THE MEMORIES OF WARTIME EVACUATION 1940-1945 – Yvonne Gren.
I would like to thank Yvonne for sharing these memories of what it was like for a ten year old child, Yvonne, and her younger sisters, Sheila aged 8 and Margaret aged 5, in Folkestone at the start of WW2 and of the experience of being evacuated to the Chepstow area with their school in June 1940. Evacuation Notice 27th May 1940|
FAMILY LIFE AT SANDGATEIn the summer of 1938, our family moved to Sandgate, near Folkestone to a very roomy flat in the High Street. Dad played in the Grand Hotel (Folkestone), orchestra and on his days off, we had marvellous times on the beach which was just opposite where we lived. These days were idyllic. We had a puppy bull terrier – Rex – with whom we had great fun. We all attended St. Paul′s C. of E. School, the building of which still exists but the school sadly closed. The Headmistress′ name was Miss A.M.Woods (1888-1973) and she had a sister, Miss G.M. Woods (1894-1981), but we all knew her as Miss Trees! It was at this time that one of the teachers introduced me to the joys of collecting stamps; I was 9 years old and the interest has remained with me all my life.
But alas, the clouds of war soon emerged. There was a large army camp just up the hill and we became accustomed to seeing columns of soldiers marching up and down the High Street. On 2nd September 1939, hoards of school children arrived as evacuees in the town, from London and many of them shared our school and homes though we did not have any at our home. The next day, Sunday, 3rd September, war with Germany was officially declared. That morning we three girls were sent off to take Rex for a walk along the sea front at Sandgate when suddenly at 11 a.m. the air raid sirens sounded. We had not heard them before and were very frightened. We rushed home to find my mother in tears over the cooker. We did not of course, understand the seriousness of the situation. Just before Christmas we moved to a nice house right opposite our school, and this gave us all much more room. My bedroom was in the front of the house, and I remember seeing the gunfire on the French coast at night when it was dark. Later we witnessed thousands of soldiers looking very dishevelled, marching to their barracks having just escaped from Dunkirk. It was at this time that we were informed that all the civilian population from the south-east coast were to be evacuated. Before this could happen, the London children had to be moved and this meant that when it came time for us to go, the nearest place that could accept us, was Monmouthshire – about 200 miles away. Instructions were given to all families on what and how much each child could take with them on this journey into the unknown. My mother made three kit bags, one for each of us, and packed each one with a change of clothes, toilet necessaries, ration books, a gas mask each, a rubber suspended on a piece of tape round our necks, (in case of bomb-blast when we were instructed to bite on it), a label tied securely to each of our coats and a stamped addressed postcard so that we could write to her with our new address. This card may be found in the Family Album. My mother gave me a little clock and this was my pride and joy for many years until it eventually fell apart!! Can you imagine what it must have been like for her? There were very few telephones in those days, we certainly didn′t have one, and the postal services were not very good because of the war. It was several days before she knew where we were.
THE FIRST EVACUATIONOn 2nd June 1940, we assembled at the school with our parents and our luggage. You might be able to imagine the scene – mothers clinging to their children and everyone in tears at the thought of parting. My last minute instructions were to look after my sisters and make sure we all stayed together! What a hope!
I do not remember resorting to tears that morning; they came later and in any case, I had two little charges sitting right next to me. The coach took us all to Folkestone Station having left our parents at the school – they were not allowed to accompany us. Our teachers were with us so we were well looked after. The train left in due course and off we went on this strange journey right across the country. It took all day for us to reach our destination, Chepstow, where we were herded into a sort of holding area and given lemonade and buns I remember. It was just beginning to get dark when we were told to board a bus which would take us to goodness knows where! I had my sisters in tow not daring to leave go of their hands and we all sat on the back seat together. Eventually, the bus stopped and the older children were asked to get off the bus. We were not told why and I did as I was told leaving my sisters to look after my coat and kit bag. You might imagine my horror when the bus drove off into the night with my little sisters still sitting on the back seat. It was at this point that I cried inconsolably at the thought of losing them and not knowing where they were going. A kind lady took another girl and me to a little cottage situated down a very windy path – Pond Cottage in the village of Shirenewton which was about 5 miles from Chepstow. Standing at the front door was an “elderly” (58 and 60 respectively!!) lady and gentleman, Maud and Tom Marsh who welcomed us in. Uncle Tom asked my name and when I told him, he said he couldn't pronounce that and would call me Bonny. And Bonny I always was to them both. We were given a drink and put to bed but I could not sleep for worry about my sisters. Unknown to me Uncle Tom stayed out nearly all night wandering round the village enquiring as to their whereabouts. In the morning he was able to tell me that he thought they had gone to Llangwm – a village about 7 miles away and that I could catch the afternoon bus to go there and look for them. This I did. The bus dropped me at a very small cross-roads with a pub on one corner and a post office on the other. I asked someone there if they had seen two little girls and was directed to Church Farm – a long walk down a narrow muddy lane. You can imagine my joy when they came running out to greet me and we all cried again! They were staying with Mary and Jim Paget who had a large dairy farm. Their family had all grown up but they did their best for the girls. (Just to remind you, I was 10, Sheila was 8 and Fairy (Margaret) was 5 years old!) Having established that they were both okay, I returned to Pond Cottage and settled down well.
