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Gerald John Watkins
from:Greenwich, LondonMemories of a Wartime Child Evacuee
I was born in Greenwich on October 11th 1929, one of 7 children, four girls and three boys. I was the 6th in the line.
Leading up to the war in 1939, the authorities decided that in the event of war there was going to be a mass evacuation of children from London, so to prepare us children in Greenwich we had to attend rehearsals on several occasions at one the local schools, we were issued with gas masks and shown how to use them. People were telling us that it would blow over and there would be no war, how wrong they were The time came in September when we were told to pack our bags and report to the school where there were coaches to take us to one of the main London stations (I can’t remember which one). So off we went on the great adventure, my sister Betty (13) Charlie (12) me (nearly 10) and the youngest David (4), not knowing where we were going to.
We were all given carrier bags of goodies before going on the train, it was like going on our holidays and indeed, sometime later we found ourselves at the seaside, St. Leonard’s on Sea, adjacent to Hastings. After a lot of jostling we were allocated our lodgings which turned out to be quite a posh house with a basement flat. The 4 Watkins were shown to the quite luxurious flat by the very nice owner. We couldn’t believe our luck. Unfortunately it was not to last! It was only temporary accommodation, but more of that later. The following day we were taken to the local junior school, which with all the other evacuees was rather overcrowded, I don’t remember all that went on but from what I do, they told us that they were more interested in keeping us happy rather than giving us an education and we were quite happy with that arrangement.
War was declared the following day, I remember it well. The church bells were ringing. I suppose everyone was expecting to see German bombers flying over soon afterwards but of course nothing happened, and we continued to enjoy the lovely weather.
I don’t remember a great deal of our day to day life , but little things like walking down the promenade and getting stung by a wasp, and a day or two later getting raging toothache and going to the dentist and having the tooth pulled, and then given a large ice cream afterwards. This was just in the first week or so.
Young David, I think, was wondering what was happening to him being taken away from home and parents, he was certainly missing them and it was not long before he was on his way home again. As I mentioned earlier, the accommodation in the luxury flat was only temporary and we were sorry to see it come to an end. We were moved to a house owned by a middle aged spinster where there were already a number of evacuees. She was a religious person and she had us singing hymns as she played an old pump organ, which we had to pump. Our treat for doing this was a sweet or chocolate. I should mention she had a little sweet shop situated in a part of the hallway. Needless to say, it was not unusual for the kids to help themselves as they left for school each morning. I am not sure how long we were in this house but it was during this time that David returned home, I think it was our eldest sister Eileen who collected him. Our next billet was a Mr. & Mrs. Asquith, who were very nice caring and friendly people; he was in the Fire Brigade. We were with them for Christmas 1939 and I remember it quite well, for in my stocking was a Mickey Mouse pocket watch, my first ever watch, which they had bought. I think it was soon after Christmas that Charlie returned home, and Betty and I followed not long afterwards. It must have been late January; the weather was quite nasty when we caught the coach. Of course the country was still in the period which was being called the phony war and was in fact the calm before the storm. Betty and I arrived home in London to find that no one was there to meet us, and as our parents had moved from Greenwich to Brockley (a few miles away) we had the problem of finding their new home, but all turned out OK in the end. Apparently there had been some misunderstanding about timings.
That was the end of my first experience as an evacuee. There was more to follow in a few short months when the bombing started in earnest. During this period I had started school again and had hardly settled in when we were told we were on our way again, this time to the lovely county of Somerset, and the little market town of Crewkerne about 8 miles from Yeovil.
This time we were again taken to the main railway station, probably Waterloo, once more the bag of goodies and a label tied to our lapels. On this occasion it was just my brother Charlie and I from our family. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be nearly two years before we were to see our parents again.
