Tony Ward

"Does it have a roof"

Tales from Church Cottage

18 days ago

Introduction.

The opening instalment is set on the morning after the first major bombing raid of the Coventry Blitz, Friday 15 November 1940. Subsequently, fleeing the city, Sheila’s parents and two-year-old brother were rehoused, as a temporary measure, in a condemned Tudor cottage with no mains services near Stratford -upon-Avon. Sheila was born, in the kitchen, seven months later. The ‘temporary measure’ became their forever home.

These are the true stories of an ordinary family cast into a life out of time – part Tudor, part Victorian, part Twentieth Century. These are not mine but my wife’s stories frequently repeated in response to requests from our own children, family, and friends for Sheila to “Tell us again about …”.

Urged to preserve the stories for future generations, Sheila started handwriting them in a beautifully crafted volume of manuscript quality paper; the result of a book-binding course completed by our niece. Sadly though, she had left it too late. Alzheimer’s disease progressively robbed her of her memories and of her writing skills. All was not lost though. Repetition had embedded her stories in my own memory, and together with family photos, diary entries, and family documents from Sheila’s ‘Ancestry’ research I was able to take over.

1. Out of the ashes

“Take care love, there are still fires burning.” Kind words, but Kath was too bound up in her own thoughts to respond, her inner voice stuck in a loop, “Are they safe, are they injured … are they dead?” She hurried on.

Memorylane: Coventry Telegraph Archive: Coventry blitz: the morning after the first raid
Memorylane: Coventry Telegraph Archive: Coventry blitz: the morning after the first raid

 It was barely two hours after dawn on a date that she would never forget, Friday 15 November 1940. The all-clear had finally sounded at 6.15 am. In the Anderson shelter in their garden in Coventry, Kath had not slept. No one had slept that night. Dazed, disoriented, fearful, a whole population had emerged to a city in ruins.

    Bert was a machine tool fitter and toolmaker at Alfred Herbert’s. The factory had been turned over to round-the-clock manufacturing of munitions. Bert had been on the night shift ending at 7.00 am. He had not yet returned home. Kath was not one to fear the worst.

    “He’ll have gone to check on his Mum and Dad first, less well-prepared. I’ll try the phone box.” Kath checked for the necessary coins in her purse. Upon turning the corner at the end of their street however, it was plain to see that the phone box, leaning at a crazy angle, would be of no help. Even had it been intact, the lines were down. Eleven hours of unrelenting bombing had crippled the telephone system.

    The tram system had also been destroyed. There was no alternative but to walk. Kath left a note,” Gone to check on Mum and Dad. Join me there.”

    And so it was that my mother, carrying my eighteen-month-old brother, came to be picking her way through rubble-strewn streets to reach Gran’s house. Taking David’s pushchair would not have been possible.  She would never forget the horror of that walk.

    Across the City, my father had stayed to help rescue workmates. Many factories had been hit that night. Before long though, a welcome voice, a welcome sight, “OK Bert, you go home now and check on Kath and the baby, you’ve done your bit. The troops are here now to help.”

   Upon arriving home, Dad had found Mum’s note, “Thank God they’re safe.” He set off at once to his parent’s house.

    On the way he paused only to ask one of the troops engaged in the clear-up if he had seen my mother, “Yes mate, plucky lady and with a baby, passed by about half an hour ago - warned her to watch out for the fires.” Dad pressed on.

    Turning into his parents’ street he breathed a sigh of relief. Their district had been far enough away from the bombers’ targets, the factories and city centre, to escape virtually unscathed. 

    Dad had been spotted from the front window. My mother, holding my baby brother, rushed out first, Dad’s parents close behind. No words were needed. Hugs and kisses all round.

    “We need to celebrate!” Despite there being no gas or electric, by using their old camping stove, mugs of hot tea were soon produced.

    Before long though it was time to come down to earth. “Kath, we’d best get back to the house.” In their haste, neither of them had had time to have a good look round before leaving for Gran’s.

    There had been an ear-splitting crash in the night. The Anderson shelter had rocked.  My mother had a nagging feeling that their house had not escaped unharmed. Their house, like everyone’s first house, was special.  Middlemarch Road had been bought for them by her own mother, who had offered her daughter either the house or a big wedding.

    Upon their return, while Mum saw to my baby brother, Dad had stayed outside looking for any signs of damage. He reported back, “No missing roof tiles or broken glass, but I found this around the base of all four walls.” Dad held out a handful of coarse brick and mortar dust.

    They found out later that although the house had escaped a direct hit, the blast from the near miss had momentarily lifted it off its foundations. It had immediately dropped back into place, but although the surveyor considered it still safe to live in, they no longer felt the same attachment, and of course there could be more raids.

    “Kath, we need to move out of the city. We won’t be able to buy, but we can see if we can rent something for now.” They were not alone. For those families able to do so, the move from Coventry to the relative safety of the South Warwickshire countryside was a no-brainer.

    Luck was on their side. A flat in Redditch became available, convenient for Dad’s new job and around a half-hour bus ride from Mum’s parents.

    “This will tide us over, Bert, until we can find something more permanent. Something we can again call home.”

Next time: 2. An answer to a prayer – first sight of Church Cottage.