The dark cloud over the UK
The year of 1939 for me holds many memories. It was the beginning of a new life, which I will try to explain to you.
The threat of war was hanging like a dark cloud over the United Kingdom. I remember with horror, watching hundreds of men marching past our house, dressed in a uniform of Black Shirts. The tramp of their feet seemed never ending. They were, I am told, going to a rally which was held in Hyde Park.
Then queuing outside school waiting to be issued with a Gas Mask; it was a dreadful looking object, which smelt horrible. It was packed in a small cardboard case, complete with a small square piece of yellow soap, which you were supposed to rub over the transparent eye-piece to prevent it from misting up; and given the order: “Take this with you wherever you go.”
London suddenly seemed to be taken over by the most unfamiliar objects. In the parks were search-lights and sinister-looking guns. Army lorries were driving around the streets. In the sky were silver air-ship shaped balloons, which we were told were Barrage Balloons: these were to help prevent aircraft attacking the city. All of which gave you the feeling that something really was going to happen.
Leaving home with Ern and Doll
By August a scheme had been devised by the Government recommending that all schoolchildren (with their parents’ permission) could be evacuated from all the large cities in the country, hence my reason for leaving London.
On Saturday 2 September, my younger brother Ernie aged eight, my sister Dorothy aged six and myself just fourteen joined hundred of other children on an unknown and unforgettable journey. We kissed our parents ‘Goodbye’ and with the words “don’t let them take Ern or Doll away from you” we walked into school to await our fate; not frightened, but somehow excited. I had never been out to the country, but now I was going to live there – for just a few weeks (because the War, so everyone thought, would be over by Christmas). Just imagine: I would see birds, not just sparrows and pigeons, but real robins, thrushes, blackbirds and blue-tits. In the fields would be sheep and cows, and grass which you could walk on. In Regents Park the grass had notices which said ‘PLEASE KEEP OFF. Did they, I wondered, have fog; and would it be yellow, like it was in London?
Suddenly my thoughts were taken from me by hearing the teacher saying sharply, “Venice Browning, kindly tie that label on to your sister, and make sure your’s is secure”. It was a luggage label that had the name of the school, our own home address and name written on, just in case we went astray. We then had to line up with our few belongings, which were a change of undies, a set of top wear, nightwear, a pair of plimsolls, a toothbrush and toiletries. I had a suitcase which contained three lots, a set for each of us. A small bag containing sandwiches, an apple each, and a couple of comics was carried by my brother. Over each of our shoulders were slung the gas-masks.
The order was given and out of the school gate we filed, past the Mums and Dads, weeping and sobbing their farewells, not one of us knowing where we were going to be taken. We marched from our school in Clerkenwell Green to the Angel Islington underground station. For security reasons all destination boards from the railway stations had been removed, also all the signposts and name plates had been taken down – so that ‘Jerry’ would not know where he was if he landed. We boarded the train, which was taken to the end of the Northern line (Barnet), and we were then promptly transferred to a fleet of double-decker buses, which proceeded to take off across country to Elstree (remember we had no idea at all where we were). We were then transferred to a steam train, and were told that we should undo our sandwiches and settle down with our comics as we were likely to be on the train for some time. Hardly had we finished eating, when the train came to a sudden HALT. We had drawn up in a station – HARPENDEN – it was the first time in my life I had ever heard of it.
Harpenden, where the birds were singing
The sky was blue, the birds were singing, the station master’s house at the bottom of the approach had a beautiful garden full of flowers, and the air seemed to be so fresh. We were checked that all of us were there, and were then marched down the road to the Public Hall. Once there we were taken inside and sorted out into manageable groups. This was to enable the local organisers to take us to the different areas of Harpenden for our billets. Each child was given a quick medical examination and a hair inspection. Before we were led away we each received a carrier bag containing groceries. It is rather difficult for me to remember exactly what was in the bag, but I do remember a tin of Corned beef and half a pound block of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate.
“The wish I wish tonight”
By tea-time we three had been found a home with a family who had little boy of 3 or 4. It was then, and only then, that we realised our parents were miles away, and we had no idea of how we could get back home to them. I remember that we all shared the same bedroom, so at least we were not parted from each other. Each night before we got into bed, we would draw the curtain back, look up at the sky, find the brightest star and say “Star light, star bright, first star I’ve seen tonight, wish I may, wish I might have the wish I wish tonight”. It was always the same – to go back home to Mum and Dad.
For the first 4 or 5 weeks were was no schooling as such, because Harpenden did not have the schools to accommodate the numbers of London schoolchildren it had suddenly acquired. A new school was almost ready for occupation, but until the work was completed all the village halls were taken over and the children had to report to them at 9 a.m. This meant that the age groups were so different that it was impossible for the teachers to endeavour to teach; so once again they divided us into groups. The ones who were going to have lessons were kept in the halls; the remainder were taken on walks, long hikes, which were combined with nature studies, history of the area and local geography. No matter what the weather was like, if it was your turn to walk, walk you did. Luckily for us 1939 had a really lovely September. I thoroughly enjoyed those walks. I gathered blackberries for the first time in my life, saw the leaves on the trees change into the beautiful gold, yellow and browns of the Autumn, and on the first frosty mornings wondered at the change of scene from green to white.
Moved to the Dilleys*
My younger sister and brother were very homesick and I did my best to comfort them, but a big sister isn’t really like Mum. Eventually in the November we were moved to another part of Harpenden, which was nearer to the new school we had been attending since the middle of October (Manland). It proved to be a very happy move for us all, and we settled down quite nicely. I think what helped us was a little dog by the name of Scruff, who, like us, was also an evacuee from London. He would follow us to the school every morning and at tea-time would be at the gate of our house waiting to welcome us home. In December came the first snow of the winter: what excitement there was that morning! So much had fallen during the night that it came to the top or our wellies. Scruff had been out before us and when he came in for his breakfast he had icicles on his tummy. We had never seen anything like this in London. After school we were allowed to build a snowman and have the usual snow-ball fights with our friends. As usual with our weather, it didn’t last for very long and by Christmas it had all gone.
A Christmas treat – our parents to stay!
The weeks up to Christmas were very exciting, because we were all away from our homes. The different organisations in Harpenden had arranged lots of treats and parties for us, but the biggest and best one of all for us had been arranged by Mr and Mrs Dilley with whom we were living. They had invited Mum and Dad to come and stay with us. This was the first time we would be seeing them both since we had left London. I don’t know who was the most excited, but I do know that I will never forget that Christmas. It was very hard to say ‘Goodbye’ when it was time for them to go, but we all knew that we had to stay where we were.
Our teachers meant a lot to us in those days, because somehow they were, in a way, taking the place of our parents, and they helped us all they could. January and February were very cold months: we had more snow which at times was quite deep. Mr Dilley made us a sledge and we had lots of fun on this.
In March we had a letter from my Mother to say that my Father was going to volunteer for the Navy, and that she thought she would have us back home at Easter when the school term ended. This we could not believe. The end of term couldn’t come quick enough for us. So it was, with very mixed feelings we were once more put on the train – this time by the kindly couple who had opened up their home, and given us so many happy hours and memories – to be met in London by our Mother.
The story doesn’t really end here, but because we returned home to London of our own accord we were no longer evacuees.
* Two families named Dilley are listed in the 1940-41 Kelly’s Directory, both in easy range of Manland school. We cannot yet identify which house Venice, Ern and Doll stayed in: