” They like clean heads, you know, and they pass around and she had to cut all me ringlets
Michael: Can you remember what school that was?
Sylvia: That was Old Moat ….
Lester: Old Moat school, that was ….
Michael: And you were both there, were you?
Lester: We were both there ….
Sylvia: Till we were 11 ….
Michael: Yes …. So …. perhaps you would carry on from there, then ….
Lester: Yea, well obviously at 5, I was going to school and then war broke out but that didn’t make a great deal of difference from memory of …. because obviously there were teachers that disappeared …. I can’t remember the names of my teachers in those days …. So, schooling I would think we found a little bit easier inasmuch as it wasn’t, you weren’t pushed but …. obviously, it wasn’t long before the War broke out.
Now, my early memories of before the War were playing with the friends in …. the Avenue was full of young families …. there were lots of children in, in the road, boys and girls, mainly girls, lots of girls and we all sort of played out together, perfectly safe. No, no chance but then of course when war broke out, some of the parents obviously went in, in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force and we lived at home.
In that particular time, I can remember the air-raid shelter being put up in the back and my mother dressing it up. It was just like another home, made it as comfortable as possible, but every time a warning came, an air-raid warning came on, we all had to get out of the house and go into this shelter. I don’t know if Sylvia can remember it, but it had to smell all of its own, didn’t it?
Sylvia: It’s the smell that’s, yes ….
Lester: Earthy smell because obviously it was about six feet under the ground, part of it, we walked down steps to get into it, but when an air-raid was on, it was quite exciting because …. getting up and going out …. in your pyjamas and going in this thing, and it was fully converted. There was bunks in it with blankets and …. candles we had, I remember the candles or smell of the candles …. but that was the excitement of it.
The other thing is of course …. suddenly my memory …. I remember very much missing my father. Although he never went abroad, he was away and he didn’t come home very often, but you know it was lovely to see him when he did come home, but he didn’t stay long you know, it might be a weekend pass, and then he’d have to go back. But at that particular time, there was just Sylvia and myself and Mother used to take us into her bed, do you remember?
Lester: We used to sleep with them …. Just a precaution in the War. If it was an air-raid on, it was quick to get us both and downstairs and out into the air-raid shelter.
Michael: Tell me ….
Lester: If you want me, sorry ….
Michael: I was just going to say, tell me a little bit about your father because he was called up was he?
Lester: No, no, he volunteered. They asked for volunteers and ….
Sylvia: Tell him …. Tell him about the getting in …. about the interview.
Lester: I don’t remember that
Sylvia: You do, when they asked him what he did.
Sylvia: Well for starters he cheated to get in. He would never have been accepted because he had no sight in one eye.
Michael: Right ….
Sylvia: Um …. and when he went for the medical, he was just asked to “Cover up your right eye and read that chart …. now cover up your left eye ….” and of course he did that [peering through her other eye] and read both sheets with his good eye. So, he got in but when they …. he went …. they were trying to classify them as to which service they were going in and then, now you take it up ….
Lester: Yeah, well, they said “Well, what could you do?” So ….
Sylvia: “What’s your job?”
Lester: What’s your job? So, he said, “a Window Dresser.” They looked at him, “What’s a Window Dresser?” [Laughing] He said “No, no ….” They said “Are you any good at anything at all?” He said, “Well, I could change a plug.” “They said “That’s it …. We’ll you put you down as an electrician.” [Laughing] So, he went into the RAF and he did what was ever necessary and he ended up, so I am told years afterwards, he was on the ground staff …. one of the repair men that, when the aircraft came back, they all used to shoot out and check it all over. And some of the …. some of the planes that came back were so badly shot up, you know, that some couldn’t be repaired and put back ….
Sylvia: This was Bomber Command.
Lester: Oh yes, he was doing Lancasters, he was on the Lancaster bomber, one thing and another. All these stories were related to me when I was older so, they are not a memory of when I was seven or eight you know. I just knew that my father was away, and there was a war on and that was it. I had no idea that’s why we’d gone to war or anything like that. We weren’t told anything like that.
Michael: Do, do you remember where he was stationed?
Lester: Well yeah, yeah, but funny you should say that because Sylvia came round with a card, the other day and on it, she said “That’s where Dad was, North Creake.” Now, the name rang a bell but I always remembered him being at Wellesbourne.
Lester: That was my vivid memory, it was at Wellesbourne which is in the Midlands.
Michael: That’s right, yes ….
Sylvia: Near Stratford, yes
Lester: Near Stratford on Avon, isn’t it?
Michael: That’s right.
Lester: And yea ….
Sylvia: Somehow, we’ve got a picture of Mum because she went down to Stratford and spent a weekend with him.
Lester: Yeah ….
Sylvia: and she had that suit on with his RAF wings ….
Lester: With the RAF badge on ….
Sylvia: Fixed on her waistcoat, yea …. but I remember the raids because this Scotsman who lived next door was an ARP warden, and he would come into the house and wrap me up and carry me out. I do remember that. I mean may have been waken and taken out to the shelter, and I do remember the smell ….
Lester: Yeah, yeah …. Well, weren’t …. going back to early childhood, after the air raid, they weren’t actually planning to bomb anywhere where we lived, were they? But we were very close to Trafford Park ….
Lester: …. which was the main target, and then of course, there was Salford, and both those places were …. had factories that were doing nothing but munitions and building parts for ….
Michael: Yes ….
Lester: I’ll tell you a story that father told me years afterwards. He said when he was called up and he went in the RAF. Well, he wasn’t called up, but when he went into the RAF and eventually …. was stationed I think his first one was Wellesbourne, wasn’t it? I’m not sure ….
Sylvia: I can’t remember now ….
Lester: …. but just going back to 1940 we are talking about now, he said when …. when went on guard duty at the …. he said you had to do, each one of you took a turn, it might be one night a week. You’d been …. he said, we didn’t have rifles, we had no rifles. We used to march up and down with a broom, a brush stake on our shoulder, you know, so, if anybody was taking pitches, they would think we were fully armed and …. made we laugh at the time ….
