Chapter 2

The Evacuation

The government had divided the country into three zones - called evacuation, reception and neutral. Portsmouth was designated as an evacuation (or danger) zone because the city, with its Royal Naval Dockyard and position on the south coast, was an obvious target. The main danger to civilians in Portsmouth was bombing, but some towns and even villages on the coast were more at risk from invasion than bombing. All, of course, feared gas attack.

On the day war was declared, Sunday 3rd September 1939, the Portsmouth Evening News printed a special edition of their newspaper (it was normally only a weekday paper). They listed the various Portsmouth schools and to where they had been evacuated. The headline read, 'WHERE THEY ARE', and went on to give the town or village. The evacuation of 30,000 children from Portsmouth was described by the newspaper as 'a marvel of organization', and so it was at the sending end. We had rehearsed the whole thing at school; marching along the road in orderly fashion, singing "Ten Green Bottles" and other songs, to board lines of buses which transported us to Clarence Pier at Southsea. There we dismounted and walked to the ferry terminal for the Isle of Wight; it already had been decided by the city's officials that Meon Road school infants and seniors would be evacuated there, together with some 6000 other children from Portsmouth. No boats were waiting to receive us, not on the rehearsal day, so we did the whole thing in reverse and returned to school on a bus.

 Evacuation rehearsalPhoto courtesy of The News, Portsmouth
Evacuation rehearsal - the young lady with the policeman's hand on her shoulder is now the author's wife

Other schools did the same sort of practice, but to railway stations instead, destined for other "safe" areas in Hampshire and the surrounding counties. Even children who were not being evacuated, (it was voluntary, remember), or those going to stay with relatives living in safe areas, were included in these rehearsals. Some of the pictures appearing in newspapers of departing evacuee children were of these practice runs and not the real evacuation, which may explain why they looked so happy in the photographs. There were not very many smiles on the proper evacuation day, I can assure you.

On return to our school classroom there was much nodding of heads amongst teachers and helpers, together with shaking of time-pieces near ears and the filling in of forms. It was very clever of the authorities to select schools and their staffs to do all this, because it was mostly school children involved. Mothers with children under five were included in this rehearsal also.

"It's good fun evacceration, innit Brenda?" "That's not real - we was pretending." "It's still good fun pretendin' though -I like it."

Lessons on why we mustn't cry and how to wave goodbye - clean hanky please - were seriously taught to us. "Think of it as going on holiday" must have been one of the first pieces of propaganda of the war, but as Brenda and I had never been away on holiday this was hard to imagine. The handkerchief waving was easier to understand, and I was so enthusiastic about waving on the actual evacuation day that I lost my hanky. Watching it float down from the deck of the ferry, to the sea far below, seemed more serious to me than the outbreak of war at the time.

The Solent, that small stretch of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland, had to be labouriously crossed by a lumbering paddle steamer, taking almost an hour, longer if the sea was rough, and seasickingly longer if she pitched and rolled in a force five. Her great engines, powered by steam from the coal-fired boiler, slowly turned the two large paddles, thrashing and churning a watery roadway of bubbles in their wake. What a thrill, and how very different from the little paddle boats we had seen on the boating lake at Southsea in the summer months just gone. When we arrived at Ryde Pier, Brenda and I were no more than six miles from our home in Portsmouth, as the seagull flies, but we may as well have been a hundred miles away.

At the reception end, things weren't quite so well organised. It was true they had not been told how many children were coming, what time they would arrive, their ages, how many mothers were coming (who were allowed to be evacuated also if their children were under five years of age), and many other things. In fact it was so chaotic that an immediate thinning out was achieved at the reception end, by several mothers and their toddlers or babies simply catching a return train and ferry back home to Portsmouth. Children were given a stamped and addressed postcard, before leaving Portsmouth, to send home to their parents when their new address was known. As the Evening News said later, referring to these postcards, 'Between the lot of them they wrote the first human document of the war'. The postcards, crumpled and tear-stained, which arrived through parents' letter-boxes, show that they probably did. I was not given a postcard because it was assumed that a five and a bit small boy would not be parted from his sister, so her card would suffice for the two of us. It didn't turn out quite like that - as you will see.

After the ferry crossing to the Isle of Wight, we boarded a train at Ryde pier-head. Children, helpers, teachers and a few mothers with their under-fives were then dropped off at each railway station between Ryde and Newport. Other schools travelled by train or bus to other parts of the Island, but all the children from the same school were kept together. This meant that generally the small schools went to smaller towns or villages and the larger, or senior schools, went to the larger towns on the Island. It had been carefully and sensibly thought out at the sending end, our Meon Road Big Girls going to the Island's capital, Newport, and us infants to the much smaller village of Wootton, which was midway between Ryde and Newport.

