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An Evacuee in 1940s WGC

Evacuees arriving in Welwyn Garden City

The Memories below were contributed to the Trust's archive by Cecil C. They are a fascinating account of an evacuee sent to live in Welwyn Garden City in 1940.

Evacuation completely disrupted my family and after July 1940 it was to be seven and a half years before we were reunited again. I lived at 45 Lennox Street, Hastings - a bustling seaside resort with a strong historical background. After Dunkirk and the fall of France, the southeast coast was declared a danger area. Germany's imminent invasion plan "Sealion" scheduled for September 15th, 1940 instigated the voluntary mass evacuation, firstly of children in school units, followed by individual families.

In assisting young readers of today to understand the full impact of evacuation it helps to paint a picture of that very different age. It was an age before nylons, the transistor and most of what are considered essentials today. Some homes had a vacuum cleaner, very few had either washing machines or refrigerators and the telephone was almost an indication of prosperity. Wireless sets and gramophones were luxuries still to be acquired by many families. The first television broadcasts were in 1936 and then only a few hundreds, etc. existed. In the streets we were witnessing the demise of the horse-drawn delivery carts, steam driven coal vehicles, milk delivered straight from the churn into the customers' jugs, ice cream bought from three wheeler bikes with a cooling unit and the muffin man, tray on head, ringing a handbell to attract buyers.

England was emerging from "the depression" but Hastings had built the country's first underground car park and introduced the first overhead electric trolley bus system. Our rented terraced home had been converted from gas to electric lighting just prior to the war. On the third floor, the attic was my bedroom but it also doubled as a workroom, housing as it did my father's workbench. On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for my parents and the other for my two sisters and brother. The ground floor comprised a small dining/living room and scullery. A kitchen range kept us warm and cosy in the winter months, although it required a great deal of work with the black lead brush to keep it black and shiny. All in all it paid for its keep - on top saucepans cooked, at one side an oven baked, on the front grill muffins were toasted, underneath the hot ashes baked chestnuts and to cap it all a small side water tank provided hot water - just enough for washing up!

The scullery had a built-in copper, fuelled with coal, which was meant for boiling washing but doubled up for the yearly Christmas puddings and delicious suet puddings all year round. A huge mangle with heavy wooden rollers occupied one corner or the scullery and a gas cooker the other. Daily washes were taken in the scullery sink and weekly baths in a tin bath in front of the fire. (Around the age of eleven I matured to the Public Baths like dad.) There was an outside toilet in the backyard where mum dried the family wash and the younger kiddies played.

Dad was a real grafter and earned his living as a general engineer supplementing his income with an allotment. He sold produce from the large greenhouse he built whilst the family enjoyed a wide variety of vegetables and flowers. I was expected to spend many hours assisting in the allotment added to which I contributed one shilling (five new pence) from the one and sixpence (twelve and a half new pence) I earned doing a paper round at the age of eleven. Dad had a motorbike and sidecar, which provided transportation for the odd day out. But as the family grew up his employer's van was allowed to be used and the whole family were able to enjoy a few days camping once in a while.

In the allotment off Priory Road I helped dad to build an air raid shelter. It was his own design and although due to evacuation my family was unable to take advantage of it for long, the passing public did. It may well be that it saved many lives, especially on the 26th October 1940 when the Baptist Mission was destroyed. The Mission was only a few yards from our homemade shelter, which at the time was fully occupied and illustrates how well constructed it was.

On the 21st July 1940 my family's evacuation began. My sister Vera (aged 10) and myself (aged 13) joined other boys and girls at the Central Schools in Priory Road and with gas mask and one item of luggage were duly tagged with our names. Goodbyes were said to relatives and buses transported us to Ore Station where the train conveyed us straight through London to our destination of Welwyn Garden City. We were given food at Trevelyan House and the children who were not billeted straight away had to sleep a night or two in St. Francis Hall.

Evacuees arriving in 1940

Other schools from Hastings and St Leonards were scattered throughout the Home Counties, i.e.:

Boys Grammar School - St Albans

Mount Pleasant School - Datchworth, Knebworth, Aston,

Walkern and Benington

Girls High School - Ware

St Margarets School - Sutton Courtney, Berkshire

St Mary Star of the Sea School - Hoddesdon.

A few weeks after my sister's and my departure from Hastings, my brother John (aged 7) was evacuated with his small "Open Air" School to Bedford and in Late Autumn 1940 my parents, Elizabeth and Charles together with my sister Rita (aged 6), were evacuated to the West Country. The Hastings family billets were mainly in Somerset and Wiltshire and initially mum and dad had really sumptuous accommodation at Winscombe. Somerset.

There were many other evacuees to Welwyn Garden City and we Sussex children were not the first arrivals. Pre-war some German refugees were accepted and during 1939 hundreds of London families privately took residence in vacant properties.

In September 1940 four London schools arrived, namely:

The Skinners Company's Girls' School

St Ignatius Boys' College of South Tottenham

Our Lady's Convent of Amhurst Park

Shacklewood Road Infants' School.

