Keith Cook was evacuated to Harpenden in July 1940. He wrote this account for our archives in July 2001 (RB 89).
The outbreak of the Second World War brought just a few inconveniences to me – a nine-year-old lad. We had to abandon our holiday in Ilfracombe immediately and return by train to our home in Hastings, East Sussex, right on the South Coast. Anti-invasion girders and barbed wire were soon erected along our sea-front, and I watched our own cast-iron front gate and fence being cut-up with blow-torches, to be taken off to become some essential part of munitions; there is still a belief that this exercise was purely to boost morale, and that the scrap-metal piles reside on the sea-bed of a West Sussex seaside resort – apart from a few pieces which I buried in our garden as souvenirs and never did retrieve when we moved, years later!
For a time, attacks on London were considered by the authorities to be a greater danger than invasion of the South Coast, so our home participated in the scheme to ‘foster’ evacuees from the Capital. By July 1940, the Coast had become the danger-area, and it was our turn to arrive at school carrying our suitcases and escorted by parents trying to put on brave faces. What excitement to have a fleet of Maidstone and District buses lined-up in the quiet side street of our school, Clive Vale, Hastings.
No more air-raid drills in the ‘cloisters’ under our building; we were off for an exciting bus-ride. A few of our schoolmates were crying, but we scoffed at them as our buses travelled along side roads never before or since known to them. To the railway station! Buses turning, buses backing, ‘crocodiles’ of youngsters with bags and cases, the boys with their black-and-red school caps, and all with cardboard boxes containing gas-masks – the ever-present equivalent of today’s ‘walkman’, mobile phone, ghetto-blaster – that might one day become a life-saver.
Our train made its way towards London, pulling up occasionally, and we would peer out and wonder where we were. Destination unknown, I recall little of our route save that our steam train joined the route from Brighton. Perhaps we picked up other schools, too. Of our journey through or around London I know nothing. (In 1944, as my next school returned from its sojourn in Bedfordshire –‘re-vacuation’ it was called – I kept a log of our route, and what an epic voyage it was, taking, I believe, about ten or twelve hours for some of us. Today we can take a train to East Croydon, change to the Thameslink service, visit Harpenden and be home in time for our evening meal!)
Arrival in Harpenden
Our first clue to our destination was the large line-side notice, ‘St Dominic’s School’. I fancy that sign was still there in the early 1950s, when I used sometimes to travel on the Midland Main Line to Scotland.
From Harpenden Station we walked down the road to a hall where we were given refreshments by, presumably, the ladies of the WVS (no ‘R’ in those days!). We were then taken (was it in cars?) to our prospective billeters. My friend Roger Bohun and I were meant to have been billeted together, but the lady, Mrs Clutterbuck, in (9) Manland Avenue, could accept only one boy, and so Roger had his new home. My recollection was of a big house, standing tall in the dusk, but my ‘sentimental journey’ in 2001 revealed the ‘big house’ as the Observatory next door, at the road junction.
A little further down the Avenue and I was welcomed by Mr and Mrs (Stanley) Foster at No. 34. Wash, food, short letter home (yes, despite secrecy, we children were allowed to divulge our addresses!) and so to bed, weary and suddenly painfully aware that we really had said farewell to our homes and parents.
I have learned recently that my school colleague Brenda Stevens was billeted in a tall, three-storey house at ‘my’ end of Crossway (St Margaret’s, ed) and Joyce Hudson was at the opposite end of Crossway. Joyce tells me that they had to go through a little wood (would this be in Stewart Road?) on the way to school and that the LNER Stationmaster’s House was at the bottom of her billeter’s garden. She recalls an unexploded bomb that had been dropped beside this railway line, I wonder if this links up with a story about ‘machine-gunning’ which comes later? Another enemy aircraft was shot down and its pilot was stuck in a tree. People surrounded the tree until the police arrived. Not such a welcome visitor! Joyce also mentions that many Harpenden people worked in a hat factory in Luton.
Spies and war trophies
Mr Foster worked at Vauxhall Motors. There was an exciting air-battle in the Luton direction one day. We three stood in the front doorway, watching with great interest, and looking out for parachutists. Then someone thought it prudent for me to shelter under the staircase. Great disappointment! In those days, we always looked out for parachutists, in case one might not be a shot-down airman, but a SPY. Somehow, some woods over by Batford (Sauncey Wood, perhaps?) spring to mind as a likely landing-place for spies.
On a wooden fence, which I won’t locate, were painted the words ‘Fifth Column’: we had graffiti in those days, too, but this title was sinister, denoting disloyalty to King and Country and sympathies with the enemy. On my visit in 2001 there was no trace of these scrawlings, thankfully.
