Interview with Margaret Givens


Interview with Margaret Givens


Margaret Givens grew up in Coventry and witnessed the bombing of the city. She and other children sat on the bricks of the destroyed cathedral to attend a service. Her house was bombed and while she and her brother was staying with her grandmother that house was also bombed and they were thrown to the waiting arms of neighbours as there was no other escape route. Her parents were trapped in a burning building and had to be rescued. They spent Christmas in an air raid shelter because they had nowhere else to go and spent some of the day in the bombed out wreckage of her grandmother’s house. Margaret and her brother were evacuated and although she focuses on the happy times when they learned to play the piano and feed the animals on the farm there were also bullies among the local children who taunted and hurt them. The family were separated for two and a half years. Margaret’s father was in the Home Guard and saw many horrendous sights. His mental health was already fragile and his health deteriorated. The family decided to move away from Coventry in the hopes this would help him. During the transition time Margaret’s mother left her handbag on a window sill and Margaret witnessed a thief stealing it. The loss of the ration coupons was another blow to the family.




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00:32:03 audio recording

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HD: This is Helen Durham on the 23rd of July 2018 and I’m going to interview Mrs Margaret Givens. Well, thank you Margaret very much for allowing me to come and meet me and have an interview.
MG: That’s alright.
HD: I know you’ve got some very interesting stories to talk about. Could you tell me where you were born?
MG: I was born in Coventry [laughs] I was going to say Skegness, in 1934.
HD: Yes.
MG: In Keresley, Coventry. On the outskirts.
HD: And can you tell me a bit about your family? Your parents.
MG: Well, they were just mum and dad. I’d got a brother as well who sadly has died over the last few years. He was two and a half years older than me.
HD: And were you close?
MG: Yeah. Quite close. Yes.
HD: Yes. So, what was your first memory of Coventry?
MG: My first memory of Coventry really is more or less the war I think. I was five. I remember mother and father listening to it on the news and their faces when they heard that war had broken out. And after that it was just, we had to have Anderson air raid shelters. We shared one with the next door neighbours but we didn’t like it very much at nights so instead of staying in that when the sirens went we would cycle to my grandparents seven miles away. My father would push me on my little fairy cycle. And if we had a [pause] the Spitfires and Messerschmitts would be fighting overhead and we had to jump into bushes, hedgerows and wait ‘til the fighting had finished and then get on our way again. Our own house was bombed out. We weren’t in it. We’d gone on our bikes. But we were in my grandmother’s house when that was bombed and my brother was sleeping next to the wall, I was in the middle, old feather bed. Grandmother’s old feather bed. She was on the outside. The wall fell down on my brother but he didn’t even wake up. Mother and father were sleeping in an outside wooden chalet. That caught fire and they were cut out with, by neighbours with axes etcetera. So that was quite upsetting.
HD: And this was at your grandmother’s house.
MG: That was at my grandmother’s. We lived all over the Christmas in an underground air raid shelter because we had nowhere to live. So again, that wasn’t a very good experience. We had to be dug out of that because it snowed heavily and we got stuck in it, and after that I don’t remember a lot of it but we did, we were evacuated. During the main blitz in Coventry when the cathedral was bombed all that was left standing was the spire. All the rest was just bricks and we had a service there. I don’t know how long after it was bombed but it wasn’t, it was only a day or two after, and we sat on the bricks my brother and I with the rest of the children. Soon after that we were evacuated. We were lucky. We went to the Forest of Dean. Right at the top of the Forest of Dean on a farm. And it was our next door neighbour’s mother that owned it, and she had four children from London there and just my brother and I and we went to school there. We learned to play the piano down there, and we were there two and a quarter years with our parents coming on the odd occasion. Very rarely because they hadn’t got a car at that time. So [pause] yeah it’s —
HD: Going back to when your family home was bombed, can you remember any of the emotions? What happened when you went back to the house?
