- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Location of story:
- London/Eccles, Norfolk.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 03 November 2003
By Nigel Quiney 2003
Having become attuned to the sound, appearance and behaviour of the doodlebugs in 1944, it came like a thunderbolt from the sky when the Germans then launched their jet-propelled rocket bombs later that year over London. There was no warning. You did not see them, and if you did hear them, you had probably had it!
Enough was enough. We had survived the blitz and regular bombing raids. We could put up with the doodlebugs which ponderously moved across the sky until their engines stopped but these V2 rockets which suddenly appeared from nowhere and exploded before you even knew it was coming, scared the hell out of everyone and the reaction was prompt. Oakfield School in West Dulwich where we lived offered an alternative country location from South London and parents were offered their choice. It was all decided with astonishing speed; the country school would be run by Kathleen Livingston, leaving her husband David, the head-master, to look after the original in Dulwich for those whose parents did not wish their children to go. So in January 1945, my brother Tony and I were evacuated from London.
For me the ensuing experience was my first taste of real horror. The war was a perfectly normal everyday thing as far as I was concerned, as were hardships, shortages and rationing. This was the only life I knew and I was a very happy and contented little boy of six years of age, who was very secure in the love and affection bestowed upon him from every quarter. The absolutely last thing I would have wanted was to be taken away from my parents and home, no matter what the danger. But this is exactly what happened.
What a pathetic sight we must have been, that day on Liverpool Street station. We children were all so pale and thin and in the main wearing overlarge clothes handed down by mothers, from siblings and relatives. Not sure of exactly what was going on, I held firmly onto my mother’s hand and clutched my much worn and over-loved pale-blue teddy close to my chest. Children and grown-ups jostled each other, trying to avoid the porters pulling overloaded trolleys piled high with suitcases and large parcels tied with string as we walked along the platform past the waiting train looking for our carriage. Steam hissed through the clouds of belching sulphurous smoke as though a warning of things to come when I panicked and dropped poor teddy, who fell through the smoke and between the platform and the train and onto the railway tracks. It was as though I had dropped my own baby as my wail of horror rose above the general din on that terrible platform that fateful day.
Subconsciously, I must have known or even smelt my expulsion from the warmth of the family nest. Did I hurl teddy between the wheels of the train and the hard shiny steel of the rails as a cri de coeur, an agonised cry for attention to stop the impending nightmare? Maybe, but it did not change the ensuing course of events.
A kindly and sympathetic porter heard my cry and must have seen what happened and stepped forward to explain to my parents. He then crouched down by the edge of the platform and swung his legs by the side of the train until he was standing on the aggregate between the wooden sleepers. Carefully, he lowered himself until he was almost out of our view, as he scrabbled about under the train and then hesitantly and slowly he re-appeared until he was standing upright again and there in his outstretched hand was teddy. What a hero. A veritable champion.
We soon found our compartment and Tony and I and some other assorted older boys, accompanied by Kathleen Livingston from Oakfield School, were ushered into the train. By now, I was clutching teddy as though glued to my side and then we were off.
Slowly the great steel coal-burning monster hauled carriage- loads of vulnerable evacuees out of Liverpool Street Station and gathered speed for the perceived safety of rural Norfolk.
As the train chugged through the countryside that day, it began to dawn on me that the unthinkable was happening. We were being sent away from our family and home. I do not remember if my parents talked to me about what was going to happen. Probably not. I was only six years old and anyway how could I have understood. I would have screamed up a storm, so my guess is that my ten-year-old brother got the explanation and poor little chap, got the job of trying to explain and look after me, his very much younger brother. When you are ten years old, a younger brother of six is like comparing an eighteen year old to a twelve year old. What a bother, and what an embarrassment and what an annoying and unwanted responsibility. But I have to say looking back now, what else could my parents have done?
I do not remember the details of our journey except that we arrived in Norwich, changed trains and chugged back down the line and finally arrived at Eccles Hall somewhere in Norfolk. A beautiful two- storey sixteenth-century dower house facing east, behind which was Snetterton air force base housing the American 96 bomber group.
Not all the boys and girls were evacuated to Eccles Hall. My cousin Michael, for example, stayed on in London for some reason. In all though, about seven or eight small boys shared the junior dormitory and about twenty in the senior one. I was separated from my brother due to his four years of seniority.
