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Patricia Yeo Kevern
Memories of a Wartime Evacuee 1939-1941
I was 11 years old and had no knowledge of the troubles in Europe. In August 1939 my parents sent me and my little sister to stay with an aunt while my mother went into hospital to have my baby brother. Two weeks later my father brought me home. I found he had bought me a rucksack and was marking my clothes with indelible ink in large letters. I can see my liberty bodice now with "Kevern" (my surname) written across the back. Perhaps you don’t know what a liberty bodice was, it was a garment made of strong brushed cotton and was worn over a vest. It had suspenders hanging from it to keep up the black or brown woolly stockings we wore in the winter.
The Government had decided that in the event of war all children and mothers with young babies had to be got out of London as soon as possible and it was to be done through the schools. Whichever school you were attending at the end of the Summer Term was the school you were to be evacuated with. And so, on September 1st, the day after my mother returned home from hospital with my baby brother (now two weeks old), and the day Germany entered Poland, I went off to school in my best coat (blue with a velvet collar), clutching my rucksack plus a stamped-addressed card to send home when we reached the unknown destination. My mother stood at the front door, holding the baby, and said ‘Goodbye, duck’. She had never before called me that and that is how it stuck in my mind, I suppose. Now I am a mother and grandmother I have tried to picture how she must have felt. When I got to the playground at school the teachers were busy putting us in single file round the playground while they came to each one of us and attached a label with our name and the name of the school on it; they attached these to our coats and our luggage. Then we all walked to the main road, where there were trams waiting to take us to the railway station. I remember the tram in front; as it moved off there were mothers clinging to the rails at the back, weeping and sobbing. To us children it seemed a bit of an adventure to be going on a train with a picnic in the company of teaches and friends. We excitedly settled in the train, still not too bothered. When the train reached Tunbridge Wells a teacher said she thought we were on the line to Hastings and she was right. With hindsight, it does seem a funny place to send children – to the south, only about 20 miles or so from France across the sea, but we must remember that we expected London to be bombed immediately.
It was getting dark when we arrived at the seaside. We were met off the train by Boy Scouts who handed us each a brown carrier bag which contained a tin of condensed milk, a tin of corned beef, chocolate and biscuits. We were accompanied by them to a Church Hall, along a covered way with the walls lined with pieces of coloured glass; I learned later that it was called ‘Bottle Alley’. We sat on the floor of the hall in groups and waited. A harassed lady told four of us to follow her and we were delivered to a house owned by a Mrs C. People were told how many children that had to take, based on the number of bedrooms they had, not whether they were suitable people. Mrs C was nice. Two of the four were my friend Hilda and her little sister, Pat. That first night I cried a bit. There was a song on the radio at that time which went “goodnight children everywhere, your Mummy thinks of you tonight”; that really made me feel sad, but after awhile it wasn’t played any more and I am told an evacuee wrote to the BBC and asked them not to play it again as it upset her and her friends.
Two days later after Germany entered Poland, the war was declared. We shared premises with the local school and schooling was almost non-existent. We seemed to go on a lot of walks, over the downs and through the town, a long line of us in pairs with a teacher or two. We sang all the latest hits – “You Are My Sunshine”, “Run, Rabbit, Run” (which you hear in ‘Dad’s Army’), “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye”. The soldiers and airmen were drilled on the promenade by the sea. One of the teachers was extremely pretty and she got lots of whistles as we walked by in crocodile! I think Mrs C. found us all a bit much and after two weeks two of us were moved to another billet. We were given a wash when we arrived in a tin bath in front of an oil stove and washed with carbolic soap. Part of our butter and sugar rations were given to us in a jam jar and we were told they must last us a week. Our new Auntie always wore black and I don’t remember her smiling ever! She had a lodger who had a dog called Roger and the little girl next door was called Beryl; I was pleased about this as those were the names of my little sister and brother. Mrs E. took a dislike to Catherine and she was moved elsewhere. Like most children, I had my food fads and one was fatty meat. My hostess told me that everything had to be eaten up or there would be no pudding. One occasion I remember well was when she went to the kitchen to get the pudding and I had been toying with a fatty, grisly piece of meat; in a quick flash of inspiration I wrapped it in my hankie and put it up my knickers (we had elastic round the legs of our knickers in those days). Then the dog became quite a pest, sniffing at me under the table and he got told off my by new auntie. However, all was well and after lunch I rushed upstairs to the lavatory and flushed the offending morsel away. By this time we were sorted out with other children in the town into classes and shared a local school. This must have caused headaches to both sets of staff. Our teachers were incredibly kind; they must have had many things to put up with, as well as their own personal worries - some had husbands in the forces or parents in the air-raids in London. I was well looked after in this billet but sometimes Mrs E. took offence at something I had said or perhaps done. I never knew what it was but should would not speak to me for a day or two. Her daughter, who was grown up, told me not to take any notice but when my headmistress asked us at school if anyone was unhappy in their billet I put my hand up. My headmistress went to see my landlady and when I got home she was tight-lipped and said I had gone behind her back. I kissed her and said I wanted to be with my friend Betty and so I was moved. At Betty’s billet I was give a couch to sleep on behind a screen in the sitting room. With the best intentions, this was not working satisfactorily so I was moved to my fourth foster home in nine months.
