Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections, September 3rd, 1939

14th January 2010

As I’m sure you are aware, at the end of each year, we ask our contributors to look back over the previous twelve months and share their key moments with us in a feature we call ‘Shadows & Reflections’. They run in December but today we make an exception.

The piece below is written by a gentleman called Francis Boyce. Francis has written for us once before, a remembrance piece entitled ‘Over the Water’, which you can read HERE. It was one of our personal favourites of last year so we went back and asked Francis if he would like to give us his Shadows & Reflections. Only thing is, in the letter I sent him, I failed to explain the concept properly and Francis sent back his thoughts and memories of his childhood in Liverpool, in the year 1939.

It’s a beautiful piece of writing and it’s an honour for us to publish it. Word has just reached us that Francis is at home in bed recovering from a bad fall. Our thoughts go out to you Sir, get well soon.

by Francis Boyce


It was very inconsiderate of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler to kick-start the Second World War on Sunday the 3rd of September 1939. If they had waited until the end of October, hundreds of children living in the Vauxhall district of Liverpool (and indeed in other parts of the city) would have continued to enjoy the thrills, excitement and pure joy of Saturday matinees at their local cinemas. But during the first week of war, local cinemas were ordered to close (albeit on a temporary basis), and children’s Saturday matinees were cancelled for the duration. On the Saturday afternoon prior to Chamberlain’s announcement that peace in Europe was no longer an option, hundreds of excited children from the neighbourhood sat on the hard wooden benches of our local cinema, The Gem, waiting for the start of the first episode of a new six-part serial, The Mark of Zorro.

The Gem was one of half-a-dozen cinemas in the Vauxhall area. In spite of its name the building had no claim to distinctive architectural features. On Saturday afternoons from one-o-clock we queued outside, carefully guarding our four- pence entrance fees, and joined the pushing and crushing to get to the head of the queue, which was marshalled by two pensioned ‘Firemen’ who we quickly pushed aside when the doors opened. A smell of urine greeted us when we entered The Gem’s wide auditorium.

As the cinema began to fill, fights broke out over rival claims to the better seats, Empty lemonade bottles were rolled down the raked floor where they lodged below the screen, orange peel was thrown indiscriminately at other children. But, in spite of the anarchy that prevailed throughout the children’s matinees, I regarded The Gem as our ‘Cinema Paradiso’ although I realised this only after I had seen the 1988 Italian film of that name.

The first episode of Zorro ended to much cheering and shouting. The cinema lights came on and we stampeded towards the doors and into the street where the Walls ice-cream man and his tricycle, were quickly surrounded by a braying mob demanding halfpenny or penny ‘Wallies’ Then off we ran home with our ice creams, imitating the fencing skills of our latest celluloid hero. None of us knew, (how could we?) that our world was about to be turned upside down, and that we were destined never to find out if Zorro had escaped from the crocodile infested river into which he had been thrown, by a group of Mexican bandits.


The historic Sunday morning that followed was warm and sunny. People made their way to the parish church to attend the ten-o-clock Mass, pausing to talk to each other in quiet but agitated tones. They looked apprehensive as they knelt and prayed in response to the words of the Mass. The priest announced that he would not be preaching a sermon that morning, something that would normally elicit a spontaneous sigh of relief from the congregation, instead their anxiety increased. Some lowered their heads in their prayer books, others threaded rosaries through their fingers with increasing speed. Mass ended with the priest exhorting his parishioners to return home as quickly as possible as the Prime Minister was due to make an important announcement on the BBC wireless at eleven-fifteen. The church emptied in seconds.

Few people in the neighbourhood had wireless sets, but due to my father’s enthusiasm, we benefited from a home-made version he had assembled with the help of instructions provided by a weekly wireless magazine. My parents spread the word that neighbours would be welcome to come and listen to Chamberlain’s message. As they arrived I noticed how unusually solemn they were, and how quietly they nudged their way into our front room to get as close to the wireless as they could. I still retain the memory of that group of men and women clustered like phantoms around our wireless, anxious to hear every word of Chamberlain’s announcement, and realising that if there were to be another war it would mean a return of the horrors they had endured in the Great War of 1914-18.

Stories of that war were often recalled in the family. My mother’s brothers aged 18 and 24 were killed within two days of each other at the Battle of the Somme. My father had taken part in the Battle of Jutland serving on the HMS Malaya. There were men living in the neighbourhood who still bore the scars from wounds inflicted in the war.

The reality of the Second World War began to unfold. The closure of schools brought immense joy to the children, compensating for the loss of Zorro. Schooling was provided only twice a week, a morning and an afternoon, not in the school, but in the homes of selected ‘respectable’ families.’

The evacuation scheme led to an exodus of children being despatched to North Wales and Cheshire. Fewer children in the streets meant quieter streets and more space to play for those who opted out of the scheme. Increasingly, street games reflected the children’s awareness of wartime activity. Fed by wireless reports, by cinema newsreels, and in comics, games became dog-fights between Spitfires and Junkers in the air, and sea battles between the British and German navies. Our everyday vocabularies quickly assimilated the language and concepts associated with the war: ‘ration books’, ‘gas-masks,’ ‘blitz’ ‘air-raid shelters’, ‘sirens’ warning of the approach of enemy aircraft, and the relief that came with the ‘all-clear’. We learnt about the dangers from incendiary bombs and Molotov cocktails. In May 1941 incendiary bombs destroyed the parish infant and junior schools, and a Molotov Cocktail badly damaged the nearby Church of St.Martins-in-the-fields, killing two RAF men, the staff of a Barrage Balloon unit in the church grounds. An unexploded bomb embedded in a pavement just yards from The Gem, threatened not only our Cinema Paradisio but the lives of people living in surrounding streets. For two weeks the unexploded bomb remained a danger and people were forbidden to return to their homes. Meanwhile we ate and slept in the homes of various relatives who lived in comparatively safe areas of the city. People also found shelter in school buildings and parish halls in the suburbs. The devastation caused by the systematic bombing of Liverpool’s docklands by the Luftwaffe led to a second evacuation scheme for children which was implemented in June 1941.

And so it was that I found myself along with 30 other children of my age in a Staffordshire mining town called Hednesford where I stayed until July 1942 with a kind and caring family. Returning home I found houses that were still windowless, bomb craters where there had once been factories, and many of our neighbours moved to other districts of the city. Our home- made wireless set had disappeared together with my three-wheeler bike. But The Gem was undamaged and in spite of the devastation was advertising the showing of the film “Went the Day Well?”, now regarded as a classic portrayal the heroism of ordinary British people in time of war. In retrospect, it seemed an apt choice for the management of The Gem to make. Zorro however, never returned.