Staffing was meagre. Kathleen Livingston was head mistress and also taught English. Miss Westall taught mathematics. She had been the original founder and owner of Oakfield School but had sold to David Livingston and had come out of retirement to help. Miss Wimbolt taught art, and something else which I can no longer remember. She was an extraordinary character. She only wore men’s dark, tailored double-breasted suits with all the accessories. Black brogues, shirt, with turn-back cuffs held together with plain gold cufflinks, and a silk tie. Her dark hair was cut short, and was worn with a side parting and to complete the picture she wore a monocle. She terrified me, not only because she looked like no other woman I had ever seen, but also because I thought that she resembled Hitler. Lawks-a-mercy!
Miss Cayley taught us nature studies and mainly looked after we six-year-olds. She was frail looking, fluffy and kind. I think! In truth I find it hard to picture her, so it must have been so. The villains are always easier to remember.
Which brings me to Florrie Johnson our matron and cook. A tall straight-backed woman of monstrous proportions. She had a big head with course mid-brown, lack-lustre hair pulled back into a heavy bun, small eyes and thick lips. She did not wear make-up. From her double chin down, she just grew and grew. Her shoulders were not that wide, but beneath grew mammoth breasts and from then on she appeared straight all the way down to the hem of her white matron’s cotton coat. Her sturdy thick legs were clad in brown woollen stockings and supported by sensible white nurse’s shoes. She had two children. A boy of about my age named Martin and his older sister Christine. Martin was blonde, slim and very pretty with a real peaches-and-cream complexion. Christine was blonde, fat and spotty.
Lastly came Ivy. She was Florrie Johnson’s little helper, and lived very much in the big woman’s shadow doing, I suspect, all the unpleasant jobs that were heaped upon her, for she was a poor mousy soul.
In the weeks preceding our evacuation, mother had lovingly put together a separate tuck box each for Tony and I. How she had gathered this collection of sweets, fruit, biscuits and cake for us I do not know. I am sure it meant that she and my father went without for weeks. She had also managed to provide some paper and coloured pencils which, along with our tuck boxes and suitcases containing our other few possessions stood along-side us as we waited together with the other pupils outside the imposing front of Eccles Hall.
We were segregated into sexes and then the boys were split up according to their age groups with Mrs Johnson taking charge. She explained that there would be no eating-matter of any description allowed in the dormitories and we were to hand over to her our tuck boxes for safekeeping. Then we were taken off in our groups to the relevant dormitory to unpack and settle in.
Of course, we never did see our tuck-boxes again. The explanation given was that all pupils’ tuck would be pooled and handed out in even proportions favouring nobody. Well, that did not happen. Mrs. Johnson, acting as custodian of the goodies, gave, I strongly suspect, two for every one sweet in favour of her family and in particular her children. We also got the least interesting and most ordinary from what was available. No wonder that Christine was so fat and spotty!
Tony and I felt thoroughly cheated, as did the other pupils. The subterfuge was so obvious and we all schemed that should further tuck come our way we would find places to hide it and not hand it over to Mrs Johnson.
Every Sunday we attended Eccles church, which was situated at the end of a lane just a short distance from our school. Close by the grounds at the back of Eccles Hall was Snetterton air force base, which was currently being used by the American 96th Bomber Command. Every so often we would see the occasional GI dressed so snazzily in their air-force gear and looking so handsome and strong it felt that they had come from another world. If they spotted us they would always welcome us with a wave and a smile. They almost became god-like in our eyes.
I remember well one morning after we had said our prayers in Eccles Church, sung hymns and fidgeted through the sermon, that upon leaving, a deeply touching event took place. As our straggly line of children walked down the lane back towards Eccles Hall we were suddenly aware of little piles of chocolate bars, sweets and packets of chewing gum lying in our path. The American GI’s had left them there for us, knowing that they would be enormous treats. Of course as soon as we realised that these goodies were meant for us, we scattered like hungry chickens at feeding time, to grab as much as possible. Those GI’s were so kind, it was as though they realised how homesick we were, but of course they too shared our feelings. It is heart wrenching to realise that some of them were only eighteen years old and thousands of miles from home. But over the whole time I was at Eccles, those GI’s were so kind and generous, but always in an anonymous way. They were never around for the thanks and gratitude. However, Mrs Johnson of course spoilt the event. As soon as calm was restored she ordered that all the goodies were to be handed in for redistribution at a later date. We all knew what that meant!
