Look Back in Time: St Neots in 1945

Farming was the main employment in St Neots in 1945

Farming was the main employment in St Neots in 1945 - Credit: Archant

People all around St Neots organised VE commemorations and stay-at-home parties, but it is hard to imagine life in this area 75 years ago.

The old Barretts store in St Neots

The old Barretts store in St Neots - Credit: Archant

St Neots was a much smaller rural town with the river on the west. The main A45 linking Birmingham and the east coast ports ran through the town with its Market Square and High Street family shops, such as Barretts.

Thursday was the highlight of the week with auctions near the common, livestock auctions in New Street and a weekly market in the Market Square.

The population of St Neots and Eynesbury was around 5,000 and it had its own police station in New Street (now the museum). Across the river were a few houses along the roads surrounded by fields until the settlement of Eaton Socon was reached with its church, butchers, bakers and the village green where Cotton and Bamford’s post office and general shop stocked everything from postage stamps, food and furniture.

At the back of the shop the telephone exchange, manually operated, linked villagers with the outside world. Flour was milled at the River Mill which kept local bakers supplied. While electricity was supplied by Barford Power Station, there were still many outside toilets and water came from pumps and wells in the garden, especially in the villages.

Eaton Socon, in the county of Bedfordshire (population of the whole parish 2,500) had its own police station near Bushmead Road and Bedfordshire police would stay for two years while learning traffic management on the A1 (Great North Road). Petrol for cars and other vehicles could be found at Colliers Garage near the windmill – kept supplied with petrol due to the proximity of the army camp at Mill Hill Road. Cars had special blackout fittings on their headlights and milestones were removed so travellers had to carry maps to have any idea where they were. But life went on and pubs such as the White Horse stayed open for thirsty travellers and residents.

The main occupation of this area was farming and trees had been blown up at the beginning of the war and hedges removed to make more land usable for farming which was becoming more mechanical. Films taken by farmers during the war show Land Army girls and prisoners-of-war working in the fields with horses and carts, tractors and early combine harvesters. The Italian and German POWs were held at purpose-built camps in Huntingdon Street in St Neots and Ducks Cross in Colmworth, and an adapted army camp in Mill Hill Road in Eaton Ford.

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The town armed itself with Pill Boxes (one still remains in Priory Road) and Home Guard platoons were set up in case of invasion.

Firemen were trained for fires when bombs fell, air raid shelters were built in gardens and men worked hard on allotments to put food on the table. Rationing came in during the war and provisions were short but there was less hardship in this area as milk was delivered twice daily from the farms, meat was more plentiful and there was plenty of vegetables from the market gardening.

Strangers to the area during the war included hundreds of evacuee children - those arriving at St Neots came to the Railway Station and then to the Market Square, while those in Eaton Socon arrived at Bedford Railway Station and then travelled by bus to Eaton Socon Green.

Other evacuees were Walthamstow School which arrived with their teachers and stayed in a large house in Eaton Socon, and families from Dover arrived in Wyboston when their paper mill was bombed, re-opening our paper mills to provide much needed paper for the war effort.

The extra children boosted the school population so much that schooling was part time. Children carried gas masks and were encouraged to knit scarves to keep soldiers warm as well as squares for blankets. Ladies voluntary war work included knitting fingerless gloves and balaclavas for the WRVS. There was always something to do for the war effort.

Other strangers were expectant mothers from London who came to Paxton Park to have their babies born safely in the countryside. Gravel was dug from the fields in Eaton Socon to make new runways for aircraft and then filled in with ash from the power station.

All these newcomers boosted the local economy and altered life for the residents in the area. Italians, Germans, Land Army girls, soldiers and evacuees changed the lives of local residents. Some stayed and married bringing new ideas to the town and nearby villages.

Different times, different thoughts, different lives. While families waited for the soldiers to return, the residents of the area celebrating VE day in 1945 had seen and felt new experiences and they would be richer in their lives in many ways.