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Jack McGrath - Evacuee
(Memories from the War Years)
|I lived in Willesden,
even in those days it was heavily industrialised and in fact had the
lowest proportion of green belt/open air land in the whole of London.
We were actually evacuated on Saturday 2nd September 1939. The day before
we declared war on Germany. Prior to evacuation we had had a couple of
‘dummy’ runs – all the pupils at my school who had elected for evacuation,
and their brothers & sisters brought their baggage to the school and
marched (the not inconsiderable way) to Willesden Junction Station. (Then
we had to march back!!)
At the time I was attending Willesden County School – a grammar school of
that time, & most evacuees went as organised groups with their schools. It
was the greatest single involvement of people that this country had known
up to that time.
Came the day when it was to be the real thing, war was quite inevitable
now, & we all congregated at the school at 9.30 in the morning. I was 13
years old at the time, but had with me four younger sisters aged 11, 9, 7
& 5 and a younger brother also aged 5. Doubtless some of the parents wept
a few tears, but for most of the children it was a time of high
excitement. Many of us, in those days of high unemployment & poverty, had
never been on a train, certainly not on holiday and here we were starting
off by train to “The Country”. That alone was enough to make it something
we could always remember. However, the enormous crocodiles wending their
way to the station were quite awesome – my 2 five year olds soon gave up
carrying their own bags & wanting themselves to be carried.
At the station, several other schools were already there. Three trains
came, were filled and departed. We got on the fourth. I imagine that at
that time the seniors in charge of the party knew where particular schools
were going, but we, the evacuees had not the remotest idea of where we
were bound. However we were not too concerned, especially when “rations”
were issued to each child – a carrier bag with an apple & orange,
biscuits, lemonade, fruit drops & (untold luxury) a half-pound bar of
chocolate. Yes, at this time were glad we were being evacuated.
After a journey much longer than it would take today – lots of stops and
starts – we reached our destination, Castle Station, Northampton shortly
after 2 o’clock. We disembarked & were at once loaded onto a fleet of
buses & taken to the far side of the town. Again disembarked & we were now
assembled in a school hall (Barry Road School), where chaos reigned. Local
Government Officers – the Billeting Officers – local ladies pressed into
service, our teachers (trying to mark registers & ensure that all their
children were present), the children milling about everywhere. Little
groups of children going out with the local ladies to prospective foster
parents. I had decided that our six had to be close together, although I
was prepared to go in two’s – the 11 year old & 5 year old girls, the 9 &
7 year old girls, my little brother & I.
At about 5 o’clock we were taken off by two ladies & visited a number of
houses – none of whom wanted two tired, bedraggled Londoners! Success at
last & we got the middle two fixed & several houses later the other two
girls. However nobody still wanted to take in the two boys. Roundabout 9
o’clock one lady took pity on us & said we could have her daughter’s bed
for the night – but her daughter was returning from holiday the following
day, so we would not be able to stay. About this time I did not feel quite
so glad that we were being evacuated!! She was a very kind lady – a bath,
some proper food (we’d only had that “ration” bag) & a lovely comfortable
bed & my brother & I cried each other to sleep.
The Billeting Officer came for us at 9.30 the next morning and back to
Barry Road School again. Better luck this time, a lady had asked for two
boys. So off we went and we were acceptable. There was no form of market
place picking, so we did not really feel we had been picked, however the
rejections of the previous day had been hurtful. Since ours was a grammar
school (mixed), there was an inference that we were the more able boys and
girls and by further inference that we were the ‘nicer’ ones and therefore
more acceptable. I have no recollection that any of my peer group had
strong feelings about being picked, for as I say, we were the ones most
sought after. Subsequently of course, it became apparent that mistakes of
placement – on both sides – had occurred fairly frequently.
