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15 October 2014
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A Country Vacation

by vernon

Contributed by 
vernon
People in story: 
Vernon stone
Location of story: 
London & Bedfordshire
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A2029097
Contributed on: 
12 November 2003

Recollections of 1940-1;
I remember the late summer of 1939 as warm and sunny.
My parents and I had spent two weeks in August, as usual in the Isle of Wight. On the ferry returning to Portsmouth there were a large number of servicemen on board, singing and all very jolly. My Father, an ex-Royal Marine was disturbed by their numbers and seemed very grave afterwards.
The school holidays were not over but upon return to Dollis Hill in North West London we found that visits to school were planned; at eight years old I was in the Junior school and would be “evacuated” with my school but without a parent. A couple of times we all assembled in classes in the playground and once we marched, with much note taking and watch consultation, to Cricklewood station a mile away.
Then it was the 1st of September. We took our tiny cases and gas masks in their cardboard boxes to school. Then amid much crying of children and parents, who were made to stay when the crocodile moved off, we walked again to the station. This time we encountered an astonishing sight for there we joined masses of other children from all over the district. Some had come by bus but many, like us, had walked. It was the day of the great evacuation.
My love affair with railways was well developed and this just redeemed the departure as I often watched trains pass our house but only travelled on an express annually.
We arrived at our first destination, Bedford and soon were lead to the market where seemingly vast numbers of children from 5 to 15 were already present. Many more arrived in the hours following. The cattle market was chosen for it at least had the possibility of keeping us in classes and schools. The plan was to transfer several classes or even a whole school to a village or town. There officials had arranged for us to be billeted with local residents. This was firstly voluntary but if sufficient offers were not forthcoming compulsion was available.
Transport was scarce. All available busses were hard at work all dealing with the flood of “immigrants". For what reason I do not know we were held a long time before being moved. It was a hot day and very wearying. A tough time for the organisers no doubt — toilets in constant use, children sick and trying not to cry; nowhere to sit except when we were ushered to benches where lunch was doled out; WVS? Not bad I do recall.
It seemed that many of the recipients of children had realised that a huge diversity of candidates was on offer. Thus a farmer who desired a strong lad or a well to do lady wanting a no-trouble little girl
made their way to the city and the person in charge of the group was only too glad to see a local face who could lighten their load. Having been allocated a number of evacuees but not specific children the villager would then choose one from the flock and drive off with their prize! By the late afternoon our numbers were diminished and we boarded the bus for the village of Oakley . There, in the village school, a similar scene was enacted. Ladies would enter with the paper giving the number of pupils that authority determined that they would have to look after and soon, after a short chat with the supervisor, they left with one or more children. Certainly our teachers, who were of course still with us, had some say especially as far as keeping siblings together. Those left sat in the corner of the room worrying. I was lightly built and quite shy, nearby was a small and sickly looking lad and two tiny 7-8 year old girls quietly held hands. It seemed likely that those left as darkness gathered might end up in the less desirable and un-welcoming homes. But fortune was with us. The supervisor walked us a few hundred yards to the local pub. The landlady made us welcome saying that she was too busy to come and pick us up. The next weeks were the happiest days. There was not a lot of accommodation available so we were put in a very large room with a huge double bed. Top and tail was the plan and all seemed on an even keel. We played it the beer garden where there was a newt pond and swing. We had room in the suite to read or play and the food was good.
School was in the afternoon, the locals having classes in the morning. The landlady made sure that we washed and were indoors by her timetable but mostly left us alone. The small lad had been a neighbour of the girls and I recall that we played well together. One girl cried at night with homesickness — I think we all did- but mainly we happy. We visited the river, watched the harvest, explored the village and met other friends at school.
Postcards were issued on the second day for us to send home. They checked our addresses and I wrote that I missed home and family but the teachers were looking after us and that the billet was great, better that I and parents had expected in fact. I think that we wrote as a class exercise each week but I wrote that all was satisfactory too soon.
The blow fell after about two weeks later. An inspector from some organisation [county billeting officer?] called at the pub. The landlady said she was so pleased that her little charges were happy that with hind-sight she would have planned to show the officer a slightly different picture. As it was unexpected she showed it as it was. Big mistake. The inspector was a very large lady, self important and looking for trouble. Unimpressed with the idea of a pub from the outset she looked for problems and found them. Pond, river nearby, unsupervised play. The bedroom was the clincher. Horror. Our cosy world fell apart. She took the crying girls off to the far side of the village immediately threatening to return in an hour. It was dark when she did and despite the landlady’s protestations we set off struggling with all our belongings, gas mask and some food packed up by our hostess. The harridan had a bicycle which she rode ahead in the gloom; we straggled behind for about a mile. There, at other end of the village we arrived at a row of tiny cottages. She quickly introduced me to a large family and left with the sickly lad looking more wan that ever. The well meaning but overworked mother tried to make me welcome but as I was such a contrast from the family resentment was obvious. Taken to an attic room which I was to share with their 15 y.o. middle son who worked in the fields nearby I was appalled. The mattress was straw filled and crackled. Later I realised that it was also alive with bugs. I saw little of Billy, probably a good thing for after the novelty of teasing a small white faced stranger in their midst the family mostly ignored me; The children with thinly disguised contempt.
I never saw my erstwhile bedmate again and was told by the teacher that he was moved to the next village……?
School was still in the afternoons but instead of walking with a group of friends from the pub and the nearby houses I had to make my own way through a different part of the village. Much poorer and with many children it had few evacuees. It became an frightening walk, probably more in my perception that in reality, passing groups of the local children who had completed their morning lessons. My later letters were never posted but one brief note saying all was well was sent by a teacher.

