When a German torpedo hit HMS Courageous and claimed the life of May Howard’s father in 1939, the teenager was forced to grow up quickly. Wartime Crewe toughened the young woman and, despite much heartache, the era holds many fond memories. Fate and some bold decisions would ensure that Crewe would always be her home…
Born in 1924, May’s childhood was spent in and around Queens Park. The family home was on nearby Davenham Crescent and the surrounding area was the perfect playground for inquisitive and mischievous kids. “We went to the park every day and knew every inch of it. It was a wonderful place, and we even found a way to make a few pennies. It was naughty really but we didn’t think we were doing any harm. We found that one of the café’s toilets had a penny slot in the door. Some people used this one even though they could use the others for nothing. So we put a few twigs in the slot and waited. People realised that the coins didn’t drop and tried to get them out themselves, but it was very fiddly. We had small fingers and used a hair clip to get the pennies out. Then we spent them in the park’s café. The lady on the counter used to look at our coins suspiciously. One day she asked why they had scratch marks all over them. So we stopped doing that before we got caught.”
Perhaps it was the tough economic climate that dominated the 1930s, but even as a child May used her time and skills effectively. “While I was still a young girl, maybe 13, I loved to sing and dance. There was a local impresario called Lawrence Ratigan who organised the town hall dances. He also had a studio on Mill Street and I used money from running errands to pay for my lessons. I performed at Kettell’s on High Street one night, impersonating film stars like Shirley Temple. But I had to get home before my father returned from his post office work around 10pm, so I left before they paid my cabaret fee. That would have been five shillings!”
As the Second World War gripped the nation, tragedy struck the Howard family. “My dad, a marine, was the first Crewe soldier killed in WW2, off the coast of Ireland in September 1939. Our house was filled with reporters wanting a story. It was a tough time, and my mum had to go out to work at Rolls-Royce to support us. I helped to look after my brother and sister, and people tried to make the war effort fun for the kids. One day, they asked everyone along Alton Street to help fill sand bags with buckets and spades.” May avoided the early bombs that fell on Crewe, but an injury sustained during another air raid had dramatic results. “Mum was at work and I was looking after the children when the sirens sounded. I was still only fifteen and there must have been 20 raids around that time – one after another. So it was scary but you just dealt with it. We made our way to the shelter at the bottom of our garden in the dark. We always carried our little tins, with policies and valuables inside. I managed to get us down to the shelter but as I climbed in a burst of gunfire startled me. I lost my balance, slipped and damaged my back. I was taken to hospital in Chester where I stayed for two weeks. While I was there my mother took time off work to visit me. Her bosses didn’t like that even though it was to see her poorly child, and they sacked her.”
Tough times, and May continued to flirt with danger: “I was riding my bike with friends up near the Tipkinder mound one day and a dogfight was going on above us. The guns stationed at Tipkinder were firing at the enemy planes. Pieces of shrapnel were dropping to the ground, just missing our tyres as we rode. We could have been killed that day.” Later the same year, a German bomber was successful. “It was a Sunday afternoon and we were out walking. We saw an enemy plane fly over, closer than usual, and we saw it drop its bombs. The Rolls-Royce factory was hit and sixteen people were killed. One of the unfortunate workers was the girl who had taken my mother’s job after she had been sacked.”
Subsequent years were dominated by queues, shortages and places to shelter when sirens shattered the silence. “We sometimes went to the Odeon if we had any money. If there was a raid you could stay there or go to one of the other shelters. There was one beneath Boots in the centre of town. There were bails of straw down there and we often mucked about, fighting with each other. Some of the older people didn’t like us fooling around, so we had to move on some nights. We’d go to the Delamere Street shelter and you could see people’s faces drop when a bunch of unruly teenagers walked in!”
Despite the ongoing turmoil there was more instability for May, as her mother moved the family to Edinburgh. The war effort, however, was never far away. “Within a year of moving to Scotland my call-up papers arrived with a posting to a powder factory in Glamorgan, Wales. Another girl said that the powder would turn my face yellow, so I didn’t want to go there. Instead, I jumped on a train and headed back to Crewe to visit my auntie. Luckily, I managed to get at job at Royce’s. The Ministry of Defence police wrote to my aunt checking up, but they never came to get me. So at the factory I worked on a lathe and they taught me on the job. I made washers and I called myself the ‘Queen of the Washers’. There were a lot of women at the factory, but most of the managers were men. You often heard them asking girls out on a date and promising them better jobs. When you saw someone promoted or moved to an easy job the gossip was always about what the girl must have done to get it! I wasn’t there long, probably about two years in all and then we got our release papers. The girls had come from all over the country and I met some great friends.”
With wartime work complete, May’s transient existence continued. She returned to her mother in Edinburgh before the family moved down to London. The capital’s bright lights, however, were not for May. “I applied to join the Wrens hoping to escape London, then travelled back to Crewe while I waited for my papers. I stayed with my friend Zona who lived above her father’s shop on High Street. One night we went to a town hall dance and I met a wonderful gentleman. We talked and danced all night. He had two children and had lost his wife to TB. So I was cautious, but he was the one for me. I wasn’t accepted by the Wrens, so perhaps staying in Crewe and getting married was meant to be.”
A lifetime living and working around the Crewe area followed, but May still managed to keep in touch with some of the girls she had worked with during the war. Then, in 2005, flicking through a catalogue she noticed a blanket sporting a picture of a Spitfire and an idea was born. “I started the Spitfire Club, an informal group for the girls, as soon as I saw that blanket. A few of my old friends had died, but I sent these blankets to the rest of them – all over the world. It keeps the memories alive, so I have also given them to children of friends and family who otherwise wouldn’t know anything about the Spitfire engines we made at Crewe. I have always thought that we should be proud about that.”
May’s story appeared in “Crewe And Its People” that was published back in 2009; sadly, a few months after the book was released May passed away. I received a call from her family, asking if they could read out May’s story at her funeral. That was an honour. She raised a smile as her final chapter was told.
The stories from volume 1 will be posted here between February and June as a permanent series of social history documents for Cheshire. A second volume of fascinating Crewe life stories will be available to buy from September 2016.