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15 October 2014
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Evacuation: Dagenham to Devon

by Bill

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William Baker
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09 November 2003

It is going back a long way now and not so easy to remember clearly, but I was still at junior school so I wasn’t yet 11 and as the war broke out when I was 10 and 8 months that seems to pinpoint it fairly accurately.

Anyway my memories are of large groups of us in the playground, I was in a group with my two of my sisters, the third and youngest sister was to stay in Dagenham with my parents. Each child with a brown manila label tied through a button hole, so that even if we forgot who we were, which at that age was unlikely, we would be immediately identifiable, also of course the gas mask, which was to accompany us wherever we went throughout the duration of the war. The gas masks were at that time in brown cardboard boxes with I think it was a string attached, certainly something we could hang from one shoulder. Later all manner of fancy carrying devices were constructed to make the carrying a little easier. Fortunately it was carrying rather than wearing them to which we became accustomed. The only times we wore them were at fittings and practice drills, but I digress.

I believe the various groups of children went to different places, but the group my sisters and I were in, was taken to a railway station where we boarded a train for South Devon. After what seemed an interminable time, we arrived at Kingsbridge in Devon and from there were taken on buses to Salcombe, a beautiful spot on the south coast. In some sort of hall we were allocated to various people who were to look after us, billeted was the term used. My two sisters were billeted with a farmer and his wife whose house was about half a mile inland from a coastal region about 3 miles from Salcombe itself, a beautiful cove known as South Sands. I, along with about 15 or 20 others, was billeted at the South Sands Hotel, an hotel that opened it’s back doors, right onto the beach.

It was an idyllic setting especially to kids that had mostly known only the streets of Dagenham, with the occasional short excursion maybe to Southend on Sea. The fact that we had to walk into Salcombe to go to school was a bonus rather than a minus, as the country/coastal road was as pleasant a walk as we had ever known. The Hotel staff treated us pretty well although food and such were in short supply and we were never going to be overfed. Once settled, I used to walk inland to the farm to visit my sisters, where I was warmly welcomed by not only them, but by the farmer and more especially his wife. They, it seemed, were never short of food and they made sure that on my visits, I too had my fill.

After a couple of weeks the farmers wife asked me if I would like to move to the farm if it could be arranged with the billeting officer. Idyllic though the situation of the hotel was, I had no hesitation in letting her know how delighted I would be. It was soon arranged an I was moved with my scant belongings to the farm. I suppose being a boy, and rather tall too for my age, and being older than my sisters, I came to enjoy many privileges that they didn’t share, like staying up to have dinner with the farmer, his wife and the couple of young ladies that worked on the farm, while my sisters had an earlier supper and went to bed. As far as I know, they never resented it, they were happy, I was happy, and we settled in to our new way of life.

New way it was too, we had eight cows on the farm and I learned not to be afraid of them, I even learned how to hand milk them and bravest of all I could eventually herd them along the narrow lane between the fields and milking parlour something that had to be done twice a day. Then there were the chickens to feed, three groups of them each group with their own shed. We took buckets of food out which we scattered for the chickens and collected the eggs in the buckets to take back to the farm. One particular coop was always something of a problem, as you had to pass through an area that was occupied by a number of pigs. They naturally would be jostling, trying to get the chicken food but I soon managed to control them, not before the farmer caught me aiming a kick at one persistent pig, for which I got a real good telling off.

We did work at the farm when we were not at school, but somehow it never seemed like work, more like adventurous fun, and we were never pushed into doing things. All in all it was a good time at that farm and we settled into the routines as if we had been born to them, that is until that fateful day, some 8 months later, when our father came to visit us. He had made the long trip down from Dagenham in order to see that we were well and being taken good care of. He satisfied himself on that score and stayed the night. The following morning, time for him to go and the inevitable tears but I am sorry to have to say that I, the “Big boy of the family”, was the greatest blubberer so much so that I refused to let our father go without us, and he, foolishly in retrospect had us pack up out meagre possessions and he took us back home to face the air raids that were to come.

Later my mother, my three sisters and I, were evacuated again to Oxford but that was fairly short lived as my mother never could see eye to eye with the couple we were staying with. After returning home once more, when the air raids became more serious, my two sisters, the two who had been with me in Devon, were sent off again, this time to stay with a vicar at a huge vicarage just a few miles outside Slough in Buckinghamshire. But that is another story.

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