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Evacuated to the West Country: From Bow to Burlescombe

by Ellen for gwen clapton

Contributed by 
Ellen for gwen clapton
People in story: 
The Clapton Family
Location of story: 
Burlescombe, Devon
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 February 2004

At the beginning of World War II our family lived in Bow, East London and with the onset of the war the family were split up for a while and yet ended up all back together in the depths of Devon. My family story is about my nan and grandad's plight during this time from the memories of their eight children, all of which are still alive today. My nan and grandad were Gladys and Walter Clapton and their eight children were: Jim, Irene, Doreen (my mother), George, Lily, Audrey, Henry and Gwen. The three youngest members of the family have no clear recollection of their evacuation, but during the early years would always be afraid of any loud bangs, which I would imagine was as a result of the bombing of London and their time spent during the Blitz before they too could join their evacuated sisters and brothers.

These are their stories, I will begin with the eldest first:


When the War came along all the children were evacuated to the country - youngest first, so I was left in London with my father living in the air raid shelters because our house was unsafe. A land mine came down at the bottom of the road in the East End of London in Bow where we lived. In addition to going to work we all had our bit to do, such as roof spotting for planes and fire watching. The bombing went on for 90 nights, 10 hours a night. Getting to work was a problem as there was no transport, no buses, no trams. In the end I was more or less living anywhere I could - cellars, air raid shelters and it was beginning to effect my health. The people I worked with, Bill and Tom Brown, were killed with a direct hit on a No. 38 bus near Stratford, and after that the firm was finished.

I had become separated from my father and the last I heard he had busted his knee, and as there was no Health Service in those days he was told to get out of the city and join his family in Devon. I went to the Salvation Army for information and they found out that my mum had been sent to Devon to a place called Burlescombe. I went to Paddington station and it was packed. All the carriages were full and I was helped on the train and put up on the luggage rack by the porters so that I could rest on the long journey. They told me to make enquires when I arrived in Taunton. I was so weak that I slept most of the way. The guard came looking in the carriages and called out Taunton - everyone off for Taunton. I got off at Taunton station and the porters asked me what I wanted. I told them that I didn’t know where to go but my mother and brothers and sisters were at a place called Burlescombe. They told me they hadn't heard of that place and looked at each other in puzzlement. They asked me for my ticket and then they said - you mean Buscombe. They told me to wait on the station and the people from the Toch H came to me with a hot drink and a biscuit. I had to wait for the train to come into the side platform for the stopper train to Exeter. I got on that and got off again at Buscombe. No-one was there to meet me, as they didn’t know I was coming. Wally Stevens who owned the Ayshford Arms pub near the station at Burlescombe had a lot of evacuees who were staying with him waiting for billets. He took me in , gave me a meal and looked after me and I ended up there for a while doing a few odd jobs. He had cleared out all his stables and had the hessian sacks full of straw and made them into beds for the evacuees. I stayed there for a while and was fed properly; it was such a change to have real food again - chicken, pork etc. There used to be a cattle market close to the station and I would help clean out the stalls and any other odd jobs that I could. He made enquires as to the whereabouts of my family and it transpired that Bill Frost, a farmer from Canonsleigh, who would come into the pub and went to Burlescombe church, had rented a cottage to my mum in Westleigh, called Stepps Cottage.

Soon my father arrived and we were all reunited - Mum, Dad, Rene, Doreen, Lily, Audrey, Gwen, George and Henry. Then began my life in the country.

IRENE GLADYS HURST(nee Clapton - aged 78)

At the age of 14 I was living in London with my mum, dad, sisters and brothers (8 of us in all) when War broke out. My younger sisters Doreen and Lily and brother George were the first to be evacuated down to Devon when the Second World War was imminent. We spent a lot of the time in the air raid shelters and all the little ones were very scared of the loud bangs from the bombs, dropping nightly. When things got too bad and our home was unsafe father said it was time for us to go.

We picked up all the clothes that we could carry and father came with us to Paddington Station to see us off - me, mum, Henry (6), Audrey (4) and Gwen (1). On our way there was an unexploded bomb and the area had been cordoned off, so they were not going to allow us to go by. Father said - On the count of 3, run under the ropes, and keep going. We managed to get through and eventually got onto Paddington Station, just in time to catch the train as it was leaving. We were all put into the Guard’s van and off we went, waving to our father on the platform.

