When off duty we took a bus into the nearby town of Grimsby Ė commonly called GY because that was the registration letter on their huge fleet of fishing vessels. Most of the millions of herrings they caught each night were sold to fishmongers but many were also cleaned, filleted, gutted and smoked to become kippers. I was once able to go in and see this process. It was a two storey building that might once have been a house. The centre was empty and round the sides were rows and rows of opened out herrings being smoked from a fire at the bottom. I donít remember exactly but I think it took two weeks.
A bit more about coal fires. You bought your coal from coal merchants. In my younger days they delivered from a horse and cart but then switched to motor lorries (trucks). There were different grades of coal, the harder the better. The best grade was anthracite but I donít remember us ever buying that. You usually ordered a ton at a time. That came in hundredweight bags so you got (or were supposed to get) 20 bags. You had to be alert to being given short measure by the merchant or his employee. Each house had a coal cellar or outside shed for coal storage. The man carried them in one bag at a time and you counted the crashes as he tipped out the coal. If you thought you only heard 19 crashes you queried it. He would then count the pile of empty bags and, surprise, surprise, thereíd be 20. Sometimes they faked the noise so you thought youíd had the full amount. The best thing was to stand there throughout the delivery and see that you werenít being cheated. Most people didnít bother and dishonest coalmen got away with it.
The coal arrived in fairly large lumps. You kept a hammer in the cellar or coal house and broke it up before loading it into scuttles or buckets to carry into the house. This was a pretty rotten chore but you had to do it most days during the winter. If there was no light in the outside shed you used a torch and froze. The best thing was to make certain you had enough coal inside before it got dark. All this hammering caused a build up of coal dust. I had a letter from Mum just before Dad died saying that he had been cleaning out the coalhouse. I donít know what we did with the dust. Probably just bunged it in the dustbin (rubbish bin) along with the ashes. In the fireplace you usually had a set of small tools hanging from a thing that had a name that I canít remember. (Later fire irons) It was about 30 centimetres high and had a small brush and metal pan for sweeping out the ashes, tongs for adding coal to the fire and a long thin metal rod called a poker.
If the fire wasnít burning well you bashed a larger piece of coal with the poker to liven it up. Chucking sugar on to a fire burned quickly, mostly too quickly to do any lasting good. The thing we did most was to hold a sheet of newspaper over the opening, leaving the underside of the fire open. This increased the draft and caused the fire to burn up. We had a metal sheet about the same size with a handle. You could prop that up to do a similar job. We called that a blazer, I donít know that that was its proper name. You also needed a metal mesh screen called a fireguard to stop sparks and burning bits of coal jumping out and setting fire to the carpet. You especially needed a fireguard if you had pets and small children. Most fires had a small metal hob which you could swing over the fire. Put a kettle of water on the hob and thatís how you boiled it. Ditto heating solid metal irons for ironing clothes. Many fires had a small oven beside them and thatís where you did your cooking using the heat from the fire.
One other small detail. We had a heavy curtain that hung on a rod over the door to keep draughts out but they still found their way in especially when the door had to be opened because somebody needed to go through it. The oven had to be kept looking clean and smart using black stuff from a metal bottle. This was called blackleading the grate. Front doors often had brass handles and knockers and these were kept polished. Quite a lot of houses had white steps which were scrubbed with a piece of soft sandstone called a holystone. It was said that a womanís work was never done. Apart from bringing some coal in, and putting the dustbin out, men mostly left them to it.
Once the immediate emergency had passed troops in Britain got home leave of 7 days roughly every three months. At each parting you could never be 100% sure that you would meet again. That must have been much worse for the women. At least we had routine and duties to go back to. A rather wry joke that was only too true was that if you bumped into a neighbour whilst on leave they would say ďHome again. When do you go back?Ē We had a family rule that farewells were said at home. No teary scenes on railway platforms with everything that could be said having been said but the wretched train wouldnít leave.
When Mabs was quite small I was leaving one time. She was lying on her bed crying. I bent down to kiss her goodbye and she wrapped her little arms tightly round my neck and wouldnít let go. I had a train to catch and had to force myself free. That was one of the hardest moments of my war. Of course lots of people had much worse. Sons, brothers, husbands went off and never came back. next