As part of a Knowledge Exchange Project for last year’s third year module, ‘The People’s War’, Catherine Hulse interviewed a relative who had been evacuated during the Blitz.
From the outset of the ‘People’s War’ the whole nation, even children, were included. With technological advancements made in the interwar years and the growing tensions in Europe, aerial bombardment posed a huge threat and in 1938 Sir Arthur MacNalty, Chief Medical Officer to the Board of Education stated that ‘the industrial cities of our land are no longer fenced cities for the little ones, but may become the most vulnerable centres of attack’. The sheer idea of evacuating a whole generation of children without their parents was unprecedented, but now the danger seemed so great that a full evacuation plan was devised and in place by summer 1939.
On the 1st September, two days before the official announcement of conflict, the official move from city to country began – in this first transition 827,000 school-aged children left their homes. These children were not just a uniform mass, but individuals with individual experiences, and it is crucial that we listen and record them while the opportunity is still available. One child who did not have the experience that one might expect from the reading of history books was Marlene Williams, now Kenneally, who shares her story below. At the start of the War she was just short of five and living in Forest Gate, Greater London.
Photographs from http://www.bbc.co.uk
We understand that you were not evacuated in 1939 in the main national scheme – what happened that caused you to eventually be sent away?
We lived very close to Wanstead Flats, which in the first year of the War was home to the army and there was a huge anti-aircraft gun battery – this was a main target for the Germans.* Our house was directly hit on the 20th September 1940 – many houses in our road were demolished that night. The blast caused everything in the shelter to become dislodged and I can remember choking on the dust… we were trapped for a day and a half.
* Over thirty high explosive bombs directly hit Wanstead Flats in the Blitz, and two hundred and sixteen fell on the Royal Docks to the south, another obvious key target.
That must have been terrifying! What was it like when you finally got out?
Horrific. There were chairs, other furniture, bedding and curtains high in the trees which were blown up by the blast, the only things we were left with were our nightclothes which we were wearing. Next door, only the children survived, and they had to be pulled out through the coal hole. The WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service) washed us, sorted out our grazes and found us some clothes.
Where were you eventually taken?
At first to Saxmundham near Ipswich – there was me, my mum and brother, and many others who travelled there by open top lorry and who were taken in by a farmer the first night. The next day we set off for Aylesbury, and lived in Waddesdon Village Hall for about a week.
During the war, Suffolk, where Marlene spent her first night away, saw so many more children from Dagenham, less than ten miles from Forest Gate, arrived than had been expected that no billets could be found for them and some had to be put up in temporary accommodation without bedding or blankets. So much attention had been paid to the logistics of getting children away, that the consideration of how they would fare and how the receiving communities would cope was neglected.
What was your experience of the temporary accommodation like, and what happened to you after leaving it?
We were all given sacks which we had to fill with straw for a mattress and very hairy, itchy blankets. I will never forget the smell of oil stoves and the vats of vegetable soup.
We were eventually allotted the Water House at Winchendon which we shared with another family – two rooms each. Water from the pump, no gas or electricity. The Red Cross gave us each a camp bed , enamel mug and plate, knife fork and spoon, oil lamp, kettle and two big pots.
What was the Waterhouse like, and how was life there, given how little you really had?
It was at top of a field, church and graveyard next to us and farm at the bottom, where the farmer let us have eggs and milk. We grew all our own vegetables. From the top of the hill we could see London burning. They (the Luftwaffe) used to drop masses of incendiary bombs and the sky on the horizon was bright red – it happened night after night so we were constantly fearful for our family and friends. The school was five miles away and we walked. My brother and I regarded it as a great adventure, but how terrible for the women especially as their husbands could be anywhere. It was my birthday seven days after we were bombed out and Mum made me a doll out of a stocking. No arms or legs but she had managed to get some wool to embroider eyes and a mouth and wrapped it round with a piece of rag. My dad visited us on compassionate leave and chopped a great pile of logs; also bought a small axe for my brother to make life easier. The clothing was indescribable, all second hand via Red Cross, and we had to line shoes with paper cut outs to try and keep wet out. Can only remember one Christmas there and Mum made me a dress out of white crepe paper. It was very poverty stricken.
Where did you go from there?
