A Holiday of a Lifetime (This was written in response to a request by our local Museum on holidays) Katie Avagah
Born at the end of September 1935, the sixth child of a family of, at that time, seven children, holidays were not a part of our lifestyle. My parents had been rehoused from Stepney Green to the sprawling Becontree Council Estate in Dagenham just before the birth of their second child in 1927. At first living in a two bedroomed house in Britton Road at the Merry Fiddlers, and with my arrival being moved into a three bedroomed house in Downing Road. With the outbreak of war imminent my father volunteered for the army leaving mum with seven children all under 14 years. Most of the Boroughs had been practising for the ‘Evacuation’ for many months, but Dagenham had been either forgotten or deemed a safe place, despite being on the river and with much industry; so unlike most London kids we had not undergone weeks of ‘training’. Preceding the announcement that we were at war to be broadcast by Chamberlain on the 3rd September, mum was to be found with her gaggle of children on the jetty at Fords for the great Exodus leaving Dagenham on 1st September 1939. Mum was evacuated with us because she had a toddler and a child under school age. What a wonderful spectacle she must have presented surrounded by all of us! Like most working class mums of the time she was short and dumpy, no make-up (‘worn by women no better than they should be' – an oft quoted sentiment of the time)’ her hair secured with a few pins into a ‘bun’. Despite the warm weather she would be wearing her coat and hat, shabby though it might be, and thick lisle stockings. The Americans hadn't arrived yet with their nylons and chewing gum and anyway ‘only women no better than they should be’ would wear them. We kids, with our gas masks and little bundles of possessions clutched in grubby hands, were off on a big adventure!
Aboard the ‘Daffodil’ we set off for Lowestoft, and the well-known story of the evacuation. The older children had a great time racing around the boat, convinced they had spotted submarines and enemy aircraft, as we sailed around the coast to Lowestoft. Being only three I remember little of all this, though apparently I became lost on board, only to be found later up with the Captain helping to steer the boat! What chaos, confusion and clamour this conjures up in the mind! How would our Health and Safety Czars have coped with this?
For a short while we were all together then my older siblings were sent off to a variety of homes in Wales, Sussex and Suffolk. For a few weeks I was with mum and baby Teddy but she soon returned home to Dagenham. I apparently then surfaced in Somerset, no one seems to know how or why; I guess I was just an intrepid four year old traveller. Paddington Bear had nothing on me!
There in the soft green fields and gentle hills of Somerset began my ‘holiday of a lifetime’, a time which has stayed in my memories always, and which must have shaped me for life. Although war raged across the World, homes, people and countries completely devastated and destroyed, sheltered in those sleepy, quite lanes I learnt to love and appreciate this beautiful country of ours.
I did not start well for me. My first billet was at the local school house, with the school marm, her mother and daughter. Does it speak volumes that I cannot even remember their names or faces. The daughter well enough into her teens to go a-courting, seemd to delight in spending the rest of the time pinching and bullying me. She would frighten me by reading stories from an enormous book, the front and back cover of which pictured an horrendous man with long fingernails dripping with blood; an experience which leaves me still with an aversion to long red varnished fingernails! Then one of Germany’s bomber pilots came to the rescue of this little frightened child. Lost over the Mendip Hills he jettisoned his remaining bombs managing a direct hit on the school building and house. We were all unhurt but buried under piles of rubble and debris. After being rescued my kindly host took me to the bottom of the garden to show me their poor dog, a black and white collie, lying dead outside its kennel. I was deposited at an orphanage or boarding school; I don’t really know quite what it was. I do remember I was not allowed to play out with the other children because I had wet the bed.
One lovely sunny day I was collected by a lady dressed in green – this was my Auntie Ada who took me home to meet my Uncle George in their large beautiful home in Axbridge – ‘Fairfield’ which had originally been an Inn. They also had two adopted sons, their nephews, John in the air force and George in the army.
Now followed days of sunshine, walking green and shady lanes, glorious hours spent in nearby woods with countless friends, all local children. I never met with any other evacuees except my sister Dorothy, two years my senior, who stayed at Cross, a village just a short walk away. Later she was to billet with me at ‘Fairfield’, along with the Stokes family from Bristol. I attended the school, Infants and Juniors all in one large room, which was the village hall. Dolly, along with David Stokes, soon outgrew the Village School and took the bus into Cheddar. I remember resting after lunch lying on top of our desks, lots of drawing and also singing rousing songs like ‘Hearts of Oak’.