In August, 1940 Welwyn Garden City instigated its own voluntary evacuation with two-thirds of Sherrardswood pupils crossing the Atlantic for Worcester, Massachusetts. Even so school places were filled to capacity, a situation in no way aided by the destruction by fire of Parkway School in 1939. However, this was rebuilt within a year. Handside and Stanborough Schools were filled by more evacuee than local children. Mr Small, Head of Handside School, had to cope with four additional schools - the two from Hastings (which to the joy of both sexes became co-educational), Skinners Girls' School and St Ignatius Boys' School. St Michaels accommodated Shacklewood Infants' School and Stanborough accommodated Our Lady's Convent. Such was the overcrowding that the Central School had lessons at the Backhouse Room, Lawrence Hall, Free Church. and St Francis rooms whilst Sherrardswood loaned us their gym and science rooms.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Messrs White, Johnstone, Wakefield and Holland and to Miss Callender, Miss Loton and Miss Pearce. These teachers had to cope not only with their own evacuation problems but also their pupils' educational, social and billeting problems throughout the term and holiday periods.

When the threat of invasion receded after the Battle of Britain in 1940 evacuation dwindled and the School returned to Hastings in 19·43. In a letter to the "Welwyn Times" dated 5th August 1943 our Head, Mr Hugh S Read, expressed his thanks to all concerned in Welwyn Garden City.

At the age of 16 I left school and took employment with Lincoln Electric in Broadwater Road and my sister, Vera, at the age of 14 studied tailoring at the North Western Polytechnic in Kentish Town.

Meanwhile in Somerset dad, in a reserved occupation, assembled Hurricane aircraft engines at Pilton, Bristol. The living conditions deteriorated when moves to Paulton and Midsomer Norton were necessary as the miners' cottages were small and damp and mum's health suffered greatly.

Educational facilities for my sister Rita were negligable and it was a great relief when a job transfer for dad to de Havillands, Hatfield enabled them to move into digs in Welwyn Garden City. Up to that time Vera and I were only able to visit them once during the three year period, and John not at all, although my parents with Rita did visit him on a couple of day trips. Later in 1943 John moved to Welwyn Garden City and, although in the same town, we lived in four separate homes until a house became available in 1945 - 1 Knella Road. (In the Peartree re-development plan this house was demolished and in its place an area of grass but a row of poplars marking the garden boundary still stands.) However prior to the allocation of a house it was time for me to report to Bury St Edmunds to sign on for the then obligatory National Service. I served overseas in Palestine and Egypt until I was demobbed on 14th February 1948. Apart from periods of leave this was the real day of our family reunion.

It can be appreciated from the above how evacuation caused great chaos in family relations, traumatic for parents and young children alike, although more of an adventure for older children. Some evacuees found a home for the entire period others were not so fortunate. For instance J Martin moved from Datchworth to Welwyn Garden City then to St Albans within the space of four years. I had five homes, plus hostel stays and my sister Vera had no less than ten homes, plus hostel stays.

The Garden City had several hostels and for temporary periods, Hastings children were catered for by Mr and Mrs Haynes at 95 Handside Lane. Originally from the East End this stalwart family provided a haven for children during times of great apprehension, of not knowing when or indeed whether one would be re-billeted and what the new family home would be like. They themselves had two daughters and twin sons and MrHaynes worked in London returning to the Garden City at weekends. Unfortunately Mr Haynes died before the end of the war.

At times compulsory billeting was necessary and the billeting officers – Mr Deamer and Mrs Ball - must have had an unenviable task. Personally I was most fortunate in having exceedingly good families to live with. These were:

Mr and Mrs Neasham of 2 The Orchard (Move due to birth of their second child.)

Mr and Mrs Masters of Walden Road (Temporary billet.)

Mr and Mrs Warrell of 84 Woodhall Lane (Move due to birth of their second child.)

Mr and Mrs Banner of 35 Attimore Road (move due to Mr Banner being killed on a bombing raid over le Havre.)

Mr and Mrs deIongh of 29 Mandeville Rise (Move due to forces call-up.)

With each family I had a good home, my own room, care and affection, although not all evacuees were as lucky. Also I was well fed but in retrospect one wonders how foster parents managed to satisfy the appetites of growing youths during rationing and food shortages. School meals helped considerably and the helpings were generous.

On 1st June 1940 the Ministry of Health increased the billeting allowance per week, per child, to the following amounts:

Age 10-14           10/6d = 52 new pence

Age 14-16           12/6d = 62 new pence

Over 16              15/-    = 75 new pence

Towns received supplies of commodities according to their pre-war population figures and it can be appreciated that with Welwyn Garden City's increase of several thousand it is not surprising that, at first, there was a general shortage of many items.

