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Wartime memories of an evacuated teacher Part One - From Islington to Bedford

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

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People in story: 
Mrs. Gwenllian Ruth Clarke (nee) Parris and Mrs. Turvey
Location of story: 
Islington, London and Bedford, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 October 2005

Wartime memories of an evacuated school teacher Part One — From Islington to Bedford

Part one of an oral history interview with Mrs. Gwenllian Ruth Clarke (née Parris) conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“I was born in Islington on 23rd August 1914. One thing that might be interesting when I was still at College, that was between 1931 and 1935, that’s right, we were being trained to use apparatus to put out fires and being taught how to go through smoke filled rooms. So there was obviously a lot being done behind the scenes towards the wartime efforts. I was at West Hampstead Teaching Training College for teachers of Domestic Subjects. We were actually - a government team came in and we were taught to use stirrup pumps and what to do if a bomb fell. Mind you to us in those days, we were 18 or 19, it was a bit of a lark sort of thing, we couldn’t see what it was all about but it was a bit of fun anyway. But of course later on we began to realise what had been brewing behind the scenes in the minds of the powers that be.

I think it must have been 1937 and I was over in Budapest and going through Germany in those days and there was quite an atmosphere. You had to be very careful! Because we were in, oh I forget which city now, and it was Hitler’s birthday and all the shops had busts of Hitler all adorned and one of our young people, well we were all young and sort of skittish, she laughed very loudly and said, ‘Oh, look at that!’ And they were all, the Germans, whoever, were saying ‘sssccchhh, sssccchhh’ you mustn’t. You know it was all very tense even in those days.

In 1939 I was over in Jersey, I’d spent a month in Jersey and it was from there that we were recalled to come back to the school - ready, well we weren’t told we were going to be evacuated - we were just told we’d got to report back. It was impossible to get back any sooner short of hiring a private plane which would have been out of the question. You had to wait for your berth on the ship that you’d book because the whole island was packed with holiday makers and a great many of them were being called home so it was impossible on board any of the Channel steamers unless you’d already booked. Well of course we were very young and foolish probably and full of life and we didn’t really see what was coming or perhaps we didn’t want to. We weren’t all full of tension about it.

Yes, I think it was two days before war broke out. Yes, two days before war broke out we came. I know we were here in Bedford when the declaration of war was declared. I’d never left home until then. I’d always lived at home. They were used to me going off on the Continent on holiday as I’d been over to Budapest and all round Germany and Italy. Mind you it was considered a bit adventurous in those days. People used to think where is she off to next? It wasn’t general. Well, of course I was earning a little more than most of my contemporaries at the time, the people I’d been to school with. Because in those days we were told, if they offer you more than a £1 0s 0d a week look at it very carefully because there may be no future in it. But being a teacher, mind you I was 21 when I came out of College and I earned £3 15s 0d a week, they earn more than that an hour now! But that was a good wage, I could do quite a lot on that.

We were at the school at 6 o’clock in the morning and all the mothers were bringing the children to you. It was very fraught, very fraught. Mind you some of them, it was a very mixed sort of area, some of them were in tears and making a lot of fuss and others were saying, oh, well somebody will look after them, I’ll be rid of them for a day or two, sort of thing. But how much of it was bravado, I don’t know. I mean quite a lot of it I should think was bravado. But especially the mothers of the little ones, I don’t think now since I’ve had children of my mine I don’t think I could have done it, I really couldn’t! I mean but then I was footloose and fancy free - come on children! I can’t remember any of my little ones being disorderly not even wanting to go to the toilet! I don’t know how they managed because it was quite a long journey.

As I say when we were recalled to the school for 6 o’clock in the morning and we were given our children to look after. I had six small children from about five to six year olds with their pillow cases round their neck with their bits and their gas masks. Do you know I don’t think I could have done it now when I’ve had children of my own! I couldn’t have said to them, ‘Come on, we are all going off on a holiday. Come along we’ll get on the train.’ And they bussed us out to Mill Hill, we got on a bus to Mill Hill and there we went into the sidings, we didn’t go into the Station and we were all put on a train and we were told, well we weren’t told anything, we were just going! We didn’t know where we were going and eventually we arrived at Bedford. Now to me Bedford had just been a station I passed through on my way up to see my friend in Derbyshire. I’d never been to Bedford. I did perhaps know John Bunyan was born in Bedford but very little else.

But when we embarked on this great voyage it was a very, very fraught atmosphere. To start with we hadn’t had much preparation for it. I mean we’d only been given the night before more or less - tomorrow morning you will report at school ready to go. So there that was not a great deal — well probably behind the scenes there’d be a great deal, but the actual participants had it thrown on them so they hadn’t had a long time to dwell over it, probably just as well! I don’t know how many of the children returned.