We spent whole days walking the Mendip Hills, reached from the bottom of ‘my garden’. We knocked at isolated cottages for drinks of water, always greeted by these gentle folk with smiles and generosity. We picked immeasurable buckets of blackberries and rose-hips, to be collected by horse-drawn cart; I can see the cart now piled high with blue-black fruit or bright orange hips. This was how we earnt our pocket money and great competition grew amongst us to earn the most, though we tinies had little chance against the big-uns! These days were spent unsupervised by adults yet we never seemed to get into mischief, nor were we considered to be in any danger.
I remember blissful days, warm and sunny, did it never rain? My special friend Jessica Latimer lived in the small garden next to ‘Fairfield’, one of a large family where I was always felt at home. Our favourite place was the local quarry. I knew nothing of stones, their names, their uses. Only that the quarry men had formed caves with their digging, caves where the walls glittered and glinted like precious diamonds in the bright sunshine, A magical place for two little girls to make believe. Uncle George worked here and he also drove a steamroller, rolling slowly down the roads, smoothing down the tarmac, the smell of the hot tar permeating the air – if I am lucky enough to smell that now I am back there in Somerset. His special treat, only for me, was to ride up there with him, while the other children swarmed around. And always, each evening from his lunch-box he would produce a sandwich, the cheese warm and soft, saved for me from his packed lunch to eat as I sat cosy in his arms in the large kitchen, while Auntie cooked dinner. What wonders for a small child from a poor London home where love and cuddles were in very short supply.
Auntie Ada was in the W.V.S. She was in charge of a large centre in Axbridge where food was cooked and I think she must have been quite high up because she often went to special meetings, and even came here to London on occasion. She seemed a large lady to this small child, and quite formidable and strict, but full of love and kindness towards her little evacuee. For a long time she slept with me in the cupboard under the stairs because I was frightened of sleeping upstairs; and then later sharing her big bed while uncle slept in a single bed. I remember wonderful roast dinners, cakes and treats, we certainly didn’t go hungry. She cooked on a shiny black kitchen range which stretched along half the large kitchen, fuelled mainly by wood chopped up by Uncle George, warming up that glorious room on cold days. A high backed settle and large shiny brass plates displayed around the walls. This was our ‘welcome home’ place, where we took our meals, did our homework, our playing - to be vacated by us children for bed promptly as ‘Big Ben’ struck the hour for the 9 o’clock news – time strictly for adults listening to the atrocities shielded from us.
I don’t remember rain, but snow, deep white glistening snow. Snow that covered the lanes and fields so that hedgerows and landmarks disappeared. Snow that topped over our wellies as we struggled to school, until the snow-plough cleared a path ? another of Uncle George’s jobs. Local men out with the farmers and their intelligent dogs rescuing sheep and lambs from certain death, while we glorified in snow fights and snowmen built under brilliant star studied skies. Deep frosts, thick ice and magnificent orange sunsets, and sliding along icy paths in the dusk.
In that other world occupied by adults the war raged on, but slowly the allies were bringing it to a longed for finish. Children began to drift back home to their parents. Most were thrilled to be returning home but quite a few shed tears on leaving Auntie and Uncle and country friends. Mr Stokes was demobbed from the Air Force so the family returned to bomb-torn Bristol. My sister Dolly had returned home earlier because my mother was expecting another child. I remained in Somerset. John and George came home, so now I had two big brothers to tease and spoil me. I continued attending the Village School; I was one of the village kids, Iived in Axbridge, Somerset. My life and family in Dagenham not even a memory. Apart from my sister I had not seen or heard from them since I was four, except for a brief period during the war, which I did not recall. I did not even remember my mum. But my holiday of a lifetime was nearing its end.
Unknown to me Auntie Ada and Uncle George had asked my parents if they could adopt me. Auntie had apparently visited them when she was in London and she really didn’t want ‘her’ little girl returning to Dagenham, after all they had looked after me for longer than my birth mother and father. This must have gone on for some time because it wasn’t until 1946 that I came back to Dagenham. I can remember telling Auntie that I wouldn’t go and I would run away and return to them. Only later did I realise how painful it must have been for them also.
