The Second World War brought for the people of Ludlow and the surrounding countryside a complex mixture of trials and temptations, tragedy and farce. By scouring the local press of the time and interviewing people who remember it all too vividly and express their memories with vigour, indignation and humour, Derek Beattie has produced an honest and powerful portrait of a town at war. The threat of invasion prompted the formation of the Home Guard, whose volunteers were hastily kitted out with ill-fitting uniforms and borrowed weapons: ‘It was noted that one man found it impossible to keep his rifle at the slope and his trousers up simultaneously.’ Extraordinary things happened: the ploughing up of ancient grassland, the updating of Ludlow’s steam-powered fire engine, and girls lowered on stretchers from the castles walls as air raid wardens practised first aid. One man took the blackout so seriously that he covered up the white flowers in his moonlit garden. People found themselves in court for everything from driving into a cow in the dark to receiving stolen goods in the form of Army woollen underpants or selling falsely labelled ‘onion powder’. The mayor was fined for obstructing the police, whom he accused of Gestapo tactics, and the rector declared Sunday cinema to be ‘a thing of evil’.
The area saw the arrival of all kinds of visitors, from Liverpool evacuee children (there are stories from the evacuees themselves as well as from those who took them in) and Dunkirk survivors – ‘It broke your heart to see them’ – to black American soldiers – ‘ the most gentlemanly people I have ever met’, Italian and German POWs, and a huge influx of military personnel: ‘Lots of blokes – about five to every girl’. Life was very tough but never dull. Women found themselves doing things they had never done before, from jitterbugging with GIs to all kinds of work: driving cattle through the Ludlow streets to market, cutting timber for pit props, cleaning torpedo heads. Ludlow acquired a red light district, and girls acquired their ‘fern ticket’ dallying with soldiers in the bracken. Small boys were tempted by all manner of opportunities, from stealing explosives to daring each other to steal girls’ knickers.
Ludlow’s middle-class residents come in for quite a lot of criticism, whether they are discovered wriggling out of accommodating evacuees, acquiring illicit petrol, or exhibiting insensitivity – but many shouldered their responsibilities heroically, and some were shocked into realising that Ludlow had its social problems, and resolving that things would be improved after the war. But no social class could claim a clear conscience for, as one interviewee admits, ‘In the war everybody fiddled.’ Against a backdrop of fear and grief – ‘every day you looked for a letter and it didn’t come’ – Ludlow soldiered on, sheltered from the worst of wartime hardship, fortified as it was by many a poached rabbit and unregistered pig, at times stoically, sometimes resentfully, and often in the face of difficulties, accidents and general incompetence. Derek Beattie reveals all in this meticulously researched and candid account.
Dr Derek Beattie retired to Ludlow from his post as Head of History at Blackburn College and soon began researching aspects of local social history. After mixing archive research with interviewing many long term residents he wrote The Home Front in Ludlow during the Second World War before turning his attention to South Shropshire’s First World War.
Paperback | 304 pages | 232 x 154 mm | 2010
75 b&w illustrations