MG: No, because our parents went back and left us at my grandmother’s. They’d heard from a neighbour. It was, there was a public house in the front of us and they had a big car park. The front was the other side and the car park was in front of us and they’d dropped a land mine on the car park and that demolished our row of houses.
HD: Was it ever rebuilt?
MG: Yes. Yes. We have been down to see it since haven’t we?
HD: And can you remember it being built, and did you move back in again?
MG: Yes. Yes, we did. We moved to Skegness in 1946.
HD: Very hard times then.
MG: Yes, they were.
HD: And when you had Christmas in the underground shelter what happened on Christmas Day? Were there lots of families there?
MG: No, there was, we was only, we were on our own. The downstairs of our grandparent’s house was alright but there were no stairs or anything and we spent Christmas Day in there, in the house. But I can remember my father walking down the steps in to the underground shelter and from somewhere I don’t know where he’d managed to find a word game, and he dropped it and all the bits fell out which took the edge off the [laughs] it amused us all.
HD: Were you able to celebrate Christmas in any way?
MG: Well, best we could. Yeah.
HD: Did you have something to eat?
MG: Yes.
HD: Can you —
MG: As far as I can remember. I mean, I don’t remember a lot of it obviously at five years old. You don’t at five or six.
HD: It must have been a very frightening experience for you.
MG: It was frightening. Yes. Particularly when my grandmother’s house was bombed because there were no stairs there. We had to jump into neighbour’s arms, and you know for children it was frightening. But some of it was quite exciting. Like diving under hedgerows and watching the planes fighting above. To us that was exciting. But to our parents of course very frightening. My father was in the Home Guard.
HD: Tell me a bit about your father in the Home Guard.
MG: Well, he took it. It was hard for him. It wasn’t easy. Well, his mental state wasn’t good. That’s the reason he didn’t go in to the forces. He wasn’t passed to go in. And of course he saw some horrendous things when he was in the Home Guard and more or less, you know made him a lot worse and that was why we moved to Skegness because they thought it would help. Help him. But as it was we moved in the May to Skegness. He was sent, taken into St John’s Hospital which was Bracebridge Heath in the July, and stayed there for thirty.
Other: [whisper] Two.
MG: Thirty two years. So, you know, it did hit the family hard.
HD: How was your mother?
MG: She was a strong lady. She managed to cope bringing us up because she had Sue in the October the same year that we moved to Skegness and, although she was ill when she had Sue, but I more or less looked after her. But really that’s more or less it. The — [pause]
HD: So how old were you when you moved to Skegness?
MG: Twelve. I was thirteen in the following October.
HD: And you went to school in Skegness.
MG: I went to the Grammar School, because I was at a girl’s school in Coventry. Senior School obviously, and I was transferred to Skegness Grammar School.
HD: And life changed when you went to Skegness.
MG: Oh yes. Considerably. The school was so different for a start. You know whereas I’d been used to just girls there was both sexes and it was, well it was mayhem really [laughs] Whereas we were, it was very very strict in Coventry in the school it wasn’t so strict here.
HD: And do you know what upset your father? Did he ever talk about the experiences?
MG: No. I think, you know as I said he wasn’t mentally fit when it happened and I think that just tipped him over the edge. He had paranoid schizophrenia in the end. You’ll have to excuse my voice. I’m losing it. I always do in this area.
HD: And what did he do in the Home Guard? Did he have a special job or —
MG: No. I think they did whatever was needed at the time. Whether it be digging people out of houses that had been bombed, or I mean he must have seen some dreadful sights. Some of his partners in in the Home Guard they were killed, you know. So it wasn’t good for him. And I think it did just finish him off.
HD: But he was incredibly brave.
MG: Oh yes. We had to be. You know, in a place like Coventry. I remember Courtaulds going up. They were making the tyres for the aeroplanes and you could see the flames for miles because of the, obviously the rubber.
HD: So, Coventry was devastated by the bombing.
MG: Yes.
HD: Did it bring the community together?
MG: Oh yes. I mean, everyone looked after everyone else. It was as simple as that. You had to. As I say we were away for two and a quarter years anyway.
HD: Did you enjoy being an evacuee?