A large articulated lorry pulled up in the High Street one day, bearing a crashed German bomber, a Heinkel 111. Possibly similar stops were made elsewhere for propaganda purposes. There was an unpleasant fascination in seeing this evil machine at close quarters, and this doubtless encouraged more people to buy their Savings Bonds. Certainly we had a war-savings promotion lorry parked on the Church Green once, and we children were encouraged to visit it.
There was a speech by a dark-suited gentleman (said to be Lord Woolton, I think) and he encouraged us to learn and sing with him a ditty: “Saving, saving, saving to win the War: Whenever you think you’ve saved enough, get on and save some more” – to the tune of “Sailing, sailing”, not to be confused with the later song: “I am sailing”. Highbrow stuff! A recent visit to an air museum reminded me of the ‘squander-bug’ which was meant to discourage extravagances.
Isolation in The Sisters’ Hospital, St Albans …
Because of illnesses in infancy I was described as a ‘delicate’ child and consequently had two stays in hospital, both near St Albans. One was the Sisters’ Hospital, where I was taken into isolation for chickenpox, along with a friend. We seemed to be there for weeks, and the lunch was – invariably, apart from Christmas Day – watery minced meat, boiled potatoes and mushy cabbage, followed by rice pudding which, on one occasion, was so solid that when I dropped a plateful on my colleague’s bed (as you got better, you became a sort of ‘monitor’) he picked it up in one piece and re-dumped it on his plate. No wonder we took so long to get well, with such a diet. In fact, one very kind nurse, helping me to bath and seeing the state that I and my pyjamas were in, blurted out: “Oh you poor little devil”, and there followed tearful hugs. Those were lonely days, despite my room-mates, and I would hate any child to re-live them. And today we criticise the NHS hospitals for far less.
Our boredom was relieved by occasional visits of Army lorries (purpose unknown) and I used to do crayon sketches of them, and became quite a student of camouflage schemes! My parents would visit whenever they could and would bring, perhaps, a jar of jam or some of Mum’s lovely coconut cakes. I still think of those visits when someone serves coconut cakes, and to this day I cannot bear to waste food.
… and in Cell Barnes
Once ‘clear’, I was taken to another hospital, Cell Barnes, by ambulance, experiencing those ‘one-way’ windows where you could look out without being seen. What a different place! A good hot bath, a happy atmosphere, and making new friends as we lads tried to make ourselves useful around a big ward. A lady would bring along a wind-up gramophone and we would have a sort of ‘music and movement’ on our beds.
Whatever tests I had evidently proved clear and so, back to Harpenden. But with these disruptions, plus a stay at a children’s convalescent home (was it called St Martin’s?) it was perhaps inevitable that my normal billeting became somewhat chequered. I recall a very kind Polish lady at St Martin’s, called Nurse Rozipa (my apologies if the spelling is wrong). Someone had left us some boxes of lead soldiers, which we had been repainting. I had finally managed to mix the exact shade for one group of soldiers when it became time for us to leave. Quite frustrating, but even more frustrating for today’s collectors to know that we had thus tampered with valuable ‘collectors’ items’. It was probably while I was at this place that I sustained my War Injury. As a hopeless dancer, I have always traded on this disaster as a pretext for not participating – usually unsuccessfully, since no-one has ever had the courage to inspect it. Explained quite simply, we had been taken on a ramble, and I had tripped over a log and scarred my knee for life. My heroics have never paid off!
Hostel in Arden Grove
There was also a hostel, possibly a ‘buffer hostel’ for children who were ‘between billets’ – ie awaiting transfer. It accommodated children from other schools besides ours. Was it in the vicinity of Harpenden Hall – some big house? (possibly 2 Arden Grove, ed). My Aunt, Mrs Amy Elsey, moved up from London and was, for a time, assistant to the rather formidable matron (probably an essential qualification!). We found Matron’s Achilles Heel – mice! One ran across the kitchen floor as we were cleaning our shoes, and Matron shrieked and leapt onto a chair, pleading with us to remove the mouse. We then enjoyed an elaborate pretence of chasing the poor mouse from cupboard to cupboard, making sure not to actually catch it, thus prolonging Matron’s anguish.
The Horns – and Siren – of Shakespeare Road
Mr and Mrs (Charles) Horn and their family, of 12 (or 7? ed) Shakespeare Road, became my new hosts. They were keen Salvation Army members, and one of their neighbours whom I encountered this year  told me that Mrs Horn had died only about a year ago, aged 100. Mr Horn gave me a Royal Artillery badge from one of his WWI friends, and I still have it tucked away. It might have been whilst I was living here that friends and I would take out a go-cart along Carlton Road and collect horse manure for our billeters. How times have changed, yet it does not seem 60 years ago!
Behind our house stood the water-tower, which carried an air-raid siren (or sireen!). At such close proximity, the noise was terrifying, and I dreaded having to make nocturnal visits to the outside toilet! There was another siren nearer to the town centre which I associated with a laundry. It must have been steam-operated, and made the most erratic hoots which used to cause mirth. It was nick-named ‘Moaning Minnie’.
