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The Evacuee: From Brockley to Wadhurst

by Eric Clarkson

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Eric Clarkson
People in story: 
Eric Clarkson
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02 October 2003

This is an account of my experiences from 2 September 1939 through to mid-July 1940.

It all began in the last days of peace in 1939. We had been away on holiday at Barmouth for three weeks, that is my Dad and Mum, my brother who could only have two weeks holiday, a friend of ours Cyril Worsell, and my uncle Cyril and his son Trevor who was a little younger than me. We had had a good time learning to sail, going for long walks, and playing cricket on the sands. But the threat of war was always there.

All good things have to come to an end and so it was with this holiday. No sooner had we returned than I had to report back to school. School for me was what we now call year 12. I had not done very well in my General Schools exams in May 1939 and I was due to repeat the course work in my 6th year at Grammar School. School for me was Brockley County Secondary School in Lewisham.

“We had to report at school today and prepare for evacuation.” So reads my diary entry for 28th August 1939. Next day it reads “Did the same as yesterday, lot of Gas Mask drill” - I should add that we had had Gas Masks from the year before in 1938.
Friday 1st September the entry reads “Told this afternoon to prepare to evacuate the next morning”

So it was that some 250 – 300 boys assembled in the school hall and walked down to the local station at Ladywell. As I recall my mother was there to see us off. This would have been about 10.00 o’clock. At school we had been given a brown paper carrier bag, and we all had our Gas Masks and a medium sized suitcase which contained a change of clothes. In the carrier bag were things which were to keep us going until we got some food. The contents are, a packet of Rich Tea biscuits, some sandwiches, an apple and an orange, a tin of Condensed Milk, but best of all a big bar of chocolate.

Because I was one of the older children we didn’t need to have a label with our name on, it was assumed we knew who we were!

Once on the train you can imagine that we discussed among ourselves where we might be going. Well, the train puffed its way through many unfamiliar stations on the southern outskirts of London. All we could tell was that we were going in a southerly direction. Eventually after about two hours we drew into a small station called Jarvisbrook, its now called Crowborough. Lined up outside were a large number of country buses and into these we piled for onward move to our destination. This turned out to be Wadhurst a small village in E. Sussex.

On arrival, we then had a roll call to be sure that no-one has got lost on the way. We were told to wait outside the hall and await the billeting officer to come and allocate us to whoever were to be our hosts.

My friend Colin Boxall and I had agreed that if were possible we should stick together, but time went by and nobody came to pick us out. I expect that they took one look at us and thought we would take a lot of feeding.

Fortunately it was a lovely summer’s day and not unpleasant to be outside. About three o’clock a smart car drew up and a young man only a couple of years older than us came up to the billeting officer and asked if there were four boys together. Quick as a flash a couple standing near us, Charlie Rye and Geoff Roberts with whom we were fairly friendly, put up our hands.

Off we went, going back about two miles from the direction from which we had come. This young man was at University and training to be a Doctor. The car in which we were riding was a Triumph Vitesse which was quite a posh car for those days. Soon we were delivered to the front door of a big house called ‘Bensfield’

The lady who owned it was called Mrs Leete and it was her grandson who had picked us up from the village.

Once indoors were found the we has been allocated two bedrooms with twin beds in both, so Colin and I shared one room and left Charlie and Geoff to share the other.

At first we ate with the servants of whom there were five, three maids, a cook and a kitchen maid. Outside there were two gardeners who each lived in a semi detached house in the grounds of this very large house. It must have had at least 20 rooms besides the usual ‘offices’. There was also a chauffeur called Fillery who didn’t seem to care for us much.

At first we had our meals with the servants but Mrs Leete soon realised that this was not the best use of the space she had available especially as we needed room to do our homework. So she kindly let us have the use of her dining room.

We were fortunate because not only did we have plenty of good food but were very well treated. We even had the use of a half size billiard table and a table tennis table in the games room.

Some of our friends were not so lucky. In a few homes the food was neither good or plentiful. Some of our lads even found that they already had some occupants in their beds!

Mrs Leete like all other folk who had evacuees was paid 10/6 a week or 52 ½`pence in today’s money.This was paid by the Government

On Sunday 3rd September I went to the parish church in Wadhurst but we were only there for about fifteen minutes before a message was brought in to the Vicar saying that war had been declared and he said we should all go home. Shortly after leaving the church we heard the wailing sound of the Air Raid Siren and we all wondered what was going to happen. Actually the ‘All Clear’ sounded not long after. We had had the first of many false alarms.

It was some days before we went to school again. It seemed that no-one had told us that we should turn up on the Monday. In the mean time one of the gardeners decided that with these four lads he could occupy their time profitably in what hecalled ‘thistle dodging’ which meant going into one of the fields surrounding the house and chopping down thistles.
What we eventually found had been arranged was that three village halls had been hired, and these were used until we got a more permanent building in May 1940. The building which we used as a school was in Ticehurst a few miles farther on from Wadhurst and was called ‘Oakover’. It was in that building that I resat my exams and was pleased with my results when they were given as I had matriculated.

The winter of 1939/40 was very snowy and we found a toboggan in the garage and set about making good use of it. Unfortunately it was a bit old and one day as three of us were aboard we went over a hump and when we landed one of the wooden bars broke.
As we tumbled off I tore my trousers on the screwhead and had to get one of the parlourmaids to mend it for me which she did quite cheerfully. The cook was excellent and we really enjoyed the meals she prepared.

In May 1940 following the Dunkirk evacuation Mr.Anthony Eden made a broadcast asking for volunteers to form Local Defence Volunteer (LDV) groups. This name was later changed to the Home Guard. We were too young to join but we enrolled as runners. At first there were no weapons available but the day came when P.14 rifles arrived, theses used .303 ammunition but had been in store since the end of the 1st World War and were covered in thick grease. Fortunately we boys were excused the job of removing all the grease, that was left to the volunteers!!

The following gives an indication of the generosity of Mrs.Leete.
When we went to ‘Oakover’ in May 1940 Mrs.Leete was very concerned about our midday meal because there were no cooking facilities which could cope with 200 or so boys. We had to make do with corned beef and potato chips with an apple for desert. So she arranged that we should go to the local public house and made the proviso that we had a master who was willing to be with us. She paid for our meal,
which I think was 1/6p, but I think that Mr Walmsey had to pay for his meal himself.
Incidentally we became a co-ed school because Mr Walmsley’s daughter, Sonia was the only girl in the school and she also had her meal with us.

After I had left school I went back to see Mrs.Leete at least a couple of times but by then the school had been moved to S. Wales

I eventually left school in July 1940 and went back to London before the blitz started in September1940, and got a job with the Metropolitan Water Board ,but that’s another story.

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