At the rear of Eccles Hall an additional wing had been built in the nineteenth century. This was to be used for the older boys dormitory, and would be where my brother would sleep, but I do not think I was ever allowed inside. My little gaggle of six and seven year olds was housed in a big bedroom at the rear of the original building and my bed immediately faced the door. Outside this door was a landing, with a passage running straight ahead, to the left of which was a big bathroom and at the very end, the lavatory. So began our stay at Eccles Hall.
I was incredibly homesick.
Our lessons in the junior section were simple but not unpleasant. Mostly, they were nature studies with illustrations and names of birds, animals and flowers. There was much to see within the grounds of Eccles Hall and particularly fascinating to me was the flock of peacocks, which nested there. Every so often their screeching reminded us of their presence. Being January it was extremely cold and there was not a lot of activity to see on our walks. The countryside was fairly flat, with the occasional pretty lane winding gently through it, bordered by hedgerow and with fields beyond. There were some copses of trees partly surrounded by wild unkempt bushes and shrubs, intertwined with rambling blackberry and dog roses and bits of honeysuckle and ‘old man’s beard’, all of which made for quite exciting exploration later on.
Kathleen Livingston helped further with our hand writing, spelling and reading. We also had lessons specifically for writing letters home to our parents. These were particularly interesting because most of us started to write in our different childlike ways, of our being so unhappy and could we please come home. However, these letters were clearly not acceptable to teacher and were promptly binned.
We were then instructed to write our letters by copying the text written on the blackboard by teacher! My mother kept these letters and after her death nearly fifty years later, I found them neatly held together by ribbon in a shoebox. Here is an example of what I wrote:-
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
I hope you are both quite well. We are all feeling
very happy this morning because the sun is shining
so brightly. The daffodils are coming out now and
we can see their lovely yellow trumpets. The bees
are on the golden pussy palm getting the sweet nectar
and brushing the yellow pollen on their backs. The
thrushes are singing now on the topmost boughs.
Their singing is sweet. We know a poem called ‘The
Song of the Thrush’.
My love and kisses,
What must they have thought? The spelling and punctuation were perfect and although I quite liked nature studies, were these the thoughts and writing of a six-year old sent away to boarding school? They must have seen through the message with grave misgivings. All the letters are similarly written. Perhaps the most poignant one though, was the first, sent just after we settled in. It reads:-
Dear Mummy and Daddy
We arrived safely at Eccles Hall.
I am quite happy with the children.
Would you believe it? However, nothing could be done to change events and the rhythm of daily life settled in.
Apart from the terrible homesickness, I had problems with one of the regular meals. Every day the menu changed a bit but after a week, was repeated exactly as the week before. Absolutely fine, except for one thing. The food in the main was perfectly edible and some of it was truly delicious. I particularly remember Thursday’s supper and this became my day of downfall. For starters we had baked beans on toast, which I just loved and my plate was clean as a whistle. I think I was introduced to this classic treat at Eccles Hall. Perhaps the beans only came in big catering tins for I have no memory of them at home or indeed at Oakfield School in Dulwich. My downfall came with what followed as a dessert. This was called Bakewell tart and if made with the correct ingredients, was delicious. Sadly, this was wartime, and the necessary ingredients were not available. No doubt Mrs. Johnson or Ivy thought it would be a great treat. It was not!
Instead of finely ground almonds, egg yolks and sugar topped with lemon icing, nestling in a biscuit pastry, what did we get? Breadcrumbs soaked in water, which was heavily flavoured with artificial almond essence, together with a spoonful of powdered egg, poured into a pastry base and baked in the oven with jam on top. I just hated it, as the resulting pasty sticky desert saturated with almond essence had a strong chemical taste which almost withered my tongue but at Eccles Hall you ate everything, come what may.
I took a mouthful, chewed, swallowed and heaved. I swallowed again and managed to keep it down. I began to sweat. I complained to Ivy that I did not like it, but she had had her instructions from Mrs. Johnson. All food had to be eaten and nothing would be wasted. I had to eat it all and that was that. Then bedtime.