Mum came to stay
Around this time, my mother came to stay in Harpenden. Having nearly been blasted out of an upstairs window at home, she was badly shaken, and Pop sent her to join me. She was very happy with Mrs Ives of 55 Cowper Road. The lady had a very tame canary which used to fly around the room, and great distress was caused when the bird accidentally flew up the chimney and was not seen again.
Cross Way seems to have been my next home, with some very kind people. I repaid them by getting laid-up with a nasty flu-like cold for some time. These circumstances would not have been easy for strangers, especially when both partners might have been at work all day. Returning to school, I was peeved to learn than some of my mates had been ‘shot-up’ by a German aircraft whilst returning from school, and had had to jump into roadside ditches. It was disappointing not to have been in the excitement of being shot at! I cannot make out where this was alleged to have happened, and wonder if my friends were ‘having me on’. Then, again, Harpenden East (LNER) did get attacked, didn’t it? Coincidence?
Mum and I always returned home for the school holidays to rejoin Pop, who probably had but little time to be lonely, since he had Home Guard duties on top of his normal work. Pop had his own private air-raid warning – the family cat. If the cat suddenly asked to go into the cellar, my father knew that the sirens would sound very soon after. Sixth sense, or remarkably acute hearing that was sensitive to the bombers’ engines? From one holiday I returned to another billet only to be accused of having scribbled on the staircase wall before even going on holiday. This I denied hotly, and Mum removed me from this place immediately. This is the only really nasty experience that I can recall amongst many pleasant ones. It gave me an early hatred of injustice which I still have when I see others treated unfairly or unkindly.
The Grabhams of Westfield Road
So Mum and I moved to our final billet, with Mrs Grabham of 97 Westfield Road, whose parents, Mr and Mrs Guinan lived nearby. I remember the Bradbury family who lived at No. 95. The Guinans were very kind, and keen gardeners. They had a cat and a dog, Rasi (because of her raspberry-like tongue!) and Doo, and used to make up little poems about the animals. I understand there was a timber-yard off Westfield Road, now housing development, but I cannot recall any of this, nor the cemetery. Similarly, I have clear memories of playing with my friends in fields which sloped down to the LNER Hatfield-Dunstable railway line, and seeing the tank engines with their short trains. Yet the fields which I visited this year had had greenhouses which would have blocked any view of the railway, and the line actually ran in a cutting! Even allowing for post-war development, this one phase of my life is a mystery. Perhaps we were not there long before finally returning home. Incidentally, I understand that Mrs Grabham’s husband had been killed in the Army, but I could not find his name on the War memorial. Perhaps he was not a Harpenden man, and his widow had moved there to be near her parents. I remember her as a very kind lady.
I feel fairly sure that we started school at St Nicholas’, with the classroom divided into two, and that, at least in the summer, the local children used the building in the afternoons and we used it in the morning, with outside activities after lunch, going on to the Common (and rushing about on the Ups and Downs – whose name I have remembered all these years!). Sometimes we would be taken into the fields in possibly the Roundwood or Townsend area. One field had a large clump of trees in the middle, and our teachers told us seriously that if an enemy aircraft came over we were to run immediately into the trees until we were called out. Small wonder that some of us bought aircraft-spotting books and became expert in the sight and sound of aircraft. Even now, I still look up at passing aircraft, especially if the sound is unfamiliar; no-one else ever seems to bother to. It is rather sad that peacetime brings complacency about things around us, yet, even in the late 1960s, my ears picked up the sound of a passing ‘Spitfire’ which I learned later was involved in filming over the South Coast. Instinct and Reason conflicted until Sight confirmed!
Wasn’t there a little café in Townsend Lane, within earshot of the Nickey Line? Here, during another parental visit, I met my first flapjacks – and what a treat, when food was so restricted. I still recall that event when eating my wife’s home-made flapjacks! It was fitting that our school learned, for a Harvest Festival in St Nicholas’ Church: “Here in the Country’s Heart” – and was it also “Glad that I Live am I”?
It was presumably later that we moved to new premises for school. Would these have been the Methodist Church Hall near Bower’s Parade? Our teachers’ names that I can recall were: Mr Swingler, the Head, who later returned to our school in Hastings; ‘Dickie’ Sargent, his deputy; Mr Phillips; Miss Sargent, possible Miss Needham, Mr Calladine (whose son was a fellow-pupil) and Miss Snee (“I’m Miss Snee, not Miss Knee”) who, I believe, married an RAF pilot, possibly in Harpenden and Mr Broadbent. The memories here are vague, but our teachers did sterling work in the face of so many difficulties, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude for what they did for us.
