Interview with Gwendoline Thickett


Interview with Gwendoline Thickett


Gwendoline Thickett grew up in Rotherham and was a young girl at school when the Second World War began. She was in Sunday School at her local church when the news of the declaration of war was announced. Her parents had already begun to prepare for possible eventualities by storing essentials in readiness. Gwendoline’s brother was an apprentice joiner until he joined the Army. She recalls her father building a shelter from a water tank, the bombing of Sheffield and the American soldiers who came to the area.




Temporal Coverage





00:45:38 Audio Recording


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AThickettG231110, PThickettG2301


DE: So this is an interview for the IBCC Digital Archive. My name is Dan Ellin. I’m interviewing Gwendoline Thickett today. Also in the room is Mary Williams. It is the 10th of November 2023 and we’re in Washingborough. Gwendoline, thank you very much for allowing me in your home to have this conversation with you. Could, could you start by telling me a little bit about your very early life and where you were born and a bit about your childhood please.
GT: Right. Well, I was born at 272 Meadowbank Road, Kimberworth, Rotherham.
DE: Brothers and sisters?
GT: A brother. He went to Australia after the war. After he’d done his service.
DE: Ok.
GT: But he’s died out there but we did go out to see him. My husband and I.
DE: Yeah. What did he, what was, what did he do in war?
GT: He was a soldier. He went abroad. I can’t think of —
DE: It doesn’t matter at all. So tell me a bit about, about your childhood. What was it like growing up in Rotherham?
GT: Rotherham. Yes. I had a very, I was in a very happy home. Place. You know, my mum and dad were wonderful. Yes. And for the time did everything. I started this for the children but [pause] the evolution of washing day.
DE: Ok.
GT: And mending shoes. My father always mended the shoes.
DE: What did your father do for a living? What was his job?
GT: Now, he was at Robert Jenkins who made boilers for ships.
DE: Right.
GT: So he couldn’t go in the forces. He wanted to. He wanted to go in the, to be a sailor but no he was in a Reserved Occupation. My childhood. [pause] I really don’t know what to tell you.
DE: Well, where did you go to school?
GT: At Meadowhall. Meadowhall School. Kimberworth Infant School. Then the middle school was Meadowhall School. Then it was at Kimberworth Senior School. And that’s where, I was there when the war started.
DE: Ok. What, what can you remember about that?
GT: Having the, the playing field that was attached to the, at the school. They dug it up to do, to do shelters and we had to practice going in the shelters. You know, a certain way by the walls and yes. We didn’t have a a place. We had a playground but we didn’t have the field.
DE: Right. Ok. Because it was had been turned into shelters. Did you have, did you have a shelter at home as well?
GT: Yes. Now, that’s a story. My father was at Robert Jenkins who made boilers for ships and he bought from the firm a round tank and he dug into the, into the back garden which had a steep incline and he dug and put this boiler in. And that was our shelter. Now at first there was problems because digging into the ground it used to seep water and so he dug a sump in. And every day when Russell and I came home from school our job was to ladle the water out of this sump. And then he’d put an escape hatch because it was built into the back rockery and he made an escape hatch. You know, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.
DE: Sure.
GT: Then this covered apart from this escape this hatch it was covered in in gardening.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And we had chickens. Russell went to the market and bought three little chickens and that started for the whole of the war we had hens and chickens and black [Menorca] rabbits for food.
DE: Right. Yeah.
GT: And mum was a gardener.
DE: Ok.
GT: So we, we were really well off.
DE: Yeah.
GT: In that way. Not, not monetarily but we were alright.
DE: So as well as the rationing you had chickens and eggs and rabbit meat as well. Yeah.
GT: Yes.
DE: How, how did it feel if, you know because these animals would sometimes be pets.
GT: Yes. Well, that was a problem and dad used to get up sometime during the weekend and kill a hen but he hated killing rabbits. He hated it. But we had to do it.
