Retro: Sheffield teenager’s wartime years in vital role

General Post Office, Fitzalan Square, Sheffield'11th May 1974
General Post Office, Fitzalan Square, Sheffield'11th May 1974
Have your say

A Retro feature about wartime telegram boy Ken Foster and his experiences of the Blitz in Sheffield brought back a lot of memories for another Sheffielder.

Marjorie Hinkler (nee Styring) worked as a girl probationer for the GPO and remembers meeting Ken and other telegram boys when she was training at the main post office in Fitzalan Square.

Marjorie joined the Post Office just after the terrible events of the Sheffield Blitz, which had hit her own family.

She said: “We had been bombed out of our home when we were all in the cellars and were all spread around, living with other people. My brothers and brothers-in-law had just gone off to war.

“In January I got the uniform and started work at the GPO as a girl probationer at 14.”

One of a family of six, Marjorie’s elder sisters were both married to men who were away fighting and both had come back home to live with the family in Derbyshire Lane.

One sister, Renee Buffrey, had just had her first baby, who was in the cellar sheltering with the rest of the family during the worst of the Blitz.

Renee had been at work at the Telegraph and Star and was stuck in a shelter all night, arriving home late to what must have been a terrifying scene.

Marjorie remembers she was sitting reading just before the raid, sulking because she hadn’t been allowed to go to a dance as she was too young, when her dad rushed in to say he had seen hundreds of planes heading their way.

She recalls: “When this bomb dropped outside our house, the roof and all the doors and windows were blown in.”

Her brother Tommy was on leave but wouldn’t be home for Christmas so the family were celebrating early.

Marjorie’s mum had used all the ration books to do some baking and “it all came crashing down on top of us,” she said.

“We had a piano and all the broken glass was stuck in it. We treasured our piano and we found out that it was still playing so we pulled out all the glass afterwards,” she added.

All the family survived that episode but sadly Tommy was killed aged 20 while serving as a lance bombardier with the Royal Artillery 7/4 Maritime Regiment in August 1942.

He was on convoy escort duties on board the merchant vessel the SS Arabistan, which was sunk in the south Atlantic.

Several members of Marjorie’s family worked for the GPO, including her sister Winifred Styring, who eventually became chief supervisor of the telephone exchange.

When she was younger, her parents Henry and Elsie Styring ran the telephone exchange at Dronfield, so she had learned how to work a board to make calls as a child.

Marjorie moved between different departments when she was training, which was when she met Ken and other teenage telegram boys.

She said that discipline was very strict for the youngsters: “You couldn’t talk in front of people but we were running everywhere so you bumped into each other.”

She said: “I saw Ken’s piece in Retro and thought, ‘I remember that lad’. I knew he went on into the forces. I remember some of the other lads got killed.”

The youngsters all put a little money by each week so that they could have a Christmas party with music playing on a gramophone in the canteen and a trip to the pantomime.

Some of the phone calls they dealt with on the telephone exchanges might include celebrities of the day who were appearing at the Empire or the Lyceum but there was far more important war work to do.

“We had secret lines from the Government and we had to sign the Official Secrets Act.” The calls were all in code, said Marjorie, and the telephonists had to stay on the line to ensure that they never got cut off.

“Because we had signed the secrecy act we could hear all they were saying but it didn’t make sense. That was vitally important work,” she said.

Another job they had to do was to call buildings that had air raid sirens to advise them about setting off sirens and sounding the all-clear.

Marjorie said: “You had to be so speedy and not make any slip-ups dialling the wrong numbers.”

Looking back, she wonders how she coped with the responsibility at such a young age.

“When you were young in those days you just accepted it. It was our teenage years and that was just what we did.

It was a busy life, she says. “I never really thought about it in those years and I never talked to my children or my family a bit about it later.

“It just all comes back to you when you’re getting on a bit.”

However, there was some time for having fun as well.

“In my spare time when I got to 18 my dad allowed me to do concert parties. We were brought up in a musical family. My dad coached me a bit on singing,” said Marjorie.

The group were called Cantamus Singers, said Marjorie, and a neighbour who went to the same church recommended her when they were looking for a girl singer.

She remembers being picked up in a little charabanc to go to concerts as soon as she’d finished her switchboard shifts in Fitzalan Square at weekends.

“I used to take a case to work with my done-up dresses in it. They were people’s bridesmaid’s dresses and my sister and I would alter them and trim them up with different things.

“On VE Day we did a concert in Weston Park bandstand and we had a concert there in the summer.

“There were a lot of people sitting there in deckchairs and we had them all joining in with There’ll Always Be an England.

“I had a rose in my hair and one of the songs we sang was Rose of England.”

Marjorie says that she still has all her music sheets.

One of Tommy’s friends, Fred, stayed in touch with the family and came to see how they were doing when he was on leave.

One visit would change Marjorie’s life at the age of 19. “I walked into the kitchen and there he was, tall, tanned and had just come back from the desert.” He served with Montgomery’s forces as a sergeant with a gun crew and had met the wartime commander.

“Fred took one look at me and his eyes were shining. He’d grown up and he was tanned and blue-eyed and lovely with shining hair. He was quite handsome.

“Within a short time he sought my dad’s permission to marry me. He kept visiting on weekend passes.”

The couple married in 1946. Marjorie said that she lost Fred a few years ago and he was “a fantastic husband”. He worked for the Telegraph and Star in the advertising department for many years.

They lived in Hackenthorpe, where Marjorie still lives, and had four children, three grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Looking back, Marjorie often wonders what happened to the other youngsters who worked in the Post Office during the war and said she loved reading about Ken Foster’s memories of that time.