Alan Mills – Evacuees – Otley Cattle Market

War Time Memories by Crossgates resident Alan Mills, Part two


Eleven year old Alan Mills had been evacuated from Leeds to Otley: Christmas 1939 was approaching…

It was strange because there was no real sign of any war, people had began to call it the phony war. The only evidence in Otley was the total blackout. No street lights; motor vehicles had masks fitted over their headlights and pedestrians groped their way about at night with dimmed torches. Before the winter set in a search light unit was installed near the top of the Chevin, when these search lights were operated, they lit the whole town up.

It began to snow at the beginning of December. We returned home in the snow to Leeds to spend Christmas with our families. As nice as it was to have a white Christmas, it was the beginning of a long, cold winter. We travelled back to Otley on a Sammy Ledgard double decker bus. Like kids do, we were sat upstairs on the front seats. As we approached the ‘S’ bend in Bramhope the bus skidded into a snow drift and suddenly the snow was up to the top deck windows. Fortunately good driving and a slow reverse got us on our way without much delay.

I don’t remember seeing any snow ploughs on the road, maybe the drivers had all been called up but the buses together with the military lorries and other road users rolled the snow solid and flat. Motor cars and light vans ran successfully with chains fitted to each wheel. I regularly used to see a haulage      contractors by the name of Milligan pass on Leeds Road using steam driven lorries carrying coke or waste paper to the paper mill near the river in Otley. These lorries were quite unique, I don’t ever recall seeing them again.

Next to the back door at our new home was a dustbin full of water for use in case of emergency, as recommended by Air Raid Precautions. Anyway, one extremely cold morning after a particularly bad snow fall, being curious or daft, I’m not sure which, I got hold of the handle of the dustbin lid saying, ‘Let’s see if this is frozen,’ it was – solid and so were my fingers, stuck solid to the lid. With the aid of warm water from the stove, I got my fingers back but it was very painful and I had to put up with blisters and sores for weeks after.

The same morning on our way to school, we discovered the River Wharfe was frozen solid, so after school we tempted fate and walked across it.

As we entered January 1940, the frost and snow were still prevalent. We were still using the Congregational Hall as a make shift school. The frost during the day never lifted and there was no heating. Most of the teachers and pupils were clad in warm clothing but not all. We’d been evacuated during a long hot September and those who hadn’t been able to go home for Christmas, still only had summer clothing. Most of the boys had short trousers but some of the girls were still in summer dresses. It’s hard to imagine how they survived in one of the coldest winters on record – going to school in a snow storm, arriving with wet feet and coats (if they had one) and no heating to dry off. During the lessons the teachers had us doing physical jerks to get the circulation going. As if this wasn’t enough, at the end of the school day, we had to run the gauntlet of Otley Kids from the next door local school. This turned into a nightly snowball fight and although we were outnumbered, we never backed off and gave as good as we got.

February saw the snow beginning to thaw and with that came the inevitable flooding. The River Wharfe overflowed into the nearby cattle market. My unedifying memory of this is seeing a woman riding a cow out of the flooded stalls – the cow seemed quite content with this farmers wife as jockey!

Mothballs & Mad Bulls

To move on further into the fascinations of wartime Otley, I remember there was one character who roamed around wearing three old raincoats with a battered trilby on his head complimented by straw stuffed in his boots. He always carried a thick polished stick with a piece of rag tied around one end, which people said was either symbolic of his story unravelling or maybe just denoting he was a member of the Vagrants Union.

It didn’t take long for some of the evacuuees to start taking the mickey out of the poor bloke. This always resulted in him bawling and shouting whilst banging his stick on the pavement and then fumbling about in his raincoat pockets, before fishing out a hand full of mothballs and pelting the kids with them- hence his nick name, Mothballs.. As we settled in Otley, we all began to understand him a bit more, he was just a harmless eccentric and the derison turned to pity, we often used to give him sweets and little gifts.

Approaching mid-June 1940 and it’s back to the cattle market – a regular hangout for us. At the far end there was a new builiding which was used by butchers to hold the animals before they went to slaughter. We were having a snoop round when one of the farmers came to move us on, ‘clear off, there’s a mad bull inside and they’re bringing it out soon.’ Well, we thought this is going to be worth watching. There was a high farm cart nearby which was to become our ringside grandstand. Sure enough the sliding doors opened and the

He had a sack over his head, which blindfolded him, a rope through his nose ring and a harness round his body which were each held firmly by two farmers. He looked 2-3 years old and was a shaggy, sandy looking Highland cattle breed with a wide spread of horns. Maybe he had some kind of animal instinct or premonition as to what was in store for him, as he sensed the daylight and the market smells he went beserk. Raising up and down on his hind legs, then plunging down and rolling over and over, casting aside his two minders, one of whom ran and leaped in the cart with us. In it’s frenzy the bull somehow tossed the sack off it’s head and charged towards a watching ring of farmers, who all scattered but the bull homed in on one individual and gave chase across the now deserted market square. This fellow was no slouch but the bull was gaining on him and practically breathing down his neck, as he lowered his head to toss the poor bloke, the bull stepped on his own rope which was dangling from his nose. We’d never seen anything like it, the bull virtually cartwheeled head over heels coming to a bemused stop in a spread position. Looking quite shaken he began to regain his legs, some farmers approached with a rope net, but the bull wasn’t finished yet. He broodily retreated towards a small enclosure about five feet high, while he found his senses. This turned out to be where all the slurry from the cowsheds was dumped. As the farmers got closer the bull took a running jump over the wall and landed waist deep in the slurry, creating a right old stink! You could smell it all over Otley.

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