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This article was part of a series written for and originally published in the Journal of the Maldon Archaeological & Historical Group – 1994. Later it was used in the book published by Maldon District Council – called Migration to Maldon.
PERSONAL THOUGHTS No 2. ON BEING A MALDON EVACUEE
Just before my 10th birthday, early in September 1939, I found myself with an elder brother and my younger sister, waiting at our school in South Woodford with a large crowd of other children. We were all waiting to board a London bus that was to take us to the country as evacuees. We were each carrying a gas-mask in a small square cardboard box, a rolled up blanket labelled with our names and a small bag holding a few precious belongings.
I said a bus but there were in fact a whole fleet of buses and soon a long convoy of these red buses was heading out to safety far out into the country. World War 2 had just been declared and we were among the many parties of evacuees leaving the cities. Neither we, nor our parents, had any idea where we were going or for how long we would be parted.
Apart from a time when I was four and in Waltham Cross fever hospital suffering from scarlet fever, this was the first time that I had been away from home without my parents and the evacuation must have also been a very worrying time for them. We children did at least have the excitement of a journey and possible adventure to occupy our minds.
Later that same day our buses arrived at Maldon on the Essex coast. It was not quite so very far away as we had expected. After a rather confusing assembly at what is now called Lower Plume School, my brother and I were taken to our new temporary home; a house at the eastern end of Victoria Road. I cannot now recall exactly which house it was but I think it was No 16 or even the name of our new foster parents – our new Aunty and Uncle – but when I think about it, the name Phillips comes to mind. I have my doubts about the correctness of this. They were an elderly couple and suddenly to have two lively boys to care for was obviously rather upsetting for them. Our younger sister was not billeted with us but was further along Victoria Road on the same side. She was with the Keeble family.
We soon discovered that because the schools had to be shared with the Maldon children, school times were going to be half-days only – a pleasant prospect for us and one that gave us plenty of time for exploring our new surroundings. We were used to the freedom to wander and play in the country because our Woodford home was very close to Epping Forest but here, at Maldon, we found some completely new delights. Here was a tidal river, sea walls, marshes, lots and lots of mud and real fishing boats and sailing barges. Despite strict commands to keep our shoes and boots dry, we would race down the sloping back garden and out into Downs Road and be away. We soon discovered to our horror that our wet shoes revealed tell-tale white salt deposits and our new foster “uncle” was a martinet about clean boots – we even had to polish under the instep! I think he must have been a sergeant-major before retiring. However, his boot polishing lessons proved very useful to me later on when I was in the army. It was here that I had my first taste of beer. Our “Uncle” with whom we stayed used to like a glass of beer with his dinner and one day I got the job of taking the empties back to the pub on the corner (The Warwick Arms). I noticed that there was a few dregs in one of the bottles and had a taste. That put me off such things for many, many years.
I recall our many attempts to catch crabs with bacon-rind on a string down at The Hythe and the scooping up of small shrimps in the boating pool further along the Promenade. The very neat Promenade Park had a pond then complete with ducks but that has since been filled in. This was not the lake where one could swim. Best of all were the games on the sea-wall near the causeway to Northey Island. Here we found large heaps of old brushwood (almost haystack size if I remember correctly) where we used to dig among the rotting twigs to find old bullets. Perhaps these were old butts for rifle practice?
On some days, our teachers tried to keep us out of mischief and add to our education by taking us on organised walks. One such walk was to see the ruins of St Giles leper hospital in Spital Road and then via a footpath by Maldon Hall to Beeleigh Abbey. I remember that we were told off by the farmer for playing “castles” along those strange low banks of earth and straw by the farm road but how were we townies to know that these heaps contained potatoes? Once the Beeleigh area had been found, this then became our new playground. Here was the rivers and canal with lock gates and a wide weir and an overshoot for excess water. The river was still tidal up to this point where the rivers Chelmer and Blackwater almost merge together. It has changed much since then but I can still remember how it was. My brother and I must have neglected our younger sister although I do recall occasional visits up the road to the Keeble home and once we had a trip with them down Market Hill to Fullbridge; the bridge across the Chelmer was then a temporary wooden one put up while the main bridge was being repaired – I think the war started and stopped repair work. Here we looked over a sailing barge anchored near Sadd’s timber wharf and were told tales of trips with this barge. I have been told recently that this barge was probably the “Dawn” owned by the Keebles. I can still see it today anchored at The Hythe.