Later as I lay in bed with pale-blue teddy protecting my back and a brown monkey glove puppet named ‘Gibber’, a hand-me-down from my brother, clasped to my chest in a cuddle, I threw up. Poor Gibber! I vomited all over him as well as the bedclothes, and guess what was visible for Mrs. Johnson to inspect when she finally arrived on the scene? It was, of course, baked beans!
I was taken to the bathroom and thoroughly washed. Ivy changed the bed linen and I was back in bed and soundly asleep within seconds. The next day Mrs. Johnson advised me that baked beans would now be banned from my diet, as I was obviously allergic to them and the shortfall of food would be made up with an alternative. There was to be no argument and that was to be that.
Poor Gibber. He was boiled in the copper boiler along with the soiled bedclothes. He sort of survived but, my, he did age. His button eyes withdrew into his head and I felt very guilty. It was entirely my fault.
Then came the following Thursday and as decreed I was denied baked beans on toast. I protested strongly but to no avail. Then horror upon horror, I was given a double portion of Bakewell tart. I pleaded with Mrs. Johnson but now it was a battle of wills and she was determined to see that I ate every last crumb. So determined indeed that she stood over me watching in case I tried to secrete a spoonful or two and discard them under the table. Yet again I took a mouthful, chewed, swallowed and heaved. After the third I broke into a sweat. I pleaded with Mrs. Johnson that I felt sick.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You are just playing up because you aren’t fond of pudding and hope to get a double portion of baked beans. Eat it up immediately and I do not want any more of your whining.”
By now I had turned cold as I forced down this chemically flavoured sludge, and then the inevitable happened. I had turned round to beg her to let me stop, when I vomited with a projectile force and threw up on the boy sitting next to me, and all over Mrs. Johnson’s white cotton coat. I stood up terrified at what I had done, with my hands clutching at my mouth, when it happened again. This time sick spewed through my little fingers and onto the dining table. With a deep whimper and gulping sobs, I turned and fled from the room. Every eye was on me.
Luckily, Kathleen Livingston had seen everything and she followed Mrs. Johnson who was following me, so I was saved from matron’s obvious fury and God only knows what retribution which she was going to hand out. The ending to this story is that the following Thursday I was given a double portion of baked beans and I was allowed to go without the Bakewell tart. But Mrs. Johnson did not forgive me and I knew it. She bided her time for her revenge, but it did not come about for many weeks.
The weeks and weeks slipped slowly by towards spring and a new routine took over my life. It was not unpleasant except for my continuing desperate homesickness. However, by now I concluded that Mrs. Johnson was decidedly spooky. Take, for example, bedtime.
We juniors would gather upstairs in the dormitory and undress down to our vest and pants. We would then line up in the corridor outside the bathroom and those with the need would go to the lavatory. However, anyone taking longer than a couple of minutes was in danger of a worrying reaction from Mrs. Johnson. She would demand to know what we were doing and would bang on the door or worse push it open, usually just at the moment when one was leaning forward, bottom off the seat and about to wipe with a small piece of paper torn from a telephone directory. I do not know why this should be so embarrassing but it was. We all do it, but heaven knows what she thought we were doing in there.
At this point I must record a weekly episode, which took place every Sunday and was to do with “inner cleanliness”. I cannot remember the exact timing, but I suppose it must have been just after supper. Being a Sunday there was no homework and we finished our last snack of the day, something like bread and dripping, with a nice hot cup of tea. But it was tea made from Senna pods, which worked extremely efficiently and the end result was a rush upstairs to the toilets and a good and rapid emptying of the bowels. There were times on these Sundays when the supply of torn-up telephone directories ran dry.
Mrs. Johnson knew exactly how to make one feel vulnerable and control was the name of her game. It also did not help the business of emptying one’s bladder and bowels to feel that one was being timed. For the on-looking children, however, it was all very amusing until, of course, it was their own turn.
The bathroom was large and housed a huge tub in which would be a very meagre four to five inches of tepid water. Two boys would then get in the bath together and be soaped down, with Ivy helping Mrs. J. The water soon became rather grey and scummy but in truth we kids did not care and I think the original water was used for all us; eight youngsters per session. We were towelled dry and dressed in our pyjamas and then back to the dormitory where we were allowed about half an hour before lights off. The idea was, I suppose, for us to unwind gently and perhaps read a book.
