by Betty Holman
We were a family of six children when war broke out on 3rd September 1939 and responding to government advice many families living in London took the decision to send their children away from the capital, this being the obvious target for enemy bombers when war got under way.
We all had many rehearsals at school in preparation for the big event and were issued with lists of clothing etc; which would be required. Labels were provided with each child’s personal information clearly written. We all had our gas masks, neatly housed in their brown cardboard cases, some folk , if their parents were well off had a slightly superior container, ‘posher’ but still a piece of cumbersome luggage to be carried about everywhere at all times.
On the chosen day, our Dad’s birthday…September 1st 1939, we were all assembled at our school and separated into groups in the charge of teachers and helpers who were to accompany us to our unknown destinations. Of course it was a very emotional time with mothers naturally devastated at the thought of parting with their most treasured possessions and children, some of whom secretly thought they were starting on some grand adventure even though also upset at saying goodbye and others who were terrified at the thought of the parting but trying hard to put on a brave face. Where possible it was arranged so that brothers and sisters were grouped together, possibly I have since thought for the comfort of mothers who at least imagined their children would be still in some sort of family groups. However, these things don’t always work out the way we would like and although we all went to the local railway station together were split into so many further groups and our two brothers disappeared from our sight. Our Mum had insisted that I kept my young sister with me at all times and not to let anyone separate us and being an obedient child I made sure this was the case.
Expectant mothers and those with children under the age of five were sent away the next day and Mum with brother Alan, 6 months and Cyril aged three came into this category.
After what seemed to us a long journey my sister and I found ourselves at a village called Knebworth in Hertfordshire. We were deposited with many others of our schoolmates on the village green, having first been taken to the village hall where each child was handed a carrier bag with various items of food inside. I can’t recall the exact contents but I do remember a tin of corned beef, a good old wartime standby for troops and civilians alike. There was a slab of chocolate but we didn’t get to eat any of it! We were also given a cool drink and a sandwich, this was very welcome. We saw no sign of our Brothers, which, being the eldest of them all I assumed a great deal of responsibility even at the tender age of ten years so of course this gave me a lot of concern.
After a short while we found ourselves being ‘looked over’ by the local villagers in order for them to select the one they felt best able to cope with, no doubt too the ones who looked the cleanest! Can’t say I blamed them, after all they were being called on to share their homes with these children for who knew how long. I must have looked a sorry scrap. My clothes had usually been someone else’s before I wore them and when younger I was a long skinny looking object. Several women fancied my sister, at seven she was a cute looking little girl and would have been a nice addition to any family but I had mum’s voice ringing in my ears “Don’t let anyone separate her from you” so I kicked up such a fuss each time, insisting she was going nowhere without me. Nobody wanted two kids so we found ourselves left severely alone and eventually were the only two left without a home. At last a scruffy looking young woman appeared, pointed to my sister saying ‘I’ll take that one but I don’t want the skinny one! Needless to say I did my act again and the billeting officer, no doubt at the end of her tether pointed out that she’d be able to claim two lots of billeting money if she took us both. This seemed to have the desired effect and off we went.
Thus began what I now believe in retrospect to be the worst six weeks of my young life.
We had no bed of our own, much less our own bedroom. We slept in a double bed with the woman. She was pregnant and told me I’d be useful when she had her baby. This caused me no great alarm as I’d already done all that before at the age on ten when our mum had our youngest baby a few months before but I certainly got the message then that she hadn’t taken us out of the kindness of her heart! Her husband was in the Army Reserve and was called up as soon as war started on 3rd September.
After a week had passed we were thrilled to discover that our brother Derrick had been billeted only a couple of streets away. He was the most fortunate of us all and was with a retired police inspector and his wife who doted on him and later wanted to adopt him, telling our dad that with such a large family we would surely not miss one! Compared with what he was used to he was living in the lap of luxury, so well fed and looked after. My sister and I were treated to some of the leftovers from meals when we called for him, much appreciated as we never had enough to eat at our billet.
The first thing we did once we found him was to go for a country walk, the three of us. Of course, having lived in London all our lives and never having the luxury of holidays away we were very naïve about what grew and also what strange things could be deposited in fields. I was pretty soon initiated into the sort of things cows leave behind. I don’t think we’d ever seen a cow only in a picture book of course and then it was just politely jumping over the moon! With best foot forward I soon walked into a huge cow pat. I don’t think even then I knew what it was but the resulting smell soon led me to believe it was not something I wished to repeat and it did nothing to enhance the look of my once white ankle socks! However, I think it gave us one of the few laughs we managed when we thought back over those six weeks. I don’t remember thinking it very funny at the time.
