It was like an auction affair, like a jumble sale
Liverpool Girl On the Friday before the Sunday when war broke out, they were evacuating all the school kids from Liverpool. My two younger brothers and my sister, they were the only ones left at school. They were going to be sent to Wrexham in North Wales. You had to have all their clothes ready and me Mum was going with them. She was one of the helpers. She waited Friday night, all day Saturday – she’d spent pounds on them kids, pounds on clothes and haversacks for every one of them, and the gas mask in a little square box. I can still picture them going up the street: Joe, Jane and Danny and me Mum. We walked to Edge Hill Station on the Sunday, with Mrs McKay, a friend, and her three children were also going. We were all waving. Me Dad was standing there with tears rolling down his face and I had a bag of grapes to give one of the young ones. They were all squashed in my hand – I forgot to give them. We waved to them, come back and we sat at home crying and the announcement came over the radio. Towards the evening the barrage balloons went up. “We’re all right now”, said my Dad, “they’ve gone up. They’ll save the planes from coming in.” On Monday about eleven o’ clock I’d just been out shopping – I was left to look after me Dad and brothers – comes home and there’s a telegram: “Send money quick. We’re starving.” Needless to say, on Monday night at half past four they were back home. Me Mum said “I couldn’t stay there.” After years and years in the one place it’s an awful big upheaval.
East London Boy The school I went to – what would now be called a primary school – was a Catholic school. It was a general that if a woman wanted to be evacuated with her children, she was allowed to. In most of the Church of England schools they did. But in this Catholic school they made the criteria that you had to be a regular church goer. So much so, that my Mother who wanted to be evacuated with us, the nuns actually lied to her (she found out afterwards) and said no women were being evacuated. It didn’t make any difference to her religion. She still adhered to Catholicism.
My sister was eight and I was nine and a half. We were all paraded in the school playground. Well, in our case – and this is no joking – ever heard the old thing about the kid who was too poor to have a Mother or Father – that old joke? Well, we were too poor to have a playground. So we were outside the school, in the street, in Chamber Street, just by the City. My feelings were that I was very sad and unhappy and very miserable. I was well aware I was going to be taken away somewhere, but it was done on – what shall I say? Not on a military basis, although you were lined up like that, and you had equipment like the military, like gas masks, and a box of emergency rations and your luggage. It was done on an institutional basis, if you like, and this made you more sad than the fact you were going away, you being treated like a chattel. You were all grouped into numbers and your Mother wasn’t even allowed to come to the station with you. It was a clean break. We marched to the station, like the old crocodile of kids going to the swimming pool.
West Country Girl The first evacuees we had were mothers and babies. They were ordinary working class people from London. I can’t remember much except people in the village talking about these mothers sitting outside the pub at eleven o’ clock waiting for it to open at lunchtime. Most of them only stayed a week. They couldn’t stand it.
Liverpool Mother We were in a priority area. We belonged to the South End, between Parliament Street and Hill Street. The Southern Hospital was in that area, the balloon barrage was included and the ack-ack which they’d begun to set up to guard all the warehouses and the ships. We had been told that if war broke out that there’d be evacuation of the children without their mothers on the Tuesday. The mothers who were going with their children, they would go on the Friday. But it was chaos. Everything was a complete flop. We left from Lime Street Station. We said goodbye to the town and everybody that was in it because we never ever thought we’d see it for a long while.
We got the train to Chester. We were packed out. There were no facilities on the trains bringing us down – children were wetting themselves and screaming. They all had their gas masks and little bundles of clothing and their emergency rations. The emergency rations were a block of chocolate, a tin of corned beef and a tin of condensed milk. Well you can imagine children with a block of chocolate! No such thing as opening and breaking it, so it was all smeared over their faces. When we did eventually get to Chester, some of the things people wouldn’t believe now.