No way. Kids will be kids and the biggest, strongest or eldest would usually start by hurling his pillow at a lesser and then trying to leap on the victim and in the ensuing struggle, remove his pyjama trousers. Once done, an attempt to hide the trousers added to the fun. What bullies these boys could be. Control freaks in the making.
I remember clearly one episode, after just such an event. My bed was located immediately opposite the dormitory door and because of this it was my job to keep cavey and warn of any possible surprises. Because it was winter and dark the landing was always well lit and the position of the overhead light would produce the shadow of anyone approaching our dormitory. This would be projected against the gap between the door and the floor. From my position in bed it was easy to see.
That evening the unmistakable shadow of Mrs. Johnson approached our door and I gesticulated wildly to advise of her presence, but the wrestling and de-bagging was so intent that my frantic waving was not noticed. I held my breath waiting for a cyclonic Mrs. Johnson to burst into our dormitory. Instead, however, the shadow became larger as though Mrs. J was crouching down to lean against the door.
She must have heard the noise of fighting and squeals of protest as pyjama bottoms were finally removed and the bully of the day leapt off his victim waving his booty. Then, I thought, is she peeping through the keyhole? Again the shadow changed shape and I knew that she now had her ear pressed to the door.
She stayed in that position for several minutes during which calm slowly descended on our dormitory. Pyjama bottoms were found and put back on and finally all the children were back in bed and between the sheets. As the quiet of impending sleep became obvious, the shadow shrank and re-formed into two segments representing her ankles. Mrs. Johnson was back on her feet. I then realised that our Mrs. Johnson not only liked eavesdropping but was a peeping tom as well. I suppose not so terrible really, but ...
A rather more worrying event took place towards the beginning of spring. At the rear of Eccles Hall was a large, well-kept lawn and on both sides were lines of fir trees. These were so large and thick that at the base they had almost joined up. This produced wonderful and exciting spaces for a child to explore and this is precisely what I was doing.
I imagined sheltering there, snug and protected from a violent thunder storm, or creating a hidden nest where I could share tuck with my imaginary friends Mrs. Yonksford’s lad and Mrs. Cronation’s lad who were still my constant companions. It was then that I found an incredibly beautiful feather. I carefully pulled it from the branches where it had been caught and studied it. It was over two feet long, and at the wide end shimmered blues and greens like the butterfly wings that were used in Victorian times under glass for decorative finishes. I held it gently against my side and continued exploring. Then I found another and a little further on, yet another. What a great find I thought, remembering those proud peacocks displaying their splendour. I then backed out of the dense foliage and onto the lawn clutching my three treasured feathers protectively.
“What have you got there?” boomed a voice, which I instantly recognised as belonging to Mrs. Johnson.
“Only some feathers, Mrs. Johnson,” I nervously replied. “I found them in the bushes.”
“That is nonsense, Nigel. I know what you have been up to,” she snapped. “You’re a very naughty boy, pulling feathers from those poor peacocks. Give them to me at once.”
She grabbed my arm and marched me off towards the house. We entered through the back door, climbed up the stairs and continued down a corridor until we reached the front landing.
“Stay here!” she commanded as she opened a door to one of the adjoining private rooms and shortly returned carrying a small wooden chair. This she placed directly in front of the big window centrally positioned over the main door.
“Now take off all your clothes Nigel,” she ordered, “and I mean all of them.”
I did as I had been told and at the same time protesting my innocence but she was having none of it. I folded up my clothes neatly and when I was stark naked she ordered me to stand on the chair in front of the window looking directly over the gravel drive.
“You are to stand upright, with your head held high looking straight ahead until I tell you to stop,” she said in her dictatorial tone.
I stood naked on that chair for about ten minutes, in full view of anyone below who might have looked up, before she relented and let me get down. If anyone had seen me up there, what on earth would they have thought? How would she have explained it all? So it was a punishment for pulling ‘armfuls’ of feathers from the peacocks tail. Big deal. Spooky?
In today’s language, Mrs. Johnson would have been considered a sick ticket!
