When January 1, 1944 dawned, Betty Lowe spent the day, a Saturday, recovering from the New Year’s Eve party, which had been held behind blackout curtains by her friend from up the street Elsie Pointon – and nursing her hangover.
Unfortunately, she had to do so whilst serving customers in her corner shop at number 2 Castle Street, Newcastle-under-Lyme. W C Lowe and Sons was a family grocer’s she and her husband Harry had taken over on her father-in-law William’s retirement, just after their wedding in 1936.
Betty barely had a moment to think about where her beloved husband was that New Year’s Day and what he might be doing, or rather suffering, in Burma.
She told her diary: “Shop very busy” and “Had a stiff neck”, a euphemism for a “Good night letting the new year in”.
Fun was in short supply in the winter of 1943 into 1944 and you had to grab it when you could. Potteries folk had existed amidst a reality of nearly five years of war, the absence of loved ones, occasional bombing, rationing and the daily news of deaths in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and on the Indian sub-continent – where Harry was serving as an RAF engineer.
Until Herr Hitler got involved, Betty and Harry had been an inseparable couple, living a typical North Staffordshire existence.
All that changed once Harry was conscripted to serve in the Royal Air Force on January 22, 1941. As he was keen on engineering, despite his profession as a grocer, Harry trained as a specialist air-frame fitter on Blenheim and Wellington bombers, then Defiant and Mosquito fighters.
Corporal Lowe was posted to serve in Burma, which had fallen to Japanese occupation in March 1942, leaving by troopship in late July. He arrived in Bombay in September 1942 and travelled across India, via Delhi, to join the Eighth Army, now known as ‘The Forgotten Army’ as so little focus has been placed upon its struggle to oust the Japanese from the British-controlled territory (then part of India) compared to the heroics of the likes of El Alamein (late 1942), Monte Cassino (early 1944), D-Day (June 6 1944) and Arnhem (September 1944).
So, by January 1944, Betty had not seen Harry for well over a year. During that time the couple wrote religiously to each other. It was the only possible way to keep in touch, with both knowing that all correspondence they sent to each other would be opened, read and stamped as acceptable – or often heavily redacted – during its journey via the censorship of the British Army Postal Service.
Betty had had to celebrate her 30th birthday with no husband present; and she hadn’t seen him on either of their last two wedding anniversaries. That made every letter all the more precious and she recorded everything in her diary.
Harry wrote regularly, but the letters or airgraphs (a process by which a photo was taken of the original letter then transferred as a far lighter negative to the recipient’s local post office where it would be printed out) often arrived in bundles of five to 10, so there could be very big gaps between them.
This meant Betty didn’t worry too much when she didn’t hear from her husband for long periods. It was normal to be completely cut off from your loved ones in 1944 and, clearly, there was no telephone in the Burmese jungle either.
That didn’t matter too much as, in fact, there was no telephone in the shop at Castle Street, nor in the family’s quarters behind and above the premises either.
There was, in fact, not even and electricity in the shop. Everything in the evening was done by gas or candlelight, behind thick blackout curtains. If Betty wanted to make or receive a phone call she had to use the public phone box at the bottom of the street.
So, written correspondence was very much the way for the devoted Betty and Harry to communicate. On January 7, 1944, Betty’s Diary joyously records:
“Had five airgraphs and
a letter from Harry, it is wonderful to hear from him. He is safe and well.”
And on the 19th she wrote:
“Very happy that plenty of mail is coming from Harry.”
In his letters, Harry was able to tell his family of the sights and sounds of India and Burma, which to his children, son, Chris, aged seven; and daughter, Elizabeth, four, seemed like a fairy tale when Betty sat them down to read to them.
Chris recalls: “Whenever letters from dad arrived mum would sit Elizabeth and I down in the living room at the back of the shop and read them to us. Because they were censored and because mum also chose the parts she wanted to, it appeared to us that dad was enjoying a kind of adventure holiday.
“His photos showed friendly Indian/Burmese street scenes, or groups of friendly locals,
as well as fellow serviceman. But a couple of them showed him and his team posing with shot-down Mosquito aeroplanes which they were busy restoring to active service as the RAF could hardly fly many more planes or parts out. Burma is over 5,000 miles away. It would take too long.”
