Audrey Lewis and her young friends put on quite a show. With all the optimism of youth, they sang and danced to raise funds for the Red Cross. Concerts in the garden led to a profit of 14 shillings. And though life was hard, Audrey never stopped singing her signature song, ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again’.
How did you get involved?
“When I was 12, my friends and I decided we wanted to do our bit for the war effort by raising funds for the Red Cross. We started to produce neighbourhood concerts in our garden in Rotherham.
Mother was asked to serve cold drinks during the intervals and Dad was appointed official photographer. Dad also provided a few of his precious chicken eggs to raffle. On one occasion [he] forgot that he had them under his arm when he applauded. He smashed the lot and the audience was horrified!
Admission was a halfpenny. The queue sometimes had to wait and it meant that itchy little fingers picked at and ruined our neighbour’s well-manicured privet hedge.”
What did you do?
“My sister Sylvia was two years younger than me, tall and lanky for her age with a head of shingled, wiry hair. She insisted on doing her own party piece with a friend whose father had been blinded in the trenches of World War One. ‘Here we are again, happy as can be, all good pals and jolly good company’ … they’d sing and kick their legs high in the choreographed dances and then appeared in the most outrageous pyjama suits, always singing their favourite song, ‘It’s a Ukelele Dream Man Coming’ and holding cut-out instruments on their chests.
The children roared and shouted all the way through while my sister and her friend acted like celebrities. Final choruses, linked hands on shoulders, ended with ‘Goodnight’ and everyone joining in. No one wanted to go home.”
Any special memories?
“We once collected 14 shillings from one of our concerts and the entire cast trundled down to the Town Hall to deliver the money for the Red Cross. How disappointed we were when our names didn’t appear in the local paper the following Saturday. But it took more than that to put us off.
When my turn came to sing ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again’, my sister appeared in the background and imitated me behind my back. It was some time before I learned why the audience laughed during my rendition.”
The Joint War Organisation organised fundraising campaigns like the Penny-a-Week fund. It also accepted collections from independent efforts. During the Second World War, people on the Home Front used creative techniques to collect money for the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance. Children often led these initiatives with youthful spirit. Audrey Lewis and her friends raised money by staging local amateur concerts. Helen Anderson raised a sum of 8/- by organising a raffle in Norwich. Baby contests proved another method of ‘fun’ fundraising.
Like today, youth in the 1940s idealised and imitated actors and singers. And just as now, the stars who helped those in need earned special attention and affection. Audrey Lewis perhaps had singer Vera Lynn in mind when planning her neighbourhood concert. As ‘the Forces Sweetheart’, Lynn visited troops on the home front and overseas. A trip to entertain troops stationed in Burma assured the British public’s appreciation. As a talented and compassionate idol, Lynn’s music and voluntary work inspired youthful imitations. Find out more about pop idols and childhood pastimes.
Audrey Lewis did not belong to the Junior British Red Cross, but her volunteering spirit is characteristic of the movement. Junior British Red Cross groups first formed in the 1920s and tended to develop within schools. Because of these ties to local schools, they were often referred to as ‘Links’ groups.
During the Second World War, the evacuation of city schools had an effect on the Links as many had to be split up into smaller groups in the new locations. Nevertheless, Junior Red Cross volunteers continued to help out whenever possible, and an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 children joined during the first years of war.