DE: Yeah.
GT: For food. So my mum and dad were providers.
DE: Yes. Yeah.
GT: Yeah.
DE: So what was it like inside the, inside the shelter that your dad built?
GT: It was just round. The only disadvantage was condensation and when the Blitz came to Sheffield and Rotherham was included do you know Steel, Peech and Tozers? The big steel works.
DE: No. I don’t. but I can look it up.
GT: You can look.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Yes. Well what I was saying?
DE: The Blitz and the steelworks.
GT: Oh yes. With dad not going in the forces he had to be an ARP warden and they built, there were brick shelters for people who were travelling and that. Every so often you’d see a brick shelter and the ARP warden operated from there and so he had to work nights. That was the big disadvantage of him working and [pause] oh he what I was going to say? I was going to say something. I’m getting old.
DE: It was about your father being an ARP warden and working nights.
Yes. So he wasn’t at home when we were going in the shelters at night.
DE: Oh, I see.
GT: Because we at one period we were going in the shelters at 6 o’clock at night or a bit later and it was a routine thing. I had to take the medical case in and we all, we had we each had a coat of mum’s to keep us warm and we’d go in the shelter but when the Blitz came in the Sheffield area —
DE: Yeah.
GT: We had a neighbour come in because most of the men were in the steelworks and so one of our neighbours had a baby and she was quite nervous. So we made room for her in our shelter. And it was a routine. We had to get in to a routine of going because sometimes we used to go at 6 o’clock at night and we’d be there until about twelve. But before the Sheffield Blitz we used to see hundreds of aeroplanes going over at once. You know about that and, but and different places you know were targeted.
DE: Yeah.
GT: At nights. And when we were targeted it happened on my dad’s birthday, the 2nd of December and it was horrendous. My brother could hear the shrapnel outside and wanted to go out and fetch it [laughs] but of course mum wouldn’t let him. And what else can I tell you?
DE: So what was it like on that night of the Blitz?
GT: Terrible. I was very nervous. Well, everybody was nervous. We were living on a knife edge at that time.
MW: The ceiling [pause] the ceiling.
GT: Oh yes. Our house wasn’t bombed.
DE: Right.
GT: But the ceiling. I’ve written that out in here. I think I can, if I can read a bit.
DE: Yeah. Of course.
GT: Yeah. When the all clear sounded eventually dad came from the ARP post to see if we were alright. He went in the house to see the damage. Mum wanted to go. He came to tell us to stay where we were and he went in the house, got the hoover out and hoovered all the soot up from the fire because we had coal fires.
DE: Yeah.
GT: There was two big holes in the ceiling in the front bedroom and my bedroom and mum put Lincrusta, not, not at that time but because of the Corporation people because it was a Corporation house they’d got no men to come to mend. It was, I can’t remember how long but it was a long time before they came and mum put layers of Lincrusta wallpaper to cover the holes. And the tiles on the outside of the roof just all concertinaed and you see it was going into winter so it was [pause] Mum and dad had to use all their ingenuity.
DE: Yeah, to try and keep the place warm and dry. Yes.
GT: Yes. Yes. There were two big holes in them. My dad with him being an ARP warden because with him not going in the forces all the men had to go in the ARP.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Or the Home Guard, you know. And he went around the houses above us mending doors because their doors, their outside doors when they were in the shelters. Somehow, I don’t know why but he went around doing doors. On the Sunday he went to Sheffield to see a friend that they had. He walked to Sheffield to see a friend to see if she was alright. It happened that she was. And Sheffield was devastated. It was ablaze. There was three days, three nights of Blitz and it just took everything. And of course, Steel, Peech and Tozers was the big firm in that area. But there was also old works. Our house looked over. It was called Meadowbank Road and the River Don was at the bottom and then it was all the electric works and and everything. But that’s how it was.
DE: Yeah.
GT: In those days.