We arrived at Burlescombe Station in Devon at 11.00 p.m. It was pitch black, no street lights, so different from the city. The landlord of the Ayshford Arms pub met us and took us in. We all slept in one room on that first night. The next morning someone came in with a jug of tea and cups and found us all huddled in the corner with our mum because we thought the bombs were dropping with all the loud bangs we could hear. Then the person explained to us that it wasn’t the bombing at all, it was the quarry blasting which happened every morning at 9.00 a.m

That same day we were taken to Mr and Mrs Priddle at Fenacre about a mile and a half away. We were there a few days but during this time my mother went to look for the other children who had come on before us. Although she knew where they were we couldn’t be reunited until she found us somewhere to live. The local billeting officer eventually found a cottage that we could rent for 3s. 6d. per week. It was a thatched cottage called Stepps Cottage at Westleigh (2 up, 2 down). We had no running water or flush toilet and although the nearby neighbours had the facilities when we asked if we could use their water taps they refused and we had to draw all our water from the pump down in the village and bring it home in buckets. The owner of the cottage (Mrs Frost) eventually had a cold water tap brought into the scullery. To many of the villagers we were Outsiders.

A few days after we settled into Stepps Cottage and mum had collected Doreen, George and Lily from their billets, my older brother Jim arrived from London to be followed later by my father.

Although we had left London through no fault of our own, the landlord up there took all our remaining furniture and belongings in lieu of rent.

I later worked at the Ayshford Arms cleaning and slept in the cupboard under the stairs to free up a bit more space at home. My family settled in Devon after the War and after I married my husband Frank and had one son, Ron, we emigrated to Australia in 1957 and have lived here ever since.

DOREEN FRANCES MARTIN(nee Clapton - aged 75)

At the age of 11, in June 1940, I was evacuated from the East End of London to Devon. The War was getting worse and I had to leave my mum and dad and went sent on a train with my brother George (aged 7) and my sister Lily (aged 9), to a place called Burlescombe. We got off the train and were taken to the village school where lots of people were waiting to collect children and take them to live in their homes. My mum’s last words to me were - Don't get separated, but if the worst comes to the worst you must stay with George (as he was the youngest) and Lily can go on her own, but try to be near each other.

So Lily went with two old ladies - they looked older than my Grandma. My brother George and I went to farmer Wright’s farm at Appledore Barton, Burlescombe. It was lovely. The family was really kind to us. One week went by and a lady visitor came to the farm to see Mrs Wright. They started to talk to me about a lady and gentleman up the road named Mr and Mrs Hayes. Mrs Hayes’s uncle was also in the house - he was a very tall man about 88 years old called Mr Cartwright. The visitor told me that they dearly wanted a little girl and as Mr and Mrs Wright only wanted a little boy, would I like to go and live with the Hayes. So I asked the following questions - Do they live on a farm?
Have they got an orchard?
Do they have chickens?
Will I be able to collect the eggs?
Have they got a car?
Will I have my own bedroom? The answers to all the questions was - Yes so I said, alright then, I will go. I was going anyway, as it was obviously in their thoughts.

Mr and Mrs Hayes really looked after me. I was treated like a princess - spoilt rotten. They would ask me to try on dresses and shoes for their niece but when it came to Christmas time and I opened my presents, they had really been for me. I used to make them laugh, sing and dance. I went to church 3 times on a Sunday. I named them auntie, uncle and grandpa. They would take me for rides in the car and to a pantomime in Exeter. Tulip Cottage was the name of the house at Lamb Hill near Burlescombe. Grandpa used to go to a posh building across the road for his medicine at the weekend and it wasn’t until years later that I realised it was the Lamb Inn and he had been going for his pint. George stayed on the farm and was very happy there. My sister Lily was invited to come to tea at the Hayes or for a ride in the car but the sisters would never allow it. We all worried that the sisters were not treating my sister Lily very well but being as young as I was I never quite understood the cruelty she was suffering until years later.

When my mum and dad and the rest of the family experienced the dreadful Blitz of London, my dad put Rene, Mum and the babies (Audrey, Henry and Gwen) on the train to Devon. Dad and Jim followed a few days later. You see the house we lived in was demolished and the family was offered a little thatched cottage in Westleigh at 3s. 6d. a week. 2 rooms up and 2 rooms down. For washing clothes, drinking and bathing we had to collect buckets of water from a pump in the village and carry back to the cottage. The village children used to ask me how do you all live in that little house - 8 children and your mum and dad with only 2 bedrooms?.

I told them that not only was my dad a glazier in London he was also a carpenter and made a round bed. My mum had made round sheets and blankets and a big eiderdown. We all slept with our toes meeting in the middle like a clock. And they believed me - ha! ha!