It was none to soon that we got away, the bombing started seriously soon after. We found out some time later that Mum took David and Betty to her sisters in Gloucester, another of my sisters Vi was in the land army, leaving Dad and my two eldest sister’s Eileen and Kath in the house. My sister Eileen had got married in the March before I left and she and her husband George were living in the basement flat of our house, but he was soon to join the army. Consequently our family was well and truly split up. However, to get back to the journey to Somerset, we duly arrived at Crewkerne and were taken to the local junior school where the main hall was filled with adults who were to be carers to the evacuees. I should mention that we were accompanied by teachers from our school in Brockley. We were all looking apprehensively at these people wondering who were to be our foster parents. When Charlie and my names were called, it was to join Mrs. Fishlock and when we saw her we knew we had drawn the short straw. She was a frosty looking woman, grey haired, done in a bun, probably about middle fifties and she was as frosty as she looked. There was no welcoming word or smile. Her house was only a short walk from the school, so off we went to our new home. This was a terraced cottage with 2 bedrooms, bathroom, sitting room, and kitchen/diner. It was clean and tidy, no sign of other children. It transpired that her husband (my Bert) was working at the ‘Westerland’ aircraft company at Yoevil, they were childless. So they hadn’t much idea of looking after children. We were to learn that there were house rules that we were to abide by
To start with, we would only use the bathroom when we got up in the morning and when we went to be bed at night, if we wanted the toilet during the day, ”there was a public convenience round the corner”. We couldn’t have used her bathroom during the day anyway because we were always locked out. This was just for starters.
We met Mr. Fishlock (Bert) that first evening, and he seemed quite pleasant, he was a fairly big man with a rosy complexion, he had flat feet, and he wore a flat cap but never had much to say. It was not a happy start for Charlie and me. I think that we went to bed in tears. I will say at this time that for all the time we were there, there was never any physical abuse, it was all psychological. The following day we had to attend at the school and we were allocated our classes. The headmaster was a very nice man by the name of Hancocks, he had two sons, about the same age as Charlie and I, who were to become very friendly with us. Our teacher was to be a man who had travelled with us from our school in Brockley, A big burly chap by the name of Jones, no prize for guessing that he was a Welshmen. I had had some experience of him from my time at Brockley School, but I was not very popular with him, I think I must have upset him at sometime and he didn’t need much excuse for wielding the cane, I felt it on a number of occasions. He must have been a bit of a sadist, for his favourite way of meting out punishment was to bring out 3 or 4 boys to the front of the class who would have to bend over and he would select one to strike and then hit one of the others, not very funny, but on the whole we enjoyed being at that school and we made some good friends.
We had not been in Crewkerne very long when Mrs. Fishhock informed us that we were to join the church choir, which ment that we had to attend practice once a week, Sunday morning service, Sunday school in the afternoon and service again in the evening, I suppose this was just another way of keeping us out of the house
It was all new to Charlie and I but after a while we began to enjoy it. There was many an occasion when we had nothing else to do and when the weather was bad we would spend our time in the church just looking around. On one of those days we were looking around and I noticed in the vestry a bulb was missing from one of the holders, I wondered what the two pins were for in the holder, so I put my finger in to press them and got a nasty shock. That was a lesson I learned that day, never done the same since. We soon got into a routine there, up in the morning, breakfast, off to school, most days we had sandwiches for lunch, after school, back home where we had to wait for the door to be unlocked, whatever time Mrs. Fishlock said, we had to be spot on, so if we were early we couldn’t get in, if we were late we got told off. If we wanted the toilet it was round the corner. The doors to the cubicles were coin operated and most times we had to climb over the doors because we had no money.
I haven’t mentioned before that our address was Church Path, a cul – de - sac and our house was next door to a pub, in the event of sirens going off we had to go in the cellar of the pub. It was not so long after we had arrived in Somerset that the bombing started, we thought we were safe enough, but once the Germans started to bomb Bristol, the bombers would release some of their load over the railway lines in Crewkerne, and it was terrifying sitting in the pub cellar and listening to the bombs screaming down, as it happened, they usually hit around half a mile away.
There was one night when there was an almighty explosion and the following morning everyone was out to see what had happened, and there was a crater large enough to have dropped a house in. It transpired that it was a mine that had done this (and we were supposed to be in a safe place), luckily no one was killed.
Life was quite serene, most evenings we were out in the fields, our favourite games were playing bows and arrows which we made ourselves. We used to tip the arrows with spent bullets that we recovered from the firing range just outside the town, could be quite dangerous I suppose but I do not recall anyone getting hurt. It was on one of these evenings while playing, I slipped in a cow pat, finished up sitting in it. I was quite upset because I knew I would be in trouble when I got home. Anyway, I took my shorts off (Brown corduroy) and washed them in a stream, walked home in wet shorts, into the house following Charlie and straight upstairs, so hung the shorts over a chair and they were reasonably dry the following morning. ‘Got away with that one.’
