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Wartime memories of Preston near Hitchin Part One - Evacuees at school in Preston and later at the Hitchin Girls Grammar School

by bedfordmuseum

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs. Rebecca Cook
Location of story: 
Preston, Hertfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
03 October 2005

Wartime memories of Preston near Hitchin Part One — Evacuees at school in Preston and later at the Hitchin Girls Grammar School.

Part one of an oral history interview with Mrs. Rebecca Cook conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“I’d just had my 10th birthday at the end of August 1939. Daddy kept the wireless, as we called it, on all the time because they were so aware of the situation and on September the 2nd, which was my mother’s birthday, they kept saying ‘Please stand by’ ‘Please stand by.’ They were just waiting to announce and then on September the 3rd it was a Sunday morning, I remember the radio was on and it told us that we had actually declared war against Germany, with Germany.

I remember my mother being so serious, well and daddy, just so sad because it was only 21 years since the last one and my father had fought in the Herts. and Beds. Yeomanry and it just brought it all back. That was the war to end all wars. But I seem to remember going to Sunday School as usual, it was only about a mile into the village and just carrying on as usual and waiting and wondering and being frightened, will the bombs start dropping? And of course nothing really happened.

We were told we must now must blackout every window and I know we’d been preparing for it. My sisters had made black curtains and dark curtains and we had a big board we put up over the kitchen window and we were very careful about that. And an Air Raid Warden doing his business, coming round and checking up just to see that there were no chinks of light showing anywhere. In the old farm house we didn’t even have electricity so we used to have a lantern standing on the landing and we used to take candles to bed. We’d read by candle light making sure that the curtains were well drawn.

It wasn’t for sometime actually I think that the war actually affected us. Apart from when we went back to the local school after the summer holidays I remember being met at the gate by the teacher saying, ‘No, dear we don’t want any of you back today, we are having to share our school.’ There was a boys school from London. I remember Mr. Hinds the Headmaster coming with all these boys, they were staying in a big old College in the village and they took over our school for a time. We didn’t mind going home and having some days off! But then we were all told we were going to share it with them and we went from something like half past eight ‘til one o’clock and then they had the afternoon session, which we didn’t mind a bit! But I’m afraid they didn’t last long, they had gone by about Christmas I think because nothing was happening then. Nothing was really happening to worry them in London it didn’t start until at least the next year from I remember. So they went home.

I remember we were all issued with gas masks. We had to go into the Village Hall to be fitted - to be shown how to put them on. And I remember I had a baby sister and that one that you had to put the baby right inside the thing, a great big thing on the table and mother looking at that and saying, ‘Never will I put my baby in there!’ She was just horrified. And then I remember one of my big sisters making cases. We used up any old things that we could cut up, old curtains or fabric, or whatever. She made us very smart cases with a strap because we had to take them to school every day and that just became part of our uniform, with our satchels and we always got an order mark if we forgot them. We used to put them on top of the cupboard when we got to school and then every Friday morning have Gas Mask Drill. Had to go through and all put our gas masks on and pull funny faces at each another and the teacher would come round testing to see that - putting their fingers in the sides to see — whether they would have been any use I really don’t know.

I remember then we had a lot of evacuees came to live in the College and they were very harum scarum and they used to put this gas mask in it’s box but put an apple or their lunch or conkers, anything, they were all in the gas masks. What it did to them I can’t imagine! They used to fling them about. Yes, there were quite a number of evacuees. We, being such a big family, there were eleven of us, just hadn’t got any room to take any more but any families that had got a spare room the children were just left there, poor little things. And mother used to feel so sorry for them and we used to invite them and take them along to Sunday School and mother used to say, ‘Bring them home to tea.’ So invariably we would have extras to tea from the village and to us they were just other children and sometimes we laughed at them and their funny ways, they were Londoners and they seemed to almost speak a different language to us and we were country children. But we were kind to them. Yes, I remember taking them for walks, primrosing and so on around the fields.

We used to collect rosehips and take them to school and we were paid a penny a pint I think it was. They used to make syrup out of them, Rosehip Syrup. That provided vitamin C to nursing mothers. Oh yes, expectant mothers. Somehow, I don’t know if shiploads of oranges did get through, but they were allowed the oranges you see anything with the extra vitamin C in, they were allowed. I think all babies were born in the Maternity Home then, I think they were. I don’t know though, I take that back, I can’t remember. But on the whole I seem to remember seeing the home between Preston and Hitchin where these young mothers were.

