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Life as an Evacuee

by Greenwich Heritage Centre

Contributed by 
Greenwich Heritage Centre
Article ID: 
A2916588
Contributed on: 
13 August 2004

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Chris Foord of the Greenwich heritage Centre on behalf of Maureen Black and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

I was born in Blackheath and went to school at St Ursula's convent, Greenwich.
When war was declared we were evacuated to Hastings (I believe the school got on the wrong train!) The first billet I was in, the women took in five of us. She also took in commercial travellers whose rooms, on the first floor, were shown to the billeting
officer. Yet, she squeezed the five of us into one large attic room and as I was the smallest, my bed was in a cupboard on two upside turned draws with a mattress on top. Every
morning we were told to wait until the commercial travellers had had their breakfast. We smelt the delicious smell of bacon and eggs, but when we came down stairs we were given half a piece of bread and butter and a cup of tea. Luckily, as it was the beginning of the war we were able to buy chocolate. I was brought up never to tell tales and did not realize at 13 the difference between telling tales and telling what was happening. One of us mentioned it at school and we were moved very quickly.

I then went to live with a lovely family. The father was a dental mechanic and they
were very kind. I have found a letter that I wrote to my mother asking for another dress and right at the end of the letter I mentioned that we could hear the guns in France and that we were to be re-evacuated to a place called Breacon, although we didn't know where it was. We had a lovely journey on a special train but never knewwhere we were as all the signs were down.

The people of Breacon had already had evacuees from the Slums of Liverpool, but they
had gone home by the time we arrived. As a result, the people of Breacon didn't want any more of us. We were all put in a parish hall and people came in and chose us. As I looked rather like a Ronald Sewell (St Trinians) School girl I was one of the ten left at the end, that
nobody wanted. This was one of the worst feelings in my life. Eventually I went to
a local greengrocer and his family, who really cared more for their dog than they
cared for me.

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Message 1 - Life as an Evacuee

Posted on: 17 August 2004 by John Phillip Thornton

Dear Maureen

Ref; Life as an Evacuee

In 1939, my father aged 22, youngest of seven children, enlisted and fought with Britain’s 7th armoured division in North Africa. Later with the 8th army in Cyrenaica, Libya, Tripolitanaia and Tunisia, across the Mediterranean Sea and through Sicily to the mountains of Italy ( the American 5th army joined in at Salerno). Then came the battle of Normandy, each invasion followed by ferocious inland battles.

I were 8 months old when WW 2 commenced. My mother and I experienced the loss of two dwellings during the Blitz of New Cross Gate and Deptford, South-East London. Monica, my sister was born in August during the 1940 Bombardment.

We were fortunate to survive the 57 day, incessant 24 hour blitz throughout 1940. During this nobody apart from the emergency services and air-raid wardens had the nerve to emerged from their shelters. Albeit wartime records show that Criminals didn’t baulk at seizing the ‘ fresh opportunities ‘ offered.

Apart from the nuisance of loosing ones abode, all, or most of our possessions were destroyed. Everything — clothing and food, were now rationed by the government and, without ration books, one were unable ( unless using the highly priced black market ) to purchase food etc.

Mum being a housewife looking after we children. Her only income were a percentage of my fathers wage - a military allowance to his spouse, allocated from his monthly earnings whilst in the armed forces.

In March 1942 my mother was ordered to leave the London area, to be relocated (evacuated). We were classic escapees; with mother, her infant daughter and her son not old enough for school, keeping our family together proved to be impossible.

Two days earlier In 1942, I were evacuated from the city in a convoy of three London double — decker, red buses, from a school playground at New Cross - South East London, to rural Batley in Yorkshire. A woman named Mrs Lilley-White became my surrogate mother and insisted I address her as mum.

A seaside holiday.

In view of the flying bomb scare in 1944, Mrs Lilley took me for a protracted holiday out of reach of the V1 and V2 rockets, to a village in the west of England called Blackpool ( the name meant mucky pond). It were very peaceful, I relished the sight of an anti aircraft gun and crew, albeit never witnessing the weapon used in combat.

After breakfast at the hotel, mum and I would stroll along the beach or promenades, safe from military hard-wear. We often saw the home guard, known as the Local Defence Volunteers ( look-duck and vanish, mum called them). I recall two shops in the immediate area, one a greengrocers, the other a tobacconist. The latter we visited often. On show were dozens of empty sweet jars, mum seemed able to purchase something for me to chew or suck. I knew nothing of the need for coupons and persons being allowed just 3 ounces of sweets per week.