As I have previously mentioned, bullying existed at Eccles Hall. This is not surprising. Bullying sadly exists everywhere in life and Eccles Hall was no exception. Luckily for me I was not a wimp, but I was one of the youngest and thankfully did have a knack for avoiding the worst of the bullies and their antics most of the time.
However, I was attacked by a rather rough, and older lad one day. I have no idea what started it all but the end result was a fight and my opponent suddenly produced a weapon in the form of a very sharp pencil. This he stabbed at my face, but mercifully a split second before hitting home, I wriggled and the pencil hit me just to the side of my left eye. The sharp lead end snapped off.
I screamed blue murder. Blood gushed, and I was now the centre of attraction. Kathleen Livingston arrived on the scene and I was rushed off to the bathroom. There, my wound was washed carefully and well cleaned with a good painting of tincture of iodine to ensure an antiseptic cleanliness and I screamed even louder as the iodine started to sting.
The wound healed with no problem but the pencil contained indelible lead and the end result was a blue line a quarter of an inch long, looking very much like a tattoo. I was rather proud of it and I have it to this day.
As I write this I remember that tradesmen used these pencils writing out invoices or receipts and many were in the habit of licking the lead point before writing. This produced a darker and permanent imprint on the paper and an amazing effect on their tongues but this was before ballpoint pens were invented which finally rang the death knell for indelible lead pencils. I wonder if their indelibly streaked tongues from 1945 are still marked to this day?
Sometime in March my brother Tony fell ill and it became clear that this was not just a bout of influenza. He was finally moved out of the senior dormitory and put into a small box room by himself. I was not particularly aware of this problem because the senior children did not really mix with us juniors, except for meal times and even then they sat together and separately from us.
Kathleen Livingston was obviously very concerned and ‘phoned my parents advising that she feared the possibility of my brother contracting infantile paralysis, nowadays known as polio. The medical profession had recently isolated this very serious disease and the dangers for young people were known. These were the days prior to anti-biotics being available and for serious illnesses we were given M&B tablets (these initials stood for the manufacturer, May & Baker). Such a puzzling name for a drug, by today’s way of thinking, when scientific-sounding brands are so common.
On hearing this worrying news, my parents made the journey to Eccles Hall. They arrived with one of my father’s cousins, named Eric, bearing a tuck box each for my brother and I. I was overjoyed to see them, literally throwing myself into my mother’s arms and sobbing with relief, somehow believing that they had come to take us back home. Wrong! Big disappointment, but it was wonderful for me to be with them, even for only a few days. We went on trips and even had a picnic on one of the warmer days. I was a very happy bunny. Tony was also clearly on the mend with the dangerous period of his illness over, so the time had come for them to catch the train back to London. I was allowed to see them off and Kathleen Livingston accompanied us to the little station of Eccles. As we waited for the train to arrive, the terrible ache of homesickness slowly spread through me and as the train pulled into the station I clung even more firmly to my mother’s neck.
Now, panic racked my small body as the train finally stopped and a few people stepped down onto the platform. Eric opened the door to a compartment and got onto the train. My mother was weeping as she tried to untangle my arms from around her neck and then I knew for certain that I was going to be left behind.
“No, please no!” I sobbed, burying my head against my mother’s shoulder, my tears streaming down my face and onto the collar of her jacket.
“Don’t go,” I pleaded, looking wildly around me for some saviour.
By now all three grown-ups were also in tears. The train blew its whistle and Kathleen Livingston gently put her arms around my waist and tried to pull me off my mother, but to no avail. I clung on for dear life with my arms still firmly around mother’s neck. At this point, poor father had to force my hands apart and loosening my grip, Kathleen was able to pull me away and into her arms. In no time Eric and my parents were in the carriage, the door shut behind them and with a great belching of smoke and hissing of steam, the train pulled slowly out of the station.
“Mummy, mummy!” I screamed wildly but they were gone.
What joy, what bliss, such happiness! Our first term at Eccles Hall had ended and we were going home for an Easter holiday at East Dean, a village in the South Downs a couple of miles from Eastbourne on the south coast. Tony had completely recovered from his illness and the news from the European front about the war was looking to be in our favour. We had had a wonderful time and people enjoyed an enormous sense of optimism highlighted by the fact that in August 1944 the beaches had been cleared of mines and were open to the public. Now, instead of just gazing down over the barbed wire towards the beckoning sea, we were able to cross over that forbidden line and explore. It was truly blissful.
