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An Evacuees Story of Life in Dunstable

by Dunstable Town Centre

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Dunstable Town Centre
People in story: 
David Manners
Location of story: 
Dunstable, Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 September 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Dunstable At War Team on behalf of the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

It was a bright sunny day for late autumn. I don't know the date; dates aren't of much interest to a six-year-old boy who was on his way to school. School was St. Luke’s Church School in Finsbury and to me it was just an ordinary day, I had no idea what was in store for me or my fellow pupils. I knew something was up when lessons didn't start, instead we were organised into groups and had red GPO postbags put round our necks. In my bag there was a drink in a glass bottle, a pack of sandwiches and an orange. I then had a stiff brown label tied with string to the buttonhole of my coat. I suppose it had my personal details and possibly my intended destination written there but I was not aware of any of this at the time. I was just filled with apprehension; the air was tingling with anticipation, excitement and for my part, dread.

We children were marched out in twos, holding hands. A long snake of bewildered children walking from the school yard into the roadway, a sea of faces each side, grown-ups, desperate to see; to touch a certain child, as though it was for the last time. Some children began to cry, I was confused and withdrew into a protective shell trying not to see or hear. I suppose my mother was there, I didn't see her and I didn't look, I was afraid, this was not normal, something was wrong. We walked several hundred yards to Old Street underground station. I can't remember all the details of the journey; it was a blur to me. Perhaps something had been said to me the day or night before the exodus, warning me of what was going to happen. If so I can't remember, perhaps nothing was said in order not to cause upset or worry, either way I felt very alone.

How we got there I don't know, we had been on a train and now we were in a hall, a Chapel I believe. We were given tea and something to eat. People, strangers, ladies with big blue hats (WI?), were milling round carrying clipboards, calling out names. We were organised into groups; some of the groups, ready early, disappeared (never to be seen by me again), children I had known, just gone, where, why? Then a surprise, my brother Richard was suddenly there by my side, what relief, why did I not know he was with us? I can only construe that we had been grouped and travelled together in classes. Richard was ten so would have been in a class above mine and presumably travelled separately to us six year olds. Amid what to me was total confusion, somebody was well enough organised to reunite family members before the next phase began.

Once again a snake of children was taken out through yet another door. Surprise! It was totally dark, the ladies in big blue hats were milling round like sheep dogs keeping us in line, some had torches and were reading from their lists. The line stopped, we were in a street with rows of terraced houses, the big blue hats would go to a house and knock, there was furtive whisperings, "how many will you have?" "We haven't any room" or "we will take a girl." It seems that girls were in popular demand, for as the snake dwindled it was mostly boys who were left. It seemed to go on for hours, I had no idea of the time but eventually it was Richard and I at the head of the line. More furtive whisperings and Richard and I were hustled into a warm and cosy sitting room; a grey haired couple fussed round us and we were given cocoa and something to eat. We were then put to bed, it was late and we were very tired.

We were lucky, we had found a home and we were cared for with love and attention as though we were their own. Richard fell ill and was moved to a hospital leaving me alone, I didn't mind; I had a room and a bed to myself. Coming from a home where I was the youngest of nine children, living in three rooms of a three storied terraced house, this was heaven. Don't mis-understand, my mother cared for us children and she did her very best for us but she had a very hard time. My father was blind and unable to work so mother had to go out to work to keep us, as well as tend to a large family, so you see my change in lifestyle was dramatic and I liked it.

The Chapel I mentioned earlier was at the junction of Victoria Street and Albion Street and as I found later, I was living in Victoria Street. Once the local children had got used to me, I was accepted into their group and made some very good friends; soon it was as though I had been born and bred in Dunstable. I regret deeply that I cannot remember the names of these very nice people and their parents who welcomed me into their homes. I would love to mention their names and express my gratitude for the kindness shown to me.

There was one blot on my experience of living in Dunstable, which I must mention because it made such a lasting impression on me; this was to do with schooling. I attended three different schools, the last being Northfields High. I remember that from the playing fields I could see the Blue Circle cement works with its tall grey chimney putting out grey smoke. Some of the older girls would go through the wire fence to meet Italian prisoners of war who were working on adjoining farmland or the quarry; they threatened us younger boys with 'death' if we 'split' on them. But I hated that school, there was one teacher, a Mrs C... who had taken a dislike to me, I don't know why, perhaps I had upset her in some way, but she would humiliate me in front of the class at every opportunity she could. I gave her plenty of opportunity for I was not a good scholar, she would pull me out in front of the class and say things like, "manners maketh man." I didn't understand what she meant and I suspect neither did the other children, but they all laughed anyway. What made it worse was that the children in the class then began to tease and bully me outside the class, as though encouraged by her treatment of me and I became very reclusive. I feigned sickness and I remember my poor guardians being very worried and taking me to the doctor who, not finding anything physically wrong, said I must draw lots and lots of houses using pencil and paper. He showed me how to draw three-dimensional pictures of houses, ah! The power of psychology. I never said what was really wrong, I was too afraid.

Notwithstanding my school experience, my time in Dunstable was good for me; it showed me a side of life I would never have known existed. Dunstable was the catalyst that was to change my life and I shall be forever grateful to the kind people of Dunstable who took me in and made me welcome. After evacuation I could not settle in London, in fact I hated it and I left when I was nineteen years old. I made a new life for myself living in country places.

I was evacuated because of the war, the war caused terrible things to happen but, out of that I found a new way of life, a good way of life. They say “ Its an ill wind............”

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