I want to start with a cardboard box and a story. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Arnold Long and the other children in his class were issued gas masks in brown cardboard boxes, shown how to fit and wear them and instructed to carry them at all times. Long was born in 1931 and grew up north of Manchester, although he spent some of the war evacuated to rural North Wales. Like most British children in the Second World War his encounters with Civil Defence and the quasi-military discipline of gas mask tests and air raid drills came from teachers at school and was enforced with the same discipline. Writing for the BBC People’s War project website in 2005, Long recalled a gas mask test carried out by his teacher Mr Bullock:

We carried our gas masks everywhere we went. Or, we were supposed to. I had discovered that my gas mask case was useful for all sorts of things. One day, to my absolute horror, Mr Bullock gathered us all together in the school hall and announced that we were going to have gas mask practice! ‘Put on your gas masks’, he said, smiling.

(Long 2005 [NB People’s War sources are listed in a separate bibliography]) The girls in Long’s class put on their masks and blew air out of the sides, making the farting noises that entertained virtually all gas-mask-wearing British children during this period. A few of the boys joined in, and of those who hesitated, Long was singled out and summoned to the front of the classroom, where he was ordered to open his gas mask case:

I had drawn Spitfires all over the outside of the box. Mr Bullock proceeded to gently open the grubby box … He put his hand inside and drew out a screwed up Beano, bits of half carved planes, some string, several lumps of rusty shrapnel and an old tennis ball. Last of all, a dried up bit of bread.

(Long 2005) 2Long received a blow with a cane across his fingertips, and the class was exhorted: ‘We must ALWAYS carry our gas masks’. His treasured shrapnel, comics and model planes were confiscated, and he speculated that ‘Maybe Mr Bullock read the Beano, or swapped shrapnel?’ His classmates were more sympathetic, and at playtime they helped to make good his losses: ‘Douglas Allen gave me a few lumps of his shrapnel and Edith Strickland gave me one of her immaculate Beanos. It was called “the wartime spirit!”’ (Long 2005).