An Evacuee`s Tale,  True Story.

By Maisie Walker

I was born in Dagenham in 1930.  My family had moved there after the general strike in hopes of finding work.  To say that we were poor would be putting it mildly.  I developed bronchial pneumonia at the age of six months which in turn affected my eyesight and because my parents were too poor to pay for doctors fees I was put in a Sisters of Mercy care home.  These Sisters of Mercy were not so merciful I have to say.  My mother was a Catholic but my father was Cof E and my mother let me go in good faith to this care home.  While in the care of this home I was mentally and physically abused by these so called Sisters of Mercy.

I can remember from the age of four having to scrub a floor, which I could not see properly because I had a patch over my good eye and was trying to see through one that was nearly blind, and being beaten across the back with a broom handle because I had missed some water that I had not wiped up.  Or being rapped across the head or whatever part of the body was closest to hand for no apparent reason.  I remember one day being behind a nun who was particularly vicious towards the children, she possessed a very nasty streak in her and unfortunately I was following her in through a very heavy door which she deliberately let go of just as I put my hand on the wall to help myself up the step.  The door swung to quickly and split my thumbnail in two.  I was told that if I cried I would be put in the broom cupboard all night.  My thumb was wrapped in a cloth which was sodden with blood in no time, the cloth was changed the next morning but I had to make do all day until the evening to have it changed.  That thumbnail has never grown properly because it splits in two as soon as it gets to a decent length.  I have also been locked in a broom cupboard for four hours at a time for some minor misdemeanour.  So many cruelties dealt out for no reason at all.  All under the cloak of religion.

I never got to know my family of two older brothers and an elder sister until I was let out of the home on a weekly basis from the age of six.  I was finally sent home in 1937 in time for the Jubilee celebrations.  My family had moved back to London in 1932 from where they originated from to 218 Neate Street in Camberwell.  I recall having a flag put in my hand to wave about and the good old "knees up" as the Londoners called it.  I began school at Coburg Road with one eye still covered up to try and make the bad one work.  I had to wear a patch over one eye ever since I started to crawl because of the eye trouble that the illness left me with.  It had made me very unhappy because of the names that the children called me, such as Popeye or Nelson and it made me very aggressive in my character.  I silently vowed that I would never hurt anyone like that when I grew up.

During the beginning of 1939 I was hearing talk of a nasty man called Adolf Hitler.  It was snatches of conversation that I heard when the grown-ups were talking together and I had been told to go and play in the passage  [ a long narrow hallway in the house ].  Then, children were being sent away from their parents to safety areas, whatever they were.  It seemed very strange to me that as soon as I got to know someone as a friend they were sent off to the country.  Houses were being issued with funny corrugated shapes that were called Anderson air-raid shelters that had to be put in a hole that was dug out in the back garden, if you had one.

Gasmasks were issued and everyone had an identity card.  We had practised at school with our gasmasks for ten minutes every day and were told if the air-raid siren went off to get under our desks.

September 3rd 1939 was a lovely sunny Sunday morning and to me there seemed to be a hush over everything.  At 11pm it came over the relay wireless that Mr Chamberlain had said we were now in a state of war with Germany.  I can still hear my mothers anguished voice saying  " Oh sweet mother of mercy!  My boys, my boys."

The hush from outside suddenly became a cacophony of voices.  All the neighbours gathered on their doorsteps talking about what would happen if old Hitler got to England.  I felt terrified in case I was sent back to the Sisters of Mercy home.  I was relieved when my mother said that Hitler or no Hitler she was still going hop-picking the next day and taking her kids with her.  It was a well known thing for Londoners to go for about three weeks hop-picking every year.  They classed it as a working holiday that got them away from the London smog and they could see a bit of green countryside.  It was during the third week that we were there when a German plane got through our defences  [ such as they were]  he spotted us working and decided to use us as target practise.  We all dived into the hopvines for cover and thank God there were no casualties because one of our fighters came along and shot the Jerry down.  We were all excited when we saw him bail out of his plane because it was on fire and come floating down in to the adjoining field.   Everyone left what they were doing and ran to the next field armed with whatever they could find to clobber the pilot with.  He was still extricating himself out of his parachute so he had no chance to run anywhere.

It was a phoney war up until the June 1940.  Everything was still going on as usual apart from railings and various other things like old pots and pans being given up for the war effort.  We still had to take our gasmasks every where we went but up to that time it was like the sword of Damocles waiting to strike.  Posters were put up saying "Careless talk cost lives".  There was the blackout to contend with and things were beginning to get in short supply.

