When my mum’s granddad – who I call Great-Gramps – lost his well-paid office job in 1933, he knew it might be a long time before he got another one. The Great Depression, which had started with the Wall Street Crash in 1929, was affecting the world economy and jobs of any kind were very hard to find.
Until that time, he and his wife and two school-age daughters had had a comfortable middle-class existence. They lived in a newly-built semi-detached house on a nice street in their home-town of Morley and had a car, as well as a motorbike and sidecar. They had their clothes made for them and went away on holiday every year.
But Great-Gramps was also a cautious man. He had some money in the bank, which he could have used to maintain his life-style for a while longer. Instead, he put the house on the market, sold the car and moved his family back to the street where he’d been brought up. There the local shopkeeper was about to retire and, as the shop also had living accommodation, Great-Gramps decided to rent it in his wife’s name while he continued looking for a job for himself.
Though it would never make them wealthy, the shop brought in a steady income. This meant that when my mum’s mum – who I call Granny Betty – won a scholarship to the local grammar school in 1934 she could take it up with no problem.
It also meant she could take part in school activities, such as a trip to London in 1937 to see the streets decorated in celebration of the coronation of George VI.
She also booked to go on the school trip to Vienna at Easter 1938, but Adolf Hitler chose that time to march his troops into Austria and make it part of Germany.
This meant that the school trip had to be hastily rearranged. They went to the Netherlands instead and another 42 years would pass before Granny Betty finally got to Vienna.
Granny Betty also helped out in the shop when she wasn’t at school – and she added to the family income by breeding budgerigars (also known as budgies) and selling them. This wasn’t planned, however, but happened by chance when one of her dad’s friends gave her a beautiful lilac-and-white budgie called Peter. To Granny Betty’s amazement, Peter soon laid an egg and went on to hatch it out – at which point his name was changed to Peta and Granny Betty had a new little business of her own.
It was planned that she would stay at school until she was 16 and then, if she did well enough in her exams that year, she would stay on to 18 and maybe even go to college. But Fate intervened.
As a reward for doing well in the first part of the exams in February 1939 – and knowing that she liked motorbikes – Great-Gramps took Granny Betty to the TT Races in the Isle of Man that May and she enjoyed every minute.
She came back to Morley and started revising for the second part of the exams to be held in July.
Before she could sit them, however, her mum had a slight heart attack, followed by a terrible depression in which she kept threatening to put her head in the gas oven. She couldn’t run the shop or be left on her own and, as Great-Gramps had just got a good, but temporary, job in the civil service and Granny Betty’s older sister, Marjorie, had just got her first office job, it meant that Granny Betty had to leave school early and run the house and the shop for the next eight months.
Knowing she was disappointed at having to leave school without qualifications, Great-Gramps paid for Granny Betty to have shorthand lessons…
…as well as typing lessons in the hope that this would help her get a good job when she was no longer needed full-time at home.
This happened in February 1940 when she got a clerical job at Hepworths tailoring factory in nearby Leeds. This was almost a disaster, however. She started on the Monday, had to ask for Tuesday off to go to her granddad’s funeral and handed in her notice on Thursday. When asked why, Granny Betty – who was always very honest! – said that it was because her immediate boss was a very touchy-feely man and she wasn’t willing to put up with it. As a result, she was moved to the typing-pool where she stayed for the next eighteen months.
Meanwhile Britain had declared war against Germany on September 3rd 1939 and, although she was still only 16 and had work to do at home, Granny Betty was determined to do her bit.
She volunteered to join the Civil Defence ambulance division in Morley and started as a messenger because she had her own push-bike. Among her early duties – as well as learning First Aid – she helped to fit babies and young children with suits and masks to protect them in case of a gas attack.
Then, as soon as she was 17, she learned to drive a Civil Defence ambulance.
She nearly failed her driving-test, however, when the examiner asked her what the sign said on the corner shop as they were approaching a cross roads. To his amazement, Granny Betty replied, “Bentley’s Yorkshire Bitter.” The answer he’d expected was, “Halt at major road ahead.”
For Granny Betty life went on fairly smoothly for the rest of that year. In September she was bridesmaid for her sister, but, although she was friends with several young men, that was all it was. There was no one special in her life.
That was about to change one foggy night in December, however. On her way to the Ambulance Depot – and running a bit late as often happened – she was annoyed at being delayed by a company of soldiers marching up from the station.
They were on their way to be billeted in Morley for a few weeks. Among them – though Granny Betty was completely unaware of it at the time – was Grandpa Graham. Within less than a month, they’d be head over heels in love…
Follow my next blog: 77. GOING ON SAFARI – PART I