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Wartime Otley
Andrew Liddle, Features Writer
It is worth remembering, as another armistice day approaches and we’re looking back on the centenary of the ending of the Great War - that next year will mark the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. There will no doubt be a glut of publications on that horrendous event which was responsible for the death of more than 60 million people. Most of them will be written about the various theatres of war and the men who fought.

Graham Shutt’s recent book , Prince Henry’s – A School At War, gives fascinating insights into what life was like not just in the school but in Otley, a bustling little town on the banks of the Wharfe. The author, who taught Economics and Business Studies at the school for 42 years, spanning five decades, is an engaging Lancastrian, originally from the Rossendale valley, with a passion for Burnley A.F.C. He spent seven years researching and writing it after he retired. There is a lump in his throat as he tells me about the 41 former pupils and staff who died in the conflict, roughly ten percent of the 463 who served in the Armed Forces, and the many who were wounded or fell into German, Italian or Japanese hands as prisoners of war. His book is dedicated to their memory.

Beautifully written and with a with a wealth of well-researched detail, it paints a vivid account of what life must have been like for ordinary people during the years of conflict. Hasty preparations for the war began in the town, as elsewhere in the country, as early as September 1938, with trenches being dug, gas masks issued and plans being discussed to accommodate evacuated children. Sandbags started to appear everywhere and the piercing sound air-raid sirens being tested became a frequent annoyance.

At Prince Henry’s members of staff and senior boys returned early from the summer holiday to put in a trench near the cricket field and another was added in the school grounds in October. Gas mask drills soon became a feature of the school day. By 1942, as part of the Dig For Victory campaign much of the playing fields had been converted for growing crops vegetables, Wharfedale, being judged a ‘safe area’, the first evacuees started to arrive scarcely a week after the declaration of war, some 400 children coming by coach from Leeds, later to be joined by expectant mothers and those with babies. All had to be billeted on local families. The school adopted a shift system in order to teach their local boys in the morning and the girls evacuated from Roundhay High in the afternoon. The Head, Mr. Wilde, reported that with 218 boys and 232 girls, his school was ‘uncomfortably crowded’. This went on until the beginning of the Spring term in 1940 when the girls returned home, Leeds now considered relatively safe from bombing.

Graham, who taught Economics and Business Studies at the school for 42 years, is an engaging mild-mannered man, originally from Lancashire, who spent seven years researching and writing it after he retired. There is a lump in his throat as he tells me about the 41 former pupils and staff who died in the conflict, roughly ten per cent of the 463 who served in the Armed Forces, and the many who were wounded or fell into German, Italian or Japanese hands as prisoners of war. His book is dedicated to their memory.

Wharfedale suffered its first air raid on August 19th, 1940, bombs and incendiary devices being dropped from a single plane near Otley Chevin. Four days later the enemy repeated the raid and the following week a bomb was dropped in the Arthington area. Fortunately there were no casualties. In fact during the war Leeds and Bradford suffered several raids although the impact was by no means as severe as in many towns and cities. The worst occurred in Leeds over the two days of 14 And 15 March, 1941, when 71 people were killed and a further 327 injured.

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There were army camps in Farnley and at the Old Showground on Pool Road and soldiers were seen frequently in the town, a consequence of which was that the pubs often ran out of beer. At the YMCA Services canteen in Boroughgate, often more than 1,000 soldiers would be served in a single evening, even more at the weekends. Later, from 1944 to 1948, there was a prisoner-of-war camp in Weston Lane and it was not unusual to see prisoners being marched through the streets.

Long queues outside shops were a common sight, especially when a consignment of tinned meat or fruit had come in. Rationing, of course, was in force, petrol from 1939, clothes in June 1941, soap in February 1942 and in July of that year sweets and chocolate were restricted to two ounces (57 grams) per person, per week. In August 1941 even baby clothes were rationed. To combat the severity of rationing A British Restaurant was opened near the bus station in Bondgate, which sold simple wholesome affordable meals off ration. A full meal would cost less than a shilling (5 pence). A picture in the book shows people queuing round the square to get in.

‘A’ company of the 29th West Riding Regiment of the Home Guard, at its peak over a thousand-strong, was stationed at the Drill Hall, their principal task being to safeguard the local reservoirs at Fewston, Swinsty and Lindley. Far from being the ragtag outfit of old men depicted by Dad’s Army, they were a well-trained force who spent their evening and weekends drilling. Many of them were young men getting in shape for when their time came. Another picture in this beautifully illustrated book shows them marching proudly down the main street, cheered on by a large crowd. From April 1941 girls of 20 were registered as part of a national campaign to mobilise the country’s woman-power. Many were already in the Land Army or doing jobs considered of national importance. Others were already doing their bit volunatily, for the W.V.S., for example.

When VE Day came on 8th May, 1945, in spite of the rain the streets of the town were thronged with cheering people, Manor Square was bright with flags and bunting and the old Jubilee Clock was festooned with coloured lights. Celebrations included street parties, the floodlighting of public buildings, bonfires and fireworks but people were careful to show restraint because fighting still continued in the Far East and lives were still being lost. A torchlight procession travelled from the Maypole, up the Chevin to light a bonfire on the beacon and a flame leapt sixty feet into the air while the crowd sang There’ll Always be An England. With peace came a welcome relaxation of the black-out and of fire-watching duties but ‘normal time’ was not resumed until 6th October, 1945 when the clocks were put back an hour.

‘My book is a labour of love,’ says Graham.

Wartime Otley, 5th November 2018, 11:31 AM