Gilford In Wartime: A Child’s View

Geoffrey Wisher as a young child

Geoffrey Wisher as a young child

I was born in February 1939 in Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire. In March the Germans occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia and so began the countdown to the war which was declared on the 3rd September after the invasion of Poland. In May 1941 Hull, a city with some fine buildings, suffered devastating air raids which killed many people, including my grandmother, an uncle and two cousins, as well as destroying our home, events which I do not remember.

As my father was serving in the army at that time and stationed in Belfast, a city which had just experienced its own air raids, he found accommodation for my mother, my sister June and me with a Miss Lilburn in Thorndale Avenue. This was July 1941 and so my first childhood memories started there. For instance I remember Miss Lilburn had a large collection of teapots around the wall in the kitchen and one of those Victorian miniature toy theatres.

I remember visits to Cave Hill and a park in the city where my sister fell on a small ornamental rock and injured her mouth, a café where the uniformed waitress brought a dish of butter shaped as little balls, a visit to the Hippodrome theatre where I had a glass of orange juice and the smell of petrol and rubber in the big garage where we took the accumulator from our primitive radio to be recharged. During our stay I also had my first experience of the seaside at Bangor.

Some American forces must have arrived in the city before we left because I recall grown ups talking about incidents involving them on trams. Finally, a taste not to be forgotten was that of dulse, not to be experienced again until 1992!

I do not remember the date when my father was posted to a camp near Gilford but I recall our arrival and seeing our meagre possessions being unloaded from a small army pickup before taking up residence in rooms rented from Isaac Hillen, described in Kelly’s Directory for 1939 as a Delph dealer. (Now the former Spar shop). Toilet arrangements were primitive and water was obtained from a pump across the square where later I was to break a precious glass which had just been given to me. We cooked over an open fire and as we did not have a kettle water was boiled in an open pan so tea often had a smoked taste. Food was not a problem as my father was able to supplement our rations through his army connection whilst on one occasion the man in the local co-op, which had the delightful smell of small general purpose food shops of the time, insisted on our having 3 packets of Huntley and Palmers assorted biscuits. Fish was sold by a man with a handcart and my father proclaimed it to be the best he had ever tasted. Potato cakes were also a pleasant discovery.

Furniture was somewhat sparse but I do recall that later my father was able to acquire two discarded bus seats which were in good condition and proved useful and my mother bought a new mattress from Hart’s furniture shop but soon after we got news of our departure. Isaac wanted us to leave the mattress, but money was very tight so my mother asked Hart’s to take it back which they did with a small deduction.

Isaac’s business activities seemed somewhat erratic and his opening hours fitted around his passion for “Pitch and Toss”. I believe that public houses were not allowed to open on Sundays at that time but I have memories of older men congregating in the main square wait for the delivery of Sunday papers whilst the local children liked to play on the concrete blocks which were something to do with deterring tanks but which I found intimidating. Later I thought they were a small edition of the Giant’s Causeway.

I have very pleasant memories of listening to the weekend band concerts and being particularly fascinated by the different uniforms and the large brass instruments together with the lambeg drum, the historic significance of which was not known to me until much later. It was also whilst in Gilford that I saw my first film in a hall just across the square- I think it was “The First of the Few”. I thought it was rather noisy. Less noisy was my view one morning of the huntsmen on horseback and wearing fancy coats departing from the square.

Of outstanding significance however were the walks down the Race Bank where on one memorable occasion my father could not resist filling my cap with brambles when he was confronted with bushes bearing a large supply. Our visits there were numerous and we were fascinated by the big fish in the water which we could see when the man altered the flow of the stream which enabled us to sit on the concrete bank and paddle our feet. Another stretch of water which had great charm was the Mill Pond.

One unhappy experience which had a favourable outcome was when I developed toothache leading to severe earache. My father took me to a dentist in Belfast who said he could not extract the tooth until the abscess had subsided and he sent me away with iodine and clove oil. After enduring what seemed like weeks of agony, particularly at night, I was able to see the travelling dentist who visited Gilford once a month over a sweet shop where he extracted the offending tooth. Any discomfort felt by me during the extraction would have been slight compared with what I had gone through and this must have been the reason for him giving me sixpence for good behaviour when he had finished.

During my time in Gilford I had my first experience of industrial action when on this occasion we made one of our regular trips to Banbridge and found that when we came to make the return journey our usual friendly bus driver drove straight into the depot instead picking up passengers. I cannot remember how we got home.

