- Contributed by
- Location of story:
- Lowestoft, Suffolk and Worksop, Notts
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 19 September 2005
Throughout my early childhood I had heard fearful stories of what had happened in the Great War, as it was called before World War II gave it precedence and it was called World War I. During that time a soldier, who had been courting one of my aunts, was to be sent to the trenches and so frightened was he that he fired a shot through the kitchen window and made a bullet hole in the pantry door. That hole and the story were often talked about and when the expected announcement came of the outbreak of World War II, I imagined soldiers would come shooting indiscriminately through windows in order not to be sent to the trenches.
In fact, little happened in the small village of Herringfleet in Suffolk. A family of evacuees from Dagenham, who had travelled with thousands of others by boat to the east coast ports, was billeted with us, but they returned home after two weeks.
I should have started my second year at the Grammar School in Lowestoft on 7 September, but air raid shelters had to be built, so we enjoyed a prolonged summer holiday until 1 November.
At home we had no electricity or gas and our cheerful oil lamps were of little threat to us or our neighbours when the heavy curtains were drawn. We still criss-crossed our windows with sticky tape, stocked up with food and kept our gas masks at the ready, ‘just in case’.
Rationing did not affect us badly as we had our own hens, geese, a large productive garden and plenty of rabbits in the field. I also had an uncle who was a gamekeeper so we had a good supply of pheasants at the right time.
Lowestoft was about 8 miles away and the train which I caught from my local railway station was taken off and instead of cycling three miles to catch the 8.30, I had to cycle five miles to catch the bus at Hopton. On our bus ride to and from school we eyed with suspicion all adult males we did not know. Were they German spies?
At weekends and during the holidays we would cycle to Gorleston or Lowestoft and roller skate along the promenade but coiled barbed wire and warning signs of mines prevented anyone from going on to the beach. We would watch the ships going by on the horizon and speculate on their nationality. Were they friend or foe?
We were used to the darkness in the villages but the towns were dreary with dim street lighting and no lights in shop windows. We even had little shades on our bicycle lights so we shouldn’t be targets for enemy bombers!
At home we listened to the accumulator-powered radio and read the papers to learn of the progress of the war and for instructions in case of emergency. Things were looking bleak in May 1940 with the German troops pushing the allied forces towards the coast of northern France and the ultimate evacuation of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. What would happen next?
On Monday, 27 May 1940 we all trooped into assembly at school and on the stage was a blackboard with a map hooked over it. The headmaster solemnly told us that all the schools in Lowestoft were to be evacuated the following Sunday and we were going to Worksop. Where? We looked blankly at each other and Mr Brooks pointed it out to us and told us it was a coal mining town in Nottinghamshire. Nottinghamshire was somewhere vaguely in the Midlands and coal mining we had only heard about in geography lessons.
We took letters home and there was debate about whether I should go with the school or go to another grammar school in Beccles — a ‘safe’ area — about ten miles from home.
I pleaded and won — to be able to go with my friends. The week was spent at school collecting together all the books, equipment etc. we would need ‘for the duration’. Our school was to be requisitioned by the army so everything not portable had to be locked away.
Sunday arrived and after good-byes and ‘We’ll see you soon’ we went to school — 350 of us from a roll of 500 or so and 20 teachers. Buses took us to the station to join up with the other 3,000 from other schools with cases, gas masks and all with identity tags except us. Were we too old — our sixth formers were 17 to 18 and some about to sit the Higher School Certificate — or was our uniform sufficiently distinctive — red blazers, gym tunics, black stockings and Panama hats for the girls and boys in same red blazers and red/black caps — so we would not get lost in the crowd? I remember that RAF planes kept a regular patrol over us as we snaked our way through East Anglia to Peterborough and Lincoln and across to the Nottinghamshire/Yorkshire border. It was a long slow journey and the packets of sandwiches soon disappeared. We were glad of the buckets of water which appeared on the platform at Peterborough, I believe, and under the watchful eye of the ladies of the W.R.V.S. we were able to quench our thirst. One cup per person!
Tired and not a little homesick already, we arrived at Worksop to be taken to a junior school where the billeting officer arranged for us to be taken to foster homes.
My friend Margaret and I were billeted with a lovely, elderly couple. They had had evacuees at the outbreak of war, from Nottingham, but they had stayed only a few weeks. Perhaps they thought we would be there for a short time, but it was not to be.
Most our time was spent at our new school whose buildings we shared with the local Central school and our teachers did everything to help us to settle in to our new surroundings. We formed our own Guide Company but the boys joined the local Scouts. The organisations of the town were very welcoming and we had the use of a good library and swimming pool in the town. This was a welcome change from swimming in the sea or in the River Waveney! We ‘dug for victory’ on a plot of land lent to us by a local farmer and we shared the crops. Our foster parents were very pleased.