"Wootton Bridge, Wootton Bridge. Meon Road school, everybody off - Meon Road school," somebody shouted, "hurry up now, don't forget your cases and gas-masks, hurry along."

"Wake up Georgie, we're here." "Where?"
"This place where we're getting off." "Where's that?"
"Wooden bridge - I think."
"Oh, I thought we were home."

Billeting Officers had been appointed for the reception centres, whose sole job was to find accommodation for the evacuees. This must have been the most difficult of all the many official duties associated with the evacuation. The other Reception Officers all had their responsibilities but only the Billeting Officer, at the end of the day, had to put all the planning into practice and place the evacuees with foster parents.

Evacuees from Portsmouth arriving at Wootton 1st September 1939Photo courtesy of The News, Portsmouth
Evacuees from Portsmouth arriving at Wootton 1st September 1939.
Brenda appears far left, and so does the authors arm!

Our reception centre was the Wootton village school, situated in New Road. Here we were herded together for the final humiliation - to be paraded round like cattle in an auction. The "buyers" were would-be foster parents, many of whom would be reluctant to take on these strange speaking, somewhat dirty and unkempt, evacuees from over the water. On top of all this we were hungry, thirsty and bursting for the toilet. Those boys who couldn't wait did it now in corners of the school playground. I'm not too sure what the girls did but doubtless they were led to the rows of school toilets which were no more than a few yards away.

A paper carrier bag was given to all the evacuees, containing a tin of condensed milk and two tins of something else; there was also a bar of chocolate. We couldn't do much with the tins but the chocolate was too much of a temptation, having only had two small biscuits and a glass of lemon squash since we left Portsmouth early that morning. Many of the children were not chosen immediately. Strong looking lads had no problem as they are always useful in a farming community. Likewise, older girls were soon found a home because they would be helpful around the house. But small boys - well, there simply wasn't much demand for them. My sister was snapped up by a Mrs. Gallop; a name easily remembered by me because I always have this picture in my mind of a horsey woman swooping down with a whinney and a clatter of hooves, snatching my sister from me and galloping off into the sunset.

"Won't you take the boy as well Mrs. Gallop? He'd be much happier with his sister." "Sorry, I can't do it."

I was to hear this expression often. "I can't do it," was a frequent response from her, although what it meant I never was quite sure. Usually her voice took on a distinctive whine, and was accompanied by a solemn shaking of her head - especially if it involved a request for money.

The sad bunch of left-overs, the unchosen and unwanted few, including me, were finally trudged around the village from door to door.

Small suit cases and bags became much heavier than they were before and cardboard boxed gas masks hung like lead around the neck and shoulders. Adult helpers helped where they could and smiled cheerfully through strained and worried faces; they must have been tired too. To make matters worse it started to rain, causing the tins of food to fall from sodden carrier bags, often rolling several yards along the pavement before they were retrieved. We would have laughed yesterday -but it didn't seem funny today.

The walk took us from the school and along New Road to join the main road which ran through the village. Brenda walked a short way with me, until she reached the gate of her new home which was in New Road. She pretended not to cry, but her face was wet as she waved goodbye, saying it wouldn't be long before we would be together again. But big boys don't cry do they? They just ache inside.

We turned right, into the main road and walked up the long hill, knocking on doors and waiting. Some of us were taken in - the desperate Billeting Officers appealing, persuading and at times almost threatening the reluctant villagers to take "just one". We continued up this steep hill and turned left at the crossroads into Station Road. Mostly we waited outside the front gates of houses whilst one or two children accompanied the Officer to the front doors; the waiting seemed endless and I wished I could be chosen to take that walk to the next front door. If I was not the last, I was certainly one of the last to be taken in. The house was close to St. Mark's church in Station Road, where a large lady called Mrs . Wilson, arms folded across her ample bosom scowled down at me. After trying every argument, which by now the Billeting Officer had all the answers to, she agreed to take me in, on the strict understanding that it was temporary, very temporary.

"Thank you very much Mrs. Wilson and good day; you won't regret it," lied the official as he raised his hat in farewell.

