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15 October 2014
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The Watermill Evacuees

by John Wesley

Contributed by 
John Wesley
People in story: 
John Wesley
Location of story: 
Yeomill, Devon
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 December 2003

With my parents, I had heard Mr. Chamberlain's radio announcement on September 3, 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany. I was 8 1/2 years old, with a baby brother born just a few months before.

Within what seemed only days my school in Belvedere, Kent was being evacuated and I was being taken to the local railway station dressed in short trousers, long socks, black shoes and a grey raincoat. Tied to the raincoat collar by a piece of string was a label showing my name and the name of the school. I remember a small suitcase, and,I think, a gas mask in a small cardboard box on a strap.

There were about twenty of us from the same class , with two lady teachers. My mother, together other parents came with us to Waterloo Station in London.

There we said our goodbyes and joined a train going to the West Country. I do not think anyone knew where we were going, not even the teachers. Certainly not our parents.
I do not remeber tearfull farewells, but am sure there were some.

Because my grandparents had a Morris car I was relatively familiar with the countryside to the south and east of Belvedere,right down to the Kent coast, but many of my "townie" companions were soon staring with amazement at countryside scenes.

The stations came and went. Yeovil, Taunton, Tiverton as we passed through the fairytale Dorset, Somerset and Devon countryside. We seemed to be on the train all day.

Every so often at stations and small country "halts" the train would stop and a group of children and one or two teachers would get off.
Suddenly we were stopping at a small wooden platform some 30 yards long with a rain shelter for perhaps six people. The sign said Yeomill Halt. Not another building in sight. Just high hedges and small fields and country smells.

Our two lady teachers shepherded us off the train and before we had left the platform it had gone into the distance.

Where were we? Just 3 miles south of Exmoor and 10 miles from Tiverton, but we did not know that at the time.
Whether there was a bus or we walked I can no longer remember, but after passing through the hamlet of Yeomill (about 12 houses and farms) we arrived at West Anstey school house. This had one large classroom in which two age groups were taught and a smaller room for the very young chidren.
The people who were having children billeted upon them were waiting for us to arrive. They seemed to be able to choose who they wanted - perhaps rather like an ancient farmworkers fair.
After most of the children had been taken away by their hosts I was one of the very small group left. We were just allocated to the remaining villagers who did not seem to know how to choose.

My hosts were a brother and sister, neither of whom had ever married and who seemed to me to be very old compared to my own parents, although they were probably in their mid forties.. We walked back the mile to Yeomill to their small farm cottage. Fred (to my shame I do not remember his surname or the name of his sister) was a farm labourer and his sister did various jobs "in service", as housekeeping was called in those days.

It seems amazing to me now, but my parents did not know where I was until one of our teachers wrote to tell them some days after we had arrived. Nor were they allowed to visit us for a minimum of 3 months as it was thought it would be too upsetting for all concerned.

Life was very basic, and probably quite hard, but I remember it with pleasure. The local kids and the evacuees took time to get used to each other, and to understand what on earth we were saying - northwest Kent versus deepest Devonian - but the new things to do and the farm work we were expected to take part in gave us a great sense of freedom.

Most of the young farmworkers had volunteered for military service and the evacuees had to pitch in to help with animals and harvest time.
The small river Yeo flowed through the hamlet and true to the name of Yeomill, it had a fully working watermill which regularly milled the local grain and cattlefeed.
The miller seemed very ancient to us, and he had lost his two mill hands to the services.
So about six of us were taught to operate the mill, although always with the miller present.

The Health and Safety Executive would have had a fit if the function had existed then. A 4 storey building with open staircases, huge wooden gearwheels with little safety guarding, unfenced trapdoors in floors and leather chutes from top to bottom of the mill. And a large mill pond with no fencing and a large overshot waterwheel which we often climbed to clear a blockage.
We enjoyed every moment, and did something for the war effort.

My parents visited me after 3 months and again in September 1940. My mother then decided that I was not eating enough of the right food and was too thin so she took me back home. She thought that a diet of potatoes was more dangerous than bombs!

Fred had a married sister living in the village - a Mrs. Tarr. A lady with a very loud voice, but with whom I got on very well.

When I was 33 years old I revisited Yeomill for the first time since 1940, with my wife and two young children. As we walked down the small lane through the hamlet a very elderly lady came out of one of the houses, looked at me and without a moments hesitation said "Hello John" to which I responded "Hello Mrs. Tarr".
We had not seen each other for 24 years!

We were asked in for tea and cakes. Regretably her brother and sister had passed away some years before.

Another episode in the overall story. Two friends of mine who were twins, were in the same group of evacuees. They were extremely presentable at 8 year old and were the first to be selected when we first arrived. Their hosts were two wealthy sisters living in a manor house surrounded by a small estate.
The story, of which I have no confirmation, is that when the sisters passed away with no family to inherit, they left the estate to their evacuee twins.
That would be a fairytale ending, would it not.

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