HICKLING FAMILY DURING THE WAR (1940s) film no: 2951
This amateur film records events in and around the Hickling family home in Wombwell, near Barnsley, during the early years of the Second World War. The film also includes unique footage of children with their gas masks as well as air-raid shelters in Wombwell in addition to holiday trips to Blackpool.
The film opens with the filmmaker's two daughters, Enid and Valerie, standing in their garden. Enid, the elder daughter, has her gas mask box on her shoulder whilst Valerie stands holding hers in her hand. Enid puts her gas mask on and then sets about helping her younger sister fix hers at the back. They then turn to one another and clap.
The film then moves to a residential area where a member of the Home Guard and a woman come out of the back of a house and climb up a muddy bank towards an Anderson air-raid shelter. They both go in then look out up to the sky. He waves as if a plane is going over. He then lies on a mat outside and pretends to aim and fire with a rifle.
The film then shows holiday scenes at Blackpool where Enid and Valerie play together on the beach making sandcastles and paddling in the sea. The family then visits a local landscaped garden where the girls walk along the paths, hand in hand, with some soldiers.
Back in Wombwell, the local Home Guard race in a donkey derby. One man rides back to front on the donkey and nearly falls off. Others ride along; all avoid the jumping fences that have been set out as they are too big for the donkeys to jump.
The last section of the film features a family trip to see some of the sights in London including the zoo. The film closes with women drinking cups of tea. They are seated at a small table outside, and they smile for the camera.
This film was made by Bernard Hickling, a local filmmaker and the owner of a local business school in Wombwell, near Barnsley. Bernard Hickling, born in 1902, was the son of a miner from a family of miners who ended up at Wombwell, with its two pits, moving from Leicestershire, through Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, looking for work. Bernard himself started down the mine, but also learnt shorthand and eventually left the colliery to start his own business, The Wombwell School of Business Training, teaching secretarial and business skills, such as shorthand and book keeping. As well as running his business, Bernard was an active lay-preacher, speaking at many of the Methodist chapels in the local area circuit.
He took up filmmaking in 1937, after an interest in photography that runs in the family. His uncle had a semi-professional business of photographers, the Hickling Brothers of Featherstone – where Bernard was born – putting photos onto cards. He continued making films, of holidays, weddings and other family events, until after the Second World War. These were filmed on a Bell and Howell Filmo using 100 foot Kodak 16mm, which would be spliced together at home to make 400 foot reels, lasting about 16 minutes. Film was extremely scarce during the war, but Hickling was friendly with the Sheffield Photo Company, and may well have got his film from there. The films were shown at home in a purpose built cinema, usually with music in the background, along with other commercial films either bought or rented. The war didn’t affect the family directly, Bernard carried on business as usual, and the children carried on at school: there were no evacuations from Wombwell.
The Second World War, far from leading to a decline in filming, actually expanded film production in many areas. A Ministry of Information was set up by the Government on 4th September 1939, the day after war was declared, to oversee wartime publicity and propaganda. This produced newsreels and informational short films shown in cinemas, and later in other smaller venues. Documentaries and commercial films continued to be made, usually related to the war in some way.
Home made films made during the war tend to fall into one of two types. The first kind feature public or fund raising events, such as the ‘Wings for Victory’ weeks, or ‘Salute the Soldier’, or of organisations giving training or public demonstrations. The second type, of which this film is an example, focuses on family life during the war. The YFA has a number of film collections from home filmmaking enthusiasts who filmed both kinds during the Second World War. Alfred Hickling fits more into the second category, along with other Yorkshire filmmakers like Charles Chislett, Charles Ibberson, Kenneth Raynor and Albert Thornton.
The filming of the two children putting on their gas masks may well have been inspired by the official policy of encouraging parents to make the wearing of gas masks a ‘fun’ activity – a difficult task given that they were so uncomfortable and smelly. They were made of rubber, and you had to breathe through a cotton wool and charcoal filter to stop the gas.
Although poison gas had been banned by the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925, the threat of poison gas attack, such as phosgene, was very real: Italy had used it in Ethiopia just a few years previously. At the time of the Munich crisis in March 1938 35 million gas masks were issued, with everyone having one by the time war was declared in September 1939. Police and service personnel had more substantial gas masks, and they were even available for dogs and horses.
The film begins with Hickling’s two daughters in the back garden of their house at 179 Barnsley Road. Enid, the eldest, has what looks like an ordinary civilian gas mask with the cardboard box that they came with. The younger daughter, Valerie, is wearing a ‘Mickey Mouse’ mask, so called because they were made to look like a Disney character, coloured pink and blue and with a nose flap, which can clearly be seen in the film. These were designed for children between the ages of two and five. Children wearing these could annoy their parents by making a 'raspberry' noise, like breaking wind, when they breathed out. Valerie’s mask has a leather pouch which could be purchased separately. Babies too had a special respirator, big enough to lie inside: they were strapped into a small airtight chamber into which filtered air was pumped by means of a hand bellows.
It was not a legal requirement to carry gas masks around at all times, but this was very strongly encouraged. Most people didn’t bother complying with this though, and less so as the war wore on; although there were some sanctions if one didn’t do this, especially in certain types of employment. They were also meant to be worn for short durations each day so that they could be got used to; but again, this was rarely observed. The masks remained government property and a fine of up to £5 could be imposed upon anyone found guilty of not taking proper care of them. They only had a useful life of two years, and were being issued right up to April 1945. In the end they were never needed, but this may be partly due to the fact that Britain was the only country during the Second World War to have provided every single member of its civilian population with a respirator, and this free of charge.
After the war the public was instructed to continue looking after their respirators until further notice was given on how to dispose of them, which never happened. (For anyone interested in seeing more on the use of gas masks during the war, another film held at the YFA, Sheffield at War, has a public gas mask practice session, showing a variety of masks).
The film also shows Bernard’s cousin and his wife using the Anderson shelter they had built in their garden. The development of the Anderson Shelter is usually attributed to the Home Secretary of the time John Anderson, later Sir John Anderson. The idea of producing a cheap domestic shelter, for the protection of families from bombing, had been a concern of his for some time. Anderson commissioned the engineer William Patterson to design the shelters. It consisted of fourteen sheets of corrugated iron, forming a shell 6 feet (1.8m) high, 4½ feet (1.4m) wide and 6½ feet (2m) long. This was then buried to a depth of 4 feet (1.2m) and covered with at least 15 inches (0.4m) of soil. It is reported that John Anderson, in order to test it jumped on it with both feet! The first ones were issued in February 1939 in Islington, North London.
The shelter was issued free to all earning less than £250 a year and at a charge of £7 for those with higher incomes. Eventually 2,250,000 were erected, with some having flowers and vegetables planted in the protective bank of earth. People were supposed to use these every night, but they were prone to flood and not very pleasant. However, only a quarter of the population had gardens, so the rest had to make do with what were kind of reinforced tables, called Morrison Shelters. Again these were free to most people, but were very complicated to assemble, having some 219 parts (not including 48 nuts and bolts) and with three different tools to put them together. By November 1941 half a million of these had been distributed. However, they were extremely effective, if assembled correctly, and undoubtedly saved many lives.
Juliet Gardner, Wartime: Britain 1939-1945, Headline, London, 2004.
NBCD (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Defence):
Everything you need to know about gas masks!
A project to record any war time memories.
A useful article on Anderson Shelters, with illustrations.
An excellent site for many topics, it has a collection of recollections from the war.