And so, my first foster home, or "billet" as it was officially called, was with a Mrs. Wilson and family. She looked old, then everyone over thirty years looked old to me, but as she had grandchildren and had grey hair and was fat - she must have been old. She had a short temper, but not as short as Mr. Wilson's, and positively sweet compared to that of her father, a wizened old man who mumbled discontent for the whole of his waking hours. Also living at home was a very spoilt daughter of about eighteen years of age called Mavis, who sulkily mooned around the house waiting for her betrothed - a lusty Naval Petty Officer -to come home on leave. He did this often it seemed, being based at Portsmouth and doing much more kissing than killing at this stage of the war. Mavis disliked me intensely but she seemed to dislike everybody - except her Petty Officer.

There was no room for me in the house, it was as simple as that. When it came to sleeping I couldn't stay in Mr. and Mrs. W's bedroom and Mavis wasn't going to be lumbered with a small boy in hers. The dog slept on the couch downstairs, which only left grandad's bedroom, so that's where I ended up. Firstly in his bed with him, then relegated to the bedroom floor on some sort of mattress when he said I kicked and moved about too much in bed. His loud snoring kept me awake where ever I slept in his bedroom and this disturbed me a lot. Things deteriorated over the next few weeks. Mrs. Wilson wouldn't let my sister Brenda into the house, even though she walked home with me from school every evening. At weekends she came to see me and took me for walks and to Sunday school, but always had to leave me at the garden gate. It was the lonliest feeling in the whole world to me, watching as she walked away waving until she disappeared from sight. I couldn't have lived much further away from her if they had tried, we were at opposite ends of the village. After losing a father and with my mother living miles and miles away, I now had only half a sister. It just wasn't fair, I thought.

My sister Brenda's first letter home to mother in September 1939 My sister Brenda's first letter home to mother in September 1939

Mrs. Wilson grew angrier by the day. Temporary to her meant a night or two, so as this drifted into weeks she started to make things very awkward for me. She was never cruel to me physically but the mental torture was just as bad. I was almost ignored, being sent out to play in the garden or told to sit quietly with a book. Any noise was criticised and the family stepped over me with a "tutting" sound, Mavis always managing an exaggerated trip as well. Every other mouthful of food was accompanied with comments about how grateful I should be, or how many brave men had died bringing it to our table. As this food consisted mostly of bread and jam, I couldn't see any real risk involved in collecting bread from the baker or the manufacture of home-made jam. Messages to Billeting Officers were ignored, or more likely these overworked officials had resigned. Finally, she told me that if I had not been moved by Friday of that week, then she would "throw me out". I had visions of being ejected from the door, as in the cowboy films I had seen, and sent sprawling on the ground - with my belongings thrown after me.

It was never quite like that, but true to her word Mrs. Wilson packed all my things in a small suitcase and bundled my dirty clothes up in a towel. She told me to call back from school at lunchtime and take everything to where my sister was living. Mrs. Gallop had not been told any of this of course, but it never even entered my head that she would not take me in. A scruffy booklet promising an extra eight shillings and sixpence per week, the allowance given for evacuees, was thrust in my jacket pocket to give to her. This would be Mrs. Gallop's inducement and reward for me being plonked on her doorstep.

I could be one of the youngest lodgers ever to be thrown out of their digs, being just under five and a half years of age when I was sent walking down the road on that grey Friday in October 1939. I was loaded like some undersized donkey, carrying a small suitcase in one hand and a bundle of clothes over my shoulders; in addition to this I had my gas-mask hanging around my neck on a cord, swinging and bumping in unison to my hurried footsteps. I walked the mile or so through the village, my load was heavy but my heart felt light. I had to pretend it was easy, walking several yards briskly, then stopping to change over my baggage to the opposite side. I took this opportunity to rest for a moment, looking up to the sky at imaginary birds, or pretending to admire the trees and their changing autumn colours. I felt embarrassed and slightly ashamed of my situation and the last thing I wanted was for people to notice me. Faces peered from behind twitching curtains, then returned to cosy hearths.

Halfway down the steep hill of Wootton High Street, its incline now actually helping my progress, I saw two familiar figures walking in front of me. They were teachers from my school, Miss Draper my own infant teacher and Miss Pilchard from the juniors; my embarrassment was now complete. Luckily they were some way ahead of me and in deep conversation, so if I could only keep a respectful distance behind them there was still a chance of not being seen. My "resting" periods therefore became longer and longer as I hung back to avoid detection, but my dinner break was being eroded away as the teachers strolled slowly down the hill in front of me, as if they had all the time in the world. Eventually I was able to evade them by turning into Red Road, entering Mrs. Gallop's garden through her back gate in this road. I only had time to dump my load quickly and tell her that I had come to stay. Strains of "I can't do it nipper" followed me as I dashed out of her front gate into New Road and ran as fast as I could to get me to school before the start of lessons. Nobody need ever know I had moved house over my "dinner hour" and I had the whole weekend in front of me to sort out my new landlady. The important thing was that I would be back with my sister - and they had better not try to separate us again.