Trainspotting on ‘The Nickey’
I have always remembered the little one-coach push-pull steam train that ran to Hemel Hempstead as ‘The Nickey’ and it was nostalgic to see it commemorated in the Nickey Way. How does the name originate? I can only think of a version of Icknield. Coming from Southern Railway territory, it excited me to see the red trains of the LMS, some still in remarkably clean condition. En route to school, I would pass a long goods (freight) train waiting at Hollybush Lane bridge, with one (or even two?) similar freight trains nose-to-tail behind it, presumably waiting to be cleared into London once the night raids were over. I have loved trains from infancy, but these huge Beyer-Garratt ‘articulateds’ (in effect, two engines with one boiler) were awesome, especially when their safety-valves ‘blew-off’!
It was at this spot that I would enjoy watching the big spiders, with their webs glistening in morning dew. In the summer, skylarks would be singing in the fields. All my memories are sunny ones! But how sad when, flying my ‘frog’ elastic powered model aeroplanes, I accidentally trod on a skylark’s nest, destroying the eggs.
There is a memory of catching a wartime-grey London Transport ‘Q-type’ single deck bus in Station Road – maybe one of the few buses able to negotiate the low railway bridge. I had a Dinky toy type of model bus which I promptly converted into a Q-type, using plasticene. That started me on another hobby which lasted for many years – building model buses! My only other bus memories are of the London Transport Green Line coaches. If the railways were out of action further south, my father would catch the coach to London in the High Street and I would wave him off with the proverbial lump in the throat. Even at the age of nine or ten, one was very conscious of the uncertainty and fragility of life.
It was good to revisit Skew Bridge. Even at a young age, I marvelled the skill of its designer and builders.
An intriguing vehicle was the steam lorry which pulled great tree-trunks to I know not where. We were told that the log-trailer had once broken loose, with fatal consequences for a boy cyclist, but this was probably a little before our sojourn. No doubt there would be a Press report of the incident.
Aircraft being another of my passions, it is surprising that, apart from the HE111 event, I can recall only a Vickers ‘Wellington’ circling the Common and firing flares as though in trouble. My father was visiting us, and we both exclaimed that it appeared to be displaying the French Air Force markings. Because this seems so improbable, maybe it is indeed true!
Shops I remember
As for local businesses, the local blacksmith’s skills gave us great enjoyment. How good that he is commemorated in Anvil Parade. Opposite the Church Green was a café, and I would go upstairs there to be served a choice of lunch by very kind and friendly waitresses, and would enjoy reading their National Geographic magazines, whilst awaiting my meal. Nearby was a shop which sold Dinky Toys, and I still have a Hornby ‘O’ gauge Pullman Car, bought there for 17/6, as marked on the box! My mother got a job as a book-keeper at Ingersoll-Rand, which I believe had moved into a large house, possibly near the LMS main-line and to the north of the town. I was sometimes allowed to ‘practise’ on the typewriter, and can recall that Mum was once congratulated on getting the annual balance-sheets exact to the penny at the first effort. I wonder if this was all done ‘manually’ or whether some sort of calculating equipment was available in those days. Certainly, to be ‘right first time’ was considered to be a great achievement – and also saved everyone a great deal of time spent on checking everything through!
On my recent visit, I was sorry to see that the Woolworth’s I knew had gone, as such, but the premises were still recognisable. An occasional prank of the children was to try to catch out the assistants by proferring a silver threepenny bit for a sixpenny item. (‘The 3d and 6d Stores’ was the slogan.) We never thought of the unfortunate assistant maybe having to ‘make good’ at the end of a hard day. A joke, not malicious, but we didn’t think of the consequences to the individual.
In 2000, we visited my last-surviving uncle, who was moved from Markyate to the Memorial Hospital for his last few days, and celebrated his 99th birthday. I do not remember The Red House in wartime days, but seem to recall the surroundings being much more wooded then. The Army moved into this woodland, and we watched soldiers installing a field telephone system. We would try to cadge bullets from the soldiers, who always seemed pleased to see us – probably remembering their own children back home. By an amazing coincidence, I was chatting with the Senior Master, Les Foster, at the Sussex school where I was teaching in the 1970s/80s, and discovered that he was one of the soldiers based in that wood. You never know, the bullet I still have might even have come from him!
Return to Hastings in 1942 – then off to Bedford
By mid-1942, I understand, only about 25 children remained of our original party, but I had already returned home by then to take my Scholarship exams. I should have gone to Hastings Grammar School, in St Albans, but for a shortage of billets. Consequently, I was allocated to Rye Grammar School, of less than 200 pupils, which was a few miles up the line, in Bedford. Did I imagine it, or was the St Dominic’s sign still displayed by the line-side?
PS A search for Rye Grammar School, Bedford, led to a link to the Bedford in World War II Timeline – on 8 December 1944: “Departure of evacuees who arrived from Rye Grammar School in July 1940; mostly billeted in Kimbolton Rd area”. ed