Talking about the days celebration of VE Day with my family, we got on to the subject of my Nan, who wrote about her time as an evacuee.
Today, Friday 8 May 2020, marks 75 years since Victory in Europe Day, which marks when World War II came to an end in Europe. We have come together during a strange and uncertain time, in a moment of remembrance.
Nan is now 85 years old and living in Essex, celebrating VE Day from her beautiful home.
I was an Evacuee
In 1939, when I was just 5 years old, because of World War II, I was evacuated to the safety of the country and sent to Kingsbridge in South Devon. I think I could talk for a long time about my time there, but I will just tell you a few things that stick out in my mind now. I came from a large family, 6 children, and I was second from youngest. I lived in Dagenham, on the outskirts of London.
What was it all about?
Remember, I was only 5, and really did not understand all that was going on around me. All I knew was that England was at war with German. My earliest memory is, I heard on the news something about the poles. The only poles I knew about were telegraph poles or telephone lines. I did not know that the poles meant Poland and Germany.
How did I get “evacuated” and where did I stay?
I remember going on ‘holiday’ in a coach from school with my sister who was 9 years old. We travelled to London, I guess Victoria Station, and the rest of the journey was on a steam train. I can still remember the smell of the coal and steam.
I did not know I wouldn’t return home for 6 years. We were billeted or given a family who had volunteered to look after children from the London area. During my six years as an evacuee, I stayed with four families.
Family 1: The home of the officer in charge of placing evacuee children, Mr and Mrs Smith. Mr Smith was sick and was not really able to look after two more children.
Family 2: An elderly couple in the late 60’s, Mr and Mrs Lane. We didn’t stay long and were moved again.
Family 3: A working farm. Washbrook Farm with Mr and Mrs Dewar. I remember living a wonderful life on the farm. Yes, certainly catching headless chickens after they had been killed for dinner and helping to pluck the feathers off.
I remember riding on that back of huge shire horses as they pulled the plough in the fields at harvest time. I remember eating huge chunks of cheese and homemade bread with the farmer and his workers. And we had ‘land girls’ too, these were young women who went into the army and helped during harvest time as all the young men had gone away to fight in the war.
During my stay on the farm, it must have been about three years, I helped collect eggs from free range chickens. That means we had to find them first. The eggs could be anywhere on the farm or in the fields. I just watched where the chickens went to find the nests.
Living on the farm, with cows and other animals, we lived very well. Fresh cream, milk, eggs and the farmer’s wife was a wonderful cook, making bread, cakes, pies etc. on a huge range just like an AGA cooker today, but fired with coal, not gas or electricity. We had chicken, meat and home grown vegetables from the vegetable garden. I loved the long green beans and the home grown potatoes. I remember collecting watercress from the bank of the stream which ran through the farm. We were very lucky on the farm, because that food was not available to everyone or to people in the cities.
We always walked to school carrying a gas mask in a brown cardboard box. We had to practice putting these on from time to time. I really hated mine. It was black rubber, it was hot, and I felt I couldn’t breathe. I also saw gas masks for babies, some very small babies were put inside completely. Then there were ‘fun’ gas masks for young children. Again, black but Mickey Mouse design with a red tongue, which would vibrate and make a raspberry noise as children breathed. It was really funny.
From the Smith house we walked about a mile and a half to school along the estuary (a small river) and from the farm about a mile down country lanes, through a churchyard. There were few cars and we did not have bicycles.
New clothing was scarce and I do remember having cold feet in the winter and chilblains. They are sores from bad circulation and extreme cold. I remember thinking “When I grow up and I am a lady, I am going to have warm stockings and gloves”.
At the farm there was a Morrison shelter already in the living room. It was like a long tin table, with metal mesh sides and ends, we could get underneath and sit on a mattress if there was an air raid warning when German places were in the area. This did not happen very often in Kingsbridge but there were a few occasions.
Another kind of shelter was an Anderson shelter, usually built in the garden. This was made of corrugated metal in an arch shape, and then covered with earth and grass or flowers. People could camp out and sleep in them if necessary.