In 1942 when the air raids subsided we came home and stayed with my Auntie Bessie in Ilford as we were homeless. We continued to have raids however, and we would all dress up every night to get in the shelter. The mums made them fun nights with all kinds of word and number games and then we would all crawl out in the morning to see what damage had been done. I was evacuated again before the V1s and V2s started to become a threat. Remember the fear when we heard about the next thing we had to look forward to. No warning just bang. Everyone was very scared.
The arrival of the V1 and V2s brought about a so called ‘second blitz’ between 1944 and 1945. Over four hundred of the latter, the more sophisticated and accurate V2s, hit London and its immediate surroundings. Ilford, being in the east side of Greater London, suffered greatly in this time – it was the worst affected area by the V2 rockets, being struck 35 times (and 34 times by V1s). This led to another flurry of evacuation, largely in a scheme known as Operation Rivulet which saw many of London’s schoolchildren evacuated, in some cases, like Marlene’s, for the second time.
How did you feel at having to leave home again?
I went on my own that time and was very sad to leave my mum but not my brother who I thought was a clever bossy boots. The train journey took about eight hours but I was still full of optimism and looking forward to the new life. I was very lucky but some children had a very bad time.
How unlike the first evacuation was it?
I was billeted with a very wealthy family in Yorkshire, so very different to the first evacuation. The house I was taken to was huge with three storeys and three double fronts with tennis courts, a huge summerhouse for entertaining, stables, and a river at bottom of garden with a boat. We had a nursery equipped with every game imaginable and a full sized billiard table. ‘Uncle Paul’ was the village doctor and also Medical Officer for West Riding of Yorkshire, his surgery and dispensary were in the house. They also had a farm at Seatoller in the Lake District where we would go for a month each Easter and another at Morecambe Bay where we would spend August. I had never seen so much food in my life – huge platters of sausages, bacon, eggs and fried bread.
It sounds as though you were treated well?
They were a very kind family – they had three boys and had always wanted a girl, so yes, I was very well looked after. I was started on music lessons, taught how to swim and play tennis, and when we went to the Lake District, was kitted out with walking boots and kilt. I was lucky – two sisters who lived in my road were so unhappy and badly treated that their mother took them home.
For some children, the experience of evacuation was nothing less than traumatic, as suggested by the sisters Marlene knew. Problems ranged from billets being simply unsuitable, to cases of child neglect and even child cruelty. Another lady who visited her evacuated younger brother and sister in their time away saw the effects of this. The siblings begged to be brought home for they were so hungry from being given so little food that they had broken into the pantry and stolen a jar of jam, and as a result had been beaten. Such experiences add strength to Juliet Gardiner’s argument that children’s loss was compounded by the draining away of their normal expectations of childhood, years that could never be recovered. Marlene’s story, to a large extent, fights back at such a generalization – thankfully there were children who were given wonderful opportunities and treated with much kindness and care. Even so, most children experienced home sickness in some form as Marlene went on to tell us. They also had very mixed feelings about returning to their old lives at the end of the War.
I always felt rather distant from ‘Auntie Eileen’, although she was very kind. The family’s beautiful red setter, Rhoda, became my saviour, something I could cuddle – she and I were inseparable. She would run by the bike each morning when I went to school and every afternoon she would be by the school gate waiting. I was torn in half when it was time to come home, desperately wanting to see everyone but was devastated at the thought of leaving Rhoda. I remember sitting in the stable with her telling her not to go to school anymore and it was this that upset me so. When I got home there was much whispering about me wishing to be back up north but I could not even speak about Rhoda without crying, so could not say what was really wrong but I did love being home. I went back in summer holidays every year until Rhoda died and I couldn’t go any more.
Evacuation is an important and unique part of British history. This article has hopefully not only demonstrated the realities of the danger on home soil and how many complex issues there were associated with evacuation, but also shown that feelings and stories are as important as solid facts in remembering and learning about the past. The experience of all the children who were part of this piece of history cannot be summed up in one paragraph, for they varied greatly. The way evacuation both affected and was affected by the government and other large organizations, and the social issues that arose from it, whilst not unimportant by any standards, will forever be available in books and on the internet. People, on the other hand, will not last forever, and their memories and stories should be captured while they can be, treasured and learnt from.
Catherine Hulse is currently studying for an MA at the University of Glasow