Letters from home were very special and if a postal order was included that was even more exciting. My Grandma, though, said “don’t send any more shells as they all get crushed up in the post”. I went home for a week at Christmas and again at Easter. My sister and brother had changed beyond recognition and I didn’t want to go back to Hastings. My parents wavered and wrote to my headmistress; she sent for me and said how important education was and though ...
Now bombs were beginning to fall on London and daylight raids occurred along the coast. One day, early in the summer of 1940, walking along the front I saw dozens of little ships going out to sea. I did not know I was witnessing the heroic rescue of our soldiers on the Dunkirk beaches. Walking home from school once I saw a single German aircraft flying low, machine gunning the town from his plane. Very soon after that we were told at school to be ready with our bags packed and to be at the coach station by six o’clock in the morning. And so began the re-evacuation.
The Re-evacuation Mrs J. (my fourth foster mother) saw us off at the coach and we were driven to the main railway station. No-one knew where we were going. All signposts and station names at railway stations had long been removed in case enemy parachutists landed, but we were with our friends and teachers and so we didn't mind. The long train full of children lingered outside Gloucester station where our teacher told us to look at the carvings on the Cathedral and said she thought we were probably going to Wales. As we passed people working in the fields or standing at their cottage doors they would wave and I would think “They look nice” or “I like them; I hope I go to live with them”. Soon I saw the first mountain and still the train chugged on.
By early evening some of the carriages had been unhooked and the children taken to villages along the way. Our bit of the train came to a halt at Defynog station at Sennybridge in Breconshire (Powys I think it is called now). We were met by kind ladies from the W.R.V.S. and W.I., who took us to the village hall. What a wonderful sight inside – trestle tables laden with delicious home-made cakes and sandwiches. My two special friends, Grace and Pat, said to me “Let’s stay together and live on a farm” (as if we could choose!). A lady dressed in brown, with a brown felt hat turned to my headmistress and said “Now I want a very nice girl for a billet in the next village”. Mrs Belbin looked at me and said, “You go Pat”. I found myself walking between Miss Walker and Mrs Tom Williams. The scenery was beautiful but it was about six o’clock and I was very tired. Mrs Tom was a very large lady, dressed in a long black skirt with a black and white spotted blouse, and a black hat. Her figure fascinated me; I had never seen a lady before you had only one breast.
Miss Walker was the village schoolmistress in Defynon. She had a Scottish voice, but she and Mrs Tom conversed in Welsh most of the time as we walked the one and a half miles to Topshop, the village store.
My new home was the village shop; it had a scrubbed wooden counter and a bell that rang when you opened the door. I was shown into the room beyond the shop which had an open fire with an armchair on either side, and a big table. My two new aunties, Miss Wena and Miss Gladys Jones, asked me if I would like a bedroom to myself or to share with an auntie. I chose one to myself. I shall always remember that pretty bedroom but most of all that wonderful floating sensation as I sank into my first feather bed that night. My bedroom had windows on two walls quite small but with wide sills. They had dark roller blinds (for the blackout, I suppose) but what really appealed to me was the white muslin curtains dotted with pink and caught in each side with pink satin bows. One window looked across a little lane into a cobbled farmyard and the other across the main street. There was a tall chest of drawers with a matching dressing table and on the wall by the bed was a framed verse decorated with flowers. I learned that verse by heart and all those years later still used the first line or two when I was on my way to the Magistrates’ Court to sit as a Justice of the Peace: ‘God me in my head And in my understanding’
The next day I met two more new relatives: Grandpa Jones, who was about 80 years old and his sister Elizabeth, 75 years of age, a very upright and dignified old lady who wore a black velvet ribbon around her throat. They were the aunties’ father and aunt and between them they all ran the shop and the home and baked delicious bread twice a week for the village. It was wonderful to walk home from school and to smell the baking as I neared Top Shop. The aunties used to bake a little loaf especially for me. I remember my first afternoon after school, I lay down in the canvas hammock in the garden, clutching three-cornered bag of sweets from the shop and fell asleep. It was such a different world, yet not at all bewildering. The love and caring in that home enveloped me and so began one of the happiest years of my life and one which I know has had a lasting effect on me.
