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Memories of an Evacuee 1939icon for Recommended story

by vandervelde

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Martin Vandervelde
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08 June 2004

In 1939 I lived with my parents in East Ham not far from the London docks. They and my grandparents had been explaining to my brother Denis aged seven and me nearly 5 of the likely outbreak of war. The government, with Neville Chamberlain as leader had been suggesting that all children of school age, living in London and other big cities, be evacuated without their parents, to safer parts of the UK. Children below school age would stay behind with their families. This meant that if my parents chose, I would stay at home in East Ham. As the war clouds gathered over Europe and my fifth birthday neared, I realised that I would be strting school in September 1939. Until that time I had only left London for seaside holidays or weekends in Southend.

Finally when war was imminent the day for evacuation was named, September 2nd 1939. I was taken to school and enrolled, thus enabling me to go with Denis to unknown parts! We had no idea where we would be going and as far as I can remember there were no tears from either of us. I don't think we realised the significance of it, but looking back it must have been distressing for my parents. We just thought we would be away from home at a new school for a few weeks, and then back to our own school in London. My parents , in common with most others in East End realised that their area was very vulnerable to bombing, as the docks were an obvious target.

So we were duly herded into the local town hall, with a label tied to our wrists, a small suitcase of clothing, a gas mask each and a packet of food to last the day. In some ways it seemed like an adventure. We kissed goodbye to our families, and then were bused to Paddington station to catch a train to the unknown. No one told us where we were going, and I don't suppose we asked. even our teachers didn't divuge this information. All we knew was that we would be in a strange bed that night in a safer bed than London.

At Swindon, we were all led off the train, where some of us were taken by coach to Wroughton. I beleive the remainder stayed in Swindon with the teachers. There were enough children taken to Wroughton to fill the parish hall to bursting point. Even know when I have the occaision to visit this hall in priors hill, I get feelings of nostalgia. The rules for evacuation were simply that every householder who had a spare bedroom was obliged to accept a child, as long as they were fit enough to cope. In the case of two siblings they could stay together in the same room. we waited apprehensively to be chosen, and the local people sorted through the children, rather like a cattle market, to see if anyone was to their liking. There are terrible stories of children being sent to uncaring or cruel families, but we were lucky. We were chosen by a Mr and Mrs Izzard, who lived in a house in what is now called Coventry Close (formerly part of Perrys Lane)They could see we were brothers and I suppose we looked clean and tidy. This might have been because my father was a tailor and always made our grey flannel shorts to measure. We would have been wearing the shorts with grey shirts, knitted ties, grey pull overs, grey turnover long socks and a woollen top coat and school cap. This was the usual dress for boys in those days, and so different from today!

The Izzards had no children of their own, which was a great disappointment to them. So it was like a miracle to have two boys given to them for the duration of the war. We were taken home to their council house, eagerly fed and bathed in a copper bath tub with hot water from the kettle. When we wnt to bed we saw from the window that they had chikens in a pen in the back garden. This was a real novelty for us and it was promised that we could collect the eggs the next day. Suddenly I realised that living in the country was going to be a whole new experience. I had never before seen chikens running around!

Mr Izzard, whom we were soon calling Uncle Alf, worked "inside" (i.e. in the railway works) and thus described by Aunty Izzard "Tots" to her friends. Denis wrote home to tell out parents that Uncle Alf was inside and my father wrote back desperately worried to know what crime he had committed to put him behind bars! Aunty Izzard was very proud to have two little boys to look after, and although they were told on our labels that we were jewish, she still thought we should enrolled at Sunday school at the parish church. We knew that our parents would not approve, but never the less at the first opportunity we were walked up Church Hill and introduced to the vicar.Parents were discouraged from visiting too soon in case it made the children homesick, but when eventually, my parents came to visit us, they were able to explain the difference between a jew and a christian. We were the only jewish children to arrive with our batch and when we started at the village infants and junior school, our teachers were very surprised and interested. It was alnmost unheard of in those days in an English village for anyone to be a non- christian. My parents became great friends with Miss Winscom headmistress of the Wroughton junior school in School Lane.

Our cockney accents were a source of amusement to the local kids and I expect we taught them a few new words. After a month or so when our parents made their next visit, they could barely understand our Wiltshire dialect. Also our foreign surname caused some problem to the teachers. We were often asked if we were German, although our name is actually Dutch.

I loved going to the infants school, and my most vivid memory is that we all went to sleep at lunch hour in camp beds, arranged in military rows. A habit I have found hard to give up. Everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas, so my parents had agreed that the Izzards could keep us until the end of hostilities. This was a rash promise as in effect we stayed until 1945. My parents house and shop were both bombed on the same night in 1942, so they came down to Wroughton to live near us. They bought a house at the other end of Perrys lane and we were able to visit them every day. This arrangement may seem strange, and it must have bee nsad for my parents, but they kept their promise to the Izzards, who would have been terribly upset to have lost their ready made family so quickly. My father worked at Vickers Armstrong at South Marston during the war, and also was a member of Wroughton Home Guard.

Eventually we both passed the scholarship at eleven years old, and cycled to the Commonweal grammar school in Swindon, coming home for lunch each day. This meant we cycled ten miles a day and installed in me but not my brother a love of cycling which has never left me as I enter my seventieth year. By the time I started at the Commonweal my brother and I were the only child evacuees from our group still in Wroughton. All the others had returned to London to pick up the threads of their earlier life. My parents never wanted to return to the smoke and father opened a tailoring business called Henry Best firstly in Clifton Street and then in 1946 in Victoria Road. Eventually I joined the family business when I had done my national service. By then we had moved into Swindon which was more convenient as father had not learnt to drive at that time.

My life long interest in cycling, as I said started in Wroughton. I was bought a bike for a birthday present and I remember cycling round the village finding new routes. At no time did I feel unsafe as there were so few vehicles on the roads to worry about. During the war when my parents came to live in Wroughton, my father bought a pony and trap from a famer in Ashbury and we went all round the district in it. The pony was tethered every night in Major Barrett's field which the Ellendune centre was built upon. The problem was that she regularly broke free from her tether and wandered into several alloments in Wroughton, eating villages carrots and cabbages etc. we were not popular. Eventaully the pony and trap was sold at the end of the war when we made it clear that we did not want to groom her or do any mucking out. Kids haven't changed have they?

I can honestly say that we enjoyed being evacuees, as we were wel ltreated and obviously loved by our adopted parents. I never did return to live in London, but I did marry a London girl born at Woodford within three miles of where I was born and our three children were born at the PMH in Swindon.My brother went to university and has lived all his adult life in London. As a father myself I now realise what my parents had to go through to hand us over to complete strangers, not knowing the outcome.

A few years ago there was a little get together organised for the remaining evacuees in the Swindon area. About a dozen of us were guests of the Mayor at that time. We were taken to the top of the John Murray for a treat. The date 1995 was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of hostilities.

The end.

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