- Contributed by
- People in story:
- James Roffey
- Location of story:
- London Sussex
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 February 2005
But they’re only evacuees, so don’t know any better.
The arrival of evacuees in any reception area was greeted with very mixed feelings by the local people. They were generally all convinced that we would originate from inner city slums, with behavioural problems to match, they thought we would all be ‘street wise’ and have no knowledge of life in the country.
Of course that was true of many, but by no means all of the evacuees. However that perception remained and when anything went wrong, such as a farm gate being left open allowing animals to escape, it was inevitable that the blame would fall upon the evacuees “Because they don’t know any better!” But not everyone shared that view.
One day a woman from a nearby farm came into the shop where I was billeted and claimed that I and some other evacuees had been to the farm and wreaked havoc with the poultry.
She said that hen coops had been tipped over, eggs broken and the poultry chased away. My foster father said he didn’t believe that we were to blame but would ask us.
We certainly were not guilty and had not been anywhere near the farm on the day she said the damage had been done. He believed us and told the woman she was wrong, saying, “They are good boys and would never do such a thing, they look after my chickens and I trust them completely.”
The woman still went to the police and they looked into the matter, finding that the culprits were actually the children of one of the farm hands.
But we never received an apology.
On another occasion it was the local Rector who believed that because we were evacuees we wouldn’t know any better, it was the day of the annual church garden party held in the grounds of the Rectory.
My foster parents didn’t want any part of it so I was sent instead. At the rear of the Rectory was a wide gravelled terrace and as I was walking along it I heard a man’s voice behind me say to someone “Are the French windows locked, I don’t want that boy getting into the house!”
A woman replied, “Oh I am sure he wouldn’t do that Sir”. But the Rector persisted, saying, “He is only an evacuee and won’t know any better!” After hearing that, I stormed out of the garden.
Many years later I realised that people still had that view about evacuees.
Time to go home
After years of waiting and longing to go home I quite unexpectedly received a letter from my mother telling me that John and I could return home and enclosing the money for our train tickets.
I was wildly excited and went round the village saying my goodbyes and paying one last visit to all my favourite places, little realising the disillusionment that awaited me when I finally arrived back in London.
Our mother met us at Victoria station and we caught a tram to Camberwell. The tram was dirty; its windows were boarded up, so I couldn’t see much outside. Even then I found that our mother would not talk about the evacuation.
Our old home was in a very battered state from the bombing and everywhere looked dilapidated. I think I was expecting some sort of welcome home, but nothing happened and no one was at all interested in what I had to say, perhaps that was because I then spoke in a strong Sussex accent and therefore seemed alien to them.
On one occasion I was out with my mother when she met a neighbour who looked at me and said “And who is this boy then?” To which my mother replied, “Oh he is my youngest son, he has just come home from being evacuated.” Then the woman looked at me and said “Oh you were one of the lucky ones having a nice time in the country.
I don’t suppose you really knew that there was a war on!” That really annoyed me. So after being machine-gunned, suffering years of homesickness, having had to be grown up and self reliant for four years all that could be simply brushed aside and told I was one of the lucky ones.
I complained to my mother about it but she told me not to be so silly.
Within a few weeks of returning home all the feelings of not really belonging that I had experienced as an evacuee returned. I felt no affinity with London or my own home.
I wanted to be back in the country, but had to wait a few years before I could achieve that aim.
What about my education?
It was inevitable that my education would suffer due to the war and evacuation. In 1939 I was about to move up from the infants to the junior school, (the big boys), but the evacuation intervened.
At Pulborough I was put in the junior class with the village boys and a few other evacuees. After a few years they moved me to the Village Hall where the Peckham Central Girls School had their lessons.
There were about six classes held in the main hall and we all sat round trestle tables trying to listen to our teacher and not one of the others. They did their best but under such conditions I don’t think we learnt much.
Things were not much better when we returned to London. In an attempt to sort us out we had to sit examinations for which no preparatory teaching was given. If you passed you could go to a Central school, which you would leave at the age of fifteen, but if you failed, which I and post other former evacuees did, you moved on to an Elementary school, the leaving age which was fourteen.
My school was to be in Grove Lane, Camberwell. It had been badly bombed and closed as a school for many years. The ground floor classrooms were still in use by the ARP and one had its windows and doors painted black and continued to be used as a mortuary to which bomb victims were brought.
