- Contributed by
- South Gloucestershire Library Service
- People in story:
- MARY, BARBARA AND BERNARD GRIFFITHS
- Location of story:
- LEEDS, WEST YORKSHIRE
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 June 2004
On the fateful day, September 1st, 1939, the journey to school is indelibly printed on my mind. We had arisen very early, excited and full of joy, anticipating a special weekend away. We were bathed, (one lot of hot water between the three of us). Very little breakfast was eaten before donning our 'new' clothes. With the spare set of underclothing slung across our backs, in what represented haversacks, paper bags containing the biscuits, cheeses and sweets, tucked into our pockets and most importantly the gas masks, we were ready for our fun weekend away.
Mother, not one to show affection, had kissed each of us good-bye. I couldn't understand why she seemed on the verge of tears. The task of escorting us to school was allotted to Betty.
'Why all the fuss?' I thought. 'After all, it's only a practice, we will be home on Monday, the Headmistress had said so, and she would never lie.'
So Betty escorted us to school and utterly spoiled the journey. She openly wept all the way, telling us, ‘I know it isn't just a practice, the government wouldn't go to all this expense and trouble, if they were not sure a war was imminent'.
Mother had kept her thoughts and worries to herself and somehow had shown a stiff, (although trembly), upper lip. Had she known how Betty was going to behave, I’m sure she most definitely, would have taken us to school herself.
Betty couldn't control her feelings, she was doom and gloom, informing we, (now utterly frightened children), the worst was sure to happen. 'Arthur (her husband), Tom and Jack Davey, would immediately be called up to fight and they would be extremely lucky if they survived. We would all be bombed, invaded, robbed, raped etc.etc. After all, the British Isles was only a very tiny island in this immense world. All weapons, bombs, armoury, gasses, were much more sophisticated than the last war. The government had not gone to all this enormous expense, issuing us with gas masks, building shelters, delivering leaflets and God only, knew what secret things were being made behind closed factory doors.'
Her ranting and raving inevitably reached a crescendo, as she, not only
frightened herself to death but also we innocent children. She was obviously very scared and panic stricken. I thought to myself, ‘she was a nut case,’ and I had to tell at her to calm herself down, she was frightening Barbara and Bernard and also attracting attention from passers by. I, at 13 years of age, suddenly knew I must take charge.
Looking back, I can now understand just how deeply alarmed she must have felt, she was newly married with a small baby and her husband was in the age group required, he would be one of the first to be called up. Being a reader, deep thinker and interested in politics, she knew just how horrific the 1914-18 war had been and she was distraught wondering what was about to happen to everyone.
On the way up Springfield Place, an upstairs flat window opened and my new friend, along with her mother were leaning out of the window to wave us off and to wish us luck. This girl, along with her father and mother were German refugees. They had recently fled to England. Mr Robbins, our vicar, had taken them under his wing, he had acquired a flat for them and as I was the same age, he had suggested I befriend her, taking her to school with me. I have often wondered what must have been on their minds that day. They were a very friendly family and were all so well educated, their English was perfect. (The father was a medical doctor). Their daughter quickly reached the top of our class in an amazingly short period of time. Our mothers became quite friendly, as very shortly after they arrived in Britain, the doctor had a heart attack and died. I have no doubt, having to give up his home and livelihood in Germany, and knowing just what might be in store for his relatives and friends, played a large part in his death. Our mothers were both of an age and were, unfortunately, young widows.
Walking alongside us Barbara and Bernard were very quiet. I wasn’t taking much notice of them; Betty had caused me such concern and given me plenty to think about. We had all been looking forward to this weekend away, a very special treat. We had only ever enjoyed trips to Temple Newsam or Bolton Abbey, apart from two weeks at the Leeds Poor Children's Holiday Camp. No doubt Barbara and Bernard were receiving vibes from Betty and like me, were becoming more and more perplexed and scared. Betty had surely put the fear of God into us all by now. ‘Could it be possible that she is right and we may never see our mother again or our brothers and sisters?’
I too began to feel anxious and bewildered, having been instructed that I was in charge, with being the eldest. Barbara and Bernard were my sole responsibility from the moment we boarded the train. Eventually, having arrived at the school, after such a traumatic journey, we were herded in the playground, counted and sorted into groups. The teachers, who were being evacuated with us, were each in turn responsible for about ten children. We clambered onto a bus waiting on Belle Vue Road, and waving good-bye to choked up parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends, we were driven down to the Railway Station. The platforms were thronged with thousands of schoolchildren from all over Leeds, we had difficulty keeping with our allotted teacher, and it must have been a nightmare for her too.
At last we boarded the train and sat quietly as we were instructed, at least I did. The things Betty had said were still churning over in my mind and also her last good-bye to us. She was never one to show any affection but she had reluctantly given each one of us a kiss with a warning to me.
'Woe betide you if you don’t take proper care of these two'.
I felt so alarmed and panic stricken, all I wanted was 'me mam'. Eventually, after what seemed like an age, being checked counted and admonished. The teachers were talking to each other in whispers as we set off for destination unknown.
We were eventually given permission to eat our cheeses and biscuits. I suppose this was to keep us occupied and quiet. We were warned to make them last as they didn’t know how long the journey would take. All of us were anxious to start on the Barley Sugar Sweets, a very rare treat. We kept eyeing the teacher so if she looked the other way or through the window, we would secretly pop one into our mouths, they were delicious.
Eventually the teachers were given permission to open the envelopes, which had been issued to them. They conferred in whispers to each other before announcing to us all. ‘We are heading for LOUTH, in Lincolnshire.’ None of us had heard of Louth, it might just have been at the other end of the world for all we knew. Why all the secrecy? Might there have been a German spy watching us board the train and intended to report our destination to the Fuehrer? A map was produced and our teacher pinpointed the town to us, near the east of the county.
I was beginning to feel a little bit easier. The ones in charge didn't seem to be particularly worried, they were answering all our questions to the best of their ability. We were still being assured it was only a weekend away for practice.
'Relax and enjoy yourselves as I am', were her words, but they failed to give me much encouragement.
We sat quietly eating our lunch and sweets. We were very lucky to have been able to purchase Barley Sugars, as all the shops had quickly run short the demand being so great as the day approached.
Staring through the window at the slowly passing scenery, making numerous stops, being shunted up and down, the train eventually got up steam and we started earnestly on our journey. Bernard and Barbara still seemed very quiet. I kept peeping down at my new shoes, rubbing the toes on the back of my black woollen stockings to keep them shiny. Mother had polished the black parts and had whitened the white bits. I thought I was very smart and well dressed. I wondered how long I would be able to wear my new special dress and shoes before I outgrew them and they would have to be passed down to Barbara.
The journey seemed to take forever; it was teatime when we eventually arrived at Louth station. We must have looked pathetically tired. We were dejected, hungry and thirsty, not to mention home sick. (I have since made the acquaintance of Mrs Gertrude Robinson of Louth). This lady was on the station, seeing her boyfriend off on his journey, when we arrived.
She recalled ‘The platform suddenly crowded with hoards of children and I felt so sorry for them’.
We must have painted a pathetic picture, looking like scared rabbits with our little bags of luggage. I kept tight hold of Barbara and Bernard as best I could; we all carried our important gasmasks, haversacks and handkerchiefs to catch any tears. A further ride in a bus delivered us to a schoolroom, where we were given a cup of tea and a bun. We were all issued with a brown paper carrier bag to hand over to our new 'auntie' on arrival at her house.
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