WINCHESTER – 75 years ago, there was an unusual sight at the En Ka Society’s seventh annual Street Fair. Amidst all the usual fun features, there was a sober reminder that America had allies in distress and that what happened to them might also happen at home.
With the draft in effect to strengthen the nation’s defenses and the town preparing for civilian defense, not surprisingly the Yankee Street Fair had a military motif. The committee members were given military ranks; fair features included a general headquarters, canteen, military ball, and a Stars and Stripes tea room in the pergola.
In addition, the Winchester unit of the British War Relief Society (BWRS) had what The Winchester Star reported as an “object of much inspection and comment,” an Anderson air raid shelter as used in Britain. In actual use it would have been almost entirely underground and covered with sand bags and branches, but for the fair it was on display above ground at the Town Hall grounds. It was furnished with the necessaries, including a flashlight, thermos, cot, asbestos gloves, and gas mask.
Workers from the BWRS, who had seen such a shelter displayed at a Carnival of Freedom at the Boston Garden, were on hand to answer questions. “The touch of tragic insecurity was not out of place,” the Star reported. “The Yankee has always stood for men’s right to be safe in their homes.”
As the war in England progressed, many charities appeared across the United States to aid Britain. The British War Relief Society (BWRS) served as an umbrella organization for various charitable associations providing non-military aid such as food, clothes, medical supplies, and funds.
The Winchester unit of the BWRS was organized in August 1940. It accepted donations for various needs communicated from England and gathered clothing and bedding to help victims who lost everything during the Blitz, as well as for members of the British Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force.
Every Wednesday, the unit had meetings where Winchester’s women and girls would gather to sew and knit. A few men pitched in as well. A tailor known only as Max donated the use of his cutting room and surprised the unit after his staff stayed late to cut bolts of cloth for the unit to sew into garments.
Frank C. Eldridge, age 86 in 1941, whose grandmother in Maine taught him to knit “to keep him quiet,” put his skills to use. Before shipping off one package, one of the women attached a note to an afghan he knitted to say a word about its unusual maker. A letter came back from England, from a woman who actually used an Anderson shelter, saying, “If old Hitler spares me and my family to survive this terrible catastrophe, this cot cover will be a souvenir of the greatest war and it will be handed down through the ages and the name of Eldridge shall live with it.”
All around town people donated funds. The Parish Players, for example, got the fund-raising for a mobile canteen rolling by donating the profits from its 1940 season. Other clubs, as well as churches and youth groups raised funds for the BWRC.
In June, 1941, the local unit summarized what Winchester had accomplished. “Our first project was to find money for a bed, in a military hospital. The promoters modestly started on the money for one bed; they gave five. Then Winchester at large, unorganized, gave $350 for a trailer ambulance, for Winchester, England. At Christmas time our first Rolling Kitchen [mobile canteen] $2000 was ready. Since then $1,500 has been given for a second.
“The first of June, the treasurer…sent $1000 to be added to the same amount which four other units of British War Relief had ready, and that $5000 has been cabled over to put in use another Rescue Patrol boat. It is equipped to give warm nourishment and first medical aid to people who are victims of a torpedo and are picked up out at sea in a perilous condition of chill and exhaustion from being long afloat in cold waters.”
A list of thank-you letters which the Winchester unit received in April of 1942 gives an idea of some of the numerous smaller needs met, including a warm sleeping bag for a staffer on a mobile kitchen, money to pay the moving expenses of a man fighting tuberculosis, help financing and equipping a community meals center which was serving 200 meals each week, and toys, stationery, stockings, and clothes for children.
In addition to providing a record of American aid to Britain, the BWRC reports also provide a picture of what Americans were learning about war conditions in England.
August 1941, Winchester representatives attended a meeting in Boston when “the first two British women in uniform to speak to audiences in the United States” spoke of their work in the Mechanized Transport Corps.
Pat MacLeod had been the driver of a mobile kitchen for 11 months. The staff worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off. After three weeks intensive training in first aid, map-reading, and “the vital arrangements of the motor car engine,” she had her first 24 hours of duty.
“One detail told a lot of what London was enduring those days; those maps were corrected every hour. When one was steering a three-ton trailer kitchen in a blacked-out city one could not afford to have to back out of a street impassable because of a new bomb crater and a newly crashed wall….
“Three times that night they brought their kitchen back for fresh supplies and went out again to carry food to the stretcher-bearers and to men searching new ruins for the dead and for those who might still be alive. Then those whose all had been destroyed by the night’s bombs had breakfasted at her kitchen and it was 9 o’clock in the morning and she and her companion had 24 hours of rest ahead.”
Winifred Ashford had been a dress designer in London in 1938 when England “was as hopeful of staying at peace as many in the United States are now.” When the government asked for women to volunteer for civilian defense, she did. “It seemed absurd to many then and the first volunteers had to run the barrage of friends’ amusement at their taking the whole thing too seriously.” But Britain did not escape the war. As a driver for the emergency Air Raid Protection Corps, Ashford “was in the docking area when the sky rained bombs; she helped evacuate a destroyed hospital when nurses tore up their aprons and women their petticoats to staunch the fast-flowing blood.”
At the end of 1941, the United States was itself at war. Among many other support groups, the BWRS continued its mission of supplying humanitarian aid.
The last day of work for the Winchester Unit was June 27, 1945. By then the British felt that newly liberated countries on the continent were needier. The last box of dresses sewn by the unit went to Holland, and the mobile canteen, with its inscription, “From Friends of England in Winchester, Mass., U.S.A.,” was sent to the Netherlands.