We got out at Chester and we went on a short bus ride, I don’t know where because of the black-out regulations. We were put up in this little hall and you were just like – You know how cattle would be in a yard and you’d say I’ll have that one and I’ll have that? – well, if you had more than one child you didn’t have a snowball’s chance of getting anywhere. A friend of mine had two little girls and she was picked out by this farmer, and of course I was very glad that she’d managed to get somewhere – and this is no exaggeration – when she got to his place – he lived in a little derelict cottage – he told her the children would sleep on the settee and she’d sleep with him. She came back that same night.
I reckon there must have been about 300 mothers and children left, with no-one to take them. The officials decided we’d have to go back. There were no facilities in this little hall they’d taken us to. Let’s face it, there were certain parts, certain towns that didn’t want to know. It wasn’t their war. It was upsetting, naturally. These big houses, they’d never had children in them and they were asked to take them. I suppose it’s only human nature. We came back that same night.
We got to Lime Street early the next morning and the porters opened barrels of apples for us. They were on the platform waiting to be collected for the fruit market. After we came back they didn’t try and evacuate us again. It had been such a huge flop. Mind you, there were cases where the war was used as a convenience to get rid of children and have one glorious time. It didn’t matter where they went, whether they liked it or not, so long as they got rid of them. There was big money to be earned by women then.
One reason the evacuee children were disliked was because people in our village felt they’d been sent the riff-raff, and of course, in a way, they had
Arran Farmer Arran was swarming with evacuee children. A big lot came from Glasgow, a big lot came from Greenock, and a dirty lot they were, let me tell you. Miss Bannatyne at Altana, she had an awful lot of evacuee children coming in, and she prepared a big bowl of soup for them and hardly any of them would take it. She couldn’t get them to eat civilised food at all. Tea and fish and chips had been their standard menu.
Somerset Farmer My Uncle and Auntie had two boys billeted on them. They were elderly, they’d never brought up a child of their own. They were what you might say old maids and old bachelors. Well Auntie took ’em upstairs to put ’em to bed and they dived underneath, on the floor. She said “You’ve got to get into the bed.” “Oh no, Daddy and Mummy do sleep in the bed” – they did only ever sleep on the floor, underneath the bed. Auntie called down “Come up Bill, see what you can do. I can’t get ’em to go to bed”. They wouldn’t get in the bed. All they would do is lie underneath that bed. She never got ’em very long. She couldn’t cope with ’em, what with their lice and their funny ways. The only thing they would eat was fish and chips. If the mothers of the kids did come down here, all they did think about was going to pub boozing. We seen ’em in Shepton Mallet shuffling about in carpet slippers, in rags and tatters. They’d go into the pubs, either the Bell, or the Bunch of Grapes, the Black Swan or the Red Lion. They were the pubs ’round the market place. They’d come out with a pint and they’d give kids no higher than that, and the kids would tip the beer back, just like that, and they never had a penny to bless themselves with.
London Evacuee One reason evacuee children were disliked was because people in the village felt that they’d been sent the riff-raff, and of course, in a way, they had. Some of them were very, very rough. When the kids did arrive they were so different from what they expected them to be. You’d get a whole train full of children arrive at the nearest station, Glastonbury. A little old lady was in charge of them and she used to bring them all to the school. They had a list of names of people – they didn’t have a choice whether they could have them or not. They had to have them. They’d say: “Two there, two there” – nobody could pick which children they wanted. I suppose the number of bedrooms decided it, whether you were going to have two girls or a boy and girl. They did try to keep them in families, so sometimes you’d get five children in a group. At school they’d hang together like a little lost knot. It was a terrifically disturbing time for a child. Some of them had never seen the countryside before. Some of them were only about three. It must have been pretty hellish for foster parents to have one or two children crying for days on end.
I was privately evacuated. I was with my grandmother who came from Somerset. There was just the one school in —— and it was divided in two. The London school from Bromley by Bow had their own teachers and headmaster. I had to go the London class as I was a Londoner. The two lots didn’t mix. We had different playtimes. There used to be near enough war. Here and in Glastonbury there used to be great gangs of boys. If a couple of London boys met one of these gangs they’d have a right punch up. There was a natural dislike. There still is, to a degree. When my husband started writing his bits for the newspaper there was a bit he wrote about Londoners and it was surprising that I had one or two very snide remarks thrown at me about “blinking evacuees”. After all these years. It’s still there, underneath, especially in my age group. A lot of children disliked each other. Time has taken care of a lot of it, because a lot of them settled down here, or came back. Even though my grandmother lived in Somerset I was still made to feel a Londoner. Actually, the local people – most of them – were really rather wonderful, especially those who didn’t have children.
