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15 October 2014
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A Peckham childhood

by cambsaction

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
cambsaction
People in story: 
Leonard Frank George; parents: Edward and Mabel George; brothers: Edward and Frederick George
Location of story: 
Peckham, south-east London
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4856411
Contributed on: 
07 August 2005

I was nine years old when the war started and fifteen when it ended. The week before war was declared I was on holiday in Jaywick Sands in Essex with my family. It was at a club there that I experienced a blackout for the first time. We returned to Peckham by charabanc the day before war was declared. On the way back we passed Butlins holiday camp at Clacton. It was closed even though it was the summer season, and we heard that it was going to be used as a camp to hold foreigners.

The following day (Sunday) Chamberlain was due to make the announcement about the war at 11 am. We had a relay radio with about three stations on it, and it was on that that my parents listened to the announcement, while I was sent outside to play. Although they didn’t expect either my eldest brother Teddy or my father to be conscripted, my parents would have been feeling frightened at the idea of war primarily because of the bombing. They would still have had strong memories of WW1. My father had only just missed being conscripted during that war (he was eighteen at the end of the war) and my mother was 16: they’d experienced the zeppelins bombing London and they would also have seen the images of the terrors of more recent wars on newsreels. The fact that we’d all been issued with gas masks and shelters reinforced the idea that war was close.

So although I was sent outside while the announcement was made, I knew that something important and something frightening was happening. Then, within half and hour of war being declared, the air raid sirens went off! We all rushed to the shelter at my grandmother’s house around the corner, taking with us our gas masks. It was very frightening. There were very few other children around then because most of them had been evacuated while we were on holiday. After we'd been in the shelter a while the all clear siren went and my father went outside to see what had happened while we all waited in the shelter. When we came out we discovered that the world around us had not changed at all - it had been a false alarm. We, like the rest of the country had scuttled away into our rabbit holes with our gas masks.

Although I have a clear memory of the start of the war, my memory of the end is more hazy. Everyone knew it was over because the papers were full of news of Hitler's death and the fact that Germany had been overrun by the Allies. The 8th May was designated as Victory in Europe Day. It was a wonderful feeling. I went up to the celebrations in Trafalgar Square with my friends from Mottingham. Earlier, I'd been helping to decorate the house in preparation for the celebrations, putting up bunting in the window. But when my eldest brother Teddy arrived back from India and I shouted to him 'War's over!' he replied 'You might think it is here, but it's not where I've been'. There was, I think, a feeling of resentment that the war's end in Europe was being celebrated while fighting was still going on in the Far East.

We were delighted to see my brother of course. He'd been away for three years, and that was on top of my father and my second eldest brother being away as well. My parents had not expected my father to be called up. We knew that the age limit for conscription had been raised, but we just kept thinking it wouldn’t happen, so when he got his papers it was a shock. We felt resentful that, out of our family of five, only two were left at home after my second brother was called up in about 1942. At the time that my father left I was away as well, as an evacuee, but after he’d gone I returned to London to be with my mother. At that point London wasn’t being bombed every night and the family no longer lived in Peckham but further out of London, so it wasn’t quite as dangerous to be there. Besides, my mother didn’t want to be alone and I didn’t want to be away, so coming back seemed a good idea.

I was evacuated a number of times during the war, both with my school and also individually. The first time was when I was sent to a village near Reading with my brother Freddy from September 1939 until the Christmas holidays. We attended an emergency primary school there. I remember the novelty of being in the countryside and living with a couple who owned a motor car. The husband was a baker, and I would go on his delivery round with him, helping to distribute the bread. The couple had no children of their own and they seemed to enjoy having me there, whereas they found Freddy more difficult to copy with. He was about fourteen or fifteen then and probably didn’t really want to be there. I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the experience. I loved being in the shop, going on the delivery round, and altogether found living in the country a real eye-opener. When my mother came to visit, she would have been pleased that I was settling in well, but she may have been sorry that I was doing those things there and not with her. She was really upset that she no longer had all her family around her.

The second time I was evacuated my mother came as well. That was in 1940, at the time of some of the heaviest raids on London, and our house had been blasted by a landmine. It was supposed to be a respite from the war, although Newport, not far from where we were sent, was also being bombed at this time. We stayed in a village near Caerphilly with a miner and his wife and son. It must have been difficult for them as they only had a small cottage anyway. They didn’t have a bathroom: the miner would take his bath in front of the fire downstairs. They’d probably volunteered to take in evacuees because they needed the extra income it would bring them. The school was very close. It stood next to a field which led up to a mountain and the pithead. I remember being told that I was doing well at this school, and also that I was excused from the Welsh lessons. It was my first experience of a real village community. The miners’ club was at the centre of community life. It was here that I saw the film 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame', a film that in London I wouldn’t have been allowed to see until I was sixteen as it had an 'H' (Horror) Certificate. The village community in Wales didn’t worry about such regulations. The reason this particular evacuation sticks in my mind is that within three days of our arrival in the village my mother was taken into hospital with suspected diphtheria. I went to see her but was only allowed to look through the window. It turned out not to be diphtheria in the end and my mother recovered.

My other clear memory of evacuation was when the school I attended was moved en masse to Sevenoaks. This was a grammar school that I'd won a scholarship for, and since all other schools in our area were already evacuated, I had little choice but to go with them to Sevenoaks.

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Clare George of the BBC Radio Cambridgeshire Story Gatherer Team on behalf of Len George and has been added with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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