MG: Some of the time but not all of the time. There were some very cruel young boys that lived quite close by and they used to tease us and aggravate us. They threw my brother in to a pond through the ice and, you know they did some horrible things but we got through it. We managed. And there were good times. As I say we learned to play the piano there. We went to school. They were good days there. It was just one of those things you had to do.
HD: Quite difficult for a young child to change from city life to country life.
MG: Oh yes. Yes. I mean I liked it on the farm because I love animals and I’ve always loved animals. We had some gorgeous pictures of us feeding the chickens and things like that, but when mother died they just disappeared so we don’t know where they went.
HD: Were there any of the animals that you particularly were fond of?
MG: No. They were all just, it was just a general farm. Dogs. And of course they were always my favourites.
HD: And were you all assigned jobs to do?
MG: Not particularly. If we wanted to go feed the chickens, we would go and feed them you know. We weren’t made to do anything. The people that lived there that took us in were very, very nice. Couldn’t have been better. We were lucky. But I mean they knew our parents so, which made a lot of difference.
HD: And when you went back to Coventry that must have been difficult again, readjusting.
MG: Yes.
HD: From being away and coming back.
MG: Yes. I don’t even remember what years we were away. I don’t remember the dates or anything or what year. But yes, it was difficult.
HD: And when you went to Skegness that was in ’47.
MG: ’46.
HD: ’46. Excuse me.
MG: It was ’46, wasn’t it?
HD: And the change, and the war had finished. How was family life then?
MG: Not good, because my father at this stage was very poorly. In fact, he well he was taken in to the, in to St John’s Hospital in the July. I mean we only moved in the May, so it was only a month or two where he was at home. After that he was in hospital.
HD: Were you ever able to go and visit him?
MG: Yes. Yes, we did go and visit him. We visited him I think every week, despite having a, mother having a young child, a young baby. We used to go and visit him on the train.
HD: And how was that? What do you remember?
MG: A bit frightening, you know. Because you’d walk past padded cells, and things like that in the, but they were good, they put us in a room, a separate room so we got through it.
HD: And were you able to bond with your father?
MG: Yes. I think so. I think, you know, I mean he didn’t come back into our lives really until he was in his eighties. I don’t remember what year he came back. I don’t know whether you do.
Other: It was when they reorganised the mental health system.
MG: They more or less threw the mental health patients out on the streets.
Other: That’s ’79 I think.
MG: Yeah. Yes. They could no longer keep them in the hospitals. They had to come out and he stayed in Skegness in a home in Drummond Road and he was quite happy there I think. I used to pick him up from work and take him for tea one night a week and he seemed alright. As long as he took his medication he was fine.
HD: So what happened to you after the war?
MG: Well, as I say we came back. Came to Skegness and I went to the Grammar School. My brother was working by then as an apprentice because of course we finished work, finished school quite young in those days. I mean, I was fifteen when I started work and I think my brother was about fourteen. He got an apprenticeship in a printer’s place and he was transferred here to somewhere. So, yeah we managed alright.
HD: And what did you do?
MG: I started off in a place called Keithley’s which was a [pause] I don’t know what you would call it. They sold curtains, and everything else under the sun like that and then I went into the chemists. I worked in a chemists/opticians for a few years. I can’t remember how many years. I’ve lost count. These thing you forget over time.
HD: And when did you get married?
MG: I got married on my nineteenth birthday. 1953. Coronation year.
HD: And your husband, had he been in the forces?
MG: No. No. No. He was a joiner by trade. My second husband has been in the RAF for a good many years but John, my first husband of course was only, well he was two and a half years older than me. Same age as, no five and a half years older than me so he, you know he wasn’t old enough to be in the forces.
HD: It’s a harrowing tale. Big experiences. Is there something that stands out for you as you were growing up? What did you learn from all these experiences?
MG: I really don’t know. As children some things you find exciting, some are frightening, you know, I think the worst experiences was seeing them trying to get my mother and father out of the burning chalet. That was the worst experience, but apart from that, you know you just carried on.

