Lancashire historian John Higginson is to be awarded a British Association for Local History Award for Personal Achievement in Local History. Angela Norris celebrates her friend’s remarkable local knowledge
Whenever Lancashire historian John Higginson is booked to give a talk, his audiences know they are in for a treat.
He has become a raconteur on the speakers’ circuit, known for his country tales peppered with a sprinkling of his own earthy humour and dry wit.
John’s talks, entitled What’s in John’s Box?’, feature a collection of items from the past, including wartime memorabilia.
Gas masks, air raid sirens and ration books are guaranteed to evoke memories among his older audiences, while captivating his younger ones.
But it is when he recounts colourful stories of black market trading – and the ploys used by farming families to overcome the hardship of wartime rationing - that his presentations take on an intriguing and often humorous edge. John, 79, a retired poultry farmer from Pilling, is an expert on agricultural history and one of the stalwarts of the Fylde Country Life Preservation Society, the organisation he helped to launch more than 40 years ago to keep the rural community’s heritage alive.
The society started with a small museum on a farm at Eagland Hill between Pilling and Nateby. After it expanded, new premises were sought and the society eventually relocated its vast collection of agricultural and country life artefacts to Farmer Parr’s Animal World, in Fleetwood, where it draws thousands of visitors each year.
Relics from the museum feature in John’s Box.’ But the history enthusiast also draws on his own fund of wartime childhood memories to spice up his talks, enthralling audiences with his stories of black market wheeling and dealing, including the audacious methods used by farmers to overcome the hardship of rationing.
The black market was the hushed world of bartering – buying and selling or exchanging food and goods – in contravention of rationing regulations. Within the Lancashire community, the clandestine trading of bacon, eggs and milk in exchange for goods on the black market’ was a shared secret among the farming families.
According to John, under rationing, an adult was restricted to a weekly limit of four ounces of bacon, half a pint of milk, three ounces of cheese, four ounces of margarine, two ounces of lard, three ounces of sugar and two ounces of tea (increased by half an ounce to two and a half ounces in 1940). It was meagre by today’s standards.
Fish was plentiful, so on Fridays it was common for families to eat fish.
John recalls how his mother and aunts would use their weekly visits to Fleetwood Market as an opportunity to trade bacon on the black market. The illicit bacon would be smuggled to the market across the Fleetwood to Knott End ferry in potato hampers – hand-pulled wooden carts and concealed under a layer of damsons, or vegetables. It would then be exchanged with stall-holders for goods such as sugar and flour.
Rules governing the killing of pigs and cattle were also flouted.
“You were allowed to kill two pigs per year but they always used to say in Pilling people couldn’t count!” John says. “A farmer used to tell me how he went out killing black market pigs in hen cabins, outside in fields or anywhere where he thought he wouldn’t get caught. It was a case of having to sell these because he had a family of five to feed.”
John says it wasn’t unusual for families to create a false wall in the bedrooms of their homes in order to hide their spoils. Behind this they would conceal the body of a full home-cured pig.
People concocted imaginative ways of bringing home their bacon. On one occasion a woman was spotted by a policeman pushing a child in a pram. The officer, concerned that the child was positioned too high up in the pram and in danger of toppling over, remonstrated with the mother, who was quaking in her boots. Underneath the child was a smuggled roll of bacon!
Even the local policeman was complicit in what was going on in his patch’. John recalls an amusing story about how, as a child, he was looking after the farm of a relative while his parents and family were away at a funeral, when the village bobby knocked on the door.
“Before they left, my parents said, There’s a parcel at the back of the door for policeman such and such from Great Eccleston.’ At half past two, there was a knock on the door, Oh, good afternoon, sonny, is auntie in?’
“No, they’ve gone to a funeral.’ I said. Oh, will you tell them I’ll come back tomorrow?’ he said. I told him, No, it’s all right, there’s some eggs and bacon here for you.’ You should have seen his face - he went quiet, but he still took his parcel!”
In another story, John recalls how a hapless young car mechanic was drawn into a conspiracy after being asked to repair a van belonging to a farmer. After repairing the vehicle, the apprentice was asked by the farmer if he would accompany him in his van, just to be sure it was roadworthy.
“The farmer said, I’ll give you half a crown if you come with me in case I break down again.’ So this lad thought he’d have a ride with him. They went over Cartford Bridge and carried on going till they got to Kirkham Windmill, where the van halted to a stop. The lad’s heart was in his mouth.
“The farmer turned the key, and the van set off again. Just then there was a bang at the side of the door and a policeman appeared. He said, Now then, boys, what are you up to?’ and the farmer replied, I’m taking my brother some sand to plaster his shippon.’
“He opened the van door and there was this heap of sand. The policeman said to them, Well, next time, don’t put as much in again, or I’ll summons (prosecute) you for carrying too much weight.’ They went two miles further down the road, drove straight into a barn - and there, tucked away under the sand, was half a pig!”
The wartime blackouts had an impact on egg production. “That was one of the reasons why eggs were in short supply, because we weren’t allowed to put lights on in hen cabins and if you don’t give the hens 17 hours of daylight, they don’t lay eggs,” John explains.
Despite this, the sale of hens and eggs was considered a relatively lucrative business for those who had poultry. Not all sales went on legitimately, though, some were black market sales, with hens or eggs traded for flour, sugar or other goods.
John acknowledges there are some people for whom the black market is still shrouded in secrecy and is something they would prefer to forget. Though he understands their discomfort, he points out that black market trading was driven by necessity, with families forced to eke out a living on meagre rations and dwindling resources.
“There was a shortage of machinery on the farms and a shortage of labour because all the men had gone away to fight, ” he explained.
“You only had so much food to feed your animals, so you couldn’t have a lot of stock. If you didn’t have a lot of stock, you didn’t have any money. It was a vicious circle, really.”
Because most families experienced the same level of hardship, communities helped each other out, sharing what food they had, but always mindful of an unwritten code of silence. Gradually things did get better, though rationing persisted for many years after the war ended.
John is still actively involved in The Fylde Country Life Preservation Society. He volunteers at the exhibition centre at Farmer Parr’s each week, helping to make sure the artefacts are in a good condition, as well as being on hand to deal with visitor queries.
Away from this, he also collects postcards and is a custodian of the films portraying country life produced by the late Pilling and Over Wyre historian Wilf Curwen.
As a custodian of the Over Wyre area’s rich rural heritage, and with memories of his own providing such a unique and fascinating insight into Lancashire’s wartime history, John is surely a worthy recipient of the British Association for Local History Award.