Sylvia: Very Dad’s Army ….
Lester: That, I mean, when we went into the War, we were so desperate, we’d got nothing and if Hitler had wanted, if he’d had come over here, we wouldn’t be here anymore.
Michael: That’s right yes ….
Sylvia: My mother was very afraid of that …. and of course, the press magnified the horrors that Germany was carrying out, and, in those days, the gas came …. we had a gas meter and you put pennies in it, the big old ….
Michael: Yes …
Sylvia: …. penny coins and the gas man would come and empty it, and he would have little pieces of brown paper and he would ….
Lester: …. Wrap them up ….
Sylvia: …. put 12 pennies in it, roll them up ….
Sylvia: …. and then put them in a leather bag like a portmanteau. How he carried that from house to house, I mean, it must have been terribly heavy …. but my mother said after the War, long after the War that she had enough money saved, so that if the Germans actually invaded and set foot in England, she was going to gas the three of us.
Michael: Oh dear, yes ….
Sylvia: She was not going to live under German, German rule …. that was absolutely not ….
Michael: It must have been terrifying ….
Sylvia: Yeah, for her, alone with two children and …. but there was a …. there was definitely camaraderie …. among the neighbours ….
Sylvia: I mean the rations were puny. Do you remember, we used to walk to Spencers? My mother kept the grocers that she had when they lived in Moss Side ….
Sylvia: And, she still walked right the way down Princess Road to this grocery with the two of us, and then we’d walk home with a, with a little strip of bacon and a little packet of cheese, and then we had toast with butter on it. The whole butter ration ….
Lester: Yea, the butter ration in one go ….
Sylvia: That was our weekly treat, we had, we had the butter, but there was a neighbour two doors down who had a recipe for expanding …. Yes, it was the first low-fat spread …. because she just used to make …. such a thick corn flour sauce and then put the butter in it, mix it all up and use that on bread, so it went three times as far. And my mother used to do that ….
Lester: Don’t forget salmon paste in the little jar ….
Sylvia: Yes, yes …. And, no fruit. And you know, somebody would …. you would come home from school and say, “Mum, Evans’s have got oranges, get the books out ….”
Michael: Yes, yes ….
Sylvia: …. and you’d have to get your ration books out and go and get your orange per books but that wasn’t …. often ….
Lester: Oh, no, no, no ….
Sylvia: And you never saw a banana …. the whole war …. didn’t really know what bananas were there till after the War.
Lester: Just going back to the early part of the War, the worst one I can ever remember was my mother had a sister Annie and she lived in Salford ….
Sylvia: …. in Vernon Street
Lester: …. yeah Vernon Street, Salford, and her husband was an engineer, so he wasn’t called up because he was needed.
Sylvia: He was at MetroVicks ….
Lester: He was a machine man …. yeah it was Metr…. …. he was …. they needed him more urgently building and making things than that. So …. my mother decided that we’d go and stay with her for Christmas ….
Lester: So, it was Christmas 1940 which you probably have memories of with the worst air raids we ever had to put up with, and with, all night long because we were in Salford then which was a big munitions place, as big as Trafford Park, probably bigger than Trafford Park at the time, because Trafford Park has grown since. But all through the night, from night time until dawn and when the …. the warning went off, that the all clear …. we walked home, didn’t we ….
Sylvia: But this was a terraced house, long long terraces with maybe 30 houses on each side of the street, 2 up, 2 down …. a sink in the …. straight into the front room off the doorstep.
Sylvia: It’s straight into the house off the pavement, and you were into the sitting-room and then at the back, there was a kitchen with a stone sink and a cold-water tap, and then there were very steep stairs up to two bedrooms and then ….
Lester: The toilet was outside ….
Sylvia: …. and then, there was a yard ….
Lester: Yes ….
Michael: Yes ….
Sylvia: …. there was a lavatory out there and then in …. their houses were back to back and this ginnel that ran between the houses had been covered over with concrete slabs, so that was the shelter …. so that’s, and at the end, there were canvas curtains and that I think is my earliest memory of the War because I know I was crying and very distressed …. and I was being moved from lap to lap. Everybody was out there, sitting in this shelter all through the night …. and I remember bits of burning stuff coming every time the ki…. You know, the blast would make the curtains move.
Sylvia: How Salford didn’t just disappear, I don’t know ….
Lester: Well some of it did, we would, we survived, so much so that, come daylight the following day, my mother said, “That’s it, we’re going home.” She said, “I can’t stay here another night.” She said, “I can’t go through that.”
So, we walked home from Salford [about 4½ miles] over Mark Addy’s Bridge. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that, but Mark Addy …. [Mark Addy was reputed to have saved 50 lives from drowning in the river Irwell in the 19th century]
Michael: Yes, I do, yes ….
Lester: And …. I can remember going over the bridge and we were very close then to Manchester Central, coming and you could see all the buildings on fire. There was …. Oh, it was total destruction ….
Sylvia: Didn’t we go down Stretford Road?
Lester: Yeah ….
Sylvia: …. there wasn’t a window in ….
Lester: No, they were all gone yeah ….
Sylvia: …. the road was just ….
Lester: …. And down Princess Parkway near Hulme Grammar School which we were very close to home then and all the houses on one side of the road, all the roofs had gone off …. you know the tiles and everything it was …. it was terrible. But having said that of course, I am only a young boy …. I can, I can think of it now …. but as I’m thinking of it now, I know how terrible it was, but in a five-year-old or a six-year-old, it …. it didn’t really mean a lot. We knew that there was something going on, but it didn’t register at that particular time, but my memory of it, of the destruction is still vivid in my mind. I can still remember all that ….
Sylvia: And Anne and Bob went home with us, didn’t they?
Lester: Yes, they did, they did. She bought a turkey ….
Sylvia: …. on the market ….