It was after Dunkirk when the bombing started and it got steadily worse as the days turned into months.  It was a nightly ritual to get the flask of tea, blankets, candle and sandwiches ready to take down the Anderson which incidentally was always swimming in six inches of water.  We could tell by the sound of the engines of the planes whether they were friend or foe.  It was a living nightmare to go through the continual bombing night after night.  My mother was continually praying with her rosary in her hands.  When we emerged each morning still alive it was a miracle.  It was better still if we could have a cup of tea and a wash to take the grime out of our eyes from continual dust and smoke of the fires and buildings that had collapsed.

One night stands out in my memory so vividly that I can still hear the screaming bombs and the Anderson rattling as the bombs reigned down on us.  It was the night that hundreds of German bombers droned over dropping bombs to set all the docks afire.  To say it was horrific would be putting it mildly.  The scene that met us the next morning when we finally saw the light of day was horrendous.  We felt as though we were standing in the middle of Hell.  Fires were raging all round us and I could see bodies smouldering among the rubble of houses.  The top part of our house had been completely demolished and yet my mothers beautiful ebony piano was still intact under the blankets that she had covered over it.   Even at the tender age of 10 years I wondered why the God, that my mother was always praying to, had taken our neighbours lives but left a piano.  Believe it or not, to have a piano in those days was a status symbol.  Similar to a Rolls Royce car in the drive today.  That night has been etched in my mind ever since.  If it had not been for our heroic R.A.F we would not be here today to tell the tale.

We spent most of our time down the shelter after that.  There was a public house across the road from us named the Hop-pole and the piano found shelter down in the cellar until we found a safe place for it.  It was well used by any who were partaking of the dregs from the beer barrels when raids were on.  Especially singing songs relating to what they would do to Hitler.

Christmas 1940 was a stark time.  One that I would never want my children to have to suffer.  Just after Christmas the Germans came back to give us another pounding.  My mother was by this time fed up with trying to keep what bits we had left, together, and we moved to number 168 further along the street that had a factory built nearby.  We started using the factory cellar to stay in during the night raids.  This house too was bombed so we were once again with no home.  In the February 1941 my mother decided to go to the authorities to see if she could be evacuated with her children.  My eldest brother was already in the airforce.  He was called up as soon as the war started.  My sister was too old at 17 to be evacuated so she stopped with my dad but my other brother who was 14 years old and my mother and myself were told to be at the school by a certain time to board the bus.

We arrived at the appointed school with our gasmasks and tickets tied to our coats.  Even the mothers had a ticket pinned to them.  After a nightmare journey through London in a bus during a daylight raid we got to the station.  We were then herded on to it like cattle by a bossy woman who kept shoving us into line.  I was rather worried about this because my mother had a very short fuse and I was edgy in case she shoved the woman back.  I was relieved, apprehensive and excited when we finally pulled out of the station heading for an unknown destination.

We had been on the train for about half-an-hour when a Jerry plane spotted us and used us as target practise.  Once again we came under machine gun bullets.  It was a work of art for all of us to try and get down on the floor of the train because it was packed out with evacuees.  With luck we were coming up to a long tunnel and the train pulled to a halt to give the Jerry time to scarper.  As we pulled out again we could see that a Spitfire come to our rescue and let the Jerry have full blast of his machine guns which resulted in the Jerry plane spiralling down to earth taking the pilot with it.  The vociferous cheer that shook the train gave vent to all our fears.  We arrived in Loughborough in the Midlands at 7-30 in the evening.  We all had to walk to the Y.W.C.A. in the blackout but fortunately the moon was shining that night and it helped us to fumble our way through strange territory in the blackout.  When we got to the Y.W.C.A. we were given a potted meat sandwich that was curled up at the edges and a black cup of tea but to us it with being so hungry, dirty and tired it was like a four course meal.  I can recall someone saying that he was so hungry he could eat a " horse between two bread carts".  I have never forgotten the giggle that went round our tired war weary group at that remark.

We then had to go round with an official knocking on doors to see if anyone could accommodate us.  This to me was downright degrading.  We were told that everything was organised but I would have said that it was organised chaos.  My mother and myself finally got taken in by a lovely couple from Liverpool and my brother was taken in very reluctantly by a person round the corner.  When we walked in to Dolly and Peter Pendegasts house it was warm and cosy and Mrs Pendegast said that she would run a bath for us.  I thought that I was in heaven because as I walked into the bathroom it was all white tiles and a lovely big bath to sit and wallow in.  What a contrast to our old tin bath that used to hang on a rusty six inch nail, before the war, that was hammered in to the scullery wall.  This was brought in every Friday night for a bath in front of the fire, God help you if you were the last one to get in the bath, you finished up muckier getting out than when you first stepped in.  The Pendegast's bathroom was the height of luxury to me.  I forgot how hungry I was while day dreaming in that bath.

