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JEAN BELL (far right) with her siblings.

Life as an Evacuee

October 2014

Gillian Mawson shares some of the remarkable stories she uncovered while researching her new book on how the Second World War affected children on the home front.

DAGENHAM EVACUEES boarding coaches at Lowestoft. Courtesy of Christopher Brooks and Jack Rose

I have a passionate interest in social history.In 2013 I collected personal stories from a hundred people who spent the war years as evacuees in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. My new book, Evacuees: Children’s Lives on the WW2 Home Front, contains memorable extracts from these stories. They are accompanied by family photographs, many of which have been rescued from old suitcases and attics. The stories are from those who were evacuated within Britain as part of Operation Pied Piper (the government evacuation programme that began on 1 September 1939). Others come from those who sought sanctuary in Britain from France, Belgium, the Ukraine and Spain, and from those who were fleeing persecution in Germany. There are also memories from evacuees who fled from British territories such as Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Gibraltar.

Peter Campbell, at six years old, was sent from Folkestone to Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, and remembers the upheaval of evacuation. ‘People were lining the street, waving flags and cheering and trying to make us welcome. Halfway up the hill the string on my parcel came off and I dropped everything all over the street. Some kind ladies ran forward, wrapped them up again and carried my parcel to the mission hall.’

Graeme Cox was evacuated from Jersey to Lancashire. ‘We pulled into a railway station, where I managed to read a paintedout sign: “Rochdale”. Someone mentioned that it was where Gracie Fields came from. This trivial bit of information was strangely comforting. I had seen Gracie Fields in films and felt that if they were like her in Rochdale, we would be all right.’

Derek Trayler was evacuated, by sea, from Dagenham in Essex, to Norfolk. ‘The line of evacuees spread halfway across Dagenham. After walking 5 miles, we reached Dagenham Docks, where there were three paddle steamers that normally took Londoners on excursions. Once on board, we hung on the rail without moving, all the way down the Thames and up the East Coast, until we turned in to Yarmouth.’

Culture shock

Evacuees found themselves in homes very different to those they had left behind. Jim Marshall was evacuated from Rochford, Kent, to Bream in Gloucestershire. ‘Dick and I were very lucky as we were chosen by Mrs Percival, who lived at a huge manor house. Priors Lodge was enormous, with 40 acres of grounds, a trout lake, and tennis courts. There was a cook, two housemaids, a gardener and a woodsman.’

JEAN BELL (far right) with her siblings.

In July 1940, Lourdes Galliano was evacuated from Gibraltar into the heart of the London Blitz. ‘We were taken to the Empress Hall in Earls Court, a skating rink converted into an evacuee reception centre. The rows of tiered seats in the hall had been closed and folding camp beds had been jammed into the gaps – there were 750 of us! We were very tired but as we lay on our camp beds we could see that the domed ceiling was entirely made of glass. One night we heard the loud wail of the air raid warning but we didn’t know where to turn with this menacing glass dome above us. We were directed to a shelter outside and hours later we crawled gratefully back to our folding camp beds, only to find most of them covered in glass from the panes that had fallen in during the bombing.’

Some stories shatter the myth that most evacuees were deprived city children, who left the slums for pristine homes in the countryside. City children recall their shock at being billeted in country cottages with no running water, gas or electricity. Peter Staples was evacuated from the East End of London to Norfolk. ‘Donald and I went to live with Mr and Mrs Scarff in Brumstead, near Stalham. They had two sons, Patrick aged ten, and Derek, aged 14. They had no gas or electricity, drew water from a well and cooked on a Primus stove and range, which shocked my mum when she came to visit. Despite this they were a delightful family and we stayed in touch for some time after the war.’

Kindness of strangers

There was much compassion shown to evacuees by local communities and foster parents. One Lancashire man, John Fletcher, raised funds from all over the world so that 300 Channel Island evacuees could receive a Christmas gift every year. His grandson recalls, ‘In December 1940, my grandfather arranged a Christmas party at which, dressed as Father Christmas, he presented 200 children with gift parcels. Throughout the war, he continued this fundraising work, purchasing at least 300 parcels every year.’

BRIAN RUSSELL, with his mother, Miriam.

Doreen Holden was evacuated from Manchester to Matlock in Derbyshire. ‘A nice couple took me in because my name was Doreen, the same as their little girl. They treated me very well, bought me dolls and made me jelly and custard because I hated rice pudding’

Mary Draper, at the age of five, and her sister Vi, aged three, were evacuated from Lowestoft to Chesterfield, Derbyshire. Mary recalled, ‘We had no mum, and our dad was in the Home Guard. A lovely couple, Mr and Mrs Bacon, took us into their home. They had no children and practically became our mum and dad until the day they died. The war really did us a favour because they were marvellous to us.’

