Memories of the worst night of the Sheffield Blitz on December 12, 1940 came flooding back for wartime telegram boy Ken Foster.
He was in Sheffield city centre when the worst of the bombing started – and narrowly avoided being one of the victims in the Marples Hotel.
He and another telegram boy, Albert Land, had been to night school on Queen Street, which was compulsory for them. Ken joined the telegram service at the beginning of the war when he was 14.
He said: “We left at 9pm. The teacher said that we shouldn’t leave. We made our way on to High Street. Two tram cars were still standing there and we heard a noise like heavy rain. It was the noise of shrapnel raining down.
“The two of us got on this tram and when the noise stopped we made our way to Fitzalan Square.
“As we went past the Marples Hotel, a man came to the door. He called out right rudely, ‘You two ruffians, come in here and shelter’. We ignored it. I’m glad we did as they were all killed.”
Ken said: “We’d go from shelter to shelter. There was one that was in Pond Hill. We stayed there the rest of the night.”
The shelter was built from bricks and sandbags and stood near Pond Street bus station and was for transport workers, said Ken.
He remembers: “Someone said, ‘get in here, you two’.”
When he finally made his way home, he found his parents waiting anxiously on the corner for him.
Ken said: “It was a remarkable thing the next day. There were about 40 telegram boys in those days and they all turned up for work.”
The bombs had damaged the electronics network and telegrams had to be sent to Leeds and brought to Sheffield by van and on foot.
He remembered that telegrams wouldn’t arrive until 1pm and then the telegram boys would all disappear off in different directions with their deliveries.
“The following few days we climbing over destroyed buildings. The telegrams were the only communications from the outside world at that point. People were sending telegrams asking, ‘are you alright?’
“When we got to certain houses they were demolished.” Sometimes the telegram boys were able to get a new address off neighbours for the people whose homes had been burned out.
And other times, of course, the houses had been hit by tragedy.
Ken said that as a youngster he coped surprisingly well with delivering bad news. “As time went on we just adjusted to the war.
“We had our jobs to do. We only had eight days annual leave and worked quite late at night.”
He added: “There was a togetherness that will never come again. We were a vital part of the war effort.”
Ken, who is now 90 and lives near Trowbridge in Wiltshire, lived with his family in Heeley during the war. He say he is still a Wednesdayite!
He had been a pupil at Woodseats School but only got his school certificate after completing night school.
Ken wonders how many of the city’s wartime telegram boys are left alive now. “We never had a reunion or get-together. One or two went in the RAF.
“I went into the Navy on the Atlantic convoys and served on a destroyer. Some telegram boys were killed in the war.”
He added: “It would be lovely to find out. We were just boys.
“They didn’t have telegram girls but girls aged 14 to 15 were called girl probationers, dealing with all the telegram traffic coming in.”
Ken served in the Atlantic convoys on the destroyer HMS Viceroy as a wireless operator and then went out to the Pacific on the HMS Anson.
The Viceroy sank two U-boats – and the crew recovered a canister containing bottles of schnapps from the wreckage.
The captain decided to send a presentation case of part of the find to Churchill and Ken got a copy of the letter of thanks that he sent back. He has kindly supplied a copy of it to Retro.
Apparently he never enjoyed a nip of the hard stuff, though.
He said he was never scared during his time in the Navy. “I am amazed now. At the time I was 17 or 18 and at sea. But that’s why young men can go to Afghanistan. You think, ‘how did they put up with that lot?’ and it’s because they were young.”
He added: “I got my war medals from the Navy but I didn’t get anything for being a telegram boy. I didn’t expect anything.”
Incidentally, the pictures of telegram boys here are of motorcycle riders. Ken and his friends used heavy push bikes, except just after the Blitz when they worked on foot because of the amount of rubble, but I was sadly unable to find any illustrations with bicycle messengers.
If anyone who remembers Ken from the telegram service wants to get in touch, contact Retro and we will put you in contact.
n Do you have memories of the Sheffield Blitz that you want to share? Contact Julia Armstrong at Retro