Lester: …. On the mar…. Well, on the following day and it was that big, it wouldn’t go in my mother’s oven …. but she had to feed because my uncle and …. my auntie and uncle came back with us and his sister and his mother, I think they didn’t she ….
Sylvia: Rose, did they? Yeah.
Lester: They, they all came back to our house and bearing in mind that …. although I was a little bit bigger than theirs, it would better in as much as we’d got a living room ….
Sylvia: And a bathroom …. with a loo ….
Lester: Yeah, and an inside toilet ….
Sylvia: Yes ….
Lester: Of course, which was a luxury …. but yes …. hard times, hard times they were ….
Michael: Were you evacuated at one point?
Lester: Yes, yes, and that is another story. The reason I don’t think about much about that is because I wasn’t there long, but you’ve heard me talk about my, my very good friend, Bob. He had a brother and a sister, and his father wasn’t a well man. He didn’t go in, in the army.
Sylvia: He was too old.
Sylvia: He was a lot older than ….
Lester: Oh, yes, he was a lot older than that, but …. Bob and his brother and sister were evacuated to Blackpool and I was evacuated to Blackpool too, and that the person that took me in had a shop, a baker’s shop but she was a horrible woman from what I can remember. She used, she stitched me pockets up in my browsers so that I couldn’t put anything in my pockets …. and she was horrible to me. My mother used to come up whenever she could, bring Sylvia, carried Sylvia and today, I know, I must have …. Well, I did, I am sure, break my heart and said, “Mum, I don’t want to stay here anymore, I want to come home ….” And she saw the distress I was in, and she said “Enough’s enough ….” And she brought me home ….
Sylvia: And she brought you home with a problem because that awful woman refused to let you use the toilet. She locked the door, locked him out to go to school or whatever and then let him in when she thought it was a right time, so his body rhythm just went out …. So, when he came home, he had an impacted bowel and he was taking in to Pendlebury hospital …. because they couldn’t release it, and he was, it was ….
Lester: Oh yes, that was ….
Sylvia: …. That was very dodgy because, you know Pendlebury is miles away from Withington and
Sylvia: …. she got me and this, her firstborn, poorly in hospital, it must have been ….
Lester: Oh, terrible …. Yeah ….
Sylvia: …. unbelievably hard for her …. Yeah, she had a hard life, yeah.
Michael: So, most of the War actually was spent at home ….
Michael: I mean, there would have been …. I don’t suppose, I mean, your earliest memories, I would imagine, Sylvia, must have been, what, probably from about 1942 onwards ….
Sylvia: Something like that, yea ….
Michael: Whereas, you would, you would have been a bit earlier than that ….
Lester: Oh, yes.
Michael: …. 1939 or so, but we’ve talked about things like rationing and so on, essentially, or the scarcity of food, let us put it that way ….
Lester: Yeah ….
Michael: …. and …. so many people have talked about the shortage of bananas, unless you were extremely lucky ….
Lester: Well, exactly ….
Michael: Yeah and that luck had a lot to do with it, didn’t it?
Lester: Oh, it certainly did ….
Sylvia: But something, we never went short of was chocolate because in the R…., in the Forces, you’ve got a ration. You also got a cigarette ration. Well, my father was never a smoker, and I don’t suppose there were many men in his billet who didn’t smoke. So, he had no problem at all in swapping ….
Lester: He used to swap it ….
Sylvia: …. Fags for their chocolates ….
Michael: Yes, of course.
Sylvia: …. and he had a wooden, little wooden box with padlocks on it, and lots of it, and he used to bring that home when he came on leave …. open it, [whispering] it was a treasure trove …. We weren’t indulged, you know, it was, it was rationed out, but there was chocolate …. Mars bars and things like …. My mother would never have been able to afford to buy, you know …. it’s ….
Michael: No quite ….
Sylvia: Not some things ….
Lester: I mean, you would probably have a record of when rationing ended would be sometime in the early 50s, would it?
Michael: It was about 1954, I believe …. [14 years of food rationing in Britain ended at midnight on 4th July 1954.]
Lester: 1954, yeah, yeah ….
Michael: I do remember it myself ….
Lester: Well, 1954, I’m now 20 years of age ….
Michael: That’s right.
Lester: …. and I’ve grown up from the end of the War with this rationing, and not being able to do anything. Of course, 1954, I mean, I finished school in 19…. I went to a jun…., a senior school from 1945 for four years till 1949, and of course father came out ….
Sylvia: ’46 ….
Lester: ….’46, wasn’t it when he came out and went back to work and I was still going to school at the time. But I can remember it obviously, we grafted in on doing …. no such things as a bar of chocolate or an Easter egg ….
Lester: I can remember father baking these Easter, making these little …. eggs out of marzipan, wasn’t it?
Sylvia: Well and the other thing he did, was he blew eggs out and he’d made some sort of mixture with cocoa in it …. and silver ….
Lester: Yeah and he would …. He was …. quite artistic, my father ….
Sylvia: Oh, he was ….
Lester: He was clever, but he was from a family that were like that ….
Lester: …. you know, he had two brothers that both were window dressers …. Bill and Harry and Jack …. even Bob. Yeah, Bob Cunliffe, that was the youngest brother. They all, they all worked for a company called Windressco Limited, which was on Mauldeth road [Sylvia says it was on Wilmslow road, Withington and was a tiny firm], not far away, but they all travelled around on bikes, you know, didn’t they? They’d all cycle to different shops and dress the windows, and one thing or another and things like that ….
Lester: One thing that comes back to mind, he did …. always dressed the window on Mauldeth Road, and there was there …. a new…. news agents there called Healey’s …. you remember the name Healey’s? And of course, during the War, there was no cigarettes on sale outside. You used to have little wooden …. metal kiosks bolted outside where you could put your money in ….
Sylvia: Oh yes ….
Lester: …. and slide out a packet …. Well of course, during the War years, they were empty.