During our time at the farm my sister, who was 11, passed school exams (it was called matriculation) to go to college in Newton Abbott. From then on I was alone. I loved living on the farm. Unfortunately, the farmer’s wife died and I had to move again.
Family 4: An elderly lady, Mrs Foulsham about 75, and her unmarried daughter Miss Foulsham, about 45. They were again, very nice people. It was a complete change for me coming from the farm. They had electricity and hot water for a bath. They taught me how to sew, knit, house clean and work in the garden. I really did not mind. They also introduced me to classical music. The radio was always on and it was either classical music or children’s programs in the afternoon, after school for me. Mostly story telling. No television of course, so I had books to read, and sewing or embroidery to pass the time. Miss Foulsham helped me write letters home and help me with my spelling and grammar.
We walked into the woods and I remember most of all, lots of wild flowers – bluebells, primroses and snowdrops, which today are some of my favourite flowers. In the winter we had a toboggan and would ride down a hill in the field behind the house. I remember not being able to stop and falling in a blackberry brush. A few scratches, but good fun.
I was still only at junior school, but I never came across children who did not like evacuees. I think it was just a very nice town. I loved nature and biology and did well at those subjects. The school, in general, was a little behind London schools, so when I returned home to Dagenham at the age of 11, I had a lot of catching up to do.
Sweets and chocolate were not available at all during the war. There was a Nestles chocolate vending machine outside the village shop. For on penny, which the family I lived with would have given me, I could have bought a bar of chocolate, but the machine was always empty. There were no sweets or chocolate in the shop.
Apart from the food raised on the farm, everything was scarce and rationed, so I ate what I was given at all times. There was a lot of rabbit and tripe for dinner in one home, and I did not like either. In fact, I remember being told to eat tripe or I would get it for my tea. I tried to feed it to the dog, but the dog even spat it out. I tried to put it on the fire and it would not burn. I also stored it in my cheeks like a hamster until I could leave the table and get rid of it in the toilet. I have never eaten that since I returned home after the war.
Birthdays and Christmas
There were no special gifts for either occasion. Maybe a handmade card. I had a poem once for my birthday:
“We know a little girl, her name is Inez Gold
Today it is her birthday and she is ten years old.
We hope that she’ll be happy, with birthdays many more,
And not too much detention, for having too much jaw.”
Was I Scared?
Looking back, I remember only three things that scared me. On the farm there was no electricity, only oil fired lamps and candles. I took a candle to my bedroom at night, blew it out and jumped into bed, right under the covers and stayed there all night. I remember the sound of mice running around in the thick stone walls. I got used to that.
The toilet was outside so there was no way I was going outside at night in an emergency. Any emergency in the night was handled by using a pot or a ‘gozunder’ – named because it does under the bed, and of course, it was my job to empty it outside in the toilet in the morning.
“When the lights go on again all over the world”. That means no more blackout and the end of the war.
“We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day”. This is expressed soldiers going away to war, and people like myself and others being separated.
When the war was over in 1945 I was 11 years old and returned to my family in Dagenham. I was behind with my school work. The school in Devon was not as advanced as the London school. I was quite pleased when Miss Foulsham, who I had been staying with, visited my mother and asked if I could go back with her for the summer holiday. I did not like the smog in Dagenham. Coal fires were still used in those days and a “pea souper” (a thick fog) was not unusual. I just could not breathe and preferred living in the country.
I returned to Kingsbridge for the summer holiday and stayed 2 more years with Miss Foulsham. I was 13 when I finally returned home. After the war, things were still hard in England. There was still rationing and many things were scarce. We had no father, so my sisters and I had the task of supporting the family. I did just one more year at school and then went to work in the City of London at the age of 14. Can you believe that?
No one expected when I left home as a young child of 5 that I would not return until I was a young lady of 13. Things had changed. I hardly knew my family and I had to get to know my mother, sisters and brother again. I did not realise at the time, but reflecting now, I know it must have been very hard for my mother and father to let me go. I could not do that with my children today, but wartime conditions demanded that sacrifice. They made that sacrifice in the interest of my safety. Because of that, I am still here today to tell the story.
Do you have any family that have stories of VE day or World War II?