My interest had always been trains. My Father fostered this and sometimes took me to the London mainline stations to watch the arrival and, more exciting, the departure of the countrywide expresses. The cottage had a long garden which ended at the top of a deep cutting. The four main line tracks of the old Midland Railway, then LMS, ran below. Frequent long coal trains taking London’s main supplies ran the Nottinghamshire pits and were balanced by equally frequent empties. The fast main line was used by expresses to the midlands and points North. Local trains were seen too as they were the main form of transport except a few local buses. Troop trains were beginning to appear.
Every evening it became my habit to leave after the frugal, and to me very unpalatable, supper to sit on the fence and watch this steam hauled procession. It was often very late before someone noticed as they were going to bed that I was still there. I do not know if I made notes or collected numbers in the classic manner but as it was soon dusk and then quite dark I doubt it. I did however soon get to know the frequency of different types of train.
I conceived a plan. The local station was a couple of hundred yards away. A reconnaissance showed that it would be simple to be on the platform but out of sight when the southbound local stopped soon after the evening meal. As it was only ten miles and one stop to Bedford; I could be in the station there in minutes. A semi- fast London bound train was due soon after that which made a suburban stop at Cricklewood on the way. If I was accosted en route to Cricklewood and having no money surely they would contact my parents if I gave that address. I knew the way home from the station.
The first part went well but on Bedford station I was spotted as I sat in a dark corner of the platform and soon I confessed to a local address. The official [railway policeman?] handed me over to the local bobby at Oakley station and I was back at the cottage before I was missed!

One day, on my way to afternoon lessons a group of local lads taunted then chased me. I later claimed that I was pushed but it could have been that I tripped in panic. I ended up in a ditch unharmed except for grazes and thousands of nettle stings. No doubt I ran to school crying. A well meaning teacher fetched the gentian violet and dabbed this heavily all over me. This contrasted nicely with the iodine on the cuts and my scratching the bug bites.
My parents were distressed that the letters had dried up. We had no phone of course, neither I presume was there one at the village school. My Father tried to get information whilst at work but the few officials left in London were awash with paperwork. A message came from my teacher that I was OK. This did not satisfy my mother. Against Fathers advice and all the rules after about ten weeks she came to visit. Multi coloured and having lost a great deal of weight I must have been a sight. I do not remember the scene but was probably kept out of it; the upshot was a return to London by train and a visit to the doctor. This was to witness the weight loss, head lice etcetera and to counter the expected visit from the police as keeping a child in the city was an offence.
A few weeks later I was taken to stay with an Aunt & Uncle in Eastcote, a neutral [no evacuation or reception!] area. There I remained until the summer of 1940 when a few classes were reopened in Cricklewood [why- in time for the battle of Britain?] . Regrettably I destroyed my Mother’s record of the year when she died in 1956. It listed the time of every siren “alert” and “all clear” in a ledger with notes such as: n/a no activity; fighters high; large plane low; bomb in park at 2am; bomb nearby front window broken; and Number 23 in our road flattened by bomb, all dead. Some days there were several entries.
My Grandmother lived with us and in her seventies travelled miles by trolleybus at 6 am to start work.
My Father had a heart condition and was stopped digging our Anderson shelter. The hole full of water and corrugated iron remained all the time we were in the house looking like a small bomb crater.
When the blitz was upon us a small bed made up for me on the floor in the low area under the foot of the stairs. When, frequently, bombers or the whistle of bombs were heard all three came and crouched in the higher area where my Father had put additional prop timbers as additional support for the staircase. It was a small house and this felt very crowded, after seeing the destruction of nearby homes we were all frightened.

In 1941 the admiralty moved more of it’s staff to Bath my Father among them. We soon were in a Somerset village and a different life. Although the bombers seemed to follow us with raids on Bristol and Bath the village was left alone. After the latter raid I helped Father walk round the city checking on the state of his staff; few had phones. By then I was very lucky to be attending the City of Bath School — a delightful location with fond memories and gratitude for an excellent job done by my teachers. The bonus was a daily ride by train to the city this time with a ticket.

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