Lester: …. so, consequently, they rusted away, and I was with my friend Bob …. we were messing about with this machine, just pulling on the on the handle and it came out. And it was full of coins …. [Sylvia laughing]
Michael: Oh dear ….
Lester: Lots of coins …. Well, we gathered all this money …. I never said …. we went down, further down, there was another shop called Diamond’s ….
Sylvia: Yeah, I remember Diamond’s ….
Lester: Remember Diamond’s, they used to sell ice cream. So, Bob and I, we bought this a block of ice cream ….
Lester: We ate the lot! We went absolutely mad …. That was it!
Michael: Well, when this is shown perhaps the police [Laughter] will be waiting for you …. [More laughter]
Lester: Yea, but …. Yeah, that a vivid memory of course ….
Sylvia: That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that story ….
Lester: Have you not heard that story, have you not?
Sylvia: …. but …. a very hard thing that happened was that, I think it was in 1942 because it was before Sammy was born. My mother, I think now, with hindsight it was probably what’s called an ectopic pregnancy, but she fell. She took a job cleaning to make a few shillings, half-a-crown an hour or something like that and she fell in the bathroom and she got herself home and she sent you and me to school, and she started to haemorrhage, and she just took herself up to bed, and she thought, “Oh, I just don’t want them to come home from school and find me dead ….” Because she knew she was losing her life of course ….
Michael: Hmm ….
Sylvia: …. and the bread man came, and he knew she should be in, and he knocked on the back door and the back door was open. So …. “Mrs. Cunliffe …. Lilly ….” And he went upstairs, and he found her, and of course, there were no telephones. Nobody had one in those days. So, he got somebody to run to the nearest phone box and phone for the ambulance, and I’m coming home, we’re coming home down Siddington Avenue, it’s a cul-de-sac, you know like a key shape with a circle at the bottom …. and I can, I’m sure I haven’t imagined it, this trolley with my mother on it in a red blanket, and a very white face being put in the ambulance and the girl from the bottom house …. “Your mother’s dead ….”
Lester: Oh ….
Sylvia: So, I don’t know what happened to us after that on that day, but …. you were sent to live with Auntie Elsie while she was in hospital. She had major surgery. They had to take one ovary way and …. and I went to live with Grandma. And earlier that year I’d had my tonsils out and because it had to be a day case because they couldn’t keep children in a hospital in Central Manchester …. The Ear Nose and Throat hospital was at All Saints ….
Michael: Right ….
Sylvia: ….and I’d never been in a taxi in my life. I think we went on the bus, but I came out post-op and very dopey and …. So, my mother took me home and she pushed the two armchairs together in the living room and made a bed for me and lay me on there during the day. And somebody had given me an orange and Kenny Shuff came in and ate it [laughing] …. Yes, he ate the orange like that and they broke my pram. Do you remember my lovely pram? You used to take my dolls pram. They used to take …. each other for rides and snap the handle off it. So, my dad got some copper pipe …. only had a copper handle on it.
Lester: Of course, during the War, our family doubled, didn’t it?
Sylvia: Well, yes …. Yeah ….
Lester: Well, in 1943, my brother, youngest brother …. Well, my brother ….
Lester: Sam was born in ‘43 and two years later ‘47 ….
Lester: …. ’45, sister Susan arrived and so before the end of the War…. Or, well just at the end of the War as far as Susan ….
Sylvia: Well, Dad was still in the Forces ….
Lester: Oh, he was still there, he didn’t come out until ’46 ….
Sylvia: He was home on leave …. He was home on leave ….
Lester: Yeah, he didn’t come out until ’46, did he? So, we were a big family and of course when Dad was finally demobbed, he wasn’t in a job that you could say was well paid. They were, I think he was on something like two pounds fifty a week ….
Sylvia: and it was the same wage that he’s had in 1939.
Lester: …. and probably my mother would better off with him being in the Army because she kept family allowance and allowance for him being in the Forces, so, suddenly all that, that …. that ended and we, we scratched, didn’t we?
Lester: …. I mean, I can remember it ….
Lester: If you could get sixpence out of your mum to go to the pictures with my mate, it was something. And by this time of course I’m …. You know, it’s …. the War’s finished. I’m twelve, thirteen, growing up and one thing another, and money was very very tight. I remember getting myself a paper job, but in those days, you, you had to be a certain age before ….
Lester: …. you could go out and deliver papers, but I got this job and, I’ll never forget it, was seven and six a week and I used to give my mother five shillings and ….
Michael: Of course!
Lester: …. I had two and six myself.
Michael: You were lucky to have ….
Lester: I was lucky you know, I mean, two and six in my pocket and, I mean, I could do …. do things. I never smoked, so that didn’t bother me, but it came in handy if I want …. Bob and I wanted to go to the pictures and one thing or other, so ….
Sylvia: Or go to the football ….
Lester: …. or go to the football, yeah ….
Michael: I mean, I should ask you or perhaps I shouldn’t ask you which team you supported in those days …. [laughing] ….
Lester: My father had always been a Manchester United fan ….
Lester: …. and I grew up …. with being that but, at the particular time when the War finished, Old Trafford got badly damaged by bombs and it took quite a long time to get right. So, when the football seasons got back into the swing of things in 1946, they shared Main Road [Manchester City Football Ground near where Lester and Sylvia lived, in Rusholme] with Manchester City ….
Michael: Yes, of course ….
Lester: So, one week, it was City at home, actually, but Bob and I used to go, probably to both but I always, I was always a United fan. And in my first, I mean obviously but …. I can remember all the players of those days. In 1948 that Manchester United got to Wembley and I was 14, and I managed to get a ticket to go with my father and his young brother, Bob, and Jack, another brother, and his brother-in-law and his pal, and the six of us went …. six went to Wembley and 1948, I was absolutely over the moon with that but …. Yeah, very happy memories of that ….
Sylvia: Tell about Bob Cunliffe ….
Lester: Ah, Bob Cunliffe …. He was worse than my father, he was, he was so biased being a, you know, they couldn’t bear Manchester City. He was really one of those …. He became
Sylvia: But you have to say that ….
