I was four when I started at Tymeinor Mixed Infant and Primary School in 1936, which meant I was always youngest in class. All my teachers were spinsters, as after WW1 there was a surfeit of single women and only these were allowed to teach. Miss Robinson, the headmistress, was strict and maintained good discipline. She caned us for being late and for other misdemeanours.
She was not a favourite of mine because when mam sent me to school wearing trousers in extremely cold weather, Miss Robinson called me out in assembly and said “Tomorrow the boys will want to wear dresses!” Everyone laughed, of course, and I went bright red and felt mortified. It would have been kinder if she had just sent me home with a note. My mother was furious, but I begged her not go up to school and complain.
Miss Thomas was the Reception teacher, and she was very warm and welcoming. We used to draw and write on slates, using a graphite pencil. What a high pitched rasping squeak it made. Miss Ridgeway (top Infants) was not so easy-going and often rapped us on the knuckles with her ruler for talking or day-dreaming! Teachers then could say “Hands on heads!” and “Heads on desks!” when the class became too noisy. Miss Garfield and Miss Rowlands were our Junior teachers and very good they were too. Miss Lawrence was in charge of the Senior pupils and she was much loved. Her sister kept the wool shop in Oxford Street.
We all can remember having to drink that tepid milk at break-time, the crates were put near the radiators in the winter and left in the sun in summer! The school nurse visited us each term, inspecting our hair for lice and our wrists for ringworm and our tummies for flea bites! The dentist checked our teeth annually too. We were well looked after. Before immunization was introduced, diphtheria had been a killer. Scarlet fever and measles were still a danger and people always feared tuberculosis.
My best friends were Joyce Long, Jean Williams, Anita Archer and Keith Davies. The girls especially vied to be chosen “monitor” in the class. Handing out the pencils and books was considered a great privilege. We enjoyed skipping, playing ball, whip and top, hop-scotch, catty and doggy, marbles and group games like “When I went to London I saw,” “Jack across the water” – all such good fun. And we revelled in playing Cowboys and Indians on the tump, with the boys. We all loved the Lone Ranger and Tonto. We cried out “Hi-yo Silver, away!” I can just remember our street Coronation party in 1937, when George V1 was crowned. This must have been a very exciting occasion for us all — no Health and Safety rules then! At home I sang “ Look who’s coming down the street, Mrs Simpson, ain’t she sweet” and “We are the Ovaltinies, little girls and boys” These were our pop songs and they were happy, carefree days.
On St David’s day we wore our leeks or daffodils. Some children wore Welsh costumes or just Welsh hats or shawls and we performed Welsh action songs. I would wear a Highland Dress Suit (which had been my father’s) — not really suitable! I’m surprised this was allowed by Miss Robinson! Best of all, we always had the afternoon off! At Christmas we enjoyed acting in the Nativity Play. Alas, I was the narrator and never chosen to be Mary or even an angel! On the last day we would be sent home with a little bag of “goodies”, containing a tangerine, sweets and some pictures to colour — all simple things but so pleasing.
A great treat was in the summer term of 1939 when we went on a school trip to Bristol Zoo. This was very exciting. We travelled by train from Pontycymmer Station. Even before we set off there was a major drama when an irate master from Ffaldau Boys school came charging through our compartment. He intended to look out onto the tracks, but failed to notice the window was still closed! He cracked his head and retreated with bleeding forehead and a stunned look. We sat dumbstruck. No doubt, his own class would have laughed like drains! Thankfully, he did recover. The next most exciting event that day was my ride on an elephant. Joyce and I paid our sixpences and climbed steps to enter a box contraption with seats. When the elephant plodded along we swayed perilously from side to side! Next term, Joyce left us to join The Ffaldau Girls School, because she lived in a different catchment area. She was very bright and in the Grammar School was fast-tracked to the year ahead.
Our family summer holidays were always spent in Llantwit Major, where my grandfather had his caravan. This gave us tremendous pleasure because our site in Colhuw Beach was such a rural, idyllic spot and at night we could hear the lapping of the waves and sometimes the deep melodious fog horn.
The mood changed at the outbreak of war in 1939, of course. Sign posts were taken down and railings were sent off for scrap. Our parents had the serious business of making and putting up blackout curtains and the sticky strips on the windows. The ARP warden would call if he saw a chink of light and I know that later there was a Home Guard platoon in the valley. I’m sure its members would have had some hilarious stories to tell! Rationing was introduced and everyone had a Ration Book and an Identity Card. I soon learnt my number off by heart. We were issued with gasmasks which we had to take everywhere. At school we had safety drills and warnings about careless talk and being vigilant.