Uncle Tom and Auntie Maud looked after me well and in retrospect I think they taught me all I know. Mind you, I had to work – fetch water, peel potatoes, clean all our shoes, feed the chickens, fetch milk from a nearby farm, fetch coal and chop the firewood – all before I went to school in the mornings! (I was often late!!) I look back on those years with them as the most informative I ever spent and they certainly trained me well!
Before I continue with my story, I must explain that after we left Sandgate, my father was given a choice of either joining the armed forces or taking a training course for what was known as a Reserved Occupation such as Electrical Engineering at Southampton. (His job at the Grand Hotel was not considered to be of National Importance!) He decided to do the latter and so they packed what they could carry and moved to Southampton. (Rex was evacuated to Caterham where he was looked after by my Uncle George for the duration.) After he completed his course, Dad was transferred to Portsmouth Dockyard where he spent the rest of the war years. He joined the Rescue Squad and spent many hours helping with the casualties after the many air raids and blitzes which rained on Portsmouth. The house they moved into was a large house with many bedrooms on three floors. Shortly after they settled in there, a 500lb bomb dropped in the garden blowing all the windows out and damaging the structure. Fortunately no-one was killed or injured by this explosion but all the neighbours′ gardens and fences were totally destroyed. Later a barrage balloon landed on the roof one night! Not funny really but fortunately, it was collected and taken away. Dad built an air raid shelter in the garden on the edge of the bomb crater which remained there for several years! It was sunk into the ground and was just big enough for a double mattress. Everyone had one in their garden in those days.
Both parents created a small orchestra with some of their musical friends and used to entertain troops at the various camps round the City, including the Royal Naval Barracks. They continued with this even during the dreadful air raids and one night my mother got stranded at the north end of the city and had to walk home, about 4 miles, through the most awful air raid. It was after this ordeal that she had a minor nervous breakdown and came to Monmouthshire to be near us. She rented a small bungalow at Gaer Fawr and we used to spend occasional weekends with her. Dad used to visit when he could get away.
Let me tell you a little about Pond Cottage where I was at this time. It was a very old building, several hundreds of years old, with two bedrooms, situated on the side of a steep hill with a steep windy path leading down from the road. It was built of stone and the walls were 2'6" thick; Uncle Tom used to say that Hitler′s bombs would never destroy those! It had no running water, no bathroom and no electricity; the toilet was an old fashioned privy midden half way down the garden path right next to the pig-sty! It was very smelly with spiders and squares of newspaper hanging on a hook; it became my job to replenish the supply of this from time to time! There was a stand pipe at the bottom of the garden and water had to be carried up in a bucket. Bath night which was usually on Fridays, meant a large tin bath in front of the kitchen range where there was always a fire burning. Kettles and pans of water were heated for the purpose. Water for washing was taken from a rain butt just outside the back door. For lighting we had either candles or oil lamps. No television of course in those days, but there was a huge radio which required replenishing with accumulators, a sort of battery, every week. Uncle Tom used to listen to every news broadcast and then would explain them all to me. Most evenings he spent with me playing cards or other games, helping me with my stamp collection or even explaining the intricacies of the night sky. He took me for long country walks teaching me the names of flowers, trees etc. He was a lovely man, really. He was a carpenter by trade and worked at the Sawmills on the Itton Estate. Every night before he went to bed, he would read a passage from the Bible to Auntie Maud. Soon after I arrived, it became clear that fetching water, cleaning shoes, peeling potatoes and collecting the milk from the farm along the road, were to be my responsibilities before I went to school each day. I used to complain about all this of course, and was always gently reminded that I should consider this to be my little bit to help the war effort!