We also travelled to Portadown regularly both to take the train to Belfast and to visit the town itself where I remember eating a pastry – cream horn. On one occasion when my mother was in hospital in Belfast it happened that we had to visit on a Sunday when there was no bus service to Portadown to get to the train so I gained my first experience of a long walk, aided by my father of course.

I have memories of the American servicemen but not much idea at that time why they were there or what the “war” really was. One evening I recall watching from the bedroom window an American soldier waiting for his girl friend by the street light. On another occasion my sister and I pestered a US soldier for chewing gum. We also went to a party put on by the British and US army for children and were intrigued by the contrast between the size of the British Bren gun carrier and an American tank. Despite all the military and civilian activity however my memory of Gilford and its byways is largely idyllic. I do however remember the names of three of my father’s army associates – Percy Ounsworth, Alf Knighton and Harold Philips.

I have an idea that the summer of 1944 was hot and sunny and in the heat a distinctive smell was a combination of disinfectant and nettles in some of the overgrown passages between the houses. The smell of tar I recall when on a summer day my mother took us, complete with sandwiches, to sit on a grassy bank at the side of the road to watch the men mending the road with a steamroller.

I have much less pleasant memories of school and the smell of plasticine. I had looked forward to starting but after the first day at Craigavon Primary my opinion changed. I think one of the problems was that I started at the age of 5 whereas the other children, none of whom I knew, were 6. On at least one occasion I decided to make a run for it only to be apprehended by one of the older boys. My best experience was nearing the end of my time there when we were left in the playground until about 10 am because of some staff failure. I think my sister had a better experience.

During those uncertain times we were often waiting for and replying to post and I remember one incident in the post office when the lady behind the counter, needing a piece of paper to make a note, quickly tore a small corner from the latter which my mother had handed her for clarification. This innocent action seemed a strange thing for a child and years later I saw this letter again with the missing corner.

We had travelled back to England on occasions during out stay in Northern Ireland and one instance I remember occurred on our return journey when my father took me on deck to see the seaplanes on the water at The Wig near Stranraer.

Early in 1944 my father had been posted to Troon in Scotland and we were set to follow until the travel ban intervened so we remained until the beginning of December when the restriction was lifted. Then on a drizzly day we boarded the bus and said farewell to Gilford from the back window. On reaching Belfast we went by horse and open cart to the docks to await our overnight voyage to Heysham. There was a Salvation Army band with singers and I shall always remember one of their items, very apt in the circumstances “God will take care of us”. Before boarding the ship I had a small pork pie and an ice-cream – a big mistake. The sea voyage was certainly “a night to remember” and in retrospect I wonder if the lifeboat provision was any better than that on the Titanic such was its crowded state. Every inch available seemed to have been occupied by soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians. People were even lying around on the floors of the toilet washrooms.

Things were calm until we left Belfast Lough when the storm hit and amid all the drinking and banter the cry went up that we had struck a mine. We hadn’t but conditions got worse. Needing some air a sailor took me on deck and placed me on a basket of ropes and left me there. The basket was parallel with the rail and I was left helpless looking at the white capped waves until I started screaming and was rescued by an airman and taken back to my mother.

As we approached Heysham at 8 am the storm had abated and the ship sailed into the harbour in a ghostly fashion. My mother, a gentle soul, on disembarking was faced by a custom official whose opening words were “don’t run away or you and I will fall out” and a porter who on receiving his tip responded with a snort and “worse than pre-war”. Later that day we arrived in Hull in time for the last air raid (the last fatal one was on the 17th March 1945). We had a street party on VE night and faced life in a period of greater austerity than during the war, particularly in the city. But that is another story.

POSTCRIPT

I have often wondered how Gilford had fared after the war. In 1973 we were on holiday at Portpatrick in Galloway and certain corners of the place reminded me of Gilford and I even resumed my acquaintance with potato cakes. However any visit to Northern Ireland from Stranraer, although nor forbidden was made unwise by the attention of the military on the ferries during a particularly nasty period of the troubles.

In 1990 we stayed in a caravan just south of Dublin when I persuaded my wife, whilst having a coffee in Bewleys, to accompany me on a car journey north and we proceeded via Tandragee to Gilford. (Our daughter preferred to spend the day in Dublin). The Race Bank was blocked in places and I regretted the disappearance of the Mill Pond but I was able to look over the garden wall of our former lodgings where I used to play with the cat and enjoyed showing my wife where I had lived as a small child.

We live in a village on the Yorkshire Wolds which during the war hosted much military activity and in the later stages was the centre for training in preparation for D Day. De Gaulle and General Leclerc visited the area and perhaps Patton.