My primary school in Bootle, near Liverpool, evacuated their children to Southport on 1st September, 1939. Mothers and very young children were to follow on the 2nd of September. We were told it was to be a practice run. Being an adventurous child I thought it quite exciting but my younger brother cried so much we missed the bus on the 1st and had to go with the mothers and babies the next day.
When our bus arrived at Holy Trinity Church Primary School in Southport a crowd of would-be billet mothers were waiting by the gate. We had to run the gauntlet to get into the schoolyard and as I dragged my reluctant brother by the hand I heard a lady remark, “I like the look of that one — the girl”. I remember feeling strong resentment at the slur on my brother and the cattle market atmosphere. A billeting officer walked the two of us to a house nearby and rang the doorbell. On getting no reply she surmised that the people were at work and told us to wait on the doorstep until they returned home and then to explain who we were.
War was declared the next day so we did not go home as we had expected. There were only two adults in our house and I remember very little about them. We were left very much to ourselves. I had to help my brother to get ready for school every day. I started walking in my sleep and occasionally dreamt that I had gone to the bathroom only to wake up as I wet the bed. After about a month the couple moved to Bolton and we were duly delivered to another couple who lived in a flat over their butcher’s shop. They had a new baby and I soon learned how to warm his milk and enjoyed singing him to sleep. They took us into their home without any fuss and life became a routine of school, pushing the pram on the promenade and stews with cow heel almost every day for dinner. We had never eaten it before then and certainly never since but at least we were never hungry. One of the bonuses of living over a butcher’s shop in wartime, I suppose. One of the drawbacks was that it was my daily chore to empty the mouse- trap that was laid every evening on the stairs down to the shop. The family eventually moved, taking us with them, to a semi-detached house. We settled down happily, though I still occasionally walked in my sleep, and I started going to the High School. Then a 15-year old nephew moved in. He wanted to play with us a lot, piggy- back rides and rough and tumble games. I instinctively avoided being alone with him. Then an older man arrived who snored so loud the house seemed to shake. Suddenly it was decided that my brother and I were too old to be sharing a bedroom so we were moved again.
Our new billet was with a woman whose husband, I understood, was at the war and who had a daughter who was the same age as me and went to my school. We played well with the daughter but the mother did not seem to like us. We had to sit in the scullery to eat while they sat at a table in the living room. I can only remember eating bread and cornflakes there, never a cooked meal. We were always hungry. She was never in when we got home from school so we had to wait outside. The daughter went to an aunt from school. Often air raid sirens would go as we waited to get into the house and we had to run to the nearest shelter. We were both very frightened.
We sold the comics my mother sent us in the Saturday market for pennies and bought buns. My little brother became adept at brushing his arm along the sweet counters at Woolworth’s and ‘finding’ sweets on the floor. When the billeting officer made her routine call she was never asked in but we heard her being told “Oh yes, they have three good meals a day”.
I knew I should let my mother know of our hunger and my brother’s behaviour in the shops. But I had been told that if an evacuee returned home they would lose their grammar school place and that meant a lot to me. In the end the problem was solved by my mother appearing at the front door saying, “pack your bags you are coming home”. She looked very grim. The lady of the house hovered but the two exchanged not one word. I never found out how this came about. Happily I was not turned away from Bootle Grammar School and events in Southport were blanked out of my mind for many years.
My mother swore that we would never go away again, come what may, but in May, 941, the air raids returned to Liverpool with a vengeance so my school decided to evacuate itself to Herefordshire. Our GP strongly recommended that I should be allowed to go as I was in a high state of nerves, walking in my sleep.nightmares and afraid to leave home to go to school (which I loved).
Going to Southport for somebody brought up on the Mersey coast was nothing new. Seeing the deep green heart of England for the first time is something I will never forget. The Isle of Man’s beautiful country was something I knew well but that was nothing compared with the black and white village of crooked houses where our bus set us down.
I was taken into a family who ran a small farm in the middle of the village. I became a part of them in a way that I don’t think even they were aware. Their unassuming kindness was measureless. The happy memories of a town child getting to know the countryside would fill a book.
Eventually my school took over a large house in a nearby market town and we all had to go and live there together. So many other girls were unhappy in their billets it was deemed the best plan but I was torn between leaving a happy home and looking forward to the excitement of ‘boarding school’. My billet mother took great exception to my being removed from her care. However, at every opportunity I made my way back for weekend and half term breaks by various means of transport, some times walking the last three miles.
In 1945 we were all reunited with our parents but hardly a year has gone by since then when I have not visited my billet mother and her family. She had 2 sons and 2 daughters, all of them my friends, and introduced me to visitors as her 3rd daughter. She died, in 1993, at the ripe old age of 97. I was at her funeral, a great family gathering, and maintain the contact to this day.
The only blight on this happy memory was to learn, and understand, years later, that my own mother, whilst knowing that I was happy and well cared for in Herefordshire, suffered daily heartache at our being apart. It is probably also true to say that our relationship changed as I spent my growing-up years away from home. In 1939 most parents had no choice but to send their children away for their safety’s sake. Given the same circumstances I think I would take a chance on living or dying together.