The lady and gentleman, with whom my brother and I were first billeted,
were a delightful couple. She was a retired teacher, he the advertising
manager for a local shoe manufacturing company. They were childless and in
this regard we filled a need for them. Most of my class group had been
placed similarly in middle class and upper middle class families. So that
in physical terms we most certainly liked it, better food, better housing,
more personal attention (from 1 of 9 in poor circumstances, to 1 of 2 in
much better). In addition it was, weather-wise, a fantastical autumn,
rather like the one we have just had, so that we were able to spend time
in the local parks and countryside.
No provision had been made for our schooling, we were not integrated with
the local Grammar School. We had a separate existence within the premises
of the Boys Grammar School and only worked half a day each. This was of
course a dreadful arrangement, causing great resentment amongst the local
pupils (and their staff) and resulting in our own localised ‘wars’!
A few minutes after being taken in by our new ‘Aunty & Uncle’ on September
3rd, Mr. Chamberlain made his broadcast declaration “………that as a result a
state of war now exists with Germany”. Aunty burst into tears, I avowed
forever after that, that was what spoiled her Yorkshire puddings that day.
The very next thing she did (not me), was to write to my parents telling
them about the house in which we were now living, and that they would be
welcome to come and visit us at any time. Subsequently I was made to write
home once a week to let them know I was ok. By no means was this situation
unique, though I fear this reaction was in a considerable minority.
Especially in more rural areas many foster parents had taken in evacuees
purely for the income – I believe it was 7 shillings (35p) per week for
each child. Three of four children poorly looked after could make a
handsome profit, and it happened.
Yes, we liked it at Aunty & Uncle’s. However in February 1940 I contracted
Scarlet Fever and went into the Isolation Hospital. Aunty was back in
harness teaching so a fresh billet had to be found for our rising
6-year-old brother. When I came out of hospital, I too went to the new
billet. It was from my point of view, a disaster. The foster father was an
iron smelter at Corby Steel works, a big strong, bully of a man, who beat
his wife and son (nearly my age), and had taken to doing the same to my
young brother. We had to move and after two months were re-billeted.
The people we were now billeted with were very kind – but feckless. They
had two grown-up children and a boy of my age. Apart from feeding us very
well, they used to give me two packets of 10 Woodbines each week. We lived
quite literally just across the road from Abingdon Park and my brother and
I spent much of our time there.
In the spring of ’41 I was very ill with rheumatic fever. It was agreed my
young brother would return home, as he was still too young to be left on
his own with a family.
I went to spend a recuperative period with my first Aunty and Uncle and
stayed on with them when I was better. I then stayed with them until I had
completed my matriculation examinations in July 1942. We remained in
constant touch, by letter and by visits and staying with each until Uncle
died in 1961 and Aunty died in 1971.
My 11 & 5-year-old sisters (1939 ages) moved just once when their original
foster parents moved. They kept in touch with their new Aunty & Uncle in
the same way I had, until their deaths.
My 7 & 9-year-old sisters also moved once & it was a failure & they
returned home in 1942 also. They were subsequently evacuated to Todmorden
on the Yorks/Lancs border when the Germans started their V1 & V2 bombing
of London towards the end of the war. They were very happy there.
I never made any contact with my second & third foster parents after I
It was in every sense a traumatic experience for children of our age to be
uprooted from safe, secure & loving homes (even if very poor) &
transplanted to what was essentially a totally alien culture. Of course we
missed our parents, & more especially the closeness of our families &
neighbours in communities held close by hardship.
Mistakes were made in placing, it was a hit & miss system. And yes, there
was an element of cattle market selection in many places, so that many
evacuees returned home feeling disenchanted; & many foster parents felt
aggrieved at the coarseness of their evacuees – at their apparent lack of
On the other hand, & I can count myself in these, very many of us entered
a new world, had new horizons opened up for us. We developed a range of
social graces that had not been available before, as well as an
introduction to a wider range of people. As a result of these developments
we were shown that it was possible to progress from the depths that so
many people had been in during the early & mid 1930s. Many of us did, & it
paved the way to opening of doors of opportunity for those with ability &
determination that occurred in the post-war years & which still exists.