DE: So after a night of being an ARP warden and you being in the shelter and I guess not able to sleep then then it was back to work in the steelworks for your dad and back to school for you was it?
GT: Yes. Yes. As far as I remember we didn’t stay off school. I think probably mothers were probably glad to be able to clear up and that.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And of course, we all started gardening at school. There was a patch that we had for growing vegetables. [unclear] Now what can I tell you?
DE: There was never any talk of you being evacuated then.
GT: Oh yes but with dad having his management job we weren’t on the list. But poorer people were you know. There were quite a lot. And there were movements at one time [pause] They came. Eventually I got married and Mum Thicket had eight children of her own and there was a big park at their end of the, of Rotherham and it was full of American soldiers that they’d put there which caused a bit of trouble [laughs] But, but on D-Day, after D-Day our soldiers went to Clifton Park as well. Now they were in a frightful state. They brought them up by train the ones that were still alive and this [pause] they were in a dreadful state and even Mum Thicket with her eight children took two soldiers in.
DE: Right.
GT: Because they asked people around to take two, and she took two soldiers in. I mean she told me this afterwards and they were in a dreadful state. But odd things happened at that period.
DE: Yeah.
GT: I think with them being so tragic those are the ones that have stuck in my mind all the time.
DE: Yeah.
GT: It was a dreadful time.
DE: Was this, was this after D Day or was this after Dunkirk?
GT: I can’t tell you that.
DE: It doesn’t matter. It doesn't matter. So, what, what was it like having lots of Americans in the, in the area then?
GT: A problem.
DE: Go on. You have to say more than that.
GT: A problem and some girls got into trouble you know.
DE: Right. Ok.
GT: And yes, but two that I know I knew then eventually married American soldiers. My cousin, she married an American but it didn’t work out when it was after the war and you know things went wrong so she had to come home. But it was a trying time.
DE: Right. Yeah.
GT: For mums.
DE: Yeah. Yeah. I can imagine.
GT: Yeah. But they brought nylon stockings and that’s when we had nylon. You know there’s always a bright spot somewhere [laughs] And because we hadn’t had nylon at all and, and of course parachute silk was prized if you could get hold of a bit of parachute silk. Yeah. But what else can I tell you?
GT: The bombing on the three nights of the Blitz was terrible but there were towns worse. You know. There was Coventry and all over.
DE: So I guess towards the end of the war you would be what? Fourteen? Fifteen? Did you leave school or did you stay on?
GT: Oh no. I left at fourteen.
DE: So what —
GT: Yeah.
DE: What did you do then?
GT: Office work. Eventually I learned shorthand and I was a secretary but it seems when I think about it now and look at my own great grand daughter it’s at the time when I started school. At fourteen. Yeah. We, we did go. It must have been in the early part of the war we did go on holiday.
DE: Ok.
GT: To Bridlington. That was our favourite place so we continued to go. Take our rations with us you know because it was just boarding house accommodation and I always remember something that stuck, has always stuck is that we went by train and my mum gave an elderly couple a packet of tea. And I remember this because of the rations and they were so grateful. But my mum and dad were providers and they’d just before the war started I didn’t know of course Russell and I didn’t know but mum and dad had started buying things like tea and you know all the essentials. Even a box of Cadbury’s milk chocolate fingers.
DE: Wow.
GT: And we used to have a half a finger each when we went to school.
DE: Wow. Ok.
GT: It’s funny the things that you remember.
DE: Yeah.
GT: But no, they were providers and my dad apparently I learned afterwards from mum had said, ‘You know, we’ve got to prepare for everything.’ And when the, before the Blitz of course the planes used to come over every night and because I was a bit nervous mum used to let me stay up. Russell went to his bed but she used to let me stay up and we’d do jigsaw puzzles. I think it was just to keep calm.
DE: Keep your mind occupied. Yes.
GT: And so it was a dreadful time because it was every night there were, these planes were going over every night.