I remember returning to the house in Dagenham, a dark and frightening place after the elegant beauty of ‘Fairfield’. Dagenham, teeming with people, house on house, no fields, no hills, no familiar faces or places. By then mum had three more children, eleven people all crowded into one small house – by then my eldest sister was married. Mum had five boys and five girls. I did wonder why she couldn’t have spared one for that loving family in Somerset.
I have learnt to accept Dagenham, know its people, made good friends over the years. Its faces and places as familiar today as those in Axbridge in my yesterdays. If you ask where my home is I will answer Dagenham, but if you ask where my heart is - it’s in the fields and lanes of Somerset.
I remember – an evacuee Katie Avagah
I remember none of the evacuation from Dagenham, or the time spent with my family in Suffolk. Except one memory of a lovely garden with flowers and grass, it was very warm and sunny, I was running around with a small dog, and then I was sick! I do have very clear mind pictures of my early time in Somerset, this would be when I was four. My first billet was with a family which consists of a grandmother, the mother who is also the school teacher, and her daughter; there is no father – perhaps he is in the forces. I am sitting strapped in a push-chair in a class room with lots of children gathered around me; the same again in the playground with a blanket tightly around me so I cannot move – it is very cold and the children are all playing. Then I am standing in a corner facing the wall – perhaps I have been naughty. The daughter (I cannot remember her name) reads me stories from a book, she holds it so I see only the covers – a big book, a man’s face on each cover, he has horrible eyes and holds his hands up, blood drips from his fingers, I feel frightened – even now I dislike long, red fingernails. One night a German pilot jettisons his bombs over the Mendip Hills; they hit the school and the school house, we are all buried. I remember sunlight shining down through the rubble, no more. Then, the dog – it is a black and white collie, it lives in a kennel in the garden – they take me to see him lying by the wall at the end of the garden - he is dead. Then I am in a large room, perhaps a school or an orphanage, it is very bright and sunny, windows along both sides, two rows of small iron beds down each side. I am sitting on one of the beds; I am not allowed out to play with the other children because I have wet the bed. One day a lady arrives, she is dressed all in green, she is my lovely Auntie Ada and she takes me home to live with her.
I remember when I first arrived at ‘Fairfield’ – this is the name of the house where I am now to live. The kitchen is huge, there is an enormous table, I am too small to see over the top of it. High up around the walls are giant golden plates and along one wall a long, long dresser with so many plates and dishes. Sitting in a large armchair beside a big black stove is this smiling rosy faced man, my Uncle George who pulls me onto his lap and hugs me. I sleep with Auntie on a bed made up under the stairs; I am frightened of being upstairs at night. Later I sleep with Auntie in her big, big bed upstairs while Uncle sleeps in a small bed across the room. When Mrs Stokes comes to live with us I sleep in a small bed at the foot of her big bed.
It is my 5 th birthday, the big table in the kitchen is laden with wonderful food, and a birthday cake just for me! We are sitting around the table, the Doctor has been invited, but Auntie is very shocked because he starts to eat before we have said grace!
I attend school in Cross, it is the Village Hall, just one large room and we are in groups, infants and juniors. We sing songs like ‘Hearts of Oak have our ships, jolly Tars are our men. We always are ready, steady boys steady.’ The seniors are taken by bus into Cheddar. Soon my sister Dolly is evacuated in the cottages at the other side of Cross so I see her when she comes to my school. One sunny day we all go to the fields, perhaps it is nature study, we all sit down to have a picnic lunch. Dolly sits in a cow-pat! Sometimes she is allowed to play with me after school but mostly she has her own friends. I remember we walk to school in deep snow; we slide along on the ice down the lanes. After dark the men are out rescuing the sheep and lambs trapped in the blizzard. Uncle uses his steam-roller to clear the lanes. A young lady, she is a teacher, is staying with us at ‘Fairfield’. She is teaching me to knit and I make Uncle George a long, long scarf of many bright colours - I think he must have given it to ‘Doctor Who’! Uncle always brings me back from work one of his cheese sandwiches in his lunch tin – sitting on his lap I remove the soft cheese to eat separately from his bread, I still eat bread and cheese that way. The Stokes, come to live at ‘Fairfield’ and then Dolly lives with us also.
