Working Lives

Wartime Thetford (1940-1950)

Location: Thetford

John recalls his childhood during the Second World War in Thetford.  

Guns and soldiers in Thetford

I was born in 1940 and I can remember standing on the corner of the Bell Hotel in White Hart Street, in June 1944, watching tanks, soldiers and vehicles coming down the street heading towards London. They made me move, well, they picked me up and moved me over to the other side because the tanks used to swing round and perhaps catch you, if you were on that side of the Bell Hotel. They were big old lumbering things. At times I watched the Ack-Ack gunners in the park turning on their blocks, near the children’s playground in Castle Street today. There was a Nissen hut near the beech tree on the other side of the swings and the concrete block is still laying there. That always brings back memories ‘cause when I was a lad we used to climb on top of it. Shouldn’t ha’ done, used to end up ripping me trousers. We also used to get drinks off the soldiers who were armouring the Ack-Ack gun.

Watching ‘blood trains’ at Thetford Station

My brother and sister used to push me in a wheelbarrow, along Rushford Road, about a mile or so out of the town, on the left hand side where there was a copse of trees. The Indian army was billeted there. We were given all sorts of tins of milk ‘n type of food which was very hot and unknown to us, but was obviously curry. Any foods we could get hold of, you know, beans, we would bring it home to our Mother because it was rationing at the time and that was very stringent so every bit helped! We were glad of the food no matter what, we tried anything what was going. Some of the things we used to eat were unbelievable! You’d get hold of whatever you could.

We used to sit on the railway bridge up on the steps at Thetford railway station watching the soldiers loading the tanks onto the railway trolleys. I wasn’t scared, more inquisitive, as a young lad, just watching for the sake of watching. You had a lot of people on the move, soldiers were continually on the move. I was that young they used to move me out of the way so that I didn’t get trampled on ‘cause they were coming over the top. There were also ammunition trains that rolled through the station. I’ll never forget ‘em. They had five big wheels and made a clanking noise so you always knew it was an ammunition train coming in, towards Wretham, to supply the aircraft in the area. I would walk along the platform, on the London side, to a wooden guard hut where I’d get a drink off the soldiers who manned the concrete bunker, on Mundford allotments, where they put the new pathway down on the Norwich side. The bunker is still there.

My sister used to walk me down in our wheelbarrow to Two Mile Bottom where we watched the Red Cross trains unloading injured soldiers into the ambulances to be taken to hospitals around the area, including Thetford Cottage Hospital where we’d see them going in and out. That was pitiful to see and I’ll never forget it. When we went near the trains you could smell the horrible smell of blood. We used to call them the blood trains actually, we knew what it meant.

Wartime food

I used to go with my Mother to the Co-op butchers where you might get the odd heart. That used to be like rubber! Weren’t nice at all. Another thing they used to get was whale blubber which was like a big lump of, well, it weren’t like liver, that was similar nature but that was terrible stuff to eat. Didn’t like the hearts neither ‘cause they were so tough. Mother used to cook them as best she could but when you see programmes on television today and see how they cook hearts they look quite nice. But in them days they weren’t. If the siren went off when we were there we would quickly cross over to the shelter.

You didn’t know what you were eating. It was put in front of you and they would say ‘Well, if you don’t want it somebody else will’ and they handed it round the table. Another thing we had, with the ration book, was sweets, if we were able to. I remember Bouser, a little sweet shop up Castle Street on the right hand side. Used to go in there and get two ounces of peppermints, the only thing you could get. There was no assortment and it was only later on, when rationing came off, that things began to change. I remember one particular peppermint which was big and really hot. That was a 2D coupon. I’ll never forget that, 2 ounces you see, that’s all you were allowed. Your quarter was E4 and that was for 4 weeks’ rationing. There used to be another type of food which look like a rope when it was on display. I think it was called arrowroot and that was vile! We also used to get little packets called Nipits, like liquorice and during the war they’d give you plenty of that to keep you going. Of course rationing didn’t end until 1954

An adventurous childhood

We had a good life, as kids we’d do alright, larking about and playing. I’m afraid I was adventurous. I was never in the house, I used to escape ‘cause in St Giles’ Lane we had a passage way and around the back you had your walk way. They put a fence up to try and stop me but I used to get underneath it, in the drain area, where they couldn’t drop it low enough and I used to get out there. Next thing, I was up White Hart Street, opposite the museum, in a truck out the back, an old broken down thing, playing. The police picked me up and took me home. Needless to say I got a good hiding but it didn’t stop me, I still got out and played around. I thought it was something new and adventurous. I don’t think young ‘uns today could stick what we had to. You were afraid of the sirens and the Doodle Bugs which used to rattle over, you’d hear the whining noise and the next thing, you’d hear an explosion which was a long way away but you could still hear it.

