September 3rd 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2. Two days earlier on 1st September 1939, thousands of children from all over London were evacuated away from the dangers of the city. Most of them left their families to go and live with complete strangers. In 2006 thanks to a National Lottery award, I led a project to collect the memories of those who were children at the time in Kensington & Chelsea. The outcome was an exhibition which was available for schools to borrow. I have reprinted some of the stories here, in particular of those that relate to North Kensington. The exhibition will be on show again from early September 2019 at Kensington & Chelsea Central Library in the Local Studies section (check on opening times before visiting).
War is Declared
When war broke out I was 7 years old and living with my Mum, Dad and little sister in Hume Road, Shepherds Bush just off Norland Market. I went to Saunders Grove School.
The day war was declared, we had just come back from a Hop picking holiday in Kent and we heard a really loud noise that rang out through the streets. It was an air raid signal but I had never heard it before and had no idea what it was. I remember my Mum heard the signal and she had tears in her eyes and I asked her ‘What are you crying for?’ but she wouldn’t tell me.
In North Kensington, the head teacher of St Clement’s School, Miss Shuck gathered parents together to prepare them for departure. She was to end up staying with the children throughout the war. This is what she said to the parents, recorded in writing.
I have called you together because none of you who read the newspapers can fail to know that the country might be faced, and faced all too quickly, with a very serious position…
The first question is this – suppose war were to come… what would you do with your children? We have got, I am afraid, to assume – that aeroplanes would come over London dropping bombs… The bombs might, and probably would, be aimed at military objectives…but there is no knowing where some of them might land. What is more an aeroplane that has carried a load of bombs all the way to London is not going to carry them back if it fails to drop where it wants to, it is going to dump them anywhere.
That means that schools will have to be shut. They cannot be kept open, we cannot risk having perhaps of children hurt by a single hit. Even in the last war one school was hit and nineteen children were killed. What then are you going to do with your children? Some of you may be lucky enough to be able to get away into the country with them the moment an emergency is declared. But many of you are at work and many more of you could not get away in the first few days. If you were at work you would be thinking of your children every time you heard a bomb fall.
Would you be ready to entrust your children to their teachers to take them away into the country? If you entrusted them to us we might be able to start right away with them on the first morning.
“Nobody wants us”
I was 11 when the war started, my sister was 10 and my brother 9. So we were all evacuated together with our school St Clement’s to Whitley near Oxford. My other brothers and sisters were older than us and didn’t go, but our parents said we had to go.
It seemed as if it took us all day on the train, I thought we were never going to get there, though it’s really not very far away, about an hour it takes now. Anyway, we finally did get there and we got taken to this hall, a school hall, and people came and took us children to their own homes.
My sister and me, we were never parted, but, do you know what? We were the last two left in the hall, her and me. We thought, gosh, nobody wants us. I mean you would think that, wouldn’t you?
Anyway this lady – we were very lucky, she was a lovely lady – she took us for a short time, but she didn’t keep us, because she had a son who was in the forces and she didn’t really want evacuees, but she was very lovely. My father came down the first Sunday to visit us. I knew he would.
Olive Mundy, evacuated with St Clement’s School.
“We thought we were going on holiday”
I was evacuated from Wornington Road School in North Kensington on Friday 1st September 1939. I was 12 years old and I had to look after my little sister who was 2 1/2 years younger than me.
I think we started our journey at 7 a.m. I can vividly remember us all lining up in two’s with our haversacks on our backs. Most of the haversacks contained a towel, a facecloth, toothbrush and toothpaste, a bar of toilet soap, a change of underwear, night clothes, a brush and comb, a slab of chocolate and a packet of biscuits. We also had gas masks across our backs. The children on the whole were quite cheerful as we left the school gates. We thought we were going on holiday for a few weeks.
When we finally arrived at the station in Bath I was horrified to see it all sandbagged. I said to my sister that I thought we had come here for safety, but they seemed to be expecting bombs too. We all got onto buses to go to Oldfield School (which I later attended). It was in the hall there that we would find out where we were billeted.