One day a boy caused great excitement in class, claiming he had just seen a parachutist landing on the mountain side. We all rushed to stand on the desks by the windows to get a clearer view. The authorities were informed and although it proved a false alarm, it shows how aware we were of the dangers. This episode was also a welcome time waster! There were collections for The Spitfire Fund with a big wall chart to record the amount saved. My own gang ran jumble sales and held concerts to make money. We were so proud to hand our takings over to Miss Robinson and see the graph go up. Everyone cheered. We also took our sixpences and shillings to school to buy National Saving Stamps and help the war effort. At lunchtime each class would be escorted by the teachers to eat at the newly opened British Restaurant in Pontycymmer. This ensured that every child would have one decent meal a day. Younger children were given cod-liver oil and orange juice as well.
Although we were young we knew the situation was serious. As a family we listened avidly to the radio (the wireless) and the bulletins read by Alvar Lidell. Later, the wonderful speeches of Churchill gave us all new hope. There were jolly programmes too, of course, like “Life with the Lyons,” “Itma” and “Workers Playtime” and the cinema provided good cheer with Gracie Fields, George Formby and The Crazy Gang, all trying to keep up morale. Pathe News etc. showed us pictures, heavily censored no doubt, from the war front and the bombings of our big cities. Fortunately, they also showed some of our successes on land and sea and in the air. The Battle of Britain was a major triumph. Any victory was wildly cheered.
My father had changed our coal cellar into an air-raid shelter, putting in sandbags and corrugated sheeting. We seldom used this, however, as it was uncomfortable, dank and extremely cold. The Garw was not a prime target for the bombers. Bridgend, which had an arsenal, was much more vulnerable as were Cardiff and Swansea. Daddy also dug up the garden and planted potatoes, cabbages, onions and other vegetables. The government posters announced “Dig for Victory” and most people followed this advice. Food was short and we queued for ages to get our meagre rations I especially hated the rubbery dried eggs, the taste of margarine on toast and saccharin in tea. Oranges were hard to get and imported fruit like bananas were unobtainable. My cousin tried mixing mashed parsnips with banana essence to imitate the real thing! There were all kind of different ploys and experiments to make our diet more interesting. Furniture and clothes were rationed too. My mother made herself a very warm coat out of an army blanket and silk parachutes were much prized for converting into underwear. We did have tinned spam from America and it became quite a favourite with us. Our dog and cat survived on a diet of chips and scraps!
The bus service also suffered during the war. This was the chief means of transport out of the valley. Often the buses would be packed, with people crammed along the aisles. Those of us lower down in Pontycymmer, had a less good chance of getting on them. Some Saturdays we would visit my grandparents in Gilfach Goch and Tonyrefail. This entailed catching a Western Welsh bus to Brynmenyn and queuing there for a Red and White or Rhondda bus. You can imagine the long waiting times if we failed to get on.
The first wave of evacuees appeared in 1940 or ‘41. A train load of children arrived in Bridgend. One contingent came from London’s East -end and was sent to Porthcawl. The other came from the leafy lanes of Surrey and was sent to the Garw. In other words, there was a monumental mix-up! Afterwards this caused some amusement. We had two boys billeted with us, and of course, they were totally out of their comfort zone! One sent a telegram home, saying “Help! I’m living in a hovel” Mam cried and was very upset, as you can imagine. Fortunately the authorities smartly moved this group to Porthcawl. I’m sure this suited them better. Next, we had a mother and her two small children from Lewisham to stay. They took over the middle rooms on our first floor and although it was very inconvenient and cramped for all, it turned out to be a satisfactory arrangement. At school we met other evacuees and at first we had difficulty in understanding each –others’ accents. But on the whole, we got on well together and the Tymeinor children enjoyed the novelty and excitement of having this new intake.
Holidays in Llantwit Major were no longer possible. The beach was mined and covered in barbed wire, a sorry sight. I stayed with my grandparents instead and enjoyed the change of venue. Cousins came to stay with us too. In some ways, life carried on as normal. I went to St David’s Church at the bottom of The Avenue and was confirmed at St Theodore’s Church along with my other friends Sheila Prickett (the police sergeant’s daughter) and Mary Jones (the vicar’s daughter) Sheila sometimes was allowed to take us into the cells at the police station in Victoria Street – only when they were empty, of course! We thought this was very daring. The vicarage was a large red-brick building opposite St David’s, and the many rooms struck me as being enormous and icy cold, too, in winter.
Sadly in 1942 my father fell ill and he died in May the following year at the age of 39. He suffered from cancer of the stomach. My mother nursed him devotedly and his death was a devastating loss for us. My school work had suffered of course with the worry, but I did manage to pass that important 11+ exam. I was given a lovely Common Prayer book with an ivory cover, which I have always treasured. Mam declared “ I do not want you to be brought up on the Parish!” I wasn’t sure what this meant, but it sounded ominous! A widow’s pension was very poor and she successfully applied for a job as chief cook at Tymeinor School. A canteen was being installed there and she would begin her new career in the September, the same time as I was starting at the Garw Grammar School.