 A billboard poster to convince mothers to leave their children evacuated From 'Images of War', Marshall Cavendish
A billboard poster to convince mothers to leave their children evacuated

There was, however, just one more hurdle to clear. And at this I almost fell. Mrs. Gallop, (call me Aunty Annie), really didn't have room for me. She was a widow with a twelve-year old daughter called Jean, and also had my sister, a parrot, a dog, two cats, a canary and a goldfish living with her in the two rooms she allowed herself, sub-letting the rest of the house to help supplement her income. Her main lodgers, (there were other lodgers), were a young married couple with no children and she asked them if they would foster me, which would solve the problem of keeping my sister and me together. I didn't mind this too much -at least she was in the same house as me. So I stayed with the lodgers but was able to be with Brenda most of the time, apart from meals. At night we were together, sleeping in a small attic room at the top of the house.

I was soon dreading every moment spent with my new foster parents, but would have dreaded much more being parted from Brenda. So I kept secret what happened when I was with them, when we were alone in the house. Brenda noticed some marks on my body one night when I was undressing and asked me what they were. Eventually I told her that the lodger had done it, hitting me with his leather belt. She ran down the stairs, wide eyed and red faced, her lips closed tightly together in anger and told Aunty Annie what had happened. When she didn't believe her -probably her defence for not knowing how to handle the situation - Brenda stormed into the front room, which the lodgers occupied, and told them she was going to tell our mother, her teacher and everyone she knew. They said I was lying, but she knew I wasn't, and she wouldn't let me near them from that moment. They hadn't reckoned with my big sister.

True to her word, Brenda told everybody she saw. She added the village policeman, Sunday school teacher and district nurse to her list. Somebody had to take notice and very soon they did. A man called a "Child Cruelty Officer" called round, I remember his name was Mr. Fox and he made me take off my shirt to show him the marks, now fast fading, but some had broken the skin and still showed; also I may have added a few of my own for effect. He called the lodgers in for their explanation but he wasn't convinced. I was immediately removed from their "care" and went back to living with Aunty Annie and my sister. They left soon after that. I know they had children of their own in later years and I hope they treated them better than me. All I know is that I was terrified of them and will never forget what they did to me. I know we heard of other children who had similar experiences, or worse, but I never knew of any other evacuees at Wootton who were badly treated.

A Christmas letter from the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth to all Evacuees
A Christmas letter from the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth to all evacuees. (Except me)

We went back to Portsmouth for a few days at Christmas. It seemed ages since we had seen our house but all this had happened in the space of a few months. New Year 1940 saw most of the Portsmouth evacuees not return to Wootton Bridge, mothers preferring to keep their children at home rather than suffer the misery of being parted. Although Brenda and I returned to Wootton, there were fewer than half a dozen of the original fifty children to answer the register at school after the Christmas break. It was called a "phoney war" by everybody; the bombs, gas attacks and invasion had not materialised. There would be other evacuations later on in the war, but nothing like that mass evacuation of children during September 1939.

We came back to Wootton because it suited our mother. With us away, she could easily find work now so many men had been called up for the armed forces. She was delivering milk to the doorsteps of smart houses in the Southsea area, towing a large milk-float and being paid a regular wage which was more than she had ever dreamed of earning before the war. Once every six weeks she came to the Isle of Wight to see us for a week-end. I remember her visits well because it was the only times we were given egg and bacon for breakfast. She always brought us lots of nice things, like sweets and chocolate, and I was often chastised for asking for these things before kissing her, or even saying "Hello".


That first winter was one of the worst on record; the snow and ice lasted for weeks, but I never felt cold. The awful loneliness and fear I had felt during those first few weeks of the evacuation would never return while Brenda was with me. We did all the things children should do; we skated on the frozen mill-pond and ran through a wonderland of frosted trees, we saw cows as large as elephants and walked quickly past them as they breathed steam from flared and snorting nostrils. And we made friends with a robin, the colour of a Christmas card, who followed us as we walked with crunching footsteps around our garden. New friends replaced those who had returned to Portsmouth, and when spring came, nature's new cycle of life, with all its urgency, unfolded before our eyes.

Wootton Bridge, on the Isle of Wight, wasn't such a bad place after all.