We often visited Blackpool’s three piers, most of the time something were going on involving uniformed personnel. We climbed the Blackpool Tower, at 518 ft, the tallest structure in Britain and, often had a fish and chip lunch and paddle in the sea.

war-games

I made friends with a number of children, one of these a girl of 12, more or less babysat. One morning whilst playing we witnessed an aeroplane skim across a hedge and crash into a field close by. At four years of age, I had little knowledge, but knew the results of air war combat. Rushing to the area and finding the aeroplane smoking, pilot-less and unsupervised, we began to nudge and play upon it. This at my age, was possibly the happiest and most important moment of my young life, until the “ here comes the police, ” warning , whereupon I fell upon the aeroplane wing, injuring myself.

“ The police” happened to be two air-raid wardens, one of whom escorted me to the hospital. I needed seven stitches (sutures) and remained as a patient for a week. I have the scar to my left eyebrow and arm to this day. It goes without saying, mum ( Mrs Lilley ) was horrified when she visited me when I regained consciousness that evening.

Soon after my birthday in January 1945, Mrs Lilley and I left Blackpool and travelled to Hampton Wick railway station in Surrey. Here my real mother and my sister awaited us. After much hugging and kissing from my mother, who was amused at my Yorkshire exclamation of “ ee - baa-gum.” My sister Monica being shy, she being an infant when we parted.

We walked ¾ of a mile to where my mother now resided. This were at 35 Cedars Road, adjacent to Bushy Park, separated by a 5 mile road called Sandy Lane. My mother was renting the top floor of this huge three storey, hunting type lodge. The section mum used were a redundant, gas lit billiard room. This room now served as mums Kitchen and living room. Adjacent ether side of the landing were two (possibly ex-cloakrooms) now serving as my mother and sisters bedrooms.

Whatever were discussed overnight between my mother and Mrs Lilley, my guardian had departed when I awoke the following morning. I cried that evening in the solitude of my bedroom, and a few more evenings after that.

From then I took up life as a normal youngster with my mother, sister, Uncle, Aunt and cousins, almost an island of relatives, unlike the recent past as the only child.

Fatality training

Throughout the war, Bushy Park housed a Royal Air Force camp and laboratory. The Kingston camp within Bushy Park, were the troops living and recreation quarters. The Twickenham camp, being the industrial section, where scientific work were performed

We were able to watch from our top floor windows, the parachute training within Busy Park, having a grandstand view of the site just 100 metres or so from our abode.

Monthly, lorries hauled a large winch, an oval basket, a silver dirigible (Barrage Balloon) and gas cylinders into the park. The Dirigible, once attached to the basket was inflated. Then up-to ten of the fifty of so troopers assembled, would enter the basket with their back-packs. The balloon ascended to possibly 300 metres.

My cousins and I would hear an instructor shouting advice then the wo/men would fall from the basket at short intervals, leaving white straps hanging from the basket, these seemingly operated the parachute. The wo/men took minutes to reach the ground where they would gather their parachute and a lorry returned them to their base. The dirigible were lowered to earth, further wo/men embarked, before the balloon returned to its ceiling, whereupon another parachute exercise began.

One day, we saw two parachutists , the second from one basket and, the seventh from another fall to the ground, the parachute streaming above them but failing to open correctly. It took us kids minutes to reach the area to view the victim, dressed in a grey/brown boiler suit and hard hat, with the white parachute floating as s/he lay in a shallow stream, ten foot or so from where three military policemen had cordoned off the area, we couldn’t observe a great deal and a small jeep type covered vehicle arrived and removed the corpse. We weren’t allowed within 50 feet of the second victim who had fallen into the forest shattering a silver birch tree. Despite these accidents the parachuting persisted until the exercise finished that day.

Later the RAF camps were assigned to the American Army Air force (AAF)
From our home we would observe the occasional yank and his female companion, scramble through the metal railings surrounding the forest and, make their way to one or the numerous chestnut trees where they made mutual contact. Often in the late evenings, my mother would admonish and urge the lovers to move on as they argued loudly over payment of said coupling, performed against the fence surrounding our dwelling.

The school we attended were three miles (almost an hour ) walk from our home. My sister and I would walk this stretch, using the Sandy Lane route. We didn’t see any vehicles apart from that of the military. Occasionally a Jeep would screech to a halt alongside us, usually as we reached the bleakest one mile stretch between the Park and, the Gas-works. A yank would ask “wanner lift kids?” and we would be lifted and sat behind the driver and his companion. We often rocked backwards into the seat, as the Jeep flew along the lane and, we reached our objective minutes later. Here we would be placed upon the path, and given the obligatory stick of chewing gum.