When the woman’s husband came home on leave we were ousted from the bed and sent into the next room to sleep on bare floorboards, we had an old great coat for a mattress and another as a blanket. The room was completely unfurnished with no light at all. Although the house was fully wired for electricity there was never any light bulb fitted.
One night there was a terrible storm my poor little sister was terrified and started to cry. I tried to comfort her but to no avail; the woman came in and took her into her room to share the double bed with her and her husband, leaving me to cope alone. On reflection I think I may have had the best deal as the stench of B.O. on the sheets of their bed was quite overpowering. To my knowledge those sheets were never changed during the whole time we stayed there. We were poor whilst we were growing up at our home but Mum kept us all spotless hard though it must have been and we weren’t used to that sort of thing.
The toilet was located at the far end of the long garden and when my sister needed to ‘go’ in the middle of the night I was told to take her into the bathroom and she was to climb in, relieve herself and then flush by turning on the bath tap. We had never had a bathroom at home, we always used a bungalow bath in front of the fire and to miss-use a REAL bath in that fashion seemed like sacrilege to me.
Dad would send me stamps so that we could keep in touch and I would keep them under an egg cup on the dresser but each time I went to get one they were missing as were my little bits of money, saved carefully to buy my sister a doll which she’d seen in the village shop…….that too disappeared.
Sometimes she would go to visit her husband at his camp in nearby Hitchin, leaving us alone all day. I question whether she missed him that much as she had frequent visits from a variety of other men! When she went off for these visits she would give me 6d to buy some sausages, telling me if we wanted vegetables to go fetch the spade from the shed and dig some from the garden. We were always in bed by the time she returned in the early hours.
She became very fond of my sister and encouraged her to defy me at every turn. I was then in trouble for not having her with me when we met up with the rest of our school party at our various meeting places. We had no school building to go to, there was only a small village school which was already filled to capacity with the village children so we met either in the village hall or in a country lane where we’d have some sort of lessons as best we could. Fortunately that September we had beautiful weather which was a great help.
Our food was dreadful, she couldn’t cook at all, even at my tender age I could have taught her a thing or two! We had porridge for breakfast every morning, so badly made that I couldn’t bring myself to eat it without bringing it back again. I was served the same dish of cold porridge for two days running and nothing else was offered, so determined was she to make me eat it. In desperation, hunger got the better of me and I forced it down. After all these years I have only recently been able to bring myself to try porridge again.
We discovered after about a week that our Mother with the two little ones were in Hitchin, only a few miles away. Apart from the fact that she must have missed us all badly, Mum probably enjoyed what must have been a real rest cure for her. She was housed in a mansion…Hitchin House I believe it was called, vacated by the squire and his lady who had gone abroad for the duration of the war. The staff, or at least some of them were left behind and treated the mothers very well. A good many babies, now in their seventies must have been born in those very ‘posh’ surroundings.
Our eldest brother, then aged nine was on a farm at another small village some miles away, we didn’t see him until we all returned home. Poor Dad with only weekends at his disposal was visiting one place or another every weekend.
We had been away for about a month when he paid us his first visit. He was so horrified at what he saw having met me at a very early hour on the way back from the village shop clutching a bag of sugar. I had been very poorly for a couple of days with a bad cold and must have looked a sorry sight. My feet were soaking wet as I had holes in my shoes. Dad always kept our shoes in good repair at home. I remember I was shivering, probably had a temperature! He had seen enough, came back with me and had some very strong words with our ‘lady’ and took us off for the rest of the day.
Dad went home that day and started to make arrangements to get us all home, Mum first of course to get everything in order and then the rest of the family over the next two weekends.
When everything came to a head at the end of our stay people asked why we had never complained to our teachers about what was going on. No doubt this would have been the right thing to do but we already knew that this billet had been the last resort and we were afraid too that if we had done so we would have probably still been forced by circumstances to stay in the same place and things could well have been even worse.
I shall never forget our homecoming and the wonderful smell of boiled bacon as we approached our street door, Mum, bless her had cooked us a meal we’d never forget. Each time I cook that myself that memory invades my thoughts. Poor as we were we always had a good meal inside us and how my sister and I had missed that you can well imagine!
We spent the rest of the war in London and horrific though it was at times we were far happier than we’d been for the long six weeks away from our family. As Dad said, “If we go, we’ll all go together’. He always believed in fate and said ‘If a bomb’s got your number on it, that’s it, wherever you are!’
We had some narrow escapes but through it all we were so fortunate compared with many others, we all survived to enjoy many happy years together.
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