In that summer of 1940 we had only two weeks holiday but how we enjoyed them! The school hired buses to familiarise us with the area. We were taken to Derbyshire, walked in Dove Dale, went to Chatsworth and explored Sherwood Forest. How different this was from East Anglia!
Some of us were lucky enough to have visits from our parents and my mother came for a weekend during the autumn term but I realised she was not well. She continued to write but her handwriting deteriorated and eventually my grandmother carried on the correspondence.
Eventually we went home for a holiday in the summer of 1941. Again special carriages were arranged but no other schools were involved. Most of the elementary schools in Lowestoft had re-opened and many children had already returned. Some, who took and passed the Scholarship Examination joined us after the holidays. Lowestoft was a changed place. It had suffered a great deal of bombing, probably because of the naval base — H.M.S. Europa and the concentration of Coastal Command vessels.
My mother’s health had deteriorated badly and she died during that first holiday at home. The rest of the time passed in an unhappy haze.
Returning to Worksop, Margaret and I had to go to another foster home. They had an only son a little older than us and I think he rather enjoyed our company.
The new term also brought a new dimension to evacuation for me. Two of our teachers were keen cyclists, walkers and youth hostellers. Because we shared a building with another school we had to have lessons at different times. One week we went to school from 8.30 to 1p.m and had games, PE and some science lessons at the technical college in the afternoons. The next week we had lessons in the afternoon and games etc. in the mornings. We also went to school on alternate Saturday mornings when the staff would arrange a concert or sing-song.
So, alternate weekends lasted from Friday lunchtime to Monday lunchtime and sometimes we would cycle into Derbyshire to stay for two nights in a youth hostel and walk the Derbyshire hills and dales. We were of 15-20 older pupils, the two keen members of staff and any others who cared to join us. These weekends started a love of walking in the hills and soon the Lake District beckoned.
Some cafés were open even during the lowest point of the war and we would be able to get cups of tea and cake made with only a small amount of margarine and sugar in it, but it was good. Tea came without sugar but I found I liked the beverage which I had hated as a young child when I had been given it with extra sugar to make it palatable! I’ve never taken sugar since then.
Another memory is my introduction to the theatre. London theatres had been bombed or just closed ‘for the duration’ so the provincial theatres benefited. Being so close to Sheffield we were privileged to have trips arranged for us to see many of the best actors and ballet dancers of the time e.g. Robert Helpmann and Margot Fonteyn, Laurence Olivier and John Guilgud. In 1943 when we were doing School Certificate we cycled and youth hostelled to Stratford to see our Shakespeare play, Henry IV and spend a couple of magical days in Warwick and Stratford.
Although being evacuated held many delights for us we were aware of the bombing of Sheffield and Manchester for example and heard the enemy planes rumbling overhead. Not once, however, did I have to go into an air raid shelter for safety even though I spent every school holiday between 1941 and 1944 near Lowestoft or staying with friends and relations in the town.
On one occasion my cousin and I were walking through the brick yard in Somerleyton when we saw a fighter plane bearing down towards us and it started firing. We dived into the doorway of the brick kiln and were absolutely terrified when we saw the swastika on the tail. I think the pilot had veered away from the others on the homeward journey and was firing at random.
One of the worst raids on Lowestoft took place on the afternoon of 13 January 1942 the day before we were to return to school after the Christmas holiday. Some of our pupils were having tea in a café when four explosive bombs were dropped on the main shopping centre. Three of our pupils were killed including a friend from my class. It was a sad beginning to the term.
We returned home for good on 28 July 1944 after 4½ years of evacuation. We returned with pleasure, tinged with regret and enormous gratitude to the people of Worksop and to the school for the opportunities evacuation gave us.
One hundred of us returned. Many had left after School Certificate each year. Some stayed on to do Higher and some had joined the school each year.
Margaret and I were the only two girls to go into the Upper Sixth in September 1944. There were nine boys. The school received an excellent report on its maintenance of standards during evacuation, due largely to the dedication of the staff.
We came home to the flying-bombs or doodle-bugs as they were called and later to hear of the atrocities of Belsen, followed by horrific reports of other concentration camps.
Victory in Europe was announced whilst Margaret and I were doing duty in the girls playground! The beaches were deemed to be free of mines now so the barbed wire was taken away and we enjoyed the delights of the beach and swimming after school during the memorable summer of ’45.
A general election was about to take place on 11 July. Exams were over and some of us threw ourselves enthusiastically into politics — going to meetings, even knocking on doors, though of course we were too young to vote.
Victory in Japan was announced in August when I had left school and was awaiting results. I was at a camp for youth leaders and became very friendly with a young German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany with his family just before the war.
Yes, there are many memories and not all happy ones, but they were exciting and interesting times to live through. I am pleased to have been a teenage evacuee.
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