When we were in the hall I remember feeling that everyone was vanishing. My sister said she wanted to spend a penny so we found toilets in the playground. Coming out we felt a bit lost but luckily I saw my own classroom teacher and went up to her. Just as she was taking us back inside the school a lady came running up to her and said “I am Mrs Scott-Reid, wife of Dr Scott-Reid. I want two nice little girls.” My teacher looked at us and smiled saying “I have just the two for you.” With that we were led back into the hall for all the correspondence to be dealt with.
“All the mothers were on the platform”
On the day of the evacuation, we all assembled at the school and then were taken by coach to Paddington station. We all had labels like on a parcel made with thin cardboard with two corners cut off. On one side was our address where we were going to and on the other, where we had come from. We also had our own school badge – ours was diamond shaped, green with a pearl button – which was sewn onto our coat.
We took as many clothes as we could carry. I had an old case; I think it was probably canvas. We had a separate paper parcel with food stuff in it, which each parent had been advised to buy. It consisted of corn beef, carnation milk, condensed milk, a biggish bar of chocolate and some sweets – I had a packet of rollos. We also all had a gas mask of course, which was carried on a piece of string, hanging in a cardboard box.
There were probably about 120 of us from my school. I was of average age, slightly older than most. When we said goodbye, there were tears from some of the younger ones. All the mothers were on the platform and my mother came to wave me off.
Alec McAllister evacuated with Oxford Gardens School
From the local newspaper in Trowbridge, destination for children from Middle Row School.
Reception and Distribution
The children on the first day were a bright and cheerful party, many obviously regarding the experience as a holiday……….
After they had rested and been refreshed with tea, coffee etc. At the schools, the Billeting Officers set out with parties of children, armed with lists of householders who had volunteered to receive them. At most house the promises made were cheerfully fulfilled. At others the reception was not so cordial and at a few houses they were met with blank refusals.
From the Wiltshire Times, Saturday September 9th 1939
A Headmaster’s Thanks (To the Editor of the Wiltshire Times)
Last Friday, 404 children evacuated from North Kensington arrived at Trowbridge under the care of their teachers.
We all thought that we had had a difficult task in planning the evacuation from the London end, but now we have been convinced that the task of billeting evacuees is far more difficult and has required most careful planning. All the teachers wish to express most sincerely their appreciation of the tireless labours of the Reception committee and the billeting officers.
Above all we wish to thank the kind friends we have found in Trowbridge for the really wonderful welcome offered to our children. We are truly thankful that We have of course, found a number of difficulties, but these, happily are already in hand, while others will be dealt with by the weekend. We have already heard from the parents of some of our children, and the letters are full of appreciation of all that has been down.
I am, sir, yours faithfully,
ERNEST.S. BURNETT, Headmaster, L.C.C School 445 (Middle Row)
From the Wiltshire Times, Saturday, September 16th 1939.
“I want two boys for a farm”
I was apprehensive because I had no idea where we were going and we were not told a lot. We were told we were being evacuated out of London because of bombing, but that was all. We didn’t know how long we were going to be there. People spoke about the war being over in six months, by Christmas. Time didn’t come into it. We had no idea how long we would be away.
We got to Melksham in Wiltshire and from there we were coached into three villages. On arrival in the village we were taken to the local school and into the school hall. A lady came around with a clipboard. Myself and a friend were the last to be picked. “I want two boys for a farm,” she said. We were taken in a car to the farm where we met the family. The family consisted of Mister and Missus and a son who worked on the farm; he was probably nineteen or so. There was also a daughter who didn’t work on the farm and another son in the RAF.
I think the only Jewish people my foster family had met were people who went to the farm to buy poultry, which they would sell at markets in London. I don’t think they thought much of them but we had no problem at all. The family asked me if I would go to chapel with them on Sundays. They didn’t want me to feel that I had been left behind. I said “No”, but by the same token I wasn’t so keen on going to synagogue either. We used the chapel for synagogue on Saturday mornings and that’s where I had my bar mitzvah. My mother came down from London with a bottle and cakes of some sort so we had a sort of kiddish after the service. There wasn’t much food because of the rationing.