It was the Poly boys that made the greatest difference because we had some marvellous times with them. Cycling across the Mendips….
Winscombe, Somerset Girl We were supposed to be getting young school children as evacuees but we got the Poly boys from the Regent Street Polytechnic, London.
Her Sister My Mother was in the Red Cross and she was on duty in the council school, down in Sandford Road, and we waited outside to see all these little girls arrive – as we thought – and it turned out they were boys.
Winscombe, Somerset Girl All these teenage boys! We thought it was marvellous because we didn’t look at the village boys. They were beneath us at that age.
Regent Street Poly Boy We weren’t sure whether we were going to be evacuated because we didn’t consider ourselves school children – we considered ourselves students. Our ages were 16 to 19. I don’t even remember getting any notification. A friend of mine from Ramsden Heath came to see me and said “Shall we go up?” It was all very haphazard and last minute organisation. We’d been called back to school and we were in the annexe, Tichfield Annexe behind Peter Robinson’s. The Poly had a cinema and it was Errol Flynn in Robin Hood, Basil Rathbone playing the Sheriff of Nottingham. We saw that over and over again for something to do. Just sitting there. On a Saturday morning about six to seven o’ clock I walked through London from Bank, I don’t why Bank because I had to go to Regent Street. It was a beautiful morning. The barrage balloons were quite low and the sun was shining on them.
We had to assemble at the Polytechnic and then move off from there. Most of us were about sixteen. We weren’t told our destination when we set off. I now know we were going to Cheddar. The train went to Cheddar – I remember seeing the Cheddar reservoir and wondering what it was. From Cheddar we got the bus to Winscombe. In Winscombe I went to someone called Mrs Hardy, but I only stayed there a few nights as she was expecting girls, and she got two hulking boys. She said she wasn’t prepared to take us as she obviously couldn’t cope with a couple of lads. Whoever was responsible took us to Mrs Tripp’s and the first thing she showed us was the outside loo which had just been converted to flush. For us, at our age, being evacuated was one great adventure.
Winscombe, Somerset Girl We distinguished with the Poly boys. The “In” ones were the prelims – the engineers and draughtsmen. We didn’t take much notice of the hairdressers or the tailors. It was snobbishness. You don’t get that so much today with young people. But we had a firm line drawn. Although we lived in a council house, the people who lived in the council houses in Sandford were considered a rougher lot. Although there were quite a few Jewish boys from the Poly I don’t think there was any feeling against them in the village. Except I remember my mother saying that somebody had a boy who was Jewish and they couldn’t understand that he wouldn’t eat bacon. They couldn’t understand it, that’s all. It was the holidays we dreaded because they all went back to London. We would be at the station when they came back from holiday. We had two Poly boys in our house, one at a time. In the back bedroom. The one who stayed longest, he was younger than us. We never thought of him as a boy. He was like a brother, Charlie.
Jewish Boy Evacuated? I can tell you a story about that! One of the first lessons I learned about the kind of society I lived in – I was fourteen when the war broke out and I got evacuated to Norfolk. The teacher made a speech about these boys of fourteen, still going to school, they should go and make a war effort – right anti-semitic bastard he was – they should be working on the land, and like an idiot I sucked it all in. So I left school. I went to work on a farm. Because I’d left the school I got chucked out of the digs where I’d been. They was compelled to take evacuees, and once I left school I wasn’t an official evacuee. So they said “Piss off.” I had to find my own lodgings – at fourteen. Mind I didn’t work at this farm long. I thought this is no life, cleaning out the pigsties in the morning, all the shit, then feeding the animals, and then harvesting, carrying great bags of chaff. It was ten bob a week. (1) That was the going rate for fourteen years of age in 1939. After three weeks I said “That’s enough for me, I’m going home to Mum and Dad.” Not that it was much of a home.