Sunday evenings after church, a gaggle of boys and girls mainly from the choir would go out together to the fields, and just sit and chat, no hanky panky, too young for that. One particular girl I remember was Myrah Tancock, in fact the only name that I remember, that is because it was so similar to my friends John and Peter Hancock
I am not sure how long it was we had been in Crewkerne when Charlie got a job in a grocers shop, errand boy and general help in the shop. I became friendly with the staff there, and a Mr Libby drove the van that delivered groceries to the outlying villages. He took me with him on a number of occasions so that I became familiar with the area which turned out to be quite useful later on
Shortly after, I got a job at the shoe shop a few doors away from the grocers. At this time Charlie was just about 12 years old, and I was going on for 11. My duties at the shoe shop was keeping the place tidy and delivering repaired shoes. We worked 3 or 4 nights a week after school; I think that I earned 2 shillings and 6 pence a week (twelve and a half pence). Charlie was getting a bit more I think.
I should point out at this time, that we never had meals with Mr. and Mrs. F, our place was in the kitchen and they ate in the sitting room. Charlie and I sat opposite each other at a little table, and there was a ledge on the wall beside us where we had to put our earnings every week, where Mrs F kept and eye on it, but I must say I don’t think she ever touched it. I left the shoe shop after a while and got another job at the Butchers, ‘The London Meal Co (L.C.M).
This job entailed delivering meat to customers in the town and outlying villages. On half day closing, I helped in cleaning the shop and making the sausages. Meat by this time was on ration and the sausages contained only about 10% meat and 90% bread.. Friday evenings I delivered to customers in the outlying villages, I had a tradesman’s bike with a carrier on the front and the meat was placed on a tray with the weekend joints. This one week, when delivering, the weather was bad, pouring down with rain, I fell off the bike and the meat was spread across the road, these were the customers weekend joints all of different sizes, because of the paper shortage were not wrapped, just a label with name of the customer slapped on, by the time I had collected them up, all the names were indistinguishable, after that it was all guess work, so I assume that their were some happy customers and some not so pleased with the weekend joint on that occasion, luckily I never heard any more about it..
Although meat was on ration and people had to register with their butcher, offal, liver, heart etc was not rationed but butchers’ would only serve it to those registered customers, but each week Mrs. F took advantage of me working at L.C.M. where she was not registered, had me bring sheep’s hearts home for our Sunday roast, (this is for Charlie and I), this gave her extra meat ration for she and her Bert. From that time on it was sheep’s heart every Sunday dinner for the duration of the time I was there. I have never eaten sheep’s heart since. The manager of the shop was not very happy about Mrs. F taking advantage of me but he was aware of my home situation and accepted it.
Another of my duties for Mrs F whilst I was going on my rounds was calling at the sweet shops and trying to buy chocolate which at the time had not gone on ration but was usually kept under the counter. I was not always successful in every shop but by the weekend I had usually managed to collect quite a few bars which Mrs. F stored away. Our one treat of the week was to go to the cinema on a Saturday with a bar of chocolate in our pockets, which we had to pay for of course, oh and we each had a comic each week. At this time, working at the butchers was earning me 10 shilling (50p) per week which was very good for an eleven year old. As I mentioned before, this went on the ledge by the table. Charlie also changed his job round about the same time as me, he was employed in a bakery, helping out in the bake house, you can imagine, this pleased Mrs. F for she had a regular supply of cakes, these were given to Charlie classed as stale cakes but had only been baked the previous day. I think Charlie was earning a little more than me, probably 12/6d (62.5p). The money we earned enabled us to keep ourselves in clothes, (which were on ration) and I distinctly remember buying myself my first pair of long trousers, they were light grey flannel.
Charlie and I had joined the Boys Scouts by this time, this helped to pass the time, and was very enjoyable, and we occasionally went camping and did all the usual things that boy scouts do. One day Mrs. F said to us that Mr. Tancock (Myrah’s father) was giving us a hand cart and we were to go collecting logs for the fire. The cart was the four wheel type flat bed, with a steerable front axle and a long handle. There was a forest about a mile outside where they were felling trees, there was a very handy hill leading to the forest, so Charlie and I used to take turns to steer the cart by lying flat and holding the handle, the one of us not steering would sit on the back, it was great fun and we worked up quite a speed, dangerous really but then there was little traffic about in those days, and all went well until one day, disaster, I think I hit a verge or something and turned the cart over, neither of us were hurt much, only a few grazes, we were more worried about what was going to happen when we got back home, the cart was still moveable but damaged, so we loaded up with branches and dragged it home, went in by the back gate and into the shed where we had to saw up the logs. We managed to rectify most of the damage with a hammer and Mrs. F never did find out, she never ever inspected the cart; she was only interested in getting her supply of logs.