Sylvia: …. we could see Manchester City’s headlights from our house ….
Lester: So, one day, I was sat in the kitchen, I’d come home from work. Dad was there and Bob, Bobby’s brother came in and my young brother, Sam, came in and he was, what would he be …. 19….
Sylvia: Five ….
Lester: No wait a minute, he was born in ‘45, he might have been, it was about 1955, 10 or 11 ….
Lester: …. and he, he said to his dad, “I’m going now, I’m going to the match ….” So, Uncle Bob said, “Where are you going?” So, he said. “I’m going with my friends ….” He said, “Well, where you going though?” So, he said, “Going to Main Road ….” He said “City’s playing there ….” So, he said, “Yeah ….”, he said, “I’m a City fan ….” Well …. [laughing] my Uncle Bob turned around and he said to my father, I shall never forget it, he said, “Sam you want to do something about that …. you know that that is, you can’t have that that is nothing ….” He was so biased, he was and that is the Gospel true story that ….
Sylvia: Do you remember going around picking up shrapnel?
Lester: Oh, I do ….
Sylvia: And the silver tape?
Sylvia: I don’t remember where that came from, was that our planes dropping that?
Michael: Do you know, I don’t know. I know about the shrapnel because that probably came from ack ack guns and that sort of thing ….
Lester: And bombs ….
Michael: …. and bombs of course …. Yes ….
Lester: …. blew up yeah, we …. I’d go round the crofts and the parks and that. We would, we would just look for fragments of bombs ….
Michael: Yes ….
Lester: At the time ….
Michael: Did you ever keep any?
Lester: No, no, I must’ve done at the time …. Taken it home ….
Sylvia: I suspect my mother would say, “Not keeping that rubbish ….”
Lester: They don’t want memories of that, but ….
Michael: But the silver tape, I don’t know ….
Sylvia: But that used to come down out of the sky ….
Lester: Yeah, I don’t know what that came off …. Oh, it might have been off ….
Sylvia: I was told it was to do with radar, that it was to disturb ….
Michael: Ah …. so maybe later in the War ….
Sylvia: Oh yes, I was about 7 ….
Michael: …. they did drop reflectors, yes …. [The Germans dropped reflectors to confuse the radar locating exactly where their planes were.]
Sylvia: And do you remember the Americans?
Lester: Oh yes ….
Sylvia: We had an aunt …. The aunt that you went to live with when Mum was ill ….
Sylvia: They lived in Rusholme by the Barnston Avenue and they had Americans billeted on them.
Sylvia: And of course, they were so glamorous ….
Lester: Oh yes ….
Sylvia: I mean, our soldiers’ uniform, it was rough and course …. and theirs were so smooth and beautifully tailored ….
Michael: Yes ….
Sylvia: Oh, they were elegant and their caps, and of course their accent. And we all went to the cinema, sometime or another, and they ….
Lester: I can remember walking up to them and saying, “Got any gum, chum?” [Laughter] They always, I had never seen a strip of chewing gum until, I believe, the Americans came. I mean obviously later on in years, we used to get a packet of chewing gum with little tablets in it ….
Lester: It was four or five in a packet …. but this …. British Spearmint ….
Sylvia: Flat strips, yeah ….
Lester: …. with strips and that …. Beautiful, it was …. [Laughing]
Sylvia: And they …. they were very generous ….
Lester: Oh yes, they were ….
Sylvia: …. but we had a lot of relatives …. all Dad’s brothers served in the War ….
Sylvia: They …. and they all came back, so Granny was very fortunate, you know ….
Sylvia: Her husband had died in the first lot, but all our sons went and served, and all came back safe. And my mother’s brothers, one of them was a …. a wide boy …. and I think John was a very honourable chap, and I think he went to the Far East. But this one, he worked in, I think he worked in the canteens for the army ….
Sylvia: …. And come home and opened his coat [Laughter] and there would be bacon and stuff that he had either nicked or bought hard you know. I would think it was dishonestly gained but you know they were all at it.
Lester: They were all doing things like that …. Just ….
Sylvia: Dreadful ….
Lester: Yeah, it’s ….
Sylvia: And we still had our Whit week clothes, didn’t we?
Lester: Oh yes, yeah.
Sylvia: That was a tradition, don’t know if you know about that?
Michael: Whit week?
Sylvia: Yes, everybody had a new outfit for Whitsunday, and you went round and showed people your nice new dress ….
Michael: And would that have happened during the War?
Sylvia: Yes, because my grandmother, my dad’s mother, was a tailor ….
Sylvia: …. and she could make anything. She could make “mince” …. When she was widowed in 1917, she was left with six children and she’d lost the sight in one eye and …. and she’d lost her hearing, having one of her children. It’s a condition called Otosclerosis which has come down the generations. It’s what I’ve had, and my cousins, and it’s there, mostly in the females, although you’re hard of hearing as well, aren’t you?
Sylvia: …. but Granny used to sew and one of my father’s earliest memories were sitting by lamplight or candle light, threading needles for his mother, putting them in a pincushion so that, when she finished that bit of thread, she’d give him the needle and pick up another one …. and keep sewing. And people gave her old clothes and I remember her telling me that somebody had gave …. given her a Tweed man’s overcoat, because this is …. in between the Wars ….
Sylvia: …. and she unpicked it, thread by thread, stitch by stitch, and then she pressed it all flat, and then she cut and made trousers for her boys. Those five boys and a girl ….
Michael: Yes ….
Sylvia: Boys are much harder to dress, you know, but she could stitch a fly with buttons in it and …. but she was amazing, and she made clothes. I remember, she made me a Tweed coat and hat, when the Americans were here, and she made me a sailor hat out of tweed with a brown band and it said HMS Sylvia on it. Oh, and the Americans thought that was uproarious, you know. [Shouting] “Hi ….!”
So, yeah, we didn’t do too badly because Granny, I think, probably bought the material ….
