You are here'As a child the brutal cold was more terrifying than the war'

'As a child the brutal cold was more terrifying than the war'


It was not Hitler that frightened me but the cold. From autumn to spring, the cold was everywhere. There was little escape, even when there was the rate chance the sit in front of a fire. As a child everyone had a right to the best and closest place to the fire before you did and so, you usually ended up in the place no-one-wanted-at the edges or at the back.
Like a living thing the cold would sneak up and spread its icy fingers on to any tiny piece of exposed skin, maybe through a hole in your jumper or the gap where your hand-me-down clothes did not fit. From then on it spread swiftly like a grey, fast growing moss, cloaking and freezing the flesh before you knew what was happening.

The front of your body may have patchy warm areas from the meagre fire but, boy, was your back cold. The calf muscles of your legs felt as solid as concrete and your back as cold as charity.
It was here, at the outer regions of the circle, that you were prey and yet you knew every draught personally as doors opened and ill fitting windows rattled and the frost on the inside of the window slowly melted, dribbling down on to the window sill in sad pools as if crying, increasing the misery of the room.
‘Put wood in’th oil!’ up went the usual heart-felt cry as someone had the cheek to leave the door ajar one second longer than was necessary to get inside the chilly room.
This was quickly followed by the equally heart-felt response ‘Let the dog see the rabbit and let us get in first!’ or ‘Gerr’a jumper on and stop wingin’ as they hurried towards the huddle around the glowing coals.
You only really noticed the cold once you moved to stand up and your body felt stiff, even if the skin on the front of your toasted fire-burnt legs.
With trying to sit so close to the fire many an adult’s legs had the mottled appearance of the skin of a bald pink leopard from the fire burn on the skin facing and level with the meagre fire limping along in the shiny steel and black leaded grate.
Your face came out better because only your cheeks and nose gained the semblance of warmth by their redness.
We burnt anything which had the slightest hope of combusting. This ranged from coal, when you could get it , and wood. After you’d swept the coal shed out of its last grain of coal dust to fill up the pea tin up to roast in the middle of the fire, which gave off very smelly fumes along with a metal taste in the air, came the turn of furniture if you could spare it.
And most times you couldn’t.
Things were so bad at one point, my Dad walked all the way from Salford to Barton and back, many miles away with a hand cart and my sister and I to get some coal from my Grandad. We sat on the cart going and coming back for most of the way and were as black as a chimney back when we got home, but I do remember the joy of the warmth later as the coal burnt brightly.
It was like heaven.
To us it was a bit of an adventure, but to Dad it must have been terrible, but I don’t remember him complaining about it. In those far off days you did what you had to do survive. Possibly this would not be the case now.
Other children in the neighbourhood could often be seen taking old prams down to the local Gas Works to see if they could collect any coal which had fallen off the lorries going into the works.
Times were hard.
Cockroaches too forsook the back of the fire to creep out of their hiding places to warm themselves in the many crevices of the grate and under work out wallpaper above the skirting boards.
Oh happy days!
Old woollen clothes which smouldered or indeed any clothes, any shoes especially those with rubber soles which burnt brightly sputtered and gave off lots of smoke, were highly prized for burning. When all wax exhausted, there was always the kitchen’s roaring gas cooker to sit around, rings and oven full on robbing the air of oxygen.
Waterfalls of condensation poured down the cold window panes until it almost seemed as if a fine mysterious mist was beginning to develop between you and the outside world.
In the kitchen the cloud of heat driven upwards by the burning gas was fierce, leaving the top of your head roasting and making it a struggle to breathe whilst your feet felt as if frozen to the floor.
The gas meter gobbled up shillings as if it too was hungry but at least we had the fleeting impression of comforting warmth as the bomb-scarred city tried to pull itself together and do its best to survive.
The cold even fled up stairs to bed with us.
We ran up to bed with the hot oven shelves left in the oven from the night in the steamy kitchen (waste not want not!) wrapped in old coats, cardigans, dresses, absolutely anything which would stop our fingers and bed from being burnt to a cinder.
Even the beds were covered with old clothes, shrunken woollies, battered old coats full of dust and the detritus of living as if the bed itself was going out for a mad night on the town.
Getting out of bed in the morning was even worse than getting into bed the night before.
You’d get up, because you had to then quickly get dressed and if possible try to escape having a wash in perishing cold water and hard green washing soap.
Hessian sacks from the factories, used for peg rugs were not usually washed because they were impregnated with a type of oil and as everyone agreed ‘made them wear longer.’ The truth here was probably that there was not enough hot water or soap or maybe it was the will to clean them because as everyone knew they were only going to go on the floor anyway.
Old coats were cut up into strips by the adults and children alike (no worries about children using scissors here as they knew what they’d get if they misbehaved) and using a rug hook Mother or the children, threaded the strips through the hessian to make a peg rug.
When they were newly made, they were the height of luxury but after much wear and family abuse they had to be discarded and another made.
Outside in the snowy weather, things were much better than they are now. Streets were cleared and buses never stopped running because of the snow or ice. It was just cleared away regularly by men on the backs of truck throwing grit and salt over the roads and pavements. It was also not taken as a reasonable excuse to be late at school or work because of the bad weather, you just had to start off earlier and this was expected of you.
One year the snow lasted for what seemed to be forever, we made furniture, chairs, table and shelves of hard packed snow and played for many hours and weeks in the freezing cold, hardly noticing it.
We were always glad to hear from Dad when he came in off night shift that ‘the gritters have bin out last night and the sky is pretty heavy. Looks like snow.’ A forewarning of the exciting possibility of wonderful snow to come which magically cleared and cleaned up the dark dirty streets that we called home.
Then the snow would come silently sifting down then speeding up into a mad dervish like dance until it made you dizzy watching it, sending you outside to catch a few precious cold flakes in your mouth and jump joyfully with both feet into the untouched reflecting whiteness.
Even the poorest of us, with cut down older siblings wellies which made sore vivid red rings about their calf muscles, and solid frozen toes delighted in this new found world, lifting their spirits and making them laugh and forget for a moment the hunger and cold which was their lot.
So you can see that to me as a child the cold I experienced was hard, brutal, soulless and all encompassing and made life difficult for all people struggling during this time.
Hitler? Who was he compared to the bitter cold and hunger we all had to struggle with in order to survive?
by Jean Hallsworth
Mancheser Evening News

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