I can remember one day when the tide was high, a sudden bustle and hustle by the river with men hurrying to pull boats up on to the banks and then a large paddle boat came up the river to tie up at The Hythe. This was one of the boats that took passengers on trips from Southend-on-Sea and Margate and it might have been the last time it ever called in at Maldon.
Although we boys enjoyed our new environment, we were not really truly happy being away from our own home. On the radio we heard the war news, which seemed mainly to be about the sinking of shipping, and we thought of our Dad working at the Woolwich docks. Our Mum visited us at least once I remember though it may have been more than that and we wrote home, of course, but it was not really the same as being at home with all our personal possessions. This was the “phoney war” period and because the German invasion hadn’t happened as it was expected and the air-raids were not of the type that were to develop later with the blitz, by early 1940 we went back home to South Woodford. I remember the train journey home one Sunday evening; the train stopped somewhere between Maldon and Witham because there really was an air-raid! We sat in the dark carriages for about a hour and tried to watch the search-lights by peeping under the window blinds. We listened to the anti-aircraft guns blasting away and wondered if the German pilots could see our train by the light coming from the steam engine funnel.
Back home, we found that there was still very little schooling for us – a few days here and there only. So we were back to our old haunts and games in the forest. Our Dad was then directed to work away at the docks at places such as Swansea and Plymouth so there was little to keep the family at South Woodford. Mother eventually managed to arrange for us to move to an uncle’s house at Wickford, Essex, and we were settled in there about Whitsun 1940. To us children it was our first home move and an exciting adventure. I still have my mother’s correspondence with uncle at that time and reading these letters now reveals all her worries about us. Here, at uncle’s, I met for the very first time a young cousin called Sylvia. I recall that we didn’t get on too well although she and my younger sister became firm friends. Little did I know then that years later, Sylvia and I would be married to each other and living not too far from my previous evacuee home.
Maldon has never ceased to fascinate us both; for me it is because of my short evacuee period and for Sylvia because Maldon was – and still is today – famous for Sunday school outings. Although we remained at Wickford until 1983, we visited Maldon often – usually by bikes. Even when our three daughters had arrived we still came; the eldest, Nicola, on a “fairy” bike and both Sylvia and I with one each of the younger ones up behind on child seats. A long journey made even longer by taking all the side lanes to avoid the traffic.
Now we live only about five miles from Maldon and the Beeleigh area is still one of our favourite places for walks but nowadays we find ourselves introducing its delights to our grandchildren. On visits to the town, we occasionally walk down Victoria Road or along Downs Road and I find myself looking at the houses there and puzzling over which one it was that was once my evacuee home.
Arthur Cox, March 1994
Additional notes written in 2011.
The South Woodford school was Churchfields School. I think we went to Maldon via Epping, North Weald and Chelmsford. Curiously, Sylvia’s maternal grandmother was a Keeble with the name of Bathsheba. And I still enjoy cleaning and polishing boots and shoes. I still have my old army brushes stamped with my army number, 21063097. And some of those grandchildren now have their own children. A pity that Sylvia and I cannot get to walk with them around Beeleigh. On the same subject of wartime experiences, I had an invitation to go to Isobel’s daughter’s school at Wheathamstead. This was to join with another lady to tell the girls there about wartime experiences. I took them a picture of the house in Victoria Road which I am pretty sure was our evacuee home. I also took extracts those 1940 letters of my mother.
No 16 Victoria Road – Maldon. The house with the white door.
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This was the article that Olive Coates (Arthur’s younger sister) submitted for the book Migration to Maldon. Written in 1991
Letter from Mrs Olive Coates (née Cox), Goring-by-Sea, Sussex
I can remember my mother sitting up late at night sewing name tags on all our clothes and other belongings because we were due to be evacuated.
We went by bus to Maldon and when we arrived we were told to get off the bus with our gas masks on our shoulders and carrying our suitcases. We walked down the middle of the road being directed into our allotted houses, two children in each household (I think). I remember we were woken up at night time with a strange noise; it was the air raid siren. I believe that a plane was shot down in the river the same first night. I remember going to school in the mornings and sitting three to a desk. In the afternoons we went for walks with the teachers. We used to walk along the river banks and went to see a leper colony. I recall playing in the puddles in the park with the girl I lodged with – I think her name was Joyce – and attending a Roman Catholic Church on Sundays which seemed strange as I didn’t understand a word of it. The service was in Latin!
