Ferniehurst at war

Now it can be told. Austin Mitchell gives an inside account of one of the forgotten stories of the Second World War in suburban West Yorkshire, where everyone did their bit in the battle for democracy – but some may have done a little bit more than others.

STORIES have been pouring out of the archives from the war. Once these were long kept secrets. Now, with the Official Secrets Act lifted, it’s time to tell them, therefore time for me, as one of the few surviving participants, to tell a story never before told: that of Ferniehurst’s War. This was the struggle of a new estate built in the once sylvan fields of lower Baildon, near Bradford, by specbuilders.

When Churchill said we’d fight them on the beaches and various other places he didn’t include Ferniehurst in the list so as not to give away its strategic location. But we were ready to fight them there too, and that story deserves to be told before Ferniehurst’s reserve army and heroic strategists pass on to the heavenly estate. Me with them.

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Chamberlain’s famous broadcast on Sunday, September 3, 1939 was made in the sixth year of Ferniehurst’s life and the fifth of mine, the estate’s first baby after my parents had moved there from terrace housing in distant Halifax. I didn’t hear the broadcast and don’t know how many residents of Ferniehurst did. It concluded that “this country is now at war with Germany” and Ferniehurst switched off, looked out of the window, saw nothing had changed, and ate its dinner.

I knew already that war was coming. My dad had told me. In July, we’d been for a week to one of the new holiday camps then opening up all over Britain. Ours was Middleton Towers near Morecambe where, surprisingly in view of its location, it hadn’t rained for a week. We’d had so much fun and, more importantly for dad, at so little cost, that he’d promised to take us all, me, David aged two, and mum, back in September. That promise stopped me crying in the car on the way home but before our happy return he cancelled the holiday on grounds, which he confided to me (because he couldn’t tell mum) we’d be at war.

I kept the secret, knowing, I suppose, that everyone on Ferniehurst had only bought their houses six years before and had paid massive sums of £3-400 for them.

At first nothing changed. Ferniehurst went to war. I went to school. I started that September, with a tin containing a gas mask slung over my shoulders and a determination to see it through to 14 (then the school leaving age and only eight years away) or the end of the war. The first big change was the laying up of our newly bought car. It was put on wooden blocks in the garage to save petrol and ease the strain on Atlantic convoys. Next came the air raid shelters and here Mitchells were in the forefront of military technology. With the help of neighbours, and with me kept out of the way, Dad dug a huge hole in the back garden. He bricked up the sides, put railway sleepers over the top and covered it all with soil so that German troops advancing up (or possibly down) Baildon Road couldn’t have seen it.

Dad worked at BDA Dyeworks at Charlestown. Being a Yorkshire kid,I naturally assumed that wool was a basic and essential industry. Troops couldn’t fight without uniforms. So it was something of a relief to me in my Defence HQ when other air raid shelters began to appear in the shape of big brick structures built in the street almost overnight. One sat right outside our house, obscuring the view of mill chimneys across the valley. It sat there, massive, solid, always locked and empty. I never found out who had the key. It couldn’t have been the Misses Murgatroyd next door. Annie was anti-monarchist – she shocked me by telling me we had “a stuttering King and a druffen Queen” so she might have been disqualified even as a Warden. Emma wasn’t too active but why were they always dressed in Nazi black and always watching out of their window? Could they hear our planning through the thin party wall? Had the shelter been built in front of them to conceal what was going on? Indeed I did occasionally wonder whether they might be German spies sending radio signals about Ferniehurst’s preparations for war back to Germany.

Slowly the arsenal of democracy was being built up. Mum made the blackouts, black sheeting religiously pinned up so that the Nazi bombers flying overhead wouldn’t notice the embattled focus of democracy at 33 St Aidans.

Dad built a greenhouse which served the double purpose of further concealing the air aid shelter. He also built a hen house and put in a dozen hens whose eggs sustained the troops. We were pretty self sufficient, which would have been useful had Ferniehurst been besieged, but with the reservation that I wouldn’t allow my rabbits to be eaten. Additional sustenance came from a furtive man, I christened J49, who brought cheese and sugar to our back door. Presumably this was black market. Since the statute of limitations must have run out, it’s probably safe to reveal that he lived in the next house to the bottom on the left hand side. With Wood’s and Crabtree’s fish and chip shops open throughout the war plus a “British restaurant” providing cheap basic meals for us plebs over Baildon Bridge, our diet was so varied that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would have been proud of us. Indeed the British restaurants must have been good because when I got to Oxford a decade later two still operated there.

