Childhood memories: Evacuation, North vs South

Here, Alan Rick from SWit’CH (Swinton Writers in t’Critchley House) shares his memories of being an evacuee in the war. 

It was during the last year of the war in 1944 that it finally seemed to dawn on the government that hostility had commenced and hastily had us London children packed off to the provinces to escape the V2 rockets – Hitler’s last gasp attempt to grab victory.

My brother and I had no idea what evacuation entailed beyond our teacher’s vague and disdainful explanation that we would be banished to ‘The North’. This, we gathered, was some sort of limbo land you were sent to if you were seen as no longer fit for civilised society. But at least it would be better than the bombs.

We were prepared for the first stage of the journey to the railway station for transportation to we had no idea whereby the teacher, Mr Redman, who was not allowed to tell us the destination. This acquired an even more sinister aspect in our minds when we learnt that he would not be staying there but would be returning to London once he had delivered us to the families who had agreed to take in evacuees.

Why were our parents to remain in London? We were convinced that we must have committed some grave misbehaviour to be sent parentless to what may as well have been a foreign country. Any place, in our minds, north of Middlesex was threatening territory.

Suitably dressed for travel in coats, trousers and shirts mainly handed down from older siblings and with boxed gas masks secured to our sides, we were marched to the railway station for our voyage into the unknown, a bedraggled picture of bewilderment and distrust. The government manufacturer of gas masks had ordered special, smaller versions to be made for primary school children. Mine had a Mickey Mouse on the outside, apparently intended to mark the child-size gas mask.

The cautionary gas mask drill exercise was supervised by the Headmaster who would strike fear into us by describing, with staring-eyed relish, how mustard gas would get into our lungs. This meant that we would have just two and a half minutes at most to fit the contraption over our face to save our lives.

Armed with a whistle like a race official at a dog track he would then time us. In the event the Germans didn’t use mustard gas this time – having decided that bombing from the air would cause us more discomfort. I owe the fact that I am still here to this as my lamentable efforts to get the mask on in the allotted time would have consigned me to an early oblivion.

Eventually, the train, the steam puffer type, reached Derby. It was a revelation to us to discover that ‘The North’ was not just a vast wasteland after all, but had towns in it including the one we were decanted at i.e. Derby.

Our first meeting point was the Town Hall, where we again lined up and numbers placed on our chests by way of identification so that the families who had ordered us could see which children they were getting.

Soon the families themselves were called in and began to look along the line of evacuees to claim their prize and cart him or her home. Their faces registered the whole gamut of responses from delighted through to disappointment to appalled, according to whether or not they liked the look of what they were getting. Altogether it seemed like a cross between a cattle market and an auction sale.

Our new home for the rest of the war was a house on the outskirts of Derby and was inhabited by a couple whose own daughter was married and had gone to live elsewhere. We were lucky in that they were kind and did not have young children at home to compare us unfavourably with. There were others who were not so lucky.

The husband was a keen fisherman, the river Derwent flowed nearby and there were silver cups behind a glass case in the living room – which they called ‘the best room’. The word ‘lounge’ had not yet come into general use except in the more exalted classes. I was to accompany the husband and his friends on Sunday mornings to fish in the Derwent. Many a tale was recounted about the ‘one that got away’ which always seemed to be bigger than any of those that were caught.

Fitting into a new home with temporary parents was a surprisingly smooth transition, but starting a new school was not. First, there was the accent. Many and loud were the heated assertions in the playground that we ‘southerners’ had the wrong one. Why did they say ‘coop of tea’ instead of ‘cap of tea’ was only one of the issues hotly disputed?

Neither side would give way on any of this item of fierce regional pride and the matter was always concluded – though never decided – by a fight with anything up to a dozen joining in. This was when I discovered that England is a country divided by a common language.

Another major problem was the Derby children’s complete misunderstanding of what the word ‘evacuee’ meant. They were convinced that we had been sent out of London on account of some minor criminal activity on our part. What did you do? This was the question often shot at us, and great was the disappointment when we were not able to produce examples of lurid delinquency to explain our appearance in ‘The North’.

The experience was especially galling to the cockney children of the dockland area of the East End, whose only fault was to live near the Port of London docks and, as in many cases, to have been bombed out of their homes. Their contribution to the linguistic divide was not just their fists, which they deployed in a manner marvellous to behold, but an outpouring of language so colourful that some were sent home with a note to say that they would be allowed back into school only on condition of acceptable behaviour.

If Derby was expecting genteel decorum from East End children who had had a hard life, who had been bombed out and now were being teased in the playground, then Derby would be disappointed.

One ginger-haired boy, one of Dickens legions of the ‘great unsoaped’, stood up in class and exclaimed ‘F*** this for a lark’, treated all present with the reverse V for victory gesture and walked out. He was later retrieved by the police having set out with a little bundle of belongings on the road leading out of Derby, which he imagined led all the way to London.

All in all there were lessons to be learnt from evacuation. The English language is a glorious dialectical muddle which is why we have a great literary heritage. We were able to take criticism on board and the real eye-opener was that there actually was sentient life further north than Middlesex. Even trains travelled further up than that.

We returned home in the Spring of 1945 when the war ended, to the same primary school we had left a year earlier and to the same teachers who told us how lucky we were not to have been under Nazi occupation. Even the teasing about our accents was better than bombs. I have remembered their words ever since.

In the cinema in Tottenham High Road film shots, just released by the government of the newly liberated death camps of Belsen and Auschwitz left us with a profound sense of both the sufferings of the victims and of our good fortune in being free.

This story first appeared in Alan’s memories ‘My Life and Other Misadventures’ which is available through SWit’CH directly or Amazon and other booksellers. 

It can also be found in the SWit’CH anthology Memories Unlocked available to order here

Do you have memories that you’d like to share with our readers? Drop us an email at [email protected]


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