Pilton, Somerset Woman I couldn’t read until I was eight and when I did start to read I could read everything, all at once. So I could read terribly long words and everything. So I started to read the the Daily Express, (2) that’s what we took, you see, and in there on the front page, it was the first thing I ever read in any newspaper about two boys who had been evacuated to Norfolk, to an army officer’s wife. There was a court case about it and it was found out she had tried to put one boy through the mangle and she’d locked the other one in a coal house for so many days on end, and everything their parents had sent them from the East End, like fresh vegetables they got from Covent Garden – she’d taken. She’d taken their boots and sewed them, their clothes that were sent and re-sewed them. That really stuck in my mind, because the mother of the two boys had gone up there because she hadn’t heard from them and she found out this stuff was being confiscated, and of course, what had happened, and she hit the army officer’s wife, and she got taken to court for assault!
It was the first time I realised that people could be so cruel. About two years ago we went to London, and coming back on Friday night we had to run like hell for the train at Paddington – and we found ourselves sitting opposite a chap, and we started talking to him. He was about our age and he was living in the suburbs of London and he was buying a dress shop in Devon – ‘cos his kids were teenagers and he wanted to get them out of the London scene. We were talking about the war and he said: “You must have experienced evacuees”, and I told him about this newspaper report, and he said “Guess who’s sitting opposite you.” I said “I can’t believe it.” He said: “Look at my hands.” He didn’t smoke and for all the time he’d kept his hands tucked in under his arms. He brought his hands out and they were all curved up, the fingers. His brother, he said, suffered more because it came out on him psychologically afterwards. His brother was younger and it was him who was shut in the coal house. His mother had gone and battered this woman about the head, and she got fined £60. Nothing at all happened to the officer’s wife! She said the boys were being naughty. This chap said he didn’t normally hate anyone, but he said he would have no compunction at all about strangling her if he got hold of her. Because she was an absolute bastard.
I am an unusual case of an evacuee, because I had a very bad experience, myself and a few others.
East London Boy This was an exception rather than the rule. It would be unfair to say otherwise. I was nine and a half when war broke out. I was evacuated with my sister. My sister was eight. The journey took three or four hours. One consolation of it all, which kept our spirits up, was that amongst the emergency rations was beautiful slab chocolate. Really beautiful. Our rations were sandwiches and this chocolate. Prior to being evacuated the only countryside I had seen was in Essex, on the dockers’ outing to Theydon Bois. And that was a matter of luck, because there was a raffle to see who could go on the outing. And that was your limit of knowing of the countryside.
When we arrived at Aston Clinton – it was between a place called Aylesbury, famous for its ducks and the other way was Tring – we were put into a hall. When we got in the hall most of the kids were being allocated to their places, and there was only a few of us left. We was getting a bit concerned about that. It was like an auction affair, like a jumble sale. What happened was, the local population who were going to take evacuees (and they were well paid for this, they didn’t do it for patriotism or bombs), they came along and looked at you, and if they liked the look of you, they took you. We were amongst the last half dozen.
We thought we wasn’t going to get anyone. As they took them, they went, and you were left there in a big hall, in a strange place. Young children are not used to that. In the end a woman – I can see her now – she was a woman of about 22, a blonde, and her name was Mrs Frost, and she took us. She was a very poor woman. We learned that her husband was in the army and she had a little baby. She lived in the very last house in the village – it was at least two miles from the centre of the village.
It was a very small house. There were two rooms in the front and two rooms in the back. The toilet was in the garden. A chemical one and there was a cesspool at the bottom of the garden. It was September, the weather was very good, but the cesspool was still swampy and stank. The woman was very, very good. Very good woman. The food was good. She even took the bother to walk us to school, which was a distance of two miles. The village was over-populated with children. The London kids – I don’t know whether it was the delight of seeing the countryside – immediately declared war on the local kids and there were a lot of stoning battles. I’m happy to say we outnumbered them.
