Grandad and the Zeppelins

Recently, we’ve been remembering the two World Wars: rationing, evacuees, bombs, black-outs…

 I thought I’d jot down a few of the family stories my parents told me about their war-time experiences because they seem, to me, a little different to the image of the war years we are fed by more ‘official’ history.

My grandad, George Price was born in 1900 and so was too young for the First War. At fourteen, he was already the wage-earner of the family. He left school and started work at 12 because his father, a miner, was out of work. He lived with his family in a row of cottages with slate roofs.

 

At the time there was a tremendous scare about zeppelins, which were expected to float overhead at any moment, dropping explosives or incendaries. My youthful Grandad’s contribution to the war effort was to take the metal dustbin lids and shy them up onto the roofs. They landed on the slates with a terrific echoing clash and then slid and bounced down the slates making a din you can imagine.

My Grandad and his mates drew deep breaths and yelled, “Zeppelins!” The cottage doors were flung open and people came running out, the women with their aprons flung over their heads. (This sounds like a Dickensian joke but I’m assured that — for reasons I find hard to comprehend — many women used to do this when alarmed. I can only imagine that it was something like Zaphod Beeblebrox’s peril-sensitive sunglasses: what you can’t see can’t frighten you.) When the sober elders saw the youths doubled over with laughter, they were not pleased. Grandad and friends waited a few days and then did it again — and again, until the only reaction was, “That bloody Price kid needs a good hiding.”

I’m told that when an elder of ‘the row’ found out that it was George Price who’d invented the prank, he was not surprised. “The brighter they am,” the elder observed, “the more ways they can think of to make trouble.” Grandad was also well-known for disturbing peaceful evenings by knocking on doors and politely asking what the time was. The factory at the end of the row had an enormous clock over its gate.

When I was told this story, I was always given the impression that the neighbours' fear of zeppelins was unfounded: that they were being rather silly and that the dustbin lids rattling down the slates was a great joke on them.

I've since found that this wasn't the case at all. The neighbours had very good reason to fear zeppelins as the nearby towns of Wolverhampton and Walsall, about ten miles away, had very recently been bombed by zeppelins.

It happened on January 31st, 1916 and the zeppelin L21 was heading for Liverpool but became disorientated. The crew were looking for the Manchester ship canal as a landmark and, thinking they were further north than they were, mistook one of the Black Country's many canals for the one they were searching for. The bombing killed 67 people and injured many more.

 This puts another complexion on my 16-year old grandad's little joke. I'm inclined to think he should have had a good hiding -- although as he'd been the family breadwinner for four years, nobody was going to do it.

George Price grew up to marry Elsie Savage. I'm told they first met when his younger sisters invited her round. George (when not shying dustbin lids onto roofs) was a quiet man who liked to eat his meal and read his paper in silence. The girls were talking and laughing and annoying him. He told them to be quiet. Elsie stood up, put her hands on her hips and said something like, "You're not the boss of me, George Price!" He folded his newspaper, got up and threw them all out of the house.

But reader, she married him and it was a long and, as far as I know, happy marriage. They had two children: my father and aunt who were ten and five respectively when the Second World War broke out. Many accounts of the war give the impression that all city and town children of this age were evacuated. Certainly the Black Country, as a centre of industry, was heavily bombed and some neighbours’ children were evacuated. But my Grandad absolutely refused to consider it. He is reported as saying, to neighbours, “You can send your kids away to strangers if you like but mine am staying with me. Whatever’s coming, we’ll all go through it together and I shall know where they am and what’s happening to them.”

 

Since my Grandmother Price was anything but meek — ‘formidable’ is usually the word that people find themselves using to describe her — I can only conclude that she was in complete agreement with this. My aunt suspects, for various reasons, that there was sexual abuse in her mother’s family. There was certainly physical abuse. The refusal to send their children away to live with complete strangers may have been my Grandmother’s idea.

Elsie worked all her life -- in fact, she had quite a career, going from canteen worker to supervisor of School Meals for Oldbury (at a time when that meant cooking real meals in kitchens and coming up with a menu that supplied most of the daily nutritional requirements of a child.) She also became a Cordon Bleu cook and managed the VIP dining room at a company which entertained customers from all over the world.

 

But during WW2 she managed a canteen at Accles & Pollocks, where they made parts for Spitfires and Hurricanes. "I'd much rather have women work for me," she said. "A woman does what you ask her to do, and when she's finished, looks round, sees what else is to be done and gets on with it. A man does what you tell him to do and when he's finished, he goes outside for a smoke." (I'm saying nothing.)

When the air-raid sirens sounded, Elsie was supposed to go into the works' shelter. Instead she went outside and ran through the streets to home, with shrapnel ricocheting off the walls and pavements as the anti-aircraft guns fired. She wanted to join her children in their own shelter.

After she'd done this a few times, someone she worked with told my Grandad what she was doing and he told her, angrily, that she wasn't ever to do that again. What was her being missing from their shelter a few times compared to her being killed by shrapnel or a bomb and never coming home again? I suppose Elsie saw the point, as she started going into the works' shelter.

I'll end with an alleged joke. This is an heirloom joke, worth one and sixpence (7p), passed down to me through generations.

A VIP, visiting A&P, stopped beside a workman and asked, "How many fighters do you make here in a week, my man?"

"Oh, hundreds," the man said. "Hundreds, easy."

"My word! You make hundreds of Spitfires a week?"

"Spitfires? -- Oh, you said fighters. I thought you said, 'lighters'."

(The men who worked at A&P often used the machinery and materials to make cigarette-lighters  which they traded or sold.)