One specific memory, I remember walking along the road to Sunday School and an Army Padre, a Chaplain was walking along and he caught up with us just started talking and asked us where we were going and we said, ‘Sunday School.’ And he said, ‘Can I come too?’ We said, ‘Yes.’ Captain Harvey his name was and he came to Sunday School and he taught us some choruses which I remember to this day. I always think of him when we sing them and when we told mother and she said, ‘Bring him home, dear.’ So he just became a family friend and he used to come home and we used to play him up, that poor man! I suppose he loved it. But I specifically remember we were all down the meadows with him one day and we shut him in the hen coop and abandoned him! Laughter! When mother found out of course she told us to go and let him out, he could probably have got out, I can’t remember the end of that story. But we never heard anymore, so sadly I believe he was killed in action, yes because I’m sure he would have come back. I remember seeing lists of names and there was a Captain Harvey. There were so many people killed.

We all started in the village school and then we went onto Hitchin Grammar School later on during the war. The Girls Grammar School is up on top of the hill and the boys in down in the town, Windmill Hill. We shared with the Eastbourne High School at the Girls Grammar School. So even when I started we used to go just up ‘til one o’clock and then all these girls in their green uniform, ours was blue and gold, theirs was green. They would all come and be all filing into the Hall for their Assembly at one o’clock while we were trying to get through them to our cloakrooms to come home again. So we must have missed out some of our games or gym, just some of those things and things like after school activities but otherwise I don’t think we actually lacked anything in our lessons. It was just a bit more condensed.

A school uniform was so difficult, we did our best. I remember right through the war - suddenly we were allowed to wear knee socks - up until then we had all had to wear stockings and then it was given out that we could wear knee socks. We used to have wear brown shoes and then I remember towards the end of the war, even shoes were very difficult, we were allowed to wear black ones. We hated it especially if other girls in our class had all managed to get brown ones and we stood out, yes. If you had any uniform that was still good, you would take it back, if you had outgrown it, so that somebody could use it.

I remember for Deportment we were given a lovely yellow girdle. We used to otherwise wear just a navy belt. But if we were awarded a yellow girdle, for how we sat and walked and generally behaved our self at the end of term - on Speech Day, names were read out and you went up onto the platform and there the Headmistress would put this yellow girdle around our waist and we were as proud as punch. I remember when my turn came and I was given mine it was an old one that somebody had worn - it was a bit faded, I’ve still got the yellow girdle though.

Oh, I remember paper was so short. You know on exercise books, the lines, every time we turned a page we ruled two lines at the top and another line at the bottom so we didn’t waste a bit of space.

If the air raid warning went which it quite often did when we were at school. There was one air raid warning at Hitchin, siren we called it, there was one at Luton and one somewhere else and we got to know them all by their names because they all made different noises. I remember calling one Wailing Willie and one Screaming Lizzie and so we’d hear the Hitchin one go up and then the Luton one. Children are so resilient it was just part of our life, the air raid warnings and then you sort of wondered if the bombers would come over and quite often they did. If the air raid warning went and we were in town when we were in school we had to go and sit in the corridors. We had criss-cross sort of tape all over the windows so if they shattered they wouldn’t blow in you see and hurt us. And then of course the lesson couldn’t go on, it disrupted us and that was brilliant! We didn’t mind a bit you know all go and sit cross legged along the corridors. The teachers were probably quite worried. The worst thing was if it went just about 10 minutes before we’d had time to escape to go home because then we had to go back and stay in school until the ‘all clear’, it was called, sounded. Sometimes as we were cycling home, it was a three to four mile ride, the air raid sirens would go then and then we would peddle like fury to make sure we got home.

Well quite often if we were having tests and if the siren went in the middle of it then we were quite pleased because we go could and down tools and go out into the corridor and we thought phew! we’ve escaped that one. I don’t know how we must have got back to them afterwards and continued another day. But I can just remember that sort of sigh of relief if the air raid warning - and it was dreadful when you think about it but I’m sorry to say to that’s how children are. You see when we were about 12 years old, you know, anything to get out of a test.”

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