By the end of January 1944, although the war was slowly swinging the Allies’ way, life was tough.
Rationing, separation and the death of a near neighbour and customer the week before had left Betty reeling.
Where was Harry? Would he come through this safely?
And could she cope with the heavy, if more mundane, pressures on her?
Rationing had been in place in Britain for four long years. As a formal supplier Betty had to keep detailed records to ensure none of her customers got more than their meagre weekly allowance.
Butter had to be carefully weighed out from a large block according to the number of people in the household and what coupons they had. Sugar was repacked into small blue bags.
Elizabeth recalls: “My brother and I had the job of helping to count the ration coupons and going with mum to the Food Office to deliver them each week. That was also where us kids received our cod liver oil and orange juice – distributed by the government to ensure much-needed vitamins for youngsters. I didn’t like the cod liver oil, but the juice was lovely. It was like nothing I had ever drunk before or since.
We were lucky living in a shop as we had access to sweets and chocolate, although we didn’t really eat that many.
But when tins of salmon came in it was a difficult job for mum to decide was to be offered them. My grandfather always took one, then mum had to fiddle the ration records to show where the produce had gone. Having run the business before, he and grandma never quite understood they were also rationed!
Chris adds: “It was a hard time for my mother, as it was with so many other wives and girlfriends, but our reward for helping with the coupons was to play a game of cards with her – starting with simple games of ‘Snap’. But as we grew older we learned to play ‘whist’ and ‘cribbage’ and the memory game, ‘Pelmanism’.
On February 18 a very unusual thing happened in Lowe’s Castle Street Stores – oranges came in!
Betty wrote in her diary that these were fairly mythical fruits among the customers and disappeared swiftly.
Occasionally Betty managed to have some relief from the relentless hours of running the shop herself by heading out for a night on the town. She frequented the bar of The Clarence, a warm-hearted social meeting place of a one-room pub, just up the street on the corner with Princess Street. There she would meet her friends May Wildblood and Elsie Pointon.
They enjoyed playing cards or dominoes or perhaps a community sing-song… maybe an old-time song like ‘Pack up Your Troubles’ or a more modern ditty like Vera Lynne’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which has enjoyed such a resurgence during 2020’s lockdown. All of this would allow the residents of Castle Street to forget the war for a happy hour or so.
Betty’s neighbour and home-help, Lizzie Latham, would look after ‘the nibs’ until she returned, but neither child could go to sleep until she came back safely.
Chris remembers: “I was never at ease until she got home. I do not think I was conscious of father being in danger in Burma, or the heartache mother must have been feeling, but I must have had some latent dread, because I could never get to sleep until I heard the front door key turn.
Betty also loved dancing, going to the theatre and the cinema; and she kept records of her nights out as they meant so much to her.
She spent Valentine’s Day 1944, working in the shop and then at the Hippodrome watching ‘Millions Like Us’.
This was no romantic comedy. It was a very serious drama, for a very serious time. It starred a young Gordon Jackson (perhaps better remembered now as either ‘Hudson’ the butler in Upstairs Downstairs or ‘Cowley’, the head of the CI5 Professionals in the 1970s and 80s ITV drama series) as an RAF pilot.
The end of the film saw Jackson’s character killed in a bombing raid over Germany, while his young wife waited for him to return. Difficult food for thought for Betty, who also had to walk home alone in blackout.
The following Saturday, February 19, May Wildblood, Betty’s friend from over the road, finally managed to get married. Her wedding to soldier fiancé Cecil Jones had had to be postponed two weeks earlier because snow had lain so heavily across North Staffordshire that it made it impossible for him to travel from his barracks to the ceremony.
When the wedding was finally able to take place, Betty wrote in her diary:
“Helped May get ready for her wedding. Cold. Elsie gave May a horseshoe for luck. Lovely day and nice wedding. Great thoughts of my own wedding. Home at 12pm.”
Harry was never far from Betty’s thoughts, but perhaps not surprisingly, her reaction to May’s nuptials moved quickly from being one of immediate joy to one of sombre reflection. Just a few days later, on February 22, Betty recorded in her diary that the high of the wedding had gone and she “felt depressed”.
That was also partly because her son Chris had fallen ill, first with a heavy cold and then full-blown influenza. By the end of March he had also developed chicken pox, which he passed on to his younger sister.
Betty wrote in her diary several times that “Chris was bad” and that she had “had the doctor out to Chris”.
That series of illnesses went alongside an even more severe one that Betty’s own mother, Gertrude Haynes, had revealed in late January. Devastatingly, she had been diagnosed with cancer.
Betty accompanied her mother to various doctor’s appointments over the coming weeks, but the prognosis was bleak. On February 23 Betty wrote stoically: “Bad news about mum, but full of hope”.
Chris remembers that terrible time:
“I well recall mum sitting me down and telling me that grandma was ill, but I had no idea at the time how serious it was. I was very sad. I loved Grandma Haynes dearly. She used to sit me between her legs and comb nits out of my hair. She always had a simple lunch – just a piece of plain bread and cheese on a tin plate, so I got the same.
In March 1944 the Potteries was covered in snow from top to tail. It was freezing and there was no heating other than from the fireplace for the Lowes. As Chris was so ill, he was sleeping in with Betty, meaning she was constantly getting up and down for him.
On top of all that, Betty hadn’t heard from Harry for almost three weeks now. It was starting to get too much. On March 16 she just wrote ‘16 months’ in her diary – the length of time since she had last seen her beloved husband.
Betty was now not only living on her nerves, but also, because she ensured her ‘nibs’ were always very well-fed, she was found to be slightly anaemic.
After seeing the doctor, she was prescribed Guinness because of its iron content. These were very different times!
Betty found that she loved Guinness and carried on drinking it. So much so that the following entry appears in her diary: “Mrs Beech came over. We went to The Castle. No Guinness. Beer hopeless, Went home at 9pm.”
Betty was not impressed.
Harry’s main job in Burma was to service the various planes which would attack the Japanese positions or engage them in airborne combat over the jungle, but on occasions he was called upon to go behind enemy lines to rescue parts from downed aircraft as back-up supplies were scarce due to the front being so far from Britain.
So in March 1944 it wasn’t the logistics of getting forces post back home which caused Betty to not receive letters from her beloved husband – Harry was in trouble.
Betty sensed something was wrong. Seriously wrong.
First, she “wrote to the Air Ministry” to see if she could find out anything, but she didn’t hear back from them.
Then the reason became clear. The news was terrible. Harry was lost; missing in action, behind Japanese lines, deep in the Burmese jungle.
Betty feared the worst…