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The Risdene Echo, June 2004
Rushden's Preparations for War – Reg Leach

I have no record of the exact date, but it was on a grey, damp Sunday in the late spring or early summer 1939.  Preparations for war were being made in Rushden and the town’s emergency services were to be tested.  It was assumed that bombs had fallen.  Alfred Street School had been designated as the first‑aid post.  Watching and learning from the exercise was the Council Chairman, Mr.E.A.Sugars JP, Police Superintendent Williams (Wellingborough) and Superintendent G.W.Timpson of the Rushden St.John Ambulance Division.

I was one of the 300 to 400 ‘casualties’, and one of about 30 injured as an explosion in John White’s Shirley Road factory.  Most of us were on the scene of the disaster at nine o’clock and we whiled away the next hour chatting in small groups.

The first sign of anything happening was the arrival of a motor trailer pump, which was judged to have extinguished a small fire at the rear of the factory.  A little later, two wardens appeared.  While one stood at the door talking to those of us who were casualties, the other was directed by a man who wore a label to say that his leg was ‘shot off’, to the factory telephone which was apparently unscathed despite the fact that the factory had been practically demolished.

It was not long after these two wardens had disappeared that another turned up and asked us all what we were suffering from.  He, too, went away and we thought that something might soon happen.

It was about quarter past ten when ambulance men and members of a rescue party entered the factory.  After the person in charge of this group had noted that I was labelled ‘Internal haemorrhage in stomach, patient vomits’, my instant removal was ordered.  A green stretcher was placed on the floor and I placed myself on it.  I was carefully tucked up by a pleasant young lady and told to place my head on one side.  Then began a delightful up-and-down movement as I was carried into Shirley Road.

As I expected, crowds surged round to see what kind of ‘casualty’ I was, but I was soon hidden from their view in an ambulance.  I did not have long to wait before other patients joined me and we passed away the time in light-hearted chatter with the pretty ambulance attendant who had been placed in charge of us.

The ensuing journey was not exactly comfortable, but it might have been worse.  There was a large crowd outside Alfred Street Schools, and all seemed delighted when they saw ‘casualties’, supposedly suffering from ghastly wounds, sitting up and looking around.  “You poor dear,” said one old lady as I was carried into the schools.

The nurses in the treatment room were most pleasant, both to look at and to speak to.  One young lady asked me if I was “quite comfortable” as she bent close over me while attaching a label – on the doctor’s instructions – “urgent case for hospital”.  I was taken into the central hall and hidden behind a screen.  That was ten minutes to eleven.

I sat there, thinking it could not be long before being given some expert medical care, but that was not to be.  It was whispered throughout the building that there was not enough stretchers or blankets, and so everyone but myself was told to go home.  Men who were supposed to have no legs and many with unmentionable wounds rose and left me ‘bleeding to death’.

At twenty-five minutes past eleven, just over half-an-hour after I had been placed on the floor, rumours became rife that eight stretcher cases needed to fill vacancies at the Sanatorium.  I cheered up on hearing this, and turned over on my side to see what was happening.  At five minutes to twelve I was moved a short distance and put down on a different part of the floor.  After another ten minutes waiting my stretcher was lifted and carried to a single-decker United Counties bus.  I looked round and noted that two young ladies were already there.  Every now and then another stretcher arrived until, at twenty minutes past twelve, there were nine ‘casualties’ in the bus.

At long last we moved, and crawled into the Sanatorium at half past twelve, by which time most of us had been lying ‘Seriously Injured’ for two and a half hours.  Dr.Crane made notes about our condition, our names, looked thoughtful, and went away.  Then the bus took us back to Alfred Street.  The engine was switched off, and the driver left.  All was silent.  No one left, nor spoke, and no one came.  It seemed we had been abandoned.

I thought about it for a time – why was no‑one caring for me any longer?  Then I suddenly understood – I had been bleeding internally for about three hours and so by now I must surely be regarded as ‘dead’.  So I got up and walked home.

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