My brothers were living in a house at the other end of the same road. I remember going to visit them; they always seemed to be cleaning their shoes. I cannot remember how long we stayed at Maldon but my parents brought us home because my brother was unhappy. We had a relative in Wickford, Essex, which was then a country market town. They offered us a home with them. So we moved from Woodford leaving my eldest brother and father behind because they were both working. I remember the day we moved for I travelled in the removal van with the driver and his mate. We stopped at a pub called “The Fortune of War” on the Southend Road. The two men went for a drink and they bought me a huge biscuit to eat while I waited in the van for them. When we arrived at the bungalow in Wickford our cousin Sylvia came out to meet us. Seeing her for the first time I’m sure we were friends immediately and have remained so ever since.
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Letter from Mr Donald Cox, Wickford, Essex written 1991. Submitted for the book Migration to Maldon. Note that Donald is entirely wrong about going to Maldon by train – all the other stories refer to the fleet of red London buses. Perhaps he was confused with the return home later which was by train.
We, my younger brother, Arthur, and still younger sister, Olive, were evacuated from Stanley Road, South Woodford, E18. I believe we were all gathered at Churchfields Junior School and from there were escorted to LNER, George Lane Station, where we were boarding a train bound for Maldon. Mother was there to see us off and together with our square respirator boxes we set off to the country. I can only remember being ecstatic at going for a holiday; we were never able to afford one before then. Eventually we arrived at what was then ‘Maldon East’ station where we alighted. I cannot recall by what means we were transported into town, or how and when we were put into our various groups, but I do remember arriving at an address at the east end of Victoria Road and being introduced to an elderly couple. They seemed staid in their manner and habits and I felt they did not really want the bother of children around them! My sister Olive went to stay with some people called ‘Keeble’ who lived in the back end of the same road. It was where we too eventually came to after some altercation involving ‘Bed Wetting’ – I am not sure if it was myself or my brother who was responsible for this dreadful state of affairs! But we did become unpopular.
The ‘Keebles’ were a different “Kettle of Fish”. Mrs Keeble I feel sure was a Yorkshire woman, with Yorkshire ideas regarding food. We never felt hungry there. Sunday dinner was traditional with roast joint with onions and vegetables. Before this we were served with thick slices of Yorkshire pudding swimming in the oil they were cooked in. I also remember sitting on the back step in the sun and shelling peas into a bowl. I believe the “Keebles” were well known after the war for their input into yacht racing. Our first time out in Maldon was ‘discovery time’ and the first find for me was tomato plants with green and orange tomatoes growing in the garden! When I smell tomato plants, even now, I’m reminded of Maldon days. The garden sloped away down hill to a gateway leading into the small road adjacent to the quay and in front of the Jolly Sailor public house. We spent many happy hours “Beach Combing” our way to the end of the promenade. I remember some sort of rectangular pool, timber sided in which we would try to catch shrimp like creatures that swam there. Another pool we would swim in, was just below the end of the park. It was very salty and swimming in it meant being covered in white crystals. There was always a hessian covered raft in the centre to sit on. At the end of the promenade was a small shelter with a seat inside. Sometimes we would have to sit there because of cold misty rain which blew up river.
On fine days we would walk along the sea wall to an Army rifle range, a corrugated iron construction, behind which, was a mound of earth. In the earth were hundreds of spent bullets. We spent many hours digging these treasures out! Mr Keeble owned a sailing barge which was used, so we were informed, to bring timber from Swedish ships to John Sadds’ wharf near the Fullbridge. We were never fortunate enough to sail in her, but we did get shown around! Another favourite haunt was Beeleigh Abbey, the canal, lock gates, the sort of cascade there. Turning off the main road into the lane to the abbey was so suddenly quiet and peaceful, no traffic noise. Schooling was half daily I believe and in a council school. I cannot recall where it was situated, or much about lessons, except for gardening, and the teacher telling us at great lengths the dangers of holding a fork at knee height and taking a stab at the earth, rather than placing the fork down first then adding pressure! Personally, my stay in Maldon was a wonderful adventure! We would go from Woodford, way into the country at weekends, long hikes to Epping, Ongar, Theydon Bois and so on, but Maldon had the ‘smell of the sea’ and boats. So there was no actual comparison for me.
We left Maldon because my mother was worried about the increase in bombing, mines, rockets, which fell nearby and found a place with a relative in Wickford for us all to stay till we found a place of our own. We eventually did and stayed there till the cessation of hostilities. We never went back to Maldon till after the war and we have been there many times since. My brother-in-law lived in Granger Avenue, so we always had an excuse for a visit.
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