I returned to Eccles Hall with a heavy heart but without the same fear and trepidation of the first journey. I think that by now I knew that my stay was not going to be for very long and that a few weeks or months would see the end of it for good. Certainly by summer we would be back again to beloved East Dean, and endless adventures.
I had by now been introduced to birds-nesting by Michael, my great East Dean chum. I have to say that today I am horrified by even the idea of finding a bird’s nest and stealing an egg or possibly two but Michael was very clear with his rules, which I happily accepted. They were that only two eggs maximum could be taken, one for each of us, but come what may we had to leave at least two eggs in the nest. We also had to remove the eggs in such a way that those remaining were not touched or moved at all. The idea being that our interference would somehow pass un-noticed. Having stolen the eggs we would very carefully pierce each end with a pin and holding it between thumb and forefinger, blow out the contents. This is what was known as blowing an egg. Once empty and dry it could be stored and the start of a collection begun. All this greatly appealed to my hoarding instincts and I still have my egg collection fifty-two years later albeit stored in the loft.
Back at Eccles Hall I now put my newfound knowledge of birds nesting to the test and with a few other children, we set off to see what we could find. I seemed to have gained some confidence since the previous term because I think I was the leader of this little expedition.
So, just like at East Dean, we set off and were soon on our hands and knees tunnelling through scratchy thicket hunting for nests. In these circumstances time stands still as happy hours slide by. At East Dean I never had any sense of time and just waited for my mother to call my name. It is amazing how far her call of “Nigel ...!” could carry. She would stand in the front garden and cup her hands to her mouth and after filling her lungs call, “Ni i g e l l l ...!” She would do this four times but each time changing her direction so that her voice would carry north, south, east and west. She knew I would set off for home immediately, even if it took half-an-hour. In those days there was no traffic and her call only had to compete with bird song or the wind.
But, we were not at East Dean. We were at Eccles Hall and I had found new territory to explore. None of us heard the tea bell and time slid by. I only became aware of how late it was when darkness slowly crept upon us and then, of course, I realised that we were in for trouble.
As the afternoon turned into evening, our teachers became increasingly concerned. Heaven knows what they must have been thinking but they were clearly greatly relieved to see us for by the time we trudged wearily into Eccles Hall it was pitch dark. This however was not the end of the story. We were given a very late tea, sent to bed and told, rather ominously, that the headmaster would deal us later when he arrived in a few days time from London for the weekend.
Time rather dragged in those few days before Mr. Livingston’s arrival. Kathleen Livingston had already told us of the severity of our crime which included the nastiness of birds-nesting as well as the extreme lateness of our return to the school, causing everyone great concern and worry. On Saturday we waited and waited for something to happen. I knew that David Livingston had arrived from London. He had not been struck down with illness, as I had been praying for and looked extremely fit.
Late that afternoon we offending children were called together and once again the severity of our misdeeds was outlined to us. I cannot remember what happened to the others but I was called into Kathleen Livingston’s study where David, her husband, sat looking huge in what was her chair. Again he went over the details before finally standing up. I could not help but be reminded of how big a bear of a man he was. I nervously watched him open a cupboard and gulped as he took out a springy riding crop from within. He then pulled forward a wooden upright chair and told me to drop my trousers. Quietly, he told me to bend over the seat and proceeded to give me what was known in those days as six of the best.
It was very painful and tears fell from my eyes as I pulled up my pants and trousers.
“What do you say, Nigel?” he gently asked of me.
“I am sorry, sir,” I stammered through my tears.
“And what else?” he queried.
“Thank you, sir,” I responded and left the room.
Our expectations were finally rewarded with the first peace on VE day, May 8th, 1945 and at the end of July we left Eccles Hall for good. My delight in packing up my meagre belongings and leaving Eccles Hall was boundless. My whole being surged with happiness. Mother and father collected us from Liverpool Street Station in the Morris and it was like being reborn though now somehow older and wiser. The war was over and the thought of being home again with my lovely family filled me with a terrific excitement. A new life now lay ahead of me, free from bombs, air-raids, fear and destruction.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.