Paulette Le Mescam was sent from Paris to Guernsey, and then evacuated with her Catholic school to Knutsford, Cheshire. ‘Our whole school moved into an empty mansion, but Father Bleach had no money to feed and clothe us or to buy school books and equipment. The local people were very kind to us and then Father Bleach heard about the Foster Parent Plan for War Children. Soon, very child in my school was sponsored by a kind American. My sponsor was a lady I knew as “Aunty Eleanor”, who sent oney, exchanged letters with me and sent me lovely parcels. A while later, I discovered that she was actually Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President!’

Suffer the little children

Sadly, not all evacuees had positive wartime experiences. Despite being sent to safety, evacuees witnessed death and destruction and lost loved ones in air raids or as a result of infectious diseases. There are stories of neglect, physical and mental abuse and children who were treated as servants. Jean Bell recalled, ‘I was picked out, with my sister, by a Welsh lady who was very cruel to us. She had a spiteful daughter who stamped on my sister’s fingers when she was drawing hopscotch on the pavement. We started school without shoes and were laughed at by the local children for being badly dressed.’

Peter St John Dawe was evacuated at the age of seven because his London orphanage was hit by a bomb. ‘I was shipped to Leighton Buzzard by train in the guard’s van like a parcel, with a label round my neck. My baggage was a paper bag with a bun, half a bar of chocolate, a three-legged piggy bank containing tuppence, and a pocketknife with a bent blade. On arrival, nobody knew what to do with me and I spent the night alone in the station waiting room.’

Two-year-old Brian Russell was evacuated with his brother and mother, Miriam, to Cheshire. ‘Just three weeks later, my mum died of meningitis. Dad was allowed to come back to sign her death certificate, but could not look after us because he was in the forces. My brother and I were placed in a children’s home in Styal, where we were separated. This caused me great distress, and I kept asking for my mum all the time.’

The carers

A BRITISH MINISTRY of War image showing evacuees from London’s East End tucking into vegetables sent from the United States. The vegetables were dehydrated for economical shipment across the Atlantic to provide nourishment to children on Britain’s home front. Library of Congress

Thousands of adults were involved in the evacuation and care of millions of children. They included mothers, teachers, nursing staff, billeting and liaison officers and foster parents. Mothers and teachers travelled with the schools but we tend to hear their stories far less often than those of child evacuees. Some schools remained together as a unit during the war and teachers became their pupils’ guardians, in a move unprecedented in educational history.

Miss Grace Fry recalled arriving at a Weymouth reception centre with her pupils. ‘An air raid began and the children and I here quickly pushed out of the building onto a bus. Then, to my horror, the driver locked the door and disappeared. The children had been sick on the boat and were dropping off the bus seats in the dark because they were tired. After an hour, I thought, “Well, this is the end, if a bomb falls on us, I hope it happens quickly!” Grace then took her pupils to Pollokshields, where she cared for them for five years.

Ben Howard was evacuated at the age of 12 with Catford Central School to Sayers Croft camp in Cranleigh, Surrey. ‘Two hundred of us arrived at the camp and our teachers were presented with a serious problem. They were now responsible for schoolboys 24 hours a day and none of them had boarding school experience. There would be no school holidays!’

After the war, many evacuees remained in touch with their wartime ‘foster parents’. Edith Ashmall cared for Douglas Wood in Staffordshire. ‘He was only five when he came to me and, at the time, had only been at school for one week. He had something “special” about him and we were like “mother and son”.

Not all evacuees were happy to return to their own families. When Richard Singleton’s mother came to Aberystwyth to take him and his brother back to Liverpool, he refused to leave. His mother took his brother home, then came back for Richard again later. He told me, ‘I cannot remember leaving – I was
too upset to think of never seeing Aunty Liz, Moses and everything that I loved on the farm. I was being taken somewhere I never wanted to go.’

These stories underline one thing – there is so much more to the story of evacuation than the images of children arriving at railway stations that have entered the public domain. Hopefully, my book, with its combination of stories and family photographs, will paint a more intimate picture of the different ways in which the British people opened up their homes to evacuees during the dark days of the Second World War.

GILLIAN MAWSON’s previous book, Guernsey Evacuees: The Forgotten Evacuees of the Second World War, concerns the 17,000 people who fled Guernsey to England in June 1940 just weeks before the occupation of their island by Germany. Read more about Gillian’s work on her blog at

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