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Guest post from Gillian Mawson @Guernseyevacuee IMG_20160730_105735

Gillian’s third book, ‘British Evacuation: Told through Newspaper Report, Official Documents and the Accounts Of Those Who Were There’ will be published in December 2016 by Frontline Books.

Gillian Mawson’s Evacuation blog can be found at:

https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

book cover Low res for onlineuse FRONT ONLY

‘DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME’ – LETTERS FROM SECOND WORLD WAR EVACUEES

Since 2008 I have been interviewing evacuees from the Second World War. I have gathered personal stories from children and also the mothers and teachers who accompanied them and spent the war years in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This includes evacuees from the Channel Islands (Guernsey, Jersey, Sark and Alderney) and Gibraltar, who arrived in England in mid 1940. Evacuees often share wartime photographs and documents, whilst some still possess the treasured postcards and letters sent to and from their families during the war. They contain a wonderful mixture of everyday life, family affection, news of the war and a glimpse of the relationship formed with the child’s foster family.BRENDA Osborne first letter home

Prior to the evacuation of millions of children in September 1939, each school child was given a pre-stamped postcard, bearing their parents’ name and address. George Osborn remembers receiving his:

We were given a postcard before leaving Portsmouth for the Isle of Wight to send to our parents when our new address was known. The Portsmouth Evening News said later, ‘Between the lot of them they wrote the first human documents of the war.’ The postcards, crumpled and tear-stained, which arrived through parents’ letter-boxes, show that they probably did.

 

Younger children were instructed, by their teachers, to write messages that would not upset their parents, such as ‘Dear Mum and Dad, I am living with nice people. I like it here and am very happy. Don’t worry about me.’ This had tragic consequences for one little boy and his family. He arrived at his new billet, wrote his postcard, placed it in the letter box then went for a walk and fell into the canal, where he drowned. His family were advised of his death that evening but the next morning his postcard arrived at their home bearing the words, ‘Dear Mum & Dad, I am very happy here, don’t worry about me.’

 

Terry and Jack Frisby’s mother devised a brilliant scheme for their postcard. It was their own secret  code to make evacuation exciting for them and to reassure her that they were being well cared for. Terry recalls:

Just before we left home our mother had said, ‘Now listen, both of you. Look what I’ve got here. It’s a postcard. And it’s in code. A secret code. Like the Secret Service. Only this is our own secret code. Read it, Jack.’ This was exciting stuff, the postcard was stamped and addressed to our parents. Jack started to stumble through it. ‘Dear Mum and Dad, arr – arr – arrived safe and well. Ev – ev – every.’  I snatched the postcard from him and rattled off, ‘Everything fine. Love, Jack and Terry.’ Mum was furious with me. ‘Give that back at once. I told Jack to read it, not you. He is the older one, you do as he says. Always.’ Jack completed the reading of the card, uninterrupted, then asked Mum, ‘But what’s the code?’ Mum replied, ‘When you get there, you find out the address of the place where they take you, then you write it on the card there. ‘Then you post it at once. All right? Now listen, I’ve only got one card so you’ve got to stay together or I won’t know where one of you is.’

Auntie Rose Jack and Terry at non used frontdoor          We were disappointed and replied, ‘But that’s not a proper code.’ Mum said, ‘No – this is the code. Our secret. You know how to write kisses don’t you?’ We agreed with ‘eargh’, ‘yuck’ noises to show our distaste for such things. She waited for the ritual to subside. ‘You put one kiss if it’s horrible and I’ll come straight there and bring you back home. Do you see? You put two kisses if it’s all right. And three kisses if it’s nice. Really nice. Then I’ll know.’  In the anxiety and horror of this major crisis in her life – our lives – our mother, and perhaps our father too, had come up with something for them and us to cling to in the chaos.

letter from Jean Sheppard to her teacher courtesy of Flambards Exhibition

Some evacuees were treated badly and Jean Sheppard wrote to her teacher in Bristol to advise her, ‘My sister and I were billeted with nasty people who didn’t like evacuees.’ Many evacuees have revealed that, in their letters, they wanted to explain how unhappy they were. However, they realised that their letters would be read by the family they were living with. In his wartime billet, John Mathews was underfed and locked in his bedroom when not at school, with no toys or books:

It was obvious that our letters were going to be censored, so in the first one I wrote the sort of thing one should – ‘Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.’ Then the following morning I somehow managed to steal an envelope and stamp and wrote a rather more truthful letter home. The gist of it was that if something didn’t happen quickly, I was going to run away. Two Saturdays later my mother turned up at the door to collect me.

