Got leave from 2 to 10 p.m. so went off with two bombardiers to Ashton Under Lyne to the scene of explosion. The distance (about 6 miles) was covered by tram, one town joining another in an indistinguishable manner. Around the destroyed factory the windows of houses and factories had been blown out of their frames and disclosed miserable-looking front parlours where you couldn’t swing a cat. A thunder-storm came up and it rained cats and dogs. After perching in various porches, we squeezed into a returning tram and got back to Oldham where with great difficulty we found an eating house open (unlike towns where there is a larger upper class) and had a good feed of ham and eggs, toast and fruit, 2/3. Returned to camp about 7.30 and then strolled off into the country. What a difference! – although probably the least typical of English country one could find. Still, the rain had cleared the air, the fields were a soft green in the sunset and the distance was all aglow with colour.
[Note – the Ashton-under-Lyne munitions explosion was caused by a fire at the Hooley Hill Rubber and Chemical Works. Forty-three people were killed, including 23 employees of the plant, and nine children from the surrounding area who were returning home from school. Over 120 people were hospitalised. The explosion devastated most of the surrounding area. A crater of approximately 90 feet by 36 feet across and 5 feet deep was left where 5 tons of TNT had been stored. Today a sculpture in memory of those who died can be found in Henry Square, Ashton-under-Lyne, near the swimming pool were a child was killed from falling glass when the roof was blown in. The image below is sourced from a website dedicated to Greater Manchester in the First World War.]
Went to Oldham again last night and ran around the central portion on a tram. To give an idea of the industry here – whilst we were grazing horses our corporal amused himself counting the factory chimneys; he reached 250 before he got tangled up; you can’t see more than a couple of miles for smoke.
Nine of our gunners as well as all our drivers are going straight over to France. The sky is never free from smoke and there is an acrid smell in the air which seems to be bad for the throat. Yesterday we heard a distant explosion and from today’s paper see there was a munitions disaster a few miles away at Ashton Under Lyne. The beer here is very light and the supply much restricted. It was jolly getting all your letters. This is a small camp for N.Z. Artillery, and well appointed. Life in these towns has to my mind reached the limit of hopelessness. What will please you most is that I am happy in this camp, dismal as its situation; so if things progress in the same ratio, I shall in the firing line have reached a sort of apotheosis of hilarity. Have just had some fried eggs with W. at canteen (this is a true personal touch) and watched the sun setting over the smoke stacks (touch of nature). Tobacco is unfortunately dear here and proportionately horrible.
Went into Oldham this evening for a couple of hours and was appalled at the appearance and conditions of life. You would go about in tears. The only men apart from Tommies on leave (dwarfs) are cripples and death-heads and the degradation of many of the women young and old, and the grime and filth of the poor street urchins, is horrible.
In camp again – Chadderton. When I thought this was a brighter place than Birmingham I hadn’t seen the miles and miles of factories, their chimneys threatening the skies. The camp is on the outskirts of working peoples’ quarters of a squalid description where we were cheeked by bold-faced factory girls. All these thousands of girls and women go about with heavy shawls or blankets thrown over their heads and shoulders and wooden clogs that clatter on the cobble stones. Have to hand in our gold and get notes. Get 4 days leave and pass to London shortly. Leave within 5 miles, every night not on duty. Just in bed in broad daylight, although the clock says 9.15. Am going to read over your letters again and then try to sleep for the first time for almost 40 hours. A lovely afternoon and the chimneys don’t look so bad in the sun. All the N.C.O.s lose one stripe – just to cheer them up. There is something almost terrifying in the size of these towns. Oldham close by has about 200,000 inhabitants and is only a sort of left wing to Manchester. However we have a glimpse of a pretty little valley with an old church in it and I think a river or canal – will explore later.
After dawn evident we were getting into manufacturing country. At about 4 a.m. found ourselves under the immense covered-in grimy station of Birmingham. We were then marched out through some of the main streets of this great, grim city, a contrast to what we saw of Glorious Devon. All was cold, imposing, formal – treeless – the sky seems to be sun-proof – the air has a peculiar mustiness about it that I think is best described as gassey. There were stately buildings, great shops, factories, statues etc., the streets well-paved – everything solid looking efficient and unappealing. Of course the streets were deserted at that hour but the sight of women driving newspaper carts etc. and women porters at the station, told of the effects of war. The bread in England is now only partly flour. On one shop I saw the sign “Horse Flesh”. What men you see in mufti are shocking specimens.
Great heavens! We have travelled about 20 miles through Birmingham – black – black – black – miles of blackened houses all built in terraces and forests of chimneys towering into the smoking sky towards the glimmering shilling which I suppose is the sun – a mass of weird retorts, overhead cranes – intersecting canals of muddy water ploughed by endless horse-drawn barges. One inextricable tangle of works, ways and dismal dwelling places. By the way, I cannot get it out of my head that we are running down-hill all the time, the trains go so fast and so smoothly.
Now at Stafford. A noteworthy feature of this part of the country, besides the absence of large hills, is the red soil. It was so in Devon, “Rich red loam for the plough”. I find I am not so well versed in the English trees as I could wish. If one could only get a month’s roaming with someone to explain everything! For many miles now the country has been gently rolling land, rich in pasture with slow grassy-banked steams so unlike our shingly little brawlers; with cattle about and peaceful-looking old homes, some of them thatched and all askew with eld. Alderley & Wilmslow – lovely little places with fine churches. The fields are studded over with oaks, copper beaches, etc. – country flattish – at least some hills in the distance; we are in Cheshire. You look out of one window and see some enormous modern contrivance, then out of the other you see “Bulls Head Inn” or the like. The English houses are equipped with a surprising number of chimney. They must have small rooms and a fireplace for each. We are nearing a large town heralded by a chimney about a mile high. “Woodrow’s Hat Factory”, Stockport.
Manchester: Seas of slates, colossal railway station.
Alas, the camp is near!
Detrained at Manchester and marched about a mile, then the N.W. & Midland, which is largely manned (or womaned) by Lancashire lasses in blue dungaree overalls and long trousers. They all have the broad dialect. Now moving off to camp about 12 miles.
After dark we passed through Bridgewater, Taunton, Bristol, Gloucester. We are in 3rd class carriages which are almost as comfortable as 1st class in N.Z. The food problem seems to be acute enough seeing that stuff is dearer than in N.Z., even beer and cigarettes formerly so cheap here. Have noticed women acting in male capacities – tram conductors etc. There are soldiers and sailors everywhere. Just stopped at Cheltenham – the names recall English history; but the confounded darkness!