We have a very big garden; there are lots of fruit trees and of course vegetables, with yellow and orange nasturtiums growing along the wall. In summer I sit under the trees reading while my hair dries. At the bottom of our garden I discover a small brick hut so, with the help of friends who live in the cottages next door we clean it out. This is our house, we have a table and stools, it is very nice, and we have flowers on the table. At the side of the house there is a big gate which leads into the garden and the back of the house. This is the way we all come in; only visitors use the front door in the country. There is also by the garage a walled ‘secret garden’. It is very peaceful and quiet and I often go in there to read my books. Alongside the hose is a wall, it is painted white and seems very high to me, and a lilac tree. I often get home first and sit on the wall and keep watch down the lane for one of my family to come home.
Through the high hedge at the bottom of the garden, across a field and there are the Mendip Hills. We go for long walks in the sunshine, my sister and Josie Stokes with me, across the hills stopping at hillside cottages for a cool drink. Off to the woods, carpeted with bluebells, primroses, celandines, blue and white violets; we climb trees, paddle in the streams. I remember a big tree in the woods, the older boys pull down one of the big branches, we would all hold it down, then at a signal we smaller kids let go while the bigger ones would all hang on and shoot up in the air. One time my frock became caught on the branch and up I went! My frock tore and down I fell – I go home bruised and tearful and the big-uns are in trouble! Sometimes we catch eels for tea in the River Axe. We take off our shoes and socks, tuck our dresses in our knickers, down into the river and catch the eels in our hands as they slither between our feet.
With Jessie Latimer I play in the nearby quarries, in the caves made by the workmen, caves that sparkle with ‘precious’ jewels. Sometimes I am allowed to ride on Uncle’s steam-roller as it trundles down the lane. Uncle and his brother farm down the road at Cross and I ride high up on the huge Shire horse and help rub him down afterwards. Haymaking, riding home on the hay cart, helping gather up the sheaves, or around the threshing machine watching the giant wheels turn separating the grain from the chaff, squealing as the mice run out. One night village men are out looking for a poor Downs Syndrome boy who is lost, flares flickering across the hills in the darkness. They fear for his safety amongst the caves on the Mendip’s, they find him safe but frightened.
Sundays – Morning Service at Cross; Sunday School with an Indian Gentleman who showed us 3D slides of Jerusalem; a walk later if it was fine; high tea then Evensong at Axbridge. I remember the church at Axbridge – lots of steps for little legs to climb leading up to the big church at the top. I remember the Nativity scene and the big Christmas Tree. Singing carols on cold, frosty evenings around the village. Sunday dinners all sitting around that big table – we are always well fed but these are extra delicious – more so to a poor London kid. There seems no shortage of food, but you mustn’t waste it. Roast meats, vegetables, batter puddings, thick gravy, followed by hot apple pie and custard. All cooked on the big black range by the glowing fire.
Cold winter afternoons after school toasting bread or crumpets by the fire, oozing real butter. Gazing into the fire at the magic pictures and caves which suddenly collapse and new pictures appear. Visiting Auntie Ada in the big kitchen in Axbridge where she works, she always seems to be in her green WVS uniform. The steam trains puffing into Axbridge Station. The lady in one of the cottages who makes pretty dresses for me and always makes a matching dress for my doll. Whist Drives, Beetle Drives and Socials in the Village Hall to raise money for the troops. Knitting socks and gloves to send out to the troops, we knit these on four needles. Some of the young ladies place messages and their addresses in the parcels but I’m too young to do that. Trips to Bristol with Dolly and Mrs Stokes to check on how things are at her hairdressers shop, Bristol milling with American servicemen, always ready to make a fuss of us kids, bars of chocolate, chewing gum’ dozing on Auntie Stroke’s shoulder on the long bus ride home, way, way past our bedtime. Picking blackberries and rose-hips to be collected by horse and cart, competing to pick the most – I never stood a chance.
