Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Keeping spirits up in the war - dance halls, cinemas and clubs stayed open in Dewsbury

Life went on very much as normal for most people during the 1939-45 war despite air raids and food rationing.

Sunday, 5th December 2021, 6:30 pm

Margaret Watson writes: People did what they always did when times were hard - they came together, shared what they had and stared adversity in the face.

And, apart from everyone being given identity cards, gas masks and ration books, life went on much the same, even with the black-out.

All the cinemas stayed open and the films were mainly comedies designed to keep the spirits up.

Sign up to our daily Dewsbury Reporter Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

SAVOY FOLLIES: Gwen Egan, of Earlsheaton, later to be Mrs Grayson, sings with the band at a Dewsbury dance hall during the war. The band consisted of all local lads, George Spence, Norman Bramley, Eric Thurlow and Arthur Lee (name of the trumpet player is unknown).

Pubs and clubs continued to be a meeting place for those men who weren’t away fighting and dance halls remained a big attraction.

Even the town council got involved in providing food for the soul and put on top class concerts promoting good music and the arts.

It was all meant to cheer people up during one of the nation’s darkest periods, and for many it worked.

Dewsbury people were not short of entertainment during those years – even the churches did their bit by putting on weekly whist drives and dances.

The boys away fighting, however, were never forgotten and various groups were set up to help serving soldiers and their families.

The Salvation Army did sterling work in this field, as did the Red Cross, the Civil Defence, the ARP, St John Ambulance Brigade, the Women’s Royal Voluntary Services and many more.

Other groups also helped like the Dewsbury Inner Wheel, who, in 1942, held a toy fayre and dancing display which raised £200 to be divided between the Red Cross Hospital Depot and the Merchant Navy Comfort’s Fund.

The Dewsbury Prisoners of War Relatives’ Association met regularly to raise funds and share news about British prisoners in Germany and the Far East.

Most churches had their own knitting circles and hundreds of local women knitted ‘comforts’ for serving soldiers.

Some families had more members than most serving in the forces, like Mary Ann Gardiner, of George Street, Thornhill Lees, who had 14 grandchildren in the forces.

There were also many concert parties set up in various villages and dance bands, usually made up of local musicians and singers.

One lady whom I interviewed some years ago, Gwen Grayson (nee Egan), sang with a dance band after she’d finished her day shift at a munitions factory in Staincliffe.

Gwen, who lived in Earlsheaton, sang with the Savoy Follies at local dance halls, and it was at one she met her future husband Ron Grayson before he was called up.

They were to communicate by letter for the remainder of the war and married in 1945 shortly after it ended.

Gwen’s talent for singing was spotted at a dance at Hanging Heaton Church Hall where the band was playing, and they invited her to sing with them.

She was paid 10 shilling a week and sang at most of the Saturday dances in dance halls and church halls in the district. She also sang at Dewsbury Town Hall and the Moot Hall and always sang romantic songs to which people could waltz.

Gwen sang songs like ‘Yours Till The Stars Lose Their Glory’ and always ended with ‘Who’s Taking You Home Tonight?’ - a very popular song at the time.

She was often asked to sing mid-week but her work in the munitions factory, where she soldered and assembled parts for aeroplane radios, always came first.

With clothes being rationed, she often had to wear the same dresses time and again, but she used her imagination by finding little ways to make them look different.

She would sew a crocheted collar on one, or pin a bunch of flowers to another or add a belt, or just about anything to make it look a bit different.

Gwen recalled singing at one place where the dance had to be called to a halt because of an incendiary bomb dropped outside.

Because of the black-out, the door couldn’t be left open long enough for people to get out all at once, so they were only allowed out in ones and twos.

Before the war started Gwen had worked at Silvers Dry Cleaners in Dewsbury as a spotter.

She went there after leaving Earlsheaton Council School, and her first pocket money after starting work was one shilling – five pence in today’s money.

Later her wage went up to 25 shillings a week, but when the war started she was sent to work at the munitions factory.

Gwen came from a musical family with nearly all her brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles singing in the church choir at Highfield Congregational Church.

A strong community spirit existed in every village in the town and all organised events were well attended.

I’m pleased to say that this community spirit still prevails in some villages, and certainly at the moment in mine – Hanging Heaton.

For, as soon as Covid restrictions started lifting and people could meet up again, Hanging Heaton got things moving.

St Paul’s Church has begun with a friendly coffee morning today (December 2) starting at 10am, to which all are welcome. It is also holding next Friday (December 10) a mince pie, sherry and wine evening with carols and entertainment by the Mother’s Union singers. Doors open at 7.30pm, admission is £7, including a mince pie and glass of wine.

The Monday Club has restarted and is held every week, 1.30-3.30pm, and the luncheon club is also up and running again, first Tuesday in the month at 12pm.

And every Saturday morning at 10am, Ebenezer Methodist Church has a coffee morning.

Not to be left out, Hanging Heaton Cricket Club is holding a Craft Fayre at the club this coming Saturday (December 4) from 10am-4pm. Admission is free and refreshments are available with mulled wine.