Wednesday was cattle market day and I would wake up to the sound of sheep and barking dogs walking with their masters to Sennybridge. Opposite Top Shop there were three single-storied almshouses with diamond shaped window panes; Evan Evans lived in the first one (a kind but tramp-like gentleman), then Mrs Diplock who always had geraniums on her window sill and Jane, on whose door the children would knock and run away. After she died, on one of my return visits, I put flowers on her grave, hoping I suppose to be forgiven for causing her so much annoyance. Mrs Harris lived in the detached house opposite and Miss Davies and Miss Walker, who had brought me back up from Sennybridge, lived at the Curriers further down. All these homes are demolished now to make the road wider. The little cobbled street that led down to the water-mill has been covered in tarmac and the water-mill has gone, so has the little post office and no longer does the policemen live in the police station at the top of the hill. June 21st, three weeks after I arrived at Top Shop, it was my twelfth birthday and it was Aunty Wena’s birthday too. I came home from school that day to find the aunties waiting with the laundry basket packed with trifles, cakes and sandwiches for a picnic tea. They had asked some of my friends and theirs and we carried this feast to a nearby field where we unpacked the contents next to a cool, shallow stream.
Some weeks later I developed painful lumps on my legs which jarred when I jumped and I became feverish. I was taken home to bed and later to the children’s hostel, the Llwyn, in nearby Sennybridge. I was given a bed in a bay from where I could see people coming up the drive and I had to stay put. Dear Aunty Glad came in her St. John’s uniform to help make beds and Aunty Elizabeth walked all the way from Top Shop to see me, a distance of at least four miles in total.
When I was better I went to stay in Sennybridge with their friend, Mrs. Steele, for two weeks as Top Shop had their nieces and nephews to stay. I think they must have been pretty put out that I stayed at Topshop all the time when they could only go in school holidays. I had to share a bed with my hostess, so I used to pretend I was asleep when she came to bed.
The aunts were good Christian people. On Sundays I had to be quiet and read. I went to Church in the morning, Sunday School in the afternoon, and either the Chapel in Devynock or Sennybridge in the evening. Most of the services were in Welsh so I spent a lot of time studying my surroundings and the preacher’s idiosyncrasies. I loved the Welsh hymns and my favourite was “Guide me O Though Great Redeemer” I would watch Grandpa Jones’s mouth and watch his dentures wobble as the top set would nearly slip out when he sang the last two lines of the chorus and then he would adjust them with his tongue. At mealtimes he would put them on the window sill! Visiting preachers were often asked back to tea or supper where the conversation was mostly in Welsh. We had marvellous Sunday teas. Thin homemade bread spread with farm butter, homemade sponge cut in oblong pieces, fruit slab cake and delicious warm wimberry or apple tart. We were one of the few houses in the village with running water and a bath and, to my embarrassment, sometimes mistresses from school would come for a bath and stay to tea or supper. I used to make my excuses and disappear.
On washing days ladies in their laced-up boots would collect water in metal containers from the tap in the wall below Top shop. Every day, morning and evening, Mrs Jones from Penpentre Farm would push the milk cart round and ladle the still warm milk into the waiting jugs on people’s kitchen tables. The Vicarage took in two evacuees. I remember being sent from school to ask Miss Miler, the housekeeper, if she would have them. Later, a third little girl joined them as she was feeling a little bit lonely at the Neuyudd Farm. The vicar was such a kind and gentle man; I loved visiting there, play on the lawn and climb in his fir tree. Mr Jonathan Davies was his name and often he’d put an arm round my shoulder and say “Well done, Pat Bach” – I loved that! I also liked stealing a ride on gambos. Those are horse drawn farm carts that came past the door quite often. I’d travel about ½ mile then slip off and run back to Topshop.
Just round the corner from Top Shop lived Mrs. Price, who had many children; this was another place where I was made very welcome and it was such a treat to help bath the little ones. Welsh was the first language of all the villagers but they could speak English too, even the very little ones. The blacksmith’s shop was a great attraction and the blacksmith, Mr Griffiths, was tall and well built with thick, silver-white hair. Horses pulled the plough and the hay carts and the hay making at the Red Lion was rewarded with a drink of cider and sometimes a ride on the cart. Defin Maescar Farm, behind Top shop, was where children always seemed to be welcome; such lovely jumps we had in the barns onto soft hay that summer. I explored the countryside on my own and sometimes would follow a little stream to its source, bubbling out on a hillside...
We had to share a school with the Welsh pupils in Sennybridge. They had their usual classes and teachers. We had on classroom on the stage in the hall and another in the cloakroom and sometimes classes outside the playground or by the little river.
At thirteen, I sat an exam which gave me a place at the Grammar School near my mother who had by now moved to a house in the country. Our London home was wrecked by the bombs.
That was such a marvellous year for me despite being away from home. I made friends with the nieces and nephews and returned for many holidays. When I married and had daughter of my own they too were given a loving welcome.
All those dear people at Top Shop have passed on now, but they will never be forgotten by their evacuee. I used to feel I was going home when I visited Devynock but now find sadly it has changed so much, but I have my precious memories.
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