My mother and I settled in with Mr and Mrs Pendegast and my mother handed over her ration books so that the combined rations would go a bit further.  On the first Saturday that we were there the butcher walked in handing over the meat and saying to my mother  " Aay oop meduck ayer mashed?"  Oh dear!  that was like a red rag to a bull.  My mother promptly threw the meat back at him which smacked him in the eye saying " You cheeky git!  I have never been with another man in my life.  How dare you?" Mrs Pendegast heard the commotion and came running in to find what the ruckus was all about.  The poor butcher said " I only asked if she had mashed"  My mother was all worked up ready to clobber him when Mrs Pendegast explained that he was only asking if a cup of tea was made.  My mother told him that he should talk "bleeding English" because a masher where she came from was someone who fornicated with someone's spouse.  A typical case of the English language gone mad.  The butcher and my mother became good friends after that incident.  Peter Pendegast became a high up official for the Hosiery Union.  If I am correct I think that he lost a leg at Dunkirk.

I was still wearing the dreaded eye patch and my mother asked Mrs Pendegast if she knew of an optician because I had not had an eye check up since before the bombing started.  Mrs Pendegast suggested going to Ingrams in the Market Place.  I was by this time coming up to puberty and beginning to feel self conscious about my eye being covered up.  I was dreading going to the optician because I was so afraid that I would still have to carry on wearing the blooming patch.  I was sitting on pins as he took the patch off my good eye and gave me a series of tests to find out if everything was in focus.  He then said that I should dispose of the eye patch and start using my good eye to make it stronger after having it covered up for so long.  I could have hugged him to death for granting my one and only wish.  From then on he was my knight in shining armour.  I went to him for all my eye checks after that and he very often used to stop and have a word with me when I met him out when shopping.  Later in life he became a J.P.  I never looked back after that and got through my teens without spectacles most of the time and Thank God no eyepatch.

We had to leave the Pendegasts after about five weeks because the German bombers had moved further afield and started to bomb Liverpool and their own family needed sanctuary.  We left to go to another billet which was about two miles from the school that I had to go to.  John my brother came with us but I always felt uneasy when the man of the house was about.  I mentioned this to John and I can still hear him saying  " If he touches you I'll bash his brains in".  That statement,  albeit crude, made me feel safer.  John must have told my mother because she came back to the billet one day with a key for a little cottage in Stone Yard that was a part of Churchgate.  We were thrilled to bits to know that we would have our own front door.  My mother was getting known round Loughborough because she liked a glass of ale and always finished up in the Nelson.  She had a great singing voice and, before she fell pregnant with my eldest brother, was on the music halls.  Anyway she got known for her voice and was asked by many of the local business people to give her rendering of their favourite songs.  She often used to be pie-eyed when she got home with all the ale they bought her.  I think that this is how she got the key for the cottage.  The cottage had dark green walls and was quite tiny but we were not worried it was ours as long as the rent was paid.  My mother went to Armstrong's the auctioneers and bought a second hand table that used to spin round on the top.  If you wanted salt to put on your meagre dinner you very often finished up with someone else's meal.  She also paid a few shillings for a double bed that had a mesh spring but no mattress.  All three of us used to lie on that bed with coats over us.  We did not mind because we were all together and it was better than an air-raid shelter.  My mother also bought a couple of chairs and a few orange boxes to put our bits in which were then covered with a faded curtain to make it look more homely.  It has to be remembered that new furniture was unobtainable unless you were getting married, even then you had to have dockets for it.   Two sugar sacks were dyed yellow for curtains which were put up with two large nails each side of the window and string threaded through a hem that my mother had stitched on them.  I must point out here that sugar in those days was delivered in large sack bags that held a hundredweight.  It was then scooped into small blue paper bags for each customer.  There was also a pegged rug on the stone floor.  Whoopee we had a home??????  I almost forgot to mention that before we moved in to that cottage my mother fumigated it, she had very set ideas of cleanliness and this was to get rid of any bugs that rested behind the skirting boards or behind old wall paper.  God help anyone if they had bugs.  She also used to rub paraffin on my head to keep lice away.  It kept everyone away never mind the ruddy lice.  The good old days!!!!!!!!

My mother had got a job at the main Post Office and John had started work at Herbert Morris the big engineering firm.  A dis-used chapel was set aside for the London evacuees in King Street which was to house about 250 children and three teachers one of whom was nearly blind.  She had been brought out of retirement to teach the infants.  This she could manage with the help of two senior girls.  To say that it was crowded would be an understatement but we managed and I even passed my 11+ to go to Rawlins Grammar School but my parents had neither the money or the coupons for the uniform.