Sylvia: …. because my mother wouldn’t have been able to find money for that. But yes, we didn’t …. but you see my husband was born in Scotland …. in rural Scotland and although his father was too old for the Forces, he was a watch …. it was a weather watch and ….
Michael: Oh yes.
Sylvia: …. sort of keeping watch over the area, but they had a cow, they had chickens, there were pheasant, salmon in the river, trout …. They didn’t know about …. there were never …. there was never a food shortage because they grew vegetables and soft fruits. So, there was blackberries and black currants and red currants and strawberries and …. they lived a totally different way of life. So, he knew nothing about rationing he just didn’t know …. and I think people who were evacuated to country districts didn’t really have the affect ….
Michael: There was more opportunity to grow ….
Sylvia: Yeah, city dwellers …. I mean, people did dig up their gardens to grow potatoes and things, but my Mother didn’t have time …. She was ….
Sylvia: …. working all the hours God sent, just to keep the family ticking ….
Michael: And especially with two additional children ….
Sylvia: Well that’s right.
Michael: Quite often families or parents took the attitude during the War that, because the future was so bleak, bleak, they had to say. “Well, should we have more children or not?”
Michael: It sounds as though there was a bit of a gap between you and, and, and the, your next sibling ….
Sylvia: Well, that was where this terrible miscarriage happened ….
Michael: Right, yes ….
Sylvia: I think, early in the war and, she was at death’s door ….
Sylvia: …. and I think it took her quite a long time to recover ….
Sylvia: Yeah, I don’t think the contraception was very efficient in those ….
Michael: No, no ….
Sylvia: I don’t …. but i don’t know. When I went to my interview at college, the principal did what you’re doing, just said, “Tell me about your family ….” And, of course, it was boy, girl, boy, girl …. and she was absolutely, “Oh, the perfect family!” Well, she was a spinster with no children. She thought that four children, boy, girl, boy, girl …. but Mum always got what she wanted, every time …. Every time, she said, “Well I’m having a boy this time ….” and she got it ….
Michael: But there might have been another one in the middle that actually happened ….
Sylvia: Yes, yes, there might have been five of us, yes.
Michael: That’s right ….
Sylvia: It was hard.
Lester: Of course, when the War ended, it was, it, to a certain extent …. the boys of my age were not allowed to forget it because suddenly National Service came in ….
Lester: …. and of course, that carried on, I don’t think that ended till about ’57, ‘58 ….
Lester: I think I was one of the last to go in, because I was deferred till I was 21, to finish off my apprenticeship ….
Michael: Yes ….
Lester: …. But you know two years away, it was completely different, but I don’t think it did it us any harm ….
Michael: Where did you, where were you stationed?
Lester: I was at Honiton in Devon. That’s where I went on the train to do my training ….
Michael: Oh, yes.
Lester: …. and then, after that …. I spent 18 months at …. Worcester. What was the name of the camp? I was 18 months. I was in the R.E.M.E.
Michael: Oh right.
Lester: Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers …. and I didn’t, I didn’t particularly want to go abroad ….
Lester: …. and to be quite honest, it was just before I was enlisted, I had to go in whether you’d liked to or not. You couldn’t get out of it unless you failed a medical, but I’d met my wife to be in 1953, I think, something like that and I went in to the Army in 1955, and while I was in the Army, we decided to get married. I’d got married halfway through my two-year service in the September of ’56.
Michael: So, you were 22 by that time ….
Michael: You were 22 by that ….
Lester: Yes, yes. My wife Pat was 20, but we were …. careful of the thing of …. Well, while I am in, if you are married, you get more money, you see, so ….
Michael: Oh yes.
Lester: …. we were quite shrewd in that respect. So, Pat got a job and I was, oh, I don’t know, maybe one pound fifty a week [£1. 10s.], something like that, but suddenly, you know, we get married …. I think the marriage allowance was something like two pound fifty or three pounds, something like that, but she would work, would Pat. She could put this money away, save it, so, when I came out, we were fortunate enough to be able to buy a terraced house next to her mother and father in Moss Side [Manchester] …. £300, it was …. [Laughing]
We didn’t have all the money, but her Dad lent us the make up, with me working and Pat working, we soon paid him back and it was our house.
Michael: Because there were no mortgages, really in those days ….
Lester: No, no, no mortgage, then. Didn’t have a mortgage until I moved to Brooklands in 1963, and I thought the house, I’m in now for £3,100 which was an absolute fortune then. And I remember, we sold the terraced house we were in for £1,200. So, I put £700 deposit, we borrowed two thousand four on it and had a mortgage with Halifax …. I took 20 years to pay it off
Michael: But the value of that house ….
Lester: Yea, yea ….
Sylvia: We haven’t told him about Dad, some of Dad’s wartime stories, about when he was in Norfolk ….
Michael: Oh yes ….
Sylvia: The other thing is that my mother’s mother died during the War ….
Michael: Right ….
Sylvia: I have a memory of her, because I was about seven when she died, and she, she could have been a hundred years old …. She was absolutely …. but she’d had 13 children, so ….
Lester: Are you talking about Granny Cunliffe?
Sylvia: No, yes, Granny Cooke ….
Lester: Granny Cooke, oh, yea, yea, yea ….
Sylvia: …. and she …. black head to foot, lacing shoes …. I don’t think she’d ever gone to her hair dresser’s, makeup, none …. none of that.
Anyway, she died. So of course, the telegram went to Granddad and of course he got compassionate leave. That telegram went through the War and half, and half the men on the blink, borrowed it you know. This telegram …. “Oh, yes, right soldier, off you go ….” It became …. you know, worn and many folded, and filthy, and probably illegible, but that, it got many a, an Airmen a weekend pass, because laughter] …. but one, on one occasion, Dad got a 48-hour pass or whatever, and of course, they went everywhere in uniform, and he stepped out of the ….
Lester: Halt ….