Running a shop on her own was fraught with difficulties for Betty. She had to clean, do the accounts, pay the tax office in Hanley in person and keep the necessary records for the Food Ration Office in Newcastle, whilst looking after her children, whom she affectionately referred to as the ‘nibs’.
There were many lovely customers who were in and out of the shop all the time; Castle Street was a typical North Staffordshire community, with long-standing families from all the classic walks of life, such as miners, nurses, cooks, cleaners and, of course, potters or those in associated professions.
Coping with the war, the absence of her husband and the long hours and administration was hard enough for Betty, but in January 1944 she encountered an unexpected foe in the form of Mr Brown, the owner of the local wholesale warehouse at Albion Mill, located at the bottom of the hill down which Castle Street ran.
On January 28 Betty wrote in her diary: “Had an argument with Mr Brown.”
This brief entry barely told the tale of difficulties facing Betty when it came to Mr Brown. She regularly had run ins with this key supplier.
Mr Brown knew he had a hold over many of the small corner shops across Newcastle and would commonly try to turn the screw in order to up his profit margin.
He was able to do this because goods were scarce, but especially if he made them so by keeping them in his warehouse store, rather than out front where they could be bought.
Then he would release them, put the word around and create a localised ‘rush’ on the product, which had been marked up to maximise income.
Betty realised exactly what was going on and wasn’t shy about confronting him. Brown did not appreciate a young woman holding him to account and so a stand-off would ensue.
There were some battles Betty chose not to fight, though. One of Chris’s mates in his ‘gang’ was a nine-year-old lad called Don Ratcliffe, who would eventually find fame by playing as speedy winger for Stoke City throughout the 1950s and early 60s.
Back in 1944, Don came from a family who were really struggling. To make a few pennies on the side, as he couldn’t earn any pocket money at home, Don would climb over the wall at the back of the shop, steal into the yard while Betty wasn’t looking and take as many of the empty bottles as he could clutch.
As there was tuppence – a little less than 1p in today’s decimal cash – given to each customer when a bottle was returned (in an early example of what we know today as ‘recycling’) he would then go in through the front door of the shop and proudly return the bottles, holding his hand out for his spoils.
What Don didn’t know was that Betty had spotted exactly what he was up to. But she didn’t mind. It was her way of giving something to her son’s friend, whose family she knew was on the poverty line.
In fact, when Betty celebrated her 90th birthday in September 2003, she and Don met in the Waddington Suite at Stoke City FC and she revealed to him her side of the story. He was gobsmacked…
Another concern was Betty’s father-in-law – Harry’s dad – William Lowe. He and his wife Agnes, known to everyone as ‘Nell’, had retired to a lovely house on the new Westlands estate, making way for Harry and Betty to take over the business.
Throughout the war Betty had relied upon William’s help to run the shop, manage the mountain of paperwork and even to look after ‘the nibs’. Two or three times a week her father-in-law would drop in to assist, but the shop’s income could not cope with an extra paid hand, so Betty ‘reimbursed’ William in goods. The trouble was that William had suffered greatly as an infantry soldier in the trenches in the First World War, being a survivor of the horrific Battle of Passchendaele, and was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, about which very little was known in the 1930s.
He was often ‘absent’ from the world around him and therefore had no real concept of rationing and what his proper share was. And, as he still considered it ‘his’ shop, he would fill his basket with many more items than he was entitled to.
Betty did not have the heart to take anything out of William’s bag and so juggled her own family’s food and drink or, on occasions, tweaked the official ‘return’ to the Food Office – it was just something else to contend with.
More fundamentally, Betty realised that if this was what war had done to her father-in-law. What would it do to her husband when, if, he returned?
Despite the daily dangers and frustrations, life could seem so normal at times, squirreled away in North Staffordshire, relatively remote from the war, even with all the restrictions.
But on Friday, January 28, Betty found that the war came directly to her. A distraught customer, Mrs Spencer, burst into the shop in tears, informing Betty that her husband Reginald, with whom Betty shared a birthday on September 9, albeit she was two years Reg’s senior, had been killed in action. The reality hit home immediately.
Betty was moved to write a chain of letters to her beloved Harry; every night for three weeks. She was so glad he was alive, even if he was so very far away.
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