Margaret Higgs and Iris Lancaster: Growing up in wartime Oxford

Margaret Ann Higgs (née Simpson) was born in 1936 in Luther Street, just south of Speedwell Street in Oxford and was brought up there. Her father was a college servant at New College, Oxford. He had been a driver in World War One and was sent to Gallipoli where he drove ammunition trucks from trench to trench. While having some rest in Egypt, he met T.E. Lawrence [Lawrence of Arabia] who asked him to be his driver. Unfortunately, the army would not release him so he had to go back to Gallipoli. Between the two world wars he drove cars for William Morris both to different parts of the country and to the continent. He was delivering a car in Germany when World War Two started. The people to whom he was delivering the car helped him to escape back to England.

Margaret remembers Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain speaking at the start of World War Two. She started at South Oxford School at the age of three and remembers having to go out on to the playground and down into a shelter. A gas mask had to be worn and she found sitting with this on very claustrophobic. Her first gas mask was a Mickey Mouse mask, but this was followed by an awful black one. She also remembers going to Albion Place, off Speedwell Street, to the Ministry of Food office to get ration books. Her father was the only one who had butter; the rest of the family had margarine. If they wanted jam, then they had to have it without butter or margarine. After waking up the students at New College, her father would return home for his breakfast and his children used to stand around him hoping for a little taste of butter.

Margaret remembered seeing tanks and lorries parked all the way down St Aldates as they waited to go to France for the D-Day landing. Towards the end of the war she remembered seeing planes going across Oxford towing gliders for Arnhem. The sky was black with them and they took ages to go past.

The war years were carefree days for Margaret and her friends. They often played outdoors and were out all day long at times. They had the freedom to go all over Oxford. A popular place was Hinksey Lakes where they would swim and eat picnics, and be there all day. She remembered walking up to Cumnor passing on way the German prisoner of war camp at Harcourt Hill, North Hinksey. This later became an Italian prisoner of war camp. There was virtually no traffic and no danger for children in those days.

Margaret became a teacher and married Rex Higgs in 1961. They had two sons. She died in October 2019, her husband having predeceased her.

Iris Isabel Mary Lancaster (née Burt) was born in Oxford in1926. She was brought up in Hayfield Road, north Oxford, a continuation of Walton Street. Her father was a college porter.

Iris was 13 when World War Two broke out. On that Sunday morning the family sat round the radio and heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain telling them that the country was at war with Germany. She remembers air raid shelters being built but her family sat under a table under the stairs if there was an air raid siren. No-one seemed to panic. One bomb fell in a field in Ferry Hinksey Road, off Botley Road. It was thought that it was a German plane unloading its bombs because the crew couldn’t drop them elsewhere.

Her father’s family in London were far worse off than they were. Two of Iris’s treasured possessions were a brown teapot and glass vase, which were found under the stairs when a relative’s house was flattened. The family fortunately were safe.

The blackout did not make much difference to their lives as they did not go out after sunset as everything was so dark. They just accepted the situation they were in.

Iris married Peter Lancaster in 1949 and had a daughter. Iris died in February 2015, her husband having pre-deceased her.

Tony Rogerson interviewed both Margaret and Iris on 4 December 2013.