Ken Smith evacuated with the Jewish School, Lancaster Road, aged12.
Before leaving London our mother told us to stay together. This caused problems as very few were willing to take 3 evacuees. Therefore we were the last to be allocated. Then a lady, Mrs Lloyd from Beechingstoke, agreed to take the 3 of us. We walked to the Lloyds’ house where we met Mr Lloyd and their son Stephen. The house had no running water, only a deep well, no electric lighting, only oil lamps, and the toilet was an earth closet.
John Hughes, evacuated with Oxford Gardens School, aged 6
“We all got fleas”
My Mum put me on a bus, which took us to Winchester. I remember there were other children from various schools, and there were some children from my school there, so I wasn’t alone.
I remember us being taken by government officials to people’s homes. Every child was taken in, one by one, and I was last. Noone wanted to take a black child. But eventually a place was found, and that was in Marlow, but I only stayed there for a short time. I was then taken to a lady with three other evacuee children. It was an ordinary house where there was one room with three beds in it. These beds were used during the day by workman and by night they were our beds. I remember the lady didn’t change the bed sheets on a regular basis, so I had to endure the smell of the workman. I remember we all got fleas, but then the authorities found out and us kids were taken away! If I travel on buses or trains and workman come near me, it takes me straight back to that time.
Letter written to the parents of David and Mary Dyett, evacuated to Cornwall with Middle Row School,
Dear Mrs Dyett,
Thank you very much for the parcel received safely and all enclosed for the children, they were so excited over the contents of the parcel. I should like you to have seen them, Mary is delighted with her dolly and has been dressing it in different clothes and has been quite amused with it. The clothes and boots will be useful for her, also David’s coat is quite alright for here and also the pullover. They were also pleased with their letters and pocket money. Mary is here now using her crayons book, which they were both glad to have. They go to school in the mornings this week; most weeks they will go afternoons. They are both very well and are very happy here, quite at home with us.
I will explain how the children came to us. Mrs Ould is the lady next door, and she and I are just like sisters, so when the children came, she said she would take David, as I could not undertake two, as I am not very strong, so I took Mary; they came here together first and slept here together for the first week or so, and now David sleeps next door with Mrs Ould’s boy who is 15 years and is nice company for him, but they often have their meals together and both of them in and out of the both houses to play with each other and go to school together, so they are not parted, and are quite happy here and Mrs Ould and I are doing all we can to make them comfortable. So you need not worry about them, they are quite all right. The children send their love to you both; they are busy playing now. So I will close now with fondest regards to you both,
From yours sincerely,
“No gas, no electrics, no toilet”
No gas, no electrics, no toilet – you name it, we didn’t have it. In London, we had had all these things including flushing water. There were none of these things at the Perrys. The toilet was a privy in the back of the garden. The toilet paper was old newspaper which I had to cut up into squares, poke a hole through the corner with a meat skewer, push string through and hang on a nail inside the privy. The bucket had to be emptied fairly frequently – by digging a hole in the ground and putting the contents in there. I did the job a few times. The privy had bare stone walls with concrete and a bucket with a wooden toilet seat. It was pretty grim and very cold – there was no heating of any sort. You took a candle in with you to see in the dark.
To get the drinking water, we had to go out the cottage door, across the main road, through a gate, into the field to a well. I would think it was about 70 or 80 yards away. We went with two buckets, tied them onto a hook and shoot the chain around till they submerged. Then we carried the water back with a bucket in each hand. We had to do that twice a day. It was marvellous spring water, always cold.
Alec McAllister evacuated with Oxford Gardens School
Oxford Gardens School
The exodus of the children from Oxford Gardens School was particularly well documented as many of the former children kept in touch in later years. One of them, John Wittering faithfully documented the evacuation with photos and a record of the names of many of the children who came not only from Oxford Gardens School but as war progressed from other parts of London too. I have attached here in pdf format copy of part of his record that shows photographs and names of children plus their teacher.
With thanks to those who participated in this project back in 2006.
Thanks also to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Local Studies.