DE: So you spent, you spent a lot of nights in the shelter even if they weren’t dropping bombs. Just to be safe.
GT: Oh yeah. Well, when the sirens went we were supposed to go and we always went in the shelters.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And our neighbour, her husband of course was in a war job so she was on her own with a baby. They’d got a shelter but of course she was a bit nervous so mum invited her into our shelter.
DE: So there was enough. There was enough room for your mum and you and your brother and the next door neighbour and a baby then.
GT: Yes.
DE: Yeah. Yeah. Ok. And what —
GT: And I was getting up, given a torch a little torch to read because I was a bit nervous. Russell went to sleep almost straight away but I was a bit nervous so mum used to let me read.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And I read, “The Three Musketeers.” I remember that. It was a nervous time for everybody and you helped where you could. I’m sure there’s loads I could tell you but I can’t just bring them to mind.
DE: No. That’s, that’s fine.
GT: Have you something.
MW: Perhaps you should tell him how you found out that war was declared initially.
GT: What?
MW: Tell him how you found out that war was declared in church.
GT: Oh yes.
MW: Yeah.
GT: Everyone knew that things were going awry but the war was declared on what not. What?
DE: The 3rd of September it was.
GT: Yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And we were in church, in Sunday School and the church warden walked down to the vicar which was very unusual because things were formal in those days. It’s not like now. And the vicar announced that war had been declared. So prayers were said and then we all went home and I went to my grandparents who were astounded that I’d got, that I went every Sunday you see and I was only a child and they packed me off home straightaway. And I remember running all the way home and my mum was waiting at the front gate when I got home, you know. That’s how it started.
DE: That’s really interesting because most people tell the story that they heard it on the wireless.
GT: Oh, yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Well, we knew it was coming but it was actually declared on Sunday and we were in church.
DE: Yeah.
GT: As normal.
DE: Did you listen to the radio much?
GT: Oh yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Yeah. We had Rediffusion. It was just a box and we paid like something like a shilling and nine pence a week for radio. I can’t just remember.
DE: No. It doesn’t matter. No.
GT: No. We listened to the wireless all the time. Yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Yes. [pause] I’m trying to think of interesting things.
DE: What about other entertainment? Did you go to the cinema?
GT: No.
DE: No.
GT: Very rarely in my day. Occasionally. It was a, it would be on mum’s birthday or something like that.
DE: Oh, I see.
GT: Yes. But the news reels there was always a news reel and as the war went on of course that’s how we found things out. So [pause] very different times to now. It was a long time ago.
DE: Oh, it is. Yeah. So yeah. I’m just looking at my notes. I think I’ve asked you everything that I had, had planned. It’s if you have any other stories or or if you’ve got any other prompts.
MW: [unclear]
DE: I’ll just pause for a second.
GT: Yeah.
DE: Ok.
[recording paused]
GT: We all went, had to go to up to school with our mums to have our gas masks which was, you know.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Quite an event. And you know that we had a little square box.
DE: Yeah.
GT: With a gas mask in. And then of course they were our fashion. But I hated the gas mask. And then after about two or three years we all had to take our gas masks back and have an extra thing put on.
DE: Oh ok.
GT: For mustard gas or something like that.
DE: But you never had to use them.
GT: No.
DE: No.
GT: Not [pause] we didn’t use them. Only to keep school you know. We had to practice.
DE: Yeah. Yeah. Why didn’t you like them?
GT: Well, just didn’t like them. But some children played in them.
DE: Right.
GT: Their mothers let them play with them.
DE: That must have been a sight. Seeing little children running around wearing those.
GT: Yes [laughs]
MW: And there was a time when you looked out of the school window to see Uncle Russell wasn’t there? What was he doing?
GT: What love?
