Wartime memories of Austwick.

Molly Preston
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

I was born in 1930 at Ivydene, a property on the east side of the village green in the centre of Austwick. My mother, a Lancaster girl, had spent time in Austwick on holiday from teacher training college at Leeds and met my dad, a farmer’s son who was apprenticed to Kirkbright’s joiners before an after serving his time in the Royal Flying Corps during the 14/18 war.

The family bought the property of Leigh House, Leigh House Cottage, a large garden, orchard and croft from the Stockdale family after the death of Robert Stockdale, church organist and choir master (retired Leeds school master). They moved in 1931/2. In the thirties and forties a front room in Leigh House was used as a doctor’s surgery one day a week by the Ingleton doctors.

My dad converted the first floor at Leigh House Cottage into a meeting room (the ground floor had previously been used as a shop by Robert Stockdale’s aunt, Mrs Baxter). The Girl Guides and Anglican Young People’s Association using it on a regular basis.

My mother developed a tumour on the brain and died in 1939. It was also the year the war started. My dad was left to bring up two girls, my sister Edna and I, as well as running his joinery business from the premises at the first floor of the property now known as Cross Cottages, opposite the church. Bibby’s green grocers used the ground floor to house their delivery vans. Eventually he lost the lease on this property as they were to be converted into two cottages and had to move the business to Leigh House Cottage where the meeting room had been.

Dad was not eligible for conscription for the 2939-45 war being a one parent family, also he had contracted dysentery when serving in the Flying Corp in Salonica, Greece. Edna and I passed the county minor scholarship and attended Settle High School which at that time was a grammar school for girls. She went onto teacher training college at Liverpool. I had no option but to stay at home and support my Dad. Our grandmother came to live with us eventually and I nursed her through the last years of her life.

During my early years as a teenager I had three friends, we became an inseparable ‘gang of four’. We were always looking for adventure and were keen swimmers, learning in Austwick beck, then graduating to a length of deep water in Fen beck accessed from the Eldroth road. This pool was used extensively by local swimmers and was known as Swina-wheel, it even had a very basic changing hut. Our adventures were found in the local countryside, the hills, Austwick beck and often squeezing into many of the local caving systems. Often we accompanied Chris Cheetham, local naturalist, on his expeditions, coming home with various pieces of fossils in our pockets.

The 39-45 war brought many changes to the village. One exciting event was the arrival of a dance teacher and choreographer, Miss Maisie May, who evacuated herself from London to stay with relations in Austwick. She started a dance troop of village children, eventually just girls. She gave up trying to teach the boys! When trained the troop gave performances on the parish hall stage and outdoors at the village fete. We had Greek dancing as a Settle High School subject so dancing was already familiar to us. One of the most successful performances was danced to the Nutcracker suite. At the end of the war she wrote the ‘Topical Ballet’ which told the story of the war in dance, Hitler threatening the European countries and Russia. I was given the part of Hitler and learned Cossack dancing. Looking back you realised what a clever piece of work it was and could have graced any London stage (with professional dancers of course).

I was a Girl Guide, a member of the AYPA, mentioned earlier, so I ha quite a busy life style.

There was great excitement when it was heard that German planes had tried to bomb the railway line in Eldroth. Trains carrying munitions used this line on a regular basis. Luckily they missed their target and the only damage was an unfortunate cow. There were five bombs dropped leaving huge craters in the fields, which eventually had to be filled in as they would have been a danger to animals. It was a novelty to walk up to Eldroth to see these craters.

Another plane incident involved a Whitley bomber which had to do an emergency landing near Harden Bridge, having run out of fuel. The local farmer, a member of the Home Guard, held the crew at gunpoint until they could explain that they were not actually the enemy. The headteacher at Austwick School took the children down to see the aircraft. She knew that once the children had been told they would be too excited to concentrate on lessons. Eventually a fuel tanker arrived, two field walls were taken down to give enough ground for take-off and the plane was able to leave without any further incident.

We did quake in our beds when we heard the ‘jerry’ planes overhead on their way to bomb Barrow shipyards. After around ten minutes our windows shook in their frames which meant that the bombs had found their target. We would have a sigh of relief and settle down to sleep.

The first visible signs of change were the disappearance of iron railings and gates, to contribute to munitions. Young men and some women were drafted into the armed forces, and others into munitions factories. Some stayed at home in reserved occupations to keep the farms going, those not eligible were formed into the Home Guard, A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) and special constables helping the police. The Home Guard began to drill and go on manoeuvres, a constant source of amusement to the children. Everyone listened to the progress of the war on the radio, and the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill, some were so memorable that they can still be quoted today. We were urged to ‘dig for victory’ and grow more vegetables on all available land, flowers were dug out and thrown away, farmers were encouraged to grow oats on land hardly suitable in a highland area. We were urged to collect waste paper and jam jars, the latter being used by the Women’s Institute to produce endless jars of jam.

The Land Army girls helped on the land, many from towns had never seen a field before, but buckled too and soon adapted to country life. Economical recipes were broadcast by the Ministry of Food and dried egg became a familiar sight. We were lucky to have our own hens, a large vegetable garden, a green house and an orchard full of fruit trees. Ration books were issued and food had to be obtained on coupons.

Petrol was available for essential journeys only, so local buses were usually full to capacity. We girls who were at Settle School travelled by bus as did many who had jobs in the town. There was no driving test so a driver automatically received a license by payment.

Pupils evacuated from Brighton and Bradford shared our schools and we were quite happy to come home at lunch time, having just had morning lessons. The Ministry of Information sent out films to help our education. A very strange choice for a girls school was ‘Hedging and Ditching’. I could still tell you how to ‘lay a hedge’ but have never had a use for it.

Air raid practice was part of the new routine, including the use of gas masks which were carried in a box on a string at all times and we were instructed on finding the safest place in an air raid. In the house that was deemed to be the under-stairs cupboard (it was quite fun to creep on there). Anti-splinter covers were fitted to windows, black-out curtains had to be made and fitted to all windows. Woe betide you if your windows showed even a chink of light when the air raid warden came round to inspect.

Everyone learned to knit, including the boys and there was great excitement when a letter of thanks was received for knitted scarves, mitts and balaclavas from members of the armed forces.

The ‘Reccies’, reconnaissance troops, were billeted in the parish hall, their hobnail boots wreaking havoc on the wooden floors. Some returned after the war to marry local girls. The chapel schoolroom was requisitioned for use of the Home Guard and Ambulance Brigade and there was no shortage of volunteers for first aid practice.

When peace was finally declared on VE and VJ (Victory in Europe and Japan) days everyone celebrated. There was dancing in the street, bonfires on the hill tops and street parties. The men eventually came back to their loved ones. Some of course never came back.

During the war no-one had climbed Ingleborough apart from shepherds checking their sheep. When things were back to normal and walking and caving were resumed a man’s skeleton was found on Ingleborough in what was known as a shake hole, a small deep hole in the ground. He had with him a small bottle containing crystals, possibly cyanide for a suicide attempt if things got difficult. Another skeleton was found in Gaping Ghyll. No one knows who they might have been, but it was suggested that they were German spies who had been dropped from aeroplanes and had perished there.