Air raids and shelters

I went to Norwich Road School and when the air raid siren went off we used to run to the shelters which were across the big boys’ playground. There were at least six shelters if I remember rightly. It was a very scary noise. We used to just run for it! We still had to be in an orderly line but we just followed each other. Used to wonder what it was all about. In the air raid shelters not a lot happened. You just sat on your form along the edge of the bunkers. It was always damp and dingy ‘cause there were no lights, there was nothing. It was all under soil and mounds for protection. You didn’t worry that the shelter would collapse ‘cause you were more worried about what could be outside. You did get frightened at times. Towards the end of the war we didn’t get too many trips to the shelters because we were on top, winning the war so there weren’t so many air raids.

My dad dug an air raid shelter out in the back garden, an Anderson. I remember going to the doctors during the war and if there was a raid you had to get under the table or get inside the Morrison, I think it was called. That weren’t very often.

When I went shopping with my Mother down Guildhall Street, the siren would go and we would run across the road to an air raid shelter where Roys department store is now. That spreads from Guildhall Street back towards Pike Lane and was all concrete roofs and everything. It wasn’t a very nice one to go in if it was raining because the water came through the door and we’d be sitting there with our feet in the water and we got soaked.

One night, a lot earlier in the war, my Mother was up at the petrol dump up Mundford Road when the sirens went. The Germans used to look for petrol dumps and if they could find them they bombed them, but they were well protected and covered. They did drop a stick, well down towards Two Mile Bottom but that missed.

I remember we were issued with identity cards and gas masks. I’ve still got my identity card. I had the type which looked like Mickey Mouse, a red one. It was horrible putting it on. It smelt strongly of rubber and made you wheeze with the horrible smell coming up through the mouthpiece. You just couldn’t stand it, it was horrible.

My father was in the First War and he went into the Second but he was getting on a bit and they more or less threw him out because he got pneumonia and it affected him. He came home and joined the Home Guard. I remember him coming home with his helmet and his gun which he used to put under the stairs for protection and safety for all of us.

Going to the doctor and trying to get to hospital

Early on in the war you had to pay doctors for any treatment. I was a bit of a misfit medical wise. I had bad ears and I had to have treatment. I remember my Mother giving the doctor two chickens for payment. Very often the doctors would do it for nothing but at times you had to pay for the material they used. When the war was over the National Health come in and that was the best thing that ever happened!

One time I was knocked over and had a broken leg and I was picked up by American airmen and taken to Thetford Cottage Hospital. We lived in St Giles’ Lane just across the road and when I hadn’t arrived home they waited for my Mother and took her to the hospital. I think I was knocked over by a bike if I remember rightly. They shouldn’t have been riding there and I was on the path when it hit me. I had a broken arm and a broken leg and I had to be operated on and later they found complications. I had to be taken to Norwich City Jenny Lind Hospital for children. Getting there was a problem but my Mother was able to get somebody to drive us and they had to get permission to travel from Thetford outwards. You never had the ambulances because they were all ready for the servicemen. You couldn’t just go down a marked road in a vehicle, you had to have permission. We got permission to travel along the A11 which went through Snetterton airfield and aircraft used to come across the main road, where the main runways were, on to the other side, and park up and have repairs done. We had to wait until the aircraft went across, then we got permission to complete our journey to Norwich. Very often you’d be sitting there for half an hour or more waiting for the go-ahead. You wouldn’t want it to be a real emergency, you’d have a job.

I was operated on again, in Norwich. They had to break me leg and reset it all because they’d done it wrong. They used ether to put you to sleep in those days. That was like a mask they put on your face and the next thing you’d gone. The operating things weren’t brilliant in them days. When I had to go back to have my plaster off they used big tong things to cut your leg protection, they cut all the way down and went through me ankle! So I had to have stitches. I think there was a shortage of equipment because of the war. It wasn’t like today, today the equipment they’ve got is marvellous and, I mean, the operations they do today!

Wireless and telephones

We had an accumulator type wireless which was like a vase but all glass. It had to be charged up. We used to take it down to Barnetson’s in Magdalen Street. I think it’s the Portuguese cafe now. They charged ‘em up over 24 hours and put it in the back of your radio. Of course there wasn’t too much on the radio during the war. I don’t know how much it cost. It was just something you had to pay for. Very often you’d be listening to ITMA, Tommy Handley or In Town Tonight on a Saturday night and the radio used to go. They’d just wind down and there was no more juice in the batteries. There weren’t any programmes for children. We did a lot of reading, especially American comics which they gave us. We would read them over and over and over again.

Of course we had no telephones, no, we never dreamt of ‘em. There were telephone boxes down the street but none near the Post Office. We never used them, couldn’t afford to. With very little money coming in people just couldn’t afford to use them.

The prisoner of war camp

I don’t think many people knew this but there was a prisoner of war camp up Brandon Road in the Mackenzie Road area. That was all trees, firs and larches and bushes all the way along there, and you’d go through a track and the camp was there, in the back. It was well covered and me sister and I used to go up there. We used to take food, what little we had and give it to the prisoners behind the barbed wire. I think they were Italians and I think there were a few Germans but I weren’t too certain about that. There was quite a few people there and they were well treated and people round the area could feed them as best they could. I remember that distinctly because we used to play about round there and because of the sand. Shouldn’t have done but there you are. It was getting near the end of the war.