Sylvia: No, the range where they were …. the base. He stepped onto the road and walked along a little way, and he’s doing this …. [hitch hiking signal] …. and a very snazzy little sports car, open two-seater stops with an RAF officer driving it. “Where are you going, Airman?” [in a posh voice]. He said, “Well, you know ….” They didn’t …. nobody ever spoke names or anything, it was all because you don’t know who’s talking to …. So …. “Get in!” So, he got in and they got in conversation about football and Man United and all sorts of things, and he’s driving along, and he gets to Grantham and Sleaford, and he says, “All right, with it?” “Fine, I am fine, yes …. Just, just carry on ….”, and he brought him all the way to Wilmslow. That’s where ….
Lester: Where he lived!
Sylvia: …. and he stopped and dropped him off just …. “This will do fine ….” And …. [Laughter] Absolutely amazing …. Yes …. and another time, he, he must have been ….
Oh, I remembered the terrible story about being at Wellesbourne. He ….
Lester: Would have it have been when the aircraft came back?
Sylvia: No, no, this was to do with food. They were having a terrible time. There were weeks when they got no …. nobody saw an egg, there was no bacon. It was pilchards. They got pilchards on toast for the breakfast, and then they’d make a pilchard pie ….
Michael: My goodness!
Sylvia: …. like a shepherd’s pie with the …. and this was going on for weeks. And anyway, I think they got a new CO and he came in the queue …. and …. with the blokes who are supposed to get to the …. follow these men, and he happened to be behind my Dad, and he said, “How’s the food here?” “Dreadful!” So, he said, “Tell me about it.” So, of course, they then got the …. what’s it called, the Quartermaster.
Sylvia: He’d been flogging all the RAF fruit to the hotels in Stratford ….
Michael: Oh, ho, ho, ho ….
Sylvia: So, he was court martialled, of course, and food ….
Michael: Improved ….
Sylvia: …. immediately improved, yes.
And another story that I love to hear him tell was when he, he got a short break and he went to London, and this would be later on, you know, when there wasn’t so much bombing going on, and they went into what, in civilian life, would be a very elegant well-appointed gentleman’s club, and of course, it had been opened to the Forces. And, it was quite relaxed there and, and he was in a great big leather armchair, loved it you know. And as was his habit, he put his fingers down the side …. Oh, loose change! [Laughter] Oh, that’s good! He went right round, make sure he’d got it all, put it in his pockets and then, he thought “Oh, well, try the other one.” And then he went round, I don’t know how much he got ….
Michael: Enough! [Laughter]
Sylvia: Shillings and florins and half crowns and stuff, but …. It was what tipped out of people’s pockets when they …. Yes ….
And another time, when he went to a club, and the Polish army had taken it over and we’re running it. And the man said to him when he was going into the dining room for something to eat. He said, “I am very sorry, all we have today is pancakes.” My father said, “You’re sorry?” [Laughter] He couldn’t wait and there was Polish jam and there was stuff that Dad hadn’t seen, all of the War, you know I absolutely loved it. Yeah, so there were, you know, happy times, they …. the bad thing that happened to him was that he …. and I can remember this because I drew a picture of it in school, you know, you have to draw a picture of your news and then write what had happened, and he must have written or maybe he told us that they were on a gang of the electricians, who would be on duty all night and then they’d draw lots …. so that the rest of them could go to bed ….
Michael: Yes ….
Sylvia: …. and he drew the short straw and he had to go round all the aircraft …. cycle between them, climb up go through all the …. you know check everything, and coming out of one plane, it was icy, and he fell …. Backwards …. And nobody knows how long he was there on the floor unconscious. Nobody missed him, you see, he was out and so he would be, I don’t know how he didn’t die of hypothermia. Anyway, he came round, and shook himself and got back on the bike and went ….
Michael: Golly ….
Sylvia: …. maybe that’s the cause of the illness that he had, I don’t know …. I’d never known him be ill except that one time when you remember, he was ….
Lester: Oh, when he …. He couldn’t bear sunlight ….
Sylvia: He was hallucinating …. And yes, I think he had encephalitis, I think that was what it was …. But …. that was the only time we ever knew him ill, the only time ….
Michael: Going back now to your own memories of the War, what do you remember if anything about VE Day?
Sylvia: Oh, a big party, street party ….
Lester: Oh, yes, yeah, yeah.
Sylvia: Oh, tables right down the middle ….
Lester: We had a table right …. A cul-de-sac …. And there were still no vehicles in the road, so everybody mucked in, and like Sylvia said, they put tables right down the thing, so everybody was invited in the Avenue ….
Lester: …. mothers and the fathers and all the children and each family made something, didn’t they?
Lester: [Laughing] I sat next to my friend Bob …. and, with the table and, this jelly came along, so I said, “We’ll have some of that ….” It was clear and I said. “Who’s made this?” Mrs. Alcroft had made it. Oh, it was …. I don’t, I don’t know what it was, but it tasted absolutely dreadful, so …. [Laughter]
Michael: Oh dear.
Lester: So, Bob says, “I’m not eating that!” and “I’m not eating it either ….” But it, you know, it, just a little thing like that but apart from anything, you know we celebrated that …. we always celebrated ….
Sylvia: My dad used to carry his, he was very good with electrics, he’d carry the gramophone, you know the big ….
Lester: Yea ….
Sylvia: The big glossy wooden thing with the radio and the deck in it …. he would carry that down to the end of the garden and have cables. And he would play music and of course it would be Glenn Miller and ….
Michael: Of course ….
Sylvia: …. that sort of …. Big band stuff to entertain us. Yeah and my mother, she, I don’t know, she was a bit of a genius with cake. Remember, she used to make a chocolate cake ….
Sylvia: How she did it I don’t know but, the stuff that was in the middle was gorgeous like a sort of fudge thing and Freddie Walton came to see if you were going out …. “Oh, that’s a nice smell, Mrs. Cunliffe ….” “Yes, I’ve just made a chocolate cake, do you want to try it?” Well, Freddie went away and the word went round, “Mrs Cunliffe’s made chocolate cake ….” So, every child came knocking at the door …. “Is Lester in?” or “Is your Sylvia in?” All, you know, having chocolate cake.
