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WW2 - People's War

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Contributed by 
Leicestershire Library Services - Melton Mowbray Library
People in story: 
Rita Chandler
Location of story: 
Leeds, West Yorkshire
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 April 2005

I never really understood the logic which made our area a “reception area” for the evacuees. It was a residential suburb of a city which also shared a boundary with a small town dedicated to mills and engineering works, dye works and the like. In fact, the boundary ran between my house and next door. The city was designated an “Evacuation Area” but we were to receive and house evacuees whenever they needed to come away from danger.

Perhaps we were not an attractive target, but sirens wailed regularly and bombs had been dropped — just to remind us of what could happen. Some incidents did considerable damage. Warehouses and market halls were destroyed, along with shops and other buildings. We were not exactly free of the attentions of the enemy.

The Church hall was to be the reception point, to feed and sleep the evacuees during the two or three days it would take for them to be allocated to the homes arranged for them by the town authorities. It was a splendid hall built in the 1920s. It had ample floor space in the very large main hall, several smaller rooms and a stage which could be closed off to make another good sized room. There was a large kitchen and rooms downstairs used as clubrooms by the men of the parish and a cellar room used as the Scout’s Den — mostly for storing their equipment. The hall stood on ground intended for any extensions to be built and this gave space for the extra field kitchens, latrines and washing blocks which would be needed.

We were under official direction, but were expected to find back-up services for cooking, cleaning and for any other help that was needed. So, the Mother’s Union, the Girl’s Friendly Society, Scouts, Guides and any number of individuals stood by ready to do anything that was required.

As most evacuees were said to be either unaccompanied children, or groups from schools complete with teachers supporting them, our group of evacuees came as a tremendous shock. They had been travelling for many hours in a train, all the way from London’s East End. They had few possessions, were largely unorganised and were mothers with children ranging from newborn to around fourteen or so. Not only that, but there were over twice the number we were expecting to house in the area. Their homes had been demolished, whole streets obliterated by fierce bombing and husbands and fathers were miles away.

Extra straw mattresses and blankets were brought in so that we could give everybody a bed of sorts. The space between them had to be vastly reduced and as the mothers gathered their families around them, it became obvious that all previous billets and arrangements would have to be reviewed. Local people who were on the Officer’s list to receive one or two children were unlikely to be able to absorb a mother and several children in the same accommodation. The evacuees had made it very clear that they would not be separated or split up in any way.

We were only expecting to hold the group for two or three days, but this unexpected situation was difficult to resolve. Some of them were still with us into a second week, becoming increasingly anxious and frustrated.

The Council requisitioned some large empty houses and furnished them with donated furniture. Some families were happy to accept these. Some houses were large enough for two or three women to use. But at the best it was hard going both for them and for those trying to help them come to terms with their situation.

When they first arrived we had an immediate need for baby food and feeding bottles, for napkins and other baby clothing. Health and cleanliness became a somewhat desperate issue if people were to accept strangers into their home for an indefinite period. The nursing teams soon had their hands full dealing with some pretty nasty skin problems and heads so full of lice that sometimes the only way to make an impression was to shear the head first and then try to treat the nits. One family of five with glorious auburn hair had to undergo this shearing. No privacy was possible and many of us were in tears as we watched their beautiful hair falling in showers. Most of the children and many of the women had head lice although this was not their fault as they had been surviving in conditions we could only gasp at.

Our worries were all for the little we could do, as individuals, to help them. They had already lost so much. Friendship was offered freely. We could ensure they were fed and helpers were in the hall every hour of the day and night. Some took people home with them for a bath, or just to sit in comfort for a while. However, as the evacuees needed to be available when the Officer came to collect them, some of them never left the hall for fear of losing the chance of a suitable home. Often they looked at what was being offered and refused to consider it. Their expectations were high and they had suffered long enough, but we could never hope to replace their ideal of London’s East End.

We kept in touch with the evacuees when they had been housed, but they missed their old neighbours and extended families. The children were restless and often in trouble. A few took advantage of the organised groups set up to provide social contacts and support. The cost of travelling , with all the war-time difficulties, meant that men folk were rarely able to visit their families. The distance was great; trains were often diverted and sometimes taking hours longer for a journey. So slowly there began a drifting back to London. News that the bombers were less active sent them back to where the shopping was more to their taste and the pubs had voices like their own to listen to.

Evacuation probably saved the lives of the women and children who came to West Yorkshire, but it was far from easy for them. They had experienced the nightmare of a long journey without knowing where they were going to be when they arrived. All the difficulties of travelling in the crowded train with children and young babies — and then the trauma of survival so far from home and in such a different environment. For many of them this experience was quite horrific. Good friendships were made. Many kept in touch with us and some came to visit. And there were those who stayed, settled down and became part of the community. So it would be nice to think that what we tried to do was at least understood and that some of the memories were good.

A war-time episode which should have lasted only for a few days kept us occupied for much longer than that — and still stays in the memories, even though that Church Hall is no longer there to remind us.

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