We had moved schools at some stage (sadly) it was larger with a lot more pupils. I remember we all congregated in the main hall each morning, we had to sing hymns and other patriotic type songs. Some of these songs we could put our own words to, thinking that nobody was going to hear us, but we were very wrong, either that or one of the masters could lip read. Anyway we culprits were dragged out and to the front and had our backsides warmed. As so often happens when you have different factions, as it were, like the locals and Londoners in this instance, there was sometimes a bit of trouble, and one day things came to a head when “The gang leader” of the locals challenged Charlie to a fight, I suppose he picked on him because he looked an easy touch, anyway, they arranged to meet after we came back from lunch, which they did and the gang leader for his trouble and to his surprise got a good hiding, when it was all over one of his mates picked on little brother (me) and he also finished up with a bloody nose. By this time, all the noise had got the attention of the staff, and Charlie and I had to go before Mr Jones, (yes he had moved schools with us) we thought we were in for the stick again but surprisingly he gave us the wink and said “Well done, don’t do it again”. There was no more trouble after that.
Time went on and it seemed to drag. There was a small bus into town that used to run from a hotel to the railway station, the bus looked more like a hearse than a bus, painted black but I used to look at it and wonder how long it would be before we would be riding in it to go home.
We did have a nice surprise one weekend when we had a visit from two of our sisters, Vi and Kath, that was the only time during our stay in Crewkerne that we saw anyone from our family, of course we did get regular letters and the odd parcel, and we knew that travel could be difficult in those times.
One of the things that made our stay a little more endurable, was a regular invite from an elderly couple who lived a few doors away, to go to supper on a Sunday evening, we used to look forward to this because it was cakes and drinking chocolate, a real treat. They were lovely kind people, and I think they knew that we were not very happy in our digs. I remember their name was Mr & Mrs Waldren, and he was a church warden.
On two occasions, each time on a Sunday, Charlie and I walked to the station, about a mile, and caught the train to Lyme Regis; Mrs F packed us some sandwiches (always fish paste). Lyme Regis was a very miserable place during war time, the beach was covered in barbed wire and there was very little for us to do, and to make it worse, it rained on both occasions, but still it made a break to get out of Crewkerne for a while.
The day came when we heard that our Dad had been moved from Woolwich Arsenal to work at Overly Hill (on the Shrewsbury Road) just outside Wellington in Shropshire. Mum, Betty and David had joined him and were in lodgings in Hadley. They said they were soon to move into a house in Donnington. We had never heard of any of these places but we didn’t care, we were going home soon. Sure enough it wasn’t long before we were given the nod and we were packing our things, and dressed in our Sunday best and a few bob in our pockets, we said goodbye to Mr & Mrs Fishlock. We were not sorry to leave and I’m sure they felt the same. We caught the little black bus feeling like a million dollars, and when we got to the station a porter helped us with our luggage and I tipped him a shilling (and he took it).
We duly arrived in London where we were met by Dad, we went to our house in Brockley where my sisters Kath, and Eileen and George her husband were still living. George who had been a despatch rider had been invalided out of the army after being badly injured in a motorbike accident. We carried on to Shropshire where the house was not quite ready to move into so we went to stay with some friends of Dads in Donnington; they were the Wood family in East Avenue. I think they had about 6 or 7 children of their own but they were a lovely happy family. Two of the boys became Priests, Bill into the Church of England, and I think it was John who was ordained into the Catholic Church. Bill at one time was Vicar of St. Mathews Church in Donnington and since retiring still stands in occasionally at various churches. I met him not so long ago after he took a service at St. Georges. I asked him if he remembered me, he replied, “not really, there were that many children in the house, I would not have noticed a couple more”.
It was only about a week before we moved into our house in James Way. The experience over the previous couple of years although we were not very happy, did us little harm, and maybe a lot of good as it toughened us up and made us more self sufficient. This certainly helped me later, especially when I joined the RAF a few years later to do my National Service.
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