February 2010 newsletter
by J R Ashby

'I was Posted to the Drill Hall, Mexborough, During the 2nd WW

Illustration:
3.7 Inch Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun, similar to the one seen at the Drill Hall, Highwoods, Mexborough, during the last war.
 

It was in December 2002, while researching the history of Montague Burton, Gentleman’s Taylor, and Ballrooms, High Street Mexborough, that I first discovered some of the history of the Drill Hall, Highwoods, Mexborough. I found, from the SYT, that it was constructed and opened, in 1938. Then, while interviewing Mr. D. Scholey, one of the first apprentices to be employed at that particular retail sales outlet, I was informed that from 1937 to c1940 the first floor of Montague Burton remained empty, but it was then taken over by the military as a billet for allied troops stationed at the Drill Hall, and that it was quite a spectacle to see troops paraded, outside the shop on High Street, prior to marching through the town to the Drill Hall.

But what was it like for those young men, many of them only teenagers, who were plucked from their homes and sent miles away? Some of these youngsters had come from the clean suburbs and countryside of southern England, and had been sent to the highly industrialized, grimy, mining towns, like Mexborough.

Last month, after writing the newsletter, which covered members of the Mexborough Branch of the Oddfellows Friendly Society, who served in the 1st WW, I received a letter which told me the experiences of just one of those boys who was stationed at Mexborough Drill Hall during the 2nd WW.

Brian Hulse was 16yrs old at the outbreak of war in 1939. He had left grammar school the previous July, with the equivalent of O-Levels, and went to work, as a junior clerk in the Treasurer’s Dept. of the Bedfordshire County Council. By August 1939, it was inevitable, that there would be war with Germany and so he had volunteered into the local T.A’s, this being the Bedfordshire Yeomanry. Here he found lots of ‘square-bashing’ and rifle drill, and as they were a Field Regiment, of the Royal Artillery, was supposed to be equipped with 25 pounder field guns.

On 3rd Sept. 1939, Neville Chamberlain, declared that we were at war with Germany and Brian was paraded and assigned to new duties. He was to man a Lewis Machine Gun, which was a rusty leftover from the 1st WW, placed on the roof of the local drill hall. They were an artillery battery and gun drill practise was done using a couple of eighteen pounders, also from the 1WW, but couldn’t have been fired without disastrous consequences to the gun crews as the recoil mechanism was rusted up and the gun would have shattered.

In October they received the news that the regiment was to be sent to Belgium to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) but, as Brian was too young, he could not accompany them. At first he was disappointed until news came that the regiment had had to retreat to Dunkirk. Meanwhile the youngsters known, much to their disgust as ‘immatures’, had been posted to join an Anti Aircraft Regiment in South Yorkshire.

I will now leave Brian to tell his story of life at the Drill Hall at Mexborough:


“Our new Regiment was a converted infantry battalion of the Yorks & Lancs Light Infantry with its regimental headquarters in Rotherham and the headquarters of the battery to which we had been posted in Mexborough.

Looking back I don’t recall being depressed although we might well have been because we still had no guns to bolster our since of pride in being men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

This is the oldest of our military formations and if the British Army was ever to be drawn up on parade the Royal Artillery would occupy the proud position of being the ‘right of line’.

But there we were with little to do but attend endless parades, perform fatigues and guard duties and, worst of all, when day was done retire to our beds which consisted of three blankets and a ground sheet on the hard wooden floor of the Drill Hall; no beds and not even a mattress.

We went out very little because even in those days fourteen bob (70p) a week didn’t go very far and I well remember four of us who were pretty close friends emptying our pockets onto a blanket to see if we could muster enough to go to the pub and have half a pint of beer.

Pay parade was on Thursday and it was following these that I became aware of the Yorkshireman’s love of gambling.

The older men, most of them married, would take their pay, all seven bob (35p) of it into the canteen, sit at a table with a drink and play a card game called ‘blind three card brag’ until one of the number had the lot or at least most of it. Then the others would sub (borrow) from him until next week.

Most of us spent our evenings polishing our brass buttons and our boots and leather cap straps and blancoing our belts and gaiters, because this was before the ‘battle dress’ uniform had been introduced.

We wore tunics with brass buttons and brass insignia on the epaulets, green canvas belts with brass fittings and green canvas gaiters above black boots which had to be polished until one could see one’s face in them.

On our heads we wore a peaked cap with leather hat band and the Royal Artillery brass hat badge which consisted of scroll bearing the regiment’s motto ‘Ubique Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt’ (Everywhere where honour and glory leads) and surmounted by the emblem of an artillery piece.

The majority of the men were South Yorkshire Colliers from local pits at Wath-on-Dearne and Swinton collieries.

They were pretty basic but on the whole kind to us young boys from the South and many of those who lived locally would from time to time invite us to their homes, mostly back to back cottages, and I think they did this sometimes partly to show us off because we were different in that we had funny accents.

Of course we thought they had funny accents too and one -3- realises now how modern transport and methods of communication have narrowed the gap between the north and the south of the country.

We also became quickly conditioned to the way in which the English Language could be liberally sprinkled with swearwords.

In resend years we have had to become accustomed to the use of obscenities but I can assure you that the British Soldier has long employed the ‘f’ word and others like it, with the greatest facility.

One example that sticks in my mind was the occasion of a church parade when the Sergeant Major leant over the back of a pew and with mouth close to an unsuspecting ear said, in a sibilant whisper, “Take thee f****** ‘at off in the ‘ouse of Gawd thee ignorant sod thee.” The Christmas of 1939 is the only Christmas of the war that I really can remember and that was because one of my fellow ‘immatures’ had relations in Sheffield and he and I were invited to share the festival with them.