The school was to reopen using only the remaining upper class rooms, but first the teachers and local boys had to shovel out the heaps of broken glass and fallen plaster from the bombing. Eventually it was made ready and we were told to report there.
On average there were fifty boys in each classroom and the teachers were elderly men who had been recalled from retirement.
There was virtually no equipment, few books and even less interest. As leaving age drew nearer a few of us became worried about how backward our education was.
We asked our teacher to give us homework that might help us to catch up, but his reply was “If you think I am taking on all that extra work you are wrong. Besides, what is the point, within a year you will all be sweeping up factory floors.”
Many years later I met a man who had been a teacher in a London school like mine, told me what it was like for them. “I had taught hundreds of boys over the years and thought I knew how to handle them, but found I was totally unprepared for what I was asked to do towards the end of the war.
There were boys in my class who had lived through all the bombing, some had been buried alive, and others had helped to dig out people from bombed houses.
But the hardest to understand were the boys who had been long-term evacuees. Generally they were quiet and well behaved, but would flare up and lash out if they thought they were being belittled in any way. Also they could all put on a ‘dead-pan’ face making it impossible to know what they were thinking.”
He told me that in his opinion the education system failed the boys who had lived through the war. “We tried to stick to the pre-war methods that had become totally unsuitable.
No wonder some of the boys rebelled and others simply ‘opted out’. “
I left school just after VE Day. I shall never forget the elation we all felt when the news finally broke that Germany had surrendered.
Out of the upstairs windows of every house appeared the flags that had survived the bombing, people just stood around grinning. My mother said “Come on. We are going up to the West End!” Soon we were on a bus that was inching its way through the crowds, eventually we were outside Buckingham Palace and shouting, “ We want the King” along with thousands of others.
Then mounted police gently made the way through the crowds for on open topped car, in which stood Winston Churchill waving a huge cigar. Soon afterwards he appeared on the balcony with the Royal family and everyone cheered even louder.
Eventually we made our way home, where we found a huge bonfire already blazing at the top of our road.
Men and boys were ripping the doors and floor boards out of bombed houses to burn, and then they went into the street shelters and dragged out the bunks, saying “We won’t need these any more!”
From our road you could see all over London and that night the sky glowed redder from the bonfires than it had done at the height of blitz, but the best sight of all was that of the dome of St.Paul’s Cathedral behind which were two searchlights making a huge V sign.
However our eldest brother, Edward, was still in the army, somewhere in Italy. He had been missing for many weeks until found in a military hospital suffering from jaundice. But even when he finally made it home our family could not be fully reunited because our dear sister Jean had died in 1943 at the age of eighteen of meningitis.
We had all changed, the war had taken its toll and things could never be the same again.
Creating the Evacuees Reunion Association.
This is not the place to recount the years that followed the war, but my memories of the evacuation never faded, in fact they grew stronger as time went by.
I became ever more annoyed when I heard people repeating all the old myths about us evacuees.
Books were still being written and published in which the horror stories of children from the slums being forced upon genteel, middle class people in the reception areas were repeated and presented as representative of all evacuees.
At a company meeting I was attending I even experienced someone stepping back when I told him I had been an evacuee.
When I heard of the government’s plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War I enquired whether they would remember the evacuees.
No one appeared to know what I was talking about, but eventually I succeeded in gaining an allocation of fifty places on the big parade, but I could be given no help in finding the fifty evacuees.
I wrote to all the newspapers and the media, but no one was interested. I wrote to all the London Borough Councils, but no response came.
The big day of the Parade finally came with only my brother John and me to represent the millions who had been evacuees.
I wondered how we could be identified as former evacuees by the crowds lining The Mall, and then I hit on the idea of us wearing luggage labels, just as we had all those years ago.
The response was immediate and people could be seen pointing at our luggage labels and even above the noise of the bands and the cheering it was possible to hear them shouting
“I was an evacuee!”
When the Parade finished on Horse Guards Parade people crowded round asking if an Association for evacuees had at last been formed.
It hadn’t then but behind us in the Parade had been a party from the WRVS, several dressed in their wartime WVS uniform. One of them asked me why an evacuees association had not been formed, when I replied that I didn’t know she told me to get on and do it.
I did as I was told and today the Evacuees Reunion Association has members all over the world and one of our principal objectives is to ensure that the true story of the great evacuation becomes known and recorded for future generations.
Our big break-through came when the Imperial War Museum gave us its active support.
My story is not yet completed, but that is as far as it goes for now.
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