Old Uffingtonians Association (1994)

   Willesden County Grammar School                         Ex-Pupils 1924-1967                    


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J. 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 left them.

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 gratitude.

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.