Tuesday, 15 February 2011

World War II: An Evacuee's Memories

Like my last post, this is another piece of social history.

My very good friend Anne who died recently, also wrote to my girls with her memories of being an evacuee. It provides a fascinating glimpse of what it was like from the perspective of the children involved. I am posting it with the kind permission of her family.

I was six years old when the war started in September 1939 and lived with my mother and father in Dagenham, Essex. I was an only child.

I went to a small infant school in an old building. This was later used as a mortuary and was never used as a school again.

Being an only child my parents decided that I should join the evacuation scheme of my school to hopefully make sure that I should be safe.

I remember waking up very early (on what I now know was the Friday before war was declared on the Sunday). It was still very dark as I walked to school with my mother and father where we sat at our desks awaiting what would happen. It must have been very hard for the parents who had no idea where we were going, or how long before they saw us again. Neither did they know what the war was going to be like for them. 

We were taken on buses to Dagenham Dock, where there were various paddle steamers waiting for us. I went on the “Royal Daffodil” with my school friends.

I do not remember the actual journey apart from the pretty blue and mauve cups of milk we were given. We travelled along the Thames and then north to Lowestoft where we spent the night in a school or village hall. There was straw on the floor to sleep on and I was on a middle step with someone above me and someone below me on their steps. I remember thinking that I hoped no-one would roll off their step!

Next day we were billeted with different families. I went with a girl called May to live with an elderly lady called Mrs Rowe who lived in Beccles, Suffolk with her grown up son. I remember little of this period. It was a strange time called the “phoney war” when nothing much happened and it must have seemed a bit pointless having the children away from home for seemingly no reason. So, after about 7 months I returned home. By that time my mother was working in the basement of the local civic centre preparing for a sort of communication centre which would plot the bombs and incidents in the borough once the war started in earnest. so I went to live with an aunt and uncle (also in Dagenham) and went to school with my two cousins. I spent weekends with my parents when they were not working.

After a few months there was a second wave of evacuation when there were signs of the war becoming more serious and I was sent away again.

This time we went by train from Paddington station. The train should have gone to Newquay in Wales, but instead went to Newquay in Cornwall, where a whole trainload of evacuees from Dagenham, Edmonton and Wood Green arrived unexpectedly.

I remember standing on the station after a very long journey waiting for someone to “pick” me. I waited and waited, not knowing that one of the ladies organising things had already said she would have me. I just felt no-one wanted me.

The lady was called Mrs Vennan and she had a grown up son who was in the Army and was later killed in the war. She was a widow and lived with her two bachelor brothers. She lived in a very nice, quite large house in central Newquay. At one time there was also an RAF pilot and his wife living there from the RAF base at St Eval which was only a few miles away. He was a very good pianist and that is where I first heard classical music, particularly Chopin’s Polonaise which I still remember from then.

The evacuated children all went to a makeshift school set up in  a church hall and run by our own teachers, who had come with us from home.

Some children for various reasons drifted back home again. Some of us stayed there for the entire war and indeed some stayed there for good, having settled happily with their adopted families, some finding that their parents did not want them back again. 

I was very content with Mrs Vennan and her brothers who were all very kind to me. They patiently helped me to learn my tables and spellings and to gradually prepare for the tests we would take in a couple of years called ‘scholarships’ that would decide whether we would go on to the grammar school.

Unfortunately when I was eight I became a carrier for diphtheria and had to go into a small isolation hospital with another boy and girl so that we would not spread the disease to others. Mrs Vennan became ill and was unable to have me back when I left the hospital.

My schoolteacher found me another billet - again an older lady, also living with her husband and grown up son who were fishermen and had a fishing boat, “Sweet Promise” down in the nearby harbour. Her name was Mrs Clements and she used to pack my washing up each week and send it to my mother to do! This was a problem, as clothes were rationed during the war and you only had so many coupons each year with which to buy them. Had one of the parcels gone missing in the post, it would have been difficult to replace them.

So my  mother requested that I be moved again. I remember walking with my same teacher up the steps of another house and wondering if they would want me. A rosy-cheeked lady answered the door smiling and that is where I stayed for the next four years, with “Auntie Gwen” and her father, “Grampa”, until I returned home.

It was always hard being away from home and I missed my parents badly, but was as happy with Auntie Gwen as I could have been anywhere other than at home with my parents.

By this time, my aunt (who I lived with between evacuations) had died and my cousins had joined me in Newquay. We did not live together but it was good to have them there and I did not feel quite so alone. My uncle and my parents came down as often as they could, often bringing other relatives so that we kept links with home.

I continued to attend the Evacuated Schools in the church hall and with help from the staff and Auntie Gwen and Grampa I did pass my scholarship. I sat it at a rickety card table in an old building next to a small cleaning factory. The headmaster came and stood over me to see what I was writing, which was a bit frightening.

Many of the evacuees had returned home by now so the remainder were absorbed into local schools. I now went to the Newquay School for Girls where I met a Cornish girl called Pat, who is still my very good friend over 60 years later.

Again, due to the clothing coupon situation I was allowed to wear my own school uniform at the Newquay School. It had taken the whole family’s coupon supply for a year to buy it. I do not remember feeling awkward about wearing different uniform, or that I was teased or bullied. There was one problem,, though - with my own uniform I was supposed to wear  a panama straw hat in summer and a velour felt one for winter. Now, the Cornish coast is renowned for its strong winds, making these hats totally impractical, so I used the beret worn by the girls at the Newquay School instead - that did not blow away!

As the war situation at home improved I began to go home sometimes for school holidays which helped me get used to a place I hardly knew after all these years away, and to renew some of my old friendships with people who had stayed behind.

By the end of the second term of the second year at Grammar school my school reports were causing concern to my parents. Pat and I were having a good time and not working as hard as we should. So it was decided that I should return home with the war situation improving and the end clearly in sight.

I hated leaving my friend Pat, but was very pleased to be going home at last. It meant going to yet another new school in an area I hardly knew, with no familiar faces. It was a very big school by comparison with Newquay and had boys and girls there. However, I soon settled and had a very happy time there until I left at 18 years old to go to teacher training college.

Evacuation for so long was not without its difficulties, but there were also many benefits. Cornwall was a beautiful place to grow up in and we had a lot of freedom to roam and amuse ourselves. It gave me a great appreciation fo beautiful scenery and natural surroundings that I doubt I would have had if I had stayed in Dagenham. 

We kept in contact with Auntie Gwen, who sometimes came to visit us. She and my mother had become good friends and strangely died within a very short time of each other many years later.

When I became a mother myself I was very glad that I did not have to make the same decision to send my sons away, as my parents had had to do for me. They were able to grow up at home in relatively peaceful times, which I hope you will, too.

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