I remember Josie at work know, off to dances in pretty dresses; the gossip when folk learn the Italian prisoners are allowed to go to the dances! Sometimes she allows me to play with her beautiful dolls, to dress them and brush their hair. My favourite was a beautiful black doll; I had never seen a black doll before, or even a black person. John the Hardridge’s adopted son, home with his hands and arms bandaged – they tell me how he has a rash. Was that true! He was an RAF pilot - I decide I will marry him when I grow up. We are allowed one sweet from our allowance then up stairs to bed as Big Ben strikes for the 9 o’clock News, the adults must have quite to listen. On warm British double-summertime evenings we climb out the bathroom window, slide down the roof of the shed, into the garden, the Latimers are always up late – Auntie pretends never sees us even though the kitchen overlooks the garden. Uncle goes off for fire-duty – how many different jobs they seem to do. I often visit the Latimer’s small muddily cottage, a big village family – I do feel comfortable here, perhaps it stirs forgotten memories of that other family.
The war is over. Mr Stokes is demobbed and they return to Bristol. Dolly was officially billeted with the Stokes but she returned home long ago. My life continues as normal, I am just one of the Village kids. I cannot recall being told I am to be sent to Dagenham, I have neither seen nor heard anything from there for years. I don’t even remember a place called Dagenham. I remember on the day saying I will run away and come back home. I have my small brown case in which I keep my ‘special treasures’ – if I hide it in the cupboard under the settle they will have to let me come back. (I wonder what they did when they found it?) I kneel on the settle in front of the window, it is sunny and warm, the white lace curtains move in the breeze …. Nothing more, the parting, the journey, nothing. How I travelled to Somerset is a mystery – my journey back is the same.
A house – the bricks are painted white but it appears so small, so dark. A house in a long row of similar houses, across the road more houses, row on row for ever. No golden fields across the lane, no green hills to explore on summer days, no shady lanes to wander, no lilac tree, no friends, no Uncle George, no Auntie Ada. Stark sunlight outlines two small children peering in through the back door, grubby, untidy blond hair, thumbs in mouth, staring wide-eyed at me, a baby sleeps in an old pram, a woman stands nearby – apparently you are my mother. So many brothers and sisters – but you are all strangers. I have only one sister, my sister Dolly, only you I know. No one talks to me – they just stare. Later, it is so dark in this house with its gas lighting, I feel my way up the stairs, following these strangers whom I must now sleep with, Four of us in one bed, and a baby, all in one small room.
Why didn’t I keep in contact with my Auntie and Uncle? Back in Dagenham that time was never mentioned again. Things were very hard for families like ours after the war; keeping in contact with people miles away was pretty low on the priority list. My family had made no contact with Mr and Mrs Hardridge while I was with them so why would they bother now. Sometimes Dolly and I would talk about Somerset but it all became as a dream, something that happened to someone else. Later when I learnt of the hard time my other siblings had experienced I realised why they just wanted to forget it all. We settled back into our dysfunctional family, grew up, started work, married, and only when people started to ask questions did we look back, remember and wonder about that other world.
Postscript – August 1970, on holiday with my family in Somerset I ask my husband to take me to Axbridge. We find ‘Fairfield’ and I ask him and my children to leave me there and call back in a couple of hours, I need to do this on my own. The high wall not so high now, but the lilac tree is still there. I make my way around to the back door; I have never used the front entrance. It all seems the same, the trees, the vegetables, the old shed, the hills – all still there. Even the horseshoe over the back door. I knock gently and when the door opens an old man peers out – not so tall, not so muscular, but it is my Uncle George. I explain who I am. I recognize him, but the little girl is now a grown woman, mother of two children …. He invites me into the big kitchen which once I knew as home. There are the big brass plates shining down from the wall – my Saturday morning job. The large kitchen table, the dresser, the settle under the window. We sit and talk over a cup of tea. He tells me Auntie died a few years back. He is proud of how he still works his garden, but he no longer farms, his brother has also died. He does the paper round each morning on his bike for his and two nearby villages. So quickly and it is time to leave, he doesn’t ask how I came or how I am to go – perhaps like me he finds it all unreal. I notice the cornfields across the lane have made way for a large estate of bungalows. We exchange a couple of letters, and then in November a letter arrives from John – it says that Uncle George has died. On a frosty, misty November we drive down to attend his funeral in the old church at Cross. No one recognizes me though I remember many of them – I feel alone, a stranger – I don’t feel able to speak to them. Later I wrote to John to let him know I had been at the funeral but he never replied.