 

Phyllis Hanson was 7 years old when she was sent to Surrey. She was cared for by Mrs Ada Tullett and Phyllis regularly wrote to her parents in London. In these letters, Phyllis often mentioned her three-year-old sister, Pat, who had been evacuated to a nursery at Haywards Heath, ‘Dear Mummy, I can go home on Saturday for Christmas and come back on Wednesday and when you write me a letter could you send some more money down for I have only 7 1/4d and could I have one and sixpence. And what shall I get for Pat’s birthday, shall I get a storyboard or a little doll?’ In 1942, Pat, now 5 years old, left the evacuee nursery and moved into Mrs Tullett’s house to be reunited with Phyllis. All went well until 1944 when Pat was diagnosed with symptoms of diphtheria and admitted to Redhill Isolation Hospital. Phyllis missed her sister very badly and wrote to her parents, ‘I hope Pat will soon be back I feel like turning round and cuddling her at night and then remember she’s not there.’ A month later, Phyllis happily wrote, ‘Pat’s glad to be back.’

 

When Allan Barnes was evacuated, his first letter revealed his opinion of the billeting process in Petersfield:

Dear Mum, I hope you all OK, I am. We came in an electric train, the journey took us about an hour. My hands are jolly sore though from carrying my case.  It is a very nice place I have got, there is a boy (9) and two girls (8 and 11). We were counted 11 times in the course of the journey. The evacuation people here are daft because the person in the house offered to take 2 small children so that I could go in a house with a friend of mine but the daft people wouldn’t let me. You can guess we were tired when we got there and they kept taking us round in circles (daft lot). Mrs Blackman has just told me to tell you that she will do all she can to make me comfortable and happy, she thought this would stop you worrying about me. Write often, it will make me feel nearer you and more at home.

Dorothy King letter sent home

Dorothy King was 11 years old when she was evacuated to Maidstone and she wanted to assure her mother that she was safe, despite the air raids on the town:

Dear Mummy, I received the letter and parcel. We had a lovely French lesson on Saturday. Miss Hinton taught us some little French songs. Does Daddy know ‘Frere Jacques’? We have been doing square routes with Miss Davies. I think they are most interesting. I can play ‘There is a lady sweet and kind’ on my pipe!  PS. I have not been hit by a bomb yet. PPS I have not been gassed yet. PPPS I have not come in contact with an air gun yet.’

 

The letter also contained three of her drawings – a child with a bomb over her head, a child being shot by a gun and a child wearing a gas mask! Looking back at her letters today, Dorothy explains, ‘When I read the letters that I wrote during the earlier years, I find little reference to the war, except occasionally in a rather jokey way.  The letters sound chirpy enough, but I know that sometimes I sat over them crying alone in the dining room.’

Frank Le Poidevin letter to Mum with dried flowers

One Newcastle family, the Hodges, were torn apart by evacuation. Mrs Hetty Hodges was evacuated to Carlisle as a voluntary helper, with her daughter Mary and thirteen school children. Her husband, Syd, remained in Newcastle, whilst their eldest daughter, Betty, was evacuated to Keswick. Their letters tell an emotional tale of family separation and the practical arrangements that had to be made by families during wartime. A few days after his wife’s departure, Sydney wrote to her in Carlisle:

My dear Hetty, I know you were very upset the morning you left and worrying about Betty, but I think it will be quite all right as Betty will be with nice people and receive some education. Keep your chin up and keep yourself as interested as you can looking after the kids. As regards myself, I have been working very late. I was there till 2 am this morning and I’ve just started again. As regards the house I haven’t decided anything definite but I shall probably try to get the furniture into store and tell the landlord that I have to give the house up. The streets are so dark at night that it is difficult to get home.

Owing to the late hours I work I cannot look after the cat [Tinker] and I’m sorry but he will have to be destroyed. I think it will be the best dear. Mr Spence was hoping to get a car and take me to Carlisle today but he couldn’t do so. If he had I was going to bring the cat over to you. Don’t worry about me. I shall take every precaution I can. Perhaps things won’t be so bad as we think. My job is here in any case. I think you had better write to the office here in future so that I can always be sure of getting your letters. Well dear that’s all for now. Keep smiling and don’t worry. All my love dear to you and Mary your loving Syd.

 

Syd refers to the fact that thousands of family pets were put to sleep by British evacuees at the start of the war. Luckily, another letter sent by Syd to his daughter, Mary, shows that Tinker the cat did not suffer this fate, ‘My dear Mary, I know you will be happy where you are and you have nothing to be afraid of so try to be cheerful and brave and look after Mummy for me. I hope Tinker will be able to stay with you. I am quite all right and looking forward to seeing you all again. Lots of love from your loving Daddy.’

BOOK COVER HIGH RES IMAGE

Terence Frisby remembers the ordeal of writing his weekly letters home:

One winter evening I sat at the table chewing a pencil whilst Auntie Rose mended socks with a letter from her son, Gwyn, on her lap. She was upset and not inclined to be indulgent to my whinges as I said, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’  ‘You say that every week’ she replied.  I was as foolish as ever and said, ‘You’ve read that letter from Gwyn hundreds of times.’ She replied, ‘And I shall probably read it hundreds more. They said he was only going training back home in Wales. Now they send him abroad. Abroad. Where? Haven’t they ever heard of embarkation leave?’ Her voice had risen to a querulous high and she stared at me as though it were my fault and I had the answer. She waved Gwyn’s letter accusingly at me again. ‘Ink on paper instead of a person here in your life. That’s all there is: letters. And every letter from Gwyn is one page long. You must write two pages home to your mum and dad this week. Two. Do you hear?’