A handsome stranger.

Very early one morning in 1945, mum awakened my sister and I. Dad had arrived home on his first leave from combat, throughout the five years of his participation in the war. His allowance being a five day (including travel) leave period prior to his demobilisation.

When mum led me and carried my sister into the billiard room, we were confronted with a very tanned man in his immaculate battle dress browns. His jacket with sergeant stripes and campaign ribbons, were hanging from a chair back and, a steel helmet lay across the seat of the chair. Alongside this was dads Lee-Enfield SMLE rifle, ( of which I was most interested ). Dad took the rifle minus the activating bolt, and hung it from a hook well out of reach of my inquisitive hands.

My sister and I were each embraced in turn, I being an infant and, my sister unborn when Dad went off to war. What joy, Dad had with him a medium size biscuit-tin, full of chocolate bars. After tucking into one, I being very tired, mum urged me to return to bed. My sister didn’t, until she fell asleep in dads arms.

I often reflect on our joy at this meeting and, of other children who were never to meet their father again, he having paid the ultimate price during the hostilities.

Dad had received a number of wounds to his neck, chest, hip and leg during his campaigns. I remarked on the mauve scars, on seeing some of them as he performed his ablutions. Dad never divulged how he received them or the length taken for injury to heal. After tea the following day, dad left again to re join his Division. He returned to us upon his demobilization in 1946. I well remember laugh at a photograph taken of dad on his return home wearing a brand new demob issue, double breasted, grey pinstriped suit. Also a grey trilby hat, black shoes and carrying an overcoat and a glossy brown cardboard suitcase.

Dad would shake his head in disbelief at the media reports of the Korea and Suez crisis. He died revealing little more than being present when Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also General Bernard Montgomery, visited Britain’s Eighth Army in North Africa. Dad also watched as Pope Pius X11 give his blessing and spoke in seven languages from his throne at the Vatican city following the relief of Rome.

Information

As you know In 1942 there were no television or mobile telephones in Britain. News were gleaned by radio from the BBC situated at Broadcasting House in the West End of London, or the Cinema, who put out short news programmes. It seems Mrs Lilley — white, learnt of London children in danger of annihilation by German bombers and were being evacuated that day to Batley, from a clippie (who collected travel fares upon the bus). Mrs Lilley witnessed children being led from and, decided to see what was happening within the Hall. The rest of course is history.

Adoption.

Later at my 21st Birthday party, I learned that Mrs Lilley — White ( my surrogate mothers full name) had taken me to Blackpool, out of range of the German Flying bombs. My mother alleged it were to avoid returning me to her. Apparently, Mrs Lilley — White, wished to adopt me and was prepared to marry Arthur her paramour to comply with adoption rules. Mother wouldn’t agree to this and, I never saw Mrs Lilley - White again.

Both my parents are now deceased and as I peruse their documentation of WW2 my memory becomes clearer. Unfortunately I’ve been powerless to contact Mrs Lilley — White as her address were lost or destroyed.

In conclusion

The original theory of evacuation didn’t help my Mother or sister who put up with a woeful, zero tolerance of evacuees from their Welsh hosts. I on the other hand enjoyed my time throughout the war. Albeit being brought up in a one-parent family, bonding with my mother until 1942 and then with my surrogate mother until 1945. My relocation proved the governmental theory on evacuation, fait accompli.

Fortunately; I am blissfully married, blessed with two female children both happily married. I also have two grandchildren, the eldest an attractive teenager. Therefore the war and its consequences caused me few lingering problems

With fewer child evacuees of WW 2 living, I hope others will record their experiences, thereby enabling thinking people who peruse said documentation, note the sacrifices and joys endured during WW2 ?

I sincerely wish Ms/Mrs Lilley — White, this lovely lady, everything she would wish for herself, and I am grateful for the unconditional love, and nurturing she endowed me with, as if I were her son.

I will never forget her kindness and, I retain a picture of her in my minds eye that never matures.

Domiciles known

1942 34 South St Greenwich SE10

1944/5 364 Evelyn St Deptford

1944/5 50 Stafford St Burton — on — Trent

1946 onwards 35 Cedars Rd Hampton Wick Kingston on Thames.

Fraternally

John Thornton ID No; 785835

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