How I nearly became famous! Katie Avagah
Early 2012, after giving a talk to the Barking Historicals, re my family’s evacuation during the war, John Blake KINDLY put it in print in the Association’s News. That is when I nearly appeared on ‘The One Show' and became famous.
Some weeks later I received a phone call from a young woman asking me about our evacuation on the boats from Ford’s Jetty. I explained that I was only three at the time and could not remember the exodus; I also had other things on my mind! I had escaped the clutches (or should I say care) of my older siblings and was chatting up the sailors.
Their original idea had been to get all seven of us ‘kids’ together and do the show around that, photos of us embarking with mum, etc. Few problems here – we didn’t have any photos, not many families had cameras then; my family is scattered across the World, New Zealand, America, Germany, and mum and one sister have died.
I did have older friends whom I could put them in touch with. They explained they had first to put the idea before the BBC and would get back to me, and that this could take some time. Many weeks later I received a call to say ‘the programme had been commissioned and they had the go-ahead’; they would get back to me.
Weeks later another call, could I let them have my friends details and they ‘liked the bit about me and the sailors’ could they use that!
I had already spoken to two friends who at that time were happy to take part, so I mentioned their names. I also mentioned the ERA, English Heritage, and of course Mark and Valence House. They liked the idea of filming at Valence House and the Dig for Victory Garden.
Another call from Jake of Icon Films, could I put him in touch with Ella and Rosie. We had a chat and I said I would get permission to let him their phone numbers, this I duly did and phoned him back. He then had long talks with Ella, who sent him a copy of her book; and also Rosie. I had asked Rosie to speak to Tom and get him on board also. Tom was thrilled to be involved.
This is when it all became confusing – Valence House were approached re filming there; Ella told Jake she didn’t want to appear on the programme; and I fell off the radar! Lost again, at least in 1939 I didn’t fall off the boat!
I learnt some days later that they had interviewed Tom at his old school, Eastbrook. They had been to Valence and filmed the ‘40’s room’ and the ‘Dig for Victory Garden’.
I have seen some pictures – not for release yet; it looks good. I will let you know when it is to be shown – if of course someone lets me know!
If you are interested in the ‘Exodus of the Owen family’ you will find it on:-
The Evacuation 1940 and 2013
The Evacuation 1940
‘Come on, then Lady,’ let’s see what it’s all about, then.’ Silly really, I’m feeling quite nervous. I expect they are all very frightened, and missing their mums already. Strange old world we live in. Old Jones has been fussing around these past weeks.
‘Whoa there, Lady! here we are.’ Sounds as if the train is just pulling in. Well bless us, some are just babes. Look at them all, with their little gas-masks and cases; looks as if some are very upset and have been crying. They all look so tired; it’s been a long old journey. Looks as if they need a good old wash too. Their teachers look worn out.
Councillor Jones is heading my way; let’s see what he has to say! ‘Hello Mrs Cooper, you did say you would take boys, didn’t you. Not many want young boys, older ones perhaps, to help around the place, but not the younger ones.
‘Of course, Councillor, boys, girls, what’s the difference; they’re all children.’
‘There are three boys here, brothers; they seem quiet and well behaved.’
‘I’m sure they’ll all be happy running around our farm. Hello boys, how would you like to come and stay on our farm for a little while?’
My sons have just joined up, Peter in the Air Force, and John in the Paratroopers. They could have been exempted but they wanted to go and do their bit; so we have two Land Girls instead. We’ve had a few laughs at times but they soon learnt our country ways; and they appreciated our country food and why we wear sturdy shoes and wellingtons!
‘Well boys, let’s introduce you to Lady, and then we’ll be on our way.’
‘Mrs Cooper! Mrs Cooper!’
Oh no, Councillor Jones again, and with his little secretary and her little note book; funny little thing she is. Now what do they want.
‘Mrs Cooper! This little family, no one wants four children. I don’t suppose .... just for a few days .... until...?’
‘Well, that’s seven! Five boys and two girls, there’s a thing! Whatever will father say!’
Hey up! Lady, let’s get home. I’m certainly in for a busy time!
