Throughout the Children of War project we have had our eyes open for any firsthand experiences of children themselves growing up through the tumultuous period of the First World War – but they have proved fairly elusive. One of our volunteers, Rebecca Ball, has looked further afield and has written below about one record of a child growing up just outside Birmingham and her memories of the events that touched her life.
Looking deep into archives an intrigued reader can access the hidden histories of people from the past. One such archive is the John Burnett Working Class Autobiography Archive. This archive is a collection of autobiographies written by the working class born between 1790 and 1945. These written records of their lives have been stored away for future generations to discover.
One such life story was written by Ellsye Finnie. She was greeted into this world with the response of ‘Another girl? Not very handsome either!’ from her father in 1903. Ellsye was born in Sutton Coldfield but her family moved shortly afterwards to Wood End, between Sutton and Lichfield in Birmingham.
In her captivating account of her life, Ellsye includes her memories of living in this small hamlet during the First World War. She entitled this chapter of her life rather aptly as ‘Bewildering Problems.’ She began by recollection of the dark clouds of war, which ‘drifted over, dark and threatening.’ The streets she recalled soon become full of ‘khaki – clad soldiers’ and the windows were covered with ‘gloomy blackout curtains.’
Ellsye also recalled how ‘rationing became part of life’ and the appearance of ‘queues at the butcher’s shop.’ Before long even the delicacy of ice cream soon became another victim of the war as ‘the luxuries of life disappeared.’
The Food Queue© IWM (Art.IWM ART 840)
She wrote how ‘sadness hung in the air’, however, for children school life continued on but with an added lecture on refusing extra helpings at dinner. Children were also included in patriotic endeavours. Ellsye`s older sister Marjorie, helped the war effort by painting the Union Jack and flags of their allies onto strips of fabric to pin on clothing to encourage patriotic fever.
Although bombing on the home front is often associated with the Second World War, for the young children of Britain, the zeppelin attacks could be terrifying events. Ellsye recalled the ‘ominous noises coming from the sky’ as the Zeppelin passed over. Listening close in fear they heard another noise, ‘the slow solid tread of the night policeman on his beat.’ Her mother called down for advice and Ellsye recalled the reassuring response of ‘go down and make a cup of tea!’. With that reassuring British sentiment, all fears were stilled and were replaced with a ‘childish excitement of adventure.’
The First World War was experienced in many ways by the children on the home front in Britain. Some of these experiences were scary but some were also exciting. Ellsye recalled how she enjoyed the arrival of billottees in their home, ‘sometimes soldiers in training or girls working in munitions factories.’ Her personal favourite were two young Royal Engineer Corps. She remembered how ‘they bought me my very first box of chocolates’ when she passed the entrance exam into Grammar school. ‘No chocolates have ever tasted sweeter!’
War, however, did not last forever and Ellsye remembered the morning of Armistice day in November 1918. ‘Suddenly the Ack-Ack guns near our home went off, and we knew the war was over, a war that was to leave many scars.’
‘Birmingham clapped her hands with the rest of the word, welcoming the signs of peace and a return to normal living.’
 With thanks to the Burnett Working Class Autobiography Archive held at Brunel University – Ellsye Finnie, ‘Touch – Down: Or Sing Towards Evening, 1903 – 1978’, Britain, N.d [c.1978?], p.87. Brunel University – Burnett Archives.