This awful sentence took my breath away. ‘That’s four sides.’  ‘I know how many it is.’  ‘That’s not fair,’ I replied, ‘we shouldn’t have to write at all. It was her who sent us away.’  As soon as I had said it I wished I hadn’t. I tried not to catch her eye and muttered, ‘Well, she did.’ ‘What?’ she said quietly. ‘I didn’t mean it.’  ‘Don’t you ever say anything like that again about your mother. Or your father.’  Three years later, when Auntie Rose’s son, Gwyn, was killed in action, Jack and I thought very carefully about our letter home to advise our parents.  After a great deal of deliberation, we wrote:

Auntie Rose Jack and Terry at non used frontdoor

Dear Mum and Dad,

Just a line to let you know that Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack’s son Gwyn has been killed in Sicily. They are very unhappy. Auntie Rose keeps crying and Uncle Jack keeps going to the bottom of the garden and just sitting there instead of going to work. We thought it would be a good idea if only one of us came home and one of us stayed here with them and became their son. Then you’ve both got one each. That’s fair. We were going to toss for it but Jack said I’ve got to go back to Dartford Grammar School. Jack doesn’t mind not going to the Poly and he can stay here and work on the track with Uncle Jack. He says he would like that. He could come and visit with a privilege ticket.

Love Jack and Terry xxx  PS I passed my entrance exam

 

In June 1940, thousands of Channel Island children, mothers and teachers were evacuated to England and Scotland. Ron Gould, from Guernsey, was sent to Cheshire and wrote to his mother, who had been evacuated to Yorkshire:

Dear Mum I am sorry to hear about your being ill, was it a serious operation? I hope you will be able to get out soon. Have you any idea when that will be? I went for a cycle ride yesterday to Pick Mere, that’s a big lake about 6 or 7 miles out. It was a lovely ride. Is the weather nice down there, its boiling up here, well I think that is all for now so cheerio, from your loving son, Ron.

 

Another Guernsey child, Frank Le Poidevin, contacted his mother, who had been evacuated to Glasgow with his brother. Whilst waiting to be reunited with them, he sent this short note, ‘To Mummy and Peter, from Frank. XXX’ and enclosed some sprigs of wild flowers. His mother kept that note and the dried flowers until the day she died.

 

During their first few days in England and Scotland, Channel Island evacuees were able to send letters to the islands and a lucky few received replies. On 25 June 1940, Rachel Rabey received this letter from her aunt in Guernsey:

My darling little Rachel, what a lucky little girl you are to be away with all your little school friends. I am sure you are going to be very happy and and I know you will be a good girl and do everything you are told. Don’t forget to say Gentle Jesus every night and God Bless Mummy and Daddy and little Jane. Aunty Ella will think of you every day and I will write as often as I can. God bless you my precious darling. Lots of love and kisses from Aunty Ella (PS I will write again soon and send you some stamps.)

 

However, Rachel received no more letters from home because, on 28 June, Guernsey and Jersey were bombed by German aircraft. When the Channel Islands were occupied on 30 June, the postal service ceased and all telephone lines were cut. However, five months later, evacuees were permitted to send British Red Cross messages to the islands. Initially, they were only allowed to write 10 words per message but this later increased to 25. It was not until March or April 1941 that the evacuees received replies to that first batch of messages and Ruth Alexandre wrote in her diary, ‘What a thrill, the first messages arrived for me from home!’  Frank Le Messurier recalls, ‘I had sent a message to my parents asking them if I could join the merchant navy and it took months to bring their reply, ‘Yes’.’ However one family received a message which simply stated that their son had died in England. They had sent two of their sons to England, so for several months they had no idea which of them was dead. Looking back, Rex Carre points out, ‘It was difficult to know what to say in 25 words of non-useful information, ‘Am well, hope you are.’ At least letting each other know that we were alive. One of the messages from my parents to me included three important words – Thank Foster Parents.’

 

 

Gillian’s third book, ‘British Evacuation: Told through Newspaper Report, Official Documents and the Accounts Of Those Who Were There’ will be published in December 2016 by Frontline Books.

Social Media Links:

facebook    https://www.facebook.com/gillian.mawson.14
Twitter   @Guernseyevacuee

My author page on Amazon is
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gillian-Mawson/e/B008MWQ0IE/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

Gillian Mawson’s Evacuation blog can be found at:

https://evacueesofworldwartwo.wordpress.com/

Images: 

Brenda Osborne’s first letter home.

Dorothy King’s first letter home.

Photograph of ‘Auntie Rose’  with Jack and Terry Frisby who she cared for during the war.

Letter from Frank Le Poidevin to his mother with dried flowers enclosed.

Letter from Jean Sheppard to her teacher regarding ‘nasty billleters’, courtesy of

   Flambards’ evacuee exhibition, Cornwall  

 

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