I also I remember eating pigeons, rabbits and even dog meat (recognisable because it was dyed green) which we queued for in Shipley, pretending we had a dog at home. It can now be revealed that I was also experimenting with ways of varying the British diet and alleviating food shortages by making pineapple slices (these days I’d call it “New Pineapple”) by soaking slices of turnip in yellow dye and pineapple flavour.

I was armed. Only with a popgun at first. In those early days of the war, weapon supplies were rudimentary and even the Home Guard started out with wooden rifles. Those weapons got better. So did mine. At first I contemplated using my cricket bat to crack open the heads of invaders. I decided, however, that it was better to keep the bat clean for my trial for Yorkshire C.C.C, which was then the birthright of every Yorkshire lad. I couldn’t present myself at Park Avenue with a bloody and battered bat. So I put it back in its glass case and acquired a Tommy gun which I painted black. Unfortunately, the handle you turned to make the rat-a-tat-tat was broken so I had to make the rat-a-tat-tat noise in the back of the throat.

By this time we had a sten gun in the house. Dad brought it home from the Home Guard. He hadn’t been called up: health grounds, I think.

In fact, I don’t remember many dads being called up into the services on Ferniehurst and I wonder, looking back, whether the exempted occupations system didn’t work in favour of the middle-class. Down at school more kids from the terrace houses in Woodbottom and Charlestown had fathers serving in the forces than seemed to be the case with we happy few from Ferniehurst. I don’t know the size of the casualty list and there’s no Ferniehurst War Memorial. Ninety three deaths are commemorated on the Baildon memorial, a high figure for a village with ten thousand people but there are no addresses so there’s no tally of Ferniehurst’s killed, wounded and missing. We did our bit but I can’t measure how big a bit that was.

I drew up maps of Baildon and made several copies to help any British troops tasked with recapturing Ferniehurst by demonstrating how they could advance up the backway via snickets, up Baildon Green, along the Glen and through the woods rather than up Baildon Road or along Otley Road, both of which the Germans would certainly have blocked.

The invasion never happened. In fact, come to think of it, not much did. I remember spending only a few nights in our magnificent air raid shelter and most of those were false alarms. On two occasions I could hear bombs falling somewhere, though not on Ferniehurst, because my mother kept opening the door to go into the house to make tea. No-one could work the primus dad had installed and he’d never thought to install an en suite toilet. I don’t know how they managed that out in the street shelter because I can’t remember ever going there.

In each case when bombs actually fell the target was Bradford rather than Ferniehurst.

In Ferniehurst, we never felt any possibility of defeat. Our shelter began to drip with damp and dad decided to use it for growing mushrooms. The shelter in the road outside was left open to become more of a health hazard than a protection because mysterious night visitors used it as a toilet. We kids broke up the breeze blocks blocking the exits and used the shelter as a battle training ground: Baildon’s only one. You could fire out of it at any available attacking hordes, so younger kids were forced to run round like Indians round a wagon train. The battle training may not have frightened the Germans but it certainly terrified the Misses Murgatroyd.

Gradually life returned, though not to normal, for these were straitened times with rationing, scarcities and mothers spending a lot of time queuing. By this time I was in uniform myself. First as a wolf cub, and, in 1944 as a scout, and we felt ourselves to be a reserve army. In 1944 the Baildon (St John’s) 9l Shipley Scouts became part of Yorkshire coast defences when we were sent camping at Sandsend, presumably because all coastal troops had been withdrawn for the invasion of Europe. We patrolled the beaches and went to sea to seek submarines, though some were sea stick I wasn’t but I was amazed to find it all quiet on the eastern front.

By 1944, victory was in the air. Any other outcome was inconceivable. Particularly to readers of the Wizard & Rover. Finally, in May 1945 came victory and with it our great VE Day street party, the first and possibly the last time St Aidan’s Road did anything together as a street. Ferniehurst had come through.

VJ Day followed in August, by which time Ferniehurst was too exhausted to organise another party. We kids seized the initiative and built a big fire in the back garden of the Misses Murgatroyd at 35 St. Aidan’s. I remember it as huge. They never let us have a fire in their garden again. It looked like a battlefield afterwards. The only one St Aidan’s Road had.

Next year we all got certificates personally signed by King George VI thanking us for the tremendous efforts we’d made, along with the Commonwealth, to win victory for Britain. If I hadn’t lost mine I’d put it in the Ferniehurst War Museum. If there was one.

Austin Mitchell is Labour MP for Great Grimsby.