The Evacuation 2013 The coach picks us up from Chadwell Heath and soon we are on our way to play ‘host’ in a re-enactment of the Evacuation of School children at the beginning of WW2. Our group is made up of members of Barking and District Historical Society and Staff and Volunteers from Valence House. We are heading for North Weald where we will then travel by Vintage Steam Train to Ongar Station, on the Epping Ongar Heritage Railway. There we will meet and greet the little evacuees and ‘take them to our homes for the duration of the war’. This has all been arranged by Helen Spencer from English Heritage.
The evacuees, from St Mary’s, St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s Primary Schools will arrive at North Weald in Vintage Double-decker buses; joining us on the train to Ongar. The plan being the children will be arranged into ‘families' of different sizes; we will choose a family and chat to them about life in the country away from the dangers of London; they will then go off with their respective teachers for their picnic lunch, while we have our picnic, then a look around the Station before heading home.
Like all good plans – they go awry – especially if it involves transport and children! Our train appears on the track, smoke and steam belching from the engine – remember that smell! Out come all our cameras and then we settle in our First Class carriages; now there’s luxury. Soon we hear the children arriving – but then we wait and we wait! Apparently one of the buses headed off to Stratford by mistake. Eventually they arrive and then with a ‘huff and a puff’ we are away. I don’t know how excited the children are, but I am certainly thrilled as we clackety-clack through the country-side on this beautiful sunny day.
Arriving at Ongar we are told there is a change of plan. The children have already started on their lunch-packs, well naturally! We will have lunch and then meet and greet the children, gradually working our way through the three schools. We watch the children alight from the train – their mums have done them proud – they are all dressed for the 1940’s; many of the girls have berets and the boys have caps. They each carry their gas-mask case; they had their lunches packed in these not their gas-masks! Their teachers have dressed the part, though I must say not all appropriately! One definitely looks like a London Spiv; and one young hussy has a dress well above her knees; I’m not sure what the village ladies would have made of her! And really ladies you do need sensible shoes in the country. We also seem to have been joined by a young American Soldier; unfortunately pleas of ‘got any gum chum’ are met with a ‘sorry, no!’ I wonder if he has any nylons! The Station staff are all dressed in vintage uniforms and immediately come forward to talk to everyone, a very friendly atmosphere.
After lunch we line up ready for the introductions to our ‘families’. However, if a group of children hear the word ‘toilet’, suddenly they all want to go! We have the best part of 100 children; in the ladies there are 2 toilets, I have no idea what the situation is in the men’s! Sometime later....! we start to pick our families and take them off to the ‘picnic area’. My first choice is three likely lads, nudging and giggling – they tell me they are from Dagenham and their dad is in the army; then change their minds and he is a Spitfire Pilot. They live near London and there are lots of bombs being dropped. One of them then drops his head down on the table and gives a good imitation of ‘breaking his little heart’, ‘I am so upset because I had to say goodbye to my mum and she was crying, and she might be bombed ....’. He really should consider taking up acting! I assure them it will all be over soon and their mums will be able to come and visit them. I ask them if they would like to stay on our farm and we discuss how they can help with the milking, and how we need to plough up the pasture to grow wheat because we can nolonger bring it here by ship from other countries; and soon they can help with the hay making. Then I tell them about going to the farm by horse and cart, and I suggest we go to meet Lady. Just then another ‘family’ joins our group, 2 girls and 2 boys, so it looks as if I am to take 7 children home to the farm! We talk a little longer about living in the country when the call goes out for us all to get back on the train. This is when another of the children asks if they can see Lady first, so I needed to tactfully explain that it was all ‘make-believe’ and I don’t really live on a farm.
The children are summoned into their school groups by their teachers and we are asked to get back onto the train first. Soon we are all settled in and the train begins its return journey to North Weald. Here we watch the children clamber on to their buses and everyone, quite sadly, waves them off as they disappear down the country road. It has been such an interesting and enjoyable day for us all. Though for a few of us it also brought back poignant memories of our own childhood when we made that journey into the unknown.
Now we just have to wait for our coach to arrive. And we wait! And we wait! Eventually with a cheer we welcome our coach and driver. Apparently our coach was delayed because of an accident and our Driver who was on his way somewhere else, was asked to pick us up first. Lucky for us he came to the rescue or we may have been looking for someone to take us in for the night!