MW: That time you looked out of the window at school and saw Uncle Russell. What was he doing? Cutting down the —
GT: Oh yes. My brother was a bit, three years older than me and he was apprenticed to a joiner. But in the war they had to do whatever the Corporation wanted doing. And I remember being in school and at playtime going out and seeing my brother and he was cutting down the railings around the perimeters and I used to go and while he was cutting them down I used to go and talk to him. Yeah. There’s all little things like that you know. And of course he went in the Army and went out to where did he go? I’ve forgotten. But my husband I met him and married on his demob leave.
DE: Oh right. Ok.
GT: Yes. He’s there. And eventually we went out and saw Russell and his wife because they went off. You could go to Australia for ten pound.
DE: That’s right. Yes. I’ve heard about that.
GT: Yeah.
DE: Yeah. So that’s what your brother did was it?
GT: Yes.
DE: Wow.
GT: Eventually Stanley and I went out to see them. We sailed out.
DE: That must have been an adventure.
GT: Oh yes. Nearly everything was an adventure because we, you know we were just an ordinary family.
DE: So how did you meet your husband then?
GT: Dancing.
DE: Ok.
GT: And he was on his demob leave.
DE: Right.
GT: And I met him at a dance class because I used to go to a ballroom dancing class and he came with his friend because his mum had told him to go out on his demob leave. I’ve forgotten how long that was. On his demob leave they were just going out to the pictures and they cycled. He and Ron cycled all over the country just to, just to keep going. But he went back to the firm. Yes. He’d been working just before he went in the forces and the firm took him back. Eventually he moved from there and went to the Halifax Building Society. But he, can you remember anything else, Mary?
MW: Not really. No.
DE: So what’s so you met you met him at a dance. What sort of dancing was it?
GT: Ballroom dancing.
DE: Ballroom dancing.
GT: That was the thing to do. That was the thing to do. I’d been ballroom dancing because my mum thought I wasn’t going out enough. So she encouraged me to go to Harry Buchanan’s dancing. It was a thing to do then.
DE: Ok. Yeah.
GT: It was ballroom dancing. And so Stanley and I used to go to the class on a Thursday night and go to the [Baths] Hall. They covered the swimming pool in Rotherham. We had a lovely swimming pool in Rotherham and they covered it in the winter and made it into a ballroom.
DE: I see. Ok.
GT: We went. We went dancing on Saturday nights after going to see Rotherham United Football. He introduced me to football [laughs] and that was just the life we led. We used to walk home so it would take us longer. I shall think of all kinds of things when you’ve gone.
DE: That’s what always happens. I can pause it again.
[recording paused]
DE: Yeah.
GT: We all had an identity card. I think there’s one around somewhere. But rationing was, food was very bad. Getting hold of food. And the, you just had your rations and mothers made a spread.
DE: What about coal? Was that rationed as well?
GT: I think it was because we had coalmen, you know come with lorries. Bags of coal. In those days. Yeah. Yes, I think it was. There would be some kind of restrict.
DE: Yeah. But you had, you said your family you dug out the garden and planted things.
GT: Oh yes.
DE: What did you grow? What was, what was the, “Dig for Victory.”
GT: Vegetables. All vegetables. But if we hadn’t you know it would have been awful not supplementing the [pause] We, you know about ration books? Yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: Food was a big problem.
DE: Were you, were you hungry very often then?
GT: No. I can’t say I was because mum was very into it if you know. She, she made things that you’d just, just to keep hunger at bay.
DE: Yeah.
GT: No. No. I had a very nice home with my mum and dad and they were providers and so anything. Dad used to come home with a chicken. But I’m not sure it was [laughs] you know. He’d got it from a friend.
DE: Say no more. Ok. Yes.
GT: Yes.
DE: Yeah.
GT: There was quite a lot of that around.
DE: Yeah. Ok.
GT: But it kept us going.
DE: Yeah.
GT: And of course, we had our own chickens and rabbits. Yeah.
DE: Ok. I’ll press pause again.


Dan Ellin, “Interview with Gwendoline Thickett,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 27, 2024,

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