We lived in the village for many years and my mum became the school cook at Burlescombe. All the children loved her and she lived until the age of 89 years. Unfortunately my father died of cancer aged 67.

LILY CLAPTON (aged 73)

I was evacuated down from Bow in the East End of London when I was 9 years old. I arrived at Burlescombe railway station near Tiverton in Devon with my brother George and sister Doreen and lots of other children. It was pitch black, no street lights and we were taken to Burlescombe school. We were all gathered together in the school room and one by one the other children were allocated to families. But as my mother had told us we were not to be separated and must keep together we were the last ones. No-one wanted 3 children together so my brother George who was 7 years went onto a farm with my sister Doreen (aged 11). I was taken to another farm for a few days. They were very kind to me but couldn’t keep me because they already had two other evacuees plus three children of their own.

A few days later I was moved to a cottage at Lamb (3 miles from Burlescombe) owned by two elderly sisters. I was very unhappy there. I had to do all the work for them and sit in the scullery to have my meals, while they were in the dining room having theirs. I wasn’t allowed to wear the clothes that my mother had packed for me to wear. The sisters would give me clothes that were always far to big so that they would last me. I was not allowed to go out to see my sister and brother - who were only walking distance away. When they came to see me I wasn’t allowed to go out as they were told that I had my work to do. I was told to go out and collect sticks for lighting the fire each day and fill up the shed with wood. On Sundays I had to go to chapel 3 times and while they were in the morning service I was told to clean the toilets belonging to the chapel. When going to school I would often miss the bus because of the chores that had to be done. I had to walk 3 miles and found that in my lunch tin I had only dry bread and was told to pick watercress from the stream on the way to make my sandwich. My sister and brother often shared their food with me. I was always glad to go to school, as I was very happy there in 1941.

When the Blitz came and my mother was bombed out in London she came down to Devon to live in Westleigh bringing my other 3 sisters (Irene, Audrey and Gwen) and brother Henry. When my mother came to the cottage to collect me, I heard a voice saying - Is Lily there? I’ve come to take her home. It was my mum’s voice and it was the happiest day of my life. I told her how unhappy I had been, but had been afraid to tell anyone. She collected up my clothes and we left that cottage (and the sisters) never to return again.

Mum had been lucky enough to be able to rent a thatched roof cottage, called Stepps Cottage which only had 2 bedrooms, sitting room and scullery. We had no running water or electricity but with the arrival of my father a few days later, we were nearly all back together again. Only my brother Jim was still in London at that time working as an engraver/printer.


My journey into the unknown

At the tender age of 9 in the summer of 1940 myself and 2 of my sisters Doreen and Lily were evacuated from the East End of London by train to Burlescombe Church School on the borders of Devon/Somerset. It was live in my memory forever. I was billeted on a farm 3 miles from Burlescombe and my two sisters were in the same area as myself but with two different families. I told the billeting officer we had to be kept together so that we could see each other. How different life was for me on the farm. I had never seen anything like it before. It was school holiday time and I was shown how to bring the cows home from the fields to the farm. I collected hen’s eggs from the hen houses and chopped wood to be stores for the winter fires. Also I took the farm horse to the Blacksmiths for new shoes - 2 miles away, all on my own. When the apple season was in full flow I helped to pick up apples from the trees to be stored away for winter.

I enjoyed my days at school and mixing with the village boys. In the spring of 1942 the farmer taught me how to set mole traps in the fields which I did on Saturdays and Sundays. The farmer took the skins off the moles which I had collected and sold them in Tiverton for 6d each. The money, which was collected, bought me my first pair of boots, which I was very proud to wear. I also collected foxgloves seeds in the summer which amounted to 1ld in weight and sent them away to be used for medicine, but unfortunately they all got lost in the post. I helped with the thrashing of the corn and the rats at the bottom of the hayrick would run out and the farmhands would kill them with forks and cut off their tails. These were sold for 2d each. I had good food (I shall never forget the lovely pasties and cream). In the winter of 1942 the farmer and his relatives had a pheasant shoot which I loved. Those memories of life on the farm have stayed with me forever. The farmer had two daughters, one of which I keep in touch with. In 1943 my family moved from London to a little village called Westleigh, near Burlescombe and I had to go back to live with my parents.

I spent the rest of my schooldays at Westleigh until the age of 14 when I left and went to work at Heathcotes of Tiverton for 7 years. Later I joined the RAF.

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