Ethel Ridley was born Ethel Pew in 1928. She lived in South Yardley before moving to Sparkbrook with her mother and father. She had a grown-up sister and a brother who was five years older than her. She was evacuated from Stafford Road School with her classmates after a practice the week before to Pershore, Worcestershire but only stayed until Easter 1940 because she didn’t get on with her host and wanted to go home.
The house opposite their’s had been bombed, and her schooling back in Birmingham was constantly interrupted by air raids. Ethel was desperate to get out of Birmingham and so, when her mother told her about a boarding camp called Pipewood she was very eager to go. She went in September 1940, and she remembers the day being lovely and sunny. When she got there, she was eased by the sight of the girls who had arrived earlier in the year happily playing outside.
Ethel gives an amazing description of the boarding camp:
She really enjoyed her time there, except for if her dormitory were the third of three to get into the ablution block in the morning for a shower – the water would be stone cold.
She wrote to her family once a week during English lessons. All of these letters were censored and she was confused when she had to completely re-write one long letter telling her sister what a brilliant Christmas she had had (the staff wanted to keep the original letter for their files). Her mother, father and brother visited often, and apologised on one occasion when they couldn’t bring any sweets. Ethel didn’t mind, but everything became clear when her Christmas parcel that year was absolutely stuffed with chocolate – her parents had been saving it all up for one present. When parents did visit they would put on shows and tell them what they’d been doing. When her sister got pregnant, she was sent to live with her then in-laws in Ireland, but came to see Ethel with the baby once she was born.
Her mother and father actually liked the area around the camp so much that they rented a cottage nearby in which her mother lived. Her father lived there at the weekends, staying with Ethel’s sister (once the baby was born) in their other home in Sparkbrook so that he could carry on with his job as a postman with the Post Office. At this point Ethel was fourteen, and old enough to leave the grounds in threes without the teachers, so she would go to the cottage to see whether her mother had left her a cake or bun. Although her family lived so close, she was still only allowed to go and see them on a Saturday (except for visiting Sundays), and had to be back for teatime on the Saturday.
When she turned fourteen her parents let her stay on until fifteen, at which point she was very sad to leave. Although she went back to the camp for Guides, it was no longer the same and she missed the companionship she had had at Pipewood entirely. She made only one really good friend in the village, and was happy when she found this again after joining the WRENs. Her history with Pipewood didn’t finish at fifteen; Ethel went back to work there for a number of years after both her children were old enough to go to school. It was strange for her going back into a dormitory that was no longer hers.