It was before food rationing had really got going and we were treated to the full gamut of Yorkshire hospitality.

Each morning we were awoken by our hostess bringing us tea in bed, not only a cup of tea but also a few biscuits and a banana to keep us going until breakfast.

Then, apart from the feast of Christmas Dinner, we were daily presented with a large cooked breakfast, lunch, high tea (a feast in itself) and before we went to bed the sideboard was again dressed with a ham, a pork pie, tongue, and an assortment of pickles and what else I cannot remember.

To us this was all a treat indeed because, whist army food was plentiful and we never during the whole of the war had to suffer the privations of rationing that were visited upon the civilian population, the army cooks managed to make almost literally a dogs dinner of good provisions and I imagine the pigs who were fed our leftovers in the form of ‘pigswill’ did marginally better than we did.

The classic example of army cooking was right at the beginning of the war when the sergeant cook in Bedford was appointed to the job because he had experience of mass catering.

In civilian life he ran a fish and chip shop! The winter of 1939/40 was one of the most severe in Britain for many years and the Drill Hall floor got very cold and hard but we did eventually get mattresses and in the end beds which provided a real luxury.

Worse of all was being put on guard duty and I shall never forget sentry duty outside Mexborough Drill Hall in the ice and snow and in particular the seemingly interminable two hours from two ‘til four a.m. when life is said to be at its lowest ebb.

There was some light relief on the next shift when the ‘knocker up’ progressed along the small cottages on the other side of the road, tapping on the windows of the bedrooms with a long stick to awaken the men who were on the day shift at the colliery.

It was during this cold spell that we were equipped with proper guns; the 3.7inch (93mm) Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun.

It was said to be mobile but was the devil to get off its wheels and ready for action.”

It wasn’t long before Brian was moved to Treeton, Sheffield, with quarters in wooden huts, in the bottom of a disused quarry. The ground was deep in snow and the coal burning stove had to be kept almost red hot to keep the hut warm.

The water pipes in the ablutions hut, frozen solid and for a couple of weeks snow had to be melted to get a wash and shave. He was trained as a Gun Position Officer’s Assistant which meant that he was under cover in the Command Post and didn’t get covered with oil as the gunners did.

Brian became a Lance Bombardier, and finally a Lance Sergeant, towards the end of the war, and on completion of his war service went back to work in finance which culminated in him running a large finance department.

Acknowledgements To: Brian Hulse. ‘BBC. What did you do in the war Daddy?’ BBC WW2 People’s War.


News from the Local History Room
What Happened to Peter Barron?

As I have stated, last month’s newsletter told of the gentlemen who served in the 1st WW who were members of the Mexborough Branch of the Oddfellows Friendly society.

In this newsletter I spoke of the sad death of Peter Barron, in the Battle of the Somme.

I concluded the newsletter by asking if anyone had any information on any of the men covered in this article.

Luckily Molly Beardsall could help and came forward with a letter, written by a serving soldier, who actually witnessed the death of Peter Barron, and wrote back home telling of his bravery and how he should have been awarded a V.C. Please find it below: Somewhere in France Dear Mother & Father Just a few lines to let you know how I am fairing it is a long time since I wrote to you so I thought I would drop you a line or two and I am still in the pink and I sincerely hope this finds you the same.

The chief reason I am writing you this is relative to the death in action of the late Peter Barron, although it is a long time ago I think it will interest you to know the way he died.

We were at Thiepval a place you will no doubt of seen very frequently in the papers, and we had took two lines of trenches from the enemy and hold them to days, when the made an attack in main formation in a thunderstorm and Peter and a Sergeant were the only two left on there feet and they held them for forty five minutes with bombs when they had to retire fighting like demons every yard, two men to as many hundreds when Peter had the misfortune to get knocked out and the Sergeant came through all right.

But poor Peter died like a Briton it was a most wonderful feat and a credit to the town he comes from, and you ought to have had another V.C. in Mexborough for never was one better earned.

You can show this letter to his friends and relations if you like for it will be a bit of consolation to them to know he died like a true British Soldier and a hero.

I think this is all this time, from your loving son.
Jack.

Hippodrome
In Feb. 1892 construction began on a new building in Montagu Square, Mexborough. This was to be the Prince of Wales Theatre, known later as the Hippodrome Theatre.
It seems a strange coincidence that it was on 11th Feb. 2010 that workmen, digging to the fore of the premises once occupied by: the Job Centre, Global Video and the Mobility Centre; in Montagu Square, discovered, what is believed to be, the extreme eastern external wall of the Hippodrome Theatre.
Work continued, on digging out the trench, for seven days revealing more of the wall, informing us that it was constructed using the red brick of Mexborough Brickworks, Dolcliffe Road, Mexborough.
It also showed the black mortar, which was the trademark of the constructor of the theatre, George Henry Smith.
The trench was filled in on Wed. 17th Feb 2010 to accommodate the construction of an extension to adjacent premises.

Next Talk
Owning to the filming of the TV Programme, Paranormal, at the Miners Arms in March, our talk for that month has had to be cancelled.
Preliminary arrangements for our next meeting are: Tuesday 27th April 2010. AGM, which I will try to make as short as possible, followed by a talk, which has still to be finalised.

Copyright.  This newsletter may not be reproduced, in part or in its entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby.