The evacuation of children started almost as soon as World War Two was declared on September 3rd 1939. Most children in cities and towns thought to be under threat were evacuated as part of the government’s ‘Operation Pied Piper’ scheme. Many consider evacuation one of the successes of Neville Chamberlain’s government, as the logistical problems it created were huge.
Children in London were considered to be especially vulnerable and Jim Woods was one of the many thousands of children evacuated from the capital.
“I was only five when the war broke out. We lived in a flat in Lambeth at the time. The block we were in had its own shelter. It was in the basement under the ground floor. It had been specially prepared to be used as a shelter. It had been reinforced and fitted out with bunk beds. I can remember going down to the air raid shelter and spending every night in there before I was evacuated. The air raid shelters had quite a community spirit. We had parties down there and there was plenty of singing. The kids really enjoyed themselves. At that age it was all a game.
I was eventually evacuated. I remember going to the station and there were literally hundreds of children lined up waiting to go. Everyone had a cardboard box with their gas masks in and a label tied to their coats to identify them if they got lost. We ended up in South Wales. The first night we slept on the floor of the church hall. The next day my sister and I were allocated to a Mr and Mrs Reece. At first it was quite frightening being separated from your mother and not understanding what was going on. However, after a few days we settled down and quite enjoyed being in Wales. After living in London we were now surrounded by countryside. The village we lived in was very small. There were mines close by and we had great fun exploring the slag heaps. My sister and I got on very well with Mr and Mrs Reece. We never saw them as parents. We knew it was only a temporary situation. There were upsets sometimes. On one occasion we decided to go home to London. We followed the railway track. We thought it would take us back to London but after following it for about a mile we discovered it was a railway line used by the local mines.
We were in Wales for about two and a half years. After we went home Mr Reece came to London and asked my mother if he could adopt us. I did not find out about this until I visited them after the war.
Angela Sexton had the following experience:
“It was a private evacuation and not part of the government’s evacuation scheme. Mother took me to Yorkshire in February 1942 to Shepley, a village 6 miles from Holmfirth. She looked around asking questions to find the right people. There were a number of families who had put their names on a list to have evacuees and she visited each one and chose this older couple because she wanted me to have a ‘father’. Mr Dransfield had been deafened during the First World War and now worked in the woollen mills. He and his wife live in a ‘one-up and one down’ cottage and they divided the room upstairs into two so I slept at the top of the stairs in a little sort of cubicle and they slept at the bottom of the garden.
Mrs Dransfield was extremely strict. She had no children of her own and her home was her palace and I was a little bit of an intruder. I was only allowed to go down the ‘flags’ (the stone pathway) once in the morning and then come back for lunch because she scrubbed the flags.
I can remember feeling, after a couple of days, that mother had left me. At the top of the stairs was a chest of drawers and on top were photographs of my family. So as I walked up the stairs each night I could see them. I felt very homesick and I longed for letters from my mother and I used to kiss her photograph goodnight every night. My mother wrote regularly – I think she spent most of her time writing to her children. But she only visited once as she had my grandma and sister to look after.
I got my love of he country from this time – it was the first time I had ever lived in the country and I was very well fed. We had plenty of eggs, butter and milk and I used to go round farms and collect these.
I was sent to the little village school and I loved it. I was also really happy down the mill. Mr Dransfield would go off at 5.00pm with his sandwiches wrapped in a red handkerchief with white spots, and come back at 7.00am If he forget his sandwiches I would take them down, so I longed for him to forget them. I loved him dearly and he loved me – and I am sure he used to leave the sandwiches purposely.
I have some lovely memories of my mother and I knew she loved me. When she came to collect me no one told me she was coming and I was told to go upstairs and fetch something from my room. When I got there she was standing next to the picture, which had always been there. She said: “I’ve come to take you home” and I could not believe it.
In Yorkshire there was no war, but when I returned to Croydon there were shelters, sirens, broken window and the very black windows. I also met this lovely little girl who was my sister, but she said: “She’s not your mummy, she’s mine”, which hurt me tremendously. But my mother was so happy to have me home and I can remember the first few weeks were laughter all the time.
I haven’t any of the letters – I threw them all away. I wanted to dismiss it. I felt very rejected and I can remember sitting on the stairs after the war and feeling very left out, and I had a Yorkshire accent, which was different from everyone else.”