Lester: On VE day, I suppose …. As a matter of fact, we were celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the War in 1995, and I was a member of a golf club, Houldsworth, along with my brother and they decided that they were going to have a big do and going up outside toilets but it was going to be fancy dress. So, we all had to dress up but different things …. I went in an army uniform and my wife, Pat when as a nurse, and my brother, he went as a spiv! And he was in a suit and he dyed his hair pink and …. but what a celebration it was ….
Lester: People went to town and, I mean …. I’m talking about most, the majority of these people were of my age, which will have memories of the War, as well. They probably enjoyed a VE Day at the end of the War was good. From my memory, I don’t think we celebrated VJ Day as much because that was in the August of that year when the War against Japan, because it was mainly the Americans at that time that were, were doing most of the fighting, but VE Day was, was a big day …. Very, very big time ….
Sylvia: Dad, of course, worked in the Bombers and …. I mean, he was keeping them going, as were all the other technicians, I think ….
Sylvia: …. and at the end, after VE Day, they flew the ground crew over Germany and the Düsseldorf and Cologne, and Dad was horrified at the devastation. They fight about it now, don’t they, as to whether there had been an alternative, but that blanket bombing killed so many civilians and ….
Sylvia: You just …. I don’t know ….
Lester: Dad had some horrible sights though, didn’t he?
Lester: Aircraft that came back that abs…., how they’d managed to get back is beyond belief really, but on one engine or something like that but badly shot up, so much so, that some of the crew were dead. They were killed in it ….
Lester: …. and they had the job of when it was landed, of going and emptying the plane …. Some of the sights, he saw in there, I can remember him telling me, it was awful, you know. And they had to get to work and get that plane repaired and get it back in the air again, if the possible, you know.
Yeah, they did …. Horrible ….
Michael: You can understand why they didn’t want to talk about it ….
Lester: Yes, yes.
Sylvia: Tell the funny stuff ….
Sylvia: Yes. Oh, the other thing he said was that he, when they were broke, which was often, he’d borrow a 10-shilling note, strictly illegal, of course, and then go around selling and for a draw, raffle tickets, raffle it at six-pence a shot. So, if he made 15-bob, that was fine. But the person who won got the ten-shilling note ….
Sylvia: No, he would have to make, he would have to make 25-shillings, wouldn’t he?
Sylvia: So, it was ten bob for the man that had lent it to him, 10-bob for the winner, and he got five ….
Michael: Just thinking about all that you’ve said about the War, are there …. is the only thing that you would look upon as being a legacy of the War, that has affected you and later life?
Sylvia: Oh absolutely …. waste not ….
Sylvia: Frugality, yes ….
Sylvia: Yes, my father right to the end of his life, couldn’t waste anything, and yet my mother was the opposite. She was a spender, wasn’t she?
Lester: Oh, she was ….
Sylvia: She loved having ….
Lester: Yeah ….
Sylvia: …. surplus cash that she could …. Yeah …. but you know and, and storing, keeping a food store ….
Michael: Hmm ….
Sylvia: …. you’ve always got tins in, so that ….
Sylvia: If you weren’t able to go out, there was food in the house. Yes, I’m conscious about things like switching lights off and ….
Sylvia: …. and not wasting ….
Michael: Yes, yes.
Sylvia: …. that’s you know like that …. but my Dad said if you walk to school in women’s shoes, you know what poverty is, and you, you don’t ….
Sylvia: I mean his stories from his childhood, we ought to record them really because they’ll be gone when we’ve gone, and I think …. although it’s largely gone, I think the neighbourliness, you know, the concern. I mean some, I was speaking to a friend this morning on the phone and she lives in a cul-de-sac and they have a telephone, a diary for every member of that road ….
Sylvia: You know, anybody in a problem, they’ve got the phone number and they can ring for help, and she said, “We’re very united in that ….” It’s a real feeling of …. community there ….
Sylvia: …. but there are not many places like that.
Lester: I think to be honest with you, the memory of it of course, it’s further on but looking back, has been a youth from between ‘45 and ‘55 was growing up and respecting the police ….
Lester: We always …. but not only respecting them, we, you know, we were frightened of them because, in those days, you know, if you saw policemen walking down the street, you know, you were always wary of something like that, but crime, there was very little crime, it, it’s got basically a lot worse, but I think you know, we grew up respecting people ….
Lester: …. you know ….
Sylvia: I absolutely agree, you would no more cheek a teacher ….
Lester: No ….
Sylvia: No, never answer back ….
Sylvia: I’ve said to my grandchildren, “You know, if I’d said that ….” They might be a bit lippy with me and I said, “If I had said that to my mum, I’d have been near the other side of the room.” Bang!
Lester: Yea, it was just …. I think where there was more respect for parents, in those days ….
Sylvia: But we were lucky because our parents spent time with us. They were interested ….
Sylvia: They wanted …. when I wanted to go to college, I wanted to stay at school till I was 18, and my Dad …. wonderful and loving as he was, still had that mindset that girls get married …. It will all be wasted, you know.
Sylvia: And my mother stuck her heels in. She said, “If she wants to go to college to be a teacher, she will go to college.
Sylvia: And it was through her that …. but once I became a teacher, he was …. there was nobody more supportive. He would spend a lot of time making things for me, because, of course, the schools were hard up in the fifties ….
Michael: Yes, they were, yes ….
Sylvia: He’d collect odd pencils and sharpen them up for me, and he’d make it fine paper and …. Yeah, he was very, very supportive but he was resistant to begin with ….
Lester: Yeah ….
Michael: I think we’ve just about come to the end but thank you very much both of you for really most interesting talks ….
Interview recorded by Michael Thompson, Hardy Productions UK, Manchester, for WarGen. Transcription by Michael Thompson.