The evacuees, a legacy

So why Norfolk, I am frequently asked?  My family were evacuated to Burnham Market and Burnham Overy during the war, I reply, and that sets me thinking once again what must it have really been like? And how many other residents or visitors to our sea and shoreline, “incomers”, like me, have that same deep association, shaped by world events?

The evacuee stories are part of my family legend.

Like many parents in war time my grandmother and grandfather sent their younger children, my uncles and my mother, who was some years older, away from the blitz in the east end of London, to what must have appeared as another world. Like other children, they were unaccompanied, and having been part of an extended east end family, suddenly very alone.

My working grandmother stayed in London, and was permitted only rare visits to her sons, and mother stayed only until old enough to begin her nursing training. As an air raid warden, grandfather did not see his sons until they returned to London, when the Ministry of …declared it safe to return.

The government order to “evacuate forthwith” was issued on the 31st August 1939. From September 1st 1.5 million evacuees were sent to the country, as the evacuation of cities began. The evacuation plan was aimed predominantly at children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers, disabled people, and sometimes ‘helpers’, which often meant teachers. Despite long-term planning there were errors, causing disruption in many communities. Rural areas who were expecting evacuees often found that those who were arrived were not who they expected, having been told several different things about the new arrivals, and it was not unknown for upper and middle class families to make their own alternative arrangements securing the most favourable billets, reducing suitable options and adding to the confusion.

Some areas received many more people than others and population changes in small rural villages became a real issue as local men and women left home to serve the war effort. Communities in East Anglia received large numbers from London and the surrounding area, and as the blitz rained down from September 1940, the population of the capital is thought to have decreased by 25%.

Evacuees who were from the same area did not always end up in the same location, meaning that immense stress and anxiety was rife. Thousands of families were faced challenging times. My family were by no means alone.

Subject to heavy bombing, and with increasing fear of civilian deaths as the war escalated London seemed unsafe and an unknown rural location far safer. Dutifully, labelled, and with the mandatory items, designated by the government, my uncles and mother joined the other children for transport to their unknown destination.

Enjoy the country, the hundreds of children were told, be brave and it won’t be long, don’t cry, were among the messages the thousands of evacuees heard as they left their familiar lives for their new adventure.

Clear identification, a gas mask, change of underwear, night clothes, plimsolls or slippers, toiletries, a warm hat and coat, all were to be included in a small bag or suitcase. We have no photographs of the farewell in our family, no records of this life changing event either, only the stories, the reminiscences, the nostalgia for the good parts of their experiences, and the clear wish to forget the pain, for there was much pain for the children and the adults, and the teenager who was my mother.

They arrived from Shoreditch to Burnham Market, by train, so I was told and were first billeted in Back Street, their host family were described as gruff, but kind. There was insufficient food, and the house was very cold, with an outside toilet, and very occasional baths in front of a cold fire. The children’s rations, were used to supplement the meagre family diet, with priority for the “man of the house”, and the two growing boys were always hungry. And, they were bored, it was dark, very dark compared to the city; there was little to do, little to play with, and they were often getting into trouble, making too much noise, or getting too dirty, playing out late, instead of reading quietly. Their school work suffered rapidly.

Chilblains and poor circulation made life a misery for my mother, she could never get warm often crying with cold and acutely painful hands and feet, when they did warm up. She was expected to help in the local school and undertake an array of chores in the now overcrowded house. The family were lonely, hungry and cold. Letters were allowed, but checked, and it was not until a visit from grandma, followed by “official” visits, the children were moved and billeted in Burnham Overy.

Laughter, and a big welcome is what stayed with them from that time on. Still often hungry, but wanted, and usually warm, my eldest uncle used to recall the times at Burnham Overy as an enormous improvement, my grandmother could stay with the children whenever she could be spared from the family business, and as time moved on my mother moved away.  The boys adjusted, they missed the east end, and other family members, but enjoyed the freedoms and beauty of the Staithe and the Harbour, and they did not always seem to be in trouble.

I wish I knew how many years they spent there, certainly it was for the duration of the war, and until the east end was declared safe and it was in Norfolk, they transitioned from children to boys, growing up in two very different environments, with changed customs and traditions, contrasting ways of life, returning to become hard working young men, to a capital city which needed to be rebuilt in the late 1940’s and 50’s.

Sadly, our family did not record or write up their memories, we have their stories though; and one they loved to recall, a visit which stood out from the rest, the day my grandmother introduced her sons to a babe in arms, only for them to find he was their new baby brother, the youngest addition to the family, remembering how, in their minds she was far too old, and they had too much to show and tell her, to take much notice of him anyway.  But the good thing was, she and the baby stayed and the family returned together.

What must they have thought and felt, firstly leaving their families and then the villages, land, sea and shore of the Burnham’s they had become accustomed to?  Leaving fields and gardens, a small village school, a safe environment and the open air, drawing water from a handpump, to return home to a water pipe in the street, witnessing first-hand the bomb sites of Shoreditch, walking past bombed homes, air raid shelters, and into the busy markets of east London. Their lives were changed yet again.

Many evacuees were traumatised by their experiences, both in this country and abroad, my family certainly had mixed memories, of hunger, loss and pain, but also of great adventures and eventually growing up with adult warmth and kindness.

The stories they told, the events they remember, in time became fond memories, they liked to come back, to re visit, and I guess pay tribute to the experiences they shared and the people they met, and it is that affection that stayed with me and I think it is that part of my history which brought me here.

But, there must be many others with a similar tale?

Christine Farley