But as I said, this woman not only took us to school, but fetched us as well, but unfortunately for us I was a…. – to put it as nice as I can: a precocious child – in other words: a spoilt little bastard! I played her up so much she wrote to my mother – (and talk about fucking poetic justice, what happened afterwards) – that she could no longer tolerate me. She would keep Annie, my sister, but not me because I would throw stuff at her and tear the place up. Why did I do it? I suppose I did it because I didn’t want to be away from home at nine and half years of age. It might be that, or that up until the age of eighteen, nineteen when I was a guest at a military prison for a long time, I was always a bit hard to get on with. I came from a volatile district and a volatile family.
My contemporaries were the Butler gang and the Krays
In my school it was nothing to have a bloke come and cosh you and take your dinner money or beat the daylights out of the teacher. (I’m talking about after I came home from evacuation). Anyway, this woman would no longer have us. We were then taken to another house. We were delighted because as a child it looked bigger than it was. It was a bungalow. It was fairly modern, with a big front garden, a big back garden. Part of the garden was partitioned off and they kept hundreds and hundreds of chickens. We’d never seen chickens like this – well, we’d never seen a chicken dead or alive, because chicken had never been on my fucking menu until I was gown up.
Our pleasure at seeing this place was soon crushed. The people who lived in the bungalow were called —-. There was a Mr —-, he was a local Home Guard merchant, there was a Mother —-, then they had a girl called —–, who was the local sex queen, and her younger sister, about twelve, who was trying to follow in her footsteps, and they had a son called —-. Then there was me and my sister, a family called the Don family who I knew from my school – Woofy Don, there was two of them. Then there was Bernard and Aaron Saunders who were a Jewish family. Six eveacuees they had. Listen how many rooms they had! They had three bedrooms and a front room. Six evacuees, three of their own and themselves. So us evacuees more or less slept in the same room.
All we ever saw of a chicken was on a Saturday night when they boiled a chicken they would put various vegetables in it, they would serve the family, and then the remains of the soup would be our meal, our main meal. What made it worse, each day they would retain the pot and add water to it, but no more chicken or peas or anything else. By the second day it was just greasy water.
He was doing it for the money, the money he was getting for us six evacuees. (3) It came to such a position that we used to wait till late at night till everybody had gone to bed and climb out the window – in fact the son showed us (the girl showed us many things) where the food was kept for the chickens, which we were more interested in, than seeing the genital organs of a young girl! I would climb through the window and I’d get into where they kept the chicken grub, which was bread. He had greengages as well that he used to flog, and I’d nick some of them and share with my sister. I wouldn’t give the Jew boys none because I was anti-semitic then. I used to up them now and again. We became great friends when we grew up, as it happens.
Our families used to send parcels of food. This was stolen as soon as it arrived
Every item was stolen. All our toys, all our clothing that would fit members of other families, and they dictated our letters. And you’ve got to consider, even as young as we were, we didn’t want to write and tell our parents how bad it was, because in my case my old man had died, my brothers were away in the army, and my mother had enough problems without any of this. And the others, for a variety of reasons, wouldn’t write to their parents. This must have gone on, all in all, for about six months.
My sister Annie had beautiful long hair and it was falling out. And scabs were coming on our heads and bodies. It came to light some way or another and there was a big upheaval. As a result we were transferred to an evacuee hospital at a place called Waddesdon. We learned that we had malnutrition and impetigo.
We were confined to bed for a long period. Not only us, by the way, all the other evacuees in the house too. The only time we were up was for continual sulphur baths to get rid of the scabies and impetigo. And this is an interesting thing: after this happened and I returned to Aston Clinton, I found that my friend Mo had been transferred to this bastard. Fortunately before Mo got in that state he came to London with us. It was better to be bombed to death than starved to death.
1. Ten bob: Fifty pence
2. The Daily Express had the largest national daily circulation at the time.
3. 10/6d per week for the first evacuee child, and 8/6d for every subsequent child. Six evacuee children equalled £2.13.0d. (£2.65 p). The average wage in 1939 varied between £2 and £3 per week.