The Londoners were looked upon as foreigners because we had come from another part of the country.  We were blamed for T.B. nits, scabies and anything else that was going round.  It took some time for the barriers to come down between the Southerners and the Midlanders.  Once they got to know each other some firm friendships were formed as well as marriages.

My mother got a key for another house in South Street after six months of the cottage and by this time we had managed to get a bit more furniture.  My father came to stay for a while and believe it or not he brought with him the piano that had been in the pub cellar.  I still think to this day that my mother was more pleased to see the piano than she was my dad.  It was 1943 by this time and a rumour had been going round that the yanks were coming.  They came alright and Loughborough had never been so alive.  They even found out about my mother and started to look for Ma Johnson as they called her because she would sing all their favourite songs.  I could not believe how they seemed to revere my mother until one day I heard one say  "Lets go and find Ma Johnson,  have you ever heard her sing ' Danny Boy ' Toby?"  Toby said  " I guess I haven't,  is she good"  "She's great and did you know her first name is Amy"?  It suddenly dawned on me that the yanks thought my mother was a relation to the famous pilot Amy Johnson who had lost her life over the Thames Estuary while ferrying planes back and forth to help our pilots.  Crazy but perfectly true.  My mother used to invite one or two yanks home for supper if she could get twopennorth of bones to make bone broth with.  They loved her because she was like a mother to them.  They were someone's son, husband, brother or father in a strange country and my mother was trying to make up for the absence of her first born who was fighting the Japs in Burma.   I can remember just before they were shipped out for the big push their band came to Queens Park and started to play.  A lot of people had turned up thinking that it would be a brass band but even the diehards got " in the mood " when the band started swinging it.  It was brilliant because they were playing Glen Millers music and when they played music that could be jitterbugged to the yanks who were not in the band grabbed any young girl who was watching and proceeded to jitterbug them all round the bandstand.  What a wonderful memory I have of that day.  Sadly they started moving out and we all knew why.

It was during this time that my mother took in two German Jews who had fled from Germany.  They had been cruelly treated and raped by the German officers and managed to escape by dyeing their hair blonde.  I have no idea how my mother came by this brother and sister I only know that she de-loused them and kept them for about a month until the authorities found them a safe haven.  Yvetta--pronounced Yetta-- and Karl both died of T.B. within two years of each other.  Just after Yvetta and Karl went my mother had the offer of moving into number 3 South Street which she jumped at because it was bigger.  It had three bedrooms instead of two and we were not so cramped.  My mother was quite pleased because she said that it would house her piano better.  The comical bit about her and her piano was that she could not play the darn thing.

1944 the 6th of June was when the invasion started and just after that the V rockets started over London.  My auntie who lived in London was in hospital and seriously ill so my mother arranged for her and myself to go to visit aunt Mary.  I was not very happy about this because I had an aversion to hospital smells and always used to pass out.  My mother said that I could go to the nearest picture house and then come to the hospital ready to make our way back to Loughborough.  We duly arrived at St Pancras Station and made our way to the hospital.  After I found what ward my aunt was in I made my way to the nearest cinema.  Meanwhile the V rockets had started to come over but they seemed to be moving further over London and not in the spot where I was making for.  I spotted the roof of the cinema at exactly the same time as a V rocket came over and as it cut out I knew that the cinema was going to be the target.  I shot into doorway and covered my head with my coat.  The explosion lifted me off my feet but I was not hurt in any way excepting for shock.  Was that bloke called God, who my mother always called upon during the blitz, looking after me.  I had a narrow escape by not being in the cinema at that time.  I do not know how many people lost their lives in that cinema that fateful day.
I made my way back to the hospital where they treated me for shock.
I was thankful to see Loughborough again when we got home.

Three weeks after this incident the evacuees started coming from London to escape the V rockets and my mother took in three brothers who did not want to be parted from each other.  They took to us straight away because we spoke like them.  They stopped with us for about six months.

The end of this bloody war was getting nearer and the undercurrent of excitement that everyone felt was a feeling that had no words to describe it.  When it finally came the celebrations went on for days.  When the ban on the blackout was lifted it was wonderful to be able to see at night where you were going and lights were turned on just for the sheer pleasure of lighting up the streets.  I feel honoured to have lived through the second world war and if any one was to ask me if I would rather be a youngster today I would answer very emphatically "definitely not".

I have in this short tale skipped over the first 15 years of my life.  I still have many many tales, sad and comical, that I have not mentioned during that time.  I am now in the throes of writing my life story, which my family can do with as they wish, once I have left the world behind.

My family moved back to London in 1947 after waiting two years for the London County Council to allocate them a house.

I met my future husband who came from Shepshed in 1945 and we married in 1949.

(C) 2003, Maisie Walker. (C/O G0LCU).

RIYAN Productions