Auntie Maud, (whose father helped build the Severn Rail Tunnel) taught me the rudiments of cooking on a kitchen range and the oil-stove she had in the kitchen. She also taught me how to light a fire, how to deal with the washing which in those days was a day′s work! I became a dab hand at ironing as well and used two flat irons, one in use while the other was reheating on the fire. I was already quite experienced at washing up and of course, had to do that too. Because my clothes were always a problem as replacements were not available, I used to darn my socks and sometimes, even patch them to make them last a bit longer. Sewing and knitting were always my favourite pastimes in addition to my stamp collecting of course. I was given a small patch of garden which I loved and used for growing flowers and salad vegetables, most of which were successful. At the young age of 10 years, not bad, eh? But I still remember those days, much as I hated them at the time, as being the most formative of my life. I was well looked after, much loved by them both and above all, I was safe from the bombing, although we did have 3 bombs landing not far from us one night and we ran over the next day to collect bits of shrapnel!! But the Cottage was tough and survived the blast. In many ways I was extremely lucky.
I attended Mynddbach School which was situated at the top of the hill. A terrific climb up especially in the winter! There were three classes in this little village school and I and some of my evacuee friends were in the top class. Many of them filtered home as time went by and in the end only Elsie Friend and I were left. After about a year, the local Education Office decided that Elsie and I should attend the school at Earlswood which was a good 3 miles away. This was where my sisters were and the remainder of our group, including our teachers, Miss Woods and Miss ‘Trees’. But we had no say in the matter, and that was where we went for the next 2 terms. I hated the long walk; there were no buses of course, no school dinners, different teachers and children to get used to all over again and the whole experience was not a happy one. Auntie Maud ‘threw her weight’ at the Education Office and after a while Elsie and I were duly returned to Mynddbach School.
Sheila and Fairy stayed with Mr and Mrs Paget at Llangym for one year and were then moved to Earlswood where they stayed with Mr and Mrs Davies. Mr Davies was the village baker and their home always smelt of freshly baked bread! Delicious! I still visited them after school once a week. The only good point of my attending the school at Earlswood was that I saw my sisters every day. Hitherto, I was only able to see them once a week after a long bus ride and trek to the farm. Sheila had had to work really hard at the farm in her spare time, so the move gave her a chance to enjoy childish activities again. Fairy was still only about 6 years old and became a very sickly child. It was thought she might be pining and my mother was advised to take her home as soon as it was safe to do so.
P.S. I kept in touch with Auntie Maud and Uncle Tom and spent many happy holidays with them right up until they both sadly passed away. And I shall never forget them.
FAMILY LIFE AT SOUTHSEAAnd so it was that in August 1942, Dad travelled up to collect and return us to our home in Portsmouth. We were excited of course, but it must have been awful for Uncle Tom and Auntie Maud who had regarded me as their own for well over two years. At Fratton Station, my mother met us and we had to have a taxi to carry us all and all our luggage – much more than the little we started out with! – to our new home at Southsea. We settled down fairly well.
My parents were still entertaining with their small orchestra and we were left on our own a great deal. We were all sent to St. Jude′s C.of E. School in the next road, no longer there now. My teacher who was the Head, was Mr Mann and I got on well with him. One afternoon, we three took Rex for a walk down towards the sea front, much of which was barricaded off because of the war. On the way, we were shocked to hear an alarming and frightening noise and ran home as fast as we could. On Southsea Common at that time were a number of rocket launchers and it was the sound of these discharging their ammunition which frightened us. This was the day of the Dieppe raid and many of those brave soldiers had left Portsmouth for the raid. Dad felt it would not be safe for us to sleep indoors so we slept in the air raid shelter in the garden, head to toe with Rex! – for about six weeks until things quietened down again. We had several nasty air raids during that year, mostly at night, when we were woken up and taken downstairs to sit in the kitchen in case we needed to go to the shelter in the garden.
MY SECOND EVACUATIONDuring the summer of 1943, when I was 13 years of age, my parents decided that, provided I passed the Entrance Examination, I could continue my education at Portsmouth Municipal College. My Headmaster promised to give me extra tuition if I would in return, knit a pullover for him!! He provided the wool and I did his knitting! I took the examination at the College building behind the Guildhall; it lasted as far as I can remember most of the day. The subjects included Arithmetic, English, General Knowledge and in the afternoon, we were given a piece of white cotton material and told to produce a miniature apron! I always enjoyed needlework and made a really beautiful specimen with tucks, gathers and all!
When I heard that my efforts had been successful, I was delighted, even though it would mean another evacuation to Stockbridge. There were two courses available to us – Domestic Science and Commerce. Since my ambition had always been to eventually go into Nursing, the former course was chosen. We were given a list of clothing and other items which all had to be marked. (I still have the mushroom with my name on it which was used for darning socks!!).