Welwyn Garden City was at that time a young, partially developed town which, 50 years ago, was still without street lighting and short of many amenities. However, housing was good, each with a garden, bathroom and indoor toilet. But it was indeed the simple life. The Town's facilities for children were virtually nil. Lea Valley Swimming Pool was small, freezing and literally shared with the frogs. The Welwyn Theatre was the venue of all public entertainment, including films, and the Pavillion Picture Palace, Old Welwyn was a bus ride away. Prices were 6d per seat, increasing by 3d intervals to 1/6d. There were few films for children but even so the prices were sometimes prohibitive.

Everyone seemed to walk or cycle everywhere and the more fortunate evacuees were able to borrow bicycles from their foster families thus making them mobile. I was fortunate in this respect and was able periodically to visit by brother in Bedford. Bicycles were of heavy, durable construction and we were glad to use the protection of lorries on windy days, especially up hill, hanging onto the tail boards whilst free wheeling.

It seems odd now to ponder the housing boundaries of the Garden City then and now. Boundaries ceased at Mandeville Rise, Coneydale, Heronswood Road, Cole Green Lane and Lemsford Lane. The East West social divide created by the railway line was far more evident. Working farms comprised the perimeter, known today as the Vineyard Centre rising from the buildings of Throssels mixed farm. Barton's Dairy farm was beyond Woodhall Lane.

The countryside was easily accessible and trains puffed their way through Sherrards Wood to Luton and Dunstable.

In a comparatively new town, away from families and home towns which were old and historic, it might be wondered how we evacuees occupied our time. After all time had to be occupied through school holidays and the long evenings of double summer time not to mention the even longer winter evenings emphasised by the blackout. But at least there was one compensation afforded by the blackout - it gave excellent opportunities to see the brilliance of the moon, stars, masses of shooting stars - a sky almost unnoticed before.

Homework apart, I like to think we evacuees were of some help to our foster parents and aided them with gardening, babysitting, household chores and running general errands. Our School "dug for victory" on the school allotment in Brockswood Lane and the Post Natal Home in Elm Gardens and kept the Town's street rose gardens weeded.

Inter school games were quite frequent and during holidays our teachers arranged games and get togethers for those of us unable to return home. At Christmas, Welwyn Garden City Organisations laid on events for evacuees. Sherrards Wood provided us with a fine area for walking, playing and tree climbing. Open-air theatre and other events took place in "The Dell". Bird life was abundant and included Nightingales, Goldcrests, Hawfinches. All three Woodpeckers were resident and the dawn chorus was positively deafening. Conservation was unheard of then.

A favourite meeting place for evacuees was Welwyn Stores. There were very few shops and the Campus simply boasted the Welwyn Builders Yard and the Council Offices.

Train spotting was very popular and excitement great when we were able to observe the record-breaking steam locomotives - "Flying Scotsman" and streamlined "Mallard" - perhaps the girls were not so enthusiastic!

The evacuees’ main involvement was in clubs. Clubs were a strong point with the Garden City, particularly with societies and factory social clubs. The youngsters' clubs were well supported during the war, especially the Peartree Boys' and Girls' Club and the newly formed Army, Sea and Air Cadets. My own particular interest was in St Francis Club, which was run by "Mackie” - Mr D C Mackness - and the Army Cadets who occasionally had manouvres with the Home Guard. Many groups had bands and street parades were frequent. Most weekends a marching band would be heard somewhere.

The progress of the war was avidly followed worldwide and the various units dispersed locally fed our enthusiasm. These included a Searchlight Unit at the junction of Stanborough Road and Lemsford Lane, Ack-Ack guns at Lemsford and a R.A.F. camp at Mill Green. Panshanger was a decoy for de Havilland's aerodrome. And a musical note was supplied by the bugle band of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry stationed here and replaced by the Pipe Band of the Liverpool Irish.

For boys especially, seeing the constant flow of military convoys on ~he Great North Road, the damaged aircraft being returned to Hatfield for repair, the experimental manoeuvres of the yellow prototype "Mosquitos" flying over the Garden City and Hatfield, all these activities added to our war time fervour.

Evacuation was intended to move people, particularly children, from high to low risk area. The success and wisdom of moving our schools to Welwyn Garden City can be measured by the following facts:

Total wartime losses sustained due to raids over Welwyn Garden City were:

2 killed

2 homes destroyed

225 homes damaged.

Total wartime losses sustained due to raids over Hastings were:

154 killed

639 injured

463 buildings demolished

14,818 buildings damaged

(Incidentally in its first raid just five days after our departure Hastings Central School suffered bomb damage.)

"Tip and run" raids dominated the early years. In 1944 the "Doodle-bugs" took over and Hastings was named "Bomb Alley" with seven lanes of V1 and V2's crossing the Borough en route to London and the Midlands.

Fifteen flying bombs were shot down in the Borough although the aim of fighters and guns was to bring them down in the sea or open country. Seven miles from Hastings in the area of Battle (1066 and all that!) 374 of these unmanned flying bombs were brought down.

It is estimated that casualties would have been far heavier if evacuation had not taken place as many of the buildings destroyed and damaged were the dwellings left unoccupied by the evacuated families.