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A Lifetime Remembered: part 1 The 'Phoney' Evacuation

by Colchester Library

Contributed by 
Colchester Library
People in story: 
Mr E.S. Parsons
Location of story: 
Tooting and Paignton
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 August 2004

Friday the 1st September 1939 the exodus started. School children from all parts of London were herded in charabancs (coaches) at their local schools clutching a small packet of lunch, a large brown label bearing their name, address age and school tied through the lapel button hole along with the dreaded ‘Gas Mask’ housed in a square thick cardboard box slung around the neck and dangling about hip height.

My own personal memory of this day was walking along Southcroft Road Tooting with what seemed hundreds of other equally attired boys and girls but there was very little talking going on. I think we all had a sense that today was not going to be like any other day. The older children had been well briefed and maybe it was their fear of the unknown that set the mood for the day. I can’t remember anybody being with me although I knew my brother Walter and Sister Joyce were somewhere but on thinking about it we were possibly put into age groups.

My next recollection of that day was standing in a line which moved very slowly, and seeing grown Men and Women crying, weeping and standing on tip toe waving (I now know they were the Mums and Dads).

I remember being lifted up by this rather large lady, dumped on a seat with my nose pressed up against the wet window I remembering looking out and seeing another set of children with their noses pushed against their window, I realise now they were in another train on the opposite platform.

For many of the children they were going to spend the first night away from the family home. At this stage nobody knew what to expect, whether he or she was going to a home with a nice landlady, or were they going to be billeted in a home where the only incentive to take in someone else’s children was the allowance and the ration books they were promised (Rationing Started Jan 8th 1940) for each child.

Being still 9 months off my 5th birthday the events of the evacuation meant very little to me, the coach ride followed by a train ride certainly appealed to me more than say playing in the back garden. So to me it was one big adventure. But living in the country I was soon to learn that milk didn’t come out of a bottle, and trains weren’t wound up with a key. And being sent to bed with no tea meant no tea.

You just sat there waiting for a line of women with pointing fingers to pass bye saying I’ll take this one, or these two, they had their choice and they picked the children they thought would give them less problems, we had no say in the matter. If the finger pointed to you, you went!

Before I go on to explain about my personal experience of being an evacuee I must say a word on behalf of our new foster parents. It’s true that as children we were going into the unknown, but they must have wondered just what had hit them! What must the people of Paignton thought when the trains pulled into their small quite station and hordes of London school kids poured out of the carriages. One scene I can remember was as the train slowly pulled to a halt. There was an orderly row of ladies standing along the centre of the platform each armed with clipboard and pen (I later learnt that these ladies were ladies from the Women’s voluntary service).

No way could they have been prepared for what was to descend upon them, I remember getting out of the carriage and thinking the platform was too far away from the train, so like many others I jumped landed on both feet and preceded to walk my way up the platform looking for my brother and sister who I knew were on the train but I was unable to find them. I started crying and one of these clipboard ladies took hold of my hand and put me in a line there we stood waiting for the finger to point.

Along with the lady who was attached to the pointing finger we were taken into a large hall with long tables this was where official documentation was carried out. I was then put on a seat and told not to move. For what seemed an eternity I was finally taken out by a clipboard lady and we boarded a brown bus. The address I was taken to was ‘64 Merits Flats’ an address, (like my army number) I will never forget, we were made to recite it until it became engraved in our brain so that should we get lost we could tell someone where I lived.

The address was a top floor flat and a Mr and Mrs Walden, selected me they had a grown up daughter (in as much as she worked in the local laundry) and a 6-year-old son called Arthur. And I remember them questioning me as to my family I told them about my brother and sister and they said they would find out where they had been billeted and they would take me to see them but they never did. I can’t remember how I started to go to school but I do know that I walked there every day alone. One particular day has always stayed in my memory I was walking along kicking a stone and looking up I saw this girl in white ankle socks walking towards me. She said ‘Teddy’ I said ‘Joyce’ she gave me a big kiss and wished me a happy birthday it was the 12th May 1940 and that the first time I understood the meaning of birthdays. When I got home I related this to Mr & Mrs Walden who said that yes it was my 5th birthday and they had already planned to take me to Torquay that Saturday to have a birthday photo taken, so that I could send home.
Along with this photo I got a ‘Mars’ Bar and the only toy we could find, a pair of tin binoculars. I well remember Mrs Walden putting a pen in my hand and writing it with me. Arthur was older than me and he was always getting me into trouble and getting me sent to bed. One day I’d just about had enough of him and I planted my fist straight into his belly. Credit to him, he never told his Mum and Dad and after that we got on fine.