All our school, the Star Cross School, the school was located in between Kings Cross and Baker Street, in the hinterland there. It wasn’t just our school there were several schools all came together. There were quite a lot of us! When we arrived in Bedford, you know that picture of us all marching up the High Street. We arrived at Midland Road Station, we came up Midland Road and then in the Cattle Market, that was the Cattle Market with the pens and all that in those days and we stood there for a while. Then we were taken in groups and we went into a tent and we were all given our little bag with our iron rations which I think was corned beef and some dried milk and one or two necessities. Then we were broken up into groups and we had to go out and sell our children more or less to find them homes. There was no previous arrangements seemed to have been made with anybody, Mrs. So and So will take this, that and the other. Perhaps because it was a larger town, it wasn’t a village or anything but we took a group of children along Ampthill Road. Oh, we went to Ampthill Road School, that was it. Our group went from the Cattle Market to Ampthill Road School and from there we trolled up Ampthill Road knocking on doors saying, ‘Will you take a child or two children, please?’ And of course you ended up with the poor little dears at the end who were not too clean or too good looking for which we had to find homes for. Well we did find home for them all eventually but by that time it was quite late at night. It was getting dark anyway and our Head said, ‘Look we must have a Staff Meeting, come back to the Station.’ So we all went back to the Station Waiting Room and we had a Staff Meeting and decided what was going to happen as far as we knew. And then she said, ‘Well none of us have eaten since about breakfast time so we had better go and have a meal.’ And we went to the Rose and Crown in the High Street, that’s where we went and we had a meal and then we thought, it was now quite dark, we’d better break up. I walked out of the hotel and it was pitch black, blackout and it suddenly hit me, I’d been so busy finding homes for everybody else and I had bothered, I hadn’t got anywhere to go! I was homeless in a strange town. I knew two places Ampthill Road School and the Railway Station! Now, I thought, no the Railway Station doesn’t sound a very good place, Ampthill Road School. I found a Boy Scout, he happened out of the murk and I grabbed him and asked him to take to Ampthill Road School because I hadn’t a clue how to get there so he took me to Ampthill Road School. We found the Caretaker and I said, ‘Please will you let me stay the night in the school? At least I’ll have a roof over my head.’ And he was a very kind man and he said, ‘Of course you can but I think I can do better than that, I’ll find you some where to stay.’ So, he took me to Whitbread Avenue and there was a house that belonged to a Mrs. Turvey. Mrs. Turvey was a Policeman’s widow. She had two Policemen who resided with her but they were both off at Birmingham, was it only one, oh, Bill was out but one of them, my husband (to be) was up in Birmingham because he was doing his training. She said, ‘Well while he’s away, while Tom’s away, you can come and stay with me.’ So, oh, great relief! I stayed there until war was declared.

Well on the night that war was declared I’d taken myself off to bed and suddenly I was aroused very rapidly and told, ‘Look you’ll have to get out, Tom’s coming home. They’ve sent them all home so you’ll have to sleep on the sofa downstairs’. So I hopped out of bed, taken down to the sofa downstairs and he arrived sometime in the night. It was one of those houses where the key was through the door and you oiked the key out and opened the door, so I wouldn’t have known he’d have been coming in it was a good job I had some warning. Anyway, I stayed with Mrs. Turvey for most of the time I was evacuated. With having the two Policemen and there was also another Policeman’s daughter there because she couldn’t get in from Lavendon, she was a telephone operator. She couldn’t come in every day because there were no buses or anything. So I had to board across the way but I lived in the house. And I’ll never forget the first time I met my husband - I’d walked all the way from Jubilee School where I was then teaching cookery and it poured with rain all the way home and I arrived dripping wet, absolutely. Water pouring off me and there was this being lying, not sitting in the chair but with his feet over one end and his body over the other and I stood there dripping. He didn’t even rise from the chair and I said to him, ‘Mr. Clarke, I presume?’ And that was our introduction.

But the teaching in those days - when I first arrived I was given a football, a whistle and about 24 boys from about 10 to 11 years old and told to go and keep them amused in a field. That was about the second day we got here. I’d got no idea what I was going to do with 24 boys, a football and a whistle! But I managed to get them sorted out.

I also did a stint as a waitress in one of those cafés they used to run, British Restaurant. We all had to do our stint in the British Restaurant. I was about the worst waitress that ever could have been. I dropped things, my trays hit people! I think they must have been glad to get rid of me but then I eventually worked at Jubilee School teaching. We teachers seemed to get broken up, we didn’t keep as a school but we did have our London Inspectorate. The Inspectors from London and mine was Miss Laycock, that was it and when Miss Laycock was visiting your centre, you trembled! She was one of the - well you didn’t put a foot wrong, otherwise there was trouble with a capital ‘T’! Strangely enough when we were away she fought every inch of the way for us, that ‘her teachers’ weren’t going to be put on. And Mr. Hayes of course, he was the Chief Inspector and he would fight tooth and nail because there was quite a lot of rivalry between the Bedford teachers and the London teachers. Not personal rivalry but between the two sort of Authorities I suppose for resources but not only that London teachers got paid London Weighting! And we didn’t lose our London Weighting when we came here! They opened an account for us at National Westminster Bank and I’ve still got my account there, I’ve had it since 1939.

I got engaged to Tom but we couldn’t get married straight away because he had to do two years Probationary and in those days Police were not allowed to marry in their Probationary period so I had wait until then, but of course people knew. It got back to the Bedford Education Authority and they promptly went and hired another teacher to take my place! My Inspectorate came, Miss Laycock came and said, ‘Well, you might have told me you were going to get married. You’ve left me in rather a hole.’ I said, ‘I’m not, I’m engaged yes but I can’t get married for at least another year.’ So she said, ‘Oh, if that’s the case then we’ll have to see about this.’ In the end they had to find another job for the other girl they’d employed to take my place. But it was all part of life in those days we didn’t let it get us down you couldn’t you had to go on. I was teaching a class - well all of the classes were coming in turn. There were two teachers there, two domestic science teachers and as I say we just took the school, some of them were evacuees and some of them were local children. I was Miss Parris in those days.”

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