HD: And were they injured?
MG: No. No. They got them out in time luckily. There was a little row of cottages down below my grandparents, and they dropped incendiary bombs all the way along the cottages and on to our [pause] the chalet and then on to the house. So the whole lot was bombed.
HD: How do you feel about the Germans? How do you —
MG: I’ve got several German friends. It’s not their fault. They didn’t cause it. They’re no different to we are.
HD: So you have no bitterness?
MG: No.
HD: No sadness.
MG: Only with Hitler. It was him. I mean, it was nothing to do with the normal people. I mean they were bombed out the same as we were. They had some devastating experiences just the same. You can’t blame them.
HD: Now, tell me about your mother. How old was she when she died?
MG: She was only about sixty five, was it? Sixty four. Sixty five.
Other: Sixty six.
MG: Sixty six. Yeah. She developed cancer and she died. She went to live down in Devon and she died down there.
HD: She’d had a hard time.
MG: Very hard. Very hard. Trying to bring up three of us. One only a child, a small child in those, you know with no husband to help out.
HD: No support.
MG: No.
HD: So, did she go to work?
MG: Yes. She worked in a variety of places, and she took visitors in. She worked in a crisp factory, was it?
Other: Yeah. And the rock factory as well.
MG: The rock factory, yes.
HD: In Skegness.
MG: Yes. Yes.
HD: And you say she took visitors in.
MG: Yes.
HD: Was this like a boarding house? Was it?
Other: Yes.
HD: Was it?
MG: It was only a bungalow but she took several visitors in and we had to help out of course.
HD: She worked hard.
MG: She did. She was a hard worker. While we, when we went back to our house in Coventry my mother had left her handbag on the window sill of the French doors and I went through from school. Mother was talking to the next door neighbour at the front. I went through from school and there was somebody taking her handbag. They took all the clothing coupons and everything else really that she’d got.
HD: And that was in Coventry.
MG: That was in Coventry before we moved, and so even then they wouldn’t replace the clothing coupons. So we had to have clothes from the Red Cross, and that wasn’t nice. We didn’t like it. But I had one really lovely plaid skirt from the Red Cross which I loved as a child. Yeah. There were some good things.
HD: Did they ever catch the person?
MG: No. They took me around in a police car but I mean I was what? I was twelve. Less than twelve. I think about eleven at the time and it was, I was so scared I went down the path after him and then realised and stood behind the Anderson shelter which had got a like a hump although it was underground, and I thought what if he’s got a gun or something? And I lost my voice and I couldn’t speak for several hours.
HD: It was the shock of it.
MG: It was the shock. Yeah. Of seeing it happen. That was not a good thing of course.
HD: Can you remember any other incidents?
MG: Not really. I can’t think of anything really. You forget a lot over the years.
HD: Yes. And they stopped, well it wasn’t until the ‘50s that they stopped the rationing. How did you all manage with rationing as a family?
MG: Struggled. Struggled. There was a shop around the corner in Skegness from where he lived. He was very good. He helped us out in lots of ways, and because you know when your coupons and things were taken they weren’t replaced so we were without things. You know basic things. We had got some food coupons but I could remember a funny thing mother used to, you only got so much butter and of course mother loved butter so she used to hide it [laughs] so we couldn’t have it. It was quite funny.
HD: What sort of meals did you have?
MG: Anything she could cook up really.
Other: Rabbit stew.
MG: Rabbits, yes. A lot of rabbit stew. I couldn’t bear a rabbit now. The thought of it turns your stomach up, but we used to have spam fritters, where she would dip the spam in batter and fry them. They were quite nice actually. Things like that, you know. She would make up things.
HD: Did you grow your own vegetables at all?
MG: I don’t know. Yes, we did. Yeah.
HD: Yes. Everyone had to be very resilient and self-sufficient.
MG: Yes.
HD: So what happened when it was your birthday?
MG: Well, it was celebrated as best we could. Mother did her best, you know. She would make us cake and yeah. We were alright.
HD: And did you have toys and things to play with?
MG: Things were given to us. Yeah, I mean, by the time I moved to Skegness I was past the toy stage really because I was in Senior School. I was twelve. Nearly thirteen. [dogs barking] Yeah. I remember us having to take an old pram to fetch coke for the fire from the gas place in Skegness. That was after we moved because you got it cheap. We couldn’t afford coal. Things were scarce still for years after the war. Couldn’t just go into the shop and buy things like we would now. I used to save my sugar every time they had a cup of tea or anything in the house, my mother and father I used to put it in to a bag, my spoonful of sugar because that was the only way we could have sweets. And then there was a little shop down near the city that sold sweets in place of sugar. So that’s how we got sweets.
HD: What type of sweets?
MG: Boiled sweets. Just homemade boiled sweets. That was an exciting time when you took your bag of sugar for your sweets because otherwise we wouldn’t have had anything like that.
HD: So how did you feel when your little sister came along?
MG: Oh, I was quite thrilled with her at the time [laughs] but not so much when I had to take her everywhere with me. I used, I used to leave her with my friend’s mum. I don’t think mother ever knew did she?
Other: Probably not.
MG: No.
Other: I can’t ever remember that so obviously it didn’t do me any harm, did it?
MG: No. No. She looked after you.
HD: But you and your brother had a lot of responsibility in the home helping your mother.
MG: Yes. I think my brother did particularly because no father there he was the, he thought he was the head of the house so he’d got quite a bit of responsibility.
HD: At a very young age.
MG: Yes. Yes. I need to fetch a hankie. Would you do me a favour, Sue?
MG: I didn’t have this problem in Eastbourne.
HD: Well, it’s been fascinating hearing about your memories, and such a vast array as well.
MG: I mean there’s a lot you don’t remember. Probably because you don’t want to remember. Your mind —
HD: Did you have a lot of friends your age?
MG: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. We made friends down in Gloucestershire. Of course, during the war you lost a lot of your friends during the, you know everybody moving around and going, were evacuated a lot of them. So you lost touch with a lot of them. We hadn’t got iPads and things where we could just get in touch. So —
HD: So what, was there a person who was your stable influence during those times when you were a child?
MG: Just mother really.
HD: A strong lady.
MG: She was a strong, a very strong lady. I mean, she only came up to my shoulder. She was small but my goodness she ruled us with a rod of iron didn’t she? She was quite strict.
HD: But that was good in a way.
MG: Oh yes. Yes.
HD: Yes. And is there anything else you would like to add?
MG: Not really. Just we hope we never have another war like it. We hope for our grandchildren’s sake etcetera that it never happens again.
HD: Well, thank you ever so much for taking the time and for giving us an insight into your memories. It’s very kind of you. Thank you.
MG: That’s alright.



Helen Durham, “Interview with Margaret Givens,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 17, 2024,

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