Schooling was one area the officials got totally wrong the school I attended was just a church hall surrounded by a wall and a grass lawn. We would all assemble on the lawn the older children were taken inside, and us youngsters would be told to sit in a circle on the grass and a teacher (possibly a helping parent) would sit in the middle on a chair and read us stories. When she realised that our attention span had spun she would stand up, tell us to put our coats on.

This done off we would go to the park to swing on the swings, slide on the slides, and ride the rocking horse. Looking back on this situation I suppose that with all the shortages, priority was given to the older age groups. It was fine for us, but it must have been hell for the teacher. Sometimes when we turned the corner to go into the park, we would see a similar group from another school coming from the opposite direction, both groups would break ranks and we all went hell for leather to get to the swings and rides first.

Those who were unable to get onto the swings or slides, would make a bee line for the roundabout which was designed to hold about 8-10 bodies, not 30 and the sight of seeing the teacher trying to peel off the top two layers so that bottom two layers could extract their heads from under the hand bars was a sight to behold.
If Londoners had the ‘Bombs’ these poor soles had the evacuees. I well remember the trip back to the school we had to pass a bakery, which had an extractor fan coming out of the wall at the side of the shop, we would race one another to stand under it and we could smell the bread being baked. That was all right, but by jingo did it make you feel hungry, bearing in mind that at tea you only ever had three slices of bread and jam maximum.

Another memory that’s stayed in my mind was as a treat we were taken to Paignton Zoo for the day, and we were told to bring a packed lunch. Mrs Waldon pact me two sandwiches and it wasn’t until I took a king size bite that I found it to be a mustard sandwich, which apparently was a favourite of Mr Waldon’s. Boy did my eyes water, in those days mustard was mustard!

Once again looking back I think ‘Gas Mask’ drill was teacher’s way of getting their own back for pranks played in the park, you cannot imagine what putting one of these things on was like.
You had to first put your whole face into the rubber mask; the rubber was skin tight as to not let any gas in. The teacher would then come up behind you and tighten up the web strapping so that it could not fall off if you were forced to run.

It was I think almost impossible not to panic when ones head was encased in such a contraption the smell of rubber was choking. We were encouraged to play as normal and not to look down at the trunk of the mask but to look up at the sky and trees, anything to take ones mind off the fact that you had a mask on. By far it was easier said than done and I never kept mine on longer than five minutes, many children totally refused to put it on to the extent that they would lay on the ground kicking and screaming for their mummy and daddy.

Other drills we had to do was how to use your handkerchiefs, everywhere use your handkerchiefs, everywhere you went in the war time there were posters telling us to ‘Trap Our Germs In Our Handkerchief’. We would form a circle take, out our hankies open fully, cover the face a pretend to sneezes into it.
Another constant thing that was drummed into us was the need to save food. As a growing lad, I can assure you I wasted nothing. And looking back I can only remember a diet of bread, soup, Jam, fish and vegetables there seemed to be no shortage of these, but as regards to anything containing meat! That was only dished up to adults who not only worked all day but they would come home, and go straight down to the allotment which kept the fruit & vegetables on the table.
I have very clear memories of doing my best to please Mr Waldon, I suppose I thought that if I kept on the right side of him, and anything out of the ordinary was to happen he would involve me. I quickly got into his routine. He would come home from work, have his tea, a quick read of the paper and he would be off down to the allotment. Sometimes he would take Arthur and leave me behind and another time he would take us both so when I got my chance I made sure that I was going to please.

Most families had similar routines and I found the allotment a fun place to be if only spending it on my hands and knees picking out the weeds between the plants. I don’t know whether plants grow bigger in Devon but I well remember one night being told to carry a marrow home, I had both arms wrapped around it while I had to carry my head to one side in order to see where I was going. I must of pleased Mr Walden because he started to take me out into some local fields in the morning before it got light, he told me to look for these ‘white things’ (Mushrooms).

After showing me what to look for, and how to pick them he told me to go one way, and he would go the other, I started looking and passing a row of trees I came across a flat area of grass and it was covered with these ‘white things’ I shouted out that I had found loads of these ‘White thing’ and all of a sudden my flat piece of grass was a hive of activity, by the time Mr Waldon got to the scene most of them had been picked, he was not a happy man. I was soon to be told that I must keep quite, and only relate any find to him.
A winkle tea on Sunday’s this was as regular as night following day. If the weather was fine Mrs Waldon would ask Arthur and me if we would like to have tea on the beach I suppose one of the affects of the war was it stopped one taking things for granted, and you quickly saw the value of things. To have our tea on the beach, for my part she didn’t have to ask twice.

