Betty Vernon has spent her life in Port Erin and was aged 14 when WWII started. Her father was an engine driver with Isle of Man Railways for 40 years and served in the Home Guard during the war. One brother, Ernest Crellin, served on Mona's Queen and sadly was killed at Dunkirk in May 1940, aged 21. Her other brother served in the British Army and survived the war.
Betty worked for the Women's Land Army at Knockaloe Farm, Patrick, during WWII as a land girl. During the war, Betty was allowed one weekend off every two weeks and would sometimes travel to Douglas for dances at the Villa Marina or Palais de Dance (a popular ballroom in Strand Street). She met John at the Villa. He was training at Jurby as a wireless operator and they started to meet weekly. They would come in by train, John from Ramsey, Betty from Port Erin, and would walk along the Promenade past all the Internment Camps to the Derby Castle. Last train back to Port Erin was 11pm.
Betty and John got engaged in early 1942, after which John left Jurby to become a wireless operator and gunner on Wellington bombers. They did not see each other for three and a half years, and corresponded by letters, which often took six to eight weeks to arrive, partly due to censorship. They were reunited in August 1946 and got married in September 1947, almost five years after becoming engaged.
This conversation explores Betty's life during WWII and makes some comparisons with life during the Coronavirus pandemic:
This news article shows King George VI meeting the Manx Women's Land Army at Knockaloe in July 1945
Q. How has your life changed in the last few months?
A. I was in lockdown like most people over 70. My son did my shopping, and I had very good next door neighbours. There was more cleaning to do, since I couldn’t have a cleaner in the house, and I missed seeing relatives and friends.
Q. What was the food situation like in WWII?
A. There was rationing of meat, sugar, butter, jam, tea, sweets, and chocolate (from Jan 1940), and clothing later. Quantities allowed were small. (Note: adults were given ration books with coupons. You had to register at a shop, which would be provided with enough food for regular customers).
Vegetables and most fruit were not rationed, nor were sausages. There were no lemons or bananas.
Q. When you worked as a land girl at Knockaloe Farm, you mentioned that you lived in Peel & had to cycle there during the blackout.
A. Yes. That was difficult during the winter in the dark, both morning and evening, since my bike lights had little illumination due to the blackout. Fortunately, there were very few cars, because not many people owned them in those days and petrol was almost impossible to get for civilians.
Q. When people ask me, what WWII was like for civilians compared with Lockdown today, I reply: ‘It depends whether you were bombed or not.’ Were you ever bombed?
A. Not directly. As you know civilians were not bombed in the IOM. But I did make a trip to see my uncle in Coventry after a big air raid, and to meet my in-laws for the first time in Chester. Coventry was terrible. Two weeks previously, the old Cathedral had been bombed to smithereens, and it was still a horrible scene of devastation. I then travelled to Chester and got the boat home from Liverpool.
Q. Were you free to travel in WWII?
A. Yes. There was a good bus and train service, and, as mentioned, you could travel to the UK by boat. In that respect, you had more freedom to travel than people here have had in recent months.
Q. What was shopping like in WWII?
A. Unlike Lockdown, all the IOM shops were open during WWII. Of course, they were different then - lots of small shops and no supermarkets in Port Erin. There were drapers, who sold materials and bedding; two or three butchers; sweet shops; fruiterers and greengrocers. Nicholson’s sold fish and vegetables. Many shops did home deliveries.
Q. What did people do for entertainment in WWII?
A. As explained, I did not have a lot of free time, and those of us in the Land Army were tough girls who worked hard. But the dance halls were all open, as were the cinemas - many in Douglas and one in Port Erin. There were cafes but not many restaurants since few people could afford them. All the pubs were open, unlike during Lockdown, but they were for men. I and my friends did not visit pubs - it was not ‘respectable’ for women to do so, and I did not have my first glass of sherry until I was over 30 years old.
Q. What was the community spirit like in Port Erin in WWII compared with today?
A. There is a much bigger population on the Island and in Port Erin today compared with WWII, when most of the young men were away. The Island is different today compared with the 1940s. In those days in Port Erin, you knew almost everyone, and met them as you walked or shopped in the village. There was a great community spirit. I have lived in the same house for 43 years, have a lovely couple from Newcastle next door, and many nice neighbours on my street. Community spirit in Port Erin is good but not as strong as in the 1940s.
Q. What did people do for a living then, with the younger men away?
A. The tourism trade was the main source of jobs in the summer, but much tourist accommodation was used for internees in WWII. There were still shopkeepers, doctors, nurses, teachers, government workers, coal merchants, farmers, butchers who delivered, milkmen, fishermen, as well as armed forces stationed here. And a lot more women did paid or volunteer work during the War than before it.
Q. Unlike today there was no NHS. What happened when you got sick?
A. The old Noble's Hospital was there and the Jane Crookall Maternity Home. GPs were different and had more time. They would make house visits and Dr Brennan would sit by my mother's bed and talk to her when she was ill.
Q. It must have been a great moment when your fiancé returned.
A. Yes, it was. He came back in March 1946, having served mainly in Aden, Cairo, and Germany, becoming a Warrant Officer, with expertise in wireless and gunnery. After leaving the RAF in 1946, he worked at Ronaldsway, on the customer side and spent his whole career there. He worked for British Airways, Cambrian, and Manx Airlines, and kept the same uniform. When he switched airlines, all he had to do was get a new cap. We were married for more than 50 years.
Thank you very much, Betty, for this fascinating conversation. You have a wonderful memory and have been a pleasure to talk to. Your memories will be of great interest to others, since they contrast two very different crisis situations.
Betty's husband, John, pictured right