Wartime Childhood

These are the words of my dad Alex Duncan who grew up in wartime  Nitten.

'I was born on the 4th of June 1937, some two years and four months prior to the start of World War Two. I was delivered at home in the “Big Bedroom” in our home at Bank Buildings, by Dr Lamb with the aid of forceps. Even now at the age of 75 I still have the indentation marks adjacent to each eye socket. That's me in the picture, the tall handsome one on the right.

My parents, John and Janet Duncan, had a Baker’s business in Newtongrange from the 1920’s; their first shop was in Station Road, they moved to Bank Buildings in 1926, just as the General Strike was about to start. Our Address was simply Bank buildings, the name derived from the National Commercial Bank at the other end of the block adjacent to the Post Office venal and steps.

This whole building was constructed from the newly demolished John Romans’, the self-styled “Laird of Newtongrange”, house in Galadale. The addresses were changed in the 1970’s to 127a Main Street for the house 126 for the shop and 126a for the bake house

I was obviously too young to appreciate Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s message on the morning of the 3rd of September 1939 that we were now in a state of war with Germany.

It was not long, however, before I became aware of changes such as the “Blackout” regulations for instance. We had a gas street light just outside the front door of my Dad’s shop, now the Hair stylists at 126, the Lamplighter no longer came round just before dark to open one of the glass panels of the light fitting and turn on the Gas with his “lamplighter’s pole”.

My Dad had served in the First World War in the RAMC, where he was temporarily blind when he became a victim of a gas attack, something that would have a contributory factor to his premature death when in his mid 50’s. After that war he returned to the baking business where he was injured by a falling steel baking tray that struck the outside of his left leg, tearing out a blood vessel. That wound would never heal completely and he would have to dress it every morning with Cod-liver Oil, the smell of which I became so accustomed to, lingers with me still. With all this, and his occupation, helping to feed the local population, he was exempt from call-up but became part of the ARP. His reporting station was the Auxiliary Fire Station in Murderdean Road, that building still stands today adjacent to the area used by the car wash business.

Newtongrange and surrounding area, at that early stage in the war, was considered as a more than possible target. The local collieries of Lady Victoria, Lingerwood, Easthouses Mine, the Gore and Emily collieries, plus the Oil Well at D’Arcy, the Gas Works at the White Gates, and proximity of the LMS main railway line all added up to warrant a significant possibility of air raids. There weren’t many air raid shelters in Newtongrange that I can recall; however since the cellar beneath my Dad’s shop had a reinforced ceiling. This, along with the insertion of a Dorman long “H” section girder running from one end of the building to the other, at shop ceiling level, that can still be seen today in the ceiling of the shops and Bank, was deemed necessary shortly after the construction of Bank Buildings.

This then became our Air Raid Shelter for ourselves, our next door neighbours, the Cochrane family, along with the Burnetts,Paxtons and Darges from the opposite side of the Main Street. The cellar had been intended as a storage for the bakehouse (now converted to a house), but being wartime there was precious little to store.

We had a Marconi wireless, driven by an accumulator and a grid bias battery, with an aerial wire run out through an air vent in the cellar. I had a bed made up on one of the shelves, and I can recall on a number of occasions listening to the 9 o’clock news from the BBC Home Service whilst being in the “Shelter”.

My Mother’s brother Alex  Gibson, at the commencement of the War, was an analytical Chemist employed by the Lothian Coal Company at their Lab  that was situated behind the Saughs Houses. His wartime responsibility during the first 18 months of the War, was to supervise the extinguishing of fires that regularly broke out on the Gas Works Bing, known locally as the “Coups” in Dalhousie Road. These fires were considered as a hazard from the point of view of the probability of being seen at night from the air and become a “Target Marker”.

He subsequently “joined up” and entered the RAF, becoming an expert on the Merlin Aircraft engine, with the rank of Warrant Officer, serving in the Middle East and seconded to the Royal Navy to serve in the Far East on Aircraft Carriers.

Whilst he was away, my maternal Grandmother, the only Grandparent that was still alive when I was born, died in 1943. With her death went his home at 26 Eighth Street. When he was eventually demobbed in late 1946, having been held on in what was then Palestine, he came home to live with us at Bank Buildings, sharing a room with me.

One thing that struck me in later life was that the lack of toys sweets etc., had the effect of developing your imagination, to perhaps a greater extent than that, had there not been a period of war and austerity. To give an example, our next door neighbours, across the common stairway, at that time had a son called Robin.

We played together at the back of the building and in front of the Bake House. One day I managed to get a large cardboard box that had contained ingredients for the Bake House. It had been raining, and as a result a large puddle had formed in the middle of the yard, here was where imagination took over. We put two holes in the two opposite sides of the box near the top, got hold of two pieces of wood, placed the box in the middle of the puddle and in we went.

The wood was passed through the holes and we were now a major Royal Navy battleship, the pieces of wood were our main guns, and we in our imagination sunk umpteen enemy ships within half an hour. However since we found out that cardboard is not waterproof, Robin bent backwards just once too often, the sodden “Stern of our ship” gave way, and out he went pulling me with him into the puddle.

Another play area we had was the “Stane Block”, situated in the space at Dean Park that is now in front of the Newbattle Swimming Pool. It can best be described as where once stood stone cottages that had been demolished and left as rubble. In our imagination it was a “battleground” where we fought an imaginary enemy, although sometimes somebody “volunteered” to be a German or Japanese who never won.

I think in our naivety we never ever believed that we the, “British”, would face utter defeat, set-backs yes, but we would win in the end. We became “experts at recognising the sound of aircraft that passed overhead as being one of ours, the sound of the Merlin Engine to us was the sound of freedom, a sound that I for one will never forget.

When we started primary school at Sixth Street, all the classroom window panes had tape across them in the style of a St Andrews Cross, this was a precaution taken to limit the glass injuries should a bomb fall close to the school. Black out shutters were also used during the dark winter days. Gas Mask training was an early part in our education, learning how to change the filter etc. with your eyes shut was all part of it.

Learning your times tables by singing them from 1 X 1 to 12 X 12. Writing began with wet sand boxes, where you wrote the letters of the alphabet one by one from A to Z, progressing on to a slate with your single piece of chalk. Discipline was strict, you had to keep quiet unless spoken to, put your hand up if you wanted to ask or answer a question, then stand to speak, no calling out. If another teacher or the Headmaster came into the classroom you stopped whatever you were doing and sat up straight and folded your arms until told otherwise.

At some time during the morning two boys would be sent to get the Class milk bottle crate and bring it back to the classroom where each of us would get a bottle and a straw. The top of the bottle had a cardboard lid with a small perforated section where you would knock your straw through and quietly drink.

As time passes you moved on to mental Arithmetic with , Weights and Measures, ounces, pounds, stones , hundredweights, tons and inches, feet, yards, fathoms, links, chains, furlongs, miles, leagues. The currency, farthings, halfpennies,pennies,threepenny bits, sixpences, shillings , florins, half crowns, ten shilling notes and pound sterling.

When I retired from work I joined the R.S.V.P. (the Retired and Senior Volunteer Project for Midlothian Primary Schools). My first one-day-a-week posting was to Newtonloan Primary, which lasted some 10 years. During their WW 2 Home Front project I took the class usually primary 6 back to 1942/3. I gave them a grounding in Imperial Weights measures and currency, getting them to work with ounces and pounds, exercising their X 16 and 14 tables, Pounds Shillings and Pence, again X 4, X 12, and X 20, all without a calculator.

By the time I was finished they all thought that we 1940’s children must have been geniuses, who was I to destroy such a myth