And so it was that in September 1943, I left Portsmouth with a group of other young people all aged between 13 and 14 years, for our new ‘home’. A group of 18 of us were placed at The Old Rectory in the High Street and we slept in bunks in dormitories. The House Rules were clear and concise and woe betide anyone who did not adhere to them. One bath and shampoo every week and so on!! Miss A.M. Davies was in charge of us at the House. She was rather elderly, (at least we thought so!), but some years later, I began to realise what an enormous responsibility she had had thrust upon her. She was assisted by Miss Creighton who seemed to be the General Housekeeper and made scrumptious Bread Puddings and in the summer, Summer Puddings, several times a week! We always seemed to be hungry! The Headmistress was Miss Hayden who was assisted by Miss Piggott and Miss Cunniffe. There were other members of staff there also but I do not remember their names. Our lessons took place in various halls, schools, and even a Chapel and we all had bikes. Mine was a real boneshaker which had belonged to my mother, but I was glad to have it nevertheless. We used to go for long rides in the summer months; the Hampshire countryside is quite beautiful and we all loved being there. For two weeks during the autumn we used to be picked up by lorry and taken to a nearby potato farm. I still remember the back aching job of lifting and bagging up those spuds! We were paid a nominal sum at the end of the week, something like 6/8d (about 35p!) each – a large sum in those days. With our wages, we paid for the Polyphotos we had taken in Winchester, en masse!! All the rage in those days!! At night, we often saw the glow of the fires and explosions in the sky from the air raids taking place over Portsmouth and Southampton and never really knew if our families were safe. There were no telephones, or very few and the postal system was painfully slow.
On 6th June 1944, we were woken up by tanks and lorries thundering past our windows. This was the beginning of the D-Day landings and the convoys of vehicles trundled past for the next 24 hours. The High Street looked like a churned up quagmire at the end of that. Just up the hill there was a huge American Army Hospital (out of bounds to us girls!) and we used to stand on the Railway Bridge watching the wounded being unloaded on stretchers from trains. This was a constant operation and many of them were very badly injured.
At the end of each term, parents had to write a letter saying they would each have their youngsters home for the holidays. My mother forgot on one occasion, and I had to stay there an extra night!! We travelled to and from Portsmouth on the old steam train. There were no corridors, just compartments and I remember Freddy Noakes used to climb out of the boys′ carriage, walk along the running board and climb into ours – whilst the train was moving!! It was a wonder he ever survived in one piece.
The course we had chosen was a very comprehensive one and included tuition in Cookery, Needlework, Dressmaking and Pattern Making, Household Management, First Aid in addition to the general subjects – English, Arithmetic, Geography, History and P.E. taken by Miss Cunniffe. We were not given any certificate of education at the end of the course so have no documentation to prove that we were actually educated there. My mother insisted that I continue with my piano lessons and Mr Morgan, the Church Organist was designated to be my tutor. He was very patient but after about one year, the only piece that I could play with confidence was “Pain” by Beethoven!! It was a Pain too, to listen to and my mother was far from pleased. So that was the end of my music career!! We were always kept occupied and when our homework had been done, we made our own entertainment. One evening a week, we were allowed a radio and could swan round the kitchen floor dancing to Victor Sylvester and his Band! The Old Rectory was always full of laughter and years later, we all agreed that we have only happy memories of our stay there.
I was prepared for Confirmation by Rev. Beardmore, a kindly gentleman. The Confirmation Service took place at Winchester Cathedral and was conducted by the Bishop of Southampton, in July 1944. There were about 200 candidates from all over Hampshire. We had to wear white and I remember being poured into a wedding dress which had belonged to a friend of my mother. It fitted where it touched and I must have looked an absolute sight!! But the day was a memorable one nevertheless.
In February 1945, we were all returned to our homes, mostly in Portsmouth and allowed to finish our education at the Municipal College building. In those days, that building housed the Central Library and the Magistrates Court and the Guildhall was just a shell. Some of our Stockbridge teachers continued to take us for lessons and in addition, we were given Science lessons by Miss Hurst. (I had never had a Science lesson in my life and loved it) Miss Hurst was a wonderful person who suffered greatly from arthritis. Some days I remember, she could barely walk.
And so it was that in July 1945, my two-year course reached its conclusion and I left the College with mixed feelings. I did eventually take up a career in Nursing and was very happy.
P.S. In 2004, the media were making programmes about the 60th anniversary of D-Day which I remembered well. At about that time, I came across an old envelope containing Polyphotos of many of my Stockbridge friends and could not help wondering what had happened to them all. I sent a message to the Editor of the Portsmouth News which he kindly published and as a result, I made contact with no less than 26 of my old friends and so far, we have had several bi-annual reunions in Portsmouth. We are all astonished to learn that there is no record of that period or of the evacuation which I understand started in 1939. It is our hope that somehow, our memoirs will one day find their way into the Archives for future generations to see how we were educated under wartime conditions away from our homes and families.
Yvonne Gren 2019
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©Lesley Haigh 2019