She would arrange to meet us at the bakers shop (the one with the lovely new bread smell) when we came out of school. She would be armed with a pack of sandwiches and a large white enamel bucket, inside would be two small tin sand castle buckets.

We always parked ourselves near a shoulder of rocks which jutted out to sea, they were covered in seaweed, and plastered with winkles, I took to picking these like a professional fisherman collecting two buckets to Arthur’s one. He never had my enthusiasm for picking winkles or mushrooms, so that left me as being the blue-eyed boy a position I quite liked. We never left the beach until the bucket was full and it took us two boys all we could manage to carry them home we would walk home with the bucket swinging between the two of us.

Looking back it was no coincident that our arrival home coincided with Mr Waldon arriving back home from the allotment. He would relieve us of the bucket, go into the kitchen and put the bucket onto the gas stove and boil them. Then he would put his hat and coat and take them to sell to the local fishmonger
Hindsight! Being a wonderful thing, and looking back at overall picture of the war effort. If we hadn’t dug for victory the country would have grounded to a halt. Digging for victory helped to make villages and towns independent of the farmer who’s even greater effort was to go towards feeding the troops, hospitals and other institutions that were unable to grow their own.

If we take Paignton as being a typical English town, I don’t think there was a piece of wasteland, which wasn’t turned into an allotment. Local schools turned their sports fields into allotments using the children tender the crops.

Imagine if we hadn’t taken up the challenge to dig for victory, the government would have had to use vitally needed transport to distribute the farmer’s crops to the far-flung villages of England causing an even greater strain on country’s manpower. And more importantly the government controlled petrol stocks, badly needed to keep the Spitfire’s in the air.

In order to make the Nation aware of the need to turn any spare ground into allotment plots. They ordered that the ‘Moat’ circling the Tower of London should be turned into allotments.
Looking back I was one of the lucky ones, I think that the Waldon’s kept a well run home and I was treated no worse than their own son. School was fun, and I can’t really say I missed home let’s face it with wide-open fields, sandy beaches and playing in the park every day beats the back garden at 49 Southcroft Road Tooting.

Maybe my age protected me, stories written by older evacuees after the war showed many foster parents looked upon their evacuees as unpaid servants, being given such chores as Baby Minders, Coal Carriers, and Kitchen Maids. And how many were mentally or physically abused we might never know but I can only write of what happened to me.
The decision whether to bring their children back to London was left to the individual parents; this must have caused quite a lot of soul searching. On the one hand they had seen the danger of London being bombed had being a false alarm, but that wasn’t to say it was not going to happen at a later date.

The governments advocated keeping the status quo; a lot of planning and organisation had gone into the evacuation, and if all the school children were to return and it was found that another mass evacuation was needed it was possible that the resources would not be available. To encourage parents towards this way of thinking a poster campaign was launched and the fact that only two fifths of evacuees returned proved a partial success.

For my part I was unaware of such things happening, I was enjoying the adventure every day seemed fun time. I cannot remember the sequence of events but I was now attending a proper school in a proper classroom, and I well remember a buzz going around the class that there was a soldier in the main hall. Our classroom was built in a way that the bottom half of the wall was of brick, while the top half was a glass panel and if one stood on a chair you could see into the hall, and looking back I should think that our teacher had left the room, for if she hadn’t no way would we have been able climb onto our chairs to look out, I could see a soldier talking to a group of ladies, slowly they turned and headed towards our classroom. The next thing I remember was they entered the classroom, and stood in front of the blackboard, I hadn’t the slightest clue as to who the soldier and the lady with him were.

But I do remember what happened next, the teacher called out my name ‘Teddy Parsons’ this is your brother and he has come to take you back home to London. I also remember her telling the rest of the class to call out in unison ‘Good Bye Teddy’, and although the teacher had said that the soldier was my brother it was news to me, I was just four and a half years old when I left home, and as I now know brother George who was already in the army when I left home. The next thing I remember was standing on Paignton station with Brother George, his wife Sylvia, Brother Walter (Wally), and Sister Joyce waiting for the train to take us back to London. Sadly I cannot remember having said goodbye to the Waldon family, but I’m sure I would have done

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