At Christmas we were picked up in lorries on the Market Square by some of the American airmen and taken to Wretham and Lakenheath aerodromes. We were allowed to climb into the aircraft and afterwards we were taken to a party in one of the big Nissen huts where we received presents and food and things we’d never seen before, like Coca-Cola and chocolate Hershey bars and chewing gum. Obviously it was brilliant for us during rationing.

We celebrated birthdays and Christmasses at home with the family and with our neighbours next door. We used to have games and I remember they used to tie apples on to a piece of string, hang ‘em from the ceiling and you’d got to try and bite them, and finish them off, or they filled a bath up, put apples in there and you had to put your head in and try and pick them up. That was weird and it was a funny game. Used to have a sock and my brothers, were in the services and my oldest brother was in the D-Day landings in the first wave and my other brother was in the Navy. When they could get home which wasn’t very often. They would bring odds and ends with them, an orange and nuts. My father used to make toys and he was quite good at it. We had a little train to sit in and play about in. It was marvellous really.

We used to get things sent over from America from friends we had out there. They had been here between the wars and then went back to America. When they heard what state we were in they sent us clothes and anything they could get through. Nuts and overseas oranges. There were a lot of Americans down St Giles’ Lane, one in particular had a jeep. I think he was an officer ‘cause they were the only ones allowed them. He brought his friends and they would come in and bring big tins of peaches. Of course we had no fridges then and how my Mother kept them for weeks and weeks on end I just don’t know. They brought us eggs as well, from their PX I suppose. My Mother used to put them in a pail full of salt and some other chemical and they used to go all white, like a foam on them outside, and they kept for weeks on end. If you couldn’t get your own potatoes from the allotments they gave you a packet of food called Pom Pom which you mixed up. It was mashed potato. It wasn’t very good, today you get better than that.

Parties and cinema at the end of the war

The big Nissen huts in Abbey Gate, right down the bottom were used by the soldiers. After the war they divided them into two properties for local people who were homeless.

If you paid 6d old money, two and a half pence today, you used to get a saving stamp. It was mauve with a Union Jack on it. I’ll never forget it and you used to stick it in this little book and then you could get on a tank and they would ride you down King Street, up as far as the Catholic church, in the old London Road, turn you round and bring you back. That was lovely.

Then, of course, the parties began. During the war Ben Culey opened up a cinema to the Gurkhas and the regiments. That was before the D-Day landings, I believe, because they were all here, just being entertained. He was very good, Ben Culey. When the war was over he gave us a party at the Odd Fellows Hall. We had food there, cakes we’d never seen the like before! Great, you know. He’s give us a free picture in the afternoon and later on he gave us ice-cream! I don’t know where he got that from. I think the Americans had the machines and they used to lend out the equipment. That’s the only thing I can think of. We used to walk up to the Odd Fellows Hall, have a little show and play games. Oh, that was marvellous!

During the war the cinema was for the servicemen really, and, of course, most people never had the money and very often they weren’t allowed out at certain times at night so there was only the afternoons. Mary and my sister were usherettes for the Gurkhas and other servicemen.

At the end of the war they brought a fair in to the park. There were all sorts of other things going on; of course I couldn’t go on anything because I was in a wheelchair ‘cause of me broken leg. So I missed all of that. They brought a Spitfire on a transport and put it together on the market as part of the celebrations. That was lovely. It’s a pity we didn’t have cameras then though we weren’t allowed to use them. If we had a camera that would have been a lovely picture. They had a hard time round here as much as anybody but with the farm area and the allotments, they kept them going and produced a lot of the food.

Reflections on Thetford after the war

Just after the war there was a library, right down the bottom of School Lane. There used to be a little school there. It was before my time but my sister can remember going there. Eventually the library moved up to the Market Square, which is now the British Legion I believe.

There were some frightening times and there were certainly really good times. We used to enjoy going out with the Americans, they used to bring you stuff. We used to watch American aircraft going over during the day, the sky would be full of them. You could always tell the Superfortresses and whine of them. Ours used to go out at night so you never got much sleep at times but we kids got through it in the end. My Mother moaned about waking up during the night and was dead tired by the time she got up the next morning! You never actually saw crashes happen but you would see the lorries with the aircraft, picking out the pieces that could be used again, I suppose.

During the war the children didn’t really know what was going on half the time. You didn’t know anything, everything was kept secret until it came out on the radio, and the radios got better and more informed. When we knew the war had been won we all put the flags out, a Royal Ensign for the Navy and the Union Jack and a French flag. We hung ‘em from the bedroom windows and the bunting across the lane and on the streets. There was a lot of red, white and blue paper type bunting.

As I’m walking around the museum a lot of things keep coming back to me. In the Pulp Mill, down near the rivers, they used to make pulp for helmets, and I think they made ammunition there in the end. I remember seeing the lorries coming out, and the girls.

John  (b.1940) was talking to WISEArchive on 25th November 2011 at the Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life as part of a Second World War project in 2011/2012.

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